(In a Forest of Signs)

5.4: Brighton Community Choir Does ‘Without You.'

The wooden sign weighs heavily against my shoulder, pulling coarsely against the damp wool of my suit. The men and women that surround me are drunk and snarling, laughing wildly, fighting one another in doorways as I approach. The first of them turns and sees me - a hen party with matching angel wings, fedoras, and feather boas.  The hen, I presume, reaches wordlessly for the microphone clutched in my left hand, bends down to lick it, immediately turning it into some phallic symbol while her party giggle and scream in unison. And then it begins…

‘I can't forget this evening, or your face as you were leaving…’

Three or four muscle men storm past, one striking me with his fist as he does so, winding me. I struggle to keep the sign aloft, to maintain my frosty composure, suddenly filled with a very real fear.  The women sing louder now, joined by the passengers of a car pulled up at the lights, then by the smokers loitering outside the nearest pub.  One very bearded man, charged with a captivating gusto, begins to lead the assorted group of strangers through the refrain, arms raised high above his head

‘you always smile but in your eyes your sorrow shows, yes it sho-oows…’

The words momentarily trail off, the group struggling to recall the next line in vain, before the hens get bored and launch straight back to the beginning, the others quickly following.  I turn, head further up the street, through the heaving crowds.  Soon I pass a man handling his own sign, a walking advert for a nearby pizza shop.  Our eyes meet. He looks confused, rushes to put down his sign lest he is seen as part of my act, and in doing so drops the thing onto the pavement, where it clatters loudly between us.  I continue up the road for a time, pausing every few feet whenever people break into song, or dance, or hug.  At the top of the hill I am suddenly accosted by a group in their mid-twenties, their bodies forming a triangle across the pavement, blocking my path. Their leader, a lady struggling to speak without the obvious slur that betrays the degree of her inebriation, wobbles forth, finger outstretched and poking me in the chest.  ‘Why?’ she demands, jostling forth. ‘Why?’ Lacking an answer, she repeats herself at greater volume, turning to her playmates momentarily, before returning her gaze to me and adding, with venom, ‘Are you really this sad?’
 I face her in silence, unwilling to explain or justify.  She stares back at me, visibly angry.  Her entourage, two equally inebriated men, saddle up, one puffing out his chest, the other, shorter, more pensive, meekly suggesting ‘Maybe it’s his religion?’
As if to answer him, the queue of people at the cash point behind them suddenly erupts into song, its meagre queue linking arms and twirling in circles, voices thrown high into the tense, dank air.


If we are to argue that objects are defined not by what they are, but how we relate to them, the same is true of spaces.  They have been built to house certain rituals, to advance certain relationships between those who visit them.  While this may include elements designed to be conducive to the art experience - strong acoustics, white walls - the reality of such decisions is that they make assumptions about the needs of their patrons.   Since such assumptions will be more accurate for some than for others, these spaces enhance certain kinds of aesthetic or social relationships – certain ways of being together - whilst simultaneously diminishing others.[i]  A building's design will reflect its architects' assumptions as to its inhabitants, and will thus delineate what goes on inside.  That said, the degree to which the design of art venues prioritises the art that inhabits them, is often negligible.  The vast majority of small venues - particularly for music - are first and foremost pubs, and have been designed for the purchase and consumption of alcohol. The ceremony they cater for is rarely art itself, but a social context that occurs independently of any qualities of the artwork.[ii]  Even the most dedicated art space must cater for art-in-general, rather than the specific qualities of any individual work.  As such, the relationships prioritised are unlikely to be those that elucidate a work’s latent potential, its Otherness, as much as those that best serve a previous (known) community.  

Small argues that art-spaces act as a breach from the everyday, dislocating the relationships of the art-event – as defined by the expectancies and ceremonies of the building - from those of daily life.  From this perspective, the very existence of such spaces is problematic for the stability of the art event.  Art is, as demonstrated by Rancière, defined by distance - it is not a part of life, but a space removed from social activity in general, in which its players can explore alternate ways of being.  Designated art spaces risk overlooking the reality of such distance, taking a way of being that is itself once removed from social activity and extracting it further.  Art venues are places that “allow no communication with the outside world. Performers and listeners alike are isolated here from the world of their everyday lives. Commonly, there are not even windows through which light from outside may enter. Nor does any sound enter from that world, and none of the sounds that are made here will be allowed to escape out into it” (Small, pp.25-26, 1998).  Although this is something artists increasingly seek to remedy, the reality of such spaces is that they risk their participants being twice removed from the world of which they are a part.[iii]   

