Roland Barthes, composition and the public/private creative continuum

There now, that’s more the sort of title you’d expect from a PhD student, isn’t it? Don’t take this as a sign that I know what I’m doing now, though, because I really really don’t, and part of the reason I’m writing this post is to get my thoughts in order because I think I’m on the verge of being able to tie a bunch of stuff together to at least give me a vague direction to follow!

The other day I got hold of Roland Barthes’ Image Music Text and finally read his tiny essay ‘Musica Practica’. And then I wanted to give good old Roland a hug because (a) he writes beautifully and (b) there were a couple of things in this piece which seemed to be particularly relevant to what I’m doing.

Have I even talked about what I’m doing? Maybe I should, just to give you a quick context to what comes next. The topic I proposed originally was (*deep breath*):

Questioning the division of ‘public’ and ‘private’ creative spaces through an interdisciplinary approach to composition derived from a performative interpretation of visual art processes.

The plan was to investigate the working process of the German artist Anselm Kiefer from a performance aspect, drawing ideas from that to explore through composition but limiting the application of those ideas to the exploration of public and private spaces (and especially the idea of normally-private things being public and normally-public things being private) to keep it all manageable. Over the course of the past few months, Kiefer’s role has shrunk and shrunk until he’s but a glint of an idea that started the whole thing, and the public/private idea has taken centre stage. Somehow the interdisciplinary composition thing has also increased in importance, even though it’s really just how I work.

So when I read the opening of ‘Musica Practica’ –

‘There are two musics (at least so I have always thought): the music one listens to, the music one plays. These two musics are two totally different arts, each with its own history, its own sociology, its own aesthetics, its own erotic’ (p. 149)

– I pretty much squealed with joy (although very quietly because I was in a library). And when I got near to the end of the piece, I silent-squealed again, because Barthes’ definition of composition seems to me to be wholly open to the idea of interdisciplinary – or indeed postdisciplinary – composition. New Discipline FTW.

‘To compose, at least by propensity, is to give to do, not to give to hear but to give to write’ (RB’s emphasis, p. 153)

Squish these two together and there’s my project really.

So in thinking about all this, I worked my way towards a diagram of a creative continuum which moves from the private area of studio, score, rehearsal and performing towards the public arena of performance and exhibition of varying types.

Barthes continuum of public/private creative spaces
(Click diagram to view full size in a new window)

Because of the inter/postdisciplinary nature of what I do (still trying to work out whether inter- or post- is the more appropriate prefix here) I’ve tried to look at this continuum from both a music and art perspective to see how and where the process differs. The aim of the diagram is to consider what results if the private process is made public at certain points and the names at the bottom indicate some artists/composers who engage with crossing the public/private divide. For example, one we’re all used to is the private act of performing happening in public which results in a performance that other people are listening to – but how about the other end of the spectrum? Visual artists routinely send their work into the public arena directly from the studio because they are creating a physical finished artwork. But in music, the type of work that goes public from this point tends to be pieces that perhaps don’t need live performers – fixed media pieces, for example – so there’s a question right there of what sort of work could involve a live musical performance in the studio and how to send that out to the world.

As it’s early days for this work yet, there’s no doubt gross generalisations and my examples are just who came to mind instantly – I make no claim to any of this being thorough! But of course I’d be delighted if you have suggestions of work to follow up that might be useful/interesting – please leave me a comment if you do! Since originally creating this diagram, I’ve also developed ideas a bit further to acknowledge that the studio location may also be a stage, especially for visual artists (e.g. Nauman, Acconci, as the location where they performed alone for the video camera), as well as the wall of the gallery (a public stage as opposed to the private stage of the performer playing the tuba for a houseful of people – the difference being that the artwork is complete when it goes up onto the gallery wall while there is an ongoing private act of creation still happening with the live performance) but this is still a bit hazy.

Similarly, the line about unseen/unheard/seen only by performer/heard only by performer is the tentative beginning of what may or may not be an actual idea regarding levels of privacy. More work required here!

Zero to Infinity: Fear of the ephemeral

I was visiting the Tate Modern a couple of weeks back and came across an artwork with the following sign:

In keeping with the artist's intentions, this work is re-arranged at 10.00 every day by staff members. Please do not touch

I’ve been interested in in public and private spaces in composition for several years now – I find works which open up private aspects of themselves to be public particularly interesting – but this one grabbed my interest because of how the rearranging of the work is public – yet not public. I was intrigued that the participatory element of the work was restricted to being handled by experts, and scheduled for a time of day when the gallery was at its most empty (Tate Modern opens at 10am). Reading the notes on the work on the Tate website connected this in with another topic which I find of immense interest – the prioritising of longevity of the artwork over the artist’s vision.

So here we have a work, positioned in the Tate’s new participatory art display, which is intended to be a work of public participation, and which has become a work of publicly private participation in order to preserve it for as long as possible by ensuring that only trusted experts actually handle it. I find it particularly intriguing that the sign is worded “In keeping with the artist’s intentions” – but the text on their own website makes it clear that this conservation solution only preserves one aspect of the artist’s intentions.

Sure, it’s better to have somebody move it than just set it up and leave it, but it assumes that this piece is only for looking at, which it isn’t. It’s for feeling the texture of the structure, the heft of a cube as you lift it. It’s experiencing how the separate cubes might be connected. It’s a sonic experience as you listen to the sounds made when the cubes connect. The artist’s original intent – to have the cubes manipulated by the public – also means that it’s not only participatory sculpture, but also kinetic sculpture – theoretically at least, the interaction of the public with the sculpture could/would be continuous, meaning that the sculpture is perhaps intended to be viewed as constantly in motion and constantly in interaction with human bodies. It is, in fact, performed rather than simply viewed.

Of course it saddens me that works of art deteriorate over time, but my feeling is that the art world’s obsession with the value of the singular art object fails to take into account the strength that can be lent by ephemerality. Musicians and music-lovers get this – experiencing a great live performance is an amazing thing that can never truly be repeated, even if it’s recorded – but I feel that the temporary almost terrifies the art world. We musicians may continuously reinterpret Bach, but an Old Master painting is an Old Master painting and must be preserved exactly as it is.

A more extreme example than the Tate’s relatively sensitive Zero to Infinity solution comes from a review of ‘Mindfuck’, a 2013 exhibition of the work of Bruce Nauman which included a ‘conserved’ version of Nauman’s Carousel:

And as I look at the words on the wall, the carousel keeps turning. Yet there is something missing. Those rotating, dangling body parts were originally intended to be dragged around the concrete floor, with a terrible sound of screeching. All they make here is a quiet shush as they revolve on a floor constructed from MDF which acts as a sort of plinth. It’s less a Mindfuck, more a lullaby.

This, I was told by someone at Hauser & Wirth, is a conservation issue – the sculptures risk being worn away by their interminable circular journey – but the work’s imminent auto-destruction is, I would surmise, an intended consequence of what Nauman originally had in mind. Where the work was once aggressive, it is now muffled, pathetic… I want to hear the metal scream.

YES! My sentiments exactly. Without the scream, it’s Nauman through a filter of curator. Without the scream, it’s only half a work.

Update 28 October 2016: Today I found the following video on Tate’s site of Rasheed Araeen talking about how the human intervener becomes part of the work, which I feel is relevant to what I’ve said in this post: