Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"Death is now. And now. And now," or, The Work of Life in the Age of Digital Pre-Production

This was written during the Liars' set at ATP: I'll Be Your Mirror on Sunday. I've just learnt the acronym TLDR [too long, didn't read] so warning: this is going to be a long post. The Liars, like many of the bands playing ATP, are pretty committed to sustain (Godspeed You! Black Emperor were averaging 15 minutes a song). I'll try not to drone on, but I want the post to reflect the immersive experience, the drench not just of NOIZE, although Swans in particular certainly brought that (to the extent that I've been feeling strange and deafened the last few days, like I should be hearing that constant barrage of sound), but of sustained attention and development. And the half-formed thoughts it prompted, which I am leaving somewhat fragmented, totally unsubstantiated and rather feedbacky. If you want a (partial) review of the event with some very atmospheric photos, check out the multi-contributor diary on Wears the Trousers, my favourite music blog. It's particularly good on PJ Harvey and Portishead.
My ATP experience began with PJ Harvey on Saturday night (well, with the line-ups for chips, but let's skip that experience of duration), and with the odd realisation that I was framing my experience of the concert through the expectation that I would write about it here as part of the irregular series of female performers. That sense is nothing new, in a sense: I watch films and read books with pen in hand, even when not for publication. I've also reviewed dance and live theatre, but never live music (Birds' Eye View film and music extravaganza aside). While live music often prompts poem-thoughts and leads me to grappling for a notebook in my bag while going 'woooooooooh', it's not an experience that I filter critically or philosophically, despite adolescent plans to be a music journo. Being utterly unmusical, I can't Alex Ross it. It's embodied: sensory saturation (which isn't to say that its production and performance is unintellectual, or that I'm not learning and thinking). But while trying to catch a glimpse of PJ Harvey's extraordinary feather-hair arrangement, and feeling England shake, I was also framing her performance in words -- and, worse, in the viewfinder of my phone's camera. I should add that I'm a terrible and irregular photographer, but the iPhone camera works well for me (with its point-and-shoot absoluteness). So I took some crappy pictures of pixie people flared out in stage lights, more as a response to the crowd of camera screens waving in my vicinity than any internal compulsion.
Portishead and Godspeed You! Black Emperor both had video projections behind the band: Jem Cohen's impressively inchoate and melancholy films for the inscrutable Montréalers (whose sense of humour was abundantly demonstrated in their band bio in the programme, where they compared themselves to Rush), and faffy sub-Jem Cohen guff for the Bristolians. In between the lame films, Portishead did have live digital projection in over-exposed black-and-white, sometimes sequenced or mixed, but often extreme close-ups of Beth Gibbon. Film screens at large concerts, particularly festivals, are nothing new, but the use of grainy b/w appeared to be making a claim towards an affinity with Bertrand Tavernier's film Round Midnight and the jazz club photographs that inspired it -- and that also inspired the Super 8 depiction of the Velvet Underground scene. Think of Nick Cave performing in Wings of Desire. So it was a concert film that harked back to analogue grain and rawness, but being both captured and projected while the concert was ongoing.
Geoff Dyer refers to the quality of certain photographs as "the ongoing moment," a paradoxical perpetuity of the instant (or instantaneous eternity) that is a direct descendant of Roland Barthes' argument about the photographic punctum, the inscription of the photographic subject's death that makes portrait photography so moving. But these pictures were not being taken to be viewed, or reviewed, as mementos in the future, either the distant future after the subject's death, or the near future of communicating the experience to real-world friends. Instead, they were taken for the moment and for the immediate future: to review a minute or an hour later, to relive the concert that evening. Not as mementos to secure memory as it might fade, but as a record of an experience people were not having in its lived time.
