Currently, we are living in strange and surreal times under the spectre of a global virus pandemic. An aggravated sense of social alienation is exacerbated by a thriving social media, with nonstop bombardment of information. Often this vociferous onslaught of vibrating data seems confusing and misleading to one who is looking for a presence of mind. On one hand, there is a serious physical and psychic disconnection between people and different segments of the society; on the other, there is a need felt globally for more social exchanges and solidarity. As a result of this conflict, the pandemic is revealing a number of issues for rethinking and assessment: namely, the failure of a pro-capitalistic system creating an increasing social inequality worldwide, a profit-based development model unnecessarily accelerating the earth towards a climate catastrophe, and the lack of equal opportunity in the world including access to health and education, particularly for the poor, displaced and dispossessed. These issues come to the forefront in the light of the pandemic for serious and urgent reengagement and intensive discourse. The world got an unanticipated chance to slow down, and listen more closely to itself. While this deeply solitary inner listening is practiced, one may ponder upon the idea of true presence. Solitude is always embedded with a desire to connect with oneself more contemplatively and also to rediscover the other – true presence here is a central issue.
In a recent visit to Cairo, I came across a scripture in the Cairo National Museum. The scripture reads ‘maa-kheru’ – an expression in Egyptian, translated into English: ‘true voice’ – as provided by the Museum. The term first appears in the court case between Horus (in some texts Osiris) and Seth, which ended in the verdict that Horus was the legitimate heir to the throne. The judges decided that his statement (‘voice’) was ‘true’, present and legitimate. Some scholars choose to translate ‘maa-kheru’ as ‘blessed’ – drawing on the idea that one who speaks in a true voice survives the test of time.
Who is a true voice? One, who speaks with absolute honesty while exposing the many shades and splendours of the felt realities, is a true voice. In fact, within a society it is the artist, who speaks in this way, voicing personal truths consisting of, among others, the reflections, illuminations, streams of thoughts, perceptions, and poetic contemplations on the life lived. Indeed, to be true to oneself and becoming true presence, is the very foundation on which art stands. And it is this premise that encourages reading life’s experiences and their comprehensive interpretations through art’s lens. Art is, therefore, a mirror to the society and a lens to measure the human condition. It is this blessed truthfulness that makes artists indispensible to the society for sustaining its sanity and cognizance, but at the same time they are deemed problems for the mechanisms of a nation state, which relies on governance based on control by misinformation, mistruth, and often falsehood. Following Plato’s suggestion, artists’ true presence antagonizes the state, much like a disconcerted emperor without its clothes as the truthfulness of the boy pointed out in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale.
When it comes to media art, works that depend on a technological component to operate are generally underlined. By incorporating emerging technologies into their artworks, artists constantly redefine the traditional categories of art. Media art is specifically used to indicate a certain group of artworks, which are created by recording sound or visual images. A time-based media artwork changes and ‘moves’, in contrast to older art forms that are static. Because of these differences, and because of an underscoring of the medium itself (e.g. sound art, video art), there is a problem related to a medial dispositive, that is of rendering. Truth and presence are critical to media art practice, as lived experiences tend to be mediated, rendered and abstracted in recording and representation. When discussing the emerging new environments in future media arts, the departing points most likely are the notion of truth and presence as processed in the artwork.
