Ritual Communication and Body Doubles: Attending (to) the Work of Monika GŁnther and Ruedi Schill by Paul Couillard
Art... can take the sound of the sea, the intonation of a voice, the texture of a fabric, the design of a face, the play of light upon a landscape, and wrench these ordinary phenomena out of the backdrop of existence and force them into the foreground of consideration. (Carey 24)
Monika Günther and Ruedi Schill have been making performances together since 1995. They became collaborators after having established solo practices as individual artists. Ruedi, who is Swiss, began making work in the mid-1970s, exploring photography, music and Super-8 film as well as performance actions. Monika, born in Germany, began as a painter in 1966, finding her way into performance in 1981 out of a desire for a more direct connection with an audience. Now the two artists live and work as a couple, splitting their time between Lucerne, Switzerland and Essen, Germany. In addition to their performances as a duo, they organize an international festival each year in Giswil, Switzerland, as well as conducting performance art workshops on a regular basis.
As collaborators, Monika and Ruedi develop their performances in a symbiotic fashion. Rather than creating shared actions, they each build their own sets of gestures that they present simultaneously within a mutually agreed upon framework. Ruedi's working method reveals a minimalist sensibility, inspired largely by his observations of people. He meticulously hones the structures of his art until they are reduced to what seems essential. Monika, on the other hand, whose process often involves extensive reading, likens the way her ideas develop to pregnancy: a mysterious gestation filled with uncertainty and expectation until a flash of inspiration suddenly bursts forth fully formed.
Creating work together as a duo benefits both artists. One obvious advantage is that they are able to explore ideas and discover understandings that might not have been possible working alone. Another significant factor, however, is the way in which their partnership helps to alleviate the letdown that often occurs after a performance, when the direct contact with the audience has dissipated. Ruedi in particular has spoken about how he often felt quite depressed and isolated after doing solo performances. Working with Monika allows the connection to the performance to continue without becoming nostalgic, since there is someone to review it with, and to offer another point of view.
Although Monika and Ruedi follow independent processes, they maintain an ongoing dialogue – before, during and after the performance – that requires an awareness and sensitivity to the other's investigations and directions. Monika and Ruedi's work together, as it has evolved, involves process-oriented performance actions that rely on improvisational elements within a predetermined structure. They seek a state of concentrated reflection that can generate or expose the intensity and complexity of the moments they share with an audience. Speaking about their performance workshops, Monika says, "We accompany the students, we don't teach" (Movement Museum); and perhaps the same could be said of the duo's performances. Monika and Ruedi seem less concerned with delivering specific messages than with providing each other and their audiences with an intensely present companionship while undertaking a series of slow, quiet gestures. What is evident in their work is an attention to communication as a form of ritual.
In his book Communication As Culture, James W. Carey, following the work of the American psychologist and philosopher John Dewey, notes two distinct understandings of the word 'communication': one, based on the notion of 'transmission'; the second, on the notion of 'ritual'. The 'transmission' view reflects an understanding of communication as a way of sending messages across some distance. The 'ritual' view – which, Carey asserts, "exploits the ancient identity and common roots of the terms 'commonness,' 'communion,' 'community,' and 'communication'....is directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs." (Carey 18)
At first glance, Carey's use of the word 'representation' may seem misleading. In his definition, representation refers not to the translation of a referent into a code that can be transmitted from one location to another, but rather, to a grounding in the mutual affirmation – or, returning to Monika and Ruedi's performance methods, in the concurrent yet independent discovery by artists and audience – of shared value. In this understanding, communication is that which manifests through actions of being and doing rather than that which creates or maps a particular path of connection. Monika and Ruedi's work attempts to be communicative not by acting out roles that have particular predetermined or symbolic meanings attached to them, but by setting up conditions in time and space that will allow the performers and audience to discover what common set of questions become apparent. To suggest that Monika and Ruedi's performances are ritually communicative, however, is not to guarantee a consensus of experience among all who are present. What is shared – and therefore communicated – is the willingness to test an action's value, not a single or authorial interpretation of an action's meaning. This suggests an alteration of Carey's definition, since what I am describing is not so much the maintenance of a society in time as the production of a temporary social whole.
