I am currently an AHRC North West Consortium funded and Disabled Students Allowance supported PhD candidate at the University of Salford, doing practice-based research into ‘The Enfoldment of Song and First Person Filmmaking‘.
Previous journalism: English & Media Centre / Caught By The River / Den of Geek
Temporal Eddies in Sculptural Theatre (2020)
Repetition in performance can affect sensations in the bodies of an audience that alter their perception of space and time, causing physical change and a sense of temporal simultaneity. The philosopher Henri Bergson termed this sense of simultaneous past/present/future temporal synthesis and I would argue that a whirlpool in a liquid’s current – an eddy – provides a useful model for this sensation that can include turbulence, stillness, fluctuation and enfoldment (Guerlac, 2006, p. 67).
I choose the word eddy particularly in relation to what Matthew Causey (2016, p. 435) calls ‘sculptural theatre’; durational installation space without defined beginning or end and in which repetition can be returned to and emphasised by relating looping patterns of light, sound and video, moving object and the tides of audience to give the space a sense of spirit. It is this kind of living space – this kind of sculptural theatre – that William Kentridge (2018) makes affective use of in his work Thick Time and which I aim to better understand in order to push my own practice beyond the linear by using repetition in a way that Eirini Kartsaki (2017, p. 159) explains is ‘not only the compositional principle but also the performance’s subject matter’.
Kartsaki (2017, pp. 67-71) unpacks philosopher Henri Bergson’s idea of temporal synthesis by comparing it to writer Gertrude Stein’s idea of insistence. Stein did not believe that repetition of value was repetition at all. She deemed it valuable in its use of emphasis to differentiate one “repetition” from the next and named this changing emphasis insistence, likening it to a repeated plea that is never the same twice. Deleuze (2004, p. 27) makes a similar distinction between a looping piano recording, for example, and that same piano loop performed live or both loops shifting out of sync and therefore including difference, such as in Steve Reich’s Piano Phase (Reich, 2005). Karsaki elaborates on an example Stein gives – her eleven aunties ‘listening and talking at the same time’, simultaneously giving and vying for attention in their repetitive speech – by relating it to her feeling of ‘some sort of layered space, more than one thing happening at one time, but as if they were one’ (Kartsaki, 2017, p. 68). Something about this evolving kind of repetition can cause a weightless pile-up to be perceived in the mind, as if the slinky of recurrence were to concertina into a singular suspended shape, like Derrida’s (2001, p. 372) metaphor of a ring of returns made imperfect by its continuous ‘trace which replaces a presence’. In discussing such returns in performance, Adrian Heathfield (2000, p. 106) recognises the above something as events that are ‘too full and too quick for you to know or contain’, resulting in the continuous double-take of repetition, which the philosopher Kierkegaard (1964, p. 131) described as a recollection forward; a definition indicative of time played with. These experiences of insistence, of layered space, traces and recollections forward, if not snap together then overlap in support of Bergson’s temporal synthesis.
In interpreting Bergson’s ideas, Guerlac (2006, p. 65) helps to clarify this layering effect within the mind by explaining that what Bergson calls ‘inner states’, contrary to bodies that cannot occupy the same space at the same time, ‘have no such boundaries. They overflow into one another, interpenetrate, even as they succeed one another’. This overflow is what Bergson deems synthesis, which is a temporal synthesis because, as Kartsaki puts it, ‘feelings or sensations that change in kind do not happen in space, as they cannot be counted; they rather happen in time’ (Kartsaki, 2017, p. 77). Bergson uses the example of musical melody to illustrate the point: ‘If these notes succeed one another, we still perceive them as if they were inside one another and their ensemble were like a living being whose parts, though distinct, interpenetrate through the very affect of their solidarity’ (Bergson, 1910, cited in Guerlac, 2006, p. 66). The “we” of Bergson’s subjective opinion could be problematic but his description of how music feels not only rings true with me but is corroborated by Kartsaki’s reading of Stein, explaining that ‘such simultaneity of listening and talking seemed to point emphatically towards a single moment, taking place in the present. A single moment succeeded the next single moment, but without necessarily one moment leading to the next…a continuous present’…or a temporal synthesis (Kartsaki, 2017, p. 68).
