My village of origin contained two significant buildings, significant not for their formal qualities, they were both simple cottages, but because one had been the home of Halley, the astronomer and the other the home of William Blake the poet. Without being conscious of the fact, I grew up in a cosmos in which the arts and science were intertwined, it has marked my endeavours ever since.
My main task as an Artist has been, to find a place for poetics somewhere between praxis and theoria; caught in a moment of incandescence at a hidden location- I know this encounter but cannot predict it. To consider the task produces emptiness, an erasure, but then the surface of the cortex settles – an image matrix forms…..
Each night I would have the same dream, I was four years old, lying awake, afraid to fall asleep, afraid to enter that inevitable landscape. The ground surface was uniformly smooth, formed of dense iron plates extending to a featureless horizon line. Roaring from this iron ground and billowing all around me would be huge columns of flame, the sky low and dull with black smoke. I knew I must escape but each time that I began to run a massive caisson of steel would crash to the ground and encircle me – I would look up at the polished black interior of the tower and watch the wracks of smoke pouring overhead. Next, I would be overcome by a frenzy of anger and determination and fly against the walls of my prison, beating and kicking the metal – It would always prove immovable, I would subside exhausted and bitter. But each time I reached the point of acknowledging my defeat the caisson would vanish……. around me the blasted and burning surface – and I would begin to run.
. . . _ . . . _ The Reconstruction Era . . . _ . . . _
The corner of the sofa is really the safest place to be; I brace myself into an armchair foetal, my head retracted deep into my shoulders. The right-hand side of the screen is filled by three black triangles, which heave up and down in slow motion; a series of diagonal white flashes and the set fills with smoke.
The child recoils as two percussive bars of Beethoven’s fifth symphony fly abruptly through the speaker of the sixteen-inch set, which accompanies the score with heavy vibrations. The child is four years old and the year 1956; “Victory at Sea” is a medium through which one world attempts to colonise another.
The words start to roll up over the picture and my knees relax; my brother comes to sit next to me, abandoning his prone position behind the sofa; we know the worst is over. Dad says that he fried eggs on the deck of a troop-ship; later, at the supper table, he will send Morse code messages with the cutlery.
As the children grow, the blue light of the sitting room fades; they re-emerge to inhabit the woods and rough shingle beaches, which form the perfect container for their actions. No longer able to tolerate the gaze of adults they learn the arts of camouflage and deception, living behind the lines of the adult world, utilizing every means at their disposal to explore it without the onus of direct contact.
The rules are plain and simple, if we stick to them we are totally invisible to grown-ups. Their failure to see gives us a real edge, especially if we need things from their gardens, which border our land. Our main camp is well out of their range, past the fringe of the poplar copse and into the wheat fields. No one else dares to go down into the campsite because it was made by big explosions in the past.
The twinned craters develop a special significance for the children who regard them as signs, perhaps gifts, from a period whose power had diverted the course of their parents’ lives. Immediately below the rim of the craters exists a zone of transformation; a factory site for their imagination; the factory builds bridges.
1968 marked the inevitable point where the certainties of my childhood no longer proved serviceable in a world of violent flux. A world those many mouths whispered that a beach had been discovered beneath the pavé of Paris and that the hottest spot in L.A. was no longer 77 Sunset Strip but the inferno of trashy Watts.
During the televised Apollo moon landing my mother had ceased her knitting to gaze at the screen with incredulity. After a cursory appraisal of the blurred moonscape she wisely cautioned me not to be duped by such shabby Hollywood fantasies. For her the flag, permanently unfurled, to compensate for the absence of lunar wind, and the clumsy puppet like motions of the ‘actors’ failed even as convincing science fiction.
Only later did I begin to appreciate the unintentional significance of her words, which recognised all transmissions as fiction. Ironically, it was I who struggled to accept the authenticity of the small voice, which inhabited my ear when we spoke to one another across the globe. The whispered mother voice of my childhood surely did not belong in this material world.
