Lecture: Phenomenology – for the course Practice Based Research in the Arts, Stanford University

Susan Kozel, professor of new media at Malmö University, was asked to contribute a 20 minute lecture on Phenomenology to contribute to the course material for the Practice Based Research in the Arts course offered by Stanford University in the USA. This course was written and taught by theatre artists Leslie Hill and Helen Paris, both Associate Professors in Performance Making, with Ryan Tacata, artist and PhD candidate.

The course aims to facilitate and advance the work of students pursuing arts practice within an academic framework – it is also free and available online at novoed.com/pbr. The course (PBRA) is designed to draw a wide range of students, as such this lecture is intended to be accessible and provocative for people wanting to understand enough about phenomenology so that they can take something away and implement it into their own studio work more or less immediately. A deeper scholarly side to the discussion can be pursued through the list of readings.

See Susan Kozel’s lecture “Phenomenology in 5 Acts” embedded below (or here on YouTube), accompanied by a script.

This script might be helpful to follow while watching and listening to the video, or to visit afterwards as a sort of transcript, but it was not written to be read, rather to be spoken. Still, this script is another trace of the event of this small video on phenomenology.

“Phenomenology in 5 Acts”: A Short lecture on Phenomenology

I am very happy that Leslie and Helen invited me to be a guest artist for this Practice Based Research in the Arts course. With this short video I’ll discuss the topic of phenomenology and open up this methodology so that it is relevant to performance research.

I’ll call it ‘Phenomenology in 5 Acts’

(I should say that you might notice I am reading from several scripts here, so my focus may be a little fragmented.)

I come from dance and philosophy: in 1993 I performed in an interactive installation and found myself specializing in dance and tech but also different performance modalities: art installation, participatory performances, workshops, performances over time (sometimes called ‘endurance performances’), wearable computing… all of it collaborations with other artists, musicians, engineers, architects…

Currently I’m still making work and writing about it. Today I will not discuss the many forms and sites a performance can take, but I’ll emphasise ways we can reflect on the processes.

Even before I explain what phenomenology is, I want to situate it as a way for you to create content as well as a way for you to reflect upon it in an academic or critical mode. In effect, this is a creative and a critical methodology. I will also slide across the words method and methodology, but should say that in general methodology is the broader term that takes in the ‘world view’ of the approach (it’s general philosophy, ethics and connection with existence). Method usually refers to the ‘how to’ of it.

Phenomenology is a word that has at its root: phenomenon, which means something that happens. It is one of the subjective, experience-based methodologies that, along with auto-ethnography is receiving a lot of attention at the moment.

Founded by Edumud Husserl at the end of the 19c century, it refers to a return to lived experience. It was popular in the early to mid 20th century as a way to anchor otherwise abstract thought into the lives, events, sensations and actions of real people. Maurice Merleau-Ponty closely examined perception and in his later writing he was fascinated by how the painter Cezanne saw the world and created his paintings. The early phenomenologists did not anchor phenomenology more than this in creative processes but left the door open for the rest of us to do this. And this is exactly what has been happening for the past 10 years or so: phenomenology is used to anchor practice within research, to overcome unhelpful divides between theory and practice, between the mind and the body and between my solitary experience and shared experiences.

This video has several sections, movements or acts: You have just heard the introduction. Lets use the theatrical metaphor and say that was “Act 1”.

In Act 2: I will take you through some sections from my book Closer. I will refer also to a chapter I wrote for the Routledge collection on Artistic Research (2010). All of these references are in the bibliography section for this week.

* I will indicate points for deeper reading – I realize I am speaking to a very wide group of practitioners, some of you may be interested in opening this up to more advance levels of academic thinking and or research. If you are not interested, just ignore these.

Act 3: I will then take you through a series of instructions for how to do a phenomenology (from the book Closer) then you will have a chance to pause the video and practice doing your own phenomenology. You can apply the phenomenological instructions to a project you are developing for this course, or simply try some free movement improvisation, manipulation of objects or experiments with text. Have a notebook with you or, if you are thoroughly digital, use a computer or other device to take notes.

