Nora N. Khan

Decession

Picture courtesy of Manuel Sepulveda

This is the text I wrote for a performance by Bill Kouligas, who heads the PAN record label, and the artist Spiros Hadjidjanos, for Hören: DECESSION, a night of performances at the Volksbühne theater in Berlin. The installation was multi-layered. Spiros built the beautiful curtained backdrop of optical fibers – connected to active wireless routers. Bill performed his original composition. Two opera singers – Pan Daijing and Annie Gårlid – spoke and sang sections of the text.

Lisa Blanning did a very thorough review of the evening. The Volksbühne has a couple hundred year-long history of countercultural performances, so this evening, which also featured collaborative works by Claire Tolan, Lars Holdhus, Amnesia Scanner with writing by Jaakko Pallasvuo, and M.E.S.H., seems like it fit right in.

Bill and Spiros share a complex and vast vision for this performance. Back in January, they gave me about a dozen starting points and references, from the really divine work of Robert Ashley and Bernd Zimmermann to the first performance of Gounod’s Faust to use fiber optics, in Paris in 1833.

My main research for writing this was Jeff Hecht’s comprehensive City of Light: The Story of Fiber Optics and other works on the history of light and laser optics, and optical communication networks. Like any writing, I do not think of this as a final version.


Space Between

ONE

1
This is how I learned to see
What wasn’t there.
I moved from this room
To the bottom of the Pacific.
I fly over the lip of deep sea trenches.
One, two, and three thousand miles,
To your mind; to the innermost room
in the mind of my friend.

2
I remember the songs of past labor.
I still exist in pre-optic time;
I cared, I raised, I built;
I was in thrall to everyone but myself
I was the bard of the court
I was allowed to roam the delay
Why do I need holographs when
this loneliness is a kingdom?

1
Fused silica and flame hydrologies:
The most beautiful phrases in the language
My feeling travels instantly along glass thinner
Than a strand of your hair.
I peddle the gospel of the space between.
Precision, concentration, guiding and coursing
I draw a thin blue line from my mind to yours
B to A, back to B again.
What can be moved from A to B?
What can be carried in light?

2
Everything can be, is, converted to light
My voice, your voice, my ideas, yours:
You are three thousand miles away
And I speak to you across space and time.
The mind has space to experience
What cannot be named.
Our speech, exchanged,
Becomes an object
We can examine together.
Our lives become
A formal experiment.

1
I dreamt we met in Bell Labs in 1972.
You told me how you had no
Idea of what you were watching.
You told me how not knowing
Made you start to see differently.
You told me how being overwhelmed
With light and with sound
Made you feel your mind
Turning in its socket.
Infrared light running
One, two, three thousand miles
Makes for a disturbing poetic flow
A comfortable alienation
No matter how many times your image is distilled
I believe I see you, I see you, I see you.

2
Even if you could visualize all events
Across a trillion screens
What of it?
Even if you could contain all contingency
What of it?
In knowing all that happens,
Will you feel less pain?

1
I can tell you that you can self-purify
Just as material can be purified
In successive iterations;
Glass purified by competing labs
To just ten impurities per billion parts.
Each line of thought is a new limb
Emerging from my side.

2
I can’t hear you. Hello?
He said your face is a tesseract.

I have to get going.

1
Goodbye–

2
Take care.

TWO

1
Why have you dragged me
Out here into the street?

2
Before the first war
My family built match boxes at home.
We sold boxes of light on the street for money.
The Masonic temples were lit by candles year-round
Imagine the streets completely dark,
Imagine Paris without any light
We saw the first electric lights in the gardens
The lit city gave us more hours to work.

1
Light guided along the fountains by showmen,
Your image coursed along the water even then

2
Guild workers spinning glass
My father worked for British Telecom
He laid down the first cable in the Isle of Wight.
Progress! Vanity!
Daguerrotype, binocular vision.
The world focused in stereo image with delays
A train tumbled out from the theater screen

1
When we were small we watched the Gulf War on television
The Gulf War was a flash of red and orange lights
In the four minutes before dinner.
I designed my own circuits and coils
While other kids put on Shakespeare in the backyard
I went to doom metal shows at the edge of town
I built crystal radios and shortwave radios.
1.7 billion bits per second.

2
On Roman sarcophagi
Painters isolated the body in the field
They wanted you to believe you were alone,
Your body isolated against a blank.
Don’t forget the original joy.
Move to enchant future simulations.

1
My memory of you
Distilled into an image
Thrown down through time,
And receding in space.
Now ten billion bits per second.
The network is just a medium,
Built on the faith that if I reach into it
Someone or something will reach back.

THREE

1
I have also walked through empty streets
The main street of the city I grew up in
Which coal left, which steel left
Is shuttered. In this degradation,
We had one outlet
In every crummy bedroom
A portal to be reached
No matter the personal horror,
The purity of the abstract
Could be found.

2
My grandfather passing
Came over the phone in 1994.
I knew from my mom’s voice
That she heard the news.
She told me the voice sounded so far away
That she could pretend it had not happened.
You go on like this
Life passes like this
A call comes in the middle of the night
Nothing ever comes to pass
In the way you think it should.

1
TAT-8 was buried safe from sharks.
The bottom of the Atlantic hosts our future.
Split along a thousand selves,
I cast myself forward and back along time
At a trillion bits per second.

2
Which one of you am I speaking with now?
The future I see is accumulation, extortion.
Panic, violation, intrusion
Violence and certain domination.
Machinic vision without empathy.

1
But there is a tenth of a second
In which you see how things could be
A brief vision of the uncanny
In such clarity it keeps you chasing.
Guard this original impulse
In aural hypertext.

2
What of the blank?
What in the heart of your mind’s eye?
I can hear doors opening in rooms I can’t yet see.

1
Manifest that sound between us
Press up against the screen to find your meaning
Immerse yourself in what you cannot explain
Day after day and year after year.
Endless computational time.

2
Synchronicity, a fluid movement
Between dream and body
At least when you imagine
My body spinning through space
You might think about
What has happened to me before.
You might think about
What happens to me after.

FOUR

2
I learned to think alone
I learned to see alone
I learned to build alone
How will we live in non-time?

1
I can slow down the image of a face
As it changes in time
To pinpoint its transition to indifference
These virtual images will outlast us
And the culture we’re in
Data transferred across space is a search for the unseen
I watch my words move across space and time
There is a reason we have come together like this, now
In intimate and emergent meanings

2
I can revisit every version of you

1
We are more than the space between us
I had to fight to cross the space between us
All processes between us will expand
All processes between us will multiply
I am the taxonomy of all my possible selves.

2
Between us is a third figure
A small god with one eye
Imagining new ways to live

1
I will put your name in lights in the sky.
Paradise is embedded in a neural network.
A small god with one eye
Imagining new ways to live.

END