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Meetings, Spaces, Desires: Some personal reflections on the work of the Swedish artist and composer Ann Rosén.

Meetings, Spaces, Desires: Some personal reflections on the work of Ann Rosén.

(this was written for Schhh. . . a major exhibition of Ann Rosen’s work at the Stockholm Konstakademien, November 2005)

These days it is commonly accepted that when we talk about works of art we are not necessarily trying to uncover “the hidden meaning” or to arrive at “the truth” of the art-work, but rather that we actively construct meanings for ourselves – meanings that arise from the encounter between our own personal histories, preferences, and interests and the art-work. We also tend to acknowledge that the situation and circumstances through which we encounter the work, and the various forms of social and cultural mediation that come into play wherever and whenever such encounters take place is also a factor in the construction of meaning. When talking about the work of an artist such as Ann Rosen, whose practice has involved the social encounter with art – and on some occasions the social encounter as art – it is thus particularly important to acknowledge that meanings are inescapably socially constructed; they are arrived at through a dialogic process. The very social principles that are included in the art-process push us towards negotiated, and therefore potentially different, meanings; we cannot be concerned with the uncovering of meanings “immanent” to the work, discovering those that may have been placed there by the artist. Whilst I was researching the information for this essay I talked extensively with Ann Rosén, and during one of our long discussions she said, in relation to her video-work A and B (an element in one of her first Träffas (Meeting) projects at Gävle Konstcentrum in 2001) – “But when I was doing the exhibition I wasn’t aware of this – I just realise all this talking to you now!”

Nothing, I think, could illustrate more clearly, or more openly, the essentially dialogic nature of her work. Ann makes art in order to bring people together, to establish interactions between them – and to make them search, inside themselves as much as in the art-works. It is primarily through social interactions that meanings and sense can emerge.  What follows, then, is a very personal reading of my responses to Ann’s work of the past fifteen years; there are some connections that I have made to strands of conceptual thinking in our culture; there are moments where elements of her work have resonated with my own experiences; ultimately I am led to try to share my understanding of how art such as Ann’s can form a focal point around which our desires (and our uncertainties about our desires) can collect, allowing us to work through them. Many artists ask questions, but Ann also provides the invitations to meet, and the spaces in which meetings can take place, that can open the way for these questions to be developed, even if, like desire, there is never end to them. During another discussion of her work in January 2005 she mentioned that “I think what I want to make is a space where people can stop and think – space for me is not ‘dead space’ but somewhere where something can happen – somewhere to be challenged, to think differently, to find something out.”

Meetings and Spaces
Bringing people together to meet one another has been one of the most frequently recurring themes in Ann Rosen’s work since 1990. Starting with Stuck in the Mud (Norwich, UK, 1990), a performance work for dancers and improvising musicians, Ann has devised and promoted events and situations over the past fifteen years that bring people together. This is a theme that has appeared in works as diverse as News Memory, the breakfast actions Frukost in Rågsved, Spela Kula which involved playing games of marbles in the suburbs of Stockholm, and a series of three projects based around the idea of meetings – Har vi träffats? (Gävle, 2001), Träffas (Stockholm, 2002) and Träffas 1983-2003 (Nacka, 2003), a theme which continues to play a significant role in her recent works Tyst Ljudskulptur (Silent Sound Sculpture) and Rumsliga Tystnader (Silent Sound Spaces). These various works bring people together to experience the art-work, even if what they are expected to do once they are together is not always made explicit. In fact, this ambiguity is part of the whole point of the meetings. A second theme in her work is space, but this is not a one-dimensional concept. Space, for Ann, might be the physical space inside of which a meeting might be possible, a room or a portacabin (Byggbod, 1998), for example, or even just somewhere to sit down (the large red cushions laid outside in her work Rastplats, 1995). It could also be a conceptual space (what Ann often calls a “platform”) that sets up the expectations that something is going to happen, or it could be the empty spaces that are delimited by a circle of loudspeakers (for example D-dist of 2003), the trajectory of a glass marble rolling around in circles (Träffas, ID:I Galleri, 2002), or the cylindrical mask worn by a dancer onto which silent video images are projected (Ifrån, 2000).

