An equation requires both sides of an expression, no matter how complex the operations, to be precisely matched. It is what gives mathematics, and by extension, science, its essential logicality and precision. It is the quintessence of balance and predictability, allowing clarity and certainty even in the most chaotic and unpredictable of scenarios.
On face value, it might be hard to see what it is about French photographer Joséphine Michel’s subdued imagery and the sounds of the sorely-missed Icelandic avant garde electronic musician Mika Vainio that gives The Heat Equation that necessary sense of balance. The pair were collaborators (Halfway To White, 2015) and had discussed another symbiotic project in 2017 just prior to Vainio’s untimely death. The Heat Equation is not necessarily that project, but it could have been, taking the form of a book and accompanying CD and featuring an essay on music by Jeremy Millar.
Michel’s earnest photography, presented in harsh monochrome hues, concerns itself principally with nature and science. We see images of birds flying above a shore so dark that it looks like the interior seams of a coal mine, plaintive shots of solitary figures against the backdrop of harsh, barren terrain, and other, less easy to determine things: the amorphous aftereffects of moving lights, looking for all the world like live cultures writhing under a microscope. These photographs exist without explanation, with no narrative, no timeline, just the barest of footnotes from their curator. In a world where we are obsessed with geotagging out every move and using locational data as a means of expressing our passage through life (the inference being that if you didn’t put it on Instagram, it didn’t happen), such absence is initially hard to understand, before taking on a comforting ambiguity.
Vainio’s absence is, perhaps, harder to make sense of. Since his formative years with Panasonic / Pan Sonic, Vainio had operated at the vanguard of a form of electronic music that relied on subtle impulse and an almost heavy metal approach to sound design. Arriving at a time when the syncopated rhythms of dance music had been dissected and shattered into a sound field of seemingly randomised pulses, glitches and white noise, Pan Sonic dealt in a coldness that was less about their Finnish roots and more about the starkness of their electronic noise.
The hour-long CD hidden in The Heat Equation’s luxuriant art book exterior is audio evidence of Vainio’s performance at Ramsgate’s Contra Pop Festival in August 2016. In part, the music is resolutely familiar as a Vainio suite in its palette of sources – the glitches, the nagging bass drones, the snatches of found sound and muted overheard voices. These vignettes were intended for Vainio’s next release for the venerable Touch label, but were stalled and considered entirely lost following his death in April 2017. Whether they were completed pieces or simply a document of Vainio working on new ideas is, like Michel’s photographs, devoid of specific explanation.
What emerges, strangely, is a not a coldness per se, nor a warmth – after all, it would be hard to ever conceive of Mika Vainio ever producing music that gave you a fuzzy feeling of contentment and security. Sure, there are moments where the only melodic input comes from carefully-controlled white noise, existing in a no man’s land of jarring distortion and grainy texture and beats that are merely beats because they provide a vague sense of forward momentum and order, but there are also moments of ambience and a less frantic approach to his essential glitchiness. Many of the pieces progress on a strangely delicate path, one segment thirty-six minutes in sounding like a haunting take on The Nutcracker wherein familiar melodic gestures are fractalized into razor sharp splinters.
It would be easy to regard The Heat Equation as an epitaph, a eulogy or a full stop. Instead it acts as a multi-disciplinary project that resides in an artistic hinterland where music and imagery both complement and rally against one another. The essential ingredient of an equation is the equals sign that balances either side; in the case of The Heat Equation, that sign is a haunting postcard of Vainio shot by Michel, the only true collaborative moment in a project created across the distance of life and absent friends.
The Heat Equation by Joséphine Michel and Mika Vainio is released November 1 2019 by Touch.
Words: Mat Smith
(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence
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