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 â€” one more playful, another a nippy grump, another dedicated to one family member alone â€” 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 â€” especially when linking to last weeks’ interview with Mary Jane JacobÂ and ideas of the Buddhist non-self, or even before that, the possible identities of objects, as described byÂ JoÃ£o FlorÃªncio. To further investigate ideas of self, I asked Meredith Kooi, an old friend who recently moved to Atlanta in pursuit of Â a PhD.Â She is also the editor for Radius, an experimental radio platform based in Chicago and has a forthcoming paper in Contemporary Visual Studies ReaderÂ (Routledge). Her writing was also published inÂ 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?Â
Meredith Kooi: To answer your question, â€œHow do I conceive of the self?â€ I need to clarify that I am not referring to anything necessarily related to â€œidentity.â€ In a previous work of mine from 2008, a zine calledÂ Clearing the Clutter: Losing the Self to Greener Pastures, my introduction included a list many different ways I could name my identity. Â At the same time, I tried to distance myself from all of those identifyingÂ nouns. The piece fell short, though, because it did not address Â 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.Â 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: â€œWhen 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?â€ 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 â€œselfâ€ and what is â€œotherâ€ 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 Iâ€™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 theÂ im-possible: that which â€œmust remain (in a nonnegative fashion) foreign to the order of my possibilities, to the order of the ‘I can’ â€¦ of an unforeseeable coming of the other.â€ (Derrida,Â Rogues, 84). However, in this â€œevent,â€ what does it mean for the self to present itself to the self as the other (a mouthful I know); as the â€œirreducible and nonappropriable diffÃ©rance of the otherâ€? (Derrida,Â 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:Â 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 â€œautoimmune aesthetic,â€ which in itself functions on multiple registers. Recently, I gave a conference paper titled â€œAn Autoimmune Aesthetic,â€ 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 titledÂ Blurs/BlearsÂ (2010-11) is trying to â€œrepresentâ€ 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 ofÂ ostraneniye, or â€œdefamiliarization.â€ 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 â€“ 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 â€œoriginalâ€ image and the methods by which I â€œimitated,â€ â€œcopied,â€ or â€œrepresentedâ€ it subsequently (excuse the scare quotes â€“ 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:Â Untitled #1,Â Blemish #1,Â #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 playÂ HelenÂ 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 â€œMelancthaâ€ in her bookÂ 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:Â 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: Â Interesting that you mentionÂ Battlestar! (I forget if we’ve talked about it before…) I just worked on a paper titled â€œThe Cylon’s Body: Image, Imitation, Clone, Auto-antibodyâ€ that was about the figure of the Cylon, particularly Sharon â€œBoomerâ€/ â€œAthenaâ€ 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 â€“ a sort of â€œrogueâ€ antibody the immune system creates that targets the body’s own tissues.Â
The case of Boomer and Athena is interesting because through an act of violence â€” the shooting of Colonel Adama â€” Boomer discovers the nonself. This nonself doesn’t necessarily need toÂ changeÂ 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 â€œhuman,â€ 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): â€œThe 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’â€ (Bakhtin,Â Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, 207). What becomes interesting for me here is the relation between â€œanotherâ€ and â€œnonself.â€ In the case of the two Sharons, the â€œI for myself,â€ 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 isÂ determinedÂ by the rest of the Fleet.
This idea for me is also tied to Karen Barad’s, a feminist physicist-philosopher, notion ofÂ intra-action: that entities are co-constituted through theirÂ intra-actionÂ with each other, as opposed to anÂ interactionÂ 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 â€œfluidâ€ to describe the sense of â€œselfâ€ 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 â€” 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. Isnâ€™t a â€œheroâ€ at odds with an assemblage?
