Conversation with Christoph Brunner (CB), Alanna Thain (AT), Nikki Forrest (NF), Jonathan Reus (JR), Flora Reznik (FR) and Sissel Marie Tonn (ST)
Illustration by: Sissel Marie Tonn
The Reading Room is an event series organized at Stroom in The Hague, and produced by the Instrument Inventors Initiative. Since 2015 we have been organizing this series with the intention of creating a platform for close-readings and discussion of seminal theoretical texts among an ever-growing diverse community of artists, cultural practitioners and individuals interested in intellectual discourse. For every session we invite guest readers to share their knowledge and guide the community through key texts and themes within their field of expertise. The Reading Room is made possible with the support from Stroom Den Haag and the Creative Industries Fund.
As discussions like those in the Reading Room are so ephemeral, and yet full of the emergent knowledge within our community, in 2017 we are experimenting with ways in which we can capture the traces of this event series. In this sense it is no coincidence that we begin 2017 with clusters on topics such as Ecologies of Existence and Anarchival Practices. To this end, we are excited to start an interview series created in collaboration with the guest readers in 2017. This will not only be an effort to archive the events and the new insights offered by these events, but also an opportunity to shed light on the texts discussed for those who were unable to attend the session in person, and hopefully in some way also capture the flat hierarchies of our community within the method of relay interviews. These interviews are conducted as conversation pieces between the three organizers; artists Jonathan Reus, Flora Reznik and Sissel Marie Tonn, and the invited guests.
The Reading Room #17 and #18 took place on the 2nd and 16th of June with guest readers Christoph Brunner and Alanna Thain, and was the continuation of our collaboration between The Reading Room and ‘ArchipelagoLab for Transversal Practices’ at Leuphana University.
This cluster of the Reading Room zooms in on the concept of anarchival practices. Traditionally, archiving has been seen as a practice of documenting and conserving, often done by institutions and those in positions of power. But counter-movements and efforts to archive the daily practices left out of official archives, or artist archives, are gaining momentum and challenging the limits of traditional approaches. The concept of anarchiving especially attempts to reproach archival methods that often erase the processual, affective, and contextual aspects of lived experience. Anarchival methods are active and lived, they are ways to carry forward the foundations of further action, catalysts for the next event. In this cluster of Reading Rooms we ask how can anarchiving be developed as a creative approach for both artists, activists and academics to use? These questions were unraveled through texts and works in the diverse fields of dance, film, queer and feminist movements as specific memories of daily life.
Furthermore we had the opportunity to collaborate with Nikki Forrest, a Montreal-based video artist around the video screening ‘The Feeling of Falling – Queer Ecologies, Uncertain Spaces”, a one-hour experimental video program of works from the independent artist run centers Groupe Intervention Video and Videographe based in Montreal. The program explored intersections of movement practice, audiovisual media and environmental relations. The works are connected by a playful focus on Queer Ecologies, drawing out on alternative and marginal histories of media form and practice, including the critical importance of intersectional identities, sustainable support, DIY and micro-budget production and other material practices. This screening took place on the 2nd of June before the first Reading Room session in this cluster.
In this Relay Conversation we will be discussing the reading of José Esteban Muñoz’ iconic essay ‘Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts’ and Alanna Thain’s piece ‘Anarchival Cinemas’ in the first session, and chapter 4 from André Lepecki’s book Singularities: Dance in the Age of Performance, in the second session.
In José Esteban Muñoz’ text “Ephemera as Evidence” we learn that ephemera in queer acts (of performance, political acts and archiving) is a modality of ‘anti-rigor’ and ‘anti-evidence’. Muñoz lays out his arguments in describing a performative piece by Tony Just, in which he scrubbed, sanitized and documented a run-down public men’s room, a ‘tea room where public sex flourishes’: “The result is a photograph that indexes not only the haunted space and spectral bodies of those anonymous sex acts, and Just’s performance after them, but also his act of documentation”, Muñoz writes. To the author the ephemeral constitutes ‘traces, glimmers, residues and specks of things’ – all distinctly material but not necessarily solid evidence (in the dominant perception of the word). Since ‘visible evidence’ may leave the queer subject vulnerable for attack, queerness has not been able to exist as ‘visible evidence’, which has often been undermined in official academic structures. “Evidence’s limit becomes clearly visible when we attempt to describe and imagine contemporary identities that do not fit into a single pre-established archive of evidence”. Thus the ephemerality of queer performances reformulates our conceptions of materiality, as well as proposes a way to resist dominant systems of aesthetic and institutional classification.
