the ecological thought is thinking.
Bram Thomas Arnold.
Venice, 2015. Performance for a party, Magazzini Del Sale. Closing night, Venice Bienalle 2015.
This text is a series of footnotes to the audio-essay the ecological thought is thinking: this text is designed to be a tangential accompaniment to the live performance, a standalone text that opens out the words and the worlds of the audio-essay.
This text has emerged from the blurring of two lines of thought, one the heart of my PhD thesis, due to be completed in early 2016, the other is best summarized by a t-shirt I recently bought from an exhibition by the artist Jenny Holzer. The
t-shirt simply reads in red text over grey, ALL THINGS ARE DELICATELY INTERCONNECTED, this is the ecological thought that this text is thinking.
This text would like to introduce Autoethnography, a toolkit for the study of the social, cultural and historical position of the self in the ever-shifting sands of time. The autoethnographic transect is a notion set out in my PhD that attempts to tie this idea to geography, rooting the self in real places over real time, the autoethnographic transect describes a journey from there to here, from Cornwall to Venice, whilst holding on to the thought that all things are delicately interconnected.
This text will set out some of the connections within the audio-essay, to find causal links between the here and the there, the how and the why of all this: To transect a route through the endless everything of this meta-modern ecology.
A recording of star number KIC7671081B. This 20 second long recording is a conversion produced by NASA from a star in the Kepler system, whereby light curve waves have been converted to sound. NASA’s made their archive of recordings publicly available via soundcloud in 2015 and included the individual tracks that were sent by NASA into space on the Voyager 2 deep space mission. The golden record as it is known is carried on a gold-plated 12 inch copper disc that contains sounds and images selected to convey the diversity of life and culture on planet Earth to any being that may come across the object. The record was etched with diagrammatical instructions on how to play it; these included a translation of the speed at which the disc should be played converted into binary code expressed in time units of 0.70 billionths of a second, the time period associated with a fundamental transition of the hydrogen atom. The story of the production of the Golden Record is recorded in Murmurs of Earth an account written by Carl Sagan, who was Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies and a key advisor to NASA at the time.
Life on Earth, Trunk Records, Made in England JBH034LP. I initially bought this record for my brother, but having previously bought records for my brother only for him to never get a record player I decided to keep this one, as I recall it was more a way of justifying the purchase to myself rather than a deeply held intent. David Attenborough has recently been quoted as saying that “anyone who believes in indefinite growth on a physically finite planet is either mad, or an economist”, and this very neatly highlights the problematic nature of sustainability, sustainable development or sustainable anything. Everything is ultimately finite, entropic, conclusive, but the interconnected web of life will roll on regardless, all we can do, as Jonny Trunk says is listen “…and what joy. The music reminded me very much of my first encounter with library music and the magical ambient sounds of science, nature and music for Jellyfish”.
Biophilia. Biophilia is a hypothesis set out by the scientist E. O. Wilson in 1984, it shares a kinship with the work of James Lovelock (Gaia theory) and Lynn Margulis whose work on symbiosis in microbial evolution lead her to devise a theory that expounded a notion whereby “life did not take over the globe by combat [as in Darwin’s survival of the fittest] but by networking”. The fundamental undercurrent of Wilson’s Biophilia hypothesis is that, as a species that spent more that 2 million years living on the savannas of Africa prior to our movement through the fertile crescent across the globe, we are innately linked to the biosphere and the species within it, that we have an “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes” and that from a biological perspective the natural environment is as central to human evolution and therefore human being as social behavior and other factors. We are of where we are and where we go as much as a product of what we do and what we have done.
Biophilia is also an album by the Icelandic musician, artist and polymath Bjork. There are not many people who do not require a surname. Her 2011 album entitled Biophilia was a concept album that plumbed depths no concept album had yet considered. It involved not only collaborations with scientists, musicians and composers but with programmers, web developers and teachers across all the Nordic countries in order to instigate a pedagogic project that is ongoing. “The Biophilia Educational Project is a large-scale pilot project that builds on the participation of academics, scientists, artists, teachers and students at all academic levels. It is based around creativity as a teaching and research tool, where music, technology and the natural sciences are linked together in an innovative way” (Bjork 2015). The concept album has its roots in the 1970’s, with albums by artists such as Pink Floyd, but Bjork’s Biophilia project is the first of its kind to have such a broad reach into the educational programs of several countries.
