Digital memories outlast our crumbly material grey matter, and in terms of clarity and assumed purity, they outshine it. Reliving a precious event — the saturated beauty of that untouched coastline you discovered, your daughter graduating, that gorgeous meal you had in Amsterdam — is fortified: technology in the service of your sentimentalities and nostalgias. With digital technologies, the observable fragility of analogue mediums — photographic film, vinyl pressings, tape cassettes — has apparently vanished. Interconnected networks of computers insure that these memories exist “forever” in digital storage. From this, we have each become the curators of our own personal archives. Still, there are more dusty relics to hide away for fear of humiliation than those few selected works we have displayed in our perfectly-tailored exhibitions, each representing our chosen “themes”.
There is a false sense of permanence projected onto the digital environment — it is a postponement of the inevitable, a way of convincing ourselves that impermanence does not exist (as paradoxical as that statement may read). Though we may die, our memories live on in the form of photographs — the true emotional context we latch onto, however, withers away with us. The ephemeral itself is treated with glum disdain — confrontations with it are dispelled as depressing trials, rather than therapeutic emotional experiences. When David Lynch declared that to watch a film through a “fucking telephone” did not count as an “experience”, he was wrong — his dismissive reaction is simply a declaration born from a hostility (bordering on denial) towards the qualities of experience that Lynch holds as antagonistic to the ones he holds so dear. It is true that to sit and watch a 3D-rendering of a Salvador Dali or Vincent Van Gogh painting in a virtual-reality environment is incomparable to witnessing one of their paintings in the first-hand. Dali paintings look exquisite through a computer monitor, yet even this cannot compare to witnessing the vast pallet of experiential factors that come with seeing a work in its full material glory. In person, Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus at the Tate Modern has dimensions, texture, a particular hue and brightness — it has a connection with its environment: distinct from the blank-white gallery space and yet an immutable part of it. In person, one can appreciate the painterly precision with which Dali controls his brush-strokes to create such eclectic structures, captured in such a confined space, so small that it forces us to move closer and gaze past the frame, pulling us into his garden of oneiric delights. Though these experiences are fundamentally different, we should not fall into the trap of placing them within a hierarchy — there is no value in relegating an experience; there is value, however, in understanding and engaging with one. Uncovering the spaghetti-junction of multiplicities that make up this particular experience. One can never actually feel the fresh canyon wind roll through past their bodies while looking at a digital image of the Grand Canyon. This experience is a recollection — a reminder. At most, we feel a phantom wind: a nostalgic prickle on the back of our necks, flowing through our fingers, a twitch on our hairline. It is the simulation of experience, latched onto an ultimately impermanent memory.
The two works I have focused on here confront the idea of the digital as an eternal archive. The Caretaker’s Everywhere at the End of Time and Ute Aurand’s Rushing Green with Horses may differ in medium and approach — the former is primarily sonic, while the latter is both sonic and visual (although not necessarily in perfect harmony) — but both share in their fascination with memory attached to technology; each traversing the vast chasm that separates the existential wobbles of analogue’s impermanence from the illusion of mnemonic stability that the digital has sold us.
The Caretaker — Everywhere at the End of Time (Stages 1–6)
(as released on Bandcamp)
Composer James Leyland Kirby’s sonic experimentations under the moniker of The Caretaker — one point of reference to his fascination with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining — have been going on since the 1990s; one such project, Everywhere at the End of Time, has reached its finale here at the back end of the 2010s. This cinematic fascination is immediately apparent in his 1999 release Selected Memories From The Haunted Ballroom — a sonic putrefaction of The Overlook Hotel’s Gold Room, a hall cursed to relive the interwar period in aeternum; ghosts in tailcoats and flapper dresses, with disembodied jazz filling the hall like perpetual fog. These initial flirtations blossomed into Everywhere…, far more ambitious and devastating in its scope and trajectory — and all arising from Kirby’s intrigue for The Shining’s unique engagement with memory. Darkly appropriate that one of the songs to be heard in the original ballroom scene is Al Bowlly’s “It’s All Forgotten Now”, as Everywhere…’s journey explores the decay of memory through the subject of dementia, but in parallel, through the qualities of the sonic medium as both a digital and material form.
The six-hour project consists of six-stages, each representing a different stage of Alzheimer’s. With each stage, the tracks gradually “deteriorate” — the audio begins to crack and pop, notes become indistinct, musical phrases and repetitions become less familiar, the patterns that we feed on as humans become harder to find beneath a mass of misplaced melodies and disjointed chords, until we are eventually left with nothing but sonic detachment — a mnemonic desert. For each track — totalling fifty over the expanse of the collective work — there is a different musical phrase on repeat, disembodied from its original source and experienced now entirely within this new context. These musical phrases are lifted from old jazz and big band recordings — harkening back to The Shining’s own use of the genre as an audio-ghost. Like film, audio outlives its own body and lives a life of its own — as a spirit bereft of flesh. Yet Everywhere…’s genre choice is not a case of horror semantics, or of creating an atmosphere of the terrifying or ghoulish — precisely the opposite, in fact; it attempts to replicate the sensation of nostalgia while mourning the joy of memory. When we remember music, very rarely do we remember the piece as a unified totality — we remember momentary fragments that appeal to us, emotional glimmers and swathes of musical bliss that have stuck with us through our life. Everywhere…’s constant repeating melodies are an elicitation of this, comforting us within a blanket of familiarity and nostalgia before the hard times eventually catch up to us.
