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a companion chapter to Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body as Performance
Stern › In Production (A Narrative Inquiry on Interactive Art)

‘Social-Anatomies’

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 ‘It’s not that it feels dishonest, really,’ I’m saying to Nicole. ‘It’s just that….’ I struggle to find the words, ‘the way I’m telling it….’ I sigh.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 ‘It feels so… so… so inevitable.’

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Nicole looks up at up me from what she’s doing, with her eyes but not her head. She’s blowing on a spoonful of homemade mashed potatoes with garlic and goats milk Brie, to cool it down for Nonie. I’m again tangentially very proud of what a classy eater our two-year-old is. Nicole pops the food in Nonie’s mouth – who is lazily drawing circles with a pencil on the kitchen table – and waits for me to continue. I briefly think that a nice, hard, erasing session on the table, later, will do me some good – relieve some tension, if you will.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 ‘I mean, it’s all true,’ I go on, figuring out what I’m going to say only as I say it. ‘But there are so many other factors I don’t mention, so many other people and relationships and bodies of work and jobs and parties and – whatever – that affected where I am now. And even this very idea – “where I am now.”’ I hold up two fingers on each hand and flex and extend them quickly in order to show quotation marks. ‘What on Earth does that mean? I don’t really know where I am. Ever.’

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 ‘Three years from now, I may see all of this as a blip, a fumble, after I decide to go back to narrativity or slam poetry or other concepts or media that interest me but that I’m not concentrating on at present for whatever reason. Maybe I’ll go back to playing music! My entire project at Trinity could very easily be written off as a completely different stage in my progress at some point in the future. If it suited me, in my re-telling I could skip out on my interactive work and highlight art like my Sentimental Constructions or Doin’ my part in Croatia and South Africa.17 Although they also deal with the body on some level, I might say that, I don’t know, they mostly served to lead me towards relational aesthetics or choreographic thinking. The “Nathaniel Narrative” would then read,’ I take on my ironic professorial tone now, ‘In my research on relationality, I was of course steered towards texts by Nicolas Bourriaud and Claire Bishop. Seeing the work of the likes of Liam Gillick, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Santiago Sierra, I began to recognize the potential in more subtle and subversively political art. I eventually abandoned physical interactivity to instead concentrate on social participation – an inevitable end, in retrospect… Or… It could be… I was drawn to the writings of William Forsythe and Erin Manning on objects that move us, but without technology’s limitations, blah, blah, blah…’18 I realize I’m starting to sound slightly belligerent at this point, but care little.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Nicole laughs at me lovingly, which makes my fear and aggression dissipate immediately, but she doesn’t interrupt my monologue because she knows I’m not done. She’s aware that I’m just airing out my frustrations – not an uncommon thing among PhD students, believe it or not. We both know that this is how writing and making happen, but that fact doesn’t mean I can’t complain about it. I sigh again, knowing I’m being kind of ridiculous, but then I carry on as if I hadn’t even stopped.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 ‘And what about all the other things I’m not mentioning from the last eight years or so? The slam poetry nationals helped me find odys. My residency at Cornell, in Ithaca, affected his story, and my engagement with it. Our marriage and the move to Africa, teaching HIV-positive township teens, my collaborations with dancers: these things challenged my understandings of self, of body, of relationships, and of reification. And more,’ I say emphatically. ‘My collaborations with lo-tech media artists like Marcus Neustetter, the downtown Johannesburg studio with Christian Nerf and Kathryn Smith, and the experimental residency at the Joburg Museum19 – all of this, and so much I’m sure isn’t coming to my mind right now, feeds into how I engage with my work and process, with theory and with life. I never know what will be most influential until years after it has happened, and I may never fully understand all the consequences, good and bad, of these activities and experiences.’

