Friday, October 24, 2008

Gins, Arakawa and the Undying Community, Jake Kennedy

Culture Machine, Vol 8 (2006)

But man is, starting from his death. (Maurice Blanchot)

The defeatists are everywhere. (Arakawa & Gins)

For Maurice Blanchot, the notion of community is necessarily tied to the fact of mortality. His conception of community as 'living for others' is dependent on the truth of human finitude'otherwise, he suggests, community would be lost to an undefined 'infinity of universes' (1988: 6). Blanchot's conception of 'living for others' is thoroughly influenced, of course, by Levinas's ethics'particularly his paradoxical sense of one's 'responsibility' to (and even 'substitution' for) the suffering other (Levinas, 1996: 6). Building upon Levinas's tropics of radical sharing, Blanchot argues that '[t]here could not be a community without the sharing of that first and last event which in everyone ceases to be able to be just that (birth, death)' (1988: 9). What is most importantly constitutive in this kind of community is the taking upon oneself of another's death: 'To remain present in the proximity of another who by dying removes himself definitively, to take upon myself another's death as the only death that concerns me, this is what puts me beside myself, this is the only separation that can open me, in its very impossibility, to the Openness of a community' (Blanchot, 1988: 9).

The foundations of this ethical thanatopsis mean that, for Blanchot'as for Jean-Luc Nancy, whose words Blanchot quotes''there can be no community of immortal beings' (11). But what would happen to the trope or hope of 'community,' if we were able to live forever? If human subjects could ensure their own infinitude, would the notion of community (like mortality itself) also dissolve into meaninglessness?

New York conceptual artists Madeline Gins and Shusaku Arakawa, like Blanchot, are also preoccupied with the connections between community and mortality. But in the spirit of a brash neo-avant-gardism, their answer is that community can only ever be located in eternal, collective life'in all of that which can be said to be utterly against death. In taking such a stance they are opposing an admittedly vast and daunting history of negative philosophy. But as Gins has stated, 'no point exists such that it is non-living' (Gins, 1994: 18). With this discovery, she and Arakawa are now building radical buildings (textual, architectural, ethical) that boast dangerous planes, bifurcated bath-tubs, infra-thin passageways, labyrinthine cityscapes'all this in order to ensure that we remain breathing together forever.

Gins and Arakawa are avowedly in the process of creating a world they term 'reversible destiny', in which subjects are invited to reconsider their passive subscription to biological hopelessness. As Trish Glazebrook argues, 'If the telos of human being is rationality (not just "mind" in the traditional philosophical sense, but embodied reasoning), then Gins and Arakawa breathe new life into this end. They push the thinker to full realization of the human telos by refusing to accept death as a done deal' (2004: 56). 'Reversible destiny' is founded on 'an ethics that permits no category of event, not even mortality, to be set apart for special treatment, and that considers there to be nothing more unethical than that we are required to be mortal [and so] shall be called a crisis ethics' (Arakawa & Gins, 2002: xviii). The betrothing of crisis to ethics is the avant-garde emblem of moral urgency. Thus, as provisional entities, Gins and Arakawa take all forms (bureaucratic; aesthetic; paranormal; affective; sentient; mineral) as temporary declarations of their intention to keep on moving. Gins and Arakawa's life work'that is, their cultural labour performed for purposes of helping an 'us' or an 'all' remain alive'is to create potentialities of consciousness, bodily presences, and roaming perceptions that would finally admit to the ubiquity of 'I' as a shifting-about patchwork quilt. In placing bright pylons around this never-the-same body, she and he are zoning us, it, them and all for the building of co-operative, communal futurity.

I remain fascinated by the diverse, undying commons'the cities without graveyards'of Gins and Arakawa. And in this paper I read these immortal (textual, architectural, ethical) sites through, with, and finally as an elaboration upon the philosophical tradition of unknowable or impossible or aporetic communities. My principle argument/demonstration is that where Blanchot, for example, locates the notion of community in the loss of the self and thus the ongoing life of the other, Gins and Arakawa extend our sense of 'body limits' and thereby dare us to live in 'ongoingness''as communal, dynamic I's/others that are always in process.

Both Blanchot and Nancy are implicitly concerned, in their investigation of community and mortality, with the impossible. They fasten the descriptor 'impossible' to the effect of a community that cannot ever be purely a community (i.e. the community exists as a proof to its members of their mortal truth). While Gins and Arakawa share indubitably with Blanchot and Nancy a wariness of succumbing to the terror of the universal (some totalizing community called Family, Fatherland, or Humanity), they are conversely impatient with these life-death paradoxes and race impetuously, naively towards a community of ultimate affirmation. Thus, Gins and Arakawa's reversible destiny project'while informed by the strategic ontologies and important ethical reservations of Blanchot, Nancy, and even of Georges Bataille'confronts head-on eternal life's so-called impossibility.

To throw the gauntlet down (as early as 1963 when they began collaborating on what they termed 'the mechanism of meaning') they first needed a new body'or a sense of body that did not immediately decay as a product of mortal thinking. Gins and Arakawa's Architectural Body is'to some extent'constituted of the most hale organs of the historical avant-garde. As their book title indicates, the duo cannot or will not entertain any separation between buildings/objects and bodies/subjects. This architectural body may be, or at least most bodily begins within, a resolute refusal to be anything other than the coupling of architecture and body. What is effected in this shift is an alternative instancing of self as selves. Gins and Arakawa's architectural body does not distinguish itself from its surrounds'on the contrary, the body is architectural not just because it is a 'building' itself but because it is made and changed by--and so too makes and changes--its multifaceted environment. This wedding of 'architectural' and 'body' signals their commitment to a richly communal (i.e. interconnected with both others and 'stuff') and ever-living ontology.

Gins and Arakawa, even before the bulk of the reversible destiny terminology was coined, have always been fascinated by inseparabilities as they relate to the human. Gins's 1994 fiction-art-theory-philosophy text, for example, Helen Keller or Arakawa, begins with a complicated chronology in which her own biography becomes entangled with Keller's and Arakawa's life narratives. What becomes clear throughout the rest of the text, and most vividly in their recent collaborative work, is that not only do bodies get confused wonderfully with other bodies but also with objects. If this subject-object mix-up is the perpetual case, suggest Gins and Arakawa, then we evidently know nothing about the so-called 'body' and therefore should begin analyses, tests and experiments in earnest. In this, they are extreme researchers interested in the life-giving possibilities of bodies that will not cohere, either as biographical persona or literary entity or subject of flesh or thing. The duo have collaborated on five books'The Mechanism of Meaning (1971), Architecture: Sites of Reversible Destiny (1994), Reversible Destiny (1997), Architectural Body (2002) and Making Dying Illegal (Forthcoming). Gins has also written four solo books: Word Rain (1969), Intend (1973), What the President Will Say and Do!! (1984), and Helen Keller or Arakawa (1994).1 Recently I met an art theorist who told me dismissively that Gins was crazy ('clinically insane'), confirming Gins' and Arakawa's strange status as irredeemable Don Quixotes of the present. Yet, why is it crazy'even clinically insane'to want to help the species live forever? Why do Gins and Arakawa provoke such visceral responses? Perhaps, in part, because their mad project is an epic tilting-at-windmills and therein they are interpreted as performing bad philosophy, bad art, bad postmodernism, bad life. And surely it is the latent spirituality of the project (whether one is inclined to sense the sunyata-like Buddhist principles of the body as ever-elsewhere or credulous Christian notions of resurrection, for example) that also jostles uneasily against the presiding contemporary cultural mode of irony, hyper-irony, and super-duper-hyper irony. What such dismissive criticism reveals is that Gins and Arakawa's optimistic initiative inspires some real ontological/epistemological fear. Could it be that the very 'fact' of death has caused otherwise prospective communards to opt out for fear of being called a chump, a dummy, clinically insane?

Gins and Arakawa are necessarily struggling to re-warp or un-warp the mind with and against the habit of death. 'Habit' is, yes, rather hackneyed avant-garde fodder but Gins and Arakawa have found (in habit, then performance of routine, then the shattering of that performance, and so on) that therein lies that which is often so very (held in) common. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri observe in Multitude, 'Habits are not really obstacles to creation but, on the contrary, are the common basis on which all creation takes place. Habits form a nature that is both produced and productive, created and creative'an ontology of social practice in common' (2004: 198). What is the death habit? To what, with respect to loss in its diabolical protean forms, have we become habituated? And why have we accepted death so passively, often so eagerly? Gins and Arakawa, calling death out like this, are wrestling not only with the grimmest, monolithic subject but also with the banal history of habit'perhaps habit is always the terrifying but simultaneously ho-hum story of death? If Marcel Duchamp's pioneering work with chance and routine exposed the variability of the quotidian, Gins and Arakawa have harnessed these discoveries to a frank project of total social replenishment.2

My grandmother always used to say walking up the driveway to our house and throwing her arms out, 'Greetings, salutations!'. Without the welcome's full-bodied openness, well, then, perhaps no world could exist. The Arakawa/Gins project is that kind of exclamatory, body-widening hello, it is (the project, that is) very much like a child. Therefore, because nothing has to die in the mind of the infant'from words to worms to worlds'then (again) 'no point exists such that it is non-living' (1994: 18). Anywhere we perceive an organism (be it a body or a stillness) this is an instance of interconnectedness. The spirit of Gins and Arakawa's avant-garde is irreverently mindful of the intimacies of heretofore being and heretofore non-being (Hello, grandmother! Hello, couch!).3 Theirs is an avant-garde that permits, one that trades the shock of the new for the shock of the you and the you and the you'as such, it might just prove that truth only exists in the identity's multitude. For them, the architectural body is a communal matrix'in tackling death (yes!) they are tackling the spurious, mythic notion of singularity'for we are always more than one person at any given moment.

And they link this tentative organism (this coalescing of exhilarating what ifs) to the notion of a maternal 'holding in'. They write:

She holds the architecture that holds her. Mother held me in her before she held me to her. She held me into (growing me into) my coordinating skills. The way the body holds itself, the many ways it holds itself, on many different scales of action, and the way it holds the world is cumulative. All the holding you have experienced, all the holding of you and by you, moves within and through your holding of yourself and has a part in your holding onto something. (Arakawa & Gins, 2002: 82-3)

Life's 'impossibilities' here are gathered elegantly into a vision of self as cumulative, graceful amassing. In this sense 'impossibility' is only our (as yet) refusal to acknowledge that we always did grow'and can continue to'as a tentatively held-in community. The only courage, as I understand it through Gins and Arakawa, is to live and work and play as if you are growing'better yet, as if you are growing a billion years from now.
Imagine the City Without Graveyards!

On September 30th to October 1st, 2005, an international conference was held at Université Paris X-Nanterre to discuss the work of Gins and Arakawa. Jean-Jacques Lecercle opened the conference and discussed a spectre haunting the reversible destiny project. I thought immediately of a conversation I had just had earlier in the morning with artist Jondi Keane, who told me that, while touring Gins and Arakawa's Gallmann Residence in Long Island (a 2,700 square foot structure not yet finished), he had the experience of being shadowed by himself.

One of the key concepts that Arakawa and Gins have coined is called tentativeness. They describe architecture as a 'tentative constructing towards a holding in place' (2002: 23). But they also employ 'tentativeness' as a mark of a would-be immortal condition-they are not turned on by stabilities and so champion temporaries, provisionalities, would-bes, might-bes, and yes-yes-yes's. Perhaps, in this blithe openness, they are the new and unrepentant Utopians?

