Drone and Apocalypse is an exhibit catalog for a retrospective of twenty-first-century art. Its narrator, Cynthia Wey, is a failed artist convinced that apocalypse is imminent. She writes critical essays delineating apocalyptic tendencies in drone music and contemporary art. Interspersed amid these essays are “speculative artworks”, Wey’s term for descriptions of artworks she never constructs that center around the extinction of humanity. Wey’s favorite musicians are drone artists like William Basinski, Celer, Thomas Köner, Les Rallizes Dénudés, and Éliane Radigue, and her essays relate their works to moments of ineffability in Herodotus, Aristotle, Plato, Pliny the Elder, Isidore of Seville, Robert Burton, Hegel, and Dostoyevsky. Well after Wey’s demise, the apocalypse never arrives, but Wey’s journal is discovered. Curators fascinated with twenty-first-century culture use her writings as the basis for their exhibit “Commentaries on the Apocalypse”, which realizes Wey’s speculative artworks as photographs, collages, and sound/video installations.
|Publisher:||Hunt, John Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.40(d)|
About the Author
Joanna Demers is associate professor of musicology at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music, where she specializes in post-1945 popular and art music.
Read an Excerpt
Drone and Apocalypse
An Exhibit Catalog for the End of the World
By Joanna Demers
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Joanna Demers
All rights reserved.
"Commentaries on the Apocalypse"
"Apocalypse" means unveiling. It is a revelation of the greatest import. Most religions and mythologies have used "apocalypse" to mean revelation of the end of the world, so much so that apocalypse today has become synonymous with the end itself: of civilization, humanity, life itself. But "apocalypse" can also mean the literary genre that communicates prophecy of the end of the world. Such commentaries were prevalent in Judaism and early Christianity. A typical apocalypse-commentary quotes scriptural prophesy and adds exegesis.
Although apocalypse-commentaries necessarily contain text, they are often the showplace of great art as well. In Western Christianity, one of the more famous such writings is Beatus of Liebana's "Commentary on the Apocalypse", composed in eighth-century CE Spain. This was a compilation of Biblical prophecy alongside writings of Augustine of Hippo, Ambrose of Milan, Isidore of Seville, and other Christian theologians. The monk Beatus proclaimed that the end of the world would occur around the year 800, and linked the strange visions of St. John in the Book of Revelation to clashes between Muslims and Christians in Cordoba. The Beatus Apocalypse was copied in several editions, many of which feature impossibly vibrant colors and vivid depictions of St. John's hallucinatory predictions. The edition of the Beatus copied for Ferdinand I of Castile and Leon, for instance, renders matter-of-factly many-headed beasts and the woman clothed in the sun.
These are not fantasies. There is no attempt to normalize, to distance through irony. There is no disclaimer that we are speaking only figuratively.
I once heard a Catholic priest joke about his Protestant friends' conviction that the Rapture was an imminent possibility. He could perhaps believe that any of his socks that disappeared in the dryer had been "raptured" away (his word!), but he gently laughed at any stronger claim that the elect would be spirited away. And of course he felt this way, for many neoliberal Catholics have a hard time with the Book of Revelation. The editors of the New American Bible, the Bible most American Catholics use, have this to say in the Introduction to the Book of Revelation:
This much, however, is certain: symbolic descriptions are not to be taken as literal descriptions, nor is the symbolism meant to be pictured realistically [...] The Book of Revelation cannot be adequately understood except against the historical background that occasioned its writing. Like Daniel and other apocalypses, it was composed as resistance literature to meet a crisis.
