Reading and writing at the same time– translation as performance and performance as translation
We explain how the interaction between a book (which inspires my performances) and my performance art (which leads me to re-read the book) accounts for topological transformations of its text which then are sketched out in writing. This implies I am re-writing the book. Concretely, the presentation describes a performative experiment I developed under the curation of Unspecified Involvements, which defines itself as “a travelling space to share writing practices (experimental / partial / fragile / unstable) through reading / performing in an informal setting”. We show how this experiment provided me with keys to write my thesis differently:
- to use the reading of alternative translations of the original book (from French to Portuguese and to English) to perform the text, and to realise the text is performing, by exposing the multiple meanings those translations actually help unfold;
- to redirect this “caleidoscopisation” of meanings to my own process of writing, with all its implications in graphic terms (this will be explained and exemplified during the conference);
- to expose in our way of writing (our own writing, and to some extent too our re-writing of the original book) the distinction between “text as received” and “text as processed”, including, again, how this is mirrored also in terms of the graphical space occupied by quoting the text and looking critically into it; and
- to show how performance art plays a central role in this process of re-writing. These choices are political: by exposing them, we are showing awareness of how a doctoral research in the arts risks going beyond questioning the artistic practice to instead put it in question. As a reaction to that transgression, we show how the subject-object direction can be inverted or smudged, with advantages to both academic and artistic practice and respecting their integrity.
This paper/presentation explains how the interaction between a book (which inspires our performances) and our performance art (which leads us to re-read the book) accounts for topological transformations of its text, which then are sketched out in writing. This implies we are re-writing the book. Concretely, the presentation describes a performative experiment we developed under an initiative called Unspecified Involvements and how our participation in that initiative led us to value a certain way of writing and to consider the performative dimension of reading, translating and writing.
Section 2 describes the quest triggered by our participation in that performance event, which took place in Brussels on 25 June 2018 in Pop Up Gallery, Brussels. Section 3 exposes the performative dimension of translating and our tactics to render that performative dimension more visible. Section 4 approaches the issue of whether performance art itself can be seen as translation, and explains how our performance at the above-referred event dealt with this quest. Section 5 concludes.
Before we move on, we should first explain the broader context of this episode: over the last years we have been researching around a specific quest, which is “can ethics empower aesthetics rather than limiting it?”. To reply to such a question, we had to anchor on one specific reference in ethics, and we also chose to anchor the research on a practice in performance art. As regards ethics, the framework we chose was the ethics encompassed in a text from the 1960’s by the Lithuanian-born French philosopher Emanuel Levinas, called Totality and Infinity (Levinas 1961). Because it would always be too speculative to link some other artist’s work to that reference in ethics, we decided to use our own performance practice as the aesthetic counterpart. This practice continues to unfold in the framework of a practice-based doctoral research in the University of Surrey supervised by Professors Kati Röttger (University of Amsterdam), Laura Cull (University of Surrey) and Mathew Wagner (University of Surrey).
The link between Levinassian ethics and our performance art was not clear at the early stages of the research, but it later became more or less evident that, having run over 60 performative experiments, we could cluster the relationship they established with the book in groups or categories: while some of those performances explained “in other words” what the book says, other appeared more like tests to the truthfulness of some idea contained in the book, and yet others would follow the style of Levinas’s writing (for instance, by using a narrow array of concepts, or by reaching the core of a concept by phenomenological reduction). This endogenous methodology is further explained in Artinprocess (2021).
-  Around mid-2020.
The seed: Unspecified Involvements
In 2018 we applied to an event named “Unspecified Involvements”, curated by Janine Harrington, an artist working from London, UK. The way it presents itself is the following: Unspecified Involvements is a travelling space to share writing practices (partial/ fragile/ experimental/ unstable) through reading/ performing in fairly informal settings. Come as audience and/or as reader: you don’t have to share text to be there! (Harrington 2018)
The description of the event, or series of events, puzzled us as the sentence “To share writing practices through reading” leaves us wondering: is the event about reading, or is it about writing? The question triggered then two reflections: firstly, that if a performance of ours reflects the way we read our sources, it also can be seen to some extent as a form of writing – in another language; secondly, it led us to a following question, which is “what is it that combines reading and writing at the same time?”. It then occurred to us that “translation” encompasses both dimensions. The combination of both reflections and, therefore, of both provisional replies (i.e., that translation comprises reading and writing, and that performance making/presenting can be seen as a form of writing) then led us to question if a performance can be seen as a translation.
