Bits and Pieces: Electronic Art, Psychoanalysis, Culture (manuscript-in-progress)
Chapter 1: A Performance at STEIM (August 5, 2010)
I begin with a site and time specific examination of the STEIM foundation (Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and a concert that took place there on August 5, 2010. I received a grant to be in residence at the institute for the month in order to plan this book in the presence of artists making new musical applications and trying them out in concerts opened to the public. I will offer an account of the works of the three artists who performed at STEIM on August 5th. This account will open the musical, interactive, theoretical, cultural, and psychoanalytic issues that pervade the rest of this book, the works under discussion and the discursive approach that I will undertake in an attempt to theorize interactive, electronic art through the teachings of Jacques Lacan.
Lacan: a Brief Introduction
I will take several passes at some of Lacan’s ideas throughout this chapter and book. For now I would like to introduce his ideas with some large-grain explanations. First, Lacan offers a narrative of developing subjectivity through which we all pass from birth to language acquisition (the disorganization of the self after birth (typified by the Real), the Imaginary Order (typified by the mirror stage) and the Symbolic Order (language)). Second, direct access to the experiences of this narrative are, of course, retrospective fantasies that we tell ourselves and each other in social space as mediated propositions. Lacan understands both this narrative and its mediated, retrospective enactments according to three registers of experience: the Real, Imaginary Order, and the Symbolic Order, as illustrated by the well-known triangle below.
The Symbolic Order is the world of code, of language, of the Law, of social conventions in which and of which our lives are saturated; the Imaginary Order is the world of mutually exclusive binary oppositions that govern our developing subjectivity from six months to a year and a half (the mirror stage) and which (once we have entered the Symbolic Order) still reside as residues of binary identification: fullness / lack; presence / absence; identification / alienation. The Real is everything that remains; it is in a very different logical class from either the Imaginary Order or the Symbolic Order. Imaginary and Symbolic signifiers saturate our lives; what lies beneath is the Real. The Real shows itself in moments of crisis, psychic and personal or collective and cultural. I will say much more about these concepts in the pages that follow.
Lesley Flanigan opens the concert. She creates and manipulates feedback, combining it with her own voice throughout. See a YouTube clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLwbox8n6x4 for the first fifty seconds of the performance. At 0:38-0:40 you can hear the sound of a microphone producing feedback as it is moves—the basic material of her performance.
Feedback is a kind of noise; and yet to call the sounds in Lesley Flanigan’s performance noises would be to address a subtle palette of sounds with a very blunt instrument indeed. For one thing white noise indicates saturation of the audible spectrum with frequencies at a uniform dynamic level; there are various colors of noise (such as pink noise). Suffice it so say that there are many recognizable frequencies throughout Lesley Flanigan’s performance, so the sounds are really not that noisy at all. Imagine a continuum with white noise on the left and the pure sine wave of a single frequency on the right; Lesley Flanigan’s performance involves quite a wide range of acoustic phenomena in the middle, from feedback around which one can hear a frequency (anecdotally one could sing a note for each feedback source) and more or less pure frequencies, drones, sung pitches.
There have been many approaches to noise over the past; perhaps the most infamous and historically significant is Luigi Russolo’s The Art of Noises that not only announces the arrival of noise on the futurist scene with great celebration, but also suggests ways of notating and harnessing its signifying power. Consider the various ways in which we refer to noise. We say noise to refer to a sound that interrupts (either neutrally or with a sense of positive or more usually negative surprise as in “did you hear that noise?”). A noise in this sense is an acoustic signifier that intervenes in the context of another (perhaps unconscious, perhaps conscious, as in the ambient sounds of a house at night, broken by a noise that wakes you and causes you to ask “did you hear that noise?”) A noise in a conventional musical performance is something disturbing, interrupting, a threat to middle class composure and decorum; in electronic devices, noise has been for decades a byproduct of circuitry to be minimized, and some engineers have spent their lives minimizing such noise.
Noises (plural) simply suggests more than one noise, but noise (in general) is the category that Lesley Flanigan specifically and many interactive, electronic artists in general explore, expand, and cultivate in the form of controlled feedback loops.
Lesley Flanigan creates her music from feedback—a very specific middle ground between white noise and pure frequencies; at times feedback sounds noisy (one cannot sing Do if asked) and at other times the feedback does have a pitch center. At 0:31 in the clip referenced above, for example, you can hear a feedback A-flat (a bit flat) shift an octave higher as if the machine sang in a falsetto, or yodel.
