To the participants of Guerilla University – and everyone else
Dear participant of Guerrilla University,
It’s been a while ago we met in Vienna. You had been spending many days together, but I arrived one day later as I expected, due to a storm that disrupted the rail network of Germany. Upon arrival, I read to you what I wrote in the train:
How romantic it is to spend a sleepless night because of a big storm which rips the bright red and orange leaves off their branches, lit by a fiery white full moon! A revery of nature that is inflicting this philosophical restless mental state on lonely insomniacs.
The train to Vienna was indefinitely delayed because of an extraordinary storm. In the immobile train, the woman in front of me complained that this delay is the setback too much of this day, which had begun so badly with this white night she went through. Everyone – so it turned out – had spent a sleepless night, tossing over in bed, rethinking their lives and where they are heading to. Today they are not heading anywhere. We are all stuck. The “unwetter” stopped us in our unsteady tracks. “un-weather” is a natural phenomenon that renders landscapes eerie, un-natural, as if outside of time.
This night with rustling leaves, filmic shivering trees, this day out of the ordinary cut off all the plans of all travellers in Germany, and sent them to wander train platforms as orphans. This day is maybe an untimely advent of a new time in which the eerie will be less sublime and more ordinary.
In this world where nature is located on the scarce empty spaces between towns, mines, gardens and farms it will create some sublime sceneries for us, especially orchestrated for – and yes – by us.
Manmade catastrophes disguised as sublime anomalies.
Knowledge is a verb
As we are now in the aftermath of Guerilla University, again in our own towns and our own houses, safely surrounded by our gardens and parks, I would like to share some topics I wanted to address during the time in Vienna we have missed out on.
As Jacques Rancière states in his book ‘Le temps du paysage’, “Nature offers a harmony that is taking the shape of freedom,” while “art has to be understood for centuries and millenaries as the mark of human will using its tools and tricks to impose its will to nature.” This distinction of art becomes more blurred in contemporary agricultural ‘art’. In nature there’s a lack of straight lines, while in intensive farming fields it is precisely these straight lines that renders the highest productivity.
In the film I finished recently, called Globes, we can see how land has been subjected to an extreme scheme of control. In the Central Valley of California, hundreds of kilometres are structured into endless almond plantations, where no ecology exists; the trees need to be fed water with tubes and water pumps; fungicides destroy fungi networks and honeybees are imported from out of state for pollination.
As you can see in these series of stills, the bee boxes in the aerial shot are dwarfed by endless rows of trees, blending to an infinite, causing a glitz in the image.
Maybe there’s a connection between diversity and an ecology that turns away from productivity and end-results, both natural and cultural. Monoculture is a term that erases many kinds of cultures.
Gardens of Resistance
“Environmentalism without class struggle is just gardening.”
This quote comes from Chico Mendes, born in 1944 and a Brazilian nature conservationist and union leader who pioneered the world’s first tropical forest conservation initiative advanced by forest peoples themselves.
“He and his community, like many others, was made up of the descendants of enslaved or indentured indigenous and non-indigenous Brazilians, forced to work for rubber ‘barons’ during the rubber booms of the early 20th Century. Chico’s father was a rubber tapper, as was his grandfather.
As British colonists shifted rubber production to more easy-to-reach plantations in southeast Asia, many Brazilian rubber barons shut their businesses and abdicated their lands. Left on their own, free of barons and bosses, rubber tapping communities like Xapuri were finally able to freely live in and make a sustainable living from their forest homes.”1
In response to actions by the Brazil’s military government between 1964 and 1985 to sell parts of the Amazon forest to cattle farmers, Chico Mendes formed an union of sustainable rubber tapping communities. As a result of their work, more than one hundred of natural reserves still exist today where rubber tapper communities are allowed to work, protected against deforestation.
However, their fight remains dangerous. After many threats, Chico Mendes was assassinated on December 22, 1988. His name continues to live on in a bird called Zimmerius chicomendesi, living in the Brazilian rainforest. Listen to its voice here.
When Death’s chauffeur turns on the car radio in Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée, a voice from the underworld recites a poem.
goes faster backwards.
Your attention, please.
A single glass of water
lights up the world.
In David Toops book Ocean of Sound he accounts of his musical adventures. When talking about silence, one has to be quiet and think about John Cage: “4’33” was premiered in 1952. The piece required a musician to present a timed performance at an instrument without making a sound. David Tudor gave this first performance on piano, using a stopwatch to time the three sections, marking the beginning and end of the piece by lowering and finally raising the piano lid without ever touching the keys. For this reason, the work is often assumed to have been composed for piano, whereas Cage instructed in his score that any instrument could be (not) played. The piano is one of the easiest options, since the exaggerated theatre of sitting and preparing to play, practiced by most concert pianists and parodied to perfection by comedian Max Wall, provides a clear way of showing that something is being performed.
4’33” is often referred to colloquially as Silence, on the mistaken assumption that this was a Zen demonstration of nothingness. But Cage had discovered the non-existence of silence in Harvard University’s anechoic chamber, a sound proof room without any reflective surfaces where he sat and heard the high singing note of his nervous system and the deep pulsing of his blood.
Nothing happens in 4’33” except for a growing awareness of the immediate sound environment.”2
Cage was undoubtedly inspired by the futurist Luigi Russolo, who in his manifesto The Art of Noises glorified the industrial landscape and gave an invitation to listen to it closely, just like you’d listen to a classical concert; “Let’s walk together through a great modern capital, with the ear more attentive than the eye, and we will vary the pleasures of our sensibilities by distinguishing among the gurglings of water, air and gas inside metallic pipes, the rumbling and rattlings of engines breathing with obvious animal spirits, the rising and falling of pistons, the stridency of mechanical saws, the loud jumping of trolleys on their rails, the snapping of whips, the whipping of flags.”
This blurring of edges between music and environmental sounds was one of the revolutionary developments of twentieth century music. But, as composer and ‘sonic thinker’ R. Murray Schafer puts it, at the moment the natural soundscape is being overrun, it inspired composers to include those natural sounds in their music, as if in a natural reserve. Once it is at the brink of disappearance, only then we start discovering it. “There are moments when Bartóks music steams and rustles with all kinds of primordial buzzings suggesting a microcosmic life as close to the grass as was Goethe’s ear when he wrote poetry or is the entomologist’s microphone when he records the grasshopper’s clicking. Just as the microscope revealed a whole new landscape beyond the human eye, so the microphone in a sense revealed new delights missed by the average ear.”3
I invite you to listen to the landscape around you as a portrait of human and natural activities. A musical rendition of relations and fields of influence. Go outside for a moment and listen to what ecology of sounds emerges.
Later, David Toop discovered recordings by the ornithologist Jean C. Roché. These sounds haunted him until he planned a trip to the Amazon Forest to listen to them. You can listen to the recordings at home.
Art and Nature
Quoted from Jacques Rancière, ‘Le Temps du paysage’: “Gardens get into the realm of the fine arts to the extent that they only produce appearances.”
The French director Pascale Bodet made a portrait of Lucien, a rose grower and fruit tree breeder working in his garden. He scrutinizes every branch, every form of his plants, “using his tools and tricks to impose his will to nature.” She watches him, and asks questions about his decisions. What to cut and what to keep? And what is the shape of things to come in relation to the present? At one point she shows him an etching by Villard de Honnecourt, who lived from 1200 to 1250. His ‘Têtes de feuilles’ are art. When he sees it, Lucien says; “That’s sculpture. But, that’s beyond me. I couldn’t do it. He draws it like that, he knows it won’t move. But my rose bush, I shape it so it has a particular kind of form or appearance, but it’s never sure if it will go as I want. It goes where it wants. We can control it a little, help it along, but it never does exactly what you want. Not in nature. Nature is in charge.”
Interestingly, many people who are working with nature speak the same language. One of the beekeepers in my film Globes says almost exactly the same when talking about his work with his bees.
Robert: “You cannot push nature. You can cheat it, you can replicate it, you can trick a lot of organisms through their pre-programmed instincts, but by large: she deals the cards, and we gotta play ‘em.” In a honey-comb, each flower represents a different colour of pollen. So each dot in the ‘honey-screen’ relates to a certain flower, growing in proximity of the beehive.
In this way, the bees create a collection of the landscape that surrounds them. When you read the honeycomb, you can see which plants are blooming, what climate we are looking at and how diverse the ecosystem is. It is the categorization of a very specific knowledge.
Categorisation is a way of making sense of the world, which is linked to a specific focus, a way of looking. In the frame of the release of Globes, Gerard-Jan Claes interviewed me, a conversation which was published on our website, Sabzian: “Gerard-Jan Claes: The categorization is not only present in the sound, but together with the experience of the world it may well form the actual subject of Globes. There is the desire to want to map the world, but you also immediately look at how people map the world, the attempts to make the world their own, to make a world. It reminded me of Serge Daney and his obsession with maps, the map of the world as the first movie frame. The quasi-existential starting point for naming things in the world, for categorizing them, for making lists and also the obsession with the things that are missing.
Nina: Yes, there is something very tragic that the list will never be complete.
What exactly is categorization for you?
As a documentary maker you work with a reality that is incredibly complex. You often are invited to make categorizations and schematizations of reality. As soon as you do that, you are reducing the world as well as making it comprehensible.
And to give it a certain beauty.
Yes, a shape. Simplicity creates a very specific shape that maps a very small part of the world. I have the feeling that precisely because of this, by paying attention to those minute pieces, you get an eye for the complexity of the whole. The small pieces are in proportion to the enormous chaos of reality, that remains elusive.”4
My film A Sea Change (2016) is a portrait of boys living in a maritime boarding school, which also reflects on the notion of collections. In the corridor of the school, there are showcases displaying shells. I quote the voice-over:
Behind glass, the shells of sea animals
become like works of art.
Forms and colours overcome
their former function.
