Showing the instruments

Tomorrow I fly to Italy, but today I am in London, at Chisenhale Gallery again, among objects this time.

The objects are arranged to be seen, on display, but not for appreciation it seems. Nor are they arranged for use, or not quite. Rather they are distributed – spaced out around the room – on a ‘what for?’ basis.

I take photos. Lengths of rubber tube, a curve-handled cane (usable enough) and a black leather – or faux leather – handbag together in a metal bucket. A demonstration door with multiple locks. Self-assembly steel shelves holding a car battery, some plugs, paper foil, a watermelon. Unspooled magnetic tape on the floor. Another demonstration door, heavy like a safe, in its iron frame, with keys in the locks. Middle-eastern flatbreads in their sellophane wrapper. A popcorn machine, plugged in, a carpet beater, a computer keyboard. Telephone directories, fir cones, some things I can’t see now what they were. A pair of blue plastic trays. Melons – more melons – and other large fruit (mangoes?) huddled with a few full-size plastic bottles of soft drink, Sprite, Pepsi etc. A small flight of stairs, to nowhere, carpeted on one side, bare board on the other. An inflated paddling pool with water in. Other things of this sort.

We know what sort. We know what for. These – or their like – are sound effects devices, put together by artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan from legal cases and other investigations where acoustic memory was contested. Mostly cases where violence was concerned. The exhibition is called Earwitness Theatre. These are objects that make the sounds that witnesses were prepared to say the things they’d heard had sounded like. A gunshot that sounds like keys on a plastic tray being dropped to the floor. A noise outside a cell door that sounds – to someone hungry – like flatbreads, an impossible number, heavy and amplified, being dropped on the floor.

People reach for comparisons, to describe and attempt to share unfamiliar or otherwise difficult sounds. A scrolling wall-text in the gallery tells of various examples, such as that of white people in twentieth century South Africa drawing on historical settler memory to describe the warning signs of impending sinkholes above the gold mines as sounding like ‘waggon-wheels’. Or else comparisons that depend upon a repertoire of noises we’ve been trained to recognise, from films and television. Apparently, the decapitations in Game of Thrones have to sound like watermelons falling to be believed. Someone familiar with these techniques – such as Abu Hamdan himself – hears melons when he watches. Melons are what we see today.

Many of the objects refer to Abu Hamdan’s work with the group Forensic Architecture collecting ‘earwitness testimonies’ from survivors for an Amnesty International-sponsored exposure of the torture regime at Saydnaya prison in Syria, and a computer-modelled reconstruction of the prison architecture. Inmates spent their entire time in almost total darkness and enforced silence. In interviews, the artist invited these survivors to compare their acoustic memories with items from a sound effects library and to compare, for example, the levels they could allow themselves to whisper to each other with tones and volumes played to them some time later. A sound piece in a sectioned off dark room in the gallery works with edited fragments of these interviews. The objects, though, are just there, in the light, mostly on the floor. Cheap things, replaceable mainly. They don’t seem to ask much looking at. But when you do look at them they can figure strangely. Not only the actions and effects they are there to represent. But also less than, more than, other than that. It’s all junkshop stuff, supermarket stuff. Nothing here looks like it belonged to someone. There’s that phrase comes to me from Brecht’s Life of Galileo and elsewhere: ‘showing the instruments’. This is – and is not – what the instruments could look like. They merge with your looking, or else they do not.



In Italy the next evening – in another art gallery, specifically the Luigi Pecci Centre for Contemporary Art in Prato – I am among objects again scattered around a floor, although these don’t look like they could be useful for anything. Mainly they appear used up.

The cream cake, smashed. The red cardboard box it came in. The toilet roll unrolled. The paper tissues, scattered. Some cheesy goo, squirted, calligraphic. The helium filled red balloons, still floating. The blue cagoule, discarded. The ready-assembly nylon tent. The empty plastic milk bottle: parmalat (small ‘p’). The open packet of Frollini biscuits. The flour bag ‘bomb’ (although it didn’t go off this evening). Even the pair of stiletto heel shoes, which happen to be neatly beside each other. Even the cd player and headphones, there on the carpet. You wouldn’t know who might step into those shoes, put on those headphones and walk away. She probably isn’t here anymore anyhow.

