4 Jan 2012

'a private swamp / was where this tree grew feathers once' : a radio memorial in four movements.

"It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive in a certain house at a given time.”
- W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz

"In my beginning is my end. In succession / Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended, / Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place / Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass. [...] Houses live and die: there is a time for building / And a time for living and generation / And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane / And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots / And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto."
- T. S. Eliot, East Coker (from 'Four Quartets')

When the city I had lived in for 15 years started shaking in late 2010, and, through the ensuing ongoing seismic rupture and human attempts to understand and manage it, began changing its known shape, I was faced with a seemingly monolithic problem, that of not being there to experience the everyday life of this (d)evolution. I knew the risks of distance : that it would be easy, as some expats had already decided, to "never go back", to be too afraid of the trauma of this experience to risk 'making real' the destruction of their own individual and collective past. But I had come of age in this city : I had walked its streets and explored its abandoned buildings and factories, I had lived in its spaces and built my own private and shared languages there. It seemed that if I was to begin to deal with the cataclysm that had happened my task would be to retrieve and revive these strategies, to break the problem down into its smaller constituent, human-scaled elements, and the only way to do that was to not treat the city as a screen, to watch and listen to news reports and struggles from afar, but to walk into it. The question, I knew, would emerge more fully in the walking itself : how to enter a city which has simultaneously become too closed and too open to allow movement through the known passageways? Where doors are flung wide in places where doors never were, in walls, in hillsides, in lines of shops, in the earth? Where the locking of doors is an official decree, and a regime of control reigns, but the doors one finds are too numerous to be controlled. These doors, they are small, they are patient, they are often clandestine, they are multiple. For the city is no longer a unity, it no longer has one gate, one identity, one name. It has no key, it has a broken lock one must find new tools to decipher.

In the waning days of 2011, I walked around the city of Christchurch sketching, in a private mapping exercise, a re-calibration of the destroyed city I no longer recognised, layering the old with the new in my memory. I say destroyed but I may perhaps more accurately say unknown, as the changes in terrain, the ruptures in the fabric of the recognisable, were layering up as successive quakes resisted any kind of new map solidifying itself. The territory was changing faster than any map could catch it. This process of the continual un-knowability of the city was noted vividly by its residents, and was by no means over : two earthquakes on the 23rd December, a magnitude 5.8 and then soon after it a 6.0, shook the street I was standing on, their arrival to be followed by swarms of smaller quakes in the days after. Walking around was an exercise in experiential disorientation as the lack of familiar landmarks bred an atmosphere of collective memory loss and the ongoing quakes literally caused the terrain to crumble as you watched it.
To walk these streets I formerly knew 'like the back of my hand', was akin to walking down a hotel corridor in a dream I often have, in which decayed green doors with brass numbers rendered near-illegible by verdigris bracket a passageway that stretches on to infinity. Trying one after another of the doors and finding them barred, without warning the dreamer may find herself on the outskirts of an unknown town in a swampy marshland, or in a dank basement room with a single small cracked window covered in cobwebs. It felt like the city was my dream when, in only one example among many, a towering structure stumbled upon in the park, staffed by territorial, growling officials whose threatening tone seemed to come from a more military context than those I was used to in this place i'd walked through a thousand times, was, I found out later, the Telecom Christmas tree, lights broken because of the quake. Bombastic and forlorn at once, its spindly presence over the night trees punctured the sky like a useless transmission tower, broadcasting nothing, representing nothing.
On the day of the Radio Cegeste transmission, Monday the 2nd January 2012, there had been 41 earthquakes in 24 hours. I had originally wanted to locate myself in the Salisbury street house, for various reasons : it had been the last place I had lived in, its dramatically tenuous hanging on to the edge of its own verticality - still upright, but only just - was certainly pretty evocative, and lastly because the landlord, who had bought the building because she had loved it and flatted there herself when she was younger, had once told me of the rumored ghosts in windows, and the colonial era story of a butler murdering a maid in the room upstairs from mine. However, after a particularly nasty shake of 5.5 the night before, I had decided this location was too dangerous. Recording 5 minutes of audio with a portable device within unstable buildings was one thing, but a sustained period of time in which one couldn't leave in a hurry seemed too much to ask of the precarious lower level rooms of Salisbury Street. Instead, I went to Churchill St, and conducted a transmission for just over 15 minutes, crouching on the dust-covered floor of my old bedroom. The house's emptiness seemed to record a moment of violence which was no longer immediately accessible experientially, but cycled in re-play endlessly in the silence, as the whole structure, its piles gone, wavered and swayed subtly under my feet. Its lived history was like a screwed up piece of paper in a corner. Not blank, but overwritten to the point of illegibility.