Empty space, on the one hand, and meetings of people on the other might seem, on the surface of things at least, to be opposites, but for me they are linked together as manifestations of two key themes of much psychoanalytical thinking of the past century. Our socio-cultural milieu is perhaps the greatest determinant of our individual subjectivities, in terms of our relationships to the members of our families and to the wider network of individuals who constitute our society. In our world language and other forms of symbolic communication (such as music or religious behaviours) structure and direct our ideas and actions. With great insight the French psychoanalyst and thinker Jacques Lacan pointed out that none of us ever really speak our own language – the language that we speak exists before we do, the symbolic systems that determine social position, gender, even something as personal as our “own” names, are decided in advance of our individual existence. In light of this the almost paranoid insistence of an autonomous “art pour l’art” can be read as a reactionary denial of the anxiety that Lacan’s observation reveals, whereas the work of someone like Ann actively encounters and accepts that this is how things are, and then gets on with interrogating this state of affairs. Neither despairing about, nor trying to avoid the implications that it is we who must bring meaning to our lives and work, Ann sets the stage – in her own terms “builds a platform” – for us to meet, ask questions and think. She makes “a space where something can happen”.

But the theme of space is not a single concept in her work. As I suggested above space – or maybe it is better to say spaces – appear in several different, but interconnected, forms. As I have introduced Jacques Lacan already, maybe it is interesting to bring another of his ideas into the picture. In any case it is relevant to my response to, and my reading of, Ann’s work.

Space and absence
A space can be “somewhere” – where “something” can happen – but it can also be an absence, there can be a space because something is missing. This is a strong theme in Ann’s concept of space, and it is one of the things that drives my own interest in her work. If, for example, I omit a word from a sentence, and I leave a blank space instead, it creates a very profound effect. To take one of Ann’s own sentences from the quotation above -“I think what I want to ******* is a space where people can stop and think”. One reader might look at the rest of the sentence and attempt to guess the missing word, and they may decide that this word is “find” – “I think that what I want to find is a space where people can stop and think”.  This would be a perfectly acceptable sentence, and could well ring true with the reader’s experience of Ann’s work. However, another reader, perhaps one who had been confused or annoyed by her work might believe that the missing word should be “avoid” – “What I want to avoid is a space where people can stop and think.” Two very different responses to a space, to “something missing”, neither of which are in actual fact the “correct” missing word, but both can bring meaning to the sentence, and both of which provide opportunity for an encounter between the two readers as they argue for one reading or the other – the space caused by the missing word stimulates and gives sense to a meeting of persons which might otherwise never have happened.

This understanding of space I connect to another, more specifically Lacanian idea, because in Ann’s work the image of something circling around a space also occurs regularly – as I noted above the sound of a glass marble rolling around, installations where loudspeakers move sounds and energies around an otherwise empty space, an empty bucket with a built-in microphone in which to collect sounds – circles and circular motions of various sorts appear in much of her work. For Lacan “loss” is one of the foundational experiences in the formation of our subjectivity. It is loss, of the maternal body, that contributes to our eventual constituting of ourselves as individual subjects. Originally, as new-born babies, we are totally dependent upon our mothers (or their equivalents) for survival, we cannot feed ourselves and cannot control our movements. At this stage, so Lacan (and others) believes, we are not aware that we are different from our mothers’ bodies. When we do differentiate ourselves as individual subjects we experience a traumatic loss. This loss resonates and echoes throughout our subsequent experience, and lies at the heart of the constitution of desire. Desire is not the same thing as need – a need (for example hunger) can be fulfilled (in the case of hunger, by food – you are hungry, you eat, you are no longer hungry). Desire, however, is structured around the sense of loss, of an absence, a lack of something, founded in Lacan’s specific understanding of the situation upon the original traumatic loss of maternal plenitude. Because we can never again regain this innocent plenitude desire is, by definition, that longing for something that can never be fulfilled. Unlike a somatic need, desire is not driven by the urge to satisfy, but by the urge to have more desire. The aim of desire, according to Lacan, is to continue to desire, to desire desiring! He illustrates this graphically with the image that desire is something which goes out from us, towards one of the several absent objects of desire which it can never reach. It circles around the empty space from which the object of desire is missing, circling ever closer but never ever able to hit that object, eventually to return to its source unfulfilled and seeking to desire again and again.

