Walking and talking, more or less

Sarma Jan 2014English

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Contextual note
This essay was commissioned by Sarma as a reflection on the third walk+talk series that took place in Stockholm in December 2013.

It is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say.

- Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses (1)


Within the first edition of the dance festival Dans <3 Stockholm a series of four performances took place at Kulturhuset in Stockholm early December 2013. These were a part of a larger series of performances conceived of by the choreographer Philipp Gehmacher and previously held in Vienna and Brussels in 2008 and 2011 where choreographers were invited to talk about their choreographic work while at the same time performing this work. The object of these performances could be said to be the conjunction of movement and speech, the visible and the utterance, as the title suggests: walk+talk. However, if we’re attentive to what Michel Foucault says, the essence of this conjunction might be more elusive; it might even be imperceptible. Seen from this perspective, and in the context of commenting upon walk+talk, Foucault’s statement could as easily be read as the desperate outcry of a dance critic painfully aware that language is unable to reach the richness of the visual performance that is to be described. And it doesn’t help to turn the statement on its head, which Foucault does in the sentence that follows: “And it is in vain that we attempt to show, by the use of images, metaphors, or similes what we are saying.” To this list of images, metaphors and similes, we could add movements and gestures, which would bring us to the other side, the stage, incarnating the performer grappling with the problem of realizing a choreographic score.

But if we stay within this division of saying and seeing, utterance and the visible – although it maintains the primacy of the word over the thing, and the autonomy of dance – all that remains is their separation. Through this separation dance is relegated to the side of silence, conceived of and trapped in the conception of it being a fleeting, ephemeral art form that is always present, never truly representable.

Incidentally, this separation was both visible and articulated at Dans <3 Stockholm which occurred in conjunction with the release of Sweden’s first choreographic journal Koreografisk Journal. Ironically, to the sides of the shows, one couldn’t find so much writing on dance, but rather critiques of the fact that nothing was being written on dance. Walk+talk then became the space where the visible and the discursive intersected. Though not without hesitations nor a subtle paradoxical touch, as choreographer Frédéric Gies explained while dancing/speaking: “I want to spend more time exploring what dance can do by dancing, not by talking.”

What is the potential of this tense encounter of movement and speech?


“+” as the place of the subject or its disappearance?

The plus sign in Philipp Gehmacher’s walk+talk suggests a possible conjunctive function that can be put to work in between what we see and what we hear. A function that need not be merely additive, as if the plus sign simply meant walk and talk, where the visual and the discursive would be the only elements of the set. Of course the actions of the performers cannot be reduced to walking and talking, as much as a walk+talk is not a mere exercise in multitasking, nor is it the narrative technique we know from television series such as NBC’s The West Wing. Of course talking adds something to the performance, for a performance adds something to the stale format of the lecture, but as Gehmacher states in his own walk+talk, suggesting a sort of preliminary definition of the whole walk+talk series: “It’s neither a project for theory or against theory. It’s also not giving the words, putting them back into the mouths of practitioners.” In what then does this addition reside, this plus sign, symptomatically absent from the walk+talk that the performers referred to as “walk and talk”? Gehmacher himself points towards what this unseen and unheard addition could mean in the context of the four walk+talks, shifting our perspective from the biographical, which was the recurrent manifest content of the talks, to the “attempt to expose a certain sense of physicality [and] … subjectivity.” Even a “radical subjectivity”, as Gehmacher had previously specified in the introduction to the series of walk+talks in Stockholm.

The audience is given no further clue as to what is meant with this “radical subjectivity”, but the lack of a definition from the choreographer is in itself no proof that the idea is incoherent. The actualization of this idea can however lack in radicality and turn into and around the self-centered and narcissistic ego. But it also has the potentiality to turn this form that tends to posit a center into something that renders the very articulation between movement and words constantly different. The subject that articulates the relation between the visible and the utterance isn’t necessarily this specific choreographer that we see and hear but can instead be the “vanishing mediator” that renders these two expressions manifest and in so doing disappears as an ego, or as an individual artist.

