Towards an understanding of presence (in theatre)(1) as movement within
and between bodies
by: Bram Vreeswijk
In ‘The Locus of Looking. Dissecting visuality in the theatre’,
Maaike Bleeker discusses a serie of theories about ‘vision’, ‘(dis)embodiment’
and the concept of ‘self’, and relates these to theatrical performances
in which the act of looking of both performers and audience are a subject of
As an extension of her discussion of vision she suggests a model for understanding ‘presence’ in the performance situation.
In this text I would like to depart from her discussion of ‘vision’ but suggest a model for ‘presence’ that is different of hers. A model that is based on the movement within and between bodies. This inspired by Georges Bataille’s ‘Inner Experience’, a performance by Seon-ja Seo and an continuation (in another direction) of the conversation Bleeker started with Jacques Lacan.
§1.01 The disembodied look and the desire to become everything
In the history of the West a desire can be found to separate the look from the body that is looking and as an extention of this to forget about the body that is looking, to make this (which might be your own) body disappear. Bleeker discusses amongst others the invention of perspective in painting (where the the position of looking is reduced to a point, instead of two eyes), the ‘scientific look’ (where the body of the observer has to be ‘erased’ to achieve ‘objectivity’) and the ‘male gaze’. On the last subject, I would like to quote Bleeker writing about a text of Sartre on voyeurism:
‘The voyeur is absorbed in a spectactle in front of him to such an extent that his own embodied presence escapes his attention. In his condition as voyeur, he is devoid of self-consciousness and paradoxically, this is synonymous with a certain transcendence’ (2002: 162).
Bleeker continues with describing how hearing the sound of footsteps behind him conjures the voyeur ‘out of his state of ‘nothingness’’, becoming visible (and thus a body) himself (ibid.), but I want to focus here on her use of the word ‘trancendence’ because it creates a bridge to the work of Georges Bataille.
I presume that the examples of ‘disembodied looking’, that Bleeker cites, would fall for Bataille under the general heading of the (mythical) ‘desire to become everything’. (In my view, the ‘desire to become everything’ is quite similar to the desire to be in a state of ‘nothingness’ (as the voyeur), both claim a powerfull position by the illusion of being outside of ‘reality’, which is a world of distinctions.) For Bataille, religion (the secret identification with an all-knowing, all-seeing god), and positive science (the illusion of controlling the world by knowing it) are, to a certain extent, varations on the same theme: ‘Anyone wanting slyly to avoid suffering, identifies with the entirety of the universe, judges each thing as if he were it. In the same way, he imagines, at bottom, that he will never die’ (1988: xxxii).
In his book ‘Inner Experience’ Bataille is searching for an alternative to this ‘slyly avoidance of suffering’:
‘I wanted to be everything, so that falling into this void, I might summon my courage and say to myself: “I am ashamed of having wanted to be everything, for I see now that it was sleep.” From that moment begins a singular experience (1988: xxxii).
The word ‘singular’ here can be understood as both ‘special’ and ‘individual’ or ‘separate’. Bataille wants to experience himself as embodied and as such seperated from other bodies and objects in the world around him.
§1.02 The inner experience
Bataille calls his book ‘Inner Experience’. But what is the ‘inner experience’? This question cannot be answered. I am tempted to say it is ‘a state of acknowledging what is there’. But one could also describe it as ‘the experience of the unknown’. Or maybe ‘the state in which one experiences what it is to experience’. According to Bataille experience always gets lost when one puts it in to words. A thought he summarizes in the sentence; ‘the word silence is still a sound’ (1988: 13). For Bataille, as a writer, the consequence of this is that writing about experience has to be a battle agains writing. In his book Bataille tries to move beyond language, by shifting between genres of writing. He gives a lot of (apparently contradictory) definitions of, instructions for, and images of the ‘inner experience’. I would like to quote a view here:
‘Experience is, in fever and anguish, the putting into question (to the test) of that which a man knows about being. Should he in this fever have any apprehension whatsoever, he cannot say: “I have seen God, the absolute, or the depths of the universe”; he can only say “that which I have seen eludes understanding” – and God, the absolute, the depths of the universe, are nothing if they are not categories of understanding’ (1988: 4).
‘I come to the most important point: it is necessary to reject external means. The dramatic is not being in these or those conditions, all of which are positive conditions (like being half lost, being able to be saved). It is simply to be’ (1988: 12).
‘Trembling. To remain immobile, standing, in a solitary darkness, in an attitude without the gesture of a supplicant: supplication, but without gesture and above all without hope. Lost and pleading, blind, half dead. Like Job on the dung heap, in the darkness of the night, but imagining nothing – defenseless, knowing that all is lost’ (1988: 35).