In the early twenty-first century in first-world social space, to enjoy feedback specifically or noise generally is to enjoy the subversive, to enjoy that which cuts against the grain of middle-class complacency (just as Charles Ives had wished for dissonant art music a century earlier). On a more personal and immediate level, I like noise and find it strangely soothing. In order for this to happen, it has to resonate with some psychic formation and for me this psychic formation is the Lacanian Real. The teachings of Jacques Lacan in general and his three categories Real / Imaginary / Symbolic (as introduced above) will occupy a central place in this book, and I want to say more about these ideas slowly and gradually as they grow out of immediate textual needs. Early on in the book (as here) definitions will be descriptive, simple, and illustrative. Later on, the definitions will be more nuanced and more completely documented. The Real is the thingness of life that lies just beneath the surfaces of how we understand and name our experience.
The Real is that thingness which can seem to appear when some recognizable object is pulled apart, cracks, or reveals what lies beneath. The glimpse of the Real in Lesley Flanigan’s performance is auditory and occurs when normal functioning of electronic equipment produces the feedback that she harnesses. As she masters that feedback, the resultant noise becomes tamed, named, Symbolic. Since the Real is a quite scary thing, one should ask “why enjoy the Real except in an autodestruct mode?” An answer must be that it is enjoyable to feel the fabric of subjectivity pull apart so that one can master it and remain contained. To some extent this is the pleasure I felt hearing Lesley Flanigan’s performance—the pleasure of immersion into an envelope of noise.
The body has much to do with all of this, but what is the body after all? I don’t think there is such a thing as a body in any ontological certainty. There is the body in which I live. Fine, but what is that? What are the thresholds between such a body and the means by which I understand it and the world around it? For me (taking Lacan as my lead here) there is the body with a small “b”; it is the body in which each of us lives (or better, the articulations that are enunciated as thresholds are crossed between our flesh and Imaginary and Symbolic dimensions of our social lives); the Body with a large “B” is that corporeality in social space that makes it possible for our bodily (with a small “b”) threshold crossings to occur and be understood, acknowledged, denied, disavowed, welcomed in social space in the first place. Further, I suggest that bodies (in both its Imaginary small “b” and larger, Symbolic large “B” dimensions) are articulated as thresholds are crossed and enunciated between and among flesh (the Real that underlies the Imaginary and Symbolic dimensions of body / Body) and the Imaginary and Symbolic registers that give it meaning in social space.
Such an approach to body / Body has a basis in the Lacanian topology of Real and its thresholds to the Imaginary and Symbolic Orders, particularly in Lacan’s assertion that the prematurity of human birth makes mirror (mis)recognition and its correction in the course of the mirror stage a fundamental generative force in individual development and culture.
When Flanigan sings there are two main textures she evokes: 1) vocalizations above a low drone, and 2) fragments of a song above an accompaniment that sounds like a child swinging back and forth on a swing. This gesture is an oscillation between two thirds that can be either heard Do (E-flat) / Me (G-flat) to Ra (F-flat) to Fa (A-flat) OR Ti (E-flat / D-sharp) / Re (G-flat / F-sharp) to Do (F-flat / E natural) to Mi (A-flat / G-sharp). As this oscillation and Lesley Flanigan’s voice fade, feedback brings the performance to a close. In the YouTube video of the end performance at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wR4G-BLkvrA, the fade takes place from 0:46 to 1:30.
A very curious thing happens when Flanigan sings, having worked so hard to create a complex web of spontaneously created and (mis)shaped feedback loops; her voice has a curious inside-out quality for me. If you imagine our continuum with white noise on the left and a pure sine wave on the right, it is as if she has pushed through feedback and noise to reach pure lyrical singing “on the other side”—as if a kind of foldover or phase change occurs. For me, Lesley Flanigan’s work moves back and forth along the Symbolic – Real trajectory of the triangle introduced at the outset of this chapter (going with the direction of the arrow as she (mis)shapes feedback; and flipping against the grain of the arrow when she sings); she takes a coded signifier (noise of a moving microphone) and opens up a space in which to hear the Real beneath; and then a strange foldover occurs in which the Real changes phase into symbolic forms.
PIRX comprises Maciej Sledziecki on guitar and Marion Wörle computer. There is also what looks like conventional sound effects pedals on the floor, which Maciej Sledziecki presses from time to time. The performance involves (mis)shaping sounds of the electric guitar in addition to loops that were pre-recorded. My first association was of Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms #10 for guitar and tape (1992). I will discuss first the Davidovsky, then PIRX.
