eldritch Priest / Marc Couroux
for the Duration Before and After Media conference at OCAD University, August 2011
Let me start with this: Duration is a cliché.
It’s occurred to both Marc and myself the presumptions of recent time-based artworks are rife with platitudes based on mid-twentieth century expressions that any seemingly obscene preoccupation with time is somehow inherently counter-hegemonic and as such, aesthetically or conceptually significant.
Artists such as Tehching (Sam) Hsieh, Leif Inge, and Douglas Gordon all insist that an attention to duration necessarily entails a micro-phenomenology that reveals hitherto unknown dimensions of experience that code alternately as wonder and/or perfidy, liberty and/or control. While this premise isn’t entirely false, that it presumes too much, especially when it’s supposed that duration takes care of itself, that time initiates its own difference.
But duration is not what it used to be. It can’t be. How we observe time and how we use it—and by extension, how we experience it and how we know it, has changed. As other presenters here have suggested, our current media frames are redefining what it means to perceive and to endure. Time in other words, does not take care of itself for the simple reason that we take care of it. And how we take care of it how we take care of ourselves.
In this talk Marc and I will suggest, from the perspective afforded by music and sound art, that the ability to ignore irrelevant information has been impaired by the proliferation of hails that our media-defined culture has invented to interpolate instants of itself. (See Nass 2009). Basically, the premise that we’re working with is this: As the summons for attention multiply, which they undeniably have, we develop an addiction to the novelty of the instant and as a consequent contract a nasty habit of distraction. And it is audio technology, through its ubiquity and omnipresence, that is perhaps the most virulent vector of this outbreak.
Take for instance, a recent work by Marc, which revolves around the way duration does not take care of itself and is much actually much more manufactured and occasional than what the prevailing discourse would suggest. Marc’s 2010 work, In a Sedimental Mood, which has been playing in the background for the past five minutes, is a piece that makes parasitic use of contemporary “unlistening” practices that have been acquired by the way the post-industrial subject has trained himself to listen away from the multitude of musically coded hails. Notice, for example, how while listening to me, you don’t really notice the music, how the music was there as a sensible but indeterminate background impinging gently and occasionally on your attention. Notice now that when you try to focus on the work you can’t, your thoughts keeps wandering away from its pulse of abrupt beginnings and inconspicuous endings. Rather than building awareness around the loungey refrains that follow each ecstatic outburst, you either lose interest or are called away from it by my voice. And notice that it’s not only okay for you not to notice the work, but that there’s no reason for you keep noticing, no sense of duration building a significant awareness of itself.
Here, duration as an accumulating difference is subverted by a delirium that emerges from the discontinuity imparted by a persistent distraction. What In a Sedimental Mood captures, or rather, what it makes expressive, are the ways that contemporary listening has been affected by audio technology’s ubiquity and the paradoxical address of its omnipresence that gives permission for us to ignore its matter.
As we’ve heard, over and over again here, a lot of time-based art understands duration as a swelling metaphysical substance that continuously contaminates the present with virtual potentials, potentials that are always in the process of transitioning into more or less obscure occasions. “Moments” in this model are analytic fictions that shroud the more primitive continuity of duration as a result of the way their calculus severs one from an immediate intuition of flux.
But Gaston Bachelard, a philosopher of science whose interrogation of epistemology drew him increasingly towards a philosophy of imagination, sees things differently. Time, for Bachelard is a fiction; it is created dialectically and expressed by phenomena that are made of corresponding instants, that, strictly speaking, lie outside of the duration that their association fabricated. Thus, there is no duration or sense of time’s texture outside of the breaks and ruptures that organize an elaboration of an aboriginal event. Time is therefore a fiction in the sense that a process of narration, expectation, and habit actively creates it. Bachelard’s emphasis on the composited nature of duration is a subversion of Bergsonism; however, it’s not a wholesale rejection of the latter perceptiveness as much as it is an attempt to give the idea and function of time a higher resolution.
