Inescapable Out-of-Phaseness : An Interview with João Florêncio

August 4, 2016 · Print This Article

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Photo by Lizzy Burt (http://lizzycan.com)

The stage, the performer, the audience, and the narrative around which all these conspire: performance inscribes an architecture for meaning. Subject and object, actors and props—an implicit hierarchy is incorporated and represented. Like many seemingly stable architectures, the Anthropocene disrupts that arrangement: landscape becomes an actor and the humblest props come to life. Based out of the University of Exeter (UK),  João Florêncio’s studies that instability and through his research of recent realist and materialist philosophies, ecology, and performance, asks what a nonhuman performance might look like, and what kind of ethics it might demand in turn.

Caroline Picard: Recently you were in Melbourne at a Performance Climates conference? 

João Florêncio: Performance Climates, the 22nd Performance Studies International conference, was very productive in how it covered a wide variety of work that brings performance theories and practices to intersect with issues of climate change and the Anthropocene. It was really interesting to see how performance artists and theatre makers have been using performance to address such big questions and to rethink climate and the place of the nonhuman within performance. I sat through some really fantastic panels on things from astroperformance to landscape and cyborg theatre, and a couple of very interesting performance-lectures on soil as interfacial medium between life and death, and on micro-algae and lab performance. On the less positive side—and especially since another mass shooting happened in the US while we were at the conference—some of us could not help but feel that intersections between climate change, the Anthropocene, issues of race, and embodied difference were sadly missing from the conference.

How can we keep on thinking the Anthropocene and anthropogenic climate change without reflecting on what that means for different bodies and human populations? Without reflecting the extent to which some bodies might have higher degrees of geological agency whilst others might have a higher likelihood of being affected by—and even dying as a result of—changing planetary dynamics? I believe this is one of the most important contributions performance studies can make to current debates on the Anthropocene and one that, unfortunately, was missing from most of the panels I attended. Having said that, the last keynote of the event—by Rebecca Schneider from Brown University—managed to very poignantly think through the Anthropocene and issues of race and settler-colonialism by reading pre-historic cave paintings of hands as a hailing out of time and articulating them with the contemporary hail, or call and response, of the “hands up, don’t shoot!” slogan of Black Lives Matter.

CP: In a recent paper for O-Zone, “Ecology without Nature, Theatre without Culture: Towards an Object-Oriented Ontology of Performance,” you suggest that performance might benefit from shifting towards an in-/nonhuman awareness, responding to a growing realization in the rest of the world that humanity is neither distinct from nor master of its environment. Can you say a bit more about how you see an non-anthropocentric approach to performance?

JF: For a few years now, I’ve been thinking about performance as something that takes place in the spaces between bodies, or between how bodies present themselves and what their ontology might be. Ultimately, for me, performance is about that fuzziness and uncertainty; about an inescapable out-of-phaseness between a body that encounters and a body that is encountered. Or, one could say, the space that exists between a body and its translation into meaningful knowledge, considering that a translation cannot replace its original any more than a map can replace the territory for which it stands. So this process of translation is, I believe, performance’s ontology; the space of translation is the space where performance dwells; it’s its territory. And all translations are contingent; all translations leave a remainder whilst also acquiring new possible readings from the new context in which they start circulating. Accordingly, this process is not exclusive to forms of human cultural performance but is, ultimately, also found in encounters with the more-than-human.

CP: Do you have an example?

JF: For instance: the semiotic reading of a prop on stage—its meaning in relation to other objects and performers on stage—does not exhaust its being, as Graham Harman would say. Rather, its existence as a prop is contingent on my encounter with it as a member of a theatrical audience. For a swallow that flies through the theatre door and dives on stage, that same prop will have a very different existence as, for instance, a place to stand on and rest. Ultimately what this allows us is to think again, and seriously, the idea of the world as theatre. Performance is a privileged body of knowledge and embodied practices that allow us to think these interstitial spaces between ontology and epistemology with a lot more care because, as both a field of knowledge and as a practice, performance has always had its home there.

CP: I read a little about a project you are currently collaborating on, Rock/Body: Performative Interfaces Between the Geologic and the Body. What do you mean when you describe the human body as an interfacial zone between bio- and geo-logics?

