The Limits of Performing Cage: Ultra-red’s SILENT|LISTEN1




Ultra-red’s SILENT|LISTEN (2005-06) consists of a series of events in which statements addressing the AIDS epidemic are presented alongside Cage’s silent composition 4′33″ (1952). Ultra-red’s intervention refers  to activist collective ACT UP’s militantly anti-homophobic slogan, “SILENCE = DEATH,” while implicating the cultural politics of Cagean silence, 4′33″’s
contested status as part of an historically specific strategy of queer resistance deployed during McCarthyism. Turning on the music-formal problem of Werktreue, or “faithfulness” to an original score, SILENT|LISTEN is considered alongside the appropriation art strategies of AIDS activism and against recent theoretical attempts to bracket out “sound” from the
historical and formal specificity of musical practice.

[A]t the beginning of an AIDS literacy workshop in Echo Park, Los Angeles, we announced that we would perform Cage’s composition [4’33”]—”The most important piece of American 20th Century music”—proceeding to sit in restrained stillness while the workshop participants, working class Latino men living with HIV and AIDS, looked on in bemusement.

— Ultra-red, “Ultra-red: Organizing the Silence”


Audience member to Cage: “Silence equals death.”
Cage: “Everything you open yourself to is your silence.”

— qtd. in Jones 665

In a large gallery space sits a long table dressed with a white tablecloth, around which several people are seated in front of microphones. Hovering near the end of the table is a reproduction of one of Rauschenberg’s famous White Paintings, completing a stripped-down, somewhat clinical interior. After a small audience settles into place, one of the seated individuals speaks into a microphone, announcing, “Four Thirty-three as composed by John Cage.”
“Time,” the announcer says, following four and a half minutes of silence.
The announcer calmly proceeds, speaking to the others seated at the table. “Good evening. What did you hear?”
“Silence,” a woman responds.
At this point one may wonder why Cage’s composition, a work in which no intentional sounds are to be made, is followed by a direct interrogation of its audience members. And while it is typically performed in a concert hall, Cage’s composition is here presented in the absence of the traditional piano or musicians in any ordinary sense.
“Good evening.”
The questioning proceeds.
“When was the last time you were in this space to talk about AIDS?”
Emerging from a larger body of work interrogating the relationship between the aesthetic and the political, art/activist collective Ultra-red2 create unique “performances” of John Cage’s well-known silent piece 4’33” (1952). Ultra-red’s work SILENT|LISTEN (2005-6) consists of a series of events in which statements made about the AIDS epidemic—”where it has been, where it is now, and where it is going” (“SILENT|LISTEN”)—are recorded following a performance of Cage’s composition. A set of these statements, referred to by the collective as “the minutes,” is then played back as part of a subsequent event. Accumulated from eight locations over the course of two years, these statements, made by health care professionals, community organizers, activists, and other individuals, form a network linking each successive site through the collective staging of listening and vocality.
SILENT|LISTEN can be seen to parallel the artistic strategies of appropriation central to the history of AIDS activism. Yet while utilizing the strategies of contextual specificity and tactics of dissemination found in those practices, SILENT|LISTEN distinctly draws upon specific concerns regarding the historical status of Cage’s indeterminate composition. Crystallized in his 1952 work 4’33”, was Cage’s silence affirmative, indifferent, or a political strategy of negation employed during the homophobic oppression of McCarthyism and the Cold War era (Katz)? By referring to the militantly anti-homophobic slogan of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), “SILENCE = DEATH,” Ultra-red point to the possibility of a consonant historical lens through which Cage’s piece can be read, while using this lens to frame their contemporary intervention into the AIDS crisis. Interpreting Ultra-red’s intervention through the focal points of AIDS activism and related artistic practices, this essay attempts to tether the appropriation art strategy introduced by SILENT|LISTEN to the historical and music-specific use of Cagean silence. Ultimately, Cagean silence becomes refigured as a symbolic marker of homophobia in concert with the slogans of ACT UP and in dialogue with the imagery of Gran Fury. SILENT|LISTEN turns on the formal musical problem of Werktreue—the issue of “faithfulness” or adherence to an original score—while mutually implicating musicological and art historical frames of analysis. Necessitating this kind of cross-disciplinary engagement between music and visual culture, my analysis of Ultra-red’s intervention challenges recent theoretical attempts to isolate “sound” (as is often found in sound art discourse) from the historical and formal specificity of musical practice.
Let us return to the opening description. The speaker continues, “It is Wednesday, August 9th, 2006. The record for the Art Gallery of Ontario is now open. Will the first speaker please approach the table and enter her statement into the record? Please note the time, your name, and any affiliation you wish to declare.”
A woman approaches the table and, in a collected and somewhat somber tone, speaks into the microphone:

The time is 7:34. My name is Zoe Dodd. I am a harm reduction outreach worker and Hepatitis C support worker at Street Health Nursing Foundation…. I mainly work with the homeless drug-using population. In May of 2006, Street Health received a call from a client. He’s lived on the streets for fifteen years…. He is an active drug user. He has AIDS, and he is co-infected with Hepatitis C.


The woman proceeds to describe an incident involving her client: arriving at the client’s apartment to discover that he had lost over 40 pounds in less than one week, she was unable to convince the subject to seek medical attention. “He would not go,” she insists, “because he [was] like many people, especially drug users … discriminated within our healthcare system …” She continues to report that as a Hepatitis C worker, her position has not received funding in Canada for over four months. Finally, she concludes that after a lengthy struggle the client received the medical attention he needed and lived.

The above description recounts a version of Ultra-red’s SILENT|LISTEN presented at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2006. The collective presented similar versions throughout 2005-6 at seven major North American art institutions. Founded in Los Angeles in 1994 by AIDS activists Dont Rhine and Marco Larsen, Ultra-red now incorporate members from across North America and Europe; the collective has consistently straddled the often conflictual worlds of art, music, and activism by staging direct political interventions, creating recordings and art objects, and producing performance installations such as SILENT|LISTEN—as well as their recent What is the Sound of Freedom?, presented as part of the 2012 Whitney Biennial—which often involve participatory and dialogical components.

