2017 November: Fake Storytelling

Week 1 Struggles

My psychological turmoil is only worsening I’m afraid, and totally eclipsing any sort of idea of ‘work’; I scarcely know what that word means anymore. Where I find I am now incapable of doing even certain simple tasks without breaking down, there are still some circumstances in which I can learn something or find something interesting I guess, and that’s mostly looking outside of myself and at other artists or writers.

I’d like to brusquely brush aside these ‘personal matters’ about depression from the sanctum of this work-only journal, but my warped idea of work is increasingly causing my depression, and my depression is increasingly rendering me incapable of working. I wonder if it is all to do with the experience of art education; I seem increasingly to feel impotent and stressed out throughout the years of my studies.

At least I’ve been looking outwardly, and finding in the intermissions between fits of despair, some quite interesting stories and art!

 

Author: The JT Leroy Story

J mentioned in a crit the documentary Author: The JT Leroy Story. I watched through its rigid, sensational American documentary framework and found the main character and story very compelling: Laura Albert. I hadn’t known about the queer cult classic novels by J.T. Leroy; supposedly autobiographical fiction about a ‘blonde, blue eyed boy’, a teenager, ‘turning tricks’ and his experience being brought up by his prostitute mother. This documentary is about its author, who after a good decade of fame, turned out to ‘not exist’. There was in fact no embodied ‘Jeremiah Terminator Leroy’, believed to be the body and soul upon which the protagonist is based; instead, these popular ‘autobiographical’ novels, lauded by celebrities like Winona Ryder, Bono, Courtney Love… were in fact written by a significantly older woman, with a husband, with a son, called Laura Albert. She is often shown telling us her story in the documentary. She’s flushed, enthusiastic, waving her hands about and very endearing because she comes across as very earnest. I liked her as a character. She has been accused of fraud, after years of parading her friend around in a blonde wig and sunglasses as her very own gay, male avatar. The newspapers relished in finally uncovering her secret, and the pseudonym along with its embodied doppelganger and thought-to-be psychotic author, all became a scandal.

The documentary however, is clearly sympathetic to Laura and gives her the space and time to properly explain how all this came about. This was no ordinary pseudonym; J.T. Leroy was someone Laura actually felt’ existing in her, was one of her many voices. Struggling with mental health issues, she had a habit of calling up mental health advice hotlines and chatting to phone therapists, but had a need to talk using other voices. She explains that ‘not all the little boys inside of [her] live; some die’. They don’t resurface, they don’t get heard. But after chatting to one therapist, introducing herself as Terminator, she finds this voice surviving day after day, and each time she calls up the therapist she is able to tell him the story about his mum Sarah the prostitute, and much of the abuse and misery that will later become the subject of the books. Naturally, the therapist listened to all these stories which were in fact not Laura’s, yet which she felt with convictions were the true stories of J.T. Leroy himself (and that she was not being misleading), and encouraged him to write about it. It soon turned out that J.T. was pretty good at writing, and the therapist who believed he was speaking to a blonde, blue eyed boy (Laura even sent photos to him), encourages J.T. to publish and become a writer, which he does, and becomes awfully successful.

Laura becomes more personalities. She poses in her own body as J.T.’s friend and manager, Speedie. J.T. has a Southern US accent, Speedie is a Londoner. This all sounds awfully Vernacular Spectacular when you learn that Laura, all the while, did not at all mean to deceive, and yet did not quite have an uncontrollable multiple personality disorder either. She was in control, she claims, in that she could choose to bring out these characters or not, and yet she believed in them as characters.

After 10 years of J.T.’s living body floating about in the media, it was certainly a surprise to hear that that was not at all J.T., and that he didn’t actually exist.

Most interesting to me was how this was described in the media, and Laura seems to have found this particularly hurtful; the headlines describe the case as a ‘literary hoax’. I loved that, what does that say? What could a ‘literary hoax’ possibly be, if every piece of fiction is in a sense, a lie? How can you make fake literature? Suddenly, this story didn’t count. Laura is accused of fraud. But whose identity is she forging? Her fictional character’s? Isn’t that an author’s very vocation?

And yet the public felt wronged somehow, it was literature on unjust terms to them; they had expected only what they contractually agreed to believe by opening a book and subscribing to the general conventions of autobiographical literature. Instead, there’s more deceit, more contrivance, more tale spinning than was agreed upon by the reader by convention – the fiction had slipped out of the book and demanded belief where it was not known to the reader anymore that they were believing (within the terms of fiction, a pretend believing). Suddenly, the book, still a book and still a well written book, is rejected as not being ‘real literature’ – because it continued to be literature beyond the reader’s permission.

