Holes, caves, archives and inscriptions
May 1, 2013 § 5 Comments
At the time of this conversation with Signe Lidén about her ‘Writings’ (an installation commissioned by the RESONANCE network, that premiered at this year’s Flanders Festival in Kortrijk, Belgium, as part of the Festival’s Sounding City sound art program), the space that would come to host the work, on the Buda tower’s ground floor, had nothing in it and still was little other than a hole, a cave, a cavity in the former brewery building: a floor, a ceiling, three concrete walls and a fourth one, made of glass. With words and gestures Signe tried to evoke an image of how that ‘cave’ would look like in a few weeks time. Not an easy task. But in this case it was an appropriate one. For holes, cavities, caves – ‘things’ that are both nothing and not nothing – are key elements in Signe’s work.
“Holes are a fascinating phenomenon. They consist of nothing, they are nothing in themselves,” Signe explained. “Holes are always defined in terms of their surroundings. Holes are matter-less. We perceive them because of the matter that surrounds them. And it is in this sense that a hole nevertheless is not a no-thing; it is not nothing. This is part of what I’m trying to come to grips with. I try to understand what this not nothing is. A hole has more in common with a material object than something abstract like, for example, a concept. Holes are localized, they are somewhere in space and time. A hole has dimensions, a form and a whereabout.”
“Throughout history holes and caves have functioned as time capsules. The earliest works of art were made and found in caves. But also these days works of art are being created in caves. Caves have always been places for religious and magic rituals. Because they offer protection. But also due to their acoustics, which transforms the sound of voices. And of instruments. Because of the way in which holes and cavities filter sound, I very often choose these types of places. In different holes sound has different qualities; it gives the surrounding another kind of layer, or the feeling of really being in that place.”
Holes are time capsules… This also refers to the fact that many important archives are kept at a safe distance from the turmoil of our big cities, where bits and pieces of our culture are stowed away, hidden indeed, in ‘holes’ and in ‘caves’. During much of the Second World War, for example, Rembrandt’s painting The Night Watch was kept safe in a limestone cave not far from Maastricht. Also the Voyager Golden Records spring to mind, that in 1977 were put in a spacecraft and sent off into space, which, of course, is the ultimate hole…
Over the past couple of years, Signe was inspired by a number of rather special ones of these manmade time capsules. Like the Global Seed Vault in Spitsbergen, sort of a botanical Noah’s Ark halfway between Norway and the North pole, where the seeds of as many as possible food crops are being preserved. And Onkalo, a repository for nuclear waste, which is currently being built, deep underground, on an island in the southeast of Finland. Or the Temples of Humankind in Damanhur, Italy, a ‘new age’ complex of caves and tunnels, hand-dug between 1978 and 1991 and filled with murals, sculptures, mosaic and strained glass with motifs and structures inspired by religious and occult societies from all over the world, dedicated to the divine in man and the preservation of spirituality. “I find that very special,” said Signe, “for how do you preserve spirituality? Pictures of these Temples of Humankind show some sort of a spatial choreography, in which all imaginable religious and spiritual images collide, in a kind of mega-kitsch ballet. But the question continues to fascinate me: how could one preserve intangible things for the future?”
Signe’s most recent source of inspiration is a mysterious Archive of Invisibility and Lost Knowledge (she doesn’t know its actual name, and invented this one herself), located in the vicinity of Yangshuo, China. It is dedicated to the storage and systematization of knowledge about traditional crafts, literature and art, that was lost during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). “As with the Temples of Humankind also here I asked myself: how would you do that? How do you save knowledge that has gone extinct? It is no longer there. So is it written in books? Is it in drawings, maybe? Are there still traces? I have been trying to figure it out, but it is very difficult to get information. I sent a number of mails, but didn’t get any answers. So the question remains: can you keep the knowledge of a craft without keeping the objects that it produced? Can you keep what surrounds a thing, without keeping the thing itself? Is it possible to preserve the aura of a work of art, without the actual work?”
Then the thing or the work of art becomes a hole itself…
“Yes, without the thing one would say that there no longer is any material memory. You disconnect memory from matter. If you make something, then there is the thing that you make. But there is also the ritual of the making. The thing corresponds to the technical part of its making; the ritual corresponds to the non-technical part. Does the non-technical part maybe generate as much material memory as the technical part? But then how can you preserve that kind of knowledge, which is not pronounced, but experienced knowledge? Knowledge that relates to ritual, to a practice? Who or what creates the aura of a work? This is the starting point for my Resonance installation. ‘Writings’ wants to be a work about material memory, without creating something that is specifically material. Its focus is on the process, and the process is something without an end. What is being created, remains unfinished forever. It opens up a field of continuous molding, without a final result. It is the idea of inscriptions as a ritual. But also as something auditive. What you hear is part of the things that happen. And visitors will obtain an auditory access to the interior space of the things they are looking at. But for this they will have to move to smaller, separate, spaces within the space.
Do I make myself clear? Do you understand what I mean? “
Could you describe the installation as you now envision it?
