“If we can claim a politics for the space of the exhibition it is one in which the ‘model’ for action, for resolution, for consequences is kept at bay in favour of that incessant process, constantly shifting and renewing itself as the audience changes, its mutualities shift and remake themselves” – Irit Rogoff
I’ve come across an article lately that provides some really interesting ideas about political spaces for art making … and art spaces for political making. In ‘WE: Collectivities, Mutualities, Participations’, Irit Rogoff discusses a number of ideas that attempt to get us thinking about the construction of meaning in relation to the spaces we share. The result is an intriguing understanding of the openness and flexibility of meaning when we consider the power of simple acts of being together on a micro level.
In this post, I want to explore some of the ideas in this article in relation to a particular piece I was part of when I was actively performing with her jazz noise collective, an all-female group of noise artists and experimental sound performers based out of Vancouver, Canada. It is an inclusive collective dedicated to sharing knowledge and promoting the female presence in the noise-art scene.
Some interesting questions come up in bringing together my experience with her jazz and the idea of flexible meaning, collectivities and mutualities. How do we define artwork around strong political choices? What makes for satisfying, unapologetic work? How can an artwork remain politically cohesive while maintaining a sense of openness and inclusivity? What does this have to do with audience and community and the potential for shared experience, participation and dialogue?
I can’t remember how I came across her jazz, but I remember that it was an easy decision to become a member and play for a while. I’m a trained dancer and for the longest time I’d been wanting to translate my experience improvising with movement into a sound practice. her jazz was the perfect opportunity to finally get over my lack of technological knowledge and begin to experiment, learn, and start performing. It was a transition from working in the predominantly female world of contemporary dance to the more male orientated noise scene … from dance to noise, the body to technology. There has always been no question that my involvement with her jazz was a good idea. On a personal level, her jazz’s goal of making noise performance more accessible to women really worked.
At times, I remember some backlash against our presumed segregation – if we wanted to make noise in this day and age, why wouldn’t we just pick up some gear and just do it? Why draw lines between groups of people, if the goal is inclusivity? I remember one email exchange with a friend around these issues. He was probably just joking around in his criticism, and in fact he doesn’t even remember our exchange. But at that time, I took it really seriously. her jazz had provided me with a much-needed entrance into the world of improvised sound performance. It created (and creates) a safe space for me and other women through a more familiar communication style and an openness to the various skill levels of members. Not to mention, the formation of her jazz was a genuine political act during an age that relies on ambiguous political stances. It was (and is) about creating a new space for noise making, less about who’s not included, and more about making room for a variety of approaches.
Through collective process and performance, her jazz is addition to the scene, not a subtraction. her jazz provides a consciously inclusive and collective rehearsal and performance structure. For example, at the time that I was involved, we would always hold hands in a circle before each performance, and many performances were conducted as the members sat in a circle. This is one striking example of how the group brings a new approach into the noise scene. The circle is symbolic of inclusivity and makes a statement in performances spaces where often the performers don’t face each other and instead face the audience, in what could be construed as a confrontational stance.
After participating in a few great shows, myself and another member had the opportunity to organize a performance for the whole group. We facilitated an ongoing discussion about what to do, organized some practices and finally we all got together to perform. The process wasn’t the easiest one ever, and the result (to me) wasn’t entirely satisfying. Collective process is always excitingly unpredictable. We tried to keep things tied to an interesting concept and the group worked to maintain ethical and political consciousness throughout – but in the end I was left with the feeling that ‘this one got away’.
We had an idea to do a foley-art type performance, the group providing the soundtrack to a scene from a movie. We would be seated through-out the audience and provide various sound interventions to accompany a scene from Susperia - a horror flick with some beautiful cinematography – except the best images also happened to be of extremely violent acts against young females in ballet boarding school. In addition, we were to perform the set at a feminist art festival. This film in particular was chosen as part of a collective process that simply included everyone bringing in a film they liked. The group that was present at the meeting was really intrigued by the visual qualities of the film and it wasn’t until later in the process that we truly began to engage with the political implications of the images.
