Visible definitions

Sarma 1 Jan 2003English

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Contextual note
Sarma asked the British performance theoretician and queer theory specialist Martin Hargreaves to visit B-Visible and write some observations. This process of perception and reflection was put on line during the event, and was introduced by a lecture. Afterwards Hargreaves wrote this text, an additional essay.

B-visible was a 72 hour laboratory for art-theory and practice installed at the Vooruit arts centre in Gent from the 5th to the 7th November 2002. Multifarious projects occupied the space - workshops, installations, performances, lectures, discussions and indeed the participants also slept in the theatre, with a dormitory installed on the main stage and food provided in the café. Curated by Kattrin Deufert, Jeroen Peeters and Thomas Plischke, and co-ordinated by Barbara Raes from Vooruit, the space was opened up to explore 'queerness' which, in the press release, was described as "a series of strategies that oppose the conventional hetero-normative pattern that defines and marks sex, sexuality and gender, rather than as a delineated theory or attitude." This lack of a single delineation or definition for what constitutes 'queer' theory or practice meant that a diverse range of actions and interventions occurred under the title of a 72 hour 'queerathon'. Consequently during B-visible, and continuing after, (and no doubt preceding it too), differences, discussions and arguments focused on the types of 'queerness', if any, that manifested at the Vooruit. Although I don't want to put words in the mouths of those who were most vocally upset, one of the controversies was whether or not the participants were 'queer' (which for some meant gay or lesbian) and how or if this 'queerness' was represented and projected into the wider visual field of the city. Was the Vooruit itself queered and therefore did it show this queerness in a way that could be read by the inhabitants of the theatre and of Gent as a whole? What did 'queer' mean in this context and could it be used to mean anything else, in other contexts?

At the heart of this dispute is 'visibility'; showing, presenting, and marking and a correlative emphasis on definition both in terms of visually clear images and a limitation on meanings and readability. To define is to describe or delineate but also to present or discern a clear visual outline, and what was desired by some from this event was a clearly defined 'queerness' which could be seen and understood as evidence of alternate sexual identities and practices. I don't want to offer my final definition of 'queerness' here, or indeed anywhere else, since I think that 'queer' is about, at the least, a confusion and troubling of definitions (its 'original' English usage means strange or odd and therefore difficult to define, except as somehow a limit to definition) but I do want to explore the question of what became visually defined by the event, what showed up or out, what wasn't clear and what escaped the eye/I completely. After all, my participation in the event was by way of an invite from Sarma to both present a lecture but also to write 'observations' in order to document the event from the position of a writer/critic. There were however components of this event that could not be observed either because they purposefully didn't manifest themselves as a spectacle or because I did not and could not occupy a position outside of the event from which to adopt the scrutinising or scientific gaze that the word 'observe' suggests. The Vooruit did not operate as a panopticon, organising events for a singular viewing position, but confused, immersed and overwhelmed the process of 'observation' and this is my attempt to address but not define the optics of b-visible.


In the final few hours of the event I did go and occupy a traditional spectatorial role - I sat in a seat in the auditorium of the main theatre. As I looked onto the stage covered with beds, I saw the sleeping zone as a set for the first time whereas previously I had experienced it only as an occupant. As an installation it was quite beautiful with the low ultraviolet light making the white sheets shimmer but it was not simply an aesthetic experience since the stage was where I, and eighty other people, were living in that moment. The stage did not therefore mark the limits of where a performance was taking place or for whom but confused these divisions (after all I became aware that I was 'on show' whilst asleep, I was conscious of my performance of being unconscious) which resulted in a very ambivalent and liminal space. This ambiguity was explored by Claude Wampler's workshop, Strategies for Stagefright, which deliberately infected the intimacy of sleep with the theatricality of the space. On the second evening they silently moved around the beds and left markings on hands and feet sticking out of the covers, or left messages and tape recordings of sleep sounds: visible traces of a performance which was played for a sleeping audience - or perhaps it was an audience that had intervened in the performance of sleep. A documentary film shown the following day combined footage of this intervention, with what turned out to be fictionalised violations (such as stripping sleepers or sewing them to their sheets), further blurring the opposition between participant and audience, between the visible and unseen and also further displacing the certainty of being able to see what 'really' happens. On the final evening the workshop asked the theatre technicians to drop sheets from high up on the gantry and they photographed them as they fell - printouts of an image were then laid on the beds with the title 'Proof of Ghosts'. For me this had resonance with the entire event which was itself ghostly - it was never fully manifested but haunted the edges of visibility - what actually were we seeing? and what was it proof of? Queerness?

