January 16, 2014
University of Toronto
From the colloquia series “Feminist & Queer Approaches to Technoscience”
Rebecka Sheffield: I am very excited to introduce our speaker today, Dr. Shannon Bell. Dr. Bell is a performance philosopher who lives and writes philosophy in action and experimental philosophy. She is also the founder of fast feminism, or more to the point, she is Fast Feminist. Influenced by the works of Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Paul Virilio, this critical action theory is perversely provocative and forces philosophy to confront what one reviewer has called “it’s stodgy frigidity.” She encourages us to always commit violence to past assumptions or ideas, to push beyond our comfortable point of inertia, to act with speed, and to involve the body as the lived instrument of philosophical experimentation. At the risk of sounding trite, Shannon Bell really does practice what she preaches. She is also a professor and graduate program director in the York University political science department, where she teaches postmodern theory, fast feminism, sexual politics, cyberpolitics, identity politics, and violence philosophy. She is the author of seven books—is that right? I have lost count—including the groundbreaking Reading, Writing, and Rewriting the Prostitute Body, Whore Carnival, and Fast Feminism. I’m very much looking forward to what you have to say today, so that is all I have. Thank you.
Shannon Bell: I’m going to show films throughout; they will be looping in the background. By the way, it’s really nice to see everyone here. I was really impressed when I looked at the flier, to be part of the series, but also just the number of different departments that are co-sponsoring this is really quite incredible, to bring that whole group of departments together, so that’s just fantastic. Now, I was going to show you—the first one is going to be on fast feminism, but I think I want to show a different one, well, maybe not. This is a bit tamer. But I’ll use it.
The first part of the talk will talk about the work on fast feminism and the second part is going to—the second to third, probably, I will do some more on it tomorrow—is going to be on shooting theory. So I will probably talk for an hour and ten minutes, and what I don’t finish, I’ll pick up tomorrow. For people that have not registered for the workshop tomorrow but would like to come and want the readings, my card is right here. Pick it up and email me tonight and I will send you the readings. Let me know if you can’t hear well enough and I will use the mic. The talk will revisit—and that was me getting my internal phallus impression there—it will revisit fast feminism as a site of Virilian techno-speed, setting out a fast feminist enactment of what Paul Virilio deems the “accident of art.” For Virilio, the accident of art is a shift from representation to presentation, a shift that in his book The Accident of Art he terms “visual, phenomenological and affective.” Instead of the modern representation, which occupied space, what characterizes the latter half of the twentieth century and the twenty-first century so far is the postmodern presentation or performance, which occupies time, moves through time, thereby compressing the time of the past and the future into today’s instantaneity. And you guys are probably thinking, nice penis. I want to run through Virilio, because The Virilio Dictionary came out and I did two entries on that. One, I was very thrilled to do an entry on fast feminism in The Virilio Dictionary. The other one that I was asked to do was on The Accident of Art, which really goes into the work I do and a number of the people in this series do. Art is the casualty of war, is Virilio’s theory of art, in a nutshell. Contemporary art, for Virilio, is both terrorist and terrorized. According to Virilio, there are three stages of terrorist and terrorized art. After World War I, that’s the first stage. After World War II is the second stage, and the art of the present or the instant. After World War I, he is thinking about people like Otto Dix, a German expressionist, and Georges Braques, a Cubist surrealist. What they did, if you see their amazing work, they collected these smithereens of bodies, the smithereens of reality that was destroyed, the destruction of reality by the war, so in their pairing they collected smithereens of reality into disfigured representations wherein the face disappeared. Virilio claimed that one cannot understand Dada or surrealism without World War I. Just as one cannot understand Joseph Beuys without awareness that he was a German pilot, a bombardier in the Second World War. Virilio contends that contemporary art has been a war victim through surrealism—all the stuff we like, basically—expressionism, Viennese actionism, and terrorism today. And it is this shift in the early ’60s from disfigured representation to actionism, performance art, body art, and event art that, in conjunction with new technological capabilities by the last decade of the twentieth century, gave rise to what Virilio calls ‘new terrorism’ in art, in the book The Art of the Motor. The new terrorism breeds into the gallery and we have artists here, in attendance today, that engage in what Virilio would consider the ‘new terrorism’ of art. It’s a new form of art brut, a biological and technologically enhanced art, both amateur and professional—so you will note that my stuff is amateur, just in case, so I would be considered one of the amateur contributors to art brut—with no distinction between live event and presentation. Professional examples, which Virilio refers to in his own work, are people like Orlan and Stelarc; he calls them the two best body artists. He also refers to Dr. Gunther von Hagens’s plastination of the body corpse—the artist-creator of Body Worlds, which is showing worldwide now. He is referring to what Ars Electronica now calls “hybrid art.” Hybrid art includes artists like Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr from the Tissue Culture and Arts Project, who culture human and other animal cells into semi-living art, objects capable of living in a bioreactor. You probably saw my phallus and big toe in a bioreactor on the screen there. He is also referring to hybrid art, as Ars Electronica understands it, such as Stelarc’s recent Partial Head, a digital transplant of his face onto a hominid skull seeded with ovine smooth muscle cells and grown in a bioreactor. He has surgically implanted a multifunctional ear on an arm prosthesis, which is never quite working, which is always going to be on the arm or has to be taken off because the body rejects it.