Almost inevitably, the mirror question arises: is transition performance, or at least performative? This participation in Unspecified Involvements, and the reflections woven in the run-up to our participation in it, led us to start paying more attention to the way we write about the interaction between text and performance; to reflect more deeply about how to write a translation; and also on whether or not we can consider performance art to be a translation of the text it explores.
Translation as performance
Venuti (2013) develops an approach to translation that stems from hermeneutics (in the lineage of Heidegger and Gadamer, he says), but deviating at the same time from that tradition to treat translation as an interpretive act in a more flexible way, bearing “an ethical reflection that acknowledges the inevitable loss of source-cultural difference as well as the exorbitant gain of translating-cultural difference, a trade-off that exposes the creative possibilities of translation” and “initiating new ways of thinking inspired by an interpretation of the source text” (Venuti 2013, 4).
Already this one declaration of intentions allows us to single out a few aspects that resonate with the reflection carried out in this paper, and also more broadly with our research project: first, the ethical dimension of translation, expected to open up possibilities of interpretation of the original text within the translation itself (rather than narrowing them down); secondly, the potential to continue creating new meaning even outside the interpretation itself, and most notably among the community of readers of said translation; and thirdly, the surpassing of the archaic debate focusing on what is lost in translation. As regards the latter aspect, we note in Venuti that, after declaring that translation is radically de-contextualizing, as it dismantles the context and promotes a loss of inter-textual relations, he later chisels his own thoughts and admits that “translation is radically re-contextualising” as it produces “a set of linguistic and cultural differences that are inscribed in the source text”, “creating new signifying chains accompanied by intra-textual effects and inter-textual relations”, and it is these new/different signifying chains that proliferate semantic possibilities (Venuti 2013, 35).
-  The italic has been added by us in both quotations.
Reckoning this power of translating, which is coupled with a responsibility, we were led to use the reading of alternative translations of the book by Levinas (from French to Portuguese and to English) to perform the text, and to realise the text is performing, by exposing the multiple meanings those translations actually help unfold. Indeed, writing a thesis on the aesthetic possibilities made possible by a reading of a text on ethics required extensive references to the original text; we therefore decided that explaining or simply describing what is in that text, if done in English, should be systematically accompanied by a quotation of the text by Levinas in the language he used (French). This extensive quotation would therefore serve as a kind of counterfactual: a comment from our side followed immediately by the quotation in the original language would allow the reader to assess the goodness of our comment and of our translation (in cases where our text in English does little more that describing what the text by Levinas says without weaving any additional considerations on it – and to the extent that we can consider these two modes of relation to the original text as fully separable). We now quote ourselves (Artinprocess 2016) quoting Levinas:
-  To be very Frank, we read the texts by Venuty and Oustinoff (quoted later in this text) only after we had started to engage in this practice of writing.
-  In this text of 2016 we quote Levinas by referring to Totality and Infinity as “TI”.
And the first movement of the hand – the most experimental, the most exploratory – does not lack technical imperfection. The likelihood to succeed and to not succeed do not account for a less-than-perfect movement. Tâtonnement – the groping, the touching ever so lightly with the tip of the fingers, the “fingertipping” – stands as a pre-condition for any technique. The adventure – the risk – of the hand’s first movement is commensurate to the uncertainty of the milieu into which it delves.
-  In this text from 2016, we create a neologism of our own, close to an identical operation carried out by the toes (tiptoeing). It is striking to observe that one of the participants in CARPA 7 (in 2021) reminded all those attending our presentation that translation is sometimes compared to a caress – a light, non-invasive way of touching, rather than a grasping/controlling one.
« (L)a main va à l’aventure et attrape son but avec une part inévitable de chance ou de malchance, ce qui ressort du fait qu’elle peut rater son coup. (La main est par essence tâtonnement et emprise. Le tâtonnement n’est pas une action techniquement imparfaite, mais la condition de toute technique. »TI, pp. 181
The hand is the body’s extremity – the tip of the body. The hand moves, the whole body follows. There is an extension of the body through the hand. The hand stands for the whole body. The body is hand. The whole body works. The whole body tâtonnes.