In her piece “Anarchival Cinemas” Alanna Thain discusses the emergence of digital technologies (such as portable devices and the digital video format), and their effects on the corporeal experience of cinema. She asks: “What happens when we re-imagine the event of cinema as no longer characterized by a spatially discrete and immersive place, but in terms of the relationality of bodies moving in spacetime?” Following a series of artistic examples that use different “immersive” digital technologies, she traces the potentials of cross-modal sensory perceptions made present in the in these works, as an effect of these technologies.
ST: Alanna, as a philosopher working on both dance and performance as well as queer and feminist work, most recently within the context of the concept you call ‘the anarchive’, what do you think are the most prominent lessons to learn from Muñoz when we try to define what the ‘anarchive’ is (and more importantly, what it can do)?
AT: For me, the anarchival is an attempt to name and animate forces that diagram belongings and exclusions as creative negotiations of survival. Queer and feminist approaches to the archive often concern what is missing or excluded from the archive, but also movements of disidentification that don’t just seek to add to or expand, but to relaunch or reanimate. Muñoz ends his essay by underlining a point that he insists on in various ways throughout: “we return to (Foucault’s) slogan ‘acts, not identities,’ and with that said, I would add, ‘queer acts’.” José Muñoz’ writings are themselves a still-acting anarchive of exactly the kind of critical practices he champions here, coming out of the experience of minoritarian cultural workers. His fierce commitment to a concept of ephemera that is neither romantic nor nostalgic, but activist, is one of the strongest points of this text.
In my work on dance on film, for example, I have repeatedly come across a kind of fear or regret at the potential harm documentation does to something ephemeral or uncapturable about the dancing body. Muñoz’ essay intervenes precisely at this point of fear or loss, to insist on the anarchival potential that ephemera holds, and the need to develop critical practices adequate to this force. Alongside Muñoz, I recognize that fear as real, but perhaps wrongly oriented. Muñoz situates the rejection of ephemera within the context of the institutions threatened by the stakes of what such ephemera enables. Ephemeral or anarchival practices both honor what has passed or been performed and also take up the “specific rhythms” that carry life forward. So the question of what the anarchive can do is always the speculative force of what it can do next. It’s not a tool, then, but a process or a way of life.
There is no simple act of filling in the missing gaps in the archive; what is anarchival is precisely what acts. In Muñoz’ essay, this is why ephemera as evidence is a site of attack. In a similar way, my work on the anarchive insists on the anarchic within the anarchival, as an anti-institutional practice.
You can see this in the title of the piece, where action serves as a refrain to sustain his claim that ephemera is not simply evidence of queer lifeworlds, but how they are made and sustained.
For example, he describes how queer filmmaker Marlon Riggs’ work “challenges the protocols of evidence and in doing so makes possible the enactment of a black and queer lifeworld that can not be upheld by a foundation as unsympathetic as a rigorously enforced archive.” The question then is: what kinds of anarchival practices make life more livable, rather than simply serving to make legible or write into history minoritarian practices? Just’s careful scrubbing for example, renders sensible a lifeworld through an act of negation and erasure by including the conditions under which this site of public sex thrives in situations of danger, and marginalization. Lifeworlds are not taken for granted, but the conditions of existence are themselves sites of action.
This essay reads as urgently today as it did more than 20 years ago in 1996, when Muñoz was writing in a “moment of national and institutional backlash” that can’t help but feel familiar in the current moment. Performance ephemera indexed a world of
Muñoz situates the rejection of ephemera within the context of the institutions threatened by the stakes of what such ephemera enables.
unspeakable loss in the wake of AIDS, homophobia, misogyny and racism. Muñoz’ insistence in centering the experiences—as evidence—of minoritarian subjects who, in order to be institutionally “legible”, “must choose from different categories of identity and evidence” in systems that fail to account for, erase and attack queer acts that emerge from “the points of interaction within different minoritarian identity practices”.
In relation to the activism of the anarchive that both Muñoz and I write about, I am especially interested in the way that he links together the sustaining practices and processes of ephemera with a need to “reformulate and expand our understandings of materiality”, specifically to produce foundations for lifeworlds that are “performatively polyvalent” and indeterminate.
Flora, what are some of the ways that you see the notion of anarchival practices as redefining our understandings of materiality, and why does that matter now?
FR: One of the elements that I found most interesting about Muñoz’ text is the idea of that traditionally, archival systems have maintained a criterion of rigorousity that defines what counts as evidence of an event, and therefore, what “enters” the archive (and is therefore a legitimate fact) as opposed of what must remain outside.
