Half-Heard Rhymes: Joséphine Michel and Mika Vainio’s ‘Halfway to White’

By Justin coombes

What might a rhyme look like? This book and CD collaboration offers some intriguing answers to this question. Joséphine Michel creates exhibitions and books featuring her photographs, taken using the stills mode on a camcorder, and occasionally, as is this case here, in collaboration with others. Indebted to the early colour street photography of Saul Leiter but often almost abstract, her pictures are nevertheless full of recognisable structures and details that root them in the contemporary, mostly urban, environments in which they were shot: window frames, fencing, railway signage and the smooth, deathless surfaces of contemporary interiors. Michel creates what she terms‘sonic photographs’[1]: a neatly oxymoronic term that encapsulates her aim of making some of her pictures almost unrecognisable. In Halfway to White, their over-exposure at the moment of shooting bleeds them of some of their colour and gives most a snow or sandstorm texture. At the same time, once we can make out what objects and surfaces are depicted, we find we have a greater awareness of their tonal properties. Might this be how progressive blindness would feel? Her method is paralleled in some senses in Mika Vainio’s. His sounds are one moment like music (faint pulses slowly emerge) and the next like something much closer to the arrhythmic noises of everyday life from which they are originally sourced. They are regularly interrupted by total silence. There is a track listing but no prompt as to how each one should be listened to in relation to the pictures. Nor does any particular significance seem to be proposed by the sequence of the images: they either exist alone on a page or paired with one another, each filling a double-page spread. About two-thirds of the way through the book, several completely black pages interrupt any ‘flow’ that we might have assumed was being proposed by the image sequence.

In his essay, ‘Why Rhyme Pleases’, Simon Jarvis explains some of the reasons for the ambivalence with which rhyme has been received by successive generations of literary critics. Chief among these (then as now) seem to be that it is ornamental and unnecessary. Here are four lines from Carol Ann Duffy’s‘22 Reasons for the Bedroom Tax’:


Because the Badgers are moving the goalposts.

The Ferrets are bending the rules.

The Weasels are taking the hindmost.

The Otters are downing tools… [2]


Both ‘hindmost’ and ‘tools’ are included (and have dictated several lines of the poem) because they rhyme with ‘goalposts’ and ‘rules’. Neither moves the meaning of the poem forward; they are essentially decorative and (save perhaps for the incantatory effect of the poem’s listing device) does nothing other than offer a redundant echo of the first two lines. But as Jarvis points out, these qualities of redundancy and ornamentality tend only to be a characteristic (often a defining one) of weak usage of rhyme. Rhyme’s true power lies not just in its aesthetic properties (sonority, prosody, emphasis, etc.) but in it very capacity, to echo the meanderings of thought itself and to both create and satisfy desire in the reader.  Pattern and harmony are endemic to successful everyday human functioning (think of applied mathematics; swimming; chemistry; cooking). So too, skilful rhyme is intrinsic to a poem’s flow and meaning. Here is the closing couplet from Yeats’s ‘Never Give All the Heart’:


He that made this knows all the cost,

For he gave all his heart and lost[3]


‘Cost’ and ‘lost’ rhyme and are of course close, but distinct, in meaning. And there is a bittersweet pay-off in the pleasure that the rhyme arouses coupled with our understanding of loss that is both the theme of the poem and the noun-root of its resounding final word.  To put it simply, we might say that, within the parameters these poets have set for themselves, Duffy’s ‘rules and tools’ are unnecessary and Yeats’s ‘lost and cost’, necessary rhymes. Jarvis continues,

Over the last decade or so, I have been trying to explore the question of whether music need be opposed to thinking (…) Can there not be a musical or a prosodic thinking, a thinking which is not simply a little picture of, nor even a counterpoint to, that more familiar kind of thinking whose medium is essentially semantic and syntactic, but whose medium, instead, is essentially prosodic: a kind of thinking in tunes?[4] 

Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (1970) and, in particular, two sets of arguments within that book are central to Jarvis’s enquiry. The first is that technique is the way art thinks (my italics). The second is that art thinks historically and that what it knows is natural-historical experience. Form, in Adorno’s account, is a kind of veiled mimesis, not of individual objects in the world, but of changes in the texture of experience itself, which are too extreme (painful, blissful, obscure etc.) directly to be thematized. Jarvis again: 

No art is about itself. So technique knows something about the world. Yet it knows it, Adorno suggests, just by the most obsessive, and perhaps even the most fetishistic and solipsistic, absorption in its own proper stuff.[5]

It is this ‘proper stuff’ of lived experience that Michel and Vainio employ as their source material in Halfway to White. Over half of the pictures use symmetry and other forms of clear geometric pattern that are native and necessary to a great deal of architecture and engineering. And the sound pieces, with their genesis in ‘real world’ sources, also echo our everyday aesthesis of sound (think of how much of the sound we encounter in everyday life is in fact unwanted: i.e., noise).  A closely cropped zoom of contemporary Athens, perhaps shot from the Acropolis, all vertical punctuation and pastel shades, is the first image in the book: the pale buildings might be hewn of the same white rock from which so much of the original city was built. A few pages later, at first glance, an image of two wheels of a bus suggests more simple play with symmetry: the first is almost identical to the second. But a longer, slower look reveals the true rhyme in the picture to be much subtler than this: the empty space between the wheels and body of the bus are repeated, not mirrored, from one page to another. Perspective and tiny discrepancies in the alignment of the wheels render the crescent shadow they form above the left wheel marginally smaller than that on the right. And the small circular holes in the hubcaps of the two wheels do not form a simple repetition or reflection of one another. Those on the left wheel form a downwardly accented anti-clockwise sweep from twelve o’clock through nine to seven, whereas those on the right have an upward emphasis anti-clockwise from six to two. The relationship between the two wheels is similar to that of yin to yang. 

