The Prosthetics of Performance

“A prosthetic is simultaneously regressive, representing a desire to repair, and progressive, creating entirely new possibilities and ontologies.”[1]

The metacontext: a world defined by its interconnectedness. A world where technology and public space fuse and become increasingly controlled. Where our understanding of the world is both formed and mediated by our technologies.

Can an exploration of the prosthetic nature of architectural space, of the musical instrument and of performance, provide a productive context or metaphor for understanding the place and function of the artwork for both artist and audience?

Background

My areas of creative research and enquiry focus on the curious and contingent contemporary position of the creative act and its artefacts in the world. My interests in space and sound, semantics and music have found a home in the realm of Sound Art.

The artwork occupies a liminal space between artist and spectator. But it has porous boundaries liable to the leaking of meaning from the inside out and the outside in. It can be understood as both document and container, as a set of circumstances and a series of relationships. This is particularly well understood within the category of Sound Art. Sound by its very nature is prone to literal leakage with all its disruptive, spatially transgressive, potential. Cross-contamination is in its very ‘DNA’.

Aims & Objectives

Are there ways to push the artwork toward and into the world beyond the hermitically sealed art space? Notions of artistic autonomy aside I look to maintain in, and for, the work a certain ‘self-awareness’ that can defend against its dissolution.

Partly informed by former experiences of presenting music in a live context, and more recently taking part in free musical improvisation in my latest work I have started an exploration of presence / liveness via performance through surrogates. As well as problematizing reading the artwork as a totalized whole, this foregrounds the artist’s and the performer’s various acts in terms of control and/or surrender. It provides an opportunity to reflect on the role of both artist and performer as worker, as Kraftwerk’s “Musikarbeiter”. A chance perhaps to consider whether we (they) really are the robots?

Strings & Things

Our body is not in space like things; it inhabits or haunts space. It applies itself to space like a hand to an instrument.”[2]

A string instrument is already a cybernetic extension of the hand, the touch, the thought. Architecture is itself bodily, we perform architecture as it re-forms us. The physicality of sound draws attention to the presence of the body within sound and of sound as a body, as a volume or form in space. Sound shapes a parallel space. Adopting the architectural flow of the building may provide a way of working along or aside from the institutional flow and open a potential for criticality.

A primary role of music is in facilitating variously formalised movements of dance and/or ritual in space. Music for public performance has long included an exploration of the metainstrument of architectural space[3]. More recently various artists have explored the literal physical expansion of musical instruments[4]. Electroacoustic music has explored expanded multichannel and ‘diffusion’ sound systems much favoured by Musique Concrete and acousmatic practitioners for nearly seventy years now.

Stairway

My work Stairway takes the form of a combined installation and durational performance. It utilises an expanded spatialisation of a six-string electric guitar fitted with a hexaphonic pickup providing individual outputs for each string. Six guitar amps are distributed vertically within the installation.

Stairway engages with performance and the musical artefact within a spatialised architectonic context. It explores the instrument and its instrumentalisation. Its realisation requires the enlistment of a rota of musical performers of various degrees of experience, who can play the guitar. In regard to the question of whether artistic labour’s virtue its own reward the answer is here given in the negative. Players are paid (but for performance time only).

The work explores the act of musical performance via “commonplace” means (the electric guitar) and pre-existing musical forms (Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven). These materials are then subjected to strategies including repetition in the case of the music and, deferment and displacement of the guitars amplified output.

The inclusion (or appropriation) of existing cultural works such as the hyper-familiar melody of a vintage rock song serves to problematize holistic readings of the artwork. Such inclusions may seem over-determined but their very familiarity, out of context and restructured, lends them a useful obdurate sculptural ‘thingness’[5]. In Stairway I manipulate this thingness by a spatially literalizing of the works musical scale. Higher pitched strings occupy a physically higher position in space in their amplified manifestations.

Careful with that axe

The performers in Stairway are an autonomous prosthesis. They serve to assuage my lack of musicianship. They demand that I give up control, surrender, accede and admit my role as mere author (who, it has been suggested much like God, is dead). Perhaps this liberates the work to have a greater life of its own? Only the, at time of writing unrealised, work itself can reveal that.

Conclusion

The prosthetic bridges culture and nature. It points directly towards the cybernetic and on to the virtual. As a tool or organ of understanding of cultural forms it seems useful in its ambiguous position, indicating lack whilst promising extension. It suggests a contingent current state for the body and its, and thus our, identity. It provides the potential for a bodily understanding in the interpretations of cultural phenomena, towards a clearer understanding of the world as formed and mediated by our technologies.

[1]  Wood, J. A. (1999) Counter-Evolution: The Prosthetics of Early Modernist Form. ELH 66(2), pp. 489-510

[2]  Merleau-Ponty, M. Edie , J M. (1964) The Primacy of Perception: And Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology,

[3]When the violin’s body transmits its sound to the concert hall’s enclosure, the violin becomes a metaviolin; without a secondary resonant enclosure, the violin remains a protoviolin. […] Performance spaces create a new class of musical instruments: metaviolin, metaclarinet, metaoboe, and so forth. 

Blesser, B; Salter, L-R. (2007) Spaces speak, are you listening? : experiencing aural architecture, p.136, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

[4] Notably Ellen Fullman’s long string instruments and Gordon Monahan’s expanded pianos.
[5]  Thing theory is a branch of critical theory that focuses on human–object interactions in literature and culture. It borrows from Heidegger’s distinction between objects and things, which posits that an object becomes a thing when it can no longer serve its common function. When an object breaks down or is misused, it sheds its socially encoded value and becomes present to us in new ways through the suspension of habit. The theory was largely created by Bill Brown, who edited a special issue of Critical Inquiry on it in 2001 and published a monograph on the subject entitled A Sense of Things.”

‘Thing theory’ (2018) Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thing_theory (Accessed: 5 November 2018).

[6] McLuhan, M. (1964)  Understanding Media: The extension of Man, p.45, New York; McGraw-Hill.

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