from Robert Popper & Peter Serafinowicz's Look Around You (series 1, ep. 1: Maths)
How big is an artwork?
My parents, who honeymooned in Paris, often recounted their shared twinge of disappointment -- as, I think, many people experience -- at the small size of the Mona Lisa; I think hearing them talk about this impression, when I was quite a little kid, was probably the first time I thought about art as relationship, rather than simply as picture-object. I wouldn't have been able to say it in so many words at the time, but I think I intuited even then that their disappointment was not an art-critical judgement as such -- it wasn't that they felt that the painting was somehow unsuccessful because of its small dimensions. Rather, it was that their visit had been unsuccessful because the scale of the piece fell short of the size they'd set out for it in their imaginations: reflecting a further mismatch perhaps between the painting itself and its magnitude in the collective imaginary of Western culture, as idea or icon.
So the size of a painting or sculpture is, we might say, partly subjective and partly conditional, as well as being partly objective and empirical. For a start, we most often encounter works of visual art in reproduction, when the actual size may scarcely even inform our assessment of its qualities, and we may very well be quite wrong in the assumptions that we make about the size of the object in the image if we establish relations only with the image, without recourse to the small-print or the index where the true dimensions are recorded. (We may additionally -- as I do -- find it hard to visualize the size of something when given its measurements.) Even in the gallery, meeting the thing itself, our sense of the size of a piece may depend on how and where it's hung or installed, in what size (and colour) of room, among what other objects; a really complex and intangible set of readings and orientations may also have a strong influence on where we place ourselves in relation to the piece in order to imagine that we are seeing it as we are supposed to. Or we get close and stand back, by turns, scrutinising the detail, then seeing the whole frame. These decisions are further inflected by our sense of the cultural 'size' of the work: that this is an 'important' piece, or not; 'familiar', or not (from reproduction, or reputation, or not)... There may be biographical influences; the content, the matter, the 'subject', if there is such, might come into play, especially if we're looking at a human figure. In all sorts of ways, it seems, the size of an artwork -- as we apprehend it -- is partly constituted by the ratio of its actual size to the (probably no more than subconsciously calculated) size it occupies in our more-or-less prepared imaginations. It is the size it is, period; but it's also the size it is in relation to the size we think it could be.
I've been thinking about this a lot in relation to the Ryan McGinley exhibition, Moonmilk (now closed), which I wrote about here a while back -- having been surprised at the time how small some of the images were, in relation (I suppose) to assumptions I'd made in advance about how one might expect pictures of naked bodies situated in (and 'against') gigantic cave systems to be scaled. The layout of the show was anyway playing quite wittily with this -- for example, the first photograph you saw was one of the biggest in the exhibition, if not the biggest; and yet it was placed in a sort of entrance corridor, squashing you pretty much right up against it so that it was uncomfortably and almost illegibly vast -- an almost comical overstatement which the rest of the show was happy to puncture. ("Nah, just kidding.")
More precisely, Moonmilk seemed to be prompting questions about the sublime: an idea that remains useful precisely because it seems to be able to accommodate the topical conditions of the cultural situation to which it can be related. In particular, it's helpful to consider how our experience of the sublime -- which is still characterised by the twin sensations of pleasure and fearfulness that Kant identifies -- has tended to shift, quite categorically, from the real to the virtual sphere. We no longer access, except perhaps wilfully as part of some project of perceptual capitulation or transcendent inattention, the sublimity of, say, a forest, whose trees tower over us and whose secluding territory engulfs us; we can still pretend the boundlessness of the forest, but in reality we know now how vulnerable to human activity the forest is. If we are overwhelmed by the forest, how much more are we overwhelmed, how much more disoriented, by knowing, for example, that an area of however-many football pitches of the Amazon Rainforest are cut down each day. There may be some smeariness to our ability to conceptualise this -- I can look up the figures on deforestation but I need someone else to convert the km2 into football pitches and even then I can't clearly picture an area of ground of that size; but I suspect that imaginative shortfall produces the sense of a forest that is being cleared even faster than is the case -- like, however-many football pitches seems an inconceivably enormous area (because I can't clearly picture it) and I can't therefore quite understand how it is that there'll still be any rainforest left by, say, next Thursday. Basically, the natural sublime is now vanquished by the tendencies of global capitalism, which, crucially and decisively, learned to absorb and harness this inability to imagine what is not immediately in front of us, or to attend faithfully to what is. Whatever we think of as 'untouched' or 'unspoiled', we immediately revalue in (at best) a flaccid spoof of commodity terms. We are closing down; everything must go.
But if capital ate the sublime, it swallowed us whole too, and now, like Jonah wandering around in the belly of the whale and praying to be regurgitated, we can gaze in awe at the organs and vessels of capitalism itself, its nerves, its circulatory system. This is the virtual sublime, where what holds us quiveringly at the limits of our capacity to rationalise and apprehend, what synthesizes the sense-memories of pleasure and fear, is the practically incomprehensible sophistication of the quasi-physiology of the innards of capitalism in its late postmodernist phase. For example: any former sense (held at least somewhat in common) of the vastness of the world, derived from some boggling apprehension of the time it might take to travel across it or transmit communications from any point to its antipodes, is now supplanted -- almost obliterated but not quite -- by a dread-shadowed marvelling at the speed of air travel or the practical instantaneity of email.
