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In-Situ/City: Matteo Gualandi

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Spokende herinneringen - over Matteo Gualandi’s Archeology of Remembrance

In-Situ/City is an ongoing project that focuses on the city as an ever-changing changing collection of historical, cultural, political and social signifiers. For Gaudeamus 2022, four young makers (groups) were commissioned to create new work that reflects on this theme, with a special focus on the relationship between humans and non-humans. In four articles, music journalist and researcher Joep Christenhusz dives deep into their work and themes.

Imagine: in a dark room a cloud of hypnotic synthesiser sounds rises from a circle of loudspeakers. In the middle flickers the screen of an old colour television. Snow. Slowly moving bands of interference. Sometimes an image emerges from the visual noise: a girl with her mother at the water’s edge, the red of her jumper in saturated Super 8 colours. A little later a couple kissing. The fashion they are wearing (grey jacket, dark coat) suggests another era.

Archaeology of Remembrance is the name of the audiovisual installation that can be visited from Saturday 10 September during Gaudeamus. The work originated from the brain of Italian composer Matteo Gualandi (1995), who over the past few months has been working overtime in the online video collection of the Utrecht Archives.

Gualandi: “They have a huge collection of Super 8 films there that have been sent to them over the years. Most of them are recordings of parties, outings and holidays. In short, everyday life in brief, silent fragments. You could call it a collective memory of the city of Utrecht.

And yet, as Gualandi makes clear, Utrecht itself does not fulfil a pertinent leading role in the video material: “The images refer to the city only partially. Some of them are immediately recognizable, but I preferred to omit landmarks or historically important moments. Instead, I wanted to focus on the people themselves. Their past, their memories are central to the fragments.”

The result is a tantalising ambiguity, according to Gualandi: “Although the images will feel familiar to residents of Utrecht, they also communicate a universal message at the same time. People of different origins will also feel the nostalgia that these images exude.”

Near distance
Nostalgia. Anyone who examines this concept in terms of its etymological roots will arrive at the Ancient Greek words nostos (return) and algos (pain, sadness). So in a literal sense nostalgia describes the pain of wanting to return to what lies behind us, i.e. a yearning for the past.

“That’s right,” agrees Gualandi, “that is indeed the most common definition. But what I find more interesting is the mechanism that lies behind this longing for the past. At its core, nostalgia is about experiencing presence and absence simultaneously. You can almost touch the object of your longing, and yet it escapes you.

Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges wrote a beautiful poem about this Torment of Tantalus, says Gualandi. In Nostalgia of the Present a man bemoans how much he misses being with his beloved in Iceland, to share together “the moment of now / just as you share music”. The closing lines: “At that very moment / the man was with her in Iceland.”

“Precisely that is the essence of nostalgia,” says Gualandi. “It’s that bittersweet experience of a closeness that is simultaneously a distance. You see a photograph or hear a song from your childhood, which makes the past tangible in your memory for a moment. But at the same time you are painfully aware of the fact that that time is forever beyond your reach. So for me nostalgia is not so much about a mythical glorification of the past, but about a specific experience of time, where the past feels both very near and very far away.

Change of course
Memories. Nostalgia. The near distance of the past. One might wonder how exactly Gualandi’s Archaeology of Remembrance relates to the central focus of the In-Situ/City project, namely: “the relationship between humans and non-humans in an urban context.”

Gualandi admits that he has gradually shifted his own emphases. That is, initially he coloured neatly within the thematic lines. He developed ideas for an outdoor urban installation with the working title Mirrors. Somewhere in the centre of Utrecht a circle of loudspeakers would arise, in which the city noises of humans and non-humans would be ‘musicalized’. Think of rumbling city buses, clinking bicycle chains, fluttering pigeons’ wings or the splashing of water in the canals, but then placed in a coherence of corresponding pitches and rhythms by smart electronics.

But then Gualandi paid his first visit to Utrecht, and his search for a suitable location ended not on a city square, but in a back room of the cultural free port De Nijverheid. Gualandi: “I immediately fell in love with that space and decided on the spot to carry out my work for Gaudeamus there. Also, and this fascinated me for a long time, because an indoor installation offers the possibility of working with a longer attention span. On the street there are usually a lot of distractions and people are involved in their everyday activities. At most you get a few seconds to attract their attention. Indoors I have the opportunity to create a space where I can fully immerse the audience in my work.”

