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

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APPENDIX H: Further Interventions


In Santa Vitae,[i] a Santa costume is worn on Christmas morning by an actor performing a durational graphic score.  On its surface, the work appears to be relatively simple - a musical street performance by a performer dressed in the obvious character outfit of the season.  Beyond this, however, lies a second layer of information. The musical material - a work of an electronic drone - is markedly different from the limited and widely recognised musical output expected at Christmas, neither affirming existing modes and connotations (choral singing, Christian narratives, specific instrumentation, etc.) nor inverting them (presenting a black metal version of Silent Night (Erlosung, 2011), for instance).  Performed upon a battery-powered synthesiser, the score utilises a series of diagrams to direct the performer along the X/Y axis of its Voltage Controlled Filter parameters, with a total of five notes available to be played together or individually, and their placement ordered by density rather than pitch.  These density descriptions are based upon the lived environment of the performer: if there is a loud car passing, hold all five notes down; if you cannot make out any external noise above your performance, stop playing for twenty seconds; and so forth.  As such, the two-dimensional playing field of the scores X/Y axis is designed to reflect the actual movements of passers-by on the street. Likewise, the location of the performance – at the heart of the city centre’s main roundabout, the intersection of the distinctive northern, eastern, and western strands of the city – serves to locate the performer as a central pivot around which the rest of the city’s inhabitants oscillate.   Although based around the act of performing a musical score, its sonic outcome is compromised by the nature of its site, a location already rife with a literal and conceptual volume that overawes its content.  In this sense, this work is a form of what Small calls ‘musicking’ (Small, 1998). The musical material serves as one aspect of a wider event and, crucially, its meaning is defined not by any pre-existing system inherent to the sounds made, but by the parameters, traditions, and objects of its environment.  As part of a temporally-defined, malleable event, ‘musicking’ eschews the notion that sonic materials hold any meaning that “reside[s] in the object, existing independently of what the perceiver may bring to it” (Small, p.5, 1998).  Rather than pointing towards an ideal musical object, to be perceived under the correct conditions by a suitably literate audience, Santa Vitae co-opts the already abundant social infrastructure in order to celebrate the event of “an activity in which all those present are involved and for whose nature and quality, success or failure, everyone present bears some responsibility” (Small, p.10, 1998).

Street performance holds a somewhat unique relationship to labour – it is one of the few acts where a call for remuneration is explicitly built into the performance; conversely, it is one of the few ‘jobs’ habitually undertaken by the jobless - the domain of buskers, the counter-culture and, by virtue of its location, the homeless community.  Such significations create an expectation that its performers are not professional, and lack the kind of artistic skill we expect to find in ‘proper’ venues.[ii]   It was this already complex relationship to labour that I wanted to tie directly to the mythical construct of Santa Claus, the toy-maker with the impossible task of delivering presents to all of the world's children in a single night.  Within that narrative, the one day of the year that Santa is neither making presents nor delivering them, is Christmas day itself.  Likewise, if we expect to see street performers in the lead up to Christmas, and in particular a myriad of Santa’s in shopping malls, we do not expect them - or anyone else for that matter - to still be working Christmas morning.[iii]  As such, my Santa Claus is presented as simultaneously labouring, non-professional, and homeless, on the very day that we would expect both he and the actor that portrays him to be doing almost anything else.  The choice of musical material – a tense, fifty-minute drone that fails to cater for populist tastes and expectations - is amplified in incredulity by its performance at such an inhospitable time.

If a certain amateurism is tolerated, or even expected, within street performance, A Critique of Pure Representation[iv] 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. 

As with Santa Vitae, 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 with Ingold’s notion of the line,[v] 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.[vi]  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 recognize 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).