But “synthesis” may be too kind a word, I feel, or describes just one least turbulent type of layered time; that of experiencing the shooting star as continuous present despite its clearly marked past across the sky, taking Bergson’s own example (Kartsaki, 2017, p. 76). Keith Potter, however, describes fluctuating stages of “synthesis” in experiencing the repetitive performance of Reich’s Piano Phase, feeling a ‘gradual separation, a chaotic kind of swirling and the coalescing of a new configuration’ (Potter, 2002, p. 186). This coalescing is perhaps the synthesis “kicking in”, but that is just one sensation described, and Potter’s word swirling rings more truly with my own experience of Thick Time’s repetitive form, which did create a kind of temporal synthesis for me but in a fluctuating, inconsistent way more akin to a river’s whirlpooling eddy. An eddy seems to pull coming and going currents into a wobbling, ephemeral shape of its own that is also ‘achieved through repetition but experienced as singular’, rather than the definitive compounding of many states into one that synthesis suggests (Kartsaki, 2017, p. 90). Repetition’s affect, therefore, in seeming to roll the perception of time’s comings and goings around one another into a temporal eddy, can give the sense of a momentarily held shape and position against the normal flow of things, mixing now and then to become nowthen! You can, non-figuratively, feel ‘captured by’ an eddy, as Kartsaki herself feels of Reich’s Piano Phase, and in a way that is ‘overwhelming’ in its singular and relative turbulence (Kartsaki, 2017, p. 84). But eddies, again non-figuratively, can also become singular places of relative calm, offering a model for a spectrum of temporal synthesis, from the opposite end to tumult can be found the stillness of suspensions in time that Heathfield (2006, pp. 92-93) describes in reaction to Pina Bausch’s repetitive dance movements.
An affect, according to Uhlmann’s reading of Deleuze, might be thought of as a force which, ‘rather than coming from an inside and moving out, is both caused by what is external and becomes involved with the nature of the person through whom it is expressed’ (Uhlmann, 2009, p. 62), meaning that such forces do exist outside of perception, but that our understanding of them is inseparable from it. Uhlmann clarifies this with Spinoza – from whom Deleuze developed his ideas on affect – asserting that being affected bysomething ‘involves both the nature of our body and the body we touch’ and is therefore ‘first and foremost a knowledge of ourselves, and of how we have been affected: it does not give us a clear idea of the thing we perceive’. In which case, an attempt to understand and articulate repetition via my own perception of its affective force necessitates recognising those affective attributes verifiable by others’ perceptions. It is also crucial to acknowledge Deleuze’s differentiation, on Spinoza’s grounds, between emotion as the subjective expression of an individual and affect as an ‘external expression’ in order that I can attempt to recognise the affect generated by a work, as opposed to the emotions that I self-generate (Uhlmann, 2009, p. 60). In focusing on what Barbara Kennedy (2009, p. 184) relates as the ‘vital, visceral and electronic pulsations of my autonomic response’, I risk a wholly personal interpretation of repetition. Affect theory, however, attempts to interpret these feelings beyond the personal and towards what Deleuze calls ‘the effectuation of a power of the pack that throws the self into upheaval and makes it reel’; affect as force that is innate and therefore capable of acting upon anybody that comes into contact with it, but which I still must endeavour to describe by the paradoxical means of perception and language (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988, cited in Cull, 2009, p. 8).
Contemporary thinking on affect is no more uniform than that of previous generations, unless that uniformity were of an admission – even celebration – of the lack of fixity. What Gregg and Seigworth (2010, p. 1) define as ‘intensities that pass body to body’, Gibbs (2010, p. 188) reads as ‘operating across the boundary between the organic and the nonorganic’. Not outright disagreements, per se, but the inevitable diversity of readings of what Lavender (2016, p. 162) calls a shimmery term ‘whose colour appears to change depending on the water in which it swims’ and whose existence is so principally felt that its study has spread across a bewildering range of disciplines. Gregg and Seigworth nurture this theoretical agonism by editing together the diversity of writings, in agreement with Massumi that ‘approaches to affect would feel a great deal less like a free fall if our most familiar modes of enquiry had begun with movement rather than stasis, with process always underway rather than position taken’ (Massumi, 2002, cited in Gregg and Seigworth, 2010, p. 4). It is with this acceptance of uncertainty that I join in that process, adding my own experience of repetition’s temporally eddying affect in Thick Time.