Authentic Appropriation

On the surface, SILENT|LISTEN may be said to conform to the logic of appropriation art. With theoretical roots in the writings of Benjamin, Foucault, and Barthes, and particularly in the latter’s 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” appropriation art’s emergence is usually traced from the New York art scene of the late 1970s and 1980s through to contemporary practice. Douglas Crimp’s influential 1977 Pictures exhibition, which foregrounds “processes of quotation, excerptation, framing, and staging” against essentializing notions of medium (“Pictures” 87), is a touchstone. Often cited as a precursor to appropriation art practices, Guy Debord, in his 1956 essay, “Directions for the Use of Détournement,” defines two types of détournement. Through the application of “corrections,” or alterations introduced in original materials (Debord and Wolman 35), both methods rely on a new context for the generation of meaning. A “minor détournement,” according to Debord, “draws all its meaning from the new context in which it has been placed,” while a “deceptive détournement” relies upon the significance of the element itself (35). As much as there may be something added, or “corrected,” there is also that which is drawn out in Debord’s “deceptive” mode. When an object is cast retroactively into a context alien to its origin, a new valence is produced. “Plagiarism implies progress,” begins literary theorist Paul Mann’s own double plagiarism of Guy Debord and Isidore Ducasse, “which is also progress toward a death already immanent in every repetition” (Masocriticism 187). Rehearsing the birth of the reader or repeating a critic’s (unoriginal) claim about the artist’s unoriginality need not take center stage. Following the unidirectionality of death, appropriation can figure as a multiplication of authors—a collectivity. The death of the author is the prenatal condition for the multiple. Indeed, as Crimp notes in his own work with AIDS activism, collective production emerges as authorship undergoes assault (Melancholia 161-2).
Appropriation frames; it reconstitutes and refigures historical substance. Permeating the landscape of artistic production, appropriation’s historical reach has indeed been vast: “not just one strategy amongst many,” David Evans contends that appropriation is “the very ‘language’ in which the postmodern debate [of the 1980s and 90s] was conducted” (14). And yet while it is generally conceived as an expansive genre, appropriation is not without its limits, however seemingly imposed. Evans, for example, excludes “re-enactment” from the purview of appropriation, refusing to admit the work of Jeremy Deller or the re-performances of Marina Abramović due to these artists’ alleged emphases on “unauthorized possession” (16). While also sharing the characteristics of re-performance, and without precluding the category of appropriation as such, the distinctly musical structure engaged by Ultra-red’s appropriation of Cage’s 4’33”—one of writing/composing, performing, listening—indeed mandates an extended analytical frame.
Aligned with an appropriation conceived along collectivist lines, SILENT|LISTEN engages the additional set of concerns inherent to music and the performer’s fidelity to the score. Debates around the performer’s adherence to the set of instructions put forth by the composer have centered on the question of “historical authenticity,” or so-called Werktreue, referenced above.3 The “Werktreue ideal” is said to have emerged, according to philosopher Lydia Goehr, in the music and performance practices of the early nineteenth century, following the solidification of the “work-concept” toward the end of the 1700s, an idea governing the relationship between composition and performance (among other things) which gives shape to a unified musical “work” (115). Coterminous with the arrival of the autonomous musical work (and with the advent of copyright laws), this conception of authorship effectively forbade the promiscuous use of scores that had proliferated in Renaissance practice. A new apparent “duty” bound the allegiance of performers to works and their composers (231). If, in Goehr’s account, the music of modernity inherits a work-concept structure from Romanticism, then it has also remained committed to the Werktreue ideal.
This structure has recently found its most significant challenges in the crisis initiated by Cage’s indeterminacy, defined as the acknowledgment of the inherent unpredictability of performance, or, more significantly, as the extension of the contingency of a performer’s score interpretation. The latter category is referred to as indeterminacy with respect to a composition’s performance (Cage, Silence 35-40). Opening onto interpretation in the expanded sense, this form of indeterminacy more significantly threatens the established relationship between performer and composer. Performing a score becomes an act of interpretation, in the literary sense. As in Barthes, primacy is given to the reader. Consider the consequences then of a “birth of the performer” in contemporary music/art practices: rather than a mandate from the composer, the score may instead provide something to be inhabited, to be activated, to be used.
Interestingly, Goehr cites pieces like Cage’s 4’33” as offering ambivalent challenges to the work-concept: “paradoxically situated in a practice that is regulated by the very concept they want to challenge” (260), she questions whether musicians’ interventions like Cage’s offer any meaningful effects on what she calls the “force” of the work-concept (262). While she does list “compliant performance” as one supposed “target” of what Cage “seems to want to challenge” (262), the ramifications of the rupture introduced by Cage’s indeterminacy have yet to be fully charted, especially from the perspective of the less-than-allegiant performer. While discussions of Werktreue have indeed occupied musicologists and critics for decades, little has been said about the specific ways in which ruptures or revolts against the historically subservient structure of the musical work may apply to contemporary artistic practice. With some notable exceptions (see, for example, artist/musician Adam Overton’s manifesto “Ripe for Embarrassment” (2013)),4 the possibility of a disruptive use of musical scores is under-theorized if not under-practiced. In Ultra-red’s practice, the Werktreue problematic is furthered through an application of the logic of appropriation or détournement. Ultra-red engage the problematic of Werktreue through their appropriation of artistic and activist practices associated with AIDS. Their collective intervention becomes a question of exercising a certain kind of agency, rather than purely an act of subversion.