If dressing up as the Easter bunny is a fairly obvious, even crass, artistic device, “How To Explain Opera As A Dead hare”[vii] instead employs an art-form that has come to signify both social status[viii] and the extent of an individual's cultural capital.  My initial plan was to stage opera lessons as a form of busking - playing upon the perceived division between folk-based musical forms – folk, pop, punk - and the cultural positioning of opera as an intellectual, upper-class privilege.  Starting with Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron (1932) - an opera whose plot revolves around the difficulty of explaining complex ideas to large groups of people - I sought to juxtapose this work with another that explores that same theme, Beuys’s How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965).  Both works critique methods of pedagogy, and both strictly divide the actor from the spectator: in Schoenberg’s work the people are unable to understand the word of God until it has been dumbed down into a series of spectacular tricks; in Beuys’s the audience is literally locked outside of the art gallery whilst the actor explains the art on show to the more receptive body of a dead animal.  In order to reference both these works, and to critique their sentiment, I decided to become Beuys’s dead hare via the wearing of a mask, and to explain the plot of the opera, line by line, upon a chalkboard.[ix] 
As with previous interventions, I was keen to explore the temporal aspects of the action - in this case, the historic transition of opera from a popular to an avant-garde form.  To do this, I subject my performance to various rules borrowed from works that I perceived to be benchmarks at either end of this operatic spectrum: Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (1874), and Mauricio Kagel’s anti-opera Staatsheater (1971).

I extended the length of the performance – and the accompanying recording of Moses and Aaron – to 16 hours, so as to match the length of Wagner’s work.  I then interspersed my protracted explanation of the plot (which, due to the use of chalk, took several hours to write out) with actions borrowed or inspired by the Staatstheater score: sitting/standing, reading, dragging a chair, playing the harmonium, and so forth. The performance itself was broken down into sections and undertaken over the period of a week outside an art gallery, with the ‘dead hare’ appearing every twenty minutes or so to write another part of the plot upon the chalkboard.

These three works seek to avoid falling into the trappings of mockery or pastiche, by actively critiquing both perception and the creative act – the work[x] - that makes them available to communication.  If they appear challenging, it is not because they proffer some unknowable aspect, some skill unavailable to the perceiver.  Rather, they appear challenging because they are; like Missionary, they demand an extended effort from their performer.  Each intervention prioritises the hard work required to pull off an act that is ostensibly pointless, noisy, or unnecessary.  As such, these works do not create an illusion of some other unknown, ideal world, but instead, seek to demonstrate the untested potential already manifest in this one.

In order to explore the apparent tension between politically-themed and politically-effective works, I was keen to produce some interventions with a clear political intent as a means of comparison.  Let Them Eat Cake[xi] took place outside Brighton’s Job centre – a site that also housed the law courts, the police station, a pub/park notoriously used by the homeless, and the American Express building – the city’s largest private-sector employer.  Due to the rise in food bank usage and food waste initiatives that occurred in tangent with this project, I was drawn to the idea of distributing food as an artistic act, considering the social complexity of charity as a pertinent analogy for the issues of autonomy, community, and the hierarchical actor/spectator divide that this research had been exploring. 

Playing upon Marie Antoinette’s infamous declaration, “Let them eat cake!” (itself a popular example of the potential naivety/duplicity of the philanthropic position), the work involved handing out slices of ‘budget’ supermarket cake to the visitors of the site’s various conveniences, on the morning of the first Conservative budget in 19 years.  Although both the social conditions (the looming budget, food bank usage) and historical reference (the title of the piece being written on a large chalkboard) were referenced within the piece, I avoided directly stating its context, justifying my actions by simply telling people I had some cake, and wanted to share it with the community.  In this way, the work could be considered as a simple act of kindness, a critique of charity, or a patronizing affront – conflating as it did the unemployed and the criminal with the French peasants of Marie Antoinette’s time.  This resulted in a situation wherein to ‘get’ the work was to be insulted, while ignorance was to be rewarded.  By problematising the thin line between supporting and patronising its community,  I had initially considered that this work, though not sonic per se,[xii] would be defined by the very vocal conversation that would no doubt erupt during its undertaking.  However, of all the interventions it was Let Them Eat Cake that most challenged my presumptions regarding the community it addressed.  The defining characteristics of the site’s users – unemployment, criminality and substance abuse – bring with them a wealth of connotations concerning everything from class to cultural intelligence.  The popular image[xiii] is that of a community that is habitually poor, lacking education and ambition - a fact that probably seeped into my own expectancy that the site’s inhabitants would either not recognise the work as art or would be incensed by any confusion it raised.  And yet, for all my presuppositions as to art's power to foster communitas, I found in this work, more than any other, that communitas was already present.  Rather than causing tension or confusion, my presence was nearly universally welcomed, even by those who found the venture strange, or acknowledged its political undercurrent with a wry smile. 

