Sunday, November 23, 2008

What's That Sound? It's Centrifugal Space!

Wir fahr'n, fahr'n, fahr'n auf der Autobahn .....

I'm not one to shy away from excursions into music, especially if such junkets have something to do with natural and built environments. A long-overdue search of my music libraries thus turned up some real gems. These songs do not necessarily evoke ideas of space and landscape, but when seen in a music video format, they seem to privilege the importance of landscapes and technology. Perhaps, then, we can imagine an umpteenth edition of Leo Marx's The Machine in The Garden (1964), one that projects into the 20th and 21st centuries. I would imagine that chapters on the 20th century would include additional representations of "middle landscapes" in newer media such as film and phonograph. I would also imagine how towards the end of a chapter on the 20th century, some mention would have to be made about music videos.

During the early days of MTV, critics noticed how the music video became an interesting tangle of art and economics. Not only did it allow other parties (i.e. music video directors and actors) to participate in royalty sharing, but provided another platform for record companies to promote artists. Music and media historian Will Straw has even noted how music videos allowed product to reach audiences with unprecedented speed. He writes:
One of MTV's most significant innovations was the institutionalisation within North America of an equivalent to national network radio. It was not so much the reach of MTV which was important in this respect as the simultaneity of that reach, and subsequent direct measurable impact on sales. While the aggregate audience of the major FM rock stations in the USA was likely greater than that for MTV, playlist adoption of a new record by these stations was likely to be staggered and uneven, while exposure on MTV was immediately nationwide. Both MTV and dance clubs preceded radio in their adoption of new records for playlists; the difference between them, obviously, lay in the fact that dance clubs were for the most part inner urban phenomena, while MTV reached suburban and small-town areas. The impact of MTV should be seen as resulting, not simply from the specific repertory which dominated its playlists at the beginning, but from the extent to which, in conjunction with a resurgent Top Forty radio, it increased the velocity of consumption. [1]
The use of the term "velocity" suggests a way to conceive of the music video as an instrument of conveyance. As Straw suggests, MTV assured the quick delivery of music product to the suburbs: a new collapsing of space and time brought about by the introduction of a new music format.

And what does all this talk of speed and media have to do with built and natural environments? We can begin with a quote from film scholar Edward Dimendberg. In "The Will to Motorization: Cinema, Highways, and Modernity" (1995), Dimendberg considers the depiction of highways in three different films. For him, the highway is the ultimate exemplar of "centrifugal space":
Irreducible to specific urban forms or demographic trends such as suburbanization, centrifugal space initiates novel perceptual and behavioral practices -- new experiences of time, speed, and distance -- no less than new features of the everyday landscape. While the broad transformation in cities that arose after 1929 have been widely noted, corresponding changes in spatial perception have received far less attention, as has the role of cinema in the promulgation of this new geography.
Characteristics of centrifugal space include the decreased significance of metropolitan density and agglomeration and their replacement by dispersed settlements and a shift from urban verticality to the horizontal sprawl of suburbs and larger territorial units. But one might also discern centrifugal space in the redeployment of surveillance mechanisms away from the the body of city dwellers toward the automobile, the proliferation of electronic media, and the collection of traffic statistics as a strategy of control [2].
One of the films that Dimendberg considers as a pivotal moment "in the history of encounters between highways and the cinema" [3] is Hartmut Bitomsky's 1986 film Reichsautobahn. The film, a "juxtaposition of excerpts from Autobahn film footage, photographs and paintings from the 1930s, and the director's voice-over narration" creates "new modes of perception and representation" [4].

If we understand these cinematic images of highways and other forms of conveyance infrastructures as representations of centrifugal space, this begs another question: what does this space sound like? It is an odd question, to be sure -- it not only assumes that centrifugal space is a technologically-mediated space, but also suggests that such a space has created its own record of representations. In fact, we could then consider the music video as a later representation of centrifugal space, a media format that attempts to combine the sounds and images in new and different ways. The music video would then be considered in terms of how it depicts space and velocity ... and the latter is not necessarily related to the idea of tempo. I am talking more about how music and images can represent speed.

