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SOUND: LISTEN TO EXTINCT CRICKETS SCRAPE THEIR WINGS TOGETHER*

by Nicola Sebastian

What is music to the transhuman body? Like fish out of water, creatures emerged from the unbroken surface of silence in order to speak to one another. The first sounds “made”, that is, created with intention, were in song. Distinctions between organic and synthetic, created and made, analogue and digital, (pro and anti-life?) are echoes of ye ol’ nature and man debate.

The first capsule in +EAT is described as “music”, and it too offers an interesting dichotomy, as misleading as a mirror, between the linear sequence of a video (R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ï̤̈ẗ̤̈ṳ̈̈ä̤̈l̤̈̈) and the 3D navigations of a game (Non-breaking Space) — although their respective creators (all Singaporean) describe the former as a sitcom and the latter as an EP. Ritual is all the rage — but is it the repeating machine itself or the circuit (non)breaker? What does it repeat; what does it break? Where does it hold; where does it manage to transcend?

SIDE A: “Songs on loop”

The hiphop remix, birthed in the basements of East Harlem, is made of discarded scraps of song — the sonic quirks and in-betweens that could only be heard by the kind of people who weren’t being listened to, and certainly never let into all the good parties. The likes of Grandmaster Flash picked up the glitches in the matrix, to make a quaint reference in the Gen Z age. In R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ï̤̈ẗ̤̈ṳ̈̈ä̤̈l̤̈̈, singer and multi-instrumentalist Claude Glass, electronic music producer deførmed, and visual artist Cybercesspool have created a ritual in the form of a 22-minute long audio-visual [autogenic] remix.

“Our idea of ritual in this case was just a repeating practice passed down through generations,” explains deførmed. “With each generation, there almost always is a deviation from the original.” The first five or so minutes of the video set the tone, iterating on the idea of nihilism with cyber-grunge lines like,“Twisted down and shuffled out/ An emptied hand to mend the burnout/ Yet just another knot on this mortal coil/ To stop the slip before the free fall down.”

Even the visuals echo and repeat: Waterfalls flow up as well as down, spiralling lines, looping bloopers, and never-ending corridors. “I regurgitated, rinsed, and repeated, which was my form of ritualistic production,” says Cybercesspool, who created the visuals. For the more sentimental moments in the audio track, she says she “drew inspiration from gameplays related to liminal spaces such as Anemoipolis, Just More Doors, and RHOME”.

However, as the words and images repeat, they lose their definition, and so become more interesting; the sounds wash over the shapes made in your mind; patterns emerge and dissolve on your computer screen.

 

SIDE B: “The query”

As for Non-Breaking Space, ritual is a song that shapes space itself, giving it distinct edges, features, the this-and-not-that. Specifically, five new songs by musician and artist Anise, who collaborated with artist Brandon Tay, as well as performance-maker Sonia Kwek, writer Amanda Lee Koe, and producer and sound artist Mervin Wong, to create five corresponding digital landscapes. But to describe this hybrid EP in terms of place is to underestimate the abstract plasticity of the hyperspace that Anise and Brandon have co-created. “Each of these experiences are approaches to a related query,” explains Brandon. Anise expounds: “Each track is an etch of a bigger story. ‘The Source’ is the beginning of that query, meandering through four other tracks that unpack my relationship with worlds, beings, phenomena that dwell on Earth.” Brandon is quick to add that each of their collaborators had “a different question to ask that the work poses.”

Nevertheless, the overarching query is the title itself, the search for a Non-breaking Space, which suggests that it begins with brokenness. “The title and artwork were borne out of a desire for less separation between mind, body, other, nature, a merging of sorts,” says Anise. “As a child of second-generation immigrants in a very urban place, the distance I feel from the land is quite immense, and I’m still in the process of finding ways to come to terms with that widening gap. I suppose this is our (and I use ‘our’ loosely) context—this gulf.” Anise’s experience of nature is its lack, and yet her word choice calls to mind a body of water, typically the oceanic kind.