JF: This project came out of a realization that current scientific discourses on the Anthropocene were too quick to posit an abstract and universal “Humanity” as dominant geological force without taking into account existing scholarship, coming most from the critical humanities, on issues of embodied difference and biopolitics. So what we did was bring together a diverse group of researchers—scientists, humanities scholars, social scientists, etc.—alongside artists and curators to think about how different kinds of bodies might affect and be affected by the geological in different ways depending on their biopolitical differences. The way we’re going about doing that is by examining the zones of porosity—or the interfaces, as we’re calling them—between the lithic and the human body. Thinking about minerals, for instance, they were created by chemical processes in the stars and eventually entered the composition of rocky planets like ours. Some of them end up entering our bodies either through the food chain, the skin, or by being breathed in. Whilst some are essential for own own movement (by becoming essential for bone formation) and even survival (by entering essential cellular processes), others can become toxic, affect our behaviour and even kill us (think arsenic, mercury, lead, etc.). But not everybody is affected by these substances in the same way: miners suffer from black lung but not people living on the surface; people in developing countries (barely) paid for processing e-waste can become contaminated in ways that those of us in Europe or the USA using smartphones and tablets and computers won’t ever be. So the whole narrative of human geological agency and the health risks posed by anthropogenic changes to earth systems gain much more complex dimensions once we start thinking them alongside the circulation of labour and capital, planetary networks of commodity production, waste production and waste management, the materiality of media and planned obsolescence, as well as the types of human bodies that populate the various nodes of such massive planetary networks and the ways in which some of those bodies count more than others. In short, what we are trying to do is to sketch new avenues for interdisciplinary research that think together geo- and bio-politics by thinking human bodies—different iterations of the Anthropos in Anthropocene—as case-study sites where that porosity between Geos and Bios manifests itself in different ways. In a sense, to think the ways in which the Anthropocene can actually tell a story of exploitation, oppression and displacement of both geological and human bodies under capitalism.

CP: In another paper, “Encountering Worlds: Performance in/as Philosophy in the Ecological Age,” you write, “Capitalism has become an autonomous machine, a network through which flows of information circulated in the form of capital and are received and processed not only by finance analysts and high street and online shoppers but also, at a time when financial operations are executed automatically every second without the intervention of human agents, by  other nonhuman nodes of the machine,” highlighting the ways in which humanity has become more and more of a witness to algorithmic forces it set in motion and is now subject to, as though real-life (whatever that is) is a stage we do not act upon but watch unfold. What does being an audience member in a performance teach us about inhabiting the Anthropocene? Does performance become a mirror? Is passivity a benefit or a weakness?

JF: Two words spring to mind in that context: responsibility and care. And both are notions that are extremely important to performance. There is this unsigned contract between audience members and performers whereby both sides are aware of their responsibility over each other and the event. There is also certainly some level of passivity, of letting go, which I believe is an important aspect of any ethics of care: how does one care for something, how can one be responsible for something, whilst not losing sight of that crucial moment when an extremely difficult decision must be taken, when the ultimate demonstration of care is letting go. Michel Foucault has written something beautifully along those lines in his later work on the care of the self. About the tension between practices of care and liberty. If responsibility is about the ability to elicit a response, about opening that space of performance, of call and response, I mentioned earlier, responsibility demands a passing of the ball and waiting for it to bounce back. There’s something quite scary and uncertain but also quite poignant about that gesture of having control (or responsibility) only by letting go of it, by opening oneself to that space of the encounter and its generative potential, even when the outcomes can never be predicted in advance. So yes, there’s a level of passivity but an active (or creative?) passivity, if that makes sense. That’s exactly the kind of ethics I believe performance is grounded on.

CP: In the same paper you include a vision where “humans accept that they are members of a universe-wide, borderless, community of strangers” such that “the ethical debates that will follow will have to concern themselves with how best to approach one’s neighbor.” I was especially touched by this sentiment because of all the upheaval I see in the world at large, all of the acts of violence, defensiveness, tightening of borders, bullying, and retaliation. Your suggestion, by contrast feels like a defiant and glorious demand for openness and inclusion—what is especially pronounced by the “community of strangers.” Can you say more about that? 

