'One thousand needles: imagine threading them with a straight thread’ (Yoko Ono 1970: unpaginated)
‘Perception over time equals thought’ (Bill Viola 1995: 150)
'Slowness is a formidable power: it has the passion of immobility with which it will, some day, fuse' (Edmond Jabes 1972: 55-6).
As Anthony Hoete has suggested in his introduction to Roam: Reader on the Aesthetics of Mobility: ‘Mobility, in the contemporary context, is a complex concept, ideologically elusive, difficult to pin down. Mobility is a transitory, transformational state, reconfigurable and self-refreshing, time after time. Mobility is an ‘event-space’, a sequence of appointments and rendezvous. Mobility is multi-dimensional […] polymorphous […] multi-scalar […] multi-linear. Whilst comprised of journeys from A to B, these lines constitute networks: from C to DE via KLM. As such mobility’s multi-dimensionality suggests a matrix, or an array of co-ordinates’ (Hoete 2002: 11-12).
Yet, paradoxically, in practice mobility has also come to infer immobility. We are increasingly obliged to ‘kill time’ suspended in the meanwhile non-places of waiting within the multi-dimensional matrix, crawling along or going nowhere in traffic jams and queues and railway stations and airports, inert in front of computer terminals as the server fails to serve our desires. In our haste to speed up our trajectories through the world we are obliged to slow down, and in this tension for many there is a loss of patience and a kind of impossible suffering. ‘Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared?’ (Kundera 1996: 4).
Some art processes and practices school us in slowness, and the qualities of attention that allow what is happening to happen and to take (a) place; they teach us about festina lente – making haste slowly. As Buddhist philosophers have recognised, there is an epistemology of and in slowness, and its propositions are informative and provocative for artists: ‘A rediscovery of the now, relocation in the here; return to the primacy of experience, of the event; rediscovery that facts are relations, that all knowledge exists on the threshold and in the interaction between subject and object (which are themselves only hypostatisations); a rediscovery of ambiguity, of contradiction, of difference; a reassertion that things – and people – are what they do’ (George 1999: 34).
In a 10-day conversation with a small group of dance writers and makers on the shore of Lake Como at Bellaggio in Italy in the summer of 2002, a conversation in which I was delighted to participate, American choreographer Susan Rethorst articulated her sense of choreography as a long, curious wandering: ‘Choreography engages what might be called a more sober passion. It lies in small cumulative moments and decisions, glimpses and glimmers that add slowly through the dailiness, that sneak into a whole consuming reality, a parallel to the rest of one’s life’. André Lepecki, one of those centrally involved in this drifting exchange, had written earlier about ‘the time of dance’: ‘to sit, to listen, to be, to observe, to breathe, to think, to remember – the most urgent choreography’ (Lepecki 1996: 107). Now we talk about the time of conversation, and its dance. The luxury of time, of taking time to make time - of slow wandering and drift and waste and interruption and change of direction and silence and connective emergence and the small ‘violence’ of dislocation - of a slowing down into the complexity and detail of what is happening ‘in the middle’.
I think of the generative deceleration described by Matthew Goulish: ‘Most of us live in fear of slowing down our thinking, because of the possibility that if we succeed we might find that in fact nothing is happening. I guarantee this is not the case. Something is always happening. In fact, some things happen which one can only perceive with slow thinking’ (Goulish 2000: 82).
I think of Bachelard’s suggestion that one of his aims is ‘to school us in slowness’ (Bachelard 1988: vii). I think of Deleuze’s challenge to ‘think other durations’ through memory, art, philosophy, to ‘think the time of becoming’ as intensive rather than extensive, of time as the force of movement whereby movement transforms time by producing new becomings. Movement, he suggests, does not move a body from one point to another (translation), but rather in each aggregation/moment of movement bodies transform and become (vibration/variation/ multiplicity): ‘Movement always relates to a change, migration to a seasonal variation. And this is equally true of bodies: the fall of a body presupposes another one which attracts it, and expresses a change in the whole which governs them both. If we think of pure atoms, their movements which testify to a reciprocal action of all the parts of the substance, necessarily express modifications, disturbances, changes of energy in the whole … beyond translation is vibration, radiation’ (Deleuze 1986: 8-9).
