Black Lake (O’er Spleen’s Discord)
Catalogue essay by Lawson Fletcher

What happened to us this year? Caught between stifling intimacy and unsettling isolation. Trapped in a mise-en-abyme of time, space and self. Staring back at our reflection on screens that offered ersatz connection to cloistered loved ones. The dull pain of segregation—we dream of breaching the gap, retrieving connection. For the artist, chronic illness has both augured and doubled-down on this experience, for whom time bends and smears violently, marking a strange detachment from the world just as the body is mired in it. Whatever brought us here, though, we seek the same reprieve from submersion and fate. So we get to work. We gather what cracked, dark materials we have to hand and look for a way through.

Black Lake (O'er Spleen's Discord) is constructed as an fragmented, uncanny opera. In place of the bombastic and decadent ‘total work of art’ of a traditional staging is an evocative vignette of intentionally restrained operatic elements: a choir, a stage, a score. All are starkly monochrome, expressed with sculptural intensity and disarming sincerity. Draped in the ghostly white garments of monks and maids reinforced with anachronistic facemasks and tactical vests, our choristers provide a cast of players at the border of characterisation and chaos. They shift from a unified congregation then split into discordant isolated gestures, before returning to touch as their body-forms become one. They encircle and eventually intermingle with fecund, undulating mounds of actual dirt (roughly 400kg!) in which floats the eponymous blackened, swampy pool. It’s a puddle so dark it becomes a mirror. Our choir intones in a prelinguistic, throaty, pagan dis-harmony to a tense and insistent score, constructed digitally from virtual orchestral instruments and landscaped across the stage using monolithic speaker columns. This score constantly registers and deregisters familiar symphonic patterns and tones as it gives dramatic thrust to the ‘play’.

We witness this un-opera in just as strange and soupy dimension, COVID-time. We may or may not get to fully receive this work in the gallery—like a lot of other things right now, that sits at the anxious edge of possibility, of ‘easing restrictions’. Going to an art show, let alone seeing an opera, feels as uncertain a prospect as the rest of our time and space. Perhaps the score seeps into your bedroom from laptop speakers; maybe you glimpse an excerpt of the staged work as you scroll the ‘gram. Whatever the outcome, fragmentation and indeterminacy now feel like default states. Similarly, the bodies of the choristers in situ are framed by and awash with projections of themselves in scratchy, scuzzy un/real urban environments, the city becoming a medieval forest, newly eerie and pregnant. Motifs like this in the work suggest that this opera, or part of it, exists in a more liminal, psychic space of projection and symbolisation—I mean, art always does for us anyway. We never see ‘the work’ as a whole, only this time that’s blatantly obvious—it exists part online, part in our heads, as much as it does there in the gallery. It’s the un/total work of art and audience, legs splayed with our feet in both worlds.

In such a miasmatic setting, how do we not end up dejected, decoupled, deracinated? Black Lake gives us clues, if we see it less as a front-to-back stageplay and more as ingredients for hallucinating an opera, a little cabinet of curiosities juxtaposing old forms and new noise, or an archive of psychic objects. In what follows, I explore Black Lake through just some of these objects that emerged in the work and congealed in this writing: fossil, mud, trap. These are studied as fragments in which we might glimpse new possibilities for how we might feel about things right now, or make sense of otherwise senseless experiences. Regardless of how I’ve framed it and whatever may be our ruins, though, Black Lake suggests that the point is always to find and feel something.

Fossil

Extravagant, expensive, reliant on premodern unity of tone and symbol, opera is widely accepted as obsolete. We experience it today merely as cultural residue: a mark on the middlebrow, government-subsidised arts calendar or a cheap shortcut for dramatic tension in tv commercials. Having exhausted its sociological function, Black Lake recuperates opera as a human-based sonic play laden with associative potential, an archaeological site to unearth buried possibilities and dust off lost emotions. An image emerges of the choir traversing, lying in and eventually succumbing to the dirt: strata of excavation, that which everything comes from and returns to, bedrock.

