Wednesday, August 27, 2008

"Total Art"

I noticed in the SPD catalog that somebody has written a book calling for "total art." Based on the description, it sounds like the author (I tried to find it on the SPD website just now but I couldn't, sorry) is primarily interested in the intermedia aspects of total art and its relationship to 20th century avant-gardism.

Rather than the knee-jerk active-vs-passive paradigm of a lot of thinking about performances, I like Steven Shaviro's argument for a radical passivity in his book "The Cinematic Body," where he argues for the subversiveness of the masochistic experience of watching film movies (and denounces Laura Mulvey's idea of the gaze). Though I think it's of note that the films he watch tend to be either experimental or B-films, or actually more accurately, a combination of the two: Cronenberg, Lynch, Warhol.

Throughout the twentieth century, various avant-garde movements were very interested in the bodies of the spectators and artist and art's manipulation of those bodies (and, not infrequently, the conflation of those two bodies). Marinetti's variety theater with its insults to the audience (and gum on the seat etc), Hugo Ball being carried around in Cabaret Voltaire, Artaud's ritual involvement of the audience in his theater of cruelty (though the cruelty is mostly to Artaud himself, based on the precision of the movements). Etc.

However, I don't think it's Wagnerian (which is what I take as "total art"). Wagner's big idea was to change the very physical seating of the opera so that the spectator's were forced to look at the show and could not babble to each other. I think that's an interesting model to think about. The body has to be molded for ultimate attention, in other words.

Jonathan Crary has written a couple of interesting book that detail how "attention" was an important issue in the 19th century - "distraction" was even turned into a mental illness, for if people would not pay attention to the right things they might turn into criminals. (Severely reductive summary)

And of couse, Benjamin writes about the "distraction" of the Dada aesthetics, based on the cinematic experience. Or as Tomas Elsaesser writes in "Dada/Cinema?": "a reaction to, as well as an exploitation of the tyranny of total vision."

This may seem a paradox. We tend to think of film in Wagnerian terms as a total art that overwhelms people as they sit in that little black lodge known as the theater. However, it's important to historize the cinematic experience (and this is where Shaviro's interest in B-movies makes sense to me). In Elsaesser's article, he argues that Dada was mainly involved in the cinematic experience before it became so glamorous and spectacular, which he describes like this:

"In a typical program, say in Berlin in 1913 (but surviving in the suburbs well into the early 1920s), non-narrative films would be mixed with sketches and fantasies. The Kaiser (or Hindenburg) would be shown on parade right after a filmed variety number. The items would be introduced, a lecturer would stand at the back of the room or hall and comment sarcastically or pathetically on the action, explain, or provide the kind of epic distance that Brecht, copying from the cinema" tried to create in his theater. There was little sense of "illusionism" or any suspension of disbelief. Skepticism and sarcasm mingled freely with wonder and amazement." (18)

Elsaesser also includes the following fascinating description of the cinematic experience by Van Hoddis:

"The room is darkened. Suddenly the Ganges floats into view, palms, the temple of the Brahmins appear. A silent family drama rages with bon vivants, a masquerade - a gun is pulled. Jealousy inflamed. Mr Piefke duels headlessly and they show us, step by step, mountaineers climbing the steep, demanding paths. The pathslead down through forests, they twist and climb the threatening cliff. The view into the depths is enlivened by cows and potatoes. And into the darkened room - into my very eye - flutters that, that... oh, dreadful! One after the other! Then the arc lamp hissingly announces the end, lights! And we push ourselves into the open... horny and yawning."

I think you can see in this quote how montage-like the entire experience was - how distracting that must have been at the same time as it is enveloping. I also love the dichotomy of "horny and yawning" (something I might just write another entry about if I have time this morning). Elsasser makes the point that the film is only part of the cinematic experience and that had not yet been hierarchized into later film experience. Or as Pascal Bonitzer argues, this early cinema included the "excrement of vaudeville."

Elsasser goes on to discuss Picabia's spectacle "Relache" (which was put on in the mid 20s) and its halftime film "Entr'acte" (which is definitely one of my favorite films of all time, everybody should watch it). His view is that Dada art - not film - is about calling attention to the cuts, the montage, rather than - as in later film - cover them up. In other words, Dada wants to distract, rather than invite contemplation.

Benjamin: "Let us compare the screen on which a film unfolds with the canvas of a painting. The painting invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before the movei frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it i alaready changed. It cannot be arrested..."

George Baker (his book about Picabia, "The Artwork Caught by the Tail") adds a nuance to the old distraction-vs-attention angle: "ONe imagines too that cinema served Dada not only in imagining the transition from art object to event, but also as a mode that introduced symbolic possibilities far removed from the stable economies of painting or sculpture, with the cinema as an "assembly" of media that rejected the singular at its foundation, and that supported wholly new modes of the circulation of the sign."

For Baker, it's not all about negation, but of creating connections and linkages. And like Shaviro, he brings Deleuze's analysis of film as becoming into his discussion.

