Fabulous exit from Anthropocentrism (Ribbon dance and its ontological proposition)

 

Jan. 2017

As the millennial apocalyptic scenario has lost its reality, humans have no more time to waste before facing the enormous impact ‘we’ left on the environment of this planet. Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen has invented the term ‘Anthropocene’ to indicate the new geological epoch that follow the Holocene, a warm period continued for ten to twelve millennia. This term has strong influence on recent discourse of philosophy and art, as economical and political society seems to struggle to face the decline of human rationality. One of the leading thinker of this field Bruno Latour describes the Anthropocene: “a very disputed term that defines the time simultaneously as time in history, human history and the time in geology“[1]. In other words, the time in which the human history is clearly imprinted on the geological history. Many scholars are arguing on when Anthropocene has begun—some say it is around 1610, the reforestation of huge area of land caused by elimination of 50 million Native Americans through the Columbian exchange — some others say it is 1760s, a turn in the industrial evolution by the invention of steam engine — or 16 July 1945, the date that atomic markers are left on the earth triggered by the atomic bomb. The discussion has not yet seen any conclusion, as there clearly are various events that are equally catastrophic, leaving some scars on the earth. What is not disputed though is the problematics caused by Anthropocentrism: the idea that humans have autonomous ownership of resources on the earth, or more radically, the way humans place non-humans at binary opposition, as in nature/culture or subject/object. Anthropocentrism has been a subject of criticism by many of contemporary thinkers such as, Latour, Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak and a group of philosophers called Speculative Realists. Speculative Realism is a relatively new philosophical movement started around 2007, which attempts to attack on Kantian Correlationism  —  Quantin Meillassoux’s term for for the view “disqualifying the claim that it is possible to consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another”[2]. Speculative Realism is getting more recognition under the urgency of reviewing the consequences we have left on the earth, as the human and nonhuman border becomes blurted not only from philosophical, but also from scientific perspective as in the quantum theory, artificial intelligence, or croning technology.

Graham Harman is an important figure in the branch of Speculative Realism called Object Oriented Ontology (OOO, sometimes also called Object Oriented Philosophy) who often discusses objects in art, as a thread for the way out from Correlationism. He explains Correlationism as the idea “that we cannot think of humans without world, nor world without humans, but only of a primal correlation or rapport between the two“[3]. Within such context, relationship of the object and art becomes hugely important as both beings are fundamentally ungraspable and undefinable. Harman talks of object’s ‘withdrawal’, the term for the fact that objects can never be in direct contact to each other. This is a characteristic claim of OOO, separating them from most other branches of Speculative Realism. For example, as fire burns cotton, fire is only in relation to certain qualities of cotton, such as flammability, shape and size, not its smell or colour. Objects are not reducible to its theoretical elements or its relation to others. There is always something hidden in object that can burst out to surprise others. For Harman (and other thinkers of OOO), this unknownness is what defines object, and under this view, humans, ideas, data, USB key, hay ball are all equally objects, existing as real and irreducible neither to its components or functions (Harman calls these reductions ‘undermining’ and ‘overmining’, respectively).

A Stockholm-based French choreographer Frederic Gies has created a work entitled Ribbon Dance. It is “a dance of the in-between (in-between bodies, objects and histories) and makes manifest the drives and forces that set off bodies or things in movement and the movement potential to self generate, like a motor activated by its own energy. Although it inevitably communicates something else, this dance doesn’t seek to communicate anything but itself and the subterraneous currents that traverse it”[4]. As in the title Ribbon dance, a gymnastic ribbon plays an important role in this dance work. Later in this essay, I will give more detailed analysis on the content of this piece, but here I would like to put emphasis on the work’s withdrawn quality mentioned in above quote, how the encounter of ‘in-betweens’ as such create an emerging object (piece) that has different withdrawn qualities apart from its components. This inter(in)dependency invite these seemingly different level objects on flat ontological field, hinting the possibility of coexistence, drawing a line of flight from the hegemony created through the lineage of time (history). Thinking this way resonates the question of non-linear causality as well. Dance being mainly body or human focused art form, the discourse of Anthropocentrism has a huge impact on the philosophy of dance. Objectivity of body has been an important topic for a long time, but since the rise of Speculative Realism, discource of objet and body in dance became more political than it has ever been. Now we have a background for discussion. In this short essay, I would like to discuss ontology of object in dance piece and how it creates propositions for the way out of Anthropocentrism, using the example of Frederic Gie’s work Ribbon Dance.