 

Compass – Mathias Enard

I am reading Compass by Mathias Enard, following my continued interest in Fitzcarraldo Editions books, and with its Proustian journey through memories of the ‘Orient’, the glamour of the passionate scholars, orientalists and music that underscore the adventures described prove something of a guilty pleasure. It has been an apt literary companion what with the current focus in the London culture scene on opera, following the V&A’s new exhibition:

 

Opera: Passion, Power & Politics (V&A, 2017)

Franz, the protagonist of Compass is a musicologist with a specialism in Oriental music and the Oriental, a category very much created and summoned by the West, for the West; full of exoticisms and (albeit often seductive or endearing) misconceptions. Franz often talks about the lives of various composers and ways in which they were drawn to ‘the East’, many of which are the composers and figures behind the operas I’ve learned about lately. The BBC broadcast a great documentary about the history and politics of opera hosted by Lucy Worsley: Lucy Worsley’s Nights at the Opera, and I enjoyed placing  historical connections between the backstories and political milieus attending many of the operas I’ve come to know and love from my upbringing. Carmen by Bizet for instance, with its surprisingly great lyrics for the aria on love being like a bird – and its threateningly seductive refrain! (If you don’t love me, then I can still love you. And if I love you, you better beware). Or Mozart’s notorious Le Nozze Di Figaro, wherein a duet between a countess and servant girl (the object of the count’s desires) displays a provocative solidarity between two distant stratas of society – they sing with equal importance, while aristocrats are otherwise shown to be unscrupulous and greedy (bearing in mind that opera was performed predominantly to an aristocratic audience).

Still from Porgy and Bess by Gershwin

In fact, so many of these operas were notorious for their time, politically, socially. It seems to have been the medium for notoriety, rebellion – in spite of traditionally being addressed to an upper class audience. The program ends with Strauss’ sultry and bloody Salomé, which I have to admit was even now quite difficult to watch – Salomé cackling hysterically with joy, her transparent slip all drenched in blood, as she holds the severed head of John the Baptist and kisses it – rejoicing in winning over his love at last in this manner!

 

All the Stories – Doria Garcia

I’ve also picked up a copy of All the Stories by Doria Garcia, which is better than I remember when I first encountered it at The Tetley (Leeds) exhibition of her work earlier this year. It is a book listing a series of very short paragraphs, sometimes just sentences, that (although I haven’t checked the intention of the author) appear to summarise stories from human history in what would seem crude and reductive generalisations. You realise that the project of this book is to contain the ‘gist’ of all our stories, and that sort of ‘Library of Babel’ project has always intrigued me, in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, in my own obsessive journaling and self-archiving, in the Marino Auriti model of a museum that would hold all of human knowledge (which inspired the 2013 Venice Biennale exhibition, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico). Garcia’s book has the curious advantage of allowing you to experience a cliche, or super famous story, or epic, or myth, anew, defamiliarised, as if with alien eyes. Decontextualised by the omission of well-known names and titles, the reductive summaries permit a fresh entry point into stories which only subsequently reveal themselves to be a curt synopsis of Romeo and Juliet or Groundhog Day. Indeed, when a story is given as nothing but a sentence such as ‘A haunted mirror that shows your death’, there are quite likely a great number of known stories that could be summed up this way, so each text often serves to contain not only a overly cited scene but also all its variants, tropes, etc, in such a way that the book may perhaps claim to hold ‘all the stories’.

 

Being a Storyteller

I fantasise about being a storyteller. I like the sound of it when I tell myself I am a writer, and even when I am not writing, I suppose it’s mainly always been storytelling that’s been my vocation. But given my psychological condition, it doesn’t seem to be coming easily at the moment. I am too fragile and insecure to invent stories. But maybe I can retell simple stories that are not my own?

I could practice once a day telling other stories, true life stories maybe. Something off the news, something from a documentary I watched, a memory? Something given, that I can just practice retelling.

I could make a channel, even a private one, just for story bites.

It would be like Doria Garcia’s All the Stories, just a mish-mash of different kinds of stories, though not avoiding context. It could even be a retelling of a scientific theory, or philosophical concept.

Then ‘teaching’ would become a form of storytelling. It could be interesting to align such stories; scientific vs fictive. And me telling them, for the sake of practising the skill of telling.

I could then make it my project to curate a series of very interesting stories.

One option is also to tell each found story as if it is my own story.

I could allow the stories to be very short, to ensure I do it once a day. Stories that particularly pique my interest may then warrant a bit of background research.

