Art And Technology Intermingle In Sala's Two-Left-Handed 'Ravel'
I had a chance to see Anri Sala's wonderful Ravel Ravel Unraveled again in New York City this past weekend. I had seen it first at the Venice Bienale back in 2013, and I wrote about it here and then again in my book.
You can't sum up really good works of art — and I won't try to do that here. But among the themes of this work of video/sound installation are some which will resonate with our concerns here at 13.7. These have to do with technology and human life.
In the New York version, which was part of the artist's first U.S. museum show — Anri Sala: Answer Me at the New Museum — there are two rooms. In one, you are presented with two videos of two different piano players each playing Ravel's piano concerto for the left hand in D. The camera is tight on the hands; you can't really see the men themselves — you never see their faces and you don't see the orchestra. The hands are highly expressive, though, and they capture our interest the way the faces would. This is in itself is remarkable and reminds us of something deep about the human ability to recognize mind and intentional action in the world around us. You can't take your eyes off them.
The room is filled, then, with a beautiful and almost right sounding cacophony; two distinct, different performances of the same music, played on top of each other at the same time. What we hear, and what we listen to, is not the piece for left hand that we think we hear; in fact we get to hear a piece not for one but for two left hands. In effect, we hear a raveling of Ravel by Sala.
In this way, different agencies pile up and confuse. The hands of the players act as if they have a mind of their own. There are the players themselves. There's Sala. And of course there is Ravel. But there is also the space, the gallery space in New York where I sat in the dark, but also the space in which the music was recorded with its own characteristic resonances.
I say the agencies are confused and confusing. Although it is hard to escape the feeling that the hands are thoughtfully making music, it is very hard to tell, at least for me, which hands are making which music. Perceiving what the hands are doing, not to mention making sense of what you are hearing — two versions of the same piece of music played, as if they were one, at the same time — is challenging.
Which brings us to technology. We are watching and listening to recordings, not performances, and their double play makes it hard to read sound from movement, as we are normally able to do pretty effortlessly. In this case, what we hear is something of an impossibility: an orchestra accompanying two different soloists simultaneously. It is a techno-perceptual puzzle — and it's thrilling for all that.
The video in the next room ratchets up the astounding complexity of Sala's constructed presentation of the concerto. We now encounter a new performer, a woman — as it happens, the French DJ Chloë — as she works at a deck mixing two LPs corresponding to the two recordings of the distinct performances we have just witnessed in video. She is no longer content to let the inherent discrepancies between the two renditions stand, nor does she aim at putting them together to eliminate the dissonances. She makes new art out of the two recordings — scratching, pushing, stopping, accelerating and decelerating the records. What a remarkable collaboration! Sala's staging of Chloë's mixing of two left-handed piano players' interpretations of Ravel's concerto. It really is Ravel raveled and unraveled.
Agency — responsible action, but also ability and disability — and the way technology extends, enhances, transforms and remakes human agency, these are among the themes of Sala's utterly moving and captivating installation. I'm not sure whether it is significant that Chloë is female while all the other protagonists in this inter-generational, cross-medial collaboration are male. But that aside, it is striking that she is presented, two-handed, the master of her technology, with access to — and control over — the music we've been listening to. It is noticeable that in the video she stands before us, bathed in light from the lush green gardens beyond the walls and she wields her craft; the pianists were shown to us in the other room in theatrical darkness.
Chloë makes art. And like all art everywhere, I have argued, the raw materials out of which she makes her art, is the making activity of other people.
Anri Sala's strange and beautiful performance illuminates art and technology and their place in our active lives.
Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.