Hearing Bertolt Brecht

Text of presentation to UCA ‘Art & Activism’ conference, Wellcome Institute, London, 15th April 2011

Today I am going to talk about a recently completed project, Hearing Bertolt Brecht, this was an exhibition, commissioned last year for the British Art Show fringe, that brought together work by three artists; Derek Hampson, Peter Hofer and Peter Suchin. The works in the exhibition combined pictorial, textual and sculptural forms along with sound.

The general aim of the exhibition was to examine the role of speech in the political process, focusing on the interrogation of the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on October 30th 1947 in Washington D.C. As the work progressed the exhibition came to concentrate on the function of listening in the formation of political sentiment.

The impetus for the exhibition came from a number of sources; the main one was my research into language’s representational structures; particularly the link between speech and sight in rhetorical discourse, that is public speaking that seeks to influence opinion, instigated by philosophers such as Martin Heidegger.

The exhibition also built upon the work of the Berlin-based composer Peter Ablinger. Ablinger has worked with speech in a number of ways, perhaps most well known is his ‘speaking piano’; an instrument rigged with 88 computer controlled hammers that work together to replicate human speech. A Letter from Schoenberg is an example of it in action. Ablinger calls this a ‘reading piece’. It employs the words of an angry letter that Arnold Schoenberg wrote to his publisher, which are meant to be read while listening to the sound of the text as spoken by the piano…… Without the text the content of the letter is largely inaccessible, the presence of the words completes the work…..allowing Schoenberg’s letter to communicate.

In 2009 Ablinger released Piano and Voices a ‘cycle for piano and CD’ in which the recorded voices of various 20th century personalities including Gertrude Stein, Mao Tse Tung and Bertolt Brecht are overlain with piano music. The latter track in which Ablinger used an edited recording of Brecht speaking before the House Un-American Activities Committee, was the initial impetus for Hearing Bertolt Brecht….. ……..My original intention was to work with the track through a process of transcription. But the more I listened to it the more my interest shifted away from transcribing the words spoken by Brecht towards understanding the political nature of Brecht’s encounter with HUAC.

HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee was set up by the House of Representatives to investigate political subversion, which in the cold war period following World War 2 meant communism. In 1947 HUAC set out to investigate perceived communist sympathies in the Hollywood film industry. Brecht was living in Los Angeles at the time, a somewhat peripheral figure struggling to find work as a screenwriter, he came to the attention of the committee because of his pre-war record of active anti-fascism.

Whenever the HUAC hearings are spoken about attention tends to focus on the protagonists, i.e. the injustices done to the individuals being interrogated and members of the committee. Brecht’s primary inquisitors were Robert Stripling, J. Parnell Thomas and Richard Vail, others present included John McDowell, and Richard Nixon, along with a translator David Baumgardt.

The fact of a large audience gathered to listen to the interchange between committee and defendant is hardly commented on. Interrogations were held in public, the protagonists spoke to each other in turn but also spoke beyond each other to the audience, giving the gathering the character of a ‘hearing’. It is only through their presence that the HUAC hearings were constituted. The audience is the ‘polis’ without which the construction of the political would not be possible and as such they are a vital third protagonist.

What kind of thing is the political? An answer to this question can be found through an outline of the roles each of the protagonists, Brecht, HUAC and the audience, has in relation to the speaking undertaken. In its structure HUAC had a quasi-judicial character, with the power to compel individuals to appear before it, who were then questioned under oath. The speech of HUAC is that of question, with the character of accusation, Brecht’s speaking is that of answer, with the character of defence…… but in speaking to each other they ultimately appeal to the listening audience, there as an unacknowledged jury, for a decision.

This listening is not that of blank audition, instead it is deliberative and interested, that is the listeners are engaged in judging the exchanges being enacted in front of them. These are not the detached rational judgments of the courtroom judge, the Brecht/HUAC audience has a stake in the debates being played out before it, the decisions it takes in forming opinions on the dialogue are of a certain type. They are not reasoned ‘forensic’ opinions, but more like the unreasoned opinion of the crowd. The Greeks called the decisions of the crowd, taken at decisive moments in the affairs of their community, krisis, from which we get our word crisis, reflecting their function as hinges on which political change hangs.

From the foregoing we can say that Brecht’s interrogation by HUAC has the character of the political, understood as the creation of a shared understanding in the polis on an issue that is communally important to those listening. The political is essentially a mood created in the process of opinion formation that deliberative speech instigates in the listener.

