DETACHMENT / TOLERANCE
we exist neither for one thing
or for the other
but to prepare the way
Ronald Johnson. ARK 75, ARCHES IX
Event scores (also known as text scores or verbal scores) are usually brief, usually text instructions for creative action. This could be subtle or vivid. They were central to the Fluxus method, such as one could be defined, from the late 1950s, and through the 1960s and 70s. Their variety defines their intangible actuality. I framed lockdown by familiarising myself with Fluxus largely through active participation with these event scores. I didn’t anticipate that it would unfold like this.
Ontologically speaking, is there anything to be gleaned by actualising Fluxus Event Scores alone, at home, in lockdown?! Allan Kaprow wrote about the ‘poignancy’ of non-theatrical performance being contextualised in an ‘ongoing world, undisturbed and hardly caring.’ Considering the indifferent nature of a viral pandemic this sentiment took on a new significance. We didn’t anticipate that it would unfold like this.
In 1958, around the time of Fluxus’ inception, psychiatrist Klaus Conrad coined the term ‘apophenia’ to describe a tendency to mistakenly perceive connections and meaning between unrelated things. At its extreme this might manifest in a belief in fallacies familiar to gamblers or conspiratorially minded people. So called mild cases of ‘apophenia’ are not a disorder, but a part of the human condition and are even woven into our cultural fabric. For example, we are likely familiar with the ‘man in the moon’ to explain the geographic features visible on the moon’s surface, but if you were raised in East Asia, you’ll probably be more familiar with the ‘rabbit pounding rice cakes.’
In 1963 Fluxus’ first major publication, An Anthology of Chance Operations, formalised a blurring of the boundaries between poetry, music and dance, that a burgeoning of Fluxus events and performances had previously inaugurated. The Duchampian notion of the viewer completing the work of the artist was interrupted by performers simultaneously extending the scope of the artist, and the role of the viewer. It became possible to hold multiple vantage points at the same time – composer, performer and listener. The externalised cognitive processes of considering a text score, while listening to an actualisation invited new shared experiences, different to that of the hitherto formalised relationship of a distal audience enjoying the final aesthetic of an artist’s labour and their genius, or their sensibility.
Words are different to actions. A text score might be opaque. Similarly, an actualisation might be oblique. Both can be enjoyed at face value. To present the score and the actualisation together is to invite the viewer to triangulate on a directed territory of meaning. The more people observe something, the more perspectives are invited and therefore the more equally relevant interpretations – separate, overlapping or layered – can be expected. Our private conscious experiences are exposed as multi nodal interpretations of an event, a moment in time and/or a place – similar to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s anthropomorphic Noosphere or Jakob von Uexküll’s more inclusive Umwelt. We are invited to encounters with the composer, encounters with the performer, encounters with the environment and encounters with ourselves, ineffably unfolding before our very eyes and ears. A complex of connections and a myriad of relations is unveiled. There is no outside-text score.
Questions regarding plurality of meaning were common place in the 1960s. In 1967’s Death of the Author, Roland Barthes proposed that, “to give a text an author”, thus assigning a single, corresponding interpretation to it, was “to impose a limit on that text.” His assertion was that the essential meaning of a work depends more on the impressions of the reader, as opposed to the “passions” or “tastes” of the writer. He noted, “a text’s unity lies not in its origins, but in its destination.”
Language that is susceptible to different, perhaps even incompatible interpretations might suggest an asymmetry between audiences. The language to explain the phenomenon requires a language to explain it. Infinite explanations on how to read the explanations; of how to read the score, and further explanations about how an actualisation was rendered may be required. As such, we draw maps to navigate maps with legends to explain their legends. But rules for interpreting rules provide little help because they themselves can be interpreted in different ways. In Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein noted that “any interpretation still hangs in the air along with what it interprets, and cannot give it any support. Interpretations by themselves do not determine meaning.”
We are reminded of the anecdote about a person who, upon being asked to clarify on what the tortoise stood, if their assertion that the world stood on the back of a giant tortoise were true, rebuffed, ‘My dear, it’s no good asking, it’s tortoises all the way down.’
Anne Carson notes in If Not Winter, her complete translation of the incomplete fragments of Sappho, that the poet was complemented on her talent for using the impossible gracefully while simultaneously being criticised for flattering the ear shamefully. A tension between sympathies seems inherent to language.
Ambiguities are debated and contended, perhaps now more than ever. We are prone to defend our understanding as to question our assumptions is to destabilise us. People’s arguments are often hobbled by a tacit faith in an oversimplified understanding of the principal of bivalence. In most cases this becomes conflated with good and bad, or more problematically with right and wrong.
Not everything is polyvalent in character, but during the 1960s, post-structuralist thinkers were trying to leverage apart troublesome semantic binaries which at their extreme were exposed as problematic. It was suggested that there could be a wholeness to binaries that is greater than the sum of the two separate but related extremities. The echos of these considerations are still audible.