Eduardo Kac’s transgenic petunia flower was one of the winners of the Golden Nica at Ars Electronica two or three years ago, and it’s called the Edunia, Petunia Edunia. It’s an engineered petunia that expresses the artist’s DNA sequence from his blood. Very interesting. And probably one of the most interesting pieces is Marion Laval-Jeantet’s piece where she injects horse blood plasma into her body. Of course it was done in Galerie Kapelica in Ljubljana, which is a really wonderful place. I’ve been there a few times. I’ve never showed there, but I’ve been at lots of shows there and it’s a high-risk gallery. It will do shows that other galleries are afraid to do. So that’s one of the places that Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts started off with living cells. It’s also where Marta De Menezes did modified butterfly wings. If you are in Ljubljana, which you should be because there is a great art and music scene and digital scene, this gallery consistently does stuff that—it’s just a real leader. So she did this injection of horse blood plasma into her body, and then it’s a live, documented performance called May the Horse Live in Me. These artist practices are precisely what Virilio terms “extreme art” when he identifies art and fear of manifestations of the accident of art—practices that aim, according to Virilio, at nothing less than to embark biology on the road to a kind of expressionism. Fast feminist art brut includes phallic BioArt performance and installation, along with avatar and robot seduction. I’m just going to read the phallic BioArt performance today. I may read something on the avatar seduction tomorrow.
BioArt—an art practice in which humans work with living tissue, bacteria, living organisms (or orgasms!), and life processes—is hyper-performing, performative, and, depending on the artist, may engage in what Arthur Kroker in Body Drift describes as Donna Haraway’s crucial contribution to the postmodern future: her concept of companion species, which here is broadened to include biomaterial companions. Certainly, specific works by Stelarc, Eduardo Kac, and Laval-Jeantet fall into the grouping of companion species BioArt, as does that of some performance artists, Kira O’Reilly particularly. She is in Regina right now; she is a British performance artist and we’ve presented together. If you are not familiar with Kira’s work, I would take a look at it. Laval-Jeantet did an infamous durational piece through time with a dead pig, honoring the pig’s contribution of biomaterials, which she used in her arts-science lab work, then she did a piece, also a durational performance, called Falling Asleep with a Pig, in which the artist lived with a pig, called Delilah, for some days in a specifically constructed side of the gallery, and it was commissioned for a show called Interspecies. I wouldn’t say that my BioArt falls into the genre of companion species. Rather, it’s more the performative, critical feminist engagement of continental philosophy. Really, that’s what I am always about. Interestingly, Kroker in Body Drift positioned the feminist trinity of Judith Butler, Katherine Hayles, and Donna Haraway as “the late twentieth and early twenty-first century counterparts of a tradition of thought formulated in all its passionate intensity and unanswerable enigmas by Marx, Heidegger and Nietzsche—certainly not in a reductive or reiterative stance, but in the larger meaning of critical intellectual imagination”—and I studied with Arthur and he is one of the people that I owe being a theorist to, but his sentences are always really long, so I am still on the same sentence—“namely, that in this renewed tradition of critical feminism, the fate of the body first theorized in the differing vocabularies of historical materialism, nihilism, and bad conscience,”—that is, theories by Nietzsche, Marx, and Heidegger—“is taken up once more” by the three he is talking about. So, fast feminism is the companion feminist species of critical feminism. My work strategically depicts both body drift and what I would term— this is my new concept that I am trying out—“conceptual drift.” So, body drift of course, reiterates the fact that we no longer inhabit a body in any meaningful sense of the term (and then Gad said to me, “well, did we ever?” My friend Gad is right there: the question is, did we ever? Probably not, we just thought we did), but rather occupy a multiplicity of bodies. Imaginary, sexualized, disciplined, gendered, laboring, technologically augmented bodies—these are the ones that Kroker identifies. I would say that Body Drift is also a companion to micha cárdenas’s “transreal.” And her concept of the transreal has components which span virtual and biotechnological realities. Cárdenas, in “Becoming Dragon,” specifies that “any identity in the process of becoming can be thought of as transreal, as it exists in the present but also a potential, in multiple states of reality.” It has a potential or exists as a potential in multiple states of reality. “Becoming Dragon” is part of the book I’m sure you guys have read, because I’ve read it—once I heard I was going to be part of the series, I immediately ordered the Feminist and Queer Information Studies Reader, which is edited by Patrick Keilty and Rebecca Dean. It’s an excellent book, and cárdenas’s piece is in this book, as well as on ctheory.net, that is Kroker’s theory website. She is also speaking here on March 27, and I’m definitely going to be at that and I hope to see many of you here because she is doing really fascinating, interesting work and she’s got a self who is a dragon. What I like about her work is that she discloses a politics inherent in the concept of the transreal. Transreal identity destabilizes epistemological systems which would privilege real phenomenon, such as the body or real world social interactions, and extends the necessary fields of investigation into virtual, digital and fantasy worlds.”