But here's my favorite part of Baker's book, his analysis of Relache, and my main point (sorry about the length, but I think it's a good discussion of avant-gardism vs total art):

"Picabia's project for the Swedish Ballet has been called a venture that "veered more closely towards the Wagnerian concept of the Gesamtkunstver than had any previous performance." Art history seems to concur with this view, and when it treats Relache and Entr'acte at all, it has usually been as later inheritors of the notion of a "total" work of art. The project was long banished from modernism's critical story for precisely this reason, the ballet's utter (indeed comical) rejection of the modernist imperative of medium specificity. Without the specter of the Gesamtkunstwerk, no one seems to know what to do with Relache. And yet relache is hardly the belated progeny of one of the most fraught dreams of the nineteenth century. For Relache and Entr'acte are anythign but a Gesumtkunstwerk.

"Forms, mediums - even objects and beings - come together in Relache and Entr'acte. Connection and relation are surely at stake. But the mediums come togehter precisely not to unite, to become One, to become newly Total. Rather they split each other apart. They interrupt each other's limits, in order to be rendered, quite precisely, multiple. Forms come together in Picabia's project to break each other open. They consolidate nothing. Instead, they undo each other's medium conventions, disrupting what we might call the Law that each form excludes in order to define its operation...


"But to split forms in this way (like the split but communicating zones of Duchamp's Large Glass), to undo each form at the limit where it touches another is also to expand them. We might in fact assert tht this confrontation with loss is the onlyu way in which forms can be expanded - as opposed to what occurs in the Gesamtkunstwerk model, a totalitarian procedure. This instead is a transgressive model of medium-belonging, a "belonging" that amounts in fact to a dispossession. Each medium works "in concert" not to fuse but to frustrate the other. Each is exposed to its inadequacy, its limit, producing a scene of proliferating fragments, with no claim to totality at all..."


"And references to or figures of both the "popular" and bourgeois classes commingle throughout, but not to produce the overarching terror of the People, once envisioned as the highest mission of the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk. The "popular" will be referenced throughout, but without giving rise to an expression of the "People" - admixture without commonality, without universality, bereft of the standard or law."

Sorry to go on quoting this but i think it's very insightful.

Anyways, these are some of the ideas that have occupied my mind for some time, finding expression in for example "The Widow Party", the "spectacle" I co-wrote and performed with a great bunch of collaborators at Links Hall in Chicago last May, and a manuscript I just finished which is a pageant ("Entrance to a pageant in which we all begin to intricate" it's called) and which I'm using in large part for my dissertation (the quotes above can also all be found in my dissertation).

Clearly these ideas are ideas in progress so I welcome any response.

And finally: I began this entry by talking about a book I can't remember the title of, but clearly I haven't read that book. The description of it was merely the occasion for this breezy chat. So clearly I'm not criticizing the author of that book.

And finally: I wrote a review of Baker's book for Raintaxi some time last winter/spring, in case you feel like reading that. Though of course the book would be the best place to go.


Blogger Johannes said...

Here's the book (I haven't read yet).
Toward Total Poetry by Spatola, Adriano

8:24 AM  
Blogger konrad said...

If fahrvergnugen only takes place inside a volkswagen, then perhaps the gesamtkunstwerk is really only another name for a Wagner opera. what i mean is that it's an advertising term, not so much a theoretical one.

Modern cinema is like a total package, rather than a total art. I think about it that way in the sense that the various arts (stagecraft, music, acting, writing) are bundled up for transport and display, just like opera productions and big museum shows are now too, but more cheaply (and more cheaply still once they can get beamed into the theater).

Have you heard of Peter Kubelka's "Invisible Cinema?" Imagined in the late 50s and built a couple times (once at Anthology Film Archives in NY in the early 70s). Every spectator was isolated from every other one in a seat with blinders head to toe (no whispering, no footsie, no popcorn, no holding hands, no satisfaction of horny needs). That is the ultimate passivity, and it was designed and build pretty much for Kubelka's own film work, in the same way that Bayreuth was for Wagner, and in a way the kind of intense experimental/material work that was going on at the time.

I think that your term "molding" is not quite enough to describe Kubelka's idea: it's more like taking your body away, so you become all head. This is about the total opposite of the traditions of theater that let people smoke and eat and move about causally during long performances (most of these forms i know about are Polynesian or Asian)

8:15 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

That's very interesting, I will have to check out his work.


9:27 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Also, what is the Steve Evans piece you mentioned in your previous post? Is it a book?

I am experimenting with various extension of The Widow Party - installations of sorts mostly.

8:13 AM  
Blogger konrad said...

are Steve Evans' pages. He started it out as a project of "close readings" of recordings of poetry. I thought that was a fantastic idea. It's lost steam and devolved into a catalog rather than analytics (the archive seems to be the better page). To me the issue of how technology influences writing is already past the questions that start with poetry separated from technology. A project such as this one would sensitize one to the way writing can be altered by new tools. This, along the lines of what you said earlier about how writers fashion texts that yield themselves only on close readings: people perform their texts that way as well, to be heard for new meanings over and again.

Here's a nice link to it's some program notes on Kubelka:

9:50 AM  

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