National College of Art & Design
Autonomous Fragments: The Status of Performing Art Objects
Submitted to the School of Visual Culture in candidacy for the Degree of
MA Art in the Contemporary World 2018
List of Illustrations
Chapter I: Fragment-objects
Speculative Realism/ OOO
Chapter II: Performing Objects
Actor Network Theory
Concluding Chapter: Status
List of Illustrations
1. Maria Hassabi, Staging Solo #2, 2017. Live Installation. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Germany
2. Maria Hassabi, Staging Solo #2, 2017. Live Installation. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Germany
My initial curiosity about the status of the object within performance art arises out of my own experience of performance. It seemed to become increasingly clear to me that the materials and objects utilised in performance were actually quite central to the work. Witnessing the vibrant pigments of Nigel Rolfe’s oeuvre and monumental sculptural structures that reappear in Amanda Coogan’s performances I could not help but wonder why such little attention was placed on these aspects of performance. These aspects did not seem incidental to me and carried much of the weight of the works promise. Encountering performance after performance in which the body was utilised alongside other vibrant materials left me puzzled about the lack of an accessible theoretical frame work in which to think of these objects. My interests here fundamentally do not claim to reach a theory that encompasses all performance ever conceived, but rather a particular genre of contemporary performance which embraces the objects of performance alongside the iconic performing body.
This thesis deals fundamentally with the objects that make up the structure of a performance art event/work. Using the term ‘object’ in a broad sense I draw primarily on Graham Harman and his definition of objects within Object Oriented Ontology (OOO). Using this branch of philosophy’s theory on objects I argue that aspects of a performance can be subtracted from the whole as an autonomous object in-and-of-itself. I am arguing it’s potentiality as an art object which can be both an artefact of a past performative work but also as a stand along individual work of art. This argument stands on the assertion that objects have the ability to perform in their own right, as well as alongside the body. Jane Bennet’s theories into ‘thing-power’ as dealt with in Vibrant Matter along with Bruno Latours theory of ‘actants’ will support these concepts. Levi R. Byrant and Steven Shaviro’s thought on such concepts will also compliment my analysis. These particular concepts are thought through Maria Hassabi’s work Staging SOLO #2 .
For the focus of a short thesis and the sake of depth in theory I am looking singularly at Hassabi’s STAGING SOLO #2. In overview, this work encompasses a vast pink carpet, a lone languorous figure in a brightly pattered garment and an ambient soundscape which secures the work’s gently unravelling stability. I am intentionally leaving a deeper description of this work for each chapter. This is due to my desire to explore how one might describe the work in one way, relating to its objects and describe the work another way when speaking of its performing ability, and another way in speaking of status etc. There are many different ways of theorising performance and I wish to use theory to deconstruct the work in order to open it up to three main concepts, namely objecthood, inward performance and status.
The reasons for my choosing STAGING SOLO #2 as my primary work are threefold:
Firstly, if one were to illustrate a theory of the autonomy of objects within performance it would follow that the work in question would be an object-heavy work, STAGING SOLO #2 however is not. I wish to argue that the theories I pose in the upcoming thesis are applicable to many types of performances and situations and while it may not be immediately apparent that a performance encompasses objects, it in fact does. The immateriality and challenge of this work in discussing objecthood will further my argument. The formal aspects of this work in relation to the expectations or institutional protocols of performance is something I find particularly compelling. Secondly, I enjoy this work. There is an empirical body of memory I have with this work that through first hand encounter. The work contains a visual traction that identifies a personal dimension for me. Thirdly, I see Hassabi’s practice as very forward thinking in terms of contemporary performance. I am notably most interested in the kinds of performance happening in the current landscape of this medium. It is about contemporary art practices now, and it has a particular currency or relevance in relation to the predicament of performance at this present time. It’s situation within the wider field of performance is revealing of something that’s happening in performance at this point in time.
There is an important clarification I wish to acknowledge before moving forward. I do not wish to correct a history of performance art theory which has overwhelmingly set its sights on the body as the source of meaning. I believe this to have been an appropriate reaction to work that was being made prior to the new millennium in particular. In studying the theoretical frameworks set up by prominent scholars within this field, namely Peggy Phelan and RoseLee Goldberg I am notably not learning from them, nor disposing of them but rather adapting their theories to a new object-oriented turn that has happened within a particular genre of performance. Once again I am not attempting to correcting a history but pose a new line of theory while considering how it may fit within the wider theoretical context
When it comes to performance and its relative objects the lines may not be as clearly drawn as it may seem. What does a work such as STAGING SOLO # 2 by Maria Hassabi represent about a certain type of tendencies within contemporary art? What is this external stuff outside of the body functioning as? These are the kinds of questions propelling my theory.
In taking this case study I am asking what way can we talk about performance art now given the historical categories in which performance art has been validated, namely as a body-centred practice. Does this kind of performance which is pragmatic of a current turn require a new critical lexicon or does it require a new relationship with the different sets of terms that have long validated performance art? I pose that a productive theory meets somewhere between the former and the latter. I shall attempt to balance these two approaches throughout the rest of this thesis.
The world of performance is overrun with objects outside the body. I see this to be a natural progression as the performing body historically becomes exhausted in its meaning-making capabilities and this artist would then turn to the relationship their bodies have on outer phenomenon. This does not degrade the body but is merely a symptom of the exhaustive nature of any object. This in many ways demonstrates the bodies physical and emotional limitations. Once again this is not a flaw of the body but a potential practical quality. In considering these vast amounts of objects that accompany the body in performance, what I attempt to do here is find a way in which we can think about these objects as artworks but not as artworks as we think about artworks in the traditional sense, rather as their own group. It might be that the only way to consider the status of these this is to make their own category of artworks.
This is a kind of critical writing which is influenced by structuralism in which I am attempting to unstitch everything which is reliable and given about performance. The objects of performance go beyond any incidental possibility. It is rather lively component of the work. It unravels at the same rate as the performing body which creates a serious stability and lack of fragility within the work.
I have for a time been against the dominant way of treating performance. I believe looking at the fragments of performance as objects is a way of shifting this previously unacknowledged status. Looking at these performative fragments through the lens of OOO we may begin to see that objects have their own force or energy to perform and intervene within a performance, whether that be obvious to us or not. While we usually treat performance in relation to the artist and the body in work the performance itself and how it relates to a larger field tends to disregard the object. My writing will aim to almost subvert that. I do not wish to do this in a way that disregard the body, nor uplifts the inanimate objects but rather consider them on equal footing to see what may arise. I am simply realising this traditional line of thinking’ limitations. These limitations means that we’re not talking about these other potentional crucial things that may be more problematic and more difficult to deal with but can open up a wealth of possibilties.
I have structed this thesis to be mimetic of the topic at hand. Because my thesis fundamentally deals with autonomy within fragments it is therefore appropriate that that anatomy of this text do the same. I have structures each section of this thesis to be an autonomous essay about three distinct topics at hand which in sequence develop my thesis. I treat each chapter as a fragment in the same way I approach this artwork. Therefore I’m using my thesis as a way to write about an artwork to show that an artwork can be written about piece by piece in order to achieve a better understanding of the whole.