In the same vein: my play from last year, Infinite Lives, depends on this kind of turn, creating for the sake of its own argument a sort of parasol of virtual sublimity out of the exponential increase in storage capacity in personal computers over the past 25 years. The central character realizes that he could store the old ZX Spectrum game Jet Set Willy over two million times on the 80GB hard drive of his laptop; where the original game seemed, in its day, vast, being structured around a task involving visiting each of the sixty rooms in a mansion, the upscaled 80-gig version could contain instead a house of almost 126,000,000 rooms: "a deserted mansion the size of a city", as he says. (And of course this city-mansion grows ever outwards as the limits of the rainforest recede: though even then, we struggle to bring to mind the actual connection.)
That mansion-city seems to me the image of our sublime now: dizzying amounts of information, almost all of it invisible or intangible to us, travelling at speeds we can barely detect, in volumes we struggle to describe. Where forests and mountains once towered beautifully and terribly over us, this new sublime hardly even meets the naked eye. Not only do we live inside it, but we barely perceive its operations, except in negative, in the odd moments where its surafce is damaged -- when the broadband goes down, the mobile cuts out, or -- whisper who dares -- the cash machine stops dispensing.
Unless, however, one creates on purpose such a topical wound in the tissue of the virtual sublime (by refusing altogether to participate in the transactional networks of the capitalist 'grid' -- and as Keston Sutherland says, with exemplary forked tongue, "try doing it now"), these fissures do no more than open up a temporary, and often disproportionately upsetting, hiatus in the state in which we live out the promise of the system. That state, as it pertains to the sublime as we presently relate to it, is essentially one of connectivity. The sense of being connected to others -- others whom we often know only and entirely by dint of our massively extended ability to connect -- has itself become an adjunct to, perhaps even a species of, the sublime: we experience it as pleasureful, though perhaps also slightly frightening. Certainly, anyone who suffers, as I have, from bipolar disorder and its various (and variously alarming) epiphenomena, will instinctively know how terrifying can be the sense of what you might call excess connectivity -- whether that's the hurtling patterns of surplus connection that characterise hypomania, or the awful tangling nets of uncontainable connection in depressive phases, or the mutant connections that produce the genuinely frightening experience of paranoid delusions -- and what else does this social and cultural phase feel like, if not a frequently overwhelming sense of overconnectedness? By 'overconnectedness' I mean not only an array of connections more numerous and prolific and vortical than can be discriminatingly experienced, but also, not uncommonly, a sense of connectedness that refers only to itself (as if connectedness were a moral value or ethical index) without, as social and cultural connection previously would, generating further, more determinative, meaning.
What's perhaps more troubling even than the vacuity (in many instances) of this -- shall we say -- 'connective sublime', is that it seems to occlude or overwrite a much more pertinent matrix of interdependence and often unwitting access. The same pathways that crosshatch our cultural and social scene also carry aggressive economic, political and military information: not just in the specific sense of the information superhighway (...does anybody still say that?...) being used for such purposes (the internet, of course, having been developed originally as a military technology), but more generally in the sense that, notwithstanding the proximity of our connection (or the degree-count of our separation), global capitalism links us to those in places remote to us, whose lives we may not see and may not be able to imagine (indeed, may not be able to imagine even if we see them). It is not by virtue of Skype or Facebook that we are connected to these distant people and places (some of them, of course, 'distant' not, or not only, through geography, but through socioeconomic factors, or cultural faultlines): these applications and 'social networks' are not much more than the idiot boards that script some superficial facets of our interaction. We were already connected, we were already linked; but how about: for 'connected', read 'implicated', and for 'linked', read 'complicit'...? There is something deeply worrying about the ways in which the connective sublime functions as, essentially, a circular campaign of distraction and disinformation which promotes a kind of popular transcendence of the terms on the ground of our economic and imperial connectedness to lives that remain invisible and incomprehensible to us not because they are sublime, but because it is becoming impossible, on these terms, to pay attention to what in fact they are.
To steer this back towards our entry-point, then, our relationship with the question of what we might call the negotiated scale of an artwork (that is to say, the way in which we perceive its 'size' in relation to that complex of subjective variables I previously described) is freighted both by our overconnectedness in the virtual realms of information and communications technologies and late capitalist hypermobility, and by our inattention to the actual social and global economic frameworks that secure our cultural situation as art-users. In the last decade or so, a fundamental switch has taken place in respect of this question. For the first time in history, when we -- I mean we hereabouts, and about now -- encounter a work of art, it is the spectator, and not the artwork, who inhabits the realm of the sublime. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that it is this decade that has produced the most concerted shift towards what we now term 'relational aesthetics': part of the action of which is to refer us back to some of the contracts and structures of the nonvirtual (albeit overlaid with a heavily performative matrix). But any sense of dissidence is quickly dispelled by a further appeal to the permissiveness of connectivity as virtue rather than strategy, and by the (mis)identification of contingency as a kind of generator of deferral rather than a feature of contextual specificity -- that is, as a liminal rather than post-liminal term.