MK: The idea of â€œheroâ€ 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 inÂ Notes from UndergroundÂ in particular. Bakhtin writes inÂ Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics: â€œThe 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 aÂ particularÂ 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 himselfâ€ (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 novelÂ S P R A W LÂ does this as well. As for visual art… in some way Felix Gonzalez-Torres’sÂ Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)Â 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 â€“ 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 â€œminideathâ€ could open up some space (interesting, too, how the â€œminideath,â€Â la petite mort, is used to describe orgasm – theÂ jouissanceÂ and the experience of losing oneself – which Roland Barthes talks about in terms of reading literature…). However, I also hesitate with the term â€œminideathâ€ 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.Â 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 ofÂ diffÃ©rance, 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 thatÂ here. Our conversation is filtered through the lens of two books,Â Buddha Mind in Contemporary ArtÂ andÂ Learning Mind: Experience into ArtÂ that Jacob co-edited withÂ Jacquelynn Baas. Those books were published by the University of California Press in 2004 and 2009 respectively. The third title in the series,Â Chicago Makes Modern: How Creative Minds Shaped Society,Â is due out through the University of Chicago Press this summer.
CP:Â 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:Â Itâ€™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 â€œthe grain of larger societyâ€ 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 aboutÂ why art?Â I trust art in the social equation.
Among students it is in part a factor of their generation (young people embracing aspects of â€˜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 bookÂ 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, Reinhardtâ€¦.
So for students who have their careers and lives ahead of themâ€”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 artâ€”the work that came through the â€œAwake: Art, Buddhism, and the Dimensions of Consciousnessâ€ program and which they can access through theÂ Buddha MindÂ 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:Â Additionally there is a way in which you tackle the idea of consciousness (and of course philosophy) â€” 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).Â
MJJ:Â It seems like you could also say the same of philosophy and art and religion and science â€” 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?
Itâ€™s great you bring up Arthur Danto because he is a writer and a friend who was very important to me in the early â€˜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 isnâ€™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 theyâ€™d agree that artists have a lot to sayâ€”in their art and in their words, through their works and livesâ€”that speaks to a larger realm of being. So I donâ€™t know that Iâ€™d see â€œpersonal artist-talkâ€ as â€œexposeâ€; Iâ€™d hope with the best of them offer insights. At least thatâ€™s how I look at it. Maybe thatâ€™s why I align more with artists than other arts-related professionals.
CP:Â There seems to be a natural progression between the extensive work you’ve done discussing art that takes place in the public sphere â€” the way that such projects challenge conventional hierarchical expectations about art’s place in society. Â 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:Â 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 â€œorganicâ€ process of curating. However, during the early days of the â€œAwakeâ€ program a foundation president, who had greatly help find the program, came up to me at a session break and said, â€œI see how the Buddhism project relates to your work with the Spoleto Festival.â€ [I have worked for two decades on site-specific and community projects in Charleston South Carolina, starting with the exhibition â€œPlaces with a Pastâ€ 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.Â 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 â€œnot-emptyâ€ (the unknown, the creative space), non-attachment (the way art is a Â generative process), and the beginnerâ€™s mind (that something doesnâ€™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 beginnerâ€™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 â€œgraftedâ€ onto artistic practice. Instead, as I feel you mean when you say it can lead to â€œinsight,â€ 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 titledÂ 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 artistsâ€™ 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 privilege 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 aÂ Marina AbramoviÄ‡Â 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.Â 😉
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 â€” and this is what I’m inclined to believe â€” 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 cognizance 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.
“In the beginning, in the beginning, there was not a beginning. The common ancestor is unknown. Between each species and the common ancestor, who is unknown, one must seek, forever seek the intermediate forms.” (Georges Aperghis, Sextuor l’origine des espèces).
The performance took place inside a non-descript office building in Mid-town Manhattan. Despite the newish marble-clad lobby downstairs, the designated floor rested on creaking wood floors, that had been subdivided by drywall. Within an audible distance, someone sang scales and the outside wall of the theater (just opposite the elevator) was decorated with pairs of headshots a before and after beneath which lay professional tag lines and phone numbers offering touch-up services. We had gathered in the corridor of what felt like a rehearsal studio a realization that only added to the curiousness of what was to come: I mean, what would an opera about Darwin look like?
