Articles Issue #5
BY Michael FriedMarch 18, 2012
BY Michael FriedMarch 18, 2012
In the twelfth of Friedrich Schiller’s “Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man” (originally written 1795), a foundational text on aesthetic thought for the modern period, the German poet, playwright, and thinker posits two fundamentally opposed drives within the human psyche—first, a purely receptive drive to experience the sheer succession of sensations, which is also to say the sheer flow of time (or succession as such); and second, a drive to assert control over such material, to give it form, which is also to say (as Schiller does toward the end of the eleventh “Letter”) to annul time, to affirm persistence within change, and to subjugate the manifold variety of the world to the unity of the self.1 As he also writes: “In order…not to be mere world, [man] must impart form to matter; in order not to be mere form, he must give reality [to form]” (117). Schiller calls these drives the sensuous drive and the formal drive, and further imagines, first, that each naturally seeks to realize itself to the maximum, and second, that the essential task of culture (his ultimate concern) is precisely to do justice to both drives equally, to maintain each against the other: “first, to preserve the life of sense against the encroachments of freedom [the will, the drive to autonomy]; and second, to secure the personality against the forces of sensation. The former it achieves by developing our capacity for feeling, the latter by developing our capacity for reason” (122). (Needless to say, Kant’s philosophy, in particular the Critique of Judgment, hovers in the immediate background.)
There follows a passage of particular interest in the present context:
Since the world is extension in time, i.e., change, the perfection of that faculty that connects man with the world will have to consist in maximum changeability and maximum extensity [my emphasis]. Since the person is persistence within change, the perfection of that faculty that is to oppose change will have to be maximum autonomy and maximum intensity [my emphasis]. The more facets his receptivity develops, the more labile it is, and the more surface it presents to phenomena [my emphasis], so much more world does man apprehend, and all the more potentialities does he develop in himself. The more power and depth the personality achieves, and the more freedom reason attains, so much more world does man comprehend, and all the more form does he create outside of himself. His education [the work of culture] will therefore consist, firstly, in procuring for the receptive faculty the most manifold contacts with the world, and, within the purview of feeling, intensifying passivity to the utmost [my emphasis]; secondly, in securing for the determining faculty the highest degree of independence from the receptive [my emphasis] and, within the purview of reason, intensifying activity to the utmost [my emphasis]. Where both these aptitudes are conjoined, man will combine the greatest fullness of existence with the highest autonomy and freedom, and instead of losing himself to the world, will rather draw the latter into himself [my emphasis again] in all its infinitude of phenomena, and subject it to the unity of his reason. (122-23)
In the next “Letter,” indeed, Schiller suggests that were it possible for a human being actually to maximize both drives, to combine receptivity and autonomy at something like full strength, he (Schiller means he or she) “would have a complete intuition of his human nature, and the object that afforded him this vision would become for him a symbol of his accomplished destiny and in consequence (since that is only to be attained in the totality of time), serve him as a manifestation of the infinite” (126).
Assuming that such cases could actually occur, Schiller says, they would awaken in the subject a new drive, a third drive, which he calls the play drive, and which he claims “would be directed toward annulling time within time [an extremely interesting claim in view of what will follow], reconciling becoming with absolute being and change with identity” (126). Or again: “The sense drive wants to be determined, wants to receive its object; the form drive wants itself to determine, wants to bring forth its object. The play drive, therefore, will endeavor so to receive as if it had itself brought forth, and so to bring forth as the intuitive sense aspires to receive” (126). In other words, following some difficult sentences on contingency, the play drive will “introduce form into matter and reality into form. To the extent that it deprives feelings and passions of their dynamic power, it will bring them into harmony with the ideas of reason; and to the extent that it deprives the laws of reason of their moral compulsion, it will reconcile them with the interests of the senses” (127).
