Flamin’ Stars | Sarah Jones with Julika and Ivan Martinez

Flamin’ Stars is a collaborative sound work by artist and writer Sarah Jones, sound producer Julika, and designer Ivan Martinez. The hour-long narrative piece, reminiscent of a radio drama, is based on a series of short, poetic texts developed during a residency period in Texas in 2013. The work moves the listener along the border road between Marfa and El Paso, engaging in a kind of visual and emotional cartography. The fragmentary, narrated texts are woven together by abstract sound, music and literary quotes and structured around the score of the 1960s Don Siegel-directed film Flaming Star, from where this work takes its title. The film, starring Elvis Presley as the mixed-blood Pacer Burton and set in Texas, deals with overt and implicit forms of racism and the complexities of “belonging.” Flamin’ Stars readdresses these notions in a contemporary context through a personal engagement with landscape and movement by three artists from different backgrounds. The work travels through, along, and at times ruptures contemporary dialogue around border landscapes, race, movement and environment. It hopes to go beyond the written and the spoken, into and then somehow beyond the specific context of the West Texas desert landscape. It moves beyond the obvious physicality of sound/silence, listening and repetition, to finally and meaningfully relate to the body of the listener.

There is an earth-sized, spinning globe between where we will start and where we will finish. An unsteady, future-horizon that marks an endpoint. Between there and now, is the distance in a picture postcard. An impossibly flat place, stamped with glossy sky.

Each ocean spreads and thins as the globe turns away from us. We will lose a day at the beginning, and then we will get it back at the end. An extra last day. Over the distance, the span of which is a constant guess, is an invented end.

An author wrote that we live waiting to die. That we can see our own end, always, in our periphery. That we have built our cities to meticulously count down our own deaths, to track every second that we live, waiting to die. Like when Elvis sings about the flaming star that sits over his shoulder. He can’t look around. He must ride forward because if he catches sight of the star that is following him he will know that he is going to die.

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I thought of two things the first time I saw that road. That road that rips across the center of something vast that bears the wrong name.

The first is a story written by Peter Carey,[1] about a soldier who guards a road. He guards the road alone in the desert; he has his instructions, whose side of the road is whose. But as time passes, he forgets which way is east and which way is west. The expanse of the desert consumes him. The white light eats his orientation, even though everyday he rises to guard what he still sees, the perfect, empty, blue sky, the dead, flat, orange horizon. The desert dirt is packed down tight, the solid edge of that giant blue bowl compressing all around him. The blue on the orange and then the white pricked stars in the black sky are the only things that are distinct.

He looks up and down the road, there are two sides but in time he forgets what side he is on. A plane lands in the story and he must tell the pilot where he cannot fly but he can’t remember. The pilot continues without the soldier’s permission. The soldier shoots the plane from the sky. The plane burns against the perfect slice where blue meets orange. A small pop of flames in the distance, burning into the night and then nothing. Forgotten. Burning somewhere inside the soldier but he forgets where.

The second is a joke told by my mother, one of the only two she could remember. It’s about a pilot landing a plane in the desert. He comes down fast and wrenches the breaks of the plane on, he looks side to side, down and up the runway, and says: “Wow, the runways here are short but they sure are wide.” It’s one of those jokes that you have to tell with your body. My mother clenching her fists as she pulls back on the brakes of her imaginary plane. The way she throws her body forward with the jolt of the screeching halt. My mother screeching. And then her hair falling from side to side, as she leans forward in the cockpit to gaze at the ribbon of her imaginary runway, running east and running west. “They sure are wide,” she says, her voice a little softer when she is facing away from me delivering the punch line.

This road is a cut. A black slice in the orange desert dirt. A black slice deaf to the screaming of the trucks that steal its sunshine and its silence. The trucks’ lumbering shadows looking side to side, leaning forward, looking west in the morning and east in the afternoon. The trucks steal the light from the road. The trucks track the sun and the moon across the sky. The trucks run the artery of the blood that is pushed from east to west as things are gathered and shipped. The trucks take and the trucks feed, the trucks are fed on the takings. Running down. Chasing hours.

