Sunday, 30 March 2014

Friday, 14 March 2014

In plastic dreams


LOST: Red plastic bag

LAST SEEN: During REM phase at around 2am, woke up shortly after, disoriented and slightly panicky. My debit card kept on being rejected. Finally it worked and I was able to purchase some clothes which were handed to me in a red plastic bag. I planned to give them to a friend but I couldn't remember which floor she lived on, and I kept on going up and down and up and down in various lifts and not getting anywhere. I later telephoned the friend to see if she had received the bag. Perhaps I had given her the bag and just forgotten? She confirmed it was lost. Then I woke up.

IF FOUND: Please hand in to the lost property department of your dream. This may take the form of grey monolithic slab of a building on a inhumane scale with Kafkaesque bureaucracy, or it may take the form of a waffle stand, depending on the level of neurosis, dream stage and the amount and type of cheese you ate before bedtime.

REWARD: Either a good nights sleep, a getting out of bed the right way or a dream where you can fly and/or wake up giggling.


There is an illustrated book coming out on untranslatable words by author and illustrator Ella Francis Sanders. As a part time translator I too like to keep an eye out for these words ;)

#Untranslatable   Nødweg This is a Norwegian word for the sound that a thin plastic bag makes when the wind whistles through it in squally weather conditions. The nearest we can get to this in English is to say the sound is somewhere between a hum and the vibration of a cello string held between your teeth and bowed with a unwashed sock.

#Untranslatable Stindy A word that has come into use in Edinburgh after the introduction of discomposable plastic bags for food waste. The bag is said to be stindy when it  is on the cusp of decomposition  but still, you hope, bag enough not to split, spilling all of its rotting contents on the way to bin all over your clothes, feet and passers by. "Ye lazy besom tis yer caw tae tak' th' stindy keech oot" Actually I don't think I have yet heard anyone speak like this in Edinburgh.

#Untranslatable Tueteangst  This is a German expression for a phobia that plastic bags, especially the ones you now have to pay for in supermarkets, might take on a life of their own once stored at home and autonomously recycle themselves into a 3-D printer and fill your apartment with bread making machines.


There is no third part to this post just a selection of random film clips other people have made about plastic bags in decrescendoing/diminuendoing order of flimsiness and anthropomorphism. Flimsyness here is by no means a derogatory word:

1. This is a film called "Incidents" starring, amongst other everyday objects, a plastic bag by artists Igor and Svetlana Kopysiansky. I think this might actually be in my top 10 films of all time, although there is the "lost" film that I remember seeing many moons ago of plastic bags blowing about in the wind which was longer and involved more protagonists. Perhaps a forerunner to this one, even by the same artists, I don't know?

2. Whereas number one on my list is more arthouse, PLASTIC BAG  by Future States/ Ramin Bahrani is a blockbuster of a film. Werner Herzog provides the narration for a film about a plastic bag that falls in love, has existential crises, philosophises, and is sadly used to pick up dog shit. Herzog's German accent adds pathos to this movie, but I can imagine a Disney remake along the lines of Finding Nemo, but perhaps with the voice of Russell Brand? By the way, the red plastic bag I lost in my dream looks quite like the one shows up 10.42 minutes into this film.

3. This is a link to an excerpt from American beauty, which shows 3 minutes of a plastic bag 'dancing' in the wind. Apparently the casting agent sent the script to the plastic bag from PLASTIC BAG by Bahrani, who at first turned it down due to clashes in filming schedule. Thomas Newman wanted this plastic bag for the role so much that he put back filming of American Beauty by 6 months. An amazing make up job was done on the bag to change its appearance from orange to white, and the bag even underwent a sex operation as whilst in the Bahrani film it is an obvious male lead, Thomas Newman saw this plastic bag as very much female.

Have you any favourite  plastic bag film moments?

Film still from PLASTIC BAG by RAmin Bahrani. See that bag on the right?

Sunday, 23 February 2014

nur Bahnhof verstehen

The late shift at the Hamburger Bahnhof, a contemporary art museum in Berlin, which I visited last week. Money is being counted, the guards are rubbing their eyes, and I have the daunting task of  seeing all the collections and temporary exhibitions in just half an hour.

In the museum's Historical Hall, Berlin based Scottish artist Susan Philipsz has drawn on the former function of the museum building as a train terminus to create a sound installation "Part File Score" about the Austrian composer Hanns Eisler and his "moved life". Alongside his close friend Brecht, Eisler's music was banned by the Nazis in the 1930s and Eisler was forced into exile, finally getting a visa to the USA in 1938. He was deported from the US in 1948 accused of being a Communist agent. The artist has placed overlaid documents about Eisler by the FBI over his musical scores on the walls, and loudspeakers on the 24 pillars play single notes in succession from Eisler's film compositions. You don't know from which direction the next note will come. It disorients, surprises, and the fact that space is so big and empty makes you question your position.

It is interesting that Eisler's political beliefs informed his musical direction and that he consciously moved away from the twelve tone technique he had learned as a disciple of Schönberg to write more  popular film and theatre music, which he saw as more fitting to his socialist political beliefs. On his return to Germany, he also composed the GDR national anthem. He was accused, however, of plagiarism as the first four lines are similar to a popular song  "Goodbye Johnny" written by another Austrian composer, Peter Keuder, for a German film from 1939, "Wasser für Canitoga".

