Sunday, April 30, 2017

Synchronicity by Robin Meier

Robin Meier/André Gwerder, Symchronicity (detail).
Yesterday I had the thrilling experience of being taken through the  remarkable art installation, “Synchronicity,” (co-created by  Robin Meier and André Gwerder) by the artist Robin Meier himself. The work is a key component of the spectacular two floor exhibition, “The Transported Man" in the Eli and Edythe Broad Museum of Art (Michigan State University), the first show at the Broad curated by its new director. Marc-Olivier Wahler.  (On July 1, I will assume the directorship of the nearby MSU Museum, a few buildings west of the Broad.)  This specific installation is the latest iteration of Meirer and Gwerder's multiyear, international Synchronicity project, previously created for Art Basel 2015 and elsewhere, in which the artists have incorporated live insects and human-produced sound, to explore, among other things, the emergent and unpredictable dynamics of organic and human made synchronization.

At the Broad, from the outside, Meier and Gwerder's piece appears as a kind of black circus tent, suspended by multiple cords connected at oblique angles to the gallery's' sharply angled ceilings.  We hear, emanating from within the enclosed artificial biosphere, the steady beat of metronomes and the pulsing sound of chirping crickets. A few guests at a time are allowed to enter through a zippered portal, finding themselves first in a kind of antechamber, which allow our eyes to adjust to this alien low light environment, and  reduces the likelihood that the insects within the main installation space will escape. We are immediately aware of a dramatic rise in temperature, simulating the tropical homelands of some of the insects we are about to meet, and which might also evoke the interior warmth of a womb-like space. We are next allowed to enter the main chamber, covered in silver, reflective material,  centered on two adjacent, ticking metronomes (seen in the image above). These at times pulse in tandem, or they may be reset by a docent to beat at different pulses, gradually returning to synchronization with one another.  Again, in keeping with the womb-like imagery, one has the sense of a maternal heartbeat, to which the fetal heartbeat is either attuned or from which it may be differentiated.

Located around the softly lit chamber is vegetative material, inhabited by scores of crickets (which are not easily seen). The insects adjust their chirping to the pulse of both, or one, of the metronomes. Meier explains that in nature, different cricket micro-colonies will pulse at different rates, allowing each small group to establish unity with their fellow group members and differentiate themselves from other cricket clusters. Our field of vision is dominated by a large transparent enclosed column filled with LED lights, blinking together at a set rate. This enclosure will soon be filled with a special species of Southeast Asian fireflies, currently being hatched in Thailand, which are distinguished by the males’ propensity to flash their lights at precisely the same rate. Meier notes that in nature, this capacity allows a group of males, within a given bush, tree or micro-environment, to attract females at a distance, in the interest of collective reproduction. Once arrived from Thailand, the fireflies will flash their lights at a synchronized rate keyed to the blinking LEDs.

Scattered around the base of the chamber, filled with the kind of dried plant material that might cover a rain forest floor, are several turntable record players, which from time to time turn themselves on, playing on spinning LPs  short electronic musical interludes composed by Meier. These pieces complicate and to some extent destabilize the overall predictability of the metronomes’ regular beats. The overall impression created by this intersection of organic and mechanical audio wave productions is of a matrix of patterns that transcend our capacity to decipher, and yet which are rather calming and beautiful. Then, visitors are ushered into the final transitional airlock chamber. Once the slit is safely zippered behind us, we are allowed to pass though the final zippered slit back into the gallery.

