4 Nov 2017

a Deaf Cinema for Thylacinus cynocephalus.


It is not you who will speak; let the disaster speak in you, even if it be by your forgetfulness or silence.”
- Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster

…I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire… I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”
- William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

“We humans seem disastrously in love with this thing
(whatever it is) that glitters on the earth--
we call it life. We know no other.
The underworld's a blank
and all the rest just fantasy.” 
- Euripides, as translated by Anne Carson, in Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides

For a cultural heritage site of some significance, the former Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart is surprisingly overlooked. Over the course of a few days in October 2017, on the site of its derelict ruin (which is locked, and currently inaccessible to the public) near the Botanical Gardens in the Queens Domain, almost no-one comes by as I place highly sensitive contact microphones alongside various open-air microphones, to record whatever might be audible there. Together, both pick up the movement of metal and wooden fences and padlocked gates, the vibrations of structures in wind, the guttural croaking of endemic Tasmanian forest ravens and the eerie melodiously rhythmic warblings of black currawongs (Strepera fuliginosa) twisting in the air like mobiles or sonic DNA structures, the melancholy monotony of water falling from objects, the deep juddering of cars on the street going by from the same direction as the occasional, softer yet more startling human footstep, my own movements as observer. These sounds together begin to create a sightless image of the predominant life of the site, in absence of direct attention from people, which is also a gathering picture of the desolation of its abandon: an expanse of field containing a few crumbling, indeterminate concrete structures, a swampy area attended by Tasmanian native waterfowl sitting incongruously inside a ringed-off area of faded hi-vis tape.

Simultaneous with the recordings I make two transmissions of archival sound, which are both cast live on-site from a low power FM transmitter and picked up by a repro-vintage “Bush” radio receiver, which translates these signals at the same time as the microphones are recording the present-ness of the place. The first of these transmissions is inaudible - it casts the silence of an historic silent film, here transmitted in discrete fragments, as audio without images. This film, shot on the same site 84 years earlier by Australian naturalist David Fleay, depicts a creature, a member of the species Thylacinus cynocephalus, commonly known as the thylacine or Tasmanian tiger, formerly housed in this zoo. In the film, the creature yawns a warning to the photographer with its great unhinged gape, it paces its enclosure, it stands on its hind legs and claws the wire netting in response to the provocation of a human presence. None of this is audible in the recording I transmit. The second of the transmissions I make is musical. It is a recording of myself, playing a piano and plucking and bowing a rudimentary one-string instrument comprising a metal wire stretched out over a cake tin (let’s call it a homemade “violin”), in the open living spaces and on the deck of the house of some friends which I was staying in, located not too far from here in Sandfly, twenty minutes outside the city, looking out over the partly forested landscapes the thylacine would formerly have roamed. Made over the space of a few hours in 2015, it’s a rawly tentative improvised music, a surprisingly dirge-like piece which sat around for a while with the working title of Longley Gothic, before I retrospectively entitled it endling blues (for Benjamin).

Together, these sonic elements cohere tenuously in the site’s framing of this live transmission and recording space, as the discrete elements of a site-specific improvised radio art performance. I gather them, after the fact, into an equally tenuous whole, called a Deaf Cinema for Thylacinus cynocephalus. The resulting work, for small-radius radio transmitter and site-specific recordings, seems a specific technological ecology, one which is perhaps concerned with “listening against soundscape.” This resistance to clear sonic representation occurs in the way the radio feeds back excessively at one point in the presence of the microphones, creating an annoying dissonance that shatters the fourth wall of the representational plane of the “nature” recording, but one that also in turn influences and changes it, an infiltration particularly audible in the way a black currawong in a tree nearby insists on responding to the feedback as though it were a strange birdcall in its territory. It occurs in the way the wind occasionally exceeds the microphone’s capabilities to capture it; in listening back, this is the moment when I also realise that microphone wind noise, that thing normally edited out of field recordings by rote, is not, in fact, the sound of wind, but the sound of the microphone announcing its own presence. It occurs in the way that the recorded film silences, when transmitted back, become an a-effect, inaudible in the recording itself, but one functioning for me, as a listener both on site and later in other places, as the indicator of an audible gap between the fidelity of documentary and the more nebulous space of a poetic, as well as, more generally, a space in which cultural practices of listening to the unknown can be exposed, pointing to the wider ways in which silences proliferate in the midst of recorded sound and its status as empirical evidence, its easy correlation to use-value within economies of exchange, as a sound mark of the authenticity of place or identifier of species behaviour.

