Regarding Affect: Wind Doesn’t Blow Branches by Mimi Nakajima
It is November 1, 2002, and a small crowd has gathered in Toronto to experience “Wind Doesn’t Blow Branches”, a performance by visiting Japanese artist Mimi Nakajima. The show is scheduled to start promptly at 8 pm, but things appear to be running behind. It is already 8:20, and there is no sign of activity. The organizers seem unconcerned, but the crowd is bored, and becoming restless. This restlessness points to a mounting sense of affect, what Brian Massumi has described as “a prepersonal intensity corresponding to the passage from one experiential state of the body to another and implying an augmentation or diminution in that body’s capacity to act” (Massumi, Plateaus xvi as quoted in Shouse, para. 1). Eric Shouse writes that an affect is “a moment of unformed and unstructured potential” (Shouse, para. 5). For the waiting crowd, the absence of visible activity, combined with an unfulfilled sense of anticipation, manifests as an edgy mood whose outcome is uncertain. Will people lose interest and leave, taking with them a feeling of disappointment? Will the intensity rise to an explosive level as the crowd’s expectations remain unsatisfied? With no performer to command their attention, the assembled individuals take their cues from each other, feeding their collective disquiet.
Suddenly there is clattering at the stairs. Mimi Nakajima bursts into the room, camera in hand, breathing hard–seemingly “in a state” over her late arrival. This admittedly imprecise turn of phrase is purposeful, suggesting a sense of excitation—i.e., an intensity—without precisely naming that “state” as any one particular mood. As Massumi has theorized, “emotion and affect—if affect is intensity—follow different logics and pertain to different orders. … Emotion is qualified intensity, the conventional, consensual point of insertion of intensity into semantically and semiotically formed progressions” (Massumi, pp. 27-28). Massumi’s interest lies in the gap between the emotional responses that one might expect the content of an event to produce, and autonomic reactions that appear as a kind of unaccountable remainder (Massumi, pp. 24-25), “an emotional state … [of] static—temporal and narrative noise” (Massumi, p. 26).
In this case, Nakajima’s body offers contradictory physical cues, amplifying the static. She is breathing heavily, obviously in a state of physical exertion. At the same time, her facial expression is neutral. Her posture also offers contradictory signals: her torso is upright and supported, suggesting an alert openness, but her head is bowed and turned away from the audience, suggesting a sense of shame, or perhaps distraction. Shouse has noted that “facial expressions, respiration, tone of voice, and posture … can transmit affect” (Shouse, para. 13), claiming that “[w]hen your body infolds a context and another body … is expressing intensity in that context, one intensity is infolded into another” (Shouse, para. 14). Nakajima’s arrival brings her body, with its confusing physical intensities, in contact with the crowd’s restless, waiting bodies, generating a charged situation.
Nakajima repeatedly sets up events that engage her audience’s senses on the level of affect, operating outside of narrative logic and representational signification. Here, for example, she transmits affect not through communicative, actorly techniques of performing emotion, but by inserting her body, in a state of autonomic intensity, into a context of containment, uncertainty, and anticipation. Her work employs ruptures and provokes intensities that defy easy categorization, using affect to transmit what cannot be expressed through language. Nakajima’s performance can be read in a similar way to how Amy Herzog proposes approaching film analysis. Following Herzog’s Deleuze-inspired theoretical framework, I am interested in looking at how, in Nakajima’s performance, “movement and time penetrate and resonate throughout the [event] as a whole, functioning not as signifiers, but as the progenitors of thought” (Herzog, p. 83).
Herzog describes Deleuze’s concept of the time-image (as distinct from the linear causality of the movement-image), where “[t]he emphasis shifts from the logical progression of images to the experience of the image-in-itself. What we find here are pure optical and sound situations…, unfettered by narrative progression, and empty, disconnected any-space-whatevers” (Herzog, p. 84). In filmic terms, the time-image is approached through “moments of rupture, hesitation, irrational cutting, or prolonged duration” (Herzog, p. 84). Nakajima’s performance employs analogous techniques, constructing what might be termed time-experiences: situations that not only engage the optical and auditory senses, but also offer “pure”(1) tactile, olfactory, kinesthetic, and even temporal sensations. As Massumi has noted, “affect is synesthetic, implying a participation of the senses in each other: the measure of a living thing’s potential interactions is its ability to transform the effects of one sensory mode into those of another. (Tactility and vision being the most obvious but by no means the only examples; interoceptive senses, especially proprioception, are crucial.)” (Massumi, p. 35)
Nakajima’s rush into the room interrupts the waiting crowd. Without a moment’s pause for her to settle, her performance is announced. The milling crowd galvanizes into an attentive audience – bodies stilled, voices silent, eyes fixed on Mimi.(2) Her breathing is laboured as she turns away to fiddle with cables. We wait as she connects her camera to a video monitor and cues a tape. The aimless restlessness of the crowd has shifted to audience discomfort. Has there been an organizational mis-step, not allowing the performer time to prepare? The intensity of the audience’s gaze infolds with the conflicting intensity of the artist’s seeming confusion. “Nothing” has happened yet, but already the situation has taken us on an emotional roller coaster ride.
