For You, Only You: The Return of the Troubadour

For You, Only You: The Return of the Troubadour

Artistic practices are ‘ways of doing and making’ that intervene in the general distribution of ways of doing and making as well as in the relationships they maintain to modes of being and forms of visibility.

Jacques Rancière1

In his essay ‘The Author as Producer’, Walter Benjamin dismisses the debate that opposes aesthetic ‘quality’ and political ‘tendency’ as irrelevant to the more fundamental issue of the position of writer and work in the social relations of production. Art gains its political relevance and resonance through a functional change in the relations between artist and audience, in which the artist reflects on the social conditions of production, necessarily calling into question the conventions of his or her own practice. ‘What matters, therefore, is the exemplary character of production, which is able first to induce other producers to produce, and second to put an improved apparatus at their disposal. And this apparatus is better the more consumers it is able to turn into producers – that is, readers or spectators into collaborators.’2 What this commentary signals is a crucial shift away from modernism’s formalist concept of the ‘artistic genius’ and ‘unique’ art object separated from the realities of everyday life. In attending to positions, Benjamin allows us to re-focus from what art is to what art does, where listeners or spectators are not passive consumers of a prescriptive aesthetic, or ‘message’, but are empowered by an engaged experience of art.

Although written in the context of fascism during the early nineteen thirties, Benjamin’s commentary strikes a chord of recognition for artists in our own times. Modernism’s ‘artistic genius’ stems from the Cartesian transcendental, solipsistic ego (master and possessor of meaning), against which more recent philosophical debate has pointed out that the self does not emerge sui generis into the world, but is fashioned and gains its meaning through its relations with others. Being is in essence ‘being-with’. And being-with, for the human infant, is first experienced through touch and hearing: the rhythmic and arrhythmic sounds of the maternal body and, later, the voice of the other without which the human does not learn to speak. The ‘other’ is always internal to the self. Nonetheless, whilst globalisation has forced awareness of our planetary interdependence, it has also produced new antagonisms and instabilities between self and other, tradition and modernisation, local aspirations and the demands of globalised capitalism. In an alarming echo of the old colonial scenario, we see emerging, in the West as elsewhere, new forms of political management not only of human relations, but also of human life itself; and the imposition of a militaristic-disciplinary model of space on society, policed by technologies of surveillance and censorship, which suffocates lived social space and disenfranchises the body as a free agent in networks of social exchange. How to recapture sociality – solidarity, hospitality, conviviality, care – against an encroaching landscape of fear and suspicion in which the embattled subject either withdraws, or maps its relations with others through a defensive and paranoid gaze? The sense of political disempowerment wrought by these alienating tendencies raises the issue of how to reclaim subjective and collective agency against those languages of power that frame our everyday lives and coerce our thoughts and actions into compliance with mediated interpretations of reality, and whose effect is to create doubt in the truth of our own experiences.

Power exercises and sustains itself through representations relayed through its communications media and information networks, in which we are all implicated as consumers. According to Michel de Certeau, however, we do not need to regard this situation as wholly disempowering, but rather as the ground from which other relations between self and world can be forged. Certeau is concerned not with representational structures as such, but with the opportunistic uses to which they are put by consumers in everyday life.3 Arguing that consumerism may not be as passive as is commonly thought, he suggests that consumers select mediated codes and reuse them for their own purposes, often subverting those intended by producers – the creative reinvention of an already given language to fit the dimensions and meanings of the individual’s life world. This is re-empowerment through subterfuge, a tactic familiar from the narratives of dispossessed peoples under colonial rule. That is, consumption is also a form of production. There is an analogy here with Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the ‘minoritization’ of a major language.4 Among other things, this transformation of use is what a cultural minority does with a major language; and it is characterised by a connection of the individual to political immediacy and the formation of new collective assemblages where expression or enunciation takes precedent over prior meaning; what the authors call the language of a ‘community yet-to-come’, one whose renewal of language has not yet coalesced into political discourse.5

