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Simon Starling's System

Simon Starling’s work offers a prime instance of a creative process in which the autonomous association of ideas operates in conjunction with the toolbox of reasoning: system, rules and conventions. Starling describes his working method as ‘connecting the previously unconnected’, which recalls the Surrealist’s ‘juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities’. But Starling’s work does not exhibit any obvious evidence of a Surrealist influence. Specifically his work does not subscribe to the Surrealist supposition that creativity stems from a Freudian ‘primitive’ unconscious; a concept exploited, for example, in the work of contemporary artists such as John Bock, Paul McCarthy, Jason Rhoades and Elke Krystufek.

Starling’s work does exhibit a creative process, indeed it can be said to represent creative process. But his approach is of particular interest to the discussion in this chapter because it flags an intersection between the autonomous association of ideas and rational-analytical processes.

Thus, in Inverted Retrograde Theme, 2001, Starling creates a connection between sculptural processes and an instance of artistic system in the form of Arnold Schönberg’s twelve-tone technique of musical composition which uses the chromatic semitone scale rather than the more harmonious diatonic scale. The score illustrated in Fig. 1 is from one of Schoenberg’s students Anton Webern’s Concerto which uses Schoenberg’s twelve tone technique.[45]

The first three notes are the ‘original’ cell, the following three notes are its ‘retrograde inversion’ (backwards and upside down). The third cell is ‘retrograde’ (backwards) and the fourth is ‘inverted’ (upside down). And one can make the general comment that despite the fact that modern Western music is so bound up in scales it appears to be capable of enormous creativity. Indeed, music can be taken as an instance that supports Michel Foucault’s claim that discipline and system can be productive as well as restrictive; a notion that is diametrically opposed to the romantic concept of creativity.

Pressing home this point we can observe that the creative process in music can and does interact with linear systems because the diatonic and chromatic scales are linear systems that serve as a scaffolding for harmonic and melodic permutations as well as deliberate cacophony. One might also observe that at one point in his career Marcel Duchamp gave up art for chess which is another instance of a rule-based system that is capable of multilayered and approximately infinite permutations.

Returning to Starling, the Secession commentary on his Inverted Retrograde Theme notes that: ‘aspects of mirroring, inversion and translocation, which are characteristic for twelve-tone music, are transferred to the installation’ (Secession 2001). What is interesting here is that creative process is being interconnected with what might be referred to metaphorically as ‘information processes’ that reflect the mathematical-like concern with structure and pattern evident in musical composition.

Starling’s approach to sculptural installation fits very well into the argument regarding the interrelatedness of creative process and reasoning implicit in the Humean account of imagination and the association of ideas. The very fact that Starling is making reference to a system, indeed a now historic, conventionalised, system, shifts the consideration of his creative process away from a romantic focus on the unknowable depths of the unconscious mind towards an intersection of knowledge, discourse, convention, intuition and system.

The twelve tone system in music arose out of the modernist desire to escape tonal music with its hierarchical focus on a key. One might compare Schoenberg’s deconstruction of tonality with the Cubist deconstruction of Renaissance perspective and its hierarchical focus which is the vanishing point. In place of a single, totalising perspective and hierarchical structures modernist/postmodernist aesthetics promulgates a vision based on multiple perspectives and non-hierarchical, nonlinear structures.

But Schonberg’s permutational system remains a system, like the harmonic system of keys imposed on the diatonic and chromatic scales. Similarly Cubism is systematic as is evident in the fact that it was the seed that gave rise to rationalistic geometric abstraction epitomised by De Stijl and Constructivism.

 At the turn of the millennium it is time to acknowledge, after Hume and after Foucault, that there can be a rapprochement between creative process and reasoning, between the nonlinear and the linear. Otherwise deconstructive art falls into the trap of binary opposition (linear = rational vs. nonlinear = creative) that is the fate of all rigid ideological thinking.

The condition of possibility of any deconstructive act is the existence of a conventional system. There is no question of the recombination arising solely out of nothingness. Moreover, the pulling apart of such systems and remixing or recombining inevitably leads to a new system, a new convention.

Few people would suggest that composers are not creative due to the fact that they work with notational systems. Notationally based music, therefore, becomes a paradigmatic instance of where creative process and sensuous materiality (the sensuosity of sound, the sensuosity of corporeal interaction with instruments) intersects with the game-like permutative processes of systems that allow an approximately infinite number of multilayered moves.

