V

THE STORY OF TIME AND SPACE CONCEPTS – OF REALITY IN THE WORK OF JOHN CAGE AND DAVID LYNCH

V

THE STORY OF TIME AND SPACE CONCEPTS – OF REALITY IN THE WORK OF JOHN CAGE AND DAVID LYNCH

Oui, je sais qu’au lointain de cette nuit, la Terre
Jette d’un grand éclat l’insolite mystère
Sous les siècles hideux qui l’obscurcissent moins.
Stéphane Mallarmé, 1883

Fig.1 Andy Warhol, Albert Einstein, from Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, 1980, screenprint on paper, 40 x 32 in. (101.6 x 81.3 cm). The Jewish Museum, New York. Gift of Lorraine and Martin Beitler, 2006-64.4 © 2014 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / VG-Bildkunst Bonn http://assets.thejewishmuseum.org/exhibition_hero_images/2008_warhol_einstein_hero.jpg
Fig.1 Andy Warhol, Albert Einstein, from Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, 1980, screenprint on paper, 40 x 32 in. (101.6 x 81.3 cm). The Jewish Museum, New York. Gift of Lorraine and Martin Beitler, 2006-64.4 © 2014 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / VG-Bildkunst Bonn http://assets.thejewishmuseum.org/exhibition_hero_images/2008_warhol_einstein_hero.jpg

Modern constructions of reality – and media – begin with Einstein. In retrospect, his discovery in 1905 of Quantum Theory liberated ideas from the prevailing theory that light travels only in waves. He therefore paved the way for the invention of the photoelectric cell or “electric eye”, which in turn opened the way for other inventions, such as motion pictures and television.1

For an art historian dealing in various contexts with the interfaces of art and science, it is particularly fascinating to consider the film work of David Lynch in light of historical relations and networks, “rhizomes”, as Thomas Becker has described them in Deleuzian terms. Such a line of investigation is also driven by the simple comments which repeatedly appear in discussions of Lynch’s movies: “Life is contingent”; “Everything is relative…”; David Lynch’s work referring to this stance is, therefore, an illustration of ‘reality’ as it is”; “The Art of the Real”.

From the very start of his cinematic career, David Lynch has refused to cater to the viewing habits of Hollywood mainstream, despite enjoying popular acclaim with Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. It is beyond doubt that non-linear narratives, simultaneous and interlocking plots and moebius-stream structures characterize Lynch’s work.

So, what is the basis of this “Art of the New Real”? Who helped to foster the concept?  What are the fish, so to speak, that David Lynch catches when he is catching his ideas? Are they red herrings, or “pieces”, as it were, which “were there” as Lynch has said, and as Thomas Elsässer so poignantly quoted.

We will start a tour d’avant-garde, not a ‘Grand Tour’, but it nevertheless requires  some travelling through time. We will begin with an excursion back to the 18th-century concept of the Sublime, then to Romanticism and William Blake, passing Dada, Russian Formalism, a nod to postwar modernity, and finally arriving at John Cage and David Lynch. In the spirit of this volume this will be presented not in chronological order, but following the question of the epistemological dimension of time and space in terms of specific aesthetic objects.2

Another point must be made concerning ‘Cage’ and ‘Lynch’: Questions of acoustics and sound, and its relevance for Lynch’s work, have to date attracted little attention in scholarship.  My research on modern concepts of art, however, has highlighted the necessity to consider the space-generating role of sound in contemporary music.

John Cage, in particular, in his graphic, musical and performative work, provides a good example of blurring the boundaries between the fields and practices. This, in turn, leads us to structural analogies to Lynch’s approach.

In the 18th century Edmund Burke proposed his concept of the Beautiful and the Sublime in his seminal essay, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). 

The idea of the Sublime – greatness inspiring awe – dates back to antiquity, to the treatise On the Sublime, attributed to Longinus, and probably dating to the 1st century. The development of the concept of the sublime as an aesthetic quality in nature distinct from beauty, though, was first brought into prominence in the 18th century, in part inspired by the translation of Longinus the previous century and the adoption of his ideas by a number of philosophical thinkers.

In short, according to Burke, the Beautiful is the well-shaped and aesthetically pleasing, whereas the Sublime has the power to compel and destroy us, inspiring shock and terror.3

The preference of the Sublime over the Beautiful marked the transition from the Neoclassical to the Romantic Era, and indeed, the beginning of Modernism. Romantic thinkers, in both Britain and Germany, were particularly interested in the Cathartic effect of such a shock therapy, preferably exerted in raw nature, and which was supposed to pave the way for a higher level of consciousness, as a new, more secular form of spiritual illumination.  In Germany it was the Schlegel brothers, Tieck, and in particular Novalis, who dwelt extensively on this idea.