The editors here take pains to explain away the Apocalypse in historical and materialist terms – as an expression, a figure of speech. This pragmatism is strange, coming from the same people who believe in the Virgin birth. I prefer art historian Otto Pächt's words on the Book of Revelation and its visual realizations of the Middle Ages:
[...] the author of the Apocalypse, John, like the Hebrew prophets before him who wrote the books of Daniel and Enoch, came from a civilization which was essentially devoid of pictures. The heated fantasies of the Apocalypse as a literary genre paid no attention to what was visually possible. It was apparently this abandonment of restraint in spurning a logical point of view, as if in a waking dream or a brainstorm, which stimulated the Middle Ages – characteristically not the Greek East but the Latin West – to compose in pictorial non-sequiturs. It is all the more important to investigate the imaginative illogicality of this kind of illustration because it repeatedly produced real picture books of a specifically medieval character and some of the most significant art of the Middle Ages.
Implicit in Pächt's statement is the fact that the medieval artists in question believed in the Book of Revelation, not as fantasy or literary device, but as literal truth. Modern Catholic apologetics question the power of this text, as they do the very idea of apocalypse.
But I have seen the apocalypse. I gradually became aware of it in the course of listening to presentiments of ill-defined dread that overtook me whenever I awakened early, starting sometime in 2006. It's difficult to find words to explain how this dread manifested itself. A gritty, concrete sense that everything I cared about during the day was not only inconsequential, but obscured what is vital. A certainty that death would come soon, and that the state of death would not be that different from that of living. That was only the first stage. A few months later, the visions and auditory illusions began: seeing the walls of my apartment and office crumble on top of me; hearing before feeling the sudden thrust of an earthquake; waking with the words "slip shot" echoing in my brain; imagining the mercury-quick transformation that would occur on the faces of humans everywhere the moment it began. In those eyes, I witnessed the turn away from everyday life with its trivialities to the direness of something we already knew was coming. By February 2007 I had begun to question my sanity. I considered medication, marijuana, suicide. On April 22007 I awakened with a clear mind and clean heart, for it was suddenly clear what was happening. I put my affairs in order, and bequeathed what few possessions I have. I began to meditate in the mornings and evenings, and made peace with the certainty that the apocalypse, though looming, was still mysterious enough. Its imminence could mean that it could happen in five minutes or ten years. Both lengths of time were the same, which means that time is now irrelevant. I need to be as ready now as I can be, as ready today as I could be tomorrow.
I have asked myself whether I am obligated to announce what I know to those around me. But that would be pointless. The best that could happen would be that I would be taken for some religious nut. And there is the quieter truth at play here, too, that an apocalypse-commentary must be undertaken willingly, without duress, and with commitment. Mass hysteria and peer pressure are poor justifications for a change of heart. They are no better than being caught in a movie theater when someone yells "Fire!", or when someone opens fire. My charge is to write a commentary not on scriptural predictions, but rather on art that makes oracular pronouncements to anyone able to understand them. There exists an aesthetics of apocalypse. It permeates today's art, and yet has been present in many works as far back as written records have been kept. My apocalypse-commentaries cut through history to sort out the contrivances and doubts and shudders that shake art as it considers the end.
I have tried making art. I am no good at it. This journal is the closest I'll ever get to what I wanted so desperately to do well. But as good as the art I have imagined might be, better still is the drone music that others have made, that speaks so clearly about apocalypse. The end is the moment when words fail, when everything fails, when limits are reached, when the infinite is revealed as real and the finite as ideal. Drone music is an art that can gracefully, almost casually conjure the heat and death and terror and joy that the apocalypse will bring, its torturous moral dead-ends. Read this book, then, as a revival of the apocalypse-commentary. It does not speculate about whether the end is coming, for the end is an imminent and foregone conclusion. It reflects on drone works that I now know to be prophetic declarations of apocalypse. This exegesis assumes the form of essays and speculative artworks, descriptions for art that does not yet exist. This apocalypse-commentary is not a religious work, for apocalypse calls upon religion and agnosticism and atheism with equal verve. No one has the answers. No one is properly equipped, with faith or reason or hopelessness, to face that which cannot be imagined or expressed. Words fall away as does everything else.CHAPTER 2
"The End of Happiness, The End of the World"
A good time to listen to Celer's music is early in the morning, around three o'clock. Any later, and road noise would drown it out. In the album Salvaged Violets, high- and low-pitched tones seep in, barely perceptible even on headphones. They are produced on synthesizers, processors of various sorts, and acoustic instruments, but their timbre is uniformly fragile. There are no abrupt attacks, and decays are always attenuated. These tones are too isolated to congeal into harmony, they merely align with each other momentarily before washing out with the tide.