At its most basic, the very concept of walls problematises the notion of Other.  If, as has been explored, Other is ultimately unknowable, this is clearly quite different from an Other who is unperceivable – we must, at the very least, know that there is an Other out there.  Walls, particularly those designed to divide one community from another, disavow the very presence of Other, blocking them from view, silencing their noise.  To perceive objects, Others, or even whole communities in isolation, is to eschew the processes that made them.  The perception of our environment's noise is nothing but the perception of its ecology, its diverse biosphere.  Indeed, I would argue that it is this isolation[iv] that has become the very remit of artistic activity - if art often seems to want to return our noise to us, it is because it is considered missing.  We all too often omit the sounds of processes - the people who pick our vegetables or build our computers, the trucks that drive them to us - because to do so problematises the individuality of which post-Nietzschean sociality[v] is so proud.  As Garrett Keizer suggests, “the noise in our culture has a weirdly disembodied, spiritualised quality. It is the noise of ghosts” (Kiezer, p.15, 2012).  By distributing our noise - whether the physical noise of factories, or the conceptual noise of art galleries - into private, separated pockets, we risk merely creating a fabricated silence so as to convince us we are “quieter than we really are. It can tell us that our seemingly ‘quiet lifestyle’ disturbs nobody. Noise, on the other hand, has an uncanny way of telling the truth” (Kiezer, p.46, 2012). 

The reality of such silence is that it avoids conflict, and therefore crisis. If we separate our communities into ever smaller sects that can no longer hear or see one another, that cannot breach each other's boundaries, then the formation of new communities, the evolution of the political, dries up.  What is more, art – in so far as it relies on the perception of difference – fundamentally requires the breach of existing norms as a facet of its being.  By demanding originality - difference - within a closeted environment that is actively excluding it, the community of the art space must instead offer increasingly shocking stimuli to defeat the ever more tolerant expectations of its membership, all of whom are only present because they already identify with the sort of extremities that divided art from society in the first place.  By doing so – by cutting a baby cow in half,[vi] or covering Christ in piss[vii] - they further exclude those who are not already familiar with this escalation, with such works appearing as simply crude or crass to those outside their clique. The noise of these works becomes simply an emulation of noise, an attempt to expel anyone who might have wandered in by mistake, while simultaneously reaffirming the capacity, and validating the experiences, of its community.  There is no crisis.  Or rather, crisis becomes a genre of art, rather than a reformatory power.  For want of a better example, this leads to the somewhat preposterous situation where ‘noise’ artists can perform ‘noise’ music to a room full of people already familiar and approving of the form, none of whom find the experience in the slightest bit noisy.[viii]

In Brighton Community Choir Does… Without You[ix] I was keen to explore ways to interact directly with the noise of Other.  As with previous interventions, the work revolved around the introduction of a new resonant object to its site as a means of fostering participation – in this instance, with the hope of creating a community choir.  It was important to choose a site in which people could autonomously participate without transgressing the expected or afforded behaviours of its locale.

With this in mind, I selected the clubbing district of a Brighton’s West Street - a highly ritualistic space, replete with inherent codes concerning its costumes, utility of space, and permissive behaviours.  Crucially, however, the nature of the site’s ritual is such that it actively celebrates its own transgressions.  Acting outside of general social norms, and the collective punishment of that acting out, is commonplace, and acts such as blocking traffic, shouting, and fighting are an expected manifestation of that community.  With this in mind, I was interested in harnessing the existing energy of the site to invoke new modes of creativity among its participants.  In particular, I was interested in the specific users of that site, a demographic (17-30 years-old) who had shown the least interest in getting involved with my previous interventions, and who are often considered a hard-to-reach group in general.[x]  I wanted to create an event that prioritised some aspects lost by traditional participation and impact assessment models – notably, to avoid self-reflection at the cost of accessibility, to critique the linear relationship between process and outcome, and to utilise existing community spaces in the same manner in which the community autonomously uses them.  

Like many of the interventions, the work is ostensibly very simple, involving nothing more than the act of a performer carrying a sign adorned with the lyrics to Mariah Carey’s Without You [xi]  through the clubbing district on a busy Saturday night.  The goal was not to patronise my participants by suggesting they lacked a specific quality or skill that only the artwork could restore, but to demonstrate their existing creativity, for which a familiar pop song acted as a vehicle.  The function of the artwork was not to elicit a specific outcome (even, as with community choirs, if that outcome is allowed the freedom of amateurism), but to channel the volatility of the community into a creative, musical act.

