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Improvisation and Social Aesthetics

Improvisation and Social Aesthetics

by Georgina Born (Editor)


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Addressing a wide range of improvised art and music forms-from jazz and cinema to dance and literature-this volume's contributors locate improvisation as a key site of mediation between the social and the aesthetic. As a catalyst for social experiment and political practice, improvisation aids in the creation, contestation, and codification of social realities and identities. Among other topics, the contributors discuss the social aesthetics of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the Feminist Improvising Group, and contemporary Malian music, as well as the virtual sociality of interactive computer music, the significance of "uncreative" improvisation, responses to French New Wave cinema, and the work of figures ranging from bell hooks and Billy Strayhorn to Kenneth Goldsmith. Across its diverse chapters, Improvisation and Social Aesthetics argues that ensemble improvisation is not inherently egalitarian or emancipatory, but offers a potential site for the cultivation of new forms of social relations. It sets out a new conceptualization of the aesthetic as immanently social and political, proposing a new paradigm of improvisation studies that will have reverberations throughout the humanities.

Contributors. Lisa Barg, Georgina Born, David Brackett, Nicholas Cook, Marion Froger, Susan Kozel, Eric Lewis, George E. Lewis, Ingrid Monson, Tracey Nicholls, Winfried Siemerling, Will Straw, Zoë Svendsen, Darren Wershler

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822361947
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/12/2017
Series: Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice Series
Pages: 354
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.74(d)

About the Author

Georgina Born is Professor of Music and Anthropology at the University of Oxford and the editor of Music, Sound, and Space: Transformations of Public and Private Experience.

Eric Lewis is Associate Professor of Philosophy at McGill University and the author of The Video Art of Sylvia Safdie.

Will Straw is Professor of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University and the coeditor of The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock.

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Improvisation And Social Aesthetics

By Georgina Born, Eric Lewis, Will Straw

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-6194-7



Improvised Music, the Social, and (Re)Theorizing the Aesthetic

Georgina Born

What does it mean to speak of a social aesthetics and, in particular, to do so in relation to improvised music? In this mainly conceptual chapter I develop some proposals concerning the relations between improvised music and the social and pursue the implications for retheorizing the aesthetic. I will be concerned with the social mediation of music, where mediation is conceived as a two-way or co-productive process. As we will see, music engenders certain kinds of socialities, yet it also refracts or transforms existing social formations. This conceptual project responds to a series of overlapping movements: the demand issued by scholarship in ethnomusicology, musicology, popular music studies, jazz studies, and sociology of music for progress in theorizing the heterogeneity and the different scales of music's social mediation; the drive in art theory and criticism to take seriously and analyze those facets of recent art practices in which the social features as a dimension of aesthetic experience; and the concern within anthropological and social theory to reconceptualize the social — or "sociality" — itself (Latour 2005; Long and Moore 2012a, 2012b; Strathern 1990). These movements do not exist in isolation: that they are intertwined is evident in the way that ethnography, the method of anthropology, has become involved in contemporary collaborative art (Foster 1995; Rutten et al. 2013; Schneider and Wright 2006, 2010) and music practices (Born 2013a).

Despite this convergence, it has proved surprisingly difficult to develop an approach adequate to the challenge of conceptualizing how the social enters into the aesthetic operations of both music and art. Indeed, music and art set general challenges to social theory in this regard, and improvised music poses them acutely. As I will show, however, it is precisely because of these challenges that music and art, and improvised music in particular, can also be generative and advance the wider debates about theorizing the social. This chapter therefore bears on the conceptual heart of this volume as a whole.

To begin, let us consider a number of symptomatic and contrasting ways in which the social enters into contemporary art practices and critical discourses. The most prominent is the paradigm of relational aesthetics enunciated by the critic and curator Nicholas Bourriaud (2002), often taken to be emblematic in the analysis of present-day art. Relational aesthetics places art's orchestration of socialities at the core of a new conception of the aesthetic. Bourriaud contends, in a programmatic text, that art from the 1990s has revolved around "practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context," which he equates with the production of a "specific sociability" (16, 113). Relational aesthetics is therefore committed to assessing contemporary art practices "on the basis of the inter-human relations which they represent, produce or prompt" (112). Bourriaud's explanation for this turn concerns the "extraordinary upsurge of social exchanges" given by greater mobility, rapid urbanization, and the expansion of travel and telecommunications since the Second World War. At the same time, pervasive commercialization reaches into human affairs so that "the social bond has turned into a standardized artifact" and "the space of current relations is ... severely affected by general reification" (9). In reaction, the new practices, which he locates within a genealogy of post-conceptual art, take as their point of departure intersubjectivity, interaction, and proximity, with the effect that "alternative forms of sociability, critical models and moments of constructed conviviality are worked out" (43 – 54). "Artistic praxis," he contends in a resonant phrase, "appears these days to be a rich loam for social experiments" (9).

