Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Sine - Sign - Sein (No Tone Stands Alone)

What I’m attempting to do is to identify the specific qualities or characteristics that are motivating three significant, current, New York, visual art exhibitions. I see a reverse current at work, an undertow, pulling against the dominant tides of contemporary art history. This current runs back toward sight and away from Zeit and site. These shows want to isolate either perceptual phenomena or the act of perception (or both) and shield them from the criticality of spatial and temporal contexts (site and Zeit). If, as I’ve suggested, these shows take a cue from sound, retreating from contextual, social, problematics, then we might identify an alternate set of homonyms to chart a set of sonic concerns. Instead of sight - site - Zeit, we might think about sine - sign - sein. Here, the analogous term for the sanctity of sight is the sine wave, a pure wave without the complications of overtones. The complement of site is the sign, the location of meaning, contextual and differential. And, in place of Zeit (time) we have sein (being). These two German terms are, of course, the critical pairing in the title of Martin Heidegger’s monumental work of twentieth century philosophy, Being and Time (Sein und Zeit). 

In sound art, one finds a preponderance of sine waves. There seems to be a belief that, by using electronically-produced sine waves (sometimes called “pure tones”) one avoids the annoying complications of other kinds of signals. The sine wave, so the thinking apparently goes, is unencumbered by historical reference, timbre, by instrumental voice, by expression, by connotation, by previous use. Leaving aside the question of whether this unencumberance is even desirable, let’s acknowledge that this thinking is just plain wrong. The sine wave has its own history, its own timbre, its own instruments. It expresses something very clearly (most often, the desire for purity I’ve just inventoried). The sine wave has become a very clear expression of a particular aesthetic mode with a whole host of artistic, technological, and ideological connotations. As for previous use, the sine wave in sound art is, by now, the genre’s most egregiously overused trope. The bottom line is that all urges for purity, for transcendence, end up plunging back into the miasma of history and the social. I don’t know: there may be experiences that exist prior to or outside of signification. I mean it when I say "I don’t know." But if such experiences exist, they are trapped in a form that allows no conveyance. We cannot speak them. We cannot even think them, because thinking is a transposition that relies on signification: a this-for-that transaction that would encumber a-signifiable experience with all the burdens of signification. Thus, “I don’t know” is the only real answer to this question of unsignifiable experience. Pure tones can’t escape the process of signification. In use they acquire meanings. Differences, contexts, and conventions load the wave, corrupt its purity. Even the sine is a sign.

Music and sound have long debated the status of sounds as signs. I don’t have the time (or the inclination) to rehearse that history here. Let me, instead just point to a signal moment in this debate: the disagreements between Pierre Schaeffer and Luc Ferrari about the relation of concrete sounds to their sources. Schaeffer, the inventor of musique concrete, insisted that sounds be employed in such a way as to sunder them from their sources. He called the resulting mode of audition, “reduced listening” (écouter réduite), an allusion to the phenomenological reduction of Husserl. Put simply, according to Schaeffer, when listening to a piece of musique concrete, the listener isn’t supposed to know (or care about) what caused the sounds used in the composition. Ferrari, who teamed up with Schaeffer in the late-50s as a kind of pupil/assistant, eventually pulled away from reduced listening. As Brian Kane puts it in his soon-to-be-published, Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice (Oxford), Ferrari “became interested in “anecdotal” sounds, a use of recorded sound that revealed its origins, even the banality of its origins. Anecdotal sounds broke the taboo on the recognition of the sound source, instituted by Schaeffer’s demand for écouter réduite.” In a nutshell, Schaeffer treated sounds as basic units in a formal practice of composition, like Lego blocks being rearranged to create forms based on morphological complements and contrasts; Ferrari, on the other hand, treated sounds as signs of their sources and contexts. Tellingly, Michel Chion has characterized Ferrari’s revision of concrete tenets as a “return of the repressed” (quoted in Kane).

Being is always a complicated topic. Ontology may be first philosophy, the ground of all else, the problem that must first be dealt with before dealing with anything else. Or, on the other hand, ontology may be a fiction necessitated by epistemology. As Lyotard puts it, ““There is no ‘in accordance with,’ because there is nothing that is a primary or originary principle, a Grund. . . . Every discourse, including that of science or philosophy, is only a perspective.” (Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, Stanford University Press, 1991, 28–29.) Nevertheless, we can find notions of sonic being (and sonic beings) in the theory and practice of the sonic arts. Schaeffer’s écouter réduite focuses on what he calls the “objet sonore,” the “sonic object.” This would be a unit of sonic being - possibly a fundamental unit, a kind of elementary particle. La Monte Young takes frequencies to be beings of a sort, not unlike biological entities, with their own needs for nurturing conditions. And many in the sine wave set like to think about waves as material realities, ontological entities whose realness is indisputable and whose capture by sign systems is both impossible and beside the point. The most eloquent purveyor of this position is Christoph Cox, whose various articles about sonic ontology are the basis of a much anticipated book, to be published (we hope) in the near future. As a starting point, one might look at Cox’s “Beyond Representation and Signification: Toward a Sonic Materialism,” published in the Journal of Visual Culture.

