(In a Forest of Signs)

Listen! page

A small crowd has gathered upon the square, drawn by an advert placed in the local press a week prior that read simply ‘Listen! 11 am, Wednesday, outside the library’. They wait in the cold for a few minutes, idly chatting, breathing into their fists, before I appear - march directly to the centre of the square, pause by the pink plastic Indian bull that lives there and prick an ear to the birds, the cars, the crowds; all the while carrying a large painted sign hoisted over my shoulder. ‘Listen.'  One bird chirps, then another.  A hospital bus pulls up to watch.  The waiter in Pizza Express opposite gazes at me nonchalantly.  After a moment I approach the crowd, hand each of them a slip of paper and, without a word, head swiftly across the street and up the adjoining staircase, stopping only to admire the clamour of a woman locking her bike to a lamp-post.  The crowd follows.  I lead them up the stairs and into an alley, past the open windows of a modern office block then on to the shopping precinct, our little parade keenly observed by those who pass it, a handful of silent pilgrims following a man with an unwieldly wooden sign.   Children mock us from afar, shouting ‘Listen to what?’ and laughing, only to lower their voices to a hushed reverie as we approach, as if frightened by our stated task, as if they don’t really want to be heard after all.  Towards the end of our journey we are approached by a middle-aged man - dressed in an expensive looking suit and clearly in a hurry, oblivious to the peculiarities of our group.  ‘Where’s the nearest cash-point?’ he demands.  We pause for a moment as I remove a small slip of paper from my breast pocket and hand it to him, before heading off down the street, leaving the man to read it with a mixture of anger and bewilderment. ‘Listen.'

Listen![i] is based upon Max Neuhaus’s piece of the same name (1966), a multi-media work that exists in forms as varied as a sound-walk, an essay series, a photograph and a stencil, but is at its heart simply an approach to sense, an orientation.  In his original notes, Neuhaus describes arranging to meet his audience on a street corner, stamping their hands with the work’s title, and then proceeding to walk around the city in silence.  As a piece of participatory art, the combination of a clear and easily repeatable action (walk) and concept (listen) creates a situation in which there is no direct instruction to the participants.  They are free to join in on their own terms and, lacking a distinct instruction (‘listen’ being no more than a statement geared towards an existing and currently active capacity) are faced not with a task to be undertaken, but a relation to potential.  Neuhaus’s work exemplifies the difference between interactivity and participation, as defined by Massumi in his concept of ‘semblance’ (Massumi, 2011). For Massumi, with interaction it ‘is the form of the technical object that is emphasised… It is supposed to be all about social relation, but the dynamic form of the experience tends to get reduced to the instrumental affordance as concretised in the actual form of the technical object. It gets reified in an objective function” (Massumi, p.46, 2011).  In contrast, participation relies not on utility, but on potential.  To interact with a work, I must know (for example), where the big red button is, how and when to press it.  I have to have an understanding of the existing dynamic by which the work operates, as well as my place within it.  To participate however, is to elucidate the potential beyond the work as it is given.  I am not led to a particular interaction so as to elicit the desired outcome of the artist (‘I pressed the button, and the ball went into the air!’) but rather to experience the whole event, consisting not only of buttons and balls and artists, but places and contexts and all manner of inextricable complexity.  In this way, Neuhaus’s work employs, in its specific, open-ended and indirect nature, the kind of ‘escapes’, ‘sinkholes’ and ‘creative outs’ that Massumi describes as vanishing points, wherein “the interaction turns back in on its own potential, and where that potential appears for itself” (Massumi, p.49, 2011).  Neuhaus suggests no particular affordance, no particular quality to be observed within the city.  Instead, he presents an orientation by which the participant can re-experience the city's (sonic) potential from a range of positions.  Neuhaus is not asking us to experience the soundscape passively but, much like Nancy, uses the word ‘listen’ to imply a more general approach to resonance - both as a sensory act and a cognitive or moral orientation[ii].  For Nancy, listening is “an anxious state”, wherein “to listen is to be straining towards a possible meaning, and consequently one that is not immediately accessible… listening strains toward a present sense beyond sound” (Nancy, p.6, 2007).  Much like Massumi’s critique of interactivity, listening avoids the delineation of an instruction based work that ultimately demands a participant to do one specific thing (and not another). The sense to which Neuhaus seeks to orientate his listener is not defined, and is made available only in the effort of his participant to engage with their environment. 

 In undertaking Neuhaus’s work, I was keen to explore the degree to which its open-ended structure allowed for a productive balance between accessibility and autonomy.  Reliance upon recognisable cultural objects offers accessibility, but only limited autonomy, since it necessarily reduces potential in its attempt to fulfil standardised forms.  Part of the resonant quality of Listen is that it obviates this duality: the tension between creating events that seek to point to an ever-increasing potential beyond the materials contained within them, and the fact that arts-practice immediately delineates that potential along fairly narrow lines.  Art, as a work, tends to co-opt certain traits that define it as art - it is performed, presented, installed.  For it to be recognised as art it must first objectify life; it must abstract a moment for itself from the ongoing bustle of activity that surrounds it.  It is because of this abstraction that art allows us to test potential ways of acting without consequence - art is, after all, a practice.  To perceive its function as this alone, however, runs the risk of art being simply a pedagogical game, a training exercise for some specific outcome within its community.  It is the autonomy of works like Listen! that allows us to step beyond this limitation, by not only representing alternative positions but encouraging us to actually embody alternative ways of being - to become, however momentarily, Other.[iii]  Rather than being a practice towards a specific end, it is the speculative properties of difference that allow art to forgo what Rancière calls the “cause and effect” of more directed relationships.  The work of art is not to create a specific outcome, but to forge an “aesthetic efficacy” (Rancière, p.63, 2009) from its lack of any distinct, overriding point:

