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EMBODIED SUBJECTIVITY AND AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT VIA DRAWING IN THE PROJECT SHADOWGRAPHS

 

EMBODIED SUBJECTIVITY AND AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT VIA DRAWING IN THE PROJECT SHADOWGRAPHS

Guy Harries, University of East London, g.harries@uel.ac.uk

 

 

Abstract

Shadowgraphs, an ongoing project the author created in 2009, consists of several manifestations: a participatory installation, a live performance and a blog. In the participatory installation the gallery visitor is invited to enter a room in which enigmatic snapshots from a forest are hanging on the wall, and is asked to respond via drawing in a sketchbook to a soundtrack played on headphones. The artwork is an ongoing creation emerging through a process of accumulation and response to previous drawings. Other possibilities of audience participation are explored in the live performance and the blog.

            In this project I explore modes of interpretation, subjectivity and engagement. Throughout the project, a nonlinear narrative with an overarching theme of a search (after a lost person or oneself) is presented using a common cultural reference: the woods. By referring to this theme via recorded and performed text, soundscape recordings, photographic images and active drawing, the audience is invited to construct a narrative through their own memories and subjective perception. Drawing here is non-verbal storytelling.

            This paper examines the way in which the project explores different scenarios of the ‘open work’ (Eco 1959): in interpretation, assembling, and creation processes. Subjectivity plays a central role here as the listener refers to personal experience and shared cultural archetypes to construct an individual narrative. Another theme is the notion of the trace: the embodiment of both the listening experience and the emergent narrative via drawing - leaving further traces for subsequent visitors to interpret.  

 

 

1. The Project Shadowgraphs

The work Shadowgraphs is manifest through multiple platforms: a participatory installation, a blog and a live performance. Though these platforms provided very different paths of engagement, they shared an overarching theme: the notion of a search (for a lost person, for meaning and narrative) as represented in the metaphor of the woods, and evident in images, texts and soundscapes.

 

1.1 Installation

A video of the soundtrack, snapshots and drawings created by the gallery visitors can be viewed here: http://vimeo.com/26472088

 

The first manifestation of the project was a participatory installation which was part of the exhibition The Eagle Document: The New Collection of Enumerate Things curated by Monika Oeschler in summer 2009 at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery in Greenwich. The exhibition addressed the relationship between the artist and the spectator, as stated in its press release http://www.stephenlawrencegallery.net/OS-Eagle-PR.html

 

[It] considers the spectator as a social agent, embedded in the wider cultural network, and as an active participant in the creation of new ideas, thoughts and associations. Thus, ‘The New Collection’ exhibition creates a performative and dialogic situation between the viewer and art works, which does away with passive spectatorship.

 

            With this ethos in mind, I emphasised the role of the ‘spectator’ as an active participant in a process of collective authorship in my installation. The gallery visitor is invited to enter a small secluded room in which there is a CD player on a small table and sombre looking snapshots taken in the woods hanging on the walls. The visitor is instructed to sit down, listen to the soundtrack, and draw in a black sketchbook using white crayons, pens and pencils. The soundtrack for the installation is a combination of processed vocalisations by soprano singer Anna Levenstein, soundscapes recorded in the woods in Sussex, and processed sounds of breathing.

            The installation resulted in a considerable number of drawings, which then became part of the work for subsequent visitors. Some visitors attempted to copy details from the snapshots on the wall, others referred to the ‘woods’ theme, while others departed from the more obvious associations and drew ghost-like figures, abstract formations or ‘aliens’ and spaceships. Other drawings indicated a time-based approach to drawing, and attempted to represent the time-line of the soundtrack via visual representation from left to right in a format resembling a score. Needless to say, the latter was the interpretation chosen by composers and sound artists. Some drawings were more abstract ‘doodles’ that also seemed to indicate the listener’s experience in time, but didn’t adhere to a left-to-right standardised form of notation.

 

1.2 Blog

During the period preceding the live performance part of the project, another platform of audience engagement was added to the project in the form of a participatory weblog: http://shadowgraphic.wordpress.com

The aim of this blog was to provide information regarding the influences and sources of the live piece’s composition (such as Schoenberg’s musical monodrama set to Marie Pappenheim’s libretto Erwartung (1909) and Kierkegaard’s chapter Shadowgraphs from Either/Or). This was also a further exploration of collective authorship. The site’s visitors were asked to participate via comments, responding to challenges such as ‘solving’ the Erwartung ‘murder mystery’, imagining the sounds used in the installation by referring to the drawings from the installation (which were presented as a slideshow video) or responding to the installation soundtrack itself in words rather than drawing.