Part of what is at stake in making this claim for Monika and Ruedi's work is a battle between whether performance art is better understood as 'presentation' – which emphasizes its qualities as productive, originary, live and a thing-in-itself – or as 'representation' – suggesting that it functions as a depiction or portrayal whose critical function is to reproduce a particular message or set of meanings. This tension – for one might reasonably ask whether either understanding can be 'present' without the other – forms one of the key and ongoing dialectics of performance as a medium.
Peggy Phelan has argued that to the extent that performances offer the live and shared presence of artist and audience as their essential material, performance as a genre is concerned with revealing subjectivity. Performances therefore rely on a metonymic function of the body; that is, the performer's live body must stand in for or represent the larger concept of our subjectivity. In so doing, according to Phelan, part of what performance ultimately reveals is the incompleteness of the metonymic relationship, the fact that there is always something more required – the performance itself – to constitute and make visible this presence and being of which our bodies are only a part. What is brought into focus is a lack. She writes:
In performance, the body is metonymic of self, of character, of voice, of "presence." But in the plenitude of its apparent visibility and availability, the performer actually disappears and represents something else – dance, movement, sound, character, "art."... [T]he very effort to make the... body appear involves the addition of something other than "the body." That "addition" becomes the object of the spectator's gaze, in much the way the supplement functions to secure and displace the fixed meaning of the (floating) signifier. Just as [the] body remains unseen as "in itself it really is," so too does the sign fail to reproduce the referent. Performance uses the performer's body to pose a question about the inability to secure the relation between subjectivity and the body per se; performance uses the body to frame the lack of Being promised by and through the body – that which cannot appear without a supplement. (Phelan 150-151)
I agree with Phelan that in a performance, the spectator is generally watching something more than or perhaps even other than the performer's body. When we watch a stage performer, for example, we might more precisely say that what we are watching is something we call 'acting' or 'dancing'; we are listening not to the musician so much as the music being made. And in the case of many types of performance art work, the performer's gestures often seem to come with the implicit directive, "Don't look at me; look at what I am doing." But I am not sure that this points us toward lack. Certainly if we understand communication according to a transmission model, then a performance may appear to configure itself as a mechanism that produces a set of signs of lived experience that cannot hope to reproduce themselves securely (across space) in the lived experiences of the witnesses-as-receivers. Approached according to a ritual model, however – and remembering that the performance necessarily includes the audience as well as the 'performers' – a performance becomes a set of lived experiences (through time) encompassing all of those who are present. Taken together, these lived experiences that we usually recognize as belonging to the individual body-bound subjectivities of performers and spectators also embody not only the performance, but also a (however temporary) social whole. Surely this is precisely why attending a live event is valued differently from viewing or listening to a recording or document. We gather together not so much to receive a particular message as to participate in its activation. In the space and time of the performance, the bodily lack we seek to address concerns not our individual subjectivity so much as our sense of belonging to a collectivity. Live performance, then, asks the audience to participate in the establishment, recognition, affirmation or maintenance of a social body.
This leads us to the question of what is meant by participation, particularly since the relationship Monika and Ruedi set up with the audience appears quite traditional. As the performers, they 'do' the actions. The audience members watch and listen. This suggests a role for the audience more as observer than participant.
Observation, a word whose Latin roots point to a notion of looking or watching, is often associated with a sense of detachment or remoteness. Vision as a sense has been linked to both passivity and impassiveness; it shows us a view that takes place somewhere outside of us, at a distance. At the same time, sight has been theorized as acquisitive and inflaming of desire. Against these understandings is a notion that hearing is more closely aligned with belonging, because we cannot 'turn away' our hearing as we can our sight. Hans-Georg Gadamer further links hearing to language: "Whereas all the other senses have no immediate share in the universality of the verbal experience of the world, but only offer the key to their own specific fields, hearing is an avenue to the whole because it is able to listen to the logos." (Gadamer 458) In his view, hearing is the most 'hermeneutic' of the senses – relying on dialogue and interpretation to become meaningful. Gadamer's thesis relies heavily on a correspondence between thought and words, and on a trust in the self-consciousness of language. Yet his ideas on the essential character of hearing seem unconvincing in an age when sound has become infinitely recordable. Digital reproduction, and the merging of sound and vision in contemporary technologies – think of MTV – have made sound a key component of consumer culture and a driving force of spectacle. Sound, like vision, appears immanently adaptable to a transmission model of communication.
