A Critique of Pure Representation
If a certain amateurism is tolerated, or even expected, within street performance, 'A Critique of Pure Representation' 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. 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.
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.
How to Explain Opera as a Dead Hare
Utilising Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron (1932) - an opera whose plot revolves around the difficulty of explaining complex ideas to large groups of people - “How To Explain Opera As A Dead hare” revolves around a performer dictating the operas plot, line by line, upon a chalk board.
By performing this dictation whilst dressed as a rabbit, this first referent is juxtaposed with a second - Joseph 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’ the audience is literally locked outside of the art gallery whilst the artist explains the art on show to the more receptive body of a dead animal.
As with my other work, 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 subjected 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.