The continuous present eludes us. Gertrude Stein knew this. Thich Nhat Hahn talks about this. The present, all around us, seems the very thing we are least likely to observe, least like to appreciate. To make it more difficult, finding ways to keep humans from being aware of "the present" remains the largest growth industry--diverse as that category would be. But what kind of present are we interested in? And how would we like to encounter representations of it? Accumulations? Accretions?
In Steve McQueen's show "Once Upon a Time" at the Walter Philip Gallery at the Banff Centre, we contemplate the present, visually, and from a humanitarian consciousness. The context is the "Golden Record," a time capsule of sorts created by Nasa and Carl Sagan that contains images and recordings of humans and human presence. How odd to think of selecting ephemera that will encapsulate human experience and history, explaining it to some unimaginable entity. Crafting a work of art is difficult enough, but what might one choose to "explain" what we humans have done?
We are told that to "make Once upon a Time McQueen appropriated and digitized the 116 archival images but displaced the original audio track of natural sounds, music, and spoken greetings in 55 languages with the recording of people 'speaking in tongues'.” I have no idea how the images are presented in this golden record, but in McQueen's hands we see the way things reach out for each other, fit into, mirror, are connected, measured, weighted, how they express; we see human figures, illustrated organs (reproductive imagery from Grey's Anatomy) and all of this fading in and out of each other in ways that emphasize the complexity, the compelling way in which lines--animate and inanimate--seem wont to complete each other.
Everything may not fit, but it reaches out, which these images don't quite illustrate the way the show does.
The languages that provide the soundtrack become, as the promotional material suggests, like prayer or chant, and one is, in the end, urged into the present, simply to see the present, granular and delicate and cheesy as it may be, with a renewed sense of hope even as it is morphing before your eyes--it's impossible to be separate.
You can, at the Nasa site, hear sounds from earth--very scratchy sounds--such as wind and rain, or a horse and buggy. I would rather watch/listen to the eagle cam for sounds, particularly since sounds themselves are also dated, and it's more than a little depressing to hear those echoes of echoes of echoes. Of course, I would rather wake to the sound of birds outside my window more than any of the above.