But it strikes me that much of this thinking of sonic beings (and sonic being) ignores Heidegger’s important contributions to, and revisions of, ontology. (There’s an interesting intersection here with Object Oriented Ontology, particularly in the work of Graham Harman, who has dedicated a lot of thought to Heidegger.) Specifically, the piece of Heidegger I want to cherry-pick for the purposes of thinking about sound is his notion of “mitsein.” Usually translated as “being-with,” this is one of Heidegger’s major emendations of the age-old view of what being is all about. Rather than ascribing an internal, immanent, identity to a thing, mitsein proposes that all things arrive at their identity in relation to other things in the world. Although Heidegger was overwhelmingly focused on the specific instance of human being, which he referred to as “dasein,” or “being-there,” one of his most famous examples of the being of a thing-in-the-world is his discussion of a hammer. Heidegger suggests that the identity of a hammer is not ascertained by examining its inherent qualities: its form, its materiality, its color. Instead, a hammer is best understood via its use as equipment, that is, in its relation to other things: nails, wood, and, most importantly, for Heidegger, human beings who use the hammer for a particular purpose. Granted, this view is overtly anthropocentric, and it’s difficult to maintain the position that all things achieve their being, wholly or in part, due to human interests. But, if we accept humans as other things-in-the-world, and not necessarily as special cases of being, then it is easy to accept that the hammer’s being is not inherent, but the result of its relations to other beings. This acknowledgment of being-with (mitsein) is a crucial insight about being.

No Tone Stands Alone
When applied to art, this thinking demands more of works than that they simply grant access to the immanent being of phenomena. The luminiosity-of-light, or the sonicity-of-sound, are not meaningful enough accounts in a post-Heideggerean ontology. Worse than that, they are misrepresentations of things and our relations to them. In attempting to bypass the complications of worldliness, this kind of art (let’s call it “ambient”) presents a lie as truth; a synecdochic part-for-whole substitution is tendered as an encounter with unabridged experience. And thus we arrive at the crux of the biscuit: a declaration of what it is we want from art. For me, this comes down to a basic precept (circling back to my original set of terms) of how I want to engage with the world. Focusing on where value is generated, on what is meaningful and why, I accept that there is no sein without mit; that all being is being-with. I believe that to understand anything - any thing - including myself, I must consider that thing integrally as part of a matrix of other things, meanings, valences, narratives, beliefs, histories, intentions, desires, and nested and overlapping matrices. There is no thing-in-itself. I don’t declare this to persuade you, dear reader, whoever you are, whatever you believe. I declare it as a statement of my own conviction. In a world such as mine, convinced of mitsein, there is no point in making ambient works of perceptual experience, as if that light, that sound, were a being complete in itself and that we, in a rare moment of access, are gazing into the very materiality of presence.

The sign, as we well know by now, is also mit-sign. Each and every sign comes by its meaning, its signification(s), by way of its relation to other signs. These relations are sometimes characterized with the Saussurean/Derridean term “differance.” The meaning of any sign arrives not via some internal set of criteria carried by the sign itself, but, instead, by comparing and contrasting that sign with a host of other signs with which the sign-in-question shares certain features. The word “house,” for instance acquires its specific meaning by contrast with related words such as “abode,” “mansion,” “shack,” “domicile,” “crib,” “pad,” and so on. It also contrasts with homonyms and near-homonyms such as “how’s,” and capital-H, “House,” the tv show about the megalomaniacal doctor, or Ron House, the singer of the great Ohio band, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments. Some take issue with what they see as our overdependence on the sign as a mechanism for shepherding experience, but there is little disagreement about the fact that the sign, for better or worse, is always mit-sign.

So, if sein is understood as mitsein, and the sign as mit-sign, then I will also insist on the “mit-sine,” the “with-wave.” No tone stands alone. We experience and understand the things we hear relative to other sounds. This is the basis of musical form. But we also understand what we hear relative to a whole host of other factors, such as the litany I ascribed earlier to being: things, meanings, valences, narratives, beliefs, histories, intentions, desires, and other nested and overlapping matrices. The sine-wave, the tone, the sound object, are all subject to the same interlocking set of relations and influences. Every wave is a “with-wave,” a “mit-sine.”

After the decades of working through these issues in the visual arts, I - perhaps prematurely, perhaps complacently - assumed that we had worked it out, that the debate was settled. But here we are, in the summer of 2013, seemingly back in a mindset that countenances the decorative-headtrip of op-art. It would be too simple to ascribe blame to the recent embrace of sound in the visual art world. In fact the acceptance of sound may be more a symptom than a cause. But it’s hard for me to believe that sound and the ambient revival are unrelated. The question, finally, is: why? What combination of factors has delivered us back to this once rejected mindset, in which tuning out and turning on are considered worthwhile aspirations for artistic experience? I don’t really think I can successfully diagnose this problem. I lack the forensic methods to unearth compelling evidence. And, besides, I am skeptical of simple cause-and-effect equations in the meanderings of cultural inclinations.