« Le corps en tant que possibilité d’une main – et sa corporéité tout entière peut se substituer à la main – existe dans la virtualité de ce mouvement se portant vers l’outil. Le tâtonnement – œuvre par excellence de la main et œuvre adéquate à l’apeiron de l’élément, rend possible toute l’originalité de la cause finale. »TI, pp. 181
An identical approach led us in 2020 to self-translate a text of ours, from English to French, being that both versions found their way to the flyer for an exhibition of an installation we made, called “Quasi-tangential”. Here, the choice is to render even more evident in graphical terms the multiple readings of a text in a language different from the one it was written in: unlike “standard” translation (which, when remaining close to a word-by-word translation, sticks to a univocal relation between word in the original language and the chosen corresponding word in the destination language), and inspired by the work of interpreters-translators (who can profit from the informality of the spoken word, and guided by the need for clarity, might give alternative words in the language of destination as a “substitute” for – or an equivalent to – a single word in the original), we unfold the meaning of a word employed by Levinas (in this case, the French word “comprendre”) into three alternatives in English (Artinprocess 2020):
I once was asked “…and can we touch them?”, to which I had no answer, really. I did not want to be too directive in that regard, but I was assuming people would understand that they are so fragile they are not bound to be touched, as they could all collapse – together. And then, years later, the answer was to me given by the same book that had breathed air and live into the installation in its multiple possible arrangements: touching can be pleasure, but holding – just like beholding – can be intrusion. Indeed, touch and sight share the same duality: they can easily slalom from the pleasure felt when bathing in the elements, to the other extreme – grasping from the elements with the ambition to controlcontaincomprehend them. So here we are: space might be saturated, but scopic and haptic pulsions are not allowed to fulfil themselves. Now what might be worrisome is to realise, yet again, that the “unfathomable” of the Other resonates with the unfathomable of the elements and of potentially all things challenging the ringfencing attempted by objectivity – and on the top of the list we have art, of course, whether the artmaking, the artinprocess or everythinganything going on at the moment of its reception.
Un jour, on m’a demandé «… et pouvons-nous les toucher?», à laquelle je n’avais pas vraiment de réponse. Je ne voulais pas être trop directif à cet égard, mais je supposais que les gens comprendraient qu’ils sont si fragiles qu’ils ne sont pas tenus d’être touchés, car ils pourraient tous s’effondrer – ensemble. Et puis, des années plus tard, la réponse m’était donnée par le même livre qui avait donné du souffle et de la vie à l’installation dans ses multiples arrangements possibles: toucher peut être plaisir, mais tenir – tout comme regarder – peut être intrusion. En effet, le toucher et la vue partagent la même dualité: ils peuvent facilement slalomer du plaisir ressenti en se baignant dans les éléments, à l’autre extrême – saisir les éléments avec l’ambition de les. comprendrecontenircontroler Nous y sommes donc: l’espace peut être saturé, mais les pulsions scopique et haptique ne sont pas autorisés à se réaliser. Maintenant, ce qui pourrait être inquiétant, c’est de se rendre compte, encore une fois, que «l’insondable» de l’Autre résonne avec l’insondable des éléments et de tout ce qui peut contester le cantonnement tenté par l’objectivité – et en tête de liste, nous avons l’art, bien sûr, que ce soit la création artistique, « l’art-in-process » ou les choses qui se mettenttout ce qui se met en route au moment de sa réception.
Even as self-translators we reckon that one word is not always enough to “translate” a concept in one’s head and one that is present in a text we read or in our artwork, and this leads us to sometimes have two or three alternatives to show the various dimensions of a concept or a feeling.
In a way, what we are doing is to redirect this “caleidoscopisation” of meanings to our own process of writing, with all its implications in graphic terms. This also implies that we are not just showing something to be read: we are exposing in our way of writing (our own writing, and to some extent too our re-writing of the original book) the distinction between “text as received” and “text as processed”, including how this is mirrored also in terms of the graphical space occupied by quoting the text and looking critically into it.
Performance as translation; the “solution” found for Unspecified Involvements
If we can highlight the performative dimension of intra-language translation, can performance art be seen as a form of translation itself? Oustinoff (2003) distinguishes three kinds of translation: intra-lingual translation or reformulation (used when, for instance, a person updates archaic words or expressions in the same language), inter-lingual translation (corresponding to the most common use of the term “translation”, i.e. between languages) and inter-semiotic translation (consisting in the interpretation of linguistic signs trough systems of non-linguistic signs). (Oustinoff 2003, 19)
If interlingual translation need not (and sometimes ought not) consist of a univocal word-to-word correspondence, which could risk limiting itself to an exercise of trans-coding, such a possibility is even further set apart when at stake is the translation from text to an art form which does not rely principally or exclusively on words. This, to some extent, gives room for us to reckon a performance as an intersemiotic translation of a text, in cases where such as performance is indeed trying to explain “in another language” the content of that text.
At the time we presented our performance at Unspecified Involvements, we decided to contribute to the process of collective writing and reading by presenting a wordless performance. We visited the space some days before to check its possibilities and limitations. The gallery was rather corridor-like, and it was 3-meters narrow.