If the query starts with “nothing,” accordingly our presence must be a non-presence. Allow your sense of self (and with it, any this-and-not-thats) to disintegrate like the dancing corpse in “Citizen,” the last query of the exhibit-and-EP.

As the ashes of Sonia Kwek’s avatar float into the “air,” I’m reminded of Taal Volcano, which is actually a lake nestled in a volcano within another lake nestled in a bigger volcano, a Southeast Asian informal counterpoint to Barthes’ East Asian imperial not-centre city. After years of lying dormant, Taal erupted in January of 2020. The sight of the soot silently coming down like burnt snow, mildly choking everything within 14-kilometre radius, cancelling weddings, killing 39 people, was for many the portent, the Beginning of the End, or at least the beginning of labelling each catastrophe that followed as the New Normal.

 

SIDE A: “Is he dead yet?”

Is repetition an expression of a desire to return to something lost, or is it a slick system of avoidance? In R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ï̤̈ẗ̤̈ṳ̈̈ä̤̈l̤̈̈, the viewer (first-person player?) travels down a hallway lined with doors she cannot enter. Meanwhile at 2:21, a man in the teddy bear suit who insists on using the stairs incorrectly is caught in a loop of hitting the ground, but never quite moves onto the act of dying (On the last repetition, a man with a smashed-in face lies on the ground in his place: a body double, complete with a pool of blood, for the hapless, bodyless, Internet avatar).

Depth psychologists see suicide ideation in teenagers as a yearning for a rite of passage in a secular society. If the void is the Internet, perhaps art is the ritualised attempt to break through the void by obsessing over it.

SIDE B: “Here we are now (Entertain us)”

In “Animism,” I see myself in the mirror: WHAT I DO IS ME: FOR THAT I CAME. This is a line from the poem that guides this second query, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. If I should be a grotesque floating thing, an eyeball, with tendrils for trailing on surfaces, so be it!

But this is merely an ante room. Cushy, fleshy, adorned with lines of poetry and a sculpture of a body shaped into nonbodilyness though it is, I am here to wait, and to prepare for What Comes Next.

I step into the hallway on one end of the room and its membranes light up in response, urging me to move forward. Something like the sound of a parrotfish munching away at its home (coral) to help form my home (island) – the opposite of static really – crackles over my senses, a promise that greater ASMR titillation awaits just up ahead. It reminds me that this space is designed, that my interface has been given boundaries, my movements tracked by the W, A, S, D keys on my laptop.

I reach the other side, ready for a spectacle.

 

SIDE A: “Never really always quite”

More than an echo or evasion, Claude Glass sees in repetition an overlap, maybe even a connection, however conditional, or ironic: “From the get go, at least from my end, I was trying to find similarities in our differences,” he says. “We landed on that backdrop of absurdity, as an overarching theme, if you will, as there was a part of this in each of our works, through Cybercesspool’s heavy influence of Internet noise and the exploration of her own reality through memes, deførmed’s genre-skipping style into everything from rock to breakcore to noise and back, and I often take a bit more of a narrative route in my work … through lyrics and warping.”

Claude Glass often finds himself revisiting a line from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: “Nothing to be done.” For him, the video reflects his own struggles with meaning, or the lack of it.

 

Yet, interestingly, he describes the noise of nothingness in positivist terms. He thinks of the experience of the video as “a cacophony that is present, whether suppressed or out in the open.” It makes me think of the cosmic microwave background, the oldest sound crackling through human frequencies, which is in fact the fossilized echo of the Big Bang. Literally the thing that made something out of nothing.

 

“Things change, rituals constantly change, and repetition is never really always quite the same,” I italicise his words, zeroing in on this contradicting syntax, this random slip in his language, and hold on for dear life, meaning-seeking entity that I am. To me, the very act of three artists coming together to make a video about ritual and repetition seems to already ask, “Can something be made out of nothing?”