What interests me about the ‘inner experience’ (for the argument
that I want to develop in this essay), is, that it is a state of being present.
Bataille wants to go to the limits of ‘simply’ being there. He wants
to experience himself; as embodied, as being mortal, as seperated from other
bodies, questioning the state he is in, without naming it, without escaping
to anything else.
§1.03 Existing outside of oneself
Bataille ‘simply’, or radically, wants to be. But different from a yogi who might feel complete while sitting in silence and observing his breathing(2), Bataille doesn’t consider the experience that he is searching for as satisfactory. He thinks about the ‘inner experience’ as a state of fundemental lack. He wants to experience this lack, and wants to transcend it at the same time. All of his work is driven by the desire to connect (till the point of loosing himself), to other people and the world around him.
‘(…) each being is, I believe, incapable on his own, of going to the end of being. If he tries, he is submerged within a “private being” which has meaning only to himself. Now there is no meaning for a lone individual (…)’ (1988: 42)
For Bataille the experience is nothing if it is not communicated or shared. The experience he is looking for is one of reaching out to (and/or letting in of) the world and other people. In a beautiful text on ‘community’ Maurice Blanchot quotes the following sentence of Bataille: ‘If somebody living sees his equal die, his only way to continue existing is outside of himself. (1985: 19, my translation, Blanchot’s emphasis)’.
To exist outside of oneself. The experience that Bataille is looking for is one of ‘ecstasis’ (this Greek word comes from stasis, ‘to stand’ and ek, ‘out’). Maybe this seems to be contradictory to what I said before about the ‘inner experience’ being a state of being embodied. Is an existence outside oneself not the same as being disembodied? Not the same as forgetting ones body (as the voyeur, in Sartre’s description). I believe not. I believe that the experience that Bataille describes, of being with a dying person, is a very ‘embodied’ or to use a less confusing word; very ‘physical’ experience. I believe it is a physical possibility to move outside oneself. To make this more graspable I would like to turn to Lacan who wrote about the coming into existence of the concept of ‘self’ and the relation of this ‘self’ to the body.
§1.04 The mirror stage and the split between body and self
In his lecture ‘The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience’ Lacan states that the child’s experience of seeing his/her ‘self’ in the mirror, is of fundamental importance for the coming into existence of that what we call ‘self’.
Before seeing his/her image in the mirror the child doesn’t know if the movements and sensations that he/she is experiencing are happening inside or outside his/her body. He/she experiences his/her body as fragmented and doesn’t realise how the structure of the skeleton system could support him/her (for standing). Lacan stresses that it is an image that changes all this for the child:
‘The fact is that the total form of the body by which the subject anticipates in a mirage the maturation of his power is given to him only as Gestalt, that is to say, in an exteriority in which the form is certainly more constituent than constituted, but in which it appears to him above all in a contrasting size (un relief de stature) that fixes it and in a symetry that inverts it, in contrast with the turbulent movements that the subject feels are animating him’ (1977a: 2).
A bit later in his lecture, he describes the mirror stage as a:
‘(…) succesion of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of it’s totality that I shall call orthopaedic – and (…), to the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject’s entire mental development.’ (1977a: 4).
For me (and I hope also for you), there are a lot of interesting thoughts in these two dense quotes, but for the moment I want to focus on three things. The concept of ‘self’ is constituted by an image. This image leads to an identification with the outside of the body. And this image is foreign to the body (‘the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity’).
In my reading this leads to the conclusion that there exists a certain split between the body and the self. Although we change (mentally and physically) by assuming the image of our outer form, the experience of our body, as being fragmented, doesn’t become inaccessible to us. (Think of how pain disrupts our understanding of our body/self, or more positive, about what we can experience when we explore our bodies in dance.)
In another lecture ‘Of the gaze as objet petit a’ (which strongly relates to the one quoted above) Lacan more explicitly states that we live our life as doubles. We are not only splitted into two by seeing our image in the mirror (which constitutes a ‘self’), but also by the fact that we are being looked at by others. ‘I am looked at, that is to say, I am a picture’ (1977b: 106). In relation to sexuality and death Lacan says about the way we ‘use’ the images of our ‘selves’:
‘In both situations, the being breaks up, in an extraordinary way, between its being and its semblance, between itself and that paper tiger it shows to the other. (…) It is through this seperated form of himself that the being comes into play in his effects of life and death, and it might be said that it is with the help of this doubling of the other, or of oneself, that is realized the conjunction from which proceeds the renewal of beings in reproduction’ (1977b: 107).
