Affective Composition and Aesthetics: On Dissolving the Audience and Facilitating the Mob
Editors's Note: For an interview with radical marching band pioner Grey Philistine of the Infernal Noise Brigade by Lex Bhagat, check out Music for an Angry Mob in issue 2.
by Stevphen Shukaitis
First there was a scream: a shattering of an understanding of the world dislocated by the shock of the real. Suspended between that rupture in perception and the realization that it need not be this way, something happened: the chance spotting of a marker, a beacon that signaled the travel of others who no longer wish to be involved in the bloody machinations of the world as it is, and who struggle against it not with stoic ardor but insurgent joy. Do you remember it? Maybe it was the rhythm of a marching band hanging over the streets or an absurd slogan scrawled on an alley wall—passing, fleeting ephemeral moments not even recognized at the time; a minor motion, an internal movement traced along the contours of emerging collective time. In that moment, everything changes. bodies milled around, held awkwardly at distance, a chilly space maintained in a distance not born of malice or mistrust but from not knowing. But in that instant, borders fell. The first hit of the drum is the first crack in the wall of the objectifying, separating gaze—that space created by the passive stare of the audience towards a performance, an exhibition: the spectacle.
As the melody pulsed through the crowd, we reveled in the timbre of the horns. Arms, words, memory, and noise tenuously connected through time and desire. Rage blended with joy; dislocation was replaced by emerging momentary worlds. Perhaps we can call this an aesthetic of refusal: but it is neither a refusal of the aesthetic domain, nor a call to realize art by transcending it. It embodies, rather, the refusal to separate aesthetics from the flux of the ongoing social domain. It is an art of intense relations, but not as an anesthetic to reduce pain or maintain stability in the face of precarious existence, for the anesthetic “only masks symptoms; it does not treat the root causes of pain…trace it back to its source, [give] it meaning, or counter it with pleasure.” 1 It is an older, more radical practice of aesthetics as immediacy and affective composition.
From these fleeting moments, the movement and self-institution of the radical imagination is born. It unfolds through a process of affective composition in aesthetic politics, a conception of an aesthetics based on the relations and experiences that emerge from the process of collective creation rather than the content of the artistic composition. This aesthetics is focused on the relations of production not as a concern secondary to the content of what is produced, but rather as the explicit process of self-institution and the creation of a space where the art of politics is possible. That is, rather than assuming the existence of a forum where politics, those inter-subjective understandings that make collective life possible, can be articulated through art, here we see the creation of an affective space: a common space and connection that is the necessary precondition for connections, discussion, and communities to emerge. This is aesthetic politics—not necessarily because of the directly expressed content of the work—but because of the role it plays in drawing lines of flight away from staggering weight of everyday life, in hybridizing sounds and experiences to create space where other relations and possibilities can emerge.
The Constituent Spiral
“The people are missing.” 2 —Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattar
One recurring challenge for political art is to circumvent the assumption implicit in a didactic composition that a work’s arguments take place in an already existing public sphere, that common ground and frame of reference that preexists the particular expression. Unaware of this challenge, much political artwork strives to create interesting and compelling arguments, flourishes of speech, in the hope that the message will reach the listener with a minimum of interference. In order for political speech to cause affective resonance, conditions must exist for the audience to be able to identify with the speaker as well as possess a capacity to affect and be affected. This process of affective composition so often begins from minor moments and interactions, yet through them spaces of commonality, where new relations and interactions are possible, emerge. The observation that the people are missing, then, is not a lament, but a realization that the task of politics is precisely the creation of common space through intensive engagement not circumscribed by accepted identities and positions.
