February 26, 2017

January 7, 2017

The slip unleashed

Bananas have many meanings. As that which the monkey eats. As something to throw at foreign footballers to demonstrate a racist attitude. As perfect product design with inbuilt packaging served up by natureTM . As portraits of Warhol and, in a larger sense, icons of pop art. As easy sexual gratification to the male (when opened at the near end and cupped by thickly-painted female lips). As the lure of capitalism (this works best in East Germany, where the Wall had to be torn down for easier access to bananas). And so on.

But once the fruit is eaten and the skin dropped on the pavement, the banana develops an unusual singularity of purpose, sucking up all other narratives surrounding it into one plot point: the peel is there for you to slip on. Because that’s what the old joke demands. No matter that you’ve never seen it happen in real life, and that the origin of the trope in the 19th century reads very much like an urban myth. Many a London and New York news paper reported people breaking all manner of bones over banana peels... were the streets really that littered with rotting fruit skin, or did people maybe have a jauntier step and freer outlook to doom them? By the time the banana peel reached silent slapstick cinema, it had already become a cliché, and jokes would be played against expectations. Buster Keaton did not slip over a banana peel and made a gesture of triumph over that, but the public didn’t like it, so he cut in a second peel and went down. Charlie Chaplin, better catering to his audiences, had two escaped convicts dressed as pilgrims fall over a single peel in unison. Harold Lloyd slipped on a banana peel while climbing over the hood of a double-decker bus at full speed. Charley Bower gave an inventor the task of developing an non-slippery banana peel, mixing dozens of different chemical solutions to kill the germ of slipperiness (an athletic little critter rather giddy with a sense of its own fallibility) and proving the results on a specially constructed tester (pat. applied for), a moveable slippery slope to tumble down.

(Science says here: ‘Changes in the inclination of the floor, i.e. increasing ramp angle, are associated with changes in the ground reaction forces. For example, shear forces for level walking reach a maximum of about 1.5 to 1.8 N kg-1 (normalized to body weight). However, walking down a ramp increases this peak shear by about 61% for a 5° ramp angle and 128% for a 10° ramp angle. The normal forces also are affected by inclination angle, with an increase in the peak force of about 1N kg-1 for a 5° increase,’ explain Mark S. Redfern et al. in Biomechanics of Slips.) The successful scientific endeavour of Bower to invent a banana peel that stops you dead in your tracks nevertheless must remain iconographically fruitless. The banana peel still signifies The Slip, it remains sitting on the pavement, overdetermined like a work of art in the museum... like a work of art in a frame, or on a pedestal, patiently waiting for you to come by and slip on it.

As I write this I stumble across an article in Frieze about something else altogether, which mentions the ‘slipperiness between what you see and what it means’ (traced back here to the works of Duchamp like anything that makes art today more equivocal). Well, who knows what whatever means anyway, but to experience this as a cognitive dissonance already seems an advanced sense of slipperiness. We usually remain caught in the slipperiness of perception. So we need to move up one level to even see what it might mean.

In earlier times, before there was this amount of Duchampian slipperiness to cope with, reception went much easier. ‘All art is quite useless,’ said Oscar Wilde famously. And in a letter to a young man, who had asked for an explanation of that, he further took pressure from us, the viewers: ‘Art is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility...’ (thus killing the germ of slipperiness). ‘If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realize the complete artistic impression.’

So to endorse the failure to realize the complete artistic impression is what the following deliberations aim for.

Let us first have a look at how the overdetermination of a potentially slippery object may liquefy. The mere fact of a pedestal (as opposed to the pavement) does not define a work of art, though some of the sculpture selected for a sort of exchange programme for equestrian statues in Simon Patterson’s Under Cartel do have their firm place in the canon, such as Verrocchio’s Colleoni or Falconet’s Peter the Great. Others are quite feeble gestures at immortalizing worldly power. But since horses today are rather for girls, their old functions of intimidation or provocation are no longer alive (except when you put a living threat in the saddle, such as a policeman), and with no fixed meaning attached to the beast, the equestrian statue has become a quaint and most slippery genre stripped of its original authority. It also has become a welcome object for institutional critique, where you may critique the pedestal and have it too (see e.g. the Fourth Plinth art commissions in London).

When Patterson suggests to swap one of these statues against another, the connotations start to ricochet. If you made Napoleon take the place of the first Duke of Wellington, and vice versa, would their respective audiences lose some of their historical identity? Presumably both former heroes are long enough dead so that a switch of personality wouldn’t hurt the social fabric much. (Isn’t there a TV show like this, where you swap wives and see how the families cope?) Exchange Friedrich III of Prussia, a half-hearted liberal who had laryngeal cancer already when he ascended, couldn’t speak a word and died after 99 days on the throne (as I learn on Wikipedia), and who most probably has a meaning for nobody alive today, against General Georgios Karaiskakis, who fought in the Greek War of Independence and was killed there in 1827, and it looks unfair because one death seems to make so much more heroic sense than the other, but then either man on either horse could surely do the same job very well in whatever surroundings... especially since to a German someone named Friedrich will always feel better prepared to tell us what to do. The power is in the name. (Most probably the German against Greek animosity in light of strained fiscal relations today would lead to graffiti bombings, though...)

It is of course important that we do not really swap the statues and only do it in our minds. If there were tons of money spent and local curators and politicians held speeches, then there’d be nothing at all left of the poor figure of historical impact sat upon his horse. It’d be reduced to art, overdetermined and demanding of a very different form of passive-aggressive reception...

There are no Friedrichs in Patterson’s The Great Bear, a plan of the London Underground where the names of stations have been replaced by all kinds of remarkable persons from history and today. Instead there are the Louis, monarchs of another country, who I guess lived better and died better and provide better entertainment value purely by dint of their name. One thinker who pondered the power of names and how they affect their bearer’s achievement was novelist George Moore, who judged a book by the sound of its author: ‘Dickens – a mean name, a name without atmosphere, a black out-of-elbows, back-stairs name, a name good enough for loud comedy and louder pathos... Now it is a fact that we find no fine names among novelists. We find only colourless names, dry-as-dust names, or vulgar names, round names like pot-hats, those names like mackintoshes, names that are squashy as galoshes,’ which is maybe why there is no novelists’ line on The Great Bear, instead we have explorers, footballers, actors, sinologues and saints. Some obscure, so the game is to recognize them, and to see if we can place them on the right line, some so famous that we feel we just shook their hand after the pang of recognition.

And then there is the single name painting: Harry Houdini. The great escapologist, the man who slipped out of all self-entrapments no matter how deadly the setup (at least in the make-believe). Iconic in the way he hung head downwards in shackles over a gaping void. Is his name maybe strong enough to also escape the frame it comes in?

In his video Acer Pseudoplatanus, Angus Braithwaite performs the reenactment of a chance failed Houdini. The video ominously begins with burning logs, bespeaking of home and man’s victory over trees. Then the narrator tells us of a watermill he used to visit as a boy, forbidden to him because of its dangers: ‘One slip would have resulted in limbs ground to pulp between wet wood and wall.’ The boy had a special relationship to all kinds of wood: ‘I knew all the trees. Some, of course more intimately than others.’ His most favourite was a sycamore, or death maple, which held the embryo of a tree house. A rope was attached to a branch a hundred metres (sic!) up, with a loop tied at the bottom, so one could use it as a swing...

The boy improved on the construction: ‘Pulling a new loop I was able to create an adjustable opening – one which, once lined with the handlebar cover of my BMX bicycle, sat comfortably around my middle. You could now swing attached to the bottom of the rope with your body in a horizontal position. As the swing slowed I found that, due to my alterations, the rope had shortened and I now found myself hanging instead from my torso but with my feet five centimetres from the ground. After some effort I managed to slip one arm out of the noose, but my feet were still well off the ground and I had exerted myself just getting this far. I hung there for quite some time, catching my breath. The next step was to get enough slack to wriggle out the other arm, thus giving me two free arms to work on removing the neck. Fortunately this was something I never managed to achieve...’

