Litanies in Zero Kelvin

Text by Kurt Nyberg from Frictions 2008 Catalogue

[Outside the Chapel of the Old Churchyard]
Installing a musical performance in an atypical surrounding is a way of challenging the concept of Performance Art. The conceptual, sensual and visual elements of the experience must be taken in account. The obscure inside of the White Chapel illuminated in the night creates out of the black box a sense of a shining iconostasis. Through this archway, then, the voices of different traditions reach us, as if the artist were a medium. The physical experience of standing in the misty, chilly, darkness of the cemetery contributes to the uncanny feeling of standing in a twilight zone, very far from the white cube of a traditional modernist art museum. And eventually this adds dimensions to the bracketed question in the work title: How to Clear Your Name?
      This work is extremely site-specific, it is conceptually charged, has a strong visual impact, it has a disquieting sense of being inappropriate, and the artistic elements from different fields in the work are melted together into a powerful performance. Yet, the work might be regarded as eccentric, more a concert than a performance work of art. And this is where friction enters into the discussion and makes it creative.

Photo by Mervi Junkkonen

What, then, makes a concert a work of Performance Art? Or not? Music in fact is a performing art; the concert is performed by someone, has its duration in time and place, is irreversible and to some extent unrepeatable, might be provocative, addresses an audience etc.. But what could make us apprehend the piece as a work of Performance Art? The Festival as an institutional setting is helpful but problematic, because of a tendency to frame the concept of Performance Art from a Visual Arts point of view. As in Art, the break with conventions has been a regular trait in musical tradition for a while. But as performance itself has been at the core of the historical musical concept, the challenges have been differently staged. Still, John Cage’s 4.33, where the pianist opens the lid of the piano only to close it after 4.33 minutes of silence, looks to me like an important work in Performance Art History. The work is of course regarded as a piece of music and silence has, since then, even been subjected to copyright court cases. But the work, considered in a Performance Art perspective, is site specific, provocative, mentally distressing, conceptual, visual, sensual, open towards a specific soundscape etc... And my point is, that Litanies in Zero Kelvin has exactly the same properties, except for the lack of silence.
     To understand the work we need to perform a phenomenological reduction. Observe the musical elements of the work, then put them in suspension, bracket them in, or cross them out. Consider the rest, and then reconsider the musical elements as music in suspension, quotations, fragments etc. Only this way we can set aside the strong impact of tradition. Basically, this procedure is useful whenever we need to distinguish a work of Performance Art from other traditional art forms included in the work.

Kurt Nyberg, 2008