All of this is by way of a preamble to an account of some stuff I've enjoyed recently, in thinking through which I've repeatedly revisited this question of how we experience the size of an art work -- or, in most of these cases, an event -- and what the ramifications of that might be for a radical social/political conception of the theatrical encounter.
* * *
A friend of mine insists -- in line, I guess, with the basic thrust of relational aesthetics -- that intelligence is a property not of individuals but of the interactions between them. I don't know that I totally swallow that -- I think at the very least I spit a bit out -- but it's true that sometimes if you sit with many others watching even a very small event (in human-scale terms) that is manifestly intelligent in itself and consistently activates the intelligence of its spectators too, you can have the sense that together you're building what feels like an invisible cathedral, with high vaults and I'm-too-sexy flying buttresses, all limned in the spun-sugar aura of collective thoughtfulness. I've sensed it happening at Complicite's Mnemonic for example, and at readings by Peter Manson: but I wasn't expecting it at Werner Herzog: Conquest of the Useless, a public conversation between Herzog and Paul Holdengräber at the Royal Festival Hall curated by Intelligence2. (Incidentally, why is it that thinking or talking informally about intelligence generally feels exciting and productive, while organizations that exist to promote the exercise of intelligence always seem creepy and sort of gross? I mean what could be stupider than MENSA?)
Not having read any advance details, I thought I was going to a bog-standard "audience with..." -- an interview, some film clips, and twenty minutes of toe-curling 'questions from the floor' at the end to punish us all for coming; I was going only for the pleasure of being in a room (albeit an enormously big one) with Herzog: the kind of tick-list item that carries with it the shade of mortality -- "I have to be sure to do this before he dies" -- though obviously this doesn't apply in the case of Herzog, who will outlive us all, inherit the earth and make films with the cockroaches. I like and admire the few Herzog films I've seen, though not giddily; I like his barely matrixed performances in julien donkey-boy and Mister Lonely; I like very much what I've read of his legendary Of Walking In Ice: but really I thought I was going along to bask in his rigorous quirkiness, to sit with the same loveably terrifying Herzog who, having been shot on-camera by an air rifle, will calmly state that the projectile that has penetrated his side is "not a significant bullet".
What unfolded, though, instead of this industry-standard public appearance in front of a crowd of awestruck fans, was a remarkably searching and various conversation, apparently mapped out with quite meticulous forethought, and touching on a number of ideas whose only common denominator, as far as I could see, was their hold on Herzog's imagination. He spoke about the prehistoric transportation and erection of menhirs (a longheld fascination, local to the movement of the ship in his masterpiece Fitzcarraldo); about the Poetic Edda; about the importance of long-distance walking and of knowing how to milk a cow; about the representation in algebra of unrealizable curves; about the genius of Fred Astaire and Wayne Rooney and his fascinated affection for Anna-Nicole Smith. The impression was of a restlessly curious and penetrating intellect (though I'm not sure he actually understood the algebra stuff any more than I did -- I suspect, like me, he was basically fascinated by the aesthetics, the surface properties of complex equations), but it was also of the presentation of such intellectual commitment as a crucial and distinguished moral virtue in its own right. (It would be good to be able to season that statement in particular by posting here the sequence that was shown towards the end of the evening from Herzog's new movie, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, in which Nicholas Cage and Val Kilmer are ecstatically upstaged by an assortment of iguanas, photographed in extreme close-up by Herzog himself: it's one of the funniest things I've ever seen.)
What strikes me though about the variousness of Herzog's concerns is how I spatialize them: how the taxonomy of scholarly disciplines (even as far back as primary school) creates an essentially false distance between them, which we see for example in the phrase "wide-ranging" to describe the interests of a polymath; what is that width, exactly? It can of course sometimes be perceived as an airiness, as we hear implied perhaps in the description of the "intellectual butterfly", or even as a vacuousness: that in imagining the constellation of a person's engagements we should be careful not to ignore the wide open spaces between the points of light. And yet -- and this is how I came away from the Herzog event -- constellations exert perhaps their most compelling claim on our imaginations when the lines are filled in for us, when we see the connections drawn out. Then, the empty space (in what is anyway, as I suggest, a questionable spatial mapping anyway) is occupied, and we experience in its vastness also an irresistible coherence.