Houdini of course would have gotten out of the sling easily, but had Houdini failed, it would not have been as slapstick. Although he didn’t actually die from a stunt, as I would have thought, but from an appendix burst after an admirer had punched him in the stomach without warning to test the entertainer’s iron muscles. (By the way, as film footage of Houdini’s stunts proves, he hectically wriggled out of entrapments in quite an undignified manner that resembled nothing so much as early psychiatric documentations of hysterical fits. Which must have required a lack of inhibition that Braithwaite by his looks and measured reenactment would never permit himself. Eventually the artist’s mother had to come and free him from his predicament all dripping shoes and flailing arms. Houdini’s mother couldn’t come and save him because an appendix requires professional treatment and because she had been dead for 13 years, and all her son’s attempts to make contact since had come to nothing.)

The story of the video being as inevitable as a banana peel sitting on the pavement (we see it coming from the first image of the rope sling) frees up the modes of depiction: the deadpan reenactment of supposedly historical details, sterile scenery close-ups of brooks and tree bark, fingers drawing imaginary trees on white walls and other illustrative imagery that actually prevents the viewer’s mind from picturing the scene.

Wood is the theme of many of Braithwaite’s works, and even books seem to matter as much for the material they were made from as for the words that make up their content. So in The Moment of Conception, a photo which shows the instant in which the artist conceived, quote, ‘all art works past, present and future’, a book (changeable in different manifestations of the work) is spanned into the wooden head construction like a pulp battery empowering the creative process. The installation Father of the Woods (C. Willeford) does away with the tree trunk altogether, just a couple of short lathes and ropes thrown over a metal bar high up that gives the slender construction tree-like proportions. There’s a hand-sewn banner that partly reads: ‘Father of the woods. The oak king. Gives strength of vision and backbone, producing great clarity for judging future events.’ (So who said all art was quite useless.) The ropes end in three pendulums hovering above three books like they would in some spiritistic session, spelling out letters from the dead, here three opened paperback novels by the American crime novelist Charles Willeford. In a clash of cultures, these prime specimen of pulp fiction were probably picked for the genre’s identification with wood pulp rather than a plot arc. The first of the novels, Miami Blues, ends with words that reference both slapstick and sexuality: ‘I never met a man yet that didn’t like my pie.’

On the slippery slope between what we see and what it means, it can feel like the inclinations work against us, like all art is firmly installed on its pedestal and it is only us, the viewer, who can slip up. It may seem like most artworks have whole secret manuals of intent, yet when you enter a gallery space there is nothing on view to spell things out. (You can ask one of the guards, but good luck with that.) This phenomenon is not specific to the field, though. Even the mother of slips, the Freudian slip, came carefully prepared with its inventor’s intentions and was pre-programmed like an artwork before its actualization in the spectator.

(On a random google search to help me with this topic, I stumble over a heading in Psychology Today: ‘Most of us live in fear of unleashing a Freudian slip,’ it says. Presumably just like Victorian pedestrians had lived in constant fear of banana peels on the rampage.)

The original Freudian slip was an utterly bourgeois affair. A young man tellingly misquoted Virgil’s Aeneid in the original Latin (of course), dropping a word but repairing the sentence around it so the grammar remained flawless. The dropped word was then submitted to all kinds of learned associations (don’t ask). The other big example of a slip in Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life was how he himself momentarily forgot the name of Renaissance painter Luca Signorelli and instead first tried the name of the better known Botticelli, and immediately noticing this couldn’t be right replaced him with one Boltraffio, an artist who today would be completely forgotten except for Freud’s famous parapraxis (highbrow term for the Freudian slip. By the way none of these appear on the blue line of Italian artists in Simon Patterson’s The Great Bear, one wonders why that is?). The sound of Freud’s replacement names in his own estimation had to do with matters of sex and death in ways too convoluted for our purpose here.

If we instead follow Sebastiano Timpanaro – who tells us that these slips were managed by Freud so he could avoid the topics that really scared him, such as being reminded of the common people – the poshness of psychoanalysis made it acceptable to the public, despite its shock value: ‘The neo-bourgeois has understood that just as Christ did not come into the world in order to abolish the ancient Laws, but in order to accomplish them, so psychoanalysis does not demystify bourgeois values in order to destroy them, but to reinstate and consolidate them. Thus as psychoanalysis gradually ceased to be a moral scandal and became a vogue, so too explanation of “slips” became a polite “pastime”. The neo-bourgeois who had learnt to play this game would himself collaborate in the explanations, and – in part against his will, in part with a touch of conscious snobbery – furnish Freud with the “free” associations needed for the smooth course of every analysis.’

Again, doesn’t that read almost like the way we play along with and subdue ourselves to the work of art and its proper subtexts? Interpreting art is like the parlour game of explaining slips. Note that ‘free’ is in scare quotes, the established order still upholds the right and the wrong, and both art and the official Freudian slip are just manifestations of a status quo.

There are no bananas in the Aeneid, but there’s pie throwing (sort of): ‘This realm rings with the triple-throated baying of vast Cerberus, couched huge in the cavern opposite; to whom the prophetess, seeing the serpents already bristling up on his neck, throws a cake made slumberous with honey and drugged grain...’

There are no bananas in Freud, where the penis is usually symbolized by a knife, a cigar or cigarette. There are also no cream pies in Freud, which is strange for a Viennese who invented the Pleasure Principle, but we do find a knife cutting through a layer cake symbolizing the layers of consciousness (also in possible reference to an American teen comedy).

Speaking of pleasure principles, one must usually admit that witnessing a person slip on a banana peel (or pretending to slip, as it’s an act that will happen only in the cinema) is usually something of an aesthetic let-down after all the build-up. The movement is swift, and while professionals will manage to kick the legs far up in the air, the peel is never more than the occasion for a fall and the scene does not transcend a simple feeling of schadenfreude. Whereas that other trademark action of silent comedy, the pie in the face, offers something considerably more sensual and cathartic. Just witness Laurel and Hardy’s Battle of the Century, which coincidentally starts out with Hardy planting a banana peel on the pavement with the intention of slipping on it to hurt himself and collect insurance. Instead a pie vendor steps in and falls first. Hardy, with another tell-tale banana still in hand, receives a pie in the face, then things escalate quickly... Sex/gender is a pronounced topic, especially in scenes of the lovingly delayed female pie on the male face. Then, in the final frame of the battle, a woman slips on a leftover pie on the pavement and drops dead down on it, with the pie now under her skirt and inside her underwear, as we learn from her movements when she stands up, wriggling uncomfortably but welcoming the discomfort, shooting guilty glances if anybody notices her secret pleasure...

‘Everything. Fucking. Everything.’ These are the final words in Benedict Drew’s video Mainland Rock, while a suspicious-looking crack in the stone emanates blue aura. Even more fucking is the intercut matter that looks like raspberry soft dough, or candied meat fibre surrogate, mucosal, slippery, yucky like a cream pie in your underpants (one German expression for which is, by the way, Slip). Both somehow seem the same, the rock and the sweets add up to the earth, together they form the stuff that makes up things...

But let us start at the beginning. We are stalking concrete buildings through layers of static made from filtering and digital degradation, superimposed drawings and other artificial detritus. The light is nice through our fingers, maybe autumn late in the afternoon, not too warm, the trees are comforting, the architecture is brutalist (in relation to the trees), and a female voice soliloquizes through delay effects and treatments like a platform announcer whose words we strain to catch, like a ship computer reporting back future knowledge through the hiss of time, like fragments of things we’d want to believe in if only they took sufficient shape. ‘Like Tiresias, I transmogrified,’ she says, and if we look that up and read that Tiresias was made a woman after witnessing two copulating snakes and killing the female one, it means she’s a male voice (the artist, maybe, or so we want to believe).