The scream of the stolen desert is silenced by the rumble of the trucks’ hearts that beat from one side to another and back again. The trucks roar over tracks laid by murdered feet. The trucks are the boats that bring the thieves across the orange sea. The trucks cut proudly, bow forward, through the waves of sounds that they silence.

This road is a border, lined with chickens that cannot cross. No punch line. No one is allowed to forget whose side of the road is whose. This road cannot be crossed. Planes have fallen trying. And each one has been shot down, and burst on the horizon and burned long into the desert night. White pricking the black sky and a burning that cannot be forgotten, not even by the soldier, who guards the east or the west. Every small death on the horizon burns inside of him, even if he cannot remember where.

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It is on the gentlest days when there is no wind, only sunlight that the branches fall. The crack is jaw breaking. The limbs pull away from the trunks of the lumbering beasts like muscle pulling from bone. They have grown heavy and exhausted with yesterday’s fat raindrops. And then swollen and bruised in the warm sunlight of the day after they begin their tearing. The creak is of all the old doors and the cracking is of all of the stones upon one another. There is an endless silence in the falling of the branches, as if the forest inhales. The thud of the branch hitting the soil has a sound that you hear in your heels and in your chest, your ears still impotent from the crack.

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Their burden pressing upon him from outside, as if somehow it had been transferred to these purple mountains all around him, so mysterious, with their secret mines of silver, so withdrawn, yet so close, so still, and from these mountains emanated a strange melancholy force that tried to hold him here so bodily, which was its weight, the weight of many things, but mostly that of sorrow.[2]

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We watched the red lumps from the mosquito bites on our legs swell, we counted them on one another’s backs; a growing tally of what didn’t bite someone else. We saw each other’s faces dissolve orange in the sunset. We pointed and showed; we looked. We walked the Lost Mine Trail for the endless vista at the peak.

According to legend, a rich ore body was discovered at the highest point of Lost Mine Peak. Life-term prisoners were forced to work the mine, these men were blindfolded on several occasions in their march from the Presidio in San Vicente, Mexico, to prevent them from learning its location.[3]

We were forced in the desert heat to ache against the rocks with splitting fingers, listening keenly to each other’s enslaved breath, the smell of the captors and the smell of the theft of sweat. The direction of the wind, the birds, the crickets, the other insects, the boiling of blood, and the trembling of captured nerves.

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Do you still see the sorrow now as we drive? Stealing the desert again with our eyes? Obsessed with the 80 miles of screaming rock that we can capture. We use vision as a woven and permeable net to collect and to strain. We shade our eyes from the sun. We are bordered on all sides by sight.

This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion.[4]

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Captain MacWhirr, of the steamer Nan-Shan who has a physiognomy that in the order of material appearances, was the exact counterpart of his mind: it presented no marked characteristics of firmness or stupidity; it had no pronounced characteristics whatever…[5]

The Nan-Shan was ploughing a vanishing furrow upon the circle of the sea that had the surface and the shimmer of an undulating piece of grey silk. The sun pale and without rays, poured down leaden heat in a strangely indecisive light.[6]

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The black crow orchestra raising their wings, arching their arms and pushing them over themselves like breaking waves. The sound sliding lower down. Sinking into the backs of the audience’s throats and catching there like disappointment. Two-hundred silent throats tightening, under the dove, inside of the whale. The sound running below them, underground, the growling-swallet filling with thunder.

Outside the summer sky is darkening and the orchestra are dropping their elbows. The pitch of the storm starts racing. Their arms are by their sides and their bows are vertical, stabbing the sky a thousand times a second, slashing furiously, and wincing in seizures. Their hearts are sprinting up the ladders in their chests and their chins tilt ever so slightly toward the painted sky. The highest notes freeze the air inside of their lungs in the pre-death panic of drowning.

And the first drop of rain at the end of the drought is the smallest drop in timbre. It razors the napes of necks open. The relief is counted in the foreclosing of 400 eyelids, broke and destitute, folding with the wings of the violinists. The applause breaks the heat and the drought and it rains down so loudly that the orchestra leave.

