squirming and recoiling

Night-Sea Music (1998)

Recoil (1999)

Each unit of Night-Sea Music consists of a small motor driving a shaft which in turn drives a small music box. The shaft is flexible, made of black hose (vacuum hose in a car) and squirms as the slow moving motor makes it twist and turn, pulsing as it builds up tension and releases it to drive the music box every now and then at irregular tempi. The music box is tacked down on the wall, so the wall itself becomes a speaker. What do these walls say? Not at all talking walls are a haunting, not with the music boxes playing "The Merry Widow". But the motors are going too slow for the music to be recognisable. This makes it sound, not music anymore says the artist, a nice twist on musique concrete which would slow sounds up (and speed and cut them up and reverse them) to make them music. No possible overtones of a sirens’ song if the music is taken out. Just the sound of merry widows mocking music. You might think with the dozen or so music boxes all chaotically churning out the same tune sooner or later all those monkeys would write a novel--even an autobiographically-based first novel--and some merry music or some widow music would happen. But this is a story of frustration, of an odd fight against all odds in which a happy ending to a hero journey is as rare as hen’s teeth, or rare like in that joke about lawyers. What’s the difference between a sperm and a lawyer? At least a sperm has a one-in-a-million chance of becoming a human being. The chances are in reality much slimmer than that, although with the global decline in sperm count chances are improving oh so slightly. For the individual sperm that is.


Because of this slide in count many men identify with the plight of the individual sperm; for some it is a near unique instance of empathy. For John Barth, it formed the basis of his short story "Night-Sea Journey," where all readers, irrespective of gender, are kept long in the dark about the identity of the little protagonist, itself in the dark, a swimmer among the swimmers, just like commuters in rush-hour traffic (except these fish only go to work once). There is a driving force and a goal, but what exactly either might be is lost in the on-rush of the shuffle, until the swimmer is illumined by the coronal beauty of the egg and basks in love big as the sun. It is an unrealistic account. Most real-life stories don’t end so sweet, they dive into the fray only to hit their heads on a hard rubber wall, like in Woody Allen’s film, or a glass ceiling, get stuck in an eternal gridlock, or are trundled off into the void, where the only satisfaction is basking in the blinding white light of the numinous. Such are Larger Themes mapped onto a sad little story.


As you have already gathered, Osborn’s device, in the twists and turns of its own creation, is traceable to Barth’s story. He had the workings of a device which he mapped back to the story, which was then mapped back onto the device. With the drive of the literary referent, the music was chosen, the tale was added to the squirming making the little protagonists propellant strokes pained, erratic, unsure, as the repeated tension-release of the whole affair found release in eros and useless effort. The marks along the wall describe their night-sea journey. Their three-dimensional trajectories are laid one on top of another and backed by a sound track filled with the mocking traces of a dismantled music. Among male adolescent scriptural practices in the U.S. there’s what’s called white writing. Then there’s the white writing of Mark Tobey’s calligraphic paintings and the genitourological explanations mapped onto Jackson Pollock’s paintings. People make special trips to Canberra to contemplate a rather large field of these little wrigglings. Would they travel to Woolloomooloo to see them set in actual motion? The Canberra wriggling keeps its jazz on a metaphorical plane. With Night-Sea Music, the fields are alive with the sound of music, a once-was music. Or perhaps the field is exposed for what it is, a low-tide covered with hapless fish.


The good-natured humor and engaging simplicity of Osborn’s work is reminiscent of the work of Fluxus artist Joe Jones; even if it lacks Osborn’s technological sophistication and social edge, the overall feel is similar. One thing Jones would do was break off the teeth from the drum of a music box to find a new tune in the field of the original. That is, a fluxus-like tune. And then there’s the DIY whiz-kid tradition from the 1960s in the U.S. associated with David Tudor and other experimental composers. Osborn became enamored with this tradition while he was a student at Wesleyan (I was a student there the same time), although that still leaves the social edge. Finally, the extra-uterine scenario of Night-Sea Music clearly belongs to a tradition of erotic and biologic art machines. More specifically, there are the bachelor machines described by Michel Carrouges. They seem to break down into two camps, the first and by far the largest group is comprised of the successful machines, the ones that do what their blueprints of desire promise: Villiers’ gynoid in L’Eve future, worked just fine until it became haunted; Apollinaire’s belts in "The Moon King", whose priapic phantasms were animated by a phonograph-like device, worked by haunting unsuspecting historical personages at opportune moments. The belts were so successful in their lascivious quests that he wondered whether they might be adapted to reconstruct entire historical scenes. Then there’s that prolific device for pornography, haunting, and historical epochs--cinema--and that even more pervasive realm of machine sex: cars. By comparison, the second category of bachelor machines is of minuscule, microbial proportion. Here, things don’t work as planned. Frustration, not necessarily impotence or lack of social grace, reigns, perhaps not even frustration, just not unbridled and immediate fulfillment of desire, the most notable example being the convoluted conduits of Duchamp’s bachelors as they attempt to grasp the high science and hermetic functioning of the bride. Osborn’s Night-Sea Music while in no sense hermetic (it is spelled out in graffiti on the wall) belongs to this category for the simple reason that its libidinal drive is not as easily transferred into the shaft. The first category is the fantastic mode, the second realist, and with this my meandering on Night-Sea Music gets as spelled out as it gets.


Osborn’s other piece in this show, Recoil, has a different take on critter-like movements, but because it does not key into a well-known story, its life aspirations must be gleaned instead from everyday experience, such that it is, and its ontological fraternal twin, such that it be. Motion detectors are suspended by fishing pole lines above speakers (what’s this Piscean streak doing here in Osborn?); every now and then along comes a tug upon the lines that sends the detectors swaying and bobbing. The movement is detected in the Doppler shift between the detectors and speakers, but unlike conventional settings, it is the motion detectors in motion, while the object itself remains fixed. What is being detected is its own excitation, recoiling spasmodically after being rudely awakened. The signal from the motion detectors is digitally treated, pitch shifted and sent through each speaker in order to give voice to these shared states of disequilibria. A feedback-like loop is set up between the movements of the motion detectors, the ultrasound they transmit, and the signals and sounds they produce, while a very subtle feedback occurs due to the extent that the sound influences the motion or the movements of the speakers themselves are detected. The tight correlation of sound and movement lends a lifelike appearance to these contraptions, similar to when word sounds are tied to moving lips in cinema, only here the creatures have escaped from screen culture and are acting palpably like the catch-of-the-day with something to say. Indeed, this correlation between vision and audition goes with the warped Doppler territory--where the rotation of stars colours our perception of them, the fast passing a train unfurls itself in a grand clanging sweep, and where motion acts upon the movements that are light and sound. If Recoil was writ on another magnitude altogether it would constantly change colour; here we are satisfied with the responsiveness and expression of its visible mass. Repose overtakes recoiling, only to be tugged and jolted once again. It is not so much a simulation as a stimulation of life, just that right amount of play within which what goes to bed at night will be what wakes up in the morning, to do it all over again. Get up, move move, detect be detected, send receive, listen talk, slow all the way down, do it all over again. And again. It’s enough to make you recoil.


Douglas Kahn
Department of Media Arts and Production
University of Technology, Sydney.
October, 1999


Catalog essay for a solo exhibition at Artspace (Sydney, Australia), October, 1999