Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Actions and Events

Roman Signer: Sculpting in time
St. Paul St Gallery, AUT, 14 March - 2 May 2008
ARTSPACE, 14 March - 19 April 2008
Also window projections at Porcelain World (Karangahape Rd) and Auckland University Library.

‘desires, wantings, urgings, promptings, and a great variety of moral views, aesthetic principles, economic prejudices, social conventions, and public and private goals...these can be interpreted as attitudes of an agent directed toward actions of a certain kind.’ (1)
Donald Davidson

In this piece of writing I want to try something a little unusual. I want to mix into a discussion of the Signer exhibitions some ideas from the American analytic philosopher Donald Davidson (1917-2003) for reasons I hope will gradually become apparent. Davidson is widely known in the philosophy world for his wide ranging, highly influential, short essays dealing with topics such as truth and interpretation, and the belief assumptions behind a social activity like linguistic communication. When he published a couple of essays on ‘Actions’ in 1963, to be followed by four others on ‘Events’ in 1970, he began spearheading a causalist ‘commonsense’ charge against Wittgenstein (and the later influence of Ryle) who had argued that reasons and causes cannot be the same thing. A cause as an event may repeatedly precede an action but reasons cannot be causes because they are not observable mechanisms but mental states.

Davidson developed the notion of a ‘primary reason’ where he paired belief with desire so that an action is explained as a rational activity: a wish to make something happen is blended with an anticipation that it will happen.

His complex argument partially involved seeing causation as a logical connection between event descriptions. ‘Events’ he understood as ‘changes in a more or less permanent object or substance’(2). Actions, to be such, Davidson thought, must be intentional. They need to be rationalised by a reason in order to ‘lead us to see something the agent saw, or thought he saw, in his action – some feature, consequence, or aspect of the action the agent wanted, desired, held dear, thought dutiful, beneficial, obligatory or agreeable.’(3)

Roman Signer is not a philosopher but a Swiss artist interested in the spatial-temporal aspects of sculpture. Apart from the occasional sculpture of comparatively long temporal duration (usually involving running water) such as a drivable truck that when attached to a hose becomes also a fountain, Signer makes ‘Events’ that are movement-based occurrences made in private and filmed by himself or his wife Aleksandra, and ‘Actions’ that are public movement-based displays made for much bigger live audiences. Accordingly his definitions of ‘Events’ and ‘Actions’ are species of sculpture and more about spectator numbers and his own methods, than intentions of an agent.

Curiously there is a strange parallel in the fact that Signer’s Actions are public, while those of Davidson are rational in that some intention is involved and that is comprehensible by others because rationality is normative. Also while Signer’s Events are private, Davidson’s do not require intentions or causes, they are just changes in matter. Yet as Davidson’s two most energetic explicators, Ernie Lepore and Kirk Ludwig elucidate, ‘Actions in Davidson’s view are an expression of our nature as agents, being with interlocking propositional attitudes of different types: beliefs, desire, and intentions. Each is defined by its relations to the others and its mediated relations to actions. We identify a person’s beliefs, desires and intentions by projecting a rational pattern which makes sense of his or her behaviour.’(4) Our linguistic community values rationality.

With the Signer shows, while two of his Events are presented in window projections at the University and on K’ Rd, the other fifteen short films (including some ‘Actions’) documenting his temporary sculptures are shown at St. Paul Street and ARTSPACE. The former’s large gallery is intersected with freestanding screens positioned at acute angles. Eight films are shown on these and the walls using random selection, with up to four films possibly shown at once. Even the same film can be repeated simultaneously – with a slight delay - three times on different screens. The effect is to create surprise by bodily inserting the moving images into the visitor’s field of vision, and to get them to make unexpected connections between works.

At ARTSPACE, the gallery experience is much more stable. In the large square room the films are shown one at a time, moving in an anti-clockwise sequence around the four walls. If you are unfortunately distracted and miss a detail you can wait till the film comes around to be screened again at the same spot.

After you’ve looked at these films a few times you start noticing patterns within Signer’s Fluxus-style activities (as you do within Davidson’s precisely worded, very stylish essays), and the way Signer thinks through transitive verbs. Such verbs need objects (in several meanings of the word) and can be expressed in active or passive forms. In these Actions or Events, the artist’s body is not always being filmed, though he is in most.

Looking at Signer’s films, you start to make paired combinations. I found ten. Here are four:

The helmet wearing artist sits in a booth and waits. When a canister explodes he and the walls are covered with splattered paint.

Wearing a goggle and a gas mask, the seated artist attempts to read a book while being showered with freshly cut hay expelled upwards from a nearby hole in the floor.

The artist marches around three sides of a rooftop in Geneva, firing bursts from a dry-powder fire extinguisher that is attached to a nozzle on his right boot, so that like some sort of fascist robot, his foot ‘goosesteps’ high in the air.

Following a predetermined path and methodically stamping on lines of detonating switches, the artist stomps around a large space in a tobacco factory. These set off beside him explosive flashes and puffs of smoke.

The artist drops large putty balls from out of a tall building’s windows attempting to detonate an explosive device on the street on which is a water-filled bucket supporting a hat. The hat flies high into the air, and wearing a safety harness he tries to catch it so he can wear it.

On a rooftop the artist places a camera in a bucket that has fins, packing around it shock absorbers and aiming its lens through a hole in the bottom. It is turned on and the bucket dropped so that the descent is recorded - as it is ‘experienced’ by the falling projectile.

