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The Poetics of Aesthetic Distance: Collins Through Bashō

Date and time
Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The Poetics of Aesthetic Distance: Collins Through Bashō

By Paul Lofeodo

This article was written as part of Platform. Platform is an initiative created and driven jointly by the PHI Foundation’s education, curatorial and Visitor Experience teams. Through varied research, creation and mediation activities in which they are invited to explore their own voices and interests, Platform fosters exchanges while acknowledging the Visitor Experience team members’ expertises.

As part of its fall/winter 2019-2020 exhibition Phil Collins, the PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art is showing Collins’s work my heart’s in my hand, and my hand is pierced, and my hand’s in the bag, and the bag is shut, and my heart is caught (2013). The installation consists of a series of six listening booths, each with a selection of ten 7 inch vinyls. In the Gulliver Survival Station for the Homeless in Cologne, Germany, Collins installed a telephone booth offering free international calling to the people who make use of the Gulliver space, with the understanding that those calls would be recorded and anonymized [1] to later be used for music-making. Collins then invited a selection of DJs and musicians to remix, so to speak, these telephone booth conversations [2]. Along with a few selected raw conversations, these contributions are pressed on the records presented in the listening booths of my heart’s in my hand, and my hand is pierced, and my hand’s in the bag, and the bag is shut, and my heart is caught (henceforth referred to as my heart’s in my hand). A limited edition double LP of the music of my heart’s in my hand was also made for sale, with the proceeds returning to the Gulliver Survival Station for the Homeless.

This work presents a fascinating articulation of the dynamics of the public and private, the observer and the observed as well as a touching and sometimes complicated scenario of interdependence between artist and subject. For the gallery-goer, my heart’s in my hand presents itself in the aesthetic of recording studios and especially record store listening booths—reminiscent of an adolescent 1960s or 1970s—and an aesthetic that belongs to music, both its creation and consumption. These listening booths are clad in rich brown woods and stripped with black. Their facades are pierced with expansive windows contrasting the enclosed feeling created by the soundproofed interior, which the viewer can darken for added womb-like comfort. Indeed, the booths, just like the whole project of my heart’s in my hand, swim in contradictions or perhaps dualities. For example, the calls recorded at the Gulliver centre are anonymized yet of a sometimes heartrending intimacy. Likewise, the listening booths themselves are enclosed, private and isolating whilst also being utterly open and public. They are soundproofed which cuts us off from the outside, they give us a bubble of personal space, they offer us an aesthetic experience we can get lost in; yet they also place us in a display case making a spectacle of us and of any other person in a neighbouring booth.

However, it is not any of these dynamics I want to explore, but rather that between artist and subject, between Phil Collins and the guests of the Gulliver Survival Station for the Homeless. And as a way of understanding how my heart’s in my hand functions, I want to look at it through the poetic philosophy of the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō. Though a full understanding of Matsuo Bashō or his work is beyond the scope of this essay, I believe it is important to understand his life philosophy as it so profoundly informed his poetic philosophy, if it wasn’t the other way around [3]. Bashō was especially attracted to Zen Buddhism [4], a religion which is famous for its doctrine of detachment, of ‘no-thought’. That is to say, a kind of separation of one’s spiritual body from one’s physical body which will let thoughts flow uninterrupted without one clinging to, or getting attached to them [5]; just as one cannot grasp a flowing river. And Bashō also takes a similar view of things in poetry as well as in life. Unlike the waka form of poetry which prevailed before him, Bashō did not look for symbols to express his inner turmoil [6] but rather, wrote of nature first. He refused to wallow in emotion, and sought a kind of detachment through the practice of aesthetic distance [7]. For Bashō, aestheticizing life—through poetry for him, but through contemporary art in the case of Phil Collins—was a way to gain distance and prevent undue attachment; to look upon our thoughts, our emotions, our lives without committing ourselves to them [8]. That is to say that by rendering—or at least by perceiving—our lives in aestheticized ways, we detach ourselves from its immediacy. This detachment arises from the abstraction that happens through representation. Language—or any other medium—is inadequate in expressing all the delicate shades of the original emotion [9], and an abstracted, aestheticized, version of it is created. This process is not one of loss however, but of a sort of purification which helps the poet gain relief from everyday suffering but seeing their experience at a remove.

This process of aesthetic distance is precisely what I see in my heart’s in my hand. Collins has gone to a place that serves people in need, people who have struggles most of us are all too quick to look away from, if not deride. And he has put these experiences at the centre of our mode of consumption. Everything about my heart’s in my hand is geared towards consumption; recreating the systems of the music industry, from music making to the record store experience. We are consuming the phone conversations of the homeless, as well as the experiences we normally push away as abject.

I see two important reasons for the eager consumption of these 7 inch vinyls: the habits of music consumption and aesthetic distance. The gallery-goer’s experience of my heart’s in my hand is that of the record store customer or the Spotify streamer; we instinctively consume the music presented to us out of a kind of habit. But aesthetic distance too plays an important role. If we were presented with abject sounds on the 7 inch vinyls, I doubt we would so eagerly listen. But through the beauty of the music and the aestheticization of the homeless people’s experiences, we gain a certain remove from their traumatic or abject aspects. We do not look away because we are at a remove from our disgust with uncleanliness, from our discomfort caused by automatic empathy with hunger and cold. Because we are removed we can safely observe.