It is against this background of political disempowerment mediated through consumer culture that we have seen emerging new critical artistic practices that seek beyond art’s institutional boundaries for responsible agency in the wider, socio-political sphere. Described as ‘relational aesthetics’,6 or ‘dialogical aesthetics’,7 among their primary characteristics is recognition of the artist not as an autonomous individual, but as both a product of cultural formations and a ‘producer’ in a creative process that acknowledges participants and audience as – in Benjamin’s terms – ‘collaborators’. As a consequence, artists have evolved new strategies of engagement with the languages of power, and with sites of sociality and audiences from the spaces of everyday life. That is, on the one hand, strategies that appropriate and reuse existing technologies and representations of consumer culture – the opportunism of the bricoleur, which Bourriaud calls ‘post-production’ modelled on the sampling procedures of the DJ or programmer;8 and on the other, that engage with what Certeau calls a ‘subterranean economy’ – parallel social networks and forms of local exchange (non-remunerative services, barter, gossip and other vernacular forms of dissemination, or their Internet equivalents) deemed worthless or negligible by technocracy because they are not (yet) readily reducible to its law. Associated with this economy, Certeau identifies certain social agents – ‘shifters’ – who move around different realities and representations and intervene as catalysts of change.9

It is within this context that we may situate the experimental practice of Sonia Boyce. In speaking of her strategies of the late 1990s, Marcus Verhagen appositely identified them as employing what may also be called a ‘parasitic economy’: ‘Her critical interventions cannot be appropriated by mainstream culture because they are in some sense a part of it, because they speak ostensibly the same language. Her pieces are like parasites which are mistaken for ordinary cells by the immune system of the social body: they can get on with their critical, humorous, quietly emancipating work undisturbed.’10 Subsequently, Boyce’s use of a parasitic economy becomes increasingly ‘embodied’, using sound and touch. Whilst the artist’s work has always been concerned with a critical interrogation of the relations between self and other, collective agency and the representations of hegemonic power, over the past ten years she has extended these concerns from image-based artworks to the structural, performative process of making-receiving itself through improvisational, collaborative works designed to explore the real-time ‘dynamics of human exchange, interpretation and artistic authorship’.11 Drawing on the ‘subterranean economy’ of various collective sites of exchange, or social encounters – meals, conversations, singing – the artist has initiated ‘situations’ in which others’ diverse creative skills are found and brought together in a collective, spatial assemblage without any specified directorial outcome. The event is recorded and remixed by the artist to produce a second, video-based event for transmission to further audiences. As Boyce states, whilst she sets the parameters of the situation, she subsequently withdraws to free the participants to negotiate the relationship and develop their own dynamic; that is, the ‘authorial voice’ is redistributed across several cultural actors. Whilst this procedure does not eliminate power relations – the artist, after all, has control over the initial concept and final, presentational form of the work – it provides a model for reflecting critically on the multiple, shifting positions of artist and viewer: witness, collaborator, sender, receiver, maker, finder, producer, consumer, analyst or catalyst.

For You, Only You is the most recent in a series of Boyce’s works involving music, singing and the qualities of acoustic space, and perhaps the most ambitious in its incorporation of a wide spectrum of artistic and technical expertise. For the initial event, which was to take place in Magdalen College Chapel, Oxford, Boyce brought together two seemingly unrelated performers: the visual artist and composer Mikhail Karikis, renowned for his ‘modernist’ voice performances, and the Alamire consort, eight singers under the direction of David Skinner, and specialists in Late Mediaeval and Renaissance polyphony. On discussion, Karikis and Skinner decided to base their collaboration on a motet, Tu solus qui facis mirabilia, by the Franco-Flemish Renaissance composer Josquin Desprez, which Karikis would rescore with compositional interventions for both his solo voice and those of Alamire. For the performance, Karikis would face the choirmaster, but stand on a podium behind the choir – although visually he completed their semicircle, they could hear but not see him.12 The performance, including the audience – for Boyce, an essential component in visually animating the space – was to be recorded by the artist and filmmaker David Bickerstaff.

Karikis’s own voice performances typically employ a wide range of non-linguistic vocalisations: utterances produced by engaging the body’s resonant cavities and whose referent is the body itself, its drives and emotional responses to the world. Karikis draws on a diversity of vocal sources including, from the art field, a modernist tradition of voice and sound sculpture that can be traced to the Dadaists, of which Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate (Sonata in Primordial Sounds), 1922-32, is amongst the most familiar.

