A Personal Approach to Subversion
First of all, before writing about my personal work, its evolution and its relation to subversion, I would like to try to define or at least try to clarify my understanding of the concept of subversion.
I must admit that the adjective subversive (which often has a political connotation) is often used or maybe even overused by artists and critics. Being a “subversive artist” is regarded as a manner of distinguishing oneself as the ultimate avant-garde, state-of-the-art. Art history, especially the dominant school who explained to us that art moves forward thanks to subversive artists, or works of art that break the academic laws, makes subversive or avant-garde artists the principal characters of the evolution of art. That was yet previously criticized by Harold Rosenberg as soon as 1959 in his essay The Tradition of the New. So paradoxically, the only way for an artist to pass onto posterity, or merely have a chance to mark himself out of the rest of the artistic community, would be to be subversive, or moreover, to be regarded as a subversive artist. 1[1. The opposite approach to being an established artist would be to go the academic way, which is the most widespread manner: the artist skillfully fulfills the exterior signs of what is expected to be today’s art.] I say “paradoxically” because subversion — from Latin subvertere (vertere “to turn” and sub “from below”) — should be a characteristic of an emerging artist, and not of established artists. Can you act “from below” when you are already “at the top”? Is an artist still subversive when recognized and acclaimed by the establishment? I consider subversion and radicality the main ideology of (sound) art nowadays, even if the subversion is superficial, even if a lot of genuine subversive artists stay underground.
So what should we consider subversive? A piece of work that breaks the academic laws? A piece of work that questions modern society? An activist piece of work that calls for Revolution? Can a piece of sound art for sound art’s sake be subversive? I would consider subversive a work that questions a dominant system, ideology or alienation. But this is not good enough. For example, a work questioning consumer society, which is universally recognized as one of the global dominant systems, would not be subversive. Why? Because this critique had already been made more than 60 years ago, and in 2015 this critique is accepted by anybody you pass on the street. Being subversive should bring new debates, new questions that do not seem that obvious, it should propose other paradigms to the commonly accepted reasoning. One could think that subversion must be related to the insertion of political elements in sound art, but “pure” sound art may be subversive. Art-for-art’s-sake subversion. Luc Ferrari was subversive when he integrated anecdotal sounds in his work, not only because it was new, but moreover because these sounds could not be analyzed in the paradigm of the musique concrète of that time — so much that the presentation of Ferrari’s Hétérozygote in 1964 gave rise to a conflict between Pierre Schaeffer and the composer. Nevertheless, one might think that Ferrari had already in mind to turn more overtly political — one year later his work Société I explored the transgression of social order. In 1979 he called “the period from the fifties to the mid-sixties the ‘black period’ to reflect the anarchistic attitude reflected in his music during these years” (Drott 2009).
Political subversion can be found in the presentation of new debates or questionings looking at what is taboo. The question would be: what is taboo? Let’s give a short definition of “taboo” in political and sound art: a social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or reasoning. Actually, after the ideologies of modernism and postmodernism, sound art claims total freedom, and claims that there are no longer any taboos. We’ll see a little bit later that there actually are.
Is the questioning of the consumer society in a sound piece subversive? Is the denunciation of authoritarian government in a sound piece subversive? Well, I should say it depends on what government you criticize, and if you risk your own life for it. Subversion is a relative concept. Questioning taboos will necessarily endanger the artist, his career or his life for instigating unforeseen, unpredicted, unbecoming debates. Nietzsche would say Unfashionable Observations. 2[2. Friedrich Nietzsche, Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen, also translated as Untimely Meditations.] Unfortunately, experimental sound art does not have the audience that cinema or literature has and does not have the power to influence society on the same level than the mass media. Hence we’ll seldom see a sound artist risk his life: the Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini died because of his work.
Alongside the insertion of political elements in a work of sound art I would like to evoke Victor Hugo who demonstrated, in his biography of William Shakespeare, that art can be the most subversive tool when it is done for art’s sake (Hugo 1864). Art for art’s sake makes a claim for Beauty and Harmony and these values are correlated with Justice and Peace; when the leaders of supposedly democratic governments call for violence, war and chaos every single minute, what is more subversive for an artist than to cry for Justice and Peace?
