Noise as potentiality for political/artistic action
In this brief text, I would like to enter the sphere of public space by means of listening to public protests as an assemblage of different initiatives, as a cacophonous event full of noises, voices, gestures, bodies and energies that enter the field of transitoriness before categorization, formations, unison voices, fixed ideologies, demands, initiatives and actions. In other words, I would like to grasp or listen to the protests that happened in 2012 in Slovenia before the moment of their articulation. I will listen to them as if they were noise, noise that is not only a rapture, a void or defined with its known meaning, but noise as a problematic field that is based on contradictions that are present in the noise itself; inside these contradictions lies an open field of possibilities. Or as the title suggests – “Noise as potentiality for political/artistic action”. The theme of noise is quite fitting for the context of this symposium, not only because of its inherent transitory nature, but also for its tight etymologic connection to the sea and the navy in its form as noisea, as it was emphasized by Michael Serres: the sea, not only as white noise that is produced when the waves reach the shore, but white noise as pure potentiality that contains every possible frequency, and also has a shifting form, non-pattern nature, forming and deforming of waves, crashing into each other, etc. Nevertheless, we are on Cyprus and the waves are right in front of us.
In the last two decades, noise has become a fashionable item to be observed from a theoretical point of view. The theory is as follows: Disruptiveness and disorders lie in the very center of noise. Its ontological condition is a paradox because noise always creates and dissolves structures at the same time – it eats itself in order to constantly reemerge through a flux of data streams, information and sound. It doesn’t have a fixed form or fixed points, it escapes meaning, but at the same time it also provides it. It is multilayered with constant dislocations, it is confrontational but at the same time set in the background, and filtered through our perceptions or formal measures. It can be a discomfort or comfort. But what I want to suggest is that it is crucially embedded in our culture, even though we are doing everything to erase it from our lives or to contain it. However, in order to start thinking about noise as part of our culture, we have to abolish its confrontational moment by confronting it with silence, which is inherent to noise and can be understood as background noise – an omnipresent entity.
At the start, the protest in Slovenia in 2012 didn’t really have a fixed target. Targets were many and in its physical materialization in public squares and streets, as Johnny Cash would sing, ‘multitudes were marching’ … and creating noise: antiglobalists, anarchists, common people, workers, army veterans, artists, intellectuals, fascists, they were all creating a dynamic body of voices, sounds, bodies and actions that were totally undifferentiated. If you can control the movements and the bodies during a protest with architectural space, police formations, special forces, corridors and legal rules, you cannot confine noise – it resonates, it bounces, it echoes and moves around, entering bodies, creating forms, and setting up actions. Which brings us also to the question of a tactical use of sound – through organization, megaphones, speakers, microphones, mobile technologies, sound devices, acoustic or amplified instruments, mobile and non-mobile sound systems which all enter the ever-shifting sound matter without a fixed center or fixed dynamics. We can also observe power relationships: who wants to be heard more, who wants to mobilize bodies and voices. Of course, the other side uses sound to control the masses as well, through modern technology that is devised for the warfare and not available for commercial use. There was shouting, booing, whistling, cheering, singing, playing music, performing, each of these activities mobilizing part of the crowd and then shifting somewhere else and so resisting immediate articulation. It’s tempting to say that their way of operating was prompted by affect rather than reasoning. And this is the moment that produced discomfort amidst the general public, the press and political powers.
When this noise reaches the point of articulation in the form of a unisono voice, movement, demand or political party, it is immediately subsumed in the prevailing political discourse, where it becomes an easy target for dominant politics and where, in order to be heard and seen, has to play by the already existing rules of the game, which is the game of politics that isn’t even in the domain of politics anymore, as many would say nowadays. When it contains itself, it loses its potentiality and changes from transitory to transitional, with a clear meaning and aim. Noise, of course, is not immune to this process, it is not even immune to becoming a commodity inside the frame of vulgar capitalism. For example, noise in the context of music as musical genre or noise as a commodity on the idea market: it is present in the heterogeneous field of academic sound studies for the last two decades, in information theory, in urbanism and architecture through the concepts of soundscape and sonic ecology, in the field of physics and acoustics, and in art through various practices of sound art. The last context is particularly interesting because noise, in the contemporary art field, has always been castrated – confined with spaces where it is presented (galleries, museums, even public spaces) and following strict regulations that prevent its potentiality to unleash.
Finally, I would like to present two works from the contemporary art field that are using musical form for their content: the first one, entitled Improvised Non-Concert, is by a Basque artist Mattin, and the second one, entitled Concierto ZAJ para 30 o 60 voces, is by a Spanish artist Esther Ferrer. Both are placed in the context of a concert while also trying to subvert it, and both can also be placed in the context of a social experiment and in the field of participatory art. They both rely on the loose structure, i.e. the structure of space and time of the performance. The second one also relies on the score or set of loose instructions. I participated in Improvised Non-Concert at last Documenta. It happened after the discussion among invited artists, theoreticians and the general public called Noise & Capitalism. Both, the discussion and the concert exposed themselves as not being goal-centered, in the sense of wanting to result in a product, but rather focusing on the activity. During the non–concert, we were put in a space and it began — there was no goal, just the presence of people in a certain context and their activities. Some would talk, some would sing, dance, do nothing, some tried to provoke others, some tried to form a group, etc. During this activity, certain structures emerged and vanished, power relations formed and dissolved, some people performed, while some (just) thought they didn’t … It generated noise and posed question through the act of improvisation as a musical and performing act, a concert as a musical or non-musical act and as a social activity. Here, improvisation is the key thing; it’s the making of music that takes activity as a starting point rather than focusing on a final product. Somewhere during this improvised non-concert, Mattin dissolves this all too often presumed premise and puts it under critical observation. It should be noted that in Mattin’s case, what is problematic is exactly the aspect of observation and the role of the observer.
Esther Ferrer is one of the Spanish pioneers of modern performance art. In the seventies, she was a member of the collective ZAJ together with Walter Marchetti and Juan Higaldo that were closely associated with John Cage and the international Fluxus movement. In her work, Esther Ferrer continues with its basic premises. One of them is that through performance, social situations, tensions between the work, the performer and the audience are created; the latter two becoming a single but heterogenous body that is characterized by a specific social space. It also reveals itself in the present work Concierto ZAJ para 30 o 60 voces, which involved about forty people, including many non-musicians, performers and visitors who are united in one body, a social unit through the medium of voice and sound followed by an open composition, in which voices of different people enter individually, each one every minute, with content of your own choice that you can sing, recite, speak, yell, etc. And in various languages and in different positions in space. This can be a public space, a theater, a gallery or anything else that deals with artistic and social forms with their own pulse and dynamics. The piece was originally written in 1984 and it could therefore be said that it belongs to a specific time and place, but the recent performances and record release from 2010 by the label w.m.o/r reveals its potential for a politically charged art of noise. Both Mattin and Ferrer use a well-established art form (a concert, or non-concert in Mattin’s terms following modern philosophical tradition of François Laruelle and his followers) and transform it into social action which defies strict definitions and containment, therefore creating a powerful field of potentiality, an event inside the art and political space.