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…the great rain that came sweeping off the mountains, too strong to think into… the air was sharp and charged and when the rain stopped, in minutes, we went back [to] what we were talking about when the sky broke open.[7]

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There is music that makes my eyes burn and I’m embarrassed to cry. My chest tightens in the best way; I’m full of myself. So full that my throat starts to hurt, like I might choke on something like joy but more like fullness, like a round cold water balloon in the summer. Or an ice cube swallowed on the trampoline. Like a belly full of watermelon and a throat full of dry, brown grass that smells of heat and dirt. Like a fist full of saltwater on freckles. Full like a summer.

Flaming_Star

We sleep top and tail in your single bed. Lying together underneath that blanket with all of the stars and the moons and the suns on it. We wake up with the dawn that splits the cheap, cane roll-blinds that you love because they remind you of the beach. They are beaten along the edges, thin sticks snapped off at uneven intervals down the fringe of the blind, like badly set type or a broken zipper. One of the blinds is too long for the window so that the last half-meter is permanently rolled up. It hangs on a strange diagonal, one end slumped on the Berber carpet; the other suspended awkwardly two inches above the sill. Dawn fills a thin triangle and spreads out into the room like a cake slice on the carpet.

When there are too many of us with our brothers and sisters we share seatbelts in the back of the car. Our skinny legs itch hot against the woven fabric seats. Our shoulders push together, caving our chests in, putting our forearms in our laps and our elbows in front of our hips. The surface down opposite sides of our bodies touches; we are all pale skin, all stuck together. Like the sea snails suckered against the glass of my fish tank. When we get to the beach we will peel apart from one another and the creases in your shorts will have printed a pattern in my thigh. As I arch my foot to push myself out of the car, you will step on the back of one of my thongs trapping me to the floor. I will jerk back awkwardly all limbs and wide eyes, and you will lurch forward into me. Your front will slam against my back, your chin will knock against my shoulder, our legs will tangle like spaghetti, and we will topple onto the sparkling black roadside. Laughing with our mouths open to the blue sky, eyes squeezed shut to the glare of the sun. We are brothers and sisters and childhood best friends and we go everywhere like this, tangled in summer.

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There is, sometimes in thunder, another person who thinks for you, takes in one’s mental porch furniture, shuts and bolts the mind’s window against what seems less appalling as a threat than as some distortion of celestial privacy, a sheltering insanity in heaven, a form of disgrace forbidden mortals to observe too closely: but there is always a door left open in the mind […] for the entrance and the reception of the unprecedented, the fearful acceptance of the thunderbolt that never falls on oneself, for lightning always hits the next street.[8]

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There are no permanent streams in Presidio County. Even the heat, languid in her attempt to rise, wishes for water at midday. She lays her cheek on the loamy soil of the Marfa plateau as if listening for its heartbeat. But the aquifers are buried to the north and the east. The ground water is pulled up elsewhere, in bigger towns that are further from the border. She pushes herself flat against the earth, between the spiking tufts of desert grass and begs for water from the ground. She wants with all of her weight to make the clay sweat small tears of moisture for her to carry upwards into the open sky. The hard clay yields. She cracks the earth open and dries its wounds, she takes the water from the creosote bushes, and the carcasses of the butterflies that have travelled further than we have to kneel in her heat. The summer heat in the northern part of the Chihuahuan Desert takes more than double the moisture than the cloudless sky can give.

Even the big river is stolen. North of where we drive the Rio Grande slows to a thin sheet of muddied glass. It is bled slowly for the old crops on both sides of its banks. It sighs quietly down, pulling tightly into a single fine line for a border on a map. From where we are sitting, the land appears flat in every direction and we fantasize that we can see forever. The horizon is just the end of where we are, and where we are doesn’t end and eventually falls out of time with where we have come from. The rhythm is shifting like a badly told joke—so an Englishman, an American, a Mexican and an Australian are walking through the desert… We are sitting with our backs pushed against the seats in the truck. The banks of the Rio Grande are lined with concrete between El Paso and Juarez to stop the fine line of the border from moving again like it has before. Two-hundred years ago the river tried to travel south, over ten years it broke its banks, flooding its way toward the equator, it sliced 600 acres from Mexico. The line on one map moved and two nation’s agreements eroded. The deepest channel of the river is lined with concrete now and it is easy to see who is on one side and who is on the other. The river can’t cut south; it is locked between two smooth walls of concrete. The heat kisses the black snake highway and the mirage dances in front of us. The searing heat bloats the steel railway tracks that slice the dry throat of downtown and keeps us in the swelling becoming of this present. The sun that was above us has filled its belly with shadow to weight its fall behind the horizon.

