Penelope Audela: das leipziger kleine

november 03, 2009.

[ podcast :: sbpc 33 ... s ]

das kleine

I missed das kleine @ Leipzig's first evening, because that friday, october 16th, I performed at Extrapool, in Nijmegen [more about this later]. Saturday I left Extrapool at about ten in the morning, and walked up to the Nijmegen train station. There I took a train to Zutphen. In Zutphen I hopped on a train to Hengelo. In Hengelo there was a bus bringing me across the border into Germany, to Bad-Bentheim. In Bad-Bentheim stood a long train waiting that took me to Hannover. Another train then took me from Hannover to Magdeburg. In Magdeburg, shortly past 17h, I stepped on a train to Halle. That one then rumbled on through vast stretches of former East-German countryside. It stopped every five or ten minutes at what felt like an endless series of worn-out and shabby stations in as many villages, most of which seemed near to abandoned. The train also puffed past a meadow in which stood two lonely ostriches. That was a strange sight. Out there in the drizzling rain the poor animals looked, dirty, puffy, dazed and lost. Then finally! In Halle I caught an S-bahn to Leipzig Hauptbahnhof, where - God bless - Tobias stood waiting for me at the platform, to guide me by tram to the Eisenbahnstraße.

I fieldrecorded my way over from Nijmegen to Leipzig. It is a broken fieldrecording, as I used - deliberately - the one of my two lapel microphones that recently began to show signs of a loose contact or some similar defect. Sometimes broken the recordings will turn out fine, sometimes what ends up on the tape is nothing but a dynamic, rhythmic crackling (corresponding to the input in the mike and my movements, I suppose). I like that, actually. The result for me evokes the image of some sort of a curtain that is drawn between the viewer and the play, who now can but try to reconstruct the action by means of the movements of the curtain that every now and then are caused by the actors that bump into it. But whether one gets the one or the other seems to be pretty much random, and will become clear only when one plays back the tape. From that moment onward this will remain the way you hear it. Such a tape then is a bit like Schrödinger's cat, indeed :-) ... (Curiously, a similar battle fieldrecording condition came with the tapes that Tobias and Johannes recorded with a couple of kids in the Leipziger Stadbadt, and that we listened to during das kleine field breakfast on sunday morning.) My broken Nijmegen-Leipzig fieldrecording is this soundblog edition's podcast, that you may listen to and/or download using this link , or by clicking the image. (It is rather long, almost 34 minutes [31 Mb]; I suggest you listen to it while reading this entry, which is of comparable length :-) ...)

We had a highly enjoyable evening at the gal.lery, where I found that there were actually (at least) three native Dutch speakers at das leipziger kleine. There was me. Also Rinus, the fieldrecordingsfestival's initiator and its indefatigable helmsman, was there of course. And then there was Matthijs Vincent Kouw, whom I could have met also two weeks earlier at the Waiting in the Wings II in the Maastricht ARM [more about this later]. But it seems that I didn't.

Fieldrecordings, of course, are no other than a certain type of material, that artists use in their work. Often it is pretty much unequivocal what fieldrecordings are. But the borders of the 'field' are - interestingly - vague. It is at these borders that the distinction between a field- and a merely-recording often gets totally blurred, as in many cases it will be mainly the intention of the person who made (or is using) the recording, that will place something on this or on the other side.

The organizers of das leipziger kleine were not afraid to boldly venture out into this terrain vague. As far as fieldrecordings go, the program they had put together was highly eclectic. The saturday evening opened with Lasse-Marc Riek. Lasse-Marc is a master recordist and a very fine phonographer. At gal.lery he presented another example of the type of sound-essay that I have had the pleasure of hearing him present before at earlier das kleine occasions. Starting from panoramic sounds-of-nature scenes - epitomes of classic beauty - he manages to gradually divert your steps and lure you, like a latter-day pied piper, into caves and corners of the sounding world that most of us will never enter and hear in real life. Or more dramatic still: that we cannot hear.

Saturday's final presentation was Eindringlinge (41o südwest). Announced as a fieldrecordings film from Berlin Friedrichshain / Kreuzberg, its authors, Sami Ala-Eddin and Martin Reimann took an extreme formalist approach for its realization. All parameters corresponding to decisions that 'normally' will be taken for 'artistic and contentual reasons' by, for example, the director when shooting a film (where, when, how long and under which angle to film), as well as in the realization of subsequent 'mixes', were derived from an interpretation as series of binary numbers of a black-and-white pixelization of a photograph of Berlin taken from the Fernsehturm at Alexanderplatz in 41 degrees south-west direction.

