‘the shape distance’: Did it work?

Sketched moment from 'the shape distance [7].
Sketched moment from ‘the shape distance [7].

Did it work?

In short, yes!

In December 2013 I travelled to Atlanta, Georgia, to work with Chamber Cartel as they gave the premiere and made recordings of ‘the shape distance’ [1-7] for seven players.

‘the shape distance’ is a collection of independent pieces, solos mainly, brought together in the one ensemble piece to be played together in an unsynchronised fashion; by this I mean that each of the solo lines plays independently of one another, each having fully notated material written in different tempi and baring structures. There are cues to start the material but after beginning there is no further vertical coordination or alignment; the way the solo lines relate to each other in the performance represent a unique iteration of the piece.

The pieces are composed to be free-standing works, performed as a part of a mixed programme. On this occasion all seven pieces were premiered in the one live event.

In my research preceding the composition I ‘calculated’ the range of outcomes available allowing for ‘natural variation’ or deviation from my ‘ideal’ outcome scenario [this occurring if all musicians followed my metronome markings with complete accuracy]. Of course, musicians are human beings and not metronomes, so I anticipated that the ideal scenario or iteration would never be achieved, as each performance would yield different interpretations of speed with each musician varying their rendition somewhat with each play-through. The variables would be many and this was, in part at least, the attraction that has drawn me to this manner of composition, therefore each performance was the right performance but of course, some would feel more ‘right’ than others.

Players were also given a target duration for the length of their material. This overall timespan allowed the soloists to gauge their speeds across the length of music and acted as a limiting factor that would ensure greater cohesion of the parts in relation to my ideal outcome scenario. Within this, the players could interpret the music fully. Compositional material is [largely] derived from a series of distant variations that unify all sections with thematic landmarks. Thematic material is audible throughout the piece, bringing cohesion and structure to the work. All the instrumental roles are written to a high degree of virtuosity and most contain extended techniques and quarter-tones. The music itself [through the simultaneous bringing together of these individual parts] forms dense, highly complex and constantly changing relationships that are frequently wild and sometimes beautiful.

Like Russian Dolls, the seven pieces all ‘nest’ within ‘the shape distance [7]’. The ‘unpacked’ material represents ‘the shape distance’ pieces. The notated music within all of ‘the shape distance’ parts [solos] remains exactly the same from [1-7]. For example, Flute 1 plays the same music in each of the seven pieces but due to its changed context within the variable instrumental combinations and the unsynchronised nature of the vertical alignments, the Flute 1 material takes on a different relationship and contextual significance within each instrumental combination; in short, it sounds different in different contexts. This applies to all other solo lines as well and is the devise that brings aural variation to the set.

the shape distance [1] flute 1 / clarinet
the shape distance [2] flute 1 / clarinet / piano
the shape distance [3] flutes 1 + 2 / clarinet / viola
the shape distance [4] flutes 1 + 2 / harp
the shape distance [5] flutes 1 + 2 / clarinet / viola / percussion (1)
the shape distance [6] flute 1 / clarinet / harp / percussion (1)
the shape distance [7] flutes 1 + 2 / clarinet / viola / harp / piano / percussion (1)

All the above represents my research – my theoretical understanding around how to compose music that would have the unsynchronized freedoms previously mentioned yet still produce a cohesive and satisfying musical experience for the composer, performers and audience.

More rehearsals at 800 East

The musicians took to the idea of unsynchronised playing immediately. It became clear that playing an independent line as part of an unsynchronised ensemble did not present any major issues other than getting the overall duration of their material correct as per the composers indications. For performers who had practiced intently this did not present a problem as they were familiar with the tempi with which they rehearsed the material in their own practice sessions and this was easily transferrable into the ensemble context. It also became apparent that individual musicians benefitted from being able to ‘play off’ each other within the ensemble and this live generation of sound and their spontaneous reaction to it enhanced the expressiveness of their own performances. This is not improvisation as all the material is fully notated and flexibility lies only in the vertical alignment of each of the parts with musicians given very clear and detailed instructions around expressive markings which needed to be followed precisely at all times for the piece to work. This is of great importance because the aural layering and internal communication governing the parts is as much to do with dynamic markings as it is with tessitura and rhythm. The ‘playing off’ aspect cannot affect dynamic relationships [such as several instruments are playing loudly and my part is marked very quiet so I’d better play it a bit louder to be heard] otherwise the foreground, mid-ground and background of the music’s spatial integrity would be lost. The ‘playing off’ that the musicians referred to enhanced a sense of confidence and musicality that perhaps enabled them to contextualise their performance moment to moment as the inter-relationships unfolded, and amplify their interpretation making it more three dimensional and meaningful. This represented a new and positive experience for the musicians.

Rehearsals at 800 East

As predicted, this nature of music involves a great deal of personal practice to master the demands of the notation but relatively little time in ensemble rehearsal. For ensembles who are often pushed for rehearsal time, especially when performing more challenging music, this unsynchronised format offers many advantages.

Interestingly, a number of the musicians commented that the music sounded vertically through-composed even when a group practicing their own parts independently in the same space were each starting at arbitrary points in their respective scores. This came as an added bonus and can only be due to the interconnected relationships between the materials in all the parts that cohesively binds them together no matter how they are combined. This was perhaps the greatest vindication that my research had worked in practical terms.

Audience feedback was also extremely positive. Considering the unfamiliar and to some, ‘challenging’ nature of this music such reactions were a bonus.

Finally, out of this rehearsal process came another ‘the shape distance’ piece; number 11 for harp and piano. I had not originally considered this as a combination to join the set. I cannot offer a reason for this but when two of the players suggested that they try their two parts together and see what it sounded like I was very interested to explore their idea. And they were right, it worked and sounded like another addition to the set of pieces. Another Russian Doll had been discovered in the set offering further evidence that the material of ‘the shape distance’ can yield many possible outcomes only some of which have been ‘captured’ here.

‘the shape distance [11]‘ represents one of the calmer combination of the material.

Recordings and downloads of the full set of pieces will be available in Spring 2014.

Marc Yeats is composer-in-association with Chamber Cartel.



It all began with an idea and a sketch – this one in fact!

Pencil 'proto-sketch' for oros
Pencil ‘proto-sketch’ for oros

oros is Commissioned by Auditiv Vokal to celbrate “Einstürzende Mauern”. It will be premiered in Dresden on 26th February 2014 with a further performance on the 27th.

oros is for 8 voices: SSS AA T BB [ 3 sopranos, 2 altos, tenor and 2 basses]

I have already written an article around word setting called ‘in no way fixed [words and music parts 1 and 2] but on this occasion I can write specifically about a commission that allows me to experiment compositionally and technically with dedicated, professional contemporary vocal music specialists. This is a first for me so I wanted to maximise the opportunity and learn as much as possible about how far I can push the human voice within the context of my current compositional practice!