Writing a poem some years ago in tribute to the improv pianist Chris Burn I described him as an "author of air shapes", and this is an idea that re-presents itself to me again and again in the work I most admire -- and not always in the context of thinking about bigness or about relative scale: that it is in the careful shaping, the holding open, of the spaces around transmitted information, the resonating chambers that allow it to become more fully reverberant (and more vulnerable to turbulence and noise), that artists can most effectively host and nurture our attention. I mentioned it only recently to Tim Crouch (it's something that I think he does brilliantly and incredibly consequentially in The Author); I was thinking about it also in relation to a characteristically lovely David Gatten short at the LFF. This is something different to the substantive deployment of silence (which anyway deserves scare quotes) in, say, Morton Feldman, or the white space around a Thomas A. Clark poem. It is not about the millions of miles of space between two stars in a constellation but about the pressure, gentle or violent or both, of the perception of the line that the mythopoet draws between them. The (wholly factitious) "breadth" of Werner Herzog's intellectual engagement is heavily implying a story -- a myth, perhaps; perhaps not -- of its own. And in so far as I perceive myself, attending, as a node within that constellation, the story of the "big thinker" is partly -- perhaps negligibly, but not insignificantly -- about me. This only needs a little dab of Bataille's erotics behind each ear to amount to a pretty decent explanation of why smart people are sexy. And it only takes a flicker of Ken Campbell's favourite line from Charles Fort -- that a full stop is a hyphen that's coming straight towards you -- to make the urgency of that compound seduction/education perfectly clear.
* * *
The size of Phill Niblock's work is -- or, rather, feels like -- another matter entirely. Iain Sinclair once memorably described the task of assessing the respective practices of poets J. H. Prynne and Philip Larkin as being like essaying a comparison between electricity and nougat. In a spirit of progressive synthesis, Niblock seems to present us with a kind of electric nougat, hewn into massive tremulating blocks that even Herzog might blanch at shifting, and that you chew on at your own risk. If Niblock, like Burn, is an air-sculptor, he is, contrarily, of the Rachel Whiteread persuasion, seeming to turn the space around our ears inside-out, transforming it into a giant block that pins us to our audienceship; the work is notoriously high-volume in more senses than one. The constant microtonal shifts within the internal drones of the implied form are crucial in disclosing the detail of the acoustic environment that the composer both occupies and creates: it is somewhat as if the air is colourised with the same care that a scientist will stain a microscope slide, and for the same reasons.
The bigness of Niblock's compositions is frequently described by critics and commentators as 'monumental', and one can see (/hear) what they mean, though the appellation provokes a question. If 'monument' usually connotes some memorial function, what, then, might Niblock wish to invite us to remember, in encountering his extraordinarily dense sound blocks? If he has such a function in mind, it would surely be to return us to ourselves, our presence in the present. If Niblock attaches a specific (if secondary) political purpose to his work -- which I'll come on to shortly -- he also strongly implies a broader political or ethical substance that seems to abut many of my own concerns in making theatre. His stuff -- and no composer of the supposedly impalpable phenomenon we call 'music' has a stronger claim to be actually a manufacturer of stuff, which can most certainly be physically felt pressing on the body -- is as restlessly active as a swarm of bees, though its movement is generally interior, somewhere inside the multilaminate stack, and not often attributable to a distinguishable instrument within the ensemble, but rather a property somehow of the whole. Nonetheless the ear strains to discern the contours of individual lines, this effort of discrimination appearing almost as a task of viewing. (This tellingly resembles that funny quotidian effect whereby I find myself putting on my glasses in order to hear better what someone is saying to me, though I don't consciously experience this as a move to facilitate lipreading.) There is a familiar, and exemplary, double indicator here: the work requires, invites, seduces me into attentiveness; it obviously wants my sensory focus very acutely trained on the material of the work, unbetrayed by interpretation or any kind of metaphoric normatization and occurring explicitly in the moment. (The duration of the compositions is not insignificant -- Niblock seems to accept and actually to lean pretty hard on Feldman's remarks to the effect that eventually we stop perceiving form and instead are aware only of scale -- but that durational axis is hardly at all to do with a sense of development in time, say, or agument, and much more to do with a compounding of the sense of weight, of monument or edifice. And so, while you remain aware of time in relation to his works, you don't experience them temporally, you don't find yourself recalling where you were ten minutes ago or wondering where you'll be ten minutes from now: because you are always here, in the moment of your apprehension, and then, after a while, abruptly, you are not in that situation any more.) This careful investigative relationship with the material of the work produces pleasurable and interesting sensations that need not, and in fact cannot, be excursively translated into other discourses or post hoc rationalizations -- because there is, in any meaningful sense, no post hoc at all; and so the experience simply folds back to endorse and re-inscribe the recognition of attention as, essentially, a pure good in itself -- an attitude with which I have much sympathy and in which I see much expressly political benefit.
It doesn't end there, though, and Niblock is hip to this too. Very often the live experience of drone-based work is one in which you can contentedly, carelessly "lose yourself"; it's obvious that Niblock wishes instead for us to "find ourselves", not in a generalised, nebulous self-help sense, but as part of a political-phenomenological project in which our self-location, the authoritative scrutiny of our particular geographic, historical, cultural and econmic circumstances, is an essential task of confrontation which should inform and impel our engagement with the "bigger picture" and shape both the momentary incidence and the chronic condition of our response. Even so, as Scotus and his devotees (Gerard Manley Hopkins above all) knew, a scrupulously intense concentration on the particularities of an instance of stuff in time and space can as readily produce a spiritually-inflected response as a frankly materialist one. Like seeing faces in the repetitious patterns of botanical wallpaper, we are apt to generate the most speciously transcendent impulses and numinous impressions out of an extended fixation on even the least promising shreds and patches, and quickly a fraying hem or yelping car alarm or the most unprepossessing smear of Dairylea can come to seem like irrefutable evidence for intelligent design.
