The God of Genesis had no use for islands; land rose from sea all at once, assured with purpose. Like cognition, the divine continent is quantifiably useful, brokering communal exchange and the consolidation of cultural routines, yet still – unapologetically – islands persist. These archipelagos, connected to and detached from the whole, seem emblematic of the restful states that Rest & its Discontents at the Mile End Art Pavilion explores: spaces where meaning is forged through both intimate and existential reflection.
Drawing from the work of artists and academics involved with Hubbub (a two-year residency in The Hub at Wellcome Collection), the exhibition unpacks the idea of rest through an evolving and immersive collection of data and art, film, sound and discussion. It suggests that “our struggles with and against rest are deeply personal: some of us seek to find it, interpreting that desire as a need for peace and stillness, while others find themselves forced to take rest without desiring to”.
Islands are places that people adopt both objectively, in the form of holidays and billionaire purchases, and subjectively.
This construction of rest can be found replicated in the mythologised island. Typically conceived of as begetting calm and safety, these islands are places that people tend to adopt both objectively, in the form of holidays and billionaire purchases, and subjectively, as a technique to quell anger, stress or resentment. Peter Conrad observes in his book Islands: A Trip Through Time and Space that “for most people, islands are optional – places to dream about […] [in] times when you want to put a watery distance between yourself and a busy, vexatious reality. […] An island, whether actual or mental, offers artists the gift of detachment.” However for those that hail from islands, the same insularity can be stifling and claustrophobic; perpetually “confronted by edges”, detachment as lived reality shifts from rejuvenating to isolating. In such places, rest is not potential, but enforced.
The relationship between these two states of dissociation is exemplified by Patrick Coyle’s The Floating Thirty-Nine and its accompanying text in The Restless Compendium, a collection of essays and artist writings published in conjunction with the exhibition. The artwork consists of thirty-nine solar-powered objects that wander the stretch of water outside the pavilion, illuminating at night in reference to the categories of labour prohibited on the Sabbath. Coyle considers the condition of enforced rest through his own adherence to the Jewish Shabbat, framing his renunciation of labour as an act that resolutely distinguishes his work life from its alternate.
“7.39pm […] I only previously thought of the idea of resigning myself to Shabbat in a passive way; but now of course it dawns on me that every Friday afternoon I actively choose to resign from work, as if quitting the same job every week.”
As 7.40pm strikes, Coyle relinquishes all things considered “creative labour” by his faith, electricity included, for twenty-five hours. This participatory disconnection turns the artist into the hermit and the idyll simultaneously, providing both the space to rest and the mindset through which such rest can be attainable. He describes Shabbat as a period where, in his inability to write, and thus critique, “I am unable to wrestle with meaning […], in a sense I let meaning rest”. The reoccurrence of this state is integral to The Floating Thirty-Nine: as seemingly functionless buoys by day the artwork’s impact is minimal, but this regenerative period is essential to its form and poignancy as a whole. These regular periods of “rest” induce the creative “event”.
Discussing his writings on the transitory nature of the event, social theorist and philosopher Brian Massumi spoke with Adrian Heathfield for 2013 documentary No Such Thing as Rest:
“[…] the mundane is full of events. They’re just events that on the surface present themselves as being more repetition than variation, or that background themselves behind other events or objects that might stand out in relief. […] [They’re] a composition of movements, but there’s nothing underlying them, they hold each other in place. Everything is in the way they come together and co-compose. There’s no stuff. If you go down far enough, all you reach is the void, the restless energy of the quantum void. […] [A] nexus of events is in the world, not an interiority. There’s only one place to start, and that’s activity.”
Like thought, or the daydream, the event is constantly in a process of becoming.
The freeform cognition Coyle achieves when relinquishing labour for Shabbat is also a product of this unrelenting activity, as the reality of the event can be quickly diminished when bracketed as a juncture, sentence or state change. Like thought, or the daydream, the event is constantly in a process of becoming – resolutely solvent and resistant to critique. Nina Garthwaite’s Default Mode Radio Network utilises this state of activity as a blueprint for its diverse transmissions. Splicing rolling commentaries from gallery visitors with events of poetry, music and sound, the twenty-four hour live stream eschews reflexivity for arbitrary recombinations; a “continuous, ever wandering audio mind”.
The Default Mode Network (DMN), from which Garthwaite’s piece takes its name, is described by Charles Fernyhough and Ben Alderson-Day as “a set of brain regions that tend to show synchronised brain activity when the brain is not engaged in an explicit task. […] Increased activity of these regions during periods of so-called ‘rest’ has suggested the importance of introspective processes such as mind wandering, daydreaming and self-reflection.” Of particular importance here is the impact of the DMN on transient states of thought: as with Default Mode Radio Network, activity is a constant irrespective of attention; a nexus of events, continuous and discontinuous.
Brain mapping aside, another method of externalising the DMN is Descriptive Experience Sampling (DES): a subjective process in which each participant, equipped with a beeper and an ear piece, records their thoughts as faithfully as possible in the moments after their beeper sounds. A technique adopted by Ed Prosser in his film Experience Composite, DES is essentially an amplification of Default Mode Radio Network, with the participant tapping into their stream of consciousness and surveying it through language. Both Garthwaite’s and Prosser’s interpretive vignettes loop and repeat in a manner reminiscent of the DMN.
But also intrinsic to these pieces is the act of being heard. The ephemeral nature of internal dialogue is removed in its explication for another; transferred from one cerebral site to the next, the thoughts submit to a paralysis as their newfound clarity subverts their capacity for potential. The moment is bracketed, wrestling meaning from rest.