The charm of Davidovsky’s Synchronisms lies in the subtle incorporation of taped sounds into the live performance of a highly notated score for a conventional instrument or group of instruments. The work belongs to the classical avant-garde of the post WWII era, although the piece does not sound as highly controlled (and therefore highly chaotic) to me as the pieces of the Darmstadt School of the 1950s such as works by Olivier Messaien and Pierre Boulez. The piece is in two large-scale gestures: 1) the guitar plays alone, and 2) it is joined by electronic sounds. In the first part of the piece (00:00 to 04:13 in the video) Davidovsky evokes the widest possible array of guitar sounds and gestures, from runs, slaps, passagework, strumming, chords, melodic fragments, left hand percussive trills, knocking the instrument with knuckles and fingers, vibrato, pitch bends and harmonics.
The pitch structure of the guitar part (both gestures) is highly modernist and freely atonal. The pitch material is based on four and five note collections that have various half and whole steps within perfect fourths and fifths (very characteristic of the tuning of the guitar strings) and the highly modern sound of the tritone (right between a perfect fourth and perfect fifth) that famously splits the octave in half. See the YouTube video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IztTJTVpeOk for a performance of the Davdovsky by Daniel Lippel.
On the YouTube video of the Davidovsky, the taped sounds enter at 4:13
I would like to discuss the transition in the work between the first and second gesture in some detail, since it bears on the relationship between conventional and electronic instruments in the piece at hand and also on the take that PIRX will give a similar binary—between the conventionality of the electric guitar on the one hand, and processed sounds from a computational program on the other. See Example 1 below for a passage of the score that captures the transition from guitar playing alone (see “G” on the left of the first system) to guitar playing with tape (see “T” on the left of the second system). 4:13 occurs during the fermata at the end of the first system.
Example 1: Mario Davidovsky, Synchronisms #10 for Guitar and Electronic Sounds, mm. 98-105
The first note in the tape part is an E-flat that enters in measure 102. Since the guitar part sounds an octave lower than written, the tape part sneaks into the piece sounding a sixteenth note later than the guitar, pppp. The next note in the tape is G-natural that is also the same pitch as the guitar played this time at the same instant—the downbeat of measure 103. The next note in the tape is a D-natural that is also the same pitch as the guitar sounding at the same instant—after an eighth beat in measure 104 (Davidovsky had pointed out earlier on the score that grace notes sound on the beat, so the guitar’s D-natural will sound exactly with the tape’s D-natural). The next note in the tape is an F-natural that follows the guitar’s F-natural in the same measure. The tape’s G-sharp in measure 105 now anticipates the guitar’s G-sharp and clashes with the guitar’s A-sharp. The tape has now come clearly out from hiding. But in addition, the sustain of the pitches mentioned thus far in the tape should tug at our ears since guitar pitches decay after being struck (much like the piano) and the sustain (though pppp) should suggest to us that the tape has entered. After the taped sounds enter the work at 04:13, the rest of the piece involves subtle interplay between the two instruments. At times tape sounds are obviously tape sounds; at times guitar sounds are obviously guitar sounds, but often one isn’t sure, and therein lies the charm of this work.
In the PIRX performance, one can see and hear and feel that the world has changed quite a bit from Davidovsky, even though only 18 years separate the two. In Davidovsky the tape part is a) pre-recorded and b) not present at all as an immanent partner for the performer. In the video clip of the Davidovsky, the guitar played almost imperceptibly nods to have someone begin the tape (this gesture is much more obvious on other performances), and though nicely concealed, this alienation between immanent guitar player and tape are essential to the Davidovsky; the guitar player plays with the tape and absolutely not the other way around.
Also in the Davidovsky the taped sounds sound rather like guitar sounds and the ones that don’t are clearly extensions of guitar sounds. In PIRX, the computer transforms electric guitar sounds much more radically. In PIRX, the binary—immanent instrument (electric guitar) and mediating technology (computer)—is made more immediate: both the computer and guitar have players.
For me the second part of the Davidovsky is charming in its subtle manipulation of sounds that seamlessly cross the threshold back and forth between non-electronic and electronic sources of sound. In the PIRX performance, two large and prolonged gestures first resist the gravitational pull of the traditional electric guitar, leading to a sustained crescendo of noise, and then release the music back to sounds of the electric guitar.
The pulling open of conventionality is of course nothing more nor less than pulling at a signifier in the Symbolic and hearing the Real beneath—another take on that category that I think will come up again and again in interactive, electronic art. The Davidovsky, as beautiful and evocative as the piece is, domesticates what it hears beneath the conventional sounds of the guitar (the signifier in question here); PIRX, on the other hand, opens up the pulp brutality of the Real inside the signifier.
