notes on the flesh – a f(l)ailing presentation
This is a performative video presentation, in which I reflect on an artistic research project which I executed in parallax to the peripheries in parallax conference as a student in Aalto University from fall 2020 through spring 2021.
In making this video, I wanted to explore the messiness and clumsiness, that I found in my approach to artistic research, and that I in actuality find quite an important quality in the work. While editing the video, I was drawn to the clumsiness that is present both in my handling of the sculptural objects and the squeaky, clinky sounscapes they produce, and how those sounds become layered with my speech. I thought, that in some ways the difficulty of translating my way of thinking and working into language, can actually become the subject of investigation, rather than being denied, or hidden.
I wonder, whether the clumsiness in this work may be related to the concrete nature of the work. The excess of the fingers, there are so many! And working with them, it is so heavy! Or the clumsiness could come from something being too much. Too much flesh, too many limbs and fingers, too many thoughts. Excess of thought, surplus of thoughts, that creates this clumsiness?
Clumsiness also relates to the idea of failing and flailing. For me, this flailing or failing, and being lost during the process, is an important quality. It’s not a failure in that sense, or something to hide, or clean up, but something to lift up, to notice and celebrate.
In this project I also wanted to see what can be discovered, if I try and find my research questions and themes from and through the artistic practice itself. I wanted the artistic practice to be at the center of the process, to see how it in itself could inform the process.
There were many times I felt quite lost. Not lost as in being in despair, or having lost hope, but lost as in: being in the thick of it, not quite sure yet where the trails go, but being in the process of finding them, and discovering where they lead.
Hello, this is a presentation, on an artistic research project I conducted from fall 2020 through spring 2021, as a student of scenography in Aalto University. The research project was executed aside the peripheries in parallax: BRAVE NEW PERIPHERIES -conference organised by the four-year “Floating Peripheries – mediating the sense of place” artistic research project.
The base for my artistic research was the idea of corporality, touch, flesh, materiality and aesthetics as something peripheral and excessive in the context of the Aalto University School of Arts Design and Architecture new campus building Väre, which in the beginning of this research project was named as a site for the research.
The working spaces in Väre were mainly designed for short-term, quick and clean office-type work, and it has been largely criticised by its users as not allowing space for the messiness, slowness and actual, heavy materiality of artistic processes.
I wanted to explore bodily excesses by working with sculptural objects formed by bodycasting, a method that produces a surplus of bodyparts. In working with this technique, I was also interested in the process of working with my hands, and working through touching and being with the sculptural objects and materials.
To follow the process, I take photographs, videos, and keep a written work-diary.
As I reflect on it now, I can't help but wonder, also, about how my project was formulated against the backdrop of the pandemic, in which touch has become something to be regulated and restricted, and how that has affected the way the work evolved.
The questions I had evolved greatly during the process through the artistic practice. At the moment I can recognize three areas of research I was trying to reach towards.
One of them was the question of excess as a phenomenon and a method.
On the peripheries in parallax: BRAVE NEW PERIPHERIES -website, peripheries are described as follows:
“Originally a geometric term, periphery (περιφέρεια, periphéreia, ‘circle, circumference, outer surface’) also hints of ‘moving around’ and to a form that is ’round’ or ‘circular’.” ( https://pinp2021.aalto.fi/ )
In relation to this description of peripheries, excess appeared for me as something that leaks over, that exceeds the surface of an object or idea, and surpasses it. In this leakage, there is potential for something not yet-known to become visible. The leakage flows over and ruptures the surface of what I think I know.
The concept of excess was also important to me, because of the way materiality and aesthetics have tended to be viewed as somehow excessive: subordinate to forms and ideas; mere ornament; shallow; a container, that is separate from and irrelevent to what it contains.
This kind of thinking is challenged though by contemporary posthuman and new materialist thinking, which offer new perspectives into the agency of nonhuman beings and materialities. As a scenographer I've found great resonance in new materialist thinking, as it makes space for the re-evalution of the role of scenography in the context of performing arts, as not just mere backdrop or scenery, but a powerful agent in both the artistic process and the performance event.
In relation to these lines of thinking, I've been very interested in questions like “what does materiality do?” or “what do aestehtics do?, and so, as I set out to work on this research, I translated them into: “what does excess do?”, and also “What can excess reveal?”
Another area of research for me was the body. I wanted to explore the body and the flesh as matter, as aesthetic, as sculptural, and the affective qualities of the bodycastings. I was trying to somehow find ways for the work to be simultanously human and non-human, animate and inanimate, organic and inorganic. Something fleshy and hard, growing and decaying, ornamentation and dirt, ancient and futuristic, sci-fi and fossil.
I kept thinking about corals, and fungi and other rhizomatic organisms; about infestation and infection and the porousness of all things, all surfaces. I was reading the finnish translation of Emanuele Coccia's book The Life of Plants – A Metaphysics of Mixture, where Coccia argues that even though plants have been overlooked by much of philosophy and sciences, they are in fact the fundamental base for life and being. I tried to imagine human corporality that could learn from plants and fungi. The body as a landscape, the landscape as a body.
I kept wondering whether working with the scupltures could be a way for the dreaming and creating of future evolutions in the directions that Donna Haraway motions towards with her writing in her book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016).
The third area of research was artistic practice and artistic process itself. I was interested in the process of working with my hands, working through touching and being with the bodycastings and related objects and materials. This related both to the question of the tradition of handcrafts and ornamentation as excess (things like ryes, crocheting, jewellery, nail art and makeup) but also to the corporality of artistic work, and the corporal knowledge it entails. Here again, my mind wandered to non-human entities, as I started to think of octopuses and their de-centralized nervous system, where each of their tentacles can behave more-or-less independently. I wonder how much I think and know through my hands, fingers and touch? How much I know by working-with my hands, by working-with these objects?