This is relevant for our discussion of time and space and David Lynch in terms the following concept: through a specific topology – such as nature – and by means of an aesthetic cathartic experience, the viewer achieves a higher level of awareness, thus entering a different mental space, quite remote from the actual course of time. In this context we might recall the dream of the young aspiring poet Heinrich von Ofterdingen in the famous fragment novel-fairytale by Novalis:  in his dreams he wanders in strange forests and encounters the blue flower, the ultimate object of desire, losing all sense of space and time – only to wake up in the dull reality of his ordinary home.

Fig. 2: Screenshot of Lady Blue Shanghai, by David Lynch 2010
Fig. 2: Screenshot of Lady Blue Shanghai, by David Lynch 2010

In 2010 David Lynch directed a short film for Christian Dior’s advertising campaign, following in the footsteps of Olivier Dahan and Annie Leibovitz. Lynch wrote a visual poem about Shanghai and turning it into a brief, bag-centric tale where Marion Cotillard visits the city for the first time and has a strange encounter with a man, a hand bag, and a blue flower. Lady Blue Shanghai is shot on a shaky digital video, offering dreamy sequences of blurred city lights – a deliberate yet controversial decision Lynch made after Inland Empire.

Marion Cotillard’s character is a stranger in a new area, all alone. Suddenly she is moved by a sublimely tall building, the Shanghai Oriental Pearl Tower, a 468 meters high television tower. This supposedly was inspired by a poem describing pearls falling on jade, thus prompting an imaginary journey to an undefined Shanghai, with music from the 1930s and abstract lights creating an eerie surreal atmosphere. The handbag scene in the end echoes the handbag of Mulholland Drive and  the blue key, although here it holds a colored rose –  a blue flower –  the symbol for unfulfilled longing, impossible love.4

To remain in the world of dreams and concrete visions with respect to the reception of the sublime, let us go back to a poet and artist whose imagination influenced many generations to come.

William Blake was born the year Edmund Burke wrote his treatise on the sublime.5 The English poet, painter and engraver, is one of the earliest figures of Romanticism and an incubator the Anglo-Saxon interpretation of the Gothic. The most famous of Blake’s lyrical poems is Auguries of Innocence, written in 1803, but published only in 1863, with its memorable opening stanza:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

It certainly condenses ideas of space and time.6

Blake’s fame as an artist and engraver was established by a set of 21 copperplate etchings illustrating the Book of Job in the Old Testament. Completed between 1819 and 1820, it is part of a series of works depicting „Visionary Heads“.7

Blake often said that he was joined by invisible sitters as he drew them, including, he claimed, a number of angels, Voltaire, Moses, and the Flea.

In both his artwork and poetry, Blake often gave personality and human form to such abstractions as time, death, plague and famine. Insects such as fleas, as Christian Kassung has shown, are often associated with uncleanliness and degradation; in The Ghost of a Flea, he sought to magnify a flea into „a monstrous creature whose bloodthirsty instinct was imprinted on every detail of its appearance, with ‚burning eyes which long for moisture‘, and a ‚face worthy of a murderer‘.”

Fig.3 William Blake, The Ghost of a Flea, c1819-21, tempera and gold on mahogany, support: 214 x 162 mm, Tate Britain, London, © Tate, London 2016 Image source: http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/romanticism/images/WilliamBlake-The-Ghost-of-a-Flea-c1819-20.jpg (Jan. 29th, 2016)
Fig.3 William Blake, The Ghost of a Flea, c1819-21, tempera and gold on mahogany, support: 214 x 162 mm, Tate Britain, London, © Tate, London 2016 Image source: http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/romanticism/images/WilliamBlake-The-Ghost-of-a-Flea-c1819-20.jpg (Jan. 29th, 2016)

We have an epiphany, a vision, staged in a ‘real’ setting in a pictorial logic: This gigantic figure is moving into that space, turning its deformed back to us. It appears to be caught in action, more an eerie snap-shot than a real portrait, vaguely reminding us of Lynch’s Elephant Man.

