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