Although it has been about twenty-five years since I played video games with any frequency, lately I have tried to learn more about them and their history. An important resource has been a series of fascinating reviews by Tim Rogers on YouTube. There — and specifically in Rogers’s marvelous video about the 1994 first-person shooter Doom — I learned about the elementary matter of level design, or how an artist might lay out the map of one chapter in a game, including its big rooms, its maze of corridors, and before its traps and surprises.
I thought about level design while reviewing documentation of Anne Imhof’s major installations of the last five years, not simply because of their architectural ambition but also because of their persistent verticality.
One looks up, in Hamburg, at the tightrope walker in Angst II; at a moody performer perched on a high fence in Faust; at the totemic passageways that form the architectural spine of Sex at the Castello di Rivoli; or the elevated catwalk of Sex at the Art Institute of Chicago. The verticality of the gaze is figured more elliptically in the drones that buzz through sections of Angst, for even when a drone tracks close to the ground it carries unmistakable connotations of the view from high above enemy combatants. The same could be said of the hooded falcon that harbors the coiled script of an airborne hunt in repose.
If level design attuned me to the ascendent or diagonal dynamics of predation and surveillance in Imhof’s works, it also provided a way of looking down through the glass floor/ceiling of Faust. Lazing about with their vapes, bongs, and little fires, Imhof’s performers hardly project a feeling of being prey, but their prostrations nonetheless reflect back on us, the spectators, who enjoy comparatively free motion and the right to exit the premises. Our paths are as clear as the glass panels that have been tiled together like so many modules on a level of Doom.
Sightlines that join near views to distant ones, that sweep across the horizon line, and that invite a kind of creeping movement around corners and down passageways further incline me toward the view that Imhof’s environments are not simply architectures.
They are not theaters, nor auditoriums, nor runways for watching and listening. She stages arenas, fields of play, and the player is you. In her performance installations, the most overtly confrontation gestures — the cold, catwalk stare at the audience; the pugilistic contact improvisations; and the noisy flailing on a distorted guitar — are synecdoches of a larger contest, the game of living, put into play by her environments. You come at them without a rulebook. The ensuing improvisation of interpretation and participation must begin from this moment of indistinction. You struggle to find the rules regulating this performance, testing them by action. This agon is fundamental to improvisation, and it is fundamental to Imhof’s art.
Rules: I refer to them in the broadest sense, as techniques of regulation, guarantors of order, scripts or patterns of repetition. In an improvisation, they collide with accident, caprice, and chance in the varied contests of living (play, sport, combat, hunt). Tragedy and comedy share in this collision, as Roger Moseley notes in his magnificent Keys to Play: “The question of whether play is tragic or comic, profound or whimsical, has always been a matter of perspective as well as scale.”
To the enemy combatant living under the constant predation of the drone, the local missile strike can arrive with a randomness that belies the deadly logic of the operator’s global rules of engagement.
And so it is with Imhof’s performances, which combine and overlap rules that operate at different scales. Locally, she and her group write plans of action that will guarantee a certain coherence for a given piece and distinguish it from others. (“This behavior belongs to Faust, that one belongs to Sex.”) Embedded in collective memory and trained bodies, these little scripts include movement patterns, songs, gestures, behaviors, and tasks that are discovered and developed through improvisation and preparatory photo shoots.
In the events themselves, Imhof’s performers enact and revise these rules by superimposing the images and routines in open-ended improvisations. Milling around in the crowd, she guides their decisions lightly with text messages sent to a group chat. This running commentary on the work during its performance reminds me of Yvonne Rainer’s work of the late 1960s, when the choreographer staged episodes of teaching — as well as rehearsals for other sections — during the event itself. “Lately I have begun to question the accustomed exclusion in performance of the interactions that lead to that realization,” she remarked at the time. (Though less ostentatious, Imhof’s text commentary nonetheless forms some public part of Faust, not least in that it appears as a transcript in the show’s catalogue.)
Rainer and Imhof both want to bring informal and non-staged behavior into the space of exhibition, and in this domain large-scale social patterns and scripts take over from the more concrete and specific rules that define a given artwork. I refer to those moments when Imhof’s (and Rainer’s) performers are “themselves,” rather than roles supplied by the piece.
One’s personal style, one’s habits and quirks — these are the accidents, the pleasurable deviations from what has been planned and remembered (if not notated). They are also, however, means of governing what is to come, though at a different scale. Personal style is a vernacular discourse of probability (“he’d never wear that”).
We recognize the look of a fashion brand because its deviations and novelties still make sense in light of what has come before if we have the cultural capital to read them. The “accident,” therefore, is nested in networks of rules that might exceed our grasp. When an empty can of Coke Light slides off the railing of a yacht, its fall into the water is an accident. Six months later, that can’s arrival to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is no accident at all. In the same manner, the detritus and delights that float into our daily lives — soda cans, tattooed friends, Adidas track pants — do not arrive by chance, but rather exemplify the operation of complex patterns at a vast scale.
As Grégoire Chamayou explains, new developments in human geography aided by surveillance technology and artificial intelligence offer schematizations of these complex operations; they guide the targeting of drone strikes by means of movement signatures, for example. “Predicated on an analysis of behavior patterns rather than the recognition of nominal identities,” Chamayou notes, such a “pattern-of-life” analysis fundamentally rethinks what a “personal” style might be, according to algorithms that leave individuals themselves relatively anonymous.
