Brutalism is enjoying a renaissance of sorts—perhaps unexpected, given the sometimes violent reception it received when introduced in the 60s and 70s. Gone are the days when Yale art and architecture students allegedly attempted to burn down the home built for them by Paul Rudolph, and when Brutalism—as both concept and built form—was synonymous, if not with fascism outright, then certainly with mid-century Socialism’s drift into authoritarianism and brutality. If it seemed that the contradictions of Brutalism—its professed universalism and capacity to create more egalitarian social forms, but built into faceless, indifferent, monolithic concrete blocks only pure formalist architecture critics could love—were captured in its embrace by civic and academic institutions at the time, then its reconsideration and revival now complicates the case further: have we finally caught up with Brutalism’s universal pretentions, trading an idealistic social utopianism for a more sober version that eschews hedonistic demands of that time for a more sacrificial social collectivism? Or have we simply jettisoned the politics of collectivity altogether, preferring their aestheticized reduction in a neutralized and ahistoricized appreciation of form, material, structure, and surface?
If art as functional form can do anything, it can inhabit and reveal these contradictions and complexities in their fullness, developing an additive structure of meaning-making that resists easy classifications. Experimental sound artist Victoria Shen’s (aka Evicshen) work last year at Brutalist Boston City Hall‘s enigmatic mezzanine space —produced by Boston-based experimental music concert promoter Non-Event—directly engaged, challenged, intensified, and multiplied the meanings of site, architecture, history, and recent reinterpretations of Brutalism, developing an experiential network of relations and lines of inquiry that laid bare these contradictions and complexities, while opening up a new sense of embodied collective engagement—one that shattered tropes of sound genre and performance, giving art its opportunity at a less aestheticized, more concrete and real, politics.
She achieved this largely by embedding this sound and performance work as a site-specific and site-targeted experience, one that didn’t allow her audience comfortable distance from the site, or from the artist herself, or from the sound and performance experience; she chose instead to embed and implicate them, too, in its networked fabric of signification.
The embedment of audience, in turn, took two contradictory forms, that developed a powerful experiential dialectic. Shen’s towering, expansive sonic drive filled and enveloped the space and its audience, occupying, seemingly, every cell of life in the room. But then, and more importantly in my view, she conjoined that massive sound to a subtle, fragile, very human and vulnerable performance—one that, instead of assaulting audience, established solidarity through an empathic and sensuous connection to humanness, both suspended there, fragile in the massive sound, but also clearly the catalyst and cause of that huge wall of sound, its antidote, and bearing out a synthesis in a kind of inhuman space of though.
It was in fact this sneaky performance that rooted the work in a sensuous and concrete real, pulled it back from easy representations of the sublime, and revealed the work’s complex dialectical process—a realtime performance process that opened a critical space of reflection on norms of performance and representation, and on the social and political resonances of the work with the histories of the Brutalist City Hall stage.
For me the work’s critical relationship to sound, performance and architecture recalled philosopher Ray Brassier’s descriptions of the reification of ‘noise’ as genre—and the overcoming of genre—in the opening to his 2007 essay Genre is Obsolete:
‘Noise’ not only designates the no-man’s-land between electro-acoustic investigation, free improvisation, avant-garde experiment, and sound art; more interestingly, it refers to anomalous zones of interference between genres: between post-punk and free jazz; between musique concrète and folk; between stochastic composition and art brut. Yet in being used to categorise all forms of sonic experimentation that ostensibly defy musico-logical classification – be they para-musical, anti-musical, or post-musical – ‘noise’ has become a generic label for anything deemed to subvert established genre. It is at once a specific sub-genre of musical vanguardism and a name for what refuses to be subsumed by genre. As a result, the functioning of the term ‘noise’ oscillates between that of a proper name and that of a concept; it equivocates between nominal anomaly and conceptual interference. Far from being stymied by such paradox, the more adventurous practitioners of this pseudo-genre have harnessed and transformed this indeterminacy into an enabling condition for work which effectively realises ‘noise’s’ subversive pretensions by ruthlessly identifying and pulverising those generic tropes and gestures through which confrontation so quickly atrophies into convention.
Shen’s work functions in the transgressive, and not conventional, sense Brassier points to. But its overt materiality and its aggressive confrontation with the senses—when taken as merely sensuous—could be naively mistaken as such, and so could obscure and flatten the subtleties of the work. Shen’s critical turn is in the bodily ways she intervenes in and subverts those normative tropes and dichotomies of art, sound, noise and music experience.
