Friday, June 21, 2013

Percepts - Concepts - Precepts, Part Two: Stones, Storms, and Dreams

If part one was to be excused for being sloppy, this entry should be granted leniency for rushing into territory feared by angels.

Part one closes on this note:

"I have held out hope that the positive movements of the last 40 years of art history: Path 2 [i.e., critical] Concetpualism, Institutional Critique, Feminism, Post-Colonialism, Relational Aesthetics, Social Practice, et al., would infect sound practice and bring it into phase with the important art of our times. It would pain me (but not surprise me) if, instead, sound is coaxing the art world into a state of nebulous, naive, navel gazing."

After some constructive feedback from Douglas Kahn and Charles Eppley, I've given the matter some more thought. In particular, Kahn's soon-to-be-published piece on Turrell and Cage (and James Tenney and William Burroughs), encouraged some refinements to my argument. Kahn's essay, "Let Me Hear My Body Talk, My Body Talk," in Relive - Media Art Histories, edited by Sean Cubitt and Paul Thomas (MIT Press, November 2013), reminds us that Turrell's pivotal works, the ones which led him down the path he's still on, occurred under the sway of Cage's example. In fact, Kahn points out, Turrell and Robert Irwin worked in an anechoic chamber as part of the Art and Technology project at LACMA in the late-60s. Check it:

(Kahn's citation is as follows: "Maurice Tuchman, A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1967–1971 (New York: Viking, 1971), 127–143; see Craig Adcock, James Turrell: The Art of Light and Space (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 61–84.")

After visiting an anechoic chamber at Harvard, Cage reached the conclusion that "there is no such thing as silence." Turrell, arrived at a parallel conclusion: "There never is no light—the same way you can go into an anechoic chamber that takes away all sound and you find that there never really is silence because you hear yourself. With light it is much the same—we have that contact to the light within, a contact that we often forget about until we have a lucid dream." (Kahn, unpaginated. Citation: "James Turrell, 'Interview by Esa Laaksonen (Blacksburg, VA, 1996),' Architectural Design 68, nos. 7–8 (1997): 76–79;").

Kahn's essay focuses on the body in the work of the four artists discussed: what the body means; the body's role as a producer and/or receiver of signals; the body's status as a component of the subject, as an object, or as an entity that complicates this divide. Following from this, I want to think about how Cage, Turrell, and contemporary sound practice reflect on issues of power, and about if and how the relationship of these practices to power are instantiated in a more fundamental commitment to issues of interiority and exteriority, on the one hand, and the real versus mediated experience, on the other.

Angels, I believe this is where you get off.

So, why am I so troubled by what I referred to as, "Turrell's inchoate spaces of wombessence"? In a nutshell, it's because such spaces, and the experiences they are designed to engender, claim privileged access to a condition of being that is beyond the reach of language. And when I use the blanket term "language'" here, I'm referring to an extended network of signifying practices, including systemizations, structuralisms, images, narratives, analyses, diagrams, thinking and so on. To my mind, there are only two reasons why such experience might be considered desirable. The first is mystical in nature, appealing (or offloading responsibility) to an authority beyond the influence of flesh and blood. The second is political in nature, constructing, and then protecting, a position of authority. These two cases often collapse into one. Those who claim access to the mystical, implicitly claim authority. They possess the key, the ladder, the code, the hot line, the exegetic cipher. But the mystical force to which they alone have access, invariably turns out to "move in mysterious ways." The essence and function of the mystical always exceeds signification. Were such a force to be transparent in its methods and motivations, then we would have the same access as the gatekeeper, and his power would be lost. I am innately skeptical of claims of privileged access or of forces that exceed signification. I believe there's plenty that I don't get. Perhaps there are even things that aren't getable. But I don't trust anyone who tells me that they get it, that I can't, and that they would like to favor me with their gotness. These folks are commonly known as "con-artists."

Returning to plain, old, artists, it seems to me that sound, as a an artistic medium, is particularly susceptible to implying its own gotness. Or perhaps it's that listeners are prone to infer it. Likely, it's a codependent combination of the two. Examples of this cited in my book include: Christina Kubisch's electrical walks, in which the wearer of Kubisch's custom headphones is granted access to the "hidden" sounds of the city; and Francisco López's clandestine live set-up, in which the blindfolded audience sits with their backs to the performer, as he manipulates a panoply of audio technology. More recently, I've raised similar concerns about Doug Aitken's "Sonic Pavilion." Contemporary sound's presumed privileges are often granted by technology. The artist maintains a knowledge (of gear, code, patches) that is not shared with (and sometimes actively withheld from) the audience. More traditionally, sound's privileges have been the product of technical virtuosity and of sound's (or music's) own brand of mysticism: its ineffability. This term attaches to music most intransigently in the title of Vladimir Jankélévitch's book, Music and the Ineffable (La Musique et l'ineffable). "Ineffable," in its Latin etymology, means, literally, "in-utterable." So, again, we're confronted with conditions of being (technological, mechanical, physical, immaterial) that are beyond the reach of language.

