Features EssaysPerformance Published 18 December 2012

Extreme Rituals

Is artistic space detrimental or vitalising to the potency of carnival?

Laura Burns

Extreme Rituals: A Schimpfluch Carnival, opened with a day of insightful lectures, from the origins of the carnivalesque to interviews with Schimpfluch artists, interspersed with live performances. This start to the festival unexpectedly eased the audience in; a contrast to the confrontational strategies that formed the crux of the discussions on this first day and characterised some of the performances to follow. The vast range of sound and noise art performances would break down binaries of mind – body, nature – culture, past – present, human – animal, in a cacophony of ways.

Schimpfluch Gruppe, the Swiss performance collective the festival paid due homage to, embodies these carnivalesque ambiguities quite naturally. Founded in Zurich in 1987 by Rudolph Eb.er, Schimpfluch arose out of what Rudolph claims was cultural ‘nothingness’. In response to this stagnation, as a strategy against the repressive in art and culture, and in a true eruption of carnival came the bodily, grotesque, absurd, meditative, violent or extreme ritual performances of Schimpfluch. The archive of their work and discussions foreshadowing the performances anchored my reflections on how the purpose of the carnivalesque might be ignited, altered or dampened through the effects that different strategies of confrontation have on performer and audience relationships, particularly in the space of the art gallery.

Carnival has been a social strategy throughout history. A time when the world goes topsy-turvy, hierarchies are upturned, chaos reigns, truths are revealed and bodies made visible. Like sound beyond language, carnival is non-dualistic, an ambiguous meeting of fear and desire, sacred and profane. Mikhail Bhaktin’s seminal text Rabelais and His World, traces the carnivalesque back to the medieval carnival as a form of ‘unofficial culture’ that resists official culture, political oppression, and totalitarian order through laughter, parody, and “grotesque realism”. The monstrous (from monstrare, meaning ‘to show’) is a revealing, a making visible, of hierarchies, unwanted truths, bodies and the vulgar. With carnival comes the end of carnival, the return to order. Carnival is a social valve, an outlet for absurdity, at once challenging the status quo, whilst also re-affirming it; that release of pressure allows for the rest to be bearable, for the order and rationality to reign. For Bhaktin ‘the separation of participants and spectators was detriment to the potency of carnival’. In light of this, how does the space of the art gallery and the ultimate separation between viewer and performer, affect the radical intentions of ritual carnival?

The archive accompanying the contemporary performances played like a soundtrack to the festival, a temporal drag between past and present that both acknowledged Schimpfluch’s influence over more than twenty years, whilst also becoming part of the festival’s recall, rhythms, repetitions and cyclical narratives of sound. Digitally edited photographs of Rudolph Eber’s face with a hole gashed out, decaying and defecated matter, the tortured and open body, were graphic visual portrayals of an extreme carnivalesque. Processes of the body made invisible by cultural conditioning were suddenly revealed– the shitting, eating, decaying, fornicating “open body”. Yet I’m puzzled by the tension between viewing the works as rituals of rebellion or objects feeding a grotesque fascination that could stem from our repressed cultural preoccupation and fear of death. These images break that repression, yet my position as viewer locates me ironically as a voyeuristic consumer of the images, safely distant even though their rebellious vulgarity stands against this consumerism. Perhaps we would view these images differently in a culture that had collective rituals and understanding of processes of death or decay, or non hierarchical social structures. The framework of the art gallery enables this contemplation, yet contains its radical implications, maintaining the separation of participant and viewer; it relies on the consumption of images rather than igniting the integration of collaborative rituals that feels encouraged by the radical implications of the artwork.

The radical intentions of this wide range of artists speaking and performing are apparent and manifested in different relationships to sound: creating post-punk bands in post-Industrial Leeds as a response to a ‘barren, uncompromising landscape’ of culture and the ‘theoretical problem of what to do in art’; Ron Athey’s performance soundtracks propelled him into trance-like actions, literally embodying sexual liberation and movement. For Holly Ingleton, resistance to gender institutions comes in the form of creating new sound archives as counter-histories and memories whilst for Joke Lanz and Vicky Langan, there is an intuitive, emotional response that resists the silencing of socially-contained trauma. And for Philips it is a return to ‘an older form of language’ that voices the animal world and re-balances false hierarchies between human and nature. Sound is often a response to the inadequacies of binary-enforcing language that rejects the bodily, intuitive, material world. These strategies that resist the homogenous status quo, speak most loudly through the sensory world, echoing beyond the separation of performer and viewer, affecting my body with or without my direct participation in creating the rituals.

