Elasticity: On Nervousness and Vibration
Lars Bang Larsen

Beyond the visual field and below the surface there is nervousness, incessant vibration. Whether as ambient rhythms or forces within you, energy is transformed to let us know that the beat that goes on will one day stop. This is mortality as much as vitality. Nervousness can implode in irritability and anxiety, or it can be amplified in unconditional exchanges between people as laughter and love, and energy that draws bodies closer together.


In today’s culture it may seem that there is too much movement, as our lives now unfold in transmissions and transferences of things and emotions. Logistics is a basic requirement for the continuity of the state of affairs, accelerating entire geographies like lava. This is Atlas shrugging, flexibility turning into necessity, rather than life-giving vibrations. Entities that circulate globally don’t necessarily exist in the same world as you. Not all that is movable is a wonder.[1]

Because it suggested new concepts of body and knowledge, nervousness always represented an ambivalent field for the modernity of art and science. It could reduce the humane to the functional equivalent of a worm. Or so was the morally ambiguous conclusion reached by maverick psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich in the 1930s: given an electric shock a rain worm will curl up, similar to the way the human nervous system is jolted by the same stimuli. Voilá, the ego is a conditioned response! Or, conversely, the sack of flesh and blood known as the human being could be exalted into spheres of dancing molecules; ‘…the energetic activity considered in physics is the emotional activity entertained in life’, wrote the philosopher A. N. Whitehead.[2] We must seek processes where we can put sensation into the world…

Art historically, kinetic art’s mid-20th century one-upmanship of the Art Object isn’t very distant, along with its concern with energy as a pure phenomenon. Kinetic Art made the Object shake and shudder, and revealed it as a pretentious fool. But we no longer need gyrating mechanical sculptures to tell us that if the work moves, it is part of the life world. When we have digital media whose imperative is speed and participation, kinetic automatons seem naïve and their erotics forgotten.

So how does nervousness re-appear in art today, as a meta-nervousness of what we are capable of feeling and getting in touch with? How do we find expressions for the teeming coexistences that we inhabit and are made of?

A perpetual squirming motion

The premise of modern subjectivity is to be mobilised. Equating vibrations with external forces and their capacity to overpower an observer took, in the late 19th century, the form of kinaesthetic experiences such as Ferris wheels and roller coasters. A little later cinema came along, literally and metaphorically establishing itself on the same fairground terrain and offering itself, in Jonathan Crary’s words, ‘for different modes of regression and fantasy.’[3] Hence the distracted modern person is

'a model of the human subject in which perception is no longer conceived in terms of a classical model of acquiring knowledge but is instead synonymous with the possibilities of motor activity. But it is motor activity advancing toward and in some way constructing a perpetually open future of proliferating possibilities and choices.'[4]

That is, in the 19th century, vibrational imagery acknowledged the fact that unruly energies, and the networks of neural information that traversed them, had dislodged the individual subject as the central, self-present receptacle of knowledge. Not only industrial society’s psychomotoric accelerations were the cause of this trembling; it also came from the Freudian static of desire and shame rubbing against each other. But movement also promised to open up to a wild spirituality in a way that in itself was vibe-ful: ‘All sublime thought is accompanied by a nervous shaking’, as Baudelaire put it.[5] If the human being was shaken both from within and from without, and hence no longer sharply delineated from the surrounding world, maybe the surrounding world itself could be opened up to other realms?

In this way vibrations hail back to the underdog history of Spiritualism, with its concept of ether as the medium of cosmic wavelengths. One J. Arthur Findlay, supported by the insight of quantum physics that all matter is energy, posited in his On the Edge of the Etheric, Or Survival after Death Scientifically Explained (1931) that ether undulates through space at 186,000 miles a second, and though it cannot be seen, its existence can be inferred because light, heat, electricity must travel in and through something at a definite rate. It is 500 degrees colder than earth temperature, millions of times denser than water (and yet more elastic), ‘and it has a perpetual squirming motion’.[6]

The mystic and the transcendental flu

Spiritualism’s emphasis on superabundant life was echoed by Gilles Deleuze, who believed that philosophy should be attentive to life and participate in movements rather than seeking to immobilise the velocities of thought in meaning. Throughout his writing figures of movement, such as the ‘nomadic’ thought and ‘ambulant ‘sciences, were privileged to accentuate becoming rather than the oneness of consciousness. In this spirit he urged philosophers to ‘get into something’, catch a wave like surfers, or allow themselves to get caught up in a column of rising air.

