Lines Towards Another Century, 2009

Melbourne based Tom Nicholson uses archival material and the visual languages of politics and propaganda in his artistic work. Over the last few years, he has consistently worked around the subject of historical and arbitrary delineations. The performative elements of this body of work, particularly Lines Towards Another Century, a collaboration with composer Andrew Byrne, is what formed the core of our recent discussion. A new version of this ongoing project has recently been installed at the Shanghai Biennial.

Sary: You have been working with the idea of national boundaries for sometime now. I’d like to start with a simple question about the piece with the elegant title Lines Towards Another Century based on a list you have compiled. What are you listing and what is contained in the list?

Tom: It is a list of instances of the formation of national boundaries from 1st January, 1901 which I started compiling in late 2003. It catalogues the creation and changes of national boundaries, ordered by date.

Sary: In terms of the process of creating a list of all those boundaries, a lot of research clearly went into compilation, but there’s also a sense that entries are ordered. How do you see that sense of order played out in Lines Towards Another Century, where there are a series of directions for the performers as part of the instruction-based score?

Tom:: It’s a good question. The list chronologically puts down the instances of the creation of national boundaries. Thus, it has the bureaucratic tone of a conventional list, which rhetorically suggests a certain objectivity. To some extent, it yields a map of the 20th century, as all major conflicts manifest themselves as changes in boundaries. New boundaries come after the events that cause them. One of things that interested me the most about the list is the delay between the event and its boundary manifestation. Basic though it might sound, the list began through its relationship to drawing. Both drawing and the list have the line as their basic constituent element. There is also a structural delay built into drawing – the space between looking at something, turning away from that something and then making your mark on the page – which is also present in the list. As you say, the list orders the boundaries. Part of my work with Andrew was to disorder them. The collaborations Andrew and I have worked on have created a tangle, a disordering or abstracting of otherwise very straightforward sets of information. The idea was to inhabit that list in an anarchic, almost Fluxus-like way.

The concept of instruction-based score – an open-ended method of making music which is chaotic in nature – is very much in contrast to the nature of the monument. Even though a list is a very different thing from a monument, I would argue that they partake in the same desire to synthesise, organise and make seamless a historical account. The collaboration with Andrew has been a way of bringing to bear an anti-monumental procedure on to the monumental character of the list.

Lines Towards Another Century, instruction-based score, Tom Nicholson in collaboration with composer Andrew Byrne

Sary: So, does the process of disordering the information contained in the list become a means of questioning histories?

Tom: Part of the function of that disordering has been to turn all of those lines into a field. Going back to a drawing analogy, I’m thinking of the difference between a draftsperson like Matisse and a draftsperson like Seurat. The latter was invested in generating a field made up of an equilibrium of a multiplicity of small marks over a sheet of paper. In a way, the process of the instruction-based scores is to render the list and all of its lines as a sonic field, which is abstract in nature. What we attempt to articulate through the nature of that field is what the list cannot articulate simply as information.

The list has a profound limitation: in and of itself, it doesn’t help us understand what any of those histories actually mean. Form-making – specifically forms which establish a more complex relationship to the body – becomes a way of beginning to come to terms with those histories and their meanings in a deeper way. The transition from information into abstraction, which is what the scores aim to produce, is less about stripping the work of its political content as it is a way of rendering through fields of sound what the list can’t contain or express.

Sary: Creating a fluidity?

Tom: It is partly about fluidity but I would say that this ‘fluidity’ is better described as ‘an attitude towards enacting memory’. It is a function of a desire to make historical memories alive and relevant to the present, as things we enact vitally rather than make into fixed monumental forms.

The version now installed at the Shanghai Biennale is a two-part structure. There is a recording of an intonation of the list which takes about 100 minutes, which is stretched to the duration of the whole show: a 127-day sound file. It just becomes a kind of drone. That part of the work was partly conceived as a homage to the John Cage Halberstadt project and his 639 year organ score. The second component is a live reader in the space and six places where audience members can join in and read one page of the text. So there’s a play between the list as information read in a straightforward manner and its completely abstracted sonic version.

