April 17, 2015 · Print This Article
We were late and I was sweating. I had botched my own plan to arrive: my plan was to meet a friend at his house nearby, then walk together to Bikini Wax from there. I never told my friend that we would meet him at his house, however, and when we arrived there he was gone, on his way to Bikini Wax, hurrying because he thought he has going to be late. So we walked up Patriotismo, through Escandon, up to Benjamin Franklin—the avenue Bikini Wax is perched on, the avenue that divides upper-middle-class Escandon from bougie Condesa from lower-middle-class, sometimes slummy Tacubaya. There is an Oxxo down the street and a mediocre restaurant next door. One of my favorite vegetarians once told me they had great burgers there. I don’t believe him.
You enter Bikini Wax through an alley. The layout is famously bizarre: a one room ground floor with an enormous stairwell, a claustrophobic second floor with a kitchen that doubles as a main room and a narrow hallway that leads to apartment’s three bedrooms and the bathroom, which, like the apartment, is famously dirty. Exiting the kitchen/main room, there is a precarious spiral staircase that leads to an expansive roof, from which you can see a fair amount of the city at night. This show — “Object – Space – Behavior,” Isauro Huizar’s first solo show at Bikini Wax — was not at night.
On the ground floor, there was a toy organ. I appreciated it, not yet knowing that it wasn’t part of the show. We quickly took the stairs to the second floor, where Huizar’s work was, but nobody was there. We walked around for a second, noticing a sagging stack of freshly-done shrink-wrapped laundry in the main room—Bikini Wax’s usual exhibition room. In the near bedroom, a ring of books, stacked neatly according to their corresponding letter of the alphabet—As here, Ms there, no Xs or Ys—stood sentinel around the bed. In one of the far bedrooms, a tight oval of house plants barred entry; in the room across the hall, the only room without a bed, objects huddled in like colors against the far wall. The entire apartment was clean and orderly, the soft Sunday light calming what might otherwise have seemed lurid and manic into something that felt soft and generous.
We then took the steps to the roof, where everybody was. People were sitting in U, chatting. Our friend was there, sitting quietly behind an umbrella that was perched on a table in the middle of the U, vaguely shading an assortment of fruit, donuts, fruit juices, and fruit-flavored vodkas on the table, blocking one side of the U — the side my friend was on, where we sat — from the rest of it. In the corner nearest to us, a boy sat sullenly drinking one box of milk after the other. I wondered vaguely if this was a performance, and if it was part of the show. I thought about him vomiting. Isauro came over and offered us a donut. We accepted.
We stayed for quite a while, much longer than we usually stay at openings, chatting idly with people, meeting a dog, drinking fruity vodka drinks. People kept talking about the trash, that it was all squirreled away somewhere, that the apartment looked so much different without it. People were milling around, relaxing. Having the opening in the morning seemed to turn the usual opening routine on its head. I thought for a second about Pablo Helguera’s book Art Scenes: The Social Scripts of the Art World, wherein he dryly dissects the event of the art opening into a set of calcified roles, pervasive, unavoidable, and detrimental to the formation or circulation of new ideas—perhaps you’re the disruptive artist? the regulating academic?—and wondered if this shift of context perhaps allowed for a shift in sociality. Everything seemed friendly, nice, unforced. The few people trying to network seemed to have forgotten their cards. A woman across the umbrella from us regaled the people near her with stories of her life in the sort of lightly accented English specific to middle-aged women visiting Mexico. I thought, what a nice subtle gesture.
Was it? Look at that image of objects stacked against the wall: don’t they look a bit scared? If you were standing in that room, how would you feel? What would you do? What can you do? Huizar works as an interior designer, making commercial or domestic space more condusive to spending or living for its inhabitants; here, he uses interior design to make a series of domestic spaces unlivable. Or rather, while one could certainly live in one of these rooms, sleep in that bed surrounded by 20-odd stacks of watching books, or in the other room, disguised by a huddle of house plants, it would be a sort of living in which it would impossible to discount the presence of those objects.
