The original English version of my article for the MoKS special in the July 2004 KUNSTE.EE
Involvement, a personal account
by John Grzinich
This magazine (KUNST.EE) is involved in the cultural scene in Estonia and the international arena of art publications. You may be involved in a personal relationship, with your job, education or most certainly your survival. At this moment your mind is involved in reading this text. In 1992 I was involved in a political demonstration at the US nuclear test site in Nevada. The action, organized by a Belgian environmental group (1), commemorated 500 years since the Columbus landed in what was believed to be the “new world”. The demonstration contended with the US government breaking the Treaty of Ruby Valley (2) in order to establish a testing ground for its developing nuclear weapons program. The original treaty from 1869 formed a reservation and gave rights to the indigenous Western Shoshone people to live on the land. Showing disregard for the treaty, the government used the site for conducting over 1000 nuclear blast tests, above and below ground, from 1951-1992 (the most of any place on earth). I chose not to involve myself in the direct action protest on Columbus day 1992, but rather to observe. Direct action meant crossing the border, a security line, en masse and be forced into pain holds, handcuffed and detained in holding cages by employees of the private security force that guarded the site (3). Involvement meant enduring pain, possible injury and eventual arrest by the Nevada police. Knowing my limits to endure pain, I made the conscious choice not to get involved with the direct action (although observation and support for those who did was important). There were many lessons to be learned about the needs for direct action with clear intentions, yet the reasons why people personally choose to get involved are not always clear to me. You could say I chose to observe and not get directly involved out of fear, fear of not knowing what would happen and fear of not knowing my own boundaries (peaceful protesters are committed not to react violently). It was a safe and natural reaction for a newly involved person. Direct action may be an extreme case and involvement can take form in many other ways. At whatever level, it still implies risks, has costs and asks what one has to offer.
Looking back, it may have been the contact with the Belgians that first planted the seeds of Europe in my curiosity. The obvious question for us Americans was, how could a group from Europe initiate a protest in the US for the rights of indigenous people and why are there not more Americans working for the cause? This enforced the common stereotype for Americans, that all things in life must be better in Europe or to use a famous phrase, “the grass is always greener on the other side”. Reflecting on this, it's easy to see how over idealizing a foreign place or culture can distance you even more from the truth. For the average American, Europe is the place you go if you are rich and "cultured", where you go to see “real” history and tradition. For the artist, if you get to Europe, you probably are established and successful because, (as the rumors go), money for art grows on trees. Having personally broken a few of those myths, one can see how they grow from both dreams of a better world “out there” and denial of the value of what is “right here”. As tourists and consumers of an age of “cultural industries” (4) it is difficult to find and establish a meaningful role as a creative individual. What even is the place of the individual in such large scale trends on the global level. For the consumer, I will agree that it is much easier to observe the products of history (and maybe take some photos) than it is to get involved. Yet we can't forget that for every aspect of human culture we observe or take part in, somewhere, however obscured, there is a source.
While 600 people were making their message about nuclear testing known in the dessert of Nevada in October 1992, Estonians were adjusting to the idea of having their own currency and independence from the Soviet Union. This “transitional” Europe was not the place I had in mind, nor imagined I would eventually become involved with. There is no easy way to predict things in a searchers world of contingency and chance. 14 years have passed. Rather than recount the details of a personal history we can look at just a few factors that influenced it. In October of 1992 I camped in the dessert north of Las Vegas on the road to Death Valley and learned about radiation, human injustice and cactus that shoot needles at you if you walk near them. I had walked on foot with a large crowd of people for 2 days to reach the nuclear test site. Before that, I hitch hiked to and from San Francisco where I spent 3 weeks visiting cinemas and collecting CDs of rare jazz and experimental music. Before that I had taken a bus to New Mexico and joined a group of activists for two weeks (1). They were walking from New York to the nuclear test site. It was my fourth and worst year of college. My dreams of becoming an architect had disappeared and sent me into a depression and a search for something to get back on track. A solution didn't arrive in the Nevada dessert but something started to surface a year later after I moved to Texas. Schools and the education systems I went through always left me with the feeling that something was missing. There was always a lack of involvement and feeling engaged with the activities. Information was something to be, "learned", only to be used (5) for a test a week later. The great systems for learning taught how to consume information but rarely give the opportunity for practical use. The use, they said, would happen in the real world. Well if education and learning were not part of the real world then I always wondered what was.