Watching how stories already are told: Harari, Fo.

 

Dario Fo performing Mistero Buffo

And above all, to think of this as a personal project and not an artwork.

Sources of good stories?

  • Some of the weird periodicals at school
  • Just my day and how it went
  • ‘Reading’ the British Museum or other museums
  • I could interview elderly people on their life stories and retell them as if they are mine
  • Family memories
  • Retell chapters from my own novel
  • Films or librettos or books

 

Stories I could already tell?

  • Retell Kate Tempest’s album Let Them Eat Chaos
  • How trees grow around their own death by living only in their skin; how you can kill them by slicing the bark around their trunk.
  • Telling the story about the ‘inspector automaton’ in my novel
  • Jors Karl Huysmans’ novel, Á Rebours
  • Marko (my brother) and I sitting on the rooftop under a gable, ‘smoking’ yellow stickies and watching a deluge.

 

A Lecture/Lesson/Workshop on Art, Agency and Writing

Yuval Harari’s MOOC series on A Brief History of Human Kind was an amazing storytelling performance as well as lecture, I think.

Maybe I could create a lecture derived from my paper to help me write it? I could offer to stage it to MA Yr 1, BAs, Foundation.

  • There could be a sign-up sheet, as for learning a skill,
  • I could invite students and staff, and include a promo video when I do a mail out
  • I could use clips of my characters from VS to discuss plurality and authorship
  • ‘You may have noticed that you’ve entered some sort of pedagogic situation’

Teaching is a form of storytelling. I will give an art history lesson that weaves a thread through history that is very selective; and thus this story is a creation in its own right.

 

Attempt:

I’d like to teach you something about art. I’d like to prescribe potions for artmaking before I’ve quite ascertained their guaranteed universal efficacy. I’d like to make this a conference for alchemy.

I’ve always wanted to teach you about art. I didn’t know what, but I wanted to teach it. I filmed it and made an anthropological study of myself, but couldn’t really extract any results from it, other than, this space and time is enormously important. I was devastated to have all that atmosphere to myself. Teaching is something to give. A story, about practice.

Week 2 Struggles

What did I do in the first week of November?

I struggled a lot, I did. Had a few breakdowns. Other than that:

  • I heard a talk by Benedict Drew on his work
  • I wrote a little in my research paper. It is a bit of a mess, but at least the driving questions are a bit clearer.
  • I submitted an application to the Slade and to Melbourne for a PhD
  • I contacted C from Kingston University and F at the RCA about PhDs.
  • I submitted a work for the university degree show fundraising auction
  • I applied for the UAL Access to Learning Fund
  • I recorded a few attempts at stories on iPad and phone (a woman upset with her partner about the way he goes along with her lies. A woman who imagines an argument between two lovers beneath her window. A retelling of All the Stories, A Rébours, and my plan to retell stories.)
  • I had a workshop with K on proposal writing. It was clear my PhD proposal was a bit of a mess. It doesn’t really propose anything concrete, focusing instead on the projects I’ve done in the past

 

I’m so confused about my role in this world. I am doing all this stuff, for what? What am I supposed to be doing?

From the outside I suppose it could look simple: she is writing a book. She could finish writing that book.

But inside I’m thinking, why the hell am I writing a book? Why bother write it? And of what I have written so far, does it really have any idea or purpose behind it like a book usually feels it has, or is it just a jumble of whatever came to mind?

Well I’ve gotten this bloody far with it. I could finish the book.

How to think about it…

It could be a thousand different books, couldn’t it. I can’t spend forever trying to figure out which is the rightest sort of book for it to be, I just need to let it be a book. Any one of them, to some extent, will do fine, any one of those outcomes.

I’ve wondered today whether I should get it over with and just write it all out, finish it, instead of agonising about it forever. Maybe I could. I have one sort of-ish idea of how it all, the story that is, pans out – though I have no idea what purpose the book as a whole would have with such an ending. But maybe I should just write that. Like it always was for me with drawing, it was always hard for me to think large-scale. I don’t know what the arc of this story is, I rely on improvisation in storytelling and drawing alike, it seems. But maybe I can start crafting a logic that would work once I come closer and write moment to moment, rather than wracking my brains over the perfect conclusion. I have some sort of structure for the whole thing – write it to the end goddammit, and then you can start obsessively editing for a lifetime. Maybe all I need to do at this stage is prove to myself that I am at all capable of writing a book.