The Black dog is breathing its way forward, drawn along by the plumes of its own breath, plumes that scorch the air of the frozen shoreline. This breath has me in tow, I am a subject of those chemical interests that survive this iron frost. The Black Dog and I move in nebulae of common exhalations and inhalations, I am aware of nothing beyond the black muzzle – the intense cold, negating all sensation.
My eyes are merely observers of the dog’s trajectory over the brittle white surface, my ears are turned inwards, seeking circulatory sounds. Then the voice of an ice floe slowly exploding in the solid ocean, the sound of an event recorded and slowed right down, an exposition of how frozen seawater sounds when it is rent apart by gravity and flux. For a moment the world opens, I inhabit the interstice created within the floe and I feel the transient warmth of chemical friction. The Black dog continues intent on reclaiming the traces of its breath.
Imagine a child of the ‘jet-age’ living in an unobtrusive coastal village, mid-way between the dwelling of Blake, the artist, poet and visionary and that of his friend, the scientist and astronomer Halley. The child proceeds with eyes wide open to technics and ears tuned to poetics ……
The locus of motorcycle sensation is mapped on the forehead by the night’s wind; its constant pressure is the companion of velocity. Beneath and slightly behind, a mechanical stream of sound embalms the rider and defends him from all exterior interruption. Ahead, a sharply focussed cone of yellow light reveals a fluid topography of space delivering but a scant and unconvincing rendition of motion. The middle ear and forehead are the active centres of this moving sphere, contracted in the velvet blackness of a Sussex night.
To become truly blind and in an attempt to see that, which is profoundly hidden, he switches off the headlamp and accelerates. This is more realistic than momentarily closing the eyes. The exhaust changes pitch to match the increased wind pressure and he begins to count slowly until a vortex of fear overcomes his reverie. Startled eyes reconfirm the ground, verticality and trajectory – beyond the globe of sound and cone of light; the world is still in place.
We are in a dense embrace, drawn forward on a flow of molten lead. The air clings to every surface and simultaneously penetrates the woven fibres of the sail and the recesses of our lungs – there is no position of distance here, we are co-substantial. The air is opaque, a milky smothering; embalming the chalk cliffs ahead; suffocating vision; muffling ears. Somewhere the ocean voices an argument with the cliff-face and somewhere a bell is drowning upon slow undulations.
Ahead in this universe of milk is a place I choose to call the horizon, we are always moving towards it. Upon the horizon, I imagine the broken form of a cliff – my eyes slide horizontally and print a luminescent trail of after-images in an infinite series across this dimensionless firmament. Now I must locate the tolling of the drowned bell in order to choose which cliff to steer toward.
It happened on the surface….yes in the open air…I was walking…suddenly to one side of me a loud grunt. There was a man lying on a hospital trolley, he was naked under the white sheet. He was a big handsome man with a black beard and a large tattoo, but he was unconscious in broad daylight, being wheeled by two attendants. His groan had been formed as his breath had been forcibly expressed as the trolley carelessly encountered a kerb. The naked body and the sleeping mind slipping through the bright sunlight in an envelope of total darkness.
So what of these mute stories? They are insistent champions of the sensoria stumbling through a dynamic cosmos (internal and external) but sensoria stymied, disoriented and careless. But these are involuntary movements, vectors, factors of change that recognise all sound, all noise, as an expression, as indexically linked to, and contingent upon the dynamics of material systems. So too are they insistent upon the inhabitation of a corporeal envelope, the fleshy matrix of the senses. The ‘Body Grounded Unit(y)’ perhaps merely the physical locus of ‘Multiple Personality Disorders’ promulgated on the Internet. Perhaps merely an amalgam of cellular entities, a community masquerading in a zoocentric guise, but whatever the evolutionary case these stories are experiential, rather than representational in nature.
These are all tropes of Blindness in a trading relationship with Clairaudience. Sight establishes a logocentric hierarchy of Subject-Object relations whilst Audition perhaps implies a co-substantiality, incorporation. In the closing sequence of Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker” three modes of vibration are represented simultaneously – the girl “Monkey” is shaken by the rattle of a passing goods train, bathed in symphonic music whilst she projects telekinetic frequencies – are these different things? perhaps not.
