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Culture

Flow State, or the struggle to stage the sublime under Covid

Rising was supposed light up Melbourne and remind the city that – despite everything – art and music (festivals) will prevail. They even set up a sculpture-laden ice rink in the Sydney Myer Music Bowl. But, sadly, the fourth lockdown killed most of the program. The festival lost millions. And, according to Instagram, the rink only got used as a shortcut by foxes.

I was lucky enough to preview Sara Retallick and Amanda Roff’s Flow State before it got shut down. The Rising website promised a ‘high-value’ art/bathing experience on a private island that would help me ‘transcend space and time’. But, with another lockdown looming as I was set to float, I already suspected the whole city was in for another extended period of temporal disruption, fear and general strangeness. In the end, what Flow State actually did was set the stage for a sublime moment that grounded me deeper in reality.

The work began at a South Yarra rowing club. Someone was waiting in the entranceway wearing an oversized reflective raincoat, like an aircraft marshal. Only, their breast pocket featured a mysterious logo: a set of hyphens bookending two upturned arrows.

The Marxist critic Frederic Jameson explains that the conditions of late-capitalism – mainly, the widening gap between modes of production and consumption – have broken the ‘hermeneutical links’ between signs and their signifiers. Labour has become atomised and people are disconnected from a meaningful whole. What we’re left with is a ‘schizophrenia in the form of a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers’. In previous eras, you could imagine whole worlds beyond what was represented in art. But since consumer culture took over, those worlds are mediated by surfaces.

The symbols on the marshal’s jacket could’ve been a fragment an old Nokia emoji or a snippet of broken html code. In mathematics, two upturned arrows mean hyper exponentiation (ie, graphs the rise very steeply). But it didn’t seem to matter. It was a rubble of signification, made literal.

This concept of depthless rubble evolved from Jameson’s earlier work in The Political Unconscious, where he talks about how individualism and alienation are re-enforced by ‘the working distinctions’ between what’s considered cultural and what’s considered social and political. He claims that this differentiation of discourse widens the structural and experiential gaps between ‘the public and the private, between the social and the psychological, or the political and the poetic, between history and society and the ‘individual’’. It stunts collective action, our understanding of history and our ability to see ourselves as products of systems. But art has the power to symbolically resolve the class tensions that are bubbling away.

The marshal acknowledged country and asked me to sign a form promising I wasn’t sick or inebriated. Following Jameson, it makes sense that – before I was free to ‘transcend’ – I first had to submit to some of the ‘working distinctions’ that help shape my subjectivity.

My first two actions were to acknowledge land was stolen by the state then obey state-based power by signing a legal document. Usually I’m privileged enough to let this kind of paradox hum away in the background of a ‘cultural’ space. But under lockdown I get to micro-dose the kind of closed borders, reduced freedoms, and weaponised uncertainty my country inflicts on people every day. Of course, the difference is my despair isn’t a direct wound from bipartisan border policies: it’s a by-product of a pandemic that uses (apolitical) biological logic to spread through a globally connected, socio-economic system.

Once I’d handed the clipboard back to the marshal, they led me to the changing rooms, where I showered and changed into my own reflective uniform. Then I attempted small talk with the marshal. But they forbid questions. So, I waited in the entranceway, listening to the walkie-talkie hiss, and noticing the framed pictures of regatta victories all over the walls.

In Issue 241 of Overland, Liz Crash and Jinghua Qian wrote an alternative history of Footscray which details, among other things, how in 1882 the Footscray Rowing Club won the Clarke Challenge Cup on the Maribyrnong (which, they explain, smelt like rotting entrails back then due to the run-off from the abattoirs). The Footscray crew beat rich rivals from Toorak and South Yarra but was banned from competing the following year. Most of them were manual workers, and it was judged that having to be strong for your job gave you too much of an advantage in the competition.

In Qian and Crash’s account, the divide between the environmental concerns expressed by a left caricatured as latte-drinking urbanites and the hard-hat wearing, high-viz symbolism used by the right to promote industry can partly be traced back to the rhetoric from this era. There was a prevailing narrative ­– hammered home by western Melbourne’s business leaders and local press at the time – that Footscray’s working classes should be proud of Maribyrnong’s industrial stench. Water pollution was a concern best left to over-sensitive toffs.

