Media Art Bath has invited the Australian artist, Tom Nicholson and New York based composer, Andrew Byrne to collaborate on the development of a new work – an instructional score for instrumental ensemble and voice. The resulting work, Lines Towards Another Century, is both an exhibition and a performance combining live performance with recorded voices that intone from a list of the national boundaries created since 1 January 1901. Andrew Byrne and Tom Nicholson’s Lines Towards Another Century begins with a list. Yet it also begins with action. A list is finite, the conclusion of a process of ordering and of definition. Conversely, to begin with action would be to suggest beginning at the opposite end of things – at a point full of potentiality, dynamism and movement. This seeming contradiction between a closing down and an opening up of possibility is at the heart of Lines Towards Another Century. It is this tension between the finitude of the list and the potentiality of action that not only informs the form of the artwork itself but also tells us something important about its central subject matter – borders. A border is a break, a demarcation, a point or a line. A border is often characterised by the twin polarities of movement and stasis, and almost overwhelmingly characterised in the popular imagination by the emotions of anxiety and of threat. On the one hand, it is a concrete marker, inarguable and defined (a demarcation, point or line) and on the other, characterised by an emotive and physiological state – movement and threat. These are difficult things to reconcile– the intractability of the boundary and also the sense of movement (or desire for movement) that is evokes. This is then exercised in Lines Towards Another Century through the concrete nature of the list (the fact that it’s anchored in real historical events), and the physical movement that characterises the way in which Nicholson has worked with this list in various forms in his previous work. The use of this list of national boundaries in Nicholson’s work began in 2003 with a series of banner marches; these marches were a type of collaborative performance in which groups of people would meet at dawn to carry large banners bearing the portrait of a anonymous face through the liminal spaces of the (mostly) deserted streets. These marches are a useful starting point for telling the story of the use of the list, which Nicholson has termed a “meditation on mnemonics and drawing through a shared constituent element, the line” (1). The marches tell a story of bodies making a pathway through the city that is a contemporary trace of a particular historical border. The manner in which this series of works, Marches for Another Season (2003-), is realised is that, a border, Uganda Rwanda for example, is mapped onto a contemporary city and then walked by the participants. (2) On a more complex level, in the process of making the banners, Nicholson engages with the history of drawing itself making connections between the physical language of gesture and the process of drawing. In this way, drawing is directly linked to the physical process of walking and the mnemonic role this act of walking plays within the collective nature of history making. In Lines Towards Another Century the body (both the individual body and the collective body) is present through a series of traces that are manifested through a number of formal aesthetic devices and are also inherent in the affective nature of the work itself. For example, Nicholson and Byrne have chosen to install the work on a series of large-size screens arranged in a column-like procession throughout the museum space. This has the effect of echoing both the individual body of the marchers – the screens have an uncanny anthropomorphic presence – and the collective form of the marchers as they weave themselves through the city. In this way, the presentation of the work in the museum could be seen as having an indexical relationship with the original banner marches made by Nicholson because they bring not only a resemblance of the body into the space but also a sense of the body’s presence and potential for movement activated by the processional arrangement of the screens as they lead through the space. This idea of the index operates according to what Rosalind Krauss has termed a physical trace, which “substitute[s] the registration of sheer physical presence for the more highly articulated language of artistic conventions (and the kind of history which they encode)”. (3) This would suggest that the presence of the screens not only stands in for the presence of the body by operating as a sign of the marcher’s body but also that they affect us with a sense of their physical presence. Krauss explains this idea through the example of an artist, Dennis Oppenheim imprinting his thumb mark onto a photographic image of a field so that the whorls in the thumb become intertwined with the texture of the ground and the two mutually intertwined – the physical presence of the one affecting the other and vice versa. While it couldn’t be said that the bodies of the marchers in Lines Towards Another Century have imprinted themselves upon the work in the way that a thumb print causes an image – and so perhaps the relationship is not strictly indexical – there is a strong echo of the body that goes beyond the image to a sense of what Krauss terms “presence”. This idea of the “sheer physical presence” of the body in Lines Towards Another Century is further activated through the musical and sonic components of the work. The live performance of the instructional score devised by Andrew Byrne and performed by The Elysian Quartet occurs within to the installation of recorded visual and sonic elements, and