I am, for the sake of brevity, drastically oversimplifying what is in fact an extremely complex and difficult theoretical discourse, but this image of circulating desire always springs into my mind whenever I think of Ann’s sound works. I could be easily accused of reading “too much” into the work, but that is exactly the point. The sound of a single marble rolling around an empty space ( which forms an element in her second Träffas project of 2002) strongly reminds me of Lacan’s conceptualisation of our desire; the marble seems to be circling something, but we cannot ever see or feel what it is that it is moving around, and this invisibility, this intangibility is, for me, a source of something that approaches what desire feels like. I want to know what is in the centre around which the marble is rolling, but I cannot know it. It feels as though something is there, but I cannot ever know what it is. The mystery and longing to know which the piece makes me experience can really recreate, at an abstracted level, that feeling of desire. In her more recent Tyst ljudskulptur silences assume the role of spaces, of places where something (in this case sound) is missing, and we, as participants in her work, are invited to search for them – but more on that later.

This theme of an absent centre, a space to be filled, recurs throughout Ann’s work. The very first works of hers which I saw were the empty circles and crosses made from plaster, which were laid out on a beach in Norfolk, and which were subsequently included in her first British exhibition in the tiny Contact Gallery on Norwich’s St. Benedict’s Street in 1990. The circles speak for themselves as obvious “holes”, and yet the crosses also delineate their own sort of absence, an intersection of space where actually, there is nothing. Any meaning that there is in these objects is whatever meaning the viewer brings to them, and as I have explained above this idea lies behind all of her meeting project. One of the key ways that Ann mediates her meetings is through game playing. The crosses and circles of her first UK exhibition also work as sculptural Noughts and Crosses, and in fact they were used in this way in a live action that took place on a Norfolk beach with Ann and the musician Simon Vincent in 1990. Even in a gallery space, though, they immediately evoke game playing, and perhaps also distant memories of playing such a game as a small child.

Memory is, of course, the third strand in her work – and perhaps it is an inevitable theme in the work of any artist who, like Ann, uses recording technologies. Sticking with the psychoanalytical paradigms introduced earlier, we might note that Sigmund Freud, in the early twentieth century, saw phonographic recording as an extension of memory, and throughout the past century cinema, photography and sound recordings have come to occupy something like a concretisation of memory, a vast and polymorphous prosthesis of memory and recollection. If Ann uses games to bring people together to occupy otherwise empty spaces, these empty spaces still also stand for intangible absence, for loss. Memory, as something which reminds us of what is past also implicates loss and absence – and behind all of this, behind memory, lack – and even behind the motivations that drive us to play games together – there lies desire; always driving us together, but never able to be completely fulfilled; always, at the end of the day, revealing something that is missing, that unattainable satisfaction which would stop us from desiring ever again; a sense of absence that drives us to sustain desire. In Ann’s work this brings us together again and again, to keep looking, to keep listening, puzzled by what we should do, watching our desire circulate around an absence.

