Traces of frost in the moss. Ice on the rocks. Will it finally snow? There has been no snow yet in the Finnish archipelago, which is unusual even though it’s likely the new normal. Walking through the forest, I try to forget my dumb tics and habits. I want to commune with nature but I do not know how. Some lizard-brained part of me wants to pull out my telephone and look for new headlines, new information.

Strange being someplace so remote while the familiar static of American dysfunction continues to wallpaper my day, thanks to my compulsion to check the news, refresh my feeds, and tune in to today’s two-minute hate. I’ve spent the best years of my life in thrall to the idiot logic of the internet. A sobering thought. At some point while I wasn’t paying attention, my screen became the real world. Online eclipsed offline. The internet’s noise and exhaust tints every thought like a window left open in the back of the mind. Perhaps the physical world exists solely to support our digital habits now that most of us move through space either staring into screens or thinking about our virtual personas and obligations. Maybe deep down we just want to be alone with our phones.

Social media has pushed everything to extremes, a binary choice of like or don’t like, follow or unfollow, send or delete. The way we speak about technology itself mirrors the raw logic of the addict: use or don’t use. Nobody says, “I’ll only look at Twitter on weekends.” Sometimes it feels like an ultimatum: Embrace the pixellated noise of the future without complaint or grieve for the textures of the past. And I’m stuck in the familiar stage of addiction where I know it’s not good for me yet I do it anyway. I do my best to stare at a tree for a few minutes before returning to the ferry house to check my email.

Various Artists – Erosion 2

Decay Product | Chain Reaction, 1997 | Hardwax

Elegant reverberations from the days when techno was served in metal cases by anonymous producers with intentionally obtuse monikers such as Various Artists.

Korpo-Nauvo ferry, Finland

Woke from a dream in which I discovered my consciousness was powered by someone else forced to run on a treadmill. Low sun and a warm wind today. Still no snow. Massive freighters in the Baltic drift towards Russia. A man from Spain who runs the local newspaper visited our studio for an interview. He talked about the mental hygiene of living on an island, how nature helps him think better. “Because each day we want to turn on the news and get intoxicated by dramas and conflict,” he said. Intoxicated is such a good word for describing the effect of transforming the inherent messiness of democracy into manufactured dramas of us versus them.

For years I’ve nursed elaborate fantasies of living in a remote cabin or better yet a double-wide in the Mojave desert. But would isolation make me more sensible? Perhaps someday it will. After two weeks on this island, however, I’m beginning to crave the neon and heat of a city to energize my thinking—even if it will quickly leave me wanting the sobriety of silence and sky.

A road through the Finnish archipelago

Walking along the empty road of a remote island in the Baltic Sea, I remember driving down Interstate 75 twenty years ago with the Detroit skyline on my left while a cassette tape filled the car with drums. I remember believing the world would make sense when I grew older. But it never did and it probably won’t. This is a painful lesson, one that finds each of us in its own way. For me, it arrived in hospital corridors, envelopes with death certificates, and an attic filled with my parents’ belongings. There is no figuring out the logic of the world.

These days I notice another childlike conviction, one that is stubbornly waiting for things to go back to normal. Although my rational mind knows otherwise, part of me wants to believe these strange days are a blip, that someday I will return to a life when I wasn’t mortified by my government or worrying about the strange weather or trying to fight the idiotic craving to stare into my telephone.

“We are choked with news and starved of history,” said the historian Will Durant in 1926. The poet Ovid mourned the loss of the days when humankind was “good and true,” fearing that “every kind of wickedness” marked his times. He wrote this in the year 8. There is no lost golden age.

Nostalgia might be another form of grief, which requires working our way towards acceptance and, if we’re lucky, a little bit of grace. I’m doing my best to accept that things will never return to “normal”, that there was never any such thing. The world is speeding up. The weather is changing. Life is only going to get weirder, coarser, and more unstable. This is unsettling, but it could also be liberating.

Basic Channel – Inversion

Inversion/Presence | Basic Channel, 1994 | Spotify | More information

Twenty-five years later, Basic Channel’s Inversion remains the most melancholy machine music I’ve ever heard. This is the sound of industrial decay twinned with a very human longing for faith. A beautiful piece of winterized nostalgia for your dashboard.

Island studio scene with anonymous responses projected on the wall

Calm water on the Baltic Sea and a low January sun at noon. For a moment I can feel the warmth on my cheek. She pulled an all-nighter last night because time does not exist here. Darkness falls before you get used to the light. If you listen closely, you can hear the thrum of the ferry engine in the walls. More news from America, none of it good. Drone strikes, tantrums, and hijacked democracy.