JF: I totally agree with you. Opening ourselves to the other, welcoming strangers is about both human and more-than-human others. And I feel only an unilateral form of that openness can take us out of the terrible times we’re living through—politically, economically, environmentally. A big problem with existing attempts at solving these issues is that they keep on being grounded on a politics of recognition of rights. Although that might be useful in the short term—think about civil rights movement, feminism, LGBT movement, etc.—in the long term a politics of rights, whereby rights are ascribed to different bodies depending on their degree of sameness with bodies already in possession of rights, will do nothing to question the exclusionary logics upon which a rights-based ethics depends.

CP: What do you mean?

JF: In other words, for as long as we keep fighting for rights—of racial, gender, sexual, or ability minorities—we continue to occupy a logics of membership criteria: what do you have in common with me in order to gain my rights? How similar are you to me? This is also valid to the mainstream animal rights movement, for instance, which fights for animal rights on the basis of their similarity with humans (considered the benchmark). So we need to give animals more rights because they suffer like us, or because they have highly developed intellects, or because they’re capable of affects similar to ours. What most of the supporters of these strategies overlook is that such logics of membership of a club of rights will always depend, for its existence, on the exclusion of some bodies that do not possess the criteria for membership. To know who or what ought to be allowed into our communities of equals, we need others to be excluded by definition. Any community of equals needs an outside against which it defines itself. No matter how much we work on extending the criteria of membership, there will always be those left outside against which we can define those included inside. So what I advocate is a total rejection of a rights-based ethics and, instead, an unilateral openness to the other in its condition of stranger. To approach the other not according to what they might have in common with us but according to their difference, to their strangeness. Obviously this will make everyday life a lot harder because it will deprive us of all pre-existing codes of conduct, of all manuals on how to deal with others, ultimately of all law. But isn’t that what ethics demands from us anyway? That we approach the other with responsibility, consideration, and openness to the uncertain space of every single encounter rather than simply by acting according existing laws and postponing that most painful but most necessary moment of ethical decision-making?

When The Object Presents Itself: An Interview with João Florêncio




Performing Ecology, Pt. 2 (Narcissist Modernity)

March 26, 2013 · Print This Article

 

In my previous post, I have presented a series of scenes which highlight the enmeshment of humans and nonhumans both on theatrical stages and in the world at large. I have also suggested that such interconnectedness calls into question the pursuit of autonomy and emancipation as it was set up by discourses on modernity and modernism. Today, I will start to expand on that topic by trying to show, in a very concise way, how the modern pursuit of autonomy and emancipation from “Nature” ended up surrounding humans with mirror-images of themselves, eventually making narcissism a condition for modernity.

According to Kant, the Age of Enlightenment was the moment in history when humankind realised that autonomy from nature and free use of reason were its ultimate destiny. However, because thought had limits, Enlightenment was not only a programme aimed at the progressive liberation of reason but also, because of that, a project of critique, of recognising the barriers which thought mustn’t cross if it is to produce valid knowledge. As a result, Kant eventually claimed that, because things in themselves are outside the mind and are only able to be judged once they have been converted into thoughts, thought is only ever able to think thought and never the things outside thought to which thought itself refers.

Following that, it is possible to identify the formation of a double separation of humans from “Nature” in Kant’s project for Enlightenment: not only are humans separated from “Nature” once through the development of their exclusive mental faculties, but those mental faculties themselves, due to the conditions that must be in place for their correct operability, end up producing a second separation, this time a separation of through from world in itself.

It is this twice-enforced divide between human and world that can still be seen today as the epistemological paradigm grounding a great amount of work falling under the academic banner of ‘critical thought’ in the Arts and Humanities, a dominant methodology of scholarly work perhaps better represented by Michel Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge. However, a crucial difference separates Kant from Foucault: whereas the former wanted to map the absolute limits of thought, the latter aimed to demonstrate how knowledge is always indissociable from power in order to then consider the possibility of future epistemological transgressions.

