sites of integration – the translational and the comparative

below is the text of a presentation i gave last month at the 34th annual conference on social theory, politics & the arts. i began the talk by speaking about and showing some video of a work by Abraham Gomez-Delgado entitled drive-by/conga – that i heard and saw while at Bard College last summer, as part of the Milton Avery School of the Arts MFA program.


Abraham Gomez-Delgado, created and presented a work at Bard college last summer entitled: drive-by/conga.

Abraham is a conga player, band leader, and experimental sound artist based in Brooklyn, NY.

He and I met for several private conferences over the summer, and he told me he was planning on creating a sound work that would feature the events that I will now describe.

Abraham placed a microphone attached to a small, FM transmitter to the head of a conga drum.

Situating himself on a gravel parking lot behind a building on the campus of Bard College he proceeded to roll the conga across the gravel.

The resulting sound was received about 500 feet away, and broadcast into a covered pavilion approximately 100 feet from a paved, on-campus road.

A group of listeners were invited to the pavilion to hear a new sound work by Abraham.

For approximately five minutes the assembled group of listeners wandered and sat under and around the pavilion as the abstract sounds of Abraham and his conga filled the space at a moderate level.

No one was given any information about what they were listening to. Abraham was not visible.

Approximately five minutes into the event, a car drove slowly by on the paved road. The windows of the car were rolled down, and the sounds of latin popular music could be heard from the car.

The driver slowed as he passed the pavilion, glanced at us, then continued.

Approximately two minutes later, he passed us again.

Approximately one minute later the sounds of Abraham and his conga stopped, and Abraham emerged, and asked if anyone had any questions.

His original intention was to pre-record this piece, and then play it in a darkened theater as a sound work.

I strongly encouraged him to present the work as a live event.

I am very glad that he did.

I am excited by this work because, to me, it created what I’d like to call a site of integration.

Most people, at first, didn’t know what was going on.

After the sounds stopped, and during the dialogue that followed, and through the associations people had with the piece the relationship of the car, the music coming from it, and the sounds coming through the sound system inside the pavilion slowly became clear.

As the gestures of the piece were revealed, compared and explored, our dialogue took a number of interesting twists and turns.

The music playing out of the passing car was in a form called plena – an important genre of folk music in Puerto Rico. The plena is a narrative song that details the pains and ironies of people and life in their communities, and often serves as a musical newspaper.

The song being played out of the car was a recording of Abraham’s band, and was a composition by Abramham, which featured him on conga – the car was being driven by one of his bandmates who was simply told to drive slowly by the pavilion twice while playing a specific song, with the windows down, during a given time frame. During the discussion following the performance the driver became more aware of what was going on and contributed his own interpretations of the events he observed and participated in.

The meaning of the work went from a pure sonic abstraction to an autobiographical expression, to a discussion about the line between popular and art musics, and beyond.

At no point during the talk were Foucault, Bourriaud, John Cage, Structuralism, post-structuralism, or any ism at all mentioned. There was no effort to deconstruct the event.

No one, in other words seemed compelled to translate his/her observations into a pre-existing theoretical framework.

The impression I had was that we had all happened upon some curious thing, and similar to the blind men and the elephant, were compelled to try to puzzle it out by stating our own observations, listen to how those observations compared with other’s observations, and build from there.

The form of the dialogue felt, to me, remarkably similar to some David Bohm inspired dialogues I had participated in years ago.

So, the process of expressing first experiences with the materials of the piece, lead to comparing associations with the thoughts of others brought out during the dialogue – the piece took a decisive shape that afternoon through the act of collaboration, listening, and association on the part of those who expressed their thoughts.

It was clear that Abraham himself came away with a different impression of the work after it’s first realization, and remarked at the degree to which it’s managed ambiguity created a framework for a broad, personal, and open dialogue.

Future iterations of the piece will undoubtedly created different realizations appropriate to its’ moment and location.

To me, this form is special, and relevant because it uses the process of comparison and dialogue to achieve a point of understanding that is real, yet clearly not permanent, but rich with associations and potentials for future development.

The experience of Abraham’s work is a magnified view of the richness of connectivity of which we are all a part.

Abraham prepared a combination of gestures for the audience, and the piece required their participation in order to attain this view.

Practically and formally the audience was situated literally at the meeting point of his gestures.

For this work, Abraham didn’t know what that moment of conclusion would be specifically composed of – but he organized the event so that it would involve comparison and dialogue.

While putting the piece together in the privacy of his studio he realized that the response and participation of the audience would be essential to the completion of the work, so he carefully arranged a set of gestures that required the gestures of participation and transaction from the audience in order for the work to be understood.

Abraham did not, in other words, complete his work in his studio, and then install it into a specific environment.

The necessary component of participation was a formal element, and the fact that the artist himself provided space for that dialogue to occur, and allowed people outside of his studio to provide this formal element to his work was refreshing.

Abraham’s work was not a study in randomness, the materials and content he provided were very meaningful to him.

Drive by/conga was a method to reveal the tendencies/impressions/biases, preferences, and understandings at the intersection of different but carefully and subtly related forms of expression. The qualities of the relationship between these forms and gestures was what Abraham wanted to collectively explore, and he succeeded in creating an excellent environment and framework to perform this inquiry.