Niblock's tactic for keeping our feet on the ground and our minds on the matter in hand, at least in the live context (or, to be more careful still, at least at his Cafe Oto gig of October 11th, which prompted these thoughts), is to show films which hold us in relation to people and places and natural goings-on, without the dissipating trends of narrative or the lyrical permissiveness of bricolage to let us off the hook of our own distinct accountability. In the first half of the concert, Niblock plays compositions created out of field recordings (being Niblock these are more likely to be juddering locomotives and thundering cascades of water than the distant bleat of a marmoset or the lugubrious undulations of some blanket weed) while Katherine Liberovskaya projects more-or-less abstract moving images from similar sources. The audio-visual marriage seems most productive when at its most disjunctive -- hearing rushing water against an image of almost anything other than rushing water is particularly bracing. The second half is both more successful and more questionable, with Niblock's two compositions Three Orchids and Pan Fried 27.5 accompanied by his own "Movement of People Working" videos, showing workers across a refreshingly wide geographical and cultural range. The footage is from the 70s and early 80s, and the faint tinge of nostalgia encapsulated in the aesthetic qualities of the Kodachrome film seems to bleed out into a hankering for the less alienated working patterns of that period in those places, in a way that seems slightly unhelpfully affective but which thankfully evades all the far more sentimental modernist (and postmodern) cliches of the framing of labour on film.
The danger, not always averted here, is that the music starts to seem like the supporting, rather than the supported, element: that we are hearing live soundtracks to the films, rather than watching images that offer another perspective on or entry point into the music. But I suspect that what's important to Niblock is not that either music or sound should have primary access to our attentions, but that we should feel the gap between the two. This is where the real scale of his work becomes apparent. The massive block of sound comes to stand in for everything that is here and now; the films become an aperture, a window in the negative-space house that contains us, through which we view the other: and our dilated attentions are brought to bear on their here and now, in such a way as to make us not simply look, but actually see them, these people and animals, working. Of course part of what Niblock does here, brilliantly, is to outsource the rhythmic function of the music, with the repetitive actions of the labourers kind of standing in for the beats that the music "lacks" (except in the acoustic sense of the beats produced by the cross-interference of microtonally separate sustained pitches). To an extent, then, this is a deconstructive gesture which applies itself to the fundamentals of music far more radically than might be appreciated in the initial encounter with what looks like a kind of right-on screensaver. In the end, the music is not "about" or "for" these labourers, but continuous with their activity and existence: and it is the monumental scale of the soundworld (and all that it insistently implies), and the additional dimension of the audio/visual gap, that allows this to be so.
This being said, I found myself slightly annoyed at the treatment of the (excellent) live musicians in the room, who were situated in near-darkness while the videos played. This is not a complaint about a slight to their prestige or their performative 'signalling' function. It seems weird to me though that Niblock should so wish to downplay, even to suppress, their own status as labourers. Musicians are at work as much as any of the figures we watch in Niblock's film, and I regretted that my visual sense of their work was so thwarted. In particular, I couldn't quite tell what pianist Tim Parkinson was doing in Pan Fried 27.5, his contribution being both hard to distinguish amid Niblock's enormous pre-prepared tape sounds and difficult to read visually in the darkness of the room. (I think he was sounding the strings by drawing what I guess must have been loops of thread or thin wire against them. What I could discern looked great, but the effect of the darkness is to increase, not subdue, my interest in whatever Niblock may perhaps distrust as spectacular in Parkinson's activity.)
On the whole though this was hugely stimulating and instructive stuff, politically pertinent, artistically reverberant, and achieving its ends through an immensely sensitive manipulation of the perception of size and relative scale (and of immensity itself, I suppose). I haven't visited it yet but it all felt a bit like Miroslaw Balka's new installation How It Is for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. You walk up a ramp into a vast and entirely dark space, in which you can (supposedly) really lose yourself and your sense of orientation; and yet, according to press reports, the effect is compromised -- rather productively, it sounds like to me -- by the pitch-black space also being occupied by teenagers who can't resist getting their mobile phones out and photographing each other. And so you keep being brought back into yourself, and the terms and conditions of 'how it actually is', right here, right now, by flashes of human figures, laughing in the midst of all the doomy darkness and asserting the topicality of their presence. I'm sure it's pretty annoying when you go, but on paper, it sounds fine, and moreover, it sounds like a Niblockian response to the challenges posed by the (actually pretty stupid) vastness of the Turbine Hall. (Those teenagers with their camera-phones may be insensitive but it's not their fault that the inherent stupidness of their immediate surroundings has to be localized somewhere. Power to the people, innit.)
