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.

The slip unleashed (teaser)

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...

...these deliberations you can find in a catalog for the exhibition Slip at the Städtische Galerie Villingen-Schwenningen, 5 July to 30 August 2015. It features artists Maria Theodoraki, Angus Braithwaite, Nicholas Brooks, Benedict Drew, Dermot O'Brien, Simon Patterson and Rudolf Reiber, and I had the pleasure of subduing their wonderful and rather individual works to a common theme. Of sorts. I will add a link to the book once I find it on the net, but anyway, should you be interested in what I might have to say on any of these artists feel free to drop me a line.

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.)

September 25, 2014

The collective conscience of this object

Arman’s accumulations of single things from the everyday belong to a general theme in the art of the mid- to late 1950s: paintings understood as objects. This identification is already complete with Jasper Johns’ Flags, created since 1954, where the common conceit is for the critic to wonder if it were a painting of a flag or indeed a flag itself. Within Arman’s more immediate circle, Yves Klein objectified color in the form of his trademark blue pure pigment (since 1956, often with a relief-like surface on his paintings and later in sponge sculptures). From 1957 on, Piero Manzoni created pictures in a white he described as colorless, whose composition was formed by folds in the fabric, hanging like crumpled sheets over the stretcher. During the same year, Klein’s brother-in-law, Günther Uecker from the group Zero, developed nail paintings (a technique he then also transferred to objects like furniture or musical instruments). And in 1958 Lucio Fontana started slashing his canvases, which for him meant part of a spatial concept where the gap offered a passage into another dimension, but which is usually received as an act of controlled violence against the holiest of holy art objects: the canvas.

This might not immediately appear as the proper context for Arman’s boxes of stuff, and yet the artist places himself within it when he writes: “Even in my volumetric compositions, my aim is always pictorial rather than sculptural. I want to see my proposals understood as involving the optics of a surface rather than a realization in three dimensions. On these surfaces the uniquely chosen element is a monotypic expression – although it is a plural one because of the number of objects – and therefore very close to the monochrome approaches of Yves Klein.” The work pictured above is Paradox of Time from 1961, and indeed on the most simple level it forces us to almost look at it like at a painting: we can see the collection of objects only though a single window-paned side of the otherwise closed wooden box. So as we watch the confined space from a fixed frontal perspective, the accumulation of old alarm clocks appears like an allover structure of similar forms, arranged in their container by chance and gravity without any attempt at hierarchization.

Let us follow Arman’s own declaration of intent some more (all of this is from “The Realism of Accumulations” published in the Zero magazine in 1961, by the way). The artist states that any object collected “is not chosen according to the criteria of dada or surrealism. The question is not one of removing an object from its utilitarian, industrial, or other underlying context, presenting it from a certain angle or slanting it so as to provide it with a meaning completely different from its own, such as: anthropomorphism, analogy, reminiscences, and so on.” Instead, Arman’s multiple image of the alarm clock restores the object to its own proper context in the interplay between close repetition and slight variation (the allover): “The obsessional and emphatic aspect of the multiplicity of an object renders it similar to an even granulation, an expression of the collective conscience of this same object.” (The opposite approach would be to try and find a perfect embodiment of an idea, for example by choosing a particularly exemplary alarm clock that signals its piercing shrill ring at first sight and therefore has perfect properties for symbolizing its cultural function.)

Arman had already addressed the subject of time more than once in his earliest accumulations from 1959. There the objects were still housed in small plexiglas boxes, much more like portable sculptures than single-view pictures. One of those collected cases of old pocket watches, another an accumulation of clock faces. Both pieces remain close to a collection of spare parts so the object does not fully develop a conscience… It is only with his Paradox of Time that Arman managed to breath sufficient life and character into the wound-down alarm clocks to suggest the previous lives of everyday objects before their presentation as an artwork.

Half a decade prior to Star Trek, the title does not yet allude to time travelers killing their own ancestors with unforeseeable (and therefore unrecordable) consequences (though not only in retrospect the idea already existed since the late 19th century). The Paradox of Time is a contradiction that we all know: we see time as a constant and use the watch as a tool for precise measuring. Yet depending on situation and occupation, individual time follows very variable speed lines, sometimes creeping along in utter boredom, sometimes hurtling forward like an express train (the standard image in explanations of relativity theory and time dilation). And indeed, for each and every clock in Arman’s work time also seems to pass at different speeds, marked by dents and traces of their history. The accumulation of time-measuring devices whose time has run out is like a classic memento mori, a vanitas still life of an object in quasi-cubist multiple perspective. But the clocks are not quite dead, they are in an in-between – their differences take on characters (not through anthropomorphism, but by them being so very clocklike), they create a composition of individually formed same objects to form a very alive work. And since they are being accumulated here for probably forever, it seems that somebody still has plans for them.

Arman says: “They’re awaiting their fate.”

Arman’s colleague Jean Tinguely, a fellow member of the Nouveaux Réalistes, also had found a time-themed programmatic paradox to propel his work of the period: he spoke of “static movement.” And it almost sounds as if he had Arman’s Paradox of Time in front of him when he proclaimed a changing art for changing times, when vanitas images would no longer be needed (this is from “Dynamo Tinguely” in the same 1961 Zero magazine): “Please, would you throw away your watches! At least toss aside the minutes and hours. Obviously we all realize that we are not everlasting. Our fear of death has inspired the creation of beautiful works of art. And this was a fine thing, too. We would so much like to own, think, or be something static, eternal, and permanent. However, our only eternal possession will be change.”

And on that hopeful note, Arman’s alarm clocks keep patiently awaiting their fate.

(Happily, we can check on some of their fate. The photo on top of the page is a recent one, and above here’s one from the Arman website, some couple of decades older. Not quite static, not quite moving, as you can see. Shake it like a kaleidoscope and get a slightly new composition each morning.

This is a somewhat slapdash translation of a piece that recently appeared, in German only, in a book on the Scharpff Collection, called Sammlung im Wandel. If you want proper stylistics or check the footnotes, you can actually read the original over on the publisher’s site. Just click forward a couple of pages here.)