Also about this quote a lot could be said. But for the moment I just want to let it lead me to the conclusion that, when Bataille says that: ‘If somebody living sees his equal die, his only way to continue existing is outside of himself’ (1985: 19). I do not take this to be a metaphor but a physical possibility. I believe that if somebody dies his/her body is moving away from his/her ‘self’, and the loving witness, participating in this movement, is also moving outside him/her ‘self’ (without crossing the line between life and death)(3).
§1.05 A multiplicity of bodies/selves in motion
Although I never experienced this myself, I suppose that the experience of being with somebody who is dying, is a state of intense presence, a state of heightened awareness. Thinking about Bataille’s description, I believe that in this situation we strongly experience the doubleness of our being, or maybe the different ‘parts’ of our body/self are moving further away from each other than they normally do. It’s hard to conceptualise these things that can be experienced, but hardly be objectified. But with Lacan I believe that the ‘doubleness’ of our being is not only something that happens in extreme experiences, but something that is constitutive of what we call our ‘selves’ and (seperated from this) our ‘bodies’. There is a ‘self’ that somehow looks like our body, and there is a ‘body’ which we call ourself (or ours). These two are split from each other and connected, different from each other and similar, and they move in relation to each other. For me, when I start to think, in line with Lacan, in terms of these ‘splits’, I believe that there is not only a split between our ‘bodies’ and our ‘selves’, but that our bodies/selves are constantly splitting, moving away from each other and connecting again. I believe that we are a multiplicity of bodies/selves in motion.
Maybe I will once try to make a model for this in terms of the physical and the mental, different layers, or extensions in different directions, but let me for the moment just sketch some elements: There is a body that can be sensed as being fragmented. There is a body that senses and relates to the outside world. There is a body that compares itself to the outside world. There is an image of the body as a whole that can be seen in the mirror. There is an image of the body as a whole as we want to see it in the mirror. There is an image of the body as a whole, which is connected to what we call ‘self’. There is a body as it can be seen by other people. There is an image of our body/self as we want it to be seen by other people. There is an image of our body/self as we think it should or could become; by training, diet, our aging process etc. There is the possibility of imagining our body/self to be somewhere else then where we are. There is the possibility of feeling events that happen to other people in our own bodies/selves. There is the possibility of identifying our bodies/selves with other people. There is the possibility of projecting sensations that we experience in our own bodies/selves on other people. There is a body that can be forgotten by focussing on something or someone else. – Well, so far for now, I guess there are a lot more possiblities to think of.
§1.06 Vision in the theatre
In this text, up to now, I took you on quite a journey. I started, based on the work of Bleeker, with stating that there is a tendency in the West to experience vision as disembodied. Then I shifted away from vision, and told about Bataille who wants to experience himself as embodied, facing death and loneliness. Then I moved to Lacan according to whom there exist a split between the body and the ‘self’. And I just suggested that our bodies/selves are multiple and moving in relation to each other. In the mean time I didn’t say anything about theatre, contrary to what I promised in the beginning.
So, I guess it’s time to bring things together now. I propose to return to the work of Bleeker. As I said earlier, Bleeker points out different ‘traditions’ in the West to experience, or think of vision as being disembodied. In her book she relates these to certain ways of making theatre. To give a simple example, in the traditional set-up of the Western theatre the actors are on a stage clearly framed in the light, while the spectator can lean back comfortably in the dark(4). Just like Sartre’s voyeur, this position allows the spectator to experience him/herself as being disembodied, to forget about his/her own body and as such ‘jump’ (I will come back to this term later) on stage identifying with the actors.
Let’s say the last eighty, but especially the last thirty years, the thinking about vision as being disembodied has been critised in philosophy, psychology etc.. And, in her book, Bleeker shows how in the same period also theatre-makers have turned the act of looking to a performance into a subject of ‘reflection’ (figurial and literal). She writes about different ‘experimental’ performances in which the spectators are being looked back upon. This by putting the spectators into the light, showing them mirrors, asking them about what they see etc.. In many contemporary performances the spectators are made just as ‘embodied’ and ‘present’ as the performers.
Which brings me to the point where I want to suggest a different direction of thought than Bleeker proposes.
§1.07 ‘Succesful stitching together’
In the introduction of her book Bleeker says, that it is the;
‘(…) disembodied notion of vision that allows for a conflation to take place between what is seen and what is present ‘over there’. This disembodied notion of vision supports the tendency to take what is seen for what is over there, and to understand the strong effects thus experienced as resulting exclusively from the body present on stage. What is left out, then, is the relation between the body seen and the body seeing’ (2002: 15).
