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Witte de With

center for contemporary art Rotterdam

Richter Verlag


Michael Newman Contingency and Rule in the Work of Pierre Bismuth
Michael Newman
and Rule in
the Work of
Pierre Bismuth
If the following series of notes, remarks, speculations that circle around, touch on, and sometimes
If the following series of notes, remarks, speculations that circle around, touch on, and
sometimes move away from Pierre Bismuth’s work seems not very systematic, this is, to
a certain degree, appropriate, since an arbitrariness of the system, or systematic arbi-
trariness, is at the center of Bismuth’s work - a work that is very much ‘in progress,’ but
at the same time governed by a rigorous logic. His concern is not with a pregiven logic,
nor with the expression or communication of meaning, but rather with the way in
which the contingent becomes necessary, as is the case when an error is retroactively
transformed into a rule.
Let us take Synonymsl (1994) as a starting point. In working from synonym to synonym
along a ‘tree,’ we find not simply a system, but a kind of infinity. Within the possibilities
offered, the choices made are contingent - no one word is intrinsically better than
another - yet once made impose their own seeming necessity. Language here serves not
so much as an efficient instrument for communication, but as a display of excess. There
is always an an-economic dimension to language - at once more and less words than
necessary; two words where one will do, or one word with two or more meanings. This is
the very condition for metaphoricity and linguistic creativity.
If the limits of language are the limits of the world, then the world is unlimited. What
does this mean? Nothing other than that the world is not a closed system. This also
implies that there can never be a theory of existence. And equally, if art is nothing other
than the articulation of existence, there can never be a theory of art. Pierre Bismuth’s
work hints at what it might mean to carry over the rigor and reflexiveness of conceptual
art into a post-theoretical moment - that is, the moment when art is understood not in
terms of a match but in terms of a gap between itself and its conditions of possibility.
It may seem odd, even dated, that I use the term ‘existence’ - a throwback to the six-
ties, to Jean-Paul Sartre, to black turtlenecks and hot jazz. Isn’t existentialism, as Sartre
wrote in a title of a well-known little book, a ‘humanism’? And aren’t we living in an age
that is ‘post-human’ - an age ofdigital communications, of cyberspace, of prosthetics? I
use the category of existence in a specific sense: ‘existence’ as that which concerns not
the ‘what’ but the ‘that.’ In the context of Pierre Bismuth’s work: that there is a film, not
what the film is; that there is a telephone conversation, not what the content of the con-
versation might be. The difference with the existentialist moment is that existence is no
longer that of the centered, intentional subject; existence involves interference, inter-
ruption, noise; it involves marginal, involuntary phenomena.
The ‘what’ is always an object of a conceptual determination, whereas the ‘that’ is a
The ‘what’ is always an object of a conceptual determination, whereas the ‘that’ is a
mode of existence, a way of being. How, then, is the ‘that’ to be indicated in a work? The
answer is by presenting phenomena at the limits ofdetermination. Bismuth’s Hummingl
(1997) is a very good example: we are given those vocal gestures that are themselves
meaningless but that make meaningful and communicative language possible - a
meaningless condition of meaning or a condition of meaning that cannot be appropri-
ated by meaning. This also has an ethical significance. The distinction I am making
could be mapped onto the one made by Emmanuel Levinas between the ‘saying’ and the
‘said’: the ‘said’ is that which is thematized, the ‘saying’ that which comes from the
other and cannot be reduced to the said. At the very least this shows the distance of Bis-
muth’s practice of language from that of the structuralists.
Consider also Bismuth’s various works involving a typist trying to follow the sound-
track of a film -Postscript/The Passenger (1996), Postscript/Pnfession Reporter (1996), and The
Party (1997). What is interesting here is not the accurate transcription, nor even the film
as a signifying system, but the lapses, the points of breakdown when the film goes too
fast for the typist to keep up; the moments that are opaque, and the difference between
that which leaves a sound trace, which can therefore be described by the typist, and that
which does not and which therefore disappears from the written record.
It is apparent from WhatBeyond3 (1995) that while the choices are determined by a pre-
ceding system, by the already said - the thesaurus, language as a structure of similari-
ties and differences - the way through that structure is undetermined, or is determined
in a way that can be understood neither through causality, nor through conditions of