Nevertheless, provisionally, I offer these suspects in The Case of the Resuscitated Ambient:

My first hunch is that we have all succumbed to the much ballyhooed “information overload.” It seems to me that this theory could hold some historical water. At the very least, some archive-rat art historian could assemble a credible set of dots and then connect them with personae, publications, and productions to make a compelling case for a “new anti-informationism.” One could, for example start with the exhibition “Information,” organized by Kynaston McShine at MoMA in 1969-70. The show included work from the front lines of what was not yet called “Conceptual Art;” works by Vito Acconci, Robert Barry, John Baldessari, Art & Language, Mel Bochner, Daniel Buren, Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, Christine Kozlov, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, the list, believe me, goes on. Next, one could draw a parabolic arc through Marshall McLuhan to the work of Friedrich Kittler, pausing briefly at his phrase, “the bottleneck of the signifier,” before easing the cork out of the bottle and allowing the genie of information (or data, as Kittler likes to call it) to infest and invest the so-called real with its semantic agnosticism. On a more popular tip, our forensic historian might touch on James Gleick’s 2011 book, “The Information,”  
which takes the very 21st century view that everything has always boiled down to information, but that we are only now coming to terms with this fact. Via the information technology that sits in everyone’s laps and pockets and neoprene messenger bags, we are now, for the first time in “recorded history” (note that this phrase itself is dependent upon and, for all intents and purposes, identical with, information), engaging with our world not as pure phenomena, not as portent of the wishes of the gods, not as a representation of something else nor as something demanding to be represented, but as a data set. And this, according to Gleick, sounding something like Kittler, sounding something like McLuhan-via-McShine, is what the universe is: a vast data set; love it or leave it. Forensic theory number one would suggest that given this option, leaving is the preferable route. Who wants to live in either the macro-reality of the universe-as-data-set, or in the micro-reality of triple-digit inbox numbers? Wouldn’t a bath in an ascending oval of glowing fuchsia be nice? I’ll pause, but briefly, to point out how much of the work I’m corralling under the rubric of “the ambient,” is, in fact, dependent upon and, in many cases, made of, the ones and zeroes of data in its purest technological ontology. 

Politics is always a suspect. Art has the twofold problem of, first, deciding if it is the place (even a place) for politics to be engaged, and second, of formulating a response that is appropriate to the specific politics of its time and place. Every good artist wakes up sweating the Adornian edict about the barbarity of post-Auschwitz poetry. I mean, who wants to be that asshole? The politics of this particular moment (the 2010s) in this particular place (let’s say, specifically, New York, and generally, the United States) present a particularly frustrating construct with which to engage. I am under no illusion that the politics of our moment are any more fucked than previous regimes. The difference, hearkening back to our previous suspect, is the amount of information to which we have access. We know more about the conspiracies, constipations, and contradictions of our present government than other national subjects have. While the net effect of this knowledge is ultimately for the greater good (thank you Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange), the short term emotional impact is pretty disheartening. It is better that we know that Monsanto has engineered the entire agricultural system for their own benefit (and at our expense); that we are aware of shadowy private firms contracted by the U.S. government to do its dirty work; that the military employs unmanned aircraft to stealthily cross national borders and kill human beings (U.S. citizens and foreign nationals) with only the skimpiest, clandestine, judicial oversight; that the two major political parties in the U.S. have transformed their legislative mandate into a game of trivial pursuit focused on the quantity of cheese in their respective wheels. It is better that we know. But knowing sucks. It is depressing. It is sickening. It makes us cynical and skeptical. Knowing whispers in the ears of the oft-invoked angels of our better nature: “Withdraw, angels, no good can come of this.” Maybe ambience is a kind of assisted living facility for these angels; a place where all their needs are met and they needn’t lift a finger.

As politics has failed us, so too has religion. There are plenty of bureaucratic snafus we could point to. But ultimately, religion was designed to solace the ignorant. The more we know, the harder it is to persuade us of the unknown, not to mention, the unknowable. Yet, human beings cling stubbornly, desperately, to the need to feel that there is something that is not subject to our statutes, beyond the reach of physics, outside the law, unrestricted by human moral codes, unbeholden, even, to proofs of logic, reason, test, or testimony. Undoubtedly, this need stems from our own frustrations at our utter beholdeness to all these injunctions and many more besides: social, psychological, civil; the shortcomings of our species and our selves. The ambient is godlike: unknown, unknowing, unknowable. Turrell’s light signifies transcendence. Indeed, his whole backstory is a pilgrim’s tale. And, as I’ve suggested, his light is simply a form of documentation, an affidavit testifying to his journey, his piety, and his sacrifice. This ambient moment is a last gasp, a burst of longing for what we know is lost. I thought we had fought our way clear of such longings. I thought we had reconciled ourselves to our irredeemable immanence. I thought conceptual art was a symptom of our new disease: the death of god, the birth of the reader. Alas, we’re not so sick yet.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sight - Site - Zeit, part 2