Aesthetic experience has a political effect to the extent that the loss of destination it presupposes disrupts the way in which bodies fit their functions and destinations. What it produces is not rhetorical persuasion about what must be done. Nor is it the framing of a collective body. It is a multiplication of connections and disconnections that reframe the relation between bodies, the world they are living in and the way in which they are ‘equipped’ to adapt to it. It is a multiplicity of faults and gaps in the fabric of common experience that change the cartography of the perceptible, the thinkable and feasible. As such, it allows for new modes of political construction of common objects and new possibilities of collective enunciation. However, this political effect occurs under the condition of an original disjunction, an original effect, which is the suspension of any direct relationship between cause and effect (Rancière, pp.72-73, 2009).

Politically thematic art lacks the disjunction - the potential inherent in its failure to make sense - by which art elucidates potential.  As with all forms of communication, the direct link between cause and effect that politically thematic work often hopes to invoke – hear the punk song, smash the system – washes over the uncertain grey area by which art gains resonance in the first place.  The political effect of Listen! is not that it points towards a specific change in the terms of its community’s governance, but that it reorientates its participants in regard to their environment, the terms of their public life.  Indeed, Neuhaus’s impetus for the work stemmed directly from the lack of political effect he perceived in the avant-garde’s acceptance of all sound being made available to music, as per John Cage’s manifesto (Cage, 1937).  Neuhaus observed that, though he agreed with the premise, “most members of the audience seemed more impressed with the scandal than the sounds, and few were able to carry the experience over to a new perspective on the sounds of their daily lives” (Neuhaus, 2016).  Whereas Cage points towards a general conceptual shift as to what might count as music - and does so in a highly theatrical, even shocking fashion - Neuhaus seeks to bring people quietly to the position where they themselves can perceive these qualities of sound, without having them thrust upon them.  This could be seen as a radical shift in the position of the artist as a political force.  Cage, in a work such as 4’33”, ultimately opts for a big reveal - it was YOU making the sounds after all! - a method available to him because Cage has already taken up the mantle of ‘the artist’ by staging the show that allows for such a dramatic turnaround.[iv]  Neuhaus on the other hand is almost entirely absent from his work after the point of its conception.  There is no dramatic unveiling of what is, or should be, revealed in the act of listening, but rather the work succeeds by facilitating its participants to explore the concept and its outcomes for themselves.  As such, Listen! exemplifies the difference between a work that points towards a particular political position - a propaganda poster, for instance - and one that is innately political because it actually elicits, however indirectly, some form of social change. 

By carrying around a sign emblazoned with its title, I was not encouraging people to take up a particular position - for or against the existing sonic or social environment. Rather, the resonant nature of the word combined with the universality of the action, allowed the sign to act as a mirror for their own reflections upon the space. 

This is not to suggest that there was no element of performance at work.  Indeed, by carrying a large, obtrusive sign, I was deliberately problematising the political nature of the work - providing a highly visible aesthetic direction absent from Neuhaus’s version.  This compromise was made to widen the number of participants.  Neuhaus worked with the assorted group of cohorts that turned up to his invite; I wanted to directly engage the uninvited general public by creating a relationship built upon the act of watching someone listen.  There was the group of teenagers who felt inclined to shout obscenities from afar but fell mute as we approached with our sign, as if suddenly acutely aware that someone might listen to his or her cries as something other than the boisterous yells that they were designed to be.  Conversely, two girls in the park, no more than fifteen, engaged us with a long list of everything they could hear, punctuated with the occasional ‘oh yeah!’ as they discovered something new in the act of deliberate, conscious listening.  At one point we approached a building site - the loudest object in the nearby environment - only to watch the builders first mock us, then hurriedly cover their generators in blankets, whispering to one another that we were ‘probably from noise abatement’. In each of these instances, the audience chose to reflect upon their current mode of engagement in the world and to adapt in accordance.  The reality of our shared space was re-articulated by the presence of the work - these people were participants as much as those who actively chose to follow me around with the sign.

[i] Appendix B: I don’t know where we are going but it sure sounds nice, Listen! photographs (box/usb)

[ii] “The impetus for the title was twofold. The simple clear meaning of the word, to pay attention aurally, and its clean visual shape – LISTEN – when capitalized. It was also its imperative meaning – partly I must admit, as a private joke between myself and my then current lover, a French-Bulgarian girl, who used to shout it before she began to throw things at me when she was angry” (Neuhaus, 2016).

[iii] A movement towards Other, rather than a subsumption of Other into self.

[iv] Cage would no doubt challenge this opinion, since he very openly sought to excise the artist from his own work. However, I believe that, although he excised the artist/decision-maker from the musical material he offered up, Cage (with a capital ‘C’) himself was integral to the event of his work, which explains how he has become such a figurehead of the avant-garde.
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