Finally, the tape begins to play. Mimi walks away from the monitor and begins her performance in another part of the room, splitting the audience’s focus. Those watching the monitor soon discover that its narrative information is virtually unintelligible – a blur of dark with occasional flashes of coloured light, accompanied by harsh, rapid, staccato clicks (footfalls of someone in heels?) and increasingly loud and rapid breathing. Abstract and rhythmic, with a constant blur of motion, the tape is non-representational (Dyer, p. 18). It functions affectively, creating a technological background hum(3) that is all the more disconcerting for its seeming lack of connection to the actions of the performer.
Mimi is explaining a complicated story in broken English. Her speech is halting. She is still wearing the wool coat she had on when she arrived. As she talks, she traces onto the coat(4) her route from her home in Tokyo to the space of the performance in Toronto, eventually cutting the coat off of her body and placing it on the floor, flattening three-dimensional space into two-dimensional representation. Just as the audience is beginning to acclimatize to her hesitant speech patterns, however, the performance veers off in a different direction. Without explanation, Mimi retrieves a black gym bag from a table and places it over her head.(5) She sits in a desk chair with wheels and begins spinning herself around in it, disorienting her body’s sense of balance and spatial perception to match the audience’s narrative dislocation.
After repeated turns, Mimi gets up and begins to walk in the space. With the bag over her head, she cannot see. The spinning has left her dizzy and not knowing which way she is facing. As she walks uncertainly through the space, her odd movements trigger a slight feeling of seasickness in some audience members.(6) Mimi walks into the audience, brushing up against bodies and almost tripping over someone sitting on the floor. The audience’s sense of touch is activated, and there is also a realization that the audience must take care, to some extent, of both their own bodies and that of Mimi. This suggests the beginnings of what Herzog calls “a fluid play of intensities, sensations and thought that disintegrates the distinction between ‘subject’ and ‘object'” (Herzog, p. 83).
Nakajima repeatedly uses the wall where most of the audience is clustered as if it were the floor. At one point, she places her body horizontally on the floor and slaps the bottoms of her shoes on the wall, as if she were “running” up the wall. Later, she holds the desk chair above her shoulder and rolls it along the wall. In an odd, non sequitur way, Nakajima is defying gravity. This physical action offers more than a metaphorical representation of being “on the other side of the world,” however. Its orientation has a disorienting effect on the audience’s sense of space. And its intrusion into the audience area forces the observers to make conscious choices about where to place themselves. Should they move to accommodate Mimi’s movement? Should they stay still and become obstacles to Mimi’s trajectory, which may place them in direct physical contact with the performer? Should they stay close enough to smell her sweat-soaked body as she continues to labour?
Repetition and duration are key elements of Nakajima’s performance. Herzog suggests that “potential affective force … lies in [the] ability to key into durations that would defy the limitations of the intellect, working not toward action, but toward the zone of indeterminacy which lies between perception and action” (Herzog, p. 85). For the audience, the length of each of Mimi’s actions seems indeterminate. Gestures repeat for indefinite durations, beginning and ending in an abrupt manner, not anchored by narrative links or plot (the logic of beginning, middle, and end). Like Herzog’s (or Deleuze’s) time-images, Nakajima’s time-experiences exist “not as a chronology, but as a series of juxtaposed ‘presents'” (Herzog, p. 84).
This zone of indeterminacy, where potential—or perhaps many simultaneous potentials—remain unformed and unstructured, has also been theorized as being virtual. Simon O’Sullivan argues that “affect is immanent to experience” (O’Sullivan, p. 126; emphasis O’Sullivan’s), and that “[a]rt opens us up to the non-human universe that we are part of…. [I]t transforms, if only for a moment, our sense of our ‘selves’ and our notion of our world” (O’Sullivan, p. 128). He turns to Deleuze’s categories of the actual and the virtual to bolster his position: “The possible is opposed to the real; the process undergone by the possible is therefore a ‘realisation.’ By contrast, the virtual is not opposed to the real; it possesses a full reality by itself. The process it undergoes is actualisation” (Deleuze, Difference and Reception, p. 112 as quoted in O’Sullivan, p. 129).
