Skin Games: A Primer

Text for the booklet produced to accompany the performance of Florian Hecker and Reza Negarestani’s collaborative piece C.D.—A Script for Synthesis, Guggenheim, New York, November 2013

Over the past decade, Florian Hecker has used digital sound technologies to transform physical spaces into sites for the dramatization of the hearing process. In his work this process itself becomes audible—the human mind’s reconstruction (or indeed hallucination) of objects on the basis of auditory cues. Drawing on psychoacoustic research, Hecker carefully designs and controls such cues, using the limit conditions of ‘sonic objects’ as his material.

In these installations ‘it is the auditor who completes the work’; but not because they are interpellated as the artist’s helpmeet, tasked with refining the raw matter he presents and fixing its indeterminate meaning—an interpretative role that is said to constitute the ‘freedom’ of the subject of contemporary art.1 Rather than offering a spurious perspectival liberation, Hecker amplifies the constraining conditions of the auditor’s perceptual apparatus. The subject’s occupation of space and reception of material allows it the freedom to explore its own perceptual automatisms.

Perhaps this work can be more profitably compared to the mode of perspective operative in minimalism, where the viewer’s perambulations around the ‘specific object’ awaken them to their own role in constituting it as a perceptual object. The physical sound waves Hecker synthesises are often integrated by the auditor differently depending upon their position in space and the way they direct their attention, so that sound-matter, auditor and exhibition space are all components of the work.

Unlike the freeform interpretative play of the readymade, minimalism’s theater is one of suspense. Vary her perspective as she may, its viewer never gains access to the specific object, whose ‘hollowness,’ its reticence to reveal its internal constitution, is precisely what is enthralling: a primed jack-in-the-(black)-box that is never sprung, the object remains opaque and obdurate as the viewer circles it. Minimalism’s interrogation of objecthood ends with the simple tension between the gestalt of the object-as-unity and the experiential series of the viewer (a series that is endless, or which, unsatisfactorily, ‘just ends’).

Working with sound allows Hecker to more deeply interrogate the process of object constitution, introducing complex bifurcations into this experiential series that go beyond a changing spatial point of view. The unity and homogeneity of the perceptual object are themselves disrupted, as shifts in the auditor’s perspective cause what seemed to be stable ‘objects’ to change in nature, to be displaced, to fracture or become delocalized. In effect, the auditor’s ‘degrees of freedom’ (movement through space, direction of attention) are prosthetically enhanced in Hecker’s installations, coupled to a more intangible set of variables, affording them a deeper participation in the synthesis of the object than is achieved either in the readymade (free semantic determination of the object as artwork) or the specific object (co-determination of viewer and object in phenomenological space).

Between sound encoded digitally and the work done by the auditor’s nervous system, this process highlights what the artist has referred to as a ‘phenomenological gap’: the apparently unbridgeable disparity between homogeneous perceptual objects and the material structures through which they are technically produced, and in which no such objects are ‘present’. Most of the concepts that inform processes of sound synthesis do not speak to the qualities we would describe as being heard. And inversely, most terms we would use in the phenomenological description of sound are filed by psychoacoustics under ‘timbre,’ a catch-all ‘multidimensional waste-basket category’2 for everything intractable to analysis.

This ‘translation problem’ between the highly-controlled synthesis of materials and the semantic reconstruction and redescription of perceptual objects, is related to a problematic presented by philosopher Jean-François Lyotard in his 1985 Pompidou exhibition Les Immatériaux.3 As the original remit—to investigate ‘matériaux nouveaux et création’—suggests, Lyotard’s ‘immaterials’ have little to do with the much vaunted ‘dematerialization’ of art. Instead, Lyotard had in his sights the accelerating cycle of postmodernity in which technological instruments afford us a grasp of matter beyond the human perceptual gamut, decomposing the objects of everyday perception into systems of imperceptible structures, which are then recomposed through the use of automated machine languages into new, ‘always precarious’4 material organizations.

