Wednesday 16 August 2023

the singing of the real world

‘If I could catch the feeling I would: the feeling of the singing of the real world …’ (Virginia Woolf)

At times like this, when so much feels divided and broken, when public discourse has dissolved into a cacophony of colliding opinions, and our politicians seem to have ground themselves into an acrimonious stalemate, there is something genuinely necessary and moving in Action Hero’s intimately epic project Oh Europa. In a gently playful and invitational way, their reimagined mapping of Europe in a time of apparent unraveling seeks to affirm connections and exchanges between people, through an affective cartography of places, encounters and feelings given resonant body in hundreds of love songs. All of the materials in this multiform art work – the 6-month journey undertaken by Gemma and James in their motorhome last year, the songs they collected, their video ‘postcards’ along the way, the live performances after the journey’s end, and this video installation with its ‘atlas’ detailing the location of the 41 beacons transmitting songs across Europe – all of these things celebrate our differences as well as a deeply felt sense of what we have in common, across borders and languages. The event of love, and the resilience and compelling mystery of its deep currents. Longing and its tangled relations to belonging and to ‘home’. The courageous intimacy of song as an embodied address to others: singing as soul-portrait, a gift of oneself in which breath becomes music and calls us together in the heart-land.

The choice of locations for the beacons was determined by a number of different conceptions of threshold, border and edge. To date beacon placements have occurred at sites of current administrative, political or cultural divisions, or of disputed territory; liminal spaces, hovering between territories; sites of encounter, blurring, mixing or integration – of rivers, seas, cultures; deep-time geological structures or rifts; sites of historical protest or activism in the emergence of democracy; redundant historical borders and archaeological remains at places of past conflict; sites bearing traces of cultures no longer in existence, or of unfinished projects (the disappeared ‘dreams’ of the past); rivers and former connective routes between zones, now disappeared or closed; and territories with mobile, fluid or indeterminate boundaries (notably, in the far north of Europe, the shifting position of the Arctic Circle, and the uncertainty of the Sami people’s geographical terrain).

The beacon locations detailed in this atlas offer an alternative mapping of Europe that is off-centre, and complexly layered in time and space. Conventional fixed notions of ‘centre’ and ‘edge’ are reconfigured here; old hierarchies of place give way to something plural and in flux, and many supposed edges reveal themselves to be singular and interconnected centres in their own right. Cumulatively this mapping produces layered networks of places and people in relation, rather than the fixity of discreet territories. Some of these places are ghosted by their social and political histories, but without melancholy; for alongside the presence of the past – the re-membering of conflicts and divisions, ancient and recent – there lies a quietly insistent invitation to actively imagine other possible futures. Other ways of being in relation to others. The journey, the sharing of songs and the placement of the beacons are all interwoven elements within an art project that is both poetic and political; they each perform the possibility of connection, passageway, repair, change and exchange. Like acupuncture points on the body of the land mass of Europe, marking a diversity of thresholds, fault lines and pressure points, the beacons seek to vibrate and reanimate circuits and flows that risk becoming blocked, forgotten or overlooked. In this way, sites of separation can become contexts for the staging of reparation and free, unimpeded movement.

After watching the video from each of the beacons in turn, I was struck by the dynamic presence of different kinds of water in so many of these contexts, and the degree to which landscapes are sculpted and territories defined by bodies of water and their flows. The videos invite us to contemplate various seas and inland lakes (Lake Virmajärvi, for example, on the border of Finland and Russia), as well as watersheds, confluences and many individual streams and rivers that ultimately find their way towards the seas, and wider connections and dispersals. All four of the cardinal points in this atlas – the extreme north/south/east/west edges of Europe – are liquid, as is Europe’s epicentre. Fittingly, Action Hero placed a beacon at the very heart of Europe’s land mass, beside the triple watershed of the Lunghin Pass in Switzerland. From this point on the so-called ‘roof of Europe’, invisible streams from melt water eventually grow in size to become the Rhine, the Po and the Danube, major arteries which run their meandering courses through different countries to three different seas: the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea. The transmission of songs from beacons in these watery contexts, and others in this atlas, brings to mind the astonishing gesture of Tibetan Buddhists releasing material from their exquisitely crafted sand mandala paintings. Once the painting is complete, the monks dismantle it by sweeping up the sand and releasing it into a neighbouring river. These particles are carried away by the river’s gravity-fueled flow to be dispersed in the world’s oceans. For the monks, each grain is animate and continues to pulse, containing as it does the full image of the original sand painting in miniature: a peaceful, reverberant anti-toxin or prayer circulating forever in the world’s blood stream.

Like the songs themselves, the videos are also invitations to an attentive listening that is actively receptive. Each of the videos registers a still point in which everything moves: the sky and its weather systems, vegetation, animal and human life, vehicles, light. Each sequence reveals a place to be a complex world-in-process. The only video which comes close to immobility presents us with a surviving section of the Berlin Wall in close-up. However, the wall’s apparently immutable inertia is offset and destabilized by the layered background dynamic of bird song, human conversation, slowly drifting clouds in the small strip of visible sky - and of course the knowledge of the wall’s ultimate demise as impenetrable barrier. Its residual survival here acts as memorial and hope-ful testament to the ephemerality of imposed division.

In addition, the ambient sounds recorded by the camera reaffirm the complexities of place through the dynamically layered ‘songs’ of ongoing life. Each video offers us an auditory ‘situation involving multiplicity’, as John Cage said of Robert Rauschenberg’s combine paintings. Chance compositions draw on wind, sea, river, trees, birds (almost always there), insects, traffic, sometimes voices and fragments of passing conversation in different languages. We hear the sounds of the rural, the urban, the littoral, the elevated, the remote, the ongoing and the fleeting. A chorale of the world’s vibrant murmuring.

