from The Great Cybernetic Depression (Lil’ Chief, 2015).
from The Great Cybernetic Depression (Lil’ Chief, 2015).
Al Bowlly sings “The Very Thought of You” (1934). Jazz singer Al Bowlly sings his popular hit “The Very Thought of You” in the Pathe Studios, taken from Lew Stone’s famous ‘Monseigneur Band’. Bowlly was South African (although born in Mozambique) yet he became a great star in both the UK and America during the 1930s.
Rechercher (French definition): “To search for, to look for” and also “to search again, to look for again”.
Both “search” and “research” are the same word in French, it seems. This makes sense: even if something was once common knowledge, after it is hidden it is no longer “there”; it has fallen from awareness. So you have to seek for it again, that which is not there. In “research”, you never know what is actually there until you find it, or there would be no need to look. You dis-cover it again, un-cover it anew.
Archives are fascinating places of preservation-with-intent to look in, and they are always tantalisingly incomplete, however exhaustive… But nothing beats the thrill of finding a treasure hoard saved by happenstance.
To “ondersoek” , in Afrikaans, is to look under other things… The term implies a palimpsestic patina, an accretion, a build-up of layers that must be lifted, peeled off to see underneath… the mother lode, the genealogy. Sometimes you know exactly what you are looking for; sometimes you don’t. You may only have a misty hope that there is anything there at all. It can be useful to lose focus, too, because you become open to other routes, other offshoots, that may take you further than your original hunch.
On Saturday, in a poky little shop in Kalk Bay, I found a trove of old sheet music: popular tunes from the 1920s and 1930s, the top few layers of it in torn, grubby disarray. A thrill ran through my fingertips as I started re-moving each sheet from the pile, putting it aside systematically. There was nothing of great interest until I got quite a way below the dusty surface layers, where most people’s patience obviously runs out (this is the trick with digging – to delve deeper, to expend more energy, more time than everyone else – om onder te soek, for there lies the gold). There was no way I could stop.
Buried in the pile, under piano exercise books, I found something that really astounded me… it almost made me shout for joy: many, many of the scores had ukulele chord diagrams on them! In all the popular sheet music I had ever been acquainted with before this, these diagrams were provided for guitar – with five lines for the five strings. These all had only four lines. It became clear to me on seeing this that, along with piano, ukulele was most likely the popular amateur instrument of choice back in the 1920s to 1940s, and not guitar. It makes sense when you listen to the jazziness of the pop arrangements of the time, and how well the chord progressions work technically with a ukulele’s tuning – GCEA. I would suppose that the guitar ousted the uke in popularity with the ascent of blues and rock and folk, in which different chords and tunings predominate, and for which the guitar’s EADGBE tuning is a more natural fit… How lovely to realise that this instrument I play very amateurishly, considered a funny curiosity by most these days, was accorded far more value in the past!
What this little discovery means for me, practically, is that I can now play all these very old jazzy tunes with no in-depth knowledge of musical theory. Even the songs I have never heard before can be found with a bit of effort on the internet, listened to, and re-played, provided someone else along the way has seen their value. As long as they were ever recorded, be it on wax cylinder or 78rpm, they may have been digitised. And, as they spin up on my hard drive, a vortex is created, opening a wormhole back to the instant that band played for the first time as the cylinder turned. And the song comes back from the dead as my fingers form the chord shapes, stutters back to life as I sing my breath into the words. Technology is powerful magic, all the more so when it takes account of its historicity.
Information technology is not only about making the future more slick and manageable; it is also about keeping the past accessible… Essentially it is about conquering linear time and space. The prolific recording of moments allows us to live unconstrained by the present moment and space we’re in, almost continuously if we so wish… (For example, people sit on Facebook as they are out for coffee with a friend. Once they have “checked in” at the cafe, they check out what other people are doing elsewhere on their phones, then frame themselves carefully for a photo in that space and capture the moment, uploading it to join the feed for others who are moving through spaces connected via radio waves to know about. Very little other than eating, drinking and self-referential preening is going on in most coffee spots.)
The sheer volume of recording that goes on now is unprecedented. Imagine reading Twitter logs in a century – every ordinary so-and-so with a Twitter account, with their own account of an event… The hyper(in)significance of every moment of our lives being documented is overwhelming to think about. How will historians of the future ever manage to filter out the noise from the signal and deduce anything?
Or, will the noise be the signal – the fragments the whole? How does this affect our memories, our critical faculties, our creativity, our relationships? New technologies confer on us immense power that should be used wisely and with sober discernment, not trivially… as that dumb what’s-her-face model Leandra found out last week when tweeting 140 racially offensive characters cost her her modelling career and dignity, with satisfying, devastating swiftness!
