On reality and its limits – translation, artificiality, style

Reality and its relations to perception and sensation seems to be one of the big topics within contemporary performing arts at the moment. This might be indicated by an renewed interest in the phenomena of magic, synesthesia, hallucination and illusion – may it be theatrical illusion or not. Dance practitioners and scholars have investigated and still investigate questions around these notions, such as: How can we further refine our skills of perception and sensation? How does our conception of reality therefore change? What role do fictional and fake models play in that relation and how could we work with fictional informations and theories in order to alter what reality really looks like to us (e.g. fake somatics)? Does this apparent opposition – the opposition between factual knowledge and fictional tools – hold tight any longer? And finally, what social and political implications do these questions and findings provoke, or not?

At the base of these questions lies a picture of the human animal as always already embedded and implicated in its environment and in close interaction with this world surrounding it. Access to this environment is not granted absolutely or from a higher, hierarchically prioritized position outside of the situations, but it is rather learned and acquired perceptual skills from within – that might largely become automatized but nonetheless have to be achieved – that make for the perceptual access to the world surrounding us. This picture, questioning a representational model of perception, rather relies on an implicated, active and enactive model of perception as something that implies agency and effort. Here (and now), our specific entrance to the world is never a given fact – even if we are always already part of a landscape and of a situation – but somethings that – as it is a learned process, therefore a negotiation between animal and environment – might change, that could potentially be altered and that really is the above named process of negotiation. It is of no wonder that these phenomenological questions arouse interest within the field of contemporary dance and performing arts as these art forms arguably have long since been occupied with questions of how to refine and train access to our own bodies and – as these specifically trained embodied, corporeal perceivers – to the outside world. The model I have here outlined also empowers theatricality and performance with new potent questions: If it is true that perception and sensation are really actions we have to learn, to enact and thus to achieve, that they are therefore unstable processes that can potentially be altered, thus in turn altering our picture of reality – how can the theatre and live performance then become a prominent place to first of all illuminate and transmit these important questions and this field of experiential knowledge, and how can it secondly actively manipulate and influence these very perceptual frames of ours?(1)

In order to elaborate these questions a little further I here want to refer to the conception of translation as formulated by Levi R. Bryant in his text ‘The Ontic Principle: Outline of an Object-Oriented Ontology.’(2) This text already points to a necessary paradox at the core of these practical and philosophical questions. While we argue that perceptual access to the world is a learned, enacted process – that therefore never grants a direct access to the world, that never fully reveals the environment we are implicated in – we nonetheless take the outside world, the situations and environments we are always already embedded in, as a given and always already granted, yet receding, unstable entity. It is maybe only if we take this outside world of objects, things and animals as granted that we can speculate in full playfulness about our limited access and position inside of our environment, and around those entities, qualities and things that might forever escape our appropriation. I here refer to the notions of a ‘flat ontology’, a ‘plane of immanence’ and a ‘univocity of Being’ coined by Deleuze, DeLanda and Bryant. Bryant cites Deleuze: “(…) the essential in univocity is not that Being is said in a single and same sense, but that is is said, in a single and same sense, of all its individuating differences or intrinsic modalities. Being is the same for all these modalities, but these modalities are not the same.”(3) This already also implies that whatever position we have within the world surrounding us, we necessarily only have a limited perspective on it, limited both by our very spatio-temporal position within the territory and the perceptual frames that grant us access to the outside. But this obviously goes for all things, objects, animals and entities in general. Here is were a general principle of translation comes into play. Bryant states:

“If we accept the hypothesis that there is no difference that does not make a difference, then it follows that there can be no object that is a mere vehicle for the acting differences of another object. As Latour puts it, there in no transportation without translation. (…) In short, ‘translation’ should not be understood as a hermeneutic concept, but as an ontological concept. (…) When a text is translated from one language to another, the source language must be transformed into the object language and the object language must be transformed into the source language. (…) My thesis is that this phenomenon of transformation is not restricted to the translation of texts, but is true of all inter-ontic relations or all interactions between actions."(4)

What does this imply? Firstly, that all interaction is already metaphorical. Secondly, that our perceptual and interactive position in the world is necessarily already a translation of the very environment that feeds us. It is both in active, instrumental use of tools – lets say a cup to drink from – and in the re-formulation of the outside world into experience – lets say by looking at a landscape – that we thus enact, reveal or re-formulate only a part of the thing or environment that we therein use, or better mis-use. In this process of interaction we thereby alter the outside and the inside, changing both the language or entity of the cup or landscape and ourselves. Our interaction with the cup is always already instrumental, but can never fully be instrumental – no matter how we use it, to drink from it, to contemplate its form, or to throw it at somebody or something else, we firstly never realize its full potential and the object might secondly always potentially escape our use if, by falling out of the hand for example. The same goes for looking at a landscape: there is infinite detail that escapes my perceptual experience. On all levels, may I be looking at a picture of it, at the real landscape or at a tiny detail of it – the yellow flower next to my right foot – I can never perceive all of it. The inside experience of the landscape is therefore always a transformation of the outside landscape while my presence as perceiver inside of that landscape already alters it.