Sidestepping the debate about whether maths was created or discovered, floating point numbers opened a window onto the infinity between 0 and 1. There are areas of life that suggest a greater resolution of meaning could satisfy our sympathies, if only our understanding could resolve in tandem.
Lexicographers engage in a form of field recording. Dictionaries are essential to communal sense making. The complexities inherent to defining terms can be demonstrated where The Oxford English Dictionary currently lists two definitions for the noun, ‘definition’, while the Merriam Webster lists four.
Etymologically, the Latin dēfīnīre meant ‘to mark out the boundaries of something’ and while the meaning of that core verb remains, the boundary defined by ‘definition’ has been redrawn. The Latin dēfīnīre shares a root with the verb ‘finish’ (Latin fīnīre)- ‘to put and end to or, bring to a close’. From Latin, through Anglo-French and Middle English to its current form, ‘definition’ continues to metamorphose, to be defined, not away from its original meaning, but outward from it, drawing and redrawing the limitations of its boundary line, and discovering its definition.
We use tools to make our tools. We think about thinking and we describe language. We are continually circling in on the illusive central tenet of our arguments in a universe where angular motion is an intrinsic property. Meaning is still available in the warped beauty of poorly translated English on cheap t-shirts and ¥100 stationary. It works greatly in every scene including outdoor. All over the physical iconic power, even the world is eminent. You are freer than whether to use with what kind of use. Yesterday, today and probably tomorrow, today is today too. As Jim Jarmusch notes in Patterson, “Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.”
All words are metaphorical territories with their denotative meaning being situated somewhat centrally while sounds, connotation, associations and affect demarcate an amorphous field. The boundaries can be breached and the field trespassed upon to varying degrees of pleasure (and its opposites).
Listening to children form language, we remember how sound coalesces and is moulded around meaning. Depending on our exposure to certain experiences, these semantic mouldings develop at different stages in our maturation. Language is sculptural. Meaning is malleable and our sensibilities determine whether or not ours are apt to harden, or if they relain pliable. Poets keep their clay warm.
Philosophy, science and art are emergent properties of life that mirror reality and attempt to explain experience. All aim to understand and represent. Language is a tool that binds them and explains their connections. In Philosophy and Desire, Alain Badiou posits that postmodernism “…installs philosophical thought at the periphery of art, and proposes an untotalizable mixture of the conceptual method of philosophy and the sense-orientated enterprise of art.” We might share some of Badiou’s concerns about postmodernism, but if philosophical thought is installed within the sense making fields of art (hasn’t it always been?), it must be portable, and it is pessimistic to suppose that it isn’t similarly installed elsewhere, in other sense making fields – including its own thriving philosophical lineage.
We all share the same stable foundations. When approached with intellectual honesty, philosophy, science and art ultimately contribute towards the same sense making project. A syncretic erasing of what we might consider as departmental horizons can be beneficial to discovering meaning through a shared pursuit. Questions towards meaning can compliment classical questions of truth. As physicist David Deutsch notes, “That the truth consists of hard-to-vary assertions about reality is the most important fact about the physical world. It is a fact that is itself unseen, yet impossible to vary.”
Certainty of meaning is sought in reference literature. Nuance is avoided in manuals. As text scores similarly employ language to communicate what an actualisation should entail, abstraction seems antithetical to the straight semantic representation one might assume is essential. After all, a score is usually thought of as instructions where effectiveness is measured by their clarity. Simplicity of language can be a means to reduce the error of misunderstanding. Paradoxically, an economy in text can broaden the interpretative range. A score written using the more established format of semiotic pitch marks on a stave is similarly open to uncertainty. Wittgenstein noted that “There is a gulf between an order and its execution. It has to be filled by the act of understanding. Only the act of understanding can mean that we are to do THIS. The order – why that is nothing but sounds, ink marks.”
Perhaps the most obvious of the pandemic’s many paradoxes is that we are being asked to participate by not doing things. There is an urgency in non-participation. Seemingly innocent activities have taken on new and sometimes threatening connotations. To shake hands has been one of the first such actions to undergo a stress test. It’s not hard to imagine that shaking hands might become synonymous with pre-covid insouciance. Meaning is reformed under different conditions.
As such, a text continues to evolve.Poets and writers whom I admire, using the accepted lexicon of their age, have left unsavoury traces in their work. Sylvia Plath. Wallace Stevens. Roland Barthes’ clumsy otherness that permeates Empire of Signs. How many others might there be? Terms can spoil the passages around them. As Barthes understood, every work is “eternally written here and now” with each reading, because the “origin” of meaning lies exclusively in “language itself” and its impressions on the reader. We understand how language personifies a collective mind and embodies the sympathetic resonance of a collective heart.
