(In a Forest of Signs)

4.2: Missionary (or ‘he who witnesses across cultures’).

It looks lighter than it is, but it still looks heavy. To this effect, ‘quite heavy’ has been taped to its top and side, lest there should be some doubt. I drag it down to the sea-front bike-path that is my stage, and the performance proper begins. Though it may function as a prop, it is not possible to perform the act of carrying it in any traditional sense - my face contorts into expressions of amplified distress on its own accord, displaying actual discomfort - I cannot pretend to be any more exhausted than the reality of my task compels me to be.  A few people watch as I struggle in vain with my strange cargo, pulling up on their bikes to gawk, or staring over the tips of their ice-creams, tapping on their friends' shoulders and whispering, repeating the mantra I have given them in their own voice - quite heavy. That looks quite heavy’. Children invariably stop and point, only to be ushered on by their parents who, like many of the adults, are studiously pretending not to see me. An impressively muscular weight-trainer pops out from behind a beach-hut, suggests I invest in some wheels. A family of four gaze intently upon me for almost twenty minutes, devouring their packed lunch from a bench. Train passengers giggle loudly as they steam past, amused by my signage. Eventually, someone stops to help me carry it across the zebra crossing, then lugs it with me past the chip shop. Later, a man riding some form of giant tricycle advertising a local pub, insists we hoist the harmonium aboard, and rides the three of us up the hill.

Missionary[i] may be based around a large wooden harmonium, but it deals less with music than it does with the social impact of sonic practices - the comings and goings of a community of sound-makers and sound-receivers within a shared space.  As befits the concept of line-making, a large part of this portfolio is concerned with the intersection between sound practices and walking practices[ii] and Missionary is no exception.  The pump organ - or missionary's harmonium - was designed as a portable variant of the church organ, used predominantly by British missionaries setting up new congregations in India.  The instrument historically serves two purposes: as a vehicle for one conceptual order to overawe another, and as a means of physically bringing a specific cultural sound-practice out into the community.  From a performance perspective, the practical and aesthetic reality of single-handedly moving such a heavy object presents an intriguing problem, wherein the public nature of even attempting the act turns into a performed feat of pragmatism. With this in mind, the most prescient concern was not so much what I might do with the instrument, but how I might do it.  For both myself and the travel-weary Christians for whom the harmonium was named, what is at stake is not the virtuosity of any individual act upon the instrument, but how - pragmatically as well as conceptually - the object might enter into the community. Thus, the harmonium, carried through shared space, is not so much a musical instrument as a carrier of potential - a resonant object.

Carrying such an unwieldy object through the city centre not only foregrounds the work of its artistic undertaking but points to the underlying responsibility born of undertaking such an act within the community.  If our society recognises a moral code that implores us to assist those in need - to help old ladies cross roads, or to give up our seat on the bus – it is a code compromised by the inclusion of certain impositions.   Objects often seem to amplify certain characteristics, abstracting and reducing the complexities of exteriority into a handful of defining traits.  Though the objects that populate shared space point to difference – the broad spectrum of needs inherent to a diverse community – they do so as signifiers that simultaneously draw perception away from primordiality and towards pre-existing culturally constructed knowns.  The blankets, bicycles, and baggage of our fellow travelers are props that allow us both to conceptualise the validity of their need, and to subsume Other within our existing epistemological framework.  The harmonium reflects this duality.  While large enough to clearly require assistance, its function – either as part of a performance or as a vehicle for sound-making – points towards a lack of social necessity: it is only entertainment.   The instrument, in both its size and volume, signifies additional and unnecessary noise.

For the individual, noise - the sound of an absence of necessity - is relative.  My wife blending fruit at 6.30 in the morning is unnecessary, because I do not want a smoothie. The sound of my neighbour's dog is unnecessary because it needlessly interrupts my piano practice.  It would be simplistic to suggest, however, that either dogs or smoothies are unnecessary to those who pet or drink them - to the individual concerned, their point and purpose is indelibly clear.  As a community these lines of necessity are less distinct, since they must cater for the conflicting, and evolving, needs and wants of a multitude of people.  Keizer points out that much of what is considered noise is simply the sound of external processes from which we are estranged - the (usually) audible manifestation of unknown or, perhaps more concisely, generalised concepts of Other. Citing instances of excited children’s footsteps welcoming their father's return from work aggravating neighbours' sleep, or of wind turbines that cause complaint up until the point where they provide cheap electricity for locals, Keizer suggest that noise is itself a relational concept, indicating not any specific quality, but rather “some kind of breakdown of community. The sound of people we know and like seldom strike our ears as ‘unwanted’” (Kiezer, p.45, 2012).

