14 Jul 2016

a horn of chicken wire, a new kokako, and Douglas Lilburn's media zombies at the National Library

On the 14th of July at 1pm I gave a performance/lecture at the National Library, Wellington, in response to Zombies on the Horizon, an exhibition drawing on archival collections to tell a lateral story of the development of experimental music in Aotearoa, put together by the National Library's music curator Matt Steindl for the Turnbull Gallery.  
This exhibition takes its name from a statement by composer Douglas Lilburn, who begins the show's own narrative, talking about the coming of electronic media within music culture as "the zombie on the horizon". I also took this as my own lateral starting point, speculating how Lilburn's statement might be seen in relation or contrast to the notion of Zombie Media, recently elaborated by Jussi Parikka and Garnet Hertz, particularly in relation to an 'archival turn' within sound art cultures. 

an early version of this concept took the form of a manifesto with five major points:

1). We oppose the idea of dead media. Although death of media may be useful as a tactic to oppose dialog that only focuses on the newness of media, we believe that media never dies. Media may disappear in a popular sense, but it never dies: it decays, rots, reforms, remixes, and gets historicized, reinterpreted and collected. It either stays as a residue in the soil and in the air as concrete dead media, or is reappropriated through artistic, tinkering methodologies.

2). We oppose planned obsolescence. As one corner stone in the mental ecology of circulation of desires, planned obsolescence maintains ecologically unsupportable death drive that is destroying our milieus of living.

3). We propose a depunctualization of media and the opening, understanding and hacking of concealed or blackboxed systems: whether as consumer products or historical archives.

4). We propose media archaeology as an artistic methodology that follows in the traditions of appropriation, collage and remixing of materials and archives. Media archaeology has been successful in excavating histories of dead media, forgotten ideas, sidekicks and minor narratives, but now its time to develop it from a textual method into a material methodology that takes into account the political economy of contemporary media culture.

5). We propose that reuse is an important dynamic of contemporary culture, especially within the context of electronic waste. “If it snaps shut, it shall snap open.” We agree in that open and remix culture should be extended to physical artifacts.

with these points in mind, I was excited to have the opportunity to spend the previous day looking at the exhibition and foraging in the Library's own collections of sonic zombies, gathering materials and ideas, and while investigating some of the more interesting machines, recordings and ephemera, was particularly delighted to track down a previously unknown short transcription of the song of the Kokako, notated in a cursive hand in the middle of a private letter from 1932. 

The day of the talk I learned something even more incredible: that I had the chance to play some of my own collections of 78rpm recordings on the library's extremely rare British handmade EMG Gramophone, the kind which has a huge paper mache horn, made from, curator Matt Steindl informed me, old London phonebooks over a buttress of chicken wire. Playback of the 1932 Lyrebird recording via acoustic - or indeed any - sound reproduction has never sounded better. This initial early 20th century avian DJ set led to various other speculations on historical field recordings of birdsongs, the gaps in the sonic record due to technological erasure or species extinction, the nature of 'nature' recordings as a kind of sonic taxidermy, the 'deaf ear' of settler colonialism, Radio New Zealand's morning report birdsongs as a form of phonographic classicism or 'greatest hits of nature', the potential for artists in intervening in the archive, and some pretty good Q&A. 

with many thanks to Matt Steindl, Jocelyn Chalmers, and all at the National Library. I had a great time.