Before the performance, the audiences are provided with a cup of Gin and Tonic. As taking a sip of it, the performance starts under a dim light with extremely hard techno music. Gies is on stage with a long gymnastic ribbon in his hand, walking in circular motion. Throughout the 3/4 of the piece, he simply practices his Ribbon dance with the reminiscent of his inspirations Trisha Brown’s Watermotor, and Senegalese outdoor dance performance[5]. Brown’s loose but snappy quality and Senegalese dance’s rhythm created by stamping on the ground and quick shift of direction is certainly present in his embodiment. However, seeing together with the movement of ribbon, those separate qualities are melted together in the flux of Möbius strip like topology. As if all the movements are continuous until the moment the ribbon touches the ground. The time and space created by unity of the ribbon and body are definitely felt-time-space as opposed to measured-time-space. Sense of suspension and topological morphing are present both in time and space, causing sort of a slip in the audience’s sensation. This also has a relation to the atmosphere Gies attempts to create. His artistic works are hugely influenced by underground club culture, long durational dance events which loss of time awareness takes huge part of the overall experience. In this quasi-club atmosphere, the vertigo created by the ribbon is what one experience from the subject point of view when dancing in such environment. It definitely invites audience in the experience rather than letting them just observe or even to be distant to think about it. Audience participate in the time-space of the performance, as their gaze choreographed by the ribbon, and Gies’ movements are also choreographed by it. In relation to that, Ribbon dance is a solo dance performance in traditional sense, and this format has been used by modern dance artists in 20th century as a way to manifest subjectivity. What is interesting in Ribbon dance is exactly opposite: it is almost a manifestation of objectivity. Solo-body is not the only actor in the piece. As the title suggests, the piece’s very protagonist is a ribbon, in fact it also is a choreographer. A Choreographic Object.

As Canadian philosopher and artist Erin Manning describes, Choreographic objects are “an affordance that provokes a singular taking-form: the conjunctive force for the activity of relation”[6]. “They extend beyond their objectness to become ecologies for complex environments that propose dynamic constellations of space, time and movement. These ‘objects’ are in fact propositions co-constituted by the environments they make possible, They urge participation”[7]. The ribbon in Ribbon dance has certain affordance, although it is not a tool in usual manner. Here the ribbon generates constellations of dynamic space time working as a proposition, and this proposition is made possible by the very environment which the ribbon takes part of. This self-generative mechanism is what we call Choreographic object, and it does not make sense in measured time. What we have to have in mind is rather an event time, durational time, or time of experience. Choreographic object initiates this topological time space because it brings the experience to the foreground, therefore allows pastness to resonate with the present. “Experience is drawn forth by a pastness of the present. This pastness of the present is specious: it feels like the present even though it is already passing”[8]. ”It is the object from the past in the configuration of the present”[9]. The ribbon is a perfect visualisation of this pastness in the present. Long residual movement resonating from fingertip clearly leaves the trace in the space, followed by cancelation of the trace. The resonance does not materialise itself as object, but its ephemerality gains a little more stretch than usual, causing a sort of time-slip. For the experience time, perception of ‘now’ gains wider frame, containing a bit of memory already in the present. Bergsonian idea of memory becomes alive here, the activation of past in the present, creating a platform for durational time on the bodies (objects) intra-acting, the ecology of differences. “Choreographic objets are designed to provoke physical solutions that tend toward habit even as they divert us toward the contrast of the new. This new emerges relationally, activated by propositions embedded into the choreographic objects’ potential deployment.”[10]. “ What the proposition calls for is not a newness as something never before invented, but a set of conditions that tweak experience in the making. Propositions are lures”[11]. As if responding to Manning, Steven Shaviro, an influential thinker related to Speculative Realism also says “the lure is what Whitehead calls a proposition”[12]. When saying this, both Manning and Shaviro are borrowing these terms from Alfred North Whitehead’s notion of ‘a lure for feeling’. For Shaviro, lure is what captures one’s attention addressing one from beyond, and he argues that the event of lure includes two instances: ‘Allure’ and ‘Metamorphosis’. These two aesthetic events are the key for understanding how object in art has important ontological proposition in the composition of the world.

Allure is the dazzlement, or the surprise by the object bursting forth its inaccessible side, forcing an encounter with the very being of the object outside of the correlation. Here, Heidegger’s famous tool-analysis becomes a good example. When the hammer is being used, it functions just as an extension of user’s body. The hammer is synonymous to its function. Their ontological being is reduced to single quality, and other qualities are forgotten until the moment the hammer breaks. When the hammer breaks, one is suddenly confronted with different qualities of the hammer besides its use. Though broken hammer can less likely to be attractive aesthetically for human interest, this is not what we are talking about here. Harman makes it clear that allure is not synonymous to ‘sublime’ which is about human perception, but it can be applied to the relationship between any object[13]. It is about the movement of background coming to foreground. In relation to this, I would argue that there is a perfect example of allure in Ribbon dance. As the ribbon draws perfect trace in the air, one tends to forget the materiality of the ribbon. It simply becomes a tool for visualising trajectory causing the time-slip I have mentioned before in this essay, and its other qualities are sent way in the back ground. However in few occasions during the performance, the ribbon gets entangled. When this happens, Gies draws away from the performance while remaining on stage, and simply undo the knot of the ribbon. One cannot help but to be reminded of the materiality of the ribbon and the piece itself at this moment. The piece also breaks in this sense, and it bursts out a quality that hints the ungraspable side of the piece.

