The Sound of Ice: Discussing "Terra Nova"
In December 2007 and January 2008, I went to Antarctica to shoot a film and make a large scale multimedia performance work that will be an acoustic portrait of a rapidly changing continent. Called Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica, it's about the environment, sound, hip hop, electronic music and what it means to be a composer in the 21st century. What follows is an interview about Terra Nova by Elena Glasberg, Professor, Princeton University. Terra Nova will be premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival in the Fall of 2009, and will tour opera houses for the next few years. You can see the Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica trailer here. It is also the basis for "North/South," an installation at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York in January, 2009.
Elena Glasberg: When did Antarctica emerge into your world? Do you recall images? Was it fiction? Or, learning of historic exploration figures?
Paul Miller: I guess some of my most formative film experiences come from early cinema pieces like the two films -- Melies's 1902 "The Conquest of the North" and the "false" history of Frederick A. Cook's 1912 "The Truth About the Pole" -- I used to watch old films whenever I could, so I'd catch this kind of strange dualism. Like the Lumiere brothers, Cook's film tried to portray itself as a realistic, almost documentary kind of scenario. I usually prefer the other school of thought -- Melies started out as a magician who wanted to apply magic technique to film. The two films are about the opposite side of the planet from Antarctica, but they're both amazingly, eerily prescient about how discovery and the "voyager's path" would then take on almost surreal proportions. That's a similar motif for my "Terra Nova" and "Manifesto for a People's Republic of Antarctica" projects. They both use found footage, print-design, and propaganda to show how exploration at the edge of the world is a prism to view how nations look at one another, and how art itself is a highly politicized medium. I guess you could say I'm inspired as much by Jules Verne as I am by the exploration of the film "90 Degrees South" by cinematographer Herbert G. Ponting, who was one of the first people to get footage from Antarctica.
Your work engages in and emerges through tropes and modes of globalism, the internet specifically. Yet you also dj for live audiences. How does Antarctica figure within your view of a global audience?
For me, music isn't music -- it's information. So much of my work comes from the hard learned truth that collage speaks across many borders, cultures, and yes, economic classes: if you want to deal with hip hop and then give a lecture at places like Yale or Harvard, you really have to be prepared to speak in academic pidgin as much as be able to flow in the club scene etc. I never really thought of myself as "separate" from the normal art and academic works that I create. My books, art shows, and exhibitions are driven by the obsession I have with saying that multi-culturalism, market forces, and the basic fabric of "The Enlightenment" are interconnected. One of my favorite recent books "Capital and Language" by Christian Marazzi -- you can look at people like him and his concept of new forms of "hoarding" as a way to engage some kind of logic of culturally produced "value." I always am astounded at how little the artworld understands the kind of cultural economy that dj culture emerges from. Nothing, after Wagner's concept of "gesamkunstwerk" exists in a vacuum: whether our culture is now taken from youtube.com videos or material posted online from cell phones by soldier's in Iraq, we exist in a world where "documents" act as a kind of testimony. But once something is recorded, it's basically a file waiting to be manipulated. That's what links the concept of the remix to everything going on these days -- truth itself is a remix. Anyway, it's all about a new kind of relativism.
What do you think of Vaughan-Williams' "Sinfonia Antartica," as music and as an historical artifact of an Antarctic vision?
Vaughan Williams, it's well documented, was pre-occupied with the concept with the "end of empire" and the end of World War II. I really think that's when the concept of the British Empire and Commonwealth needed to be re-examined, and if you look at the Indian liberation project of Ghandi and Indian independence in 1947, that kind of stuff must have really been foremost on the mind of the generation of composers that needed to give the British something to think about after the war as a way of looking forward to reconstruction. What had the war been about except imperial ambition! By making Robert Scott, someone who had died in service to the Empire, the film "Scott of the Antarctic" really set the tone for how the twilight of the British Empire needed to look for new heroes. Let's not forget that the first composition to really engage Antarctica started as a soundtrack for Vaughn''s score to the film. I enjoy playing with the concept of music as a mirror we hold up to society - the Vaughn soundtrack, like the original music composed by Joseph Carl Breil for D.W. Griffith's film "Birth of a Nation" - was a pastiche of themes and motifs that would speak to a film audience. I wanted to update the same concept with turntables and digital media. I really don't think of music, film, and art as separate. There is a seamless connection - it's the creative mind at work.
I'm interested that you actually went to a part of the Antarctic -- I'm assuming the peninsula, by boat from South America. How did your conception of Antarctica as a place interact with your embodied presence? What was the most surprising aspect of being in Antarctica?
