Memory comes when memory’s old
I am never the first to know
– Fever Ray –
Last Tuesday I attended the excellent lecture series The Old Brand New, in the Stadsschouwburg in Amsterdam. The speakers that evening were the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans and the French dancer/choreographer Boris Charmatz. Their talks were reflections on the evening’s topic, New Virtuosity, and on the overarching theme of the series, looking at the term new, in the light of the old and the relationship between the original and the representation. These problems of originality, of the absolute new and the idea of referentiality and remix are themes I have written about before. What I would like to do now, in this post, is to combine the thoughts that came forward during the lectures of these two artists, with some theories and concepts I have recounted recently, thinking about ideas of the static and the fluid, memory and modernity, ownership and collectivity, repetition and representation, actor and participant, reality and virtuality and virtuosity and geniality.
I would like to present a virtual conversation between the ideas and works of Tuymans and Charmatz, as developed and presented last Tuesday, and the thoughts of thinkers and writers as diverse as Paolo Virno, Walter Benjamin, Carl Einstein, Guy Debord, Jacques Attali, Aleida Assmann and Margaret Atwood.
What interests me the most in this hypothetical discourse is what our relationship will or can be to the image, to the work of art, to information and knowledge and thus to content in a more general manner, in the present digital age. Taking into account our relationship towards these representations or constructs as narratives in language in our growing stance of/as prosumers (active participants) in an age in which the old and the new are constantly recontextualised in a flow of continual remix or refluctuation, forming a radical (virtual) potentiality posited towards the future, creating a sort of meta-referentiality in which the old and the new almost seem to fall or collapse into each other, or maybe don’t matter anymore… then all becomes movement, everything is stream.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Back to the beginning. The theme of last Tuesday’s gathering was New Virtuosity. From the flyer:
“Nowadays the concept of virtuosity has moved away from notions such as excellence and distinction and seems to have become synonymous with craftsmanship and mere technical prowess. What is the status and place of a notion as virtuosity in an epoch in which the borderline between mastery and ordinary ability has dramatically shifted?”
Luc Tuymans started his talk by stating that the concept of a New Virtuosity is grounded in ideas of timing and position. Virtuosity offers a more versatile understanding of reality using understatement. As he says, there seems to be a discrepancy between memory and oblivion. Thus, an image needs to be shown in all its layers. This kind of fragmentation can then be seen as a way of dealing with the larger context as a whole. The image has become an object of desire, it has become interchangeable and interactive.
As Tuymans goes on to talk about the meaning of the image, he touches on the aspect of remediality, of the appropriation of the image, or the concept and context of the image, in other media. His talk focused mainly on his new exhibition ‘Against the day’ in Brussels, and the paintings that will be exhibited there. Starting with Jan van Eyck, he shows how the painting has broken away from mere mimesis. Images have become constructions, as Tuymans also shows in the painting Map (2008) which has been completely created digitally, in a way becoming a non-existent entity. Tuymans sees in the repetition of images a further moving away from the mimetic; he creates huge site-specific wall paintings derived from his own paintings (Cathedral), making works that do no longer refer to reality as such but only to the image as a concept.
This connects strongly to the thoughts of Walter Benjamin, who, as Charles W. Haxthausen states in his article on Benjamin and Carl Einstein, argues that the aura of a work is located in the image, not in any unique physical object. For Walter Benjamin, the reproduction of a work of art, meaning to lift it from its constraints of tradition, is a way of renewing it, by offering it a new context, actualizing it in the present.
Tuymans also discusses the role of memory when it comes to interpreting a work of art. In a painting showing towering dust clouds, the observer is confronted with the remembrance of and imagery surrounding 9/11. The same applies to a painting depicting ballroom dancing, in which one can reminisce back to times of crisis. In this way, Tuyman remarks, observation of and interaction with a work of art can be seen as a regressive form of conservatism. The imagery (in its collective re-medialised re-membrance) itself gives the context, its form is simultaneously a veil and a projection, states Tuymans.
