International Waters

It seems odd to ask the artists what appealed to them about throwing rocks at a $150,000 35mm camera while it filmed them with a full crew and semi-trailer standing by; maybe it was because the rocks were being thrown at a machine that was gathering information. In this light, the camera, being the tool of the documentary-maker, is a figure of the mechanism by which art is drawn into the language of power – understood, assimilated, ordered, commodified, translated, de-alienated, inscribed, and so on.

Accordingly, there are many ways in which a strain of contemporary art seems to try to avoid this assimilation. Its operations might be characterised as tactical rather than strategic – terms coined by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life (‘Because it does not have a place, a tactic depends on time-it is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized on the wing. Whatever it wins it does not keep…’). Camouflage, evasions, obfuscations, being resolutely inchoate and/or nameless, petulance against the rising tides…

A question mark earring dangles from life’s pretty ear – from the inside, are tricks all we have? One thing is certain, however, in that rocks are being thrown at all-comers. This is underlined by the way the soundtrack indicates the end-point of the rocks’ trajectory at the rear of the audience. The rocks that are being let fly in the film horrifically escape the contained cinematic plane, now immaterial, and crash against a non-existent rear wall. A sort of horror is conjured by the invisibility of the projectiles-something that does not exist cannot be fought or resisted with conventional weapons like bats, shields or clarification.

Guessing rather than asking, perhaps the appeal was a desire to not be dull? The film is so arresting it could easily be an ad, maybe for men’s pants or something. (Semantically and practically it is a short jump from arresting to arrested. I am sure the insurance company would not have liked the pelting the camera received and the damage it sustained. But insurance companies are little more than large-scale gamblers, protection racketeers, so who cares?) Certainly, a desire to draw on the built-in comedy of the ever-fraught collaborative decision-making process would be understandable, i.e. what does one do when given the opportunity to make a film for free-dress up as kangaroos or cave-men?

I keep coming back to the wooden framing built around the camera in order to protect it. The camera looks so vulnerable and like butter wouldn’t melt in its mouth, but that is ignoring the violence that documentary-making can mete out. (Foucault once cleared his throat and wrote of thought that ‘as soon as it functions it offends or reconciles, attracts or repels, breaks, disassociates, unites or reunites; it cannot help but liberate and enslave’ -his idea seems to be that the process of apprehension is as fraught with possibilities as it is with dangers.) No wonder the documentary impulse and critical enquiry attract such an onslaught, over-cooking being endemic.

While I write this morning the police are lying in wait outside on the street. I can see them from the first floor where I sit looking west, the street running down a hill north to south. Every five minutes or so they drive out from where they are parked and follow someone down the road quickly, using their lights to get them to stop; then they give them a ticket for whatever-too fast down the hill, no warrant, still drunk, I don’t know. It would be useless to try to explain to them that delinquency, in its audacity, is like a fruit, its seed of transformation within itself.

They have truly terrible uniforms-polyester royal blue, biting crotches. The more uncomfortable your clothes are the meaner they make you, a friend of mine said once. She used to wear her shoes half a size too small when she dressed up to go out, ready to imperiously, disdainfully survey the men who would approach her. our policemen are surely not meant to be alluring in any way unless you are turned on by squalor (emotional, aesthetic, or actual). They merely want questions answered, decrees followed, desires suppressed, crowds dispersed, and delinquency, moral or otherwise, rooted out…

I wonder how the average manager would respond an employee slipped some Walt Whitman into the staff-meeting minutes? ‘I loafe and invite my soul,/ I lean and loafe at my ease; observing a spear of summer grass…’ Delinquency (if this is really what it is) might not be in any way desirable from an institutional point of view, but I always thought the promise of genuinely transfiguring ahistorical moments to be utterly purifying. Delinquent acts are even less acceptable in those of ‘a certain age’ as the French so elegantly term middle age. Ours are cruel times, and our language a brutal one, together conspiring to invent terms like ‘age-appropriate’.

