Classic theories of aesthetic enjoyment are based upon ideas of harmony or exercises of proportion or the invocation beauty, all of which were severely disrupted in the 20th century by movements such as Abstract Expressionism and Dadaism. With these new forms, pleasure was to be mined in other places: vulgarity, non-representation, asymmetry, noise. Such a transition or expansion of aesthetic value has been theorized, by Morse Peckham in his treatise Man’s Rage for Chaos: Biology, Behavior and the Arts (1966), as providing the human mind with rehearsals for uncertainty. Exposure to art that does not immediately satiate engrained tastes instead provides an opportunity for different modes of relation to form. When confronted with something not understood, something that cannot be comprehended, the initial reaction can be disquieting or disturbing, but ultimately the experience is an invitation to see things from a different perspective. This posture of opening is valuable, in and of itself.

So began my conversation with Ben Grossman, the director of silence, an itinerant programming series that has grown to encompass the administration of a physical space in Guelph, Ontario. On the cusp of relaunching silence’s programming after substantial renovations, in the midst of the internationally renowned Guelph Jazz Festival and in a community that also hosts the University of Guelph’s research program Improvisation, Community and Social Practice, Grossman’s observations relate as much to his own future with silence as to the city’s larger cultural climate. Among these distinct yet intersecting projects, the shared sentiment is a drive to engage in artistic and aesthetic experiences that wrench participants from their usual ways of understanding. Through a willingness to be uncomfortable, the possibility of new ways of thinking arises. As a practical matter, these kinds of experiences can be generated through acts of improvisation, a gesture mirrored between artists and audiences. Consider how John Cage’s 4’33”, which is a musical composition for piano where not a single note is struck for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, asked something fundamentally different from its audience than other Cage compositions that feature instruments making sounds. The risks of the composer are met with a reconfiguration of audience expectations in order for the event to be made meaningful. Of course, there is always the option of rejection on the audience’s behalf, to refuse participation. Assuming an audience has shown up though, the unspoken pact between them and an artist is to do the work of taking each other seriously. The reciprocal obligation of the artist, having the privilege of an audience, is to be invested in the ways meaning is made in response to her or his practice.

Grossman moved to Guelph from Toronto in 2007. A musician, he quickly realized that the city lacked a small, no to low budget space where experimentation could happen, the kind of place where an artist could perform on short notice or with minimal flair, make a bit of money, meet colleagues, make friends, and be strange. A product of these experiences himself, Grossman knows that art practices can develop through casual, community-based engagement. The process is enlivening, nurturing, and one that silence aims to foster.

At silence, the mandate is not improvisation specific, though the programming supports these kinds of projects, be they through performance or the generation of what Grossman calls third space. Third space is social space, neither home nor work, and as much as possible it is divorced from the dictates of commodified consumption. Think of a coffee shop in a small town where farmers gather to ruminate on crop yields, or Parisian cafes where time passes by way of philosophical debate and cigarette smoking. silence, at least a couple times each week, opens its doors as third space. On Saturdays, silence is a community drop-in; it is what is made of it, each week unlike the last. On Mondays, Morning Music is an opportunity to improvise in the company of whomever else shows up. In these instances, space is a catalyst for unmediated social interchange. silence rehearses accommodation. Grossman rehearses facilitation. Participants rehearse being in relation. The goal, if there can be said to be one, is to be there and be present. Simple.

These skills, of tolerance and improvisation, are not just indulgence. Ideological, biological, and ecological paradigm shifts cannot be anticipated since it is their disjuncture from what has been normative that sets them apart from other kinds of change. What is being rehearsed for at silence is not some particular idea of the future. Rather, its the development of a mental and social agility through practice. Embedded within the logic of the place seems to be the idea that adaptive capacity can be nurtured. Maybe it seems far out, but it is possible that some of the tactics developed through art and improvisation will provide a foundation from which to address the social upheavals of our shared future.

Based on an interview with Ben Grossman conducted on 04 September 2014.

January 13, 2015
cheyanne turions