Now, Bachelard’s criticism of what we might call Bergsonian orthodoxy is quite sophisticated and multifaceted, and at times, quixotic. But for this talk I want to focus on how contemporary expressions of duration foreground an experience of time that resonates with Bachelard’s primary insight that time is made from discontinuities.
Consider In a Sedimental Mood once again. What is it besides the way that it seems to be starting over and over again that gives it its sense of time? Part of this can be answered by suggesting that the apparent sameness of the musical episodes makes its temporal phenomena behave fractally, which is to say that something persists through the difference of each iteration. The time of In a Sedimental Mood is, however, unlike a fractal because these differences never accumulate to create an immediately apparent, and thereby expressive kind of distortion which might be read as its duration or history. Simply put, the disparities of In a Sedimental Mood do not accrete. Instead, each episode starts over again, treating its expression as a virtual microcosmos ex nihilo. It’s exactly this kind of reiterative instant that underlies Bachelard’s metaphysics and leads him to suggest that it’s is not the continuity of life but “the discontinuity of birth that calls for explication.” (II 67)
The instant as a disruptive novelty is for Bachelard, something that is dramatized and temporalized by the way an individual or culture organizes and folds its actions around a virtual entanglement of past/present/future. But this piece seems to actively frustrate this dramatic sensibility. Its thematic commotion and abundance of affective cues continually solicit our attention, but it does this in a way that brings its “music” much closer to “noise.” In this respect, the refrains of In a Sedimental Mood approach what Bachelard calls transitive or horizontal time, the time of material becoming that is subject to physical laws and is determined by linear causality. It’s in this way that In a Sedimental Mood can insinuate itself into the background of awareness so easily, and it’s also how it reflects the way that “music” in general has come to be ignored/perceived as a kind of undulating background matter.
Basically, In a Sedimental Mood, with its constant stops, starts, and recommencements, dramatizes the mechanics of distraction that characterize how attention in a dense media environment is coming to be defined. Our ability to ignore irrelevant information—a capacity nurtured by concentration machines like the novel and concert music—has been impaired by a proliferation of hails such that we’ve developed not only a habit of tagging every change in the perceptual field as potentially important (Massumi), but a “tic” in that we’re constantly anticipating or even inventing distractions whether they are there to be had or not. Although the prevailing discourse around distraction emphasizes the cognitive strain of this state of “being constantly on,” it in fact requires more body, more corporeal hardware, because to be as sensitive to change as our environment demands, we have to convert more of our tissues, bones, and ligaments into elements of a body-wide nervous system. In other words, the more distracted we are, the more we simply are “being our bodies.” The more we are being-our-bodies, the more unconscious we are, the more we are simply creatures of passion. This is all to say that a persistent distraction makes us drowsy as we suffer our fundamental affectivity.
But, I submit that we’re not entirely asleep, not yet. As much as we’re addicted to the advent of novelty, we’re still compelled to think. Indeed, dreaming is but the unmanaged psychic growths of the body’s impulse to escape its horizontal passions. But this isn’t so clear in Marc’s work, for the inertia of distraction that it dramatizes is converted into a theme that, paradoxically, brings unconscious (somatic) perception to the foreground. In a way, the repetition of its aboriginal instant obscures the abstract time that emerges from its internal rhythm of interruption, a formalized time that Bachelard describes as lying perpendicular to the sequential pulse of cause and effect so as to “rise above and overhang the present instant.” In other words, the “thought” or “vertical” time that a rhythm of recommencement produces, and which promises to “make a perpendicular escape from the duration of the world” (106), cannot break free of In a Sedimental Mood’s somatic event horizon.