‘It is the mystic who plays with the whole of creation’,[7] he wrote, and can thus engage in the mystery of passion and continued creation – in sensation: ‘the operation of contracting trillions of vibrations onto a receptive surface’[8]. Deleuze’s mystic and artist are capable of inventing expressions, machines and percepts whose power increases with their dynamism, and which don’t refer back to pre-existing subjectivities. Being in affect can thus be described as a kind of positive alienation, a chance to engage in processes in which one can become something else or somebody else, in an infinite transformation.

By its very definition, the mystical is on the edge of what is normally considered to be epistemologically sound. But if we can’t meditate rationally about the mystical in art, where could we? Any form is a force field, and sensation is no less brain than the concept!

The romantic expression of this mindset was outlined in the wonderful concept of Wille zur Wirkung by the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, writing in Kalligone (1800). Herder emphasised the role of the senses in the aesthetic experience that fuses spirit with matter and strengthens existence. He predicated sound on elasticity, which he takes to indicate the refinement of hearing and the way it is receptive to the subtlest of impressions. Through their sound, succession and rhythm (Klang, Gang und Rhythmus), tones are ‘vibrations… of our sensations’.[9] In sound (or Klang), not only the ear, but the entire inside of the moved body speaks out. This bodily vibration calls ‘the voice of all moving bodies forth from within them,’ announcing ‘loudly or softly proclaiming the excited state of their powers to other harmonic beings’.[10] Through the ear’s receptivity and through sound’s bodily reverberation, an intensive or more deeply felt truth can be evoked and experienced, in an immersion with outer reality. Herder connected hearing’s elasticity to primary truth in invisible and tactile worlds (with sculpture as its privileged equivalent, rather than in the deceit of sight and painting’s decoration of surface). It is hearing’s capacity for empathy that is at its strongest and most exact when it is set in vibration by, and resonates with a voice from a similar being; so for Herder it was the human voice that touches the human being most deeply.[11] The intention to put beings in empathetic vibration with each other is the Wille zur Wirkung, ‘the will to effect’.

In other words, the precondition for vibration is elasticity; and the elasticity of the soul or the mind is the liminal condition for the interruption of the normal and stable interplay between desire and rationality known as ego.

Unseen effects

Herder’s legacy can be traced fairly easily through to modern art. Vassily Kandinsky, for example, also believed that human emotion consists of vibrations in the soul, and derived his concept of vibration (directly connected with his use of the acoustic term Klang) from Theosophy, which in its turn was selectively informed by the counter-enlightenment romanticism to which Herder belonged.


'Kandinsky believed that words, musical tones, and colours possess the psychical power of calling forth soul vibrations… they create identical vibrations, ultimately bringing about attainment of knowledge.'[12]

Like Herder who privileged the haptic and audible-elastic over the visual, Kandinsky’s painterly music oscillates towards a relativisation of visuality, a synchronisation of the senses. In this perspective it is worth considering the transgression of the autonomous artwork that we can extrapolate with the trope of elasticity.

Obviously, both Herder and Kandinsky would hold that elastic souls can meet in harmonic vibration; the spirituality of the work. We, on the other hand, understand nervousness as the activation of difference, the conquest of a certain fluidity of subjectivity in order to be receptive to the pull of the future and to forms that aren’t yet quite recognisable and available.[13] What matters here is not so much the artwork as the effects that it releases upon the elastic force field that is already there, before subjectivity is constituted in emotion, affect. In other words, like (or as) vibrations, nervousness provokes a crisis in our references because it creates unseen effects with regard to what is to come.

It is still about how to be moved by an artwork, of course. Or rather, to maintain one’s being in movement vis-à-vis the work, and how our nervousness can reappear in unexpected fusions that cannot be thought in terms of what is currently understood as human: forces that lie beyond the individual and what it already is, perceives and controls. It has to begin in the mix, in open nervous systems and shared sensations – a febrile communism![14]

We are inadequate. To start the future we must re-wire nervousness.

Ultra-red’s organisations of energy

The artist activist collective Ultra-red make social tension appear in sound. Where activism usually demands visibility and representation, Ultra-red work in the acoustic realm in order to render the social body listening and cognisant as reflected in – and challenged by – art. Organising this already-there, already-producing level of everyday sound, is a fragile, but also formal practice, out of which analysis and direct action might extend.

Founded in 1994 by two AIDS activists, the group’s fluctuating membership of usually anonymous participants have expanded to include artists as well as non-artists from different social movements. In their Militant Sound Investigations they acoustically map social space that is contested by authority on grounds of ethnicity, migration, health, class or sexuality, and produce new imaginaries, signs and objects for identification. We may talk about the potential of an elasticity of dissent, namely how Frantz Fanon noted that ‘the native’s muscles are always tensed’ by being subjected to colonial violence.[15]

Ultra-red's elasticity also consists in their formation of a collective body that has reorganised the ego formation of the individual author and which instead – as in the five day workshop at Raven Row on the subject of community organising – interacts with specific places and communities. What could be a more collective medium than sound that travels, echoes and intermingles freely without the need for fixed interfaces for its proliferation; the epitome of a fluid social sculpture?