Outside, meaning outside of written and legitimate history, outside the protection of the law, to name some examples. In Muñoz’ words, to be “granted entrance and access to (…) official histories” equals to access “material reality”. And even though what is left outside hegemonic narratives does not simply cease to exist, it is forced to live in the peripheries of reality, in a sort of shadowy sub-world where it is never clear if what happened happened, where every testimony is put into question, where even lives seem to matter a little less.
Muñoz asks: “Who owns rigor? I suggest that rigor is owned, made, and deployed through institutional ideology”. In our Western Patriarchal societies,
ephemera are those processes that fail to pass the test of rigor.
I can’t help but associate: these processes do not count as evidence because they are not solid enough, visible enough, they didn’t last long enough… in short, they lack the qualities of the phallus (which actually doesn’t exist if it is not as an ideal entity. The rigor of the phallus is a rigor mortis). Ephemera, from this dominant perspective, are acts that lack something posited as model of perfection. Furthermore: they are forced to go unnoticed because in case of showing themselves too clearly, they risk being exposed to the violence of intolerant individuals or even the punishment of laws. But ephemera, in their own right, are queer acts, alternative ways of life that do not submit to the law of rigor.
This hetero-normative-phalo-obsessed patriarchal ideology is pushing a notion of materiality as opposed to ideality (a metaphysical dichotomy hardly absent in any of the main philosophers of our Western tradition), when actually the solidity
of this limit is as well an illusion (-and a very harmful one).
A project of building a shared history based in anarchival practices proposes a different materiality that doesn’t lack anything and that is not based in oppositions. Instead of being solid, its main feature is plasticity: it is open to change and can take infinite forms.
I can’t answer why this matters now. The lives of threatened minorities matter to me, but this is a personal political stand that I am sure many don’t share, otherwise the world would not be the way it is. Politics has no foundational ground, because politics must remain contingent, open -and it’s better that it is this way. It is and will always be in our hands to give the most in our daily struggle to the cause that we believe in, from whatever social role we get to play.
In her text, Alanna presents a quite funny scenario, someone watching a movie in her phone, absolutely immersed in the story and
disconnected from her environment, walking down the street. Speculating about the consequences of such a cinematographic sacrilege, she writes: “Imagining this I thought, there is only one way that this could end: roadkill.” Christoph, how much joke and how much seriousness do you think inhabit this statement? What are the dangers and/or possibilities in these new mobilities she proposes?
CB: I think this passage alludes to a fairly different, I would say, media ecological point. Alanna’s concern addresses the state of cinema moving out of its enclosure of the black box and becoming mobile. The question of enclosure and the politics of the self that come with media-envelopment have for a long time been part of cultural studies discourses such as the seminar work of the Centre for Cultural Studies on the Sony walkman or Michael Bull’s work on walkmans and headphones. However, the question posed by Alanna is even more precise.
She writes: “will we ever be able to navigate mobility while immersing our eyes in the ways that we do now easily with the disjunctive ears of headphone listening?” The disjunctive here marks not a detachment, resulting in roadkill, while there is definitively a chance for that. On the contrary, the disjunctive is at the same time a conjunctive process mingling or rather translocating worlds.
It would be too simple to conceive of a body in space as an entity equipped with sensory modalities apt for attention and distraction. From a media ecological point of view, watching cinematic content on your cellphone actually multiplies spatial and temporal cues where bodies of aural and visual materiality mingle with the bodies of the screen. In this sense we are neither really immersed or in an augmented reality in our contemporary media scapes but rather constantly in a mode of disjunctively producing conjunctions and vice versa. What becomes apparent is the active parts
Sustaining practices and processes of ephemera with a need to “reformulate and expand our understandings of materiality”, specifically to produce foundations for lifeworlds that are “performatively polyvalent” and indeterminate.
many of the elements or sensuous cues are actually playing in the making of perception. Which reminds me both or some of the anarchival traits we discussed during our sessions, where the anarchive is an active and live platform of sorts that constantly shifts through the encounters it is frequented with. It also reminds me of Nikki’s exquisite little screening that was an anarchival feast of minor gestures on screen in a space purposed for performance in the first place.