For example, sound performance norms dictate clearly delineated spaces of performer and audience, player and played, performance and reception, subject and object, and representation and exigesis—and thus locate audience as spectators and the artist as author. But Shen’s playing, performance, and movement throughout the staged architectural space liquidated these dichotomies, transforming her audience’s spectatorship into an uneasy and contingent complicity, and instituting a transformative awareness of that real of the situation that has given up easy locations for embedment itself, and so engages directly an uncertain and always changing role in its own unfolding.
Locating this situation was the work’s engagement with the authoritarian Brutalist envelope of the City Hall architecture itself—its projected power and indifference, its seeming coldness and soullessness. One straightforward interpretation has Shen confronting architects Kallmann McKinnell and Knowles, projecting an analogously domineering force of sound at the silent, immoveable concrete surfaces. But this would be an easy binary which leaves the complex dialectic of Shen’s work in a bind, in which the fight against the architecture re-renders the performance as simply representational, thus reengaging the familiar tropes and clichés of—in Brassier’s logic—genre.
This easy interpretation also ignores Shen’s engagement with the complexities and contradictions of Brutalism itself—with the gulf between its self-proclaimed mid-60s vision of collectivist, democratic, internationalist hope and unity (a kind of positive apotheosis of Modernism) and its concrete results, the authoritarian and autocratic opposite of that promise, the alienation and brutality of its lived spaces, equal parts fascist amnesia, socialist failure, and democratic decay. But spatializing and embodying this contradiction was the particular quality of the City Hall mezzanine itself, with its austere volumes surrounding a block-like cascading brick stairway, part amphitheater and part banal passageway, which created an oddly decentered theater, one with no given direction or locus for performer or audience, and one where public and civic, function and form, get oddly and ambiguously mixed.
Shen knew how to exploit the scene, the complexity, the odd ambiguity. She smashed the easy representational binary by performing her performance as a complex conceptual juncture where subject and object; performance, performer, and performed; sound and material and making; the human body and the bodies of audience of architecture, etc., got continually reprocessed and relocated as the concrete, realtime enactment of the work. It was not performance of work as beginning, middle, and end—the standard arc of containment that reasserts the commodification of the work and renders an easy package for audience—but performance as an engagement with its own contingency, a wandering abstraction improvisationally responding to its immediate evolutions by evolving further.
Shen took us with her from the start: As we gathered in strewn chairs atop the mezzanine shelf or sat arrayed on the brick stairs, Shen began casually, imperceptibly twisting dials and pushing sliders among the electronics and synthesizers arranged haphazardly on a nondescript table, and a sonic immensity—incongruous with her nonchalance—burst into that space and pierced the body, a corporal splitting, opening the insides to the overwhelming, material density of a kind of total aural conversion. The sonic force simultaneously underwrote and pounded the architecture, its concrete faces reverberating and multiplying the percussive, grinding momentum of Shen’s aggressive multilayered construction. Huge deep thumping cracks and pounds slowly sped and crescendoed into jackhammers of complex timbre and tone, backgrounded by a thick, rough, smothering blanket constituted of, seemingly, the entire aural spectrum. The assault abated in intervals, only to return with greater ferocity. It refused to let go.
And if she left it here, in the sheer intensity of this sonic experience, in a representation of power, power on power, it would have been enough to make us feel awe, to push the audience to the borders of sonic possibility and an easy sublime—but it would remain that easy binary, a resolute, uncomplicated, ahistorical and apolitical conclusion. It would remain as genre. It would remain as aesthetics.
By performing the space of sound-as/is/and-Brutalism as an imminent, contingent, improvisatory process of stimulus and response, trigger and result, and with an obvious and transparent manipulation of her electronic instruments and an array of absurdist props, Shen opened her audience to her very immediate, realtime construction. Gone was the abstract sense of massive sound deriving from God-like authority or nowhere at all—and with it disappeared the underpinnings of the very authorial power of artist, and, by extension, that of the Brutalist form itself. Here, at once, was the material facticity of the work, its real means of production and its real human labor power, laid bare. And, in the recognition of this facticity, the further immersion in the work’s contingent and unfolding process.
