1. A political prelude
(The lecturer addresses the audience by reading a paper.)
What I am going to present today relates to the long-term research I have been conducting in order to develop a theory of the performer’s onstage transformation. I start this lecture-demonstration by a political statement:
When we speak about “virtual” or “virtuality” today, we most often understand it in terms of high technology, as artificially upheld modes of presentation which have an outlook on reality, like “VR,” “3D modeling,” “holograms,” “avatars,” or “tele-presence.” We may also think about immaterial means of communication and exchange, like “virtual currency.” At the same time, the relation of these phenomena to various forms of artistic presentation has remained obscure. The same kind of obscurity prevails between virtual phenomena and psychosocial phenomena, like hallucinations, dreams, and play. This obscurity between different areas of reality transforms easily into an ideological divide, according to which “virtual” becomes the synonym for “future,” “progress,” “attractiveness,” “success” and “youth,” whereas the phenomena dealing with body and materiality are something past and old-fashioned. This divide may at first appear to be mainly concerned with people’s attitudes as citizens and consumers but, in my opinion, it also has its material reality that concerns regions and people’s lives. The glorious virtual facade maintained by the commercial culture and cognitive capitalism excludes areas that are necessarily no less virtual but where the hidden corporality and materiality of the virtual culture is stored: like refugee camps, reception centers, care homes, airport lounges and other “non-places” of contemporary society, let alone the areas deserted by the excessive exploitation of natural resources. The total surface of these deserted areas is increasing at the same time and in the same rhythm with the development of the technological solutions that allow us to escape that increasingly anonymous reality. All in all, the functioning of a certain kind of cultural production or industry is conditioned by the concealment of its negative side and by our willingness to forget it. What makes this dynamic possible is that something in our understanding of what is virtual is lacking. The relation between “high-tech” virtuality and “artistic” or “everyday” virtuality cannot be based on a historical narrative, where various psychosomatic and artistic practices are seen as examples of “early” stages in development, whereas the present-day virtual technology carries that development to its completion. The story cannot be that simple. Instead, as I argue, something in the virtual also resists its virtualization.
I now propose three negative theses that stem from my embodied practice as a performance maker and artist researcher; I am going to study them with you a bit more closely, by laying bare some of the practice that has led me to think and perceive the way I do:
- There is no such thing as virtual reality without an act of virtualization.
- There is no virtualization without matter that is virtualized.
- Virtual is not the same as imaginary.
By making these statements, I have already adopted a certain basic logic concerning how I conceive the very term “virtual.” Different authors in different contexts have done this differently. Therefore, before I move on, I have to make a few conceptual precisions.
2. Varieties of the virtual
I divide the variety of virtual phenomena themselves into three sets that I hope cover sufficiently the present-day theoretical and everyday discussion around the term. At least, the divide is sufficient for sustaining my reasoning here. The difference between these acceptations is revealing and shows the problematic character of the very phenomenon. Later on, as our understanding of the virtual increases, I hope we can abandon these preliminary distinctions.
The first set of virtual phenomena is encountered in and through empirical science: the simplest ones consist of various virtual points, including focal points, points of gravity, points of attraction, and limit values. A more complex virtuality is faced in various organic networks, populations, or colonies, whose function produces and presumes virtual centers or structures that keep the groups together and govern their overall behavior. In human communities these kinds of virtual structures and centers can be charged by various historical and collective meanings. They yield themselves to imagination and thought and they can be embodied to a certain degree. Human individuals can also create for themselves various virtual points of attachment that guide or govern their relation to reality.
Secondly, the virtual (and virtuality) can be conceived as a potentiality that hides itself 1) in the intermediary dimension between the actual beings or 2) between them and their surroundings, or 3) within the beings themselves, as their more or less hidden capacities.
If we think about chemical processes of crystallization, biological processes of growth, meteorological processes, or sociopolitical processes that cause changes in institutional states of affairs, the outcomes of those processes do not need to resemble in any way their point of departure. The way the actual results of these processes (a crystal, a chick, a hurricane, or a revolution) exist or subsist in the previous states from which they stem (a liquid, an egg, a summer, a depression) is characteristically virtual. The change is “in the air” but no one can predict its exact nature or result. The outcome cannot be considered as a realization of some kind of pre-existing “possibility” (vision, plan, or conspiracy), but is due to a differential material process that is “real” without being “actual.” The outcome may be born in a controlled way within a cybernetic system governed by a set of codes and parameters (for example the ontogenetic processes which govern the physiological development of the individuals), or in a less controlled way in an open and complex system that contains several heterogeneous agents and variables (for instance the processes governing the phylogenetic development of populations). The actualization of this kind of virtuality is as concrete and material as it is emergent, creative, and often unpredictable.
