Perpetual Erosion

The following is a copy of a paper I presented at the INTIME 2011 Symposium in Coventry on 24 September 2011:

Perpetual Erosion:  Impermanence in Audio-Visual Intermedia

Ross Whyte

Department of Music, University of Aberdeen

 

 

Introduction

 

Over the past century, there has been a growing embrace of Japanese culture in the West, its spiritual values and aesthetic practices.  In recent decades, Western art has seen an increasing interest in Noh Theatre, Butoh and wabi sabi.  The latter in particular can be seen to share parallels with several art forms – including glitch and visual music, or what I would term audio-visual intermedia.

 

Wabi sabi is a term which does not lend itself easily to Western definition.  But its deliberate obfuscation is precisely at the heart of the traditional Japanese world view; the term is inherently elusive.  The closest equivalent in the English language is the word “rustic”.  This however, does not come close to conveying the essence of wabi sabi – which can be expressed as much as a way of life, as it can an aesthetic practice. 

 

Wabi sabi is an acknowledgement of and appreciation for the impermanence of all things.  It is a conscious departure from perceived perfection and elegance.  It is the identifying of beauty in all things flawed.

 

These are all defining principles of contemporary glitch music, which also resonate with many approaches to visual music composition.

 

In this paper, I intend to draw further parallels between wabi sabi and contemporary forms of intermedia (in particular, glitch/cracked media works), while referring to my own approach with specific regards to the composition of the audio-visual intermedia work, (H)ANNA(H).

 

Wabi Sabi in the Technological Age

Juniper (2003) argues that the sociological and cultural influences of the West upon Japan have resulted in the growing abandonment of their religious and spiritual heritage, due in part to “the material hedonism preached by the West.”[1]  Artistic and aesthetic sensibilities have certainly been traditionally synonymous with Japanese religion, spirituality and particularly, a reverence for nature.   We find this, for example, in the Noh theatre works of Zeami and the poetry of Bashō.  In Marcel Theroux’s 2009 BBC documentary, In Search of Wabi Sabi, he observes several instances of technology’s surreal impact both upon Japan’s landscape and its peoples’ interaction with it, for example, the sight of Mount Fuji constantly viewed behind a “lattice of cables” or haiku poets photographing autumn leaves with their mobile phones.[2]

In the early 1950s European electronic music had begun to make its impact on Japan.  Musique concrète and the first electronic explorations of Karlheinz Stockhausen had profound influences on artists such as Makoto Moroi and Toshiro Mayuzumi who were, in part, responsible for introducing to Japan the new theoretical templates that this genre proposed, while, to an extent, retaining a characteristically Eastern aesthetic.[3] 

On a cultural and artistic level, Japan’s shift to a more Western outlook is perhaps most evident in the Fluxus movement which, along with its Dadaist sensibilities, took root in Japan immediately after its emergence in Europe and America in the early 1960s.  It is arguably unsurprising that Japan would embrace such an art form.  The principle tenets of Fluxus are not so dissimilar from those of wabi sabi: an appreciation for the everyday, (the “readymade”), the understated simplicity of an expression which retains strength of character, the process of indeterminacy, and the abandonment of bourgeoisie, elitist thinking.  One of the key figures in Japan’s Fluxus scene was Yasunao Tone who had been a member of the avant-garde group Ongaku (1958-1962).  Tone’s recent work continues to develop those traditional avant-garde approaches while integrating them with contemporary digital media.

I would also suggest that the converse is true; that through the West’s adoption of certain Japanese aesthetic practices, their concepts and values have been bent somewhat to our own cultural and artistic purposes, particularly in the current digital age.  Furthermore, it could be said that our understanding of wabi sabi in both the East and the West has evolved to accommodate shifts within the development of technology.  This is particularly evident within glitch music and certain forms of visual music (generally understood to be the practice of applying musical form and structure to visual imagery).

