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8. Merce Cunningham & Jasper Johns, Walkaround Tim

Do the Duchamp

As a landmark season on the giggly master of conceptual art launches, Ruth Saxelby wonders which musicians are now dancing around Duchamp

Associate editor of and freelance writer Ruth Saxelby discusses the direction new music every month under the title Notes For Tomorrow.

There were points during the preview of the Barbican’s new Dancing Around Duchamp season that made me laugh out loud. Not laughter at but with. But first, a moment of introduction. Dancing Around Duchamp is a celebration of the radical ideas and vast influence of the French artist Marcel Duchamp. The central exhibition brings together composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham (who dancing is above), and artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns who all, in various configurations, produced works in response to - or, perhaps more accurately, in conversation with - Duchamp and one another. As that venerable list indicates, this is not simply an exhibit of pieces behind glass to be gazed at but musical scores to be soaked up and dance performances to engage with; a multi-sensory, cross-arts exhibition that challenges the possibilities of the gallery space.

Challenging possibilities, to put it crudely, is Duchamp’s legacy. This is the “father of conceptual art” after all, who upturned a urinal, signed it and titled it Fountain; a provocative yet graceful rug-pulling of not only what art can be but, crucially, ways of looking. As curator Carlos Basualdo said during the exhibition preview, Duchamp was “a highly disciplined man but he also gives you freedom”. While that freedom rings clear in the work of Rauschenberg, Johns and Cunningham, it is Duchamp’s impact on Cage, and the subsequent ripples of that, that is of the most concern to this column. What drew Cage to Duchamp has been the subject of considerable discourse, not least from Cage himself. In his Statements Re Duchamp, he wrote: “[E]verything seen - every object, that is, plus the process of looking at it - is a Duchamp.” Ways of looking are intrinsically linked to ways of listening, as I encountered in a different form in my last column. Maybe it is wiser to think of ways of sensing. What is the first sense, the learned sense, and how might one rid oneself of it in order to experience new senses? This is the realm of Cage. 

Ahead of attending the exhibition I listened to a number of Cage lectures and interviews on the ever-wonderful UbuWeb. In one recorded in 1963 with a very young interviewer whose stubborn ideas about composition are, during the course of their conversation, entertainingly nudged towards the unfixity that Cage devoted his life to, Cage responds to a question about quality and comparison: “I think that we gain in awareness by seeing each thing in its own terms and I think that if we think in terms of quality that means that we are comparing the work that we experience with standards which represent our prejudices. If we can somehow empty our minds of those prejudices then we possibly can approach our experience - whether it is in or outside art - for what it is.”

Laughter can be a first step in challenging prejudice. Not the laughter that mocks but the kind that springs from that curious mix of recognition, awakening and delight; a visceral response to an idea poking us between the ribs. Through this prism, the inheritors of Cage and Duchamp - today’s challengers of what music is, what an instrument is, what a performance is - can be seen more clearly. For drawing the lines is not as simple as you’d think, as Cage recognised: “It’s not a question of doing again what Duchamp already did.” Duchamp was not showing the way but a way to infinite ways of listening, looking and - ultimately - living. All around us, if we listen, are mischievous un-pickers of convention’s linear stitches.

So we have Holly Herndon exploring the laptop’s possibilities not as a creative tool but as an instrument itself, “playing” its electrical activity by sweeping special microphones across its surfaces like a violinist uses a bow; SSION dismantling the pop video with an intermission in Luvvbazaar during which he leaves the video set and goes to a 7/11 to buy candy and dance to Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind before returning for the final transformative act; and Hype Williams’ Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland seeking to embody disruption itself, not just in their music but in the world that orbits being a music artist today: from employing body builders to flex their oiled muscles on-stage to stocking their band merch table with a single €500 t-shirt. All are moments that could elicit a giggle - and yet with it comes a gurgling thought. 

The bit that really got me at Dancing Around Duchamp was an anecdote about Rauschenberg’s Music Box (Elemental Sculpture) [1953], a crude wooden box pierced with nails and containing a number of stones that rattle when shaken. Duchamp had previously played with that concept in 1916 with his With Hidden Noise sculpture and apparently remarked on greeting Rauschenberg’s creation, “I think I’ve heard that song before.” No wonder Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns all wanted to hang out with their elder: what a card. For these four artists, being in conversation with the past was not an attempt to “simply echo what our ears took in” [Cage, Statements Re Duchamp] but an opportunity to extend Duchamp’s ideas to new areas in order to blow wide open the possibilities for the future.