In 2016 Glasgow-based sound artist Mark Vernon travelled to the abandoned seaside resort of Laem Thian (Thailand) with his recording equipment. It is unclear whether he deliberately chose to visit Laem Thian, or whether – in some mysterious way – the place called him. I like to believe that he intuitively obeyed a confused call. Once in Laem Thian, he started to record what was not there. He captured – without filling them – the absences; he documented the places where life had been, and the nooks, the fissures where it still grew. In the course of his three-month trip, Vernon also collected miscellaneous local tapes – Thai pop songs, religious hymns. Many of them had irreversibly deteriorated in the hot, tropical climate. And though the magnetic tapes were eaten with tiny parasites, there was still something to hear and grasp and see.
Ribbons of Rust stitches together Vernon’s personal field recordings with extracts from the mass-produced Thai tapes. It is a delicate assemblage of distant, plaintive singing, quivering piano notes, and half-erased, anonymous conversations. I like especially the drowned, otherworldly voices filtering through the album – like a choir of impossible sirens.
Vernon does for the ear what filmmakers Peter Delpeut and Bill Morrison – working with deteriorated archival film footage – do for the eye. He encourages us to listen closely to surfaces, to the minute fissures in the fabric of the world itself. Despite its careful composition, the album retains the spontaneous quality of a found object, or a phonographic fossil. What remains is the weather-worn, broken shell of sound, long after the song has dissolved. What we hear over and over is the distorted sound of the medium – its infinite vulnerability and exposed sensitivity.
For all its haunted resonances and liquid, decayed grace, Ribbons of Rust is not about distant ghosts. Rather it explores sound as pure, immediate presence. It recognises the radical, affective act of being alive in the present – of hearing, seeing, feeling. Something happens. A story gently circulates from Vernon to the listener, and dissolves again. As I listen back I do not visualise the wasted shores of Laem Thian, but other, closer waves – the island of Oléron (France). The place was full of indifferent cats and, (though I carried a camera) I knew they were the real, careless keepers of memory. Ribbons of Rust, similarly, seems to say that recordings exist so that we are free to forget, and start from another time, another place.