Context Provocation Mythogram (Part 1) (part 2 is on The Messenger – by Bill Viola)
A critical essay by Stan Bonnar…
I had seen the grey and white pigeon with black bits, on a number of occasions. It seemed to have a habit of standing in the gutter at Gorbals Cross, even in the pouring rain. Why it seemed indifferent to the wet, when everyone else in Glasgow was running for shelter, I could only wonder at. Then I saw this notice Sellotaped to a tree in a park. It had an intriguing strangeness about it, so I called the telephone number, but it was unobtainable. There was a cold wind blowing when I returned to the park, but it brought with it a faint aroma of baking bread. I moved in close to the advertisement, to try and understand its logic, but suddenly a colder gust tore the scrap of paper from the tree, and as I watched, it soared away and fluttered in a huge grey Glasgow sky.
What was the significance of the advertisement? Glasgow must have a million pigeons, all of them grey and white with black bits, so why would anyone need to advertise for one that’s ‘lost’, and then by the same token imply that they didn’t want to find it anyway? I began to suspect that there never had been a pigeon, and that something quite different was lost. But how do you find what’s lost, when you don’t know what you’re looking for?
There does seem to be a pigeon living, so to speak, in the visual language of the notice. It’s an ideal, not a physical pigeon. A kind of word pigeon, which seems to be hinted at by the addition of the letter ‘d’ to the word pigeon, suggesting a creature hybridised from two words:
pigeon: a bird with a heavy body and short legs, sometimes trained to carry messages.
pidgin: language, not a mother tongue, made up of elements of two or more other languages.
Is what is sought a normal sized, mangy, grey white and black, nameless bird, with short legs and a heavy body? Is it sometimes trained to carry messages in a language made up of elements of two or more of the languages? This is not so confusing, because any text carries at least two themes. Some are read in the words, and the others can be read between the lines. By doing this, and accepting that there is only language, we can try to understand the difference between this ideal pigeon and a pigeon-shaped physical thing.
Supposing, for the sake of argument, that there are such things as pigeons, (and we can’t tell from the advert that there are), we could make an inventory of things we think we know about pigeons. We could then say, that this is an inventory of assumptions that are implied by, and therefore used by the advert to kindle the ideal pigeon. They lie as it were, between the lines of the advert, but they affect the language it uses, and the way it looks.
Of all we think we know about physical pigeons, one important difference is that they live and die in a city of cliffs and ledges. They don’t experience the city they shit on, and fly in, as the buildings of an urban social system. We experience their behaviour as a sequence of differences, and when we think we understand these differences, we make words for their different ways of behaving. Through language, pigeons are absorbed into the structure of the city; but they aren’t aware of being absorbed into a world of words. They experience the city as pure spatial difference, and they don’t need their language to indicate objects.
This is where the two languages of the advert seemed to conflict. Language for us is the means by which we try to organise the world, but between the lines, we see that language for a pigeon is not that at all. We could call this conflict ‘poetry’, and leave it at that; but that might divert us into art, and away from the city. If we are to find and read its lost message, we should really face head on, the dangers that the advert imposes on logic.
A pigeon’s life is the defence of its pigeon-hood. Everything a pigeon does, is aimed towards its survival until that situation is impossible. Even its call. We hear a pigeon making a cooing sound that differentiates it from the other things in our frame of reference, and we say that one of the reasons that this thing is a pigeon is because it is cooing. But cooing is not metaphorical language, made up from various subtly different sounds that represent things like the eggs and nest. Although there are certain modulations of cooing, these are not differentiated from each other by their need to function in a language as a sign for something. Cooing is part of the sexual posturing of a pigeon, and because of this, cooing is the profound defence of its own pigeon-hood. As far as we can determine, a pigeon is absolutely its own most cooing thing – for itself and only for itself.
A pigeon is essentially an ‘am cooing’ thing, not a self-conscious ‘I am cooing’. Cooing is pigeon; but that ‘is’, as an implication of presence, is only as far as we can say it with words, because pigeons aren’t inside something called presence. And because pigeons have no need to represent themselves to themselves, they have not evolved a language that can elevate the self, that a pigeon could be conscious of, to the status of the genetically infinite.
