"fire, […] in the history of the medieval trail by ordeal, is a basic technology of truth. Burned, things of the world reveal their essential nature. The scriptural basis for this notion is iffy (Lot surviving the flames of Sodom? Moses' encounter with the burning bush?). The physics of the proposition, however, proves to be spot-on: everything that burns speaks with tongues of flame that cannot lie. This is called spectroscopy."
Fire and Truth, D. Graham Burnett, Issue 32, Winter 2008, Cabinet
Through the grainy unsteady image and the sound, distorted by low quality compression, it
seems like something is trying to break through. The first few seconds sound like noise
pulled through a synthesizer, screaming and kicking as it emerges, fighting for life in its new
digital form. Something about it is alarming, frightening, tortured and angry. It is half-formed,
raw and unrefined. Streaks of red and white light flash across the screen.
It is an arena for action. Something about this situation that is chaotic; yet there is an
element of control. The driver makes tight circles around a central axis. At first this is
demarcated by a traffic cone, but as things proceed, the silhouette of a young man moves into the
centre. The car stops and revs up, creating billows of smoke in the air, obliterating vision for
a few moments. As the car skids and screeches, I feel a sense of alarm. This is coming close to
disaster for the lone, central figure, potential victim of the anonymous driver, a sacrifice for
the entertainment of onlookers. I can sense also the collusion. One figure willingly places his
trust in the other. There is a tension between these two.
A smoky, fiery object is spinning recklessly. One might say things had spun out of control.
Not quite though; for to completely lose control would mean total destruction. It would mean the
end. It all went up in flames. This is a sudden, intense and short lived burst of energy. More
like a supernova than the sun, and more akin to a meteor careering around a planet, than a planet
orbiting the sun. It was more than this, though. This scene was not simply about objects in space;
it was human. It was a game or a task, perhaps even a ritual.
Although I can identify it as a human activity, shot through with the implications of one's
relationship to another, from my vantage point it also seemed anonymous. In the dark, these
figures could be anyone, totally unrecognisable by the light of day. In this moment they had a
relationship to one another. Certainly for the two central protagonists, it was one of great
significance and trust. At any other time, on any other level, it was unclear. In this sense, the
action had become symbolic. The figures could be understood as archetypes. Ones which, for reasons
I cannot yet identify, I associate with the masculine.
In the threat of a loss of control, images had already flooded my mind. I remember as the
helicopters circled in the air above my house one evening in August. I had no idea why it was
happening, but this circling was incessant, the noise repeatedly coming close and fading away,
swelling and receding, but never quite out of my consciousness. It always gives me a slight sense
of unease, the idea of something being under surveillance, coupled with the notion that something
might be wrong. Why this surveillance from such a great height? It is a safe distance for the one
who watches. Then I remembered the destruction that had taken place, just minutes away from my home.
The aerial images of buildings and cars set alight, and rioters surging through the streets, anonymous
from this point of view. London's Burning.