Listen to Lines Towards Another Century, Shanghai Biennial, 2010

Sary: Tell me a little more about the abstracted elements. How do you see abstraction as a means of articulating what cannot be said through simply reading the list?

Tom: The impulse toward abstracting the list always risks being an aestheticising procedure as it strips away the list’s historical grounding. But I have always been interested in how musical forms provide a way of articulating the subtext – or the unstated content – of that list through the body. The only way in which we can understand the list in a profound sense is through the body. What the body is, what is to be constrained by boundaries or engaged in war, all those things, rather than spectacles, are what make histories meaningful.

Perhaps what elicits the visual artists’ perennial attraction to the musical is that, in its systematic, music induces a different set of comprehending. It relies on memory and is different as a sensorial system to the image. I am attracted to what the list becomes when it is read aloud and heard. It becomes a different thing to when it’s simply seen.

Sary: So the “list” in the context of your collaboration with Andrew Byrne becomes a means of articulating the ramifications of a border or boundary. Is there an end to the list or does it bleed into the 21st century? And what does that tell us about the political nature of arbitrary boundaries?

Tom: Whenever I show it, I try to update the list. There have been fewer boundary changes in the last 15 years. The end of the Cold War was the last great explosion of boundary-making. While there are specific conflicts that produce new boundaries periodically, there’s a strange sense in which the process has slowed down.

There are also lots of taxonomical issues, the classic being Israel and Palestine. As the list relies on bureaucratic decisions, I for example call Macedonia, “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, because that’s how the UN describes it. There’s a problem in working with list in the extent to which you rely on official histories, which risk re-performing the same effacements constantly performed by dominant histories.

Sary: Considering these dominant histories and the complexities of specific historical situations, how do you go about discussing a taxonomically problematic area like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict within the context of the list?

Tom: What do you call a boundary? Although the boundaries between Israel and the Palestinian Territory are not national boundaries, the story of conflicts and boundaries requires them to be accounted for in some way. They are, but surreptitiously, by the discussion of other boundaries. Each entry is followed by a sentence in which I describe the origins of the boundary and also the boundaries and/or conflicts which follow from that boundary.

Sary: So you see boundary lines as something that propels us forward and backwards at the same time in reference to political events of the day? How does this relating to drawing process if we see borders as lines?

Tom: One of the things that interest me about drawing as an activity is the constant process of correcting one’s marks, referring back to earlier lines. There’s an archaeology of lines, referring backwards and forwards to one another in the way a pentimento or a set of pentimenti reads optically in a drawing.

The list is structured in the same way. Individual entries refer forward to lines that will become boundaries and boundaries refer back to earlier boundaries that are their origin. It’s a system which is constantly referring backwards and forwards. That’s a way of introducing the boundaries that can’t appear in the list, such as the Palestinian-Israeli boundaries. The creation of boundaries involving Israel always includes references to the wars on which they were based, the wars which followed, and/or the occupations on which they rely. As with other conflicts, such as East Timor, for example, this was a way to intimate at the effacements involved in boundary-making by discussing the subjects which are not named in the treaty-making process.

In this way the Middle East is extremely present in the recent part of the list, because the history of boundary-making in the 1920s and -30s has a close relationship to more recent conflicts.

Sary: How do you see the grey areas of boundary-making, such as propositional boundaries, affecting the list?

Tom: Certain boundaries are based on treaties which are then ratified by parliaments. The various stages of that process sometime pose difficult questions for which dates appear in the list. Every time a boundary changes shape or changes name I put it in. Decolonisation often meant that the old colonial boundary remained but was renamed, becoming a boundary between two African states instead of two European ones. Through these changes, the list bears witness to certain histories. To answer your question more broadly, as the list evolved, I became more conscious of its limitations and the contradictory nature of its form.

Published December 23, 2010.