Perhaps to counter such bizarre, black-comedic and distinctly alienating experiences, on two days, the 27th and the 31st December, I visited four houses I had once lived in. The intention was to re-situate within the four avenues, as a site-specific, localised transmission, the audio I recorded at the sites of these houses, their layered memory-map. It seemed appropriate to make a radio memorial, like a mobile to hang invisibly in the air, a small thing to mark this enormous year's passing, by recording these spaces in 2011, and re-transmitting them in the early days of 2012. This presented moments of fraught emotionality in which I found myself in tears (some inaudible in the recordings in question), and illegal transgression of safety limits and boundaries. All of the houses in question are located within the grid of the central city, known locally as 'the 4 avenues'. One of them, in Dublin St, was still, as far as I could tell, inhabited, the others were in various states of ruination, in particular a large two story wooden Victorian era house on Durham St, my first flat, which once provided tangible evidence of many lost formative moments, now an unanswerable pile of rubble. The two houses still vaguely standing were perhaps even more poignant, one, in Salisbury St, crumbling and unstable as a house of cards, with triple-brick internal walls having fallen through into adjoining apartments, one pile of bricks heaped between two armchairs, its rupture seemingly having arrived like a glacier entering the living room, and on Churchill St, a one story house with my room's beautiful stained glass windows and tiled Victorian fireplace still miraculously intact, had been left eerily, emptily abandoned, its back door flung wide open. In preceding days I had been talking to people about the sounds of the post-quake city, from the densely violent sublime cacophonies of breaking glass as the buildings fell, to the sounds of quakes approaching across the water or hitting the side of the house "like a bus", and how the birds had left completely for two weeks after February 22nd, but then they had returned. But inside both of these latter abandoned houses, I found a quality of silence, not even the sounds of an ordinary day going on outside, the adjoining streets largely without cars.

Far from the everyday life-hum of earlier times, the urbanscape seemed deserted. An artist friend still living in the largely abandoned inner city showed me the copy of W. S. Burroughs' Interzone he was currently reading, rescued from the lost private archive of a legendary local musician and collector, its back cover torn off, remaining pages stuck together with liquefaction. The book had become newly relevant, a potent symbol of the city's own liminal state - how, I thought, could you read anything else? My friend expressed his incredulity at the initial official statement 'to keep the grid' of the four avenues - it was obvious that this stamping of the land with its own settler-culture, regimented past was not going to be possible, if you actually stepped outside to see, hear and feel the tidal flow, the crash of breakers, within the affective, lived experience of the place itself. Instead, we discussed the importance of the small moments of process, the importance of time, to allow for the vernacular languages which will eventually emerge from these new spatialities, the coming-into-being of a new map that it was not yet possible to see. There was a counter-monumentality to all of this. Outside in the Garden City, wildness was taking over, in the absence of people, native pigeons, or Kereru, had migrated from the nearby botanical gardens and flapped down major inner city streets, rhizome-twists of white convolvulus and free scatterings of bright scarlet rememberance and crimson opium poppies flourished in the terrain vague of abandoned sites that had once been at the polarised edges of Christchurch's socio-economic world, the gardens of expensive century old homes, or multi-bedsit dives : from the angle of this present, it was now no longer possible to tell the difference.