In its canonical instrumentation and Jungian character roles, its baroque costuming and themes of collective human truths played out on a grand, indulgent scale in a way that is both funny and moving, opera catalogues feelings and narratives—tragedy, passion, shame, piety—that don’t exist anymore, or at least not in the form we experience them. Anachronism is inherent to art: we scrutinise the figures in The Battle Between Carnival & Lent to imagine how 16th century peasants lived, played and felt. At the same time, an innate desire drives us to seek in their gestures or facial settings a spark of recognition that might connect their lives to how we feel now.

Likewise but inversely, Black Lake gives contemporary shape and movement to an otherwise indistinguishable rubble of classical forms. The costumes recall premodern monarchs, monks and maids made over in pastelgoth. With their disjunctive timbre and pitch, our amateur choristers never adopt a pretense of traditional voice parts or rise into angelic harmony. Instead, they are a deeply human cacophony that only occasionally glimpses unity, the distinct grain of each contemporary voice drifting from then seeking out its kin. And rather than the opulent allegories of a classical staging, this makeshift, DIY assemblage playfully zooms in on the chorister’s mundane movements and tasks, even unserious, candid breaks in expressivity, and distorts and loops back bodies and voices in a fractal, epic tragedy in miniature (another definition for our daily lives, perhaps), redeploying the grand sweep of opera into something more intimate and intersubjective. These kinks in the performance open up the space for noise and misdirection, heightening our affective antenna, as the players catalogue gestures both monumental and mundane.

The score itself charts a familiar but strange journey of uncertain beginnings, trepidation, discord, struggle and triumph. Echoes of the sacred, majestic, warlike and romantic criss-cross the music. Solely composed with the uncanny, infinitely-replicating opera pit of a digital audio workstation, it feels intentionally designed to elicit a Pavlovian/Proustian sonic response, an unnerving but evocative experience, mediated by the listener’s jumbled historical associations (maybe rom-com scores or old Warner Bros. cartoons) for the tones and pacing of classical music. At times, it leaves you feeling like you are staring back at the whole pile of rubble of Western music. Contemporary audiences for opera have a mirrored experience in trying to parse an overblown, bourgeois artform that has long outlived its courtly origins and functions and so is effectively uninterpretable by the majority of today’s listeners, except as a series of felt yet scrambled emotional states or associations. Black Lake beckons us to search through the ruins of this sonic unconscious, unearthing strange fossils and treasures that gleam in the light of the now.

Making or listening, alone or together, music is always evocative. It produces deep reverberations of personal and collective memory, weaving subjective and objective in the strong memories evoked by a song or the association of instruments with certain emotions. Working with opera’s palette is a way to be both hyperbolic and playful with this relationship, retrieving ancient, grand feelings for contemporary purposes. Black Lake feels guided by older hands, the score weaves, loops and doubles back on strings glistening from the past, plucking on filaments of feeling. Our choristers are like bats in the cave of opera’s memory, sending out sonars for the outlines of individual and collective experience, until the signal returns, repeats, and coalesces in embodied feeling. Black Lake is opera as the procedural generation of latent emotional states; the exploration of cul-de-sacs where unrealised possibilities were stranded. Whatever comes to mind as you listen and watch, you somehow recover something that moves you.

Mud

The choir’s garments evoke cloistered ascetic communities that exist at the threshold of life and death—monks, nursemaids, monarchs. Revolving in vignette, these pure white beings seem fated to circle the fecund earth in a manner that evokes the danse macabre or ‘Ring A Ring O’ Roses’, just as they strive to reach out and touch, merge with their counterparts and with the earth below. The choir seems engaged in a protracted battle with time. We got trapped in time too this year, in the banal seduction of its loops, in the stasis of waiting, in the future’s uncertainty. We seek an exit. The repetitive, looping qualities of score and choreography in Black Lake restage the mundanity of clock time. Yet in later sections, these same elements strain against and break with the wheel in climactic rises, ruptures and reformations that beckon a different temporality.

