Thinking in Circles
By Rye Holmboe, Hand in Foot, 2013
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho (1983)
Imagine the scene. Three figures sit in a circular boat that floats on a river. Evenly spaced, they are positioned like the three points of an equilateral triangle inscribed inside a circle. Each has an oar in hand. When the first blade is placed inside the water and pressure is applied to the oar, levering the boat forward, the second and third blade must be extracted, or the movement is cancelled and energy is lost. The same can be said for when the second or third blade is submerged. If either one of the remaining blades remains inside the water, the leverage of the oar is lost. For the boat’s movements to be optimised, the first, second and third blade must never be submerged at the same time. The three figures must not work in tandem but in sequence. Yet there lies the paradox. For the most energy-efficient technique cancels itself out. At its optimal the circular boat will turn in perfect circles and no distance will be travelled.
Worstward Ho, which will be tested for the first time on London’s River Thames in October 2013 and exhibited soon after at the Valais Art Museum in Sion, Switzerland, is characteristic of the paradoxical and sometimes comically absurd endeavors of the collective JocJonJosch. Formed in 2008 by Jocelyn Marchington, Jonathan Brantschen and Joschi Herczeg, the collective addresses the fraught relation between the individual and the group, as well as the ways in which oppositions such as success and failure, efficiency and waste, purposiveness and pointlessness, have a tendency to slide into one another when pushed to their logical extremes. JocJonJosch seems less concerned with beginnings and ends than with duration and process, and the works the collective produces – whether they take the form of video, photography, sculpture or performance – are perhaps best understood as experiments or “test-pieces”, to borrow Sol LeWitt’s expression. Whichever path the collective takes, it is not in order to reach a clearly defined endpoint but to become the path itself.
The paradoxes and procedures enacted in Worstward Ho can be traced back to JocJonJosch’s earliest projects, even if some of the work’s performative aspects are as yet undeveloped, particularly as they relate to the complexities of collaboration. For one of their first projects, for instance, a commission by a Swiss radiologist which resulted in a series of photographs titled Coloured Circles (2008), the three members of JocJonJosch explored the streets of London at night equipped with a lighting system, a generator and large sheets of brightly coloured paper. Once a suitable site was found, the sheets of paper were stuck onto different surfaces in order to produce the anamorphic effect of a complete, unbroken circle. For one sequence bright pink paper was stuck onto the far edge of a brick wall which framed the left-hand side of a vacant car park. Another sheet was then stuck onto the wall in the background. Depending on the viewer’s perspective, this produced the illusion that the two walls intersected when they were in fact separated by a narrow alleyway. Once the site was lit up and the correct vantage point established, photographs were taken of a male figure (in this case Jonathan Brantschen) who seemed to emerge out of the circle. It as if the pink monochrome functioned as a portal which allowed him to traverse different spatial dimensions – or indeed the dimension of colour itself – even though the illusion is immediately dispelled by the bathetic presence of a blue industrial wheelie bin, the conspicuous and all too visible support of this gravity-defying figure.
In a recent conversation about JocJonJosch’s practice, the artists explained that what was appealing about these early photographic documents was their humour and imperfection. In a time when images are easily reworked, these crude, makeshift photographs never let the viewer forget that they are constructions. And whether the figures depicted appear to fall or to levitate, to be caught in a spotlight or to be travelling between different dimensions, the photographs do not allow such optical illusions to take shape for long. Inter-dimensional travel has a distinctly metaphysical ring to it, as does travel through monochromes, but in Coloured Circles the cosmic is always tempered by the comic. What the works seem to suggest is that the dream of immaterial journeys through space or colour only fails when actualised in reality. In this respect one might liken Coloured Circles to Yves Klein’s comparatively convincing Leap into the Void (1960), where the artist seems to soar above an empty street. The critical imagination has often glossed over the document’s comic aspects, preferring to see it as an image of self-sublimation or as a prototypical representation of the “aerial men” Klein hoped we would one day all become. Yet if the artist traces a line of flight across the sky he is also moments away from falling flat on his face. Leap into the Void sits at the juncture of myth and absurdity, and it is this very tension that the photographs collected in Coloured Circles seem to play out.
