We all too frequently seek to save the emotional content of past epochs, without first thinking what use it is to us.
Hans Poelzig, “Fermentation in Architecture”, 1906
A young girl sits in the back seat, staring sideways out of the golden Volvo at the highway and landscape going by. She’s developed a game of sorts to amuse herself, watching the electricity wires that run parallel to the highway bob up and down from pole to pole. The game is simply imagining a line, or beam, projecting from the string of wires out into the landscape, a line that would cut into any tree or hill that it encountered. It would take elliptical slices out of tall houses, trim the tops of pines, and remove semi-circular chunks from outcropping land. Continue reading →
Rolf Nowotny, ‘Sur Pollen’ installation view, Tranen Contemporary Art Centre, 2015. Image courtesy the artist.
A man contracts an unknown illness: rainbow-coloured, rotting boils begin to cover his face and body. Afraid of being infected, his neighbours cast him out of the village, to live alone in a hut in the nearby forest. There, he swells and mutates into a reeking, globular mass, his distended form almost seeming to merge with the mushrooms and moulds that have grown in his fetid dwelling, as he spends his days painting flowers and animals. Hideshi Hino’s manga fable Zoroko no Kibyou (Zoroku’s Strange Disease, 1969) culminates in the villagers marching into the woods to kill the deformed man. What they find in his stead is a giant turtle with a magnificently bright shell – the colours of which match Zoroku’s psychedelic pustules – who then disappears. All that remains is a series of luminous landscape paintings made with blood and pus. Continue reading →
Ed Atkins, Ribbons, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist and Cabinet, London
‘Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!’ So the flustered old man shouts while fidgeting with the partition that kept him, and the controls for his distracting light and sound displays, hidden. The old man is, of course, the supposed Wizard of Oz, the scene from the 1939 film providing the starting point for countless books and essays on the qualities of sound and narration in film (yes, including this one). The authority of the wizard, an apparent god-like power, who is revealed to be merely a nervous man tinkering with an amplifier and a smoke machine, gives a concise and classic example of the trope of the unreliable narrator: when what we are being told is bending things a bit, misleading us, or just plain untrue. The unreliable narrator is a concept with which we are all familiar – whether in the form of boastful exploits in the Life and Exploits of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, 1759-67, or in Kevin Spacey’s voiceover from the grave in American Beauty, 1999. The dissonance between what we are being told and what is being made revealed has long been used as a tool in fiction and art; but what happens when the unreliable narrator becomes ubiquitous and all narration is untrustworthy? What happens when the unreliable narrator becomes the only narrator in town? Continue reading →
A journey is in the telling. From the waves of crusaders to Palestine to the treks up to the healing hilltop town of Lourdes, the long history of religious pilgrimages was created, and perpetuated, by the tales of exotic lands and miracles told by those who returned. The waning of religious paradigms and waxing of scientific views hasn’t quite precipitated the same votive rituals; we don’t, as yet, have a steady stream of devoted followers, wearing white lab coats and lighting their way with small LED lights, gathering at Cern once a year to celebrate the discovery of the Higgs boson particle. But a quick thematic survey of the desires and journeys represented in cultural texts, scanning our narratives for equivalent tales of transformation and affirmation, shows we might not be mistaken to think that the contemporary pilgrimage is that of the journey back in time. We’re more than familiar with Back to the Future’s flux capacitor, the impossibilities of La Jetée, the time paradoxes presented by films like Source Code or Looper. The 2006 Tony Scott-directed, Jerry Bruckheimer-produced and Denzel Washington-led film Déjà Vu tries to play it with a CSI realism: FBI operatives have found a way to look back exactly three and a half days in to the past, via a television-like viewfinder that happens to work a lot like satellite surveillance. “Basically,” one of the technicians casually explains, “we’re folding space in a higher dimension to create an instantaneous link between two distant points [in time].” They know what’s going to happen—the past (in this case, an explosion on a New Orleans ferry) is a fait accompli—but they are using the window to locate the perpetrator. The pilgrimage itself is, in this case, a journey into the seen but not known, the fact of the already-occurred made re-familiar from a new perspective.
I’m sorry I can’t help you further. Please remove me from your records.
On 6 May 17: 43 <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Our client has requested further data submission for this transaction. While our budget does not permit further compensation for your participation, it will distinguish you as one of our prime volunteers, which may secure further participation in our clients’ recall requests. The client has requested particularly personal information, emotional sensory input and events in your private life leading up to the event in question.