Indeed, even those who might otherwise have been hostile – such as the young man I met about to be sent to prison at the law court – engaged with my sharing as if the eccentricity of the gesture was nothing but an expected part of the already apparent eccentricities of the site itself: merely another story, one more thread in the many concurrent narratives that define its location.[xiv]

If my interventions seek to explore communitas, they do so by enlivening a momentary breach in socio-normative behaviour, entering their participants into a period of (moral, perceptual, cultural) crisis.[xv]  With Let Them Eat Cake, this same pattern occurs: I commit the non-normative act of handing out cake, hoping that passers-by will enter into a period of crisis wherein their expectancies are not met or are exceeded, and from which they can reassess the space we share.  The reality was somewhat different, however.  The peculiarity of the act failed to achieve any level of crisis within a community that seemed already resigned to instability – that is, already engaged in a perpetual state of crisis.  What is more, my work was not treated as trite or redundant by its community, but as fittingly absurd.  Perhaps we can infer from this that the diverse population that inhabits the city’s job-centre, law courts, and less-reputable pubs, is already in a cycle of breach/crisis/redress, a position that leaves them open to these same qualities in the art event.  Rather than being destabilised by the breach of sense that the non-normative act brings, the artistic construct mirrors a cycle they are familiar with - even if the form itself is markedly different.


Undertaken on Brighton sea-front, Chalk Walk[xvi] consisted of a journey along the chalk path that runs between Brighton Marina and the village of Rottingdean.  During the walk, small piles of coal were left at intervals a few metres apart upon the sea wall, and subsequently photographed.  Each pile was arranged in a unique formation, taking into account existing cavities in the rock, the shape and colour of the wall, and proximity to any erosion or human interventions (screws, posts, etc.).  The work, though ‘silent’, embodied many of the ideas behind my participatory practice, with the omnipresent crashing of the waves soundtracking its composed visual elements.  By situating the work at intervals along the linear path of a popular walking route, its audience were able to approach the materials involved from a multitude of positions – first as a pile of stones, then later as a deliberate incursion, experiencing the work as a process, a temporality that extended into the past (the memory of the piles they had passed) and the future (the expectation of those yet to come).  This sense of temporality was underscored by the nature of the objects involved – coal and chalk are not only themselves products of processes, but those processes, rendered in the sedimentary layers, are made available to perception upon their surface.  Chalk is a defining feature of my practice - serving as an accessible and temporary method of augmenting the environment, as well as harbouring latent pedagogical and artistic connotations (school chalkboards, cave-paintings).  I was also interested in its life-giving properties, particularly within the Sussex area.  Chalk is present in both the water and the ground, and is as such integral to the habitation of the area: it provides sustenance for the flesh, but also serves as building material for much of the area's housing, literally shaping the landscape upon which the city is built.  Furthermore, though life-giving, chalk derives from death, as the sedimentary remains of micro-organisms. It is an embodiment of the cyclical nature of humanity’s relationship to their environment.  Like chalk, coal is a natural material comprised of fossilised remains, though of wood rather than shell.  It also harbours life-giving properties - we not only require trees to breathe, but coal serves to heat our bodies and our homes, and (historically) to allow us to move at speed through the landscape.  Given the stark white nature of the chalk path, the inclusion of black coal along a path with no foliage of any kind is quite a dramatic visual proposition.  The coal serves as a type of noise upon the environment, an unnecessary addition that breaches the area's uniformity.  Each black pile is a violence upon the landscape, a disorder that points beyond the expected.  The utility of natural materials in this way highlights the different processes underlying their very existence: the inclusion of coal prevents the perception of chalk as simply a thing that is there, instead opening it up to its own potential.  To perceive the difference inherent in the two opposing materials is to lead the perceiver along a conceptual path as to how such differences came about, what material processes each has been subject to before that point, and what it means that they have ended up here together.  Such perception relies upon a dual immediacy that allows objects and contexts to be witnessed concurrently.  A focus on the extremely subtle differences in positioning, compacted by its presentation outside of any art context, created a work that did not particularly look like art at all.  It is only through the act of navigating the chalk path and finding such piles recurring at intervals, that the work appears deliberately fashioned, rather than mere debris. Likewise, it is the time taken to travel towards the coal sculptures, and the act of walking between them, that places the perceiver in a position of orientation - it is the journey through a shared environment that makes the objects within it significant. 