Our consciousness of time as a linear unfolding of ‘nows’, centred on the present, supports a common language structure that is also linear. We talk in time, and we hear ourselves speaking at this present moment. Our language is made of words that are repeatable ideal values, derived from ideas and from things like pigeons. We hold these things ready for use, and at any time, we can represent them, so to speak, almost as if they are physically here. But to be able to communicate in this way, we need to suppress in a quite unethical way, that physicality of things, the unity of which is the very idea of pure spatiality, that profound exterior difference between any one present moment and the next, that would compromise and confuse the linear logic of language. We must suppress the physicality of things, or we wouldn’t be able to speak, for living in the pure breadth of unlimited relativity. But the physical nature of pigeon shit is never experienced through discourse. The sanctity of our consciousness of pigeons is seldom contaminated by the abject orifice.
This necessary degree of colloquial insulation from the physical is reflected in our practical behaviour. We have a manual dexterity that enables us to arrange materials, and experience them as such. This is because our internal time consciousness predisposes these skills and materials to being for the sake of some future arrangement, and for some progress towards a better situation. We call this technical expertise, technē, which was for the Greeks, crucially, a practical experience gained from encountering the differences of the physical world, which they were part of.
This view from within the physical world was manifest in their art and architecture, and the Greek body and mind was no doubt fused to the planet. But this plural and diverse way of thinking was already being suppressed through the linearity of a language that had to be made to account for the capitalism and control of material wealth. Derrida’s reference to Leroi-Gourhan’s text, describes this:
"The development of the first cities corresponds not only to the appearance of the technician of fire, but… writing is born at the same time as metallurgy. Here again, this is not a coincidence… it is at the moment when agrarian capitalism began to establish itself, that the means of stabilising it in written balance accounts appears, and it is also at the moment when social hierarchization is affirmed that writing constructs its first genealogists… the appearance of writing is not fortuitous; after millennia of maturation in the systems of mythographic representation, there emerges, along with metal and slavery, the linear notation of thought. Its content is not fortuitous."
Through the centuries, this linear notation assumed an ascendancy that changed the way European people thought, and the type of questions they asked. Technical specialism and linear notation gradually came to repress what Leroi-Gourhan calls the "Mythogram" – a writing that spells its symbols pluri-dimensionally. Gradually, people asked less the question, why is this the way it is, and more they began to ask, what is it in its own structure? This change of purpose may be evidence that a ‘culture’ had begun to see itself as self-sufficient; but it was also the opening of technology, that paved the way for an unlimited globalized commodification.
Today, the technical operations of our production lines dovetail smoothly and imperceptibly with linear language. These two modes of structural or systemic defence become synonymous in the word technology, which is the practical management of something called nature, within the voice of consciousness. This ideal world enables us to avoid grappling with pure awkward difference.
Pigeons are not technological. A nest isn’t built from twiggy and feathery materials. As a pigeon grapples with the pure awkwardness of physical things, it’s not aware of them as materials for progress. What we call materials for nestbuilding, are for a pigeon that exterior part of its own physicality, that must be arranged as a defence of its pigeon-hood. A pigeon is that properly constructed nest, the truth of which is only verifiable in terms of eggs and chicks. Pigeons are their own profound physical relationship with the planet, they are that very spatial exteriority of difference between them and the things they deal with, that one day just stops.
By calling on lost feral pigeon, the notice implies something of this. What is so disconcerting, or indeed dangerous about it, is that it plugs straight into that unnameable spacing, that was already there between one present moment and the next, before the very idea of representation. In other words the advertisement cannot be a representation derived from anything; the advertisement is a purely physical, and visual thing. You might say that its words were never voiced, or that its speech, which would always have been the easiest and most powerful way to represent and dominate things in the breath of its spirit, is immediately silenced by a pigeon that could never be present. Or even lost.
By implying that neither nests nor twigs exist as such – by making us think the one as a trace of the other – the advert is quietly and persistently subverting all urban technologies. By drawing on that very unremarkable ubiquitous thing, which is the absolute opposite to what is required for any marketable item, the notice introduces a lethal virus into the world of advertising. By calling with words, to a pigeon that could never be lost, the notice does violence to the logical structure of language. In fact, by the invocation of something that could never be present, the advert erases its own words as representations. Pigeons do not exist. This advertisement is essentially and profoundly untrue. The answer to the question ‘what is lost?’ is indeed ‘what is lost?’, or at least that voracious mode of questioning, and with it goes the assumption that texts relate to objects. Because it has used the ideal pigeon, as pidgeon, to silence its own voice, it hangs there abjectly, but quietly optimistic.
