Behind the Scenes
Approaching an Ideology of Art
In order to sit down and establish any sort of ideology1 that guides my life, I really have only a single point to consider: art2 is, without a doubt, what is most important to me. Out of everything. I say this without a hint of irony, with a complete presence of sincerity: everything that has ever been important to me has been mediated by art, to some degree.
Perhaps this is easy for me to say because I equate art with pleasure. Or the idea that art is beauty (as a definition from dictionary.com would like to suggest). If this were true then I wouldn’t have anything to say here. But, the unfortunate thing is that there is a lot of bad art that makes me furrow my brow and launch into hyperbolic rhetoric or a complete insincerity (read: irony). The other negation to the aforementioned declarations heeds itself to my own ideas in an appreciation of affect over visual aesthetic: i.e., something ugly, terrifying, and evil can bring pleasure.
I am not an overly-depressed person. I am (fairly) high functioning in a pretty normal way. I have no desire to be constantly escaping from reality. Kneeling at the temple of Art is not about escapism for me, and I think that’s why I inherently hate the idea of mediating an experience of art (exclusively) through empathy (this is why I will always champion modes of art that lie outside of representation3).
I occasionally feel like when I make this declaration, I am widening a divide between myself & the general public. I say this without elitism. The problem is making a statement like this seems to establish binary opposition: if I don’t like representation, I must like crazy non-narrative abstract shit. Right? I mean, that binary presupposes the person who is contrasting her or his own approach to art with mine is able to conceive of an approach to art that is outside of representation (and this is part of why my mother has no idea in regards to what I am interested in and what I am doing when it comes to “art”).
But here’s the thing: I love narrative. I have no desire to escape narrative. Of course, throughout my experiences with art I have grown mostly tired of archetypal narrative arcs, neatly wrapped up stories, etc etc. But that’s not the point. What I look for in art, what I aim for in art, ultimately, as I’ve said many noted many times in comment threads, is affect.
My obsession with, and definition of, “affect” has been developing over the last few years. The key ingredients that have been simmering in the crock-pot of theory within my headspace include: an engagement with the theories espoused by Tel Quel (though mostly ignoring the psychoanalytical aspect), Antonin Artaud (especially his ideas on theater & cinema, but also incorporating his entire praxis), obsession with the films of Philippe Grandrieux & Martine Beugnet’s reading of Grandrieux’s films & recent French cinema, and intense consideration of what it means to be against representation (isn’t that basically a Sontag article? I should probably reread that…).4
So, to simplify what it is I mean when I appreciate and strive for art that cares about affect more than anything else is the following: an idea that a work of art becomes an experience that can directly influence the emotional or even physical state of the reader (reader here to approach the post-structuralist idea of the “text,” standing in for book/movie/visual art/whatever) directly. When I say I am against an empathetic reading, it is not because I want to be cold and unemotional, it is because I want the feelings I experience when I encounter a work of art to be MY feelings, not the caustic feelings of the protagonist of a novel, etc.
To provide an example of this, I think it’s probably best to start off with an example from the art world. Gregor Schneider is one of my favorite artists. It would be possible, I guess, to explain what he does as basically making high concept ‘haunted houses.’ Not literally, of course, but the experience is similar: Schneider creates spaces and the viewer of the artwork (who is, in this case, actually a participant) explores the spaces. Schneider often populates his spaces using ideas that relate to the uncanny: the double, a man who may or may not be dead, architectural constructions that make little sense, etc.
In 2007, Schneider staged an exhibition titled “Weiss Folter,” or, “White Torture” in English. The following description is taken from Schneider’s website:
The Kunstsammlung is presenting a new ensemble specially created by Gregor Schneider for this exhibition. A series of rooms – accessible to the exhibition- goer – has been built into the existing architecture of the museum: long corridors and confined cells equally reminiscent of intensive care wards and isolation units, of protection and confinement, that can be read either as zones of extra attentive care or of social and sensory deprivation. Individual rooms call to mind prison cells, interrogation rooms, holding areas or exercise tracts under constant surveillance. The artistic strategy of doubling and replication, that is fundamental to Gregor Schneider’s work, is again in evidence here. The exhibition is a response to images circulating on the Internet of the United States’ maximum security facility Camp V at Guantánamo Bay on Cuba, a no-man’s-land that is shielded as far as possible from the public gaze. The title of the exhibition also references the secret and the clandestine. ‘White torture’, also known as ‘clean torture’, is used of methods that are designed to destroy a person’s mind without leaving any external evidence and hence are extremely hard to prove.
