“Je suis le petit chevalier/ Avec le ciel dessus mes yeux…/ Avec la terre dessous mes pieds,” sang Nico’s son Ari on her seminal 1970 album Desertshore. Ari, who must have been all of three or four at the time, would later attempt to sell Nico’s leftover methadone at her funeral (at least according to James Young). And that juxtaposition tells you a part of what you need to know about this album (for more on parts and/as w/holes, stay tuned). Desertshore can be read as a companion to Philippe Garrel’s film La Cicatrice Intérieure, the interior scar, the closed gash — but the wound, and its healing, also represents the body’s openness to the exterior, the rejection of a paranoid and fascist boundedness and homogeneity that encompasses the fear of penetration and of leakage. The healing process speaks to resilience, but it also, ironically, cuts off the possibilities of interchange and the expansion of the subject beyond the bounds of modernist and Cartesian rationality — of Donna Haraway’s (and, speaking of the sexualized wound, Bruce LaBruce’s) “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries.”
Brussels-based Félicia Atkinson, prolificist, visual artist, and sound sculptress extraordinaire, has been working as Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier, as well as under her own name, for some time now, but An Age Of Wonder brings her art to its pinnacle, as well as bringing to a horizon (between zenith and nadir) the reconciliating suture joining the ambient violence of recent pieces such as L’Enfant Sauvage’s “No Talisman” and Atkinson’s gentler tendencies. The press release tells us that the album is “[i]nspired by the Amish Community, the northern wisconsin sunsets and the indian summer in Belgium… filled with golden summer hazes, voluptuous thoughts, and august storms.” To the ears of this listener, however, there’s something a little darker here — more akin to the storm of Giorgione’s La Tempesta, but with our own near-decaying skyscrapers (grattacieli, an almost painful term) rearing in the background.
Speaking of ears, we might recall Marshall McLuhan’s definition of aurality and its “acoustic space”: sans center or margin, organic and integral, synaesthetic. McLuhan, in the 1960s, thought that this was the space of tribal societies in the era before the alphabet, but we might think of this state, in the present moment, as the experience of Haraway’s perverse and subversive hu-man-imal “in space… wary of holism, but needy for connection,” for visitation privileges.
Speech, for McLuhan, was an outering of the senses, and Atkinson describes her work as “being in translation, searching for an unknown meaning.” What if, in the post- or post-postmodern era, we consider the creation and distribution of sound as a speech act in itself? Atkinson, after all, identifies her process as a turning away from an immersion in media, which is also a re-turning toward a state of fiction. Will our synaesthetic senses form the healing, but not yet healed, wound-scarification in which we are retribalized, in which we may resist the tyranny of reason without a reductionist, Manichaean recourse to its Other? Goddess may be dead as well as God, and Atkinson’s music may be diversely gender-neutral as well as feminine; but with such a prophetess, initiation itself would be (alinear) progress.
While being careful with the tribal metaphor (as stock in trade of Western colonialist stereotypes), we might recall (as Atkinson herself does) the spirit animal, and with it our own animality, the fleshy aspect of our cyborg nature that should nonetheless not be considered dual; the ghost is the shell. This is a tradition that, contrary to popular stereotype, has deep roots not only for peoples who were colonized, but also in European history — in the Norse fylgja — and in our own pets, slaves of benevolence, little household deities become dependent in God’s absence. Another recent release, under Atkinson’s own name, is entitled On Being Kind To Horses; but what is a knight without spurs, a knight who is kind? A knight in white satin? There is a Medieval quality, a Germanic gothicism to this figure, and also a quality of the landscape — of a figure in a landscape — with which Atkinson’s work is very much concerned, both texturally and in her own statements and nomenclature.
But to return to our hero: When we think of the petit chevalier, the little knight, we might think not only of Nico, but also of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s much-beloved Little Prince. Like Ari’s knight, the prince finds himself with the sky in his eyes and the ground beneath his feet, but tenuously, tenuously… A proto-cyborg who was not born in the Garden, his liminality is that of the wanderer from asteroid to asteroid, of the devouring baobab, of the death inherent in seriality and repetition (both in his serial odyssey itself and in the figure of the business man) — and, ultimately, physical death itself. Here there’s a sense of ominousness or overshadowing that pervades An Age Of Wonder, somehow intertwined with a pragmatic or resigned melancholy (“Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms/ Alone and palely loitering?”)
And so onward… The two 20-minute-ish tracks that make up the album each represents internal evolutions, but never evolution as progress — that is, never evolution as Social Darwinism, the ascendance to a higher form, a human form, followed by the superhuman. No Übermenschen — instead, we remain, “material and opaque,” in the realm of the techno-primordial polar forest. Album opener “Fever Dunes” shifts from blurred vocals to insistent yet somehow twinkling chimes, a paradoxical combination of lullaby and wakeup call, before resolving into an ominous rumble and cavernous rush in the heart of which a dull, fearful electronic pulse emerges. Subsequently, Nico’s frozen warnings (“close to the frozen borderline”) and Haraway’s frozen moments, shattering, are embodied (or implanted?) in “The First Forest,” in which icy tones shift and merge into what is almost, but never quite, a lumbering metallic screech, a soughing, howling wind — baby, it’s cold inside — grating yet sensual biofeedback. There is a merging of the organic and electronic — a rejection of the organism/machine border war — that allows us to characterize An Age of Wonder as a refugium, a psychic Lost World. In another paradox, it is the Irenic colonisation of this world — the Cold War stage of the conflict over “the territories of production, reproduction, and imagination” — that is documented in Atkinson’s music.
Writing is the modal form of the document, and writing, argues Haraway, is “pre-eminently the technology of cyborgs.” But what can be documented — using this pleasurably imperfect medium-as-massage — in an online review, a double encounter and doubled mediation, a communication that is neither one-way nor interactive (“One is too few, but two are too many”)? Ari’s plaintive melody ends with the lines “J’irai te visiter/ J’irai te visiter.” An Age Of Wonder, though, is not solely a visit — the moment or duration of the encounter between subject and stranger — but a visitation.