Selected Texts

Exploring the sublime in three acts –


Act 1: The social and the sublime

From Happisburgh to Nowhere

In 2014 archaeologists discovered footprints in the mud on a beach in Happisburgh, North Norfolk, unearthed by the tides only to be eventually washed away and lost to the ravishes of time. This fleeting moment of observation offered a valuable insight into the lives of human beings between 850,000 and 950,000 years ago.


Nick Ashton of the British Museum stated that, “The Happisburgh site continues to rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed of Europe.”[1]

The physical landscape has been shaped by human habitation and the way we organise space, as a species, is dictated by our reliance on the land for sustenance and shelter, but also by our protection of such resources and fear of the other.

Look harder.

From the origins of consciousness and the development of religion, philosophy and an ever -expanding population, concepts of the organisation of collective and shared space remain complex and problematic. Public space, truly public space, common land, is constantly under threat, and ownership and control of land and resources, on which we all depend, resides with the few.   A far cry from the utopia imagined by William Morris, in his visionary text ‘News From Nowhere’.[2]

We can speculate that the ancient inhabitants of what we now call Happisburgh, on the outer edge of lost land of Doggerland (the now submerged landmass connecting the Norfolk coast to The Netherlands) had some concept of ownership, in terms of social organisation, but we can only wonder at their engagement with the land, their social structures and direct contact, not only with the earth, but as ‘of the earth’, of the ground. The footprints show a inhabitants of all ages. They do not show the march of invasion, nor a fleeing from harm or tyranny, but speak of a settled peoples, and seem to suggest the playfulness of a thriving community. 

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The ground exists as a philosophical concept, as a psychological construct and as a physical ‘thing’. Gravity and the solidity of the earth situate our bodies in relationship to, and in direct connection with the ground beneath our feet. Psychologically, when struggling with a dissociative ‘disconnect’ from reality, it is the ground that we are encouraged to make contact with. Grounding is a technique used in psychology and psychotherapy as a mindful activity of centring and anchoring in the now and connecting with the solid form of being ‘in’ the world.

Philosophically the ground is that which situates a theory, or a truth, yet philosophy warns of the danger of the ground as a concept of ideological truth from which, certainty overpowers Cartesian doubt, and from which fundamentalist and fascist systems are born. This speaks of a need and desire to put down solid roots, to situate the self within a community, with rules and boundaries often built on and reinforced on cultural identity and the need to belong.

The ground can also be understood as a boundary, as a demarcation of space. Philosophically however Martin Heidegger in his ‘Topologies’ suggests that, “A boundary is not that at which something stops but that from which something begins.”[3]

Dreaming of European landscapes in Readers Digest Magazine.

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Act 2: The ecological and the sublime

From harmony to control

The sublime is a concept of much philosophical debate but current contemporary postmodern, poststructuralist thinking centers around the notion that the sublime is a simultaneous emotional response of both fear and pleasure, when faced with the enormity of the natural world, or indeed with the built environment or the work of art.We are, as humans, part of nature, despite our control and organization of space and resources being at odds with nature. This phenomena could be argued to link directly to our social and financial ecologies and economies, in which the value of nature and its animal and mineral resources are monetized, and therefore become commodities.

Listen well.

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As consumers we are complicit in our consumption of the earth, not in terms of a harmonious pre industrialist give and take relationship, but as an over consumption and poor distribution of resources based on the need and greed for control and ownership. But why as a species do we seek to own and control nature? By this I do not mean the post enlightenment scientific endeavor to understand nature, but the need to control and harness its resources to the point of our own extinction. Perhaps this brings us back to the sublime as a combination of both fear and pleasure. The fear or anxiety of the sublime and that uncomfortable loss of control and our social and collective organization as a species and the building of boarders, fences and walls all speaks to fear. The fear of facing the enormity of space and our own temporality perhaps.

I’m scared of high places.

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Act 3: The psychological and the sublime

From the lost to the found to the lost

Having proposed that we need to connect with the ground as a means of knowing who we are, history speaks of an obsession with mapping and charting the earth, long before satellites and Google earth, long before Copernicus and the notion of the world not as the center but as a small speck in a much larger system, we as a species have been driven by a need to own space, if not physically then conceptually through maps and the art of navigation.

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In this notion the self becomes the center. The need to know where we are and where we are heading seems to drive us to the point of obsession, yet we live in a world, in which the bombardment of images and sensory overload, seek to further remove us from the ground, whilst simultaneously being able to pin point our place on the earth with some accuracy using GPS. This speaks to the desire to know where we are, physically and conceptually and a quest for certainty and homogeneity. We may never get lost again, but is this a bad thing?

To quote Rebecca Solnit:

Getting lost was not a matter of geography so much as identity, a passionate desire, even an urgent need, to become no one and anyone, to shake off the shackles that remind you who you are, who others think you are.[4]

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Lacan based his therapeutic practice on the concept of the alienated individual’s search for wholeness is an illusion. In a sense the need for knowing or control is turned on its head and we are encouraged to give ourselves up to the ‘void’. But anxiety brings the simultaneous feeling of weight and weightlessness., hanging over the edge, afraid to jump, afraid of losing the ground.

