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‘In music the only possible abstraction possible [sic] is the sense of TIME-SPACE, and its relation to the human body through the organ of the ear; through the spacing-off and draughtsmanship of TIME-SPACE by the means of various points of sound.’ This is clause VI of George Antheil’s manifesto ‘Abstraction and Time in Music’ (in MANIFESTO!, ed. by Mary Ann Caws, pp.651-652). In so many ways The Flaming Lips have taken these theses as points of radical departure with their 24-hour song 7 Skies H3. 24 hours is no arbitrary track length, but one that reinforces the very insistence and modality of time itself, in music, as in life, as in death (on which the song is purportedly a meditation). As we find in a line of its lyrics – ‘now, a minute’s not a minute, and now, an hour’s not an hour’ – we’re met with a concentration on this (still-)radical NOW; the moment in its simultaneous contiguity with other moments, and continuity within in time. ‘Now’ is a concept so important throughout modernist and avant-garde movements in art, not least to ‘Nowism’ itself, and it is mediated here through a reflection on common temporal measurement – units of time – that become less easily, immediately and complacently graspable as quantifiers of music as we move from the minute to the hour to the day.

As James Joyce’s novel Ulysses is, in so many ways, a life in the day of, so is this: a radical reconfiguration of what we conceive of our day being is demanded by the endeavour of listening to this track, in relation to the most basic constituents of sleep and waking, meal times, routine: our very diurnal spatiality is (momentarily) revolutionised by this piece of music; it transforms (our) TIME-SPACE itself. The necessity of it inhabiting our day spatialises its temporal presence too; rest assured, it will really get into your skull: to have it on for the full 24 hours is to simultaneously enforce the very idea it is also a meditation on – in its links with death – repetition, and its compulsions; desire, continuance, recirculation: ‘I can’t shut off my head’, as Wayne Coyne sings.

Of course, one doesn’t have to listen to it in just one sitting, so to speak. It can be chopped up into segments – or ‘bitesize chunks’ (to put it in old BBC secondary school revision speak) – or even delved into at will: listened to systematically bit by bit, or randomly; whenever, wherever. Stretching these spatio-temporal possibilities even further is its endless repeated circular streaming online: log on, tune in, drop out, whenever – temporally, it’s almost limitless; it’s always there, repeating; wherever – spatially it’s as almost-limitless in that it’s accessible from a multitude of points of modern connectivity and mobility; so many technological devices.

As an instance of recorded sound it is extraordinarily audacious; a humongous work, in terms of length and memory; a timely avant-garde exploitation and exploration of the technological means by which it becomes a possibility beyond imagination: the skies have become the limit in terms of electronic recording and its equipment. There is thus something anti-commidificatory about 7 Skies H3 too, in its redefinition of materiality, or material parameters; yes, it was made available physically on a USB drive encased in a human skull – 13 of which were made and sold for Halloween – at the immodest price of $5000, but it’s also streaming in its nonstop form online, and can be found here and there to download in its entirety.

Thus overall, from the pounding two-two pummels and monk-chants of roughly hours 2 to 4 to the ecstatic beauty – cut in on by awesome guitar-slice sublimity – of the section approximately between 14 and 18, this song pushes at the very borders of art, and in doing so, also at those of time and space, of the human body, and its materiality and condition. In so doing it forces us into an intense a concentration on – and in – our own skulls; one that hasn’t been quite as insistently realised since Samuel Beckett’s radical fizzle ‘For to End Yet Again’.

The Everyday Analysis article below treated Justin Bieber’s recent visit to the Amsterdam Anne Frank Museum, in which he now famously wrote in the guestbook: ‘Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.’ The article takes issue with what it sees as a particular facet of postmodern culture; the way that we imagine that completely distant and unconnected events can somehow be paralleled, so that that Anne Frank can be thought of in Justin Bieber’s terms. Part of the problem the article highlights is the imaginary way in which we see our world; if everything can be thought of in our terms then the otherness of the past is denied, and the way we think now appears to be inevitable. By extension the article shows that Bieber’s comment shows that our culture ‘doesn’t draw some sort of poetical thread through time’ by using Anne Frank for any political purpose. Instead it depoliticizes, by assimilating the past into the terms of the present.