this coupling enables a kind of re-activation of the past in the present as these (past) actions become a part of the live-performance itself. Byrne’s instructional score follows the ordering structure and accumulative logic of the list by specifying four notes that the musicians may play in any given order and with any rhythmic pattern that they choose. This is further complicated by the dispersal of the Quartet throughout the sound-scape of the installation, which creates parallel and autonomous entities that come together and disperse in chance ways throughout the performance. This exercising of this kind of “fragmented cohesion” (4) accentuates the potentiality of the body because there is a defiance of an overall unifying logic of the group (such as the march for example) in favour of small moments of relating. In this way, the accumulation of sound within the installation acts as a kind of barrier or disavowal of the conventions of ensemble playing (as they cannot hear each other playing all the time) instead emphasising the chance encounter in the present moment as the musicians variously come together and disperse, allowing for an accentuation of the present and the potentials of this moment as it unfolds.. The fact that Nicholson’s list of national boundaries has had such a diversity of uses points to its performative capabilities – that while the list itself might be characterised as a closed and finite ordering system, the process of writing and of remembering (its mnemonic role) points both to the performative potential of the list making, of history and indeed to the often porous potential of borders themselves. The complex associations around the openness and the fixity of the work is inherent even in its conception – Nicholson begins the list on the 1st January 1901. This is the date of the federation of Australia’s five states and territories, and so in anchoring the list’s birth within this birth of nationhood the artist points to the porous nature and particular anxiety that surrounds the country’s maritime border. (2) It is important to articulate the genesis of the list in a specific cultural context because it locates it physically and therefore reminds us of the presence of the body in its making (Nicholson drawing up the original list, the marchers marking the boundary etc. etc.). But why did it seem important to stage Lines Towards Another Century in Bath, 2008? Bath and the Holburne Museum in particular offer the work a particular resonating capacity that allows the list to be intensified in a very specific way – I am thinking here of the loose (but pertinent) connections that might be made between the spectres of the rich Georgian gentry that dined within the walls of the Holburne Museum when it was Sydney Gardens and Tea Rooms, a people that had derived their great wealth from their sugar plantations in the West Indies accessed by the nearby port at Bristol, itself a notorious centre of the slave trade during this time. I am thinking of the movement and of the turmoil that emanated out of that port and the ramifications it had for a future world (a world that is hinted at through the spectre of associations in the list itself). More abstractly, I am thinking of the question of how we might mark history without relativising it – that is without constantly drawing connections and equivalences between one thing and another – and it seems to me that the list might offer this respite by allowing for a point of pause or recuperation rather than a direct passage from A to B. Furthermore, the sense of movement that is derived by the deliberately provisional aesthetic of the installation (the artist specifying that nothing should be fixed to the walls of the museum) strengthens the idea that history is not something that is fixed or contained by the list, the catalogue or indeed by the museum itself but it is something that is constantly told and retold, exercised through the collective coming together of people and bodies. The French philosopher, Jacques Derrida writes of the ‘point of pause’ as having a potentiality as both a recuperative and a generative moment. (5) He calls this ‘point of pause’, fermata, borrowing the term from music where it indicates a situation in which a musician pauses on a note and holds it for a longer duration than is indicated through the standard musical notation. This in itself is interesting because it highlights the disjunction between what can be signified (or in this case notated) through language and the sensory (sonic) effect that is desired. Furthermore the duration of the fermata could be seen to be dependent upon two different types of boundaries – the instructed (by a conductor or ensemble leader, for example) and the material (the resonant capacity of the musical instrument and/or the physical capacity of the instrumentalist to hold the note for the duration). Derrida himself talks about the fermata as “points of order or of pause, rather than of a planned and un-totalizing organisation. Points of pause, fermata, if we want to name precisely those signs destined less to mark the measure than to suspend it on a note whose duration my vary. Rhythms, pauses, accents, phrases, insistences…” (6)
(2) The Uganda-Rwanda border was actually marched by the residents of Kelleberrin a small wheat belt town in WA about 210km from Perth in 2004.
(3) Krauss, Rosalind, “Notes on the Index, Part 1”, reprinted in Harrison, C and Wood, P, Art in Theory 1900-2000, Oxford: Blackwell, p.999.
(4) As explored by John Cage and Merce Cunningham through their collaboration.
(5) Derrida, Jacques, “Sendoffs,” in Eyes of the University, translated by Thomas Pepper, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004, pp. 220-4.
(6) ibid, p.224.