In Kaffibarinn, a dark, wood-paneled bar in Reykjavik filled with Scandinavians sipping on artisanal beers, looking impossibly cool, I asked singer Damien Rice if he was a hoarder of digital junk.
“Yes,” he replied without hesitating. “It’s not just photos and sound samples, it’s hundreds of videos I’ll probably never look at again or show another soul.” Rice told me that one day he’ll enlist the services of an AI who will clean out his hard drives, disposing of what is insignificant or inane, a robot entrusted with his most intimate memories.
“You trust an AI with all of that when you don’t even trust an assistant to choose what kind of sound sample to put in your next song?” I asked him. “That’s messed up.”
He shrugged before telling me about a new portable hard drive called T5 that had next level data transfer speed and fit into the palm of your hand. The person beside me was talking about jpegs, RAM, data storage.
“What kind of memory are you trying to get rid of?” she asked.
I didn’t answer.
I was thinking of failed relationships, sagging breasts, the malaise of middle age. I hadn’t admitted it to anyone, but I’d traveled half away across the world with a kind of drastic escapist plan in mind. I harbored the hope that taking a plane to the volcanic island would help me with the forgetting process and catapult me out of my depressive state. Forget exactly what, I couldn’t say.
I was still awake at 2:23 am, leafing through John Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), published by Siglio Press. Iceland was perfect for insomniacs like me because the sun never set, the sun never rose, my friends never slept and neither did I. But instead of bar-hopping I was poring over the nine-part edition of Cage’s writings.
CXIX. No need to move the camera.
(Pictures come to it.). Gather, Fuller
advises, facts regarding human needs and
world resources. Place in computer
memory bank. Update continuously.
The excerpt was from his 1969 diary, years before personal computers were sold commercially. Cage himself wrote on an IBM Selectric typewriter; the diaries I was reading spanned over 150 pages of center-justified text printed in various typefaces that traversed topics that included but were not limited to fungi, serialism, flower arrangement, politics, Thoreau at 22, Duchamp, airline representatives, Iceland, Hollywood, toilet paper, Virgin Mary, the automobile industry, and the Vietnam war. He recounted conversations with his friends R. Buckminster Fuller, Margaret Mead, Marshall McLuhan. He employed chance operations to determine the length of each line, number of entries, and the formatting of the text—a seemingly random archive of his mental process.
“Place in computer memory bank,” Cage wrote, though he wouldn’t own a computer for many years.
After returning from Kaffibarinn, unable to sleep, I scrolled through the Instagram feed on my phone. I was lying in bed, the white night bathing my eyelids. An ex-lover had posted a picture of a mangled hard drive that looked like it had been punctured by a steak knife then trampled on by an elephant; its silver insides were exposed to the sun. The caption said: “only way to be sure.”I hadn’t admitted it to anyone, but I’d traveled half away across the world with a drastic escapist plan in mind. I harbored the hope that taking a plane to the volcanic island would help me with the forgetting process.
Only way to be sure the digital history was obliterated, only way to be sure that the memory was eradicated and unretrievable.
Only way to be sure I forget you, I thought, thinking about the last time we met.
We were standing on a sidewalk in Brooklyn. Was it raining or did I only remember it that way? My cheeks were wet; I could smell the azaleas in the after rain. I kept wondering what I could have done differently, as if life was merely a series of turns with endless iterations; if I had just taken a different train or worn the orange hat, would the outcome still be the same? Were there other versions of the same person living out happier alternatives? The truth was I’d already intuited they’d been seeing other people, I just couldn’t convince myself that what we had could be discarded so easily.
I love you, but it will pass, I said, not sure if I’d spoken out loud or just imagined it. As I lifted my head from their shoulder I saw a black smudge on their shirt; tears or mascara? When I looked up at them their eyes were squeezed tightly shut.
How long do memories last? How many years until they lose their power over us, until they fade into a black and white scrim of film stills that is only a residue of the original image?
I carried the Cage book around Reykjavik, stopping often in half-empty coffee shops to read, using my own primitive chance operation to open Cage’s diary to a random page and place my index finger on the text.
We started from scratch: sound, silence, time, activity, I read
The mind, like a computer, produces a print-out. It’s on the palms of our hands.