It takes an effort to make out the exact words, but the fragments we catch (different ones with each viewing), tell of oppositions between the different mixes of matter: ‘A man in the café told me that this complex was built after the student uprisings. That these buildings’ very reason for being is to quash protest... Buildings pretend not to care, their fake indifference is palpable... The sweaty lumpen flesh things are completely ignored by these structures... The trees are all chaos sprouting, growing, spreading, shooting their seeds everywhere...’ Floaters float through the images over the branches. The voice is speaking from a lesser god perspective, not quite omniscient, but making sense of the fragments of aspects as they can be extrapolated from the relations between things. It is never satisfied with anything except the trees. Of course, this is film, so perspectives are a matter of choice and identification, or of as-yet-slippery interpretations. ‘You can’t fuck with those in the make believe,’ reads a title. But they can fuck with us.

When the video’s second chapter takes us into the building (‘inside was like a necropolis of trees’), we move along library aisles and the voice seems to increasingly identify with the architecture. It is quite unhappy with the software that makes up its innards. ‘The control centre of the body lacks,’ it complains, and ‘its lackness keeps growing... its lackiness its lacknessesses its lackiness its lacknessesses its lackiness its lacknessesses’... and the voice gets caught up in the music of its own interrupted flow within the quite musical activities of the static that makes up the fabric of things. And we look over rows of library books, the poor objects (this is what trees die for?), each dwarfed by the fact that they need so many others around them to produce some sort of sense, no single book has any authority left by itself... ‘And what it does have,’ the voice continues full of disgust, ‘its haveness, is so lossy, so compressed, so full of holes and gaps and voids. Connected by images, not words, not writing. But not even images, connected by intensities... those fucking squiggly hieroglyphs.’

‘Of course, once, we were all slime,’ the voice remembers in the third chapter, to the images of rocks and pink dough described above. ‘Now we are somewhere in between, part slime, part solid rock.’ That is a memory of the urschleim, the slippery matter we had to selectively fuck our ways out of when our story began. It was first cooked up by one Lorenz Oken around 1800 and popularized by Ernst Haeckel, who described it in his History of Creation as a ‘mucilaginous substance, an albuminous combination, which exists in a semi-fluid condition of aggregation, and possesses the power, by adaptation to different conditions of existence in the outer world and by interaction with its material, of producing the most various forms... Oken was therefore right when, more divining than knowing, he made the assertion: “Every organic thing has arisen out of slime, and is nothing but slime in different forms.”’

(Additionally the rock and the artificial meat fibre and everything fucking in the make-believe read like a reference to the Death Valley scene in Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, two flesh things fucking, then we blink and the desert’s full of them, now we blink and they’d been an illusion.)

Mainland Rock is the farthest we will go towards embracing the slipperiness of what we see, the pie in the undergarment, the farthest we will get away from language as something to believe in. ‘Not even images, connected by intensities,’ the voice said and the underlying images in the video are not even remarkable: universities, libraries, sceneries the likes of which most of us have visited as a matter of course. These are (the voice contradicting its own existence) connected by words as matter and meaning, and made uncanny by the intensities of treatments which push the neutral images closer to the insecurities of individual experience. The messinesses win out over the structured lives us flesh things try to lead, once slime, now part rock, which order can be imposed upon.

The attempts at ordering rock go back to the megaliths, stones erected as markers, gravestones, possibly sundials, or maybe just as messages to some higher beings pointing out that now we were capable of arranging things in relations. The British artist Paul Nash in 1935 made Equivalents for the Megaliths, a painting that shows an assortment of roughly geometrical forms sitting in a field, cylinders, a cuboid and a grid, forms that once constituted the vocabulary of various modernisms, vorticist or cubist. As the high forms of abstract art, they’re equally as spiritual and elevated as stones erected to unknown abstract powers, and they deserve the same admiration. Nicholas Brooks’ video Transit of the Megaliths takes its cue from here and from Nash’s road trip in 1934, during which he placed ‘several small geometric objects onto the roof of his friend’s car in order to photograph them,’ as Brooks explains. ‘He liked to travel by car to places of importance for him in his ever-expanding cosmology of the British landscape. He may have liked to see the objects up there, away from the clutter of the ground, somehow in obeyance to the clean, utopian pursuit of motoring on orderly tarmac...’

Proceedings start from the exact rearrangement of Nash’s Equivalents, before the forms are made to vary. But it is more fun just watching and not knowing any of this back story anyway (spoilers behind!) and to think that the forms just demanded to be driven around (as presumably they did demand from Nash). Their changing patterns sit atop the car roof, their object magic defined by perspective as if they sat on a Renaissance tabletop with somebody staring through a grid to establish a vanishing point. Sharing a perspective gives them a collective meaning that enables them to communicate with the surroundings they are carried through. Now and again, reality cracks open, when drawings are superimposed on the video image that seem to lend the landscape a sense of history, or when digital layers are peeled off the screen like an extra dimension projected over another. As the objects are carried through the world to measure themselves against the environment, symbolizing nothing assignable, a roof rack full of unspecified meaning, they drift through the project like floating signifiers (of whatever). Claude Lévi-Strauss defined these signifiers as ‘an undetermined quantity of signification, in itself void of meaning and thus apt to receive any meaning, whose unique function is to bridge a gap between signifiant and signifié.’ His example for a word that thus overcame the slipperiness of meaning was ‘oomph’.

The next step in regaining order is not merely to arrange things but draw up a plan and then find ways of reproducing it in reality. For which we need a fabric of commands, a programming language. Brooks’ video end_stop_repeat_forget_series shows us just that when it slowly pans across heavily compartmentalized abstract patterns. These are actually designs for silk weaving, which would be translated into punch cards to be fed into Jacquard looms, a technique invented around 1800. We move along floral shapes divided into squares divided into even smaller squares by a very orderly mind, over which a female narrator with a heavy foreign accent and the strange, anti-emphatic inflections of a text to speech programme, lists some simple rules these patterns follow: ‘Time over units’, she says. ‘Threads and units, thoughts and forget ting... and threads and units.’ Sometimes the voice folds back into itself, then we notice the sentences have been cut up. Some threads are left hanging, some are violently stitched together, the details do not fit in places, but it all hangs in place when viewed from a distance. ‘A flower, the red, the yellow against black against.’

And yet what sounds like tentative descriptions with an attempt at discerning the underlying principles of the designs, might actually work the other way around: ‘The text is a meditation on making images,’ the artist says. When we follow a plan that pictures beforehand what we can see only after the mechanized realization, then a description of the resulting image should be reverse engineering the plan. Along the two-way traffic in time, our thoughts become rearranged: ‘We assembled due to an escapement something caught, limited,’ the voice says.

It has long been a dream to sidestep the slipperiness of language altogether, to devise of a communication system where each sign corresponds to a piece of information. Such a system seemed to exist in the Egyptian hieroglyphs as long as they remained impenetrable. But when the means of translation appeared, ‘when the Rosetta stone was discovered in 1799’, as Johanna Drucker writes in The Visible Word, ‘it not only allowed the final veil do be drawn back from the mysterious image of the hieroglyphs, it also ended the long-standing belief that hieroglyphs functioned as a form of language which was directly apprehendable through the eye. The clue to hieroglyphic decipherment was the relation between visual signs and a spoken language for which they were the representation. Once it was clear that hieroglyphics corresponded to this spoken language, the properties to their identity as visual signs ceased to be significant to linguists – except insofar as they provided access or recognition. Here the linguistic notion of the present signifier serving a function as surrogate substitute for the absent signified is apparent in its most fundamental form. The hieroglyph, for so long the site of fantasmatic projection onto the visual, material image of writing, was reduced to serving an incidental function relative to the all-important linguistic text. The price of decipherment was that writing lost its autonomous existence...’

