Saturday 13th November

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Mattin“I’m not sure that I trust them” – These were the words spoken by one of the audience to his companion after he had been handed a bowl of soup by Christian Kesten as part of his performance with Lucio Capece. This was perhaps understandable, as a few minutes earlier on the way into the hall each of us had been handed a facemask, and Capece and Kesten went about their business wearing hoodies, so fitting the popular image of someone that shouldn’t be trusted.

The idea that the performers could not be trusted would please the musicians here, as they would please Barry Esson, Instal10’s primary curator. The notion that we “trust” musicians to do the same things each time we see them, to allow us as an audience to remain passive, to sit and pay attention while the “artists” go about their work and we wait until we get the cue to applaud, never feeling in danger, never feeling like we have a part to play, is the scenario that this festival has set out to directly overturn. In his opening talk to the festival Esson spoke of a desire to remove self-expression from the festival, and to replace it with situations that brought the audience into events, involving them rather than performing for them.

Throughout most of the “sets” (why does that term feel wrong here?) last night this was consistently achieved, at least to some degree. From Kesten and Capece pulling the audience into their otherwise surreal performance by feeding them, and then asking them to read quotes handed to them by Kesten while they sat silently at the back of the stage- through to Diego Chamy’s “interruption” of Jean-Luc Guionnet and Seijiro Murayama’s sublime improvisation with an audience question and answer session about the value of improvised music- to Mattin’s reworking of Lucier’s I am sitting in a room as an anarchic free for all, the audience were challenged, confronted, made to feel that their role in proceedings involved more than just sitting and watching. Or at least, most of them did.

This is going to sound incredibly egotistic, for which I apologise, but I actually didn’t feel genuinely challenged at any point last night. Neither was I ever particularly surprised by anything. I should be very clear here- I enjoyed, and felt invigorated by most of what I witnessed yesterday evening, and am thoroughly looking forward to tonight’s second set of performances, but I came away wondering if the whole thing perhaps wasn’t aimed at me. This first evening felt a bit like Esson had pulled together some of the most genuinely radical musicians from around the world right now and asked them to re-present what makes them “radical” in one collective event. The problem, for me personally, was that I had seen so much of this before. Perhaps because over the years I have often brought my attentions on bear on these musicians, my viewpoint on what was going on might have been different to the majority of the audience. So when Kesten and Capece asked the audience to read quotes from Debord while they sat motionless so the final track from Wedding Ceremony obviously sprang to mind. When Mattin recorded the audience and played it back into the room, so it was clear to me what was happening before the sound engineer pressed play. Chamy’s questions to the audience, followed by his surreal song and dance routine felt very familiar, and I was able to second guess his questions before he asked them. When Tim Goldie stood behind a jungle of cymbals and drums dressed up in his Whitehouse uniform I knew that once he had finished screaming into a snare drum so he would grab handfuls of drums sticks and hurl them at the cymbals, and on into the audience. When a drumstick hit me in the chest it felt familiar because he had done the same thing to me four or five years ago at the Red Rose Club, but to the rest of the room this no doubt felt unfamiliar.

I enjoyed last night a lot, but throughout I found myself (much to my own disgust) spending more time watching the audience, wondering how they would respond to events rather than feeling challenged myself. I felt myself taking up more of a voyeuristic role than a participative one. This audience wasn’t the same as the one at Instal last year. A good number of the attendees had come to be challenged, were as interested in the philosophical questions the festival might raise as much as how any music might sound. So when Mattin finally got some of the audience to join him in the performance space last night, when certain individuals started moving his microphones around, and danced wildly as the music (the room recorded, played back, re-recorded, played back at increasing volumes until the earphones handed out at the door became necessary) blasted out of the speakers the people that got up from their seats were the ones I expected to, mostly members of the Glasgow Open School group that had attended Mattin’s workshop the night before. Watching carefully, I saw a good number of people that looked genuinely taken aback by events, genuinely challenged by it all, but not one of these people left their seats, unless it was to leave the room and make their way home. The barriers came down, but not entirely…

It felt like I was watching from afar, not from a superior position (though I am very aware that what I am writing here may well read that way) but in an observational role, intrigued by what would happen when you placed these events together into one festival. After Capece and Kesten had engaged the audience early on, and Chamy had followed suit, would the audience not be on guard for Mattin’s closing performance? Surely the impact his set would have was dampened by the earlier events? Certainly this was the desired effect, a gradual involvement of the audience rather than any attempt to shock them. Last night Mattin actually felt an embracing figure rather than a confrontational one.