For You, Only You is introduced by Karikis’ voice: an intake of breath, coughs, stuttering and glottal stops as if calling for Alamire’s attention. The choir responds to this dissonant ‘stranger’ in polyphonic unison with the first sonorous line of Tu solus. A contrapuntal dialogue is developed between Karikis’s motor and vocal gestures – wordless apart from a few whispers of ‘sing-to-me’ – and Alamire’s measured Latin articulations. In the final ‘movement’, Alamire’s voices themselves break into phonemic fragments in complex rhythmic sequences, hinting at Balkan and Arabic dance or the ‘scat’ technique of women jazz singers, before the integrity of Tu solus reasserts itself in harmony with Karikis’s voice.

Karikis’ interventions build on an antiphonic structure already inherent in parts of Desprez’ score. Nowadays antiphony, or ‘call and response’, is more readily associated with the formal structure of black music where, as Paul Gilroy asserts, it carries the potential of non-dominating social relationships: ‘Lines between self and other are blurred and special forms of pleasure are created as a result of the meetings and conversations that are established between one fractured, incomplete, and unfinished racial self and others.’13 As ‘meeting and conversation’ between one (linguistically) incomplete self and others, antiphony in For You, Only You speaks both to these hospitable forms of sociality and to the pathos of the diasporic subject, needing to negotiate a sense of belonging between displacement from the place of departure and cultural estrangement from the place of arrival, in which he or she must bear the mark of difference.

Furthermore, the primary rhetorical trope in For You, Only You is chiasmus – repetition and revision – effected through the crossing of difference: two diverse positions, the one infans (without speech), the other embedded in a highly encoded cultural tradition, are set on pathways whose intersection gives rise to various reversals or reflections. Chiasmus is a trope familiar to African and African diasporic hermeneutics and narrative convention and is central to the practice of ‘signifying’, which doesn’t signify some thing, as in conventional grammatical meaning, but a manner of doing. As Gates puts it: ‘The Afro-American rhetorical strategy of signifying is a rhetorical act that is not engaged in the game of information giving. Signifying turns on the play and chain of signifiers, and not on some supposedly transcendent signified.’14 In For You, Only You, we may say that as Alamire ‘signifies on’ Desprez through their contemporary sounding of a past choral form unknowable in its performed original, so Karikis, much like Caliban, Shakespeare’s estranged ‘savage’ in The Tempest,15 ‘signifies on’ the high cultural form of Desprez-Alamire refiguring it in the present, whilst Boyce’s final cut in turn ‘signifies on’ Karikis-Alamire-Desprez and the spatial site of the encounter, in a play of differences that at each turn effects a further emotional-structural shift and ‘becoming-other’ of the previous state. The aim of this open-ended process of transformation is not to establish some prior ‘transcendental signified’, but to reflect upon the possibility of meaning itself in the confrontation of differences. Boyce’s ‘position’ in this complex relay is obtuse and indirect. And yet it is possible to suggest that it figures the process of signifying itself; it is the vibrating pivot of chiasmus, the itinerant ‘third’ element, simultaneously inside and outside a system it has itself induced, and whose intervention precipitates a new trajectory, a function that Michel Serres variously describes as the ‘third man’, ‘parasite’, ‘Hermes’, or ‘troubadour’.

In contemplating what activates a successful communication, Serres concludes that it requires two contradictory conditions: the presence of noise (interference), since the meaning of a message emerges against a background of noise; and total exclusion of what it needs to include, namely, background noise. To hold a dialogue is therefore to presuppose a ‘third man’ and to seek to exclude him. The ‘third man’ is an integral part of the system: by his inclusion in the circuit, he blurs the message and renders it unintelligible; by his exclusion he renders it intelligible and assures its transmission.16 Amongst his examples, Serres’ cites the relation between host and parasite (exemplified by the ‘dandy’, ‘troubadour’, and, above all, the ‘translator’), who exchanges a meal for conversation, a song, a primary text for another text – ‘substance for hot air’ – but whose eccentric presence irrevocably transfigures the situation. This parasitic economy is essentially intersubjective, but is not one of equal exchange, insofar as exchange implies stability whereas the thrust here is towards change. Serres, drawing on communications theory but mindful of the processes of globalisation, notes that attention has to be paid not simply to what he calls ‘stations’ – points of emission and reception – but also to the pathways that link (or bypass) them. And this is crucial to understanding Boyce’s ‘para-sitic’ position as an artist: one can imagine two stations; but in order for them to communicate they must have a ‘channel’, and this channel – the ‘parasite’ – is the essence of the relation: without the ‘parasite’ there would be no relation, no transformation. That is, the creation and communication of a new perception can only take place through the interference of vectors of change: Certeau’s ‘shifters’.

