Mediamatic Magazine vol 4#4 Nick Kaye 1 Jan 1990

The Aesthetics of Denial

I am more and more realising... that I have ears and I can hear. My work is intended as a demonstration of this: you might call it an affirmation of life. Life goes on very well without me. - John Cage


The Aesthetics of Denial -

At the point of its emergence, performance art has invariably been bound up with a notion of denial: a denial of the object in order that the actions and exchanges that surround it might be seen; a denial of the works completion in order that processes of definition may become apparent.

Through such means, performance has come to address activities and exchanges that lie outside the conventional vocabularies and perspectives of art, introducing contents that the artist can only have access to indirectly. Here, too, the content of performance has intersected with the ’everyday’, with that which is normally unseen, and can be ‘found’ or ‘Iramed’ but not composed. Such an aesthetic underlies a whole range of departures in performance, and, at a number of points, can be seen to arise with the very notion of performance itself, at the moment at which art departs from the object.

In the late 1950s, the explicit reference in action painting to the activity and experience of the artist in the making of the work, brought painting toward a moment at which the object appeared to obstruct the very contents it pointed toward. Many of the Happenings of the early 1960s responded to the questions this raised over where the most valuable experience of art may lie by treating audience participation and game-playing as a process of art-making. Fragmented, collagic, often dispersed across different places and times, the new forms invited an active looking and building of works which deliberately resisted a sense of completion or even of a perceptible whole. For Claes Oldenburg, such disruptions of the unities associated with the object provided the ground for an exchange between audience and artist in which the viewer might discover a self-conscious engagement in a process analogous to his own making. His performance pieces, he noted, were: incidents of pressing my vision closer to an audience... an active exchange of attitudes and sensibility with a living audience. The end is less perfection, as in sculptures, than action, process.

While the Happenings responded to a tension between the object and the act of making, much Body Art drew on an analogous and equally critical point in the language of sculpture. In the late 1960s, the minimal art-object's refusal to offer representation, reference or symbol, coupled with its blank echoing of the gallery space forced a reconsideration of the subject-matter of sculpture. For Vito Acconci, the minimalist object revealed the circumstances and relationships on which the art-object was itself dependent. Minimalism, he suggested,... was the art that made it necessary to recognise the space you were in and in doing so confirmed the fact that art- had to be this relation between whatever it was that started off the art and the viewer.1 Rather than simply step beyond the object and toward the language of theatre, Acconci, like Oldenburg, was drawn toward the exchanges and relationships that he perceived to underlie the presence and meaning of the object, but which the object itself could not fully articulate.
Such points of departure serve to clarify the nature of the tensions between absence and presence that were repeatedly restated in the work of Body-Artists such as Vito Acconci and Chris Burden. In his performances, Burden continually returned to a confrontation with the audience, offering himself directly in place of the object in such pieces as The Visitation (1974) and to the notion of exclusion or absence through which the audience's hand might be forced. In La Chiarajicazione (1975), Burden allowed only the first eleven of an audience of one hundred and fifty to enter the performance space, persuading them to stay with him until someone broke in from the outside. With the performance ended at this moment of violence, the room was then left as a relic of the action, a witness to Burdens breach of contract and his audience's response.

Yet while such work begins with a removal of the object in order to reveal relationships that surround it, these strategies clearly raise all kinds of other implications. As Oldenburg implies, the removal of the object in favour of an event is associated in performance art not simply with a removal of the physical object, but with a resistance to the perfect or finished form, to any simple predetermination of the event, and, consequently, an admittance of uncontrolled and unpredictable contents. At the centre of La Chiarajicazione is an action which at the moment of its occurrence is not intended as a performance and which, were it conceived as such by those who enact it, would no longer be enmeshed within Burden’s actual exchange with his audience. Burden’s denial, the 'absence' of the work, sets the ground, the context, for performance, in order that actions which, in a sense, continue to belong to the 'everyday' rather than to 'theatre', might fall within its frame, becoming the centre of the work.

Here, the implications of a ‘denial of the object' for the languages and contents of performance art become both wider and more resonant. Underlying a whole series of departures in performance are strategies which deny or postpone some aspect of the work in order that that which cannot be held by the conventional languages of art may enter into its frame. In the work of John Cage, which is central to the development of this aesthetic, an overcoming of the 'object' is fundamental to the value of the art-work and to the possibility of breaking away from conventional languages and contents. For Cage, the 'object' is not simply a given and fixed form, but is bound up with intentionality: that of the artist in her making of the work and that of the viewer in her desire to perceive the elements of the work in a given, stable, and so safe relationship. Indeed, Cage's work responds to the idea that at a fundamental level, the inherited language of art is synonymous with the ‘object’, with conventional and exclusive hierarchies through which an understanding of the world as object is rehearsed. For Cage this is a distortion of a perfectly tangible reality: You say: the real, the world as it is. But it is not, it becomes! It doesn Ï wait for us to change... It is more motile than you can imagine.
You are getting closer to reality when you say it 'presents itself'; that means it is not there, existing as an object. The world, the real is not an object. It is a process.