So, anyway, I pulled out a large wad of music sheets; slowly, carefully replaced what I didn’t take for someone else to find. Tried to conceal my excitement as I got to the till; thwacked the pile down and asked nonchalantly, “How much for this old stuff?”
“Two rand a sheet.” After counting to fifteen the old guy stopped and said “I can’t be bothered to count higher than fifteen – it’s yours for thirty bucks.”
I paid thirty rand for all of it. That’s less than a cocktail or a sandwich in the seaside cafes lining that road. So few people seem to see value in this stuff. Not even antique dealers. To them it’s just quaint ephemera.
Research involves following the intuition, the hunch that something lies hidden out of time, out of sight, out of mind: perhaps recorded imperfectly, decaying, deliberately saved. Or, like these priceless music sheets, just debris left in a place where it makes no sense to anyone who has stumbled across it yet… In danger of being lost forever if someone doesn’t come along with enough focused curiosity to re-cognise it as valuable, to think it back into meaningful connection with right now.
To me, the serendipity of finds like Saturday’s feels more than coincidental. If the person looking didn’t happen to be me there at that precise moment, it would probably have been a non-event. Even if it were the me of last year leafing through, I wouldn’t have known what I was looking for. Would have seen the music but not had a ukulele and maybe not noticed that the chord diagrams had only four strings, not five. The me of just a few months back would have seen the music with interest but not known the extent of the 78rpm archive online (having become aware of the degree of coverage of obscure songs through something I have been working on in the past month) and so left it because I didn’t know the songs and didn’t know there was a way to hear them. I don’t often look through second hand stores these days, broke as I am. On Saturday, something compelled me to step inside as I was passing. It felt as if me and the music were drawn together. It felt magical.
“A personal photography experience for public consumption.”
Suzanne Heintz calls herself “the modern day patron saint of single women”. She has the following to say about her ongoing photography project, the wondrously uncanny “Life Once Removed”:
What would drive you to pack a family of mannequins into your station wagon, and take them on a road trip? Enough pressure to conform will send anyone packing. That’s how I came to this personal project about what is essentially…Spinsterhood, and the American Way.
Well-meaning strangers, along with friends and family, would raise an eyebrow when the topic of my unmarried and childless status arose. Indicating with a small facial twitch, not only my audacious freakishness, but that I was a little old for such foolish thinking. I mean, come on, eggs don’t last forever!
But really, what was I supposed to do? You can’t just go out and buy a family. Or can you? I did. They are mannequins. The candy coated shell with nothing inside. We do all those family things, all the while capturing those Kodak Moments. Because it’s not really about the journey, or a genuine human connection, when your kids are screaming, “are we there yet?”, is it? It’s about the picture in front of the sign. “Get back in the car, we got the picture. Now, let’s go eat.”
We love and obey the formatted image of a well-lived life. So deeply ingrained is that strange auto-grin we put on when a camera is present. Do we live our lives with a keen awareness of how it feels, or just how it looks?
If I pass through life without checking off the boxes for a wedding ring and a baby carriage, I will be missing the photo album, but not not the point. When I take my photos, others stop and stare, then they ask, “why are you doing this?” They, at that moment, are starting to get the point too.
Check out more of Suzanne’s fantastical images HERE.
The following are excerpts from Vilém Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography (London: Reaktion Books, 2000).
Images are mediations between the world and human beings. Human beings ‘ex-ist’, i.e. the world is not immediately accessible to them and therefore images are needed to make it comprehensible. However, as soon as this happens, images come between the world and human beings. They are supposed to be maps but they turn into screens: Instead of representing the world, they obscure it until human beings’ lives finally become a function of the images they create. Human beings cease to decode the images and instead project them, still encoded, into the world ‘out there’, which meanwhile itself becomes like an image – a context of scenes, of state of things. This reversal of function of the image can be called ‘idolatry’; we can observe the process at work in the present day: The technical images currently all around us are in the process of magically reconstructing our ‘reality’ and turning it into a ‘global image scenario’. Essentially this is a question of ‘amnesia’. Human beings forget they created the images in order to orient themselves in the world. Since they are no longer able to decode them, their lives become a function of their own images: Imagination has turned into hallucination. (pp 9-10)
The struggle of writing against the image – historical consciousness against magic – runs throughout history. With writing, a new ability was born called ‘conceptual thinking’ which consisted of abstracting lines from surfaces, i.e. producing and decoding them. Conceptual thought is more abstract than imaginative thought as all dimensions are abstract from phenomena – with the exception of straight lines. Thus with the invention of writing, human beings took one step further back from the world. Texts do not signify the world; they signify the images they tear up. Hence, to decode texts means to discover the images signified by them. The intention of texts is to explain images, while that of concepts is to make ideas comprehensible. In this way, texts are a metacode of images.
