Esa Kirkkopelto Paranormal Bodies in Performance
Conference Presentation

Esa Kirkkopelto Paranormal Bodies in Performance

In this talk I try to outline the paradigm shift the artistic research of performing arts may cause in the study of anomalous experience. The shift if based on the way we encounter and think about corporeality in performing arts. This paper continues the problematic I introduced last April at the Please Specify! 8th Conference on Artistic Research arranged by SAR and Uniarts Helsinki here at the Theatre Academy.

In that context, I suggested that artistic research (AR) may have a definable research subject and a level of reality, which exists independently of other possible layers but remains connected to them. This subject area consists of what I call artistic phenomena. These phenomena are something artistic processes, practices and works bring forth and whose existence and observation are dependent of the constitutive technical, or “phenomenotechnical” operations belonging to them. This is also why an artist-researcher has to be a practitioner, i.e. she has to be able to produce and reproduce the phenomena under study. Artistic phenomena as subject of research do not consist of artworks or other established modes of art making, but something in them. They are not, at least in the first instance, aesthetic phenomena, which always are more or less received, not produced, and studied first-hand in aesthetics. AR as the study of artistic phenomena tends to indicate how these phenomena are not only a part of our common reality but constitutive of it. The aim is not only to indicate how they are irreducible to other layers of reality and respective modes of knowledge, but how reality is artistic as such.

In my SAR conference keynote, I argued that the body, insofar it is in various artistic contexts understood as a compositional element, does not behave like bodies do in other contexts. One distinctive feature of such artistic bodies is that, despite their volume and materiality and other sensible features, they are absolutely weightless, gravitation does not concern them. I will now continue my inquiry by asking how this kind of body comes into being. I proceed first phenomenologically, then I move into a more structuralist mode of observation.

If we take a closer look at what happens to the body of the performer in performance at the moment of her “derealisation” or virtual transformation, we can make a simple but fundamental observation: This operation is always partial both temporally and spatially. As a performer embodies something scenically, a part of her body assumes momentarily the likeness of another body whereas another part does not. The other part can hide beneath the re-imagined parts, or show its relation to them. It can support the re-imagined, or virtualized part, or exclude it. However there is always a recognizable difference or distance between these parts or areas, a difference I have called “scenic”. Body as stage consists of this kind of tensional relation or distance between different body parts and areas. A performer can make this unmeasurable distance appear to others in many ways. A part of my body appears in a certain way, while the rest of my body withdraws itself into the shadows. And the appearing part can always be distinguished and detached from the withdrawing part.

We easily have an experience of how our body divides in performance by finding a position in which parts are less able to move, and then move those parts which still are free to do and express something. I noticed that Susanna used this technique yesterday in her dance.

This kind of a partial mimetic hold a human body may take of itself is something quite obvious to all of us. Yet, these are things that a human being has to learn concretely at the early age of her existence by manipulating, sucking, smelling, beating things and reaching out for them. It seems that this corporeal capture of the body remains open-ended and it continues throughout our whole life. At a certain moment of development new and more subtle devices appear: stable images, schemas, signs, concepts, toys and tools… But, understandably, something of the primordial material struggle remains and continues, and it sustains our further attempts.

In psychoanalytic theory, the question of how a body becomes a body divides theoreticians. In object relations theory, the most famous spokeswoman of which was Melanie Klein, the world is literally appropriated by a child bit by bit, by the intermediary of so called “part objects”, i.e. body parts having beneficial or harmful effects on a child’s existence. These primordial objects, some of which are accepted and internalized, some of which are rejected and externalized, may later become more integrated and gather new aspects, but a human being nevertheless carries them along as parts of her unconscious body throughout her entire life.

In the late 1960’s, as Gilles Deleuze published his two seminal philosophical studies, Différence et répétition (1968) and Logique du sens (1969). His criticism of the Freudian psychoanalytic theory, already present in both works, was strongly influenced by Melanie Klein. According to Deleuze, as a child encounters and handles different objects, she does not do so only in order to construct by their means an integral image with which she could identify herself. Instead, every object has two sides, an active one, satisfying the requirements of objective reality, and a passive side, constituting a source of partial enjoyment.