Now, conceptual drift, which is my concept, takes a thinker’s “signature concept”—so, this is Deleuze’s idea that every thinker has a signature concept. You are probably thinking, what is my signature concept? And probably you can tell what their signature concept is when they meet you and say, oh, I’ve seen your stuff, but they won’t tell you what it is. It’s like the stuff I did with female ejaculation, for sure. So that could be one of the signature concepts; I hope fast feminism is a signature concept. I hope shooting theory could be signature concept. But conceptual drift takes a thinker’s signature concept—now you will see how this connects with Deleuze—maintains the original meaning and simultaneously infuses additional, perhaps questionable meanings, to take the original concept somewhere else. So the person might—one of the people I like doing conceptual drift on, in fact I just love doing conceptual drift on, is Heidegger. First of all, I really like reading Heidegger. Second, I really like fucking with him, because he so deserves it. But in a sense in which you hold the integrity of the original thought in some way and then you go elsewhere with it. I’m always doing that with Heidegger. At York, I am really lucky because it’s really easy to find grad students who want to do reading courses on Heidegger. I have been reading a lot of Heidegger and as the people who teach in this room know, graduate students are really good at reading courses because they will teach you the text. I have been taught twelve books of Heidegger’s. It’s great! I always keep thinking, what can I do with that? You can always do something with it. So conceptual drift is a different way of presenting Deleuze’s approach of taking a philosopher from behind, relocating his/her philosophical concepts in a way that does violence to the original thought, but not so much violence that it eradicates it.
Philosophy, as those of you have read What is Philosophy? know—which I just finished reading, actually—for Deleuze is the activity of creating concepts, which is great because you can create image concepts, sound concepts, written concepts, and what Deleuze says is that the concept is always signed by its philosopher-creator. In fast feminism and shooting theory, I work with signed concepts and engage in conceptual drift. So, for example, fast feminism wouldn’t exist as a discursive field, that’s a field of thought and practice, without Paul Virilio’s concept of speed and accident. Other sites of conceptual drift in fast feminism are Lacan’s phallus. I must say that I have had lots of fun with Lacan’s phallus. Really! It’s the best concept. Because nobody can have the phallus, right? You can do all sorts of things like grow them. Levinas’s face is another, and these are all concepts that I wanted to work with in fast feminism and then continued on to work with, and various other ones, in shooting theory. So the principles in fast feminism is that as FF, and I have it branded on my arm—I should have worn a short t-shirt, but I didn’t; I have FF branded on my arm, that’s what the book ends with—the operative principle is never write about anything I haven’t done, and then I locate my enactments inside of philosophical discourse. So you can probably guess I am sticking it to philosophy while doing philosophy. The underlying tension is that feminism needs to be infused from not-obvious philosophical locations, and I would say this is the project of the critical feminism that Arthur Kroker does in Body Drift where he brings together the non-obvious locations of the thought of Haraway, Butler and Hayles. Kroker relocates the work of Haraway, which has really been taken up as a socialist feminist, the work of Butler, again who is recognized as a feminist, but a queer feminist, and also the woman who did How We Became Posthuman, Katherine Hayles, who hasn’t been taken up as a feminist as much. Hayles’ books are interesting because she is doing to science in a sense what I would aspire to, on a great day, do to philosophy. And she has been successfully doing it for quite a long time.
This idea that you need to infuse what you are working on from other locations: the most non-obvious site for me is the work of Paul Virilio. Partly because he is a hyper-masculinist philosopher; partly because he is a technologist of speed. The other thing that attracted me to Virilio is that he believes in God, and that’s kind of interesting when it goes together with all of the other stuff. He was a painter; he studied with Matisse. He’s an architect. He writes like Ernest Hemingway; he does theory like Ernest Hemingway, short fast sentences. He’s really fascinating. So fast feminism is situated simultaneously as a complement to his speed theory, he came out with a book years ago now that I taught for a long time, on modern political thought, called Speed and Politics, so what I’m doing is a complement to speed theory and it’s an accident of speed theory. I sent my book to Virilio and I didn’t hear back from him. But the book didn’t come back. So, I don’t know. I wanted him to be one of my assessors for my promotion to full professor, but I just thought that it would be really interesting for somebody to see what you have done with their theory because you don’t know, as a writer or theorist, where your theory is going to go. An accident of any system, whether that system be ecological, technological, or philosophical is the unknown inherent in the original substance. So fast feminism is inherent in Virilio’s speed in three locations. The fiercely courageous speed style that profoundly critiques the world quickly and breaks intellectual scholarship. The recurrent messianic moment that Virilio never fully hides. If you save one person, you save the world; the world and human are identical. And thirdly, in Virilio’s positioning of the body as the basis for his work. “I am a materialist of the body, which means that the body is the basis of my work”; “When I talk about speed, I talk about bodies.” That’s a quote from Virilio and it’s a surprising quote. Of course, the body has always been central in feminist philosophy and practice, but the coupling with speed, this I claim is fast feminism. Fast feminism is the accident of feminism and hyper-masculinity: like any inventive substance it can give rise to its own accident, its own unknown, on which it both thrives and disintegrates.