SIDE B: “Why not?”

There is a moment in “Anima Animus,” when the dancing twins, interesting in and of themselves, start to mirror and replicate infinitely along an axis. A thousand synchronised doubles react to each other to form familiar shapes: two hands in the shape of a heart; two bodies recreating a womb; a he and a she; a light and a dark; a strong and a weak; an us and a them. They push, they pull, finding balance only in conflict. They were never two people, but now they are no longer two dancers: they have become Archetype, speaking to us in the language of our collective unconscious. All we have to do now is follow the pattern. The image has become a meme.

The third query makes me ask: is the Internet a something or a nothing? Haptic feedback isn’t quite as electric as a warm breath in your ear, but it feels real — and in the ways social media has programmed the way we talk to each other, the way we talk to ourselves, it can make real, too. The power of the virtual is the sheer breadth of it – breathless (lifeless) and abstract (disembodied) – which we can use to simulate experiences we haven’t had yet, replicating them until we’ve constructed entire worlds of possibility, much in the same way that science fiction does — utopian and dystopian, both.

“The term Nature, and by extension ecology is pretty fraught. Where do we really draw the lines on what’s natural?” asks Brandon Tay. “I try to take the position that from where my context is, is where my ecology is located — be it on my computer, at home, is where I define where nature begins. In this work a lot of the symbols, figures and architecture are mimics, they pretend or assume to be other persons. An avatar that appears to be more plantlike, becomes more insectile, itself captured via motion capture of Sonia mimicking a plant, this exists in ‘nature’ and an effective strategy for discovering these forms.”

“Technology sometimes feels like both the question and the answer to this ecological crisis,” adds Anise.

Alas, any potential for scale is a potential for profit. Tech companies achieve replication more than creativity, these days, amplifying our basic drives rather than approximating progression, let alone balance. So never mind, somethingness, then — is the Internet actually even new?

“Like Bruno Latour says, maybe ‘We have never been modern,’” remarks Brandon Tay. No one believes the Internet is free anymore, but opportunities still exist, as he sees it. “Counter-‘gaming’ or hacking the ways we even choose to interact allows us that ability to destabilise digital spaces for our own purposes. So, we might never have control over the servers that Amazon owns, but we can use them in a way that they will never understand or have control over. The stress point, or non-breaking space for me exists where a person meets a machine, there’s so much that can be done—so why not?”

As long as we stay in the game, we can still play.

 

SIDE A: “Moved on”

J. is brushing his teeth. He tells me he read the CNN post on Facebook about Martial Law victims and their families gathering in Libingin ng mga Bayani, the Heroes Cemetery. They are there to remember those killed and disappeared under the Marcos dictatorship, those scarred by the history that 31 million Filipinos want to forget. He tells me about the comments section.

 

You’re only few [sic]. Mga pasaway kayo siguro (You must be a dissident).

U must moved on [sic]…do that when people not watching. Ewan kung ngayon lang kayo nagpunta to put mud again to the family !!! (Why are you going there only now to smear the [Marcos] family).

Hahahaha.

Mga activists

Those are lists of leftist or mga NPAs [sic]. (This comment gets 7 reactions: thumbs up, angry face, laughing face)

“No one knows what a communist is, anymore,” I say, with a bitter laugh.

“Do you know what a communist is?” J. asks Chicken in a high-pitched voice. She wags her entire body. Chicken is our  bandit-eyed black and white aspin. When we adopted her we almost changed her name to Indie (she was born on Philippine Independence Day), but it didn’t quite stick. It’s been two weeks since the son of our former dictator Ferdinand Marcos won the presidential elections by more than half the votes.

 

R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ï̤̈ẗ̤̈ṳ̈̈ä̤̈l̤̈̈ moves into its second act with a bearded Puerr in a captain’s hat. He keeps himself occupied in a rectangle differentiated by two features: a yellow blob (“island”), an expanse of blue (“sea”), and a bit of garnish (“coconut tree”). He repeats his day, over and over, into oblivion.