To write these things is to think towards deconstruction, and to be suspicious of the power assumptions inherent in a language of representation. The central currency of this language is the image. Which is why so much of traditional art practice has, in recent years, been called into question, by artists whose thoughts tend towards deconstruction. This may have something to do with what Joseph Kosuth was thinking about when he said in 1969:
"Being an artist now means to question the nature of art. If one is questioning the nature of painting, one cannot be questioning the nature of art. If an artist accepts painting (or sculpture) he is accepting the tradition that goes with it. That’s because the word art is general and the word painting is specific. Painting as a kind of art. If you make paintings, you are already excepting (not questioning) the nature of art. One is then accepting the nature of art to be the European tradition of a painting – sculpture dichotomy".
Well maybe. It all depends on the context and the intention of the image. David Shrigley’s advertisement for a lost pidgeon, as an advertisement in a world of advertising, is a static image that successfully interrogates itself to death, and by doing this, performs deconstructive surgery on its greater technological structure.
Continue to part 2… www.flickr.com/photos/stan_bonnars_artworks/5218412421/in…
the video in part 2 is available only to flickr members, if you are not a member, please continue here…
Context Provocation Mythogram Part 2 – on The Messenger by Bill Viola
A critical essay by Stan Bonnar
link to still from the video: www.flickr.com/photos/stan_bonnars_artworks/9640685983
In 1996, the church of England’s chaplaincy to the arts and recreation in north-east England, commissioned the American artist Bill Viola to make a work in response to Durham Cathedral. The building of this great cathedral was begun in 1093, and it is considered to be one of the finest examples of a Romanesque-Norman architecture in Europe. Viola’s artwork is a video entitled ‘The Messenger’, and this is how he describes the piece:
"A large image is projected onto a screen mounted to the great West door in Durham Cathedral. The image sequence begins with a small, central, luminous, abstract form, shimmering and undulating against a deep blue-black void. Gradually the luminous shape begins to get larger and less distorted, and it soon becomes apparent that we are seeing a human form, illuminated, rising towards us from under the surface of a body of water. The water becomes more still and transparent and the figure more clear on its journey upwards towards us. We identify the figure as a man, pale blue, on his back rising up slowly. After some time, the figure breaks the surface, an act at once startling, relieving and desperate. His pale form emerges into the warm hues of a bright light, the water glistening on his body. His eyes immediately open and he releases a long held breath from the depths, shattering the silence of the image as this forceful primal sound of life that resonates momentarily in the space. After a few moments, he inhales deeply, and, with his eyes shut and his mouth closed, he sinks into the depths of the blue-black void, to become a shimmering moving point of light once more. The image then returns to its original state and the cycle begins anew."
The scandal which ensued the installation was eagerly grasped by the national press. This response from John MacEwan in the Sunday Telegraph:
"On press day, journalists arrived to find to the Dean and Chapter in a flap. They had been legally advised to protect themselves against indecency charges by getting police clearance. Screens were being hastily arranged to hide the film from the general view, because the police had warned that the sight of ‘appendages’ might upset the public. As the Dean explained: A child who had been sexually abused might come into the cathedral and be disturbed by a large image of a nude male.
"The Dean praised the film: I only saw it this morning, but I think it is a great work of art. Canon Bill Hall, who commissioned the work, added to general approval that it was regrettable it could not be seen as conceived, in full view at the west end of the nave.
"Such verbal support cannot conceal the fact that by admitting the film can cause offence, the Dean and Chapter immediately put themselves in the wrong. To add humiliation to lack of judgement, they have also bowed to the secular authority of the police on a matter they claim to be spiritual. The ensuing mess is no more than they deserve. By turning a blue movie into a Blue Movie, there does indeed seem very good reason for an outraged member of the public to take them to court. The heavy breathing of the soundtrack is now far more scandalous than the screened-off nudity."
Viola’s intention had been to make The Messenger: "…have this resonance with, hopefully have a dance with – on the positive side, – on the negative side maybe a conflict with this incredibly powerful place." But although he hopes that the work will have a perceptible interaction with the place, somewhere between dance and conflict, the result was off the scale. In Durham the messenger will inevitably be remembered as screened and censored, so it is worth trying to understand what happened.
It should be noted at this point that The Messenger was also seen in art spaces around the country. I saw the work in the South London Gallery, and although the space was quite dark, being illuminated only by the video projection, there was little resonance with the building itself. I approached the work from this location. Under normal circumstances, the time that the cycle takes, would have involved the terminal expulsion of breath while underwater. This technological stretching of time could be viewed as a subversive commentary on the breath, the voice, and the spiritual dominion of man – a deconstruction of representational purity, glimpsed through an image of the very invincibility of man in fortress ‘metaphor’. The authenticity of this view would be signalled by abject desperation, the symbol of a search for the means of linguistic suicide. But although the man is said to be desperate, there is nothing in his body language to suggest despair. That Viola’s man is not distressed by any technological dislocation from the meaning of his image, might suggest a utilisation, rather than a critique of metaphorical language.
