What follows is an interview with three voices. I only started asking questions at the end; the conversation — and introduction, for that matter — began with Angelo Spoto at &Now Books. The interview takes place with Gretchen E. Henderson, a writer (now based out of Boston) who published two books with different presses, almost concurrently. Both of Henderson’s books ask and explore artistic questions. Her first book, Galerie de Difformité (&Now Books/Lake Forest College Press), operates like a kind of text-based exhibition space with pages. Her second book, On Marvellous Things Heard, was published by my press, The Green Lantern, and examines the relationship between language and music.
Deforming Forms with Gretchen E. Henderson (an interview)
When I first read Gretchen E. Henderson’s Galerie de Difformité, I approached it like I’ve always approached novels; start on page one, continue to page two, then page three, etc. But even before page sixteen, the book called me out on my traditional approach. “Do not read straight through this catalogue from start to finish!” it said or, it seemed, yelled at me. At this point, I realized Galerie de Difformité is nothing like any novel I’ve ever read. It’s a chose your own adventure story meets poetry meets the essay meets art catalog, all mixed up behind the cover of what appears to be a novel. Galerie is comprised of “Exhibits” created by “Subscribers” (who, on the Galerie website, posted deformed versions of Henderson’s writing) as well as Henderson’s own poetry, prose, and essays. Galerie focuses on deformity, and a deformed version of Dante’s Beatrice is the readers’ guide. (OR, ask “Tell me about Galerie de Difformité”)
Angela Spoto: What was the genesis of Galerie de Difformité? Why did you want to write the novel in such an unusual way?
Gretchen Henderson: The novel began as an essay, which did not want to be an essay.(1)
AS: What is an exhibit?
GH: An “Exhibit” is a prose poem, more or less, narrated by one of my main characters: a deformed reincarnation of Dante’s Beatrice.(2)
AS: Why did you choose to write about deformity? Usually, beauty is a more common theme.
GH: Exactly. (3)
AS: Beatrice is a reoccurring character/guide in the novel. She is typically associated with beauty, but you chose to focus on her deformity. Do you think Galerie challenges the reader to question traditional concepts of beauty?
GH: If we look at representations of Beatrice across art history (see “Exhibit A“), they appear wildly different in a way that makes me wonder: Are these differences beauty or deformity in action?(4)
AS: How do you go about writing a novel so unlike traditional novels? Was it difficult?
GH: In some ways, it was strangely easy—not to say it didn’t involve logistical acrobatics, extreme labor and patience over time, while the “baggy monster” of the novel slowly (re)generated its form.(5)
AS: You have a blog that is a virtual extension of the novel. Why did you create this website and what can readers find there?
GH: The website isn’t a blog, per se—more a virtual gallery that documents and suggests how the book grows in and out of itself through collaborative (aesthetic, cultural, social) deformation.(6)
AS: You invite everyone and anyone to create their own exhibits on your site and some of those creations (or deformations) have been included in the published book. Why did you decide to open up the novel to outside “Subscribers?”
GH: By opening up the project, I as so-called Author(ity) of my book don’t know how it ends, either in form and content—among other elements, even that expected teleology has the capacity to change.(7)
AS: What emotions do you hope Galerie evokes in its readers?
GH: Readers will get out of the Galerie as much as they put in. (8)
AS: Is there any author that inspired you to create Galerie?
GH: Many more than those indicated by the 28 printable pages of single-spaced, electronic endnotes.(9)
AS: Why do you write?
GH: I never intended to be a writer and fell into it as a high school teacher, now thinking that it’s my attempt—in some small way—to invite (re)perception of our vulnerable, culpable, and capable place in this world.(10)
AS: How has writing Galerie de Difformité changed you as a writer?
GH: I gave up trying to fit a book inside its inherited box, or body, to let the novel (and other projects) be what each wants to be, engaged and engaging with this moment in time.(11)
AS: There seem to be two Gretchen Hendersons. Gretchen Henderson the writer (whose name appears on the cover of the novel) and Gretchen Henderson the character/narrator/Undertaker. Why two Gretchens, and are they really different at all?
GH: Yes, they are different: among other aspects, I never was struck by lightning, neither of my grandfathers had a secret family, nor was either a medieval scholar (rather, a mailman and a chemist), and I confess to being an academic (of sorts).(12)
AS: The novel is almost like a game, but it has a serious side, too, touching on real-life issues of deformity and self-understanding. How do you want your readers to approach the Galerie, and what do you hope they take away from the experience?
GH: Notions of self and authority are constructs as much as the BOOK—all of which have changed across history and will continue to change within and through their (our) deforming bodies.(13)
AS: You wrote, “By the time this book is printed, it already will be outdated.” What do you think (or hope) lies in store for the future deformation of the Galerie?
GH: As more sensibilities and perspectives and media come to bear on “deformity” (and “book,” for that matter), I hope the more static definition starts to vibrate and take on a kind of reanimated life. (14)
Caroline Picard: You have another book, On Marvellous Things Heard, that we recently released through my publishing house, The Green Lantern Press. This essay, which you write is a “deformation and reformation” on the traditional, explores the relationship between literature/writing/language and music/silence. Was this essay at all influenced by your work with Galerie de Difformité?
GH: The two projects were written more or less simultaneously, albeit separately, so there may be loose links threading in and out of one another, through echo effect.(15)
CP: In On Marvellous Things Heard, you again return to the classics, playing off of Aristotle’s book of the same title. Can you talk a little bit about the work you do using old works and characters, and recombining them into new compositions?
GH: It’s being done all the time—I’m just making visible (or asking readers to make visible) otherwise invisible traces.(16)
CP: OMTH seems to study and expound upon music’s resistance to language. What was your process like, writing this book, when the tools you had to address your subject were admittedly inadequate from the start?
GH: Therein lies a timeworn question—to arrive back where we started, changed—not unlike sonata structure: exposition, development, recapitulation.(17)
CP: Or too, what would music’s ideal description look like? Do you feel like musical notation is more successful than grammatical text?
GH: It depends on the form for the content—there are different literacies involved with reading language versus music, and it takes time to learn and notate (to write into, to write against) those literacies—to then suggest the right notation for any given project (disclaimer: I don’t believe in a singular ideal).(18)
CP: How would you describe the relationship between poetics and music and sound? Do these facets of expression belong in a family?
CP: What are you working on now?
GH: Ugliness: A Cultural History.(20)
(1) Galerie de Difformité, began as a critical essay exploring aesthetics of deformity in eighteenth-century British visual culture. This was back in Fall 2004. As I wrote and organized my arguments around particular works of art—engaging an era dense with nationalistic enterprises, archaeological excavations of fragments, seeking and fashioning Ur-origins, outgrowths of private into public museums, varied notions of exhibition—the essay itself began to fragment into a kind of pseudo-exhibition. The final version retained the rhetoric of scholarship, if structured as a collection of curated micro-essays, each of which was prefaced by an image and captioned as it might appear in a museum or catalogue. Entitled Galerie de Difformité, that scholarly essay barely resembles the novel that came to be. That said, traces of the original remain in occasional sections titled “Deformity as…” (Curiosity, Misrepresentation, Caricature, Sa(l)vage(d), Sublime, etc.), heavily treated through constraints. Once the initial essay was completed, deformed aesthetics kept appearing in other material that I was reading—across literature, art, music, the gamut of disciplines—and the essay’s intermediate white spaces begged to be expanded through and into fiction and poetry, a kind of chorus, lulling and leading me to c(u)r(e)ate “Exhibits.” The novel just grew from there: suggesting missing parts, characters, narrative strategies, echoes, seams to stitch and loosen and tether together into this “baggy monster” (to borrow Henry James’ characterization of the Novel).
