Becoming 1 (August, 1-18, 2022)

August 1. Gone! Yesterday, I deleted nearly 63,000 emails from my inbox and a further 40,000 or more from my Sent box; they’d been received and posted between 2015 and 2022. The act was far more fulfilling than I’d expected. August 2. Today, I can no longer access my university account.

The advice given to new retirees is to try and resolve any outstanding health problems at outset of this new phase in one’s life. August 5-6. 7.30 am: Off to Ysbyty Glan Gwili, Carmarthen, for an anticipated operation. Technically, it was day surgery. However, the procedure, in my case, was unexpectedly involved. Nevertheless, all the surgeons considered it a success. (We’ll see.) I was wheeled on a gurney to the room where drugs would be administered, like a criminal on Death Row to the place of execution to receive a lethal injection. The sudden descent into imposed unconsciousness, as a result of General Anaesthesia, is both fascinating and mildly alarming in its anticipation. In that moment, you lose every iota of control. ’Your life in their hands’, as the 1960s BBC documentary series about surgeons was titled. I cannot but think that the experience is a kind of prefiguration of death. We close our eyes in one place and awake in another, moments later (or so it seems). On this occasion, two hours had elapsed.

Due to complication with the GA, I was kept in hospital overnight. It was a busy night, too. The duty nurse was on her feet — moving briskly from one end of the ward to the other — until 7.30 am the following morning. The nurses work 12-hour shifts for two days running. Rarely do they pause in the course of their duties; but when they do, exhaustion is written over their faces. The doctors, likewise. My room was beside the reception area. I overheard a nurse say on the phone that ambulances would take three hours to attend emergencies that evening. And there was nothing that anyone could do about it. How must paramedics feel when confronted with such a constraint?

At times, when feeling the worse for wear following surgery, I’d run through the checklist of questions that the nurse had asked me prior to the proceedure: ‘Have you ever suffered from a heart attack or stroke?; Do you have difficulty breathing while climbing the stairs?; Can you walk unaided?; Have you a pacemaker?; Are you a diabetic?; and so forth. To which questions I was able to respond with a resounding ‘No!’ There’re so many disabling ailments and conditions of a far more serious nature that’ve never been my burden. For that, I’m grateful.

I rested rather than slept through the late evening and night. I looked up at the ceiling tiles wondering whether one day, surrounded by my family, this would be the last thing that I’d see before slipping into that final and great ‘sleep’.

Saturday evening, I watched a film dramatising the Tham Luang cave rescue, when twelve young footballers and their coach were saved by divers from a cave system that had been innundated during a heavy storm. The team was extracted underwater while anaesthetised. (Because none of them were scuba divers.) Thus, they travelled from captivity to freedom while obvlivious of the dangers that they and their rescuers were facing. There’ve been experiences in life when I too would’ve wished to sleep through the trauma until it was over.

And so began two weeks of self-isolation, and the prospect of several more during which to fully recouperate. On Sunday and Monday I pitched low, and spent much of my time languishing on settees and beds, striking a pose reminicient of Henry Wallis’s The Death of Chatterton (c.1856). I’d now a mildly sore throat (caused by a pipe being thrust down it during the operation); a thick head (like the mother of all colds); headaches; watering eyes; pain around the deep recesses of my upper nose (which is the site of the operation); lethargy; breathlessness (possibly due to the having been unable to breath other than through my mouth for the past two days); whooziness; and limp limbs. Many of these conditions are also the symptoms of Covid-19. So, I took several Lateral Flow Tests; each proved negative. However, I was only able to swab my throat. Poking about inside my nose was entirely out of the question. I rang my GP clinic; they passed me onto the NHS Covid-19 Helpline — which was genuinely helpful. The week before I’d arrived at the hospital, there’d been a major outbreak of the virus on the ward. This had given me pause for thought.

August 9. While in convalescence, I read through-notes that I’d begun in 2015 and ended around 2017. They provide a starting point for one of the next projects.

Projects of a technological nature are being mapped-out in my studio notebook. By the close of August, three parallel strands of inquiry — covering research, writing, and sound art exploration — will have emerged. None have any specific outcome attached. This is both deliberate and important. I’m intent on breaking the relationship between process and project … at least for the time being.

