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Body Waves is the title of a live “infrasonic performance” that took place in a lecture theatre of Goldsmiths College, London this September. The principal audio material of the piece comprises recordings captured at the epicentre of one of the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes by Stanier Black-Five, a sound artist based in New Zealand.
The performance consists of a live montage of the recordings following the chronological order of the unfolding events of the earthquake, such as the sounds of buildings collapsing and sirens blaring. The playback of these clips is then manipulated by collaborator Malcolm Riddoch into lower frequency harmonics, evocative of those created by the original earthquake and aftershocks. As Riddoch has pointed out, the seismic waves of earthquakes are of a frequency too low to be detected by human ears and so our sonic experience of them is indirect, coming to us instead through the sound of the destruction they cause. For Body Waves, Riddoch transforms these indirect sounds back into bass heavy drones at a high enough frequency to be heard and yet low enough to send vibrations through the skin and surfaces of the people and objects in the room. Live sonic feedback from the lecture theatre also contributes to the collage of reverberations that is played back through a surround sound, or “quadraphonic”, set-up of speakers.
What ensues is a thirty-minute period of synesthetic noises whereby clatters from the collapsing buildings layered with the vibrations of the low frequency harmonics become capable of producing moving images of darkness visible through the closed eyes of individuals in the room. Recounting solely here a subjective experience of the performance I offer no explanation of the visual science behind how these shapes were produced. But as sensuous phenomena, they somehow made visible in an expanse of darkness the sounds being heard – their movements changing with the rhythm of the audio. This darkness from which their forms appeared to be composed, would no doubt be of interest to Giorgio Agamben, who, in his article titled by its question, What is the Contemporary? observes:
What happens when we find ourselves in a place deprived of light or when we close our eyes? What is the darkness we see then? Neurophysiologists tell us that the absence of light activates a series of peripheral cells in the retina called “off-cells”. When activated, these cells produce the particular kind of vision that we call darkness. Darkness is not, therefore, a privative notion (the simple absence of light, or something like non vision) but rather the result of the activity of the “off-cells”, a product of our own retina. (p.13)
Agamben’s claim is that this perception of darkness experienced when the eyes are closed is not the result of inactivity or a lack of vision, but is instead an activity in itself – a vision of another kind. He uses this analogy of seeing darkness to illustrate his thoughts on contemporariness, stating that:
The contemporary is the one whose eyes are struck by the beam of darkness that comes from his own time. (p.14)
Darkness here represents the unlived nature of the present moment that is, according to Agamben in an undoubtedly Benjaminian fashion, a caesura or gap, sited between the past and the future. This denial of the present as being the “now” part of a progressive and linear temporal transition from past to present to future, makes way for what Agamben depicts in his essay as a certain malleable quality of time. Recognising the absence of the present allows us to “put to work”, as Agamben phrases it, a relationship between different times. He writes:
It is as if this invisible light that is the darkness of the present cast its shadow on the past so that the past, touched by this shadow, acquired the ability to respond to the darkness of the now. (p.19)
Body Waves offers us an illustration of this obscurity of the present, and in turn a distinct relationship to the past event of the earthquake. Evocative of the inaccessibility of Agamben’s present, the images in darkness stimulated by the recorded sounds move and mutate as though teasing the eyes for their failure to hold the shapes in sight clearly. These images – seemingly more subjective, more personal than the daily images seen through open eyes – cannot, however, in the same way be grasped. To open one’s eyes to the light in the room would be to illuminate, and thus eliminate, the images of darkness.
As well as corresponding to Agamben’s analogies of contemporaneity on this figurative level – with the heightened vision of the off-cells able to see in darkness – Body Waves engages the concept of the contemporary more broadly, on a temporal level, whereby the live performance creates a period of heightened sensual presence through an assemblage of unlived moments from a past. The piece brings back an event from the past – a natural event that has marked its epoch – into seemingly present, live moments that can be experienced by those who were not there.
Expanding on his depiction of the present as unavailable or somehow obscured, Agamben states:
That which impedes access to the present is precisely the mass of what for some reason (its traumatic character, its excessive nearness) we have not managed to live. (p.17)
This traumatic character of the event of the earthquake is what Body Waves seems to somehow renew, or remodel. Far from an attempt to grasp the present of the past through “point-of-view” filmic accounts as we are so accustomed to watching in this YouTube age, the sound piece instead draws our attention to the status of the bodies of the audience as mediums, through which instances of the past event can be translated. Audience members become here contemporaries of the event of the earthquake – made aware of the unlivable nature of its traumatic present, seeming to belong now to the past. It is precisely because this work is not blinded by the light of the historical nature of the Christchurch earthquake – of the unfolding newsworthy effects that infer a linear chronology – that it is able to engage the untimely space of the contemporary. Though not claiming to separate itself from these historical effects, Body Waves glimpses the darkness of its epoch, returning its audience to a present where they had never been, a present where nobody has ever been. Playing with the intimacy of vision that can take place through closed eyes, the aesthetic experience of this return constitutes what Agamben might call an “intimate obscurity” of the event of the earthquake.