Article by Henry Andersen // Jan. 12, 2015
“Poetry possesses its object without knowing it, philosophy knows its object without possessing it.” – Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas
What spirit possesses the objects in Philippe Parreno’s exhibition ‘Quasi Objects’ at Esther Schipper Gallery, so that they seem to move about of their own volition? Is it the spirit of poetry or that of philosophy that animates and drives them through the gallery? A short essay from 1982 by French philosopher Michel Serres, which provides the exhibition’s title, already begins to make such divisions unclear. While the text is written as a work of philosophy and is intended for such a context, it feels and moves more like poetry does; summoning its ideas via subjectivity and strange evocations rather than laying its elements bare in the form of an argument. My aim here is not to simplify things down to the banal formula philosophy=objective; poetry = subjective (the two have always had more in common than typically acknowledged) but rather to move the discussion into the territory that exists between these two disciplines.
In decidedly poetic fashion, the form of Serres’ essay is an extension of its content – an attempt to theorise a middle path between subjectivity and objectivity. This middle path is found in what the author calls ‘The Quasi-Object’. The most cogent example of this that Serres gives is that of the ball in a game of sport: “The ball isn’t there for the body – the exact contrary is true: the body is the object of the ball; the subject moves around this sun.” The curious power of the quasi-object then is that it redefines the bodies it comes into contact with: the player who holds the ball transforms into a subject (marks herself as momentarily individual amongst the game’s players) and, through the constant act of passing and redefining its subjects, the ball also marks the community of players in the game. A quasi-object can only be understood as such while in motion and the difficulty of describing the theory via static prose is a result of this constant motion and redefinition.
As a term, ‘quasi-object’ has been in Parreno’s interview lexicon for at least a couple of years now but it is with this show that the artist first makes it his thematic focus. Thankfully, the reading Parreno takes of Serres’ theory falls short of becoming an illustration of the concept and instead departs into new territories that are not present in the author’s writing. What Parreno mostly retains is the idea of objects that exist more in relation to one another and to their context, than as discrete and isolatable ‘things’. The solo exhibition consists entirely of previous works by the artist, dating back to 1992’s My Room is a Fishbowl. At first, such a concept seems at odds with the show’s title – because each work has its own separate history and identity – but the great success of Parreno’s exhibition is that it manages to feel completely unlike a retrospective. This is because the artist’s interest here is so much focused on the ensemble relations between the objects in the space rather than their individual artistic ‘aura’. Instead of arranging his works chronologically (the classic model for a retrospective) Parreno instead imagines the pieces as existing on a flattened time plane, each work a contemporary of the others. In transforming from object to ‘quasi-object’, each work momentarily abandons its own identity to enter into the community of the exhibition. Serres insists that “the ‘we’ is not a sum of ‘I”s, but a novelty produced by legacies, concessions, withdrawals, resignations of the ‘I’.”
In one room of the gallery, a player-less piano intones a set of melodies by John Cage from its place atop a light up dance floor. As each note plays, the instrument’s keys pull inward and the floor dims or lights up in sympathy with the pitches. In the adjacent room a cluster of white neon lights flicker on and off percussively and the gallery’s ceiling lights gradually fade in and out. Typical of Parreno’s recent work, the effect here is to ‘script’ the space, to draw the viewer about the gallery through a carrot-and-stick routine of sound and changing lights. The interactions between these elements are tightly scripted but the rules that govern such interactions are never entirely clear or consistent. Just as a particular relationship seems to become apparent (‘ah – the lights stop flickering when the piano hits that high ‘F”) it suddenly changes. Even while everything seems logical and coherent, the direction of influence remains unclear. As Parreno likes to ask of such systems of automation “who is the master and who is the slave?” (or which is the object and which the spirit that possesses it?)
In fact, the majority of the works on show are synchronised by a central computer which, according to some reviews of the exhibition, makes its decisions based on chance procedures and, according to other reviews, is based on the mathematician John Conway’s hyper-deterministic ‘Game of Life’ system. Ultimately, whether Parreno uses one means or the other is largely irrelevant because the intended result – an artificial depiction of natural indeterminacy – is convincingly achieved either way. As if in response to such theoretical nit-picking and pedantry, ten or so brightly coloured fish (the child’s balloons of My Room is a Fishbowl) float slowly and aimlessly through both rooms of the gallery, completely indifferent to the nuances of the computer system in operation. Through their languid movement, the fish seem to sink the space, to upset one’s experience of gravity and to parody the self-seriousness of all that hot, white neon flickering earnestly off in one corner. “Philosophy,” the fish seem to say, “does not possess me.”