What does this have to do with art? The issue at hand is involvement, and its personal, social and cultural implications. Involvement here could mean any number of things, from interpersonal relationships or political causes, to projects with potential social and cultural impacts. Yet for clarity, involvement here means conscious participation with an attempt to work from clear intentions. In artistic circles larger group projects and events can arouse certain fears or at least hesitation in people that prevents them from getting involved, in having to commit themselves to something they may have to be responsible for. Numerous reasons can account for this; pressures for people to be cool and composed to achieve success, to maintain a certain image and so on. But, as with many things, increased experience and a narrowing range of options one finds involvement unavoidable.
a case for art and culture
My roots in art go back well before I ever thought to call myself an artist or considered my personal creations to be "art". That is, to become an “artist” was not a predetermined conscious decision. While in college I painted and actively kept sketchbooks, but it wasn’t until I became involved in the activities surrounding a magazine and record label known as ND (6) in Austin Texas, that I understood a larger social or cultural purpose for my creative pursuits. ND magazine called itself a "contact - exchange - document" and was an invaluable resource for anyone interested in both the international experimental music underground and global mail art networks. It was rooted in the concepts of fostering artistic networks through publishing interviews, reviews and information on projects, a kind of networking tool before there was an internet. My first sound experiments started with a few people in the ND "scene", namely Michael Northam, Seth Nehil and later Josh Ronsen and Rick Reed (as the group Frequency Curtain). With Michael and Seth each, two collaborative CD works would emerge as well as numerous performance and installation projects (7). It should be noted that all of these activities was self-initiated and carried out by individuals, that is they were done without the consent, support or acknowledgment of local or national institutions be they connected to art or not. You could call it an entirely private initiative run from the personal interest of individuals. This I always felt to be a "normal" approach to art and creativity. Normal in the sense that you follow through on feelings or carry out the ideas that interest or challenge you in order to connect in some form with others who may share the same interests, but you could also say “natural” This may be true for activities starting from and being carried out on a personal level. Yet after a decade of artistic activity that spans a significant area of two continents, diverse experience has shown the contrary. Activities and/or projects initiated by individuals or autonomous organizations is a wholly separate and distinct phenomenon within established fields of art and culture. Making a clear distinction between this and activities initiated by public or private institutions, is important, and often necessary. The key word here is initiated which pertains to newly started, seeded or generated activities. Involvement in this case plays the role of revealing the intentionality of the group or individual, which helps clarify the distinction between institutional or non-institutional activities. Why focus on this issue of distinction? Is this, another reactionary statement on institutional or even corporate sponsorship of the arts, or another cause for utopian ideals? No. It has to do with the importance in developing methods for evaluating art and cultural activities for both individuals, NGO's and institutions. Making clearer distinctions on how and why cultural activities are instigated introduces a method for evaluating the process and eventually the outcome. In the "real world" this translates into the full range of theoretical, ethical, economic and political situations related to art. To put this into an even wider context we can look from another perspective. Without methods of evaluation or lack of clear intentions, a basis can be formed for the state or corporate bodies to continue to justify marginalizing their support or even regard for art and culture. From whatever angle it is viewed from, the case for art and culture begins to clarify itself through articulating conditions, reasons and implications for involvement.
