13 February


Steve Jansen and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten — Locations (That’s Cool Records, 2020)


Run and gun capitalism, the expansion of the attention economy, and the unrelenting blitz for our goldfish attention spans all kick on with unparalleled force. Consequently — and unsurprisingly — the audience/spectator remain enthralled by whatever drivel spectacular-cum-experiential capitalism churns out and gets the designated agents’ (see: the figure of the influencer) saccharine and obsequious approval. In an update of their oft-cited 2001 study, Smith, et al. found a museum-goer spends a median of 28.63 seconds viewing/contemplating a visual work. [1] In the realm of music(s), Hubert Léveillé Gauvin has recently pointed out how the technological developments of the last three decades have led to new compositional practices in response to dwindling attention spans. The culture industry continues to dominant notions of and practices within ‘the popular’. [2] That which appears is good, that which is good appears.

What then of the short-form? Merely debased pandering to an attention-riddled audience? In particular, what are the implications and uses of the short-form in temporal arts? Can brevity serve some radical end and can short-forms of experimentalism serve as a means to an aesthetic end to unseat the commodity?*

Perhaps film and the serialised television form provide some useful, the latter of which has, in recent years with the rise of online video streaming services, entrenched itself as a dominant mode of cultural consumption. This addictive tendency toward (cultural) binging has not only become a mass proclivity, but one which is carefully cultivated and part of a deliberate strategy to encourage, a quite specific and predetermined mode of consumption. [3] Whilst there is an argument to be made that the serialised form is distinct from film (collective noun) or films (considered discretely), this distinction is is tenuous at best. Claude Lanzmann, Béla Tarr, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (amongst others) have shattered the illusion of tidy narrative arcs needing to be jammed into a ‘standard’ 90 minute format.

What then are we to make of the aggregated time —time, that is not negligible — that yr standard-fare audience allocates to such ‘binges’? Setting aside the magnetic pull of the spectacle, maybe there is something here to suggest the audience has retained some ability to dedicate sizeable portions of time to a given object…

Taking this as a starting point, what if experimental art engaged with the audience/subject on this terrain? Bruce Russell and Luke Wood’s Visceral Realists provides a notable recent example of using the pop single par excellence, the 45 RPM format of yesteryear, as a parametric format of choice, ideal for sonic détournement. Steve Jansen and Ingrebrigt Håker Flaten’s Locations provides another thrilling (recent) example. Comprised of 10 tracks — none of which exceed 6’30″— the listener encounters a series of dramatic sonic ‘scenes’ (in keeping with the theme of visual media). Throughout, the listener is positioned in sonic terrains which recall the dark and drifting moods of Michael Haneke’s Le Temp du Loup, Tarr’s Sátántangó or perhaps Jan Nêmec’s hazy Diamonds of the Night. Whilst there are definite orientations towards jazz or perhaps more astutely, moods suggestive of jazz (e.g. Håker-Flaten’s bass in the closing moments of ‘Higher and Lower‘), hard bop it ain’t. Hell, it isn’t harmolodics or Spiritual Unity either (all in spite of the invocations of both Booker Little and Albert Ayler in the titles of two of the album’s tracks).

The album invites you in, piques your interest and gives you something to chew on, but it isn’t going to punch your lights (see: Dave Burrell’s Echo) out nor is this particular release especially demanding of your time, temporally speaking. To be clear, one stands to gain something by fully immersing oneself in durational aesthetic experiences; but do all engagements with (experimental) art forms necessitate a baptism by fire? Sometimes, the answer surely must be yes. But if we are to ever understand cultural objects beyond their (presently) commoditised form, the avant garde — as its name suggests — must till the earth in order for new modes of understanding to grow. In short: a brevity and brand of experimentalism which remains challenging, but not inaccessible. A placeholder and means to contemplate cultural after the commidty. Suddenly, the future is a door wide open.

Fans of Jansen or Håker Flaten’s existing work, Ambarchi Apostles, and shortwave sweeties be sure to get this in the tape deck sharpish.

*How does one define ‘short’ ? Fair question, eh? For the purposes of this essay, a ‘short [-form]’ film will adhere to the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences definition of a work with a total run time of less than 40 minutes (including credits). Ergo, long form will be any work in excess of 40 minutes. As far as music goes, brevity is much harder to pin down: yr average pop hit is not likely to exceed 3 minutes, whereas a short improvisation may well be anything less than 10-15 minutes. Provisionally, however, short (sonically speaking) will be anything 8 minutes or less.

[1]  Smith, Lisa F., Jeffrey K. Smith, and Pablo P. L. Tinio. ‘Time Spent Viewing Art and Reading Labels.’ Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 11, no. 1 (February 2017): 77–85. https://doi.org/10.1037/aca0000049

For the original study, see:  Smith, Jeffrey K., and Lisa F. Smith. ‘Spending Time on Art’. Empirical Studies of the Arts 19, no. 2 (July 2001): 229–36. https://doi.org/10.2190/5mqm-59jh-x21r-jn5j; on the attention economy, see: Simon;  H. A. (1971). Designing organizations for an information-rich world. In M. Greenberger (Ed.), Computers, communication, and the public interest (pp. 37–72). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[2]  Léveillé Gauvin, Hubert. ‘Drawing Listener Attention in Popular Music: Testing Five Musical Features Arising from the Theory of Attention Economy’. Musicae Scientiae 22, no. 3 (1 March 2017): 293–298. https://doi.org/10.1177/1029864917698010.

[3] Castro, Deborah, Jacob M Rigby, Diogo Cabral, and Valentina Nisi. “The Binge-Watcher’s Journey: Investigating Motivations, Contexts, and Affective States Surrounding Netflix Viewing.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 27, no. 1 (December 4, 2019): 3–20. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354856519890856.