There's a name - well, an acronym - for this kind of delay, and it's not TiVo. It's PTSD: post traumatic stress disorder, perhaps the defining condition of post-9/11 EuroWestern society, as this recent article by Gordon Turnbull suggests. In Precarious Life, Judith Butler suggests that the realisation that the West is as vulnerable as the Rest has prompted a kind of social PTSD, complete with repetition compulsion; Turnbull's article suggests the ways in which we can learn from trauma _not_ to repeat, instead to recognise our shared vulnerability: that is, our shared proximity to death.
Digital technology, as Laura Mulvey has suggested, a kind of death of death: the end of the stillness of the photographic still that makes up film, as well as the end of indexicality, whereby a photographic negative physically (that is, chemically) records the light bouncing off the subject of the photograph. The practical eradication of physical printing, as well as the development of wireless transmission, challenges the ongoingness of the photographic moment. Instead, the camera becomes an electronic amygdala: that is, it records what we can’t quite experience, and distributes it, diffusing its effect. Rather than be present in the moment of the music (and some of the moments, such as Swans, demanded intense presentness from the musicians and audience through their use of sustain, drone, build and volume), the digital photographer defers his or her experience, sharing it later in the ‘safe space’ of the online community. Their post asks – implicitly – exactly the questions posed by trauma survivors when their memories return: was I (t)here? What did I feel? What has it made me?
And, perhaps most crucially, how did I survive? Thinking about digital technology and/as amygdala gave me an intuition about the traumatic memory, the ‘shell shock’ dream images produced from/by photographic memory, which repeat always the same, unprocessed, uncondensed. Freud intuited that this meant the images had not been seen at the time; they had not been captured by the conscious and thus sent through the unconscious. Instead, the conscious mind had averted itself in order to survive a violent/violating experience. I think we can take this further: these are images the mind never expected to have to process, to store in memory. They are the images of the seconds before death, the unseen instants carried, eventually, by everyone: not the famous ‘life rushing before one’s eyes,’ but the precise circumstances of death. That which one would never expect to see. So to replay that black box record within one’s own mind raises the question: Am I dead? If I am, how can I remember? If I’m not, how can I not remember?
So these precious, tortuous images induce survivor’s guilt through their painful clarity, the very fact of their availability proving both that we are not dead, and that we should be. While it’s an exaggeration to claim that a music festival is a site of trauma that one must defer, and then mourn, it’s an exaggeration with at least three contributory thoughts: first of all, the volume of articles published each summer on how to prepare for attending such festivals (mainly shilling for specialised wellies, tents, earcans, etc), suggest that this is an event to be survived (although not necessarily survivable); one could go so far as to argue that, given the obsession with detailing the boggy conditions at Glastonbury, music festivals are described in the register of accounts of trench warfare from WWI, and may even be a cultural substitution for the rite of passage constituted by national service. They are certainly a version/descendant of the rambling/back to the land movement that started in Germany in the late nineteenth century as an outgrowth of Romanticism: the reification of ‘landscape’ and ‘nature’ as separate spheres from the urban, to be enjoyed by city folk en masse, sporadically and passively.
Reason two is, perhaps as a dark reflection of the war zone, the physical assault of noise and crowds that are generally regarded as unpleasant (say, in the London Underground), but welcomed at a festival as part of the authentic experience – although this experience can be differentially assaultive depending on your vulnerability. Despite utopian arguments to the contrary, festivals are temporary autonomous zones that (as ever) tend to favour the autonomy of those wishing to take power-over, as with the incidence of rape at Latitude last year.
The intense experience of being in a crowd of strangers, one where ordinary social controls and supervisions may not apply, is intensified or underlined by reason three: a year after the fatal crush at Love Parade, it was also hard not to be hyper-aware of the dangers of the crowd itself. Furthermore, the urban crowd has been, since Dresden at least – or maybe Peterloo, the target of military and militant assaults. A crowd is an attractive target. It was difficult, at ATP this weekend, not to think of Utøya: a similar autonomous zone, one where youth, music, exchange, and many of the ideas and beliefs reflected by the festival’s line-up were shared. To be in a crowd is thus to be vulnerable: to other individuals therein; to the mass movement; and to individuals outside.