What is evident in Monika and Ruedi's work, however, is the potential for both hearing and sight to function hermeneutically. On the level of hearing, the performers begin with a request for silence, calling attention to listening as an active contribution to – and requisite element of – the performance. In this situation, silence should not be understood as an absence of sound, but as an enacted element of a dialogue. This active listening, undertaken by the performers as well as the audience, requires a silence that is both dialogic and interpretive – if not 'speaking' louder than words, it nevertheless constitutes participation within a ritual form of communication. And it could be argued that in Monika and Ruedi's performances, hearing is at least as important as seeing.
At the same time, I would argue that the 'seeing' the performers seek to invoke is no less hermeneutic, dialogic or interpretive, nor is it less effective in contributing to ritual communication. Monika and Ruedi's performances eschew the objectifying gaze of consumption in favour of a search for what one might call a sight of recognition. To do this, they rely on a number of key elements. Their actions are slow, rhythmic and repetitive. To watch what they are doing for an extended period of time, we must relax the fast-paced, acquisitive aspect of our gaze, and give up any expectations of sudden surprise. The performers' manner is unassuming. The picture they create is unspectacular, avoiding any excesses of either sumptuousness or discord. Monika and Ruedi dress in ordinary black clothes, sit in ordinary chairs, and manipulate either their hands (in Fait-à-la-main) or small, visually unremarkable items (a stone turtle and an hourglass set in Silence). They do not appear to want to impress us with their physical prowess, or the virtuosity of their actions. Nor do they play a role; they act as themselves. The room in which the works are performed is equally unremarkable: neither cavernously large nor distractingly intimate. In other words, they do not appear to be interested in any of the trappings of spectacle.
The lighting in the space similarly guides us toward a particular way of seeing. In these performances, the bodies of the audience members are lit with the same intensity as those of Monika and Ruedi. The performers can see what we are doing as well as we can see their actions. So, like us, Monika and Ruedi become viewers. But they do not stare at us, nor are we encouraged to stare at them. Instead, our –that is, both the performers' and the audience's – focus is drawn primarily to the actions and objects that the performers' hands display. This view is equally open to interpretation by all present, and the audience must work with the artists to make meaning from the events constituted or precipitated by what we are observing. We are all witnesses, coming together to experience these simple gestures as an event, to share together the time of the performance's occurrence, to contribute our respective silences, and to collectively affirm the authenticity of the actions through our presence.
There is another aspect of the way in which we are called to witness, however, that I believe enhances its hermeneutic potential and at the same time nudges us beyond a feeling of lack toward the recognition of communion, of something held in common. This stems from the formal composition of parallel gestures presented in Monika and Ruedi's work. The artists undertake simultaneous actions that are complementary, but not identical; attuned to each other, but oriented outward toward the audience. And because audience members witness two sets of gestures at once, we have a chance to experience a depiction that is not so much a mirroring as a doubling. There is of course always a 'doubling' in the relationship of one to another – of artist to audience, of me to you – as we are led to acknowledge our own subjectivity in relation to an other. But what does it mean to witness this second doubling – that of the two performers?
The relationship between audience and performer may sometimes be understood as a process of 'identification' – the notion that audience members imaginatively place themselves in the position of the performer. This process of identification is often theorized as being linked to what Lacan posited as the 'mirror stage' – a developmental point critically tied to the development of the ego in which children 'misrecognize' their mirror images as being superior to their bodily selves. Laura Mulvey used this premise to help lay the groundwork for her theory of Hollywood cinema as perpetuating a male gaze. In relation to Lacan's theory, she writes:
The mirror phase occurs at a time when the child's physical ambitions outstrip his motor capacity, with the result that his recognition of himself is joyous in that he imagines his mirror image to be more complete, more perfect than he experiences his own body. Recognition is thus overlaid with mis-recognition: the image recognised is conceived as the reflected body of the self, but its misrecognition as superior projects this body outside itself as an ideal ego, the alienated subject, which, re-introjected as an ego ideal, gives rise to the future generation of identification with others. (Mulvey 9-10)
Certainly Monika and Ruedi do not offer themselves up as larger-than-life screen figures. The actions they perform could be done by almost any able human body. Their movements are simple, and minimal, leveling the relationship between the artists as 'performers' and those present as audience. Further, Monika and Ruedi's comportment seems designed not to telegraph too much emotionally or symbolically – though it might be possible to read distinct personality traits into their respective rhythms, body positions or breathing patterns. But these aspects of the performance are not the only ones working against the possibility of the audience slipping into a desiring, consuming or misrecognizing gaze.
