- Closer: Performance, Technologies, Phenomenology
For those interested in the intersections of art, science, and technology, the Leonardo Books series from MIT Press has provided many of the essential readings in the field. While a number of major presses have added series that address similar intersections—notably the University of Chicago Press and the University of Minnesota’s Electronic Mediations series—the Leonardo series is significant for its broad list of original scholarship at the nexus of art, technology, philosophy, and cultural studies, as well as for its emphasis on artists’ own perspectives within theoretical and philosophical contexts. It is in this mode that dancer-theorist Susan Kozel situates her critical analysis of (primarily) her own digital performances. Deploying her readings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and theories of phenomenology to explore the tensions between performance and technology and her own critical position, Kozel effectively juxtaposes theoretical interpretations with detailed analyses of her performances. Others have taken this approach before, such as Johannes Birringer in Media and Performance: Along the Border (1998), but Kozel’s interweaving of French feminism and phenomenology as a critical arts practice is both fresh and timely.
Her definition of phenomenology as an “embodied approach to the construction of meaning” (2) allows Kozel to consider not only the intentions and ideas at work in her pieces, but also their effect on herself as a fully subjective body. Her use of phenomenology as both an intellectual position and as a way of experiencing the work she creates advances Kozel’s central thesis that intersections between technology and performance are not simply simulacrums of real or immaterial spaces, but rather spaces “of radical potential, with scope for existential, artistic, and political transformation” (82). Kozel moves from philosophical overview in chapter 1, “Performing Phenomenology,” to a series of criticisms centered on her own performances. Her chapters, like her career, move from her perspective as a dancer to her artistic collaborations, gradually building out from the body itself: “Telematics: Extending Bodies”; “Responsive Architectures: An Embodied Poetics”; “Motion Capture: Performing Alterity”; and “Wearables: The Flesh of Social Computing.” In all of these discussions, Kozel uses her readings of Merleau-Ponty, particularly his notions of “flesh” as a means of communication, and her applications of Gilles Deleuze to locate her own position both within performances and as a theorist of them.
She is not unaware of the potential pitfalls of such a position. As she notes in the book, an earlier essay on her own work was angrily dismissed as self-promotion. One might make such a criticism here, but Kozel defends her methodology by situating the specifics of individual performances amid broader theoretical phenomenological readings. Indeed, her readings of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology argue for performance analysis through “the flesh of experience” (15). Given the many questions raised by digital performance—what is “real” in virtualreality performances, for instance—the phenomenological experience becomes essential as a critical apparatus for Kozel as both dancer and thinker. In her description of a dance performed with her own digital double (a visual echo of her movement via a motion-capture tracking system), Kozel notes that “true to an existential phenomenological approach, [End Page 651] I could not access the thing-in-itself but I could access the thing in its reversible relation with me, both of us dynamic, moving things in the world” (231). For Kozel, it is only through an embodied analysis that she, and her readers, can critically assess the digital being at all.
Much of this book would appear to rely on Kozel’s theoretical readings. Each section begins with a critical introduction to key concepts, theories, and occasionally histories and debates within phenomenology as a field; Kozel then follows with a description of a particular performance. Her descriptions are the highlights of the book, both exact and theoretically informed, such that they stand on their own rather than relying on the theoretical sections. While students of philosophy will find much with which to engage and disagree in her theoretical readings (she seems to misread Judith Butler, for...