From Feminism to Queer Theory, from Deconstruction to Postcolonial Theory, the critical ethos of the Humanities, much indebted to Foucault’s work, has taken as its job to reflect upon the limits of human knowledge in order to understand how what is taken for granted is in fact produced at the level of discourse through complex articulations of power and knowledge. By focusing on the performative nature of knowledge—how knowledge does rather than is—the critical project seeks to separate the arbitrary from the necessary in order to reveal how realities previously assumed to be universal are instead historically contingent. However, by falling victim to an uncontrollable suspicion of knowledge, contemporary critique ends up betraying itself as the only certainty it allows, the only truth claim it leaves unturned, is the one upon which critique itself depends for its own survival, i.e. the one that posits the historical contingency and performative nature of all knowledge.

The problem is that whereas the critical enterprise had, following the dawn of Modernity, been rightly concerned with calling into question beliefs such as those advanced by various religious doctrines and replacing them with scientifically validated facts, at the start of the 21st century and there being no beliefs left to disprove, criticality has now started targeting objective facts themselves, often by negating their existence or by turning them into a mere product of their dialectical counterpart, the observing human subject and its usage of language. Today, after the so-called ‘objective reality’ was found to always be the result of power-knowledge formations, human discourse has become the true cause of the world itself.

The unfortunate outcome of that phenomenon is clear: while scholars spend their time trying to expose the true conditions of (human) knowledge, the arbitrary nature of everything we know, very real phenomena are having rather real consequences: global warming is happening, the Arctic ice cap is melting, natural resources are diminishing, sea levels are rising, and old and new pandemics are still killing millions (unless you can pay to survive). In short, widespread critique has contributed for society’s inability to act upon issues as pressing as persisting social inequalities or climate change. Furthermore, whereas, in Foucault’s case, for instance, it was a tool of progressive left wing politics, today it has been taken up by right wing conservatives who use it to deny the reality of ongoing ecological disaster and even by fascists like those who insist Auschwitz never happened. In the 21st century, the only thing humanity seems to be able to do is to argue while hoping that one day the cows will eventually come home by themselves.

What we have ended up with is a species obsessed with itself, unable to grasp anything other than its own reality. In good ‘ol Kantian fashion, thought is the only certainty; everything outside of it is just a muddy grey area. And so we are left able to look at nothing other than ourselves: our qualities, our capacities, our politics, our beauty (this latter, I hope to develop in my next post). Like Narcissus stuck by the lake or—better—like Narcissus drown in the lake, drown in itself breathing the water of his own reflection (happily ever after), we keep going until the day comes when, to misquote British poet Peter Reading, after heat waves and after heats deaths we reach absolute zero.




Performing Ecology, Pt.1 (Introduction)

February 26, 2013 · Print This Article

SCENE 1. 1978, Wuppertal Opernhaus, Germany. A young dancer, her eyes closed, struggles to move freely in a darkened German kaffehaus, her movements made difficult by the walls that enclose her. Again and again, she hits the tables, she falls, she stumbles on the empty chairs that oscillate between being signs of an absence and being a very real presence as objects in space. Again and again the audience hears the sound walls make when hit violently by a tiny ballerina frame. This is Pina Bausch’s Café Müller.

Pina Bausch, Café Müller.

SCENE 2. 1986, Chernobyl, Ukrainian SSR. As a result of a complex set of causes including various design flaws, one of four reactors at the local nuclear power plant exploded in the early hours of the 26th of April. What followed was a release of radiation amounting to at least 100 times the radiation of the infamous bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, leading the accident to be widely recognised as the biggest nuclear disaster in History and campaign groups such as Greenpeace to predict up to 93,000 extra cancer deaths as a direct result of it. This is the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster.

Scene 3. 1992. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Representatives of the governments of 172 nations meet for the first ever United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). In an attempt to recognise the impact the continuing deterioration of ecosystems is having on the well-being of humankind and to to tackle its progression, the conference culminates with the publication of, amongst others, Agenda 21, a non-biding action plan for the implementation of sustainable development policies at local, national, and global levels. The document will then be reaffirmed and modified at subsequent conferences. This is the first ever Earth Summit.

