Nicolás Jaar and the Shock Forest Group
‘These livelihoods make worlds too – and they show us how to look around rather than ahead.’
Chapter 2WO Public Programme
Shock Forest Group (2019) is an international research team consisting of architects, cartographers, linguists, coders, urban planners, sound makers, biologists, designers and engineers. It is an experiment in open research, where the research categories surface as the research develops. It is also an experiment in alternative education, a classroom without a teacher, where learning emerges as a product of polyphony.
These livelihoods make worlds too – and they show us how to look around rather than aheadAnna Tsing
Musician and artist Nicolas Jaar spends fourteen weeks at Het HEM in Zaandam creating musical scores, concerts, interventions and (meditative) sound impressions, alone or with his Shock Forest Group. When visiting the exhibition, the artist might well be present, perched like a pigeon, some-where in the nooks of the building: a cascading voice and veil of sound over the visitors…
On the steps in front of Het HEM currently lies a quotation by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing: ‘These liveli-hoods make worlds too – and they show us how to look around rather than ahead.’ It’s an excerpt from her book The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.
When Nicolas Jaar read the book it resonated with his ambitions to break free from conventional ways of bringing music to audiences. A need to not be result driven, but to experiment. Inviting the space to shape the sounds and building upon the resonance of both new work and the past, this exploration will culminate in a zenith on the final day of the exhibition.
Who is Nicolas Jaar? I’m supposed to start with Chilean composer and musician. Often heralded for his genre fluid music, sharp mind and dedication. He’s taken residence at Het HEM as once the herons did. Let me elabo-rate.
What about these herons? Imagine a forest and you see a tree, a multitude. Imagine humanity and you see a person, a multi-tude. Imagine a person in a forest and a story begins. A story of multitude. The Shock Forest was planted near Het HEM specifically to shield artillery experimentation and withstand military fire. The ammunition forged in Het HEM factory would be tested there. Somehow or other, herons also loved the Shock Forest. Their population grew to be the largest in Europe during the sixties, with over 400 birds, sitting, waiting, sweeping across the waters – and generally shitting everywhere. Word has it, the military men couldn’t enter the woods without an umbrella else their uniforms would get soiled. Poetic justice, Jaar calls it. The heron droppings carried seeds and spurs from Northern African plants that sprouted and grew, diversifying the forest and making it home to exotic plants not found elsewhere nearby.
How does a musician curate? Jaar: ‘Het HEM is a former munitions factory. When I was invited to take the role of curator, I needed to empty myself and to feel that empty space, and then maybe fill it with things that felt were fitting. I wanted to know how this building sounds. The only thing I curated was The Shock Forest Group, a group of artists and scientists from diverse backgrounds ¬– linguistics, cartography, biology, architec-ture, to name just a few. We are currently researching, collecting and will eventually compose. There’s a lot of improvisation, a lot of experimentation.
This isn’t a foray into the art world, not for me anyways. The light, the dust in the tunnel, it’s all music to me. Dust is particles of humans, of hair, of animals, minerals: it’s everything that’s in the air. It’s history.
‘The world is organised through ‘solidity’: music genres, sexual preferences – it’s all boxed in. It comes from a strong militarisation of the soul. So to me, when I was asked to work on an ex-military terrain, I thought it was a strong metonymy for the problems that our interior spaces and exterior bodies are facing. I don’t perceive this building to be resonating only it’s own particular history. How do we live with the ghosts of our solidity? How do we breathe through their dust?’
During ADE, Jaar plays a new improvisational piece on one of the factory floors of the building: Re-taining the Energy, but Losing the Image, in collaboration with Vincent de Belleval. Rotating parabolas reflect light and sound, causing a hallucinatory effect.
Did I tell you about the shooting range yet? In the belly of the building lies a shooting range. Like an empty intestine pulled straight and turned to stone. A beam of light shoots across of space, the dust swirls from your movement and breath. It’s dense and galaxy-like, shimmering as the sounds of eerily slowed down projectiles, metals clanking – reminiscent of a working factory – fill the void. You feel like a god beneath the Earth’s crust. You blow the dust, you swirl in it, and then, suddenly, the light goes out. You freeze in your movement, like a startled rat. Now there’s only sound. You come back to your senses. You scuffle to the wall, touching the damp, cold concrete for reassurance. Sound floods you. When the light comes back on, you hurry to the exit.
Don't forget the Angelus Novus! A little off to the side, in a small room plays a video work Jaar made about Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus. He had wanted the painting in the exhibition, but it was too fragile to transport and is current-ly on view by appointment only at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Jaar narrates a video of his visit. It’s a contemplative experience, going into the many meanings of the image. The Angelus Novus was philosopher Walter Benjamin’s most prized possession and one of the last things Benjamin describes before he commits suicide while on the run from the Nazis. Benjamin writes:
His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet…a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.
This storm is what we call progress.
Who creates the narrative and gives meaning to the trails of symbols left along the way?
Music is both absent and present.
You can feel it but cannot touch it, it’s momentary.
It evokes images and histories.
How did we get here?
Where are we now?
What is that sound?