Steven Connor

A talk given on April 6 2005 to accompany the exhibition of works by Christian Marclay in the Barbican Art Gallery, London.

Making Good

Accounts of Christian Marclay’s career emphasise his movement between different arts and crafts, as sculptor, performer, musician, conceptualist. But it seems to me that he remains, as he began, a sculptor, despite his inauspicious name, that sounds as though it might be borne by a blundering bricklayer among the rude mechanicals of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. To be sure, there have been periods in Christian Marclay’s career when he seems to have been impelled by an antisculptural drive, or to want to emphasis the work of the scalpel or the hammer over their outcomes. In earlier years, he was drawn to work that consumed itself or its objects in the process of performing them; the making of a trace that left no trace of its making, leaving not a track behind. And yet the instinct to preserve survives amid or cooperates with the festival of potlatch: he has said that he gave up rehearsing his turntable pieces because the very act of going over performances in advance tended to destroy the object he was using.

when I did my solo pieces I was totally into rehearsing, organizing my records, which were numbered. I had everything worked out: a beginning, a middle, and an end. I would spend a lot of time rehearsing and in the process damage the fragile records: some loops would disintegrate after a while. The rehearsal process was contradictory with the fragility of the instrument. (quoted Licht 2003, 96)

Melanie Klein suggests that moral and artistic impulses may derive from a desire to make reparation for acts of primary sadism that belong to what she calls the paranoid-schizoid stage of development, in which the young child directs violent assaults towards the bad images it constructs, in a desperate attempt to keep good and bad separate by splitting them off from one another. When the child feels the impulse to reparation, it is on the way to the anxious-depressive stage which, accepting that the mother, like all human beings, is composed of good and bad components, indissolubly mixed together, is as good as it gets. The important point about the reparative impulse is that what it rebuilds is not fetishised completeness, but the state of incompleteness, ambivalence, which is whole because it is hybrid. Christian Marclay’s later works bring together violent acts with the acts of reparation they require and release. One of the first works of sculpture that Christian Marclay saw when growing up in Switzerland was a work by Jean Tinguely, who specialised in making works that elaborately destroyed or disassembled themselves. Marclay’s works make reparation for the deformations they effect in the very act of effecting them. So maybe the word for what Marclay does, or leaves behind after what he has done, might be damagery. Indeed, the word damage already has this possibility of survival in it: ‘damage’ names not just the action of damaging, but what is left as witness to it: ‘the damage’, and the pity.

Damage: dommage. Something flickers in the passage between these two related but subtly differentiated words in English and French. Damage means injury, a wrong done to persons or things. Damage damns things, does them in. Damage is related etymologically as well as euphoniously to doom and damnation. Latin damnare means to harm, injure, or cause a loss to, as well as to impose a legal penalty, a damnum, which signifies a fine or some other kind of retributive damages imposed by a court as recompense for hurts incurred. A family of legal terms connoting various kinds of judgement branches from this: condemning, indemnifying, deeming and dooming, as well as the suffix –dom, of kingdom. The plosive that pops up in the noun form ‘contempt’ may perhaps be a memory of the Greek δαπαυη, a cost, expenditure, or loss, of which damnum may be a mutation.

But damning, dooming and condemning are rather relentless words, which preclude mercy and dam up compassion. In French, one says ‘c’est dommage’ familiarly to signify not only some loss or damage, but also one’s pity or regret that it should have taken place. Quel dommage: what a pity, such a shame. Indeed, shame is implicated in a similar drift of meaning. Harm, a Teutonic word, which derives from OE hearm and other words in Danish, Icelandic and Swedish, modulates into Old Slavic and Russian sram, shame. It is a shame to harm things. C’est dommage; such a shame that things should come to harm. Damage and dommage are connected in English until about 1630, after which time the word ‘domage’ is very rarely found in English. The movement from injury to suffering is apparent even in the late English uses of the word, such as the anonymous Anglo-Latin Lamentation of Saint Mary Magdalene, from around 1520, where the word is starting to mean suffering, or dolour rather than injury: ‘Alas, my Lorde! take from me this dommage’ (1871). Even language, it seems, strives to repair the damage to which it attests.