Similar ideas were developed and subjected to comic treatment nine months later in a project titled Black Holes (2009), which was shot in the stark, clinical setting of the Physics Department at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule(ETH), a university in Zurich. Here JocJonJosch used the same techniques as those employed in Coloured Circles to produce the anamorphic effect of two black circles. These were situated on either side of a large basement room, empty except for a staircase in the background and an inscription on the left wall which read: ZENTRALGEBÄUDE PHYSIK (Main Physics Building). In the photographs two half-naked figures (Jonathan Brantschen and Jocelyn Marchington) appear to be getting sucked into a pair of black holes, their limbs and torsos dangling helplessly moments before they disappear. As with Coloured Circles, these optical illusions were achieved using simple, economical means – sheets of black fabric and a wooden stool – and the resulting photographs are equally humorous and unconvincing.
A few months after working on Black Holes the three members of JocJonJosch discussed the nature of these spaces on their personal blog. As shall be made apparent, the black hole and its attendant metaphorics will form an indiscernible point around which much of the collective’s thoughts and works turn. The entries, which were not written for publication, though fragments and excerpts punctuate the present volume, comprise metaphysical speculations about the nature of these uncanny spaces. Below are two entries which give a sense of the conversations being held by the artists at the time: -
The black hole, a place in which matter disappears. In one sense it unifies everything because everything which was separate comes together in one place; but instead of expanding, everything disappears into an uncertain space, into something we call nothing.
Even ‘I and nothing’ is something; it has some kind of substance, if only blackness or the letters of the word that it forms.
Black holes lend themselves well to this kind of circular thinking, in part because they are spaces where opposites meet. Both empty and full, something and nothing, a black hole is a paradoxical region where there are no logical contradictions. Like an anamorphic circle, a black hole eludes the logic of representation. It marks the point at which the spatial order breaks down.
Yet what is particularly striking about these dialogues is the incongruity between the sometimes high-flown nature of the ideas expressed and the comical, almost absurd quality of the photographs that comprise Black Holes. As with Coloured Circles – and indeed many of their later works – this incongruity suggests that the artists were less interested in the quality of the resulting photographs than in exploring the space between an idea and its realisation, a space that is a source of creativity and promise but also of disappointment. For the photographs’ comic aspects make it almost impossible for the viewer to suspend his or her disbelief. Black circles might easily slide into a metonymic chain that includes atoms, neutron stars and dark matter, but here the movements of the imagination are brought to a grinding halt by the sheer ridiculousness of the photographs and their improvised aesthetic. Even when the camera adopts the proper lateral standpoint the effect is only ever partly successful. In this way the scientific fiction of the black hole is playfully debunked, as is the metaphysical content of the monochrome, its promise of a purely spatial order, and the supposed power of abstract art to draw the artist or viewer into some spiritual elsewhere. In Black Holes it is the gravitational pull of the comic that ultimately exerts the greatest hold on the imagination.
Other projects realised in 2009 tend to be characterised by a similar sense of playfulness and humour, though one sometimes finds an emphasis on the bodily which anticipates the often claustrophobic physical proximity encountered in JocJonJosch’s later performances. In Body Cabinet (2009), for instance, three figures contorted themselves into an old metal cabinet. In the supporting photographs it is difficult to tell which body part belongs to which body and even harder to understand how three naked bodies could fit into such a narrow space. The effect is reminiscent of those magic boxes used to give the illusion of a body cut into different pieces, an illusion which – fittingly – is always as implausible as it is convincing. Much the same could be said of Fingers (2009), a series of photographs which depicts the artists hiding under a table while inserting their fingers through small holes cut into the table top. Yet in both these worksthe emphasis continues to fall on the ludic and on finding ways to disorientate the viewer. It was not until late 2009 that JocJonJosch began to turn its attention away from such aesthetic strategies and to think about what it meant to work as a three, a shift that opened onto broader questions concerning the relation between the individual and the group that continue to preoccupy the collective today.
