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 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 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 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. 

Thinking about the Studio Art PhD

May 18, 2011 · Print This Article

I’m in the middle of working up a bunch of interviews for the coming weeks! Really exciting stuff, I can’t wait to get it all out in the world. This week I just posted some notes I put together about studio arts PhDs. I’m working on a longer article around and about James Elkins’ book Artists with PhDs: On the new Doctoral Degree in Studio Art, but I wanted to collect my thoughts before diving into his. Anyway, if you all have any ideas of how to further my research on the subject, let me know.

While objecting to the PhD studio art program might be as useless as anti-cell phone sentiments in 2002, I wanted to wave a small flag. Off the bat, PhD studio practices seem to add one more step in what (already) looks a little like a pyramid scheme; art schools feeds themselves: students are initiated into a canon, which they then struggle to be legitimized and supported by for an indefinite amount of time after their matriculation. While on the one hand self-reliant circulatory systems are wondrous, the success of a given artist is not an automatic consequence of a scholastic advance. That’s applicable to any project in the humanities, of course, and I think it’s something that every participant is more or less aware of. College doesn’t guarantee success, but  you hope a good education will get you that much closer to its likelihood.

The first thing to do, probably, is ask oneself what that vision of success looks like. It’s very likely different for everyone, though, I bet, with a common base of economic sustainability. Every artist (or really, just anybody) wants to be secure in their lifestyle. Obviously it’s impossible for any institution to promise that. The question of how to support oneself as an artist, while also developing one’s practice does not have an easy solution. It never will. I have heard stories about artists in Manhattan who can only paint one type of painting (and have been for the last 30 years) because those are the paintings that sell and they have car/house/child care payments to make. On another end of the spectrum, there are those who don’t have gallery representation, don’t own anything and work for money as little as possible in order to make more artwork. Those are just two examples in a sea of countless scenarious. Everybody knows it’s hard. That’s not the question. The PhD just promises to ease that difficulty, to make it *feel* a little bit easier, without necessarily helping in the long run. It’s a balm.

MFA programs do the same thing. I should know, I went to one and I also loved it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything—I learned a lot, worked with fantastic professors in addition to meeting a group of peers on whom I still rely.  Furthermore the MFA ensured three years to dedicated to my practice. Bought and paid for, I chose to follow an impractical whim and in so doing, by inhabiting the consequence of that absurdity, began to believe more fully (perhaps by necessity) in myself as someone who could make a legitimate cultural contribution. I don’t know that anyone would disagree—art school is great. It’s amazing. You’re suddenly entrenched in a community that takes your efforts very seriously. It’s kind of like having a therapist, except the therapist is an impersonal building filled with passionate people who more or less share your (largely non-commercial) interests. Once you go to school you are immediately immersed in a creative support system.

While the MFA program has become a predominant feature on the artist’s CV, it was an exception for previous generations. Even while more and more people went on to secondary institutions, artists remained very much on the outskirts of that movement. Instead of school, they used cities, underground clubs, music venues and galleries as educational sites and community oases. Their experience was much more affordable; it was also less conventional. Obviously we can’t go back and in looking back we change what was. Nevertheless, I appreciate that our artistic predecessors operated in the margins of a society—working in an easily overlooked wilderness that was impossible to translate at more conventional gatherings—like family reunions, for instance—where one might be asked what one does. Explaining that you make art and work in a dingy dive bar in Alphabet City wouldn’t sell any obvious credibility those conventional others. Telling a relative that you’re in a scholastic program, even if they don’t agree with it, you’re situating yourself within an institution—something larger than the opinion of any one person. Getting degrees is a way to signify public (albeit purchased) support. It eases the loneliness of a marginalized practice/lifestyle.

And what is wrong with that?

Nothing, really. I would probably be one of the first to jump into another 5 years of a studio practice if I could afford it. Further, in joining those programs, I’d be using my purchasing power to ensure their existence—a kind of investment for my own future given that, probably, what one does afterwards is try to teach at one of those schools. The more college/graduate level art courses, the better. And another point: of all the things that people should do more of, goddamn they should learn more! And please, study art! Study the humanities! The more citizens who care about narratives and critical thinking and historical insight and philosophy, the better!

So there’s nothing really to complain about. My objection only stems from the resultant streamlining hegemony and it’s because I have this idea that art is a means for cultural/political/societal resistance. I want it to push again predominant status quos, to question the climate of its times, provoking and undermining the stability and moires it occupies. I worry that the PhD Studio Arts degree perpetuates an already insulated world, one rife with internal hierarchies, that consequently continues to focus on itself, while necessarily needing to inflate the aura of its authority.

I believe a healthy society needs people working on its boundaries. I believe that such a course isn’t easy, but the world needs outsiders, mismatched and perhaps bedraggled or confused, those individuals are inadvertently called to question the structure of the culture they inhabit, precisely because it does not fit into it. By pursuing such lines of questioning, it becomes easier to recognize other taken-for-granted and, often, detrimental notions, which then create new turns of cultural development. Maybe the PhD art programs could have auxillary, shadow departments dedicated to investigating the authority of the institution in which it lives.