As Aleida Assmann shows in her article Transformations between history and memory. (Part I: What Does It Mean for a Community to Have a Memory?), memory increasingly comes to us through images and movies. It is the image that triggers a constructed collective memory:
“Participation in social memory is always varied because it is based on lived experience and linked to autobiographical memory, which is irreducibly specific in its position, perspective and experiential quality. The memory of the Holocaust, for instance, will vary vastly among survivors depending on the fact whether they endured the torments of the concentration camps, hid in secret places, or managed to escape into exile. For the second and third generation of the survivors, however, as well as for the members of other nations, this memory will become more and more homogeneous as it is reconstructed by historians and accessed through the shared representations of public narratives, images, and films.”
In this respect one could say that in Tuymans work, memory as a form of context shaping, determines the meaning we attribute to art: we see a repetition of the past in the creation of the new. As Haxthausen shows in his aforementioned article, in which he juxtaposes Benjamin and Einstein and tries to find their communalities, for Einstein this repetition gives an illusion of the immortality of things, where he feels that everything is truly in a constant flux. The question for Carl Einstein was basically how to break free from these constraints of the past to create something radically new, something which Rimbaud says faut être absolument moderne.
But for Benjamin reproduction strips away this veil (which reminds me of Nietzsche’s conception of art as a veil, art as a Dionysian illusion); Benjamin states reproduction frees art from the constraints of tradition and makes it remixable and malleable, it gives it movement. The new medium gives the viewer the chance to contextualize the art, to project his/her subjectivity on the art, to actualize it; the viewer makes it new.
A GOOD PAINTING IS NEVER FINISHED
Going back to the work of Luc Tuymans, the influence of the context of the past, in Einstein’s fashion, can be seen more clearly, as Tuymans shows, in the painting depicting Condoleezza Rice, which shows a vivid depiction of determinacy, but can also be seen as a representation of African American slavery and emancipation.
This contextualization of memory can be seen maybe most confrontingly in Tuymans painting Gas chamber. Now it is the title that gives the context, that triggers our memory of the past, more than the image an sich. Without the title we would just see an empty room. In a way, Tuyman says, this painting represents the irrepresentable and it shows how painting is really a conceptual form of art. Again, without the title, it would just be mimesis, a depiction of an empty room. Tuymans says it is a tricked space, disguised as a chamber. This shows again the polylevel of images (Tuymans calls this a sort of subdued virtuosity). A painting is not mobile, but is in its multi-layeredness confronted with mobility.
Benjamin concurs with this idea that when one releases the image of its aura through reproduction, the image becomes a mere concept, mirroring Tuymans idea of painting as a conceptual art, no longer mimetic. This concept, as Haxthausen states, is for Benjamin external to the work, it is waiting for actualization. Tuymans does exactly this, using either another medium (wall painting) or recontextualizing the image through language (adding a title).
In Wonderland the title gives a Disneyland reference. As Tuymans states, in this painting the utopic is instrumentalized. We are eluting content from fantasy, creating context out of virtuality. Tuymans also draws a parallel with another context: Hitler was a big Disney fan; he used to love to draw dwarfs. As Tuymans states, we have entered an imagery that consists of non existent (virtual) spaces. Reality is produced as raw material. Painting increasingly reflects an animated world without anima.
But the relationship with the past and the effect of memory can also be seen in the creation of a work: painting is custom, says Tuymans; it is a style, it is a remembrance of ones own style, but it is also a movement: nothing is completely still, style knows a development too. In painting one can see an element of deconstruction of the image, one refers to the past and memorizes/internalizes history in ones style.
The spectator or viewer eventually terminates the image (in numerous ways): this has the ultimate consequence that “a good painting is never finished”, according to Tuymans.
Tuymans plays with the difference between the power of the image and the influence of the spectator, in a way playing with the same tension Haxthausen distinguishes between Benjamin en Einstein, but he, like Benjamin, does let the consumer play a crucial role when stating that the work of art is never finished, the view of the spectator and the loss of the aura of the image through reproduction make for this combination of the static and the flux. I think that this duality between Einstein and Benjamin, as Haxthausen has brought forward, can be seen in Tuymans work, where he plays with the notion that on the one hand the image carries inside itself the context of the (image of) past and our recollection of that past and in this way works in a very deterministic, conservative, inescapable way. It is the context of the tradition of the image, of the memory, of the original context and meaning of the image that is bestowed back on us, this subjectivity of the image itself. This resists actualization and recontextualization. This is what Tuymans plays with in his work, this relationship between voluntary constructed memory and recontextualisation and the image that comes up in front of our eyes involuntary (Hitler/gas chamber/ the desire of the image).