In fact, to follow this line of thought, the series walk+talk is devised so that the content of each performance remains fixed, it contains only two elements: walking and talking, in other words, what is seen and what is spoken. This manifest content remains the same for the entire series, but the form of this set of two, the relation between them, changes with each singular performance, with the addition of another singular subject to the series. Choreographer Anna Koch makes this visible when, after arranging an imaginary collection of things, she points out that the essence lies not in the things themselves, but in their relation to the other things in the collection. This gathering does not only stretch out to the subject forming this collection, since Koch elevates our vision beyond the singular word, thing or performance to the series of performances as such; in this “choreography, you gather, create relations, you fail and somehow something new is brought out.”

As for the individual performances, the plus sign bears more force when it does not aim to bind the utterance with the visible movement to form a whole. For this whole would only be proof of the vanity of the ego where words merely reflect upon movement, and gestures mirror narration. In a poor case this results in a flat pedagogical depiction, or even worse in a self-indulgent exposition of what choreography is from the “subjective” position of the choreographer. But if it is in vain that these two forms of expression are brought together, as the spoken word will always refer to but never touch the thing it describes and the movement might never be anything else than its own presence, does this mean that these should be kept separate? Are we bound to stop at the limit between the two, not venturing beyond this “intimacy between the language of speech and the language of vision [that] extends to their mutual impossibilities”? (2)

It might be impossible, it might even be in vain that we try to say what we see and show what we say. However, the link between utterances and visible movements can be made without interpreting the plus sign as simply superimposing words onto movement. The plus sign can instead of a conjunction become the mark of a disjunctive synthesis, where it is precisely the separation between these two forms that renders their problematic relation visible. Choreographer Tove Sahlin begins her performance by rendering this impossibility possible when she states her intent of saying something important: “We’re not sure if it’s possible to do it with words. We can try.” And she adds: “We’re not sure if it’s possible to do something important with shaking. We can try.”

Similarly, Frédéric Gies opens up his performance with recounting what led him to device his approach, the “love to start working on something by addressing a problem.” The problem in this case being directly related to the gap between the spectators and the performer: between the seeing and hearing from the side of the spectators and the expressive movements and words from the side of the stage. How to bridge this gap? Is it possible to be seen as one sees oneself? To be heard as one hears oneself? What Gies perceived as the flattening frontal relation with the audience and what he felt as a loss of his three-dimensionality can be understood as the effect of distancing that both the visible and the audible produces. As if the body was simply the slate on which gestures and words were written. Pure surface. Contrary to what one may think,  Gies’ inner monologue didn’t provide his dance performance with a depth that would bridge the gap between audience and performer by also giving the audience a direct insight to his mind – a sort of empathy, or Einfühlung (lit. “feeling-into) as the Germans say. Rather, the so-called fourth wall of the theater became even more evident when his movements had to be accompanied by an inner monologue. That is, by conjoining words with movement, even though in a “subjective” manner by describing one’s history or gestures, one risks becoming an object.

The problem then becomes how it is possible to bridge this gap between the visible and the utterances, as well as between the seen and being seen, and between the speaking and being spoken to, without being reduced to that which is seen and said. For Foucault, the impossibility of superimposing language on to the visible should not be seen as an obstacle to be avoided, but their incompatibility should be treated as the starting point both for what is visible and what can be said.

For this openness to be possible one should not pass directly from the space where one speaks to the space where one looks as if there were some common ground. This common ground, we know it well, is nothing but the subject, the proper name, the auteur, call it what you will. The openness of the relation between the visible and the utterance demands that no privilege be given to that which would unite the two, in this case, the choreographer. The four choreographers of walk+talk tackle this problem in their own way, and in doing so one can catch a glimpse of what one could call their “radical subjectivity”, which could be nothing more than this vanishing mediator between words and gestures. The choreographer is not at the center, but he or she is that imperceptible link between visible movement and audible speech that displaces the center of what is seen and from where the words are spoken. This could be what the walk+talk series reveals, that for each different walk+talk the “radical subjectivity” exposed is nothing more than the self-effacing subject that connects the visible with the utterance. How this can be accomplished, if at all, differs.