Part of what we did see were the 'invisible' workers of a theatre, and the 'ghost' performance by the technicians for Wampler's workshop was part of a wider shift to place the 'backstage' workers centre stage; Frankfurter Kueche technician Bernard Sissan constructed a performance machine in the bar area and Heine Avdal and Petra Roggel's Camouflage performance was to work in the bar during the event. The photographer Tomaz scattered multiple photographs of the many different people employed in the Vooruit throughout the building and every hour a bucket of badges with a B and the hour (from 1 to 72) was hidden somewhere in the building with the rumour of a prize for the most badges collected - the hunt integrated the staff of Vooruit into the event so that the artist/worker definition was blurred. One of my most pleasurable 'performances' was when technical director Peter Misschaert took Natasha Hassiotis and myself on an impromptu tour of the building and told us about it's history, communicating both an in-depth knowledge and an infectious love for the building. Whereas the usually unseen elements of theatre therefore became more visible, there were few traditional 'performances' to see, if at all. Alice Chauchat and Vera Knolle's Performing 'Performance' was perhaps the closest to a performance and yet it took the very contexts and definitions of 'performance' as its object and moved between rituals, games, conversations, dances and lip-synching. Presented as a work in progress it deconstructed its own appearance through an investigation of performative theory, deploying a witty and intelligent mixture of citations from theorists such as J.L. Austin, Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler with Dan Graham's performance work and Britney Spears 'live' in concert!. Chauchat's own work, simply titled 'Study', examined the transposition of pornstar poses onto three different bodies, and showed a 'rehearsal' process which didn't become a piece but was itself the work. This was repeated over the three days which allowed the observation of gender masquerade but also the subtle differences between individual bodies - indeed although Ugo Dehaes, Tom Plischke and Yasuo Akai were all men adopting 'feminine' poses their 'maleness' was not necessarily always the most important factor in their performance and the various permutations of the director/dancer relationship performed by the workshops was as interesting as the deconstruction of gender performance. The repetition of the work across different bodies and days created a context where elements of performance were made visible that are perhaps disavowed by a 'one-off' performance product. Up in the rafters of the attic, a slide installation by Kattrin Deufert and Thomas Plischke entitled Gender Studies, clicked slowly over the three days to illuminate the space with images of themselves wearing woollen tights lying alone in forests, glades and riverbeds. Their androgynous appearance and the ambiguity of both the location and the poses they adopted, suggested an unheimlich performance which unsettled both gender difference and the places of reality and fantasy in the representation of queered identities. Its durational aspect also meant that the spectator actively participated in the projection of fantasies of gendered morphology played out across the screen.

The general avoidance of 'product' and the exploration of 'event' and 'process' meant that debates over the visibility and recording of performance were raised by B-visible. Peggy Phelan's writing on performance in her collection 'Unmarked' has become something of a key text within performance studies and she champions the 'ontology of performance' as based in the live moment, outside of reproduction and representation. She states "live performance plunges into visibility - in a maniacally charged present - and disappears into memory, into the realm of invisibility and the unconscious where it eludes regulation and control."(1) Phelan argues that writing on performance is mistaken when it seeks to record what has happened since performance's existence in the present moment is strictly antithetical to repetition or recording. Heidi Gilpin has made similar claims suggesting that watching and writing about dancing is based in a series of displacements - the bodies of the dancers disappear to be displaced by their representation of 'movement' which is further displaced by the act of writing. She suggests that "we must begin not only to let the body go, but also to revel in its absence, and in the traces engendered by its passage from presence to absence."(2) Whilst I am indebted to these arguments they however require that a performance has in some sense 'taken place' whereas B-visible did not make anything fully 'plunge into visibility' and the performances did not necessarily obey the linearity of 'beginning, middle, end'. Writing about b-visible therefore I am unsure where or when the displacement starts or finishes.