As I’ve done with the three terms percept, concept, and precept, I’d like to see what can be wrung out of a braiding of three near-homynyms: sight, site, and Zeit (German for “time”). Right off the bat, one could argue that these three terms go a long way toward tracing the trajectory and fundamental concerns of contemporary art since the 1960s (when Turrell’s career began). We start from a Greenbergian formalism devoted to the exigencies and cultivation of the sense of sight. Next, site-specificity undermines such formalism. Artists like Robert Smithson and Michael Asher interact with spatial sites. In different ways, Mary Kelly, Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, and Carolee Schneemann, identify the body as a site. And artists as varied as Bruce Nauman, Marcel Broodthaers, Martha Rosler, and Cildo Meireles, respond to the conventions (the precepts) of art as a site. More recently, we’ve witnessed the move toward time-based media: video, performance, dance, sound, durational work, and social practice. It’s too simple. But, crudely, we could say art has travelled from sight to site to Zeit. 

[Note to self: Must read Lytle Shaw’s new book, Fieldworks: From Place to Site in Postwar Poetics.]

More importantly, I want to think about what it means to shift the emphasis of a work of art (or works of art in general) from sight to site to Zeit. Again, using Turrell as a kind of limit-case is instructive. Clearly, all three terms are in play in his work. But the framing of his work, via the creation myths I’ve itemized above and via both curators’ and Turrell’s characterization of the work, directs attention toward sight, at the expense of site and Zeit. Here (as promised in part one of this post) I’ll return to the first of two assertions included in Roberta Smith’s New York Times review of the Turrell exhibition. Smith writes, “The latest site-specific effort from Mr. Turrell, ‘Aten Reign’ is close to oxymoronic: a meditative spectacle.” I discussed the problem of “meditative spectacle” in part one. Here, I’d like to consider the claim that “Aten Reign” is site-specific. This immense installation doesn’t so much negotiate its site in the Guggenheim rotunda, as it accepts it as given and accommodates it, almost literally swallowing it. This is not site-specific in the meaningful sense of the phrase. “Aten Reign” doesn’t perform any kind of archeology (literal or figurative) on the site and its history. Nor does it enter into any kind of debate or create any productive friction with the site. When artworks do this kind of work, they might, more appropriately, be called “situation specific,” in that they take the site into account as both a product and a producer of a larger socio-historic situation. 

Likewise, “Aten Reign” is time-based in only the most literal, and least revealing, use of the term. Sure, its hues and intensities slowly shift. What one sees at any one moment is different in its specifics from what one sees in other moments. Most accounts of the work testify to an expansion and contraction of architectural volume, as if the spiraling levels of the rotunda are telescoping in and out upon themselves, flattening and deepening the perception of space. During my twenty or so minutes in the space, I did not see this. What I saw were concentric ovals of radiating color, fading from darker hues at the bottom to lighter hues at the top. Yes, the light changed. But the nature of the experience did not. I had no sense that more time would have yielded new responses. (In an effort to head off one avenue of criticism: I am a devotee of durational work, having made a lot of it - including a 24-hour solo performance - and sat through a great deal more.) 

Turrell’s color show strikes me as a cheap effect. Ironic, since it undoubtedly cost millions to design and install. I have the same response to this lauded artwork as I had, as a teenager, to the tawdriness of Pink Floyd laser light shows at the Hayden Planetarium in the ‘70s: both seem just plain goofy. And yet, perhaps there’s something more to the comparison. I would imagine that many of the patrons who now support Turrell’s work came of age in the psychedelic era from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. Now constrained by the market to display their wealth through the same choices as all their equally-endowed friends and neighbors: luxury cars, bespoke designers, architects, private islands, they distinguish themselves by realizing their avaricious, adolescent fantasies. Turrell provides the opportunity to realize one such fantasy, doodled on the inside cover of an 11th grade chemistry notebook, “I want to live inside a giant lava lamp!” Who am I to deny such fantasies? Who am I to harsh their mellow? I’m willing to sing along to the chorus of appreciators as they raise their voice in a heavenly, throaty, deeply-satisfied, “dude!” Yet, in my experience, what follows exclamations of “dude!” is usually either boredom or the munchies, or both. 

So, then, what to make of “ambient” (lower case a) at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in Chelsea? The show features works by twelve artists, including well-known visual artists such as Sherrie Levine Haim Steinbach, and Olafur Eliasson, and a few, like Tristan Perich, Seth Price, and Alex Waterman, better known for work that involves sound and other time-based media. As mentioned previously, this show was organized by Tim Griffin, formerly editor-in-chief of Artforum, and now running the estimable New York venue, gallery, and media art archive, The Kitchen. In some ways, this exhibition makes a better case for what I’d been calling (before I was aware of this show), “ambient conceptualism,” than the work of Turrell and his light and space compatriot, Robert Irwin, whose “Scrim Veil – Black Rectangle – Natural Light,” has been reinstalled at the Whitney, where it first lived in 1977. At the very least, and counterintuitively, “ambient” makes a better case for the conceptualism of my phrase, while Turrell and Irwin rely more heavily on ambience. 