Listen, for example, to the dense overlay of city, traffic, riverboats, human voices and lapping river water at Margaret Island in Budapest. Or the chance aeolian percussion of flags and their guy ropes in the breeze at Juoksengi in Sweden. Then there’s the haunting spiral of bird song at the woodland ‘language border’ between Wallonia and Flanders, in Belgium, or the dog bark from a passing vehicle in Beremend, Hungary. Or listen to the brilliantly unself-conscious bee that buzzes the camera, then lands and explores the frame of the lens in the meadows at Trójstyk Granic, near the border tripoint of Lithuania, Poland and Kaliningrad. The placement of a beacon at this and other policed border zones enables the love songs to be heard in different territories. In this way the ‘travel’ of the songs, their reach as transmissions, renders such political separations porous, permeable, insubstantial – as does the movement of birds, or bees, and all such creatures whose passage ignores the arbitrariness and artifice of human borders.

To date this atlas remains unfinished; perhaps it is unfinishable, like all of the richest art and life projects. Further journeys, encounters, recordings of songs, beacon placements and video postcards ‘from the edge’ are planned. The travel/travail of mapping, tracking ‘the feeling of the singing of the real world’, placing matters of the heart at the heart of the matter, continues …

Text published as 'Mapping the heart-land', an introduction to Action Hero's book Oh Europa: Postcards from the Edge, an annotated 'atlas' accompanying the Oh Europa installation, alongside performances of RadiOh Europa. On tour in the UK and Europe from May 2019: premiere at Transform Festival, Leeds

For further details of Action Hero's Oh Europa project, and touring/performance details, see here and here

For a Guardian interview with Action Hero about Oh Europa, 'A Love Song for Europe', see here

Photographs by David Williams  

Thursday 3 August 2023

birdland (patti & max)

'But if I see before me the nervature of past life in an image, I always think that this has something to do with truth. Our brains, after all, are always at work on some quivers of self-organisation, however faint, and it is from this that an order arises, in places beautiful and comforting, though more cruel, too, than the previous state of ignorance. How far, in any case, must one go back to find the beginning?' (W.G. Sebald, 'Dark Night Sallies Forth', After Nature) 

On Saturday, after the funeral of an old friend in a witheringly cold north Norfolk, we drove to Aldeburgh to see Patti Smith at Snape Maltings. She was performing 'Max', a spoken word and song tribute to WG Sebald, as part of a symposium to mark the 10th anniversary of Sebald's death - with Richard Mabey, Rachel Lichtenstein, Robert Macfarlane and others - and the launch of Patience (After Sebald), Grant Gee's new film essay in response to The Rings of Saturn (which includes contributions by Tacita Dean, Iain Sinclair, Adam Phillips, Dan Gretton etc.).

Patti was astonishing. At the age of 64, in white dress shirt trailing cuffs, black jacket, jeans, boots, and Lennon glasses, she looks like a cross between Keith Richard and an Easter Island statue, her long face breaking into a disarming smile, her voice a blowtorch. Her marshaling of blooded energy in songs that she heats over time and brings incrementally to a shamanic boil wholly belies her apparent 'age'. At times she vibrates and burns like magma, at others she's like a wistful kid, then in a flash ancient, weathered, beyond the clumsiness of gender, a voice from elsewhere.

'Whispering madness on the heathland of Suffolk. Is this the promis'd end?' (Sebald, After Nature).

At one point, a woman near the front shouted, 'Patti, you're a goddess!' 'A shabby one', she replied, with a quiet laugh.
('With a laugh that's a rustling turned inwards', Sebald, After Nature). At another point, a young pissed guy shambled up to her at the lip of the stage, shouting and flicking v-signs: 'This is shit, man. And your audience is shit!' With an exquisite softness and without judgement, she tried to give him his money back. The young punk and the mother of punks; it was clear where the radical energy, openness, humanity and attack lay. After he left, bundled unceremoniously out of the door by an unnecessarily assertive punter, she said: 'Too bad he left when he did. Cos the next song features 27 punk guitarists, and it's specially for him'.

She combined readings from Sebald's associationally layered meditation/poem After Nature ('what is this being called human?') with accompaniment from her daughter Jesse on piano and a young composer Michael Campbell on guitar and vibraphone, with songs (including the song she wrote with Springsteen, 'Because The Night', 'Pissing in a River' and 'Ghost Dance', and a startling cover of Neil Young's 'Helpless' - 'Big birds flying across the sky / Throwing shadows on our eyes'). In addition she read a poem she'd written about Sebald, and shared musings on her own circuitous links to this place via Herman Melville and Billy Budd, Benjamin Britten, her Norfolk ancestry (the Harts), her love of Sebald - her friend Susan Sontag had first recommended him to her - and of the sea.

She opened up the quiet apocalypse of Sebald's poem, made it immediate, available, pulsing, an animate and fluid landscape of memory, illumination, displacement and loss edging towards lament and song. And - a white-hot highlight for me - she sang a staggering, ecstatic version of 'Birdland' from Horses, her wing-flutter hands articulating and sculpting space, taking flight, lifting us all up up up in to the belly of the spaceship within a theatre whose beamed roof mirrors the ribcage of some vast upturned sea vessel:

His father died and left him a little farm in New England.
All the long black funeral cars left the scene

And the boy was just standing there alone

Looking at the shiny red tractor

Him and his daddy used to sit inside

And circle the blue fields and grease the night.

It was if someone had spread butter on all the fine points of the stars

'Cause when he looked up they started to slip.

Then he put his head in the crux of his arm

And he started to drift, drift to the belly of a ship,

Let the ship slide open, and he went inside of it

And saw his daddy 'hind the control board streamin' beads of light,

He saw his daddy 'hind the control board,

And he was very different tonight

'Cause he was not human, he was not human.