Some parts of the evening were very inspiring to me. Matthieu Saladin’s three short performances consisted of talks, in which he discussed the content of three CDrs that he handed out, one in each talk to the audience. No music as we normally expect it was played in the room. We go home and extend (complete?) the performance with our own individual CD players. Then there was Murayama and Guionnet’s sublime piece of music, played before, during and after Chamy’s interruption. While Chamy asked the room about the worth of improv, called it boring, and actually personally insulted the musicians, they carried on regardless, showing incredible focus and concentration to play so utterly beautifully in front of all of this. If, as Chamy asked, we needed examples of the value of improvisation as a tool to create music that engages and deals with our difficult times so the two musicians behind him provided this.

I will write more, in detail about what happened in each of last night’s performances at a later date, but for now I wanted to get these thoughts down, partly in the hope that they might form something of the discourse around the festival as it progresses. Again, to be clear, I enjoyed last night a great deal, and as the first night of a truly experimental festival, rather than just a festival of experimental music, this was a genuinely daring, different thing to do. I just wasn’t surprised by anything last night. I am sure this says more about me than anything else, and I thoroughly hope to feel differently tonight. We shall see.

9 Comments

  • Jacques Oger November 13, 2010 - 4:32 pm

    Thanks Richard for your informative report.

  • jkudler November 13, 2010 - 8:25 pm

    thanks a lot for the report, richard. maybe this gives me a decent opportunity to belatedly reply to the posts about my duo with ian and then about novelty and surprise in experimental music. (i might still add something more over there too.) this is part of the problem with “surprise” and “confrontation” – while it can be interesting and exciting, it also tends to sort of presume an ignorant audience. there is always, of course, a power imbalance between performer and audience, but i think any performance that tends to heighten the didactic role of the performer will necessarily both presume and enhance this disjuncture to a greater degree. so it becomes difficult to do it in a way that feels both “honest” and also interesting and useful. “shocking the bourgeoisie” often feels kind of tired because it presumes both that your audience is the bourgeoisie and that they are kind of idiots.

    which isn’t to say that these kinds of things are always doomed to failure, just that it’s also kind of a game of signifiers and possibly predictable deployment and reception. the details and specifics matter. they can be done well, and they can be done poorly, but merely enacting the gesture alone often feels cheap to me, in the way that youtube videos of “guy playing guitar on tabletop with screwdriver!” are inevitably boring.

    i guess the ultimate performance i can propose to instal next year would be me critiquing the predictability of Chamy critiquing the predictability of Guionnet and Murayama’s music while he was critiquing their playing while they were playing. barry, call me.

  • simon reynell November 14, 2010 - 6:28 am

    Excellent report, Richard.

    I wasn’t at Instal, so obviously can’t make a judgement on these performances, but talking in generalities, I have some sympathy with Jesse’s response.
    Conceptual art/music often seems to assume that the general audience is pretty ignorant, as Jesse says, but simultaneously it offers a pact to each individual audient whereby if they buy into the event and claim to appreciate / understand it, then they can be part of a select elite. This is quite an effective strategy because I think that people often use cultural events as a means of projecting themselves as superior to others. Though no-one is crass enough to say it explicitly, the sub-text of a lot of cultural chatter is: “I can appreciate this because I am an unusually sensitive / intelligent / artistic person.”

    This is particularly true amongst fans of the avant-garde, where novelty / originality is highly valued and we like our art to be challenging. We want to prove that we are part of the vanguard by being amongst the first to voice our appreciation of a particular artist / event. If a large part of the audience leaves or is clearly dismayed or hostile this confirms the superiority of those of us who stay. In fact part of us is particularly happy if other artistic people don’t “get it” because that makes us feel like one of a really select few. This is why when we’ve attended a performance that has stretched us but which we have stayed with, we don’t just feel a buzz of excitement for ourselves, but also have an almost irresistible urge to tell other people how radical and brilliant it was, thereby letting them know how perceptive and intelligent we are.

    OK that’s a cynical perspective, and I’ll say again that I’ve no idea if it applies to any of the performances at Instal, but I think culture of all sorts is often used in that kind of way. Most of us are pretty insecure and are keen to mark ourselves out as somehow special or superior to the general herd.

  • Richard Pinnell November 14, 2010 - 10:34 am

    Simon, Jesse, there is certainly a great deal of truth in what you both say, and Simon, you are spot on about a certain percentage of the people here in Instal, though I would say that, unusually, much of the “getting it” element isn’t music related. There is a high percentage of people here that have come along more interested in the philosophical slant to the festival that most likely were not here last year, and probably don’t have a strong background in the music. From my personal, philosophical novice perspective, I have greatly enjoyed the learning aspect, but looking about it has been interesting to often be on the “less well informed” side of the equation, and watching others, there are definitely those here that regularly seek to impose their greater knowledge on others.

