An Encounter with An Ocean of Static by JR Carpenter
It took standing in a line for one and a half hours, waiting to see part of a 24 hour work of art by someone else, for me to understand how to talk about JR Carpenter’s extraordinary book, An Ocean of Static. This book came out nearly a year ago, with a presciently timed launch at the Eccles Centre for American Studies, based at the British Library. On the same day, the Library was launching an exhibition called James Cook: The Voyages — a collection of materials from eighteenth century expeditions to the so-called New World. These expeditions, part funded by the Royal Society (for scientific research) and part funded by the British Crown (for plunder), have coloured Anglo-European ideas about geography, culture and empire ever since.
The line I was standing in when I was thinking of all this, was snaking through Tate Modern. I was queuing to see Christian Marclay’s The Clock, a montage of scenes from films cut together to create a single 24-hour narrative, in which each scene is played at the time of day it is meant to take place. A filmic clock strikes 6pm at exactly 6pm, for example. At 6.05pm a character looks at her watch, and it shows 6.05.
The British Library calls itself, ‘the repository of the world’s knowledge’. Much of the research for An Ocean of Static was undertaken there. The book is concerned with the traces of ideas that were being remembered at the Library’s Cook exhibition, largely made up of materials from the Library’s own collections. Carpenter combines found text from ship’s logs (including Cook’s own The voyages of the Resolution and Adventure), literature, philosophy and science, with computer code and other writings, into a book of poetry that laps the pages in waves, moving with repetition and rhythm, at once revealing and eroding the physical and psychological impacts of an imperial world view, on a twenty-first century, globalised socio-economy.
At the Tate, Christian Marclay’s The Clock was as a revelation. Watching the scenes of The Clock knitted together into real time feels like seeing the landscape of all the cultural memories we share. The screening I saw was held in a huge room lined with sofas like a big, old cinema — dark and warm and quiet; a cinema from the days when people still thought cinemas could induce an oceanic state: the condition (according to psychoanalysis) of being profoundly connected with everything else.
Each scene felt familiar, whether or not I had seen the original film: the orange glow of 1960s American skin; the lingering shots of a woman’s figure; the landmarks of London, Paris, L.A.; the smiles and sorrows of bodies I know in more detail than my own family’s, whose eyes, whose hair, whose soft and photogenic limbs are always moving in my memory and in my dreams.
And this brilliance, this scale, this beauty reminded me of something else too: An Ocean of Static. Here are the opening lines from one of the pieces in that book, Ten Short Talks About Islands … And By Islands I Mean Paragraphs:
Flocks of books open and close, winging their way webward. A reader is cast adrift in a sea of white space veined blue by lines of longitude, of latitude, of graph, of paper. The horizon extends far beyond the bounds of browser window to the north, south, east and west.
Like the panning shot at the start of a film, Carpenter conjures the geography of everything that will follow. This geography is expansive, and it stands in for the whole world. On screen (many of the poems in this collection are also standalone, digital works of art), this piece exists in a broad expanse of white space, inviting you to scroll in any direction. On the page, the words alone evoke a sense of being lost in a vast and unknowable sea. Both break their equivalents of a fourth wall: I’ve never seen a website where you scroll up, down, left and right from the homepage before, and the effect is dizzying. Meanwhile, in the book, something even more extraordinary is happening. These lines are from one part of the same poem:
This island [‘is indeed a very splendid island’, ‘a little smaller than Iceland’, ‘irrigated by four pleasant streams’, ‘endowed with all things necessary for the easy sustenance of human life,’ ‘ruled over by a king who lives in a populous city,’ ‘who keeps his household interpreters skilled in many tongues,’ ‘has a library containing various books in Latin,’ ‘has scarcely two people who understand Latin.’]
The words in square brackets constitute an array called by an algorithm: the kind of list that lies mostly unseen behind most of our screens. Algorithms power much of the code that structures our experiences online. Indeed, onscreen, this list does not appear in this way. Instead, words and phrases change within the stanza of the poem, floating into new patterns and archipelagos, as if meaning itself is lost at sea. All the more shocking, then, that on the page Carpenter presents the magician’s secret: the structuring principle behind this ecology of potential.
