Archive for August, 2009

Woodstock, Landscape, and Archaeology

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009 by Bill Caraher

A few weeks ago Kostis mentioned that he thought that archaeology was “a post hippie” discipline.  A certain tendency to emphasize rural places, the integrated, almost spiritual, character of landscapes, community engagement, and political activism would seem to evoke many of the central ideals of the hippie movement, albeit within a far more structured environment.  (It’s an open issue whether punk shared the celebrated spontaneity of the hippie movement or parodied it).

This weekend, the New York Times offered a shortish article: “Woodstock: A Moment of Muddy Grace“.  Aside from well-worn ironic observation that the memory of Woodstock became a commodity almost as soon as the festival was over, there was a short paragraph that included one interesting line:

With the 40th anniversary of Woodstock looming — so soon? — the commemorative machinery is clanking into place, and the nostalgia is strong. There’s a Woodstock Festival museum now at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts and a recently built concert hall at what was the concert site, Max Yasgur’s farm (though the original Woodstock hillside has been left undeveloped).

The notion that the original hillside would be preserved is an interesting example of how the absence of development could nevertheless represent the commidification of a particular landscape.  Paralleling the desire to preserve battlefields, archaeological landscapes, and other places of cultural significance, the archaeology of absence evokes both the notion of a sacred precinct as well as haunting ideas of ritual abandonment.  In the hyper-commodified world of Woodstock nostalgia, the protected hillside stands out both as an ironic and highly structured place of commemoration.

Perhaps this is another characteristic that separates Punk Archaeology from its post-hippie variants.  The hippie movement, for all its energy, has long been overrun by a kind of crude commercialism so even an archaeologically motivated decision like preserving the famous Woodstock hillside cannot stand outside the discourse of capitalism and gain.

Has Punk remained more authentic?  Certainly the battle to save Punk landmarks like CBGBs has been less successful.  The urban foundation of Punk perhaps created landmarks in an environment which had a more ephemeral character.  Change was anticipated and expected in urban landscapes.  The countryside was idealized as unchanging and efforts to commemorate the countryside typically involve limiting the impact of human activities or even marking it off entirely.  Archaeology, however, relies upon the traces of change through time to document human culture.  The urbanism of Punk contributes to its resistance to commodification (and makes its appeals to nostalgia more ironic still) and preserves it for a different method of documentation later.  Punk Archaeology.

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It’s Only a Matter of Time

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

The Pyla Koutsopetria Archaeological Project has released Trench Sounds, the first archaeological example of podcast vérité ever released (to my knowledge) on webspace. The experiment sprang from Bill Caraher’s interests in punk archaeology, in new technologies and in documentary theory. Trench Sounds is profound in its simplicity, like an Andy Warhol movie (e.g. The Kiss, 1963). Trench Sounds is a 10-minute recording of the sounds produced in an excavation trench this last season at PKAP, Cyprus. We hear the irregular percussion of the scraping trowel, archaeological interpretation, but also the serendipitous small talk that makes up the social space of a trench. It might not mean much to many listeners, and I suspect some may wander “so what” or even be slightly annoyed. What I like about Trench Sounds is that it addresses time. It rescues a mere 10 minutes of archaeological life. It enlightens the non-archaeologist but also raises questions for the archaeologist. Isn’t excavation all about the exploration of time, in reverse sequence, in stratified layers and unstratified jumbles?

I know many archaeologists that have been influenced by minimalism. My two mentors, unbeknownst to the reader of their scholarship, have been affected by minimalism, directly or indirectly. Cecil L. Striker’s meticulous method, his love for the abstract beauty of dendrochronology and the incisive excavations by hand drill, not to mention his architectural taste is one example. Frederick A. Cooper, a lover of Proust and Le Corbusier, once told me that John Cage inspired his archaeological directions (especially into computers). Both Striker and Cooper are masters of precision, both are craftsmen of a post-war America, a time when the U.S. lead both the realms of technology and the arts. Like their contemporary artists, they turned method into ammunition against the superficialities of American culture, its consumerism and arbitrary values.

