Move fast and hear things: writing Audiovision

Philip Brophy

Over the past 35 years or so, I’ve wildly grabbed at any metaphor to describe “audiovisuality” — mutant, simultaneous, corporeal, anti-literate, bisexual, immersive, post-human, alien, orgasmic, overloaded, matrixed, hyperreal. I’ll never define it, mostly because its phenomenal nature is defined by its deep subsumption of multiple disconnected operations which divisively manipulate two of our sensory modes (seeing and hearing) of comprehending the world in which our bodies exist.

If there is one concept threaded through my fluid play with words in articulating audiovisuality it is a staunch rejection of the oft-deployed metaphor of synaesthesia. I’ve never been one for holistic approaches to anything — mainly because such discourses tend to universalise, humanise and essentialise by utilising often pseudo-scientific rhetoric (ie over-extended applications of empirical observation in the name of logical assessment) to posit the human entity as a single throbbing receptor. It actually sounds great put that way — but synaesthesia is mostly deployed as an anti-critical measure: all experience is explained away as mere brain processing. Like, duh. We’re still left with how to analyse the means by which audio-visual things get constructed, the ways in which they fuse multiple and contradictory lines of production, and the experience one undergoes in digesting, parsing and comprehending the purpose and effect of one’s encounter with the things themselves.

Meshuggah live

Writing close to the vibrating body

This I feel is the true challenge of writing: to hold an experience close to one’s vibrating body without resorting to overlaid semantic or analytic scaffolding (prime symptoms: sociology, anthropology, ideology). That’s like talking about the new Twin Peaks season by explaining it all through the spectre of Donald Trump. My rubric for analysis is “hyper materialism” — a way of never forgetting how anything one encounters and experiences is nothing but abject matter — stuff full of its own “thingness.” Ever since the Enlightenment, the waking dream of using language to describe everything in the world and how humans occupy the world in relation to others had by the 19th century fostered a weird delusional belief in language’s capacity to somehow explain everything. Of course, we all know that anyone in the “literature industries” would counter this with numerous alternative examples — but their examples will invariably fall within validated and self-supporting channels of “literate discourse.” It’s like novelists who write allegorical narratives about a writer who loves books and libraries, and who navigate their world to experience how important and wonderful literature is. Like, duh.


A passion for illiterature

My disdain for literature, the literate and (especially) the literati is not simply because I find them boring, pompous, self-centred and passive-aggressive, but because they unconsciously and collectively block ways in which “illiterature” might bloom and flourish in order to expand the very terrain they so cherish. For me, ideas — born of weird insight, unexpected consciousness and solipsistic analysis — always trounce writing. Like I could gives a toss bout how da fuck me sentences go. For these reasons I’ve always been attracted to the Joycean linguistic peripheries of any media or multi-media artefact which exhibits its own internal flagrancies of grammatical, syntactical and symbolic conveyance. The more multiple, messy and maligned, the better.


Randomised uncontrolled occurrences

The Audiovision column in RealTime aggressively sought to chart my dive throughout these randomised uncontrolled occurrences. Looking back at the 21 articles written between 2015 and 2017, I covered Coke ads for the Olympic Games in the cinema, pro-Obama ad campaigns, a J-Pop documentary, light shows on the Sydney Opera House, a classical music YouTube channel, the Eurovision Song Contest, the lightshow for a Nu-Metal band, the David Bowie Is exhibition, a contemporary Japanese theatre work, Lady Gaga’s Grammy concert tribute to Bowie and an immersive data CG display of Paul Virilio’s urban theory.


Cinema writ small

I also covered movies. The sound of Her, World War Z, The Tribe; the music of Django Unchained, Death Race 3, Inherent Vice. Documentaries also got a look-hear: the ethno-sensory Manakamana and Laibach’s North Korean concert film Liberation Day. But in fact, cinema was writ small in the Audiovision columns. Two reasons might account for this. One is cinema’s own entropic mechanisms, wherein sound-image innovation has become so established and overwrought that innovations could only come through sophisticated and knowledgeable practitioners. Quentin Tarantino and PT Anderson’s “re-scorings” exemplify this: they didn’t attempt to re-invent the film-score wheel, and instead chose to mine cinema’s musicological and psychological catalogue of musical narrativity to construct new ways of hearing and interpreting.

