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ON REGLERS’ MINIMALISM
If the purpose of the avant-garde is to, at least, stave off material or terminological decay and combat ossification, then it has to battle nowadays not only sediments cluttering contemporary consciousness but also some of its’ own progenies left behind in the race to the bottom of reflection or those disqualified by the obsession with purity of practice. Minimalism was one of the names of these original impulses of the avant-garde, the early victim of its’ own success, as perhaps none of the “-isms” has been more abused and touched by terminological decay than “minimalism”.
If there are entire book shelves of motivational literature and fitness guides that qualify some of the dumbest forms of conspicuous consumption as “minimalist”, one might forgive the avant-guards’ fall to the temptation of leaving it aside and start (again) an optimistic as well as panicked search for the New.
The disorder of things plaguing the usage of the term “minimalism” originates in its’ broad employment as a signal for a theoretical point about form and abstraction. Form and abstraction themselves are rusty concepts on eroded foundations that carry a somewhat disreputable past, in some contemporary circles.
Minimalisms’ relation to form seems to be the interest of the implicit theory found in Reglers’ Minimalism, one that could draw a sharp critical edge against some bad habits of the recent and not so recent avant-garde.
Form, generally, has a certain dubious kind of existence that can be grasped only by the awfully equivocal platitude that it is not identical with the content that is bound to it. As such, it is easy to qualify it as “just an abstraction” and to raise questions about its’ reality. Minimalisms’ preoccupation with form stems from the problem that minimalism tries, in principle, to address, which is the decay of content, of its’ diminished expressive power originating from prolonged captivity and abuse in space-time contexts. The atrophy could no longer be hidden under overdoses of technique, but there could be regeneration by engaging form. Because form is complicity.
It opens with the sound of drawing. Monotonous, uninterrupted. Sometimes the hand changes direction, perhaps when wrists start aching. Then you hear fractured, raw guitar struck with a pencil instead of a pick and a drum hit and drawn upon with a pen. Sometimes they are indistinguishable from one another or from the sound of drawing and sometimes changing places in the foreground.
The question that I believe Regler answers is: “What happens if you take silence out of drawing?”.
Two formal aspects seem to conceptually bind together the two elements of Reglers’ performance, the acoustic amplification of drawing and its’ trapping among rock instruments. The first one that comes to awareness is the transformation of the act of drawing in an instrument that produces sounds. A painting in a museum, a graffiti on a wall, a poster in your room is silent. But drawing can be listened to and thus it can be used as a sound, were it not for the inertia of the end-product that silences with its’ presence the process that led to its’ existence.
The formal gesture employed by Regler strips pen and paper bare of their practical qualities and creative ends, as vehicles of intellectual and creative work. This is necessary, as intellectual work, ashamed of its laborious process, strives to keep the guilty appearance of direct monopolistic enjoyment of its creative resources. Transposed in the medium of sound those instruments of creativity are but acoustic surfaces to be worked with. Work that is no longer linked to the purposefulness of objects but a compulsive scratching of surfaces. This work is noise. What has been creative work protected by the complicity of instruments and covered in the silence of the end products became, through a shift of awareness a repetitive, mechanic noise.
This displacement of pen and paper in the realm of sounds, that brackets their use-value by cutting their intrinsic link, implicates further the equivalence of sounds by hammering the pen on surfaces that are or could have been thought as generic musical instruments. This formal equivalence of sounds is the second aspect of Reglers’ theory of form.
If one tries to imply a certain kind of causal temporality between the two aspects, a peculiar dialectic develops. If we start with the transgressive act of reducing objects to their acoustic surface, flattening their other differences we can see the resulting equivalence as its’ product. Form, as seen here, is the institution of differences, of obstacles, of coercion and hierarchies. Its reduction is a negation that radically questions its existence and isolates it from content. Thus (creative) freedom qua indeterminacy is set against form. The “acoustic” exploitation of drawing could be interpreted as an implicit critique of the abstraction incarnated in the institution of music and its’ conventions that abolishes the difference between musical and non-musical elements, as those represent obstacles to the freedom of (artistic) self-expression. Freed from conventions artistic consciousness would be able to engage in new, more direct and more creative ways with its’ matter, unencumbered by form. In our case, the levelling of the field of differences throws the pen in the abyss of choice, setting it free and endowing the responsibility to organise sounds in an innovative way, to bring about the much sought after New. This universal formal equivalence of sounds, the “acoustic liberalism” achieved through transgression, is then the precondition for a new politics of sound.
