The diverse, and for our globalised time, crucially important topic(s), questions, and goals were ambitious, to say the least. It was clear to us from the start that we would not be able to answer all questions and realistically could only scratch the surface. Nevertheless, as it transpired, the way we collaborated to scratch the surface and the knowledges that emerged from this process were many and surprising. Perhaps the most valuable and useful is our work towards developing a potential space-based/digital artistic research methodology that is capable, indeed well-suited to, the challenges of our times. This has become even clearer to us as we revisit the creative process and performance/symposium three years after the event, as a global pandemic takes place amidst existential global struggles between conservative and progressive forces fighting for their vision of a future. Thinking through the themes of body hegemonies and the history of epistemic violence examined within the performance against the backdrop of institutionalised structural racism that has come to light through the Black Lives Matter movement, together with the devastating global vulnerabilities and inequalities exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, indicates to us that the questions we are asking are indeed some of the burning questions of our time.
Our research questions — each examining the truth-producing mechanisms and hegemonic body discourses shaped by a history of colonialism and modernity — were worked through in the six separate video engagements that were taking place simultaneously. All of the chosen topics are research fields in their own right and the conversations between partners yielded many new insights. Most partners confessed to being more focussed on their own areas of investigation based on issues of great personal interest and importance. There was some frustration that the final performance could not come close to incorporating the many insights gained during this individual research phase. The video conferences were, for some in the group, private research performances while for others they were either a continuation of an ongoing or start of a new dialogue and creative exchange, all taking place alongside the formation of an overarching performance. The focus, however, and what we were experimenting with, was to see how some of the more important insights from the various video conferences might be brought into conversation with one another. This is where we applied Michael Rothberg’s methodology of multidirectional memory to look through the lens of one historical form of epistemic violence to view another and to see what these insights might tell us about the workings of the hegemonic discourses at play. Through this transdisciplinary investigation of the bodily traces of history and other manifestations of epistemic violence, the key concept of the ‘border’ or ‘abyssal line’ (de Sousa Santos 2007), the red thread between the themes emerged (for more details see the Creative Process sections).
One of the goals we set ourselves in this project, in line with Enrique Dussel’s concept of transmodernity (1993), and Mignolo’s concept of border thinking (2009), was to enter a dialogue. This would replace a modern hegemonic order of representation that operates on the epistemic principles of ‘enframing, controllability and knowability’ (Pickering as quoted in Turnbull 2012: 18) with an ‘oppositional, performative, non-western ontology of revealing and unknowability of becoming and possibility’ (ibid). Our experimental and performative project, drawing on a multitude of ontologies, including the non-Western, in its meaning-making, attempted to take this challenge seriously and to experiment with what research methodology and performance format could achieve this outcome and to discover what knowledges this might produce. The choice, furthermore, to blur the boundary between academia and performance by inviting both scholars and artists to be part of the performance process, together with the decision to merge the performance event with a university symposium, was envisaged as a way to challenge, question, and decolonise the authority of Western conceptions of science, academia, and the university as implicated in the history of epistemic exclusion. This exclusion involved the erasure of the voices and knowledges associated with the historically devalued body: of women, the indigenous, and colonised others. Placing the performance and the symposium side by side without privileging one over the other, and allowing the two ontological forms to speak to each other, to create an ‘ecology of knowledges’ (de Sousa Santos 2016), is a way to break open the rigid frame of knowledge production contained within the Eurocentric academic canon. In this, perhaps other ways of knowing and understanding would be allowed to emerge.
Our decision to conduct the research through dialogic interaction on agreed-upon topics of interest with our globally diverse video partners, through an engagement with and through our bodies and aesthetic practice, was part of this strategy to devise a less violent model of research practice that could replace the representational practice of examining one’s research object from an invisible, disembodied, rational, scientific distance — or God’s eye view (Grosfuguel 2011) — and to produce scientific truth-claims as being objective and universally applicable (Dussel 1993, Kilomba 2019). This goal was complicated, yet all the more interesting for our experiment, considering that one side of the collaborating team could only be accessed through digital channels, thus making an engagement through touch and physicality in the here and now impossible and inherently unequal, we presupposed.
Through this transdisciplinary experimental transfer, as presented and argued in the Methodology and Creative Process section of this journal contribution, we have indeed learned about the power of body knowledge in the research process and feel that we have moved towards the beginnings of an ethical methodology (although not necessarily) for conducting artistic research across the digital divide. We attempted to lessen the disembodied hierarchical distance between researching subject and researched object by replacing it with a model of mutual research that invites collaborating partners to be both researcher and researched together, with an agreement that the insights emerging from this relationship were to be negotiated and explored performatively and collectively. As already indicated in the creative development section, even where the dialogic negotiation process between the partners was not mutually embodied and performative, the process of translating affective relationality and the shared video dialogue insights and perceptions into embodied practice was a way of keeping the traditionally invisible researcher (now also the researched) visible and situated in the transfer of knowledge. In so doing, we move away from a disembodied neutral representation of the ‘Other’ (Haraway 1988, Dussel 1993, Grosfuguel 2011, Dieleman 2017, Kilomba 2019). The virtual embodiment of shared affective relationality meant this artistic process could take place without actual physical contact in real time and place.
