the commute: S F Ho, jaye simpson, Helena Krobath
by Brynn McNab
the commute, a project commissioned by Arts Assembly’s Whitney Brennan long before the events of this year, is a series of three audio works. Originally meant to be listened to on each piece’s corresponding transit line in Vancouver, the works become more expansive than their original premise as the experience of commutes become distant. Listening to the works by S F Ho, jaye simpson, and Helena Krobath creates a double experience of space and time. The listener is in their own body and location, but also elsewhere, moving along distinct routes and timetables of another body.
The commute as a concept is travel structured around labour and falls into a category of peripheral unpaid time. This is what Henri Lefebvre called “constrained time,” which Kristin Ross summarizes as “the time of repeated formalities and obligations that, like the departmental cocktail party, are neither precisely work nor, in any real sense of the term, pleasure.” A shift from the labour body to the contemplative self occurs along familiar routes in these audio pieces. The body is lulled by this familiarity, and the mind takes us elsewhere. The passage is not a smooth transition, but a trading in, a compromise made to facilitate movement. This time, like the time of these audio works, is both ours and not ours.
Ho’s piece, Guts, deals with the commute as a perambulation of one’s own living space, and one’s own body, both of which are evidently compromised. They vocalize a parody of wellness and spirituality by applying the calm tone of inner peace to the lived discomfort of sickness. The cadence in the work is set by a breath, dragged across the soundscape in irregular intervals, distending time. In Guts, Ho directs the listener to attend to the “conditions of the unarticulated present,” through dense layers of simultaneous contradictions. The travel in the work is interior, and they insist that it is not empty. They emphasize a cyclic time that contains—and is contained by—other cycles: “Feel the material of the world move into your body and out again in a continuous circle […] these visceral cycles are a microcosm of the cycles of the universe.” Time in Guts is looped inside the body, but subject to the loops of the external world as well. It becomes that which heals and poisons, and is both interior to and external from the body at once. The work ends with a reversal exemplary of the complexity of the work, with the incantation “a body is a virus, and you are its host.”
simpson’s work, Migrational Memories, details their own experiences and orientation around the roadway Commercial Drive. The work begins with a mysterious gap in the migration of monarch butterflies, a displacement that is a part of their genetic memory. simpson’s voice is measured out by a three-tone piano refrain and breath with the rhythm of walking. The story moves up and down Commercial Drive with the frequency of the No. 20 bus. The narrative of memory is insistent on its gaps, what it avoids, with “open windows and doors,” and creates form from what is necessarily hidden. simpson’s writing knows the violence of replacing one thing with another, echoing the replacement of their name with their case file number. As the stories weave through movements between memories, the concepts of migration and displacement become netted together, necessary for either to be thought. The piece reminds me of another statement by Lefebvre on time, that “life is trapped in an intermediary zone between cyclic and rationalized linear time.” The spectral time of simpson’s ellipses slips out of this trap.
Krobath passes through various forms of complicit engagement in everyday exploitation by envisioning a ghost that inhabits the commuter trains of the West Coast Express. Titled Ghost Story Commute, this piece tells stories of the varied passengers on the long commute out of the city. The curiosity of the ghost is what drives the stories, as it passes through the lives of those aboard. There is an administrative efficiency to the violence of capital that runs along the tracks with the train and dissuades reproach. Krobath asks how the city’s organization impinges on those living in and around it. She questions what exists outside of our externally formed selves: “What is your spine made of? What do you think when you wake? When the light inside comes on? What owns you? What does a boot taste like? Or a knife? Have you tasted safety? Who built you?”
The encounter with these works is a layered experience, a passage from specificity of material circumstances to interior contemplation. The audio works generate their own interior space, in a trompe-l’oreille, and any encounters with the world while listening become an arbitrary coincidence. Lines of colonization, capital, and ableism trace over each other repetitively, making them difficult to untangle, but these works begin to tease them apart. Fundamentally, the audio pieces speak about the potential impossibility of an “end” given these conditions, but this conception is approached not with pessimism, but with a move toward a non-linear continuity. The repetition of our circles of life are inscribed more quickly these days, in smaller circles. They must become blurred or more precise, mush or infinite.