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

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7.1: Conclusion: I don’t know where we are going but it sure sounds nice.


Throughout this research, I have presented the artistic construct as a bridge between primordial and rational modes of being, a means of reimagining the everyday and enlivening latent potentialities within it.   By offering an alternative perspective - whether that is a landscape we cannot normally see or the laying down of coins outside a bank - art allows us to perceive and explore the potential that exists beyond tried and tested relations to Other.  What is more, I have sought to demonstrate that it is not only possible to consider the work of art to be in the celebration of distance between a self and its Other – but that it is both feasible and valid to score such work as a means of inspiring new relational engagements in the future.  While my initial area of research – the social function of art-making – stayed constant throughout this process, there were a number of ideas that were uncovered as I progressed, particularly concerning the nature of participation and community. 

Participation, as a term, was something I was deeply uncomfortable with prior to this research, perceiving it as being overly prescriptive, and ultimately overlooking, or negating, modes of participation beyond those imagined by the artwork’s creator.  The idea of a more holistic participation – as suggested by the likes of Rancière – was something I was just coming to terms with, and the performances, compositions, installations and interventions that comprise this body of work served as a means of testing a variety of more open-ended models of participation.  These models are based on the assumption that participation is already taking place.  The artwork, rather than engaging the spectator in some entirely new horizon, instead momentarily rearticulates a chosen few of the myriad of threads that are already tying the spectator to their site, their sense, and their community.  To consider participation in this manner is a logical conclusion, if we are to begin from an ontological position that defines Other as fundamentally unknowable.  The result of not being able to know Other is that you can have no idea whether or not they are participating - or even what such participation might look like.  For the artist, this fundamentally changes the game that is played each time we undertake a performance.  Those actions designed to acknowledge comprehension and appreciation – nodding, clapping, dancing, and so forth – do not, in fact, acknowledge anything about the artwork itself.  Instead, what they demonstrate is that the audience recognises the ritual by which the art event takes place – in short, that the work is sensible (makes sense), rather than sensual (constructs feeling).  The outcome of this research project, whether in the form of interventions, musical performances, or explorations of site, was to find new ways of developing and scoring a practice that maintains both critical/conceptual depth and a focus on sensuality as a means of participation.  

Terms such as participation have not been used throughout this research to pertain exclusively to the art event – indeed, the underlying argument I have been attempting to flesh out is that art is quite literally a means of practicing the wider socio-political relationships that make up the community.  What I wanted to make clear in my work is that any activity that brings into question the validity of previous suppositions concerning sense data, or the cultural ‘common’ sense that such data leads to, is by its nature a political act.  It serves, in however small a way, to reshape the ethical and political contours of its community.  Furthermore, it is precisely in the creation of such minor interventions that we can best interrogate a society that is itself comprised of innumerable threads, linking infinite selves and Others.  The concept of line-making – so fundamental to the practical undertaking of these projects – is embodied in the nature of such an ecological position: the horizon upon which we strain towards Other is not that of a linear, one-way path, but an endless web of comings and goings, unfolding in every direction at once.   The art event, by engaging with such a community, must shed all illusion as to the potential for a Gesamtkunstwerk, for universality, or totality.  A truly socially-aware art event would have to admit that Gesamtkunstwerk is not simply the ideal state for the artistic form, but rather the reality of a perpetually evolving, epistemologically co-constructive socio-political system.  Indeed, total artistic synthesis as Wagner suggested (Wagner, 2016), does not mean that art-activity is somehow inextricable from general life-activity, but that its raw material – creativity – is the base ingredient of all human work.  The art-event is a carrier of creativity whose existence does not exhaust the potential for creative activity in the everyday, but provides new means for its perpetuation.  Art can explore the potential in the everyday because it is separate from the everyday, even as, in doing so, it points to the creative threads that pre-exist within the community.  These works were designed to facilitate just such an interrogation of sense as a creative act - indeed, as the fundamental creative act - to paraphrase Nancy or Levinas - by which we co-construct self.   By exploring a range of methods, resonant objects, and contexts, my goal was to enliven the act of straining towards Other, by which the art event – dragging a harmonium, or dressing up as Santa Claus –points to the currently unchartered ethical, social, historical, or sensual relations already present within the community.

