Category Archives: Some Scores (A Blog)

Crivelli’s Fly

Crivelli, St Catherine
Carlo Crivelli, St Catherine of Alexandria (detail), c.1491-4, National Gallery

There’s a small panel amongst Crivelli’s paintings in the National Gallery, roughly a foot tall. It shows St Catherine standing in an architectural niche, her right foot poking over the ledge she’s standing on as if into the air of the gallery. But what’s most interesting about this painting is not the martyr’s stance, her attributes of palm and wheel, or the rich folds of her gown. It’s a fly which has apparently lighted on the wall on the far left of the painting. The longer you look at it, the less clear it becomes whether the fly is supposed to be on the wall or on the surface of the painting itself. If it was in the painting, it would be truly monstrous: roughly the size of Catherine’s outstretched middle finger. And doesn’t the fly’s shadow seem to block the light coming from over your shoulder, rather than from the far left as in the painting itself?

Crivelli Madonna and Child_compressed
Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child, c.1480, Metropolitan Museum of Art

This isn’t the only fly in Crivelli’s paintings. There’s a Madonna and Child in the Metropolitan featuring an even more ambiguous bluebottle. It’s perched on a stone ledge in the very foreground of the painting – a block that might almost seem like another scrap of architecture located outside the plane of the painting, were it not, as in many of Crivelli’s works, part of a series of dizzyingly interlaced layers of space. In the background, for example, we have a naturalistic, perspectival view of a forest scene, blocked by a hanging bolt of mauve material hung from red cords with no obvious means of support within the painting. Yet the Madonna and child are set in front of this curtain, sandwiched between it and the ledge on which both Christ and the fly are sitting. Both figures seem to be looking suspiciously at the fly, once again setting up a tremor of confusion us as to whether it belongs properly in the scene or beyond it. Yet another tremor is set up by the cartellino, the trompe-l’oeil scrap of paper marked ‘Opus Karoli Crivelli Veneti’ which is apparently stuck with drops of sealing wax to a gold cloth hanging over the ledge. Or is it stuck to the surface of the painting? Like the fly, it’s not impossible that it’s part of the interior of the painting – but if that’s the case, how did the painter (who after all is in ‘our’ world and not the world of the painting) place it there?

Norman Land has commented on the way these painted flies resonate with others in the narratives of art history: Vasari tells us that Giotto painted a fly on one of Cimabue’s sculptures that was so lifelike that the sculptor tried to brush it away. A similar story is told by Filarete. In both of these anecdotes, what’s fascinating is the attitude of the body that the noisy creature produces; the presence of its mere representation is enough to engender flicking, brushing and swatting in the exasperated viewer. Land reads a religious symbolism out of the fly in Crivelli’s painting, reminding us that the devil is the “lord of the flies” and that by gesturing at the fly we “participate in the painting and commune with it by rejecting the arch deceiver, Satan, in the form of the fly, which, in turn, has deceived our eyes”.

But this bodily engagement with the noisy (and noisome) object or creature isn’t tied to a purely devotional response. Imagine: the heavy, stupid buzz of a bluebottle suddenly stops. As you look for it, your relief at the silence is mixed with exasperation at its refusal to find the open window. You spot it squatting on a sunned postcard tacked to the kitchen cupboard, rubbing its hands: revolting. Should you swat at it? If you do, you’ll face the prospect of more buzzing, more dense taps as it hits the glass, and then when the noise finally stops you’ll be compelled to look for it again. But if you don’t do anything it’s going to carry on crawling, like it is now, up the side of the face of the unknown man whose portrait so struck you in a museum in Lisbon. You’re in a relationship with this fly; a relationship of annoyance and mild disgust, but a relationship nonetheless.

Hasn’t the fly has turned you into a “living apparatus”? This is Vinciane Despret’s term for Clever Hans, a horse who gained fame in the early years of the twentieth century for apparently being able to count.* As Despret writes, the most interesting aspect of Clever Hans’ story was not his lack of true mathematical skill (the horse was picking up unconscious cues from his questioners), but his ability to “make human bodies be moved and be affected, and move and affect other beings and perform things without their owners’ knowledge.” Hans, she writes, “could become a living apparatus that enabled the exploration of very complicated links between consciousness, affects and bodies.”

