Event, Screen, Concert (Unmaking Worlds with Cerith and Florian)

On Cerith Wyn Evans’s collaboration with Florian Hecker for the 2009 Venice biennale; published in the catalogue for Wyn Evans’s show The What If? Scenario (after LG), TBA21 Vienna, 2013

The mutual interference of two worlds of feeling, or the bringing together of two independent expressions, supersedes the original elements and produces a synthetic organization of greater efficacy.
— Guy Debord, “Methods of Détournement” (1956)
There’s a concert tonight. It’s the Event.
— Gilles Deleuze, “What Is an Event?” (1988)1

What is a détournement between friends? The two elements of No night No day came together for the first time only at its premiere. As a part of the 2009 Venice Biennale, the piece, over five performances at the Teatro Goldoni, brought together the “independent expressions” of two artists who decided to make this blind and deaf collaboration a test of their sympathy. Although the conceptual direction of the piece took shape through lengthy discussions over two years leading up to the event, there were no rehearsals, and the collaborators never shared their respective contributions with each other during their development. This experiment is to be reiterated in Vienna in 2013: once again, it remains to be seen and heard how the elements converge or diverge, whether their pairing yields some kind of effective “synthetic organization” or whether, like two bachelor machines, they will refuse to marry.

Many aspects of the Venice performance seemed paradoxical: an uncompromisingly abstract work without plot, melody, character, or narrative, entirely at odds with the performance history and sumptuous baroque environment of the Goldoni; a challenging forty-minute program of electronic sound of sometimes unbearable intensity and an indecipherable monochrome film sequence—but at the same time an experience whose concentrated energy offered a bracing respite from the human zoo of Venice. The “concert” can also be said to have challenged Daniel Birnbaum’s headline Making Worlds (Fare mondi), for Wyn Evans and Hecker set out to explode rather than to integrate, to fracture rather than to unify, and the piece offers no reassuring image of a new world. If anything, No night No day presents us with what we might call worldless events.

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Although Cerith Wyn Evans apparently moved on from his early work as a filmmaker into other areas, his work has remained “cinematic” at least insofar as it has continually concerned itself with light. But in many of his most well known pieces, what he invites us to read in the form of light is language in its most exulted form—phrases bequeathed to literary perpetuity, inexhaustible secrets encrypted for transmission but never to be fully decoded. In these works, light-as-information, the physical horizon of all communication, comes up against perduring enigmas that shape the symbolic realm through their opaque resistance, as photons pass around dark matter, guided by its obscure gravity.

In contrast to these light works, which worry away at the vexed relation meaning-readability-communication, in No night No day, Wyn Evans is concerned with light itself as unreadable. The title pays homage to the film work of one of his mentors, the structural-materialist filmmaker Peter Gidal, which strives to critique and counteract the spontaneous structuring ideologies of film and of the cinematic that prepare the way for the spectacle, obscuring the material process of filmmaking. Rather than presenting recognizable objects that allow a passive viewer to identify with and vicariously inhabit cinematic worlds, Gidal’s concentrated experiments in dis-alienating anonymity resist reading on any level other than that of the materiality of the process, refusing even to make of this resistance another recognizable, identifiable “subject,” an artistic cause that the viewer might recognize and identify with. “About” nothing, the film should just be . . . the effects of light, the grain of film, and the eye . . . and perhaps the contemplation of the viewer’s conditioned expectations being systematically disappointed. Elaborating on the title of his No Night No Day (1997), the work whose title Wyn Evans and Hecker appropriate here, Gidal speaks of presenting a “darkness not connected to nature’s night, light unconnected to ‘day’ as a lived concept and reality.” This concern with a “distension from any nature, including the nature of film, or the viewer’s natural ‘seeing’” is echoed in Wyn Evans’s subtle film, with its evanescent, diffuse monochrome forms.2 Our “natural” (read: “spontaneous,” in Althusser’s sense, i.e., “spontaneous because it is not”)3 reflex compels us at first to read these abstractions as cinematic tropes. But every time the reveal, the focus pull, zoom, or pan never arrives. The forms, specific yet asignifying, distinct yet unrecognizable, refuse to resolve themselves into any reference to a narrative or pictorial world. The screen and the medium of film itself, prevented from disappearing into its service to representation, become present in their technological materiality: As with the more egregious examples in Wyn Evans’s work (chandeliers, window blinds), the transmission device asserts its literal presence in the room, refusing to disappear in the service of a message. Whereas in a white cube, a grand glass chandelier might ostentatiously announce such obduracy, in the Teatro Goldoni, on the contrary, it is the economy and austerity of a minimal screening that prevents it from becoming “part of the furniture.”

