Jennifer Walshe: ALL THE MANY PEOPLS

Tuesday 26 November 2019

Jennifer Walshe makes computer music. Her voice remains at the centre of things, free of electronic modification but shaped and conditioned by present-day information technology. The most essentially human and direct of instruments is transformed into something our ancestors may not have recognised but our contemporaries know all too well: something about being human has changed. ALL THE MANY PEOPLS is an intensely focused study on attention deficit.

A century ago, Joyce (and Flaubert before him) made it their duty to inform us that the Enlightenment had been a failure, creating people who know a little about everything and understand nothing. People’s minds have been full of eclectic information ever since; the extent of knowledge defined itself by its incompleteness. Attempts made to synthesise this eclecticism into a coherent whole invariably fail. Since the invention of the printing press, things have only gotten worse. Any rando could publish a book of tall tales, presented with as much authority as the Bible itself. Tabloids, pamphlets, penny dreadfuls, advertising, a cacophony of information and misinformation.

As for now: “You really think someone would do that? Just go on the internet and tell lies?” The proliferation of useless data has become a neverending explosion. With all information reduced to a common undifferentiated state, nothing matters. Jokes are taken seriously (4Chan); seriousness is taken as a joke (Francis E. Dec). It’s a hothouse for conspiracies, ignorance ennobled.

A scholar may describe ALL THE MANY PEOPLS as a collage, but it’s a moot point. Everything these days is a collage. Walshe violently yokes together field recordings, video games, steam engines and public-domain soundbites with her own one-person babel: memes, screeds, bad jokes, second-hand anecdotes and passable imitations of nature sounds. Nothing lasts for long and nothing is finished, although it may be repeated. Switches in voice, tone and subject matter are made at breakneck speed. It’s as carefully paced as a Hollywood blockbuster, to leave the impression of relentless action. The frenetic whirl of verbiage paints a portrait of despairing ignorance: questions not only unanswered but unasked, save by Google’s autocomplete function.

Half a century ago, it was prophecied that information would be the medium we swim through, immersed. The dire consequence of this has become that, in the welter of information we share on a daily basis with friends and strangers alike, the information shared has become irrelevant. It has become a medium for sharing attention.

In 1966, John Cage wrote that “Nowadays everything happens at once and our souls are conveniently electronic (omniattentive).” Some fifteen years earlier, his Black Mountain colleague Charles Olson wrote “when the attentions change / the jungle leaps in”; Olson is the first person known to describe his era as “post-modern”. As joint prophets of postmodernism, Olson became the pessimist counterweight to Cage’s optimism. For Olson, Fuller’s Global Village held no more people than before, they were simply atomised, scattered to the four corners of the Earth. Guy Davenport, in his 1976 essay on Olson, lamented that:

What has happened to American culture (Melville observed that we are more a world than a nation) is a new disintegration that comes hard upon our integration. A new daimon has got into the world, a daimon that cancels place (American cities all look like each other), depletes the world’s supply of fossil fuel (if anybody’s around to make the statement, our time can be put into a sentence: the Late Pleistocene ate the Eocene), transforms the mind into a vacuum (“Do they grow there?” a New Yorker asked of the offshore rocks at Gloucester) which must then be filled with evaporating distractions called entertainment. Olson… was of De Gaulle’s opinion that we are the first civilization to have bred our own barbarians…. a hunnish horde of young who have been taught nothing, can do nothing, and exhibit a lemming restlessness. Their elders are scarcely more settled or more purposeful to themselves or their neighbors.

Forty years on, for ‘America’ read ‘the world’. Walshe’s music, like Robert Ashley’s operas, taps into current states of thinking and relating to the world that have not yet been fully assimilated by art: it’s hard to consider them as ‘real music’. It can seem simultaneously amusing, disturbing and baffling.

The old ways of making your art work are no good anymore. Imagery? Image is everything, from selfies to flag-burning. The signifier itself has become significant. Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle updated Marxist analysis of economics, observing that images had replaced objects as items of exchange value. Whether sharing pictures of grandkids on Facebook, holidays on Instagram or protests on Twitter, the illusion of happiness, success or action are one and the same as the thing itself. Walshe plunders this world of images to reveal a new, disturbing successor to the Spectacle: the “attention economy”. If we are truly modern creatures who swim through social media, we no longer interpret it but exist as part of it. (As with television, it’s not for watching, it’s for being on.) As image detached from material success, attention is detaching itself from fame. Billions of people are clamouring for your attention, for proof that they exist. It has become a new definition of what it is to be human in this culture.

Walshe over-emotes, she puts on accents. They’re stoopid. They’re not meant to be good, or accurate. She wants to tell you something. There are funny lines, obnoxious noises, verbal pratfalls, false bravado. Who is speaking? The internet: everyone and no-one. Humanity, taken as a random sample of survey respondents. Like it or hate it, you can’t help but notice some of it. Like Instagram, this music is desperate for your approval but disdainful of your incomprehension. It doesn’t need you.

ALL THE MANY PEOPLS falls into two parts, each the right size to fill the side of an LP. It’s available as a download or “a limited edition gatefold colour-drop vinyl”. There’s still a place for commodities in the economy. Artists shouldn’t work just for exposure.