But I return to Trench Sounds. Listening to the podcast made me wonder. Why hasn’t anyone written an archaeological opera, or an archaeological performance piece? Alternatively, why hasn’t anyone written an archaeological report where time as quantity becomes the manipulated medium. Consider the new opera Timberbrit, where composer Jacob Cooper slows down songs by Britney Spear and Justin Timberlake. The technique is called “time-stretching.” Consider the production of Hamlet by the Wooster Group, where the 1964 TV version with Richard Burton is re-timed into Shakespearean meter, projected onto a screen and replicated by live actors (see Scott Shepperd’s/Hamlet’s interview on Studio 360). Consider Bruce Nauman in the Venice Biennale. Consider Bill Viola’s deconstruction of Renaissance space with his time-delayed videos, or Gary Hill’s fragmented utterings. And finally, consider Jeff Wall’s 2003 project Fieldwork (above), which takes up the mysteries of excavation directly. These are only contemporary examples of the minimalist (or post-minimalist) tradition. Such works have not really flavored the archaeological mindset — as far as I can see.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I would like to read an archaeological field report (not an opera, a play, or a movie) that intentionally speeds up or slows down stratigraphic time. I’m imagining a fictitious collapse of archaeology’s double time 1) the time taken for contexts to stratify and 2) the time taken by excavators to peel them off. This would be a biographical, documentary and semi-fictitious genre. And I’m not talking about the overly self-referential methods of post-processusalist archaeology, but a work of postmodern literature. Or maybe I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Trench Sounds is a work of imagination, a dream, a reality show, a fragmented experience that brings PKAP’s field season into the neighborhood of conceptual art.

Punk Archaeology: Trench Sounds

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009 by Bill Caraher

The long awaited final Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project podcast has arrived.  Titled “Trench Sounds”, it is a 10 minute extract of over 3 hours of taping in Dallas DeForest’s trench at Pyla-Koutsopetria.  (For more typical discussions of this trench you can down load these two podcasts: Koutsopetria East Week 1 and Koutsopetria East Week 2).  The goal was to capture the sounds of a trench in all of their mundane glory.

The inspiration was Punk Archaeology.  Kostis has posted on Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and its seminal influence on the New York “No Wave” movement.  This album, which is almost impossible to listen to, is composed almost entirely of various ephemeral sounds of the musical production process particularly looped tracks of guitar feedback much of which was created intentionally by placing guitars facing their amplifiers.  This dissonant noise was then remixed and edited to produce tracks including an unusual locked groove track at the end of side “D” (of a two record set) which would play the final 1.8 seconds continuously (an effect lost on 21st century listeners who are more likely to spend the 4$ to download the album in MP3 than the $20+ to purchase the album on vinyl!).

Our final “Voices of Archaeology” track is hardly as intentionally dissonant as Metal Machine Music (nor will it likely be as iconic).  It does, however, capture and attempt to present some of the ephemeral sounds of archaeology — the gentle thumping of the pick, the scraping of the dust pan, the cascades of dirt into buckets, the interrupted and fractured conversations.  It attempts to capture sonically, what we as archaeologist are attempting to capture physically: the various bits of pieces of the past.  At one point on the track, Paul Ferderer asks whether a tiny fragment of ceramic material is a piece of tile or a piece of pottery.  The tiny fragment was at once almost completely inconsequential (and the question of whether the fragment was pottery or tile was even less consequential as all ceramic material was analyzed by our ceramicist) and at the same time the bit of ceramics is representative of the archaeological process.  The artifact must be contextualized in some way to generate meaning.  It goes without saying (almost) that fragments of the past have no inherent meaning.  They are displaced objects that the archaeologist envelop in contexts ranging from the place of origin, the original “primary” use, and, of course, the chronology of the other objects at the site.  The tension between the decontextualized object at the moment of discovery (the most tenuous and fleeting contextualizing moment) and various “big picture” narrative and analyses that ultimately come to make a specific site meaningful finds its place in the immediacy of punk rock as experience. 

I recently listened again to the MC5’s first album Kick Out the Jams, a live album, and admired their effort to capture the live sound and mark the band as a live phenomenon while evoking punk rock’s debts to the blues (a genre of music almost always recorded live) and the ephemeral connections manifest in garage bands across the country.  The contextualizing narrative of modern American music has, of course, placed the MC5 in a proper analytical and interpretive category (often placing them alongside Iggy Pop’s Stooges whose first album came out the same year and captured a very different kind of sound through the exacting production of John Cale) and striped the first album of much of its shock value (although it still can capture some of the excitement typical of live performances).

Our short track of trench sounds hopes to capture the same thing — at once it is inconsequential (and frankly hard to listen to!) alone just like Paul’s fragment of pottery — but at the same time, it captures a moment that begs a larger, more dynamic context.  The moment of discovery is the point of departure for archaeological analysis.  Trench Sounds pushes the incidental noise of archaeological research into the center,  like the feedback pushed to the center of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.  By recontextualizing the sonic elements of archaeological fieldwork I hope to have shed light on the analytical process itself which brings otherwise discarded and inconsequential artifacts to the center while pushing the archaeological experience to the edges… 

Enjoy: Trench Sounds