Thirdly, the virtual may consist of spatial and commonly shared artificial reality, which may be populated by various virtually actual things, and which the cognizing subject can share with the other subjects, as well as those beings themselves. Such virtual states are created and upheld by various technical means, which also implies that their existence or subsistence is conditional, local, temporary, and partial.
As we can see, the very notion of the virtual may refer to widely varying states and situations, whose common logic is hard to discern. Now we will look at how we could elucidate the affair by means of staged embodiment. Before your eyes, I am going to make a series of embodied variations. You just need to follow.
3. Variation 1
To start with, I will take a short one-minute nap.
(The lecturer lays down on the floor and closes their eyes. The timer of their cell phone beeps after one minute. The lecturer sits up and addresses the audience.)
What happened? Let’s try to consider the happening phenomenologically. If you had not seen me lying down and if you had been the first to enter this room and seen a person lying on the floor, what would you have done? Maybe you would have tried to speak to them – No reaction. Then you would have repeated what you said a bit louder – Still no answer. Next question: what is this about? What has happened to that person? The possibilities are not very many: either the person is sleeping, sick, dead, practicing some sort of body technique, performing, or just playing. In order to exclude the wrong options and to find the right one, further observations are needed, and maybe a few tests.
In this case, I mentioned to you that I am going to take a nap, so that you knew that the person lying there either was either really asleep, or pretending to. And you did not need to worry. All you needed to do was to watch and reflect. What does a sleeping person look like? Do they dream or not? Do their eyeballs move? No matter if they move or not, the person in that state is elsewhere than here with you. But where are they? Well, you may think that they are dreaming, or sunken in their thoughts, memories, or fantasies. But you can only think like that. You cannot see their dreams or thoughts anyway. You cannot be too sure about the contents of their mind. Instead, what you can see is their sleeping or dreaming body: a body full of sleep, dream, or memories, but not necessarily a physiological body, or not only that.
4. Variation 2
(The lecturer stands up and turns either left or right so that the audience sees them in a profile. For a little while they do not say anything, just look ahead. Then, all of the sudden, without changing position, they start to speak.)
Now the person has stood up. They are standing and doing nothing. Their eyes are open. They stare at something, but obviously nothing outside themselves in this space. They rather stare at the void or, which means the same, they look “inwards.” Maybe they are thinking something? They probably are. What are they thinking? You cannot know. But you can still see their body. What does their thinking body look like? You see a body full of invisible representations, a body packed with thoughts and memories.
5. Variation 3
(The lecturer addresses the audience.)
Now this person performs a theater exercise, the kind of thing actors may do when they rehearse in order to activate and nourish their imagination and to familiarize themselves with what they are expected to perform. In other words, I now show to you something that normally is not meant to be seen. The exercise is called “Vision ball” (näkypallo). The person who is doing it right now invented it in the mid-1990s for a stage production he was preparing with a group of performers. Afterwards, they have learned that some others had come up with and used a quite similar technique, maybe even before them. But it does not matter now. It only proves that the technique works. It goes like this…
(The lecturer starts to jog in a circle about four meters wide. Their jogging is relaxed and the weight of their upper body is carried by their pelvis. They keep the palms of their hands opposite each other, close to their belly, at the height of the navel, and they have directed their gaze into the empty space between the palms. As the jogging continues, their arms start to open slowly and draw the palms away from each other. As the empty space between their palms get bigger and the lecturer starts to see invisible things within it. The larger the space is, the more the lecturer can turn their head in order to follow what happens in that imaginary space. Finally, when their arms are open enough, they run within that space. They cease to maintain the space with their hands, stops jogging and starts living and acting in the space they have imagined as if it were real to them. They do not say a word but they behave in a recognizable manner, so that the audience members can soon guess where they are pretending to be and what they are doing. The action ends when the situation has become obvious enough.
The lecturer addresses the audience.)
How is this variation different from the previous one, where the person was standing and thinking, or from the first one, where they were sleeping? In the last variation, the person had in some ways, with the help of a certain body technique, externalized their imagination. Even if you could not see exactly what they saw or imagined, you could, as you followed their transformation, understand little by little where they had found himself and what they were doing there, maybe even who they were. In your imagination, you as a spectator started to reconstruct an analogous situation around your own body so that in the end, between you and the performer, there was an approximative agreement on what was being performed. The state that initially looked only imaginary became externalized, embodied, performed and, to some extent, shared by the other bodies in this space.