This idea, that the virtual possesses a full reality whether or not it has been actualized, strikes me as being central to an understanding of why or how I find Nakajima’s performance to be so moving. For, I must confess, what interests me most about “Wind Doesn’t Blow Branches” is not the mechanics of its construction, but the fact that it persists in my body as one of the most moving performances I have ever experienced, with the power to bring tears to my eyes and produce a lump in my throat several years later. This affective charge is not transmitted through the video documentation of the work. It cannot be located exclusively in the content of the work, which could be described as the profound challenge of communicating across gaps of language, distance, and perception. Neither is it fully explained by the intensities, ruptures, hesitancies, or durations I have pointed to here.
What moves me most about the performance happens in the final moment, when affect, percept, and concept collide.(7) Mimi has been rolling the chair high on the wall for several minutes, her pace seemingly slow motion, accomplishing a duration that, for this particular action, seems beyond fathomable. Time feels suspended in the present. Then the video catches my eye or my ear. They are inextricably linked in my memory, so it is impossible to say with any precision. The staccato click of heels on pavement and the heavy breath of running eases up. The coloured lights slow their movement and coalesce into a coherent image; it is the performance space, shot from the street. Then, on the video, we climb the stairs, enter the space, and see ourselves. We hear Mimi being introduced. And suddenly we understand: the performance did begin on time, as Mimi left the place she was staying in Toronto and began running in high heels at top speed across town, toward the performance space. Through the real-time video recording, the time we have spent with her has also had, inscribed within it, the time and space of her running. Multiple virtual realities—the ones we have lived watching her performance, infolding the context of our bodies, the space, the time, our relationships to Mimi as we have been intuiting them—are suddenly overwritten with a completely unexpected new context that we have already experienced but are only now recognizing. In this moment of excess; this eruption of intensity, sensation and thought; this series of juxtaposed presents, Mimi drops the chair. It falls swiftly and sharply to the floor, like the proverbial cane of the Zen master rapping the acolyte’s shoulder. Gravity returns, the same as ever, but somehow not.
(1) I interpret the word “pure” as used by Herzog to mean something similar to the phrase “non-representational signs” as used by Richard Dyer, who discusses how entertainment works at the level of sensibility by employing various qualities of such non-representational signs as “colour, texture, movement, rhythm, melody, [and] camerawork” (Dyer, p. 18).
(2) This is what my body remembers, but watching the video documentation of the event, I discover an alternate reality. Yes, the bodies in the space do shift to focus on Mimi, and most gravitate to the edges of the room, but with no fixed lights or placed chairs, and with Mimi’s attention focused on the equipment, some audience members appear suspended, distracted by contradictory impulses. Their uncertainty about where to be an audience translates into an uncertainty about how to be an audience. They find themselves (temporarily) in a “disconnected any-space-whatever”.
(3) Shouse writes that affect is what determines “the background intensity of our everyday lives (the half-sensed, ongoing hum of quantity/quality that we experience when we are not really attuned to any experience at all” (Shouse, para. 6). Nakajima’s videotape inserts itself into the audience’s sensorial periphery, amplifying intensity through its assertion of movement, colour, and rhythm.
(4) Using plastic hooks with stick-on backing to mark each stop along the route, and tying a string from hook to hook. When the string proves too short, she borrows a shoelace from an audience member.
(5) This signals a radical shift of formal styles, from a conservatively dressed young woman earnestly attempting to tell a story, to a surrealist image of a woman with a gym bag for a head. I am reminded of Deleuze’s search for alternate forms of individuation. “What we’re interested in, you see, are modes of individuation beyond those of things, persons or subjects; the individuation, say, of a time of day, of a region, a climate, a river or a wind, of an event” (Deleuze, Gilles, Negotiations 1972-1990 as quoted in O’Sullivan, p. 128).
(6) All subjective descriptions reflect the author’s recollection of the performance, and his discussions with other audience members later.
(7) Once again Deleuze points the way. “Style in philosophy strains toward three different poles: concepts, or new ways of thinking; percepts, or new ways of seeing and hearing; and affects, or new ways of feeling. They’re the philosophical trinity, philosophy as opera: you need all three to get things moving” (Deleuze,Negotiations 1972-1990 as quoted in Herzog, p 86; emphasis in original).
Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” Only Entertainment, London & New York: Routledge, 1992. pp. 18-44.
Amy Herzog, “Affectivity, Becoming, and the Cinematic Event: Gilles Deleuze and the Futures of Feminist Film Theory,” Affective Encounters: Rethinking Embodiment in Feminist Media Studies, University of Turku, School of Art, Literature and Music Media Studies, Series A, No. 49
http://www.hum.utu.fi/mediatutkimus/affective/herzog.pdf pp. 83-88.
Brian Massumi, “The Autonomy of Affect,” Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2002. pp. 23-45.
Simon O’Sullivan, “An Aesthetics of Affect: Thinking Art Beyond Representation,” Angelaki, Volume 6, No. 3, December 2001. pp. 125-125.
Eric Shouse, “Feeling, Emotion, Affect,” M/C Journal 8.6 (2005).
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