While, I suppose, you could argue that the interiors are representative of pre-existing interiors (those of maximum security facilities, etc), it’s plain to see that these spaces, these interiors are literally there. You are not looking at a photograph of said space and trying to “enter the mind” of a prisoner in order to experience what that kind of room can do. Instead, you are, in your own, physical body, encountering the space. There is no level of distance that can deaden any reaction you might have. You are neither having the same experience that a prisoner of such a space would experience: you are having your own experience. Your own experience with the work is something that no one else will have, because, literally, they are not you. My interest in this work of art is that it is not passive, it is active. It is, literally, an experience, an event.
Next, let’s consider an example of this degree of “affect” that can be found in film. I will use the aforementioned Philippe Grandrieux. Grandrieux is a brilliant French filmmaker who trafficks in terror and affect. He is, in my opinion, the primary example that can be found in Martine Beugnet’s quintessential text, Cinema and Sensation.
Beugnet takes Artaud’s notes on his “cinema of the third path” as a launching point in developing the ideas set forth of “cinema and sensation.”
At present, two courses seem to be open to the cinema, of which neither is the right one. The pure and absolute cinema on the one hand, and, on the other, this sort of venial hybrid art. The latter persists in expressing, in more or less successful images, psychological situations which are perfectly suitable for the stage or the pages of a book, but not for the screen, and which only really exist as the reflection of a world
which seeks its matter and its meaning elsewhere. . . . Between purely linear abstraction (and a play of shadows and lights is like a play of lines) and the film with psychological undertones which might tell a dramatic story, there is room for an attempt at true cinema, of which neither the matter nor the meaning is indicated by any film so far produced.5
And to quote Artaud further from Beugnet’s book (Because I have a PDF of that handy & not the primary Artaud text):
The power of the cinema thus rested with ‘purely visual sensations’ (Artaud’s writings correspond, of
course, to the end of the era of the silent movie), ‘the dramatic force of which springs from a shock on the eyes, drawn, one might say, from the very substance of the eye, and not from psychological circumlocutions of a discursive nature which are nothing but visual interpretations of a text’ (Artaud  1972: 20). On the one hand, Artaud’s claim with regard to the vocation of the medium of the moving image stresses the need for a cinema that would draw its raw material from the recording of a pro-filmic reality rather than resort to the purely conceptual constructs of the proponents of the abstract film avant-garde. Crucially, if he rejects it as a formal a priori, Artaud does not rule out abstraction as part of the actual imaging process; the following description of the movement and mutations in/of the images suggests that the frontier between the figurative and the abstract remains fluid. Artaud thus calls for an initially figurative cinema, but one where film forms should nevertheless be allowed to develop independently from ‘realistic’ narrative adaptations and ‘play with matter itself, [to create] situations that emerge from the simple collision of objects, forms, repulsions and attractions’ (Artaud  1972: 21).
What I want to highlight from that text block (the entire context of which I think helps to illustrate what this means) is the following push for film [in my conception here, all art] to “play with matter itself, [to create] situations that emerge from the simple collision of objects, forms, repulsions and attractions.” This suggests, to me, an idea to let things develop their own experiential logic, and not rely on some insistence towards being representative & fitting a pre-established conception of logic.
With that said, I’d like to approach the films of Grandrieux, in a somewhat abstract manner (part of my reticence towards saying otherwise is related to the idea that these things I am talking about all exist as experiences in their own right, so my textual approximation clearly cannot express what these things do). Here’s Grandrieux in a fantastic interview with Nicole Brenez:
NB: La Vie nouvelle is a film devoted to the inaccessible, but at the same time it offers us everything. It is a film about abandonment, but it never becomes melancholic, which would be the usual way of depicting loss.