The disc player spins, and the laser reads the data. Naturally, this playback is identical to every other. It will be the same tomorrow, and however many tomorrows remain. I could well play this recording every morning, indefinitely, or at least until the electrical grid collapses. It would matter just as much to me if I heard it constantly, from now until the end.
Salvaged Violets might sound like other recent examples of pretty, quiet music. But this impression gives way with repeated listening, especially around the nine-minute mark. The sudden influx of rapidly oscillating drones, colliding as they compete for the same space, proves that this is not just a touristic celebration of beautiful sounds. This is the moment when one's toes clench the precipice shortly before jumping, or the moment immediately preceding the apocalypse. Celer's music, as with so much ambient drone, speaks of the end of time, the end of the world, and all the unresolvable dilemmas that accompany such ends.
Croesus was a Lydian king who believed himself blessed. He sought confirmation from Solon of Athens, the lawmaker revered for his wisdom. Croesus asks Solon, "Who is the happiest of all men?", whereupon Solon answers with stories of humble men who live to old age in obscurity, or else who die young in their sleep after winning favor from some god. But Croesus wanted Solon to name him the happiest. Solon responds, "[Mark] this: until he is dead, keep the word 'happy' in reserve. Till then, he is not happy, but only lucky." This passage from Herodotus is famous, but what follows is more important. Solon admonishes Croesus to "look to the end", rather than the present. Croesus dismisses Solon, and only later learns the meaning in Solon's words. He loses a son in a hunting accident. He concludes two years of mourning with the decision to attack the Persians, and his oracle responds that he will "destroy a great empire." Croesus is foolish enough to hear a presentiment of the fall of Persia, but the empire to fall is his own.
It would then appear that Croesus is about to reach his own end as the prisoner of the Persian tyrant Cyrus. He is about to be burned alive on a pyre. As the flames char Croesus' hair, Cyrus is moved to spare Croesus, but his men cannot stop the fire's spread. Croesus prays to Apollo for mercy, clouds rush in on what was a perfectly clear sky, and rains put out the fire that was to mark Croesus's final, unhappy ending. Croesus spends the rest of his days as a guest and prisoner in the Persian court, trotted out anytime his captors seek counsel on the behavior of an enemy or the proper course of war. It may well be that Croesus narrowly missed a horrible ending to what had been a blessed life, but strangest of all is his subsequent resurrection, the turnabout that made a king into a valet, a ruler into a sycophant.
Those of us who know what is coming feel great joy. Something miraculous is coming, the liberation from our bodies, but that liberation comes at great cost. Billions of people will suffer. There is no way to justify how we could feel happy, by what right anyone could smile given what we few know. And it's unclear whether what we feel is even happiness at all. How can it be, if it cannot last? One could rewrite the opening of the Nicomachean Ethics with apocalypse in mind:
Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and choice, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found in the time of apocalypse, when activities can no longer have ends. For naturally, in a time in which ends are irrelevant, when the final end precludes all other ends, the good takes on a different meaning. Where there are actions apart from ends, at least ends that lie in the future, it is the nature of the activities to stand apart from their products. We must thus concern ourselves with what right action and goodness are when the end is at hand. Now, as there have been many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends were also many; the end of economics was wealth, that of bomb-making a bomb, that of plastic manufacturing a plastic bottle. But where such arts meet with a certain end not only of one person, but of the entire civilization or even of the planet, the question of ends becomes moot. It now makes a great difference whether activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.
