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aiming to invoke acoustic spectres, radio is undoubtedly the medium of
choice, as it is characterised by its ambivalent position between (in-)
corporeal presence and absence, a position that is essential to our
idea of a ghost. The fact that the body of the speaking and of the
listening subject are absent from each other constitutes the very
structure of the medium. While televisual media try to cover up the
absence at the centre of their structure with images, a self-confident
aesthetic of radio, especially of radio art, is founded precisely on
that absence of the visual plane. It uses voices and sounds to create,
across a spatial distance, a particular kind of intimacy that is not
accessible to other media. This is possible because the radiophonic
medium – the metaphor of ‘ether’ being very
appropriate in that sense – permeates the listening subject in a
way that is radically different from the televisual image, which the
sense of vision can always keep at a distance in a binary
subject-object relation. The seeing subject decides if it wants to make
the image the object of its contemplation, while the bodiless sound
from the ether enters the listening consciousness and thus dissolves
the presume difference between subject and object. Using a phrase by
Jacques Derrida in a new context, the subject position of the radio
listener could thus be located as follows: “In him outside of
him: this is the place outside of place of ghosts wherever they feign
to take up their abode.”1
Derrida elaborated his ideas on the trope of the ghost in the context of his book Specters of Marx. For him, the ghost as a revenant from a past which refuses to simply give up its claims on the present, ‘with which one is not done yet,’ is a figure that guides his search for a potential positive heritage of Marxism after the end of actually existing socialism. My composition picks up on Derrida’s metaphor of the ‘ghost’ in order to deal with a certain historical moment and its various dimensions of significance that still resonate today: the fighting between social democrat insurgents and the Austro-fascist government that took place in Vienna on 12 February 1934. Commemorating these events on the occasion of their 80th anniversary in February 2014, the council housing estate named Karl-Marx-Hof, one of the places where some of the fiercest combat took place, provides a symbolic focal point – in a sense, the piece invokes the ‘Specters of Karl-Marx-Hof.’
This historical moment, like certain aspects of Marx’s philosophy according to Derrida, is one which it is difficult to ‘get done with’ for a politics that sees itself as radically democratic, because this moment sets a benchmark for democratic politics. It demonstrates that it was possible to radically oppose fascism, thus implying the imperative to live up to that possibility in a decisive situation.
Thus the fight of the Austrian social democrats in 1934, like the Spanish Civil War, is one of those “lost battles of the Left in the 20th century (as we know, things are more difficult with the battles it won)” 2 that can inspire political action up to the present day, as Vienna-based writer Thomas Stangl said in his speech in acceptance of the Erich Fried Preis, also referring to Derrida’s image of the ghost; “as if one could fight for the dead, make them a promise that could, at the same time, point towards the future”.3
If radio in general is the preferred medium for artistic treatment of the ghostly, which is only present in the imagination (also because the radio broadcast in its temporal limitation is more ‘spectral’ and transient than, for example, a composition fixed on a storage medium for permanent accessibility), broadcasting the piece on ORF in Vienna seemed particularly fitting with respect to the subject matter and source material.
Due to the metonymical relation to the place of historic events, I used field recordings from Karl-Marx-Hof as the acoustic basis of the composition. All sound material in the composition was created through digital processing of the field recordings, which were made in February 2013 during my stay in Vienna as a TONSPUR artist-in-residence at quartier21/MuseumsQuartier.
While the source material already refers to Vienna and the month of February, the historic date is also inscribed in the compositional structure of the piece. With February being the second month of the year, the piece has two parts. Part 1 lasts 12’02’’, part two lasts 19’34’’. Both parts are based on 12 compositional elements (samples) each, which are also frequently grouped in sets of two. The 12th sample of the first part, which at the same time serves to join the two pieces, is a silence lasting several seconds. As the absent centre of the composition, this ‘lack’ articulates the fact that the piece (like the medium of radio itself) is based on a constitutive absence, which is why the invocation of the ghosts of February 1934 should only be understood as a metaphor, not a ‘real’ necromancy. It seems necessary to thus state the obvious, as there is a sad tendency in sound art to confuse that which is made audible by media technology with a presumably ‘authentic’ access to the ‘real’.4
The choice of 12 sound elements each in both parts of the piece deliberately alludes to the dodecaphony of the Second Viennese School. This not only creates a further reference to the history of Vienna, but also to my private chain of associations with February 1934. My great-grandfather Hermann Wurmbrand, who in 1934 fought at Karl-Marx-Hof on the side of the social democrats and was subsequently arrested as a political criminal, was unemployed after his release from prison. Through the help of composer Anton Webern, who was a neighbour of my great-grandparents in Mödling near Vienna, he found a job in a company owned by a son-in-law of Webern’s. This was of vital importance for the existence of the family and thus resonates in my personal biography as another ‘What if (not)?’
1 Jacques Derrida: Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning & the New International. London/New York: Routledge (Routledge Classics Paperback 2006, p. 132.
2 Thomas Stangl: Where is my mind. Rede zum Erich-Fried-Preis. In: Thomas Stangl: Reisen und Gespenster. Graz/Wien: Droschl 2012, p. 185 (my translation, GF)
3 Stangl 2012, p. 189 (my translation, GF)
4 For more on this see (in German) Gerald Fiebig: Wer nur hören kann, muss fühlen. Versuche, Klangkunst als Medien- und Konzeptkunst zu denken. In: Annette Emde/Radek Krolczyk (Hg.): Ästhetik ohne Widerstand. Texte zu reaktionären Tendenzen in der Kunst. Mainz: Ventil 2013, pp. 115–132
Homepage Gerald Fiebig http://geraldfiebig.wordpress.com/2014/01/26/wien-12-02-1934/