Don’t Be A Stranger
Catalogue essay: Between Before and After, Royal College of Art Printmaking graduation catalogue, London 2013.
‘Today my life comes to an end. Tomorrow I shall have left the town which stretches out at my feet, where I have lived so long. It will no longer be anything but a name…’
– Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (1938)
First when there’s nothing but a slow glowing dream…① It is 1983 and Jennifer Beals’ body double is starting to spin around the prestigious dance conservatory in the Flashdance audition scene. The panel of judges are yawning and doodling, barely bothering to raise their eyes until the beat kicks in, she starts dancing for her life, and everything changes. She’s made it.
Forgetting the legwarmers, it could be said that this moment is not too dissimilar to the experience of being interviewed for a place at an art college. You arrive, expose yourself, and hope that the performance is worthy of acceptance. Minutes before you had been strangers, but now those four people on the other side of the desk are presiding over a decision that could alter the trajectory of the next few years of your life.
‘It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me.’②
It’s not Nina Simone feeling good in 2012, but the thirteen-year-old singer Carly Rose Sonenclar who was trying out for The X Factor USA. One year later and she didn’t win, but the clip of her audition has had over 34 million views. Excerpts from TV talent shows make for popular online viewing, but it is the annually growing archive of first auditions that receive the most attention. Individual viewers compulsively watch the same performances repeatedly, often posting their current view count in the comments box.
‘Were I to wish for anything I would not wish for wealth and power, but for the passion of the possible, that eye which everywhere, ever young, ever burning, sees possibility. Pleasure disappoints, not possibility.’
- Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (1843)
Potentiality is contained within the edited brackets of these four-minute ability tests. What becomes apparent is the emergent stage of a process of transition – in this case, from talented schoolgirl to plausible stardom. The perceptible shift is borne from a tacit knowledge that the passage from a being unknown to one of distinction will affect a significant personal metamorphosis. This is the time that announces the change. The recorded moment of the first audition will forever preserve the innocence and astonishment of the initial encounter when potential was first recognized, before the inevitable fall.
‘But in reality the body is changing form at every moment; or rather, there is no form, since form is immobile and the reality is movement. What is real is the continual change of form: form is only a snapshot view of a transition.’
– Henri Louis Bergson, Creative Evolution (1907)
The figure on stage undergoes a journey from trial to triumph in the time of a song. Forever captured in this state of becoming, through endless replay the conceivably less talented viewer can relive this moment on demand. Every gesture and expression is committed to memory. There will be no surprises, no disappointments or anxiety of rejection and for those brief minutes of fixated absorption, subjectivity can be deflected. The performance is relentlessly restaged on a screen that doubles as an imaginary mirror, reflecting a substitute sense of self that perpetuates a fantasy of fame and recognition. ‘In the real-time world no-one sees her at all, they all say she’s crazy.’③ Hours pass in front of this recurring instant that affords the dream of an Other’s promise, as if conversance was equivalent to being.
Like potential, hope can also be an arousing tease that aspires to a possible future of becoming that may well never transpire. If the state of hopefulness could be conceived of as a figure, it would be upright, glossy eyed and forward looking. It was this cunning lure of expectation that Nietzsche regarded as the most evil of all evils for the manner in which having hope prolongs torment.④
‘…if ever you wanted one moment twice, if ever you said: ‘You please me, happiness, instant, moment!’ then you wanted everything to return!… ‘Go, but return!’ For all joy wants – eternity!’
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885)
‘I feel pretty good. I feel real good.’ ⑤Another ebullient voice, this time it is Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The uptight hypochondriac is enjoying a rare sense of defiance, having returned home with friends after having absconded with his father’s cherished Ferrari convertible for the day. Perched on a jack, the car has been set up to run in reverse in order to undo the evidence of the day’s miles from the odometer. Needless to say, it doesn’t work. In the words of the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus: You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you. The wheels are madly spinning backwards on the stationary vehicle, but this reversal of motion cannot counter time and has no effect. The event has already passed and left its trace. The space of before cannot be altered for it no longer exists and whether forwards or backwards, any subsequent motion will nonetheless occur in the present time of the act.