This is an idea K gave me for the research paper actually. She said, why don’t you just try write the whole thing in a weekend. It’s a good idea. It suggests that there is enough raw material there; that you just need to believe you have enough to go by and then go ahead and make something with what you have. I am sure she’s right about the research paper, that once I put my mind to it, I’ll see that I have more than enough context and experimental data and research to say something about something in 6000 words. I can’t obviously say everything, as I can’t say everything in the novel, so that’s good enough reason to put what you already have (plenty) into existing projects.

This is all so easy to theorise about, but it’s daunting to confront. But without any pressure, just an open-ended timeline, I am not sure that book will ever end (not that I’ve been working on it for too long, only irregularly for 2.5 years). Maybe I just need to decide that it needs to end, for it to end.

 

Scripts – Cally Spooner (2016)

In ‘At Five to Ten by the Old Bridge, My Sweetheart – Documentation’ (pg. 24):

“Eloise: It’s the 24th of November 1859, and complete newness is a dreadful modern fallacy. I know, because I checked.

There are only ever new formations and very old material and this is perfectly fine by me. Absolute newness arrives through absolutely new deviations, which means that novelty is a repetition, and an inaccurate replication; the same thing, performed again and again, in a very different way each time. […]”

Then there’s a passage talking about the difference between an ice cube and a snowflake, where the conditions for the first is a script (the ice mould) and the second, what I’ve been calling a ‘blind script’ (a programmed welcoming of chance, mutation and autonomy).

In ‘Players’ in Scripts, the characters are ‘Actress’, ‘Stage Directons’ (in italics) and ‘Stagehand’, who is ‘not present’. The Actress says, (p. 43):

“A good container is an empty container, ready to be used, so I have opened up a space, by disappearing into myself, and letting other people in (poke the essay). I have provided a space for nothing but a floating intellect. A space in which it’s once again possible to show that other people think. And I’m happy, I’m happy to do this.”

And, on the same page:

“Movement is movement because something stayed the same. Change is absolute but only because someone gets left behind and variations are only a shift if something that precedes it is different and also exactly the same. I’m trying to say that freedom arrives from structure, that limitations are good and madness is productive so long as it’s managed by calm and is never an end in itself. Because no one likes a mad woman […]”

In ‘Indirect Language: Act 2 (Part 1)’ in Scripts, Narrator and Painter are talking, p. 54:

“PAINTER: Sometimes you are, and sometimes you’re not. (She pushes the script away and reaches for the remaining cup of coffee.)

NARRATOR: Would you like a fresh one?

PAINTER: Not really, I hate the stuff. It’s just a prop… (she jabs the text). You know that.”

And p. 55:

“PAINTER: So that the smallest divergence, (she moves the cup) the slightest inflection (she tidies her hair) the minutest of gestures (she wrings her hands) means that things may be expressed through the smallest decisions, and the greatest amount of chaos, to change the meaning of something… completely…”

 

Erudition

What would I want to do with my PhD? Do some experiments of course. Gah, I cannot pretend. What?

Well I’d like to read a whole lot more. I’d like to read everything in my Reading List and everything I forgot to add to it. I’d like to reread Frankenstein and then read Mary Shelley’s other book, The Last Man, and I’d like to read a biography about her. I’d like to finish reading Compass, read lots of classics, become schooled in all sorts of classics, become erudite; somebody who could entertain an intellectual supper and browse an internal repository of obscure and marvellous texts from outside the Western tradition. I’d like to have a much clearer visualisation of the geography of the world and all its nations. I’d like to know a little something about the migration, merging, and evolution of peoples (Assyrians, Scythians, Mesopotamians, and all those exotic archaic peoples that have been obliterated by today’s Italians and Serbians and Brazilians).

I’d fantasise about becoming some sort of intellectual like this. The intellectual’s sheer pronunciation of things becomes something to envy you know, they seem to lip-smack at everything they say, there is relish in speech. Speech for the intellectual is not simply bearing life or communicating to stay afloat in it, but soaring above the surface, light, observant and comfortable from the position of spectator for whom the world unfolds its distant dramas and comedies.

I am a bit ashamed of this desire to return to the paralysing enterprise of the Enlightenment period, to fix and pin down in order to apprehend the world by categorisation and compartmentalisation. To top up my knowledge bit by bit until I am quite certain I have learned everything. It’s all very un-postcolonial… I guess… colonial.

The pleasure of knowing what happened, where and when in history. Of knowing what lies on either side of the river Euphrates, and that it flows through Syria. That’s new knowledge to me, from reading Compass. Its writer tells us that during the first and second world wars, Germany announced and tried to rally a jihad against the allied forces by capturing and reinscripting colonial soldiers to rise up against their colonisers, reminding us that holy wars are never of a spiritual nature at heart – not even today. Those are some things I read in Compass. The book also reminds me of the intellectual I fantasise about becoming.