Human Remains

And indeed what Marclay now does is not to damage irreparably, to spoil or ruin, but to retrieve, spare, repair. The point of what he does is to present not ruins, but remains. Many of his works involve visual or verbo-visual puns, and the telephonic ossuary of Boneyard seems almost to invite the caption ‘human remains’. The piece is a parable of amputated life out of Ezekiel (‘And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live?’ Ezekiel 37:3), Aristophanes, who tells the story in Plato’s Symposium of the cloven sexes who struggle to become one again, and Ovid, according to whom the fate of Echo is to dwindle to nothing but a voice and a set of bones. Because these cartoon dogbones (surely Marclay cannot be echoing the Cockney rhyming slang which makes of a phone a dog-and-bone?) embody petrified voices, or their possibility, they seem still to be trying to make connection. They clamber, sprawl and squirm, butting and nuzzling blindly together in hammer-and-anvil assemblages, or cryptically copulative acts of attempted mouth-to-ear resuscitation.

At the entrance to the Barbican exhibition is the 1999 Tape Fall, in which a tape running through a reel-to-reel recorder plays the sound of running water, but since there is no pick-up reel, the used-up tape coils on to the floor. In one sense, we are shown the sheer fact of passage, of running out, of the Heraclitean flow in which one can never step into the same river, or hear the same sound twice. But there is consolation in the pile of tape that forms at the base of the tape machine, like a midden or a small, mute, extinct, yet paradoxically still growing volcano. The piece is a machine for converting time to space, event to object, sound to substance. The mound of tape is useless, entropically unavailable for further work: the incitement of sound become an excrement. But the increment of this excrement suggests that there might be some way of climbing negentropically back upstream, in the spontaneous accretion of form. It is a kind of creation myth, in which a primal sound precipitates itself into mass. This is how the world begins: not with a bang but a whisper. But the form cannot be permanent, since at intervals the mound of tape must be removed and another begun.

Marclay is interested as much in the objects in which sound precipitates or comes to rest as he is in the sound itself. His work and the alert sensibility out of which it comes, teaches us that the recording revolution not only materialised sound, it also sonorised matter. For such a see-hearing sensibility, ears peeled and eyes pricked for the faintest scrape of sound, the world appears panaphonic. Like Philip Larkin who sees the trees coming into leaf ‘like something almost being said’ (1974, 12). Marclay is not so much a sound artist, as a perpetrator and preserver of ‘sound effects’, the effects of sound on the world, and the world coming into sonorous effect.

The ability to emanate sound is mysteriously, but tenaciously associated with the capacity to suffer. We say that something is sound when we have sounded it out, when we have found that sound traverses and returns from it without distortion. But, as Aristotle notes in his remarks on sound in De Anima, sound is always the reflex of an impact, a more or less violent repercussion. There is no sound without some form of wounding, abrasion, impact, tearing. This creates a link between melody and agony. And why are objects uncanny? Why should they seem menacing? Because they can be hurt, and because we feel they may take revenge on us, or would be justified in doing so. Baudelaire suggests that the purpose of toys is to afford an opportunity to dissect, to atomise, to reveal the workings of things. Perhaps the pity that language seems moved to make us articulate is propitiation against this possibility.

