Thank you and goodbye Oliver Sacks

By David Walsh

Sometimes I find myself, in conversation, filling in a detail concerning an aspect of neurology. It might be the nature of colour blindness, or the clinical manifestations of synaesthesia, or the pain engendered by a misrepresentation of self. When I do this I’m occasionally, even often, right. And if I am, that’s not a credit to me. It’s a credit to Oliver Sacks, who studied these things, and understood their nature, and wrote about them, and revealed the burden of those who suffered.

He didn’t write to show off. And he didn’t write to educate. He wrote to entertain. I read all of his books, and I was most majestically entertained. So those things I learned, I learned without effort, because of all the writers I’ve ever read, Oliver Sacks is the easiest to read. The words are a window, and the view is grand.

Two years ago my daughter, Grace, was struck on the head by a rock. Her recovery entailed, amongst other things, overcoming neurological deficits that induced dyscalculia and anxiety. Her lovely teacher, Philippa Herron, patiently helped her through this most difficult time. Jemma, Grace’s mum, suggested an Oliver Sacks book would be an appropriate gift to thank her. She was right; an Oliver Sacks book is always an opportune gift, but in this case it was most apropos. I prevailed on a mutual acquaintance to ask Mr Sacks if he would autograph a book. Although we were strangers, a delightfully dedicated copy of Awakenings arrived in the mail.

To thank him I responded with a copy of the Mona catalogue, Monanisms. And within it, I inscribed the following jingle:

I’ve read around
I must admit,
Cheats abound
Also in lit.

I did you wrong,
No leg to stand on.
I was hallucinating,
Now I’m awakening.

Although I roam
I’ll come back,
And write a poem
To say, ‘Thanks
For each tome,
Doctor Sacks’.

The fellow who helped me out with the autograph, Lawrence Weschler, eulogised Doctor Sacks to the Wall Street Journal thus: he ‘conducted a master class in how to die, after having conducted a master class in how to live’.

Oliver Sacks showed the humanity of literature. And the humanity of science. And the humanity of humanity.

The exploded infant

By Robin Fox

‘… sit[ting] within a huge all-color jewel while this every colored jewel spoke the music of one’s soul ….’
—Mary Hallock-Greenewalt on the experience of playing the colour organ

I don’t have synaesthesia, or at least I don’t think I do, but it has been in my life since the beginning … before the external beginning, even … since the womb. My mother was a synaesthete. She associated colour, numbers and sound (particularly pitch), so my joke now is that I couldn’t burp or fart at the dinner table without her telling me it was the number ten, a slightly murky orange and a B flat. We could always test the latter at the piano but the other two seemed peculiar to the rest of us and a deep truth only to her.

I didn’t think much of it over the years of my youth; it wasn’t important to me that my birthdays always had colours attached and that the numbers that mum had for notes didn’t match their position in the diatonic scale. I was busy in headphones thrashing away on my cheap drum kit trying to play Def Leppard’s Hysteria album with one hand tied behind my back and committing far more to the aesthetic of self destruction that came with bad hair metal than to the rudiments necessary to actually get any good on the skins. But I remember the music that she composed and that she sang. She became interested in atonal music when I was a child, so I have memories of her rehearsing Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (her score is one of my more treasured relics from her life) and, more importantly in relation to synaesthesia, she loved to sing the Klangfarbenmelodie (sound colour melody) of Anton Webern; melodies constructed from timbre difference. The timbre is often called the ‘colour’ of sound. In the early eighties, she made computer music on mainframes when computers were the size of apartments and the turn around on six seconds of sound was twenty-four hours in the lab. In some of these works she would morph her voice into the sound of a bird attacking a beetle, among other things.

But I digress; this is becoming a eulogy. I guess what I’m saying is that all of these factors contributed to my obsession with joining the senses of sight and hearing together in my work. There were other factors of course. When I was studying composition at university I was in the odd position, eventually, of being able to compose music without really being able to read it. Weird? Maybe. But it’s a language like any other and you can learn the rules of construction and say intelligible things etc., etc. In the end, the linguistic side of music didn’t sit well with me and later in my degree I branched off to write about visual notation, graphic scores, musical gestures represented in abstract visual gestures rather than notated instructions. I guess I was moving toward a situation where the relationship between musical and visual gesture wasn’t causal anymore, but so simultaneous that you couldn’t separate the two. I found this symbiosis through electrical signal, but it has just occurred to me now that what I am talking about is the essence of live performance—that essential link between physical (visual) action and sonic outcome that allows for virtuosity through the constant challenge to the limits of these physical systems.

