jaser / lægo – Andy Sewell’s Known and Strange Things Pass
I always thought I was not the right person to write about Andy Sewell’s work, particularly about his latest book, Known and Strange Things Pass. I felt way too involved. I have had the privilege of witnessing the work’s evolution, its many versions, sequences, the appearance of a design – a scattered mind map, a hint of a detail on an empty space, the relay of a signal. I have talked about it with him, in person and online, via video chat and emails, and a few sms too. When I finally had the book, in its final form, in my hands, I knew what to expect. I knew what was inside, and I thought – that knowledge takes away something, that knowledge does not allow for the necessary distance. I was curious of how he would have solved a few enigmas, but other than that, I knew its heartbeat already. I did not feel distant enough. Funny though, because distance is in a way all this work is about, in its slightly distorted and pulsating core beat.
The very real, physical and aseptic medium that carries all the bytes and beeps, frequencies and codes, letters and pictures, voices and faces, music and movies flowing between the two shores is made of optical fibres entangled together, circuits, more cables, transformers. Such a solid image, for such a fragile and volatile idea – very anti-climactic to imagine in its reality.
The subject of Known and Strange Things Pass is cables, specifically the transatlantic cable connection that allows and regulates communications between the UK and the northern part of the American continent. The images document its existence, and the many narratives it implies and allows. The very real, physical and aseptic medium that carries all the bytes and beeps, frequencies and codes, letters and pictures, voices and faces, music and movies flowing between the two shores is made of optical fibres entangled together, circuits, more cables, transformers. Such a solid image, for such a fragile and volatile idea – very anti-climactic to imagine in its reality. The most beautiful love letter, the most heartbreaking last goodbye to a loved one trapped under an oxygen mask in a foreign hospital room, a stock exchange transaction, a birth announcement, a meeting that could definitely be an email, an email that could definitely have been avoided – all entrusted in running together at unimaginable, science fiction speed through a skein of hundreds of thousands threads, insulated in thick plastic, laying at the bottom of the ocean, most probably encrusted with all sorts of organic, deep sea creatures. I wonder if the creatures feel all those vibes, their usefulness, uselessness and emotional baggage too. I wonder if they feel the need to detox from it all. Of course they do.
But we do not really see all of this in Sewell’s work. We can only perceive it, guess it. It’s more of an intuition. Strange thing is, if we were to travel down to that cable, and be able to listen, we would probably only perceive a buzz, maybe something similar to what can be perceived inside a server room. Things around would be calm, in the darkness of the ocean’s depths. At the surface though, things would be very different. The ocean is the protagonist here. Its endless, syncopated tide rhythm is the only thing we can actually see, potent metaphor of the constant relay of memories, stories, feelings, emotions, lives – data, as they are called nowadays – we send and receive, back and forth, on its shores. And at the surface, in the ocean, by the shore, there’s so many things to see, and to hear. There’s waves crashing, kids swimming, birds screaming, love happening, more waves crashing, a kid stopping and now smiling, a couple is breaking up, a baby’s nappy must be changed, sunscreen must be applied. Ice cream must be eaten. More waves.
I remember one specific version of this body of work, the first in which what would be the key design elements for the book appeared – the fragmented pages, the empty space in between the images. These pages are key in the book, as they are the ones that allow the viewer to perceive what is not there, what cannot be pictured. Indeed, Eugenie Shinkle, in her essay accompanying the book, suggests that Andy Sewell adds with his body of work a chapter in the conversation on picturing the invisible, and I agree. He does so by making use of the missing parts. The empty space. The glitchy space, the non linear sequences forcing us to go back again, to look again, more carefully. An ode to the non-linearity of time. What happened there? Is this the same picture I have already seen? I remember loving those first sketches where only fragments could be seen, corners of the images pushed at the limits of the visual field and beyond, a feeling like abruptly zoom focussing inside a giant visual mind map, drawn down to the bottom level, the one where the fibres of matter can finally be seen – at the cost of losing the bigger picture. What matters is always hidden in the details – be it godly or devilish, it does not really matter.
When seeing that early dummy, going through its pages, I did perceive for the first time the music of the book, its soundtrack. I somehow always felt that Andy’s photography possesses a very strong narrative capacity, but a silent one. His images are very often the white space between two words, the moment of turning a page within a story, what happens while blinking. With Known and Strange Things Pass he extends this trait, this quality, to the whole book, in an enhanced way compared to previous works. There is a consistency in it, in all its parts, that is very successful in creating harmony within a set of otherwise dissonant elements. And this, for me, creates music. I admittedly have a very physical relation and reactions to photobooks – how their paper feels on the hand, what their smell is, the weight, the size. It is part of that fundamental bodily experience that we take for granted when we visit an exhibition, but which becomes more subtle, more intimate and distilled with photobooks. So that day I thought of a specific track of a specific record, I shared it with Andy, and since then it has been the soundtrack playing in my mind whenever I go through the pages. It still is now, with the book in its final form. It plays in my head when I would think of the pictures. Needless to say, I am listening to it now typing these words. It’s something defined as free/improv instrumental rock, with tons of electronics. TONS. It has a careful balance of a solid, yet syncopated baseline with strong, brief interventions, creating in my mind the perfect soundscape to enter the specific, carefully elaborated sequencing of the book. This book is one of those rare examples in which the design is inseparable from the images – yet they are not in sync, as each follows its own baseline. As if reproducing the myriad of storylines going through each given moment through each fibre of that underwater cable, different narratives chase each other and play in relay through the pages. Their different rhythms are coexisting, as if for a fleeting moment we were able to see all at once, to feel all at once, to move as quickly through all of this information. At times, only when really needed, a moment of calm allows us to take a breath, contemplate the moment. But it is fleeting, for the waves bring us further again, and backwards, and away.
There is one storyline in the book which I call the maintenance in my very personal, way too involved relation with the book. It is made by the images in which we perceive human hands taking care of all this. All this technology we developed and set in place to be able to fill that distance, regulate and dissolve it, dilute the sense of absence and solitude that plagues us since the beginning of time, requires care. It was once created, and we all use it, abuse it, benefit and suffer from it constantly and never really think about it, not least taking into account the amount of care it requires. These hands are responsible for us not getting lost, for us being able to fill the void. This void, a literary, intellectual exercise in our hyperconnected contemporaneity, all of a sudden changed drastically with the Covid 19 pandemic. It became an abyss, with us looking straight into it. Andy’s images, even if specifically related to the transatlantic connections, easily became for me a metaphor for all connections. They became a memory of a time when things were easier, as easy as being near someone unknown on a beach. But also an uncanny prediction, an imaginary connection with and of all places, all people, all loved ones in the endless stream of video and audio calls, social feeds, instant messages, daily bulletins, contagion rates, death rates, spread percentages, bad politics and even worse politicians, broken hearts and all the missed memories our scattered new normal is made of. Even that requires care, for that to happen.
Andy’s images, even if specifically related to the transatlantic connections, easily became for me a metaphor for all connections.
When finally writing these pages – which had many different formulations, went through different stages, add ons and afterthoughts, I did manage to come to terms (mostly) with my lack-of-distance anxiety. All I had to do, as with most things these days I must say, was to unlearn all I knew about the book. Leave behind both foundations and superstructure, and focus on the experience. Try to put my neural connection in unexplainable touch with these cable fibres, the waves, the stories, the hands, a kid’s laugh, the waves. The tide. The care. Have the experience inform the intellect, and see if photography can be read that way too. If this can be a way to talk about it. So I did it, and halfway through the book a very distinct music came to mind. Oddly familiar.