Arakawa and Gins, in many ways, have decided (it's obvious!) not to be unhappy. They have decided not to be sad. Does the phrase 'the near and far scales' explain the difference between the two previous sentences, methodologies, philosophies, Weltanschauungen? At the closing plenary session, Jean-Michel Rabaté, too, wondered about the identity-implications of Gins and Arakawa's work and stated that the 'abolition of all death is the correlation of the anti-mythic.' (Incidentally, Gins told me that part of the problem [there is no problem] of beginning to live forever is to convince those that love dying that their romantic eternality need not be lost; many of us appear to be more afraid of generating a new metanarrative than of dying itself-try not to hold on to too much!) This anti-mythological thinking of the architectural body is a wry consciousness of 'besides': D'ailleurs, it is always the others who die (Duchamp's epitaph). Do we need death to stand beside ourselves, as Nancy and Blanchot and Bataille suggest? And what is one's relationship to the Other if nobody ever dies?

Gins and Arakawa have discovered that the body is entirely dependent on what it has been told to be-and it appears that it wants to remain (for now, for most) singularly faithful to dying. Blanchot's insistence that what founds community is 'the sharing of that first and last event' is utterly opposed (on one level, at least) to an Arawakian/Ginsian community of non-mortals. Indeed, death for him is the only true communion. But Gins and Arakawa advise (way before death) that, 'When attempting to note the degree to which you are communal, register any scale of action that you are at all cognizant of as a constituting member of the community which is you. (Further explanation: Formed in good measure of disparate groups of elements and features encountered, an organism that persons lives as a community.) (2002: 97-8)' Does this Gins and Arakawa 'community which is you' perhaps not aspire towards, and even reach, Nancy's sublime notion of plural-singular voices that 'call to one another, that provoke one another?' (Nancy, 2003: 88). Here the dimension of the world is all-dimensional in its singularity beyond singleness. Not a tense of 'this is this,' stress Gins and Arakawa, but rather one of 'What's going on?' (Arakawa and Gins, 2002: 49). I can imagine a community of 'what's going on' being much closer to the possibility of impossible community if only because a community of this-is-this continues to separate subjects and subjects, objects and subjects, etc.

The urgency of the reversible destiny project is founded upon grief. Gins and Arakawa lament the tragic passing of the opportunity to truly live. The architectural body, in this sense, is keenly ambulatory'a vehicle of hope that refuses to play dead. The body that believes in immortality yearns to move beyond lament and learn how life can be guaranteed forever. This body, according to Gins and Arakawa, will have to learn to accept the dilation of the concept of persons (personing); will have to say no to logic and yes to intermixing; will have to take on the job of architect-ing itself (true democracy); will have to begin training to walk into life as a purposeful guess and to keep on guessing; will have to try (to admit) to be (to being) intentionally provisional; will have to consider all actions as fingernails (attached to itself); will have to greet and welcome and expand plural oneness; will have to learn to supersede itself in the environmental communal; will have to jettison agency and stock up on procedures; will have to translate this procedurality as a community-wide collaborative initiative; will have to take courses in poetics or yoga or stress management or swimming, if necessary, in order to make 'body' akin to 'body of water'; and, finally, will have to think of itself as living breath, going all over hell's half-acreÂ…

Ubiquitous Site * Nagi's Ryoanji * Architectural Body Nagi, Okayama Prefecture, Japan Nagi Museum of Contemporary Art Size: 30' x 70' cylinder

'Symmetry should be able to supplant identity, and, sure enough, it can and does do this.' (Arakawa and Gins)
In entering the 30 foot high by 70 foot long cylinder there can only be a sense of cylindering. Even simply viewing this wild surround on the computer screen one gets a sense of cylindering being more powerful than death'as a sense option, at least. Yes, a sense of a sensing-cylindering as if that sense was multiply rifled: eyes as long tubes, fingers as long tubes, knees as long as tubes, and every strand of hair. Each of these extensive tubes (which come from intensive places) attach to other extensive tubes which are themselves attached to other living human beings. As 'identity' tumbles through this one big portal (and these small body portals) other identities fall through them too'as the body comes out the other side (perhaps) no one knows who's who. This is a great destination for the kids'they and it will never get old.

Site of Reversible Destiny -- Yoro Yoro, Gifu Prefecture, Japan 1993-95

As theorist Brian Massumi asks, 'Could architecture build on the ability of digital technologies to connect and interfuse different spheres of activity on the same operational plane, to new effect?' (2002: 192). Yes. Because here, for example, you may meet your own person-ness as it becomes a wider site of sites in the Person as World Suffusion Zone. A world steeped in persons is a living world that will not stomach death'it is too excited about breathing. But first, from the Yoro Park literature, you may wish to know what you're entering:

Opened in October 1995, the Site of Reversible Destiny-Yoro Park is an 'experience park' conceived on the theme of encountering the unexpected. By guiding visitors through various unexpected experiences as they walk through its component areas, the Site offers them opportunities to rethink their physical and spiritual orientation to the world. The Site comprises a main pavilion called the Critical Resemblance House and a large, bowl-shaped basin called the Elliptical Field. (online text)

The Elliptical Field resembles a massive bomb crater;4 and yet the site is 'softened' with the maps of Tokyo and New York, for example. The Management of Yoro request politely that park-goers wear rubber-soled shoes, perhaps in order to stick a little bit better to what is now called the future. There are new thoroughfares, too. One can walk, crawl, amble, and drift along Active Palpability Street, Alert Distance Street, Annoying Street, Error Street, Extended Hesitation Street, Mire in Whatnot Street. The Critical Resemblance House plays like crazy off the words critical, resemblance and house. Its roof reproduces Gifu Prefecture and you may begin to appreciate these fold-within-fold cartographies as active evidence of the body (identity) as multi-dimensional. There are also many mounds. Gins and Arakawa encourage all visitors to take up residence or just do whatever. As you holiday and fall, slide, slip, bonk and so on, the word on the street is: 'call out your name, or, if you prefer, someone else's' (from Directions for Use, online). Day-campers are encouraged!
Reversible Destiny Lofts In Memory of Helen Keller Mitaka, Tokyo, Japan

Self-Guinea Pig Now!

Not abutting but intersecting walls:5 therefore what are endpoints??

Porosity forever!

Guests must learn to prepare their own meals, in several kitchens, all at the same time. The one sink that appears in many lofts, throughout the building, is teaching the body not to hold on to too much of here-ness or this-ness or I-ness. After even a short stay here you and your family will feel without border, without fear'a little piece of you will (finally) be everywhere.

In this salut and now sayonara, I propose to exchange multiple explorations of the poetics of community as a socio-historical, politico-ethical and cultural construct that is all about a 'sharing of nameless' (Gins, 1994: 304). Beyond Blanchot's 'to share the solitude of the event', which is the other's death, Gins and Arakawa fix community in the sharing of an anti-mythic immortality. My own unlimited offer is that if you teach me hard-won, private procedures with respect to how to be more multiple I will (I promise) try to fling myself in many directions for the sake of your plurality, too. Are these the sounds, the special coupons (could they be) of community? With the demise of the traditional community as related to the nation-state, well, do we need Arakawa and Gins to throw us all into urgencies of you-call-this-country? you-call-this-geography? Ecstatic (but here and now) renewal is finally very tough to argue against. That is to say, the new collectivities just might reside in the old skin that keeps on living as it sheds.6 As if we are saying, 'Architecture Now!' and our brain-bodies shudder with the truth of that currency. These are anarchic sites in as much as no one knows who ends where. We will belong together then only where 'together' means a cheeky, ongoing gathering of each other. And, besides, since Arakawa and Gins are going to live forever or die trying, why not go global? The totality of this 'global will' will not fantasize, desublimate, colonize, or otherwise octopus the earth but only ever be a universal life-and-more: to delay death definitively in honour of the right to be alive for as long as one wants (for all time). What is determinate here? Merely many brains, many bodies, many buildings, many snails'a patchwork quilt community, I hope, of limpid, extra-long life.

A quick comment on this not-quite-novel, not-quite-theory, not-quite thing called Helen Keller or Arakawa. Gins tells us that it is the 'nature of this book to be a "sharing of nameless", one that passes through the words and images of Helen Keller and Arakawa and others' (1994: 304). The secret operative in the title is the clandestine agency of the 'or' which politely folds the historical body-seeing Keller into the artist-husband Arakawa in order to gain a disconcerting, thrilling vantage point (i.e. from the eyes and bodies of that modest, sharing conjunction). Or inside the 'or' is also Gins herself, and eventually us, like a thread, until this Helen Keller or Arakawa (in the e's, o's, and a's especially) is looped with her and our stringiness.

1 Gins and Arakawa trace their own influences back to at least the 14th century Japanese philosopher Dogen, particularly because he emphasizes the coupling of thought and body (the body-in-action). The informing, Dogen-esque spirit here is that life is described as a 'what's going on?'

2 To be deadly responsible and yet to be guided by the immortal precepts of irreverence. Gins and Arakawa say, 'We hope future generations find our humour useful for the models of thought and other escape routes that they shall construct!' (Arakawa and Gins, 1978: 2).

3 Arakawa and Gins love snails and poetry. They explain that:

All that a humansnail disperses: (its) ubiquitous site. Call all that a humansnail disperses: (its) architectural body. An interpenetration in the best possible taste because, as it were, of complementary tones: passive and active elements. The one simultaneously bathes and feeds the other, which covers the distance it breathes in and out and forms. (Arakawa & Gins, 2002: 31).

4 These are, according to Gins and Arakawa's subtitle, architectural experiments 'After Auschwitz and Hiroshima.'
5 Canadian avant-garde poet Adeena Karasick fuses concrete habit with new aphorism and so reveals to us that: 'where there's a wall there's a way' (2000: 39).

6 On the theme of radical communal skin, Hardt and Negri contend that, '[t]here are no queer bodies, only queer flesh that resides in the communication and collaboration of social conduct' (2004: 199).

Arakawa & Gins, M. (2002) The Architectural Body. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Arakawa & Gins, M. (1978) The Mechanism of Meaning. New York: Abbeville Press (orig. 1971).

Blanchot, M. (1982) 'Death as Possibility.' The Space of Literature. Trans. A. Smock. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 87-107.

Blanchot, M. (1988) The Unavowable Community. Trans. P. Joris. Barrytown: Station Hill Press.

Gins, M. (1994) Helen Keller or Arakawa. New Mexico: Burning Books.

Glazebrook, T. (2004) 'Architecture Against Mortality: Building Origins.' Interfaces: Architecture Against Death 21/22, Vol. 1: 51-8.

Hardt, M. & Negri, A. (2004) Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin.

Karasick, A. (2000) Dyssemia Sleaze. Vancouver: Talonbooks.

Levinas, E. (1996) Proper Names. Trans. M. B. Smith. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Massumi, B. (2002) Parables for the Virtual. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Nancy, J.-L. (2003) 'The Indestructible.' A Finite Thinking. (ed.), Simon Sparks. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Above copied from:

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The unity of the kind artwork, Roberto Casati

(Translated from Italian by Marcel Lieberman)

It is not easy to identify in a precise way the role that works of art play in our cognitive life. Yet, works of art, like all artifacts, are essentially linked to our cognitive life. A study of the relationships between art and cognition is thus a necessary step towards understanding artistic phenomena and artifacts. A variety of possible outcomes can emerge out of the study of this interaction.