(2) “Exhibits” are so-named because they inhabit the larger Galerie de Difformité (as in a museum) and also suggest a kind of evidence (as with exhibits in a legal trial). Adopting alphabetic identities and allegiances, they are labeled “A” through “Z,” also archived thematically. (For instance, “Exhibit C” treads around color and chronology, and also might be classified as contortion or corporeal or _______ [fill in the blank]). A reader can bring their own sensibilities to bear on varied possibilities. As prose poems, “Exhibits” resist neat summarization. In the book they don’t appear alphabetically sequenced, nor do they congregate together, rather alternate with other genre elements (epistles, definitions, faux scholarship, images, etc.). Some even appear outside the body of the book—like “Exhibit Q,” which exists only in an endnote, and “Exhibit E,” which translates as a QR code on page 250 (the final page, where the colophon should be) and remains to be written (as a kind of End).
(3) Apart from beauty’s overriding positive connotations that often get attention, history has witnessed many cults of beauty where the nature of beauty (footbinding, corsets, etc.) changes. Beauty can be skin-deep, deceptive, even dangerous. Kathleen Marie Higgins writes: “[W]e cannot see beauty as innocent when the sublime splendor of the mushroom cloud accompanies moral evil, that aesthetic appeals congealed Hitler’s rallies, that beautifully embellished clothes and jewelry currently motivate teenagers to murder.” There are many examples that stretch this question into different periods and fields. (For instance, in 2005, it was estimated that Americans spent at least $12.4 billion on cosmetic surgery, which was more than the total gross domestic product for over 100 nations, including Albania and Zimbabwe, totaling over 1 billion people!) Beyond the usual binary that pits deformity against beauty, I am interested in muddying both waters. Deformity is fraught with historical baggage (see footnote 4 below) but also takes on positive connotations in different sociocultural contexts (like the Japanese concept of “wabi-sabi,” or as Kakuzo Okakura describes in The Book of Tea a “worship of the Imperfect,” or as occurs in certain traditions of rug and other weaving, where a pattern is deformed deliberately at a certain point, to allow the soul to move in and out, to leave something unfinished for the imagination to complete, or so the weaver does not compete with a larger creator, or for other reasons). I am interested in deformity as a kind of investigation of these practices and priorities, not to mention the litany of terms that have kept company with deformity across history: grotesque, monstrous, ugly, asymmetric, crippled, handicapped, disabled, etc. Like Umberto Eco claims, “Beauty is, in some ways, boring. Even if its concept changes through the ages, nevertheless a beautiful object must always follow certain rules… Ugliness is unpredictable and offers an infinite range of possibilities. Beauty is finite. Ugliness is infinite, like God.”
(4) Deformity carries historical baggage, seemingly negative and static, but full of kinetic potential: deforming. In process. Within the word itself literally lies form—de(form)ity, dif(form)ite—evolving. Everything deforms around us: seasonal cycles, aging bodies, changes of all types. Beyond that, “deformity” becomes an aesthetic backdoor to the politically fraught term “disabled” and many types of “otherness”—like Aristotle’s claim that “the female as it were a deformed male” (or, in other translations, “a mutilated male”). Galerie de Difformité is packed with as many historical notions of deformity as possible, within a choose-your-own-adventure structure where a reader has agency to follow or break rules, calling attention to how we read books, bodies, and our perceptions.
(5) As mentioned in Footnote 1, Galerie de Difformité began as a very different project and for many years was a side-side-side project. It took time, too, to grope my way into my own redefinition of the Novel, first studying the long and rich history of that genre, then writing a first novel, wanting to offer homage and invitation through my reinterpretations. Rather than write into the too-strict triumvirate of fiction/poetry/nonfiction, I found that source material from different periods (alongside changing notions of genres and of deformity, mixed up by my background in music) encouraged a multifarious and malleable sense of form(s). Major life changes coincided and intervened along the way, some of which could easily have curtailed this project and more. I realized that, like life and all else, my novel had the potential to deform—physically, psychically, and otherwise—even to perform its deformity and be co-created as an aesthetic and sociocultural entity. This has encouraged me to chase down various paths, intellectually and technologically. The project tries to provide multiple access points, so any number of different readers can meet the chimeric creature on their own terms. Over a decade of teaching at different levels and in different environments indirectly influenced the interactive nature of Galerie de Difformité, and I’ve enjoyed working with the book in different classes to consider its pedagogical dimensions. Future documentation of the project will take on its own life, as the book will retreat into the background, as the larger collaborative deformation will swarm around it: slowly. Galerie de Difformité is like a creature that needs to be tended. I am constantly learning from it, as Subscribers’ contributions give me cues about how to tend the project’s future. (By way of example of a collaborative influence: An early Subscriber added his own constraint to the project’s constraint, choosing to submit four deformations in order to spell out a word (TOMB: see visualized alphabet below). Since his submission was early enough to be considered to illustrate the book, I chose two of his deformations to spell an embedded word back in the published book (OM). His dedicated involvement also encouraged me to go ahead with my plan to build an electronic library of deformity-related collaborative chapbooks, and he became the first guest editor.) Other future stages are planned, but along the way, plans will evolve based on collaborative interactions.
(6) The online Galerie de Difformité (sharing the novel’s title, since they grow in and out of one another) is a growing installation dedicated to deformity. It includes instructions about how to collaboratively participate. The site hosts “Exhibits” as downloaded documents (which were first mounted after they appeared in literary journals, to interface with contemporary print culture): materials that visitors can deform through whatever medium and concept. Deformants have chosen a range of approaches: from erasure and cut-up, to treating “Exhibits” as a canvas or freezing text in ice, carved in beeswax and soap, to more conceptual installations and videos, even floated away by balloons. The book is laced with QR (Quick Response) codes that can be scanned with mobile devices like iPhones to link to various parts of the online gallery and offshoots (a short film, an e-volume of archival papers of Ye Ugly Face Club, and other paraphernalia) that will change as more people participate in the communal deformation and bring their own sensibilities to bear on its constraints. Also online is the growing electronic library of collaborative chapbooks, broadly engaging deformity, both in content and form. The book is slowly being unbound, growing in and out of itself, bridging material and virtual realms, calling itself a book, functioning as a book, engaging the vocabulary of the book (i.e., What is a page?): to make visible that this technology-that-is-the-book has a long and rich history and is not at its apocalyptic end.
(7) I am only one person, and to engage the questions that I wanted to ask, I needed to appeal to and consult many voices, bodies, sensibilities, perspectives, and approaches. Writers, artists, musicians, and other creators never work in a vacuum. Galerie de Difformité makes that process visible to work against the notion of Romantic genius, against Author-ity, even as it plays up and into the notion of Authorship. I call myself the author while also postmodernly twisting my authority (including a Gretchen Henderson who is not me), undercutting and duplicating and triplicating questions about my authority, culling sources and source material from across centuries, putting these in conversation with one another, threading my voice through different genres and appropriations, so the narrative(s) occur between genres, between the lines, into margins, beyond the book—tracing and illuminating reading strategies where the reader is invested with agency and co-creates meaning with the presumed, authoritative “original.”