As Lyotard argues, with these developments we can no longer trust our intuitive allocation of objects, and their ‘matter’ can no longer be understood as a given that correlates naturally with our language. For new symbolic operations, whose dense operations we can no longer fathom, shape the synthesis of the ‘immaterials’ that become a part of our everyday lives; and their products confound natural language, confronting us with experiences we don’t yet have the words to describe.

The classic modern (Cartesian) conception sought to expel ‘secondary qualities’ from matter-as-pure-extension; their sensible reception would be only a ‘theatrical effect’ of the body, as a ‘confused speaker’ which ‘says “soft,” “warm,” “blue,” “heavy”.5 The science of immaterials instead grasps these qualities as the effects of relative disparities between memory-systems. The human mind becomes only one of a series of ‘transformers’ that fleetingly generate immaterials as they extract and contract flows of energy. Lyotard’s thesis suggests precisely the position of the participant in Hecker’s sound experiments: ‘even the transformer that our central nervous system is […] can only transcribe and inscribe according to its own rhythm the extractions which come to it6—a synthesizer among synthesizers.

In his recent Chimeras series of works, Hecker’s preoccupation with psychoacoustic process becomes explicitly a matter of such disparate rhythms. According to psychoacoustical research, the brain functions that serve to identify the ‘what’ and the ‘where’ of a sound operate upon different timescales7 a finding Hecker exploits to produce sequences in which the fine time structure of one voice is sheathed in the amplitude envelope of another, producing an entity that remains recognizable as a voice while being spatially delocalized and semantically scrambled, and which the listener must reconstruct as a unified yet impossible synthetic creature—a chimera.8

C.D. A Script for Synthesis sets the stage for a new procedure, extending Hecker’s dramatization of auditory synthesis into an invitation to participate in a chimerical synthesis or immaterialization across multiple perceptual and conceptual registers. Following Les Immatériaux’s ‘dramaturgy of information,’ which staged the uncertainty of a disruptive moment in the history of matter, amplifying ‘the chagrin that surrounds the end of the modern age as well as the feeling of jubilation that’s connected with the appearance of something new,’ and sought ‘to activate this disarray rather than to appease it,’9 C.D. also seeks to dramatize the immaterial condition and to activate its disarray.

Reza Negarestani’s libretto for the piece addresses this not so much as a problem of art or philosophy as one of engineering. The artist may choose to luxuriate in the sensuous, and the philosopher may dream of attaining an ultimate level of reality that will eliminate it. The engineer, though, is obliged to bridge the ‘phenomenological gap’ between the two, to counteract the ‘tyranny of scales’ that seems to limit us to a choice between top-down or bottom-up views, phenomenological or reductive characterizations of matter. The engineer must ‘model across scales,’10 understanding the object as a superposition of different
grains of matter, each with its own behaviors, structures, and languages, and none offering an exhaustive description. Solving an engineering problem involves conceptually shuttling between the ‘continuum model’ of an object viewed at a macro scale, where it is characterized by ‘a few phenomenological parameters’ apparently indifferent to their atomic substrate, and the manipulation of meso- and micro-scale structures for which these all-over attributes no longer have any meaning.11

Take, for instance, the formulation of a new scent: The parfumier begins with a natural-language description of the desired effect (a flavorless, pink ice cube…) and must translate this into the taxonomy of sources and accords, then subsequently into register of chemical formulation and ultimately molecular structure. He uses precision instruments to formulate these structures, producing a candidate scent that will then be calibrated according to its satisfaction of the initial sentiment. On the other hand, take Hecker’s own bottom-up ‘particle synthesis’ of computer-controlled ‘grains of sound’ which are have no perceptual status as units, but when deployed en masse irresistibly invite analogical description (this sounds like…), only for this recognition to falter and break down as the particle structure shifts.