In writing a piece that relates to the theme of ‘falling walls’ [Einstürzende Mauer], I wanted to create an abstract work that was coloured by issues of freedom and liberation, both individual, social and cultural [avoiding the overtly political] and deliver this through an experimental [for me] and wildly contrasting, dramatic new vocal work. There are many programmatic and cliched pitfalls to avoid here. My aim was to write a completely abstracted work without narrative or direct illustrative reference. There would certainly be no ‘message’ in the music or any attempt at proselytising!

In fact, the whole idea or concept behind “Einstürzende Mauern” is difficult to translate into English. After conversations with Auditiv Vokal, I alighted on several ideas – colours even – that could articulate the concept as I describe below.

Score shot of the soprano 2 part
Score shot of the soprano 2 part

Concept: To achieve my aims I quickly realised the new piece needed to be one of my un-synchronised works [see below] as I wished to reflect the themes above in the very fabric of the music; the way it was conceived, written and performed to create an ‘organic’ vocal work that becomes a living wall of sound itself. However, this wall would not represent something solid or fixed; it would be permeable, in a state of flux, changing, spontaneous and full of life. Furthermore, as the work would be un-synchronised, the vocalists were freed from the tyranny of the shared bar line and down beat, able to express themselves as individuals within the context of the whole [the ensemble].

This compositional and performance approach enhanced the themes of liberation and freedom even further.
To emphasise the theme of falling walls I found a text source that I could treat in the same manner I would treat my pitches and rhythms in the music. I decided to use graffiti documented from the Berlin Wall itself. I have transcribed a number of slogans, phrases, and words which have been coupled with three short prose of my own exploring themes of journey, freedom, liberation, exploration and self realisation. It is the combination of these text materials that provides the vocal fabric for the work. These materials [within the parts themselves] are treated in a semi-narrative fashion. However, the overall combination and unsynchronised layering of all eight voices purposefully leads to a non-narrative text delivery. Further to this, the setting of the words does not generally encourage clarity and diction in delivery. There is much melismatic writing and the words are used more for their inherent sound properties than literal meaning and context. Of course, at times there is a collision between word setting and context that amplifies meaning in the conventional sense.

Vision: Over time, many layers of graffiti can be written on walls, one covering the other until all of the text and words become obscured by each other. One becomes aware of a surface of tangled words where individual letters and words may appear from the visual jumble only to disappear again under the tangle of other words. This image of the surface of a well-used graffiti wall is a suitable illustration for how the sound-surface of oros can be experienced. As each of the eight singers produces their individual line, their words and phrases, musical gestures and individual vocal characters will intertwine, compete, challenge, unify, collide, obscure and generally create a complexity of sound that will become an aural representation of a graffiti covered wall containing the hopes and sentiments of ordinary people. To create this level of vocal activity, all parts are highly virtuosic, exploring the full range and dramatic presentation of the voices.

Text used in oros [used freely and not in the order presented]

collected from the Berlin Wall:
Dancing to freedom
Change your life
move in silence
the world’s too small for walls
and the wind cries
we are all the wall
maybe someday we will be together

Many small people who in
many small places do
many small things
that can alter the face of the world.

Marc Yeats’ prose:
A local map
in a foreign land
will free your hand
to forge a new route
and seek from outside
what you have lost within.

We travel on each other’s love
strange, wild adventures
territories unknown
sometimes lost
blind alleys or mazes
searching always
for home.

Here, from the highest point
I can see for miles.
On a clear day
I can even see myself.

Score-shot of the soprano 2 part
Score-shot of the soprano 2 part

The music employs quartertones and extended techniques as well as dramatic, gestural writing. Much of the clarity of word production will be intentionally obscured by these techniques – once again, in reference to the worn and over-written graffiti on the wall where all that was written is no longer clear to see. In short, the text will be treated in exactly the same way as the music and subject to its processes and demands.

Un-synchronised music: The vocalists sing independently of each other. The music is cued to begin only. There is no ‘fixed’ synchronisation between the vocalists. Whilst the relationship of each vocalist is flexibly placed against its neighbour, care has been taken to calculate potential outcomes of coincidence and variability. To this end it is vital that metronome markings are adhered to as accurately as possible although the composer appreciates that it is the various interpretations and practicalities inherent in the realisation of tempi that contribute to the richly unique nature and interplay of each performance.  

There is only one instruction to the vocalists: to begin when indicated and sing until their material is completed.   
Structurally, the music is conceived as a large canon in eight parts with each part a transposition [with some variables] of the other. Thematic material is audible throughout the piece, bringing cohesion and structure. The music forms dense, highly complex and constantly changing relationships that are frequently wild and sometimes beautiful.

canonic diagram

Due to the unsynchronised nature of this music, an ‘installed’ performance [spatial] is recommended with the performers being positioned around the performance space, enwrapping the audience.

The score and parts:
There is no score for oros; difficulties and variables associated with displaying the musical material in vertical alignment as represented in real time are considerable. Each performance will yield somewhat different results, interplays, gestural and harmonic references and outcomes. As a result, the material contained within the piece can only be read via the vocal parts. Consequently there is no single, definitive performance of the piece. oros can only be realised through performance [as opposed to comprehended by reading through a score]; this is the nature of the music – it has to be experienced to be ‘known’.

Thinking around the title of this piece: wall > boundary > limit > horizon –

The word horizon derives from the Greek “ὁρίζων κύκλος” horizōn kyklos, “separating circle”, from the verb ὁρίζω horizō, “to divide”, “to separate”, and that from “ὅρος” (oros), “boundary, landmark”.

A recording and video of the premiere will accompany this article after the performance.

Ground Bass :: Millennium Processional (Provisional)


As a result of the tool’s unprecedented usefulness, video conveys far too much information to be counted among the traditional plastic arts. It supports characteristics that would connect it more appropriately to the temporal arts of music, dance, theater, literature or cinema. Nor is it a tangible object, and fine art almost invariably is, but rather the ethereal emanation of a whole set of complicated electro-magnetic devices. In fact video is more an end than one specific means; it is a series of electronic variations on aa audio-visual theme that has been in continual progressive flux since its inception. For the purposes of art, video’s theoretical and practical possibilities are so inconceivably vast, its versatility so immeasurably profound and of such perplexing unorthodoxy, that even after a quarter of a century, the medium’s defenders are still struck with vertiginous awe as if glimpsing the sublime.