Additionally, to aid in the structuring of these concepts which can easily become complex and somewhat convoluted I have taken the liberty to have inset minor headings above important sections in order to establish the aim of that particular fragment of text.
My first chapter deals with what I term Fragment-objects. It is in this essay that I dig deep into the autonomy of objects through Speculative Realist philosophy, namely OOO. It is this approach that allows for the carpet, the body and soundscape of STAGING SOLO #2 to be ultimately active participants of the performance as a whole. This chapter will establish the individual fragments of the performance I will be dealing with. In exploring ideas of objects and objecthood within OOO and applying it to the previously established fragments we can then begin to expanding on how these fragments by recognising them as objects therefore become autonomous.
Performing objects, my second essay takes issue with the inanimate tendency we tend to ascribe to nonhuman matter, an attitude carried into performance art. This chapter considers how these now established individual objects perform within the context of other objects and bodies. Exploring ideas of vitality and impressionable force of objects as inherently performative I analyse how these individual objects perform as an ensemble within performance as well as independently.
My third chapter, Status doubles as a conclusion to the arguments posed previously. Looking at the now established autonomy and performative nature of these selected objects I now look into their status – what place they have, can and potentially hold within exhibition contexts and beyond. What this would mean for the ontology of performance art going forward is pivotal. This can only be done by the consideration of the objects in a flat ontology, not as submissive to the body but considered on the same level as human subjects. This ultimately questions the unfixed material identity of performing art objects.
“There is no art which does not bear some burden of physicality. To deny it is to decent to irony.” (Bochner, 1970).
Performance art is seldom, if ever, described as an object-oriented practice. The usual discourse surrounding performance has historically, and continually been based around the body, the performing body, body politics, the gendered body, the live gesture and the list goes on. While this has been an appropriate theorisation of performance practice up till now I wish to set up an alternative method of theorisation, one based on objects. By breaking down the usual hierarchy of attention that we give to the body in performance and viewing objects used in performance as non-incidental but active participants, alternative discussions around performance may begin to arise. Aiding me in shifting this attention from the body to objects of performance will be a branch of continental philosophy known as Speculative Realism, more specifically Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO). In order to set up this alternative performance-art theory I feel it necessary to take the time to distinguish between the various strands of thought as they are fundamental to understanding the basis for my argument, namely the autonomy of fragments.
Speculative realism / OOO
The verdict of modern philosophy since René Descartes and Immanuel Kant entails that we cannot speak of the world without humans or humans without the world. Objects have been out of fashion as this became the dominant strand of thinking known as anti-realism. Simply put, anti-realism states that philosophy is not about things but about our access to those things. “Anti-realism notes that our relationship to the world still falls within the domain belonging to the subject, mind and culture” (Bryant 2011, 15). The opposing strand of thinking to anti-realism is realism. Simply put realism believes there is a reality outside our consciousness that we may know, but never know fully. Realism can be broken off into Epistemological and Ontological realism. Levi R. Bryant distinguishes between these branches best:
“Epistemological realism argues that our representations and language are accurate mirrors of the world as it actually is, regardless of whether or not we exist… Ontological realism, by contrast, is not a thesis about our knowledge of objects, but about the being of objects themselves.” (2011, 18)
It is the “being of objects” which is of most interest to me regarding the objects of performance, I therefore take the ontological realist stance. In this there is no claim of knowledge of the deeper life of objects, it simply asserts that they are: “the being of objects is an issue distinct from the question of our knowledge of objects” (Bryant 2011, 18). Speculative Realism is an umbrella term for a relatively new strand of thought in realism, marking several different positions in this wing of philosophy, one of which is notably Object-Oriented Ontology, championed by Graham Harman. “There are philosophers who grant reality full autonomy from the human mind… these philosophers are said to have a realist ontology.” (DeLanda 2002, 4). Harman has emerged as one of the major voices in post-continental philosophy taking issue with some of these chiblits of Western philosophy; notably anti-realist thought. To quote Harman: “Over the centuries, a number of thinkers have suggested that the reality of things is ultimately unknowable to us: Immanuel Kant’s ‘things in themselves’, Heidegger’s ‘being’, and Lacan’s ‘Real’ are just three examples of this tendency in intellectual history” (Harman 2018, 12). However, Harman continues: “The reality of things is always withdrawn or veiled rather than directly accessible, and therefore any attempt to grasp that reality by direct and literal language will inevitably misfire” (38). It is only in recent modern years that thinkers such as Alfred North Whitehead or Bruno Latour, have started to consider a realist school of thought, “modernity is often seen as a long series of displacements and decenterings of the human” (Shaviro 2014, 1). This however does not make Latour a realist philosopher although many of his concepts (i.e. Actor-Network Theory (ANT)) are utilised often in realist writings: “Bruno Latour does make public calls for realism now and then, but only at the price of a drastic redefinition of what realism means.” (Harman 2010, 171).
The central principal of OOO marks objects as its cynosure. Harman’s writings are at the head of this movement and thus his writings will formulate the bulk of my analysis while other writers associated with Speculative Realism such as Levi R. Byrant and Steven Shaviro will compliment Harman’s theories.
“OOO Is a bluntly realist philosophy. This means among other things that OOO holds that the external world exists independently of human awareness” (Harman 2018, 10). Emphasising the point that this wing of thought considers objects outside the mind of representation is central to my interests here. As I am attempting to consider performance outside of the sole body it is important to establish first and foremost that there are object outside the body, though we can never fully comprehend. We can only ever access these objects indirectly but still access nonetheless. Every object has a deeper reality, qualities and quirks that will never be accessible to us, this opens us up to the reality of the autonomy of objects. “Objects are deeper than their appearance to the human mind but also deeper than their relations to one another, so that all contact between objects must be indirect or vicarious” (Harman 2012, 4). By a deeper life of objects, I am refereeing to qualities that we ourselves could never access within objects, such as the a carpets potential flammability for example. The flammability of a carpets fibres may be known to us however our conscious bodies will never make meaningful contact with such a quality, along with an infinite amount of unknown qualities that objects may have but our reality will never access but can nonetheless recognise. “For the object-oriented thinker, physical objects are just one kind of object among many others” (Harman 2018, 39).
STAGING SOLO #2 by Maria Hassabi is perhaps amongst the least likely performance-works one would reference in exploring ideas of autonomous objects. Formally, the work encompasses a lone body dressed in a brightly pattern garment (I resist using the term ‘costume’ as this would suggest a sort of prop-like quality) engaged in austere choreography on an expansive lurid pink carpet to an ambient soundscape. Right off the bat we can distinguish between multiple fragments that create the ensemble that is STAGING SOLO #2, i.e. the body, the carpet, the choreographic material, the patterned outfit, subtle lighting ques, the soundscape etc. It would be easy on first encounter with the work to throw up a term such as dematerialised or ephemeral, however, while this harlequined limbed body squirming in slow motion may not paint the picture of an object-oriented work, OOO would disagree.