In his 1965 introduction, Cage described his diary as “a mosaic of ideas, statements, words, and stories,” disparate elements brought together in a kind of visual word collage. Cage used I Ching-type chance operations to determine the number of words per entry, typography, indentation.
It took six weeks to teach the
computer how to toss three coins six
times. Somewhat worried, I tossed coins
manually to discover from the
I Ching how I Ching felt about being
programmed. It was delighted.
This idea of “teaching” a computer chance operations was intriguing, a kind of counterintuitive way of machine learning. Could a computer be taught to edit our virtual memories, our modern day archives and the receptacles for thousands of photos, sound samples, snippets of text?
On my phone there was a snapshot of the raging waters of Gullfoss, 4900 cubic units per second cascading into a crevice 32 meters deep. There was a video of a baby geyser, gurgling up out of the red earth. I swiped to a photo of me lying in a lava field beside the cold, lashing ocean. Every surface inch of my body was pressed against the stone, which I remember was tea-warm, even though the Arctic air was slow and cool, even if the magma had spewed out of a hot volcano thousands of years before I was born.
My Icelandic friend and I had taken the day to drive into the countryside. The landscape was so improbably breath-taking that I questioned if we’d entered some kind of alternate ether universe. It was somehow laughable that endless lava fields and hidden green lagoons existed so close to the city. I sat in the passenger seat, stunned into silence by the effortless beauty of it all. Perhaps that is why in all of the videos I could only hear the voice of my friend, who talked so much that day—speaking so guilelessly about his childhood and current emotional state—that when we returned to Reykjavik he seemed exhausted. He said as much to me when we sat in his music studio later, playing with the cats: “I’ve never spoken of those things before, I feel terribly exposed.”
In the windowed studio, one block from the sea, we played music for each other and I read out loud from the Cage book, a cat nestled at my feet.
We’d known each other for twenty years, both having moved to Manhattan the year before 9/11—me from rural Canada and him from Reykjavik via Brussels. We recalled the day the planes fell out of the sky, how we were herded into the school concert hall and not allowed to leave. Together we watched on the screen when the towers collapsed, one after the other.
We spoke about mutual friends, the Upper West Side bars we once frequented. Our memories matched, but something occurred to me as we shared anecdotes about our early New York adventures: we’d never really spent time together, even though we attended the same school.
“But how is that possible, how do we know each other now? Do you remember when we met?” he asked.
“I don’t. Can you?”
He shook his head.
“We are present at the same event, but we notice different things.”
Was it social media, a virtual archive of all our life events—children’s births, important performances, publications, world travels—that deceived us into thinking we were privy to each other’s lives even if we had seen each other only twice in the past ten years? I thought of Cage’s prescience in his diaries when it came to the complexities of technology in the 21st century. “We need an utterly wireless technology,” he wrote almost 30 years before the Internet. “Add video screen to telephone. Give each subscriber a thousand sheets of recordable erasable material so anytime, anywhere, anyone would have access to a thousand sheets of something (drawings, books, music, whatever).” Before the advent of portable hard drives he was predicting our memory banks, Facetime and Skype, the thousands of digital artifacts clogging our iClouds and iPhones. Memories, deconstructed into data, that we had access to with the swipe of an index finger on a black screen.
Susan Howe, on archives: “If you are a woman, archives hold perpetual ironies. Because the gaps and silences are where you find yourself. . . .’The stutter is the plot.’ It’s the stutter in American literature that interests me. I hear the stutter as a sounding of uncertainty. What is silenced or not quite silenced. All the broken dreams.”
No, I didn’t admit it to anyone beforehand, but I had come to Iceland for a kind of purging, an emptying of the archives, so to speak. Hoping somehow that transporting myself to a different time zone and continent would flush the longing from my skin. But my depression was wild; it had sprouted an appetite. When the memories flooded back, the desire came like a shock, an instant flowering. It was like a dormant volcano that could spew with no prior warning. My friend told me that Hekla, Iceland’s most active volcano, was years behind schedule and could begin to erupt at any time. He told me that once the seismologists gave warning, you had thirty minutes to get off the mountain.
Do you want to climb the volcano still? he asked.
