Against Representation: A Revolution in Front of You

By Mattin, 27 April 2010
Image: All images: Mattin and Taku Unami, Distributing Vulnerability to the Affective Classes, performance at the Rigoletto, Paris, 14 December 2009


By taking everything as possible material for improvisation (not just sounds, but ideas, affects, power relations, hidden structures contained within the room...) it is possible to develop a practice of ‘extreme site-specificity'. Noise artist Mattin probes the enigma of radical performativity

The representation of the working class radically opposes itself to the working class.

- Guy Debord, ‘Thesis 100', Society of the Spectacle


Representation as a Form of Mediation: Fragmentation/Separation

Representation in politics can be seen as a form of delegation. One ceases to take responsibility for certain acts and thoughts, relegating it to somebody else who will speak for you. In representative democracy an ordinary person does not have the possibility of developing the specific language needed to speak to power or authority. A separation is created between everyday life and the moments when political decisions are made in society or the community. As Guy Debord pointed out, ‘representation separates life from experience', similar to the separation of disciplines, the division of labour, and the distinction between work and leisure. However, as Jean-Luc Guionnet remarked to me, Debord criticised representation without criticising the language that he himself was using. As representation is the typical medium of artistic practice, it is no wonder Debord and other Situationists wanted to supersede art. They desired life without separation.

As long as we accept art as a separate discipline it will be more difficult to produce concrete and direct political change through artistic practice. Similarly, to think that political action can only happen in the realm of politics or in the streets would also be a way of accepting that separation


All images: Mattin and Taku Unami, Distributing Vulnerability to the Affective Classes, performance at the Rigoletto, Paris, 14 December 2009

Some questions emerged during a discussion: who is the political subject today? Where is the political struggle today? Surely many years have passed since the concise criticism of the spectacle by Debord. Capitalism has continued to develop powerful and complex forms of alienation, the most recent of which surely include forms of biopower and social networking. People are no longer simply spectators of their own lives through representation, as Debord argued, but create their reality through the representations available on MySpace and Facebook. Profit flows from people's sharing of creativity, emotions and intimate information - all of which is surely very helpful for market researchers, and the police.

We're no longer contemplating our life through certain forms of representation. We've internalised the spectacle to such an extent that the way we relate to each other, our interactivity in everyday life and experience, is reproducing it, not with a feeling of passivity or distance, but with an intense desire to enjoy ourselves, be ourselves and be connected. Have your say, produce, write, listen, start your own blog, comment in online forums, express yourself. Never before have we had so much access to self-representation, and never before has our subjectivity been such a product of representation.

All is not that bad on the internet. New realities and ways of working together are being built thanks to the Free Software movement, a very interesting example of how to counter the division between the realms of production and consumption. But for the spectacle, consuming is also no longer enough; being connected is now required. Could this be a more intimate form of separation? What about all those iPhoners who are half here, half there? Separation before being connected, separation from oneself?

Now let's imagine we are in the same room with Gregg Bordowitz. At his talk at the Whitney Independent Study Program, we were impressed by his attentiveness to what was happening in the room. What type of relations were being built there and then? What type of environments were being created? He managed to create a different type of atmosphere in the space where so many discussions had already taken place. He created perplexity, and he inspired us, making us aware of the politics in the room and certain repressive relations taking place there. Sometimes a revolution is needed in the room.

How much are you willing to engage the situation that you are in?

The possibilities of a revolutionary practice are already in front of us. It is a matter of penetrating the surface of our reality which appears to be so neutral and free of interest. At the same time, we can feel a spectral hand making us behave in a certain way. The hand of the normalisation process that does not let things get disrupted. The means to disturb this neutrality might be extremely simple; from talking to making noise, from acting different than usual to being utterly honest, from saying the most intimate things in public to being totally quiet when you should be having fun. To stop being so self-conscious about your reputation could also help. Surely it would mean to give up at least momentarily the restrictions of being the ‘yourself' of MySpace and Facebook. Why not become someone else? Fuck knows who, perhaps The Stranger.

Improvisation: Elusive and Unstable

Sabotage all representation!


- The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection


In speaking of improvisation we not only discuss the production of particular sounds or events but the production of social spaces as well. We invoke this as both a strategic term and a conceptual tool. Improvisation can therefore refer both to experimental music making as well as everyday and mundane practices. Improvisation as having a long historical use outside the realm of contemporaty art, cannot be identified with an origin nor as a term coined by a group of artists or musicians (as oppossed to Conceptual Art, Institutional Critique, EAI...). Obviously anybody can do it without having to understanding the complex issues related to a specific discourse. Improvisation as opposed to other kinds of music making or practices, has no fidelity to any roots or origins. It is by default heretic. Where applied, improvisation brings about glimpses of instability. If it is working, its elusive qualities evade solidification and commodification - at least in the moment.