“Silence Equals Death”

Near the end of his life, Cage was accosted at a public symposium by an attendee who, repeating ACT UP’s well-known slogan, exclaimed, “silence equals death” (qtd. in Jones 665). To the agitator’s opportune détournement of Cage’s own program of silence by the silence of AIDS activism, the composer responded, “in Zen life equals death,” and added, “Everything you open yourself to is your silence” (qtd. in Jones 665). While for Cage silence does not equal death, death seems to haunt his reflections on silence. “Until I die there will be sounds,” Cage proclaims, following his telling of the oft-repeated Harvard anechoic chamber anecdote, “[a]nd they will continue following my death” (Silence 8). For Cage, silence is impossible outside of “the silence of death” (Cesare-Bartnicki 133).5
While silence has been framed as both a modernist strategy of erasure and the “silencing” of social import, or, alternately, valued for its acoustic properties or conceptual implications, a generation of scholars (Caroline Jones, Philip Gentry, Jonathan Katz) rigorously advocates a historically specific consideration of Cage’s project intimately tied to the subject position of a gay male artist responding to the heterosexist culture of the Cold War era. For Caroline Jones, silence plays the role of a Sedgwickean “closet-in-view” for Cage, a kind of surface-level bodily absence that serves as a “muting”—indeed a critique—of the abstract expressionist ego (651-2). In his analysis of the cultural politics of 4’33”, Gentry explores three possible contexts for situating Cage’s sexuality: the direct political activism and homosexual pride mobilized by the 1950s homophile movement and the Mattachine Society; the post-Stonewall identity politics implicated in a conception of the “closeting” of (presumed-to-be-stable) sexual identities; and the “queer commuter” phenomenon elaborated by Henry Abelove in which gay and lesbian artists often chose to self-exile to more tolerant locations as a strategy of resistance. Gentry argues beyond these narratives, however, in privileging a model of “anti-identitarian identification” in which “Cage’s subject position was often more subtly articulated than a simple ‘closeted’ model of sexuality would give us” (36). Acknowledging the influence of Zen while arguing for the primacy of Cagean silence as a queer strategy of resistance during the Cold War, Katz posits silence as part the development of a postmodern non-authorial voice that prefigures the “death of the author” (235). Cage would of course go on to become a master appropriationist, with his recombinant texts free-mixing McLuhan, Duchamp, Thoreau and others (Empty Words 3-20). Coterminous with his move toward Zen, however, Cage’s turn to chance and silence, as Katz intimates, was part of a complex set of responses to the composer’s failed marriage and frustrations with psychoanalysis as his relationship with Merce Cunningham began to take shape.
Cage spoke openly about his relationships with men and women alike, though according to Katz, the composer never fully came out as gay or bisexual (231). In an interview with Thomas Hines shortly before the composer’s death, Cage describes his earliest sexual experiences with Don Sample, a young American he met in Europe as a teenager. This relationship, which eventually became “promiscuous” according to Cage, overlapped with his affair with Pauline Schindler and continued on through his marriage to Xenia Kashevaroff. That marriage dissolved after a ménage à trois with Cunningham during which Cage realized that he was “more attracted” to Cunningham (Hines 99n60). Though one of Cage’s close friends was Harry Hay, the renowned gay rights activist, Cage insisted on silence when it came to representations of homosexuality. Not only were Cage’s sexuality and related political stances not generally intended expressions of his artwork, but, as I will demonstrate, the composer was openly hostile to performances of his works which foregrounded the abject or the sexual.
As mentioned earlier, along with silence, a crucial development for Cage was the practice of indeterminacy. Most clearly related to silence is the type of indeterminacy in which a composition is “indeterminate with respect to its performance” (Cage, Silence 35-40). Once fully exploded, the practice of indeterminacy permitted vast differences in the interpretations of Cage’s works. It was clear that for Cage—even in the cases of his “open-ended” compositions—certain interpretations of his work were deemed acceptable while others were not.
As though realizing the defiant reproach of Cage’s activist-cum-heckler, Ultra-red attempt to short-circuit Cagean silence with the politicized voices of AIDS activism. Along with this reframing of Cage’s composition, Ultra-red refer to the durational frame of the concert situation to contextualize their version of Cagean indeterminacy. Departing from the agitprop imagery of groups like Gran Fury, while still in dialogue with the slogans of ACT UP, Ultra-red explain that they sought to explore temporal and performative forms that facilitate social processes. In their 2005 essay subtitled “The AIDS Uncanny,” Ultra-red describe their intention to create “work that suspends resolution and employs duration to construct spaces in which our loss and grief can acquire a critical language directed against dehumanization” (“Time for the Dead” 91). “In the current proto-fascist historical moment,” they contend elsewhere, “SILENT|LISTEN invokes affective responses other than rage as constitutive of collective action” (“ps/o8publicmuseum”).
The collective’s use of Cage’s silent composition as an immanent temporal container is crossed with the iconicity of silence, a crucial concept in the fight against AIDS. Silence in this context represents the undermining of valuable information that saves lives, the negligence and unwillingness of governments in responding to the epidemic on a public and global level, and an index of the violent effects of stigmatization exacerbated by the constant threat of criminalization faced by people living with AIDS. Ultra-red’s project contextualizes 4’33” in light of the AIDS epidemic, while situating AIDS activism—metonymically invoked through reference to ACT UP’s slogan SILENCE = DEATH—within the frame of Cage’s silent piece.
SILENT|LISTEN should also be read in relation to the ambivalent attitudes Cage himself held regarding performances of his indeterminate, “open-ended” compositions—not simply to answer the question as to whether Cage would have approved of SILENT|LISTEN as a realization of 4’33”, but, rather, in the interest of drawing out a politics of musical interpretation applicable to Cage and his broader project of indeterminacy. This task must not only chart the performative boundaries specific to Cage’s composition, but also explore the historical and political implications of his artwork. Was Cage’s silence emblematic of his broader turn to an “Aesthetics of Indifference” during the 1950s, or, conversely, did Cage utilize a “politics of negation” by employing silence as a “historically specific [mode of] queer resistance” during the homophobic oppression of McCarthyism and the Cold War era (Katz 241)? An attempt to draw out this kind of political substance arguably already present in Cage’s piece turns on the question of Werktreue, or “historical authenticity,” in music performance. Clearly departing from conventional realizations of Cage’s composition, SILENT|LISTEN invites a consideration of the limits of performances of Cage’s works. SILENT|LISTEN, while proffering a distinctive refiguring of 4’33”, can perhaps nevertheless be said to include a genuine realization of Cage’s composition. While engaging the problem of “historical authenticity” and its relation to Cagean indeterminacy, however, it is also important to situate SILENT|LISTEN within the context of the rich and varied lineage of visual art strategies related to AIDS activism.
Before continuing a discussion of the musical specificity of Ultra-red’s use of Cage’s 4’33”, it is necessary to acknowledge the longstanding and significant connections between AIDS activism and strategies of artistic appropriation. One notable example is General Idea’s series Imagevirus, which, beginning in 1987, consisted of a series of widely disseminated images and objects, each containing an often differently colored version of Robert Indiana’s iconic L-O-V-E painting respelled as A-I-D-S. According to one commentator, the intended target of General Idea’s appropriation was not originality or authorship; rather, their goal was to mimic the behavior of the HIV virus itself—its transformations, travels, and proliferations (Nicholson 53). While not unequivocally consonant with the AIDS activism of the 1980s,6 Imagevirus shares in the emphasis on language and the contextual specificity of the strategies of ACT UP and Gran Fury. Infecting “large portions of the signifying field,” Imagevirus, Gregg Bordowitz contends, “connects gallery to museum to street to public transportation” (17).