However, in contrast to this piece, my own two-hour long monody titled the brown study, manages to acquire a little escape velocity from its somatic gravitation by letting the performer to dream a little. As I mentioned above, dreaming is a set of un-choreographed psychic excrescences and their persistence through sleep attests both to the fecundity of thought time and to the fact that thought-time and lived time do not share the same principles of sequence or correspondence of events (Bachelard 104). But how does this work extract a thought time from its material and encourage one to dream? There are a number of reasons that might satisfy this question (and Marc addresses some of these in his talk), but what’s immediately apparent is that melody here is not working quite right. Not only is it slow and difficult to execute properly, but its perpetual development never begins again. Here melody refuses to do what melody is supposed to do to be heard as melodic, as a sensible continuity: As Bachelard insists, “melody “is not heard straight away,” but “dialectically duets with itself, losing itself so that it can find itself again.” (123)
The melodic material of the brown study never repeats. It is through-composed and constantly changing. But as you can hear, the self-similarity of the material continually hints at finding itself and becoming absorbed in its first theme. And this incessant skewing, though it never finds itself, finds a semblance of itself, a likeness that doubles the group of passing notes with a set of potentials that produce the feeling in them of past and future melodies “like it.” (Massumi). In other words, the melody here is passing through its own potential and in this sense forms a discontinuity between the actually sounding melody and its host of semblances. It’s in the emphasis that this work gives to the “likeness” of a melody, to an unactualized potential melodicity, that it encourages dreaming, for a likeness duets dialectically not with itself, but with the is-ness that it is not and will never be.
The tempo at which this melody is enacted is slow enough that rhythmic coincidences between the players are almost de facto out of the question. Divergences at the micro-level always run the risk of flipping a linear teleology into a vertical pooling, collecting the strands of differential expressions inflected by the bodily and mental speeds of each individual player. This slowness also allows ample time for thought, opening up a space between action, contemplation and re-action, most importantly centred around intentional attempts to play together (which may nonetheless break apart), and equally intentional, meaningful attempts at diverging however idiosyncratically from the written text. (Indeed, the notes to the work indicate a sensitivity to varying levels of ability, which directly influences the level of intentional deviation which can be envisaged, but highlight nonetheless that “each performer has to commit to their idiosyncrasies”.) Bachelard: “Actions are always preceded and followed by expectation, hesitation, deferral, provocation, interacting in a dialectical wavemotion.”
Moreover, it is axiomatic that musicians have a natural tendency when the tempo lies below a certain threshold to slow down even further, making continuity even more unlikely, each note the locus of an atomic expansion; melodic becoming is continually impeded by its own sludgy, messy enactment, as if unavoidably pulled into the wake of the expressiveness which its curvatures prescribe. As the piece moves on, eccentric, personal divergences increasingly load down melodic linearity, effectively “stopping” its forward momentum, “speed bumps” which reroute teleology to an attending-to-the-moment, still moving forward, yet repeatedly hung up on the perceptual demands of a performer asserting, emphasizing an element which decouples itself from a uniform identification with the score in order to produce an inherently discrepant, alternate form of engagement with the material.
The rather mournful melodies themselves as well the more directional fragments—scalar motions and cadential arrivals—actively impel a learned expressionism. Because the piece is only this, in the absence of harmonic undertow which might provide occasional balance and relief from continuous forward motion, and that it is only this for so long (2 hours average), the affective structuring of the melody overtakes the melody itself as focus; affect progressively separates from the content which is being affected.
Indeed, the strange piece that this becomes over time is inextricably linked to the musician’s increasing inability to make these melodies continuously meaningful. Though these melodies are curiously unmemorable, their curvatures nonetheless impel expression, even in the absence of explicit textual prescriptions to this effect. Over time this continuous, beckoning to be expressive leads to an exhaustion of strategies for doing so. How can one really continue to “mean” what one plays after one hour, when it seems like the piece is really going nowhere and one melodic turn is confused for and conflated with another, and there is still half the work left to go? Levels of intentional expression start to unravel as time takes its toll, the various strata comprising the musician’s training and ingrained habits, no longer protected by a confident performative projection, risking erosion and exposure.