I totally agree with this critique. But later in her text Bleeker proposes, inspired by the work of Kaja Silverman(5), that ‘presence’ (in the performance situation) could be understood; ‘as a succesful stitching together of an image of a body seen and the proprioceptive ego of the body seeing’ (2002: 170).
I think her use of the concept ‘proprioceptive ego’ is interesting. It includes the body of the person who is watching, and also suggest a difference, or a split, between the ‘ego’ and the ‘proprioceptive ego’ of him / her...(6).
But I have strong doubts about what Bleekers calls ‘succesfully stitching together’. In as far as ‘stitching’ refers to an activity or process I can relate to it. But ‘succesfully stichting together’ suggests the forgetting of the distance between the body seen and the body seeing. In line with Bataille I wouldn’t call this ‘presence’ (of the person that is seeing) but ‘dreaming’ (an romantic image of ‘becoming one’). If the person watching is present (and experiencing him / herself as embodied) he / she would acknowledge his / her position in space and the seperation between his / her body and the body seen (7).
Somewhere else in her text, referring to Lacan’s ‘mirror stage’, Bleeker says about the ‘effects of closeness and immediateness that the theatre can evoke’ that:
‘The mirror stage model, based on a similar ‘staging’ of the relation between body seeing and body seen, presents an explanation of this sense of closeness as the effect of mixing up bodies seen over there with the sensations of the body seeing them over here’ (2002: 203).
Reading these two fragments of her text together I believe that Bleeker is conflating the concepts of ‘identification’ and ‘presence’, while I would propose to separate them as clearly as possible.
§1.08 Identification and presence
In the dictionary(8) ‘identification’ is described as ‘a process by which one ascribes to oneself the qualities or characteristics of another person’. Lacan gives a broader definition in his lecture on the ‘mirror stage’. He calls ‘identification’; ‘the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image’ (1977: 2). In the mirror stage this is an identification with the image of oneself, but (later) it can also be with the image of another person(9). In both cases the difference and seperation between the image (or body seen) and the body seeing tends to be forgotten. In the mirror stage, because one looses awareness of the inside of the body while one identifies with an image of the outside of the body (the ‘armour’). And in identification with another person, because in the ‘process by which one ascribes to oneself the qualities or characteristics of another person’, qualities or characteristics, which includes the place, of ones own body/self tend to be forgotten.
‘Presence’ is described in the dictionary as ‘the state or fact of being present’ and the latter as ‘being, existing, or occuring at this time or now’. In line with Bataille I consider this to be a state of awareness of the movements of the multiplicity of our bodies/selves in relation to its (also always moving) surroundings(10). In the case of theatre I consider this to be an awareness of movements and distances (within and between the body seeing and the body seen), and not necessarely a ‘coming close’ of the body seeing and the body seen.
For me ‘identification’ is one of the things that can happen in the proces of ‘presence’, but ‘presence’ is not ‘identification’. If one takes ‘identification’, in line with Lacan, to be ‘the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image’, I would call ‘presence’, ‘the proces of looking at an image’ (which includes the positioning of ones own body in the space where the image is presented, and the possibility of identification).
§1.09 Identification and presence in theatre
If one pulls apart the concepts of ‘identification’ and ‘presence’ (as I did above), one could say that traditional theatre is based on the lure of identification while (a lot of) today’s ‘experimental’(11) theatre is based on the working of presence. In traditional theatre the spectator, sitting in the dark, is invited to forget his body and immediate surroundings, and to ‘jump’ on stage identifying with bodies/characters involved in a storyline or some other form of development. While in ‘experimental’ theatre both spectators and performers are made present by ‘reflective’ techniques, like the use of lights on both of them.
This seperation between traditional and ‘experimental’ theatre, is from the point of view of the audience, or based on how the structure of a piece is supposed to work on an audience. I believe that the situation for performers is different. I believe that in order to do their work well performers, also in traditional theatre, have to be present. Although an actor playing, for instance, Hamlet, has to identify (to a certain extent) with the role that he is playing, identification alone is not enough. He has to base his work on the possibilities and impossibilities of his own body, the character, the space he is performing in, the other actors, the place of the audience, etc.. In short he has to be present, otherwise he is just going on his own trip.