Here is a still from the film, as it was projected that evening at the gal.lery:


A nice conceptual twist, imo, is that in so doing the city itself (via its picture) determines in which way it will be pictured. One can imagine a formalization in which eventually the result - the video + sound + mixes - would actually rigorously encode the (pixelization of the) original photograph, and therefore in a way again be that picture. I do not think that Sami and Martin actually went that far. They just use the image as a random number generator, in pretty much ad hoc ways. But I have to admit that I did not have the courage to go through the many numerical details of the work. If I missed something I hope they'll correct me.

Eindringlinge is a pretentious work, which, I'd like to insist, is not necessarily a bad thing. It is certainly not merely pretentious, as I did find it challenging, in the sense of it raising many a question, and being prone to controversy. As is the authors statement that "[... d]urch den von uns gewählten Arbeitsprozess verweigern wir uns einer ideologischen, narrativen Erzählweise." I doubt that this is even possible: the (pseudo-) formal methodology that they apply, au contraire, undeniably has strong ideological connotations and, as any ideology, intrinsically will impose a corresponding narrative. No view of the world is 'neutral', and a formal one, arguably, even less so than others.

As a spectator and listener at some point during the projection the eerie feeling crept over me that automobiles are the predominant lifeform in Berlin. (My narrative, that of the beholder.) For long, long stretches of time there was no human in view, and the square and pavement looked cold and empty. This was not the Berlin I knew ... I guess this in fact is a point Sami and Martin are trying to make: "Wir dringen in das Bild der Stadt ein und fangen an Dinge zu sehen, die wir vorher nicht sehen konnten oder wollten."

penelope Leipzig

In between Lasse-Marc and Eindringlinge I took the small table for my stage. Or, rather, it were three of my dictaphones that did so. It was a rather special evening for me, as I had chosen Leipzig that saturday october 17th as the time and place for what is best described as a coming out. I brought three tapes with me to das leipziger kleine. They were copies of three of the C60's in the vast tape archive of Penelope Audela that I inherited, several years ago already. ('Inherited' as a manner of speaking, for she - luckily - is still very much alive.) As you will gather from what will follow below, Penelope's story is a complicated one. Her archive is not public. It also is not really mine. Consider me as its private 'caretaker', kind of a librarian watching over a closed library. Within the limits of certain rather strict rules, I am allowed to use them in ways that I would see fit. Even indeed, to 'empty' the archive. Again within the limits of certain 'rules of conduct', but I have still not been able to make up my mind about this.

The tapes (copies) I brought to Leipzig were recorded at intervals of precisely ten years. The first one was recorded on the 20th of july 1984; the second one on the 20th of july 1994; and the third one on the 20th of july 2004. I played them back simultaneously, and - just like the listeners at das leipziger kleine - I actually heard them for the first time. When towards the end of the playback, I took down the sound, and melodramatically threw the dummy's head (that I had put on the table as sort of an 'idol' representing Penelope) on the floor, the question I asked was very sincere: "Why did she do it?"


In the summer of 1984, following a series of events that profoundly disturbed her, but the precise nature of which we have chosen here not to disclose, Penelope Audela ( * ) decided to devote the next forty years of her life to a variation on the lifelong nihilistic yet mindful work that the French novelist Georges Perec in his La Vie, Mode d'Emploi attributes to an eccentric and very wealthy Englishman named Bartlebooth. Living her life while meticulously executing one of its possible metaphors was, in her own words, the 'single convincing alternative to becoming deeply religious in a more traditional way' that the then twenty eight year old had managed to come up with. Penelope Audela surely was less eccentric than Bartlebooth, but - being the only child of a very rich and widely respected captain of South Limburg industry - she probably was equally wealthy.

During twenty successive years, thus read the contract that in 1984 she entered into with herself, she would record all the sounds around her (which of course were to include the sounds that she made herself), using a small portable auto-reverse audiocassette recorder and one hour long cassette tapes. She would use the paper lay-ins to distinguish the many cassettes, but only by the writing of a number and the date. After these first twenty years she would continue the next twenty by erasing again each one of the tapes that she thus would have recorded. One after the other, in real time. Then after forty years all of the tapes would end up empty again, each marked by nothing but a date and a number.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Conceptually, though, Penelope's project is far less thrilling than Bartlebooth's. It lacks for example the long initial phase in which the protagonist has to master a very specific skill, one that is not easy to acquire. It also lacks the challenge of the continuous solving that is necessary to be able to proceed throughout the final phase: that of moving backwards, of undoing, of taking back all that has been done before. But in fact it was part of what attracted her: it was an utterly boring and at times extremely cumbersome routine, but anyone, really, could do it.


