I’ve just finished reading Joanna Demers’ Drone and Apocalypse. Naturally, like any other number of critical works that I’ve read lately that confirm my own position rather than challenge it, I’m left with more language to articulate more of the same. Yet somehow, in writing this, I feel as if a different picture may develop as-yet.
The narrative structure was in itself quite engaging–it’s a fictionalized set of essays written around present time (naturally, about how the author Cynthia Wey is convinced the world/civilization is nearing an end, and that drone music is its preeminent soundtrack), which is discovered by gallery curators and historians in the 23rd century, and displayed in an interdisciplinary fashion. There are a number of “conceptual artworks” mentioned that were formulated within the body of several of the book’s essays, painting a picture of a picture using language. Some of these artworks are further realized with photographic inserts of collages–contemporary works that all borrow heavily from Roman history, retelling myths with references to advertisements and mass culture. The fall of the Roman empire is invoked throughout the entire next, as are various biblical references, essentially relating Wey’s doomed disposition to historical iterations of apocalyptic literature. This suggests that Wey’s sense of imminent yet never arriving doom mirrors historical patterns, that the anthropocene extinction movement is another form of eschatological panic not unlike the doomsday ravings that have trickled out of history since the Middle Ages.
This is, in essence, a book I feel like a future me might have written, or may still write, should I bank enough time in an academic environment. But there are a few key points that I’m a bit lost on, have yet to figure out where I got on a different path, having now found myself in entirely unfamiliar terrain.
The first primary difference I can discern is that I personally don’t consider modern-day doom panic to be as easily dismissed as the ravings of peasants in shit filled streets somewhere in England in the 17th century. Science has been telling us quite blatantly for the last several years that carbon emissions have, in fact, fucked the planet over. Cities are going to flood. Species are going to continue to go extinct at a rate that no government sponsored non-profit can ever hope to sponsor back to life. The planet is definitely overpopulated, cancer is now so widespread that birth is in itself an act of Russian Roulette, and billions of people are quite likely going to die, probably in the next couple hundred years. I would post links to the research I’ve done so far, but this is a quickly written opinion piece, so you can find your own info later.
There’s my position on the apocalypse: I think it’s real.
This has given me much ground to relate to the fictional Cynthia Wey. My first question is, why exactly was Wey’s character fabricated? I’m inclined to think that by creating a character rather than suggesting that the essays reflect her own position, Demers is creating space to have Wey’s beliefs more carefully criticized, as they are more removed from lived, real experience. This device is in and of itself quite fascinating, but as I mentioned earlier, I think it does suggest a more easy dismissal for her case.
And then there are the segments written by the gallery curator. These take place in 2213, which means that over two hundred years have passed since Wey’s doom-laden missives fell out of her brain and into her journal. It also means that the apocalypse, or some kind of mass civilization crushing death did not affect institutionalized galleries, and potentially did not happen at all by that point. Having an academic career, I can see why Demers may choose to believe that the institutions that uphold her will live on. Optimistically, I would want to agree with her. My more cynical sides say she’s totally wrong. Realistically I have no idea.
In all likelihood, the decline of civilization will continue at a heartachingly slow rate, as we watch subsequent generations develop more illnesses, countless neuroses, and cities will look even more like Bosch paintings than they do today. People will keep dying, being born, wondering why they’re alive, and as long as we don’t destroy every last patch of forest or nuke everything we might be sortof less fucked. Nonetheless, it’s very possible that art galleries could look back on the apocalyptic work of today and scoff, or perhaps shed a small tear. Or both.
The book does little to actually suggest anything about the condition of the future other than referencing a gallery that may or may not exist at that point. So we turn to contemporary drone music, which I am listening to as I write this. The artists I’ve discovered through this book are fantastic:
Celer, William Basinski, Tim Hecker, Elaine Radigue … Gah. Yes. As a musician who occasionally even makes work that could fit into the category of drone, I’m a little bit in heaven right now. A heaven that looks more like most people’s hell. It’s just so fucking beautiful and so depressingly bleak that the world itself could be wiped away in front of me, and if I kept listening it would be perfectly alright. Is that actually a good thing? Have I been living in Vancouver too long?
Turning away from that scene before I slip off the deep end, I’d like to call in the idea that drone music can act as a reprieve from meaning. Its structure and intent often speak to little more than notions of beauty or atmosphere. These are sometimes spaces that we can project meaning onto, but drone does not readily lend itself to typical “feel good/bad major/minor” categorizations. The typical structural qualities that lend themselves to the common leaps of emotion, like as a major chord progression goes from root to minor and back, are erased. The notes exist. The sounds, by they choirs or crickets or a deep sine wave, simply appear, and then cease to be. Forms flow into one another like water, contrasting the cold steel of mechanized beats or other constructs of rhythm and progression. In a sense, drone is antithetical to many of the rules, regulations, and traditions of music. Where a pop song builds meaning out of measures, time signature, lyrical cadence, drone simply waves in and out of being. From here, it’s not much of a stretch to consider the pulsing tones of Radigue’s synthesizer works as analogous to a field of grass blowing in the wind; here, pop music would be the suburbs next to the field, constructed to profitable perfection, all alike, spaced out in 4/4 all the way to the mall.
The apocalypse of drone would be the tones that smash their windows. (I found that video mentioned near the end of the book.)
The book is a solid exploration between apocalyptic forms of media, with many philosophical references to keep it interesting, but neglects the potential relationship that apocalyptic art has with present day civilization. The intent of the book, it seems, is not to ask whether or not we are really fucked. It meanders through symbolic wastelands of art and sound with no clear destination. Which is totally fine. I suppose I just feel that there is no sense of truth being conveyed here, other than the perspective of the deceased narrator. Without truth, what does it leave us with?
Brilliant tunes that make both the end and continuance of life seem utterly sublime.