/ARCHIVE — 2011
/JOSHUA SCHWEBEL — FONOGRAPH
I read the news today oh boy
/JOSHUA SCHWEBEL has exhibited his work across Canada and internationally. He has pursued residencies at the Banff Centre for the Arts, the Perth Institute for Contemporary Art (Australia), and Artfunkl (United Kingdom). Upcoming is a residency at CAMAC (France). Fonograph is his first solo exhibition.
/FONOGRAPH – JOSHUA SCHWEBEL
The works Joshua Schwebel has assembled under the title of Fonograph appear at first to be brought together under this inaudibly misspelled banner only by their engagement with music, through the works of Messiaen and The Beatles. Yet clearly, these are not pieces of musical or sound art. No, these works are much more slippery and subtle than that. At their core they are all experiences of the abdication of presence, of erasure and hiding, while nevertheless leaving clues behind – in short, they are an exercise in the making of a secret.
However, the cleverness of these works, and their creator, is that they realize that secrets are not made in their hiding, but in the searching for them. A secret hidden forever is simply nothing, a kind of absence or emptiness, and is lost to us forever. It is only in the traces of being hidden that a secret leaves behind that we learn something is missing. Thus, the works of Fonograph ask us to become detectives – perhaps Poe’s Dupin – instead of passive spectators: we must actively look, hunt, and search for clues amongst the works. Here, the focus on The Beatles, and the possibility of Paul McCartney’s death in a car accident, become clearer. While we generally think of those Beatles fans that poured over Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band for clues to Paul’s death, and his replacement by the imposter Billy Shears, as nothing more than conspiracy theorists, in fact, they were detectives of a sort—indeed, hermeneutical detectives—searching for clues to uncover the truth.
This is where Schwebel’s works begin to present their challenge: in looking for traces of a secret’s erasure, are we not perhaps just conspiracy theorists too? That is to say, how do we know that the ‘clues’ we find to be pointing to a deeper meaning hidden beneath the surface are actually clues at all? Why are they more than what they purport to be? Here these works push back against the very possibility of discovering meaning in them (which, after all, is the secret we have been searching for), challenging us to consider that perhaps these traces that we have ‘found’ are not disclosed by the work at all, but are created by our act of looking for them, thereby investing in them this deeper significance. This is a question of surface, and with that, presence, which not only closes off access to a depth beyond the surface but also throws the very existence of that ‘beyond’ itself into doubt. This question is designed to be unanswerable – indecidable——and to act as a source of constant doubt in relation to any discovery of hidden meaning, demanding humility in our interpretive acts and our role as spectator-detective.
Yet this doubt cannot be paralyzing. It cannot become so radical that nothing but surfaces and appearances are accepted. For surfaces can hide, creating secrets by their erasure of what lies beyond them. This is what we find in the record of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, where, the record slowly deteriorates and the messianic music erodes as it is played. Here the loss is real and concrete, burying the music as time progresses, hiding its message of the to-come. If surfaces are all we have, then this act is one of destruction, a slow march toward the death of the future. Yet the music’s messianic message – which is the promise of the future par excellence –opens the possibility that this erasure offers us an experience of the beyond through the traces of its erasure, its having left. The erosion of the record leaves a residue of its former presence and offers an engagement with it that nonetheless preserves it as hidden.
This is the hope that such absences offer: that somehow in their de-materialization, in their having been hidden, they leave behind traces of their passage. This is different from offering up their secret, which would be their disclosure as the hidden truth. In their revelation these absences would simply render themselves present – indeed, the most present – destroying their place of depth beyond the surface. Instead, by remaining hidden but announcing their absence, they offer an engagement with what is beyond the present. This construction allows us to cast off any suspicion that only surfaces – only presence – can be trusted, for here there occurs an experience of depth that preserves its absent character. Put simply, we are able to discover that there is a secret precisely because it stays a secret.
Thus, it would seem that these works are not challenging us to become detectives, but rather explorers. The task is not to find anything here—because in thinking we have found something we become conspiracy theorists since all proof has been erased—but rather, it is to simply search and to look. In so doing, we come across what is left behind by the movement away from presence into the realm of secrets, while respecting that we can go no further than that, for in the end the secret is beyond us.
/DANIEL GOUDGE is a graduate of SUNY- Stony Brook’s Philosophy and the Arts program, where his focus on 20th century continental philosophy culminated in his thesis on the work of Emmanuel Levinas. Goudge currently lives and works in Toronto, Ontario.