In 1994 the group organised Public Space (1994), an alternative after-hours chill-out room in Los Angeles. A chill-out club requires something to chill-out from; in this case, the way that the concept of public space in ‘the police state known as LA’ is annihilated when public space is regulated and organised by and through commerce. In the face of this, Public Space was an attempt at undoing the circumscription of control by being

'organised around the belief that when two objects come in contact, the encounter produces sound waves. This is true ambient music: the energy produced by two or more bodies: what the Jewish mystics called the Shekhinah.'[16]

Sound, it turns out, can also be a narrative of solidarity. This is how it allows us to inhabit the political, carrying the conviction that certain beats and sounds waves will contest the status quo.

Thomas Bayrle, rhythmanalyst

Thomas Bayrle analyses a culture that calculates life in images. But unlike most Pop Art, surface in Bayrle is not only what life is reduced to it, but is also where things re-appear. Whereas in Warhol the social would disappear sweetly in the image’s flat pleasure, Bayrle’s images are highly ambiguous, innervated places to be, determined by stretchings and multiplications. Bayrle’s surfaces are like functions of the skin and hence almost tactile, as extensions of surface into space.

The omnipresence of quotidian imagery seems to be carried by an anxiety of not being able to understand the common. If there is something there behind the way the normal and everyday rationality appears, if there is a sub-sense, it does not have an autonomous dimension. Everything is played out in forms that are interwoven with culture’s existing forms and functions - and at the same time an emancipatory pulse animates them.


In the film installation Autobahn-Kopf (‘Motorwayhead’, 1988/89), the busy, liquid indifference of Autobahn traffic weaves human and machines together and constitutes, in a rudimentary form, a human head. In the black and white animation film produced in a pre-computer manner with collaged Xerox copies, the human form looks as if it has been completely bandaged by motorway strips. The Autobahn-Kopf is driven over the canvas like a jerking ball, while traffic crawls insect-like across it. This head doesn’t speak, listen or see, and it makes you wonder if the infrastructure has merely been projected upon the human form, or whether the inside of the Kopf also is determined by logistics.

Bayrle proceeds, like many modern artists have done, by breaking down the image into its smallest constituents. But his results are different from abstract painting that typically found a blueprint for a better world in the irreducible form of a geometrizing God. In Bayrle, the representational image simply turns out to be constituted of myriads of molecular, representational images, and their wobbling interactions. There is only this surface plane, and the only human subject that is conceivable is the one that is possible within the effects that are released on, and by, this plane... But the surface is not yet neutralised: the stitching together of myriad elements that Bayrle never lets us give up hope that the singular living organism – that which is not yet part of a totality – breathes just below the surface, allowing us to imagine new ideal states.

Ann Lislegaard does not bring the cosmic home

By exploring sound in the absence of an image, moving image in the absence of sound, space without visual control, and form in the absence of colour, the cosmic sensualism of Ann Lislegaard’s work is often subtractive.

In her sound piece Science Fiction_3112 (2008), she has speeded up, folded, stretched and compressed the complete soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to eight minutes and 41 seconds. The original soundtrack, with its use of composers such as Khachaturian, Ligeti and Strauss II, has been accelerated to a whine of febrile molecular percussion, a hectic sound-image teeming with otherworldly energies. ‘A stage framed by waves of manipulated time’, as Lislegaard puts it.[17] A reduction, one might say, that has taken place by way of condensing the film’s soundtrack and taking away its visuals; but also a manipulation of found material in order to re-visit the film as a resource for an innovative, emerging form – similar to the way the film itself was probably seen 40 years ago.

'I hope that engaging in the elusive whims of the soundtrack might be compared to predicting the future from coffee grounds – closer to a notion of the “unknowing”. Maybe I can propose that in the installation I have made the future “unknown” again.'[18]

In a similar way, Robert Smithson talked about ‘ruins in reverse’[19]. This is the anti-romantic idea that it is not the ruin as a leftover of a historical sublime that creates experience, but the ruin as such, minus any meaningful past. Smithson’s counter-intuitive idea that buildings rise as ruins before they are built is incarnated in Lislegaard’s undoing of a well-established cultural reference point, and its subsequent acceleration. The ruin in reverse is not a form that comes after something, but before; it is a proto-event whose origin cannot be identified. Much like the binarily generated image worlds of her digital animations, in which elements from the familiar world re-appear like cargo after a shipwreck on a future beach.