Yesterday I read about Imposter Syndrome. I lie, I watched a video about it by Julia Kristina, a councillor with a YouTube channel. She is right about everything, I think, when I watch her. I scarcely recall a moment where she was ever wrong. Frankly, it seems that either way it stops mattering once the video’s ended. Anyway, she said feeling inadequate in one’s field of study/work is, paradoxically, increasingly common the more one is well-versed or skilful in that field. She says this is because the more you know, the more you realise just how much you don’t know, and that this is obviously always a great deal. To complete the video with therapeutic advice, she reminds those who suffer from lack of confidence and end up almost giving up on doing anything further with their field, that, ‘you may not know everything. But if you’re not qualified, who is?’

Fair point. I may have had it up to here (I am pointing to my forehead) with my own fucking work that I in some ways have come to profoundly despise it; but if not someone like me, who? I’ve been doing this bloody sort of artsy thing since the dawn of my consciousness. That’s many years of looking at things askew. I must have some sort of expertise by now.

 

Week 3 Struggles

What did I do in the second week of November, looking back?

  • Finished reading Compass
  • Started reading Danilo Kis’ Encyclopedia of the Dead
  • Started reading Cally Spooner’s Scripts
  • Had a phone interview at 2am with Melbourne University for a PhD
  • Saw Andy Holden’s exhibition Natural Selection at the Former Newington Library and was pleased with seeing the film he made with his oologist father about bird nests.
  • Submitted an application for a PhD to Kingston University
  • Was rejected by Slade for a PhD
  • Attended our degree show fundraising auction and saw my work disappear from the wall and become someone else’s possession. At this event I enjoyed the opportunity to mingle a little with postgraduates on other Art Programme courses. I had proposed to do a performance for this event but failed to muster the courage. I felt awful about giving up and it triggered a depressive episode.
  • The Glam Auction Performance idea that I failed to muster the courage to carry out went like this. (Jazz music, glittery dress):
    • 1: I’m not worried. Are you worried? I’m not. Sometimes you get prickles in your arm hairs, that’s where you get them. I don’t have them. I asked them, I asked them can I do a sedentary performance, I asked them. They said yeah, you can do a sedentary performance.
    • 2. What? I’m not appalled. Are you appalled? At the situation? Many women have borne this sort of thing before, I’ll bear it like they did. I’m not even surprised. He was my fourth husband, I know what they’re like. Made up of all these irreconcilable pieces! I was lying on the sand when the wave came to take my husband from the shore. The wave collapsed onto him and sliced him in two! He tapered off on either side, like an unzipped jacket. I wasn’t appalled, certainly, what else could I expect? The wave ambushed him again and again, cutting each half of him in half again till he became a cluster of particles, scattered, scattered to the wind! I had no ashes to sprinkle… He should never have married an atom in the first place.
    • 3. I’m not kidding. Are you kidding? Well then…
  • Explored some Balkan sevdalinke (Following Enard’s mention of Kraj Tanana Sadrvana about the Azra tribesmen, known to die when they fall in love) and got a bit nostalgic about the idea of researching folk art from my Serbian heritage. In particular I was struck by my mother’s account of the sevdahmood. Here’s her description, from a recent email:
    • Sevdah really has a special meaning, much more complex than ‘black mood’ [from Turkish sawda, according to Mathias Enard in Compass] that it originates from. It is something like a total surrender, complete abandon, an immersion in the kind of bitter-sweet suffering usually caused by unrequited love or at least an idea of unrequited love (i.e. even when there is no concrete person that has rejected you, you still might remember a past rejection, or imagine that the one you love now has left you, or you might be sad that you still don’t love anyone and yet have all this capacity to love but no one to bestow it upon), or the cause may be the sorrow for the lost youth, the relentless passing of life (though even the young can indulge in it, in advance feeling what it’ll be like when their youth is gone!), but the whole thing is about giving yourself to an emotion, a bit masochistically, that is both sad and pleasurable at the same time. Sometimes, you don’t even need any cause at all to be in the sevdah mood. It just comes. Weird, but all of us from the Balkans know sevdah very well, and the cartoonish representation of it is when you see a man in a kafana [pub/bar], drunk, listening intently to sad songs of the sevdalinka sort, looking longingly at the lady singer and occasionally lifting his arms in the air when particularly overwhelmed and breaking a glass. That’s the dramatic male version. The less dramatic is when your deda [grandad] is singing longingly in the garage or while mowing the lawn. The female version also has two varieties. One too is romantic and cartoonish – a lone girl tending a garden, preferably a rose, shedding an occasional tear while singing to the flower; the other version, again, is much less romantic and more common, and you kind of witnessed it when your mum does the dishes, and puts on traditional music and sings her heart out. I know there is more to it all, but I can’t quite put it into words, though I’m sure you understand and well know the feeling yourself.”