Objects cast affects; this much we know well. Usually these affects are instrumentalized by design, interior or otherwise: a long table suggests a feeling of familiarity and comfort, a speed bump suggests an attitude of alertness and care. They also limit the field of possible action: in the restaurant with one long table, you feel discouraged from eating alone; in the street with the speed bump, you must slow down. In Protocol: How Controt Exists after Decentralization, Alexander Galloway describes the speedbump as the quintessential protocological object—an object that delimits a field of possible action.
Read in this way, “Object – Space – Behavior” was neither subtle nor nice. Rather, it is a violent intervention into domestic space, bringing the objects that normally disappear to the forefront, forcing us to reckon with them, to decide what to do now. Most people, including myself, just got the hell out of there and went upstairs. The new arrangement of the objects, as present—looming, watching, in a scrum, backed against the wall—created a space that didn’t necessarily feel like an art space but did absolutely feel like an object space. That room belongs to these books. How can we live in a domestic space that does not privilege humans? How do we reckon with our objects? What are our options? What field of possible action does the laundry cast?
Isauro Huizar (Culiacán, Sinaloa, México. 1985) Develops professional work in interior design focusing on commercial spaces.
For Heidegger, the work of art is that which sets up a world and sets forth earth; “the work lets the earth be an earth” (Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” 1936, 172). He says that the temple that sits atop a hill shows us, for the first time, the stoniness of stone. In describing a Van Gogh, he claims that we must look at paint’s color thus: “[c]olor shines and wants only to shine. When we analyze it in rational terms by measuring its wavelengths, it is gone. It shows itself only when it remains undisclosed and unexplained” (Heidegger 1936,172). The work of art is tied to the world and the earth from which is springs forth.
To continue my article last month that dealt with recent sculptural works made/shown in Atlanta that exemplify this setting to work the materials found in our urban environment, I’d like to address two recent image/photography-based projects by Atlanta-based artist Stephanie Dowda. Namely, her projects Topophilia and We Are All We’ve Got. These works, in their dealings with landscape and the cosmos, we find an intricate layering of space that spans prehistoric to astronomical time.
The Uncanniness of Topophilia
Dowda’s Topophilia, which gets its name from philosopher-geographer Yi-Fu Tuan‘s 1974 book Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values, consists of 14 photographic works – all 20″ x 24″ silver gelatin prints. Made using an idiosyncratic medium-format camera, these soft, and often romantic, photographs are the material manifestations of energy emanations. Dowda states that the camera she uses “becomes a vessel [that] capture[s] the sensation” from and of the places she visits. Her process involves letting the camera decide how the light waves will write themselves onto the film. Dowda claims to be taking a step back during the process of making; she lets the landscape itself create and determine the exposure. For an artist intent on photography-based practice, the camera taking over can create an uncanny sort of situation.
Uncanny, unheimlich in the German as an adjective means eerie or frightening, though taken as Unheimlich, a noun, the term becomes an ontological condition, which for Heidegger means a not-being-at-home; in other words, a being-not-familiar-with (Being and Time, 1927, 182). In our everyday dealings, we become “tranquilized” by our familiarity with our habitual world. However, as Heidegger notes, the uncanny emerges when “everyday familiarity collapses.”
Two of the photographs in Topophilia, Sense of Revenant and Sense of Breaking Apart, come from the Walter de Maria Lightning Field. Both of these photographs capture spectral energies – both human and nonhuman. Standing in front of Sense of Breaking Apart feels like splitting. The photograph’s horizon disintegrates into the haze and so does my gaze. Without knowing where this photograph was taken, I felt the energetic pulsations of a place filled with electrical activity. Sense of Revenant combines a sense of the ghostly and the dreamy. Who is visiting this camera, filtering through its shutter? For Freud, the revenant figures as the dream visitor, a “reincarnation” of someone from the dreamer’s life and past. (Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams 1899, 523). But the revenant is also a spectre (i.e., Roland Barthes‘ Spectrum).
Witnessing the ghost throws us into an unfamiliar yet familiar situation. We know this person, but this person should not be here now. The visitation is a strange rupture in our space-time experience. In his book The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of the Uncanny, Dylan Trigg, writes that
“The relation between aesthetic experience and ontological disruption is not incidental. As an aesthetic gesture in itself, the freezing of the life-world means that, what is taken-for-granted is thus shown in its transcendental givenness. This, indeed, constitutes a necessary estrangement from the world, insofar as it is precisely the everyday world in its familiar assurance that is most susceptible to sudden reversal” (2012, 26).
