‘And again, for a long while, I do without real reality and find comfort in living from my imagination.’
Clarice Lispector, A Breath of Life ( 1 )
Many years ago, on one of those difficult, hot Roman August afternoons when your head is splitting with the heat of the sun and your body feels as if it’s splitting too, I walked towards my old car, on the shady side of the railway tracks in the only street in the area where you could both find trees and avoid parking tickets. As I approached the car to drive to a work meeting, dizzy from the walk because of the heat, I found the windscreen smashed, and a massive stone on the driver’s seat. Whether it was the dizzying heat or the unsettling nature of the episode, “a meteorite”, I said to myself; and walking back home in the heat I started singing, like one of those lunatics you cross the street to avoid. Maybe the stone had been singing to me too, I thought at the onset of what later turned out to be sunstroke. In my thoughts, triggered by the heat and by the accident, I persuaded myself that a meteorite, a rock from beyond the circle of the city and the world, could knock some more sense into the accident; and with it, help me sing away the heat. I recall looking up at the unsheltering sky – and then I fainted.
At the back of my mind the impression was never dismissed of an occurrence so strange that I might have to write about it sometime. I never did until today. In jokes with friends, the episode came to be called ‘the meteorite accident’.
The imagination works backwards as it rummages through the untidy archives of the past and its residues, but it always works for the moment. Bernard Stiegler wrote about this process, which involves artifice and constructed memory: a ‘produced reminiscence’ reveals no evidence of a fixed origin and tells us that we are in transition. He mentions ‘hypomnesis’ as a technique for memory that replaces any attempt to rediscover a true, permanent origin with the evidence of memory as a fictive apparatus, ceaselessly working via prosthetic devices and artefacts of the mind. It takes place in the present and takes the present as its place – or as time’s other, as Maurice Blanchot put it. I am interested in the triggers and connections and networks that allow the messy, changing archive of sunken memories to resurface. And I am interested in a certain type of passivity embedded in the imagination, which allows this debris to resurface when we least plan or expect it.
At the time of my meteorite accident, the sight of the stone had made me sing. But can a stone itself sing? Resonate, ring? When I first heard of Signe Liden’s project Skala it was not through her voice but through reading a text she’d written. In those few lines she mentioned wiring up an iron meteorite that had fallen in a crater called Field of Heaven, and building a circuit that would let sounds resonate through it and with it – or so she wished. I read about Skala after the installation had been realized and dismantled, after tests had been carried out and possibilities had been created for assemblies, constructions, sketches and machinations. The thought of an installation triggered by old experiments meant to discover the nature of the Aurora Borealis, and by Signe’s reflections on the use of iron as resonating material, prompted me to ask: What is the life of a work beyond its actual set-up? What radiates from it and remains, or excites residues from the past? A field of heaven, a meteorite… My mind instantly connected the actual meteorite used by Signe with the imaginary meteorite from my accident years before, and I became agitated with that restlessness that possesses you when you know something is prodding your mind and senses, although you haven’t articulated it yet. What are these connections, apparently only operating through coincidences, names, surfaces, but in fact going much further, and eliciting much more meaning than any rational explanations?
My suspicion about Signe was that her choice to work with scale and with models was not about securing outcomes on an entirely scientific basis or assuring a certain outcome, but about leaving gaps open for poetic connections, situating the work right in that oscillating gap between the plausible, the possible and the actual – just like the caves and holes she’d been exploring on her travels and in her mind for years.
Then it should come as no surprise that one of her chosen materials is sound.
Too often, what can be seen and touched is overvalued compared with what can be heard. Sound, the dark inner lining of reality, resounds in Signe’s work as material presence that at once keeps time and leaks time, while always retaining a more mysterious motion that ignites the imaginary, that resonates even when it does not sound. What could be heard in Signe’s installation, then? My suggestion would be to change the question from ‘what’ to ‘how’: how could the installation be heard, on site as well as beyond the finite time of its setting up? Questions asked by Signe in her text such as, ‘Can a lump of iron ore become an electric coil?’ or, ‘What if the iron meteorite is seen as an enormous star and the space around it as its atmosphere?’ are crucial, not because of any definitive answers they may generate, but because they are being asked, and because they involve premonitions that are never entirely resolved but are constantly actualized through metamorphoses of ideas, connections, currents, circuits of minds and materials.
