Two paradigms for the aesthetic appropriation of cultural discourses: Gitte Villesen and Cerith Wyn Evans
Which relationships do contemporary aesthetic practices have to the discursive and social orders of knowledge? Do they merely duplicate these, or do they transform and transcend them by providing alternative models of organization? Which forms of appropriating knowledge do current aesthetic production practices establish? When these are compared with academic procedures for producing knowledge, do gulfs open up and critical differences emerge? Or is the observed proximity to these academic procedures more a gesture of legitimation serving the discursive justification of the artists‘ own work? How binding are the relationships they maintain with discursive orders of knowledge?
The question of the relationship between aesthetic and discursive orders of knowledge is posed directly by a number of artistic practices that seek a closeness with academic forms of knowledge production both on a thematic as well as on a methodological level. In the past few years a type of critical artistic practice has become increasingly common that turns its attention away from context-reflexive working strategies based on research and toward a speculative reconstruction of social horizons. In actual case studies, artists such as Gitte Villesen, Dorit Margreiter, Hito Steyerl and Sean Snyder, for example, use diverse media to draft specific phenomenologies of the political, the relation of which to the transdisciplinary project of Cultural Studies and its various variations is hard to miss.
These practices prove productive, however, by virtue of the fact that, despite similar analytical and political interests, they manage to transcend the mode of mere illustration of available discourses on cultural theory and to explore alternative forms of knowledge organization, which break with the order applied in their discursive sister fields. The discursive logic of argumentation is countered here by the structuring of a speculative constellation. This constellation does not endeavor to bind or fix its elements in the form of a linear discourse and within a framing perspective. Rather, a formal coherence is generated by means of spatial ensembles and disjunctive montages that preserves the heterogeneity and with it the speculative potential of the material presented.(1)
Exemplary for this type of practice is Gitte Villesen’s installation „The Building, the Bikeshop, Andy’s Furniture“ (2001), last seen in the exhibition „Berlin North“ at the Hamburg Bahnhof.(2) The object of the piece is the Creative Re-Use Warehouse, a large building complex in Chicago, which artist Dan Peterman purchased a few years ago and which now houses studios, small workshops, a kitchen and various community projects. Villesen reconstructs this social landscape via two photo collages and a video installation. The collages are placed before the entrance to the projection room and present fragmented diagrams showing the various projects and activities taking place in the building and their initiators. The video installation is made up of three projections. These present long sequences from detailed interviews that Villesen conducted with some of the protagonists as they went about their work in the house. The conversations develop slowly and by way of many digressions, interrupted again and again by the work of the interview subjects. Villesen takes on neither the role of the distanced observer merely recording what is said, nor that of the interviewer asking for specific information. By means of deliberately distracted camera work – she continually lets her attention wander to what’s going on in the rest of the room -, and by occasionally switching places behind the camera – such as when she puts it in the hands of Andy the furniture maker, so she can try out one of his armchairs – and through the free-flowing scripting of the conversations, the artist places herself instead in the midst of what’s going on as an integral component of a movable social interaction. This is guided by certain interests, but still open enough to uncover different visions and ideas about the wishes, the living space and the social texture of the projects on both the spoken and visual levels.
Through their arrangement in space and the temporal choreography of the various projections, the diachronic flow of the individual interview sequences is in addition translated into a constellation of complex simultaneity. The sequences are projected on two adjacent walls. On one wall two projection surfaces abut, and on the other a third joins them around the corner. Only one sequence (one conversation with one person in a room) is shown with audio track at a time on each of the projection surfaces. The remaining projection surfaces remain dark, but are alternately activated now and then with short ’silent‘ sequences that present other activities in other areas of the house. Accompanied by these temporarily appearing parallel inserts, each interview sequence wanders around the room onto the various projection surfaces. By giving the projection sequences a spatial dynamics and adding parallel projections at certain points in the sequence, the image of a complex architectonic and social texture emerges after some time, whose different synchronous activity spaces coexist as a loose network.
