Actions and liveness
An “aesthetic of labor and production” was mentioned by art historian Benjamin Heinz-Dieter Buchloh (2007, p. 56) to describe Richard Serra’s exploration of a “kind of sculpture [that] could still be credible under the conditions dictated by spectacle…insisting on a kind of bodily reinscription”. The same could be said about the performances of Greg Pope and Test Department, in which sound was produced and transformed through the manipulation of pieces of material and tools (de Bruyn, 2013; Test Dept, 2014). Greg Pope used in his work Cipher Screen (2010), a reductive process of scratching film strips for producing visuals and sound. His creative process could be characterised as a loop, in which material is manipulated through successive actions in a workshop-like installation-performance. Cipher Screen involves a creative process in which changes are happening simultaneously across physical/visual material and sound. The strips are looped over a plate and get further scratched, coloured and layered, what Dirk de Bruyn called “intervention process” and compared it to the “activity occurring in the computer’s covered-over circuitry” (2013). A machine-like operation fused to “an aesthetic of labor” (Buchloh, 2007, p. 56). The group Test Department worked toward an aesthetic of a “dynamic physical totality” (Test Dept, 2014). Their performances involved raw materials, abandoned industrial environments and tools that were turned into “designed, sculptural instruments” (ibid.). Such equipment was used for achieving a fusion of light, sound samples, live percussive sound and electronics. Turning industrial spaces into multisensory environments through a physically demanding experience for both performers and audience, Test Dept realized “a test of physical endurance that journeyed through the sonic pain threshold and into a cathartic energy release” (ibid.).
For Joshua Lubin-Levy and Alizia Shvarts (2016, p.115), “to live and to labor are the twinned imperatives to which we are always already given. Together, they animate a rhythm of material production and reproduction that extends over time”.
As a place of realization of the praxis and of actualization of the human subjectivity, living labor constitutes the eventual heart of the human activity. Without labor, the material and the instruments of production would remain without life. (Hamraoui, 2013, own translation)
Lubin-Levy and Shvarts stressed the temporal structure behind this interdependent relationship as such,
The means of subsistence, which can be immediately consumed by the individual, are transformed into new means for production, which are consumed through the labor process. This illuminates a circular temporality wherein the product is both the result and animating condition of the process. (2016, p.117)
The above remarks in relation to Greg Pope’s and Test Department’s performances function as metaphors for the relationship between action, object and sound in this article. To engage with action and its transformative role in terms of making, I employ a performative and interactive approach, in which actions are viewed in-between modalities, and their outcome as an initiation of what would follow and not necessarily, as an end product. Therefore, the aspect of “circular” shape of temporality breaks here due to the multiple temporal levels of a performance-installation form that intends to showcase the power of praxis in itself and not merely a product; to give space for thinking about the potentiality of the action in relation to the generation of something.
Thinking through materials
The theoretical exploration undertaken is reflected through the practical work and vice versa, questioning the outcomes at each stage as means for grasping artistic knowledge production in and through sound. According to Robert Nelson, in practice-based research “critical reflection on process is an integral part of the research inquiry, as it might well be in the making of artwork” (Nelson, 2013). Carole Gray and Julian Malins discussed the aspect of reflexivity informed by Schön’s concept of “reflection-in-action” as a way for reconsidering and “reshaping action while we are doing it” (Gray and Malins, 2004, p. 22). Candy and Edmonds characterized the “’process of practice’ as an integral part” of practice-based research methodology (Candy and Edmonds, 2018, p. 65). Reflection-in-action concerns a form of awareness and understanding of research by “telling ourselves a story about ourselves” (Steier, 1992, p. 3 as quoted in Gray and Malins, 2004, p. 22). Franck Camilleri makes a distinction between “artistic searching” and “research” in the context of performance:
Search and research in performance necessarily coexist and inform each other […] “search” indicates a specific artistic quality or aesthetic choice as an objective and is dependent on the artist’s quest for expression, renewal, or development […] “research” […] focuses on the identification and definition of principles in the creative process and is not bound to specific artistic results or choices. (Camilleri, 2013, p. 153)
The two concepts are integral to the practice of co-composition. Aesthetic decisions are introduced in a dialogue with theoretical reflections and an analysis of the creative process. Through an example of contrast between theory and craftsmanship, Tim Ingold refers to Peter Dormer and Glenn Adamson questioning the space between making and thinking:
We cannot make the future…without also thinking it. What then is the relation between thinking and making? To this, the theorist and the craftsman would give different answers. It is not that the former only thinks and the latter only makes, but that the one makes through thinking and the other thinks through making. The theorist does his thinking in his head, and only then applies the forms of thought to the substance of the material world. The way of the craftsman, by contrast, is to allow knowledge to grow from the crucible of our practical and observational engagements with the beings and things around us (Dormer, 1994; Adamson, 2007). This is to practise what I would like to call an art of inquiry. In the art ofinquiry, the conduct of thought goes along with, and continually answers to, the fluxes and flows of the materials with which we work. These materials think in us, as we think through them. (Ingold, 2013, p. 6)
My position stands in-between the two approaches outlined by Ingold; I am considering “the act of making as a form of critical reflection and theoretical inquiry” (Pérez, 2011, p. 379). My artistic practice involves thinking through materials, their properties and qualities, while responding to the employed processes, concepts and methods, as well as theorizing through them; as articulating “knowledge takes the form of statements about the known, personal knowledge both grows from and unfolds in the field of sentience comprised by the correspondence of practitioners’ awareness and the materials with which they work” (Ingold, 2013, p. 111).