One of the earliest manifestations of the theme of games and memory was with the project News Memory during 1993-4. The motivation for this project was very simple, a way to meet new people who might be interesting to get to know. Ann drew up a list of people who she would be interested to meet and invited them to send some “news”. The idea of a game hadn’t formed at the earliest stages of this process, and so it was the idea of contact that was her primary concern. Bringing people together led to the idea of staging a game, but Ann refused to issue rules or even any sort of instructions, preferring to let individuals meet, with their “news” and other stimuli which Ann provided, and allow some sort of a game to emerge. The work, then, was a space and the idea of bringing people together to play, a space where “something” could happen, a game with no rules, other than those the players make as they interact with the items and with themselves. Ann says of this work that it actually turned out to be something of a dead-end, although it achieved its own goals at the time. The themes of memory, meeting and an empty space re-emerge, though, in a transformed way in the series of works, installations and exhibitions which Ann began to develop in 2001 in Gävle, the town where she first studied art some twenty years earlier. As well as placing posters around the town inviting anyone she may have met or known from that time to get in contact she created a video work exploring a specific memory from that time, which over the years had acquired various personal associations. This was the bicycle she bought as a student, its place in her personal memory connected with other significant bicycles in her life since; she met her current partner Sten-Olof Hellström for the first time on a cycling holiday in 1983 with her son Stafan, (who would himself become a semi-professional cyclist in Belgium some years later).

The piece is called A and B, and consists of two video recordings of a cycle journey down a single street in Gävle, one camera facing forward and one backwards. The video cuts periodically from one view to the other, one direction rendered in red the other in green. The effect is beautiful and very slightly disorienting, but what most affected me when watching it was the sense of being very much in the “here-and-now”, right in the instant between the past (the rear view of where the cyclist had been) and the future (where the cyclist is going). Between the past and the future where else can we be but in “the now”. And yet there recurs, for me at least, the sense of an empty space at the centre of things, or at least an invisible and intangible space, which resonates a feeling in me that is very close to what desire can feel like! I cannot stop thinking about how that place where the present is most acute, where we should find ourselves in “the here-and-now”, sandwiched between the past and future, is the one place we cannot see in the video, namely the place where the cyclist is – they are sitting between the two cameras, and so they are invisible to us. Watching the piece I feel a very strong sense of wanting to identify with that invisible place – perhaps I could even say that I experience something like desire, circulating around this invisible, untouchable place that I can never be in, and yet which  (as I see it) the work encourages me to feel.

Real memory (the bicycle she had as a student, and the other associations of bicycles), a sort of represented memory (the rear view from the bicycle riding on the street in Gävle suggest the past) and prosthetic memory (the video recording itself) all meet in this work, and the viewer can meet all of these memories too, and can bring their memories into their personal reading. A more concrete, and less psychoanalytically contentious meeting, though, took place at the same time with those people who had responded to Ann’s advertisment asking people who had met or known her twenty years earlier to come and meet her again. For the meeting they were told that they should bring some sounds with them, sounds that had meanings for them. These sounds were included in one of Ann’s first sound works, what she likes to call “walk-in compositions” which featured in the same exhibition in Gävle Konstcentrum in 2001. In the second Träffas (Meeting) project Ann used computers to create another “walk-in composition” to bring together the idea of meeting and memory, as in News Memory, but in this case using sound alone. A bucket containing a microphone was part of the installation, and visitors were invited to put sounds into the bucket, which then became incorporated into a constantly developing sound-work. Visitors “meet” in both the “real” world of the gallery space, but also through the sounds they make. These sounds, and by implication the meeting of the people themselves, then “live on” in the “memory” of the computer programme, constantly interacting and developing as the exhibition continues.

The themes of sounds, memories, and space develop further from this series of works into the third manifestation of the “meeting” idea, the piece D-dist, installed as part of the project Träffas 1983-2003 in 2003 in Nacka. Four years after they had first met cycling in 1983 Ann and Sten-Olof began seeing one another regularly, and talked about making an art-project together. However, it would take them until 2003 before they actually realised a project together.