I wanted to explore how my thinking evolves with the objects. I wanted to look at them, and ask from them:
how do you appear to me?
How do you function?
How do you want to be?
What do you want to do?
What can we do together?
What kind of knowledge can working with these objects and materials lead me toward?
Not just asking, what is excess, but how to work with it?
How to work with excesses and leakages?
how to work with materials?
How do these objects and materials affect me, where do they lead?
How to allow them to lead, how to allow myself to follow?
How to let go?
How does the work change me, or change my thinking?
How to allow, and listen for things I don’t yet understand or know?
How to work with what I don’t know?
If I follow excess, where does it take me?
If I look for it, what do I find, and where do I find it?
How do I find it?
How to imagine and think with these things?
How to imagine and think with artistic research?
My process circulated and wandered around these three different areas, my thoughts hopping between them, and I found myself in a somewhat familiar place, as when I was writing my bachelor's thesis for my scenography degree in Aalto University in 2019.
In my bachelor's thesis I wrote about how before I began to study scenography, I studied visual arts, and the main focus in my artistic work was the body. But as I worked with the body, I came to a point where, I felt I couldn't reach the body by approaching it head on. I didn't want to determine the body, or to pin it down somehow. I wanted to leave space for it to remain something ever-changing, unfixed, undetermined, unknown. So, to evade the body I turned towards space, toward the surroundings of the body. So I approach the body through working with space, and I work with space through thinking about the body.
I realized that central to my work was some kind of evasion. Approaching things from the sides, circling around them. It was an attempt to leave spaces for something I don't know. To somehow evade my own attempts for control. To leave space for something exceeding my knowledge. Circling, wandering, evading, surrounding... I guess you could call it a peripheral approach.
I see something similar happening in my research here as well. By working with multiple questions, I think I'm trying to evade holding any one of them too tightly in my hands. Leaping in my thoughts from one place to another creates spaces in-between. These spaces that are created in-between are somehow crucial. They are the holes, the cracks, the tears. The spaces where connection and disconnection happen.
Sometimes I think of it as a kind of venn diagram, and how different kinds of areas can become highlighted. Or sometimes I think it is like collecting different kinds of maps of the same regions one is exploring. None of the maps are perfect, and none of them are the same as the terrain itself. They highlight maybe differing aspects of the landscape, but they are not it. Somehow the maps are possibilities of seeing the terrain, seeing the work from a particular viewpoint, looking at particular things. I keep placing these differing maps over each other, and seeing the different ways the terrain gets drawn out. What becomes visible then?
These margins and peripheries can become spaces for overlap, friction, and failure to fit, which contain the potential to reveal something that can exceed one's expectations and assumptions. They are spaces for transformation, ambiguity and obscurity.
How to articulate this kind of research while maintaing the obscurity and ambiquity one is interested in? How to work towards new knowledge without predetermining what I do not yet know? How to work with the unknown, with things that refuse to be known or determined?
So... As I try to articulate the results of my research, or the new knowledge I have come to, I find myself in some trouble. The translation of the artistic practice into language occurs in a very different pace, in different moments, than the practice itself.
There are all kinds of new perceptions coming to me through my work, but it also takes time for singular perceptions to accumulate into bigger piles of something one could call “new” knowledge. In some ways it is quite difficult to notice when I start to know something. I work and work and somehow at some point I think differently than I thought before. Can that be called new knowledge?
In his book Otherwise than Knowing (2013) Juha Varto writes about the limitations of knowledge and its reation to artistic practice. He refers to his colleague's Harri Laakso's suggestion that:
“we should stop talking about the different types of knowing and admit, or even emphatically argue, that in art we are dealing with something that is ”otherwise-than-knowing” (Varto, 2013. 8).
Varto argues that the category of knowledge is in many way limited only to certain things that can collectively through tradition, be recognized as knowledge, and as such forces us to abandon things that might in actuality be relevant to a fuller understanding of the world, but that don't fit the category of knowledge. (Varto. 2013.)
Varto relates this to artistic research and calls for the importance to “take seriously art’s own way of operating” (Varto, 2013. 9), which he suggested might be more about an oriantation or a sensibility, rather thank knowledge. (Varto, 2013. 9)
Later in the book Varto writes:
”For knowledge, the flesh is a foreign country” (Varto, 2013. 157).
Here, I'm trying to research something that is expressed in the flesh, rather than in language. By working with materials, objects and the body to try to get at things that language can’t get to. Something that exceeds language, or stays underneath it. How to put into words something that one is interested in precisely because there are no words for it?
All I know is that working with objects and materials is heavy. It is working with the weight of things. There is something about the weight... Things become real in their weight...
It also takes time. For the unknown to be sensed, it is necessary to slow down. To stop. To wait. To not look for it.
Somehow I'm not there yet...
What could be known trough seeing this?
These bodies, these objects?
Or what could be seen?
What could be felt?
What could be?
Or how could it be?
And what is left unsaid?
Coccia, Emanuele. 2020. Kasvien salattu elämä – sekoittumisen metafysiikkaa. trans. Jussi Palmusaari. Helsinki: Tutkijaliitto.
Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.
Nieminen, Virpi. 2019. Kosketusten topografiaa – Kun lavastaja ajattelee ruumista. Aalto University. https://aaltodoc.aalto.fi/handle/123456789/37499
Varto, Juha. 2013. Otherwise than Knowing.Helsinki: Aalto ARTS books.
Bennet, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter - A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.
Lange-Berndt, Petra (toim.). 2015. Materiality. London: Whitechapel Gallery. Cambridge: MIT Press.