A similar use of a choir to critique and engage with the intersection between community, non-specialism and participation, can be seen in Bill Drummond’s The 17 (2006 - present). Drummond’s work extends from the belief that standardisation (in the form of recorded music) has damaged the social function of music-making, and promotes instead a return to a prior state in which the history, traditions and even existence of music has been forgotten - leaving the community with only an innate desire to create it, but no idea what that would sound like.  The 17 is a work that I feel immediately compelled to point out I only discovered at the very end of my research, such is the degree of its similarity - in both conception and execution - to my own practice.[xii]  Originally a series of text scores created by Drummond (but since added to by his participants), the work employs geographical arrangements of groups of 17 people and encourages them to sing or hum, usually unrehearsed, within a specific social context.  Broadly speaking a performative manifesto, the work engages with unusual locations, temporalities, and social groups - prisoners, anglers, hairdressers, World War Two veterans, Imams - indeed, anyone that might traditionally fall outside of the experimental, avant-garde or anti-pop traditions of which the author is a part.  Drummond’s work plays upon the manner in which a community defines itself – often encouraging pre-existing communities to work creatively with one another completely outside the primary context by which they are bonded. 

The community of West street share an intimate and highly resonant space – replete with social performances, dress codes, games, and rituals - and yet their interactions rarely involve any form of mass creative collaboration.[xiii]  In my numerous visits to the site I noticed that, particularly among men, the frequent confrontations that occurred were almost exclusively centred around attempts to exhaust the creativity of others as a means of promoting an individual’s status.  My own passage through West Street was often hampered for this reason – the communal sharing that my sign offered drew attention from the individual to the community, a shift in focus that resulted in numerous acts of violence from those seeking to regain control.[xiv]  This is not to suggest that there is an inherent conflict between autonomy and community. 

The nature of Brighton Community Choir does was such that it sought to harness individual spontaneity as a means of encouraging participation.  By doing so, the work actively critiques the imposed binary that might see the individual as fundamentally opposed to the community.  Those who choose to obstruct the creative act, however violently, do so in relation to their community – their individuality is entirely indivisible from those around them.  The decision to participate, as well as the manner of that participation, are autonomous, since the instigator asks nothing of those present, relying instead on a third term occupying, and making resonant, the space between facilitator and participant.  In this respect, Brighton Community Choir serves to demonstrate the aversion to fixed states that my practice has so far explored. The work does not provide a new space in which you are invited to come and join an artist in some carefully constructed - whether conceptually or practically - rendition of a specific artistic act.  Instead, it relies on participants' existing knowledge, context, and capacity to explore the distance between interlocutors.  The elucidation of community that Brighton Community Choir achieves, occurs because it seeks to counterbalance accessibility (replete with its ‘way in’ that presupposes a lack of complexity or specialism) with a flexible ambiguity that allows for the straining by which community is brought into being.  Indeed, the underlying rationale behind community choir projects in general - certainly those I have previously worked on - has not been to achieve a splendid rendition of such-and-such a song, but to use the embodied act of singing to bring a community physically, and cognitively, together.  This embodiment - which might be seen as a returning of creative agency to a culture in which the activity of singing has become a specialised skill - amounts to the reinvigoration of the individual within the community, celebrating the autonomy and difference of the elements that make up its whole.  If traditional participatory choirs embrace amateurism by ultimately not minding if things go a little off course, they do so while retaining fundamental expectations as to what a successful performance might sound like.  Brighton Community Choir, however, relocates performance from an outcome to a means of access.  As such, participation was not hindered by the under-confidence of its contributors (since neither success or failure were applicable to the action at hand), and the community were free to explore and celebrate the instability that such an unexpected, and embodied act might bring forth.  As the artist, I was not concerned with encouraging a specific action from my participants.  The act of singing was only a conduit to a communitas that, as with 5 Nights beneath the Pier, might just as well be realised by the idea or process of an artwork as by any tangible outcome.  The work of my art was in the setting up of a temporary event whose outcome could not be fully predicted.  It was the participants, rather than myself, who denoted the terms of our mutual shared space, with my initial gesture serving only as a catalyst for the new social, ethical and political contours that in turn construct the specific coherence of lived experience.