ST: Dear Nikki, we had the pleasure of co-hosting “The Feeling of Falling: Queer Ecologies, Uncertains Spaces” – a screening of queer and experimental video works with you at Cloud Danslab in Den Haag. I am curious what connections you drew between the artworks we encountered in the session and the concept of the ‘anarchive’. I am especially interested in the focus on embodied presence that I felt was important in both the first work (“Singeries” by Priscilla Guy and Catherine Lavoie-Marcus) and in your work (“Flip / Bend” by Nikki Forrest) in relation to Alanna’s call to “reformulate and expand our understandings of
materiality”, specifically to produce foundations for lifeworlds that are “performatively polyvalent” and indeterminate”. How do you see this in relation to your work as maker and curator in this screening event?
NF: In curating the screening program I was interested in thinking about a kind of elastic connection between the movement of the bodies, materials and physical space that we see on screen, and the choreography of the formal and cinematic elements produced through recording and editing. I was also thinking of the assembled works that make up the program as a kind of queer ecology where unforeseen relations emerge between and amongst individual works. For me as a viewer the embodied presence of the performers is often more about the force and potential of the body in relation to its surroundings and to other bodies than the material edges of an individual body.
The anarchival intention or impulse as I understand it resists normative structures and normative values about what counts as real, as evidence, and eventually (as well as pre-emptively) what constitutes history.
I like to think there is still a strange and weird potential to queerness – a deliberate embracing of non-normative relations and affects. I was looking for videos that work with live performance and embodied movement that are not traditional dance videos or documents of dance works; videos that foreground dynamic material exchange between bodies, environments, images and sound to produce a kind of queer ecology.
Lepecki talks about a sense of futurity that lies in artworks as a kind of potential energy. This is really apparent to me in “Singeries”: the performers produce variations of similar movements, that repeat and multiply. As viewer I get the sense that it could go on and on, that there are endless possible sequences and movements that could emerge out of the process the artists have established, and out of the subtle and shifting energy between them. This work especially seems to hover not exactly in the present but as Muñoz proposes “on the horizon of extemporal futurities”.
The kind of collage effects that arise from experimental editing in “flip / bend” and the repeat/cut/rewind types of performed
movement in “Singeries” relate to what Lepecki (drawing on Benjamin and Georges Didi-Huberman) calls “complex time”. I understand non-normative temporal complexities to be anarchival in their movements between and across time in various simultaneous directions.
In “Singeries” the choreography and editing together produce a sense of complex time. The movements sometimes seem to be edited and processed live through the bodies of the performers. This type of choreography which echos video editing techniques operates in “Singeries” in combination with actual video editing where, for example, a clothed body is also simultaneously a naked body, not as an opposite state but as superimposed layer.
In flip / bend there is a lot of waiting, lots of images where nothing really happens although I think we sense the potential in that stillness of what could and will happen. I like to think there is something queer about waiting and stillness as impulses that can work against the usual imperatives to act, produce and consume. The editing and the continued remaking of the set in “Flip/bend” heightens the sense that the work of world-making is never finished, that it is ongoing, complex, and non-linear.
JR: Cristoph, in the two sessions on
Anarchive Practices we talked about what the notion of the ‘lived’ archive means, and whether this notion is opposing the ‘dead’. Alanna mentioned that she doesn’t want to contrast that of the lived to the dead but look at the difficult-to-access liveness that infuses all material forms. Alanna said something in the lines of that the anarchic quality of the anarchive is that there is a unruliness (‘anarchic’) in the material traces that are documented – and that they are also anachronistic, acting out of time and out of place. As we planned these events we were discussing how the notion of the anarchive (re)contextualizes the ‘Ecologies of Existence’ theme of the collaboration between The Reading Room and ArchipelagoLab. Could you expand on in what ways the notion of the ecological resonates with the questions of the ‘lived’ in the anarchive?
CB: I would say, any ecology of existence has its anarchival traits and aspects. An ecology of existence, the way Yvonne and I thought if it when we initiated the Ecologies of Existence symposium in 2016 was to render existence relevant again. However, we didn’t think of an existentialist gesture but rather an ecological one. With the term ecology we asked, is it a concept that can do the job
of underlining the internal resonances of a tensed system that is open and bound at the same time. Gilbert Simondon uses the term ‘metastability’ to describe such tensed states. An ecology might be exactly that, a set of heterogeneous elements and forces that do not just form a whole but define an open system of relations enjoying their neighbors tendencies and capacities of relation with them. This is not a mutual recognition or a key-hole-logic. On the contrary, an ecology can never be a preset holistic universal but needs to assemble itself on the spot, under the specific circumstances it finds itself in, always banking on new and different relations coming along. The same goes for me when I think of the Anarchive. It is in itself an ecology. It requires a material ground from which to unfold its potentiality. From here certain habits and feedback loops are established, a kind of system arises. Such would be the conventional order of an archive, with all its refined logics of ordering and registering. What falls out of this registering is the actual affective attraction of the archive’s material to themselves, the lure for being in relation with each other. The anarchival impetus is then live or alive less in a vitalist sense of everything being alive but rather in the sense that it is in movement, in tension, full of potentials of taking on new forms.