As stated previously objects are the primary source of affection in OOO, however OOO’s use of the term “object” is highly specific and requires some unpacking of its own. It is worth noting here that ‘object’ is the preferred term of Harman to describe the all-encompassing ‘beings’, however other similar terms have been in frequent use such as ‘substance’ (an ancient term), Martin Heidegger’s ‘tool’, or Latour’s ‘actors’ as referred to in ANT. While each term has its own connotations and extensive theoretical discourse, and while I may go back and forth between terms for the sake of avoiding repetition, object shall remain the dominant term of this thesis due to it being a perfectly clear and flexible term that ought to be retained (Harman 2018, 42).
Being that objects are the central principle of this philosophy there will inevitably be complexities and paths that have no place in this short thesis, therefore I will focus primarily on two major concepts of objects as proposed in OOO. Firstly, all objects must be given equal attention, whether they be human, non-human, natural, cultural, real or fictional. Secondly, objects are not identical with their properties, but have a tense relationship with those properties, and this very tension is responsible for all of the change that occurs in the world (Harman 2018, 9).
Amongst the many technicalities that encompass the ontology of objects within OOO, a central principal states that objects are simply those things which cannot be reduced into its smaller pieces of which it is made or the effect that it has on other objects.
“In OOO, by contrast, ‘object’ simply means anything that cannot be reduced either downward or upward, which means anything that has a surplus beyond its constituent pieces and beneath its sum total of effects on the world” (Harman 2018, 51).
This is an important declaration for if not for this principle, an argument might be made for the reality of performance to exist only within its constituent parts, however low the reduction may go, whether it be the carpet as the reality of performance or in the millions of microfibers that make up the carpet. To do this would be to descend into what Sam Coleman terms smallism. This theory asserts itself as if the real elements in any situation were the tiniest components to which everything can be broken down (30). OOO takes the stand that objects can be infinitely digressed downward but the reality of an object is not overwhelmed by this infinite digression. On that same note, the object is also less than it’s relation to the world, or as Harman controversially states, the relationships objects have with each other.
To quote Bryant “there is only one type of being: objects” (2011, 20). This is perhaps the simplest way to ease into object-oriented philosophies. What Bryant states is whether objects be large or microscopic, from the smallest molecule to the largest event, objects encompass anything that is, fact and fiction alike; there is only one type of beings and they are objects. When we generally think of objects we would be inclined to immediately associate them with rock-hard, whole, non-malleable ‘things’. “In everyday language the word ‘object’ often has the connotations of something physical, solid, durable, inhuman or utterly inanimate.”(Harman 2018, 51). However when we use the word ‘object’ in OOO, or even in speaking on Speculative Realism to a large extent, the word object is encompassed in an unusually wide sense. Objects can be the whole, durable entity we easily recognize, but they are by no means the only sort of object found in our world. They can also be events, insects, atoms, catastrophise, piles of things, performances etc. Even though ‘object’ suggests a rock-hard, durable, inanimate entity, “it is evidently too narrow a concept to include all of the transient fluxes and flows as well as the short-lived insects, sunrises and chance collisions that give life so much of its value”(43). If objects were to be reduced to just their conventional meaning that would ignore the possibility of recognizing that there is more to the objects we encounter than we could ever access. It is just as important to add the performance as a whole to this list to solidify that events-in-themselves are objects consisting of many pieces, as all objects are. “More generally, for OOO every real event is also a real object. It hardly matters that every event has a large number of ingredients, since the same holds for objects as well” (Harman 2018, 52).
Unlike the sciences which privileges the physical, non-fictional world, philosophy on the other hand does not discriminate against non-conventional or non-fictional objects. Philosophy must deal with every type of object rather than reducing all objects to one privileged type: “zebras, leprechauns and armies are just as worth of philosophical discussion as atoms and brains” (Harman 2012, 4).
What Harman does in list seemingly unrelated ‘objects’ in the same breath, such as zebras, leprechauns, armies, atoms and brains is it discredits any preconceived hierarchy we may gift to some objects above others. I shall do the same for the objects of STAGING SOLO #2, this includes but is not exclusive to: body, garment, soundscape, visitors, performance, lighting, choreography, carpet, architectural.
Now that we have established that objects can be many different things but remain equally identifiable as objects, we can now establish an integral part of this thesis and of OOO, the flat ontology utilised in both the former and latter. Already previously referred to briefly in Harman’s statement that “all objects must be given equal attention, whether they be human, non-human, natural, cultural, real or fictional”, flat ontology refers to a worldview in which all these objects are treated without hierarchy or bias. “OOO uses the term ‘flat ontology’ in referring to an ontology that initially treats all objects in the same way rather than assuming in advance that different types of objects require completely different ontologies” (Harman 2018, 54). This is a philosophical stance unique to realism and has only recently been revisited through Speculative Realism. Contradictory to flat ontology is the privileging towards humans and human consciousness, most notably held in anti-realism. This is a worldview that persist in many philosophical lines of thought: “note that modern philosophy (from Descartes in the 1600’s through to [Alain] Badiou and [Slavoj] Zizek today) is emphatically not flat, since it assumes a strict division between human thought on one side and everything else on the other” (54). While this flat ontological world view may seem like it is devaluing the human, it is in fact not, nor does it elevate non-human objects. Essentially it gives equal footing to both human and non-human objects allowing us to put our prejudices, (particularly for human) aside to see what can be of value on the other side of consciousness.
“We might well have biases that make us think that philosophy is obliged only to deal with natural objects but not artificial ones, which we might dismiss as unreal. In this case as in any others, an initial commitment to flat ontology is a useful way of ensuring that we do not cave in to our personal prejudices about what is or is not real” (Harman 2018, 55)
I believe this to be an essential position to take if one is going to consider the objects of performance which has overwhelmingly radically favoured the performing body as it’s cynosure. As stated at the start of this chapter, this has been appropriate theorisation, however perhaps not ideal in speaking of very current contemporary practices which encompass so much more than the body such as STAGING SOLO #2. In order to consider an alternative perspective on the potential value of performance our attention needs to be shifted, or at the very least equalised towards all objects a performance may employ.
Maria Hassabi’s STAGING SOLO #2 is likely amongst the most prevalent of contemporary performance practices that reconsiders the ontology and use of the body in performance. In fact, Hassabi refers to this work as less of a performance and more of a ‘live installation’. While a performance would automatically evoke the body in theory, referring to such a work as an installation (a term which has obvious connotations to a work inhabiting it’s architecture) subtly averts attention from the body and toward the event and each object as a whole. In this way the work naturally embodies a flat ontology which would not so easily be achieved within an austere performance art context.
