Image: 'Distortions in Spacetime' by Marshmallow Laser Feast (currently on show in NXT Museum in Amsterdam). The work reflects on the force that comes with an explosion of a star that creates this dark shadow and also spews out a supernova explosion of matter that can eventually coalesce to form planets, plants and people. In Distortions in Spacetime, visitors will see themselves reflected in this matter and will begin to understand the cosmic connection between black holes, dying stars and our very existence.
For a series Infinity Essays, STRP invited artists from her network to reflect on this year's theme (The end of infinity) and explore other perspectives, raise new questions, give personal interpretations or share ideas. Read the next essay by musician Kieran Brunt below!
Existential dread is a theme I find myself returning to constantly in my work. I was brought up Christian, reassured by the invisible presence of a God who loved me and the promise of a peaceful repose in heaven when I die. It was only in school philosophy classes that I began to question the watertightness of it all: the Old Testament was written by how many different people? Freud’s explanation of religion was what? You’re right: what about the dinosaurs?
I came to suspect that while its popularity is understandable, the belief that it will all be fine is too convenient for me. I’ve leaned ever since towards the opinion that this mortal coil, whatever it may be, is maybe, probably, unfortunately, it. But when the dread temporarily abates, I do still find myself sometimes wondering...
On being presented with ‘The End of Infinity’ as a concept upon which to base new musical work, I leapt at the opportunity to interrogate some of these haphazard existential musings. My collaborators were kind enough to agree to join me on this journey, albeit while expressing distaste for my initial proposed title, ‘Mortal Songs’. Following a little back and forth we agreed it would be simplest to name the piece after the theme itself, and thus ‘The End of Infinity’ began.
Our compositional starting point was a hypothesis: in order to reframe our understanding of the delicate ecosystem we cohabit, we need to acknowledge the fragility of our place within it. One way of doing that is to ask ourselves the uncomfortable questions about mortality. If we can come to terms with the fact that our presence in the universe probably isn’t infinite, and that the end of human life, thought, sentience, you name it, could occur much sooner than we assume, then we might stop abusing our planet.
The idea that 21st-century human consciousness is underpinned by a belief, often unexpressed, that it is never-ending, is fascinating and I think quite possibly true. But is our invincibility complex baked into our core psychology, or is it a culturally imposed condition? For those of us who live in a Christian or post-Christian country, the cultural hangover of centuries of Christian ideology undoubtedly plays a role. Religious concepts and institutions remain extant in our daily lives, and we still plan our yearly journeys around the sun based on Christian holidays and celebrations. The ritual of marriage, whose patriarchal and misogynistic associations ought to set it at odds with contemporary thinking, remains as central as ever, likewise funerals, baptisms and so on. Is it possible that the surface-level secularisation of these events is not quite as wholehearted as we think it is? Do we harbour secret beliefs while we tell ourselves they’re just good excuses to throw a party?
Another possibility is that our eco-arrogance is a darkly ironic consequence of a Darwinian evolutionary drive. Perhaps we assume that we are infinite because our proliferation on earth requires it. If so, it’s a worrying prospect: global capitalism seems an untrustworthy machine with which to figure out how to mediate the impulse to grow, expand and procreate indefinitely. And filling the earth and multiplying, in the age of Jeff Bezos and Prime Now, seems to be still very much at the top of the agenda.
I have always marvelled at the nonchalance with which humans are able to disregard the spectres of mortal threat that haunt our daily lives. Privilege obviously plays an important part in determining our levels of exposure, but it’s worth reminding ourselves, from time to time, that literally everybody goes about their lives in the shadow of at least some degree of ever-present danger, whether it’s illness, crime, war or acts of God. Any number of awful things could happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. We are therefore constantly aware, whether consciously or unconsciously, of threat and danger, and have developed ways of rationalising or ignoring our fears in order to go about our daily lives. For whom would be able to function in the 21st century if they dwelled too much on the ways they could be harmed today or tomorrow? Indeed, those who do – and I speak from experience – are often classed as mentally ill.
Returning to the theme of ecocide, and with this in mind, is it possible that ignoring the catastrophic fate we’re hurtling towards is crucial to our survival? At least in the immediate term? Do we all know, deep down, that the end is nigh, and just ... try not to think about it?
We are all, after all, all going to die at some point. I think we have an unhealthy relationship with death in the West, and often wonder what impact this has on how we live our lives. It seems faintly ridiculous to me that every time a public figure in their 70s or 80s dies, news and social media channels are flooded with outpourings of ‘So sad to hear...’ and ‘Such a great loss, RIP’. Being successful or influential doesn’t make you immortal – at least yet – and these reactions suggest that a death of any kind is inherently tragic. We have much to learn from cultures like the (trigger warning: not for the faint-hearted!) Torajan population of Indonesia who quite literally live with their dead, preserving their bodies and exhuming them ritualistically as a way of celebrating memory and acknowledging the grand conclusion that awaits us all. We’re a seriously long way from that level of reconciliation here in the UK. A first step might be to talk, just a little, about how we feel when we think about death.
Or alternatively, may I warmly invite you to attend a performance of our new song cycle, ‘The End of Infinity’. Our aim is to guide you gently through the subject of mortality via the medium of song and instrumental interludes. We have tried not to shy away from difficult and uneasy topics, as you have probably already gathered, and will sing stories that touch upon religion, death, suicide, violence, dementia, greed, addiction, childbirth, beauty, life, hope and much, much more. While our intentions are serious, we have tried to keep it from becoming too gloomy, and there’s even a sprinkling of humour here and there. Just like life. And death, perhaps, too?