For You, Only You is fraught with ambivalent, shifting positions. The audience, for instance, is mute; and yet, like the parasite, its presence animates the event (who else, in fact, do the singers sing to but to listeners?) Skinner is also a listener, whilst as choirmaster he animates the choir, controls the performed score and keeps time with the law of harmony. But in Karikis’s rescoring, a third voice breaks the sonorous utopia of Desprez’ score. This voice is dis-articulated; it threatens chaos to the harmonic order of the group. It demands a response. We hold our breath: What is this response to be, hostility or hospitality? And, indeed, what is to be communicated between them? Karikis’ function is a doubling of the parasitic chiasmus set up by Boyce. He initially presents Alamire (and the audience) with ‘noise’, an excitation, the interruption of the stranger: he is a lone ‘troubadour’, not in the historical sense, but like Boyce, an itinerant trouvère, or ‘finder’ of a new space of creative action.17

The initial shock of Karikis’ voice is palpable and uncanny and not without reason, for it touches an unconscious chord of the fragility of being human, which pivots fundamentally on the potential for communication. The linguist Emile Benveniste noted two strands in human language: the ‘semiotic’ (the linguistic sign, a property of language) and the ‘semantic’ (discourse, the producer of messages), between which, however, there is no smooth passage. Drawing on Benveniste, Giorgio Agamben makes a further distinction between voice, or infans, the power to vocalise that humans share with animals, and speech, or discourse.18 Humans are born with an animal voice but without speech which they must acquire ‘from the outside’, through relations with others, whereupon they become subjects of language; but speech (in effect, representation, or displacement from a point of origin) also displaces the capacity to experience. Infans, however, is not to be understood as some chronological, pre-linguistic stage, but as the ever-present interval, or experiential ground to and from which speech emerges.19

What confronts us here is a split between the human potential for and its realisation of communicable speech: between form and sense. So what, Agamben asks, is the mediating element that allows these two parallel systems, semiotic and semantic, to resonate in the manner of two oscillators to form a single system? He suggests it is phonemes, signs that are both ‘signifying and non-signifying’, belonging strictly neither to the semiotic nor the semantic, but occupying the site of potentiality that is infans. In For You, Only You both registers are set to work. In Desprez’ Tu Solus score each phoneme is measured and assigned a note, or cluster of notes, to construct comprehendable sentences, whilst Karikis’s semiotic utterances do not; but their dialogue, carried through the emotive resonance of the music, discloses the passage through which communication emerges as possibility. Karikis’ vocal gestures, standing at the threshold between voice and speech, appear to appeal to Alamire for this estranged self to enter their space of ‘history’, of the discourse of the other, and as such, signifies on the entire thrust of Boyce’s project of giving voice to the experience of difference.

Hence, if the dialogue between Alamire’s musicalised speech and Karikis’ ‘animal’ voice is at first disturbing, it is perhaps because it touches our unconscious fear of falling into infans. But at the same time, its enchantment (a word originating in song, the ‘open mouth’) lies in its capacity to vanquish momentarily the speaking subject with its demand for coherent meaning and re-open the self to a space of experience. It precipitates what Catherine Clément called ‘syncope’ or enjambement – among other things, a suspension of breath, an ecstatic moment, the delayed beat in a syncopation, but also the affective, desubjectifying moment necessary to creative and transformative insight.20