On the day of the event, we warned the audience to avoid making any brisk moves, as these could distract the performer in action. They were also warned that a text would be available for the audience to collect, and indeed several copies of a 2-page text fleshing out some of the questions referred in section 2, and also explaining the trouble we were going through at this point in time in our approach to levinassian ethics, were left for people to take home if they so wished. Here is an extract of the first part of that paper:
How can one write – or react to – “Totality and Infinity” while ignoring what’s happening?
“Totality and Infinity” is, unlike many other texts by Levinas, a text where the words “Jew” or “Jewish” never appear. Judith Butler once said “I read Levinas against Levinas”. This sentence was actually part of a lecture given by Butler in a conference organised/hosted by Danielle Cohen-Levinas. Butler was invited to that conference. Butler is doctor honoris causa by the Université Catholique de Louvain. Butler has harshly criticised Levinas by his Zionist stance and his incapacity to see absolute alterity in every single other.
[and then there “Totality and Infinity” referring to “Sein und Zeit”, Al Bukhari referring to the Prophet, …]
“Totality and Infinity” is not a guide for deontology. It describes the beginning, the origin, the ultimate end. In Portuguese, “beginning” translates as “princípio”. In English, “princípio” translates as “principle”. There are undeniable reports of unacceptable violations of human rights, humiliations, annihilation perpetrated upon the people of Palestine that cannot be tracked back to any political or ideological source. Read Rimah Jabr’s testimony. Check the page of Amnesty International. A Jewish friend of mine shares her worries about the fact that her kids dare not utter the word “Jewish” or “Israel” among their entourage which is mostly non-Jewish.
A research project on ethics cannot possibly overlook these elements, and define the synthesis of all these – and more – elements, as its major drive or as a background which defines the status of the research, its outcomes, its sources, its mode of production. There is a moral obligation not to ignore these elements and make (complex) sense out of them. “Palestine” is infinitely complex from a geographical point of view. From a topological point of view. From a human point of view. It is a point in common. It is one point. It is an exclusive point. (Artinprocess 2018)
So what did we do in practice, right after the brief introduction we gave? First we drew a circle on the gallery floor with a piece of chalk. This circle had a 2-meter diameter. People were asked to stay out of the circle. Some chose to sit on the floor very close to the circle, against the wall, therefore occupying the 50 centimeters left between the wall and the circle. We wrapped a scarf around a child’s chair. This was a metal chair with a mesh back and seat, a chair too small for two bodies to sit at the same time. Holding firmly the other end of the scarf, we started at first to swing the chair very slowly, to the extent that turning it around our body would make it bump against our flesh, inflicting moderate pain (note: this pain was unintentional). Afterwards we speeded up and began to swing the chair in circles vigorously in the air. The imaginary circles drawn in the air by the chair replicated the circle drawn on the floor. The body of those standing close to the circle’s limit seemed to be even more “centrifuged” against the wall as the chair was swung, as they felt the danger of the action. One of the members of the audience reported later on that she was about to panic, but then realized she should trust the performer, and somehow coped with the risk by abstracting herself from the possibility that the chair could slip away from the scarf of the performer’s hand and seriously injure her. Indeed such a risk was there: the utterances taking the form of the performer’s heavy breathing and panting, and especially the swooshing sound yielded by the air passing through the mesh parts of the swinging chair, flagged this menace. This was the only “unwordable” sound that was produced during the performance itself – after the text had been written and before it were to be (eventually) read by the audience once it had left the space.
As regards the text distributed, the second part of it underlined the distinction between “text as received” and “text as processed” in ways that go beyond the issue of translating. For example, when discussing what phenomenological reading is, the text tried to separate what the original text we read on the subject says, from what issues our reading of such text trigger. Here is a short part of our text, illustrating how this was done:
The phenomenology of reading
It occurred to me that, beyond the issue of translation, I’d need to know a bit more about my process of reading “Totality and Infinity”. The fact that reading it triggers very precise images or leaves impressions which for me are very clear but which I have not seen documented before (e.g., the structure of sentences; the breadth of lexicon; implicit concepts of topology and metrics; its cycles and its flows) led me to try to know more about how the reading actually works. And given that the book is partly rooted in a phenomenological tradition, it seemed natural to understand more about the phenomenology of reading.
In “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach”, Wolfgang Iser delves into this process. Iser starts by stating that a literary work is something which stands between the text and the “realization” of the text – these are two poles corresponding to the artistic (the work created by the author) and the aesthetic (the realisation carried out by the reader).
[We think that the term “standing between” does not describe in a sufficiently accurate fashion: we’d prefer the later-used term “convergence”, or even “combination”, as the literary work is set in motion by multiple readings assigning different meaning to the voids left to fill in in the text]
This is the starting point for his description of a phenomenology of reading and, before that, for a description of the main building blocks of such phenomenology.