The concept of affective composition is formed by bringing together notions of affect with the autonomist notion of class composition. The concept of affect has been developed in a submerged history of philosophy stretching from Spinoza to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (and further developed by such thinkers as Antonio Negri and Genevieve Lloyd) to indicate an increased capacity to affect or to be affected by the world. For Deleuze and Guattari, artistic creation is the domain of affective resonance, where imagination shifts through the interacting bodies. Composition is used here, borrowing from the autonomist Marxist notion of class composition, to indicate the autonomous and collective capacities to change the world through social resistance. As forms of collective capacity and self-organization are increased, strengthened by the circulation of struggles and ideas, the capitalist state attempts to find ways to disperse them or to appropriate these social energies for their own workings. Thus the cycles of the composition, decomposition, and re-composition of struggles are formed. A key insight of autonomist thought is the argument that the struggle itself and the forms of social cooperation it engenders determine the direction of capitalist development. To consider affective composition by examining street or performance art is to examine the capacities they create, and how they contribute to the development of forms of self-organization; this is what the Infernal Noise Brigade describes as “facilitat[ing] the self-actualization of the mob.” 3
The affective composition of relations and intensities in aesthetic politics is a pressing issue because the possibilities for the existence of public and common space have changed over recent years. The increasingly drastic commercialization of public space, corporate domination of media outlets, and tendency towards fear-mongering in all areas of life have created a culture in which immense flows of information and data are available, but there are precious few public spheres in which this data can resonate. Paolo Virno argues that when forms of collective intelligence cannot find expression in the public sphere, where common affairs can be attended to, the result is a terrifying proliferation of unchecked and groundless hierarchies. This, according to Virno, is “publicness without a public sphere.” 4 The flow of information and images constantly surrounding and immersing us allows for new possibilities of communication and subjectivity formation, but can also overwhelm or take us in directions that are not necessarily liberatory. Chat rooms and blogs meld seamlessly with the commercial landscapes of gentrified cities, and the twenty-four-hour-a-day flow of “news” either excites or intones a constant reminder to “be afraid.” But these do not encourage a common place of collective engagement. More than anything, they tend to proactively prevent the emergence of shared space in ways that have not been over-coded by the workings of state or capital.
Relying on the expected aesthetics of propaganda means circumscribing possible patterns of resonance more than might be wished. Political art is political not just through its content, but also in the way in which it is designed to work with or against the conventional circulation of ideas, images, and relations. In other words, forms of street art are not subversive simply because of the fact that they occur in the street (which plays host to a whole range of viral marketing and quotidian forms of spectacular recuperation), but rather because they unfold relations that resist the over-coding operations of the art institution and commodity production. It is this focus on patterns of circulation and relations as a politico-aesthetic activity, what George Katsiaficas described as “engaging aesthetic rationality in the process of political transformation, of turning politics into art, everyday life into an aesthetically governed domain,” that comprises the process of affective composition. 5
“Magic, shamanism, esotericism, the carnival, and ‘incomprehensible’ poetry all underscore the limits of socially useful discourse and attest to what it represses: the process that exceeds the subject and his communicative structures.” —Julia Kristeva 6
By far the most well thought-out attempt to elaborate a notion of political aesthetics based on the relations contained and enabled by them may be found in Hakim Bey’s writings on “immediatism.” As a form of utopian poetics, immediatism describes creative collective activity designed to reduce the degree of mediation involved in artistic activity. It is based on forms of play and the free exchange of gifts (and performances) in a way that is intended to avoid the logic of commodification. There is no passive consumption: all who are spectators must also be participants. Immediatism does not strive for the production of art objects, but rather for immediate present experiences and connections for those who share creation in its creative realm of the clandestine institution of community. Indeed, Bey suggests that the best immediatist agitprop “will leave no trace at all, except in the souls of those who are changed by it.” 7 Thus immediatist practices involve a wide variety of activities not typically thought of under the rubric of “the arts.” For instance, the quilting bee, a practice of spontaneous non-hierarchical patterning producing something useful and beautiful to be given to other members of one’s quilting circle; or, by extension, parties, potlucks, banquets, Happenings, and art events. Whatever the particular context may be, the key notion of the immediatist is to reduce as much as possible the presence of mediation in the construction of collectively experienced situations.
It is in this sense that radical marching bands, and the ways they undercut the usual space (and sometimes relations) of artistic performance to create mobile and affective spaces in the streets, where other relations can emerge, are of interest. For even the most lyrically subversive punk band performs in a situation that maintains a division between those who are performing, generally upon a stage of some sort, and their audience which is watching them. Projects such as the Hungry March Band, the Infernal Noise Brigade, and Rhythms of Resistance, closely connected with the late 1990s upswing in streets protests and parties such as “Reclaim the Streets,” brought carnivalesque energies and excitement into a stale ritualistic mode of political protest. Radical marching bands and other forms of tactical frivolity have been important in keeping space open for the emergence of intensive and affective relations in the public sphere, relations that one hopes will bleed into to the fabric of daily life.
Not surprisingly, then, the repertoire of many radical marching bands is a veritable melting pot of styles, cultures, and backgrounds, bringing together everything from jazz and big-band tunes to klezmer and Moroccan music, from Indian wedding songs to calypso, salsa, reggae, and Sun Ra. They also derive a large degree of inspiration from projects that have merged the energy of punk rock and street performance, such as Crash Worship and !TchKung!, the latter of whom had members that went on to form marching bands. There is a great amount of crossover and mixing between political marching bands and other forms of street and performance art and theater (such as Vermont’s Bread & Puppet Theatre, a key inspiration for many marching bands), as well as underground circus and vaudeville acts (such as the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus and Circus Contraption).