As the field recordings permeated the space, the experiential temporalities of all the places in which I had collected them, the slices of audible time taken at different moments, impacted subtly on each other, to form a conglomerate time-structure, which almost sounded like silence. As a sound library (albeit one of an ephemeral, partial, fragile and tenuous nature), it part-replicated the truncated memory-forms that exist in archival and museological contexts, where, removed from the sites and temporalities of their lived use, objects sit in a strangely a-temporal non-space, but contrarily, in its transmitting back, in its framing as a de-monumentalised radiophony, this sound archive also released something into the air, fleetingly, as a temporary private memorial that shifted with the space itself, that didn't attempt to speak for a generalised experience of the quakes, which became, for me, a way of re-claiming the mediated experience I had been in thrall to, passively seeing and hearing from a distance, a way of saying goodbye to the ghosts of what had been, and a welcome to those yet to come. The impossibility of a 'shared experience' within such wide-scale experience of trauma, of truly understanding, for example, the experience of my father, when, sitting on his lunchbreak in his city's central public city square (the very name of which, until now - 'Cathedral Square' - speaks to attitudes of permanence) on the 22nd February 2011, he heard the din of a million windows breaking and saw the Cathedral spire twist and fall in front of him as he stumbled toward it - this also becomes the impossibility of the city itself to symbolise its experience via one image, its new status, in fact, of being a city without a central image ('Christ Church'), in this unhinging from names, when so many personal stories are thriving, when so many small domestic spaces and private domains and the stories around them have changed forever, and will keep changing, again, faster than any map can catch them. In this, I have tried to get away from the currently heated conversations around the preservation of heritage buildings and monuments, of large scale, important architecture, and dwell in the imaginary of the humble, the domestic, the personal. In the actual spaces of my own past, without sentimentalising or misrepresenting them. It felt somewhat akin to the transmission modalities which Sarah E Kanouse's excellent essay Transmissions Between Memory and Amnesia, speaks of :

"radio’s persistent present-absence, the gap between transmitting and receiving, the impossibility of unaided reception mirrors what Andreas Huyssen has called the “voids” of memory—spaces pregnant and damning in their emptiness, spaces that materialize through absence an incommensurability of time and experience, spaces that speak silently and with authority on that which has been deliberately erased but for which there is no substitute. The ontological gap of radio takes on an alarming dimension—a testament to the impossibility of reconciling with the past, of cosmetically undoing past injustices and, by extension, it points to our powerlessness to reverse the effects of our own present actions. Radio’s dissipating, disjunctive, and self-effacing characteristics make it function quite differently from physical monuments, whose permanence tends to veil conflict and violence in “the stasis of monumentalized and pacified spaces,” as W.J.T. Mitchell observed. The witness is left straining to hear what she is being told she cannot really hear, really understand, really encounter, that she is both moot and mute and left with the voids of what once was. [...] At the heart of the radio memorial is, in fact, this struggle: struggle to listen, communicate, and remember, struggle to place what would conveniently be forgotten in a tightly policed public sphere, struggle to bridge the gap between remembering and forgetting, transmitting and receiving. By performing the shifting and imperfect nature of public memory, the radio memorial foregrounds what is true of all monuments: that their significances shift with time, distance, and interference, that they are as much sites of forgetting as remembering. Unlike the monument, however, radio makes no pretence that memory could function otherwise." (Kanouse, Sarah, 'Transmissions Between Memory and Amnesia," Leonardo Journal of Arts, Sciences, and Technology 44(3): 200-206.)

Since the 2 minutes of official silence a week after the February 22 2011 earthquake, I have been interested in the way in which silence is used as public memorial. In a previous work, I looked at the broadcast-radio representation of this silence as birdsong and prayer. Here, in this house-sized transmission on 104.5FM, well outside the official media channels, a more potent silence, in which no-one speaks, becomes analogue to the gap, the door, which radio as a medium, its tangible and intangible materiality as waves, can open in our own experience of the present, to let the unspoken and marginalised through. The layering of the spaces of Dublin, Durham and Salisbury, as well as a previous moment of its own existence on the other side of the year's dateline, into Churchill St, opened up a momentary portal where the invisible, the impacted strata of the missing and forgotten, could make itself known, it both evoked a sense of time traumatically suspended, but also one of time moving in slow eddies, in non-linear motion. I was acutely aware of my own vulnerable, experiential, embodied time, as I crouched on the dusty floorboards and tiptoed through the space, expecting at any moment the violent disruption of the piece's small world, via a quake, an official presence, looters, or the building's own collapse, tied as I was to the duration of the transmission, the illegal 'pirate radio' nature of which wouldn't be easy to explain to any of the likely interuptees. During the transmission's heightened, alert-drenched duration, it seemed the city itself had stopped, and this moment we were living, on the other side of the calendar, in a new year, was in fact on pause. At one point I realised I was holding my breath, and upon resuming breathing, this normally inaudible bodily process seemed impossibly loud. But conversely, the piece was not about the 'drama' of earthquake - it didn't attempt to replicate or capture the experience of trauma, but spoke instead to the aftereffects, the life that must go on without epiphany, the awfully human scaled ordinariness of experience within and after any 'unthinkable' crisis situation. Appropriately, it was only when going back this second time that I realised in Churchill St's living room there was still one trace of the previous occupants : a clock had broken, and was blankly ticking out the same moment, in audible suspension.