When we first sat down in the theater, before the production had started, the nearby, but disembodied voice had switched from scales to Celine Dion practicing for an upcoming audition, I supposed. She continued to push through the climax of her song until the accompanying pianist would stop unexpectedly silence ensued (what signified a conversation to me) and then the two started again, just before the song’s crescendo. Two folding tables stood waiting on stage. Five binders waited patiently on each, along with a pair of rubber gloves, glasses and an assortment of small, plastic animals. (There was a pause in the Dion song, this one longer than the last). A series of steam-punkish bare bulbs had been clipped to the table and one of the walls was covered with pictures from an animal calendar. The invisible chanteuse finally completed the song and the room grew quiet. So too the house lights dimmed as six women came on stage in lab coats. One carried a cello. They bowed, we clapped and the cellist moved to the side. She sat apart from her peers who moved behind the folding tables and sat down side-by-side.
The cellist spoke first, in French (the language of the entire piece);Â she suggested both that there was no beginning and that we must look to intermediate forms to discover human nature. Drawing on both Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species and Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, Greco-French composer Georges Aperghis wrote a seventy-minute opera. With those texts as an anchor, and the ever present counter balance of the cello (the only instrument the opera calls for), we experienced a musical rendition of the history of evolution. Much of the performance is babbling â€” an assorted accumulation of consonants that sometimes mimic other life forms (a parrot for instance) but there are coherent narratives that emerge in the throng. Each of the five vocalists performs an aria on one of the following themes: Birth (Soprano I : Megan Schubert), Death (Contralto: Amirtha Kidambi), Cinderella (Mezzo-soprano: Silvie Jensen), Delivery (Soprano II: Christie Finn) and the love experience (or eros)(Soprano III: Gelsey Bell). The Cellist, Émilie Girard-Charest embodies theory (logos), and often seems to quote Darwin and Gould directly. Probably it would seem like madness, except that the characters delivering this production are certain of themselves and focused; they never seem bewildered by evolution but instead appear to channel its course seeming at once facilitators of process and investigators. They wield the authority of science, conducting comical demonstrations in petri dishes. The last thing I was expecting was that sense of humor and it gave so much life to the whole show, eliciting a whole range of emotional experience (for me anyway) from Laugh out Loud, to the sanguine bittersweet.
The script regularly calls for a nonsensical interlude, portions of rhythmic nonsense that separate individual solos. Always, the cellist guides the audience through the changing landscape. The production continues this way: the cellist sits to the side and interjects sensible, reflective statements. These are interrupted by longer interludes comprised primarily of phonemes the building blocks of language produced by the other singers. Much of the vocalist sound seems hysterical, harpy-like and unformed, yet perhaps aptly capturing the chaos of ecology; the five woman fall extraordinarily into sync. At those moments the audience is supported with a sudden cohesion: what often leads to the description of a particular life form: “We are in the Age of Arthropods, in the fossiliferous rocks the oldest have suddenly appeared the species belonging to the great divisions of animals. But we are in the Age of Arthropods, far more numerous than Mammals.”
Sextuor l’origine des espèces is not officially an opera. It is an oratorio. As an admitted amateur, I’ve at least discovered the broadstrokes of distinction. Operatic characters interact with one another; operas also engage historical or mythological themes. Oratorios have traditionally dealt with sacred material; they are often produced in churches and require little in the way of sets.Sextuor l’origine des espèces seems to occupy a wonderful in-betweenness where these genres are concerned. On the one hand, it uses the scientific tradition as a sacred platform, conjuring the feel of an origin-story within the terminology of science. At the same time it incorporates colloquial myth, telling the Cinderella story between the music of birds and the introduction of fish. As in a proper oratorio, the characters interact very little. What interaction exists appears incidental.
One might say the same in biology. In Giorgio Agamben’s The Open: Man and Animal, one of the primary projects of the book is to examine where and how humanity defines itself against its animal cousins. Over the course of that discussion, Agamben incorporates an historical naturalist Jakob von Uexkill. “Where classic science saw a single world that comprised within it all living species hierarchically ordered from the most elementary forms up to the higher organisms,” Agamben writes, “Uexkhill instead supposes an infinite variety of perceptual worlds that, though they are noncommunicating and reciprocally exclusive, are all equally perfect and linked together as if in a gigantic musical score at the center of which lie familiar and at the same time, remote little beings called Echinus esculentus, Amoeba terricola, Rhizostoma pulmo, Sipunculus, Anemonia sulcata, Ixodes ricinus, and so on” (p. 40). Agamben goes to describe precisely how the fly cannot physically perceive the spider web that the worlds of spider and fly while being mutually reliant essentially exclude one another. To return to SLDE, the piece occurs both as a cohesive potentially operatic whole, as an oratorio comprised of several, independent, interlocking parts.