If noise is relational and dependent on our familiarity with its source, anything that is unfamiliar is by definition a type of noise, since it has yet to become known to the community. As Keizer points out, foreign voices are more likely to appear noisy, loud or threatening, and while this can be put down to inherent cultural differences between communities regarding volume and personal space, it arguably has as much to do with the incomprehension - the newness - of foreign languages themselves.  Within the art world, new works are often classed as noisy simply because they fail to adhere to the easily recognisable attributes of those which precede them – as exemplified by the atonal music of Arnold Schoenberg.[iii]  In Missionary, the antiquity of the wooden harmonium, steeped in a history concerned with bringing a new religion to a foreign land, served as a means of being noisy in several senses:  occupying volume upon a shared street, performing experimental/new music, and generally making a racket.  I was interested in the idea that new art is often considered to oppose a general relation to its community, that – as with Schoenberg’s coveted Society for Private Musical Performance – avant-garde music demands avant-garde audiences, a select few intellectuals who might be enlightened enough to ‘get’ it. Although I sought to compose contemporary, challenging music, I was interested in discovering ways of making that challenge accessible to those who were not already aficionados of the style.  To facilitate this, I accompanied the act of carrying the instrument with a text-based score detailing both its journey and a musical work to be undertaken when the exhausted performer can no longer physically continue.  Rather than assume the performer capable of interpreting the symbols and tropes of contemporary music notation/graphic scores, the work instead relied upon the mental and physical incapacitation caused by carrying the instrument as far as they have.  A series of simple text instructions ask the performer to reflect upon their physical state, using weighted language (“fail,” “unavoidable,” “gasping”) and dualisms (“lose or gain,” “fragility or force”) to engage with actual physical conditions. This is countered by abstract, poetic language that points to cultural or site-specific conditions (“The air between us,” “Library Eureka), interspersed with physical instruction (“Play flesh as much as wood”,puff out your chest and holler”).  By focusing on embodiment in this way, I sought to prioritise the presence of the performer within their community above fidelity to any idealised or final version of the piece.

Though musically falling within the contemporary/avant-garde tradition, Missionary does not rely on either its audience’s or performer’s knowledge of such forms - Indeed, the very idea of somehow teaching an uninitiated audience to correctly interpret and perform in an experimental fashion arrives replete with any number of uncomfortable assumptions concerning not only the superiority of one cultural form over another, but also the ignorance of a ‘general’ public.  As such, Missionary might be seen as coming from the same lineage as Mauricio Kagel.  Despite being firmly part of the avant-garde music world, Kagel’s work – whether in its instrumentation, performance, or mode of dissemination –reaches beyond the often insular and academic self-reference of his peers.  Works such as Music for Renaissance Instruments (1969) and Ludwig Van (1969) engage with reference points that deliberately interrogate, either temporally or culturally, the very notion of an avant-garde.  Likewise, Kagel’s Atem für einen Bläser (1970), instructs the performer to, among other things, clean, dismantle, and entirely replace their instrument as they search for the correct tone. Similarly, Ornithologica multiplicata (1968) is a performance reliant on ‘exotic’ birds, and as such inherently relates to the geo-specific qualities of its site of performance. As with many of Kagel’s compositions, Missionary is reliant more on the general cultural context of its event than any specific musical knowledge held by its audience,  operating within a shared space to which the artistic act holds no primacy, but instead serves as an interruption to the pre-existing narrative of the community.  The harmonium object does not point towards an ideal musical outcome to be critiqued by its community, but towards a breakdown of comprehension – it is an instrument that makes little sound but that of its own failure, an act that never resolves into sense.  A successful performance relies upon just such a breakdown, both conceptually and actually - a breakdown of comprehension between the audience and their percepts, and the literal breakdown of the performer as a prerequisite of the piece.  The audience’s failure to know what is happening meets the performer’s failure to do it – to carry, to play - and as such they are equally complicit, equally active, in a mutually shared dialogue.   This mutuality invokes Nancy and Levinas’s philosophical position - that subjectivity is not a free-standing given but born of the becoming of Self from the horizon of Other. 

The goal is for a shift in the existing relationships that might otherwise define strict subject/object categorisations, rendered in performative terms as a problematisation of the Actor/Spectator division.  My intention is not to make Spectators act, or to destabilise the power of the Actor, but rather to open up the terms of both. The terms of the actor are obfuscated by virtue of the fact that I am, though an object of spectacle, not acting.  The contorted expressions I pull while dragging the harmonium are not acted, but acute renderings of the chore at hand. The terms of the spectator are obfuscated because there is no actor by which to orientate spectatorship.  I am not delineating what a ‘spectator’ can or can’t be because it is unclear whether what is spectated is a performance or merely a facet of general social activity.  There are no fixed modes of participation being invoked. I do not intend to lead anyone to any pre-given point. I am not asking for help with the harmonium - though the act does presuppose recourse to an unspoken moral obligation, and some are inclined to offer it.  I am not asking for sympathy, since it is unclear whether I am an unfortunate soul struggling with a massive wooden block, or a performer, undertaking an action exactly as he wishes it to be.  The contours are muddy.  My audience, such as they are, are not compelled to participate in any specific way.  And yet they do participate, because, by virtue of our proximity,[iv] our shared space, they already are participating.

