The Performing Flea
It was the twenty-eighth of June 1941. Another evening in war torn Britain was drawing to a close, children had been tucked up into bed, the grown ups were preparing to gather around the household radio set, half distracted by the distant but now very familiar sounds of air raid sirens. Through the oscillating whistling and the crackling of changing frequencies these words were heard.
“This is the German Shortwave Station. Here in our studio in Berlin tonight is Mr PG Wodehouse, the well-known father of the inimitable Jeeves, of Bertie Wooster, Lord Emsworth, Mr Mulliner and other delightful persons. Mr Wodehouse has been in Germany for almost a year since German troops occupied his residence in Northern France. During that time he has finished a new novel…..”
This was how the celebrated English comedy writer was introduced in his first broadcast for Nazi Germany. This text was the first instalment of a serial narrative called “How to be an internee and like it”.
His text revolved around his arrest and internment at various locations in France and Germany. It was written in a jokey and gestural manner full of linguistic public-school humour that was his hallmark and his repertoire. This hokum in a Nazi radio studio for their propaganda machine led him to be investigated for treason after the war. It was probably due to his connections to the upper echelons of the British class system that saved him from a possible hanging.
Wodehouse’s texts are discernible pieces of art and have a construction that can lie alongside that of sculpture. His art has an enchanting ease and pace and exudes a clubbable ambience. It has an accessibility that masks its underpinning multiple registers. It provides an entree into exploring the dynamics and modelling of art decision making.
The Irish playwright Sean O’Casey described Wodehouse’s art as “defying gravity like a performing flea”. Wodehouse’s genius lay in lightness and absurdity. In an interview in 1975 two years before his death, he gave a wanna be writer this practical advice.
“…. get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start.”
The device of early dialogue brings the audience into an interactive dimension. It is a vehicle for light-footed gesture that can be quickly executed. Gesture is not only an artistic device but a mode of thought. It operates in a space that the artist creates. The space in Wodhouse’s case was a fantasy world that was constructed from a subtle and intended titration of fiction against reality. The absurd world of Blandings Castle and the other string of hollow characters in his art contained enough identifying features for the audience to contextualise the text into a recognisable parody of British social structure. The fusion of life and the fictitious provides a sealed hinterland within the reader’s mind. If art has to have meaning, the space within which it operates cannot be static. The ground drawn out between fantasy, reality and the audience is one of motion and flux. Like O’Casey’s flea the frisson is provided by the unpredictability of this motion. This oscillating space provides the back drop in which artistic gesture can exercise its potency. Dieter Roth and Arnulf Rainer’s collaboration which was recently exhibited at Hauser and Wirth, London has many of these qualities. The sense of flux within the space of their relationship is evident in the celebration of life and play that permeate their work.
my eye is a mouth
my eyelids are the mouth’s lips
my lashes are the mouth’s teeth
Roth’s text is very different from Wodehouse’s yet they are both capable of evoking vitality by their own internal visualisations. Wodehouse stuck to written text exclusively. Dieter Roth embraced multiple genres of art. Roth’s written texts in the form of poetry reflect some of the underlying registers of thought and ideas that pervaded his vast restless body of work. The poem’s projection takes the form of a dialogue between the visual and the linguistic. Lacan’s dictum “the unconscious is structured like a language” provides an avenue of approach to explore the generative nature of art at the internal level. Art in the form of written text is not just something that is to be read; it forms a contingency with the unconscious.
The fluctuating nature of the unconscious may consist of something that we don't necessarily see but something that flickers in the form of language. The flux between the imaginary and word based symbolism forms a temporal spatial place leaving traces of the unwinding and intermittent nature of linguistic coinage. This interface performs an amorphous dance which contributes to the lightness and playfulness that infuses Roth’s work.