In this popular song the protagonist is saying goodbye to his best friend, a soldier who has fallen at his side in the war. When the main refrain of this song begins the singer switches from German into English, "cheerio, cheerio cheerio". Through its repetition and rhythm, it is reminiscent of a train starting up or a whistle blowing before departure before rolling into the chorus with  "Goodbye Johnny, Goodbye Johnny..."The lyrics include (in German) "I have to carry on. Always moving forward. Following my fate, my luck". The singer is dreaming of a "reunion" with his lost comrade in "heaven or hell" (he doesn't know which), and dreams that "in a hundred years everything will be over".

The themes of separation and unification are also heavily present in the lyrics of the GDR anthem  by poet Johannes R Becher ,which Eisler wrote the music for. There is no "hell" but a kind a type of heavenly utopia with people uniting in a new Germany of the future where "Triumph over bygone sorrow can in unity be won, for we shall attain a morrow when over Germany there is radiant sun". Apparently Eisler wrote the music for the GDR national anthem on the train journey from Austria to Germany after his return from the USA. Perhaps he was also thinking of his personal "cheerios" or maybe he was thinking optimistically about his new future in Germany, his reverie thriving in the space between departure and arrival.

In the exhibit, the overlayed images of Eisler's musical manuscripts with bureaucratic documents  contain two forms of language: musical notation, which is incomprehensible for those who cannot read music, and bureaucratic notes, full of errors in part and equally incomprehensible as a means to judge and quantify a life. In addition, swathes of black ink censors information and erases pencilled notation and staves. Standing in the Historic Hall, the work brings to mind the German phrase "nur Bahnhof verstehen" which in its literal sense means "only understand train station" but commonly means "you cannot follow or understand what is being said".

According to Wikionary this phrase has its origins in the first world war, in which Hanns Eisler was a soldier:

The soldiers apparently were tired of fighting and wanted to return home. Since the primary means of transportation was by train, many soldiers associated the train station (Bahnhof) with returning home. As the soldiers were preoccupied with returning home it could happen that they could or would not follow the conversation because they "only understood train station".

It also adds that the phrase can also mean when someone doesn't want to understand what they are hearing, they ignore it by saying the phrase in part to annoy the other person.

A play on words by the author "Hans Fallada" from the book "Wer einmal aus dem Blechnapf frisst" has a dialogue between two people also using the phrase:

"I only understand train station", he says.

"Train station isn't so bad when you need to make a getaway" she replies,  subverting it back to its actual meaning.

In art galleries and museums I often feel the visitor is being tested about how much they understand the art or whether they "only understand train station". In this exhibit and in this particularly accessible contemporary art museum the latter is perfectly fine.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Poem for Mij

I thought I heard your voice so quiet call out across the moor:

'Its bold outside, let's go for a stalk, up go the petals and down with the fork.

In the road is a telling toad crouching just to lump it'

Surprised I replied whispering low into the reticent Loch:

'No Mij, its cold outside, let's go for a chalk, your voice is now just a draw'

(Then tussock grasses coloured greenish-blue waved to me by the shore.)

'Timed out time its time to break the whistles and the tanks. Water trickles, cracks appear and fry upon the shore.'

Her message rang clear but the words got lost. How misty it was that day! The words had blundered tripped and fell, but still, a clarion call.

'Ferris blocks, they turn in fours and when they round just five.'

I hoped to help with this advice as I sank deeper into moss.

'Wheels collide, that's six until its seven eight and pine'

I had to act, there was nothing for it, so chilling her reply.

Just then, a buzzard opened its beak, dropping a pebble into the Loch. The ripple created a sounding board across which we could talk.

We talked for hours of this and that and this is just a summary:

In place of snow I suggested floss, in place of teeth she suggested moss and on and on we gone.
Pebble after pebble dropped down by those skillful birds of Rannoch Moor.

(Now she says floss instead of moss and wonders at her tongue. And when I see snow my teeth turn green so convincing was her talk.)

An ambitious curlew curtailed our tale, dropping a pebble the size of a boat. I'd thought to board it, but knew if I did, I would be surely sunk without hope.

I thought I heard your voice today outside a leaden door. It shut so soundly so profoundly making me want more. 

Timed out time its time to break the whistles and the tanks. Water trickles, cracks appear and fry upon the shore.

Its bold outside let's go for a stalk, up go the petals and down with the fork. In the road is a telling toad waiting just to lump it. 

(No, let's go for a chalk, your voice now just a draw; remembering the elephants (that could no longer be no more)

Ferris blocks then turn in fours, and when they round just five. Wheels collide, that's six until they seven eight and pine.

Down by the loch I turned off the wood and watched it as it flew. Then self aware it turned and stared and chimneyed as it grew. 

Driving home I turned the sea until it went quite right.

It went away which is to say it gave itself a fright.

I will never know if that was really my friend calling me across the moor

But still I return year after year in the hope that I'll find her there.

I listen for echoes of Camper Van's wheels and strains of radio Baroque.

Heeding the deer calls at Rannoch Moor and listening down by the Lochs