‘Between two moments there is always a certain time, and between two states existing in these moments there is always a difference having a certain quantity… Consequently, every transition from one state into another is always effected in a time contained between two moments… Both moments, then, are limitations of the time of a change, consequently of the intermediate state between both, and as such they belong to the total of the change.’
- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1781)
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day. It is the moment of returning to art school, this time as a postgraduate student. Change is imminent. The approach is solitary, for you must make your own way there, but the moment of arrival is synchronous with the transmutation of the group. Remodeled each year, the newly conjoined greater body named Printmaking is formed into being and appears to itself for the first time in that defining first light of significance. Something akin to a gradual process of unlearning seems to be induced during those early weeks of initiation. Come second term and the early signs of a formation of change are beginning to be revealed. What had seemed so foreign a few months ago is now routine, even the trip down to Battersea. A short distance between points of time, yet the slight shifts in subjectivity that have occurred are often already perceptible.
‘…in the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling.’⑥
Breakup was inscribed from the outset, yet night falls unexpectedly. The time of difference has almost been measured in the space that now lies between the states of entrance and graduation. Soon, the transition occurring between these two moments will finally be contained. With the dismantling of partition walls, studio cells are dissolved so that their host may be reborn into a giant receptacle for public viewing. It is the time of the Show. This exposition offers another opening of a public stage onto which things are cast in order to render them visible. What is seen, what wants to be seen, is a carefully surrendered distillation that represents the culmination of a time.
‘Vision sees the present, but only because the present opens the eye, and disposes it to its presentation.’
– Jean-Luc Nancy, The Technique of the Present (1997)
As with the talent show auditions, potential here lies in the act of exposure. A state of emergence that will also be visibly fixed in the traces of documentation that archive presence, such as the pages of this book. Skating on the verges of becoming, it is another uploaded phenomenon that could here be recalled. Exergie, a work by the Indonesian performance artist Melati Suryodarmo, has been reconfigured through YouTube and is more widely known as The Adele Butter Dance. A woman stands in the spotlight wearing high-heeled shoes and balancing on a platform made up of butter blocks. As she performs her dance to the audience, the butter melts and spreads below her scrambling feet. The moment of inevitable crash is spectacular and violent. It certainly must have been painful, yet up she gets, again and again. On each resurrection, she seems to search for the most slippery sections of ground, courting ultimate destruction as if the strive towards the most arduous technique could result in getting closer to the ideal.
‘In the dialectical analysis of history… each new “stage” “rewrites the past” and retroactively de-legitimizes the previous one.’
- Slavoj Žižek, Less than Nothing (2012)
Freedom hovers precariously somewhere in between the act and the fall. ‘Being’s believing.’ ⑦An allure so seductive as to warrant another attempt, despite any bruises. Approaching the dawning dusk of the meantime, and feeling good.
- Chantal Faust 2013
① Giorgio Moroder, Keith Forsey and Irene Cara, ‘Flashdance… What a Feeling’ [recorded by Irene Cara], Flashdance soundtrack, Casablanca: 1983.
② Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, ‘Feeling Good’ [recorded by Nina Simone], I Put a Spell on You, Philips: 1965.
③ Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, ‘Feeling Good’ [recorded by Nina Simone], I Put a Spell on You, Philips: 1965.
④ Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 58.
⑤ Hughes, John, dir. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Paramount Pictures, 1986.
⑥ Gertrude Stein, ‘Tender Buttons’ in Gertrude Stein: Selections, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008), 143.
⑦ Giorgio Moroder, Keith Forsey and Irene Cara, ‘Flashdance… What a Feeling’ [recorded by Irene Cara], Flashdance soundtrack, Casablanca: 1983