The relationship between the tune and the format is not a unique exploration — William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops is perhaps the closest comparative work here, with its almost feature-film length repetitions of a solitary phrase gradually eroding itself over the time, as the magnetic tape-head that records these passages distorts the melody with each loop. Everywhere… as a unified sonic statement re-imagines this for a variety of melodies, but with more control and guidance than the incidental nature of Basinski’s own statement on decay. By placing these deteriorations in a digital context, The Caretaker becomes a seemingly ironic title, as the music confronts the idea of unavoidable de-“composition” in a medium which wears the façade of perpetuity. After a whole six hours immersed in the environment, and by the time that final stage approaches, we ask ourselves if we ever experienced anything other than what we are feeling in that moment. What were those sonic melodies I heard before? You start to miss them. As sonic pieces, you attempt to piece together what you can, but by the time anything makes sense, you’re flipped — the path takes a new route beneath your feet: the chord has changed, the ambience and mood has been sucked out and replaced, and what was starting to become familiar has now erased itself — atonal, dissonant, haphazard, and incomplete. All this is preserved within the confines of the digital — a format concerned with making sure that familiarity is conserved, and the perceived curse of impermanence is somehow exorcised.
Ute Aurand — Rushing Green with Horses
(watched as part of the Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019)
“He was always interested in capturing those magical moments that make up a life, moments at once prosaic and transcendent. His films often look like home movies — Proustian scraps of memories, children smiling, a day at the seaside, revisiting Lithuania, home cooking, walking through New York. Sometimes footage is speeded up so it becomes dizzying, sometimes it’s slowed down. The camera rarely stops: one continuous shot and that’s that.”
This is what Simon Hattenstone had to say about the legacy of filmmaker Jonas Mekas, but with the odd fitting tweak, this statement neatly captures the same spirit that flutters between the reels of Ute Aurand’s Rushing Green with Horses. To call it a “home movie” is not an incorrect statement, but to use that phrase as a weapon against a film locks you out of the discussion — because Rushing Green with Horses is as resplendent with ideas and as powerful in its compositional aesthetics as any other — lavish or barebones. Aurand’s film is largely composed of disparate moments recorded over three decades — loosely combined and feverish in its qualities, it is a decidedly unstable “home movie”. There is a statement to be made on the choice to both shoot and ultimately project this film to an audience (as it was at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019) on celluloid over digital means; one that communicates an acceptance of transience, and a refreshing indifference (though not necessarily judgemental) to the promises of digital recording.
In an earlier short review of the film, I viewed the film as “an exploratory look at memory itself — its functions, its quirks, its oddities — what it means to detach these from the day-glow of the subjective remembered, and into the cold and judgemental night of the objective”. I still hold by this statement — the film enthusiastically examines the eccentric foibles that make the impermanence of memory such a bittersweet thing. Memory is not a direct experience, only the recollection of one, and as such, any attempt to fully recreate a memory in the crisp clarity which the present moment grants to us would be futile. Memory is far too fragile, abstract, and chaotic in its formulation to be understood in straight-forward terms.
The images we remember of our past are often fractured, as if roughly sown together like amateur patchwork rather than as a smooth narrative crawl without interruption or break. Like moments in the film, our memories have jump cuts. Truncated segments skipping to the next important image. Ellipses of moments unimportant for now — our minds are the most efficient of editors indeed. A girl dancing in her room is an unclear movement of familiar bodies — enough for us to gain an impression of the scenario, but ultimately incomplete. Though memory is tied to sound too, it is not often that audio-visual synchronisation is abundant within our recollections — like Jean-Paul Belmondo gazing at Jean Seberg during a car ride in Breathless, scatter-shot images possess disembodied voices and sounds. We remember a conversation, but rarely is our image of that moment a perfect one. We may be able to remember the song that was playing while that girl was dancing, but rarely do her movements match precisely with the music. Memory — thought and the conscious mind — are not chronological entities: their progression, if we can call it that, is triggered through causal relations. One idea begets another idea to form an endless channel of mental processes that effect the way we think and the way we remember. Winter in the village is a wholesome memory, but it reminds you of those other places you have strolled through. We may recall the beauty of nature, but memory breaks down the binary of Nature versus Artifice as we move from worshipping trees to standing in awe at a horizon of steel skyscrapers. Colour is a fickle thing — at times, we do not need it — black-and-white moments force us to prioritise other elements of the visual field — but then sometimes, colour is an incontrovertible part of a lived experience: often dominatingly so. Sometimes, we remember the colours of a moment before the moment itself — as in the film’s flash of primary colours before we enter a park filled with tiny houses, each with roofs coloured red and blue and yellow. Rushing Green with Horses boldly walks away from the digital medium as a site for understanding memory — it is not so much a Luddite expression of technophobic resistance as it is a celebration of celluloid’s own mono no aware. Memory is brittle, it can burn away in an instant, and while we may mourn at its departure, the fleeting nature of memory is itself an experience to behold — why should we choose to deny it if it only makes it harder for us to accept at the end?