(In a Forest of Signs)

3.2: Interpretation: The Performances

As with my interest in immersion that pre-dated this research, I was keen to explore the idea that the site of performance is not a blank canvas to be filled by the work of the “performer”, but a sensory-rich horizon in which the event is provided as much by the audience, the site, and the cultural context, as it is by the actions of a designated artist.  I have always been uncomfortable with the notion of the virtuosic, a position that sees the utility by which a performer handles an instrument as the measure of a work’s success – often overlooking the social conditions that might equally dictate the proficiency of a performance[i].  As such, the performance of my score revolved around making explicit its extra-musical context – highlighting the rituals and responsibilities undertaken by both performer and audience as they engage in the art-event.  This was undertaken in numerous ways.  In some performances, photographs of other forms of ritual – Pagan ceremonies, African witchdoctors – were provided to the audience, alongside descriptions of their processes.  In others, the audience were handed ceremonial objects, such as singing bowls or masks, and invited to join in with the performance.  The degree to which audience members could autonomously engage was also explored - in some instances a careful explanation of how and when to interact with the objects was provided, whilst in others the objects were merely handed out, or audience members sat next to bowls and masks, with a silent expectation that they might use them.  In many of the performances the audience were provided with copies of the score, either individually or collectively, receiving a word or sentence each.[ii]  Likewise, they might be supplied with chalk and blackboards, and invited to contribute new text to the score.

In considering the performer as a holistic contributor to an existing social dynamic – rather than simply as the enactor of a specific, witnessed task – my work was inspired by that of Joseph Beuys.  In “I Like America and America Likes Me” (1974), Beuys undertakes a series of actions of which some, but not all, are made visible to the audience.  Objects – felt, gloves, a walking stick, a large stack of the Wall Street Journals – are used in a clearly deliberate manner, but with no direct explanation. Locking himself in a gallery with a live Coyote, the audience watching from afar, Beuys’s work presents a performance dynamic that is explicitly meaningful but neglects to explain its meaning to those that witness it. The relationship between man and beast – in which man has “brought a repertoire of movements with him, and a notion of time… [that is] subject to the coyote’s responses, and were modulated and conditioned by them” (Tisdall, p.20, 1976) – mirrors the relationship between performer and audience.  Beuys’s ritual relies on the audience participating in a narrative they do not fully understand. The success of the work lies not in the communication and comprehension of sense (the sensible) – but in making clear that sense is not enough. The audience is both the coyote and less than the coyote, excluded from the internal logic of the work yet still tied to a linguistic tradition that demands a linear narrative – whilst we might fail to ‘get’ the work, the presence of the coyote reminds us that “beyond language as verbalisation lies a world of sound and form impulses, a language of primary sound without semantic content, but laden with completely different levels of information” (Tisdall, p.23, 1976).

I was keen to foster a similar break between sense and sense in my own work, and as such used the score to devise a number of actions to be undertaken both during, and prior, to the musical performance.  Often the nature of the site would dictate my preparation – when performing in a renovated Leper’s Chapel, for instance, I arrived five hours early and used the score to instruct me to commune with the ancient site, taking notes on the degradation of its walls and doorframes, the patterns of its stain-glass windows, and then folding these descriptions back into the score. Such actions contained an internal logic that was never explained to the audience – walking the perimeter of the building so as to engage with the quality of the stonework (“the curvature of the ceiling, the number of steps from the street to the door”); touching every wall in turn (“stand for a moment in every corner, touch every wall or edge”); plotting a graph across the space and moving between set points throughout the evening (“celebrate distance such as it is, an oscillation at different intervals, between different objects, ordered so as to recollect a singular event”); raising a drink to my lips at set intervals (“indicated without clarity a motion to be undertaken, and perhaps a frequency”); or using the score to define the content of otherwise casual conversation (“take up a position by which to clearly invoke a specific indifference towards a general notion”).  As with Beuys’s work, these performances relied on the utility of specific objects, the score dictating not only my movements across the synthesiser, but the manner in which items were located and incorporated into the event.  The aforementioned singing bowls, masks, and chalk boards were hidden among and distributed to the audience, portable speakers were moved around the space, tape players containing audio books or news reports were handed out, and related images were projected on screens.  Likewise, the body was used as an extension of the instrument, with action drawn from the score informing how I held patch cables, extended my limbs, moved to and from the synthesiser, or vocalised words and guttural howls into a microphone.  These actions seemed most successful when they developed into overlapping routines that slowly evolved throughout the event, making it increasingly unclear whether they were a part of the creative act, or the everyday.  By way of example, one performance saw me engaging the audience in a discussion upon the nature of community and responsibility, whilst simultaneously handing out the patch cables required for the synthesiser to produce sound.  As the work progressed, I was forced to return to each audience member individually to continue patching the synthesiser, with the rhythmic and evolutionary cycles of the work adapting to their willingness or refusal to participate.  At the same time, a projector displayed a highly repetitive cycle of films portraying newsreaders breaking down whilst commentating upon upsetting stories.  Throughout the performance I paused at intervals to sip a drink, sit in a chair facing the audience, or photograph them with a polaroid camera, before cutting up the images and carefully arranging them upon the floor. 

This routine, combined with a musical structure that embraced prolonged silence and slow, emergent changes, resulted in an event for which there seemed to be no clear ending, no sensible overarching point.  Just as the beginning emerged from a discussion about the community in which it took place, the end of the performance folded back into the community, with no clear disjunction between the end of the creative event and its return to the everyday.  Upon the work’s completion there with a prolonged silence, broken by the audience returning to its discussion upon the nature of the event and its community, critiquing not only my role as the performer, but their own role as participants.

[i] This is not to suggest embracing a lack of skill, but rather ennobling the extra-musical aspect that contextualises such skill –Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (1941), for instance, is no less technically proficient, for all of the social context that ultimately defines its conception.
[ii] The handing out of the score serves as a good demonstration of the kind of cyclical processes with which I was engaging. Having distributed the score during an early musical performance, some members of the audience decided to sing the text as I worked upon the modular, attempted to match their pitch and rhythm to my own. This act fed directly into both the use of singing and spontaneity within the interventions (see chapter 9.4 and 5.4) and methods to encourage embodied collaboration (see chapter 7.2).
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