And then the little boy's face lit up with such naked joy
That the sun burned around his lids and his eyes were like two suns,

White lids, white opals, seeing everything just a little bit too clearly

And he looked around and there was no black ship in sight,
No black funeral cars, nothing except for him the raven

And fell on his knees and looked up and cried out,
"No, daddy, don't leave me here alone,

Take me up, daddy, to the belly of your ship,

Let the ship slide open and I'll go inside of it
Where you're not human, you are not human".

But nobody heard the boy's cry of alarm.
Nobody there 'cept for the birds around the New England farm

And they gathered in all directions, like roses they scattered

And they were like compass grass coming together into the head of a shaman bouquet

Slit in his nose and all the others went shooting

And he saw the lights of traffic beckoning like the hands of Blake

Grabbing at his cheeks, taking out his neck,

All his limbs, everything was twisted and he said,
"I won't give up, won't give up, don't let me give up,

I won't give up, come here, let me go up fast,
Take me up quick, take me up, up to the belly of a ship

And the ship slides open and I go inside of it where I am not human.

I am helium raven and this movie is mine",

So he cried out as he stretched the sky,

Pushing it all out like latex cartoon, am I all alone in this generation?

We'll just be dreaming of animation night and day

And won't let up, won't let up and I see them coming in,

Oh, I couldn't hear them before, but I hear 'em now,

It's a radar scope in all silver and all platinum lights
Moving in like black ships, they were moving in, streams of them,

And he put up his hands and he said,

"It's me, it's me,
I'll give you my eyes, take me up, oh now please take me up,
I'm helium raven waitin' for you, please take me up,

Don't let me here, the son, the sign, the cross,

Like the shape of a tortured woman, the true shape of a tortured woman,

The mother standing in the doorway letting her sons

No longer presidents but prophets

They're all dreaming they're gonna bear the prophet,

He's gonna run through the fields dreaming in animation

It's all gonna split his skull

It's gonna come out like a black bouquet shining

Like a fist that's gonna shoot them up

Like light, like Mohammed Boxer

Take them up up up up up up

Oh, let's go up, up, take me up,
I'll go up,
I'm going up, I'm going up
Take me up, I'm going up, I'll go up there
Go up go up go up go up up up up up up up

Up, up to the belly of a ship.
Let the ship slide open and we'll go inside of it

Where we are not human, we're not human".

Well, there was sand, there were tiles,

The sun had melted the sand and it coagulated

Like a river of glass

When it hardened he looked at the surface

He saw his face

And where there were eyes were just two white opals, two white opals,

Where there were eyes there were just two white opals

And he looked up and the rays shot

And he saw raven comin' in

And he crawled on his back and he went up

Up up up up up up

Sha da do wop, da sha da do way,
sha da do wop, da sha da do way,

Sha da do wop, da shanna do way,
sha da do wop, da shaman do way,

Sha da do wop, da shaman do way,

We like birdland.

A spirit passed, and the hair on my flesh stood up.

Yes yes, my god, we like birdland too. A (not so) shabby goddess took us there by the hand, a force of nature, an old old soul.

This being called human.

W.G. Sebald, After Nature (trans. Michael Hamburger), New York: Modern Library, 2002

For Aida Edemariam's Guardian interview with Patti Smith (22 January 2011), see here. For Stuart Jeffries' Guardian article (25 January 2011) about Patience (After Sebald), see here. For a Guardian podcast of a conversation with Grant Gee about Sebald, see here. For the original 1975 recording of 'Birdland', see here

Photo of Patti Smith by Annie Leibovitz

Text first written in January 2011

Thursday 27 April 2023

visible daydream

time for a break / a break in time


In memory of Rodney Graham


Working notes from my weekly ‘spotlight talk’ in the Rhoades Gallery, during the Rodney Graham exhibition 'Getting It Together In The Country', Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Feb-May 2023 

'Four seasons circle a square year', Lyn Hejinian, My Life


In what follows, I will focus on the “smoke-breaks” in Rodney Graham's lightboxes as moments of pause or interruption in work (productivity), identity (one’s role), and in particular time (space).  And then I’ll open this up to the wider series of images in this gallery, collectively called ‘The Four Seasons’. At the outset, I had one question in particular in my mind: what does a break break, and what does it produce?


First of all, two images that Rodney Graham formally titled ‘smoke breaks’: the cigarette break - Light up / Time out / Space out … in some ways like our moments of encounter with these images as viewers: we’re invited to have a kind of ‘smoke break’, to pause and ‘kill time’ in the presence of this image-world, to allow another space-time in our imaginations to open up.


These are images of in-between moments of suspension – moments of inactivity, private reverie, reflection, contemplation. They also represent moments of a heightening of interiority that is not accessible to the camera - moments of absence and of an ‘elsewhere’ made, at least partially, visible … Most of these lightbox self-portraits might be thought of in terms of moments of suspension, both out of time and woven into particular layers and cycles of time.  



1. ‘Betula Pendula ‘Fasigiata’ (Sous-Chef on Smoke Break)’ (2011)



A pause in the performance of a role, the sous-chef costume still in place, but the work itself is interrupted, on hold. Just a tired worker having a quiet reflexive break outside of the heat of the kitchen. A still-point in time, a suspension in the past and future of his role at work. 


The title tells us that the weeping white birch is the main subject, the sous-chef is secondary (he is literally ‘sous-arbre’, under the tree). So something of the hierarchy from the kitchen lingers.


It’s summer, everything’s in leaf, but it’s a ‘weeping’ tree – and there’s a certain melancholy in the chef’s exhaustion: he’s tired, stained, wounded (the punctum of the plaster/cut on his finger), he’s unraveling, and internal.


Smoking as unproductive wasted time (in labour/work terms): ‘time-waster’.


Paradoxically, this moment of ‘in-spiration’ opens up another unstructured internal space - although the escape is only temporary.


