Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Helen Hughes for State of Decay

I.
On a day in 1996, I joined the long queue of schoolgirls to the reception at my junior school to get a black and white photocopy of a photograph of Lauren Hewitt’s face. Lauren, you see, was in our senior school and she was going to be in the Atlanta Olympic Games representing Australia in long jump — or something. As the queue before me shortened, friends began to come out of the office and compare their photocopies. Lauren’s freckles, which had once been so cute, were beginning to morph into frightening blotches as the bright white light under the hood of the photocopier ricocheted from left to right, left to right with its stoic, metronomic regularity. The freckles seemed to join together and multiply with each added copy, like a game of Conway’s Life on the athlete’s face, until the grey-scale contours were fully obliterated into stark, two-tone, black and white compositions. The grotesqueness of the abstractions augmented with a Richter-like quality until, at last, I was handed my version of the distorted portrait. Xerox-paper-white teeth beamed out at me from a mess of powdery black shapes, which in turn smudged and cracked with the slightest pressure applied to the paper.


II.

Seth Price, Mister Copy, talks about a generative violation of the original through the creation of its double — ‘a process’, he types wryly, ‘seen as one more step in the lamentable cultural slide from representation to repetition’. In his essay “Was Ist Lost”, about the culture of sampling in the minimalist music of Steve Reich and the invention of the digitised human voice, Price traces the history and economy of copying: from monks transcribing religious texts in the Middle Ages, to the establishment of copyright law in the sixteenth century, to the introduction and affordability of portable samplers in the late-twentieth century and their ability to generate, simultaneously, both presence and absence through glimpses at familiarity.


For Price, doubling as a measure of conservation is dialectically entwined with the process (or, perhaps more accurately, the threat) of decay. Speaking of the ritual of opera, where the same scores by Toscanini or Puccini are repeatedly rehearsed and regurgitated by successive generations of singers and musicians over centuries in a bid to safeguard the canon, he argues that the concept of originality is both preserved and destroyed by the looming threat of decay. Price writes: ‘The emptying gestures of ritual are a force of preservation, just as death is the romanticizing principle in life.’

III.
Robert Smithson experienced this in the sand pit (of his mind) in 1967. In his essay titled “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey”, he proved the irreversibility of eternity, or the one-way voyage into decay, vis-à-vis his famous vehicle of entropy. He entreated readers to …

Picture in your mind’s eye the sandbox divided in half with black sand on one side and white sand on the other. We take a child and have him run hundreds of times clockwise in the box until the sand gets mixed and begins to turn grey; after that, we have him run anti-clockwise, but the result will not be the restoration of the original division but a greater degree of greyness and an increase of entropy.

Lauren runs up and down the track jumping into the sand pit as the school photocopier, exhaustively, spits out black and white, A4 pictures of her face into its plastic tray. Aspiring sopranos around the world rehearse Toscanini in their bedrooms while the Metropolitan Opera House in New York prepares for the opening night of Verdi’s Aida. Meanwhile, in the colonial outpost of Melbourne, a digital film of Puccini’s Tosca performed at The Met is beamed onto a screen in Lygon Court, Carlton. These repetitions hold their place over centuries, while context, purpose and meaning slip quietly away. They are replaced by a nostalgia for such things. A photocopy of desire, devolving further into abstraction with each iteration.

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