Chalkwalk also functioned as a performance, of a kind - the act of photographing each sculpture served as a more direct way of engaging passers-by in dialogue, framing the work as art, or at least as aesthetically interesting.  In addition, walking a white chalk path while carrying 10kg of black coal is not exactly a subtle undertaking.  The construction of each pile left me covered in increasing amounts of soot until, by the time the 3-mile trek had been completed, I was standing out as obtrusively as my sculptures.  The final performative element was the idea that I should, upon emptying the entire 10kg of coal upon the sea wall, collect that same weight in chalk and take it home with me.[xvii]




[i] Appendix B: I don’t know where we are going but it sure sounds nice, Santa Vitae video (box/usb).
[ii] This idea was explored in Pearls Before Breakfast, a social experiment in which a virtuosic violinist performed in a Washington DC metro station, to almost no recognition (Weingarten, 2016).
[iii] I noted only two other groups of people at work on Christmas day - taxi drivers and security guards.
[iv] Appendix B: I Don’t know Where We Are Going But It Sure Sounds Nice, A critique of pure representation photographs (usb).
[v] For Ingold, perception can be considered in two ways: as a series of dots, joined up by the mind into some final form, or as a passage along and through one's environment, experiencing the objects of externality en route. The latter is our embodied, lived-in experience of the day to day, whilst the former is an academic habit of the western mindset that is ’more like a series of appointments than a walk’ (Klee, in Ingold, p.73, 2007).
[vi] By way of example, we might return to the work of La Monte Young.  His compositions are incredibly complex, utilising standing tones, custom frequency ratios, eastern philosophy, and so forth. It is these complexities that structure the spatial and temporal aspects of the event, and yet the experience of this event in no way demands that these aspects be passed on to its participants themselves directly.
[vii] Appendix B: I don’t know where we are going but it sure sounds nice, How to explain opera as a dead hare, audio/photographs (box/usb).
[viii] In countless television shows and films attending an opera is used to denote a character to be rich or sophisticated. In addition, the idea that opera is the domain of a certain class of person is present throughout its history (Self, 2016), and is a more general theme of Small’s critique of Western classical concert music.
[ix] Chalk, conjuring up images of classroom blackboards, and also quite hard to write with for long periods of time, highlighting the communicatory difficulty that is the work's theme.
[x] I was inspired by similar works that reveal the physical or cognitive challenge or art-making as part of their outcome.  In Martin Kippenberger’s With the best will in the world I can't see a swastika (1984) the viewer is presented with an otherwise sensible cubist work - some abstract lines, shapes, and colours. The piece aesthetically functions as a cubist painting, but belies its own abstract qualities by alluding to a particular form (the swastika) which may or may not be present – such is the level of abstraction to the work. The failing to find the swastika is placed as a work of the perceiver, not a failing within the object perceived (since it is supposed to be abstract) - the work only fails to make sense because of the subject's inability to make it make sense.
[xi] Appendix B: I don’t know where we are going but it sure sounds nice, Let them eat cake video (usb).
[xii] If we are to accept Cage’s proclamation that all sound is music, it would seem contradictory to draw a distinction between art events that create sound through recognised musical means and those that create sound through the setting up of a relational social dynamic. Likewise, if we accept that a conversation can be a work of art – as with Beuys’s Honey pump in the workplace (1977) – then it seems futile to distinguish between sound-based musical works and sound-based conversational works.
[xiii] An image created in part by the government’s own rhetoric and the overwhelming reliance on “negative vocabulary” within the mainstream press (benefits stigma: how newspaper report on welfare, 2016).
[xiv] The idea that this community in particular would be open to the unfolding narrative of the art event seems logical, given that it already utilises story-telling as a primary means of its execution. The job centre, the pub, and the law court are all places we go to tell stories - to explain our actions, to express our labour, and to reminisce.
[xv] An outcome in keeping with Turner's description of crisis as a liminal stage, acting as a threshold “between more or less stable or harmonic phases of the social process” (Turner, p.34, 1988).
[xvi] Appendix B: I don’t know where we are going but it sure sounds nice, Chalk Walk, poster.
[xvii] This in turn, was later exhibited as part of the I Don’t Know Where We Are Going But It Sure Sounds Nice exhibition, see Appendix B: B: I don’t know where we are going but it sure sounds nice, exhibition photographs (usb).
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