Museum of Rhythm: A Constellation of Anomaly

By Natasha Ginwala

The Greek term for a water clock, clepsydra, literally means “to steal water” or “water thief.” As the earliest time-keeping devices, water clocks assumed contrasting forms in different parts of the world, yet all measured time-flow with a perpetually leaking vessel. Be it an earthen bowl or the complicatedly geared elephant clock from al-Jazari’s twelfth-century manuscript, the rhythmic intermittence of time was gauged as a sequence of programmatic departures and replenishments—a liquid time that must be released in order to exist cyclically.1 Are those fugitive rivers of time the pages of history or its unchronicled interstices?

The defining authority and control of space has generally been attributed to humanity. Time, however, was thought to belong to the realm of divinity—until it was captured by a universally applicable measure of clocks.2 The time of history and the history of time remain deeply entangled. Official accounts, which we accept as situated pasts, have been composed at a certain pitch, tempo, and frequency. When arranged as a linear progression, history is heard as a brutal drone. Just as the striking of a tuning fork releases a swarm of collisions that are received as a steady hum by the human ear, the construction of modernity has involved a systemic muting of imprints that run alongside proclaimed universals. Even the vector of modern monstrosity has been made impenetrable—a medley of masks that can no longer reveal a face. The effects of this positivist temporality resonate as a false note unto which we are made shadow dancers. 

Ken Jacobs, Ontic Antics Starring Laurel and Hardy: Bye, Molly, 2005, Video Still, b&w, colour, sound, 90 min

Surrounded by political, cultural, and civilizational collapses on a global scale, we are now faced with the sheer facticity that there is no stable ground upon which history can be sited. Only a lingering identification with its memorized tempo endures. Within a seismic contemporaneity, the imaginative potential of telling time may no longer lie in minor dissections of petrified chronicles, but rather in reconsidering the entirety of history’s sensual complex—the rhythm of history.

The fundamental incompatibility of a surfaceless history and its parallel staging of false universals have led to an unrelenting estrangement between self and world(s). This cannot play out as a dialectical conflict, but only as a state of phantasmagoria—in which people and things occupy a place in time, which is incommensurable with the one they have in space(s) of a world.3 As Proust has noted, these are the things that exist viscerally in our midst but whose time is the multitudinous past or future. And, perhaps even more precarious are thing-scenarios that resound in our present as timeness but remain incapable of delivering a graspable form.

In a decorporeal time, the sighting of rhythm forms lends flesh to temporality. For the figurative demands of rhythm urge us to inhabit history rather than simply becoming transcribed subjects of it. A Bakhtinian swallowing of “the world” in order to compel histories to speak from the gut—as an uncanny polyphony of self-worlds.4 It is from such a conflated morphology that nonlinear futures may come to be read.

And They Keep Missing the Train.
In Ontic Antics Starring Laurel and Hardy: Bye, Molly, we encounter the classic double act: Laurel and Hardy, conducting routines of loopy clumsiness in that are failed attempts to reach Pottsville. Troubling and troubled bodies, they ironically represent the collapses of industrial capital preceding an era of economic stagnation. The space of celluloid is thus resonant with the waves of a socio-economic temporality.

Ken Jacobs splinters the original comedy, Berth Marks (1929) such that slapstick turns into an account of immanent impossibility and trapped hysteria. Montaging the wheels of a steam locomotive, Laurel is poised to step onto the train (but almost never managing to do so), and Hardy is crashing everywhere. They lose themselves, almost cause a riot, and cannot remain intact. As these beautiful losers are frozen in folly, the universe around them continues to shudder as though on the brink of depression.5

Ken Jacobs’s films compose worlds of polyrhythmic seeing—anomalies of movement set in conscious displacements of time. Challenging the precision of vision as well as the architecture of cinematic apparatus, Jacobs deploys projection to recompose the material syntax of filmic time. He thereby, conceives registrations of missing images caught in fissures of a master narrative. Dislodged from a visual thread, the frame is meticulously inverted, flipped on its side, compressed / de-compressed, and further, treated to explosions such that it must be consumed as an array of abstract throbs that endure and test endurance.6 In Jacobs’s films, there is no ultimate image to be found, only a body-in-pieces. The image appears as a phantasmal fragment that reveals of Modernity’s violent assertions, and the past, appears as an incessant pile of wreckage.7

Aura, Blind Spot, and Inapproachability
In Walter Benjamin’s reading of the aura as “apparition of a distance, however close it may be,” the aura is constituted as an always-open phenomenon, which is a notation of inapproachability.8 As a strange weave of space and time, the aura is an ambiguous surrounding that appears and disappears. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin indicated the decline of the aura, and yet this decline may be read as a pattern of deviations, inclinations, and semblances by which the auratic continues to inflect the present in new ways.