A cigarette also has its own dimensions of time: it is sometimes used as a kind of timer by smokers (‘time for a swift smoke’) – and indeed the Hungarian-French photographer Brassai, celebrated for his night photographs of Paris street life, used the time particular brands of cigarette took to burn to measure (roughly) the required duration of the photographic plate’s exposure in different levels of low light: a Gauloise for this kind of light, a Boyard for this even darker light (a slightly thicker cigarette) …



2. ‘Smoke Break 2 (Drywaller)’ (2012)



Another image of something seen by chance by Rodney Graham in Vancouver: another slightly comic and melancholic image of a worker at rest, still in ‘costume’ but out of his ‘role’ – both are images of affectionate compassion, and of a gentle surrealism in the everyday. (Cf. ‘Dracula’ having a coffee and a smoke, Las Ramblas, Barcelona, mid-1990s). 


Again, we see a moment of exhausted pause in the time of work: physical labour is temporarily on hold, allowing for a compromised moment of ‘freedom’ (‘time out’) - a private daydream escape into an ephemeral landscape of the imagination: an internal landscape, a psychic topography if you like  (space out) - winter, snowfall, the great outdoors, a campfire, animal tracks, perhaps skis – a dream of wilderness white-out far from everyday work – a ‘visible daydream’ (in the words of Théodore de Banville, the 19th century French poet, writing about smoking and the aesthetics of the exhaled smoke’s fleeting, sinuous dance & disappearance).


Luc Santé, ‘Our friend the cigarette’ (2004 essay, from his book Kill All Your Darlings, writing about solitary smokers, waiting): “A cigarette is a friend that helps pass the time, sharpens memory and concentration, channels inchoate emotion, sands down rough edges, blurs things when need be. Cigarettes occupy the hands, occupy the mouth, segment passages of time like ritual observations, fill the room with a screen of smoke on to which anything can be projected” … (light up / time out / space out).


Cf. Renaissance painting – diptych portrait and allegory: music, fire/hearth – perhaps also the cigarette as a memento mori, an intimation of the finite in the ephemerality of this suspended time (half of the cigarette has already disappeared), an intimation of time’s passage and of mortality. Like performance, which might be defined by its disappearance, cigarettes entail practices of an ‘active vanishing’.


Also a reference in the pattern of these marks on the plaster (covering nail holes) to the abstract Swiss painter Niele Toroni, and his recurrent working method: regularly spaced paint marks/daubs, at intervals of 30 cms, using an identically sized brush (no. 50): a practice he called ‘Travail-peinture’, ‘work-painting’ - freeing painting from authorship, subjectivity, representational prescription > an infinitely repeated gesture of material mark making / a touch on walls and other surfaces, usually white surfaces. Like plastering, or smoking, or indeed Rodney Graham in his self-portraits - always the same, always different (Toroni: ‘You can look at the ocean every day, but it is never the same sea’).


These two ‘smoke break’ images were the initial trigger for this wider series of four images: ‘The Four Seasons’: summer, winter, autumn, spring. Each of them a moment of suspension, out-of-time, still points, a vertical cut in the ongoing, unstoppable cycle of time - and it is unstoppable: the cycle of the seasons, of a life, of the earth itself …



3. ‘Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour’ (2012-3)



A layering of times/spaces – it’s a version of Thomas Eakins’ 1871 painting, Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (resting after a race), in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY. Here a single kayaker, in the ‘autumn of his life’, apparently interrupted in a solitary moment of repose by an unknown photographer. He looks out directly at us, the only figure in the series to do so. So it’s a different kind of pause, rupture, interruption – as if the moment of rest and private reverie has been interrupted / broken by the photographer, or the viewers of the image. 


Spatially, a displacement from the original river in Philadelphia to an early 21st century post-industrial context near Vancouver.


In the original painting, there are several other rowers in the background, the closest of whom is not far behind Max Schmitt (and it’s a self-portrait of Eakins). In Graham’s version here, it is collapsed into one self-portrait figure at the centre of the image. One of Eakins’ core influences was Diego Velazquez; and the portrait of Rodney Graham directly references certain self-portraits by Velazquez, including his self-portrait of 1630 – the hair, beard, angle of the head, direct gaze …



4. ‘Actor/Director, 1954’ (2013)



The final image in this series, an entirely artificial ‘spring’.  The sky/backcloth, the artificial cherry blossom, the fake trappings of a French chateau gardens – the costume, the camera, the giant eye-like film light … it's a film set (or the pretense of a film set, constructed in Graham’s studio in Vancouver). 


Inspired by a photo of Austrian-American actor/director Erich von Stroheim, filming Blind Husbands (1919), smoking in costume while standing behind the camera.  Further allusions to Rudolf Valentino film Monsieur Beaucaire, and its comedy remake in 1946, with Bob Hope ('one of my favorite films', RG).


This version comprises three layers of time: this lightbox image was realized in 2013; it represents the filming in 1954 (when this kind of camera was still in use), of a fiction set in 18th-century France (Monsieur Beaucaire), The costume of the actor/role is in place, but it’s redundant for a moment: the gaze of the director, lost in thought


The card on the camera identifies the shot as ‘Beaucaire hat insert’: a still cutaway, a slice out-of-time, a pause (like the smoke break). So, vertical time (the moment, a still point held in suspension), set alongside cyclical time (the film / the ongoing seasons).


Here's one way to picture it: When you walked into the gallery, you were moving at about 2 or 3 miles per hour. And everything seems relatively still in here. But as we stand here, in fact the earth is continuously spinning around its axis at about 650 mph (that cycle takes a day). And at the same time, the earth is rotating around the sun at about 67,000 mph; that’s its orbital speed (that’s a year, four seasons).  So, our lives are inescapably at the intersection of still points & perpetual cycles and movements. In reality, the still points are perhaps illusions …


> Light up – time out – space out  <



5. Postscript: ‘Media Studies, ’77’ (2016)



Media studies draws on a wide array of disciplines – including philosophy, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, semiotics, critical theory, and film studies. Broadly, it’s the study of how we make sense of media ‘texts’; and it focuses on the entanglement of culture, technology, representation, identity (remember these lightboxes are a series of self-portraits of ‘possible selves’, fluid temporary identities) and audience (modes of communication, reading, meaning-making).