Towards a Dense Atmosphere: Radical Performativity and Site-Specificity

Within the context of art, is it possible to have a non-representational relationship to reality? If yes, this is surely done by acknowledging all the specificities of the room. One should try to activate the room as much as possible and disrupt previous habits and behaviours to create different ones. In other words, to go against the normalisation process. I have found improvisation to be a practice which takes into account everything happening in the room. Not to create something new that later could be used elsewhere, but as a way of intensifying the moment through changing social relations.

Improvisation can be an extreme form of site-specificity as well as a radical, intimate and immanent self-criticality. As there is no need to defend or build a position for future situations, improvisation always points towards self-destruction.

We could see improvisation as pure mediality with no outside to itself, as pure means without end, countering any form of separation, fragmentation or individuality. When can one feel this activation of the space taking effect? When there is a dense atmosphere which makes you aware that something important is at stake. As there are no predetermined categories or words to describe this experience, what is at stake is very difficult to articulate. Because of the difficulties of assimilating it or immediately understanding it, this affective strangeness counters the normalisation process. When this dense atmosphere is produced, the people involved become painfully aware of their social position and usual behaviour. If the density of the atmosphere is sufficient it can become physical, disturbing our senses and producing strange feelings in our bodies. Through such a multi-sensorial disruption in the appearance of neutrality, one gets the sense of being in a strange place - not really knowing where to stand. We become vulnerable. Every movement or word becomes significant. Once you are there, there is no way back. What is created is not a unified sense of space or time, but a hererotopia where one location contains different spaces and temporalities. Previous hierarchies and established organisations of space are exposed. The traditional time of the performance and distribution of attention (the audience's respectful behaviour towards the performers etc.) are left behind. If one goes far enough, actively distributing one's vulnerability, these hierarchies could be diffused, not to give a false sense of equality, but to produce alternative social relations of time and space. The creation of an affective class?

Don't get me wrong, I am not talking about ‘relational aesthetics' where some audience interactivity adds cultural capital to some bland art works done by very concrete artists with dubious ideologies.


Brecht's Verfremundungseffekt (poorly translated as ‘estrangement effect') tries to get rid of the fourth wall in the theatre by distancing and disrupting the illusion separating the audience from the stage/performer, making evident their ‘passive' and ‘alienated' condition. This in turn makes them understand how constructed the situation is.

In improvisation the estrangement effect is doubled, as the condition of the actor or performer is also disrupted. As both the performers and the audience find themselves in a condition that they could not have anticipated before, the separation between them is no longer so clear.

Right now, in whatever situation you are in, how much are you willing to give up?

A dense atmosphere in improvisation reveals the conservative construction of the situation (audience, performance, manager, curator). It produces the desire for a new set of conditions. There are no prescriptions for improvisation. The goal is to create an unprecedented situation - strange for everybody, without a didactic or presupposed agenda. In his text ‘The Emancipated Spectator', Jacques Rancière uses the example of Joseph Jacotot, a French professor in the 19th century who tried to teach his students what he himself did not know. In doing so, he took as his starting point the equality of intelligence, negating claims to mastery of knowledge. In Rancière's words, Jacotot was ‘calling for intellectual emancipation against the standard idea of the instruction of the people'. Performing the authority of knowledge (like Debord's criticism or Brecht's didactics) reproduces the logic of mastery, even when its deconstruction is intended. Brecht plays certain strategies against each other (i.e. introducing social realism into an epic or romantic scenario) in order for their techniques and effects to become evident.

However his didactics continually distance the viewer from what they do not know, from what they still ‘have to learn'. Rancière advocates thinking differently about seeing and hearing - not as acts of passivity but as ‘ways of interpreting the world', as ways of transforming and reconfiguring it. He is against this pedagogical distance as well as any idea of genre or discipline, but he doesn't go far enough in explaining how this oppositionality could be enacted. Rejection of these inequalities is not enough. We need an alternative way to experience life which is indifferent to hierarchical knowledge claims. Again, interpretation would require mediation, as one would be reflecting on the situation, rather than being in the situation.

The question is how to be ‘in' the situation as much as possible, with minimum reflection in order to explore, live and experience the precise moment. Here I am not aligned with Feuerbach's romantic idea of truth as unseparateness, but claim that the Real itself does not contain these separations. These separations can be understood as ideologically and historically constructed truths which are used to mediate our experience of the Real. However, the closer we get to the Real, the less these ready-made truths help us to live it or experience it. If we are ‘in' enough, we might be able to leave behind our previous preconceptions, prescriptions, and ideologies.