It follows that where art should introduce us to life5 in this sense, it must do so specifically through a denial of the object. Such a denial does not simply mean the pursuit of an ephemerality or the privileging of one kind of pre-determination over another, but involves a staving off of the 'perceived' object, a refusal to limit the art-work by drawing its boundaries, so that new and unpredictable elements might enter into the work.

Cage’s 'silent pieces' carefully clarify this position and its consequences for the artist and viewer. In his closing of the piano lid for the duration of each of its three 'silent' movements, David Tudor’s original concert-hall performance of 4 33 " (1952) made absolutely clear Cage's denial of the conventional object. In pointedly refusing to fill the 'empty time' of the musical piece while insisting on a playing out of its structure, Cage invited an attention to 'silence', to whatever sounds happened to fall within its durational frame. In his own terms the piece offers a discipline which, accepted, in return accepts whatever6, and looks toward a disciplined attention which may be taken up quite independently of a performance such as Tudor’s. So, Cage notes: What really pleases me in that silent piece is that it can be played at any time, but it only comes alive when you play it. And each time you do, it is an experience of being very, very much alive.

In his revision of 433", o'oo" (4 33" No. z) (1962), a solo to be performed in any way by anyone, Cage clarifies this invitation. Read as a description of an active looking and against the terms of 433 ", the frame Cage describes here is not dependent upon a duration but a 'disciplined action’ taken up by the viewer in which a heightened attention ('maximum amplication') is exercised and ‘all interruptions' are accepted. Whereas 4 33"is 'musical', o’oo" accepts no such limitation, and while 4’33" can be associated with a particular formal circumstance, here Cage bars any such simple definition.

For the 'viewer', o’oo" is an invitation to a suspension of the object, an opening of the eyes, and a discovery of contents found through Cage’s refusal to describe anything but the means by which this active looking can be found.

In the terms of o’oo", an overcoming of the object must be found through the viewer's acknowledgement that through the way I place my intention, I create the experience that I have.' It follows that, for Cage, in attending to a work, the viewer must defer the object in order that contents generated by and occurring within its frame may not be imposed upon or excluded. In doing so, the silent pieces articulate most explicidy what Cage’s work as a whole looks toward, which is a practical recognition that there is no time that is free of the possibility of being viewed aesthetically’ and a subsequent meeting with the everyday, with the 'life' that surrounds the conventional art-work. For Cage, finally, art should not deny or transform this ‘silence’, but simply allow it to be seen, even at the risk of putting its own identity and integrity into question. So, he concludes that, If there is a lack of distinction between art and life, then one coidd say: Well, why have the arts when we already have it in life? A suitable answer from my point of view is that we thereby celebrate.'

In this way. Cage’s work sets out many of the terms of a wider aesthetic within performance art, and much of the means by which elements determined by the artist may be allowed to interpenetrate with the materials and processes of everyday life. So, in his seminal essay Assemblages, Environments & Happenings (New York, 1966), Allan Kaprow acknowledged his debt to Cage, and, extending concerns he had shared with artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Robert Whitman and A1 Hansen, stated categorically that in the Happening The line between art and life should be kept as fluid as possible".

Kaprow's Happenings for performers only, to be realised once only and without rehearsal, invited the spectator-participant to take up activities that set the everyday against dream like images and incidents. So Self-Service (1967), realised over four months and across three cities by participants who committed themselves to a limited number of activities, combined everyday tasks with private ritual, games and anonymous spectacle. In Boston, many shoppers begin to whistle in aisles of supermarkets, while in Los Angeles some tom paper is released from a high window, piece by piece, and slowly watched.'2 At another time and in New York,
Everyone watches for either: a signal from someone a light to go on in a window a plane to pass directly overhead an insect to land nearby three motorcycles to barrel past.

Immediately afterwards, they unite a careful description of the occurrence, and mail copies to each other.' Brought out of context by their prescription, these activities offer platforms from which the various aspects of the piece may be met. Caught between the curious awarenesses that intentionally performed everyday life is bound to create,'* a knowledge of activities elsewhere and Kaprow’s refusal to draw clear parameters around the performance, the participant is faced with a breaking down of the integrity of the 'work' in favour of a process beyond the artists control. Here, Kaprow suggests,... the very materials, the environment, the activity of the people in the environment, are the primary images, not the secondary ones. The environment is not a setting for a play... which is more important than the people... there is an absolute flow between event and environment.'

