Becoming Duchamp by Sylvère Lotringer

John Cage first met Marcel Duchamp in the 1940s but it took twenty more years before the two actually became close. Cage didn’t want to bother Duchamp with his friendship until he realized that Duchamp’s health was failing. Then he decided to actively seek his company. He knew that Duchamp was taking chess very seriously, and it was easy for Cage to use this pretext, so he simply asked him to teach him the game.

It was widely believed at the time that Duchamp had stopped working. Visitors reported that his studio was empty. And it was. The studio was precisely made for that – for not making art. Duchamp had another space next door no one knew about, where he did his work. Duchamp didn’t especially like listening to music, but its evanescence fascinated him. He kept dreaming of even more elusive sounds, sounds like the faint rustle of corduroy pants in a dance (he was always precise). Sounds for the birds. No wonder Cage got trapped.

As it turned out, Cage wasn’t such a formidable adversary. He was no adversary at all. “Don’t you ever play to win?” Duchamp had kept asking, exasperated. Cage was a Zen Buddhist to the core: why should anyone have to win? He had already won what he wanted: spending time with Duchamp.

Actually, Cage hadn’t lost every single match with Duchamp. There was one that he definitely won, after a fashion. It happened in Toronto, in 1968. Cage had invited Duchamp and Teeny to be with him on the stage. All they had to do was play chess as usual, but the chessboard was wired and each move activated or cut off the sound coming live from several musicians. (note: Duchamp gave Cage a handicap in this first game, removing his king’s knight from its square and replacing it with a U.S. quarter dollar. As expected, he decisively trounced Cage within about 25 minutes)

Without a word said, Cage had managed to turn the chess game (Duchamp’s ostensive refusal to work) into a working performance. And the performance was a musical piece. In pataphysical terms, Cage had provided an imaginary solution to a nonexistent problem: whether life was superior to art. Playing chess that night extended life into art – or vice versa. All it took was plugging in their brains to a set of instruments, converting nerve signals into sounds. Eyes became ears, moves music. Reunion was the name of the piece. It happened to be their endgame.

Well, not quite. Less than a year later Duchamp was gone, but for Cage the game wasn’t over; it was rather like jumping into the middle of Duchamp’s disappearance act. Duchamp’s studio didn’t remain empty for long. Cage, so to speak, quickly moved in. Discreet, but focused and industrious, he gave Duchamp a piece of his own mind. From then on, it would be work as usual. There were countless traces to be picked up in Duchamp’s trail – slim cues, silent music. Cerebral circuits had to be delicately hooked on to other machines, imaginary solutions invented.

Becoming Duchamp by Sylvère Lotringer



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