(In a Forest of Signs)

30 Gold coins (for 3 synthesisers) page

Three people position themselves in a triangle formation upon the pavement, pulling from their backpacks a speaker each. A loud drone begins to emit from the speakers - three frequencies so closely related that they form an audible beating, changing in pitch and speed as you move from one speaker to another. Soon enough, a man walks past, but stops, suddenly, in the centre of the triangle. He pulls a piece of chalk from his pocket and begins to write upon the pavement, slowly revealing a single sentence... “there have been xx minutes since our last theft”. Upon finishing writing, the man stands up. He moves as if dancing, walking first left then right to admire his handiwork. After a moment, he nods to himself, and proceeds to remove a small polythene bag from his pocket. The dorne continues to play - the crowd of onlookers growing larger by the minute, a mass of half-amused, half-confused people. Reaching into the bag, the man retrieves from it 30 individual pound coins, which he then lays in a circle surrounding the text. When the circle is complete, all 30 coins placed ceremoniously upon the floor, the man returns the chalk to his pocket. He admires his work once more before, without glancing at the audience once, he leaves from the direction in which he came.

Several minutes later, the music begins to die down. The three people holding the speakers depart one by one, leaving in their wake only a circle of onlookers, forming a circle around some cryptic and vaguely moralistic text, 30 pound coins lying on the ground. After a moment, a young lady kneels to take them money. A child remonstrates her, but she continues. Another joins her, and another, whilst the child is joined by an old man, hand placed firmly against his hip in disappointment. "There taking the money!" he calls, in vain, after the now long gone performer. Several people join him, passing disappointed looks and tuts to those who took the money, now hiding round the corner, wondering what just happened.

Both Nancy and Levinas operate from a similiar ontological position: ‘being’ is multi-faceted and relational, comprising not only the distinction that severs one thing from another, but also the verb, to be - the act of existence (or sentience) itself.  Being is not so much an act that is done, as an act that is doing - an innate, primordial function explicitly bound up in the unfolding of its own process, inextricable from the abstraction that is later perceived as a being.  The relationships that bind the matter of the world are defined by instability - there is no concrete ‘I’ relating to a similarly concrete ‘You’, but rather a process of movement between an inchoate and amorphic Self and Other.  This inherent flux problematises the idea that one could in any way successfully articulate Other (as in traditional forms of representation), or communicate with Other directly, since to do so would require certain existent and concrete knowns - fixtures that would turn being into a being.  If the sort of primordial co-construction that Levinas and Nancy espouse suggests that we lack the autochthonic position from which a Self begins and reaches, consciously, towards an already fully-formed and readily perceived not-self, our relationship to Other must then consist of failure - the failure of communion made visible in difference, the failure of communication made visible by the vacuity of ‘common’ sense, and the failure of any free-standing individual identity as a result of such amorphic co-construction.

