22 Feb 2012

22.02.2012 social radio memorial (with kim pieters and campbell walker)

on the 22nd February 2012 I got up at around 7am in my home, a dilapidated 1903 brick mansion in Dunedin, and turned on the radio. To be precise I turned on two radios : one a 1940s HMV valve set, and one a shortwave radio from the 1960s. The airwaves were already full of references to the event I was hoping to hear as a form of reverberance : the first anniversary of the February 22nd 2011 earthquake in Christchurch. The cultural codification of this event by the media had shifted and turned, radiating out from the rupture of the event itself, through various stages, and I had been, from the outset, interested in listening to the way the mediascape would continue to shape public perception of this unfolding, the mass-participatory culture of the event.

On the 27th of February 2011, a week after the earthquake, a two minute memorial silence had been broadcast beginning at 12:51, as well as generally observed around New Zealand. Such a sound event is familiar to us from the Anzac Day tradition, one of the founding documents of Nationalism in the Antipodes, and in this instance has a strangely distancing function, placing the reception of the natural disaster in the space of a set of references which emphasise a nostalgic stoicism. In Auckland, staying with a friend at the time, I had turned on the two radios in his house and listened to the news reports. Shifting around the dial was illuminating : no actual silence was permitted : one station represented silence as birdsong, one as prayer. On the 22nd February 2012, this two minute silence was again observed, indicating an institutionalising of its form of truncated, symbolic mnemonics, tied to a conservative political mindset, within the rituals gathering around the post-earthquake New Zealand cultural landscape. Again, the radio stations broadcast, not silence, but a non-silent analogue : this time, on one station, bagpipes could be heard.

At 12:51 on the 22nd February 2012 I recorded the radios' grazing around the representations of this two minute 'silence' and the radio announcers' framing around it. Prior to this I had recorded myself speaking, at roughly eight o'clock, when the official memorial service for the families of those killed in the earthquake was about to start in Christchurch's Latimer Square, about the memories I personally had about being in Wellington on 12:51 on February 22nd 2011, and finding out the earthquake had just happened when walking into a central gallery space, and then the ensuing panic and worry around the safety of friends and family, the thoughts about the uncertainly and lack of information coming through.

Later, in the evening, I made dinner. At this dinner were the two friends I had spent the day with exactly a year before, Kim Pieters and Campbell Walker. I asked them, when dinner was finished, to do what I had done in the morning : to spend some time reflecting on the experience a year ago, the memories of which I recorded them speaking around. Immediately after, in their company, I made a small radio memorial with these recordings, which they participated in as listeners. This involved narrowcasting back our three voices, through my mini FM transmitter, to receivers scattered around the large 1903 ballroom we were eating in, speaking from each of our positions of subjectivity about the same set of temporal and spatial factors.

The voices, mixed together live, became an approximate venn diagram of the event, they wove together, touching and not touching each other, speaking to, alongside, and against each other, creating a sound-picture of the event, its emotional tone, its practicalities, limitations, and digressive thought-trajectories, for each of us. The voices were then mixed with the radiophonic wash of the day's struggles to capture what such an event can be understood as, what it can begin to mean, the middle-band fear of silence as 'dead air', the equating of the gravity of such an event to cultural tropes of wartime memorialisation, the problematic political undertones of such a comparison, that had been coming through the airwaves during the day.

To partition memory into a two-minute block which references the ways in which New Zealand culture has dealt with the trauma of the great wars of the 20th Century seems at first odd, and then a highly indicative pointer to the ways in which such a culture continues to be abstracted from such trauma, and also to represent it as monolithic. As a counterpoint to official memorialisations - which are, arguably, obfuscations - public meanings emptied out of any real personalisation - of an unknowably catastrophic event, the transcription into the airwaves, within the human-scaled radius of a room, a living space, of such reflections, provides one model of a counter-memorial which elides the passivity of being merely a receiver of cultural meanings. It arises directly from the need for personal ritual and conscious organisation of community, however small, around such events, and references the ways in which the city has talked, post quake - in the need for people to communicate what they have been through in the past year.

Throughout the media silences surrounding the quake and my personal/artistic responses to them I have often thought of the CD "Kenotaphion" by Jonty Semper, a compilation of recordings of all the surviving 2 minute silences at the Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday ceremonies at the Cenotaph in London, from 1929 to 2000. The earliest is from a British Movie-tone newsreel of 1929. As one writer put it in a review of Semper's work: "(listeners) will hear... nothing. Or rather, seventy years of collected silences, broken by coughing, shuffling feet, bird song or a child crying.", going on to quote Adrian Gregory, a specialist on the history of the Armistice Day commemorations and the author of "The Silence of Memory", as saying "He is releasing it at a peculiarly appropriate time, when the events of September 11 have renewed interest world-wide in the idea of observing a two minute silence as a public affirmation of solidarity. The recordings are records of an absence, the absence of sound, but an absence which is also a highly political presence."

we ended the evening with a screening of Bela Tarr's 2010 starkly absurdist fable of impending apocalypse, The Turin Horse...