In the following “Letter,” the fifteenth, Schiller explains that “the object of the sense drive, expressed in a general concept, we call life, in the widest sense of the term: a concept designating all material being and all that is immediately present to the senses. The object of the form drive, expressed in a general concept, we call form, both in the figurative and in the literal sense of this word: a concept that includes all the formal qualities of things and all the relations of these to our thinking faculties. The object of the play drive, represented in a general schema, may therefore be called living form: a concept serving to designate all the aesthetic qualities of phenomena and, in a word, what in the widest sense of the term we call beauty” (128). At this point, or rather just before it, I want to leave Schiller behind: the notion of beauty will be of no use whatsoever in what follows, and indeed strikes one almost as an atavism when it suddenly comes to the fore in the passage I have just cited. For we are on the threshold of the decisive turning in aesthetics that will be represented by Hegel, in whose Lectures on the topic the concept of beauty, as is well known, plays a structurally minor role. (Cf. Wittgenstein: “The way whole periods are incapable of freeing themselves from certain concepts—e.g. the concept ‘beautiful’ & ‘beauty.’”2)
Nor do I wish to follow Schiller in maintaining that the opposition between the sense drive and the form drive is determining for the human psyche as such, or that ideally both drives are reconciled, brought into relation with each other, via a third or play drive also within the psyche, so to speak. Not that it is hard to imagine, not that one is not familiar with, less convincing claims than these about the nature and structure of the human psyche. But my aim in what immediately follows is more narrowly focused: I want to use the terms in which Schiller seeks to define the drives as a means of characterizing, perhaps I should say of framing, an exemplary work of video art by Anri Sala.
The work is called Mixed Behavior and was made by Sala in 2003. Ideally it would now be possible for the reader to leave this essay and view the actual piece, which lasts exactly eight minutes and nineteen seconds, preferably more than once. Unfortunately, that isn’t possible. Nevertheless I shall proceed by describing the video as if the reader had just watched it.3 A few preliminaries:
First, Mixed Behavior was filmed in Sala’s native Tirana on New Year’s Eve, 2003 (and then worked on extensively afterward). According to Sala, in the course of the 1990s and the first years of the new decade the New Year’s Eve celebration in Tirana became more than a little dangerous, with individuals setting off their own fireworks and also firing guns the sound of which was masked by the fireworks, so that the next morning it would turn out that people had been killed and no one had realized it. In important respects, Mixed Behavior represents an inspired response to this situation. Second, Mixed Behavior brilliantly exemplifies one of Sala’s chief concerns throughout his career to date: the relation of image to sound, or perhaps more accurately image track to sound track, which in many of his videos or short films are treated as essentially autonomous elements that nevertheless—or rather, precisely by virtue of that autonomy—are made to articulate each other in fascinating and productive ways. This is true of Long Sorrow (2005), in which the noted free jazz saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc has been filmed at extremely close range improvising on his instrument—which we no more than glimpse—while suspended outside a window on the eighteenth floor of a large apartment complex in Berlin.4 Mixed Behavior takes a similarly inventive approach to the same basic issue. But its import goes beyond even that, as I shall try to show, or at least suggest, with the help of the preceding summary of Schiller. Finally, if the reader were about to watch (and listen to) the actual video I would say at this point: above all keep your eyes open; don’t let yourself be lulled by an expectation that the video will simply continue as it starts—in fact about two minutes and fifty seconds into the piece distinctly strange things begin to happen. As follows:
The video opens confusingly. It is dark, nighttime, and we hear the sound of raindrops striking some sort of surface (a plastic tarpaulin, it turns out). We then become aware of a light source—a flashlight of some sort?—the other side of a transparent plastic sheet that seems to be covering…what? Some sort of equipment: we first see a dark rectilinear form with wiring coming out of its top—probably a battery, a power source of some kind. We notice too that someone is moving just beyond the plastic sheet, we see the sheet being lifted, we glimpse an earphone gripped in a hand, we sense the person beyond the sheet ducking to get his head under its protection, then we are given a glimpse of his head and face and realize that he—a young man with short-cropped dark hair—has put on the earphones, and as all this is taking place we first become aware of a few crackling noises, like firecrackers or gunshots, and then, as the young man seems to do something with his hands to the equipment in front of him, we also hear music, a disco beat… All this takes less than a minute, in fact after fifty seconds our point of view shifts decisively to a position directly behind the young man and the plastic sheeting-covered equipment and perhaps fifteen feet away, and when this happens we also become aware of the larger situation: the young man and the equipment (on a table), indeed we too, in a manner of speaking, are on the roof of a building from which we look past the young man and the equipment toward the dark city beyond. Most conspicuously there is a large building right of center which we feel must be several hundred feet away, part of which remains dark and part of which shows lighted windows (possibly, though, we are seeing two different buildings at somewhat different distances from us), plus there are various smaller buildings in the distance, but the upper half of the image is taken up by the night sky and the rocketing or exploding fireworks. And along with the sound of the fireworks, and the background sound of the rain, there is now equally prominently the sound of music with its Latin-sounding beat (actually the music started up around forty seconds into the piece, when we were still under the plastic sheeting), music we quickly gather is somehow being controlled—actually it is being “remixed”—by the young man, who in effect is playing the role of a DJ on this curious occasion.5
And that is the basis of the entire work: the camera now stays fixed, we are shown the young man always from the rear, sometimes bent considerably over so as to get his entire upper body under the plastic sheeting, sometimes only partly bent over, but always his hands and the equipment are covered by the sheeting, and within a minute or two our attention shifts almost exclusively to the sky and the fireworks, or rather to the interplay between the remixed music and the fireworks—the latter as both visual and sonic phenomena—which are clearly meant to be experienced in some at least partly motivated relation to each other. In the upper left corner of the image we see the scalloped bottom of an awning that presumably has been lowered to help protect the camera (and in a sense us) from the rain.
