Video by Douglas McBride
Part 3. Contagion
Now we get into the core of my argument. I already quoted from Mauss’s definition of magic as follows - ‘..if the whole community does not believe in the efficacy of a group of actions, they cannot be magical’ (p23).This doesn’t mean that anything we believe in is magical but it does invite further examination if we consider degrees of proximity or distance, correspondences and transformations between real life and representations such as sound recordings and photographs.
Before that discussion we might digress to consider the debatable notion of artist-as-magician in the context of art, and the presentation of works of sonic art, acknowledging the importance of the rite. Mauss (p10) speaks of ritual’s basic idea as that of ‘the sacred’. We consistently find rituals of listening to recorded sound, in the conventions and conditions of framing the listening as part and parcel of the artistic mode. We find a measure of sanctity - look, listen but don’t come too close and don’t touch. The conditions of the rites of magic demand that the time and place is strictly prescribed, as we find in the art world.
Mauss holds that magic can be seen as ‘a world of ideas which imbues ritual movements and gestures with a special kind of effectiveness, quite different from their mechanical effectiveness (p25). ‘Act and actor are shrouded in mystery (p29). For more understanding of the artist-as-magician I invite the reader to examine chapter 3 of Mauss’s volume and make the often humorous connections - what artists wear, often as group, the belief held by some that artists are a class apart, the forming of secret or exclusive clubs and cliques (often with manifestos).
Returning to the main argument Mauss argues that words, gestures and thoughts are forces in themselves. ‘He (the magician) is to be found in many places at once’ (p42). This is where we discover the powers of the microphone, recording device, playback system and associated paraphernalia, in their ability for example to replicate the artist’s voice, utterance, actions or abstractions thereof.
With socially approved ritual come deontic powers attributed to the artist. As with the magician, we hand over various powers to the artist under the terms of an unspoken contract. This is exploited in various ways using different degrees of force and power. Mauss (p60) speaks of the requirement of ‘special mental states’ - ‘you must have faith, the whole thing must be traced with the utmost seriousness’.
We might also consider the materials of the magician and the artist - useless leftover objects from places of the dead or where spiritual resonance exists in the mind of the artist - ‘anything which is usually thrown away or considered useless’. For more on this I urge you to explore sonic pursuits related to Arte Povera.
My main point converges on sympathetic magic and the three principal laws (contiguity, similarity and opposition). ‘Things in contact are and remain the same - like produces like - opposites work on opposites’ (p79). It’s here that I believe we must examine closely the nature of this ‘contact’ between real-life event and the representation that sound recording affords. This would help us unpick the somewhat mysterious and counter-intuitive notion that ‘the fortuitous connection between thoughts is equivalent to the causal connection between things’ (p79). Contiguity identifies the part with the whole. A street recording can represent that whole place at all times. Temporal and spatial separation are overcome.
Everything that has come into contact with a ‘being’, or by extension a place, is relevant (to the magician). These conjure up the very person or place. From this magical continuity arises the idea of contagion in which all manner of attributes are transmitted along a sympathetic chain. It takes but a small step to see similarities with the recording chain. ‘Contagion is limited to those properties which the magician detaches and abstracts from the whole’. In other words through selective transformation and editing the material is reworked. ‘Sentiments are also transferred’ (p84). I don’t have data on this but I have heard many people talk of the spirit or the emotional impact of a recording, sentimentalising the place represented, transferring the assumed sentiment inherent in the environment of the original experience (felt if at all of course by the recordist/artist) to the new detached and dislocated playback space of the recording. It is evidently important for anyone interested in these matters to examine the nature or degrees of similarity between reality and representation, then perhaps in the domain of value we might ask to what extent, if at all, a recording is a poor substitute like a cheap doll, depending on the specifics of mechanics and engineering?
Like produces like - we relive the spaces, places people and events in a recording and are guided to aspects ostensibly of the artist’s choosing. The recording stimulates the memories and subjective impacts of real events, dominating in its new role as representative, as an ambassador of the real.
Magic is believed and not perceived
Part 2. Belief
Wyness | Ristevski
1. Trappist 1d (16:59)
2. Teegarden c (12:23)
3. Proxima Centauri b (15:46)
James Wyness (guitars)
Boban Ristevski (electronics)
I'm still at it. The still life photographic project. I spent so much time researching the theoretical discourse, the histories and contemporary practice that I'm invested in the form. And because I find it difficult I embrace the challenge. Although I'm not wholly attached to originality above all else it would be desirable to find some kind of niche in my practice. Recently I changed locations, from the back garage studio to a room in the house. The summer light was too high and harsh and also too extreme in dynamic range over the course of a day with the arc of the sun. So I moved to room where there's a large window, a good north light and more space to set things out. There's quite a lot of clutter involved in still life photography, at least the way I do it. As it happens this is the start of the season for excellent light back in my garage space. The frosted glass window is smaller but as the sun lowers lightly and is less intense there are some wonderful casts of light at certain times. When it's too dark is a good time for long exposures using the pinhole camera.
I started tethering properly with this tentative new series. This is where you hook up the computer to the laptop so you have a generous view of your composition. I have to say it helps to judge lines, margins, light and of course depth of field. The two images I'm showing were taken with a Sony A7r3 and a Voigtlander 50mm F2 APO-Lanthar lens which is by far and away the best lens I've ever used. This is a manual lens which has excellent fine-detailed focusing capabilities in combination with the Sony body. With these tools I've been working to define compositions either by a thin sliver of focus, the circle of confusion, or by defining an accurate hyperfocal distance (using a phone app and a tape measure) to try to get the whole show in focus.
This is called The Boat and the Lighthouse. Initially I had no intention of seeing these simple compositions as anything other than studies in form - shape, colour, light, distribution - but on my first attempt at juxtaposing various objects I began to see the overall composition as something else, a representation of a narrative, however tenuous or abstracted. The other thing is that the objects are taken partly from the domestic environment (in this case a handbell) and partly from the forest, these being the environments in which I work from day to day. I'm very pleased with the concept and ideas behind this this though the challenge from now on is to find enough domestic objects with sufficient 'resonance' to create some kind of secondary representation along with the woodland found materials. As you can see the point of focus is at the stern of the 'boat'. With these wide aperture images there's a huge difference in how an image can speak to you depending on whether the out-of-focus field is towards the front or the back of the frame. This particular choice the direction of travel with respect to the boat. I leave the viewer to judge. A minor point is that I'm pleased with the high key nature of this photograph. It wasn't intended or post-processed as such. I don't tend to do very much in post production because I want to get as close as possible to what I want in-camera. Not much point in having a good lens if you're not going to put it to best use.
These are two takes on what I've called Eve and the Serpent, based on the same narrative concept as the previous image, though here the reference is Biblical or even mythical. I think that in both cases the use of composition (obviously) and depth of field (less so) help to offer entirely different readings of the image. The first has Eve, another small handbell, somewhat sheltered by what might be read as a cave or a tree. She's perhaps unsure or afraid of the serpent . Here I would say that the serpent is the protagonist, approaching. The tree or cave is not entirely in sharp focus but it's defined enough to make it and Eve the combined subject. In the second image Eve has emerged from the shelter to confront the serpent. Both shelter and serpent are more or less equally out of focus which places Eve clearly at the centre of the narrative. Which works best? Let me know your thoughts. Maybe both would sit well on different pages in a photobook. Decisions, decisions. Finally I think that such readings become more evident or welcome because of the introduction of what we might call a human figure, albeit in in the form of a brass bell.
There'll be more on this as I work my way through other combinations and narrative ideas. Thanks for reading.