Marc Meyer, Being and Time

To a generation used to accessing YouTube in their masses to view a video of somebody’s pet hamster riding a tiny bicycle or, worse still, somebody’s brat drooling, such notions like, “For the purposes of art, video’s theoretical and practical possibilities are so inconceivably vast, its versatility so immeasurably profound…”, must seem more than a bit fanciful but the essential truth of it still holds good to those with eyes to see and an imagination to match. And yet… just as with my other accustomed medium, still photography, the undeniable capacity for the “happy accident” still exerts a kind of fascination; albeit for so-called “accomplished” practitioners a little uncomfortably so. Sometimes “chancing one’s arm” on a whim can produce unexpectedly rich pickings.

On a cloudy but warm day last week my wife, Desirée, and I were about to set foot on the Millennium Footbridge across the Thames which transports pedestrians from one side of the river to the other in a direct line “joining” St Pauls Cathedral on the north side to Tate Modern on the South Bank. For no real reason apart from whim (I exaggerate slightly here, I actually had for some time entertained the notion of making a short video piece while walking across the bridge but had, I guess, pushed it back into my subconscious) I decided to “film” (strange how old terms die hard…) a piece incorporating my fellow pedestrians as we made our “pilgrimage”. As I only had my tiny Canon G9 with me at the time, I used that; its inherent video limitations notwithstanding. These limitations meant that I shot the video on the highest resolution “SD” format at 15 fps holding the camera (at it’s longest zoom setting) to my chest, tilted in such a way that I could not follow on the LCD screen what I was actually shooting at all. Shooting thus meant, in a very real sense, the resulting video would reflect and document my body movements as I progressed across the bridge if not, obviously, my “eye-level” view. In such fashion I made a minute or so of “footage”. I like to term this method of making a video, somewhat pretentiously, as “gonzo filmmaking” (in honour of the late, lamented (for my generation at least) Hunter S. Thompson.

On returning home I downloaded the piece to view on my Mac and, predictably, the video was a bit of a mess; jerky, underexposed in places, overexposed in others and with little discernible “coherence” leaving me with little choice but to heavily manipulate (graphically speaking) the raw video footage, by which point it looked, shall we say, “acceptable” (if you like that sort of thing I guess). Still, I have been lately playing with various “retimings” of video footage, mostly to “stretch” the timeframe (slow it down, I mean) and saw some potential here for the same. At which point (I have grown used to the results to such an extent that I can pretty much “pre-visualise” the result) it occurred to me that the pace and “processional” nature of the video reminded me of the well known (slightly “dirge-like”) so called Albinoni “Baroque” music piece Adagio in G Minor. I say “so called” because the piece is a reconstruction (actually, an entirely new composition) by the Italian musicologist Remo Giazotto, based on a six-bar fragment found in one of Albinoni’s manuscripts. So not “Baroque” at all, still less in any real sense “by” Albinoni. A fake, in other words (notwithstanding, too, the lush orchestration of a modern full orchestra would have been entirely alien to Baroque ears). Nevertheless it worked. For me, anyway…

In truth my original notion that it might work was based on the insistent “Basso Ostinato” of the piece; hence, the “Ground Bass” of the title. Truthfully, too, the entire piece is more than a little “overblown”, possible “twee” and certainly overused and yet I retain a fondness for it. With all its undoubted faults (and a certain over-familiarity doesn’t entirely help either) I still find it quite affecting, even heartrendingly sad and melancholic. One might almost say “funereal” with, dare I say it, “religious overtones”. Even if such a notion is somewhat peculiar to me the fact remains that there is a certain “appropriateness” here: as I noted earlier, the Millennium Bridge crosses the Thames in a direct line from St Paul’s, the iconic Cathedral of the “old faith” to that Cathedral of the “new faith”, modern art, the Tate Modern; a destination, no doubt, for at least some, if not indeed most, of my “fellow travellers”.

We are here, of course, back in “happy accident” territory and all these subsequent connotations and associations have been, in my mind, “overlaid” onto the original video I made with little or no pre-existing intent. And, too, the fact that the marriage of audio and visual “works” (if only in my own mind) could be (even is) entirely imaginary (the same would of course apply to those other viewers who “see” it too) bothers (or rather “intrigues”) me. The fact is that almost any like piece of music would work here; and vice versa, any slow, processional video sequence would work with Adagio too. Such is the nature of associations perhaps… A “happy accident” indeed but I would just like to make one observation on the subject here: one may not be able to exactly predict or control the happy circumstance of the “accident” that works but one at least must first leave oneself open to the possibility for it to happen at all. I could liken it to playing the Lottery; the chance of winning may be diminishingly small but, in order to have any chance of winning, one must first purchase a ticket…

As I mentioned above, as the raw footage lasts just over a minute and the music is of eight minutes or so duration, I quite simple “retimed”, or stretched, the video to match. I initially used a “standard” setting and the result was alright but only just “alright”. In reality a little too “jerky” to match the smooth insistence of the “ground bass”. I therefore switched to the more processor-intensive “Optical Flow” setting (a built in function of Final Cut Pro x) which is a process akin, I guess, to “morphing”; it “interpolates” the in-between frames needed to “stretch” the video out in time. More or less “intelligent guessing” to you and me. The built in function is largely uncontrollable and is basically “all or nothing”; one accepts the result or one doesn’t. There are, in fact, other more complex and controllable (and, of course, pricy) alternative utilities or plugins (e.g. Twixtor) and, depending on whether one’s desired result is a more notionally “correct” one, naturally “better” than FCPX’s built in function. The results I got were a little strange, to say the least; speaking “conventionally” of course. But apart from the fact that I am way too cheap to incur the necessary expense it is exactly, as with all digital processes, the shortcomings and notional mistakes that interest me most.

One last word: the piece as shown below is somewhat “provisional” (I guess the clue is in the title…) and may be subject to further edits and tweaks. In any case, possibly along with other added elements, it will form part of the raw material for yet another video installation. It is still, therefore, a work-in-progress and one that is still “in progress” in my head only. Of which more, naturally, to come…

Lost Time – The Last Indestructible Object

Man Ray Object_Metro

Man Ray Object_Eye

Cut out the eye from a photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more. Attach the eye to the pendulum of a metronome and regulate the weight to suit the tempo desired. Keep going to the limit of endurance. With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow.

Caption to the drawing, Object To Be Destroyed, by Man Ray in the December issue of This Quarter, 1932.

It would be very difficult to destroy all hundred metronomes now.

Man Ray

The following is an extract from Object to be Destroyed: an excess of interpretation (1994) by Ian Andrews:

“New York, 1922. The Dada painter and photographer, Man Ray, in an effort to attain some structure to his painting, has the idea of placing a metronome beside his easel. He sets the metronome in motion whenever he wishes to paint, so that his brush stokes are regulated by the ticking; the faster it goes, the faster he paints. He resolves to himself : in the event that the metronome should stop while he is still painting, this would indicate that he had been painting too long and thus, the work, not having satisfied the chronometrical demands of the metronome, would have to be destroyed. Feeling that his painting would benefit from the presence of an impartial observer, Man Ray clips a photograph of an eye onto the metronome's swinging arm, to create the illusion of being watched. He names this assemblage Object to be Destroyed. On one occasion however, not accepting the metronome's verdict, Man Ray smashes the object to pieces.