We drove up into the Highlands, gravel roads that, because of the weather, were only open a few months of the year. At midnight, we hiked past copper-colored stream beds and crystalline waterfalls edged by thick rinds of igneous rock. There were endless fields of blue lupine, lichen-covered paths that looked like paths but led nowhere. The beauty was paralyzing; for many hours we didn’t see another soul. We could see the Langjökull glacier in the distance, one of the largest glaciers in Iceland; it was glowing violet beneath the midnight light. I imagined it taking the curvature of the planet, the white sea of sky and space overhead. I wanted to hike to it, knowing that it would be gone soon. Often my friend and I walked separately, far apart from each other. In a photo he showed me later, I was barely a dark speck against the white orb of the midnight sun.
All day we’d been talking about ascending the volcano, but by the time we saw Hekla in the distance, it was past 1 am and my desire to climb it had disappeared.
Before coming to Iceland, I’d versed myself in its music. Olafur Arnalds’ album re:member became my soundtrack to reading the Cage book; Arnalds’ music seemed to me a kind of evolution of Cage’s own aesthetic, the assembling of both live and computer-borne instruments, including two self-playing, semi generative player pianos controlled by software. The rush of strings was complemented by glowing synth tracks, the melding of analog and acoustic produced a sonic complexity that probably wouldn’t have been possible without Cage’s early experiments.
Re:member. As if the practice of remembering was a constant repeating. Member, from Latin membrum “limb, member of the body, part,” from root mems “flesh, meat.” Source also of Sanskrit mamsam “flesh;” Greek meninx “membrane,” mēros “thigh” (the “fleshy part”). Also “the sex organ,” from Latin membrum virile, but in English originally of women as well as men.
Re:member. As if the meaning of memory was the body replaying the places touched, or untouched.
The next day when I was in Kaffibrennslan—a tiny coffee spot on Laugevegur that became my favorite writing spot—it occurred to me that libraries and archives were another type of untouched wilderness. And that memory, or the calling up of certain memories, was a meandering of self-observation through the subconscious life of the mind. Like Cage’s diaries, an organic and revelatory journey through his memories, a “rending of the flux of the social world welling up into thought.” I realized that I gravitated towards Cage’s writings because I was tired of tidy narratives and expected endings. I wanted a text that tumbled down the page midstream, never arriving at a full stop.
“For me, [re:member] means the opposite of dismemberment—to become yourself again, to become a member of yourself. . . .”
Later, completely by chance, my friend and I ran into Arnalds in a restaurant a stone’s throw from the sea. He introduced me to the composer and we took a table outside, watching the tourists stroll by. At another table a couple stole kisses while a stray cat meandered between their legs. We ate white fish soaked in caper juice and I sipped on a glass of white wine, the smoke from my friend’s cigarette lingering in the air before it disappeared.
“I don’t recall the person I was twenty years ago, do you?” my friend asked. “I don’t even remember the names of ex-girlfriends.”
“You remember 9/11. Do you remember that once we met in Brussels, after a concert?”
He shook his head, and I laughed.
“I began this part of the diary during the Nixon administration, but did not complete it until recently. Like many other optimists I was struck dumb by the course of current events. . . .Each day has at least one hundred words and two entries. The number of words in each entry (between one and sixty-four) is chance determined. Sometimes a day has five or six entries. The result is a mosaic of remarks, the juxtapositions of which are free of intention.”
–John Cage diaries 1973-1982
On one of the last days my friend and I drove the coastline, stopping every so often to take photos and wander through gas-emitting mineral springs. We trespassed on private land owned by the Reykjanes power plant because he knew of hot tide pools next to the Atlantic where we could swim. When we got out of the car I let my feet sink into the black sand, skipping through the tall grass towards the lagoon. I was very happy; happier than I’d been in a long time.
Afterwards we drove through Thingvellir National Park to Reykjavik listening to “Stars,” by Nina Simone:
I was never one for singing what I really feel
Except tonight I’m bringing everything I know that’s real
Stars, they come and go, they come fast or slow
They go like the last light of the sun, all in a blaze
In the car later, there was an uncharacteristic silence between us. I considered telling my friend about the person I was trying to forget, but fell short. What an honest, uncomplicated friendship you and I have, I wanted to tell him, but was unable to say anything. Perhaps because of our time immersed in nature, dozing beneath the dim stars, I felt very open, a sense of vulnerability creeping up inside.
When we got back to Reykjavik, I walked around the city one of the last times, buying small things like a box of birch-smoked salt and a silly, sky-blue hat. I strolled towards the cathedral and squinted up into the light, snapping a photo on my phone. My friend went to visit his mother and I made my way to Kaffibrennslan to write. We texted photos to each other when we are apart.