In this sense, Black Lake is ambiguously concerned with life’s journey. A straightforward reading might suggest we begin pure, angelic beings who are tarred and blackened as we revolve around time’s wheel, inevitably spiralling towards the river of the dead—an impossible quest that always leads to submersion and destruction. I see something more subtle, even optimistic, at play.

Consider the muddy pit in the heart of the stage, this foul, fecund primordial soup. It stands in for all those aspects of the abject that drive our flight to subjectivity: decaying matter, tar, bile, fear, the void, death. At the same time, like our choir, we stand in this pit. We become one with it, even as we are bravely and distinctly ourselves in our struggle against its quicksand. The puddle evokes the inherent affinity between death and reproduction as described by Bataille: “Life is always a product of the decomposition of life.” We may recoil in abject horror at the organic matter that returns to the seething ferment of life, but whether we like it or not, in the darkness we are reborn. The bodies feed the maggots.

We could say that life has an inherent putrescence. Ashes, mixed with water, become mud. In putridity life finds its apotheosis: neither pure white nor black void, we are muddy, always between worlds, seeking synthesis within the discordant soup of matter. Destruction generates renewal just as the choir attempts to find its harmony and its unified body within this contaminated setting. We wade through this life and its shit, muck and horror, in order to glimpse a moment of beauty in the burnished mirror that is the puddle. Encompassed within an organic horizon of potential and return, our choristers constantly to and fro on the murky banks, where dirt, body and water congeal to become mud. Can’t you feel it on your skin? This ecstatic, painful journey is on us, we are in it, we stink and we are grateful, because we realise we are in the world.

Trap

Deciding to take a generative, exploratory approach to making a whole bloody opera for a graduate work is, in the words of the artist, like giving yourself “the freedom to shackle yourself later”. It’s an endearing but Sisyphean approach: staging an opera for your final work without first knowing what it might be about or end up looking like. Let alone during a year when the threat of “restrictions” hung over the entire production, forcing the artist to work up and back in snatched fragments of composition, vocal practice, costume construction and set-building to arrive at a finished work. Opera, in Italian, literally means ‘work’. Work is both the labour of making and the finished product. This work, then, is one in which the work to get there can be likened to making a trap for yourself.

So please don’t get caught too long staring back at yourself in that oil-slick puddle, because art is not just about seeing our reflection in a completed artefact that expresses something about its maker and/or audience. Art, rather, is about an experience through time, we could even say it’s a trap for time: a means to snare, store and later feast on that which is otherwise lost. Whereas art as a ‘mirror’ is about aura, transcendence and the metaphysics of presence, art as a ‘trap’ is about patience, evasion, and the fluid dynamics of capture. In art, we seek not a transcendence of time but a trap for time.

Anthropologist Alfred Gell makes this point in his 1996 essay ‘Vogel’s Net’, which argues against a strong distinction between the aesthetic objects known as ‘art’ and mere functional artefacts, proposing instead that we consider animal traps as functional artworks, and vice versa. It’s not just that we can ‘interpret’ both these objects, but rather that there is an operational similarity between traps apprehending their prey and the capture of effort and attention in artworks. Both, moreover, embody complex ideas and intentions to do with the relationships between human and nonhuman, being and other, life and afterlife. The art/trap is a perspectivist technology that sublimates time and redistributes environments, people and things. Snares and lures, canvases and scores—all capture and entangle one thing in another for posterity. Traps and artworks rearrange, in the form of a weapon or that of an encounter, the thresholds between worlds or ways of existing in worlds.

Look at Black Lake and see how our choir is trapped in its setting; see how its viewers are shunted into a closed, dark room where they are curiously mesmerised by the forms that traverse the mud. The animal trap suspends in object form the body and time of the hunter: the long periods of waiting hunched, concealed, in readiness for the target, punctuated by the violent outburst of the moment of capture. An opera suspends in dramatic encounter the body and time of its makers, players and viewers. “Every work of art that works is like this, a trap or a snare that impedes passage,” suggests Gell, “and what is any art gallery but a place of capture, set with ‘thought-traps,’ which hold their victims for a time, in suspension.”

