Forma

Song for Armageddon Q&A

In the extraordinary context of 2020, we screened Song for Armageddon online from Monday 3 August. This recent moving image work from Forma’s archive carries unforeseen resonance in the present day, as an empty auditorium is prepared for an audience ready to witness the rising sun or the end of days.

Positioned at the ruins of Tel Megiddo, the biblical site of Armageddon in Israel, the film loops a powerful visual and acoustic meditation culminating with a haunting performance by singer Faye Shapiro. As layers of history embedded in the landscape come to light at dawn, heritage and event are entwined. Sitting between the real and the fictional, Song for Armageddon was made with the proposition of stories yet to come.

An interview with Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson on the work’s potential for meaning in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis accompanies the screening below.


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Song for Armageddon Q&A

Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson
2017

In the extraordinary context of 2020, we screened Song for Armageddon online from Monday 3 August. This recent moving image work from Forma’s archive carries unforeseen resonance in the present day, as an empty auditorium is prepared for an audience ready to witness the rising sun or the end of days.

Positioned at the ruins of Tel Megiddo, the biblical site of Armageddon in Israel, the film loops a powerful visual and acoustic meditation culminating with a haunting performance by singer Faye Shapiro. As layers of history embedded in the landscape come to light at dawn, heritage and event are entwined. Sitting between the real and the fictional, Song for Armageddon was made with the proposition of stories yet to come.

An interview with Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson on the work’s potential for meaning in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis accompanies the screening below.

Q&A with Rachel C Clark, Producer

Hi Nick and Ian, thank you so much for sharing this work online at a time when the title Song for Armageddon may well feel more timely than ever. How did this work, filmed on location at the biblical site of Tel Megiddo, come to be? What were its origins in your research and wider practice?

It was probably one of those totally random wikipedia things where we picked up a reference to a place called Armageddon. We, perhaps like most people, weren't aware at the time that this 'event' - the end of the world - was actually named after a particular location.

We'd made use of biblical sources before in our work - Two Burning Bushes (2003) was a previous film work that was riffing off scriptural sources and we've often been attracted to such big thematics and the way they resonate within culture - so we are probably primed to be interested in something like this. Also the confusion between place and event, was something irresistible to us, like a folding in of time and space that seemed to offer a particularly productive context. Just the idea that something as enormous as 'the end of the world' could, with a different application of its meaning, be understood as a place you could visit - it kind of blew us away. So even though it was maybe seven or so years between first finding out about Armageddon (as in Tel Megiddo) and shooting a film there it kept us constantly engaged as a weird swapping out of parameters.

It feels important that we mention that this work is cyclical in nature, and would be displayed on a loop in a gallery context, without a definitive beginning or end. Could you expand on this element of the work for online audiences, and how it might inform their experience?

We did make a version of the film - an early edit - that was linear and told, as it were, a pretty straightforward narrative about the setting out of an auditorium for a sunrise. And whilst it worked as a film it didn't seem to us to quite capture what we wanted the work to engage with, nor indeed to fully understand the perverse binary nature of the site, the confusion between place and event that we mentioned. It was through trying to resolve the work as narrative that we realised we were missing something about the subject itself. The way in which apocalyptic anxieties are a kind of constant, perhaps even a biological effect of being human. That is to say the way in which we tend to narrate experiences means that this idea of an ending, a grand closure, is perhaps better thought of as a default state. In this sense the 'end of times' is always with us, it never arrives and yet we are always seemingly able to conjure its horror. So we started to see that the film really should have no beginning or end and that we needed to re-edit it around the idea of the Apocalypse as a permanent state.

You might compare it to something like the Doomsday Clock. The scientists who dreamed up and maintain that sculpture (if you want to think of it as a sculpture) can modulate one aspect of it (i.e. how many minutes to ‘midnight’ we are at). But the clock itself is, at least rhetorically, outside of time. You might think of a video loop in the same way.

For Song for Armageddon, you collaborated with Israeli composer Ophir Ilzetzki to create a bespoke score for your visuals. In the past, you worked with Opera North on creating a musical accompaniment for the installation Song for Coal at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. What is the significance of ‘song’ in your practice, either the word itself, and/or the act of listening?

Music, song, the auditory – these have always figured large in our work. Our first collaborative work was a 24-hour performance with accompanying soundtrack titled Mugger Music (1996). Back then we were interested in the way that listening could be an active thing for the audience and could activate a different experience of looking. Naturally soundtracks affect ways of seeing. Things can be made to appear more romantic or scary or whatever, by the application of the appropriate musical accompaniment.

But our attraction to the ‘Song’ is more than just about modulating a viewer’s experience in a particular moment. It certainly has something to do with communality, with expectations of performativity and a wish, also, to signal the necessary partiality of an kind of looking that is bound up with temporality. With Song for Coal we were interested in Gregorian Plain Chant, a practice that can be performed without an audience, something performed for God perhaps or in keeping with ritual but something that is shared amongst the singers as well.