The scotoma, constituted as blind spot, is never an absence. It is a catchment area inscribed by subterranean shocks of involuntary memory.9 Hence, it is not a simple lack of sight, but an assembly of projection forms that are counterpoints to an external reality. This sounding together of autonomous voices upon a contrapuntal plane is what exceeds optical consciousness. The blind spot as source-space carries out a destruction of origins by alternating relations with Now-time and construction sites of the Then. Read as a Benjaminian form, it is “a whirlpool in the river of becoming [that] pulls the emerging matter into its own rhythm.”10 And like the aura, it is “that of which our eyes will never have their fill.”

Tomo Savić-Gecan’s practice performs this kind of an “excess zone.” The artist stitches a parallelity that defies agreed codifications of a singular body-space, to structure bodies-between-spaces-and-times. In the spirit of conjoined star systems that maintain a synchronized life despite being light-years apart, the artwork renders deliberate attunements between social horizons separated by time and place. Bringing about a mutant association between Biennial visitors, a specific frequency in air traffic, and the water mass of air, Savić-Gecan ultimately lends the quality of porosity to The Museum of Rhythm, drawing it into a membrane-form, continually affected by an elsewhere.

One may never be sure when the artwork works, since it is a silently breathing effection. One engages with the weight and texture of value, non-image, aesthetic exposure, and, finally, also nothingness as phenomenal presence. When conceiving of history-telling as a sedimentary site rather than a narrative arc, the artist’s role in the construction of an imagined place ruptures the self-enclosed skin of time, allowing for epistemic disobediences to address that which is a remainder—the realm of inconceivability. 

Tomo Savić-Gecan, Untitled, 2012 

Of Equal Temperament and Law of Contagion
In the sixteenth century, two prominent figures—musicologist and mathematician Prince Zhu Zaiyu of the Ming dynasty in China, and Vincenzo Galilei, an Italian lutenist and music theorist—both established the system of twelve-tone equal temperament.11 Zhu Zaiyu drew from the acoustic calculations of early pitch pipes and calendric recordings found in Yuelü, the ancient ritual tone system, finally inventing the formulation with an eighty-one-bit abacus.12 In the late Renaissance, Galilei studied string tension and proposed a system of equal intervals for tuning the lute. With this equal-tempered scale, he challenged still-dominant Pythagorean traditions in music theory.

While both figures—almost contemporaneously—altered tuning history, it is unlikely the two knew of one another. It would seem that as two strings vibrate at an equal harmonic ratio, the temperaments of thought-matter and events of history also arrive at intersections of sympathetic time. It is at such a juncture that modern rationality collapses, to be taken over by the very gestures of non-conformity it has stifled.

A music score by Taiwanese composer Su-ti Chen titled Breezes Through The Banana Leaves is exhibited alongside geographer Herman Moll’s A New Map of The Whole World With Trade Winds (1736), as an emplacement outlining a “third” fictional cartography. The first is a sonic act that maps the surrender of banana leaves to the irrational call of wind, depicted as a string of music notes leaping across the page. The second is a re-charting of the world through the observational plotting of variable seasonal winds and a shower of arrows outlining their shifting pattern. This map was realized by the same figure who earlier plotted fanciful cartographies for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

While Su-ti Chen provides a topographical sketch of the banana field as a breeze-induced score, Moll’s map is also a score for empires colonizing territorial pockets, composed in the pitch of wind pressure arrows piercing the belly of his world atlas. If we go by the Law of Contagion as it relates to magical thinking, once these materials become co-actors within a shared biosphere, they continue to affect one another’s given temperament even after physical contact has been severed.13 The act of placing beside is seen here as an interruption rather than an expression of direct association. It argues for a transgressive geography between time, place, and things of incommensurate worlds.14

Simone Forti, from Guest Editorial, Contact Quarterly, Winter Issue, 1990. Courtesy of the artist

Tuning Bodies in the World / The World as Tuned Body
Around the time of the horse-drawn wagon, Frank B. Gilbreth and Lillian M. Gilbreth began elaborate experiments in time-motion by turning the laboring body into a measurable entity. Their aim was to find “the one best way” to work.15 For the National Conference of the Western Efficiency Society in 1917, they authored a pamphlet titled Measurement of the Human Factor in Industry. It proclaimed, “Measurement on machines that are obsolete is of little value. Measurement of human beings is valuable forever.”16 Half a century earlier the Victorian polymath Francis Galton made a similar claim to popularize anthropometry.

