A first version of this essay was published on the blog of Sonic Acts Festival 2013. This essay was thereafter published in the catalogue of the exhibition The Entity of Zoon at Roodkapje Gallery, Rotterdam.
When staring into the universe, it is ourselves we see. We arrange the universe and analyse it and document it in a way that fits our own nature and understanding. The same with our art making. We are makers of worlds. We erect worlds that we can understand, while we let go of what we don’t know because it’s irrelevant to us. Therefore, any art work is by definition nowhere close to the unknown. The work is the world, and we make the world in such a way so that we can understand ourselves better. The work of art has nothing to teach us about the unknown, or darkness, or the universe. Only the processes of making and encountering art deal with the unknown; they actually cuts right across it. They stir the darkest corners, they turn over the dustiest closets, emptying whatever they might contain into the light.
It seems that we need the unknown, as some of the speakers at the conference have pointed out. A protected, private space, hidden from the harsh light of the public sphere is necessary to us. So we take extra care to preserve it. However, this darkness of our private, most intimate aspects is denser and much more elusive than any dark mystery of the outer space. Mainly because we keep avoiding it, we don’t want to give it a name or to map it. As I said, we are protecting it.
But how can the artist claim any right to talk about darkness, mystery, and the unknown, when he himself carefully conceals these very aspects of the artistic process from everybody, even from himself?
We could say here that the artist needs the darkness, if he’s to explore and eventually defeat it for the good of his community, just as the shaman, through ecstasy, descends into the underworld to find cures for his fellow tribesmen. However, it seems that most of contemporary artists are no longer shamans or witches, but something less radical. They don’t transfigure the darkness into something relevant, they are detached from both this world and the other. Yet just as the shaman knows the paths of the underworld, because he’s walked them back and forth many times, so must the artist confront his dark universe, the by definition lonely and unspeakable hours of fabrication and thought, as a common universe, one that we all share and we are all afraid of, but only a few dare staring into it.
“Not having to explain oneself” is also a device of tyranny and deceit.
It is generally accepted that the artists don’t have to explain themselves, and that they make art works that demonstrate, or play with, the concepts they want to convey. The work itself is the statement, the explanation, the analysis. And it’s in its nature to be reflective, to send back whatever we project at it, to show us who we are. Artists bring together relationships in a non-verbal way, through the artifacts they fabricate and the performances they do. But “not having to explain oneself” is also a device of tyranny and deceit. The moment I get the right to do whatever I want without explaining myself, while at the same time I remain secretive as to where my products are coming from and why, then there’s something suspicious going on.
During this year’s Sonic Acts we have been shown artifacts that were inspired by the unknown, or use the unknown as a metaphor, or refashion obscure scientific data for artistic purposes, but we haven’t actually dealt with what the dark sides of making art are and how we could explore them. There were the workshops of course, where some artists were invited to elaborate on their methods and share their knowledge, but these were private, not accessible to the public. This reinforces our thinking of artistic practice as a kind of craftsmanship, where the experienced master craftsman passes on his tacit knowledge by example, without really knowing what he does. At the same time we religiously preserve the mystery surrounding the artistic process, which is exactly what makes the artwork so sexy and admirable.
Sitting on a mountaintop somewhere in a desert, gazing at the night sky, I feel nothing of the horrific cascade of solar winds that clash with our atmosphere, or the firm engulfing of dark matter around and through everything there is.
They are not me. They will never be mine. Our confrontation with the unknown happens in silence, not in words or para-language. And it surely doesn’t happen when we merely make more noise with our own observations, theorems, formulas and data bases. Maybe to make a fuss about it is a way to cope with it. We’re going to be fine, as long as we’re louder than the solar winds, stronger than the black hole’s pull, faster than light, bigger than the universe. Anything else would require understanding and tolerance, and the western world is not made for either. As a new Dark Age is silently dawning upon the world, we’re blissfully writing music for bosons.
It is how we erect the world and not how we perceive it that can teach us whatever there’s to know.
If making and doing art is a reflection of the world we live in, and at the same time a vision of the world we would like to be living in, then it should worry us that these four days of Sonic Acts were a portrait of a world covered in darkness, shock, and medieval apathy. We have proven that we can do better laser shows than Beyonce, while at the same time religiously erecting hallucinatory monoliths and alienating screens of violence. We forget that it is how we erect the world and not how we perceive it that can teach us whatever there’s to know. To visualise and sonify data collected from a million suns doesn’t bring constellations down to Earth. But the fact that we keep doing that can tell us a lot about our colonisation of the world, driven by our greed and our obsession with control, ownership and normality.
The ivory tower has been defended by philosophers and artists alike as the place were the craftsman and the thinker can hide from the world in order to bring something back into the world. Unfortunately, its dark interior is the last refuge of artists at this time of marginalisation of art and its community. And it is also where all the aspects of our lives and our world are reflected: in the violence, despair, hypocrisy, honesty, subtlety, emotionality, laziness, obsessiveness, fulfillment of the artist when he’s with himself. That’s a secret worth sharing with everyone, despite the risk of shattering the fragile privacy that any creative act requires, not only as a way to be finally honest with ourselves, but also as a more efficient way of coping with the perplexities and contradictions of this absurd and mysterious place, the only place, we call home.
Spread from Sonic Acts 2013 catalogue. Graphic design by Bitcaves (Femke Herregraven, Nina Støttrup Larsen).