The way that the sound and light equivalence started for me was with the Cathode Ray Oscilloscope. I was making some quite harsh, angular noise pieces years ago and I happened to have a CRO in my studio. I had heard that you could feed sound into them and ‘see’ the results so I plugged the left channel into the X-axis and the right channel into the Y-axis to see what my noise looked like. For the most part it was pretty uninteresting and unsatisfying … except for one three-second snapshot where the sound and light locked together and I felt like I was looking straight at the geometry of the sound signal. It was a ‘eureka’ moment for me and has defined my audio-visual work since. I studied that three seconds and started to build a library of sounds and techniques that had interesting visual outcomes. The results fascinated me. The more harmonic the spectrum of the sound, the messier the visual result. Pure tones worked beautifully and distortion (overloading the system) was amazing. The important revelation for me was that sound is geometry, not in the ‘Bach-ian’ sense either of geometric patterns composed as pieces of music, but that sound is geometry.

Take the building blocks of electronic music for example. The sine wave. Take time out of a sine wave and fold it on itself and you have a circle; take time out of a square wave and you have a square; a triangle wave … you get the picture. What it means is that when we make sound we are producing complex combinations of these flowing geometries in the form of sound waves. Of course, this wasn’t a general revolution, it wasn’t entirely new at all (people had been working with optical soundtracks, for example, for decades) but it was new to me and it blew my mind and changed the way I worked with sound to this day.

It also led me to the rich history of artists working to forge a connection between sound and light. The ancient Greeks mused on it, and after Newton’s treatise on Opticks there was the sense that light and sound could share properties through wavelength and frequency. One of my favourite examples of an artist attempting to forge a connection is Louis Bertrand Castell’s Ocular Harpsichord (c.1730). It was basically a harpsichord but each key was attached to a system of pulleys that would open a small curtain to reveal a candle shining through coloured glass. Although beautifully simple, in modern OH&S parlance he had created a fire hazard and perhaps it is no surprise that there are no remaining physical examples of the instrument. Other pioneers in the field include Mary Hallock-Greenewalt, whose visual music phonograph (1919) was a record player with accompanying light show, and Thomas Wilfred, whose Clavilux Junior (1930) was definitely a psychedelic pre-cursor to the Xbox. For me, the grandfather of my work is Jules Lissajous, a French mathematician (1822-1880) who, in order to tune his tuning forks, devised an ingenious method for visualizing sound waves. He created a focused beam of light by placing a cover with a pinprick over a candle, then bouncing that light off tiny mirrors attached to the end of his tuning forks. He could see the reflected waves on the wall.  He essentially created a crude prototype of a laser projector.

What I produce when I make works where you see and hear the same electrical signal at the same time is a manufactured synaesthetic experience. There is no causality; the two things happen simultaneously so you don’t have time to think about which came first. Sight and sound become the same thing in time and space, like Lissajous’s patterns on the wall. This seems fascinating to non-synaesthetes. Why is that? Margaret Hollis alluded to one possible answer in her essay from the previous Synaesthesia program. I’ll restate it here in my own way. One theory of synaesthesia is that we are all born with it. Imagine a pre-language state (impossible, but try), what Lacan might call the condition of the ‘exploded infant’. All of our senses are one. Vibration in the form of sound, light, smell, even touch, swarm into us as an undifferentiated mass of pure experience. Gradually, through repetition and the establishment of concrete neural pathways, we segregate those sensations and attach perception to them, developing, in the end, our ‘sense perception’. Perhaps works of visual music or synaesthetic artworks draw us back toward that pre-language state, to a neural recklessness where everything is thrown in without deference to the emergent synaptic bureaucracy that parses our senses into organised and functional blocks. People frequently recount to me a sense of euphoria, ecstasy and the feeling of a chemical high after seeing synaesthetic artworks. I’ve certainly noticed that a much broader demographic of punters will sit through (and even enjoy) the kind of noise I generate in my shows when it is accompanied by its direct visual correlate.

Oddly though, one of the most interesting things about synaesthesia is its idiosyncrasy. Each synaesthetic person experiences it in a unique way. It’s an intimate condition, born of the interior and unknowable to others, private. By claiming to manufacture it homogenously in a group of people, am I some kind of cross-modal fascist? Before she died I had the chance to ask my mother more probing questions about her condition. Though it had clearly been a huge aid to her in her musical life, guiding her through fiendishly difficult atonal vocal works, she spoke of it primarily as an affliction, a chorus of often unnecessary and unwanted correlations that she could never switch off. So maybe synaesthesia is something wonderful to behold and to experience from the outside. A fleeting reconnection of now disparate parts of the brain, but would we want it all the time? I’m not so sure.

