Into the Fray
A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks.1
Georges Bataille, A Critical Dictionary
Language can be irredeemably imprecise. In the realm of artistic practice the same word can signal both a spatial form and a temporal event, describing a process of creation or construction and yet also the material nature of the resulting artefact. Picture … Stitch … Stage … Frame … Film … Trace … Map … Crease. Other terms conjure multiple connotations, serving more like double agents or saboteurs that perpetually undercut the possibility of one potential meaning with the presence of another. Object for example suggests something concrete that can be seen or touched, and yet equally sounds out as the rally cry of dissent, the motivation to fuel all insurgent provocation. Meaning is thus never still, nor ever wholly certain. Within Georges Bataille’s Critical Dictionary there is always a double use for language, such that the term formless for instance not only works as an adjective pertaining to ambiguity or shapelessness, but can also be performed as an operation that declassifies or ‘brings things down’.2 Fray is perhaps another such term. At a material level it is used to indicate a tear or worn area of fabric: the point at which a garment begins to collapse and become useless or the moment where the continuity of a textile surface is broken or put under strain. Fray is also a site of skirmish, a sign of contestation or crisis.3 Emotionally or psychologically it speaks of nerves jangling; tensions rising; of patience stretched and of the endured action pushed to the limit.
A fray can metaphorically signal instability of the conceptual as well as physical kind where analogous to the Greek notion of aporia it might describe a zone of working doubt or of irresolution.4 Akin to the garment cast aside mid-stitch, logic might become frayed, relinquishing its temporary shape to fall formless to the floor in abject tangles. However whilst seemingly undesirable, the fray remains an irresistible tease – a site of seduction and delinquency that demands attention. For who hasn’t at some point succumbed to the curious temptation of the loose thread; felt the moment of simultaneous violence and pleasure as the weave irreversibly unravels. Or else might have worried at the incomplete and fuzzy edges of a narrative until the hidden secret is finally disclosed. A fray can thus be seen as a gesture of undoing or spoiling the habitual or already known; a period of stress which breaks through the illusory surface of a given reality; an act of disruption that causes the breakdown of substances or situations to reveal their constituent elements, their hidden order.
Presented in this way the notion of the fray can function as a foil against which to reflect upon the series of experimental, cumulative or durational exhibitions, events and performances that were commissioned by Site Gallery as part of Site Platform (2006). In the exhibition Unloud Duncan Higgins’ innumerable video works and paintings appeared to propose a personal archival system or visual language in which fact and fiction; past and present, the romantic and the catastrophic could not be categorically fixed nor determined but instead seemed to bleed across one another and become indistinguishable. Emerging from a series of encounters with specific places in North Russia over recent years, the exhibition
attempted perhaps to reconcile the surface stillness and irrevocable beauty of the witnessed landscape with the inescapable knowledge of its more turbulent archaeology of inhabitation. Undisclosed territories became plunged into inky darkness or luminously bleached by light reflected back from snow. Anonymous buildings and outhouses loomed large against a landscape that was emptied out of detail, silhouettes engaged in unrecognisable discourse. Fleeting and ambiguous, these markers of human existence remained at a distance, incommunicable. They hovered like phantoms at the edges of a narrative that slipped beneath the register of concrete meaning, where the gravitas of unspoken histories stirred from under a fiction of normality. In other instances, the lurching pan of a hand-held camera; the barely audible register of intermittent breath and footfall, or a fragment of spoken dialogue served to locate the footage securely within the realm of the everyday encounter or relational exchange.
The work showed a relentless and near-obsessive commitment to capturing the landscape; where the endless and repeated inquisition or troubling of its surface perhaps revealed something of its darker secrets, or strived to open new spaces into which things could still be re-imagined. Higgins creates an awkwardness or friction between the elements he presents, where the random collision of disparate parts functioned to erode or unhinge the narrative logic of the whole or produced a kind of bruising into which the past was drawn. Whilst the presence of unpredictability and incertitude might be felt within other exhibitions in the Platform series, here in particular it appeared to be deployed wilfully as a tactical endeavour to create a sense of disquiet. Irresolution functions on both a formal and conceptual level in Higgins’ work; creating havoc and discontinuity between the paintings and visual cacophony of filmic images played out on numerous monitors and projections, but also haunting the sites and locations which are represented therein. From the personal to the political, the notion of irresolution suggests that something has been left unsaid. It describes a form of psychological stalemate that results from a social bind that has been left in limbo: a relationship forsaken but not forgotten, a history that has been shelved but not yet archived. It is a notion pitted with traces of disagreeable break- ups and conflicting testimony: the friction of irreconcilable histories, the jarring of incompatible agendas and binary forms.