* * *
I want to finish up by writing a little bit -- less, I suspect, than is warranted -- by Take Care of Yourself, the centrepiece installation in Sophie Calle's show Talking to Strangers, currently at the Whitechapel Gallery. For those who've missed the ubiquitous and almost uniformly ecstatic reviews of this piece, here's the one-line summary: receiving a slightly jarringly-written email from a lover, informing her that their relationship is over, Calle sends the letter to over a hundred different women and asks them to bring their professional expertise to bear on a response to or analysis of this richly odd, yet ultimately rather mundane, text; the installation comprises these responses, in their various forms: photographs, videos, songs, performances, scores, and, of course, many other texts.
My first close encounter on entering the space is with a familiar face: the actress Miranda Richardson sits on a sofa (on a video screen), her doleful cat by her side, and gives a devastatingly scornful reading of the letter -- in English translation -- in which she comically, cuttingly, manages to appear both incredulous and weary at the squirming self-regard of Calle's ex. I am amused but a bit uneasy (which I am more than prepared to assume is Calle's intention for the male visitor) -- I fear I'm about to be subjected to a cleverly choreographed presentation of a less-than-discriminating singalong sisterhood: a totally legitimate setting-out of a territory that, sadly for me, does not really want or need my presence, except as a guilty-by-association butt of a joke that is both about me and not about me but always in any moment the opposite of what I'll admit. (Q: You think this isn't about you? A: OK, sure, it's about me. Q: What, are you really so vain? etc.) But I think of myself as a feminist, as someone whose politics and queerness are fundamentally intricated with a revolted critique of patriarchy and the many disguises of male tyranny, and so I don't want to take the cool exculpating step back of trying to re-frame this piece for myself as a universal utterance about love relationships. I want this to be the insistently gendered space that it is, and I want my own akwardness as part of that. I want to not know quite how to "be myself" in here. I find I don't know quite where to stand. (In which respect I guess it's quite like having walked into the women's toilets by mistake. Except this isn't a mistake: I've chosen to be here, and along with the acceptance of awkwardness I want to find out how to actually want this feeling.)
All of this anxiety attends my first two or three minutes in the space and I am forgetting, or perhaps I don't quite realise yet, that this is a piece of performance. Theatre? Performance? It's both, I eventually decide. Not merely in the sense that it contains performers at work: Richardson is not the only actress to give manifestly disgusted short shrift to the letter (though she -- unlike Jeanne Moreau, who also appears, for example -- finishes with a sweetly sarcastic little paper-tearing act, which both lightens and heightens the sense of disdain), and there are dancers and singers and a clown and almost inevitably there's Laurie Anderson... but the performance is elsewhere, too. There are multiple translations of the ravaged source text -- into Latin, into a fairytale novella, into a piece of graphic design, (brilliantly) into a game of chess; a lexicometrist stages its intertextuality by highlighting phrases from the letter that appear in other literary works; it is analysed by a psychiatrist, a counsellor, a diplomat, a schoolgirl. It is finally these multiple performances that the text itself is forced into that create a sense of (serious, but not sententious) play, even a radiance, suffused at moments with an emphatically contraphallocentric jouissance.
The text, then, gives rise to multiple nodes (and modes) of performance, but it is the space that they occupy in the gallery that feels theatrical. This space includes the spectators of the piece -- we feel more like witnesses, at times; sometimes in a specifically forensic sense -- and it includes the gallery workers too, and all this is made possible by the extroverted sense of generosity, the alchemical treatment of intimacy (as both invoked and irreparably damaged in the original email) such that it divulges its own civic constituency and spaciousness. But the space also includes time. This is an installation that requires time, which is to say that it takes time. There is no unfolding narrative -- because of course you can enter this room at different points and travel around it along different routes -- but there is a sense of cumulation, and of an impression or set of impressions of Calle and her ex-lover that become refined as that particularly theatrical time is taken, refined so as to become both clearer and more complicated, achieving constantly higher resolution, higher fidelity. And yet the source text (which includes Calle's initiation of the project) seems also gradually to recede, curiously. Perhaps it has to. This is not a piece about textuality, in the end, though it reveals much, both substantively and speculatively, about writing and reading and the constitution of language and the practice of translation and criticism. It is a piece about community, about the intertextuality of our own experience of love relationships and sexual (in)fidelity, about what we do with hurt and hope. It is a gendered space but not in the fiercely territorialised sense that I had initially anticipated: it holds gender up as a fascinating puzzle, turning it in the light; we are all equally included, we are all equally adrift.
I can think of only one comparable installation -- Bruce Nauman's World Peace (Projected) -- that has had the same emotional impact on me, and what Calle produces here has a far longer half-life. Nauman's piece never resolves, it just turns like a mobile, cannily employing a structure which continually returns you to its start: but the experience of it stays, therefore, trapped in the confines of the gallery. In a way, Calle's piece resolves but doesn't end. Which is to say that the experience of it is edgeless, in a way that seems to me to pertain to the best theatre. Its scale, or rather our experience of its scale, is constantly shifting. Take Care of Yourself is large -- it takes up a big room in a complex way, and it takes time too; it is edgeless, and can therefore seem limitlessly extended; but it is also no bigger than the vulnerable figures at the heart of its human drama, and can come to seem as vanishingly small as an earwig, a niggle in the mind. One feels the rush of the sublime (probably after it, not inside it): but the rush comes not from the sense of being dwarfed by the vastly bigger-than-human, but from apprehending, even in a glimpse, how vastly big is the human herself. Like all the best theatre, Take Care of Yourself is life-size: which is to say that it both draws and perpetually redraws its perimeter just beyond the blue horizon, and that it stands side by side with us, joyously reaffirming that there is power in a union.