The caustic wit and culturally parasitic attitude emblematized in Imagevirus are echoed in many of the various artistic practices encountered throughout the history of AIDS activism. In their detailed description of the early graphics of ACT UP, Douglas Crimp and Adam Rolston explain that “[w]hat counts in activist art is its propaganda effect; stealing the procedures of other artists is part of the plan—if it works, we use it” (15). Reiterating similar statements made by theorists of postmodernism and the avant-garde,7 Crimp argues that, especially in the context of the AIDS activist movement, “[a]ssaults on authorship have led to anonymous and collective production” (Melancholia 160-1). Along with Rolston, Crimp further characterizes an appropriation art “in which the artist forgoes the claim to original creation by appropriating already-existing images and objects,” by showing “that the ‘unique individual’ is a kind of fiction” and that the self is constructed through a series of “preexisting images, discourses, and events” (18).
ACT UP’s iconic SILENCE = DEATH logo, with its white Gill sans-serif font set against a black background underneath a hot pink upward-pointing equilateral triangle, contains perhaps the most well-known instance of appropriation within AIDS activism.8 Rather than stealing from another artist, however, the emblem references the badges used in Nazi concentration camps to mark gay men who were exterminated by the thousands. Adopted by the gay and lesbian movement in the 1960s, as Ultra-red’s Robert Sember explains, the pink triangle used by ACT UP creates continuity between historical struggles against homophobia and contemporary mobilizations against AIDS (Sember and Gere 967). A geometric inversion of the downward-pointing triangle badges used in the concentration camps, the pink triangle used in the SILENCE = DEATH design also points to rampant governmental neglect and failure in responding effectively to the epidemic as an act of genocide (Sember and Gere 967). The slogan also evokes mathematical equivalence, conjuring the numbers of AIDS statistics—death as numerical data. Bringing together the terms of silence and death separated by a mediating equals sign, the synchronic symmetry of SILENCE = DEATH—more emphatic and immediate than pure causality; not simply resulting in death, silence equals death—is counterposed by the diachronic geometry of the pink triangular emblem, which points back to a history of struggle while signaling a future in which AIDS is no longer.
Inspired by a SILENCE = DEATH poster hung on lower Broadway, New Museum curator Bill Olander, who had AIDS and was also a member of ACT UP, invited the group to create an installation for the New Museum’s window space in 1987. The result was the highly influential Let the Record Show…, an artistic intervention that sought militantly to counteract public misconceptions around AIDS and to address the enormous failures of the US government to respond adequately to the epidemic. Critical of the kinds of “elegiac expressions that appeared to dominate the art world’s response to the AIDS crisis” (“AIDS” 15), Crimp considers Let the Record Show… a participatory act in the struggle against AIDS that significantly departs from the “traditional idealist conception of art, which entirely divorces art from engagement in lived social life” (Melancholia 31). Adopting the trope of a trial or hearing, the work consists of a series of life-sized cardboard cutouts of public figures, each posed behind a corresponding printed “testament”: US Senator Jesse Helms (“The logical outcome of testing is a quarantine of those infected“); televangelist Jerry Falwell (“AIDS is God’s judgment of a society that does not live by His rules“); and Ronald Reagan (whose testament was left blank, referring to his six-year refusal to speak about the epidemic while president); among three others. Each figure is placed directly in front of a large photomural of the Nuremburg trials, over which a scrolling LED text beginning with “Let the record show…” rebuts each of the figures’ statements (ACT UP).9 All of this staged under a large neon sign displaying the original SILENCE = DEATH design.
Following their Let the Record Show… installation at the New Museum, members from The Silence = Death Project would go on to join Gran Fury, the group that would serve as “ACT UP’s unofficial propaganda ministry and guerrilla graphic designers,” in the words of Crimp and Rolston (16). In their large-scale photomural ad campaign project, Kissing Doesn’t Kill (1989), Gran Fury pictures three couples kissing across a horizontal frame. Each couple formed a different combination of genders and races, and over their images a text states: “KISSING DOESN’T KILL: GREED AND INDIFFERENCE DO.” Interestingly, in a more specific indictment, the original rejoinder text reads, “Corporate Greed, Government Inaction, and Public Indifference Make AIDS a Political Crisis.”10 With their vibrant and impressively polished aesthetic, Gran Fury “simulated the glossy look and pithy language of mass-market advertising to seduce the public into dealing with issues of AIDS transmission, research, funding, and government response, issues that might otherwise be avoided or rejected out of hand” (Meyer 236). As with other artistic interventions centered on the AIDS epidemic, including Ultra-red’s work, context becomes all-important: “When affixed to the side of a city bus, Kissing Doesn’t Kill functions as a mobile advertisement, traveling through neighborhoods of the city rather than remaining within the bounds of any one community or subculture” (Meyer 236). Activist art, highly circumstantial and contingent as it is, implicates, as Crimp argues, not only the “nature of cultural production,” but also the site—the context—of cultural production and dissemination (Melancholia 38).
Noting the resemblance of Gran Fury’s work to United Colors of Benetton advertisements—which the brand itself appropriated from artists of the time, and which were also placed on the sides of buses—Chantal Mouffe describes Kissing Doesn’t Kill as an instance of “re-détournement” (“Democratic Politics”). Indeed, there are significant resonances between Gran Fury interventions like Kissing Doesn’t Kill or Let the Record Show… and the work of Debord. Summarizing the Situationists’ theory of détournement, Debord explains that, rather than being concerned with the creation of the new, “critical art can be produced as of now using the existing means of cultural expression” (164). “Critical in its content,” he continues, “such art must also be critical of itself in its very form” (164). According to Debord, there were no Situationist works of art, “only Situationist uses of works of art” (Bishop 83).
While abandoning the avant-garde project of radical critique, Mouffe’s conception of “critical art” may be seen as an extension of Debord’s perspective. Asserting that traditional modes of artistic critique have been recuperated by neoliberalism and incorporated into the logic of post-Fordist networked production, Mouffe asks whether, in the wake of the avant-garde, current art practices have the ability to play a critical role in a contemporary society marked by the blurred difference between art and advertising, and by the appropriation of formerly countercultural strategies by the dominant regulatory modes of capitalism. “Today artists cannot pretend any more to constitute an avant-garde offering a radical critique,” she claims, “but this is not a reason to proclaim that their political role has ended.” Rather, Mouffe asserts, “[t]hey still can play an important role in the hegemonic struggle by subverting the dominant hegemony and by contributing to the construction of new subjectivities” (“Artistic Activism” 5). Mouffe’s own term “critical art” refers to artistic practices that actively contribute to “questioning the dominant hegemony” (“Artistic Activism” 4). Citing it as supplemental to her broader “agonistic approach” to the political, Mouffe writes: “critical art is art that foments dissensus, that makes visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate. It is constituted by a manifold of artistic practices aiming at giving a voice to all those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony” (“Artistic Activism” 4-5). She stresses, however, that “the aim of critical artistic practices should not consist in dissipating supposedly false consciousness in order to reveal the true reality; for this would be completely at odds with the anti-essentialist premises of the theory of hegemony, which rejects the very idea of true consciousness…and asserts that identities are always results of processes of identification” (“Beyond Cosmopolitanism”).
What is shared by the perspectives of Debord and Mouffe, and by the appropriation art strategies of AIDS activism, is the notion of immanent critique. Instead of operating at a distance from, outside, or above the target of their critiques, the strategies referenced above are wholly embedded within a social context and work through engaged practices of reconfiguring, reactivating, and politicizing existing cultural elements. Not simply purporting to “unveil” an ideologically inflected premise, Gran Fury’s critical art practice renders actual social reconfigurations. Their interventions break up and reorganize stultified hegemonic structures, working within the contextual specificity of site and through the generality—and “viral” nature—of language and images.