But on the other hand, Tuymans also is very much aware of how the technological possibilities now give us the opportunity to distill the image from its tradition and to use it in our creation of a new reality/imagery, a new constructed memory and the role the medium and the viewer play in this. For Einstein (the forms of) art/the image are active, they shape our views and memories, our world and our society. For Benjamin the focus lies more on how we determine art, how we give it meaning and context through our remembrance and remedialisation, we make art/the image passive and never ending through our context giving.
Tuymans also mentions Robert Barry, an artist who creates non-material works of art. Tuymans talks about art as a vide (plural emptiness), quoting Barry who states an empty space = a room where you are free to think what you are going to do. A work of art can then be thought of as an empty space, where it becomes a field of potential action and of potential thought.
In a sense culture has thus turned towards a representation of the unrepresentable: of the concept, of imageries, of memories and the constructs we create around them. Where, as Benjamin states, the technology of reproduction detached the object from the domains of its tradition, it detached it from its uniqueness, making it also into an object that can be construed in different contexts.
THE BODY AS A MUSEUM, THE MUSEUM AS A BODY
Boris Charmatz wants to create a museum for modern dance, a Musée de danse contemporaine. In his book Entretenir – À propos d’une danse contemporaine, cowritten with Isabelle Launay, he speaks of dancing as a form of entretenir: as a form of upkeep, keeping up the conversation with the past. Dance can be seen as a reenactment, the performance as a reconstruction: you perform the dance again and again, whilst at the same time holding an immediate view on history. Charmatz describes the struggle between the new and the old in dance as a tension between renewal and remembrance. In the 80’s being modern was an absolute must: artists needed to make their own brand. Reproduction was a taboo; you needed to create your own style. In the 90’s this changed, says Charmatz: making something new did no longer seem to be the best way forward. There was a strong tendency to consider ones own culture.
Charmatz describes how in dance there are basically two options: one reenacts a dance, so one performs the same dance time and again over history using new dancers, or one can create a new work or production. Create something new or reflect on the old.
Charmatz tried to reflect on this theme of the old and the new in his work on jeunesse, in which he tried to create a tension in movements between the virtuosity of the young body and the growing distance to that when growing older. The dance then becomes a description of time, we are looking back and are reenacting time within our body, as he states, reconfiguring and reenacting the past.
Charmatz also plays with memory, with bodily memory and the memory of sensations. With Odile Duboc he created a dance in which he, as he says, dived deep into a memory of sensations, an improvised memory that is, making the body work with different materials (wood, stone) and surfaces, and then taking these things away. The newness of this lies in the connection of the things we experienced (in the past) with our memories of them in the present.
Another way of confronting the past is to work on what you still do not know but can re-member. Charmatz mentions an exercise in which he was asked to improvise Nijinsky’s dance Afternoon of a faun. Charmatz explains how this requires you to make an archeology on yourself, a need to scan your memory (things came back slowly he said and formed a memory context/construct: Mallarmé, Debussy, faun, nymph, myth, obscenity, animality). In this way he states that the improvisation became a performance of things we didn’t know beforehand, but could reconstruct.
This (re)working of memory and remembrance is also a theme that plays an important role in the work of Benjamin, as Haxthausen shows. When it comes to the aura of a work, Benjamin (building on Proust) distinguishes between two kinds of memory:
- Involuntary: spontaneous memories, like in Tuymans work depicting dust clouds; involuntary passive association and memory, remembrance.
- Conscious, willed acts of remembrance; constructed memory: like Charmatz’ dance of Nijinsky or his improvised dance based on material remembrance.
