Eschewing intelligence?: why "ecology" makes me nervous
(a talk originally presented at the conference of the American Society for Acoustic Ecology, Chicago, July 9, 2010)
Lou Mallozzi, Chicago, June 2010
I will attempt to articulate some questions I have, not to construct a rational analysis or to argue a position, but to open an inquiry. My feeling at the moment is that I need to attempt approaches to discourse that skirt the rational and yet grasp at, in which the grasping itself is the point of departure. Hopefully this will simply give us something to talk about.
“Life starts to get interesting when contradictions accumulate.”
-- Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
To start, I’ll describe two very different projects I’ve been engaged with. I hope these will establish some context for what then follows, a sort of inductive ramble, every sentence of which should probably be followed by a question mark.
Part 1. Two Projects Against
First, a current and as yet unfinished project on –ologies: I have accumulated a list of about 400 words in English that end in the suffix “-ology.” This is from the Greek word logos, a word that some say we have misguided, like taking it in hand and leading it blindfolded through a prism. In many cases it is defined as “the study of,” or “the rational knowledge of,” or simply “language,” eventually it even comes to mean “the Word.” The project involves accumulating these words’ definitions, then substituting the suffix “-agnia”, meaning “the avoidance of,” and creating a new list.
-ologies to -agnias : from engaged rational studies to avoidances or separations.
So, for example, biology, the study of life forms, becomes biagnia, the avoidance of life forms. This seems to have some interesting poetic possibilities.
Second, the Sound Canopy and its vandalism. In 2003, Experimental Sound Studio and other groups and individuals collaborated with the Hyde Park Art Center to establish a temporary urban public installation site for sound installations, the Sound Canopy, at the corner of Adams and State in Chicago’s Loop. Multiple loudspeakers were mounted in the construction canopy that wrapped around the corner of the building at the site, playing alternating sound pieces curated by various Chicagoans. It was rather quickly vandalized, the wires repeatedly cut at night, and eventually we had to abandon the project and the site. Retrospectively, this event can be seen as the invasion (by us) of a site for its cultural elevation, and the resistance to said invasion (by them), this in turn being perceived by the original invaders (us) as a resistance to the site’s elevation, to its civilization. Or mis-perceived as such. The vandal (them) speaks, criticizes with his/her means, which are non-discursive and therefore “uncivilized” – snip, snip -- that is to say, in amoral opposition to that which urbanized humans have brought forth; that is to say, in amoral opposition to what technologized humans have brought forth from history and environment; that is to say, it is a resistance curiously in harmony with the “natural” world – a world that is in constant amoral response to itself. So we arrive at a point where we can in fact say that an act of vandalism is a response to over-technologized urban human intervention/invasion, and that this vandalism is in perfect harmony with “ecology” – if what we mean by “ecology” is a not-ego-first approach to experiencing environment. But we as humans want our cake and we want to eat it too. Which is why we, the initial invaders, were so taken aback by the “unjustified” vandalism of the site and didn’t stop to think that we ourselves might have been vandalizing the site in its previous incarnation as an abandoned, dormant building (sitting on very expensive real estate) that might well have been serving as someone’s temporary home. That this is not just a battle of wills or of egos (us versus them) is perhaps inherent in that it was a contestation of a site transformed through sound -- it may not have been subjected to the same response if it were a visual and therefore ignorable intervention. Sound is inescapable and therefore inherently oppressive.
Part 2. More on Us and Them
Humans and the environment: a false duality? Or whose duality? This duality presupposes a separation that is said to have taken place, apparently in violation of a once-extant unity in some indeterminable past, in mystery, in myth, and since the seventeenth century at least, in the scientifically determined continuum of chronological time. But perhaps we cannot return to a unity because there is no authentic unity; perhaps humans are in fact beings who exist in ways other than objects, animals, etc. And in ways other than environments. The phrase “in ways other than” is very difficult. My opinion is that art making – or perhaps a better term is art-being, a poetic being -- is the very place at which “in ways other than” is explored, contested, dynamized. So, to steal from Heidegger, if we “dwell poetically” we are occupying a place of being that cannot be logos, cannot be solely and reducibly rational, a position outside, a position of intelligent stewardship, if by this we mean rational. We are not in an environment. We have perhaps invented “environment” as that which allows us to be surrounded, as it were, by our contestants. It is not us and them, us agents in a “them-space.” But the nature of our connection to the world may be different than the rational one we’ve inherited; perhaps we are connected to the world not because we are essentially the same as anything else in it (as science requires), but because we are differentiating beings of it. Language is that differentiating being; it is not simply a tool to communicate, not something we invented to make our lives easier -- anyone who has ever tried to explain anything knows that is nonsense – it is a differencing as we are. Otherwise poetry could never work.
