THE WEBSITE OF SOUND / TEXT / VIDEO / PERFORMANCE ARTIST DANIEL ALEXANDER HIGNELL

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5.3: Five Nights Beneath the Pier


There are clear parallels between notions of operative closure, the intermediary nature of communication and art, and the unknowability of both Other and its plural, community.  If we are to return at this point to our initial enquiry - the social function of art-making - it would seem increasingly evident that this research is uncovering a dichotomous pattern that revolves around work, sense, environment, unknowability and potential: who undertakes the act of ‘making’ sense, under what conditions, and the potential inherent in their inevitable failure.  One area of confusion is the interchangeability of sense (to perceive via the sensory organs) and sense (to construct or affirm the sensible).  My research increasingly attempts to demonstrate that these two terms are malleable and that the ‘function’ of art, if we are to argue for such a thing, lies in precisely the slippage between them.  Indeed, what Massumi calls “becoming” and Levinas simply “being”, is nothing but the beyond of sense - beyond the thing that is sensed and prior to its abstraction into the fixture of the sensible, it is the moment at which sentience begins to attempt to make sense of stimuli as a prerequisite to being in one's environment – that is, to achieve selfhood.  A crucial aspect of this conflation of sense (sensing) and sense (the sensible) is the idea that the activity of being, insofar as it strains between what is sensed and what is deemed sensible, relies on the nature and proximity of exteriority for its very existence.  This is a fundamental tenet of Levinas’s notion of responsibility – there exists a primordial relationship well in advance of any individual’s agency, born of the simple fact that without Other there can be no self.  This exchange, this sharing, occurs not between fully-formed individuals, but as the defining part of their mutual co-construction, and it is through its incompletion that being can emerge.  Sharing, like all forms of communication,[i] must remain incomplete if it is to illicit feedback – there must always be something left to ask.  Likewise, for Luhmann, sharing is an ‘independent formation’ that is neither the object shared nor those involved in the sharing, but instead the act of sharing - not reliant on language, since it pre-empts any attempt at meaning. Sharing may well be meaningful, but it is itself a straining towards sense (a straining towards the idea of the sensory, not towards an explicit shared language) rather than an attempt to make sense – much like a journey is more than an attempt to arrive at a destination.

Luhmann suggests that our experience of the world exists on multiple levels at once, broadly divided into perception and intuition. While perception denotes the immediacy of external objects as they are encountered, intuition “implies a double move… a transcending of what is immediately given in perception towards the constitution of spatial and temporal horizons and an erasure of information concerning its own spatial/temporal location” (Luhmann, p.7, 2000).  It is intuition that allows us to imagine, to experience a string of notes as a melody, or to comprehend the historical significance of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495), the spatial affront of Duchamp’s Fountain (1917).  What Luhmann calls intuition, Massumi calls ‘Dual immediacy’ (Massumi, 2011), a facet inherent to the art event that allows us to extend beyond a western epistemological model still fundamentally reliant on subjectivity - that is, on things being objects and being perceived as objects.  To engage with the event is to be participating in the paradox of both being a part of the world in general, and being part of the highly specific ‘just-so’ that is the unique and unrepeatable characteristic of that moment, at that time.  The subject is not involved merely in a creative transformation of seemingly distinct, fixed objects, but rather is embroiled in the act of self-creation, “process as becoming” (Massumi, p.2, 2011).   Subjectivity relies on the ‘just-so’ relation to the objects it perceives even as it becomes evident that no such ‘objectivity’ exists:

The world is not an aggregate of objects. To see it that way is to have participated in an abstraction reductive of the complexity of nature as passage. To "not believe in things" is to believe that objects are derivatives of process and that their emergence is the passing result of specific modes of abstractive activity. This means that reality does not exhaust the range of real. The reality of the world exceeds that of objects, for the simple reason that where objects are, there has also been their becoming. And where becoming has been, there is already more to come. The being of an object is an abstraction from its becoming. The world is not a grab-bag of things. It's an always-in-germ. To perceive the world in an object frame is to neglect the wider range of its germinal reality. (Massumi, p.6, 2011).