The first kind is what Benjamin then sees as aura. But as Tuymans also shows in his work, aura lies not in the reproduction or the medium, but in the image itself, in our memory connected to a specific image. But also in language (the title Gas chamber).
Aleida Assmann also states, like Benjamin and Proust, that memory “takes into account the ambivalence of the past both as a conscious choice and as an unconscious burden, tracking the voluntary and involuntary paths of memory.”
Assmann discusses Susan Sontag who states there is no such thing as collective memory; all memory is individual. She states that experiential memories are embodied and thus personal and non-transferable. We can see this in Charmatz’ work in which the memory of the body plays an important role, indeed necessarily individual and non-reproducible and shaped by its own specific context and history. As Assmann states, however, Sontag forgets that individual memory has two important dimensions that transcend this individuality, namely our interaction with others and our interaction with external signs and symbols. We cannot transfer our embodied memories but we can share them, she states. This is done by the means of language or representation in an image, through which the individual’s memories become part of a collective.
Assmann quotes Margaret Atwood who stresses that collective national memory is always designed for a purpose and specific use:
“The past belongs to those who claim it, and are willing to explore it, and to infuse it with meaning for those who are alive today. The past belongs to us, because we are the ones who need it.”
Thus, with the remixing of images that constitute the memories of individuals of the past we construct our own new memories and contexts.
As Charmatz states, history can thus be taken quite literally as a way to produce new works; this wide approach in dance to history in the 90’s can be seen as an approach to make new works about our own fantasies of history, based on our own preconceptions as viewers and producers. In this way we can reconsider/reframe/reproduce history. Charmatz identifies many frontiers between the old and the new; fixation and movement, patrimonium and creation, visual art and the life arts… In his Musée de danse contemporaine, he wants to create a space that talks about these divisions between the fixed/static and movement, to create a new platform for dance.
It would be a musée précaire. For Charmatz such a museum is not only a fixed frame but it could be something in which you engage yourself to create a/the museum. The museum is a space that opens up what an (idea of) a museum is. It will be an experimental project to think about an utopian/new space for the dance. It could consist of objects/pieces/movements and is no longer fixed to a certain medium. Conceptual art, literature, digital art could all be a complete part of it without excluding each other.
In this museum, Charmatz envisions that the divisions between producer and consumer would disappear. He wonders how the museum could facilitate that the dance be enacted or performed by the participants/visitors themselves. The people inside should also produce the art that is inside in a collaborative effort. As Charmatz explains, this is a way to think movement: movements of the museum itself, movements of the visitors, movements of the dance. The museum becomes a mental space, a taxonomy of potentiality.
Benjamin also involves the viewer in his theory of art: he/she plays an important role in the perception of the image: the perspective of the viewer changes over time and thus the personal memory. In different times an image of clouds conjures up different remembrances (see Tuymans).
With a change in perspective in the modern image reproducing age, the consumer becomes a participant in the art. He/she finishes (or never finishes, Tuymans) the work of art. By incorporating the role of the viewer into the work of art, making him/her an integral part of its concept, we create a work that is never finished, that is fluid, flexible and reinterpretable, without a static meaning.
In Charmatz’ thinking about dance as a concept, a potential space, the lines between producer and consumer seem to shift. Jacques Attali displays a similar view on music in his book Noise: The Political Economy of Music. From the outline of his book by Theodore Gracyk:
“This new activity is NOT undertaken for its exchange or use value. It is undertaken solely for the pleasure of the person who does it (its “producer”). Such activity involves a radical rejection of the specialized roles (composer, performer, audience) that dominated all previous music. The activity is entirely localized, made by a small community for that community. There is no clear distinction between consumption and production.”
Charmatz summarizes that his museum would necessarily encompass three kinds of spaces: the mental space, as described above; the architectural space (nomadic), stating the physical present; and the body space. The first museum in dance is your own body: the site where you remember the movements you learned. The body becomes the main space of the museum: it encompasses contexts of education, history, the social, gender and most importantly, the (potential) of movements. Body as a site of work.
Body as potential of activity.