The sublime can be understood as posited by Jean Luke Nancy as ‘more than a feeling in the banal sense, it is the emotion of the subject at the limit’, or perhaps the very thing that makes us feel alive is the uncertainty and the unknowing.

Hold Tight.

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One constant, no matter where our feet might be planted, is the horizon. That point on which our vision (if we have sight) ends and our eyes have evolved to see. Celine Flecheux writes in her book La Horizon:

…how can I have the feelings of being the starting point of the space spread out before me? How can I believe that the boundaries I experience are those that shape my activity as a sentient, speaking subject? And how am I to determine my position in space that no longer provides any bearings? In its permanence the horizon reassures us of a certain stability in the world… As long as our consciousness discerns a horizon -a beyond perception- it knows it will not be faced with arbitrary gaps: this coherence gives landscape substance, and preserves consciousness from leaps into the unknown, from disorientation and from the upsurge of the void.[5]

A legacy of the modernist project, as argued by Barnet Newman, at the height of abstract expressionism, in ‘The Sublime is Now’ is that, to quote, “we no longer need myth and legend to center us in the sublime, instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or ‘life’, we are making them out of ourselves”[6]

Here Newman is suggesting that the objects we create as artists are in and of ourselves and therefore evoke the emotional center of the sublime.

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However, Hamish Fulton argued that “An object cannot compete with an experience” bringing art and the self back into direct connection with nature.[7]

The current western obsession with mindfulness could be seen as a symptom of the post modern problem of nausea, the disconnect with myth and legend and quest for absolute truth, a way of seeking refuge both in and from the sublime. Away of coping with the legacy of Cartesian doubt and Kant’s autonomous self, set adrift in a post belief post ideological space. It could also be seen as a means of escape or need to connect with the natural rhythms of the earth in an ever-divided society, and technological disconnectedness, despite the concept of global connectivity. But we only need look to eastern religion and philosophy to realize this is by no means a contemporary phenomenon. The freer we are to think the more lost we become and the more we seem crave structure and control.

So, as we shape the land and the land shapes us, how might our marks on the landscape, our ‘footprints’, be read and understood 950,000 years from now?

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[2] William Morris, News from nowhere, 1890

[3] Jeff Malpas, 2006, Heideggers’s Topology, Being, Place, World, MIT press, Cambridge Massachusetts, p.254

[4] Rebecca Solnit , 2006, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Penguin, London.

[5] Celine Flecheux, 2014, La Horizon

[6] Barnet Newman, 1948, The Sublime is Now

[7] Hamish Fulton, 2001 An Object Cannot Compete with an Experience, University of East Anglia Sainsbury Centre for Visual. 


Deep canine topography: Experiments in human canine entanglement and the walkies as method:


Deep Canine Topography Part 1:

Urban Walking:

The Beagle is the smallest of the pack-hunting hounds. It is one of the oldest of all the pure hound breeds and is certainly as essentially British as any existing canine variety.*

Urban walking with Dexter can be a frantic affair. His senses seem to become overloaded; Sights, smells and sounds, must be unbearable for an animal so highly attuned to his environment. Often with his head in the air, sniffing and looking, he darts, anxiously back and forth, as he meets passers-by with the bright eyes of the canine gaze and a deep sniff.

Shops, cafes and bars become beacons of smell, butchers’ shops become beacons of bacon, and what seems like a lure to the taste buds also presents as loud and brash, a chaotic cacophony of distraction. Borders and barriers are there to be traversed, as the pull on the lead attempts to cut the most direct path to the nearest source of potential sustenance, with little regard to the dangers of the strange fast moving metal boxes that seem to dominate this space and the hard edges of the city, erected by soft tissue and grey matter.

Survival is the key amongst the really wild.

Deep Canine Topography Part 2:

Sub-suburban Wanderings:

Regular exercise is essential to the Beagle’s wellbeing as is proper housing. There is a world of difference between freedom and exercise. A Beagle needs both. […] as a general guide it may be said that an adult should have a minimum of one hour’s hard exercise daily with up to two hours when circumstances permit. The type of exercise given should consist of road walks on a lead and free galloping in the park or open country.*

For Dexter, the suburban walk seems to operate on a lower, sensory topographical level. Nose to the ground, zigzagging from tree to lamp-post, seeking out the smells of fellow travellers. This walk is much more about territory, the familiarity of the well-trodden path. The stubborn refusal to take a turn, still transfixed by the search for food, but this time for scraps of a discarded school pack lunch or lollypop. The lure of the bread roll behind the bin and the takeaway carton. Hoovering up the mistakes and spillages of other animals. His palate less than discerning as anything will do, regardless of its state of pre digestion or decay.

Chicken bones can kill a dog you know.