It’s 1977, the early days of media studies as a subject in universities and colleges – a new discipline that was suddenly very hip in the mid-‘70s. This precise moment in time is reflected in the architecture, design, clothes, materials, style; the technologies (the U-matic video – Sony’s ‘state-of-the-art’ new format released in 1976; the analogue remote); the styrofoam cup, the Philip Morris cigarettes. We see a lecturer either ‘holding forth’ (Rodney Graham’s words), or having a reflexive pause in the wake of a seminar class (this was my initial response). The video is turned off, blank; the blackboard erased, almost all traces of language have disappeared. One word I can find, only just visible and legible: VOILANT – ‘obscuring’, ‘veiling’, ‘masking’; ‘making hazy or cloudy’, ‘misting over’. The board now a kind of indistinct smoke screen, into the surface of which a wisp of cigarette smoke dissolves & disappears (some have compared the patterned swirls of this framed surface to Cy Twombly’s ‘blackboard paintings’ from the late 1960s). Even the lenses of his glasses are ‘smoked’, tinted. Time stands still (the clock).


A kind of gently comic homage to all those smoking French cultural studies academics and philosophers who were at the very centre of media studies (Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault etc. – online, one can find countless images of them puffing away in a lecture theatre in front a blackboard – cf. my own memories of Deleuze seminars in St Denis, Paris in the early 1980s: the impenetrable fug in which everyone smoked, it was obligatory). Smoking here in this image seems to be part of a ‘style’, a gestural repertoire, a performance, with the cigarette as a core ‘prop’ - and an object that in its own right has been a topic for cultural studies, film theorists, etc. Here Graham almost looks like a parody performance of the dandy smoker-intellectual Roland Barthes.


‘Media studies’. How many media are represented here? It’s a complex multi-media environment. The video/TV, the blackboard, the screen for projections, and of course the lightbox itself are all technological mediations.


‘The medium is the message’ - Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s celebrated slogan/concept, originally illustrated with reference to an electric light: pure information without message. (McLuhan, who smoked a pipe, died in 1980; in 1977, he appeared in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall). The ‘content’ of a medium, McLuhan said, is always another medium: e.g. the content of a book is language – and the ‘content’ of light here is this photograph (via the technologies of camera, computer, printer), an artwork that reproduces a simulacrum of the surfaces of a style (the architecture, technologies, design, fittings, clothing, of a particular historical time and a particular set of practices). The ‘content’ here is also media studies itself (the teaching/studying of different media as cultural practices, and the process of thought as both illumination (enlightenment) and uncertainty (the erasure of language, its transformation into indistinct smokescreen).


In McLuhan’s terms, this work combines instances of both ‘hot’ & ‘cool’ media. Broadly, ‘hot media’ encourage passive consumption; ‘cool media’ encourage active participation. The lightbox (and photography itself, one of McLuhan’s core examples) = ‘hot media’: high in information (high-definition). The blackboard and its abstract patterning + the U-matic video/lo-definition TV screen + the seminar itself (again, one of McLuhan’s core examples): a conversation > each of these is a ‘cool medium’: lower definition, less closure, more effort required to determine meaning, more active participation required. So this work is a kind of staging of some core themes/tropes of media studies itself, with you the viewer invited to navigate these different media and their mediated ‘messages’ (like a student in the seminar). Ultimately, for McLuhan, the real contents of any medium are the users and the meanings they make.


Finally, notice the layered relationship between idealised hyperreal surfaces / disembodied ‘style’ & the mess / movement of bodies / embodiment: the grubby fingerprint smears on the video player controls, the scuffed soles of the shoe, the worn chair on the left, the work of erasure on the blackboard.  Pristine rectilinear surfaces in conjunction with dynamic particulate disorder (chalk dust, dirt, wear, smoke, ash) – structure & post-structure (Bataille / the informe) ...


Tuesday 7 February 2023


eleven songs for the hydrogen jukebox

‘everything, even the explosions in the distances might stay as long as they were to no purpose … as long as no one had to die … couldn’t it be that way? only excitement, sound and light, a storm approaching in the summer (to live in a world where that would be the day’s excitement), only kind thunder?’ (Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow)

Introduction: eleven songs

In 2003, I made a performance called Eleven Songs with a friend Katja Wolf, as part of the Goat Island summer school in Chicago. It was in 11 parts. The materials I generated came out of drifting around an area on the South Side of Chicago to consider what remained of things that were no longer there – and where sounds went when they’re not heard anymore. In particular, I was drawn to the Slaughteryards – ‘Packingtown’ – ‘Porkopolis’ – the biggest meat processing site in America which had closed in 1971 after more than 100 years in operation. It was huge - a square mile of scientifically rationalized ‘dis/assembly lines’, in which it was claimed that every part of the pig was used ‘apart from the squeal’. By 1893 1/5th of all Chicago workers were employed there in notoriously appalling conditions. It’s clear it was an extreme place, full of noise and blood and poverty – and the primary air polluter in Illinois for many years.

In Upton Sinclair’s famous book about the Union Stockyards The Jungle (1906), he wrote: ‘One could not stand and watch very long without beginning to deal in symbols and similes, and to hear the hog-squeal of the universe. Was it permitted to believe that there was nowhere on the earth, or above the earth, where they were requited for all this suffering?’

In one of many books about hauntings in Chicago - mysterious presences located in particular places around the city - I came across the story of the pig’s squeal that some people claimed could still be heard in this area.