possibility. It is not so much a matter of the meaning of this or that synonym, but that a
choice is made, an act which always involves a degree of arbitrariness. Yet once the
choice is made, itceases to be arbitrary and becomes absolute -it can never be undone;
the passage is one-way. To put it another way, contingency retroactively becomes the
rule or law. Intention is thereby circumvented from both sides. This structure recurs in
Bismuth’s work almost as if the law of his work were the law of the becoming law of the
contingent. Of course this also implies its own reversal: the becoming contingent or
arbitrary of the law. One could try to generalize this into a claim about aft! by making a
law or rule out ofthe contingent and the everyday (a kind of urbanized version of Kant’s
dictum that nature gives the rule to art), art shows us the arbitrary character of the law,
which ultimately can only absolutize itself as a tautology, ‘the law is the law.’
Bismuth inherits a shift that took place in conceptual aft from structure to performativity
We see this preeminently, and very early, in the work of Dan Graham, and also in James
Coleman’s Slide Piece (1973) and in the work of Bas Jan Ader. Indeed, it is possible to general-
ize that the emphasis of conceptual art has shifted from structure to situation, and this is
precisely why a ‘theory’ of art is now seen to be impossible. ‘Situation’ involves something
untheorizable, that is to say, a singular enunciation.
The moment of enunciation - the performative - is that of the appropriation of language
by the subject. Language as structure becomes the substance of a subject only in the enun-
ciation. And the enunciation is always that of a singular subject, and a body. Thus enuncia-
tion is the site of the greatest paradox of language: not that ofthe relation of
tion is the site of the greatest paradox of language: not that ofthe relation of the universal
and the individual as the ‘instance’ of the universal, but ofthe binding of the universal and
the singular - the ‘this one here’ that cannot be spoken of It is in this impossible relation
that the possibility oflanguage is articulated. But if it cannot be spoken of if language can-
not represent its own condition of possibility without being reduced to that which it
makes possible, namely language, the condition of possibility oflanguage as given inlan-
guage, then how can this scandalous relation between the singular and the universal be
‘presented’? Pierre Bismuth’s work revolves around nothing other than this question.
To accompany the work Blue Monk in Progress (1995), Pierre Bismuth issued a statement
which provides a key to his approach to the relation between rule and contingency
across a range of his works, and even, perhaps, in one crucial strand of modern art. In
one of its forms the work consists of a Disclavier piano - a piano that records what is
played on it and then, in the absence of the player, replays it with the automatic depres-
sion of the keys. This particular sound reproduction is of Bismuth trying to teach him-
self to play Theolonius Monk’s Blue Monk from memory.
BlueMonk in Progress is a work that examines the gradual process of thought by
bringing it together with an act of remembering.
It is based around the tech-
nology of the Yahama Disclavier, a relatively rare keyboard instrument that can
memorize whatever piece of music is played on it and can replay the entire piece -
with every modulation and keyboard movement - exactly as it was originally per-
formed. These computer assisted pianos are mostly seen in hotels where they
function as nothing more than large music boxes. However, on reflection the
piano does pose a number of questions on the notions of recording, perfection,
and reproduction.
By displacing the problem of recording sound to that of recording a physical
gesture, a confusion is created in terms of time of the action. What interests me is
the way this instrument can repeat an action from the past, making us feel not
that we are listening to a static recording as we do with discs, videos, or film, but
that we are witnessing a new event taking place. An act that has already happened
may be repeated ad infinitum and would continue to qualify as ‘present,’ a kind of
‘performance after the act.’
More than the absence of the pianist, which for me represents an economy
rather than an effect, I am particularly interested in this instrument’s capacity to
make us witnesses to an entire working process or, to be more exact, to the process
of understanding a musical composition.
Although I have a certain notion of music, I have no experience playing key-
boards. It was precisely this underexploitation of the capacities of the machine
that most clearly and playfully revealed this aspect. In my concern to follow the
fluctuations of thought, I used this piano to record the operation of remembering
and playing a piece that was going through my head - Blue Monk by Thelonious
Monk. I played for an hour, doing the best I could. The progress I made is mini-
mal, but recognizable nonetheless. The piece is put together gradually. My play-