Deep Canine Topography Part 3:


Feeding a healthy adult Beagle is normally easy and straight-forward. Most Beagles’ are good trenchermen, eagerly clear out their dishes and thrive on one meal a day.*

The park is a space of playful intent. An open space. An ‘off the lead’ space, checking first for any alfresco diners at risk of being raided. Should I risk letting him off, a test of trust and loyalty, often betrayed. Here the smells are more focused into linear tracks of animals or the zigzag of fellow canine explorers. Nose to the ground, he makes his escape, looking back to check my progress and ignoring all calls to heel. This is the risk one takes, and the game is on, as he makes a path for either the ice cream van, and its unsuspecting customers, or the compost heap, a place to bathe in sensory overload. It is at this point that the Beagle instinct takes over and the wild becomes ever present in his attempts to evade capture. Sometimes food is the trap, but often it’s a waiting game. Wait until he gets bored, feigning indifference.

This is an anxious game.

Deep Canine Topography Part 4:

Wild Spaces:

Once middle age spread is established there is little one can do about it.*

There are no wild spaces, not really, but those, which aspire to be wild, hold a different kind of lure for Dexter. This time the tracks are straight, a rabbit, a hare or a deer perhaps? The journey becomes more direct, more focused. The land ahead is traversed with a different kind of urgency. Tethered by a twenty foot long lead, slack then tense, slack then tense, he stops and barks at the air with a wild heart, pulling, leading the way across the terrain.

This is a dangerous place.

Deep canine topography part 5:

A destination, of sorts:

My drive is to make, but twitchy fingers turn to itchy feet in the walk as method. Keep moving forward with purpose.  Whilst Dexter’s drive is to explore and bathe in a rich sensory soup, not that far from the aim of the artist. To live an aesthetic life, to live in the moment, to respond to the wild, and find your own way to live. The rhizome spirit of entangled being and becoming.  In Dogs: History, Myth, Art, Catherine Johns writes, ‘In many belief systems, dogs have been associated not only with death and the journey into the afterlife, but also with healing…’[1] Dexter is then perhaps the Dog-Star to my Orion, the hunter, hunting for the sublime.

It is at this point that our journey pauses. Dexter is getting tired, which is reflected in his gait, and we both need food and water. Using walking as a method for exploring sensory entanglement with nature, and relating this to concepts and theories of the sublime, I feel I’ve reached a destination, of sorts, albeit a temporary one. Perhaps a bigger question here is how, as artists, can we justify our practice and place in the world, against the backdrop of the anthropocene and global crisis. Perhaps connecting with the sublime is about nothing more than connecting with our humanity.

The walk(ies) becomes a method for thinking. A method for making. An act of making physical contact with the ground, through the feet and through the paw, the mind is allowed to wander and become detached. A body in motion, two bodies in motion, many bodies in motion. The will to live, ever-present in the canine spirit and at the core of understanding the human canine entanglement. Always returning home, to the ground.

In the horizon of the infinite. – We have forsaken the land and gone to sea! We have destroyed the bridge behind us – more so, we have demolished the land behind us! Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean; it is true, it does not always roar, and at times it lies there like silk and gold and dreams of goodness. But there will be hours when you realize that it is infinite and that there is nothing more awesome than infinity. Oh, the poor bird that has felt free and now strikes against the walls of this cage! Woe, when homesickness for the land overcomes you, as if there had been more freedom there – and there is no more ‘land ‘![2]

This is a dangerous place.

* E. Fitch Daglish, Beagles: A Foyle’s Handbook: London: Foyle Ltd, 1961.

[1] Catherine Johns, Dogs: History, Myth, Art, p56

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, section 124.


Experiments in Fictioning, Cut Ups and New Narratives

As part of my first year MA studies, I undertook a project using overheard conversations, on my weekly train journey from Leicester to Birmingham, and placing them within two woodland settings, creating a narrative journey through space. The hope was that, although collected from several journeys over several weeks, that a new narrative is suggested/constructed by whoever encounters the work.


Over a period of about six weeks I revisited the work to document it’s natural decay and public interaction, which ranged from moisture acting on the pigment of the tags, to finding tags ripped up or set fire to.  These responses became as interesting as the text itself, adding another  layer to the narrative.

A final note to bring things full circle.

In the end, with memories of the beginning, brings us back to the question of radical matter and mattering, entangled not only in the human canine dance but in the sense of a quantum co-dependence…

June 27th 2018:  Traveling in on the train, a familiar set of actions, a now familiar journey and something that has produced the work that started this whole affair, the east meets west, the robot and the fly, the foxes tail, the man meets dog, the machine that stops, a sudden scream on a sunny day, the sharp and sudden force of brakes and a scattering, a disintegrated self, a casualty that quickly rose to a fatality. His or her sense of being, in that moment gone, split apart into a million fragments of matter. Radical matter. A shattered soul. An accident or a death with intent? An exit either way, a finality, an infinity, a twisted animal with no ground beneath them, a body without organs.

This action inevitably becomes entangled within the work, a work about walking, human animal kinship, surface encounters, but ultimately about the groundless ground of the cosmic sublime. We have forsaken the land and gone to sea… 



All images copyright Darren O'Brien. All rights reserved.