A decision of practice
Language, logos, defines a distinction of a free man to the carnal voice, phōnē, of the animal. In the performance and installation “Exception”, commissioned by the ARTSI Art Museum in Vantaa, Finland, I investigated the role of decision, fiction and matter through methods of my artistic practice. The starting point of the project was the personal narrative of an anonymous Iraqi asylum seeker, with whom I collaborated in early 2016. His story was read in Arabic, and then recorded by the sound artist Taina Riikonen and in the end, pressed on acetate vinyl record. In the exhibition, this LP record was played nonstop in the installation. The installation consisted of another vinyl record player on which a collection of Berber songs from Algeria (sung by Marguerite-Taos Amrouche) played. This record played continuously, accompanying the story of the asylum seeker.
My method of artistic practice is to combine references from various sources, placing them in formal and aesthetic relation in artworks that include installations, performances, photographs and/or video4. While working on the story of the asylum seeker, it brought to my mind the story of Meursault from The Stranger (1942), by Albert Camus, and consequently the literary response to Camus by Kamel Daoud in his recent novel The Meursault Investigation (2015). In the personal narrative and in both of the books, investigation is a central theme. The relationship between a person and law appears as a game of positions. Therefore, positions and settings had an important role in my installation. In his novel, Daoud plays a narrative game with Camus, for instance when he appropriates the famous opening sentence of The Stranger into a sentence “Mama’s still alive today” (Daoud 2015, 1); or in a deliberate reminiscence of Camus’ description of the Arabs, “like ghosts, with no language except the sound of a flute … like discreet, mute spectres, they watched us in silence—us Arabs—as if we were nothing but stones or dead trees” (op.cit., 2-11).
In the exhibition, the concepts of game and law were represented with a photograph of a stone and the book of Finnish law, respectively, and placed on the table. The book was opened from the page defining the law concerning the immigration of the non-EU members. In the performance, I cut off the words on this page with an X-Acto knife word by word. After this, these tiny words on paper were put on top of a black charcoal stone on the table, beside the book. Aside being left as part of the installation, this procedure was presented on a two-screen video, paired with a video where a Möbius band made from the paper was being cut in half with scissors, which paradoxically creates an ever-extending strip. These two videos played a part in the visual game on the connotations of identity, inversion, exception, and selection. The objects of a photograph, law book, knife, scissors and coal produced another relation with games (stone-scissors-paper, etc.), religion and jurisprudence (casting a stone) and punishment (stoning to death), also.
Alongside these objects and images, there was an archival intervention made by me, where I had borrowed a framed woodcut Seuroissa [In the community](1978), by Veikko Vionoja, from the ARTSI museum collection to be part of the installation. In this printed image there are four figures, out of which two of them are veiled in black while the two other ones have an ambiguous and androgynous appearance. In my reference, this image was intended to represent the witnesses as they appear in the scene of the wake in the novel by Camus. There, the friends of Meursault’s dead mother sit beside the coffin, dressed in black and veiled, weeping for the dead.
These were the elements of the installation. In the performance, I continued the process of cutting the words off from the law book and laying them carefully on top of the black stone. Following a score that I had written, the next scene consisted of movements and postures in response to the narrative of the asylum seeker, which was being played at the same time from the vinyl record. I then read the story in Finnish to the audience. In the end, a physical interpretation was performed once more, but without the Arabic narrative from the record.
How then does the practice respond or avoid replying to the decision or exception? My argument is that we may regard practice, how it thinks in a subtractive logic, that is to say, it does not augment the philosophical thought; it does not have a better access with the real. Bodies, objects and matter, are foreclosed from thought, subject and the economy, but aside from this, ‘everything thinks’ – and is equally foreclosed from thought. The performance is not on the body, but like any other thought, it does not think about performance, but it is thought ‘in-performance’ — and ‘in-real’.
Then, on one hand, the artistic practices are economic operations of management — of space, time, and material relationships. They are explicitly decisional operations. However, in my argument, there is another point of view to regard practice not through management or operations, but through a speculative approach. The role of decision, exception and speculation appear while the matter of performance is simultaneously foreclosed, in the dark. The role of decision is put forward, while the background of this operation is the material, where the words are pressed on the acetate vinyl, printed matter on paper and cut off pieces from paper. The signification of words is being obstructed in that the story is being read in language, which is foreign to most of the audience; the printed and cut out words, which rested on a stone no longer created meaningful syntax. A story on the vinyl record marked as cues for a rehearsed physical score of mine, not through meaning, but through sounds that I had learned to decipher the language I could not recognise. The cues based on sounds signified a flow of time, without a recollection of the actual story, but another story, which was the story of my script. Asignified sounds functioned as cues for physical actions such as: “still / squeezed / escape / multiply…” It was only at the end, where the sounds were translated into a meaningful, grim story of the odyssey of an asylum seeker, and read aloud to the audience. From the material performance, we returned to the commentary, critique and traditional narrative: there is a message, a story, which emphasises the absurd relationships between individual suffering, legislature, exception and the norm. Like an audit, the articulation of the story was read aloud in front of the audience, as if they were witnesses in the court for the event where reality disappears like the Amazonian forest, and the continuity of life is being eliminated as exception appears.
In the artistic practice, reflection, description and analysis are the decisional operations. They aim to “explain or represent the Real in one exclusive way – its own” (Ó Maoilearca 2015, 21). They are the devices of how we operate and how we position ourselves in the assemblage of artistic practice. This is how artistic practice thinks like philosophy, and how to practice as philosophy cut off from matter. This is how we make meaning in art, through the decisional forms, and this is how the significance of art is cut off from the noise, the unprecedented and the unthinkable. The indifferent, foreclosed and obscured is matter, and in this particular case, matter has a consistency of bodies, vinyl acetate, sound, and printed material. It is indifferent matter that functions alongside the structure of administration, economy of relations and decisional forms of thought. Matter is not an exception, but matter recedes in the unrepresented, the non-exceptional and generic immanence. It is only through the jurisprudence and management, where a victim is being allocated a meaning of exception.
A thought of change is not a reflection but a refraction of reality. A reflection of performance is evidently a look from afar, and as philosophy, it is always fiction as an event. Decision and refraction operate the world and create an economy of dyads for artistic practice and representation, where ‘the other’, ‘outside’, ‘nature’, ‘becoming’ or ‘change’ find their dynamic function. The asylum seeker is being represented in a form decided by an artist.
4 See for instance "Schizoanalysis as a Method in Artistic Research" in JAR, 3 (2013)