This change in direction was due in part to the suggestion of David Gothard, a generous, eccentric figure who deserves mention in these pages. Gothard, who continues to advise JocJonJosch as both a friend and mentor, was the artistic director of London’s Riverside Studios between 1976 and 1985, where he worked closely with pioneering figures such as Tadeusz Kantor and Samuel Beckett. Since then he has continued to be involved in various aspects of the arts, teaching screenplay writing at the Soros Foundation in Ljubljana and holding a position as Associate Artist at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, for instance. In a conversation with JocJonJosch in late 2009, he pointed out the performative aspects of works like Coloured Circles and Body Cabinet. Gothard’s question was simple but to the point: if the artists were willing to perform before a camera then why not develop and explore this aspect of their practice in front of a live audience? In March 2010 Gothard and the British artist Bruce McLean invited JocJonJosch to contribute to a series of events and performances they were curating at London’s Chelsea Space to celebrate its fifth anniversary. JocJonJosch accepted the offer. The result remains one of the collective’s most visually arresting works.
Dressed in matching white t-shirts and black trousers, the three artists adopted positions on white plinths in different parts of the gallery space. Jonathan Brantschen stood, Jocelyn Marchington sat, and Joschi Herczeg lay on his back. Four assistants then began the delicate and arduous task of stitching the artists together through the thick skin of their hands and feet with fine black thread. The performance, which began at midday, lasted for nearly ten hours. Unable to move for fear of snapping the delicate thread or of harming one another, the event required prolonged concentration and physical endurance. As the artists recall, “the cotton tied us together and any movement pulled on the skin of the others. Our connection disabled each of us individually. We weren’t able to move without harming the other two.” By early evening geometric forms had taken shape that joined the artists together. The process of threading, looping and stitching continued, the artists’ discomfort grew, and night began to fall. “We did not even think how the piece would end,” they remember, “in fact it just sort of went on until eventually Gothard realised that there was no end. By this point we were tied together and couldn’t do anything, not even talk since there was still an audience. So he turned off the lights and people slowly left the space.”
The performance at Chelsea Space developed some of the tensions that were only latent in JocJonJosch’s earlier works. As the artists observed, the process of stitching was both enabling and disabling. The thread literally tied them together, but in such a way that distance and disconnection were as important as the intimate physical sensations the artists experienced. The thread allowed the three members of the collective to sense each other in ways that are hard to capture in words. Indeed, it is difficult to convey what it feels like to seea needle pierce human skin and draw a thread after itself, only to loop through the flesh of another, let alone imagine what this process might have felt like for the artists over the course of ten hours. Yet the thread also accentuated the fact that JocJonJosch is a collective that comprises three separate individuals brought together by a mixture of design, accident and circumstance. Beyond the question of collaboration, moreover, the vulnerability of the individual bodies that kept the threads taut gave the performance a visceral dimension which stood in stark contrast to the geometric shapes formed by the black thread. As shall be made apparent, the tension between structure and the vicissitudes of flesh will recur, in one form or another, in almost all of JocJonJosch’s future works.
Later in 2009 the collective was invited to contribute to the “Live Weekend” at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art, a weekend of performances curated by David Gryn, the director and founder of Artprojx. For the performance JocJonJoschdecided to develop some of the ideas explored at the Chelsea Space, though here the emphasis would fall on what the artists described as the “process of mutation” that took place when they worked together.
For the performance JocJonJosch designed clothes that were especially made by a group of fashion designers, including Jonathan Brantschen’s wife, Ting. Each artist wore a sweatshirt that had an identical garment stitched to it as well as a pair of elongated trousers. The performance began with the three artists sitting on the floor of the main exhibition space. To prepare themselves for the mutation they began by sewing their clothes together. Joschi Herczeg stitched the cuffs of his sweatshirt to Jonathan Brantschen’s trouser legs, Jonathan Brantschen to Jocelyn Marchington’s, and Jocelyn Marchington to Joschi Herczeg’s. The process took two hours. Once the garments were sewn together, the mutation began. With slow, strained and often clumsy movements each artist transferred the top layer of his sweatshirt to the legs of his neighbour. The process was punctuated by pauses when the artists rested in a particular position, emphasising the work’s sculptural dimension – which was somewhat grotesque, with intimations of the biomorphic – before moving and reshaping. After two hours the human sculpture collapsed and the artists reversed the mutation, so that the performance ended where it began. Once again it seems that it was the path itself that mattered to the artists, the passage from one state to another, not the destination, goal or end.
