Drone and Apocalypse: An Exhibit Catalog for the End of the World by Joanna Demers — Zosia Silarska

Demers’ Drone and Apocalypse is a sprawling and inventive meditation on the nature of apocalypse in contemporary art and music. It takes the form of an ‘exhibit catalogue’ pertaining to an exhibition staged in 2213 on the essays and artistic ideas of Cynthia Wey. The book variously focuses on drone music, film, philosophy, cynicism, list making and the apocalypse, which Wey, Demers’ invention and interlocutor, believed was imminent and foreshadowed in contemporary culture. While signs of the apocalypse have been seen throughout history, Demers identifies a new and emerging trend in contemporary culture.

The book begins with a prologue by Demers. It discusses drone music, clearly of both academic and emotional significance to the author, before setting out the author’s experimental approach for the book itself. I say clearly as despite a fairly wide experience of contemporary music, including electronic and dirge, drone music has always left me cold. Demers seems to enjoy the deliberately obtuse and challenging nature of this music, finding depths and complexities that have eluded me. Through the character of Cynthia Wey and an exhibition staged two hundred years from now, Demers creates distance from herself and her subject. This artifice is effective—Demers writes with more clarity and verve as Wey than she does in her own, more academic, voice.

The main part of the book is the exhibit catalogue. It includes a curator’s introduction which offers a pen portrait of Wey: a West Coast millennial, failed artist, diarist and administrator, convinced that in the early 2000s, the apocalypse was inevitable and fast approaching. For the curator of this fictional exhibition, Wey is a rediscovered visionary, valued for her insight into early 21st century culture. Her planned artworks have been recreated, both in the exhibition and here, through description, for the reader. These are possibly the weakest element of an otherwise interesting book. Even in exegesis, the works seem trite.

“Photojournalism of the Fall” contains the only visual representation of Wey’s ideas: photocollages by Sean Griffin. These fairly derivative images add little to the text. To complicate matters, Griffin is a composer and artist currently working in California. Introducing a contemporary figure to recreate Wey’s works for the purposes of a future exhibition is both rather confusing and has the effect of breaking the book’s fourth wall briefly. The imagery combines various found elements, following the well-trodden path of Pop and more recent collage art. There is a noticeable difference between Demers writing on music and visual art: a different book where Wey was recast as a failed contemporary composer may have allowed for more original works to be imagined, described and used.

Wey and the book are deeply concerned with the concept of apocalypse. Drone music, as created by Boards of Canada, Celer and others, is seen as one sign of this apocalyptic tendency. This music is comprised of slow building, wordless, repetitive, even discordant planes of sound. It defies conventional music, in the same way that apocalyptic art, with its deliberate focus on boredom and repetition, defies modernism. However, Demers and Wey avoid a specific definition of apocalyptic art. Instead, list making, classification, duplication, irony and cynicism are qualities which make up this apocalyptic tendency. Turning its back on even the reheated narratives of postmodernism, apocalyptic art represents a final taking-stock-of-things. Art is slowly, deliberately packing up and putting away, and then waiting patiently for the end.

While Demers focuses on drone music as apocalyptic art, these same traits can be found in JG Ballard’s The Drought (1965), a book concerned with environmental apocalypse. Although not mentioned in Drone and Apocalypse, it was this far earlier work that came to mind while reading Demers. In The Drought, Ransom and a band of survivors cope with a cataclysmic drought by hoarding depleting water stocks and heading to the coast. Unlike apocalyptic novels which begin or end with the moment of collapse, The Drought takes us beyond that moment, and embraces the boredom, tawdry tensions, repetition and waiting of those who have reached the literal end of their world. The final third of the book takes place on a crowded, ruined beach where people desalinate hard-won puddles of water while dreaming of salvation. The deliberate anti-climatic quality of The Drought seems to capture Demers’ own sense of the apocalypse. Wey echoes the character of Ransom, with both waiting for a final apocalypse which has both already happened and never will. While Ransom had his marooned boat and beach, Wey exists in the more recognisable space of contemporary California.

Demers provides some interesting historical background to the idea of the apocalypse—not an end, but an unveiling, a fundamental shift beyond human imagining. As such, and as with Ballard’s Drought, apocalypse has an after. We wait for the end but find ourselves with the post-end clean-up. The fiction of Demers’ book allows her to conceal what I feel is its core ambition—the mapping of a tendency in contemporary culture which is post-postmodernism. Demers mentioning contemporary culture as made up of “gore, fantasy and irony”, traits shared with postmodernism. However, she also sees repetition and dullness, coupled with a profound uncertainty. Through Wey, she posits a new form of culture which combines the weary stereotypes of the millennial with the apocalyptic fear of Millennialism. I would have liked to see more of this focused and original cultural criticism throughout the book. Demers uses Wey’s art as an example of apocalyptic art, rather than a route towards stronger examples.

James Richards’ films would be one example of contemporary visual culture embodying Demers’ ideas of apocalypse. Nominated for the Turner Prize in 2014, Richards’ art combines installation, music and film. I saw Richards’ work in the Ars Viva show in Hamburg in 2015. For me, his work is as close to a visual representation of drone music as I have seen. Although I am more visual than musical, I found Richards’ films initially off-putting. They were discordant and repetitive and buried any narrative deep. I persisted, and the more I watched the more the nuances and texture were evident. The repetition became profound; the discordance moving. Like drone music, there is no tune or story to retell; rather, both create a powerful, immerse emotional impact.

What is this book, then? It is at once an essay about apocalyptic culture, a reflection on the nature of apocalypse as the ‘great unveiling’, an experimental work of prose, a fictional portrayal of a failed artist and a work of futurism. In the spirit of apocalyptic culture, the book gives no answers but offers reflection and repetition. It also aims to be a gallery guide, a format which I feel, as a curator by trade, somewhat equipped to analyse. At its simplest, a gallery guide is a list of works and a memento of a show. Increasingly, catalogues combine essays by curators, academics and others to offer new perspectives on works of art. As such, they can act as a substitute for the exhibition itself. Here, this format allows Demers to approach the subject of apocalypse from multiple angles and voices.

The great strength of this unusual work is its huge range of sources. It is a rich feast of ideas which provokes the reader long after being read. Despite a fairly traditional opening (on troubadour songs, of all things), it rapidly opens out its references and ideas. Demers is strongest on music, her academic discipline, but the reflections on literature and philosophy are engaging and interesting. It is hard to avoid wondering if Wey is a semi-autobiographical character. Wey calls herself a ‘failed artist’ more than once—is the academic who studies rather than creates art a failed artist in the same way? This experimental approach allows the academic to embrace fiction and innovation, which provides much-needed new ground for discussion. While the form is challenging or occasionally infuriating, it is hard not to enjoy a book that quotes Dostoyevsky and Morrissey, and finds such peacefulness and hope in the idea of apocalypse.

Joanna Demers  is associate professor of musicology at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, where she specializes in post-1945 popular and art music.

Zosia Silarska is a curator based in the West Country. She has a professional interest in contemporary art, and a personal interest in modern history and cold war culture.

Drone and Apocalypse: An Exhibit Catalog for the End of the World is published by Zero Books.