Roads from villages eventually run to cities, here an individual transition is made, here an understanding of the meaning of environment is transformed.
This city is large. It is composed of large structures. Large structures in small spaces. Its systems are massive. Huge masses move through the city’s air spaces. All movement is percussive. All motive power is based upon the serial harnessing of explosive forces. Trapped within the heart of each mass, moving or stationary, lays a kernel of violence, radiating motion, heat and sound. Each heart gives up to the atmosphere the glow of hydrocarbons and the staccato of respiration. The chorus of hearts permits the city to speak. To reveal its thoughts, to expose its inner nature. This city is large. Large not through the accumulations of history, but large through newness. This city has never learnt the songs of childhood. It is still trying to articulate its first word. Its mouth is filled with roaring. Its narrow air spaces resonate at the lowest pitch. The pitch of pre-oral culture.
Our desire is for speed. The footfalls, which beat twice each, second still share in the biology of bird-song. The motor running at 3000 r.p.m. drinks power at 50 Hertz. Rhythmic impulse plus speed equals pitch, and pitch the index and song of our desire. The sound of our desire is a flat tone, continuous and without interruption or modulation. The duration of the keynote is infinite. It pervades each space, occupying it as a viscous fluid, without direction, drowning the particular with the indiscriminate. The idiosyncrasy of the bell has found its antithesis in the drone of the motor which regulates its pealing. In our system, time is always running out. The bell has always punctuated this fact with its complex acoustic signals, but at a subliminal level the operations of the regulating motor constitutes the real meter of time, penetrating further and for longer than the pulse in our wrists.
The land of darkness flamed but no light and no repose.
The land of snows of trembling, and iron hail incessant.
The land of earthquakes, and the land of woven labyrinths.
The land of snares and traps and wheels and pitfalls and dire mills.
The voids, The solids, and the land of clouds and regions of waters.
Kick a tin can and it rattles down the street, you know that empty vessels make the most noise.
What is it when we whisper, a flow of breath carrying a tiny message, but a message directed entirely within the cavity of another’s ear. There are always two texts, the exhaled message, humorous or intimate, carried together with the omnipresent, silent message that reiterates Noise is power, that each sound carries within it both a record and a command to re-order the world.
The drumbeat and chant are a sublimation of the thunderclap and the howling of the storm. This is a husbandry of noise, the erratic and unpredictable bellows of nature, chained to time, to rhythm and meter. A raft of song floating in chaos.
The foundry and the smelter are a sublimation of the drumbeat and the chant. Song is now forbidden on the shop floor, in its place is a silence totally occupied by the continuous explosion of the furnace and the reports of transformation, as nature is re-created upon demand. Here concepts are bought to their conclusion, noise equals power, and power produces noise. Whispers could now operate only as subversion, but here to whisper is to shout above the din, full in the face of a comrade who can no longer hear, for whom bird-song is but a child-hood memory.
Kick a tin can down the street.
Empty vessels make the most noise.
The average daily count is nineteen; it is a speculator’s reflex, a banker’s barometer and a realtor’s dream. Counting construction cranes is the best way of keeping in tune with this city. The tip of the mechanism is a sure index, pointing vertically downward to a place of scraping away. At first a clawing down of a past, too new to be valued; then a scraping away to the bedrock, to the smooth, hard, ground zero of the cities history. Into this cavity, angular structures will graze archaeology, the skeletal will meet with the fossilised. For the moment this is a special guarded place, this future under-world will contain the stomach and heart of the structure, a site of massive reverberation, pumping liquids, and gases, and signals, and energy to fuel the functions of the super-structure.
Men are working here, feverishly as surgeons, opening and sealing the viscera as fast as possible in order that this other city is exposed for the shortest period only. It is as if this image of the canyon, with its calls to a distant history, or this amphitheatre with its reference to a history, which is coveted, is too volatile to be viewed, too arousing. For the moment, it is possible to crouch here and shelter from the wind and constant rumble of the streets and to hear for an instant the echo of a distant mountainside, or the hammer-fall on an anvil deep within a super-natural forge. But then all is owned here, even images, even sound.