It seems tacky to excerpt an epic poem to make a point. But there is a lot to be said for assaulting long-held, long-hewn lists of sensible­seeming distinctions between desirable and undesirable, problematic and acceptable, destructive and constructive, selfless and spoiled, etc. All for the sake of overcoming loathing, for example, a long-standing prejudice against thespians and real estate agents, epic poetry, and art writing.

It is not just art writing’s tendency to conceptual ism (unaware apparently of the way conceptual art can be seen as parodying of critical language and its forms, or even of the strangle-hold of language over everything, as Mike Kelley has pointed out in Foul Perfection-but if those with language have an advantage, then only one course of action is to attempt to avoid the infantilisation of the mute; another might be to adopt a no-more-dependence-on-words-and-letters approach to the formless) and to biography, diagnosis and interpretation, but of its consistent refusal to deal with art as event-as in that experience which proceeds thought and understanding-mirages-that makes it so annoying as to invite attack.

Furthermore, there is a lack of recognition of the way in which writing constructs as it insists on attempting to explicate-its quasi­sculptural operation, in other words. I don’t know what more the artists could do to get the attention off the verbiage and onto action. To approach this film of Marco Fusinato, Callum Morton and Mutlu Çerkez in terms of proceeding from the supplied words (their names, the work’s name, Avalon) would be simplistic. That is not to say that one-word language constructions are not interestingly akin to single discrete sculptures. Nor is that is not to say that it is not an interesting title; it summons the power of wizards, the glamour of male integrity quests, the mists of time, hot female treachery and ritual magic.

Avalon is also a place about 40 minutes south-west of Melbourne notable for its speedway and budget airport, and the name of New Zealand’s first television capital, the Wellington studios that were closed in the 1980s when production moved primarily to Auckland. Avalon also seems to be a common suburb name… also a Roxy Music album… also a really annoyingly sang-froid character in Blakes 7. (Even the other characters on the show seemed not to like him. When one had been hit on the head and was seeing heaps of Avalons in fly-eye vision from the concussion, he said Tm in hell.’) But ultimately it seems to have been chosen to not load the action, to go back to the non-moment.

‘I didn’t see the objects, but I can see the act. It is as if somehow people want to discuss how one must act now, at this time, when generally we are so paralysed.’

Mattina felt a stab of anger against words that could be so arranged to seduce the speaker, the writer, the listene1: the reader, into believing that a truth had been created or discovered; against the magnetic power that held the words together so that few dared to separate them or examine them, but used them, again and again.

(Janet Frame, The Carpathians)

One of the loveliest things I have seen written on the subject of art writing was uncharacteristically from an art historian, albeit an unconventional one, the words liquid: ‘There are words leaning out of our eyes…’ (Francis Pound). I loved what he said, not just because of the heightened state in which it seemed to have been written, with a glue-sniffer’s alertness to effect, but for its slippage, its drift, its poetry. I also liked the loss of authority that his line implies. Such a dopamine surge would surely evacuate all conclusions, all questions, all need, in any case.

I kept six honest serving men
They taught me all! knew;
Their names were Where and What and When And How and Why and Who
(Janet Frame, The Carpathians)

A show invitation has a particular subtle effect beyond merely drawing your attention to the basic facts-that something is to take place, who is involved, when it is happening, where to go… Especially in the case of a collaboration, so and so are going to do something, and you wonder, surely, unless ennui has protected you from the intrusion, ‘what will they do?’ Once the space is opened up for curiosity and uncertainty and promise, the monster can really walk, begging many more questions; not the least of which is ‘Why would you do that?’ The questions swarm; even one at a time – ‘What energies might be harnessed?’ – they are invasive and reactions can be allergic or transporting or both.