1. The study of artistic artifacts considered as cognitive products can give us access to mechanisms of the mind that go unnoticed in normal cognition.

2. The study of cognitive mechanisms that form the background to artistic practices can enable us to bring into focus certain philosophical problems, for example, the question regarding the "definition" of a work of art and its conditions of identity.

In this article I'll examine an additional problem, which is different from, and in some ways more ambitious than the one posed by works of art considered as an object of cognitive and philosophical study: namely, the question that in a certain sense precedes the examination of topics such as 1 and 2:

3. The study of cognitive activities allows one to clarify and eventually solve the problem of the unity of the kind work of art.

I take it for granted that there is a problem regarding the unity of the kind. Or rather, that there is a unity of the kind and, what is more, that it is a problematic one. Besides the clear linguistic indication ("work of art"), our attitudes towards symphonies, architectural works, films, paintings and sculptures are much more similar to one another than are the attitudes towards, say, a painting by Picasso and a family photo. But this is just the problem: what is it that entities as diverse as a Picasso and a symphony have in common that outweighs the numerous and undoubtedly greater resemblances between a painting and a family photo?

We can examine two types of solutions, radically different from one another, that are based on the study of cognitive mechanisms. The first, which won't be discussed in this paper, is a "circumscribed" solution and appeals to the idea that there exists an artistic faculty or pseudo-faculty that is activated every time we encounter objects considered works of art. This would explain why such objects, as dissimilar as they are, end up in a single category. The theory of the "pseudo-module" seems to have a certain explicative power while using a limited hypothesis. I won't examine its validity; I prefer instead to present another theory, one that is completely different and much broader. This hypothesis places artistic artifacts within a social dynamic. It is in virtue of their becoming becoming elements of such a dynamic that artifacts acquire the wholly extrinsic property of being artistic. Up to this point, the "broad" theory does not differ from a sociological study of art. It adds, however, a fundamental question: why is it that not all artifacts become part of a social dynamic that makes them artistic? The explanation of this dynamic is subject to cognitive constraints, and the study of such constraints can enable us to make a prediction regarding the properties of artistic artifacts.

A mistaken but widespread theory of art

In order to characterize the second, broad theory, let us take a brief look at those things that seem obvious and that generate dubious rationalizations. When one speaks of cognitive theories applied to art, often the only thing one has in mind is a diagram: in one box there is the artist's mind, in another the mind of an observer, which are connected by an arrow that splits in the middle to make room for a box containing the work of art. (I could draw the diagram below, but refuse to do so in order to avoid spreading it even further). This diagram rationalizes and perhaps only illustrates common-sense intuitions regarding the function of cognition and the fact that art might be a type of expression. Through the work, the artist supposedly expresses himself or sends a "message" to his audience. An artist has something "to say". And the audience must reconstruct what the artist meant: the audience's task is that of an interpreter who, by observing or listening to the work and on the basis of personal knowledge and other background factors, is able to read the artist's message.

The message theory is surely a cognitive theory. But it is faced with a number of problems.

The main problem that interests us is that it doesn't explain the unity of the kind "work of art" among its diverse manifestations, apart from attributing to architectural works and dance the task of transmitting messages. In connection to the first problem, it doesn't explain why works of art are admired by people who know little about the history of art, why they survive the test of time (how is it possible to admire works by inaccessible cultures, whose message can no longer be reconstructed?), it doesn't explain why artists like talking about their works and why they apply labels to them (what purpose would it serve, given that the works already express what the artists mean?). Moreover, given that the sender of the message might not have in mind any receiver, or not know who the receiver is, one ends up losing sight of the receiver himself. At the same time, the intentions of the majority of senders are inaccessible: whether because the artist is no longer living, or because no one is so transparent to themselves and it isn't clear that artists really know what they intended to say. The result is that the work, rather than transmitting the elusive intentions of an artist, ends up with the responsibility of expressing the "spirit of an age". Lastly, the message theory does not explain why the artist chose such an implausible way of sending "messages". Why hide messages in a medium that requires so much work on the part of the one receiving the message?

There is certainly some cognitive work at play. But it doesn't seem plausible that it's the one required by the message theory.

The theory of conversational prompts

The alternative theory could be called the theory of conversational prompts. The theory claims that artistic artifacts are objects produced with the chief aim of provoking some type of conversation about their production. Artistic products don't serve as a type of "communication" between the artist and the public: they are not bearers of "messages". Rather, they are objects that must attract attention (and thus must not be instrumental, or hide their instrumental side) within a linguistic context in which they are used as objects of discussion. I won't enter into further details, which might seem somewhat definitory: definitions are notoriously useless for understanding common-sense notions. I would like to show how this hypothesis can work by showing how it is set within a series of anthropological observations regarding the use of artistic artifacts.

The theory explains why artistic artifacts are able to survive through time (if one thinks about it, this survival is quite strange, and at any rate hardly compatible with the idea that artistic products contain a message). They pass the test of time because conversation never stops; it is always in need of topics. Even when it is no longer possible to know the terms of the conversation in which the product was initially inserted as a stimulus, it remains possible to recover the product within a new conversation. It must be noted that the theory does not say that the artist must form the intention of seeing his product placed within a specific conversation (which most probably is the general one of his time), but in any conversation. This fact imposes constraints on the structure of works of art. They are objects that must be able to lend themselves to conversation.

Similarly, the theory explains why works of art pass the test of space, or rather why they can be appreciated by communities that are quite distant from the original community of the work's creator.

The theory explains why artistic products have the aspect they have. Artistic products must solve a variety of problems

- maximize novelty

- attract attention (be sufficiently different from instrumental artifacts)

- be sufficiently complex (through their apparent form, or through the history of their origin) to maximize conversational elements

The theory explains the fluctuation in the esthetic and economic values of artistic products. Having good qualities does not suffice for being a good conversational prompt: there must also be a conversation in which such qualities can be noticed. By postulating the existence of conversations, the theory explains why artistic products survive, are fashionable subjects, and die. (Likewise, it is not enough for a metal to have excellent qualities: resistant to acid, malleable, yellow, in order for it to be of great worth. There also needs to be a context of exchange that confers value to the metal). In the same way, the theory explains the difference between great art and popular art, simply by postulating the existence of different conversations with different rules: among a myriad of conversations (that provide the basis for popular art) one proclaims itself "high". Fine art is nothing other than popular art with an army behind it.

The theory thus explains the existence of degrees of artistic quality, and why certain things are considered art by some and not by others. It explains why a local artistic culture finds the works of another culture of little interest, while recognizing that they are artistic artifacts.

The conversational theory explains the origin of art and artistic artifacts. There is no origin! Works of art were discovered: or rather, it was discovered that certain objects entered into circulation within a community and caused people to talk about them.

It explains why instrumental objects can be works of art (as in the case of architecture, which some esthetic purists seek to expunge from the category of art). The possibility of being inserted within a conversation doesn't seem to depend upon the type of object to be inserted.

The theory explains why artists like to talk about their work and adorn it with explanations (this is particularly difficult to explain in a theory of communication or expression). It is a way of launching a conversation that will give life to the product.

The theory explains why paintings have labels and musical pieces have titles: they are points of entry into a conversation. It therefore explains why museum visitors head straight towards the labels, and place great importance on knowing the author and the subject.

It explains why an artist's biography interests us; and it explains why we are satisfied by the fact that the biography is in some way reflected in the work. It enables us to use the work as a narrative prompt.

The theory explains why works of art are acquired with no regard for the artist, like invitations to a conversation that are disconnected from the person of the author.

Finally, the theory's hypothesis that artists produce works with an eye towards possible conversations about their products, allows us to solve almost immediately the problem regarding the unity of the kind work of art. Works of art are objects created with the chief aim of making a conversation possible. The main proviso is meta-representational: the author must have the intention that his work be a conversational prompt. The proviso excludes cases of artifacts that are accidentally, but not essentially, currency for conversational exchange, like mathematical theories or political discourses which are not works of art.

The conversation theory and the time of a work of art

The intention of creating a work of art doesn't focus on the moment of creation, nor the moment of reception, but has a projection into the future; it is focused on the theme of the conversation. The difference between the message theory and the conversational theory concerns a deep metaphysical aspect of works of art: their relation to time. The conversational theory is by nature projective and has an articulation that unfolds in the future. Works of art have an evolution, linked to the exercising of discussions that change in the course of time. The message theory is temporally static and concerns a fixed point in the past. In the message theory time essentially concerns the packaging of the message: the moment at which the author consigns the message to the work. An eventual interpretation constitutes an extrinsic aspect, and therefore does not introduce a new temporal element.

The intuition that guides the message theory is that works of art are like packages, wrappers ("vehicles", a "medium"). One needs to unpack them in order to reach their hidden essence, the message itself. The artist leaves the message in the work just as a castaway does with a message in a bottle. The precise methods of the unpacking process cannot be foreseen a priori by the artist who doesn't know on which beach the bottle will wash up, or whose eyes will read the message. For this reason, one must leave room in the message theory for the notion of an open work: the sender's intention would be to produce a message that is at least partially indeterminate, that partly constrains interpretation, but leaves space for the receiver. The notion of an open work is a clear case of theoretic artifacts generated by the message theory. Only if one thinks that works must necessarily be interpreted in order to extract the artist's intention, must one then give an open structure to such an intention, faced with the mutability of possible interpretive contexts. But the necessity of "recovering" the artist's intention doesn't exist, given the inexistence of such an intention. Naturally, the artist can have intentions, but these concern the use of the work and not its interpretation. Emotions, messages, authors' intentions for communicating a message, substitutions of experience: these are possible, but accidental, ingredients of the dynamic that leads to the production, and assures the circulation, of a work of art. Works of art are not signs. Rather, they are more like toys.

What is a conversation? Empirical hypotheses

The conversational theory makes use of a concept, namely conversation, which is certainly indeterminate. What is a conversation? Can there be inner conversations (meditation)? Which conversation does the artist have in mind, a specific or general conversation? In fact, the theory shifts the indeterminacy of the concept of a work of art to the indeterminacy of the concept of conversation. In itself, this might be an advantage of the theory, to the extent that the concept of artistic artifact has fuzzy borders.