The work is also resistant to the notion of soundscape for a simpler, if related, reason: that the centre of my sonic attentions and observations, the species I have come to this site to record, is  missing. The place where I am standing is the site where the last captive thylacine, the individual creature depicted in the David Fleay film fragments discussed above, died on the 7th of September, 1936. The species persisted in the wild for just a little bit longer, but here on this site, which is also the epicentre of the human recognition of this species’ extinction, as elsewhere in Tasmania and the wider world, there is now no thylacine left to record. In the absence of this apex predator of the environment I am currently sitting in, among the warbling of black currawongs, I am left to wonder what a world without thylacines means, in sonic, as well as wider ecological and cultural, terms. In part, this entails battling to get under my own romanticism, which is also that of my culture. Despite the technical pragmatics, recording is also an activity that affords much solitary thinking space, and after a while the Beaumaris zoo site’s dereliction and neglect, which inevitably suggests the neglect of the creature which died of exposure after being locked out of its sleeping enclosure in 1936, seems overwhelming. The site has been closed as a zoo since 1937, the year after the thylacine became extinct, but it's not clear how these two events are related. Regardless of the answer, the sounds being collected around the ruin of its built environment are utterly potent with absence. As a listener to the site, this absence slowly becomes all I can hear. It is an absence whose weight is comprised of almost a century of cultural baggage, some of which includes my own failure, the weight of the silences imposed by technological constraints, the inability to wind back the 80-odd years of absence between then and now. It is a weight that slowly but surely draws me away from the immersive space I can enter as a listener while recording, headphones plugged into enhanced technological ears, concerned with the embodied presence of my immediate environment, which also becomes analogous to my own presence within that environment, the feeling of boundary-dissolving present-ness that can attend the concentration on a surrounding minutiae of birds and wind and insects, as well as the integrative imagined sonic communities created by small-scale radio transmission’s ability to situate sound as both noise and signal within space. But this also occurs in relation to the disembodiment that attends colonial settler histories, and how language (and attendant other technologies) structure this space of separation. And listening back to the recording, I am intrigued to hear that nothing of this weight of absence - of the dereliction of a listening caught within the tension between the distractions of a melancholic distancing and the immediacy of sonic presence - is captured. As the recording flattens the space into a further representation, it becomes clear that I have created another image in which I hear nothing of the thylacine - a failure which - I tell myself - is an acceptable, even an appropriate, outcome. Between the recorded silence in 1933, and the recorded transmission in 2017, the unrecorded death in 1936 remains inaudible.

*

It is surprisingly hard to hold in mind the fact that the only film footage of the captive thylacine shot at the Beaumaris zoo in 1933 by David Fleay, did not recognize the animal as the last of its kind: that this knowledge, highly overdetermined in any viewing of the film in 2017, was completely absent from the film’s initial intent as casual documentation of various local zoo animals. Partly this is because, when excised from this initial context into its extant tiny fragments, the film’s aura has distilled immensely with time - it seems cut from nothingness, the nothingness of extinction itself.