(8) Whatever a reader wants or needs, I hope they find. Galerie de Difformité is many books in one: a book that can be read quickly and superficially, or slowly and deliberately, even over the course of years (given the choose-your-own-adventure and growing paraphernalia that is tethered to the project). Each reading experience should be different, both because the book and the reader are changing.
(9) Where to begin? Where to end?
(10) As John Cage described his motivation for composition: not for self-expression but for self-alteration. “How do we change with the ever-changing world in a compassionate and graceful way? How do engage with a kind of impermanence?”
(11) How does a writer adequately thank those who help to wing her words into the world? I’m ever grateful to &NOW and the Madeleine P. Plonsker Prize for supporting this process. To receive logistical and financial support to publish such an interdisciplinary, intergenre, intermedia project is a gift of immeasurable worth. I am especially grateful to Davis Schneiderman at &NOW and Caroline Picard at Green Lantern for advocating for my inclinations, when other editors might have tried to box up and down the work, to make it conform rather than deform, which would’ve worked against its organic intent.
(12) In the novel, Gretchen is a construct as much as Bea as much as Gloria: the last of whose name doesn’t double in the book (though admittedly, her surname isn’t entirely unrelated to that of William Hay, an eighteenth-century hunchbacked member of British Parliament, who wrote an essay on Deformity in 1754). The narrators of the GdD exist as a sequence of diminishing mirrors, also reflecting and refracting readers as they get more involved in the labyrinth. But to return to your question: there’s also a triplicating of Gretchen Henderson, since both the fictional and real author, and Gloria, all share the same initials—G.H.—quadrupled with Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to GH, as quoted at the end of the introduction (page 8): “This is a book just like any other book. But I would be happy if it were read only by people … who know that an approach—to anything whatsoever—must … traverse even the very opposite of what is being approached … Over time, the character G.H. came to give me, for example, a very difficult pleasure; but it is called pleasure.” By including multiplied Gretchens, I’m not only appropriating a common postmodern construct (see Footnote 7), but also trying to give readers spaces and license to multiply their identities, their selves, and resist whatever classifications they may be hemmed into at this moment in time. (See “Application to be a Subscriber,” page 12). Essentially, the novel is about adaptation and change, whether engaging with the history of the novel, talking back to the identity movements of the last half century, taking a kind of Buddhist journey, or _______ [fill-in-the-blank].
(13) See Footnotes 8, 9, 10, and 19.
(14) “Deformity” has a number of sub-definitions, as I have tried to unpack throughout the novel (see Footnotes 3 and 4, or page 237 of the book, for starters). Because the Galerie de Difformité is a perpetual work in progress, partly based in new and evolving technologies, some parts of the story may become formally defunct along the way, unless translated into readable media. Additionally, the collaborative aspect multiples the potential ways this might evolve. What components ultimately remain, what parts mutate, and what else falls by the wayside will be part of the project’s larger documentation. To speak about one technology: QR codes were barely used when the book was planned, but now you see them on bus advertisements, in libraries, on real estate signs, almost everywhere. I am interested in textual and visual literacies, and how these combine, how technology is shaping our strategies for reading both old and new texts, where and how and why we create, classify, archive, and access literature.
(15) Each developing book suggests multiple possibilities, and my projects constantly cross-fertilize. I can’t work on a single project alone. Many lead to dead ends, but the processes invariably influence varied products. I finished OMTH before GdD, but all of my work has taken a long time to find homes (i.e., publishers). More than the GdD, OMTH has more of a relationship with my musically-structured first novel, The House Enters the Street, which is coming out third in the line-up (in Fall 2012, thanks to Starcherone Books). If it hadn’t been runner-up for the 2005 AWP Award Series in the Novel and received other nods, I might have chalked up that project as part of my learning process and shelved it away in a box. The suspension of a project across years lends an interesting sense of time—particularly if the book works against chronology—like a sign I once read in a subway (also quoted in The House Enters the Street): “Sometimes you have to go backward in order to go forward.”
(16) Older works, characters, and motifs always lie at our threshold, at edges, beckoning to converse with the present moment, not to be forgotten, providing fodder to dream of alternative futures. In a project like OMTH, there are a number of recombinations of old and new. Aristotle’s essay of the same title refers to “marvels” more in the vein of Herodotus, so my appropriation of “marvellous things heard” makes a sensory shift into the context of music, sound and silence—an appropriation also indebted to translations of various types (across languages, eras, cultures, disciplines), needling what gets lost and found in translation. By way of another example: my replacement of “she” for “he” in Aristotle’s essay becomes a process of imagined restitution, as a way of talking back to the author who described “the female as it were a deformed male” (see Footnote 4), shifting the peripheral “other” into the role of protagonist, to ask “what if?”—in the way that Karen Armstrong describes myth: “Mythology is not an early attempt at history, and does not claim that its tales are objective fact. Like a novel, an opera or a ballet, myth is make-believe; it is a game that transfigures our fragmented, tragic world, and helps us to glimpse new possibilities by asking ‘what if?’—a question which has also provoked some of our most important discoveries in philosophy, science and technology.” Across time, how many stories share the same plot, retold afresh for each new generation, wolves in sheep’s clothing, or sheep masquerading as wolves? Beyond the story or poem or essay, or intermediate genre, are its building blocks—our living language—comprised of many languages, changing as we speak and write, malleable, deforming and interacting with other languages within our changing world. Etymological evolution is at work all the time. We live in a moment that’s rummaging through the scrapheap of history amid unprecedented change, trying to imagine possible futures, trying to figure out how to build into that process meaningful reflection, the art of listening, attention to conscience, and conscientiousness.
(17) Like the Galerie de Difformité, whose content took awhile to find its interrelated form, the material within On Marvellous Things Heard went through varied incarnations: from faux to scholarly essays to a pedagogical collection of music-inspired writing exercises, etc. (The poems that ended up in my cartographic-based chapbook, Wreckage: By Land & By Sea, also went through varied incarnations.) My first attempt to harness the musical material was a faux opera lodged inside my first novel, The House Enters the Street. The more that I tried to reduce something three-dimensional to two dimensions, it resisted that attempt, needed to breathe, needed white space, interaction, call and response, counterpoint of voices, where my voice became only one in a larger chorus (cacophonic as that chorus may be).
(18) The content of each project searches for its own form. Notation follows accordingly. Just because I read modern English doesn’t mean I understand Old English, just as someone who can sing from the modern five-staff system doesn’t mean they can make music from medieval neumatic notation (before block notes, essentially appearing as squiggles and dots above and below lines of text, denoting relative pitch and duration: monophonic, not polyphonic). Regardless of what gets lost in translation, traces remain, trails of breadcrumbs to follow, ways to educate ourselves to read backwards (so to speak). There are so many different kinds of literacies across disciplines, languages, historical periods, cultures. What feels generative to me is putting these different literacies in conversation with one another somehow, if only through sensibility, appealing to sounds and senses that shift us both outside and back into our skins.
As aside: I’ve been thinking for a while about a musical notational analogue for On Marvellous Things Heard. If any composer might be interested in collaborating, please contact me.
