Why Fear Experimental Art?

No good name for experimental art exists. Many object to the scientistic experimental, claiming either that science has a capitalistic classism or art should not be reduced to a form of knowledge-production.

Less grandly but more eloquently, filmmaker Guy Maddin once (in conversation) objected that it annoyed him when people called his work experimental, because he wasn’t experimenting, he was actually doing things

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Some speak of innovative art, but only when they want investors. Radical best captures its spirit, but connotes a progressive politics when many experimentalists are reactionary or straightforwardly fascist. The militaristic term avant-garde implies an artist at the forefront of social change, a quaint anachronism in an era when everyone’s an artist and nobody cares.

The most precise term for today’s experimentalism might be post-avant, which author/scholar Gregory Betts (in Avant-Garde Canadian Literature) defines as referring “to experimental modes of art making that challenge the various hegemonies of neoliberalism and modernity, but without much tangible faith in progress or revolution.” Despite this, perhaps fittingly, nobody uses the term post-avant.

Whatever you want to call it, “experimental art” has mainstreamed itself. Poet-turned-media professor Darren Wershler routinely tweets about #EverydayConceptualism, obsessive practices or projects that would have, in a bygone age, been the domain of conceptual artists rather than regular folk.

From trap music to Griffin Poetry Prize shortlists, experimental art appears everywhere. Andy Warhol might as well have predicted that in the future we all would be experimental artists for fifteen minutes, before becoming bored and going out for avocado toast — or professionalizing our bizarre obsessions as tech startups. Why don’t we just drop the descriptors and call it art

Well, in many ways, because the fundamental gesture of experimental art is detachment from art proper (its most extreme form being anti-art).

The basic technique of experimental art is self-reflexive defamiliarization, and its goal is conceptual violence.

Self-reflexive defamiliarization is a mouthful, but all it means is that experimental art often works to make art strange.

The term defamiliarization comes from Victor Shklovsky’s 1917 essay “Art as Technique,” in which he theorized that “[t]he purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” 

Poetry provides the cleanest example, since form is foregrounded in poetry, and poetic techniques, including rhyme and line breaks, typically produce an estrangement effect, setting poetic language apart from language as we see it elsewhere (even in a poem using found language, the new context and any additional techniques are used to defamiliarize the lifted language).

Experimental poetry, then, uses poetic techniques in a manner that draws attention to the poem as a poem and complicates its relationships to its author, audience, tradition, or material. An excellent example is bpNichol’s “translation” of Matsuo Bashō’s famous haiku:

古池

蛙飛び込む

水の音

— Matsu Bashō

furuike ya

kawazu tobikomu

mizu no oto

— Bashō in transliteration

Here is a conventional translation of the poem:

The old pond;

A frog jumps in —

The sound of the water.

— R. H. Blyth's translation

Here is bpNichol’s best translation (he did a few variations):

The circle is the pond, the line is the frog’s trajectory. The sound of water (the frog’s plop) is the sound of us reading the letter Q aloud. Q is also the 17th letter of the alphabet — a “preservation” of sorts of the 17 syllables of a haiku.

Is Qa reasonable translation of Bashō’s poem? If you encountered the poem in the wild, with no title or commentary, nothing would indicate that it should in any way be considered a translation of an ancient haiku. It’s just the letter Q. Yet, as we’ve seen, it could be considered a reasonable, even an excellent, experimental translation. 

The “project” of bpNichol’s poem is not so much to offer a reasonable translation as to call into question the nature of translation itself, to set a Qagainst the entire literary tradition of attention to this one poem. Its core subject is itself, and its contextual position inside of literary history. Its core approach is one of making the letterform strange, making us look at a Q like it was some sort of cross between a comic and a nature poem.

Experimental art is best understood as a subgenre of whatever larger genre it has parasitically infected, one that uses a specific type of defamiliarization as its core technique — a self-reflexive approach that has the goal of defamiliarizing art itself, making art seem strange and unfamiliar to an audience jaded by exposure. This creates the common “But is it art?” reactions and debates. Boring debates, because the answer is always the same: Yes, it’s art, but it’s trying hard not to be.

When The Weeknd sings, “This ain’t no fuckin’ sing-along / So girl, what you singing for?” to the fans in the front row, it’s not admirable but it calls attention to the situation and dynamics of the artwork’s production and consumption.

We see this same “calling attention” at play in the theme song to It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in Marcel Duchamp’sFountain, in Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, and in Nichol’s Q. 

When we consider experimental art apart from its social, historical contexts, apart from groups that may or may not identify as avant-garde artists, and instead look at the actual formal approach that these artworks use (whether they rise from the fringes or in the mainstream), what we see time and again is this same attempt to make some aspect of the artwork unfamiliar to its audience, jarring them for attention first and some grander notion second.

The “grander notion” takes some form of conceptual violence.

Conceptual violence has more of a ring to it than self-reflexive defamiliarization, but is harder to define.

The phrase contains two connected meanings, both of which are important to experimental art practice: the desire to uncover violence inside existing concepts and the goal of doing violence to those concepts — breaking into them and then breaking them apart. 

Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum that “the medium is the message” applies here, since so often this occurs on a formal level. Also in his 1964 masterwork, Understanding Media, McLuhan writes, “The artist is the [one] in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of […] new knowledge […] in experimental art, [we] are given the exact specification of coming violence to [our] own psyches from [our] own counter-irritants or technology.”

The reason McLuhan believes this is because experimental artists use technology wrong — instead of using it for its intended purpose, they misuse it to reveal its unintended effects.

They draw our attention to its form (the medium) more so than its content (the message), as their message. Experimental art works to uncover the violence inherent in its technologies and how they are ordinarily used. Not just coming violence, but current and past violence, is its subject proper.

In experimental poetry, for example, the “technology” under discussion is language itself. A great deal of experimental poetry repurposes language to reveal undercurrents of violence in ordinary speech, or in the specialized ways that we discuss certain topics. Even if the point of our discussions is supportive, the way we talk often reveals inherent biases and aggressions regarding what we discuss.

Any poetic project taking source material language shares this approach, intentional or otherwise — so often, when we estrange language from its original context, the result is to reveal extraordinary horror inside language we’ve hitherto accepted as ordinary. Rachel Zolf’s Human Resourcesworks this was, as does Jordan Abel’s Injun(“all them injuns is people first” — what a startling line, that reveals so much doublethink). 

Another common target of experimentalism is narrative structure. Often, it presents facts or fragments apart from commentary, outside of coherence. An oft-remarked maxim is that we tell stories to order the world, to shape its chaos to express our desires and make sense of things, realigning this messy world for our own comfort.

Less remarked upon, because more disturbing to consider, is how we use violence the same way.

The narrative act itself has a certain conceptual violence; even something as banal as telling the story of our day involves shaping its bare facts into a particular structure meant to invalidate other perspectives on events and support particular political biases. A good deal of experimental art attempts to avoid artistic conventions that the artist sees as intermingled with the ego’s violent insistence of its primacy. 

The base-level of experimental art’s conceptual violence is to violate ideas about what art is or should be. Maximally, the work incorporates or attempts actual violence. Whether real or thematized, its violent refusals and its calling attention to itself, and the violence so often inherent in the audience’s interactions (with the art or with each other), accounts for much of the public’s discomfort with experimental art. 

In 1974, Marina Abramović laid a gun and pistol, along with other items, on a table with materials she invited the public to use on her body in whatever ways they saw fit. Nobody murdered her, although they arranged the gun in an invitation to kill herself. Among other abuses, the audience cut her neck and drank her blood.

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Jonathan Ball is a writer, filmmaker, and scholar living at www.jonathanball.com.

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