Art Criticism

WORD. SOUND. POWER.

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The product of a curatorial exchange between Khoôj International Artists Association, New Dehli and Tate Modern, Word. Sound. Power. is an exhibition based around a sensuous cross-examination of the interrelation between language and power. At the edges of discourse, exceeding binary partitions of what or who can be heard, the figures in this show are figural. In other words, the artworks in this show function through a libidinal motor, where the artist’s voice is a desire for self-expression and utilized as a matrix of dissent or protest, in response to the restrictions of the governing political system, which prevent voices being heard. In this article I describe the ways that Word. Sound. Power. draws out a Lyotardian aesthetic and I use Lyotard to help understand what makes this show so timely and provocative.

Keywords: art, word, sound, power, discourse, figure-matrix, representation

Waiting for the gallery to open, I peer through the window into the Project Space at Tate Modern, where this exhibition is taking place. The first work I see is Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Conflicted Phonemes, 2012. There is a soundtrack on loop in the background of this piece: a neutral, computerised, female voice recites a poem about the journey and political acclaim of the voice, which is ‘a group of actions’ that ‘utter’, ‘emit’, ‘exclaim’, ‘express’ ‘comment’, ‘aspire’ and ‘summon up that which no one wishes to recall’. The plain tone of this voice sounds like it has had an aural Photoshop fix, to remove any bias of accent or interest. I suppose this is intentional – to neutralise viewers’ auditory sense organs and expectations, before entering the main room.

Walking into the space I look at the images that this deceptively impartial voice sets up. There is a large graph, also by Abu Hamdan, which maps language and articulation in relation to war, migration and famine in Somali. Phonemes equal and indeed promote conflict and crisis. This piece shows how immigration authorities around the world use accent and language tests to determine the validity of asylum claims. This work denigrates such an abusive and unjust practice, saying it denies legitimate claims of asylum. The point is to ‘reflect on what our own hybrid accents say about our place of birth; how we change and adapt our voices in different social situations and how complex our accents would be after a lifetime of migration’. (Abu Hamden: 2012) These maps of utterings ‘intend to offer the rejected/silenced asylum seeker an alternative and non-vocal mode of contestation.’ (Hansi Momodu 2013)

This work presents a cartography and genealogy of sound and power, where discourse (or speech) prevents self-representation, excludes human rights and promotes segregation and violence. This is a logic of (binary) opposition. It is a powerful opening to the exhibition, which goes on to redefine discourse as a machine to enable and activate what it excludes here.

We can see how the poetics and politics of raising one’s voice and the formation of an utterance in contradistinction or opposition to law-abiding convention, provides a creative process that critiques this custom, by questioning the inherent privilege in being allowed to voice dissent. Art is political because it challenges and transforms a wide range of social and political structures. This is a Lyotardian aesthetic because it defines art as an event that disrupts and transforms established customs and the exclusive, systematic logic of binary opposition. Artworks are libidinal machines that vibrate and transform.  Lyotard seeks to express the movement and moment of the artist’s creative process and our sensory encounter. He then considers how this movement joins together desires, channelling and empowering them to undermine and overcome social and political structures. For Lyotard, art is revolutionary because it transforms the structures that surround it, by operating from the machinic tool of desire.

As I enter the main room of the exhibition I hear a murmuring cacophony that hums into a discord of several different and opposing viewpoints, as the sounds from all the individual artworks meet, jarring and deconstructing the plain white space of the gallery. This is the sound of many different voices meeting. They blur into eerie vibrations, echoes and indefinition. I wonder what they are actually trying to say and whether they can say anything at all, if they all speak at once.

This sound intones an aura of John Cage. The space vibrates and the moving images and films pulsate. There is a rap beat getting’ jiggy wiv it. Somewhere in between discordant rhythms (some tempered, some angry, all desiring production) there is a constant need to be heard. This concerns the legislation of the voice and a poetics of listening.

