In conversation: MP Hopkins & Angela Garrick
Angela Garrick has a chat with MP Hopkins about writing and their book of poetry, Upright in the Field (released by Sydney small publisher, Ruin Press).
Upright in the Field recalls a series of recording events, read as absurdist memories of the artist's negotiations, triumphs and pitfalls of attempting to capture the aural qualities of various environments. Through a series of ascending vignettes, the reader encounters descriptions of the author’s investigations of a space and time indeterminate. The 32 pieces that comprise the book intermesh all kinds of performance, sounds, measurements and absurd objects, bringing to mind playful elements of Fluxus, Georges Perec, Kenneth Goldsmith and Anne Garetta.
MP: I like the way you described Upright in the Field as a logbook or field notes.
AG: It’s like field notes meets a worker’s log. A botanist or a scientist or a geologist would have a small journal or book to jot things down—observations and thoughts. They would have these little books that they would put their notes in after they have investigated their ‘field’.
When I started writing these I was doing them as very short pieces—just a few lines for each entry about each ‘field’ experience—with the idea that they would all combine into one long piece; an ongoing log of my listening/sound recording activities in the field.
Like a stream.
Yeah, but as I was writing more and more it didn’t seem to flow as one long work. So I decided to break it up into individual pieces and concentrate on each entry as a specific experience of the ‘field’. Once I’d written several and had them together the link became about how they all seemed to have a similar sense of time passing, a shared waiting for something to be heard.
Well I think condensing it into these short stanzas or bracketed pieces initiates a feeling of the passing of time.
I think the feeling is of time passing, and waiting—waiting for something to sound, but not really knowing what. The notes were written mostly when I was making field recordings, so most of this work was written outside. When you are engaged in an activity of waiting for something to happen, time passes in odd ways.
You know how they all start with ‘Upright in the Field’? At one point all the notes began starting like that and I’m not sure exactly why, but now I see that as the recurring beginning for the waiting. The only constant, the only certainty was that I was there, present, ready to record—upright in the field—then the words that follow–
Are describing words?
Yeah. It's necessary to set the scene I think. So then the following few lines after the standard opening can simply set the scene for waiting in a particular environment, then the rest of the piece deals with what one might be waiting for in that environment (the sounds). This waiting is sometimes banal and other times strange or impossible.
Would you say it was like a formula—you had for formula for each page—that sets it up and from then on you could waver any which way.
I like that concept because I feel like I haven’t really read any, dare I say, literary work that kind of exhibits those traits. I’ve read poetry where they will have a common line but it is kind of like combining war journals—well not war but kind of militaristic in a recording sense—in that it’s a uniform formula which is used to set the scene.
You framed it that way in the blurb you wrote about the book, which was interesting as it made me see the work as journalistic, as a kind of reportage on listening and trying to record places. I like the way you place this work as organised and strict—militarized—as I was often making very objective observations about how I was hearing a place, but then the scenes would shift and open up fictional or fantasy sound events.
Well there is that specific opening line, and then you set the scene with the second line, and everything that is said after that is sometimes I guess up to the reader to make judgements upon because it’s not very specific in terms of the way that you conceptualise it in your head—which is part of what I like about the work.
Great, I hope that is what the reader does! You’re right, it allows the reader to decide what's actually trying to be captured in terms of the sound—they fill in the blanks. In a way, perhaps, this work is about prompting the reader to try and listen, to try and hear something which is actually them trying to hear what I am trying to listen for.
You’re overestimating your reader in a sense that you’ve made your notes and then you’re taking certain things away to give them the act to engage with your work which is what people have to do when they also listen to sound recordings to deduce meaning. When people listen to music you have to consider what the sound is, where it comes from and how someone would be making that sound. When they read the book it’s arguably similar in a way because although it's not sound, the words are establishing a scene and then deviating from the fact. People need to consider what it is that you may be saying because it’s not laid out clear for them to interpret. And that's a good thing.
I agree. Some of the pieces contain questions for the reader; asking them what they think they heard or if they can hear anything at all, which speaks directly to what we just discussed—the question of what someone might be hearing prompts them to decide or give up. It's almost like I’m trying to confirm what I think I’m hearing by asking them if it is what I think it is? Hopefully this strategy sets it up for the reader so that we come to some sort of arrangement where I am nudging them to think about what it is they might be hearing outside of the text.
I think because the book is also a reflection on the process of working, the questions reveal the fact that there is a lot of confusion and choices that you have to make when you are working on a creative project and there is often a lot of confusion. Basically, when a work is complete, it is the result of removing as many questions as possible so you’re reflecting on your process.
The questions are meant to present that kind of confusion—trying to grapple with the sense of what it is I’m trying to capture. In a way, the questions and confusion produce the work. ‘Why can’t I record what it sounds like exactly?’ and ‘what is it I’m not hearing? or ‘what am I trying to hear?’ These are essential questions for this work to be made, but also to be read, as broad as they are. I think there is a confusion or conundrum of what I am trying to capture in all the pieces, which is governed by these broad questions. I have many doubts about the ability of an artists to capture what they are hearing as it’s always more than the sounds of the environment itself that shapes the sonic mood of a place. But I think one can transcribe a hovering between the desire to hear something and the realisation of never being able to fully tune into it.
Sounds are very visceral in the sense that they connect with people’s emotions and they connect with us in a different level to text.
