While Our Children Watch TikTok

In Good Speaker, Elise Macmillan reconstructs from memory a radio commercial she heard during her early youth.

Elise Macmillan, Good Speaker, 2019. From a performance in the attic of the Embassy of Foreign Artists, Geneva.

A ball bouncing down a long corridor. Sound in a visual art context? Simply put: the ball stands still while the universe bounces around it, quite unpredictably. What is the cow thinking as it lies in the meadow, chewing the cud? What does the unborn baby dream of in its mother’s womb? These are stupid questions that I ask myself.

A man in his fifties is changing the drive belt of a worn-down water pump. The sense of comfort and security offered by old things is that you know they work… for something. A used Ford Sierra passes by. In the back seat sits a girl of 11 or 12, staring blankly at nothing. On this day, 43,000 cars passed by on this rugged stretch of road somewhere in the western United States.

Elise Macmillan’s sound work Good Speaker from 2019 reconstructs a radio commercial advertising a tour of ‘international DJs’ as she recalls it from a car trip in her youth. The mood of the commercial is synthetic and seems driven along by an amphetamine rush. The speaker lists the names of a number of small towns the DJs will visit: Fort Collins, Cupertino, Billings, Pueblo, Parker, Bakersfield … It is like a mine opening up. Is that sparkle gold or coal? Macmillan, who came to Norway (with a Hardanger fiddle) to study many years ago, keeps her ear to the ground, capturing and mediating changes for high and low.

The backdrop of Macmillan’s American memory is the 1990s, a time when corporations had pretty much beaten self-employed farmers into the ground. It was also the decade when the Democrats – party of slave owners and big capital – paved the way for investing in China, which had dramatic consequences for the Chinese and Americans alike. There were atrocious wars in the Balkans and in West Africa. New technology entered the aesthetic realm with huge impact, prompting processes of democratisation and streamlining. International DJ in, traditional musician out; computer mouse in, pencil out.

Analysts have discovered that there was no stock market bubble in the United States prior to the crash of 1929. This leaves us facing dire counterfactual perspectives. Hermann Göring pointed out that the Nazis could not have kept going if the population hadn’t been so terrified of the Russians. Naomi Klein wrote extensively about these mechanisms in the early 2000s. Now we have an epidemic, and those of us in the ‘compact majority’ stride along steadily while our children watch TikTok.

The old man with the drive belt wonders if he should have become a lawyer like his cousin. It is easy to grasp why he did not; there is no aggression in this man. His finances are poor, and even though he has children, he knows in his gut that no-one will be ready to take over when he packs up in twenty years’ time. And maybe that’s for the best?

Days go by, hair grows, fingernails, grass …

– Artist Kristian Øverland Dahl (1968) lives and works in the Oslo area. He received his education at the Art Academy in Bergen, and from 2006 to 2013 he was part of the artist collective D.O.R.