Appropriating Indeterminacy

Ultra-red extend the terrain of artistic intervention around AIDS—centered primarily around images, language, and direct political interventions—to include the domain of music (and its negation, silence) through their appropriative use of Cage’s 4’33”. They posit an engaged musical practice not unlike the visual art practices elaborated by Crimp, such as Gran Fury. Important, however, are the ways in which Ultra-red’s SILENT|LISTEN works as both a continuation of and a departure from the appropriation art of AIDS activism. Unlike the relation between, for example, Robert Indiana’s LOVE and General Idea’s Imagevirus, in Ultra-red’s SILENT|LISTEN Cage’s 4’33” can be said—to an extent—to retain its identity as such.
What does it mean, then, to consider SILENT|LISTEN as an “authentic” realization of 4’33” when it so drastically departs from David Tudor`s performance of the work in Woodstock, New York in 1952? Roger Hallas contends that SILENT|LISTEN “paradoxically resists solidification into a permanent archival object,” and that despite Ultra-red’s “systematic use of archival discourse—’testimony’, ‘statements’, ‘the record’, and ‘the minutes,'” SILENT|LISTEN nevertheless employs the “durational process of conceptual art and the ephemeral quality of performance art” (247). Along with Let the Record Show… and the ACT UP Oral History Project, SILENT|LISTEN emphasizes recordkeeping and archiving, but departs from these earlier projects in its continually developing, “open-ended” character—its incorporation of indeterminacy. One might suggest, however, that while Cage’s 4’33” is ostensibly distinct from archival artwork and apparently closer to the “ephemeral quality of performance art,” its score is also rooted in a kind of recordkeeping. Indeed one recalls the meticulous performance note contained in Cage’s 1961 version of the 4’33” score, in which he explains:

The title of this work is the total length in minutes and seconds of its performance. At Woodstock, N.Y., August 29, 1952, the title was 4’33” and the three parts were 33″, 2’40”, and 1’20”. It was performed by David Tudor, pianist, who indicated the beginnings of parts by closing, the endings by opening, the keyboard lid. However, the work may be performed by an instrumentalist or combination of instrumentalists and last any length of time.

(4’33”, Henmar Press, 1962)