Precursors to surrealist film can also be found in one of Blake’s most famous series, Canto V, commissioned to illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy and never completed. Whirlwind of Lovers, 1824 – 27, was his illustration of hell: A veritable stream of curiously lustless bodies, transformed by the light into a stream of consciousness.8

Fig.4 William Blake, The Lover’s Whirlwind c1824-26, pen and ink and watercolor, 37.4 x 53 cm, City Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham Image Source: http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/romanticism/images/WilliamBlake-The-Whirlwind-of-Lovers-Paolo-and-Francesca-c1824-26.jpg (Jan. 29th, 2016)
Fig.4 William Blake, The Lover’s Whirlwind c1824-26, pen and ink and watercolor, 37.4 x 53 cm, City Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham Image Source: http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/romanticism/images/WilliamBlake-The-Whirlwind-of-Lovers-Paolo-and-Francesca-c1824-26.jpg (Jan. 29th, 2016)

A different form of stream of consciousness is offered by David Lynch in his 2008 music video Chrome Optimism. Lynch remarked:

“Sound is almost like a drug. It’s so pure that when it goes in your ears, it instantly does something to you. And you can tell if that’s working for you.”9

In a series entitled Chrome Optimism, Dubblestandart brings together an unlikely combination: Jamaican dub originator Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, David Lynch, and French avant-garde composer Jean-Michel Jarre. In his lyrics Scratch juxtaposes spirituality with nonsense. David Lynch responds with more mind twisting metaphors such as “Euphoric, chrome optimism” and mantras like “The ideas tell you how they want to be” and “I got into this cosmic delusion”.10

The music video is presented as a road movie, realized – once more – with a shaky camera. There is the Lynchian Drive, which Samuel Weber has astutely analyzed, a stream of nature fleeting by, which should be kept in mind when we turn to John Cage. The role of nature here, as a sublimated – or shall we say “sublated” in the Hegelian sense – conversion of Burke’s shocking sublime, leads directly to the role of light. And there is also a parallel to William Blake’s sky. The role of light within the discourse of modern physics is relevant here.

In 1905 Albert Einstein published three short scientific papers, which transformed notions of perception and reality. It is generally accepted that his special theory of relativity presented here, that later developed into the general theory of relativity, rendered space and time as fluctuating elements in our universe, with the speed of light remaining only constant. What does that mean in epistemological terms? An answer may be found in the role of light in Lynch’s movies as an intermediator between space and time.

This has allowed us to talk about space and time in terms of individual stories. This revolutionary concept has been around for over hundred years, and yet struggled against thousands of years of Aristotelian poetics, which demand a unity of place, time, and plot. And as Thomas Elsässer pointed out, the Renaissance concept of representation in a central perspective mode remains deeply rooted, clouding our perceptions still.11 The revolutionary potential of these ideas has been present for some time, and since the beginning of the 20th century there have been seminal examples of modern art and performances which deal with these new concepts of reality; we will discuss a few of them.

Einstein’s Quantum Theory established the notion of light simultaneously consisting of waves and of particles, thus inspiring Heisenberg’s ‘Uncertainty Principle’ and Schrödinger’s Cat: The unlikely event of the same elements or person being present at two different places at the same time.

Fig. 5: Screenshot/press release David Lynch, Mulholland Drive, 2001, Studio Canal
Fig. 5: Screenshot/press release David Lynch, Mulholland Drive, 2001, Studio Canal

This problem is addressed in the ‘Mystery Man’ in Lynch’s Lost Highway, who has a telephone conversation with Fred while simultaneously talking to him at a party. This apparent “Doppelgänger” phenomenon reflects a concept of reality as being optional, dependent on perspective. This also appears in Mulholland Drive12, and notably in Inland Empire when Nikki/Sue relives the initial scene on the set remarking “There is somebody”, subconsciously referring to her double.

Fig. 6: Inland Empire by David Lynch, 2006
Fig. 6: Inland Empire by David Lynch, 2006

The action continues in a Moebius strip logic, being the same, yet from a different perspective.13

Fig 7: M.C. Escher, Moebius Strip II, 1963, Encyclopedia Britannica http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/images/moebius_strip.jpg
Fig 7: M.C. Escher, Moebius Strip II, 1963, Encyclopedia Britannica http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/images/moebius_strip.jpg

The theories of Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and others were, indeed, widely discussed within the artistic post-war ex-patriot community, especially at American universities. Einstein, who moved to Princeton in 1932, also taught at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina, one of the first post-Bauhaus creative excellence clusters.14

Fig 8: Black Mountain College Experiments: Buckminster Fuller [front, center] and others hanging off his geodesic dome at Black Mountain College, Black Mountain, North Carolina, ca. 1951. (Courtesy of the Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina) photo © Masato Nakagawa http://blackmountain.aaschool.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/geodesic-dome-bmc-high-res.jpg
Fig 8: Black Mountain College Experiments: Buckminster Fuller [front, center] and others hanging off his geodesic dome at Black Mountain College, Black Mountain, North Carolina, ca. 1951. (Courtesy of the Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina) photo © Masato Nakagawa http://blackmountain.aaschool.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/geodesic-dome-bmc-high-res.jpg

