White Fungus Issue 16: Sounds of Control
In one of his drafts of his preface to Flowers of Evil, Charles Baudelaire wrote,
I had intended, at first, to answer numerous criticisms and at the same time to explain a few quite simple questions that have been totally obscured by modern enlightenment: What is poetry? What is its aim? On the distinction between the Good and the Beautiful; on the Beauty in Evil; that rhythm and rhyme answer the immortal need in man for monotony, symmetry, and surprise; on adapting style to subject; on the vanity and danger of inspiration, etc., etc.
Many pieces incorporated into Issue 16 of Taiwan-based arts magazine White Fungus seemingly attempt to address a number of similar questions pertaining to sound, how we experience it, and how we subvert it. One article, “The Pleasure Principle” by Tobias Fischer, contemplates the question: are animal sounds (birds tweeting, whale sounds) considered to be music? In doing so, Fischer propels himself down a rabbit hole of further philosophical dilemmas and uneasy answers. The question, “What defines music?” leads into an unsatisfying tautological response that “if it’s produced like music and sounds like music, then it’s music,” and from there ,a line of questioning as to whether the burden of identifying something as music is placed on the creator or the audience (or some combination of the two). Music, like many other forms of media, warps in the transformation of information into interpretation. If the responsibility belongs to the creator, what is the creator’s intended purpose for creating music? And what purpose does an audience seek to attain by listening to music? Pleasure? Pleasure seems to be a meaningless term, little more than the outcome of our desires. Certainly not all music is pleasurable. Intrigue, distraction, contemplation--one could list at length the potential outcomes of hearing music without once summoning for consideration the notion of beauty.
Baudelaire continued in in his preface,
suddenly an indolence of the weight of twenty atmospheres fell upon me, and I was stopped, faced by the appalling uselessness of explaining anything whatever to anyone whatever. Those who know can divine me, and for those who can not or will not understand, it would be fruitless to pile up explanations.
There is analysis, and there is emotion, and music certainly offers some combination of both as fodder for engagement. At some point, one has to give up attempting to define that which eludes definition (which, as it turns out, is practically everything), and even put to rest the pursuit to pinpoint the impetus to define terms such as music (which is probably pleasure). In his article “To Sleep, Perchance to Hear”, Kurt Gottschalk reflects on how we demand of ourselves that we must experience music (or sound? or noise? who knows?), as prompted by attending a performance of Max Richter’s eight-hour piece Sleep, a composition which intended to be heard while sleeping. To encourage the audience to drift away into slumber, beds are set up in the performance space. Such a performance asks us why we value attention over passive engagement, particularly when it comes to the medium of music, given that sound has the potential to be experienced much more peripherally and passively than the senses of sight and touch.
It seems almost absurd to unapologetically fall asleep at an orchestral performance. It almost seems redundant to refer to music as “ambient”, as sound is so integrated into the ambience of space. To consider why we feel compelled to engage with musical performance attentively rather than passively also calls into question why as a culture, we regard as intellectually superior the media which demands of its audience that they be fully immersed (e.g. film, symphony, novels) to media which give the audience the responsibility to determine how deeply they will engage (e.g. television, pop music, twitter feed). Of course, artists are constantly removing information from media, as they were once once driven by photography to remove the representative image from the painting, abstracting media into conceptual extensions of the audience’s mind. After such conversions, the mundane becomes equally noble, equally a cipher for the psyche. As more and more aspects of our world are intoned with information, the amount of information and symbols to which we are exposed reaches such a point of saturation that meaning seems to disintegrate and we wander around somnambulistically. This is where consciousness has brought us, so perhaps the subconscious has some better ideas about what to do.