In his doctoral thesis, Gilles Deleuze states the conclusion that there is no true beginning in philosophy (8). This is due to what he considers "subjective or implicit presuppositions contained in opinions rather than concepts". Therefore the notion of a beginning in philosophy is more generally an accepted opinion of what "everybody knows" rather than what it might be. Yet this opinion (and all others) have become the very thing that encumbers development in philosophy. He goes on to explain that to form an image of a beginning evokes the idea of philosophy as a circle and states, "For if it is a question of rediscovering at the end what there was in the beginning, if it is a question of recognizing, of bringing to light or into the conceptual or the explicit, what was simply known implicitly without concepts - whatever the complexity of this process, whatever the differences between the procedures of this or that author - the fact remains that all of this is still too simple, and that this circle is truly not torturous enough. The circle image would reveal instead that philosophy is powerless truly to begin, or indeed authentically repeat" (9). I can't help but to draw analogies here to art (particularly contemporary art) through what I have been writing, through my own diverse and continuous experiences. Here the implicit presuppositions can be seen in the surfacing of widespread patterns that continually seem to drift toward the same points, the “traditions” of the academic sphere, the ‘trends” the magazines report or the “priorities” of funding institutions. Can we say that a sense of frustration is growing within artists? Is it the continual confrontation with the simple reasoning of "what everybody knows" about art and culture? Or is it the lack of effectiveness or sense of purpose that is challenging current mode of artistic practice? Again difficult choices for the individual emerge when confronting large-scale pervasive systems be they beaurocratized, commercialized, streamlined or engineered where ever greater disproportions of managed and manufactured cultures replace and eliminate cultures of personal involvement.
the art of enactive listening
The principle base for working with sound as a medium is fundamentally rooted in exploring the act of listening. Sound as a physical phenomenon comes to us through our means of perception and modes of interpretation. From this understanding, a particular question has always guided me. What effect does the act of listening have on the person or group of persons perceiving certain sounds? For the artist, this could be more personally directed, and framed as, for what reasons do I create and compose certain sounds? Several years ago my colleague Seth Nehil and I began to use a series of sound generating ‘actions’ to explore the human perception/reaction boundary. These experiments were used more as artistic events in which to collect (record) sounds and gather impressions from people about their experiences. The idea, known as resonance ensemble, is to take a group of 5-15 people, regardless of their musical/artistic ability and have them make sound or “improvise” with a particular object or material source for anywhere from 2-10 minutes. Each person in the group uses the same material or object and is to interact with it and the space. The result is often dense and shifting waves of sound like sound clouds or particle fields. The sound sources used have been: dried beans, voice, ceramic roof tiles, various shakers, water filled bowls, party horns and numerous other things. The focus of this activity is to dissolve the boundary between audience/listener and performer/sound maker. As individuals we follow the tendency to focus our perception on our own actions rather than the range of events around us (we may listen to our thoughts over the sounds around us). This is especially true when making sound of any kind particularly in a group. With resonance ensemble, individualism is reduced in order to open the perception of the individual to the resulting sound of the group rather than have them focus on their own individual actions. In this way, individuals are forced to become simultaneously involved in both the sound making and listening process. This temporary zone of group behavior may reveal any number reactions depending on the level of how the group is conducted (an action may take place in total darkness for instance). The results are mixed yet generally participants of a resonance ensemble find a new awareness of listening they were previously unfamiliar with (10). As and artistic process, resonance ensemble pushes the notion of involvement in sound and listening on the group level, where audience/performer boundaries are dissolved along with the focus of individual action and perception. As an artistic project, resonance ensemble comes in stark contrast to many notions of contemporary art, where the creator and observer relationship are separated, often by formal traditions of public (re)presentation in museums and galleries (11).