One of the best examples of a marching band altering the composition of a situation occurred at the AS220 Festival in Providence, Rhode Island, in July 2006. The event, organized by a local arts space, filled the greater part of a city block, with thousands of people milling about, attending various talks and workshops, munching food, browsing the wares of booksellers, and watching musicians perform on a stage located at one end of the festival space. At several points during the day the What Cheer? Brigade, a local marching band, materialized with propulsive drumming and piercing horns, resplendent in motley attire that one would be hard-pressed to call uniforms. Their appearance changed the nature of the event; as they entered the space of the festival, people began to dance and frolic with them as they moved, rather than fixing upon the stage as a focal point, one which clearly marked the difference between those who were performing and observing. This increase in the conviviality affected not only those who danced along in participation, but encouraged those peripheral to the activity to find reasons to interact with people they hadn’t spoken with before.
The marching band is commonly experienced as an appendage of the state form, as a space defined by the state—a group bound to tightly scripted and controlled lines and the military insignia. One might encounter a marching band at a military or civic parade or at a sports event, where they provide a sort of motivational soundtrack. And it is perhaps this association that makes their playful détournement and re-appropriation in service of protest strategies all the more delicious. March music might typically resonate with the workings of the war machine, but as Deleuze and Guattari remind us, this war machine can never totally be integrated into the workings of governance: there is always something that escapes. Itis a process that exceeds that subject and existing communicative structures yet paradoxically one that creates a space where the possibility of transversal commonality exists. And the war machine, understood as a space of exteriority to the state, can also be understood as a transformation machine, as the nomadic flows and machinations that constitutes spaces of possibility.
Stencil and graffiti art as well as street performance play an important role in breaking down the wall between artistic activity as separate or removed from daily life because these forms can be inscribed within the flow of people’s everyday experience. But this does not mean that such forms inherently contain the possibility for reorienting people’s expectations or that they will result in specific responses. And indeed, it is possible for a once-innovative creative activity to become standardized in such a way that the affectivity it initially generated is no longer as intense.
This constituent and affective space for creating new relations cannot be expected to exist without interference or difficulty. Temporary autonomous zones are temporary for a reason: namely, the fact that such spaces will inevitably face repression and recuperation. Thus, it is often not tactically sensible to create a space and maintain it (investing time, energies, and cost) against all odds. These moments and spaces are described quite well by the Leeds May Day Group as “moments of excess.” 8 But the compositional capacities of these ruptures are not unlimited, for they too through repetition become ritualized and fall back into solidified patterns of circulation. The question becomes one of keeping open the affective capacities of the created space: to finds ways to avoid the traps of spectacular recuperation and the solidification of constituent moments and possibilities into fixed and constituted forms that have lost their vitality.
This would mean to work with a sense of aesthetics and composition that is not necessarily based on the elements contained within the work itself, but on an understanding of the possibility for affective relations, spaces, and interactions, and their intensification and deepening, in the process of artistic creation. This is an understanding of artistic creation that George Hubler described as the shaping of time: art as a succession of works and productions distributed through time that embody the development of forms of collective time and relations. That is, a process that is not necessarily predicated upon the creation of meaning, but on the intervention or opening into a system of relations, connecting innovations that are passed along and mutated through the modulation of the relations in which they exist, on a terrain and topology of time “where relationships rather than magnitudes are the subject of study.” 9 The creation of affective spaces and possibilities, the common spaces and moments that underlie and make possible intensive forms of politics, is not (and never can be) something that happens once and is finished, but is an ongoing task of the self-institution of the radical imagination. As an ever-renewing process, moving and intensifying from the public sphere to constituent spirals of possibility, focusing on the affective composition of these moments means focusing on the possibilities for collective self-creation drawing from the relations that come out of shared creation.
1. David Levi Strauss, “Aesthetics and Anesthetics,” in Between Dog and Wolf: Essays on Art & Politics (Brooklyn, New York: Autonomedia, 1999), 12. (back)
2. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 216. (back)
3. Infernal Noise Brigade, cited in Jennifer Whitney, “Infernal Noise: The Soundtrack to Insurrection,” in We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism, ed. Notes from Nowhere (London: Verso, 2003), 219. See also Jean Leason, “Music on the March: How Protest Learned to Dance,” Fifth Estate 41, no. 3 (winter 2007): 21–24. (back)
4. Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson (New York: Semiotext(e), 2004), 40–41. (back)
5. George Katsiaficas, The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 2001), 310. (back)
6. Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 16. (back)
7. Hakim Bey, Immediatism (San Francisco: AK Press, 1994), 26. (back)
9. George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1962), 83. (back)