So fast feminism is a feminism of affect—that is, of intensity of influence—and as a feminism of affect, there’s no way of predicting what women or entities influenced by fast feminism would do as a result of that influence. For instance, and I never predicted this when I did this book, or the work for this book, fast feminism is taking me to what I term shooting theory, that is, theory in action. In a sense, the illegitimate offspring of fast feminism, shooting theory is the evacuation of the body to images of the philosophical and theoretical. The body drift, then, is to image. But before we get there, a bit about free-floating organs—that’s biological organs kept alive technologically. So this is the last chapter in Fast Feminism and it’s an excerpt out of there, now I will read that to you and we will go on to shooting theory.
So you can see, those are polymers that are seeded with biological cells, Two Phalluses and Big Toe. FF wanted to learn everything she could about tissue-engineered organs without bodies. As a performance philosopher, she was invited to do a tissue-engineering art residency at SymbioticA in the department of anatomy and human biology at the University of Western Australia at Perth. SymbioticA was the first research laboratory to allow artists to engage in wet biological practices in a PC2-certified culture tissue laboratory. It was a big deal. Everybody kind of went there. Subsequent laboratories have been developed and Catts and Zurr have aided people in developing subsequent laboratories that are PC2-certified. BioArtists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr taught me the process of tissue engineering—that is, thawing cells, growing cells, feeding cells, seeding cells on biodegradable polymers, and killing contaminated cells. On a daily basis, I practically, pragmatically engaged the grounding question of philosophy: what is being? That is Heidegger’s question. For Lacan, being is in language and has at its root the phallus, “what the phallus denotes is the power of signification. The phallus denotes the power of the signifier to bring the signified into being.” So my project, Two Phalluses and Big Toe, was part of a Tissue Culture and Art project called the Wizard of Oz project. It was an update of the heart, brain, and courage motif in the Wizard of Oz, but as the update, three performance artist-philosophers who desired to grow a new organ did so in Perth. Stelarc worked on his ear. Oron grew skin. As for me, I fabricated a phallus or two. Two Phalluses and Big Toe implements Martin Heidegger’s approach to art as a way of revealing new entities to unconcealed truth. It functioned as a comment on Jacques Lacan’s claim that no one can be the phallus, by showing that the phallus can be alive and with no one. It biotechnically realizes Georges Bataille’s “Big Toe” as a site of waste and dirtiness and the organ which marks us as human. So I grew these three organs, a male phallus, a female phallus, and a big toe in a bioreactor—you can see there the relics of it—in a bioreactor where they formed into a neo-organ. The big toe anchored the two phalluses as the techno-body rotated. The organs are partial life objects that can only survive in a nutrient-filled bioreactor that mimics the human body’s conditions. As I learned the process of tissue engineering and art, I was deploying this new medium to complement my work on the female phallus that began in ’89. I was always really interested in the female phallus. Most of my work on the body has been to disclose the erect female phallus. I figured that tissue culture would be a new medium to produce this as a new species or organ, or a neo–sex organ. So the female phallus originated from an alginate mold, which you saw us taking here on my seven-inch—it’s very important that it is seven-inch, that’s completely normal, seven inches or 17.7 cm—internal erect phallus. The male phallus was modeled on a generic seven-inch dildo that we found at a sex store. And the big toe was cast from my right big toe. The phalluses and big toe grew in the condition of microgravity, which is like free fall, if you have done any parachuting, which is really great. They actually grow in this condition because they are always in free fall. Tissue-engineered objects exist in a permanent condition of free fall; they hold stasis as their techno-body rotates. Stasis or permanent free fall is the most desirable state for cell adherence and evenly distributed cell growth because the medium washes over the polymer structure. The three entities, I was really proud of this, the three entities floated in the vibrant pink solution. The idealized male phallic form, the fetishized big toe, and the emergent female phallus. In the bioreactor, these forms modified and morphed into a new singularity, contingent on the techno-will of the reactor and on rotation. It’s a totally unique, irreproducible organ. That is, if you put the same organs into the bioreactor at different time, the result would be a different form. It’s undetermined prior to its origin, which makes it so cool. “Death of Two Phalluses and Big Toe,” FF stopped—and there is the bioreactor—FF stopped by to check in on the bioreactor on the weekend, on the neo–sex organ forming in the bioreactor. I opened the door of the incubator to find the emergent partial life turning in a urine-colored nutrient, which I thought was pretty interesting; however, you have to kill it. The beautiful pink medium from which they get their nutrients had turned a golden color. It had become contaminated and it turned out the bioreactor was actually contaminated, which wasn’t really my fault—just saying, I didn’t really contaminate them myself, but the bioreactor itself was contaminated. Once a semi-living or partial life is contaminated in a bioreactor it must be removed and killed, and so this is the phallus’s trajectory. Put daddy’s phallus in a bioreactor. Daddy’s phallus morphed with my phallus and my big toe. A biotechno–Lolita–posthuman fable was growing. For those of you who know Lolita, this is a quote, “with the human element dwindling, the passionate element only increased.” Neo–sex organ, death of the phallus, death in the bioreactor, micro-death of a neo-species in post-event.