In sorting out the “ambient” from the “conceptualism,” both terms require some definition. I’ll return to “ambient” in a moment, the simpler term for being less complicated by overuse. To effectively define what I mean by “conceptualism,” would be a project: a book, a symposium, a series of classes. But I’ll spend a little time here beginning to identify some of what I mean (and don’t mean) when I use the term. First, and most importantly, I think that there are multiple "conceptualisms." Failing to acknowledging this and conflating the various practices that can wear the hat, confuses any argument that employs the term. In addition to the pluralization, I’ll insist on a lowercase-c, to distinguish what I’m talking about from the historical movement of capital-C Conceptual Art. Yet, some of the artists I’ll claim as conceptualists would undoubtedly also appear in any history of Conceptual Art. What I’ll try to do briefly here is to disentangle capital-C Conceptual Art from lowercase-c conceptualism. At the same time, I’ll work to distinguish various strands of the lowercase from each other in order to make some useful distinctions between, say, LeWitt and Graham, or Acconci and Rosler, or Haacke and Broodthaers. 

Conceptual Art is often said to refer to art practices, beginning in the late-1960s and early-1970s, that concerned themselves with language. The story goes that artists turned away from material concerns, including, paradigmatically, the mediality of Greenbergian abstract painting, and concerned themselves with the language that motivated, engaged, described, and resulted from works of art. To some, the “Conceptual Turn,” in the visual arts, echoed the “Linguistic Turn,” in philosophy. A favorite quote of mine about this transition, comes from Rosalind Krauss’s “Sculpture In The Expanded Field,” 

“It is obvious that the logic of the space of postmodernist practice is no longer organized around the definition of a given medium on the grounds of material, or, for that matter, the perception of material. It is organized instead though the universe of terms that are felt to be in opposition within a cultural situation.” (p. 289)

In the past, I’ve relied heavily on this quote and on the understandings it represents. But I’ve now come to think that the transition in question was more complicated. It’s not that I disagree with the assertion that the organization of the logic of art in the late-60s began to rely explicitly on terms in opposition. But Krauss’s statement contains a gaping chasm precisely the size and shape of the word “terms.” What, exactly, constitutes a term? Is it only a dictionary-accredited word? Or might the terms in opposition also include other units? For instance, might we see the steps of a conventional process as terms capable of productive opposition? Might the moves and countermoves of a given practice’s history also be ordered and disordered like terms? Other terminological nominees might include: the expectations of a given audience in a given space; or the historical, economic, and ideological components of a presentation situation; or the generally overlooked material substrate(s) of a medium. The specific differences in how particular practices engaged these terminological oppositions are crucially important. 

Still, I want to return to the ambient (the adjective) in “ambient” (the exhibition). I want to figure out what this exhibition is claiming, with and for the term, “ambient.” The press release for the show starts with the old saw about Brian Eno stuck in his sick bed. The music’s volume is too low. Eno struggles to make out the music amidst competing sounds - he mentions, specifically, “the sound of the rain” - but also other sensory stimuli, “the colour of the light.” This story has always struck me as the complement of Cage’s anechoic episode. Like Cage’s story, Eno’s is a creation myth, positioned chronologically prior to the work it licenses, but provided to its audience retroactively as a justification. The press release proposes the term ambient “speculatively,” wondering if Eno’s model of an artistic experience that bobs above and below the threshold of the audience’s attention, might supply a useful interpretation of “contemporary ways of looking” at art in a “postindustrial paradigm.” Again, it seems to me that the confluence of this show, Turrell at the Guggenheim, Irwin at the Whitney, and Soundings, opening at MoMA in August, points to a moment in the New York art world. I’m tempted to adopt Tim Griffin’s title and call it an ambient moment.

In the “ambient” press release, Tim Griffin further leverages Eno and his liner notes for Discreet Music (the source of the sick bed listening story), likening Eno’s signal path diagram to Olafur Eliasson’s principle of “seeing oneself seeing.” It’s worth noting that Turrell uses the identical formulation to describe one of the effects of his work. (In a conversation about the Turrell exhibition and the arrival of this “ambient moment,” James Hoff astutely noted that Eliasson is likely the artist most responsible for preparing the ground for a revival of interest in Turrell’s and Irwin’s original light and space investigations.) 

But it’s worth testing this analogy between Eno’s system and Eliasson’s/Turrell’s notion of seeing oneself seeing.” Seeing implies a seer in a passive or, at least, a receiving role. The phrase suggests that one is seeing as one normally would, with the additional, perceptual or, perhaps, intellectual, awareness of the activity of seeing. Eno’s system, however, begins not in passivity or receptivity, but with an active transmission, “in this case, two simple and mutually compatible melodic lines of different duration stored on a digital recall system.” Nor is the listener’s experience of the sonic product of Eno’s system made uniquely aware of the listening experience. Discreet Music is an album of music, not so different in terms of a species of experience from the Pachelbel it samples, nor, for that matter, from Pink Floyd or Public Enemy. Perhaps Griffin was thinking of tape loops at the end of Eno’s signal path. But if this is where the perception of perception suposedly occurs, in this looping of material back upon itself, we have a different sort of problem. This would conflate human perception with technological reproduction. The only entity in Eno’s diagram in a position to perceive itself perceiving would be the tape recorders. Yet, as Friedrich Kittler has argued, the radical innovation of recording technology is precisely its lack of awareness, its agnosticism regarding input. Data is neutral, Kittler would say. Being aware of its content is beyond technology’s remit. Presumably, being aware of its own processes would be, as Monty Python would say, “right out.” (Holy hand grenades.) 