*

Nearly 150 years later, the customer service a South Yarra toff might expect from a ‘high-value’ bathing experience was nowhere to be found in Flow State. After my wait in the entranceway, another marshal led me to the riverbank, where my barge was waiting. They were just as stern as the last one, only, maybe a little more willing to break character. Because I mentioned how the rain was clearing up, and they quipped, ‘we were waiting to get the sky just right for you’.

We cast off. And, as we chugged around the bend, announcements began to crackle through an unattended megaphone. They warned me of megabats and informed me of Papuans slain for treason. There was talk of visits from the island’s little green men.

As the boat travelled further around the bend, I saw a blue-lit sign perched on the western tip of a small shadowy island. It featured the same mysterious symbols I’d been seeing since I arrived: hyphens and upturned arrows framing a zero that glowed like a predatory eye.

This welcomed me to Herring Island, an artificial feature created in 1928 in an attempt to control flooding. After years of weed invasions and soil salting, it’s now a sculpture park and a refuge for native vegetation – living proof community-led conservation can sow the earth together after it’s been blown apart. But that night, the island was something else. Before landfall, the final words through the megaphone were: ‘sow the earth with salt and weeds, nothing will ever live here again’.

On shore, I was met by the fetid-sweet smell of wet bat shit. And another solemn marshal who led through the swaying river red gums along a dark path that’d been cut through damp speer grass. I reached a clearing, and there my vessel: a dimly lit, metallic bathtub, steaming in the night air.

The marshal left. So, I got naked and got in. I was enveloped by warmth. Then sound. Inside the tub, groaning submarine bass merged with analogue synth arpeggios. Industrial scrapings harmonised with the tranquil tones of (what sound like) healing sing bowls. Outside the tub, quadraphonic speakers sent garbled transmissions, incoherent and paranormal, through the wobbling static.

The overcast night was backlit to a bruised purple by an almost full moon. My back relaxed and cracked. Megabats flew past (as promised) searching for native fruits. A tawny frogmouth perched on a spindly wattle tree, directly above my head. It might’ve, in fact, pooed on my face. But the sight was so cinematic I didn’t want to move. Instead I just let the sound take over while soft rain began to kiss my nose, lips, cheeks and eyelids.

The vibrations moved through my body. And, as the sing bowls reach a crescendo, the rain stopped. I opened my eyes. And, at that moment, the moonlight burst through the clouds to light up the gently swaying trees. This is the point where I entered what could be described as a ‘flow state’.

The critic Simon Frith says that music can create a ‘direct emotional intensity’ that a purely language or visual-based art form can’t. According to Frith, painting, sculpture, literature, television and film can all symbolise collective identity and personal subjectivity but only music can make you feel it. That’s because music has a ‘looseness of reference’ that lets people absorb songs into our lives and access them emotionally with relative ease. It can make the rubble dance.

I used to attend lots of gigs. So, going into Flow State, I knew Amanda Roff (who plays in post-punk/dream pop duo Time For Dreams) and Sara Retallick (who plays in garage punk trio Mod Con) make great music. It also meant that, in the bathtub, I was connected to a special Melbourne music community feeling underpinned by the sadness of seeing the local industry suffer through Covid-19.

But, by transforming me into a literal conduit for noise, Flow State took me further. I momentarily forgot my competitive desire to interpret or ‘be the best writer’. I forgot the grim outlook for the arts industry. Instead, I was bombarded with so much abstract meaning that I transcended the need for meaning altogether. I gave in and felt the rain.

*

New historicist critic Stephen Greenblatt never quite bought Jameson’s argument about how capitalism tends to ‘differentiate’ discourse into apolitical, alienating realms. He thinks the idea

has the resonance of an allegory of the fall of man: once we were whole, agile, integrated; we were individual subjects but not individuals, we had no psychology distinct from the shared life of the society; politics and poetry were one. Then capitalism arose and shattered this luminous, benign totality.