In one direction, "the artwork of the 1990s turns the beholder into a neighbour, a direct interlocutor" (Bourriaud 2002, 43); in another direction, the exploration of social bonds takes the form of "recreating socio-professional models," such that the artist takes "the real field of the production of goods and services, and aims to set up a certain ambiguity ... between the utilitarian function of the objects he is presenting, and their aesthetic function" (35). A precursor of the latter turn, Bourriaud argues, was the Artist Placement Group (APG), which from the late 1960s to the 1980s placed artists in branches of government and industry, an alternative institutional setting to the gallery and exhibition. An example of the former direction for Bourriaud, art as interlocution, is the performance event "Turkish Jokes" in 1994, in which Jens Hanning broadcast funny stories in Turkish through a loudspeaker in a square in Copenhagen, producing "in that split second a micro-community, one made up of immigrants brought together by collective laughter which upset their exile situation," a micro-community "formed in relation to the work and in it." Bourriaud concludes, "Depending on the degree of participation required of the onlooker by the artist, along with ... the model of sociability proposed ..., an exhibition will give rise to a specific 'arena of exchange'" (17). Indeed, in his concern with proximity, form, and movement, Bourriaud flirts ambiguously with the antihumanist stance of the theorists of circulation and inter-object relations (Gaonkar and Povinelli 2003; Straw 2010), who find their ancestor in the recently rediscovered sociology of Gabriel Tarde. For Tarde, it is the circulation of entities, affects, and behaviors that creates the very fabric of the social (Barry and Thrift 2007; Born 2010b; Candea 2010).

Bourriaud's argument is engaging, but it is hard to discern any coherence in the manifold social relations and social interactions staged by the practices he describes. Indeed, the diversity of art practices that he relates far outstrips his theoretical credo: it is impossible to reduce what he sets in motion to his oft-cited maxim that the goal of relational aesthetics is "to heal the social bond." Predictably, rather than turn to the disciplines of the social for assistance, he rejects sociology as a source of understanding of the variety of social forms that he adumbrates. Moreover, he dismisses any engagement with the dynamics of difference, conflict, and antagonism that are in part constitutive of the social. Bourriaud's paradigm invites Hal Foster's (2006, 190) pithy criticism of a "happy interactivity: among 'aesthetic objects' Bourriaud counts 'meetings, encounters, events, various types of collaboration between people, games, festivals and places of conviviality.' ... To some readers such 'relational aesthetics' will ... seem to aestheticize the nicer procedures of our service economy." Bourriaud's own rendering of the social — as opposed to that of the practices he relates — tends, then, toward reductive idealizations. Claire Bishop (2004, 65), a critic and theorist who has championed participatory art, puts the key challenge acutely: "Bourriaud wants to equate aesthetic judgment with an ethicopolitical judgment of the relationships produced by a work of art. But ... the quality of the relationships in 'relational aesthetics' are never examined or called into question. ... If relational art produces human relations, then the next logical question to ask is what types of relations are being produced, for whom, and why?"

Late in his book, Bourriaud (2002, 82) reflects on the criticisms drawn by relational art practices, noting that "they are ... reproached for denying social conflict and dispute, differences and divergences, and the impossibility of communicating within an alienated social space, in favour of an illusory ... modelling of sociability." As a rejoinder, he states emphatically, "These approaches do not stem from a 'social' or 'sociological' form of art"; rather, the relational exhibition "is an interstice, defined in relation to the alienation reigning everywhere else. ... The exhibition does not deny the social relationships in effect, but it does distort them and project them into a space-time frame encoded by the art system" (82). Crucially, he seems here to be arguing that relational art both participates or partakes in wider social relations and that it stages a microsocial space apart that may refract or "distort" them. Bishop (2012, 45) makes a similar observation: "By using people as a medium, participatory art has always had a double ontological status: it is both an event in the world, and also at a remove from it."