As a survey of phonetics and diction, looking at the linguistic, psychological and physiological features of the voice, Word. Sound Power. lays out a cartography of the sound and effect of the voice, which is seen as a biometric tool that has or is denied power. As curator Andi-Asmita Rangari asserts:

Conceptually, Word. Sound. Power. encompasses all modes of articulation and is built on the terrain of license/silence. Anagrammatic, to begin with, the letters stay the same, but when rearranged, form a new word, signifying the drastic opposite of the earlier formation. Such semiotic tension also inaugurates a field of meaning and play, a non-linear domain of expressive possibilities. The exhibition explores how this domain unfolds. Thematically, Word. Sound. Power. is about the poetics and politics of voice. The formation of an utterance in relation to the norm, and how, in the process, a voice raised can also be understood as an act of poesies, a creative and aesthetic process that incorporates critique. (Rangari 2013)

In this exhibition voice is used as a means of protest and as a metaphor for self-representation. In this way the artworks present the voice as a representation of self-representation. These artists are on the margins of the governing, signifying and exclusive system (that operates by a logic of binary opposition) which dictates life, where they are unheard and unrepresented in the power struggle that controls how and where they live. Their artworks express and counter such misrepresentation directly, during the sensory event of an aesthetic encounter. In this way they utilise the voice to represent their identity of difference and try to be represented. The voice is activated in this political way during the embellishment and activation of the void that sits between an utterance and its meaning. For these artists, exhibited here, an utterance is its meaning, since the exhibition allows it to be heard and have a political and aesthetic affect. This affect is a sensuous, material event, where we can share a language that mutually excludes and therefore includes us all.

The gallery itself is a clean, rectangular, white space, with a smaller entrance room, which contains the cartography of utterance and a dark cinema room at the back for Amar Kanwar’s film. Multiple videos of documentary-like films, or personal soliloquys, or poetic expressions, are projected onto screens, which open up the small, tight walls into a much larger, international expanse of space. This expansion is inflated further by the fuzzy repetitions of sound. Song, poems, rap and percussion set a beat that intones a political dialectic between the ‘poor’ and the ‘rich’. There is a common desire, or craving, to find freedom of expression and to break from the ties of having to pay for one’s living.

This rectangular white cube opens a polymorphic, liminal space between art and poetry, amidst multiple languages at the threshold of physical spaces. In Lyotard’s words, these are ‘the fundamental modes of complicity that desire entertains with figurality: transgression of the object, transgression of form, and transgression of space.’ (Lyotard 2011: 276)

Traversing through the edges of discourse and its excess of desire, as I move through the exhibition my eyes meet a video: Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Laren’s Arise. I sit down and put on the headphones, to concentrate on the assigned playlist for this piece (which is playing out loud, as they all are, but with the headphones on one can focus and hear the single sound of each piece). This is about rap, break dance and graffiti, as an expression of ‘the voice of the poor’ versus ‘the politicians’:

Why are the voices of the poor never heard?

Because of money, anything happens.

I rap to express to the world what’s in my heart.

I feel that art can help to relieve poverty, in some way.

I feel that there can be change, if the government wants to listen.

Here we can see how the artist is marginalised, on the edges of systematic discourse and its exclusive power. Art is a tool to respond to and exceed this system of power and promote difference. It does this by allowing the artist to speak their own discourse and passion about the world. There is materialistic desire, for money, which is seen to be a key factor here, and an innate desire to speak; that is, to open a channel for an individual’s own discourse to be heard.

The rap is the backdrop to a film showing a sky-scape of flat, fragmented roofs and broken bricks of square, hobgobbled buildings in New Delhi, India. The video shows us a visual documentary of a malnourished, ‘poor’ sector of society. We see the dense, cramped living conditions of a ramshakled community. The need to pay rent and day-to-day living costs dominate thoughts, perceptions and the vision of daily, family life. These buildings are falling down and they are littered with rubbish and debris. And yet, amongst the dirt and rubble sit bursts of capitalist technology – most people have mobile phones and bright television screens absorb consciousness as individuals are hooked onto watching the monitors and entirely absorbed by their (virtual) narrative. The desire for money and the need to earn a living to pay taxes, tuition fees and support the family is seen to prevent individual passions for art and dreams about freedom. 

A second video by the same artist, KEST (Keep Evans Safe Today), shows another individual telling his story about life in poverty, based in London. Here is another rap:

 Life is shit in here

got my anger level high

aint got time for sorrow

struggle just to eat

[…]

What kind of life am I living?