These points are important ones, and yet, I want to suggest that there is perhaps something else that Bieber’s comment shows us about our culture, which is both more just to Bieber’s misjudged but not truly evil remark, and which also picks up on something not noted by most of the critics, showing us something about our own response to the Bieber-blunder.

Interestingly, a number of people have come to the defence of Bieber over the comment, which first drew a large amount of criticism when it was published via the Museum’s social media sites. Anne Frank’s step-sister, Eva Schloss, has even commented that Anne ‘probably would have been a fan’ of Bieber, saying; ‘he’s a young man and she was a young girl, and she liked film stars and music.’ Schloss implies that being a teenager is a timeless state outside history and therefore brushes over the historical chasm of the Holocaust genocide that separates Bieber and Anne Frank. The question I would like to ask is; what is it that fundamentally divides these two responses; on the one hand the view that the article puts forward, which stresses the problem with assimilating Anne Frank into the life-world of Justin Bieber, and on the other hand the view of Anne Frank’s stepsister, which cannot think otherwise than in the terms of the present.

Remarkably, The Sun, reporting on the Eva Schloss statement, actually carry out the same gesture that has been highlighted by the article below. They open by referring to ‘teen titan Justin Bieber’ and then later to Anne Frank in the same terms, saying ‘the teen hid from the Nazis’. The Sun should have at least some kind of awareness of the issues involved here. Likewise Eva Schloss, who has written a historical book called After Auschwitz, seems to be participating in a discourse of assimilating the past into the terms of the present, rather than reflecting on the issues of historicity that are being raised by Bieber’s comment.

This leads to the main point I want to make here – that we might, ‘save’ Bieber’s comment from the critics, in a very different way to Will.I.Am, who claimed on the subject that ‘there is a lot of shit to do in Amsterdam but he chose to go to Anne Frank’s house.’ The difference between The Sun and Eva Schloss and Bieber’s comment is that Bieber’s remark is, at least in a way, a joke, whether he is entirely in on that joke or not. The ‘selfish’ element of Bieber’s comment, that he focussed on himself even when faced with the trauma of Anne Frank’s life and death, makes a subtle difference between himself and The Sun, who carried out the same gesture accidentally whilst believing themselves to be objective, or even Eva Schloss, who couldn’t see ‘why not?’ Anne would be a ‘belieber.’ Bieber’s anachronistic remark acknowledges the limits our own socio-cultural-historical-subjective positionality; it acknowldeges an issue of historicity that The Sun and Eva Schloss ignore, that he can only ‘read’ Anne Frank in terms of his beliebers.

Bieber’s comment, to return to where we began, shows us that we cannot read the past except in our own terms, so that the idea of ‘authentic’ access to the past is shown to be a problem. Bieber makes a point made academically by Catherine Belsey when she writes that ‘we bring what we know now to bear on what remains from the past to produce an intelligible history.’ For Belsey, to read the past, to read a text from the past, is always to make an interpretation, which is in a sense an anachronism.

The ‘belieber’ comment, very strangely and no matter how unconsciously, has a strange sense, in its anachronism, of acknowledging an issue of historicity that the majority of responses, from The Sun to Eva Schloss, are lacking. Where Bieber makes no pretences of ‘knowing’ history outside his own subjectivity, perhaps his comment points to a dangerous tendency of critics to think that they can. Or perhaps even further, that in insisting on the impossibility of accessing the past, in attempting to distance Anne Frank from Justin Bieber, some readings ignore the fact that a radical otherness of the past is found in acknowledging its creation in representation by the present. Instead one ought to acknowledge as Bieber does, in a way that points out a problem with Baudrillard, that representation is always hyperreality (the inability to distinguish reality from the simulation of reality) whether we are dealing with postmodernity or not. While the past, the real conditions of Anne Frank’s existence, is real, the question of how history should be written and read must also come up against the Bieber in us, we can neither access that past nor preserve it from contamination by the present.

We have recently passed into the Lunar New Year, an event which is marked and celebrated very widely in Asian cultures, and not least in Hong Kong, where I’ve been living and working for the past 6 months or so. Western festivals such as Christmas, the calender new year, and Easter are all sanctioned by ...continue reading "A TAKE ON CHINESE NEW YEAR"