Monday, December 03, 2007

Encountering ‘The Body’ of Installation Art within Spinoza’s Ethics.

“Reality is inexhaustible, and there must be infinite ways in which it can be thought of.” (Stuart Hampshire, Introduction to Ethics)




















To engage with a work of art is traditionally a primarily optical experience, one that necessitates the act of ‘looking’ at an object or image. What happens when we go beyond the purely visual, when art invites a physical engagement and we, as viewer, experience the work as participant, rather than spectator? What affects are activated by encountering a work which communicates through audio, visual and kinaesthetic means? How does installation attempt to engage participants? These concepts are evident in contemporary practice, as well documented by Nicolas Bourriaud in his text Relational Aesthetics , yet it is also worth revisiting the historical development of engaged installational practice.
Influenced by Dada, Surrealism, Futurism and the Gutai Group in Japan, it was in the late 1950’s that installation pioneer Allan Kaprow established the distinction between participants and viewers within art discourse. Not confined to the gallery space, his early happenings, also termed ‘assemblages’, took place in lofts, houses and farms. In his 1963 happening ‘Push and Pull. A Furniture Comedy for Hans Hoffman’, Kaprow furnished two rooms and displayed instructions which invited the visitors/participants to rearrange the rooms as they so wished. It stated that:
Anyone can find or make one or more rooms of any shape, size, proportion, and color -- then furnish them perhaps, maybe paint some things or everything. Everyone else can come in and, if the room(s) are furnished, they also can arrange them, accommodating themselves as they see fit. Each day things will change.

Kaprow removed himself from the space, playing no part in the happening but did note that some older women began to clean the rooms, apparently appalled by the mess. Activated by audience participation, the space functioned as an alternating environment, shaped by individual and collective decision, taste and choice. This early example of physical, participatory practice highlights the attempt to merge art and life. Kaprow thought that “…if we bypass ‘art’ and take nature itself as a model or point of departure, we may be able to devise a different kind of art… out of the sensory stuff of ordinary life.
Kaprow’s happenings, along with practitioners such as Kurt Schwitters, Marina Abramovic, Joseph Beuys, Guy Debord, Adrian Piper and Judy Chicago attempted a radical redefinement of art through the use of the everyday; political agitation; collaboration and the use of non-art spaces. They can be considered as the forerunners to contemporaries such as Argentine-born Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija (whom Bourriaud exemplars, amongst others ). Tiravanija invites the audience to engage with the art process by cooking pad thai (noodles) for them at exhibitions and recreating his small East Side apartment in a gallery, inviting people to use his ‘home’ to sleep, eat, shower or simply meet and chat). The space was open 24 hours a day. Tiravanija wants to open spaces for dialogue, where new, albeit fleeting, communities can meet, exchange and engage despite the, at times, isolated nature of contemporary existence.

It is within this context that we can situate Installation art. A blend of expanded sculpture, theatre, performance art, land art and site-specific work. Claire Bishop states that Installation art “…differs from traditional media (sculpture, painting, photography, video) in that it addresses the viewer directly as a literal presence in the space.” The sensory experience of the observer/participant is fundamental to the conceptual realization of installational practice. Bishop continues, “…installation art presupposes an embodied viewer whose senses of touch, smell and sound are as heightened as their sense of vision.”

This multi-sensory experience, combined with the relationship between viewer/participant within the physical space, suggests an immersion somewhat similar to how we experience daily life. This merging, or bringing together, of art and life, is a reoccurring element of installation. It enables the viewer/participant to enter a terrain, a common-space of experience, by utilizing familiar elements of the everyday (spaces/ relationships/ experiences/ knowledge). In Spinoza and Us, Gilles Deleuze explains that there is a “…common plane of immanence on which all bodies, all minds, and all individuals are situated.” Deleuze states in Immanence: A Life, that the plane of immanence is ‘virtual’, yet it is “actualized in an object and a subject to which it attributes itself.” The virtual, or conceptual, plane of immanence can be encountered through installational practice as it impacts upon the participants capacity for being affected through a common shared experience of the ‘everyday’. Spinoza proposes that “If something is common to, and peculiar to, the human body and certain external bodies by which the human body is usually affected, and is equally in the part and in the whole of each of them, its idea will also be adequate in the mind.”

Swiss artist Christoph Büchel’s complex installations consist of seemingly chaotic, yet meticulous, arrangements of household and everyday objects that he uses to construct hyper-realistic fictional environments informed by today’s social and political concerns. His constructed realities produce feelings of claustrophobia, panic and paranoia. In 2005, Büchel’s installation, entitled Hole , directed visitors through cramped spaces and passageways where CCTV footage of a suicide bomber was juxtaposed against the bombed-out, destroyed shell of a Swiss tour bus and a psychoanalysts room creating a narrative in which to explore current tensions surrounding terrorism, American hegemony and fundamentalism.

