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.

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