Impresarios of the imagination

Iain Sinclair
12 March 2002

Michael Morris was very confident, it was his area of expertise - accessing secret spaces, granting them fresh and unexpected narratives. Brokering tentative relationships between artists (ego, doubt, megalomaniacal expectations) and property owners, civil servants, politicians (suspicious, slippery, what's-in-it-for-us?). The former synagogue at 19 Princelet Street, Spitalfields, defeated him. Defeated us all. It had its own inviolate agenda. Artangel understood the pitfalls, expected them, enjoyed them. The impossible was their starting point. The meeting like a conference of disputing mafiosi. The follow-up phone calls. The event. The backlash. Impresarios of the imagination haunt the purlieus of the city in direct competition with developers, retail estate pirates. They practice the same black arts. They are rivals. They operate like psychics; mediums tapping erased myths, searching out the room, the tunnel, the arch, the vault, the municipal swimming pool, still squatted by a legion of unoptioned ghosts. The thing that exists to be exploited.

My obsession was always with the set, the fabric. The mystery of a cold garret heaped with the rubbish of a lost life. It took Rachel Lichtenstein to go beyond the trappings of Gothic fiction, to recover the footfalls of a real man, a living, breathing human. She disclosed David Rodinsky's extraordinary and unexceptional history. Princelet Street moved on, drifted through time. The story we had to tell was no longer required. The former synagogue became a charity case. Its business was the acquisition of public funds, imposed and approved versions of the past: Hawksmoor's carpenter, Huguenots, multicultural displays. Rachel, confronting this difficulty, devised a book of memory: photographs, fragments, maps of a territory that was vanishing as she transcribed it. A friend from Uppingham, Mike Goldmark, published a book that I put together in a few days: Dark Lanthorns (David Rodinsky as a Psychogeographer). The project was off-the-cuff, improvised. A series of walks based on markings found in Rodinsky's yellowing and battered London A-Z. Dagenham, Claybury, a zigzag from Liverpool Street that carried me to Regent's Park and the zoo. Films were made of these walks and they were shown on monitors in hidden Whitechapel locations.

The interesting aspect was the afterburn. How other people followed Rodinsky's trail: recording sound, making compositions from columns of words in the books, undertaking pilgrimages to compensate for their failure to gain access to the Princelet Street building, the room that had been cleaned, emptied, drained. "Just because you can't see a thing", the poet Ed Dorn said, "it doesn't mean that it's no longer there". Rodinsky's room had dissolved. Its boundaries thinned to naked air. He had been released into a landscape of potential or actual journeys. A Swiss-based architect, Liat Uziel, begins her quest in Spitalfields. She is refused entry to the synagogue. She records a conversation in which the fee for a visit to the 'improved' room is set at £2,000. She constructs, elsewhere, her own version of this place, a "memory for the absent body". There are machines that scratch patterns of dust from the wall. Photo-sensitive plates that catch shadows and plot the movements of the conjured presence. Liat finds herself at the point where the red line on Rodinsky's map breaks off at a complex motorway interchange, beneath the asylum colony where Rodinsky's sister dies. Liat conceives a building that enfolds the road, a museum of memory. Sensors monitor traffic, affecting the fabric of the building, influencing the dreamers in their alcoves. The walls are thin as paper or they are thick as the masonry of the Tower of London. The wonder is that such resonant projects begin with a tatty map, rescued ephemera from a building that remains suspicious of its own legend. The chaos of Artangel's high-summer event, the monitors in borrowed or rented spaces, achieves a second act that goes far beyond the original remit. That continues, inventing its own terms, rescuing the memory of the room from the oblivion of sponsorship or bureaucratic approval.