If this is true, it suggests that the messenger does not address the problem of time and language to the extent that’s possible in video artworks. It may be that the water is a metaphor for the subconscious in unity with its physical surroundings, and that this is evidence of pluralistic thinking; but the apparent ease with which he uses metaphor, means that the image as an ideal narrative object, cannot be wrested away from a dominating subject. Because metaphor is essentially derivative and linguistic, its viability as a tool for use towards a greater understanding is in doubt, immediately understanding attempts to dig its way out of representational language. Viola stops The Messenger from drowning through the use of metaphor.
Although Viola reintroduces the human body into the Christian spiritual equation after its exile for centuries, he fails to convince the Sunday telegraph art critic, that The Messenger is nothing more than "… yet another example of body art, its concentration on the physical the reverse of spirituality." Yet surely, as one so involved in the mystical aspects of religious thought, it could be expected that an exploration of mind as body would be central to his project, and that the messenger’s body would not be isolated from its own abject but nevertheless potentially ethical reality, by an envelope of spiritual consciousness. Nevertheless although bathing in a linear model of time, The Messenger is the catalyst that causes the very foundations of Durham Cathedral to shake.
It could be argued that what was being censored was not the nudity of the messenger, but the idea of ecstatic love as a way to God. Bill Viola writes that his work is based in unknowing, in doubt, in being lost, in questions and not answers, and he relates to the role of the mystic because of this. He is fascinated by the ancient Christian teaching called the via negativa, the basic tenet of which is an unknowability of God, who can only be approached in love – through the body as much as through the mind of the individual. By love, the soul enters into union with God, a union not infrequently described through the metaphor of ecstatic sex. The via negativa was eventually dominated by the more familiar via positiva of today, a method of affirmation that describes positive, human attributes such as Good and All-Knowing to the image of a transcendent God. But there is also an other aspect to ecstasy.
In his book Being and Time, Martin Heidegger disclosed ecstatic temporalising as primordial to the commonsense sequence of ‘nows’ we recognize as everyday time: "Temporality is the primordial ‘out-side-of-itself’ in and for itself. We therefore call the phenomena of the future, the character of having been, and the Present, the ‘ecstases’ of temporality."
He also disclosed temporality as the ontological meaning of care, and care as Being-towards-death, from which one might assume that ecstasy, both ontological and colloquial, encounters death in a way that would be threatening to the infinite linearity of English ecclesiastical time. In other words it could be argued that it would be necessary for the clergy to censor this aspect of ecstasy, even more so than the sexual aspect of the image.
Nevertheless, the attempt to censor many intimate moments of divergent thought, backfired, causing what might have been a gradual evolution of understanding, to become one of a least intended, catastrophic change, that plunged the people, the clergy and the shaman into an abyss of controversy.
To remember an important dream, is to begin to make sense of its symbols. Although these are events in time, what is important in a dream, is the way in which its images are patterned by the brain. This gives a symbolic picture of the subconscious state, and introduces a potential energy for change. To tell about the dream, is to make word signs that represent its symbols. In Durham, The Messenger may have inadvertently threatened the temporal power base of the Church, and provoked an abject dislocation in its language structure; nevertheless, because this is a shared experience, the first thing to change in light of this dream, might be the very language used to tell it.
The Messenger works because Bill Viola is immersed in the same linguistic structure as the church. He is able to open up this meaningful dialogue in a common language, that results in the spontaneous transformation of the situation. This is the only criterion for success. Most important though, is the need to recognize that it’s not an artwork entitled The Messenger that people are standing around questioning, but it’s their own ideas of what happened, that they are standing among as part of.
When Canon Bill Hall says that The Messenger is great art, he is defining great art within its context. This is close to what Donald Judd meant when he said, "if someone calls it art, it’s art." Within that frame of reference, art becomes word to use, to contextualise an act, to locate it in a social structure of the same name. Here there is a problematic difference of perspectives on art, from two structures that lay claim to ownership of the messenger. When the Dean refers to this as great art, he sees the entire situation at the cathedral as something that’s going to profoundly affect his life. He no doubt is very sensitized to the abjectness of the whole situation. On the other hand, when The Messenger is viewed in the isolation of art, a sense of the abject that might signal an intention to bring death into the linguistic equation is missing.