George Brecht's Water Yam, a key Fluxus publication of 1962 and 1964, offers a boxed collection of ‘event-scores' which bring this deliberate confusion of the parameters of the work further forward again. While Brecht describes these cards as ‘scores' and notes that an event is always intended or implied,'6 the content and identity of such pieces as Three Aqueous Events and Two Durations remains, at best, extremely ambiguous. Brecht’s own ‘realisations’ have pursued this ambiguity, offering teasing and indirect relationships between stimulus and response. So he has recalled using Three Aqueous Events as the basis for another ‘object’, ‘score’ and ‘event’: A canvas with the word ’Glace’ in the upper left comer and the word ‘Buee’ on the bottom at the right, and a glass in the middle half filled with water. It’s a score, it's a realisation, and what's more it’s an event as the water is evaporating.'

In an earlier Fluxus concert, Brecht had performed Three Aqueous Events by pouring water into three glasses,'8 and Allan Kaprow has described his realisation of the score by drinking a cup of iced tea while thinking about the piece'9. For the critic Henry Martin a realisation of such a score could take almost any form, all of which would be equally appropriate: A work such as this... is in constant existence no matter what the modality of forms of human consciousness directed to it. Simply reading the work is a performance of the work, and the same can be said of simply thinking it. and one can think of it as three words, or three sounds, or three physical entities. It can be oral, aural, tactile, visual, taste or any other kind oj experience: it can be of any duration and of any order of dimension."
By its very openness. Three Aqueous Events resists the possibility of closure. In his insistence on such a level of ambiguity, Brecht seeks to postpone the 'realisation' of the score in any complete sense and so any ending of the work. In this way, the ‘event-cards' are not concerned with solutions or statements, but with tripping up and making apparent processes of choice by which meaning and definition may be found. Rather than articulate anything through the work itself, or even establish the work, Brecht seeks to reveal those processes that bring the work into being, those exchanges and activities that might result in the art-work.

Of course, in doing this, in announcing that the score itself is incomplete, is somehow not the work’, while indefinitely postponing its completion, Brecht endangers the very idea that he presents, makes or looks toward an 'art-work' in any tangible or meaningful sense. Yet it is only by this very endangerment, by threatening to deny the viewer the work altogether, that the processes he looks towards may be seen. Clearly, Brecht recognises this and sees his position as not only necessary, but desirable, noting that I don't start out with art at all... art is already limited. It 's only one of a series of possibilities. I'm interested in all possibilities.

Brecht’s work hovers around this moment at which the art-work might arise yet remains in doubt, and in this sense becomes, literally, a 'borderline art' which, in putting itself into question, offers that which the pre-determined 'object', and perhaps even the 'artwork', cannot contain. For Brecht, such fragile contents are entirely at the centre of his work. Sounds barely heard: sights barely distinguished - borderline art. See which way it goes (it should be possible to miss it).

By denying the object, by blurring the definition and parameters of the work, or by postponing its completion, each of these artists brings 'silence' into play, allowing that which would normally be unseen to fall into the frame of the work. In resisting any re-enactment or
transformation of its contents, these pieces provoke an awareness of 'non-theatrical' activity which, even within the frame of the work, may still be seen to be enmeshed within the 'everyday'. Here, the art-work has become an instrument through which the viewer might meet the accidental and the arbitrary or become aware of activities and interactions they are themselves engaged within.

Clearly, such vocabularies carry over into current performance. So Ria Pacquée’s documentations refer her audience to unnoticed invasions of the everyday. Here, the object denies its own importance, declaring itself as a document or report in order to refer us to an action. Yet Pacquée's action is out of reach, and cannot be seen without being lifted out of context and so transformed. In catching her audience between documentation, contrived action and everyday context, Pacquée addresses precisely the impossibility of performing the everyday without transforming its meaning and identity.

Yet there is one final denial that underlies this aesthetic as a whole. For at a fundamental level this work is to do with looking beyond the self, in the artist’s case beyond intention and a single conception of the work. Cage meets this head on, arguing that 1 don't enjoy anything I understand ", and observing that Chance, to be precise, is a leap, provides a leap out of reach of one's own grasp of oneself."

Here, where the work might become a point around which various disciplines are accepted or denials and postponements made, the artist looks quite beyond the conventional roles of maker and viewer. Where this work seeks to admit the 'everyday', or allow processes of making to be found, it also seeks to draw the viewer directly into a definition of the work, or offer her the same disciplines as the artist. In this way, viewing is considered to be active, while the creation of the work is understood to be an exchange and a discovery which finds the artist and spectator on an equal footing. Here, then, the work is seen to be dependent on the actions of the viewer, while the artist seeks to find a participation with these actions in order to become a witness to processes and elements over which she has only indirect control.