There are no mistakes in theory in action. Performance philosophy is defined by enactment, actively unfolding with or performative being with. A performance philosopher will not theoretically engage with what she is not enacted with. There are a number of performance philosophers in the room whom I’ve seen perform. In fast feminism, or if fast feminism were to have a manifesto, it would be these seven tendencies: critique the world quickly; interrupt intellectual scholarship; position the body as the basis of intellectual work; write theory as art; do art as theory; do theory from non-obvious points of departure; do violence to the original context. These seven tendencies developed in interaction with Virilio’s work. They are also highly operative in shooting theory, except for number three, position the body as the basis for intellectual work. I’m going to change the video now and I’ve got about seven of them here. I want to start with this one. That’s rock. You are going to see lots of rock formations.
Since 2007, I’ve been working on shooting theory, bringing together digital video technology and print textual philosophy, or theory, through imaging philosophical and theoretical concepts. I use this idea all the time when I teach, so anybody who takes a course with me—and I teach third-, fourth-, and graduate–level courses—depending on whether it’s a full course, they do two films that accompany each of their papers. They do conceptual films and I have a conceptual film on every time I have lecture. And partly, I’ve been really committed to trying to bring theory together with a digital component, and of course my lectures are webcast and all of that, but the idea for me is to transpose Martin Heidegger’s claim regarding technology, that you can’t think technology technologically. I want to transpose this to the practice of political thought. The overarching argument is that you can’t think political theory simply within language. Heidegger contended that the place within which to think technology is art. I contend that the sites in which to think, produce, and enliven written theoretical tech concepts are visual images and soundscapes that can be brought forth by digital video technology. Shooting theory combines the tech of digital videography with the skills of philosophical thinking, allowing this artistic endeavor to bring forth a digital materiality of the concept. I’ve done twelve films so far, probably thirteen, twelve film projects as conceptual theory. I’ve worked with some people; I’ve worked on my own. What I am referring to as the conceptual theory are twelve image-texts that are print and film in which I take a signed concept in continental philosophy and shoot it, and there is a play on “shoot” obviously.
The first one that I did (I’m showing the second) was Dynamic Stillness, 40 days and 40 nights of sunrise and sunset in the Judean Desert. So I shot sunrise and sunset for 40 days and 40 nights for a conference on digital and something in Australia—it was a conference on stillness. So, I was using Heidegger’s concept of stillness. Shooting sunrise and sunset is amazing, the one thing you learn is that you have to be on time for 40 days and 40 nights, which is not easy because the sun was coming up at 4:30, quarter to five, because it was summer. The other thing you learn doing that is that the animals get really excited. It’s unbelievable, just wow. I was also shooting Nietzsche’s high noon in the water, but that was just an interesting thing to do. It had some interesting images because I did them on split screens, so actually the sunrises and sunsets are together and you can’t tell if they are rising or setting, which is also interesting. I didn’t bring that one. The second one I did, the one you are seeing here, is Epoché Reflections and Blind Residuum Caves. I’m going to go through that one. In 2009, I shot sinkholes. I shot endless sinkholes, using Georges Bataille’s and Simone Weil’s concepts of waste and attention. Also in 2009, I had this brilliant idea and I’ve got a film excerpt from it, OK, I’ve read Virilio’s Vision Machine, I wanted to spend time in the winter in the desert, and I went to Jordan and had two fantastic Bedouin guides with me, and I was riding a camel for eight hours a day—those things are not comfortable. And what I did is that I tied the camera to the camel and it was like a camel vision machine, and I haven’t quite figured out how to use the footage, though it is about Virilio’s vision machine, but one part of the footage, and I don’t think I’ve got that here, the camels are really skittish, they will freak out about anything, so my coat, my jacket fell off the back and it took off running as fast as it could, straight at the mountain, and they won’t listen to, apparently, female voices. Which I am a little suspicious of, but OK. At that point… there is a whole bunch of me screaming and yelling because I was absolutely terrified because I thought, if I fall off this thing, I am going to break a whole bunch of bones. That thing was going. Eventually, we got it stopped and I was… It was a really interesting project and the visual idea, the eye-level visual of the camel going up and down, I thought was really cool.