“Living apparatus” is such a suggestive phrase. It suggests actions occurring as a consequence of subcutaneous processes passing unnoticed by conscious thought; it suggests the way the painted image of a fly primes the viewer to unruly action; it conjures complexes of people, animals, objects and scenarios working in meshed relations. (As an aside, it also seems an excellent way to imagine the complex of performer, text and audience in a poetry reading.) Somewhat more obscurely, it evokes for me Raymond Williams’ idea – explored in Marxism and Literature and elsewhere – that there exist ‘structures of feeling’ which he called “social experiences in solution”, still to be precipitated out (with attendant loss) into the crystalline forms of novels, paintings, poems.

The noisy insect – in the painting and, quietly obscene, on the painting – the way it tips the reader of the painting towards the swat, the flick – reactivating a state of uneasy rest into a buzzing, circulating noise – this sense of a complex existing around and with and somehow counter to the solidity of the painting as a cultural form – all this seems to gesture towards the “living presence”, the un-articulate fullness of social life and its conflicts that Williams glimpses in his peripheral vision, hovering “at the very edge of semantic availability”.

*See also Lisa Blackman’s 2014 article ‘Affect and automaticity: Towards an analytics of experimentation’, Subjectivity, 7:4, 362-384.

Monotypes

Mira Schendel, Unitled, 1964

I went to see Mira Schendel’s Monotypes at Hauser & Wirth. The gallery’s on Saville Row and it was early on a Saturday. That was Bill Nighy, my partner said as we crossed the road, but there are so many people who look like Bill Nighy round there that I wasn’t convinced.

The monotypes were laid out flat on waist-high plinths, sandwiched under glass, right by the windows. They were tearing up the road outside and one of the road-workers kept on looking at us looking at the prints. I caught his eye occasionally and wondered if he was going to come in and look at them himself, and whether the gallery attendants would let him in with his work boots on. I felt I was pushing it myself with an old pair of trainers. I really didn’t see Bill Nighy but I think he was probably wearing a navy cashmere overcoat that contrasted in a tasteful way to his “silver” hair.

These prints are half a century old. Schendel made them by tracing across small sheets of Japanese paper laid over rollered-out black oil paint. Where she pressed into the paper, it irreversibly picked up the ink. Now the lines she traced have a dark nimbus, a hiss, which I like to imagine developed from the purely material interaction of fibres and oil.

I write “hiss” because when I think of Schendel’s monotypes I think of sound, and the act of transcription between the sounded and the seen. I know a number of them have an elemental religious aspect to them, and also that if you like you could talk about Schendel in relation to Flusser and ontology etcetera, but I’ve always wanted to treat these unlikely, minimal objects as scores.

Schendel was friends with Haroldo de Campos and met Dom Sylvester Houédard when she came to London for her Signals show, so we definitely have a license, if we need one, to think about these intense but fragile and unvociferous prints as part of a noisy world, in fact as part of a ‘verbivocovisual’ system, to borrow a word the concrete poets borrowed from Joyce. If they’re scores, they function to preserve, or distort, or transform material, as a condition of it moving from state to state.

But does a score need to have an object? Does it need to score something? Is it possible to have an intransitive score? Because actually that’s what the prints seem to suggest (the wordless ones in particular). Hans-Jörg Rheinberger mentions a case from virology research, writing that “for forty years the experimental system was in a sense oscillating around an ‘epistemic thing’ that constantly escaped fixation”. In a similar way, the object of knowledge of these prints also appears to escapes fixation; it’s never quite specifiable as such.

There’s a kind of seismic quality to these loose groups of monotypes and I think that connects to the way they oscillate around their object. The way something vibratory is not a thing but a relationship. Outside they started drilling the tarmac again, using a minicat with a pneumatic attachment. We could all feel it through the dark concrete floor.

Image: Mira Schendel, Untitled (from Horizontals/Horizontais), 1964. Exhibition details here. Source for Rheinberger quote here – thanks to Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard for pointing me towards it.

