Here I am, on your doorstep: an intruder. Pushing into your territory, uninvited, fraudulent, for isn’t an actor always a bit of a fraud? The actress, gendered. The impostor, holding her bastard evidence, brazen and persistent, edging forwards, leaving marks, so you can trace where she’s tread…
I turn to you with images that I do not know how to view, let alone make. Traces of practice captured with two action cameras, handheld or strapped to the skull. Bodies coming together under institutional lights. Fleetingly, you can see a table in the background, chairs, modest piles of fruit, used cups. It’s a kitchen table, but nobody lives here. This is another kind of space, a studio with an unobstructed lacquered floor, a container for certain kinds of acts and bodies. Some things made possible, others not: studio bodies become. They are touching now, laughing, embarrassingly close for the present eye, the present I. Shuffling together in awkward intimate silence. Quivering eyelids, parted lips, hairs standing on end, puckered flesh. An image showing itself, as I write, monstrative and monstrous, to borrow your words. “A monstrum is a sign of wonder. Image and text are a wonder for the other” (Nancy 2005, 64).
Not only is the studio a frame, the practice is one as well. An exercise is a script that writes us: a score that alters and re-configures. You become a thing to be touched and I become a thing that touches—an exploration of the affective reverberations of a simple power exchange. Until the game is called to an end, this arrangement stages us, the toucher and the touchee, in doubled contemplation: the appearance of experiences, experienced, staged.
But now there’s another body in the mix. A cuboid, unseeing eye, a portable techno-memory. Encased in plastic, made to endure. It translates light and sound into digital code that can be further produced through configurations of hardware, software, and fleshware, and distributed on networked platforms.
Making an image means producing a relief, a protrusion, a trait, a presence. Above all, the image gives presence. It is a manner of presence. Manner and matter of presence. It has often been said: no discourse can compete with the power of an image. (Nevertheless, discourse is not the same as text.) (Nancy 2005, 66)
Every new medium brings along its own awkward bodies and pressing questions. Perhaps the intrusion is felt even more acutely in the context of artistic practice and artworks that are perceived to take place predominantly through and in between co-present human bodies. As an actor, perhaps I learned to always prioritise “presence” over “trace”. As well as ignore the machinery. Do not look at the camera! But now I’m holding a camera. (Of course the intruding body need not be a camera. All sorts of instruments and methods of mediation are available. I am writing right now, am I not? Yet here I stand in another now, seduced by promises of immediacy and memory wrapped in one, wondering how to make this fish-eyed cube perform.)
If I were to accept the view that the camera is for “documentation” and that all forms of “documentation” are secondary and lacking in relation to the ephemeral artistic event, I would have an easier time. The question of transposition of aesthetic sense would be effaced. The possible artistic agency of the chosen medium would be irrelevant. The image would operate as proof that we were there, like a snapshot from a holiday: this happened, this was done, this is the spectre we offer you as evidence. This is the kind of documentation archive that Ben Spatz argues for in What a body can do? (Spatz 2015). For Spatz, artistic sense and product is secondary to and detachable from the artistic practice, and it is only the practice that can be approached epistemologically, in terms of research. Thought along these lines, the purpose of documentation is to create an archivable genealogy of practice and technique, which in turn structure and facilitate the creation of art. Then it’s not important for the archive to open through its own materiality toward artistic sense.
And so I come to you, thinker of touch, texturer of text. Of course I am drawn to you. But lacking a philosopher’s practice I read and write you like an actress. I speak you aloud, perform you, curve with and through you. Images rise from texts: bodies are shaped by practices. Can we talk? When you write text and image, I think text and actor, score and embodied assemblies, practice and its transmedial translations.
Would you say the body is the image, whereas text is the soul?
Certainly not, if you are suggesting that the image is on one side and the text on the other—which is what happens in what is normally called “illustration.” This is an impoverished dualism, like every dualism. But, in truth, every image and every text is potentially, and respectively, text and image for itself. (Nancy 2005, 69)
You say: both image and text show that there are at least two kinds of showing. Dissimilar, yet drawn towards each other. Form and signification, attractive and repellent to each other, yet each one containing the seeds of the other.
The image gives a presence that it lacks—since it has no other presence than the unreal one of its thin, filmlike surface—and it gives it to something that, being absent, cannot receive it. (Nancy 2005, 66)
But look closely and the pixels appear. The immaterial erupts and revolts, refusing transparency.
I am not, it says, the image of this or that, as if I were its substitute or copy, but I image this or that, I present its absence, that is, its sense. I image what is unimaginable in sense. (Nancy 2005, 70)
We strap the cubes to our heads and take to the studio floor. “Photography is a monster with two subjects, with a double body (human) and a single, cavernous head whose one eye blinks on and off” (Nancy 2005, 104). But you were not thinking of the action camera when you wrote those lines, I assume as I bring my forehead close to yours in this other present. You still had your finger on the trigger. Time moves so quickly in Cyborgia. I can program and forget this wearable black box and its impersonal memory collecting evidence of presence almost infinitely distributable through digital platforms and networks. The seating of an unseeing eye on a skull, its vision framed by the movements of the spine, the touch of the floor, the pushing of skin, bones and bodies together. Digital, human, and nonhuman bodies, affordances and agencies entwined.