This complex, immanent, dialectical real was developed by the subtle and sneaky quality of Shen’s bodily movements: nothing was given as performance, carrying the familiar bracketing tropes by which ‘performance’ delineates author and work from audience and interpretation. By deploying a distinctly ‘non-performance’ aesthetic—natural, nonchalant, riding an edge among naturalized movement, intentionality, and absurdist arbitrariness—she opened the space of indeterminacy Brassier describes. Moving simply and deliberately among audience members while casually controlling and triggering the broad tsunami of sound, she not only broke the fourth wall, thus disarming passive spectatorship, but also established the audience’s connection with the plain, material source of that sound, pulling us back from an easy transcendent immersion set up by its sheer scale.
As she wandered casually down the stairs among us, or skirted in and around us up to the mezzanine’s bridge—wires and pickups and boxes in tow—when she triggered the absurdly pathetic bass drum beater on the drum suspended awkwardly over our heads—when she dragged that dented and broken prayer bell haphazardly behind her, letting it trigger huge random pangs throughout the sound space—when she nonchalantly dropped some instruments and picked up others—we became aware not just of her playing of the sound, producing and altering and layering and multiplying its shifts and changes as she moved, but also of her sheer vulnerability: her willingness to show us the contingency and brokenness of the all-too-human performer herself, and to let us in, to use the chance of our haphazard arrangement as part of the work’s unfolding.
In this—and without abandoning the enormity and power of the aural experience—she anchored her audience in very human kind of real. Following Shen’s movements, joining with her in the work’s immanent process, and unshackled from sublimation in the sound itself, we found ourselves complicit in and convicted by the complex experiential dialectic between the body’s fragile and ordinary presence and occupation, on the one hand, and the seeming crushing singularity of the enormous sound space and its harsh Brutalist envelope, on the other—the immediate, unavoidable, visceral, seemingly overwhelming form, tempered and exposed as a simple function of that human movement and activity: the massive object rendered down into human construction.
Noticing this was the moment where that all-too-human entered the scene—as performer, as audience, and as implied architectural inhabitants—and was the moment which, paraphrasing Brassier’s words, created the “enabling condition for work which effectively realises its… subversive pretensions…” I would say it realized a space of critique. For by engaging her audience directly, as co-conspirators in the complex, dialectical process of the scene, as agents of that massive, unavoidable sensible form, and of the real human manufacture and subject of those forms, she opened a space of engaged thought, thought that could no longer be duped by the sublime, and was suddenly and inescapably aware of its real sociality, of the complexities and contradictions it was embodying now.
Finally, in this space of reflective critical thought, the sensuous world of the work did not recede from view, but rather was also re-rendered as real: the ordinariness and fragility of simple being-in-the-world seemingly rescued from annihilation—not annihilation in the hugeness and sublime of the confluence of architecture and sound, in the frame of represented alienation, but from a very different and more pernicious form of annihilation in the very real alienation of aesthetics overtaking politics and reducing the engaged human agent to docile spectator. And so we the audience, now indicted in both self-recognition and recognition of others—of our social real—got reconnected not just to our own fragility and brokenness, but to that of each other, and that also of the social form of our gathering together, for this performance, this experience, this collective gathering, now.
In this way, Shen’s work embodied the contradictions of Brutalism—its Utopian promise shattered by its Fascist functionality—and enacted a new way to engage and contravene the brutal remainder of the Brutalist ethos: by intervening on behalf of its promise, not through a re-presentation of that (or any) abstraction, but in an embodied human engagement of our immanent social real—an attack not against, but of the real, social, material history unfolding now, both as the performance itself, and also as the recognition of the real social histories and contradictions embodied and embedded in the sociality of the performance. In its enactment of a social collective co-creation, suddenly clarified and understood by and in the social real rendered in the performance, Shen’s City Hall work subverted not Brutalism itself (who could?) but the easy histories and tropes that get re-reified with every re-presentation of the conventional narratives, replacing them with our continually unfolding and responsive and engaged and concrete real.
This is important not as a materialist story but as a possibility for an authentic politics of art. Boston City Hall, after all, is the City’s seat of power. When Kallmann McKinnell and Knowles designed glass-curtained protruding volumes as transparent views into the workings of power, they meant to connect the demos to authority directly. But clearly the gesture is symbolic, in its refusal to go beyond a deeply aestheticized democracy and collectivity, to break the curtain wall down, to join power really to that demos. The plaza may be the place of protest, but the curtain wall is still bullet proof—no rock-throwing would do it. No, the intervention is by stealth, by art, by moonlight, but mostly by humanity engaged in its real, and willing to engage sources of power in and through that real.