(20) More important to me than creative writing is the enterprise of creative living: always a process in progress. I’m excited about the creative writing courses that I’m teaching at MIT, engaging interdisciplinary fields like book history and museum studies. But to return to Ugliness: A Cultural History, this might be considered another deformation of the Galerie de Difformité, growing out of a subplot involving Ye Ugly Face Club. (My faux introduction for the e-volume of this facetious society’s archival papers deformed into a scholarly essay delivered at the annual conference for the Association of Art Historians, forthcoming in an art history anthology, now deforming further into a cultural history of Ugliness for Reaktion Books.) While exploring ugliness, I will continue tending to the communal deformation of the Galerie de Difformité. If you’re interested in participating, please visit: http://difformite.wordpress.com. Thank you for reading. In the meantime, please listen to Footnote 19.
“O Rosalind, these trees shall be my books. / And in their barks my thought I’ll character, / That every eye in which this forest looks / Shall see thy virtue witness’d everywhere. / Run, run, Orlando! Carve on every tree / The fair, the chaste, and unexpressive she” (As You Like It, Act III, scene ii, l. 1-10).
This week I’m posting something quick and slight — more of a go-to, actually. Because I came across a great interview on the Movement Research blog that Marissa Perel conducted with Katy Pyle about her Ballez performance, The Firebird. “It’s a redefined, more theatrical, and queered ballet. It takes a lot from ballet vocabulary, but it’s exploring new gender roles, new gender identities, and features queer women, lesbians, and trans people. It’s a Ballez” (Movement Research). Their conversation inspired me for so many reasons — on the one hand it sounds like a performative embodiment of hybridity from the way the piece exemplifies gender fluidity, to the way it borrows from multiple styles and approaches to dance (and particularly ballet), to the fact that there is a “transanimal” (what a lovely creature!). But then too, I have been extending an essay about artist residencies in the woods and how they are contingent to the city. In Pyle’s piece, her Princess protagonist “is really chasing the transanimal, which we don’t necessarily associate with femininity and masculinity. And, she’s a lesbian princess. She’s recently divorced, you know. She’s starting out on a journey away from this life of privilege and heteronormative culture to find what she really wants and what would really feel right for her. So, she goes into the woods [laughs]. That’s where you go to figure things out” (MR). From my experience I visiting ACRE last summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about of the “woods” and what their role is in the creative process. It brings up all these old high school memories about our day-long slog of an annual Shakespeare Festival (every English class in the school acted out a scene from Shakespeare; it was always part pain and part pleasure and very certainly a suspension of reality, given that the whole school spent six hours together in the auditorium). Woods and islands were frequently reoccurring settings that always offered insight and transformation because they provided remote locations that resisted otherwise predominant moires.
The setting of action in As You Like It takes place in the Forest of Arden. While the characters are still subject to the laws and politics of their court, (for instance, Rosalind has fled for political reasons), the forest enables a suspension of civilized reality. Once inside the forest, characters can reinvent themselves: women can be men and fools can be wise. Rosalind transforms herself into a man creating an overarching and poetic tension around gender relations. Hierarchical power is unsettled and reexamined, as is the characters’ relationship to their environment. Trees become books, becoming directly accessible. The context of the forest highlights a separate kind of truth which is eventually brought back to the city and grafted onto urban society. It is as though the forest is a dream state, wherein characters engage and resolve their problems intuitively, in ways that were not possible in the rational, domesticated world. The literal Forest of Arden in England, not far from Shakespeare’s birth place, lies in the center of England. Curiously, no Roman road ever passed through its wood. Rather roads were built around its bounds. Even in geographic reality the forest seems to maintain a space beyond rational enterprise, an undomesticated plot of land that resists easy passage, while nevertheless being contextualized (or flanked) by the very politics it suspends. There is a constant relationship between the conscious and the subconscious, the wilds of the wood and the rubric of inherited society.
There was a family in our neighborhood growing up and they always had the very same standard, gray poodle. It was always called Cooper and in every one of the family’s Christmas cards, Cooper was present, represented at a variety of ages. You see because when one Cooper died, the family procured another, younger, gray poodle puppy, to whom they bestowed the same name. While each generation of Cooper possessed its own distinct characteristics — one more playful, another a nippy grump, another dedicated to one family member alone — over the course of time, and in the collective family memory, all Coopers blended together into an amalgam that was difficult to parse. People also clone pets (a more expensive means to the same end, perhaps) and here too an underlying question of “I”ness comes up which I find particularly interesting — especially when linking to last weeks’ interview with Mary Jane Jacob and ideas of the Buddhist non-self, or even before that, the possible identities of objects, as described by João Florêncio. To further investigate ideas of self, I asked Meredith Kooi, an old friend who recently moved to Atlanta in pursuit of a PhD. She is also the editor for Radius, an experimental radio platform based in Chicago and has a forthcoming paper in Contemporary Visual Studies Reader (Routledge). Her writing was also published in ASPECT: The Chronicle of New Media. We do not talk about the identities of others, however. Instead we talk about what constitutes the self and how autoimmune flare ups might discourage a cohesive understanding of “I.”
Caroline Picard: How do you conceive of the self? Is it singular?
Meredith Kooi: To answer your question, “How do I conceive of the self?” I need to clarify that I am not referring to anything necessarily related to “identity.” In a previous work of mine from 2008, a zine called Clearing the Clutter: Losing the Self to Greener Pastures, my introduction included a list many different ways I could name my identity. At the same time, I tried to distance myself from all of those identifying nouns. The piece fell short, though, because it did not address some sort of transcendental self, some sort of essential essence that each person is and has. At the time, I was highly influenced by yogic philosophies of self, accounts of a self are inclined toward the sacred. I can’t and don’t know how to deal with them particularly at this moment. Maybe I’m too ignorant and cynical, not enlightened. I am, however, intrigued by the view that the entire universe exists within the self; this might be related to the microbiome in some way. But at the same time, there are these binaries used to explain the workings of the world. I’m not so into these binaries exactly, even though there is the notion that these are constantly in interaction with each other and need each other to make a whole.
My particular interests in notions of the self for the past few years have stemmed from experiences of autoimmunity. An autoimmune disease is one in which the self, meaning the patient’s body, doesn’t recognize some part of itself. It treats that part as if though it were a nonself or not-self, as other material foreign to the body: bacteria, viruses, identified cancers, and etc. My interests in this experience lie in both the biological/physiological processes of the autoimmune disorder and the way the patient internalizes and describes this condition to herself. I ask: “When the body treats itself as if it were not itself and works to ‘destroy’ it, what can that mean for the patient’s understanding of self? Can there be an understanding of a whole, intact self?” These disorders have been historically psychologized and described as a result of not knowing oneself, one’s enemies or friends, and one’s role in the social order. This has led me to question broadly what is “self” and what is “other” in order to understand what these disorders have meant, mean presently, and can mean in the future.
