The Archipelago of the Microspheres | Michael Begg - 2: Time
In the second of six micro-essays, Call Centre correspondent Michael Begg witnesses the elasticity of time in the lockdown.
There is a point when teaching your kid how to make bread that the process seems suspended on the edge of ruin. The elasticated goo sticks to the fingers and rips and sags between outstretched arms. Slapped down onto the counter the mixture slowly contracts, and the game of teasing and tearing the increasingly muscular dough proceeds.
Time has taken on this sense of elasticity. The familiar anchors that people set in their day have disappeared. Consequently, we find that they weren’t anchors at all. They were constraints, imposing an unnatural order upon our experience. Work defined the day.
As the lockdown progressed I noted with curiosity how our sense of memory became quickly distorted, and began to crumble. Was it this morning, or last week? Was this when I was a child? Where was that place, and why is it touching me so deeply in this moment? I noted how stories crept into the news about how we should be encouraged to keep a journal in order to remember this time, suggesting that without making the effort the whole episode would mysteriously slip away as easily as a landscape drawn with a stick in the sand.
Creativity suddenly seemed to begin to assert its own value from a novel perspective; the process will align you to the passing of time, the product will enable you to fix the experience. The creative impulse, then, could be said to have been released from the constraints of time being measured by other activity. The to and fro of the day. The deadline. The road map. The working week. The calendar. And so the days, like dough, fold in upon each other, and stretch and tear. We watch pans of water come to boil over a period of light years, and tens of thousands die in a report that lasts but a breath. I swear I can see my children growing. I swear I have been in this morning before, but this time I feel more intensely the sun on the front of my legs. Detail. Detail. Unconnected details that turn and return from ungovernable orbits to be considered once again in the fragment of morning that remains familiar.
This awareness of this particular formation of time returns me, over and always again and in gratitude, to John Berger. Painting, he observed, was the capture of an impression of a moment that was about to disappear. At college, the perspective had been slightly different. A painting was to be viewed as the end of a process of decisions, captured at the point an artist said, ‘Enough’.
A drawing, on the other hand, was different. A drawing, Berger outlined, was the evidence of a period of time spent looking. When I first read this during a summer holiday in Amsterdam in 2012, I was possessed with the idea of providing my children with concrete evidence of what their father did in time. Diarists mostly wish to burn their journals, and I am no different, but I wanted to have some mechanism through which my children could understand something of their father, should they wish. So, despite having no particular gift for drawing, or talent for draughtsmanship I began the occasional practice of drawing. An activity I hadn’t touched since I had been an art student in the mid 1980s.
photo: Michael Begg
This is the captured evidence of a fixed period of time in which your father looked at a bowl of peaches, on a houseboat, in Amsterdam, while you slept in the narrow cots at the back of the boat.
What was entirely surprising is how these poor drawings operate as triggers to rich evocative memories, in a way that entirely overthrows the more self conscious activity of writing. You can scarcely begin to appreciate the depth of reverie I am experiencing right now looking back on this notebook page from 8 years ago. One of the peaches has started to bruise. It brought a sweet smell to the cabin of the boat. In a moment, a woman will glide past on her SUP board. Soon, we will head out and look for food, and I’ll chance upon an incredible bookshop…
This is all a round about way of saying that in an ongoing moment where our place in time becomes tenuous I chose to address the situation with a project that would bind me to the moment at hand, align me to a pattern of temporal change and allow me to mark my wakefulness in the way that a prisoner scratches a line for each day in the cell wall.
I drew a flower in the back garden.
The next day, I drew another flower.
I repeated the task on the third day.
Then returned on the fourth.
For a month (I know this because they are, to date, numbered 1 to 36) I have drawn a flower in the garden. It’s not a studious activity. The drawings are not well crafted. They are quick observational sketches in ink, watercolour or acrylic, and they serve, first and foremost, as a punctuation.
I have been uploading one image each day, more or less on the day it is captured, onto my Facebook page.
Whilst I am loathe to speculate on where the project might be going, it is starting to feel like there may be something interesting in allowing the activity to run for a year. How might the seasonal changes be reflected or represented in the growing collection?
Also, I am curious about having all of the sketches contained within individual identical frames. Whilst the individual drawings themselves are not of great quality, it might prove more convincing as a completed work to have all of the drawings methodically arranged and displayed, as a kind of garden in its own right. Only, an impression of a garden that contains the annual cycle in a single representing space. That, to me, seems to speak, to the mutating sense of time occasioned by the lockdown.
Thinking back to the ink sketches in the Amsterdam notebook from 2012, I am also deeply curious as to what these flowers will trigger in me some way down the road, as a memory of this period of containment and concentration. I sense it will be profound. Already, the first images from a month ago – red tulips – contain a certain sense of nostalgia, now that their petals have fallen and the stems have collapsed within the greater froth of summer growth.
Do you miss each tulip? Even now, in green shade, as you occupy your hands with white flowers in the thick sweet air of the rose bush? Do you miss each tulip?
It is also the case that my vision feels somewhat trained by the activity. I seem more attuned to form, tone and colour. The garden holds a richer vibrancy and I seem increasingly alert to the day by day changes occurring in this most immediate of environments. It is a true sensual pleasure, and I must resist the urge to blabber loudly all over social media about how everybody’s life would be immeasurably improved by submitting to the daily discipline of executing a 10 minute observational sketch. But its true. It will.
This isolated dedication to recording something directly that marks, like a scratch in a tree trunk, the moment at hand partly informs a series of recordings called Witness. Live data is consumed via JSON feeds and transformed into sound through software and studio craft.
There have been, to date, three recordings in the series. Witness 1 recorded and sonified the movements, orbits and trajectories of European Space Agency satellites from the EU Copernicus Earth Monitoring Programme, streamed at the exact moment the UK’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, announced that the country was entering into a period of what became known as ‘lockdown’.
Witness 2 tapped into live streaming weather data and dynamically created compositions informed by these data. The musical key was defined by the local time of day, while the temperature and degree of cloud cover controlled the range of notes available to the engine. Wind speed informed the tempo, while humidity levels guided the percussive elements of the unfolding composition. In direct reference to the new perceived sense of the elasticity of time and the breakdown in the illusion of fixed temporality, I captured weather reports from various times and dates during the lockdown period and layered the recordings across each other.
Witness 3 returned to satellite transmissions, but introduced a powerful aspect of human expression to the data streams. Clodagh Simonds formed choral vocal clusters, and recorded each voice as a separate file. I programmed the ‘Witness Engine’ to trigger these clusters when certain conditions were met by the satellites spatial relationship to each other.
Essentially, this was presented as being related to environmental art as it sought to draw direct attention to the earth, ocean and ice monitoring remit of the satellites that were being sonified.
Underneath, however, the work was capturing more local, immediate events. The first of three parts, called ‘observation’ was captured as Dominic Cummings, senior adviser to the UK Prime Minister was seen to apparently break the conditions of lockdown in order to travel across country with his wife and child to a second home, where he was further observed enjoying a day trip to a local beauty spot on his wife’s birthday.
The second part, called ‘statement’ was captured at the moment that Cummings stepped into the garden of 10 Downing Street to face the British press about his activities.
The third part was surely going to be called ‘resignation’ or ‘expulsion’. And so I waited for the moment to arise in order that I could set the Engine running. The moment of Cummings’s dismissal, however, never came, and so the concluding part of the release remains titled only as ‘–‘.
Update 11 August 2020
Since writing this, Witness 4: The Visitor, marking the night when the newly-discovered Comet Neowise came closest to Earth, on 23/24 July 2020, has been released.