 

Compass – Mathias Enard

Mathias Enard’s book deserves its acclaim, for it comes at a very timely moment, following the settled sense of distrust between West and East, images of Islamic terrorism, images of mass migration and refugees settling in Europe and particularly the stories incrementally constructed about the East by the West following and during the Arab Spring. I don’t know if the novel set out to tackle ‘big issues’; mostly it pays homage to its form by focusing on the personal more than the political, and on the life and emotional world of its protagonist, a Franz Ritter; the bedridden, sickly musicologist reflecting on his scholarly life and his lifelong love, Sarah. In itself, I found the love story marvellous; the attention to the ebbs and flows of a lifelong, unrequited love that becomes almost a subconscious core to Franz’s being – his love is wonderful, truly absorbed in Sarah’s otherness, both erotic and innocent. But his reminiscences of personal matters and journeys is as embroiled in politics as is the East in the West and the West in the East. For that is what the book elucidates; by merely tracing the influences of trademark German operas, or the journeys of 19th century Western orientalists; Portuguese poetry and the jihad launched by Nazi occupants on allied forces; one finds Eastern roots in the most European of ideas and art. Likewise, the oriental as a Western construct, an exotic gaze, becomes curiously adopted by the East itself and reappropriated; what Enard via Ritter calls the oriental in the oriental, quoting Pessoa when talking of “what lies East of the East”. This “oriental” then, is a collaborative image of the East constructed both by East and West.

Through these journeys through opera, archaeology, linguistics, world literature, poetry, painting, history, folk music, war, religion (and a massive amount of research was clearly required to trace these lineages), the book never didactically makes a point of criticising nationalism, but merely provides endless examples of how impossible it is to delineate the pure characteristics of a nation. The book is anti-nationalistic, and yet does not romanticise cosmopolitanism; globalisation and cultural exchange still causes as much war and havoc as much as it does the sharing of knowledge, art and technology, but the book simply demonstrates how impossible it is to conceive of a pure culture, people or nation – in fact many of those traits nationalists deem most quintessential to their country, are over and over again shown to be riddled with an ancestry their dogma hypocritically denies. Nationalists like Wagner or Liszt are forced into some sort of hypocrisy at some point down the line in their arguments for pure German or Hungarian music; where the very thing they praise about their nationality is owed to the people they call pariah: Wagner’s Jewish supporters whom he later condemns; Liszt’s bipolar account of the Gypsy people whose rhythms permeate his ‘Hungarian’ Rhapsodies.

 

Notes on Encyclopedia of the Dead by Danilo Kis

  • The desire for universal knowledge
  • ‘A remark that Kis underlines in a book by Bruno Bettelheim provides a gloss: “Contrary to general belief, evil is neither tragic nor romantic; most of the time, it is banal”’. (xx, intro by Mark Thompson)’
  • I liked the story of Simon Magus and think I will add it to my collection of short story readings. Mark Thompson describes Magus as a Gnostic. I like the story because it is about the possibility of there being a multiplicity of truths, and achieves this through legendary narration and offering multiple accounts – contradicting accounts of either Simon or his Christian rival preachers afforded by historians according to whom they followed, and finally, Simon’s ultimate challenges to the tyrannical dogma of one-truthness itself has two versions: a challenge to the sky, and a challenge to the earth. In the end, the fate of Magus’ version of Mary Magdalene, his disciple and a former prostitute, is summed up thusly: ‘Her mortal body returned to the brothel, while her spirit moved on to a new Illusion.’ (pg. 21)
  • The Story of the Master and the Disciple, is also a really interesting one. A great philosopher works out a curious dogma; highly spiritual, yet not dismissive of hedonism and pleasure. He gains a following and acclaim as a thinker, but one day is approached by a would-be disciple. The young man is incredibly enthusiastic about the Master’s work, but to the Master’s utter dismay, appears to have completely missed the mark and misinterpreted his doctrine, to the point he thinks it may have been better that he never wrote it. The disciple frequents the bars and brothels in search of spiritual enlightenment, and ends up writing a book of his own. The Master proofreads it, and ends up distilling it to about ⅓ of what it was. I will read this one aloud too, and look at it more closely
  • It seems Kis’ works in this anthology are particularly focused on myth, legend and truth, and the relationship between these in the construction of history. The contradictions in the noble truths we wish were there so that we could hold onto them…