It is noteworthy that the clothing which facilitated the mutation was also what imprisoned the artists and, in the end, what kept them apart. The performance evoked a sense of perpetual movement, a sense of change and flux between two states. And at moments, especially when the artists were still, the three individuals seemed to have become the singular figure of their own combination. Yet the position of this figure in space was redrawn with a persistent restlessness, and the mutation could end in only one way. The artists were bound to fail. The performance had to come full circle. Simply put, the mutation ended because the three members of JocJonJosch were exhausted after more than two hours of physical exertion. One might also say that the possibility of mutation was belied by material constraints, and from this perspective it is telling that the artists were forced to tear the modified garments with their teeth in order to escape the tangle of fabric that bound them together.
JocJonJosch continued to explore such tensions in a series of photographs and videos titled Beast Mutations (2010). In these works the artists sought to create what they referred to in conversation as a “collective being” that would allow them to dissolve their individual identities in a singular figure. In the photographs and films one artist stands, his naked body bearing the weight of the other two, whose naked bodies are, in turn, wrapped on top of each other. The artists’ faces and genitals are concealed, so that the Beast appears both anonymous and androgynous. Indeed, against a backdrop of pure white, the Beast has an almost angelic quality to it. In one photographic version of the mutation, which JocJonJosch exhibits upside-down, it seems to almost float in the air. The paradox is that something as dense as flesh can give the impression of being almost weightless.
The tension between the weight of anonymous flesh and the almost aerial nature of the Beast is suggestive of an unresolved conflict that is woven like a thread through many of JocJonJosch’s works (remember, for instance, the figure travelling through a pink monochrome in Coloured Circles). It is as though the Beast were subject to an internal division. On the one hand there is the spiritual, the transcendent, the metaphysical, the aerial. The Beast is a single indefinable being, faceless, genderless, almost angelic. The vulnerability of the individual bodies, moreover, seems to have been mitigated by a sense of togetherness. The singular figure of the Beast offers some kind of protection. One might even imagine the Beast as being in some way predatory and aristocratic in its demeanor. On the other hand there is animality or bestiality, terms which bring to mind the bodily, the material, the finite. Taken as a singular figure the Beast is hefty, its movements clumsy. It walks with heavy steps and seems always on the brink of teetering over. Paradoxically perhaps, the Beast is a monstrosity, something outside of nature, and the three human bodies are its prostheses. Though it is not possible to develop the issue here, what one encounters in the work is thus a double movement that is fundamentally political in nature: the process through which the many become One in their representation and the process through which the One emerges to represent the many.
It has already been noted that works like Black Holes and Body Cabinet can be understood as performances which survive only in supporting photographs. Of course JocJonJosch’s photographs and films are artworks, and in that sense works like the Beast Mutations are autonomous. They are not to be understood as simple documents without an aesthetic logic or performative dimension of their own. Yet, insofar as one can understand these works as archival documents, it is noteworthy that what the viewer retains after seeing them is not the memory of an event but the memory of a photograph or film of an event. The viewer is therefore twice removed from the ‘original’ performance – I use inverted commas because the relation between the images and the performances they document is not simply mimetic. And so we arrive at a crucial aspect of JocJonJosch’s practice that has only been touched upon so far: the related issues of memory and documentation, first explored in earnest in a series of works titled White Elephant (2010).
