daniel k’s Hokkaido (Or Somewhere Like That)
Earlier this month, I had watched daniel k’s Hokkaido (Or Somewhere Like That) at this year’s da:ns festival. It was a typically bewildering experience with moments I could not quite decode. With its intermingling of dance, text, photography and film, the work deliberately complicates the process of reading. At certain junctures, it postures as a filmic image. At others, the work returns to assume the semblance of dance and with this, the syntactical form of the entire piece is also altered. But as long as whatever gestalt the work assumes is identifiable, reading ensues.
However, scattered between these “readable” junctures are these strange, almost otherworldly moments which are quite untranslatable. They can only be described in terms of their immediate sensory affects. In other words, they are purely phenomenological encounters – total images freed from the inscriptions of language and by extension, the onerous burden of being a sign.
It does sound like a pretty liberating state to be in but not quite so if it runs contrary to the artist’s intentions. In fact, I don’t think Hokkaido had set out entirely to investigate phenomenology. Its aspirations, as it seems, are far more ambitious: to evoke personal notions of absence (memory, time, melancholia, love…) through the disappearance of the performance’s very own form. This disappearance happens in the liminal space where the work stops being a dance and transits into something else, such as a cinematic montage. The work slips into the gaps within the lattice structure of dance/film and vanishes.
The effectiveness of this disappearance would depend upon how one construes it. For one, the disintegration of the work from form into phenomenon can possibly point to the artist’s intention of capturing the evanescent quality of memory – how it perpetually escapes reconstitution as form, how it can never be communicated via the intermediary of language, how personal experiences can never be reembodied in the sign. In this instance, the phenomenon observed becomes a metaphor for this elusiveness; and is no longer, strictly speaking, a “pure” phenomenon.
However, this disappearance could also be taken literally, pointing towards the collapse of all signifying capacity and the vanishing of all possible meaning. The work becomes literally “meaningless” (which is probably contrary to the artistic intent). The dancer is moving and so are the pictures, but they invoke nothing beyond themselves. In this transitory space where the work lacks an ontology to call its own, form disappears and gives way to pure phenomenon. It cannot be read for the total image harbours no meaning outside itself.
At this point, I must confess I’ve never actually done a proper critique of a dance before and had no intention to do so for Hokkaido at least before its viewing. But the piece has provoked such thoughts in me that I find it necessary to disentangle them. These musings pertain less to Hokkaido or dance per se, but to this curious creature known as the intermedia. When can a work be truly considered to be intermedia? Are the many works today self-described as “intermedia” worthy of the label in the first place? How should an intermedia piece be read?
Within this frame of inquiry, I revisited the moments of Hokkaido which came across to me as ostensibly “meaningless”. In retrospect, I realised that perhaps it is precisely within this unknowable terrain where the intermedia resides or more crucially, where an autonomous gestalt belonging to it can begin to sprout. Liminality is a precondition for true intermediality to exist; and also what is necessary for a creature like dance/film striving to establish itself as an autonomous medium. But in order to fully understand the logic of this line of thought and what it means to be an “autonomous medium”, we need to consider the way the intermedia has developed thus far.
It must firstly be said that many works which proclaim to be “intermedia” today possess only a tenuous claim to the label. They rehash the platitude of “breaking down traditional categories” to create a “fusion” without quite knowing what it actually means and how hard it is to achieve in reality. Inserting a video projection into theatrical piece does not reincarnate your work into an intermedia piece. Just like how recording yourself dancing before the camera doesn’t necessarily make a dance/film. For a work to truly achieve intermediality, a radical ontological rupture is necessary. It is an incredibly daunting endeavour; and part of the difficulty lies in how the breaking down happens not within the artist-writer, but his audience-reader.
For the rupture to occur, one has to first recognise the discrete ontological nature of the various artistic media they are throwing into the bricolage. What makes a dance a dance? At what point does a montage of photographs become film? Certainly I’m aware that such an inquiry is dangerously reminiscent of the Modernist project on medium specificity and thus a crucial distinction needs to be made. Instead of conceiving the ontology of a medium in terms of an immutable eidos, let’s think of it as a mask which is donned before the audience. This mask enables the work to be codified into a formal language, endowing it with the ability to signify. Unlike the eidos which is universal in its application, the mask is unstable and entirely contingent upon the context in which it is deciphered. It shifts over time through a continuous negotiation between the work, the artist and the audience. In this sense, form can be said to be essentially performative. The dance, the film and the photograph, strictly speaking, exist only as guises. Their existence as mediums are constituted only upon them each assuming a certain posture or more specifically, a distinctive gestalt.