Elaborating upon Levinas’s and Nancy’s position regarding Other, I would argue that to participate in the event of art requires being open to the foreign: it is to perform a coming together, and in doing so, to celebrate the distance that makes such a movement possible. This is not the same as a performed communion, such as in the ritualistic aspects of Christopher Small’s Musicking (Small, 1998), in which the event serves to celebrate the unity of its membership at the expense of those external to it.  Rather, celebration of difference is required to expose the resonant potential inherent to being with Other, as exemplified by Fat Mike’s Cokie the Clown (2010) performance.  ‘Fat’ Mike Burkett interrogated the complexities and contradictions of the punk community in which he enjoys the status of one of its longest serving and most revered players, being both owner of one of the genres largest record labels, and singer in one of its most popular bands.  Acknowledging the recent spate of front-men re-inventing themselves as singer-songwriters, Burkett created a semi-autobiographical character who, upon turning up to a show dressed as a clown, regaled his audience with uncomfortable stories from the singer’s past.  Discussing smothering his terminally ill mother, contributing to his flatmate’s suicide, and being too afraid to intervene when witnessing a rape, Burkett deliberately antagonised the duality of a scene that on the one hand relies on an intimate, near incestuous community (in which those who break its numerous rules are excised as ‘sell outs’) and on the other perceives itself as a violent resistance to existing social norms.  Throughout his monologue, Burkett handed out shots of tequila while his audience – expecting the communion of hero-worship but faced with the reality of a nuanced, weak, and narcissistic man – loudly heckled him.  Upon leaving the stage after 40 minutes, a video revealed that the Tequila was laced with Burkett’s urine – he had literally allowed his audience to consume their hero.  The work’s success lay in making present the tension between a specific community and the terms of its resistance from mainstream society.  With his band, NoFX, Burkett had addressed many of these stories already – documenting his mother’s death, the toxic, macho nature of the 80s punk scene, and his own addiction and subsequent immorality.  However, by reframing these stories from the accepted punk-song dynamic (in which shocking things are often said for artistic effect) to a more localised, intimate setting, Burkett’s achievement was to demonstrate that the punk community had been tolerating, and even buying into this behaviour for nearly 30 years.  Rather than fetishising the punk community, Burkett succeeded in drawing it into crisis, thus allowing his audience to redress, rather than reaffirm, what inclusion in that community should, and does, amount to. The event of art allows for potentiality to arise precisely because it corrupts the thingness of the object; Burkett’s Other - the objectified character of the punk frontman that has been shaping the community for 30 years - is made visible from a new, contradictory angle, and thus made foreign once more.  Other loses its thematic nature, and can no longer be reduced to certain generalised qualities, being instead brought into direct relation with its community.[i]

The ability for an artistic construct to reflect the underlying social and moral positions of its community was something I was keen to explore in 30 Gold Coins.[ii]  The piece revolves around an actor undertaking a performed giving - painstakingly laying out pound coins on the pavement outside the bank, and proceeding to write beside them ‘there have been xx seconds since our last theft'.  Throughout this, static tones are played back from three speakers. The first two speakers play back a single tone each (separated microtonally), with the third speaker providing a rising tone that, over the course of 15 minutes, begins at the frequency of speaker A and linearly travels to the frequency of speaker B. The effect is such that, as a participant moves through the horizon, they can perceive not only a slight change in pitch but also an evolving rhythmic ‘beating’ pattern whose speed is determined by their proximity to each speaker (and thus the distance between frequencies)[iii]. Once the laying of coins has been performed, the actor leaves the space, and the sound stops, leaving only the spectators, the coins, and the text.  It is here, in the absence of the performer, that the artwork proper begins.  By utilising a material that is both recognised by, and useful to, its entire membership, the work points towards an existing tension within the community.  Any participation that happens occurs in spite of the artist who, by abandoning the coins to the audience, creates the conditions for interaction while simultaneously dismantling the hierarchy inherent to the performative structure.

Lacking a central actor – having given myself up to the community and then abandoned it – spectators are free to participate in ways unexplored by the work's creator.  Since the work takes place on a public street, I am initially in a position of power, having commanded a significant portion of the shared visual and sonic landscape.  However, by giving up ownership of a shared currency without directly ceding it to another, and instead laying it down in upon the street, I lack any control regarding what happens to either the object (coin) or the concept (giving).  It is not a gift (a directed transference that still maintains a power dynamic between me and my Other) but a giving up The accompanying text, written in chalk upon the pavement, further challenges the freedom of the spectators to engage with the work. While taking the money would clearly be to their advantage, the use of the pronoun ‘our’ forces such an action to become an ethical dilemma since it reifies its position within a shared currency.  To take the money would be to both participate in the art event and its demise - creating a situation wherein to actively negate the work is simultaneously to actively participate in its perpetuation.  Likewise, to not take the money is also now an ethical decision - either to prolong the artwork's life or to conclude you have no right to take it: contrary to Debord, spectatorship, inactivity, becomes a form of action, a political choice.  An artistic narrative that pre-empts the nature of true or effective participation not only presents a patronising narrative - that truly involved participants will participate in the correct, pre-determined manner, as designated by the artist – but its inherent inflexibility excludes those for whom participation might manifest in other ways.

