When The Object Presents Itself: An Interview with João Florêncio

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. 




How to Get to Mutualisms

September 7, 2011 · Print This Article

Several months ago, I was invited to share a blog with a stranger. On that blog, I was asked to write about art & reciprocity. I met Erik Hagoort that way. I read his posts and he read mine. Sometimes we responded to one another. The blog itself came from a larger project artists Kirsten Leenaars and Lise Haller Baggesen were curating. That show, Mutualisms, (opens this Friday September 9th at the CoProsperity Sphere) features work made by artists paired together–half of the pair comes from the Netherlands, the other half is local to Chicago. Over the last six+ months, these pairs have been working together, building a dialogue more or less from scratch, in order to install work here. It’s a show about networks and relationships. It’s a show about community, and how that can arise with an ocean between us. In addition to the exhibit, CoPro is also hosting a symposium on Sunday (September 11th, from 1-5) to address the issue of art and reciprocity: an interesting question, given that so much of what we think about in terms of community building and art relies on expectations of return, or taking turns, or sharing. How do those themes also manifest themselves in a discrete work of art born from collaboration? In the following interview, Erik and I asked Lise and Kirsten some questions about the origin of the show, how to think about it critically, and even how its global perspective addresses arts funding strategies.

Caroline Picard: So often an exhibition is the culmination of work; while of course, Mutualisms is a culmination,there has been an on-going dialogue taking place on-line via blogs (both the one that you all keep as the Mutualisms site, and of course the blog you invited me to participate on with Erik). How did you think to frame the project via blogs and exhibitions? And what was it like pairing artists in different parts of the world?

Kirsten Leenaars & Lise Haller Baggesen: We had just met in Chicago last year, right before the Propeller Fund application was due. One of the things we had been talking about is that we at times had missed an international influx of artists in Chicago. The other thing that struck us is that while having both lived in Amsterdam and now in Chicago we had been part of quite different artistic and friend networks that only partially overlapped. Adding these elements up thought we could combine our networks to create an extended grid from which to organize a show. So, you could say that the show also came about as a mutual exchange between us [Kirsten and Lise], due to a need of expanding our own artistic and social horizons, the main idea being that the art world functions more or less through connections and relationships. We wanted to create a platform through which we could facilitate these relationships and form new connections amongst our combined networks.

Because we both are primarily artists, makers, and curators and thinkers secondarily, we curated the show very much from the point of view of the individual artist’s practice, rather than as an illustration of an intellectual or theoretical idea (not that we are anti-intellectuals, far from it!). So, we tried to combine artists that we felt had a similar approach or a similar sensibility, hoping that the connections we observed were something they could see too, or that they might discover their own links through a dialogue with each other about their own practices. When we invited the artists to participate in the show we made very clear that the dialogue between each pair was an essential part of the concept and that they needed to be willing to engage in this what undoubtedly was at times-especially at first – potentially an awkward exchange. Kind of like any first date can be. Some of the pairs readily jumped to the occasion and hit it off immediately, others definitively needed a little bit more time and coercing. Both and even the potential for a mismatch are part of concept of the show and we guess in some ways a risk we as the curators or organizers took. Our main objective really was to plant some seeds for potential mutual relationships that would grow and develop and extend beyond the scope of the Mutualisms project.

The blogs seemed to just be a very logic consequence of the fact that the artists were residing on different continents and the blog became a space where they could meet. Not just as a pair but also as the group on a whole. The blog allowed them to also see how the other pairs were connecting and what ideas were being exchanged. In addition we thought it would be make this process visible and public — often this kind of exchange often remains quite private – because the dialogue can get quite personal – but it gives great insight to the artist’s practice and creates almost organically a context for the work and the show on the whole.

Adelheid Mers, "Conversations with 8 artists about their practice", 2011, inkjet on paper, 42"x120"

CP:  There are some really incredible (and devastating, I think) movements in Europe (I guess I’m thinking largely about the UK) to cut funding for philosophy departments, art departments and even departments of literature. I understand from talking to you all the first day we met that a similar situation is taking place in Holland–and then too, I feel like some of the fears have twinged American consciousness as well (for instance, I’m thinking of what compelled Martha Nassbaum to write Not-for-Profit, which struck me as a defense of the arts). How do you feel this show might speak to that? In some ways, I’m asking because you’re relating two vastly different arts-funding strategies (the mostly private American version vs. the largely government subsidized (is that even the right way to think about it?)) and suddenly the work of those systems is materializing here in Chicago which is so interesting, I think. Maybe especially because you both have had such extensive experience in both worlds…

KL & LHB: To begin with, the show was curated ‘organically’, from a practice kind of view; it’s not really meant to illustrate a point about the pro’s and con’s of arts funding, or anything like that. That kind of got thrown in the mix, because of the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Netherlands, which came about simultaneously to us curating the show and, ironically, receiving a considerate amount of financial support from the Netherlands, for the show. So it kind of both reinforced the cliche about the ‘spoiled’ European artists, while at the same time highlighting the possibilities and the fragility that kind of position affords. Through that government support, Dutch artists were able to all come to Chicago, allowing for the artist pairs to actually meet. We have noticed that these physical encounters fortified the connections and dialogue and are raising the show to the next level. Bearing in mind too that the show in Chicago is only part one. Next summer we hope to host a show in the Netherlands, and we are asking the current participating artists to continue their dialogue with each other. How we will fund this show will be our next challenge…