In Skala—and again I should say that my words do not point at Skala from the outside as a lost referent, a never-experienced installation, but frequent it as a constellation of thoughts, questions and connections that is very much present. The term of ‘imagination’ appears to be closely tied to ‘invention’: invenio in Latin means ‘I come across, I find’; hence, inventing is not about creating anew, but is a function of the archive of memory and materials – a motion that at once listens to the past, repossesses it and recombines it in the present, and prompts further thought and further making. As Signe finds/invents clues from the past and imagines them in new cycles, the real and the imaginary coexist and are more connected than is normally assumed: Skala conveys such a state of suspension and purposeful openness to poetic possibilities.
Obviously, the meteorite she used was found in a crater called Field of Heaven. This shift from the accidental to the obvious is a key to Signe’s work: the very fact that she chose an object from a site whose name is so evocative – or maybe the name and its object chose her. Someone else might have ignored that name altogether, overlooked it. Signe used it as a further resonating device for her ideas: a name that can echo as much as a hi-fi speaker. This endless resonance between the actuality of materials and the projected charm that emanates from their names, stories, memories, is at the core of her work. Like a cobweb, thin reflective threads intercept you if you cross them, and draw a diaphanous yet precise space of echoes, correspondences and interferences. Diaphanous yet highly present nets also catch the residues of memory as they emerge before us, hailing from recesses beyond and before us. In L’Amour Fou, André Breton called such processes “mysterious transactions between the material and the mental spheres.”
Think of all the impossible objects of art and literature – objects only imagined, or tangible although the function attached to them is unlikely or forgotten, or whose function is obsolete. The untold object dreamt by the narrator in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lance, which exists between the actuality of dream and the evanescence of matter; Joseph Cornell’s cut-out maps and boxed navigation tools, tangible in their paradoxical stasis; Michel Leiris’ trumpet-drum, only experienced in his auditory imagination – all of these are made more real than real through imagination, actualized in writing and through materials, through the persistent, deep belief that yes, there can be such impossible objects, and their forms are drawn by desire. Skala too exists in such a double motion towards a past that resurfaces in dream-like arrangements of materials, and towards a future as desire for what cannot be evoked but has to be awaited. It belongs to the ambiguous and beguiling realm where the match between material and resonance is no longer only a matter of shade or intuition, and has not yet been exclusively attached to an object as such, or a determined procedure. Signe’s attention to sounds is in fact always interlaced with a sustained engagement with materials until they become one (in becoming, in thought and in actuality) and the materiality of sound can no longer be questioned. She explores the tangled web of possibility and fact, experiments that can go beyond logic, turning mind into body and voice and sound and back again; in doing so she allows something to click in the most implausible of settings and setups, like her ongoing fascination with caves, holes, sites of apparent emptiness that actually resonate and cut through layers of history – where listening is an act of extracting, from the earth itself, ores and eras often present in her work as ideas, as materials and sites, and ultimately as transmissions.
Now I recall my ‘meteorite accident’ from many years ago and filter it through ideas passed on through Skala, between fields of heaven and copper coils. This work is yet another foray of Signe’s into the multifaceted nature of transmission, be it through material, sound, sites actual and imagined, made-up stories or tortuously compelling ideas: what they channel, what resonant frequencies they emit on site and in time, whom and how far they reach; through which constructions, words, bundles of ideas; how they hover.
She could probably have sung into the microphone, and the stone might have sung along, Signe thought, as she dismissed any tendency toward safe outcomes, preoccupied instead with experimenting with ideas and listening.
‘Can sound be transmitted through a stone and make the stone vibrate so that the human ear can hear it?’, she wrote. If Signe had asked me, I’d have said yes, it can – if you tell me a fractured story about it.
Yes, so that my own meteor and that delirious singing could resonate too, flawed and present.
Yes, she could sing into the microphone, ‘and the stone would sang along’. And from a distance it sang to me too.
Clarice Lispector, A Breath of Life, translated by Johnny Lorenz (London, Penguin, 2012).