Through his work, and other projects I have experienced lately, I have come to understand a difference between projects that are based on translation, and projects that are based on the process of comparison and dialogue.

Translational works, if you will, to me, are brought to a state of completion by an artist within their studio, and shipped elsewhere to be exhibited.

The translational work is itself a translation of a certain point of view, opinion, epiphany, moment etc, from the mind of an artist into a given medium.

Translation based works are then experienced by viewers who translate the beheld object into their own experience of it.

The quiet of the gallery, museum, library, the arrangement of seats and lighting and protocols of behavior in theaters, the individuation from the crowd during the reception of works in these environments all speak to a moment of careful, personal, and concentrated communion, and deciphering.

Works based on the process of comparison are different because they are noisier, less precise, and are much more dependant on the conditions of their reception, and the qualities of the richness of connectivity that comprise the environment of which they are a part.

Works utilizing comparison and dialogue are designed to understand the scope of transaction that comprise an environment, in greater detail.

Works whose form engages the process of comparison and dialogue ask participants to acknowledge and express their momentary tendencies, opinions, and biases openly, and in response to a given stimuli within a given moment, while being constantly reminded that their expressions are a part of the fabric of the developing work and are, like the work itself, a matter of public consideration.

The implication of works designed to integrate participants observations via comparison of different gestures and elements seems relevant to the field of environmental psychology, and highlights the complex and dynamic nature of the relationship between identity and place.

As our careful reconsideration of our relationship with, and conception of environments in general seems to be a matter of survival I feel an added relevancy and timeliness of this nascent form.

Of primary importance to these sites of integration are their collective, dialogic, participatory, distributed responsibility, and observational qualities.

With dialogue in mind, I’ve observed that: people talk about what is important

– and sometimes there are theories to guide the discussion, and sometimes more talking and observing is needed so that patterns may be discovered and theories may be built so that we may better understand what we are compelled to say out loud.

To me, theories are abstractions built on top of observations.

Theories are essentially algorithms that make patterns observed via observation useful and available without having to rehash the actual series of observations each time one wants to reference the pattern that was discovered within them.

In the complex world of interconnections across varied, and varying media where many of us find ourselves, I am inspired as I observe younger artists creating projects designed, it seems, to gather and share observations collectively – and not rush to extrapolation and theory.

This suggests to me that some younger artists are laying the formal groundwork for future discourse that will accurately clarify and address the central concerns of their work, and promote its healthy evolution.

Abraham, along with other artists, leave me inspired with the thought that they will find their way toward increasing our collective knowledge by revealing nuances of the interconnections, and interactions upon which our experience is based, and through which we come to understand the world.

Knowledge, as Piaget observed, is operative. As we change, so changes our environment. Advancement in knowledge is proportional to the degrees to which we understand not only our personal ability to effect change in the environment, but awareness of the extents to which the environment changes us.

In conclusion: as I just said, people talk about what’s important.

Theorists and critics seed our conversations with concepts and understandings.

If we talk about peripheral, or germinal aspects of a given project we weaken its position as an agent of change, and we weaken the development of the artist, because we haven’t provided him or her with anything that will help them refine and clarify their vision and concept.

In our impatient age of professionalism, the desire to translate everything into a numeric value, and needing to be in control and be right all the time, the inevitably clumsy, but utterly necessary early stages of any evolutionary phase are at risk of being smothered, dismissed, or ignored.

The fact that some artists and others are willing to defy these ideas publicly in an attempt to gain a better understanding of themselves, and their world strikes me as courageous.

The scientific method involves observation, extrapolation, and theorization, in that order.

Good theory works with evolving art and quickens its development, as the theoretical and critical writing at the early stages of impressionist painting lead to the richness and revelations of modernism.

A risk of any axiomatized intellectual construction – and that includes and describes all art theory, is its ignorance of the fundamental limitation of any formulation.

When we develop ninja theoretical skills and apply our methods to everything, we are arresting our own capability for intellectual growth.

Sometimes we must do the necessary preliminary work to set the stage for more appropriate theoretic formulations later.

And, as I have said, that work involves observation, and creating environments where preferences, biases, and tendencies can be expressed openly, quickly and publicly via the process and mechanism of comparison.

The resulting expressions may provide a chance to observe genuine aspects of experience connected directly to specific environmental stimuli before those thoughts and feelings are internally translated, contextualized and expressed as an aspect of a pre-existing theoretical model.

The key, for me, is the advancement of knowledge, and advancement of knowledge requires understanding the world with increasing detail.

Sometimes being able to express what we see, feel, and think openly without knowing exactly how those things fit into a given, collaborative moment, but trusting that with the input and participation of others we will arrive at a better understanding together, and accepting that in order to reach that higher understanding someone will have to risk being wrong, is a highly useful practice.

Situations comprised of this observing, comparing, and sharing I refer to as sites of integration, and artists and designers can engage this form to advance knowledge, and, I might add, empathy.

I feel we are living in a moment where this practice is needed, and I feel some artists, designers, programmers and regular people are intuitively beginning to generate observations that will lead to more detailed understandings of our selves, our relationships to each other and to our environments and our present situation in general, and I feel that it is our turn to assist them.

Thank you.