Making Eye Contact

10 May

(Cross-posted on O(h)rtlos)

It’s a well-established cliché that telecommunications technology and high-speed transportation methods make the world a smaller place – that they modify (shrink) space, or the experience of space.

It might be more useful to say that communications technology contracts time, and that with the creation of the Internet, time has shrunk to nearly a singularity in much of the world, communication becoming sufficiently dense to create an moment of simultaneous awareness. However, this in turns problematizes the distances of space in new ways.

There are plenty of empirical phenomena that can be used to gauge series of events, and to thereby say that certain events happened at the same time, others before or after, but in terms of subjective human experience, time has traditionally passed not simultaneously, but in parallel. We can say that a certain event in human history occurred somewhere in Mesoamerica in what we now call 1000 CE and that another event happened in the same year in a region of the Ural mountains, and this will be empirically true so far as it can be measured against another event which happened simultaneously to both (a certain volcanic eruption, say or the passing of a comet) yet in terms of human experience, time was passing in Mesoamerica and the Urals in parallel: while they were both happening at the same time, the lack of interknowledge between the two experiential time streams separates them. This is true of smaller distances: Early Medieval Spain and Early Medieval France may have been closer to having simultaneous streams of time, but events (or information about the events, or meaningful effects stemming from that event  that happened in a Spanish village would still take time to reach a French village, and this is part of what imbued time and space with meaning: space was what it took time to travel through. Space separated times and time separated spaces, they were measurements of each other.

With contemporary telecommunications and data storage, there comes a deep spatio-temporal disorientation. If I can follow events in, for example, Cairo’s Tahrir Square in real-time day after day via Twitter and al-Jazeera, it becomes increasingly uncanny that my quotidian experience, as dictated by interaction with my direct physical environment, stays the same, that I do not find myself swept up in a factory strike or swept away by military police. As time shrinks we are confronted by the fact that space has not shrunk commensurately, and the increasing disconnect makes space considerably weird.

There is a simultaneous effect working on the past as more and more cultural material and information is stored and made increasingly available: the singular moment fostered by communications technology reaches further and more widely into the past. If, for example, the most-recently released English fusion of dubstep and Chicago footwork and the most recent “Cold Wave” compilation of Belgian synth-pop come to me simultaneously, in the same formats and through the same channels, both seem equally contemporary and of the present moment. This phenomenon then goes on to influence the creation of new cultural materials, and one hears more and more artists influenced equally by bands of young white middle class Americans from four years in the past and compilations of West African guitar pop recorded in the early 1970’s that were re-issued four years in the past, and in a few more years I would be completely unsurprised to hear newly created works that split the difference between Cold Wave and second-decade dubstep. Materials spiral steadily toward the center of the temporal singularity, and in being transmitted through a global communications network, works that were once tied to a place more and more lose spacial specificity due to temporal simultaneity.

It becomes easier and easier to absorb without a second thought these combinations of what were previously spatio-temporally disparate influences. 70’s afro-pop and mid-aughts indie rock combine to the extent that a fusion of the two (controversially at first) eventually it becomes its own strain of pop music. We listen to post-dubstep R&B and begin to forget that we didn’t listen to R&B in the first place. Eventually, people who only listened to post-dubstep R&B will make their own R&B, and it will eventually seem to fit perfectly next to R&B made two to three decades previous.

However, there are artists that can still create their own powerful disorienting effect, and again this disorientation is spatial.

All of which is to say that today, May 10th, is the release date of Gang Gang Dance’s Eye Contact, and the foremost question in my mind when I listen to that album is: where and when will people listen to music like this? It is full of songs that, if I try fumbling towards a description, I would have to call New Age Stoner Jam Old-Skool Rave Revival Chinese-Pop from the 2030’s. Where would such a music be made? In what contexts would people listen to it, what will the physical environment in which that they negotiate their quotidian lives be like? To respectfully disagree with Mark Abraham in Cokemachineglow, I believe he sells the album short when he says that “the band is demanding we hold their gaze while they school us on the finer points of the popular music of the last 30 years,” thereby making it less exciting than the more ahead-of-the-game Saint Dymphna (2008). I wouldn’t say that Gang Gang Dance is deliberately and self-consciously mining the past, they are merely operating in a space in which the past (and future) have collapsed; Mark Abraham seems slightly annoyed that the album opens with the quote “I can hear everything–it’s everything time,” but he may be reading it incorrectly. The phrase doesnt’ mean that it is “time for everything” – that is, time for Gang Gang Dance to combine everything they can muster over the course of the album following that introductory quote, but that the album takes place in “everything time,” the temporal singularity in which past, present and future are folded together. (On a sidenote, It’s also more likely — certainly more appropriate — that the increasing-infinity interludes refers less to “the ten-year-old’s game of ‘infinity x 3’ trumping lesser infinities” and more to the Georg Cantor’s concept of the transfinite.)

Eye Contact is the exemplar of a field of work being released this year that could be called “Futuristic Non-Anglo-American Pop Made By Anglo-Americans,” along with Rainbow Arabia’s Boys and Diamonds and, to some extent, Battles’ Gloss Drop (they decided to borrow a Chilean on Köln’s Kompakt label and a Japanese mad visionary to speak for them) and Ponytail’s Do Whatever You Want All The Time.

Like Boys and Diamonds, Eye Contact suggests a kind of conjectural or imaginary world music. On that album, Rainbow Arabia summons the strand of Swedish pop that combines 80’s synth memories with chintzily borrowed africanisms, and stretches it into an invented future, perhaps one in which Chinese artists begin to borrow cultural elements from the countries (many African) which the PRC has, in the past half-decade, begun to send investment dollars and Chinese workers to, forming a new syncretic music based on new conceptions of periphery and core. Of course, it’s unlikely that such music will ever come to pass in such a context: even if the 2030’s do see a wave of Chineseafrosynthpop, it will probably sound unlike either of these albums. However, when technology continues to compress time into a singular moment, why wait to create a music until it’s chronologically or geographically appropriate? The deep spatio-temporal disorientation brought about electronic telecommunications creates a confusion in both listener and artist: how can Gang Gang Dance not feel that they are perfectly capable of using the elements of the past to create the future music of other peoples, and how can I, as a listener, wary as I try to be of “appropriation” and allow Euro-American subjectivities to speak for the “other,” not somehow believe that this band, and those like them, are able to do just that?

Eye Contact ends with a robot voice whispering “live forever,” and this is the ultimate effect of the squashing of time, perhaps one part of why so many tech-optimistic futurists insist on predicting some sort of  human immortality by the end of the century: if one is constantly in an eternal moment, how can one ever expect to die? That voice commanding us to “live forever” may as well be the voice of the Internet itself.

Oh, and if you were wondering: it’s a very enjoyable listen, too, synthy, percussive, complex and messily beautiful music that sounds like what the future used to sound like, what the future sounds like now, and quite possibly what the future will sound like in the future. I’m not sure if, come December, I will consider Eye Contact to be the “best” album of the year, or the one I enjoyed the most, but I have no doubt that it will win the Zeitgeist Award for 2011.

Strange vibrations.



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