Net theory

Jean Cristofol
About Outside Lectures, series of performances, 2009-2015

When I think about Outside lectures, the first image that comes to mind is a net. It’s not quite the idea of the network though, at least not in a first instance, however important this idea is here.  Before becoming a network, nets are merely an aggregation of things: a housewife’s webbed grocery bag gathered in a ball, or the fisherman’s fishing nets clumped in a heap on the jetty. An aggregation of things, though always retaining a particularly malleable quality, a shapeless density allowing the housewife’s net to fit in her pocket, or the fisherman’s in the rigging of his boat.

The props needed for Outside lectures fit in the trunk of a car. The form is light, literally. Nomadic, if you will. In any case, it’s transportable and adaptable, it’s meant to be performed from place to place, set-up and bumped out. These different elements are then spread out (deployés) in a display (déploiement) that changes from site to site, depending on each location’s conditions and circumstances. The first act of Outside lectures consists in casting the net, distributing its various constituent elements throughout a given space. Something akin to a shape is thus drawn, loosely traced around a center point in a circular motion. Some of the crowd takes to this webbed circle, they’re captured by it, caught up in it.

This description, however, is not entirely accurate. A first reason for this is that the circular form is, by definition, closed. It draws a line that folds back on itself and splits the world in two: inside and outside. As it happens, what spreads out is a never-ending movement that does not fold back on itself, for it calls forth differing scales and carries over onto discontinuous planes. And, as it happens, though a loop is made, it’s hardly circular—even if you are left with the distinct impression of a stage or a playing field, even if something does indeed take place, spread out, and resonate. For, as the name of the Lectures suggests, the distribution of inside and outside plays out differently. The movement inherent in the theatre design gives way to another movement, or runs into a kind of displacement that penetrates this design, transforms it, articulates it in another dimensional register.

The net is thus an assemblage, an apparatus articulating a variety of elements linked by this journey. This system is made up of a sequence of situations that hang together, insofar as it is said that a work of art seeks an equilibrium where it “holds” according to the principles of composition, in the musical meaning of the word. There’s something in installation work that gathers up a variety of elements through the interplay of their connections, whether a movement, a journey, or, indeed, a crossing. It’s both stationary and in motion; stationary like a house of cards, in motion like a breath or a dance step. Add to this the fact that the appliances gathered here, and through which each moment occurs, are so utterly banal and common that they’re part of our everyday lives: a television, a table and a microwave, a laptop, a cellular phone, etc., all laid out around a chunk of polystyrene placed on a sheet of plexiglass. It’s a sort of modest sculpture, a ready-made taken out of its packaging, a blank and empty architecture that the sounds produced by a microphone’s audio feedback come to explore, transforming it into a block of ice, an iceberg, the detached and fragile fragment of an ice shelf. As things ice over in this moment of sonic decomposition, the movement stops and turns around, form fissures, and language breaks down in a static-ridden avalanche. In the progression of sequences that make up Outside lectures’, only this moment sees the sonic loop become the closed circle of the stage, reduced to the kernel of its presence, to the here and now of the scene—and, yet again, you get the sense that its on the inside that things are unravelling.

Outside lectures starts at a set time, with a sequence of words akin to an absurd challenge: plainly recounting what happens on a television screen between the end of the early evening shows, often game shows, and the beginning of the 8pm newscast—in other words, this rapid sequence of non-events blending soundbytes, advertising, weather forecasts, announcements, jingles and the opening spiel from the news anchor relating the day’s main stories. The actress, Emmanuelle Lafon, sits in front of a television screen with headphones on. Watching a screen that we cannot see, she gradually describes what goes on, what is said, what is shown, and all of this in a continuous stream while obviously unable to say everything given the onslaught of images that our minds conjure up, bubbling on the very surface, in an uneven race between voice and mere speech act when faced with the dull enormity, steadily flickering and churning away. The actress sits at the very heart of the TV apparatus, at the crucial moment when the premier private French television station sees its highest viewer ratings. This banal explosion of empty signifiers in an instant shaping and structuring the daily lives of millions of homes is precisely what is hidden from view and re-presented through the performance’s blueprint: a body, present and opaque in its encounter with the screen—the brain in its encounter with the televised stream. This particular moment, both fascinating in itself and in its spoken rendition—in which we have to recognize (though some spectators cannot) that what’s at stake in this very moment is what really occurs on screen, what we in fact do not watch because we are here, listening to the actress, watching her expend her energy as we would empty our minds—in this way, this particular moment is not reproduced, imitated, figured, represented, but, in a certain sense, “over-produced.”