With Thick Time, William Kentridge (2018) demonstrates that to generate affect in art, rather than to describe it in language on a page, is to better communicate it as an idea; to have it felt rather than just thought. I experienced Thick Time at the Whitworth Gallery and returned to it on two occasions even prior to deciding on this essay’s subject. Kartsaki (2017, p. 98) thinks that ‘certain performances in repetition seem to evoke an experience that borrows its shape from the performance itself’, loops within the work encouraging loops back to the work, with both shapes of experience simultaneously drawing attention to one another. The reasons for these returns, Kartsaki thinks, are the ‘uncomplete gestures and uncertain endings’ of repetition that Kentridge embraces in Thick Time (Kentridge, 2018, p. 1). Although a months-long, seamlessly looping installation and therefore easily returned to in that logistical sense, Thick Time’s repetitive form simultaneously ‘creates an experience of rupture: it generates a hole, or a gap’ both by never ending itself and by its constituent loops that themselves never end (Kartsaki, 2017, p. 156). By using the word rupture, Kartsaki implies that returns to repetitive work such as this can be attempts to “plug” such holes, to somehow make sense of the perpetual lack of linear resolution. My returns to Thick Time, however, were gleeful and therefore more about the thrill of such rupture; the abandon of unconventional sensational. Cull (2009, p. 10) talks of Deleuze’s ‘ontological prioritisation of difference, process or becoming’ and the affective force of these not yet states. Thick Time’s repetitive form, in creating ruptures – gaps where conclusions “should” be; not yet conclusions in their stead – could therefore be said to have affected my own body with its suspended sense of becoming, not simply during the changing bodily tensions of the participatory moment but in the redirection of mind and matter back to it in the future, again and again.
Thick Time consists of five moving-image installations around a central exhibit of objects, but I am focussing on just one of those installations, The Refusal of Time (William Kentridge, 2018), with a further focus on the affective form of the work rather than its symbolic language, in line with this essay’s overall focus. The Refusal of Time brings together aspects from all the other rooms in a celebration of the ‘process of erasure and repetition, where marks are rubbed out, redrawn, altered and overlaid’ in performances and animations captured in looping video that the exhibition guide describes as ‘a metaphor for memory and the flux of real life’ (Kentridge, 2018, p. 1). This is to take a leaf from Bergson’s book on what he calls durée or real time: ‘time as we actually experience it in the course of our lives’ (Arya, 2015, p. 71). In encouraging this embrace of unobjectified perception, however, Kentridge also encourages temporal synthesis, which Bergson (1910, p. 100) claims can only take place when ‘our ego lets itself live’ or, as Kartsaki (2017, p. 89) puts it, when ‘I give up my attempt to think about the past, present and future as separate or to understand my experience through language’. How time and memory are perceived, rather than “objectively” recorded, is clearly the symbolic theme of the work, which represents time-pieces, political upheaval, quantum theory, repeated erasure, and so on in video and sound, but this language is presented on a shifting scaffold of form that affects the viewer with the ideas represented, therefore making the work less about mimicking experience and more about affecting the experience itself.
What is curious about Thick Time is that it affected me with a sense of temporal synthesis – a perception reached via living sensation – but using seemingly unliving means: five projectors, eight speakers, four megaphone tripods, two spotlights, a rough circle of chairs and a central, labouring wooden object – a ‘Breathing Machine’ – around which all of the former were positioned, with sound and image circling from the edges inwards (Kentridge, p. 7). All, save for the chairs and Breathing Machine, were either inanimate or set on an unchanging loop; what Stein would class as repetition of little interest. Even this loop, however, mimicked evolution in the complexity of its configuration, with sound in particular playing a crucial role by emitting from eight separate places, four of which – the megaphones – were independent in content both from one another and from the main speakers, throwing science lectures, singing, breathing, ticking, and so on into the mix sporadically. Densely layered and evolving repetition also took place within the projected video, lighting and sound loops themselves (metronomes becoming out-of-sync becoming Kentridge becoming a dancer walking across chairs becoming Kentridge’s voice repeating here I am, here I am…) providing the evolving change in emphasis that Stein insists on insistence having, but in a way that is ultimately still locked within the wider pre-set thirty minute loop of the installation, the way William Basinski’s (2012) The Disintegration Loops presents a forever fixed recording of corroding musical repetition. It is impossible for me to tell, having not experienced it, whether this configuration alone could have mimicked Stein’s emphasis and Deleuze’s difference well enough to have affected Bergson’s temporal synthesis, but the relationship between this chaotic seeming media-loop and the actual, if quietly added chaos of the interacting audience may have been what tipped The Refusal of Time from feeling like an unliving space to feeling like a living one, unpredictably evolving over time; a performer-less but performative ‘sculptural theatre’ in which ‘what happens is not happening’ (Causey, 2016, p. 435).