[i] Spaces “impose a mode of behaviour on those who are unaccustomed to it. They become somewhat self-conscious, lowering their voices, muting their gestures, looking around them, bearing themselves in general more formally. They may even feel something like awe. But frequent concertgoers who are accustomed to the place cease to feel the need for such submissive behaviour, and with it their demeanour changes. The muted gestures are replaced by gestures of body and voice that are not only relaxed but signal relaxation” (Small, p.23, 1998).
[ii] It is not simply the financial constraints that prioritise certain aspects of artistic experience in this way. Small points out that “if the cathedrals and palaces (that) in Europe in earlier times when the scenes of many such performances were grand and opulent, it was not for the sake of the performances themselves but for the religious or aristocratic ceremonies of which the performances were no more than a part” (Small, p.20, 1998).
[iii] Although dual immediacy requires distance - the ability to perceive objects and contexts - such a pronounced and repeated division risks simply divorcing the objects involved from any external context altogether.
[iv] The community may be defined by isolation – the coming together of operatively-closed individuals – but perception (which, as Luhmann makes clear, remains unavailable to the community as a whole) is continuous.
[v] Although not wishing to break off into a lengthy philosophical tangent at this point, I believe it would be naive to overlook the profound effect Nietzsche has had on modern thinking – not only within the western philosophical tradition, but as vital precursor to the ongoing cultural phenomenon of the individual that has, from the 50’s rock n’ roll rebel through to the theatrical alienation of grunge and metal in the late 90’s, underscored musical identity (see Frith, 1998). It is because this interpretation of Nietzsche places the individual in opposition to their community that it seems desirable to block out the noise of Other in the first place – the noise of the community, which is nothing but the noise of isolation, compromises an individual that wishes to be continuous.  
[vi] Damien Hirst, Mother and Child (2007)
[vii] Andres Serrano, Piss Christ (1987)
[viii] This is not to suggest that noise music is inherently apolitical – merely that the gentrification of supposedly extreme practices nullifies their ability to point to the beyond-sense, the genuinely noisy.  The history of noise music, as documented by Paul Hegarty (Hegarty, 2010), is synonymous with my overarching theme – it is a process of line-making, a continually evolving, “negatively defined” (Hegarty, p.5, 2010) response to its contextual technological and sociological advances. Only when it ceases moving and becomes a thing – a genre, a work – does it cease being noise.
[ix] Appendix B: I don’t know where we are going but it sure sounds nice, Brighton Community Choir Does… Without you video (usb).
[x] The idea of engaging with hard-to-reach members of the community is an underlying theme of community art in general. Recent experience of working with a community choir left me with the impression that its participatory, amateur, and self-reflective format – though attempting to be as inclusive as possible - only catered for a very small fraction of its membership. Most notably, there seemed a pronounced relationship between impact assessment and the dearth of younger and male participants, many of whom were vocally opposed to the sort of self-reflection that the such documentation required.
[xi] A good pop song is a de facto resonant object. As with all poetry, well-written lyrics are multi-layered, thematically and emotionally rich objects, designed to convey the most acute possible meaning to the greatest number of people. The Harry Nielson/Mariah Carey song Without You (1993), is successful precisely because it achieves this so succinctly. It invokes one of the most recognisable tropes of romantic and gothic literature, the love forlorn antagonist who would rather die than be alone.  And yet, the resonance of that particular song lies in its musical context - a short, simple melody that increases in drama with each repetition via the addition of new instruments, harmonies, and key changes.  It is instantly recognisable and, due to its utility of repetition, can be hummed after only hearing the first few bars. By placing a well-known dramatic statement over a chorus that is ultimately an extension of the verse - albeit a greatly embellished one - its listener can join in, even if they haven’t heard the song before.  It occurred to me that those words - I can’t live if living is without you - would also take on a resonance beyond the life of the song when presented in their text form alone, pointing not only to the song but to the predating dramatic device that inspired it. Indeed, after I first painted the words upon a large wooden sign in a studio and then walked it back to my house, I was stopped by several men who, upon reading the text, tapped me on the shoulder and whispered ‘Good luck mate’ or some similar sentiment, assuming that I must be returning to a lover in hope of reparation.
[xii] Drummond even specifically worked with the clubbing scene - the score Nightclubbing calls for its realiser to usher in the attendees of a nightclub into a cordoned off back room in groups of 17, and to “make a deep drone of a constant pitch with their voices” (Drummond, 2016). 
[xiii] The obvious exception being the numerous hen parties who plan and execute often extravagant wardrobes and props in advance of their night out.  This is not to suggest that other forms of creativity don’t occur, merely that they are often undertaken as a form of competition rather than cohesion.  Indeed, this is the very crux of my reticence to engage with ‘art’ spaces: they presuppose that creativity is not an ongoing and perpetual quality of social construction. What the clubbing scene has always demonstrated, is the degree to which people paint themselves, take on characters, dress up, adapt, dance, sing, explore creative shortcuts, and otherwise celebrate being as a matter of course within everyday human social interaction.
[xiv] Most of the interventions were either photographed or filmed (by myself or by an external cameraman/woman under my direction), and there was a marked difference of response in this regard between those where the camera was an obvious part of the work (such as Brighton Community Choir Does…) and those in which the camera was hidden or absent (most notably 30 Gold Coins).
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