…the ‘as if’ actor [programmed with this knowledge, and provided with the requisite material equipment] and the skilled practitioner employ different kinds of intentionality. The first is the kind entailed in orthodox Cartesian accounts of volitional behaviour, in which to have an intention is to prefix that behaviour with a thought, plan or mental representation which it serves to deliver. The second is a kind of intentionality that is launched and carried forward in the action itself, and corresponds to the attentive quality of that action. It is the intentionality not of an isolated mind, of the cogitating subject confronting an exterior world of things, but rather that of a being wholly immersed in the relational nexus of its instrumental ‘coping’ in the world. (Ingold, 2000, p. 415)
This opens up questions of liveness and presentness. I consider the liveness of my sonic response to sculptural material and vice versa, as a kind of liveness that is concerned with “traces of human effort”, as Pete Furniss (2017, p. 55) mentioned in reference to Paul Sanden’s typology of liveness (2013). To be meaningful for co-composition is to differ; identical responses would have predefined outcomes and the coping and engagement with the process would cease. The real-time compositional decisions aim at expanding the control of both modalities together and the one through the other by introducing a multisensory experience of space-time. In that sense, co-composition could exist as a temporal form and an audience would need to be present in order to experience it.
As it takes place (and that takes time), it also takes on the semantic connotations of the place, as an event in and of the environment…Attending to the sound event, what takes place is a politics of presence, proximity and relationship. (Di Scipio, 2013-14, p. 12)
Beth Hoffman highlighted that a performance can only happen in the present as according to Peggy Phelan, it “cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance […] Performance’s being […] becomes itself through disappearance” (Phelan, 1993, p. 146; Hoffman, 2012). Hoffman continued by mentioning that “…time provides the logic through which the ever-receding ‘now’ of the ephemeral gesture can be figured relative to the ‘afterwardness’ of writing and documentation, performance’s ‘other’…” (Hoffman, 2012, p. 41). In live time and with time, I am interested in engaging with these different levels: how an action that has been realized (past) is related to something that is happening (now), which in turn triggers and affects what will occur (future).
In discussing liveness in relation to sound, Croft focused on the “energetic characteristics” of the live generated sound by the actions of a performer in respect to the outcome as a manipulated sound. He was concerned with the “poetic significance of liveness” based on such relationships:
…pieces which use live processing to generate a generalised texture or environment whose relation to the energetic characteristics of the performer’s sound and action is so remote that the effect is barely distinguishable from fixed tape, and could be more easily achieved thereby. I say ‘so remote’, but in fact (and this takes us to the heart of the problem), the relationship does not need to be very remote at all before this disjunction takes place and the poetic significance of ‘liveness’ is lost. In other words, the range of musical situations which actually call for live interaction on a more than pragmatic level – in which interaction is aesthetically relevant – is in fact rather narrow. (Croft, 2007, p. 60)
Richard Coyne argued that “[people] seek visual confirmation of sounds as if to settle the matter of their source” (2010, p. 11). Indeed, the idea of metalwork brings in the mind of the viewer specific experiences, sounds, smell and energy. In this work this conception of sculpting material becomes combined and reconstructed in the audience’s mind through the co-compositional situation. Croft noted that,
…while there is a body, there is only a generalized mapping of the physical movements of such a body (pressing keys, moving faders, and so on) to the types of energy and gesture present in the music – the music remains, in essence, acousmatic, in the sense that what is known to be the source is visible but remains perceptually detached (2007, p. 60).
It is then about the “energetic characteristics” between the sounds produced by the performer and the actions, and in that sense, co-composition encompasses a double effort of production of layering material over time. Different levels of causal relationships exist within the same work: sounds produced by the direct manipulation of physical material using an angle grinder and a welder, sounds produced percussively, from the way I am handling, rotating and placing the material, and processed sounds.