For Dowda’s photographs, there is this freezing, but also simultaneously a putting into motion. The energetic pulsations of past lightning and the visitor pass through the shutter and make their mark on the silver of the film. These emanations reach out to the camera. However, Dowda, as photographer, reciprocates this reaching. Trigg describes how “our bodies reach out into the world, so a mimetic interplay arises, in which our sense of self becomes fundamentally entwined with the fabric of the world” (2012, 9). For Dowda’s photographs, we can see the camera as an extension of her world and thus it extends out into the world, becomes a sort of being itself.
Prehistorical Time and Astronomical Time
Lucy Lippard’s 1983 book Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory starts with her tripping over a stone – a stone she realized “had been placed there almost 4,000 years ago” (2). For Lippard, her interests do not lie in the use of “prehistoric images in contemporary art”; rather, she is interested in the relationship between the prehistoric and the contemporary. To do this, Lippard uses the figure of the “overlay,” which for her has multiple meanings:
“It is temporal – human time on geologic time; contemporary notions of novelty and obsolescence on prehistoric notions of natural growth and cycles. The imposition of human habitation on the landscape is an overlay … so are the rhythms of the body transferred to the earth, those of the sky to the land or water … Artists working today from models of the distant past are consciously or unconsciously overlaying their knowledge of modern science and history on primal forms that remain mysterious to us despite this knowledge” (Lippard 1983, 3-4).
The stone in the landscape carries with it a richness through its slow accumulation of history. Over time, geologic material adds to material, rock formations develop then deteriorate and change. These stones always rest underfoot. The trip, a certain kind of temporal and spatial disruption, causes us to pay attention, bring us back to the stoniness of the stone. Our bodies, composed of the same material, are inherently part of this earth. Those who were there before us are also part of this landscape. When we step on this ground, we connect to the organic material underfoot.
In another gesture towards spatial orientation, Dowda’s installation We Are All We’ve Got, which was installed at Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum for its event Veneralia, memorialized the extinct star constellations Antinous, Quardrans Muralis, and Argo Navis. Using slides culled from Emory’s Physics Department that are no longer used, Dowda projected these constellations creating a layered human orientation. These projections constitute an “overlay” of our place in this universe.
Where we are at any particular point in time changes our view of the celestial bodies. Our vision is always contingent upon our position in space and time. Stars are born die. We are created from their dust. These cosmic beings provided our cartographic orientation as well as our bodily one. Socrates argues that the human head rests at the apex of the body so that it is closer to the heavens. From Plato’s Timaeus:
“Now we ought to think of the most sovereign part of our soul as god’s gift to us, given to be our guiding spirit. This, of course, is the type of soul that, as we maintain, resides in the top part of our bodies. It raises us up away from the earth and toward what is akin to us in heaven, as though we are plants grown not from the earth but from heaven” (90a).
Considering Our Place
It may seem a strange move to discuss works that were not “made in” Atlanta in order to follow up a discussion of Atlanta as place. However, these works serve to broaden the horizon of our place in time and space. For phenomenology, the horizon is what allows us to perceive. According to philosopher Edmund Husserl, we perceive in terms of the horizon and background:
“What is now perceived and what is more or less clearly co-present and determinate (or at least somewhat determinate), are penetrated and surrounded by an obscurely intended to horizon of indeterminate actuality. I can send rays of the illuminative regard of attention into this horizon with varying results. Determining presentiations, obscure at first and then becoming alive, haul something out for me; a chain of such quasi-memories is linked together; the sphere of determinateness becomes wider and wider, perhaps so wide that connection is made with the field of actual perception as my central surroundings” (Husserl, Ideas I, 1913, 49).