Such would be the conventional order of an archive, with all its refined logics of ordering and registering. What falls out of this registering is the actual affective attraction of the archive’s material to themselves, the lure for being in relation with each other.
The question is then, how to anarchive, that is, how to enable the right conditions for anarchival practices to become part of the encounters with the material. In other words, how can we as humans confer the anarchiving to the environment, to its ecological state, rather than thinking it is us who anarchive.
A second question would be, how, under digital conditions do we find modes of computational operations that do not just praise randomness but rather allow for the digital to play out its differential tendencies. There is as much life in material, thoughts, bodies as there is in digits.
Alanna Thain is associate professor of World Cinemas and Cultural Studies at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. She directs the Moving Image Research Laboratory (mirl.lab.mcgill.ca), dedicated to the study of the body in moving image media, and home to Cinema Out of the Box, a bicycle powered mobile cinema staging guerrilla screenings in the urban ecology of Montreal. She is also director of the Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies. Her research focuses on time and embodiment in cinema, media and performance. Her book Bodies in Time: Suspense, Affect and Cinema was published from University of Minnesota Press in 2017.
Christoph Brunner is assistant professor for cultural theory at Leuphana University Lüneburg. He works on the intersections between art, philosophy, and activism with a specific focus on emergent collectivity and technopolitics. Together with Yvonne Volkart he organized the symposium “Ecologies of Existence” in 2016. Before coming to the north of Germany he worked at Zurich University of Arts and studied in Montreal and London. He is member of the SenseLab in Montreal, part of the SSHRC partnership grant Immediation: Art, Media, Event, and initiated the ArchipelagoLab for Transversal Practices at Leuphana.
Nikki Forrest is a Montreal based artist whose practice includes video, sound, installation and live performance projects. Their short experimental videos have been shown at many festivals, galleries and screening spaces including: The Mix Festival (New York), The Glasgow Film and Video Workshop, Dundee Contemporary Arts, The Oberhausen Short film and Video Festival (Germany), Ausland (Berlin), Le Center d’Art Santa Monica (Barcelona), The Images Festival, Toronto and the Festival Internationale du Films sur l’Art (Montreal). They have also participated in several international artist s residencies including: The Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec studio exchange residency in Buenos Aires and The Canada Council studio at Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. Nikki’s work is included in the collections of The National Gallery of Canada, The Saskatchewan Arts Board and Concordia University.
Sissel Marie Tonn is a Danish artist living in The Hague. She works with multi-media installation, textiles and writing, and her processual approach is driven by a great deal of curiosity and the possibilities of building relationships across fields. Her work revolves around an interest in structures of attention and perception within ecologies undergoing subtle or profound changes. Within this discourse her work explores these environmental (often humanly induced) changes, extending the public debates towards epistemological issues connecting these events to the body and its sensing of presence. She completed a master in Artistic Research at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague in 2015 and will be a resident at the Jan van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht in 2017.
Jonathan Reus is an American musician, researcher and curator whose work blends machine aesthetics with free improvisation. His broader research is into instruments and instrumentations, and their potential to bring new insight into knowing the world. Jonathan is associate lecturer of Computing and Coded Culture at the Institute for Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media in Leuphana University, Lüneburg, where he has created teaching methods for hybrid coursework blending science, mathematics and cultural studies. He is also a lecturer in performative sound art at the ArtEZ academy of art in Arnhem.
Flora Reznik is an Argentinian artist based in The Netherlands. She was born in Buenos Aires, in 1986. There she studied in Universidad del Cine (FUC), obtained a diploma in Philosophy (University of Buenos Aires), while she worked as a video editor in film and TV, and co-funded the contemporary arts magazine “CIA”. In The Netherlands she graduated from the ArtScience Interfaculty department, in The Royal Academy of Art, and currently co-curates the artist initiative Platform for Thought in Motion, while she develops her work as an artist in the fields of video, performance, installation and text. She is busy with the notions of physicality, territory and time.
From the curators of the Reading Room: Thank you to Christoph Brunner, Alanna Thain and Nikki Forrest for their insights both in The Reading Room and in this piece! We hope to welcome you both back in Den Haag. And special thanks to all the participants that joined in this gathering.