SOMETHING IN SOMETHING ELSE
At some point in the 1990s I would repeatedly watch the Chain Reaction trailer from a file found on a giveaway CD-ROM. This was before widespread internet access, and our 256-color computer was relegated to the corner of my parents’ bedroom. It was the first live-action video I saw on a PC and the experience of control, watching the moving image on a computer, gave a complex enjoyment. I played and re-played the clip, at different sizes and placements, seduced by the power of techno-voyeuristic entertainment control. At around 240 pixels wide, it could be played full screen, though frames dropped and sound fell out and the rest of the seamless motion would have to be assembled in my head. There was a sort of feeling of dominance (and purposelessness) that accompanied this novel content being inserted into something else. Something like the practice of teenagers who steal street signs for their bedrooms that say “End,” “Path Closed,” or “Diversion”—the psychic shift of transposing one sign system into another and releasing a thrill of new control and possible pleasures.
In James Richards’ exhibition at Whitechapel there are some young kids dancing in trance-like convulsions to the sounds of lispy, rhythmic, hammering breaths and the cut-up starts and stalls of voices. We share a room that has been dressed like a muted church memorial, arranged on benches that form an inner circle, surrounded by an outer circle of speakers and Francis Bacon’s Study for a Portrait. The painting was selected for the show by Richards, who also produced the sound installation and staged an environment to house them both. It sits above us on a freestanding wall and some of the kids have already established their shifting relationship to the space, saying “Don’t, don’t, I’m scared of it”—“I feel like I'm in the forest”—“Why is it so sad?” Finally succumbing to a spasmodic and jerky dance as if fully possessed, they interpret and perform the installation better than any critic could.
The title, To Replace a Minute’s Silence with a Minute’s Applause, reads as if it’s missing a word at the beginning or end—maybe “How to” or “do this.” To replace silence with applause, you “do this,” this being the work, like an instruction or example to be followed. But there’s no applause and no example. What the show is concerned with, however, is mode. The title is a sentence that’s missing its point; it’s introducing the terms without providing a declaration about them. Bacon said, “I want to paint the scream more than the horror”—to paint the sound, not its effect. Applause attempts to make the silence of mourning visible, audible and present. Richards plays with the idea that this translation is even possible. The point is not to give an example of how one might replace silence with applause, but to question the terms as being equivalent or exchangeable entities.
The sound is made up of emotionally charged pauses, strings, guitar grazes, falling bass, and dramatic piano that crescendoes but doesn’t climax. These cut-up and manipulated elements are psychically ambient but also present. They are moments caught part way in their expression, like punctuating markers, before delivering total experience, total affect—so that the kids move from being part scared, questioning why it’s so sad, to being possessed to dance.
Pay no attention to that audio equipment by the curtain… Behind the installation, behind the Bacon, there are operations that produce these effects. This is where the silence and applause of the work’s title become visible. An audio rack with blue glowing lights in the corner marks the limit of the installation and stops it from being background and silent. It foregrounds itself, letting you see the apparatus behind the experience, like the mechanical theatrics the wizard of Oz produces to give the illusion of magic.
Total silence, total absorption produces magic, but visibility or applause shows its artifice and contingency. The movement of silence into applause makes the operation of mourning present—the movement of individual spiritual reverie towards mutual and communal performance. Richard’s installation is an admixture of illusion and self-conscious artifice. It takes the mystical element out of the display and the installation itself can be taken as a comment on the oft-discussed “power” of artists like Bacon. Richards presents and edits the things that elicit affect, without just naively coding a painting as “emotionally charged.” Importing Bacon into a new environment suggests new orders of pleasure, and part of the enjoyment of the show is the same feeling of dominance and novelty you get from stealing a sign or seeing something digitally appropriated for the first time. If one outcome is the passing away of the solitary mysticism of artworks, I’m in. But the fact is, if you’re going to express something about the mode of generating illusion, about how affect operates, then I want to see the playful subject pulling the strings. I want to see a real human behind the curtain before I start dancing too.