Of horizontal authorities, anorexic redistributions, and debating politics with trees.
Welcome to Bureau d’Espoir
Chinese artists used to change their names three times in their career in order not to be linked all their lives to the same work. In this way they gave up on the concept of the “I” related, to a name, in order to reinvent themselves. In other words: they gave up their personal authorship in order to free themselves from the weight of the past and open up new possibilities. What role does the responsibility of the author play in this case?
You know I am quite interested in the question of authorship and responsibility and how these two are connected: how to navigate the gap between the ‘authorial author’ and the ‘invisible author’. The authorial author is the classical author as we know him: he is highly visibly, carries a great deal of symbolic capital and public recognition, and he becomes a kind of a standard for ‘good’ knowledge: for the kind of knowledge whose value ‘we’ commonly agree upon. On the other side we have the the invisible author, often working in collaborative practices, humble, flexible, a constant source of resistance against capital recuperation, etc…
The former seems to be linked to an ‘old-fashioned’ idea of social responsibility. In the best case this means the author is accountable for what the work resonates in the world. The work becoming from time to time the object of debate, of dissensus, forcing the artist into the open to re-present his (work’s) position in the public eye (of the storm). The latter’s motivations for making art are often highly political, but the invisibility of the author, and most often also of the ‘complete’ work – the work graspable in one go, one space, one time – often escapes public scrutiny. In that sense the invisible author undeniably takes responsibility for his work, how it is organised, how he redistributes the value of work over all the players concerned, how he denies becoming part of the visibility media circus of capital, etc… But at the same time of taking up this ‘worker’s responsibility’, he loses access to the public eye: the role of the author in the common debate that surpasses the limits of the aesthetically initiated, the experimental scene, the meta-philosophically inclined. In a way we are talking about two different forms of responsibility: the first one is the political, possibly agonistic, responsibility of taking a clear (aesthetic) position in the social sphere. It is a position that could possibly lead to a shared debate concerning the value of the work and its claims on representing a common ground for rethinking the ‘world as it is’. In that sense, these kind of works can become highly politicised, and the author the intellectual carrier of intellectual rigour and ideological strength.
The invisible position rather takes a political stance on the level of production mechanics, on the terrain of the understanding of work, and so also directly on what it is to live and work together, to organise our lives, to reclaim our time and our limits. The invisible author takes a stance against the policing (Rancière) of the political. Against the limiting of ‘valuable’ knowledge to the knowledge of the recognised genius or specialist. But, his inclination towards horizontality prevents clarity. His position never materialises in the eye of a larger public, there is no ‘scene’ created where the (re)constellation of positions in the debate can take place. In that sense the work becomes a procedure, a way of working rather than a work itself. Strategies that can or cannot be picked up by others, but that in themselves are a-critical, beyond values, if not experienced in the specific ideological context that produced them. The problem there is that these production mechanisms, born in an artivist or ethically-political conscious production environment can, once they have gained a life of their own, easily be transposed and recuperated within a completely different political mind-set of production. F.e.: think of the free software movement that worked on collective coding for the benefit of all, and became implanted later in huge industrial production mechanisms. Which was largely due to their low-cost investment potential and the beneficiary side-effect of the personal involvement of all workers in the process. This kind of easy recuperation becomes much more problematic when the work is still attached to a (possibly) resistant author, that will fight against its recuperation in a context they don’t agree with.
But off course the invisible author and the invisibility of the work on the public scene do not necessarily go hand in hand. There are forms of collective authorship, for example in the use of pseudonyms or MUI (multi-user identities) for working that can do exactly the opposite of what I just described. They can become highly experimental vehicles for a radical authorial agency, that is no longer bound by psychologised or legalised limits. If the link with the ‘I’ of the author is successfully severed, the pseudonym or collective author could function as an experimental scene for trans-legal, post-gender, post-oeuvre, non-directive action and work as a litmus test for the radical redefinition of what value is, what identity, and whose point of view. In that case the work becomes a mute mirror of our own desires to belong and to recognise ourselves in what is being produced. The measure of relevance is then thrown back to the individual beholder, to their experience of the specific situation, and no longer relies on the public agreement of what valuable knowledge consists of.
