Nick Lesley: the performance is the art, not the medium

In a conversation with a prolific musician and artist, Nick Lesley shares his perspective and a slice of his thoughts towards technology in art, and the culture it produces. Art, in many ways, is his culture. He keeps himself very active in the New York City, being exposed to all manners of performance, music, video, film, and photography. He performs in numerous bands, like Alien Whale and Necking, at venues all around the city and makes his music available through Neck & Tongue. He has also been working for some time at Electronic Arts Intermix, ["a nonprofit resource that fosters the creation, exhibition, distribution and preservation of media art."] where he is able to peruse catalogues of electronic art. 


In my work at EAI, I constantly advise on appropriate presentation for video works and film works. Curators and institutions are still catching up on how to present classic and new moving-image content. Sound is understandably difficult and will never catch up to the visual art lexicon in the art world context.



The MoMA dedicated a show to sound art entitled ‘Soundings‘, which was on exhibition from August to November of 2013. The response was somewhat mixed, particularly if you were left with the impression that this art form is all new to the world. There is a continuity and a lineage, an evolution defined by a historical context. After all, as a medium, audio recording was a contemporary of early photography. Do you think there is any discourse which really supports the selection of work?

They included some good contemporary artists, but completely left out key figures. Sound Art can’t be addressed as a medium without reference to Luigi Russolo, Pierre Schaeffer, and John Cage. These are three key figures whose philosophies shaped the development of Sound Art as being distinct from new music. Of course, music is art; but when thinking of sound as art, we need to consider how the art world differs from the music world, and how that gap is bridged. There are a few obvious things, such as the venues, presentation, and marketability.

In the show at MoMA, a few of the sound works included video. Here, the image too easily took over as explanation for the sound. I don’t consider these strong sound works because of the dependence on the image. Sound is abstract, but wed to an image, it becomes less abstract. Musique Concrète presents familiar sounds in a way in which they become abstract. Deep Listening relies on a psychic distancing from the sound source. John Cage’s “One 11 and 103,” which he considered two discrete works, is very effective because the projected image is similarly abstract with the music so that the two complement each other, rather than depend on each other.

When sound is presented as art, it occupies space. It transforms space in the way cinema does. Film must be projected in a room with minimal intrusiveness of ambient light and sound. Early video differed from film because it was displayed on a monitor, providing a more sculptural element. Similarly, Sound Art depends heavily on presentation. The decision to play the sound through speakers or headphones is tremendously important. Sure, Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting In A Room” is pretty powerful when listened to on headphones, but much more powerful when played through speakers in a room.

I would even submit the use of space is essential to the artist’s construction of the the experience. For example, one of the artists featured in Soundings exhibition, Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, created Layrinthitis, an installation which exploits the spatial anomalies of the human ear. The conditions established by the installation are essential to the experience of the observer. If you have 20 installations with comparable requirements, how can you arrange them with such acoustic considerations? Space is often a luxury.

This is the problem museums have with presenting Sound Art; the space is very important. This is why it is frequently relegated to stairwells. The viewers’ relationship to the space influences their relationship to the work, if only because there may be nothing to see.

Perhaps that is because of the implication of sound as an ‘art’, as opposed to music, even before listening to it, suggests the consideration of sound as a material, much in the way a sculptor would fashion an object of clay. Is there a premise to consider?

Sound Art often has a conceptual basis rather than a thematic or melodic foundation. The use of sound as the medium, is a choice based on a physical relationship to sonic vibrations, whether intimately through headphones, or as a reminder that you have a physical relationship to space. Curators are usually great at dealing with concepts, but not at dealing with space, so they can miss this important distinction. Xenakis’s “Concrete PH” and Varése’s “Poéme Electronique” were both designed specifically for the Philips Pavilion, which is an important cornerstone in the history of Sound Art.


The performance is the art, not the medium.

In mentioning site-specific work, specifically in regards to the medium of video, there seems to be little distinction between the performance as an experience, and the documentation of that experience. At what point, if there is one, would you consider performance to be media specific?

To me, this is essentially saying that “the medium is the message” but applying it specifically to performance. Which is very true! This highlights the immediacy and ephemeral qualities of performance. Performance can be documented and still be effective, but it is not the same. That is like a photograph of a sculpture; it lacks a dimension that is crucial to the form. Though video documentation exists in time (possibly even real-time, if it is not edited).