7 film clips comprise all of the footage known to exist of living thylacines:

film 1: duration 7s 340ms | location: Beaumaris Zoo, Hobart, Tas. | silent
film 2: duration 10s 911ms | location: Beaumaris Zoo, Hobart, Tas. | silent
film 3: duration: 51s 918ms | location: Beaumaris Zoo, Hobart, Tas. | silent
film 4: duration 54s 688ms | location: Beaumaris Zoo, Hobart, Tas. | silent
film 5: duration 45s 11ms | location: Beaumaris Zoo, Hobart, Tas. | silent
film 6: duration 13s 780ms | location: London Zoo, UK | silent
film 7: duration 5s 505ms | location: London Zoo, UK | silent


I watch these on a looped projection, splashed neatly over a wall in the room set aside solely for contemplation of thylacines in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, centrally located in a monumental sandstone building in urban Hobart. The room is designed partly as a mausoleum, an atmosphere suffused with reverence, which the digital projection of the film only heightens, illuminating the bones and faded stuffed mounts with its cold, flickering light. Its images are “iconic,” so over-familiar it’s easy to forget their partial nature, all the things that were not brought into the captured light of their filmic representation. Watching the flickering digital rendering of the film, I try to understand that this is all there is – all there is.

This representational “all” does not include sound. While early film was able to preserve audio recordings of some now-extinct species before the invention and wide mobilisation in the field of the tape recorder (and I am thinking here of the haunting 1935 recordings of some of the last known specimens of the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), captured on the optical soundtrack of film by Arthur Allen’s team in the forests of the Singer Tract of Louisiana, and now listenable as audio recordings pruned of images at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology) the thylacine was not one of them. Despite its cinematic representation by Fleay two years before Allen’s recordings, the thylacine’s vocalisations were never directly recorded, with either optical film, or specific audio technologies.

*

In his book The Last Tasmanian Tiger: the History and Extinction of the Thylacine, Dr Robert Paddle discusses the vanished sounds of this elusive marsupial. Unpacking the many historical written descriptions of the creature’s voice in the archival written record, observations made both in close captivity and in the wild, Paddle also traces a vein of unreliability within their strata of representation - the proliferation of fictional thylacines which the colonial settler ear projected onto the Vandemonian bush, an apprehensively apophenic listening space which amplified all kinds of unknown terrors and resonances into audible observations, like an echo chamber. It is clear that the silence I am listening to at Beaumaris is also still embedded in this extra-empirical history of representation, just as is clear that in the nebulous space of the colonial settler's confrontation with the unknown, in a country rendered as uninhabited through the policy of Terra nullius, the presence of an "unrecognizable other" easily becomes aligned in the white ear to the sounds of an absent presence,  a silence full of echoes which includes the uncanny space of the unrecordable, the never- or the almost-recorded, where something ever-unrepresentable substitutes itself for direct empirical observation. Indeed, it seems that just as the settler colonial eye is on the record as being systemically inclined toward creating its own fictions by projecting its own images onto the landscape (for example, as we see in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery's own Bond Store Galleries, in posing wombats – as happens elsewhere in other museums, with Kiwis - in unnatural upright positions) the settler ear could also broadcast, more than it could receive.

This apophenic tendency within the white cultural imaginary arguably continues in contemporary Tasmania, through the many claimed visual and aural sightings of living thylacines. It’s a phenomenon that has only increased after the formal declaration of the creature's extinction by the Tasmanian government in 1986 made such observations official cryptozoology, and which also finds an articulation within various literary and film works grouped under the loose rubric of the Tasmanian Gothic, which tend to situate a ghost landscape suffused with haunted echoes and silences over the extant bush of Tasmania, sound being among the methods of safely disclosing the suppressed knowledge of attempted genocide and ecocide within the myth of wilderness. While such neo-Romantic speculations speak of things a white Tasmanian imaginary is still complexly unwilling or unable to face within a wider Australian culture still in thrall to amnesia, de-historicisation and denial, Tasmania is also in the interesting cultural position of having as its state emblem an endemic creature that, through the inducement of monetised bounties and the deliberate propagation of the (widely now held as spurious) story that it was a threat to the agrarian colonial economy, was deliberately hunted to extinction by the very people who now venerate it, a formality which, however ambiguously,  foregrounds these tensions, centralising their contradiction at the forefront of Tasmanian cultural identity. So what does this cultural thylacine mean, to Tasmanians - and how, if at all, does it relate to the once-living actual animal we named Thylacinus cynocephalus, of which we know comparatively little?