I think of Paul Auster, blocked as a writer, falling out of the momentum of New York into the attenuated rhythms and discontinuous intensities and flows of a dance studio, and the moving stillness of a choreography taking shape: ‘In the beginning I wanted to speak of arms and legs, of jumping up and down, of bodies tumbling and spinning, of enormous journeys through space, of cities, of deserts, of mountain ranges stretching farther than the eye can see. Little by little, however, as these words began to impose themselves on me, the things I wanted to do seemed finally to be of no importance. Reluctantly, I abandoned all my witty stories, all my adventures of far-away places, and began, slowly and painfully, to empty my mind. Now emptiness is all that remains: a space, no matter how small, in which whatever is happening can be allowed to happen’ (Auster 1998: 86).
I think of Bill Viola’s explorations of the intervals below the threshold of perception in works where, as Walter Benjamin wrote of slow-motion: ‘the camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses’ (Benjamin 1968: 236).
I think of the French paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin illuminated by his encounters with Mongol communities and with the burnt stones of the Inner Mongolian desert in the early 1920s. Years later he wrote: ‘Throughout my whole life, during every minute of it, the world has been gradually lighting up and blazing before my eyes until it has come to surround me, entirely lit up from within’ (quoted in Dillard 1999: 13). I think of deep ecologist Arne Naess’s invitation to ‘think like a mountain’, and of Wallace Heim’s notion of ‘slow activism’ (Heim 2003). I think of Marina Abramowic’s statement that she is ‘more and more interested in less and less’.
I think of Andrey Tarkovsky, Clarice Lispector, Edmond Jabès, Terrence Malick, WG Sebald, Ann Hamilton, Tacita Dean, David Nash, John Cage, Jem Finer. The slow ones.
The texts and images that follow comprise 24 fragments related to conceptions, perceptions and practices of slowness, where each ‘fragment’ should be understood in Maurice Blanchot’s terms as ‘the patience of pure impatience, the little by little suddenly‘ (Blanchot 1995: 34). Or as a single frame within an imaginary film strip of one second: 24 frames per second. The explosion of an instant. A slo-mo rehearsal of a lightning strike, moving at the speed of memory.
[* Please note that for this online version, I have removed one of the frames and its accompanying text, in memory of Lyall Watson who died a few weeks ago in June 2008. A prolific writer and a rather eccentric adventurer, he was the author of a book that was important to me, Heaven's Breath: A Natural History of the Wind (1984). In the missing section, please think of a wind you know and its particular qualities].
Above all, in dialogue with Hannah Chiswell’s 24 fragments in the original artist's book, these texts and images stage something of a slow and ongoing conversation between two friends, about snow and rocks and sky and lightning and memory and flying and falling and birds. The unfolding loop of cogitation between two attenuated and intensive seconds, a dynamic relational meanwhile between an inhalation and exhalation.
1. ‘There was this, and then this, and then this: nothing … one could truly lean on’ (Chantal Akerman on her film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), quoted in Margulies 1996: 149).