By invoking multiple layers of potential action, each placed at the intersection of the individual and their community, what is foregrounded is not so much any player's ability to oscillate between distinct positions - that of a performer or actor, someone for or against the work - but rather the distance between these positions Presented as a performance, the positions occupied by its participants are both mediated and bound by the event - any position taken up is temporary, relating only to this action. Those who choose to take the money do so outside of any normal ethical construct – the art event allows them to explore modes of being unavailable to them within normal life.   And while it may be easy to dismiss the artist as being less well-placed to interrogate philosophical matters than a philosopher proper, to do so would be to insinuate that art harbours no direct relation to social ethics. The point of work such as this is to demonstrate that the art event directly conjures and explores the ethics of its community – that art is, or at least can be, a pragmatic way for a society to explore its own ethical contours.

By focusing on temporary shifts in its participants’ social/ethical positions, 30 Gold Coins attempts to destabilise the fixity of its elements – people, coins, social spaces.   A similar effect can be seen in the work of Beuys – particularly within his notion of ‘plasticity' (Beuys, 2007).  Employing substances such as wax, fat, and honey, Beuys demonstrates how an act of relation - such as the addition of warmth – determines the perceived state of a material.  The artwork lies not in the objects presented but in the making visible of substance as process Beuys’s objects are chosen because they change form when an external pressure is applied; likewise, the participants of 30 Gold Coins, placed at an ethical intersection that problematises notions of ownership, public space, artistic merit, and fair gain, are being treated as materials whose reaction to social and ethical pressure directly shapes their perception of the work.  Some, initially content to watch from the sidelines, found themselves compelled to intervene when others took the coins, unable to let what they considered as an unacceptable breach of social etiquette pass unchallenged.  The resonance of the materials - replete with specific social functions, complex heritages - and the tension of their placement upon the street, served to engage the participants on a moral level, addressing their existing social responsibilities and presuppositions as to the fundamental rights and wrongs of the world, and forcing them to enter a position of instability.  Coins are a plastic form in so far as their value is relational - allowing them to act as currency one moment, an art-form the next, an ethical dilemma, and so on.  Their role is not to be the artwork, but to foreground plasticity as a means of drawing out potential responses - rather than idealised perceptions - from its viewer.  The event of 30 Gold Coins – whether in the sonic aspect that encourages physical movement through space, or the conceptual affront that requires the drawing of a personal ethical contour - is to place its participants in resonance[iv] with their environment.  By sketching out a multitude of concurrent vantage points (moral, social, cultural), the work serves to elucidate the responsibility (and therefore difference) inherent to any community that arises from people being together.  

This responsibility is not only that of Levinas’s “pre-original challenge”, but a second-order relationship to Other, conducted in sentience and with specific rather than innate outcomes.  The onlooker who, witnessing the coins’ ‘theft’, chooses to intervene when an other's conduct breaches his own moral disposition, does so with intent - responsibility carries over into measured, considered interaction.  Indeed, we might consider art as a bridge between primordial and critical modes of being, a way of consciously testing resonances and responsibilities by reimagining the already present social interactions that exist in the everyday.  