 

Week 4 Struggles

A Criticism of the MA Art and Science Symposium

I attended the MA Art and Science’s symposium on their collaboration with CERN and ideas about the relationship between art and science. I noted: ‘Higgs Boson?’ ‘Dark Matter?’, ‘LHC’, ‘Standard Model?’, ‘flow state?’, ‘Feynman Diagrams?’ Basically, I noted all the obvious keywords in particle physics in what constitutes for me a continual and lifelong realisation of how little I know and how much I wish I knew.

I asked a question. The chair of the discussion and others in the room kept imposing the idea that art could breathe life into the stagnant automatism of the scientific method. Surely the relationship between art and science is an interesting one; surely a comparison of their respective methods could be interesting, but her language seemed to conclude rather than inquire, that scientific thought was limited by its rigour and lacked creativity. There were arguments about art being a suitable conduit for ‘communicating’ scientific understandings to the layman, or tapping into scientists’ unexplored creative potential, or just making science more fun…

The cherry on the cake was when an audience member described to the panel a pleasant memory he had when visiting the Large Hadron Collider himself and observing CERN scientists talk about (I think it was?) dark matter in a pub after a few drinks. He recalled how they started illustrating their theories by getting each other to hop about and pretend to be particles, as part of the conversation, so what resulted was a sort of dance. ‘Even scientists can bring things to a human scale’, the audience member said, warmed by the idea of scientists becoming human again by partaking in a dance ritual.

I just looked at the panel. It was comprised of 7 artists and one guest particle physicist, Gavin. Gavin had been grilled on the importance of art for the whole evening, being hit by questions like, ‘how have the CSM art collaborations improved your scientific endeavour?‘ (who is to say they have??). The poor man is in a room full of artists all enamoured by the idea that they can be taken as seriously as a physicist (one audience member actually admitted this, ‘I think artists would like to be taken as seriously as scientists’), that their artworks can also be a form of solid knowledge contribution, and they are asking him whether this is true. Even he can come down to a human scale, with the help of artists. My god, I felt really sorry for Gavin. In an act of sympathy and also genuine curiosity I asked a question that built on the room’s interest in the artistic interpretation of results generated by experiments at the LHC, by asking Gavin whether what he does on a daily basis, that is, to read data in order to analyse, and therefore interpret its meaning, was itself constantly creative. I mean, it’s not like finding a Higgs Boson particle is like finding it in the collider and picking it up between your fingers; it is abstract to us and so to talk about it or make sense of the signals we might say correspond to the presence of a Higgs Boson particle is to visualise this particle through its effects. A simple example of the creativity required of scientific interpretation is the wave/particle conundrum on how to define light. You might get a bunch of data about how a light beam affects its environment, but what does that say about what light is? Is not science a creative search for a picture to explain the world? Can explanations come close to mere expressions, as a creative practice might want to express something about the world? Admittedly, Gavin didn’t say much but just sort of nodded and agreed.

 

Listen: 140 Year of Recorded Sound exhibition at The British Library

  • Alfred Taylor was a young wireless enthusiast when the technology just started entering commercial use. At 16 he began to log his impressions of some of the earliest broadcasts, starting in 1922, writing down whether the sound came through clearly or not, or whether his radio ran out of battery.
  • The first music recorder/players were Edison’s cylindrical Phonographs. Like the exposed little music box mechanisms I have myself owned, whose cylinders with their perforated surface play a score when wound by plucking a scale of metal prongs, you could shout into a funnel while turning the Phonograph’s cylinder, and the amplified sound would etch the sound pattern into the cylinder. These were in commercial use but were quickly outcompeted by flat disc players – discs are much less cumbersome and more easy to store than cylinders.
  • The Jazz Singer with Al Johnson is the first feature film with synced sound.
  • The ability to record and reproduce sound obviously has huge repercussions beyond the reproduction and distribution of music – for a variety of academic disciplines. Ethnographic studies exploded with recordings of languages and stories, musicology as an academic discipline became possible because of the ability to access for the first time a corpus of recorded music. Sound recording could be used in psychological therapies and the Oral History Society uses and cross-examines recorded first-person accounts as historical evidence.
  • Delia Derbyshire is a fascinating character. Pioneer of electronic music – composer of the Doctor Who theme tune – a woman composing electronic sound in the 1950s!
  • I heard the first recording of birdsong ever made. I heard the first recording of music made for the purpose of ethnographic study. How amazing is that! But most interesting of all was the section on Edouard Leon Scott’s recovered phonautographs. In the mid 19th century, Leon Scott was recording sound in visual form (effectively like a seismograph, but for airborne sound and not robust, earthly oscillations). He invented a way of doing this such that sounds left a waveform etched onto a sheet covered in soot. He never intended these to be played back. Patrick Feaster et al. of the First Sounds research group set out to play the graphs back as sound in 2007, and were able to recover, vaguely, the sound of Leon Scott singing Au Clair de la Lune over a century ago. Their phonic recoveries of his etchings are the oldest recordings of the human voice ever heard, and precede even Edison’s phonograph recordings; intending, as he was, his recordings to play back.