The philosophical tradition of self and Other is rich and long; I am still working through a number of different schools of thought on the subject. I can’t just align my thoughts with any one particular approach. There are important aspects from each that I’ve adopted in order to gain a better understanding of self, Other, nonself concepts. Jacques Derrida’s writing on autoimmunity has been particularly influential for my thoughts on the relation between self and other, and leads me to wonder about the political nature of the autoimmune as it relates to the im-possible: that which “must remain (in a nonnegative fashion) foreign to the order of my possibilities, to the order of the ‘I can’ … of an unforeseeable coming of the other.” (Derrida, Rogues, 84). However, in this “event,” what does it mean for the self to present itself to the self as the other (a mouthful I know); as the “irreducible and nonappropriable différance of the other”? (Derrida, Rogues, 84) This formulation ultimately leads to questions of ethics and responsibility, which is also important to how I conceive of the self. And this kind of throws a complication into the mix of Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics perhaps: where the Other that confronts us as Other is really one’s own self. Though, I am not totally sure of this position, and won’t try to pretend that I am.
So, to answer your question in other words, no, I do not conceive of the self as singular, though this is not necessarily related to multiple identities or hybrid identities. I believe there is a multiplicity of selves inherent to the self, and I arrive at this through a consideration of autoimmunity and the practice of making images, photographs, that I believe have an autoimmune logic worked into them. This intersects with my interests in the artistic and philosophic tradition of mimesis as well, but maybe that is for another question!
CP: Can you give some examples of works that possess an autoimmune logic?
MK: One way I’ve been thinking about autoimmune logic is through what I call an “autoimmune aesthetic,” which in itself functions on multiple registers. Recently, I gave a conference paper titled “An Autoimmune Aesthetic,” where I discussed the history of representations of disability, disability photography. The photographic work I am making currently comes out of that history. My photographic series titled Blurs/Blears (2010-11) is trying to “represent” autoimmunity without simply showing the audience an autoimmune body. Instead I’m aiming towards an affective register of autoimmunity through other spaces and objects, and I’m wondering whether a non-figurative image can in some way speak to the autoimmune condition. This would be one way of thinking about an autoimmune aesthetic: does the image itself have an autoimmune disorder? How does the content of the image express autoimmunity?
During an autoimmune flare, I argue the self and the body experience estrangement: the self from the self, the body from the body, the mind from the body, and etc. Strangely enough this has led me to Russian Formalism and Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of ostraneniye, or “defamiliarization.” I hadn’t anticipated engaging in a formalist conversation at all, but in turning to abstraction in order to represent the disabled body, it seems like some of those ideas would be important. The form and structure of the work talking to each other in some way.
This is also extremely important to my ideas about mimesis – the philosophical concept of imitation, representation, resemblance… I see the relation between the original and copy in a similar way to the self and nonself. In the making of this series of photographs, I paid attention to the relation between the series in terms of what could/would be called the “original” image and the methods by which I “imitated,” “copied,” or “represented” it subsequently (excuse the scare quotes – I guess I’m pointing to some sort of distrust I have with these words). However, I’m not sure I can even call the first photograph the original because the body, my own body, my previous photographs of my own body, may be the original (but then this is also a complicated statement to make since that previous work came out of my research on the British socialist-feminist photographer Jo Spence’s phototherapy work). This is another register of the autoimmune aesthetic: a particular attention to the mimetic activity of image-making that recognizes doubles within itself. I’m questioning whether the self experienced before an autoimmune flare or during remission is some sort of original self, both in terms of biology but also psychical understanding of one’s bodily and mental states. (Further complicating this notion, however, is the microbiome: the microorganisms that inhabit the human body. I like to think of the microbiome in terms of estrangement and the shower bottles that inhabit my space: Untitled #1, Blemish #1, #1). The process of making these images is important to my notions of autoimmunity, mimesis, and the connections I see between them. What tools from art, literature, and philosophy can we use to think about autoimmunity, the autoimmune body, and the autoimmune experience? Do we necessarily need to see bodies to understand an autoimmune affect? Is it all a question of biology?
However, with that said, the autoimmune aesthetic does not necessarily apply only to illness, the body, or even visual art. Political notions of immunity and general theories of subjectivity are also important to the autoimmune aesthetic and the understanding of this condition. Autoimmunity isn’t limited to the particular pathological occurrence in the body, and so thus, I don’t see its representation being limited to a picture of a body, my body.
To give an example of another work that has an autoimmune logic: the play Helen by Euripides. The interesting thing in this play for me is the double Helen; she was the one who actually went to Troy while the original Helen was cast off and didn’t go. I see the notion of the double in some way being related to the autoimmune and an autoimmune aesthetic as well. A double self perhaps. Or, Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha” in her book Three Lives. Literary texts have so far been my go-to in my formulations of an autoimmune aesthetic and the autoimmune writ large, and I attempt to take these ideas to image-making.
CP: That makes me think about time, too: like somehow the idea of self is not only fluid in the present, but must also fluctuate over time (what your autoimmune “flare up” seems to suggest). Do you then have to address the idea of continuity somehow? And consciousness? On the one hand you’re suggesting that an “I” exists, but that its bounds might fluctuate. Something endures, (“I”) but that that thing is very much tied up to an enduring consciousness/sense of self. How does that work, for instance, with Battle Star Galactica (to use a concrete example) where the robot recognizes itself as human, having no recollection of itself as a robot?
MK: Interesting that you mention Battlestar! (I forget if we’ve talked about it before…) I just worked on a paper titled “The Cylon’s Body: Image, Imitation, Clone, Auto-antibody” that was about the figure of the Cylon, particularly Sharon “Boomer”/ “Athena” Valeri (in the Re-imagined Series: 2004-9), as a manifestation of a potential intersection between mimesis and autoimmunity. Obviously the show doesn’t explicitly bring up autoimmunity, but I see the fear of the hidden and dangerous internal body within the overall body of the Colonial Fleet as an auto-antibody – a sort of “rogue” antibody the immune system creates that targets the body’s own tissues.
The case of Boomer and Athena is interesting because through an act of violence — the shooting of Colonel Adama — Boomer discovers the nonself. This nonself doesn’t necessarily need to change the already perceived self, but in the show, Boomer is cast as a terrorist and is predetermined as non-human, fully Cylon. Athena, on the other hand, knows she is Cylon, but decides to act “human,” thus conferring upon her the status of human; she is ultimately accepted as such when given the pilot call name Athena. The characters come into themselves through the relation to others; to quote Bakhtin (he’s on my mind a lot right now): “The hero’s attitude toward himself is inseparably bound up with his attitude toward another, and with the attitude of another toward him. His consciousness of self is constantly perceived against the background of another’s consciousness of him – ‘I for myself’ against the background of ‘I for another’” (Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, 207). What becomes interesting for me here is the relation between “another” and “nonself.” In the case of the two Sharons, the “I for myself,” the question of human or Cylon, is bound not only to their own attitudes about their status of human or machine, but the attitudes of the rest of the Fleet. This is not to say, however, that their status/selfhood is determined by the rest of the Fleet.
This idea for me is also tied to Karen Barad’s, a feminist physicist-philosopher, notion of intra-action: that entities are co-constituted through their intra-action with each other, as opposed to an interaction which presupposes their already being discrete objects. This has resonance in the development and functioning of the immune system. Immunology has gone through major developments since it’s inception, and one idea that has been of focus is the recognition of self and the formation of antibodies: is it through the confrontation with the nonself that the self learns what it is, or is the self an already existing entity? How does this question translate to broader questions of selfhood? The relation is important, in terms of both biology and the broader conversation, but I don’t necessarily want to go so far as to say that the self doesn’t exist without the nonself, though I am floating this idea. I’m not so sure if the self is a vacuum or has an essence, and, to be honest, the idea terrifies me. Part of me wants to claim that the self is only constituted in discourse, or in power relations, or doesn’t really exist. Part of me would like to believe that there is a continuous self that has an essence. I think that both of these options, however, may be too simple (they may try to answer something essentially unanswerable).