PG: There’s no melancholy. The film was made under the sign of enormous heath, vital energy, the blazing sun. That surpasses desire, it is even more archaic and formative; it comes from the sun itself, from a star beyond us that we aspire to, in a totally chaotic way. This aspiration towards great energy and happiness, it infused the film, which we made in a wild state of joy, six weeks of shooting like a single stroke, without a second thought [arrière-pensée].6
SO, it’s pretty easy to understand how walking through architecture is an experience, an event in its own right, but how can watching a movie be an event? Grandrieux, and a select group of other filmmakers, seem to address Artaud’s idea of “the dramatic force [springing] from a shock on the eyes, drawn, one might say, from the very substance of the eye, and not from psychological circumlocutions of a discursive nature which are nothing but visual interpretations of a text.”
The cinema of Grandrieux is narrative, as in, there are related events that happen, and there is a story to be found, but the story, the characters, are not where pleasure in watching the film is derived from. As a textual example, let’s jump back to Grandrieux’s first narrative film: Sombre. Early on in the film, Grandrieux interjects a scene of a young boy, blindfolded, blindly reaching out his arms, seeming to search for something, in front of a large cube, near the ocean. A traditional cinematic reading of these scene, which is completely divorced from the narrative, characters, and even setting of anything else in the film, would, probably, insist upon the scene as metaphor or allegory. This is, of course, completely unnecessary. Grandrieux has insisted that the scene is thrown at the audience with the sole motivation of helping to create the atmosphere of tension and uneasiness, the uncanny, not within the diegesis of the film, but rather for the viewer of the film: in this way the viewer becomes, once again, a participant. The unease the participant experiences is not tied to empathy– one in not empathetically feeling disrupted because a character within the narrative, the diegesis of the film, is struck with confusion, or disrupted himself, rather, outside of the narrative, outside of the diegesis, Grandrieux is hoping that you can enter an emotional & mental space where this atmosphere exists. It’s a disruption to the traditional mode of viewing.
I started thinking about all of this– the idea of art and its affect, when I watched David Lynch’s Inland Empire for the second time in 2007. For more ideas relating to the establishment of ideas toward an “experiential movie,” (and so I don’t take up too much real-estate within this blog post), click through to my review/essay on the Lynch film.
OK, so, this far we’ve skimmed the surface regarding visual art & movies, but since this is, primarily, a blog dedicated to literature, I guess it’s time to move on to the written word where, it seems to me, it is admittedly most difficult to combine narrative with a direct experience.7 The Tel Quel group approaches this in a very, somewhat obtuse way. At least, Philippe Sollers himself does. Sollers attempts (this is not exclusively what he has done, but part of his praxis) to write from a sort of perspective that floats from Sollers as the writer as a character in the story, to the perspective of the reader his or her self, outside, once again, of the diegesis. This is not accomplished with the second person pronoun of “you,” — rather, it attempts a viewpoint that belongs to the reader alone. With this positioning, at first, there’s a sense of disorientation– generally, when one reads, they are expecting to find a perspective of representation, when there is no implicated perspective, and the positing is placed on the reader (once again, the participant), this is confusing as fuck. But, if you stick with it, shit becomes kind of amazing.
I will, perhaps regrettably, diverge from Sollers because I don’t know if I’m quite in the position to talk about him how I want to (though, if you’re interested, Barthes wrote an excellent series of essays on his work that while it does not specifically approach Sollers writing as specifically experiential, it’s a great read nonetheless). I will move on, now to Maurice Roche, another fantastic French author tied to the Tel Quel group. There’s only a single full novel available in translation (Compact from Dalkey Archives), but if you dig deep enough you can find a lot of fantastic shit in translation in neglected anthologies and literary journals.
