25 Sep 2013

the unavailable memory of gold coin cafe / lee song & co.

When Wellington artist Kerry Ann Lee invited me to contribute to The Unavailable Memory of Gold Coin Cafe, a project she initiated around the site of the Yeung Sheng Restaurant, previously the Gold Coin Cafe, in Willis St.,Wellington, we'd already had quite a lively discourse around its themes.                                                              Kerry Ann is a Wellington artist of NZ/Chinese descent, and for her, the Gold Coin Cafe was more than a fondly remembered local landmark of cheap late night eats, it was a place she grew up in, playing and doing her homework out the back of the Chinese restaurant and takeaway her parents ran as a family business throughout her childhood. Earmaked for demolition due to the new earthquake-strengthening laws post 2011, Kerry Ann was personally confronted with the prospect of the material erasure of the site of these memories.  
As curator Claudia Arozqueta wrote for the exhibition's publicity, "Kerry Ann Lee's installation The Unavailable Memory of Gold Coin Café (2013) investigates the story of 296 Willis Street, the site of the Gold Coin Café: her parent's takeaway and former family home in the 1980s. Her parents followed the tradition of her ancestors in that upon immigrating to New Zealand in the 1940s they helped set up some of the early Chinese restaurants in Wellington. As the building is currently earthquake-stickered and earmarked for destruction, Lee’s installation references her memories and actualities of the space, featuring visual and sonic details to explore the tensions of making a home in the margins. The project is an alternative micro-history of Cantonese migrant legacy and urban settlement in flux in Wellington City over the past 40 years."   

I'm an Australian national, but my New Zealand heritage lies in the small town of Kaiapoi, formerly Kaiapohia, near Christchurch, which is the small town my mother, and four generations of her family, grew up in. It was almost completely destroyed in the earthquakes which occurred in the region in 2010 and 2011, rendering the memories of its life sealed off and increasingly insubstantial. The invitation to contribute to Kerry Ann Lee’s project was an opportunity to extend my ongoing investigations into live small radius radio as a medium for art and how it can potentially relate to the socio-political aspects of urban space, by means of a collaborative work. My ideas around a sonic aspect for the installation and a mini FM radio performance for the opening night celebrations were loosely as follows:

As the title of Kerry’s installation was itself originally inspired by a 1944 work for prepared piano composed for a dance piece by Merce Cunningham by John Cage, I thought it fertile to revisit Cage’s ideas around chance and spatiality. One of the most significant of his works for me (apart from the canonically notorious “silence” work, 4’33”, which has marked a swathe in 20th century sound practice to the extent that it is almost impossible to imagine contemporary modes of listening without it), is a little-known late piece for tape, Five Hanau Silence (October 1991).

Created the year before Cage’s death, this was a work made specifically to support an anarchist squat in Germany which was threatened with demolition. As documentation of this work puts it: “in different countries people try to realize the ideal of a self-determined, noncommercial culture, and a solidarity by squatting houses and creating autonomous culture centers. In Hanau (Germany) the house in Metzgerstrasse 8 was squatted in December 1986. Since that time it has been used as an autonomous culture-center. It provides an environment for different groups, projects, political events, concerts, etc. From the beginning the squat was a thorn in the side of the local city council. They decided in parliament that the center has to be closed and torn down, but did not provide for an alternative. In place of the squat, they planned to build five parking places - a decision that is very symbolic as well as characteristic. Certainly the real aim was to weaken the ideas and the structures this center stands for, but until now they haven’t been able to accomplish this. (...) John Cage (...) composed ’Five Hanau Silence’ in October 1991 to support the squat and the aims and values for which it stands.” Further, the process of the work itself is described as follows : “First a map of Hanau was divided into different areas. Then five locations were chosen according to the principles of the Chinese oracle I-Ching. In these locations recordings were made on particular dates and times, which were then blended into a single recording.”

The ways in which this approach relates to my own work are multi-layered. in one previous work (dear friends who have died are all talking to me tonight / all at once, commissioned by the Chicago based radio art organisation Radius) I transmitted a palimpsest of 5 minute recordings of the silences of 8 different inner city gallery spaces, later destroyed during the Christchurch earthquake of 2011, to the gallery of a Dunedin artist run space (Rice & Beans) on the last day of the latter space’s lease, before it was swallowed back into the anonymous commercial urban sphere (it became a gymnasium, of all things) – the sounds of the Christchurch spaces' silences, nestling inside each other like Russian dolls, inhabited Dunedin for a fleeting moment, infusing the airwaves with a ghostly meditation on the afterlife of artist district activity, becoming a “graveyard shift” radio show, just before midnight.