The temporality of this identification/consciousness/awareness is also important. The event of the shooting of Adama, or the event of an autoimmune flare, is a particular assemblage in time and space that demands action, a response, an explanation, a conceptualization. My thoughts currently are that the noneself presents us with a radical other to ourselves that is really the product of our own selves and bodies. When our own biology can’t recognize itself, what can that mean for our self-definition? I’m not so sure I would use the word “fluid” to describe the sense of “self” or self-definition I’m trying to get at; however, I do like the sense of movement that it suggests. The self and the relation of the self and the nonself is subject to time, but fluidity implies an easier transition between states; my focus as of late is violence and pain, which I wouldn’t claim is necessarily fluid … though maybe…
CP: I am struck by the appearance of a “hero” in our conversation. I can’t help feeling like there is something old fashioned about a hero — perhaps because the hero-as-archetype feels so fixed, a static (and singular, enduring) identity…even the way you talk about the body, you imply an active interior life that you’re trying to reconcile with a singular, external appearance/action. But you also mention the idea of an assemblage, and it seems to me the singular self could just as easily be framed that way: as a conglomerate. Isn’t a “hero” at odds with an assemblage?
MK: The idea of “hero” I mentioned earlier is in the Bakhtinian sense of hero that he draws from Dostoevsky’s works. The hero isn’t a static entity created by the author; the hero herself/himself has a self-consciousness that exceeds the author’s intentions or power position. Think of the Underground Man in Notes from Underground in particular. Bakhtin writes in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics: “The hero interests Dostoevsky not as some manifestation of reality that possesses fixed and specific socially typical or individually characteristic traits, nor as a specific profile assembled out of unambiguous and objective features which, taken together, answer the question ‘Who is he?’ No, the hero interests Dostoevsky as a particular point of view on the world and on oneself, as the position enabling a person to interpret and evaluate his own self and his surrounding reality. What is important to Dostoevsky is not how his hero appears in the world but first and foremost how the world appears to the hero, and how the hero appears to himself” (47).
This conception of the author/hero (character) relationship really intrigues me; I see this relation as a way to get at the autoimmune. Some of the prose writing I’ve been doing the past couple years or so tries to approach the dialogic relationship Bakhtin describes, or at least extreme self-consciousness. I’d say that Danielle Dutton’s prose novel S P R A W L does this as well. As for visual art… in some way Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) does this. There is obviously a dialogue occurring between the piece and the audience, but within itself, I think there is some sort of internal dialogue; perhaps a hyper-awareness of self, body, and consciousness. The relations between the body’s self and nonself is important to the piece too, especially in terms of the immune system’s functioning during the condition of AIDS (let me mention that in immune system discourse, AIDS is a very prevalent concern; one complicated aspect of my research is acknowledging this literature and condition, but not conflating the autoimmune with immune deficiency – there are, of course, important political stakes and implications to address in this).
CP: I suddenly feel like we are talking about mortality: the absurdity of an end in being, how death-as-an-end is impossible to conceive. An autoimmunity flare up would be a parallel disruption perhaps, a kind of minideath, wherein the self cannot recognize itself. In that case, isn’t the discussion located in continuity?
MK: I agree with you that maybe conceptualizing the autoimmune flare as a “minideath” could open up some space (interesting, too, how the “minideath,” la petite mort, is used to describe orgasm – the jouissance and the experience of losing oneself – which Roland Barthes talks about in terms of reading literature…). However, I also hesitate with the term “minideath” if it is too dependent on notions of disruption. This would have a lot to do with the way death as an experience is conceptualized temporally: I don’t exactly want to place it within a continuity per se, but I also don’t want to categorize it as an ultimately disruptive event that separates time into discrete units (this would bring up issues of ghosts and specters, and I just don’t have the competence to deal with that at the moment). Though to me, continuity suggests that there is some essence that endures even through what would be called disruptions. I wouldn’t say this is exactly the case with how I’m trying to think about the configurations of self and nonself. If we think about that in terms of continuity, it seems that there would be a privileging of the self that is interrupted by the nonself, or vice versa, and I would rather not give one priority over the other. For me, the two are co-constituted and emerge through their intra-action. It is tricky to give this sort of movement continuity or linearity, though I realize that denying all continuity has its own important implications as well…
I feel that I haven’t been able to sufficiently describe what I mean by the relation of self and nonself. I myself am frustrated at this moment about the condition of autoimmunity. I have a desire to say it relates to Derrida’s notion of différance, but that term itself is, I think, so hard to deal with and I feel that there is a great potential to get stuck in some sort of tautology if I go there at this moment. How can we think about the autoimmune as a condition that is resistant to a synthesis of oppositions, and is in itself only difference? That is where all senses of continuity get lost on me and I fall into the nihilistic trap… which I don’t want to do. I’m neither trying to say that the self doesn’t exist, nor do I want to pronounce that it exists exactly…
The following interview with Mary Jane Jacob continues from the Art21 blog; you can read that here. Our conversation is filtered through the lens of two books, Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art and Learning Mind: Experience into Art that Jacob co-edited with Jacquelynn Baas. Those books were published by the University of California Press in 2004 and 2009 respectively. The third title in the series, Chicago Makes Modern: How Creative Minds Shaped Society, is due out through the University of Chicago Press this summer.
CP: One of the things that especially intrigues me about this connection (between Buddhism and contemporary art practice) is how it encourages a kind of anti-egotism, something that goes directly against the grain of our larger society. When so much about cultural production feels contingent on the legitimacy provided by recognition, monetary reward and public acclaim, it is difficult to comprehend an art practice that functions outside those expectations. I am particularly interested in what kinds of conversations arise between you and your students as you wrestle with this subject. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MJJ: It’s true that egotism, the get-all-you-can-help-yourself-ism of which you speak, is a prevailing strain of our society; we see it played out right now in the Republican primaries. But I would not like to call it “the grain of larger society” because, at the same time, there is a lot of desire for change. It’s expressed in a rising consciousness for the need to care for the earth, for community well-being. Not everything points to self-serving-ness. This other strain possesses a sense of necessity and a lot of optimism. Many understand that this selflessness today is urgent to take into action. It also has something to say about why art? I trust art in the social equation.
Among students it is in part a factor of their generation (young people embracing aspects of ‘70s counterculture) and in part a value of art, and notably in the modern era. While modernism brought us the solo, superstar artist, there was another side. This is the story of modernism we are telling in upcoming book Chicago Makes Modern: the role of art that is beyond self for the benefit of the greater good, for the common cause. The severing of art and spirituality is a much-mistaken myth about modernism; take for instance the convictions of Malevich, Moholy-Nagy, Newman, Reinhardt….