Could we relate this back to your work? By way of a little detour? Roland Barthes’ essay “The death of the author” starts this way:
“In his story Sarrasine, Balzac, speaking, of a castrato disguised as a woman, writes this sentence: ” It was a woman, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive fears, her unprovoked bravado, her daring and delicious delicacy of feeling” Who is speaking in this way? Is it the story’s hero, concerned to ignore the castrato concealed beneath the woman? Is it the man Balzac, endowed by his personal experience with philosophy of Woman? Is it the author Balzac, professing certain “literary” ideas of feminism? Is it universal wisdom? or romantic psychology ? it will always be impossible to know, for the good reason that all writing is itself this special voice, consiting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is preciselly the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.”
Later on he speaks about narrative in primitive societies and the role of the mediator or shaman or speaker in the transmission of those narratives. He mentions then that the admiration given to these people is in relation to their mastery of code of the narrative but not in relation to his or her genius.
This made me relate your practice as a writer and critic with your will to embody multiple, and also spiritual, voices. To mix up different voices that would together form a transgressive narrative, in its literal sense: transgressing social and political contexts. Would like to respond?
Yes. I think this is a complex question, since it contains several interesting access routes for answering. So maybe let’s start with a bit of context to my practice with Bureau d’Espoir. And especially the practices I did as a Hunger Artist and later an Anorexic Worker. Since I think they are closely related to the ‘empty’ author’s position I am claiming in this project. I’ve talked earlier about the politics of visibility that separates the ‘classical’ author from the invisible one. I experienced this difference sharply when I first worked as a Hunger Artist in a gallery in Sao Paulo, and started from there to invite people to join the Hunger Artist movement, a protest and solidarity action for the recreation of our sense of values. A kind of attempt to involve an international group of artist/workers that would use their residency times as public fora to question the value that was produced in the work, for whom, in what kind of an economic and political setting. I asked people to join the ‘struggle’ by using their residency time to hunger in the limited public space of their assigned studio of theatre, and to put into question the underlying ideologies that keep the whole arts system together: the machinations of subsidies, the profile pressure on the theaters, the career intentions of well-meaning politics of the programmer, the hidden logics of the financial director, the food politics of the house and so forth.
But at the same time I was also developing an understanding and experience in Anorexic Practices: much more invisible and humble practices of re-distributing value within the production system. But also outside of the work realm. I understand the anorexic here as one of the Bodies without Organs as described by Deleuze. To be clear, and I always have to be clear at this point: I talk about anorexic practices as tools for the redistribution of life and work. I’m not promoting anorexia as a choice of life. Maybe it is easiest to understand if you compare it to ‘terrorist’ art practices. The association there is also not one of the artist in question illegally obtaining a Boeing and crashing it into the Palais de Justice.
So, I worked a lot on the anorexic as an emptied out vessel, a kind of marker of the situation around her. Her practice is not one of hyper-visibility, but quite the contrary a work of often invisible intensity and repetition. In opposition to the Hunger Artist whose actions are always placed in a highly ideological and political context of yes and no, of opposition and victory (or failure), the Anorexic Worker just insists on her repetitive actions of moving things around. She breaks up social structures (in the first place the one of the family of course) by simply preferring not to participate. The consequences of her actions are not spectacular like the Death of the Author of the Hunger Artist, but they claim a durational, and if carefully developed, sustainable trajectory. She chooses not to consume in order not to be consumed.
In that sense her emptiness, her role of the pure exterior marker, becomes a void that marks the relation that make up her position. The ‘I’ her understood as the crossing point of other players’ projections and desires. ‘I’ is the temporary culmination point of the relations that make it what it is. But the Bodymind that is the result of these relations is itself always a common resource, a product of circumstances. The bodymind of the anorexic worker shows the relativity of the subject-position, but also the potential of other constellations of relations around her. By breaking the preconceptions around the stable ‘I’, the social patterns that govern our lives (like eating, consuming, projecting, …) she opens up other possible relations, other images, other possible machines of togetherness and behaviour. She is the hole in the whole that functions like a drain, around which the whole environment whirls into a new constellation.
