There’s a risk to trying to translate a performance art experience to an audio-only one. By forcing the audio to engage on its own merits, there is an assumption that the audio holds enough value to the listener to keep an audience’s attention without the other sensory stimuli to enhance it. In the case of Florian Hecker’s A Script for Machine Synthesis, however, the sights and the smells are static, allowing us to imagine them as the narration proceeds in all its synthetic glory. As we imagine three large white speakers, one small pink ice cube, and the smell of a perfume wafting through the air, we listen to Hecker’s presentation of Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani’s musings on the meaning of the pink ice cube; a meeting of the natural and unnatural in a contained space.
After a brief introduction setting the stage described above, the voice Hecker presents tells us: “Exeunt all human actors… save for the cube.” It is an excellent setup to what we are in for.
This audio recording of A Script for Machine Synthesis consists of three tracks: “Prelude”, a ten-second tease that foreshadows a recurring motif; “Credits”, which closes the performance with a manipulated voice reading the names of those responsible for the performance, and the meat of the performance as a single 57-minute track. Meant to be absorbed all at once in a single sitting, “A Script for Machine Synthesis” nevertheless travels in a number of different directions over the course of its duration.
It starts unassumingly enough, a computerized voice offering a thoughtful breakdown of the meaning of a pink ice cube in the context of living and synthetic worlds. “…its outer pink a symptom of its inner blackness,” the voice muses. “Pink is not made of ice; it is the ice that is pink throughout,” and so on and so forth. We are being set up here. This is too plain, too easy. There are challenges to come.
Eventually, the manipulated voice of Charlotte Rampling appears, speaking almost impenetrably of the layers of reality that can be addressed via and within the pink (and at this point visibly melting) ice cube. Rampling’s syllables are cut into uniform length, maintaining their human tone but adopting a clearly robotic meter. The vocabulary of Rampling’s segments is purposefully impenetrable, unnecessarily verbose even as its content remains thoughtful. Short, cutting bursts of noise begin to enter the mix. This is the ghost in the machine, the “demon”, in Hecker/Negarestani’s words. Time passes and the demon takes over, dominating the presentation as words transform into noise. After a stretch, a re-energized Rampling re-enters, at which point the noise suddenly drops out. We are back to the robotic meter we heard earlier. We hear musings like:
…it is through the mediation of concepts that the pink ice cube can be perceived in the sense of ‘this is to be a pink ice cube’; additionally, it is by means of inferentially constructed and revisable conceptual maps that fine-grained pictures of object uniformities can be produced…
Despite this valiant final effort to express the reality of the pink ice cube and its surroundings, the demon returns once more to do battle with the voice, and eventually wins that battle. We are left with slowly fading abstractions; more noise, inevitable but not necessarily aggressive. The demon wins not by force but by default; comprehensive analysis of reality, any reality, remains a conceptual impossibility.
Hecker’s ability to present such heady concepts through so much more than simple words is impressive; Negarestani’s words, the manipulated voices, and the noise that inevitably becomes the star all add up to a dissertation told as much through the way it makes the listener feel as what it tells the listener to think. Effective as the audio is, however, it’s impossible to hear it without wondering if something’s missing when hearing it in the living room, in the car, in bed, in the dark with a pair of headphones. The smell of the perfume, the sight of the cube, the lights that surround it all, these are integral parts of the presentation; it is impossible to escape that what we are hearing is an incomplete document.
If we take away the knowledge that such performances ever existed, however, what remains is absorbing, interesting, and thoughtful. Hecker keeps us on our toes by never settling in to a single sound, and Negarestani’s text is expertly presented. If you’re in the mood to contemplate the nature of reality for an hour, there are few better ways to do so.