26/28 June, 2014

      Subjects of Recognition: Parts I & II

      Maria Guggenbichler on Richard John Jones
      Huize Frankendael, If I Can't Dance Offices (Amsterdam)
    2. Subjects of recognition: Part I


      Subjects of Recognition: Part I took place at Huize Frankendael, Amsterdam on the 26th June 2014. The location is a manor house built by a shipping officer in the 17th century, during the Dutch ‘Golden Age’, a period of prosperity in the Dutch homeland that was necessarily built on the basis of exploitative trade, colonialism and slavery.


      The audience gathers on the second floor assembled in front of the garden-facing windows of the building, looking through these large windows onto the Baroque-style formal garden where nature is tamed into symmetrical frames and ornamental flourishes. The performers appear in the garden below. All of them dressed in patterned, hand-dyed, pink fabrics. There are some elements of costume (a camouflage net skirt, a purple pony tail pubic bush) but they wear little clothing.


      This is a performance happening in phases, slowly, intentionally on the verge of being un-engaging. At the beginning, for some five minutes or so, two persons on a tree idly play with one another, not doing anything. Later more performers awake or appear, like deer on a clearing. They are strolling, idling, playing around. They are somewhere between children, fairies or animals.


      Behind the glass window our viewing situation turns out to be one of a zoo, looking at the exotic from a safe distance, looking at what is rendered other by the distance of looking. By distinction of the beholder's view, the subjects seem to embody a kind of fiction – appearing from a distant past or future, a distant culture.


      The performers stroll towards the house where they gather, sit or stand on a blanket, and a moment of insight occurs: simultaneously they all become aware of the beholders' gaze upon them (which in the set-up is a literal gaze down upon them). In this tableau vivant, the characters stare back. After what feels like a long while, of looking and of knowing that one is being looked at, there is the galvanising CRACK of a firework in the room behind the audience. It marks the end of the performance.


      Through a looking glass, darkly


      From previous conversations about this work with the artist, I know that some photos of “uncontacted tribes” in the Amazon rainforest were a key starting point for the development of Part I of Subjects of Recognition.


      One could say a lot about those pictures, with the “uncontacted” people looking up into a camera which was mounted on a helicopter by researchers. They were looking up at the helicopter but also somehow through the image, through time, now appearing on my Google search, looking at me, not looking at me, me looking at the screen, at them.


      Even with all the detachments, displacements, abstractions and fragmentations in the distribution of these photos a certain “hygiene“ is maintained. The picture shows the tribal people but at the same time exposes the framework of its own making. Its sharp angle and the superior perspective of the birds-eye view from the helicopter serves as proof that no contact has taken place, no touch, no “contamination“ (whose contamination, really, one wonders).


      It struck me as not unimportant that at Huize Frankendael, too, we were looking through a glass window. There was no way for contact between performers and audience. The possibility of interaction was cancelled out. How appropriate.


      The Amazonian tribal people in the photos mirror so much and so precisely our preconceptions of them that it seems impossible that they could have been without previous contact. Like the tableau-vivant viewed through the glass of Huize Frankendael’s windows, the (potentially feigned) photos of the uncontacted tribes only reflects our own understanding of the tribal, indigenous or un-civilised. We recognise what we want to see, what we ‘know’, of them.


      I appreciated that there was a clear reluctance in the performance to imitate “primitive people”. It was something of a second order of signs and signalling – with allusions to certain clichés of tribal life, rather than a pretension of authenticity. Smoking cigarettes or playing with a can of shaving foam was contrasted with some sloppy gestures, no verbal communication and a lack of posture.


      Technologies of the self-same


      Can a gaze be returned? What can we see through the looking glass of the manor-house windows, or on a screen? Who or what can look back? And how?


      I thought that Part I was choreographed with a great understanding of how many or how few “steps” were required in order to make a performance. The slowness, the limited action and stretched time made one’s gaze self-aware. We, the audience, became conscious of being an audience. The performance turned “the telescope in on itself, and created an object in its own image“ [1] as it were. If looking loses its natural givenness, if looking becomes what one looks at, then questions of the quality and history of such looking begin to emerge.