August 16. In respect to research, I’m reading through the Old and New Testaments in order to observe how sounds are described and function in the text. I’d begun the work some years ago — albiet not systematcally — while preparing my paper and subsequent chapter entitled ‘‘The Hearing Ear and the Seeing Eye’: Transformative Listening to the Biblical Image’ in Transforming Christian Thought in the Visual Arts (2021). A focal exploration and interpretation of the acoustic phenomena accompanying the Israelite’s sojourn at Mount Sinai was conducted for the composition entitled ‘Image and Inscription‘, on The Bible in Translation (2016) album. My article entitled ‘Image and Inscription: Sonification as an Interpretive Methodology in Transmedial Biblical Study’, which is based upon that work, appeared in Die Bibel in der Kunst (2022).

In respect to sound technology and its deployment, I proposed to myself the following resolutions in no particular order of priority:

  • Develop a flexible and atomic approach to pedalboard design, rather that mantain the present practice of ‘nailing down’ specific effectors in a specific sequence, in perpetuity.
  • Do not build rigs for applications that may never materialise.
  • Explore, again, each effector independently and in relation to the ‘instrument’.
  • I don’t make sounds about nothing. Sounds must have an object of inquiry.
  • Likewise, improvisation will require a set of constraints and rules (like the raga in Indian classical music) that provide both the source material and discipline for creative engagement.
  • Improvisation: a movement towards an idea.
  • It’s the idea that gives identity, purpose, form, and significance to the sound.

August 18. I’m reading books and catalogues about artists and movements that were brought to my attention during the first year of my BA (Hons.) Fine Art studies. It was then that the foundations of my approach to thinking and making were laid. One ought never to understimate the importance of the early years of art education. (Which is one of the reasons why I used to beseech first and second year undergraduates to not only work hard and well but also discover the joy of working.) Artists including Sol Lewitt, Agnes Martin, Kenneth Martin, Mary Webb, Keith Richardson-Jones (who was one of my tutors, then), and Richard Allen (alongside whom I taught in the second half of the 1990s) were exemplars of an attitude that posited idea as the principal aspect of an artwork. I return to their work when I consider that my own thinking has become slack and flabby. Unlike them, I’ve never considered myself to be either a conceptualist, constructivist, minimalist, or systems artist. Nevertheless, these sensibilities have in various ways contributed significantly to my framework of operations, particularly since the late 1990s.

My ideas have emerged out of an engagement with text, found sounds, and images, usually with a religious or biblical content. I’ve never pursued form alone. Form has a descriptive, interpretative, analogical, and metaphorical relationship to the object of inquiry in my work. In short, the created arefact is always about something other than its own means. In this respect, both the visual and sound artworks are informed as much by early minimalist music as by visual art movements. Steve Reich‘s ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ (1968) (which I’ve discussed elsewhere on this site) is signal in this respect. I admire the sufficiency, logic, and transparency of the analogue phase system, the intelligent deployment of reel-to-reel tape recorder technology, and the process-relationship between the intrinsically powerful source material (a field recording of a black preacher’s passionate sermon about Noah’s flood) and its formal realisation. Thus, to idea add procedure: the systematisation of thought in action. I’ve sometimes wondered whether the term ‘methodism’ would best describe my fundamental attitude to both making and living. While I’ve never belonged to the Methodist movement, the rigour, regulation, rubrics, and routine of its piety and practice has always been very attractive to me. Traditional Anglicanism (which I espouse) comes close to it.

John Harvey, Sindebt (Cheirographon) (Colossians 2.14) 2014, carbon toner powder on paper, 80 × 80 cm (Authorised Version)

The ‘A’-Level results were released today. I remember my sons’ achievements with great pride, but my own with ignominy. There’s been quite a bit of Twitter chatter exposing the poor exam performance of, now, successful, rich, famous, and (sometimes) worthy individuals in the pantheon of politics, entrepeneurship, and the arts. A person’s success at secondary school (and, argueably, at undergraduate university) level has little bearing on their potential later-on in life. We don’t have to be shackled to our past, in either this or any other respect.

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