Not to mention the embarrassment (which Keats defined as “coming upon yourself surreptitiously”) which sooner or later overtakes the musician, becoming hyper-aware of his efforts at hyper-expression and seeking deflection through more arcane strategies or coping mechanisms. Both fatigue and embarrassment mandate drop out, or the activation of other tangents, however remote. Bergson’s “plenitude”, in which repose is always active and failure impossible, is here ironically overheated into its opposite; a too-muchness, a surfeit of expression, over-stimulation, forces disconnection, withdrawal, catagenic, dwindling time; in short, inverted into Bachelard’s discontinuities and blackouts.
In fact, the score emphasizes that one does not have to play continuously—the musician can drop out at will, perhaps when coming up against the feeling that nothing more can be added productively, to stave off a kind of expression burnout, an inability to sincerely engineer expression. This should be noted in contrast to avant-garde paradigms which encourage the endurance of something as a act of self-improvement, in light of the oft-rehearsed Cageian statement on boredom, in which the latter is invariably sloughed off through sustained exposure. By contrast, by facilitating drop outs, The Brown Study opens the door to discontinuity from the perspective of the performer, thereby forestalling cumulative, climactic transcendence, and this has the contagious effect of indicating to the listener that endurance is not the issue and that he or she, by proxy, also has the option of dropping out. Bachelard hints at this selective, asymmetrical approach in listening and performing through Paul Valéry, who writes about “duration’s expenditure on things it has well chosen in order to nurture them particularly”. Bachelard opposes Bergson’s continuum of growth in which duration cannot receive lacunae to the waxing and waning of internal curiosity and interest which distort the perception of time passing.
In The Brown Study, dropping out is not seen as a lack, or a failure to “stay with” the music, to listen structurally and attentively, but as a mode unto itself of being with the work. Moreover, the sheer length of the piece makes it improbable to collect its continuous becoming into a structure which one could productively retain. The kind of structural listening promoted by Adorno as a central feature of musical perception seems unlikely as one may end up retrospectively confounding and swapping sections, compressing the experience into a kind of virtual melodicity—a phase space containing all melodic possibilities, same over-arching affect, different content—rather than a specifically memorable, local instantiation. One remembers a sense of melody rather than the melody itself, a method rather than any local instantiation of that method. Or as Bachelard might have put it, a temporal framework setting the stage for a future coincidence which will eventually initiate a memory.
The dropout is also a central structural feature of Strange Homecoming, and similarly predicated on the impossibility of retaining local instances, ever changing and fleeting, while structure and affect are increasingly emphasized. Here, the musical dropouts occur as they normally would when engaging the standard scanning procedures of a DVD player—rewinds and fast-forwards at various discrete speeds—while image is constantly operative and indexical. In other words, continuity and discontinuity are co-existent; image is perpetual, sound intermittent. The structure, orchestration and melodic contour of the original music—which is never actually heard but adumbrated by its 44 variations—is preserved, precisely indexed to its proper location on the visual timeline, though its local harmonic and melodic instantiations are different, upon each surfacing.
It is the utter mundanity of and implicit faith in the digital technologies which are part and parcel of our daily life which make possible these slips. Indeed, as per the normal functioning of the rewind and the fast-forward, Strange Homecoming acts as if each iteration only revealed the selfsame material located exactly where it should be within the 44-second timeline. Instead, the infra-legible bait-and-switch of local content remainders the distinct sensation that something is off, without it being readily identifiable. By the time one has the opportunity to reflect, during soundless scanning, the music begins again where it ought to, synchronized with the image, same but different. Much like the emotions to which Bachelard ascribes the function of imposing transitions where there is discontinuity between two things, it is the predictable nature of the technology in question here which blunts newness even as it is occurring; it generates the trustworthy appearance of continuity where there is discontinuity.
Indeed, Strange Homecoming tries to put its scanning finger on the perceptual distortions which occur when outside-time procedures (Bachelard’s immanent time or vertical axis, the time of the inner self) are reinscribed into a linear timeline (Bachelard’s transitive time, the time of the world, the horizontal axis). In this sense, the work constitutes a “writing out”, a through-composition of the process of remembering in long hand, stretching the 44-second duration of the scene under examination into 16 minutes. The transitive time in which the scanning actions take place sets the immanent time of reflection and consolidation into motion, which in turn leads to further scanning action, and so forth.