Audio-visual artist Robin Fox is a repeat performer at MONA FOMA and Dark Mofo. We can’t wait to experience his latest offering at our two-day sound-art spectacular, Synaesthesia+, at Mona (where else?) on August 16 and 17, 2014. Did you get this far without realizing this was a plug? Get your tickets pronto.

Synaesthesia Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Synaesthesia, 2012
Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Dark Mofo Winter Feast 2013 'White Beam', Robin Fox   Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Dark Mofo Winter Feast, 2013
‘White Beam’, Robin Fox
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Synaesthesia

By Anica Boulanger-Mashberg

There are so many ways a thing can make you shiver. A cello in a crowd. A chorus in a stairwell. A story about a child who didn’t stand up for another child. The fury of chilli and the honest, expected loyalty of a potato. A single note. The memory, a moment later, of that same note.

Morning. In the sun.

Conversations about heels.

Elizabeth wears them because Kirsha told her she should. And then because she discovered she loved them.

Angela doesn’t. She feels like a politician.

I always fall over. Lizzy thinks that’s a myth. Maybe it is.

Inside. The Void.

The first thing that I love:

A cello.

Pulls my guts out through my lungs and, coated in tears, drags them up my throat in a gasp and there’s everything I once thought I’d have and then thought I’d never need and now here it all is.

I want to drink the cello forever and already I’m sick of my own linguistic synaesthesing. But I do want to drink the cello.

At the beginning of this thing, and longing for the saturated, sleepy exhaustion of midnight.

And then a man in a black t-shirt, new for the day, towards me against the salmon-tide:

‘And so it goes’.

Later.

I find a room full of the throbbing, hypnotic reassurances of Philip Glass. Rhythmic certainties interrupted by uncertain pauses, and a mobile phone announcing some urgent communiqué from the world outside. The electronically generated xylophonic trill weaves itself easily into the milky notes of Glass’s intent, and I enjoy the absurdity of it.

Between Glass dances, the organist frantically shakes his wrists and fingers out, and the plants grow quietly in their wall-pockets at the other end of the room.

Later.

Five synaesthetes walk into a bar.

I’m not sure what comes next. But I think the joke is possibly arcane and probably offensive, and I decide not to pursue its invention.

Later still.

I think of a flautist I once knew, who had given up a professional career because her synaesthesia made performance (and especially rehearsal) too unbearable for her.

I wonder if this performance – in front of the busy Nolan snake, and splashed with cycling coloured light – is unpleasant for a synaesthete?

The subjectivity of humanity begins to preoccupy and mildly terrify me. I start scribbling incomprehensibly into my medium brown notebook. I write pages and pages and pages during the Mussorgsky, and it is so boring even I can’t bear to read it over afterwards.

Late evening. The Organ Room.

Kate Miller-Heidke is a glistening-polished jelly dessert with familiar and never-before-tasted tropical fruit. More saccharine at first than you think you wanted but then you discover you’re in love and, in all the sugar, what you taste is the whole world: the rind and the tang, the moon and the seas, the loss and the first times, poisons and wild animals.

She has a voice that doesn’t make sense coming from her small body. She sings about the past and about herself and about nothing sometimes, and she tells stories like she wants us to rise up and respond, or laugh at her, or be shocked, or maybe buy her a drink. She fills the already crowded room. She is bigger than herself. She becomes a way into the world.

Home
I’ve started to forget what I know about things. Or what I’ve heard. Started to think I’m making them up. Is there a story, for example, about David discussing the logo design, and saying ‘fuck it, let’s use fluoro pink: no-one uses fluoro pink’, and that’s how it came about? No? Well. It sounds plausible though, doesn’t it.


(De)Gustation

Saline

I saw a ghost and an angel while the chorus were painting the stairwell in Bowman and green and in blue light and in open vowels and in blood pooling softly across my chest.

He was magnificent and ordinary and dressed in white and in need of a haircut and the shape of a man and with eyes filled in sorrow and the everyday. He stood at the top of the stairwell and we made no contact and I stood near the bottom and by the Sanctus he was gone. I didn’t see him leave but I know he walked, down those back stairs, slipping quietly or with an excuse me, and the knowledge of him comforts me in no way you can imagine.

She was a sketch and a shadow and almost invisible amongst the resonance of the chorus. That chorus, haunting through the museum: cobwebs and sheets adrift in a hot, airless house. She slipped amongst them and was a shiver across their shoulders as they sang for us, sang for themselves, never once sang for her, sang for their childhoods and their immortality and their impossibilities.

And you didn’t see either of them.