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 I stop speaking for a moment, and Nonie looks up from her drawing.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 ‘Daaaaaaddy! Da-da-da-daddy!’ I can’t help but smile big. Aware that she has her ranting father’s full attention now, she aims straight for her golden ticket. ‘Watches… monstahs? Monstah time? Baths time, yeh? Monster time. Yeah. Oooooh-Kay.’ My heart melts as she gets up and starts walking to the next room, then stops, turns around, and coyly says, ‘Daddy? Come.’

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Nicole and I both smile. ‘I’m coming sweetie,’ I say to Sidonie, realizing that in all my blustering, I left out the most important person and relationship in my entire life. I think about how Nicole always jokes that it’s no accident I started producing ‘pretty pictures’ right around the time she got pregnant.20

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 I pop in Nonie’s Monsters, Inc DVD; move her little plastic tub in front of the telly (we don’t have an actual bath in this apartment); fill it with water and bubbles; soap her up; and plop her in. We sit and play and splash for a while in front of the television, talk about her favorite characters – Boo and Sully, obviously, though her dad is more like Mike Wazowski – and worry over the ‘bad monsters’ versus those who are ‘just pretending.’ She loves the bath, so instead of taking her out, I keep adding more warm water on top, and Nonie is starting to look a bit like a prune.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Nicole is sitting on the couch, reading a novel. When Nonie is completely engaged by the ‘Boo in the Bathroom’ scene – I have no idea if that is what it is actually called – I sit down across from Nicole for a break, and she puts down her book and picks up where we had left off 45 minutes before.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 ‘It’s really part of the point you know,’ she starts. I look up.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 ‘The process you’re talking about is an example of continuity, etc, at its best. Of narrativity, too. Of writing, of making, of performance and emergence.’ She waits for me to nod – I almost say, ‘Very poetic’ in dry response, but think better of it. ‘But after that, once the writing is put to paper? It’s nothing more than an exercise in good editing, in trying to ameliorate that sense of teleology.’

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 I shift in my seat, and Nicole takes in a short breath in preparation to speak again. ‘Whether you are making art, or writing fiction, non-fiction, or a narrative inquiry, you can never include everything from the back story. Or everything that happens as part of its continuous present, for that matter.’

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 I nod another defeated nod, as if to say gloomily, ‘Yeeeeh, I know.’ Of course Nicole is right; and I knew it even before she said it. She doesn’t stop, though.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 ‘The art-making can be a discovery for you – it was a discovery for you; the writing can re-situate it for you – as it seems to be doing; but the final text you are working towards must end up as just the right mix to invite similar discoveries and re-situations for your readers. What you choose to include, and not include – how you edit – only that will foster such a thing. It’s the difference between a long text, and a good one.’

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 I take Nonie out of the bath and begin to dry her off.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 *