She bought her first dictaphone in Brussels, on the 14th of july, 1984. It was of a very feminine design, elegant, flat and light: a slim and shiny metal box enveloped by a black leather case. Because during the very first minutes of her twenty years of recording, unwittingly she had found herself whistling that David Bowie tune, she called it Jean, Gene, or simply Genie. Genie was the first in the series of cassette recorders that twenty years long she always kept at hand, together with a tiny lapel microphone that she wore attached to a coat, jacket or sweater. Penelope was 'to be as rigorous and precise as would be practically possible', it said in the contract. Thus it was to be no law of the Medes and Persians that also during her sleeping hours she would change tapes every hour. It therefore is telling and of no little significance to know that in her twenty years of recording Penelope always managed to change tapes several times during her sleeping hours, so that, with but remarkably few exceptions indeed, the number of recorded tapes for every day remains very close to 24.

Penelope managed to audiograph precisely 144.567 hours of her life between monday july 16th 1984 (the first day she recorded) and monday july 26th 2004 (her last recorded day). They are kept on 144.567 numbered C60 compact cassettes of varying brand, but always of type I. That is the 'normal', the ferric oxide, tape: the idea of her recordings being an etching of life onto sheer endless stretches of rust utterly enchanted her.

For the storage of this vast quantity of sound Penelope used the cellar beneath one of the buildings on the estate near Meerssen where her father spent the final years of his life as a widower. Together with Anton, a man of advanced middle age, who had been appointed as a jack-of-all-trades. And with young Carl, who took great pride in combining the tasks of gardener, secretary, cook and chauffeur.

Penelope's father passed away early spring 1986.

She was living in Brussels at the time. She went to university there, doing journalism and film and tv studies. After graduation she worked on the writing of three interrelated screenplays, over a period of several years, two of which she considered finished at the time of her father's death. None of them however had entered a production phase, not even a preliminary one.
A couple of months after her father's demise Penelope sold her Brussels apartment. She took up residence in the Meerssen estate, with Carl and Anton. It became the headquarters of 'Ode/Zee', a Dutch-Flemish film production company that, with Penelope as its managing director, in the years to follow became a moderate commercial success. She did however indeed abandon her own cinematographic ambitions and ideas for 'Ode/Zee'. Or was it that she took up life taping instead?

Penelope asked Anton to construct wooden cabinets for the storing the tapes. One for each of the twenty years. And Anton built 20 identical cabinets, following her instructions. Each of them had 15 drawers, in which there was room for 11 rows of 51 cassettes. These were stored standing up, with a small paper sticker with a number glued onto their top side. It was, of course the same number that Penelope had written on the tape's inlay card. In each cabinet 8415 cassettes could be filed. As Penelope did not record all of her sleeping hours, this was more than a year's worth of her tapes.

They were twenty curious years.

Though the ongoing recording soon became like second nature to Penelope, it did have a far larger impact on how she went about her life than she had imagined. Far more than at first she'd admit, instead of recording the life that she led, Penelope had to lead a recordable life. It's a pretty subtle twist, but an important one. She had to work pretty hard for it. She had to take care continuously that there would be enough tape around to record.
For holidays and other longer trips she mostly would sent the necessary number of tapes beforehand to the places where she intended to stay. >>Fast Forward>> And in order to avoid the cumbersome moving around with large numbers of tapes, she would sent them, in day by day parcels, back to Meerssen. <<Rewind<< There Carl would find boxes full of tapes in the mail, almost daily, and then hand them on to Anton for filing.
I find it amazing, really, that in all of those years nothing ever went wrong. No tapes were lost. Though at times it had been a narrow escape, and from time to time Penelope has been obliged to drastically change her plans in order to enable the recording to continue uninterrupted.

In her relation with others things were more complicated still, as Penelope's practice forced her to become pretty asocial. Strangers, business relations and occasional acquaintances usual were not, and needn't be, aware of her recording habit. And of course it was possible to keep one's doing so from view during much of a day's activities. Which is what Penelope did. But it was not possible to have it go unnoticed by those people whose company one would enjoy for several hours in a stretch. Friends. She was pretty up front about it, actually, and had not the slightest intention to 'spy'. But many of her former friends could simply not get used to Penelope continuously recording all of their conversations and all of their doings, and they even more quickly got annoyed by that, ritual indeed, of changing the tape every hour. It turned her into a clock, into a mechanic, they said. And most of her friends began to steer away from her. Of the few that did continue to frequent her she actually noticed that they became extremely conscious of the fact that all they did and said was recorded. From beings friends, they became actors in a play. Which in turn annoyed Penelope. And it was she that then steered away from her actors.
And newly mets? Of course she did meet new people, regularly, and continued to do so all of those years. But these never got to the stage of becoming friends, as - inevitably - her dictaphone surfaced, and quickly shied away a newly made 'friend' who found out that he or she had been and would be recorded, relentlessly. Some of them she would continue to see, but only occasionally.

