Saturday, 15 August 2015

The practice of exposing constraints: Bartok, Schoenberg, Wittgenstein and Cao Fei

I've been having a wonderful family holiday (not words that often come together!) with a tour of Slovakia, Hungary and Austria. There are discoveries to be made everywhere, and among all the sights and sounds, something gets pieced together which brings ideas into focus. In beautiful green Budapest, we ventured into the suburbs to find Bartok's house (which is now a museum - unfortunately closed until late August). Bartok has always fascinated me because he was a scientist as much as an artist: one who was particularly focused on musical form as natural form. His music abounds with Fibonacci numbers and golden sections, the life in his irregular rhythms has always suggested to me that he was right in making these comparisons. The maths helped generate the notes which generated a feeling which (one might imagine) also could be proportionally studied (although I have never come across anything that does this). Bartok honed-in on the constraints between mathematical ideas, natural form and aesthetic experience.

Then to Vienna, and to the world of Arnold Schoenberg (What if they played Schoenberg in Viennese hotel lobbies rather than Beethoven and Mozart?). Like Bartok, Schoenberg too used mathematical techniques to generate ideas. Some feel that he let the maths override the aesthetics, although personally I find his music quite beautiful. His musical oeuvre seems to get more impressive as history gives greater distance. But like Bartok, Schoenberg was also exposing the constraint between aesthetic experience and the logic of construction. Of course, to some extent all artists do this. But Schoenberg and Bartok stand out as two examples where very different formal ideas are used to generate different sorts of possibilities. It's very cybernetic really.

Whilst in Vienna, I ventured to the annual Wittgenstein symposium in Kirchberg am Wechsel. Wittgenstein used to live in the area between 1920 and 1922, being a (rather terrible) primary school teacher in nearby Trattenbach. There were a lot of philosophers at the conference. Mostly they talked about ideas - ways of generating possibilities - and mostly, I saw little inclination to explore generated possibilities of ideas in practice. However, Wittgenstein himself was very adept at exploring his ideas practically through thinking about the way language is used in everyday reality. In "On Certainty", which featured quite heavily in the conference, Wittgenstein exposes fundamental questions about knowledge and reality by asking almost child-like questions and thinking through the consequences. It's wonderful stuff:

  • 600. What kind of grounds have I for trusting text-books of experimental physics? I have no grounds for not trusting them. And I trust them. I know how such books are produced - or rather, I believe I know. I have some evidence, but it does not go very far and is of a very scattered nature. I have heard, seen and read various things.
  • 601. There is always the danger of wanting to find an expression's meaning by contemplating the expression itself, and the frame of mind in which one uses it, instead of always thinking of the practice. That is why one repeats the expression to oneself so often, because it is as if one must see what one is looking for in the expression and in the feeling it gives one.
  • 602. Should I say "I believe in physics", or "I know that physics is true"?
  • 603. I am taught that under such circumstances this happens. It has been discovered by making the experiment a few times. Not that that would prove anything to us, if it weren't that this experience was surrounded by others which combine with it to form a system. Thus, people did not make experiments just about falling bodies but also about air resistence and all sorts of other things. But in the end I rely on these experiences, or on the reports of them, I feel no scruples about ordering my own activities in accordance with them. - But hasn't this trust also proved itself? So far as I can judge - yes.
  • 604. In a court of law the statement of a phy. sicist that water boils at about 100C would be accepted unconditionally as truth. If I mistrusted this statement what could I do to undermine it? Set up experiments myself? What would they prove?
  • 605. But what if the physicist's statement were superstition and it were just as absurd to go by it in reaching a verdict as to rely on ordeal by fire?
Here he is grappling with constraint. His logic generates a variety of possibilities, which he explores through commonsense language. Some of the possibilities are absurd, some open out into deeper questions. It's not unlike Schoenberg's technique: among the various configurations of musical material generated by his technique, some work and some don't: the music is at the boundary between the two (the parallels between them have been studied by James Wright in his "Schoenberg, Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle").

Finally, a connection back to Manchester (obviously there's also a Wittgenstein connection there too). At the Whitworth Art Gallery at the moment there is an exhibition of contemporary chinese art. The piece that struck me most powerfully was a video by a young Chinese artist called Cao Fei: her piece in Manchester is called "Utopia" - a moving and witty portrayal of industrialisation and dehumanisation. In the Secession Building in Vienna, Fei has an exhibition including a number of films installations. She's like a Chinese Luis Bunuel: very funny, poignant, vicious, and spot-on in her observations of early 21st century China. She films brilliant stunts, including an industrial truck transporting rubble disguised as Thomas the Tank Engine, and wonderfully surreal montages where the everyday suddenly becomes choreographed and the inner lives of ordinary people take on a poetic form. Fei's films sit precisely at the boundary between dreams and reality. I see this most clearly in her the piece in the Whitworth: at the end of the film, which is shot in a light-bulb factory, she gets the workers to pose still in front of the camera. This is so powerful because these people are never still. And as eyes blink and legs wobble slightly, the discomfort of actually being still - the weirdness of stopping - is communicated to the viewer (who is, in the art gallery, static in front of the screen). Fei's boundaries are moving things: they wobble about and shift with time. And perhaps that's the way with all boundaries.

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