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 I’m not entirely sure why things progressed the way they did after stuttering. Or more specifically, why my work and I progressed the way we did.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Perhaps it was because I felt I needed to branch out a bit while producing my first large-scale exhibition of works from hektor et al’s narrative.21 Maybe I thought I had exhausted the concept for myself, or I had finished my personal explorations of trauma and communication. Maybe I’ll go back to it later. In all likelihood, I left the narrative behind simply because hektor and odys, as tools and as constraints, had served their purpose in furthering my work, but I now felt more than capable and ready to move on from them. I could explore and inquire without such an intricate back-story for support.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Following enter, elicit, and stuttering, I began concentrating less on story and more on interaction and performance / embodiment. One result of this move – or perhaps this was the action behind the move – was a step or three away from text and from language. At the time, the most specific catalyst that helped propel me towards performance and away from text came out of my watching styles of engagement with stuttering. As with elicit, I can see in retrospect how this watching helped to develop my interest in suspending and amplifying meaningful and material relationships through inter-activities, and thus also helped me move towards what would later become the implicit body approach.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 As described in the last section, when viewers were alone with stuttering, they would investigate with their bodies, physically stutter and play out awkward encounters between signs, rehearsing possibilities in their relationships to, and as, flesh and text and image. It was actually quite magical not only to experience, but to see happen. Here we move-think-feel embodiment and meaning as emerging together; they are accented as they occur; bodies and discourse are virtually felt as continuous events.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 But… this kind of sensuous and conceptual complexity only materialized when one or two, or maybe three, people were in the gallery. None of the magic came when would-be performers were at a crowded installation. On opening night and several congested weekends, for example, I witnessed swarms of bodies in front of the interactive screen, where everyone was just trying to show off, to ‘one up’ or otherwise entertain one another and their audiences. Players would run and dive, make shadow puppet-like outlines for linear narratives, and try to use the stuttering software and setup as a backdrop to a party. There were no intimate investigations of bodies and meaning; it was more like a game of who can do better.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 This admittedly upset me. I wanted all my viewers to explore stuttering’s potential. Yes, it was fun and funny to watch people move in very close to the camera and overtake the whole screen, triggering a mass of audiovisual verbiage. It was amusing to see teams work together to make Lozano-Hemmer-like body movies and stories. But I couldn’t help feeling as if these partying viewers were missing out on the potentialized context they were being offered.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Eventually, as with my reflections on hektor.net, I came to view such interactions as an opportunity. I began to recognize the sometimes-frolicking scenario as a constructive critique, which not only showed stuttering’s limitations, but intimated a new situation for my next work of art. With just the slightest reframing – what was offered to stuttering by a crowd – its performance emerged as something entirely different. The same software that had been intended for affective intimacy instead produced a communal space with its own emergent sensibility. This space manifested shared rules and structures, despite the fact that they were never spoken or agreed upon verbally.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 In hindsight, in the language of the research and writing I’ve done since (in treating my own work as a case study), I know I was watching a socially constituting context – a microcosm of intercorporeality – for the practice of body techniques. Here people’s collective movements create rules for said people’s movements, which in turn creates more movement. I began thinking more about how we perform both with and for others, both consciously and unconsciously – the latter a ‘second nature.’ My next investigation of inter-activity would begin to explore and encourage performativity and affect as and in and with embodied social engagement, through playful competition. It would intervene in how we conceptually sense, and make, social-anatomies.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Given my re-focusing, I again turned to the idea of a literalized performance space, like the one I used in enter. But in this work, I would play out the tensions between performer, performed, and audience, and the relationships between all three as a kind of mutual immanence of bodies and an embodied society.

step inside is a multi-sensory environment that calls attention to our actions and affects as communal and embodied beings. It provokes us to re-think our bodies as ‘collage[s] in motion,’ always making and responding to matters around us. step inside implies multiplicity, reciprocity, and movement as intrinsic to the performance of bodies in society. As Elizabeth Ermarth would say, ‘I swing, therefore I am’ (Ermarth, 1992).

When ‘stepping inside’ the 3 x 3 x 3 meter interaction space, viewer-participants are immediately confronted with an amplified and echoed trail of noise. This is the sound of each footstep they take, of all the footwork in the room. A video camera, opposite them and connected to the step inside software, ‘reads their bodies,’ and separates them out from the background. Instead of a video mirror directly in front of them, their two-dimensional forms are projected as profile, to their left, and filled with video static. The amplitude of the echoed footsteps controls the video’s opacity. We, and our representations, become a variable wave of embodied noise.

A written statement, as a provocation to movement, is on the far wall of the space. It invites participants to perform, direct, react to, and interact with, the images and sounds they create. It asks them to try walking, crawling, gesturing, with their bodies; play between silence and tapping, scratching, audio-theatrics on the floor. Through experimentation, viewers’ performances will change, as they try and direct their image to suit their fancy – a purposeful performative act. They are both inside, and looking from the outside-in.