 In contrast to allure, metamorphosis is not an attraction caused by the object per se. It is the unknownness of the object, movement of becoming and withdraw that captures attention. The movement of foreground disappearing into background, outside of the reach. In the case of Ribbon dance, I would consider the last section as an example for metamorphosis. In this section, Gies discards the ribbon and replaces it with a chair. Movement quality the chair provokes is definitely interesting, but what it really signifies is a difference with the ribbon. The chair loses its own characteristics, and becomes a mysterious signifier of what is not present. Metamorphosis destabilise the object’s ontology by creating a sort of vacuum into the meta-level. “In the movement of allure, the web of meaning is ruptured. as the thing emerges violently from its context; but in the movement of metamorphosis, the web of meaning is multiplied and extended, echoed and distorted, propagated to infinity, as the thing loses itself in the network of its own ramifying traces”[14]. Allure and metamorphosis constituting the lure, could be considered as reverse movements of overmining and undermining respectively. Instead of defining object by reduction, lure finds object’s ontology in the uncanny, unknown dimension of withdrawal.

These speculations lead us to interesting consequence. For the objects not being able to come in direct contact to each other, their connection is vicarious. Harman believes that what mediates two real withdrawn objects are the “sensual object”[15]. It is through their appearance, their sensual object, that real withdrawn objects make contact, and they do so in aesthetic level ,drawing each others attention by lure. In other words, “aesthetics becomes first philosophy”[16] of ontology. As discussed, the lure can be understood synonymous to proposition. Because this proposition is embedded in Choreographic object, it triggers the unfolding of this vicarious aesthetic contact between objects, urging their participation.

For a closure, I would like to remind that the importance of these ontological investigation has its roots in rejection of Anthropocentrism. As I mentioned earlier, dance can easily be considered as an anthropocentric art form. However, If approached from the point of view to include human body as object no different from other objects such as gymnastic ribbon, dance can bring out some important issues that destabilizes anthropocentrism. According to Object Oriented Ontology, it is not that aesthetics only concerns humans, but it deserves a major role in the vast area of ontology. Ribbon dance is a good example of object oriented choreographic work, where thinking is done aesthetically, not limited within the framework of language. Once again, Ribbon dance is “a dance of the in-between (in- between bodies, objects and histories) and makes manifest the drives and forces that set off bodies or things in movement and the movement potential to self generate, like a motor activated by its own energy. Although it inevitably communicates something else, this dance doesn’t seek to communicate anything but itself and the subterraneous currents that traverse it”[17]. Ribbon dance is an aesthetic communication towards its very own ontology, a proposition of topological eco-system that suggests fabulous exit from anthropocentrism.

 

~Notes~

  1. Bruno Latour “What is the Time?” Parse Journal #4 (Nov. 2016): 16. http://parsejournal.com/issue/4/
  2. Quantin Meillasoux, After finitude (London: Continuum, 2008): 5.
  3. Graham Harman, The Prince of Networks(Mebourne: re.press, 2009): 122.
  4. Program note for Ribbon dance, provided for the performance in Copenhagen, 8 Oct.2016.
  5. From personal conversation
  6. Erin Manning “Propositions for the Verge – William Forsythe’s Choreographic Objects” Inflexions No.2 “Nexus” (December 2008): 3. www.inflexions.org
  7. ibid.: 3.
  8.  ibid.: 4.
  9. ibid.: 5.
  10. ibid.: 23.
  11. ibid.: 6.
  12. Steven Shaviro. “The Universe of Things.” Theory & Event 14, no. 3 (2011): 8. www.shaviro.com
  13. Graham Harman, “Response to Shaviro” in The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, ed. Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman (Melbourne: re.press, 2011), 303.
  14. Shaviro, “The Universe of Things”: 8.
  15. Graham Harman, “The Road to Objects” in Continent Issue. 1.3 (2011): 171-179 http://www.continentcontinent.cc
  16. Graham Harman, “Vicarious Causation” in COLLAPSE Volume II, ed. Robin Mackay (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2007): 221.
  17. Program note for Ribbon dance, provided for the performance in Copenhagen, 8 Oct.2016.

 

Video archive of the work “Ribbon dance” https://vimeo.com/222002600