Interventions (Saskatoon: AKA Gallery, 1991)
review by Josephine Mills
In the context of Interventions 90, organized as part of
a general push in Saskatchewan to encourage performance and also develop a supportive
audience for it, Michael Maranda’s Systemic Interference, acquired an
important function: it opened, teased, and questioned the nature of performance
by highlighting the audience, audience interaction and responsibility to the
particular performance, and the position of the performing artist within the
performance piece. In addition, Systemic Interference — by referencing
difficult concepts and, partly due to the work itself failing to fully communicate
those ideas — sparked further discussion about the performance itself.
One of the concepts Maranda played with in the performance was that of pleasure.
Maranda denied us the pleasure of spectacle but instead provided us with the
pleasure of knowledge. Initially the audience was confused about what was happening.
Once we realized that we were being tape recorded, that we were the performance,
that Maranda was playing with us, we began to enjoy it and to play back. Maranda
utilized Death of the Author/Reader reception theory by not providing us with
a bourgeois individual author/artist in control, except as represented by the
structure of the machinery. Thus, the audience physically produced the work
because we were the performers. Maranda also played with the performance experience
by focusing all the attention of technology rather than on communicating an
idea with that technology.
Unfortunately, not all of these concepts were communicated to the audience during the performance. Maranda attempted an ambitious
project that did not fully realize itself when translated into the performance experience. In the end, talking about it was
the most interesting part of Systemic Interference — though visual presentation of the recording equipment proved
exciting and an important component of the performance.
When the audience entered the darkened gallery to view the performance, we were
confronted with a 1984ish institutional spectacle. Our rows of chairs faced
two spotlit microphones and one unlit microphone suspended above two reel to
reel recorders plus a mixing board. Because of the lighting, the microphones
seemed unsupported and the whole scene had an uncomfortable, authoritative feel.
We sat expectantly for some time until Maranda entered, turned on the machines
and left. When we exited the gallery space, Maranda handed us an explanation
of what we had experienced.
“What has just occurred is the recording of the ambient
sound in the gallery space and, with a short time lag, these sounds being played
back. This was done with two reel to reel recorder/players and one magnetic
tape threaded through both. The first recorded the sound. The second, when the
recorded part reached it, played the sound back. No extraneous sound was introduced
by myself (aside from the sounds that I make that normally become part of the
ambient sound of a room). As these recorded sounds were being played back, they
themselves became part of the ambient sound of the space, creating a continuous
overlapping or layering of sound. As the process continued the ambient/constructed
sound level in the room slowly built from a relatively quiet beginning until
either the tape ran out (30 minutes) or the sound level became too loud to continue.”
— from Maranda’s artist statement.
Unfortunately, Maranda made a major technical miscalculation that significantly
changed the performance from his expectation. He did not account for the fact
that the audience’s bodies would dampen sound (he tested when the room
was empty) and so the noise level never reached its unbearable, screeching possibility.
The audience was not driven out of the room as Maranda predicted. Instead, some
people remained to talk about what was happening and chat until the end of the
tape while others wandered out.
“It is important to note that the ambient sound is, in
source, mainly the audience, as spectator, and thus it was extremely crucial
to have you (as audience) witnessing it. Your position (as audience) was altered
in that you were as much the performance, if not more, than I was. Ultimately,
as I alone fully understood what was occurring, I became the only viewer of
the piece, and the audience became the only performer.”
— from Maranda’s artist statement.
While the audience caught on very quickly that the noise we made was being replayed
back at us, it took longer to let go of our expectation that Maranda would return
and actually do something. Initially there was nervous, subdued laughing as
people realized that they were being recorded and that they could goof around
in what seemed like an institutional setting. As people realized that we were
the performance, they began to play with the situation. One guy got up and gargled
into a mike, another group tickled a friend to embarrass her (so her giggles
would be repeated). The main response was that the audience made random noises
for the fun of hearing it projected and mixed with the previous sound. A few
times a person or section of the audience would try and initiate a unified response
from the whole room such as singing row, row, row your boat — but we never
managed a cohesive response without our leader/performance artist. Maranda also
did not account for the exhibitionist nature of an arty audience. One person
decided that if there is an audience waiting, someone just has to take advantage
of the spotlight potential and assume the performer role. We achieved our closest
unanimity in booing and hissing her decision.
“In this way, the piece constructed a set of internally
conflicting if not contradictory) dualities. It did this mainly by reflecting
the audience back on itself, or by taking the audience, the witness of the event
(performance) and forcing them to confront themselves as the performance (event)
itself. The context of the piece, the gallery space as prepared by myself (creator/viewer)
in conflict/cooperation with the witness/performer, became the content. The
context/content, by creating/executing the piece (for the creation and execution
of this spontaneous/structured audio work was simultaneous) constructed an impression/expression
of the ambient/constructed acoustical environment. The work, as it recorded
itself as it unfolded, was a self documenting process (performance/documentation).
Through the setting up of these contradictory states within the work, it is
hoped that the viewer reexamines the relationships of performance that exist
between performer-witness, performance document-process, and viewing-participation.”
— from Maranda’s artist statement.
While the audience’s expectations for an actual performer diminished,
people expected some sort of meaning or performance to come from the machinery
instead. A painful cacophony would have provided a kind of conclusion to the
piece and it is a good thing that a definite ending did not happen. If we had
been forced to leave because of the noise level, that would facilitate a simple
reading of Systemic Interference — initially Maranda frustrated
our expectations and then he tortured us. Instead the piece was more nebulous
and frustrating until the end and as such was more open and questioning. We
were left wondering about what happened and discussing many possibilities rather
than easily accepting the piece as audience-abuse and then dismissing it at
Our conversations about this one performance were ultimately about concepts
and concerns relating to performance in general and Systemic Interference
became an affective part of the awareness raising intent of Interventions
(This is, of course, only one of many possible readings.)
Josephine Mary Mills is a writer from Saskatoon currently attending graduate
school in Vancouver, British Columbia.