Strange Attractor

Crawford Art Gallery, Cork

An improvised sound and visual performance took place in the sculpture room of the Crawford Art Gallery, on 15 January. This Strange Attractor was the third instalment in a six-part series of four-hour live performances held in the gallery. For each event members of the collaborative group – Danny McCarthy, Irene Murphy, Mick O’Shea, Anthony Kelly and David Stalling – are joined by an invited artist. This month it was Stephen Vitiello.
Containing plaster casts from the Canova Collection, as well other works by more local artists, the sculpture gallery provided an unexpected setting for an experimental sound art performance with its own consequences. For example, a visitor might not have expected a torso to give up its plinth for a speaker, or The Mother of Napoleon I to accommodate a microphone on her lap, but they did so willingly. McCarthy was in familiar company, hanging his wet coat to dry on the obliging bust of Rev. Francis Mahony. Father Prout, as he was also known, coincidentally featured in McCarthy’s 2006 project Bend it like Beckett by way of the text sampled from Samuel Beckett’s Murphy. Beckett makes reference to the grave of Fr. Prout in Shandon Churchyard as being ‘the one place in Cork she [Miss Counihan] knew of where fresh air, privacy and immunity from assault were reconciled.’
This sanctum is not dissimilar to the atmosphere in the gallery as visitors were invited to walk among these figures and experience the performance from different perspectives, moving through the sounds while stepping over and around marble figures and Murphy’s wooden constructions as one might soundly negotiate headstones to the tune of Shandon’s Bells. But while visitors are granted freedom to wander about and come and go as they please, as well as immunity from the city pace outside, the setting of the event discourages extreme behaviour as we remain in the gallery, which has its own set of expectations on the audience’s correct comportment: disciplined, respectful, quiet, demure.
In the centre of the room Murphy had arranged a chair, child-sized tables with spirit levels, T squares, improvised wooden protractors, metal clamps, colouring pencils, a hammer, nails, a saw, and various other wooden blocks and tools. Around her sat the other collaborators at their workstations. The art in question is an interrogation of sound – its (im)materiality, how it structures space, and how it interacts with the audience. But it is also a spectacle in itself – and I think this point is often overlooked by its practitioners. While being made aware of the intricacies and textures of sounds, the listening subject is also a seeing one. Encouraged to be an auditor, the visitor is also a viewer – of Murphy’s practice but also of the other sound artists around her.
Thus contrary to the ephemeral nature of the event, one may find oneself paradoxically stuck in time. There is an aesthetic of archival accumulation in the sound artists’ collected trinkets and objets trouvés discovered in markets, charity shops, and the beach. These objects are combined with other tools for sound production including theremins, circuits, homemade instruments and various other electronic devices. In this way the group often plays previously prepared materials in an improvisatory way. En masse, they are hoarders of sounds which they release from their collections for specific durations; however their work attempts to defy quantifiable time in that it is fluid and forever in flux. The sound artists’ performance is in contrast to Murphy’s in that the sounds are instantly audible while hers is visually accumulated during the four-hour event – she tries to surpass this apparent discrepancy of process work by displaying objects from past performances including a chalk grid-patterned blue board with three dice-like cubes which read ‘up,’ ‘short,’ and ‘left,’ which suggest aleatory processes and a small architectural model made of sticks glued together.
Visitors’ expectations are played on with a mix of sonic and visual materials, but interested or experienced audiences come with a learnt attentiveness for listening to the space of sounds. However, it could be said that this is not so much a new kind of listening so much as it is a reinforcing of the conventions of listening. Opposing both consumer-driven pop culture and muzak, it is anti-passive, but it does not disturb in the manner of some other contemporary noise musics that function quite differently.
This is also not Cagean inclusively – where everything is music and all sounds are accepted. Actively self-critical throughout the work, the artists themselves would admit that some bits are good and some not so good as they find moments when things are working, when they’re ‘feeling it,’ so to speak. Perhaps it is not during the climaxes or the extreme blocks, but when the extravagance dissipates – in the transitions and pauses, where the most interesting passages are created. It is when things are less palpable, and less obvious, that the listener is caught in a near-experience that requires more active participation. Void of markers, these are productive and creative passages that withdraw support for the drifting, disorientated subject.

Stephen Vitiello performing at Strange Attractor 3 (Crawford Art Gallery, 15 January 2011). Photograph by Patricia Klich.
Stephen Vitiello performing at Strange Attractor 3 (Crawford Art Gallery, 15 January 2011). Photograph by Patricia Klich.

Furthermore, while this form of sound art may sometimes claim purchase on the intensity of subjective experience, this possibility requires a centred subject encountering a fixed object in space with definable properties and relations. There is a claim that the subject’s relation to the object situation is intensified, resulting in a kind of concerted grounding of the body. This does not fit with the encounter in question as it is utopian to presume the subject as fixed and stable, and the object is constantly changing, no matter how monotonous it may seem to the untrained/uninterested ear. As the title of the series suggests (a strange attractor is a mathematical set that has zero measure in embedded phase space, and has a fractal dimension), the event was unpredictable, and at times chaotic, but not essentially so. The motion is evolving non-periodically in that it never repeats as such. Nevertheless, there is use of drone and echo in this work (both visual and sonic) and though to repeat something may seem to withhold information or prevent progression in some form, repetition can instead be thought of as endlessly productive and preventing situatedness. As understood by Gilles Deleuze, repetition grants an ‘internal repetition within the singular.’ In this way the onus is on the listener to constantly create in the present, as Deleuze continues: ‘the role of the imagination, or the mind which contemplates in this multiple and fragmented state, is to draw something new from the repetition, to draw difference from it.’ Hence the subject is always coming into being, never present in any one moment. Strange indeed. Perhaps this describes that drifting de-centredness of the event as it also provokes the awareness of the continual de-centredness of the individual.

Strange Attractor, which began in November 2010, continued its monthly sound performances with invited guests, leading to an exhibition and accompanying publication launched by the Crawford Art Gallery in April 2011.