In 2005, Büchel collaborated with Gianni Moti on the Guantanamo Initiative and documented their attempt to rent Guantanamo Bay from Cuba on the grounds that the US occupation is illegal, again emphasizing the contradictory and distressing situation of America’s action in it’s ‘war against terror’. Büchel’s recent, and extensive, exhibition, Simply Botiful (2007), at Hauser & Wirth Coppermill demanded viewers to engage with the work by physically negotiating the space, squeezing past people into tiny bedrooms, crawling through holes in the walls and floors, climbing up and down ladders, clambering into a fridge freezer, crawling around tunnels and an archaeological dig site, being surrounded by pornography and picking through vacant offices, workshops, cafes, lorries and containers. Bishop points out that, “Many artists and critics have argued that this need to move around and through the work in order to experience it activates the viewer, in contrast to art that simply requires optical contemplation.” Büchel creates microcosmic narrative environments through his use of space and his awe-inspiring manipulation of everyday materials in which the participant’s activated engagement is a necessary factor for the realization of the installation.

The body is situated on the plane of immanence. The body is not necessarily a physical being, but could be any conceptual essence: ideas, connections, molecules. The body is “composed of an infinite number of particles” . Deleuze expands on Spinoza’s ‘dynamic’ definition: “a body affects other bodies, or is affected by other bodies; it is this capacity for affecting and being affected that also defines a body in its individuality.” Entering into Simply Botiful, my ‘body’ was affected as my emotions fluctuated through feelings of surprise, unease, disorientation, disgust, dismay, curiosity, inspiration and a kind of submersion. Yet there was also an awareness of how my ‘body’ and the other body (of viewers) could affect the ‘body’ of the work – by physically and emotionally interacting with the space (adding/removing objects, climbing, crawling, queuing, exclaiming, laughing, discussing, questioning).

In The Ethics, Spinoza proposes that, “If the human body has once been affected by two or more bodies at the same time, then when the mind subsequently imagines one of them, it will immediately recollect the others also.” This is true of Buchel’s installation, where the participant is affected by a multi-sensory encounter that connects and relates to everyday life, political issues, social concerns and collective experiences. The body (in this case, the mind) relies upon the function of memory to make associations, as one thought passes to another, through transitions between ideas and images. Russian artist, Ilya Kabakov suggests that the “viewer therefore encounters these works ‘like his own personal, highly familiar past’, while the installation as a whole, is capable of ‘orienting a person inside itself’ appealing to his internal centre, to his cultural and historical memory

Kabakov’s ‘total’ installations, such as In the Closet (2000) and The Man Who Flew into Space from his Apartment (1981-88) also employ common experience within their constructed environments for their capacity to affect. For Documenta IX, in 1992, Kabakov’s The Toilet consisted of a small restroom with six toilet stalls which had been filled with furniture including a bed, table and dresser. The suggestion was that the occupier had recently left and may return at any moment. Kabakov refers to his work as ‘total installation’ due to the presentation of an immersive scene into which the viewer in submerged, a tactic employed by installation artists to ‘affect’ since its conception in the 1960’s. He writes that: “The main actor in the total installation, the main centre toward which everything is addressed, for which everything is intended, is the viewer…. the whole installation is orientated towards his perception, and any point of the installation, any of its structures is orientated only toward the impression it should make on the viewer, only his reaction is anticipated
Let us return to Spinoza’s definition of the body. The dynamic proposition that we have explored refers to the capacity to affect and to be affected. This is combined with the kinetic proposition which is concerned with velocity. Spinoza explains: “Bodies are distinguished from one another by reason of motion and rest, speed and slowness, and not by reason of substance.” Deleuze and Guattari also employ the composition of velocities in their second definition of the plane of immanence in A Thousand Plateaus. They state that: “There are only relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness between unformed elements, or at least between elements that are relatively unformed, molecules and particles of all kinds (…) Nothing subjectifies, but haecceities form according to compositions of nonsubjectified powers or affects.

These alternating velocities of acceleration and deceleration, create connections, moments if you like, of recognition. Spinoza proves that we can never truly conceive of the body in its infinite entirety of complex relations, yet there are moments of awareness when we can glimpse, or sense, a greater perception. This is what Deleuze does when he situates “us in the middle of Spinoza” . How can we visualise these relations of shifting speed and slowness? If we take the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern as our given ‘plane’, we can see how two contemporary practitioners have manipulated everyday occurrences to affect a body through common memory and shared experience, to compel participants into different degrees of motion and rest.


