Act 4: I will open out a little further two aspects of phenomenology: First, the ‘process phases’ of a phenomenology, and Second, that phenomenology can access more subtle emotions, affects and liminal qualities. In other words: moving from a phenomenology of senses to phenomenology of affect

Act 5: a slightly revised method, trying to get at affect, and a pause for improvisation and note taking.

That’s it, let’s see if we can get through all this in 12 minutes!

ACT 2

As a method, phenomenology involves a return to lived experience, a listening to the senses and insights that arrive obliquely, unbidden, in the midst of movement experiments or quite simply in the midst of life. Phenomenology, in short, allows me to respect these sensations and inner voices, these unformed ideas, thoughts or images that emerge directly from the experience of being in computational systems like telematics, motion capture or networked wearable computing. Bodies are more than just meat, they are sources of intelligence, compassion, and extraordinary creativity. In some respects this book comes from a personal, creative place: I needed a methodology to allow for a passion for philosophical concepts to converge with innate ideas, and even critiques, that were embedded in my body and surfaced through movement. I needed a methodology that would not only respect my highly subjective experiences, but that might provide a dynamics for revealing broader cultural assumptions and practices, for acknowledging the reality that all bodies exist with and through other bodies in social and political contexts. And I needed a methodology that operated through resonance rather than truth.

I see now that my motivation was to reconcile what I experienced with what others were saying.

It was very empowering too, because dancers were often dismissed as the aesthetic demonstration of a virtual environment or a sensing system. There is clearly a gendered dimension, of the sort when the object begins to talk back: the body began to disagree with what was being said about the technologies.

A point for deeper reading, for those of you who are interested os here: From the Artistic Research chapter, for those who are interested, begins by revisiting basic tensions between practice and theory, revealing a deep entanglement between the two. Instead of stitching these domains together in a unifying gesture that still preserves a fundamental antinomy, a shift of perspective is enacted: by viewing both theoretical and practical pursuits in terms of motion and materiality it is possible to avoid reinforcing such an unhelpful distinction.

Phenomenology too is a process, in the Artistic Research chapter, I described improvising with a new piece of software over the course of a rehearsal process. In the beginning I noticed I was reliant on clear sight lines, I had to see the image I was manipulating, after several days I was able to break the sight lines, then I reached a stage where I could intuitively know what would happen to the visuals as I moved. This was a learning process with the visual tracking system but it also indicates that the phenomenological process can grow with you as you devise the piece. It is not just a ‘one shot analysis’ or an ethnographic questionnaire. If you develop your reflective practices they will offer different material to you: sometimes questions, sometimes insight, sometimes frustration, sometimes … well sometimes nothing much. A bit like life.

ACT 3

Read from Closer: Performance, Technologies, Phenomenology, “The Method” section 1.10, pp. 49-53.

Previously the way I answered the question “How do you do a phenomenology?” emphasized attention, or even the sort mindfulness familiar to anyone who does meditation. Here is an extract:

  • Take your attention into this very moment.
  • Suspend the main flow of thought.
  • Call your attention to your body and what it is experiencing
  • Witness what you see, hear, and touch, how space feels, and temperature, and how the inside of your body feels in relation to the outside.
  • Take a break (a moment, a day, a week, a year).
  • Describe what you experienced. Take notes, record sounds or images. Initial notes can be a sort of “brain dump.” Do not worry about style, grammar, or relevance at this stage. This stage may occur immediately following your immersion in a specific sensory experience, or it may happen after an interval. Memory and imaginative reconstruction are involved regardless of the lapse of time between experience and documentation of the experience, but obviously too much time passing can dull the recollection. (Kozel 2007, 52-55).

Pause the video and practice doing your own phenomenology based on a project you are developing for this course, or simply on some free movement improvisation, manipulation of objects or experiments with text. See if you can get as far as taking notes.

ACT 4

I will open out a little further two aspects of phenomenology: first, the ‘process phases’ of a phenomenology. And second, the Phenomenology of Affect. The reflections on process are from a piece of writing I have just completed which will be included in a collection on Phenomenology and Performance Studies which should come out soon (published by Routledge). The work on affect is also from a current artistic collaboration on affect with Jeannette Ginslov and appears in some writing also in the bibliography. I suggest that if we refine our tools somewhat, phenomenology can access more subtle emotions, affects and liminal qualities. In other words we can move from a phenomenology of senses to phenomenology of affect.