“A child constructs for itself another object, a quite different kind of object which is a virtual object or centre and which then governs or compensates for the progresses and failures for its real activity.”

“There is no need to speak of egocentrism on the part of the child. The child who begins to handle a book by imitation, without being able to read, does not mistake: she invariably holds it upside down.”

(Deleuze 1994 [1968], translation modified by E.K.)

What Deleuze is opening here, insofar I am able to follow him, is an alternative, non-oedipal track from childhood to adulthood, where objects retain their partial enjoyable independency, the aspect we can share with them and bring forth in play. From this point of view, a human being is born as an animator, operator or performer, the first objects she encounters are magical there is no essential difference between scenic play and children’s play… This does not imply, however, that artistic activities are basically regressive by their nature. And correspondingly, the things that a child operates with are not merely “transitory” in the ontogenetic sense, i.e. at the service of the individual growth. A part object is not “deficient” by any means. On the contrary, these objects have their own fully developed nature that a child only uses differently than an artist does. The body as a compositional element and produced by play is a part object.

How is it produced? It is at this point that my discussion intersects with the paranormal one.

A related common instrument is known as the “Chevreul’s pendulum”. The weight of the pendulum gives us an example of a magical object, an object under the influence of invisible spiritual forces. The pendulum can be asked different kinds of questions and it answers by waving in different directions. It is named after the French chemist Michèle Eugène Chevreul (1786–1889), who did not invent it but was among the first to attempt to explain its functioning principle in scientific terms in a book he published in 1854 and who therefore can be considered as one of the forefathers of the psychology of anomalous experience. Nowadays the phenomenon is usually understood as an example of “ideomotor action“:

Muscular movement can be initiated by the mind independently of volition or emotions. We may not be aware of it, but suggestions can be made to the mind by others or by observations. Those suggestions can influence the mind and affect motor behavior. (William B. Carpenter 1852 according to Loxton 2014, np)

Although it looks as if the weight of the pendulum moves in a certain direction either by itself or drawn by invisible forces, in fact it only moves in the direction in which the person holding it wants it to move, the brain communicating the intention to the muscles secretly, bypassing conscious control. The intention behind this explanation is to exclude the possibility of a magical affinity between the pendulum and external objects or powers, but it actually does not convince those who believe in the magic. In response, believers could always think that such forces influence the brain directly and the hand works like an indicator that merely visualizes this influence. Due to the lack of a common denominator, the magic experience and the empiric experience refuse to coincide. The situation is not so much different than that in theatre. This comes forth if we start to consider the pendulum as a scenic object. Since, after all, what is a pendulum other than a very special type of marionette, perhaps the simplest puppet one can imagine, whose performance we follow with fascination? Or when a performer tries to liberate a part of her body, so that it could become autonomously expressive, and “let it go”, like Outi asked us to do on Thursday with our voice, which also is a body. Structurally, it is not exaggerated to state a pendulum works like a performer’s body. But what does it tell us about that body?

In order to conceive it, let’s change the scale and compare Chevreul’s pendulum with another pendulum, namely that of Foucault, named after another French scientist, the physician Léon Foucault (1819–1868). In 1851 he hung a gigantic pendulum in the dome of the Panthéon in Paris in order to make visible the rotation of the planet Earth.

The functioning of the pendulum is based on the relative shift between the freely oscillating weight of the pendulum which, according to the first Newtonian law, tends to retain its movement, and the body of the Earth, which rotates in relation to the pendulum. The rotation of the pendulum is perceived in relation to the common “frame of reference” between the weight and the Earth, to which the rotation of the Earth produces a constant aberration, a “precession”. There is an obvious similarity in these two pendulums. In both, the weight of the pendulum, its “body”, seems to move by itself: the oscillation itself in Chevreul’s pendulum, or the gradual precession of the oscillation in Foucault’s. In the case of Chevreul’s pendulum, the movement is based on an unconscious and imperceptible connection between the brain and the hand. The precessional movement in Foucault’s pendulum, on the other hand, unites two different virtual scales, or frames of references, whose mutual relation the observer cannot perceive: the unseen angular force caused by the rotation of the planet around its axis, and the locally observable one in which objects fall towards the ground. The observer associates the latter perspective with the weight of the pendulum, without being able to estimate the effects of the larger scale on the minor one. And therefore, the weight seems to move by itself, as if it had a will of its own. My point is now that the two pendulums in question are isomorphic systems. What counts here is not the causality but the relation between the two scales and their virtual and local effects.