Funnily enough, both sides of the arts funding argument like to pull the ‘quality’ card, as an argument for their stance. I.e. a private art market leads to ‘better art’ because the artists have to fend for themselves vs. art funding leads to ‘better quality’ art because you have a ’peer support system’ that is free of commercial interests. But, when you look around in the show, it’s not lack of quality that characterizes either group, to the contrary! There are different sensibilities of course, that are typical of American vs. European works, that has to do with a sense of place and belonging to a certain cultural heritage, but just as often it’s hard to tell off hand which is which, and quality wise they are certainly level pecking!

Magnus Monfeldt, Four stills from “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, work in progress

Erik Hogaart:  Since the mid nineties of the last century the so-called relational tendency in the art world seems to prevail. This is not only referring to Nicolas Bourriaud’s famous statement of art being a state of encounter. The ‘relational’ has had a much wider impact, even extending into a feeling that networks of artists, curators, and audience not only surround the art work but become even artworks in themselves. This doesn’t exclude the appreciation of artworks of course, artists and curators involve other artists and curators on the basis of what they make and do. Yet, relations, even friendship seems to take a bigger part of the “art’s cake”. Russian curator Viktor Misiano has called it the tendency of confidentiality. And a project such as Mutualisms could, thinking along, also be called a confidential project. What do you, Lise and Kirsten, think of this? What is the balance for you between creating an opportunity for artists to make works, and creating an opportunity for artists to relate to one another. These two aspects of Mutualisms are of course connected, but in what way?

KL & LHB: Two things were very clear from the beginning. One, we wanted to be transparent about
the way we had curated the show and where these artists were coming from. Yes, these artists were selected from our pool of friends and acquaintances. This is perhaps often an unspoken given — something acknowledged behind closed doors — but being transparent about that is really at the base of our concept for the show. And in that sense never confidential. In addition these relationships are documented and visible for the public on our blogs. Secondly, yes, the primary reason for choosing each of the artists was based on their own strong practices, not on how much we liked the individual. One does not exclude the other, and what could be potentially more productive than fostering a relationship between a pair of driven practitioners? The dialogue ultimately has the objective to allow new ways of looking at each other’s practice, to inspire a dialogue about ways of thinking and making that ultimately find their ways back to an artist’s practice. Of course if the match truly was a productive one, perhaps this can lead to other opportunities, further productions and collaborations etc. We do hope for these relationships – as mentioned before – to extend beyond Mutualisms. And if friendships are formed through this dialogue as well, than that is an added bonus.

EH: A question, which is philosophically triggered by Jacques Derrida’s statement: “the artwork is vertical, and slightly leaning.” This idea of the verticality of the artwork stresses confrontation, awe, being struck. Quite opposite is the idea of relationships and networks, which stresses horizontality, encounter between entities in the same/ equal position. Especially when artists connect to each other, and form mutual networks, how does these two models fit in? Mutualism, or reciprocity: how does it relate to these two concepts. Is there still space for the vertical within the horizontal?

KL & LHB: What you are implying here, is that inherent to an open ‘democratic’ curatorial process is the risk that the resulting product will also be ‘democratic: i.e. not ‘sublime’, a risk you are also touching on with your questions for the symposium when you state: ‘in the arts a strong tradition has opposed reciprocity. Art’s autonomy should prevail above exchange.’

Yes, that is a risk, and a risk we embraced as we were preparing for the show, because the encounter or the exchange that this structure entails, also invites the possibility of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Just like the idea of democracy: ‘together we are strong’ this show was an open invitation to the artists to participate in a dialogue, in which they could make new art works that lay outside the boundaries of their own practice, or by pairing individual (existing) works that would allow the work to be contextualized in a new way. Some of the artists involved really stepped up to this challenge and engaged in a creative process, with an outcome that was surprising both to us, and to themselves. Others, you could say, ‘played it safe’ and are showing more in parallel.

Every art work implies an encounter, social relationship. Namely between the art work and the viewer. Approaching art in this way implies an investigation of the social situation in which art takes place and encounters society. It focuses on the encounter in the moment of perception and communication, it underlines the role of projection in the exchange with a spectator, a public which is constantly being reconstituted. What does that ephemeral, individual or collective imagination bring forth? In what way does imagination not only produce the artwork, but also a social relationship? This question is the primary one. Each of the artists that participate, create work. They have different ways of engaging in this process. But for none of the artists is the encounter in itself the artwork. Neither do we as the curators of the show, see the encounter, or the relationship as the work. The show is a model for exchange, this exchange happens between the artists, the curators and ultimately between the viewer and the work that is on display – a result of prior conversations. So with this show we also ask who participates in this process, and what does participation mean in this context? So the horizontal and vertical in our Mutualisms project are two axes in a grid where each of the artists individually and as pairs can be located on different positions within this grid.

Adelheid Mers, "Conversations with 8 artists about their practice", 2011, inkjet on paper, 42"x120"