Kraftwerk, "Trans-Europe Express" (1977)

Kraftwerk's video output is a good place to examining these new ideas of spatial and sonic velocity. Earlier albums, like 1974's Autobahn, features the band using electronic instruments to duplicate the sounds of cars as well as the doppler shifts of objects heard through an automobile driving in the landscape. Yet a video for the title track of Trans-Europe Express (1977) suggests what Wolfgang Schivelbusch calls "the industrialization and perception of time and space". Here, the band is seen as traveling inside Franz Kruckenberg's Schienenzeppelin (Rail Zeppelin), an experimental railway carriage powered by a massive aircraft engine in the rear.

The Rail Zeppelin (Source)

The video is organized into three general types of footage: shots of the band inside the passenger compartment; shots of the Schienenzeppelin model traveling through various miniature cities and landscapes; and finally "railroad engine point-of-view" shots showing railroad tracks stretching into infinity. Though the footage seems patinaed, it is choreographed to match the engine-like report of Kraftwerk's electronic drums.

Kraftwerk, "Tour De France" (1983)

Although the band's 1983 video for "Tour De France" shows highways instead of railway tracks, the object of focus is the bicycle. Here, the band (deploying a much more digitized and abstracted sound) is shown riding bicycles on a road in a generic European landscape. The fluid, repetitive motions of the cyclists replace the relentless, mechanized motions of engine gears from "Trans Europe Express". And though there seems to be a distinct separation of image of sound, the video of the 2003 remix of this song elides this distinction. Colorful arrows and typographics suggest how both the bicycles' motions as well as the song's actual lyrics are inscribed across the European landscape.

Kraftwerk, "Tour De France" (2003)

The centrifugal spaces in these music videos certainly demonstrate new vistas in time, space, image, and sound. They depict similar ideas of speed as Straw's and Dimendberg's. The music videos, as part of MTV programming, exemplify the notion that the music video travels fast in time and in space, and that it is consumed very quickly. The images in the music videos are also decidedly non-urban, portraying trains and bicycles conquering the isotropic spaces outside the city.

As the videos become much more sophisticated, however, the experience of the centrifugal space seems to fall by the wayside. The viewer is distracted by the images of the band traveling in the landscape, yet one wonders if centrifugal spaces create their own sense of monotony. Is it possible, while traveling through roads and railroads, that everything starts to look the same? What type of distraction does centrifugal space necessitate?

The Style Council, "My Ever Changing Moods" (1984)

A corrective to Kraftwerk's "Tour De France" video would be The Style Council's "My Ever Changing Moods" (1984). In the video for this song, bandmembers Paul Weller and Mick Talbot are shown racing bicycles on a tree-flanked road. And unlike in "Tour De France", the cycling here is totally manufactured: there are moments where it becomes obvious that Weller's and Talbot's bikes are being towed behind a car. As such, it parodies the seamless integrations of sight and sound in "Tour De France". Weller and Talbot are not really riding bikes, and they are lip-synching to their own music. And watch their eyes: evidence of many activities other than the business of cycling.

[1] Will Straw, "Music Videos in Its Contexts: Popular Music and Post-Modernism in the 1980s", Popular Music, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Oct., 1988), p. 251.

[2] Edward Dimendberg, "The Will to Motorization: Cinema, Highways, and Modernity", October, Vol. 73 (Summer, 1995), p. 92.

[3] Ibid., p. 93.


Logan Lamech said...

yeah you're right, that's funny.

Logan Lamech

Patrick Ciccone said...

Have you seen the Bitonsky film? I've seen his B-52 and Dust, which opens at Film Forum next week. This guy is a seriously good filmmaker.

Allegedly the Autobahn had faux rustic barns as gas stations--never seen a photo.

Charles Holland said...

thanks for the excellent post - really enjoyable. i like the idea of the video collapsing space and time through its immediacy and then re-exploring both of them as content in a very direct way. the obsession of '80's music videos with travel is marked (I'm thinking Rio by Duran Duran, Club Tropicana by Wham etc.) although I guess its also tied to the era's aspirational obsessions.

also the style council video is one of the oddest i have ever seen. truly bizarre, even for them, and they made some pretty terrible ones.....

enrique said...

Thanks for stopping by, Charles!