The twelve tone technique of atonal music is about transposition and transformation and so is Starling’s approach to sculptural installation; not only in Inverted Retrograde Theme but in all his work to date. In Inverted Retrograde Theme we witness the system in Starling’s dismantling of a grand piano and reconstructing it in an inverted (upside down) condition. Parts of the piano are displayed as sculptural objects and reproduced via mould-making and casting. The moulds are also exhibited as a negative image of the piano parts in a manner reminiscent of Rachel Whiteread’s casts of casts of domestic objects and spaces.

What Starling is doing here is not surrealistic or mystical, it is transformational in the semiotic sense of transposing a technique from one art form onto another: in this case he is mapping a musical method onto a sculptural process.

One of the key features of Starling’s situational montage is that almost anything can be brought into the mix. Thus, instead of taking the fluorescent lighting in the Secession gallery for granted he incorporated it into his work as a visual-kinetic accompaniment. Starling had the gallery rearrange its fluorescent lighting so that there were twelve rows each made up of seven tubes (the seven notes of the diatonic scale ABCDEFG). He had these lowered from the ceiling so that they hang over the tables upon which the transformed piano components are displayed. He then used time switches to transpose a simple Schönbergian twelve-tone composition into a rhythmic sequence of lights flickering on and off.

One commentator on Starling’s work has perceptively observed that ‘each object triggers a process of translocation, circular returns and violent leaps in time and space’ (in Grosenick 2002) which seems appropriate. But the same commentator also suggests that this process leads to ‘our perception of the meaning of objects is ruthlessly revised’ (in Grosenick 2002) .  It is the word ‘ruthless’ that I would quarrel with. It implies transgressive quality whereas Starling’s work seems both more playful and considered. The commentator’s aesthetic frame of reference seems out of tune with Starling’s approach which seems more akin to Hume’s description of the association of ideas as a ‘gentle force’ rather than the more violent transgressiveness of the Dada and Surrealistic, and Expressionist traditions. And the same observation can be rephrased by noting that Starling’s creative process exhibits an approach that can be described as cognitive in a sense that parallels Hume and Freud’s disccusion of the mechanism of mind in terms of processes such as substitution and transposition. In other words, like the aesthetic ‘game’ that is musical composition, Starling’s work points to the relationship between creativity and processes of reasoning.

One cannot deny the intelligence and ingenuity of Starling’s work, but if we pursue the notion that installation art ought to entail an ‘activation of the viewer’ we must ask whether Starling’s work provokes a creative engagement on the part of the viewer. As in the case of Pastor’s The Perfect Ride the answer is that Starling’s art language games are not only devised by the artist but also played by the artist. In that sense, like most contemporary fine art, Starling’s work elicits the conventional mode of reception which is reading the work of art.

However, like The Perfect Ride, Starling’s work is a writerly text because it has the character of a puzzle that is especially rewarding to the assiduous reader who takes the trouble to unravel it. But there is another feature to Starling’s work that deserves attention. His transformational, transpositional strategy is not limited to Inverted Retrograde Theme it is evident across his entire oeuvre to date. This means that when we solve one work it is much easier to appreciate the other works that we encounter. Like The Perfect Ride, however, it is often the case that we absolutely need to know the narrative that lies behind the work, to the extent that if the gallery/museum omits to inform us of it, then our appreciation of the work is prejudiced.

Interactive Visual Music: Toshio Iwai

Starling’s approach in Inverted Retrograde Theme may be ‘writerly’ but it is not interactive. We can compare and contrast Starling’s encounter with music with the work of Toshio Iwai, a Japanese interactive installation artist who emerged in the 1990s and who has expanded visual art into the dimension of sound art. Iwai’s exploration of interactive visuosonic installation began with his fascination for a traditional music box that played music using holes punched in a strip of card. One scroll played ‘Happy Birthday’ and Iwai wondered what would happen if he inverted it. He rotated it anticlockwise and in so doing imposed an inverted retrograde transposition. The resulting melody is quite beautiful but it sounds as if it were transposed into a minor key making it somewhat melancholic, Iwai calls his inverted retrograde theme ‘Unhappy Birthday’ (Iwai 2006). As an interactive artist Iwai was interested in this action in terms of a game. He could not read music, as is the case for most non-musicians, and was interested in the relationship between the attractive visual pattern of holes punched into the music box scroll and their capacity to produce tonal constructions that pleased the ear whichever way they were passed through the music box.

