On talking walls

Philip Watkins, Feature - commissioned by Ben Eltham

Artlink Magazine - Time. vol 29 no 1, 2009

Recent sound and electronic media work by two Tasmanian artists Scot Cotterell and Matt Warren remaster images and sounds from older technology to make a past-present present.

The idea of a universal medium or a dispassionate life-giving force - like ether, chi or prana - finds a parallel in today's electronic media.

In translating thought, light and sound, digital technology has become an everyday prosthetic extension of our senses. It's the Esperanto that bridges all manner of disciplines as its algorithms grant increasing accessibility to vast amounts of information. The way that images and sounds from older technology can be remastered to make a past-present present again has inspired the work of two Tasmanian artists, Scot Cotterell and Matt Warren, both in different ways. Their recent work in sound and electronic media plays with the compression and expansion of time, evoked by such technology, in an attempt to reconcile the past with the present.

Computing pioneer Charles Babbage wrote in 1837: 'The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are forever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered.'

The thought of an invisible, all-seeing and all-hearing medium seems plausible today amid the buzz of mobile phone and wireless technology. The title of the chapter from which this excerpt is taken, 'On the Permanent Impression of Our Words and Actions on the Globe We Inhabit', has a prophetic - if somewhat dire connotation - for our century. Nostalgia and memory are the more familiar means of reliving the past, along with the partial narratives of historians. But the empirical idealism suggested by Babbage's words attempts to avoid such subjectivity and stems from a humanist aspiration for total knowledge of the world. He continues: 'There, in their mutable but unerring characters, mixed with the earliest, as well as with the latest sighs of mortality, stand for ever recorded, vows unredeemed, promises unfulfilled, perpetuating in the united movements of each particle, the testimony of man's changeful will. But if the air we breathe is the never-failing historian of the sentiments we have uttered, earth, air, and ocean, are the eternal witnesses of the acts we have done.'[1]

Tracing the passage of time through the surfaces of objects that have absorbed and retained a residue of the events they've 'witnessed' – or 'paleoacoustics' as it's sometimes been called - has made a more recent appearance in the form of a Belgian video clip of researchers revealing an extraordinary archaeological find.

Using computer scans of the grooves in 6,500 year old pottery they were able to play back recorded sounds of talking and laughing. Unfortunately, this was an April Fool's prank. The suspension of disbelief it induces, though, doesn't just stem from an ingenuous faith in modern empirical methodology, but suggests a scientific confirmation of an animistic desire. Paranormal speculation of, for example, 'if only these walls could talk', never fails to elicit intrigue or paranoia. It's as if a physical vehicle of translation is being conjured up; as if the very cellular structure of the material world could possess a memory imprinted upon it by the friction connecting one event to another, one act of volition to the next.

Paleoacoustics are compelling for Cotterell and Warren for various reasons - but not because they believe in its scientific transhistorical potential. As artists, both are fascinated by the social implications of knowledge and communication dominated by digital technology. Their ambivalence toward utopian technological dreams enables them to look on the idea of something like paleoacoustics as an imaginative way of introducing different perspectives on the experience of the present.

'Cantus 35' is a sound work Matt Warren made in response to the Port Arthur shootings in 1996 and produced for 'The Port Arthur Project' in 2007 [2]. Warren's work was installed in a small sentry box facing the site of infamous Broad Arrow Café, where some of the worst scenes of Martin Bryant's rampage took place. The initial inspiration for this piece comes from Guglielmo Marconi's belief (akin to Babbage's) that sound never dies, but merely diminishes. Warren's idea was to create a work that would exorcise the memory of a news broadcast he heard just after the shooting – of a tourist video recording that included shots from Bryant's gun. As if to attempt to pick up the threads of the echo of those horrifying sounds, he reversed a recording of 35 articulated notes of an Am7 chord with their echo (one note for each person killed), and then mixed them. The sound '&gradually increases with every strike. At the 18:30 minute mark all tones are playing at full volume, reaching a crescendo that to the listener feels like all the sounds swirling within the space have found a way out, leaving the hut and revealing the everyday ambience of the site. '

Scot Cotterell's '1024K RAM' is exhibited in a darkened room. Three screens - the tiny LED lights of operating machines - and a flashing strobe unit permeate the darkness, casting shadows around the confined space. A strangely distorted drumming noise emanates from a large speaker on a stand at the back of a row of assorted computing machines, new and old. This somewhat dystopian atmosphere, assisted by an erratic smoke machine, suggests something in between an abandoned party and a makeshift diorama for a museum of technology. What we're listening to is a garbled translation of a musical excerpt from the metal band Slayer, passed from the large memory capacity of a modern laptop to the now obsolete Atari ST computer (with its limited 1024K capacity), via an Alesis drum machine which acts as the interpreter between 'old' and 'new' data. This arrangement lends a touching human quality to these machines. Their short-lived 'aspirational ' design, promising both greater computing capacity and manufacturer's market share, is thrown into sharp relief when operating together on the same platform. A Frankensteinian kiss of life appears to be in progress here as: 'the work attempts to combine numerous historically rich sub-genres and design ideas into a trophy-like form of closed loop production.'

'Mixtape' is a projected collage performance work that takes the form of a grid of live web page clips - a series of 'favourites' from Cotterell's YouTube account. This format echoes the artist's object-based bricolage works, but allows for a spontaneous, DJ-like mix of 50 or more playback devices,' &combining audio and visual juxtapositions and interlacing between content of vastly different qualities, origins and time frames.' The disconcerting homogenisation of these elements, including live video from the artist's studio, is both a sort of time-hopping and a reflection of the contemporary. Embedded within this grid of flattened disparateness is the invisible 'self portrait' embodied through his YouTube choices.
Both Cotterell and Warren steer away from overly sophisticated means, attempting to disclose something other than the utilitarian capacities of the technology they employ. 'Cantus 35' isn't scientific research to purge history through locating and extracting empirical data; '1024K RAM' doesn't save the Atari ST computer from redundancy. Value is a question of social context after all, a problem of contingencies that can never be redeemed.

This is what makes these works so poignant. The cycle of obsolescence that Cotterell articulates makes clear that objects reflect back to us our desires. They are willed into being, as it were, through a dialectical balance of the psyche and the external world that is never resolved.

The idea that the complex particularity of the unfolding of history could be reduced, like a democratic time machine, to the storage of data that all can access (whether 'in' the surfaces of objects, or inside computerised data banks), is a profoundly disturbing one. Not only does it lend a naïve transparency to the technology employed but also it uncritically sidelines the psychodynamic dimension at the core of such credulity. The desire to transcend our subjective moment in time, socially, physically or psychically, cannot make it go away. Babbage and Marconi looked to the past to locate an origin but like chasing a rainbow the past evaporates the more you try and pin it down. As Lacan observed: 'History is not the past. History is the past insofar as it is historicised in the present.' [3]


1 From Charles Babbage's Ninth Bridgewater Treatise 1837 (discussed by John Picker in Victorian Soundscapes).

2 The Port Arthur Project curated by Noel Frankham for the Ten Days on the Island Festival was a series of temporary public sculptures in the old convict settlement south of Hobart, Tasmania.

3 Jacques Lacan The Seminar. Book I, Freud's Papers on Technique 1953-54 New York: Nortion: Cambridge University Press 1988, p12.

All uncited quotes are the relevant artist's statements.

 Mixtape (detail) 2008,   performance installation, html code