Perhaps we might start by admitting that, while the animal we see in Fleay’s 1933 documentation footage, cast onto the wall of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery among other, less ostensibly mediated but no less ghostly relics, is a document of a living wild creature, which has retrospectively become personalised as the individual endling of its species, a zoo inhabitant named “Benjamin”, it is also our own projection of the creature, one conveniently silenced through the technical limitations of a deaf media.

But again, isn’t this silence also something present, if more hidden, in all recordings? In the fact that all documentation is a representation either of the dead or yet-to-be-dead? And aren’t all field recordings of biota also as insubstantial, and isn’t the professed environmental-preservation impulse in the need to gather and collect, to build a comprehensive dossier of vanishing species as a “museum of dead sounds,” just as suspect? Isn't my failure to bring the thylacine back from the dead through recording, also the failure of all recording media to point to its missing referent? What, in that case, is the use of recording anything at all?


*


                                                       

In the museum, the ontology of Fleay's filmic silence starts to overlap in my head with another silence, one which I have now heard and recorded at the site at Beaumaris. It is the silence which this site holds to itself, in which the thylacine species, the apex predator of Tasmania, has not been heard since the film was recorded there in 1936. The silence that might signal and ecological silencing, the tearing of an intricate environmental fabric, the destruction of a complex weave of interspecies relations. This double silence, which, at least in terms of my project, the film contains the other half of, becomes part of the reverential distancing which attends my viewing of it, despite the chattering of children around me, but also because of the other people standing watching it with me, embedded in their own silences. When watching the film's silence in accompaniment with a third, and more Cageian, silence comprised by the soundtrack of the ambient sound around me in the Museum, it becomes evident that there is something in the film's representation of inaudibility, of the silence of time represented by obsolete technical media, which causes a potent understanding of absence to occur, partly in the way it allows, in parallel with an agreed social space with predetermined meanings, a cultural space of private mourning in public. This functions much like the shared, yet individually introverted, listening space of the one- or two-minute memorial silence that attends the aftermath of disaster events.



Such public-private spaces might mark a certain straining for an imaginative space of reflection unavailable elsewhere. In preserving a loop of silence to itself as a representation for viewers, The T.M.A.G. showing of the Fleay film also presents a specifically filmic space where time is momentarily frozen, suspended in 1933 before the creature became extinct, and the possibility of seeing - and mourning - the absent can occur; it does not update this historic witnessing by attempting to fill this space by substituting other sounds for this absence, it does not insert music, nor a culturally constructed soundscape for that of the lost sounds of the animal. I record it faithfully, while thinking through these things. Is it my imagination, or are the people around me really engaging with it, also, in this way? Are they looking at the work as a moving-image equivalent of the pilgrimage to the site of the aura of a favourite painting, an act more familiar in the more traditionally contemplative visual spaces of an Art Museum?


Later, when I mention to others that the thylacine’s cry, its bark, its other vocalisations were never recorded, they seem surprised - “But I thought I’d heard that somewhere!” - I think to myself about how much this might be the indicator of a predominant cultural focus on the visual, in which sound is taken for granted, as well as the tendency to believe that the archive is bottomless with secrets, perhaps given this, the potency of the film’s silence is also, like the symbolism of the Beaumaris zoo site’s derelict ruin - unconscious, overlookable.