As members joined the series of rehearsals, it became apparent just how the violent images affected some members and how controversial even showing these images would become. So, in order to make our intentions clear, a statement was read before the show - stating that violent images would be present in the video, and how we did not intended to further sensationalized the images but call them out, that we were creating sounds to reclaim them. We wanted to be clear that we were working to make something new out of what was damaging, and that we wanted to assert ownership over images that by their very existence enact harm towards women. The statement was also read as a warning to those who may not wish to view them and to let the audience know that we expected that some of them may be motivated to leave the room.
During the performance, we used various sound making tools including walkie-talkies, percussion instruments, noise makers, and voice. We sat behind the audience, facing the screen and sonically responded to the impulses sent out by the visual imagery. The film itself was focused on one particular scene, and we choose to play it at half speed.
In the end, it was difficult for me to gauge the event as an effective art piece, or as an effective political action. I guess it depends on how you think about the possibilities for art and politics coming together … in this case it seemed to me that because the group needed to state our intentions about the piece, we were also somehow apologizing for a work that would not be able to stand on its own as art. And on the flip side, the performance as a political action did not seem to be fully developed, leaving me wondering if we could have taken our process further.
In ‘WE: Collectivities, Mutualities, Participations’, Irit Rogoff discusses an idea ‘Means without End’ termed by Giorgio Agamben. 'Means without End' concerns the false distinction between spheres of activity that exist to achieve an end and those that are simply an end in themselves. Agamben gives the example of marching vs. a dance performance. Marching gets you from A to B and is a clear and definable action with a result. This is in opposition to something like a dance performance. While a dance may include action, it is often seen as world unto itself, with no 'real' impact on the outside. In writing about cinema, he works to reintroduce the concept of gesture as a way to break with this false dichotomy, saying : “the gesture is the exhibition of a mediality: it is the process of making a means as visible as such”. What I find so exciting about this idea is the possibility that we can think about meaning in terms of the ongoing processes of sharing spaces with each other. The gesture becomes the very act of being together and meaning is produced as we connect and re-connect with each other.
Thinking of gesture in this way, it becomes possible to articulate new and more complex ways to define the political/aesthetic potentials of art. And as argued by Rogoff, these potentials are linked to widening our understanding of how art is linked to meaning: through the ways we come together to create spaces for experiencing each other and art in a dynamic relationship of 'being-togetherness'.
These ideas certainly shed new light for me on the above performance example. It has always been clear to me that as an artist my evaluation of work I participate in making is made by my relationships – to my collaborators and audience. And I’ve always felt that this is truly linked to the actual spaces of art making, whether they are rehearsal or performance or exhibition spaces.
A development of the actual potential of the Susperia performance as a series of gestures that exist as part of a political-space-in-process could have been an interesting approach. By this, I mean that perhaps we could have played with the notion of participation to place the meaning of the piece within a matrix of relationships. Being together in a space, shaping a series of gestures that trust in mutuality, and situating meaning as the relationships sustained through these actions was our starting point. At this stage, for me, the excitement is in pushing these notions further and developing work that melds art and action through conscious trust in participatory political spaces.
If we had fully trusted in the potentials of bringing together an audience that in itself is a circulatory body of meaning, we could have perhaps introduced a more complex set of actions to take place at the event. For example, we might have introduced instruments and actions that allowed for full spectrum responses from audience members, allowing people to respond at one end, to their pleasure at seeing the visual material, to, at the other end, their disgust. Or, we could have simultaneously performed another piece in a different room, so those that wanted to leave would have been encourage to seek out an alternative experience. Perhaps there was also a way to funnel the audiences’ thoughts about the show into a series of comments, made through direct conversations with members or by activating another video source, where they could choose alternative movies to watch.
I believe our ambivalent political world deserves strong choices, at the same time it is my desire to foster artwork that walks the fine line between answers and questions. I think that like any good conversation there will be space for opinion, and I welcome art that make for a dynamic into which the viewer is welcomed as a participant. Through mutuality, gesture, and shared process, the space between pure aesthetic concern and direct action is collapsed, investing in the notion that life, art and politics exist together at all times, through various levels of awareness. I’d like to thank her jazz for diving into this contentious process, and for giving me the opportunity to learn, connect and participate ... and of course, make some noise. - Mirae.