‘Let’s talk of a system that transforms all the social organisms into a work of art, in which the entire process of work is included... something in which the principle of production and consumption takes on a form of quality. It’s a Gigantic project.’
The manner in which Yvonne Buchheim has collected the material that forms the Song Archive Project (SAP), and its subsequent treatment for exhibition, performance and, of course, the publication of this book, can be situated within the shifting relationship between the assumed positions of the artist and the audience, the speaker (or indeed singer) and the spectator. The challenge to the distinct positions of the artist/ actor/speaker who embodies knowledge and action and therefore power, as opposed to the passive, receptive, powerless audience, has been an important foundation to radical art practices from the early twentieth century. From the Dadaist use of ephemeral mass media in their montages and Duchamp’s readymades, to Beuys’ declaration that ‘we are all artists’, there has been a concerted effort to create a more expansive understanding of artistic endeavour, to imbue art with a political and social agency, and to destroy the false boundaries between art and the everyday.
Within the world of theatre and performance, Bertolt Brecht challenged the traditional function of plays that sought an audience’s emotional identification with its characters that usually lead to a climatic catharsis, believing they bred passivity. His theory of ‘Epic Theatre’ highlighted the constructed nature of theatrical production. Through Verfremdungseffekt or ‘estrangement effect’, Brecht hoped to provoke his audiences to adopt a critical perspective not only to the play itself, but also to the constructed nature of social relations in the world outside the theatre.
The writer and artist Guy Debord’s practice has become synonymous with the desire to awaken the assumed passivity of society’s spectators.
In his publication The Society of the Spectacle (1967), Debord describes the spectacle as a world almost exclusively mediated through images in the service of advanced capitalism. Debord charts the demise of what he calls an authentic social life into its vacuous representation. As the spectacle becomes all encompassing, our existence is increasingly diminished as it moves from being defined as being, into having, and from having into merely appearing. The spectacular society represents the moment when social life is completely colonised by the logic of the commodity – in other words, a consumer culture, organised and maintained through mass media.
For Debord therefore, a passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity and hinders critical thought, preventing the individual from understanding the society of the spectacle as only another historical moment that can be transformed through revolution. In effect, the society of the spectacle has supplanted Marx’s notion of religion as the opiate of the masses from which the spectator must be awoken, through radical action or through what Debord termed ‘situations’ that are constructed to radically reorder ‘life, politics and art’.
The practice of approaching complete strangers with the request of a song for the camera has many parallels with the work of Debord and in particular that of Situationist International, a group that he helped found in 1957. Through these encounters, Buchheim offers the participants an opportunity to experience what is called in German Fremdbild, literally, ‘strange image’. Buchheim’s activities in the collecting of the song archive offers an opportunity for participants to step outside their normal existence, to see themselves as others may see them – an opportunity for critical self-reflection.
However, there is an important, fundamental difference at play in the creation and various manifestations of the Song Archive Project.
For Debord, as for Brecht, the need to ‘shock’ the spectator, or audience, out of their passive acceptance of the spectacle, did not actually challenge the relationship between speaker and spectator, precisely because the latter’s passivity was always assumed. The images that Buchheim creates do not continue to attempt to instruct the proletariat in how to live an ‘authentic social life’, but seek instead to act as a vehicle for genuine human interaction, across all the individuals involved, from the singers, to the gallery visitors, to you reading this book.
This important distinction between instruction and genuine interaction can be found in the writings of the French philosopher, Jaques Rancière, and, in particular, his book, The Emancipated Spectator (2009). The critique of the spectacle for Rancière has its origins in Plato’s denouncement of the nemesis of theatre as a place where the spectator was ‘invited to see people suffering, as a spectacle of pathos… through the optical machinery that prepares the gaze for illusion and passivity’.1 What is required therefore is, paradoxically, a theatre without spectators, whereby the audience are not seduced by images as passive voyeurs, but become active participants in the process.