(I have been thinking about this work in relation to Janet Frame, not just because of her sensitivity to the sometimes brutal architectural effect of writing about something, and her rejection of authoritative tone – a ridiculous pose, she demonstrated, living, as we all do, at ‘the edge of the alphabet’-but the semantic relationship between her name and the construction put around the camera to protect it from the stoning it was to receive at the hands of the artists. I was also interested to find that the title of her book, The Carpathians, also the name of an Eastern European mountain range, comes originally from the Albanian word for rocks.)

The crowd particularly likes destroying houses and objects: breakable objects like window panes, mirrors, pictures and crockery; and people tend to think that it is the fragility of these objects which stimulates the destructiveness of the crowd. It is true that the noise of destruction adds to its satisfaction; the banging of windows and the crashing of glass are the robust sounds of fresh life, the cries of something newborn. It is easy to evoke them and that increases their popularity. Everything shouts together; the din is the applause of objects.


But there is more to it than this. In the crowd the individual feels that he is transcending the limits of his own person. He has a sense of relief, for the distances are removed which used to throw him back on himself and shut him in. With the lifting of these burdens of distance he feels free; his freedom is the crossing of these boundaries. He wants what is happening to him to happen to others too; and he expects it to happen to them. An earthen pot irritates him for it is all boundaries. The closed doors of a house irritate him. Rites and ceremonies, anything that preserves distance, threaten him and seem unbearable. He fears that, sooner or later, an attempt will be made to force the disintegrating crowd back into these pre­vessels. To the crowd in its nakedness everything seems a Bastille.

(Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power)

Janet Frame wrote The Carpathains in the very small residency flat above the University of Auckland’s George Fraser Gallery. The building itself is administrated by the Frank Sargeson Trust, set up in memory of the New Zealand author, and sits enviably on a university section with a fountain in it adjacent to the botanical gardens of Auckland’s Albert Park which occupies a small volcano in the CBD. The last time I visited it ivy had grown up from the outside stairs and was making its way across the flat’s fly/security door.

Incidentally, Frame wrote her first novel Owls Do Cry (1957) in a shed at the back of Sargeson’s house in the once sleepy Esmonde Road on the way to Takapuna Beach on Auckland’s North Shore. She depended greatly ‘on the kindness of strangers’ to get the time to write, unmolested by employment, unwanted company, and the narrow, evaluative gaze of convention.

At an opening recently I overheard someone say that a visiting artist had complained of the flat that, when she had used it briefly, the sheets had not been changed when she arrived, and when the fridge door was opened it exploded with the smell of sour milk. (The flat also has a particularly amazing arrangement of rafters that seem, out off the corners of my eyes, to sprout swinging monkeys.) 1 thought it was a pity that people would turn their noses up at doing laundry and cleaning a fridge, and that maybe mahi is not terribly popular among ‘outputs­oriented professional individuals’, myself included.

Mahi is one of the five principles of community life the New Zealand poet James K Baxter wrote in his Jerusalem Daybook. This was received wisdom from the Maori community he lived alongside, in the place that became known, after the establishment of Sisters of Compassion convent there in the 1892, as Jerusalem, or Hiruharama. Baxter came there in the late 60s, and by 1969 a convalescent commune had grown up around him in the embrace of poverty. The list went like

arohanui: the love of the many
manuhiritanga: hospitality to the guest and the stranger
korero: speech that begets peace and understanding
matewa: the night life of the soul
mahi: work undertaken from communal love

To me, this reads as a recipe, a bomb-making one, for how to explode the ego as it was formerly constituted by its conditions (dissatisfactorally, dysfunctionally, painfully?); each of the tenets, the practices, requiring time. For example, matewa pertains to ‘the area of dreams and omens and hidden spiritual relationships to the dead and non-human environment.’ How is one supposed to be attune if one is in a constant state of work’s (as opposed to living labour’s) busy-ness and conscious activity? Paradoxically, it requires one to move slowly, but faster than caution…

Unfortunately there are precious few means common in society whereby people can learn about effecting radical transformations – vitalist ego-cides, explosions into the many for the common good, we might call them, or ‘technologies of the self’ to borrow Foucault’s term. Sometimes these necessary changes seem violent, distasteful, unprofessional, unsuccessful, or boat-rocking to conservatives for, culturally, the subjects of capitalism are discouraged from most liberations of desire; instead we are encouraged to treat ourselves as ornamental, and insulate the self from change and any assault on a constant sense of self, or on the abstract value of calm.