Rainer took her interest in the lives of performers into film, which permitted an extended rumination on personae, roles, artifice, and “natural” behavior in front of the camera or the audience. Imhof’s balance of staged and non-staged elements finds its algorithmic elaboration in the billowing wake of Instagram selfies that follow her exhibitions. We shoot them. In that ever-expanding amateur archive of documentation, her images enter yet new patterns of circulation in the wide sea that used to be called daily life.
Music has always been important to Imhof’s projects, but in 2019 she released her first album, a double LP of music from Faust. Why is this music so slow? On one level, that pace underscores the work’s angst, ennui, and menace. But there is more to this matter of speed. At a conference some years ago, somebody asked a noted composer the inane question, “Why do you jazz guys play so fast?” He replied, with evident exasperation, “Because we can.” He meant that speed (along with virtuosity, craft, and complexity) is a hard-won skill of the professional. Imhof and her musical collaborators — mainly Billy Bultheel and Eliza Douglas — have their own skills, but speed is not among them. They are amateurs of a kind, or at least compared with that speedy improviser.
Another soundtrack — Michael Nyman’s music to Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract — provides an illuminating contrast with Faust. Both traffic in overt references to early music, but Nyman’s counterpoint and orchestration are highly refined, his instrumental writing is idiomatic and ambitious, the voice leading is clear, and his harmonic rhythm is more faithful to the baroque style than that of Faust. This music is skilled; Nyman can play fast.
And yet, the Faust composers succeed in landing their baroque references by using the techniques and materials that they have. They “make do,” a mode of improvisation surely as significant as a jazz virtuoso’s learned extemporizations, and certainly more ubiquitous.
Neo-baroque though it may have been, Nyman’s work participated in an avant-garde lineage of post-Cagean conceptualism. The music of Imhof and her collaborators, by contrast, exhibits little engagement with the history of musical modernism that did so much to create the conditions for the performance medium they have occupied so inventively; you will hear no signs of chance, noise, spectralism, just intonation, live electronics, musique concrète, or field recording, to name a few elements that might come to mind. (Compare that silence with the stark experimentalism of another album called Faust, released by the German band of the same name in 1971.) Noise is only employed here as an “effect,” Adorno might have said.
However, I think Imhof follows the path cleared by Rainer, who, already in the 1960s, was using music as a kind of found object — Berlioz’s Requiem, the Chamber Brothers’ “In the Midnight Hour” — rather than as a co-equal domain of formal experimentation. The choreographer’s preferences foreshadowed younger artists in the 1970s, who treated the band as another established medium, like sculpture or printmaking: professional artists, amateur musicians. Adorno would have called that stuff “light” music, but he lacked a concept of subculture that would have made better sense of Imhof’s material. Faust’s refined street style and its visual and sonic allusions to metal and punk signal a cultivated distance from mainstream commercial culture.
Nonetheless, Imhof and her collaborators are not a band and, until the release of the PAN recording in 2019, they did not meaningfully participate in any of popular music’s institutions of production and distribution.
As a group, they are as little embedded in music’s vernacular socialities as they are in its avant-garde history. In LARPing “music” for the show, they sound a contemporary echo of Rainer, for whom music was so solidly built into the foundations of her practice that it need only sound as a reminder of its own existence.
Recognizing the Faust recording as a soundtrack album makes these tensions evident.
As important as the vapes, tattoos, and street style are to establishing the cool of Faust, there is almost no genre more removed from subculture than the soundtrack or cast album, which has been a solid, middlebrow graveyard of parental listening since well before the establishment of the “easy listening” chart in 1961. It gave us The Sound of Music. It gave us Hair. Unlike the latter’s tribe of dreamers and wanderers, Faust’s actors do not always play roles inside the show. Sometimes, they play themselves. But like Hair, Faust refers to the musical world of its subcultures without actually joining it. The overall effect is an uncanny sociality, trapped behind glass.
For her Carte Blanche show at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris this spring, Imhof will present an intricate new performance installation combining sound, movement, architectural interventions, projections, dialogue, and musical performance. Titled Natures Mortes, the piece will also gather and display work by several historical and contemporary artists, in addition to paintings, drawings, and sculptures by Imhof herself.
The artist will continue her investigation of glass as a barrier, frame, and screen by assembling salvaged panes into a labyrinth that will divide up the lower level of the museum into semitransparent alcoves and cubicles. Although a skeleton crew will inhabit the space at any given time during its run from April into the summer, a larger group of twenty to twenty-five dancers, actors, musicians, and models will assemble for discrete, four-hour performances in May (the exact schedule is still being determined). If Imhof’s previous large-scale installations gained some of their indistinct power from a certain lack of direction in handling the audience, the events in Natures Mortes will take a different approach by leading their crowds in a spiraling procession through the labyrinth, pausing for specific actions at a handful of elevated stages along the route. The work’s sonic aspects promise to be among the most transformational in relation to Imhof’s previous productions: in close coordination with Eliza Douglas, she has placed fabricated steel rails along the ceiling to support mobile loudspeakers that will be hung and pulled along their tracks, and this dynamic spatial diffusion will only increase with more wireless speakers carried around the space by performers. Composed primarily by Douglas, the music for the show will come in a more conventional style of performance. Will the stages constructed inside the Palais de Tokyo lead Imhof and her collaborators to nightclub stages outside of it? With this possibility of an afterlife, Natures Mortesreiterates a truth about sound long known by careful listeners: unlike that of the still life, sound’s decay — its reverberation and echo — promises more life, not less.