The fact that conversations are different in time and space does not create problems in so far as some conversational elements - the choice of topos, the way of developing it - are subject to cultural universals. Here, the theory makes an empirical prediction that will have to be tested: if what counts are not the conversations actually taking place, but the generic aspects of conversation, a study of the latter should bring to light some elements of works of art that usually go unnoticed. Where does the study of cognition come in regarding the conversational theory? In the fact that not all subjects are good for conversation and assure successful conversations. Studying the normative constraints of conversational success will enable us to make interesting empirical predictions regarding the content and form of artistic artifacts.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Mapping the Studion (Fat Chance Matmos): Sonic Culture, Visual Arts and the Mediations of the Artist's Workplace, Jérôme Hansen

Culture Machine, Vol 9 (2007)

'Artistic praxis in media worlds is a matter of extravagant expenditure. Its privileged locations are not palaces but open laboratories.' -- S. Zielinski (2006: 276)

I. The cacophony of a construction site
'Sociology and art do not make good bedfellows', said Pierre Bourdieu (1993: 139), who nonetheless spent most of his early career on the subject. Adding to this already troubled couple the variable of sound might seem as inappropriate as suggesting a ménage à trois to a partner who is just about to leave you. However, it is not my purpose to 'explain' sound in the arts, or sound as art, using the canonical toolbox of critical sociology: structure of capitals, habitus, field, illusio, etc. The various artistic practices commonly gathered under the compound term of sound/sonic arts deserve better than to end up as yet another means of validating a theoretical model. I have preferred a more exploratory framework to engage a dialogue between sociologies of art and what has been tellingly described as the 'acceptance of sound work as an element of visual culture' (Lovejoy, 2004: 292). The word acceptance supposes the existence of more or less explicit terms and conditions, which in turn imply negotiations between elements from both cultures - negotiations still very much in process, despite, or rather because of the increasing presence of sound pieces within buildings traditionally devoted to visual artworks. During an online panel discussion organised by Tate Modern, art historian and sound artist Douglas Kahn mentioned the event of:

a major sound art show…that self-destructed because the institution didn't know how to handle a number of sound works in close proximity to one another, due mainly to a curator in a land grab for glory who alienated the community of sound artists who could have lent their collective wisdom on the matter.1

This brief anecdote could serve to remind those who would conceptualise sound art in terms of a smooth blurring of aesthetic boundaries, that sound-based productions are intertwined with wider 'auditory cultures' (see Bull and Back, 2003). Compared to the art world, these cultures not only privilege a certain model of sensory intelligibility, but also exist through distinct networks of mediations. As a result, sonic cultures are still relatively alien to the collectives giving shape to the visual arts institutions, and to the modes of experiencing art they have established - I am thinking here about curators and other specialised workers as much as the physical organisation of museal spaces. To the extent that the ensuing tensions, if not aptly negotiated, could put at risk the very existence of the sound artwork. With his enumeration of the actors and their involvement, or lack thereof, in the drama of setting a sound exhibition, Kahn perfectly illustrates what Bruno Latour (2005: 88-89) wishes to convey when applying the metaphor of the 'construction site' to his sociological perspective. As will appear more clearly in the following sections, this discussion of sound art practices in relation to sonic and visual cultures owe a great debt to the sociologists who have translated Latour and his colleagues' ideas from science and technology studies into the domain of artistic production and diffusion (Born, 2005; Heinich, 1998; Hennion, 1989, 1997; Marontate, 2005; Yaneva, 2003).

As it proliferates and gains strength, sound art's construction site also uncovers previously uncharted or neglected strata of practices and discourses - Futurists' tactical use of mimetic noises, works appropriating optical soundtrack technology, musique concrète's first experiments with vinyl records and tape recorders, etc. - which art archeologists have since arranged into consistent narratives (e.g. Kahn, 1999; LaBelle, 2006; Toop, 2004). This depth of focus is essential in order to contextualise the unequivocal process of legitimation enjoyed today by 'sound objects' and the artists working with them. Far from entering fully formed into the art world, sound practices are intrinsically bound up with the (reordering of) material and symbolic mediations of auditory and visual cultures. The artist's studio imposed itself as a key site from which to examine these two networks intersecting, converging, and consequently expanding the circulation of sound as art beyond its habitual spaces of reception. But before making more explicit the function of the studio as a 'real allegory' - to use the subtitle of Gustave Courbet's painting The Artist's Studio (1855) -, I will first examine how a sociology interest in the mediations of art could challenge and/or complement existing perspectives on the subject of sound in contemporary art.

One way of explaining the potency of sound art is through the properties of its medium. Sound, after all, is air vibrating. David Toop has suggested that the cultural relevance of sound art 'seems to grow as the material world fades to the immaterial, fluid condition of music' (2000: 107). Yet, this kind of reductive ontology of sound paints only part of the picture, so to speak. In order to be experienced as immaterial, music, like any other art form, presupposes 'as sine qua non, the existence of an intense technical reproduction' (Hennion and Latour, 2003: 94). Christian Marclay has built a large part of his oeuvre on the premise that music is indistinguishable from the chain of material intermediaries necessary for its production and diffusion: score sheets, instruments, tape recorders, loudspeakers, vinyl records, album covers, or promotional posters (see Ferguson et al., 2003). The limit case of John Cage's 4'33'' illustrates the same point, as it discloses - while arguably trying to escape it - the entire 'life support' without which silence could never become music: the score written by the composer, the musician, the piano lid marking the different sections of the piece, the rows of seats, etc.2 Neither pure performance nor pure object, music is an 'immaterial and material, fluid quasi-object… It favours associations or assemblages between musicians and instruments, composers and scores, listeners and sound systems - that is, between subjects and objects' (Born, 2005: 7). Accordingly, a sociological exploration of sound art should start by researching the specific associations that support it.

But how pertinent is this project in an art context increasingly reliant on digital technology? It could be argued that decades of technological innovations and their successive incorporation within creative processes have rendered earlier attempts at setting clear aesthetic boundaries inoperative. Multimedia artists such as Atau Tanaka, Ryoji Ikeda or Carsten Nicolai, whose productions rely on the (metaphorical) synaesthesia enabled by digital devices, provide evidence to back up this argument in favour of a 'post-media aesthetics' (Manovich, 2001). Now that they can share the same computational spaces, on the hardware or software level, visual and sonic forms of expression are effectively 'translatable' into one another (Kittler, 1999: 1-2). If the cross-disciplinary category of sound art merely reflects the workings of deeper technological determinisms, is there still a need to differentiate between the mediations of auditory and visual cultures? As Manovich concedes, this explanatory model cannot escape wider sociological issues, due most importantly to the degree of stability of the art world compared with the tempo of technological change:

The assumption that artistic practice can be neatly organized into a small set of distinct mediums has continued to structure the organization of museums, art schools, funding agencies and other cultural institutions - even though this assumption no longer reflected the actual functioning of culture. (2001).

Art photography's tortuous path towards legitimacy is instructive here; despite its popularity, the photographic medium underwent a series of technological and aesthetic self-limitations before being granted cultural authority. In the case of avant-garde music, Georgina Born's ethnographic study of the IRCAM studios in Paris (1995) highlighted a similar tension between innovation on the one hand, and this institution's 'aesthetic stasis' on the other. By emphasising the need to treat art 'symmetrically', i.e., as a field of social practices, but one whose internal values, discourses and ways of operating sets it apart from other domains of social life, sociology of mediations proposes an alternative to the reductions of both internalist (aestheticism) and externalist (sociologism or technological determinism) discourses of art (Heinich, 1998: 11-21). Under these terms, the trio of sociology, art and sound may well consider sharing the same bed again.

II. The studio and the value regimes of art
Each discipline attached to the production of art has fashioned its own particular map for navigating within the artist's studio. Whereas sociologists tended to focus their attention on the inherently collaborative nature of artistic practices (e.g. Becker, 1982), thereby diluting art within wider issues of social production, art historical accounts were understandably more reserved in their uncovering of the realities of studio environments. More than the expression of divergent analytical viewpoints, this tension between individuality and plurality is in fact constitutive of the entire functioning of the art world, which requires paying attention simultaneously to what Heinich has termed the 'singular' and 'communal' value regimes of art (Heinich, 1998; also Gielen, 2005). Recently, art historians and sociologists found more common ground regarding the importance of the artist's workspace, partly under the joint influence of science and technology studies (see Latour and Woolgar, 1986) and their emphasis on the 'black box' of laboratories as a crucial site in the construction of scientific facts. Contrary to those who have judged the laboratory-studio comparison to be 'strained and tedious' (Hughes, 1990: 34) when pursued beyond the metaphorical level, I would argue that this analogy finds a new resonance in the context of contemporary (visual or sonic) artists working with digital technologies.

Following in the footsteps of laboratory studies and the discipline known as 'actor-network theory', Hennion has described the recording studio as a social and material microcosm where experiments are conducted on a basis of trial and error:

The studio is impermeable to systems; it dissolves obligatory associations; it undoes rationalizations. Inversely, all connections are permitted, whether or not they are specified in the user's manual. The studio is an apparatus for capturing raw material by extracting it from the structured networks along which it circulates in 'normal life' (1989: 410).

If this depiction of studio practices is still largely relevant today, the technologies which have entered the recording environment in the last decades nonetheless impose a reassessment of the entire network of humans and non-humans gathered in the production of sound works. Developments in multi-track recording techniques, possibilities of compatibility and real-time composition allowed by industrial standards, wider availability of hardware and software for sampling and processing sound digitally, more powerful and portable computers, without saying anything of internet-based communication and its decentralised modes of collaboration: the list of new actors encountered in the contemporary 'studio-network' could go on forever.3 Digital technologies also operated a 'remediation' of the studio space, from the obligatory passage point it once was for a majority of artists, to a more compact, mobile, and thus more effectively mobilised socio-technical assemblage. Sound works no longer require to be produced exclusively in large and costly studios, as the presence of laptop devices in both performance and recording environments has lead to a compression of these two stages. Under these conditions, contemporary sound artists are more likely to amalgamate the work of previous mediations, and increasingly occupy the position of 'producer-creator' (During, 2003: 45). For these reasons, the recording studio's 'digital octopus', to update one of Hennion's metaphors, appears as the privileged vantage point from which to understand the artistic phenomenon of sound art.

In order to translate the technology-driven shift observed in the (home) studio - or, on a smaller scale, within the circuitry of the producer-creator's laptop - to the opening up of art institutional mediations (museums, galleries, public art institutions, funding bodies, etc.), we need to combine the dimension of 'studio-network' with the studio as a discursive trope in the modern constitution of the visual art world. The set of values that have come to structure art's regime of singularity developed from changes in the repartition of roles between the artist's studio and the spaces of public reception; both spaces functioning 'in tension' with one another (Rodriguez, 2002). This is to say that notions of individuality, originality of vision and unmediated authorship accompanied the purification process from the open, multi-function atelier of the craftsman to the specialised and isolated painter's studio. As a result of this strong historical and discursive connection between studio space and the values of an autonomous field of art came what Jones (1996) calls the 'romance of the studio', a powerful narrative that still informs the conditions under which art objects and their producers are mediated through the art world. This is not to say, of course, that visual artists themselves have not consciously challenged, in their practices or writings, the symbolic regime attached to their situation, for example by developing a reflexive 'post-studio' aesthetics (e.g., Buren, 1979). Yet, as Jones further argues:

Even if we locate the isolated studio as a willed trope within early modern artistic production, and distinguish it from some other kind of historical condition, we must acknowledge that current uses of the term "studio" are burdened by this sense of isolation, and by further efforts…to inscribe studio within the frame of individual genius' (1996: 4).