So, I walked and drifted in search of whatever traces I might find: in particular I was looking for whatever remained of one building. After a great deal of getting lost, eventually I found what I was looking for: or rather the empty space where it once stood …

On the edge of the former Slaughteryards, at 4300 Halsted, an abandoned site that had been the International Amphitheatre - this was where the Beatles had played a concert in 1964, on their 1st national US tour, it was the time of ‘Beatlemania’, the Ed Sullivan show, and so on. A young Lin Hixson was there with her older sister. All she could remember were tiny figures in the distance, she could barely see them – and the incessant screaming. During my research, I discovered that the Beatles were showered with thousands of jelly-beans after a casual remark by George Harrison that had been picked up by the media – it was his ‘favorite snack food’.

They played for 34 minutes – they played 11 songs – and were paid 30,000 dollars.

This same building had been used for big political conventions: during the Cold War era, half of all Democratic & Republican National Conventions had been held there. Including in 1968, the infamous Democratic National Convention – scene of anti-war protestors, the Yippies’ “Festival of Life”, Mayor Daley’s notoriously hard-line police crackdown – conflict between the ‘flower children’ and the ‘pigs’ was broadcast on national TV. Allen Ginsberg, who was there with Jean Genet and William Burroughs, wrote about it. These chaotic and repressive events led to the trial of the so-called Chicago 8 in 1969: a high-profile scapegoating of 8 people indicted for conspiring to incite riots – including Abbie Hoffmann, Tom Haydn, Bobby Seale – all of them were eventually acquitted.

Nothing remained of this huge complex in 2003: just bare earth, some blue and white wild flowers, some footprints in the dried mud: an empty space. It had been bulldozed in the 1990s after playing host to its final events: a Mexican rodeo, and a Halloween season of the ‘world’s largest haunted house’. Now it was just a still point in the turning world: a place of erasure, disappearance, absence – although perhaps its emptiness still contained holes in time-space, after-images, echoes, if one only had the eyes to see and the ears to hear …

On the way back towards the train station to go back to the city, I stopped in a café for a bacon sandwich, a kind of small perverse thank you to all of those pigs. Outside on the wall, a sign which read: ‘the world’s best chili, beef ground daily on premises’. Inside, an old guy called Lou, wearing a rather battered Stetson, was doing animal impressions for the waitress. He would make a noise, and then there’d be a pause while she thought about what it might be. After one particularly mysterious sound from Lou, she thought long and hard, and then finally said: ‘Is it a zebra?’


My materials today are also in 11 parts: ‘11 songs’. But whereas the Chicago material was about layered temporal strata within one place, and the connections their contiguity seemed to enable, today I’m proposing to hover around a particular moment in time as a mechanism to invite a fleeting gathering of other places, people, events occurring at that same time. So, a spatial drift within a precise temporal frame.

The time is early June 1957, when I was born into a nuclear family in the southern part of central Africa, with scar tissue on my lungs from intra-uterine foetal TB.

In large part the materials I’ve assembled today – including almost all of the images projected behind me - spill out of a copy of LIFE magazine that I found in Chicago in 2003; it’s the edition from the week of my birth. The lead stories concern misgivings about the safety of nuclear tests in the Nevada desert; and the joys of big game hunting in Africa. Elsewhere, and at exactly the same time, in San Francisco Shigeyoshi Murao and Laurence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books were arrested and charged with obscenity for the distribution of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl - and in Hollywood, at MGM studios, Elvis Presley was shooting Jailhouse Rock. Along with Gillian Welch, and some fragments from her album Time: The Revelator, these are my coordinates and companions on this associational drift. Oh, and my mother …

When I was a kid, I remember two cards my mother had tucked into the corner of her mirror in her bedroom: one was of a young Elvis Presley, from the late 1950s; the other was of George Best, looking like a Beatle. Her name was Brenda. Just before she died in England, I sent her a card from Australia with a Glen Baxter cartoon of a man in a pith helmet sprinting away from a towering volcanic eruption & ducking for cover from the cloud of debris. The caption read - ‘I’ll never forget the first time I met Brenda’. After she died I found it propped up in front of her mirror, between two ivory pigs.

This is for Brenda.

1. I want to sing that rock and roll

I want to sing that rock and roll,
I want to 'lectrify my soul,
'Cause everybody been making a shout
So big and loud, been drowning me out.
I want to sing that rock and roll.

I want to reach that glory land.
I want to shake my savior's hand,
And I want to sing that rock and roll.
I want to 'lectrify my soul,
'Cause everybody been making a shout
So big and loud, been drowning me out.
I want to sing that rock and roll.

I been a-traveling near and far,
But I want to lay down my old guitar,
And I want to sing that rock and roll.
I want to 'lectrify my soul,
'Cause everybody been making a shout
So big and loud, been drowning me out.
I want to sing that rock and roll.
I want to sing that rock and roll.

2. Plumbbob / Priscilla

Operation Plumbbob was a series of 24 nuclear tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site between late May and early October 1957. They included effects tests on military and civilian structures, radiation and bio-medical studies – with bombs placed on tall towers, suspended from high-altitude balloons, and the first ever underground test. One test involved the largest troop manoeuvre ever associated with US nuclear testing: 18,000 military personnel. Another – Hood, on 5 July – was at 74 kt the largest ever atmospheric test in the continental US – 5 times the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The flash of this thermonuclear device was seen by an airline pilot flying over Hawaii, over 800 miles away.

The radioactive fallout from the Plumbbob tests drifted widely, as far as Oregon and New England.

Priscilla, a 37 kiloton bomb exploded on June 24th 1957,was the fifth in the Plumbbob series. Near Ground Zero at Frenchman Flat were 719 live pigs dressed in specially tailored military uniforms to test the fabrics’ abilities to protect against thermal radiation. Other pigs were placed in pens at varying distances from the epicenter behind large sheets of glass to test the effects of flying debris on ‘living targets’; they were harnessed in such a way as to force them to meet the blast face first, and their eyes were taped open. The explosion was bigger than expected …

Slightly further away were soldiers in trenches, one of whom, Marine Lieutenant Thomas Saffer, wrote a first-hand account: ‘A thunderous rumble like the sound of thousands of stampeding cattle passed directly overhead, pounding the trench line. Accompanying the roar was an intense pressure that pushed me downward. The shock wave was traveling at nearly 400 miles per hour, pushed toward us by the immense energy of the explosion. Overcome by fear, I opened my eyes. I saw that I was being showered with dust, dirt, rocks and debris so thick that I could not see 4 feet in front of me … A light many times brighter than the sun penetrated the thick dust, and I imagined that some evil force was attempting to swallow my body and soul … ”.

