Blurring as affect on the nervous system

Affirmatively watching a dance piece will affect your mirror neurons subconsciously, but there are works which obviously address an even deeper level than seeing motion sequences. Pieces like Kat Valastur’s Oh! Deep sea-corpus III, where a stroboscopic effect evoked through flickering light seemed to cut the visual into a series of adjunct film frames. Or Meg Stuart’s Violet in which mostly from shaking “[s]ingular and small gestures evolve into more extensive ones or just cross-cutting convulsions, motion that seems to generate itself, emerging without obvious cause, out of any specific reason” , as I wrote here.

The frameworks of these fascinating works often are based on a specific repetition of the seemingly same, but in fact different motion. As such it could also be they just evoke a certain boredom if one expects a narrative that can be recounted afterwards. And even the most willing onlooker might go home and think: ‘Well, entertaining, and excitingly new, but what was it about?’ The activity of perceiving in this case happens on a different level, and those who notice: ‘I don’t really get it, but these images somehow stick on my mind’, might come closest to an ‘understanding’ in anticipating that their subconscious system of nerves affectively has been touched.

An Ian Kaler’s ‘o.T. | (the emotionality of the jaw)’ is one of these pieces digging deeper into your nervous system. It is complex in viewing, since repetition here is not a method defining the entire piece, but the motor for building single motion sequences. Between these parts are obvious breaks, phases where the dancer is walking across the room or just calmly finding a new position. As well as moments when either the musicians or the stage design itself through a shift in interrelation become central elements.

An Ian Kaler 'o.T. | (the emotionality of the jaw) - photo: Eva Wuerdinger
An Ian Kaler ‘o.T. | (the emotionality of the jaw) – photo: Eva Wuerdinger

On entering the black box of HAU3 the percussionist Houeida Hedfi is already playing her electronic drums. Also the musician Jam Rostron is standing behind her electronic setup on the right side of the stage. The side wall behind this duo, named AQUARIAN JUGS, is covered with a rather long than high rectangular silver screen reflecting the present light. The glaring luminance dazzling straight into the eyes of the audience emerges from a row of spotlights running at floor level across the back wall of the stage. On the left side a large built box, all in black, is pushing about a meter into the space of the stage area. The upper back part of this extended wall is covered with a shining black foil which is repeated in a square on the floor near the audience on the same side.

An Ian Kaler 'o.T. | (the emotionality of the jaw) - stage design (photo: TQW)
An Ian Kaler ‘o.T. | (the emotionality of the jaw) – stage design (photo: TQW)

The percussionist, raptly shaking head and hair, is still warming up the space with rhythmically repeating strokes on her instrument. Kaler, obviously nervous, waiting at the side of the stage is instantly shifting to deep focus the moment she decides to enter the center area. The lights dim down releasing the audience’s eyes from squinting and the dark on dark dance begins. Dressed in black pants and a dark shiny hoody the dancer’s figure seems almost hiding at the far left of the stage. Dimming the lights further lets the darkness nearly swallow the shapes on the less illuminated left side. The movements though become increasingly perceptible with the adjustment of the eye adding before unnoticed shades of black to the dance scene.

Crouching, knees on the floor, Kaler collects his forces. Visible at certain points the shaking of an arm or even the entire body suddenly erupting into an unloading of energy that blurs every outline. Limb or body merge withs shades of the background, like a flipping through motion frames, blurring any fixed line. “For me, the luminescence of black has to do with a power charging. I’ll connect it with a certain kind of movement material, which I call “blurring”: the emergence of a blur, which can only be achieved by a certain force. That’s interesting to me because it combines a very physical process with a visual result.”(1) Ian Kaler pointed out in an interview after the premiere of the piece in Vienna last autumn.

Abstract movements ranging from rough, short and sharp cutting shakes to small, tender, touching or longing gestures in the space that without doubt includes the air. Layers of conditions blurring into each other, built up energy converts into exhaustion, leading to changing positions of the dark dancer – from straight standing and calm walking to kneeling, bending and shivering and vice versa. Then folding the arms around the head the jaw’s expression of bawling out all its anger, pain and pride about the load put on for being the strongest body joint while equally being linked to other main and even bigger connectors. The figure, knees bent, stopping the torso over them, now really in the center facing the musicians – the closest he ever gets towards them – allows the jaw’s emotionality to continue for some time. ‘o.T. | (the emotionality of the jaw)’ approaches the field of empathy over the ambiguous separation of time and space, activating it with a vacillation of relationships of multiple bodies and works towards an opening of physicality(2).