I would like now to explain what is my approach to subversion, and how it evolved in the course of my career, since I never had a conscious subversive approach to creation, nor did I want to label my music that way. I started slowly, beginning with a philosophical commitment that turned to social and political awareness. This evolution will be seen through the presentation of four works: Ce Qui Aura Fait Notre Solitude (2004), Insomniac (2008), RELIGION DU TRAVAIL (2005) and Meta Arte Sonoro #3 (2014).
After some experimentations with computer sounds that I did not include in my catalogue of work, I started taking classes in electroacoustic composition in 2004. Ce Qui Aura Fait Notre Solitude (That Which Will Have Caused Our Loneliness) was composed at a time when I was still a student, but yet had very little experience in composition. And, as a self-taught artist, my goal in that piece was to prove to myself I was able to compose in the French classical electroacoustic style (or what I thought it was), in the tradition of Henry, Bayle, Ferrari, Parmegiani and other big names. So this piece may sound “traditional”, and despite the intention of trying to compose in an academic way, (type of sounds and structure of the work) I was not satisfied with the piece, not because of a lack of construction, but a lack of meaning. The first title of this piece was Hommage à Gombrowicz, as I had recently read his novel, Pornography. My point of departure was purely formal: the intention was to translate into sound the manner by which Gombrowicz brings the narrative elements closer to one another. I used different kind of sounds from Nature (water, animals, etc.) and tried to make a sonic link between all these elements. But after a while I realized that the piece did not have the depth I needed in terms of interpretative richness. I felt satisfied when I accidentally inserted the recording of a guitar player asking for money in the metro and the sound of the metro itself, recordings I did in Paris at that time. All of a sudden, mankind and its technology were able to interact with the elements of Nature. Ce Qui Aura Fait Notre Solitude was, at first, a study upon grains of sound, exploring different sizes of grains until they are perceived as sound objects on their own and attain their own autonomy. It deals with continuity and discontinuity, transitions between sound objects according to their energy, pitch, waveform etc. — a kind of tribute to quantic theory. But at the same time the music talks about Nature and how it has been analyzed by the modern world, creating a kind of distanciation, a separation between Man and Nature, leaving mankind to its own Loneliness.
A couple of years later I did Insomniac as a description of the daily acceptance of violence. A kind of violence that expresses itself every day, even in the most simple or innocent things or actions we do. This led to a radical change in my style. In this work I tried to include the most heterogeneous techniques and sounds I could find to create a kind of nasty taste or uneasiness during the listening. I think the subversive element of this work is not in the use of pornographic soundtracks, nor the apocalyptic ending, or in the use of circuit-bending sounds mixed with digital hi-fi sounds that would erase the æsthetic frontier between hi-fi and low-fi sounds and practitioners, intending to reconcile what purists don’t want to mix. The most interesting feature of Insomniac is the intention to immerse the audience in a concrete sonic experience of listening. The sounds are organized in such a manner as to generate a physical response from the body, or a certain mental behaviour, awareness and uneasiness. These mental or physical reflexes settle the audience into a particular mode of listening; sudden and violent ruptures occur in the piece that force the audience to always be alert. To be alert while listening to this piece, but more importantly, to be alert generally in life. The way in which the continuous sound flow of a drone (whether loud or quiet) makes the listening situation comfortable and puts the listener in a passive state of listening reminds me of the ways by which mass media disseminates their ideologies. They both use a continuous drone of information with no place for silence, doubts, dissidence or rupture. I included these elements in the work: disruptions, strong contrasts in the sounds used, anxious silences, uncomfortable interruptions of drones. These are the techniques I mostly use since that work, especially when my purpose is to use sound to expose and denounce the physical and mental alienation of a certain society. The music turns into a magnifying prism revealing the incoherences of the system or the ways the people suffer from the matrix. In Insomniac I focused in particular on noise contamination and its effect on mental health, while in Pour Votre Sécurité (For Your Safety) I focused on the daily security discourse as a powerful means to take control of individuals.