The aspects of Eno’s ambient that seem more appropriately applied to the work in the “ambient” exhibition would be the idea of working at the threshold of perception, Eno’s claim in the Discreet Music liner notes: “I tend towards the roles of the planner and programmer, and then become an audience to the results,” and Eno’s definition of ambient as music that aims “to reward attention, but not (be) so strict as to demand it." Still, in all these claims, from “seeing oneself seeing” to minimal perceptual stimuli, to artist-as-audience, there is a common thread. Ambient, is an artistic mode of passivity. Its politics, meaning the kind of relation it fosters with the world in which it exists, is content to let other events and entities wash over it. Ambient offers no resistance. “Seeing oneself seeing” is vastly different from “interrogating the ways in which one sees.” 

The founding moment of ambient music and art is not Eno’s sick bed revelation, but John Cage’s aforementioned anechoic chamber epiphany. Here, Cage jettisons all intentional sound in favor of happenstantial, environmental phenomena. In the “ambient” press release, ambient music is said to revolve around “dislocations and relaxations of authorship--and quasi-reversals of figure and landscape, foreground and background.” This is Cage’s move. Not only does he reverse these valences, he completely eradicates figure and foreground, while abolishing authorial agency regarding the formal content of the work. Yet, the ambient attitude of 4’ 33” is not as simple as it sounds. In Noise Water Meat, Douglas Kahn points out that Cage’s perception of his own body at work was predicated on a “third internal sound.” This is the sound of his critical consciousness asking, “what are those sounds?” Kahn argues that this positions discursivity at the base of an aesthetic of mute perceptualism. 

Eno and Cage bring this discussion back to sound as a kind of metaphor for what is being sought, found, and championed in Turrell, Irwin, and the “ambient” exhibition. Sound, rather than importing the broad terminological conceptualism discussed above, is in the process of exporting its perceptualism to the visual arts. Sound likes to think it can contain itself within either its own formalism or its own materialism, as if there were no social (i.e., historical, economic, political) substrate for the motivations of producers’ and listeners’ choices. Composers, musicians, and sound artists often turn a deaf ear to the social relations of their work. At the same time, many listeners deny the social content that produces and is produced by sound and music, preferring to focus on formal issues. (For an infuriatingly blindered version of this, see Gary Gutting's piece in the July 15 New York Times.) So, without disputing the assertion that all sound is social (e.g., in Brian Kane’s “Musicophobia, or Sound Art and the Demands of ArtTheory”), I maintain that, as often as not, sociality is denied in both sonic production and reception. My critique of sound’s in-itselfism, is a pragmatic move, not a declaration of the actual ontology of sounds. “Seeing oneself seeing” invokes both halves of Roberta Smith’s notion of “meditative spectacle.” It describes a kind of inward turn characteristic of meditative practices, while also responding to perception, not with critical questions about what is being seen, but with a compounded perception that amounts to spectacle’s feedback loop. It is also Eno’s signal path. The ambient, in both its sonic and visual incarnations, is a closed system. The sites of transmission and reception are identical. Nothing changes, nothing moves. It is ascetic and abstinent. Its apparent (desired) purity is but an abnegation of participation in the social, communicative, and critical, realms.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Sight - Site - Zeit, part 1

“How do you form it? It doesn’t form like clay where you form it with the hand. It doesn’t form like hot wax. You don’t carve it away like wood or with stone. So, Getting to work with it is almost like making the instrument that helps you form it. So it’s almost like sound, like music.”


· July 4 - Stood on a balcony and watched what is reputed to be the largest fireworks display in the U.S., over 40,000 individual explosions over the Hudson River.

· July 5 - Visited the James Turrell exhibition at the Guggenheim.

· July 7 - From the same balcony, watched heat lighting caroming across the sky to the north.

· July 8 - Visited the exhibition, “ambient,” (lower case a), at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in Chelsea.

Neatly, these events create four axes for this next installment of thinking about recent tendencies in the art world. All four events involved looking at light as a discrete object, as opposed to light as illumination for looking at other things. It is from this similarity, this common condition, that I’ll begin. Two of these four events, as you’ll notice, are art exhibitions. Two are not. Of the two that are not, one is a natural phenomenon, one is not. (Of the two that are art, one makes more of an effort than the other to cloak its unnaturalness. More on this later.)