So perhaps those digital photographers had the right idea: record now to watch later. But can you live life like TiVo? Watching the sea of digital phone cameras capture and immediately transmit (to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, MMS, etc) a film being immediately captured and transmitted, I wondered what had happened to death. Not least because of Harvey's "All and Everyone" with its standout line: "Death is now, and now, and now." That, I felt, was what missing. Not in the negative, Nietzchean, rather adolescent sense of "militant dysphoria" that Dominic Fox proposes, but as the defining, enlivening aspect of lived experience. The death that makes the music I heard at the festival so haunting and compelling: music at extremities of aural violence and vulnerability, spectral dynamics of sound and silence, of density and spareness. It was music that demands you stand to attention, salute it: the music of war and the mourning of war.
Harvey and Beth Gibbon of Portishead, in particular, as female frontwomen, not only take me back to my formative years in the mid-90s and so probably define my idea of female performance, but also seem haunted by an older tradition: they are both keeners. Professional mourners. Let England Shake is the album George W. Bush and Pericles would both have banned: an angry, provocative work of mourning for the war dead. A recognition and a cry for justice. A making-audible of the death that saturates the English landscape. Portishead have recently recorded a song for Amnesty International, and their oblique lyrics are often dense with a desire for decreation, or grief in the face of impossible loss.
As Wears the Trousers point out, both nights, “Wandering Star” was the stand-out song of their set. This unbearably fragile song of mourning, bleak and beautiful, was performed by Gibbon in a rocking crouch, her eyes drawn closed, her face turned down. Not the most expressive, outward performer (she hunches her shoulders and draws her belly in protectively while singing, and faces the back of the stage while not; in fact, her singing posture was uncannily similar to that of the burned, bowed body of Joan at the stake at the end of The Passion of Joan of Arc, which was screened, with live accompaniment, on Sunday afternoon), Gibbon appeared to cave in on herself for the most intense performance of the set. Uncommonly, the whooping crowd fell silent, even when the vocals dropped out (which prompted cheers and applause during all the other songs), in the presence of an intensity and rawness of feeling that – perhaps – we struggle to process, especially in the close proximity of so many (sweaty) others.
It’s the rawness of a collective mourning we no longer undertake, a collective witness to our vulnerability and connectedness. “Please could you stay awhile to share my grief,” the song asks. Death is now, and now, and now. This is what live performance demands: an affective, sensory apprehension of the layers of meaning in a ritual/performance, and our role in it, that is neither Dionysiac abandon (which inevitably leads to both risky and selfish behaviour, placing a premium on the expression of individual experience) or Apollonian triumphalism (which demands that the individual sublimate their experience into a cohesive performance directed towards a larger power). Obviously, blogging about this demonstrates that I have lost this sense/ability as much as anyone has, and that while trying to recapture it at ATP, I also found myself mourning it – and I have found myself grieving for the end of the festival since Sunday evening, when we heard the final notes of ‘Wandering Star’ and felt complete; sustained.
Through (re)writing these notes, I am seeking to reconnect to the brief glimpse of the needful network that sustains and shapes (not prescribes, commands or conforms, as religions and political parties do) the apprehension described above. Can there be a network without a system? A crowd without power? If there can, it must reside in the work of art itself, in its resistant liveness that defies the cultural determination that it has been staged in order to be instantly digitised. Performance, which contorts and absorbs the body, which makes shapes of yearning and desire, touches us kinaesthetically – not least with the desire to touch the performer, if only with our eyes. Sound, which moves through us in waves as light does not (which is why photography is possible), which is felt in the tympanum and the bones, which works on the nervous system, is a powerful medium for securing the interdependence of vulnerabilities necessary to be in the precarious now. And now. And now.

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