Mark Franko focuses on Derrida's notion of 'the trace'(3) to suggest that "the disappearing presence of the trace- unrepeatable but not for that reason culturally irrecuperable - is the "being" of performance, its "once" as memorable."(4) For Franko the trace enables an understanding of dancing as an impermanent enactment or re-marking of space which is not brought to full presence but is meaningful in its absence. As Franko suggests, "Dance performs still non-existent social spaces constructed from the memory of what is not, and never was, under a false appearance of a present."(5) André Lepecki advances a similar argument when he suggests that dance performance invokes "the space of apparitions, of ghosts, of illusion in representation,"(6) and therefore this "choreographic play of invisibilities challenges the critical fetishism of thinking, writing and seeing dance as that which pertains only to the visual."(7) Lepecki suggests that memory is the key element both in dancing and in writing and both disappear, they move from visible to invisible but what can be seen is already defined by what is unseen; the specters of performance.

All of which leads us back to ghosts - according to Derrida the ghost appears in order to disappear, indeed the appearance is conditioned by both its past disappearance and its future disappearance - it is constituted through a deconstruction of, "the border between the present, and everything that can be opposed to it: absence, non-presence, non-effectivity, inactuality, virtuality, or even the simulacrum in general, and so forth."(8) If, as I am arguing here, B-visible was ghostly then the haunting of the Vooruit itself constituted a deconstructive queering - not only of the order of the unseen and seen but in terms of representation and presence. If 'queer' is defined as a demand to present oneself as a visible sign of homosexuality (and this is how it operates as an insult - it interpellates the queered subject as the visible limits of unmarked 'normality') then b-visible both repeated this ironically ('be visible, show yourself') and refused it (it did not show itself fully). Although some articulated a desire for 'proof' of queerness, (proof that it exists, that queers were present at the event), the proof is after all only the proof of ghosts, the seduction of the visible and its attempt to communicate full presence which is always already undermined by disappearances, traces and dematerializations. Of course invisibility is nothing new to queers but I am not sure that this event constituted a 'closeting' of homosexuality - it did not deny space for the representation of homosexuality but instead deconstructed the premise that full visibility can ever be achieved. Indeed B-visible suggests that a politics of ghosts might be more useful in queering the definition of sex, gender and identity.

Documentation as Ghost-writing

In the last hours of the 7th, following my short performance as an audience member, I climbed the stairs of the auditorium to the Mokkabon at the top where "Viewing Films Publicly" was installed by Sabine Nessel, Birgit Kohler and Winifried Pauleit. They took archive film reels from Gent and played them continuously over the 72 hours, with only a 90 minute break each day for discussion - their intention was to reverse the usual timescale of a film experience but also to make visible these hidden records. I sat and watched extracts from the archive of the openings of art galleries, motorcycle stunt-team competitions, weddings and other ceremonies. Of what I saw, and understood (they had Dutch dialogue), it was all footage of important local and national rituals - indeed they seemed to be public performances. These people from the early 1970's seemed to adopt an awkward still pose whenever the camera framed them. Clearly they were not as used to film as we are today and they seemed to hold themselves so that they could be caught on film. The reanimation of these ghostly bodies was a flickering performance that was not really there, and indeed it drew attention to the notion of capturing, archiving and revisiting the past in the present - the performativity of documentation and the repetition of the performative moment.

