Tom Leeser

“There is only experience and it’s decay”
-Geoffrey Sonnaband

“Do You Read Me?”
Memory abides in the present as a fabrication of the past. As Geoffrey Sonnaband states, we only have our experience and its subsequent decay. (1) As experience decays we long for and desire our past, try in vain to capture an ever illusive present and dream of a phantom future.

We drift in a timeless state, where nothing truly remains static or fixed. We constantly reinvent ourselves not through a process of memory but as Sonnaband came to understand through a process of forgetting. Social critic, Norman Klein refers to this as “the social imaginary.” Klein states that “selective forgetting is a literary tool for describing a social imaginary: how fictions are turned into facts, while in turn erasing facts into fictions” (2) We attempt to make sense of experience on a conscious level while in reality our perceptions may be closer to twenty-four frame per second dreams. The flickering of appearance reminds us that we can only imagine our world and ourselves as real. As we drift we forget. Our memory works with fewer and fewer fragments over time until the signal fades completely. Drift emerges out of a fading signal as an artifact of our collective decay.

“I was far from what I should be and am not”
In a recent lecture at CalArts Yusef Lateef spoke about creativity and how it is derived from pairs. (2) Lateef stated that we become anointed with creativity as a result of pairing our physical self with inspiration. Drift is a work composed and derived from multiple sets of pairs. The artist’s collaborative gestures form a single anointed voice, working from prepared elements and live improvisation. As the piece develops, darkness gives way to projected images coming from two sixteen-millimeter film projectors. The surface of the screen is paired with itself in a two-channel format. The guitar’s sonic textures and the artist’s spoken words are performed together and then contrasted with a percussive duet generated by the clicking sounds of the dual-projector’s analyzer mechanisms. Rather than act as a linear one-dimensional projection of a single screen narrative, Drift flows into our nervous system along multiple threads made up of its various nested components. The narrative abides in immanence (3) and develops over time into a two-way conversation between the internal components of sound and image and the external perceptions that we the audience construct. In the process Drift diffuses the barrier between subject and object and reveals a complex cinema that transforms our preconceived assumptions of what should be with what is.

“this is the movie that should last forever”
In 1916 Freud wrote a famous essay called On Transience. In the essay Freud describes a walk he took one summer day in the countryside with a poet friend. The poet becomes despondent when he realizes that all the beauty of the countryside will soon be dead with the coming of winter. Freud responds with the opposite view, he states “transience value is scarcity value in time.” (4) Beauty is valued in Freud’s view because of its temporary nature.

This view of impermanence describes everything in our world. To produce consciousness we must have matter and all matter in this life eventually passes into extinction. (5) This state of transience is made evident by Drift’s creative strategy of combining cinema and live performance, two forms that rely on a time-based methodology. The work flows ironically in real time, while denying a linear definition of transience. The image slowed down and analyzed by the projector apparatus is modified live by Singer’s use of the analyzer as a performative instrument. The sound relies on Ranaldo’s feedback and is amplified and transmitted in the form of sonic memories.

One of the subjects of the work is this conflict with time; it speaks to an innate desire to have our “life-movie” last forever and our inability to affect time to our advantage. We desire the ability to freeze our frames, to replay our words and alter their meanings, we grasp for a post-production editorial process that we can apply to our consciousness. Opening, one of the spoken word pieces in Drift addresses timelessness and the desire to archive the moments that we live as eternal memories. Rather than strive towards a futile attempt to have time physically stand still, Drift and Freud recognize a virtual beauty that “has not need to survive us and is therefore independent of absolute duration.”(6)

Drift compels us to acknowledge that nothing stays static, as the process of decay makes evident. The moment is perceivable but constantly illusive. All we can do is embrace the impermanence, and in a non-linear timeless state remember, “what comes next doesn’t matter.

“it’s hard to describe what it’s like here”
The screen on the right contains the image of an x-rayed hand that opens and closes in slow motion. Its action seems motivated to grasp something out of its reach. We can see through its skin down to the bones, allowing us to peer at its apparent mortality. Meanwhile a grainy black and white image of a telephone is on the left screen, an old rotary style telephone whose receiver has fallen off its hook. The hand appears to be reaching for the phone but it’s unable to connect since the two images reside in separate screen spaces and in separate worlds. Images of fireworks take over the right screen and are juxtaposed with glistening abstract light on flowing water on the left. A sample declares “clues and facts, that’s what keeps me going.” Sounds of bells and chimes follow as the images fade to black. We then fade up to reveal close-up footage of newspapers and wide shots of a ticker tape parade in lower Manhattan whose streams of paper fall from the sky like snow. An article titled “Alzheimer’s Disease” enters into frame, a possible reference to our failed attempts to hold on to our memories. With this sequence of shots we come to the text of Paper Box. The text leads with the line “it’s hard to describe what it’s like here” and let’s us perceive the shock of the “tourists and locals with their cams gathered…to stunned to snap.” We conclude that this event is simply too tragic and is out of our reach to record and playback objectively.

The event is the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attack on downtown New York. The event has been ingrained into our collective memory, a memory whose awareness extends worldwide. But Drift doesn’t present us with a global objective view; its view is autobiographical and personal and local. This eyewitness recollection is perceived through a conflicted lens of detachment and empathy.

Paper Box is not nostalgia, nor a sentimental reminiscence intended to provoke one-dimensional patriotism. The work is tuned more toward being a remembrance. A remembrance detailed in the text with the lines: “how Tribeca used to be” and “how the world was a different, more innocent place.” It’s a remembrance that is both complex and sublime in its exposition.

“Shrink the population of the world down to a village of one hundred people, for example and eighty would be living in poor housing. Approximately one-third of the villagers would never have made a telephone call and half would be undernourished. Just six individuals would control most of the wealth and all six would be American.” Peter Whybrow, “American Mania” (7)

Life in the twenty first century is too complex for simple nostalgia. Our world is not as black and white as some of our political leaders would like us to think. The subtleties are disturbing and reflect a complex environment where we cannot escape the results of cause and effect. The issues surrounding that autumn day in 2001 can be described metaphorically as a set of multiple equations. These equations are composed of pairs of competing factors when multiplied together produce a set of volatile results. One pair is the conflicting values of global capitalism and conservative fundamental Islam. Another pair is the competition for control of resources between the producers of oil and the consumers. We were the targets in that particular attack but our combined empirical schemes and aspirations were also the provocation in many ways. These pairs of factors lead to an ambiguous answer whose narrative cannot be totally resolved. We can no longer think of ourselves as completely innocent nor removed from the suffering that lies within and beyond our borders. We must remove the bias from our memories and confront the effects of our actions. We are the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuel. We consume most of the world’s resources while spending more money on its military than any other nation, eight times larger than China who comes in a distant second. (8) These are issues that need to be repeated so that we don’t slip into a social imaginary that allows us to turn fictions into facts. We need to address the issues of our global ambitions so as not to release future demons of our own making.

Drift however does not simply present a polemic; it provides us multiple pairings of text and image that weave into multiple questions. “One image that nobody got that first day was the shoes.” “There was a pile of shoes on the northwest corner, up against the granite of the bldg there.” “What the hell were they doing there?” These shoes were “poignant and mute,” a spontaneous found remembrance not yet anointed in the formal sense. In many ways the shoes act like the analyzed images and improvised sounds that are found in Drift; conjured memories whose meaning lies embedded on multiple levels and whose signal ultimately fades with time.