the MoKS case
MoKS is a project that addresses the current social and cultural climate in Estonia and more specifically asks the question; can the practice of contemporary art gain more relevance as a bridge between rural communities and established institutions? MoKS was started on personal involvement and will continue to exist on personal involvement by individuals and the surrounding community in cooperation with state institutions. However sublime this may appear it represents a dramatic shift in how a cultural entity operates. From an outsider perspective I will say that the weight of post-Soviet state dominated cultural institutions is still felt. It can be seen in a certain preservationist attitude that these institutions must be kept alive under the guise of their de facto existence or grand old “traditions” (this position sounds rather ironic considering the current taboo to speak of anything Soviet related). While some of these institutions have their function many hold a reactionary stance to resist change rather than adapt to provide flexible solutions to the growing needs of society and expanding international relations, particularly those removed from urban centers. Through involvement in a rurally located international arts organization one quickly confronts some of the fundamental notions of the state level cultural establishment. Being isolated in the geographic and social sense has its overall political disadvantages when attempting to be considered a “serious” project. Extra work and travel is necessary (and therefore costly) to maintain regular personal contacts to the media and the primary state institutions (and therefore support). As with distance, the rules and values also shift their position. Social status, competition for attention, fame or fortune can hardly remain a priority here nor should it be considered the point. Recognized and established activity of a rural organization such as MoKS constitutes a shift from a centralized (hierarchical) system toward a decentralized (non-hierarchical) distributed culture. There are more fundamental issues to be confronted here, where we now return to our initial question about relevance and purpose of artistic and cultural practices in rapidly changing circumstances (be they post-Soviet or pan-European). Indeed this can be seen in the diversification within MoKS activities in just the few short years of its existence. MoKS begun as a “guest studio” or artist-in-residence center, yet the demands of the local social context and interest from creative individuals and organizations on the international level, have led MoKS to expand its focus and scope of activities. We’re pleased to know there is more interest than we have space for but continue to struggle with lack of involvement. It is normal for every newfound project to undergo transformations in its early period. However, the type of transformations of smaller, newer projects, are good indicators of changes in policies and practices on the larger scale. The case for involvement shows the current need for more transparent and flexible operation of a cultural project that generally functions under more restrictive (administrative and financial) conditions than traditional institutions (although I have witnessed a great deal more pressures on Art Academies, municipal museums etc. in recent years). In other words people need to know how to get involved and why, what it means and so on. For those who started MoKS the answers are slowly coming out. For a free-lancer like myself there is space for creative freedoms for personal work and an open frame for sharing knowledge and experience. Yet involvement holds mystery; it has more immediate and recognizable benefits for myself along with the people I work with while the outcome is not something you can predict or easily determine. The image of eyes and hands come to my mind. Eyes represent more visual consumer culture... stand back and watch, let things happen. Whereas hands imply touch, direct sensation. The image of an eye can be isolated, separated from the body, whereas a hand is more difficult to cut and remove from the body, hence involvement is a connection to something.
(1) The event, known as Walk Across America, was initiated by the group For Mother Earth, an environmental activist organization from Gent, Belgium. More information can be found at: http://www.motherearth.org
(2) The Treaty of Ruby Valley:
(3) Read more about prisons and profits of the Wackenhut Security Corporation, also known as the worlds’ largest private army:
(4) UNESCO has an online overview of globalization and its relation to cultural industries: http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/
(5) The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead has put it in more eloquent terms, "Education is the acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge." from, The Aims of Education, A. N. Whitehead, The Macmillan Co., New York, 1929
(6) 21 Issues of ND along with 12 CDs, 10 cassettes and 4 7" single records were published between 1981 and 1998. The magazine and label were started and primarily managed by Daniel Plunkett.
Outdated website: http://www.desk.nl/~northam/index.html
(7) The collaborative CDs of mnortham/jgrzinich were 'the stomach of the sky' on Staalplaat Records, Amsterdam (1997) and 'the absurd evidence' on Bobby J/Orogenetics, Austin (1998). The collaborative CDs of Seth Nehil/jgrzinich were 'stria' on erewhon, Belgium and 'confluence on Intransitive Recordings, Boston -both (2002). For the authors complete discography check: http://maaheli.ee
(8) Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition. English Ed. Columbia University Press 1994
(9) Difference and Repetition, p.129
(10) Sections of resonance ensemble recordings can be heard on two concurrent albums by jgrzinich/Seth Nehil, ‘confluence’ and ‘stria’.
(11) The growing presence of ‘interactive’ art is slowly gaining acceptance yet I find the ‘interactivity’ is often encumbered by the burden of overly technical (non-human) interface, hence preserving the distanced creator/observer relationship.