The idea of the unknown, the un-recorded or un-recordable, also recurs in other forms in these conversations with friends and strangers, sometimes with an associated set of sonic references,  alongside the idea of hope. One young woman I talk to at the locked gate of the ruin of the Beaumaris zoo site, captures this hope succinctly, after telling me almost casually that her Grandfather had heard and seen a thylacine in the bush only a couple of years ago, and mentioning quietly, as if letting me in on a secret, that "most Tasmanians know someone, or they have a relative, who believes". It is a human hope: “well you’ve got to believe in something. Maybe there’s a God, maybe there’s a thylacine...” And then she and her friend, (in a sentiment also echoed by the woman standing behind me with her children at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery who I ask similar questions of), say with almost nervous laughter: “there’s so much bush in parts of Tasmania that anything could be out there….” “we don’t know what’s out there.”


Perhaps "what’s out there" is not simply an empirically verifiable answer to the question of the continued absence or presence of the thylacine itself, but also the continued existence of an open space of not-knowing, a wandering off from what can be surveilled, named, pinned to earth by Linnaean taxonomy. The space where the thylacine, Benjamin, can wander out from a set of statistics well known to Tasmanians – the dates, the names, the places. Out from under the name, the faux-individualism, the endling-fetishism, the monetised exploitation, the images, the words, the sentimentalized representations, the emblematic status given it posthumously by a brutal culture which didn't care for it, or its world. Into the silence, the unknown, where it always was. This space is partly what I find in the Fleay film - with this, the last image, maybe the representations of the thylacine are done? But they are not. They still proliferate endlessly across Tasmania, in the form of, as the sign in the Museum summarises, the symbol of cricket teams, car number plates and breweries, as well as in so very many other places. Why on earth would I want to make another one? What kind of an idiot makes an artwork about the thylacine in Tasmania? I am still not sure that my answer to that question is a wise one. I am in agreement with something Italian poet, novelist, dramatist, polemicist, and filmmaker Pier Paulo Pasolini once wrote: that the truly sacred images are the ones you don't show. Suffice to say, my answer is partly quite personal, and is about the impossibility of returning: it is that this space of listening to the unknown was also where I located the unanswerable question of that thylacine I never saw or heard, as the child of a scientist in a secular culture, growing up in semi-rural Tasmania. It's a vast and uncertain listening space I took with me when I left at six years old; it has informed who I am ever since, including all the poetry I have ever written, and all sound and radio art I have ever made.

And yet that open space contrasts so markedly with the reality of the Beaumaris site, which I didn't visit as a child, that I can hardly reconcile them. Perhaps such a reconciliation is not what's needed here. I cannot be myself again as a six-year-old any more than I can bring the thylacine back from the dead. Being here is a reckoning with loss and disappearance, as much as it is a reckoning with the technological and imperial histories involved in a single extinction event and its residue. And the only artwork I can find it in myself to make in the present moment that specifically takes this site and the thylacine who died there as its subject, which attempts to do justice to this contradictory and irreconcilable space which the Thylacine inhabits, that doesn't simply repeat the problem, is this one, which is itself almost inaudible, almost non-existent. Unlike these notes, it's not visual, nor it is narrative. It is not anything approaching an updated "soundtrack" to the Fleay film's "deaf cinema", but a separate work in which that film becomes re-conceived as a listening space, where perhaps my own listening to the absence of the thylacine in 2017 becomes heard, through the incorporation of two listening-spaces as separate versions of a silence bordering on the sacred, yet ones that are already entangled: the one the 1933 Fleay film portrays, and the one recorded on the site of the Beaumaris zoo which is also the site of both the film's missing sound and the death of its subject. Here, the radio also plays two roles: it becomes not only the vast unknown, represented elsewhere by the bush in the Tasmanian imagination, but also its opposite - a domestically scaled, fragile, uncertain enclosure: both are analogous to 'wild' and 'zoo' and together assist in opening this space of silence as a transmission event which creates a private-yet-public space, like a further clearing in this field. This transmission space does not seek to reveal or identify the thylacine but to shelter and conceal it, to keep it secret, just as it holds the film to itself, blindly, as a hidden silence. To utilise transmission as a medium with the power to temporarily erase the further violence of visual representations of the thylacine from the world and return it to this silence, to take it out of the world of human representations, to put its ghost to rest; this is perhaps partly this work’s intention.

