After the first several repetitions, the narrative of The National’s “Sorrow” is inversed, resting the climax with the first verse, “Sorrow found me when I was young/ Sorrow waited, sorrow won.” Ragnar Kjartansson’s marathon orchestration, A Lot of Sorrow, featured The National performing their song “Sorrow” live on repeat for six hours in the atmospheric VW Dome at MoMA PS1 on May 5, 2013. The repetition present in his work recalls that of Aristotelian rhythm and Freudian drives, while his collaborative use of performance renders an emotional investigation of the original and its reproduction as well as the duality of pain and pleasure. The lyrics of imminent defeat mark a beginning, but within the context of a six-hour repetition, the beginning loses its chronological connotation and becomes a totalizing and melancholic present. Here, the absence of the percussive drop creates a rhythm of its own, for it is the suspension of commencement which makes this present so tantalizingly unbearable. The giddy bits of laughter from the audience are reflective not only of the humor present within much of Kjartansson’s work, but also the kind of comfort within discomfort that is found in the standing room of concerts and museums, where the audience flirts with the performers and their offerings despite aching backs. This acceptance of self-inflicted yet only slight discomfort is reflective of the repetitive, Freudian drive of everyday life. This discomfort that first drives us to seek comfort, parallels the song’s delightfully painful initiation.

The insistence on sorrow as entertainment reflects the sadomasochistic tendencies of the human practice of dominating and containing moments of time to establish presence in the reproduction of video and photography. In his essay, Gifability, Giampaolo Bianconi discusses Benjamin’s historical fragments, writing how “the fragment, as understood within Romanticism, is experienced like a ruin: an irreconcilable trace of pastness within the modern world. Like the ruin, the origin of the fragment is unattainable: to be understood, it must be recontextualized.”[1]

Kjartansson, by way of The National, mesmerizes the audience with the Romantic present. Each loop, or fragment, recontextualizes itself, making its origin forgotten and even irrelevant, because it is the song’s persistency to exist and the immediate, yet seamless obliteration of previous loops that ultimately forms its identity. Thus, by the end of the performance, not a single iteration is able to stand out in one’s memory, as the audience is barraged with repetition, a ceaseless desire for the unattainable memory of the past.

At the same time, however, this inability to remember details from the performance reveal the importance of the performative, socially engaged aspect of the work, namely its existence in real time and space. Boris Groys writes that “Time based art is not based on time as a solid foundation, as a guaranteed perspective; rather, time based art documents time that is in danger of being lost as a result of its unproductive character—a character of pure life.”[2] The creation of an event serves as the construction of the present, a present that gives itself as a world between spectator and author. The spectator, or subject withdraws from herself to construct a new time that is experienced in the commitment to the object, or in this case the performance, which reveals itself to be an entirely new, collaborative time. The time presented by Kjartansson also demonstrates a participatory time that brings the viewer out of the individualized and alienated sphere of Apple earphones and into a collective experience of apologetic reiteration and contagious sway, yearning for an anonymous lost love.

The audience’s pity for the tortured performers wanes as they become physically exhausted themselves. While the audience is awarded the liberty of being able to leave the concert, sit down and have a drink, the band is obliged to their puppetmaster, Mr. Kjartansson, who occasionally brings out a tray of food and beverages. While one attends a concert out of free will, the control of the concert is ultimately in the hands of the performers. The power is further shared with Kjartansson (disregarding the roles of the bookers, managers, institution/venue, director, etc.), who proposed the project. This power is concealed, as a free play opens not only between band members who improvise and subtly vary their practice, but also with the audience who responds to the performance. When confronted with a work of art, free appearance, however, according to Jacques Ranciere, “ceases to be a suspension of the oppositions of form and matter, of activity and passivity, and becomes the product of a human mind which seeks to transform the surface of sensory appearances into a new sensorium that is the mirror of its own activity.”[3] An artist, producing a concert with a press release at a contemporary art institution, invites the transformation of collective sensory experience into aesthetic experience by way of the self-consciousness present in audience participation.

A Lot of Sorrow succeeds in taking the contemporary desire of self-destruction and pity with a sense of humor in the form of polished entertainment. The intimacy echoes within the lyrics, “I don’t want to get over you,” as the audience’s is eventually led to desire itself, reflecting the tendency that drives both life and death. The song itself reflects the desire of another, though it doesn’t necessarily have to be the same other with every repetition. However, the theme of commitment that echoes throughout the performance suggests imagined and adamant fidelity. The invisible “You” of the song remains sovereign. The intimacy and cathexis present during the performance reveals that while we stand as individuals contained within an event, music can often only reveal what is absent by achieving the ineffable. The factioned spectator stands or dances on the democratic dance floor, imagining his or her own other and uses the performers as a medium to evoke the presence of the other.

Kjartansson slyly subjects his audience to the repetition of a sad song. This repetition is not only reminiscent of a torture device (also explored in Babylon, a video by Cyprien Gaillard, on view at MoMA PS1 just months prior, in which David Gray’s Babylon was looped in an Abu Ghraib torture tactic remix over footage of Afghan ruins), but also a reminder of contemporary forgetfulness. The distance that we attempt to put between our present and our past is perhaps best exhibited in the instantaneous consumption and discarding of moments in time captured and displayed on social media outlets such as Instagram and with the rise of the mixtape and shuffle option for music and photography. The threat we feel by existence encourages us to try to contain “presence” by documenting, cataloguing and sharing potentially personal and intimate moments with others which ultimately subtract meaning from these moments by containing them under one, self-curated and self-interested platform. The archive that we build for ourselves represents moments that cannot be made truly present. Instead we are left with fragments of the past that can be revisited, but never experienced the same due to the inevitability of recontextualization.

In building a “sound sculpture,” Kjartansson, by way of The National, constructs an ocean of sound, with each repetition of “Sorrow” acting as a wave. Kjartansson thus calls into question the concept of original versus copy. Within the medium of music and sound, the concept of an original differs slightly from that of visual art. An original score can be replicated and distributed as many times and on as many formats as possible and still be considered an original if it is the same recording. However, the different formats on which a track is released provide different contexts that inevitably redefine its originality. While “Sorrow” may be an original song by The National, copying it even once in a live performance provides a new experience and interpretation of its originality. In its live repetition, each copy becomes an original within itself but ultimately finds unity under the containment of the author, Kjartansson. Each loop, or fragment, recontextualizes itself, making its origin forgotten and even irrelevant, because it is the song’s persistency to exist, or perhaps re-exist, in submission to the viewer’s subjectivity, that deflects any identification of the original. Each repetition reveals a new love, or perhaps a new appreciation of a familiar love without forgetting the exhaustion present in fun and the delirious delight of exhaustion.

Rivers Plasketes’s essay won second prize in 2014 in the Second Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. He is a senior in the Visual & Critical Studies department.

[1] Bianconi, Giampaolo. Gifability. Rhizome.org. Nov 20, 2012.

[2] Groys, Boris. “Comrades of Time.” Going Public. Sternberg Press. New York, 2010. 95

[3] Ranciere, Jacques. “The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcomes.” New Left Review. March/April 2002