And this brings us directly to John Cage: Black Mountain College was a flashpoint for American counterculture in the 1930s and 1940s, and served as an artistic and scholarly haven for avant-garde artists and teachers. Black Mountain’s first art teacher was Josef Albers, a refugee from Nazi Germany and a leader in the Bauhaus art movement. Albers’s former students Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning both taught at the school’s summer sessions. Experimental composer John Cage and inventor Buckminster Fuller were both professors at Black Mountain. Others associated with the college were dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, Cage’s partner, and Bauhaus director and architect Walter Gropius. Guest lecturers, in addition to Einstein, included the author Thornton Wilder. At Black Mountain College, in particular, an interesting element of deferred time manifested itself. This is apparent in the fact that modern musical experiments – as in strictly speaking musical performance, and realized by the likes of John Cage – developed some thirty years after corresponding phenomena in the realm of the fine arts. Of course, there have always been artists working in the field of sound, as Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate, or the Russian Formalists’ theatrical performances. Yet all of these have to be considered within their respective artistic and socio-political contexts.

It is difficult to summarize the life of John Cage, a native of Los Angeles, in a few words. Born in 1912, he visited Europe in the 1930s, first Paris, completing his first compositions in Mallorca. On his return to Los Angeles in 1934 he was accepted as a student by Arnold Schönberg, and developing his own set beyond 12-tone music, moving to New York in the 1940s and working closely with David Tudor and Merce Cunningham.

Fig 9: John Cage, Fontana Mix, 1958, photograph © John Cage (Music Division at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts) http://dataisnature.com/images/FontanaMix_JohnCage.jpg
Fig 9: John Cage, Fontana Mix, 1958, photograph © John Cage (Music Division at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts) http://dataisnature.com/images/FontanaMix_JohnCage.jpg

Of interest here are key structural and aesthetic issues within his work. For example Fontana Mix, written in 1958, consists of 20 pages in total of graphic material: pages with six curved lines each as well as ten transparent foils with dots, which were applied randomly.15 After a certain system, certain graphs deriving from two of these pages create intersections and measurements, which can be freely applied to musical events such as volume, sound color and height of sound. The performer finds no score in a traditional sense, but a manual, as it were, to annotate a composition. The drawing is reminiscent of abstract experiments by Dada, Bauhaus artists and the Russian formalists. It clearly reflects John Cage’s contact with European pre-war artists and intellectuals such as Hugo Ball, Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, László Moholy-Nagy and Kurt Schwitters. John Cage was one of the most rhizomatic individuals, working with almost all the great fine artists of his time. In this respect we should also mention his engagement with the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism such as Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt, and the new post-war art movement in the US with Robert Rauschenberg and others. In fact, he created the very first “happening” as we know it, in 1952, the year of his second teaching term at Black Mountain College, which he called Untitled Event.16 

This ‘Event’ warrants a closer inspection, as it lays core fundaments for dealing with contingency, which becomes interesting for David Lynch’s handling of chance. It was on Cage’s visit to Black Mountain College in 1952 that he radically disrupted previous forms of performance, generating a dispersal of attention and a radical fragmentation of linear narrative. By the time Cage returned, he was utilizing pseudo-chance compositional methods derived from parameters provided by the I-Ching. But it was Antonin Artaud’s 1938 collection of essays, The Theatre and Its Double17, with its call for a medium of theatrical performance beyond the scriptures of literature, that provided most fertile ground for the 1952 ‚Event.‘ Cage and pianist David Tudor, his long-time collaborator, formulated an idea for a performance with multiple participants who would perform during various overlapping time segments totaling forty-five minutes. According to Cage, he proposed that Charles Olson and M.C. Richards read their poetry, student Robert Rauschenberg display his paintings and play records, and Merce Cunningham dance. Tudor was to perform on the piano, and Cage would read from a previously prepared lecture on Zen Buddhism. To Cage, the event represented the possibility of events taking place without being causally related to one another, although he had in fact established strict time brackets and organized the event with particular temporal and location parameters. The seating arrangement allowed performers’ mobility throughout the audience, and followed Artaud’s pronouncement that „the spectator, placed in the middle of the action, is engulfed and physically affected by it […] immerse[d] […] in a constant bath of light, images, movements and noises.“18

The employment of a chance protocol in Untitled Event, one of particular parameters (duration, assignment of specific tasks to performers, or an agreed-upon use of certain tools or instruments) governing the execution of the work, represented an attempt to sever experimentalism from determining factors such as artistic intention or argumentation.19 Simultaneity of sound, forms, space, blurring all into one, the individual as part of a larger whole, is also the experience of the Lynch music video mentioned above.