2. ‘There is a secret link between slowness and remembering, between quickness and forgetting. Think of something utterly commonplace – a man walking down the street. Suddenly, he wishes to remember something, but his memory fails him. At this moment he automatically slows his paces. Conversely, someone trying to forget a terrible experience he has just had will unconsciously quicken his pace, as though wanting to escape from what is still all too close to him in time. In existential mathematics this experience can be expressed in the form of two elementary equations: the degree of slowness exists in direct proportion to the intensity of remembering; the degree of quickness exists in direct proportion to the intensity of forgetting’ (Kundera 1996: 34-5)
3. On a bright spring morning in April 2003, British performers Gregg Whelan and Gary Winters, collectively Lone Twin, conducted an exercise on the beach at Scarborough in Yorkshire, with a dozen or so participants. The proposition was simple: count the number of steps from the Victorian Spa to the beach’s edge, then over a period of 30 minutes walk towards the sea using the same number of steps; at the water’s edge make an action imagined en route, then turn and retrace one’s journey back to the beginning of the beach, again reiterating the same number of steps over a 30 minute period. A simple meditative slowing down and immersion in present process, drawing attention to time’s passing, in counterpoint with the rhythms of beach-side traffic, dog walkers, ball games, donkey rides, a group of girls cart-wheeling dizzily, swaying metal detectors, the crash of the waves, the drift of the clouds. During the group’s attenuated return from the sea, two uniformed policemen moved swiftly towards the lead walker - coincidentally the editor of this volume - and confronted him nose to nose, blocking his passage. They had received a number of phone calls reporting ‘suspicious behaviour’, a group of people moving imperceptibly slowly across the beach. What were they doing? Was it a protest of some sort? In this way a slow private action in public, its internal dynamics, meanings and functions resistant to a normalising survey from the outside, constituted a threatening anomaly to the civic everyday. The most everyday of actions - standing, walking, thinking, at times apparently immobile and doing nothing at all – had produced an unreadable and dissident friction in the complex layered polyrhythms of the seaside. Perhaps unwittingly, they had provoked a small collision of practices of mobility and conceptions of ‘acceptable’ speeds.
4. ‘I like the feeling of the texture of cocoons. A cocoon produces numerous threads. The threads come out so fast that my body is often left behind. At such times my body is empty. I wonder where my stomach and other organs have gone. But the threads that go out may be my organs, or they may go out through all my pores. They spread out into space, no one can stop them. All that’s left of me is contours. In the meantime, my body remains in the cocoon and is suffocated. People often say that I’m not moving or that I look like an idiot. Is it because I move too fast?’ (Butoh performer Akedno Ashikawa in Moore 1991)
5. 400 polished stainless steel poles, each of them with a diameter of 2 inches and solid stainless steel tips, arrayed in a parallel rectangular grid 5,280 feet by 3,300 feet, or 1 mile by 1 kilometre. Each pole 220 feet apart. Each mile-long row containing 25 poles, each kilometre-long row containing 16. A walk of about 2 hours to cover the perimeter of the grid. A field of potentiality in waiting for the untimely, sudden, sublime event of lightning. The conditions for lightning and its ‘doing of the did’.
Completed in West Central New Mexico in 1977, Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field was one of the iconic works of land art. It was intended for the work to be viewed alone ‘over at least a 24-hour period’ (de Maria 1980: 529). Using aerial and land surveys to determine the precise elevation of the terrain, in order for the plane of the poles’ tips to ‘evenly support an imaginary sheet of glass’ (ibid), the work took 5 months to install. Only about 60 days a year fell within the season of primary lightning activity during the summer months. It was possible to observe a number of distinct thunderstorms simultaneously from The Lightning Field. With occasional light snow in winter, and the anomalous optical phenomenon of the vast majority of the poles becoming almost invisible when the sun was high in the sky, light was deemed to be ‘as important as lightning’ (ibid: 530). On rare occasions, a powerful electrical current in the air generated the glow known as ‘St Elmo’s Fire’ which was emitted from the tips of the poles. The conjunction of art and nature, engineering and unpredictability, a tiny number of witnesses and a vast landscape/skyscape, the slowest of events and those moving at the speed of light.
6. During the 1990s, the Russian performance artist Oleg Kulik made a series of related performances collectively entitled Zoophrenia, in which he pursued the game of playing dog in a purposeful way, mimicking a certain kind of canine behaviour to excess. Becoming-dog was a strategy to ‘renounce his identity as a reflective being in order to become a being with reflexes (a dog)’ (Kulik in Watkins & Kermode 2001: 76). At other times, he also ‘became’ a bull, an ape and a bird, but the dog tracked him like a shadow. In 1998, Kulik made a performance called White Man, Black Dog. In complete darkness in a Ljubljana gallery space, a naked Kulik tried to interact and establish an intimate exchange with a real black dog. Intermittent camera flashes produced by two photographers documenting the encounter supposedly burnt ephemeral images into the short-term retinal memories of spectators. For Kulik, such an encounter and its fugitive visual traces constituted ‘the only true, “absolutely real” art’ (Kulik 2003: 23).