Having recalled this mythical trope of the studio in the context of sound art, it now becomes possible to reformulate the tensions mentioned above between technological shifts and institutional stability. Sound artists, 'sculpting' or 'painting' with sounds - and sometimes even fashioning their own tools - in the confinement of their creative environment can be perceived as less part of a collective process, and more as an individual creator.4 The sound artist's workspace corresponds now more than ever to the constituting symbol of art's singularity regime: the (isolated) painter's studio. As successive innovations in recording technologies entered the studio, musicians, electro-acoustic composers, and sound engineers started to refer explicitly to the conditions of visual artists when describing their relationship to the sound object and the apparently 'unmediated' control it allows. Amongst others, Brian Eno reflected upon the new possibilities for playing the studio like any other musical instrument:

You are working directly with sound, and there's no transmission loss between you and the sound - you handle it. It puts the composer in the identical position of the painter - he's working directly with a material, working directly onto a substance, and he always retains the option to chop and change, to paint a bit out, add a piece, etc. (Eno, 1979/2004: 129).5

As Hennion already noted, the shift that operated in the field of music and sound from 'work-as-performance' to 'work-as-object' took place as the visual arts were witnessing a turn in precisely the opposite direction, towards a 'musicalisation' of their practice (Hennion, 1997). The fact that digital technologies have now made sensorial data correspond at the level of codes further intensified the connections between visual and sonic cultures. But in order to fully comprehend the modalities under which sound travels across recording studios, music venues, museums and galleries, it is important not to underestimate the discursive mediation of the artist's isolated studio and its regulating influence on the value regimes of arts. Seen from the studio, the phenomenon of sound art looks less like a generalised blurring of aesthetic boundaries than like the potential extension to sound practices of a system of values promoted by the institutions of the visual art world: isolated artist, individual creativity, fixed work, and, at the end of this symbolic chain, contemplative reception. This final section will be devoted to the ways in which sound and visual artists map their own studio, and how this representational level might interact, reinforce or conflict with the two dimensions of studio-network and studio as art historical trope.

III. Studios on display: Nauman and Matmos's laboratories
The black box of scientific or artistic laboratories can be explored using different methodologies. However, the most effective way to make sense of what is happening in those notoriously hermetic environments would be to open them up and, as Latour repeatedly advised, 'follow the actors themselves, or rather that which makes them act' (2005: 237). In an ethnographic analysis conducted during the staging of an installation by Carsten Höller, Yaneva (2003) recorded what she terms an 'affluence' of actors - artist, curator and support workers, small details and huge structures, informal conversations and rigid procedures; an ever-shifting collective which generates (while at the same time being generated by) the work that visitors will eventually encounter as a stable object. Needless to say, the characteristics of 'art in action' highlighted through this method of investigation varies sensibly from that of traditional disciplines of aesthetics: '[i]nstead of being situated in a single artistic mind, in the imagination of a genius, the artistic process is…seen as distributed within the visible collective' (Yaneva, 2003: 118). But what if the object constructed through this collective act of staging was the studio itself, or at least a representation of how artists experience it? I am not talking of the very postmodern trickery that consists in 'reconstructing' à l'identique the workspace in which the great masters have once worked.6 Alongside this popular curatorial trend, a number of contemporary artists have also reactivated the traditional theme of the 'artist at work', albeit in the more self-conscious and intertextual fashion characteristic of today's art world (see Wood, 2005).

When turning his own working environment into an aesthetic motif, the great painter generally took care in complying with the normative discourse of the studio as isolated site of individual genius: '[t]he studio may, on occasion, have been teeming with people. But what is represented as the studio experience is a solitary's view' (Alpers, 2005: 11-14). Already referred to above, Courbet's The Artist's Studio famously digressed from this rule and provided instead a much more ambiguous commentary on the artist's physical and symbolic space of production. Without expanding on this particular example, I find it significant of the complex status of the studio in the context of digital arts that, when asked to produce a new work in response to any of the paintings on display at the Musée d'Orsay, video artist Tony Oursler chose to 'remix' Courbet's painting.7 My aim is to provide a sociological reading of two closely related installations in which the artists Bruce Nauman and Matmos, using video and musical performance respectively, restaged their studio practice in a museal space. I have chosen these two examples of 'exhibited' studios on the basis of their shared themes and the fact that they both give a large place to sonic elements, but most importantly, because they allow me to navigate simultaneously between three dimensions of the studio: (a) as network of mediators where people and things are linked in the act of creating an artwork, (b) as discursive trope standing for authorship and individual creativity, and (c) as aesthetic motif typically reinforcing a value regime of singularity. Interpreted symmetrically, I believe both works provide valuable ideal types for assessing the interplay of sonic and visual cultures (as well as their corresponding value regimes) in the contemporary art world.

III.1. Nauman: emptying the studio
Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage) is a multi-screen, audio-visual installation produced in 2001 by video art pioneer Bruce Nauman. Running for almost six hours, selected from forty hours worth of material, it was composed exclusively from views of the artist's studio, shot at night using the infrared function of a digital video camera, and accompanied by elements from its ambient soundscape: ventilation system, Nauman's cat meowing, distant dog barking and trains passing, etc. Beyond the pun on John Cage's favoured mode of composition, the soundtrack in itself testifies to Cage's influence on the way Nauman has come to think about sound.8 Although self-contained, Mapping is also part of a series of pieces derived from the initial work, and including a version using different colour filters and rotations of the images, as well as condensed Office Edit versions. Here is how Nauman, in typically unassuming fashion, described the catalyst for this piece: 'I was sitting around the studio being frustrated because I didn't have any new ideas and I decided that you just have to work with what you've got' (in Kraynak, 2005: 398). Whatever the reliability of that statement, it is important to replace this project within the artist's oeuvre and its recurrent themes.

At the beginning of his career, Nauman had started to record himself, using either film or video while conducting odd, ritual-like activities in his studio. One of these documented performances, Stamping in the Studio (1968), showed him disappearing and reappearing in the frame while the sound of his steps was shifting in tempo and loudness. In this collection of early pieces, we can already perceive one of the dominant themes explored all through Nauman's career, i.e., the artist's private activity versus the public's perception of what an artist does, or should be doing.9 Hence this constant tension in his oeuvre between 'the amount of information given to focus the public on the piece and Nauman's fear of exposing himself too much' (Van Bruggen, 1988: 19). The artist's first proper sound installation, Get Out of my Mind, Get Out of this Room (1968) is another good illustration of how he has exploited the public-private dichotomy by combining sonic interventions and a metaphorical use of space. More than just another loosely-related piece, Mapping thus comes to light as the latest, and arguably the most achieved, in Nauman's long-time use of the studio motif as 'a double self-portrait' (Auping, 2004: 16), but also further evidence of his interest in sound and voice as semiotic registers capable of disrupting visual representation and challenging the viewer's attention. In that respect, Nauman's oeuvre, as seen from the viewpoint of Mapping the Studio, illustrates perfectly what art anthropologist Gell (1998: 232-251) called the play of 'retentions' and 'protentions' that distribute the meaning of a single artwork across time, that is, across previous and future works.

It is not only with regards to Nauman's career that this installation should be understood as a 'distributed' work; it is also through the 'affluence' of other human and material agents involved in the process of 'making' the piece. The example of the recent staging of Mapping the Studio II at the Tate Modern, extensively documented for educational purposes on the gallery's website, makes this more tangible.10 The passage from Mapping I to the coloured and more complex version exhibited at the Tate necessitated a further stage of digital image processing: 'Dennis Diamond at Video D…did the colour shifting and the flip, flop…and all the editing with Bruce and that was just an AVID process' (see note 10). Equally crucial to the installation, the sparse yet disturbing soundtrack took a lot of adjustments in order to enter its new environment. About this stage of the artistic process, the person in charge of this project said:

Bruce and I went through the flip book where there are indications of certain sounds happening and, knowing the piece and knowing which sounds are going to be really loud…finding those places and just setting the levels so that that's the loudest you're going to hear (ibid.).

It appears from these two moments that the setting of audiovisual installations of this kind involves a number of stages of production that displaces the artist and the work-in-progress from the confines of his or her studio, and re-place them within an heterogeneous network of people, objects, tools and procedures. One could say that the studio itself has become decentralised, as the workplace travels with the artwork towards its more or less temporary destination in a museal space.

But what does this studio-as-artwork retain from the collective of actors involved in its production - artist, support personnel, AVID technology, exhibition room, etc.? In other words, is it really the same decentralised studio that Nauman has chosen to 'map' and offer to the visitor's contemplation? Commenting on this piece, Kahn points out that Nauman, in order to play on the viewer's expectations to see the genius at work, successfully appropriated a visual language rendered familiar by CCTV culture, which tends to produce vast quantities of 'nothingness' (Khan, 2004; 87). Yet, in Mapping, we are still left staring at a strangely familiar representation of the studio; a space in many ways closer to the romantic myth of the individual painter than probably even Nauman intended. Abstract Expressionist painters, according to Jones (1996), represented an extreme case of the modern continuation of the studio myth. And in the workspace as represented in Nauman's act of mapping, there is more than a little echo of Philip Guston's portrayal of an 'emptying studio':

When you start working, everybody is in your studio - the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas - all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you're lucky, even you leave' (cited in Jones, 1996: 11).

By choosing not to turn his camera on himself or on the collective that made up this work as it is experienced by the viewer, Nauman ends up reactivating a view of studio that the art world has never completely abandoned. For what could best convey the individual artist's unmediated authority over his or her work than an empty studio, purified from all external influence?

III.2. Matmos: staging the collective
In 2003, the San Francisco Yerba Buena Center for the Arts offered a residence to the duo of electronica musicians/sound artists Matmos. In response, the band literally established residence in the gallery space, where they relocated most of their home studio equipment, along with some apartment furniture. They spent the next seventeen days (ninety-seven hours in total) performing and improvising during the gallery's opening hours, using a wide range of instruments and machines, also inviting friends and local artists to participate. For Matmos, a band commonly associated with so-called 'glitch' aesthetics in contemporary electronic music (see Cascone, 2004), this restaging of their studio was a first occasion for, as they said, 'dipping our toe in the art world'.11 Influenced in equal measure by popular music genres (punk, disco, techno) and by the experimental works of Pierre Schaffer and his colleagues at the GRM, Matmos's music reflects what Toop has called their 'fascination with the implications of object as thing in relation to object as sound source' (2004: 225). This means that, although stricto sensu 'instrumental', their compositions rely primarily on their recording and digital manipulation of the noises produced by a selection of objects or object-oriented activities - from balloon-stretching to plastic surgery operations, depending on their guiding theme - which they then rearrange into a consistent, and sometimes song-like, structure.12

Deliberately or not, the project's title, Work Work Work, corresponds, one extra 'work' notwithstanding, to the name of a video installation created by Nauman in 1994. As with Nauman's Mapping, this performance of the studio explores the discrepancies between the band's actual creative process and its public perception. At any moment during the performance, anyone could enter the studio space, 'cross the proscenium and wander about on stage, contemplating the actors' make up and props' (Morse, 1990: 158). By interviewing the first visitor every morning, then using his or her recorded voice as the basis for a new composition, Matmos's intention was to bring 'people in the process and show them how it's made…And I think it's a good thing because too much of the electronic music people have a tendency to act as if they're splitting a fucking atom or something' (see note 11). If this active involvement of the public in the installation space clearly evokes Cagean principles, it is tempting to read into the presence of a coyote pelt in the studio-exhibition room another form of homage - Joseph Beuys's extreme performance, I Like America and America Likes Me (1974), for which the artist secluded himself in a small room for three days, with only a coyote for company. The fact that Matmos members Martin Schmidt and Drew Daniel are partners in both the romantic and the professional sense of the word only adds to the installation's confusion between 'home' studio, domestic space, and exhibition space.