In Song for Armageddon the idea of an audience is visually and aurally foregrounded but those ideas of performativity are certainly shared across both works. There is the sense in which a song is a received cultural form, it is an object, one that insists on its materiality as performance - as event - and it knows itself as a thing within time. The song is a shared space formed within an oral tradition, insistent on the listener; to call something a song is to invite it to be sung. You might also think about the way that brain scans of people who are listening to music have multiple neural centres triggered all over the place, the whole brain literally flashes around when it deals with the deeply complex experience of musical form in a way that it doesn’t for visual or olfactory or verbal information. In this sense the word Song is there in the title to tell the audience something about the work and how we are thinking about them as viewers. So perhaps it’s a way of saying “..this isn’t going to be a picture of Armageddon or a text about Armageddon…” and implying “this is, in its entirety, and in an unbounded way, what Armageddon is.”

Watching this work again in 2020, it struck me that the empty chairs anticipating an audience were so reminiscent of images we’ve seen of empty theatres, empty stadiums around the world during the Covid-19 pandemic. Even those preparing the chairs could be cleaning, disinfecting. Where did such imagery come from in 2017, and how do you feel about sharing it now?

It does seem timely– but we always thought it was - just not in the way it’s become. In 2017 we were thinking of climate change, the collapse of ecosystems, geopolitical tensions and the sense of impending upheaval that such factors generate. The idea to film the seating being set out for the end of the world was a kind of functional metaphor rather than a literal depiction. But by 2020 this empty auditorium resonates with some of those cultural effects we are seeing as a result of the pandemic - this really sad situation we're now in where the theatres and stadiums are deserted.

Most of those 2020 instances are anchored to a particular kind of event - a football game, a play etc. Our auditorium was always more ambiguous. The chairs all face in one direction, towards the rising sun, but the work never makes explicit what event they are being set out for. At the level of metaphor you might imagine it’s for some biblical cataclysm but their design and materiality have more in common with the quotidian textures of wedding receptions, prize givings and college graduations. Other than that there is only the context of the place to go off - the archaeological site itself, so it very much leaves open what event the auditorium is being set up for.

When we developed the idea for this work the central action, the setting out of the auditorium, was a way to think through those anxieties we share about where we are and where we’re going in the broadest global sense. The fear that everything might end, or cease to exist is something we struggle fully grasp - it's like the sublime - it's too big a thing. So we wanted to find a way to gesture towards that. But your attention is also on those who are there doing the setting up (key workers for the end of the world) - and the cleaning of the chairs was a way to evoke the kind of care that might be involved in washing the corpse of a loved one. The fact that that gesture prefigures one aspect of our post-Covid lives (the obsessive spraying and wiping of disinfectants) definitely adds a certain weird feeling when looking at the work again in 2020.

In 2020, we’ve found that screening through online channels has been a way that many have continued to engage with contemporary art. How has your consumption of culture shifted over this time, and how has it affected your working together?

Yes, of course its changed - working together whilst living in different countries has meant we have always spent a lot of time on Skype - but that was always premised on frequent studio time together as well - its been a bit frustrating and weird like everything else. We've been doing some streaming of our studio work, looking at other ways in which our practice might engage with the world it finds itself in.

Of course its possible that some vaccine will emerge and in a couple of years everything will be back to the old normal...but its profoundly possible that that won't be the case. That's going to mean some massive changes in the way culture is produced and circulated and we're just starting to think about what that might involve. Obviously network technologies facilitate particular kinds of interaction, but this current phase (shall we call it early Corona?) has a lot to do with replacement and patching up. In time you can see how this will change with online presence not being seen as supplementary or auxiliary to physical manifestations but rather the other way round. Having said that, with those things like videos that exist in a digital format already there is sometimes a much shorter step between the thing in the gallery and the thing online. When we installed the work at Baltic, we had this really powerful sound system that shook the room and you felt it viscerally - that may be hard to replicate with a streamed version - but then again, you could just ask everyone to turn it up.

Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson, born in Barnsley and Macclesfield respectively, work collaboratively between studios in Berlin and Manchester. Working together since 1994, they are fascinated by spectacle and drawn to the ways in which power and authority articulate themselves, their works often combining densely layered visual and acoustic allusions to faith, politics, national identity and the environment.

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Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson, Song for Armageddon 2017 (still). ©​ Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson. Courtesy University of Salford Art Collection

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Installation view, Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson, Song for Armageddon 2017, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, United Kingdom. Photo: Colin Davison

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Installation view, Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson, Song for Armageddon 2017, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, United Kingdom. Photo: Colin Davison

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Installation view, Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson, Song for Armageddon 2017, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, United Kingdom. Photo: Colin Davison

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Installation view, Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson, Song for Armageddon 2017, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, United Kingdom. Photo: Colin Davison

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Installation view, Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson, Song for Armageddon 2017, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, United Kingdom. Photo: Colin Davison

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Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson, Song for Armageddon 2017 (still). ©​ Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson. Courtesy University of Salford Art Collection

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Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson, Song for Armageddon 2017 (still). ©​ Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson. Courtesy University of Salford Art Collection

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Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson, Song for Armageddon 2017 (still). ©​ Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson. Courtesy University of Salford Art Collection

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Credits

Song for Armageddon was created by Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson in collaboration with Ophir Ilzetzki in 2017. Cinematography by Martin Testar. Commissioned by Forma and University of Salford Art Collection, in association with BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Produced by Forma. Supported by Arts Council England.

Background image: Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson, Song for Armageddon 2017 (still). © Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson. Courtesy University of Salford Art Collection