ing does not seek to illustrate anything, but does represent a moment in time, and

at such a moment it is clear that the idea of exhibiting could not have been further

from my mind. The Blue Monk in Progress musical score, on the other hand, grew out ofthe

question of representation. By nature, a score normalizes and codifies the gestures involved in playing; by establishing the relationship between gesture and sign, it makes the music legible and replayable. This score is an accurate written transcript which rationalizes sixty minutes of my playing, complete

with every random moment of hesitation, repetition, and silence. Its particularity

is that it was produced by a computer program which did not understand the

origin of the music it was transcribing. In some senses, the computer turned a mistake into something ‘correct’ simply by normalizing it, by creating a rule for

it retroactively.

Later, without providing any information as to its origin, I asked a piano

teacher to perform this computer-generated score. Naturally, she played it impec- cably, thus reiterating the mistakes that went into its writing. As a result, the most

indeterminate notes were played as if they were intentional, and my hesitations

became professional gestures of the utmost precision.

Pierre Bismuth, 1995

The piece of music, as remembered, stands as a kind of law, which must then be articu- lated with a singular body in an enunciation, a performance. The performance is

marked in its singularity both by intentional inflections and by errors. This perform-

ance in turn, through computer transcription into musical notation, becomes a new law

- the law for another performance. In effect, once rendered repeatable through tran-

scription into notation, an error, or concatenation of errors, becomes law. I would like to

suggest that originality - according to its strictly Kantian conception, rather than its

banalizations -lies not in the pure invention of the subject, but in the articulation of law and enunciation. Originality is not pure invention, invention out of nothing, in

Kant either: rather, he writes, through genius nature ‘gives the role to art’ (Critique of

judgment). But here the relation is not to nature but to the law. In other words, the mak- ing of the work ofart does not consist in the expression of an opaque origin (‘nature’), but rather in a set of operations performed on preexisting symbolic structures (‘cul- ture). It could be argued that the postconceptual notion of what it means to be an artist

involves a destruction of the banal conception of ‘originality’ in order to recapture its original sense. While Bismuth participates in this general postconceptual shift in the

conception of the artist, of what an artist does, he inflects it in a particular and very

interesting way. This inflection is precisely in the direction of interference, noise, the contingencies of bodily existence. In other words, in the direction of those points of

breakdown at which enunciation, as such, presents itself


Now I want to turn to the question of the image as posed by those works that use digi-