This may include:
From: Input Volunteer 255738
Date: 15 October 2012 17:03
Subject: Re: EXTENDED SERVICE PO E4436580
Please find below my ‘expanded event report’ for submission. I hope this might satisfy the client this time:
I’m not sure if this is what you’re looking for. I’m too aware now that the ironies of providing recall details for an event about memory are readily at hand. My initial notes towards this report – my expectations of some of the speakers, particular songs and musicians I was listening to that marathon weekend, as well as a count of how many times the word ‘madeleine’ was said – are lost when my computer is wiped. The dome of the marathon closes with Douglas Gordon leading a go at the Scottish folk song ‘Bonny Glen Shee,’ singing like a wistfully out of tune school boy, ‘with their broadswords on their shoulders and….damn.’ Forgetting the next line: With their muskets on their shoulders and their broadswords hanging down. But the particular, and maybe predictable, gaps, lapses and failures of talking about memory aren’t nearly as interesting as their textures. I guess that’s what you guys want. John Giorno might have left out the last line of his impeccably long recital of ‘Where were you in ‘63 when JFK died,’ but recalling the death of William S. Burroughs, I see the way he steps back and forth on the balls of his feet, and though he is born in New York, all I hear is a Midwestern accent. They buried Burroughs with his .38 snubnose revolver; ‘The gun,’ he says, ‘was my idear.’
In 1999, science-fiction novelist William Gibson told an anecdote on the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs about how he came up with the notion of ‘cyberspace’ for several short stories and his novel Neuromancer, 1984. Although he didn’t invent the term, his imagination helped to popularise its use and prefigured the implications of social interaction in the nascent world wide web: ‘With cyberspace, I found the first Sony Walkman – which is still my favourite piece of late-20th-century technology – and for the first time in my life I was able to take the music I wanted to listen to into any environment. And while moving through space with it, I saw a poster in a shop window for the first Apple IIc, which immediately preceded the first Mac, and I looked at that and I thought, “What if the relationship to the information that this machine processes could be like the relationship I’m having to my music that my Walkman processes?”’ Somehow I could see that this stuff was going to get under our skin; the Walkman is very very physically intimate technology and computing, as it was then, wasn’t very physically intimate – but I thought, “Why not?”’
Apologies to the Queen Mary: an appreciation; and, an unintentional eulogy for Wolf Parade.
Montreal, April 2003:
Round-headed, contented misfit Spencer is invited to fill a slot opening for another band in town. A keyboardist, guitarist, and prolific writer, the gig’s offered under the impression he already has his own band; the concert’s three weeks away. Phoning up Dan, a guitarist he knew from living in British Columbia now residing in Montreal, he proposes playing together. Both throw in a few songs, and they start rehearsing backed by a drum machine, beginning with a catchy bit of scumbag romantic rock called ‘This Heart’s On Fire.’ They rope in a drummer just two days before the gig. Wolf Parade, “a retarded dog with four heads. At any given time, three of the heads is sleeping,” is born.
Vancouver, May 2011:
A less than capacity crowd are shrieking in the darkened room, barely holding together with a ramshackle chant of ‘Wolf Parade…Wolf Parade….,’ intent but not entirely sure how much they mean it, or if they will even be heeded. After a few minutes, the band amble back onto the stage one at a time. While tuning up, Dan Boeckner quietly thanks the crowd; “The important thing is that we haven’t learned anything at all in six years.” Spencer Krug leans through his hair into the microphone over his keyboard, inviting everyone to join them on stage. Then they crawl in to a rambling rendition of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’; the crowd obliges, trying as much as they can to liven up the cover, swaying, a few disjointed high fives. The instrumentation is pointless, it’s just a loose beat and a bit of guitar texture, every once in a while you can hear a bit of piano embellishment, the chorus taking off in a swirl of off-key yells. The indulgence of the gesture skews the song, passing by the Guns N’Roses version to align itself more maybe with Eric Clapton, Avril Lavigne, or Gabrielle’s woozy uses of the tune. It’s all excess fat tinged with bleary-eyed backslapping, on the audience’s part at least. Once they eventually fade out, someone yells out, not too loud as if almost in passing, “Don’t break up, don’t break up, don’t break up!”