Wabi sabi philosophy posits that all things are impermanent.  This is a truth which is as pertinent to contemporary digital media as it is to the natural world.  Despite our best efforts, an artistic work can only be reproduced so many times before it becomes completely unrecognizable from its original entity.  The reproducibility or preservation of a work of art is limited by the sustainability of its components and most, if not all, technologies will eventually become obsolete.

It is in the inherent nature of glitch artists to identify perceived flaws and to allow those flaws to become the catalyst or focal point for an artistic work.  As with practitioners of wabi sabi art, many Western artists believed that it is the erosion or corruption of materials that makes artistic expression richer.

Circuit-bending practitioners (who frequently hack existing electronic devices to create new instruments) are aware that their tools have an indefinite and unpredictable lifespan.  Such scenarios provide a keen sense of immediacy in live performances; an awareness of the now-ness rather than the forced prolongation or preservation of an expression.

 

A similar case in point can be found in the introduction of the compact disc as discussed by Kelly: “[…] those who used CDs shortly after their release soon discovered that the rhetoric of permanence did not hold true in practice: CDs that were not handled carefully soon developed glitches, skips, and stutters, making the playback of the CD frustrating or even impossible.”[4]  A wide variety of artists, including Oval and Yasunao Tone saw the creative potential of this apparent technological limitation and consequently created some of glitch’s most defining musical works.

Within the visual domain, there are countless examples of artists purposefully taking advantage of the fallible nature of their materials.  A recent example is artist Guy Sherwin, who, following in the footsteps of visual musicians such as Laszlo Moholy-Nago and Oskar Fischinger, has defined his own approach as “technological synaesthesia”.[5]  His intermedia practice frequently involves the physical abuse of the celluloid filmstrip (e.g. cutting, splicing, bleaching), and, as this material carries the properties of sound as well as image, both realms are reconceived in equal measure; what is seen is heard and what is heard is seen. 

Kelly states that “new media has at its core the ability to transform digital code into new objects.”[6]  Examples of this practice can be found in the process of “data-bending”.  Thus far, this is a technique which has proved most popular among visual artists.  However, as with the synaesthetic results by Sherwin’s abuse or manipulation of the optical soundtrack of celluloid film, many of those who have adopted data-bending as a creative approach have recognised a similar sonic potential in experimenting with what Kim Cascone describes as the “data hidden in our perceptual blind spot”; one which “contains worlds waiting to be explored, if we choose to shift our focus there.”[7]

In these aforementioned works there is a sensory duality which resonates with the often multi-sensorial expression and experience of wabi sabi art.  For the individual engaging with wabi sabi, he or she is encouraged to explore every sensory facet – examples include the meticulous visual and tactile experience of a traditional tea ceremony, or the simplistic pairing of image and sound in a Basho haiku:

The old pond;
a frog jumps in —
the sound of the water.

Fragmented Recall: Identity and Authorship

 

When Alvin Lucier first fed a recording of his speaking voice back into his room in 1969, he instantly set in motion the erosion of his own identity and authorship of the work before it had even reached the listener.

 

Wabi sabi art exudes modesty in its expression.  The presence of the creator is deemed to detract from the work and thus, it is preferable that a certain level of invisibility or anonymity be retained.  As consumers of contemporary artistic production (or “tenants of culture”[8] as Bourriaud has termed it), both our consumption of media and our constant reuse of it serve as a means of perpetually distancing the work from its creator and, in the same manner, the work becomes something forever new; the consumer is also the producer.

 

This is a philosophy present among the various realms of glitch.  Glitch artists have frequently identified creative potentiality in the found; material which is often hidden or located somewhere in the background.  The techniques used by Oval in the early stages of their artistic output, are subtle, abstract examples of sampling (the band trawled through CD collections in their local library in search of the most ill-treated CDs that they could find, sampled the skipping, stuttering sounds of their failure and created new works from the results).  What sets this approach apart from more common approaches to sampling, though, is that it is the malfunction of the mediator (i.e. the CD or CD player) that provides the creative material, rather than the reproduction of the original recording.  In such works however, what is often heard are abstractions of fragments from a faulty reproduction of an original work; a surreal memory of an earlier production. 