7. ‘Oui … Oui … Oui … Oui … Oui … Oui … Oui … Oui …’ (Aurore Clément, on the telephone in the final shot of Chantal Akerman’s film Toute une nuit (‘All Night Long’), 1982, quoted in Margulies 1996: 173).
8. She moves. Her attention adjusts and focuses as she sniffs around a quality of stillness in the action, a quality of action in the stillness, her nostrils flared for the event of it. Slowly slowly. Stalking while never letting on, while always letting on, that stalking’s afoot. Something lives here, and moves here. Something warm. Something animal. Its presence resonates and is carried on the wind in this windless space. Its reverberation comes to her as smell. Just a whiff, the merest hint of a lair, of a pelt, of a world in a surreptitious moment of synaesthesia. Coloursoundsongsmell. Something there. The need for moist attention. The need for a wet nose. Follow your nose. Slowly slowly track it, but but let it be, let it take a place in the open. Patience, go quickly go slowly, stay close to it but not too close: she must move away if she gets too close. How to be near and far? Come and go, just as it comes and goes on the wind in this windy place. The role of the eyes in sniffing it out, the role of the ears. Body all eye-ear-nose. She follows her nose, it takes her closer, closer, then no too close and she can’t smell a thing and she smells too many things, the smell blurs and its shape fades and she moves away again and begins to drift again. Circling. Circling. As if now were here, and she were all alone. S l o w i n g d o w n t o n o w h e r e s h e Breathe. Ready. Again. And. No not now, be slower. Move away again and wait, lie in wait, be still in wait. Wait. Weight. Wet. She remembers an Inuit word she read and wrote down and learnt for the rightness of its rhythm, the shape of its sound in space and the time of its gesture - an onomatopoeic map: QUINUITUQ, the deep patience of waiting for long periods while prepared for a sudden event. QUINUI - like a polar bear waiting for a seal at a hole in the ice. A chameleon invisibly perched on a branch attentive to the flashing insect wings around it. A tick on a blade of grass ready for the passage of fur. Or a photographer standing in a storm at night, camera in hand, waiting for the lightning strike. Then TUQ - a flaring into appearance. An active vanishing that burns itself into the retina for a moment, then gradually dissolves.
9. ‘There are about two hundred shots in Mirror, very few when a film of that length usually has about five hundred; the small number is due to their length. Although the assembly of the shots is responsible for the structure of a film, it does not, as is generally assumed, create its rhythm. The distinctive time running through the shots makes the rhythm of the picture; and rhythm is determined not by the length of the edited pieces, but by the pressure of the time that runs through them. Editing cannot determine rhythm … indeed, time courses through the picture despite editing rather than because of it. The course of time, recorded in the frame, is what the director has to catch in the pieces laid out on the editing table.
Time, imprinted in the frame, dictates the particular editing principle; and the pieces that ‘won’t edit’ – that can’t be properly joined – are those which record a radically different kind of time. One cannot, for instance, put actual time together with conceptual time, any more than one can join water pipes of different diameter. The consistency of the time that runs through the shot, its intensity or ‘sloppiness’, could be called time-pressure; then editing can be seen as the assembly of the pieces on the basis of the time-pressure within them’ (Tarkovsky 1986: 117).