So for students who have their careers and lives ahead of them—who have chosen art, not just because they possess skills and interests, but because they often share certain social values, and who have a desire to probe and create meaning, to realize themselves and to communicate to others through art—the work that came through the “Awake: Art, Buddhism, and the Dimensions of Consciousness” program and which they can access through the Buddha Mind book speaks to them. I have found students ready, really hungry, for this. And many Asian students at SAIC have conveyed to me how this has given them a new way to look at their culture, at something they took to be tradition and not modern; they have felt a sense of integration.
CP: Additionally there is a way in which you tackle the idea of consciousness (and of course philosophy) — ideas which are not often (as far as I can tell) discussed in tandem with artmaking. It reminds me of a very early essay in Learning Mind: Experience Into Art, where Danto describes Modernism as a movement to separate and parse painting from sculpture (p.20).
MJJ: It seems like you could also say the same of philosophy and art and religion and science — of course, these subjects bleed into art making, but they seem to me to be generally reserved for a kind of personal artist-talk expose. More often than not, I feel like there is an emphasis on the social implications of art work, how it can function politically, but here there is a suggestion that it can function philosophically as well, as kind of tenant of meaning…is that a fair understanding?
It’s great you bring up Arthur Danto because he is a writer and a friend who was very important to me in the early ‘90s when I was trying to retool and find my way back to art and out of museums. What I love about Arthur is that he can write eruditely (he can cite and use so aptly references from all of Western culture) and at the same time bring it right down to street level (quoting an immigrant cab driver). He uses philosophy to understand our life now, and isn’t that what philosophy was intended to be. He also sees art as a valuable, fundamental part of life; not all philosophers do. But one who did, John Dewey, we might say had an art philosophy of life.
Considering the respect these thinkers had for art, I think they’d agree that artists have a lot to say—in their art and in their words, through their works and lives—that speaks to a larger realm of being. So I don’t know that I’d see “personal artist-talk” as “expose”; I’d hope with the best of them offer insights. At least that’s how I look at it. Maybe that’s why I align more with artists than other arts-related professionals.
CP: There seems to be a natural progression between the extensive work you’ve done discussing art that takes place in the public sphere — the way that such projects challenge conventional hierarchical expectations about art’s place in society. This examination of Buddhism seems to access a different aspect of that same conversation, though one no less political. I am very curious about whether you feel like you address and incorporate Buddhism as a religion, with it’s varied and immense associative/historical past, or if it is more like a kind of philosophical metaphor. I feel like Buddhism somehow becomes a corollary example that, grafted onto an artistic practice would lend new (and iconoclastic) insight. Insight that is not *necessarily* contingent on one’s becoming a monk….
MJJ: Thanks for recognizing that the subject of Buddhism and art has something to do with my work in the expanded public art arena. I said at the beginning of this interview that some program officers in foundations criticized negatively my “organic” process of curating. However, during the early days of the “Awake” program a foundation president, who had greatly help find the program, came up to me at a session break and said, “I see how the Buddhism project relates to your work with the Spoleto Festival.” [I have worked for two decades on site-specific and community projects in Charleston South Carolina, starting with the exhibition “Places with a Past” in 1991.] I was astounded; I had been trying to come to terms with what , at that point, I felt more in my gut than my head. So it was amazing to hear these words, this perception from another.
With the Buddhism project we always made clear this was not about religion, not a cultural study either. It was to see what this wisdom tradition can tell us about the art experience in making and in viewing. This was a level of primary research for us as artists, curators, and educators. Some of what I took away was generosity (we see this as a mode of art practice today as well as in general in the way art is offered to others, including the notion of the gift), interdependence (and here I think of the intrinsic relationship of artists and audience, object and viewer), interconnection (this has a lot to say about our relationship to others and to the world), potentiality and the concept of “not-empty” (the unknown, the creative space), non-attachment (the way art is a generative process), and the beginner’s mind (that something doesn’t have to be wholly new and, in recognizing what came before us, we should neither possess the hubris that we are the first and unique, nor be deflated that everything has already been done; rather to possess the beginner’s mind is to take something into yourself, revitalize it by having it live within you, and with this, innovation is always possible).
So Buddhism is not “grafted” onto artistic practice. Instead, as I feel you mean when you say it can lead to “insight,” Buddhism offers things consistent with the art process, and for some artists it can aid that process. So the next book in a couple of years from now (tentatively titled Artway of Living) will continue this thread. On the one hand, it will deal with socially engaged artists, so the public art aspect remains. On the other, through artists’ firsthand narratives and, yes, their insights, it will dwell on questions at-once philosophical and practical: How can you sustain your art practice? How can you sustain your life as an artist? What is it to live the life of an artist? What is it to live your life as a work of art?
February 22, 2012 · Print This Article
I met João Florêncio over the summer by accident. I was a tourist at a SEPFEP, a philosophy conference in York. My boyfriend was presenting a paper and I happened to tag along — using up some free miles that must have accumulated with my parents’ help. While there, I wasn’t planning to visit any panels but nevertheless, I did. It was great. I had one of those brain infusions that sits with you for months and years, as your consciousness tries to digest what it has consumed. In particular, I got a crash course on feminism and learned more about Object Oriented Ontology — the subject of João’s presentation. He gave a paper about performance and how it might be considered as an object, a thing possessing its own autonomous being, a being not contingent on humanity. I wanted to ask him more questions on the subject and this seemed like a good opportunity. João is a Portuguese scholar currently based in London and researching on Contemporary European Philosophy and Performance Art. He is also an associated researcher of ‘Performance Matters.’
Caroline Picard: How do you think about performance?
João Florêncio: What first drove me to think about performance was my interest in what is generally known as ‘Performance Art’ (or its more British term ‘Live Art’). Despite having been both trained as a classical musician from an young age in a junior conservatoire and received my first degree in musicology, it was not until I discovered performance art that I started thinking about what it means to perform.
Anyhow, after a change of academic focus during my MA, I found myself enrolling on the PhD programme in Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London, in order to carry out what would turn out to be a research project on a new ontology of performance. The reasons for that are varied but they can be summed up by an increased awareness on my part that ‘performance’ is a term that is increasingly used to describe the behaviour of various beings, from humans to computer networks, from national economies and stock markets to higher education institutions. Nevertheless, and despite some exceptions (here I’m thinking of theorist Jon McKenzie), Performance Studies, the academic field within which I’m working, hasn’t spent enough time trying to theorise those occasions of nonhuman performance; it suffers, in my view, from a certain humanist or anthropocentric malaise for reasons that I can point out, if you want.
The question I faced then was how to think of nonhuman performance, how to try to write a new general theory of performance that is able to account for occasions of both human and nonhuman performativity, when Performance Studies doesn’t seem to be offering me any kind of useful theoretical tools to do so? After a couple of years of research, I think I have finally found the medicine I was looking for, and I found it in a cocktail of Information Theory, Cybernetics, Actor-Network-Theory and the fairly recent branch of Continental Philosophy known as Object-Oriented Ontology. These bodies of work, along with a few dashes of Quantum Theory and Philosophy of Mind (for good measure), have helped me take Performance Studies to a place where it had hitherto dared not to go and find a new vibrancy in the world of objects.