Fig. 10: John Cage, performing 4’33” in 1961; The archive of the John Cage Trust is stored at Bard College in upstate New York. http://mag.pianotut.ru/i/mag.pianotut.ru/ipi/87f22bb28ddba26d86f4abcf2c236b1b.jpg oder: http://www.toypianoworld.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/John-Cage-toy-piano.jpg
Fig. 10: John Cage, performing 4’33” in 1961; The archive of the John Cage Trust is stored at Bard College in upstate New York. http://mag.pianotut.ru/i/mag.pianotut.ru/ipi/87f22bb28ddba26d86f4abcf2c236b1b.jpg oder: http://www.toypianoworld.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/John-Cage-toy-piano.jpg

John Cage, indeed, took an extreme path with his most famous piece, the 4’33”. It is a composition based on staged silence, and just like Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, marked a temporary end point. Although composed in 1952, Cage already thought about it in 1948 where he mentions it as ‚Silent Prayer‘ in his article A Composer’s Confessions. In the work no intentional sounds are made during the entire duration. The first version the work consists of 3 movements lasting 33″, 2’40“ and 1’20“. These timings were chance determined. Later Cage reworked the piece entirely, creating a quite different composition from the original.

Commenting on the piece, Richard Kostelanetz remarked that: „What is written as a silent passage is actually filled with extraneous sound (noise), because pure silence is physically impossible; therefore, every piece of music we hear contains sound both intentional and non-intentional.“20

Much has been written about 4’33“ and Cage’s ideas behind its silence. We will focus on two: firstly, that silence does not exist, one simply should listen and open one’s ears; Secondly, that silence is a means to separate tones and chords, and thus to avoid melodic interpretations to chronology of sounds

Cage echoes Mallarmé who, some seventy years before, celebrated the whiteness of the page and the in-between as the essential epistemological tool. Mallarmé can be recognized as elevating the literary crisis to a poetics of contingency. Hegel’s assertion that “heaven is dead” inspired the idea that nothing should be at the beginning of the beautiful and the ideal. A new form of poetry, la poésie pure, that played on rhythm, syntax and semantics was celebrated. Transcending the l’art pour l’art of a Téophile Gautier, Mallarmé aspired to l’idee pure: ‘Suggestion’, rather than ‘representation’, lay at the core of this new poetry. Mallarmé, together with Baudelaire and Verlaine, were influential for the Dada movement at the beginning of the 20th century and for poets and artists such as Gertrude Stein and Marcel Duchamp who were close to John Cage. The film theorist Bela Balazs remarked that: „The presentation of silence is one of the most specific dramatic effects of the sound film. No other art can reproduce silence, neither painting nor sculpture, neither literature nor the silent film could do so.“21

David Lynch is well aware of this fact and uses silence in various ways: for example, a lack of dialogue to heighten absurdity, as in the scene of Twin Peaks with the old room service guy, or in Straight Story, to stress the solitude of Alvin. It becomes most obvious in “Silencio”, the Club in Mulholland Drive (and in Paris).

But whereas Balazs stresses that “all sound has an identifiable place in space” in his chapter on “Sound in Space”, Lynch uses sound as a fourth wall, as it were, a spatial agent in its own right.

Lynch’s use of noises creates not only a musical score, but also forms a special audio narrative for the viewer, offering unique view-points. There are background noises, ‘room-tones’, silence and dialogue. They interlock with the visual story of Lynch’s films in a Moebius string sense, or rather, as “red herrings” in a propaganda sense, distracting the viewer’s attention, and often creating further mystery. Lynch worked on this effect with Angelo Badalamenti since Blue Velvet. Badalamenti is for Lynch what David Tudor was for John Cage: a musical alter ego.

When David Lynch studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia (PAFA), he made a series of complex mosaics in geometric shapes which he called Industrial Symphonies.22

Fig. 12: David Lynch, Industrial Symphony Nr. 1, min. 37’22“
Fig. 11: David Lynch, Industrial Symphony Nr. 1, min. 37’22“

The use of chance is obvious and appears to draw on Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 1, 1939.  Cage has suggested that “Chance is a leap beyond the reach of your own self”.23 This piece was written in 1939 at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, the first in Cage’s series of five Imaginary Landscape pieces.

Scored for four performers who play a muted piano and cymbal, and two variable-speed phonographs with amplifiers, Imaginary Landscape No. 1 is known for being one of the first examples of electroacoustic music.