As for the overall structure of Mixed Behavior, two points should be stressed. First, I count four more or less distinct phases or “movements” based on shifts in the music, which as I have said begins roughly forty seconds into the piece; a second phase begins around the four minute mark; then shortly after five minutes the music stops and for nearly forty seconds we hear only fireworks (and rain), until around 5:50 a new burst of music comes on, supplemented at around 6:28 by voices chanting something we cannot quite make out (there were voices earlier, too); finally a last phase begins around 6:55 with music of a different beat, though the voices return shortly before the eight-minute mark. Then there is silence except for a few fireworks until the piece ends at 8:19.
Second, an absolutely crucial point, about two minutes and forty seconds into the piece something altogether out of the ordinary happens: two fireworks go into reverse, by which I mean that instead of simply exploding into a large number of brilliant fragments that then (often) explode again and slowly fall, extinguishing themselves en route, the explosion and fanning out of fragments are followed by an exactly opposite movement as the fragments contract back to the originating explosion (and beyond). Following the first few reversals, however, the explosions return to normal for roughly 20 seconds, then another explosion goes into reverse, and starting just after three and a half minutes the reversals return in force to great effect—they cannot now be missed. And just over one minute later, around 4:37, we see a single explosion expand then contract and then expand and contract again twice more; this takes place in the sky right of center, where most of the more spectacular fireworks go off, and the effect of playfulness as well as of what can only be called authorial control—but this will call for qualification—is extremely strong. Something of the sort also happens just over one minute later, the fireworks this time being more than usually dramatic and the reversals much speedier, more palpably “in one’s face,” than any until now. In the last minute and a half we are made particularly aware of the awning at the upper left, as well as of rockets exploding overhead, beyond the limits of the “frame,” drenching the DJ-figure and his protected equipment with bursts of red and green illumination. (Something similar happens toward the beginning of the piece.) Toward the end of the video there is music alone for maybe half a minute; then we see the DJ stand up as if to leave the scene though not quite in the flesh—rather he appears superimposed over a shot of the equipment as if he were a ghost rather than an actual person. We hear the voices again and a few last explosions, then the screen goes black and the video is over.—Not that the foregoing amounts to a thorough inventory of what Mixed Behavior offers to be seen and heard: for example, at various moments skyrockets or Roman candles whiz by at what seems dangerously close range, and in general more seems to happening than can be readily inventoried, even after repeated watchings. Plus there is the impression the piece conveys, both visually and sonically, of all this taking place not just some distance away but also overhead, in close proximity to where we seemingly are. (Of course, almost every time I have said “we” I have meant the camera.)
The question that now arises is how exactly Sala’s video relates to Schiller’s account in the “Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man” of the interaction among the three drives—the sensuous drive, the formal drive, and the play drive—assuming that such a relation between the two exists. Let me say for a start that after I had watched Mixed Behavior several times, Schiller’s text irresistibly came to mind, and that when I sat down and reread the latter—it had been years since I had last done so—I was powerfully struck by the affinity between the two. Take for example Schiller’s account of the sensuous drive, which you will remember he equates in the first place with the sheer succession of sensations as well as with the flow of time (or succession as such): what could better exemplify these than a display of fireworks exploding in a night sky, which is to say successively albeit unpredictably rising from the ground, bursting into brilliant, different-colored outward-expanding patterns, the individual fragments of which then fall back to earth, losing brightness as they do so, as other fireworks arise and explode, to be replaced in turn by still others (fireworks as an “art” of pure sensation, visual and aural)? And then there is the rain, which, like the fireworks, we both see and hear, with the further implication that were we actually on the roof we might be feeling the impact of the rain as well. Indeed the sound of the rain on the plastic sheeting chimes with Schiller’s claim that the “perfection of that faculty that connects man with the world will have to consist in maximum changeability and maximum extensity….The more facets his receptivity develops, the more labile it is, and the more surface it presents to phenomena…”—the surface of the plastic sheeting serving in this context as a figure for the heightened or “extended” receptivity of the self. (The presence of the sheeting both was and was not fortuitous. The original idea for Mixed Behavior did not call for it; but as New Year’s Eve approached Sala realized that rain was likely—it had been raining all week, apparently—and provided for that contingency. Brilliantly, as matters turned out.) As for the form drive, it is exemplified in the first instance by the DJ, whom we soon come to perceive as seeking to use the music he is remixing as a means of gaining control over the fireworks, or at least of “including” the fireworks in the music; and up to a point the video may appear to suggest that he succeeds in this, at least some of the time, most notably at those moments when the fireworks go into reverse, or rather—to quote Sala from an unpublished discussion with Hans Ulrich Obrist—when their movements “go forward and backward depending on the movements of the music.” In any case, we quickly sense that the DJ has no audience for his music beyond the immediate situation, however the latter is described.