By intertwining different formal systems of reference, Villesen thus provides a context for the material she presents, which reconstructs the object of her research as a specific social landscape. She creates a ’stage of the concrete‘ which networks the individual sequences as singular elements and allows a dense communication to emerge. Although the interplay between the elements of the constellation is coordinated on a formal level, it is nonetheless not framed by any overarching principle. Evidently characteristic for this mode of formatting ‚knowledge‘ is a commitment to the singularity of the presented material. Its integrity is preserved precisely by not subjugating it to the logic of the discursive and offering it as one instance of some generality. This refusal to transcend the concreteness of the material at hand and to subject it to a generalizing perspective is just what opens up the speculative dimension of the constellation. It situates the observers as active authorities, who are not merely asked to reconstruct a linear argumentation, but instead called on to organize elements of the constellation into continually new and possibly contradictory contexts. As if they were being asked: How should this micropolitics of social organization be understood? Which norms of political organization does it go against? And which forms of normativity might be inherent even in these alternative lifestyles? Thus the general is not superimposed as a framework for the concrete here, but instead grows out of the concrete material as both problem and potential. If one were to posit an ethics of cognition in Villesen’s process of knowledge production and presentation, then it would have to be in the sense of a commitment to the singularity of a concrete, embodied social knowledge, whose entry in the register of the representative is persistently denied.
Theater of intertextuality
Villesen’s procedure for the temporally and spatially dynamic imparting of knowledge already appropriates an aspect of the stagelike. Its theatrical character is however held in check through a rhetoric of the documentary that is committed to the singularity of the social. As opposed to this approach, the works of the Welsh artist Cerith Wyn Evans that were recently exhibited by the Frankfurt Kunstverein (3) operate using a different mode of knowledge ‚performance‘. Released from any kind of commitment to its social or historical moorings, this mode of space-encompassing ensemble exhausts the theatrical potential of the gesture of quotation. Knowledge appears here not as something to be taught, fashioned to fit this purpose, but rather in the paradoxical form of an open horizon of references, which continually elude the observer’s grasp.
The contradictory structure of a performance of knowledge where the very performance at the same time obstructs access to that knowledge is evident in Evans‘ installation „Look at that picture…How does it appear to you now? Does it seem to be persisting?“ (2003). The piece consists of five luxurious chandeliers installed at random in a large room. Independently of one another the lights go on and off in their own rhythm: an orchestra that seems to be playing an unknown score composed for the instrument of light. If one turns away from the mute performance of the chandeliers, one discovers on one wall of the otherwise empty room a row of five small flatscreens, each showing the author and title of a certain text. Underneath the headings the viewer can follow the transmission of the corresponding text in Morse code. Letter for letter, each passage of the text appears on the screens, while, just as slowly, the corresponding lines of Morse code unwind below.
With the help of the monitors, the play of light across the lamps reveals itself to be choreography of encoded texts. Each of the chandeliers conveys one of the texts as translated into light signals, using the digital alphabet of Morse code. Adorno’s „The Stars Down to Earth“, a critical analysis of the astrology column in the „Los Angeles Times“ in the early fifties, is transmitted via a splendid chandelier in the style of Maria-Theresa, which was originally designed for Victor Horta’s Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. The delicate crystal chandelier with the calyx-shaped floral lampshades, by Galliano Ferro, plays the Morse equivalent of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s „Paranoid reading and reparative reading, or, you’re so paranoid, you probably think this essay is about you“. A more modern lamp made up of an arrangement of round bulbs designed by Achille Castiglione serves as transmitter for Madame de Lafayette’s „La Princesse de Clève“, a romantic 17th-century novel that was probably collectively authored by participants in Lafayette’s Salon. In another part of the room, John Cage’s „Diary: How to Improve the World“ from 1968 is imparted by a majestic lighting element created from multiple layers of star-shaped crystal rods. And a many-armed chandelier from Barovier & Toso broadcasts „Good Night Eileen“, a report by Brion Gysin on his encounters with the medium Eileen Garrett, who was arrested in 1920 after predicting the crash of a British airship and subsequently employed by the CIA.