I went to several islands, and ice fields that were near the Antarctic peninsula but a little further down on the continent. I'll be going back in a while to check out more of the interior. We chartered a Russian ice breaker called "The Academic Ioffe" and the next time I go, I'm going to try and get to the Lake Vostok base. The most surprising thing about Antarctica was the stench of penguin shit. You can smell them a mile or so out in the water!!! I'm always "embodied" (I always tend to mix that up with "embedded" these days anyway), so there's no conflicted sense of spatial issues that seems to haunt a lot of the discourse about what physical performance is all about in a digital context. I live and remember it all. The idea of the "journey" if you look at Melies film "The Conquest of the North" from 1912, is still with us. It's now just "hyper-realism."
Do you think people belong in Antarctica?
Why do people need to hear Antarctica? How does this mode distinguish itself from seeing Antarctica, which has been the overwhelming mode since the turn of the last century and the accident of near simultaneous advent of film photography and embodied access to the inner continent? How do you see your mixed modes of approach -- embodiment and digitized representation -- in the context of the history of representing the (arguably) most mediated place on earth?
Everything is I do is about paradox. It makes life fun. I think that people need to "HEAR" Antarctica because it is at the edge of the world. The idea of "mixed modes of approach" is a good term (of course, the dominant theme in dj culture is "the mix" so there's some salient linkage there...). The technical terms "heterodoxy" or "heterogeneity" both find a solid home in me and my work. I celebrate that kind of thing. One day, the software we use and the life we live will blur. It''s kind of already happened. But that's why I go to places like Antarctica. NY is probably one of the most mediated places on earth. If I have a conversation at a café, someone will put it on a blog. If I walk down the street, someone puts photos of it on flickr. It's irritating, but hey... it's the way we live now. Antarctica represents a place mediated by science -- it's literally almost another world. Some of my favorite science fiction writers like Kim Stanley Robinson's "Antarctica" or Crawford Kilian's "IceQuake" who deal with Antarctica come up with some of the same themes: science, art and the weirdly un-worldliness of the ice terrain. I think of that kind of stuff as an update of the speculative visions of Verne that inspired Melies with his earlier films. My film "Terra Nova" and my gallery show "Manifesto for a People's Republic of Antarctica" are in the same tradition. Music from the edge of the physical environment and music from the core of the urban landscape. Watch them collide in paradox.
You work among a wide variety of audiences, purposefully and joyously erupting into places not usually associated (variously) with dj culture, beats, aural sophistication, and academic-style intellectualization. Where do you place Antarctica within your work and audience.
I have a degree of comfort with new places that makes life in this hyper turblulent and digitally abstract contemporary life. Life is hybrid and always has been. It's just that digital media is making us realize that it's not about the "end of Western culture" because of multi-culturalism etc. It's actually giving Western culture a place in whatever else has been going on. Which is healthy... I just roll with it all. Edward Said's critique of Western classical music as a kind of involuted "samizdat" (as above, so below...), rings true for my work. I really think that the distinctions that defined most of the 20th century are almost gone. Technology has moved far more quickly to transform our social structures than anyone could have anticipated. Dj culture accepts this and celebrates this kind of phenomenon precisely because it's not linked to the production of objects - it's obsessed with continuous transformation, and that's where I live. In total flux.
You are intrigued by Antarctica's geopolitical exception -- its lack of indigenous people and its never-nationalized status now under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty System. I see this reflected in your playful echo of the title of a 1981 novel by John Calvin Bachelor, The People's Republic of Antarctica, in your marvelous poster series. How do you see Antarctica -- as an exception to global politics? A demonstration of alternative possibilities to history? An opportunity for fantasy? What vision of propaganda and history inspired the poster series?
If you look at the 20th century advertising, as Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward Bernays, who coined the term "public relations," was the hidden architecture holding both capitalism and communism together. Everyone had to get their message out! Whether it was Stalin who said that "engineers are poets of the soul" or Chairman Mao, who put teachers in chains and paraded them as false prophets, the kind of "stay on message" type ethos dominated the media discourse of every nation. With my "Manifesto for a People's Republic of Antarctica" print design projects and my film projects -- I simply ask the question: what if the nation state went away? What centrifuge would we all then call home? What would be the point of looking at the state as a kind of generative architecture? Would who be commissioning the designs, who would be fostering the arts? The answer: corporations. I use the ironic motif of stuff like the British East India company or some of the ways that we have corporate sponsorship of exploration/high endurance sports etc as examples. If you look at Rodchenko's designs or Malevich's early minimalism, you can see an echo of that in my work - the revolution for the U.S. after the fall of the Berlin Wall was untrammeled capitalism. Look around and see what it's done for us! The only competing ideology at this point is radical Islam. I'm not so sure that people would like to embrace Sharia economics, but if they look at the Middle East, there's lots of solid banking going on (unlike Wall street this week). I guess you could say that my work is kind of an aesthetic futures market where any sound can be you. That's what sampling is about. The Terra Nova and Manifesto for a People's Republic of Antarctica projects are mirrors held up to a world that is melting. I don't know about you, but I think it's a pretty strange mirror to see oneself in. I read John Calvin Bathelor's book and enjoyed it, but aside from "sampling" the title (I do this a lot!), there's not much of a connection - except that his book is a meditation on the end of norms of governance.
