The way it turned out, I found myself sitting one Thursday lunchtime at Manor House waiting for the southbound train. On the far wall of the tube was one of those big hoardings, this particular one advertising Mercier Champagne.
Apart from a narrow bottle-green strip down the right with the Mercier label in it this advert is a massive single black and white image of a ‘typical’ Parisian street cafe. In the foreground three small round tables rise up in a gentle diagonal from left to right. Young and seemingly affluent couples are seated behind the first and third tables.
On the left, the man is seen from a rear three-quarters view, a smiling Audrey Hepburn lookalike leaning into him, eyes gazing up adoringly, her hand slipping up inside his tweed jacket. Their table is spotlessly clean and noticeably Champagne-free. Across from them sits a beautiful Mediterranean woman, arms folded, legs crossed. Her partner is perched on the extreme right-hand edge, chin in hand, elbow on table, completely excluded by her body posture. Both appear to be looking enviously over at the first couple. On the table in front of them is what looks like a half-finished bottle of white wine. No glasses are in evidence.
In the space bookended by the two couples half-blurred background figures can be seen amongst the geometric pattern of tables and chairs. Across the top are the words ‘Mercier pour la memoir’, as if written in a woman’s handwriting. For those without basic French this is a pun on ‘Thanks for the memory’. Audrey: you’re a scream.
At first glance, the poster appears to be nothing more than another glossy-mag styled resynthesis of a mythical 1960’s Paris, full of chic images worn smooth and translucent with use. It tells us the couple in front have already eaten their meal and drunk their bottle of Mercier in its entirety. They are sated with good food, tipsy, and in love. He has paid by credit card. They will go home and make passionate love. They, or couples very like them, inhabit countless advertising scenarios. They drive nice cars and live in houses where the sun always shines in the kitchen. They always tell us the same thing: if you buy this product, as we have, you too will be happy. You can be like us. All we can know for sure about them is that they’re actors.
But what of the couple on the right? She is unhappy because her boyfriend doesn’t love her. We know this because he didn’t buy her Mercier Champagne. Instead he ordered this cheapo white wine which is so bad they can’t even finish it. Asshole! He is unhappy not because she is unhappy but because he has been publicly humiliated, out-thought, outspent. He’s a loser and he knows it. Such is the familiar language of advertising.
So why bother mentioning it at all? Well, closer inspection of the poster leads one to suspect things are not as they first seem. Crucially, the unhappy couple are definitely not looking at the happy couple at all, but at something happening behind them, out of the frame of the photograph. This immediately brings the meaning of the whole image into question. Are this couple actors, or mere unwitting dupes? Are they just two people accidentally caught up in an outdoor photo shoot? What are they looking at? Why haven’t they finished their wine? Why aren’t there any glasses? What are their real feelings for each other? Eventually: was this image designed, or was it largely accidental?
In the sheer absence of so much information—especially the product itself—the ‘Mercier pour la memoir’ becomes a throbbing neon sign. Your eyes flicker between text and image, image and text, the banality of the pun counterpointing the sudden incoherence of the photograph. Your eyes are dragged again and again across the gulf between the tables, between bottle and non-bottle, between distance and intimacy. Vainly you try to contain the energy created by the exploding image and within seconds what happens is that you invent a story, you wrap it up in a plotline. Not consciously: your brain just does it. Where meaning does not exist, the human mind will create it.
After looking at this poster you may not have the same story as mine, but you will certainly have a story of some sort.
Brian Eno’s Ambient 4/ On Land has on it a track called ‘The Lost Day’. It always used to evoke within me a deep and particular emotional response, like watching a film. I could see everything in widescreen, crisp, and in deep focus. I could sense the wind, feel the desolation, hear the soundtrack. I was there.
About a year later I read a Brian Eno interview in which he spoke at some length about ‘The Lost Day’. He told us what each sound represented, the weather, everything. It would seem the track is an almost literal painting in sound of a real place at a particular time, a recreation of an event, an experience.
This forbidden knowledge has catastrophically ruined the track for me. Sure, I still get a film running behind my eyes when I listen to it. Unfortunately it now views like a TV set randomly hopping between two channels, one showing a BBC1 documentary about a sleepy English coastal village on a grey winters day, the other scenes from an early Japanese Samurai movie. It’s rubbish.
In the same way that a photograph is double-exposed, Brian Eno’s landscape has been superimposed upon my own. You can’t be in two places at once.
Ways Of Seeing
Quantum Physics is still a mystery to most people, an area of knowledge akin to Voodoo or Theosophy. Like if an atom was the size of the Earth, the nucleus would be the size of a basketball. The electrons orbiting the nucleus would be a flock of geese skimming across a lake. Inside the nucleus, wave/particle probability functions with names like wooden idols whizz about in Space-Time. Somewhere: we’re never quite sure. But it works nonetheless, faultlessly, repeatedly. If it didn’t the modern world as we know it simply wouldn’t exist. The central problem of Quantum Physics is this: it’s been here nearly 100 years and we still can’t assimilate it. We can’t imagine it, we can’t picture it.
It wasn’t until 1980 that the first photographic image of an atom was published. The nature of the quantum wave/particle thingies inside the nucleus are deduced by smashing atoms together and tracking the trajectories of the bits, the shrapnel. They are too small to measure properly or to see, and perhaps they always will be. Einstein coined the famous image of the Universe as a watch. In 1938 he wrote:
In our endeavour to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears its ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility of the meaning of such a comparison.
This has changed Western science in a very profound way. For the first time the role of the observer entered into the equation. For the first time what happened depended in part upon who was looking, what they were looking at, and with what. In a very real sense, it said we make reality up as we go along, we create it. The myth that the scientist was disinterested, detached, some noble and objective pioneer in search of absolute truth, was finally shown to be false. Worse than that: it just wasn’t possible. How could you not have a point of view?
This aspect of Quantum Physics is not difficult to grasp on a common-sense level. For example, if you and I stand next to each other and look simultaneously at that Mondrian painting over there we’ll still see different pictures. Our physique, our age, our sex, our education and experience, whether we’ve got a headache or not, all of these will dictate how we see it. Until we come along the painting isn’t doing anything: it isn’t complete until someone looks, someone participates. Each of us will complete the painting in our own way. All of our lives are like this. We live in our own worlds, making them up as we go along: improvising.
Now. All you have to worry about is whether you’re going to be Charlie Parker or Clarence Clemmons…