The insistent creaking and moving of intentionally creaky/moveable chairs by curious tides of audience, relating with the imperfect and incongruent shuffling back and forth of the autonomous and therefore asynchronous Breathing Machine, felt emulsified with the media-loop, emphasising it and affecting me with this sense of temporal synthesis. Like Reich’s live piano loop, phasing in and out of synchrony with that same loop’s recording, the insistence created by The Refusal of Time’s asynchronous repetition forced an ‘adding up’ of events, a ‘layering’ of space and the feeling of ‘more than one thing happening at one time, but as if they were one’ that Kartsaki (2017, p. 68) clearly interprets from Bergson’s idea. This synthesis was not fixed, however, but fluctuating like an eddy in a flow and like Kentridge’s idea of an uncertain perception of time, sometimes felt as turbulent, sometimes felt as still, as the installation’s emphases themselves fluctuated and I moved within the space to its push and pull. The circular layout of the installation mimicked this affective eddying in shape, with currents of audience pausing, unsure, as I had been at that same spot, whether to ‘press’ their bodies against its invisible forces (Kartsaki, 2017, p. 101). This pressing is what Kartsaki says of her bodily reaction to repetitive live performance, but repetition in the predominantly inanimate Refusal of Time affects shape in the same spirited way, with an irony not lost on Kentridge (2018, p. 1), whose art, he says, is ‘an art of ambiguity, contradiction’ and one which demonstrates Deleuze’s external expression of becoming in the never yet endings of its never same skips, ‘operating across the boundary between the organic and the nonorganic’ (Gibbs, 2010, p. 188); between audience, object and media.
My experience of repetition in Thick Time’s form of sculptural theatre, and the theories I have researched in order to better understand its temporally eddying affect, allow me to look at my own developing practice in a more informed and therefore open way. As a maker of music, I have been dealing with time in an affective yet contradictory way by creating conventionally short and linear recordings – songs – that use elements of repetition within themselves, are themselves re-playable, yet are fixed in their form and therefore without evolution that is beyond their looping whole. Artists like Reich and Kentridge have played with this contradiction by introducing to these fixed kinds of loops the inevitable “corruption” of living repetition, the unpredictability of which Stein therefore deemed not repetition at all but insistence, and an effective aid to inducing Bergson’s temporal synthesis in its ability to encourage singular seeming build-ups of past moments that carry into the present on the back of their un-processability. But it is evidently inaccurate to interpret this as meaning that the recorded love song, for example, cannot affect its listener; its form has clearly had our world rapt for generations now, with Bergson (1910, p. 111) citing melody alone as a clear example of what can affect the temporal. The combination of evolving and non-evolving repetition within a durational, nonlinear form, rather offers a differently moving experience of music, and one that affects temporal synthesis in particular. As audience member I have found this sensation to be a haunting one – a word Heathfield (2000, p. 106) also cannot avoid – and would therefore like to learn to generate it in my own work, if haunted means to be affected enough to return time and again. Playing with these ideas could therefore mean constructing my own affective spaces, experimenting with combinations of animated and inanimate objects, and differing durations of variously relating and repeating video and sound, to build a sculptural theatre like that of Fitch and Trecartin, from who’s work Causey gained the term sculptural theatre (Retreatery Butte, 2016). I am not, however, interested in the ‘durational exercise of endurance’ that Causey (2016, p. 435) describes in relation Fitch and Trecartin’s in-your-face installations, but rather in the interactive, playful and musical experiences that Kentridge’s work demonstrates, and which are enjoyed sensorially, first and foremost. The idea enacted by Reich, in which not only audience interaction but also live performance could then be introduced to a looping recording – or a self-looping space – opens further possibilities for the delivery of recorded sound and vision beyond Youtube, Spotify and your laptop speakers.
With Thick Time, Kentridge exemplifies a work that delivers affects via form that are represented in subject, such as the uncertain perception of time both mimed on-screen in performed vignettes and felt by an audience as a result of changing repetition. This mirroring process can potentially re-emphasise affective experience. As Kartsaki (2017, p. 75) explains, ‘by drawing attention to itself as repetition, the movement is not merely doing this, it is insisting that it is doing so; it is underlying what it is doing by doing it. It is emphasising itself, drawing emphasis on itself, but also drawing emphasis on drawing emphasis on itself through repetition’. This subject/form reflection is therefore an approach I would like to develop within my own practice, having begun to play with it already.
An ongoing project of mine over the past three years has been White Paint Spills (2019), a communally generated archive of photographs of white paint spills (in public places) which aims to encourage ideas around control, chaos, repetition, temporal perception, memory, uncertainty and so on, by combining this growing archive of the same repeated type of image with narrated video essays that ponder such themes. The idea as a novelty has proved popular, gaining coverage on the BBC News (2019), and the archive itself, hosted on Instagram, has a growing following of a few hundred contributors who seem attracted to the curious satisfaction of the repetitive, same-but-different, insistent archive; a curiosity that modestly echoes the success of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s repetitively evolving Water Towers photography project, undertaken between 1972-2009 and housed in the Tate Modern’s permanent collection (Tate, 2019).