 

“All in all, I’d go so far as to say that the breakthrough was that there never was a breakthrough,” says Claude Glass.

 

“Nothing to be done.”

 

[Note to self: Google NARODNAYA VOLYA LITERATURE]

 

SIDE B: “Th(is)land, is(my)land”

A gulf may be an empty space, but empty space makes space for other things.

Some other things, as Anise sees it: “queerness, otherness, alienness, kinship, tenderness.”

“Shifting away from Haeckel’s / Linnaeus’ versions of ecology, I’m attempting to understand ecology from a less objective/utilitarian/orderly point of view. “I was drawn to a version of ecology that was less confident of what it was. An openness to nature being unknowable and a surrendering to the study and process of it. I know the titles of the experiences sound quite final — I had used them as a roadmap to dig deeper into some existential questions of my own.”

 

“I don’t admit to knowing the way back to anything more holistic!” Anise is quick to add. “I would also say I’m still finding out.”

 

Maybe the query then is not a matter of finding out, but of finding oneself in. Starting from her experience and radiating outward across the cement plains and jungles (built over the eradication of more than 90% of Singapore’s primary forest, according to Anise), she found circles within circles, life nestled within life. The island multiverse (I say it in my mind like Leeloo says “Multi-pass” in The Fifth Element).

 

“Some parts of the work involve finding safe spaces within this locality,” continues Anise. “‘Mutualism’ for example is inspired by a queer satellite family that came together as a result of being alienated from our own homes/in Singapore; ‘Citizen’ [is inspired] by my partner, ‘Animism’ by my dog… all the characters and players live here.” The pandemic has made it clear that safety is no small, sure thing; precarious even with the purest of intentions. “As long as physical bodies are a requirement to experience and make art, it is vulnerable to policing.”

 

“Mutualism” is the fourth soundscape in Non-breaking Space, which I am starting to see as both stage and altar: giant-sized everyday objects are arranged so that inner and outer spaces can meet — what is this orchestrated attunement if not ceremony?

 

Here, nestled in the gulf: Tarot cards ready for the next reading. A bottle dropper (Aromatherapy? Vitamin C? Vitamin D? CBD?). A French press, empty for now. A Moleskine left open, blank. A hair brush, the kind with the knobby ends. Fluffy hotel slippers. And a single banana, already going brown. Artifacts of an IRL, work-from-home existence, overgrown with circuitry plugged into — what? The mycorrhizal network of people and places that a single life holds? A platform for livestreaming user-generated content?

 

Brandon offers a way to think of existence as simply space, hyper or otherwise — our experience encoded by our location. “An approach I’ve been sitting with lately is from Eduardo Batalha Viveiros de Castro, which is the idea of Perspectivism. He posits that humans and non-humans exist within a flat ontology, with a different epistemological perspective. That helps me deal with respecting the context of how to think about a way of seeing the world, wherever it might appear. It is specific, yet at the same time holistic.”

 

SIDE A: “Swim in it”

Recap: “Once upon a timeless loop,” three artists made “nothing.”

Through glitchy repetition R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ï̤̈ẗ̤̈ṳ̈̈ä̤̈l̤̈̈ maps an increasingly existential experience: the breathless grief of empirical collapse. In another era, maybe this would have been sung as: “Come on life, and come on death.” In this sense, the lyrics from the video’s opening section, function more like the opening act, whereas Kurt Cobain’s echoing scream seems to trace the void itself (it still shatters my internal performance of being “okay”).

Godot’s “Nothing to be done” has seen some remixes. “Nothing even matters,” sang Ms. Lauryn Hill in her first and best and only album The (Mis)Education of Lauryn Hill. When Mac Miller was still around, he’d be saying it like this: “Nothing from nothing means nothing.”