 

Within visual music or audio-visual intermedia, this conundrum may present itself in the creative use of so-called “orphan” films – that is, video material which has been abandoned by its creator or owner and later discovered and archived by film preservationists.  In most cases, the details behind the film’s origins are unknown.  Such material could be said to possess wabi sabi: the work exists in the world as an entity divorced from the identity of its creator while evincing the passage of time; it may, perhaps, evoke a certain melancholia in the mind of the receiver, due to its abandonment and anonymity.  Furthermore, the work itself may appeal to the artist to, however tenuously, intuitively re-conceive this material, glitches and all, as something completely new.

 

Audio-Visual Intermedia vs. Visual Music

 

Evans (2005) defines visual music as “time-based visual imagery that establishes a temporal architecture in a way similar to absolute music”.[9]  While there have been exceptions (e.g. Fischinger), a great majority of the works produced by those in the genre have their roots in the birth of cinema and, thus, have placed the emphasis on the visual rather than attempt a symbiosis of media.

 

Yet, these works are largely approached or discussed with a musical grammar.  Terms traditionally associated with music are frequently employed: consonance, dissonance, cadence, motif, phrase, tension, release, harmony, chromaticism, counterpoint.  Among some of the most cited examples of the genre, however (e.g. works by the Whitney brothers, Norman McClaren, Stan Brakhage), the actual use of music appears to be either incidental or merely there to play a supporting role for the imagery presented.  Rather, it is the temporal quality found in music that corresponds to such works.

 

Evans (2005) uses Eisenstein’s theory of montage (1942) as a basis for identifying different forms of visual music.  Again, the grammar is closely associated with that of music: “tempo” and “rhythm”, for example, are key terms used when discussing the editing process.  In the visual realm, tempo and rhythm are a means of structuring material to convey meaning, whether that be narrative or non-narrative forms of expression.  The use of metric montage, for example, is a method in which the duration of all utilised images is carefully structured; the sequence follows a kind of “time signature” consisting of variations and “accents” to present a sense of dialogue; duration determines meaning.  Rhythmic montage on the other hand applies its structure via the content or thematic context of the images; in this case, meaning determines duration.

 

Audio-visual intermedia can still, however, make use of the other montage models proposed by Eisenstein.  I would like to discuss two of my own works as examples.  Daguerreotypes uses 30 different portraits which date somewhere between 1850 and 1860.  The subject or subjects are unknown and are presented sequentially at an extremely fast rate.  The music is constructed using the sound of mobile phone interference through desktop speakers.  Each pulse of sound occurs in tandem with a single image.  The process is intermittently disrupted by brief high-frequency distortions, at which point extreme close-up footage of a portrait, filmed with a hand-held video camera, is presented (see figure 2).  These moments serve as exaggerated accents to the tempo of the overall process.  Daguerreotypes can therefore be seen to function, both musically and visually, as an example of metric montage.[10]

 

Before Sleep follows the rhythmic montage model.  It uses a variety of screenshots from W. W. Young’s 1915 production of Alice in Wonderland (see Figure 3 below) and re-contextualises   them into an altogether different narrative.  The screenshots are sequenced in a stop-motion animation style and are built around the recurring rhythmic “motif” of Alice (seemingly) running on the spot on a staircase.  The music uses samples of a skipping CD (in a manner similar to the techniques employed by Oval and Tone).  Alice’s position on the staircase is determined by the alternating pitch of the music.  When new timbres are introduced, the images are intercut with different screenshots, e.g. the Duchess nursing a baby or the fleeting image of a text box; the paragraph that appears for the briefest of moments does not allow the viewer time to read it in full; while one or two words may stick in the viewer’s memory, the device serves as a rhythmic event rather than a literal method of communication.