The screen weaves a temporal field before it describes a surface. Indeed, it is constituted by way of a dynamic relationship grounded in the inter-actions of thought and image. What happens in Emmanuelle Lafon’s spoken performance, in the striated tension of her delivery, in her efforts to articulate words that are always already wrapped up in other words, is that a temporal vacuum is created—a difference in speed that endlessly attempts to conceal itself. In actual fact, there is no movement, no shifting synchronic mass, but rather a constant back and forth between lapse and recovery. With speech front and center, thought becomes unravelled. The gap widens between hearing and seeing, the movements of mouth and words, and holding them together requires effort, the object of the performance being this effort’s very limits, beyond the rest of the “show” that is Outside lectures—if, indeed, show is the right word for this kind of piece. To my mind, this ever widening gap—repeatedly covered over, always shifted, renewed, multiplied—is what founds a general dynamic, spanned by clearly identifiable extremes (technological, political, mental) that entangle themselves in a composite experience that questions the everyday realities of the network and the place that subjects such as ourselves occupy within it. Folded back on itself, reduced to the grainy decomposition of a feedback loop, this same dynamic drifts in realtime with the sound performance Frost.

“The brain is unity. The brain is the screen. (…) Thought is molecular. Molecular speeds make up the slow beings that we are. (…) Cinema, precisely because it puts the image in motion, or rather endows the image with self-motion, never stops tracing the circuits of the brain.” Deleuze wrote this in the 1980s, finding it to be the basis for a philosophical disposition. “One naturally goes from philosophy to cinema, but also from cinema to philosophy.” Around the same time, Fredric Jameson noted however the paucity of video theory, especially regarding its dominant commercial form, television: “the blockage of fresh thinking before this solid little window against which we strike our heads being not unrelated to precisely that whole or total flow we observe through it.” The flow in question is an uninterrupted discharge. In a surprising moment of cynical clairvoyance during his time behind the reins of the aforementioned television station, Patrice Lelay blatantly stated that it was his mission to create the conditions of sale for “available brain time.”

Jameson contrasts this televised continuity with the cinema, or the theater, in which movement is constrained within the limits of the spectacle or the film. Cinema is, indeed, a temporal art; it aptly develops what Deleuze patently recognizes as a flow, but a flow that ends with the ending of the film’s very form, and thus its narrative construction: “Turning the television set off has little in common either with the intermission of a play or an opera or with the grand finale of a feature film, when the lights slowly come back on and memory begins its mysterious work. Indeed, if anything like critical distance is still possible in film, it is surely bound up with memory itself.” Through the dual effect of this ending and editing, the temporality of cinema is not the same as the continuity of everyday life. It’s an independent temporality, just like cinematic space is an autonomous space, with its own laws and rules. It’s a time to which we travel, a moment up in the air, a moment apart. In truth, cinematic fiction is established through the specificity of this space-time, much more so than through a given narrative invention. Jameson deduces from this that much like we should concern ourselves with memory, and our ability to create and store memory, so too we should question the fictional abilities of video, or its particular means of producing fiction, insofar as video’s temporality can no longer be distinguished for the continuity of passing time.

Television’s flow, however, is the product of a concatenation of consecutive elements that vary in nature—entertainment, games, movies, current affairs, advertising, etc. Homogenenous, unilateral and levelling, it cannot be equated with the digital flow generated from the multipolar distribution of ever changing information that ebbs and flows with the distributed participation of its users. It’s worth asking if Jameson’s point of view isn’t beholden to the “outside” that he finds himself in, beset by the flow spewing forth his television screen. Today, in any case, this “outside” has become an imaginary standpoint, an unreal space, not so much because we now live in a world without walls, rather because we now inhabit and think in networks, the objective forms of our globalized world. The same thing has happened to what we used to call cities. Town and country differed like two opposite realities and this opposition was spatially construed in the objective gap between the dense urban habitat and its ring of fields and forests. Long ago, cities lost their form and were separated into zones of varying density, thereby ramified, making up megacities that have, in turn, taken over chunks of countryside. The straightforward opposition between inside and outside or of here and elsewhere has but a relative significance in a networked world. This is why we can say that a world of networks no longer has an outside. Further still, the material city is compounded in the texture of information networks. The flow’s dimension and form have changed. With the process of generalized digitalization, video’s place has not been taken by one single sphere of communication, but by the spread of interconnected networks, coupled to reality through specific exchanges, multiple mechanisms that activate behaviors, modes of kinship and communication, as well as various power relations and strategies.