I often approach such experimental, site-specific transmission work through the words of Charles Babbage, most famous for almost managing to invent the computer in the 19th century, who wrote in a tract called the Ninth Bridgewater Treatise that "The pulsations of the air, once set in motion by the human voice, continue into infinity", going on to speculate about this constant movement of atoms. "Thus considered," he wrote, "what a strange chaos is this wide atmosphere we breathe! Every atom, impressed with good and with ill, retains at once the motion which philosophers and sages have imparted to it, mixed and combined in ten thousand ways with all that is worthless and base. The air itself is one vast library, on whose page are forever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered." (and yes, as others have pointed out - it's a shame that the women had to whisper).

As far as information mapping goes, we are now not that far off from Babbage’s vision, yet the transience of ongoing urban development, which natural disasters both accelerate and become excuses for, is one way in which the experiential solidity of such signals eludes us. The air may be one vast library, but much of it is erased or illegible. My work for Kerry Ann's project placed original Chinese 78rpm records found in Dunedin, themselves audible, if untraceable, vestiges of the long history of Chinese popular culture in New Zealand - which dates back to the Otago Gold Rush and is as old as white settler Pakeha culture in this part of the South Island - back into the near-destroyed spaces of the Gold Coin Cafe, days before it was demolished. I played the records into rooms and outdoor spaces strewn with debris: bricks, old flowers, faded calendars, New Year mementos, the Work and Income cards of the case managers of temporary squatters, an exploded 'zine of poignant materialities. At one point, an elderly woman came to feed an excitable flock of pigeons, who were obviously ready for her, and used to their regular feeding time. The sounds and silences of these recordings, songs torn away by the wind, the repetition of run out grooves butting up against the crumbling planes of particular walls, were then transmitted as a live radio programme (called Lee Song & Co.) at the exhibition's opening, and appeared also alongside the sounds of Chinese kitchens, oral histories of the space with Kerry Ann Lee's family, and related audio (sound design / installation in collaboration with Conrad Wedde) comprising an 'experimental documentary' of the space, which lent an aural dimension to Kerry Ann's work in the gallery. 

Through this process I sought to establish how the traces of personal and cultural memory can transmit within such transience, and how this relates to the materialities of a recording, as it exists within a substance (in this case, shellac, but there are many other specificities we could name), or in the invisible electromagnetic material of broadcast/radio space, but also how such recordings can be said to exist as traces within the spaces they have inhabited, how they both represent memories and seal-off memory within themselves, the recognisability of particular songs becoming through this process the 'location' of otherwise fleeting past experiences, the archival traces of the experiential world. Another word for this process might be a "haunting", and this haunting is accumulative, it attends such objects like flocks of ghost birds. Perhaps they too might learn to come to us, at regular feeding times. To expose such traces, and allow them to become audible, echoing a poignant tension within the work Kerry Ann was doing with the visual aspects of the space, was accordingly the aim of this project. Essentially it was a way of discussing how one space can fit into another, become overlaid upon it without replacing it, the ghost of a room, missing or damaged, yet still existing as a recording, somehow resists ‘erasure’, resists ‘silence’, even such silences as exist packaged neatly into 2 minute memorials to the dead cities a disaster-capitalist approach to history encourages us to forget.

For me, being invited to contribute sound for Kerry Ann's installation became a shared mourning for all things lost in the present which cannot be replaced, for the buildings which fail to be there on a street corner, the faces which fail to recognise us, the histories no longer tangible, but which are still there, in our hands, in our mouths, in the angles we remember the sky appearing through the cracks of old masonry and the forgotten shabbiness of awnings. The way that buildings recognise us, as much as we do them. A process personal and not personal, as most things are. Developing the work, I wrote much about the ongoing experience of this. Here's one example among many:

28 February 2012
Christchurch as a set of textures. Views out windows, gray paint flaking from walls, the red Edwardian brick of the rear sides of buildings. I can never go back to see those things again, but then, that becomes a telling reminder of the way in which a moment is impossible to enter into again, in any case. Instead I ask : is ‘façade’ a modern term? When did we start to think of a building having a face?
In a talk recently I said that one thing I liked about doing small radius radio transmission as a form of practice was the combination of localised focus with an older form of globalised positioning in space.
Poetry too is that crystalisation of a shard of time racing by, the most acute form I know. Frank O’Hara writing at the fountain in the square in his lunch hour. a poem never ‘includes the world’, except in holographic form.
The task – to allow the human. To understand how to symbolise loss. To become better at sadness, to understand better how not to run away from it. To be able to mourn. 
Locale again. The echoes of memory of raced-through-the-mind events. Uncatchable, half-known. Without a sense of ease of centre – perhaps what they call ‘confidence’ but then, ‘simplicity’ is another word for that. This impossible idea of being in the right place, which has now become an erudition around the notion of understanding the wrongness of place as it stands, always ready to be built into with language and understanding. I have come to know this process as a sequence of criteria for entering place. Observation is the link between the sense of self being placed in wrongness – danger – and knowing the terrain. The being here woven from observation and research – there is no unconsciousness and I no longer feel I should be nostalgic for it – this thing I never had.