You can hear the very beginning of the performance in the following YouTube clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvZbdPP1eKI. The performance begins with the Real—an evocation of the pure pulpy fleshiness of the sounds of playing the electric guitar with the pitches subtracted out. Toward the end of the clip, the performers release the music into the sounds that we associate with the electric guitar. For me, the low B-flats that you can hear at 1:08 begin this process of release. At the very end of the clip above, Marion Wörle triggers a loop in which a low G in a guitar oscillates back and forth to a B-flat a minor third above. This interval will remind most listeners (at least unconsciously) of the blues.
The final extended gesture of the performance (refer to the clip below) involves the performers building upon a drone—a low E-flat. Maciej Sledziecki plays an E-flat an octave higher and oscillates back and forth between E-flat and the note a half-step higher—F-flat. Gradually this oscillation blurs and an immense new note resounds full of complex noise, overdubbing, and other voices. Into this new note, Marion Wörle adds notes on a small keyboard (which I could not see in performance but is perfectly clear in the clip) She begins adding high notes to the guitar’s E-flat / F-flat at 1:28. These pitches are very high A naturals and F-sharps. There is a looping hissing sound (like the softened sound of a rattlesnake) that comes into the music every few seconds, giving the performance an enormous sense of three-dimensional space—as if circling in a bent loop around its periphery. Throughout this entire passage, acoustic shards of the Real expand the signifier of E-flat / F-flat as a note.
For a YouTube clip that occurs near the end of the performance, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBv6rtPeLI0; listen to the lower fifth B-flat that Maciej Sledziecki plays below the E-flat beginning at 1:12, suggesting a dominant / tonic simultaneity.
For me, PIRX explores the trajectory Real – Symbolic on the triangle introduced at the outset of this chapter (going against the grain of the arrow, as it were). PIRX pulls remnants of the Real into the Symbolic, as the fleshiness of articulation void of sound releases throughout into conventional sounds produced by the electric guitar.
The Desert Fathers
Jeff Kaiser and Gregory Taylor comprise this duo; Jeff Kaiser on the trumpet and Gregory Taylor and the computer. I heard their performance as a complex take on call and response—a kind of mirror of sounds in which some sounds seemed to move back and forth between them and others sounded without a response (neither direct nor delayed). For me this is an acoustic mirror fantasy. Lacan famously marks the (visual) mirror stage as a crucial stage of development in which the self (mis)recognizes itself in the face of the (m)other; since Lacan, researchers in the 60s and 70s published a wide range of articles on an earlier, sound-specific stage of development that they dub the acoustic mirror stage.
The acoustic mirror stage involves the first intentional sounds that we use to communicate—the cry. The cry for attention is the first such sound in developing subjectivity; it is crucially (for music) pre-linguistic and it occurs at a stage in developing subjectivity in which we can not yet flip over from our backs. The acoustic mirror stage divides the world into two 180 degree halves—a “bright” half that corresponds to what we see (and for which the ear a) has an opening, b) has very little hair, and c) has spirals that amplify the common auditory range of speech) and a “dark” half that corresponds to what we cannot see (and for which the ear a) has no opening, b) has much more hair, and c) has no spirals to amplify the common auditory range). This is the origin of why sounds seem threatening when heard from behind. In the acoustic mirror stage, we both begin to acknowledge a separation between our bodies (enclosed in what Didier Anzieu calls our skin ego) and the other, on the one hand, and, on the other, a communication between the self and the other through an exchange of sounds that cross the skin ego and then become inscribed in language.
What Jeff Kaiser and Gregory Taylor reveal in this performance is the range of acoustic (mis)recognitions that can and do occur across this threshold. Let’s say we identify with Jeff Kaiser as the self; that is we imagine that the focus of articulation lies with him and Gregory Taylor embodies the other. What I mean by this is that between the self and the other there is communication as Anzieu has shown; you can imagine an arrow with two points between SELF | OTHER representing the sounds in / of this acoustic mirror as information is exchanged or as each hears him / herself reflected in the acoustic mirror of the other. This arrow moves from SELF to the right to the OTHER and back again. But psychoanalytic theory also implies that there are sounds in this phase of development that are incorporated neither into the self nor into the other; these are fragments of the Real. To show them we need another arrow moving to and from the SELF from the left and to and from OTHER to the right.