The Glyphs of Dermot O’Brien can be thought to go back before that sad moment of decipherment described by Drucker. Their language indeed is apprehendable directly though the eye. Some glyphs represent clear objects, others require some headscratching, but they all do not refer to a text but to things and thoughts, and they do not form sentences, except maybe where it is possible to find a thematic grouping for some of the objects. For example on one sheet, there are mostly round things: pill, pea, (pass), gum drop, (pass), coffee bean... these could be an inventory of things that relate to each other. The bigger glyphs, executed in silver ink on black card, speak of more complicated, more individualized things that are not just symbols for a certain group of objects, but might almost be portraits: flask pouring liquid into test tube, bristly brush, sickle, anchor, (pass)... Maybe the glyphs are most themselves in the simple small grid drawings, which pull them closest to more personal handwriting: hammer, candle, dynamite, pliers, flatiron... wait, is that a banana peel? The smaller studies are drawn in gold or silver point, a technique used since ancient times, producing a fine line and a surface rather than an artistic gesture. (So they stay away from expressionist, emotional connotations of an established art language just as much as from spoken word and textual syntax.)

(The text on the Rosetta Stone by the way is quite boring, mostly about a monarch being fair about taxes, and the only topic of any relevance to us is that monarch on his pedestal, because ‘a statue should be set up for King Ptolemy, living forever, the Manifest God whose excellence is fine – which should be called “Ptolemy who has protected the Bright Land”, the meaning of which is “Ptolemy who has preserved Egypt” – together with a statue for the local god, giving him a scimitar of victory, in each temple, in the public part of the temple, they being made in the manner of Egyptian work; and the priests should pay service to the statues in each temple three times a day, and they should lay down sacred objects before them and do for them the rest of the things that it is normal to do.’ Normal to do things like recognizing the name on the title card, ritually expressing the right amount of admiration and generally hoping not to slip up.)

O’Brien’s drawing Untitled (Chalk Horse) reaches even further back, in that it was executed on a small blackboard in chalk illicitly taken by the artist (as a foolish young man, of course) from the eye of the White Horse of Uffington in Oxfordshire. This is a possibly prehistoric 110-metre-long figure on a small hill, made by digging trenches and filling them up with ground chalk. (Since the figure needs to be cleaned and the chalk replaced regularly, chances are that O’Brien’s piece of chalk wasn’t placed there by the original artist.) The horse was meant maybe as a marker claiming possession of the land for a tribe, or even as some glyph for the gods to see, saying: this is a horse, though it might just as well be a cat from the looks of it.

But since the horse is officially agreed upon, O’Brien can say: ‘I find the security of this piece of work appealing, it is a chalk horse made from the Chalk Horse.’ So there would be no slipperiness to what we see and no slipperiness to the chalk horse drawn on a blackboard in reference to the one in Uffington, though I guess that could change any day in the light of new translation means to be discovered for hieroglyphical chalk horses (and the stone circles as well).

Truly overdetermined like a work of art in its frame, This drawing is displayed here upside down by Maria Theodoraki on first blush seems to offer a drawing of the text of the title in a careful serif font. Except that, if we accept its meaning, the drawing immediately contradicts its own condition, as it looks right side up. And furthermore if it’s true what the text says, then presumably the drawing must have been executed with its motif standing on the head. The main hint pointing our eyes towards this process behind the drawing is a pleasing awkwardness that makes every limb of every letter an infinitesimally different font size and the spaces between them uneven against their flow. And on further study we might even detect smudges in the surface revealing the position of the artist’s hands (for which one would have to see the actual drawing instead of the photograph I have before me, so I’m solely relying on a text mail from the artist for this detail). This process implies that the image was drawn as pure form, irrespective of the text’s meaning (if indeed it remains a text... I’m not sufficiently theoretically minded to go there, though we easily might). The treatment of the letters as form not information was probably facilitated by the fact that the sentence is in German: ‘Diese Zeichnung ist hier umgekehrt abgebildet’, a language that the artist is not familiar with. All of this adds up to a deconstructively self-referential double-loop of two distinct possibilities (the immediately received text message and the syntax-free drawing only apprehendable through the eye) that contradict each other but have overlapping connotations... the most slippery state a work of art might aspire to. Yet it is also a most stable slippery state: it is all contradictions at once, and never one after the other. (So on the slipmeter, we are a notch above Magritte and his Treachery of Images postulating: ‘This is not a pipe.’ Because if we accept the existence of a shared language of representational art, then when it’s not a pipe it is a representation of one, raising questions of how we interpret reality irrespective of the pipe’s use and meaning in everyday life. The connotations are quite manageable. It gets more slippery, though, in a preparatory drawing by Magritte: a study for the pipe that wasn’t to be a pipe. No matter if drawn from life or constructed as the perfect signifier of a pipe, this study occupies the same perfectly stable slippery aggregate between contradictions as Theodoraki’s drawing, though running through some different loops.)

Theodoraki’s video I hope that this won’t take long because I am very busy today and have very little time to spare. I am only doing this because you gave me raki, honey and olive oil similarly offers a point of entry through its title, which again is translated both into another language and into a state where it doesn’t function as text anymore. The video shows filmmaker John Smith trying to pronounce the sentence of the title in perfect Greek, repeating phrases, throwing enquiring looks, testing the roll of his tongue, sometimes giggling at hardly noticeable differences in pronunciation, not getting anywhere necessarily. It is clear there is someone prompting the phrases off-screen, but we do not hear a second voice. If, like me, you have no Greek, there is no way to judge success or failure. Smith remains loveable through all of this, unquestioning of the task, moving over the course of an hour from an upward, very eager position to a mild slump towards the right edge of the frame. If we follow the logic of raki, honey and olive oil, he is being held hostage by his obligation towards traditional hospitality.

To anybody fluent in Greek, of course, this will be a completely different work. They will be able to evaluate the efforts of Smith, measure his growing success in hitting the right inflections. It might appear as if he had learned something by the end, if only for the length of a short-term memory. On the other hand, his efforts will appear more pronouncedly useless (as all art should be). For us, who do not speak Greek, the spoken language remains freed ‘from serving an incidental function relative to the all-important linguistic text’, to quote the passage by Johanna Drucker on the Rosetta Stone again. The sounds of speech slowly take shape as the ear gets accustomed to the process, their forms become more detailed as they return in ever more laboured enunciation, producing infinitely varied little sound objects on the slippery road to an unattainable perfection, which gather meaning only in relation between them.

‘Dear connoisseurs, in a few minutes you will see Ingmar Bergman’s much-vaunted but also very controversial film The Silence. You will probably think you know what to expect, yet quite possibly you will still be shocked. The film challenges the viewer mainly in two respects: first, through its graphic immediacy in all things erotic, and second, through its surprising eventlessness...’ (its eventlessnesses). This is from a trailer in which a cultured male voice prepared German moviegoers before a screening of the film when it first ran in theatres, to spare their better feelings – with a surprising amount of spoilers to avoid all slipperiness of meaning. The silence of the title was explained with a quote by Bergman, in that it was the silence of God, which made it so hard for mankind to cope with the world.

When Rudolf Reiber projects The Silence, it is as a Braille transcription of Ingmar Bergman’s film as a 3D movie. It looks more or less like endless opening credits seen from the cockpit of a star ship crossing the universe, and now and then the passing stars move into formation and show us an undecipherable message in dot language. The internet tells me that not even three percent of blind people can read Braille; the percentage will be much lesser for the seeing, though their task is in nonsensical theory made easier by the use of 3D technology. ‘What does that mean?’ are the first words of the movie after two minutes, but we can’t read that. ‘I don’t know,’ is the correct answer, before another six minutes of silence.