Between 1910 and 1924, the Gilbreths operated as a consulting firm. They studied the relationship between effort and fatigue and instituted the most efficient work motions for a range of professions, from bricklaying to typing, fencing, and surgery.17 A selection of Gilbreth chronocyclographs presented in the Museum of Rhythm expose snapshots of motion paths formed by small electric lamps usually fastened to workers’ hands or fingers. Long exposures to a chain of light circuits turn bodies into incandescent streaks or a frenzy of scratches on a plate of darkness. The luminosity of a golfer’s swing and a hand-drill operator thus come to resemble a neighboring display of theosophical body-aura diagrams. Though these materials are fundamentally incompatible, both study corporeal potential as a flow of vibrations to be disciplined into higher forms—be it through the problematic principles of clairvoyance or the scrupulous ordering of work-motions for female typists. The latter involves a total mechanization of the body to operate as a tool of highest efficiency, while the former treats the body-flesh as an inferior “receiver” for an idealized astral body. 

C.W. Leadbeater, The Chakras, 1927, The Theosophical Publishing House. Image: from Chakras, Human Aura as per e-journal essay

Clashes between inherent and acquired bodily rhythms are a fundament of socializing the self. A hierarchy of gesture and mimetic tendencies frame a dominant mode of being-in-a-world. It is through an economy of bodies brought into a prescribed rhythm that the time regimes of enculturation processes and civilizational enterprise proliferate. Henri Lefebvre points out in his writings on rhythmanalysis that “humans break themselves in [se dressant] like animals.”18 Through a set of consecrated rites of presenting ourselves and presenting others to the world, dressage reduces unforeseen behavior to thrust us into deterministically rhythmized beings. Our bodies, like those of animals, are found to have a use-value only once they are broken in or trained to operate efficiently in society.19 In contrast, the untrained body, or the trained yet defiant body, is cast as dysfunctional—forced into modernity’s scenes of “aberration.”

Dancing Discontinuously
In Jean Painlevé’s Acera or the Witches Dance, acera (a type of mollusk) first appear as floating balls and then slowly emerge from protective shells into amoeba-like ambiguous forms. With open circulatory systems and rasping tongues that combine digestive and sensory capabilities, in a conventional sense these creatures could well be considered phenomenal aberrations.

As this surrealist science documentary journeys through mollusk life history, we see these invertebrates open diaphanous flaps to perform an ecstatic ballet that is also a complex mating ritual. They copulate in a chain pattern; first there are three, then five, playing hermaphroditic double roles. Moving between states of continuity and discontinuity, it is a choreography that blurs life, death, and unison. It brings to mind Bataille’s configuration of death and the erotic: “We are discontinuous beings, individuals who perish in isolation in the midst of an incomprehensible adventure, but we yearn for our lost continuity.”20

To maintain an asymmetrical relationship with one’s world by performing as a non-conforming body is also a refusal to succumb to a milieu of biosocial rhythms. While prescribed states of normalcy continue to govern as the violent skin of modernity, gestural defiance and inner mutations interrupt this encrusted skin. Such departures are easily categorized as transgressions of a primitive subjectivity that is fundamentally opposite to Modernism. But this is a limited reading, since transgression is what profoundly discredits a way of life reduced to servile forms. For in its abject and revolting avatars there is a radical de-linking from predictable patterns of sociality, and a posture of dissidence. Within the arena of historicization, transgressive acts sound parallel collisions as an articulation of “possible worlds”. Their shattering effect, rupturing the ceiling of false rationalisms, is akin to breaking the surface of water with a vibrating tuning fork. 

Jean Painlevé, Acéra or the witches’ dance, 1972, 35mm, colour, installation view, Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

Jean Painlevé, Acéra or the witches’ dance, 1972 (film still) © les documents cinématographiques, Paris

To Cast Into States
For the Museum of Rhythm, Francisco Camacho has conceived a new form of swimming. The 360° Stroke is a hybrid swimming stroke that involves a rotation of the body in a style similar to water combat moves deployed in training the US Marine Corps. As the linear figuration of a swimmer’s body is turned into a cyclical form, the bodily experience in water invites a seeing-thinking “in the round.” The result is a strange condition of watching the world and, in turn, being watched by it through associative spinning. This looping through water in the manner of a helix and primeval nature clocks sets forth a novel attitude towards our very physicality as well as its horizon of aqueous sociality.