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The sun is setting and the temperature is changing. The heat is only remembered like the heat of a lover who has left.

It is as if you are burning in your sleep, running a fever. Even when the air is laced with the iciness of July, your shoulders remain uncovered, lumbering slowly up and down with the half-time breathing of midnight. Your feet, pale soled, have crept tentatively from under the blankets. You appear severed, dismembered, only rumpled blackness between shoulders and toes. Your skin is pulled tight over your cheekbones, your neck, and the very top of your long spine. It is waxy and fuzzy warm gold like repolished antique timber. Your eyelashes meet quietly and embrace one another like unfaithful lovers conscious of the hours left until the breaking dawn. Your mouth is still, unsmiling; it is curved in a way unique to sleep. I have never seen that impenetrable curve before. It is the shape that protects the secrets of stillness, some of which will remain secret even to you after you are awake. I can feel your warm breath skating along the pillow and onto my shoulder. I can smell the salty dampness of hot sleep all over you; you are soft and heavy. All of the encroaching daylight is suffocating somewhere beneath you. Like moss you have smothered the rock of the sun. Nothing moves when you are not moving; your silence spills out over everything. Spills out as heat.

As we drive we forget the desert heat as I have forgotten his. We cannot remember together, and in the slow losing of our summers we remember things forgotten. We remember the theft. We re-hear the rumble that we thought for a second was silence.

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And now it is night in the desert, and summer is gone; it’s cold. We tell one another ghost stories to break the silent pulse of the white dashes on this road. White lines to separate one side from the other. We deliver our stories like letters to one another. You find yours on small scraps of paper littered somewhere in a past I’ve never visited:

One man checks the engine of his truck before leaving.
While driving, he feels sick and tired so he takes a pill to heal his sickness.
Late at night the only thing that is seen in the road is a lonely mountain, which looks blacker than the night sky.
He feels observed and feels the need to turn his head to the left.
He sees something like a fireball flying close to him.
He closes the window.
The fireball flies from one side to another, sometimes blocking his vision.
He speeds up, but the ball now seems to be floating in his right side.
Slowly the fireball goes away until it gets lost in the trees while the truck is crossing the railroad tracks.
Immediately after the ball has disappeared a sound of crying pigs comes from everywhere.

The truck driver speeds up as much as possible and sometimes he brakes with the engine to silence the other sound.[9]

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Last night in Marfa, I went to the local barber’s 21st birthday party. I admit that it’s been a while since I was invited to a 21st and I was a little nervous that I’d be mistaken for that unplaceable family member who is just that little bit too old, and that little bit too young. The room was tiny, maybe four by nine meters; a freestanding structure in a dusty lot, like a temporary canteen or a portable toilet block. The room is the local barbershop; two barber chairs, four towels, five pairs of scissors, no partridge, no pear tree. But a killer sound system and two blue light globes which had been specially fitted for the big event. The dance floor was home to anywhere between 5 and 15 people, and it was perpetually full as the dancing expanded and contracted to cover the floor. Bodies, writhing in sweat, swelled and saturated the thick blue air. The bass was too heavy; it rattled the plastic-cupped remnants of beer and tequila. Heat and satisfaction mixed with the sweet, rotten smell of warm bourbon. We danced in the dense universe of that box for hours. We thoughtlessly and heavily grabbed space and attention. Taking everything that we could get. Sweat glued my jeans to my legs; my arms gleamed wet after a light brush with the birthday barber. The song ended and we paused momentarily to suck in the moist atmosphere. As the base dropped heavily into the brief silence, I recognized the beat as an M.I.A remix of “Down River” by The Wilcannia Mob. Five indigenous boys from the other side of the Earth rapped into a hot, blue box in West Texas. I looked across at the barber. He sang with all of the enthusiasm of someone who could drink publically for the first time, someone at the center of the party. Someone who knew where he was. He knew all of the words and so did I.