As a model of the body of both its creator and its victim, the art/trap is a mechanism that divides this from that, life from death—it mediates the inherently violent and destructive nature of time. So while the artist sets a trap for herself in choosing the excessive medium of opera, it is nonetheless a framework that allows both artist and performers to express myriad, fractal extremities of feeling, setting the stage for a showdown of the intense emotionality occurring in both her and our lives.

Black Lake is staged as a makeshift trap for the time of y/our life. We often think we are trapped in time (AKA life)—but what does it look like when we are the ones making the trap? Then the work becomes a place to lure and catch time, not just this time but other, older, stranger times, making time newly accessible and imaginable to us, giving us sustenance. Woven into the trap are things that were and that might return, to help us find out what things that are can do.

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We feel like shit right? Time has gotten the better of us. But if we find a way to trap time, then we can find a way to make it worth our while. So it’s time to stop revolving around the banks and to wade straight into that blackened pond, breaking its glassy surface right alongside our choir. We re-emerge sticky, coated in bile and dirt, our infant, milky white purity inexorably soiled, and yet here we still are, lying on the banks of time’s river. We did it together somehow, in some unlikely, chance encounter, as we are pulled up to the shore by our kin. We’ve broken free of time’s wheel, re-enchanted it from its insides. The choir is scarred but newly sacred, tarred but somehow together.

Entropy isn’t inevitable when you can find a way to catch time. A pit is a particularly good trap because of its dark beauty: the black puddle and its surrounding filth arrests us, we become the sweet, humanised chorists who are coated in thick, dark mud on their journey. We look back at the puddle and see the source of both our suffering and hope. Putrefaction is possibility—the decaying, dying and absenting material is also the stuff of life itself. I reject the idea that pain, isolation, trauma and loss is a ‘pit of despair’ into which we wallow throughout life. Putrescence is an inverted fountain for possibility and connection within such ceaseless struggle.

Julia Kristeva seemed to think this much about art, which she defined as the “narration of infamy”. Whereas what we might call life falls into void (“the untiring repetition of a drive, propelled by an initial loss, does not,” for Kristeva “cease wandering, unsated, deceived, warped, until it finds its only stable object—death”), what we might call art sets a trap: “handling that repetition, staging it, cultivating it until it releases, beyond its eternal return, its sublime destiny of being a struggle with death”. Whereas, for Bataille, “life is a trap set for the balanced order”, art is a trap set for loss itself, a cathartic methodology through which to mediate the threat and attraction of the void, a mechanism that enables us to imagine, capture and restage that which is or about to be lost, rather than police the border of things through purification or evasion. Art, that is, enables us to keep the current flowing between inside and outside, then and now, a bit like a trap might, and with that, I’d argue, it provides the possibility for a unique experience of joy in kairos: ritual, non-clock time, the time of communion and togetherness. We are all one in and with the mud. We might be lost in the world, but we’re never alone.

“Without realising it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress” (Milan Kundera). Art is how we accept, embrace and also renew the lost, as we playfully capture and cultivate our encounter with the void, and seek out membranes of connection and feeling in its soupy depths. We are complemented by the muck, grime, bones and shit, the intersubjective rubble of the unconscious. So when the cloudbursts in the symphony herald the triumph of victory, it’s not because we created life from life, but rather found life in death’s erasure, fracturing and smothering. We weave a trap to capture time, whose passage is inherently painful, to release ourselves at the present moment and be enchanted by its immanence. Beauty at a moment of profound loss: we’ve stolen something, redeemed an experience of the mundanely sacred. Rather than avoid it, Black Lake suggests we wade in through the muck and ruin to find our communion, to find intimacy through and in isolation, submersion and erosion. Time is what we make it, and it’s time for us to feel something together again.