    Looking at things from another perspective, the festival itself has been superbly run, never patronising its audience in the slightest, but also providing talks and discussions about what has been going on so as to help people gain a greater understanding. Yesterday was great, really interesting on a mental level, if often musically uninspiring, but perhaps this was because so much of what I attended was very new to me, as opposed to the first night, where it was only my familiarity with things that stopped me feeling quite as engaged as I did yesterday. As i wrote yesterday’s post I was very aware that I would appear to be precisely the person in Simon’s last paragraph, but then I’m not really sure what else I could have written really. It was great to see every performance on Friday, but for me the “radical” element came from the fact that all of this was organised into one, highly original festival rather than as individual performances.

    An amusing little conversation with Mattin yesterday I’m sure he won’t mind me sharing here-

    M – “What did you think of yesterday?”
    R- “It was great, no real surprises, but I enjoyed it a lot”
    M (after some thought)- “Are you often surprising yourself?”
    R- “No, probably not”
    M- “Ah, that’s why you like improvised music”

    ;)

  • jkudler November 15, 2010 - 3:14 am

    yeah, just to reiterate, i was speaking in general and not about any of these performances, which i obviously wasn’t present for. and i have liked (and disliked) a lot of mattin’s work and especially what little i’ve seen of chamy’s. these were just things i’ve been thinking about since that other discussion, which i was finally moved to type out.

  • david grundy November 15, 2010 - 3:47 pm

    Thanks for this report, Richard – the festival sounds like an interesting crystallization of all these approaches that have consciously pushed the radical edge of improvisation in recent years. Perhaps having them altogether in one place, in such concentration, enables us to get a clearer sense of their strengths and weaknesses than has been possible in previous separate events. Just to pick up on your opening points: though I can’t really pass judgment on performances I haven’t seen, I wonder if there are ways of ‘involving’ the audience that are less *confrontational*. If the techniques used here were to do with breaking down the role of the self-expressive performer placed in a superior position to those watching, they nonetheless seem (judging on your report) to have risked assuming a didactic, lecturing quality that is perhaps even *more* ‘superior’ than the role they are trying to critique.

    The same weekend as the Instal Festival, I attended another improvisation festival in the UK (further down South!). During one of the performances a couple of dancers performed in a dance studio, the audience (among them musicians who accompanied the dance) ranged round the walls of the square room; the dancers proceeded (in a spontaneous manner, rather than according to a theoretical programme) to pull people into the centre of the room and involve them in the performance. What struck me was the sense of fun – people were laughing, smiling – of play. Later on, when the performance had moved into a more conventional theatre space, the dancers moved through the audience, climbing over seats and ending their performance by sitting down amongst them. There was never a sense of *threat* here, though – and there was precisely that sense of *trust* that the Instal performers might have a problem with. Audience members dragged into the performance as participants may have been slightly nervous and bemused, but they did not seem to feel bullied or overly uncomfortable – perhaps because a lot of them were also musicians and performers. Perhaps also, though, this was because the performance, even if it had some conceptual framework (someone filmed the event in the dance studio with a video camera, and this footage was then broadcast at the back of the stage as the dancers moved into the theatre, where they collaborated with a different set of musicians) was not designed primarily as a theoretical exercise; it was about people interacting and establishing something in a space, about the kinds of social interaction that can be opened up in free improvised performances. There is room here for humour, and role reversal, the switching of roles (as in certain folk rituals/festivals?) – things are fluid and open. Those human elements are things I sometimes find lacking in more overtly conceptual approaches.

  • Matthew Wuethrich November 16, 2010 - 9:11 pm

    Good point, David, about finding a more human way to involve an audience and I think it’s right to question the limits of a more conceptual approach. Some of the so-called performances described above seem a little too meta in my opinion – festival performances about performing in a festival. Mattin talks a lot about improvising with ideas rather than instruments, but, while good at tweaking audiences a bit and making some straight observations, his own ideas seem to be rather thin.

    The reading by Vanessa Place sounds like it had a wider perspective and created more potential for the audience to really consider a broader array of issues. Maybe next time Mattin could do a stand-up series where he works through various social and political problems with an audience rather than his usual performance-art pieces where his essential message is that people are complacent and improvised music is boring?

  • Aarya Patel December 20, 2010 - 1:32 pm

    Seems Esson and yourself must consider the immaterality of the ‘radical artist’ combined with the fetishization of the ‘radical artist’ seductive. Shame about THAT cross over orgy after Diego’s blubs – sums it up really. Capece and Kesten titilated then sat in the corner. Goldie played three sets and made 3 or 4 ‘costume changes’ – you did have one of his black bin bags over your head! No “I” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at others emancipation – . “The barriers came down, but not entirely…” WRONG & DULL!!!

  • Richard Pinnell December 21, 2010 - 12:40 am

    “Seems Esson and yourself must consider the immaterality of the ‘radical artist’ combined with the fetishization of the ‘radical artist’ seductive.”

    Well I can’t speak for Barry, but no, I certainly don’t. Thanks for your thoughts though.

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