I am overwhelmed by sensory responses to works: the wave of noise that engulfs me as Rashad Becker and G*Park perform their sets, the clicks and vibrations I feel through my feet as Christian Weber manipulates his double bass, the tangible anticipation and growing anxiety I experience in my stomach as Alice Kemp sits with her head bagged, wearing black leather gloves with an open pair of shears in front of her, incessant noise increasing in volume and tension. The interplay between Bryan Lewis Saunders’ panicked and unending narrative, film and sound, makes my head swirl and pulsate to the rhythm of images and noise. The predominance of the sensory, intuitive body can also be heard in the unadulterated sounds made by human voice. Language disintegrates into the animalistic squeaks of Michael Bartel, Trevor Wishart’s contorted sounds, and Junko Hiroshige’s high-pitched screams. The non-human within the human, the monstrous or animalistic, these eruptions call into question notions of civilization versus a supposedly more ‘primordial’ response to the world. For many performances, this animalistic, intuitive, responsive self is expressed through the body’s theatricality. Leif Elggren and Daniel Lowenbruck’s verbal and written repetition of the phrase ‘little idiot telling truth letting us know what’s behind it all’ disintegrates into Leif’s writhing body being surrounded by Daniel’s ritualistic milk pouring; this ‘truth’ spirals out of repetition, residing beyond language, deeper in ritual.

The voicing of materiality is pushed to extremes with Dave Philips’ ethical dedication to the non-verbal living world of insect, creature and elemental noises. There is a Cageian quality to these found sounds, and they echo in unexpected parallels to the industrial sounds of the New Blockaders that grate and saw like metal on skin, confronting the sensing body with a mechanical world of culture. The two performances have contrasting aesthetics, theatrical and confrontational strategies, closing my eyes and letting the sounds seep in, I hear resonances of one performance in the other, as these sounds become manipulated, amplified, vibrated and woven; it is hard to distinguish what is natural and what is man-made. Pushing these conventional barriers of categorisation, sound travels beyond the binaries of language and touches an expression much closer to an experienced reality; like the carnival, merging sacred and profane, we live in a world of nature and culture. The two are inextricable, and the meeting of both through the mechanics of sound art as well as the strategies of ‘found sound’, voicing materiality and non-verbal environments, has strong ethical implications.

What strikes me with many of these performances, is the synaesthesia created, sometimes as a result of voicing those things which usually don’t make conventional sound – Leif Elggren’s 1649 copperplate engraving giving voice to its image as a sound record – but also through the language of many performances, where emotions are experienced as sound, and empathy through the sensing body, over the imaginative mind. One of the most moving pieces of the whole weekend for me was Joke Lanz and Ute Waldhausen, facing each other half naked, performing a series of actions – mostly hitting, sometimes stroking, sometimes aggressively embracing – their hands miked, their emotional actions sounding. The repeated hits gave birth to moments of change or climax, a reflection of the repetition that arises in processes of re-visiting trauma. Memory becomes voiced and embedded in the bodily; movement arises from the recall and ultimate working through of trauma.

This range of performance strategies seems to resist a verbal, coherent narrative and revel in the margins, pushing boundaries of comfort and understanding, dwelling in ambiguities that serve to resist dualisms of society and culture. Yet Ingleton’s Her Noise project – an archive of female sound artists exploring gender performativity through imitation and mimicry, forming a counter-memory of dominant narratives – suddenly reminded me of another artist’s comment; he expressed a desire to provoke in audiences ‘the naturally occurring reaction’. Whilst problematic in many ways, I understand the intention is to speak from a deeper, less restricted, less socially inhibited expression, and in doing so, to cut through the performative reactions of viewers, to an equally responsive, and perhaps instinctive audience reaction. Yet this ‘naturally occurring reaction’ is dependent on context, and within the art gallery, the artwork as performance still prevails over the artwork as pure carnival, reinforcing the audience as viewers rather than active participants. I wonder how many layers of social codes of conduct we would have to remove to even begin to access a reaction deeper than the performative. I would respond very differently to Leif’s contortions were I seeing them on the street; likewise, were I a part of Phurpha’s meditative chanting, I would benefit from my own mind body connection, rather than viewing theirs and remaining distanced from it.