tized images with their descriptions - Du Grand Canyon d



(From the Grand Canyon

to , 1997) and From some folded shirts to S (1997). Note that the ends
1997) and From
some folded shirts to
(1997). Note that the ends of the titles of the
series are not given, which we may interpret as a deliberate evocation of open-ended-
ness, the full stop coming simply when it is time for the work to be shown.
A digitized image is one without a surface of inscription, or at least independent of
any particular surface of inscription. Without such an inscription, an image loses its
indexicality, the real connection with its subject. The image also remains a matter of
time: its appearance and disappearance are unavoidably temporal. This of course is the
case with all images, but the very telos of the tradition of art in the West has been to dis-
guise this, to render the image eternal in the image of God.
The digitized image forces us to confront a condition of absolute erasure, that is, era-
sure without a trace. Paradoxically, this erasure is the very condition of the trace, in that
it is already in the mode of an absolute loss. In other words, the image without a trace
reveals the condition of the trace: that the essence of the trace is not its permanence but
its erasure. In making a point that was at once architectural and political, Walter Ben-
jamin, commenting on the first poem in Bertholt Brecht’s Handbook jar City-Dwellers,
called for the effacement of traces: no more impressions left in padded armchairs, only
the hard, cold surfaces of the modern. Digitalization takes this process one stage fur-
ther; in the age of the easy-come-easy-go image, what we sense is the unbearable light-
ness of being. Or perhaps, in the affirmative sense, an existence that touches lightly on
In Du Grand Canyon a
and related works, the digital image changes the relation of the
photograph to time, as well as to subjectivity. On the viewer of a digital camera, repro-
duced by Bismuth in a projection on the wall, the image appears and disappears not
instantly but with a sweep. As they are taken, eliminated, replaced with new images, the
digital photos create a kind of quasi narrative, which Bismuth compares with a walk.
Bismuth writes in his notes on this work of the gap between what the photographer
desires to show, and what appears that the photographer does not aim to show. Perhaps
the point is that without what the photographer doesn’t aim to show, there would be no
image in thefirst place - that the image is made possible by something unintentional,
something that can’t be controlled.
This focus on fringe phenomena once again diverts ‘existence’ from ‘intentionality.’ If
the digital camera, unlike traditional cameras, is not put to the eye but the image is
viewed on a screen, who, or what, is taking the picture? The photographer or the appa-
ratus? And who or what, for that matter, sees?
typist types a description of the
Bismuth’s Postscrzpt/Proj%ssion Reporteré (1996) a
action of a film she hears but does not see. We hear the soundtrack and see her words as
they appear. Sometimes she can’t keep up, or makes mistakes which there is not time to
correct. Our interpretation of the sounds that we hear is mediated through her subjec-
tivity, and indeed through the contingency of the relation of her capacity as a typist to
the speed of the action.
Freedom and necessity are not opposed. By setting a parameter, by providing a kind
of rule or limit, Bismuth has created a space for subjectivity. The closed circuit between

image and sound is broken open. The typist introduces a kind of stumbling into the film. Subjectivity here is not intentionality, nor is the ‘uncaused’ that which is self-

caused (God as the unmoved mover, as the model for the autonomous subject). Rather,

the accident or slip is the indication that something has happened.

In Bismuths The Pang” (1997) we see Blake Edwards’s 1968 film starring Peter Sellers

without the sound, together with a typist’s interpretation of the soundtrack. This

introduces an indeterminacy into a film that is itself about indeterminacy - about the way that intentions have unforeseen effects. Edwards’s and Sellars’s undercutting of

the mores of the L.A. movie class is a gentle homage to Jacques Tati’s subversion of the

postwar bourgeoisies embrace of the new technology. Beyond this play on and with

context, both Edwards’s The Pargf and Tati’s films are concerned with the sheer ‘event-

ness of the event. Only if there is law and control to be violated can the unexpected happen. Each of the films consists of a series of minor catastrophes. The expected is


In Bismuths version of The Parg/, a delay is introduced between seeing and reading

which suggests that memory is involved in the very moment of perception. As we watch

the film, it is already familiar, and the subtitle serves as the memory of a memory. Bismuth has written about indeterminacy in the memory of a film. For example, we see a film in a foreign language that has been subtitled, and we remember it as being in our own language ~ in our heads we hear the dialogue, not in the actual language of the

film but in our own language. In a sense, the film as it continues to exist is the sum of

the errors of our memory of it. There is a double temporality involved here: the time of

the film, which would have been acutely, at times painfully, experienced by the tran- scriber trying, and failing, to ‘catch up,’ and the time of the memory of the film - both

our memory, and that of the transcriber. The point is that the two times are not separa-

ble: the first experience of the film is already a memory, so the memory of the film is

not a false representation of an original, but the film itsehf in its finite afterlife. It is only

through this afterlife that the original film has any sense, and becomes a ‘model.’ It

should be clear that this structure is identical to the retroactive reappropriation of con-