If we know these connections while watching the video (and we can make out as much from the title card), there is no slipperiness to what we see. There’s also no slipperiness to what it means, as long as we do not follow it by activity of any kind (such as to learn Braille). The work is a complete triumph over the medium.

(‘The questioning and searching face of the boy shown in the last frames of the film reflects his desire to understand what has happened,’ the German instructional trailer ends its message. ‘The boy might succeed at that, because he knows how to ask questions and he wants to be friendly. Distraught viewers should not overlook this aspect of the ending.’)

‘The more closely we examine actual language’, says Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘the greater becomes the conflict between it and our requirement. The conflict becomes intolerable; the requirement is now in danger of becoming vacuous. We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction, and so, in a certain sense, the conditions are ideal; but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!’

To go back, we need to go over Reiber’s Losing Ground, the entry floor of the gallery sanded down to the very ground layer by layer. The patterns that emerge are polished so smooth that they look very slippery, but the ground is still firm, so the area has to be cordoned off for the mind to slip on it... (‘For a valid assessment of slipperiness’, Wen-Ruey Chang et al. define the field in their Optimal Criteria for a Slipmeter, ‘measurement methodology should include the measurement of static, transitional and steady-state dynamic friction properties of the interacting surfaces and contaminants. It should also have the flexibility for selecting relevant measurement parameters, such as the normal force build-up time and rate, normal force and pressure, sliding velocity and contact time of the interacting surfaces prior to and during friction measurement. However, the requirements might be relaxed for devices designed mainly for routine testing in the field.’)

As a work of art, Losing Ground makes a pedestal of the floor. So maybe, out of respect and for better admiration, we should enter through the back door.

Maybe there is a back door for us, the viewers, to escape our fear of unleashing slips or getting art wrong, and it might well offer a fresh point of entry. Harold Bloom’s A Map of Misreading is an ode to empowerment for the reader, whose interpretational grasp must change the works as it receives them. Misreading is a creative act that requires a strong character full of disregard and an eager anxiety of influence. Misreading is work cut out for the artist hero type...

And then Bloom commits a welcome slip, right in the introduction, where he gives an account of the philosophy of one ‘Isaac Luria, sixteenth-century master of theosophical speculation’, who ‘formulated a regressive theory of creation, in a revision of the earlier Kabbalistic emanative theory of creation’. This theory has three main stages, first: ‘the creator’s withdrawal or contraction so as to make possible a creation that is not himself’. Second, ‘the breaking-apart-of-the-vessels, a vision of creation-as-catastrophe’. Third comes ‘restitution or restoration – man’s contribution to God’s work. The first two stages can be approximated in many of the theorists of deconstruction, from Nietzsche and Freud to all our contemporary interpreters who make of the reading subject either what Nietzsche called “at most a rendezvous of persons”, or what I myself would call a new mythic being – the reader as Overman, the Überleser...’

The Überleser! ‘Überlesen’ in German means to quickly read over, to skip a part of the text. So as a Überlesers I am not, as Bloom supposed, an overwhelmingly awesome reader in analogy to the Übermensch. No, if we follow his model, then the more paragraphs we skip reading, the less we take in, the more that slips our minds, the more powerful we become. No art can hurt us now. We are the Justified Slippers.

So here is a beginning.

(This is my text for the catalogue of the exhibition Slip at the Städtische Galerie Villingen-Schwenningen, 5 July to 30 August 2015. Thanks to everybody involved!)

January 20, 2016

January 12, 2016

Favorite new music of 2015

Somehow I made a top ten of favorite music released in 2015 and added some comments which grew out of hand so I might as well post this. (Though I guess some of the comments make sense (if at all) only once you’ve heard the record in question.) Anyway, this list is completely objective as I do not rank perceived artistic values but the exact amount of pleasure each release gave me.

1 Debt of Nature: Salt Meadows + Small Silver Car (Lal Lal Lal)

i bought a serious number of cassettes over the year. here’s the best reason why: two members of 90s post-mvb band medicine forget their questionable musical legacy to collect found sounds, scramble up jams, fuse atmospheres, whatever comes to hand. and it’s exactly not the kind of music that should be cut in marble/vinyl, it's fully in the now and thus my favorite music of the year. if concrete is often about the classification of sounds (huge topic, another time), this music is joyously open to the world.

2 Devin DiSanto and Nick Hoffman: Three Exercises (Erstwhile)

i said upstream that i have never heard so many different attitudes toward sounds, or sounds meant so differently on a record ... i’d now add it’s like one of those youtube videos where you watch the score scroll by while you listen, except here it’s all audio and you can’t read music anyway ... also: it puts the prose back in process music ... the blurbs just keep coming ...

3 Keith Rowe: Live in Oberlin (Idiopathic)

i own and happily play the 4-cd rowe/tilbury release also from 2015, which very much behaves like a proper work of art, while this here tape documents what was probably not a very special gig—at least the first side doesn’t go anywhere at all, sounds very statically too much, as if the off-switch of rowe’s radio got stuck. and yet, this is what i love, i am not that precious. then side b begins with my favorite moment of rowe as a dj of classical music and from there on out it’s bliss.

4 Dean Blunt: UK2UK (self-released)

2013’s redeemer was a wonderfully weaselly record, but since then doing things like a real recording artist hasn’t worked as well again for blunt i thought. the year’s earlier babyfather release, while dropped as it should be on some russian message board, still contained way too much production. luckily uk2uk has some of his best lazy loops, readings of rap lyrics, sketchy oversaturated pocket epics—and i am the proud owner of one of the original limited soundcloud downloads!

5 Graham Lambkin and Michael Pisaro: Schwarze Riesenfalter (Erstwhile)

the piano as bourgeois fetish: pedal to the floor, we wallow in the boom of its tingling strings (to quote the title of a jon lord piano concerto). i would be against it (and feel like there’s been too much wide-eyed piano on recent releases?), but there’s no ignoring the powerful references (starting with track titles that point to trakl and schönberg), the old-fashioned poetry, and the visions of doom approaching straight-faced like a foggy metal intro to the untergang des abendlandes ...

6 Jin Sangtae’s SoundCloud page

one-minute audio instagrams recorded on a mobile phone, grainy, out of focus, sort of random, though the exact time limit and their daily appearance lend them stricter form than most composed music. the amount of acoustic action the man faces every day for these miniatures must be daunting. and yet there seems to be a curious lack of an other, of a field to record in. which makes these recordings so strange and personal, an unadulterated artist’s vision.

7 Alasdair Roberts: Alasdair Roberts (Drag City)

i have a handful of lukewarm records by roberts, bought expecting him to surpass earlier promise (mostly the wyrd meme ep) before discovering he had already done some of that (e.g. with the atrociously named appendix out) and was on a gentle downward slope (in relation to my tastes). which is decisively interrupted by this record: sparse and gorgeous, wonderful arrangements with clarinet and flute and stuff, and by far his most focused album as a songwriter. we need more songs in dispraise of hunger.

8 R. Schwarz: The Scale of Things (Gruenrekorder)

should i get new speakers or do all processed field recordings sound like they were made in a tunnel for testing phaser effects? this happens here too, but the shell is permeated by particles from the outside, in detail or moving in flocks of harmonic formations. it’s the “harmony of overwhelming and collective uncertainty, because this nature is chaos,” the press release informs us. actually what makes the sounds so great is that they’re fiercely structured. the blurb says in closing that the music is “expulsed from nature, as our brain is expulsed from nature.” which i can’t argue with and keep my brains intact.

9 Loren Connors: Live in New York (Family Vineyard)

there’s not much lyricism here, this is a tough and gnarly record. connors coaxes feedback through the chain of pedals, more in a succession of tones and actions than a distinct overall form. lots of side noises, the first track seems recorded in a roomful of creaking doors with a dj on the next floor. the verité approach does not really add a sense of atmosphere or dialog, but speak to the artist’s unbreakable singleness of purpose.