Shooting the Blur, and I’m going to read from that because it’s one of the more political pieces. It’s done using Deleuze and it’s looking at the Syrian State, the Israeli State, the British State, the Judean State, the Golan, north shore of the Dead Sea, Abu Dis, Jerusalem, Gilo/Beit Jala, and take a look, these are all on Vimeo. I did Shooting the Elemental, which is a key concept of Levinas for a conference in Alaska. One of the things I enjoy doing is going in for a conference and you do a film based on the paper you are giving, so the conference was on the elemental, and I probably won’t show that today, but I will show it tomorrow. Walter Benjamin I will show today because it is really fun, Flâneuring Ancient Arcade Ruins. I’d read Benjamin’s Arcade Project twice—I’m not grad director, I’m on sabbatical, but I was grad director for the past two years and as grad director you had to be in this seminar, so I thought, how can I use myself. Students wanted to read Benjamin’s Arcade Project, and I had always stayed away from Benjamin’s Arcade Project because everyone was carrying it around when I was in grad school and they were very pretentious, but as it turns out, it is great. [Laughter.] It’s just great. So I read it with two different people twice and then went out and tried to use his technique to produce a phantasmagoria and enliven the aura of an image. I’ll talk about that. The two I did most recently, one is called Flashes of Perception, and that was done in Baffin Island this summer, using Heidegger and contemplative photography, and the last one I did, and I want to cover both of these, is called The Sinuous Turn, and uses Samuel Mallin, who is a phenomenologist who taught at York. When Gad and I were shooting this film this summer in Crete, I didn’t know that he died while I was making it. It was interesting because I had read his book twice, Art Line Thought, it’s difficult and interesting, really quite brilliant, and I thought, OK, now I can go talk to him and show him the film, which I then couldn’t do, but it was a really interesting film to do. We also used it for a workshop that we did in general semantics, a four-day workshop in India. So, I’m going to start with Blind Residuum Caves: I’m going to go to about 5:20, so give me twenty minutes on these. You may not find this very interesting, but I am very passionate about these images.
This is using Husserl, Blind Residuum Caves, and it brings into high-definition perception—for anybody who knows Husserl, I really created this script for presenting— the phenomenological reduction, or Epoché, and the phenomenological residuum or absolute reflective insight. The project involves digitally, phenomenologically seeing Edmund Husserl’s residuum in the caves of the Judean Desert, the Negev, Golan, and Upper Galilee and the lower Jerusalem Hills. I’ll tell you right now, it’s all shot blindfolded. Most phenomenological practitioners apply the reduction of putting in parenthesis or bracketing the existing object in order to reach through adumbrations down to the intentional object. Well, the intentional object is the reflection of the intentionality of pure consciousness. Pure consciousness, if it exists, has never been visually revealed. How could you go about visually revealing pure consciousness? I don’t think you can, but I took a run at it. Phenomenologists have textually seized upon phenomenological remainder, the being of consciousness, which Husserl calls the absolute essence of consciousness, which is not touched by the phenomenological exclusion, but there has never been any endeavor to make this residuum visually present. So the most unique endeavor of this project was to digitally perceive, to see and present, or make present, phenomena not only for Husserl’s ray of directedness that takes the point of departure in the ego, but in addition to digitally perceive, see, and present phenomena from the space of awareness that contains this intentional ray of regard; that is, the pure ego. So, how can I do it from the pure ego? I’m working with high-definition technology. Since the phenomenologist can select anything they want to shine their intentional ray of regard on, I never figured out why they were always selecting cups. I seized upon the cave partly because of its role in Plato, for example, partly Bataille’s work on caves and cave painting, and also because going into caves and rappelling underground thirty meters is pretty scary for me, so that was all good, I had some great guides. One of the guides was doing his MA in caves. So I was in caves that had been discovered two months before and we would rappel in. And fortunately, his wife was a doctor, and he would text which cave we were going into and text when we got out so he could always send for emergency back-up. And thirdly, he was a dad because some of these I would go in and I didn’t know that when you are underground, there are mountains underground, so we would be sitting on a ledge underground and I would be crying because I would be scared, but because he had kids, he was just really good. Very quickly I would get over crying and getting scared and go do whatever I had to do, which was get blindfolded and take images, wander around. Then I found out that people do this as extreme sports—really? I don’t get it. It’s unbelievable, the inversion and the mountains underground, so the most unique project then was to digitally perceive that which can’t be seen. And I did it for 45 days. I used Deleuze’s techniques here of perception-image, particularly if you read Cinema 1 and 2, particularly in Cinema 1, he has a thing called “gaseous perception” that worked very well for this. Partly, what Deleuze talks about as perception images, and that’s what I am talking about, are seen from the point of view of another eye. The purest vision of a nonhuman eye, of an eye that would be in things. For those of you who have done work in object-oriented ontologies and Lacan’s work on the gaze, that’s where I’m kind of going with this. So it’s the pure vision of a nonhuman eye, which would be in things. It’s the anonymous, unidentified viewpoint of the camera, what Deleuze calls gaseous perceptions. The pure vision of the nonhuman eye, in which the videographer and camera function as intentionality directed toward the object perceived.
So intentionality draws meaning from what is already there in the object. That is what I was really trying to do, animate the vision of matter. I combined the methods of phenomenological reduction and phenomenological residuum in 50 caves. Some were above ground; some were actually as low as 50 meters below ground. So in terms of phenomenological reduction, I bracketed or suspended judgment at the cave; that is, the natural attitude of the cave on hand, as an existing object in the world. What I am left with, then, is the perception of the cave. And I directed the phenomenologist’s ego ray of attention, and when necessary I used a hiking light on my head. Because sometimes it’s dark underground. Attention, Husserl says, is comparable to a spot of light, so a hiking light works. The object of intention lies in the cone of the more or less bright light. What the camera was seeing and capturing was, of course, adumbrations of the perceived from a certain light-angle distance, which presents certain degrees of color, shape, texture. I got my lens wet; I was back in a cave behind a waterfall. So you’ve got degrees of color, shape, texture; I repeated five to ten adumbrations in each of the caves I was in. The adumbrations were shot and timed randomly and presented. Perception was privileged over the naive natural attitude.