And then there is the most marvelous end. Because any biography must surely account for the demise of its subjects, a performance based on the fleeting occasion of life must also account for its own disappearance. Suddenly humanity’s advantage its peculiar capacity to tell a story seems especially mistaken in its privilege. A gross delusion we share, even Homer’s posthumous fame would appear insignificant: another bit of fodder for time’s desert. SLDE admits to the weight of that knowledge by drawing through audience into darkness. We feel its immanence. The stage goes dark after a particularly moving solo by Love, in which she describes the pleasure of being alive, just shy of an epiphany perhaps. “But I, I was truly having fun. I whirl about as if drunk. I understood that I was carrying a great weight on my shoulders. I have an explanation for the beginnings of life on Earth. I understood that I was already lucky to be a living being.” Following her song (she has taken off her lab coat and wears only a dress now), the other performers gather in a circle, joining hands around a single light. The cellist puts down her bow and joins the others, who must open their circle wider to admit her. “O, you who listen to me tell this story full of memories and holes, we are that improbable,” says the Cellist in French, “and fragile species heading toward extinction and the extinction of all species, internal causes, external causes, I do not know, we the original species that tells the story of its origins full of holes and gaps, because we have so few documents, an incomplete story of the Earth in an ever changing dialect, of which we have but the last volume, some fragments of its chapters and some lines of its pages or some letters, and words of uncertain meaning! Immense Nature improbable and unpredictable, contingent nature, where are we going, we who say life was wonderful, we who say life is wonderful?”
This production made its New York debut once before one year ago. Almost the same cast performed at Joria Productions in 2012. After several months of preparation this year, they had a three-night run. I felt so fortunate to be there. It brought so much to mind for instance, Timothy Morton’s ideas about Nature and how there is no “over there” Nature, only a mesh we all inhabit together: SLDE captures that, while at the same time maintaining the tension of a human narrative. It also made me think about artist Marion Laval-Jeantet’s experiments in hybridity and how these potentially challenge hierarchical habits between species. And then, of course, the very recent attempts Russian scientists have made to drill into an ancient lake in Antarctica: in order to see what life may have endured there, outside our human timescapes. There is so much more to write about and think about, perhaps most of all the musical components, which I am probably the least qualified to consider. But. It was amazing. The energy and vitality of its members as they negotiated what I can only imagine to be a most challenging musical score. I hope they can put it on again, for a longer run; I would love to see it again.
**Sextuor l’origine des espèces was directed by Jeremy Bloom and Nick DeMaison with lighting design by Kryssy Wright. It was hosted by Joria Productions from February 2nd-4th, 2012.
February 8, 2012 · Print This Article
This Friday, Steve Seeley’s painting show opens at RotofugiÂ (who not too long ago moved to Lincoln Park, so check the website for their new address if you’re unsure). Seeley’s figurative work often features the juxtaposition of human bodies and animal limbs, or heads. Sometimes alien parts make an appearance as well. He integrates old and new surfaces, incorporating the nostalgia of his childhood into a present assemblage. I grew more and more interested in something we didn’t talk about, namely the idea of the hero and how it charts through these visual, narrative landscapes. Seeley’s icons adopt the iconography of saints and superheros with all of the mystical proportions childhood bears with them.Â To re-erect and reexamine the Gods of childhood in effort, perhaps, to examine those ancient power structures. In Seeley’s case, they often become hybrid.