Cage aimed at increasing awareness, opening new frontiers, uniting elements and genres, developing ways for a structure beneath contingency.

His insistence that “Art equals life by imitating nature in her manner of operation”, transforms the Aristotelian notion of natura naturans vs. natura naturata, a concept the philosopher Hans Blumenberg has elaborated extensively According to Blumenberg’s interpretation of Aristotle, technology produces the same things as nature; they differ only in that technology is effective from outside whereas nature is effective from inside. Blumenberg appears to overlook any ontological difference between artifacts and natural things. A similar vein emerges in Cage’s quote and Lynch’s approach in his films, in which nature appears objectified and inanimate objects come to life.24 For example, Lynch’s Intervalometer Experiments/Steps of 2007, in which he experiments with time lapse photography at three locations.25 The stairs appear to run by themselves, just like in Lost Highway when Renée is woken by the dog to get the second tape. The dream-reality moebius-string is evoked by John Cage and Marcel Duchamp in the 1947 film by Hans Richter, Dreams that Money Can’t Buy.26 This dream session evokes rather basic principles, each reverie dependent on a raw topological portal: A pillow, an ear, or a fence can serve as necessary catalysts, thresholds into another world.

Lynch resonates these ‘launch platforms’ in his early film titles: Alfabet, Grandmother, Eraserhead, Elephant Man and so forth.

A prime example of this Alice-like ‘mirror’ is the Red Room in Twin Peaks.

In Lost Highway the cabin offers multiple spatial distortions of staircases which culminate in the goedel-like structures of Inland Empire with its confusing set of switching corridors and adjacent rooms (not to mention the Rabbits).

Wherever we direct our eyes in Lynch’s movies, it is the objectified threshold that reigns: neither here nor there.  For example, in Eraserhead, it is the radiator, in Black Velvet, it is the closet. In Mulholland Drive, we have the Diner, the Blue Box, and the night club Silencio. We can see that those ‘topoi’ serve as a drive for a changed concept of time.

Do these tendencies of dreams, surrealism and nightmarish narratives that celebrate the relativism of time and space necessarily show Lynch to be an escapist, a l’art-pour-l’art fetishist? This is the conclusion in much recent scholarship. So we may ask: Is Lynch  an artist painting a post-ideological environment – with a utopian or rather epistemological claim?

Cage’s thoughts on art and politics may help us here:

“You know, my tendency is to think of these activities – of protest, and of parades, and objections, and all these things– as being like critical actions rather than like composing actions. I know in my case, … that nothing that the critic said, stopped me from composing. Now it seems to me that the war is not going to be stopped by critical action, or, if it is stopped, that it will be succeeded by another war, et cetera. I think something like a composing action needs to be made rather than like a critical action, in order to bring about a world where these things to which we clearly and rightfully object will not take place.”27

All the aforementioned Avant-Garde movements centered on an issue, were driven by the need to change the parameters of the world, or at least individual perception. It might be well possible that Lynch is continuing the Habermasian project of modernity – albeit with the medial means of 21st century notions of changed authorship and agency.