Films are our myths. Their stories are our common ground. Their actors are the community we share, finding warmth at a flickering screen instead of a fireplace. Now that cinema has been around for a hundred years, everyone in living memory has grown up with the imprint of its giant faces telling us what to feel and why. You don’t need to have seen the film to understand the dramaturgy of a clip that shows a door creaking open in a darkened room, two lovers separated at a train station, a child looking up as the clock strikes and the light fades.
Likewise, you don’t need to have read the source text to recognise the words and the logics behind Carpenter’s poetry. The archaic language comes from the reports of ‘adventurers’ like Cook, writing of an Other world for men with whom they shared (old) world views. The list is the ordered by the algorithmic logic of the machines we use to manage more and more parts of our lives. We rarely see these languages although we live surrounded by their effects: tea shipped from China, a computer designed in America, a search engine driven by I-don’t-know-what, a nationality based (if, say, you’re British) on the spoils of Empire.
Marclay dislocates cinematic time into real time: he exposes the materiality of the stories films tell, at the same time as he wraps this material around our lonely bodies. This creates a profound and impossible truth. On one hand, the stories we watch, share, hold close to our hearts, are so ubiquitous as to constitute a kind of social reality. On the other hand, even the most mimetic of films is a betrayal of reality — a transformation of times and places, which demands reconciliation in the body of the viewer. The genius of Marclay’s work is that he enacts this reconciliation on the cinema screen, sewing our bodily time into the material of the film, and not the other way around. This means that the viewer swings dramatically from consumer of fictions to overseer of fictional narratives. It feels beautiful and humbling, like a desire has been met (to be swept up into the story) and a community has been revealed (the comforting web of shared imagination).
But film is a medium that is both visible and discrete. The intensely visual culture we know may have existed for 100 years, but we still understand the world before it did ( — we often watch films about it). This is why it’s easier to identify the fictions of Marclay’s world than the fictions of Carpenter’s. Her subject matter, as well as her process, is even larger and more complex.
One of the pieces in the British Library’s James Cook exhibition was a map of Tahiti drawn by members of Cook’s first voyage. The outside of the island is charted in exquisite detail: each cove, each bay, each depth of sea and land. But the inside is blank. There is no topography of Tahiti on this map. Instead, there are three words emblazoned in large capitals: KING GEORGE’S ISLAND. I was visiting the exhibition with Carpenter, and she told me the British sailors who drew the map had charted the shoreline from their ship, with little concern for the interior. Later, as we were leaving the exhibition, I thought of the way that map constructs an Empire, unilaterally, as an idea. Unknown to the people of Tahiti, their land was subsumed into an other’s logic of conquest, transported back to an alien King as proof of a successful mission.
“The sailors really made something out of nothing,” I said, to JR, on the way to interview her about her book.
“No,” she corrected me. “They made nothing out of something.”
Tahiti was of course already a place, a history, a culture, a memory, a real and imagined space full of complex fictions and truths. The imperial gaze of the British explorer saw none of this. Instead, the imperial gaze saw the potential for ownership and power, leading to centuries of ruination by one of the most pervasive fictions of all: the ‘free’ market. This voyager mentality has been encoded for centuries in discourses about ‘civilisation’, education, religion and trade. Its threads are integral to the fabric of society, continuing to weave racism (amongst other things) into British life in 2019.
And this voyager spirit is still alive and kicking in the culture of internet pioneers: private firms that ‘disrupt’ the market in order to harvest data. Like claiming lands for the Empire, this harvesting enacts a double fiction: the data/ Empire diminishes the people it pretends to represent, and its collection/ violence is a hidden activity — never the trade that appears, on the surface, to be taking place. Pervasive, ubiquitous and necessarily hidden, the structuring languages of Ten Short Talks, unlike those of popular film, are almost impossible to identify or contain.
Paradoxically, as more films get made, the conventions of filmic language narrow. We are less familiar with the experiments of the early twentieth century auteurs than with the cliché of the 1990s disaster movie, and this has less to do with taste than with the economies of production and distribution. Similarly, with the online world. Nowadays, a handful of giant corporations control not just what we see online, but also how we navigate space and what it looks like. But it was not always so; websites of the 90s and early 00s were considerably more diverse and experimental than they are today. This change has been more rapid than in cinema, but has happened for the same structural reasons: money and power.