  Nothing further is heard of the metronome until in the December issue of This Quarter, 1932, where a drawing of the metronome appears with a cut out photo of Lee Miller's eye. The drawing is entitled Object of Destruction, with the caption: "Cut out the eye from a photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more. Attach the eye to the pendulum of a metronome and regulate the weight to suit the tempo desired. Keep going to the limit of endurance. With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow."

  A third metronome, made in 1945 for inclusion in an exhibition at Julien Levy's New York Gallery, after a previous version had disappeared, is called Lost Object. In the catalogue a printer’s error, which Man Ray accepts gladly, transforms this title to Last Object. Man Ray writes: "it is still my earnest desire, some day while the eye is ticking away during a conversation, to lift my hammer and with one well-aimed blow completely to demolish the metronome."

  In 1957 a retrospective show of early Dada works is held at the Galerie de l'Institut in Paris and the metronome is exhibited with the original title, Object to be Destroyed. A mob of reactionary art students remove the metronome from the gallery and destroy it. The following year, an edition of the work is made by Daniel Spoerri, which Man Ray entitles Indestructible Object.  Man Ray remarks: "it would be very difficult to destroy all hundred metronomes now."

  In 1971 Man Ray replaces the eye of the metronome with a double-printed image of a blinking eye that opens and closes as it swings back and forth. This final version is called Perpetual Motif.”

The installation piece shown below, reusing the metronome motif I have used before elsewhere, references the Man Ray pieces described above; “pieces” as in it has a relevance to all of the various iterations in different ways. It also holds a personal relevance for me; personal as in “refers to” rather than openly expresses. Any actual meaning is personal and private and, of necessity, remains so sans any lengthy explanation on my part, as is also, of necessity, the case with any such personal (especially purely visual) expression which must remain closed to the overwhelming majority of viewers. That fact alone was enough for me to reject any overt or explanatory reference to Man Ray’s work (such as, for example, a textual projection making the reference clear). As for the viewer, either they will “get” the broad hint of the title or not. And it matters little, I think, whether they do or not…

The point of all this is to emphasise the “orphaned” nature of all (well, mostly all, I guess…) art works that are cast adrift in the world to fend for themselves. Which brings up the issue of “meaning” in art in general. With a work like my piece, with an obvious (?) “narrative” element, the actual nature or meaning of any such narrative is not readily apparent (to the majority of viewers) without a more or less lengthy explanation of some sort. I could add, as an aside, if it is readily apparent then it is documentary masquerading as art (of which there is no shortage of, especially these days). But that’s a personal opinion. In any case it can be argued any piece of art operates (or should operate) on more than one simultaneous level and often that is wholly dependant on the inclination, mindset of the viewer. Some will view it (only want to view it) as “something nice to look at” (here of course I mean in the case of visual art), others will seek some sort of “meaning”. This could take the form of attempting to ascertain the artist’s intent or meaning but, equally, could consist of gleaning (imposing?) the viewers own meaning onto the piece. This especially if the piece is perceived as “striking a chord” with the viewer’s own experience (or, simply, “frame of mind” at the time). In the past I have bristled somewhat at the notion that my intent as an artist might well be rejected or at best “sublimated” to the viewer’s own concerns. These days I’m not only more comfortable with this but I suspect it may even be a preferable state of affairs.

When it comes to narrative (and here I especially allude to the kind of video installations I have been exploring myself) often the viewer is left with no option but to construct their own. This was something I realised quite forcibly with my “road to Damascus” moment when first viewing the William Kentridge piece, I Am Not Me, the Horse is Not Mine at Tate Modern Tanks last year; and it was an endlessly fascinating and highly pleasurable experience. Sure there were many clues as to the artist’s intent (many of them, too, becoming more apparent on subsequent viewings) but this led only to a heightened enjoyment of the piece. Viewing this as anything less than a win/win situation for both artist and viewer is, for me, increasingly difficult to envisage. However, it remains the case that, for me, the whole storytelling, prescriptive nature of narrative in art is still highly problematic…

The problem seems to me one of how one views the purpose of a sound/video (plus, potentially, other media too…) installation and, for me, that is to provide an environment for a perceptual experience. Here, it seems to me, that any notion of a linear storytelling narrative is at odds with such a purpose as it will always tend to pre-define the experience in a “prescriptive” way. This was pointed up to me in stark fashion over recent long discussions with Marc over the problems of “enhancing” a sound installation with a visual element (most especially related to the use of music here). More to the point I have come to believe that the “fly in the ointment” here is the specific use of imagery (be it a sequence of still images, the moving image or, I guess too, paintings etc). In such a situation one inevitably comes across the problem of “illustration”; in other words, which medium is illustrating which? In the one case you would have little more than a film soundtrack, in the other a music video (albeit “spread” over multiple channels and spatially arranged). Such an installation could not help but have (intended or inadvertent) a “storytelling” or linear narrative aspect. Fine, if that is what is intended but not what I see as my personal intent.

I should note here that my thinking on these issues has been heavily influenced by the work of the American artist Robert Irwin (and here I owe a debt of gratitude to Anna who first referred me to Irwin’s body of work) or, more specifically, my reading (and re-readings) of the Lawrence Weschler book seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees documenting over thirty years of conversations with Irwin about the artists “journey” to where he is now. Essentially it is about the process of making art and its purpose and nature; it may well be the best single book I have read on the subject (and, apparently, I am by no means alone in this view). The result has been my pondering over the whole overly prescriptive, overly ego-driven nature of most artist’s practice especially in relation to (but not restricted to) my own role as an “image maker”: look at this and look at it this (my) way. One could, I suppose, in the case of musicians (or sound artists) substitute “listen” for “look”… For me, this goes directly to purpose and intent, both that of the individual artist and , in general, art itself. More and more I see the nature of art (its “true calling” if you like) as one of, yes, “pointing out” ways of looking at the world but in such a way that the viewer/listener has a sense of their own perception of the world, an enhanced awareness. More and more I see the purpose of the kinds of installations (maybe here “environments” would be a better and less restrictive term) that interest me to be in some way to provide an “experience” (another term I have grown to prefer over “installation” with its connotations of “art object” etc) by which the viewer/listener (perceiver, “experiencer”?) leaves the necessarily “mediated” environment of the “presentation” and re-enters the (unmediated) “real world” with a heightened awareness of their own powers of perception. Ultimately, I guess this may well lead to the notion “who needs art in that case”? I am, of course, not quite ready to go that far (!) for fairly obvious reasons (!!) but it is food for thought for any artist I think…