Now, that was a long introduction to answering your question, but I think that as a writer/researcher, it is exactly this mix-up of imaginations that I want to achieve. Me emptying myself out of my fixed and historical construction, getting rid of what I think I stand for, has helped me a lot in the last years of working with Bureau d’Espoir to redistribute my idea of where value is situated. What I wanted to do in this project was to ‘channel’ different voices, that all claim a different value system and world view: political theory, spiritual practices, poetry, critical discourse, walking guides, … In this mingling up of voices, or in me voicing them, what becomes clear are the gaps between them, the resonance that is created through the distance between them, which is exactly where a potential fresh practice or idea can take root and can become shareable. In my practice I call this hope.
In speaking about authorship you already touched upon the second part of our research here: authority. In our discussions we have spoken of authority mainly as a negative term. What can be the benefits of authority in your work?
I think we have to make a distinction between what I would call ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ authority. The vertical type is mostly instigated by the ‘policing’ instances: the government, the Institute, the Law Maker, etc… This verticality instigates a parallel between authority and power that is absolute. The one that symbolically carries this authority automatically also gets the power to enforce this authority through decision making and exclusion, in a more or less radical way. In other words, social negotiation or input is limited to what is allowed within this authoritative power structure. The two brothers in arms of this vertical authority are symbolic authority (the professor, the accepted genius artist, the scientist, etc…) and moral authority (the school, the church,…)
But if we think of authority as a horizontal process, this shifts our understanding of authority considerably. Off course we know that this shift from vertical to horizontal authority can in the first place be understood as a shift in biopower: the control mechanisms of a society becoming part of the body of the citizen. And this embodied authority leaking from the body of the ‘citizen’ into their personal lives, their religious beliefs, ethics, etc… The Law of the Father turning from an outside disciplinary ordering principle into the creation of hyperbolic and insane super-ego’s, and us becoming our own most severs – and largely senile – judges. It is this internalized Law that makes us desire our own constant productivity, our super-ego-perfectionist pleasure in over-achieving, in consuming ourselves in order to become consumable by the other.
But I believe there is still also another kind of authority that is not vertical nor internalized judgmental, and in that sense not absolute. It is an authority that is only picked up by the one that was listening, or looking for it. An unobtrusive kind that can only be recognised in its ‘relative’ power: in its being part of a particular economy of giving sense to things. I think this kind of authority could be captured as a form of ‘exemplary practices’. It is the authority that comes to life within the the daily practice of life, and that only speaks within the context wherein it makes sense. This is a kind of authority that is not necessarily outspoken, or written down. It is not the kind of authority we all have to agree upon. But it IS an authority that in the given situation cannot be denied or belittled. It is the authority of experience, of creativity, of wisdom, of courage. Depending on the situation, this exemplary practice can be embodied by anyone, out of any kind of function. It is the practice of the ‘mindful’ doing, that feeds its environment. From the inventive hobby gardener to the home-made political philosopher, every one of them has ‘authorised’ their voice through a repeated and insistent practice ‘of their own’. Unauthorized by the vertical hegemonies, unstoppable by the limits of the divisions of social experience, in which you have to become ‘officially qualified’ to be able to be authoritative at all. We might not know exactly where to look for it, but we all recognise it the moment it’s there.
I read a lot of different influences in your answers. And I wandered if this is related to the fact that in your research within Bureau d’Espoir this last year you have been diving into spiritual practices. How did that change your notion of hope?
I understand the notion of hope as a notion of ‘potential change’: it is a principle for relating to the situation from within, in relation to the present context. And to allow for this situation to take you somewhere else, somewhere unforeseen. Hope is thus about opening up the mind to other possibilities, opening ‘the doors of perception’. Or in this case: ‘the doors of potential’.
