- “Parallel Structures” was a performative lecture created for the Teheran Summit and presented on May 19, 2022.
Below you will find some notes for the piece:
Thank you for having me. I am very pleased to be here and to talk about art in this context. My name is Per Huttner. I am an visual artist. I live in Paris. I almost exclusively work with performance and I have shown my work for 35 years pretty much all around the globe. I run an international research network which is called Vision Forum.
I will talk for about 20-25 minutes. The talk and demonstration will form the foundation for a discussion together. And along the line, please stop me if there is anything that I need to clarify. I will try to keep it simple, but I am better at the complex than the simple.
I will start by making a very short demonstration of the EEGsynth. It is a technology platform that we use to make performances with the help of brain activity. We use medical electroencephalogram (or EEG) technology and we measure the brains inner workings on the outside of the skull. The signals that are produced we connect to influence sound, light, moving images etc.. (virtually any digital platform). Today I will only work with sound.
After the short demonstration I will outline how I see how this practice connects with my artistic practice and its place in the world today. To make art today is more essential than ever. It constitutes what Vaclav Havel calls “parallel structures.” Worlds that function differently from the mainstream. People who seek “truth”. As you all know well, using that word today means opening a can of worms, but we cannot shy away from it. We have to discuss empty rhetoric, truth and lies that are spread in order for a few to profit from it,
Now, let us return to the EEGsynth. Neuroscience has acquired vast knowledge about the brain in recent years. Still what we know about the brain is not even the tip of an iceberg. Any investigation into the brain is therefore a journey into the unknown. We measure a large chunk of the brain and there will therefore get a signal that includes many regions and many functions. (It is important to remember that the brain controls many functions outside of the “higher functions” like logic, problem solving and abstract thinking.) It continuously carries out functions that are related to balance, temperature, heartbeat, breathing and much more.
Look at how it works. (OpenBCI, SuperCollider, mapping program and into Ableton).
What is interesting with the signal is that the more relaxed one is, the more dynamic the signal becomes. That way we can move between control and chance in a more dynamic way. The first step relax, is to close one’s eyes and focus on the music. Now it gets interesting, because this creates feedback loops between sound and brain activity. The sound I hear influences the brain state which creates a different sound which influences my brain state etc. This means that we relatively quickly can learn too influence the sound voluntarily. However, there remains aspects of the signal that are outside of control. It is this quality of some control and continuous surprise that makes working with the EEGsynth artistically interesting.
We are in a constant dialogue with the unknown and can still make important aesthetic decisions. So, an essential part of working with the EEGsynth lies in looking at the emergent relationship between our inner world and the world around us. This brings me to a more general discussion about my work.
In our life there are things that we can understand and events that we can predict with high probability. How we relate to that which we can control and cannot control shapes our lives profoundly. Do I want to take risk? Or do I want as much control as possible? (Elaborate!) The Caribbean poet Edouard Glissant said that he really wanted to like broccoli. His friends said that it is delicious, he knew it is nutritious. And still he could not appreciate its taste, every time he tried tasting broccoli he was disgusted, this constituted his proof that we can never fully understand ourselves. The unknown is everywhere particularly inside ourselves.
Since I have the grave misfortune of liking broccoli, I need other things (like the EEGsynth). It is a tool for me to untangle new and unknown aspects of my body. Here it gets fun again. Emergence… (a simple thing like mood). But it obviously gets more complicated when we move into ontological questions: one such question that has been haunting me all my life and that people from science tend to brush off easily is: why is science based on mathematics? why does it have to be like that? why do we rely on quantity rather than quality? (I can talk a long time about that, but maybe it is too specific?)
This becomes particularly important for art. Science says bluntly that it refuses to deal any questions that cannot be answered, which means it excludes metaphysical and many cosmological questions. now, should art only deal with questions that have no answers? if so, how can we talk about “quality” if there are no answers to the questions we ask? can art be considered research even if it does not come up with any definitive answers or even contradictory answers (meaning that what one audience member experiences is contradicted by another).
My personal stance is that quality is far more important than quantity. But quality does not mean absolute or even measurable! Now you say “what the fuck does that mean”? Well, the personal experience of an art work is what matters. What I experience when I see, hear experience something artistic is what matters. However, that does not mean that another person’s experience which is different is wrong. In short experience is everything and consensus of little important.
I always try to draw something from each artistic experience. Even if it is deeply derivative, there is usually something to learn. That is why I do not think that criticism is about defining quality or finding universal traits. It is about opening for curiosity and new perspectives . Generally, but not always, art that can be interpreted in many different ways outlive art that has a narrow potential for interpretation.
My goal as an artist, therefore has always been to find new expressions for art as well as new forms and contexts for art to meet its audience. I engage in this process because art has always forced me to rethink how I see the world and my place in it and I want to give that gift back to my audience and the people whom I work with.
I agree with Kendall Geers (who made a presentation the day before). To create a “signature style” is pointless to me. I became an artist so I can reinvent myself and surprise myself. But that does not mean that people who find it interesting to look into the fine tuning is wrong, quite the opposite. I admire those people. The danger when you create a signature style, lies in the moment when you start copying yourself.
Vaclav Havel wrote in 1978 that power structures that are not monitored by exterior forces (like a critical press or opposing political powers) quickly become too comfortable in their way of thinking and acting. Ideology becomes becomes what he calls a “ritual.” But more than anything, the powers that be lose contact with reality, the real lives of its people. This is not only happening in our world today; it has been happening in the arts for a long time. The members of the tribe (whether it be political leadership, the arts or a media turned into propaganda machine) is only interested in being recognised by its peers, the ritual which unlike real “ritual,” functions without any connection back to the real world. In the arts, politics and the media, we have to abandon “ritual” and return to dealing with the real issues in our lives.
“As the interpretation of reality by the power structure, ideology is always subordinated ultimately to the interests of the structure. Therefore, it has a natural tendency to disengage itself from reality, to create a world of appearances, to become ritual. In societies where there is public competition for power and therefore public control of that power, there also exists quite naturally public control of the way that power legitimates itself ideologically. Consequently, in such conditions there are always certain correctives that effectively prevent ideology from abandoning reality altogether. Under totalitarianism, however, these correctives disappear, and thus there is nothing to prevent ideology from becoming more and more removed from reality, gradually turning into what it has already become in the post-totalitarian system: a world of appearances, a mere ritual, a formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality.”
- Vaclav Havel