(In a Forest of Signs)

A critique of pure representation page

If a certain amateurism is tolerated, or even expected, within street performance, A Critique of Pure Representation59 engages with this by leading an entirely unrehearsed choir in the performance of a score that amounts to no more than a series of undefined symbols and vowel sounds. With traditional musical elements reduced to the placement of symbols upon 8-beat long bars, and a pitch instruction consisting of high, middle, or low, the onus of the work is on the performers' ability to create unique sounds with the full range of their voice, rather than fulfilling any pre-existing standard, or demonstrating any identifiable musicality. Indeed, the very idea of amateurism is problematised by the fact that even the most successful rendition of the score sits well outside of any cultural notions of skill or virtuosity. What is more, the choir are not only unrehearsed but unknown to each other, having met for the first time in the moment of performance. 

The temporal/spatial context makes it clear that what is taking place holds some internal logic: the performance takes place on Easter Sunday, and is led by a giant bunny rabbit; the choir are holding scores, following a conductor, and starting and stopping at set intervals. However, the cumulative sense of the work defies any expectations that might be imbued from its individual elements. Its highly orchestrated nature - costumes, scores, props, a conductor - combined with a clearly comic aesthetic, suggests that the work does not simply not make cumulative sense to the general public (a criticism often leveled against heavily academic or avant-garde art), but rather that it does not make cumulative sense at all. To experience the event of the work is not to visit its individual elements one by one, and to draw a conclusion from their totality, but to perceive them as an evolving mesh of concurrent experiences. By using easily recognisable objects, contexts, and temporalities, A Critique of Pure Representation relies upon the existing cultural knowledge of its audience to point towards a sensible outcome – crucially, however, to perceive its elements linearly adds up to an overall experience that never resolves in sense. Rather than indicating “a kind of line that goes from point-to-point, connecting up an array of present instants arrayed diachronically as locations in space” (Ingold, p.118, 2007), the multi-layered, concurrent signifiers of these works point to numerous areas at once - myth, labour, professionalism, homelessness, temporal expectations, and so forth - avoiding any linear narrative in favour of “an overlapping thread that changes as it goes along, issuing forth from its advancing tip rather like a root or a creeper probes the earth” (Ingold, p.118, 2007).

A lack of cumulative sense is not achieved by placing random, or seemingly uncoupled objects together in the same space. Rather, any over-riding sensible outcome is destabilised by the fact that the elements of the art event are rich in connotation, and point to an unexplored linearity that in turn suggests a complexity that cannot be perceived on face value. The objects are spatially or temporally coupled, and as such do not point towards non-sense, but to a sense that is never fully realised. The complexity of the arrangement does not feed directly into an outcome, but rather provides the opportunity for nuance that might engender miscommunication and the subsequent potential that arises from it. As such, in its inversion of cultural forms, the work emphasizes the duality of all communication. A sender and receiver cannot know one another, or else they would lack operative closure and have no reason to communicate. Conversely, they cannot be so foreign to one another that they fail to recognise the communicative potential in their mutual irritation - It is by not-quite-knowing, or being open to such unknowability, that elements can interact. As Luhmann suggests:

"Communication can tolerate and even produce vagueness, incompletion, ambiguity, irony, and so forth, and it can place indeterminacies in ways that secure a certain usage. Such deliberate indeterminacies play a significant role, particularly in artistically mediated communication, to the point where we find ourselves confronted with the hopelessly unending interpretability of “finished" works. The distinction between determinacy and indeterminacy is an internal variable of the communication system and not a quality of the external world" (Luhmann, pp.11-12, 2000).

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