  1. Quantum Theory eventually earned Einstein the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics; its relevance has been amply emphasized by Martha Nochimsen.
  2. This is the subject of a larger project in the context of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Science for 2015.
  3. Referring to Aristotelian terms of causality, Burke explains that the sublime also has a causal structure that is unlike that of beauty. Its formal cause is thus the passion of fear –especially the fear of death; the material cause is equally aspects of certain objects such as vastness, infinity, magnificence, and so forth; its efficient cause is the tension of our nerves; the final cause is God having created and battled Satan, as expressed in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
  4. It’s probably a hommage to the Lady From Shanghai (1947) by Orson Welles, one of the few directors Lynch cites as an influence. It may also allude to the books and films of Marguerite Duras , such as India Song (1975) and L’Amant (1992).
  5. Blake, William, b. Nov. 28, 1757, London, d. Aug. 12, 1827, London.
  6. Blake’s famous saying that „I do not behold the outward creation […] it is a hindrance and not action“, foreshadows Lynch’s recent remarks on the outer world as the Market Place, a hindrance to the “real road” that is potentially beyond.
  7. This work was commissioned by watercolorist, astrologist John Varley (1788 – 1842). Fantastic, spiritual art proved very popular in Britain from around 1770 to 1830 and Blake showed a strong interest in unearthly, supernatural panels.
  8. William Blake and his visual streams of consciousness have been an inspiration to artists from his contemporaries to the modern day.. In 2007 Patti Smith published her Vintage Poem Album of William Blake.
  9. In: Director’s Notes, The Hollywood Reporter Film & TV Music Special Issue, 1990, by Andy Klein, with many thanks to Dominic Kulcsar. http://www.thecityofabsurdity.com/intmusic.html (Accessed December 2014).
  10. Lynch’s comments refer to his powerful experience and obsession with transcendental meditation, although this does not answer the aesthetic questions. And there is a parallel in the fact that Blake’s contemporary’s wanted to put him in a madhouse for his strange visions. However, we should focus its reception, on perception, and thus knowledge.
  11. This being said, at closer look, the quintessential renaissance painters such as Masaccio consistently worked in a plurifocal way, as Hans Bredekamp has argued.
  12. Koen, D. W.; Vermaak, J. L.: “What’s Real About David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive?”, in:  Humanities and Social Sciences Review, CD-ROM ISSN: 2165 – 6258 Vol. 03, Number 2. May 2014.
  13. The Moebius strip, invented 1858 by  August Moebius, is basically a strip with one side and one edge, defining the concept of non-orientability. It is paradox, as it stands for continuity and at the same time for new orientation. See also: Herges, Rainer: “Möbius, Escher, Bach – Das unendliche Band in Kunst und Wissenschaft.” In: Naturwissenschaftliche Rundschau. 58, 6, 2005: 301 – 310.
  14. With the rise of Nazi Germany, in the 1930s, the US profited from a considerable brain drain by Jewish intelligentsia and free-spirited artists, among them Albert Einstein and many representatives of the legendary Bauhaus.  New art hubs emerged in New York, in Chicago where the New Bauhaus started with Walter Gropius and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and at the experimental Black Mountain College in the hills of North Carolina. Founded in 1933, and lasting only until 1956, it hosted a great community of staff and guest lecturers, many of whom became legendary.
  15. Within the context of the Berlin festival Maerzmusik, Volker Straebel commented extensively on Cage’s Fontana Mix (in German): http://www.straebel.de/praxis/index.html?/praxis/text/t-cage-fontana.htm
    See also the 2012 recording by Dominik Lash, utilising overdubbed double bass parts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-r6LyTUiYg  (both accessed December 2014)
  16. Fetterman, William: John Cage’s Theatre Pieces, Routledge, London, 1996: 97.  See also: Perloff, Marjorie: John Cage’s Living Theatre, in: Puchner, Martin; Ackerman, Alan (eds.): Against Theatre: Creative Destruction on the Modernist Stage, New York: Palgrave 2006: 133 – 48.
  17. Artaud, Antonin: The Theatre and Its Double, New York: Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 1966 (first published in French in 1938).
  18. John Cage, in this second event, was dwelling on other theatrical legacies, as varied as Dadaist simultaneous performance and Shakespearean theatre-in-the-round, previously explored at Black Mountain college by the Light-Sound-Movement Workshop organized by Betty and Peter Jennerjahn in the late 1940s, and revived by choreographer Katherine Litz and M.C. Richards in summers prior to the Cage event. Yet unlike these precursors, Cage’s ‘Event’ eschewed extensive rehearsals and previously arranged scripting, costuming, music, and detailed characterization.
  19. Cage broke with Albers on the issue of chance, and Cage later reconfirmed this argument as ratifying a uniquely American, as opposed to European, aesthetic, thus pushing form beyond intention or motivation.
  20. Kostelanetz, Richard: John Cage, New York: Praeger Publishers 1970: 108.
  21. Balazs, Bela: Theory of the Film. Character and Growth of A New Art. Roy Publishers: New York 1953.
  22. The play was originally presented (twice) on stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City as part of the New Music America Festival on November 10, 1989. It was released on VHS in 1990. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0tPCEDr0x8 (accessed December 2014)
  23. The work premiered on March 24, 1939 at Cornish College by John Cage, Xenia Cage, Doris Dennison, and Margaret Jansen.  See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLDxqnksY80&list=RDGLDxqnksY80#t=23 (accessed December 2014).
  24. Blumenberg, Hans: „‘Nachahmung der Natur’. Zur Vorgeschichte der Idee des schöpferischen Menschen“ (1957), Studium Generale, 10: 266 – 283
  25. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qc-nZbhN_Dw (accessed December 2014).
  26. Hans Richter’s extraordinary film, Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947) is one of the first “curatorial film projects”. Shot in color on 16mm with the sound post-synchronized, for a budget of $25000 ($15000 of which had come from Peggy Guggenheim), the feature length film took three years to complete. Conceived as a showcase for the work of Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger, Man Ray and Richard Huelsenbeck, the film was described by Richter as “7 dreams shaped by 7 contemporary artists”. The soundtrack features original compositions by John Cage, Paul Bowles and Darius Milhaud tied together by weirdly brilliant jazz.
  27. John Cage in a dialogue with Morton Feldman 1966 – 67, quoted by Bernstein, David B.:  “In Order to Thicken the Plot”, in: Writings Through John Cage’s Music, Poetry and Art, ed. by Bernstein, David B.; Hatch, Christopher, The University of Chicago Press: Chicago 2001: 15.
    And I would like to add a quote by Cage biographer Richard Kostelanetz on Cage and politics: “Once I recognized this tendency toward sociological rationalization in Cage’s commentary, I was skeptical about it, thinking it might represent a certain opportunism; but the more often I saw it, I began to recognize Cage as someone who came of age in the 1930s, when ideas about social betterment through art were more plentiful. To me, Cage was essentially a thirties lefty, who was more interesting than others who came out of that period because he made some original perceptions not only about art but especially about the place of politics in art, and then the possible role of art for politics, all the while remaining true to the sentiment of that time. In my sense of Cage, Zen and chance and everything else came afterwards; they are merely icing on this essentially anarchist cake.” In: Kostelanetz, Richard: The Anarchist Art of John Cage, 1993, (last upload: Dec. 3rd, 2014, http://sterneck.net/john-cage/kostelanetz/index.php).