I should say here that not all my work is explicitly committed to social or political debates. I am not a political artist. I just need to express my freedom of speech in life and in art. In works such as those I describe here, my goal is to analyze, question, and deconstruct legitimated ideologies or cultures. I understand “legitimate” as defined by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in La Distinction: knowledge and discourse valued by the dominant institutions and accepted by all individuals of society.
Coming back to 2005, during massive strikes and street demonstrations in France against the reforms in labour legislation. These protests had been happening constantly since 2003. In response, I made RELIGION DU TRAVAIL, which I consider for the moment one of my most complete works. I have some difficulties in putting a label on this work: it is not a Hörspiel, it is not radio art it is not a “pure” electroacoustic piece, it is not a documentary. Perhaps I would consider it an electroacoustic fiction inspired by, and including, real facts and real characters. 3[3. The work include some public addresses by the French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and other politicians among others.] This is my first piece with a clear intention to change my own style (the work was composed just after Ce Qui Aura Fait Notre Solitude) and presents some elements that will be exacerbated in Insomniac.
The dialectic between “nice sounds” and “dirty sounds”, “good techniques” and “bad techniques” of recording is found in every single sound. All the sound objects, synthesized ones as well as recorded ones, can be classified in two categories that reflect either social and established order or repression against the intimate and personal experience of the narrator: static and clean sounds versus dirty and chaotic sounds. At that time I was watching a lot of Godard’s movies and I remember he said in an interview: “Travellings are a question of ethics” (“Les travellings sont une affaire de morale”). So in RELIGION DU TRAVAIL I used studio techniques (mixing, cutting, compression, sound effects etc.) as a musical translation of the political ideas developed in the piece. Besides that, I think the most radical aspect of this piece is the extramusical network it elaborates thanks to the programme note (which I consider part of the piece; more on that below) and the selective bibliography and filmography introduced in the middle of the work. These serve, on the one hand, to help the audience orient themselves in the complex network of relations and ideas explored in the piece, and on the other hand, to expand the possibilities of sound work into other medias. The title of the work is written in capital letters as a symbol of dominant ideology. The programme note contains a quote from Spinoza’s Tractatus Politicus:
In despotic statecraft, the supreme and essential mystery is to hoodwink the subjects, and to mask the fear, which keeps them down, with the specious garb of religion, so that men may fight as bravely for slavery as for safety, and count it not shame but highest honor to risk their blood and lives for the vainglory of a tyrant. 4[4. The French version of this text used in the programme note for RELIGION DU TRAVAIL is taken from Deleuze’s Spinoza: Philosophie Pratique, English translation by Robert Hurley.]
The main intention in RELIGION DU TRAVAIL was to unveil the ideology of false freedom of speech, and the corruption of the citizens’ rights declaration 5[5. The piece is punctuated by excerpts taken from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1793.] as a tool serving the consumer society, and at the same time to denounce the alienation of salaried employment. After concerts I often had to explain the intention of the work, people eagerly asking if I was not a right-wing anarchist… or just wanting to debate with me, which I must admit is one of the goals of this type of work: to provoke exchange and discussion with the audience after the concert.
