TEXTS LIKE SMOKE
BY MATT PACKER
Like Smoke by Matt Packer accompanies the exhibition A neutral, flexible structure by Morten Torgersrud. Like Smoke was published in a 28 page bilingual English/Norwegian publication in 500 copies made avliable to the audience in the exhibition.
A canister was thrown, rolled to a stop on the ground, and then emitted - first thin, then quickly thicker - streams of smoke, until the streams disappeared and a more general fog took over.
The canister must have been thrown from a nearby office window. The arc of its travel in the air would suggest it was thrown, with some force, from the upper floors of a four, five storey block; a 19th century warehouse, converted at some point in the 1970s into a burrow of small offices rented by organisations and companies such as the Matrix Regional Cultural Development Counsel, Nobus Independent Maritime Law Consultants, and Target Media, who seem to have the monopoly on the graphic identity and promotional work of every large-scale travelling live music production that takes place up and down the country.
It is Bank Holiday Monday, and whoever threw the canister must have had keys to open the front door. They must have climbed the stairs or taken the lift - whatever they preferred to do, no different on this day than any other day -, then entered the room to access a window that overlooked the junction of empty streets; a window that could be swung open, wide enough to create a generous aperture through which a canister, the size of a can of lager, could be forcibly thrown. This individual may be the owner or director of one of the many organisations and small companies in the block, in a position to come and go from the office freely, choosing their own hours and making it possible to spend more time with family and concentrate on independent ventures. A fortunate individual in other words, that most people would consider unfortunate for having to travel to this otherwise deserted and unwelcoming commercial district on a Bank Holiday Monday, and commit to the task of throwing a canister of smoke from an upper floor window, down into the street below.
The canister was thrown without a witness. There may have been one or two people in the area at this time, photography students testing their flash equipment in a safe and open environment, learner drivers looking to practice their turns, but there was little cause for anyone other than these people seeking an absent but resemblant place, no reason for anyone at all, to walk these streets. None of the shops were open. Not even the endlessly energetic coffee shops and juice bars that seem to run all day and all night monday to friday. There were a few black men that sit at the reception desks of the glassy fronted larger office complexes, but these men keep themselves hidden behind computer screens and cctv monitoring systems. They would allow themselves to take a few personal calls and check email, and they would expect nothing of their day in professional terms. There was no-one that saw the canister being thrown, or its arc in the air which is rather falsely described, but there may have been one or two people that heard the canister land scrappily on the road. There was a second or two before the smoke started to emit from it, and anyone in these intervening seconds that turned their head to register the sound of a metal canister hitting tarmac at force, could have easily mistaken it for any other kind of projectile aimed at no- one in particular, no-one at all: clearly having caused no harm to anybody.
The smoke that emitted from the canister, that within 10, 20 seconds was now much more like a fog that covered a radius of 20, 30 metres, was brighter and whiter than the burning smoke that often occurs at this time of year, high on the hill. Here, in the belly of the valley, in this district of what some call a city, others a town, there was nothing burning in order to cultivate crops, stem the contagion of diseased vegetation, or sicker still: cull infected animal life. Here, there was nothing burning at all. No crackling and consuming flame at the centre of it all, only a canister on the ground, swallowed by the smoke of its own contents; a compressed micro environment, let loose and spilling thinklessly into another atmosphere.
Minutes passed and it was not long before the surrounding buildings lost all shape and distinction, with a thick smoke radius that had enlarged to 200, 300 metres. The vernacular integrations of architecture that were a crucial design aspect of many nearby buildings – the native materials used in cladding, the light coloured stone, the reddish timber – would be difficult to recognise for anyone not already familiar with how this new architecture responded to the local history and colour. The office buildings nearby, and the buildings beyond - public libraries, university departments, whatever these buildings may be - built in the good public spirits of the last decade certainly, were held back behind the smoke; either behind it or in its midst, whatever is more correct. It was impossible to know, but easy to imagine how this smoke swept its way through poor ventilation systems or windows carelessly left open by carefree employees or reckless cleaners; the smoke making its way down corridors, into stationery cupboards, communal areas, dedicated wifi zones.
More minutes passed, turned to hours, and the radius of the dense smoke further swarmed and developed, until it was recognised that there couldn’t have been any part of the city that wasn’t touched and affected. There must have been a point, out there somewhere, where the smoke edged upon clean, clear air, and dissipated, just as smoke does. For a brief period of time, that exact point may have been the estate of large and faceless warehouse units at the far northern reaches of the city’s outskirts, apparently used as a distribution centre for frozen food; or else the freakish assembly of old military buildings at the far south, more recently conducted together as an Institute of Technology. Those edges dissolved, of course; they could hardly be called edges to begin with; overtaken and erased by the smoke’s silent and indiscriminate advance.
Everything on the cusp of obliterating into a bright white and seemingly depthless space, thoughts turned to those black and gestureless ‘... By Night’ postcards for sale in tourist shops on the South European coast. The black of Cadiz is the black of Palermo is the black of Marseille is the black of anywhere and everywhere as night falls: the logic that humourously disappoints the expected, called-for, sunny character of these places more-often represented in postcards. The black postcard image is neither the black of Cadiz, Palermo, Marseille. The black is no image at all; not even an underexposed, poorly developed, crumb of an image, taken pointing to the misty sea on a starless night, away from the lights of the city and promenade. The black is a solid tone. 100% gradation on the computer grayscale slider. At 0%, Cadiz, Palermo, Marseille, obliterated in bright white smoke or snow. At 50%, Cadiz, Palermo, Marseille, a medium grey.
The canister was thrown and landed uncertainly as a call to arms, an indictment of violence, the further hiding of whatever was hidden in the underworld, creating more room for it to grow, fester and manoeuvre in the open and adjusted air. No, this canister was thrown in retreat. A retreat because the strength of the opposition was so great, much greater than anticipated; the opposition, more organised, better resourced; their uniforms smarter, their camouflage more effective, their weapons etcetera. Or a retreat because a general exhaustion set in like a rot, contaminating the foreground, middleground, and background of all operations. Or a retreat because all soldiers and non-soldiers, in and out of military metonyms come and gone, would prefer to be elsewhere and focus on other things.