10 Joseph Clayton Mills et al.: SIFR (Suppedaneum)

this release realizes its full potential only when left unheard.

(because the artist gave a recording to 7 composers who then wrote a score in hindsight. these are included, the packaging is great with little envelopes and stuff, there’s a postcard and a wallpaper sample and little jeopardy-style answer cards that pose as questions. the prospective listener’s time is well spent in first pondering what wondrous music could have created these different points of fictitious origin ... when i finally succumb and put on the cd, the music is nice, surprisingly percussive with sound fields drifting across. yet it seems of a kind that once set in motion would not require a score to determine its outcome ... which might be one of the questions asked, and some legs are kindly being pulled as to the artiness of open scores, and still it is in the very nature of the thing that with knowledge of the music many of the reverse composition’s possibilities have become unrealizable ...)

July 5, 2015

Every painting has a happy ending

This is my (only) favorite painting by the belated classicist painter John William Godward, The Fruit Vendor from 1917. It's a slight outlier in what Christopher Wood in his book Olympian Dreamers labels the "toga and terrace school" (followers of Alma Tadema), in that it does not imagine the frolics and treacheries of antique high society, but portrays a more down to earth subject. Indeed for me one of the chief attractions is that the cobblestone pavement and the carefully rendered stains on the plinth/balustrade seem to project the image into a contemporary park with a whiff of dog's (or is it the lion's, whose balls are hanging out) piss. The interplay of close colors in the fruit and the girl's clothing is much more interesting than Godward's usual work (where luxury garments will correspond to precious flowers), also the pronounced rhythm of the melon slices running four beats toward the full measure of the fruit itself (I suppose the peaches and melon have sexual overtones and the vendor is pining because she lost her innocence to a lover on the run?).

Anyway, the star of the painting, and my chief fascination, is of course the marble lion, so relaxed and self-satisfied, goofily smirking straight into the painter's brush. An upbeat cartoon lion totally ignorant both of the tender feelings of the soft head touching its belly, and of the empathy we as viewers are supposed to carry into the picture. What does it mean? That art is eternal, so in the end every painting has a happy ending? Of course, intentions of artists from this school are sometimes hard to fathom, as these men were often in an honest search for a higher truth and beauty producing what looks like half-assed porn today. Maybe the lion is an archaeologically exact reconstruction of an antique sculpture? Godward would have known e.g. the Lion of Knidos then already in the British Museum (much larger and from on top of some monument, but still I put it here as a lazy reference. It also has a very alive and unstatuesque gaze.)

(Speaking of half-assed porn, here is Godward's funniest painting, from 1908. While the artist has suggestively draped the uncleft flesh bulge that would, according to the laws of decency of the school that fostered him, have made up Athenais' crotch, he amps up the explicitness of the picture by letting her carry her beaver on a stick:


Godward's historical position appears as that of the last in an overripe tradition, and he sort of added an exclamation point to the fact when committing suicide in 1924 at age 61. Wood writes: "By the 1920s, the rule of Bloomsbury had begun. All Victorian painting was denounced as absurd, irrelevant, and totally lacking in significant form; and none more so than Alma-Tadema's, whose works were a byword for bad taste. For a classical painter, there was nothing to do but give up, or put your head in the oven, and at least poor Godward had the courage to do it."

Actually, we don't really know much about his reasons at all (go here for a full discussion within a very detailed biography). The headline for the report of his demise in the Fulham Gazette has another focus again: "Fulham Artist Dead before Blank Canvas. Amazing Gas Tragedy. Cheque for Work on Door!" Simply amazed that an artist in this modern age and time would not be overjoyed to sell any work at all.

But the story of the last Victorian succumbing to the pressures of modernism was simply too good not to be true, and so an unfounded myth came up which said Godward had left a note stating the world was not big enough to hold both him and Picasso. (I've no idea how far back that kind of trope goes which I associate more with shootout situations in Western movies.) And so it is for the supposed arch-modernist to supply the last twist to the story. Because shortly before Godward's capitulation, Picasso had embarked on his own version of a toga and terrace school, a sort of beach and nightgown school, which adds new life(?) to the selfsame moribund tradition, and also is as hard to fathom in its serene goofiness. Just look at The Source from 1921:

It's the lion and a water vendor rolled in one? In deference to poor Godward, we will not think about why this might actually be a decent work (for an earlier post on Dalí making fun of Picasso's masterpiece of his beach and nightgown period go here). The most interesting aspect might be the chaiseloungey rock the woman rests upon, which makes no sense at all except to carry her sculptural form, the most damning evidence might be the way the artist has carefully painted a more nicely-rounded face into the heavy figure, as if he were after proper beauty.

Anyway, judged from a classicist viewpoint, this is nothing to shoot yourself over. Godward would not have known these works, he probably thought Picasso was still painting cubist masterpieces. The Internet could have saved him.

June 26, 2015

Duct tape

Quick post. I should do more quick posts. There's been a half-finished second epic on Uneasy Landscape Listening sitting on my desktop for some months. So in other, strictly in-door music, here's a link to the promo clip for a favorite record right now, Three Exercises by Devin DiSanto and Nick Hoffman on Erstwhile.

Recorded in an elementary school, using the process of creation both as fictional narrative and structural device for the music ... the photos show the venue rigged up for the making of sounds, with numbered pieces of evidence from an elaborately cued lab experiment arranged geometrically on the floor. It's all a set-up: silly school science project, serious mapping of spaces, rules made up because they look good, rules followed by good kids ... I'm sure I've never heard a record with so many different attitudes toward sounds, or with sounds meant so differently. Depending on where in the narrative they sit, if they're music, test work, exploration, exposition, or frame story. Some sounds are dead funny (the actual entrance of the duct tape the voices speak about in the clip). Some come in scare quotes.

May 10, 2015

Staples of the year that was

If you're into comics, here is a belated write-up of my favorites from 2014.

October 16, 2014

Uneasy landscape listening, post 1: The Otters

“Landscape art has never taught us one deep or holy lesson; it has not recorded that which is fleeting, nor penetrated that which was hidden, nor interpreted that which was obscure; it has never made us feel the wonder, nor the power, nor the glory, of the universe; it has not prompted to devotion, nor touched with awe; its power to move and exalt the heart has been fatally abused, and perished in the abusing.”

That is John Ruskin talking, and actually he would have made an exception for the picture on top, which shows The Holy Island, Lindisfarne, as seen by J. M. W. Turner around 1829 and embellished with some of his trademark atmospherics. But let us not allow such exceptions, as truth must be absolute, and anyway, it is not painting we’re interested in today. Instead let us think of field recording as the landscape art under discussion. Field recording, a genre that seems to come with an inbuilt promise of penetrating something hidden, of catching something fleeting, since we automatically enter a more reflective space through the fact that our supposedly prime sense, vision, does not drown out the acoustic experience. To merely listen seems to offer some kind of meditation on the secret nature of things…and indeed, if we follow Ruskin further, maybe his demands from the landscape artist would be best fulfilled by field recorder: “The artist has done nothing till he has concealed himself—the art is imperfect which is visible—the feelings are but feebly touched, if they permit us to reason on the methods of their excitement.” Just put up a mike and press the button.

And yet once we’ve caught that which is fleeting on our storage device, we’ve hewn it in marble and disconnected it from its natural surroundings where alone it was fleeting in. And if we listen to the sounds in their new, inevitable form and sequence, they become less about place, and more about choice: of selecting certain sounds over others, of wanting to add a history or memory to the sounds or just tag them in space and time. So many choices, so much artistry revealed…field recordist Chris Watson defines the methods of his excitement already in the less than innocent act of listening: “Listening in a positive way, that is actively taking the decision to focus on certain things and reject others, is a very positive and creative thing to do in that it—for me, anyway, individually—it actually stimulates my thought processes, it makes me think perhaps more laterally about problem-solving, or how I can achieve a creative output for something…it makes me think in a different way, that’s why I find it so satisfying.”