In both cases, the movement of the weight simultaneously establishes and articulates a connection between two different levels or orders, one of which is superior to the other in magnitude. The body of the pendulum seems to gain a certain liberty and a capacity to move by itself in relation to its inferior level. However, this autonomy is only apparent and simultaneously literally dependent on the invisible superior order, the operative level. One might imagine the point of view of a cosmic spectator, who could perceive the relation between the levels and who therefore would not be amazed by the movement. However, that would not negate the following astonishing point: as such, the weight of the pendulum does not belong exclusively to either frame of reference. Instead it constitutes an intermediary and ambivalent instance, which belongs to the two dimensions at the same time and, by this means, creates an articulated relationship between them. The pendulum moves in a virtual and over-determined space, which results in the union of the two orders at play.

If we consider these two pendulums scenically, we can notice how it may tell us something of essential of the structure of other scenic phenomena in general. Namely, all fictional objects and bodies in performance behave like that, they are simultaneously here, and elsewhere. And as a performer evokes a scenic appearance or illusion, makes a gesture or goes through a scenic transformation, her operation is structurally similar to Chevreul’s pendulum. The apparition of scenic bodies is operated and sustained by an invisible instance – a performer, an operator, stage engineer, whose existence nevertheless does not diminish or compromise the autonomy of the experience we have of these bodies. One extreme case of this division was the avatar we encountered yesterday in Outi’s presentation. If we are ready to accept this type of reasoning, it may change our idea of the performing body quite radically. It may also explain some of its aspects that challenge our everyday and empirical reasoning and perception. However, the prerequisite of this reasoning is that we give artistic phenomena priority over other modes of perception, like in AR in my opinion we should do.

If, to conclude, we ask the relevance of these observations to the study of the anomalous, it seems that a certain paradigm shift is needed. As I suggested earlier, it requires, like in Deleuze, that we accept the irreducible virtual aspect of object constitution, which does not disappear at any level, not even at that of scientific research. If we were ready to accept this view point, then we could start to observe how these irreducible virtual bodies behave differently in different kinds of human contexts, in scientific, artistic and anomalous experience, and how, by intermediary of these bodies, these experiences inform each other.


Chevreul, Michel E. 1854. De la baguette divinatoire, du pendule dit explorateur, et des tables tournantes, au point de vue de l’histoire, de la critique et de la méthode expérimentale. Paris: Mallet-Bachelier.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1994[1968]. Difference and Repetition. New York: Columbia University Press.

Delueze, Gilles. 1968. Différence et repetition. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1969. Logique du sens. Paris: Les Édition de Minuit. Collection Critique.

Kirkkopelto, Esa. 2016. “Body and Object in Performance.” Performance Philosophy Journal 2(1): 49–59.

Loxton, Daniel 2014. “Things Skeptics Knew a Century Ago About How Thinking Goes Wrong.” Blog posted 29 December 2014 on Skeptic Insight. Accessed 10 August 2017.


Dr Esa Kirkkopelto is a philosopher, artist-researcher, performer, former theatre director and playwright, convener of the Other Spaces live art collective. In 2007–2017, he worked at the Theatre Academy (Uniarts Helsinki) as Professor of Artistic Research. His research focuses on the deconstruction of the performing body, both in theory and practice. Since 2008, he has conducted a collective research project called “Actor’s Art in Modern Times” on psychophysical actor training. Since fall 2017, he is the leader in charge of the newly founded Centre for Artistic Research that focuses on postdoctoral artistic research. Convener (2004–2017) and member of the Other Spaces live art collective.