‘Real' here is to be understood quite straightforwardly, as what happens ‘for real' simply because it's happening here and now. It's connected to the sense in which one can have a real pain, and behave as though that pain were real: indeed, this is an interesting characteristic of children's playing, when they encounter pain, they expressed it. This is not to say that ‘real' in its everyday adjectival sense doesn't harbour a powerful but complicated connection with the Real as noun, whether François Laruelle's or Jacques Lacan's.

Only the production of new and radical concepts in a language indifferent to the dominant structures would help us to understand the particularities of the situation in the dense atmosphere that we have created.


The Stranger

The Stranger or the identity of the real is non-reflected, lived, experienced, consumed while remaining in itself without the need to alienate itself through representation.


- François Laruelle


To what extent would you detourn yourself in the situation you are in?

When improvisation is successful, it puts everybody in an strange situation; it makes us strangers. In his non-Marxism, François Laruelle uses the concept of The Stranger to describe a more radical and universal concept of the proletariat. The Stranger is a radically immanent and performative, non-representational, non-normative thinking subject. It is a force (of) thought and a heretic in the sense of refusing authority and tradition. As Ray Brassier puts it:

The Stranger: is the name for the Subject of practice-of-theory, modelled (‘cloned') on given material (philosophical, but in this instance sonic/music/aesthetic/cultural etc.), but determined by [the?] real of the last instance (=One etc.), whose immanence it effectuates. The Stranger-subject is what you become when you think-practice-perform in radical immanence.


For the sake of space let me butcher Laruelle's complex system of non-philosophy. Laruelle is trying to explore the Real through radical immanence without adding layers of either reflection or representation, through which we otherwise mediate our experiences. In order to understand the concept of The Stranger we have to understand ‘Determination-in-the-Last-Instance' (DLI). Originally the term was invented by Marx-Engels for historical materialism, and developed by Althusser for his analysis of infrastructure/superstructure (which in the last instance remains reciprocally co-constituted by what it determines). For Laruelle, the DLI is simultaneously real, universal, immanent, heterogeneous, and irreversible.

The DLI is not simply an immanent causality but radical immanence itself. A syntax without synthesis which excludes reciprocity, convertibility, systematicity, finality, formalism, materialism and technologism. Laruelle is not trying to empirically prove his concepts but instead use them as self-evident thoughts which correlate to the Real. The DLI does not escape from itself or alienate itself. The DLI is the causality of unforeseeable (non-definable and non-demonstrable) theoretical and pragmatic emergence - if we look at the etymology of improvisation we find that its Latin root ‘improvisus' means ‘unforeseen'. It is practice-of-theory which is an event in itself. The DLI invalidates or suspends theoretical authority and any claims to knowledge of the Real. The Real cannot correspond to a doctrine or a discipline, however it can be ‘cloned' into a concept and from there you try to deal with the immanence of the concept itself, taking it as an axiom rather than using it to understand or determine the Real. You cannot get yourself into the Real, but you can clone it into a concept, and then remain as close as possible by dealing performatively with the concept, with the minimum reflection possible.

Following Laruelle we can take improvisation as an axiom, in the sense that one cannot really define when one is or is not improvising (since so many questions arise around individual free will, subjectivity, and ideology; questions which I don't think can ever be satisfactorily resolved). By adopting this axiomatic approach to improvisation as a domain to which one can bring ideas, decisions, and concepts as ways of narrowing down or focusing where the improvisation is going to happen, one can look closely into a specific area. Everything can be a tool for improvisation and we can learn a lot from feminist thinkers such as Judith Butler and Peggy Phelan about how to bring the notion of performativity down from its conceptual use (such as in Laruelle's) in order to intensify an encounter with the concept that the ‘personal is political'.

Radical concepts can enable a radical critique from within, without respect to the master terms such as capital and heteronormalism.

J.K. Gibson-Graham says in The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy,

Capitalism is the phallus or ‘master term' within a system of social differentiation. Capitalist industrialization grounds the distinction between core (the developed world) and periphery (the so-called Third World).


If we understand capitalism as the ‘master term', then the ‘Stranger-in-the-last-instance' is the most particular and vulnerable subject and it cannot be represented by either the dominant hegemonic order or the working class. The Stranger is too particular and site-specific to be subsumed by other universalised concepts. The Stranger is the ultimate impossible subject and only respects the authority of the Lived and Experienced rather than the Represented.


Thanks to Lisa Rosendhal, David Baumflek, Jean-Luc Guionnet, Ray Brassier, Seiji Murayama, Emma Hedditch, Ilya Lipkin, Jennifer Kennedy, Anthony Iles, Josephine Berry Slater, Howard Slater & Henry Flynt

Mattin <mattin AT> is a Basque artist working mostly with noise and improvisation. His work seeks to address the social and economic structures of experimental music production through live performance, recordings and writing,