*

Back at the site, the unreliable Hobart spring weather drenches me and my equipment with rain, bakes me with sun, throws loose branches and leaves around in a chaos of windy skitterings. I record these unremarkable sounds faithfully. A friend tells me in passing that in a local indigenous Australian account of weather, there are a variety of seasons in Hobart, and one is wind season: “It’s the season you’re in now,” he says.

All the while, the thylacine’s absence continues weighing heavily on my ears, anchoring me, despite the wind, to this particular patch of earth. I read far into the night and return again the next day, sleep deprived. In most of the stories I have read about the unrecorded event, the one which happened on that lonely night in September 1936, there was no one to help the last Tasmanian tiger, as it quietly succumbed to death by exposure, locked out of its sleeping quarters all night in the unseasonable cold snap. I imagine these unspectated hours as a suspended space of heightened time, a liminal zone between consciousness and unconsciousness, their opening out toward the timeless nothingness of extinction which the Fleay film fragments seem cut from. But this too is just another fiction. Other stories contest the accounts of the blameless sadness of accidental neglect, say that someone was listening. That the daughter of a keeper heard its barks and cries, and knew what they meant, but because she was a young woman was not authorized to use the keys. Helpless to act, no rescue happened. This narrative of gendered listening is palpable, when, in the present, I talk to the two young women at the gate about these stories. They, like like me, are locked out. “You can’t even find this place on Instagram!” one complains. I ask them why they’ve come here, and their opinions on why the site has been left to decay to such a state of ruin, a stark reality which they both seem a bit shocked by. “Why don't people want to know about it? Well maybe it’s better for them to believe it’s still out there,” one of them suggests, “than to come here, and see the state of this place, and acknowledge it’s extinct.”




a Deaf Cinema for Thylacinus cynocephalus was developed over the month of October 2017 during a TCoTA artist residency at the School of Creative Arts at the University of Tasmania. It premiered as a narrowcast transmission within the Bond Store Gallery, an exhibition hall within the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, on the evening of the 4th November 2017, as part of an event called Sonic Systematics, distributed within various indoor and outdoor spaces of the T.M.A.G., and curated by Pip Stafford as part of the inaugural Hobiennale Arts Festival. The work responds to the brief proffered by the curator to "engage with museum taxonomies, archives and contexts," by transmitting the silence of the 1933 David Fleay film, exhibited on perpetual loop in the Thylacine Gallery at T.M.A.G., as an inaudible trace back into its original site at the Beaumaris zoo, before again returning its silence back to the Museum, as an inaudible component of the transmitted sound work. In this, it explores diegetic vs. non-diegetic sound, and the idea of silent cinema as a “deaf cinema” (Chion), when it comes to recordings of lost species. It is primarily concerned formally with translating the history of a site through the porosity, fragility and noise of performative transmission, and the ways in which such transmission can reveal absence in layering mediated representations of a site back into the space itself, through contrasting what exists in the present of place with archival prior representations which are, in terms of the 'recording' of a referent, scant and tenuous.

---

thanks to Lucy Bleach, Bill Hart, Eliza Burke, Julia Drouhin and Arjan Kok, Pip Stafford, Brendan Walls, Kathryn Medlock, Campbell Walker, all at the University of Tasmania School of Creative Arts and the wider University who I talked to about ideas, the anonymous people I interviewed at various places in Hobart in 'vox pop' fashion, and all at T.M.A.G. and the Hobiennale, as well as the local cafe owners who let me sit for hours on a single cup of coffee, furiously writing. In developing and presenting this work I also acknowledge the Mouheneenner people as the first owners of the stolen land where it takes place, and recognise that their sovereignty was never ceded. I pay my respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging.

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