            The blog resulted in very interesting responses and inspired me during the composition of the live piece. However, it was not quite as successful as the installation. It demanded quite a lot of pestering and promotion on my part, and did not result in quite as much participation. Possible reasons are the text/online environment which made the tasks too much like ‘work’ which didn’t offer an immediate reward. The fact that there was no dedicated time and space (such as a gallery) could also mean that there was no initial commitment to the participatory situation. Another reason could be the short time in which the blog ran, not enabling the creation of a more sustained connection of a shared interest online community.

 

1.3 Live Performance

A recording of the entire piece is available on this link: http://soundcloud.com/guyharries/shadowgraphs

The live piece Shadowgraphs extends the idea of a non-passive spectator into the concert hall. Here, too, the audience members have the opportunity to go through participatory initiation phases (through the blog, or the participatory installation which was presented at the entrance to the concert space).

            On stage there is a desk with a book, a computer keyboard, and a lamp. This is where the live performer is seated and the desk might imply that the performance represents a process of authorship. The piece consists of four main parts, each with its own characteristic sound and live actions. The performer is acting the 'present' protagonist who is also producing the live sounds. Throughout the whole piece we also hear a recorded 'absent' woman's voice (singer/actress Airlie Scott), who is the second protagonist, as well as a soundtrack that provides additional layers of narrative and space. In the live performance the theme of the search is explored further: the live performer attempts to recover the texts and narratives of the recorded voice and relate to them. The various elements of the live piece are intended to create the feeling that they might allude to a (possibly traumatic) event. The audience is presented with a fragmented narrative, and can choose to reconstruct a story of what this piece might be about.

 

 

2. Audience Engagement and the ‘Open Work’

Shadowgraphs was an exploration of various platforms and the type of audience engagement they initiate. There is a range of possible types of audience engagement with a performance or work of art, from the more familiar ‘active interpretation’ to more participatory modes in which the creator of a work focuses on designing an ecology of participant engagement and even co-authorship. In his article ‘Poetics of the Open Work’ from 1959, Eco suggests, especially in the light of open-ended musical works created by his contemporaries, that even though some works of art are designed to leave ‘gaps’ which invite co-authorship, there is also an ‘open’ aspect to most art works (2004: p. 173):

 

(i)"open" works… are characterized by the invitation to make the work together with the author…(ii) on a wider level… there exist works which, though organically completed, are "open" to continuous generation of internal relations which the addressee must uncover and select in his act of perceiving the totality of incoming stimuli. (iii) Every work of art… is effectively open to a virtually unlimited range of possible readings, each of which causes the work to acquire new vitality in terms of one particular taste, or perspective, or personal performance.

 

Semiologist Nattiez proposes a useful model of analysing the communication process (1990, pp. 10-28). In this model, a  Trace – such as a poem, symphony or painting – does not serve merely as a medium conveying a message from a “Producer” to the Receiver, but is an intersection for a poietic process of creation, as well as an esthesic process of reception, both of which create a ‘message’. Both of these processes influence the way a Trace plays out its part in communication. In this sense, even a more traditional scenario entails an active role for the audience in the process of interpretation.

         In more interactive, participatory works, Nattiez’s Trace is open-ended, and allows the Receiver to engage both in esthesic processes of interpretation, and in poietic ones – by creating new situations and Traces. In these works, the ‘Producer’ creates the situation for interaction rather than a structured, ‘closed’ work.

         In the project Shadowgraphs, a number of audience engagement types were explored. The live performance encouraged a highly ‘active’ interpretation by using a non-linear narrative structure consisting of various textual sources and types, and a range of sound worlds. The installation and the blog both encouraged a more participatory process of co-authorship through drawing and writing.

         The platform that proved most successful in the creation of audience engagement was the participatory installation. In this case, the room in which the installation was presented provided an ecology in which the gallery visitor played a vital part. The artefacts presented in the room, such as the soundtrack, snapshots and the sketchbook, were open-ended, and even though they suggested a certain theme and atmosphere, they were still enigmatic enough to enable individual gallery visitors to create their own interpretation and share it with following visitors. The instruction provided, to draw rather than write, helped maintain the open nature of the work, as it avoided the more explicit indication of narrative in words. The act of drawing or writing within one book enhanced the sensation of co-authorship of a shared narrative. Some visitors even added details or comments to previous visitors’ contributions. The work took on a life of its own, with the accumulation of drawings encouraging repeat visits to the installation space. Though individual visitors tended to create their own personal style of interpretation, they were curious to see how other visitors responded.