“The space in the Buda tower is particularly suitable for this work. Long and narrow, and with a large glass wall. Outside, in the small garden that you can see through the windows, I want to do an archaeological exhumation. In the garden’s soil there must be a lot of things that come from the old brewery. The result of this exhumation of course is a hole, a dug out space, that you can see from the inside, through the glass wall. Inside I will make piles with the sand and soil that I dig up outside. On the ceiling of the space there will be an electromechanical construction, with chains driven by gears of different sizes, which will cause movement in different directions and of different durations. This time aspect is very important. The mechanism will drive circular plates, from which sticks are dangling down. The sticks touch the sand piles. Via their movement they will shape the piles; a shaping that, at the same time, is a writing. They inscribe, they make inscriptions, leave traces. I will put (contact) microphones onto the sticks. The signals from these microphones are sent to boxes attached to the walls. There will be four of them. In one of the boxes there will be a score, with drawn patterns, similar to the patterns that the sticks will be drawing in the sand. Via loudspeakers in the other boxes you will be able to hear the intimate sounds, the sounding interior, of the inscriptions that the sticks are making.”
Is the score pre-made, or is it drawn as part of the process?
“In a way both are the case. I already drew the score, but there’s also the play of light and shadow, that continuously will give rise to new constellations.”
The moving, writing and wired sticks are the heart of the installation.
“The sticks are tapping sticks, that are sort of scanning the piles of sand and soil. You can think of them as blind man’s sticks: – ‘I am a blindfolded person walking within a landscape where I attempt to resonate everything I come across with a tapping stick. And at the same time I am a deaf person walking on the same road, trying to understand which language the landscape is speaking’ – . It is a thinking, an understanding, a grasping through listening; and then analyzing the absorbing complexity of the landscape that surrounds us. I also mean the cultural and social landscape. This image of a blindfolded person is closely related to my phonographic practice. I do a great many recordings, and I connect them to an awareness, a sensibility of places; or of surroundings and things; of the places within things. All this is quite essential for the work. Gaining knowledge through abstract listening, or gaining abstract knowledge, through the sensing-knowing-understanding part of the brain, through listening to sound and its resonance in matter. This is material memory, which is one of the most important, interwoven, concepts that I find useful for talking about my work. It is a concept that is directly linked to ‘Writings’.”
Did you ever have, or tried, to find your way blindfolded? With a blind man’s stick?
“Yes I did! As a kid I went to school blindfolded. Almost every day. A friend picked me up at home, and the game I played was that I still was so tired that it was necessary for me to continue sleeping on my way to school. My friend made this possible by guiding me. He held my arm and led me with instructions like ‘step up, step down’, et cetera. And I could hear him, for I was not really sleeping, of course. But there was no light entering my eyes. Later I also often used a blind man’s stick as a way to investigate the resonances of a spot or a space. It is a great way to get to know the acoustics of a space.”
In all of your earlier works field recordings play a crucial role. In works inside you integrated recordings made outside, in a different place and time. You are not going to do this in ‘Writings’. All of the sounds will be generated by the installation itself. There is an outside (the hole in the garden) that you can see from the inside, and an inside that you can see from the outisde, like two poles; like a negative and a positive. But once inside, the work is entirely self-contained. It is a closed system…
“It is indeed for the first time that I create a space in which everything is related to one spot and happens at this spot. As such, ‘Writings’ combines in a very direct way the two sides of my practice as an artist. That is pretty exciting, en I am very curious to find how it will work out. Because, of course, I haven’t seen it. Yet…”
[This conversation with Signe Lidén took place on March 27th, 2013.
The technical realization of the work, during the first three weeks of April 2013, will be done by Signe in collaboration with her Norwegian colleague Roar Sletteland.]
Four weeks later, in Kortrijk…
What ‘Writings’ looked and sounded like, and what had become the material form of that what Signe had imagined and described in our earlier conversation, I found out four weeks later, on April 21st, 2013, at the opening of the Flanders Festival in Kortrijk’s Sounding City.
The space in the Buda tower was filled with the low rumble and clanking sounds of the mechanics of the installation, very present, but not too loud or obtrusive. The windows were covered with tracing paper, permitting the light to fall through, but not giving visitors a chance to look out, thus isolating the work from the rest of the world. It felt like stepping into an abandoned factory hall (which I guess are fine examples of contemporary manmade caves and which, in a way, in this former brewery building, it indeed was), where a number of machines had been left working, indulging themselves in a mechanical routine, the purpose of which had been forgotten a long time ago. Six limbed sticks were being moved around by the three circular plates on the ceiling, hitting and thus, though ever so slightly, re-shaping the piles of soil below them on the floor, that, for some reason, had been left there, and by the contingency of their material substance and form now were commanding their proper tracing, for ever and ever. The amplified sounds of the sticks’ hittings and tracings could be heard inside the two pairs boxes, as through a ‘sonic microscope’. One pair of boxes was facing the brick wall of the room. The second pair faced the covered window, combining the sounds with the sight of ‘writings’, the tracings of Signe’s score (pictures of which are illustrating our conversation above), making it reminiscent of what – in Dutch – is called a kijkdoos.
‘Writings’ in Kortrijk turned out to be, in sights and sound, an atmospheric, but also a rather hermetic work, impregnated by a sense of ‘formality’ and ‘philosophy’ that seems to be teasing the visitors, asking for a sudden flash of insight, an illumination, on their part, to make sights and sounds fall into place. “Yes, it is strange,” Signe said. “Several times during these weeks of creating ‘Writings’, together with my collaborator Roar Sletteland, it felt as if nature took us by surprise. I think it is the strangest piece I ever made…”