The phenomenological message that has been done endlessly—what I have done that is different is that I have shot the footage blindfolded. I would climb or rappel into the cave and tie a keffiyeh around my eyes. In terms of the phenomenological residuum, I bracketed the ego ray of attention by blindfolding myself once inside the cave. Blindfolded, I would randomly shoot adumbrations of the cave by pointing the camera in front, to each side, above, towards the ground. I would do this sitting cross-legged, lying down, standing, sometimes standing and walking, sometimes crawling. Some caves you can only crawl through. What I put in parenthesis here is sight: the sight of the human eye through which the ego ray of attention manifests itself in Husserl’s visual phenomenology. The residuum is a technological residuum. The camera with the built-in light, functioning as the technological ray of attention, shoots, adumbrations of the cave—the visual consciousness was neither perceiving nor non-perceiving. In a sense, by bracketing the I and the eye, I bracketed the ego that can stop or initiate reflection, what Husserl distinguishes as a point-like eye, the functional center. By putting the eye, ego, in parenthesis, what remains, the residuum, is perhaps not pure awareness, but a more open awareness that facilitates and is facilitated by a technological perceiving and presentation of the perceived as perceived. By bracketing the human eye, the ego reflection is held in abeyance, a way to be penetrated by the intentional object. So I’m going to go to Beautiful Waste. I think I would like to do Beautiful Waste and maybe Shooting the Blur.
This one is only a minute; it’s a short one. I’ll talk fast. So, extreme attention on Beautiful Waste: there is an hour and 57 minute film on sinkholes, which I’ve also got there, but there are 2,000 registered sinkholes at 30 different sites. This is in the West Bank. In Israel. And in the West Bank and in Israel, Ein Feshkha on the north Dead Sea shoreline to Ein Bokek where all of those hotels and the Dead Sea Works are on the south shoreline. What’s really interesting to me is that on the other side, in Jordan, there is only one sinkhole. So you can pretty much guess the reason that there are so many sinkholes is that the Dead Sea Works are pulling the minerals out to make cosmetics and salt, so the ground is imploding at a quite rapid ecological speed. Sinkholes are the accident of technological excessive extraction of minerals for human use—and that used to be a campground—and of the evaporation of water. Shooting them is like being in the carnage wars. It’s really fascinating. Here the concept I use was Simone Weil’s concept of attention, from Gravity and Grace. Absolute unmixed attention is prayer. Attention is what constitutes the creative faculty in the human.
That’s the really memorable beautiful wasteland.
Extreme attention, which is what constitutes the creative faculty in the human: I keep going back to this and different concepts of attention. Sinkholes are void from below, that within which we fall when we allow our natural faculties to become atrophied. The meditation is a constant attention and an active attention is looking without attachment and making sure that you don’t fall in them. I worked with Weil for four reasons. She’s a disaster thinker; she has an intensity of doing; she’s about work in force; and she’s wild. The liberal ethicists and rights thinkers are always trying to trap her in their discourse and she’s not trappable. It’s the excess, the sacred, that which cannot be contained, that saves her, and this is what Georges Bataille fell in love with. So work for Weil is time entering the body; we turn ourselves into matter through work. Shooting sinkholes is more work than shooting caves. It requires extreme attention: you give complete attention to the object during the 30-second shot. Moving among the sinkholes, one must give complete attention to the ground. I had an extreme guide, Gundi Shachal, who works with Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME) as a field researcher and tour guide, and her husband was head of the rescue team, which is also good. Every year, two or three people go into the sinkholes. You have to be taken out really fast because it’s really toxic. There are two types of ground around the sinkholes. Moist, dry gravel salt, which you saw first—and moist mud, this is kind of dry mud—and gravel, dried gravel salt. The latter is more dangerous because it’s more brittle. The woman was totally fearless. She would be great up there. Walking through, crunching, it was really interesting. I also use—and I won’t go into it because I want to do a couple of other ones—but I use Spinoza’s concept of conatus ; that is, the inherent tendency of every extended substance toward self-preservation because it’s gone in sinkholes. It’s absent. And also Virilio’s accident, obviously, but Heidegger’s time as well. And I think I’m going to do two other ones. They’re shorter and I’ll save Shooting the Blur for tomorrow, which is the quite political one. I will do Flâneuring Ancient Arcade Ruins.