The blast shattered windows at the control point 14 miles away, and blew swinging doors from their hinges. The mushroom cloud rose quickly to more than 40,000 feet.

I was less than 3 weeks old.

3. A little hoarse

A few weeks earlier, on the second day of shooting Jailhouse Rock, 22-year old Elvis Presley was working on Alex Romero’s prison cell dance sequence. He threw himself into it with such abandon that he swallowed one of the temporary caps for his teeth as he was sliding down a pole. Elvis told the assistant director that he thought he could feel something rattling around in his chest. A doctor was called, but he told Elvis it was all in his imagination; he was fine. Everyone scrabbled around on the floor looking for the cap, but with no success. An hour or so later, Elvis said, ‘You know that scratch that I think I feel. It’s moved. It’s over to the left now’. ‘No, no, it’s all in your mind’. ‘It’s in my mind, is it? Listen to this’. He breathed out and you could hear a whistling sound.

It turned out that Elvis had aspirated the cap, which had lodged in his lung. The next day a surgeon removed it. ’We got it’, he said, ‘we just had to – we had to part the vocal chords and put the tool through and get in the lung. Then the damn thing broke in two, and we had to get one piece out, and then … the other’.

Elvis was a little hoarse for a couple of days.

4. Sea-journey on the highway (Howl)

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night […]

back yard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront borough of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind

who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on Benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo […]

who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford’s floated out and sat through the stale beer afternoon in desolate Fugazzi’s, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox […]

aaah, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time […]

in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night

5. Just in case

The Japanese-American photographer George Yoshitake was one of a number of civilian photographers employed by the military to document the nuclear tests in Nevada, and later in the South Pacific. In a New York Times interview earlier this year, George (now 82, and one of the few test site photographers still alive) remembers: ‘In Nevada we were maybe 5 or 6 miles away, and we could see the shock waves rolling across the valley floor, the dust being kicked up. We were prepared for the blast when it came, and we could feel its heat when it came about 10 or 15 seconds afterwards. At that time I thought it was only a job and I really didn’t give it much thought’.

'One afternoon I was at Lookout Mountain right here in Hollywood, and I got a call from a Woody Mark. He said: `George, I need you out here tomorrow for a special test'. I got there that night and he said: `Tomorrow morning you're going to go out with five other guys and you're going to be standing at ground zero'. I said, `Ground zero?' He said. `Yeah, but the bomb's gonna go off 10,000 feet above you.' I said, `Well, what kind of protective gear am I going to have?' He said, `None'.

'I remember I had a baseball hat, so I wore that just in case'.

6. Elvis Presley Blues

I was thinking that night about Elvis
Day that he died, day that he died
I was thinking that night about Elvis
Day that he died, day that he died
Just a country boy that combed his hair
He put on a shirt his mother made and he went on the air

And he shook it like a chorus girl
He shook it like a Harlem queen
He shook it like a midnight rambler, baby,
Like you never seen / Like you never seen / Never seen

I was thinking that night about Elvis
Day that he died, day that he died
I was thinking that night about Elvis
Day that he died, day that he died
How he took it all out of black and white
Grabbed his wand in the other hand and he held on tight

And he shook it like a hurricane
He shook it like to make it break
He shook it like a holy roller, baby
With his soul at stake / With his soul at stake

When he shook it and he rang like silver
He shook it and he shine like gold
He shook it and he beat that steam drill, baby
Well bless my soul, what's a-wrong with me?
I’m itching like a man on a fuzzy tree, on a fuzzy tree – fuzzy tree

7. ‘Language & themes’

The American Library Association reports that, over the last 20 years or so, the themes in books that are most likely to arouse the greatest number of complaints are – in descending order – sexual explicitness, offensive language, occultism and Satanism, promotion of homosexuality, violence, anti-family values, and subject matter offensive to religion.

Titles that recur at the head of the list of so-called ‘dangerous’ books are: Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut (promoting deviant sexual behaviour, sexually explicit); Catcher in the Rye, by JD Salinger (sexual references, undermines morality); John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (vulgar language), and Of Mice & Men (filth); Harry Potter by JK Rowling (anti-Christian Satanism); I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (language & themes); Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (language).

Two classics that have made recent lists are Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (lewdness), and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (teaching alternative lifestyles).

8. Open secret

The Sheahans were just one of the families unwittingly caught up in the Nevada nuclear tests. They’d been mining silver at Groom Range since the 1890s, in an area the military conceived of as ‘largely unpopulated’. In the early 1950s, they had a visit from a ‘polite’ man from the Atomic Energy Commission who told them that there would be some testing at nearby Yucca Flats. The Sheahans had just built a new hundred thousand dollar mill.

One night before dawn their house shook, the front door burst open, and several windows shattered.

Some months into the tests, some AEC men arrived to tell the Sheahans there may be some danger from radioactive fallout; they left monitoring equipment for the family to take samples after the blasts. The clouds kept coming, like rainstorms sweeping over the valley, except that dust rather than water fell. The Sheahans began to see cattle with silver-dollar-sized white spots on their backs, found dead animals with the same white spots, and noticed wildlife becoming scarcer.

On one occasion Dan Sheahan encountered a herd of wild horses that had wandered on to his land, with their eyes burnt out, empty sockets left by a blast.

A year later, the airforce began strafing the Sheahan property with planes. Then one day, during lunch, a high-explosive incendiary bomb hit the mill and blew it up.