In the discourse of theatre makers and audiences, ‘presence’ is often talked about as having a certain (almost ‘magical’) ‘force’. The ‘presence’ of an actor or dancer is considered to have a ‘force’ to attract the eyes (and hearts) of the audience. And performers feel certain ‘forces’ while being in front of different audiences. For me this talking in terms of ‘forces’ is completely realistic. I take it to be the movement between, and within, the bodies/selves on stage and the bodies/selves looking.
In terms of the difference between traditional and ‘experimental’ theatre, suggested above, one could say that in traditional theatre performers are aware of the forces of presence and use these to seduce the audience to identify with the roles they are plaing, while in ‘experimental’ theatre performers share their awareness of the forces of presence with the audiences, making them (the audience) just as present as they (the performers) are.
§1.10 Presence (in theatre) as movement within and between bodies
In traditional theatre, or in a traditional view of the working of theatre, the audience is invited to ‘jump’ on stage to identify with the bodies / characters over there. I think this view on the performance situation is realistic in the sense that it expresses a movement that actually can happen. Parts of our (proprioceptive) bodies / selves can leave our chairs (forget our own sitting bodies) and be and experience there with them.
Another movement is also possible. While we sit in our chairs we can experience the bodies seen on stage inside (or a least close to) our own bodies. I believe this is what Bleeker refers to when she talkes about ‘presence’; ‘as a succesful stitching together of an image of a body seen and the proprioceptive ego of the body seeing’ (2002: 170). (She doesn’t talk in these terms but, I believe, the ‘jump’ in her description of the performance situation is the other way around, the body seeing ‘allows’ the image of the body seen to come close to, or ‘enter’, his / her body.)
The problem I have with the use of the word ‘jump’ (in the context of seeing a performance) is that it expresses a sudden movement with a clear goal; to be there. A similar desire can be found in Bleekers terms ‘succesful stitching together’ namely; to come close. Although I do believe that this desire for closeness is an essential aspect of performance art, I think that what is happening in the performance situation is something different. I believe it is (a sometimes fast, and sometimes slow, often interrupted) movement within and between the bodies / selves seeing and the bodies / selves.
In the next part of this essay I will try to describe a performance by Seon-ja Seo in these terms.
When the audience enters the theatre space, Seo is already on ‘stage’ (a flat floor), standing in the light in front of a white screen. The audience has to walk over the stage to reach their chairs. There is one line of 13 chairs (only 13 people could see the performance) in the space. Behind the line of chairs there is a unlit space of about 3 meters, and behind this a platform on which the lightdesigner (Minna Tikkainen), the sounddesigner (Gary Shephers), me, and some other people involved in the project are sitting. In the middle of the line of chairs a strong spotlight stands on a tripod, projecting it’s light on Seo, the screen and the stage.
Seo stands in front of the white screen with her left side to the audience. She gives them some time to sit down and watch the outline of her body. Then she walks towards the audience, exposing a line on the screen, made of red tape, with the exact hight of her body. She stops about 2 meter away from the audience.
Seo is standing diagonally with her right side to towards the audience, her weight a bit forward, and her left hand raised slightly. She slowly starts moving her left hand. She moves it in a ‘searching’ way, stopping, and slowly moving again, sensing what is happening. Then her left knee starts moving too and she slowly turns away from the audience, keeping the same searching quality. Turning further Seo comes to a point where she has to move her right leg, but somehow it comes as a surprise when she suddenly takes a step with it (much faster as the rest of her movement so far). Now she is with her back towards the audience. She slowly takes a step with her left leg and moves her right arm upward. There seems to be a tension between those opposed body-parts. As all the time so far, her torso is bended a bit forward. She is turning further, brings her right shoulder a little down, curves her spine to the right and starts raising her left arm. Sounds become hearable in the space, casual sounds like somebody is lifting something and dropping stuff. Seo moves her right foot to the front, and turns it in, continuing with her turn to the left. She brings her left foot inward with a bended knee, and then steps backward with the left leg, carefully balancing. She turns further toward the left, bringing her left arm a bit down. The audience now sees the left side of her body. Seo bends trough her knees, and slowly takes two steps sideways, away from the audience. She then starts to turn to the right.
These are the first 15 minutes of the performance. Seo continues to make half turns, to the left and right, with as a basic position her back towards the audience. She moves away from the audience towards the screen, staying basicly in the middle of the stage (where also the red line is). During the whole trajectory she is slowly moving down. After 42 minutes, she ends up laying on the floor, diagonally, with her feet towards the audience, and her head raised a bit.
The lights go out and a white laying rectangular appears on the screen. The rectangular is slowly moving to the left and right, and getting smaller. In the rectangular slowly moving shapes appear. The shapes become darker, and sometimes the rectangular turns in a white frame. After 8 minutes the rectangular becomes completely white again. This is the end the performance.