Following Matmos and the sounds they carry with them throughout their creative process would take us far beyond the material and imagined space of the traditional recording studio. In that respect, the performance does not constitute a finished work that can be isolated from previous or future creations. Instead, the artwork is a truly distributed assemblage, as is their studio. At the moment of entering the gallery, the band's laptops already contained a hard disk full of isolated noises and rhythmic sequences, unfinished sketches as well as fully formed tracks from their then latest album, The Civil War. The liner notes for this record informs us of the range of sound objects, people, events and locations that the band has managed to capture by transporting their studio-network across space.13 And if we still try to track the band's sounds after the performance of Work Work Work, some of the pieces created whilst improvising in the gallery resurfaced (doubtlessly after being edited and mixed some more) on different websites as freely available downloads, then again, more recently, as an album distributed through Matmos' own micro-label. Other sounds might have ended up on later albums, while more are probably still hidden within one of their laptops, waiting to be re-used, re-mixed or simply trashed.

How different is this representation of the studio experience compared to Nauman's? And what can it tell us of the value regimes privileged by the sonic and visual arts' cultures?14 The studio as mapped by Matmos demonstrates a total equivalence with the artists' actual creative process. In Work Work Work, people and objects, human and technological actors, equally populate the studio-network (how it is made) and the studio-motif (how it is re-presented) in a long and convoluted collaborative chain. Whereas nothing of the social and material agency that has transported Mapping the Studio II to the Tate found a place within the multi-screen installation. Moving from Nauman to Matmos, one level of the studio has been abandoned, and that is the mythical studio as site of individual genius, from which visual artists have historically claimed total authorship over their production. On the contrary, in the sound artist's studio, or rather 'post-studio', we encounter an object 'rendered provisional, its finitude or openness a matter of pragmatics… The conceptual dualism of authenticity or artificiality is obsolete; there is no original and no copy, only rapidly proliferating, variant versions' (Born, 2005: 28).

The advent of digital arts and the consequent expansion of collaborative processes beyond a fixed studio space have not necessarily put an end to visual art culture's traditional regime of values. Isolated workspace, individual creativity and unmediated authorship still form part of a symbolic chain that structures the discourse of legitimacy within art institution and gives it its stability in the face of technological innovations. The artistic phenomenon known (but for how long?) as sound art is a mixture of practices, technologies and discourses. But it is also a network of mediations that has reached beyond its previous territories, to places where sound had for long been prohibited. Some artists have expressed unease at the sight of sound being integrated so readily within museums and galleries. Others, like Matmos, have seized this opportunity to turn the gallery into yet another place where they could engage in collaborative activities, extend the network of their studio, and reveal the 'relayed' nature of their creative process.

I am grateful to the organisers of the SoundAsArt conference (University of Aberdeen, November 2006) and the Media & Film Research in Progress seminar series (University of Sussex) for allowing me to present this research in a friendly and supportive environment. Also, many thanks to the two anonymous referees for their helpful comments and suggestions.

1. 'Sound at Tate', online panel discussion, January-March 2005: thread.jsp?forum=43&thread=2471&tstart=0&trange=15 (viewed 15 March 2007).

2. Latour (2006: 105-107) utilises the term 'life support' after Sloterdijk to illustrate the fragility of what could be taken as 'natural' arrangements, but which are in fact deeply fragile technological systems, such as the earth's atmosphere.

3. Here, I should dispel the possible confusion between recent examples of 'network studios' discussed by Théberge (2004) and my description of the studio as network. Whereas the former refers to the linking of distant studio locations through internet-related technologies, I use the term 'studio-network' as a shorthand for the affluence of heterogeneous actors assembled in the process of producing the work; in that sense, an artist's studio is always a social and material network, whether or not it is technologically 'networked' with other studios.

4. Let us only mention the case of musicians David Shea and Markus Popp, who both designed their own composition softwares (see Van Assche, 2002: 12), or, more specifically connected to the domain of sound art, the photosensitive system developed by Stephen Vitiello for his oft-cited residency at the World Trade Center (see Lovejoy, 2004: 203).

5. As Sterne (2003: 215-286) convincingly argued, there has never been a clear-cut distinction between recording technologies and musical instruments. Recording has always been a 'studio art': active mediation rather than more or less faithful reproduction of a preexisting performance.

6. Bacon and Brancusi are only two of the examples of this trend discussed and evaluated in Wood (2005).

7. For more details on Oursler's updated version of Courbet's The Artist's Studio, see his interview with Jacqueline Humpries: (viewed 15 March 2007).

8. The subtitle for Mapping the Studio finds its origin in a previous exhibition of Cage's scores to which Nauman participated: 'Cage was an important influence for me, especially his writings. So I sent…a telegraph that said "FAT CHANCE JOHN CAGE". D'Offray [the exhibition's curator] thought it as a refusal to participate, I thought it was the work…' (in Kraynak 2004: 400).

9. Other film and video works produced by Nauman during this period include: Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square, Playing a Note on the Violin While I Walk Around the Studio, and Bouncing in the Corner, No. 1 & 2.

10. See: (viewed 15 March 2007). The interview with Michael Short from which the two following quotes are extracted is available at the same address.

11. Interview with Matmos: (viewed 15 March 2007).

12. The members of Matmos have said that their initial impulse to produce electronic music came after listening together to Pierre Henry's concrète masterwork, Variations Pour Une Porte et Un Soupir (1963). See: (viewed 15 March 2007).

13. As a good illustration of Matmos's playful modus operandi, see the credits for the Civil War track 'Stars and Stripes Forever': 'May contain the following Harvard seminar participants: Han Yu (leather coat),…Jesse Aron Green (bicycle pump), Jascha Hoffman (sink)', etc., etc.

14. Another question at this stage might be: is Bruce Nauman a valid representative of the institutional art world? Yes, at least if we were to believe's rather opaque Artists Ranking, which places Nauman in a surprising third position (only behind Warhol and Picasso!) in terms of 'recognition in the eyes of professionals (i.e. curators, gallery owners)'. See: (viewed 15 March 2007).

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Above copied from:

Monday, October 20, 2008

Excerpts from Gloss For An Unknown Language. David Antin

David Antin: The Stranger at the Door (Genre, 1987)

In 1965 in the second issue of the magazine some/thing that I edited with Jerome Rothenberg, we published the following text:

Excerpts from
Gloss For An Unknown Language

Tablet 3

Line Character

17 9 Image formed by a moving object for the duration of one breath.

31 7 An object formed by the intersection of an imaginary sphere with
objects of the reference language. (Here used to describe
a plano-convex section of flesh/earth).

31 8 Used by an observer standing at the edge of a body of water
to denote an area of water surface in front of the observer
and the area of earth of equal size and shape behind the observer,
considered as one surface.

Tablet 10

6 4 Everything within the bounds of an imaginary cube having its center
congruent with that of the observer, and an edge of length equal to
the observer's height.

23 9 A verb apparently denoting the motion of a static object. (The
meaning is not clear.)

Tablet 13

19 3 A unit of time derived from the duration of dream events.

45 2 The independent action of two or more persons, considered as a single

It was the longest of a series of texts by the sculptor George Brecht, some of which had originally been printed on individual cards and collected in a cardboard box designed by George Maciunas and issued in a limited series under the title of Water Yam by Fluxus in 1963. In the magazine they appeared under the title

Dances, Events & Other Poems

between the Table of Contents and a chapter of what the Contributor's Notes referred to as Rochelle Owens' "encyclopedic novel-in-progress," Elga's Incantation. The title was as I remember supplied by my co-editor, because Brecht was out of the country and had simply left us a pile of manuscript copy. Together with the layout, in which the smaller pieces, for purposes of economy and clarity, were printed two or three to a page with their margins staggered to maintain their separate identities, the title tended to suggest somewhat equivocally that these texts were all to be considered poems. Equivocally, because the title itself - Dances, Events & Other Poems - in its use of the word "other" suggests that these "dances" and "events" are also "poems" and raises the question of in what sense these texts might be poems while also being dances and events.

Taking as examples the pieces THREE YELLOW EVENTS and THREE DANCES:

I. - yellow
- yellow
- yellow

II. - yellow
- loud

III. - red




it seems probable that in the Fluxus box both of these texts would have been regarded as scenarios or instructions for performances somehow to be realized by a performer/dancer. A Judson dancer might have realized the instruction "Saliva" by spitting, begun the second movement ("Pause") with a rest, then urinated in a bottle and rested (Pause) again, and concluded with a set of violent exercises leading to "Perspiration." He could have interpreted the second with a series of lamps that flashed "Yellow" and "Red" or might better have unrolled bolts of colored cloth or paper or painted them and realized the noise with a tape of hammering or a pneumatic drill or simply yelled after the fourth yellow. This would all have been within the context of the game of interpretation between a scenarist- inventor (composer poet, artist, choreographer) and a realizer (musician, actor, installer, dancer), a performance genre that had been established in the contemporary art community since the late 1950's and is abundantly illustrated in the Fluxus oriented anthology published by LaMonte Young and Jackson MacLow.
MacLow's own 1964 publication, The Pronouns: A Collection of 40 Dances, is probably the most brilliant and extensive example of the "dance-instruction poem" which MacLow explains in the following way:

The poet creates a situation wherein she or he invites other persons & the world in general to be co-creators. [1]

and in his "Some Remarks to the Dancers" specifies precisely how he means this:

In realizing any particular dance, the individual dancer or group of dancers has a very large degree of freedom of interpretation. However, although they are to interpret the successive lines of each of these poems - which are also dance-instructions as they see fit, dancers are required to find some definite interpretation of the meaning of every line of the dance-poem they choose to realize. (67)

These remarks are both definitive and explicit; and, though perhaps somewhat more explicit than some other practitioners of the instruction genre might have liked, together with Peter Moore's photograph of various danced realizations of The Pronouns, they indicate how well established this genre was for the early 1960' art world.

But appearing in some/thing was a bit different. Even if there was some overlap - we published George Brecht, Jackson MacLow, Carolee Schneemann in this issue under the cover of a Robert Morris lead piece - our magazine was directed more to the contemporary poetry world, which was a somewhat different audience. Since a genre is a theater of operations that is defined by the audience that comes to it and the memories of previous performances they have attended there, as well by the nature of the site - because what tends to determine our understanding of the nature of a site is our memories of the performances we have seen there and our dreams of the performances we might some time put there - we could have expected to see quite different generic significances attributed to these texts. And in fact, by publishing them the way we did, we were promoting these differences to get a poetry-reading audience to see these verbal pieces as poems.

But Brecht's texts were not poems in the same way as MacLow's, who considered himself a poet, called his texts poems, performed them at poetry readings as well as in concert settings, and published them in literary magazines. Moreover, however strange they might have been verbally to a conservative poetry audience that required poems to consist of more or less grammatically well-formed and semantically perspicuous utterances that expressed the psychological state (usually intense) of some plausible speaker (James Wright, for example), most of MacLow's poems should have satisfied another of the requirements of this Romantic poetics. They were very musical - in that they were marked by arbitrary phonological and intonational play, though more in the manner of Gertrude Stein than William Butler Yeats. Still, to an audience for whom Gertrude Stein was a poet, and so for the only people we took seriously, Jackson McLow was clearly a poet. But George Brecht was another matter. It is a considerable distance from MacLow's 8th DANCE: MAKING SOMETHING NARROW AND YELLOW (on the pronoun: "We")

We make some glass boil,
& we have political material get in,
& we make some drinks,
seeing danger,
& making payments,
& all the time we seem to put examples up.