* * *
I quite want to stop there, but I'm just going to mention one more cultural irruption that I think I won't otherwise have the opportunity to write about here; it means ending on a downer, but perhaps we can think of it as a cold shower and an injunction to work harder.
Regular Thompson's visitors will know that I have long been an avid fan of Harmony Korine, as filmmaker, as writer, as visual artist and even as noisenik (on the thoroughly commendable SSAB Songs with Brian DeGraw). Only a couple of weeks ago I picked up Drag City's extremely lovely recent edition of his Collected Fanzines -- mostly because it contains (in Adulthood, from 1995) an uncensored rendering of the piece 'Rumors' from A Crack-Up at the Race Riots, a piece I've written about in a more-or-less scholarly context. The eight fanzines in the volume are, as they certainly should be, patchy affairs, but there's more invention and visual and conceptual elan per square inch than in pretty much any other book I've picked up this year.
So, look, I attended the London Film Festival premiere of Korine's new film Trash Humpers strongly disposed to like it and very much expecting at least to find it interesting. At the risk of sounding like a humourless schoolmaster, it gives me absolutely no pleasure, not even a little buzz of jumped-up contrariness, to have to report that it's utterly, irrecuperably fatuous, dull and regressive. (Oh, all right, I quite liked saying fatuous.)
In a way I kind of like everything about it but the film itself. I totally understand Korine's itching to get back to a kind of freewheeling, on-the-fly, guerrilla filmmaking practice after the bureaucratic and logistical arthritis that seems to have attended the making of Mister Lonely. I loved that film -- and, if you go back to his interviews at the time that that movie came out, Korine was saying that he enjoyed the experience; it may have looked and felt too 'mainstream' to the besotted Harmony fanboys who constituted much of the audience at the BFI last weekend (though anyone who thinks Mister Lonely is a 'mainstream' film in any meaningful sense needs to clean themselves out thoroughly with carbolic acid), but it gave Korine's remarkable director's eye and visual sensibility enough room to get some serious stuff done. But, speaking out of the midst of a current experience of returning to CPT after a long spell of working with bigger venues and bigger budgets, I can recognize that it's kind of liberating and enjoyable to return to a much more down-and-dirty set-up and just get on with making the piece that's there to be made, whatever it may be that's interesting to you as an artist.
I also really liked the idea of him shooting it on video, to the extent that it really does look alarmingly (but brilliantly) like footage from an old VHS cassette from the early days of the camcorder revolution. There's a sentimentality to it which is common to all of Korine's work and which I feel is a vital component in his aesthetic. As it turns out, in practice, the whole video thing is actually interesting only very intermittently, and has all but exhausted itself inside ten minutes, but fine, it's one of those ideas, once you're committed to it you have to go all out, and that's not a fault.
I honestly have no objections on principle to any of the conceptual or aesthetic premises of Trash Humpers. I just think it's a terribly meagre film, vapid and fearful. The awful, bludgeoning sense of nullity that starts to arise from it within minutes is, I think, the product of the lack of a vital current. Korine is widely quoted (though I haven't yet tracked down the original source) as seeing the film as an "ode to vandalism" -- he said as much again in the post-screening Q&A at LFF -- which surely implies some kind of political dimension, even at a rudimentary level: this has to be a film in which we watch some people measure themselves against the strictures of public space and private ownership. Well, cool. Except no one apparently has custody from inside the film of the 'ode'-ness of the ode, so we are made to sit with an unbelievably inconsequential scenario in which we see instances of vandalism (some apparently reacting to the ready-made shooting environment, some presumably more confected) that convey nothing beyond their own banality. An 'ode' would surely help us to see, to come into at least some kind of relationship with, the sensation of vandalism: if not excitement, if not nihilistic rage, at least some sense of pressure and release, or remedial pleasure. But pleasure is itself derided in this film; a large part of its m.o. is bound up in its deep contempt for human desire. (In fact this is the deepest fraction of the film, and about the only thing that feels genuinely engaged about it.) The repetitious scenes of the elderly central characters (actually Korine's young cohorts in latex masks -- again, an only fleetingly intriguing conceit before the disadvantages start mounting) shagging refuse bins and fire hydrants under cover of brown darkness initially seem to promise some kind of commentary, albeit pretty stultified, on the distortion of sexual desire by commodity capitalism: but again, any sense of the oxygen of political context is quickly supplanted by the sustained apneic tedium of -- let's cut out the middle layer here -- Korine's absolute refusal to account for the existence of his film within its own operations, except in the coolest and most derelict conceptual terms.