Of course, too, such “utopian” ideals most likely must remain just that – “ideals”. And I am aware that such ideals propose a practice where a large amount of “sublimation of the ego” would be required on the part of the artist. Paradoxically the hand (eye, mind) of the artist would be everywhere, so to speak, but, as I say, in not altogether obvious ways. Not in a “signature” way which, after all, has virtually forever been the “sine qua non” of the art world. A step too far for most artists certainly. Does that mean I am ready? Hell, no! It is an issue that has been occupying my mind of late but I don’t think I am quite ready to abandon my own practice as an image maker (or to totally “sublimate” my own ego either, thank you very much…) but I can envisage a time when I may, shall we say, be prepared to “move away” from a certain emphasis on image making per se…

Meanwhile, back in the “real world” we are where we are and I am where I am… and notwithstanding my own misgivings about “narrative” I have, in fact, several projects long “in the works” so to speak that do, in fact, consist of personal narratives (albeit, hopefully, in a non-linear way) and, even as my thinking on this may be in the process of changing (developing?) it would seem churlish to abandon them now. The piece below represents one such example, as explained at the start of this post. I suppose I should be embarrassed about this but my “excuse” (should I need one!) is that this piece (and the others I alluded to above) were conceived some time ago, though only recently realised. Besides, even if my thinking is changed and changing all the time (which for me is no bad thing…) it would still serve a purpose to work through issues and concerns that may reflect one’s own doubts and uncertainties as an artist. Back to the piece in question below then…

Although the content (if not premise) of the piece may appear (I hope!) fairly straightforward and simple (in presentation, if nothing else) the actual production proved fairly complex with its multiple and layered imagery especially involving as it does elements of retiming etc that never quite add up on close examination. And here I want to say a special word about the sound element in the piece: what, at first hearing, may seem quite straightforward is actually quite complex with much layering and “spatial sculpturing” and as such is best heard either through fairly reasonable and well separated speakers or (even preferably) through headphones. As to the “spatial sculpturing” I can take little credit as it was produced with the advice (and “hands on” help too!) of Marc Yeats. I like to call the result a “spatio/sculptural audio environment” though that may be a tad “unwieldy” for some! However, the resulting video piece below is not intended to “represent” an actual installation but merely to hint at just one possibility. In an actual installation environment the sound, for one thing, would be much more spatially sophisticated in relation to the relative position within the environment of any viewer.

And that, as they say, is more than enough for today…

Linear Momentum In a Small Space

Train Ride - Paternoster

Image by Desirée Talbot

Site-specificity implies neither simply that a work is to be found in a particular place, nor, quite if it is that place. It means, rather, that what the work looks like and what it means is dependent in large part on the configuration of the space in which it is realised. In other words, if the same objects were arranged in the same way in another location, they would constitute a different work… What is important about a space can be any one of a number of things; its dimensions, its general character, the materials from which it is constructed, the use to which it has previously been put, the part it played in an event of historical or political importance, and so on.

Michael Archer, Installation Art

There is a sense in which all video installations are site-specific insofar as works installed in a gallery must be placed and tuned to the particularities of the site. Characteristics of ’site’ include such factors as entrance positions, scale of space, acoustics, light levels, type of space, its ‘normal’ function etc. The most important issue in question is often the extent to which a work is site-specific.

Chris Meigh-Andrews, A History of Video Art

The genesis of this latest piece came about through a series of happy coincidences: I had been discussing online (privately) with Anna Lee Keefer the requirements and logistics of showing multi-screen video installations. I observed that one of the main requirements was at least a large space as, for most such installations, scale was of the utmost importance; at least enough space for the arrangement of the “sculptural” element that is an integral part of the installation and space, too, for the viewer(s) to “explore” this element. Of course, such stipulations are not always easily available and Anna expressed the opinion that if an artist really wanted to show their work they would find a way, even in a “restricted” space. I just simply said she was wrong (and still think that is the case…) but as is her wont she pursued the issue. Well, to cut a long story short I was sufficiently irritated at her unwillingness to accept my point that I determined to conceive of and construct a simple installation that could be shown almost anywhere…

The “happy coincidence” I allude to in the previous paragraph is that, coincidentally, I had, like a flash of realisation, solved in my mind how to construct a work using a particular piece of Marc Yeats’s that I had always admired and resolved long ago to incorporate into a work: paternoster (2010). The “realisation” was that my difficulties in conceiving something suitable had revolved around my thinking my thinking on the piece being exclusively related to what it represented (a “paternoster”, now rarely found, is an elevator-like device that conveys passengers between floors and runs on a continuous loop. When one reaches the floor one requires, one simply steps off. Needlessly to say, they do not run at anywhere near the speed of a modern lift!). This had been a sticking point, and a mistake. I suddenly realised that I should have paid more attention to how the piece sounded rather than a strict adherence to what it represented. At that point I decided to actually listen more attentively…

While listening I realised that the sound, the rhythm of the piece resembled that of a train; albeit, as Marc quickly pointed out when I approached him with the idea, with much more nuance or “sound colour” than the constant, dull rhythm of a train journey. Still, a marriage made in heaven, or so it seemed to me. I also liked the thought that both the sound and the visual record of a train journey represented a “linear” movement – only the one vertical and the other horizontal. It just so happened too that I had a visual piece to hand that would fit perfectly: a video made some time ago by my wife, Desirée, of a train ride from Walthamstow, where we live, to Liverpool Street Station, in the heart of the City of London. She had made the video using her iPhone and simply handheld it while pointing it out of the window (I particularly like the “black spot” on the window of the not-always so “pristine” train carriage!) The result had always seemed to me to be quite compelling with apparent speed changes, the “layering” of the outside view with the occasional intrusion of internal reflections and so on. Shot, too, early on a misty morning the result was suitably “low-end” and gritty. All I had to do, really, was to slightly “accentuate” this with some judicious colour grading. I think the resulting “rough” and harsh look, or as Marc so eloquently put it “mangy look” (it’s OK, I think Des has since forgiven him…) works well here. The only other “issue” was the “mismatch” of timings (the video lasts just over seven minutes while Marc’s piece is just over nine minutes long) but even this proved fortuitous as Marc and I resolved that the piece should start in total (and prolonged) darkness, taking into account that the sound piece itself starts off quite quietly…

I think, too, that the resulting piece fulfils the (hypothetical and entirely self-imposed) “brief”. With my only “stipulation” being that the piece be shown in a darkened (preferably pitch dark) space with a reasonable sound system and projected (and filling) a wall at the end of the longest dimension, I believe almost any space (larger than a cupboard, that is) would fit the bill. Still, in general, this is not exactly what my aim is with my proposed larger, multi-screen installations. The issues involved there are something I intend to discuss in more detail at a future date…

Linear Momentum In a Small Space is a single-screen video installation by Ian Talbot (concept and editing), Marc Yeats (soundtrack – paternoster (2010)), Desirée Talbot (original video) and Marcus Kuerten (original field recording).

