Fonograph > More Fonograph

A text to be published in Stride Gallery's yearly exhibition catalogue, written by Daniel Goudge.

The works Joshua Schwebel has here 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 their being looked for. 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 a secret leaves behind of its being hidden that we learn that there is something 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 for clues to Paul’s death, and his replacement by the imposter Billy Shears, as nothing more than conspiracy theorists, in fact, they were a kind of detective –indeed, a hermeneutical detective – searching for clues to uncover the truth.

This is where the 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 point to a deeper meaning, hidden from the surface, are actually clues at all? Why are they more than what they purport to be? Here, these works begin to push back against the very notion 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, investing in them this deeper significance. This is a question of surfaces, and with that, presence, which not only close off any access to a depth beyond them but also throw into question the very existence of that beyond at all. This question is designed to unanswerable – indecidable – acting as a source of constant doubt to any discovery of hidden meaning, adding humility to our interpretive acts, 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 through 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, as it is played, this messianic music begins to erode as the record slowly deteriorates. 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 are left with, then this act of erasure is one of destruction, a slow march toward the death of the future. Yet, in the music’s messianic message – which is the promise of the future par excellence – there opens the possibility that this erasure offers to us an experience of the beyond, through the traces of its erasure, its having left. The erosion of the record leaves something, a residue of its former presence, which offers to us an engagement with it that nonetheless preserves it in its absence.

This is the hope such absences offer: that somehow, in their de-materialization, in their hiding, they leave behind traces of their passage. This is different than offering up their secret, which would be their disclosure as the hidden truth. In revelation, these absences would simply render themselves present – indeed, the most present – destroying their place of depth, beyond the surface. Instead, by remaining hidden, yet also announcing their absence, they offer an engagement with what is beyond the present. In so doing, we are able to cast off any suspicion that only surfaces – only presence – can be trusted, for here there occurs an experience of depth that also preserves its absent character. Put simply, we are able to find 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 – it is in the finding of some thing that we become conspiracy theorists, for all proof is that which 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 the secret, in the end, is beyond us.

This is the joy of a posture of excited anticipation for the future, for what is to-come. Here, there is a suspense in not just what will arrive, but also in when, if ever, the arrival may come. It is akin to waiting, yet it is never passive. Instead, it is a comportment that is receptive to both what comes forth and what does not, for only in such a posture are we sensitive to both that which is present and that which is absent. Here we are able to then revel in not just what is before us, but also what is beyond us, like an explorer venturing unto the utterly new, the future itself.

by Daniel Goudge