An Ian Kaler 'o.T. | (the emotionality of the jaw) - photo: TQW
An Ian Kaler ‘o.T. | (the emotionality of the jaw) – photo: TQW

I had been thinking of intensities that activate the blurring when amplifying and releasing hit each other. If that is a possible image: the release of energy in this smallest of gaps as reminder of a thunderbolt. It’s about the state of drifting, of letting go, about a movement toward the power of a possible detonation. This does not mean a destructive moment, but a constructive one, which itself contains the possibility of reorientation. Reading this text in the accompanying leaflet of Ian Kaler’s piece calls up the definition of orientation offered by Sara Ahmed: to think of space through orientation as an option that allows turning towards a new direction, which opens up how spatial perceptions come to matter and be directed as matter(3). Addressing it thus also in the sense of meaning and here I cite the following paragraph from my text: ‘Turn around – make a round turn’:

According to S. Ahmed we are defined by the lines we follow, as well as we emerge from them. Lines, she states, “are both created by being followed and are followed by being created. The lines that direct us, as lines of thought as well as lines of motion, are in this way performative: they depend on the repetition of norms and conventions, of routes and paths taken, but they are also created as an effect of this repetition”(4). There is an inherent ambiguity evolving from the relation to “follow a line” and the conditions for the emergence of lines. The repetition of the act of following makes the line disappear from the view as that ‘point’ from which “we” emerge (5). It recedes into the background not only as the object of recurrent interest, but as “[t]he bit of earth that supports me […; that] supports my experience of objects”(6).

An Ian Kaler 'o.T. | (the emotionality of the jaw) - photo: TQW
An Ian Kaler ‘o.T. | (the emotionality of the jaw) – photo: TQW
In this context Kaler’s ‘blurring’ seems an attempt to retrieve that line which became imperceptible in following it and swaying it at the same time as to open up an orientation that has been layered by the known. Her strategy of ‘blurring’ and ‘swaying’ is not to hide things or attitudes, but instantiates a method to create intensity through the accumulation of all potential possibilities. The known ones, and the inaccessible, piling up their markers of inherent energies, not to blow up the known, but to exceed the borders, of any given or fixed outlines and setting them free for an opening all at once.

‘Blurring’ thus eventually even as the initiator of a ‘dark precursor’(7), the paradoxical imperceptible reversed ‘pre-shadow’ of the line that becomes visible in the following flash of light. And while the flash’s accumulated energy has a destructive impact if objects are hit, its unload emerging from the between of intensities often can be related to a sort of clearing, a freeing of accumulated tension. And if that is the flash of an idea calling for actualization. De/ and /construction developing along the same line of differentiating though in opposite directions.

Or as Barad cites from V. Kirby and concludes in accordance to her that the non-continuous behavior of the flash according to a commonly assumed linearity is a ‘communication that has neither sender nor recipient until the transmission has already occurred’. This sort of ‘nature’s queer performitivity’, as she addresses it, brings to mind the ‘Embodied Communication‘(8) theory of Tschacher and Storch, which argues that at least in face to face encounter the idea of a sender – receiver channel has to be given up. Based on system theory they point out that communication is rather an affective process between involved partners than an insight into the true content of messages. Further that the effects of this affective process run also between body and mind in both directions. This argument puzzles the understanding of communicating in a similar way, as Barad’s paradoxical insights based on quantum entanglement.

Kaler’s performance in ‘o.T. | (the emotionality of the jaw)’ attempts this ‘freeing’ of the given line or the common understanding by bringing different states into a close overlay where oppositional forces are simultaneously at work. Quite in the sense of K. Barad’s ‘Agential Realism’ spacetimemattering’s performativity in its iterative intra-activity can rework im/possibilities in the process, though does not erase (former) marks on bodies (9). An Ian Kaler and the AQUARIAN JUGS seem indeed to be close to performing nature’s queer performativity as by reworking their own and in conjunction consequently the audience’s senses affectively.

(1) Interview with author and critique Helmut Ploebst: http://www.corpusweb.net/energien-des-kiefers.html
(2) Website: http://www.iankaler.org/performance/o-t-the-emotionality-of-the-jaw/
(3) Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, 2006, p.12 -> cited from own paper: ‘Turn around, make a round turn’, 2013
(4) Ibid: p. 16
(5) Ibid. p.15/16
(6) Levinas, Totality and Inifinity, 1969, p.138; in Ahmed, p.166
(7) “Thunderbolts explode between different intensities, but they are preceded by an invisible, imperceptible dark precursor, which determines their path in advance but in reverse, as though intagliated.” — Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p.119
(8) Maja Storch, Wolfgang Tschacher, Embodied Communication, 2014, p.61, 117
(9) Karen Barad, ‘Nature’s queer performativity’, KVINDER, KØN & FORSKNING NR. 1-2, 2012

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