“Paternoster is a new work composed from an original field recording, recorded by German field recordist and sound artist Marcus Kuerten.

As Marcus wrote to me, ‘The location recording contains the sound material of a paternoster ride; very rare and unique material of warm, industrial sounds of an efficient but antiquated vehicle with definite and clear sounds of the paternoster itself and the reverberating situations on the particular floors.

I captured the recording in the building of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Cologne, on 7th. May 2010. A building from the late 50s, early 60s with a wonderful outdated interior. Now, paternosters are prohibited from being installed in German buildings, but all originals are protected and listed as historic mechanisms.’

A wonderful description of the meaning of Paternoster that I did not know (Wiki):

Cyclic Elevator, the name paternoster ("Our Father", the first two words of the Lord's Prayer in Latin) was originally applied to the device because the elevator is in the form of a loop and is thus similar to rosary beads used as an aid in reciting prayers.

The recording is captured with a Fostex FR2LE and a Rode NT4 stereo (XY) microphone in 44.1/24bit, with a duration of 4min30sec.

Marc Yeats: ‘In composing the piece I processed and extracted material from this dynamic, unprocessed recording to create new sounds which were then used to reconstruct and compose a completely new work.’”

From the SoundCloud page for the original piece

Time Machine




Cinema, which can neither be touched, smelt nor even seen in the light of day, holds yet another paradox of stability and fragility: time. As surely as night follows day, time runs on in a measured fashion, in this case at twenty-four frames per second. The frames, however, are still pictures, and like fractions of time themselves, we never see them as such.

Rachel Moore, (nostalgia) 

I was intrigued with the idea of space full of this archive of images that was spreading out.

William Kentridge

Quantum Physics postulates that our perception of the linear nature of “time’s arrow” is an illusion and, in fact, everything is happening (and has happened? Are linguistic tenses even valid at all here?) at once. Physics also tells us that light travels at 299,792,458 metres per second and that light years are a measure of distance, not time (except that, crucially, the distance referred to is that in which light travels in a year). Of course we all know about the notion (well, perhaps more than a “notion”!) that were there to be some alien species standing on a planet, say, 208 light years away they could, if they had a powerful enough telescope (!!), observe the Battle of Trafalgar “as it happens”. But say this were indeed possible (beyond theoretical postulation that is) could it actually be said that what they were observing was happening now? And, if so, “now” by what criterion? Once again can terms like “now” and “then” have any relevance here? Of course, too, what they would observe would, strictly speaking, be an “image” of what was/had happened. Back on planet earth everything we see, too, is obviously an “image” as light, having a finite speed, cannot travel “instantaneously”, as it were. We, in fact, always see what has happened not what is happening. Nitpicking perhaps, but it does have ramifications; and in any case the constant flow of such “images” is just, as Hollis Frampton has termed it, a kind of “infinite cinema” with no beginning and no end. Still we yearn to capture individual “frames” from out of the unstoppable flow; to “arrest time” no less. For that we have photography…

Photography (of the stills variety) fosters in us the notion that “capturing” an instant in time will help us make sense of what is/has happened within the otherwise relentless march of time as we may then peruse the detail of that instant at our leisure, free of the constraints of memory. But there the problems begin because, as Susan Sontag rightly (I think…) has pointed out, “Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no. Strictly speaking, one never understands anything (my italics) from a photograph”. A photograph, in itself, can never be more than “instructive”. A “visually pleasing” photograph is little more than “mere” entertainment; “eye candy” if you like. Here, too, film is of little further help, being, as it is, nothing more than photography (still photography at that…) “on steroids” as it were. Hence I can arbitrarily extract one hundred frames from a film and arrange them sequentially as above and it is a trivial task to infer from the frames shown the missing intervening frames. And this is so even though in the second and third of the grids above the clips from which they are taken are the product of retiming and overlaying the clips themselves.

Still, illusion or not, our perception of time is what we are stuck with. Which perhaps explains why we so obsessively seek to parcel time out, to “mark” it. For this we have clocks of course. In music, we use the metronome to mark the linear beat of “time”, though in a far less fixed and delineated way than with a clock. I was going to say more “arbitrarily” but, of course, any delineation of time is merely arbitrary. Nevertheless, it would appear, at first sight, that clocks and metronomes have much in common. But this is not, strictly speaking, so. Both “tick” of course but one does not listen to the ticking of a clock to ascertain the time and one does not look at a metronome to follow the “beat”. Which is why the video clip below “fails” in every respect. Looking at a metronome is a pointless endeavour, just as listening to the tick of a clock is. If, that is, it’s information that one seeks. But the clip itself is doubly “useless”: the soundtrack consists of “layers” of the ticking of the metronome overlaid and deferred.

In actual fact the clip below is a preliminary “iteration” of an installation I have a notion to create: a sort of “Time Room”. But even that is a kind of “secondary” use as the clip was originally made to be part of yet another installation referencing a piece by the Dadaist painter/photographer Man Ray, of which more in a future post…

In Memory of Feeling – À la recherche du temps perdu


Nostalgia isn't a way of representing history, but of experiencing it, which is where the pain comes in. The photographs spark off remembrances of the past, and the new associations that we make watching them. The past maintains an abiding strain on representation, even, and perhaps especially, in those cases where history and context appear entirely absent, as in the static old photograph. Photographs absorb and contain time.

Rachel Moore, (nostalgia)

…we see images but there is an interposing leaf, a blackness that gets in between… In the structure of seeing and not seeing lies the kernel of the idea of memory, of what we remember and what we forget, demonstrating how remembering and forgetting are not oppositional acts but two sides of the same coin.

…the ways in which recording devices, such as film and photography, perform a choreography with memory's work. We can't live in the past but the past can live with us.

Janet Harbord, Chris Marker: La Jetée

“I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining.”

The narrator, Sans Soleil, a film by Chris Marker

The photographs in the three clips shown below are of my much loved grandparents. Obviously the “slideshow” effect is, here, a metaphor as the photographs themselves are not slides but prints (back in the day they were called “enprints”); not ephemeral light projections but objects to hold in one’s hand, to look at and cherish. Looking at the images in the first clip reminds me, too, that many, if not most, of the images in a family album (especially one of a working class family where, if nothing else, financial constraints made each frame far more precious than it would be now) were of the people whose album it was. In other words, most of the photographs were not taken by the owner of the camera; back then one would generally hand the camera to someone (could be a passing stranger) with the ubiquitous request, “I wonder if you would mind taking a quick picture of us?” before assuming “the pose”. These pictures, self evidently, were not to show others how one looks (although with the passage of time they would serve to show how one looked then) but firstly as proof that one was “there” and secondly, in moments of personal reverie, as an “aide memoirs” to happy times.

