As sound artists we make and take recordings. Can we talk about extracting minerals from a landscape and extracting sounds in the same breath? Are they manifestations of the same phenomenon? In what ways are they the same and in what ways are they different.
Extracting minerals is removing something from a landscape leaving behind a scar. We found ourselves in such a scar when we were taken by a collection of men from a town in Southern Italy to a marble quarry. We descended, and at the base we bashed stones and made recordings. We took metal pieces and thrashed them against a wall of rock.
Extracting sounds from a landscape in this way leaves the landscape physically in the same state as before one entered it. In that sense, extracting sounds is not quite the same as extracting minerals, for it is not the material that is taken, but a copy of it. A sound is produced, and the recording is a facsimile from which more and more copies can be made.
So should we think of this as an act of extraction? When a painter paints a landscape, are they extracting from the landscape. My gut tells me no, but does not tell me precisely why. Perhaps it depends on the painter. If this painter opens themselves so much to the landscape that their consciousness merges with it, in the painting of it, is that extraction? It seems much more like the beginning of an ethical relationship, for the merging of the consciousness and landscape would only be possible through the presence of care.
Is it possible to care for a landscape in the same way as one cares for a person? In existentialism, care flows from something known as “irreplaceability”. Love and friendship flows from the fact that this person is not exchangeable for another. When a friend or lover dies, the presence of another friend or lover can console, but cannot replace the being whose absence rips a hole in the self.
The destruction of landscapes can also produce feelings of melancholia of a similar tenor as the loss of human beings. the destruction of a place is never satiated by the existence of another place. As such, places are irreplaceable.
There are other ways that we treat beings as irreplaceable, not only in the acute phase of mourning them when they die or in some other way leave our lives. We form ethical relations with the things that we love. As bell hooks reminds us, love and abuse cannot coexist. When I act out of love I act out of reciprocity and responsibility. this reciprocity and responsibility has temporal dimensions too. I am not only here for you today, but I am here for you tomorrow as well. Though we each seek our freedom in friendship and love, we are still bound, and these binds give our freedom meaning, in the same way that light gives darkness meaning, as presence is to absence.
So to treat a place from which I take a sound as I would treat a person who I love would imply that I have an ongoing relationship with them, that we are bound somehow. So if I record the sounds of a quarry, already a somehow traumatised space, i am somehow responsible to that quarry, to the people who were there with me, to the stones. How rarely, in my artistic practice, have I lived up to these binds of friendship and love.
How can we manifest this responsibility and reciprocity to both the human and non-human others with whom the act of gathering sounds brings us into contact.
It could very easily become mere protocol.
“Did you get all the email addresses?”
“What are the GPS coordinates of this space? Write them down. Drop a pin.”
“What is the history of this place. Is it on Wikipedia?”
None of these acts are bad, or the opposite of love, but if merely protocol, then they will not contribute to an ethical relationship between artist and place.
Kate has been writing about consent, about what it means to consent to an act. And we learned through etymology that at least in the past, in its Latin form, this word implied “feeling with”. Whether or not this is the contemporary meaning of consent does not matter, for this insight shines a light on how to separate the mere performance of gaining consent, or of any act of responsibility or reciprocity, from one which is authentic. And that is the dimension of feeling.
Feeling is something which cannot take a contract form, nor be enclosed by a map, because the map is not the territory, and the territory shifts beneath our feet. A feeling of care is never the same from one moment to the next, between this entity and another, in this place, or that place, now or then. Only when you feel it, will you know you are truly there.
What utility could this feeling of care have? Would it stay in the domain of the private or does it have political valencies as well? What could be said to be changed, if I have an ethical relationship to a stone, versus having a non-ethical relationship. For one thing, a truly ethical relationship with a stone could not be commodifiable, because that would be to thingify it, and thus remove the possibility of reciprocity. This is hard, for artists, embedded in capitalistic modes of production, but nevertheless, this entails that I cannot privatise it, not even my copy of it, or my copy of my copy of it. The act of art becomes necessarily and act of resistance to capitalism. The extent to which I commodify this interlocutor in my artistic practice is the extent to which i treat it as a commodity, that is I imply that it is replaceable and as replaceable has no value beyond its commodity value, its exchangeability. I want to breathe life into the stone, but the stone becomes a zombie.
There must be other ways, there must be, that are hard to fathom, but the mental reaching for these other ways, that is the point, that is the point, that is the point.
Perhaps it is our way of carving up the world in order to make sense of it, that is what allows me to see not only the stone as replaceable with other stones, but even the stone as stone, and the stone not as part of a rock wall, as part of the rise and fall of mountains and oceans, the enclosure and retreat of glaciers. It is as “mere stone” that I do not see it as intimately connected somehow to the pick that wrenched it from the wall, the hands that held the pick, the hands to the body, the body to the mind, the self; this being who carved the stone from the rock wall yesterday or a hundred years ago perhaps they also stood in wonderment at the world of things around her wondered to herself, where do i end, and where does the world begin? And I through the stone that I drop and record the sound of the dropping stone on the ground am connected to this person. This person I touch somehow when i hold the stone. Yet I am only connected to the stone, and this person, and the landscape and the animals, and the water, and the wind and the journey this stone took from densely compressed hydrogen in a star to densely compressed carbon on the earth, when I do not regard this stone as replaceable.
If i regarded everything “in this light”, would I not risk overload. Is it not also the fact that the concept of “irreplaceable” is possible only through the concept of “replaceable.” Would i not then fall, crumpled, in a heap, exhausted, trying to sense the infinite life-journey of every object and its nexus of interconnections to every other life object, who are all part of a vast meta-object, and themselves divisible into an infinity of micro-objects. If I saturated myself in awareness of everything and everyone i came into contact with, would I not risk falling into a river of flux from which no forms can emerge and therefore, no responsibility or reciprocity, no friendship or love.
Perhaps the solution then we can find in the metaphor of a waveform, which pulsates between two poles. Perhaps I need to embrace a waveform like existence in which one flows in and out of this awareness, where everything exists to me as potentially irreplaceable, but as I am only a window to the world (and not the world itself, and this window is slowly closing), maybe its enough to awaken this sense of irreplaceability selectively and temporarily.
Maybe this is an answer to the question: What is art? To regard the world, and all its things as irreplaceable, and pull back just at that moment where I might lose myself completely, so that making art is a dance on the precipice of self-annihilation, a precipice that is a fundamental point of tension through which my relation to the world, my relation to others, is manifested, as we used to say, by always grasping but never reaching our height of gnosis.
It is a hard process, perhaps a painful one to slip in and out of this awareness, but that is what it is to be a paradox, to be both a part of the whole and the whole at the same time. Neither of these natures can ever erase the other, and instead I float in between, like phases of the moon.