As an audience trying to reconcile the 'doubling' constituted by two simultaneous actions, we may begin by distinguishing traditional binaries – male/female; Swiss/German; logical/intuitive; mechanical/organic; heavy/light and so forth – and be drawn toward identifying with whichever qualities best match our self-understanding. But any close attention to these apparent organizing principles soon reveals a host of inconsistencies and contradictions. The binaries do not maintain their stability. Differences and similarities prevail: not one image, but always multiple and simultaneous ones, unified in the time and space of the performance, in the bodies of artists and audience, and in the actively constructed relationships among all of us. I can place myself imaginatively in the position of either of the performers, or I can try to take in the scene as a whole, but none of these positions remains static. The artists' actions transform as they unfold – in response to each other, to the audience, to the environment, to the forces inherent in their individual trajectories – just as our focus as individual audience members shifts from one artist to the other, or to our own bodies' roles in this active engagement with the moment. The performers' doubling gives us an automatic and complex plurality of views, which challenge us to test our own 'given' understandings, and perhaps even our sense of self. We are thus led toward an interrogation of the secureness of our identifications and potential misrecognitions.
Notions of mirroring and identification are bound up with an affirmation of the validity of an individuated subject, understood in psychoanalysis as the 'ego'. Indeed, the concept of misrecognition can only exist if there is a mutually agreed upon boundary of objective recognition. In arguing that the performances of Monika and Ruedi attend to the possibility of ritual communication, I am suggesting that the real 'work' taking place through the event of the performance is the opening up of a space in which those who are present can reconfigure their boundaries of recognition. I characterize this process, at least in part, as an individuation that is more collective than individual; i.e., this reconfiguration generates a temporary social whole rather than reaffirming the isolation of the alienated self. And perhaps not surprisingly, the mechanics of this process appear to me to operate outside the symbolic and imaginary orders that Lacan proposed were so essential to ego development. Ritual communication requires the situated time and space of the event – an idea affirmed by Gilles Deleuze.
A process of subjectification, that is, the production of a way of existing, can't be equated with a subject, unless we divest the subject of any interiority and even any identity. Subjectification isn't even anything to do with a "person": it's a specific or collective individuation relating to an event (a time of day, a river, a wind, a life...). It's a mode of intensity, not a personal subject. It's a specific dimension without which we can't go beyond knowledge or resist power. (Deleuze 98-99)
Deleuze's comments point to the significance of focusing on performance's productive rather than representational qualities. They also suggest why it is useful to pay close attention to the ways in which Monika and Ruedi work. The time and space that they generate with their unassuming gestures is precisely the dimension in which it might be possible to "go beyond knowledge or resist power" in their institutionalized, monolithic and sedimented states.
The main body of this essay focuses on developing a theoretical understanding of the performer/audience dynamic I experienced as an audience member of Monika Günther and Ruedi Schill's work. Although it includes details on the artists and their practice, and reflects my conversations with them, it could hardly be considered a review of the two performances hosted by Fado in September 2009. For those interested in a subjective description of the event, this 'Appendix' reproduces the notes I made during the performance.
Carey, James W. Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. London & New York: Routledge, 1992 .
Deleuze, Gilles. Negotiations: 1972-1990. Trans. Joughin, Martin. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. (J. Weinsheimer & D.G. Marshall, Trans.) New York: Continuum. 1989 .
Günther, Monika and Ruedi Schill. Artist talk at Viva! Art Action Festival, Montreal. September 26, 2009.
Günther, Monika and Ruedi Schill. Personal interview. September 19, 2009.
Günther, Monika and Ruedi Schill. Interviewers: Chris 'Zeke' Hand and Rachel Ni Chuinn. Movement Museum. CKUT 90.3 FM, Montreal. September 17, 2009. MP3 Download. "Movement Museum: Monika Günther, Ruedi Schill, Anne Bertrand, Pierre Rigal" Accessed on April 11, 2010.