11.00, Monday 17 Nov 2008

In contrast to the structures that I talked about the other day - the ones that Rothko and Markson set up halfway between your mind and what is ostensibly their art (but their art is actually these collaboratively unfolded mental sculptures) - I want to take a minute to talk about an alternative category of artistic expression, which is the transportation into the extended present.

There's something that happens when you listen to the music of Steve Reich which is that the pattern is at least short term predictable, and so you hear not only the presently-playing music but also you hear the previous 10 seconds (by memory) and the next 10 seconds (by expectation). And here I have to modify my argument with two points:

One: your expectations of music are not completely intellectualised. Your pattern recognition systems have their own particular grooves or lines of flight and so even when you know exactly what is coming up, your internal expectation might be different, like a corner on a known road which is always out of character. Two: this is of course true for all music, only it's easier to discern with the music of Steve Reich.

So what happens when your expectations are violated is a gap opens up between reality and your counterfactual present, a bridge over a chasm which suspended only because it is held at either end by the memory of the past and the predictability of the future. What's important here is not the bridge itself but the height of it, which manifests as either a tension - a kind of predictive vertigo - or a tickling. To me this tickling is the most enjoyable quality of this kind of art, arising from the joyful violation of expectations, and is only possible where the art allows the long present.

Another way the present can be extended is to make time smooth so that you slip over it and forget what the past is and what the future is. This I experience when I'm using the iPhone app RjDj, which takes the noise from around you and plays it back to you through your headphones, sliced and processed and echoed, so I'm not sure whether I'm hearing something live or a slice of it that is repeated a second later and incorporated into this generative soundscape. RjDj ends up being a world mindfulness enhancer because whereas I might not notice a sound because I am momentarily distracted by dodging a person on the pavement or reading a road-sign, here I have multiple opportunities in a several second window to listen. RjDj is especially enhancing when reading, because it turns out - at least for me - that my sense of linearity when reading down a page is anchored on time's arrow as it presents itself in sensory data from the world around me. Isolated from the moment-by-momentness of the world and having my sense of now extended by RjDj results in me reading the book page by page instead of sentence by sentence, having awareness of the page behind me and - because I am so aware of this larger context and the longer curve of narrative - an expectation of the page ahead. It dissolves the experience of reading.

There's a curious shift here in the focal distance of time. Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media, makes a comment that European men rest their eyes on an object so that they touch the surface, as if they are reading it, because of their history reading books; American men, by contrast, are from a televisual culture, and rest their eyes an inch or two ahead of the object, in order to take in a wider surface simultaneously. American women, says McLuhan, are disconcerted by Europeans because the men appear to be examining them closer, really penetrating them with the focal distance of the gaze, and this is felt as intimate and erotic. RjDj helps me move my focal appreciation of the present back a couple inches, a non-European connection with now, so that I can apprehend it; regard it; look at it from the side.

9 Beet Stretch, Beethoven's Ninth time-stretched over twenty-four hours, does this. Long hikes or drives through the desert - undifferentiated scenery - does this. Repetitive beat music does this; dancing does this; being in the flow does this. The communication of highly complex ideas relies on using rhetoric to construct a long present as a kind of carrier wave on which a subtle and highly structured object can be authored in the listener's mind: an example is the I Ching.

But to me it's this tickling quality that is what makes the production of the long present worthwhile. To have a constructed artwork that exists over time and mirrors your thoughts so completely as to mesh with your expectations, fooling you into thinking it's of your own origin, using repetition and rhythm to construct a smooth space over which you can slip between the past and the now and the easily expected future, and then to make a surprise key change, to demonstrate the autonomy of the artwork, well that tickles me and it's why A Thousand Plateaus makes me laugh out loud, and this is simultaneously the experience of flirting when you can find the flow, and of wrestling with a dog, and familiar music, and if you're lucky even your own body and your own mind, which are really one, and are yourself too actually, with their own grooves and own lines of flight, but still you reflexively look inward and predict yourself, incorporating that too, recursively, making a kind of extended present of self, which is what we call identity, and you make actions and create thoughts which are consistent with your sense of self, but sometimes, as I say, if you are lucky, your body and your mind can jump the groove and prove that they too, in the context of the long self, still have the capacity to surprise, and this, I conclude, making a comment on a feeling that makes me happy and how to achieve this, is how one is able to tickle oneself.