But even the performance of chaos isn’t chaos itself. “We quickly realised that we can’t keep repeating the same thing again and again for 20 minutes,” explains deførmed, “so we devised a structure.”

“I wanted to bring a more song-based style to this piece, as opposed to more abstract, avant-garde pieces that could potentially be more common in a setting like this,” says Claude Glass. “I was looking a lot at artists who did songs with words, but in a way that was more interesting to me. Some of these artists/bands include black midi, James Blake, Jockstrap, Arca and Son Lux. A lot of the remixes and instrumentals were also inspired heavily by more left-field hip hop groups like Injury Reserve, Dos Monos and JPEGMAFIA.”

Sans breakthrough, the video still has a climax: in “a seven-minute (from 9:56 - 16:58) collaborative musical piece between deførmed and I… essentially 7 remixes done in a linear fashion. We remixed each other’s track, and remixed those remixes over and over again. This was our way of exploring this theme through music, where each remix still carried a certain element from its preceding remix, or even from 4 remixes before that.”

 

If this is nothingness, it’s certainly pressing up against the screen, “Only to plunge through ceiling, brick, and wall.” Kinda like Tetsuo from Akira, a below-average guy who accidentally receives unlimited psychic powers and turns into the worst version of himself, and then even worse, still. He mutates into a grotesque kaiju, his unrecognisable flesh exploding into all available space, threatening to engulf the city.

Tetsu-OOOOOOOOOOOO, the horrified hero Kaneda shouts his name, sound transcending name like body revolting against self, replicating to orgasmic excess. Even the kaleisdoscope does not know how to say, When.

“Mistakes were made,” it’s been said, by presidents who repeat the mistakes of history. Maybe we’re not too different from 2:21’s Teddy Daddy, and we’ll never know how to step down, get off, find balance i.e. reach the ground without hitting it face-first. But maybe also mistakes are like a (cess)pool we can all swim in. The water may be piss-warm but there’s loads of space to muck about, and here, in the non-commercial territories of hyperspace, the stakes are low, or non-tangible at least (if not-non-fungible). As long as you manage to amuse, no one cares whether you’re a troll or bot or a conspiracy theorist or a mukbang vlogger or a cosmetically-enhanced IG doll, because it’s all fake anyway. So, call people in!

“[The Internet] is a breathing, ever-changing creature,” says Claude Glass, which I’ve placed here out of context, although he does eventually circle back to the thing he’s made with deførmed and Cybercesspool. “Our work predominantly studied Internet culture and its supposed ‘noise’, this is mostly fueled from user-generated styled content such as the stuff you’d see on TikTok or Instagram, and how its humour draws from memes that, in and of themselves, and by its nature of creation, are all about reframing [pop culture].”

 

My “Nothing to be done” is “No life! Never, never, never, never, never!” King Lear. In 2018, I watched the Royal Shakespeare production of the play at BAM in Brooklyn, New York. The king has seen the truth of his folly, too late. He holds onto the dead body of his only faithful daughter, Cordelia. “Thou’lt come no more,” he says. The word “Never” is ripped out from actor Sir Antony Sher’s throat over and over again, and I almost believed that the two-step rhythm of his cry would jolt like a defibrillator something else out of the void: life, another breath, perhaps even a forever. Maybe she’d come back from the dead. Maybe death is not the end.

 

For a moment, King Lear thinks he see the breath returning to his daughter’s body, but it is only his own death, arriving.

 

Maybe absurdity is a perverse form of hope, the belief that, in the face of utter despair, something can still come of it: a bitter joke, a defiant delusion, the feeling of flight. Even if the only action left to us is a reaction, it is ours, because it is free.

 

But there’s still much to be done about nothing. Everything is a query, inviting us to respond. The makers of R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ë̤̈:R̤̈̈ï̤̈ẗ̤̈ṳ̈̈ä̤̈l̤̈̈ glitched and riffed and repeated and laughed at all of it, especially the emptiness inside, but even as they were talking over each other they were listening. You can’t make music if you don’t. You can’t perform a ritual without paying attention. Are there voices in the noise, or is it just our imagination? And if you know how language works (you+me+the space in between), then when was it ever not just our imagination? Sometimes you just gotta Forrest that Gump and run with it.