Like the strings of a piano, our sense making apparatuses are not always set in unison. We may be vulnerable to slippage that necessitates calibration. But even tunings change over time. We now understand that the fundamental frequency of A is 440 Hz. But A has not always been defined in this way. In his 2018 installation Continuum, Ryoji Ikeda utilised the work of philologist Alexander John Ellis; tracking the drift of A from 1715 to the present day.
The tuning fork was invented in 1711 by English lutenist to the court, John Shore. At that time his tuning fork registered A at 419.9 Hz. Even as late as 1879, a Steinway and Sons tuning fork registered A at 457.2 Hz. It wasn’t until 1955 that The International Organisation of Standardisation declared the concert tuning of A, or ISO 16 to be 440 Hz. This surprising fact might be matched when we consider that in Europe there is still some dispute between the period instrument movement and baroque and classical maestros that can lead to a 4Hz variation in A. In the age of quantum precision our sensibilities can still challenge our reasoning.
A graphic score still employs language as we have to make sense of what we are seeing by describing it. In La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 #9, a black off-centre horizontal line printed on white card stock is contained in an envelope. Instructions for reading the score lexically outnumber the score itself. On the envelope is written, ‘the enclosed score is right side up when the horizontal line is slightly above centre.’ It would be possible to actualise the score without opening the envelope.
Scores usually have a latitude and a longitude, an X/Y axis suggestive of a location. If we consider that a point is mappable in space then a line is inherently time based. Thanks to our established writing system, it is natural for us to equate a movement from left to right with the passing of time. Text on a page is time based. Reading a text is performative. As such a graphic score such as Composition 1960 #9 represents something singular occurring in time. But paradoxically it is open to infinite interpretations.
An experiential basis for our linguistic metaphors is hardly surprising. Languages are grounded in the same spatial understanding of the world that we are all subject to. Height is apparent in pitch. Low pitch tones – a drop of the shoulder, we’re feeling down or feeling low. High pitch – straightening of the back, feeling good, up at the crack of dawn to watch the sun rise.
Our sagittal planes demarcate directional opposites. They are suggestive of place or location in space as well as time, and locate us centrally therein. Our notions of harmony tend to follow the same principals of balance. Consider the purity of a sine-wave, equal along an axis, or the beauty of the Rose Windows of Notre Dame – the symmetrical ideals of attractive features.
When considering the suspended existence of Jellyfish, as Astrida Neimanis does in Bodies of Water, she notes that “buoyancy would have given rise to an unthinkably different metaphysics.” If only we could do away with the distractions of our bodies, to liberate existence and be as pure thought! Think of the associations we might be free to make outside of these Rorschach inkblots that define our modes of perception.
But we are living suspended existences. We are suspended in the middle of infinite continua. Time, space, sound and knowledge are just four potentially infinite continuums for which we are only partial to one small window. Between directional orientations, we are the physical boundary between up and down, forward and backwards and temporally between what came before and what will come after – our memories, our expectations. The infinite complexity of our exterior is matched by the mysteries of our interiors. Our sense making apparatuses are limited to suspended operational windows.
These central thresholds aren’t passive. They aren’t boundaries between opposing terms, as was challenged by the post-structuralists, they are more equivalent to effervescent event horizons, simultaneously drawing in matter and expelling light. Similarly the boundaries between disciplines are fertile. Like a reef, where the cool waters of ‘philosophy’s conceptual method’ can meet the warm waters of ‘the sense-orientated enterprise of art.’ As Jean Luc Nancy noted in his 2016 Four by Three magazine interview, “To appropriate what is outside of ourselves – bodies, exteriority – would be to strip them of their outside and thus of their independent nature, foreign to all assignment of property. It would be to appropriate the expropriation with which thought begins.”
We sense the etymology of the name Fluxus. It is a Latin verb meaning to flow. Before engaging with these text scores, I imagined flow to mean flowing past like a river. When considering the Balkanization of thought processes that is currently destabilising our communal sense making, to flow like a river seems too close to its etymological cousin, ‘rival’. I have come to suppose that flow needn’t suggest conflicting binaries – rival banks of the same stream. Thanks to this prolonged engagement with Fluxus event scores I have come to appreciate that flow is more akin to springs, flowing outward from intangible central places, to intangible thresholds elsewhere.
Fluxus event scores expand our understanding of our relationships to a text. This may be extended indefinitely. Meaning may never be definitively decoupled from the written word. The meaning within a text is less important than the action it enkindles. The variety of Fluxus event scores and their actualisations define their intangible actuality not as a multiplicity of separatenesses but as a wholeness.
I have been considering the painting, Eukelade by Boo Saville as a better articulation of what I have been trying to say. Boo’s patient technique involves gently erasing thinly applied layers of paint to create mesmerising colour fields. At the beginning of August, Boo tweeted the following unattributed quote,
“Detachment is not the absence of emotion, it is the process of becoming one with the Oneness that is the Universe. To be detached, is to realise that the fullness of all there is, is too much to react to with just one emotion, one thought, or any bias.”