In other words, the indeterminate haziness of the horizon gives determinacy to the object perceived; the object emerges from this horizon. For Dowda’s photographs and projections, the horizons of time and space constitute the images that we are presented with. These images, of this world but completely otherworldy, throw us into uncanniness. Instead of being destroyed by this mood as anxiety, however, it provokes us to consider where we stand. Where we are. When we are. As Dylan Trigg states,
“[t]he uncanny is strange rather than shocking, weird rather than annihilating. Often, we fail to recognize the power of the uncanny, its workings registered only belatedly and in parched fragments. At that time, we turn to ourselves in order to ask the following question: What just happened to me? A feeling of disempowerment occurs. The unity of self-identity becomes vulnerable. No longer do we feel at ease within ourselves. The uncanny leaves us in a state of disquiet, unnerved precisely because we lack the conceptual scheme to put the uncanny in its rightful ‘place.'” (2012, 28)
It would be too easy to deal with this uneasiness by passing it over, by claiming that there is no place that needs dealing with. I realize that the noplace of Noplaceness also gestures towards the duplicitous definition of utopia: utopia as good place and no place. However, since utopia holds within it a non-existence, it in fact is a nowhere, it is no place at all, it is the here, this place where we stand, that we must consider.
This post initiates what I hope will be a series of posts made in response to the question: â€œWhat can be done with dance?â€. The question is taken from the book, â€œHow to Do Things with Dance: Performing Change in Postwar Americaâ€ by Rebekah J Kowal. In the book Kowal suggests that the political potential of choreography to enact real societal change exists as much on the street as it does on the stage. I wonâ€™t go into too much detail about the book, as I will be posting an interview with Kowal shortly, but I would like to linger a little while on this question of doing. Following Kowalâ€™s lead I would like to consider the potential of dance as extending beyond the â€œpower of embodied actionâ€. Let us take for granted, just for now, Â this particular kind of power in bringing about experiential or social change in order to consider other aspects of dance. Like poetry, dance is a way of making graspable what might otherwise elude us. It is a way of capturing the wordless sensations that arise in the body at any given moment.
While I may be inclined, from time to time, to believe that what constitutes the world is nothing more than a series of words, names really, I am also quick to point to the pleasure of unknowable sensations or passions. This is what dance does. It gives us access and makes available that which we feel but do not know. Choreography, in this vein, is a way of working with newly acquired bodily knowledge. In this way, dance is perhaps more grounded than poetry, in that what is being expressed is rooted in the architecture of the body. This of course only leads us to more questions: What is the relationship between the architecture of the body and the space in which it moves? and in the context of my initial inquiry, how might dance help us re-imagine this relationship?
Very often, when speaking about performance, we speak of the space of the event. That rather fluid relationship between the invisible boundaries of the performance arena and the bodies that occupy it. This is the basis for many conversations concerning theater, dance, and other body-based performance practices. Conceptions of space, as they attempt to describe a kind of container, allow for the conceptualizing of bodily volumes. They allow us to speak of the mobility of bodies as it pertains to the environment in which they move. While there is certainly a value in thinking of the relationship between the body and space as one of volume to container, it is also problematic in that it most often privileges an unrealistic idealized body.
Space as it exists conceptually promotes an occupation of itself by a certain kind of body. A body that is best represented by the athletic body. While this may not be the image of interest for most performers the image of the idealized body has a particularly strong hold socially and is continually circulated through the design and conceptualization of space. Day to day routines are policed by the proportions of the spaces in which they take place. Door frames, floor tiles, counter tops, the boundaries of our movements are dictated by standardized measurements. Proportions that are more often than not disproportionate to the bodies that they contains. So internalized are these dimensions that they are manifested non-consciously in the very way that we imagine space around us. To overcome these biases and to allow for other or differently abled bodies is to reconceptualize the relationship of the body to space.
The dancing body is not immune to these prejudices but dance as a practice of acquiring new insight, new knowledge, allows us to use the body to think around our internalized prejudices. The dancing body, for example, does not occupy space so much as facilitates a collaboration between space and the body, it pushes itself against the space that envelops it and in turn that space pushes itself against the body. The body leans against the wall and the wall leans away. Weight is distributed, balanced and shared. The dance is made in collaboration with its environment. It is in this spirit of collaboration, that we begin to find the seedlings of a new way of identifying the performance space. With this dynamic relationship in mind the dancer imagines space as the limbs of another dancer, the back of a chair, the side of the body, an immobile leg, a sleeping hand. The imagination then elaborates and the process of choreography itself becomes about finding ways to express two sets of information, the choreographers and the dancers, and in so doing the hierarchy of values that determine the acceptability of bodies has begun to disintegrate in the wake of collaboration. We have used dance as a practice and a metaphor to circumvent internalized prejudices and to imagine new ways of being in space. I am reminded here of Cornel Westâ€™s description of Percy Shellyâ€™s poet.