Caroline Picard:Â I’m really interested in the way you combine natural elements with mythical ones: for instance, the way your work often offers a kind of misty (and almost traditional-painterly) background with a vibrant superhero, or animal, alien or hybrid in the foreground. It kind of reminds me of old cartoons; in the Smurfs, for instance, you could tell the background was fixed to one surface, and moving figure(s) interacted on a clear gel over top. How did you come upon this strategy in your own work?Â
Steve Seeley:Â The backgrounds for me are definitely an homage to animation cels. I’m a child of the 80s and I grew up on cartoons; He-man, Thundercats, Thundarr, and the like, so that sort of nostalgic animation occupies a huge section of my creative mind.Â I started the “delicate matter” body of work in 2004 with the backgrounds being multi-layered and muted, almost ghost like, paintings, and at some point maybe three years ago, I transitioned to printed matter. I have always integrated things I collect into my work, I guess in a way bowing to my inner nerd. Thus the action figure-y, comic book-y and taxidermy look and feel. I also happen to collect antique chromolithographs. Mainly landscapes. So it was only natural for me to eventually Â incorporate/appropriate these into the work. The process involves buying a lithograph, scanning it in, messing around with it, and printing it out to paint on. By printing them out (opposed to painting directly on the print) I can control overall scale, color, direction and halftone size. And after all the other elements are painted, I get that stark dichotomy with the digital print and the paint, given that animated feel I grew up on.
CP:Â Your use of the bear, the deer, and the wolf feels very iconic, somehow, especially in those places where give your figures gold-plate halos. Can you talk about how your engage the animal world? Is the ram-figure any different from superman’s figure?Â
SS:Â Again, a great deal of my work ideas come from a nostalgia. The animals are a nod to growing up in the sticks of Wisconsin. I use animals that I used to see everyday (the deer and specific birds) as well as the animals my brothers and I feared when we played in the woods (the bear and wolves). I grew up in the super small town of Ringle which happened to be home to one of the largest wild dog packs in the state of Wisconsin. So I incorporate any number of dogs that I saw or that may have survived to be part of the wild pack (sorry chihuahua and pugs, I love ya but I you wouldn’t have made it).
As for the difference between man and animal, there isn’t a huge difference for me. In the “delicate matter” series, the story so far is that man has left earth for outer space because he becomes enamored with something he can’t comprehend, something that is entirely different from what he knows. He leaves earth on bad terms with the animals and while he is gone animals become what they were destined to be, a transformation per se, into heavy metal loving, super power using, pop culture loving creatures. When man gets to space he finds it to be less than he had hoped, and he tries to come back but the animals refuse. So man is stuck in space while animals take he’s place back on earth, essentially filling his old shoes, and becoming the new “man.”
There were a few years when I only painted animals (except in the “segue” paintings) but currently man has started to reappear. But only under the guise of a superhero since generally that means your true identity is hidden. Oh yeah and celebrities have always remained on earth, which is why the animals often chill with Miley Cyrus and let Sasha Grey ride around on their backs.
CP:Â At the same time, your figures are basically anatomically correct, and feature studied detail. Then of course there are places and points where you interrupt our expectations, creating a hole inside a bear’s chest for instance. Or giving a human torso a wolf head: how do these interruptions come about?
SS:Â The holes (along with the halos) are meant to lightly symbolize a religion, rather literally. The holes become an extreme stigmata of sorts. I am not necessarily a religious person but I am fascinated by what religion does to societies. It causes rifts and causes people to take sides, which can result in conflict… which is something for years I didn’t have in my paintings. Everything and everyone peacefully coexisted. It was thru adding the religious aspect that I was able to split the world I had created.
The head swapping was a way for me to even more-so humanize the animals. Initially all the human body, animal headed figures in my paintings were referred to as “saints”, figures that were idolized by the other animals and which usually also adorned halos. But once Saint Sasha Grey and Saint Cringer (from He-man) got introduced, I began to play with the animal headed figures as not only religious icons but also celebrity icons. For my upcoming show at Rotofugi there are 25 animal/alien/monster headed human figures all imagined as boxers or wrestlers.Â My intention is to make them a whole new breed of celebrity within the world they exist, at the same time causing additional rifts. Sport is such an easy way for people (or animals in this case) to turn on one another and choose sides.
see more of Seeley’s work by going here.