Often, the image that we have of a network is overly simplified: a flatted, two-dimension representation that struggles to rid itself of a center around which it could still attempt to organize itself, something halfway between a maze and a spider-web. We forget the networks call on networks and thus proliferate within diversified dimensions where relationships with time and space play out differently—which also goes for what we typically call the here and now of the present. In this multidimensional universe, it is less a matter of centers—singular or plural—than of knots which, though they act as filters, feed on the energy provided by the network itself. The flow is no longer the product of a particular point of creation and dissemination, but rather what constantly circulates, what certain extremes congeal and mingle together, what they attempt to commercialize, and, possibly, what they control.

We also have difficulty recognizing the fictional and political issues raised by the systems that activate these network dimensions. Outside lectures pertains to this context. One could say that each of the show’s sequences unfolds by activating a pattern, a situation or a relationship that plays on one of these modes. I use the word “activate” because it is as much about inventing a system specific to creating a particular experience as it is using existing, everyday devices in the service of a performative situation. The show’s very script makes use of devices not in and of themselves, rather in terms of what relationships to speech and to others they conjure, or even the simple fact of their presence and the diversity of their modalities—hence the loss overcome in their just “being there” and recognized as such.

All you need to do is spin the television around and it becomes a monitor showing an honest, almost intimate interview that’s halfway between charade and critical account of a foreigner’s administrative adventures in France. The actress turns into a lecturer and presents us with a speech emphatically drawing an analysis of a homeless man’s speech act: “I have nothing to eat.” Or perhaps a telephone call is made to an accomplice, describing the space she’s sitting in, moving in, letting us simultaneously though remotely experience her presence elsewhere, in a similar vein to radio reportage. In each instance, it’s a matter of language and words, the way in which meaning is produced and exchanged. In each instance, it’s a matter of how what is said can establish a space: speaking space, listening space, communication space. And, in each instance, a relationship is made beyond the silence and the solitude, a reaching-out to the other, a possible experience of self, an encounter with what might make up a scene or begin a story.

The only thing is, each time the sequences also produce a shift, they create a gap between discourse and speech, status, weight, the reality that’s involved and the manner that it crosses the present’s net. Indeed these successive systems even shake the present. They reveal its complexity, how it is crossed by another moment, how it is porous and run through by an elsewhere that is barely identifiable and potentially temporary. If the “out of screen” is decisive to the narrative potential of both photography and cinema, it’s no doubt this particular movement, the interim crossing of the present moment, that augments the narrative potential of networked devices.

The last sequence, Sentinel, shows us something so obvious you want to call it out, despite the slightly paradoxical, mysterious or opaque effect. It’s a video on a simple loop: a mongoose shakes, turns around, stands up completely straight, in an almost feeble standstill, falls back on its feet and jumps out of frame while another, the same one, comes into frame, shakes, stands up, over and over and over again. One leaves and becomes the other, and both of them are just one animal, turning, shaking, standing, watching, reaching for an elsewhere we cannot see. A simple loop, with a match cut that, like a scratched vinyl, points to the slightly pixellized presence of the image. A figure at once direct, immediate and perfectly abstract, like the circular nature of the loop that produces it, that establishes its freedom of movement, its perpetual starting over.

Outside Lecturessuggests a communications space where memories of a recording slot into the span of what’s told, read, played or fictionalized. Strands of thought unravel in a space that’s made up of condensed layers, gathered up on themselves, dragged onto the folded heap of a net of which we’re ever constant interested parties.

Jean Cristofol, 2009