Since the first history of performance was published in 1979 the dominant theme has continually centred on the body. This continued into the 90’s with one of the most influential texts regarding performance, Unmarked by Peggy Phelan originally published in 1993. Key ontological claims are made within this text that many performance artists and writers still cite to this day, notably “performance’s only life is in the present” (146). However, besides time based, ephemeral claims made within this text that frame the supposed absolute qualities of performance it also states the body as it’s central feature: “performance implicated the real through the presence of living bodies” (Phelan 1993, 148). It is the body again and again that is cited as the site for value and meaning-making:
“Performance uses the performers’ body to pose a question about the inability to secure the relation between subjectivity and the body per se; the performance uses the body to frame the lack of Being promised by and through the body – that which cannot appear without supplement” (Phelan 1993, 151)
The performing body within STAGING SOLO #2 is somewhat undoubtably the centre of visitors attention. With that said, the expansive lurid pink carpet one encounters upon entering along with the ambient crackling soundscape that washes over you while stepping into the space is a site of spectacle and subtle awe until the comparatively petit languorous figure is spotted; after which it takes primary attention. In an initially spectacular, vast space the work very quickly slows down your expectations for entertainment through the slowness of the body. Here I’d like to note that flat ontology does not stand for an absolute flatness, but more sensibly an initial flatness as to be able to consider all the different possibilities each individual object may offer, however flat ontology does not have to be retained indefinitely. So while the individual priorities and interests of a work begin to emerge for a viewer, privileging one object over another, it is valuable to initially consider a flat ontology to remove prevalent initial human bias.
Furthermore, the body shifts (rather than moves) slowly but surely at a calculated pace in a colourful patterned garment. In turn this creates an amorphous bodily image in which the initial image begins to shift. As the body’s apparent still form sits against its aerial pink background we are presented with a long series of images. In Hassabis’s own words” if you hold an image for a long time, your initial understanding of it begins to crack” (Thorne, 2018). The carpet and soundscape in this case fall into a space of experience that is tool-like, i.e. the carpet acts as a background and audio acts as a consistent reminder to focus: “Heidegger shows …when a tool is most a tool, it recedes into a reliable background of subterranean machinery.” (Harman 2010, 6). Even when we have shaped things into tools, and thereby constructed them to serve our own purposes, such as this particular carpet, they still have independent lives or their own. That is to say, tools (like things in general) are what Bruno Latour calls actants - just as we ourselves are (Latour 1988, 159).
What Hassabi manages to achieve here is a situation in which each aspect of the work has the potential to be equally appreciated, carpet and body alike, shifting the burden of the gaze from one object to another throughout the run of the work. Moreover, this work is a long ways away from it’s performance art roots, dating back to body art which often pushed the body to its limits through endurance and duration. This work encompasses neither of these aspects. The duration of the work is notably defined by the opening hours of the venue. In terms of endurance, while the choreography is challenging and particular, it is performed in two hour cycles, after which another performer will come out and repeat the choreography and so on and so on. STAGING SOLO #2 may be pushing the ontologies of performance forward and reconsidering the use and/or status of the body in performance but for many, if a work encompasses a live body it’s enough to be constituted as performance art in the traditional sense. I believe STAGING SOLO #2 to be representative of a contemporary era of expanded performance which is often influenced by contemporary dance, theatre, sound art and visual arts.
There are many reasons why the body has historically been the driving force to the investigation of performance art and philosophy, one of the reasons simply being that we have a particular interest in ourselves. It is hardly surprising that since the overwhelming majority of our industries, products, education, and services are tailor built for the human and the human body that our attention is rarely not on ourselves. More importantly, it would be naïve to disregard the effervescence the body oozes no matter the situation or performance. The body contains a presence nearly unrivalled by any other object and its ability to sustain attention is once again, unrivalled. “Admittedly, the human being is not the same kind of entity as a stone. Human beings partly transcend the entities that surround them, while the rock is merely the oblivious punching bag of the forces that mass against it” (Harman 2010, 7).
However, this is the kind of hierarchical privileging that enabling a flat ontology allows us to challenge, both within philosophy and within performance art theory, “it is true that humans are remarkable species of living creature…and even though we as a species are obviously of special interest to ourselves, do not automatically make human beings worthy of filling up fifty per cent of ontology” (Harman 2018, 56). I believe it to be valuable to explore the depth of objects, including the body (but not exclusively), to ensure we are not missing rich aspects that can inform our reading of a work. The objects and materials used by performance artists, (or any artists who utilise the body in a live setting) are often just as specific and integral to the meaning-making process of a work as it would be to a painter or sculptor. This may provoke concepts such as Clement Greenberg’s medium specificity, a concept that may be useful in understanding the decisions live artists make in relation to their materials and objects above being mere ‘props’. For example, the specificity of the carpet, it’s soft comfortable texture along with it’s pink assertion are not incidental. In furthering this example the pink colour was chosen as it was a colour least associated with nature (as green would be) or the gallery space (as white would be), and therefore minimising the preconceived notions one may have encountering the work.
The objects of STAGING SOLO#2 are many, as listed earlier, however for sake of depth the objects of analysis shall from now on remain threefold; the expansive carpet, the body and the ambient soundscape. Now that we have established that both the physical carpet and digital soundscapes can be considered equal objects of performance along with the body, we can dig deeper into the analysis of what these objects are and can mean for performance.
Each selected object of STAGING SOLO #2 exist as distinct separate entities, each reflecting the particular frameworks of their personal presentations. There is a distinction between each object all the while maintaining united front as the work in question. Instead of viewing the work as a gestalt I am here to analyse the reality, and unknowable reality of each fragment in this ensemble that STAGING SOLO #2 consists of. “It follows that every non-human object can also be called an ‘I’ in the sense of having a definite inwardness that can never be fully grasped” (Harman 2018, 70). OOO is particularly helpful in establishing autonomy within components that are stubbornly seen as a whole. The possibility of deconstructing this gestalt object relies on previously stated theories on the definition of the object and maintaining a flat ontology.
“OOO defends the idea that objects – whether real, fictional, natural, artificial, human or non-human – are mutually autonomous and enter into relation only in special cases that need to be explored rather than assumed...Against the assumption of common sense, objects cannot make direct contact with each other, but require a third term or mediator for such contact to occur. ” (Harman 2018, 12).
The ascertain that objects cannot make direct access with each other, for me only further solidifies their autonomy as individual objects that are not simply reduced to their relation to one another. While it is clear that all these threefold objects are part of a whole, it is worth noting that each object was most likely created with the intention of being an actor in a larger network, to use Bruno Latour’s terminology. It is for this reasons I believe the most appropriate term for these threefold objects to be fragment-objects.
“We get a variety of nonhuman actors unleashed in the world as autonomous actors in their own right, irreducible to representations and freed from any constant reference to the human where they are reduced to our representations.” (Bryant 2011, 23)
The term fragments does not only state that an object comes directly from an initial, first-object (i.e. STAGING SOLO #2) but that it has been separated from this first-object. The separation of each object from it’s first-object comes partly from the proclamation of autonomy on these objects and partly from the inevitable deeper life of each object. The term fragment immediately indicates it’s previous placement, current displacement and its newly autonomous existence apart from its original first-object. Fragments however always begin as part of a first-object and can only become fragments as second-objects (i.e. it’s second status of being). Since the fragments (carpet, body and soundscape) of STAGING SOLO #2 can be both recognized as part of STAGING SOLO #2, while still being fully independent objects which cannot be reduced to their particles or their relations to others I assert this term fragment-objects as being most suitable to describe this status of being. “I argue that it is necessary to staunchly defend the autonomy of objects or substances refusing any reduction of objects to their relations, whether these relations be relations to humans or other objects” (Bryant 2011, 26). This concept of being fully autonomous yet fully fragmented (associated to a first-object) is not an entirely new concept. A plurality of states appears initially paradoxical however there are many things that have been said to have a simultaneous plurality. The most famous example of this being the claim of Christ on earth, a claim to being fully human and fully divine. I believe the paradox of fragment-objects can develop to any objects, no matter their complexity.