10. Of all of the artist-walkers who spring to mind - Hamish Fulton, Marina & Ulay, Lone Twin, Wrights & Sites, Janet Cardiff, Tim Brennan, Iain Sinclair, Bruce Chatwin, and so on – Richard Long seems to me one of the slowest and most patient, one of the clearest about his choices. Long repeatedly uses walking structures as generative ‘games’ in the production of photographs and texts in which words assume a sculptural quality, as well as ‘non-site’ works for gallery spaces. His walks are playful in a purposeful way, and it’s invariably hard to separate the idea for a walk, the walk itself, and the trace of walk. The walks are conceived by Long as ‘sculpture’, taking sculpture way beyond the usual definition of the generation of objects. Instead, he proposes to make experiential events and impermanent relational connections with and in places. In his registering of their traces lies an implicit set of propositions about reality, nature, our place(s) in the world: a kind of ethics of lightness, movement, process, change, relationality in complexity. We only ever witness traces of the space-time aggregate of the absent/invisible event. The sculptural work itself rarely involves violent interventions; the work is always on a human scale, often discreet, ephemeral, small restrained displacements more often than not employing the elementary and archetypal formal configurations of lines (motion) and circles (stopping points) and their variants (spiral, cross, arc, zig-zag, ellipsis).
In an interview in 1990, Long reflected on the complex relations between duration and ephemerality in his work, a slow dance of endless repetition with difference, of unfolding multiplicity within identity: ‘I suppose my work runs the whole gamut from being completely invisible and disappearing in seconds, like a water drawing, to a permanent work in a museum that could last forever. The planet is full of unbelievably permanent things, like rock strata and tides, and yet full of impermanence like butterflies or the seaweed on the beach, which is in a new pattern every day for thousands of years. I would like to think my work reflects that beautiful complexity and reality’ (Long 1991: 104).
One of Richard Long’s most remarkable walking works is Crossing Stones (1987), in which he carried a single pebble from a beach on the East coast of England, near Aldeburgh in Suffolk, all the way across Britain to Aberystwyth in West Wales, covering more than 300 miles in 10 days. On the beach in Aberystwyth, he deposited the Suffolk stone, exchanged it for another, and then carried this second stone back another 300 miles to deposit it on the same beach in Suffolk. This act of displacement is both heroic and Sisyphean in its epic absurdity. A return journey on foot lasting 20 days, covering more than 600 miles, in order to exchange two pebbles (why those two?), and all that survives is one text work, a brief score-like description of the structure of the event as a whole. The symmetrical transplant effects a re-assimilation by two pebbles on a new beach in a fresh alliance with other pebbles, all of them moving incessantly with tides and weather: so nothing moves, everything stays the same, but everything has changed. (The layerings of time: the moment of choice of a pebble, the rhythms of foot steps, the moment of placement, the rhythms of the sea, the glacial speed of change in stone: slowness is always relative). The pebbles remain remote from each other in their new locations, as far apart as ever, but a new connective relation or tissue is established between the individual stones, the beaches, the coastlines, the edges of Britain. Each of them has crossed to a situation that is the same and quite different. The space between them is blooded and activated by Long’s long walk, a passage which has all but disappeared in its embodied complexity, Nothing is mentioned of the journey to and fro beyond the fact that it took place; three weeks collapse into a few words, and Long’s experiences en route are excised completely in this most radical act of editing and distilling to a pure economy of exchange. It is the experiences of the pebbles, it seems, that are to be privileged.
11. ‘There are, on a few Shinto shrines, some sacred curiosities. Stones that have fallen from the sky. Nobody makes much fuss about them. They are simply there for people to take pleasure in, and as objects deserving of the respect accorded to everything that shares the spirit of divinity. The traditional explanation for their existence is very simple and matter-of-fact. “There is a hole in the sky”, say the priests, “and sometimes things just fall through it”’ (Watson 1984: 319).