The meaning of gesture, like that of Wodehouse’s world of Wooster, has changed. Today’s meaning implies the unfulfilled, trivial, shallow and the incomplete. This notion of its meaning appears to operate at only one level. Gesture is derived from the latin ‘revere’ meaning: to carry or to bear. Gesture therefore carries significance and substance to some degree. Carrying also implies motion and direction. It is different to what is termed “gestural;” which is a term that is often used in painting to describe rapid loose brushwork. Gesture itself is a notion. Its direction like that of Janus, points in opposing directions; inwards and outwards. One metamorphosis's into the other. A successful gesture changes into something transcendent on its journey from the internal to the external. Gesture is seen by the audience as the physical manifestation of the internal. It becomes a mode of thinking which is neither linear not rational. It plays a significant part in artistic decision making. It becomes a potent tool in engaging with the audience.
Left, Left ,Left, Right……………. Left.
Roll calls and military drill seem to meter the time of Wodehouse’s spell of internment. The time signature for a British army march is regulated at 120 steps per minute. What of the temporal architecture of this artistic mode called gesture?
Four minutes thirty three seconds
John Cage’s 4’33’ was a gesture and as the title suggests it was measured in a linear way. However the psychic dynamics within orchestra and audience were anything but linear. Before the physical execution of gesture there appears to be a different silence which can be seen as a space where pre understandings, context and conditioning collide. This is what Kristine Santilli has labelled a “Busy Silence”. This is the forge where art entities are shaped, structured and created into the “other” and before they show themselves into the external manifestation of artistic gesture. The gesture becomes a signifier. It demonstrates a meaning that has its origins in the interchange of the conscious and the unconscious. It takes place in this silence. Time in this space is no longer linear and is not teleologically directed. We have little conscious access to this dynamic and yet it is the fulcrum for artistic demonstrable actions.
I tell my secret? No indeed, not I;
Perhaps some day, who knows?
The “busy silence” prior to the action is a state of flux and instability where Lacan’s triple notions of the Imaging, the Symbolic and the Real interplay. Perhaps like Lacan himself they cannot necessarily be decoded. The gesture as implied in Christina Rossetti’s poem is a mode of thought that holds its secret in its silence. In this transitional state, knowledge becomes accessible while at the same time retaining its secrecy. If art as seen as an external event is to have its own validity it must hold back some mystery.
The carrying and bearing connotations of the word implies that after art has been mediated from the generative source, it has to find a resting place in an external party. The receiving of an artists enactment is of equal importance to the generative process. The perceptive profile of the receiving audience would have some of the characteristics of those who generated the original gesture. In the case of sound Salome Voeglin feels that listening is as a part of art as its production when she writes:
‘A philosophy of sound art must remain a strategy of listening…”
The events and the mystery surrounding the generation of artistic modes are replicated within those that receive it. The binaries of intent and the unconscious, the imaginary and the linguistic, the secret and the disclosed interplay and are reforged within the psyches of the recipient audience. This is not a mirrored simulacrum of lock and key where one profile finds its partner in a well fitting union. Flux and impediments on this journey modify the nature of the original artistic enactment.
I am in a Sitting Room
In the transfer of art from the artist to the audience there is an inevitable loss of energy. This entropic process is part of a chain where the energy of the idea within the artist decays. The chain stretches from within the artist’s psyche where ideas are forged to the outside world. It is then carried to the audience to be reprocessed. At each stage of transfer there are interruptions and leakage of the binding energies that distort the nature of the art. The erosion of the energy leads to fragmentation as the entity is unable to sustain its own completeness. These impedances are intersections where ideas can decay or be reborn. Alvin Lucier plays with these ideas in his work; “I am in a sitting room” In this piece his vocalised text undergoes an entropic journey through repetitive cycles where it encounters successive physical and auditory obstacles. The final result is low grade noise without audible diction. The gestural art cycle eventually finds a static form where artistic expression and mode of thought finds its residue in the shape of a memory. Perhaps all art becomes a fragmented memory devoid of the processes and notions that gave rise to it. Perhaps in its death, artistic gesture finds its potency. The artistic idea is morphed into an icon of meditation that flickers energy on occasions to the viewer. Mirroring the pathway to Zen enlightenment; art was sort, found, embraced, discarded and then finally returned to its source within; only to re-enter this cycle as a successive gesture.
