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This article is part of September’s guest editor series, curated by Koichi Samuels
‘Political and artistic fictions introduce dissensus by hollowing out the “real” and multiplying it in a polemical way. The practice of fiction undoes, and then re-articulates connections between signs and images, images and times, and signs and spaces, framing a given sense of reality, a given “commonsense”. [Dissensus] is a practice that invents new trajectories between what can be seen, what can be said, and what can be done’ (Jacques Rancière).
At the core of our research and, increasingly, our practice, is a consideration of aesthetics – the way art has an affective impact on people that can generate feelings we do not necessarily comprehend on a conscious level – and the relationship between politics and aesthetics.
This strand has emerged in recognition of the odd political times we are living. Contemporary life is, somehow, not the future that we expected, or predicted. We appear to have found ourselves imbued with what Mark Fisher called Capitalist Realism: a neoliberal formulation of capitalism that actively seeks to undermine the imagination of any alternative socio-economic paradigm.
This pessimism that a progressive, positive future is no longer possible is echoed by a widespread suspicion that critical art is at best naïve or at worst complicit in the worst excesses of liberal capitalist culture.
It is fair to say that our recent work began at a dark point in which we hoped to reassure ourselves that the study of music, literature, and art in the classroom and in our research could have transformative impact – even in micro-ways – on our students and in society. We were unsure and hesitant. The old certainties no longer held and we risked failure. And like in so many tales, we found potential in the chaos.
Consensus, Dissensus, Art
The reading we did at this time led us to think differently about what constituted politics in the first place. Firstly, we started to think of politics as the type of action that creates subjects in a society. This means that it isn’t just an action carried out by a politician or a political activist. Politics happens when a change is made to what we see, hear, smell, or feel, to constitute a subject. It changes the way a society is arranged, especially in terms of who can participate fully in it. Politics is a challenge to the consensus between how we think the world is organised and how we experience its arrangement. Consensus refers to the status quo. It is the Capitalist Realism that presents a clear, defined model of a society that is diverse, but which allows for no other configurations. It is, in our definition, the absence of politics. Politics is rather an act of dissensus. It disrupts the status quo by drawing attention to a perceptual space that is not accounted for by the general consensus. It challenges the naturalness or obviousness of that order by making the status quo strange. This process of defamiliarisation is described by Viktor Shklovsky as follows: “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged” (Art as Technique).
What we find exciting about this approach to politics is the key role that aesthetic experience holds, and thus the power it bestows on art. If politics is an intervention in the sensorium of society, then it stands to reason that art can have a dissensual or defamiliarising effect. Art can also intervene in perceptual space to create new possibilities and to make new subjects visible.
The performance of ‘Dissensual Groove’ at RESIST’s Imagining Futures event in June 2018 was conceived with these ideas in mind. Recognising the aims of RESIST to combine visual and sonic art with the social setting of a club, our improvised composition sought to engage with the specific social arrangement of sounds and bodies that circulate at different ends of the art music – popular music spectrum. Our conceit was that the vacillation between the uncertainty and openness of improvised performance and the familiar palate of sounds and structures associated with dance music might create a dissensual groove that would appeal to a dancefloor’s desire for rhythm and movement while simultaneously disrupting expectations and opening up new spaces. In this case, our aim was metapolitical: rather than create new subjects we aimed for a reflection on the way we interact with people and compulsions in social spaces that are overlaid with codes of conduct dictated by consensus.
There is, admittedly, still room for charges of naivety in this approach and so it bears admitting that successful dissensus is rare and unpredictable. It is not a matter of an artist soliciting a specific reaction from an audience or simply illustrating a problem in order to change it. This reconfiguration of the politics of art recognises that the political effectiveness of a work of art is beyond the control of the artist. Who is to say that our composition will not be received as pure noise, as cliched techno, or end up in the opening credits of Top Gear? (None of these were our intention, for the record).
While this gap between the composer and the piece, the piece and the listener brings an element of risk and even a certain melancholy, it is important to note that the uncertainty and ambiguity the gap occasions is essential to the equality that art makes possible. Rather than a political artist bestowing meaning from an elevated position in a cultural hierarchy, the uncertainty of the gap between artistic intention and an audience’s understanding requires negotiation and interaction, and thus grants agency. Thankfully, it is the radical openness of such work – central to improvised music – that enables the recuperation of its political potential, however unpredictable its success might be. The play of flow and rupture in improvised performance creates a breach that cannot be assimilated easily in a club setting (while in an art setting it might fit easily within consensus). The breach may be resisted, ignored, or rejected; or it might stimulate, agitate, and excite. We live in hope.
Article by Ricki O’Rawe & Paul Stapleton