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Scene 4. 1993, Venice, Italy. A British filmmaker presents his very small audience at the 50th Venice International Film Festival with seventy-six minutes of flickering International Klein Blue projected onto one of the screens at the Pallazo del Cinema, and accompanied by ambient sounds and disembodied voices who, hopelessly, narrate different fragments of the artist’s daily battle with HIV and of his struggle with AIDS-related blindness. This is Derek Jarman’s Blue.

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Scene 5. 1997, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. For its first solo exhibition to be held at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, a famous fashion house collaborates with a Dutch microbiologist to create a series of eighteen dresses treated with different strains of bacteria and mould that, as the exhibition progresses, will be responsible for changing the colour and aspect of the garments worn by dummies displayed behind a glass wall. This is Maison Martin Margiela’s (9/4/1615).

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Scene 6. Johannesburg, South Africa. A white man in drag wears an old chandelier as if it was a tutu and struggles to balance himself on his disproportionately high high-heel shoes while walking on debris, stones, and dirt in one of South Africa’s shanty towns. Around him, workers hired by the local authority, armed with crowbars and wearing orange overalls, demolish the locals’ dwellings to allow for the construction of the future Nelson Mandela bridge. This is Steven Cohen’s Chandelier.

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Scene 7. 2002, Nature, Vol. 415. Nobel Prize winner chemist Paul Crutzen identifies a new epoch in geological time which, for the first time, coincides in  time with the scientist’s writing. That new epoch is said to have started with the industrial revolution of the latter part of the eighteenth century, when humans finally became one of the most powerful forces of geological history, able to replace woodlands and forests with landscapes of steel, concrete, and smoke. This is the “Anthropocene.”

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Scene 8. 2008, London, England. After announcing his true identity out loud to a packed theatre—”My name is Romeo Castellucci”, he says—the controversial Italian theatre director puts on a protection suit while a pack of German shepherds are led onto the stage by their trainers. After that, some of the animals attack the artist, bitting him while he lies defenceless on the floor. This is the Prologue of Socìetas Raffaelo Sanzio’s Inferno, the first of a trilogy inspired by Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.

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Scene 9. 2010, Ljubljana, Slovenia. A naked female body falls backwards in slow motion down the red-carpeted eighteen-century oval staircase of the Gruberjeva Palace. In its long fall, the body exists at the intersection of mastery and powerlessness, forced to permanently negotiate the unfolding of the event with the gravity that pulls it down and the late Baroque staircase that guides its movement. This is Kira O’Reilly’s Stair Falling, a rather alluring pas de deux between artist and architecture.

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Scene 10. 2011, World Wide Web. In the aftermath of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, a video appears on YouTube in which an anonymous worker wearing protection clothing approaches one of the CCTV cameras of the nuclear site, points at his contaminated surroundings and then at the centre of the camera, in what looks like a reenactment of Centers, the 1971 performance for camera by Vito Acconci. After twenty minutes—the exact same duration of Acconci’s original work—the worker walks away. The video goes viral. This is the ecological age.

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The scenes just described highlight the tight interconnectedness of humans and nonhumans and, as a consequence, pose serious questions to the dreams of autonomy and emancipation from “Nature” that humans have been pursuing more or less intensely since the dawn of Modernity with its ideology of Enlightenment. As a result of the present ecological age and the apparent fall of the wall that used to separate “Nature” from “Culture”, the Arts and Humanities are being forced to reconsider their own ambit of study: how can its disciplines adapt to the rediscovered reality of a flat world in which humans and nonhumans seem to be permanently enmeshed in one another, in which human actions seem to often have nonhuman consequences and vice-versa?

Departing from that premise and those problems, the series of monthly posts which I start today will try to think the consequences that the ecological age will have for contemporary theories and practices of theatre and performance. In those coming posts, I will be presenting an overview of the anthropocentric role theatre and performance have played throughout History, some of the ways in which they have been criticised and reinvented, and, ultimately, the ways in which they ought to be thought differently as a consequence of their unfolding on the broad Anthropocenic stage.

Watch this space.