 

Both the aforementioned works are headphone-specific.  Specific material is designated to either the left or right channel, resulting in a rapid alternation of sounds in immediate synchronicity with the flashing sequences of material.  By structuring the auditory elements in this manner, and by interrelating them with the visual montage, the overall production is intensified to create a wholly unified perceptual experience.[11]

 

(H)ANNA(H)  

 

 

(H)ANNA(H) is an audio-visual intermedia work which resulted from a larger collaborative project with choreographer Mhairi Allan and two dancers (Hannah and Anna) in which the overarching themes were memory and transition.

Mhairi and I spent several hours interviewing the dancers, recording them retelling some of their memories and discussing the sounds associated with those memories.  Afterwards, I filmed them listening to their recordings (along with the sounds that they described) through headphones.  Following that, I interviewed them again, asking them to recall the words that they had used to describe that memory in the previous interview.  That interview was then combined with the previous and the dancers were once again filmed listening to their responses with the earlier footage projected behind them.  Visually, the effect is similar to when you face two mirrors towards each other and that image becomes infinite.  The process was repeated several times more, with the original audio recording and video footage becoming more abstracted and fragmented each time.

The (H)ANNA(H) project gradually evolved into two separate formats: a dance installation and an audio-visual intermedia work – the glitch aesthetic equally present in both.   This arose across two levels: through highlighting the fragmentary nature of memories and exploiting the progressive erosion of sound and image reproduction, resulting in a blurring between the human and digital elements.  The project ultimately became concerned more with the exploration of the process of remembering rather than with the original memory itself.

In developing the project as an audio-visual intermedia work in its own right, I eventually hit a wall.  While I felt that conceptually, the project was sound, I had not set in motion what I had originally intended; the parameters I had originally set, did not allow for the perpetual degradation of sound and video materials that was at the heart of the concept.  There was a strong temptation to re-conceive it using different participants.  This however, felt like taking a step back.  The solution, it seemed, was to use the existing recorded material that I had gathered during the residency and re-contextualise it, and, in addition, implicate myself in both the audio and visual elements; to assign my own recall of the original concept and subsequent event, once again setting in motion a process of perpetual erosion.  In other words, I had to reclaim the work before letting it go again.

In fact, it will be a recording of a reading of this last paragraph that will initiate (H)ANNA(H) into a new context; something set in motion that no longer requires my intervention.

Conclusion

In each of my aforementioned works, I have attempted an approach that I feel resonates with wabi sabi.  This begins with a process of identification; of locating materials that have qualities which are deemed to be flawed and then recognising their potential for beauty or artistic merit.

Wabi sabi expression in art makes use of freely available materials – with the Orphans series, it is both the discarded, unclaimed or un-copyrighted visual materials that lie within the public domain, and, sonically, the hidden or unintended digital artefacts that reflect the glitch aesthetic present in the visual.  While (H)ANNA(H) remains a work in progress, it is clear that the freely available materials take the form of digital audio and visual recordings of memories and their processes.

It is my aspiration that these compositions will, in a manner similar to some of the other approaches that I have mentioned, elicit a very particular type of beauty – one of a flawed, corroded and impermanent nature; the glitch aesthetic.


[1] Juniper, A., Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence, (Rutland, 2003), p. 30

[2] “In Search of Wabi Sabi”…………………

[3] See, for example, Mayuzumi’s Aoi no Ue (1957) with its synthetically produced Noh flute and Taiko drum sounds.

[4] Kelly, C., Cracked Media, (London: 2009), p. 299

[5] Sherwin, G., Optical Sound Films, (London, 2007), p.5

[6] Kelly, C., Cracked Media, (London: 2009), p. 311

[7] Cascone, K., “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music”, Computer Music Journal, 24:4, pp. 13-14

[8] Ibid., p.24

[9] Evans, B., “Foundations of a Visual Music”, Computer Music Journal, 29:4, p. 11.

[10]Daguerreotypes can be viewed in full at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42Vgit36hJk

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