4’33” insists upon the disparity between the absolute “openness”—a malleability—that characterizes its realizations, and the unshakable precision demanded by its score. Similarly, though more broadly, indeterminacy seems to reside in the contradiction between the command structure necessary for a score to exist—a score demands determinate action, providing it with an identity—and the potential within the score for the complete undermining of certainty, the obliteration of authority (and at times authorship) in favor of chance or the subjective will of the performer. Ultra-red’s framing of Cage’s 4’33” is distinct in that it functions simultaneously as a realization of 4’33”, and as an appropriation similar to the work elaborated above. Through the specificity of the musical score, SILENT|LISTEN figures as an impactful (re-)politicization of 4’33”, a performance of Cage’s piece that reads the work’s history into its interpretation as a focal point. The problem of fidelity to Cage’s score is thus redoubled, not only because of the political implications of Cagean silence, but also because of the contradictory relationship indeterminacy posits between score and performance.
Ultra-red may be viewed as a recent addition to a history of performers whose artistic strategies have sought to re-envision the role of the performer. In some cases involving Cage, the use of such strategies has resulted in performances deemed unacceptable by the composer. In his recent work, for example, Benjamin Piekut analyzes the series of performances Charlotte Moorman gave of Cage’s 21’1.499″ for a String Player during the 1960s, which included (in response to the score’s indications for non-string sounds) various references to tampons, orgasms, condoms, and Planned Parenthood, along with her use of the “human cello”: Moorman’s bowing of a kneeling, semi-nude Nam June Paik. Cage, in the end, coldly dismissed Moorman as having “murdered” his composition (Piekut 143). For Piekut, Moorman’s controversial interpretations of Cage turned on the question of subjective agency: Moorman treated the score “as a set of rules to be performed, inhabited, and experienced” (143). Beyond themes of subversion or “[t]ropes of obedience and disobedience,” Piekut insists on the question, “How did Moorman use Cage’s piece?” (172).
In 1975, at the June in Buffalo music festival, Julius Eastman and other members of the S.E.M. Ensemble performed an interpretation of Cage’s Song Books (1970) that has remained obscure and thoroughly underappreciated.11 Interjected into a panoply of other sounds and activities, Eastman began his interpretation of the instruction, “In a situation with maximum amplification…perform a disciplined action”—a “paraphrasing” of 0’00” or 4’33” No. 2 (1962), one of the several smaller works comprising Song Books—by introducing himself as “Professor Padu” and delivering an elaborate lecture demonstrating a new “system” of erotic love. Suited, and in a mockingly off-kilter performative style, Eastman directed his sister and then-boyfriend to engage in a series of erotic acts to illustrate his “sideways-and-sensitive” approach to an unsuspecting Buffalo audience. The following day, during one of the festival’s seminars, Cage responded by banging violently on a piano in the room and scolding performers who had more generally, in his view, interpreted his indeterminate instructions as an invitation to do “any goddamned thing” they wanted.12 He further condemned what he characterized as the “homosexual dimension” of Eastman’s performance. According to Cage, “the question of homosexuality” that he perceived as an emphatic element of Eastman’s performance was at odds with his intended premise of the work, namely that “we connect Satie with Thoreau” (qtd. in Schlegel 31)—two influential figures for Cage. An irony arises here, not only in relation to Cage’s own sexuality (however reluctant he was to disclose), and not only in light of his contestable objection that “neither Satie nor Thoreau had any sexual connection with anyone or anything” (qtd. in Schlegel 31), but also regarding Cage’s project of indeterminacy and its critical challenge to the authority otherwise traditionally invested in the composer. Eastman’s intervention underlines a critical shortcoming of Cagean indeterminacy: its inability to extend beyond the form of the Western musical work. In contending with the Werktreue ideal of the score, Eastman’s transgressive performance of Song Books effectively exhibits the resolute failure of Cage’s broader project of indeterminacy.

Performing Silence

Pertinent to Ultra-red’s historical re-framing of 4’33” is the question of whether Cage’s silence is to be read as a modernist “end game” strategy in which meaning is erased, or as part of a more subtly elaborated political program. In his analysis of 4’33”, for example, Douglas Kahn notes Cage’s self-purported shift during the 1960s “from musical to social issues” (557). Kahn concludes, however, that for Cage, “there was no corresponding shift to reconceptualize the sociality of sounds” (557). Interestingly, Kahn attempts to question Cage’s ideas “from the vantage point of sound instead of music,” and more generally casts music as a conservative site over which sound should be privileged (556). Along with this fixation on “sound,” there are clear drawbacks to Kahn’s self-conscious overinvestment in Cage’s views on his own work. For two perspectives that do not “[take] Cage at his word” so strictly (Kahn 557), we turn to the noteworthy debate between art historian Moira Roth and queer theorist Jonathan Katz.
Grouping together a handful of influential artists from the New York avant-garde scene of the 1950s—including Duchamp, Johns, Rauschenberg, Cunningham, and Cage—Roth locates an “Aesthetic of Indifference” in their work: a tendency toward critical paralysis in the face of the ardent anti-Communist fervor and political oppression of the McCarthy period. These artists, she claims, were partly responsible for the “bizarre disjunction of art and politics that emerged in the 1960s,” having adopted the “cool” stances of neutrality, irony, and negation in the context of the oppressive political climate of the 1950s (Roth and Katz 35). Cage was, in this milieu, no minor player: “If Duchamp was the fulcrum of this new movement,” Roth contends, “Cage was the lever” (37-8). And according to Roth, Cage’s chance operations, along with 4’33”, exhibited an “extreme passivity” (40). Meanwhile, Katz counters that Roth’s criticism of these artists’ supposed non-involvement assumes that they simply could have chosen to become involved. Arguing that the period was one of the most violently homophobic decades in American history, Katz contends that for Cage and company, “[s]ilence ensured survival” (53). For gay men in the ’50s, Katz argues, “[i]t mattered how you crossed your legs, how you spoke, and which pronouns you let slip” (54-5). As a historically specific mode of queer resistance during McCarthyism, “this is not silence at all,” but rather “the performance of silence” (53); with silent music, Katz argues, Cage performed a “statement of nonstatement” (62). Katz substitutes for Roth’s pejorative “Indifference” a more positively elaborated politics of negation, which for him is coterminous with Derrida’s notion of undecidability: “First, negation avoids the recolonizing force of the oppositional-that which permits the opponent to solidify and suture through recourse to the excluded other. Second, negation operates as a closeted relation, mediating between the negating and the negated in such a way as to exclude all who are not already at the very least sympathetic to its case” (Roth and Katz 64).
However speculative Katz’s argument may appear, it can be viewed as positing a critical space within which Cage’s political orientation is thought beyond intentionality-as is the case with indeterminacy. Thus the political thrust of Cage’s work may even be understood as running counter to his own stances regarding his work. It is also interesting to note that for Katz, Cage’s enactment of this politics of negation relies on a specifically musical context; just as Rauschenberg’s white paintings depend on the frame of traditional painting, silence needs the context of concert music for its effect. Perhaps nowhere more explicitly than in music does silence negate a mandate to make sound (Roth and Katz 64). I argue (pace Kahn) that it is through this negational act of silence-precisely in music-that Cage’s work acquires its genuine sociopolitical force. Reading Debord alongside Mouffe’s conception of critical art, Cage’s silence, despite the broader failure of indeterminacy, may be understood as a kind of proto-critical music. “[C]ritical of itself in its very form” (Debord 164), through its situatedness in the context of music, Cagean silence resisted the hegemony of the 1950s through the logic of negation.
If we take this view, Cagean silence may be read as a reappropriation of silence as a symbolic marker of homophobia in a manner not unlike The Silence = Death Project’s subversive reworking of the pink triangle. Ultra-red’s rereading of Cagean silence serves, in this sense, as a kind of alternative realization of the SILENCE = DEATH slogan—as a performance of SILENCE = DEATH. Simultaneously, SILENT|LISTEN is presented ostensibly as containing a performance of Cage’s 4’33” ; yet while SILENT|LISTEN indeed provides a distinctive context for Cage’s 4’33”, it doesn’t directly manipulate the piece in the same manner that occurs, for example, in General Idea’s Imagevirus. Rather, it is the proximity of 4’33” to the AIDS statements that effectively contextualizes Cage’s piece. SILENT|LISTEN performs a duplicitous role as a détournement and an exemplary interpretation of Cage’s piece by continuing the critical/negational thrust the work posited in its inception. SILENT|LISTEN is positioned at the edge, at the limit of an authentic realization of 4’33”.
In addition to the question of authenticity, Ultra-red’s SILENT|LISTEN engages historical forms of musical organization, particularly as they relate to collectivity. Not primarily concerned with subjective expression or agency, SILENT|LISTEN builds out a kind of social framing which relies less upon sound as such, instead referencing (and literally using) the concert situation as a container for collective organizing. Ultra-red notably locate this potential already within Cage’s work. “What 4’33” composes,” they contend, “is not so much sounds but listening as an experience of collectivity in its raw potential” (“Ultra-red: Organizing the Silence” 201). They continue:

SILENT|LISTEN began as an investigation into silence, fueled by an urgency to organize silence. Over time, the project became a practice of distinguishing between organizing the silence and collective listening—an investigation into organized listening. This distinction focuses us on the terms by which we are organized by our politics. For us, one such term remains the commitment to reconnecting notions of revolutionary change (i.e. anti-capitalism) with organizing.



Conflating the silence of Cage’s 4’33” with the muted, suppressed voices of dissent involved in the struggle against AIDS, Ultra-red posit an “organizing” which simultaneously points to the modernist conception of music as “organized sound,”13 while also describing the tactical orchestration of activist mobilization. Similarly, “listening” resonates with the privilege given to aurality by Cage and by contemporary experimental music, while simultaneously invoking its meaning within activist groups. Ultra-red go further, uniting both terms in their positing of an “organized listening.” Relevantly, in his discussion of SILENT|LISTEN, Hallas explains that Ultra-red reframe the silence in SILENCE = DEATH through Paulo Freire’s “discipline of silence,” in which silence is prefigured as the site for listening and in which “listening [i]s the condition for action, since it enables genuine reflection and analysis” (248). Punning across the historical vocabularies of music and AIDS activism, Ultra-red create a conceptual-linguistic short circuit between the two contexts while directly appropriating music’s material organizational form—”collectivity in its raw potential” (“Ultra-red: Organizing the Silence” 201)—as a container for collective action. Ultra-red redeploy organizational and formal modes specific to music as critical instruments in the fight against AIDS.

Ultra-red’s deployment of Cage’s 4’33” as a container—a “transparent” presentation of its surroundings—suggests that historical context is inseparable from a work’s performance. Considering its broader relevance, Ultra-red’s intervention makes explicit a 4’33” that frames and is framed by its context, leveraging the negational power of silence while creating a temporal space for the unfolding of social process. If 4’33” is about the opening of the musical frame onto the noise of the surrounding world, then the outside penetrates, shines through, is never neutral—whether that outside comprises McCarthyism, the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, or the dismal scene of today, in which the futures of American programs like PEPFAR, HOPWA, and Ryan White are in constant danger of budget cuts that threaten the lives of thousands; in which the lack of public health care in the US is responsible for a single death every 12 minutes (Heavey); in which there are more than three deaths from AIDS every minute globally; and in which the rate of new HIV infections is steadily rising, such that half of all men who have sex with men will be HIV positive by age 50.14 With its indeterminate and mutable boundaries, 4’33” opens onto that which surrounds it. Ultra-red’s realization implicates both the historical frame from which the work emerges and the temporal present of its performance.
SILENT|LISTEN stages the interpenetration of temporal frames—from the McCarthy-era origins of 4’33” to the third decade of the AIDS crisis—while appropriating the musical frame as a collectivizing force in the political struggle against AIDS. Interestingly, while ostensibly conceived as staging an open-ended social process, SILENT|LISTEN may also be said to share in the confrontational character found in Cage’s 4’33”, despite Ultra-red’s intentions. The “shocking” effect Cage’s silent piece had on audiences in the 1950s,15 echoed throughout historical avant-garde movements and experimental music traditions, invites questioning. There is an unresolved dimension in the “bemusement” of the working-class Latino men who were implicated in the staging of SILENT|LISTEN, mentioned in the epigraph of this essay. In this sense the “exclusionist” tendency of SILENT|LISTEN ironically figures as too faithful to 4’33”‘s 1952 premiere, failing to revise Cage’s work enough.
Returning to a consideration of artistic interventions around AIDS outside the “open-ended” process foregrounded by SILENT|LISTEN, there is a clear value to the kind of affective rage employed by Gran Fury. For not only rage, but a distinctively subversive wit, is found in Gran Fury and ACT UP’s history of interventions, one reclaimed in demonstrations such as the recent “Boehner Occupation,” a collaborative action by members of ACT UP New York, ACT UP Philadelphia, and Queerocracy. In response to proposed cuts to foreign and domestic AIDS programs, activists entered US Speaker of the House John Boehner’s office, stripped naked, and—playing on the near-homophones “Boehner” and “boner”—chanted slogans like “Boehner, Boehner, don’t be a dick, your budget cuts will make us sick.” Several of the Naked Seven, as they were later dubbed, chanted and demonstrated with inverted pink equilateral triangles painted on their backs, chests, and genitals.16 Yet while the musicality of that group’s refrains was undeniable, the strength of Ultra-red’s SILENT|LISTEN lies in a different kind of musical specificity.
Ultra-red’s work stages a deep continuity with the politics of Cagean silence; it opens 4’33” onto a critical confrontation with the present while threading together the musical and visual activist strategies of the recent past. SILENT|LISTEN insists on the import of both musicological and cultural framings of Cage’s work while co-implicating art historical debates central to AIDS activism and related art practices. Exceeding the concerns of sound as a medium, Ultra-red’s use of Cage’s 4’33” problematizes the historical form of the musical work and the politics of (its) performance. Turning on the music-formal problem of Werktreue, Ultra-red’s intervention precludes an attempt to recuperate the work within the frame of a “sound art” conceived apart from the formal and historical specificity of musical practice. If Cage’s indeterminacy paved the way for a kind of absolute interpretive openness—anything can be done in the name of a score; silence equals the resolute death of compositional determinacy—then in Ultra-red’s collective realization of 4’33” the formal stakes are redoubled. SILENT|LISTEN confronts the Werktreue problematic through Ultra-red’s performance of Cage’s silent composition. In their (re)casting of Cagean silence as a historically specific mode of queer resistance, as opposed to side-stepping music, the art form becomes central to Ultra-red’s strategy of critical negation. Rather than attempting to escape the formal limits imposed by the frame of musical performance, the latter is tactically appropriated as such.