The practice of publicly struggling with a weight beyond one's capacity places terms such as responsibility, gesture and resonance directly into practical relation with the tangible Other of my fellow pedestrians. My own experiences of sharing the street with those in need - of feeling that I should have helped someone struggling with a wheelchair or pram but for whatever reason did not - is a hugely self-reflective process and one in which I define myself based upon the morality of my actions.  On a personal level then, Levinas's assertion as to the responsibility born of proximity rings true - I do feel responsible for those around me, and a failure to act upon that responsibility fundamentally affects my sense of self-worth.  Responsibility is, as Levinas suggests, an entirely autonomous endeavor - I feel a tangible responsibility to help those around me prior to any critical reflection as to the limits of my selfhood.  Perhaps then, that is what captivates the audience as they watch me struggle - a tension born of an innate desire to help that wrestles with their shyness, their confusion, their busy schedules.  Perhaps that is what causes the jogger to slow and stare at me and my box, despite my not doing anything particularly spectacular, despite my not being in his way - the responsibility of my proximity, the inescapable desire to help. 

By problematising the intersection between morality, ethics, physical work, and the artistic act, Missionary poses a political question, if not a distinct political agenda.  If the work is perceived as an artwork at all - as opposed to an act of labour - then it is seen that way precisely because it embodies, rather than represents, a schism within the acceptable or expected.  The reality of the effort required to move the harmonium exists beyond any performed carrying: it is a movement that literally requires every inch of my body, and a constant, unwavering concentration, to achieve successfully.  I am not representing the reality of carrying, nor opposing an existing order – such as by carrying a harmonium while everyone else carries a violin, or wielding a timber box during a crisis of wood - but explicitly presenting a lived reality.[v]  The sensible is not the other side of the absurd, just as the abstract is not the other side of the object.[vi]  

Carrying a heavy box along the seafront is not absurd, per se - certainly not in the same way that carrying a giraffe along the seafront might be.  But it is nonetheless beyond the logical or expected order of things.  The beyond of sense is not an act of resistance because it defines itself beyond the order of what is expected, not in opposition to it.  Resistance ultimately requires that which it opposes as a requisite of its being – it must have something to resist – and as such only offers the limited potential of a fixed alternative.  And while there is clearly some element of resistance in carrying an instrument until your hands are so raw you can no longer play, the work avoids opposing any specific facet of its community in favor of elucidating difference in general.  By pointing beyond the limits of the sensible, Missionary is not reliant on any existing relationship between cause and effect – a relationship that ultimately turns self back towards self, as events serve only to confirm or invert expected outcomes.  Rather, the material of the work is what Jacques Rancière calls “a third term”,[vii] born of the fertile distance between sense (what is sensed) and what is expected (the sensible).  By dragging a large and inscrutible box to the sea, I am not relating a known fact, or engaging in some abstract code to be solved, ingested or resisted by a spectator, but rather creating a shared event “whose meaning is owned by no one, but which subsists between them, excluding any uniform transmission, any identity of cause and effect” (Rancière, p.15, 2009).

[i] Appendix B: I Don’t Know Where We are Going but It Sure Sounds Nice, Missionary, photographs (usb).
[ii] See Appendix G: Walking Is Still Honest / Small works for shared space.
[iii] See Alex Ross’s The rest is noise (Ross, 2009).
[iv] Proximity is a key aspect of Emmanuel Levinas’s concept of Other: “between the one that I am and the other for whom I answer gapes a bottomless difference, which is also the non-indifference of responsibility, significance of signification, irreducible to any system whatsoever. Non-in-difference, which is the very proximity of one’s fellow, by which is profiled a base of community between one and the other, unity of the human genre, owing to the fraternity of men” (Levinas, p.6, 2006).
[v] This resonates with much performance studies research, notably with respect to the status ascribed to task-oriented actions, such as in Micheál O’Connell’s Less – in which the artist uses supermarket self-checkout machines to produce zero-transaction receipts (2014) – or Michael Kirby’s text On Acting and Not-Acting (1972).
[vi] To perceive an object is to perceive it as abstract - a moment abstracted, made momentary concrete, from the perpetually evolution of a things lifecycle.  As Massumi suggests, “what we call objects, considered in the ontological fullness of process, are lived relations between the subjective forms of occasions abstractly nesting themselves in each other as passed-on potentials.  They are the inter-given: the systematic form in which potential is relayed from one experience to another” (Massumi, p.15, 2011).
[vii] “what remains vivid, both in [artists’] practice and in the criticism they experience, is precisely the ‘critique of the spectacle’ - the idea that art has to provide us with more than a spectacle, more than something devoted to the delight of passive spectators, because it has to work for a society where everybody should be active. The ‘critique of the spectacle’ often remains the alpha and omega of the ‘politics of art’. What this identification dispenses with is any investigation of a third term of efficacy that escapes the dilemma of representational mediation and ethical immediacy. I assume that this "third term" is aesthetic efficacy itself. ‘Aesthetic efficacy’ means a paradoxical kind of efficacy that is produced by the very rupturing of any determinate link between cause and effect” (Rancière, p.63, 2009).
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