At the molecular level, scent no longer exists, having been analysed into ‘qualityless’ chemical complexes; inversely, at the level of the human listener, the particle structure of the sound is no longer present, replaced by an all-over perception. But the discipline of creation or engineering involves navigation in the intermediate continuum. What is unique to C.D. is its demand that the audience, too, be initiated into this discipline.

*

At C.D.’s center is a presentation of philosopher Wilfrid Sellars’s favorite example of the pink ice cube.12 As a perceptual object we experience the pink cube as homogeneous—pink all the way down and at every point. It yields no further information. Unlike the minimalist object it hides nothing, yet the cube-of-pink is no less a black box for all that. If we are not simply to passively accept its taciturn closure, the question is how we might break into this perfect homogeneity without immediately reducing it to something else, losing the object of perception in favor of a mass of colorless particles.

C.D.’s libretto recounts this breaching of the pink cube’s homogeneity, with other components of the performance being employed as agents to exert a conceptual pressure on its homogeneous perceptual skin, overcoming its reticence to give up any further information about itself. Scent and sound become orientation markers for the conceptual alienation of the cube, as they themselves are unwrapped, subjected to varying perspectives, and ‘chimerized’ in the libretto’s descriptions.

What is demanded here is a radical shift of perspective on the object, a shift which is not a matter of interpretation, which no longer takes place only in physical space, and which goes beyond Hecker’s previous experiments in object disruption. C.D. asks us to abandon what meets our eyes and to conceptually reconstruct the object as a millefeuille of conceptual maps that concurrently structure the cube; we are then challenged to reconstruct and integrate this multiplicity of registers. No longer a homogeneous colored mass in space that can be broken down infinitely into smaller masses of pinkness, the pink cube becomes a ramified nest of concept-spaces, traversed in a kaleidoscopic focus pull operated by a ‘chromatic demon,’ a movement as conceptual as it is perceptual.

The very hypothesis of inhomogeneity precipitates a ‘catastrophe’ that disturbs the familiar parameters of the object: The pink cube’s perdurance can no longer be regarded as that of a substantial object sheathed in a homogenous perceptual skin. It holds only in so far as these multiple levels are held in a tenuous stability, disturbance of which will open up a new continuum of immaterial possibilities. The homogeneity of the object—an inevitable initial condition of our perceptual encounter—is not a given but an obstruction; transparency is opacity; intuitive familiarity is an impediment to interaction; objects only block immaterials.

This game is indeed incomplete without its audience, but it obliges you to observe certain rules of play. This is a theater that neither simply tells a story nor grants you the spurious liberty of choosing your own adventure. Instead, it engages you in a process of synthetic construction. C.D. only comes into its own as a ‘piece’ in so far as you reconstruct it synthetically, as something like the parfumier’s stratified column, in which top, middle and base notes are brought into a precarious accord—from the piquant immediacy of pink to the greyness of conceptual labor, from the chorus and their synthetic robes to the monolithic loudspeakers, from the synthetic skin of this booklet and the dryness of its prose to the rubber disc that is the vehicle for the scent, and the grain of the reader’s voice…. The program of abstraction constructs C.D. as a singular complex in which the conceptual and perceptual are equally, and ‘immaterially,’ synthetic.

*

For Lyotard the historical moment of Les Immateriaux promises new forms of creativity even as it heralds the end of the progressive program of modernity. Henceforth there will be only a complexification of matter ‘in which energy comes to be reflected, without humans necessarily getting any benefit from this,’13 implying ‘a profound crisis of aesthetics and therefore of the contemporary arts.’14 For ‘if we have at our disposal interfaces capable of memorizing, in a fashion accessible to us, vibrations naturally beyond our ken […] then we are extending our power of differentiation and our memories, we are delaying reactions which are as yet not under control, we are increasing our material liberty’. This liberty comes at the price of security,15 at the price of a counterfinality of technique and a ‘foreclosure of ends.’16 The orientation of synthetic thought offers little in the way of comfort or certainty—but what is the alternative?

