(In a Forest of Signs)

1.3: A Lovely Madness

By choosing to celebrate the unknowable distance between its interlocutors, participatory art can embody a fundamental principle of Nancy’s philosophy – that of resonance.  Just as an island is defined by the existence and separation of its neighbour, Nancy suggests that the self is equally reliant on Other for its own definition, even to the extent that “a self is nothing other than a form or function of referral: a self is made of a relationship to self, or of a presence to self, which is nothing other than the mutual referral between a perceptible individuation and an intelligible identity” (Nancy, p.8, 2007).  Self only exists in the reflection, the re-sound of its own movement towards exteriority – the limits of self are determined by the boundaries of Other, even while that Other remains unknowable to the self. 

This position, rather than undermining Debordian participation, engages with the same political outcome, albeit by different means. The art-event doesn’t politicise the transformation of spectator to actor, or of passive agent to active agent, but instead mirrors the existing social tension between its interlocutors. The relations inherent to an artwork underscore the relations present in society in general, and are at their most exciting when they point to relations obfuscated by the social system’s reliance on imposed communality, ‘common’ sense, and so forth.  If participatory art seeks to interrogate the hierarchy of creativity, it does so because, like Nancy, it considers that both actors and spectators are already engaged in a co-constructive relationship. Debord assumes that the passive can be made active - and that this can be achieved through the power of art.  In doing so, he not only presupposes the contour of what should be an unknowable Other but suggests that their relationship is that of utility.  In whatever fashion the spectator co-constructs their shared reality with an actor, it is done as a means of bettering the self, of achieving an ‘active’ status.  However, if self is contingent on the existence and proximity of Other (as the notion of resonance would suggest), it seems logical that the self would harbour an innate, primordial responsibility towards that Other, prior to any individual agency capable of assigning use value.  This is a point explicitly made by both Nancy and Levinas.  Our relationship to Other is that of neither philanthropic nor tactical responsibility.  Though the existence of Other is vital for the emergence of self, it is a vitality that arises before such an emergence takes place.  This responsibility, what Levinas calls the "pre-original challenge” (Levinas, p.64, 2006), exists not only pre-sense, but as a condition of sense.  It is only by straining towards exteriority and resounding from the Other we encounter there, that we can begin to ascertain our own limits - in short, the boundary of Other defines the contour of Self.  It is not a choice made by a sentient agent, but “a responsibility that I did not assume in any moment, in any present” (Levinas, p.64, 2006).  Responsibility is born of the creative difference between self and Other, and as such the ensuing interaction should not be considered a dialogue between independent, fully-formed agents, but a process of mutual becoming undertaken by operatively-closed, but nonetheless mutually irritable,[i] collaborators within a shared space.  This becoming - in so far as it involves not just a single self and Other but the endless gamut of all potential selves and others that is the social system - amounts to the creation of community.  And if this theoretical underpinning can seem, from a practical perspective at any rate, quite far from the remit of the musician or artist, it is here that such terms as responsibility and resonance are drawn directly into my practice.  The creative act, in so far as (through the testing of resonances and amplifying of responsibilities) it interrogates the governance of community – how it responds, individually and collectively, to percepts – is fundamentally related to the political.  It is the means by which we share and construct ontology as it is provided by the raw material of the senses – to express and interpret sense, to make sense of sense, is the same fundamental movement by which self and Other and co-construct their shared horizon.

Rather than pointing to an external structure of governance, politics is - as Rancière points out - the administration of an evolving way of being-together in contrast to the conservation of an existing ontological order.  Politics is the means by which a community enacts its own self-interrogation – it tears “bodies from their assigned places and free speech and expression from all reduction to functionality” (Corcoran, in Rancière, p.1, 2013).  This leaves us with a dichotomy.  Lacking sense apparatus, the community must rely on a consensus based on its operatively-closed memberships’ conflicting world-views.  Conversely, since its membership is always in flux, it simultaneously requires a perpetual reappraisal of how its membership ought to share the space of community.  If politics is the means by which its membership can reconfigure this space, what is required for the community to be able to self-interrogate – and what I believe art provides – is a means of preventing consensus at the point of sensation, to reclaim percepts from their later abstraction into concepts.  Art prioritises the act of sensing above its subsequent assimilation into made sense, and as such, it is a task undertaken, by necessity, outside of any existing sensible order.  Just as Nancy suggests that “to listen is to be straining towards a possible meaning, and consequently one that is not immediately available” (Nancy, p.6, 2007), so it is with all creative gestures - their remit is always beyond, or in advance, of pre-existing concepts.[ii] The coming together of community - what the anthropologist Victor Turner calls Communitas (Turner, 1986) - indicates not only a straining beyond any current sense of the way things are, but equally that such straining, in so far as it extends a multitude of selves beyond their existing limits,  is itself a creative act, in which the articulation and celebration of difference “becomes meaningful from the opposition to what is proper” (Esposito, p.3, 2009).  Rather than thematically[iii] politicising participation as Debord would suggest, art instead demonstrates that participation in the creative social narrative is already a political act.  Indeed, Nancy directly collapses politics with community, describing the former as “a community ordering itself to the unworking of its communication, or destined to this unworking; a community consciously undergoing the experience of its sharing” (Nancy, p.xxvii, 1991).