To be able to comprehend is something like control and it is for this reason that media which deviates from the customary symbols which comprise our customary forums of communication feels as if it is chaotic. In his article “Wasteland Utopia”, Jeph Lo provides a history of the revolutionary emergence and later institutionalization of noise music in Taiwan. Out of chaos of the “Wild Lily Movement”, a series of public demonstrations calling for direct democracy, came anti-institutional music as a symbolic departure from classical music associated with bourgeois control. The new music was not easily digestible. It was exactly that which would have been forbidden under Taiwan’s period of martial law. The performances were debaucherous. At early festivals, performers would revel in the stench of rotten food, sexually assault audience members, and simulate rape on mannequins. It was an assault on the senses. Jeph Lo makes an odd comment on the association of chaos and liberation, “There was almost no occasion in which the word ‘beautiful’ could have been used to describe these performances [thus complicating the notion of liberation].” I cannot figure out what beauty has to do with liberation. Beauty, it seems to me, is partially based in cultural norms of what is accepted and partially based in some universal, practically deific ideal. To make art that is not beautiful has the potential to disrupt and challenge institutional aesthetic values, but it seems that if any freedoms may be derived from beauty, it is a freedom within the individual’s mind rather than from institutional structures.
Baudelaire wrote in that same preface
I know the passionate lover of fine style exposes himself to the hatred of the masses; but no respect for humanity, no false modesty, no conspiracy, no universal suffrage will ever force me to speak the unspeakable jargon of the age, or to confuse ink with virtue.
Noise in post-martial law Taiwan initially functioned as a decongestant for blocked-up mucus of expression, an entryway into accessing what was lost in years of repression by dragging out the rot in the ruins of the mind. It had little to do with morality and beauty, but rather, was concerned with disrupting institutions of control (any institution of control) by rendering the voice of the people into incomprehensible chaos. Inevitably, as any aesthetic form proliferates, it loses its bite. To visit Duchamp’s Fountain in Philadelphia is to know intuitively that it was subversive at one point, and to appreciate it for its impact, but to not feel confused or offended by it--in fact, to feel little more than self-pity that you cannot access the feeling of subversion from something which was once incredibly disruptive and now sits in a museum, de-fanged. So too went noise in Taiwan. The venues and squats in which the ideologically rebellious attributes of noise lived were shut down and razed. The sonic qualities of the music were isolated as if in a research lab, deliberately and carefully examined under its new conception as “sound art”, largely with institutional backing.
In another piece contained in White Fungus, Kyra Kordoski profiled contemporary Taiwanese sound and performance artist Betty Apple, an artist who probes at the convergence of ritual, sound, space, and control, within a particularly Taiwanese context. “Both techno and noise relate to space… Techno is like architecture; it’s a fictional, external space--whereas noise is a personal, spiritual space,” Kordoski quotes Betty Apple. Addressing the historical scars on Taiwanese people by martial law, Betty Apple often integrates and deconstructs the Taiwanese national anthem to address notions of control and nationalism. The space Betty Apple attempts to reside in in her work is that allows for authoritarian terror to coexist with disruptive chaos. It is through the combination of controlled iterations of the familiar and the unpredictable nature of environmental sounds that Betty Apple is able to recycle the conventions of authority into something akin to liberation. This methodology, it seems, is fundamental to both the theory of (perhaps ironically) musical harmony and artistic progression.
In his forward to Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar, Viktor Shklovsky wrote,
Art cognizes by implementing old models in new ways and by creating new ones. Art moves, transforming. It changes its methods, but the past does not cease to exist. Art moves using its old vocabulary and reinterpreting structures and, at the same time, it seems to be static. It changes fast, not for the sake of changing, but to impart the sensation of things in their difference through rearrangement.
Like how she reinterprets the sounds of authority, Betty Apple also restructures her body into a primal-yet-cybernetic creature. She births disposable vibrators. She becomes a rubber mermaid. Where Tobias Fischer contemplated if animals were capable of consciously creating or appreciating music, Betty Apple transforms her body into that which is a causality of an environment of nationalistic suppression, a body in bondage to which contemplation is ostensibly of little concern, when dominated by desires for primal sublimation. To consider if music is a human conception is also to consider if liberation may belongs to humanity alone, and if humans are stripped of their autonomy and subjugated into suppression, what distinction is there between human music and a rooster’s crow?