All acts of violence directed towards human products, or products that seem to be intimately tied to their human originators, like manuscript, drawings, photography or clothing, are disturbing. But phonoclasm, the violence against sound, or against what carries or harbours it, seems more damaging than iconoclasm, prompting an event of sound that is at once the sound-wound and its own howl of protest. This may be why all these silent objects on display in the company of the teeth-grating agony of Guitar Drag and the amazing orchestrations of Video Quartetseem so melancholy and tense. For they are not silent, so much as silenced, their sound choked or thwarted. This is a world reduced to sign language, which is not so much a translation of speech as a particular, displaced strategy of it. Marclay’s interest in sound can be brought to a focus around this question of the compliant pitiability of things. If it is true that the many sound objects of the modern world seem more alive than purely visual objects, then perhaps this is because they, like us, seem susceptible of being harmed, and this because they have voices – even if those are voices that have been struck dumb.

Keeping Score

Nothing testifies more clearly to this than the word ‘instrument’. An instrument is something that is used for a particular or express purpose. Expression seems to be of the essence of an instrument; an instrument is not just something you use to do what you do, it is also something that expresses or asserts your action, as in the instruments of law. Instruments and instruction are both variations on the Latin ‘struere’, to build up, or arrange. But destroy comes from the same source (instrue, on the model of construe never seems to have made it into English, though it may be at work in the term instress coined by Gerard Manley Hopkins). All of this involves pressure, torsion, stress, and strain, the latter a word that may itself be construed in either a musical or mechanical sense. These connotations of force are at their most intense in musical instruments, all of which seem to suggest that they are capable either of inflicting suffering, or having it inflicted on them. When Marclay subjects musical instruments to distortion, he seems to be following out a logic inherent in the musical instrument in the first place. Instruments image the stretching, twisting, cramping and confinement of air and sound they effect. Instruments are impossible bodies, bodies subjected to ingenious, seriocomic Sturm und Drang. So, when Christian Marclay stops up the mouthpiece of a French horn with a trumpet, the gagged, asphyxiated result is only an intensification of the intricate detention of air that is part of the logic of the original instrument. In one sense, instruments are images of the human body remixed and remoulded, as in some sonic version of the cave of Dr Moreau. These are surgical instruments, which portray the effects of the plastic surgery they inflict on themselves. These objects and apparatuses are doctored, a word that suggests emasculation as well as surgical improvement. In another sense, these instruments act upon the human body, subduing it to certain disciplines, soliciting from it a kind of obedience in the postures it enjoins (hence the antic counterfactuality of playing pianos with your feet, or the frantic tarantellas of the air guitar, which makes the guitar a plasmatic agitation and emanation of the body rather than a subjugation of the body to the demands of the guitar).

There is another correlative for this idea of the body transformed by sound which Marclay’s work hints at, if distantly. Cartoons and animation represent a world governed not by stable visual forms, but by the infinitely plastic or transformative power of sound. Hence, perhaps, Marclay’s interest in the anthropomorphic possibilities of wax, which seems to be an image of this sonorous plasma, plasma being the fourth state of matter. If wax is an image of the ductility of sound, in its baked and cooled state, it is an image of what blocks hearing. Pieces such as Drumkit orAccordion, both from 1999, require us to imagine a character subjected to vast and comically painful extension, extensions that are almost always accompanied by or even enacted through sound.

Marclay remains a sculptor because sound is never for him disembodied, but always morphological, always the shape of things becoming, with volume, texture, surface. Sound comes from depths, from always enigmatic interiorities. Some of Marclay’s works play with the mystery of sonorous volume, the fact that sound has to come from some space within the visible, arising out of some inaccessible hollowness – the inside of a guitar, the chest cavity, the booming emptiness inside a drum. No other sense suggests to us as intensely as hearing that we are reaching into and being reached by the inside of things. And yet all our contemporary sound apparatuses seem also to rely upon surfaces, on flatness, thinness: the trace scored in the tinfoil of the phonograph, the fingerprint of the shellac and later vinyl record, the configurations of magnetic tape, the patternings of the CD and the DVD, apotheoses so-far of the immaterial vehicle of sound. For Marclay, as for Duchamp, sound is secret, in two senses: it is invisible, and it is secreted from an impossible inside of a flat world. When he reworks Duchamp’s A Bruit Secret, which contains an object inside a coil of string, he flattens the design, in Secret, into a padlocked record that can never be played. The paradox of sound is that it is interred in the depthless, two-dimensional world of the impassioned surface. Marclay is drawn to these vulnerable, infinitely sensitive surfaces. Photography suggested that there were circumstances in which light could make report of itself. The advent of indexical sound recording, which allowed sound to deposit the traces of its own passage, turned every surface into a intently-listening membrane. Hence the prominence of these surfaces in Marclay’s works – of curtains, nets, paper. Retroactively, as we learned to read the traces of sound in the surface of the record, scratches and cracks came to seem like sonorous footprints or fingerprints, in which the possibility of sound lurks secretly. In one of Marclay’s collages of album covers (the least compelling alas and most obvious of his practices of visual remixing) the seams are marked by zippers, which are an apt emblem for a surface that promises depth, a scar that onomatopoeically sounds its own name, while it alludes to zipped up mouths and now perhaps also to the silent impending of zipped files.

