Degeneration, video performance, 2017
Cinematographer: Jonathan Elsborg – sound designer: Sune Kaarsberg – fighter one: Eddy Giagnorio – fighter two: the artist – refining of the concept: Jonathan Elsborg, Christian Munk Scheuer and the artist
Thoughts on Degeneration
The Degeneration and the context In the essay Against Ordinary Language: The language of the Body the punk writer Kathy Acker, she explores the antagonism between bodybuilding and verbal language. She states that a loss of language occurs when she immersed herself into her own body by bodybuilding. Acker superimposes the philosopher Ludwig J. J. Wittgenstein´s concept of language-games introduced in The Brown Book in order to outline the problem. In The Brown Book, Wittgenstein systematically descripts how connotations of a sentence depend on the context of the utterance and the semantic context which again depend on the previous context. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan later expands on this instability of our perceptions of our surroundings within his postmodern position. He frames it like this ”because of our unending process of subjecting ourself to the language we are in a constant instability of deciphering the language”. The meaning of a word or an idea can therefore never be understood precisely the same way by the receiver as by the sender. Because the meaning of the word only contains similarities but no true essences exists within the word.
Kathy Acker goes on to describe how terms in verbal language used about bodybuilding are limited to almost only nouns and very few adverbs and adjectives. This limited use of grammar is related to a very particular function and activity of space. Within this space there is a void of unspoken agreements of the users that the way a word is uttered and the way it is combined with other words makes the differences of meaning. The nuances are therefore important to embed in order to learn the meaning. Though the grammar which is practiced is enveloped and framed by the rituals of bodybuilding in the gym, the meaning of a simple sentence in the gym has a variety of nuances.
However, Acker´s aim of using the concept of language-games is to explore the spirituality of the act of bodybuilding. The bodily act of bodybuilding is an unaudible language expression of what cannot be expressed in spoken words or pictures. Acker descripts how a ritual act of cell destruction by weightlifting must be forced to the limit of failure of the muscles by will power, and that the exercises must be repeated until the muscles can not function, and therefore need to rest. The tissues of the muscles must be degraded as much as possible in order to start the protein synthesizing process which will rebuild the muscle cells and if the process is repeated frequently, the degrading process will provoke the muscles cells to increase.
The performance artist Chris Burden´s early bodily endurance performances bear a strong resemblance to this destructive method. In these elaborately prepared performances, Burden takes serious risks and tested the limits of his own bodily condition at the time. In his performance White Light/White Heat he literally self-imposes deterioration on his body through 22 days of starvation. He performs the transcendental spirituality the novelist Knut Hamsun theorizes with his Nietzschean and starving endorphine character´s psychedelic and biological degeneration process in the novel Hunger.
Though the social critic and essayist Walter Benjamin´s concept in The Destructive Character that ”The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room; only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred.” derives from a historical context in which Benjamin is longing for radical changes of a violent capitalistic system at the time of a revolution. Both Acker´s feministic bodybuilding statement and Burden´s performance tests of his own will have similarities to Benjamin´s destruction concept that nothing is permanent and therefore can be removed for new things to happen.
Both Acker and Burden use the intentional destructive biological processes of the body to claim the right to it, and have references to the philosopher and cultural critic Friedrich Nietzsche´s concept of the Übermensch who can establish his own values in the world he live as it is not pregiven. Because both artists are are challenging and transcending imposed gender constructions and behavioral codes of the hegemonic society.
Acker, by repetition patterns is destroying her body´s muscle tissues by failing to lift the final and too-heavy weight in the gym. Through her hard work toward the finally failure in the gym transmitting her body into an unknown territoriy which she would be not able to do without the destruction/creation act.
Through the trial by ordeal, Burden is affirming the mastery of his own situtation and thereby senses a power of his own body´s fate. He is in this way taking on the role as the God of the universe. This intentionally destructive act on his body is also a statement in a catharsis process by which he creates new perceptions of his own body. Both Burden´s work and Acker´s statement can be understood as assimilation of powerful thought products imposed from the hegemonic society they live in.