“Object-oriented thought holds that objects exist at numerous different scales including the electron, the molecule… and the galaxy. The mere fact of complexity and largeness does not make something less real than its component parts” (Harman 2018, 40).
In the same way that I am stating that fragment-objects emerge from whole things, the same can be said of objects emerging from smaller constituent parts. This is an alternative view of the threefold objects of STAGING SOLO #2. Instead of perceiving the carpet, body and sound as fragments coming out of the work, the work can be seen as to emerge from these individual objects. I prefer the fragment-object approach as this most closely relates to visitors experience of the work. Instead of working backwards to imagine the work as it is pieced together, retracting the objects autonomy out of an already established whole is a more direct, relevant train of thought.
It is most commonly construed that the larger the objects the more individual fragments it is made of. While I can easily grasp the individual reality of a hammer, it is more difficult to conceive of the individual reality of an army. With that said, it is probably not possible to know just how many objects or relations make up an object, even if it is perceived to be a manmade compilation. “No one knows how many people are simultaneously at work in any given individual; conversely, no one knows how much individuality there can be in a cloud of statistical data points” (Latour 2010, 54). Just as I can conceive of the performing body within STAGING SOLO #2 as an autonomous actor in a wider network, it is more difficult to consider the sum of the work of STAGING SOLO #2 with all it’s moving parts.
“ One could argue these larger objects ultimately receive all of their properties from those of their components; after all without these small components the larger objects could never exist.. What this misses is the phenomenon known as emergence, in which new propertied appear when small objects are joined together into a new one” (Harman 2018, 30).
What emergence allows for is new possibilities and new potential that can make up the valuable qualities of an object that the autonomous objects would not have otherwise has. While the pink carpet in Hassabi’s work is an autonomous object, the quality and potential meaning of the work as a whole could not be brought up if not for the relations the carpet has with the performing body and soundscape. “Larger entities actually possess emergent qualities not found in its components” (31). With that said, I am not arguing that the work in question is merely the sum of its objects. As stated, there are emergent properties that could not have otherwise existed. Objects are vast and complicated and cannot be contained to any one explanation.
“Objects are varied and include entities as diverse as mind, language, cultural and social entities, and objects independent of humans such as galaxies, stones, quarks, tardigrades and so on. Above all, ontological realisms refuse to treat objects as constructions of humans” (Bryant 2011, 18).
Objects can, like the work in question be compiled of both animate and inanimate objects. However they can also be complied of more complex objects such as natures, and cultures. Rather than thinking of being in terms of two incommensurable worlds, nature and culture, we can instead get various collectives of objects (23).
Moreover, the democracy of a work such as STAGING SOLO #2 comes from its treatment of these overall objects and visitor freedom. Firstly, the work is democratic as it allows for visitors to come and go as they please without any expectation on their part. This cannot be said for theatre in which you are assigned a point of view and are expected to remain for the duration of the show. Hassabi has referred to theatre as a ‘dictatorship’ on more than one occasion. Secondly, and importantly, while it could be argued that performance art relies on audience presence to exist, Hassabi’s work certainly does not. With or without visitors within the space the work would still exist as it is and relies on no outer presence. It is, to quote Bryant, “unshackled from the gaze of humans”.
“The claim that all objects equally exist is the claim that no object can be treated as constructed by another object. The claim that objects do not exist equally is the claim that objects contribute to collective or assemblages to a greater and lesser degree…[The Democracy of Objects] attempts to think the being of objects unshackled from the gaze of humans in their being for-themselves” (Bryant 2011, 19).
This democratic, self sufficient nature that the objects of performance within STAGING SOLO #2 has is crucial in the carpet, the body and soundscape maintaining an autonomous identity.
Now that we have established that objects encompass many different things, that all these things lie equally within a flat ontology and most importantly that things have an autonomous democratic existence, we can begin to try to get at what these threefold objects are beyond our perception.
Ultimately there are only two ways we as humans have to get to what an object is. Generally we will speak of the object’s purpose, or the object’s materials. “Ultimately there are just two ways of telling somebody what a thing is: you can tell them what it is made of, or tell them what it does” (Harman 2018, 43). There are a few problems with these approaches. As previously established, an object cannot be reduced to what it’s sum total parts art, seeing as objects can be infinitely regressed downward. Secondly, again objects are less than their practical uses or relations. The third problem with this approach is that it relies heavily on our access to the object. While we may have a fraction of an objects reality, we are still privy to enough information to speak on these objects. “What an object is cannot be reduced to our access to objects…while our access to objects is highly limited, we can still say a great deal about the being of objects”. (Bryant 2011, 18). It is due to this that we can even engage with objects at all.
A productive text that illustrates the deeper life of objects and can assist in my getting to the reality of these threefold objects is Graham Harman’s The Third Table, a text he wrote for dOCUMENTA (13). Essentially this short texts attempts to get at the reality of a table, he argues the following:
“The scientist reduces the table downward to tiny particles invisible to the eye; the humanist reduced upward to a series of effects on people and other things… the real table is in fact a third table lying between these two others” (Harman 2012, 6)
This simple yet provocative illustration points to the reality of objects being more than what we could ever access. The same can be said of STAGING SOLO #2’s threefold objects. The vivid pink striped directional carpet reaches out to each far-off corner of the room. Our access to it allows for a soft, lush, comfortably grounded experience. It makes for a notable experience as so often does one notice or even enjoy a carpet. The soundscape is ambient, equally dispersed throughout the space, with various subtle soundwaves whose vibrations are absorbed by the plush carpet. The body on the other hand we have a more intimate knowledge of. It’s components, organs and limbs are not foreign to us, we have a unique understanding of bodies that we perhaps do not have with non-human matter and therefore portray it as ‘other’. As the body sits in it’s various transitional poses we are reminded to slow down and engage with the series of images allowing for an intimate trade of time within the ambient soundscape.
While these descriptions illustrate the structure and effects of these autonomous, equally compelling objects, there is still deeper to go. However, this is as far as I can go in engaging with the work formally. The Third Table in Harman’s text is the true table. The third side of any object is the object most hidden from us yet it contains the most reality.
“Our table emerges as something distinct from its own components and also withdraws behind all external effects. Our table is an intermediate being found neither in subatomic physics nor in human psychology, but in permanent autonomous zone where objects are simply themselves.” (Harman 2012,10).