      Historically (and in this sense Huize Frankendael was an extremely fitting location), single-point perspective was a way of representing power in a double, interrelated way. While central perspective representation is constructed towards one-point, to him who holds power, this is also the point from which the constructed representation or illusion is seamless. For example, when Baroque theatre of the 17th century was performed for the king, he would be seated in a central position seeing perfectly what was referred to as the “picture-frame” stage (representation in the performing and visual arts were remarkably similar). The illusion was constructed entirely for the king’s benefit. Therefore, the further away from the king a subject was seated (which equalled the subject's rank in the court's hierarchy), the more of the background construction could be seen. More imaginary labour was commanded from this subject to fill in the gaps and imagine the whole image, essentially, to imagine what the king was seeing. The king's power controlled the real world as well as the representative: nothing was not a sign and representation of this power.


      In his brilliant video essay “The Looking Glass” from 1981, Juan Downey quotes from Leo Steinberg’s essay about Diego Velásquez’ 1656 Las Meninas painting: “If the picture were speaking instead of flashing, it would be saying: I see you seeing me – I in you see myself seen – see yourself being seen – and so on beyond the reaches of the grammar.” [2]


      The first part of this statement – the trapping of the gaze within itself is what I am trying to get at in my understanding of the performance. However, the second part, the expression “beyond the reaches of grammar” is curious. Rather, I would argue, and I loved how this emerged from Part I, doesn't it stay fully within the reaches of its own grammar? Subjects of recognition: Part I revealed the gaze as eternally trapped within itself, unable to escape its logics of mirroring and self-reflection. What the gaze projects into the world, will be the only thing it can see. It turns into pure tautology: it cannot see what it cannot see.


      Still, such single-point perspective requires and demands for the world to serve as the canvas in which this projection unfolds. It requires “nature” to inscribe the “park” within it. It needs the world to function as the blank, non-interfering screen, or mirror, for reflection. This is the arrogance of such a gaze.


      Subjects of Recognition: Part II


      I was pleased to have the second part deal with the flip side, or perhaps the consequences of Part I. How do we speak if we want to engage with the ever unaccomplished, eternally unfinished project of decentralising ourselves?


      “Can we write the history of happiness from the point of view of the wretch? If we listen to those cast as wretched, perhaps they’re wretchedness would no longer belong to them. The sorrow of the stranger might give us a different angle on happiness not because it teaches us what it is like or must be like to be a stranger, but because it might estrange us from the very happiness of the familiar.” [3]


      Part II was conceptually smart: a set-up with three performers, who listened and spoke at the same time. Like simultaneous translators, they listened on headphones to a previously made recording. Three voices, each with distinct accents spoke over each other and in turns as various stories, phrases and abstract auditory motifs came in and out of a central narrative. A drone, inaudible at first, grew in intensity as they spoke. They were like an impromptu, and therefore badly synchronised choir, they were saying out loud what they heard in the same instant, yet the figure spoken for, spoken on behalf of, silenced, by a refracted, schizophrenic voice-of-three, was the author/artist. One of the phrases that become a motif bears repeating:


      “- In the future, my story is similar to yours.

      - Because you stole my story.“


      There was a well-measured, minimal, yet highly effective means of storytelling throughout. The increasing volume of a continuous background drone, whose climax of intensity also marked the end of that performance, corresponded to the small firecracker dropped at the end of the Part I.


      I remember finding myself in full wonder at what exactly it was that was so clear, and to all of us, that this was the end of the performance. What made us know this, and know it together? I asked the person sitting next to me and he said: “A good story always ends with a bang.“




      I would like to propose a few thoughts regarding the subject of "estranging oneself from the very happiness of the familiar" [4].


      Especially in Part II there was an emphasis on articulation and its breakdown into a cacophony of inarticulate expression (caused by the simultaneous listening and speaking). However, to slightly shift focus: how do we not only produce inarticulate, excessive expression (by means of messing with or confusing sequence) but also attune ourselves to utterances that are on the threshold to non-utterances? What are the qualities and politics of silent articulations? What is the performativity of silence?


