JocJonJosch: In Search of Embodiment
By Rye Dag Holmboe, Art Licks, A New Consciousness, Issue 5, 2011
Ethereal forms emerging slowly from dimly-lit corners, interlocking limbs, flesh cushioned in flesh, an inward-facing human ‘shelter’ held temporarily in place, the echo of shedding rain and the sound of bare feet brushing gently against dusty concrete. Such are the impressions left by Existere, a recent performance by the collective JocJonJosch at Testbed1 in Battersea, a disused warehouse recently re-opened as a space dedicated to the arts. That these impressions are fragmentary (and of course incomplete) is a symptom characteristic of performance art in general, whose very nature it is to resist precise verbal description. Indeed, it has become something of a convention to say that our responses to this art form are organised by the dictates of feeling rather than conceptual reflection. Whilst one should be weary of such emphasis on sensuous immediacy, it is nevertheless true that the temporal nature of performance art somehow sets us at the limits of what language can do. One must therefore rely on visual documentation to supplement textual accounts and to fill the mnemonic vacuum, as it were, knowing that the performance itself is irretrievable and that the medium is now quite different.
One significant distinction between performance art as a genre and Existere, however, is that no visual documentation exists to record what went on. If a sense of loss is inherent to this ephemeral art form, here the expectation that some kind of documentation will survive outside of the imaginations of those present is broken off. What endures, however temporarily, are imperfect recollections. Put differently, the duration of this time-based art form is counterbalanced by the fleeting nature of the event itself, leaving behind only the retrospective fiction of memory. In this manner the relation between language and embodiment is immediately foregrounded, and the very nature of poetic incarnation is cast into doubt. Even at this somewhat abstract level, then, the open-ended question the work raises is this: to what extent is the force of an embodied experience attenuated by its rationalisation?
The role of memory in Existere’s resistance to verbal assimilation is reinforced by the brevity and variability of the performance itself. The sixty or so figures that emerged from the room’s four darkened corners materialised into naked men and women who formed into a ‘shelter’ that was held for only a few minutes before it came apart again, like breath on a windowpane. (The specific movements are too intricate to summarize here but include several articulations where the stress is on collaboration and collective cohesion.) In addition, 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 the collective joined in, thereby relinquishing their ability to direct the silent performance. Instead they too became subject to the sometimes aleatory movements of the collective, altering each other’s notions of the body in space. Thus brevity, together with the admittance of material contingencies, can be seen to pose further obstacles to any simple hermeneutic, if only because the performance itself was so varied.
All this, however, focuses on Existere’s formal qualities and gives us little with regards to any possible interpretation of the process. In my eyes the performance can be read on two interconnected levels. First, the deliberate but trance-like movements of the performers, the slow making and unmaking of the ‘shelter,’ and the tension maintained between the particular and the collective, can all be read quite straightforwardly as allegories of the temporary character of all human constructions. This in turn could be understood as a broad critique of the structures of transcendence and universalism that naturalise our present situation in late-capitalism. Or one might argue that the ‘shelter,’ composed as it is of naked human figures, harks back to ritualistic forms of social existence and should therefore be understood as an attempt to overcome the individual/collective dualism. Indeed, this may offer a plausible point of entry when trying to understand the way in which the ‘shelter’s symmetry is offset by the irregularities of the individual bodies from which it is composed. In other words, is the ‘shelter’ a sign of identity or of multiplicity?
Yet my own feeling is that this nostalgic emphasis on the transient, on memory and on the past – categories proper to the existential – forms only a part of the story. As with all performance, there is a point at which the performative must give way to the equivocal realm of the experiential, and it is here that the role of the spectator is to be considered. In the case of Existere, it is important to note that the structure was inward-facing and that the naked performers outnumbered the limited spaces allocated to the spectators. Moreover, once the ‘shelter’ was constructed the viewer was unable to see through it, his viewpoint blocked by a mass of interlocking limbs and the dense materiality of flesh. This overexposure to sensory detail might be described as the interruptive function of the ‘shelter’s non-signifying presence.
As such it is clear that the spectator’s existence was presupposed and that, whilst the ‘shelter’ may have provided refuge for those who upheld it, it did so through a process of spatial closure and therefore of exclusion. One might say, then, that Existere posits the lineaments of an alternate social organisation – a new mode of production in which the particular is not subsumed by the universal, the part by the whole – in the very same breath in which that organisation is called fundamentally into question. In other words, if the performance can be interpreted as a representational meditation on a radical otherness latent in human history (understood here as a muted promise of post-individualistic corporeal transcendence), it also functions as a critique of representation itself, a critique of its inability to actualise that utopian promise in an inclusive way. It is as though the effort to produce a full representation inevitably betrays the impossibility of doing so. Thus a formal contradiction projects itself into the ostensible content and transforms it. In this refracted light the deepest subject of JocJonJosch’s Existere is not so much the utopian ‘shelter.’ Rather, it is a confrontation with the crisis of representation and a reflection on the unrealizable itself. It is in this moment of self-consciousness, when the work’s form enacts its content out, that Existere finds its truth-content.
A final note. In a remarkable passage of his Aesthetic Theory, Theodor W. Adorno singles out fireworks as the very prototype of art’s temporality, an ‘art that aspires not to duration but only to glow for an instant and then fade away.’ For Adorno art desires to be an empirical manifestation freed from the weight of empiria, an actualisation freed from the ontology of actuality, a fleeting expression unmediated by its construction. In the momentariness of its appearance Existere aspires to such radical evanescence, to such pure sensuality, even if the internal contradiction we have encountered forestalls such a prospect. Yet it is by preserving the contradiction between what is and what is hoped for and by renouncing the image of reconciliation that the performance speaks of the individual’s alienated state in postmodernity. In so doing it promises a blocked or denied sensuality in some radically different future, a future (to return to our original argument) where language has no purchase. Existere’s success, one might say, is to be found in its failure.