And now it is neither a village nor a city, which can suffice as ‘home’, rather the ability to inhabit the memory of multiple journeys. At a fundamental level to be, a migrant is a catastrophic experience – offering up the original identity born of landscape – the history and culture of a terrain is flensed away, to be displaced by only that which can be carried – outwardly as worldly presence and inwardly as memory. This is a gyroscopic art – to feel centred as a being in transit.
There is a special place – a low mountain range, somewhere in the Western desert. Rocky slopes on which to do nothing – I have spent a good deal of time there doing just that. It takes two whole days for the tyre rumble to subside from the ears – for the nerves to reset to zero. Then listening becomes possible.
It becomes possible to hear absolutely nothing. As for the tape recorder, it simply inscribes its own irrelevant hiss. Here is an immense quiet; a quiet resting under the luminescence of the Milky Way; a full quietness. The rocks are singing away the day’s heat at some inaudible pitch, the heartbeats of reptiles are slowly rolling down thermal gradients – it is a quiet of solid repose.
But then there is another form of silence. An unstable silence that peels away behind the stereo voice, drawn into a vacuum of inky and dimensionless space. Arrayed across the horizon, and appearing both proximate and distant are the voices – voices that address us, which converse without falter. Somehow they simply appear, hovering at cöordinates plotted in Radiophonic position – whilst all around them the architecture has been demolished. All surfaces, even the very ground, has slipped over the edge of a cataract of silence. That which remains is the promised after-life, a life in which quiet does not exist.
Out of the frozen northern evening, past the granite sentinels on the City Square, saluted inwardly each day, finally to be alone and perfectly silent in the apartment. The two things, which were to happen in short succession, are figments really, but they remain with me constantly. As the quiet slowly seeped into my body and the warmth returned to my skin, my new surroundings formed themselves, the worn but stylish Jugendstil furnishings, the massive tiled stove, the elaborate moulded ceiling. Perhaps it was simply this moment of stillness, an interregnum in an otherwise hectic flow, but something settled over me, a sensation denied to me for years, or which perhaps I had denied myself – the sensation of ‘home’. At last, at home – a soothing, comfortable but overwhelming feeling mixed with paradox – why here, in a borrowed apartment, in another hemisphere, in a culture where my most eloquent communication was a nod and a smile? I was profoundly happy!
Night closed on the frozen square outside, behind the triple glazing I unpacked, made coffee and began to survey the rooms. It was here that my reverie punctured as my skin became an instrument indicating a sharp drop in temperature. The small triangular room adjacent to the parlour might have had an open window, but no, and I began to freeze again as I realised that I was not the only inhabitant. I addressed the empty room, a formal introduction and brief explanation of my visit – now the ice had been broken between us and an equilibrium established between guests.
And one for the road.
I am one of those rash travellers who refuse to believe in being lost. Rather I prefer to find it difficult to locate myself on the map.
Alone, walking north on the Appalachian Trail, mid-summer in Connecticut. Alone to hear things; even so it’s noisy on this ridge as the chatter of my thoughts compete with my breath. Two, perhaps three days, have passed and I have walked off my maps, by now I must be somewhere in Massachusetts; not a soul in sight and I am able to hear the rumble of an empire of caterpillars as a million mandibles de-foliate the ridge top.
Evening closes in as I descend the ridge, following a lively creek into miniature granite canyon with moss encrusted walls and velvet green foliage. I make my camp in the full knowledge that I am not the first to do so. The embers finally die and fatigue rises but slumber never arrives. The night is full of voices, the creek speaks in tongues just beyond my comprehension, conversations pass over me between the vertical stone walls of the canyon as I rest semi-conscious and perfectly safe; sleeping creatures are always protected!
I have listened enough; the following day my supplies are exhausted and I walk off the ridge trail, ambling through farmland until I find a road; roads lead to villages. “Please could you tell me what day it is, where I am, and might I use your telephone…..?”
The Cocker-Spaniel visibly pauses, inclines its head smartly to one side as it concentrates on the soft foot-falls of the man as he approaches over the resilient bed of fallen pine-needles. The dog’s eyes are open, but naturally, their primary function is to track the tennis balls, which the dog’s foolish owner launches into the distance, each afternoon at the local park. Right now a complex image is being formed, a spatial map of a man approaching, a man composed of mass and odours, of velocity and direction.
Most of us can hear, some of us even go as far as pronouncing hearing to be an important part of our sensoria (better to hear the squeal of car tyres on the cross-walk or the alarming clatter in a darkened alley, than not!).
Further, up the aural food chain there are creatures that not only Hear but also Listen! Beings who are blessed not only with 20:20 hearing but who possess the ability to listen, listen-up and listen-hard. I have a friend like this.
Sure when we are talking he hears me speak – we have talked a great deal over the past few years (we talk more when we are drinking, naturally!). But I know that in these situations my friend isn’t really employing the full extent of his powers. In reality, he only listens to things that make very small sounds – Snow for example, that vast mantle composed of minute resonant crystals re-casting the soundscape, re-mixing every sonic phenomenon.
The snow covered Tunturi of Northern Lapland double as an endless open-air anechoic chamber – there is no traffic rumble up there anyway, so all sounds are tiny and local. This is the point at which passive hearing becomes an active listening, a focus on the null-point of near silence, where the internal sounds of the body and its instantly frozen exhalations merge with the sound of shifting ice crystals.
Doi Mae Salong
Notes for travellers in Hybrid Reality.
Doi Mae Salong – New Years Eve 1992/2535.
Scene #1 – Using the zoom facility it is possible to scrutinise even the most intimate details of the performers. The watery blue eyes of the visitor gaze into the flickering blue viewfinder. The screen reveals the concrete plaza of a hotel, a fire burns, centre mid-ground, around this miniature figures shuffle indifferently to a monotonous rhythm.
This drama, viewed at right angles and in mono-chrome, will be premiered in the near future – on a cold winters night in Western Europe – on which occasion voyeurism will masquerade as ethnography and comprehension will be replaced by the digital memory.
Scene #2 – The driver of the low-rider pick-up truck indicates the direction. He is carrying more people than a luxury bus. 300 metres from the hotel on a dusty roadside lot a massive explosion of light and sound transforms the slumber of the mountain top town into a glowing crucible. The Cyclops eye of a robot disco lamp leaves deep patterns on the retina as it pumps to the drum machine sequences, which invade the limbs of everyone in range. Hill-tribe women grin as they jangle the silver rupees of their head-dresses, adolescent boys armed with 12 gauge riot guns lurch up and down and children swarm in and out of the pay turnstiles after each clip of three tracks. Melody lines are vaguely western, lyrics in Thai, the jokes behind are Chinese, some transactions in Burmese and wry comments in Akha, Lisu and Lahu. Up in his tower the Imam cries out to the crystal night sky but only Burmese insurgents and a couple of U.S.D.A. agents hear his call – everyone else is too busy!
In the old homeland my family were said to have migrated from northern Germany as fisherfolk and run a small fleet somewhere on the northeast coast. My father’s back a Palimpsest of shipyard labour. His skin punctuated with small, Lunar white scars – a Tyneside riveter’s coat-of-arms. My father’s voice a soft Gordie croon with a lullabye about Shrimp Boats coming home, guaranteed to put me to sleep in the cot.
So it seems my fate is co-mingled with salt water, as it is professionally with sound. Both are liquid mediums, both immerse and surround us – and naturally, we can drown in both!
Serendipity; on my first day aboard the “Artic Corsair” I came across this poem, posted on a bulkhead;
:This is the old Hessel Road
The home of Bear Island Cod
Where the Hudson’s speak only to the Hellyer’s
And the Hellyer’s speak only to God!
I guess salt is in the blood.
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- Semi-Automatic Writing: An Opera for Human and Machine Voices.
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- Some approaches to Sound and Listening.
- Sonic Voyages
- Electrical by Nature
- 2 + 2 = A math primer for the hard of hearing.
- Prometheus Bound; Art, Science, Creativity and the Imagination.
- Nigel Helyer’s Silent Forest by Doug Kahn
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- Vist the Drawings Gallery