Orinoco Flow and The Tale of the Southsea Onryō

How do you describe the start of a research journey that has multiple beginnings and no clear sense of an ending? Do you start with the motivation for the research or by locating each of the tributaries for the beginnings?

I am going to start with a metaphor, the idea of a river, in this case the Orinoco. Why the Orinoco? I have no idea, I like the name and I heard it in a song once. Wikipedia says it’s one of the longest rivers in the world and it drains close to a million square miles of land. It’s a major transportation system in Venezuela and Columbia. I like the idea that each of its many tributaries starts somewhere deep in South America as a tiny trickle of water. Like a tiny idea, that slowly gathers and grows as it flows and combines with other streams to form stronger and larger flows of water. Until it finally streams as one unified flow into the sea. Though of course, it doesn’t do that, it actually fractures again into a delta of possibilities. So, the metaphor works, from a tiny idea to a strong motivating flow that itself presents multiple possibilities for creative action.

Let’s begin then with the first well spring of an idea and hopefully, what is intended as a series of blogs will begin to unfold in a way that narrates a research journey that may just result in a successful Arts Council England funding application for a transmedia story experience entitled The Tale of the Southsea Onryō (or Noh rest for the wicked).

The unravelling of audio cassette tape as an act of Urban Witchcraft

I have tried to find photographic examples of this phenomena but so far, no luck. I will keep trying as I am sure it must be out there but during the period of time when this phenomenon was common people didn’t carry cameras in their pockets, the world was not endlessly documented, circulated and reproduced for mass consumption. So, this searching for images will become a process of re-searching as I return to it again and again over time. In the 1970’s and early 80’s it was a common sight though, to see endless streams of audio cassette tape wrapped around the base of lampposts, street signs and railings. You might say it was ubiquitous and anyone alive at the time would be able to recount examples.

unraveled cassette tape

For those of you who don’t know (i.e. young people) back in those days music was widely circulated in small plastic cassettes within which was wound long lengths of magnetic tape. The tape could easily be pulled out, it would often jam and it was not uncommon for a cassette player to start spewing out endless lengths of the stuff when they broke. People would then discard the remains of jammed up cassettes and the endless loops of tape, often in public places so it’s easy to understand why this material started to collect and gather around street furniture. A simple explanation for an unwanted pollutant it would seem.

However, a conversation with someone long forgotten, possibly in a pub, a club or at a party led me to rethink the phenomena and this thought has stuck with me for a long time. They said that actually these streams of tape had been purposefully placed by Urban Witches who sought to cast spells by recording incantations on the tape and then lacing it around various public buildings, junctions and street furniture. Highly plausible I thought, at least from the point of view of a storyteller. What an excellent mystery for a protagonist to have to unravel (excuse the pun).  For many years I though occasionally about this idea and on occasion I even started to think through some ideas about character and story. It felt as though it would be a dark urban psychological thriller. Possibly revealing some governmental conspiracy, an occult battle between shady authorities and outsiders, a puzzle that would lead to… well I never got that far and the idea just sat there waiting for some attention. The difficulty was that it needed to be set in the 1970’s and it felt like more than just a short film, it would need a much longer treatment for it to work.

And that is where it sat until quite recently when I found myself challenged to create a transmedia story for a learning activity I was participating in. I returned to the idea of urban witchcraft and cassette tape and started to play with it. How could I bring it up to date, how could I make it more contemporary so it could serve as a starting point for a modern transmedia story? I thought about what the modern equivalence might be and then it popped into my mind – street art paste ups, a phenomenon that is quite common in my own town of Portsmouth. A visual medium that could just as easily be turned to the needs of an urban witch (Penczak 2001) as to an artist who just wished to brighten up the streets.

There then is the first tributary of my own creative flow as it encounters and merges with another distinctive tributary. It is this new flow that I will explore in more detail in my next blog post.


PENCZAK, C., 2001. City Magick, New York: Weiser Books

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