§2.02 The bodies/selves of the audience
The lightdesign and spatial set-up of ‘Under-presence’ are, in a way, very traditional. Clearly seperated, the audience is sitting in the dark and the performer is moving in the light. Conditions of which I said before that it allows spectators to forget their own bodies and ‘jump’ on stage identifying with the performers.
But in the set-up of ‘Under-presence’ a lot of elements can be found that prevent such a ‘jump’. Elements that keep reminding the spectators of their own bodies/selves and the act of watching:
- One could say that in the set-up of ‘Under-presence’ the traditional seperation between spectators (in the dark) and performer (in the light) is ‘exaggerated’. Sitting in line, with a big spot-light in the middle, enforced by technicians on a platform, watching somebody who is scarcely dressed, the set-up of the performance makes one think of a police interrogation or some other situation in which there is a clear power difference between those who are watching and the one who is being watched. This ‘exaggeration’ of the difference between spectators and performer, might make the spectators reflect on the situation they are in.
- By placing the spotlight not at the ceiling (as in traditional theatre) but in the line of the spectators, the spectators are made aware of the connection between the working of the light (that is slowly changing) and their own act of watching.
- Since there is a space behind the line of chairs, the spectators don’t have the comfort of a wall behind them or of being part of a mass. Somebody told me that he felt observed (and, as such, reminded of his own body) by the people sitting at the platform while he was watching the performance. As if we were watching if he was watching the performance “in the right way”.
- The chairs are not very comfortable and placed very close beside each other, so the spectators feel each other’s movements. Moreover the sounddesign for the performance is quite silent so people can also hear each other’s movements. This makes the audience constantly aware of their own bodies, and in their movements, the positions they take, their breathing (coughing etc.) responsible for the atmosphere of the performance as a whole. Somebody told me that this gave her “a sense of community”. Others might have felt under pressure by it.
- An element that brings the audience closer to the performer is the fact that they have to walk over the stage to reach their chairs. In a sense this creates a shared space between audience and performer. Also the small size of the space helps to bring the audience and the performer closer.
I believe that the set-up of ‘Under-presence’ creates a space for a double movement. At one hand it allows to audience to come close to Seo’s body, at the other hand it keeps reminding the audience of their own bodies and the space between their bodies and that of the performer (the sound also enforces a sense of space).
- A last element that I want to mention here doesn’t concern the set-up of the performance but the structure of it. The structure of the performance, in time and space, is very predictable. After her walk towards the spectators, once you realise that Seo is slowly moving down and backward towards the screen, you know that this will continue till the end of the performance. There is no story-line to get involved in. Seo doesn’t move through recognisable emotional states one could identify with, and the movement itself is too slow and light to physically excite the spectator.
With all of this I don’t want to say that ‘Under-presence’ doesn’t move the audience, I only want to say that it moves them in a different way than ‘traditional’ theatrical performances. The structure of the piece doesn’t seduce the audience to ‘jump’ on stage and move along with the dancer, but it invites the audience to move back and forth, to be close to the body of the dancer and to return to their own bodies/selves.
§2.03 ‘If I move back, I think, I am away from something, and something will be left over’
In Lacan’s description of the mirror stage, the assumption of the external image in the mirror, the ‘self’, goes together with the proces of learning how to stand. He speaks of a:
‘succesion of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of it’s totality that I shall call orthopaedic – and (…), to the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject’s entire mental development’ (1977a: 4 my emphasis).
I read Seo’s performance as a reversal of the mirror stage process as described by Lacan, a movement away from the erect body and the ‘self’ (this; ‘armour of an alienating identity’), towards a ‘fragmented body-image’.
Seo told me that the line on the screen represents; “the ideal of the straight body, the ballet dancer or the Greek athlete”. In the beginning of the performance she is standing, straight, in front of this line. Then she walks toward the audience and starts her dance, still standing but already leaning a bit forward. During her dance she moves further and further away from the image of the straight line, the image of a strong, coherent, body/self. She is slowly moving, body-part by body-part, searching where the next movement will come from, fragmenting her body, till she ends up laying on the ground.
In my experience, this dance is ‘ecstatic’. I believe it is taking Seo outside of her ‘self’. And based on Lacan’s idea that the ‘self’ is an image of the surface of the body, an ‘armour’ I believe that this movement outside of her ‘self’ is a movement into two directions, inside and outside of her body. In her movement she is searching: Where does the impulse to move come from? Which body-part to move next? How to move it in space? How to move it in relation to the eyes of the audience? How to organise muscles and bones to deal with tensions and pain, and open new possibilities of movement? (This movement sequence is very hard for the upper legs, because of the longlasting bended position of the knees.) In this searching her focus is travelling inside her body and outside her body into the space, both directions taking her outside her ‘self’ (as armour).
