Here’s the first part of my recent interview with Arika’s Barry Esson about the Evacuation of the Great Learning workshops that formed part of last year’s Instal. It’s pretty long so I’ll be posting it in sections over the next few weeks.
Why did you include these workshops in the festival?
OK, so maybe I could start by saying a little about what we’re worried about and what we’re trying to do.
We have worked for 10 years now in promoting forms of experimental music and film, and increasingly, how those artforms interact with other practices (other artforms (poetry, visual art, performance) or other practices (geography, political organising, philosophy…)). Over those 10 years we’ve worked with hundreds of artists, non-artists and specialists from those other practices just mentioned. And over that time we’ve built up a fairly detailed understanding of what we see going on, and the limitations (as we see them) of music or film. So while we have a problem with much of the activity that falls under the term ‘experimental music’ for e.g., we still have a strong fidelity to music and what we think is its potential.
Our Basic Concerns
In more detail, here’s a summary of some of our concerns:
• Music is a process of actions and discourses through which we are capable of framing representations about the world, formulating plans and acting on them. It is one of the way by which subjectivities are produced.
• The basic components of our subjectivity (the structures of our thinking, our languages and habits, our perceptions) have been grossly corrupted by manipulative impersonal social structures and come to us in prepackaged form, not as something that we can act on or transform but as languages, habits or perceptions which can only be passively consumed and which positively contribute to a normative cultural intellect of possessive individualism.
• Experimental music is very often complicit with this normative process, and whilst tacitly claiming artistic autonomy or subversive intent, produces a great deal of reactive and conservative, obscurantist and individualist subjects.
And so here are some of the questions we ask ourselves:
• What can we do about this?
• If we recognised alienation not as something unique and personal that we have lost, but as the loss of our connection to what is most generic and shared, what kind of music would we make?
• Is there a musical process that could contribute to the production of self-less, de-personalised subjects, instead of unique expressive ones; a musical process that allows us to become objectively aware of our alienation as a manifestation of the tension between current possessive individualism and the collectivity that should replace it?
• What would be a music that refutes artistic autonomy in favour of a political autonomy and a process of militant investigation; theoretical and practical work oriented to co-produce the knowledges and modes of an alternate sociability; a music that produces critical knowledge and critical consequences?
I should say that obviously I’m writing this now (June 11) and that we might not have formalized our concerns in this exact way before we did INSTAL last year. And of course INSTAL helped us to come to certain conclusions, make specific mistakes, learn with others….
So anyway, with others, we’re going to try and address ourselves to these and subsequent concerns over the next few years. We made a start with thinking about some of these ideas at KYTN, UNINSTAL and INSTAL last year, although we did so slowly and while trying to create events that we’re not too didactic and still had some of the good things of past festivals we’ve organised.
At our other festival, KYTN, earlier last year we ran a number of week long projects we called ‘investigations’, each led by different artists, musicians, writers, etc… one of those projects was with Mattin, Emma Hedditch, Anthony Iles and Howard Slater and consisted of a 2 day workshop, which culminated in a hour long performance that closed the festival. Here are some excerpts from the notes I wrote on that project afterwards for a publication Mattin is doing:
• At our Kill Your Timid Notion festival in Dundee this February [Feb 10], Emma Hedditch, Anthony Iles, Mattin and Howard Slater initiated a short collective process involving a changing group of about 20 local artists and art workers, education workers and some of our festival audience members, culminating in a performance. Titled UNSTABLE, FRAGILE BUT DARING TOGETHER, it proposed ‘a simple, but complicated, being together’. Over 2 day-long sessions and subsequent shorter meetings it opened up ideas of noise and improvisation and collectively investigated those in relation to how members of the group found purchase on those ideas from their own personal experience or learning. Without a predetermined hierarchy or structure, this immanent process collectively produced explorations of language, vulnerability, subjectivity, of ungrounding oneself, of the body and expressiveness; it attempted to create a collective environment for this exploration in full cognizance of the groups extended situation, as strangers working together, and; it took the material of specific artistic practices, treated them as symptoms of the problem, disorganised them and tried to find some new arrangement of core ideas that might have some relevance today.
• As the very final action of the festival, members of this collective group (Emma, Anthony, Mattin, Howard, Liam Casey and Laurie Pitt) staged a performance. The large gallery space had been rearranged so that small groups of audience members were unevenly clustered throughout it. A ‘house of safety’ had been constructed in one corner (to which performers could retreat at any time). Each of the 6 performers had a microphone, connected to a speaker some way from where they were sat, together, in the gallery. In response to our normal practice of documenting each performance at our festivals, Vilte Vaitkute (one of the filmmakers we were working with at the festival) was asked to move about the space and record what happened, at times interacting with (in particular) Emma. Within a strict timeframe of 60 minutes, each member spoke; initially they each ‘checked in’ (a process from counselling in which people introduce themselves to a group and how they are feeling at that moment in time) and hesitantly started to develop a kind of phenomenological conversation about how they were experiencing the situation as it developed, unscripted and improvised. Everybody was hesitant, considered and careful, but also clearly exposed within a musical context with apparently nothing musical to offer. As the performance developed, members of the audience started to ask questions, pose problems and react: the power dynamic in the room shifted and several of the audience members positions started to become clear (from cheery consensualism, passive enjoyment, to irritation, boredom, a sense of ‘creepiness’). After a predetermined period (an hour) of (increasingly uneasy) dialogue, I brought the performance to a close.