Meanwhile, we began organizing the three thousand responses we received from our Light the Barricades project, preparing them for a book. Here’s a small sample of these anonymous handwritten dispatches, each one a lone voice joining a chorus: I’m tired of having to be resilient. I don’t like the wall blocking Mexico because I can’t see my cousin. I feel guilty for surviving. I don’t know if I belong. I’m not setting a good example for my daughter. I keep looking for healing in the place that broke me. Sometimes I wonder what the effect will be in the long run, bearing witness to so much handwritten pain. “First let this be consolation,” she says. “Then let it be courage.” I think about the meditative practice of tonglen, of breathing in the anger and suffering of others and exhaling kindness. Perhaps, in some small way, this project can become something like that.

Leyland Kirby – Consolation

We, so tired of all the darkness in our lives | More

Here comes a heartbeat drum, thumping in the distance like a half-remembered b-side by The Ronettes or The Crystals, a vintage rhythm slowly falling to pieces while plaintive strings rise. Like a heavily sedated love song from the hit parade of a more dignified age, Leyland Kirby’s We, so tired of all the darkness in our lives is a reassuring soundtrack for these undignified times. It’s a reminder that music can harmonize with—and perhaps even momentarily sooth—the crazy thoughts we’re forced to carry these days, if only for a moment or two.

After my mother died, my father spent his days wandering through discount department stores, fixated on tracking down the correct size, exact model, or shade of color for something he thought he needed, usually a household item for the little apartment he rented after selling the house. Non-slip adhesives for the bathtub shaped like starfish. Mechanical pencils. A childlike table for his car keys that required hours spent cursing over a tiny wrench. He carried a small notepad in the back pocket of his khakis, diligently making lists with items like living room lampshade needs repair and oil bathroom door hinges and eggs are good for protein.

My father died four years ago today. Lately I’ve been thinking about his quiet notepads. They feel like a balm against these days when everything seems to be happening at once. Institutional decay. Angry weather. Homegrown terror. The energies of war. I click and scroll even though I know it’s trashing my mind, all of this information commingling with fury, opinion, and performance. Our screens have mangled the decent impulse to bear witness.

I try to see the world through my father’s eyes, his sense that everything looked like science fiction: people dressed like children and swerving into one another while staring at little handheld pieces of glass. He didn’t understand how the world had become so interlinked, how all of its information could live on a screen. It felt like an optical illusion, a cheap bit of sleight-of-hand. Information was supposed to be earned through experience, through a combination of tough luck and scribbling into your notepad. Information required effort and my father craved the human contact required to get it. The sales clerks would check their stock and make calls to other locations for a linen drum lampshade or a pair of loafers with tassels. He’d eventually find the item but he would not purchase it, deciding he didn’t need it after all.

Datacide – Flashback Signal

from Flowerhead | Asphodel/Rather Interesting, 1995 | More info

A nearly perfect ambient album, Flowerhead has been a reliable sleepy-time companion since its release twenty-something years ago. Atom Heart and Tetsuo Inoue’s collaboration merges the organic with the electric, yielding a blurry soundtrack for nostalgia. The whole album just sounds right, as if you’d heard it before, back when you were four or five.

Sunset in the Finnish forest

Alone on an island and the silence is like walking into a wall. These short winter days feel like a permanent sunset, the way the sun rolls along the horizon for a few hours before returning beneath the earth, as if it’s too exhausted to go any higher. I sympathize. Today I came across the phrase “algo-seance scene” and realized I’m losing track of not only the future but the present.

We took a bus to the neighboring island to buy some coffee and eggs and salmiakki. Then we sat in a gas station diner waiting for the last bus back to our flat by the sea. Ancient couples with yellow-white hair slurped coffee and murmured to one another while reading the local newspaper, their voices stained with decades of cigarette smoke. Sometimes it’s nice to find a place where time stands still.

The island of Korpo

When we landed in Helsinki in January 2009, Candy and I watched the inauguration of Obama from our hotel room at one o’clock in the morning. Then came a bizarre decade spent roaming between New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and New York again. Ten years later, we returned to Helsinki before heading to a remote island in the Finnish archipelago. Flipping on the television in our hotel, we caught the final vote tally as the House impeached Donald Trump.