Every day’s a struggle

Every day I got a puzzle

For the money

The man talks about his breakdown and time in a mental hospital. He shows us an artwork he made during his detainment. It is a sculpture of a man lying on a beach. As he says:

this represents freedom, init

chillin the hell out, init

on beach

money in the bank

chill out, init  

you get me

Here we can see the relation between the phantasy of having money and becoming free from all concerns. One can ‘chill out’ if one has ‘money in the bank’. This craving for material wealth and freedom is libidinal; its formation into an artwork is then Figural. The artist is still one step removed from his phantasy of having ‘money in the bank’, but the expression of this desire is freedom itself, emitted by the desire machine of the artwork and from the excess of discourse in its exposition and audibility during this exhibition. The artwork ‘represents’ something it is not (i.e. a source of money); but, at the same time, it is also directly exceeding, rupturing and transgressing the system of inscribing discourse that is ‘eliminating possibilities, by producing exclusions and privileges’, which prevents the artist from expressing this phantasy and achieving its ensuing sense of freedom. (Lyotard 2012: 67)

Throughout this exhibition there is a need and desire to exceed representation, to go beyond the system; and also, at the same time, to be represented, or heard and valued. In this context the artwork is a Figure-Matrix, a libidinal machine, which seeks to rupture the aesthetic system of signification which is removed from the real, whilst also achieving a longed for political representation. There is a need to be significant, at the margins of signification. The artwork invents ‘a new modality of inscription’, ‘a new pictorial object.’ (Lyotard 2012: 67) This art object produces a ‘violation of the discursive order-violence against the transformations authorized by this order’ by rejecting being silenced and exceeding the constricted parameters and rights of formal discourse. (Lyotard 2011: 290)

Amar Kanwar’s A night of Prophecy is another digital video shown in the exhibition, which is based around a poem about a migrant’s ‘tale of woe’, in India. We see more battered, broken buildings and a soliloquy about ‘Our tongue, our identity, our life, our being’. The picture frame glows and blurs with porous membranes of tactile qualities. The man’s crisp skin is wet with oozing sweat and blood. The frame blurs into speeding cars on a road, flaccid folds of cloth and swirling ripples in water. Subtitled language is colourful – a script with flowery characters that have tendrils dancing into (unknown) meaning across the screen. The images move through flickering flames of fire and smoke, following the gaze, rowing down the river. The pixels distort and smudge our vision. There is a haptic visuality to the auditory sensations, as we watch and listen to the narrative, when different sounds vibrate in time to the tactile textures from the video. Brittle details blur into fluid, swashing colours, alongside a rasping sound in the throat of the man who tries to speak. The sound of singing rhymes in time to the visual rhythm of the stubble on his chin. This is a drowsy sound, in contrast to the sharpness of a watch face. The maraca of tapping stone onto step, adds an abrupt beat (in excess) to the slurring song. In this way watching the film has become a transgressive, sensual event for the viewer; whilst it has become a transgressive fulfilment of desire and ruptured emission for Kanwar, who can speak his own discourse and simultaneously and paradoxically represent himself, his own vision and his voice, at the margins of systematic representation.

Thence, this exhibition shows that the artist’s task is to break out of ‘discourse’ – received rules, forms, representations and structures, but also to create their own discourse – to have a voice, speak out loud and be heard.

In this way the transgressive material event of this aesthetic encounter prompts a Lyotardian Figure Matrix, as an invisible force of desire. The artist’s desire is to be heard; the viewer’s desire is to listen. These forces meet in the mutual event of encountering the artwork, which acts as a sponge, or Deleuzian monument of sensation, absorbing and emitting by with economy of desiring production. This desire, felt from the artwork, is in excess and at the margins of linguistic or visual discourse. It consists of irrational forces that transgress boundaries and the semiotic (binary) logic of signification or representation. This displaces a representational, dialectic system based on semiotic code or binary opposition, to access and confirm the incommensurable.

Moving on through the exhibition, I come to Mithu Sen’s I am a Poet. This is a book of poetry written in a language that has no fixed meaning, using novel characters and syntax that do not correspond to any specific national or regional dialect. The artwork follows a journey of meaning-making and its associated access, or non-access, to power. Without having any specific meaning, this asemic text exists as a modal, abstract language that exceeds systems of discourse. Here language exists as a poietic, aesthetic form of cultural production. As such, ‘the work reflects on the notion that one’s capacity for self-representation is shaped by a fluency in the dominant language system of way of speaking.’ (Hansi Momodu 2013)

Visitors are invited to record their own interpretation of the meaningless text in the book of poems. We are then encouraged to decipher and respond to the pictorial qualities of the script and invent our own access to its meaning and significance.