tingency as necessity in Blue Monk in Progress. For Le_film blanc (White Film, 1997) Bismuth read a book in a café while noting down

snatches of conversation heard in passing. Short passages from the book, interspersed

with these interruptions, were passed on to a subtitling company, with the instruction that they should select at random a film that they were subtitling, and substitute these

passages. The movie, however, is not shown, we see only the subtitles added to a blank

film which is projected onto a screen. The absent and unknown movie determines the

rhythm of the appearance and disappearance of the text. This is, in effect, an inversion of the situation of the stenographer in the Postscript works. The pickup head playing

nothing other the sound of the film’s friction on the pickup head - la bande passante - or as Bismuth puts it, the ‘wind’ of the film. Not the sound of meaning, with its telos of fulfillment, of consummation, but, according to Bismuth in a statement to accompany

the work, le bruit du son,’ ‘the noise of sound,’ the part of sound that is not taken up and

spiritualized in meaning. A noise not of the remporalization ofspace, but of the spacing

of time.



A distinction that, in my view, runs through art since the eighteenth century, can help

us to grasp the implications of Bismuth’s work in a way that exceeds any narrow con- ception of conceptual art. This distinction is between the art ofmeaning and the art ofthe

rule. According to the notion ofmeaning, the concrete work of art is an externalization

of something other than itself: this is the case whether art is understood as representa-

tion, a re-presentation of that which was present, or whether art is understood as expression, literally the pressing-out of inner life. Art, under this conception, refers to

a ground other than itself which gives rise to it and will resorb it. The preeminent philosopher of the art of meaning is Hegel, and the idea that governs his ‘Lectures on

Aesthetics is that of art as representation - which is why it must be superseded - with-

in an expressivist paradigm, that is, one in which spirit, or self-consciousness, expresses itself in various ways.

The philosopher of the ‘art ofthe rule’ is Kant. I have already mentioned his idea that nature gives the rule to art. The point of the genius - and here Kant is being extraordi-

narily radical and prescient - is that through him what would otherwise be non-sense

becomes rule or law. Kant poses the problem of how - if what the genius produces is

original, in other words, does not fall under a pregiven concept, nor is an imitation in

the sense of a copy of some model- can we distinguish the work ofgenius from what he

calls ‘original nonsense’ (Critique ofjudgment). One of the two ways he suggests is if the

work becomes the source of a law not to be followed but to be broken by the successor genius. The question is how it is possible for the work ofgenius to be an example oforig- inality. Another way is through what he calls the ‘reflective judgment’ of the spectators,

judgment that begins not with the concept, but with the particular, and seeks the con-

cept on which it is based. What is interesting is that in neither case is it a matter of

expression, or interpreting an expression - treating the material work as something

which indicates, embodies, or manifests an essence other than itself

Rule works against any possible fullness of meaning, because the rule is ultimately

without justification -it doesn’t refer to anything but itself, and thereby may be said to be meaningless: it is that way just because it is that way. To say that the rule does not

express or represent anything is to draw attention to how profoundly the ‘art of the

rule differs from the ‘art of meaning.’ That such art is even the work of a subject is not

to be taken for granted. Any knowledge produced by the artwork (in a reflection on its

conditions) is incidental. In the end, the knowledge it produces concerns the lack of

grounds of its own law. Such art, in other words, is about nothing other than the relation of contingency -

non-sense - to rule, and rule to contingency. And surely human existence is nothing

other than this: a retroactive turning of contingency into law, and living with the fact that this law ~ the singular law that we are to make ofour lives - can never be grounded on anything else, and that it remains, in this sense, utterly contingent and always after

the fact. There is something quite gloriously funny about this.