This active mode of listening characterizes Watson’s artistry, where events are often so close-miked that they penetrate to the heart of what maybe never existed, but the sounds that surround me here at my desk remain relatively distant. I’m listening to In St Cuthbert’s Time from 2013, “a 7th century soundscape of Lindisfarne,” as the booklet promises. There is of course nothing in the wind and the waves and the birdsong that would tell me it is not supposed to happen right now. Still the sounds suggest a somewhere, and I love me a conceptual conceit, so I gather what information I can from the booklet: about Lindisfarne and its history, 7th century monasteries and the writing of gospels on one hand; Latin names for the birds in order of aural appearance on the other; but not much to connect the two.

So in the 7th century, Lindisfarne, a tidal island off the eastern English coast, was a center of Christian culture, a priory of monks with a high quota of saints living the community life with mutual washing of feet, conquering of human nature, and illuminating of gospels. Watson proposes not a sound image of, but background sounds for these activities: “The production aims to reflect upon the daily and seasonal aspects of the evolving variety of ambient sounds that accompanied life and work during that period of exceptional thought and creativity.” An active selection of sounds that make up a vintage vibe sorted by seasons and cleaned of modern civilization (there’s cattle here, though, I hope of an ancient breed). And yet immediately a historical narrative begins, not in the sense of a story, but as a portrait of the possible attention these holy men might have spent on nature while they wandered alone in solitude. There is a nudge for the listener toward this historical angle, as Watson sends an actor through the aural picture ringing a monk’s handbell. Anecdotal evidence: here probably comes a fellow monk also looking for solitary space to leave the world behind in; let’s walk another way so both our meditations can go uninterrupted.

Which makes me more and more minded to listen to the record in analogy to history painting, not telling a complete story, but adding an interpretation to a story already told in the hope of making us feel something about it. Adding a new perspective that only hindsight can bring. Happily, there is one relatively popular history painting of St Cuthbert, executed in 1856 by the pre-Raphaelite painter William Bell Scott. It shows an event the artist dated to 678: King Egfrid and Bishop Trumwine visiting the hermit to offer him the Bishopric of Hexham. This takes place near the end of summer on a more secluded island called Farne, which Cuthbert had chosen to remove himself one more step from the world, while he kept in loose contact with the brethren on Lindisfarne. (By the way he would choose to accept a bishopric after some years hesitation, but only to Lindisfarne, not what he had been originally offered.) We see him here with an Eider duck as an attribute, a bird that over the centuries would come to be associated with him. Above him the sweep of the swallows in the sky closely follows that of the atmospherics in the Turner watercolor on top of this post… Anyway, let us now devise a narrativity test and play an excerpt from Watson’s summer sounds against the painting and see what happens:

It works very well, doesn’t it? Here’s what Rossetti wrote about it: “The amount of work is very great. I suppose it is the only picture existing, of so definitely ‘historical’ a class, in which the surroundings are all real studies from nature—a great thing to have done. The sky and sea are sky and sea, and the boats are as accurate and real as if you had got such things to sit to you. The whole scene too, and the quiet way in which the incident is occurring, at once strike the spectator with the immense advantage of simple truth in historical art over the ‘monumental’ style…” It is as if he had made the same test to judge the painting, while we’re checking the usefulness of the sounds as a picture of bygone times (Zeitgemälde in the more layered German term).

Sound artist/musician Patrick Farmer will have none of that. In his review of Watson’s record for The Field Reporter he insists: “This is not a case of a prerequisite willing suspension of disbelief. Nothing here seems to be paraded as a fiction.” Instead, Farmer attempts to take the artist by his word (or his implications), and is immediately stopped in his tracks on a technical point: “Watson states, or muses, that the sounds herein are a representation of the Holy Isle, Lindisfarne, some 1300 years ago. Unease… How is it that one can listen to this over electronic speakers, through whatever electronic device is preferred, and ultimately made, with electronic equipment, the modernist of the modern!” Farmer’s own argument places him in the classicist camp of the modernist of the modern, as he would prefer an utterly abstract purity of concept: “Each time I felt the sounds therein were better suited to an unapproachable, almost playful, sense of abstraction. When I say better suited, I mean I prefer to treat them as sounds entirely distinct from the concept upon which Watson lays them… For me this is abstract electronic music. Leading me to listen as intently as possible to this disc, as sounds, rather than as any form of nature, re-presented or re-imagined.” Unease… How is it one can listen to readily identifiable sounds that clearly speak of the wind and the waves and the birds and pretend they are abstract just because they are rendered through an electronic medium designed to transmit the signals that creative people send us to our ears? (Though actually sometimes the nature portrayed in St Cuthbert’s Time seems to aspire to the condition of abstract electronic music: birds’ song appearing almost quantized in repeated rhythm, and the winnowing of snipe like heavy tremolo effects turned up and down through a pitch-shifter (I’m sure all sounds here have natural causes, but checking the winnowing of snipe against anonymous recordings of the same on youtube, or even against the track “Sunsets” in Watson’s earlier album Stepping into the Dark, they do have incredible electrified presence here).

Of course Farmer is right in his unease, that by these technical means we cannot learn what the monks actually perceived: “Microphones are not ears, and we, at least I, do not listen, and certainly do not hear, sequentially, which to my mind, is exactly the manner upon which the segments are here laid flat… We have a way to go (I hesitantly speculate) before the represented soundworld of In St Cuthbert’s Time is even a relative truth...” Clearly both artists have different agendas: Farmer wants abstract art (which would have to be passively consumed by the mind), while Watson wants to provoke us to lateral thinking (as if we needed provocation). Farmer rightly sees that the methods of excitement do not stand to reason; yet, in the end, saying In St Cuthbert’s Time is abstract electronic music is about as useful as saying that the Waverley novels are concrete poetry. It does away with so much on offer (and in case we are worried by the fact that we might simply mistake this for a pure landscape recording if we just go by aural information without reading the booklet, then that’s ok because in history painting you often need the extraneous information of at least a title to have a clue what’s going on…)

Farmer himself made a wonderful record in duet with David Lacey called Pictures of Men in 2013, the same year as Watson’s Cuthbert. An aggressively figurative title, these pictures are not of men themselves, but maybe of their belongings, their transport and surroundings, and mostly of their abstract electronic music. It mixes sounds of decipherable origins with abstract noise and musical tones at an anecdotal pace. But some of the ingredients are the same as Watson’s, so what could better prove the difference in concept than to compare these sounds under the same conditions. What story will they yield?

I like the interplay here, too; initially it works almost as well in the same way, perhaps the birds are less drawn from nature, but they don’t need to be, as we have them before our eyes. Obviously the topics of birds and sea are filed away more orderly in separate sections. And from the start, the electronically bolstered shape of the wind does seem to tug us toward something of a monumental style, which Rossetti wouldn’t have approved of…

Pictures of Men begins with the sounds of geese and pigs and probably some other animals thrown in agitatedly making noises, while now and then almost cartoonlike bangs and scuffles stir up the commotion further. Are Farmer’s pigs really more abstract because the artists don’t flaunt a concept? Or does the conceptlessness allow the animals to appear as a mere piggish idea of a sound? (Wouldn’t it be ideologically doubtful if the sounds of pigs were mere abstract noises to be used at thoughtless will by the artists?) So here’s one final narrativity test, Farmer and Lacey’s pigs against some of their species that have been abstracted into a landscape:

Hm. (Mama pig remembers the luddite revolution?) The sounds indeed offer more cartoony action but less of the story. Which may corroborate Farmer’s theories. The differences in atmosphere between the two ways of using field recording are tangible: in Pictures of Men, nothing is “laid flat,” as Farmer describes the sounds on Watson’s disc. There is a depth to the space that renders pigs in acoustic foreshortening, that simulates concrete space, there is drama, tension, incident…but as it won’t connect except as a composition of sounds, there is but one historical narrative, as is common with abstract art: the story of a whole being made from its parts, the myth of the work’s creation. Or that is what the review of this record from The Field Reporter suggests, written by Chris Whitehead: “Listening to Pictures of Men can be like finding an old cassette in the loft from 1980. One you recorded sounds on that have long since been forgotten, an early foray into what they call field recording. Some can be recognized for what they are whereas others are dull rumbles or rattles whose provenance is obscure...” Unease… The artist’s recording excavating our own personal history (would we have realized our own past alone?), our own unlearned creative listening. The artistic mindframe during the creative process causing a related mindframe (only passive, but still questioning, maybe spiritual) in the consumer (and do we consumers imagine a greater collection of hagiographies than the story of abstract art?)