Viola is happy for the work to be shown in art galleries around the country, because he also belongs to an art world structure. But here the problem centres on the definition of something as art. As long as this uni-dimensional conceptual pattern of a specialized social system called art, persists, it will place a barrier between an intention to deconstruct, and any functioning social system which that deconstruction intends to be part of. In this case it forestalls the necessity for art critique to delve into the contextual background of the work, which would reveal the situation as being truly subversive for its context, the Church. This seems to raise the question as to whether it would in fact be counterproductive to place artists-in-residence in such institutions.
To paraphrase Joseph Kosuth’s earlier statement, an artist, being a thinker now, means to question the nature of functioning social structures. If one is questioning the nature of art, one cannot be questioning the nature of other functioning social structures. If a thinker accepts art, they are accepting the tradition that goes with it. That’s because the word society is general and the word art is specific. The art world is a kind of functioning social structure. If you make art, you are already accepting (not questioning) the nature of society. One is then accepting that the human image can only really be reflected by art, and disseminated as such to society.
Nevertheless, art exists, and a defining factor of deconstruction is that it operates on the periphery of its own linguistic structure. It could be argued that if something is art, then by definition it can only deconstruct the languages of art. To be sure it filters through eventually to a broader church, as minimalist style, but to whose benefit? Although much of contemporary deconstructive art is difficult to commodify, it still submits to an art objectification, which capitalism would no doubt see as its last line of defence. If it is this linear, linguistic, capitalization of physical things that threatens to be erased by deconstruction, then capitalist thinking would need to maintain the Object, in order for its languages to be able to predict an infinity of its own presence. This objectification is a technological distance that corporate interest must proliferate to survive; but it means that people forget what proximity is for.
These political processes through which art appropriates, commodifies, and neutralizes the ethical impulse of deconstruction, thwart even the most determined attempts at linguistic suicide. To be art, it must have at some stage controlled unpredictability for its own pre-diction as art; it must at some stage in its own future, be able and willing to look back on proximity, as something that happened before it became art. And yet it is that very unpredictability of proximity that allows fluid discourse to find its own democratic level. Deconstruction seeks democracy in the silence of the artists voice, but this is inevitably only a demonstration of how to deconstruct. If art is to transcend its own objectification, a new art tendency must be conceptualised from which the whole of art can be deconstructed. If the whole of art could be viewed by the whole of the population, from the multitude of tiny intimate moments in time that would motivate such a tendency, then the silence would be intense.
To begin to recognize what factors might characterise this tendency toward democracy in art, we might refer to Simon Critchley’s book, The Ethics of Deconstruction, Derrida & Levinas. In this work, Critchley draws on Emmanuel Levinas’ thinking on ethics.
"…Levinas is preoccupied with the possibility of an ethical form of language, the Saying, which would be irreducible to the ontological language of the Said, in which all entities are disclosed and comprehended in the light of Being… the Saying is my exposure – corporeal, sensible – to the Other, my inability to refuse the Other’s approach. It is the performative stating, proposing, or expressive position of myself facing the Other. It is a verbal or non-verbal ethical performance, whose essence cannot be caught in constative propositions. It is a performative doing that cannot be reduced to a constative description."
A tendency towards democracy in art might germinate in this spatial relation to the other. Language opens up the issue of HOW being in relation to the human other is articulated, ethical or not, but prior to language is the Saying, as the "…sheer radicality of human speaking… as the very enactment of the ethical movement from the Same to the Other", as the very unnameability of the trace. Art might raise the issue of its own transcendence in this space, as a performance in the unpredictable proximity before the Other.
At issue here is a tendency within the ontological language of art, to say ‘Yes’ to the unpredictable Otherness of the Other. If as Levinas states, the Saying is my corporeal and sensible inability to refuse the Other’s approach, then it makes sense to perform art in a space of maximum unpredictability. This does seem to suggest that the whole of art might best be deconstructed in public spaces that are unrestricted, and in which the Other is not a predictable object in the artistic field of vision.
Unrestricted public space is full of people, who come close in an unpredictable way, but who are nevertheless capable of forming the ‘we’ who can in this present moment, demanded justice, or take a political decision for the justification of any issue. Art is such an issue, but deconstructive art, as a signification that raises the question of signification, could be a means to rediscover the sheer proximity necessary to democracy.
I want to refer back to the mythogram, but now as a clearing for the writing of stories who symbols spell themselves pluri-dimensionally, and as a deconstructive continuum for ethico-political decisions. A tendency to open democratic space.
the complete photo/video collection (1972-2016) of Stan Bonnar’s artworks is accessible here :
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