The affectivity of any artistic practice depends on how it draws the viewer into its field of action and possible meanings. As Rancière says, artistic practices are ways of doing and making that intervene in the general distribution of ways of doing and making. To intervene, the work must provide the conditions of an event; but for it to be an event (in the archaic sense of an opening to the air – an insight) it cannot present what is already known: in Benjamin’s terms, it does not reproduce situations it discovers them. Whilst Boyce’s artistic practice draws para-sitically on existing representational systems, its tactic of ‘interference’ produces a deviation along a path fraught with risk and unpredictability. But in so doing, it disengages the respondent’s prior perceptions of reality, opening it to other relations and forms of being. Boyce’s own eccentric position in the system she invents is mediate and catalytic, relating to the relation itself not to the points of emission or reception. And it is not insignificant that much of her recent work has used voice. The mouth, as Serres comments, is the organ of the parasite that, through ‘noise’, both destroys one order and announces a new one. Vocalisation is the instrument of the troubadour by which he or she effects a turn in meaning. And like the troubadour’s, Boyce’s practice is itinerant, occupying the uncertain realm of the threshold between self/other relations, where what is at stake is an emancipation and transfiguration of the passage between voicelessness and voice, stranger and neighbour, hostility and hospitality, disempowerment and agency. For Serres, the troubadour is the creator who does not seek but finds: “The inventive breath alone gives life, because life invents.’21


Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans Gabriel Rockhill, London and New York: Continuum, 2004, p 13.

Walter Benjamin, ‘The Author as Producer’, in Reflections, trans Edmund Jephcott, New York: Schocken Books, 1986, pp 233-237.

Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans Steven Rendall, Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1984, pp29-42. Certeau notes, for instance, personal ‘styles’ of shopping; or perruque – stealing time for ones own business at the workplace.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans Dana Polan, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, pp16-19, 85.

One obvious example is black street vernacular speech and music, which eventually permeated and transformed British popular culture.

Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, trans Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods, Dijon: Les Presses du réel, 2002.

Grant Kester, ‘Conversation Pieces: The Role of Dialogue in Socially-engaged Art’, in Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, (eds) Simon Leung and Zoya Kocur, Oxford: Blackwell, 2004, pp 76-88.

Nicholas Bourriaud, Postproduction, trans Jeanine Herman, New York: Lukas and Sternberg, 2002.

Michel de Certeau, The Capture of Speech and Other Political Writings, trans Tom Conley, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, pp 93-97, 120.

Marcus Verhagen, ‘An Art of the Commonplace’, Annotations 2, London: inIVA, 1998, pp 10-15.

Sonia Boyce, ‘Unannounced’, 2004, in Performance: Strategy and Process, edited by Adelaide Bannerman, London: MU, 2007, pp 37-48.

Karikis’s original plan was to position Alamire inside the chapel with himself outside in the ante-chapel; this did not work for various technical reasons, but theoretically it would have positioned him more emphatically as the ‘stranger’ standing at the threshold.

Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, London: Verso, 1993, p 78.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Figures in Black, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987, p 239.

The state of infans recalls Caliban, who berates the cultured coloniser Prospero with the line: ‘You taught me your language and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.’

See Michel Serres, The Parasite, trans Lawrence R Schehr, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982, pp 79-96; and Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, (eds) Josué V Harari and David F Bell, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983, pp xxvi, 66-67.

The various proposed etymologies of ‘troubadour’ (trouvère in Northern France) include the verbs ‘to disturb’, ‘to compose’ especially in the form of tropes, and hence ‘to turn’ and ‘to find’.

Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History, trans Liz Heron, London and New York: Verso, 1993, pp 11-63.

Agamben illustrates the fragility of the relation between voice and speech in a further text that discusses the loss of speech induced by the experience of severe trauma. See Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and The Archive, trans Daniel Heller-Roazen, New York: Zone Books, 2002.

Catherine Clément, Syncope: The Philosophy of Rapture, trans Sally O’Driscoll and Deirdre M Mahoney, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994, pp 5, 236-250.

Michel Serres, The Troubadour of Knowledge, trans Sheila Faria Glaser with William Paulson, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997, p 93.

Essay for the catalogue For you, only you: A Project by Sonia Boyce, University of Oxford, Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, 2007.