The objects are remnants of a performance, which all of us here – the remnants of an audience, still hanging around, not quite ready to leave – have just been watching this past hour or so. The Centro Pecci is holding an exhibition reflecting on thirty years of work supporting Italian and international contemporary in this part of the country, and as part of the exhibition they have engaged local collective Kinkaleri to revive their 2003 performance <OTTO> on weekend evenings through October, under the title <OTTO> 2003-2018. Former members of the group, who left in the late-2000s, have returned for this project, in which four young performers – Filippo Baglioni, Chiara Bertuccelli, Andrea Sassoli and Mirko Orciatici – take on the parts originally played by members of the group themselves, some of whom have been ‘seeing’ the work, live, from the spectators’ side, for the first time after fifteen years. I saw the piece – or I believe I did, I must have done, although video memory has been filling in for much since then – in 2005 at Kaaitheatre in Brussels, where it was presented as part of a trilogy with MY LOVE FOR YOU WILL NEVER DIE and I Cenci / Spettacolo. <OTTO> was the one where people come on holding peculiar objects, or performing particular actions – a private dance, a punch-up with an invisible partner, a karaoke song with inaudible words that can look like a demagogic rant – and eventually succumb to gravity, or constitutional fragility, or exhaustion, or the will to fall, or whatever tendency to collapse eventually into the imaged and self-imaging world that there is no standing apart from, not least in imagination. It’s the one, basically, where people come on holding objects and then fall over, time after time, leaving those objects – mostly everyday consumer commodities, local varieties – behind in the space. The piece was made – it’s been mentioned before, in more than one subtle and recent re-appraisal of the work– shortly after the 2001 attack on the Twin Towers in Manhattan, which is not to say that its falls were merely symbolic in that sense. Or maybe they were. But then what fell with them – these people on stage, who did keep getting up again – was falling already before that: acts taken for events, events taken for signs, signs taken for figures and images, which seemed – without going into all that again now – as if the dancer in the pleated skirt, with the stilettos and the headphones (Madonna, ‘Beautiful Stranger’; Chic, ‘Le Freak’; Lou Reed, ‘Perfect Day’), might indeed go stepping amid the ubiquitous rubble of everything that was going on. The stain-spattered corporate marble. The health and safety diagrams for first-time flyers. The sawn in half cows. The contrails, the pixelated blobs and shapes that might be us, the latter-day op-art, the price of potatoes in Norwegian, or death in the supermarket carpark. The entire litter-bin, recently overturned and spilled out, of Western civilization, whatever that was turning into. In this perhaps, it was – this has also been suggested – a last work of the 1990s, a collapsing of so many impulses of that decade’s performance culture into emblems of fake virtuosity, or else virtuoso fakery, but with false moustaches and a kind of deep pity for all our structural failures. I found it hilarious and very sad and loved the work intensely. I couldn’t resist the possibility of visiting it, all other things allowing – which they did, just about – again. I didn’t know how I would remember it this time around. I take photos afterwards. I’ve been trying to think about what figures from those.

The objects left behind by the performance – it really is a scatter – will remain in the gallery for daytime visitors tomorrow, Saturday, to walk around, a kind of installation, a contribution – as mentioned – to the Centro Pecci’s exhibition Il museo immaginato (The Imagined Museum. Histories of Thirty Years at the Centro Pecci). Only two of the objects will be removed – or else remove themselves – from the display tonight before the museum closes. The whole salmon, which is dead and already over-ripe; and the young man in swimming trunks and goggles, with his bare legs sticking out from behind the modest speaker stack in the centre of the space, who was dropped there by another performer about 40 minutes into the piece. This is Mirko. He is alive and has a life to return to, and when he eventually stands up and leaves to get changed he is applauded by those of us still there. He will join us for a pizza later. The space where something happened is, in these few minutes after the performance, vivid with remaining and departure.

When I arrive at Centro Pecci earlier that evening, I do and I don’t remember the performance I am here to see. It is more distant at this point than the people who made it, most of whom are here, and who greet me kindly. There is a complementary ticket for me which I did not pick up, I did not presume, and so some sorting out over that. We are all older. It is the most banal fact, sharpened by imminent re-encounter with a work that is not a jot older – it may be younger, even – than it ever was. It just happens to be happening again, later on for all of us. I photograph the pre-scene and send the image to a friend, who will remember better than I do. He replies immediately. It appears he does. This is what the picture shows: a deep stage, grey-carpeted, three quarters of the way back a microphone on a mic stand, three speakers to the left of the mic stand, and in front of the speakers a man’s black leather shoe, on its side, shiny. I only notice some way into the performance that one of the performers is limping – just slightly, no big deal – because he is missing such a shoe. I am missing things already, this is how I tell, which is how it must have been before. It feels like being the spectator again I was that previous time – if I ever was – ghosting myself. Ghosting my experience.

