Stimulus Response Mechanism: Lynne Marsh’s The Philharmonie Project (Nielsen: Symphony No. 5)

Photo: Trevor Good

Moving beyond the iconic architecture of Berlin’s Philharmonie building, Lynne Marsh makes an artwork about what happens behind the scenes. In the process she reveals something not previously thought worthy of our attention—a space and the people it animates when they work there. Marsh’s work about technicians filming the live video broadcast of the Berlin Philharmonie’s performance of Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5, could even be said to create the space she reveals in the process; arguably, it didn’t exist before she filmed it. Disclosing the mechanisms at work behind the spectacle, Marsh creates by implication a portrait of the broader system within which we are all enmeshed.

To understand this proposition, first consider what Marsh doesn’t show us. Viewers of The Philharmonie Project (2011) never see an orchestra performing. Instead, we are presented with a tightly focused performance of four technicians in a recording booth. Each one has a specific role, calling out numbers corresponding to the bars of music and camera angles that film the musicians as they play. A companion piece shows these camera shots in a dry run—the camera choreography in rehearsal before the concert begins. We see empty chairs and sheet music stands on a stage devoid of performers. Shown in the gallery, Marsh positions the two videos at either end—or side, recto/verso—of an angled platform that bisects the room on the diagonal. Set on a scaffold, the structure is the design of the architect team June 14 (Johanna Meyer-Grohbrügge and Sam Chermayeff). Audiences sitting on the top of the platform gaze down onto Marsh’s video of the Philharmonie team working together as they film the 45 minute-long performance; on its underside, viewers see the artist’s video of the performance in dry run. The soundtrack unifies these elements, broadcasting Nielsen’s Symphony as it is punctuated by voices of the film technicians. The installation brings together the videos of two distinct moments in time that are musically synchronic. Together they describe an event that is never made visible to us. It is only discernable in terms of its absence; or rather, in terms of the space Marsh defines with her work.

Translating the musical score, the technicians’ work is a performance in itself. Like the camera shots they coordinate, they move together and overlap, performing almost as a singular entity—like the entity of the orchestra itself. The scene conveys all the drama of the music that accompanies it. This is also true of the companion film, which substitutes the intended subject—i.e. the orchestra playing—for the shot; as the framing choreographs incidental images of the empty stage, the camera becomes an extension of the music it articulates. The point of a symphonic work is to envelop the listener in within a totalizing system of harmonic logic and dissonance, and Marsh too envelops her audience within that system, while at the same time ensuring that its apparatus is, figuratively, laid bare. In Philharmonie, virtual space becomes intelligible via the very devices that disseminate its contents. This space exists not in what the camera films or its extension as broadcast. It exists rather in the elements the artist brings together, the filmed spaces, performers and installation. Together these elements create a kind of extra visible dimension, one that points to the infrastructure of which it is an expression.

In his text Notes on Gesture (2000)[1] Giorgio Agamben proposes “gesture rather than image is the cinematic element.” In Agamben’s terms, images are static whereas “the gesture always refers beyond itself towards a whole of which it is a part.” Marsh’s work provides us with a precise expression of this idea. Shot from just below eye level, her camera stays focused on the upper bodies and heads of the camera technicians working within the cramped space of the recording booth. Beyond the context she creates in the gallery, the artist offers no explanation about what they are doing. In the absence of knowing, we interpret their gestures. The musical score animates the performers, the camera frame emphasizing the intense focus of their concentration.

Agamben writes: “an idea is a constellation in which phenomena arrange themselves in a gesture.” The shifting plane of the cinematic image proposes an end point as its organizing principle; narrative films will always carry viewers to the end of the story they tell. By their nature, artworks engage viewers in a process that leads to a different kind of conclusion; the narrative resolution of any one work is an understanding of the mechanism by which you grasp its meaning.  Similarly, as a discursive medium, film has an innate potential to dramatize this process of meaning unfurling, a gradual coming into understanding. The process is, however, not necessarily linear. Rather, phenomena gather into meaningful configurations—in Agamben’s words, into constellations. The significance of this metaphor resides in the space coordinates it conjures up. Further, Agamben resolves his concept in the notion of a “gesture”; filmic space is embodied space. As with living beings, in every instance of its existence, a film intimates the moment of its demise. Marsh’s artwork engages with this concept of gesture by finding deep within the Philharmonie building a space and performers that we can understand as the end points of a broader constellation. Meaning inheres in the apparatus of spectacle implied. By framing a symphony performance at several levels of remove from the actual live performance, Marsh articulates a space that exists as a result of it.

In Philharmonie, the space Marsh illuminates takes on a high degree of specificity. The tight focus of her camera frame offers a glimpse into a vista that, prior to Philharmonie,was left largely unconsidered. By implication, the artist depicts the vast machinery of job segmentation, the performance of which, at each point in the system, the entire entity depends. Like every totalizing vision, this dystopia lacks air and sunshine; Marsh presents a vision of contemporary existence that, in place of the pleasures of everyday life, offers instead the (not inconsiderable) blandishments of job professionalism. If the universe we see, as expressed by Philharmonie, is airless and tense, that is because the artist pictures with great clarity our modern condition of mediation. In the end, Marsh’s vision is less dystopic than factual. She finds a way to express a truth about the world we all live in: Philharmonie is a lens through which we can view our own circumstances. It’s a portrait of the embodied world as it is simultaneously disembodied by the constellation within which it functions.

[1] Giorgio Agamben, Notes on Gesture, Means Without End: Notes on Politics (Theory Out Of Bounds), (Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press) 2000.


Text originally publised by http://www.programonline.de/philharmonie.html in 2011.