The last work to discuss here is a series of short pieces dealing with sound art and the figure of the sound artist created in 2014, Meta Arte Sonoro (Meta Sound Art). The intention is to analyze the intellectual and economical position of the figure of the sound artist, specifically in Spain. As was the case for Postlude à Ideologie du Pragmatisme et du Réel (2008) this series is based only on speech, more precisely on synthetized voices exclusively. Although I would not consider labelling the preceding works as “subversive”, here such a nomenclature could hardly be contested. Although the work only deals with the (not so) small world of sound art and does not put my life in danger, I fear that the radical analysis of the sociology, economy and psychology of the sound artist in the midst of what is supposed to be a piece of sound art was not going to make me very popular. I did Meta Arte Sonoro #3 on the special request of a curator of the Audio-Mad project, an event that took place in autumn 2014 and included a concert, a sound installation and a DVD of all the participants. The only restriction was to provide a work that had a maximum duration of four minutes. The event brought together a hundred sound artists living in Madrid. I didn’t know there were that many sound artists in that city, let alone in other major cities in the world. Sometimes I’m a bit naïve 6[6. Actually I don’t like the term “sound art”, which I find to be used as something of a catch-all phrase.]…
So I started thinking about what it means to be a sound artist, about the democratisation of sound art through technology, about the mass reproduction of sound pieces thanks to Internet transforming the work of art into a commodity and about the insidious introduction of consumerist ideology into the practice of art. More importantly, I was interested in the taboo economy of some galleries, festivals, venues, curators and organizers that pretend to promote sound artists by organizing events with the help of private or governmental funds, and make a living from it without paying the artists whose work their projects are dependent on. Expecting the artist to work for free, as if being programmed should be good enough. I have seen gallery owners take advantage of the situation too often, especially in experimental improvisation circles, that I was overwhelmed by the situation. A certain economy of sound art working with the mechanics of liberal capitalism, the sound artist as a metaphor of new slavery, or precarious labourer exploited by the owner of the means of production. Meta Arte Sonoro #3 explains how the over-multiplication of sound artists and works of sound art tend to turn such artistic practices into a consumer product. Artists who accept and participate in this kind of economy turn themselves into objective allies of the libertarian social liberalism 7[7. Concept developed by French philosopher Michel Clouscard: “Neofascism will be the ultimate expression of libertarian social liberalism” (in Le Capitalisme de la seduction).] — either by discouragement or through unawareness — and then become the useful idiots of the matrix.
This work is deeply inspired by the readings of French essayist Alain Soral and philosophy of Michel Clouscard. I did this piece, for the first time in a deliberate act of subversion, knowing that the project involved more than a hundred sound artists and curators; I knew they might react negatively to the words used in the work, but I felt it had to be said out loud.
Some may claim that this work pushes the limits of music and sound art and is more of a political manifesto. Actually, I consider Meta Arte Sonoro #3 to be highly musical, since despite the deliberate poverty of the sound material and the predominance of speech in the work, I focused mainly on rhythms, repetitions and melodic intonations.
When I was younger I felt very close to anarchist philosophy, radicality and subversion. In this text I tried to defined a personal approach to subversion, or at least an evolution of the intensity of political commitment in my music. Subversion can not stop at mere provocation. So, what is the ultimate goal of subversion? To change the world? Can art change the world?
Art, as well as society, has always been maintained by rules that dictate what is acceptable or not and that artists take delight in ignoring. Subversion has a kind of positive connotation, especially in art, since it is often regarded as a synonym of freedom and a metaphor of a struggle to transform the established social order. But over the course of several decades, we have experienced a period of tremendous global transition, moving from traditional cultures to a New World Order, with the definition of new rules and transformations of the social paradigm. On the other hand, it is felt that the subversive nature of a work of art has to be self-evident, powerful and must contend for its own subversiveness in a kind of duel or clash with the established order. We might consider whether new subversive practices might be found in a different paradigm as has thus far been the case? Not in the context of a battle against the “enemy”, but rather proposing and implementing new approaches to the creation of artistic works in a calm and reflective manner? Perhaps subversion does not always need to be the violent “overthrowing” and questioning it is often assumed to be, but rather the fragile unveiling of the new posibilities.
Bourdieu, Pierre. La Distinction: Critique sociale du jugement. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1979.
Clouscard, Michel. Le Capitalisme de la séduction: Critique de la social-démocratie libertaire. Editions sociales, 1981.
_____. Les métamorphoses de la lutte des classes. Temps des Cerises, 1996.
Drott, Eric. “The Politics of ‘Presque rien’.” In Sound Commitments. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Hugo, Victor. William Shakespeare. 1864.
Soral, Alain. Comprendre l’Empire. Paris: Éditions Blanche, 2011
Spinoza, Baruch. Tractatus Politicus. 1676.