This statement of objects being simply themselves is relevant. If there was anything more than this these objects would not be autonomous, just as we are simply ourselves our ontology is not based upon our relationship to other objects, “the table has an autonomous reality over and above its casual components, just as individual humans cannot be dissolved back into their parents” (Harman 2012, 8).
Now while establishing the fragmented-autonomy of performance art objects was the main objective of this essay there is also something to be said about art objects, particularly within performance art and their access to us. While we cannot ever fully know an object “the primary role of art is not to communicate knowledge about its subject matter” (44). While this might be the case, having a thorough understanding of a work such as STAGING SOLO #2’s subject matter can assist us in a deeper engagement with objects perhaps previously disregarded, enriching the possibility of meaning within performance art.
“Neither institution nor individual can restore life to an object that never had it” (Powell 2012, 17).
Recognizing the autonomous objects within performance work such as STAGING SOLO #2 does not mean that these objects remain passive objects. In the acknowledgement of their individuality we can now begin to establishing their performing ability. In contrast to the general worldview in which the objects of performance are prop-like-tools in aid of the cynosure that is the performing body, I propose that objects perform inside exhibition contexts, as well as outside. The threefold objects of Hassabi’s work i.e. the performing body, the expansive vivid pink carpet and the intense ambient soundscape, do not lie inanimately as the body performers, but rather performs in step with the body. “There is only one type of being: objects. As a consequence humans are not excluded, but are rather objects among the various types of objects that exist populate the world, each with their own specific powers and capacities “ (Bryant 2011, 20). This vibrancy of objects cannot come from context nor artistic intervention, but is innate from within the materials. The most notable champion of liveness within the inanimate is Jane Bennett. Bennett’s writing on, in her own words, ‘vibrant matter’ will form the majority on my argument toward performing objects due to her passion and extensive knowledge on the inanimate.
As previously discussed the body has taken much, if not all of the limelight within evaluating performance. This is partly due to the body being seen as the most active, mobile participant our reading of a performance, assuming that upon the body and its gesture is where the meat of the work lies. “The artist [is] seen as the fount of all meaning (a residue of Romanticism that is lodged deep in most of us)” (Foster 2015, 134). Putting aside art for a second, the majority of people, particularly in Western culture would never consider acknowledging the world of the inanimate that surrounds us. To most, humans are the only source of liveliness.
We cannot escape the pervasive sense, endemic to Western culture, that we are alone in our aliveness, trapped in a world of dead, or merely passive, matter. Our own machines,[Gwyneth] Jones writes, “promised, but they could not perform. They remained things, and people remained lonely” (Shaviro 2014, 2).
In the same way that I make the case for the objects of performance, noticing them as typically passed off as incidental while they in fact most often than not harbour rich potential for value within performance work, so Bennett makes the case for all nonhuman things. While her theories on vibrant materialism are filtered toward the political ecology of things, her initial assertion on the vibrancy of the nonhuman is what aligns me to her philosophy.
“I will emphasize, even overemphasize, the agentic contributions of nonhuman forces (operating in nature, in human body and human artefacts) in an attempt to counter the narcissistic reflex of human language and thought. We need to cultivate a bit of anthropomorphism – the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature – to counter the narcissism of human in charge of the world” ( Bennett 2010, xvi).
Revisiting the concept of flat ontology in which objects and humans are considered on equal footing, the same ontology is relevant within Bennet’s work. Bennett goes as far as to call the human dominance on our attention “narcissistic”. I would not go as far as to say that. I believe humans have rightfully been the source of our wonder, however much can be gained from shifting our attention and awakening to the idea that “vitality is shared by all things” (89) and not limited to ourselves alone. Apart from this reason, and others previously mentioned, Shaviro suggests a lack of acknowledgment of active objects may also come from a place of insecurity or blatant fear. It is almost as if it would somehow be threatening to us for objects to shift their category in our perception from passive to engaged alongside us. “We cannot bear the thought of their [objects] having an autonomous life, even if this life is ultimately attributable to us. We are desperate to reassure ourselves that, in spite of everything, objects are, after all, passive and inert” (Shaviro 2014, 3). If we can bear to put these preconceived notions and norms of behaviour towards objects to aside long enough for us to recognise what objects can mean for us apart from mere tools we can get closer to the reality around us.
When I speak of ‘performing’ art objects I am referring to those objects within an exhibition context which do. “By “vitality” I mean the capacity of things – edibles, commodities, storms, metals – not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.” (Bennett 2010, viii). It is these objects which in the absence of the framework of the work would crumble. Again this can also be said for non-art objects. Art objects and non-art objects alike both contain a degree of vitality. While one would assume this would be an assumed opportunity within the exhibition context in where there is nothing but objects, once again the objects fall flat against the admiration placed on the body. This vibrant matter breakthrough made by Bennett was initially summoned upon witnessing an assemblage of non-associated items on the side of the street, containing, among other things, a glove, pollen, a rat, a cap and a stick.
“Glove, pollen rat, cap stick. As I encountered these items they shimmied back and forth between debris and thing – between, on the one hand, stuff to ignore, except insofar as it betokened human activity (the littered toss) and on the other hand, stuff that commanded attention in its own right, as existence in excess of their association with human meanings, habits, or projects” (Bennet 2010, 4).
Discarded, used, dead items would not generally be the site of excitement or interest however it was the sheer vibrancy of these objects that bounced to her attention. These objects were nothing but what they were, purely what they were. They were not a symbol of wealth, nor any longer practical in any way. The reality of each object of it’s own accord became strikingly clear. Bennet continues:
But they were all there just as they were, and so I caught a glimpse of an energetic vitality inside each of these things, things that I generally conceived as inert. In this assemblage, objects appeared as things, that is, as vivid entities not entirely reducible to the context in which (human) subjects set them, never entirely exhausted by their semiotics” (Bennett 2010, 5)
A breakthrough such as this in which one sees the mundane with a fresh eyes is worth sharing, as Bennett did in Vibrant Matter. It is crucial that breakthroughs such as these are continually shared to increase our awareness of the seemingly dormant energy around us. The threefold objects of STAGING SOLO #2 broke through my run-of-the-mill perceptions of performance in a similar way as it did to Bennett. It is almost difficult to believe that man-made objects such as the plush, pink carpet would have a deeper existence than a mere pink carpet visitors viewed as a backdrop to the performing body. A term used frequently by Bennett is what she calls ‘thing-power’ and it alerts us to the power of the inanimate. “The concept of thing-power offers an alternative to the object as a way of encountering the nonhuman world” (Bennett 2010, xvii). The power of the carpet’s immensity first and foremost evoked the initial state of spectacle previously mentioned. It’s exaggerated soft texture provided a level of comfort one would not expect from a generally passive floor covering material. This level of comfort grounded the performance and it’s audience, allowing everything to be willingly pulled down. This is a brief description of just one of the objects of STAGING SOLO #S which has the capacity to act and alter the perception of the work. The carpets ability to evoke more than what one would expect from a carpet elevated it’s status from floor covering material to active participant in the experience of performance. “Thing-power gestures toward the strange ability of ordinary, man-made items to exceed their status as objects and to manifest traces of independence or aliveness, constituting the outside of our experience. “ (Bennett 2010, xvi). The object awareness that Bennett wakens us to alters perceptions and treatment of previously considered incidental items.