In undertaking this research, there were four main areas that I sought to investigate: the validity of a variety of participatory models used to interrogate the community; the relationship between participation, autonomy, and the formation/facilitation of community; the relationship between the creativity of the art-event and creativity in the everyday; and the feasibility of documenting artistic interrogations of community that rely on a relation to the unknown, with a view to future repeatability (i.e. score-making).  The methods of participation that were explored can be broken down into six main categories – open, observational, referential, constructive-instructive, contextual-instructive, and object-centric.  There is a fair amount of slippage between these categories, and most rely on a model of limited mediation – participation is rarely invited in advance of the event, but is stumbled upon as the event unfolds in the public forum.[i] 

The first two methods are by far the simplest – open concerns the creation of an event in which there is no, or extremely limited direction from the artist; likewise observational participation stems from the observation of unexpected acts within the community.  Works such as Listen! and Chalkwalk operate in an open manner, presenting a situation that relies upon the autonomy of the participant for its success.  It is assumed that participants will already be participating, and the event simply directs their perception in a general direction – an interrogation of the walked terrain, or the existent soundscape.  These works are deliberately non-confrontational, allowing the participant to engage without indicating any ‘correct’ way of doing so.  The aim of these works is not to elicit an identifiable response from the participant, nor to add a new artefact to the world, but to engender the perception of difference within the stimuli that already make up their environment.  The coal added to Chalkwalk, or the Listen! sign, though adding to the existing landscape, do so in order to facilitate a perceptual shift back to the minutiae of the shared space in which both artist and participant are situated.  Conversely, the observational model of participation is deliberately confrontational, placing the observed act in tension with the everyday usage of the shared site.  While not demanding any particular response from those who observe them, the acts undertaken – such as distributing a shared currency (30 Gold Coins) – are deliberately provocative, even whilst not being directly obstructive.  To undertake such acts is not to ask those present to do anything, but instead to promote a critical self-reflection concerning their own actions at that time.  

A referential model of participation assumes a shared culture between artist and participant and deliberately interrogates it as a means of involvement.  By utilising easily recognizable stimuli within already resonant contexts - a Santa suit at Christmas, a bunny at Easter (see Appendix H) - these works re-frame an event to which passers-by are not only already participating, but actively and creatively engaging with (buying presents, taking holidays, visiting family).  The success of the work lies in the unexpected implementation of the associated artefacts – in taking the objects of cultural participation in a shared event, and utilising them a way that neither inverts nor celebrates that event.  The experimentation that the artist explores – impromptu choirs, graphic scores, avant-garde music – happens within, rather than in opposition to, the creative output of the community as a whole, thus allowing a ‘way in’ for those who might be unfamiliar with such practices.   

Both constructive-instructional and contextual-instructional use the same fundamental means of participation – the instruction – but in very different ways.   In the first instance, instructions are used to allow participants to create new rules, methods, and means of collaboration and participation, often at the expense of the integrity of the original instruction.  The instructions in these works serve to facilitate those involved to explore the limitations and potentials of their community – to re-write rules governing socio-ethical behaviour (The Rights Room), or even to completely rework the terms of engagement with the artwork based on their experience of it.

Existing somewhere between constructive-instructional and contextual-instructional is the New Communions project, which utilises both its site, temporality, and a concurrently developing rule-set to elicit new forms of engagement.  Although provided with an instruction set of sorts, the participants are charged with developing the text as experiments are undertaken in the site.  Their own creative and linguistic interpretations are fed back into the score document, allowing for not only a co-composition of the musical material, but a collaborative means of preparing the work for future iterations.  New Communions utilised both temporality and site to facilitate such a collaboration – by isolating the participants in a specific, highly resonant space for an extended period, those involved were provided with the safety and duration required to test out new modes of being together, removed from the relationships and hierarchies present in their day to day lives.  By inviting participants with specific, diverse skill sets, a collaborative dynamic was achieved wherein each member of the group could participate on more or less equal terms.  Whilst not every member was competent, or confident, at every aspect of the collaboration – indeed, the experimental nature of the project was well outside some participants’ comfort zone – by engaging holistically with multiple aspects of the site (as a carrier of sound, a work of architecture, a socio-religious space, etc.) participants could explore and develop their own unique strengths in regard to the project as a whole.

The final model, object-centric, focussed upon the addition of resonant objects to a site as a way of raising questions about place, belonging, and normative behaviour.   The introduction of a large harmonium, or a slice of cake (see Appendix H), to the public agora, assumes a certain relationship between the object and its perceiver – objects are chosen because they are culturally/historically resonant, rather than because the audience will use them in some specific way.  Participation is not so much reliant upon a task that the object distils, as much as the self-reflection it inspires.  What is more, the participatory act is conducted in a shared environment – the object not only amplifies any one individual relationship, but the wider web of relations that inherently problematise notions of ownership, sharing, and charity.