D-dist is a sound-work which is based on synthesised noise, and which essentially consists of a computer programme that generates and moves noise around an installation of loudspeakers in an empty room. It works according to a genetic algorithm which “learns” and “grows” as the piece continues. As I see it, this work retains the elements found in the other pieces mentioned so far, but in a more attenuated and abstracted form. Technically speaking “white noise” consists of all possible frequencies simultaneously, and is thus the sonic equivalent of a completely filled space, but in fact such an information overload conspires to create the effect of a kind of paradoxical emptiness – there is so much sound that what we experience is a kind of “blank” – reflected in the fact that we use the term “white noise” – with the etymological links between the French word blanc and the English “blank” – to describe this sonic plenitude. Then there is the large empty space surrounded by loudspeakers, defined as an empty space by the sheets of noise that constantly move around it. And there is still the abstracted sense of a meeting going on – the fact that the algorithm driving the work communicates with itself, learns from what has happened, and interacts without the need for any human intervention perhaps represents a sort of “degree zero” of meeting – a meeting without people, perhaps; the “idea” of a meeting.

Recent Works Involving Silence and Interactive Sound
Much of Ann’s recent work has explored sound, and it is possible to construct a narrative for the development of her work over the years that leads us to realise that sound, for a variety of reasons, is an ideal medium through which the themes I have identified can be articulated. Music itself is an inherently social art, some would say that it is the most social art we have. But music – and by implication all forms of sound – is also implicated in our cultural concepts of space; the way that we think of sound as filling a space, the way that sounds can determine the different boundaries of a space (just think of the different spaces that are delimited by the concert hall, the open-air rock festival, or the headphones of a personal stereo), or the poetic idea that architectural space is like “frozen music”. But sound is also always in the here-andnow – the philosopher Immanuel Kant noted how sound is constantly disappearing even as it occurs; in the exact same moment that I utter a sound, that sound has come into being and has instantly ceased to be. Sound, in this sense, inhabits exactly that conceptual space I spoke about in relation to Ann’s video-work A and B, entirely in the here-and-now and yet always beyond our grasp. It seems reasonable, then, to see her work in sound as an extension of her experiments with meetings and with spaces of one sort or another, which she has been engaged with for the past 15 years. The Silent Sound Sculpture project uses multiple loudspeakers and computers to project silences into a space. The room is almost empty, apart from a scaffolding frame with loudspeakers attached, and the pervasive sound of simple, quiet electronic tones. The computer programme generates sound waves that are designed to physically cancel out the electronic tones, and thus to silence them. However, because of the complexity of room acoustics, this does not work perfectly, and so only in certain parts of the room does this work to its maximum effect. The result is the emergence of small silent spaces which visitors can look for (maybe we should really say listen for). Seeing a video of people encountering the Silent Sound Sculpture for the first time I was most struck by the very specific kinds of social interaction that looking for these silences brought about. Sometimes watching the visitors moving around the space, moving their heads up and down, and from side to side, stretching and bending in search of the silences, I had the feeling that I was watching some strange kind of dancing, dancers at a disco of silent music, perhaps. Once again spaces – in this case spaces defined by silence, by an absence of something – not only resemble the operations of desire, but serve, as in so much of Ann’s work, to bring people together to meet with one another and to search for something. In the Silent Sound Sculpture project social interaction and the notion of absence come together once again, and I can see in the interaction some strange and distorted echo of a nightclub and dancing, surely one of the key sites of desire in our culture!  Elsewhere the sounds in a room seem to interact with us – we are aware that there is some form of interaction but it is not always completely clear exactly what the nature of that interaction is. Like the News Memory project of 1993-94 Ann has set up a space for us to meet, and she has put in place a game for us to play, but it is we who must decide what the rules are; we must play the game, and to do this we need to make connections with our own memories and our own experiences. We also need to observe, interpret and interact with the others who meet with us here, and perhaps most importantly we must enjoy the act of searching for something, even if it is something we can never see or touch, because to search for something intangible is very like a particular pleasure, the pleasure we take in our unfulfillable desire.

Examples of several of the works mentioned in this essay can be seen at