Sour

I create restore points in time. I click something, somewhere, and I imagine that one day I’ll look back to this moment and I’ll try to re-feel all of it – someone I love sitting beside me, the air slightly cooler than my skin, the relentlessly gorgeous same-and-changing Glass patterns, the contented memory of kimchi, chilli, wasabi.

I wonder how long it would take me, in this space, to lose everything and become a throbbing, visceral echo of myself. Not long, I think. And what stops me? What holds me here? What holds you? What holds the ones you love? Is it the same thing that binds us all?

If this is the rabbit hole, I am already here. I’ve forgotten what I was following.

And the longer I’m here, the more uncomfortably mundane it all becomes. I see through the cracks and around the corners.

You can only eat so much, you know. It says a lot about a person, how they eat at a dessert buffet.

I met Alexandria at a dessert buffet. We were both standing beside the mousse, agonising. It said a lot about her, to me. And I suppose it said a lot about me. To her. I’ve never asked her, actually. I should. Should have.

See, if you know you love – and I mean love — the chocolate gateau, why would you go back, when you’re almost full and the party’s almost over, to try the passionfruit gelato? Just on the off chance that you’ll love it. Love it more than the chocolate gateau. Which you can never have again, by the way, because you’re full and the party was catered by a retiring pastry chef.

After a while, I start to wonder whether it matters at all.

The Messiaen is beautiful. So what if he saw golden Fmaj chords when he wrote it, and I don’t see them now?

Sugar
I’m holding your breath.

Bitterness

What if each time someone said your name, my mouth was filled with the idea of strawberries? What then? Or what if it wasn’t strawberries? What if it was the bitter disappointment of a lettuce leaf left too long before picking? A small, dark leaf perfectly formed, but carrying only ugly in its flavour? A tightening, lingering, wild-chicory of a bite. What if that metallic taste of regret was what accompanied you? Could I still love you?

Every touch of you is somehow unbelievable. Every brush of your tannin-tainted tongue is something I once longed for and now has no meaning. Where do such hauntings come from? Who turned us into this? I think there was a moment when I could have stopped it. This brakeless tumble towards loss. I remember. It was a winter morning but the sun was cruel against the tight cotton of my jeans. Your children were asleep – both of them, what a wonder. We sat together in their treehouse with a teapot full of sand, and we talked about politics and linguistics and the weather patterns of the antipodes. Something. I remember you opening the toy teapot and sliding one finger through the sand – I didn’t even know the children had a sandpit. I had only visited you in your house twice before, and both times in the unmooned darkness. This day, there was quiet in the air and the sound of the sand against your dry knuckles was remarkable. I listened as you warped that finger in and out, down through that multitude of crushed and infinitesimal fragments of things that once were, between the specks of abstraction.

And, you see, I knew then that I could love you more than you loved me. I don’t know why, but that’s when it was. That moment, your finger in a teapot full of sand, your children asleep, your words meaningless, your pulse at your throat contorting your profile, your treehouse around us and above us and below us, and the astringent taste of something familiar in my mouth – that moment. It was when I made the decision that swept me to where I am now. That moment was when I kissed you and you touched the side of my cheek with your finger sugared in sand, and the breath of you filled me up and emptied you. That moment. That was when I could have chosen no and I chose yes.

But this wasn’t supposed to be a story about love. They’re never supposed to be stories about love. What would I know?

Something else

‘What colour is silence?’ a woman asks the synaesthete.

A long pause.

‘I’ve never seen true silence,’ he finally says.

Later
The museum has absorbed all the synaesthetes and the nonaesthetes and the syn-curious into its skin like rain into an anonymous, quiet earth.

Synaesthesia returns August 2014: Synaesthesia+ 16-17 August 2014. Get your tickets pronto.

At the arsenale

This worm bears the face of its creator, Jan Fabre. What the worm says is: ‘I want to draw my head out of the hangman’s rope of history’. He says it in Flemish, because the artist is from, um, Belgium. He’s a bit of an artist rock star, making major works for biennales and staging sell-out shows at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, that sort of thing.