Trying to describe what one can’t hear or wanting to hear or waiting to hear is a difficult thing to put into words. But it is an emotional and visceral process, you’re right. I think it’s very hard to just talk about sound as a thing—an object or thing that can witness or know—it seems so much more elusive than that in terms of its character. But I think you can know its mood, it’s shifting character. It seems difficult to me to describe an atmosphere when listening without using descriptions of how it makes me feel emotionally.
But that's what you’re doing in a way—it doesn’t seem like you are writing it from an emotional standpoint. You’re trying to write about it in a functional way yet documenting the frustration of that task because it's something that can never really be completed. Although the work is short, you could write a 10,000 word book and still not do a sound justice.
The whole thing is about trying to apprehend the confusion of not being able to grasp and relay this desire/disorder about listening through language. I was trying to capture this in short poetic pieces that allow enough emotion but are not saturated in it. I’m not sure if I was successful at this though!
It is an almost impossible task that you’ve set upon to write about and that's why you could effectively continue writing this book forever and it would never be the same.
That's true, it's nice what you said before about the formula, as that allows for more to keep coming. It can be a bit negative in the sense that the confusion becomes a bit exhausting and defeatist. You're meant to feel a bit worn out from attempting to listen and being constantly ready to record. Because each piece returns to the same beginning line of ‘Upright in the field’, the absurdity of the task is established and that is intentional. This hopefully leads the reader through an increasingly fatigued process of trying to figure out what the field is and what sounds might occur there.
But it's still a formula in the sense that you’re describing posture and a setting.
Yes, a relationship to the ‘field’, whether or not you are willing to be there and listen to it, or just frustrated by being there. But you persist in trying to be there and listen to the field somehow. Hopefully that is what the reader does.
I feel like if we gave your book to somebody on the street they could read it and perhaps not know it had anything to do with sound. I would actually be very curious to know what they would think about it and what they thought you could be referring to.
I really like books that reflect upon a creative process and I feel like there are not many out there. There is this really good book about Chinese artist Li Mu and it's called A man, A village, A museum. He makes replicas of famous artworks and puts them around his village in China. The entire book is his personal diary of the process and emails and other correspondence with his curator and his friends and the shopkeepers in the village. The book isn’t really about the finished work. It's about negotiating the work. It’s about process.
Wow, that book sounds great. The process of trying to hear a place and document it through words is riddled with confusion and the inability of being able to accurately capture a sense of place—that is the process.
And that process becomes the work itself in a sense.
Absolutely. And I think I gravitate towards works like this—in several forms/media—anything where the process that the person has gone through is the work.
Well it's more about daily rituals and things like that.
It has to reflect the tasks the person went through—not just a finished ‘work’ but their labour. I enjoy works where the making is the work itself.
It demystifies the creative work which, importantly, makes it accessible. I kind of hate the notion of the ‘masterpiece’.
It’s like Beckett’s idea of there being nothing to express but also some sort of obligation to express. I think the desire to document and expose the attempt to express, especially if it doesn’t work out, is far more interesting than something presented as ‘finished’. Nothing came of most of the sound recordings involved in the process of writing the book. Nothing happened to the recordings other than that they inspired the writing.
Yes. I was working on different recordings and thinking about ideas for recorded compositions, but most ended up as half-finished ideas and never really got used or put in the trash. But I like that about it because the work itself required the activity of making the sound recordings for the writing to unfold.
But what is the work then? Is the work the leftover notes or is it the recordings?
The writing is the work. The end result is a sound recording in a sense—it’s just that words and paper are the recording device rather than microphones and audio recorders. The audio recording process was a necessary activity for the writing to happen, but it gets removed in the end.
If I think back into my own personal history to say, 8 years ago, I could think wow, that was a huge waste of my life and time. Just whatever I was doing at the time. I shouldn't have been focusing my attention on that. But with this book, you can kind of read it and surmise that you’re trying to work on something. I’m not sure exactly what it is but you’re documenting the process.
Do you ever write notes when you’re making music?
I don’t think I’ve ever written a single word. But it's good to.
Maybe it isn’t?
We should all be documenting things more, in every facet of our lives. I wish I had a field journal for when I went to the bathroom, when I cooked a meal, when I’m catching the bus to work and I can make notes about the people. I care—in this strange way—about the people I see every morning on the same bus.
It’s incredibly lonely in a way—you have these long commutes to work and there are people you see every day that are familiar and sort of part of your life, but you’ll most likely never say one word to them.
About Angela Garrick
Angela Garrick is one part of Sydney based publishing collective Ruin Press; an Antipodean Independent Publishing Group specialising in weirder fiction, poetry, artists books and critical writing.
About MP Hopkins
MP Hopkins lives and works on Gadigal land making audio recordings, live sound performance, texts, and gallery installations. His work investigates word and sound relationships, and is characterised by odd atmospheres and language murmurings that drift, clamour, muffle, and sit. Hopkins has released recordings through Penultimate Press, Thalamos, Alberts Basement, Canti Magnetici, Aussenraum, and Mappa Editions. He has performed at the NOW now Festival, Avantwhatever Festival, Liquid Architecture, TUSK Festival and Colour Out of Space. Hopkins has written articles for Runway Experimental Art journal and un Magazine, published a book Upright in the Field with Ruin Press, and has presented mixed media installations at 55 Sydenham Rd Gallery, Firstdraft, TCB Gallery, Margaret Lawrence Gallery, The MCA, Artspace, Gertrude Contemporary, LaSalle College of the Arts, Tiny Creatures, COR&P, and Turner Gallery.