Chapter 9: Introduction - The Open Work

By tomclark, 21 September 2012

Proud to be Flesh Cover

Introduction to Chapter 9 of Proud to be Flesh - The Open Work


Finally you are no more than an imitation of an actor.

Friedrich Nietzsche


The most radical potential stored in the phenomenon of ‘interactivity’ must be the redistribution of creativity away from the author and toward the user, the group, the crowd, the social. The potential to reproduce, and recombine, information into new forms is the other function of the computer that carries this potential, undermining the auratic original and making it available for endless redeployment. Post-structuralism’s critique of the author, ‘his’ reification and the concomitant eclipse of creativity’s social nature, coincides, to a great extent, with the advent of (networked) computing – and its implied assault on the originality and exclusivity of cultural objects. John Cage turned the sound of an audience, waiting in silence for a performance to begin, into a piece of music only a decade before J.C.R. Licklider presented his concept of an ‘Intergalactic Computer Network’. These distinct, and mutually disinterested, developments were, in fact, happening simultaneously, and would later become deeply entangled with one another. Largely through writing on music and sometimes on art, poetry and popular computing, this chapter follows these threads, to explore their knotty outcomes in ’90s and ’00s technoculture. Its writers ask how the ‘open work’ has fared, from its tender avant-garde beginnings to its reification in Web 2.0 and, debatably, its banalisation in relational aesthetics.

Flint Michigan, in his text ‘Composing Ourselves’, suggests that French music theorist, Jacques Attali’s expanded concept of ‘composition’ is, in part, a reworking of Marx’s idea of ‘really free working, e.g. composition’. This formulation is key to many of these articles because it strives to articulate a kind of making/doing that is free from the alien demands of capital, the imperative to produce for value’s sake. Attali’s concept of ‘composition’ is something that exists beyond the ‘rupture’ of changing economic and technological conditions, to reveal ‘the demand for the truly different system of organisation, a network within which a different kind of music and different social relations can arise’. Where Michigan takes issue with Attali is in his characterisation of this free working as ‘A music produced by each individual for himself, for pleasure outside meaning, usage and exchange’. The connection between the socially transformative powers of music and creativity are somehow folded back into the confines of individual enjoyment, rendering Attali’s concept paradoxical. Is it not incoherent to suggest that such ego-invested production challenges capitalism’s systems of ‘meaning, usage and exchange’ when it leaves the sign-value of the author intact?

Keston Sutherland’s lacerating account of the post-Soviet, poetic orthodoxy of the American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school – whose attacks on any ‘subjective expressiveness’ that can be ‘identified with the psychic operations […] of an ‘Author’ seems at first to clash with Michigan’s dismissal of the composer-as-Author. But, Sutherland further unpacks his suspicion of this poetic school and its ‘puritanical’ refusal to allow the ‘interpretative consumption’ of expressiveness. For Sutherland, these poets’ use of ‘debris-syntax’ and wilful deformation of language amounts to little more than a ‘consumer revolt’ against one of global capitalism’s most vital tools – English. So, rather than this amounting to an anti-avant-gardist defence of the Author, Sutherland deems these gestures to be not radical enough, mere tokens of rejection in the face of the persistence of ‘English-as-capitalism-logos’ – a consumer revolt rather than something that redistributes the means/meaning of production.

Luc Ferrari’s piece, Presque Rien No. 1, is discussed in Michigan’s second text in this chapter. His simple recording of a Croatian fishing village in the early hours of the morning, writes Michigan, sets the composer ‘alongside the listener’. The senses are freed from the responsibility to interpret authorial intention and left to an unfettered exploration of disembodied sounds, to engage in a ‘desiring perception’. The freedom created by Ferrari’s piece, which, at the same time, avoids musique concrète’s subsequent naturalism, stands in antithesis to mid-’90s signature interactive artwork, Osmose, by Char Davies. In their discussion of the piece, the Bureau of Inverse Technology (BIT) describe how the viewer is strapped into VR goggles and heavy, breath-sensitive equipment and then ‘released’, for a strict 20 minutes, to navigate through a floaty VR ‘mushspace’. Not only did the level of control and supervision surrounding the piece prevent any sense of voluntary exploration, but the supposed empowerment of the viewer was belied by Osmose’s ‘morphine haze of compulsive serenity’, its ‘force-gentling’. The piece’s declared ‘re-connection’ of virtuality and ‘wild nature’ is nothing but an audio-visual pacifier, burying the truth of technology’s relationship to ‘nature’ behind an insipid simulation.

In sharp distinction to this increasingly discredited genre of ‘interactivity’ – which finds its analogue in consultative politics’ pre-emptive neutralisation of resistance – are the man-machine relations of Detroit techno. In his interview with techno legend, Jeff Mills, Hari Kunzru describes how ‘Mills the DJ seems self-evidently a component of a human-machine assemblage, a system which includes crowd, PA, the whole apparatus of record production and the stylus cartridge […]’. And, later, Mills relates how, when programming a sequence, he sometimes goes out and just lets it run for up to 24 hours: ‘The machines fluctuate. Over time the sequence changes slightly. The machines mould themselves, giving their own character to a track.’ If Ferrari’s work set the composer alongside the listener, techno sets the composer and listener alongside the machine. The permutative power of computation, the warp of a specific machine, the impact of amplification and repetitive beats on a crowd, and the anti-naturalism of electronic sound are just some of the ways in which an ‘alien’ intelligence acts to disrupt the dyad of artist/viewer or composer/listener.

Of course, machinic propagation also has its down sides – something Paul Helliwell contemplates in his piece, ‘Zombie Nation’, in which he connects Web 2.0, relational aesthetics and the (commodity) crisis of the music industry. As he explains, music (and indeed capitalism) has started to resemble so-called relational aesthetics in the age of digital reproduction. He recounts how Attali joked at a record industry bash that, apart from gigs, in the age of free downloads, soon all that bands will be able to sell is the right to attend a rehearsal or go to dinner with them. As the music and other industries, such as publishing and software, lose control of the commodity, increasingly all that is left to sell are relations between people, in different spatial and temporal arrangements. The culture industry, argues Helliwell, is coming to operate increasingly like avant-garde culture. As relationality gets reified at one end of the scale, it is turned into a funding criterion for art production at the other. This attempt to ascribe to art a ‘social function’ spells doom, argues Helliwell, in step with Adorno, as its defining ‘autonomy’ is undermined.

By way of a coda to the debate, as well as the chapter, Howard Slater throws into relief the self-evidence of critiques of relational aesthetics by contemplating the work of little-known singer/musician Ghédalia Tazartès. The uniform formatting of social relations by social networking sites and the music industry depends on the uniformity of coherent subjects. By contrast, the music of Tazartès, developed in semi-obscurity over 25 years, acts as a ‘taunt to unity’ which outs the musician as an ‘exposed “fake”’. His guttural voice, which moves across chimeras of identity and nationality, articulates the multiplicity of the self and the lie of identity. Such a refusal of identity reminds us of the distance that still exists between avant-gardist rejections of authorial self-hood, and the pseudo-relationality of the culture industry, with its dependence on stable identities, as it battles the crisis of digital abundance.

Proud to be Flesh