6. Postscript/The Passenger and Postscript/Proj%ssion NOTES Reporter are two video projections on the wall of
Reporter are two video projections on the wall of
1. The
videos What, Beyond, and WhatBeyond demon-
a text produced
in response
to Antonioni’s
strate our subjective relation to words by show-
ing the singular itineraries traced by successive
The Passenger (English Speaking)/Pro_Rssion Reporter
choices; Synonyms, on the other hand, is an objec-
(French speaking). To make this video, a typist unfa-
miliar with the film was asked to describe as she
tive representation of all possible paths. It extends
the classic system of references from one page of a
dictionary to another. Through repeated shifts, the
listened to the film through headphones, the
atmospheres and actions that came to her mind, and
to transcribe as much of the dialogue as she could.
synonyms gradually move away from their point
of origin (‘origin’ refers only to the arbitrary first
The text was recorded on video from the computer
screen as it was produced; this video was in turn
word), leading to the strange conclusion that from
projected on the wall of the exhibition space. One
this random starting point, all words in the dic-
could read it silently as an autonomous text or fol-
tionary can ultimately be linked.
2. Humming focuses on the quality oflistening par-
ticular to telephone dialogues. This work started
with a conversation I had with a friend in 1995,
low the typist’s interpretation by listening through
headphones, to Antonioni’s soundtrack.
Faced with the simultaneous problems of listen-
ing, interpretation,
of exe-
during which I recorded only my own voice. In
the end I removed all the spoken words from the
cution, the typist produced a new script mixing
objectivity and subjectivity, one that says as much
recording, leaving only my nonverbal expressions
about the
of understanding as it does
- the sounds that punctuate a telephone conversa-
about the development of the film.
tion and indicate to the speaker that the other per-
son is listening.
7. The Party reverses the principle of blind listening
used in Postscript; here the sound disappears, leaving
3. What Beyond starts with the experiment of asking
pairs of individuals to choose a string of synonyms
only the image. The piece functions rather like a
silent movie in which the subtitles are no longer
from a list generated by a word processing program.
included in the edit, but represent a self-contained
When a word is selected from a given list, a new list
appears, from which another word can be chosen,
and so on. The protagonists have only to agree spon-
taneously on their choices of words. Since the opera-
tion is devoid of syntactical elements, it reveals,
above all, the highly personal way we relate to lan-
guage and how our preferences for certain words are
formed even before we undertake the process of
action that unfolds simultaneously with the film.
As in a silent movie, we have an intuitive under-
standing of what we perceive visually, except that
here we are free at any moment to turn to the text
for written confirmation of what we have under-
stood visually. The focus of attention can thus be
communicating information.
switched so that the text being written becomes the
main action, and the image a simple confirmation.
8. It could be said that Le Film Blanc took form in
4 4. Du Grand Canyon ti
takes the form of a photo-
graph album, with the aim to treat still images with
the same notion of duration as when movement is
two distinct phases: first the constitution of the
text, and then the conception of it’s mode of pres-
entation. The text originated through an exercise
involved. The images here provide few elements that
enable the viewer to analyze the reality being pho-
tographed; they are a provisional event allowing us
in reading in a public space in Brussels. The opera-
tion was fairly banal: I was to become absorbed in
the book I was reading while noting the conversa-
to pick up an overall impression. This succession of
tions that regularly broke my concentration. The
photographs could be compared to the idea of an
excursion; the text presented beside them serves as
the map that makes it possible to visualize the gen-
re-transcription of this experiment, lasting twen-
ty-odd minutes, forms a highly fragmented text
composed of sentences from the book and over-
eral route taken, to locate the point where we find
ourselves, and perhaps to anticipate what is to come.
speech. In
second stage of the work,
a subtitling company was
instructed to simply
5. From some folded shirts to
takes up the principle
insert this text in the place of the subtitles into a
of Du Grand Canyon d
but puts the emphasis on
randomly chosen film and then print the text on
the idea of sequentiality. The images often work as
its own celluloid. The snatches
of my text thus
a series, so that the changes of photographic sub-
appear and disappear to the rhythm of the subti-
ject seem more like changes of camera position.
tles in the other film and their pace loses all rela-
Thus the installation as a whole functions like a
tion to the time required to read them.
kind of archaic cinema.
1 54