Hearing Bertolt Brecht uses this paradigm to think the relationship between art and its audience within the exhibition. The exhibition did not seek to restage the Brecht/HUAC encounter, that is represent it in a form in which a detached observer could then inspect it, as if played out on a stage. Rather the work sought to invoke the political ‘mood’ of this public hearing, which as we have seen is structured through the auditors of the speech. Implicit in this is a particular role for the audience.

Martin Heidegger says; ‘speaking has its telos in the “hearer”’, that is speaking reaches its end only when it is heard, thus the listener completes the communicative act that is speaking. Similarly the artworks in Hearing Bertolt Brecht were theorised as needing the presence of a listening/seeing audience to complete them. This thinking is essentially anti-Cartesian, that is it eschews a subject/object model of representation. Central to this is the role of language as both a model of representational practice and also a practice of representation in itself, speech makes things visible in a way that is meaningful for the listener.

This thinking comes out of research into the structure of language by the founder of phenomenology Edmund Husserl and others who built upon his discoveries such as Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Husserl’s primary research was into the capacity of language as both expressive and indicative of meaning. Of particular interest to this project is language’s expressive capacity which in Husserl’s analysis allows meaning and by extension representations to be shared with others. We can make representations of things but they need to be of a certain kind in order that they can be shared.

Heidegger’s develops this thinking to address speaking’s ostensive function, that is the capacity of language, to point things out, to make things evident;
‘In speaking, the world’s being is here as existing…Its actual existence presents itself in asserting’
We don’t see something and then use language to articulate what we see, rather the reverse, only in speaking, in communicating with others does ‘the world’s being’ become evident, that is show itself, i.e. become visible.

This thinking offers a model of the relationship between a thing and its representations, whether visual or phonic, that goes beyond saying a representation says ‘what you see is that’ (Foucault).

The Works
The exhibition thus came to focus on two separate but related themes; to express the role of listening in the creation of the political and then to explore this as a paradigm for understanding the relationship between the work in the exhibition and its audience. This meant the gallery was theorized in a particular way, as a kind of courtroom for the audience to take on the role of critic and judge.

The works in the exhibition enable this through various representational forms, a theme that ran through the exhibition was a strong aesthetic of the handmade and of the sculptural.

Peter Suchin’s work of painting and texts connect to a cultural context, that is debates around Modernism. In the 1930s Brecht was involved, together with Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, in a highly influential discussion around issues pertaining to art’s political efficacy within an increasingly oppressive Capitalist culture. Brecht’s didactic theatrical practice was contrasted with Benjamin’s support for new technologies of artistic reproduction, and with Adorno’s championing of abstract art. By including in the gallery actual and reproduced abstract paintings, index cards, and wall-mounted texts Peter Suchin directly alluded to this seminal and arguably still pertinent debate.

Peter Hofer’s Listening and Speaking – a Visual Likeness, is a sculptural representation of the distribution and reception of sound, its two conical plaster structures facing each across the gallery offers an analogy for the physical materiality of this most intangible of mediums. This work also echoes the related visual forms of a hunting horn and the tympanum of the human ear.

Derek Hampson. The aim of my work was to bring Brecht and the HUAC together for the first time since 1947. I did this both pictorially and audibly. I created prints of Brecht and the five members of HUAC; portraits that employ comicbook conventions of representation, which I thought appropriate for this project as comics bring image and speech together in a highly expressive manner. During my research I came across this Marvel publication from The Avengers series, that told of superheroes being persecuted by a latter-day version of HUAC. I used standard comicbook conventions of representation in my work, for example simple linear construction of forms, a strong use of outlines, and the use of blue to represent the figure as a broadcast image, in this case through a black and white television set. These heads were printed and then stretched over boxes, before being attached the wall.

I also edited the audio of Brecht’s interrogation, into four separate sound files. The political reach of the HUAC hearings went beyond the confines of the committee room where Brecht, HUAC and the audience had gathered, carried by radio and newsreel transmission. In an echo of this the sounds of these audio files were transmitted into the gallery from radio transmitters into small radios hanging from the wall, and then broadcast on low volume to visitors to the exhibition. Each radio had a small panel painting of in front of it, creating small sculptural objects.

One audio file was of Brecht’s answers to the HUAC questions, while a second consisted of the sound of spelling, the committee had difficulties understanding some of the names mentioned during the interrogation and often had ask to have them spelled out. Two files were of the committee speaking, one consisted solely of their questions, the second was their general exposition.

The HUAC hearings played an important role in the formation of political opinion in postwar America and beyond. They were seen as the place where issues of personal freedom were publicly enacted, and as such they were essentially rhetorical. To finish I would like to use this meeting here today to briefly reinvoke Brecht’s hearing, asking you the audience to take on the same critical role as that of the original audience as you listen to the sounds of Bertolt Brecht’s interrogation.

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