G Douglas Barrett
G Douglas Barrett is an artist, musician, and writer. His work is exhibited, performed, and published throughout North America, Europe, and Japan. The recipient of a 2013 Franklin Furnace Fund award for his record project Two Transcriptions/Ode to Schoenberg, he also received a recent DAAD grant to Berlin. Barrett’s essays have been published in journals such as Mosaic and Contemporary Music Review. The present essay forms part of a forthcoming book-length project outlining contemporary critical musical practices.



A previous version of this essay was presented as part of The Future of Cage: Credo conference held at the University of Toronto on October 26, 2012. I would like to thank Leigh Claire La Berge, Lindsey Lodhie, Cassandra Guan, Bill Dietz, and the anonymous peer reviewer solicited by Postmodern Culture; taken together, their feedback and comments on earlier versions of this essay have been crucially helpful.


2. While I refer to Ultra-red as an “art/activist” collective, statements made by the group situate their work specifically in relation to sound art (“missionstatement”), and often classify it explicitly as such (“PS/o6.b. encuentrolosangeles”; “Organized Listening”). Others such as Roger Hallas refer to Ultra-red as a “sound collective” (242). Yet despite classifications of their work as “sound,” it is appropriate, for reasons I hope will become clear throughout this essay, to frame Ultra-red’s SILENT|LISTEN as a musical practice conceived as an expanded, critical art form.


3. For an overview of the scholarship and a discussion of the discrepancies between the British-American and European debates, see Fabian.


4. “Ripe for Embarrassment: For a New Musical Masochism” is, in Overton’s words, “a manifesto…proposing a new paradigm in composer/performer relations, wherein the composer is a masochist who uses score-based Cagean indeterminacy in hopes of being humiliated by a willing performer.”


5. Another passage unites the themes of silence and death in a manner not unlike Cage’s response to the “silence equals death” provocation. Found in both Cage’s “Julliard Lecture” (A Year from Monday) and “Lecture on Something” (Silence), it provides a Zen-like statement following the image of Morton Feldman “sub-merged” in silence: “The nothing that goes on is what Feldman speaks of when he speaks of being submerged in silence. The acceptance of death is the source of all life” (Silence 35, A Year from Monday 98). For a sustained engagement with the themes of death and Cagean silence, see Jones.


6. Bordowitz describes the ambivalent reception Imagevirus initially received in some cases—including his own—as being at odds with the work of activist groups like ACT UP; later, however, Bordowitz saw “General Idea’s work [as] no less political than the AIDS activists’ work of the 1980s” (77).


7. Bürger has argued, for instance, that Duchamp’s ready-mades challenged the category of individual creation, signaling a turn toward collectivity (51-53).


8. The “logo” was created by The Silence = Death Project, a group of six gay men who were present at ACT UP’s first meeting in 1987. As Avram Finkelstein notes, however, while often referred to as such, the SILENCE = DEATH design was not intended to serve as ACT UP’s official insignia.


9. The full text is available from the New Museum’s digital archive.


10. Kissing Doesn’t Kill was originally commissioned by “Art against AIDS on the Road,” a public art project benefiting The American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR); without giving a reason, AmFAR rejected Gran Fury’s project containing the original rejoinder text (Meyer 237).


11. Eastman’s performance was the subject of a collaboration between artist Adam Overton and myself. Working first from the audio recording available at the SUNY Buffalo Music Library, he and I constructed a “transcription” of the stage actions and speech following a series of interviews with two of the audience members (Arnold Dreyblatt and Ronald Kuivila), and Petr Kotik, who also performed in the original 1975 June in Buffalo concert. We realized the project as a homoerotic reinterpretation of Eastman’s performance, involving a series of choreographed sex acts, champagne drinking, and three other performers reading Eastman’s speech, all of which took place as part of Overton’s BESHT (Bureau of Experimental Speech and Holy Theses) series at the Pomona College Museum on December 6, 2012.


12. From Recordings of June in Buffalo (1975), Buffalo Music Library; transcribed as “any GOD DAMN THING” in Schlegel (31).


13. The reference is to Edgard Varèse. During the 1920s, in response to prevailing conservative responses to his radical musical aesthetic—”but is it music?”, for example—the composer decided to refer to his music instead as “organized sound” (Varèse 21).


14. See Hall. I thank activist James Krellenstein for this reference and for his presentation on current HIV statistics given during an ACT UP meeting at the LGBT Center, New York, on April 29, 2013.


15. “Good people of Woodstock, let’s drive these people out of town,” was the reaction of one member of the crowd (Revill 165-66). Relevantly, Christopher Butler has argued that the “critical point” of 4’33” was its ability to startle audiences (qtd. in Mann 26).


16. I thank ACT UP member Michael Tikili for sharing with me his account of the action.


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