In Johannesburg there is yet another dual citizen shuttling between the realms of music and the visual arts; his name is Givan Lötz, and his short piece “Strutt” was already featured one Sunday here a couple of months ago, not least on account of the brisk pace of the music (which its title, if one squints at it, may itself already suggest): his other work is no less noteworthy, and so to him it’s now time to devote some further consideration.
To begin with, on his Soundcloud page, Lötz offers a bold statement concerning the source and impetus of his work. “I am an artist because I am uncertain,” he writes there, and his “art-objects are, first and foremost, results of a philosophical inquiry” into the subject of “what it means to be human” – a description which, although it may sound portentous and overly broad at first, actually begins to seem to fit the evidence in his case, once one has pondered it. What’s being conducted here is an exercise in philosophical anthropology or the study of human nature, for what Lötz seems to pose through the media of music and art are questions about the content and the limits of the meaning which may plausibly be attributed to the human body’s various organs of sense, singly and in co-operation with one another. Of course, these questions (if that is the right word for them) are not stated as such, and the sole way to formulate them is by deciphering what Lötz calls the “results,” individually and in the aggregate – with what degree of accuracy the interpreters themselves can only conjecture; nonetheless it’s in this vein that the following remarks are offered.
Thus in these works, Lötz counterposes the visual movement to the musical, in order that the audience be held in a state of tension as long as both last – which may have been one reason for keeping them short in duration. Evidently Lötz wants to maximize the alertness of those who are watching and listening, as though to lead us to become aware, firstly, that our inference of a camera panning quickly (generally from left to right) imbues our perception of the music itself with an even greater velocity, and secondly, conversely, that our registration of the already rapid tempo of what we hear sharpens our conclusion that actually it is the camera which is moving and not the fields of color passing by across the screen: whenever our own movement, actual or virtual (as the movement of the camera here stands in for our own), happens to affect our very sense of space, this modulation is brought about by a peculiar reciprocity between the eyes and the ears, as though they were then each engaged in interpreting the other’s signals while also and at the same time transmitting their own specific perceptions to us – a twofold process which both sets of organs can sustain effectively only for a quite limited span of time before, with fatigue supervening, our minds would be left to wander in obscurity.
This brief summary, I hope, goes some way towards elucidating one part of the “philosophical inquiry” from which these “results” have sprung. Yet in pulling it together, a further significant element in them came to light, one which likewise beckons to be deciphered; for there is one of these works where the name of the musical composition does not match that of the “motion canvas” corresponding to it, and in this case the discrepancy itself elicits thought: whereas the video is called “Gaze,” the music was provided under the title “Unsee,” and in the face of so literal a contradiction as this, how could one not pause for thought?
Now I’ll venture to guess what Lötz had in mind in underscoring the verb to unsee so prominently; by this he may have alluded to an inherent characteristic of visual perception itself as a process, namely, that insofar as the capacity of sight is being utilized purposefully, every further moment of vision will erase much of the aggregate of the visual perceptions that went before, in effect unseeing them, though for the most part their vanishing transpires below the threshold of awareness: given the rapid succession of the impressions rendered by this organ of sense, it can perhaps only operate properly – and this becomes the more probable, the more deliberately vision has been turned to use – when many of those that are delivered, are once arrived nearly as soon disregarded, such that it’s under this condition alone that anything in particular could be seen at all, for any tract of time, long or short as it may extend. So, in other words, seeing requires unseeing, or at least it does so in the more overtly focused modes of its activity; it is an organ of sense which, perhaps unlike the others, may be utilized largely by virtue of a concurrent negation of the perceptions it yields: and this odd reflexive feature of vision becomes perhaps nowhere else more obvious than in that peculiarly purposive mode, gazing.
(If for no other reason than that his “motion canvases” are visually both so abstract and so kinetic – and this characteristic will be heightened even more if one turns off the accompanying sound – while one looks at them, one may be made especially aware of how much one must unsee in order to continue to see anything of them at all.)
Although at this juncture the “inquiry” would already have covered quite a lot of ground, Lötz does not rest here, however. He seems, rather, to have set the stage for a further excursion of thought, of which, lest I stray too far, I shall merely indicate the probable point of departure: it aims to consider whether and, if so, how closely this auto-negation within visual perception itself in turn might be related to the human mind’s capacity to forget – where the latter is understood similarly, as a very active and even purposive ability without which the mind would very soon be smothered under a surfeit of its own contents.
At times, however, an organ has first to malfunction or to cease to discharge its ordinary function within an interlocking whole which is meant by its nature for activity, if an impetus towards comprehending the inherent organization of the latter is to arise; here, in this concern with the part played by unseeing in sight (and possibly also, albeit tangentially, with forgetting’s role in mental operations generally), his intellectual interest itself may perhaps be accounted for in this way: something must already have gone awry in vision itself. Now, since the question concerns the eyes, which make up one part of the system that would otherwise comprehend but is now itself to be comprehended, the “inquiry” which preceded these “results” would have had to be conducted with a considerable intellectual adroitness; thus it was that Lötz had reason to draw attention to the role unseeing plays in visual perception by means of an exclusively aural work: for these other organs of perception, the ears, evidently do not operate under any similar necessity of voiding their previous perceptions if they are to continue to function properly – they seem to have no need of an analogous unhearing in order to hear at all – or at least, if they too are acknowledged as being under the sway of some such compulsion, they will be affected by it to a much lesser degree than are the eyes. Consequently, unhearing, in this sense of the term, is far less likely ever to become a topic for reflection, whereas auditory perception as such, with its specific constitution so different or essentially divergent from its visual counterpart, may in fact furnish the point of reference or tertium comparationis without which, concerning the sense of sight in its ordinary and its disordered states, one could neither think nor say anything intelligible in the first place.
Right at the beginning the theme is provided: in as many words, the human “body is alive,” by which Lötz evidently means to suggest that it is teeming with life or that its various constituent parts tend strongly to lead lives of their own, apart from the orderly co-operation whereby it exists as a whole, such that the ensemble may be thrown out of joint with ease, the organism thus devolving into something akin in miniature to the old bellum omnium contra omnes or a scene of sound and fury, signifying nothing. This break-down is illustrated by the visuals, which comprise sequences where some human gestures are photographed in close-up and/or duplicated and stitched together repetitively, in either case extracting them from the wholes in participating in which they possessed a modicum of meaning and dignity, thus rendering them absurd and often even positively repellant and bizarre to the viewer; it is as though one were witnessing the antics of the inmates in an insane asylum, and they are far from easy to watch. So this is perhaps the most disturbing piece of work he has made, replete with the greatest number of parts that have supplanted their former wholes and now turn unhappily against one another, in so doing posing themselves as problems which in succession, one right after the other and none for very long, briefly solicit our attention, however resistant we may be to tender it – until, that is, one can no longer keep one’s eyes open and chooses as it were to unsee this spectacle, henceforth simply listening to it instead. Thus, somewhere in the middle of “Easy Now,” back to the acoustic sphere alone we are sent.