How are you creating the sounds of Antarctica? What is the technical process and how does it reflect Antarctic representation, its challenges, and its history?
My gallery installation at Robert Miller Gallery and Irvine Fine Arts is loosely based on the "false" story of Frederick A. Cook - who went North. "The Truth about the Pole" (1912) was a self-promotional docudrama in which producer Frederick A. Cook sought to have himself treated as a heroic adventurer who discovered the North Pole, a claim he'd been making since 1909. No director wanted credit for making it. Cook plays the starring role as himself. There is at least one appealing set that attempts to be naturalistic, showing a frozen ship in the distant background. Mostly it all looks pretty hooky. It's interesting how little one needs for a quick jaunt to the Pole, a log-book, sled, & American flag being the whole of it. All one requires to recover from such an easy stroll is a nice wooden hut & one sip of coffee from a tin cup. A silent film villain, Harry Whitney, is the evil scoundrel who started the rumor that Cook's former claim to have climbed Mt McKinley was a fabrication. This was (according to the revisions proposed by his film) Whitney's newest salvo in a campaign to make Cook's polar expedition appear to have been a hoax. I think it's hilarious - I repurpose this kind of thing, and flip it into Southern perspective. Who owns the ice? Who owns the memory of the ice? My composition for the installation at the galleries is based on gamelan music from the idea of "shadow theater" mixed with string arrangements taken from my score to Terra Nova. Debussy after all, was inspired by gamelan, and I guess you could say ambient electronic music is about as "impressionist" composition as you can get. I like the idea of ambiguity. It keeps you on your feet, makes you think about paradox and the digital world of relativity we live in today. When I went to Antarctica I wanted to have a place where there was essentially a fresh perspective and where I really needed to think about how I would interact with the environment in a way that would free up some of the issues that drive normal hip hop. The sounds in my projects come from nature - wind, water, the noise of feet walking on ice... my project takes those sounds and uses them as an acoustic palette. I mixed and remixed the material to the point that bass lines come from wind and water movement, and the sound of human breath can be a motif made into some kind of strange pattern. The score for "Terra Nova" was written in a much more conventional way, but that's why I like to say I'm into paradox. You could almost say that the score for Terra Nova is neo-Baroque, just on the edge of when everyone thought that the Age of Reason had dealt a death blow to superstition in Europe. Try telling that to Sarah Palin! I guess you could say that my project is about the "sound of science."
I'm struck by the influence of Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth on subsequent representation of the Antarctic. I'm thinking in particular of all the computer graphic simulations of melting ice sheets in a pristine and remote Antarctic and the resultant rises in sea levels of very well known urban locations. Do you see your work in such a context of politicized - or catastrophic - simulation?
I'm a big Paul Virilio fan.... Let's call Terra Nova in terms of theory speak (it's just a different pidgin language after all): trajectories of the catastrophic, or pure war. Antarctica isn't a place: it's a location. It's kind of like saying Buddhism isn't a religion: it's a philosophy. Everyone knows that, but they still get it wrong. I always try to get people to think about conceptual frames of reference: context is important in my work, and so is content. How do you establish an uneasy tension between context and content when everything can be remixed and changed, and there's no final "version" of anything? In my film "Terra Nova" that kind of graphic design imprint is crucial to how the story is told. If you look at the old Terra Nova expedition of Robert Scott, you can only think: wouldn't it have been great if they had satellite footage to tell them they weren't that deep into the ice, and to compare some different routes to get out of the drift their ship was caught in. Stuff like Apsley Cherry Garrad's infamous "The Worst Journey in The World" where he says "Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time that has ever been devised," is one of the most succinct ways one could put this simple observation. Melting ice sheets look cool, but then again, so do solar flares on the surface of the sun. They're both harmful... but hey.. art makes things look cool.
Your film debuted at the Democratic convention in August. How exciting. Obama presumably saw it. What would you like him to see, to respond to, and to promote in his election platform (and possible administration)?
I really think it's time to say goodbye to the 20th century. So yes, the Obama convention with Dialog City as the focal point for the contemporary art scene was a breath of fresh air for me. I really liked premiering my film at the Denver Opera House. The Colorado art scene is a lot more progressive than NY! I think Obama will probably be one of the greenest presidents since Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House. The Republicans went crazy, but in hindsight, it was really really really cool. I like stuff like that - that's why I premiered Terra Nova at the Democrats convention. I think of Terra Nova as a reflection site - a location for the politics of perception that we use to look at the environment.
