(In a Forest of Signs)

2.1: Precursory Works

Many of the ideas that underpin this research have long been, on some level, an integral part of my practice.  Even within my earliest artistic experiments – shouting political manifestos as part of obnoxious punk bands – the point was never solely the creation of music, but instead an almost preposterous, extra-sensory outcome: to change the world.  Over time, this goal has become more nuanced, and yet, the notion that aesthetic appreciation may somehow have a social function that extends beyond our immediate sense of the art-object remains.  In this research project I wanted to explore that beyond-sense more fully, to attempt to elucidate the specific ability that art holds to both bring people together and to stretch them beyond the limits of any individual selfhood – in short, to foster communities.  Before examining its social function in this way, it seems pertinent to ask a further question concerning the nature of the beyond that art offers.  The beyond is not merely a linear addition, amounting to the artistic construct plus its resulting social effect.  Rather, the beyond of what is sensed – insofar as the sharing of art points to an unknowable Other - must actually be beyond sense.  Simply extending an artistic object into the domain of the social does little to challenge the contours of a community, or to unwork the ‘common’ sense that it has accrued.  To be truly socially functional, art must elucidate the unexplored, yet to become-sensible aspects of its community. 

Three works in particular pre-empted the path this research would take.  The earliest, Triptychs,[i] involved the creation of a large multi-media score, incorporating musical notation, photographs, shopping lists, spam emails, drawings, text, blueprints, adverts, objects, and the documentation of specific social interactions.  The score’s premise was that it would attempt to be self-constructing – that its thematic and material trajectory would evolve over time, determined by what I, the author, was exposed to during the process of its creation.  Seemingly unrelated and everyday elements – already liable to impact upon the creation of the work in some small way – were foregrounded to the same extent as any specifically artistic material.   Much like the notion of an ear-worm – a song that gets inexplicably stuck in your head, regardless of your feelings towards it – Triptychs allowed any and all resonant objects to take precedence, with each being researched in order to uncover more related material. Tangents, coincidences, and fortuitous mistakes were incorporated directly into the work. For instance, conversations held in supermarkets, and the themes or forms of omnipresent pop music were allowed to seep into the score-making process,  allowing seemingly inconsequential elements and insights to be prioritised above ‘proper’ artistic concerns.   In this way, themes would appear to spontaneously emerge from the research as multiple dislocated areas of exploration would lead to the same place with unexpected synchronicity.  As it developed, sections were sent to musicians, artists, videomakers and choreographers, with their responses being reintroduced back into the score, to be sent on to further collaborators, replete with any extraneous, extra-musical lines of enquiry raised by the process.  As such, any artistic outcome was produced concurrently with its own becoming – the score did not make sense - where make is understood as the generation or fulfillment of an existing sensible construct - but was instead always in the process of making sense.

Music for living sculptures[ii] explored the idea of microcosms – the unseen aspects of materiality that exist beyond our normal perceptive capacity.  The work utilised culturally commonplace stimuli (seeds, the female body), and subjected them to microscopic scrutiny, using a zoom lens and contact microphone to visualise and sonify aspects of these materials usually unavailable to perception.  Though the forms themselves were highly recognisable within existing art-narratives, the process of subjecting them to such scrutiny created a dynamic where the more detail I attempted to capture, the less clarity was available to the final artefact. Rather than perceiving bodies and seeds, skin and husk, what remained was nothing more than abstract lines and sounds, obfuscated by the limitations of the technology that captured them. Two films were produced, in which the captured audio was transposed onto a synthesiser, bell, harmonium, saxophone and electric guitar, in an attempt to foreground the subtle nuances and technological artefacts (flare, grain, feedback, electrical hum) revealed by the process.

Though aesthetically pleasing, I was ultimately unhappy with these films, feeling them to be too insular – though they explored the beyond-sense of perception, they did so without ever really interrogating their relation to the community in which they were produced and disseminated. With this in mind, First Dysjunction[iii] advanced upon the video format, exploring instead the physical presence of objects within their environment.  The work consisted of a text score that detailed specific objects to be sounded/interpreted and their social or cultural signification (such as “the cutlery my mother bought us”), alongside a blueprint documenting how these objects, and accompanying speakers, should be distributed throughout an environment.  The open-ended nature of the text – often describing abstract, relational details rather than named objects (“plundered Nordic” or “Yellow #3”) – sought to cede the performer a degree of autonomy in amassing and sounding such objects.  This same autonomy was extended to the work’s audience.  The objects/sounds were placed at the threshold of perception – submerged in the ever-present stimuli of their public/everyday environment, half-hidden in piles of leaves, barely audible above the existing hubbub - leaving the audience, stumbling upon the work, free to engage with it as an artistic incursion or to dismiss it simply as litter/noise.

Throughout the creation of these works, I began to conceive of a direct link between the social aspects of my work, and the musical form with which I was working – drone.  My practice had long been exploring the notion of aesthetic liminality - creating works that, through their focus on timbral evolution, repetition, and duration, prioritised the emerging musical landscape between fully recognisable phrases or sources.  More often than not, this would take the form of a mixture of field recordings and synthesisers, with any obvious associations – such as frequency or source - obscured by processing and layering.  Within these works, pitch and structure were largely irrelevant, with many pieces designed to be played as long simultaneous loops, with no set synchronicity, across multiple tracks or speakers.  Lacking a clear source or narrative, the listener could autonomously dip in and out of the work at will, forcing them to rely on their own innate critical, rather than associative abilities.  Whilst these works engaged with a certain level of interaction, I found I was both drawn to the potential of a participatory dynamic, and deeply sceptical of the sorts of participatory projects I had come across in the past - wherein an audience’s involvement amounted to being given the option to contribute the most obvious addition to the work as it stood, or to respond in some manner entirely pre-determined by the artist.  The very notion of participation reminded me of the kind of sketch-shows where audience members call out topics and comedians duly enact them, or worse, of the big red buttons attached to the didactic displays of science museums – hit the button and a beach ball rises into the air, a participatory demonstration of gravity. In order to invoke less obvious modes of participation, I had previously settled for so-say immersive works, wherein my audience were literally surrounded by sonic stimuli, or shocked, via caustic sounds and images, in order to force a reaction. These three works however, encouraged me to explore an avenue of participation that I had not previously considered.  What if, as with the transitory, obfuscated nature of the evolving drones of my musical practice, participation could be a liminal, autonomous experience?  A movement conducted not towards a specific end, but as a means of introspective reflection upon the community and the participants’ position within it?

[i] Appendix E: Precursory works, Triptychs score, usb.
[ii] Appendix E: Precursory works, music for living sculptures videos, usb.
[iii] Appendix E: Precursory works, First Dysjunction audio/score, usb.
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