Aristotle wrote that the ultimate end of human activity is happiness: eudemonia. To attain eudemonia, we weigh present against future satisfaction, balancing virtues against necessities. But Aristotle said that happiness must be measured over a lifetime, that it cannot be reduced to a single moment. Spoken with the confidence of someone assured of a long life. What is the ultimate end in the time of apocalypse? If we accept Aristotle's premise that it remains happiness, then how do we define happiness, and the virtues that inform our quest for happiness, when the end is imminent?
We delude ourselves that we will live long lives, that our relative happiness will be an average of joy and sorrow and boredom stretched out over the years. Apocalypse exposes this lie. It pushes us to take up Plato's call in the Gorgias to stop thinking about how long we have, and instead about how best we might live in whatever time remains. The truth is that the end is coming soon, in a month, perhaps, or a week, or in five years. Eudemonia should be the same whether we live only five minutes more, or five decades more. We see all this, and yet the truth eludes us, for until recently, happiness has meant for us the idea of being happy at some point in the future or past, not the present. In the Gorgias, Zeus is said to have instituted a law that no one shall know their death ahead of time. Like that line at the end of Blade Runner: "Too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?" This is supposed to be our final tip-off that Deckard, like Rachel, is a replicant, and has no more than three years to live. But what it really tells us is that apocalypse only magnifies mortality, something already there, on a mass scale. Every individual's death is her own apocalypse.
If Aristotle and Solon were right, then a life qualifies as happy only if it lasts a full duration, and ends happily. But if the apocalypse is drawing near, as it must considering our species' efforts to bring it about, then all lives will have been cut short, and we will have died with the knowledge that the end was prematurely upon us. So none of us will be able to claim that we were happy in Aristotle's or Solon's terms. The only hope I have of proving these two Greeks wrong, of leaving evidence that I have known moments of blinding happiness, is to stop time even as it drags me with it. I now look to the end, but while searching for moments of joy that halt time altogether.
The music of Celer intimates what such happiness might feel like. It is achingly beautiful: cascades of electronic tones, or field recordings or snatches of piano or string chords played at low volumes. Celer is most courageous when it bypasses noise and technical tricks. It sounds like what it is to watch the moon set over the ocean at night, or to see one's beloved enter the room after a long absence. Celer's music is usually constructed with loops that repeat for a half-hour, or perhaps over an hour. Their duration does not matter, for this music has bestowed on me a happiness that no one, not even someone blessed with contented old age, has experienced. Boethius understood the lightness with which we can let go, after having been granted such joy. Writing in house-arrest before his execution, he said that no evil can destroy the memory of happiness. His optimism puts to shame those who are neither imprisoned nor condemned to death, and who are therefore tepid in their joy.
And so the spinning continues. There is the spinning of the disc player, going over the same zeroes and ones that it has read every morning since I began listening to Salvaged Violets. There is the spinning beating of the tones, sometimes constant, other times accelerating from dissonance back to consonance. These are toy tops of sound that whirl and gyrate, going so fast while going nowhere at all. Self-contained, they are monads that reflect all these worlds of happiness, each in their own particular way. Take any one of these oscillations, increase its speed to the point where individual revolutions disappear within a perceived uniform total, and what we have is an edifice of eternal happiness, eternal for however long it lasts. So it is with every successive wave of sound in Salvaged Violets.
Excerpted from Drone and Apocalypse by Joanna Demers. Copyright © 2014 Joanna Demers. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Catalog for "Commentaries on the Apocalypse", An Exhibit of Essays and Speculative Artworks by Cynthia Wey 15
Curators' Introduction 16
"Commentaries on the Apocalypse", an essay 21
"The End of Happiness, The End of the World", an essay 26
"The Big Bang", a speculative artwork 38
"Manifest", an essay 39
"Photojournalism of the Fall", a speculative artwork 53
"Radigue's Wager", an essay 60
"Pump Cam / Debt Clock", a speculative artwork 71
"Apocalyptic Desire", an essay 73
"The Chelyabinsk meteoroid", a speculative artwork 84
"After Apocalypse", an essay 86
Discography and Videography 107