When I was in LA I never really experienced an earthquake, a couple of tremors I think. It became a bit like Dali throwing himself down the stairs just to feel what it was like, because I got to the point where I really wanted to experience what the earth could do, how things would unfold in the aftermath. It was a perverse notion to experience some extreme state that everyone also shared simultaneously. So it is a little like that, simulating a state of violence, staging a revolt against nothing at all but the mediation of violence just to see what it is like.

We didn’t directly attack the pretensions of semiotics to be scientific, we simply let Saussure do it to himself. We Jet one language devour the other, leaving nothing behind but a strange scientific delirium, This is what happens when you push science far enough, in fact when you push anything to some kind of extremity: then it drops all pretences like the chimpanzee dropping its pants, showing the dark face of madness. Delirium is always more interesting because the truth is showing through. The secret was a real code, a psychotic code, but Saussure didn’t know that it was and he kept looking and looking for some kind of rationality.’

Sylvere Lotringer, ‘After the Avant-garde’, Pataphysics (2005)

This filmed action does have something of a street riot to it, so it almost self-politicises. A reactionary kind of outraged response like the ape-shit scenes in Zabriskie Point-campus protest that culminates in an escape to the desert’s alien landscape, one incoherent rampage after another, and then a final glorious Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd explosion of being. It is not just an atomisation of decorum (in the scorched earth of post­structuralism?), but of the self into the many in a landscape well known to give rise to hallucination without chemical assistance. (The Koran has it that every time a person tells a lie a grain of sand is made. The desert is also a lawless place, a no-man’s land, beloved by the Bedouin, that crushes armies.)

Whitman’s Leaves of Grass has an I-am-many, I-am-legion aspect (‘Through me many long dumb voices; / Through me forbidden voices; / Voice of sexes and lusts-voices veil’d, and I remove the veil; / Voices indecent, by me clarified and transfigur’d’), as does a lot of contemporary art practice, in which the crowd often lurks in form and effect. Its interest in the relational could also extend to an exploration of the displacements and impositions we wreak on each other in even a friendly environment. Even benign invitations like ‘would you like a cup of tea?’ can arrive through the window like a brick with a note tied around it. Without endorphins, our natural pain-killers, we would feel a smile, each butterfly kiss, as a blow. Ask any premenstrual woman.

But it seems just as tendentious to say that this film is a non­narrative critique of the ubiquity of video art as it is to label it an allegory of the distressed neo-liberal subject and the whirl of individualism left by the collapse of the social. It could just as easily be three artists’ dumb action, a solution to impasse, an emphatic fuck it. Even saying it might be about letting off steam or pent-up aggression, a backlash against tiresome things, against boredom, frustration, the expectation that adults should behave well, the demands of living socially, repressed anger-or an attempt to gleefully break things, and get back into the body, to let testosterone run its course-might be making too much of it; or trying to see it as constructive, or somehow sensible.

Personally, I mostly enjoy this work as a circular sort of visual joke, one that basks in the sun of a certain Antipodean mindlessness. Here, the ridiculousness of waging war on stupidity as if it was a vanquishable problem (as Avital Ronell put it in Stupidity, a marvelous celebration of stupidity as the condition for all poetry) is in full view. There is something implosively funny about making a film of people throwing rocks at a camera, and of making a ‘violent’ film in a medium used to distract the populace from its own anger. A closed-circuit loop is established that is like one of those shaggy-dog story jokes that curls back to its beginning in infinite regress. Sure, any decent joke raises a vast range of unexpected, inappropriate or unruly deviations from the usual, but this one marvelously grasps with both hands the great, eruptive joke’s principle of escalation.