Bourriaud himself fails fully to theorize this crucial point; he has no vocabulary to distinguish between the several modalities of the social that he conflates. But Bishop's "double ontological status" also reduces what is going on. For now, I will point to not two but three social dimensions of the social aesthetics that are immanent in Bourriaud's examples. The first consists of the socialities enlivened by Hanning's "Turkish Jokes," a "micro-community" of laughing Turkish immigrants. This indexes a realm of immediate, co-present, and affective microsocial relations and interactive associations that are regularly set in motion by the performance arts, as well as by public art and site-specific works (Salter 2010). The second, again shown by Hanning's performance event, consists of art's refraction of wider, preexisting social relations, whether of class, race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. In this light, Hanning's public art event is one that in Deleuzian terms is crossed by, or evokes, a molar politics of common ethnic-, migration-, and class-based identifications (Patton 2000, 43). And the third consists of how art can intervene in the organizational, institutional, and political-economic forms in which it is embedded or with which it is articulated. It is this third dimension that is exemplified by APG's experimental engagement with, and expansion of, art's institutional spheres. Such practices refract or "distort" a quite different order of the social.

This third dimension deserves a brief exposition. The APG was an organization founded by John Latham with roots in conceptual art which, from the late 1960s, negotiated residencies for artists inside a series of corporations, including Britain's National Coal Board, British Rail, British Steel, the Scottish Office, ICI, and the Esso oil company. The APG's orientation to the social therefore took the form of sustained experimental interventions in institutional processes — processes that were quite independent of the art institutional nexus. The group's artists were charged with becoming involved in the functioning of the corporation, using anything to hand and retaining an "open brief" (Bolt Rasmussen 2009; Metzger 1972; Slater 2001). As Andrew Barry (2013, 90) notes, "The artist was understood ... as an 'incidental person' whose presence and actions might effect change." The APG did not overtly criticize the institutions with which it worked; nor did it seek to provide alternatives. Instead, it sought to "introduce change in society through the medium of art relative to those structures with 'elected' responsibility for shaping the future — governments, industries and academic institutions" (Barbara Steveni, quoted in Walker 2002, 55). Indeed, one of the APG's principles was that the artist must find an outcome or intervention that was not politically overdetermined. In this sense, the APG's projects manifested Deleuze's minor politics of the emergent, underdetermined by preexisting political formations (Patton 2000). Yet it is worth noting that the APG's politics have often been misunderstood as molar politics by later artists who purported to follow them. At this point, we might draw a link with Peter Bürger's (1984, 49) focus, in his analysis of the historical avant-gardes, on art as institution; in his words, "The European avant-garde movements can be defined as an attack on the status of art in bourgeois society. What is negated is not an earlier form of art ... but art as an institution that is unassociated with the life praxis of men." Through the APG, then, we glimpse something of the spectrum and the evolution of art's imbrication with institutions: from the critique of art as institution (Alberro and Stimson 2009; Fraser 2005) to experimental institutional intervention without telos.

But a final way in which the social enters recent art contrasts markedly with both the APG and relational aesthetics: it is in the guise of "socially engaged art" (Thompson 2012), politically informed interdisciplinary practices in which "external" social and political realms become the arena within which art stages its interventions. These practices are emphatically intended to influence the "real" world via politicized interventions in larger institutional spheres. This is art motivated by a keen awareness that "living itself exists in forms that must be questioned, rearranged, mobilized, and undone": "living as form" (29). With roots traced to Russian Constructivism, Duchamp, Artaud, Fluxus, Situationism, the "social sculpture" of Joseph Beuys, and groups such as the Critical Art Ensemble, socially engaged art is a broad and heterogeneous lineage encompassing strategic, often sustained projects that defy discursive boundaries in order to produce "effects and affects in the world" (32). Apparently in a similar vein to relational aesthetics, "participation, sociality, and the organization of bodies in space play a key feature in much of this work" (21). Yet more than relational aesthetics, these practices seek also to engage with judicial and governmental processes, as in the collaborative, prison-based practice of Laurie Jo Reynolds, who calls her work "legislative art" by analogy with Augusto Boal's (1998) "legislative theatre," which in turn is indebted to Paolo Freire (2000). Socially engaged art may also become involved in community activism, as in the two-decades-old experimental housing project and art residency Project Row Houses, animated by the artist Rick Lowe, which rehabilitated a low-income, mainly African American neighborhood in Houston by building a strong base of local participation among residents.

In notable contrast to relational aesthetics, then, rather than seeking to "heal" the general reification or foster consensus, socially engaged art animates encounters and events marked more often by social conflict, "deep discord and frustration" (Thompson 2012, 24). Exemplary here is the infamous installation "Please Love Austria" (2000), devised by the German artist Christoph Schlingensief, which staged a parodic "Big Brother" – style media event in a public square outside the Vienna State Opera House in which real asylum seekers were housed in a shipping container, their activities televised live on the Internet, while the public was asked to vote daily on the least popular detainees, who were returned to a real detention center outside the city. The provocative, parodic, and politically ambiguous installation stimulated heated debate, scandalizing and antagonizing elements of the public.