The images in the second clip are of the one and only time my grandparents were “abroad” (in Lugano, Switzerland); on “the continent” as one would say then. They were “tourists” set adrift in an alien and “exotic” environment. Susan Sontag said of tourists (this was in the 70s but I guess still holds true. Only more so now, of course…): “A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting (my italics) experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture.” But, as I said earlier, these images were made back in a time before “everybody” was a photographer and the few images my grandparents took with their little Box Brownie were, once again, of the “proof we were there” variety. Back then one’s photographic “souvenirs” of where one was were generally professionally made postcards of the more or less picturesque “views” they had encountered; “This is where we were and these are our pictures of us there…”; as “proof” they were, indeed, “there”. You will notice, too, that as this was a time when colour photography was still rare (even postcards were mainly monochrome…) the postcards shown here have been strangely and garishly hand coloured. They do have a certain charm, though, I think.

For me, looking again at the photographs of, as I say, much loved family members, engenders feelings of nostalgia (with, as observed in the quote above, a tinge of pain as they have long passed) I remember them, experience them again but I also “remember” this trip abroad of theirs. Not “first hand” as it were (obviously I wasn’t there…) but remember the “stories” they told me about it. It was a major event in their life. But also as I look at the images of them in Lugano I am reminded of something Susan Sontag also wrote about the nature of photography, possibly most photography but, for me, these images in particular: “Photography has the unappealing reputation of being the most realistic, therefore facile, of the mimetic arts. In fact, it is the one art that has managed to carry out the grandiose, century-old threats of a Surrealist takeover of the modern sensibility, while most of the pedigreed candidates have dropped out of the race.” She goes on to say, “… The result was that Surrealism in painting amounted to little more than the contents of a meagerly stocked dream world: a few witty fantasies, mostly wet dreams and agoraphic nightmares.” A conclusion with which I have always thoroughly concurred. And here, never mind the overly contrived, often pitiful, self-consciously “arty” attempts at “Surrealist” painting (and photography too when the photographer is trying ever so hard…), these images of my grandparents inexplicably “looking” (staring…) at who knows what are, for me, as “surreal” as it gets. And I am absolutely certain that they were not trying at all…

Of course all these images have meaning only for me. The “punctum”, as Barthes would have it, the thing about them that pricks me is, as with all puncti, unique to me. For everybody else they are, at best, merely “curiosities” of a time past. I allude to this in the third clip by the simple device, one I have “appropriated” from John Baldessari, of the coloured circles which make the people in the images anonymous. I could also think that by this device I have made of these images “art”. But that would be an unbearable conceit: As with all photographs the passage of time has already transformed them into art. And with no intervention on my part…

In Memory of Feeling :: Slideshows, part of a multi-screen installation by Ian Talbot, Marc Yeats, Anna Lee Keefer and Jack Olson

In Memory of Feeling :: Environmental Codes


An act of naming should quite rightly enable me to call anything a self-portrait, not only any drawing, 'portrait' or not, but everything that happens to me, that I can affect, or that affects me.

Jacques Derrida

Although I entirely agree with Derrida here, I suppose photographing one’s home environment as part of a self-portrait is hardly a conceptual stretch. But the images in the video clip below (plus others which can be seen here…) are not, shall we say, an entirely honest representation of my home surroundings. I was asked earlier today whether I would call myself a “minimalist” (as opposed, I presume to a “Minimalist”) and I had to admit that I probably would, though I think I am more disposed towards “order” than minimalism per se (the clue is in the Foucault book). But that is not to say I live in a minimalist (or ordered) environment – I wish! In fact my home is somewhat cluttered due to my wife, Desirée’s, fondness for “precious things”. Seemingly just about anything has the capacity to be “precious” to her. But it is comfortable and, in part, these images reflect my predilection for “ordering” things in my mind (“visually”, as an image I mean).

Actually the title of the Foucault book, The Order of Things, is a little misleading; it is not about “order” as opposed to chaos, but about the “ordering” of things, hierarchically as in “classification”. Essentially it’s a book about taxonomy. And, too, reflecting the French title of the book, Noms et Choses (Foucault’s preference was, however, for the English title…) it is about “naming” things as an act of “appropriation” as it were. For humans it could be said that nothing actually exists until it has been named and thus appropriated. The world essentially exists as an inventory of things. Hence the enduring appeal of photography; people collect things and then photograph them, which in turn become more “things” to collect…

So, as I say, my home is, in fact, cosy and familiar to me. A true “comfort zone” and where I make the overwhelming majority of my images. Yet many people have already commented at how “eery” they find these images. I had not found them so hitherto though, I suppose, any environment devoid of people has an indefinable hint of “menace” perhaps. Any moment somebody threatening could appear. Or, at least, I presume something like that may be behind such notions. With the sequence below, however, I felt this for the first time. I think for me though it is the near perfect juxtaposition of these “empty” images with Marc’s stunning music, extracted from his piece, siren song, that has induced this particular feeling. I suspect that any interpretation of impending menace is very much “driven” by the music. I have been alone in my home many, many times and have yet to be threatened by a would-be assailant. Though I suppose one should never say never…

Monolith :: The Long Shadow (the installation view)

I think that ways of looking are determined more by the circumstances in which a film is seen than the commercial or 'alternative' intent of the director.

Douglas Gordon

…expanded cinema includes work that reverses the position of spectator and filmmaker, explodes the frame… Deconstructs the cinematic apparatus, unfixes the image and initiates new screening situations that establish a radical interrogation of the physical as well as aesthetic mobilisation of cinematic perception.

Duncan White

As I indicated in a previous post about my collaborative piece with Marc Yeats, Monolith :: The Long Shadow, it is intended that the installation itself should consist of a minimum of two projection screens. Of course, it could quite easily consist of multiple screens, the number limited, I guess, only by the size of the environment. And the expense, of course! In any case it is intended, above all, to be an immersive environment in which the spectator is free to move around and change viewpoint at will. This in direct opposition to “classic” cinema where every effort is made to induce the spectator, in their fixed seat, to lose all awareness of their immediate environment and become fully immersed in the (virtual?) “reality” of the world enclosed within the frame of a single projected screen. The generic term for such an installation is “expanded cinema”.