Here it is crucial to get the sense of competition or struggle between the two drives both in Schiller’s “Letters” and, in my account, as figured in Sala’s video exactly right. Most important, it would be faithful neither to Schiller’s thought nor to the logic of the video if one came to see the DJ—avatar of the form drive (in this reading)—as simply or unequivocally mastering the flow of sensations as figured by the fireworks (and indeed the rain). I think of him rather as fictively absorbed in pursuit of that aim; that he is forced to do so under the plastic sheeting in order to keep the rain off his equipment—a state of affairs that in obvious respects would tend to separate him from the fireworks (as would, for that matter, his wearing of earphones)—reinforces one’s sense of the difficulty of his project, hence of the magnitude of his absorption in it, even as our somewhat distanced view of him from behind activates a familiar structure from absorptive painting of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—think of Chardin, Courbet, Caillebotte, Hammershøi, others. And from recent photography—Struth’s first museum series and various works by Jeff Wall, in particular. The rain doubly matters, in other words, as a figure for the successiveness of sensations and because it requires that the DJ work under wraps, so to speak. Or rather triply, in that the sheeting comes to stand for the receptiveness of the self. (Was Sala lucky that it rained, then? No doubt. But he has repeatedly shown, as in the dazzlingly opportunistic Air Cushioned Ride , that he knows what do with his luck. A topic for another occasion.)
More broadly, in Schiller’s text both the sensuous drive and the form drive are understood to strive for maximum expression, and to the extent that in a particular instance this proves attainable—to the extent to which the two drives operating at full strength turn out to be harmonizable with one another—that will be the work of the play drive, which Schiller associates with the “aesthetic qualities of phenomena and, in a word, what in the widest sense of the term we call beauty”—let us simply say with art. And that, I want to suggest, is figured or expressed in Mixed Behavior by the work of the artist, Anri Sala, though of course it is also possible to see the DJ as a surrogate for the artist—but again only up to a point. Indeed the non-documentary or say fictional status of the DJ is insisted on at the end of the video when he is rendered ghostlike as he stands up to leave. And even before that moment, though it is difficult to make out, the DJ’s actions themselves go into reverse whenever the fireworks do—Sala had no way of reversing the exploding fireworks other than by reversing the image track as such. (One can see this in the way roman candles and the like streak downward toward their points of origin at those moments.) Finally, the very theme of “connection” between the fireworks and the music is consistent with Sala’s larger concern throughout his career with the relation of image-track to sound-track; the special character of Mixed Behavior in this regard is that it thematizes that relation as one in which the sound of the remixing seeks to master the image, also in a sense the sound, of the fireworks. But as I have said, it is crucial to recognize that this is only a fiction, and that Sala’s project, as distinct from the DJ’s, is at once to create that impression and to acknowledge, in the modernist sense of the term, that the truth of the piece is more complex—more playful, one might say. In this connection it is interesting to note that much of the post-filming work concerned the sound; for example, Sala went back to Albania with recording equipment and set off his own fireworks to make sure the sonic dimension of the piece would be exactly as he wanted it.
(Something else one wouldn’t know simply from experiencing the video is that Sala himself was crouching under the plastic sheeting covering the battery and mixers throughout the duration of the shoot; it was he who filmed the opening seconds of Mixed Behavior from that cramped vantage point. During the rest of the filming there was no one behind the camera—but of course the directorial intelligence throughout is his.)