Richard Trevithick 1771-1833 Born: Illogan, Cornwall, died: Dartford, London. Trevithick is the inventor of the locomotive steam engine, the invention of which is celebrated in the Cornish folk song Camborne Hill with the lyrics “the horses stood still, the wheels went around; Going up Camborne Hill coming down”. The inaugural journey on Trevithick’s engine took place on Christmas Eve of 1801 in the small Cornish town of Camborne, which at the time was the wealthiest town in the British Empire making it one of the wealthiest towns on earth, due to its prominent role at the heart of the tin mining industry. Later that evening Trevithick’s engine blew up outside the pub he and his friends were celebrating in as they left the thing running and neglected to top it up with water. He later went on to set up the first paying public railway service in the region of Euston in London where visitors could pay him a penny to ride his steam engine around a circular track on the grounds of what would become London’s first train station some years later. Trevithick never found the fame of George Stephenson, who is more commonly attributed with inventing the steam locomotive, as he never found a way of making the engine light enough for it to run any great distance.
I first came across Trevithick and ultimately the song Camborne Hill via a BBC documentary program presented by the DJ John Peel. Sounds of the Suburbs was aired in 1999 with the Cornwall episode on the 21st of March, in which John Peel drives off in a slightly clapped out Mercedes estate to tour Cornwall’s underground music scene, meeting Aphex Twin in a Wesleyan preaching pit and taking a tour of Camborne with poet Paul Hodge where he came across Richard’s well-endowed statue upon which he remarked that “Trevithick’s manly parts made me feel rather inadequate, so I decided to head to the pub and cheer myself up with a pint”. Aphex Twin went on to become an almost otherworldly mythic figure in the underground electronic music scene; Of Watermelon Sugar one of the other bands Peel came across during his time in Cornwall, despite naming themselves after a seemingly hip cult novel by Richard Brautigan, vanished without a trace into the backstreets of Camborne, or maybe up the hill.
“Part documentary, and part fiction, these works may not only be about giving form and identity to a particular single place, but also about the combination of spoken words, sound and the listeners interpretation leading to many different places taking shape every time the recordings are listened to. This record is in part interested in looking at both the existence and invention of un-nameable or indefinable places, and in promoting the idea of illusive and irrepresentable places.” Ben Cain, Down To Zero, 2008.
“The ecological crisis we face is so obvious that is becomes easy to join the dots and see that everything is interconnected. This is the ecological thought. And the more we consider it, the more our world opens up”. Extracts from The Ecological Thought are included as live readings during Trail Mix, in the book Morton argues that the idea of Nature, capital N nature, is an outmoded idea particular to the modernist era which he defines as running from the industrial revolution until the dropping of the atom bomb upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War. The labeling of Nature as something other, some over there, something else, to be looked at, visited, enjoyed as a part of leisure time, commodified in that way, is an idea that is no longer relevant to a world where every particle of the biosphere has been incorporated into a global epoch defined by man known as the anthropocene. As Jackson Pollock once said in answer to a question “I am Nature”, the question being, “Why don’t you paint more from Nature?”
Since art took the first steps beyond the painting, stepping out into the room (installation art), then out of the room and into the world (site-specific art), it has been the precursor of the ecological thought (dialogic and ecological art), whereby all things are delicately interconnected. Trail Mix is presented with an underlying bed track that is a multilayered field recording made at dawn on a small quay in Frenchman’s Creek in Cornwall. You may be familiar with the phrase Frenchman’s Creek as it is the title of a novel by the English writer Daphne Du Maurier who also once wrote a short story called Don’t Look Now, which went on to become one of the most iconic British Horror films of all time, capturing Venice through its lens as it went.
The Caretaker, Patience (After Sebald) OST. A book was once written about a walk that the writer took around the derelict coastlines of Suffolk, England. In its German edition the book was subtitled An English Pilgrimage. The book was littered with grainy black and white images, distorted and decayed by its writer. After a number of years the work was translated into English and developed a cult following, in the wake of which a film was made about the book that was written about a walk that may or may not have taken place, a walk that was really a journey through the writers past, through Europe’s past, and through a series of connections that were discovered upon the road. During this period that ran from 1997 when the book was published in English, to 2010 when the film received its cinematic release, a portmanteau emerged that attempted to tackle this subject.
Hauntology as a term first emerged in the writings of Jacques Derrida, before becoming probably the first critical theory to flourish online, in much the same way Carlsberg claims to probably be the best lager in the world. It is the exploration of representation as a ghosting of reality, it is the concession that reality cannot be captured, it is a desire for loss and forgetting that has itself been lost in a digital age where everything has been captured for all time and for all to see. The Caretaker is a key proponent of a form of music that can be described as emerging from hauntology, it is music littered with echoes of the past projected into the future, decayed and distorted, where melody teeters on the brink of the memorable before collapsing once again into a ghostly presence, both here and not here, a wish being made in spite of ones knowing that it cannot come true. The book was called The Rings Of Saturn, the writer W. G. Sebald.