In this photographic work the three members of JocJonJosch are positioned in such a way that their naked bodies present the loose outline of an elephant. As with the Beast Mutations, the artists’ faces and genitals are concealed, which lends the figure of the elephant a certain anonymity and androgyny. At any rate, what is immediately clear is that we are not dealing with the identities of individual persons but with something more complex. White Elephant was shot in a studio in Brixton, South London. A photograph and video exist of the artists experimenting with different ways of forming the elephant in the mountainous setting of the Swiss Alps, though JocJonJosch has decided that these images should not be seen by the public. The image produced in Brixton, however, is an unfixed silver gelatin print which requires special care. To avoid developing the print further and to protect it from potential destruction it must be viewed under a red light.
There are, so far, two versions of the White Elephant. The first was exhibited in January 2011 at a group show titled “Exercises in Failure” at the Son Gallery in London. This print is kept in a specially made wooden box designed to prevent any light from getting in. The second version was exhibited in May 2011 at the Galerie Monica Wertheimer in Basel. For this exhibition JocJonJosch converted the gallery into a makeshift darkroom, fitting a red light and red filters onto the windows to prevent exposure. This second version is much larger that the first, measuring 360 by 300 centimetres. Because of its size it was printed across three separate strips of photographic paper. These were then pinned to the gallery floor and a specially made blanket was used to cover the print whilst the normal gallery lights were on.
There are several ways of understanding White Elephant. A ‘White Elephant’ is an idiom for a valuable possession that is a (financial) burden to maintain. It can also stand for an endeavor that has proven to be a conspicuous failure, an endeavor without use or value. The work’s title, then, suggests something rare, mysterious, perhaps inexistent, a mythical figure that belongs to some unknown universe, like the Beast, but also something that is a burden, something useless. On this view it is perhaps no coincidence that, like the Beast, for all its beauty the figure of the Elephant is also absurd. But what is important to draw out in the context of a discussion of memory and documentation is the way in which the unfixed photograph is always on the brink of inexistence. Any further exposure to light would destroy the image. Like the mutant figure in the performance at the ICA or the figure of the Beast, the White Elephant is forever caught between two states. Yet the issue is complicated because, as is often the case in JocJonJosch’s practice, opposites have the unnerving capacity to slide into one another. Further exposure to light – the medium of vision and, metaphorically speaking, a source of truth – would lead to both the fulfillment of the image and to its self-cancellation.
The paradoxical relation between realisation and disappearance came to the fore in Existere, a performance that took place at Testbed1, an experimental art space in Battersea, London, in July 2011. While no photographic documentation exists as a record of the performance, it remains, in itself and in the works and events that followed from it, JocJonJosch’s most important work to date.
For the performance seventy naked figures emerged from the four dark corners of the industrial site. They walked slowly, sometimes shuffling their feet along the dusty floor, and then gathered on a thin blue mat under a skylight. There they created a ‘shelter’ out of their own bodies, which in the pale light appeared both fleshy and ethereal. The structure was held together for only a few minutes before it came apart again. The movements that led to the construction of the ‘shelter’ included articulations where the stress was on collective cohesion. The first two bodies were ‘bricks’, the third body a ‘bench’, the fourth a ‘sitter’, the fifth a ‘stander’, and the last, perched on the shoulders of a ‘stander’, was a ‘crown’. This pattern was repeated up to ten times, so that the final structure resembled an imperfect polyhedron. This sense of imperfection was accentuated by the fact that on each of the three days it took place the performance was enacted on several occasions. Every time was slightly different, not only because the mostly amateur performers who volunteered to take part were on a rota, but because the three members of JocJonJosch joined in, thereby relinquishing their ability to direct the silent performance. Instead they too became subject to the sometimes aleatory movements of the collective.
Existere can be understood as a world in miniature. The singularity of the ‘shelter’ was belied, in a simple but important way, by the cyclicality of the process, by the inevitability of having to come apart again. At such the ‘shelter’ was suggestive of the transience of earthly existence, of the houses we build and the cities in which we live, or just life, which arrives and then, suddenly, sometimes catastrophically, departs. Indeed there was a gentle, attenuated form of spirituality to the human structure, which, under the pale light of the skylight, seemed paradisiacal. But the icon, if one can use this term to describe the ‘shelter’, had to break apart. In this the ‘shelter’ was anticipated by an earlier work, Virgin Mary (2009), where blackened icons of the Virgin cast in ice were set in a large block of ice in the shape of an alcove. The supporting photographs show the block of ice in various states of dissolution, until all that is left of it is a puddle of dirty water.