Ironically enough for Bashō, it’s precisely because of aesthetic distance that we can be moved by this work; it makes suffering toned down enough for us to bear empathising with. In a way, my heart’s in my hand hacks the systems of music consumption to bring some experiences of homelessness to our attention, and aestheticizes them to hold our attention.

But Bashō saw aesthetic distance as a personal pursuit [10] whilst my heart’s in my hand articulates a very different dynamic of agency—of control and ability to affect objects or outcomes—in the aestheticization of experience.

In Bashō’s spirit, one should aestheticize their own experience in order to see it from a distance so as to not feel negativity [11]. He would have meant for those who make use of the Gulliver Survival Station to achieve aesthetic distance—and therefore non-attachment and relief from human feeling/suffering—by aestheticizing their own experience, themselves, through ‘poetic spirit’. Bashō did not understand ‘poetic spirit’ solely as an art-maker’s technique, but rather as a kind of recognition of the world [12], a kind of perception. The idea would be to cultivate ‘poetic spirit’ within them so that they could gain some aesthetic distance from their struggles and perhaps gain some peace of mind, some relief.

Collins’s work though, does not impart ‘poetic spirit’ to those who need to make use of the Gulliver Survival Station so that they gain the agency to see their situation from a distance and hence gain relief from its force of feeling. Nor does it offer any change in their situations. Here, Collins is the one who has agency, the one who articulates ‘poetic spirit’. That poses the question of who is served by the aesthetic distance of my heart’s in my hand. Is it those who were able to make free calls? Is it Phil Collins who has material to make art out of and still gains in cultural capital by exhibiting the resulting work? Is it the viewer of the work who has a manageably moving encounter with the struggles of homelessness?

Who has a right to aestheticize? Who has a right to tell certain stories? Who profits from the telling of those stories, the recording of those stories?

And where are we located in this as viewers of the work? Don’t we eagerly consume these 7 inch vinyls? Are we simply voyeurs in all this? Is Collins one? It’s not as though the homeless people who made calls decided to share their conversations; they weren’t in a position of such choice between a private phone booth and Collins’s recording phone booth. 

In a way, this system of glass box cabins, of spying on people’s phone calls is a coercive one which profits from homeless people’s need to make contact. And as avid consumers of the products of this system, are we viewers complicit in it?

These questions plague my heart’s in my hand with some problematic implications. After all, Collins corrupts the agency building process of aesthetic distance, which would normally serve the subjects of the work, to make a statement that masquerades as an ethics of care. A project which is presented as a kind-hearted offering of useful service to a population in need, is actually a system which uses that very need to harvest material and enact an aestheticizing process which Bashō saw as agency building on behalf of the agents who’s agency should be enhanced by the project. 

These dynamics between artist and subject may constitute the very strength of the work by giving us a case-study through which to consider dynamics of power, pity and avoidance already active in the world. Though I don’t know that such reproduction of inequality and the transferring of agency are to be celebrated.

About the Author

Paul Lofeodo was born in Toronto, Canada and now lives and works in Montreal where he received his Bachelor of Fine Arts with a minor in Sociology from Concordia University. Lofeodo makes photo-based installations dealing with themes of embodiment, performance, hegemony, violence and indexical relations. Influenced by his studies in Sociology, Lofeodo applies marxist and psychoanalytic perspectives to the embodied practices of tradition, identity and social institutions.

Bibliography:

[1] Sim, C. (2019). Prospectus Phil Collins. Prospectus Phil Collins. Montreal: PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art.
[2] Sim, C. (2019). Prospectus Phil Collins. Prospectus Phil Collins. Montreal: PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art.
[3] Ueda, M. (1965). Zeami, Bashō, Yeats, Pound: A Study in Japanese and English Poetics (p. 41). The Hague: Mouton.
[4] Ueda, M. (1965). Zeami, Bashō, Yeats, Pound: A Study in Japanese and English Poetics (p. 35). The Hague: Mouton.
[5] Yampolsky, P. B. (Trans.). (1967). The platform sutra of the sixth patriarch: the text of the Tun-huang manuscript with translation, introduction, and notes by P.B. Yampolsky (p. 138). New York and London: Columbia University Press.
[6] Ueda, M. (1965). Zeami, Bashō, Yeats, Pound: A Study in Japanese and English Poetics (p. 41). The Hague: Mouton.
[7] Ueda, M. (1965). Zeami, Bashō, Yeats, Pound: A Study in Japanese and English Poetics (p. 42). The Hague: Mouton.
[8] Ueda, M. (1965). Zeami, Bashō, Yeats, Pound: A Study in Japanese and English Poetics (p. 42-43). The Hague: Mouton.
[9] Ueda, M. (1965). Zeami, Bashō, Yeats, Pound: A Study in Japanese and English Poetics (p. 140). The Hague: Mouton.
[10] Ueda, M. (1965). Zeami, Bashō, Yeats, Pound: A Study in Japanese and English Poetics (p. 42). The Hague: Mouton.
[11] Ueda, M. (1965). Zeami, Bashō, Yeats, Pound: A Study in Japanese and English Poetics (p. 62). The Hague: Mouton.
[12] Ueda, M. (1965). Zeami, Bashō, Yeats, Pound: A Study in Japanese and English Poetics (p. 38). The Hague: Mouton.

Photos: Richard-Max Tremblay

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