Three weeks ago, I posted an entry about Hugo Ball’s “Karawane” and the multimedia spectacle that can be created out of a printed version of the poem, designed by the Berlin Dadaists, a diary entry in which Ball describes a poetry reading and a photograph of him in a “cubist” outfit. More specifically, I wrote about my own (and many others’) apparent need for authenticity, which makes us combine the three pieces to recreate a lost originary event and pointed out that they could also, and much more productively, be combined to make a statement about Ball’s and the Berlin Dadaists’ interest in language. The latter means contrasting the pieces of evidence instead of turning them into the harmonious whole we apparently so deeply crave, but here I spoke out in favour of surprise instead of regularity.
The argument made me think more about documentation, and especially about the use of photographic images as documentation. More specifically, I was reminded of Amelia Jones’ book Body Art, Performing the Subject, in which documentary photographs are described in terms of the Derridean supplement. It is the supplement that is the subject of this blog entry, so read on if you are interested in supplements - or if you want to know why I have red spots in my face on this week's photograph.
But instead of moving directly on to Derrida, I want to make a detour past a performance by Stanley Brouwn at Galerie Patio in Neu-Isenburg, just outside Frankfurt, on 13 February 1964. Although the performance is hardly ever discussed in any detail in the literature on 1960s performance art, it is quite well documented: the Archiv Sohm in Stuttgart keeps a whole series of photographs of it. To the scholar, finding something like that is like striking gold – but I also vividly remember the many hours I spent after that first glorious moment, trying to piece the fragmentary evidence together to form something resembling a narrative. My efforts are especially relevant for the argument I want to present here because Brouwn’s performance was so bizarre – the events it consists of offer no help whatsoever to those who want to reconstruct the bits as a continuous narrative – and because the documentation so readily and naturally made me try to reconstruct the original event.
The series begins with a photograph of Brouwn in front of the gallery entrance, peeling potatoes and throwing them into a pan filled with water; as is made clear by a puddle of water on the floor, hard. The next one shows him in front of the garage wearing skis. On the third photograph, he is inside the gallery, next to a lady who appears to be knitting. On the fourth one, the string has twisted itself around Brouwn’s face and stomach. He has a fork and spoon in his hands and looks as if he is being pulled forward. On the fifth photograph, the string has disappeared again, but Brouwn still holds the fork and the spoon. He eats a small clump of rice off a piece of fabric, perhaps a pillow. Next, he is shown holding a balloon and what appears to be a pair of scissors; he just might have cut a piece off the balloon and then closed it again, but the photograph is too unclear to be certain.
Next comes a series that appears to depict stages of the same action; to my surprise, I found them reproduced on duam85’s photo stream on Photobucket (click here – and I would be very grateful if someone could tell me who duam85 is and/or why he or she has reproduced that particular picture). The first one shows Brouwn standing in a corner next to a chair on a pedestal of concrete blocks. He balances a stick to which a pair of high heeled shoes is attached, on his feet and holds a large transparent plastic bag in his hands. On the next one, he is sitting down on the chair with the plastic bag pulled down over his body and the shoe-stick balanced across one foot. On the third one, he is standing up, still balancing the stick but holding the plastic bag in his hands. The final shot shows the chair on its concrete pedestal, now bearing books and flowers. In front of the chair, a box is placed. There are holes in the lid, in one of which a flower has been stuck.
The next two photographs also seem to depict a sequence. The first one shows Brouwn putting a tape recorder in a plastic bag and closing it by means of a belt. On the next one, he holds the bag up, so that we can see that a microphone is hanging out of it. The last group of photographs show Brouwn stretched out on the floor, busying himself with a magnifying glass, a caliper, an egg and a notebook. On the first one, he takes the magnifying glass out of a bag. On the next ones, he studies the egg, measures it, and writes the number 4,3 down in the notebook. The last photograph shows him still holding the egg, but now writing something on a sheet of paper.
After a lot of patient research, I now know more or less how the performance was constructed - but I am not going to tell you (ha ha!). The only thing I will reveal here is that the latter group of photographs illustrates the construction of a measured object. According to the announcement, the exhibition that the performance was the opening event of featured “BROUWNaction – BROUWNdemonstration – this way BROUWN – sealed objects – measured objects – BROUWNfilm – BROUWN eats a movie – coca cola statues – BROUWNcocktail – BROUWNmusic – BROUWNbooks”. But the fact that part of the action can be isolated already illustrates that what we are dealing here is not a continuous performance, which makes it all the more important to take a look at the reasons why one should want to combine the pictures to tell a coherent story anyway. At which point we turn to Derrida.