The human body is not designed to be in water, yet our civilizational connections with aquatic resources have historically demanded a culture of swimming. As a prehistoric phenomenon, some of the earliest avatars of swimming pools can be seen at sites of the Indus Valley Civilization (such as Mohenjo-Daro) and the widely scattered Roman baths. Camacho inscribes the given rhythmic scheme of swimming history with another logic, one that provides a visceral exercise in unlearning what has been made a common standard.

By proposing this swimming stroke along with a manifesto describing swimming as an artistic practice, the artist offers a new social imaginary and an arrival at bodily commonality from a place of deep-seated turning. It may also be thought of as an act of syncopation—a new accent or attitude that “disturbs” regular pacing and generic movement flows. The body thus becomes an offbeat presence and a counter-surface.

In his influential treatise “Techniques of the Body,” sociologist Marcel Mauss dealt with the way societies teach men to use their bodies.21 In his lectures on descriptive ethnology at the Institut d’Ethnologie of the University of Paris, he persuaded ethnographers to move from concrete to abstract considerations when exploring technical facts of cultural behavior. When studying the activity of swimming as a historical and ethnographic question, he observes: “In my day swimmers thought of themselves as a steamboat. It was stupid, but in fact I still do this: I cannot get rid of my technique.”

What are museums meant to teach? Conceived as early sites of civilizing rituals and coinciding with the historic invention and application of the guillotine, the museum has a consuming relationality with the behavioral codes of modernity, morality, and enlightenment ideals. As a speculative museum, any pedagogic function in this case involves subversion rather than a confirmation of museal history. Through the training in The 360° Stroke, The Museum of Rhythm brings about a physical non-synchronicity by re-crafting an essential life skill: swimming.

In November 2011, the Google satellite located “White Lines” in Gobi Desert. News reporters, scientists, military strategists, UFO enthusiasts, etc. made several attempts to understand the true nature of this abstract pattern in desert sands. However, it continues to confound us. The geographic coordinates deliver a digital view but there is no material experience for this absurd geography—as a whole. For The Museum of Rhythm Justice Abusa, a textile artist in Accra (Ghana) was commissioned to create a Kente textile inspired by these Google satellite images. This process of material transfer may be considered an exercise in rhythmanalysis—converting a gathering of pixels into fabric, through a traditional weaving technique.
Further, a wood block sourced in the winter of 2007 while researching hand-printed textiles in Gujarat (India) bears an uncanny resemblance to these “White Lines.” The motif-surface is solid yet it manages to capture that fluid arrangement on arid ground. A tool to render design impressions on cloth—this wood block comes to stand as a “positive” object for disappeared negatives. These artefacts along with image documents (a hysterical CNN weather reporter and satellite views) are gathered as semi-fictional evidence as well as witness figures within a vitrine display in The Museum of Rhythm

On Sequentiality: From the Head of a Frog into the Idealized Head of Apollo
J.C. Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy (1789–98) surveys morphological transfer: from states of animality toward the formation of so-called ideal human types. The basis for his study was that a greater knowledge of mankind would emerge from the thesis that God created Man in his own image. Lavater hence, attempted to capture human portraits as an amalgamation of the moral, the intellectual and the animal. A fine balance of virtue and vice would therefore be recognized as markings upon the corporeal exterior of humanity—foreheads, noses, chins and eyes becoming coded scripts of “natural inclinations”. In one depiction, a raven’s beak fuses with a male profile in a physiognomical reading of his character and inner spirit. This sort of proto-animation is also seen in a 24-stage transformation from the head of a frog to the idealized head of Apollo.

The Museum of Rhythm brings together a coloured drawing of Lavater’s Frog-to-Apollo head (1797) with Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies of Boys Playing Leapfrog—part of his pivotal Animal Locomotion series (1872–1885). As this renowned electro-photographic investigation meets another predecessor of human-animal behavioural sequencing, one is reminded of the complex theatrics that accompanied the construction of these modern scientific documents. Experienced here as a qualitative “leaping” from one state of being into a rationalized other.

