Appropriation and the infra-legible (2011)

For the Open Ears Festival of Music and Sound

Marc Couroux, April 2011

I think of the experimental not as a fixed category, but as a kind of cipher containing bundles of potential operations which trigger various perceptual resituations in the contexts they operate; a state-of-affairs brought about by an intersection of incompatible vectors which somehow force a viewing or listening approach which is itself experimental. I try and set up situations where the listener must de facto develop an experimental system of perception in relation with materials which are at times extremely conventional and hackneyed.

In a culture where signs hemorrhage everywhere due to uncontrollable excesses of images and sounds, appropriation has to alter its tactics. When corporate imperatives have hijacked the very tools of appropriation, deploying mechanically standardized meaning associations, where to turn? The classic mechanics of appropriation have become a fully assimilated, virally circulated set of rules which can no longer penetrate and disorient consciousness, pervading commercial TV, internet, advertisement and high art alike. When the experimental has become a style with specific boundaries and predetermined outcomes, the game must continue underground.

The “first read” mentality prevalent in the art world is the site where some kind of resistant action on the part of the artist is required. In my work, the context of usage of a given material, the secondary production involving the manner in which this material is inflected through manipulation (indeterminate or systematic), is appropriated along with the material (primary production) itself. An appropriation of the total situation. In light of the idea that art consists in designing frameworks which can somehow catch the transient bundles of ephemeral qualities which are difficult to put your finger on, I make works that are realizations of conjunctions—technological, situational, experiential—which have already occurred in some fashion or other. Nietzsche has a conception of originality as a recognition (re-cognition) of something that’s already there, often in plain sight. Or the “lines of flight” in Deleuze and Guattari, means of crystallizing re-cognition patterns to momentarily capture these bundles of qualities in transit.

The two works I’m referring to here are Strange Homecoming, a TV work and In a Sedimental Mood, strangely insinuating background music. They are installed together in the foyer of the Conrad Centre and thus interpenetrate each other acoustically. The way in which each work fixates on “secondary production” is quite different.

With Strange Homecoming this has to do with the scrubbing operation performed on standard DVD players, and the earworms introduced by recording technologies; In a Sedimental Mood references furniture music and Musak, background operations which occasionally surface when a certain type of co-incidence manages to stop you in your tracks, a re-cognition which momentarily suspends your train of thought.

Both depend on pre-existing materials in different ways. Strange Homecoming fractalizes the original, innately hummable theme into infra-legible variations, sounding neither significantly different from each other, nor close enough to be exactly identical, at least on first blush. It is only through an extended duration, that the nature of the variation process can be gleaned. The original theme is never heard, but can only be conceptualized as a virtual extrapolation of its variations, unhinged through the application of oblique forces to itself.

PAUSE: NOTES towards an INFRA-LEGIBLE condition

Legibility is a shared construct which enables maximal, rapid absorption. It encompasses a set of culturally-ingrained standards which determines how quickly an experience can be slotted into a predetermined category. The outcome of legible works pre-exists the works themselves. The methods by which the organization and disposition of matter (image, sound) are made legible may be so obvious as to often escape proper focus.

Infra-legibility aims to trip up that absorption, delaying digestion.

The infra-legible concept rides along with the signal and eventually takes over. It’s a möbius-like motion – a distinctly non-repetitive retreading. Like the two-sided one-sided Möbius strip, there’s no way to tell exactly where the flip to the other side, to another condition, took place.

By voiding the surface elements of any deterministic clarity – no brimming teleologies telescoping continuance – perceptions get sucked in the vacuum wake towards increasingly subterranean levels of sedimentation.

Infra-legibility is a parasitic, parallel experiencing. It aims to cuddle perceptual shibboleths as it gently detourns them.

In Strange Homecoming, infra-legible operations are enacted in order to interrogate the constitution and qualities of memorability, and more importantly to dislodge an earworm which had worked its way into my consciousness through a process of convulsive scanning through a 44-second segment of a TV movie on DVD. Paul De Marinis notes that prior to the invention of recording technology, very few documented instances of the “tune-running-thru-the-head” phenomenon could be found in the literature. Adorno in the 1930s laments the loss of the ability to “listen structurally” – to gradually accumulate in one’s mind the structure of a time-based musical work as it unfolds, through the interrelation of its constituent parts. Recording technology, the culprit according to him, makes no such demands on memory, and encourages selective listening, the amplification of certain sections through repetition, the non-necessity of engaging with the whole in linear time. In other words, recordings encourage a kind of distracted listening. It’s a distinctively post-human operation: the scanning capacities of the DVD player are embedded into my experience of the material, are inseparable from it, and consequently and decisively distort my perceptions of it.