Internal erasure or external explosion of differences

If the specific problem for Gies in his walk+talk was the objectifying, two-dimensional relation to the audience brought about by the distance between the space where Gies would speak and move and the space where he would be seen and heard, he did not try to obliterate this distance. Instead of appropriating the entire stage, occupying it with movements or voice, Gies simply let the distance – the distance between himself and the audience, as well as the distance between his words and his movements – take center stage. By slowly turning around himself, with sparsely interjected utterances in a low and soft tone, Gies broke with the necessity to impose a center and so also with the desire to subjectively master the distance. For the spectator, there was nothing to understand and nowhere to fix one’s attention except at this intersection that was Gies’ rendition of what it meant to dance – to possess the presence of the other, and to be possessed by this other. The distancing relation of vision, in which one normally seizes the perceived object, is reversed. The spectator was no longer in a position to merely possess the perceived object from a distance; instead, the mutual possession of the perceiving and perceived bodies gave rise to a fascination where “far from apprehendingfrom a distance, we are apprehended by this distance, invested by it and investedwith it. In the case of sight, not only do we touch the thing, thanks to an intervalthat disencumbers us of it, but we touch it without being encumbered by this interval.” (3)

         The felt two-dimensionality was even more forcefully gotten rid of by Gies having his eyes closed throughout the performance. By not seeing, one escapes from being seized by vision and can instead partake in this shared distance. By not seeing, Gies managed to both see and speak out what was not visible, as his last words testify: “It is a dance without a choreographer… that’s what I’m looking for.”

If Gies connected the visual movement with the spoken word through this internalizing of the separation with the spectator, to the point of almost erasing this difference with the other, Tove Sahlin inverted this internalizing relation. Sahlin did not speak from her point of view, but mostly made use of the first person plural pronoun “we” rather than the “I”, rendering visible what one could not see, that her experience as a choreographer is not her own, and that it shapes and expresses itself in a collective. Not only was the collaboration of invisible partners rendered visible through this simple linguistic tool “we”, but from the very beginning of her performance the spectators were also invoked as participants in that the meaning of the performance depended on their different visual perceptions: “We think this is the center, we’re not one hundred percent sure, we think you might have different perceptions of where the center is.”

Through her speech, Sahlin made it possible to see that the definition of the center – Who’s on stage? Who’s allowed to occupy the center of attention? and so forth – depends on institutional structures as well as the spectators’ own different perspectives. So that finally, instead of reducing visibility to one point on stage, the subject laid spread out on the entire stage. This effect was reinforced not only by Sahlin’s incessant talking, but also, and more importantly, by her literal “shedding” of t-shirts for every previous show she reenacted, and by leaving her shoes at the supposed center, as if the scattered subjects that she had talked about were seen dispersed on the stage. And there was nothing left of the center, nor of a message, but these last words “So therefore…”, which at the end gave way to the gift given to the audience, a vision and a movement to be copied: shaking.


More or less beyond the limits of the visible and the utterance

Connecting visual movements with spoken words need not however be positioned within these two extremes of either reductively turning inwards or frantically exploding the supposed center. Speech can manifest movement as well, just as movement can render the words palpable not through the “I” or the “we” but through the inscription of both the gaze and the word onto the body, an inscription that simultaneously locks this body into a specific pose or meaning as it opens this body up to other usages.

For both Anna Koch and Philipp Gehmacher the relation between words and movement had less to do with what was perceived in the moment and more with the limits of what was heard and seen. Koch’s half steps and repeated movements testified to the layered history of the disciplining techniques that have shaped her body, splitting it into many bodies, depending on how it is used. And it was through the gathering of these moves, making up so many parts of one body, that perhaps something else could arise: a constellation. Yet I find myself asking: how could something else come about when there is no opening towards other movement patterns, when there is only the history of one’s own experiences, one’s own bodies? And of course, this problem only became visible because Koch points towards this in her performance by asking what it would be to actually lose the movement? To go beyond what is seen and heard, to discover other movements and find new words, by simply returning to the history of one’s previous performances, albeit with words, seems futile. Walk+talk could be just such a hopeless attempt, but it could also bring out something else than mere representations of dance. And it is by invoking the title of a previous performance “Turn back to dance” that Koch brings out this ambiguity of language and of past choreographies that has the potential to untangle itself from its own limits. “Turn back to dance”: does it mean turning one’s back to dance, or does it mean going back to dance? But instead of stopping at this ambiguity, Koch uses the statement to mean both, or the in-between, it means to unlearn everything you learnt, in order to dance again. As to highlight this gesture, Koch’s question – posed as a rhetorical question in the beginning of her performance – “what would happen to walk+talk if there was a dialogue, instead of a monologue?” resonates as she exits the stage just to the right of the audience, at the spot where also we, the spectators, silent partners in this monologue, will shortly after leave the theatre.

