Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Notes from the Pit

Although Tengal was pretty explicit about having no preconceptions regarding the outcome of the Conductors of the Pit performances, it doesn’t follow that they can’t be taken as demonstrations. Something created without preconceptions can be milked for concepts.

We always talk about artistic experiments, experimental art and so on. I would like to take the adjective more seriously. Experiments uncover principles, properties, existential facts. Throwing together flour and yeast can yield insights into processes that can be used to make bread. Generalizing about the chemical action of yeast can lead us to speculation about its suitability for producing alcohol, and so on. In short, I want to learn something from the damn experiments, some principles that might intelligently guide future behavior/expectations instead of always just slamming the disparate together in the inchoate hope of something.

Our minds are sunk in conventions, most of them being invisible. I think that one of the most valuable results of artistic experiments could be making these conventions visible. Just as a patient can reveal a mental structure (eg an obsession) by a slip of the tounge, or an unexpected inability to perform a simple act, unexpected observations can lead to new insights into the structure of the aesthetic object. The most valuable observations are observations of failure, because it is failure that marks the limit of a function, the limit of a territory.

I don’t want to talk what is beautiful versus what is not beautiful. I want to talk about what is comprehensible versus what is not comprehensible

We have all seen performances in which musicians, poets and dancers square off, struggle to dominate and top one another. It does not seem unreasonable to think that sound and video artists might do the same. However, the panoply of the Conductors of the Pit performances (COPP for the purposes of this essay) seemed to indicate that they could NOT in fact do the same. At every instance where the paired artists deviated from trying to work in harmony, I got the feeling of something losing bouyancy, something falling to pieces. This is, I think, a perception that pretty much everyone shared. We have to take it as an experiential fact.

After the scientific method, we could now proceed to speculate (hypothesize) on the possible reasons/mechanisms behind this fact. However, I think it will be worth something to assemble a collection of successful and unsuccessful encounters.

2 boxers fight -- successful

a boxer and a wrestler fight -- unsuccessful:

(This in fact happened: Muhammad Ali was paired with Antonio Inoki, a Japanese wrestler. The match ended in ruins: Inoki immediately got down on the mat. He wouldn’t box, and Ali wouldn’t wrestle.)

2 saxophonists jam -- successful

If the sound artist were to play music and not noise; the VJ were to play shots instead of graphics, I could imagine a struggle for dominance. The sound artist (SA) begins a melody, let’s say a melancholy melody. The VJ responds with an image from a soap opera, thereby accusing the SA of being overly sentimental. The SA responds by playing something serial and threatening, transforming the soap-opera image into an image from a horror film. In doing so, the SA has topped the VJ by transforming the meaning of his image into something completely different from what the VJ had intended it to mean. The VJ thinks of putting up an image of the Cookie monster, but wisely refrains: it would be in bad taste to play the parody card twice in a row. Instead, he-

And so on. I believe that these incidents map out a readable constellation. I will call it Ali’s Law:

Ali’s Law: All combat is ritual. This means that the combat has to take place in ritual, convention-filled context. A struggle for domination can only take place in a world of established conventions, where the meaning of a vocabulary of moves has been pre-established in the minds of the combatants and the audience.

This is because a striking a blow involves a violation of equilibrium, a breaking of a balance. But where there is no consensus as to what constitutes a balance, it is impossible to know what a strike is, just as it is impossible to make a joke, unless all parties concerned know what is not a joke., ie what is normal. The saxophonists can fight because they swim in the universe of tonality, harmony, and jazz convention. Their battle is like a game of chess: every move leads to a readable situation/equilibrium. The boxer and wrestler move in different universes of rules. They have nothing in common, and hence cannot transact aggression.

In the case of the COPPs, the artists were not moving in pre-established universes of conventions. Thus, they could not orchestrate strikes against one another. Apparently however, they COULD enact unexpected harmonies, unexpected parallelisms. And so we appear to have unexpectedly flushed out a corollary to Ali’s Law:

In uncharted territory, harmony is only possible form of interaction. In a situation where there are very few conventions, the default relationship between elements is one of unrelatedness, ie chaos. Against the background of chaos, the only comprehensible move is to create relationships/parallelisms.

It is instructive that my short thought-experiment of a successful joust between VJ and SA already contains three references to the language of film and television. Soap opera. Horror film. Sesame Street. It is not proper to say that Language is like chess. Rather, Chess is a language. A language is like a huge mansion where every step brings us into a new room, with floors and ceilings, and curtains, and moldings, and joists and mantels and floorboards, etc. Inside the language of film, my thought-combatants strike at each other by overturning/violating cinematic conventions. They move from the room of Melancholy into the room Melodrama, to the room of Horror, and so on. Once they step outside of the mansion of cinema and move into noise and graphics, the joust becomes impossible. Cooperation (the dance) remains as the only possible aesthetic gesture. This is why, when one artist chooses to abdicate his part in creating harmony, he drags the both of them to the ground. We do not perceive it as a strike against his partner, but as an evisceration of the performance itself.

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