After two years of working on political modes of hope, and later on social bodies of hope and the movements they can accomplish within a society, I turned to spiritual practices AS practices of hope. I started treating our bodies as potential home factories of hope, and looked into physical spiritual practices to see how we might achieve that. Since these practices clearly open up any kind of situation to a larger and potentially disruptive power. Also I wanted to turn back to the body as a possible terrain of transformation. Not only of itself, or as carrier of the bodymind mode of flight and change, but also of the context in which it finds itself and in which it recognises itself. Spiritual body practices, like meditation, or the ingestion of hallucinogenic plants, or shamanistic inspired practices, open up your contextual perception. It makes literal what was before only experientiable on a figurative level. Like the ‘democracy of objects’, a notion from Jane Bennett in her book ‘Vibrant Matter’, in which she stretches the idea of democracy to include all objects, organic AND non-organic. To step into a spiritual trance in which you become these objects, in which you find yourself being made up from exactly the same material and Intelligence that makes up the whole world, the Spirit that evades everything, puts this academic remark in a completely other experience field. The notion becomes ‘real’, in the sense of ‘performative’: these objects and your transformation into them and back start talking and transforming your relation to the world around you, and thus, your life. But also, your politics and beliefs, and the exemplary practice that your life is to others. To the way you organise yourself, the way you relate to others. I would say that the entrance into spiritual practices has radicalised my view on hope and on potential. My role in the whole. Because if you experience yourself as being a particular and accidental outcome of the materiality, the DNA you could say, of the world around you, you realise on the one hand that your sense of isolation, of not-being-connected and thus of non-responsibility, is false. But you also realise that your doing or not doing anything about it is in the bigger scope of things arbitrary. What IS clear though is, that the fact that you exist is on the one hand totally arbitrary, but on the other hand unique, and that in this particular bodymind-constellation that is mine, there also unfolds a unique potential for change, and for the reconstitution and re-arrangement of knowledge. Mine and others: practices to deal with the world around me. So, to be political, to become part of a social body movement, is on the one hand liberated from banal guilt, and on the other hand opened up to unforeseen dimensions. Liberated from fear, and opened up to risk-taking. Liberated from the one that I am, and opened up to the All that I am too. Off course languages of politics and spirituality clash. All the time. But it is in the gap between the two that the mobilisation of engagement becomes problematised and ‘vibrant’ again for me.
And, on the level of the author/authority question: it is in the moment of the giving up of the ‘I’ as the carrier of knowledge and agency, that I can accept a larger order of knowing and of acting that supersedes my individual point of view. So what about writing with a car, interviewing a fridge, discussing politics with a tree? It is really not a question of ‘belief’ or if the answers you get are ‘true’. For me working on spiritual practices is simply about allowing different types of answers to enter into the dessicated field of critical art practices. And to allow the bodymind to ‘enter the stream’ – to borrow from buddhist language – of knowledge that it has been taught not to be perceptive of.
I like the possibility of discussing politics with a tree; it’s a strong image conveying the potential of a situation to change in an unforeseen way. But at the same time when I want to enter into that idea, it closes again. Like a mirage that turns out to be a brick wall. And I don’t want to understand discussing politics with a tree as merely metaphoric. I’d like to discuss politics with a tree, but I find difficulties doing it.
There are two thoughts I cannot get rid off: if I start discussing politics with a tree I’m either nuts and I think I’m talking with a tree but actually I’m just out of my mind. Or I’m pretending to be talking to a tree but actually I’m just projecting my own thoughts on the discussion. In both cases the result is the same: the agency of the tree is denied and I am talking for the tree and not with the tree. How can I change this? I understand from you that to have a discussion with a tree I need to change the relation I have with that tree, but how not to fall in the traps I mentioned? When you talk about the reconstitution and arrangement of knowledge and about liberating the one that I am to open up to the All that I am too, I get a glimpse of an answer to my question. I see there a possibility of questioning the idea of the subject and its relation to the production of knowledge and political agency. I’d like you to elaborate a bit more on that, if possible.
Thank you for the question. it kept me arguing with myself for two days. tried to talk to my balcony plants about it, but they seemed unresponsive. As colonised species I’m not sure if they have the agency to take a position in this debate. So i’ll have to rely on some references, some personal experiences, and a bit of improvisation. And that needs a whole new chapter…
‘….’, see p.