I’ll do Flashes of Perception last. So this is Walter Benjamin. And it was done in 2012. Ruins, as understood by Walter Benjamin, are remains of the past worn by time, nature, and commercialization. One of the concepts of Benjamin’s I’m working with is telescoping the past through the present to disassemble and reassemble these arcades, through the attention of production (the attention to videoing and editing) and the distraction in the technique of montage. He writes about montage in the Arcades Project. He didn’t put the Arcades Project together, but you can see montage operating in the Arcades Project. Benjamin talks about the dialectic of attention and distraction. The dialectic of attention and distraction drives the project. I had the intention of shooting six shots per arcade. I worked with Yulia Oper and Lev Marter, a graduate student and his partner, who was, fortunately, a guide, among other things. We shot close-up, panorama, keno-aqua-optics, wide and narrow, partial object and layered. Now what is kino aqua optics? I had my underwater camera in a fish bowl with colored water and we were shooting through there. So we would be out with—I was shooting that obviously because they didn’t want to do it. The shots are 30 seconds each and edited to 10 seconds for the panorama, kino aqua optics, 6 seconds for the wide and narrow partial objects, and 4 seconds for the layered. The close attention given to the shots and montage sequencing gives way to distracted viewing. The desire is that the phantasmagoria, that’s Benjamin’s term—here the phantasmagoria with the kino aqua optics, partial objects and layered images—the intention here or the desire is that the phantasmagoria of these will revitalize the images’ optical aura so that the optical image looks back at the viewers, so we are influenced by Lacan. And in Shooting the Blur, I am much more explicit about Lacan. In a sense, Flâneuring Ancient Arcade Ruins picks up where Shooting the Blur leaves off, but there is a preexisting gaze, staring at us from the outside world, the imperceptible that belongs to the object and this in a sense telegraphs what has become object-oriented ontology or ontography, where objects are objects without concern for the question of the subject’s access to the object. I recently shot from a biplane in Sedona, last year, I was trying to shoot strictly object-oriented ontology by sticking the camera out and clicking every ten seconds, click click click. I usually use video but I used still shots, clicking and shooting what was happening, so allowing the objects to have their selves without a question of a subject’s access to the object. And the biplane was pretty awesome, I have to say. So the one I’m going to end with is the one that was shot in Pangnirtung in Baffin Island this last summer, and I have to find it…
Of course I thought I would go through all of them, but I kind of knew that I couldn’t. The Pangnirtung one was interesting because I was part of the summer school and I’m also part of a project performance—there it is, very short—part of a politics and performance project that has fifteen people from seven different universities and also the hemispheric institute involved in it.
It’s called Augenblick. It’s a four minute and forty second Augenblick of the colors, motions, sounds, shadows, and patterns of three Nunavut sites: Pangnirtung, Cumberland Sound, and Saniru. It’s way out on the land. It’s shot from July 9 to 18, 2013, while I was part of the Pangnirtung summer school. Flashes of Perception brings together Martin Heidegger’s concept of Augenblick, a moment of authentic presence, a temporal moment in which we respond to the way in which Being addresses us. Bringing nearness in farness, and farness in nearness, all in the glimpse of an eye. I bring these together with the practice of contemplative photography. I’ve taken a couple of workshops in contemplative photography at the Miksang School in Toronto. If you ever get a chance, they are usually over a weekend and they teach you to go out and just see. Not see as a label, but just see. So you learn how to shoot color, shadow, and the deal is, see it, shoot it. So it’s actually a great practice, a meditative practice in doing contemplative photography, the flash of perception is that moment of seeing that is one-pointed, stable and free from distraction. The moment of the flash, the Augenblick, is free from discursive thought; it is the earth and the world in the glance of an eye. So one of the first things they ask you to do in contemplative photography is turn around and you have to shoot as soon as your eye hits. You don’t know where it’s going to hit. You don’t know where your eye is going to fall. That was really useful to bring together with some of the work that I’ve done on Heidegger, and I want to close with it, that’s an amazing iceberg, maybe I will just let that loop. And look at that, it’s twenty after.
You are totally welcome, thank you! Thanks.
Shooting Theory video links:
- Edmund Husserl (2008) – Epoché Reflections and Blind Residuum Caves, Judean Desert, Negev, Golan, and Galilee
- George Bataille and Simone Weil (2009) – Beautiful Waste: Dead Sea Sinkholes, Dead Sea
- Gilles Deleuze (2010) – Shooting the Blur: the Syrian state, the Israeli state, the British state, the Jordanian state, Golan, North shore of the Dead Sea, Abu Dis, Jerusalem, Gilo/ Beit Jala
- Emmanuel Levinas (2012) – Shooting the Elemental, Aleyska and Seward Highways, Girdwood, Whittier and Prince William Sound / Lake George Valley, Lake George Glacier,Colony Glacier, Whiteout Glacier and Surprise Glacier, Alaska
- Walter Benjamin (2012) – Flâneuring Ancient Arcade Ruins, Israel/Palestine
- Martin Heidegger (2013) – Flashes of Perception, Pangnirtung, Cumberland Sound, Saniru in Baffin Island, Eastern Arctic
- Samuel Mallin (2013) – The Sinuous Turn, Ancient Minoan lines, Gournia, Knosos, Malia, Phaestos in Crete
- Alain Badiou and Hindu Theory of Numbers (2014), Shooting Zero in ancient lands, Salt Icon of Zero in Israel and India
- Georges Bataille (2015), Expenditure in Mount Etna in Sicily