Some of Signer’s sculptures are related to the sixties conceptual work of artists like Richard Serra, Lawrence Weiner and William Anastasi. American artists of this time such as Nauman, Johns (earlier), Weiner and Serra were influenced by Wittgenstein. Robert Morris though, unusually, knew of Davidson’s work. Davidson later wrote a catalogue essay on his practice as did Morris on his writing.(5)

Unlike say Weiner, Signer’s projects are not just ideas, they need to be implemented, and they are not usually just simple actions - but performances with carefully thought-out detail. And the dispositions that interested Davidson, when activated as causes to become primary reasons, include, in Signer’s case, satire, melancholy, anti-climax and humour.

Here are some examples of his satire, often with anti-climax:

Book readers: one in bed is terrorised by an angry model helicopter, and another, a more preoccupied, seated, hay-fever sufferer, is covered with hay. Signer seems to be saying that first-hand experience takes precedence over recorded second-hand experience, even if you try to deny it and it is his documentary film that tells you so.

The armed forces: the army with his absurd marching antics, the navy with a ‘burial at sea’ (a dead frog is placed in a can to be thrown into a river), and the airforce, with his manic helicopter works.

The police: a tape barrier that says ‘police line: do not cross’ is whisked aloft beyond the street by three balloons.

Even the horrific activity of hanging and its accompanying ghoulish voyeurism is commented on. The artist-victim, standing on an exploding platform that collapses, is given sight by having his black hat yanked off his eyes and head. He is sprung into ‘the light’ instead of the expected darkness, and unexpectedly falls only a small distance.

Both Signer and Davidson work in short units (films and essays) that interconnect within far larger corpora. Davidson’s writing helps provide some insight into the non-psychological ramifications of Signer’s Actions, and those of actions and events (artistic or otherwise) in general.

Signer’s temporary artworks draw out or exploit the event descriptions that a philosopher like Davidson is preoccupied with. The artist drops the putty ball; the hat flies up towards the artist. The performer explodes the tin of paint; the paint covers the seated performer. The platform beneath the man’s feet explodes; the man is separated from his hat.

In the very fine publication that accompanies these shows, there are two essays by Leonhard Emmerling and Brian Butler, the directors of St. Paul St. and ARTSPACE. The two writers have refreshingly distinctive and separate approaches. Butler briefly links Signer’s projects with his life in Switzerland and various twentieth century Swiss literary figures and existentialist thinkers, looking at notions of identity. Emmerling on the other hand sees the work through a ‘French’ filter of Albert Camus and Alain Badiou’s writings on ethics and truth.

Within these discussions Emmerling’s use of Hegel and Badiou, and Butler of Walter Benjamin and Fernando Pessoa (the fabulous Portuguese poet) - when discussing experience - are particularly interesting. Signer’s satirical ‘book readers’ seem to confirm the value of the authenticity Emmerling and Butler are advocating. (Incidentally Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ album is also a fascinating dissertation on this same theme.)

In part of his essay Emmerling discusses Signer’s 1997 work ‘Simultaneous’ in Venice, where he released 117 blue iron balls all at once from a ceiling so they dropped into a grid of damp clay blocks positioned on the floor. To create this rapidly moving spectacle the artist turned an ignition key.

In talking about such a manual action Davidson writes:

‘I flip the switch, turn on the light, and illuminate the room. Unbeknownst to me I also alert a prowler to the fact that I am home. Here I need not have done four things, but only one. I flipped the switch because I wanted to turn on the light and by saying I wanted to turn on the light I explain (give my reason for, rationalize) the flipping. But I do not rationalize my alerting of the prowler or my illuminating of the room….’(6)

‘Because ‘I wanted to turn on the light’ and ‘I turned on the light’ are logically independent, the first can be used to give a reason why the second is true….It is not unnatural, in fact, to treat wanting as a genus including all pro attitudes as species. When we do this and when we know some action is intentional, it is easy to answer the question, ’Why did you do it?’ with ‘For no reason’, meaning not that there is no reason but that there is no further reason, no reason that cannot be inferred from the fact that the action was done intentionally; no reason, in other words, besides wanting to do it.’(7)

If Signer were not a now famous artist, would he still continue with his Actions and Events? I think he would, even if they were not accepted by others as art. Why? Because he wants to. That is a reason.

So why am I saying all this: why have I written this longish article putting these two individuals together? You want to know a reason for this action: a rationale? Because I wanted to. There are intriguing overlaps in their various lifetime preoccupations and it interests me to say so. So I have.

(1) Davidson, Donald, ‘Actions, Reasons and Causes’ in Essays on Actions and Events, Oxford University Press paperback, 1980, p.4
(2) Davidson, op. cit., p.173
(3) Ibid, p.3
(4) Lepore, E. and Ludwig, K, Introduction to The Essential Davidson, Oxford University Press paperback, 2006, p.8
(5) See Morris R. ‘The Philosophy of Donald Davidson’ and Davidson’s discussion of Morris’ ‘Blind Time Drawings with Davidson,’ in Hahn, L.E., The Philosophy of Donald Davidson, Open Court paperback, 1999, pp 127-138
(6) Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events, ibid, p.4
(7) Ibid, p.5


Ali Bramwell said...

thoughtful and interesting. thanks JH.

Signer's work also has an element of anxiety and even antagonism in it that shifts it somewhere more complex than causative action-follows-desire...there seems to be a persistent frustration also, even fear. It seems like an act of will is taking place, to act in the face of difficulty.

John Hurrell said...

Fear? Perhaps...depending on the situation.In some of the You Tube videos he is having the time of his life.There is a look of mischievous glee on his face.Check out the glorious 'Suitcase(Kurhaus Weissbad)'.