The Process of Making Degeneration
It is intrinsic to the work that my body is taking place within Degeneration piece because of my overall research question of bringing my own private and life-long but non-art related knowledge of Karate together with ”art values”. In order to do so, I did a documentary of a Karate fight filmed from A to B. Hence, the two polar positions of both being the creator of the documentary and but as well the protagonist permitted me to construct my own subjective experience of the fight by breaking up the conventional and linear A to B documentary.
This realization led me instead, to splitting up the footage into a mixture of unplanned, constructed and re-enacted scenes. I split up the unplanned fight in the footage and mixed it with re-enacted scenes. I did this because of the very fast movements and the fast changes of directions in the fight were a technical impossibility to capture with the camera lens and only possible to capture by a thoroughly planned re-enactment.
I therefore initially structured a storyboard of Degeneration which aimed to capture the body language of the supposedly to be physical violent acts of the fighter’s movements. And though it is subtle, to frame the body language of each fighter which are strategically trying to use it to dominate the other. Pre-structuring the shooting process by creating a storyboard helped me to frame the direction of my research question.
This process was based on what the educational theorist and psychologist David Kolb has named an experimental learning process and was a combination of a making of my own subjective sketches to the storyboard and inputs from research of martial art films. At a certain point in this phase it became apparent to me that the very beginning of the editing process of the footage contained an unlimited possibility of choices. This is similar to when a painter starts on an empty canvas and therefore needs to define some rules in order to develop a coherent visual language on the canvas. Within this process of decisions making there is incorporated chance playing process though a limited clearance but which are regulated by the rules of the medium itself. Thus what is feasible within the frame will define and direct the decision process.
In the process editing of the footage I could draw from my point of departure as a painter and use my experiences from this very unstable process of uncertainty of adding and subtracting painting on a canvas. The editing method in Premiere became a mediative reflection-in-action process where the rules of the composition very slowly crystallized and directed the editing process of the documentary fight footage. This reflection-in-action process enabled me to push the experiences of the intensity of the fight closer to the forefront of the audiences by mixing the footage with alien elements which were classified and framed outside of the category of the class of fighting. Thus I experiemented with sounds, which according to prevalent logic were not related to the fight. By seeking to contradict conventional logically types of categories of relationships, I was interested in exploring not obvious possible perceptions of the intensity of the fight and to be loyal to my own objectives of merging non-related art themes with ”Art-values”.
First, I added heartbeats to the footage which were related to diagnoses of various lung diseases, however, at this stage of the editing process the perception of the sound from the lung breathing became too dominating. It conveyed the perception of the claustrophobic confinement the Darth Vader character experiences inside his armour. I therefore abandoned this very overwhelming sound in favor of developing a more subtle sound strategy and a less sensorial sound. It then came to my mind to superimpose the footage with an unsentimental voice to explain my own subjective experience of fighting a match. By adding the voice to the footage of the fight, I was interested in exploring the abstract relationship between the object and the verbal language. The visual anthropologist Gregory Bateson has framed as ”language bears to the objects which it denotes a relationship comparable to that which a map bears to a territory.” It also implies that the verbalization of the metalinguistic rules have evolved from preverbal metalinguistic rules involving the body language.
Thus, to express parts of the internal life of the mind to the external world by body language, it must be composited in a particular order to communicate a particular meaning.. For instance the ability to express dominance and being dominant which I am striving to bring to light in Degeneration, are dependent on a specific situation. Similar to this empirical observation of the psychologists I realized while editing Degeneration how relatively these patterns of dominations were when captured on my footage. The dominating fighter could be manipulated to be the dominated part and so forth. In this way my editing process of The Fight made me realize that the openness of my perception I was seeking while editing the documentary footage into an earnest documentation of Degeneration. That it has its origins in Wittgenstein´s postmodern anticipations which he performs with his language games in The Brown Book. It depends on which emphasis we put on the subject matter´s relationship to the context´s relationship to the broader context when drawing a meaning from the subject matter.