• The more I think back to this performance, the more I feel it has consequence. I’ve spoken to people who found it relaxing and open, and to others who found it to be unlike music at all. One person told me it felt like a group therapy session. I’d like to argue that it was all of these things, but also, in its radical fidelity to the force of though of both Noise and Improvisation, entirely musical. It seems to me that an attempt was made to collectively investigate the radical core concepts of Noise and Improvised music; to rethink both in terms of today’s situation and from the specific situations of the people taking part. A genuine fidelity to those ideas was established, which took little regard of how those kinds of music are supposed to be created today, but which instead rationally obliged a certain kind of action in the performance.
• It was Improvised music in that: it created a social space which was produced as a process of mediation between all the people invested in that space (importantly, this started out seemingly as the construction of the performers, but over time, as the audience asserted their investment in the situation, this social space was explicitly modified by more and more actors), and it’s means of production were a rethinking of specifically musical ones (improvisation), filtered through the experiences and additional context (both brought to it and immanent in it) of the people involved. It took the force of thought of Improvisation seriously, and applied it afresh [without trying to make improvised music as the set of musical gestures and actions instantly identifiable as ‘improvised music’ by anyone who’s spend any time with it].
• It produced a Noise concert in that: it engendered a sense of peril – people were genuinely nervous, hesitant and affected by the situation, and made uneasy by it (which is to say that a self-created situation obliged them to act in ways that put them at risk) and; the group presented something within a specific context (a music festival, to which people had paid to come, with certain expectation – for entertainment, for provocation, who knows…) which was in stark contrast to what was expected and which focused on the all too often overlooked and unwanted remainder of music today – it’s foundational ideology, it’s social mechanics, it’s relationship to it’s situation. It took the force of thought of Noise seriously, and applied it afresh.
• Their obligation didn’t produce some finished article. I don’t think it drew any conclusions, or was a perfect realisation of some form or music to set in stone, or indeed a perfect process to be repeated unchanged. It didn’t change music in its entirety. But it did make a modest, but significant addition and contribution: a collectively developed (initial, emergent) mode of being together, and a process of critical consciousness building leading to public action. I felt it to be a concrete strategy for effecting (real, however modest) change, suggesting another set of cultural arrangements, other topographies and other mappings. And however unlikely and unmusical it might have seemed, (and I found to be almost unrecognizable as Noise, or as Improvisation as we hear it today), it was radically, immanently and exactly that; it was a noise concert, it was improvisation, and it was music.
• Something was put at stake, and I’ve not felt that in music for some time.
So I guess I could say that we thought this process had been very worth trying and wanted to try and do it again, but responding to a different context, at INSTAL. Emma, Anthony and Howard couldn’t make INSTAL, but Ray Brassier and Mattin had been doing a lot of work together, Ray had attended UNINSTAL, his philosophy is very central to both Mattin and our own thinking, and he’s invested in experimental music and prepared to be involved. So we tried to think together about an investigation led by Mattin and Ray’s concerns, but that responded to INSTAL and also built on what had happened at KYTN. We wanted to see if we could include more people in an investigation compared to KYTN, and in working with Mattin and Ray different organisational modes came about: it’s maybe a bit of a simplistic reduction on my part, but I think Mattin is more interested in thinking about the social relations in groups and seeing how they play themselves out or emerge outwith any kind of dominant structure or hierarchy already set in place.
So Evacuation of the Great Learning, as that investigation was titled, was:
• In advance of INSTAL, Glasgow Open School ran a number of workshops, talks and sessions that tried to in a way prepare for the Evacuation events by looking at their context, the way we (Arika) wanted to talk about them and so on…
• About 60 people signed up to the Evacuation workshop: (musicians, artists, political organisers, educators, students, cloakroom attendants, gardeners…. A pretty broad range).
• Mattin and Ray Brassier wrote a text in advance, and sent this round to everybody who had signed up.
• They met on Thursday evening, Friday at the festival, Saturday morning (then attended the festival) then Sunday morning.
• The group were given space and time to meet, and also given all of the resources of the festival for it’s final 3 hours on Sunday night in which to present back something that had come out of their time together.
• After INSTAL, Glasgow Open School had proposed to run a series of follow up discussions, which we did on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evening of the following week.
Oh, and we wanted to do all of this in the open, and to have it part of the core of the festival, to give it some importance, rather than to have all of this happen behind closed doors with nothing at stake (i.e. the lazy normal kind of workshop with not much at stake that you see at any festival these days): we were prepared to hand over a fifth of a major international music festival (one that we stake our reputation on and which pays our wages) to the group, in the hope that they too would put something at stake. Which is sort of to say, that we think it’s important to both think/ reflect on a problem, but also to try and put something into action, to do something as a result of the thinking and see what that throws up.