My worries about directions of influence, then, are about whether sound will relinquish its claims of ineffability and engage with the truly important and meaningful relations that the gallery arts have engaged over the past forty years (roughly commensurate with Turrell's and Irwin's careers as artists). Just to be clear, what I'm pointing to here are practices that engage institutional critique, gender politics, economics, the AIDS crisis, foreign policy/cultural imperialism, globalism, philosophy, power relations, the distribution of knowledge, etc. And just to be clearer, I'm not suggesting that these engagements need to be explicit or at the level of content. Much of the work I favor merely displays a kind of self awareness about its own relation to these issues and does its best to be transparent with regard to its own status and mechanics in the various structures within which it operates. Instead, I am beginning to suspect that, if there is movement, it is flowing in the opposite direction. The gallery arts, envious of sound's apparent ineffability, move in the direction of sound, toward conditions of being that are beyond the reach of language.

As I've noted, Turrell and Irwin, to name just two examples, have been at this for forty years. So I'm not claiming that their embrace is bandwagon-jumping. Instead, it appears as if critical response may be gravitating toward what I referred to in Part One of this philippic as "ambient conceptualism." The upcoming Turrell exhibitions in Los Angeles, Houston, and New York, are so calculated: three of the four largest cities in the U.S.; West Coast, middle America, and East Coast; north and south; blue states and red state, as to resemble a successful Presidential electoral strategy. The recent New York Times articles: a Magazine cover story on Turrell and an Arts Section front page story on Irwin, speak to the P.R. machine blowing smoke (eerily lit, no doubt, and indigo) up the trouser legs of art critics, museum board members, and private collectors from sea to shining sea.

I'm not inclined to let ambient conceptualism off the hook by calling it something as easily-slipped as "escapist." I think the dangers are far stickier than that. What bothers me about López's performances, about Aitken's pavilion, about Turrell's installations, is their implications - that is to say, their knock-on effects - on the audiences and discourse they attract and simultaneously produce.

I am fond of suggesting to my students that the only irreducible component of works of art, the only thing that all works of art produce, are relations: between the artist and the audience, between the artist and materials, between one audience member and another, between each audience member and the collective audience, between each of these actors and institutions, between the present and history, between one artwork and another, etc. So I believe that a work's effects are real. Art works change things in the world. I'm not talking about toppling governments - not directly anyway. But I do mean that works of art impact the thinking and sensibilities of people and groups of people, and that every human-initiated change in the world begins with a swerve in the thinking and sensibility of a person or a group of people. Art is hardly the only source of such cultural clinamina. But it is a cultural force, like any other.

This brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to the what I started out wanting to think about here, namely: how the relationship of these practices to power are instantiated in a more fundamental commitment to issues of interiority and exteriority, on the one hand, and the real versus mediated experience, on the other. By alluding to Lucretius's clinamen and Epicurean materialism, I open the door to more contemporary materialisms. This is by design. I want to connect the critical-institutional interest in ambient conceptualism to what's come to be known in philosophy as "Speculative Realism." This connection, if I can make it, would suggest that there is something in the water, in the air; something in our times that attracts us to conditions of being that are beyond the reach of language, and that license our surrender to the mysticism of their authority.

Speculative Realism is based largely on two significant objections to the Continental philosophy that precedes it, the movement that sails disparately under the flag of "Poststructuralism." These two objections are directed at: 1) What Quentin Meillassoux has dubbed "correlationism" and/or what Graham Harman calls "philosophies of access," including hardcore idealism and what Meillassoux describes as a skepticism about our ability to know things in the world outside of our instantiated and channelled modes of thinking; and 2) Relational models of ontology or epistemology that claim that entities and/or our knowledge of them require contextualization; that their being and/or their meaning are dependent upon how they relate to other entities. Among the thinkers who are attached to Speculative Realism, there is a spectrum of severity on both these issues and a fair amount of disagreement and debate. But in some respect, all these thinkers are, at the very least, concerned with these problems. The realism in Speculative Realism (SR) contends that entities (or objects) in the world have discrete ontologies and are not dependent on their relations to other entities, least of all on perceiving human minds.