Kathy Acker also demonstrates this by challenging of the social norms of gender rules. Thus when she does embodies the traditionally male encoded bodybuilding language and are sculpturing her body with the highly visible but nonverbal bodybuilding language she is debating the prevalent social norms and ideals that the pumped body of the male expresses beauty and strength, but not the female body.
Similar to Acker´s speechless language act of her pumped body is the spoken language in The Fight reduced to a minimum of verbs and adjectives like start, stop, too hard, point, punish point but only pronounced by the referee. The verbal language of the fighters are replaced by a speechless but extreme body language. Thus the pseudocombat of a Karate match consists of noticeable body language of marked attacks which expresses domination and ”refers to a possible (but at present nonexistent) punch” or a kick.
My search for how to express and structure the patterns of domination in The Fight led me to divide this subject matter into two visual rules. The first should be able to only connote the mental states of the fighters and the other to visualize the fighters external and bodily conditions.
By a decision based on reflection-in-action the first rule led me to embed the canonized expressionist concept, that framed on close hold a face reveals parts of the inner life of the portraited, as a tool. I was particularly interested in the near-caricatured facial expressions in the final shooting scene of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by the film director Sergio Leone. Which is a sequence shifting between showing the three protagonist´s faces filmed on close hold,, and which then are accelerating in loop. Combined with the soundtrack, this sequence conveys a very particular but a mixed intensity of nonchalance, anxiousness and presence of the protagonists. I was interested to explore this particular concept of intensity in my own editing process of Degeneration in order to convey my own subjective experiences of the fight within the footage and thereby bringing the subjective experiences to the foreground in the video.
However, on critical assessment I realized that this preoccupation inhibited the cycle of my experimental learning process. I was too focused on Sergio Leone´s method of constructing intensity. Everytime I came to the reflective observation in my own experimental learning process I was not open minded enough to reflect on that there were other possibilities of the semantic language of my footage. In order to challenge my own preoccupation and take a step back I adopted the rules of the French film director Robert Bresson. His editing rules are a minimalistic concept which anticipates the dialectics of sight and sounds. Neither of the two elements must thwart the other´s potential to communicate without the other. These strict rules enabled me to realize new connections of the footage materials without being disturbed by my preoccupation with Sergio Leone´s concept of intensity. To be open to the possibilities of my own perception processes generated and triggered by the visual content of the footage. Robert Bresson´s minimalistic editing approach also enabled me to clarify the aim and simplify the concepts of Degeneration which were only to represent the body and not the internal world of the mind.
When I started to structuring this learned knowledge it became evident that the subjectivity I was searching for had parallels to the connotations in the final boxing scene in the film director Martin Scorsese´s film Raging Bull.In the film Scorsese makes use of a mixture of the expressionist concept of the face and shot the boxer on close hold but also uses the boxer´s body language in order to connote the isolation in the ring and the loneliless of his defeat.
However, Degeneration does have similarities to both Burden´s bodily endurance investigations and Acker´s endless destruct/rebuilt method. Though the pace of the destructive biological degeneration processes in Burden´s performance work involved far more sensational and seriously risks than both Acker´s bodybuilding and my work, all three works involved recognizable endurance. That plays with a sensational reference to the body´s proprioception nerve system which enables our body to orientate itself in order to sense its own wellbeing. By using this reference to the body´s proprioception nerve system, both Burden´s work, Acker´s discourse and Degeneration embody a strategy to be unconsciously internalized by the audiences. Because on a bodily emotional level the strong reference to the body´s proprioception nerve system do enabling the audiences to feel the works without first on an intellectual level understanding the works because the proprioception nerve system is recognizable for all human beings in their body. And though subtle, by that be an antithesis to Wittgenstein´s postmodern thesis that to communicate is to understand parts of the context it happens within.