At 0:30 of a YouTube clip of the performance at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6s5sVCELxY, the camera zooms out and we can see that Jeff Kaiser is producing a series of glassy, brittle, extremely dry sounds that at first hearing we might not have identified as sounds from a trumpet being processed live. This moment suggests the importance of the visual dimension in the acoustic mirror. It is not enough just to listen, to hear oneself reflected in the voice of the other. It helps to look, to see with a glance that one has been heard, and that certain sounds are in fact aimed at you. I refer not to a glance between Jeff Kaiser and Gregory Taylor but to the gaze of the camera; at a certain moment the camera sees Gregory Taylor and we see that certain glassy, brittle, extremely dry sounds seem to be products of an exchange of information between the two performers.
Theories of the acoustic mirror focus exclusively on relations between one developing subject and his / her body as it differentiates itself from / forms connections with, its world (the gradually disintegrating Real as it becomes mapped in Imaginary and Symbolic signifiers). From 1:26 on Jeff Kaiser’s fingers still articulate notes, but the glassy, brittle, extremely dry sounds have gone. Are they no longer being reflected in the acoustic mirror of exchange? Are they lost as they encounter the Real as sounds we can’t recognize as reflections, echoes?
For me, the Desert Fathers exploit the acoustic mirror on the trajectory Real – Imaginary on the triangle introduced at the outset of this chapter. They take a communicative binary (self / other); some sounds move back and forth between them as others fall back into and are absorbed by the Real.
For us to see the acoustic mirror between two people introduces the social dimension, or, to put it psychoanalytically, the dimension of the other (into which the audience is placed at moments like this). The relationship between work of art and audience not only introduces the social dimension, but we need to theorize how that social dimension functions. Generally speaking we need to recognize (either consciously or unconsciously) something in the work that is always-already within us. And also that recognition must resonate in a shared moment, gesture, ritual in social space. A gesture performed in social space that knits together individuals and others is nothing neither more nor less than interpellation.
The quintessential gesture of interpellation is the hail, theorized by Louis Althusser; with a single gesture (necessarily repeated over and over because our thirst for it is insatiable), we inscribe ourselves into social space. I will discuss the form, content, and ideological implications of interpellation in the context of interactive, electronic art in subsequent chapters. But for now, let me say that there are three stages that a discussion of interpellation can take place: 1) a conventional Marxist approach involving exploitation of labor in which coercive elements are hidden, 2) psychoanalytic applications in which the coercive elements come out from hiding, and 3) questions of the potential of interpellation resistance in current interactive, electronic art. One of the ongoing issues that I explore throughout my writing concerns the subject in current social space. Put simply: if the subject is undergoing a shift in orientation away from Cartesian dualisms, what effect is that having on ideological interpellation? I will address that question throughout this book.
This chapter has examined large-grain psychoanalytic implications in three works performed at STEIM on August 5, 2010. My being there at the time, the pieces chosen by the creative staff of the institute, the culture of STEIM and its followers in Amsterdam, conversations I had with many of them, and my own experience of being in the performance spaces, were all brought to bear on these remarks. While most of the documentation for the rest of my writing must necessarily be on-line video, the documentation and the resultant discussion of this introduction could be real-time performance. It is important to STEIM that electronic music be performed live and that live performance involves an immediate instrumentality. STEIM performances always evoke a visceral presence, an incorporation of technology into bodies that make music, and improvisation both as integral compositional technique and space in which audience members can see, feel, and hear the unfoldings of musical materials. But for me, being there in the time and space of these three performances both meant that the immediacy created an impact and (perhaps oddly) that I missed a great deal in the process of this immediacy creating an impact.
The immediacy of the performance in time and space (“I was there”) is a signifier like all other signifiers—much is lost as much is registered as meaningful. And I mean signifier not just as in these marks on a page / screen; I mean signifier as in flesh and blood being in a place and time and registering its experiences. How does one know what has been lost in the immediacy of the time and place specificity of the present? For one thing, making the video clips upon which this introduction is based caused me to see and hear things that I had missed in the immediacy of the moment. This simply means that while immediate experience causes us to veer around some things as they get lost, the video documentation upon which much of the rest of my writing will be based will similarly veer around some things that get lost as other things come into view and earshot.
In the following chapters, interactive, electronic works will be examine in loose, often overlapping categories. At times the discussion will begin with a work and move into psychoanalytic and / or cultural-historical discourses; at times the direction will be flipped; at other times the discussion will begin with a psychoanalytic and / or cultural-historical element left open like a thread in the midst of a previous discussion.