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Narrative as pressure wave (Cryptic-Cove Park Residency)

Supported by The Substation.

On Sebald

A few years ago I undertook a few subjects of creative writing degree, in order to see if I could get from the idea of writing to the actuality of writing. I write a lot for myself (endless self-deprecating versus self-motivational blather) as well as words describing other people’s work in the form of art commentary, but I had an inkling I wanted to, maybe could, write more comprehensively, more creatively (I’m desperately trying to avoid the word narratively because the skill still eludes me).

In Week 5 of the terrifyingly titled subject, Narrative Writing, we were assigned a reading that was the first 23 pages of W.G Sebald’s Rings Of Saturn. I wasn’t sold but I was intrigued. Not sold because of the sepia dryness, but intrigued because of the meandering style seamlessly blurring “personal biography” and fetishistic academic research. I sensed or attributed to Sebald a melancholic urge to embed himself in much older, more ambiguous narratives — to write himself a hiding place from whence he could wearily watch the world. For this reason, he was a little bent triangle on the edge of a page in my mind. I suspected there would be a time when I would “get him”. This sense that the things that don’t work for me at first but just might make sense later is perhaps the closest thing I can call wisdom accumulated over my 46 years.

I woke up on the 22nd of January 2017, having completed a 6-week contract job and thus ready to embark on my own projects, with the urge to finally tackle Sebald. I scanned the descriptions of each of his books available on Australian Amazon Kindle, and once again the dusty classicness of the subject matter didn’t appeal (I have, it should be noted, spent the last three years researching science fiction), but decided to recommence with Rings of Saturn. So on a 40-degree Sydney summer day, I traipsed with Sebald around the cold and decaying British countryside, finding a surprising happiness, verging on excitement, in this muted misery.

On the ficto-critical

Two months later and I am “residing” on a seemingly remote Scottish property (although a handful of towns are but an hour walk away), with the opportunity to pursue my passion for making sound art that incorporates my writing aspirations, and I am immersing myself in Sebald[1]. I realise now his writing appeals to me because it’s a kind of proto-hypertext, written in lead pencil on lined paper, from back before the internet was our alternate brain[2].

When information became readily clickable my fast-talking mind found its native format—it was, and still is, a hypertext generator, spitting out packets of associated (or not so associated) information, nigh on simultaneously. I have channelled this into interactive projects, choice-based art sci-fi art adventures, but now I’m looking to the linear because sound takes time, plays out over time. Sound demands sequence, and sequence implies line. And really this is all about sound.

On listening

Its about sound and my subject is listening — more specifically the listening subject. Listening being a moment of complete absorption, immersion, how do we register ourselves within this act of listening? What is our listening self? I propose the state of listening is one of hearing the source then listening to the mind understanding and translating it. And if so, how much of that translation involves words, secret murmured words, an inner voice — a language of listening.

From here I need props[3]—tools to assist in this registering of these subtleties of perception and meta-perception (perception squared — the perception of the act of perception). For the project I’m working on at Cove Park this “prop” is a mirror, a two-way mirror, that will allow the listener to watch themself in the act of listening, while sound is manifested in visual form, gradually dissolving the reflected image — a vision of self slowly eaten by sound.

So now I’m thinking on mirrors and properties of light and specular reflection, light rays bouncing at neat matching angles, rearranging themselves as their opposite, an unheimlich duplicate. And reflecting on reflections brings me to sound and its double, the imperfect repetition of an echo, more than 0.1seconds delayed, the extent of our ear’s short term memory.

And who better to narrativise these properties of physics than those Ancient Greeks with their transdisciplinary turn. Handsome Narcissus and his irresistible reflection that blinds him to his very sense of self — cursed to be both subject and object simultaneously. And the witness of his demise, sweet infuriating Echo, pre-afflicted by Juno with impaired mimicry (-cry… -cry… -cry…).

Narcissus and Echo bring with them their biographer Ovid, erotic poet exiled for reasons even he didn’t understand. Sent to a Beckettian lunar landscape as described in An Imaginary Life by David Malouf, transposing his Antipodean sensibility to an alien Ancient land. And these things run amok in my mind, as I try to arrange them into a line, that can look back on itself as a circle — a circle that brings me back to Max (Sebald’s preference over Winfreid).

I could move on to circles as concentric ripples made from a dropped stone in a smooth pond, but the fog rolls in and words are running out, and I’m left enshrouded in my derivative conceit. But what is derivativeness if not admiration plus echo?

[1] From my January reading I’ve decided I will conclude my UK residency time with my own Sebald-like tour of the south east coast of England, driving a rental Kia rather than hoofing it, to look at the abandoned Acoustic Sound Mirrors built between the wars to try to hear the enemy approaching.

[2] There is only internet at the main complex at Cove Park which means when sitting in my pod-studio with no easy google-fix I realise how much I’ve handed my mind over to the hive.

[3] On a brisk walk up the hill past the tidy town to Lochview — two rows of semidetached 1970s boxes and an utterly misplaced apartment block — you come to a farm comprising a small collection of stone buildings, all except the main house that has gaping holes in walls and roofs like missing teeth. In the yard a decaying trailor, the kind with two servers windows for hotdogs and chips. A little further in a broken beige 1960s caravan. Large gnarled tree trunks in chunks are piled in the driveway. I overlay a sense of carnie or show people over the scene. Then I notice the van on the other side of the road painted with signage for Propped Up Scotland and I imagine that in these dilapidated sheds are piles of props from TV shows like Taggart that have come here to die. Though it’s later suggested to me that the “propping” might refer to building reinforcement.

This project has been supported by The SUBSTATION.

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