Bibliography

Artaud, Antonin: The Theatre and Its Double, New York: Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 1966 (first published in French in 1938).
Balazs, Bela Theory of the Film. Character and Growth of A New Art, New York: Roy Publishers 1953.
Bernstein, David B.; Hatch, Christopher (eds.): Writings Through John Cage’s Music, Poetry and Art, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 2001.
Blumenberg, Hans: „‘Nachahmung der Natur’. Zur Vorgeschichte der Idee des schöpferischen Menschen“ (1957), in: Studium Generale, 10: 266 – 283.
Burke, Edmund: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Harvard Classics, Vol. 24, Part 2, New York: Bartleby.com, 2001.
Díaz, Eva: The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014.
Einstein, Albert: Einstein’s Essays in Science. Translated by Alan Harris (Dover ed.),
Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications 2009.
Fetterman, William: John Cage’s Theatre Pieces, London: Routledge, 1996: 97.
Herges, Rainer: “Möbius, Escher, Bach – Das unendliche Band in Kunst und Wissenschaft”, in: Naturwissenschaftliche Rundschau. 58, 6, 2005: 301 – 310.
Koen, D W; Vermaak, J L.:  “What’s Real About David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive?”, in: Humanities and Social Sciences Review, CD-ROM ISSN: 2165-6258 Vol. 03, Number 2. May 2014.
Kostelanetz, Richard:  John Cage, New York: Praeger Publishers 1970.
Perloff, Marjorie: “John Cage’s Living Theatre“, in: Martin Puchner and Alan Ackerman (eds.), Against Theatre: Creative Destruction on the Modernist Stage, New York: Palgrave 2006: 133 – 48.
Vermeir, Koen; Funk Deckard, Michael (eds.): The Science of Sensibility: Reading Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry, (International Archives of the History of Ideas, Vol. 206), Cham: Springer, 2012.
Waselowsky, Kurt (ed.): Novalis: Hymnen an die Nacht / Heinrich von Ofterdingen (Goldmanns gelbe Taschenbücher, Bd. 507), Munich: Wilhelm Goldmann, 1964.

 

Filmography

Duras, Marguerite: India Song, France 1975.
Duras, Marguerite: L’Amant, France/USA 1992.
Lynch, David: The Alphabet, USA 1968.
Lynch, David: Eraserhead, USA 1977.
Lynch, David: Elephant Man, USA 1980.
Lynch, David: Blue Velvet, USA 1986
Lynch, David: Industrial Symphony Nr. 1, USA 1990.
Lynch, David: Twin Peaks, USA 1992.
Lynch, David: Lost Highway, USA 1997.
Lynch, David: The Straight Story, USA 1999.
Lynch, David: Mulholland Drive, USA 2001.
Lynch, David: Inland Empire, USA 2006.
Lynch, David: Intervalometer Experiments/Steps, USA 2007.
Lynch, David: Lady Blue Shanghai, USA 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oepfkpkxjmA (accessed Dec. 2014).
Richter, Hans: Dreams that Money Can’t Buy, USA 1947.
Welles, Orson: Lady From Shanghai, USA 1947.

Recording:

Cage, John: Imaginary Landscape No. 1, USA, 1939. http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/imaginary-landscape-1/audio/1/ (accessed December  2014).