In Michael Graham’s exhibition, Ambivalent processes, the space of the gallery itself became the site for excavation and scrutiny where like the lure of the fallen stitch, the fault-lines and failings of everyday spaces became picked at and pulled open until they began to take on a presence of their own. Graham utilises outmoded technologies in the same way that a scientist might deploy the microscope, in order to illuminate and enlarge details that would otherwise remain invisible. He manoeuvres the incidental towards the status of incident; attempting to bring into focus a level of reality that usually exists beyond the radar of the perceptible; give shape to the habitually formless interruptions at the periphery of what is seen. As the tired eye begins to notice itself in action and can no longer ignore the floating apparitions along its surface edge, Graham’s work gradually reveals itself as time passes and the space ‘gives way’ to being observed. Particles of dust trapped in the white light of the projector lens were beamed onto the gallery wall where they were then traced by the artist; each daily mapping adding increasingly and ever imperceptibly to an infinitely expanding galaxy of pencil inscriptions as the static built and heat rose. In an opposite corner, the indentations and ruptures of the wall were used as the axis coordinates for the construction of an elaborate web, points of
anchor and attachment from which a network of threads became hopelessly entwined. In both pieces the precision of the artist’s observations was overturned by the chaos and futility of the resultant documentary residue: the dust marks refused to behave according to any coherent pattern; the tangled web eventually collapsed into inelegance snarls.
For Rosalind Krauss and Yve Alain Bois entropy is defined as ‘the constant and irreversible degradation of energy in every system, a degradation that leads to an increasing state of disorder and of non-differentiation within matter’.5 Signalling a form of redundancy or inelasticity, the spoiling effect of wear and tear or the ‘invasion of “noise” into the message’,6 entropy seems ever promised in Graham’s system. His experiments seemed to reflect the ‘entropic nightmare’ of George Bataille’s Critical Dictionary entry for Dust (‘Poussière’), which concludes, ‘One day or another, given its persistence … dust will probably begin to gain the upper hand’.7 In Graham’s work the quest for logic or order creates only additional disorder and instability, where the risk of contamination and discrepancy is increased rather than quelled. The seemingly scientific gives way to a ritual compulsion that appears to slip out of control. The logic of the enforced rule locks the artist into a Sisyphean eternity where the task remains forever unfulfilled or without end. Obligation to the absurd or arbitrary rule can be a way of ‘avoiding subjectivity’,8 and yet curiously also a survival strategy of the most existential kind, where the repetitive gesture might function to combat the experience of boredom or powerlessness by defiantly responding with actions that are themselves without purpose or apparent ‘reason’.9 In very different ways the artists in Platform presented the evidence or trace of some absurdly episodic, repetitious activity or private ritual where a tension builds between the conditions of declaration and doubt; pointlessness and necessity; boredom and immersion; penance and pleasure. Repetitious or routine actions can both anaesthetise and awaken the senses.10 Under an obligation or instruction, gestures oscillate between criticality and compulsion, where the repeated action can be articulated in relation to both the notion of alienation and embodiment.
In Evangelia Basdekis’s performance, I Trust You, the repeated gesture took the form of an aggressive pricking of the skin in an acute and endured exploration of pain and politics. Over one day the artist silently embroidered the sole of her foot where her relentless, reiterated stitch gradually assumed the form of an image of Mickey Mouse. In one space Basdekis could be found immersed in her gruesome needlework under the watchful (and disturbingly inquisitive) gaze of a live audience, whilst in the adjacent gallery space a live video relay afforded mediated distance on the proceedings. Shifting between these two sites the role of the audience slipped between that of an impartial voyeur to being complicit in the act itself, where like the production-line foreman their live presence seemed to compel the artist to maintain her pace and ‘keep on working’.