In avowedly instrumental terms, Nato Thompson (2012, 22) notes that socially engaged art has "become an instructive space to gain valuable skill sets in the techniques of performativity, representation, aesthetics, and the creation of affect." Hence, the stress on methodologies, research, and long-term activism, and the reflexive interest in the forms of the social, are efforts both at shifting the focus away from traditional aesthetic concerns and at enriching and transforming what is meant by the term "aesthetics" (Born 2010c, 198 – 200). The critical questions to be asked of socially engaged art therefore differ from those raised by relational aesthetics. For the problem is not one of the cultivation of sociality as an end in itself but the opposite: that art and its socialities are mobilized and valorized primarily by reference to given or prior political and social justice ends. As Bishop (2004, 2006) notes, such practices risk negating the specifically aesthetic dimension, reducing "art to a question of the ethically good or bad," as well as making a problematic equation between "forms of democracy in art and forms of democracy in society" (Bishop 2012, 41). Instead, Bishop calls for art that respects its own mediating role, thereby holding "artistic and social critiques in tension" (40).

Contemporary art therefore manifests diverse engagements with the social that can be traced back at least to the 1960s. The art historian Luke Skrebowski (2009, 67) comments that this was a transitional era in which "the art and the social context were of a piece. Indeed, the recognition that art's social context impacts its character constituted a fundamental tenet of the alternative to formalist modernism." In the preceding paragraphs I have distinguished four modalities of the social in recent art and aesthetics, however, with the precise purpose of resisting their reduction to notions of social "context." In analyzing these variants, my aim has been twofold: to show that while the social is increasingly manifest in contemporary art and aesthetics, and theorized as such, it takes distinctive forms that matter and should not be conceptually elided; and, on this basis, to enable fertile comparisons to be drawn in the remainder of this chapter between the varieties of social aesthetics in contemporary art practices and those evident in improvised music.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction. What is Social Aesthetics? / Georgina Born, Eric Lewis, and Will Straw  1
Part I. The Social and the Aesthetic
1. After Relational Aesthetics: Improvised Music, the Social, and (Re)Theorizing the Aesthetic / Georgina Born  33
2. Scripting Social Interaction: Improvisation, Performance, and Western "Art" Music / Nicholas Cook  59
3. From the American Civil Rights Movement to Mali: Reflections on Social Aesthetics and Improvisation / Ingrid Monson  78
4. From Network Bands to Ubiquitous Computing: Rich Gold and the Social Aesthetics of Interactvity / George E. Lewis  91
Part II. Genre and Defintion
5. The Social Aesthetics of Swing in the 1940s: Or the Distribution of the Non-Sensible / David Brackett  113
6. What Is "Great Black Music"? The Social Aesthetics of the AACM in Paris / Eric Lewis  135
7. Kenneth Goldsmith and Uncreative Improvisation / Darren Wershler  160
Part III. Sociality and Identity
8. Strayhorn's Queer Arrangements / Lisa Barg  183
9. What's Love Got to Do with It? Creating Art, Creating Community, Creating a Better World / Tracey Nicholls  213
10. Improvisation in New Wave Cinema: Beneath the Myth, the Social / Marian Froger, translated by Will Straw  233
Part IV. Performance
11. Social Aesthetics and Transcultural Improvisation: Wayde Compton and the Performance of Black Time / Winfried Siemerling  255
12. Devices of Existence: Contact Improvisation, Mobile Performances, and Dancing through Twitter / Susan Kozel  268
13. The Dramaturgy of Spontaneity: Improvising the Social in Theater / Zoë Svendsen  288
References  309
Contributors' Biographies  335
Index  339

What People are Saying About This

Art Worlds - Howard S. Becker

"The editors and authors of this important collection have assembled a striking and original set of ideas and examples to illustrate and demonstrate their contention that the time is ripe for a new approach to the classical questions of aesthetic theory. The resulting comprehensive and persuasive demonstration will persuade interested readers that the job has been done, that a social aesthetics illuminates questions that have too long been left unexplored."

Vinyl Freak - John Corbett

"This groundbreaking collection brings together disparate fields, from ethnomusicology and art history to queer theory and philosophy, drawing them into a productive and at times heated conversation. Putting forward a whole set of new paradigms for considering music, improvisation, contemporary art, time-arts, new media, and aesthetics, the contributors advance the discourse on the improvised arts, potentially shaking up a number of disciplines in the process."

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