A personal favourite symptom of recognising thing power is the childlike wonder it offers in our view of the world. A view most of us have long left behind.
“Thing-power perhaps has the rhetorical advantage of calling to mind a childhood sense of the world as filled with all sorts of animate beings, some human, some not, some organic, some not. It draws attention to an efficacy of objects in excess of the human meanings, designs, or purposes het express or serve” (Bennett 2010, 20).
When speaking on the vibrancy of objects we cannot escape the initial visual impression it has upon us. The aesthetics of objects contribute hugely to an object’s thing-power and should not be underestimated. Aesthetics are great because they, even for a moment, takes us out of the state of thought which considers an object’s practicality or understanding of it. It allows for a somewhat abstract image to assert itself as physical before our relation to the object’s use to us: “aesthetics involves feeling an object for its own sake, beyond those aspects of it that can be understood or used” (Shaviro 2014, 4). The performing body of STAGING SOLO #2 wore a brightly patterned garment. This multi-pattered outfit skilfully confused the limbs and placement of the body within it’s various shifting poses to the viewer, even for a second creating not a bodily figure, but an amorphous aesthetic image we could choose to try to decipher or accept as it. It is the initial image of an object, be it pleasing or not which performs most. It is the first-second state of wonder that allures us to what objects have to offer. The dazzlement of things bursting forth (performing) is what Harman calls allure: “the sense of an object’s existence apart from, and over and above, its own qualities” (Harman 2005, 142-144). A visually subtly yet startling image such as this harlequined body allures us to its form and its being following our initial aesthetic experience with it. The object of the body performs in this was as to garner our attention, to lure us in to an unknown end. “A lure is anything that, in some way, works to capture my attention. It may entice me, or seduce me, or tempt me, or compel me, or even bludgeon and bully me” (Shaviro 2014, 8). For Harman, allure is therefore “the engine of change within the world” (2005, 179). It is this lure that objects utilise to perform themselves, it is a quality that does not come from external influence but rather from the ‘I’ that is the object. This is a concept that relies more on subjective experience rather than logical progression and therefore more delicate to discuss.
“I always feel more of a thing than I actually know of it; and I feel it otherwise than I know it. To the extent that I do know an object, I am able to put it to use, to enumerate its qualities, to break it down into its constituent parts, and to trace the causes that have determined it. But feeling an object involves something else as well. I feel a thing when it affects me, or changes me. And what thus affects me is not just certain qualities of the thing, but its total and irreducible existence” (Shaviro 2014, 9).
Actor Network Theory
As objects perform in all kinds of networks and larger objects, they can be considered what Bruno Latour refers to as ‘actants’. Bennett importantly utilises this influential concept as a more vibrant way to speak of objects: “I have been relying to raise the volume on the vitality of materiality per se, pursuing this task so far by focusing on nonhuman bodies, by that is, depicting them as actants rather than as objects” (Bennet 2010, 10).
The term actant refers to a source of action that can be either human or nonhuman. It is that which has the ability to produce an intended result. It is that which can do things. “An actant is neither an object nor a subject but an “intervener” (Latour 1999, 75). Actants has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, alter the course of events. It is “any entity that modifies another entity in a trial” something whose “competence is deduced from [its] performance” rather than posited in advance of the action” (viii). In arguing for a lively, interventional autonomous fragment-object I must also acknowledge that there is a particular synthesis that occurs among objects, or actants. Latour importantly identifies that many objects, (I continue objects in the broad OOO sense) are combined of both human and nonhuman, the natural and artificial. “All humans and non-human actors try to form links with other actors in order to become a stronger or more persuasive. This approach is known as actor-network-theory (ANT) “ (Harman 2018, 57). It is necessary for all objects, human and not-so-human alike to acknowledge each other in the persuasive power that can be brought out of their relations. Our reliance on the nonhuman is absolutely essential to our standard of living which is highlighted within the acknowledgements of ANT. “ANT has taught us a great deal about how human society would be stranded at baboon level if not for the stabilizing work performed by inanimate objects such as roads, contracts, buildings, wedding rings and fingerprinting techniques” (Harman 2018, 106).
ANT’s highlighting of the hybrid networks that emerge from actant relationships develops my argument for the performing power of objects within the art context. We are waltzing with objects, engaging with them through a particular curated set of relations. The bodies relationship to these vibrant and performing objects means that we must mutually realise the limitations of the other, furthering the democracy of objects. In the same way that the reality of a carpet can perform it’s purpose as a floor veiling material, it cannot be expected to illuminate the room. We must respect and work with individuals object’s ability and inabilities to act in order to reap the fruits of their value. This very availability of our tools gives them a strange autonomy and vitality. “We find that we cannot just use them. We must learn to work with them, rather than against them. We have to accommodate their nature, and their needs, as well as our own” (Shaviro 2014, 4). Due to this intimate exchange that is shared amongst larger objects such as STAGING SOLO #2 we cannot deny that this considering of our presence and relationship to the nonhuman encompasses that very relationship as its primary question. “The question of objects becomes the question of a particular relation between humans and objects” (Bryant 2011, 16).
Human and non-human objects develop unique and particular relationships. It is worth exploring however how these threefold objects of STAGING SOLO #2 perform to each other and apart from each other. I shall regurgitate the point that each object has properties that in relation to other objects the larger objects would not have otherwise had. This means that every object is essential and restructures the existing performance with it’s presence or absence. “Each member possess autonomous emergent properties which are this capable of independent variation and therefore of being out of phase with one another in time” (Bennett 2010, 35).
Luckily we do not have to presume or imagine what STAGING SOLO #2 would be without all its encompassing fragments. STAGING – undressed is an adaptation of STAGING SOLO #2 that is designated toward public spaces. This particular iteration is represented solely by it’s performers. Essentially what STAGING – undressed does is it strips away it’s objects: the iconic carpet, ambient audio, lightening ques and most importantly it’s sterile exhibition environment. This work considers the work as a undressed, as a fragmented version of this completed work STAGING SOLO #2. What we learn from this iteration is that the performance of objects as art does not rely on its exhibition context, it’s lighting nor it’s iconic carpeting. The objects, in this case the performing body, can stand autonomously, and perform as its performance does not come from external factors but from the inner ‘I’ that is each performing art object. The soundscape in the same sense could be undressed from its relational aspects and perform as it does due it’s performing abilities sourced within its vibrant objecthood as opposed to its context.
It is the impressionable force, the thing-power that allows for these threefold objects within the work in question to perform alongside the body in a flat ontology in which all aspects can be equally persuasive in their meaning-making abilities. Recognizing the vibrancy of matter, similarly to how Bennett has allowed for a richer experience of being in the world, and of experiencing live performative works, just as the world is live. “Every-thing is entelechies, life-ly, vitalistic” (Bennett 2010, 89).
“An empty museum or gallery means nothing” (Buren 1975).