That happening, that performance was, I now state, characteristically virtual, an act of virtualization. If we had added a VR helmet to the performer’s head, how would that have changed the nature of the operation? Actually, it would not have changed it much, except that it would have taken away the feeling of being seen, the corresponding social control, and the shame that I now feel in front of you after showing you something not normally meant to be seen. However, I hope that it was worth doing since, it has given us the means to distinguish some characteristic features of how our notions of the body and the virtual are intertwined.
In these variations, the performer virtualized their body in a certain way. Your presence as an audience constituted an important element in that operation. The performer transformed the behavior of their body so that it appeared to be simultaneously here and elsewhere, in another place and time. That other situation was virtually here around the performer’s body or, which is the same, the performer’s body was virtually situated elsewhere. The distinction between these two options is not possible. The event captivated spectator’s attention and interest quasi-spontaneously, so that finally the event was also shared and sustained by their body. Of course, you as spectators could refuse to follow the performance and you had many ways to do that. What you resisted was perhaps less what was performed (or represented) than the power of the performance, its specific reality, and that is now my whole point.
How did the body of the performer appear during the performance? Unlike in the previous variations, the contents of the performer’s mind were not enclosed within their body but somehow externalized, as I noted. They looked like they were dreaming with their eyes wide open and living though their dream in front of the others, their audience. But, at the same time, we conceived something else: we knew that what they were showing was not everything that was going on in their head or body, or what the latter would be able to evoke. There was so much more, actually infinitely more, that they left out. What we saw was just an example – but of what? The fact that the performer decided to externalize that particular situation implied that they hid all the other situations that were potentially available to them. The fact that they chose to work silently implied that the voice was omitted. That is how they articulated themself as an actor, as a stage performer, who appears as a corporeally divided creature. What they show is carried out and sustained by their body and what they do not show is hidden by their body, the very same body from which what is shown bursts out. In other words, we consider the event in a double register: on the one hand we see a particular body performing particular things and on the other, we see a singular virtual example of an infinite array of possible actions whose “presence” in the situation is no less virtual.
All this is still quite obvious. But from now on things start to turn strange. If you compare the performing body with the sleeping or thinking body, you may notice that, phenomenologically, the latest body is not so different from the previous bodies. We may agree that in each variation we met a performing body. Empirically, the performing body was moving, and it expressed itself externally, whereas the other ones did not. But what about performatively or artistically? One might suggest that in the last case, the body was acting, i.e. making a stage performance, unlike in the first two ones. But it is easy to see that this supposition does not hold true. I can play dead as well, and that is what I actually did in the first variation. As I think about a performing body, or perceive it, the staged dimension is already implied in it. The (onstage) performing body, explicitly present in the third variation, was implicitly present in the first two bodies and we observed them through and by means of the performing body, although we probably did not notice. What proves this is that in the first two cases, instead of a mere empirical body or in addition to it, we perceived bodies full of imperceptible perceptions, potential expressions and reactions, unheard sounds, invisible visions, unlived lives, memories, and more. We considered the first two bodies in the same type of double register in which we encountered in the third variation. In the first two variations, the hidden things remained unactualized. Empirically, we would consider them as merely mental. Maybe some of them could have been actualized on stage (for instance, if the performer would have said aloud what they were thinking or dreaming) but even if that had happened, an infinite number of things would have remained concealed. Nevertheless, in a certain way that infinite amount was still “present” and conceivable, even in the first two variations. How? By constituting the virtual content or fullness of the body. Without that observation we probably would not even consider a thing we encounter as a body, but as something else, such as an organism, or an empirical object.
A stage performance evokes not only virtually embodied phenomena but also another kind of virtuality. It is paradoxically “there,” present as something absent or withdrawn. Even though it cannot be perceived, its subsistence can still be felt, by both the performers and the audience members. I call this virtual matter; in each case it can be approximately located. Partly, it is something that surrounds our performing bodies as their virtual space; partly, it is enclosed within those bodies thus surrounded. Correspondingly, the difference between the intimate, merely “mental” or “imaginary” imagining or fantasizing and the externalized imagination exercised by a performer is notonly a matter of degree. The events that are born scenic can always be intimately imagined and rememorized, but the intimate imaginations cannot necessarily be externally embodied and staged. What makes the difference here is the scenic character of the virtual phenomena. The mental representations are not totally immaterial either: their existence is conditioned by the body that encloses them, but they are not virtually embodied or virtualized like the staged phenomena. The mental representations, in their ephemerality and intimacy, are subjective or “only mine”. Whereas the virtual embodiments, more persistent by their nature, are born as something intersubjective.