The profound effect of Marclay’s work is its revelation of a mythic cultural landscape. But the profundity of Carpenter’s, is its revelation of a mythic cultural landscape that is also, in fact, a real geography. Those sailors claiming Tahiti were not only writing words on a piece of paper, but also enacting a cycle of real violence and material exploitation. The logbooks from which Carpenter draws some of her lists were doing the same thing: not observing the world but containing it. Carpenter does not just show us a panning shot, then, but also a type of surveillance. Later in the same piece, she writes:
The islanders [‘are very ingenious’, ‘apply themselves to all the skills of the artificer’, ‘almost as well as we do’, ‘have a language of their own’,’write their own characters’,’have mines of all metals’, ‘are especially rich in gold’ ‘collect in Greenland skins’, ‘carry sulphur home in their ships’]
Trained as an artist, not a poet, Carpenter says she takes risks with language because she doesn’t know what she’s doing — or, in other words, she’s not bound by literary conventions. But she’s being modest. Carpenter doesn’t just take risks; she breaks things apart and creates them anew. Her poems’ refusal to settle into one meaning undermines the truth-ambitions of language — shattering language into a multitude of possibilities — and and lays bare the principles that make these ambitions persist. These words are contained. These words are contained by someone, by an intelligent mind: by the poet. And they are contained not just on the grounds of meaning but also aesthetics.
Mines of all metals … rich in gold … Greenland skins … sulphur home
The words swim to and fro like the beats of a living drum or, indeed, the waves of an ocean. Carpenter strings together sounds in a way that harmonises them into a pattern that reinforces their shared world view. At the same time, this pattern weaves an affective material for Carpenter’s subsequent rupture of meaning. The last phrase in a list often changes the rhythm, adding length or strength to the established sound (‘has scarcely two people who understand Latin’ / ‘carry sulphur home in their ships’). Carpenter lulls you into an aesthetic appreciation of these archaic phrases — a familiarity, like the tropes of popular film, that is both deeply known and unspecific — and then kicks you with the latent violence lurking underneath.
This method exposes the (ideo)logical construction of the languages Carpenter finds. And then, she adds a new principle to the mix: the (il)logic of the beautiful, the poetic, the suggestive, the rhythmic, the desired, the emotional, the empathic, the cumulative, the cumulative, the cumulative power of the human being amidst these languages that are designed to appear like pure, immaterial thought. Carpenter immerses a counter current into the cold lines of the mapped out world. It’s a revelation. And more: it’s a subversion. It feels like seeing the world clearly for the first time, and then watching it splinter.
This, finally, brings me to the realisation I had in the long queue to see Marclay’s work. I first heard about The Clock at a workshop about entitlement and ambition: particularly how these ideals are encoded into masculine subjectivity. An artist introduced The Clock as an example of audacious (masculine) ambition and scale: who could imagine doing something so brilliant, so large, so confident in its summary of the textures of our lives?
One answer is: JR Carpenter. Was this the reason I had been struggling to articulate the power of her work: not just because I couldn’t articulate the scale of its subject matter, but also because I couldn’t imagine the scale of its ambition?
Before Cook’s first voyage he was instructed to observe the transit of Venus in front of the moon. He was also given secret instructions by the King: to find and possess new lands that “will redound greatly to the Honour of this Nation as a Maritime Power, as well as to the Dignity of the Crown of Great Britain, and may tend greatly to the advancement of the Trade and Navigation thereof.” This instruction was written before anyone in Great Britain knew if any such lands existed. Its violence lies in its determination of meaning before reality. On a different scale, the same thing happens with the intepretation of our online activity; based on some information and some assumptions, corporations already (think they) know what we are going to do; then limit our choices accordingly.
On a different scale, the same thing happens everywhere.
How many languages, logics, pervasive and hidden ideas am I carrying around with me? How many secret missions have been coded into my thoughts? How many secrets have been coded into yours? What do we know, what do we share, what do we secretly believe?
You’ll notice it’s taken me 2500 words to merely scratch the surface of one of the extraordinary poems in Carpenter’s book. I am still thinking about the others. Each page is a universe of meaning, a galaxy of potential, an ocean of static. This book teaches me about the world I live in, the languages I speak, the assumptions I make about who has power, how it operates, what any of us can know, what any of us might change. It changes me; its words, its lines, its soft and pervasive counter currents, always moving in my memory and in my dreams.