“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures….”. F. Scott Fitzgerald
What is the shape of the artistic action through gesture? Fitzgerald's description of the construct of Jay Gatsby implies that the whole is made up of sequential gestural fragments. Each of these art actions have a short temporal nature. Its energy decreases and fades as soon as it is executed. It quickly becomes a memory. It can be only be sustained by gathering energy expended by the next action. In some sense it is rather like a Ponzi scheme where the previous investment is paid for by the capital from the next investment. The instability of the interactional nature of fragmentation allows other dynamics to come into play.
To roll, to curve, to scatter, to modulate……
Richard Serra’s Verb List can be read in a number of contingent registers. On one level the text can be read as a unidirectional “doing list” resulting in a possible modernist structure like one Serra’s own steel constructions. On another the list is full of so many inherent instabilities and directions that tearing apart seems inevitable. Fragmentation allows space in the form of its gaps to create new entities. It creates multiple borderlands through which ideas can permeate. Gaps and intervals can act as impedances for energies to transverse rather like how a ship has to weave and navigate around a complex archipelago. A constellation of particles can also act as a catalyst where new forces are generated. The processes of diffusion, osmotic action and diffraction are those that are provoked by fragmentation reflecting purloined ideas from the world of physics. These forces give birth to distortion, restlessness, shifting tensions, transience and the alteration of the perception of time. They have become well used devices in contemporary art and could be said to provide it with a lot of its formulaic structure.
Whistle, Whistle, Whistle….Crackle, Crackle, Crackle….
The nature of sound through the beaming of short wave radio waves provided ambiguity and confusion in Wodehouse’s broadcasts. Visual text, voice text and radio text have differing readings and operate in different registers. The sonic environment triggers a multiplicity of perceptive paths. Sound uses different physiological mechanisms and produces different varieties of imagery. The tactile nature of sound waves coming through the air buffeting and networking with our physical beings produce their own unique effects. They are very different to the electromagnetic directional energies that result in vision. Sound is rarely direct. The waves travel round corners and envelope us. Unlike light we are unable to switch it off by closing our eyelids. It is constant and is laps at our beings. It provides a very different perceptive way of interacting with the world about us.
The sound artist Max Neuhaus debated the dictum.
“..they say that ‘seeing is believing?’ in fact the eye and the ear are in constant dialogue”.
The ambiguity of the nature of sound itself disorientates the visual cues to create paradox in parallel.
This iiiiiiiiiiis de Jerrrrrmmmmann Short Wwaaave Sttation.
The primitive nature of the short wave interference unintentionally affected the sound and tonal quality of the broadcast to give it qualities that are associated with what is now called an “extended vocal technique”. This is a genre of sound art pioneered by Meredith Monk. Her work in Hocket and Turtle Dreamsare examples of an intersection of vocal effects, sound and moving objects. They create landscapes and imagery through weaving fresh modes of perception. One is perfused with a sense of pervading alienation on exposure to her work. Hoket evokes similarities of sonic structure to those found in Gregorian chants or the call and response orchestrations in early jazz. It draws one away from the linear narrative of western european music and engages with ideas from anthropological fields. Sound provides a foil against which other medias can thrive. Synergy, energy, decay, discordancy and interruption can take place within the interactive planes of the visual and the acoustic. Art is not necessarily a product of one or the other but can be found in a state of dynamic flux that creates a fresh perception of the whole. The Wodehouse’s texts from the Berlin broadcasts failed to evoke his predicted responses. The world that he had so successfully created had vanished. His cues and context for his hermetically sealed imagery had been washed away not only by the political events of war but by the alienating effect of the distorted nature of short wave sound.
What was the Performing Flea’s contribution to the analysis of the unconscious and the arts? Very little …….consciously.
Insights into his reflections on his war time behaviour can be gleaned from one of his aphorisms.
“Memories are like mulligatawny soup in a cheap restaurant. It is best not to stir them.”
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To Squeeze a Blackhead
Borht thro Throb throbe
Squirm Release, ejaculate; tissue
Pain deep Voided Now momentarily pure
Marked shame, my world, onward.
The Do List
Do one to one
Do chilling out
Do India again