 

 

3. The Sharing of Subjectivities

The project created a meeting of the individual and the shared experience. The knowledge that the same soundtrack and space inspired the drawing process created a situation in which both the common source and the diverse interpretations of it were an essential part of the work. The project explores the relationship between the individual experience and the way it is shared with others. Though as a sound artist I focus on listening, I attempt to emphasise that this is a transmodal experience, including other sensory modalities as well as the individual’s personal world and his/her connection with a wider community of individuals. Katharine Norman (2010, p. 117), in her discussion of sound works using ‘real world’ sounds, advocates a compositional approach that focuses on 'a convergence of autoethnographies'.  Autoethnography is ‘an autobiographical narrative that explores the writer’s personal experience’. Norman advocates an approach that goes beyond the sound, and encourages listeners to draw on their own personal experiences and narratives to engage with a work. To go even further with the notion of shared subjectivities, Jean-Luc Nancy (2000, p. 2) states that there is no existence without co-existence: ‘There is no meaning if meaning is not shared, and not because there would be an ultimate or first signification that all beings have in common, but because meaning is itself the sharing of Being.’ In this sense, the individual subjectivity is not prior to a process of ‘intersubjectivity’ but is actually, from the very start, part of a community.

            The idea of a shared construction of meaning is key to the piece Shadowgraphs. The sounds and images I present in the work do not prescribe any specific interpretation, but they do provide ‘triggers’ that refer to a shared cultural world of the forest. In many folk tales, myths and more contemporary narrative works the forest is the location of a transformative experience: discovery, personal revelation, a fight or death. The forest is usually an uninhabited place, hidden from everyday reality, where the prospect of isolation or danger present the potential for unusual and significant occurrences.  In the blog created as part of the project Shadowgraphs I refer to music dramas, films and works of fiction that refer to this theme, in order to expand the range of the project and place it within a larger cultural network.          

           

 

4. Embodiment and Traces

The act of drawing in the installation part of this project is an embodied experience of listening. Rather than a separation between sound and image, the two intersect in the body of the listener. Listening itself is an embodied experience, as Brown states (2006, p. 44):

 

Music makes a prolongation of our own sounding bodies: when we see it in action, the visual experience reminds us that our body—itself an object of vision—can take a share in the same kind of physical, sonic experience. We see ourselves sounding by attending to the ‘textures’ of musical movement, aural and visual.

 

            Indeed, any sound can imply embodied action. An obvious example is the experience of sound through the body in a dance club. And in a more general sense, while listening to a sound, rather than perceiving it as an abstract entity, we often tend to associate it with movement, gesture or an embodied source.

            The installation was designed to encourage the experience of embodied listening and the creation of ‘traces’. The act of drawing, whatever approach taken by the listener, is an embodied act. Each listener left different drawn ‘traces’, either imagining ‘embodied’ narrative (e.g. drawing of trees or footsteps) or being guided by the sounds to produce traces in the form of scores or ‘doodles’ that seem to have been created in direct synchrony with the soundtrack. Many listeners stated that they found this process of drawing entailed a deeper connection with the sounds, urging them to listen to the details of the music and experience them in a way that related to them personally via their own actions.

 

 

5. Concluding Notes

The project Shadowgraphs could be seen as a network-shaped piece, consisting of interconnected platforms of engagement. The network is manifest not only in the diffusion of a theme across various media and modalities, but also through the way it has expanded via participation of the individual ‘audience’ members (if indeed ‘audience’ is the right word in this case). Through a process of individual creation of meaning that is embedded in a shared communal cultural point of reference, the piece has expanded and travelled, both online and in the real world. It is a type of rhizome, in which authorship is shared in a non-hierarchical way, and the work can continue to expand in unexpected ways, with new nodes of meaning and interpretation emerging in the process. Drawing, with its open-ended characteristic, was essential in this process of communication and co-creation.

 

 

REFERENCES

Brown, N. (2006) ‘The Flux between Sounding and Sound: Towards a Relational Understanding of Music as Embodied Action’. In Contemporary Music Review 25:1/2. Abingdon: Routledge.

Eco, U. (1959/2004) ‘The Poetics of the Open Work’. In Cox, C., Warner, D. (eds.)  Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. New York and London: Continuum.

Nancy, J.-L. (trans. Richardson, R., D.  & O'Byrne, A. E.) (2000). Being Singular Plural. Stanford, CA:

Stanford University Press.

Nattiez, J. (trans. Abbate, C.) (1990) Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Norman, K. (2010) ‘Conkers (listening out for organised experience)’. In Organised Sound 15:2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

 

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This Work, EMBODIED SUBJECTIVITY AND AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT VIA DRAWING IN THE PROJECT SHADOWGRAPHS, by Guy Harries is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 India license.