While dancing ‘ecstaticly’, I don’t believe Seo is loosing herself but that she splits into two, or becomes multiple. In an e-mail she wrote about, what I call, ‘splitting’, in terms of; ‘tensions’, ‘leaving’ and ‘traces’:
‘the tension between front and back, the tension between up and down I work on movement to be in this tension, so it creates trace. If I move back, I think, I am away from something, and something will be left over after leaving of movement. (…) For me, it was movement of leaving and at the same time making something left over. (…) presence is between this two spaces, in tension, in-between.’
While she moves, she is ‘making something left over’. In another e-mail Seo wrote me about the same thing, or maybe something else, that I would also consider to be a process of splitting.
‘my movement I touch space being aware to be contact with space. maybe it is like sculputure with my own flesh, but not focus on what to sculputure but the process of sculpturing’
I read this as a becoming multiple of Seo. She is: the sculpture, the material the sculpture is made of, the movement of sculpting and the sculpturer.
§2.04 ‘Something underneath the skin’
In reaction to my question how she believes her dance works on the audience, Seo wrote me:
‘awareness: I give lots of attention on my skin where is border between me and space - and audience who is in the space.
In fact I really try to show body, movement. By showing I mean not demonstrate but open body towards audience and space.
maybe like striptease who want to strip thought or emotion or something underneath the skin.’
In a traditional striptease a woman assumes an image that men want to see. In terms of Lacan, she is showing them a ‘paper tiger’. Seo doesn’t show the audience a ‘paper tiger’. And I believe she doesn’t show her ‘self’ either, but her movement outside of her ‘self’. She wants to show her ‘body’, ‘movement’, ‘thought or emotion or something underneath the skin’. I believe Seo is showing us her movement of fragmenting, the splitting of her body/self, becoming multiple.
In reaction to the same question, she wrote me:
‘strategically: not showing what will be happening next so, audience can be with me in present moment.
It can be worked out by creating opposite tension against movement, or be soft on direction so, movement could open to all directions.’
Seo is ‘strategically: not showing what will be happening next’, and although her choreography is actually worked out pretty much in detail, she keeps her movement ‘open to all directions’. While moving she is not, or at least not only, in the past (the reheasal of the movement sequence) but in the present. This gives the audience the chance to see her ‘body’, ‘movement’, ‘thought’, ‘emotion’, because it is actually happening, right here, right now.
§2.05 The movement of the audience
I believe that Seo’s technique for being present works. That it makes the spectators move outside of themselves, participating in her movement (outside of herself). Many people considered Seo’s presence to be very strong. Somebody told me she experienced Seo’s moving body as ‘pure potentiality’, wanting to see what would happen next. For myself I called the experience of watching her dance ‘the movement of curiosity’ (in my own body). I felt curios and this curiosity moved me outside myself to Seo’s body, but I didn’t know what I was curious about, or what could fulfil my curiosity, I just kept moving.
This doesn’t mean that I identified myself with Seo, or ‘became one’ with her movement. For the reasons I mentioned in §2.02 I don’t believe that the spectators of ‘Under-presence’ loose themselves in the dance, but that they remaine present. Similar to Seo (and differently), I believe that the audience goes trough a process of splitting up, moving, and shifting focus: Watching Seo’s movement. Watching the form of her body. Watching what would be her next movement. Feeling somebody beside oneself move. Feeling the eyes of the people at the platform looking at one’s own watching. Looking at the light changing in the space. Thinking about how long this performance will last. Feeling Seo’s posture, or the tension of her muscles, in one’s own body. Thinking something else or dreaming away. Feeling the need to change ones position, and doing so (or not). Thinking about the relation between this dance and meditation. Imagining what emotions Seo is passing through. Imagining what it would feel like to be in her body. Etc etc..
§2.06 ‘Maybe, it is kind of desire to meet with origin’
In paragraph 1.03 I quoted Bataille who wrote that ‘If somebody living sees his equal die, his only way to continue existing is outside of himself. (1985: 19, my translation, Blanchot’s emphasis)’. Blanchot wrote inspired by Bataille’s quote:
‘(…) my presence with the other who withdraws in dying. To be present in the proximity of the other who in dying disappears forever, to take that death upon me as the the only death that concerns me, this brings me outside myself and it is the only seperation that, however impossible, can open me up (…)’ (1985: 19 my translation)
Without wanting to claim that Seo’s performance has the same intensity as this ‘scene’ of being with a dying person, I do believe that Seo’s ‘movement of leaving’ has a similar effect on the audience, in terms of movement and directions. In her movement Seo is leaving herself and the spectator is moving along with this movement. She is opening up her body, and (maybe) this movement makes the spectator opens his/her body too. For myself I can say it worked like this.