This raises the question of the relationship between texts and images – a crucial question for history. In the medieval period, there appears to have been a struggle on the part of Christianity, faithful to the text, against idolaters or pagans; in modern times, a struggle on the part of textual science against image-bound ideologies. The struggle is a dialectical one. To the extent that Christianity struggled against paganism, it absorbed images and itself became pagan; to the extent that science struggled against ideologies, it absorbed ideas and itself became ideological. The explanation for this is as follows: Texts admittedly explain images in order to explain them away, but images also illuminate texts in order to make them comprehensible. Conceptual thinking admittedly analyze magical thought in order to clear it out of the way, but magical thought creeps into conceptual thought so as to bestow significance on it. In the course of this dialectical process, conceptual and imaginative thought mutually reinforce one another. In other words, images become more and more conceptual, texts more and more imaginative. Nowadays, the greatest conceptual abstraction is to be found in conceptual images (in computer images, for example); the greatest imagination is to be found in scientific texts. Thus, behind one’s back, the hierarchy of codes is overturned. Texts, originally a metacode of images, can themselves have images as a metacode.
That is not all, however. Writing itself is a mediation – just like images – and is subject to the same internal dialectic. In this way, it is not only externally in conflict with images but is also torn apart by an internal conflict. If it is the intention of writing to mediate between human beings and their images, it can also obscure images instead of representing them and insinuate itself between human beings and their images. If this happens, human beings become unable to decode their texts and reconstruct the images signified in them. If the texts, however, become incomprehensible as images, human beings’ lives become a function of their texts. There arises a state of ‘textolatry’ that is no less hallucinatory than idolatry. Examples of textolatry, of ‘faithfulness to the text’, are Christianity and Marxism. Texts are then projected into the world out there, and the world is experienced, known and evaluated as a function of these texts. A particularly impressive example of the incomprehensible nature of texts it provided nowadays by scientific discourse. Any ideas we may have of the scientific universe (signified by these texts) are unsound: If we do form ideas about scientific discourse, we have decoded it ‘wrongly’: anyone who tries to imagine anything, for example, using the equation of the theory of relativity, has not understood it. But as, in the end, all concepts signify ideas, the scientific, incomprehensible universe is an ’empty’ universe.
Textolatry reached a critical level in the nineteenth century. To be exact, with it history came to an end. History, in the precise meaning of the world, is a progressive transcoding of images into concepts, a progressive elucidation of ideas, a progressive disenchantment (taking the magic out of things), a progressive process of comprehension. If texts become incomprehensible, however, there is nothing left to explain, and history has come to an end. During this crisis of texts, technical images were invented: in order to make texts comprehensible again, to put them under a magic spell – to overcome the crisis of history. (pp 11 – 13)
To summarize: Photographs are received as objects without value that everyone can produce and that everyone can do what they like with. In fact, however, we are manipulated by photographs and programmed to act in a ritual fashion in the service of a feedback mechanism for the benefit of cameras. Photographs suppress our critical awareness in order to make us forget the mindless absurdity of the process of functionality, and it is only thanks to this suppression that functionality is possible at all. Thus photographs form a magic circle around us in the shape of the photographic universe. What we need is to break this circle. (pg 64)
Why a Philosophy of Photography is Necessary
With one exception: so-called experimental photographers – those photographers in the sense of the word intended here. They are conscious that image, apparatus, program and information are the basic problems that they have to come to terms with. They are in fact consciously attempting to create unpredictable information, i.e. to release themselves from the camera, and to place within the image something that is not in its program. They know they are playing against the camera. Yet even they are not conscious of the consequence of their practice: They are not aware that they are attempting to address the question of freedom in the context of apparatus in general. (pg 81)
A philosophy of photography is necessary for raising photographic practice to the level of consciousness, and this is again because this practice gives rise to a model of freedom in the post-industrial context in general. A philosophy of photography must reveal the fact that there is no place for human freedom within the area of automated, programmed and programming apparatuses, in order finally to show a way in which it is nevertheless possible to open up a space for freedom. The task of a philosophy of photography is to reflect upon this possibility of freedom – and thus its significance – in a world dominated by apparatuses; to reflect upon the ways in which, despite everything, it is possible for human beings to give significance to their lives in face of the chance necessity of death. Such a philosophy is necessary because it is the only form of revolution left open to us. (pp 81-82)
Read more excerpts from Flusser’s text HERE.