The latter’s opening performance, a ritualistic Tibetan chanting, resonated an animal sound-making with a metaphysical trance-like state that combined mind with body. The gravelly sounds resonated with me after the performance, and yet, during it I was conscious of being totally separate from this very old, and sacred, ritual. I felt as though I were watching a museum piece, and the relationship made me uncomfortable, in the way that watching sacred rituals of other cultures at music festivals sometimes makes me feel like a strange Victorian viewer of curiosities. I was carried on the sound vibrations, but in the framework of performance, the profundity of this piece lost.

In contrast, the weekend’s culmination – a performance by Rudolph Eb.er, Joke Lanz, GX Juppiter Larson and Mike Dando – merged mind and body in a ritualistic, meditative journey, as each performer wore detective devices that appeared to follow their brain activity. Seated in a line, the energy was electric, and none more intense than Rudolph Eb.er’s himself. As Rudolph’s body jerked and twisted with the strength of his concentration, rhythms speeded up, volume amplified, tone seemed to follow his every twitch. The result was an incredibly intimate, profound journey, as the audience were literally exposed to the inner workings of the performers’ minds. The metaphysical was truly expressed and experienced through the sensory, the bodily. Artaud’s famous phrase, “it is through the skin that metaphysics is made to re-enter our minds” rang true. The performance was a confrontation of exposed humanity. In characteristic intensity, Rudolph et al used the power of the body as a starting point; yet, why did I feel different from watching Phurpha’s similarly meditative and bodily ritual? Again, I wonder if Rudolph and the Schimpfluch Gruppe are one step ahead; I felt as though I was witnessing a ritual which performed the very framework of the gallery that I had been struggling with. We were viewers, but the distance between audience and performer was acknowledged in a number of different ways.

It is arguably either extremely voyeuristic or deeply intimate, to metaphorically enter someone else’s mind activity, and watch or listen to it when in its most deep, meditative state. The open body took on a new meaning here, and Rudolph’s journey from his early works to this very moment suddenly made so much sense. The body was opening conceptually and literally, the viewer performer relationship entirely acknowledged through making visible the process of this opening itself.  At the same time, the sound vibrated through me and I felt part of this energy, but was also subject to its power. The effect the sounds and visual presence had on my own body was not dissimilar to the affect I could see happening on Rudolph’s body; yet my viewing this process was extravagantly exposing. This final performance seemed like the only possible way the festival could have ended.

I still have my doubts about viewing rituals rather than participating in them. As audience members we are never passive, and always contribute to the performance, but I still feel that the next step in confrontational strategies is actually to co-create rituals, to take the extreme of the safely contained framework and re-find their full potency. Yet perhaps there is a step in between, which I am missing and which Schimpfluch recognises. In embodying the purpose of ritual both in lifestyle and artwork, Rudolph Eb.er remains an enigmatic beacon of this understanding. His performances put this embodiment on show, whilst opening up the body to the audience to experience the effects of extreme rituals. The result is an intensity that will provoke no matter the outcome. Whilst the confrontational nature of these provocations may be reliant on the existence of mainstream culture, the movement and energy created over this weekend still acts as a voicing of sensory, intuitive, chaotic narratives that break the binaries of coherent, dominating verbal narratives of culture. The art space as a maintainer of these boundaries is perhaps a necessary space where these rituals can be viewed. Whether residing in creative margins, or appropriated by a creative niche or elite, these artworks voice the un-voiced world, and ignite a boundary-dwelling that is rebellious and observational, reflective and immersive.

Extreme Rituals: A Schimpfluch Carnival took place at the Arnolfini between 30 November and 2nd December 2012.

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