Then we do something consciously
& we name things.

Afterwards we quietly chalk a strange tall bottle.

We question each other
while we do something down on the floor,
attacking each other at times,
but never stopping our questioning, and always reasoning regularly.

We number some thing or some people
& we page some for the people,
& either we harbor poison between cotton or we go from
breathing to a common form
while we skirt a rod,
and then again we harbor poison between cotton or we go
from breathing to a common form
while we're doing waiting,
like someone awaking yesterday when the skin's a little
but each of us has an instrument,
& we go under
as anyone would who awakened yesterday when the skin's
a little feeble;
afterwards we're being red enough;
we walk,
we rail,
and once more harboring poison between cotton or going
from breathing to a common form,
we're finally doing waiting. (21-22)

to George Brecht's



or the untitled

Three of them were the same size, and two were not.

But for us this distance was not so great as to obscure their family relationship within the great genre of poetry, which for us was a superordinare genre - the language art, not the microgenre synonymous with verse and based primarily on a distinction however tenuous from prose. From the very beginning as editors of some/thing, we were completely uninterested in the verse/prose distinction promoted by the neoclassical essayists following the lead of Eliot and Auden.

Our first issue began with a selection of Aztec definitions collected by the Franciscian friar, Bernardino de Sahagun a few decades after the Conquest. [2] In his preface Rothenberg introduced these texts, which he called Found Poems from the Florentine Codex, with a short account of the collapse of the great Indian civilization and the fragmentation of "that archaic system, fixed in ritual and myth" that "had been wrenched from them." The survivors, Rothenberg suggests, had a "need to preserve the potency of the real by a regular overturning of primary beliefs," a task to which they were stimulated by Sahagun's project of compiling a record before they vanished of The Things of New Spain. To this accounting they brought a vast assemblage of their gods, their days, their signs and omens, their sacrifices, their songs, their defeats, and in the midst of this collection they appear to have compiled a list of definitions of terms for the simple things of their lives - rocks, birds, plants, trees, implements, topographical features.

The Precipice

It is deep - a difficult, a dangerous place, a deathly place. It is dark, it is light. It is an abyss.

A Mushroom

It is round, large, a severed head.

Here according to Rothenberg "we can draw close to them, can hear in these 'definitions' the sound of poetry, a measure-by-placement-&- displacement, not far from our own," different from their songs and hymns collected by Sahagun and others, which "has its own goodness" as "part of the fixed world before the upheaval." But only these definitions participated fully in a freedom that was, in our view at that time, more important than whether they were intended as poems or not. "For surely," the preface concludes, "it should be clear by now that poetry is less literature than a process of thought & feeling & the arrangement of that into affective utterances. The conditions these definitions meet are the conditions of poetry. "I would probably, even then, have put this a bit differently, but I am still convinced, as I am sure Rothenberg is, that these Aztec definitions meet the conditions of poetry, or perhaps more precisely that it is not worth while to define a set of conditions for poetry that would exclude them.

These questions of necessary and sufficient conditions qualifying a work for entry in a genre is really a central issue for the concept of genre, but it is often confused with the related but somewhat different question of genre definition. Genre definition may be a futile pursuit because culturally well-established genres with a long history like poetry, as Aristotle's famous essay seems to demonstrate, may be embarrassingly difficult, or even impossible to define in a compact and nontrivial way. But new works are continually being proposed for inclusion in established genres and judgments are constantly being made about the suitability of their candidacy. The history of modern art is filled with accounts of well known critics confronting works that they declare are not "painting" or "music" or "theater" or "dance", only to be answered by others that what they have been confronting is indeed and for certain very good reasons "painting," "music," "theater," or "dance."

These arguments about genre membership have rarely if ever proceeded from definitions of the genre to an examination of the candidate's qualifications. Probably this is so because very few people educated in art feel confident in sweeping definitions of a terrain in which they have experienced as much anxiety and effort as pleasure and conviction, but also because it simply seems the wrong way to go about it.

The negative critic, when not simply outraged, usually proceeds by identifying the absence of some single feature of the new work that he or she regards as an indispensable attribute of all genre members or, alternatively, the presence of a feature that is antithetical to such an attribute. In fact this indispensable attribute is almost inevitably merely a marked feature of all members of some favored subgenre. So for Robert Frost or Allen Tate "formal versification" was the indispensable attribute of poetry, for Stanley Cavell pervasive "compositional choice" the indispensable attribute of music, while for Michael Fried the "literalness" of Minimal Art was antithetical to art, or at least to "modernist" "painting". [3]

The tactic of defenders is to connect some fundamental feature or features of the new work with some feature or features of members of apparently legitimate though not currently dominant subgenus, or with an insufficiently marked feature of a dominant subgenre. This was the point of connecting Whitman's free cadences to the cadence prose of the King James Bible and the rhapsodic verse of the Hebrew prophets, of connecting Katie's Gymnosperm to plainsong and Gregorian chant, earthworks to Stonehenge, or Happenings to collage.

These tactics can be convincing or unconvincing, brilliant or trivial, as the connections are fundamental or inconsequential. What most convincing arguments of this type have in common is some way of deepening our sense of the tradition of the genre and of art by articulating some hitherto unknown and consequently unforeseen productive line of play that will allow the genre to continue to satisfy our needs. It appears to be this kind of game that keeps a genre alive once it has developed to the point of general recognizability. This seems evident from the fate of opera which, as long as its patrons and performers regarded it as a museum art all of whose creators are dead, counts as an extinct species until some composer like Philip Glass with a band of collaborators attempts a new kind of dramatic musical spectacle that restores it to the condition of an endangered species.

So in the case of the George Brecht texts, I believe we saw in them something new that revealed the existence of an insufficiently marked and indispensable poetic tradition. His TWO SIGNS joins a line that connects ways of working as diverse as Frances Denmark's translations of Chinese songs, the Englishman version of Japanese haiku, and a singular poem from Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons.

The two signs

extricated from two discrete worlds - a recording studio and an apartment house window - come together to gloss John Cage's famous observation that in the supposed total silence of an anecdotist chamber you can still hear the sounds of your nervous system and your blood circulating. so SILENCE becomes a place where there is NO VACANCY, as the cup that you empty is not truly empty because it's filled with air. The operation of mind invoked here to make sense of this brief text is very close to that required for Issa's haiku

one man
one fly
one big guest room

where a single fly measures the magnitude of the empty guest room, or Buson's

on the temple bell
a butterfly
sleeps [4]

with its two scales of sleep from which both bell and butterfly may wake together, briefly. What is interesting about these works - their conceptual brilliance, which is illuminated by the Brecht poem, seems even more pointed in translation, that strips them of the particular excellences of the Japanese language and verse, and releases into English a new mental poetic power. This power is also invoked by translations of American Indian poetry. I think particularly of Frances Densmore's translations of Chippewa songs.


In the coming heat
of the day
I stood there.



Maple sugar
is the only thing
that satisfies me. [5]

which disdain poetically conventional "musical" devices for an intense concentration and a mysterious elegance of tempo and focus that create the image of a purely mental "music" independent of symmetry, repetition and jingling, strangely similar to that singular poem of Gertrude Stein, a poet by no means averse to symmetry, repetition and jingling, A WHITE HUNTER:


A white hunter is nearly crazy. [6]

This poem goes off like a rocket and leaps out of the semantically fractured text of the rest of Tender Buttons with such piercing clarity you can easily forget that you have no idea what it refers to. At the very least there is this image that always comes to me as the all white silhouette of a man in pith helmet and safari clothes projected against the black map of darkest Africa - a silhouette drawn so taut it must surely break and is therefore "nearly crazy," and while such a response is not literary criticism, something of this tense polarity of white and the implied black most be invoked for any reader, stretched to its breaking point at "nearly" and shattered on the word "crazy." If the poem hadn't been written in 1913 one might have to think of it as a deadly image of Hemingway, for whom it could have served as an epitaph; but since it was written too early for that, I like to think of it as an arrow waiting for its target.

Now as I go over these series of work with family resemblances that group themselves around the George Brecht texts - the Aztec definitions, the Densmore Chippewa songs, Stein's White Hunter, I begin to see other poems that come to join them - Ezra Pound's "Papyrus," and "In a Station of the Metro," William Carlos Williams' "Red Wheelbarrow" - and this suggests a whole new set of works that might follow out from them as a set of possible consequences: Jerome Rothenberg's Sightings, Robert Kelly's Lunes, some of my Meditations... This list could easily be extended, but I believe this family grouping as I have sketched it out is still too narrowly framed.

Suppose we return to one of Brecht's longer texts, TWO DEFINITIONS, which reads

- 1. Something intended or supposed to represent or indicate another thing, fact, event, feeling, etc. ; a sign. A portent. 2. A characteristic mark or indication; a symbol. 3. Something given or shown as a symbol or guarantee of authority or right; a sign of authenticity, power, good faith, etc. 4. A memorial by which the affection of another is to be kept in mind, a memento, a souvenir. 5. A medium of exchange issued at a nominal or face value in excess of its commodity value. 6. Formerly, in some churches, a piece of metal given beforehand as a warrant or voucher to each person in the congregation who is permitted to partake the Lord's Supper.

- 2. (a cup of saucer)

These are dictionary entries. The form is familiar. Perhaps they've been modified by subtraction, though the first one seems literal enough. But here they evidently serve a quite different purpose, because the dictionary is being run in reverse. We habitually go to dictionaries to find definitions of terms we have in hand but with whose usages we are unfamiliar. Here we are given a family of usages that cluster around an unknown term. On their own, these usages seem almost as diverse as the members of a genre. They are queerly related, and queerly different - a memorial affection, a piece of metal, a medium of exchange. Taken all together this definition presents an odd list of actions that you have to think about several times as you work your way up and down the list before you try to guess at the words that unite them - TOKEN - which then takes on a new life surrounded by all this history when you've finally guessed it.

So this text invokes a family of poems, not so popular now, but whit a long history - the riddle - and gives it a new life in contemporary terms, as it turns the dictionary into a possible anthology of riddles by reading its entries in reverse and cropping them of their normal function. But it also calls for family membership with texts of Marcel Duchamp or Joseph Kossuth, though perhaps more faintly when we read the second definition

- (a cup and saucer)

where the possibility of satisfactory solution is denied because there aren't enough clues to tell whether you have the right answer or not, and the impact is mainly made by the rhetorical tactic of an abrupt scale shift from the copious first definition to the sparse and enigmatic second, which gives the work something of a joke structure as it seems to say "you've solved the first one smart guy, try this."

As Brecht's TWO DEFINITIONS opens up a line of connection to riddles and conceptual art, his excerpts from GLOSS FOR AN UNKNOWN LANGUAGE open in yet other directions. Once again we are dealing with lexicography, but here the lexicon is a selection of translations of presumably problematic words from a text recorded on tablets in some other language. Unlike Armand Schwerner's TABLETS, [7] which may as well have been suggested by this work as by Kramer's Sumerian translations, Brecht's text has none of the impulse toward lyrical though fractured speech, and all of the interest is focussed on the significance of the terms and our need to imagine a possible world in which they could apply. This brings Brecht closer to Wittgenstein than to Schwerner.