My archive already reflects, in the narrated words of its video essays, upon what it delivers in repetitive form and has evidently affected an audience to return repeatedly to it with their own contributions, which are the result of their own physical journeys taken in reaction to mine to find and record white paint spills; a simultaneously futile and hopeful act of sharing to an anonymously repetitive archive. The video essays have also, in their repetitive slide-show form, made gestures towards re-emphasising this archive’s subject. However, I feel that the results of these linear films, although having screened at HOME (2019) and other public events, lack adequate affective force. This can be easily if crudely measured using social media tools by comparing the rates of returns to the videos – its views – with those of the photo archive, which far exceed the videos in these numbers (Davey, 2019). In-house audience feedback from the HOME screening (2019) also revealed a polarising effect sometimes associated with linear and confined uses of repetition, such as that of a fifteen-minute film viewed in a cinema. These finite forms, without freedom to leave and return, can create a sense of cognitive dissonance that Kartsaki (2016, p. 11) describes as a ‘simultaneous longing and fear for the end of repetition’. This can split an audience; not necessarily a bad thing, but for the affective force of an open-ended internet archive to be fully re-emphasised in its expanded form, it should surely adopt an equally open-ended form within physical space, using repetition of sound and object, as well as vision, in order to re-re-emphasise and to therefore affect an act of returning to the work that mimics its own looping shape; affectivity that is at least equal in force to that of the archive it is expanding upon. This form could be a kind of durational installation as exemplified by Thick Time and could draw upon my experience of recording music and the knowledge I am gaining of repetitive composition in order to introduce this highly affecting medium and re-emphasise insistent imagery.
In conducting the preceding research, my aim has been to focus on and unpack a particular set of sensations that I felt whilst experiencing William Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time, set within his wider exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery; Thick Time. I had little frame of reference for this feeling of simultaneous and whirling temporality; a keen, ever-present and singular-feeling build-up of events in space/time, created by the installation’s constantly re-emphasising repetition. But I knew it was a sensation, immediate and primal, and therefore not adequately researchable down the more common academic routes towards the reading of symbols, representation, language, semiotics and so on. It was an affective force that I was feeling; an instinctive reaction prior to “meanings” arrived at secondarily from signs and symbols. And so to Eirini Kartsaki, whose collected accounts of repetition in art, writing and performance greatly help to explain, from a contemporary, practice-based and embodied standpoint, the ideas of Stein, Bergson and Deleuze.
Stein gave definition to the insistant emphasis that drives repetition to evolve beyond the carbon copy and so live in a way that Bergson embraces in his ideas around unobjectifiable perception. His notion of temporal synthesis – the feeling of layering time encouraged by such insistent repetition – clicked with my own experience of Thick Time but required adjusting towards an idea of a temporal eddy in order to describe both my own fluctuating experience of this synthesis and the idea of its affective shape that Kartsaki has sensed in other repetitive works. From readings of Deleuze, then, we gained an understanding of how a seemingly unliving, performer-less installation such as Thick Time could affect such a living experience in its audience by considering this exchange of forces as something that passes innately between the internal and external, able to move between organic and nonorganic bodies and affect the becoming of new perceptions and bodily states with its own ruptures. Finally, the works of performer/composers such a Steve Reich enabled me to unpack the mechanics of an installation like The Refusal of Time in order to begin to explain just how this combination of repeating recorded media and living, insistent repetition could help to generate a force strong enough to affect returns to the work that mimic its own looping shape. From these understandings I feel better able to unpack my own practice in order to develop towards subjects and forms that collaboratewith one another, emphasise one another and so move an audience to return, time and again.
Contemporary works, such as that of William Kentridge or Fitch and Trecartin, show a readiness to embrace the collaborative process necessary to achieve worthwhile interdisciplinarity, able to emphasise the meaning of language with affective sensation and vice versa. These works are unafraid to bypass conventional performance forms and spaces in order to utilise the qualities of the durational installation and give the intermedial repetition common to such forms a significant, non-arbitrary bond with the subjects they support. A work like Thick Time, having been dissected, demonstrates methods by which I can move my own work beyond thinking in terms of individual disciplines – and myself as an individual artist – and towards utilising whatever techniques a desired affect requires. Affect itself, in being understood through the practice and ideas of others and beyond my own intuition, can become a contextualised and therefore more wieldy, if shimmery outcome for my future work, with the desired movement of audience more distinguishable from my own emotions as a maker.
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William Kentridge: Thick Time (2018) [Exhibition]. The Whitworth, Manchester. 21 September 2018-3 March 2019.