 

AI/VR/AR

Experienced a VR headset with D in Physical Computing at college. He has a personal project going on exploring the democratisation of education within the realm of accessible, immersive technologies, and is documenting workshops and lessons that he or other technicians give at the university with a 360 camera. This video can then be viewed on a regular smart phone inserted into a cheap headset. These 3D immersive videos are easy to make if you have a 360 film: you just use a website that builds it for you and export it as an app to your phone.

But playing with the advanced VR headset (including sound, mic, and excellent motion tracking) was a total blast. I wish I could do that on my own for a long time and properly explore it. I was in a virtual reality chat room. It was a strange experience: I put on the headset and find I have a new body, which I can only see when I stretch out my arms in front of me. There are weird little anime characters all around me. It took a while to dawn on me that they are real people in their avatars, also moving around in a room in the world somewhere, with a headset on. I realise that I can actually just speak and that they will hear me. I am facing a somewhat shorter female anime character, who seems to be waving at me. I don’t yet really have the skills to reciprocate, so I ask them, aloud,  how do I wave? The avatar in front of me speaks, and I realise that indeed I am being addressed. Though it is a female avatar, the voice is of a friendly male. He teaches me to wave by pressing the right button on my controllers (two Wii type controllers I hold in either hand). I just start communicating. It’s a joy to discover my body, and to be in a space with people – the most basic human interactions were being rediscovered in this virtual world. Like children we were getting really excited by waving at or high fiving each other, and moving. You could explore different places. I started dancing and asked them if they could see me dance. Characters kept gathering towards me, I was surrounded by an eclectic array of animal and anime characters – all touching, patting, high fiving. I looked down at a really short girl and patted her head. They all started dancing, which merely involves really moving your real body – the detection reproduces it pretty well in the avatar. It was so weird and wonderful! Particularly because everyone was so nice! It is then strange to take off the headset and see that world disappear, and the real people sitting around you (who incidentally watched you dance on your own) suddenly seem fictional.

 

Research Paper Feedback session with J

He suggested some references: 1) Jenifer Doyle’s long footnote in Hold it Against Me on the difficulty of accessing the enormity of an artwork’s context 2) Etoy Mission Eternity 3) Paul Auster’s story ‘Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story’ 4) Bruno Latour on agency as common to all things 5) Foucault ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ 6) The Heart is Deceitful Above all Things 7) Wayne Wang’s ‘Smoke’ 8) Borges ‘The Library of Babel’ 9) Kim Noble 10) ‘Living Autobiographically’, John Econ.

I didn’t give him much to work with with this hand-in, but it seems he’s at least understood my angle with this work. All that’s left is to actually carry out what my introduction quite nicely states.

I wondered aloud to the group whether I could tie in some tangential research I’ve recently gotten into, with my research paper as it is, as it set out to be, or whether my new pursuits are too different. Recently I’ve been interested in the word erudite. Mathias Énard’s book Compass has recently been described as such, and it is a new word for me, so it has been echoing in my mind ever since I looked it up.

  • Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Zeuss
  • Erudition: Fahrenheit 341, All the Stories, Compass, Encyclopedia of the Dead, the Family Library vault in Utah compiling files on every person ever lived, ‘Suddenly this Overview’ by David Weiss & Peter Fiscli, Krapp’s last Tape… obsessive archiving. Erudition: the nostalgia of our era.
  • Noted: ‘Great walks. Poetry. Classical music. Writing guitar songs. Drawing from life. Knit a hat, mittens, scarf.’
  • Had a Tate Exchange proposal idea: Oral Tradition. In which I do Vernacular Spectacular one-on-one live, but only on the condition that the viewer films me.

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