Charmatz went on to discuss virtuosity, the ability to do movements, in which they become virtues or daily movements, referring to the work of Paolo Virno. He states that new virtuosity is centered, or should be centered, not on the things you are able to do but on the broader potential of action you have, the potential rethinking of history, of opening up your body, of thinking about movements rather than performing them. Virtuosity also entails a breaking free of these skills, to enlarge your own potentiality. You can only become free whilst (re)considering your own skills.
Paolo Virno develops some very interesting thoughts in his book A Grammar of the multitude. For an analysis of contemporary forms of life, on performance, virtuosity, repetition and the culture industry. He states that a performance is an activity that finds its own fulfillment in itself. It does not objectify itself into an end product. He also states that the performance requires the presence of others: the performance only exists in the presence of an audience. Interestingly enough this seems to blur the lines between for instance dance and painting, as seen through the eyes of Tuymans and Charmatz, where both artists state that their works depend on the viewers, on the consumers, who ensure through their participation, their view, their gaze, their interpretation, that the image/dance is never finished. In this sense the difference between live art and visual art, between painting and dance, is no longer a difference as such.
They too would probably agree that art and knowledge, being never finished through the interaction with others, cannot be objectified. Virno, however, states that as a result of the post-Fordist culture industry this objectification into a product has occurred and this is where the problem with the exploitation of static works of art and knowledge (through for instance copyright) lies, where this objectification seems to go against the whole conceptual principles and underlying values of culture, art and knowledge, at least if we follow the definitions we are talking about here.
Virno states that when the performance is recorded, when it is fixed, it is no longer virtuosity, it is potentiality objectified and thus the end of movement. Using a Marxist perspective, Virno argues how intellectual labor is objectified in the culture industry. But intellectual labor is a product without an end product:
“The second type of intellectual labor (activities in which “product is not separable from the act of producing”) includes, according to Marx, all those whose labor turns into a virtuosic performance: pianists, butlers, dancers, teachers, orators, medical doctors, priests, etc.”
Virno sees verbal language as the ultimate potential virtuosity, since it doesn’t have a necessary end-product. He refers to the Frankfurt School, where the stream of thought was that capitalism has serialized and apprehended the spiritual production. Virno also refers to Guy Debord, who states that “spectacle” is human communication which has become a commodity. Debord says that the spectacle enables communication through verbal language. With the commodification of human communication and the growing importance of human communication in all sectors of our daily life, this has become a concern. But the problem again lies, says Virno referring to Debord, with the fact that communication is a potentiality; it knows no end product:
“Unlike money, which measures the result of a productive process, one which has been concluded, spectacle concerns, instead, the productive process in fieri, in its unfolding, in its potential. The spectacle, according to Debord, reveals what women and men can do.”
Jacques Attali shows likewise in Noise how commodification (first the labor of creation (composition) is assigned monetary value, then so is interpretation (performance), normalizes, harmonizes music, making it in a way static and stripping it of its potentiality:
“The use-value of spectacle involves parallel developments of music. As music develops as a commodity and as harmonic developments display rational progress, music makes us believe in social cohesion. In short, “representation leads to exchange and harmony.”
But it seems that in the digital age art, culture and knowledge increasingly have the potential, by means of the possibilities offered by the online environment, to be freed from this static objectification, this fixation in a solid shape, which the commodity necessarily needed to be in order to sell/make a profit. Where Virno states that repetition of the image has turned it into a commodity, in the digital age the ease of repetition and its representation in multiple remixes en recontextualisations, actually might offer a de-commodification of the cultural object. Repetition does no longer need to entail static objects.
In remix representation is no longer representation/mimicry of the world of the social system, but representation of repetition, creation as reflection upon the past, and in this sense creation of the new. The boundaries between representation (actor/active/new) and repetition (mechanical/commodity/static/passive) seem to disappear in the digital age.
Just as Charmatz states that art and literature and music have all become part of the museum of dance, so conceptual art, not only as thinking, but also in its material form, in its interaction with memory, its connecting of the creator and the participant in the act of thinking about potential creation, has also become a part of the philosophical and theoretical discourse. In this way everything has become remix and fluidity, referentiality on thoughts and things together. The world of (virtual) things and the world of thoughts are coming closer.