I worked my way down the back stairs and went into the space that Nadia Schnock's workshop had used for 'The Performative Object' explorations - here I found again an archive of performances - there were polaroids laid out of the participants trying on clothes and merging into polymorphous assemblages of limbs and torsos like the perverse doll-like figures of the Chapman brothers, Pierre Molinier or Hans Belmer. I didn't see these 'live' objects but instead caught the trace through the documentation that had been left behind. Stephanie Wenner's workshop on 'Horizons' also left some documentation of their activities in the form of an installation of video and text in the café, part of which plotted a chart from a questionnaire regarding horizons with the chart itself forming a horizon. The other workshops though remained invisible to me - perhaps I wasn't looking hard enough, or in the right places, or perhaps they simply did not become visible to an external viewpoint. Documentation seemed to be a large part of the event although it was never simply about recording - there were archivists from Sarma at the lectures and discussions who were recording and transcribing throughout the 72 hours but also many of the other events either performed or provided their own documentation. Some, like the discursive tents set up for discussions of 'queer theory' or for conversations, broadcast a live archive of speech via the radios scattered throughout the Vooruit, while other projects such as Yasuo Akai's photo/e-mail exhibit 'Re:turn letters (2)/(trans)late', Pierre Rubio's video viewing workshop 'D.H.L.' and Sinisa Ilic & Bojan Djordjev's slideshow 'B-ing in the desert of PICTURE' explored queer identifications through textual and visual archives.

Boris Groys has argued recently that the emphasis on the documentation of art work, as opposed to the presentation of a final product, has shifted the location and perception of art - "it makes it clear that art in this case is no longer present and immediately visible but rather absent and hidden´┐Żart documentation is neither the making present of a past art event nor the promise of a coming artwork but the only form of reference to an artistic activity that cannot be represented in other ways."(9) Again, the artwork becomes spectral - it is neither fully visible nor fully invisible (even if is only its 'absence' that becomes visible) and its time and place are not ordered according to past, present and future but through repetitions and returns. Documentation as ghost-writing therefore does not set out to force a manifestation of 'art' nor to exorcise its troubling ghostliness but engages with the spectrality of performance. Derrida suggests that a 'hauntological' enquiry is one which attempts to speak with ghosts and remain welcome to their repetition and return. The materialisation of hegemonic norms requires and instances a simultaneous dematerialisation of exclusions that nevertheless constitute those norms - "Hegemony still organises the repression and thus the confirmation of a haunting. Haunting belongs to the structure of every hegemony."(10) Although Derrida does not deal directly with either gender or performance (although he does engage the ghosts of Hamlet), it could be argued that a 'hauntology' should be 'queer' because it has to welcome the excluded abject figures that haunt gender hegemony. It does not welcome them in order to define them, either visually or symbolically, but precisely to allow a disruption of the ordering of appearances and the privileging of the heterosexual matrix which ,although unseen, attempts to control the visual field and the position of the eye/I. I would suggest that, in spite of the differences and difficulties, indeed because of them, B-visible was both a space for the return of 'queerness' and the rethinking of the space of performance; a queer hauntology which evoked the performativity of definition but playfully resisted being defined.

(1) Peggy Phelan,Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London : Routledge, 1993) p148
(2) Heidi Gilpin, 'Lifelessness in movement, or how do the dead move? Tracing displacement and disappearance for movement performance,' in Susan Leigh Foster ed. Corporealities ( (London : Routledge 1996) p106
(3) See Of Grammatology ( (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press ,1976)
(4) Franko, Mark, 'Mimique' in Goellner and Shea Murphy (ed.) Bodies of the Text ( (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995) p206
(5) ibid. p212
(6) Lepecki, Andre, 'As If Dance Was Visible' in Performance Research (1(3), (London: Routledge 1996) p75
(7) ibid.
(8) Derrida, Jacques, Specters of Marx( , (London: Routledge 1994) p39
(9) Groys, Boris, 'Art in the Age of Biopolitics' in Documenta 11 Catalogue ( (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz 2002) p108
(10) Derrida, Jacques, Specters of Marx( , (London: Routledge 1994) p37