In lieu of a formal conclusion I shall use this third and final chapter as a stopping place where to consider where the now established autonomous performing fragment-objects may lie in terms of their status. The status of the art object has been heavily contested since at least postmodernist practice in the 1970’s with the raise of conceptual art practices. Conceptual practices, along with performance practice challenged the status of the art object by attempting to decommodify it. Performance, notably, did this by creating work that was ephemeral, leaving no trace or physicality that could be bought or sold. While this was a central pioneering principle of performance during these transformative years, the practice of performance has evolved and expanded as all practices inevitably do. Any standard a medium sets up for itself will inevitably collapse with time.
Performance has, particularly in contemporary practices, embraced the protentional cyclical nature of work, utilising this. These particular works can therefore can be reproduced, and this in return has begun to embrace objects alongside the body in the meaning of the work. It is treatment these objects that I have contested and brought to the fore throughout this thesis. What I would like to do now is ponder on what these now established autonomous performing objects could be. Could the carpet, performing body and soundscape be considered as art-objects in the traditional sense, if they are truly autonomous? Will they ever have a possibility of a life as an artwork outside its relation to STAGING SOLO #2 as a whole? Is it sufficient to label them as mere props? Is being considered as artefacts the best we can expect of these fragments? How do these objects rank against traditional art-objects? I don’t think there are any clear cut answers here however there are a few areas related to this I’d like to explore.
Maria Hassabi’s STAGING SOLO #2 was described as an “organic form, one that acclimatizes to its host body and extends into its crevices, architectural and otherwise” (Thorne, 2018). If this is the case for the work in question, if it’s structure is built into the architecture, what comes of the objects once it comes down? On a surface level it is easy to assume the fragments of a work “only become works of art again when they are put together for display” (Weiss 2013). This would suggest that once the carpet is rolled up and put into storage, or when the colourful garment is hung up and the audio file playing the ambient sounds is turned off that these objects cease to have a relation to art. This type of art which is seen to be purely based on context often reaches similar conclusions. “A work taking into consideration the place in which it is shown/ exhibited cannot be moved elsewhere and will have to disappear at the end of its exhibition” (Buren 1975, 223). Here what Daniel Buren is suggesting is that there is no status of the work upon deinstallation, the work, it’s very ontology is stripped as the work’s anatomy is deconstructed. This is not that stance that I take on the status of a work that is intimately part of its host architecture. No matter how hybrid the work and the space become, the installation is an object, made of component objects. These objects, as we have already established are autonomous and therefore life does not cease for them. Furthermore, we have already stated that these objects which perform actively do so inherently not due to any external influences.
“[Robert] Sullivan reminds us that a vital maternity can never really be thrown “away” for it continues its activities even as a discarded or unwanted commodity. For Sullivan that day, as for me on that June morning, thing-power rose from a pile of trash… the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle. (Bennet 2010, 6).
I find this to be sufficient to state that objects of performance once deinstalled do not cease performing, however their status as art objects remains questionable.
To really get at this question we need to state what the purpose of pondering the status of the art object might do. Jeffery Weiss asks the same question: “What does it mean to speak of the “status of the art object” in art? The phrase has generally been deployed in discussions around the unfixed material identity of the aesthetic object in the postmodern era” (2013). While we can establish with some confidence that the threefold objects of the performance work are autonomous this does not enable them to automatically have a secure material identity. To pose this question upon objects which has previously been disregarded as mere props at best and unacknowledged at worst is to a concede that the identity of these objects be in crisis. This crisis comes from the flux of variable objects used in performance with insufficient theory to support claims. When we speak of the status of the art object in this way “it is meant to signal, among other things, the end of material specificity, which has given way in artistic practice to a mobile, variable, or indeterminate relation between the terms of a work and its material means” (Weiss 2013). As previously established, performance, like most visual practices, do not uphold standards of practice for very long (either intentionally or unintentionally) without challenging or questioning the lines drawn. The objects of performance are many and each has a plurality of possibilities at stake. “The work’s very constitution: it is no longer understood necessarily to take only one form” (Weiss 2013). The identity, and therefore the status of fragment-objects is in flux.
Continuing on the point that objects more often than not gain meaning and status due to its position within their exhibition context; if performance art objects are presented within the gallery surely this would grant our threefold objects art-object status.
“The expectation for artworks to gain meaning thanks to context – a pivotal contemporary art concept and one revised countless times, particularly since the 1960’s – originates for some in Marcel Duchamp’s invention of the readymade, about a century ago. When Duchamp kidnapped ordinary objects (a bicycle wheel, bottle rack) and forced them to perform as art in the gallery, viewers could approach these unconventional sculptures only when supplies with a special nuggets of information: that readymades qualify as art because they express a radical artistic gesture, not because they are finely wrought feats of craftmanship” (Williams 2014, 24).
While this is perhaps a generic example, it highlights a compelling point. Note that Gilda Williams affirms that it is only after one takes an object and places it into a gallery space that the objects “performs as art”. There is a distinction to be made here between the objects of performance which perform inherently and in which they perform as art. The art institution has long framed and legitimized the art object and thus defines what art is. In speaking of the art-wielding power of the gallery space Buren in his opinion piece A bit of Bread comments on this very phenomenon:
“Placing/exhibition a work of art in a bakers will in no way change the function of the baker’s, which will never change the work of art into a bit of bread either, but the latter will change the bit of bread into a work of art, at least for the duration of its exhibition” (Buren 1975).
Art, in this case does not and cannot function outside the institution but only within it. This would ultimately mean that once an object is carried out of an exhibition space it ceases to be art. This is problematic for Hassabi’s practice who often does renditions of her choreographic material outside of the gallery space in the previously discussed Undressed works. I believe it would be difficult to come across someone who didn’t agree that the performing body still retained some art status even upon leaving the gallery. Luckily, even within the confines of the exhibition space, art does not necessarily always comply with this line of thinking:
“Art in general refuses to be implied a priori and so pretends to ignore or reject the draconian role imposed by the museum (the gallery) a role both cultural and architectural. To reveal this limit (this role), the object presented and its place must dialectically imply one another” (Buren 1975).
With this democracy that Buren grants art objects we can consider that art may not have only two ranks: art and non-art. What I purpose, and have been nudging to throughout this thesis is the need these objects have for their own category. A category in which the fluxes and incomprehensibility of deep, autonomous performing objects may retain their performing status inside and outside the exhibition context and in future nostalgia. What this new category allows for is a heterogeneous status of fragments as both autonomous products-of-artistic-practice and relics of events gone by.
While the status of these performing fragment-objects may not be as clear as perhaps the body’s status in performance, in considering these various strands of thought about objects and materiality the scope of performance art theory may expand. To repeat, any standard a medium sets up for itself will inevitably collapse with time. This however allows for a more vast, self-aware perception of performance. The materials, objects, sound that live artists use within their work are more often than not anything but incidental and with OOO philosophy and a vibrant matter framework we can begin to more actively engage with every aspect that a performance work such as Maria Hassabi’s STAGING SOLO #2 has to offer.
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