Zelfportret, als grootste worm van de wereld, 2008, ©Jan Fabre/Licensed by Viscopy Copyright, 2012

I saw a work of his at the Venice Biennale (I just want to say: that sounds really snazzy, and part of me rejoices that I’m so lucky to have been to Venice as part of my job, but another part remembers that I was intensely lonely at that particular time, and found traipsing around the obviously incredible, amazing etc. Venice on my own, in the shoulder season, abjectly depressing). Fabre’s work was out in the boat-building part of town, called the ‘arsenale’ (hot and dusty. I went back to Venice two years later with my boyfriend, and with David and Kirsha – a far pleasanter trip, although my boyfriend and I did have a massive argument, or rather, I sulked in a very energetic manner, because at dinner one night David had commented that he found Brazilian-waxed women ‘hot’ and my boyfriend agreed with him, and I was mortally offended because I find the whole thing a form of casual self-torture that everyone seems to be participating in except me [1]; but more than that, I took it as a form of personal rejection, basically his way of saying, ‘Haven’t you realised by now I find you repulsive’. It was early in our relationship and perhaps, in hindsight, I was being a little sensitive. Anyway, on this far-pleasanter trip to Venice my boyfriend took photos wildly of the arsenale, the big cranes and chains and docks and stuff like that. I guess he was imagining the hub of empire. I was thinking more about Shakespeare). So the Jan Fabre work that I saw (this is the lonely trip now, the first) was encased in a large closed-in space around which the visitor walks via a sort of elevated, wrap-around viewing platform. You look down into this pit-like mound of dirt or soil or something, where a silicone replica of the artist stands digging into an oversized – perhaps, Nissan Micra-sized – replica of his own head. So it’s a big Jan head, over which a normal-size Jan stands and digs with a shovel. Parts of his big brains are exposed.

From the feet to the brain, 2009, ©Jan Fabre

What I’m trying to say is that this artist is pretty interested in excavating his own mortality. It’s a back-handed form of massive-egoism: an artist like Jeff Gabel – whose work flanks the worm in our gallery – isn’t obsessed with his own insignificance because it comes as less of a shock. It’s less of an affront, or insult to his intelligence. I’m siding with Jan here. I get weak-kneed shock each time I think about the fact that I’m going to one day not exist, but I’ve banged on about that enough by now. Maybe one day, the thought will begin to bore me. As an aside: Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, which I read (some of) in preparation for writing some marketing material for our concert Synaesthesia (Nabokov was a synaesthete) begins like this:

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.

See also: ‘They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more…’ – Becket, Godot. Nabokov continues:

Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged – the same house, the same people – and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell.

That ‘young chronophobiac’, surely dead by now, was probably fairly self-centred.

Anyhow, the additional factor, of course, is that this worm work is not just about mortality, but about art and its history. Jan knows he is but a worm before the greats of European culture, whose names are emblazed (via some sort of entomological code) on the tombstones over which the worm debases himself (ok, that was a little dramatic, but still). Like all great egoists, this artist knows his place and is horrified.

I have felt some sort of Shakespearean reference agitating at the edges of my memory in relation to that work; if that sounds a little pretentious, perhaps you’ll like me more if I tell you the reference finally emerged (as in, just then, as I wrote the last paragraph) via my memory of a scene in a cemetery from the Steve Martin film LA Story (it’s got Sarah Jessica Parker in it and it’s brilliant). In this scene, the guy from Honey I Shrunk the Kids is grave-digging, and the actor playing Steve Martin’s love interest starts quoting Hamlet:

A fellow of infinite jest…
He hath borne me on his back a thousand times.
Where be your gibes now?
Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?

I think what I’m saying is that Jan Fabre, like Steve Martin and everyone else, knows everything is shit compared to Shakespeare. Except maybe Nabokov.

The other encounter I had with Jan Fabre (other than when I interviewed him and he told me he felt sorry for the people who had to listen to my interviews, no joke) was when Olivier, Mona curator, took me to one of his said shows at Queen Elizabeth Hall, called ‘Orgy of tolerance’. It was during my first term as a Mona employee, and Olivier hadn’t quite worked out whether I had been sent to London as ‘a spy’. He took me to the show and I didn’t like it at all, although everyone else sure did. There was an extended group masturbation scene that transposes polite conversation with flagrant flogging of logs and so forth, which everyone but me found uproariously funny. Anyway it turns out Olivier was angling to bring the show to Tasmania for Mona Foma, and my reply to an email question from David – ‘Did you like the Jan Fabre show?’ – that no, I didn’t, I thought it was tacky and unfunny, contributed somewhat to David’s decision to can it. Olivier didn’t speak to me for a week. But when he did, his rage scorched my eyelashes. As it turns out I think David would probably have loved the Fabre show: he loves Balletlab, which similarly, I can’t stand.

One of the things Fabre said to me in the I-feel-sorry-for-your-listeners interview was that he believed in the ‘sacred bond’ between artist and viewer. He ‘trusts the public’, he says, to interpret his message and appreciate his creation, which we should not ‘dirty too much’ with our comments and interpretation. Whoops.

-Elizabeth Mead


[1] ‘But absolutely everybody gets Brazilians’ – My beautician, the other day.