Dialogue with Lisa Nelson on communication with objects

Sarma Feb 2004English

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However, many of the most learned and wise adhere to the new scheme of expressing themselves by things; which has only this inconvenience attending it, that if a man's business be very great, and of various kinds, he must be obliged, in proportion, to carry a greater bundle of things upon his back, unless he can afford one or two strong servants to attend him. I have often beheld two of those sages almost sinking under the weight of their packs, like peddlers among us, who, when they met in the street, would lay down their loads, open their sacks, and hold conversation for an hour together; then put up their implements, help each other to resume their burdens, and take their leave.
But for short conversations, a man may carry implements in his pockets, and under his arms, enough to supply him; and in his house, he cannot be at a loss. Therefore the room where company meet who practise this art, is full of all things, ready at hand, requisite to furnish matter for this kind of artificial converse.
(Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, 1726)


On Wednesday January 22, 2004 Lisa Nelson performed her piece Two go in duo with Steve Paxton at Vooruit in Ghent as part of the project Connexive #1: Vera Mantero. It concerns a 'tuning score' wherein bodies, objects and space tune one another. Nelson and Paxton are seated at a small square table and play a sort of game. One places an object on the table and waits for the other to read the situation and reply with an object and the particular movements it elicits. Sometimes, music also intervenes in this landscape. Both performers call out specific tasks, such as 'repeat', 'pause', 'check!' or 'reverse' to deepen out the experience of tuning. Eventually, Nelson and Paxton end up using the whole stage, carrying about also chairs and larger objects.

Seeing Two go, the first thing that came to my mind was the passage in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's travels on the communication with objects. I asked Lisa Nelson to read it and share some ideas. "Interestingly enough, I immediately read the passage completely wrong. I imagined that these wise men carried the objects with them, but didn't really understand they weren't speaking. So I imagined, and this intrigued me, that these things were kind of metaphorical weight. It made me think of a Kurt Vonnegut story about a world where all people had to become normal. To normalise the population, each human, whatever their talents were, had to be blocked from their talents. So ballet dancers had weights on their limbs, and scientists had an implanted tone in their brain, which would buzz annoyingly every time they thought so they would get a headache. These devices were carefully tuned to equalise and balance all people. So I thought that the wise men were burdened with things as a handicap, and didn't realise that they were actually speaking about the objects and their usage, as if they were selling them. But then in a living room, it wouldn't be a commerce really."

"Anyway, this relates to my experience of working with objects with the senses, which brings me more to the preverbal state of children. It is a magical state because it precedes naming. Objects have texture, weight and shape, so to build experience you can approach these objects with your eyes and your ears, but especially with your hands. Our hands are incredibly malleable, they can take the shape of many things, they can learn the shape of things by simply forming the hands, or by moving the fingertips for small differentiations. That approach of the physical world helps to rebuild the pre-naming state, were you admit that the world is all objects, including your own body, as children play with the body as an object as well. Underneath that physical tuning is a technique that reveals why we move. Or rather a 'pre-technique technique', an involvement to physicalise the body and let it train itself in feedback with the environment."

"In the world of a score on the other hand, the premise is different: all the objects and actions are communications. It's a communication score, it's about showing each other, whether it is with ten people or two people. It's about showing to the other what you see; and I don't mean it just physically when I say 'see'. Showing means making physical what you see. That is why you have to pay attention to how long it takes you to see, you have to pay attention to time and the way you measure it. How long does it take to see?" We are sitting at a table, Nelson demonstrates her point at once. "So, I put a cup in your view. I am observer to it, but I am also offering it to you. And I don't want to get stuck with the eyes, because our whole body experience is looking at that cup. It is about showing, so that objects transform if you leave them in time. Since the longer you look, the more experience you draw from the situation. Infants are taking instructions totally from the objects themselves, to explore their quality. In the premise of the score, what I do with the object is always a communication, we are in an advanced stage of development. And still it preserves the unmediated relationship to objects, which precedes naming. The object could be a tool, a present, a gift, or a window. But you can't depend at all that the other person will receive the communication according to your intention. Still, the contract is that I will show and you will look and take the instruction from that. Your response etcetera does matter, it becomes part of the situation. And as you are an object as well, it is part of the way I read the space. So, seen as a communication and not simply as a cup, I might handle the object differently. It has properties that exist, but your experience fills it with completely different ones. There might be things and qualities that seem stable about the object, but when interfaced with your experience and associations, it might be taken away from my understanding and stability."

Nelson returns to the quote of Jonathan Swift: "He also said that John Locke wrote that 'words were names for things'. I don't agree with that, do you? Unless you say experiences of things, then I could go with it: what might be perceived as physical things are things mediated and thus transformed by our experience. Things also can provide an intention, but that happens mainly through language and naming. Still, if you organise a bunch of objects with your eyes closed, you discover intentions that come from other senses. They kind of really cut right past language as we know it and enlarge it with the utility of objects. Or even guide us back to a more exploratory human organism. We know that animals have a stage before the utilitarian, where they explore the world with their senses and can just discover what their organism is programmed to do: it bends, stretches and conforms itself without intention to objects."

"Taking instructions from the objects and listening to them is really what I've been busy with, which includes the objects of the space, of the architecture. That's why I don't think I improvise, because there is no such thing as impulses. There are reactions, but no impulses that just come out of nowhere: it often concerns reactions to the local environment, to the signals that exist but that we're not so attentive to, although they are very powerfully moving us. The more aware you become of the local conditions, the better you can make a response. You can take a reaction that people might call an impulse, and redirect it into a response before it appears in the space. And that's when time gets involved: the milliseconds of time between the moment that the body organises itself and an action is made. Shifting your use of time by going just a little slower allows your body to really direct its intention."