Florian Hecker’s work also interrogates the in-between of a materiality (that of sound) and the irresistible compulsion to objectify, identify, and recognize objects and to integrate them into a world. To do so, Hecker draws on the work of scientists such as Alfred Bregman and Jens Blauert, whose research in psychoacoustics bridges the gap between the purely mechanical, physical description of sound and our experience of a world of sonic objects independent of ourselves. Psychoacoustics—a problematic complex of physics, physiology, sensation, perception, and cognition—explores how the hearer’s answer to basic questions such as “What?” “How many?” “Continuous or discontinuous?” are conditioned by the biological and perceptual artefacts of our auditory system. What we hear, and the way we traditionally describe sound, is a product of the type of world our species evolved to hear in. In Hecker’s compositions, this research converges with the work of modern electronic composers who, in the wake of Iannis Xenakis, have devised new methods of synthesis that manipulate sound at a “granular” level without reference to traditional macro-level musical entities such as waves and tones. Such compositions can often defy the ear-brain’s ability to deduce any kind of worldly “object” that would account for them, thus forcing a confrontation with “sound-in-itself.” Likewise, psychoacoustical studies have succeeded in identifying “effects” that can be experimentally produced through fine technological manipulation in order to provoke shifts of perception, demonstrating the formative role of certain physiological defaults in our interpretation of sound, turning our attention to “hearing-in-itself.” Whereas psychoacousticians generally use these effects as arguments for one theory or another of sonic objects, events, or streams, in No night No day, Hecker uses various methods of synthesis to foreground them and to explore the dynamic materiality of the relation between sound and the heard. He involves the audience as coproducers; the digital sound files that constitute the material basis of the work, broadcast with minute precision to an array of loudspeakers, are “dramatized” differently in any given space and are “completed” each time by the listeners, depending on the focus of their attention, their positions and movement, all of which affect the nature, grouping, and localization of the sound objects perceived, the fusion and fission of acoustic streams.

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An overture? A constellation of insistent, crystalline resonances pierce the silence. Unlocatable, they seem to be shifting the coordinates of the space and reshaping the dark interior of the theater. With a sudden flourish, light blossoms on the screen occupying the stage, its mass smoothly expanding, its continuity broken only by the edge of the frame, which it swiftly fills, revealing . . . nothing. Just light, which then slowly recedes and folds back into darkness again, denying. Another patch appears bottom left, and we immediately ask, while not quite knowing whether the question makes sense, whether it is “the same” one as before and whether the complexes of sequenced sounds, which continue unabated, belong to the inner workings of this obscure entity. . . . We become aware of an inward effort, almost painful, as the mind tries to constitute into objects both light and sound, and to integrate the two into a reference to some organic world where, once more, sound and light would belong in some determinate way to identifiable objects. We develop a certain irony in relation to these pitiful attempts, in the attempt of any coded, coherent, narrativizable program, to bring this play of intensities back into the plush interior, to create a theater where there is none; the need to narrate and to mark time, seasons, episodes: that thing—whatever it was—is now over. Now another thing is happening, now another. . . . Eventually we engage in a continuing series of perceptual shifts: now submitting to the anonymous abstract intensities of the moment, now attempting to construct and understand the action of the piece as a whole. If only it seemed to make a whole . . .

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If there was no shared process, and if the respective contributions of the artists remained unknown to each other during the project, where exactly can we locate the collaboration between Wyn Evans and Hecker? In fact, it consisted mainly in preliminary and ongoing discussions concerning what must not be done. Strategies of resistance in particular, it seems, in relation to the gorgeous surroundings of the Teatro Goldoni.