These sound-surfaces are never neutral. If there is ordeal in the tonguetied, dumbstruck grief of many of Marclay’s exhibits, one senses that the laying down and reactivation of sound traces is also a form of suffering. This is made howlingly audible in Guitar Drag. One of the puns involved in the work must surely be the term ‘pick-up’, a function which is shared both by the truck and the guitar it drags. It is not just the guitar which ungently weeps, but also the ground over which it shakes, rattles and rolls.The guitar is an apparatus for picking up the sound of things, a needle for the damage done. ‘I wanted to see how it would react to the different textures’, Marclay said. ‘It is almost like a needle scraping against different kinds of grooves, amplifying the ground.’ (quoted in Licht 101). The result is a grisly parody of the music of the spheres, which was supposed to be the celestial sound of the nine crystal spheres sliding over one another.

Almost as fascinating as the surface and the very enactment of the compounding of thin and thick, flatness and fullness, is the coil, which features prominently in Marclay’s altered objects and apparatuses. The Beatles knits audiotape into a somewhat scratchy looking cushion. Tape Fallproduces sculptured form out of the tanglings of tape, while Violin (1988) shows a violin mummy-wrapped in audiotape reeled off a spool. The pipework of Stool (1992) loops together the instrumental and the excremental, breath and exhaust, recalling the bagpipe monsters who populate the margins of the Luttrell Psalter. Tangles feature in Dialogue of the Giants (1988) and the amazing Extended Phone (1994), the handset of which has the mouthpiece and earpiece separated by a hundred metres of cable in great loops on the floor. Again, it seems to be the sonorous world of the cartoon to which Marclay is indebted for this morphological principle that the thick may be made thin and that anything can be stretched out to any length, like Helen Parr (Elastigirl) in The Incredibles. The principle is established in Möbius Loop (1994), a giant version, made of cassette tapes stitched together, of the paradoxical topology that has volume, but only one surface.

Marclay’s interest in what might be called the domain of the ‘parasonic’ reveals how leaky sound and its pleasures are, as sound spreads across to its occasions and accompaniments, including packaging and imagery, shapes and shines and postures and textures. Marclay assembles here an ethnomusicology of an imaginary people, the people we imagined ourselves to be. These sad, tawdry, glamorous things take the print of our private lives and passions, the tracks of our tears. They are open secrets, public records that we have by heart, which come into their own as we make them ours, through all the tiny, intimate spoilings, incautious creasings, greasy blears and smears, all the damage we do, the wear and tear we are.


Anon (1871). Our Lady’s Lament, and The Lamentation of Saint Mary Magdalene. Ed. Charles Edward Tame. London: R. Washbourne, 1871.

Licht, Alan (2003). ‘CBGB As Imaginary Landscape: The Music of Christian Marclay.’ Christian Marclay. Steidl: UCLA Hammer Museum, 89-110.

Larkin, Philip (1974). High Windows. London: Faber and Faber.