I met Penelope in june 2004, in a small village in a valley in the French Alps, where I had gone for a couple of days, to contemplate and walk. She had come there for the week, together with an 'Ode/Zee' crew working on a documentary report about eco-holidays. All were staying in the village's only guest house. The 'Ode/Zee' truck and crew took off at the end of that week, in the afternoon of friday june 26th, but Penelope had decided to stay on for the weekend. To enjoy the fine weather, and to contemplate and walk.

During the week at breakfast we had exchanged a couple of short polite hello's and I had noticed that she was Dutch. Or at least that she spoke Dutch. But I had not introduced myself. And neither had she. That is why that friday we each sat at our own little table, each with a glass of red wine, on the terrace of the guest house.
We both looked up at our mountains.
Penelope had dark curly hair, she was relatively small and round, and wore colorful designer clothes that made her look quite a bit younger than her actual age. Her eyes were hidden by a pair of Ray Ban sun glasses, which made it difficult to determine what precisely she was looking at. From inside the guest house came soft music playing on a radio post. From many a different distance and direction outside rolled over the sound of bells, so typical for the French mountains. I riffled the pages of a book on crickets. Penelope just looked, probably at the mountains. Every now and then she adjusted her dress, put her one leg over the other, or the other over the one, and zipped from her glass of wine. Each time she did, she slowly licked both of her lips with the tip of her tongue and stared out into the distance again.

When the bells of the village church began tolling, as they did every half hour, turning over 48 times a day the villagers' and our life's pages, Penelope took a dictaphone out of her purse. She put it before her on the little table. It was very similar to the one I was keeping in my pocket. I then understood that the little microphone that earlier on I had seen attached to her purse's shoulder strap, was not meant - as I had thought at the time - for communication with members of the film crew during work. She used it to record. On her dictaphone. The same way I did with the little microphone that I had stuck, more discreetly, behind my belt, just above my left hip. I was not recording at the time, by the way, and it really surprised me that she was. The tape in her dictaphone came to a stop with a sharp 'click', and inquisitively I observed how she routinely slipped a new tape into the dictaphone. She closed the little recorder, hit the record button and then let it glide back into her purse. Then she took out an empty cassette box. All of her movements were self-evident. She clearly was not thinking about them. They were automatic. All together it did not take her more than one minute, two at the most, during which she acted like a robot. Like a machine. It was utterly weird. I saw her writing something on the box's inlay card, and then again on the cassette's label. With the tip of a nail file she removed the record protect tabs at the rear of the tape, and put it into the box. Then she also slid the cassette into her purse, and came out of her robotic state flash. She breathed deeply, pushed up her hair, adjusted her skirt and continued to look up at the mountains.

It was then that I gathered some courage, rose from my chair and walked up to her. I coughed to catch her attention. She took off her spectacles and looked up at me, thoughtful. She had pretty brown eyes, kind and open, like a child's. I smiled at her. "Look," I said, and took the dictaphone from my pocket. I made it turn in my hand, and let its metal surface reflect the midday's sun onto her face. Next I clicked the record button, and bobbed a curtsy to her. 'Hoi,' I said in Dutch. 'Would you like to join me for another glass of red wine?'

Penelope burst out laughing. She took my dictaphone and watched it closely. "I had one of those myself," she said, "but then ... I guess I have had all of them." She giggled. Then she shook my hand. "Ik ben Penelope. Penelope Audela."
I pulled a chair up to her table, and we had a glass of wine together. And while the sun set on the Alp valley, we had another one. And again. And then we went inside and up to her room, where we drank another bottle. For there was an awful lot to say and explain, though in the end it was mostly me that listened, often in amazement.

That night we fucked like crazy.
I did it for her tape, she did it for mine.

next: A found tapes meta-map

notes __ ::
(*) To assure the anonymity of the protagonist, her name and some of the biographical details have been changed. [ ^ ]

tags: das kleine, Leipzig, Penelope Audela

# .334.

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