With every step we sunk deep into the thick layers of red, orange and bright green squashy moss, as we plowed our way through the bog. Peering over our shoulders we could see how far we’d immersed ourselves in this desolate landscape. We noticed how our traces disappeared instantly as the moss beneath the imprint of our footsteps swelled up and regained its former shape. As if nothing had happened. As if we hadn’t been here at all.
Walking on a trail is a bit like articulating a sentence. The trail is an inscription on the pages of the land. As the journey unfolds all the latent layers of past events are sung back into being – much the same way as one would vocalize a text, bringing each word back to being with every utterance. Or, to use another metaphor, the way the needle of a turntable resonates with the irregularities of the grooves on a record, transforming that rigged pathway into sound.
No matter how far one wonders off the trail, however much the scenery appears a pristine slate unwritten by human presence, we’ll have to admit that we are still walking lines that history has already written. And it’s this realization that wherever one moves, one’s steps will fall in place with those human or non-human entities whom have gone before you, that might inspire to a new kind of orientation. An orientation of connectedness and heritance; an acknowledgement that one is part of a continuous process of inscription and that, as everything in nature is engaged in a constant act of writing history, the same will count for us. We are merely finishing each other’s sentences.
What condition, I wonder, that facilitates that empathic endeavor, that eagerness to understand, to read another’s mind, is more familiar than the one we know from friendship?
Dorian and I had met about a year before our walk through that remote area in Caithness. We met in another rural place, elsewhere in the country. A place heavily saturated with notions of ecological awareness, art and community – very much driven by that Victorian naive (or arrogant) desire to uncover the mysteries of life. It was on that first acquaintance that Dorian told me about the violin he had discovered that had a tone ‘pure as the human voice’: the rondello. And it might have been that openheartedness with which he shared his fascination that tuned my mind and made it resonate along. From that moment a thought that had started with the violinmaker, nearly a century ago, had suddenly regained a new spark of life. It had started to take off on a journey of its own, being carried not just by one, but by two new minds, or vehicles one might say, transmitting the frequency of the original thought into the present. Underlying the intention to finish the work of Alexander Grant, therefore, might really be the same act of care and empathy: to finish an uncompleted sentence, to line up voices in service for the continuation of great ideas.
Sometimes the difference between a sentence and the sound that it describes is hard to distinguish. The description might be based on the author’s experience of that sound or on his or her memory of it. Perhaps we should consider the texts and records of the rondello as such. The sound we read about is not an actual sound. It is a possible sound which, in the words of Salomé Voegelin, opens up to a ‘sonic possible world’. Like the latent layers of history in a landscape, sounds travel through space and time as much in sonic frequencies as they do in the silent, speculative, space of a text. To rewrite a text is thus to insist on its possibility rather than fixed knowledge or meaning. Similarly, to reproduce the sound of the rondello is to tap into new areas of potentiality rather than affirming preexisting definitions.
The stronger the resonance of an initial sound or thought, the more vibrant its afterlife will be. But sounds and thoughts are not responsible for vibrancy only. Objects are vibrant too. Their resonance lures us into the realm of speechlessness, of non-knowledge, of the unknown.
I remember clearly how Dorian pointed to the black peat that walled off our track through the flow country. The peat was dark like dried up oil or mushy coal. Above it an immense battlefield of Sitka Spruce had recently been decapitated. But within the walls of peat were framed the leftovers of a much more ancient forest. Large trunks of trees stuck out, bleached by rain, wind and sun. ‘That’s bogwood’ Dorian explained. ‘That’s the wood that Alexander Grant used for his rodello.’ Those chunks of ancient forest are preserved within the peat like frozen pockets of time. They are stubborn protagonists that refuse to be forgotten, recalcitrant actors in the continuous story of the planet. Their white arms and roots reach out towards the present, towards us. But we do not know how to return their gesture.
Perhaps we do not need to do anything at all, but observe what that gesture might imply. Like those ancient roots, the violin is a receptacle for historical time itself, carrying that past Highland forest to the present. And in that sense the idea for the rondello didn’t start with Grant, but much further back; in the ecological conditions that allowed the seed grow into the tree from which the violin was made – which is something that is difficult for us to understand. The instrument, in all its physical vibrancy, in its energetic liveliness, is a powerful vehicle for a great unknowing, an unfathomable mystery that lies at the root of every silent thing. And perhaps it is precisely the object’s discontinuity with the past that allows us to enter into this relationship with the unknown. Since none of the rondello’s that Grant produced can be played today. All of them are in fact broken. And would it be too farfetched to suggest that precisely because of their fragmented state they maintain their initial vibrancy?
But the real question is this: how can we create room for these broken things to speak? Perhaps we should be guided not by the conventional attempt to represent these bits and pieces of reality, just as we wouldn’t want to conjure up the unwilling spirit of a dead friend. Instead, we could move along with things, just as we do alongside each other. In this world things are always embedded, non-representable and unstable, and it would require merely an act of sympathy – of symphony, to be more precise – to attune ourselves with things, with the past, the way we do with our best friends. When we think collectively, ideas and their manifestations can travel more freely through the network of humans and things. When we think collectively we are no longer the individual victims of ‘the way things are or how they’ve always been’. We can begin to accept that all our intellectual reasoning is merely one of the many murmurs that nature produces. The more diverse the spectrum of voices that contribute to that contradictory cacophony, the richer our experience on earth will be.
The book ‘ rondello’ was produced and published by Dorian Jose Braun and designed by MyBookcase as part of the group exhibition Platform: 2016 at Edinburgh Art Festival Kiosk. Grant’s rondello, along with other artifacts from the Scottish inventor, fiddler and angler’s (b. 1856) collection, can be found in the archives of the Inverness Museum where Braun undertook research. ‘Rondello’ is available from the Edinburgh Art Festival Kiosk on Blair Street until 28 August and from the Project Café in Glasgow afterwards. For copies please contact the ‘Tell it Slant’ bookshop or the Project Café at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photography by Claudio Crist.
Dorian Jose Braun is a German artist based in Glasgow and Ullapool (North-West coast of Scotland). Since graduating from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in 2013, Dorian has received the John Kinross Scholarship, The Royal Scottish Academy New Contemporaries Award, and Friends of the RSA Award. He has had solo exhibitions both in Scotland and abroad with his most recent solo exhibitions at the Twente Biannual and the Pet Pavillion Gallery, both in Enschede Holland. His most recent residencies took place in Hospitalfield Arts in Arbroath, Scotland, Artist in Residence Enschede in Holland, and Can Serrat Art Centre in Spain.
The practice of Jasper Coppes unfolds around the transformation of spaces – through precise gestures and détournements that challenge the definition and function of sites. Coppes graduated from the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in 2008 and was a fellow at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht in 2010 and 2011. He also holds an MLitt in Fine Art Practice from Glasgow School of Art. Besides his artistic practice he is a freelance writer; part time tutor at the KABK – Royal Academy of The Hague; guest tutor at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, Amsterdam, and guest lecturer at the Hogeschool Zuyd in Maastricht.