In my previous posts on these topics, I suggested that there might be a link between the recent embrace of sound in the art world, and the resurgence of what I called “ambient conceptualism,” as exemplified, most notably, by Turrell and Robert Irwin, both of whom have shows in New York right now. I further suggested that these tendencies might be related to new work in philosophy, known as “Speculative Realism,” or in a related, but not identical formulation, “Object-Oriented Ontology.” How much evidence (and what kind of evidence) does one need before concluding that what might have been a coincidence is, in fact, a quorum?

I chose the adjective “ambient,” before I was aware of the show at Tanya Bonakdar. Discovering that such a show is presently on view, concurrent with the Turrell victory lap, and closing only two weeks before the opening of “Soundings,” the sound art show at MoMA, only further tingled my spidey-sense. Furthermore, “ambient” is curated by Tim Griffin, former Editor-in-Chief of Artforum, and current Executive Director and Chief Curator at the Kitchen. This solidifies my belief that this confluence of interest in, and employment of, the ambience (to use the noun) of light, sound, immersion, and atmosphere is indicative of something afoot. On July 1st, on Charlie Rose, Turrell himself, compared working with light to working with sound (see the epigraph at the top of this post). All in all, I’m persuaded that there is reason enough to continue connecting the dots.

The chain of posts of which this is the latest link are collectively titled “Percepts - Concepts - Precepts.” This is meant to suggest a set of relations/divisions/differences between a set of terms/methodologies/values.

· Percepts are objects of perception. I use the term bluntly, but not in an attempt to suggest a lack of sophistication regarding the status of such objects or of perception. For our purposes, this suggests artworks concerned primarily with sensory phenomena and their apprehension via the organs of perception.

· Concepts are abstract ideas that create connections between objects or other concepts. I use the term as an allusion to capital C conceptualism in visual art, without mapping, 1:1, to that category. I will insist on small c conceptualisms, plural.

· Precepts are general rules that regulate behavior or thought. I take it for granted that all behaviors ascribe to precepts, sometimes ex post facto, à la Kant.

What I’m attempting to diagnose is a turn, in some recent museological and curatorial practices, toward an art concerned foremost with percepts. This is noteworthy because for the past 45 years, art has pursued an agenda pointed decidedly in the direction of concepts and precepts (most often in the form of a critique of institutional, political, and ideological precepts). I see this happening in quite apparent ways in Turrell’s coordinated, three-institution retrospective in L.A., Houston, and New York. The consensus represented by this west-middle-east span, in three of the four most populous cities in America, with press coverage up and out the proverbial wazoo, should not go unnoticed or uninterrogated. As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, I suspect a good deal of this has to do with the winds of fashion that pass through the museum world with the same breezy nonchalance that they pass through everything else, from burgers to bands to beards. I know the market cannot be bracketed. Eventually, I need to account for it and hold myself accountable for my complicity in its machinations. I know. But, for the moment, I want to think about different motivations; other causes, other effects.

Back to the four things I did on my summer vacation. In what ways is the experience of the Turrell exhibition - specifically, the central installation, “Aten Reign” (2013), in the main, spiral, atrium space of the Guggenheim - different from the experience of the 4th of July fireworks on the Hudson or the heat lightning flashing above the suburbs?

I don’t actually think they are that different at all. Does that mean that the tawdry exhibition of nationalistic explosions rises to the level of esteemed art? Or does it mean that Turrell’s effects sink to the status of populist pageantry? I’m not interested in either of these questions. To equate Turrell and lightning and fireworks is not to make a high-to-low comparison (or vice versa). Instead, I do so to initiate an inquiry into the nature of this type of experience and then to ask whether this is the best use of art’s time in this particular moment, in 2013.


“It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so.”
- Frank O’Hara

In her review of Turrell’s show in the New York Times, critic Roberta Smith writes, “The latest site-specific effort from Mr. Turrell, 'Aten Reign' is close to oxymoronic: a meditative spectacle.” I take this up because I think there are two assertions here that are widely held and that both demand further consideration. I’ll take the second assertion first: the “oxymoronic” idea of a “meditative spectacle.” This is only oxymoronic at first glance. Thinking about it and about both meditative experiences and contemporary spectacle, it reverses valence so as to actually seem tautological. It is precisely the function and, dare I say it, the desire, of spectacle to achieve a sort of meditative equilibrium. I mean “spectacle” here in both the everyday and the Situationist senses (realizing that, ultimately, the former is merely a normalized version of the latter). Spectacle can’t remain spectacular. That would attract too much attention. If there is a flash of the spectacular it must immediately subdue. It must level off and settle into a coy suggestiveness that feels to the spectator (already etymologically and ideologically complicit) as if it couldn’t be otherwise. Spectacle embeds itself parasitically, such that the host doesn’t recognize itself as host; doesn’t recognize the parasite as other. It embeds in the naturalism of objects, in the inevitability of images, and in the therefore-I-am-ness of the self. We can describe the spectator’s relationship to this embededness variously: opiative (thinking of Marx), epistemic (thinking of Foucault); but it is also in some sense meditative. It faces both inward and outward. It recommends itself as being for the good of the spectator. It appears self-motivated, even self-generated. Likewise, and by a similar logic, I think the formula could be reversed. Much meditational practice presents a spectacle front: a claim for naturalness and states of inevitability that are unlikely to be any more (or less) natural or inevitable than their alternatives.