But starting with the other aspect, the universal equivalence of sounds as a given state of things, all search for the New seems a one-sided exercise in futility. Then all transgressive practice reiterates the fait accompli of an already flattened conceptual space, whose holistic hollowing out leads to a crisis of orientation that evacuates all transparency regarding meaning, of surplus value gained in preferring a certain constellation of sounds over others. What transgression achieves is not the New but boredom, as all critique of institutions happens under the dumb auspices of “why not”.
The problem with this way of thinking about form in this way is its’ inherent ambiguity, ambiguity dat manifests itself in the ambivalence generated by the understanding of freedom as indeterminacy and it’s undialectical opposition to supposedly stultifying form. The, in the end ethical, opposition between the voluntaristic understanding of transgression as act and its’ counterpart, the nihilistic lucidity of seeing transgression as a given self-refutation transforms all discourse about art in a perhaps more elevated form of motivational literature.
This ambiguity is only the symptom of the imposibility of thinking the moebius strip that links artistic practice and social reality, that one could call the complicity of form.
Regler knows that the musician depends on external form, institutions and conventions that create the background of silence on which music happens. The neutrality of silence guarantees the necessary distance between music as art and institution from society and historical context. If the difference between the sound of a musical instrument is equivalent with the sound of a pencil which itself could be exchanged with footsteps, screeching tires, inner monologues, boiling water or the hammering of nails then those sounds are but reverberations of social reality. The abolition of silence is the minimalism of art that Regler has in mind.
If the abolishion of silence, the ubiquitous equivalence of sounds that generates noise is not externally imposed, neutral form, what can it then be? What if the neutral equivalence and formal equality of sounds is their individual redundancy and obsolescence, being thus engaged in the open-ended competition for the attention of the pen? What if noise is form as their self-distortion, their struggle against redundancy? Noise is thus the plurality of sounds competing for musical relevance. That musical equivalence does not turn into consonance is the truth of noise, the redundancy and obsolescence of every sound, it’s self-degradation.
This is brilliantly illustrated by regler in it’s use of classic rock instruments, as the guitar and drum occupy still their place in what would have been a standard rock band but both are pulled into their new role as acoustic surfaces scratched by the pen, creating the tension between the role that made them what they were and the current position in a structure that denies it.
But there is a second aspect of the association of generic musical instruments with the amplified drawing. This association forces the pen to confront the historicity of the musical realm and its’ embededness in the social space. The freedom of the pen is thus never the ex nihilo abyss of spontaneity and creativity but subjected to the same gravity of the materials and their use-value significance that pulls it back into the repetition and recycling of cliches. Thus Reglers’ Minimalism shows itself to be the opposite of what usually one takes the minimalist credo to be , namely the avoidance of cliches and other redundancies at all cost, even if it means vacuity or a white canvass. Regler shows that this common understanding of minimalism is bound to the rather maximalist presupposition that one can abstract, reduce and freely manipulate materials and that cliches are not immanent to (creative) conciousness. As such the artistic subjectivity is the standpoint of silence, with an endless capacity for abstraction. This is ,as Regler well knows the ultimate cliche of intellectual work. The menacing sound of Reglers performance is maybe the unease of the creative worker, say, a copywriter enslaved by its own redundant self-understanding as free and spontaneous reserve of expressive capability.
Abolishing silence as a minimalist act does not mean denying the gravity of the formulaic in the name of form nor does it mean a negation of form, just to find yourself entrapped by the formulaic. The systematic evacuation of silence from drawing means purging all complicit agreement between practice and conceptualisation, two moments that are in fact already dissociated in the endless waste of sonic interference.
That particular sound of drawing that you hear when you think of anything but that what is being drawn. A sound that does not allow concentration coalesce around a coherent shape, and does not enable immersion in the act that it mimics, nor does it permit floating beyond its echo. Instead of liberating the mind by keeping hands occupied, the pen abuses the strings of your consciousness. It produces anxious contemplation as the intellectual form of social paralysis and its noise is the self-distortion of a social reality minimalistic in itself.