Not bound by rules of grammar, diction, vocabulary and syntax, the poems in this book suggest another medium of understanding. No one but you speaks this language. It is yours to read, to decipher, to interpret and to understand. Unfettered by the hegemonic structures of language, these “nonsensical” figures; this computer gibberish is beyond the process of meaning making. I invite you to embrace “nonsense” as resistance and comb out utterances from your subconscious; thereby, giving voice to all those moments that exist but are not realised or lived. These are poems for you (and me) – by you (and me). (Sen 2013)

Sen’s work concerns the notion of self-representation, reflecting ‘on the ways in which our access to power is intrinsically linked to our access to language. Similarly, the work reflects on the notion that one’s capacity for self-representation is shaped by a fluency in the dominant language system of way of speaking.’ (Hansi Momodu 2013)

We can see throughout this exhibition that, in the political context of these artworks, there are restrictions to what is or is not said, and who is or is not heard. The distribution, allocation and reception of what is sensible (or sensuous) is a political aesthetic. This exhibition presents the sensible as a matter of citizenship: art is used to confront the exclusive partition of the sensible and ‘voice dissent’ at the oligarchic body that governs representation and judges who or what can be said or heard:

A particular concern that runs through the exhibition is to interrogate the inherent privilege in being allowed to voice dissent, reflected in cultural echoes – through art, music and poetry. Word. Sound. Power. is about articulation and questioning the ability to articulate. It is about the event that makes people take recourse to utterance. In this context, it is important to respect how intelligible silence, too, can be. A voice can be both raised and razed. (Rangari 2013)

Immediately drawing from Rancière’s political aesthetics, the exhibition also resonates with Lyotard’s ‘Painting and Desire’. We can see how the distribution of the sensible in the polymorphous perverse space, which is opened in Word. Sound. Power., is operated by desire as a social machine. In relation to this, the artwork contains and effectuates:

[…] deep arrangements that govern the pictorial inscription: these are matrix figures. […] They are figures that take hold of the collectivities of people who paint and also the collectivities of people who will look at painting. This is not personal expression: there is an extraordinarily active subterranean arrangement made up of the things that in fact order the place and the modalities of inscription.

It is at the level of these figures, of these very deep set-ups, and it is only at the level of this subsoil, that desire is organised, which is to say that it operates in the form of a certain machine that one should be able to relate to social fields that appear on the surface as different, apparently heterogeneous. (Lyotard 2012: 57)

In this context language is an object of and vehicle for the perpetuation of domination, where linguistic conventions represent and misrepresent reality according to a systematic, segregating and abusive logic of (binary) opposition. From this viewpoint representation is abhorrent, since it falls play to identity thinking and a strictly negative dialectics. As Adorno asks, can there be poetry after Auschwitz? And yet, there must be poetry. Representation is a necessity, a fundamental human right. The artwork as a figure-matrix operates at the borders of the signifying system, upsets established orders of meaning and provides a disruptive force of libidinal energy that remains autonomous and unrepresentable; whilst expressing the artist’s own, new sense and discourse that operates as freedom. In the aesthetic process of ‘The Pictorial Event Today’ the matrix of affective, affecting art presents an image that is, as Lyotard says, ‘Visual rather than simply visible’. (Lyotard 2012: 229) Or, in the sensory milieu of Word. Sound. Power., the works stand out from the distractive background fuzzy noise of all the videos playing together, which was the initial aural perception of my encounter. Instead, we have a duct for listening, where the artists’ voices can be heard. Lyotard says that ‘The work is an appearance in which an apparition happens’ that is ‘made of âisthèta’. (Lyotard 2012: 227, 229) This apparition is audible as a figural event, fuelled by desire on the edges (and in excess) of discourse.

NOP STILL 1 -KANWAR1

WORD. SOUND. POWER

12 July – 3 November 2013, Tate Modern, Project Space, Level 1.

10 January – 08 February 2014, Khôj International Artists’ Association, New Delhi.

References

Abu Hamdan, L. (2012), Conflicted Phonemes. Hand out leaflet of ‘voice mapping’ included in the artwork.

Hansi Momodu, L. (2013), ‘Word. Sound. Power.’ in exhibition flyer. Graphic design by Tate Design Studio.

Lyotard, J.-F. (2011), Discourse, Figure, trans. A. Hudek & M. Lydon. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lyotard, J.-F. (2012), Writings on Contemporary Art and Artists Volume IVa Miscellaneous Texts 1: Aesthetics and Theory of Art, ed. H. Parret (et al.), trans. V. Ionescu, E. Harris & P. W. Milne. Belgium: Leuven University Press.