Carsten Höller, born in Belgium and with a doctorate in agricultural sciences, works with a wide variety of media including video, installation, drawing, architectural plans, photographs, performances and sculpture. His concern is with physiological reactions and human perception with each work giving an impression of a scientific experiment set up to explore humanistic issues. Höller incorporates viewers and transforms them into integral components of his work. Many of his sculptures and installations induce feelings of doubt, fear and uncertainty… along with feelings of fun, laughter and joy. The seventh artist to take part in the Tate Modern’s Unilever Series, Höller has installed five huge tubular slides which run down from the gallerys’ main levels and end at a communal ‘landing pad’ which splits the Turbine hall in two. Having experienced Höller’s slides before in 1999 at Kunst-Werke in Berlin, I was eager to see how the slides would work in the Tate and whether the experience would be equal to the memorable event of being whisked outside of the building, down a story at high speed and literally flung out onto a crash mat in a silent gallery space full of unsuspecting German art admirers.

The use of the slides ‘affect’ participants perception and behaviour. Höller continues by saying that “these works can create very interesting situations where, due to the effect of the work, you start to behave in a different way. It’s almost like creating a micro-society of a different form of behaviour.” Spinoza demonstrates that bodies are affected by motion and rest and highlights the relations between bodies and their capacity to initiate or cease movement. He states: “A body which moves or is at rest must be determined to motion or rest by another body, which has also been determined to motion or rest by another, and that again by another, and so on, to infinity.”

How does Höller determine a body into movement? It happens through the environment he creates, the act of sliding and the inter-relations of the viewers - the participatory acts of queuing; putting on protective pads and caps; watching others descend; laughing or screaming on the slide; the reaction of others when you land; waiting for friends and witnessing their expressions and sharing the experience. Roger Caillois writes in Man, Play and Games about the pursuit of vertigo. It consists “of an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind. In all cases, it is a question of surrendering to a kind of spasm, seizure or shock which destroys reality with sovereign brusqueness.”

The act of sliding, can be a fearsome experience, yet it is also something which most of us have experienced as a child and can recall climbing the steps only to gleefully abandon oneself to gravity and shiny metal. Höller’s use of a common idea, particular to the human body, returns to us the memories of an everyday childhood event that “induces a form of delight that is reflected in the facial expression of those arriving at the bottom of the slide.” Test Site happens when the user participates in the sliding experience. The immediacy and tangibility of entering into the art work activates the senses whilst giving us an acute awareness of high-speed motion. Höller attempts to activate both the body and the mind. He states that “the site of the test is not only in the Turbine Hall; it is also that little part in the user and viewer that is stimulated by the slide: a site within.






Just as a body can determine another body into motion (as we have seen with Test Site) the fourth Unilever Series installation, The Weather Project (2003) by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson could be said to slow relations between bodies down. Eliasson used hundreds of mono-frequency lamps, a spray of mist and a mirror to producing a dazzling image much like the sun at sunset or sunrise creating an huge chill out space inside London’s main art gallery. Eliasson has harnessed the elements of weather throughout his career (water, light, temperature) and employed them to create phenomena that replicate nature, whilst simultaneously drawing attention to the constructs of the work to empower an awareness of perception. Spinoza writes that “the knowledge of an effect depends on, and involves, the knowledge of its cause” , and in the same context, Eliasson’s installation makes us conscious of the moment, the situation, and invokes a space (or gap) to consider the capacity to affect and to be affected. He is interested in “ our ability to see ourselves seeing – or to see ourselves in the third person, or actually to step out of ourselves and see the whole set-up with the artefact, the subject and the object – that particular quality also gives us the ability to criticise ourselves ... [and gives] the subject a critical position, or the ability to criticise one’s own position in this perspective.”


The situation created by Eliasson alters preconceptions of space/time where the movement and behaviour of viewers is decelerated. As people lay on their backs, sat in groups, gazed in contemplation, they became the subjects of the work. Eliasson explains in a conversation with Hans Ulrich Oberst that a role reversal is created when the viewer is stimulated and engaged with the work. The object of the work is the viewer/participant and subject of the work is the context in which they are engaged. The body interacts with the space, and an awareness of the body (and the world/nature) is heightened through sensory consciousness.

As with the majority of installational practice, Eliasson’s work operates within the common territory of shared experience. A sunrise or sunset – an event shared by all beings (or bodies) that exist on the plane. Eliasson considers how “the object, through its codes and connections in culture, influences the spectator or person engaging with the object” due to their prior knowledge of a recognisable experience. The interchangeable capacity to affect occurs between the viewer and the work and relations of speed and slowness are concerned with the connections between particles and elements. Deleuze compares the “composition of speeds and slowness on a plane of immanence” to the way “a musical form will depend on a complex relation between speeds and slowness of sound particles.” Just as music is composed of sound particles, installation is composed of visual and conceptual particles - extensive in their relation and affective capacities.