      If one is to never potentially or wilfully inhabit the rational authorial subject but rather speak from the non-place of “multiple marginalities“ (an experience of being “heterogeneous, split apart, multiple“) [5] then what are our means of speaking for ourselves, with our kind, and of listening to one another? Traumatised through experiences of violence or of marginality, articulation can become littered with stammers and long pauses. How then do we listen to these long pauses, to each other's silences? What are our practices and politics of attuning ourselves?


      Sometimes, in our non-speakability, we find the writing of others. We might find ourselves without the words but through the language of others we can find a language for ourselves. It is not an exaggeration to say that these can be life-saving moments. We find lineage, we appropriate ancestors, because knowing that they existed, and that we are, opens the possibility of continuing to live.


      “- My story is similar to yours

      - Because you stole my story.”


      One can call such acts of saving oneself by loosing oneself in someone else’s words “stealing”. Nothing more than calling such an act criminal is adequate to describe the desperation that unleashes acts of such transgression or “cultural cannibalism” in the first place.


      Yet, finding words is something we can share. It was my friend Felicia van Zweigbergk who introduced me to Jeanette Winterson's writing. In Why be happy when you could be normal, Winterson writes: “All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech… We get our language back through the language of others… Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.” [6]




      What are the potential politics and ethics of a listening practice, of resonation? A practice of listening refuses to translate: “To translate is to displace … But to translate is also to express in one’s own language what others say and want … it is to establish oneself as a spokesman. At the end of the process … only voices speaking in unison will be heard.” [7]


      A practice of listening does not seek to make "what it is like or must be like to be a stranger" understandable.[8] A practice of listening would equally refuse to translate, and be translated: "refusing to discard any of our selves in an ontological sense – refusing to ‘pass’ or to become pure". [9]


      The practice of estrangement, the practice of attuning oneself to one's own as well as to others' silences and stammering is a practice that is active in ways that are usually read as passive. It is an activity that is radical, yet it lacks all characteristics of heroic deed. It is a refusal that in its subtle radicality, its patience, might never be read as a gesture of refusal. It is the smallest acts of "touching little, almost nothing"[10]. Acts that have an ongoing, permanent quality of listening, or "sitting comfortably with that which is wild to us" [11].


      Such attuning could be the metaphor for an act of giving oneself away to being a resonating body, it could be a "divestment of power" rather than merely an act of “sharing power” [12]. Rather than desiring to establish oneself as an authority, it is giving up (on) authority, giving up (on) the superiority of the gaze that renders others as other.


      A practice of resonation is being in touch and being touched, even over distances in time or place; and potentially in ways which one does not and cannot anticipate or control: “To be touched by another would not be premised on feeling the other’s suffering. The sympathy of fellow feeling, which returns feeling with like feeling, is a way of touching that touches little, almost nothing. To walk away from happiness would be simply a refusal of indifference, a willingness to stay proximate to unhappiness, however we will be affected.“ [13]


      Maria Guggenbichler

      27 August, 2014

      [1] Marina Vishmidt, Everyone has a Business Inside Them; review of the exhibition ‘All I Can See is the Management‘, Gasworks, London (2012)

      [2] Leo Steinberg, Velázquez’ Las Meninas (1981)

      [3] Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (2010)

      [4] Ahmed (2010)

      [5] Susan Leigh Star: Power, Technology and the Phenomenology of Conventions: On Being allergic to Onions; in: John Law (ed.), A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination (1991)

      [6] Jeanette Winterson, Why be happy when you could be normal (2011)

      [7] Michel Callon, Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation; in: John Law (ed.), Power, Action and Belief: A new Sociology of Knowledge? (1986)

      [8] Ahmed (2010)

      [9] Leigh Star (1991)

      [10] Ahmed (2010)

      [11] Leigh Star (1991)

      [12] Terre Thaemlitz, We Are Not Welcome Here; address for ‘Charming for the Revolution: A Congress for Gender Talents and Wildness‘, Tate Modern (2013)

      [13] Ahmed (2010)

      1. Richard John Jones, 'Subjects of Recognition: Part II', If I Can't Dance Offices, 28 June 2010.
      If I Can't Dance,
      I Don't Want to Be Part of
      Your Revolution