Part 3. Au revoir, objet sonore
Art, of course, is not law (logos), it is not eternally rational, it does not “speak a universal language,” it is at root unstable; it wants to open rather than define, to be in and of history, to interrogate towards ignorance, embracing ignorance as another opening. Science is only ever about what we already agree upon. Its peculiar beauty lies in its combination of optimism and doubt, and in how optimism and doubt conspire to battle ignorance. Because we as humans have intentionally made each other’s lives contestations of misperceived resources, making the world a better place has become the role of the current social engineering model that pervades cultural discourse, cultural institutions, funding sources, and evaluations. This social engineering model -- born of science and its seductive promise of stamping out ignorance -- requires compassionate rationality; it cannot freely admit dispassionate irrationality; that is to say, it cannot freely admit rather a lot of what art is. If it does open the door a crack to let in a whiff of the irrational, it only does so by finding a way to confine all forms of irrationality within the boundaries of its rationalist mission: “this is an art that elevates, this is an art that heals, this is an art that allows expression, this is an art that makes for a better citizenry, this is an art that exemplifies our values.” It cannot learn from art, it cannot learn from nature (if such a thing exists), it can only learn more about its own context of rationalized and therefore inherently technologized thinking and doing. It will never admit the vandal – snip, snip. This why the social engineering model and its institutions embrace ill-conceived or ill-executed art attempts that “speak to the issues;” they affirm the model’s optimistic rationalism. This is also why, for example, on PBS “nature” programs, the lion killing the antelope is always accompanied by music (a very specific type of romantic music) and never by the sounds of the chase, capture, and killing. Such nonmusical sound emanates the irrational, the uncontainable: the amoral is inherent in the sound, sound is not only physically omindirectional, it is also amorally omnidirectional (unlike a photograph, for example). Music in this sense can only ever be aesthetic (which is its power). But even if we were to hear those amoral nonmusical sounds, they are in fact once again divorced from their amoralizing irrational power, they are contained in our technologized watching – we visualize them into a flattened, framed submission, another containment – in fact, they are “on” TV, or “on” radio, or “on” CD – they are only ever “on” and no longer “of.” Here is one root of the collision and perhaps the dichotomy of recorded sound vis-à-vis the environment: it inherently violates its own critique, it inherently romanticizes its own source, it in fact wants to “represent” its source in the first place and therefore becomes a kind of zoology, a holding out of context for study that which only lives in context, a taking-out-“of” and placing-“on”-to. Taken in one direction, it applies a frame and implies that perceptions can somehow act like objects. But there is no “unit of purified representation,” so the sound object cannot be. Problems of purity?
“…for when art is good, it is because it has touched inexpressiveness, the worst art is expressive art, the kind that transgresses the piece of iron and the piece of glass, and the smiles, and the shouts.”
-- Clarice Lispector, The Passion according to G.H.
Lou Mallozzi is a Chicago-based artist known primarily for his work in sound, often with a focus on dismembering and reconstituting language, gesture, and signification. His work includes performances, installations, music works, recordings, and radio works. In addition, he has a visual art practice that includes drawing and other media. He has performed and exhibited in the U.S. and Europe, including projects at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Chicago Cultural Center, the Arts Club in Chicago, the Italian Cultural Institute and Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, the Grunwald Gallery at Indiana University Bloomington, Experimental Intermedia New York, "Le Cri du Patchwork" on Radio France, Ausland Berlin, Podewil Berlin, TUBE Audio Art Series Munich, and the Radiorevolten Festival Halle. In addition to his solo works, Mallozzi often collaborates with artists, filmmakers and musicians. These have included Sandra Binion, Michael Vorfeld, Alessandro Bosetti, Michael Zerang, Frédéric Moffet, Antonia Contro, Jacques Demierre, Vincent Barras, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Charlotte Hug, Jaap Blonk, Vincent Raude, and many others. He has received support for his work that includes several fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council, and artist residencies through the Chicago-Lucerne Sister Cities Program, the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Study Center, Ragdale Foundation, and Spritzenhaus Hamburg. He is on the faculty of the Sound Department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is co-founder and former executive director of Experimental Sound Studio.