12. In the opening sequence of Le Jet de Sang (‘The Spurt of Blood’), a short play written by Antonin Artaud, a pair of young lovers express ardent passion for each other in a (parodic? nostalgic?) exchange that culminates in the young man declaring: ‘We are intense. Ah. What a well-made world’. Artaud then provides a genuinely startling stage direction: precise, hallucinatory, dissociated, anti-romantic, surreal, apocalyptic. It appears there is indeed a hole in the sky, and fragments of well-made civilisations and anatomies fall through it as the lovers’ intensive coup de foudre gives way to cosmic dismemberment: 'Silence: noise like a huge wheel spinning, blowing out wind. A hurricane comes between them. At that moment, two stars collide, and a succession of limbs of flesh fall. Then feet, hands, scalps, masks, colonnades, porticoes, temples and alembics, falling slower and slower as if through space, then three scorpions one of the other and finally a frog, and a scarab which lands with heart-breaking, nauseating slowness’ (Artaud 1968: 63).
Although one might readily associate an Artaudian ‘theatre of cruelty’ with frenzied speed and ecstasy, it is my impression that in his writings Artaud rehearsed a particular ontology of slowness. He returned repeatedly to his sense of time and integrated, ‘orderly’ spaces (e.g. that of the human body) being out of joint, and articulated the pervasive dis-ease he experienced as ‘that abnormal facility that has entered into human relations which does not allow our thoughts the time to take root’ (Artaud 1988: 162).
13. On a footpath, in large letters traced with a finger in the fresh snow, someone’s written a message to the sky: MORE SNOW PLEASE. The gift of snow. Its aura.
14. ‘Relation of walking and thinking, the movement of the body setting thought in motion. Rimbaud composed many of his poems while walking. So does Edmond Jabès. Walking the space of a line, a phrase. As if finding it. A grammar of motion … Edmond Jabès walks. Hands crossed in back. Slowly … In the dining room, Edmond opens a drawer full of pebbles he has collected on beaches. In Brittany, In Italy. “Look at this, wouldn’t you say, a face? And this one here, magnificent”. Almost all his pebbles have markings one could see as a face. “Just look; it’s Verlaine”. Once he has said this I cannot see anything but Verlaine in the veins of the stone. But I think more of how it is sand and stone that hold his attention rather than the sea. Bits of desert … After Edmond’s death, Marcel gives us a most precious gift. Two out of a group of five white pebbles that Edmond has collected for him. These do not suggest faces. They are pure white. They are, strangely, almost perfect cubes. They sit on top of one another’ (Waldrop 2002: 15, 30, 32-3)
15. ‘In 1981, I made a videotape in Japan, Hatsu Yume ('First Dream'), in which there is one sequence where a fixed camera views a rock on a mountainside over a long period of time. When it comes on the screen, the images are moving 20 times normal speed, and gradually, in a series of stages, it slows down to real-time, and eventually to extreme slow-motion. People usually describe that scene by saying, “ … the part where the people are all slowed down while moving round the rock”. What I looked at in that scene is the rock, not so much the people. I thought it would be interesting to show a rock in slow motion. All that is really happening is that the rock’s time, its rate of change, exceeds the sampling rate (the recording time of the video), whereas the people are within that range. So the rock just sits there, high speed, slow speed … it doesn’t matter. I think about time in that way. There are windows or wavelengths of perception. They are simultaneous and interwoven at any one moment, but we are tuned only to a certain frequency range. This is directly related to scale changes in space or sound, proportion in architecture and music. A fly lives for a week or two, and a rock exists for thousands or millions of years’ (Bill Viola 1995: 151).
16. In the late 1960s, in a proposal for a new work called Island of Broken Glass, a work that might be thought of nowadays in terms of a ‘deep ecology’, American land artist Robert Smithson suggested that a small island in Vancouver harbour (Miami Islet) should be covered with broken glass. Eventually, through the forces of nature over a long period of time, the glass would break down into ever smaller pieces until its final return to sand. Smithson’s proposal was vehemently opposed by ecologists, and the work was never realised. Elsewhere Smithson wrote: ‘In the museum one can find deposits of rust labelled "Philosophy", and in glass cases unknown lumps of something labelled "Aesthetics"' (Smithson in Holt 1979: 79).
Meanwhile about thirty years after its disappearance Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) has re-emerged into astonishing visibility (for the time being) from beneath the surface of the Great Salk Late in Utah; the rocks are now caked in sparkling salt crystals in the pink waters of the lake.