â€œHe is talking about all human beings who decide to muster their imagination and empathy to conceive of a better world, given the social misery and suffering of this world.â€ Â
Perhaps, this is what we can do with dance.
– Anthony Romero
I don’t remember the first time I met NoÃ©, but I do remember the first time I saw his work. He and Joseph Clayton Mills performed in a dark room while standing opposite one another. NoÃ© had an accordian strapped to his back and he played, very softly, while Joseph moved closer and farther away. Depending on their distance from one another, something concealed in Joseph’s hand (perhaps a hearing aid?) changed pitch. That performance epitomizes what I’ve seen of NoÃ©’s work. He is dedicated to creating an awareness around silence within a performative space. The manifestation of the body, as a tool for the range of sound is integral, as are the relationships between performative bodies. His ability to instill the necessary parameters for such an awarenes–particularly in collaborative settings–is, to me, remarkable. I wanted to ask him more about that, but felt like direct questions would somehow do away with the very thing I was trying to ask. Consequently I tried to ask around the idea of silence, in order to better understand the way NoÃ© uses sound. Because sound requires space, that seemed a good place to start.
Caroline Picard: How do you think of space?
NoÃ© CuÃ©llar: Space evokes potential, but also communicatesÂ very directly to my sense of placement. Â I think a sense of placement paves the way for the rest of the sensesâ€¦ it’s like a background sense made up by all the senses. I enjoy compound forms even when the individual pieces can still be recognized, in this case, space is the glue.
CP: It sounds like you think of space as something both sculptural (3-d figures) and linguistic (i.e. compound verbs). I appreciate the idea that space would be some experiential amalgam of those fields, even though Iâ€™m not quite sure how that would work. Is that what you mean? What do you mean by compound forms?
NC: Yeah, it’s like our sense of space is happening before we find out how we actually feel.Â I’m in a room now, but a second ago I was just fine without actively thinking how comfortable it is.Â I think of artistic expression as a compound form that always involves more than one thing.
CP: How do you use space as a medium for performance?
NC: The outcomes are quite unexpected when the sense of physical space is combined with the spatial sense of the actual sound. Â I think my work most often expresses rigidity and confines, but space is what can allow [the work] to be experienced with more spread â€“ perhaps more than I would choose to imply in the work itself. Â I would say I focus primarily on sound, but with a sense of belonging in a space.
CP: Iâ€™d love to hear about some examples of how this has occurred in different pieces…
NC: Last year I composed Kilter, a piece for Jeb Bishop (trombone) with accordion, and two speakers inside boxes with hinges that would rattle. Â I had in mind pressure and magnetic repulsion, yet the site-specific performance gave it a more wide-ranging effect, even in a dark, gritty basement with a short ceiling.
I’ve also been working with Joseph Kramer as Coppice, making site-specific installations and site-variable compositions, recently at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where the space was so large we were able to prevent any of our sounds from becoming part of a whole “surround experience,” but remain dislocated and in motion, scattering the perception of their source.
CP: What, to you, is the relationship between the space inside of an instrument and the space around an instrument?
NC: The outside speaks for the inside.
CP: Can you talk a little bit about your collaboration with Joseph Clayton Mills? I was just thinking of the piece where you stood opposite one another and he kept opening and closing his hand, to change the frequency of buzz that magically manifested and grew stronger the closer you moved to one another. Then too, I think of more â€œtraditionalâ€ pieces, where you sit down and perform for a definite period of time…
NC: Working with him is very factual, much in natural state.Â We share a fascination with the attributes of objects and mechanisms, their hidden sound character and emotional effect.Â It makes me think a lot about photography, which we also practice on our own.Â A lot of what we do together is often a simple gesture, “subtlemost” more than “minimalist.”Â I think we both find that simplicity very lasting.
