By Josh Wagner
Philosophy comes too late. The point at which an aesthetic idea or concept is formalized and widely accepted enough to persuade a publisher, receive a book deal, meet a deadline and enrapture an audience is the point at which it becomes embalmed. Like a motionless monument, the Academy transmutes the living and breathing into deadened flesh, binding in order to analyze and dissect, not allowing for fresh air. The act of study opposes the experiential act of being present to the world and seeing what’s there. If the ability to talk about something you care about is the ideological tipping point between ineffable beauty and artistic murder, then discourse is death. It’s better to remain silent about your passions than to assign arbitrary and inaccurate designations to them, right? So, what is to be done?
I saw this conflict between deadness and vitality earlier this month, when I went to the Oakland Museum to see their exhibition “Respect” on hip-hop. Very much alive in the streets and on the radios, hip-hop, especially in the exhibition, toes the line in between museum-quality deadness and street-quality aliveness. Instead of treating the museum gallery as a cathedral of modernity, a space of immortalization, solitude, “white cubism,” religiosity, where you go to passively intuit and be subjected to art, the Oakland Museum was designed as an arena in which to act — aware of its own deadening potential, subverting it.
In the first room of the exhibition, a 40-minute movie plays on two mirroring screens which are usually playing the same recording, yet deviate slightly in a montage effect. While aesthetically interesting on its own, this set-up is amplified by a human-sized mirror resting next to the larger-than-life screens. While watching, you have to confront yourself, see yourself as an observer, looking in, peering into a flat screen, into a reality that really isn’t there and probably isn’t yours. This confrontation with the human form takes the vaulted gallery space into the streets, an experience accentuated by the literally underground museum.
By inserting the human form into the very first room, the curators do not allow the audience to forget that everything inside is intrinsically human and man-made — the museum never leaves the realm of the human. Though expansive, the show featured multifarious elements of what it means to do hip-hop: chess, Afrofuturism, graffiti culture, politicization, polemics, writing, performance, low-riding cars. And, the show was built interactively, with an ideology; it’s not trying to convey a particular stance on hip-hop, tell you what experts think. It, rather, attempts to enact it in this closed environment — there are no coarse value judgements to make, nothing to say.
Lying next to books by Kasparov and the Hip-Hop Chess Foundation sat four chessboards, open and ready to be played. There was a dance-floor equipped with a video screen teaching how to move to hip-hop. There was a podium surrounded by a mountain of books — revolutionary and theoretical and experiential and raw literature — with two microphones, one at the bottom and the other at the top, to speak into. The formal layout of the space compels the participating viewer to act, be a part of the art-making process as much as the artist (plenty of people subtlety protested against this kind of engagement: “what do I say?!”)
For its painstaking efforts to avoid philosophical death, “Respect” is a monument to compromise, an attempt to convey the ephemeral event of hip-hop through interactive media; the spectator creates the exhibit. Yet, even with this interactive element, which flies in the face of the museum-cathedral, there is a thing-ness about hip-hop that transcends the gallery walls. For all the elements and associations enumerated and explored, the show never goes far enough to convey the totality of the musical experience. Latent, linguistic, meaningful connections lie unexplored and untussled. Framed graffiti rested on the wall, alongside images of street artists making the art. On the street, graffiti refers to a specific, local context; it’s continuous with the life of the city. Seeing it on the wall of a museum strips away this presentness and this sense of its monumentality. It is an act defined by context, in conversation with the topography and surrounding artists who mark their territory with bombs and tags and stencils. It’s difficult to look at this kind of object framed on a wall — it doesn’t really make sense.
The museum’s attempt to revitalize art by bringing it off the wall only serves to murder it. Museum graffiti, no matter how well executed, is not the real thing. Especially because graffiti and hip-hop are temporal, implosive acts of rebellion.
If it doesn’t make sense to memorialize the immaterial on the wall and if the Oakland Museum’s attempt to overcome this does not work, how do you commemorate or value an intangible event? The event can be lots of things — picking pomegranates from the tree behind Hamm; checking my phone at precisely 9:11 and taking a screenshot in memoriam, collecting caterpillars on my shirt on the way to class. These kind of rituals, while important to my practice of living, are not obviously recorded. What do I do with a phone full of images of its internal clock? There is nothing, really, that I can do. The sensitivity that powers this kind of listening exercise is generative, a method of exploration to subjectively discover a fantasy about my world, a contingent and individual illumination that focuses in and expands one practice.
Enacting the event seem like poor reflections of these vital rituals — their liveliness transcends the individual moment, yet their thingliness can only exist in that moment. Hip-hop is not just about the immediate sounds coming from an artist’s throat; they reflect and represent something more than just sound. Yet every effort that I’ve made to move beyond that immediate phenomenological experience, to listen better, relies on the presentness and ephemerality of that moment. With hip-hop, creation is tied to sound and sound is temporal. Sound is different. Sound is unrepeatable. Sound morphs and changes. And memory is an insufficient means to sound. Form supersedes function; creation can be no more than context.
In the same way that “the name that can be named is not the eternal name,” anything that I can say about hip-hop or art will be a failure. There’s nothing that I can linguistically say to capture effectively the plentitude of the object mimetically in front of me. I feel that it is almost better to remain silent — what is there to say? This injunction to silence refers to the inability to properly emote linguistically. And, I think that there are three kinds of silence: moral/socially motivated, omitted and quieted (like a library or an oak tree). As artist Salomé Voegelin notes, in all these scenarios, silence acts as “a mirror that shows this formless subject to himself: echoing back from the shiny surface of ice and snow he hears himself as a listener in his surroundings.” Silence is relational. Just because something is not quiet and unutterable does not mean that it will always be so, or that there is “nothing there.” Silence reflects. In a community, silence allows the latent to spring forth, bringing forgotten memories to the hippocampus, in the quest to fill in that silence. On your own, silence rebounds, echoing inside your empty chest cavity, the solitude of being alone resounds and opens.
Silence opens up new possibilities because silence itself is never silent. Philosopher Mladen Dolar contends that, “[t]he absence of voices and sounds is hard to endure; complete silence is immediately uncanny, it is like death, while the voice is the first sign of life.” Complete silence, like absolute zero, is a fictive construct; it is impossible to escape noise. Yet, absconding the mouth as the sole vocal interpreter allows you to listen and sound freely. This violent form of creating a space allows a kind of latitude and clearing which can be acted upon. Crucially, this crumbling vision of silence cannot function inside of language. The speech-act seamlessly murders it, as I have done here.
So, remain silent about your silence! Rather than an act of cowardice or reticence, being unspeaking is a quiet acceptance of the need to be silent whereof one cannot speak. Given a podium and a microphone, don’t say anything at all! Rejoice in the soundlessness. Silence is generated through the abstracted void of a context, between subject and object (though sometimes the subject is the object). Only through the musical rests in hip-hop does a song have meaning! The sonic impact of another upon yourself triggers an ethicality, a sense of noticing, of being aware that another exists and survives. Awareness at the center of the political potential of unsilent music! This kind of shared mental community space is not the rational community of unified belief which shares a common value and moral system. It is action which unites rather than overdetermined morality — what ignites music into categorizable genres is not a shared message, but a common creative act. Rather, the conjunctions formed by silences are homogenous; everyone engages in the same act without any overarching progression. The generation of a community only occurs through the exchange of experience and non-experience, breaking and creating a silence — respecting the silence in order to hear.
Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
Contact Josh at jwagner4 ‘at’ stanford.edu.