The idea of a germinal reality that escapes the abstraction of ‘things’ has a long history in the arts.  La Monte Young uses duration to demonstrate the ‘beyond’ of the object, deliberately exploiting the point at which objects lose their perceptual integrity.  By actively courting conscious boredom through the use of long, seemingly static tones with little perceived variation[ii], Young places the crux of the work in the exposure to pure sense that can only occur once any tangible connection to the nuances of the individual elements - the objective value of the sonic material, or the perceived accomplishment of the whole - is lost.  Sense, by Young’s reading, can only be reached once sensing supersedes the kind of associations that are implicit to the mind’s attempt to ‘make sense’ of objects.[iii]  Young’s objects - long held tones, or evolving harmonic patterns - are freed from the shackles of association and representation, and can be, as much as is possible,[iv] experienced autonomously. This approach allows for a “suspension of the analytical” (Schaeffer, in Duckworth and Fleming, p.25, 2012), in which the brain can no longer perceive the contours of the objects it employs, and must instead rely on the act of sensuality.  For Young, a focus on “inspired intuition” rather than “theoretical deduction” (Schaeffer, in Duckworth and Fleming, p.29, 2012) points not to the simplicity of his work, but rather to a complexity whose end goal is its own vanishing point.  The phenomenological complexity his work offers functions as a third term between the self and the environment that is its Other - resulting in the perception, and autonomous creation, of harmonies, frequencies and rhythms not (immediately) present in the materials themselves.  By utilising specific frequencies and harmonic relationships so as to invoke standing tones and location-specific frequency ‘beating’, harmonic and rhythmic content literally emerges over time, a quality not of the material nor the perceiver, but of their between.[v]  What Young demonstrates is that the objects of the art event are only meaningful over time and in relation to their environment – the object is nothing but a momentary awareness of a thing's temporary, abstracted state.  By this reading, the abstract is not the removed, wilfully confused remnant of the object to which it relates - a cubist painting of a not-quite person - but the lived state of the object.[vi]  

The degree to which temporality and environment not only frame but acutely construct the art-event, was the primary rationale behind 5 Nights Beneath the Pier.[vii]  Created and presented over 15 nights, the work comprised a 5 day filmed night-walk between the Brighton Marina and the Brighton Pier, followed by 5 nights of editing and composing an accompanying soundtrack, before a final 5 nights' presentation of the film beneath the pier.  By undertaking the walk at night, the impetus was two-fold.  Firstly, I was interested in the type of community that forms around the beach at that hour and hoped to record the unique interactions that occur there under the cover of darkness.  Secondly, I was interested in the voyeuristic nature of recording such interactions.  Filming at night, it was virtually impossible to record images without some form of light source - and yet, the presence of an artificial light to the otherwise dark beach served to invert my role.  Though I was a spectator to the other occupants of the beach, the addition of the light made me the most visible, spectacular thing present.  As such, any attempt at voyeurism was apparently negated, a dynamic that saw the other human occupants of the beach gravitate towards me as I filmed.  Furthermore, even with the light, the camera was unable to pick up images more than a few feet away - whereas the light made me visible for several hundred metres.  As such, there was no clear dividing line between me and my environment, since my presence drastically changed the environment, affecting both the limits of my visibility – altered by slight changes in my angle or speed – and the actions of those Others who ran towards or away from me, simultaneously altering the limits of their, and my, perceptions.