When undertaking the participatory aspects of this research, it was the notion of a community’s sharing that served as the foundation of my work.  From the artist’s perspective, the unworking of community amounts to the unworking of the collective meaning applied to an individual’s sense data – rather than relying upon the existing relationship between the objects of the world and the meaning we apply to them, art seeks to interrogate, circumnavigate, or invert such relationships.  Nancy suggests, therefore, that politics amounts to a community’s perpetual unworking of its own achievement, a deconstruction of the proper that serves to destabilise the objects of experience, to return the sensible to the senses.  The unworking of art – the decoupling of literary structure and syntax, or the compromise of an audience’s presumed ethical universality - points away from pre-emptive, generalised concepts, and directly towards Other: it highlights the reality of a shared space that is nothing but the limits of selfhood.  Luhmann might consider art a kind of “bridge between perception and communication” (Luhmann, p.18, 2000), but perhaps we can go one step further – art acts as a form of noise,[iv] a disturbance between perception and communication, deliberately co-opting and expanding our failure to engage directly with Other as a requirement of the ever-expanding self-construct.  Throughout this project, I have attempted to demonstrate the ability of art to co-opt the senses – in essence, to prioritize participation within the (unworking of) community over consensus.  Interventions such as 30 Gold Coins (chapter 4.3) revolve around an unworking of ethics by inviting its community to directly participate in the distribution of a shared currency, invoking a tension between the best interests of the individual, the group, and the artist.  Likewise, the score that underpins the practical elements of this project is presented in a similarly multi-faceted manner.  Its text is written so that each word, phrase, or section may be encountered in relation to the overall structure – that is, it allows for a focus on the aesthetic or poetic integrity of its sentences and typography – while simultaneously allowing for a fragmented progression due to its short, non-sequential pages.  The focus is upon a mode of participation wherein to participate is not simply to complete what has been begun, but to perpetually renegotiate the space between the participant and their Other (whether that is a score, an instrument, a person, or a situation).[v]  

By setting up interventions and collaborations at the cusp of general social activity – in shared spaces, with shared tools – this research project amounts to a functional disturbance, destabilizing the routine of the everyday and seeking to compel its audience/collaborator to rethink their relationship to the world.  The project is as such not comprised of works of art, but of the art of work - the ongoing enlivening of potential, innately explored by the community as its participants navigate minor disturbances within their everyday lives.  By assuming that my key philosophical terms – resonance and responsibility – are already within the grasp of the spectator, this research seeks to demonstrate that community is not a union, but an isolation, a navigation of the distance between the distinct islands of operatively-closed individuals.  It is by enlivening the resonance between such individuals that art makes present the epistemological importance of difference; it is by enlivening the responsibility we hold towards Other that art pronounces the community, of which the individual is indivisible.  This project seeks to demonstrate that all art is fundamentally concerned with its relation to Other, that all art is participatory art.  Rather than being a subset within the art world – such as that documented in Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (Bourriaud, 1998) – relation, participation, and dialogue are the primary condition of all creative activity.  Ultimately, art is not, as Levinas makes clear, the “lovely madness of the man who takes it in his head to make beauty. Culture and artistic creation are part of the ontological order itself. They are ontological par excellence; they make it possible to comprehend being” (Levinas, p.15, 2006).

[i] Irritable is a term used by Luhmann to indicate the ability of operatively-closed agents to on some level interact, but not to directly influence one anothers being. We can return again to our island metaphor – though geographically dislocated, and unable to affect one another directly, islands are nonetheless shaped by the irritation of the sea that exists between them, a resonant body that is fundamental to their definition.
[ii] “Perhaps we never listen to anything but the non-coded, which is not yet framed in a system of signifying references, and we never hear [entend] anything but the already coded, which we decode” (Nancy, p.36, 2007). This concept – in essence to equate listening with a sounding of the unknown – is fundamental to my practice, manifesting in a lack of instruction for my participants, and a reliance on their own interrogative capacities to engage with the work. In Listen! (chapter 5.1), the artist provides a context for the innate ability to listen precisely by failing to define what should be listened to. The audience are put in a position where, lacking a specific sensible object at which to direct their senses, they must extend beyond the sensible – they must, as Nancy prescribes, “listen” rather than “hear”.
[iii] The space between the political thematic and the political active was something I explored within my interventions, notable with “The Rights Room” installation, which asked its audience to communally re-write the human rights act (chapter 5.2).
[iv] Noise is not so much divisive, as it is emblematic of the relationship between the individual and their community.  As Garret Keizer points out, “noise brings a heightened awareness of your connection to other people. Your happiness and well-being are seemingly at odds with their happiness and well-being, but only because, on the deepest social level, your happiness and well-being are connected to theirs” (Kiezer, p.20, 2012). The noise of art – as I have explored via the public, even mundane nature of the events I have created – is the noise of the community as it engages in its own unworking.  As such, the creativity of noise is not the remit of painters, sculptors, and musicians alone, but of everyone involved in the creative process of the everyday. 
[v] Works such as Brighton Community Choir Does… (chapter 5.4) rely upon a conflict between its participants’ existing cultural knowledge and the context of the work’s dissemination in order to seed creative power from the artist to the spectator/collaborator.  Similarly, the site-specific collaboration of New Communions (Chapter 6) utilises the gravitas of its resonant location, along with the shared duress born of its durational and physical elements, to blur the distinction between composer and performer.
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