‘Painting and Desire’ pp. 53-75.

‘Painting as a Libidinal Set-up’ pp. 77-101.

‘Beyond Representation’ pp. 117-145.

‘The Pictorial Event Today’ pp. 225-239.

Rancière, J. 2010. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, trans. S. Corcoran. London: Continuum.

Rancière, J. 2004. The Politics o f Aesthetics: The Distribution o f the Sensible, trans. G. Rockhill. London: Continuum.

Rangari, A.-A. (2013), ‘License/Silence: The Anagrammatic Terrain of Voice’ in exhibition flyer. Graphic design by Tate Design Studio.

Sen, M. (2013), I am a Poet. New Delhi: Khôj & London: Tate.

Caroline Wendling: a journey of belonging

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Ash print

For the past two years, during her residency at Wysing Arts Centre in Bourn, Cambridge, Wendling’s œuvre has evolved from her daily journey from her home to the studio. The artworks that Wendling produces in response to this walk, which is religiously repeated and recorded each day, are a chronicle of the ongoing and cascading changes that she perceives through the landscape. These changes, and the different forms that they inspire in Wendling’s art, appear to provide the fundamental essence of the linear repetition of her journey. As such, Wendling’s work enacts a cartography that is not so much a graphic ordinance survey map, but a continually meandering and granular metissage of the sense and impressions that she collects along the way.

Wendling records her journey by drawing maps of her route, numbering footsteps and noting significant sightings or incidents that occur along the way. She produces these sketches from memory, when she arrives at her studio, using pencil and then cutting shapes into planks of wood, forming largely monochrome digital prints and laser-cut wood blocks. There is a hapticity to these works which protrude from their ground onto the nervous system of the viewer, where they declare and express the imprint of Wendling’s footprints upon the landscape. Looking at one of her Ash series of prints, we can see a nutty texture that juts out from the paper in sculptural dimensions. Behind these works lies Wendling’s process of collecting fragments from her walk, using their retrieval in memory and fixing in the form of each drawing or print to secure her own existence in space. Wendling wants to situate and inhabit the space, form her place here, and call it a home.

Wendling’s work is primarily concerned with this search for belonging and homeliness, definitely situated in the East Anglian landscape and local area around her home and Wysing Arts. The question of how one can indeed feel at home is continually drifting through her works as a matter of an individual’s repeated interactions with and observations in a particular time and place. This journey is continued and continuous. Wendling has been making work inspired by the same journey ever since she began her residency at Wysing two years ago. I ask her if she will ever feel secure, establish her location here, or reach an end to this search? But she says that there is no end, the world and her reality is always changing. It is always different. There is no teleological conclusion, but incessant and unremitting searching, recording and exposing of the documentary and findings of the place, effort and movement of existence. Wendling’s artistic process makes this journey and its habitat a part of her personal being-in-the-world by finding objects as tokens or ornaments from the landscape, and recording the journey and the dimensions of these objects in her memory, so that they become a part of her identity.

Wendling’s short film, h2s, is a hypnotic immersion into her daily journey across Bourn. We hear the sound of her footsteps through crackling fallen leaves, broken sticks and frosty grass. The blasts and gravity of windy air add a rough, hairy resonance to the background noise, and birds occasionally squawk or cheep. Intermittently, we hear Wendling’s voice, as a seductive descant to the noises in the landscape. She utters phrases that respond to her journey and its contents, as shifting and fragmented thoughts and simple perceptions. Wendling’s artistry is compelling in this work because of the sound of her voice and how it interacts with her ambulating journey and discoveries. Her enchanting Francophonic accent and alluring, breathy lisp create a sound of separation – or a gap – between the words she utters, and their intended or interpreted meanings. As we listen to this soundtrack, in the film we can see simple linear maps that show the shape of her route, drawn in a sketchpad in pencil, which Wendling draws after every walk, as she tries to secure it to memory.

Watching and listening to this quest, to try and secure a route and place to memory, the viewer becomes a voyeur. Wendling’s concentration is intimate and private. We are seduced by the sound of it, and entranced by its occurrence. There is no beginning, and there will be no end. During its duration there is no duplication, monotony or even any grand dénouement, but incessant discovery, rediscovery, and a sense of belonging in the journey of pure difference. This is the essence of identity and marks the passage and ecology of one’s being.

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Screen print

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Laser image, wood

 

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Ink drawing

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Memory Map drawing

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Camera-less photography

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