After editing the footage, I projected the film and its accompanying soundtrack[viii] on the bottom of the pier, as a means of reintroducing the work back into the space of its creation.  Crucially, however, I wanted the dissemination of the work to reflect the transitory, environmental and temporal aspects of its process of creation.  With this in mind, I invited local musicians from the free improvisation scene to provide additional material each night, requesting only that they be willing to improvise not just musically, but with the environmental challenges of the site. The ‘stage’ consisted of the ground between the base of the pier and the sea, a space of anywhere between 1 and 25 metres width dependent on weather and tides. The improvisers were faced with numerous impositions, including sea-levels , the volume of the waves and wind (ranging from a quiet whisper to a howl loud enough to drown out even amplified music), and the force of the wind that could, on occasion, knock over both performers and their instruments.  There were also human conditions to contend with: the sound of cars and revellers on the pier above, locals holding nearby beach parties, and the homeless community residing beneath the pier.  The performers, faced with such difficulty, soon broke into two camps - those who blamed me, the instigator, for concocting such an event (acting as if I had, in my lack of clarity or instruction[ix], fundamentally misunderstood something about the nature of music, though unable to articulate quite what) and those who enjoyed the open-handedness that such an environment required.  As with previous interventions, it was the artwork’s resulting social dynamic that I sought to prioritise – the improvisers’ struggle with both their environment and the concept mirrored similar concerns in the film’s exploration of voyeurism, limitation of control, community, and use of space.  The artistic material on offer was secondary to the event of ‘failing’ to successfully put on a normal musical performance/screening.  This was manifest both by the impossibility of showing the work under certain conditions - on the first evening my film was nearly invisible and only barely audible such was the light and sound emitting from the pier - but also by the utility of site-specific elements beyond the pre-prepared work of the improvisers. One performer (Tom Bench AKA Hardworking Families), who had brought along a metal chair to play like a drum, ended up simply burying it, surmising that the audience could barely hear his violent actions upon the chair above the waves.  Similarly, one act - Thee Bald Knobbers - that had brought along electric guitars and amplified cymbals took to ‘playing’ the metal underside of the pier, since it was far louder than their instruments.  Less tolerant of the environment was vocalist Ingrid Plum, who appeared to become somewhat irate after her voice was periodically drowned out by the wind and waves - despite the interesting sonic effect it produced.  What was produced by my performers was not a specific artefact, but a staging of the tension present between conflicting modes of being.  Those involved sought to undertake a pre-emptive movement through the space – such as playing an instrument –yet the nature of the site forced them instead to respond with a primacy that circumvented any prepared response.  It was for this reason I chose to work with self-declared improvisers – my interest was in highlighting the performative potential that exists in the slippage between critical and primordial responses to one’s environment.  This is not to suggest, however, that those who ‘got’ it contributed more to the event than those who did not.  Indeed, it was the ensuing conflict between their different positions that defined the work, more so than any specific artefact.  On the third night, instead of performing as planned, a string ensemble took the ‘stage’ to critique the lack of direction I had given them, environmental concerns, the fact they were not being paid, and a number of other qualities they were unhappy with.  This resulted in a 30-minute debate amongst both performers and audience as to the nature of improvisation, artistic promotion, and site, without any musical content whatsoever.  Indeed, the degree to which the event of engaging with the environment took precedence was such that the film that instigated the event was only shown on three of the five nights, the other two producing unexpected emergent qualities from the community (such as the impromptu debate) that seemed to negate the validity or necessity of actually showing an artwork at all.




[i] Sharing is, as the base operation of communication - the presentation of the third term, what Luhmann calls an ‘independent formation’ that is neither the object shared nor those involved in the sharing, but instead the act of sharing - not reliant on language, since it pre-empts any attempt at meaning. Sharing may well be meaningful, but it is itself a straining towards sense (a straining towards the idea of the sensory, not towards an explicit shared language) rather than an attempt to make sense – much like a journey is more than an attempt to arrive at a destination.
[ii] A feature of much of Young’s work, exemplified by the ongoing ‘Dream House’ installation (see Grimshaw, 2011).
[iii] Young’s theories explore the neurological response to stimuli, particularly in regard to how perception operates beyond conscious, cultural reflection. Young’s utilisation of Just intonation bypasses a culturally conditioned response to musical materials (such as ‘I like this’) and instead operates directly as a neurological level. By invoking, as Just intonation allows, the “exact repetition of phase relationships, the continuous firing of identical neurons will create, according to Young’s research, a more intense psychological state” (Gann, in Duckworth and Fleming, p.162, 2012)
[iv] This is exactly what Pierre Schaeffer attempted to do with his acousmatic music. The difference with Young’s work, is that he is not asking us to overlook whatever associations objects arouse, but rather presenting them in a way that directly challenges our ability to make such associations. Even where this is unsuccessful (which on some level I believe it always will be), the attempt actively opens up the potential for a diverse range of associations beyond any initial “sounds like…” that occurs by (for example) sounding a typewriter without actually showing a typewriter.
[v] Marian Zazeela, who provides the light sculptures that accompany the sonic material, describes a situation where “external others, my body, and my awareness is a theory - and can only have meaning relative to ensembles of experience over time” (Zazeela, in Duckworth and Fleming, p.122, 2012).
[vi]to abstract in this fuller sense is a technique of extracting the relational-qualitative arc of one occasion of experience - its subjective form - and systematically depositing it in the world for the next occasion to find… what we call objects, considered in the ontogenic fullness of process, are lived relations between the subjective forms of occasions abstractly nesting themselves in each other as passed-on potential” (Masumi, p.15, 2011).
[vii] B: I don’t know where we are going but it sure sounds nice, Five Nights Beneath the Pier, video.
[viii] The soundtrack consisted of three main sources - audio recordings of my walk across the beach, The Clancy Brothers' song Carrickfergus, and a modular synthesizer.  The synthesizer was primarily comprised of several cross-modulating low frequency oscillators – the frequency modulation or amplitude of each oscillator was controlled by the frequency of another, resulting in audible content occurring only when several independent oscillations coincided at complementary states. 
[ix] A lack of instruction here indebted to the participatory openness explored in my interpretation of Nehaus’s work (see chapter 5.1).
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