What strikes me about the performing this time, as it is happening, is the intention, the precise deliberation of the performers with regard to what is to be seen and heard, how much, and with what force. The dancer has her back to us for the early part, sound leaking from her headphones just perceptibly enough. Given to us not to hear, but overhear, somewhat. Later she suspends the headphones over the microphone: this is what I am no longer listening to; listen in place of me; I am gone. Not so much in faithful imitation of Cristina Rizzo, Luca Camilletti and Marco Mazzoni – the original performers of these parts – their younger replacements, or avatars, bring onto the stage the figures – or should we say derivatives of those figures – that the previous performers invented. There is nothing else than the figure to be re-constructed: the figure of the one who brings things on and falls; the figure of the one who does daft things, who fights the invisible fight, who photographs his ‘catch’, who ‘shows’ us how to perform the song; or the figure of the one who dances, stretches and waits – because only the figure, or its derivatives, can remain at once in that historical moment, while at the same time spinning through its vortex into another, e.g. this one, now or then. 2003-2018, for instance. Which the performers achieve, or so I imagine, not so much by attending to the look or sound of things exactly, but by occupying a spatial and rhythmic structure in which what they do is otherwise their own.

What they own here is the performing of facts, material facts. That dancing is a fact, that’s for sure. As is the squeezing of paste – some kind of foodstuff, or toothpaste perhaps? I can’t see exactly what – from the tube in the fist of the faller, and the mess it makes on the floor. The blue-cagouled camper’s self-staged photograph in front of his tent with the enormous dead fish is no less of a fact. These are the irreducible elements of the scene, the unretractable acts upon which the whole tottering edifice of fakery and illusion establishes itself. The glue applied to the upper lip, the long moustache affixed to the glue, the act of affixing, the wearing of the moustache, and whatever weird gesture of ethnic or cultural passing is being rehearsed or alluded to here, this all comes, of course, with full deniability. What moustache? I admit to no moustache. The materials meanwhile brought into the space have substance and movement of their own. Much that is going on here – visual, aural and olfactible (during an early moment air freshener is sprayed about the scene) – involves squirting, ooze and leakage. Many of the objects are foodstuffs: decayable, calorific. Others are animatronics, or rude – and historical – mechanicals of some sort. That cd player. The standing microphone. A speaking doll. The helium balloons. A squeaking, miniature toy chicken. That flour bag bomb. There is – literally – an atmosphere to the piece, an amplified resonance that digs deep into silence, through which it becomes apparent that silence as such is an impossibility here. Apart from one episode of vocalisation, nothing is spoken, so everything is to be listened to for its sound: a full force auditory theatre of perpetual, micro-minimal background murmur. This field – so to speak – of acoustic noticeability functions as the ground for a figurative spacing of elements in the place of display that might take me back to Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Earwitness Theatre in London yesterday. I say it might. It occurs now, as I write. It didn’t then. It would take something to move across, from one to another.

And then at one moment in Prato, the performance is interrupted by applause. Our applause, the applause of the audience. You would think that moment might occur at the end. Many of us do, including some of those who have seen – or believe they have seen – the show before. The three main performers complete the actions they are engaged in, come to the front, line up beside each other and invite – and accept – our generous applause. There are bows, and smiles: they smile – seemingly, and what is there to doubt about it – as themselves. They walk beside each other towards one of the exits. Some of us might be ready to follow them into the space, so as to look at the objects up closer, ready already to report back on the experience now that it is done. And then the performers fall over, all three of them, all at the same time, before they get to the curtain. Eventually one of them stands up, goes off stage, comes back with an alphabetical crime scene evidence marker – there are several of these in the space by now – and places it where the bows took place. Forensically marked, truth-checked, the fakery figured. Our applause another object in the inventory. Ditto our capacity to fall for that one, which we do willingly – and again generously – later, when the performance is over for real. Although, for now it goes on: the performer who has fallen every single time entering with a tottering stack of china plates that rattles as he carries it here, there, all over the place, from one side of the stage to the other, until eventually we have to choose which to look at – the dancer on one side or the tottering plates guy on the other. It’s a case of this fact or that. Even both if we can hold them both in mind, although not – given where they place themselves, close enough to the front where the spectators are – in the same view at the same time. Of course, we only hear them fall and break when the plates are safely off-stage again. The jokes are of a kind we see coming around, again and again.

I want – or so I am musing to myself during the latter part of the performance – for ‘Otto’ to be an eponymous figure, one that cannot and does not come to be (unlike Godot therefore, whose acts and intentions are entirely imaginable): a palindromic principle of infinite comedic potential, featureless but with a distinct – however slight – Central European accent. Otto would be an adventurer of sorts, a rider of the void who finds – this was not to be expected – the void moving under and away from them, no sort of void at all, but massive, material, violent and stupid. If it is, as they said, an image of the world that coincides with the person looking at it, it can sound – for the while we are hearing its noise – like nothing else on earth. It is everything we know damn well.


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