The greatest limitation of the project, but one we also were interested in exploring, although not overtly stated in our research goals, was the time constraint. Given that artistic funding is often limited and projects are forced to either reduce the number of participants or shorten the rehearsal and performance season, we wondered which of our goals we could achieve in this limited six-day time frame and to what effect. Counter to our original plan of collectively shaping the final performance, we resorted to selecting a facilitator, Fabian, to pull the final performance together in time for the scheduled performance/symposium, which meant we did impose some kind of representational structure through selecting the material to be shown. However, here it is important to remember that the material was for the most part collectively researched and agreed upon by both partners.
It became clear that all participants addressed individual research questions to a greater or lesser extent within the various video dialogues, but due to the limited time frame they could not hope to adequately incorporate all their insights into the final performance. Furthermore, it must not be forgotten that the performance was only one part of a larger project, in the context of a performance/symposium. Looked at from this perspective, all aspects of the research questions were brought into productive dialogue with one another in the final performance/symposium event, through processes of multidirectional re-viewings, reflexivities, deconstructions, re-articulations and empathic re-cognition. These processes created an affective and fully embodied ‘more than rational’ (Dieleman 2008) engagement that was productive of new knowledges and perceptions (Rothberg 2009, Haraway 2016).
Through the performance research into some of the epistemologically informed colonial discourses in relation to the body and the epistemic-aesthetic production of ‘bodies of the Other’, we were able in each case to locate the ‘abyssal line’ that makes visible the mechanisms of the active re-production of the ‘non-existence’ of the ‘Other’, in what de Sousa Santos describes as a ‘sociology of absences’ (de Sousa Santos 2012: 52). We see this in the human remains in the museum, looked at by Ciraj and Dierk, and how these are actively re-produced as scientific objects thus erasing any traces of their humanity. It is also exemplified in the shape-shifting transnational/diasporic Filipino body, as discussed by Paschal and Monica, that has internalised histories of impossible embodiments and acquired skills to circumvent the ‘non-existences’ produced by the monoculture of an imperial Eurocentric rigour of knowledge. The violent traces of epistemic borders were visible, audible, and resonant between the performance topics and academic papers. The personal reflections from the participants in this outcome section document these insights. (Please see the individual reflections on the Outcome page).
Finally, the intercultural translation necessary to work through these difficult themes as a culturally diverse group is part of the strategy advocated by de Sousa Santos, in which one must find conceptual bridges between diverse knowledge systems in order to transcend the violence of epistemic hegemonies. The video dialogues and performative negotiations between collaborating partners, and the group effort to devise a final performance, is part of this process of cultural translation, which has led to a performance outcome that is open-ended and incomplete, following a ‘diatopical hermeneutics’ which works against creating new epistemes or grand universalising theories (de Sousa Santos 2012: 60).
We did not conduct an audience survey, although one had been prepared, due to an oversight in the university security schedule, forcing us to leave the venue earlier than anticipated. Nevertheless, the audience of 53, made up of roughly equal numbers of members of the public and students, mentioned in the panel discussion and conversations afterwards that they made the conceptual link between the aesthetic components of the performance and the theoretical content of the presentations. They noted that this allowed a new and embodied way of cognitively and affectively engaging with, perceiving, and understanding the topics of epistemic violence and body hegemonies. In this sense, we see that our goal of investigating some of the questions we asked ourselves in this experimental transfer did allow new knowledges to emerge. The performance goals and outcomes were thoroughly explored in the panel discussion, which can be accessed through this link.
In this experimental transfer, we set ourselves challenging goals and many questions, not all of which could be addressed in the depth we would have liked. However, as we hope our project has demonstrated, these goals and questions have benefited from being experimented with and examined through a multiplicity of transdisciplinary methods and multidirectional lenses, ontologies, and diverse global subject positions. Above all, we believe that the questions we asked ourselves have benefited from being examined through a process of dialogic relationality that is embodied, engaged, and mutually consenting. In this project, furthermore, we have thematically focused on the body by examining its historic and contemporary discursive devaluation and erasure from hegemonic knowledge production by performatively engaging our whole bodies as ‘embodied cognitioners’ (Dieleman 2017), thus attempting to re-inscribe it into the production of knowledge. In so doing, we hoped to challenge the discursive authority of Eurocentric academic knowledge production and make visible the violence of this emission, as well as offer new methods for incorporating the body in the production and dissemination of knowledge in ways that are less violent, more globally inclusive, and ethical.