Achromatic telescopes & corby presses

Here’s Clive Scott, translator of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, on literary translation as a “centrifugal practice”.

“On the one hand, I am imagining a centripetal attitude to text, a continual return to a source text, which believes that this source text fully possesses itself in its linguisticity; that the literary is a stable constant within it; that what one must garner from it is its meaning, by interpretation. On the other hand, my hand as it were, is the centrifugal practice of text, which believes that the text is constantly in search of itself; that it does not comprehend itself; that it has yet to fulfil itself.” (Source)

So if we take this centrifugal attitude to the text, Scott argues, what follows is that any translation will cause the text, as he puts it, to “[fan] out into multiple versions of itself” – these versions not just being various interpretations of its meaning, but “performances of the experience of reading it”.

This provides a way of rethinking and maybe rehabilitating the discredited idea that an artist might be a translator of scientific research. Because this is translation not as a faithful return to a source that knows itself, and has a stable meaning, but as an imaginative multiplication of the possibilities inherent in an engagement with an excessive experience. Maybe the scientific text, the journal article, doesn’t behave like that: but the experiment itself might be such a multiple, expansive, contested and shifting object.

The translation of the experiment is not a matter of disciplining the imagination then, but of employing it to develop the inherent potential of the experimental scenario, which in this reading is no longer fully owned by any one discipline. This is very much the spirit of translation and enquiry we’re trying to develop with the Hubbub project.

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Peter Vickers discusses the 18th-century instrument makers who successfully made achromatic telescopes by combining two lenses made of different kinds of glass, but managed this based on a false analogy, taking their lead from the supposedly different refractive properties of the lens and the humour of the human eye. (Source) In fact, as Vickers notes, the eye suffers from exactly the kinds of “chromatic aberration” as previous telescopes, only corrected in the brain. Vickers’ point is about the difficulties of deciding which parts of a theory are involved in making a prediction; but for thinking about the role of imagination, the interest lies in this ambiguous relationship between a system of knowledge, later abandoned, and its dependent but surviving invention. We can see the usefulness of the false analogy, the train of thought which rattles loose enough to jump tracks, or the leap of imaginative connection that misfires but lands somewhere hospitable. We need to make room for these kinds of serendipitous achievements too.

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Translations of three secular chansons by the Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez (d.1521):


Faulte d’argent

I did it for the vine, I did it for the gram
a force de batture, sent letters to sault
Ligeti’s stochastic hammer
in the ditch below the walls.
I, Josquin des Prets, otherwise J.p.
Jo. de Pratis, Josquini, Joskin Dascanio etcetera
meadowed in loosestrife
quail running at the bailiff’s knock
lightly through rubble the
popcorn at the end of its bellcurve
the consonants dragging their ligatures
along empty autostrade
sparrow without an excuse
nor a funding proposal nor shoes

Douleur me bat (Motivic cells remix)

slapped by dollars
nux vomica
desire dressed me

protrusions (blebs)
vesicular trafficking
bleb-to-bleb

I’d prick faded nylon
I’d grab a corby press
I’d clip acetate statins

and sad billfolds
a goat’s embrace
in wolfskin wallets

in rice paddy folds
in frog bone brace
in biscuit palette

to crease financial trysts
to fix your orthodontist
up banks the Tiber mist

Plusieurs regretz

Janus-faced with a silent J, or condemned to the adjective. Collapsed after frosts, exposing moon-milk cavities in tufa. 19 + 17 + 13 + 11. At the start of the performance 1000-lire notes were dipped in paste and gently layered all over the surface of his face. Line up your receipts from last month and ask yourself if there’s something wrong. Iron wires and gold threads passing under water. 9 + 19 + 21 + 11. A moment later, his tuxedo spattered with gastric acid and mucus. The nearby volcanoes have upset the usual ratio of isotopes. The mathematician nicking a baboon’s fibula to make her calendars. Lightly through rubble the jewelweed popping in the heat.

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Parts of this first aired at ‘MindSpace’, 25 March 2015. The reference to Vickers is adapted from a separate paper.