Previous installations of the work have received a good deal of thoughtful critical commentary, including an insightful piece by Bastien Gallet,   Experiencing this  three chambered sequence as an anthropologist, I was immediately put in mind of the classic work, Les Rites de Passage (1910), by Arnold Van Gennep.  Van Gennep, in an insight subsequently made famous by anthropologist Victor Turner, notes that rituals of transition the world over manifest a shared three=part structure: (1) initial radical separation from the conventional world, followed (2) by an intermediate state of “betwixt and betweeness" (referred to by Van Gennep as the “liminal period,”   often characterized by profound disorientation and the increasing intensification of abstracted dramatizations of contradiction and paradox), and finally (3) by re-integration or re-aggregation, in which the ritual subject re-enters the normal world.  Everything is the same, yet everything is different.  This three-part structure is observable in all manner of human life-crisis rites, from initiation, graduations, and weddings, to inaugurations and funerals.  In small-scale, pre-capitalist human cultures, in which the transcendent goal of society is the periodic production of new social persons, the successful management of the three-part initiatory process, turning children into adults, is quite literally a matter of life or death for the overall body politic, allowing each generation of elders, in effect, to give symbolic birth to the next cohort of future adults.

Within the biosphere's central chamber, watching the reflected pulsing lights on the silver interior surface, I found myself thinking of the earliest evidence we have in the archaeological record of this ancient tripartite structure of life transition, the famous Upper Paleolithic caves of southern Europe, including Lascaux and Chauvet, famously painted with magnificent depictions of animals. Here, we surmise, innumerable generations of initiates or adepts were brought into womb-like cave chambers, first separated from ordinary life above ground, then radically transformed in a liminal space and time through exposure to Mystery, and then finally reintegrated into the conventional universe, transformed in ways that may have been difficult for them to put into words. (Great art, anthropologist Alfred Gell notes, functions as a 'technology of enchantment" that depends on "cognitive indecipherability.")

Ancient musical instruments suggest that these cave womb worlds,  from which persons were periodically reborn at higher levels of social and cultural integration, were characterized by complex soundscapes, which may have emulated and transformed audio registers of the natural world. As brilliantly suggested in Werner Herzog’s 2010 3D documentary on Chauvet, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, seen in the light of flickering torches, the paintings on contoured rocks would have seemed to come alive. Here, at what may have been one of the wellsprings of art and religion, we sense a revolution in human consciousness, centered on the emerging human capacity to give life to that which had once been inanimate, to create through carefully calibrated, collective action the illusions of art--social fictions which turn out, ultimately to be true: new people, and new ways of being in the world, really can be born out of creative human mimesis, which simultaneously copies and transforms elements of the natural world.

Herzog's artistic insights are consistent in many ways with the 2002 scholarly book. The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, in which archaeologist David Lewis-Williams argues that paleolithic rock art both reflected and helped constitute new forms of inter-subjective awareness in early human communities, associated with the rise of complex language, spirituality, and cultural frameworks of higher level cognition --allowing for collective problem solving in the realms of hunting and other vital encounters with the natural world.  (Possible links between these cognitive developments and the emergence of music are explored quite brilliantly in Gary Tomlinson's  2015 book A Million Years of Music: The Emergence of Human Modernity.)

Traversing Robin Meier and André Gwerder's chambers, I was also put in mind of my own fieldwork experiences in southern and central African rural communities, in which some elders, highly keyed to the soundscapes produced by insects,  will at times interpret synchronized or de-synchronized wave patterns in insect sound as predictive of environmental shifts, including decreased or excessive rainfall. The elders' wisdom about the guiding waveforms of insects is transmitted to younger generations through song, oral poetry, dance, and other performance media. I once heard an Ngoni man instructing his nieces and nephews, as their grandmother was explaining in sing-song how an imbalance in two insect species' pulsations presaged a coming drought, "Listen to this, children, for when old age speaks of these matters, she speaks with the Wisdom of God.')

Humans have presumably been attuned to the overlapping, synchronous and asynchronous pulses of our insect neighbors for at least one hundred millennia.  Meier and Gwerder, in integrating some of the oldest and newest of human technologies, in concert with these long-traveled ambassadors from the insect world, have miraculously helped return us to some of the most pivotal, and enigmatic, moments in the cognitive evolution of our species.  Leaving their cave-like womb world—our eyes readjusting from the regular pulses of flickering light and our ears still echoing the overlapping rhythms of mechanical and organic sound—we find ourselves, like our most ancient ancestors, reborn in ways that we cannot easily articulate. As we blink and look around, outside of this latter-day cave, everything seems the same, yet, everything, somehow, is different.