The adrenalised rush after finishing the transmission dissipated, as I wandered back down Salisbury, leaving me feeling slightly abject again, as I looked around at the rubble where the streets I knew had once been. But mourning takes a long time, and I hadn't really been looking for catharsis. I realised, that just as the city was sketching itself I would re-make and re-situate this work, also, in new forms, beyond this initial gesturing toward a restless site-specificity. That building meaning into this experience was the key, and that the ongoing, evolving nature of those frameworks was important. Nearby was the site of the building that had housed the Caxton Press, which had been demolished after the February 22 quake. The year we had just left, 2011, had been the 100th year since Caxton-published poet Allen Curnow's birth, as I had already been reminded by the significance of the final lines of his poem The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, first published in 1943 in the collection Sailing or Drowning , to a friend who had given birth to her first child in this quake-strewn year.

The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch

The skeleton of the moa on iron crutches
Broods over no great waste; a private swamp
Was where this tree grew feathers once, that hatches
Its dusty clutch, and guards them from the damp.
Interesting failure to adapt on islands,
Taller but not more fallen than I, who come
Bone to his bone, peculiarly New Zealand's.
The eyes of children flicker round this tomb
Under the skylights, wonder at the huge egg
Found in a thousand pieces, pieced together
But with less patience than the bones that dug
In time deep shelter against the ocean weather:
Not I, some child born in a marvelous year,
Will learn the trick of standing upright here
- Allen Curnow

The day of the transmission I visited Delia, and she was indeed standing, with a little help from her mother. I had been reading earlier in the day that the response to earthquakes by parrots includes a kind of pointing behaviour which sees them twist almost upside down on their perches, and was intrigued to note that Delia also loved hanging upside down. I wondered if her centre of gravity, as a 'child born in a marvelous year', as a human who would grow up with this geological revelation, this notion of the earth as vulnerable, as part of her most fundamental affective experience, was a bit more fluid than mine, just as I had started to wonder days earlier if the feeling I had experienced on the street, of the earth not being as solid, of the idea that the myth of stable time, of a stable earth was gone forever, was a knowledge that I couldn't unlearn, once it had occurred. Did I want this knowledge? It's not a question I can answer. A few days after returning to the city I now live in, I still wake up at night listening, during the day I still listen to the earth more carefully, waiting for it to speak under me, it is no longer a solid flat surface, but a wave, a depth, its shifting of plates skating over a fire-y fluidity, an atomic re-adjustment of modalities. Perhaps this is what we all have learnt, in our own ways, as we become distrustful of monuments. Of permanence. Of grand statements. Knowing the artworks and architectural forms, the symbolic and social structures that will show this experience to us, will take the task, as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari wrote, "not that of addressing a people, which is presupposed already there, but of contributing to the invention of a people". And that the 'minor literature' of Christchurch will take years to emerge, as we keep listening to the invisible forces and presences that spiral around us, as small moments and processes learn how to come into their own. But also, that there is no hurry.

[with thanks to Campbell Walker for additional photography and general support, and to Nathan Poiho, Adam Willetts, Zita Joyce, Delia Joyce Willetts, Dave Imlay, Maryrose Crook, Toshi Endo, Ina Johan, and Myles and Suzanne McIntyre]