The combination of the dynamic composition (capacity to affect and be affected) and the kinetic principle (relations of motion) create Spinoza’s definition of the body. If we look to The Ethics, we can construe that the body (installation), composed of dynamic and kinetic properties, can be of use to the human body. Spinoza proposes that, “Whatever so disposes the human body that it can be affected in a great many ways, or renders it capable of affecting external bodies in a great many ways, is useful to man.”
Spinoza reminds us that we are never capable of fully realising our capacity to affect or to be affected. On one hand this feels like a cautionary word of warning, yet on the other it liberates and unleashes a confidence and potential for explorative creativity. Affective capacity is necessarily greater than that which we are conscious of. This knowledge is the basis for inventiveness, for play, for possibilities. Höller says that, “art is full of possibilities. That’s the whole idea. Even if something is not yet there it could possibly be. That is one of the basic premises of art – why we do it.”

If we agree with Spinoza in that the body has an affective capacity, then we can also presume that these capacities can vary in power to a greater or lesser degree. In the third section of The Ethics, Spinoza tells us that a body’s power of acting can be increased or decreased by another affective body. Taking the idea of a common notion as a base, Deleuze explains that “if we encounter in experience a body that does not agree with ours, it has the effect of affecting us with sadness (diminution of our power of acting).” Conversely, when we are in agreement with another body, we experience joy which is seen to increase our power of acting. Spinoza defines the passions of joy and sadness using them as an explanation for our experience when we pass into either greater perfection (joy) or lesser perfection (sadness). We could look to both Höller and Eliasson’s installations as examples of joyful encounters where a common experience was used to create a participatory space that, in its ability to open dialogue and exchange, produced an increase in power in the mind and body of the viewers.

Without relying on a purely subjective response to an artwork, we could ask whether an installation as an affective body produces a sadness, or, an encounter that does not agree with us? London-based Japanese artist Tomoko Takaheshi creates installations out of piles of carefully collected rubbish. As with Büchel, she positions the objects in a kind of organised chaos, with the space often looking as though a tornado has recently passed through the room. Takahasi often asks the public to donate objects, as she did with Park Light, an installation in Clissold Park, Stoke Newington in 2000 where she collected masses of disused sports equipment to create a performance. For her Turner Prize nomination (2000), her exhibit Learning How to Drive, was created from a narrative of discarded maps, traffic cones, signs, lights, driver’s manuals, children’s toy cars, tools, instructions and plants. Although Takahashi’s hectic environments comment on social activity and shared experience, the viewer encounters the work as an observer, rather than participant. Whilst she states that “everything has its own life and I want to make things more themselves, to liberate them from imposed rules” as a viewer of her installations, there is a real sense of frustration that you can’t clamber through the piles of objects, sit in the middle of them and have a good rummage around! The white lines taped to the floor direct you to walk ‘around’ the work, gallery guards politely tell you to step back, cameras record your movements and the body is affected. Not through the subject/context of work in this case, but by the larger ‘body’ of the gallery space or art institution.


Installation’s historical roots are based upon a desire to break from the sterile, controlling environment of the commercial gallery where the viewer can look but not touch. Takahasi’s work contains many positive affects (common notions, ideas, experiences, political and social questions), but the viewing conditions and lack of physical immersion produce an encounter somehow lacking in a fully affective, participatory engagement. This could, of course, be said of much of the art that we can view in our galleries and museums, and why I feel that the immediacy of work by artists such as Kabakov, Büchel, Höller and Eliasson relates so intrinsically to Spinoza’s demonstration of the affective capacity of a body.

Deleuze uses the terms ‘longitude’ and ‘latitude’ to help us visualize a map of the body that exists on the plane of immanence. Longitude refers to the relations of motion and rest (speed and slowness), illustrated through Test Site and The Weather Project. Latitude refers to the capacity to affect and to be affected. He adds that “the longitudes and latitudes together constitute Nature, the plane of immanence or consistency, which is always variable and is constantly being altered, composed and recomposed, by individuals and collectivities.” In The Ethics, Spinoza calls upon individuals to look upon life (or a body, an experience) as a series of complex relations (or assemblages) composed of velocities and affective capacities so we can gain a ‘truer’ understanding, or knowledge. Spinoza’s writings were concerned with the way to live a life, to exist in the world and to realise our full potential, but The Ethics also enables us to think about art as a joyful, affective encounter. We conclude with Deleuze, a Spinozist, whose thoughts about shared experience (common notions) echoes the intent of installation practitioners concerned with engagement and participation:

The common notions are an Art, the art of the Ethics itself: organizing good encounters, composing actual relations, forming powers, experimenting.”


Bibliography
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