We live in an engineered world, where cultural product—say, Britney’s latest hit—is delivered as a perfectly packaged whole, its highly polished surfaces vivid with immediacy. This artificial skin, bristling with irresistible affect, is worked by a dense and fathomless compaction of immaterials coded and manipulated so as to meticulously finesse and tweak response patterns and ensure maximum receptivity. Concretion at the level of ‘immediate’ cultural experience—the meniscus of the holon, more opaque the more transparent it appears to be—is the achievement of massive abstraction attained collectively through countless technical and creative microcultures and the new languages and conceptual structures that emerge from them. The immaterials refined by these forces of production are selected, processed and distributed according to supple and responsive practices of coding and decoding, technique and modulation.

The task for contemporary creativity, C.D. suggests, is not that of resisting such unthinkable abstractions by corralling audiences into ‘free’ interpretative spaces, but that of initiating a disciplined apprenticeship in abstraction itself: tampering with and breaking open the black box of synthetic production, getting under the skin of immaterial processes that would otherwise tyrannize us. For the incommensurability of perspectives is employed without compunction to divide and conquer; to produce subjects who are passive transformers faced with oppressive double-binds: nihilistic reduction to elementary particles, or the opaque transparency of lived experiences to be passively enjoyed; science or culture; engineering or creativity; analysis or sensation; concept or percept.

The means to engineer our own artificial immaterials and languages—to ‘activate, not appease’—begin with the hypothesis that whatever is whole, homogeneous and self-evident can and must be peeled open, and the processes of abstraction encrypted in pure perception tracked through a painstaking change in perspective that unfolds its ramified conceptual depths. As Negarestani’s libretto asserts, this ‘program of abstraction,’ far from being destructive, reductive, or eliminative, is generative and indeed creative. C.D. guides us as we grasp the ‘recipes’ operative at different scales and learn to navigate between perceptual objects and their technical preparation, in order to integrate what once seemed like incommensurable components, through ‘a kind of mutual adjustment’ which, to an engineer of immaterials such as Hecker, must prove ‘complex, fascinating, and unavoidable’.17

  1. On indeterminacy as the axiom of contemporary art, see the work of Suhail
    Malik, in particular his recent Artist’s Space lectures, at http://artistsspace.org/programs/on-the-necessity-of-arts-exit-from-contemporary-art/.
  2. Albert Bregman and Stephen McAdams, ‘Hearing Musical Streams’, Computer Music Journal 3 (4) (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1979), 26–43
  3. Originally commissioned by the Centre de Création Industrielle, curated by Jean-François Lyotard and Thierry Chaput. See the exhibition catalogue, along with Lyotard’s presentation at the accompanying seminar, ‘Matter and Time’ in Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman, trans. G. Bennington and R. Bowlby (London: Polity Press, 1993).
  4. Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Matter and Time,’ 41.
  5. Ibid., 37–8.
  6. Ibid., 43.
  7. Zachary M. Smith, Bertrand Delgutte and Andrew J. Oxenham, ‘Chimaeric sounds reveal dichotomies in auditory perception’, Nature vol. 416, 7 March 2002: 87–90.
  8. See Florian Hecker, Chimerizations (New York: Primary Information, 2013).
  9. Jean-François Lyotard, interview with Bernard Blistène, Flash Art 121 (March
    1985).
  10. Robert Batterman, ‘The Tyranny of Scales,’ in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Physics, ed. R. Batterman (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 255–286: 256.
  11. Ibid., 294.
  12. See, for example, Wilfrid Sellars, ‘Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man’, in Frontiers of Science and Philosophy, ed. Robert Colodny (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962): 35–78.
  13. Lyotard, ‘Matter and Time,’ 45.
  14. Ibid., 50.
  15. Ibid., 43.
  16. Ibid., 54.
  17. Batterman, ‘Tyranny of Scales,’ 283.