Let me here just inject the following rough thought. I want to argue that all being – on an ontological level – is somehow constructed, based on an internal organization and specific modes of interaction with its surroundings. It thus implies artificiality. Its very being relies on interactions with other entities – it is always part of an environment – that are necessarily impure and can only partially realize the objects, entities and other animals that make for its specific existence. Could we therefore speculate how relational, interactive being implies an ontological primacy of artificiality – and thus maybe of art? Nature as a reference of truth does not exist anymore. The world outside is also only made up out of artificial relations of mis-use, transformation or translation. Or does this ontological primacy of artificiality or constructedness on an ontological level imply the disappearance or art into a total field of artificiality?

These abstract and rough arguments can only be productive if we take them as philosophical base for an investigation into the specific, singular translational practices and experiences we make and create within the world – therefore proliferating much rather questions about specific styles of translational or re-organizational modes of constructing perceptual existence as embedded, implicated entities in an inter-active intertwined field of active translations. This would be the place of art as I understand it within this phenomenological model. It grants visibility or perceptual experience of specific constructions of ourselves in an interactive field of translations. It highlights the role of perceptual skills as something learned, constructed, therefore alterable, and it grants implicit and explicit access to very specific realities and the way they are constructed. After all this is what I understand from the works of Jefta van Dinther and Mette Ingvartsen. And for a good reason – I think – her latest piece is named ‘The Artificial Nature Project’ – voluntarily or involuntarily making clear that specifically within the theatre, and within the perceptual field as such, there is only different forms of artificiality. It is maybe much rather the environment of confetti, light and leaf blowers and my specific perception of it than the faint memories of an outside ‘nature’ – a ‘natural’ or ‘originary’ world – that counts within this experience.

(1) Phenomenological questions on perception and access to the outside world lie at the base of the work of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. This text does not directly rely on these authors, but rather on readings of the perceptual theory of Alva Noe, some work of William Fish and Oliver Sacks, and a cusorical reading of some texts from the new and cool philosophical strand of so called of ‘speculative realism’. I here just want to indicate that for me these questions are additionally informed by the theory of environmental studies (‘Umwelt-Wissenschaft’) by Jakob von Uxküll and by the theory of ‘affordances’ of J. J. Gibson.

(2) Bryant, Levi R.: ‘The Ontic Principle: Outline of an Object-Oriented Philosophy’, in: Bryant, Srnicek, Harman (Eds.): ‘The Speculative Turn: Continental Materials and Realism’,, Melbourne, 2011, pp. 261-278

(3) Deleuze, Gilles, ‘Difference and Repitition’, Columbia University Press, New York, 1994, here after: Bryant, ‘The Ontic Principle’, p. 269

(4) Bryant, ‘The Ontic Principle’, p. 275/276
On Barricades.
A speculation on the relation of protest and material construction

adversity, alternative, architecture, assemblage, bar, barrier, block, blockade, check, collaboration, complication, conflict, construction, deterrent, difficulty, disruption, ecosystem, entrench, environment, fence, fugitive, gap, hindrance, icon, improvisation, insurgency, maze, mix, obstacle, obstruction, place, protection, re-configuration, relation, re-negotiation, structure, surround, tactic, technique, thing, uprising, wall

to be continued...

Most probably the barricade was invented in southern France in the 16th century. Like most prominent collaborations between humans and materials, its origin and the detailed history of its invention are controversial. Some say it initially appeared during the first ‘Day of the Barricade’ in Paris on May 12, 1588, when the supporters of the Duke of Guise and the Catholic Holy League successfully challenged the authority of the French King Henry III. Other sources – namely the nearly forgotten Blaise de Monluc – claim that the barricade technique was already used in 1569, in religiously based conflicts in southwestern France. Yet others believe that similar types of mobile blockade had already been deployed in antiquity. In any case, its name derives from the Old French term ‘barrique’ that refers to hogsheads or barrels.

In the 16th century, insurgent citizens used these barrique barrels (filled with sand or paving stones) that were ready at hand and found every- where in early-modern cities to swiftly improvise an effective form of protective barrier against governmental forces. However, the high time of the barricade was the 19th century when barricade construction became a classic feature of revolutionary landscapes as places and events of change, upheaval and reorganisation.

Today, it signifies both a symbolic and a material structure that speaks of counter-culture, conflict, uprising and insurgency on an almost global level: “The visibility, longevity, versatility, and sporadic efficacy of this tactic of street warfare explain why it possesses a symbolic resonance that has made it a virtual icon of the revolutionary tradition. Yet the barricade constitutes, first and foremost, a concrete, tangible object: by definition the term implies a physical structure, built and defended by citizen-insurgents, for purpose of laying claim to urban space and challenging the constituted authorities.“ (Mark Traugott, ‘Barricades as Material and Social Constructions’, in: Disobedient Objects, ed. by Catherine Flood and Gavin Drindon, V&A Publishing, 2014, p. 27)