The invocation of Gidal’s materialism is perhaps a sign of the apprehension prompted by the prospect of creating what was billed as an “abstract opera” for a beautifully appointed baroque Venetian theater (complete with Murano chandeliers—familiar as the incongruous transmitters of earlier Wyn Evans works, here all too comfortably at home). The Goldoni’s early years—it was built in 1622—coincided with a prodigious merging of artistry and technique that included the use of dramatic, deep perspectives on the new custom backdrops that artists were employed to create, the deployment of all manner of marvelous technical devices to reinforce their realism, and the refining and coordination of multiple arts in the service of compelling operatic works. Baroque theater is not only the birthplace of the special effect but also the place where are forged for the first time those combined resources that theater and cinema will use to make lifelike, sympathetic, mimetic worlds that the viewer cannot resist identifying with, absorbing, and being absorbed in. No wonder, then, that as it reached France, Pascal named this theater the most dangerous of all seductions, in a denunciation that prefigures the critique of the spectacle, with its potent integration of identification, sympathy, and mimicry, its dangerous tendency to heighten, and then usurp, the real world.

No night No day refuses all of this. It begins by plunging the interior of the theater into darkness. The space becomes an abyss filled with events deprived of the uniting, perspectival staging protocols that might locate them. The central perspective on the stage is recused; the screen offers no vanishing point or spatial cues to orient the viewer. The array of loudspeakers arranged throughout the theater activates every part of its cavernous volume, as if the stage had been dematerialized and delocalized, filling the whole space in three dimensions. These are all initial steps toward subtracting from the event all the conditions of baroque concertation.

There can be no question of an extremist withdrawal into chaos; an invocation of pure materiality would be mere mysticism. Chaos, pure multiplicity “itself,” is but an abstraction. “Events are produced in a chaos, in a chaotic multiplicity, but only under the condition that a sort of screen intervenes.”4 Chaos is pure multiplicity, but some thing is “always a one,” or rather a one-ing, resulting from a sifting, screening, or “extraction of differentials.” In order for individuals to emerge from the undisciplined many, a screen, or a series of screenings, is required.

One such screening constitutes what Deleuze calls Leibniz’s “baroque condition”: Leibniz’s God, through his choice of a world (the best of all possible worlds), extracts from the chaotic realm of all possibilities a subset of compossibles. His world will comprise only those monads that can harmoniously exist together. Each takes up its place, and each will express the entire world, according to its own relative position in the spatium formed by the totality of monads, and a concomitant series of perceptions will unfold within its closed interior. As described by Deleuze, the “baroque house” of the monad is also already a theater: amid the folds of its upper, windowless floor (the soul), a performance takes place, a screening of the entire world from a perspective determined by the comings and goings of the openings on the “lower floor” (matter, the body). An orchestrated myriad of simultaneous private viewings—but their perfect coordination owes nothing to interaction. They are as isolated and automatic as the unwinding of the springs of so many clocks. Such is the baroque condition: Leibniz’s God sifts compossibles and ensures that only monads exist that belong to the same universe, including it and expressing it according to their singular point of view. The series of perceptions that constitutes their individuality is preprogrammed; they are therefore assured of their concomitancy with each other. Indeed, the combined result of this vertical, windowless concertation through “indirect harmonic contact” constitutes the world as such. Explaining this pure coordination without interaction, Leibniz likens it to “several bands of musicians or choirs separately taking up their parts and placed in such a way that they neither see nor hear one another, though they nevertheless agree perfectly in following their notes, each one his own, in such a way that he who hears the whole finds in it a wonderful harmony much more surprising than if there were a connection between the performers.”5 Under these “conditions of a baroque concert[ation],”6 the autistic performers, deprived of any horizontal connection through which they could calibrate their joint performance, are alive only to their own perceptions and expression, but their harmony is guaranteed via the “vertical” procedure that preselects and places them. Their “spontaneity” expresses the glory of god-the-selector-of-compossibilities and guarantor of the best of all possible concerts.

As Deleuze writes, this philosophical solution is representative of the baroque insofar as the latter is understood as a final, mad attempt to impose reason and harmony—to contain the divergences and discords of the world under the aegis of classical reason. Even if it means distributing “incompossibles” into multiple screened-off worlds, it at least allows us to rest easy that any discord in this world is resolved through a global harmony.7

Now Leibniz’s tale of two choirs not only pertains to the nature of the Wyn Evans / Hecker collaboration-at-a-distance but also raises the question of the performance’s wholeness for and through its audience. As already noted, we have renounced the orchestration that makes the theater into a focusing device, a single-point perspective projecting a world that is then vividly reproduced within each individual’s first-person private theater. So can we still say that each audience member enjoys “the same” event? According to what harmonic procedure does this work produce a concert, a collective experience?

