The Language of Action
Translated by Zane Koss
Languages employ signs to substitute objects from the external world to express and communicate messages. One no longer shows a tree, one says “that tree.” The representation of the tree by means of a sign that acoustically sounds thus, and that by social convention designates an object with certain characteristics that differentiate it from other objects that in turn count on other signs being designated, was a factor of progress in favoring the relations of production. The languages of representation, by using signs that are not the same as their objects, can only act, immediately or directly, on their own representations. The influence of languages over reality occurs a posteriori, by bringing about conduct through the means of suggestion, command, solicitation, etc. There ends the “power of the word,” as the poets say: it is man that definitively acts and not representative language.
Futurism, Dadaism, cubism, surrealism, etc. are artistic currents that use languages of representation — speaking, writing, painting, reciting, singing, or any other familiar technique — that are in fact acts, but acts whose determinate nature is the emission of representations and not the emission of a message by means of an action.
Each language has its own system of decoding (reading) and that mechanism will not change even if the channels or the bases on which the aesthetic information flows are altered, even implausibly, whether these are pages, posters, fabrics, postcards, walls, records, the human body, etc. Neither the mechanisms of reading and/or writing are altered, though they are modified, even implausibly, by the instruments used for writing, whether these are pens, pencils, hatchets, airplanes, or the substances employed in the technique of writing: graphite, oils, inks, emulsions, clay, charcoal, etc. All such combinations are possible within the languages of representation, as in soccer, but the mechanics of such languages cannot be altered without destroying them, creating other new ones, which is to say, one can play soccer in many manners, with balls made of cloth or rubber, in a field or on concrete, with goal posts of wood or fiberglass but if, for example, the rule that prohibits touching the ball with one’s hands is modified, this would create another sport. At times, in modern art, some small modification is made just to create new artistic currents as, for example, to apply scientific advances that alter the channels — photography, cinema, computation, etc. — or radicalize the theoretical assumptions of certain orders like, for example, the passage from analytic cubism to synthetic cubism, and from this to abstractionism, etc.; or to apply new orders discovered in one particular language to another, as in the case of the transportation of the significative unities of the plastic arts to the literary ones, etc., etc.
The other term of the contradiction is constituted by the language of action, about which we know little today. It’s assumed that the sign of the language of action acts, to the contrary of the signs of the languages of representation, immediately and directly on reality. It not only expresses messages, as do the rest of the languages, by substituting elements of the exterior world for sign-acts of immediate conventionalization, but the proper act-sign also realizes what it expresses at the same time that it realizes the act.
For the sake of analysis, let’s divide the sign from the action and see how its elements operate separately. On one side, at the level of the signifier, it works on reality and, on the other, at the level of the signified, it works ideologically. A small example: the Uruguayan government decided to demolish, in October 1973, two old cement structures that previously had been erected for the construction of a cable car and that for technical reasons could never be completed.
The sign-act, at the level of the signifier, worked on reality with the effective and real demolition of the cement structures and, at the level of the signified, with the idea that it aroused in public opinion that the government “will demolish all the old structures that no longer serve the country.” This example also serves to demonstrate in what manner it is possible to make use of signs — from any language — to disguise reality under a cloak of signals, representations, or sign-acts. Any language can be forced into saying whatever is desired, and the veracity of the expressed is imposed by the authority of the speaker or by other forms of informational deformation. Thus, it is possible to observe that certain communication systems can express something through one language and disprove it through another: these are the inadvertent disjunctions between theory and praxis that artistic movements tend to have, or that are conscious and calculated when it comes to propaganda or advertising. Information, whatever its nature, is the fruit of the productive activity of communities and, at the same time, is a factor that facilitates that same activity, that is, aesthetic information can favor the development of the productive forces or hinder them (from which arises the great worry of the United States, which oppresses through the control of all mediums of communication, as in this case).
If it is certain that in every social structure there exist three levels — economic, juridico-political, and ideological — it is evident that the artist operates in the last level but, as the imbrication of the levels is stretched and interinfluencing, it is clear that any change in the ideological level acts on the other levels and vice versa; this is to say that the signs of any of the existent languages are as important as any other instrument in the purpose of altering the determinant level of any system.
Today, many artists are interested in an art capable of altering undesirable reality — not in an art that barely permits them to express that desire, whether verbal or plastic, performative or conceptual (not to confuse the language of action with the gestural language, whose signs are already socially conventionalized and represent attitudes: to bring flowers to one’s wife, to pull out the chair for ladies, etc.). The aesthetic information that the artist transmits enriches the repertoire of the receiver, making possible greater levels of the comprehension of reality and, in consequence, widening their possibilities of conveniently acting on reality; however, it is not the work that alters reality but who consumes it — the spectator, the listener, the participant, etc. Instead, through the language of action, the artist does not only use the habitual mechanism of processing aesthetic information, according to the traditional norms — to act, exclusively, at the ideological level — but that, also in turn, the work can act directly on reality.
The foundation of the artistic activity of the avant-garde is the unpredictability of aesthetic information, and that is achieved by altering the codes or combinatory models of signs and changing them for others, as yet unpublished — that is to say, leaving aside the characteristics already given in art, relocating signs in discourses or texts that remove the quietism and the proper entropy of known and digested art; favoring new relations and knowledge of reality that permit new models of behavior. An adequate relation with the environment, creating new codes of known languages and creating others. That’s what it’s about.