On stage, in the scene, we encounter virtual bodies in virtual spaces, where both those bodies and those spaces are virtually present, filled by virtual matter. At the same time that scene, or stage itself, understood now as a corporeal dimension, consists of a suspended difference between the virtual space and the virtual body. That difference or relation is suspended, since our bodies need to open it and maintain it over and over again by their performing. In other words: every time, we imagine something – and we do that all the time – don’t we, without noticing, imagine ourselves, i.e. our bodies, as well, including the division between what is internal and external to them? If we do that, then being/having a body is a matter of constant virtualization.
I leave this proposition for your consideration. I just want to add, and admit, that this is definitely something we are not used to thinking about, either in everyday practices or artistic practices, let alone in Western aesthetics. And yet, as it seems to me, we have an immediate understanding of all these phenomena not only when we enter into play, in everyday or artistic contexts, but also in our way of encountering other bodies, like or unlike ours.
- The subtitles are added to the written text afterwards to facilitate reading. The text follows approximately the presentation held at the “Networked actor” seminar (Oodi Library, Helsinki, May 3, 2019), except the section titled “Varieties of the virtual,” which was added afterwards.
- Here I paraphrase the critique of Kathrine Hayles regarding the posthumanism inspired by cybernetic modeling and technology. Although cybernetic reasoning deconstructs modern subjectivity, it shares with the latter a significant ideological – and metaphysical – feature. Both tend to make the body disappear and to oppose information to materiality. (See Hayles 1999, 4, 12.)
- Concerning the virtual aspects of cognitive capitalism, see Nauha 2016.
- I refer here to the term coined and analyzed by Augé 1995.
- On this kind of mathematical virtuality, see DeLanda 2002, 9–44.
- This is how virtuality is considered by Francisco Varela, who depicts the behavior of the insect colony and how it creates for itself a “virtual” or “selfless” self (Varela 1991, 95).
- Pierre Lévy (1998) has analyzed the virtual particularly in this third sense. Cf. Lehtonen 2008, 183–209.
- I refer to Gilles Deleuze’s analysis of the virtual; following Marcel Proust and Henry Bergson, Deleuze (1968, 269) has emphasized this idea of potential reality as opposed to the “representative” way of considering the modal changes between “possible” and “real.” To understand Deleuze’s theory of the virtual better requires considering their concept of the “actual,” but this is beyond the scope of this essay.
- On virtual matter, see my exposition in Ruukku, Kirkkopelto 2015.
- Stage performance not only externalizes our imaginary operations but also their transcendental conditions: what is imaginary is no more located within our “minds” but rather surrounds us. Following Henri Corbin, this kind of alternative topology could also be called “imaginal.” In his essay from 1964, Corbin describes his efforts to translate Arabic and Persian mystic texts in Western terms. According to him, these texts contain an idea of an intermediary world between the perceptual and intellectual one, alam al’mithal, that he ends up translating as “mundus imaginalis” (Corbin 1964). The case sheds an interesting critical light on my present reflections. The conceptual and perceptual limitations that my development struggles with may only concern Western cultures. I thank Tuomas Laitinen for this reference.
- For a fuller analysis of the logic of performed virtualization, see Kirkkopelto 2020.
Augé, Marc. 1995 . Non-places: Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. John Howe (trans.). London: Verso.
Corbin, Henri. 1964. “Mundus imaginalis, or the imaginary and the imaginal.” Ruth Horine (trans.) www.bahaistudies.net/asma/mundus_imaginalis.pdf (accessed 7 Oct 2020).
DeLanda, Manuel. 2002. Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. London & New York: Continuum.
Deleuze, Gilles. 1968. Différence et répétition. Paris: P.U.F.
Hayles, Katherine. 1999. How We Became Posthuman. Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.
Kirkkopelto, Esa. 2015. “Virtuaalisen materian jäljillä,” tutkimusekspositio. Ruukku, Taiteellisen tutkimuksen kausijulkaisu, nro 3: www.researchcatalogue.net/view/47685/47686
Kirkkopelto, Esa. 2020. Logomimesis. Tutkielma esiintyvästä ruumiista. Helsinki: Tutkijaliitto.
Lehtonen, Turo-Kimmo. 2008. Aineellinen yhteisö. Helsinki: Tutkijaliitto.
Lévy, Pierre. 1998. Qu’est-ce que le virtuel? Paris: Éditions La Découverte.
Nauha, Tero. 2016. Schizoproduction: Artistic research and performance in the context of immanent capitalism. Helsinki: Taideyliopiston Teatterikorkeakoulu.
Varela, Fransisco J. 1991. “Organism: A Meshwork of Selfless Selves.” Alfred J. Tauber (ed.). Organisms and the Origins of Self. Kluwer Academic Publishers, 79–107.