“What is really the ice cube, which is its true face,” intoned a British woman’s voice as bursts of synthetic noise seemed to assault the viewer from every direction. The tumult was part of C.D. – A Script for Synthesis, German sound artist Florian Hecker’s Performa 13 commission at New York’s Guggenheim Museum last Saturday (another two performances followed on Sunday). C.D. is the final entry in Hecker’s trilogy of collaborations with Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani, following Chimerization, at Documenta 13, and Hinge, at London’s Sadie Coles HQ gallery (both 2012). Most recently, a solo work of Hecker’s was also included in “Soundings: A Contemporary Score,” MoMA’s first full-scale exhibition of sound art.
As with Chimerization, C.D. has a libretto written by Negarestani, here titled “Black Boxing Pink (A Script for Synthesis).” The programs handed out for the evening contained the libretto, alongside an essay on Hecker and C.D. by Robin Mackay, philosopher and director of UK arts organization and publisher Urbanomic.
Prior to the start of the roughly hour-long program, the audience took in the set: under greenish pink mottled light, the stage held three towering, columnlike yellow-white lights. At center stage stood a transparent plinth, upon which rested a cube, perhaps plastic, of cloudy white and pink, lit from above. Consulting the footnotes of Mackay’s essay, one realized that the object was a presentation of philosopher Wilfrid Sellars’s pink ice cube, an example he used often in his writing on phenomenology and perception. (A choice quote from Sellars’s essay “Sensa or Sensing”: “we see not only that the ice cube is pink, and see it as pink, we see the very pinkness of the object.”)
C.D. began with a choir of men and women assembled to the right of the stage, wearing what looked like nuns’ habits patterned with squares of color. A bass tone slowly built into a steady drone, and the voice of British actress Charlotte Rampling could be heard reciting Negarestani’s libretto. The text consists of Negarestani’s musings on encountering a pink ice cube, written in hyper-technical language that borders on jargon: “Two synthetic agents—one sonic, the other olfactory—are delegated the task of communicating with the chromatic demon.” The monologue paused, and the chorus began its section (marked in pink in the program), cycling through three distinct styles of delivery: off-kilter harmonies, cartoonishly distraught melismata that approached gothic yodeling, and a rasping resembling the voice of Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. Their lines were similarly obscure, though their theatrics gave lines like “Pink is a chromatic demon” a rather different feel from Rampling’s calm narration.
Thereby a cycle was set. Rampling would talk as a skittering synth noise panned from left to right or the bass part neared something danceable, and then the choir would begin its vocal cavorting. Because the singers had spread themselves around the outer rim of the auditorium, encircling the audience, one had an excuse for observing other audience members. In general, there was the stony contemplation expected at such events and some pained faces as the volume-sensitive clapped their hands over their ears, but one also saw a great deal of amusement. Some viewers laughed at the Gollum-like wheezes and the more campy, distress-signal-from-a-lost-spaceship treatments of Rampling’s voice that periodically doubled her monologue.
It’s not clear Hecker wants to be funny, but it was hard not to find humor in a treatise on the phenomenology of a pink ice cube as bestially emoted by a choir resembling something out of the sci-fi film The Fifth Element. Of course, interesting aspects exist in each part of the performance—even the libretto seemed much less labored when later read in relative peace and quiet—but as a whole the performance felt both under-thought and over-stimulating. Hecker is obviously interested in making works that disrupt standard paradigms of hearing (Chimerization‘s three-way speaker system, for example, designed to overwhelm human hearing’s two ears). He’s usually quite good at it. C.D.‘s kitchen-sink approach, however, with its overemphasis on Negarestani’s ponderous text, created different obstacles for the viewer: bemusement with the congested histrionics and eventual boredom with its indulgences.