From there on the production of a sequence around the frog leitmotif becomes obsessive—perhaps, dissonant even. A wooden frog-shaped guiro (popular souvenir and percussion instrument largely exported from South-East Asia) is exhibited beside a copy of George Orwell’s Some Thoughts on the Common Toad as well as the endangered Taipei Grass Frog’s call. As Orwell presents a lucid account on the habitat and movements of the common toad, the resonant body of the Frog Guiro calls to be ‘croaked.’ Meanwhile, we never see that rare Taipei Grass Frog but only hear a recording made by local amphibian experts. An accompanying factsheet claims it was popularly known as Thunder God Frog.

A partial history of the metronome, includes:
Wittner Talktel Mechanical Metronome (Animal Series, Owl shaped).
The Metronome, a monthly journal devoted to the interest of music in general, January 1913, Vol. XXIX, No. 1.
Rosamond E.M. Harding, The Metronome and its Precursors (Greshman Books, 1983).
Seth Thomas, Metronome Maelzel, original print advertisement, 1951.  Obituary Announcement claiming Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel was the real inventor the Metronome. The Harmonicon: A Journal of Music, William Ayrton, 1826, Vol IV, Pt. 1, Page 250, Published by Samuel Leigh, London.
Györgi Ligeti (1923–2006), Poème Symphonique, 1962, Performance Instructions, 1st fine copy (Typescript with corrections), page 1, Courtesy: Paul Sacher Foundation, Basel, György Ligeti collection and with kind permission of Schott Music, Mainz
Toshi Ichiyanagi, Music for Electric Metronome, 1960, instruction sheet and score, manuscript copy. Courtesy: Reproduced with kind permission of Peters Edition Limited, London
Man Ray (1890–1976)Indestructible Object (or Object to Be Destroyed), 1964 (replica of 1923 original). New York, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), metronome with cutout photograph of eye on pendulum, Assemblage. 22.5 x 11 x 11.6 cm. James Thrall Soby Fund. 248.1966.a-e © Courtesy: Digital Image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala, Florence

Circulations of the Circular
Some of the oldest uses of the word “Rhythm” indicate a pause or a steady limitation of movement22. In 7th century B.C. the Greek poet Archilochos was determined to “understand the rhythm that holds mankind in its bonds." While the master of ancient tragedy, Aeschylos (525–456 B.C.), lamented in his Prometheus Bound23, “I am bound here in this rhythm." Hence, rhythm is understood not as a condition of stillness per say, but as a social architecture of recurring time. As temporal phases that subject human as well as non-human bodies to factors of “eternal recurrence” they play out as a dramaturgy of cycles—alternating between confinement and renewal. And it is within cyclical dramaturgies as such, that rhythm inscribes figure-ground relationship(s).

In RUND (195?–1998), we travel from the moon’s surface into an escalator tunnel, James Bond’s gun barrel, a hula-hoop, an enormous leaking stomach, a tennis court and onward into what appears to be a mineshaft. Gerhard Rühm’s photo collage series made across five decades bears the sensibility of a graphic score that mediates conditions of “roundness”—articulations of circuits, cycles, spheres—and eventually, the status of thinking/making as acts of spinning “around.”

The circle comes to serve as an elemental habitat but also a passage. A reminder that: the whole can no longer be portrayed as a large round whole24. Instead there is an observation of the thing via circumambulation—since the empty center can only be conceived through remnants that surround it. Rühm’s dizzying arrangement generates a field of reciprocal belonging as surfaces pass through surfaces. As a founding member of the Wiener Gruppe he fundamentally addresses the erotics of language, here, as a relation between tensions.

Roland Barthes has stressed, when writing is animated by truth, at a certain moment25—be it as the deepest crises (or epiphany)—our relation with that instant is brought about by a change in the language of rhythm. Rhythmic tendencies de-center image-body relations in order to reproduce them as “new events”26. As a constituting principle, rhythm maintains history as living form. Rather than a predominant pulse its truth is a shifting unity composed of something radically other. And this may be understood as the contiguity of fiction. Ultimately, rhythm is also an accretion—a phenomenon of endurance and arguably, endurance itself.

Participating artists: Erick Beltrán, Francisco Camacho, Hanne Darboven, Juan Downey, Simone Forti, Frank B. Gilbreth, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Channa Horwitz, Ken Jacobs, Katarzyna Kobro, Labour Exchange Band, Richard Lin, Jean Painlevé, Gerhard Rühm, Tomo Savić-Gecan, Yashas Shetty, among others.

Gerhard Rühm, RUND, 195?–1998, fotomontage, collage on thin cardboard, series of 24 works, each 29,7 x 21 cm. Courtesy: Christine König Galerie, Vienna