With Existere this sense of transience was redoubled by the refusal to allow any photographic documentation of the performance. The reasons behind this decision were numerous. In part it had to do with wanting to explore the fallout of the performance in ways that might have been precluded had it been photographed or filmed. Part of it, as is often the case when artists prohibit photography – think of the work of Tino Sehgal, for instance – has to do with the desire to produce a mythology around the work. But in the case of Existereperhaps the most important reason for this refusal had to do with what has become an over-reliance on the image as a repository of documentary truth.
In this context it is noteworthy that in the collective’s blog Joschi Herczeg associates the camera with a black hole: -
I know you guys thought it was funny but I still think it’s interesting that the camera, which catches light in order to capture a memory, has a relationship to the black hole, which literally draws in light. If light or its expansion is what makes time, then black holes draw in memories. Would be interesting if we managed to send memories into the black holes, what would happen to them?
What is suggestive about these musings, the kind many of us have enjoyed at one time or another, allowing our imaginations to slide from a black hole to a pinhole to the pupil of an eye, is that a photograph not only documents an event but also decides how that event will be remembered. As such a photograph is in some way forgetful. It gains its content not only from what is included but from what is left out.
The decision not to photograph the performance, then, was an occasion to invent different ways of lasting, ways that allowed for greater or at least different kinds of ambiguity than a photograph. JocJonJosch published an artist’s book, Existere(2011), which brought together the impressions of artists and writers. Handsomely bound in the blue cloth on which the performance took place, the book functions as an imaginary archive. There is also a work made out of glass panes suspended from a ceiling. When the viewer blows on the panes inscriptions appear for a moment. They comprise the impressions of those who saw the performance and left writings in the message book outside. A conversation was held at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London between myself, David Gothard, the curator Jo Melvin (who has co-edited and contributed to the present volume) and the poet John James (whose response to Worstward Ho can be found at the end of this book), which took Existere as the starting point for a discussion about the nature of documentary truth and its relation to performance art. And of course Existere continues to exist in the memories of those who saw the performance. It is altered and survives in each retelling. So if, in one sense, the performance is now lost forever, available only to memory, turned into anecdote, this loss is by no means complete. The performance does not exist in the past, nor in the present, but in some intermediate tense which is also the tense of the imagination. Existere continues to exist as an echo, something like the gap between sound and silence.
It is appropriate, then, that there was nothing despairing about the transience of the ‘shelter’. Perhaps it is rather like that sense of amazement and awe experienced by those who first travelled to the moon only to realise, at the end of their long journey through space, that what made the journey worthwhile was not so much being on the moon but being able to see the first ‘earthrise’. To reduce such an experience to the admission of human insignificance would be to miss the beauty of it. Much the same could be said of Existere. The ‘shelter’ offered the viewer a world in miniature. But it was a world that made no claim to transcendence. It was an icon for a post-Copernican universe in which the sun no longer circles the earth, even if we forget this every time we say the sun rises. Instead JocJonJosch found beauty and poetry in finitude: in bodies pressing against each other, in their inability to fuse, in their precarity, in the way limbs bend and unbend, in the way weight shifts, in the kinship of flesh with flesh, and in the joy of never seeing the conclusion arrive.
There is something profoundly human about this. We are, all of us, travellers who struggle along different paths toward the same destination; but itis the path itself that matters. And it is only in the middle of the path, where movement is sometimes hard to distinguish from immobility, that we may, perhaps, inhabit the fluid medium of time. Then we might become like those angelic creatures in Ted Hughes’ poem ‘That Morning’ who find themselves at the end of their journey because they have understood, paradoxically, that there is no end in sight.
So we found the end of our journey,
So we stood alive in the river of light,
Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.
Always in the middle, feet in a ceaselessly flowing river, always en route.