 

РJọo Flor̻ncio

 

 

 

 




Play By Play : What to Expect in the Coming Months

January 18, 2013 · Print This Article

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I came on as the Managing Editor of the Bad at Sports blog about a month ago. It’s been an exciting turn and I hope to do well by it. A few people have asked what my vision going forward is, and I thought I might say something about it here. I hope to continue reflecting on the dynamic energy in Chicago’s contemporary art world while connecting to conversations and aesthetic agendas in other cities and disciplines. That agenda was set in place a while ago and I believe I can continue to guide and focus that intention. There is room for experimentation in that vision, which seems necessary to me. Bad at Sports has never presented a tidy, singular package and as such, I believe it would go against the nature of the project to filter content and tone through a single, editorial lens. Its roots in independent, DIY and Punk Rock collectivism remain at the heart of the project’s vitality and the blog is a platform for unique and individual voices that pass through the subject of contemporary art and culture. As such it becomes a nexus of concerns and responses to culture at large. That is something I hope to preserve under my stewardship. As an artist-run forum, Bad at Sports has the unique capacity to reflect on a host of subjects, exposing the intellectual, aesthetic and social networks that define and subsequently influence cultural production. I believe it is our job to explore and discuss the contexts we inhabit. In doing so, we further establish a living touchstone and future archive of contemporary discourse.

Some changes should be apparent already — others will fall into place like pieces of a puzzle in the coming months. The process is organic, but I’ve been trying to set up a casual, thematic architecture  that unfolds over the course of a given week. Eventually, I hope to schedule two posts a day, one before 2pm and one after. Built in to this, is room for special occasions and guest writers — those posts would either go live in the evenings, or fill in existing gaps. To that end I’ve been inviting a number of new writers, many of whom I have admired for a long time.

Here is something of a loose schedule:

Mondays: Essays and reflections from old favorites Jeriah Hildewin, Shane McAdams and Nicholas O’Brien — writers who have been posting with consistent dedication. In addition, I’m excited to announce a new bi-weekly column by Dana Bassett, whom you may know for her ACRE Newsletters.

Tuesdays are dedicated to three subjects: Performance, Social Practice, Language (or the performance thereof) and Object Oriented Ontology. Confirmed participants include longstanding contributor Abigail Satinsky and Mary Jane Jacob (Social Practice), Anthony Romero and João Florêncio (performance), Gene Tanta (language), Robert Jackson (OOO).

On Wednesdays, we will read about artists and art in other cities. The following writers will post on rotation: Jeffery Songco is covering the Bay Area, Sam Davis continues to represent Bad at Sports’ Los Angeles Bureau, Sarah Margolis-Pineo is writing about Portland. Juliana Driever will be relaying posts, interviews and artist profiles about New York, and then we’ll bring it back to the Midwest with Kelly Shindler’s dispatch from St. Louis, and Jamilee Polson Lacy writing about Kansas City.

Thursdays herald our illustrious Stephanie Burke’s Top 5 Weekend Picks and a new monthly contribution from author/translator Johannes Göransson whose writing you can also find here.

Fridays have been set aside for art reviews and artist profiles with contributions from Danny Orendoff, Monica Westin, Abraham Ritchie and myself.

WEEKENDS will feature a range and flux of the above, plus Brit Barton’s Endless Opportunities, cultural reflections and short essays by Terri Griffith, continued posts from Jesse Malmed, in addition to a monthly contribution from the newly confirmed Bailey Romaine and Adrienne Harris.

My last note is this — there is room in this schedule for additional posts, posts that would feature special events, festivals and conferences in the city. That space would also be available to, at times, connect the blog and the podcast. As a first indication of this, we will be highlighting IN>TIME, a performance festival that is going on as we speak, from January until March.

Otherwise if you have any comments, suggestions or, even guest posts you would like to submit, please feel free to contact me at: caroline@lanternprojects.com




The Liminal Space of Self: An Interview with Meredith Kooi

March 7, 2012 · Print This Article

"#1" from Mimed Blemishes series, photo by Meredtih Kooi, 2011.

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!

"Blemish #1" from Blemished Blurs/Blears series, photo by Meredith Kooi, 2011.

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.

"Untitled #1" from Untitled Blurs/Blears series, photo by Meredith Kooi, 2010.

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).

"The scleroderma specimen is in Mom's room," Meredith Kooi, 2009.

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…