I try to imagine what I would have thought if someone had described the decade to come while we watched Obama wave from his motorcade. That a vicious game show host like Donald Trump would become president. That propaganda and Nazis would return and objective truth would disappear. Or that Britain would leave the European Union and seemingly pointless technologies like Facebook and Twitter would rip society apart. I did not see any of these things around the corner, just as I never could have imagined I would lose my parents or that I would grapple with so much dark psychological terrain.

Looking back on the optimism I felt a decade ago, it’s impossible for me to determine whether my sense of the world today is naturally rooted in growing older and reckoning with the upheavals and disappointments of life—or if my mood truly reflects the seemingly perilous state of society, technology, and the weather. Regardless of the causes, my project this year is to recover some degree of optimism and perhaps even something resembling faith.

Wandering through Turku’s streets and museums, I cannot stop marveling at the low-hanging sun: an endless magic hour that casts everything in Caravaggio light. After savoring the concrete, neon, and hum of the city, we took a bus and two ferries into the Finnish archipelago where we are living in a flat by the Baltic sea. This building once housed ferry operators. Now it’s an artist residency. We have come here to finish a book that collects the thousands of responses we collected from visitors to a public installation we created last year. Instead we spent the night projecting movies on the wall while the winter darkness covered the windows.

“The bottom line is we’re all prisoners of the universe,” says a man on a train that speeds across China’s rapidly developing landscape. This becomes the coda for Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White, where a dangerous romance downshifts into existential longing that bleeds across seventeen years of dance halls, prison yards, trains, mahjong tables, and disorienting change. The final shot has lingered in my mind for days.

Now begins the season of Arvo Pärt, of private hymns and gloom and trees that look like old gentlemen. On New Year’s Day, I sat in the pews of a medieval cathedral in Turku, Finland. Completed in 1300, its tower featured the first public clock in Finland and it standardized the time for the entire region. Since 1944, the cathedral’s chiming bells have been broadcast on the radio each day at noon. There is something deeply reassuring about this ritual, knowing that a sound with a traceable source of stone and bronze has unified listeners for so many years.

I studied the painting of the Transfiguration over the apse, a scene that depicts the moment Jesus became radiant after traveling to a mountaintop to pray with Peter, Paul, and John. The prophets Moses and Elijah appeared in the clouds and a voice from the sky called him son. Why would Jesus not think he’d gone crazy?

My mind drifts into deep time, a time beyond church bells and paintings and desert prophets. Standing in line at the supermarket the other day, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the idea that the world existed long before there were eyes to see it. This nervy sensation found me again in this cathedral: The realization that evolution might provide us with new, unimaginable senses tens of thousands of years into the future. That I will never know how this story ends or why it was written.

Only a few days into the new decade and we’re overwhelmed by headlines about missiles, fires, drones, government paralysis, and dangerous weather. America is circling the drain. Australia is burning. A craving for new spiritual paths shaped the 1960s before boomeranging into the materialism of the 1980s. Is this need resurfacing in our gilded age of digital alienation and climate crises? I worry the future will become a breeding ground for religious extremism, cults promising to restore our screen-addled brains, and faith-dealers peddling solace in a scary new climate of floods and fire. In the meantime, I bow my head and try my best to pray to god knows what.

Further reading: Turun tuomiokirkko; Transfiguration of Jesus, painted in 1836 by Fredrik Westin.

Arvo Pärt – De Profundis (Psalm 129)

Harmonia Mundi, 1997 | More

Made a soundtrack for the last days of this very strange decade. Starts off with Gordon Lightfoot and a song called “Front Row Gallows View”. Ends with sheets of reverb and a new track that I made with Candy Chang for our installation at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. Honored to have this mixtape included in the excellent Mysteries of the Deep series.

  1. Gordon Lightfoot – If You Could Read My Mind
    Reprise, 1970
  2. Kristoffer Lo – Front Row Gallows View
    Propellor Recordings, 2016)
  3. Leyland Kirby – Back in the Game
    History Always Favours the Winners, 2017
  4. T. Rex – Cosmic Dancer
    Fly, 1971
  5. Pole – Modul
    Matador, 1998
  6. Excerpt from ‘Dead Flag Blues’ by Godspeed You! Black Emperor
    Constellation Records, 1997
  7. MMMD – Verita Morr
    Antifrost, 2019
  8. DVA Damas – Wet Vision II
    Downwards, 2015
  9. The McIntosh County Shouters – Sign of the Judgment
    Smithsonian Folkways
  10. Alessandro Cortini – Scappa
    Important Records, 2015
  11. Popol Vuh – Aguirre Lacrimae De Rei I
    Ohr, 1975
  12. Midwife – Forever
    Antiquated Future Records, 2018
  13. Kim Sun – The Man Who Must Leave
    Universal South Korea, 1969
  14. Shadrack Chameleon – Don’t Let It Get You Down
    Gear Fab Records, 1973
  15. Bohren & Der Club of Gore – Constant Fear
    Wonder Records, 2002
  16. Love Inc – Life’s a Gas
    Force Inc, 1995
  17. The Shirelles – Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?
    Scepter Records, 1960
  18. James A. Reeves & Candy Chang – Light the Barricades
    Ritual Fields, 2019