Though the conceptions implied by some of these term are from our point of view decidedly eccentric, they are nevertheless imaginable. In Table 3 we encounter

Line Character

17 9 Image formed by a moving object for the duration of one breath.

which suggests a strongly apperceptive and perhaps kinesthetically oriented society with a powerful interest in the measurement of their most fleeting perceptions. Tablet 13 at Line 19, Character 3 yields - "A unit of time derived from the duration of dream events," which is open to at least two crucially different interpretations: this is a society that has found a method of measuring dream events "scientifically" by rapid eye movement or EEG or some unknown sophisticated device of technologically advanced civilization; or it is a kind of ritual knowledge such as an Australian aborigine might have had of the "dream time" and sacred happenings within it. In the latter case we know less, because we don't have any idea what the event measuring would be like. Still, it is even possible to speculate on a society that combined both the technological and ritualistic orientation to the dream. In both cases we may have entered into the genre of a science fiction.

In Tablet 10 at Line 6, Character 4 we have a unit of conceptual organization, "a cube having its center congruent with that of the observer," in which the observer is embedded as in a kind of three- dimensional Vitruvian space frame that, though apparently odd in its extraordinary precision - having "an edge of length equal to the observer's height" - could be conceived as relevant to the extreme body sensitivity of these people and their strong awareness of proximate objects. This heightened awareness of objects behind as well as in front of the observer appears also in Character 8, Line 31 of Tablet 3, where an observer standing at a shore takes note of both the area of water surface in front of him and the equal area of earth behind him as a single unit. It also indicates, somewhat more obviously, a riparian or littorial culture or at least a culture that attributes some importance to the shore. This is the kind of imaginary anthropology that is invoked by Kafka's In the Penal Colony or better-grade science fiction. But of course it is not saddled with a story to tell or even a complete landscape to depict, it merely sets up suggestions of a culture we are invited to conjecturally imagine on the basis of scanty evidence.

Then there are the completely absurd or paradoxical entries, like Line 23 Character 9: "A verb apparently denoting the motion of a static object. (The meaning is not clear.)," which last comment like most of the footnotes of Schwerner's scholar translator, calls as much attention to the comic pathetic plight of the translator as the absurdity of the text. Whereas the gloss for Character 2, line 45 in Tablet 13 evokes a fundamental paradox.

The independent action of two or more persons, considered as a single action" - a man zipping up his pant while his neighbor's wife sues her employer - may be loosely conceived as simultaneous events, in a sense, perhaps as metaphorically connected or as equivalent, or even identical from a certain perspective; but an event isn't an action, which we think of in relation to the idea of an agent. As long as multiple equivalent actions have distinct agents, we can't imagine how to think of them as a single action if we are to continue to make sense in the language we call English. The idea is, so to speak, ungrammatical. Of course one point of this GLOSS FOR AN UNKNOWN LANGUAGE is to suggest the possibility of another language in which ideas that are "ungrammatical" in our language might be "grammatical," or to allow us to decide whether some ideas that seem logically possible and therefore in our sense grammatical are in fact fundamentally illogical and ungrammatical for any language we can imagine, if this gloss has provided a truly adequate translation. Naturally, it is always possible that the translation may be faulty.

The impulse to this sort of speculation connects GLOSS FOR AN UNKNOWN LANGUAGE to works like Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations or even to the Tractatus and appears to draw them into its orbit: if A is a relative of B, B is a relative of A, and they are both members of the same family. I have on other occasions argued the case for consideration of the Tractatus as a poem, but it is not really relevant to the issue here. It may be that the GLOSS and the Tractatus are constructed out of the same kind of materials but are different kinds of buildings. What I am trying to show is the way the notion of genre operates and has operated as a generative force in the world of radically contemporary art and poetry.

In this context the George Brecht texts are typical in that their candidacy for membership in the genre of poetry appeared to us at the time as both questionable and desirable, as did just about all of the works we found most interesting and powerful - Cage's lectures, the whole range of MacLow's random and partially random texts from the Assymetries to the Presidents and the Light Poems, all of Gertrude Stein, the Aztec Definitions, and a great family of texts generated from "primitive" and modern performance and conceptual art works.

This list may suggest, as it probably has suggested to neoconservative critics, that the sole purpose of proposing such work for genre membership - they would probably say "for inclusion in the canon" - is an absolute lack of fit and consequent suitability as instruments of a traditional avant-garde intention to shock. But a questionable fit is unlike either an absolute fit or absolute lack of fit. It is more like an uncertainty about a strangely resembling foreigner presenting himself at a doorway and seeking recognition as a family member, a situation that calls for a kinship search perhaps involving possible affiliations with quite remote ancestors or merely peripheral relatives. This exercise in kinship analysis has been one of the most fruitful aspects of post-second World War avant-garde art activity, but it has certain surprising historical precedents.

It is well known that Aristotle in the Poetics, following Plato and possibly a widespread Greek cultural understanding, accepted imitation (mimesis) as the common feature of all art, of which the Poetics served as a full philosophical defense, primarily against Plato's attack in The Republic. But what appears to have escaped notice is that in postulating imitation as the defining feature of all art, and imitation through language as the defining feature of poetry, Aristotle was able in the very next passage to propose several radically new candidates for inclusion within the genre of poetry - the mimes of Sophron and Xenarchos and most pointedly the Socratic dialogues - a piece of dialectical judo that allowed him to cast his old teacher as a poet and member of the same class he had exiled from his Republic precisely because of the common commitment to imitation. The comedy of this reversal, which is presented deadpan and somewhat elliptically, could not conceivably have escaped the notice of Aristotle's contemporary audience, who would surely have understood that they were being presented with an elaboration of Plato's own theory with its value reversed, in a version where the notion of reversal (peripety) plays as strong a role. The comic effect must have been greatly enhanced by the fact that the passage in question never once mentions Plato's name.

But if it was rhetorically necessary to sweep the mimes of Sophron and Xenarchos into the net of poetry for Aristotle to catch the Socratic dialogues without revealing that it was Plato himself he had set out to trap, Aristotle had to place himself in the avant garde position of presenting not one but three candidates that must have been considered questionable from the traditional view of the genre. The reason for this was that the mimes and the Platonic dialogues were, according to Aristotle, composed in "bare words" and not in verse, and the traditional conception of poetry was grounded on the historical connection of poetry (the rhythmical verbal art) with music (the art of rhythmically and harmonically ordered tones) and dance (the art of rhythmical body movement) in the family grouping or supergenre of mousiké. This was the old cultural understanding supported through the 5th century BC by a performance tradition that regularly associated poetry with music and dance went along with a widespread belief in their historical unity.

This understanding may have been associated with the notion of imitation, but could not easily extend to include works that were not apparently aimed toward actual performance, until a truly literary and private literacy that admitted solitary and probably silent reading had become reasonably widespread. According to Eric Havelok such a situation did not come into being until the end of the 5th century, [8] but by Aristotle's time, private literacy was sufficiently widespread to allow for a theory of poetry that was not grounded in performance. This situation is probably reflected in Aristotle's notorious indifference to the actors' performance of tragedy, the importance of which he contemptuously minimizes and compares unfavorably to the art of the costumer. In these circumstances a new understanding could be framed that might admit Aristotle's nonmetrical candidates.

Of the three, Plato's dialogues posses not only the feature of imitation, which was perhaps not so universally accepted as a characteristic attribute of poetry as the Platonic literature would suggest, but they also possess extreme flights on fancy - fantastical figures, metaphors, allegories - that were the surface manifestations of a principle of radical invention, which was widely held to be the property of poetry and probably contributed more to the acceptance of Aristotle's candidates than anything else. For surely it is an interesting question to ask how ready Aristotle's audience would have been to admit as poetry Xenophon's desperately pedestrian Socratic memories, regardless of how thoroughly they exhibit the principle of imitation.

In fact Aristotle's use of the principle of imitation as a defining feature of poetry created more problems for him than it solved, because according to his reading of the principle as a representation of human action he was obliged to exclude from the genre the metrical philosophizing of Empedocles, that had strong traditional claims to membership, and forced to consider admitting history, his resistance to which provides one of the funniest and most problematic passages in the Poetics. In the courage of the absurdity with which Aristotle excludes Herodotus, "the father of lies," from the genre of poetry, because he presents an imitation of facts ("what has happened") and therefore a contingent representation instead of the essential representations, fictions or truths, of poetry, Aristotle abruptly shrinks the principle of imitation from a defining feature to a necessary condition and foreshadows one of the symptomatic tactics of a theoretical and programmatic avant-garde.

It is in sharp distinction from this kind of exclusive and theoretical radicalism that the most interesting post-second World-War avant garde undertook its game with genre. Genre was seen as family membership and the basis of inclusion was affiliation with any subgroup with which a new candidate shared a fundamental feature. This often had the fruitful effect of articulating and characterizing possibly for the first time an important branch of the family, which would open up a line of connection between past practice and future possibilities. So for some/thing, consideration of George Brecht's poems appeared to connect and open up a tradition of poetry that acts primarily as an instigation of mind to the solicitation of experience.

This articulation is not a definition and would not have served as one if we had stated it in the magazine at the time. It was an opportunity for extension of a practice, that did not even include all of the works that we published and clearly reached out to many works that we had not published or thought to publish, which might well have dissatisfied many of our contributors or even ourselves. Structurally, the result of introducing works like the Brecht text was very much like a situation described by Wittgenstein in which someone gives the rules of a game and someone else in accordance with the rules makes a move that is legal but was not explicitly foreseen and changes our image of the game. As Wittgenstein points out with droll understatement "it must have been possible not to have foreseen that some quadratic equation would have no real roots." [9]

It seems apparent that there is a large body of otherwise interesting poetry that is not primarily an instigation of mind or is so only secondarily, and there are I am sure many contemporary poets for whom this would hardly seem a sufficient or appropriate function. And even using the texts of Jackson MacLow, who fits well enough within this branch of the family of poetry, and whom we published in all five issues of some/thing, we might have come to a different fundamental feature. Something like - radical invention. Following this rather Shklovskian sounding feature would lead us through a somewhat different family grouping that, depending on how we interpreted it, might include only GLOSS from the George Brecht texts, while connecting to the works that we printed of Roclelle Owens, Allan Kaprow, Armand Schwerner, Carolee Scheneemann, as it looked backward to poets like Gertrude Stein, Blaise Cendrars, Vicente Huidobro, Kurt Schwitters, Hans Arp and Tristan Tzara and Velimir Khlebnikov, or even more interestingly to Aristophanes, Sterne, Diderot, Kierkegaard and G. Spencer Brown.

But this feature too, though it throws light on an illustrious branch of the family and valuably extends a practice, would hardly suffice as a genre defining property. As many, and perhaps even more, of my contemporaries would be dissatisfied with it, apparently definition is no more useful for the notion of a genre than it is for the notion of a family. Seen from this viewpoint the viability of a genre is based on survival, and the indispensable property of a surviving family is a continuing ability to take in new members who bring fresh genetic material into the old reservoir. So the viability of a genre may depend fairly heavily on an avant-garde activity that has often been seen as threatening its very existence, but is more accurately seen as opening its present to its past and to its future.

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