The defacing or spoiling of the skin or the self functions as an visible act of protest, where the infliction of a specific or localised pain is a way to both draw attention to and eclipse the more nebulous pressure of societal values and the violence of authority. However the attempt to identify the site of pain is not altogether possible, for it seeps with mercurial stealth insinuating itself into unexpected crevices. At some points in the performance it became possible for the audience to feel numbed to the violence of the act itself as though hypnotised by the stitch’s rhythm; and more aware of other forms of discomfort that were perhaps less
rehearsed. Before long the experience of pain appeared to bleed into the moments of inaction within the performance, where other parts of the artist’s body seemed to succumb to the creeping ache of ‘pins and needles’ or muscle cramp. Indeed the pain endures beyond the frame of the witnessed event for the artist, as over the following weeks the now hidden embroidery is gradually rejected by the body and slowly unravels. Within Basdekis’ practice it is difficult to identify where the work starts and stops for each performance lingers on in private as a tender documentary residue. Equally within the event itself there were periods of slippage, where the artist’s ‘character’ could be felt to fall or fail. Traditionally, within performance (and autobiography) the individual appears as an abstracted and mythologised version of themselves; a double that ‘enjoys a coherence and a unity that the self lacks’.11 When the pain appeared to register most for Basdekis – in those moments of unexpected numbness or when the stitch felt most stubborn – it became possible to witness the coherence of her ‘double’ fray, as the spell became momentarily broken and the character lapsed. Here the individual spectator was no longer only part of the audience at a live event; but also a bystander, not just allowing but in fact endorsing and encouraging the pain of another human being.
The frayed edge of practice where the event starts and stops is also evident in the work of Hester Reeve, where the relationship between the performative and pre– formative, as well as between improvisation, rehearsal and routine is often blurred or challenged. For Platform Reeve proposed a performative undoing or reversal of a philosophical treatise by Plato through a series of highly evocative bodily translations and staged tableaux. Reversing a text destroys intended meaning or any linear narrative, collapsing all rational argument into an incoherent babble of hapless phonemes and incongruent vowels. The gesture of performing words backwards can also be read as a hex, a spell of disappearance perhaps, that attempts to erase an oppressive power or person. The reversal of Plato might be seen as the desire to return to a place before philosophy or knowledge, a recuperation of a Dionysian order where the potential of the creative or intuitive might overturn the dominance of critical or rational ideologies. Reeve introduces a Dionysian vocabulary into her philosophical ‘undoing’: she appears curiously intoxicated as she claps, crawls, spits, and laughs; conjures the delirium of the carnivalesque as she swirls and orbits against the limits of her temporary cage; adopts the shape of the serpent as prone, she writhes and gyrates upon the floor. Her gestures mark a fall from the linguistic into a non-verbal or pre-lingual space of animalistic and erotic narration, in an attempt to challenge the order of what is known and propose other modes of being.
Akin to Basdekis’ performance, the two gallery spaces functioned as sites for different forms of engagement and encounter with the work. Night afforded the opportunity for clandestine experimentation where the emptied, nocturnal gallery presented a vacuum or void into which Reeve attempted to make something happen, tried to conjure a ‘scene’. Enforced isolation and lack of sleep functioned perhaps as a rule or constraint; an applied pressure placed upon both the space and upon a practice in order that they might begin to ‘give’ and become (com)pliant. Repeated until exhaustion, improvised gestures were gradually worn to the point that they began to yield; everyday objects were coerced into symbolic order, roles inhabited until they began to develop a life of their own. The results of Reeve’s indefatigable labour were edited and projected as a performance to camera and viewed the following day in the adjacent gallery: each nightly instalment adding incrementally to the series of staged and numbered tableaux. The edited video belied the imagined
disorder of the improvised night, for each non-verbal act was irrevocably eloquent, exquisitely framed. On the final day of the exhibition Reeve opened her studio quarters to an audience in a live performance that brought together key discoveries from her private nightly rehearsals. Shifting from the framed and mediated encounter of Reeve’s camera performance to the live confrontation of the rehearsal room was akin to watching a documentary of the making of a film, where the magic of the celluloid becomes simultaneously collapsed and reinstated. Knowledge of what takes place beyond the frame ruptures the illusion presented within its edges, as the disorder of production is disclosed or as the performer is seen to slip between on and off ‘screen’ persona. This is the frayed or schizophrenic moment of performance: the fragile point of possession where the artist is inhabited by or inhabits the space of another character. The revelation of the ‘beyond frame’ also serves to draw attention to the point of transition between improvisation and performance; as well as to the inescapable cut or cull which takes place when the live event becomes archived onto film, as certain gestures become preserved and others abandoned.