 

Claude Glass, for one, keeps going: “I personally feel that this producer-consumer complex is a step forward in democratising and destabilising digital spaces, as a lot of it stems from what seems like the ground up, through a vast network of individuals connecting through memes, pop culture and online platforms.”

 

deførmed, for another, diverges: “There definitely is some influence from the Internet but personally there wasn’t much ideation on the big companies and authoritarian regimes. Just focused on the freeness of it.”

 

And Cybercesspool gets the last laugh: “Gone are the days when the term ‘IG/Internet artists’ was cringe…The traditional ‘white cube’ is no longer a place people want to consume art… As Joji once said, ‘there is good music/art anywhere if you put in the effort to find it’…You snooze, you lose, keep up non-believers!”

 

SIDE B. “Peace”

We come to the End, which is also the beginning. The first query in Non-Breaking Space is titled “The Source.” To navigate we press SPACE, and to begin we move towards a bald head in a round room. The head opens its mouth to reveal transmuting images: flowers and fractals bloom to reveal a skull that becomes a baby’s head, then an eye patterned after a galaxy from which mushrooms erupt, becoming Earth.

Does a place of wholeness and wildness still exist, within or without? Is there something to be found, something to return to, and does that something offer a way forward?

“I think the term ‘non-breaking space’ is kind of interesting because it infers that there is a potential for breaking, and also its opposite, offer Brandon. During the process of the project, from both a technical, conceptual and process standpoint, there was that potential for breaking, but in the end, with the nature of the people involved and how we co-created this space together, we developed a vocabulary that spoke to all our interests.”

“We all agreed the sacred flow we created when working together was only available when we were in the same physical space,” adds Anise. “A lot of the work began when we were playing off each other’s ideas in the context / in relation to our bodies.” She says that some breakthroughs were bodily, involving major illnesses and time. “Exploring the movement for ‘Citizen’ with Sonia and Brandon using motion capture involved throwing out everything we had built for that track, but because of the way we were so raw and open to each other that process was easy.”

As is the custom in many ceremonies, the first song performs an invocation, a plea for special intercessions from the relevant demigod:

 

Wildfire:

Seed me stories. Breathe me my narrative.

Even if infinity actually exists, we may never touch it. Never never never. “The relation with infinity cannot, to be sure, be stated in terms of experience,” wrote Emmanuel Levinas, “for infinity overflows the thought that thinks it.” But we can certainly imagine it, play with it, ritualise its shape and sound. In the space of creativity, especially the collaborative kind, reality calls, and ritual responds. A woman bleeds every month, and a man cuts himself to mark an auspicious moment, and we call it all Holy.

 

Maybe if we remix nature and man, the void and time, you and me, us and them, for long enough, these tiresome dichotomies will start to double and blur, becoming infinitely iterative, and we’ll finally get over these scruples we have (way more scruples than we have pearls to clutch). All that will be left will be the experience – everything, everywhere, all the time – aglow, aflicker, atwitter.

The void is the space that holds mystery and mysticism. Our response to it can be anxiety, or awe. Here, ritual can be a roadmap, helping us to plot not the exact location of our destination, but what it feels like to have arrived—in the gut, on the skin, in the heart, the inner ear and the back of the neck. “The indefinite / non-finality of our knowledge of this world is beautiful to me,” says Anise. “From a young age I’ve been trying to make sense of climate grief and my taking up space/air in this fraught ecosystem. Reading about [eco-feminist Donna] Haraway’s relationship with her dog allowed me to find peace with my own — I think I’m pursuing peace through this study.”


* This is a suggestion passing as a title. Google it, or read this article by David George Haskell.