The beauty of Watson’s recording actually is more abstract in the details. Just listen to this, six minutes into the autumn: all sounds modeled to perfection in fluttering detail with stunning virtuosity (by nature, by the creative ear, by sleight of post-production?):

The stream does not do it any justice but you have an idea. It’s incredible, each little movement rounded out with loving care. It is also massive, the liner notes seem to say these must be patterns formed by swirling flocks of starlings over their roost?

Anyway, here as elsewhere, the recording is quite dense, in several layers. There is no downtime, no meditation, but over the initial rumble of the sea and/or a dark wind, nicely muffled, very warm and deep, form a stage for a series of events, mostly birds that doing their thing, collective then more confident taking solos, augmenting each other, one group coming in as the other drops out, like the sections in a big band. Sometimes the listener is allowed closer, but what most strikes me is that the landscape keeps sitting in front of my speakers performing—this is no landscape to immerse oneself in. It remains resolutely an other, looking at me, waiting to be looked at.

Might Cuthbert maybe have listened to it like that? Like something outside his experience? Of course, the sounds on the CD perform (like Patrick Farmer said) in a different medium, but as I read Bede’s life of Cuthbert (Bede was around 15 when Cuthbert died and didn’t know him, still he later traveled the isles and experienced the monastery and its surroundings), the otherness of soundscape seems to connect with the story. There are no scenes of communication with nature in the book, but of course we can’t read too much out of that in a 7th-century narrative. Let us instead have a look into what details Bede will offer on Cuthbert: “He was so zealous in watching and praying, that he is believed to have sometimes passed three or four nights together therein, during which time he neither went to his own bed, nor had any accommodation from the brethren for reposing himself. For he either passed the time alone, praying in some retired spot, or singing and making something with his hands, thus beguiling his sleepiness by labor; or, perhaps, he walked round the island, diligently examining every thing therein, and by this exercise relieved the tediousness of psalmody and watching.” And I see Cuthbert staggering around the hills where god does not temper the wind to the tonsured lamb, zoned out, using sleep deprivation as a kind of drug, driving off sleep until he can stare at things in uncomprehending wonder, the world receding from him, standing in the background like a wall of noise. Watching things to relieve the tediousness of watching them…if something is boring for two hours, try it for four…

Reading Bede it appears as if the object of the hermit life was enhancing the distance, losing interest in all things (not as philosophical exercise, but as a kind of depressing fact). Hear this story, from after when Cuthbert had settled over and built a hut on a smaller Farne island to better escape all worldly thoughts: “Now when Cuthbert had, with the assistance of the brethren, made for himself this dwelling with its chambers, he began to live in a more secluded manner. At first, indeed, when the brethren came to visit him, he would leave his cell and minister to them. He used to wash their feet devoutly with warm water, and was sometimes compelled by them to take off his shoes, that they might wash his feet also. For he had so far withdrawn his mind from attending to the care of his person, and fixed it upon the concerns of his soul, that he would often spend whole months without taking off his leathern gaiters. Sometimes, too, he would keep his shoes on from one Easter to another, only taking them off on account of the washing of feet, which then takes place at the Lord’s Supper. Wherefore, in consequence of his frequent prayers and genuflexions, which he made with his shoes on, he was discovered to have contracted a callosity on the junction of his feet and legs. At length, as his zeal after perfection grew, he shut himself up in his cell away from the sight of men, and spent his time alone in fasting, watching, and prayer, rarely having communication with any one without, and that through the window, which at first was left open, that he might see and be seen; but, after a time, he shut that also, and opened it only to give his blessing, or for any other purpose of absolute necessity.” Here he literally shuts himself from the world and its sounds, the main objective a dulling down to offer god an empty vessel? (I love this image of the washing of feet as social gesture like monkeys lousing each other.)

If in a later age Cuthbert would be identified as somebody communing with nature and with a reciprocated fondness for eider ducks (is there some humor involved: eider downs vs. the man who doesn’t sleep), such ideas would fit better into the years e.g. around 1200, when they were lived by St Francis. There are a couple of stories of interaction with animals in Bede, though. For example Cuthbert is banning a bunch of crows after they steal thatches from the roof of his hut, then allows them back after they humbly apologize. That’s more to prove his authority over creation than his understanding of it. And finally there’s one very touching and special story. Bede again: “He would go forth, when others were asleep, and having spent the night in watchfulness return home at the hour of morning-prayer. Now one night, a brother of the monastery, seeing him go out alone followed him privately to see what he should do. But he when he left the monastery, went down to the sea, which flows beneath, and going into it, until the water reached his neck and arms, spent the night in praising God. When the dawn of day approached, he came out of the water, and, falling on his knees, began to pray again. Whilst he was doing this, two quadrupeds, called otters, came up from the sea, and, lying down before him on the sand, breathed upon his feet, and wiped them with their hair after which, having received his blessing, they returned to their native element.” 

Beautiful, but again not speaking of any communication with nature, but god’s way of delousing the righteous man. The illustration I’m showing is to be found in a manuscript of Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, a history painting, too, from the late 12th century. So this is how it could have been:

Except I’m sorry I’m cheating: these sounds are not authentic history painting, they’re merely illustrative. I’ve mixed two scenes from Watson’s Stepping into the Dark (1996) and Weather Report (2003), records whose concepts allow for a closer detail: the former listening in on hidden atmospheres of special places; the latter a stunning wealth of close-up actions forced into a single image. Weather Report is indeed a record that has the “power to move” or “touch with awe,” even if nothing fleeting is caught, but what’s caught is fixed for potential eternity, like the medium demands. And actually, the recording’s method of blowing up detail is also something that should make Ruskin very happy: “The true ideal of landscape is the expression of the specific—not the individual, but the specific—characters of every object, in their perfection… Every landscape painter should know the specific characters of every object he has to represent, rock, flower, or cloud; and in his highest ideal works, all their distinctions will be perfectly expressed, broadly or delicately, slightly or completely, according to the nature of the subject, and the degree of attention which is to be drawn to the particular object by the part it plays in the composition.”

Finally, after all the creative listening, what’s with the monk’s creativity? We remember, In St Cuthbert’s Time aimed to project the “ambient sounds that accompanied life and work during that period of exceptional thought and creativity.” The Lindisfarne Gospels show both the figurative and the abstract. Saint Matthew sitting in a box with a curtain like in a photo booth (with a horn-blowing angel sitting on his head). Little grotesqueries that look like bathing ducks and stuff attached to ornamental patterns. Elaborate decor in wondrously outgrown, completely non-objective initials, like this chi-rho…or wait, is it a bird?

(With apologies to John Ruskin, whose second preface to Modern Painters I’ve taken out of context. The Watson quote is from a video that shows all of his infectious and commanding enthusiasm here. Patrick Farmer’s review is here. Chris Whitehead’s review of the Farmer/Lacey is here. Read all of Bede’s life of St Cuthbert here. And here’s a very nice entry on the illustrations in a manuscript of that life from the late 12th century.)