Such models, though neither exhaustive nor scientifically rigorous,[ii] nonetheless point to certain relationships concerning participation, self-awareness/autonomy, and the facilitation of community within the space in which they operate.   Although a break between perception and comprehension was something I was keen to explore from the outset, the works that relied upon some level of confusion or questioning from their participant, were by far the most successful, whilst those that offered more direct instruction – notably The Rights Room and the early drafts of the score issued in New Communions – seemed to struggle to engage people in more than a cursory manner.   It is perhaps the idea of incomprehension that both challenges and reaffirms Debord’s notion of participation and the spectacle.  If an audience can be divided into the active and the passive, it is possible because these positions are already available to the spectacle – a word meaning both to observe and to behold (www.etyonline, 2016).  The power of the spectacular lies in its harnessing of both these traits.  The objects it utilises are not only passively perceived (observed) but actively held in view (beheld), a duplicity born of the fact that they do not immediately exhaust their own potential – by not immediately making sense, being comprehensible, they maintain wonder.  Works such as Missionary, or Santa Vitae (see Appendix H), though directly referencing typically academic practices (minimalism, avant-garde-influenced composition, graphic scores) succeeded by presenting them in ambivalent, even comic terms.  The clear correlation between humour and nonsense, so integral to farce, appeared to charge the unknown aspects of the work with a certain cultural positivity – my audience, rather than feeling alienated by the conceptual elements of the work,[iii] were able to enjoy the not-quite-knowing they promoted.  Although some were clearly upset by the non-normative actions contained in such events – those who physically assaulted me in Brighton Community Choir Does... are a particularly strong example of this – over the 40 or so performances there was a clear correlation between the playful disjunction of sense and the recurrence of engaged and explorative participants.   Humour, the absurd, or the nonsensical, allowed me to articulate the tension between a clearly accessible theme, a lack of direction concerning its utility, and the reality of engagement within a public setting.  The interventions were the most outwardly successful when I invoked strategies for shifting the performative hierarchy away from the artist.  However, this did not so much amount to making actors of otherwise passive spectators, as it did to reducing the power inherent to the singular actor, and amplifying the power already contained in the community’s response to the event.  This passing of control was embodied in the act of gifting which underpinned many of the interventions.  30 Gold coins, 5 Nights Beneath the Pier, and Let Them Eat Cake (see Appendix H) each relied on the distribution of a shared stimuli, with the work of the art being present not in what was given, but in how the community creatively responded to its giving.  This sense of shared creativity was the most consistently articulated response during my post-intervention dialogue with participants.  The cake-eaters outside the jobcentre were keen to reciprocate my gifting with stories of the eccentricities of the community, while the chalk instructions of Soundwalk for a Lonely City (see Appendix G) were re-written by participants to implore the creativity of others directly, and used as a self-reflective means of overcoming the barriers participants recognised as hindering wider participation[iv].  The response to 30 Gold Coins perhaps summed this up best.  After the performance I was followed through the city centre by a group of passers-by, intent to know why I had essentially just given away thirty pounds in such an elaborate fashion.  Self-identifying as ‘not knowing anything about art’, these men initially resisted my defence that the act was an artistic gesture, only accepting the legitimacy of the intervention when I told them ‘I just wanted to see what people would do’.   This was a common theme – people seemed entirely comfortable with the idea that the community in which they participated was rife with creativity, even while simultaneously resisting the notion that they themselves might be considered ‘artists’.

If this research argues that art is, or can be, a form of line-making, then it achieves this status not simply by reaching out into the community by means of a performance, but by actually forging a community around the creative act – as a collaborative web.  With this in mind, I have not sought to divide performance and composition, nor collaboration and presentation, preferring to approach my subject of social function holistically.  Although there are practical differences between unleashing an event upon an unsuspecting public, and inviting other self-identifying artists to collaborate on the production of new material, my interest lay in exploring how both these approaches can interrogate participation with a view to creating a sustainable, re-presentable social practice.   In retrospect, the project as a whole was an attempt to reify the potentially abstract terminologies of my key theorists – resonance, dual immediacy, responsibility – into the tangible practice of art-making. That there was a link between my participant's ability to step outside of traditional, object-centric modes of perception (as facilitated by the artwork) and their recognition of the shared space they occupied – replete with all the resound and responsibility between a self and Other that entailed – was evident.  The works that were most successful – Brighton Community Choir Does and 30 Gold Coins – were those that more obviously highlighted the existing bonds inherent to  the community they interrogated.  In doing so, these works promoted alternative, creative ways of exploring that community in the future - in the case of 30 Gold Coins by reflecting on the ethical and moral relations that capitalism often seeks to dispel; in Brighton Community Choir Does… by prioritising the creative celebration, rather than individualistic consumption, of a shared culture.  While I felt my work to be largely successful in this regard, my other initial concern - the degree to which art as a social practice could be sufficiently scored so as to inspire future renditions – was perhaps harder to resolve.  Throughout the Line-making performances upon the modular synthesiser, I was able to develop a practice of scoring that allowed me to consistently explore the wider ecological aspects of performance – to tie Beuys’ notion of preparation to the creative activity of my own musical practice.  In particular, the types of text-scores that the Line-making process allowed me to develop, successfully navigated many of the temporal constraints that often serve to tie performance to the utility of the objects that comprise it.  By using a score that disregarded the nuances of any particular instrument in favour of a series of open-ended movements, I wanted – and to a great extent was able – to interrogate the performance event holistically.  The score, by pointing not only to the actual duration of the performance but also the wider temporality of its being – the journey to the venue, the age of the building, etc. – allowed me to create musical material that might also point my audience away from the gravitas of the artist, and towards the social complexity of the event.  In practice, this involved bringing text, chalkboards, dialogue, historic references and associated props into the space of performance, as well as exploring spatialisation (both in terms of speaker/instrument placement and the position of the performer) and materiality (in terms of physically playing the space, or augmenting the performance to include the existing objects therein).  