PAUSE: a story about earworms

Happening upon a long forgotten TV movie called Strange Homecoming, dwelling on a central scene where the character (Robert Culp) returns to his hometown after 18 years of degenerate behavior. Rewinding and fast-forwarding the DVD to re-listen to the strangely elusive theme music, trying to learn its modus operandi. Stupidly leaving the DVD at home when traveling to the country. One week of attempting through various mental procedures to recover the theme song, to surface it, to no avail. On returning, maniacally scrubbing over the same music, again and again, until the music continues looping in the mind without technological support. An earworm made possible by recording technology, subsequently impossible to dislodge. Except by resituating the original as only one of a potentially infinite set of fractal variations. At each scrub—rewind or fast-forward, the music drops out, only to return after every landing subtly altered: same form, different melodies and harmonies.

The secondary production in this case has to do with the scrubbing operations, which enact Adorno’s nightmare, inscribing operations which lie outside of the narrative context—coming across a scene and replaying it over and over again—into a linear context, simulating the variegated process by which I became acquainted with this 44-second section.

Each iteration of the theme was constructed through a “deaf recording” process, each line recorded in isolation, as a way to move away from intentional efforts at “variation”, which ultimately always reinforce the already known. Between the original and a legible variation (one which possesses the aura of intentionality) lie an infinite number of potential, fractal variations which have not been identified as “memorable” per se. These variations sediment themselves with varying degrees of staying power – some of them, by harmonic-melodic coincidence, manage to quickly accrue a kind of streamlined memorability. Others remain stubbornly unmemorable after repeated listenings. The different-but-same surface which travels under the radar produces over time a sedimentation of more generalized underlying affects which leech into your consciousness and are reinforced through the duration of the work.

Though the re-situation of the original music within a plethora of variations was intended to defuse its staying power and to flush it from my active memory, the strategy backfired in lockstep with the theory that over time, even the most random construct can appear inevitable. Indeed, some of the variations I constructed as “deafly” as possible turned out to be even more memorable than the original—further earworms to eventually dislodge—though certainly not on first acquaintance. In other words, the practice of defusing memorability through the application of pressure paradoxically releases unintended artifacts which fill the void, more tunes to run thru the head.

Each time I listen to the work, the iterations reorganize themselves in unstable hierarchies. I should also say that I make a new version of the work each time it is shown, so that not only are you getting different-but-same music after each scrub, but you’re getting a whole other set of scrubs altogether in each incarnation.

Another effect of recording technology has to do with the potential to resituate the listener in a non-representational relationship with performers, who are now reproduced schizophonically through speakers. Divorced from human identification, music can achieve other functions, including those of social control and psychological conditioning. This is the crux of In a Sedimental Mood. Satie called it “furniture music”, the thin coating of a given environment with music which is neither intrusive, nor completely absent, music to hear, not listen to. Music for such a context requires a specific attention to the relationship between surface and sediment. What insinuates itself over time vs. punctual recognitions.

Appropriation in this work takes place on the level of generalized affect: the 9 interpenetrating lines which constitute the work all derive from specific clichés which have a certain pre-existing resonance: pompous piano chords, a single-note guitar line, ascending and descending peals of cocktail piano, Baroque harpsichord figurations which litter so many 1970s movie soundtracks etc. There are 84 sections of gradually decreasing length. Each line was recorded 84 times, in deaf fashion, before moving on to the next line. Each variation sounds essentially the same as the previous: same combination of elements in generally the same order, at the same speed. Though the linear process of variation which generated each line is important, its effect is destabilized through its reincorporation into an essentially contrapuntal context, which cancels out the effort of trying to be original but remainders an uncertain substance, a difference which is infra-legible and which you can only become sensitive to over a long exposure.

On the other hand, your perceptions are punctually mobilized when you hear the strains of a tune, or a fortuitous conjunction of affects, with which you have prior associations. A moment of re-cognition which forces what was background and contextual to be dealt with in a flash in a conscious manner. A focus which is momentary (as long as the tune is not taken up by subsequent humming) on the boundaries of another activity. If you try to listen to In a Sedimental Mood deliberately, it escapes. Only when it is not attended to directly does it leech its effects productively.

Ultimately, the use of pre-existing materials is important in that they are value-laden — enriched by the various secondary productions which each viewer has already brought to bear on them. For this reason, the operations of extension and distortion at the centre of these works produce detonations at different discrete points for each viewer. The familiarity of the materials employed (or their generic qualities)—which might at first mobilize collective sensations—yields over time to a complex condition where each individual comes to terms with the various perceptual flips and state changes which gradually accrete, in his/her own time.

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