Antarctica and in particular the South Pole have been fantasy objects for US and European imperialism since the early 1900s. Authors populated the unknown south with wishful fantasies of lost races, arable lands, and mineral wealth. Postcolonial nations such as Argentina, Chile, and even Malaysia have fought and argued to be included among the arbiters of Antarctica's possible riches. How do you negotiate nationalism and the history of imperialism in your own approach to the territory?
You really have to think about Antarctica as a "possible terrain" - it's a surface we project on, but it doesn't reflect us back. I always think of the phrase Bruce Sterling says: the suicide bomber is the poor man's cruise missile. There's always going to be conflict over resources as long as people think everything is completely limited. The weird thing about the 21st century is that we have perspective. That's something the warring empires of the past didn't. We have history, comparative science, and above all, a sense of urgency with regard to global warming. And guess what - we still can't get it together. Some of the best recent films dealing with Antarctica: Werner Herzog's "Encounters at The End of The World" or the anti-whaling film "At the Edge of the World" both have this kind of "rebel/misfit scientist" take on the expatriate community that lives in Antarctica. The cracks in the mirror are where some of the best images are to be found. Antarctica, for me, is just a really big crack in the way we look at the land claims of the "great nations" - I really think that my film project is a cinema-scape in the same tradition of Nam Jun Paik, John Cage's "Imaginary Landscape" or Edgar Varese and Scriabin's visual essays turned into sound. Imperialism is such a concrete process: take the land, brainwash the natives, make the people back home think it's all being done in their name... The problem with the 21st century for that kind of schemata is that no one really believes it any more. It's just one fiction of many. I tend to think that that's a good thing. It's time for a fresh kaleidoscope! We need more paradox than we can possibly know right now. And Antarctica is the place to manifest that kind of paradox. After all, it's the end of the world. I want us to look over the edge...
The majority of people on earth will never come near Antarctica. How do you want them to think of their relation to this remote and highly mediated territory? Do you feel that you're operating with a (excuse the phrase) blank screen, or do preconceptions of the region cloud collective action?
How do people hear Antarctica? It's a question that lingers over this interview. Unmoored, unleashed, free floating - sampling derives its sense of free cut and paste aesthetics from the interplay of the kind of "rip, mix, and burn" scenario of the 21st century's information economy. But there are so many cultural resonances that kick in when we think about "appropriation art." I love to throw in allusions and word play - it mirrors what I do with sound, so excuse the aside: In 1964 Ralph Ellison, one of my favorite writers, read a statement at the Library Of Congress about the possibility of an artform made of fragments. The lecture was called "Hidden Name and Complex Fate" and basically it was a manifesto about a series of poems and music that was made into a "mix" of music that influenced him. It was kind of a "sonic memorial" made of fragments from artists and composers as diverse as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson - but the selection was meant to be a literary scenario that evoked music as a kind of text.
Of the jazz legends he invoked in his discussion, he simply wrote that "the end of all this discipline and technical mastery was the desire to express an affirmative way of life through its musical tradition... Life could be harsh, loud and wrong if it wished, but they lived it fully, and when they expressed their attitude toward the world it was with a fluid style that reduced the chaos of living to form." As an artist, writer, and musician, this kind of hybridity is something that drives my work. I'm inspired by the destruction of old, boring, ways of thinking and feeling, by the casting into the flames of obsolence all the stupid old categories that people use to hold the world back from the interplay of uncontrolled "mixing." Yeah, I say - we need to mix and remix everything. There is no final version of anything once it's digital. Is this a mirror we can hold up to society in the era of information overload? Dj mixes, freeware, open source media... yeah -- they say it is possible. Antarctica is a realm of possibility because put simply, very few people are aware of its story. That in itself is a rare and elusive quality that the beginning of the 21st century has brought front and center into modern perspective: there's strength in invisibility. You have to think of the landscape and the way artists interact with it. John Cage's "Imaginary Landscape" from 1939 was composed of records playing frequencies. But if you fast forward to his composition "In a Landscape" from 1948, you can easily see early taste for percussion instruments and "found sounds," as well as his interest in embedded, recursive rhythmic structures, while the last two of the series, composed in 1951 and 1952, exhibit the influences of Cage's experiments with various kinds of pre-compositional chance operations. I think that is what resonates with Antarctica for me: the space to be sonically free. After all: it's the only place on Earth with no government. What's the soundtrack to that?
Most reporting on Antarctica these days tends toward the catastrophic: ice melting, penguins starving, and now oil prices so high that scientific research programs themselves are financially threatened with extinction. What's your main message amid this noise? And what if, anything, do you think is the greatest threat to Antarctica directly? To the globe more generally?