CP: Will you talk a little bit about the way you use silence in your work?
NC: Silence is space but also glue. Â It’s an encouragement that is easy to miss. Â I like using silence as a way of pronouncing presence, or as a bearer of tension, or as a moment to coast on something that just happened. Â Silences can be essentially the same in different moments, but it is how it is accessed that makes it feel different. Â It carries the weight of the three tenses, it can be very prominent in itself, while also reflecting personal inner processes. Â It can even be felt even when sounds are present.
CP: Do you feel like you are interrupting silence? Or are silence and sound variations within the same medium?
NC: My listening is constantly active, therefore I wouldn’t say I interrupt silence with my sound work, but rather bring the sound more forward to emphasize the moment.Â Silence can be framed between those sounds, but in the end I feel like sound and silence are only evocations of a deeper level of silence â€“ and of sound potential â€“ more than what they simply sound like. Â The repercussions of focused listening tap on that depth, beyond the temporal.
CP: I know that you regularly collaborate with other performers as well; sometimes you do so in a more traditional improvisation venue (like The Green Mill, for instance) and at other times you seem to locate yourself more definitively within a contemporary art/performance oeuvre. How do you negotiate those different contexts? Does a venue change the work you do?
NC: Venues shape the work more than they change it.Â What feels right about performances in site-specific and gallery settings is that the audience-performer space is diffused, with more listening nodes available, and open to variation. Â The stage setting has the advantage of centering a performance as a clear message.
CP: Can you talk a little bit about transcription? Or, how you translate and document your temporal, acoustic sound on a static piece of paper?
NC: I’m interested in some precise musical qualities, but also variable, interpersonal, implicit qualities that happen in the process of working one-on-one with a performer.Â Transcription varies from one work to another; sometimes I don’t put anything on paper, or very little just for my own reminder.Â When working with performers I let them write their own parts over a skeleton score I make for them. We talk, try, sharpen, and write.
CP: Do you use that score as a kind of document? I’m thinking about John Cage’s “score’s'” for instance; do they look like that? Or are they more traditional pages of notes?
CP: Can you give me an example?
WithÂ Harrow/Dormant I wanted to figure out what my interpretation of a graphic score would be, and what it would be like to suggest sound from a more abstract visual departure.Â I combined drawings with directions to set a structure on which the performers can stay afloat their own decisions. Julia Miller has been interpreting it with incredible tact several times now, as part of a study for a larger project of hersâ€¦ which is great because multiple iterations reveal how sensitive interpretation is to one’s standpoint.
(SeeÂ this video)
CP: How do you think about sound when it is happening?
NC: Sound is a constant vibration that stimulates our impulse to imagine, stir remembrance of events that perhaps haven’t quite happened to us directly. Â It’s kind of way of keeping check of our experiential ability and our location. Â It’s aÂ way to be present and also to be somewhere else, beyond our windows.
CP: You enact such precision in your work; I’m trying to understand how you think about that precision, and how you locate the “action” of your work in time and space…so somehow, sound becomes the vehicle for that action, right?
NC: I regard presence and intention very highly as a basis. Â In my mind those two things almost make sound all by themselves.
CP: But then what does that mean? For sound to be a vehicle? A vehicle for what?
NC: A vehicle for transportation…
CP: Itâ€™s also really interesting to think about intentionâ€”Iâ€™m not sure I understand what you mean by that…it sounds like youâ€™re thinking of your mind as an auxiliary componentâ€”and extension of the instrument?
NC: My sister is a graphic designer, and browsed many art and design magazines when I was growing up.Â I have many vivid memories of her explaining contemporary artworks to me and she would talk a lot about intention.Â I remember there was an advertisement all white with only one small logo in the middle, and I asked her why they would waste so much space, and she pointed out that the blank space lead our eyes to the logo, that was the focus.Â That got me thinking about doing only what felt like enough.Â Insights like that built up very solidly, and I’m reminded of that particular one quite often.Â The intentional framework for a message.
Hubble took the deepest look in the darkest patch of sky for a second time with even more sensitive lenses and measurements have predictably found the eternal quote to be true:
This time though it was able to use red shift relations to map the image in 3D.