By offering an alternative way of perceiving existing social relationships, I would argue that art allows us to experience the potential beyond tried and tested relations to Other - an operation achieved precisely because it is distinct from life, even as it operates in the same field, and with the same tools.  We might even consider art as making up for a flaw in our cognitive framework that results in the perception of a single fixed reality in the first place - as a series of objects (things), rather than life cycles (things+difference/time).  We can perceive a coin, but must imagine its long history as a nickel-brass composite, a lump of unrefined ore, and so forth.  Equally, we might just as easily say we can see the coin, but not its past life as somebody’s lunch money, the last hour on the electricity meter, or the death of the gold standard.  For Levinas and Nancy, such a lack of epistemological plasticity inevitably leads to totalitarianism, as differing - and equally rigid epistemologies clash over the utility of their shared objects.  To escape such conflict, what is required is not an external ethical construct, designed to arbitrate the experience of multiple selves through existing conditions of communally-set good or bad behaviour (thus making up for the unaccountable difference between disparate unities), but instead a re-orientation from a reliance on experience, to a reliance on sense (sensing).  In artistic terms, this might be seen as the difference between laying coins on the street and then proceeding to publicly shame anyone who takes them as a thief and destroyer of art, and creating an event wherein passers-by are encouraged to approach alternate perspectives through the social dialogue instigated between the artist, the work, and its multitude of participants/spectators.  This orientation does not amount to the stripping back of the coin's signification, or nullifying its context until all players equally face a pure, unadulterated piece of metal (and thus finally share a common experience).  Rather, it consists of amplifying the difference that any resonant object naturally conjures, celebrating a multi-faceted being for which its unknowability, the impossibility of its subsumption into the terms of self, is precisely what makes it glow.

An orientation towards the act of sensing, as opposed to the subsumption of already-sensible objects, seems to go hand in hand with the expanded concept of communication offered by Luhmann.  If communication is the means by which the unique perceptions of distinct individuals are passed between the members of a community, a focus on the act of sensing - with all of its subjective grey area - has the potential for far more informational slippage than a reliance on pre-determined sensed-objects, drawn from limited categories of things.  Luhmann however, suggests that communication is not so much a bridge between operationally closed individuals, as it is “an independent type of formation in the medium of meaning, an emergent reality that presupposes living beings capable of consciousness but is irreducible to any one of these beings, not even to all of them taken together” (Luhmann, p.9, 2000).  From this viewpoint, communication is not concerned with the distribution of symbols - such as would be provided by culturally pre-defined stimuli - but rather with an individual's relationship to both the act of sensing and the act of expressing what is sensed Our inability to directly pass unique experience between one another - in short, our operational closure - provides communication with its independence from either sender or receiver and the subsequent need for an interim.  As with Nancy’s Other, the concept of operational closure suggests an orientation towards something that is not only unknown, but unknowable.  It is an orientation towards an act that never resolves, that perpetually feeds back.  The sense implicit to such an orientation is not about making sense - joining up the dots of pre-existing experience - but of putting oneself in a primordial position of sense, where Other (replete with its contexts and significations) can be approached in all its foreignness, without any illusion of making it a sensible part of a self’s understanding.  Central to Luhmann’s theory is the idea that a system must compensate for the shortcomings of the elements contained within it.  If, as Luhmann suggests, the “consciousness compensates for the operative closure of the nervous system, just as the social system compensates for the closure of consciousness” (Luhmann, p.10. 2000), it is a situation that underscores the production and reception of creative stimuli.  The artwork exists not only as a relational construct between a self and its Other, but as a reflection upon, and interrogation of, the social system in which such interaction takes place.

[i] It is this same direct positioning of Other that Levinas explores. For Levinas, “being in direct relation with the other is not to thematize the other and consider him in the same manner one considers a known object, nor to communicate a knowledge to him. Existence is the sole thing I cannot communicate; I can tell about it, but I cannot share my existence.” (Levinas, pp.57-58, 1985).
[ii] Appendix B: I don’t know where we are going but it sure sounds nice, 30 Gold Coins audio/video/score (box/usb).
[iii] A similar approach to sonic materiality was used by La Monte Young, particularly in Drift Study (1969).
[iv] Being, as resonance, is innately relational, reliant on the proximity of Other (i.e. an object to re-sound from), and shaped by its size and contours (much as the shape of a room fundamentally changes the nature of sounds emitted within it). To be, is, much like to sound, “to vibrate in itself or by itself: it is not only, for the sonorous body, to emit sound, but it is also to stretch out, to carry itself and be resolved into vibrations that both return it to itself and place it outside itself” (Nancy, p.8, 2007).
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