Nothing is uncomplicated, at least not to both parties, I imagined Cage writing. When I went to visit my friend later in his music studio, I recorded the Aria of the Goldberg Variations on his felted piano. He scribbled in a little brown book, wandering in and out of the room as I played. I was leaving in the morning. Afterwards we sat in the courtyard, saying little. There was something fragile about him, I realized. I had the sense that if I reached out my hand he would splinter into a hundred pieces.
“I’m tired, I think I’ll head to bed,” he said.
What time was it? The entire time I was Iceland I had no idea what day or hour it was. Was it because time as a continuum ceased to exist so close to the Arctic circle? Time felt non-linear somehow, everything occurring nonchronologically; my memories were so enmeshed with the present that I was never sure of the order of what I remembered. Time a flat circle. White nights, the sky forever filled of unfiltered light.
I walked and walked. It was nearly midnight but it never became completely dark. I wandered down to Reykjavik’s famous harbor, an endless palette of blue, the theatre of low clouds hovering close to the waters. The glass panes on Harpa concert hall, which sat on the edge of the water, changed colors as I walked towards it. I remembered a phrase I read but couldn’t recall the exact words: Time a cloud the sky a seam that opens every ten years, at dawn the sky becomes a mouth cracking open as birds fall out of the sky. I was sure that I remembered the quote incorrectly.
Had I loved, had I spoken of love, or was it simply my memory playing tricks on me?
“There’s no satisfactory answer, wrote Hanif Abdurraqib, “the idea of falling in love over and over again within an endless loop of uncertainty. Sometimes, it isn’t even the person you’re falling in love with, just the uncertainty itself.”
I watched tufts of white cottongrass float through space in a hypnotic slow motion, at times they hardly appeared to move. For a moment, even if it was summer, I thought it was snow.
That night, a random memory:
“I went to a forgetting doctor,” the woman told me. We we were eating burgers and fries in a Soho restaurant; my meal was all over my face. “You’re a messy eater,” she added.
“Not to forget everything, only useless information like numbers. Millions of numbers and equations, which are clogging all the space in my brain,” she said.
“No, it’s not possible,” I answered, looking up as she wiped ketchup from my chin.
Finally I fell asleep, clutching the Cage diaries in my hands. I dreamt of my ex-lover. I couldn’t remember the particulars, only that they were speaking to me in their measured, musical voice and I was listening to them. The two of us, talking softly to each other. But then in the morning the dream came to me.
We were cooking aubergines in my childhood home.
Come to bed, I told them. I couldn’t see their face, it was engulfed in the square dark of the oven. We had burnt the aubergines. Come to bed, I pleaded.
First we have to clean the oven, they answered.
It was a comfort to hear their voice in my dreams. When I woke I felt soothed, it was not so difficult to wake as before.
“If your head’s in the clouds keep your feet on the ground. If feet’er on the ground, keep your head in the clouds.”
Back home. I looked at the clock.
Because the sun never rose and the sun never set in Iceland, I was never aware of what time of day or night it was. Time a flat circle, the past and present in a continuous dance, never sure if they would meet again.
Is it true, John Cage, that there is “a way of writing which comes from ideas, is not about them, but which produces them?” Perhaps it wasn’t the lava fields in Iceland that did the healing, but the writing of them, the unpredictable way that memories seeped into the bloodstream and were transformed into text, a convoluted wandering over a narrative field, punctuated by randomness.
“Back home,” wrote Cage. “Ninety six degrees: city’s hydrants opened so those who wish may cool off in the streets.”
There was a heat wave in Manhattan. I took screen shots of the temperatures in the cities I’d been, dreaming of cooler weather. What was it that Damien Rice told me? That one day there would be an AI who would clean out the memory banks, keeping what mattered, and deleting the rest forever.
“Why did you come to Iceland?” I asked Rice.
“Because it’s like no other place in the world, but it reminds me of home,” he said.
I’m still waiting for the AI to clean out my hard drives, but until then the memories keep accumulating, whether or not I remember them correctly.
First we have to clean the oven, you said.
Hekla, lupines, lava field. The world, blue at its edges and in its depths.
“I’m learning to take care of myself,” wrote Cage. “It has taken a long time.”