Before I try to build a bridge between these ideas and Turrell, Irwin, and contemporary sound practice, I will first offer a couple of philosophical observations about SR. First, a question about a specific feature of Harman's thought. He is insistent that objects are inevitably "withdrawn" from other objects. That is to say, no object - whether it be a stone, a human being, a storm, a book, or a dream - can fully know (Harman sometimes says ""exhaust") another object. He writes, "Real objects do not encounter each other directly, but only encounter sensual objects, or images of real objects. All contact between real objects is indirect, mediated by sensual reality, and this holds for raindrops and stones no less than for humans." (Harman, "The Current State of Speculative Realism," Seculations IV, New York: Punctum Books, 2013, p. 24.) Again, this is a question more than a refutation, but this sounds suspiciously like a kind of Idealism. Or, if I make more of an effort to square it with existing theories from the movement to which SR opposes itself, is Harman's "withdrawal" so very different from Derridean deferral? Both would hold that the ontology of any entity is perennially suspended. The difference I suppose would be that, for Derrida, this suspension is generated by the faulty machinery of language and representation, while, for Harman, it is an intrinsic property of the objects themselves. It is hard for me to see how these two versions of suspension would land differently in our experience. In other words, who cares if the problem lies in representation or in the objects? In the end, we must contend with the same reality.

Secondly, I see the rejection of relational models as a kind of non-starter. One cannot posit non-relation in a medium of relation such as thought or writing. To think non-relation is to place non-relation into relation. This comes back to a series of conversations about sound I've had over the past eight years with the philosopher, Christoph Cox. (By the way, it seems to me that Christoph arrived at conclusions very similar to those of SR a few years before their inaugural get-together in London in 2007.) I have asked Christoph this question repeatedly over the years: If one holds that objects (or energy, or flow, or flux) in the world are independent of, and indifferent to, signifying systems, then doesn't it follow that the thinker of these thoughts should refrain from expressing them by means of signifying systems? If one holds this view, it seems to me that the only appropriate response to the world is to engage it via other non-signifying objects, or, at least, objects that accept their own perennial suspension without resistance. In other words, a Speculative Realist or a De Landean materialist, should be an artist, a maker of real, material objects. For such a thinker to write texts and give talks, is self-annulling.

Again (or finally), this points back to the artistic practices in question; to James Turrell, Robert Irwin, and the sonic arts. Perhaps, these practices are the only ones that remain true to realist claims. About this art, one can aptly employ that au courant banalism: "It is what it is." Isn't this the nutshell within which SR discovers infinite space? Since I began this entry, the New York Times has published another article, a review by critic Roberta Smith, of the Turrell exhibit(s). Smith describes the main component of the Guggenheim show, a new piece called "Aten Reign," as "an immense, elliptical, nearly hallucinatory play of light and color that makes brilliant use of the museum’s famed rotunda and ocular skylight." After discussing other pieces in New York and at the shows in Houston and L.A., Smith closes her review with this observation: "These visual reveries give the Guggenheim exhibition a surprise ending. As your eyes become alive to both the work’s mysteries and its self-evident simplicity, it is possible to sense a quiet renunciation of “Aten Reign,” with its gorgeous effects and hidden mechanisms. You may not care, but it is there." This, ultimately, is what SR believes. Your caring - inclusive of both "you," the individual subject and "you," the human mind, but also of your caring (a Heideggerean term, but also a camouflaged Kantian notion) - your caring doesn't mean diddly-squat to the universe. Your caring doesn't change anything.

If you believe this, then I suppose SR is the philosophy, and Turrell is the artist, for you. But, perhaps because I am even more committed to the intransigence of the universe than even the most intransigent of the Speculative Realists, I believe the opposite: that caring is all there is and that only caring can change things. This is why I've spent the last few years thrashing at sound's "it-is-what-it-is-ness" like a man clawing at the lid of the coffin from the inside. The "gorgeous effects and hidden mechanisms" of Turrell's installation are precisely the features of too much sound art these days. I suspect that, come August, we may see and hear our fair share of it at MoMA's "Soundings" exhibition. (I'd love to be wrong about this.) It is not enough for the work to "be there." I insist, for reasons that have nothing to do with me or my individual caring, that works of art court our caring. This is why, in my teaching, I ask students to consider the relations their works initiate and engage. One must be attentive to, and responsible for, the conduct of one's relationships. And this goes for "ones" who are humans, and art works, and books, and institutions, and actions, attitudes, behaviors, stones, storms, and dreams.


  1. Could you PLEASE consider changing the background/text relationship of your blog...I am enjoying your writing, but frankly, trying to read white texts on warm gray/white backgrounds is incredibly frustrating and dilutes the potency of your writing. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for the feedback. But I'm attached to it the way it is. You can always copy the text and paste it into a word document for easier reading. -skc

  3. ... or use the great Safari "reader" button... (but only after clicking on the post)

  4. Anonymous: Others echoed your request. So, I've played with the image to make the text more readable. Again, thanks for the feedback. -skc

  5. I hate to complain about free wisdom, but here's another tip to make this otherwise wonderful and thought-provoking blog readable: hit Ctrl (or apple) A and then Ctrl + to enlarge

  6. Seth, thanks also, and I also think it's really not easy to read simply because of the background.

  7. Hi Seth, thank you for your insightful thinking on these issues! As for the background itself, it IS annoying, but I see it rather as a nice book cover.

    One can easily use a tool like this in order to see black text on white background wherever needed:


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