The self-vanishing mediation of a theatre without spectators has another equivalence in the notion of intellectual emancipation that Rancière first explored in his essay, ‘The Ignorant Schoolmaster’. The role of the schoolmaster is of course to abolish the distance between his knowledge and the ignorance of the student. However, according to a traditional pedagogical logic, this can only be undertaken on the condition that
the distance is constantly maintained. As Rancière states:
‘In the pedagogical logic, she (the student) is not simply one who does not as yet know what the schoolmaster knows. She is the one who does not know what she does not know or how to know it.’2
The first thing the student learns is his/her own inability. The main activity of a pedagogical logic, therefore, is to constantly confirm its own presupposition: the inequality of intelligence. If we equate the role of the schoolmaster with the radical theatre of Brecht or Debord’s Situations, these various attempts to awaken the spectator and expose the spectacle are still based on the assumed oppositions between the image and living reality, speaker and spectator, that does not challenge the a priori logic of intellectual inequality that these oppositions are derived from.
If we accept the supposed oppositions between viewing and knowing, appearance and reality, then we are already accepting a structure that maintains the two positions that can be described as those who possess capacity and those who do not.3
Instead, Rancière calls for an intellectual emancipation that is based on the a priori logic of an equality of intelligence; in effect, the schoolmaster must accept his own ignorance. The foundational premise of this emancipation is that intelligence is not a position to be held. Rather, within this alternative logic, the task of the schoolmaster is to charge his/her students to venture out ‘into the forest of things and signs, to say what they have seen and what they think they have seen, to verify it and to have it verified’, an activity that Rancière refers to as ‘the poetic labour of translation’.4
The original impetus for the Song Archive Project was an acknowledgement of Buchheim’s own awkwardness in public performance, her own ignorance if you like. There is an understanding that, in pointing her camera, she is not really recording whether the individual can sing or, indeed, knows any songs. Instead, she is altering the environment of each individual for the period of time she is recording them. Through this encounter, the opportunity to experience Fremdbild, Buchheim is offering individuals the chance (indeed not all accepted the opportunity) to place themselves in a different space, sometimes challenging, usually awkward, but ultimately rewarding. Within this philosophical framework of an equality of intelligence, the camera does not become a subjugating frame but a shared platform or a stage on which to participate.
When we look at the individuals within this eclectic collection, we can empathise with their anxiety, embarrassment and vulnerability. This is vital, because it is surely our imperfections that make us not only human but also unique. It is a strange paradox that the attention to the unique presence of each singer helps to create a sense of a shared experience that can form the basis of a possible community. Crucially, however, this is not an easy community, an apparent community or a community that claims a natural cohesion, but an overtly invented community.
This can be seen in the nominal framework chosen for the organisation of the material contained within this archive, as the SAP uses three identifying labels that can be applied to each recording, namely, ‘who, what, and when’. Using open-ended questions to organise the archive, the SAP challenges the epistemology of definitive categories as manifestations of power. The archive is made with the understanding that the attempt to rigidly define is an act of domination or oppression. This allows Buchheim to select a multitude of possible combinations from the archive – for exhibition, publication and performance, based on combinations of nationality, gender, age etc. The many possible communities that can be articulated from this archive therefore are always open to contest and re-articulation.
Importantly, the philosophical basis of an equality of intelligence is maintained throughout the various manifestations of Buchheim’s treatment of the archive, including this book. The essays that normally appear in artist’s publications are usually written from a position of authority, to create a conceptual framework to help the reader understand the work. The various essays that are included in this publication however are treated as discreet attempts to engage in the poetic labour of translation that the Song Archive Project invites. The relationship between the texts and the SAP can be seen to form two points of a triangular relationship that can only be activated by you the reader, thus continuing the encounter and the opportunity, based on an assumed equality of intelligence, to explore what is visible or invisible, sayable or unsayable, audible or inaudible:
a continuation of the debate and the poetic labour of translation that does not seek to define what ‘is’ but points towards what is possible.
1) Rancière, Jacques (2009). The Emancipated Spectator.
Trans. Gregory Elliott. London. Verso, p. 3.
2) Rancière, Jacques (2009). The Emancipated Spectator.
Trans. Gregory Elliott. London. Verso, p. 8.
3) Rancière, Jacques (2009). The Emancipated Spectator.
Trans. Gregory Elliott. London. Verso, p. 13.
4) Rancière, Jacques (2009). The Emancipated Spectator.
Trans. Gregory Elliott. London. Verso, p. 11.