17. Imagine it. A wheat field, two blocks from the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and Wall Street in New York City, opposite the Statue of Liberty. First, the clearing of rocks and trash on a disused block of land, then a fresh covering with truckloads of landfill, before the spring planting of seed in 285 hand-dug furrows blanketed with an inch of top-soil. The establishment of an irrigation system, clearing, maintenance, weeding and spraying. Four months of careful tending, from brown to green to amber, then the final harvesting in August: almost 1,000 pounds of wheat. Finally, the return of the land to the rhythms and economies of intensive urban development, and the construction of a new luxury complex.
Reflecting on her land art sculpture-event Wheatfield (1982) afterwards, activist-artist Agnes Denes suggested: ‘It represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, economics. It referred to mismanagement and world hunger. It was an intrusion into the Citadel, a confrontation of High Civilisation. Then again, it was also Shangri-la, a small paradise, one’s childhood, a hot summer afternoon in the country, peace, forgotten values, simple pleasures’ (Denes 1982: 544).
A wheat field in lower Manhattan. Imagine it.
18. On a February morning of both sun and snow, walking through the fields on the banks of the River Dart at Dartington in Devon, I come across an oak tree that has fallen during a winter storm. Uprooted, its massive trunk shattered, the tree’s canopy lies over the pathway made by dog-walkers and joggers: an impassable obstruction, an interruption in the rhythms of walking and running. It is as if it has dropped out of the sky, like the timber house in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho. I am struck by the juxtaposition of a long, slow period of vertical growth and the sudden moment of falling to the horizontal:
‘There is a moment when the newborn first lets out a cry into the dry air, when the pressure of light first falls on the virgin surface of the new retina and is registered by some pattern of nerve impulses not yet fully “understood” … There is a moment, only truly known in anticipation before it happens, when the eyes close for the last time and the brain shuts down its circuits forever (the end of time)’ (Viola 1995: 142).
In the weeks since the oak’s collapse, a new ‘desire path’ has been worn into the grass around it, a perfect semi-circle tracing the outline of the canopy and connecting the path at either side. The old path, now enveloped by the dead branches, remains bare. From the perspective of the buzzard floating far above my head, one might see a large brown D inscribed into the grassy surface of the field by gravitied footfalls over time.
20. First, a score: Yoko Ono’s TAPE PIECE III/Snow Piece (1963): ‘Take a tape of the sound of the snow falling. This should be done in the evening. Do not listen to the tape. Cut it and use it as strings to tie gifts with. Make a gift wrapper, if you wish, using the same process with a phonosheet’ (Ono 1970: unpaginated).
Then a slow and illuminating close reading of a slow and illuminating work. In his remarkable study of sound in 20th century avant-garde art work, Noise Water Meat (1999), Douglas Kahn begins by describing the paradoxical acoustical effects of snow falling: ‘It is a sound of blanketing bereft of warmth, a massive field of intense activity that is oddly quiet, and because the accumulation of snow acts to absorb sounds and the minute crystalline structure of snow breaks up sound waves at their own scale, it becomes progressively quieter as the snow mutes itself. [...] The irony of snow falling is that it produces the conditions for listening closely but then absorbs the sounds that might be heard’ (Kahn 1999: 238-9).
Kahn then turns his attention to Ono’s poetical disposition towards technology, and its embracing of multiple inaudibilities. For the score involves: ‘much more than trying to listen, even though Ono has employed and displayed the technology of listening. She has actually employed a technology one imagines and a technology one ignores. Assume for a moment an impossible transparency of audiophonic technology [...] A tape recording is made of falling snow using such technology and then ignored. Ono’s score instructs the recordist not to listen to it because it is the best way to ensure its accuracy’ (ibid: 239).
