Blood on the Gallery Floor? (History in the Mix)

Josephine Berry

Critics have been kicking around the art-political football of Catherine David's documenta X all summer long, debating whether art and politics are compatible or mutually cancelling. Such critics can be found huddled together during post-modernism's half-time, discussing strategies for avoiding art's collapse. Some wistfully defend its right to contemplate its own somewhat lip-stick smeared reflection, whilst others look back to the end of the sixties and take courage in art's capacity to play a significant role in politics. Some posit 'formalism' and 'content' as opposites in a sleight of hand that disposes with decades of art historical analysis. Is it inconsistency or just flippancy that has allowed a term like 'summer of content' to emerge from within this polarising position? And is it feasible that if a formalist artwork can be deemed devoid of all social reference that a season such as summer should become its unlikely successor? Without wishing to come over as a total party pooper suffering from a sense of humour bypass, it is all too tempting to point out the glaring inconsistencies of this position.

Reminiscent of the scene in "Little Black Sambo" (that most politically incorrect of all children's books) where the tigers chase each other around the tree, aesthetics and politics at the documenta are chasing each other so fast that they're turning into butter milk. The ubiquitous documenta X logo exemplifies this confusion: the 'x' wittily laid over the 'd' in an iconoclastic act of erasure (?) has turned into the very sign of art's commercialisation itself as it graces every available 'T' shirt, mug, VW sponsored vehicle, catalogue, restaurant and baseball cap. In a show that clearly sympathises with the politics of the traditional left, such an appetite for product branding seems a touch surprising. The documenta offers us the spectacle of politics in art with the detached cool of classical anthropology and without ever interpolating itself (the institution, its high standing within the industry, its role as Zeitgeist mongerer) into the display. It innocently records and displays with perfect transparency. History itself becomes an aestheticising lens, tying swathes of historically and politically specific actions and commentary into tropic garlands of heritage. The political itself becomes an aesthetic object - the aesthetics of revolt. As Michael Jackson terms it, "Blood on the Dance floor (History in the Mix)". Well, no real change here, and none necessarily intended by David.

Enter "My Little Garden of Sound" - a sound installation by local artist and musician Wollfram der Spyra and part of Kassel's own contribution to the documenta. Its a hospital bed for sore eyes and a debut for much ignored ears. Without consciously setting out to provide commentary on the official documenta, the immediacy of this installation's affect on the listener is instructive.

A short visual description (sorry!): Der Spyra's garden practices a sort of bonsai of technics - a green house filled with sprawling amps, cables, mixing desks and no end of Fender fare; metal plants sprout speakers instead of stamen; a table stands ornamented by an 'Original Head Microphone' and a nest of green military-looking headphones; two small wooden huts perch on stilts inside which you can stretch out in ergonomically designed chairs and feel the sound vibrations pass through you - the list is incomplete.

Reaching for the headphones on "Table Talk" you are advised to sit down. Ignoring the advice, you listen in a sort of lack lustre way to a few ambient techno pulses but nothing much more. You begin to tell your companion that you're not impressed, and whoosh, you realise what the chair precaution was all about. After a short delay of total incomprehension, you figure out that what you're hearing is your own voice and the voices of the people around you, relayed to you at high frequency, making things sound like Mickey Mouse after a lung-full of helium. The funny thing is, your voice seems to have been altered at source and you're hearing it somewhere in your middle ear before the sound has even escaped from your mouth. Everything you say is so funny it brings tears to your eyes. You start to imitate the sound of 'your own voice', raising the pitch to move through the Mickey into the Minnie Mouse-register. Hit another button on the control panel and you start descending into the low frequency drawl of Jabber the Hut. Hit another, and your speech is delayed by 3 seconds - you become external witness to the mush of your own incoherent sentences. The hysterical effects of being dispossessed of your own voice, and having its bastard cousin mainlined back into your ear, while the whole world turns into Teletubby madness, starts to become painfully visible to the other unplugged visitors who surround you. Mild hysteria turns to dysfunction and you no longer feel capable of social interaction.

Der Spyra believes that sound is your most social sense: "Imagine a totally deaf person sitting alone in a caf€ - experiencing just the sight but not the sound of other people" he explains, "without conversation, music, or the sound of knives and forks on china - how lonely they must be". If sound is our most socialising sense, then if you want to intervene in social relations it can be a real Achilles heal.

"Table Talk" can be transferred to the city at large. Several Masonic handshakes later you can find yourself wondering through the city with a clubber's utility back pack on and two sets of distinctive, military green headphones. The headphones have been converted from sound excluding devices used for shooting practice into speakers funnelling in electronically distorted sound. This means that the sound experience is completely sealed against the natural sound of the outside world. Equipped with 9 different possible modes of distortion - including a 3 second delay, reverb, Mickey Mouse frequency shifter and robot voice - you are let loose upon the unsuspecting residents of Kassel. The interesting thing here is that many residents have become familiar with the instrument and can even tell you which mode you are in. The rate of social adaptation is clearly a rapid one. Another reminder of the short lived potency of disruptive interventions on any level.

But to uninitiated, this fairly simple acoustic device requires only a few seconds before the listener is robbed of all social equilibrium and skill. Identity is in the mix here. Playing back a recording made under these circumstances, its plain that the battle for coherence has been lost in the first moments. The system short circuits our ability to have control over self-representation - it's like representation has been set into reverse as the sound is mixed and distorted before it even exits our mouths. Art is shown, if only for a brief moment, to be capable of having an aesthetically unmediated impact, to disrupt our construction of the world and alter our actions within it.

Representation's relationship to politics is a huge and complex field which cannot be given justice in this short text. Representation can serve to ignite action as much as it can cool its flames through its capacity to reframe a problem. Aesthetics and politics should neither be seen as mutually exclusive nor as happy bedfellows. Though doubtless their relationship is a fraught one (perhaps especially when at its most successful - e.g. Nazi Germany or the Stalinist USSR), aesthetic representation of the political can be a powerful motor of change. However, political representation can also become representation for its own sake - hence the danger of assembling its temporally and ideologically heterogeneous examples a la David. Der Spyra's unexpected achievement was to bring a sense of absolute present into the visitor's experience, in which the distancing effects of representation's historical canon were lifted. Somewhere in the middle ear, origin, representation and consequence were collapsed into each other, requiring the agent to battle with all three at once. Catapulted into an unavoidable behaviour, simultaneously questioning that behaviour, sensing the liberation of its altered conditions, the agent experiences representation and politics set into motion. In contrast the documenta's official exhibits are captured in the kaleidoscope of representation within representation in which politics becomes just another referent.

Josephine Berry, September '97

last update: 2.3.1997

copyright : english - german