(In a Forest of Signs)


A small crowd has gathered upon the square, drawn by an advert placed in the lo- cal 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 clam- our 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! 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 Brian 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). 

Neu- haus 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 Jean-Luc Nancy, uses the word ‘listen’ to imply a more general approach to resonance - both as a sensory act and a cognitive or moral orientation. 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.
Blog Layout Designed by pipdig