It is the reader’s reliance on the gestalt of a work which problematises the creation of intermedia work. In psychological terms, a gestalt is the unitary image perceived when disparate observations are organised into a complete whole cognitively. Fundamental to the theory are the laws of closure and similarity. This means that a work which ostensibly contains remnants of a regular form or which assumes a general likeness to one would always be conflated with it perceptually. In other words, as long as dance or film or what not continues to linger as a visible spectre within the work, the work can never escape the province of these established forms to enter the semi-autonomous realm of the intermedia. Dance/film needs to stop looking like dance or film.
Consequently, instead of a new form emerging via the interpenetration of two or more established media, what usually transpires is the dominance of the one medium which conjures the most aggressive gestalt. All other perceptual fragments are either subsumed or discarded as this gestalt attempts to complete itself.
Take William Forsythe’s “dance/film”, Solo, as a case in point. In the monochrome film, Forsythe performs a fast, restless dance upon a starkly illuminated, barren stage. While the work is entirely composed of a dance, the gestalt produced is almost singularly filmic, in most part thanks to the overriding presence of the cinematic frame and montage. Forsythe’s dancing body becomes more of a formless carrier of content, coated over by the very skin of film – this thin, almost imperceptible gossamer construction which codifies the dance as a mere constituent of the moving image. So Solo is not quite a “dance/film” but a film.
By focusing my analysis on the medium-gestalt or medium as gestalt, I assert that it is how a work appears to be, as opposed what we know of it or what it is which most problematises intermedia works. While the same conclusions may be reached if there is a continuity between the former and the latter, complications arise when the contrary happens. Peggy Phelan, for instance, in line with her thesis that “performance’s only life is in the present” (a point derived by knowledge more than perception), would contend that Forsythe’s “dance/film”, by virtue of being a reproduction, has got nothing to do with dance. But what if Solo was experienced as a live recording instead? Would that instantly transform it from being “filmic” to “performative”? Would this additional knowledge significantly transform the audience’s identification of the work’s form, even when the work’s gestalt remains the same? As it seems, the gestalt is sovereign upon our reading of forms. It is the tyranny of likeness which so impedes the achievement of intermediality.
But these difficulties are not insurmountable. Many of the strange, hybridised forms which emerged from the Fluxus movement of the sixties (during which the term “intermedia” was popularised) have eventually grown to assume their own autonomous identities. What is needed is really the requisite boldness and abandon. Taking baby steps will not allow a work to break out of the membranes of regular gestalts. Instead, one needs to take a fearless leap, radically demolishing existing gestalts and fusing them into new, autonomous and foreign-looking entities. A liminal being is meant to be a complete alien, not a bad replica.
Note that assuming an alien appearance does not mean that the whole point of intermediality is lost. (After all, we are talking about intermedia: a fusion of that which already exist, not the creation of something new out of nothing.) While the intermedia looks alien, its new gestalt draws from existing medium-gestalts, taking fragments from them. It is necessarily a very tricky and delicate construction: how to draw from something without looking too much like it? What is essential is that a discontinuity constantly be enforced, such that the fragments coming from each established medium-gestalt will never be allowed to complete themselves; but is instead, forced into a communion with the other medium-gestalt fragments to form a new whole.
Furthermore, we should not despair even when initial experiments are trapped in a state of “unreadability”, for building a medium-gestalt can only happen through a prolonged period of negotiation, mimicry, repetition, circulation and naturalisation. And given the primacy of the audience in this construction process, emphasis must also be given to collaborative works which engage the viewer as an agentive co-creator of meaning.
Finally, I would borrow a word from Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida to describe the intermedia: fantasmatic. The intermedia, at least in its embryonic phase, exists not as a fixed state, but a movement. It animates inert, regular forms, each one a fantasy by itself, coalescing them and conjuring a new mask, a new gestalt from the concoction.
So what would the fantasm of dance/film be like? How would it animate the categories of dance and film? Would it still stick with the awkward names (dance/film, film/dance, dance for camera)? Or would it abandon all vestiges of “dance” and “film” altogether?
Hokkaido (Or Somewhere Like That) was an event of da:ns festival 2010, taking place from 8 May to 17 October 2010. The production ran at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 8 to 9 October 2010.
Ho Rui An is an independent filmmaker, artist and writer from Singapore. He publishes his writings on the arts, culture and society on his weblog, http://opencontours.wordpress.com
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