John Cowen

Artist & designer

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Echo

29 February 2020

Echo

I haven’t written anything about this drawing series for 18 months. I haven’t stopped working on them though, in fact — right now, I’m focussing on them more than ever. You can see all the works to-date. Or read more about background.

In adding them to the website it became time to give all the drawings names. The names all make allusions to the themes around climate breakdown, environment and modern society that have been concerning me in producing the work.

The drawing above I initially called ZOMBIE, but decided today to change that to ECHO.

I’ve been re-reading Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves. It’s a horror story, written as a factual account, about a house that changes shape (I’m not really doing the book justice with that synopsis — but it’s largely irrelevant to my own story here. Just go and read the book, for the typography as much as the plot). Chapter 5 of the book is slightly odd and delves into a lot of theoretical and philosophical musing about voice, sound and perceptions of reality. It also delves into ‘echo’.

I just love this description of what an echo can depict. In the case of the echo heard in a cathedral or concert hall, it can represent the sublime. A space large enough to be awe inspiring, but not so big as to be intimidating. However, if the echo takes too long to return we go to the realm of the horror story— it describes to the listener a more incomprehensible space, probably cold and dark — empty of any comforts. It makes you feel isolated, exposed and perhaps threatened.

It’s not by accident that choirs singing Psalms are most always recorded with ample reverb. Divinity seems defined by echo. Whether the Vienna Boys Choir or monks chanting away on some chart climbing CD, the hallowed always seems to abide in the province of the hollow. The reason for this is not too complex. An echo, while implying an enormity of a space, at the same time also defines it, limits it, and even temporarily inhabits it.

It got me thinking about how what we’re experiencing with climate breakdown is a kind of echo. Capitalism’s model of continual growth assumes the planet and its resources are essentially infinite. The whole capitalist model is based on more stuff being produced, shipped, sold and profited from year after year. We’ve been pumping out noise and pollution for decades assuming they will drift off, dissipate and never be heard from again. And that we can keep doing this for as long as we want.

Climate breakdown has shown this way of thinking to be wrong. It is the echo. It’s decades of our own pollution bouncing back to us in one very long, scary, echo.

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