Documentation is difficult to get right and I think the most successful approach is to treat the documentation as a separate work from the performance itself. Chris Burden considered this with his “Documentation of Selected Works 1971-74“, in which he narrates over the entire video. Generally, he doesn’t allow the various works to be shown separately, as this is an overview of a body of work from a specific period in his career. The concept of each performance comes across, even with the benefit of his own hindsight, and with the acknowledgement that the documentation does not properly represent the performance itself.

Similarly, for many of Hannah Wilke‘s performances, she engages with both the audience and the camera, mindful of the removed audience to come. Again, this is not the same as being present for the performance, but it does create the possibility for the documentation to exist as its own work. This statement also applies to performances made for the camera, without a physical audience present.

Video has had a tremendous effect on this idea and fostered the practice of performing alone. Vito Acconci spoke directly into the camera, filling the frame to create an uncomfortable intimacy. Joan Jonas performed strange rituals in masks. Bruce Nauman filled the tape with repetitive actions. All of these artists were very aware of the video frame and the fact that video would be viewed on a little box monitor. Now with flatscreen monitors and the ease of video projection, it’s important to make sure these works are shown appropriately: on old CRT monitors. Otherwise, it is taken out of context. They were very aware of the differences between what they were doing, and what people normally viewed on TV.

Just as with acting in theatre versus cinematic performance, artists performing for the camera can feel safer. They have more control of the situation. Paul McCarthy would set up structures to allow himself and the other participants, including Mike Kelley, to escape into a diabolical trance. These works seem to dig something up from the collective unconscious that we recognize as a darkness in human nature. I’m not sure these performances could be realized with an audience present. Here, the medium of video becomes very important, but it is not the art.

Technology adds a facet to art which can lead to misunderstandings, in regards to the overall definition of a work of art, by confusing technology as something other than a tool, or a distraction, either for the artist or the participant. 

Interactive art is difficult to navigate because it can seem toy-ish, or like something you’d find at an Exploratorium for kids… push some buttons and something happens. Is a synthesizer a work of art? Or, is the art how you use it? Or both? Some people might say a well crafted violin is a work of art. As a drummer, just about everything can be considered an instrument. So is a piece of scrap metal a work of art simply because I plan to bang on it? Or, is the sound and what I do with it the art?

It seems easy for interactive art objects to just be toys or bad applications. For example, I would not consider the Ambient Music App that Brian Eno made to be a work of art, but it sets up a situation for art. Similarly, I would love to see some of Jimi Hendrix’s guitars in a museum, not as art, but for what he was able to do with them. Interactive art has to have a reason to be interactive; the act of participating must be significant for the audience.

Installations are very effective in making people aware of their body’s presence. Mike Kelley has a sculpture that you have to climb into to see a video. It’s very dark and very loud. Some people are afraid to go in! Most audiences are reluctant to abandon their comfort zone. You can’t ask people to start singing, for example, but you can ask them to step inside a room. That is why they’re there.


Epic Doom!

Epic Doom! is an immersive installation about death metal. The viewer is the user, however, the relationship between his/her actions and words is not a linear relationship, or as some designers would label it, “not user friendly”. It sets-up the user’s expectation, but do you think it is just appealing to that inquisitive part of human nature which wants to figure out the pieces of the puzzle? 

EPIC DOOM has been shown twice, once at a video art festival and again at a gallery in Brooklyn. Neither time was it as big and evil as I wanted it to be. People enjoyed the interaction a bit too much. So, I am developing it again, to be more vicious and intimidating.

EPIC DOOM is a media installation with multiple projections and very loud sound. Both the sound and image are from live-feeds, that are delayed and processed and spit back in, to create a death metal aesthetic. The point is to have the user implicated in a crime; as a harbinger of evil. We’re all partially responsible for the terrible condition of the global environment. We can’t help it. Our impact is delayed and “not user friendly”. So, I didn’t want the live-feed to be immediate. I do want to clearly communicate the video source as being part of the immediate space. Perhaps the viewer sees the shape of someone who was walking there five minutes ago, but recognizes their present environment as being a piece of the puzzle.  It during the delays, that the viewer realizes their participation. Usually people wait to to see a ghostly, evil version of themselves. It’s a delayed satisfaction.

I think when people see art, they do try to figure it out. But hopefully the experience is also beautiful. And yes, I think death metal is beautiful.

by Michael
Dotolo (De Fenestrated)

Michael Dotolo (a.k.a. Defenestrated), is a contributing writer to LatusCreativity, a multimedia artist, and educator who has lived and worked in Europe and Asia. He currently lives in New York and continues to produce work with technology-based art forms.

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