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Night brings us these things, the splitting second of the base, collisions without contact. Darkness consumes and dissolves with intent and then it weeps stars over the bones of its meals.

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Binary stars are two stars that orbit a common center of mass. Gravity isn’t strong enough to pull them away from the fated ellipse they are locked in. By calculating the orbits of both of the stars in a binary system, it is possible to calculate the mass of each of the stars. From this, the radius and the density of the star can also be estimated. Using this information, astrophysicists can calculate a mass-luminosity relationship, which is then used to estimate the mass of a single star. More than half of the stars in our sky might be part of binary systems.

There are four main types of binary stars. One of these is the eclipsing binary. When viewed from the Earth, if the orbital ellipse traced by the two stars in the system, sits at a certain angle, the stars in their orbits will eclipse one another. When this happens, the brightness of the stars decreases as one is hidden wholly or partially behind the other

Eclipsing binaries are variable stars, not because the light of the individual components vary but because of the eclipses. If one of the stars is larger than the other, one will be obscured by a total eclipse while the other will be obscured by an annular eclipse.

An annular eclipse occurs when the Sun and Moon are exactly in line, but the apparent size of the Moon is smaller than that of the Sun. Hence the Sun appears as a very bright ring, surrounding the dark disk of the Moon.[10]

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Imagine a hungry black hole in the sun. A flaming star with warm, dark silence as its center.

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…how narrow, how incalculably narrow, is the true and actual present. Of that time which we call the present, hardly a hundredth part but belongs either to a past which has fled, or to a future which is still on the wing. It has perished, or it is not born. It was or it is not. Yet even this approximation to the truth is infinitely false. For again subdivide that solitary drop, which was only found to represent the present, into a lower series of similar fractions, and the actual present which you arrest measures now but the thirty-sixth-millionth of an hour; and so by infinite declensions the true and very present, in which only we live and enjoy, will vanish into a mote of a mote, distinguishable only by a heavenly vision. Therefore the present, which only man possesses, offers less capacity for his footing than the slenderest film that ever a spider twisted from her womb. Therefore, also in this incalculable shadow from the narrowest pencil of moonlight, is more transitory than geometry can measure, or thought of an angel can overtake. The time which is, contracts to a mathematical point; and even that point perishes a thousand times before we can utter its birth. All is finite in the present; and even that finite is infinite in its velocity of flight towards death.[11]


[1] Carey, Peter. “A Windmill in the West.” Exotic Pleasures. Sydney: Pan Books, 1980.
[2] Lowry, Malcolm. Under the Volcano. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947. p 13.
[3] From the Guide to the Lost Mine Trail, Big Bend National Park, Texas. Ed. Superintendent, Southwestern National Monuments. Arizona: Southwestern Monuments Association, Gila Pueblo, Globe, 1956.
[4] DeLillo, Don. Point Omega. London: Picador, 2010. p 7.
[5] Conrad, Joseph. “Typhoon.” The Secret Sharer and Other Stories. New York: Dover Publications, 1993. p 25.
[6] Conrad, Joseph. “Typhoon.”The Secret Sharer and Other Stories. New York: Dover Publications, 1993. p. 35.
[7] DeLillo, Don. Point Omega. London: Picador, 2010. p. 49.
[8] Lowry, Malcolm. Under the Volcano. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947. p. 334.
[9] Martinez, Ivan. E-mail message to Sarah Jones. 22 April 2014.
[10] Binary Star definition. Wikipedia.org.
[11] De Quincey, Thomas. “Suspiria De Profundis.” (First published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1845.) Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings. Ed. Barry Milligan. London: Penguin Group, 2003.

Flamin’ Stars
Sarah Jones, Julika and Ivan Martinez, 2014
Concept, text and reading by Sarah Jones (AUS)
Sound production by Julika (GER)
Design by Ivan Martinez (MEX)

Acknowledgements:

Sarah would like to thank Julika, Ivan, Renee, Christo, Alex, Janine, Casco, and the Dutch Art Institute.

See also: TAAK Summer School: 2nd Edition


Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2014, Practices

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