‘How Can We Tell the Dancer from the Dance’ at Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin
Who is the master and who is the slave? Or, put differently, who leads the dance and who merely follows it?
To know a dance one has to dance it. In Julia Bryan Wilson’s excellent essay ‘Practicing Trio A’ (from issue 140 of October magazine) the author describes the experience of being an untrained dancer diligently learning the choreography of Yvonne Rainer‘s ‘Trio A’ and the moment of learning where her ‘muscle memory’ took over and she began to feel the sequence of the choreography pulling her along as if she were a puppet. This is to dance a dance to the point of being its object. It reminds us of the fact that a dance is not the bodies of its performers but their movement. A dance is something that travels through a body as the body travels through space.
As suggested by its title, Philippe Parreno’s 2012 installation How Can We Tell the Dancer from the Dance, presented in Berlin at the Schinkel Pavilion, arises from a similar set of concerns as those that Wilson describes. In Schinkel Pavilion, the installation’s centre is a custom-built circular dance floor, through the wood of which we hear the recorded sound of dancers’ feet. The recordings were made in New York in 2012 of dancers performing a selection of works from choreographer Merce Cunningham and the performances have been recorded ‘through the floor’, using a pattern of contact microphones to capture the vibrations of the wood and vinyl floor as it sprung and shuddered under the performer’s feet. Above this floor, a set of speakers in the gallery’s ceiling playback a mixture of sounds from heavy machinery and the dancer’s own breaths. As the invisible dancers pant and step their way through the space, a single, curved gallery wall travels an unhurried circle around the busy floor.
The origin of this installation perhaps gives a good set of clues as to the particular focus of Parreno’s thinking about the project. Originally, the work was developed for the presentation of a survey exhibition of works by Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Merce Cunningham, John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for which Parreno was invited to design the exhibition’s ‘staging’ (what he himself calls its mise en scene). While Duchamp, Johns and Raushenberg are all well at home in a museum, the task of presenting works by Cage and Cunningham in such a context raises an interesting set of problems. An unfolding, temporal performance is always at odds with the normal codes of behaviour for museum goers and, furthermore, it is difficult, in watching videos of Cunningham’s performances to get a good sense of how the dances must have appeared live and in the particular artistic climate of their creation. Experimental dance and music of the twentieth century has proved resistant to its own historicisation partly because of this difficulty in presenting it in a museum context. Typically, museums present documentation (photographs, sound or video recordings) as a surrogate of the work itself and such documentation naturally comes off second best when placed alongside sculptures and paintings who are admitted to the museum ‘as themselves’. The challenge then, for Parreno, is how to allow his audience to experience Cunningham’s choreography more ‘directly’ without the mediation of documentation.
Parreno’s installation responds to this set of issues on two fronts. Firstly, in presenting Cunningham’s choreography without dancers to dance it (presentation without presence), Parreno lends the experience a more object-like character, which better suits its placement in a gallery context. The normal narrative structure of the dance (beginning, end, development etc.) is made circular and visitors enter their experience of the movement at whichever point they enter the room. Secondly, the techniques that Parreno uses to capture Cunningham’s choreography brings the audience in closer proximity to the movement of the dancers than is typically allowed by the ‘fourth wall.’ The audience is allowed to share (almost) the same space as the dancers – separated only by an interval of time. In a discussion with Anri Sala for Mousse Magazine, Parreno said: “we need to invent forms to understand how, at a certain point, he [Cunningham] asked his dancers to move from one position to another in a random way. This fact becomes the object of experience”
More vitally than either of these concerns, however, Parreno’s attempt to sever the dance from the bodies that dance it may be thought of as a question of medium specificity, that now classically unfashionable term which was such a contemporary of Cunningham. It is an attempt to ask, of dance, which of its elements are pure and irreducible. If the presence of live, human bodies is not essential to dance, then what is? To be clear: the sound of dancers dancing is not ‘the dance’ in any pure form either, but by shifting the medium through which the viewer/listener experiences Cunningham’s choreography, Parreno allows a different understanding of the particular quality of movement that Cunningham’s dance calls for. If Agamben’s declaration that ‘philosophy possesses its object’ is true, then dance is not an object that can be possessed, but a subject that possesses. Who leads the dance and who merely follows?
Henry Andersen is a composer and artist from Perth, Western Australia. He currently lives in Berlin.