Greenblatt points out that ‘poststructuralism has raised serious questions about such a vision’. For example, a poststructuralist thinker like Jean-Francois Lyotard agrees that capitalism alters our identity-forming domains but, rather than breaking them into separate apolitical spheres, he argues that since the advent of capitalism identity has been forced into a kind of ‘monological’ linguistic structure. In his essay ‘Judiciousness in Dispute’, Lyotard writes that

capital is that which wants a single language and a single network, and it never stops trying to present them.

So, while Jameson might see Flow State’s pastiche of horror/sci-fi tropes as an attempt to work through the fragmentation of the self and society, Lyotard might instead celebrate it as a sign that we’ve moved beyond the allure of dangerous grand narratives. For Lyotard, a truly sick or ‘schizophrenic’ culture wouldn’t make space to reflect upon the incomprehensible multiplicity of life. There would be nowhere for art fans to try flow into the sublime.

Against Jameson, Greenblatt – writing a decade before the world wide web – cites the fact that ‘privatisation’ has in fact led to the massive communalisation of discourse; and, against Lyotard, he cites the fact that the existence of proper names has been crucial to the inscription of individuality (not to mention taxable private property), concluding: ‘that the oscillation between totalisation and difference, uniformity and the diversity of names, unitary truth and proliferation of distinct entities – in short, between Lyotard’s capitalism and Jameson’s – is built into the poetics’ of everyday life.

In this sense, you could say the organisers of Flow State did get ‘the sky just right for me’, after all. When I witnessed the tawny frogmouth on the branch, I saw the bird but I didn’t. I saw dozens of cartoons, TV shows and movies featuring moon-lit owl too. It’s like Greenblatt says, ‘in the same moment a working distinction between the aesthetic and the real [was] established and abrogated’. The two discursive domains (‘aesthetic’ and ‘real’) were feeding off each other as normal. But it took a very complex artwork to fully tune me into what was happening.

This conjured a state of pure flow, bookended by a depthless, xeroxed feeling of alienation and awe, underpinned a warm connection to the local music community (which, over the years has shown itself to have formidable grass-roots political organising power despite pressure from property developers et al). It seems, under capitalism, fragmentation and politically charged connection can circulate at dizzying speeds.

An awareness of ‘oscillation’ can make it easier to work through broader confusions. Why, for example, is the hard-hat wearing crowd so successfully pitted against the ‘wokes’? How can the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements awaken the masses to the idea that they’re products of unequal systems while actual equality seems further and further out of reach? Why is there so much mistrust of scientifically proven vaccines? How can globally connected market forces help produce these vaccines in record time while also ensuring they don’t reach the people who need them most (which in turn leads to more mutations and the need for ever-more vaccines)? How can neoliberal governments be printing so much money? How come one of this era’s most villain-like tycoons went to space, and it became a punchline instead of a call to arms?

The unique talents of Jeff Bezos don’t have much to do with this. Maybe, if the oscillation between totality and difference gives capitalism its true resilience, then all those infinitely complex power struggles are ruled by the same thing – what Greenblatt calls ‘the systematic organisation of ordinary life and consciousness’ under a capitalism that works to blur representation and reality.

But this isn’t ‘ordinary life’. It’s not even a ‘Covid-normal’ life. It’s a public health crisis. It could be the crisis in capitalism, too. And maybe the questions is: has the ‘oscillation’ finally reached a speed that’s spinning the system off its hinges? Or is all this fear, tribalism, and environmental devastation – tempered by hope, scientific discovery and political awakening – evidence the system’s working quite logically under its only rule: that capitalists consolidate wealth and power. Always.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Sam West is a writer, screenwriter and critic. He’s written for The Guardian, The Lifted Brow, Vice and others. He is the former editor of Three Thousand, Melbourne’s first online city guide.

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Comments

  1. ‘only music can make you feel it’
    Couldn’t agree more Sam,
    I can highly recommend three books that analyse the magic of music
    ‘How Music Works’ – David Byrne
    ‘Musicophilia’ – Oliver Sacks
    ‘The Music Instinct’ – Philip Ball.
    There are many more of course, but these three go a long way in explaining the power of music.
    As for wealth being consolidated, you are spot on.
    In the end though, real wealth can only be found in Love, beauty and creativity.

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