It’s in this light, too, that I understand one of the features of Mixed Behavior that most surprised me when I first viewed it, and for some time afterward—I refer to the fact that the initial reversal of exploding fireworks occurs relatively early in the piece, after no more than two minutes and fifty seconds. One might have expected that Sala would have chosen to make the viewer wait longer before introducing that patently unnatural effect. But then (after repeated viewings) I realized that introducing it early on meant that the viewer had ample opportunity to become accustomed to the fact of reversal, with the result that by the time reversal comes back at just over three and a half minutes and again just after four and a half minutes and five and a half minutes, and not only comes back but is increasingly activated in syncopation with the music, the viewer—I’m taking my experience as typical—has begun at least somewhat to lose hold of the “natural” tendency of the fireworks to explode outward and then fall to earth, and thus to accept reversal as something other than anomalous within the structural logic of Mixed Behavior as it unfolds over time. In other words, the cumulative effect of temporal reversal in Sala’s video is not so much that of contravening or dominating the natural order of events—in Schiller’s terminology, the mastering of sensation and succession by a drive toward form—as it is something like what Schiller provocatively characterized in his fourteenth “Letter” as the “annulling of time within time,” which in this case I understand to mean preserving the effect of temporal succession while taking radical imaginative liberties with temporality as ordinarily experienced. (Transforming temporal succession from within, so to speak.) More broadly, Schiller says of the play drive that it “will endeavor so to receive as if it had itself brought forth, and so to bring forth as the intuitive sense aspires to receive”—a rather prescient paraphrase of the overall import of Mixed Behavior as I have described it. As is the notion that if the two drives could be conjoined, “man…instead of losing himself to the world, will rather draw the latter into himself in all its infinitude of phenomena…”
Let me be clear about what I take all this to mean: I am not suggesting that Sala conceived of Mixed Behavior in terms of the argument of Schiller’s text—nothing could be less likely, or indeed more foreign to Sala’s general approach to his art. In particular the fact that the video is set in Tirana has everything to do with Sala’s personal history as well with a certain “ethical” or “political” impulse—to neutralize or even to redeem artistically a situation, the firing of guns throughout New Year’s Eve, of which he disapproved. And as I have already noted, Sala’s work from the start has been concerned with relating image track to sound track in original and compelling ways. I am suggesting, though, that the basic argument of the “Letters” with respect to the three drives bears a surprisingly close relation to Sala’s video, or to put this slightly differently, that the medium of video in Sala’s hands turns out to have lent itself to an artistic project that can usefully be understood—I’d like to think that puts it mildly—in terms of Schiller’s exalted but also quite specific vision of the stakes of art and the mission of culture. This may appear to defy common sense of a contextual sort: between Schiller’s “Letters” and Sala’s Mixed Behavior there looms a chronological gulf of more than two centuries, not to mention the disparity in almost every cultural regard between the Weimar of Schiller and Goethe and the Tirana or Paris or Berlin (Sala’s cities) of the early 2000s. But it may be that contextual considerations are an unreliable guide in situations such as this one. In my 2008 book Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before I tried to show that as regards the practice of a number of leading contemporary photographers, the antitheatrical artistic regime or episteme that first emerged in the course of the 1750s and ‘60s in France and of which Diderot in his writings on painting and drama was the most lucid advocate is still in force–dialectically transformed, that can’t be stressed too strongly, but nevertheless in force. And in my book Four Honest Outlaws I extend that account to cover the diverse work of Sala, Charles Ray, Joseph Marioni, and Douglas Gordon. I would not want to launch a comparably sweeping claim about the contemporary relevance of Schiller’s aesthetics, and yet there is an important sense—if I am right in reading Mixed Behavior as I have—in which it was precisely the technology of video that established the conditions for the belated realization of his vision especially with regard to the issues of play and temporality as these are theorized in the “Letters.”
Needless to say, this is to take Sala’s achievement in Mixed Behavior extremely seriously—much more seriously than is usual in commentaries on contemporary art. And it is to take Schiller’s ideas extremely seriously as well—if not more seriously then in a different, less strictly historicist spirit than is usual in commentaries on German post-Kantian thought.6 To which I will add that the treatment of temporality in Mixed Behavior is consistent with what in Four Honest Outlaws I seek to show has been Sala’s intense concern with one or another version, also dialectically transformed, of the high modernist ideal of “presentness,” a major theme in my 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood.”7 Just as the conspicuous trumping of mechanical causality—the normal progress of exploding fireworks—by the artist’s intentions is in line with the high modernist insistence on intentionality all the way down, or rather with the redoubling of that insistence in the work of contemporary artists such as Thomas Demand and Charles Ray.8
A final pair of claims: the strongest art of today is far more philosophically interesting and at the same time more genuinely ambitious than standard accounts of the present situation often suggest; and Sala, not yet forty, is at the cutting edge of the developments that make it so.9