External, non-interacting viewers will also see the performer’s projected image, but not their bodies or actions inside the space. They can only guess the intent of step inside’s participant, who can likewise only attempt to promote a well-read re-presentation of his or her body in the communal gallery space and time. There’s a literal wall between what we project with our performance, and how this might be perceived by others.

step inside literally frames, and accents, the minute details of willing and unwilling communication, through movement in and with others. Rather than mirroring us back to our ‘selves,’ it provokes ‘body’ and ‘bodies’ as question, and shifts our perspectives on where and how these do not begin or end. (Stern, 2004)

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 By cutting off the ‘performance room’ from the rest of the gallery space with step inside (Figure 46), I was trying to emphasize both how we are always already performing for / with others, and how our separation from them, the separations between self and other, and body and performance, are all a myth. Differentiation never fully occurs, and only happens through contact. Nicole calls the artwork a ‘place of play and intimacy’ (Ridgway, 2006): the former because of how we are asked to perform in public, the latter because of our anonymity from within the enclosed stage. Viewers’ actions and gestures are not witnessed directly, but are still guided by societal rules, conscious and unconscious.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Figure 46, step insideFigure 46, step inside

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Here, I enhanced what stuttering was sometimes inadvertently accomplishing with a crowd. Performers watched each other’s images – the movements and affects and vulnerabilities of those around them, how they were ‘looked at’ when they finally stepped outside the box when they were done – and this affected their styles of behavior, again. Simultaneously, the awkward interface – the need for stomping or scratching to be seen, the profiled camera that asks for re-adjusted (non-mirrored) body-techniques to create our animated images – meant step inside doubly intervened in how we move, and see and feel ourselves moving, in social space, as part of an intercorporealized community. An implicit body is staged and implicated as per-formed, with its public. We make, distort, constitute, interrupt, anticipate, intercept, and ultimately move-think-feel our bodies along with others, and thus (a) ‘social-anatomy.’

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0
Download this video (mp4, 39mb)
Download video w/ artist voiceover (mp4, 46mb)

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 On a personal level, step inside also freed me to enjoy the ludic pleasure of body-play. Unlike stuttering, it was always intended to be fun and funny, to embarrass or frustrate or empower its performers, with a sense of humor. It called for a kind of serious play. Participants’ efforts ranged from tap dancing and somersaults and cheerleading to dropping change on or sweeping the floor, all whilst trying to make shapes with their bodies that performed textual characters or sexual acts or flipped bodily identities. Inside my little cube, the performance of the body lacks at least some of the everyday signifying cues we are used to, and it thus creates a situation for rehearsing other experiences, practices, per-formances in and of and as (an embodied) society.

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Affect, says Massumi, is irreducibly bodily and autonomic; he says that it is not pre-social, pre-reflexive, or unconscious, but rather ‘asocial… it includes social elements but mixes them with elements belonging to other levels of functioning and combines them according to a different logic’ because ‘the trace of past actions, including a trace of their contexts, are conserved in the brain and the flesh, but out of mind and body’ (Massumi, 2002: 30). Affect is autonomous, but knows things. step inside invites us to explore both action and affect in this way: between movement and society, between body techniques and intercorporeality. It is virtually felt before and as we move-think-feel, and plays a role in how we continue to unfold, enfold, and contextualize our movements.

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42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 ‘In Production’ main page

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43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 NOTES

  1. See http://nathanielstern.com/?post_type=portfolio for a reverse chronological listing of my art projects since 2000, including both of these from 2007 and 2008. Several works and series have come out of the Sentimental Constructions trajectory, and I consider them potentialized art.
  2. Still true in 2013: in addition to interactive art and Sentimental Constructions (etc), I do a lot of print and / or video objects, mixed reality art, Internet art, kinetic sculpture, and what Erin Manning calls choreographic objects. In fact, Manning has recently become a collaborator.
  3. Locals often call the Johannesburg Art Gallery, or JAG, the Joburg Museum.
  4. I began an ongoing performative printmaking series in 2005. This is also talked about in the full book, and documentation is available online at http://nathanielstern.com/art/tag/compressionism/
  5. The Storytellers: works from the non-aggressive narrative was a solo exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, from December 2004 to February 2005. See http://nathanielstern.com/artwork/the-storytellers/

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Source: http://stern.networkedbook.org/social-anatomies/