“Mythic shadows loom large – Samuel Beckett, John Cage, Caspar David Friedrich, Ansel Adams, John Ford, Richard Long, or the simple folk music of troubadours such as Pete Seeger. Their artistic voices are all out “there”. Walking into such a charged picture is thus more than a visceral experience, it is a walk towards a work, an exhibition, a performance; towards some “thing” that might coalesce to become something else. It seems that everything fails at becoming something most of the time.”
Extract from the sleeve of Richard T. Walkers record THE PREDICAMENT OF ALWAYS (AS IT IS), pressed to coincide with the solo exhibition everything failing to become something at Carroll/Fletcher, Eastcastle Street, London, November 2015. Small rocks are heard being thrown as various instruments in the desert landscape, where a lone figure, his back permanently turned, occasionally stalks the horizon.
Of Josh T. Pearson’s album The Last of The Country Gentlemen someone once wrote that what runs through this record, what runs over and under, and around these songs, swirling in their silent pools, is a sense of yearning for a time or a place, that no longer exists, and to listen is a king of sweet and painful form of nostalgia. But to add to this I would like to suggest that that place one yearns for with a painful form of sorrow is a place that never existed, it is the trap and trick of memory and a rose-tinted lens that keeps one transfixed on something that never was nor ever will be. We are stuck on a loop chasing a horizon that we will never reach for the horizon is in fact a construct of our own perception, it will always be over there, some way off in the distant folds of comforting blue, ever hopeful, leading us ever on.
“If there is one thing I love it’s the weather this year: how it swings suddenly the wrong way just long enough to confuse the geese, who figure, what with the way the air’s warmed up on a given day, that winter’s over. North they go, and I hear them from where I am. They sing happily, flying in a looser formation that you’d think evolution would allow. They’re headed home. […] We may freeze but we will never go numb. In the summer we tend to forget this, and if an unexpected cold front frosts the crops we fear for our lives. We need not worry. The real danger lies, as we should all have learned by now, elsewhere. There is a burning that not even a Midwestern winter can kill.” Extract from the sleeve of The Mountain Goats LP Full Force Galesburg. Emperor Jones. 1997.
The weather of our day-to-day lives is not climate, weather is our day-to-day experience of this thing called climate, a thing that exists over time, and as such surpasses our individual capacities for perception. We have just passed the point of 1 degrees Centigrade of warming from climate change, a place where crisis and crises are becoming the new normal. For five consecutive years prior to the uprising of IS in Syria the harvest failed, mass movements of people from the countryside to the cities began and of this unsettlement, unrest rebellion and chaos grew. The migrant crisis currently facing Europe is not a crisis, it is the new normal, it is the fallout from the first act of climate change, a burning that not even a Midwestern winter can kill.
“What are we doing when we make art and what are we doing when we consume it? So I’m going to start with a definition of culture. This is treading on very thin ice because a lot of people have attempted this and a lot have failed. So I’m going to make a quite narrow definition of culture. And I’m going to call culture the creative arts. But I’m going to make a very broad definition of what art is. And my definition is quite simply art is everything that you don’t have to do. Now what I mean by that is that there are certain things you do have to do to stay alive. You have to eat, for example. But you don’t have to invent Baked Alaska or sausage rolls or Heston Blumenthal. So you have this basic activity that we and all other animals do, which is called eating, but then unlike all other animals, we do a lot of embroidery and embellishment on top of it. We make eating into a complicated, stylised activity of some kind. You have to wear clothes. But you don’t have to come up with Dior dresses or Doc Marten boots or Chanel little black frock, whatever it’s called. So once again we have an essential need, which we then do with intense sort of interest.” Brian Eno, from his recent BBC John Peel lecture.
An inner need, as Kandinsky once put it, it is this inner need that propels us to engage with the creative arts, to employ the imagination. It is not the job of the artist to solve the problems of the world, but to dream of different versions, to imagine alternate ways of being and create situations that destabilize ones expectations.
What to increase? What to reduce? What to maintain?
Discover your formulas and abandon them.
Remove specifics and convert to ambiguities.
Go outside. Shut the door.
Would anyone want it?
These are a number of Brian Eno’s oblique strategies. A series of cards for getting through something devised by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt. They carry an echo of Jenny Holzer’s ongoing series Truisms though more productive, less aphoristic.