It took nearly two years to refine the language used in the score, a process honed through the undertaking of the New Communions and Line-making portions of the project.[v]   A major concern was stepping away from thinking of the resulting document as a musical score in any traditional sense – its purpose being not to facilitate a more or less accurate musical rendition of a composition, but to lay down the foundations for a social dynamic.  If the performance art, installation, collaboration and composition that this research project incorporates seems somewhat broad, it is for this reason.  The overarching medium is not that of any one particular art-form – though I as a practitioner may lean towards the sonic – but of specific social situations.  The score must be able to facilitate a social relation that I as the composer have no experience of first hand – it must point towards the unknown, the truly Other.  It was precisely because I applied the score to such a variety of situations that I was able to develop a language that pointed to potentiality, rather than specific outcomes.   By exploring how a word or sentence might be interpreted by a collaborator in New Communions, by myself in the pressure of a live performance, or as a means of defining the terms of a social intervention, I was able to ascertain what kinds of language could be best used in a broad range of potential contexts, while still remaining resonant and in keeping with the score as a whole.   Although this process was eventually reasonably successful, with the score enabling me to construct and navigate often complex social events, I was aware that the underlying intention was itself somewhat problematic.  The very premise of scoring the unknown seems on the surface to be counter-intuitive, and as such the Line-making score feels like the first step in a much longer process to be undertaken in the future.  That said, the fundamental premise – that it might be possible to score a social dynamic, is borne out by the work I have created.  The four albums of the New Communions work in particular, not only have a strong overall aesthetic but musically reflect the relationships forged in the site of its recording.  Indeed, having worked with all of the musicians involved in different contexts previously, it seems clear that the outcome is highly reflective of the ‘just-so’ reality of that particular process, rather than what I might have presumed its players would have produced without the score (even if the score itself didn’t directly require any specific note or instrument to be sounded).  Conversely, the score was least effective when I was unable to dedicate the correct level of attention to the minute details of either the site or its community.  Twice when performing the Line-making score I found myself unable to engage with the contextual elements of the site/community (due to technical errors resulting in me neither being able to sound-check or spend any time physically exploring the site), and in both instances the work soon devolved into uninspired improvisation, with the score simply nudging me from one section to the next with no real cohesion.  Conversely, when I was able to spend the most time communing with the site, I was able to tease the most resonant responses from the score.  Being able to factor in tangible properties of the site/community to the work – texts, measurements, social tensions - required that I spend long enough within the environment to truly respond to its elements, that I was engaged enough to tie the potentially abstract, obtuse information held within the score to the reality of the lived environment. 

Ultimately, the point of this research was to explore an underlying question concerning personal and communal creativity:  what would it mean to go beyond Beuys’ assertion that everyone is an artist, and to fundementally reposition art-making as not simply the creation of objective brilliance, but as a practice geared towards its community’s perseverance?  That is to say, what if art’s function is not to dazzle a beleaguered and creatively void public, but to engender, to facilitate, and to embolden the creative responses that are already persistant with the community, and which serve in turn to facilitate positive engagement with Other? 




[i] This is less true for works like New Communions, The Rights Room and the more traditional music performances – however these pieces still rely on the manner of participation being markedly different than what might be expected prior to entering their performance space.
[ii] Although this research project is very much conducted under the remit of art, not science, it is worth emphasising that its conclusions and discoveries are drawn from a culturally limited palette – that of Brighton City Centre.  Brighton is a notoriously unique city, celebrated for cultural diversity – particularly in regard to experimental, underground, or non-normative practices / positions – but distinctly lacking in ethnic diversity, certainly compared to other similarly sized cities in England.
[iii] A common criticism of avant-garde music and its ilk, see Fear of Music (Stubbs, 2009).
[iv] The text on the outside of the box was changed to statements such as “you probably won’t die!”, pointing to the community’s initial hesitance to engage.  It was not uncommon for people to hover above the boxes, before hurriedly opening them and then immediately backing off, as if concerned they might explode.
[v] Although the interventions also served as ongoing reflections on the scoring process, they did not allow the same level of immediate reflection that the more intimate, focussed, musical performances entailed.
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