There are moments of real degraded beauty, moments of style, moments that raise a smile. There is wilfully provocative stuff here too, which is at least worth talking about -- I'm thinking particularly of a backyard porch comedian spilling a neurotic stream of abortive racist and homophobic jokes, whose presence in the film is pointedly frightening, not least because there is absolutely nothing going on in the rest of the movie that in any way distances itself from his perspective. I don't mind not being reassured that the filmmakers reject the premises of his spiel; I do mind that I'm pretty sure they merely think he's funny and imagine that we might think so too. In other contexts, we might have another task than simply to laugh along (ironically or otherwise -- and let's be clear that there's ultimately no difference) with this evidently disturbed man. Here, though, it's happening as part of a pattern.
The pattern I mean is one in which one's analysis of what one's seeing is constantly adjusting downwards. The phrase that passes through one's head generally begins: "Maybe he's just..." -- as in, "Maybe he's just trying to film what he sees in his neighbourhood, maybe layering a political matrix on that would be disingenuous." Except, no; no filmmaker just "films what he sees", in the absence of any authorial or editorial agenda, and no neighbourhood exists that doesn't produce its own political matrix -- to attempt to exclude which is desperately dishonest and conservative. You could watch ten minutes of CCTV footage and see more instances of kindness and promise than in the whole of Trash Humpers: this film is, from beginning to end, grossly inflected by authorial anomie. But "maybe he's just trying to do a situationist comedy, like Jackass without the wit or the tenderness". In which case, I barely cracked a smile after the third minute. (The guy next to me found the scenes of the central figures smashing lighting tubes almost uncontainably funny, but his behaviour all night strongly suggested he was having a breakdown.) I found the rest of it sour, spiteful and absolutely defeated by its fear and hatred of the ugliness it was promulgating. But "maybe he's just doing something really experimental, and you have to give him credit for that." Well, as I say above, I'm not unimpressed that he would choose to follow Mister Lonely with something like this: but it's not original (Korine previously rejected the idea that his earlier films were influenced by Paul McCarthy, and I must admit I didn't spot it then; but for anyone who's seen, for example, McCarthy's Ma Bell or Bossy Burger, that rejection must in the light of Trash Humpers seem hollow and kind of desperate) and in terms of its mechanics it's absolutely aping the worst tendencies of the lowest-aiming mainstream. Its infantile, narrow, repetitive self-involvement, its lonely dependence on a charisma that it imagines it might be exuding, its tin ear for cadence and phrasing, and its cringing sentimentality in refusing to acknowledge anything beyond its own parameters...: I never thought I'd say it about Korine (though I guess the seeds were always there), but, ladies and gentlemen, the worst truth about Trash Humpers is that it's pure schmaltz.
What I find interesting about Korine here, in the light of this post, is that he's made a basic error of judgement with regard to scale. He's equated the smallness of the production operation, the budget, the scope of the thing, with a meagreness of aspiration. The film is cheap, reductive, and actually diminishing to watch. Its humanity is so much smaller than life-size as to be, ultimately, affronting, by every aesthetic and every political measure. And this makes clear what is perhaps only implicit in the earlier parts of the post: that this conversation about scale is (of course) about our own parameters; it's about our sense of, and response to, the lives that are, one way or another, beyond us. In this respect, the internal self-justifying logic of Trash Humpers is uncommonly like the delusional gibbering of Nick Griffin last week on Question Time (and, equally, his co-panellist Jack Straw, whose neck-deep involvement in the prosecution of our illegal war on Iraq shows him to be every bit as much a professional racist thug as Griffin ever was). It is constrained, engulfed, by a terrible fear of what comes next, and an equally terrible pantomime of self-denial in the face of that unknown quantity. If Trash Humpers is in any way indicative of where Korine actually wants to be right now, then a great artist is, perhaps temporarily, dead: and the loss is at once unbearable and, sadly, utterly negligible.
But let me say this, finally. Coming home on my own on the tube, still reeling from Trash Humpers and trying to extricate myself from the sense that it somehow proved the validity of its own purulent misanthropy, I found in my bag a copy of the next two days of everything, the script of a piece that a smith, Tim Crouch's co-director on The Author, has been doing this year in Oslo, where he's now based. It's not a big piece -- it moves gently between travel anecdotes and reflections on climate change, in a conversational and yet incredibly carefully structured way; it is beautifully modulated, and it is life-size, and it cheered me up. And then on Sunday evening, the day after the desolating disappointment of Trash Humpers, we went back to the BFI to see a programme of experimental shorts at LFF, which included a 15-minute film by the artist and musician Paul Abbott, called Wolf's Froth / Amongst Other Things. This was an unbelievably disjunctive, radically abstract piece, as impenetrable to "interpretation" as a Phill Niblock sound-block but every bit as confident in its ownership of the space and time that it took. Here was that incredibly rare experience of seeing something you've literally never seen anything like before. Its bravura experimentalism and productiveness instantly rendered totally illegitimate any suggestion that Trash Humpers is anything other than blandly self-satisfied, celibate, formulaic visual gruel for hard-hearted adolescents with a grudge against the world and a secret longing to be told that they're loved. Wolf's Froth too is life-size, in the way that I'm using that description here: but, more than that, it inhabits a life that I'm not yet living, and art has no more cogent purpose than that.
Meanwhile, for those of you who have been wondering...