Truly the Last Days

80 minutes | Download | Spotify

This very strange decade has finally ended and it’s harder to keep track of things these days. Pictures, songs, and paragraphs wash across my screen one minute and disappear the next. I find myself increasingly relying upon lists. Traces of nostalgia are beginning to appear in my thinking, a desire for finite collections and limited entertainments. This is a natural side-effect of getting older, but perhaps it’s not all in my head. Maybe we are living through uniquely disorienting times. This year I heard a more spiritual bent in my favorite records, something nervy and apocalyptic that craves refuge. But whether this reflects the general mood or my own needs, I cannot say.

Earth – Full Upon Her Burning Lips

Sargent House, 2019 | Bandcamp

Vintage slow-motion grind that lopes through America’s midnight parking lots, pool halls, and dead-end bars while finding occasional moments of beautiful light.

Chihei Hatakeyama – Forgotten Hill

Room 40, 2019 | Bandcamp

Perfect ambience that shimmers without being saccharine.

Dissemblance – Over the Sand

Mannequin, 2019 | Bandcamp

Jet black synthetics and blurred vocals like the echo of a 1980s new wave hit from that was once upbeat and fun but after three decades of psychosocial distortion, now only the skeleton remains.

Kali Malone – The Sacrificial Code

Ideal Recordings, 2019 | Bandcamp

The album I’ve returned to the most this winter. At first it sounds like a childhood memory of an old woman tuning the church organ before the service begins. Then it slowly reveals itself as an austere and dignified sanctuary for noisy and decadent times.

MMMD – Egoismo

Antifrost, 2019 | Bandcamp

Hymnal chanting, cello, and drone from Greece that feels like an existential shiver in church.

Monokultur – LP

2019 | Bandcamp

A sprawling record that stitches together detuned weirdness, pastoral ambience, and icy Swedish vocals that conjure images of dead rock-and-rollers with cigarettes bouncing on their lips while guitars screech and purr at the margins.

Rafael Anton Irisarri – Solastalgia

Room 40, 2019 | Bandcamp

Symphonic ambience that sounds like an elegy for snow fields and decaying glaciers—and it introduced me to the defining word for the next decade: solastalgia, the mental or existential distress caused by environmental change.

Topdown Dialectic – Vol. 2

Peak Oil, 2019 | Bandcamp

A welcome return to the anonymous mythos of techno when mysterious transmissions appeared on white labels without context, origin, or reference point. These eight unnamed tracks from an unknown source rework the best elements of the genre for stranger days.

Vatican Shadow – American Flesh for Violence

Hospital Productions, 2019 | Bandcamp

An exercise in grainy drums and haunted tones with bombastic titles that increasingly sound less like paranoid conspiracy and more like reality. Throughout the year, Dominick Fernow has been steadily reissuing cassettes from his Vatican Shadow project, and with titles like Media in the Service of Terror, Oklahoma Military Academy, and Rubbish of the Floodwaters, this feels like the logical soundtrack for the final seasons of America.

Sunn O))) – Life Metal / Pyroclasts

Southern Lord, 2019 | Bandcamp

A spartan workhorse built from slow-motion guitars that feel like they’re holding the world together even when everything feels like it’s falling apart.

Alessandro Cortini – Volume Massimo

Mute, 2019 | Boomkat | Spotify

Sleek synthesizers that swerve, glide, and snarl before opening up into something utterly cinematic that left me thinking about making a cognitive leap into the future.

Spotify playlist; see also 2018 Rotation.

Trailer for Light the Barricades (30 seconds)

A preview trailer for Light the Barricades, a series of electrified shrines across Los Angeles that Candy Chang and I created as part of the exhibit Walls: Defend, Divide, and the Divine at the Annenberg Space for Photography.

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