Roche writes in a highly visual style, somewhere between concrete poetry, the post-structuralist functionalism of House of Leaves, and conceptual writing by artists8. Roche always said that he wrote his texts as if he were writing a musical score (albeit in a way far distant from Michel Butor’s literal appropriation of that technique in Niagara) with many different ‘polyphonic’ voices. While the narrative itself stays distance, the experience here is decoding the signifier into a cohesive whole. It’s not a simple gimmick of cracking a code or anything, rather, the heterogeneity present in the text allows a polyvalent reading which, in turn, emphasizes the idea of reading as an experience (vs. the experience of empathy).
The Tel Quel group, in their discussion of progressive literary methodologies, spends a lot of time discussing the level of the signifier. By level the group means how the signifier is functioning. The level of a signifier in regular text, particularly in the writing of narrative text, is generally once removed, because ultimately words are representative of ideas and/or material objects.9 Tel Quel spent some headspace trying to figure out how to eliminate the distance, while still staying within the realms of words (heading towards the degree zero of writing). Tel Quel gets really confusing at times (and I don’t care for it, as I’ve mentioned, when they bring in psycho-analysis), but to me engaging with this idea is something that should not have ceased.
If you’ve come this far, you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with my formerly established ideas that I’ve nurtured via Dan Hoy’s writings on The Pin-Up Artist, especially in contrast to what I said at the beginning of this blog post– that “I have no desire to be constantly escaping from reality.”
This is a fact. My bombastic desire for, as Kathy Acker put it, “all the food and medicine you need […] Luxury, fun, etc. everywhere all the time,” is not incongruous with my refusal to use art as mere escapism.
OK, to articulate this, let’s consider what I have already said about experiencing something via empathy versus experiencing something first hand: clearly, I have established my insistence upon the latter. This is what I mean when I say that I am tired of THIS world. I don’t want to escape into a DIFFERENT world, because that is not something that is physically possible. I want THIS world to CHANGE. As someone with a preference for experiences over escapism, I think this is the only thing that makes sense. Despite insisting upon the shortcomings of realism, I am looking for new experiencing in real life. All of this, ultimately, amounts to a desire for constant-fucking-pleasure. The pleasure of the new.
It is now the point of the blog post in which I will end by quoting Baudelaire:
Our brains are burning up! — there’s nothing left to do
But plunge into the void! — hell? heaven? — what’s the odds?
We’re bound for the Unknown, in search of something new!10
1:i·de·ol·o·gy /ˌaɪdiˈɒlədʒi, ˌɪdi-/ [ahy-dee-ol-uh-jee, id-ee-] –noun, plural -gies.
the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.
2:art [ahrt] –noun
an all-inclusive word used by M Kitchell to indicate any or all of the following: a text, a movie, music, dance, sculpture, performance, visual art, painting, sound, drawing, etc, etc. (The point is when I say “art” I am not limiting the word to mean “visual art” or “fine art,”– it is also how I refer to books and movies and so on)
3: My favorite author who is arguably representational is Ballard, but to me Ballard is far more exciting conceptually, for the ideas that he brings, and architecturally, for a demonstration on the affect of space, than he is in terms of characters or plot.
4: I get the impression that a Deleuzean approach to art would fit in here too, but I’m ridiculously under-read when it comes to Deleuze, so I’ll leave him out for the time being.
5: I should note that I, of course, am not satisfied with “psychological situations [as] perfectly suitable for the stage or the pages of a book,” but that’s not the point here
6: Pretty neat huh? Grandrieux is clearly showing his ties to Bataille here, which makes him a man after my own heart.
7: You might ask: “If it is hardest to accomplish what you’re after in writing, M Kitchell, then why the fuck do you spend more time writing than working in any other medium?” Well, the answer to that is that: writing is a lot fucking cheaper than making a movie well or constructing a fucking building to walk through. It sucks but hey that’s life.
8: This idea of conceptual writing is separate from the project engaged by such contemporaries as Kenny Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, and Robert Fitterman.
9: Current trends in philosophy (object-oriented ontology & speculative realism, specifically) add and engage with this idea in a really amazing way, but I’m not as yet engrossed in & familiar with the ideas they present to feel comfortable in introducing them here. However, if you’re interested, Meillassoux’s After Finitude is a great place to start.
10: “Le Voyage,” translated by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Flowers of Evil (NY: Harper and Brothers, 1936)