[now we should note at this point that the writer herself might be the first one to fill those voids, which would have as a consequence that aesthetics starts before exposure to a third reader; on the other hand we are not suggesting that aesthetics would gain a significant density. The reading that the writer performs almost automatically after writing a sentence can not possibly foresee the constellation of alternative readings to come, and which breathe different lives into the text]
Setting the text in motion is performed by imagination.
[this is a process of co-creation]
Reading is a pleasure when it is active and creative, says Iser. Quoting another author discussing Woolf’s take on Austen, we are reminded that the latter “stimulates us to supply what is not there”.
[this is a process of co-creation. The reader, too, is on the supply side, on the side of creation. The reader is an active party. They activate the work. “Action”, implying that there is some degree of passivity of the writer]
[this text contains some points of entry for the performance, for understanding it, and for the process of writing it and reading it out loud](Artinprocess 2018)
As you see, guided by an ethical concern – which is to clarify the separation between what we read and what we comment on such reading, to the extent that these two are separable, and to clarify issues of ownership of the text that is being presented – we chose to share a text where the description of someone else’s text (which we try to ensure is as neutral as possible) is justified to the left, whereas our further comments on such descriptions are justified to the right and put in square brackets. As artificial as the separation between these two types of speech might be, we try to overcome the difficulty so many times faced when we are in reading mode, of not knowing exactly what is a quoted (first) author’s thought at what is the appraisal of the quoting (second) author on it.
-  The text quoted actually shows how they can never be totally separable, as reading is already co-creation.
In this text we have shown that translation is performative, as it opens up possibilities of reading, and we have also shown how that performative dimension of reading and writing can be exposed more evidently: by showing how it works, multiple readings are no longer stifled. Then we have shown how performance art plays a central role in a process of re-writing, and we have argued that performance itself can be seen as a form of translation – of a text by another author, or even of the issues that are haunting us and our artistic research.
As such, this text does not mark an end but the beginning of a reflection on what conditions have to be verified to make sure that a performance can qualify as a translation. Rather than concluding, then, we prefer to mention some dimensions that require further analysis. For example, we consider that elastic writing – writing through words or through an explicit or implicit description of a performance, or even the post-performance transcription of its presentation – should proceed by topological transformations (to use a mathematical concept); this means that, to remain elastic, all stretching should not break (to borrow the concept from physics) as it also should not put future stretching at stake; and all this requires us, also guided by research ethics, to develop metrics or at least criteria to inform us of whether a break has occurred or if the elasticity has been preserved. Another question concerns whether all elements in performance can be seen as language, and whether everything happening in performance can be reducible to language – in other words, whether language is an all-encompassing mode. Here too, we believe the issue is one deserving being further explored and not to be treated as an axiom.
Artinprocess, Pablo A. 2016. Draft chapter of a forthcoming thesis (unpublished).
Artinprocess, Pablo A. 2018. “Palestine” – a reading and writing performance. Text distributed during the performance bearing the same name. Premiere 25.06.2018, Pop-up Gallery, Brussels.
Artinprocess, Pablo A. 2020. Quasi-tangential, an installation. Flyer for the exhibition. Opening 10.09.2020. Galerie Lin, Bruxelles.
Artinprocess, Pablo A. 2021. “Modelling a methodology of articulation between Experimental Performance Art and Philosophy.” In Rigau, Marta Pol and Tejo, Carlos, Proceedings of Fugas e Interferencias, VI International Performance Art Conference, 66–79. Vigo: Universidade de Vigo.
Harrington, Janine. 2018. Description of the Unspecified Involvements initiative. Retrieved on 10 august 2021 from https://www.facebook.com/unspecifiedinvolvements/about/?ref=page_internal.
Levinas, Emanuel. 1990. , Totalité et Infini. Essai sur l’extériorité. Paris : Livre de Poche.
Oustinoff, Michael. 2003. La traduction. Paris: PUF.
Venuti, Lawrence. 2013. Translation changes everything. London and New York: Routledge.
Pablo Alvez Artinprocess
Pablo Alvez Artinprocess is a professionalised performance artist holding a PhD in poverty economics (Univ. de Évora). He is currently taking a PhD in the University of Surrey on how ethics can empower aesthetics, and more specifically on the dialogue between his experimental performance art and Levinassian ethics. Received training from Steven Cohen and Rocio Boliver, among others. His performance Phénoménologie de l’Éros was awarded by the Gulbenkian Foundation and received production support from Pompidou Brussels.