After Dan and Martha Sheahan both died of cancer, their sons continued to try to work the mine until 1984, when the land was suddenly declared off-limits for ‘national security reasons’. 89,000 acres of Nevada public land – 144 square miles – was forcibly closed, creating a buffer zone: a zone of invisibility, insulating what is now Area 51, purportedly the site of so-called ‘Black Projects’. Formally, to this day, this area ‘doesn’t exist’ - it’s literally ’ob-scene’ / off-stage; although of course it’s an ‘open secret’, and it’s there for all to see on Google Earth …

9. Whichaway to turn

Someday my baby, when I am a man,
and others have taught me the best that they can
they'll sell me a suit, they
ll cut off my hair
And send me to work in tall buildings

Meanwhile, over at the MGM studios in Hollywood in early June 1957, Elvis was being interviewed by a journalist during a break in filming.

In the first few weeks in LA he’d met Glenn Ford, John Ford, Yul Brynner, Kim Novak, and Robert Mitchum. One evening in Elvis’s penthouse apartment at the Beverley Wilshere, Sammy Davis Jnr. had scared the hell out of Elvis with his impression of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

So it's goodbye to the sunshine, goodbye to the dew
goodbye to the flowers, and goodbye to you
I'm off to the subway, I must not be late
m going to work in tall buildings

At MGM Elvis had been given Clark Gable’s dressing rooms; and while he talked to the columnist, Joe Hyams, he ate his lunch. A bowl of gravy, a bowl of mashed potatoes, nine slices of well-done bacon, two pints of milk, a large glass of tomato juice, a lettuce salad, six slices of bread, and four pats of butter.

When Im retired, my life is my own
I made all the payments, it's time to go home
and wonder what happened betwixt and between
when I went to work in tall buildings

'I don’t feel like I’m property’, Elvis told Hyams. ‘I can’t get it into my head that I’m property. People tell me you can’t do this or that, but I don’t listen to them. Ain’t nobody can tell you how to run your life. I do what I want. I can’t change, and I won’t change … If I had to drop it all I could, but I wouldn’t like it … I get lonely as hell sometimes. A lot of times I feel miserable - don’t know whichaway to turn …’

So it's goodbye to the sunshine, goodbye to the dew
goodbye to the flowers, and goodbye to you
I'm off to the subway, I must not be late
m going to work in tall buildings
10. Visitations
In the night, the door to my room swings open oh so slowly and in comes my mother, looking elegant and much younger than she was when she died over 20 years ago. She is pretending to be a ghost. She creeps towards me playing the game of spooking her kid. She jumps on top of me on the bed, making ridiculous theatrical ghoul noises, oohs and aahs, and we wrestle. For a moment, I'm genuinely frightened and try to bite her, my heart pumping. After a moment, we pause. My head comes up from under the covers, our eyes meet, and I realise it's a game.

'Hello love', she says, sitting up, smiling. 'I'm a ghost'.

When I wake up in the morning, the door is still open ...
A few nights later, we’re creeping alongside a wall at night, hand in hand, in silence. We don't want to be caught, and are walking quietly but freely on the grass. The wall goes on and on. We keep going where we are going. Then a small warm animal noise in the darkness in front of us: horse breath. We stop.

To one side - the direction we are heading - a group of horsemen are gathering quietly: they look like hussars in uniform, their swords are drawn, the horses' flanks catch the low light. The brief flare of a brass cuirasse, the glint of an eye. The horses paw the ground.

Then to the other side - the direction from which we've come - other horsemen walk slowly into the half-light, like actors quietly taking their place on the stage, their swords also at the ready. Gradually the numbers grow until all are present.

A silent stand-off, as the horses fidget; tiny sounds of metal, bits and blade. The calm before some sort of storm in this field of intersecting gazes.
We are caught in the middle, looking one way then the other. The confrontation is nothing to do with us, but we have no choice but to be there as it unfolds around us. Witnesses.

We wait. No one makes a move.

11. Silver vision (I dream a highway back to you)

I'm an indisguisable shade of twilight
Any second now I'm gonna turn myself on
In the blue display of the cool cathode ray
I dream a highway back to you.

Hang overhead from all directions
Radiation from the porcelain light
Blind and blistered by the morning white
I dream a highway back to you.

Sunday morning at the diner
Hollywood trembles on the verge of tears
I watched the waitress for a thousand years
Saw a wheel within a wheel, heard a call within a call
I dreamed a highway back to you.

Step into the light, poor Lazarus
Don't lie alone behind the window shade
Let me see the mark death made
I dream a highway back to you.

What will sustain us through the winter?
Where did last year’s lessons go?
Walk me out into the rain and snow
A silver vision come molest my soul
I dream a highway back to you.

Goodnight. Thank you for coming.

Material drawn from Rebecca Solnit’s Savage Dreams; Peter Guralnick’s biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis; from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl; Peter Kuran’s How to Photograph an Atomic Bomb; Bill Morgan & Nancy J Peters (eds), Howl on Trial; Upton Sinclair's The Jungle; Catherine Caufield, Multiple Exposures; Gillian Welch’s Time: The Revelator, and her version of John Hartford’s ‘In Tall Buildings’.

Images from Life magazine, June 1957, and elsewhere.

Big thanks to Sue for singing with me ...

A version of these texts was first presented as a solo performance-presentation as part of 'The Doers, The Dreamers, The Drifters' at Islington Mills, Salford, on 6 November 2010. The festival was curated by Swen Steinhauser and Laura Mansfield, and supported by ACE, Salford University and Islington Mills. For further details, see here

Later versions of these materials were also presented at an AHRC network symposium 'Representing Environmental Change', The Anatomy Theatre, King's College London (May 2011); and as part of the PSi cluster symposium 'Encounters in Synchronous Time' at Bios in Athens, Greece (November 2011)