Which interrelationships can be derived from this network of texts and objects? We could first attempt an answer by looking at the group of authors presented. But how do Adorno, Sedgwick, Gysin, Cage and Madame de Lafayette come to share the same cognitive realm? Could we speak here of a critique of the ideological as the smallest common denominator? The authors would then represent something like a bande à parte of cultural criticism, who each however embody completely different forms of counter-knowledge. For doesn’t Adorno’s negative dialectic in „The Stars Down to Earth“ serve as an engine of criticism for just that esoteric knowledge to which Gysin submits with such evident relish in his politics of ecstasy? And couldn’t Gysin in turn very well share a common resonance space with the idea of romantic love formulated 300 years earlier by Lafayette and her circle? But how, then, do Lafayette’s „La Princesse de Clève“ and Castiglione’s modernistic lighting unit fit together? Could the lamp’s composition of numerous individual bulbs to form a closed globe be read as a hint at the collective authorship of the text? And could the reference to Gysin as inventor of the cut-up technique and to John Cage’s random combinations possibly be read as a reflexive commentary on the principle of assemblage, of which the installation itself is an example?
The interpretive undertaking of trying to construct correlations, counterpoints and resonances between the elements of the installation could be carried on endlessly, and probably quite fruitfully. But what becomes evident from this forced open-endedness of interpretation is the curious structure taken on by the unfolding horizons of knowledge. For these do not take the form of canonized interrelationships that can be discovered systematically. They are most decidedly not organized as a solid foundation for an order of knowledge that is lying in wait to be learned and then made available as cultural capital. Instead, Evans takes up on a structural level the heretical impulses in the texts and authors he employs and establishes an ephemeral theater of intertextuality, which by means of loose sets of references brings about an open resonance space, in which the knowledge that is called up is potentiated, scattered, reproduced and commented upon along continually new paths.
The open and endlessly unfolding character of these potential knowledge horizons is however contradicted in a strange fashion by the hermetics of the installation: the ensemble made up of authors, texts and objects seems to be self-sufficient as a complete, close-ended cycle of communication. The texts are enciphered by computer and enter into a mute conversation by way of light signals. The viewers are able to observe what is happening, but they are not specifically addressed. They function less as receivers and more as witnesses – witnesses of occurrences that elude direct comprehension, but which entrust them with precisely the kind of reconstructive task that inevitably carries them away in the implied stream of interpretations. The experience of witnessing this event does not however end with this retrospective task of reconstruction. In their role as witnesses, the viewers are continually brought back forcibly to the event that continues to unfold before their eyes in the present moment. The insistence of the visible persistently inhibits the activity of deciphering, consisting primarily of the self-referentiality of what is witnessed. In this sense a self-contained image is formed of an intertextual ceremony, which openly displays its performance character. Cerith Wyn Evans‘ installation thus fluctuates between the pictorial nature of the arrangement, the concreteness of the objects and the inherent potentials of the performed knowledge.
The ethical dimension of this form of ‚performance‘ of knowledge seems to lie precisely in the shunning of responsibility for the present fate of the performed knowledge. The responsibility assumed is of a hermeneutic type, which regards itself as committed only to the past history of the knowledge by way of an historical reconstruction of texts in the contexts that give them meaning. This also has the effect of eroding the foundations for a treatment of knowledge based on the ideals of middle-class education. Such an education would not be committed to the potentials inherent in the past history of knowledge, but merely to the rote ordering scheme that manages and reproduces this past. It is precisely this routinized mechanism of reproduction that Evans suspends in the encoded hermetics of his space-dominating imagery. He thus returns the viewers to a state of literal deciphering, in which past knowledge step-by-step and in continually new constellations not only gains a new present meaning beyond its disciplinary administration, but becomes above all a sign of an open future that remains committed to the radical potential of a past way of thinking.
However fundamentally different Villesen’s and Evans‘ processes of knowledge production may be, they do appear to converge in one point: both refuse to leave the question of an adequate treatment of disparate modes of knowledge to the rules and regulations of the disciplines. They create instead different and independent models for formatting knowledge, which in their deviation from the traditional norms of knowledge production call for the renegotiation not only of how given knowledge is represented, but also of the accompanying ethics of cognition.
My thanks to Jan Verwoert and Sören Grammel for their comments and discussion.
Translation: Jenny Taylor-Gaida
1) Cf. Jan Verwoert, „Research and Display. Transformations of Documentary Practice in Recent Art“ in Gregor Neuerer (ed.): „Untitled (Experience of Place)“, London, 2003.
2) Hamburg Bahnhof, Berlin, January 31 to April 12, 2004.
3) Frankfurter Kunstverein, March 31 to May 23, 2004.