Ann Lislegaard doesn’t bring the cosmic home, but opens up any notion of home to zones of indetermination in spatial, temporal, sensorial and sexual terrains, and in the infinite plasticity of our souls.

The potential of nervousness

Ultra-red, Bayrle and Lislegaard are in this way part of a larger a history of art and ideas whose possible outcome their work negotiates in various ways. Other vibrationally engaged artists before them could be mentioned here: Henri Michaux, Gego and Lygia Clark, for example, who helped to establish the imperceptible and the unseen in materially poor works; and psychedelic art forms too – light shows, expanded cinema – were a splendid inventory of barefoot stimuli as well as of activism and self-organisation. As an art of events-effects it invented optical and sound effects, as well as hallucinatory ones of course.


The only movement that is real is the one that takes place in relation to the outside or to the other that nervousness probes, like a seismograph. To stay elastic is to stay troubled, as an acknowledgement of vulnerability and fundamental instability. The potential of nervousness sits neither in the spiritual realm of vibratory resemblance and harmony, nor, of course, in external and administrated flows of things and communication; nor does it consist in utopia’s promise that things can become better. Rather, the capacity of nervousness for reorganising energy pushes us towards abstraction. The thought and the nervous system can coil together elastically and re-program each other, but they always arrive to the world in different ways. Without interest to weigh it down, the thought can travel faster and higher towards an outside, than can the nervous system that is always implicated.


The will to effect is thus the idea that all that exists can be affected, as can everything that we may imagine. It is the possibility of transcending our present state of being by burning surplus energy and ascending to a thought, in order to find a new form and nervous system when we come back down again…



[1] Giuliana Bruno discusses the psycho-conceptual intermingling of movement, affect and place: 'The Latin root of the word emotion speaks clearly about "moving" force, stemming as it does from emovere, an active verb composed of movere, "to move" and e, "out." The meaning of emotion, then, is historically associated with "a moving out, migration, transference from one place to another.'"' Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film (London: Verso, 2007), p.6.


[2] A.N. Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 1938, cited in Eric Alliez, The Signature of the World. What is Deleuze and Guattari’s Philosophy? (London: Continuum, 2004), p.56.


[3] Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (London and Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), p.238.


[4] Ibid., p.352.


[5] Cited in Maurice Tuchman, ‘Hidden Meanings in Abstract Art’, in The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Abbeville Press, 1986), p.20. See also Baudelaire’s famous poem Correspondances, (1857).


[6]. Arthur Findlay, On the Edge of the Etheric, Or Survival After Death Scientifically Explained (Glasgow: Rider & Company, 1932), p.38.


[7] Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism (New York: Zone Books, 1988), p.112


[8] Ibid., p.74.


[9] J.G. Herder, Sämtliche Werke, 1877-1913, vol. 22, p. 326. Cited in Friedrich Ostermann, Die Idee des Schöpferischen In Herders Kalligone, (Bern und Munchen: Frank Verlag, 1968), p.56. Author’s translations. See also Lars Bang Larsen, ’Earworld: Vibratility, Femininity, and the Resonant Body in the Film Works of Manon de Boer,’ in Manon de Boer (Groningen: Witte de With, 2008).


[10] Ibid., p.18.


[11] Ibid., p.19.


[12] Tuchman, p.35.


[13] The psychoanalyst Suely Rolnik’s concept of the resonant body describes a 'conquest of fluidity in the processes of subjectivisation', depending on 'a certain state of the body, in which its nerve fibres vibrate to the music of the universes connected by desire.' This is a process of becoming other that animates the paradox underlying the relationship between perception and sensation. To Rolnik, perception is associated with available representations that are separated from the ‘intensive’, affective dimension of forces present in our bodies in the form of sensations - all of our sense organs together. Thus the resonant body is the body as a whole. Suely Rolnik, ‘Anthropophagic Subjectivity’, in Arte Contemporânea Brasileira: Um e/entre Outro/s (São Paulo: Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, 1998) p.10.


[14] Thank you to the artist Søren Andreasen for the term ’febrile communism’ and his inspiring discussion of nervousness. See also Søren Andreasen and Lars Bang Larsen in ONTOTECH (Arhus: Århus Kunstbygning, 2009).


[15] Frantz Fanon, Concerning Violence (London: Penguin, 2008), p.21.


[16] Ultra-red, 'Entering a Public Space', (1994), http://www.ultrared.org/lm_entering.html


[17] From a public lecture given by Lislegaard on April 18 2009, at the Henry Art Gallery, Seattle during the exhibition Ann Lislegaard: 2062.


[18] From an email by the artist in 2001.


[19] Robert Smithson, 'The Monuments of Passaic', in Artforum (December 1967), cited in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p.72