(In a Forest of Signs)

1.1 Introduction

Several years ago I visited a museum dedicated to a particularly famous, long-dead artist.  After several hours of queueing, visitors were separated into groups of ten or so, and led past poorly lit paintings set behind thick Perspex. The museum staff ushered the gathered crowds past these great works at such a speed that making out any detail of the paintings was near-impossible.  Given that none of us could really see any of the artists’ work, I was initially baffled to hear the constant proclamations about how wonderful it all was - but an hour later, sat in the park outside, I finally began to understand what my fellow visitors had subconsciously felt.  Seeing art wasn’t entirely the point of our trip. The point, it turned out, was to be able to tell people we had been there, to participate in the ongoing cultural dialogue of this great, dead painter.  It feels, on occasion, easy to suggest that conceptual art is the domain of the avant-garde - that the ‘general’ public are still more interested in paintings on walls, actors on stages, albums on CD.  And yet, as my trip to the gallery made clear, social context is fundamental to not only our experience of art, but our experience of communality as a whole.  We define ourselves by the context under which we come together.  

This research project begins from three related propositions. The first, is that the creative act is experienced as an event – that is, to watch a play, listen to a song, or view a painting, is not to engage with its specific content in isolation, but to participate in the immersive totality of that content’s form, site, and relative cultural position. Creative acts are therefore inextricable from general social activity – there is no point in our experience where the artwork ends and its context begins. The second proposition is that since the creative act is inextricable from the everyday acts of the community of which it is but a part, that community is itself perpetually engaged in the act of creativity. Finally, the third proposition concerns the nature of the self, and its relationship to the community.  If the self relies on a creative co-construction with Other as a fundamental requirement of being – an idea that will be explored throughout this thesis – then such co-construction is the basis of community.  Put simply, finding creative solutions to the challenges of shared space is the means by which we define the terms of our self-construct – the boundary of Other is the limit of self.  Other is, by definition, always beyond our comprehension, and the distance that prevents us from ever comprehending Other is the very thing that implores us to celebrate its difference.  This celebration is in turn the basis of communication.  To speak is not only to make creative decisions regarding the best series of words by which to convey your message, but to acknowledge the difference that makes us at once individual and indivisible from our community.  The role of the artist, far from being the creator of artefacts, is to make resonant the latent potentiality present – but not necessarily enacted – in the myriad of relationships-to-Other that comprise the everyday.   As a piece of practice-based research, this project served two functions: first, to examine what it means to suggest that everyone is already participating in the creative dialogue of the everyday. Second, to question how the artist might be able to score – that is, to document with a view to reprising at a later date - the complex arrangement of relationships present in a community–focused, relevant art-event that relies upon the autonomous participation of its Other.  These functions were explored through the staging of a number of events employing, and documenting, specific modes of participation.  I was keen to interrogate the validity of a range of participatory models – which throughout these experiments I have come to define as open (minimal direction or mediation), observational (witnessing and responding), referential (reliant on shared cultural knowledge), constructive-instructive (participant-generated rule sets or methods), contextual-instructive (structured responses elicited by the requirements of the site or social context), and object-centric (responses to resonant objects).  These differing methods were used to highlight and critique the relationship between participation, autonomy, and the formation/facilitation of community.

Broadly speaking, the first half of this thesis critiques and re-frames the nature of social obligation, using specific resonant objects in specific sites and contexts to do so.  In the second half, I will turn my focus to works that more explicitly address the duality of sensorial and critical modes of perception, and how this distinction, in turn, affects the stability of the self and its relationship to Other within the socially-bound construct of the art event.  In chapter one, I will examine some of the theorists, philosophers, and artists whose work engages with these questions – in particular, the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas and Jean-Luc Nancy, the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann, and the arts theory of Joseph Beuys and Jacques Rancière. Chapter two explores my existing practice – the nature of my electro-acoustic / site-specific work, and the development of more socially-orientated elements within it.  Citing clear, if broad musical reference points – including the avant-garde work of Mauricio Kagel and La Monte Young, as well as the politically-charged punk music of NoFX - I discuss my changing conception of both the participatory event and the musical score, in light of Brian Massumi’s theory of semblance and Tim Ingold’s notion of non-linearity respectively.  Chapter 3 documents a series of interpretations and developments of the event-based score in a variety of live and recorded forms, focusing on my attempts to reach beyond expected meanings and sensible outcomes via the utility of drone and pseudo-random rhythmic elements.  Chapters 4 and 5 likewise explore the application of the score as a series of public interventions, focusing on the utility of extra-musical elements (objects, concepts, locations, associations) as a means of fostering open-ended and autonomous participation.  Chapter 6 documents the New Communions project, a collaboration in a fixed site, with fixed participants, that took place over a 12-month period.  Finally, chapter 7 draws a series of conclusions regarding both the feasibility of the score as a means of documenting the art-event, and the most successful modes of participation uncovered throughout my research.  I explore the idea that art must extend beyond common sensible constructs to maintain a social function, highlighting the correlation between expected outcomes and a lack of creative, autonomous exploration on the part of my participants.

The project has resulted in a portfolio of work based around the primary text score. This includes video, sound clips, photography, and objects (taken from, or inspired by, the various interventions),  as well as over 200 minutes of composition that comprises the interpretations and collaborations.  These include recordings taken at St. Mary’s church, Brighton, with three collaborators performing on a variety of acoustic instruments, and my solo performances on a modular synth.  Accompanying each recording is an example of the sections of score that inspired them.
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