(…) video is not of the order of the screen, but of penetration. One is not a spectator but a voyeur. Video means “I see,” whereas theaō means “I look” (and kineō is “I move”). (…) These verbs signify the work’s doing, its manner of doing and making, what it does to sense or how it makes sense. (Nancy 2005, 74)
I see. I see, but I also hear, says the audio-visual apparatus. The listening witness becomes more important to us than the seeing, as we experiment. We channel the encounter, she and I, she with her eyes closed, waiting to be touched, me looking for an opening through which to enter, for us to reconfigure boundaries; a movement, a motion, emotion. We both channel, which is to say, we speak out of and into our experiences, and this wording and worlding of experience forms and remoulds the experience. The blind eye is all but forgotten, but as the speech acts unfurl it feels good to be heard, recalled. Later when I turn to the footage I find that our bodies are almost completely effaced, mainly present as movement as the ceiling and walls tilt and lurch. It’s in the soundtrack that our human bodies play.
(…) theater proposes an entire body, a body that is physical and present, moving on a stage, whereas the cinema presents a body that is cut up and framed—even if it is shown in its entirety. This frame is linked to the text, even if it is not subordinated to it, or else it becomes a sort of text, an articulation. (Nancy 2005, 64)
At last, you are on my terrain. Even as my body hails to you from the stage in apparent entirety, I’m inclined to point out that it is also cut up and framed by the technique and technology of theatre. Of course the machinery of theatre always leaks, as do bodies. Leaks and cracks are the lifeblood of the contemporary stage. The bodies and machinery of video are different, but I suspect they too have their presence, their technique and leaks.
This little snippet of practice that I’m so diligently trying to image is hardly recognisable as theatre. However I would say that it does evoke a kind of stage. What appears, what is framed, what performs on this scene? A response, an affect, a shudder? A relation? A body? A story? Memory? Pleasure, desire, disgust, habit, mannerism, all of them, or none? This act will be embedded with skills, technique, and ideologies, only some of which we will be aware of. It will be performed, corporeal and “live”, by bodies with certain capacities to affect and be affected, and received by those self-same bodies, as performance, staged experience.
A camera introduces a different materiality, technicity, and temporality to such practice: a whole different mode of operation. How does this new body move us: how does the footage perform? Is the whole thing lost, and what was ‘the thing’ in the first place? Whatever the method of engagement, similar issues arise if one is not content in viewing these traces as secondary to the research practice “proper”. Writing (performative or scholarly), drawing, photography, audio recording, philosophy… How should I deal with all these possibilities and practices, all of which exceed the field from which my investigation stems (which is also the field in which I operate with some level of qualification)? How responsible am I, as I take my strategies and venture into foreign territory, in hope that even a valiant failure may show something that would stay hidden otherwise? What level of care is appropriate?
Making present a sense of the (absent) practice, making it palpable through different modes of access—is this a shared struggle between you and me? At the same time, the call for transparency that comes with research perhaps favours certain kind of display, a certain kind of discourse. To reject the “impoverished dualism”, as you suggest—the image on one side and the text on the other, the artwork and the commentary—doesn’t that mean both “image” and “text” are pulled into motion, off stable ground? “Artistic” “research”? Am I twisting words again? I heard a colleague say that through the act of transposition, distance is made present. How would you relate to that, in terms of image or text?
We pick up the camera for one more experiment. This time let the hard-edged cube be an instrument of touch. You said: video is of the order of penetration, and I’m always one to take things literally! The camera is moved from hand to hand, and bodies respond: fabrics shift, lips part, hairs stand on end in the light of the red blinking eye. Does this do it for you? Does anything translate?
If text proceeds from images and images are conjured from text, then what kind of text is this to the scores that we write? Unabashedly, to be executed in that floating no-man’s-land of a space, specifically a rehearsal space, specifically designed for this kind of practice, bodies on the floor, touching, semi-permeably set apart from the social sphere, or so we tell ourselves, to be able to proceed. Perhaps they are automatic writing, channeled by a medium that is inhuman if not nonhuman. The blind eye of the blinded, sensing and sensual body, spreading into the space in between. Opening the eye, retrieving the black box, conjuring the presence of a very real absence indeed. The point-of-view camera offers a point of view that never was. Alien writing. “Perhaps every image borders on cruelty” (Nancy 2005, 25). Maybe this is where we should turn a blind eye. Decency demands darkness.
Can a text on a text (an interpretation, a commentary) and the image of a text (the painting of a book, of a letter) be interchanged? Does the text make an image of the text it interprets? Does the image become a text on the text that it, too, interprets? (Nancy 2005, 64)
The question of image reciprocally carries the question of text. It awakes the question of what can be considered writing—and perhaps also what can be considered writing proper, because what’s proper is never far away: it is research after all, and we’re not alone here. Look how close we’ve become! But we have only been talking about image and text. Perhaps to perform belongs to a different order altogether?
This is not an interpretation or commentary on your text, at least not proper. It would be overconfident, as an actress, to trespass onto such territory. Instead I touch on your words, on the surface of your text, like it lends itself to me. I apologise for my blunders. But maybe it’s not so unlike the advances of philosophers on the workings of artists?
My touch is blind, groping, illegitimate. I allow myself to wander all over your surfaces. I take on your voice, your posture, your sound. A love letter, or theft? Is this the actress, or the actor, on Nancy: touching, grasping, penetrated and penetrating. Look at my tongue, look at what I’ve become!
This is the image of our creation.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. 2005. The Ground of the Image. New York: Fordham University Press.
Spatz, Ben. 2015. What a Body Can Do. London, UK: Routledge.