The fray then illuminates what remains habitually unseen: the raw substance out of which something is formed, the invisible structures that hold matter together. Within the Platform series it can be used as a model through which to reflect upon a broad range of practices and ideas, where it can be seen as a manoeuvre or operation in conceptual, philosophical as well as concrete terms. It suggests a reading where practice is seen as never wholly still but is forever in transition, always on the move. It recuperates value for the temporal and performative event of artistic practice; the processes that underpin and remain part of the work, the active site of dialogue between art, artist and audience where meaning is proposed, negotiated and contested. The idea of the fray plays out in both the form and content of work in the Platform series; where it can be understood as an analogy for irresolution, uncertainty or open-endedness, but might also relate to the way in which the artists have both responded to and affected unexpected gaps and glitches in the way that world is perceived.
Emma Cocker 2007
1 Bataille goes on to state that ‘In this way formless is not only an adjective having such and such a meaning, but a term serving to declassify, requiring in general that every thing should have a form’, See Georges Bataille, entry for ‘Formless’ in Critical Dictionary, in Encyclopaedia Acephalica, Documents of the Avant Garde, (ed.) Alastair Brotchie et al (Atlas Press, London, 1995), p.51. The Critical Dictionary was originally published in sections in the magazine Documents. 2 Words are afforded a second meaning within Bataille’s ‘dictionary’, a lower order through which they might challenge the authority of the rational. 3 It is interesting perhaps that the French term bataille is used to refer to the idiom ‘frayed at the edges’ as well as a fight between opposing elements. 4 The Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2006) defines aporia as 1. Rhetoric: the expression of a simulated or real doubt, as about where to begin or what to do or say. 2. Logic, Philosophy: a difficulty encountered in establishing the theoretical truth of a proposition, created by the presence of evidence both for and against it. 5 Rosalind Krauss and Yve Alain Bois, Formless a User’s Guide, (Zone Books, 1997), p.34. 6 Krauss and Bois, 1997, p.38.
7 Bataille, “Poussière” (Dust), Documents 1 (1929), no.5, p.278: Oeuvres complètes, vol.1, p.197: trans. Iain White, Enclyclopaedia Acephalica. Krauss and Bois refer to this dictionary entry in building an argument for the use of the term ‘entropy’ within a ‘taxonomy’ relating to formless. They outline four operations in which they see the ‘mark of the formless’ – ‘horizontality’, ‘base materialism’, ‘pulse’ and ‘entropy’. See their introduction to Formless a User’s Guide, Krauss and Bois, 1997, pp.13 -42. 8 In his Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, Sol LeWitt argues that ‘To work with a plan that is pre- set is one way of avoiding subjectivity … The plan would design the work’. See Open Systems: Rethinking Art c.1970, (exh. cat), (ed.) Donna De Salvo, (Tate Publishing, 2005), p.180. First published in Artforum, September 1967. 9 The strategic deployment of the absurd gesture is equivalent perhaps to blowing a ‘raspberry’ when words fail. The apparent contradiction or counter-intuition within system-based or serial practices is perhaps reflected upon by LeWitt himself as he suggests that ‘The logic of a piece or series of pieces is a device that is used at times only to be ruined,’ in Open Systems, p.180. In the same catalogue Johanna Burton argues that ‘recourse to “systems” enabled rather than denied access to the rhizomatic, perpetually variable and vehemently nonlinear, while making visible the myriad structures designed to contain and order’. Johanna Burton, ‘Mystics Rather than Rationalists’ in Open Systems, p.67. 10 The act of counting or list making for example, is brought into play at the liminal moment of both drifting off and resisting sleep, whilst ritual processes might develop equally from the desire to forget and yet also as a mode of remembrance. 11 Ilana Shiloh, Paul Auster and the Postmodern Quest – On the road to nowhere, (Peter Lang Press, 2002) , p.42.