Above sea level they take on a value,
even if no one lives inside them anymore.
But the sea builds a collection too.
It’s as if the sea
takes all kinds of things from people,
ponders on them for a few years,
and then hands them back,
in the imagery of the water.
collect to be able to sell on later.
The forms and colours
that come from the sea
are weighed and counted.
Everything is given a number.
You can watch A Sea Change here.
A Garden of Knowledge
My eye fell to the work of a lonely categoriser; the Swiss Armand Schulthess. He lived all alone, secluded in a house surrounded by nature. He rarely made contact with others, but he did create a Garden of Knowledge. Below we see a map of this garden, with at the centre his house.
Each number is indicating a different field of knowledge, going from psychology to astronomy and biology. When one walks through this garden, one can discover different fields of science, branching out in paths of different subjects.
Knowledge and memory are often related to places. When I go for a walk, I am often overcome by the same memory exactly at the same spot. Even places that don’t have a memory to a specific event can be charged with the memory of a thought. The brain has many links to landscapes, and landscapes lighten up specific parts in the brain. For example; “Every time I cross that bridge, I think of P.”; “When I look over this pier, I remember the first time I understood that I will move away from my village, and this place will always stay the place of my childhood memories.”, but it even goes the other way around; “Whenever I read about astronomy or quantum physics, I envision a very specific bend of a road near a forest.”
Do you have the same experience? And if so, can you write me some of these memorylandscape correlations?
Armand Schulthess walked around in this garden, where he collected all the knowledge of the world known to him. It might not be a coincidence that the map looks like a planetarium. Knowledge was for him a way of connecting his existence to the world of humanity. Orbiting in his own sphere, the knowledge of humanity connected him to civilization.
The culture we share, the references and the common ground create a togetherness not only with our conversation partner, but with all those known and unknown, from the past and the present who are always present in the subtext of our language. As Jacques Derrida once put it, when we speak, we always speak in stolen words. They always come from elsewhere. If language was really mine, no one would be able to understand me. The same goes for concepts; the subjects I have been writing you about sometimes only need one phrase, or one word before we have understood each other. The moment you read ‘ecology’, ‘4’33”’ or maybe even ‘sensory fabric’, you probably not only know what concept it refers to, but also how it can be placed in a ‘landscape of knowledge’.
With his garden, Armand Schulthess attempted to create a sensory fabric. And here I quote Rancière from The Emancipated Spectator (2009); “Human beings are tied together by a certain sensory fabric, a certain distribution of the sensible, which defines their way of being together; and politics is about the transformation of the sensory fabric of ‘being together’.
It seems as if the paradox of the ‘apart together’ has been dispelled. The solitude of the artwork is a false solitude: it is an intertwining or twisting together of sensations, like the cry of a human body. And a human collective is an intertwining and twisting together of sensations in the same way.”
In 1974, Hans-Ulrich Schlumpf made a film titled Armand Schulthess, J’ai le telephone5. In a review Pierre Lachat wrote: “With a shyness and respect bordering on a fear of contact, Schlumpf never attempted to force the facts: ranged them cumulatively, non-didactically, without ultimate object. Only one thing emerges as idea from that which is presented without frills: that Schulthess was alone, shied away in a monumental neurotic incapacity for life, from communication and pretended to seek it. It was necessary to elaborate this presentation for otherwise the uniqueness, or – still more – the right to existence of the film could not be explained. It had firstly and above all to be information, even if incomplete and to a certain extent, to recover much that Schulthess himself had neglected in his life, being incapable of what he wished and again did not wish: that one knew about him. The telephone which Schlumpf rightly underlines in his sub-title may point to the contact that Schulthess perhaps sought with the outside world. This medium of communication after all permits to be in contact with people – at a distance.”
And with this note on the distance of remote communication, let me finish with a fragment from a letter. In his text “Traffic of Writing: Technologies of Intercourse in the ‘Letters to Milena’, John Zilcosky relates human relations to writing, trains and communication technologies. The text reflects on the relationship between Franz Kafka and his lover Milena, who were both separated ánd connected by letters and train rides. So as this letter started with trains, it ends with them.
The postal system, the telegraph, and the wireless, Kafka wrote to Milena, alienate bodies from themselves and from each other – thereby permitting lovers only ‘ghostly’ intercourse: “Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts. How did people ever get the idea they could communicate with one another by letter! One can think about someone far away and one can hold on to someone nearby; everything else is beyond human power. Written kisses don’t arrive at their destination; the ghosts drink them up along the way. It is this ample nourishment which enables them to multiply so enormously. Humanity senses this and struggles against it.”6
Nina de Vroome
1 Read more about Chico Mendes
2 David Toop, Ocean of Sound. Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds, Serpent’s Tail: London, 1995.
3 R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape. Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, Destiny Books: Vermont, 1994.
4 Gerard-Jan Claes, ‘Een zee aan werelden‘, Sabzian.
5 Rent the film
6 John Zilcosky, ‘The Traffic of Writing‘, Maria Marietta.