The barricade is a technique of the disempowered, the working classes and the poor whose basic function is blockade and protection. The barricade protects a whole area, establishes a zone of indeterminacy and thereby produces a gap or disruption in the smooth space of power and control, of infrastructural functionality and governmental organisation. It marks a space that is decidedly public and in question, a space that demands to be re-considered and re-negotiated.Thus, the barricade is a way of confronting power. It both displays and confronts the ruling paradigms of social and political interaction. Speaking of matter and material, the barricade is a disorganized and heterogeneous wall built within a very short time, under great pressure and out of direct urgency. It is a form of fluid architecture, a sort of weird ecosystem, a heterogeneous mix of different materials: soft and hard, concrete and fragile, mobile and immobile, practical and ornamental. All objects or materials that become part of a barricade are re-configured. They give up on their conventional function and are altered and re-determined by the new and surprising assemblage they enter into. In 19th century France, “insurgents would scour nearby construction sites in search of beams or planks that could add solidity to the emerging structure. They would appropriate the gates and fences of public gardens, the metal grates from the base of trees that lined the streets, the trees themselves, lamp posts and even the wrought-iron banisters of interior stairways, for such components collectively formed a basis around which looser materials could be knitted together. Sympathetic neighbours (or those that could be easily intimidated) might donate household furnishing, often thrown from upper-storey windows in the streets below. All such contributions were welcome: chairs and tables, bedsteads and dressers, doors and mouldings, even the occasional armoire or sink. They sometimes found a place alongside the more exotic items mentioned in contemporary sources: a piano, a blacksmith’s anvil, public urinals, or in one case, the body of a dead horse.“ (Mark Traugott, ‘Barricades as Material and Social Constructions’, pp. 28/29)

Much like in Deleuze and Guattari’s classic example of an assemblage that consists of a horse, its rider and a lance, the barricade gathers an extremely heterogeneous array of materials, affects and intentions and reconfigures all actors involved. We can thus also free the barricade from its purely urban connotations, for why should barricades not also exist on the countryside, in places of minute settlements or camps, and other environments than (Western) centres of exchange and trade? Already, the barricade implies a tacit knowledge of the environment into which it inserts itself: “In assessing its utility, the typical barricade should never be thought of as a stand-alone feature of an insurrectionary landscape, for it was most often tightly integrated with adjacent residential buildings or commercial establishments.“ (Mark Traugott, ‘Barricades as Material and Social Constructions’, p. 30). But it is not only this being amidst and in relation with other structures that determines the character of the barricade, on another level barricades also remodel their environment. It was directly in relation to this specific architectural feature of citizen uprisings that the Haussmannian restructuring of Paris was conceived, as Walter Benjamin has famously pointed out: “The real aim of Haussmann’s works was the securing of the city against civil war. He wished to make the erection of barricades in Paris impossible for all time.“ (Walter Benjamin, ‘VI. Haussmann, or the Barricades’, in: Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century, Perspecta, 1969, pp. 165-172)

If we think of the barricade as an assemblage that consists of heterogeneous materials and renders them both a sign of unrest and waste in the affirmative sense, as something that escapes commodification, we can conceive of its ‘thingness’. Whatever joins the barricade-thing will have to relinquish its conventional function, its history of use and symbolic connotations. It becomes part of a re-negotiation as and with an environment that does not belong to anyone yet, but that implies both human intentions and material properties, capacities and agen- cies. The barricade therefore remains in-appropriable and fugitive in as much as it constitutes and physically materializes a space that is an unresolved matter of concern and ongoing dissent. As such, the barricade is not only about what can be said and done by human agents, but rather about the entangled agencies of many bodies, various parts of a composite whole, all connected and put into question by becoming part of the thing that figures under this very name: barricade.
This complex definition highlights the fact that the nature of protest – resisting, disobeying, struggling, demanding, gathering, inhibiting and obstructing – also manifests itself in its constructions. It is the slow and careful process of constructing alternative structures, socially, politically and ecologically – structures that as long as they are barricades, do not become fixed architecture, but necessarily remain fragile and fugitive. As such, the barricade is open to be claimed and re-claimed, symbolically and materially, by whomever is in opposition to structures of rigidity, power, hegemony, effectivity, commodification and self- exhaustion. A beginning, from where we can start to imagine and act...

What if the barricade was the place to constantly re-invent, re-configure and re-situate materials, matters, intentions and affects, a place to shuffle them anew, to remake and remodel them?

What if the barricade was a construction site where we – all different kind of things – gather to build something new, a ‘neither/nor’, another thing, unstable?

What if it was the place where a frontier becomes space owned by no-one, a no-one’s land, shared and re-claimed collectively?

What if we thought of the barricade as a time of re-construction – a moment of hesitation and dwelling, a decision to stay? A moment for hoping and wanting that something else will be made out of this thingly heap, this wasteland and out of this stream of words printed on white paper in black ink on another day?

So what if the barricade is not only about materials that are at hand, but also about a new relation between those non-human materials and the human hands that collect them?

Imagine this relation as a dance.

This essay has been written within the research conducted for the piece BARRICADES AND DANCES (2015). It is co-written in collaboration with Heike Bröckerhoff and Harriet von Froreich.
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