It’s clear that this is no windowless concertation, under a presiding higher agency. With No night No day (and with its reference to Debord’s Hurlements), we are closer to something like détournement—understood not necessarily as a strategy of resistance but as a generalized condition of productive discord. The windows have been flung open, and the frontiers between multiple incompossible worlds are breached, allowing for the “interference of worlds of feeling,” the “bringing together of independent expressions,” in a way that does not resolve itself through some higher, surveying unity. We have given up the valiant baroque attempt to hold the world together, coordinating stage directions like clockwork. But some kind of “monadology” is retained: it is still a question of the production of extension and intensity, and the emergence of individuals as perspectival operators, but the question will now be resolved without the benefit of any Panglossian assumption. Individual experiences are assembled locally from the materials mobilized, the screening of the event taking place on a local level, without the benefit of a preestablished harmony that would already have decided what kind of world these events will inhabit.

Imagine the theater turned inside out. Instead of the folded curtains parting to reveal, in the dark interior, the plunging perspective of an enfolding, enthralling world, providing the condition of convergence for the audience, what was the interior now becomes a convex surface across which signals pass, following geodesic lines. Light radiates and suffuses the surface. Speakers pulsate and shake the ground. Depending on their respective distances from these sources, and the order in which the signals reach them, individuals receive divergent transmissions, with minute differences sometimes yielding complete shifts in perception and contradictions between neighbours. There is no longer any global orientation, any standard of simultaneity that would provide a privileged reference frame. Distance provides the criteria for differentiation and cannot be traversed instantly, making it impossible to separate the “externality” of space from the “internality” of time. In short, there is no longer a world to be “in”; nor is there an internality to reflect the world; there is no longer any upper floor, only a spacetime flatland across which animalcules crawl, propagating and capturing worldless events, producing new synthetic organizations: “Differentiation propagates itself step by step in this community of monads which entertain tactile relations.”8

The events can no longer be said to belong either to the “spontaneity” of a first-person experience or to a global solution that integrates them all, the work of a God able to prescreen chaos and synchronize all clocks. They belong to a new type of individual, without closure, which does not include or express the world but instead locally screens, makes, unmakes, captures, and reconfigures it, in horizontal concert with a multitude of others.

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The conditions of No night No day’s new setting at the Augarten in Vienna are perhaps closer to those of a minimalist installation than those of theatrical performance. But recall Deleuze’s conciliation of minimal and baroque: minimalism reprises the baroque overflowing of art forms, rendering continuous painting, sculpture, architecture, urbanism. At the same time it installs a new monadology and a new perspectivalism (Tony Smith’s New Jersey Turnpike drive).9 Against which we might invoke minimalism’s inaugural refusal of illusion and representation, its attempt to present work as “nothing but what it is.”10 In between its two incarnations, this neo-baroque minimalism might well be the correct context in which to position No night No day. A serial audience, a mobile spectator/auditor, a performance that can be joined at any time: this new deployment will alter its effects but doubtless will not weaken its resistance. Beyond spontaneous private theater, orchestrated spectacle, and their complicity, Wyn Evans and Hecker have engineered a nomadological machine for unmaking worlds.

  1. Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolman, “Methods of Détournement” (1956), in Urban Culture: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies, ed. Chris Jenks (London: Routledge, 2004), 222. Gilles Deleuze, “What Is an Event?,” chap. 6 of The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, trans. T. Conley (London: Athlone, 1993), 88 (translation modified).
  2. http://www.luxonline.org.uk/artists/peter_gidal/no_night_no_day.html.
  3. L. Althusser, ‘Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists: Lecture I’, in Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists and Other Essays, trans. W. Montag et al (London and New York: Verso, 1990).
  4. Deleuze, The Fold, 76.
  5. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, letter to Arnauld (1687), in Discourse on Metaphysics: Correspondence with Arnauld, and Monadology, trans. George R. Montgomery (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1920), 186.
  6. Deleuze, The Fold, 80.
  7. Ibid., 81–82.
  8. See Gilles Châtelet, “Sur une petite phrase de Riemann,” in L’Enchantement du virtuel: Mathématique, physique, philosophie (Paris: Rue d’Ulm, 2010).
  9. Deleuze, The Fold, chap. 9, “The New Harmony.”
  10. The question remains whether, in this work, the extrema of the baroque succumb to a new mode of “theatricality”, as Michael Fried famously argued. See ‘Art and Objecthood’, in M. Fried, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998]).