Often the thing that makes a cultural experience so worth writing about in the first place is identical to that which makes it so difficult to get started. Artworks of real richness demand to be examined extensively, pulled apart in all the dimensions made available by their content. Blog posts can arrive on the scene quicker than most, but can often only gesture towards or sketch the dimensions in question. This is not uniformly a bad thing (see Everyday Analysis‘s excellent short pieces on the complex dynamics at play in the most humble objects and encounters) and nor is it uniformly the thing in the multifaceted world of blog-writing (see also the longer posts written by Tom Whyman, who has recently gained some notoriety for his use of the term “cupcake fascism“). The reason I point at it here is that the characteristic awkward scale of the blogpost – truncated, but always hinting at something much larger – has infiltrated the way I walk around exhibitions and attend performances to an all-but phenomenological degree.
Perhaps this is a symptom of a more generalised “thinkpiece-mania” in cultural journalism which demands that events be speculatively framed within wider cultural narratives even as they are happening (Everyday Analysis recently got to the heart of this issue in their meta-thinkpiece on the death of Peaches Geldof). Regardless, my notes nowadays tend more than anything to resemble a series of possible postdoc research proposals. The more compelling the work in question, the deeper it stretches its roots, the more it demands a labour of excavation which by far eclipses the amount of time required to produce a simple review. In the space between the desire to immediately record an artwork’s effects and the obligation to do justice to the reach and specificity of those effects stretches a long, chasmic silence. But a sketch can extend at least some of the way out into this abyss, which, given art’s capacity to pierce our intepretative faculties and (in Michael Ann Holly’s words) ‘forever keep the wound open’, might be the best we can hope for.
1. Dean Blunt
So, when I recently took to social media to promise a “sprawling thinkpiece” off the back of Dean Blunt’s gig at Manchester’s Soup Kitchen, it was on the grounds that Blunt’s stagecraft – he is packaged as a live musician but does more than most to interrogate and destabilise the stylistic props which support gigging as a method of performance – tapped in to a number of pressing concerns about live art’s relationship with irony and immediacy. Blunt is well-known (at least in the hipster press) as a puckish figure, an artist who cancelled his ICA stage show without explanation and who peddled conflicting stories about the origin of his defunct band Hype Williams. The crowd at the Soup Kitchen is, accordingly, muso-heavy, and this presents a challenge to an artist like Blunt: how to produce a confrontational, unpredictable live performance environment when most of your audience are already keyed in to your predilection for firing off at obtuse angles?
As a reference point here, we could look back to a notorious event in the history of Modernist performance: the 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet (with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky and costumes by Nicholas Roerich) The Rite of Spring at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. As is well-known, the experiments Stravinsky’s score undertook with dissonance, rhythm and so on nearly caused a riot in the theatre. This premiere seems to me to occupy a fairly central position in the development of an idea of structurally self-undermining stage performances which might work a reluctant audience up into a cleansing and rejuventating fury. The Italian Futurists had similar ideas around this time (developed in connection with political positions now considered infra-dig), as did the Zurich Dadaists a few years later. The key antagonist in all these episodes, at least according to the most conventional accounts of Modernist art, is the uninitiated spectator, who is shocked out of bourgeois complacency and transformed into a self-reflectively Modern subject on the basis of their initial lack of preparation. Only on the grounds of a general ignorance among the populace can the force of the historic avant-garde be preserved. In fact, this view has to be at least partly unsustainable in the case of the Cabaret Voltaire, which was clearly a space for musos avant la lettre.
Dean Blunt’s shock tactics are somewhat in keeping with the spirit of Dadaism, although they are by no means nostalgic in their references: Blunt first enters the stage to an ambient backdrop before walking aimlessly around it, bumping into his mic stand, and moping off again. Nothing happens, dramatically. A saxophonist to the right of the stage belts out free-jazz squalls. A bouncer holds his position at the back of the stage throughout the entire show and is never once acknowledged. After Blunt finally plays a handful of tracks from his solo albums The Redeemer and Stone Island, a pair of strobe lights begin flashing rapidly on and off directly into the eyes of the audience: it becomes physically impossible to watch Blunt on stage for the remainder of his set.
This is all thrilling, but the questions remain: to what extent is this audience actually “shocked”? And to what extent does my evaluation of whether or not this is a “shocking” performance rest on a speculation about the experience of my fellow audience-members? The sublime aspect of Blunt’s performance – that enigmatic, unconventional aspect which leaves us superficially speechless – is at least equally counterweighted by an internal dialogue about my own epistemological relationship with the performance: has this show genuinely rocked me out of my comfort zone, or merely met my expectations of experimental performance post-Stravinsky? Given Blunt’s obvious (again, puckish) interest in his own PR, I can’t help but feel that this ambivalence is at least partly encoded into the work itself. As such, the most interesting comparison to draw with Blunt’s work might be the work of another artist I greatly admire – Tino Sehgal. More specifically, it is the glaring absence of mediatisation in Sehgal’s body of work – the artist forbids photographs and his most spellbinding work to date was as such held in a pitch-black room – that highlights Blunt’s own, less puritanical, relationship with the press. If Sehgal strives where possible to elimiate the possibility of forewarning in order to nostalgically reclaim for his audience something of the impact of The Rite of Spring‘s premiere, then Blunt’s relationship with the wider context of his performances is more dialectical – or perhaps there’s more going on in Sehgal, too, than meets the eye.
by Luke Healey
Tomorrow I will write a second pear-shaped piece about duration and scale in the work of Paul Noble, Wael Shawky, Ruperto Miljohn and others.