22 Apr 2008

Art is as Art Does

On a discussion about what art might be, one of my eco-arts list colleagues wrote this:

"I have to return Robert Pirsig's (and Jarad Diamond's) definition of the word 'art'.

Derived from the scriptures the Rg Vedas we arrive at art, architecture, arithmetic and many other words via Ancient Greek: 'erete' from the word 'rta'. Rta means (for it is used in contemporary Hindi - according to Vandana Shiva); the dynamic process by which the whole cosmos continues to be created, virtuously.

There we have it - evolution, aesthetics and ethics in one. Some cultures and some societies chose to separate these things. Sometimes for profit, sometimes for power, sometimes because they have lost meaning."

It's a hard topic for people to agree on. Art is as art does. To me though, the mere act of creating art is a celebration of stability and prosperity (there's no time for art if we are at war, on the whole, despite Roma, Cita Aperta and Anne Frank's diary), and ultimately art to me is a search for divinity. Sometimes it is an angry railing or simple observation of the lack of divinity in everyday life, sometimes it is a lovesong about a love wherein someone has found a kind of mundane transcendence, essentially it all boils down to that one thing to me. Even when it is merely a commercial undertaking, in the guise of art, it is devotion to the god (or false god) of money....

Last night we enjoyed the PRS awards - a kind of Turner Prize for audio arts. It is in essence a commission for the best idea, best according to certain criteria of course. While watching video presentations on each of the five or six submissions I noticed that the audience (compiled of friends, judges everyone interested in audio art or the Performing Rights Society) laughing at anything that made any reference to the past. They laughed in exactly three places: the bat piece, the bike trumpet piece and the carousel piece. They did not laugh at the modern projects (or the only ethnic one which made tribal references also). What is so funny about making something out of the past? Surely to my mind anything new should have some roots in past cultures, so we can feel from where it comes. The winner in the end was a piece that almost claimed to create synapses in a brain diagram whilst mixing the sounds like a radio simulcast which we have done many times. We also saw it mapped out in the AV Festival where we recently broadcast, someone had huge television screens drawing exactly the same diagram between different radio wave signals. This winning project was in fact old, already done. It referred to the brain, it referred to mapping of different locations, it referred to Liverpool the centre of the arts (so we keep hearing but we all know it is London and once a year Edinburgh).

It saddens me to tell you also that during our broadcast at the Tate for their bank-sponsored weekend (UBS) a Brazilian artist put a carousel in the turbine room for all the little children and their parents to enjoy. Well why not we've had slides? Both the slides and the carousel were aesthetically pleasing objects with some practical use. Both evoked childhood through play, the music from the carousel made it singular, you would think. On some investigation though I found a little tape/Cd player in the centre, with two men who knew nothing about carousels pushing the stop and start buttons. Appalled at first, I now wonder if this isn't some comment on it's own? The artist, working from abroad could not find a fully functioning organ carousel, complete with the music cards and pipes. It was sham anyhow, as many commissioned art pieces are. I worked on Lara Favoretto's audio for the Frieze last year, which she was commissioned to do. The Frieze would not pay her fee for her to collect the audio herself, so she got us to source and edit it and she simply gave directions. The result? Some rain like noise at the end of each day at the Frieze over the tannoy.

The PRS uses our taxes paid on performed music, to promote new music. Fittingly Nithin Sawney was on the panel. He is a mainstream musician (in that he reaches the mainstream audience) who sampled field recordings that he had recorded in his work, from discussions around bush fires to the political rants of taxi drivers. He told me he'd never heard of Resonancefm but was going to look out for it. I wondered if the winning piece was a search for the divinity in man, reason, the brain, space, the future. By being futuristic/ modern it was fulfilling the criteria of being new music, which the PRS says it nourishes. But it's not really new is it? Mixing live audio from different venues? Ed Baxter (pictured with one of the PRS staff), the brain behind the carousel piece, did a piece during the Install 08 and Self-Cancellation Tour recently where he mixed multiple discussions about art from many different tables live on radio. Possibly the best answers about what art is arose from that live mix. I must try and get hold of the audio to podcast it as an art work. We also broadcast from all the free wifi spots around London in early 2003, way before others began to think of art radio and live performance on free wifi. I'm sure someone must have received an award for it sometime afterwards, again convincing the very busy judges that this was the first time anyone was carry out this radically new concept.