I have tactically forestalled applying this description to the 4th of July fireworks or the lightning storm. In the case of the fireworks, I don’t think there’s a lot more work to do. Fireworks, too, are meditative spectacles. They may, in fact, be the paradigmatic example of the category. A fireworks show, as a whole, but also in its individual blasts, offers an initial burst of spectacularity. But, almost instantly, the experience lulls into a complacency of expectation that easily accepts the adjective “meditative.” Craned upward to the sky, heads bob like buoys, eyes glaze, while mantric “ooohs” emit from the self as “column of air” (in Allen Ginsberg’s parlance). The meditative-spectacular experience, equally optic and cultural, ignores that these are thousands of violent explosions, the redirected force of guns and bombs, and accepts a gradual diminishment of expectation - a kind of meditative boredom - as the repetition dulls each climax on its way to the never-quite-as-grand-as-hoped-for finale. After the show, we are left a little bit ho-hummed.

[As for lightning storms, I’ll return to these in more detail in a subsequent post. For now, suffice it to say - but don’t take my word for it (yet) - that I think the same argument can pretty much obtain.]

So, when I say that “Aten Reign” is not so different from fireworks or lightning I mean that these experiences are both spectacular and meditative. Like kaleidoscopes, they offer a visual treat - eye candy as it is known - that is momentarily sweet, easily swallowed, but which offers little of substance. Most of us like these sorts of things. Heck, there’s nothing in the experience, qua experience, that’s not to like. But those who display genuine devotion to these sorts of encounters are mostly either toddlers or tripping. (As a father of a two and a half year-old, I can confirm that the mindsets of these two groups have more than a little in common.)

On a Guggenheim wall, vinyl lettering presents a quote from Turrell: “My art deals with light itself. It’s not the bearer of the revelation—it is the revelation.” It’s impossible to avoid the biblical implications of this statement. Turrell with his equally-unavoidably-biblical beard, casts himself in the role of god, dispensing light, and seeing that it is good. I don’t really care about his (or anyone else’s) delusions of divinity. What strikes me as more problematic, artistically and philosophically, are the word “itself” and the phase “it is the revelation.” The implication of the itself and of that it being, not bearing, revelation, is that this it is something essential, something without precedent, without cause. The quote suggests that Turrell’s light is self-evident. It depends on no physical or conceptual substrate, because it emerges ex nihilo. It requires no preconditions. It neither requires nor offers explanations. It simply is.

But this “simply” is not so. Elsewhere, leaning on Derrida’s critique of what he calls “the metaphysics of presence,” I’ve argued that this “simply is,” this self-evidence, is a fantasy. With Turrell, I’ll stick to the local and say that Turrell’s work, as it arrives, in museums, in the press, in interviews, is anything but self-evident. It relies on a finely-crafted and well-practiced set of creation myths. If one reads a few articles about Turrell, if one reads or listens to or watches a few interviews, if one ingests the catalogue copy and the wall text and the web blurbs, one hears the same explanatory tropes again and again. My favorite is the one about how he studied perceptual psychology as an undergraduate. Is this supposed to establish his credentials as an expert? I’ve eaten Coq au Vin, but that doesn’t make me a French chef. Then there’s the stories about the young Turrell piloting about the U.S. in his own plane, looking for he knew not what; that same Turrell discovering the Roden Crater in Arizona and negotiating to purchase it and the land around it, despite his wife’s threats to leave him and take the children. (He bought the crater. She left.) There’s Turrell cutting gaps into the walls and ceiling of a Santa Monica hotel to experiment with letting light into the darkened spaces. And his year in jail for coaching men to avoid the Vietnam-era draft. This all amounts to a story about Turrell’s light that is far from “simply is.” His light is not the revelation. It’s not even a revelation. It is the documentation of one man’s quest for revelations; for something to be revealed to him. Some might find it disappointing that this quest isn’t more inventive, more original. Like so many previous quests, Turrell’s looks to light as its source and its destination. If light isn’t illuminating other things, if it insists on being the thing itself, then it requires that we look it straight in the eye. But, as we’re warned during solar eclipses - yet another Turrellian meditative spectacle - the directness of such encounters runs the risk of damaging our vision. Turrell’s light is a kind of illustration: of his single-mindedness, the purity of his vision (in both senses of the term), of the trajectories of his pilgrimage, of his status as both a seeker and a seer. Ultimately, his installations are the illustrations for a long personal interest story (or a short Bildungsroman).

I don’t point any of this out to disparage Turrell or his relation to light. That’s all his. I don’t pretend to know more about him or light than he himself knows. What I’m zeroing in on is that this work that claims to be so singularly about a given object of perception and the perception of that object, relies heavily on back story to generate interest and meaning. There is more to Turrell’s light than meets the eye.