The change of location also saw a change in Gualandi’s subject matter: the initially intended outdoor interaction between human and more-than-human sounds gave way to a focus on our inner world of memories and nostalgic feelings. Right?

Gualandi: “I don’t know if you should state it so black and white. In a way, the tension between the human and the non-human is still an important motif in Archaeology of Remembrance, even though I have interpreted it in my own way. Not so much from an ecological but from a technological perspective, because there too exists an interesting dualism between human, physical presence and technological virtuality. Instinctively we often experience technology as something cold and non-human, while it is actually deeply and emotionally connected to our way of life. Moreover, there is something else going on in the context of photography and video, where memories that previously could only live on in our human minds are externalised to non-human objects such as a photograph or a sound recording. This has bizarre consequences. For example, we can still see and hear people who, in a physical sense, have long since passed away. The past, by means of these technological objects, continues to work as a kind of ghostly apparition in the present.”

The past that continues to haunt us like a ghost. French philosopher Jacques Derrida coined a striking neologism for it in his book Spectres of Marx (1993): hauntology. Although Derrida was primarily referring to a political context, (he was alluding to the fact that aspects of Marxism just kept on recurring within the social arena), his concept also resonated with the cultural climate of the time.

We’re talking the late 1980s and early 1990s. Within the arts postmodernism reigns supreme, a movement that is considered a reaction to the modernism of the early twentieth century and the post-war years. One of the aspects on which the postmodern artist differs from his modernist predecessor is his historical sensibility. Whereas the modernist firmly believes in progress as the way to a utopian future, the postmodernist mainly looks back. The urge to innovate is beaten by a reorientation to the past that, permanently accessible thanks to new media, is subject to a constant recycling in postmodern art. Gualandi: “Here too the nostalgic ambiguity that we spoke of is at work. The postmodernist sees the past as part of the present, in the full awareness that it feels close but at the same time is unattainable.”

It is easy to see why Derrida’s concept of hauntology has been linked to numerous postmodern art forms over the years. In particular to the work of English electronic composers such as The Caretaker, Burial, Philip Jeck and releases by the equally British label Ghost Box Records (talk about a ‘haunting’ past). If you put it to the test on YouTube, you will hear music that in every way breathes the spirit of times gone by. Take for instance The Caretaker’s debut album Selected Memories From the Haunted Ballroom (1999), which opens with a fog of tape noise and vinyl crackles, out of which looms up an echoing, extremely slowed-down sample of a big band arrangement. The album’s artwork shows a photograph of a 1920s cocktail party: couples in gala costumes, the brass section of the dance band, a solo trumpet player, all lit up in an eerie blue filter.

Now we take another glance back at the preview of Gualandi’s Archaeology of Remembrance: the echoing synthesiser clouds, the saturated colouring, the visual noise effects. Isn’t there a hauntology aesthetic at work here too?

‘A new care’
Talk about hauntology: an interesting question is where this postmodern obsession with the past actually came from. Gualandi looks for the cause not so much in the past but more in the future. Or rather, in a faltering vision of the future. “If you delve into recent cultural history you will see that the modernist belief in a continuous movement towards the future reached its climax somewhere in the 1960s and 1970s. From then on Western culture began increasingly to fall back on its own past. It is as if we suddenly realised during those years that the idea of eternal progress was a fiction. It is no coincidence that the 1970s also mark the rise of the environmental movements, which made it clear that the earth could not in any way support such unbridled growth. In a sense we are still in that situation. Our future is highly uncertain, although we do know that in all likelihood it has many more ecological calamities up its sleeve for us”

Whether Gualandi wanted to refer in any way to that ecological reality with Archaeology of Remembrance? “Not directly,” is the answer. Although: “Maybe in the broad sense of the word.” To make clear what he means, he refers to a quote from the German philosopher Martin Heidegger: “My later work requires a new care for language; not an invention of new terms, but a return to the original content of our own constantly dying grasp on language.”

Gualandi: “Sometimes you’re lucky enough to come across a statement that sums up exactly what you’re looking for. Allow me to say a few words on the subject. Firstly, language is an extremely broad concept for Heidegger. According to him we think and feel through language;  in a sense the whole world is shaped by language. But what strikes me most about this quote is the emphasis on care. Heidegger points out that we should take care of the fragility of things that already are and that we already have, at all levels. In that caring attitude lies the key to a deep ecological sensibility.”