A picture on one right-hand page, like many others in Halfway, has been shot through some semi-transparent material between Michel’s camcorder and the picture’s ostensible subject: commuters strolling along the concourse below. In this instance the substance is perhaps reinforced glass, patterned with white acrylic checks that partially obscure the heads and faces of these four people. Their already anonymous forms are further abstracted by the little white ellipses on the glass and by their relationship to the four traffic cones to their right. In the image adjacent to this, we can discern, in what might be a cross section of the fixings of a sign, four sets of metal fasteners. The brand new bolts on the far left of the frame are mostly obscured by the artist’s crop. But those filling a third of the rest of the frame are clearly older, rusting rapidly and pointing towards the commuters on the right hand page. Matter is changing; screws are rusting; people are dying.

Several of the photographic pairings in other spreads also point obliquely towards the spuriousness of what we might like to think is a division between nature and culture. A left-hand page shows an aerial view of human detritus, a colour wheel of plastics bobbing in the swell of an azure sea.  A vector of spume cuts this image from top left to bottom right and points towards a rectangle in the bottom corner of the photograph on the facing page. This is the back of a chair on which one of two figures (again, partly veiled: this time through sheer curtains) in this picture is seated. As with the nut and bolt and commuter pairing, an extrapolation here might again be that human agency, powerful and pervasive as it is, is a part of nature, not the sovereign force in relation to it that capitalism imagines it to be.

Vainio’s method of production has a number of similarities with Michel’s. He collects sonic data from a wide range of sources, (originally, in his case, using analogue technology) and then blends them into one another digitally to make his work. So what can at first sound like ‘raw’ noise from real life reveals itself over time to be a highly stylized fabrication. The sounds are by turns portentous and adagio, jittery and staccato: produced perhaps under muffling blankets on one track and in an echo chamber on the next. They do seem to come from an outside of some sort, but where exactly? In terms of their conception, one answer might be Michel’s photographs: indeed, there might be an element of rhyme in the way in which this whole project was generated. A large selection of the pictures was first shown in Halfway to White’s first public iteration, a Michel solo exhibition at Les Rencontres d’Arles. Having added a number of images to the series since that show, Michel then approached Vainio and asked for his audio responses to a selection of them.

Artful use of rhyme opens up forms of thinking inaccessible by other means. Where Halfway to White succeeds, the rhymes, both internal to the pictures and sound and those created across and between them, seem to do so in the service of some larger truth of how we experience the world: the dance between welcome and unwelcome sense data we experience every waking second. This is achieved in part through very simple means: in the case of the pictures, through mimicking some of the effects of deteriorating eyesight, for example. And analogous hearing problems are perhaps hinted at through Vainio’s sounds. I am writing this essay whilst listening once again to his recordings, the volume on my laptop turned halfway to the white of full volume. From the courtyard below the balcony next to my room, I can hear sparrows chirruping in the air, bicycle bells tinkling, the low thrum of city traffic and a muezzin calling his adhān. Children are rollerblading and playing cricket. For a few precious minutes, Vainio’s music and the abstracted, unknown knowns of the noises of this world outside my laptop and this room blend seamlessly. I am using my headphones and am uncertain as to which sounds are ambient and which are of the artist’s composition. Halfway to White is an invitation to stay still and to listen to how the electricity in our brains makes rhymes of the elaborate structures of movement and consumption that exist all around us. These are what necessary rhymes might look and sound like.


This essay was published by photomonitor in April 2015


Touch ‎– FOLIO 001: CD, Limited Edition, Hardback Book. Release date: 4th May 2015.  [Editor’s recommendation: playing the MP3 sample ‘White Out’ by Mika Vainio on this webpage]


[1] See www.josephinemichel.com/#!/biography and Roy Exley’s illuminating interview with the artist at www.photomonitor.co.uk/2011/12/josephine-michel/


[2] www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/11/bedroom-tax-poet-laureate-carol-ann-duffy My choice of example here is perhaps a little unfair: Duffy’s nursery rhyme glibness might be read as itself a satire of political rhetoric.  And it was written only as a playful response to media criticism that she was neglecting her obligations as poet laureate. But for reasons of limited space, this excerpt illustrates Jarvis’s point more succinctly than his own citations from Alexander Pope’s ‘The Rape of the Lock’ and elsewhere.  

[3] www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/never-give-all-heart Again, the choice of example is mine, not Jarvis’s.

[4] Simon Jarvis, ‘Why Rhyme Pleases’, Thinking Verse I (2011), 17-43, p24

[5] Ibid, p25