Iwai studied computer science, and from a mathematical perspective one can consider the relationship between the pattern of holes in their ‘correct’ orientation and in their ‘inverted retrograde’ orientation in terms of isomorphism. The mathematician Douglas Hofstadter author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book Gödel, Escher, Bach, defines isomorphism as ‘an information-preserving transformation’ (Hofstadter 1980: 8). It is this quality of ‘information preservation’ that Iwai saw in his music box scroll experiment. Moreover, for him this particular information is ‘aesthetic’, it is both pleasing to the eye and to the ear.

As a visual artist Iwai understood the pattern of holes in the scroll in terms of abstract art. But he was even more impressed by the fact that the ‘beauty’ inherent in the structure of the hole pattern was preserved even when used the ‘wrong’ way. Iwai points to the way in which a modern painting can often remain attractive even when turned upside down. Indeed Wassily Kandinsky reported that one of the experiences that led him to abstraction was seeing one of his early Fauve-like paintings upside down yet still functioning as a composition (1977 orig. 1912). One could call the Gestalt that is the composition a ‘narrative’, using the term in an expanded sense that connects with concepts such as composition, structure, system, information, game, organism, machine, discursive form, or cultural construction. We can also return to Einstein’s connection between thought and what he calls the ‘picture’:

What, precisely, is ‘thinking’? When, at the reception of sense-impressions, memory-pictures emerge, this is not yet ‘thinking.’ And when such pictures form series, each member of which calls forth another, this too is not yet ‘thinking.’ When, however, a certain picture turns up in many such series, … Such an element becomes an instrument, a concept. (in Holton 1996: 197) [emphasis added]

Einstein’s ‘picture’ is not ‘thinking’ until it recurs across numerous series. In semiotic terms such a picture becomes a sign, a symbol, that connects cognitive combinatory processes with features of the external world. It is also possible to make sense of the same mental ‘picture’ from multiple points of view. If we invert the picture it makes sense in a different way. If we play a music box scroll backwards then the same ‘picture’ opens up a new perspective. Considering cognition and cultural construction in terms of repetition and transposition is evident in structuralism and poststructuralism and represents one of their most valuable contributions to the concept of art as a language game.

As an artist, however, Iwai developed the intersection between visual pattern and music further using his programming skills to create interactive installations that combine visual formations and sound formations. Unlike Starling’s more traditional approach to art where the viewer focuses on how the artist constructs and plays his or her creative game, Iwai’s work is in the form of an interactive installation. His brilliance lies in his capacity to move beyond the artist’s game towards the construction of creativity games that involve the viewer in a creative process. In Piano As Image Media, 1995, the viewer-participant uses a trackball to construct a (virtual) music-box scroll represented as a sheet of transparent material made up of a matrix of dots of light that moved upwards towards a piano keyboard. When the light dots reached the keyboard they activated the piano creating tonal structures without the need to know how to use the piano keyboard. A vertical screen ascended from the piano to the roof generating three-dimensional abstract patterns as interpretations of the tonal picture. Piano as Image Media was exhibited at the Play Zone at the Millennium Dome in London, 1999–2000. Currently (2006) Iwai’s work remains unrecognized by the fine art system.

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Inverted Retrograde Theme, 2001. Secession, Vienna.

Simon Starling, Inverted Retrograde Theme, 2001. Secession, Vienna.

Detail, Inverted Retrograde Theme, 2001. Secession, Vienna.

Simon Starling, detail from Inverted Retrograde Theme, 2001. Secession, Vienna.

Fig. 1. Fragment of score from Anton Webern's Concerto using Schoenberg's twelve tone technique. The first three notes are the ‘original’ cell, the following three notes are its ‘retrograde inversion’ (backwards and upside down). The third cell is ‘retrograde’ (backwards) and the fourth is ‘inverted’ (upside down). Source Wikipedia.

Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Stacks), 1999, plaster, polystyrene and steel. Anthony d'Offay Gallery. Whiteread's use of casts of casts of everyday objects bears some resemblance to Starling's transformative reconstruction of pianos in Inverted Retrograde Theme.

Toshio Iwai, Composition on the Table, 1998–1999.

Toshio Iwai, Piano as Image Media, 1995. The viewer-participant uses a trackball to create patterns on 'player-piano' music scroll that moves up to a grand piano that plays notes accompanied by patterns of coloured light that emanate from the keyboard.

Toshio Iwai, Electroplankton, 2006 (English-speaking release). Iwai created a compilation of his gallery based works for the Nintendo DS portable gaming device. What results is a very contemporary instance of visual art entering into everyday life. Media art appears to have the edge over fine art in this respect, due to its capacity for mass production.

Toshio Iwai with the Tenori-On a new digital musical instrument designed by Iwai and brought into the mass market by Yamaha in 2006.