Ever since digital technologies made them accessible and sufficiently pliable, scanning operations became an indispensable part of every viewing experience, an addiction which, if it is even noticed, is difficult to harness. Stuck in a hotel room, I reached for the rewind button on the remote control wanting to replay a just-past scene, realizing that in fact I was watching a live broadcast and had to actually pay attention. Scanning processes invariably distort the perception of the material at hand; one cannot separate one’s perspective on the object from the temporal damage done to it by the seemingly innocuous actions of scrubbing back and forth. Structural listening is obsolesced by recording technology’s capacities to replay, recall, omit, distort at will and ad infinitum. Strange Homecoming ventriloquizes these in-built procedures, Bachelard’s rhythms of fits and starts, ruptures and new beginnings, yes’s and no’s, while in actuality only simulating them through careful editing.
Bachelard states that “continuities are not given, they must be made” and “we retain only what we reconquer; we maintain only what we resume” and “duration is a work we create, always preceded by an action centred on an instant”. In this case, it is the individual performing the scanning operations built into the work who makes the continuities, who links one section to another by ostensibly searching for something, or seeking to replay, to resume something to further engrave it into memory or to clarify its constitution. “Duration’s expenditure on things well chosen”; interested time par excellence. The rub in Strange Homecoming is situated in the seemingly identical but actual non-identity one encounters when the music returns. Indeed, the music has to disappear in order to renew itself on re-entry, in a way which would not be possible without the gaps produced through scanning, in which the memory of the just-heard still lingers before being reconnected to itself—or more accurately to a version of itself—on another plateau. The soundtrack on reappearance is always curiously retrospective on a structural level while always being new on the level of local content (though sounding the same). Much like The Brown Study, what sediments in the viewer’s memory over time, what is gradually discovered, is a framework, an outside-time “schema of initiating acts”, a potential which is continually, differentially enacted each time the scanning reaches its randomly generated target. New durations are always being built, from a succession of “breaks, which bring about new ideas”. (GB) As Conrad Russell puts it: “Habits must be consciously remade. The moment of remaking breaks the flow of time—repetition, to survive, must involve a negation, as well as an affirmation, of previous repetitions…We make time through our will to repeat, to perfect ourselves in our engagement with the world, an engagement which is never complete.”
(And I should say that for every screening of this work, a new version is created from the same materials, so that the gaps of the moment will always lead the listener to make other connections, to sediment another framework, to know the basic material of the work differently).
The gradual image degradation precisely indexes these musical transformations, along the line that visual manipulation is more overtly legible than its musical analogue. While one appears to be aimlessly lingering on the level of image within the 44-second duration—a close inspection which lies outside linear time, the image constantly scanning, folding back onto itself—the music always moves forward on a through-composed timeline. The music is perpetually renewed, though the infra-legible manner in which this takes place troubles memory, which inhabits a fractal space, between exact repetition and legible difference. Finally, a sensorial asymmetry typically pervades the viewing experience, which is at first chiefly attuned to the immediately palpable and continuous VHS degradation, until the image has attained a threshold of de-generation in which change is no longer apparent (though ongoing) and as focus drifts towards the music, one retrospectively realizes that it has been slipping all along, operating according to another logic altogether.
Given a state of affairs in which the endlessly stimulating and disconnected impulses of mass media and the technological extensions which mediate our engagement with the world have radically redefined our modes of processing time (and have indeed amputated the capacity to focus and concentrate), we ask: Is it possible to imagine a framework through which art might productively incorporate while interrogating the effects of a seemingly permanent disposition towards distraction?
To us it seems that the creative potentials of discontinuity are manifold and in this respect, through the syncopated alternation of an ineffective time and an active time that cohere into an artificial duration, other modes of artistic engagement can be glimpsed, on the level both of production and reception, to harness the fragmentation characterizing the 21st century individual’s relationship with time.