But as a monologue, what is the meaning contained in walk+talk? Being neither a simple informative lecture, nor a mere performance, the walk+talk performances could be said to be at the same time more and less than the two put together. Less, because the sum of the two does not form a whole. The speech does not function as a voice-over, or as a description of the visible movements, and these in turn are not an exemplification of the meaning contained in the discourse. They certainly function in these ways at the level of the everyday use of vision and speech insofar that language describes what one sees, and what one sees informs the description. Representation and mimesis can’t be avoided, as when the dancer performs a specific movement and simultaneously adds either a simple description or explains it with reference to the corresponding critical theory. But the proper force of the walk+talk performances resides rather in the disjunction of the visible and the spoken. When the two forms of expression function autonomously they go beyond the simply given. Gehmacher’s hand suffocating himself and muffling his speech has no other relation to his speech than to render this very relation problematic. Or, to take another example, his two hands forming a circle above his head while exclaiming in indirect speech “the closed circle is always open.”

An open circle? Isn’t that just a broken circle; there is no line, no circuit binding the visible and the spoken. The walk+talk series is then less than walking and talking, less than vision and the word, because these can never form a whole. But this does not mean that they can never intersect; the disjunction between what is seen and what is spoken does not necessarily lead to a separation of the two, privileging the one over the other, the rational word over the ephemeral vision, or conversely the presence of the movement over the dissimulating effects of discourse. This very disjunction, this “less” than the sum of the two can as well become more than the mere sum of what is seen and said: the positive conjunctive sign, the “+”, adds nothing but the unspoken and unseen relation between the two. It is in vain that we say what we see. But what is truly visible might go beyond our present vision, just like what can be articulated might go beyond what we say. Gehmacher’s stretched out arm does not only convey the surface of this arm but points further away than what we can see, and this movement can never be reduced to a description. And conversely, an idea always says more than what we understand in the moment and can never be rendered fully visible; how could one envision a closed circle that is always open? It is when these two forms of expression meet, without directly reflecting the other, that one could see and understand an open closed circle. This “unique limit that separates each one is also the common limit that links one to the other, a limit with two irregular faces, a blind word and a mute vision.” (4)

It is this “fusion of the rift” (5) that makes one see what cannot only be spoken of, and understand what cannot simply be visualized. “The closed circle is always open”, Gehmacher’s utterance alongside the gesture of his arms forming a circle renders visible this potential in language and in gestures by pointing beyond what we actually see and hear.

The simple additive sign, by forming a circle that is always open for other connections between the simple act of walking and talking through the specific style of each performer un-binds a specific use of walking and talking. The utterance can take the form of the gesture that Gehmacher defines as “having nothing to say, but making visible the sense of utterance.” It brings no message, only a continuously forming and deforming non-totalizable relation between these two elements. It might be in vain that we say what we see, or see what we say, but this gesture of bringing out the always singular “how” of this relation “as someone else said” – to make use of Gehmacher’s indirect quotation – this gesture might be “the event that falls between the body and language.” That is, when the gesture doesn’t just fall flat to the ground, exposing nothing else than an artist eager to speak more or less about him or herself.



(1)  Michel Foucault, The order of things, London and New York: Routledge, 2002, p. 10

(2)  Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: the politics of performance, New York: Routledge, 1993, p. 6

(3)  Maurice Blanchot, “Speaking is not seeing”, in Idem, The infinite conversation, Minneapolis and London: Minnesota Univ. Press, 1993, p. 30

(4)  Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, New York: Continuum, 1999, p. 65

(5)  Gilles Deleuze, seminar on cinema “Cinema/Pensée”, 1984-1985, 28/05/1985, link