In an essay titled “Circuitries”, Nick Land suggests that “the high road to thinking no longer passes through a deepening of human cognition, but rather a becoming inhuman of cognition”. Concomitant with this theory, introspection, rationality and considered thought are displaced in Josh Berson and LUSTLab’s Cartographies of Rest: The Spectral Envelope of Activity and Mood, in which an interactive sound installation presents the fleeting “mood landscapes” of participants.
The commonality of the piece means that the archipelagos of concurrent rest remain transitory.
“Once a day, participants received a notification on their mobile phones asking them to comment on their state of being. […] When you touch a point in the plot, you will hear the corresponding sounds recording and see, on the small screens, a spectral analysis of that sound, the mood-path traces by the respondent, and a view of their location.”
Ranging from “falling asleep” to “feeling sped up”, and “despairing” to “euphoric”, the undulating mood paths retain an ambiguity that is heightened by the uniform visuals of the points in the plot. The graphic drips shivering down the screen become a multiplicity; an arrangement of planes that the viewer could easily have seen, been or indeed pressed before. The commonality of the piece, made possible by the technology Shabbat rejects, means that these archipelagos of concurrent rest remain transitory. Unique in neither expression nor execution, the data sets figure rest as Massumi does the event: a quiet moment of vitality that is then replicated in, and for, the viewer.
Like Coyle’s The Floating Thirty-Nine, the quotidian nature of Berson and LUSTLab’s piece is pivotal to its reiteration as creative event. Massumi discusses with Heathfield the nark of a dog that had interrupted them:
“The bark was a single event for our conversation, even though it was composed of any number of mini-events. It figured in our conversation as a continuity: one bark, rolling across its pulses. It presented itself with a dynamic unity of unfolding that cut it off on the one hand from the continuity of the ambient background sound, and on the other made it cut into the continuity of our conversation: cut and continuity.”
Cartographies of Rest makes manifest the duality of a resting state: distinctive from a moment of cognition yet pivotal to that same moment’s formation. This rest, figured as a social, transient potential, is precisely what Antonia Barnett-McIntosh’s composition Breath brings to the fore. As she writes in “R-E-S-T and Composition: Silence, Breath and aah… [Gap] Musical Rest”, “where sound exists so does silence: they permeate each other. Musical rest corresponds to sound: preceding, proceeding, creating space in the middle, as a counterpart, creating context.”
The attending flute performance presents the force of this in-between rest as both a testament to the artist’s ability and a sonic technique in its own right, “exposing the inhale as an equal partner to the exhale”. The extension of breath and breathlessness to their absolute limits, without ever playing a note, forms a work that is wholly focused on the mini-events of Massumi – the nexus of activity that precludes the event. However, what Barnett-McIntosh’s piece also gives rise to is the sense of rest as an “in-bracing”.
“It’s less that you’re in your head bracing for what’s coming than you’re in the potential of the event, body and soul braced into the event as surely as your seat belt braces you to your car. You are utterly absorbed in the event, at no distance from its happening. In that bracing, you can’t know exactly how it will turn out, but you certainly know how it’s ‘like’ to be in that event.”
The resting of tools is mapped as the acquisition of social labour, both empty and full of value.
Breath inspires this in-bracing through its semblance to the event of an instrument playing (particularly when considering music, like the island, as a harbinger of rest – a concept beautifully explored by Holly Pester and Clair Tolan in their sound-work Brush: A Commoning Lullaby for our friend’s “Rest”). The privileging of breath over note brings about an experience at once familiar and estranged from other musical performances: a rest, emblematic of silence, becomes “the restless energy field of the quantum void”; an act typically disguised or repressed (not unlike the wandering mind) is intensified.
At 2:13pm, Coyle discusses the etymology of “Shabbat”: “the Hebrew word ‘Shabbat’ comes from the shoresh (root word) ‘Shavat’, which can be translated as ‘a cessation of work’. This might be more accurately described in modern terms as ‘to strike’.” A concept that warrants particular specificity given the cultural and political climate of contemporary Britain, the strike as a mode of activity that also harmonises rest and restlessness is richly represented by Boycott Workfare’s anti-work wall installation.
Here, the resting of tools is mapped as the acquisition of social labour, both empty and full of value. Like the dog’s bark, the activity ripples through its pulses – a cut and continuity; the hermit and the idyll. Land argues that nature “is the space of unplanned synthesis, which is thus contrasted with the industrial sphere of telic predestination: that of […] human work.”
From works such as Breath and The Floating Thirty-Nine, to James Wilkes’ The Lathe Had Melted, comprised of four fictional texts, or SJ Fowler’s performance series Soundings, Rest and its Discontents reframes rest as a catalyst, rather than lack, of activity; a space of unplanned synthesis, interminably resistant to attempts at conception.
Image credits (from top):
1. Patrick Coyle, The Floating Thirty-Nine, 2016, Adapted solar pond lights.
2. Patrick Coyle, The Floating Thirty-Nine, 2016, Adapted solar pond lights.
3. Ed Prosser, Experience Composite, 2016, still from film.
4. Josh Berson and LUST, Cartographies of Rest: The Spectral Envelope of Activity and Mood. Mile End Art Pavilion. Photo: Peter Kidd, 2016
5. Rest & its Discontents – Mile End Art Pavilion installation view. Photo: Peter Kidd, 2016