Finally Kahn highlights the ethical overlay in Ono’s score between environmental and social relations, the tacit acknowledgement of multiple silences (and silencings) and the emotional warmth in the economy of the gift: ‘A refusal to listen complements both the silence of the imagined sound of snow falling and the silences involved in the very act of gift giving. Whatever else can be said about gift giving, something is always left unsaid. Although speech may revolve around the act, the delicacy of the gesture, especially in Ono’s score, acts to absorb the sound waves of speech. When the audiotape is used as ribbon, the environment of snow falling lies covertly inscribed along the length of the tape in patterns resembling the loops of a bow’ (ibid: 239-40).
21. Las Ramblas: a bustling, tree-lined boulevard bisecting the old city of Barcelona. Lorca once described it as ‘the only street in the world which I wish would never end’. Its name derives from an Arabic word (ramla) for torrents or rapids, for at one time it was a seasonal watercourse, the route of run-off from hills to the sea. The memory of water.
Today Las Ramblas runs from Plaça de Catalunya in the north to Plaça Portal de la Pau in the south, with its harbourside monument to Christopher Columbus. Caked white with birdshit, with a hefty stone map in one hand by his side, Columbus points confidently out to sea, but in the direction of North Africa rather than the New World. This way, folks, must be.
How to remake a river? Or more modestly, for I’m uneasy with Columbus’s unshakeable conviction as model, how to make a small action whose ephemeral traces might reconnect this place briefly and playfully with its naming, and with its past role in the micro-circuits and flows of the hydrological cycle? How to re-member a river? I discussed this with Gregg and Gary. Many triggers for me in what they do, and they have moist imaginations. We chatted in a cafe, quiet little rants and what ifs and didyaknows about weather systems, bodies, maps, becoming-river, Snowflake the albino gorilla. Then Gary said what about ice.
In the end we slid a block of ice from the CCCB, past the Plaça dels Angels and along the Carrer Bonsuccés to Las Ramblas. We placed it on its side on the paving stones in the middle of Rambla Canaletes, near an old iron fountain, then wrung the melted ice from our gloves to start the flow. People watching, talking in the sun. The water of memory (David Williams in Whelan & Winters 2001: unpaginated).
22. After hearing La Monte Young talk at the Barbican in December 1998, Jem Finer, the creator and composer of Longplayer, a 1,000-year-long musical score for looped Tibetan bell-chants spiralling ‘like planets around the sun’ (Finer in van Noord 2000: 3), wrote in his journal: ‘I was interested by his talking about the evening’s performance as part of an ongoing, ever-lasting performance. The time that had elapsed since the last one merely being a pause in the music’ (ibid: 29).
23. Speed of the sound of loneliness is the title of a John Prine song sung by Nanci Griffin, a title borrowed by Richard Long for a walking work he made on Dartmoor in the winter of 1998. Walking continuously from dawn to dusk, Long circled Crow Tor at a distance representing the Earth’s orbit around the Sun; the rock acted as still point or fulcrum in a circuit of 7 miles walked 3 1/2 times, at a speed Long estimated to be at 2.8 miles an hour. Long’s published score of the event goes on to record other speeds occurring simultaneously in a sliding scale of space-times around Crow Tor - an overlay of differential speeds and relational connections moving out from the rock to the galaxy in this simple meditative staging of the vertiginous dynamics of our tiny corner of the universe (Long 2002: 149):
THE ROTATION SPEED OF THE EARTH IN ENGLAND 700 MILES AN HOUR
THE ROTATION SPEED OF THE EARTH IN ITS ORBIT AROUND THE SUN 70,000 MILES AN HOUR
THE SPEED OF OUR MOTION AROUND THE GALAXY 500,000 MILES AN HOUR
24. A man in a snail suit stands waiting at a zebra crossing. Spiral shell on his back, comedy feelers protruding from his forehead. A car slows to let him cross. He acknowledges the driver politely, then lies on his belly and slides imperceptibly slowly across the tarmac, inch by inch. Music: Bakerman, by the band Laid Back. "Bakerman is baking bread. Bakerman … is baking bread. The night train is coming, got to keep on runnin’ …" (from Dom Joly’s Trigger Happy TV).
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