Derrida develops his theory of the supplement in chapter 2 of the second part of the Grammatology. He does so with the help of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rousseau’s fetish for the spoken word and his enthusiasm about being a writer. Despite the fact that he bases his argument on an opposition between speech and writing, it is easy to translate it to the world of performances and photographs. Right at the beginning of the chapter he claims that “writing is dangerous from the moment that representation there claims to be presence and the sign of the thing itself”… and automatically, the scholar in the archive is transformed into the wizard’s apprentice (beardless, pimpled) who reads out a spell when the wizard is out, not knowing what he is doing and unaware of the consequences.
What the spell does is turn writing into a supplement for the spoken word. Such a supplement is a surplus, “a plenitude enriching another plenitude”, but it fills a void as well: “if it represents and makes an image”, he writes, “it is by the anterior default of a presence”. Actually, presence does not need a supplement. It is self-sufficient and therewith irreplaceable. The substitute cannot be equal to it, neither in substance nor in quality; but even though it is always alien and inferior, it gives an experience of presence (of speech, the real thing) anyway, because that is the way the supplement is experienced. The substitute offers itself to the individual as presence, but that presence “is the substitutive symbol of another presence”.
Here, the image of the wizard’s apprentice suddenly changes. The text suddenly begins to deal with masturbation, prostitutes and the Ideal Woman. Derrida introduces the terms auto-affection and hetero-affection, and suddenly one begins to wonder where the wizard apprentice got his pimples. The substitute, Derrida argues, offers direct satisfaction, but also absolute deferral of the moment of satisfaction. It satisfies, but only because one accepts it as substitute for the real thing and one therewith gives up all hope of ever becoming acquainted with the real thing. In fact, the thing-itself, the original presence, does not exist outside the play of substitution. There has to be a substitute before the idea of “presence”, of a thing-itself, can be thought at all. The result is that any feeling of presence we may have is a chimaera.
What is more, the supplements follow each other in an “infinite chain, ineluctably multiplying the supplementary mediations that produce the sense of the very thing they defer: the mirage of the thing itself, of immediate presence, of originary perception”. The thing-itself is beyond reach, and acceptance of the play of substitution seems the only option left. But then it comes: “it happens”, Derrida writes, “that [supplementarity] describes the chain itself, the being-chain of a textual chain, the structure of substitution, the articulation of desire and of language, the logic of all conceptual oppositions. (…) It tells us in a text what a text is, it tells us in writing what writing is”. His conclusion is, that in this game of substitution, sometimes, something can be known after all, namely, the game of substitution itself.
Along the road to insight, the wizard’s apprentice has sullied the original and finally removed it altogether and has exposed himself to great moral peril during the process (but that’s quite OK in the end, because after all it is only himself he violates). Derrida’s argument is a truly postmodern story of enlightenment: insight can only be attained via and in obscurity. What I like about the Brouwn photographs is, that they physically illustrate the progression of Derrida’s text. The first sequence has so many lacunas that it automatically steers the imagination towards the original and its absence, thus creating the idea of an original in the mind. The next sequence actually has a certain narrative logic, even though the meaning of the narrative remains obscures, so one is confirmed in one’s idea that there actually is a story behind it all and that one actually can reconstruct the presumed original event by means of the photographic evidence. Already here, one begins to auto-satisfy oneself, because after having used the photographs as proof of the existence of an original, they are now combined with the idea of the original to convince oneself that one can actually gain access to the work – which at the end of the day allows us to see what we have been doing to ourselves. Not that we necessarily do so, but should we want to do so, we could. We could actually see what we are holding in our hands, what we have been thinking of and where it has led us.
At which point I would like to make a brief final remark. Apart from referring to Derrida, Amelia Jones also mentions Rosalind Krauss. More specifically, she points out that Krauss mentions both performance and photography as examples of indexicality. Maybe their relationship is different from the one between Derrida’s speech and text, maybe it is the same but of a different order, but in any case, looking at the photographs can tell us something about our relationship with indexical signs and therewith about our relationship with works of performance art as well. Once again, Brouwn’s work is extremely illustrative: it will never reveal itself as one continuous narrative because it never was one. In his early performances, Brouwn combined a lot of shorter monostructural actions, reminiscent of the Fluxus event, although unscripted, to form a more complex whole. The frustration one experiences when looking at the photographs reproduces the frustration that was no doubt experienced by those who actually witnessed the performance, just as our efforts to create a coherent whole out of the disjointed mess we are presented with, reproduces theirs. In a sense, the photographs are a satisfyingly appropriate way of approaching the performance, despite their supplementary character.
Incidentally, should you want to read more about Brouwn and the archive (and should you be able to read Danish), I recently had an article published about that very subject in the magazine Peripeti (no. 14, autumn 2010, pp. 31-38)