Longplayer. Occasionally emerging from the depths is an extract from Jem Finer’s millennial work longplayer, a piece of music designed to play for a thousand years via a suite of custom made computers, hard wired to an atomic clock, inside a lighthouse on the banks of the River Thames. The piece employs a form of phasing devised by Steve Reich to enable a simple set of musical phrases, taken from the playing of Tibetan singing bowls, to generate new patterns as they loop past each other over the next millennia. I met Jem Finer in a field in Dartington, Devon, he’s brought a van with him, loaded with speakers and an aerial that we assembled in a field. After hooking up the aerial to the van we listened to the storm, the giant red dot on Jupiter as it traversed the evening sky. Finer is interested in time and distance, longevity, the fragility of existence, longplayer hints at our impermanence, it is an uncertain thing, for what is it to think of that which happened a thousand years ago, or to imagine what might be in a thousand years time, but to realise our own insignificance.
“I came across a cassette that had been lying around our house for years un-played. Tibetan Monks at play/home recorded cassette finally found its way into a cassette player. What made me try it out I’m not sure, but what I heard was music to my ears. One side was a recording of horns and guttural chants, the other side of Tibetan singing bowls… and the bowls were beautiful… deep, rich and slowly drifting tones. I recorded a small segment into the computer and tried it on the longplayer system… and there finally was something that felt like what I’d been looking for. The sum of the parts was no longer distinct layers of sound moving against each other. Instead the layers gradually coalesced and shifted, combining to create new sounds…” from Longplayer, Jem Finer.
Nicolas Bourriaud, author of the now infamous Relational Aesthetics has more recently penned a pair of shorter, smaller, pocket sized theories for a world that is in a hurry but has forgotten where it was trying to get to. Postproduction and The Radicant are related ideas, ways of coping in a world where as Bourriaud puts it “all geography has become psychogeography” due to the fact that terra incognita has been wiped from the face of the earth, there is nowhere we have not been, nowhere we have not mapped. The internet age constructs a sensation that there truly is nothing new under the sun; it is the physical embodiment of that biblical soothsaying. It has perhaps always been this way, but never before has everything been so apparent, so within our grasp nor so overwhelming. What is it to create something in such an era, the lines between consumption and production are blurring, consumer products are personalized, and we recreate our own lives through social media, polishing ourselves.
“These artists who insert their own work into that of others contribute to the eradication of the traditional distinction between production and consumption, creation and copy, readymade and original work. The material they manipulate is no longer primary. It is no longer a matter of elaborating a form on the basis of a raw material but working with objects that are already in circulation on the cultural market, which is to say, objects already informed by other objects. Notions of originality (being at the origin of) and even of creation (making something from nothing) are slowly blurred in this new cultural landscape marked by the twin figures of the DJ and the programmer, both of whom have the task of selecting cultural objects and inserting them into new contexts”.
Transit from the album Venice by Fennesz. The only vocal track off an album that has become a byword for understated elegance in contemporary electronic music. “A future’s hinting at itself, Do you fear what I fear?”
With hauntology tucked under our arm we are moving beyond the postmodern era, a transition hard to define but easy to feel. The heavy irony of postmodernism could only be held for so long, its no way to live and we have to live, but in the shadows of climate change, financial collapse, and seemingly perpetual global conflicts, we find ourselves in a world of contradiction, futility and hope. Where we can hopefully contradict futility. As Paul Mason has suggested we are entering a time of abundance whereas capitalism thrives upon scarcity, a structural shift is taking place with uncertainty and timidity a quiet confidence ripples beneath the surface.
On the nature of daylight. Max Richter. And so I will return to Cornwall, and you will return whence you came also, yet each of our versions of the world will not remain unchanged by our experiences here. Daylight is the ongoing mystery, we accept that so much of science is simply fact, simply the way it is, yet it is unable to answer this simple question. Is light a particle or a wave? At a quantum level everything is in flux, each atom mingles with another, a part of me becomes a part of you, and I sacrifice myself to the floor, to the sea, to the vinyl slip on the record deck. You can never step in the same river twice, something we have known for centuries, gets so often forgotten in the 24/7 world of internet news feeds, twitter, home pages, rss updates, weather patterns sweeping in from the Atlantic, the tail end of a Gulf of Mexico storm drowns a small village in Cumbria, my mothers garden gets soaked with rain and the sun sets all over again, slipping over that wet horizon, its very own fiction. The ecological thought. It’s a part of you and it’s a part of me: a part of this paper and a part of this ink, some of it brushes off on you and some part of it will remain with me.
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Du Maurier D. 2003. Frenchman’s Creek. London: Virago.
Finer J. 2003. Longplayer. London: Artangel.
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Morton T. 2013. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and ecology after the end of the world. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
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