In my chapter “Uneasy Listening: Perspectives on (Nordic) Sound Art after the Digital” in the recently published book Digital Dynamics in Nordic Contemporary Art (2019), I have aimed to locate the emerging new environments in the contemporary sound and media art. One primary aspect of these new environments is the idea of “post-immersion” (Chattopadhyay 2020), which broadly connotes to a media art that transcends the immersion-fetish of medial experience in which the audience tends to get lost, in order to trigger the critical faculty and sensitize the audience about the current world crises, from climate breakdown to the mass global migration and emergence of a totalitarian surveillance society across the globe, more contemplatively and with an alert presence of mind. I further suggest that future developments in media art may include a more worldly attuned environmental concern and may consider making more sociopolitical commitments, from community building to collective action. In the light of (more or less recent) historical developments in sound and media art, I would like to reconsider the concept of “presence” precipitated by the process of mediation, from recording to making it heard and seen. Presence was conceptualized within an analogue recording context (Doane 1985) and it gained currency in the ways contemporary media negotiates truthfulness in mediated experience since the digital revolution in late 90s. Reading these trajectories of understanding presence, one primary theme emerges, namely a contribution to the sense of embodied experience through a perceived notion of realism. This sense of embodiment elicited by the perceived realism is a literal translation of listening to the places, bodies and voices “present” through their aural/audiovisual elements as if they are as close to materially experienced; “thus, presence may be the key to understanding the processes of embodied experiences” (Ahn 2011). Here we may recall the first-ever phone call that was made by Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant, Thomas Watson, voicing through the telephone: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” There is always a desire for material experience in media, and media tends to always serve this desire to be present by overcoming itself. If the goal of media is to reproduce the illusion of nonmediated communication, the degree of realism through truthfulness and vividness that users experience during their perception of the media environment is crucial to the production of presence. In this context presence is “the psychological state of feeling that the mediated experience reproduced by virtual environments is ‘real’” (Ahn 2011). Likewise, in cinema, presence is produced and manufactured in varied degree, by creating an illusion of “being there” for the audience, which intensifies as filmmakers employ digital technology that is inherently able to provide the means to simulate reality in a more perceptually lifelike fashion. On the other hand, more artistically oriented works using audiovisual media handle presence in more complex ways. The possibility of multiple interpretations of these works in a more open-ended approach leads to a condition of a “poetic presence”. With such a sense of elevated presence, media operates beyond the confines of immediate meaning-making and readily-available signification. This is a condition where the “realness” may intermingle with imaginary “mythological beings,” as Brandon LaBelle points out, thereby transcending a state of mere spatial presence towards eliciting an “associative” or poetic-contemplative state in the mind of the listener or audience. Likewise, in field recording-based sound and media artworks, e.g. works by Nordic artists such as Jacob Kirkegaard and Jana Winderen, capturing the real or constructing the presence of the real is not the primary aim, but, as Christoph Cox notes while discussing post-Cagian sound art, field recording-based sound artwork “offers […] an aural opening onto a region of this sound” (Cox 2009). The works foreground the “background” by framing, accentuating (LaBelle 2006), or amplifying (Cox 2009) the “real” to trigger fertile imagination and a ground for the listener to participate. By coalescing presence and the imaginary, the real and the virtual, these works tend to obscure spatiotemporal information “through a superimposition of sound that interpenetrates preexisting spaces, effecting a layering or doubling, which can produce hybrid spaces” (Gallagher 2015). The material experience of reality is perceived and constructed in the mind of the listener with ardent, committed, and thoughtful contributions from media artists, depending on the extent to which craft, artistic vision as well as care and sensitivity are applied in building a delicate bridge between listener/viewer and medial experience to evoke a poetic presence analogous to a “moving relation between individual consciousness and the world”.
How does this formulation of a poetic presence contribute to the time we are going through? As we are in the lockdown, Thomas Watson may not come over to Alexander Graham Bell’s place physically if they would be here today. The streets are empty and the borders are closed. There is fear of both catching and spreading the virus on the way. Practicing social distancing prescribed by medical practitioners, however, makes us realize how much we desire to be present in other’s company, being there beside the bed of an ailing mother, sister, friend or loved one for comforting and solace, for sharing the worries. A poetic moment of catharsis may rejoin two bodies apart in a catastrophe, across the borders:
Once I leave this body of mine
Am I not going to return to this world?
Let me return one more time
In one wintry night
With the tragic flesh of a cold orange
By the bedside of a dying acquaintance.
Indian poet, Jibanananda Das writes about this longing to be present, even in the form of an orange by the bedside table of a dear ailing friend and loved one, sounding with a true voice of service, sacrifice and tending. If I can’t be there, my true presence may take the form of a useful fruit, carrying the deeply honest, unpretentious and truthful voice of my yearning to be there beside you. This true voice of poetic presence overcomes physical and temporal distances to arrive at a door of emancipation, where poetry is the only vehicle for a soulful meeting, merging and unification. In a recent article, Yuval Noah Harari has suggested that the world can still be locked-down, under intensified surveillance, and more difficult to cross physically post pandemic. The truthful voices of our societies, the artists, need to find ways to innovate on creating novel medial dispositives and more conducive media environments for facilitating and communicating the true presence of us to the others who we desire to reach out in our corporal isolations. Artists might be encouraged to conceive media artworks where the production of the subjectivity and situational contexts of the listener on the receiver’s end is empathetically, carefully and sensitively considered as a parameter for an artwork’s fruitful dissemination. The artworks may aim to respond to an emergent mode of intimate, poetic and contemplative intervention in the technologically saturated and inert medial experiences, and provoke new environments through which we can compassionately connect with others by breaking the hegemonic immersive space towards a socially and politically aware and publicly responsive media art.
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Acknowledgement: This text is written with support from the project Digital Dynamics: New Ways of Art based on the book Digital Dynamics in Nordic Contemporary Art (Intellect, 2019). www.digitaldynamics.art
Budhaditya Chattopadhyay, Tallinn, 26 March 2020