But where is Seo going? Is she moving towards death? According to herself it is a movement into a different direction, or actually the opposite direction. A movement to the ‘origin’. In terms of Freud Seo’s movement could be called ‘regressive’, in relation to the work of Lacan I already called it a reversal of the ‘mirror-stage process’. Seo wrote me:
‘Under-presence: it is like time before what is present. Specially, the time that is not clear, not placed in consiouness. Maybe it is like "Undeath" by Slavoj Zizek as once you mentioned’(13).
While being present, and taking the spectator’s along with her Seo tries to find out what is there under what is present. A world of undefined matter, or a world of ghosts.
‘.......... I would like to find out the time underneath present thing. specially the time that is force to be lost, forgotten. I would like to make that kind of time alive again. ....... maybe, it is kind of desire to meet with origin’.
§2.07 Concluding remark
Ofcoarse it is no coincidence that I took ‘Under-presence’ as an example of a performance to be described in terms of the splitting of bodies/selves and movement within and between bodies. Seo’s thinking about performance art is close to mine. But I believe that if the model I suggested in this text, based on the work of Bataille and Lacan, would be worked out further and more detailedly also other performance could be described in these terms. Including performances in which performers are acting, and thus processes of identification are part of the working of the piece.
For this the work of Merleau-Ponty (on the splitting of the ‘self’), theories about ‘proprioception’, ‘mimicry’, and the work of Deleuze & Guattari on becoming as entering ‘into a composition with something else’ (1987: 274) could be helpful.
1988 Inner Experience. State University of New York Press.
1985 De Onuitsprekelijke Gemeenschap. Hölderlin, Den Haag.
2002 The Locus of Looking. Dissecting visuality in the theatre. ANDO BV, the Hague.
1984 ‘Mimicry and Legendary Psychastenia’. October, 31.
Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Felix
1987 A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism & Schizophrenia. Continuum, London.
1977a. Écrits. A selection. Tavistock Publications Limited, Bristol.
1977b. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. The Hogarth Press, London.
1994 De Lege Plaats. Revoltes tegen het instrumentele leven in Batailles atheologie. Kok Agora, Kampen.
1968 De Tederheid. Ambo, Utrecht.
1) Most of what is said about presence in this essay is also valid outside of the theatre context.
2) This quite cliche image of a yogi, gives Bataille in his own text (1988: 15-24). It would be interesting to research actual yoga practices in releation to the thoughts of Bataille.
3) This portrayal of the body/self is not unlike the image of a soul leaving the body as can be found in a lot of cultures. I don’t believe this is a coincidence, the work of Bataille and Lacan is ‘haunted by ghosts’.
4) For a more detailed description of techniques that allow disembodied (and embodied) looking in the theatre see Bleeker’s text.
5) In the texts of Silverman that Bleeker refers to, the former discusses the work of Jacques Lacan. I didn’t have the chance yet to read Silverman’s work.
6) I don’t know much about this, but theories on proprioception could be valuable for the development of a model of the body / self as a multiplicity in motion.
7) I believe distance is an essential part of any relation, inside and outside the performance-situation. Ton Lemaire (1968) wrote a very nice book on ‘tenderness’ in which he calls ‘tenders’ ‘a technique of distance’.
9) I should study this further but I believe that Lacan’s concept also includes the possibility of identification with the image of ‘things’, which I believe is an interesting issue.
10) In it’s stress on movement, Bataille’s thinking comes very close to a Buddhist conception of the body and it’s surroundings (see for instance the paragraph; “Communication” (1988: 93)).
11) I think for instance of the work of Forced Entertainment, Lotte van der Berg, Paz Rojo, David Weber-Krebs and Rob List. But (without having seen these performances) I guess also the pieces Maaike Bleeker discusses in her book would fall for me under the term ‘experimental’, and are working on ‘presence’ rather than ‘identification’.
12) For this performance I made a video that we called ‘a visual echo’. I tried to do the ‘same thing’ as Seo using my medium video. In the process of making this video I observed Seo’s rehearsels many times.
13) This revers to a conversation we had after I saw Slavoj Zizek’s ‘a perverts guide to cinema’