These practices stand in marked contrast to the modish audiovision of 21st century darlings like Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Chan-wook Park, Edgar Wright, Michel Gondry and Lars von Trier. Admittedly, the number of times people have assumed I would love those directors’ works because they do ‘amazing things with music’ has not made me appreciate them any better. But the important point here is the difference between two critical modes: one seeks audiovision that is inventive, radicalising and lopsided in its experimentation (er, that’s me), and the other uses the most boring conservative cinema to define the slightest hipper-than-thou one-upmanship through the ‘outrageous’ use of a song on the soundtrack (er, that’s the bulk of film festival goers).

The other reason why cinema did not figure strongly in Audiovision is that truly exploratory critical writing on cinema has for the most part withered in this wonderful new century of access to ‘all movies’ (bogans with Netflix) and internet listicles (IMDb contributors with really boring jobs). Film Comment convened a panel on the state of criticism over 10 years ago, debating the pros and cons of peer-reviewed journals, tight and punchy newspaper columns and flabby flapping blogosphere missives. Little did they all realise how each would shortly dissolve into the one singular pool of opinionated drivel. The collective writing of ‘film criticism’ (despite the occasional deeper foraging in the sporadic Lola and the now-pro Senses of Cinema — which owes a heck of a lot to Adrian Martin’s critical prowess) currently persists in rationalised assessments of movies as either signs of societal activity or placards of political conditionality. Pertinently, when it comes to actual discussion of sound or music on the film soundtrack, things seem to evaporate. I’m usually left wondering: this writer might have a brain, but they sure don’t have ears. (For a Robbe-Grillet twist, you could now read the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs of this article in a continual loop.)

Time’s Journey Through a Room, Chelfitsch Theatre Company, AsiaTOPA, 2017, photo Bryony Jackson

Visual arts below par

Contemporary art got covered in Audiovision – mostly because I find it fun to bag dumb look-at-me grandstanding zeitgeist wannabes when they (artists and — maybe more so — curators) make such hysterical claims, they’re asking for it. Indeed, just as literature smothers critical writing, so has contemporary art become achingly obvious in its power-plays to inhabit the highest echelons of the institutionalised cultural industries. Indeed, institutional critique has become as rampant as the marketing of celebrity cooks. Often, I can’t tell the difference between the two.

Audiovision delighted in tearing not only into the obsequious Exit installation and its eco-boogie-man image barrage at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, but also the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s pathetic crack at scooping up below-par “audio-visual art” for the Crescendo show. Yet I did counter these puddles of negativity with some jet streams of clear cold water with the exciting audiovision exhibited in Gertrude Contemporary Art’s Vocal Folds as well as exhibitions by performance artists like Cassandra Tytler  and Sue Dodd.


A flow of unfinished discourse

This reflection on the Audiovision column inevitably contains the most important practical point of its practice: it would not have existed were it not for RealTime and Keith Gallasch and Virginia Baxter’s acceptance of my own pompous declarations. I’ve always gauged the value of any publication by its decision to commission something by me (though with Audiovision, I initially approached RealTime). This is not because I’m writing something so radical, or that one would be so bold to publish me, but more that accepting my writing accepts that it is a flow of unfinished discourse feeding into whatever critical swamp might grow from it. The Audiovision pieces cannot be stitched together to make a grand theory about ‘how sound and image work and why.’ Explaining that — or having that as the main purpose — seems daft: I only ever transcribed the conceptual indentations left by the material presence of the work being discussed. Usually the pieces were written in one to two hours (with Keith correcting my raced grammatical flourishes), and always within hours (if not minutes) of encountering the subject of each review. Think of it as “Move Fast and Hear Things.”

(1 hour 58 minutes)

Philip Brophy, photo courtesy the artist

Top image credit: From Documentary AKB48 Show Must Go On © 2012 AKS Inc. / Toho Co Ltd / Akimoto Yasushi Inc / North River Inc / NHK Enterprises Inc.

1 August 2018