Since I started writing these articles I have been asked several times about how I intend to present both this piece and my larger multi (five) screen piece, In Memory of Feeling. In actual fact, I have, as yet, no fixed plan for the actual presentation. Nor need I have – as I have indicated above, there are many possibilities and so a large amount of flexibility can be allowed for here. In any case, perhaps more interesting is why I have planned for a fluid environment for these installations…

In all my planned installations, as I say above, the spectator is free to move around at will (free to leave at any time too!) and thus becomes more than just a simple spectator, more than a passive consumer if you will. Crucial to this, too, is the notion that at any given position it is impossible to “take in” the whole installation at one time – parts will always remain outside of the field of vision. The implications of this, especially with regard to my planned five screen piece, are that the presentation of a linear narrative (as in “classic” cinema) becomes impossible too, at least for any single viewing (the pieces are intended to play on a continuous loop). This leaves no more than an “implied” narrative. Indeed, it more or less obliges a spectator to “construct” their own narrative(s) from a multiplicity of possible ones. In other words the spectator is more deeply involved in the formulation of meaning than they otherwise would be. Of course, in conventional, classic, cinema one is expected to remain in one’s seat and follow a (time) prescribed narrative and not leave one’s seat (intermissions and calls of nature aside) until the film presentation is over. As an aside, I may note here that the same applies to music concerts. With the added difference that, even if one can get up and move around, “escaping” sound is a little harder than “not looking” at a visual presentation.

The other issue, apart from spatial considerations, that arises with such installations is the fluid nature of the experience of time. For me, the main point of the “Monolith” piece is, as the title suggests, the “monolithic” nature of the large projected images (in which nothing much happens, and what does happen – the changing nature of the “grids” – happens at an almost imperceptible and glacial pace) and, yes too, I suppose, the “monolithic” nature of the “stretched” music track. At ten minutes I trust the piece is not too long but, still, it may tend to try the attention span (and patience) of the spectator. This is something that interests me and, apropos of this, I intend to experiment with much more “extended” pieces. So “extended” in fact that even the stamina of the most “enthusiastic” spectator would be insufficient for the attention required to experience the whole piece through. Leaving, as the alternative, only a kind of “dipping in and out” over repeated viewings. I have to admit that I like the idea that it would be virtually impossible to ever experience the piece as a whole. I guess that would exclude me, however, as I would likely have to a few times! I think it’s called “suffering for one’s art”.

One other point I would like to make here concerns my previous observations about the “freedom” of the spectator: Being free to move around does not mean, of course, that a viewer is totally free as they would be in a gallery setting with paintings (or photographs) nailed to the wall. There of course always remains a “time prescribed” element; moving images (and music too), like time itself, wait for no man. So, in fact, there is a “trade off” for such freedoms. This is the price of the “immersive” experience – one can stand passively in front of a painting for as long as one likes, it isn’t going anywhere. In more ways than one.

Finally… As another “update” to Monolith :: The Long Shadow I have recreated the piece yet again for online viewing (below). I hope that this time the presentation will at least give the viewer some idea of a possible installation and, too, “reinforce” the proposed “monolithic” nature of the projected images…

Monolith :: The Long Shadow (installation version) by Ian Talbot and Marc Yeats

Identikits :: Between Seer and Seen


My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent

  and he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the streets.  

He has several likenesses, like stars and years, like numerals.

Frank O’Hara, In Memory of My Feelings

Secreted in Frank O'Hara's thought is the possibility that we create only as dead men. Death seems the only metaphor distant enough to truly measure our existence. Only the artist who is close to his own life gives us an art that is like death.

Morton Feldman

It is now widely accepted that the cultural production of meaning involves active spectatorship, rather than the passive consumption of textually determined meanings. Sub-cultural groups often produce alternative sets of meanings, based on a different set of shared codes, conventions and experiences.

Jackie Stacey, Desperately Seeking Distance

Related practices that operate at the 'degree zero' of narrative – any point at which the perceiver, rather than the artist, is made responsible for the production of meaning; works that act as an action at the limits of narrative, at the limits of its fiction of unity.

Duncan White

The images used in the three videos shown below were made almost exactly four years ago as part of my self-portrait project, Fingering The Edge, and represent the most deeply personal of the images made for that project. In fact, some of them, even with the passage of time, have a meaning to me that resonates still; others I remember as being representative of my feelings at the time but, well, that was then and this is now. In any case, I have never divulged those exact meanings and don’t care to now. Still, looking at the set as a piece, even for the viewer necessarily ignorant of their exact (personal to me) meaning would, I guess, discern some sort of implied narrative. But to all intents and purposes these images represent Barthes’s messages without a code; the viewer will be used to “reading” images and is free to construct their own narrative (and likely would, absent any other), though as to my intended meaning they may know the language, but they don’t have the dictionary.

In fact, the project itself was linked to an earlier one of mine, Figuring Jasper, the “Jasper” in question being the American artist, Jasper Johns. At least one of the images in that series is linked to a specific Johns piece which is in turn linked to a poem by Frank O’Hara, In Memory of My Feelings and that in turn links to my current project, In Memory of Feeling. In any case I have always “identified” with Johns’s practice of “non-specific” self expression in which deeply personal meaning is only alluded to and any specific meaning is obfuscated and largely impenetrable. I guess, too, that Johns in turn very much identified with O’Hara (a personal friend) who has been described as a poet who 'writes poems to define his feelings and to abolish them as definitions of himself.' And this, for me, brings up the notion of “displaced”, “deflected” or “appropriated feelings”.

For the three sequences below, I too have “appropriated” the deeply personal feelings of someone else; three of My Songs by Marc Yeats (how deeply personal is, I suppose, a matter for some conjecture and only answerable by Marc himself). And, too, one might suppose that I may, possibly, identify with some of the emotions and feelings expressed in the particular songs I have, after all, carefully selected. Maybe, maybe not… But at any rate, the songs with their highly expressive words (and music) may at least have the effect of strengthening the implied narrative inherent in the sequencing of the images. Yet this raises the question of just how reliably deep personal emotion can be expressed (communicatively, I mean)? It also raises the issue that, before emotion can be expressed, the viewer, any viewer, has first to care what you, as an artist are feeling. This reminds me of the oft used palliative (and mostly deeply insincere) phrase, “I feel your pain..”, to which, it has always seemed to me, the obvious answer is, “You may be feeling pain but you don’t feel my pain.”

What I believe likely happens is that a viewer will usually be most affected by deeply expressive art when, far from feeling “empathy” with the emotions of the artist, they can “identify” with the feelings and emotions expressed (as “imagined” by the viewer, often) from their own experience. At this point such emotions and feelings become, too, in the same way “appropriated”.

As far as my own project is concerned, I should point out, too, that the title is In Memory of Feeling, as opposed to O’Hara’s (and Johns’s) In Memory of My Feelings. That is to say, non-specific “feeling”. Any feeling perhaps. As with the piece itself these are all merely hints, clues, red herrings. You can really never know for certain…

My Songs by Marc Yeats


My skin tells me

I know you’re there



In the corner of her eye

My mother’s fear.


Even night

Cannot soften passing hours

That prick-out eyes.





Breath of death

And damp

Only light

Parts us

A kiss?