Thus, and to finally kind of answer your question, I currently see performance in a very simple (yet useful) way: performance is nothing other than the process through which an object is translated into a version of itself able to be experienced by another object. By translatable object I don’t only mean a musical score, a theatre play, an idea, or even a person; rather, an object (like Graham Harman demonstrates) is anything that has an autonomous existence: from a person to a rock, from a shot of electricity fired by a neuron to a bankrupt financial institution, from a debt-ridden national economy to a melting iceberg. Performance is, in my view, that which allows for an object to manifest itself in the experience of another object by performing a double of itself. So yes, a performance is always performance and object at once. Because all objects that are given to us (or to any other objects) in experience are performances of other objects. Think about it as the whole world being a stage (isn’t that what ‘they’ say?). If the whole world is a stage, then everything in it is playing some role at some point and the only thing we (and everything else) have access to are the characters, the roles played and not the real actors playing them. Suddenly the whole world is full of life, packed with mysteries and hidden places I’d like to visit. What about you?
CP: Of course! That sounds amazing — in so far as suddenly the objects one encounters (including oneself, I assume) possess something autonomous and dynamic. One thing that makes me curious, though, is the kind of priviledge that we have traditionally built into art objects. We want to distinguish them from everyday objects, like rocks for instance. But the way you talk about performance makes me imagine little to no distinction between a Marina Abramović piece and an everyday encounter with a light post. Does art need to maintain its hierarchical plinth to be art?
JF: I’d say there are at least two different kinds of performance: the performance that brings forth an object’s double onto another object’s experience (the kind of performance I mentioned earlier) and then there is a particular second kind of performance, a performance that starts by being like the first one but that then becomes something else. It begins by translating an object into the phenomenological realm of experience but then, for reasons that, in my view, have to do with a change on the way objects engage with each other as audiences, it goes beyond the experience of the given sensual object to suddenly denounce the presence of the real object hidden behind it (even if it never really makes it known). I see it like the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, the defamiliarisation effect through which audiences realise the play they’re watching isn’t reality itself: they become aware of the fiction of theatre; the presence of the actor behind the character is denounced. If the first kind of performance gives us the experience of what graham Harman has called ‘time’ (by allowing us to perceive sensual objects and changes in their sensual qualities), then this second kind of performance gives us ‘space’, the sudden realisation that the real is much deeper than we had hitherto known. It is also this second kind of performance that is usually associated with the art object. However, in my view, it has nothing to do with the nature of the object being experienced but with the nature of the experience itself. If we are to truly support a flat and democratic object-oriented ontology, then we cannot divide the world into ‘normal objects ‘and ‘art objects.’ Art objects don’t exist ontologically. What exists is a particular kind of relation between objects, the aesthetic relation. The aesthetic relation can in principle exist between any two objects. If we think about it, that has already been the case since the first avant-garde. just think of Duchamp’s ready-mades: they are objects like all others; the only thing that changed was that they were placed in a context that triggered an aesthetic engagement on the part of the audience, that context being the so-called ‘art exhibition’. However we do not need art galleries to tell us when to engage with other objects aesthetically: I can be enchanted by anything around me as long as I allow it to myself. It’s almost like my teenage LSD tree-hugging trips. Didn’t ‘they’ say something about opening the doors of perception? Perhaps we are the new hippies but without their terrible sense of fashion. Anyway, I digress here. Let’s just say that in a world made of equal objects and ridden of anthropocentrism, there is no privileged ontological space for ‘art objects.’ Because if we allow the art object to be in any way privileged, then we are a step closer to getting back to anthropocentrism because if art is special, then so must be its creator (the human genius). There is no art; there is only aesthetic experience. And, yes, sometimes the light post is also present; presence is not a quality that only Marina Abramovic has.
CP: That’s what I was going to ask, actually…are there certain objects that are not vehicles of aesthetic experience?
JF: I’m not sure if I understood your question but I think all objects are capable of some kind of aesthetic experience even if perhaps we won’t ever be able to fully know how that operates. We can only speculate that, if an object can never really access another object but only relate to its sensual double, then we can call that a basic form of aesthesis, understood in its original Greek meaning of ‘perception.’ Hence, I believe that Graham Harman called aesthetics the first philosophy because the nature of all relationality between all objects is aesthetic. In what regards Abramovic’s reenactments of her own works, I’m not sure if each reenactment of the work counts as a new real object or, rather — and this is what I’m inclined to believe — as a new sensual version of a same object. We can understand reenactment very simply as a new performance (or a new translation) of the same real object, very much like every time the Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays Shubert’s Symphony No. 9, we are not listening to a new symphony but to a new ‘reading’ of it, a new interpretation, in this case Ricardo Muti’s translation of the original object. What different translations give us is a different point of view of an object without ever giving us the totality of that object (as the object will always withdraw or be protected from our full access via some sort of firewall). So, yes, Abramovic’s reenactments can give us different aspects of the original, to use your words. And those can be aspects that not even Abramovic herself is aware of as the original work as real object that it is, withdraws even from Abramovic’s full access.
CP: How you describe objects’ exchange with one another as audiences…what does that mean? Or, maybe more to the point: how does that work? Do objects have congnisance of one another?
JF: The answer to your second question comes from this previous answer: When I say objects operate as audiences when relating to sensual versions of another object, I mean that objects witness performance or translation, the reenactment of each other. This is not the same as saying that all objects are sentient and conscious of each other (humans and animals might be but I’m not sure about rocks and tree trunks). They are, however, changed by entering into relation with sensual objects just as audiences are changed when witnessing a performance. (I must note here that the relationship between performance and transformation of audiences and performers has been one of the core ideas surrounding Performance Studies since its inception as a field of academic enquiry). We can easily see that being the case: a tree enters into relation with an axe and, like an audience, it is transformed by it – gets cut, gets the shape of the axe’s blade imprinted in its own trunk – without ever having full access to the axe – it doesn’t know anything about the texture of the axe’s handle, its temperature, or its colour, for instance. Or a rock is shaped by the ocean’s waves, gets transformed, but still is not able to access the size of the ocean, the flora and fauna living in it, its saltiness, its reflection of the sunlight, or even the size of the oil spill covering it a few miles away in the Golf of Mexico. In that same way some of us sat in front of Marina Abramovic at MoMA and were transformed by it – some cried, some smiled, some felt reassurance – but nobody was able to fully access Abramovic’s ‘substance’ or, if you want, the totality of her being – her feelings, the sensations on her skin, her own sense of space, our image formed in her retina and being fired at the speed of light all the way up to her visual cortex, etc. As I see it, all relations in the world involve something or someone performing and something or something witnessing the performance, an audience.
CP: In closing, I am almost inclined to ask a sort of sentimental question; how has your day-to-day perception of the world shifted with the incorporation of this philosophy? I can’t help feeling like it might change the undercurrent of your most banal experiences…
JF: I like your last question. There’s nothing wrong with being sentimental. I’m Mediterranean, after all. I think the way I look at things has changed after having read all this object-oriented philosophers and after having been working for a while on the intersection of performance studies and object-oriented philosophy. I think I started looking at things in a different way… I think perhaps to try to ‘catch them’, to try to have a glimpse of what they’ve been hiding. It’s actually hilarious when I find myself sneakingly looking at things like if they came from another planet. It can be a sign of madness but I like to think it is a sign of a rediscovered fascination with everything around me, with the enchanting side of everyday objects. It makes the world suddenly full of stuff waiting to be rediscovered and experienced in different manners. Like every stone hides a treasure or something like that. Call me a romantic, it’s OK.