In revealing the intermediary space between raw motion or affect and academic writing I confront the accusation that academic writing deadens, dampens, or diminishes experience into the accepted discourses academic research. Philosopher Peter Sloterdijk aptly characterises the problem with the mode of writing most often used for scholarly journals, books, or catalogues as adopting the detached intellectual style of a “a dead person on holiday.” “Naturally,” he elaborates, “we do not mean dead according to undertakers, but the philosophically dead who cast off their bodies and apparently become pure intellects or impersonal thinking souls” (Sloterdijk 2012, 3). Jean Luc Nancy identifies a similar problem, calling it “philosophical anaesthesia” (Nancy 2007, 31).

So how to tackle this ‘dead person’ problem. Obviously the writing you produce can take different voices or styles, but I want to focus on process.

Phenomenology is a method based on description, but it is worth noting that the first stages of a phenomenology, of translating experience into writing (or research), does not have to take place in smooth descriptive writing. Your ‘notes’ can be drawings, scribbles, isolated words, or even sounds.

Phenomenology, like all artistic and intellectual undertakings, develops through “limitations, adapatations and inversions” (Whitehead, 1981, 196). I am not prepared to offer new step-by-step instructions for how to do a phenomenology, given how inadequate my first attempt now seems. However, to stir things up even further, I will introduce Jean Luc Nancy’s instructions on how to do a phenomenology of listening, based on his deep reflections on music, sound, and resonance. Nancy’s writing on music aims not to be restrained by language. He has some recommendations for how to do this in relation to music and listening. Here is one of them:

  • treat the body as a resonance chamber or column of beyond meaning (like the part of the violin that transmits vibrations)

In simple terms, Nancy helps us move from a phenomenology that is a description of the senses (I saw this, I heard this, I felt this) to one that is a Phenomenology of affect. Affect is a term that refers to the more liminal and less clearly defined qualities of experience. Affect is frequently reduced to emotion, and this is a good starting point, but affect can refer to the domain of impressions, intuition, memories, imagination or even the feeling that hangs in a room. In theatre and performance we work on an affective level all the time: affect is what is conveyed in between the words or gestures. It is the unspoken. Sometimes it falls between the senses too, or goes beyond them. Affect is also a sort of exchange of forces between people, or between people and objects, the outer world or structures. It has been called a shimmer or a ripple. Phenomenologies of affect can include set design, costumes, music, lighting, etc. What we in performance use to create the ‘feel or mood’ of a piece.

ACT 5

The revised method:

Pause for a second improvisation, think of your body as a resonance chamber, or just try to sense that which is more subtle either inside your body (on a somatic level) or outside your body, or what travels between people.

Possibly trying different ‘note-taking strategies’ like using drawing, scribbles, colours, or sounds, fragments of words or non words.

(a note once again for those of you who may be working digitally, you can try a camera for visual sketches, perhaps this will let you capture affect or more liminal qualities.)

You will notice that this video was structured as an intwinement between thought and practice. this is inherent to phenomenology: we are always thinking and doing, sometimes periods of thought and periods of motion are pulled apart in time and space, sometimes they are quite tightly entwined, so that youa re reflecting on your performance almost simultaneously to your performance. This is what Merleau-Ponty calls reversbilty, or the chiasm. Lately I like to refer to this ripple using a lovely term from affect theory: shimmering.

Good bye and thanks for listening.

Readings

1. Susan Kozel (2007) Closer: Performance Technologies Phenomenology (MIT Press, 2007) Chapter One, pp. 1-83 (especially section 1.10 on method)

2. Susan Kozel, “The Virtual and the Physical: A Phenomenological Approach to Performance Research,” in The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts eds. Michael Biggs and Henrik Karlsson. London and New York: Routledge, 2010, pp. 204-222.

3. Affexity: Performing Affect with Augmented Reality in The Fibreculture Journal 21 on Exploring Affective Interactions, 2012. Available online: http://twentyone.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-150-affexity-performing-affect-with-augmented-reality/

4. Somatic Materialism, in Site, Journal for Contemporary Art, Architecture, Cinema and Philosophy, Issue 33 on Senses, ed. Sven-Olov Wallenstein, Stockholm: 2013, pp. 153-167.

5. Forthcoming, “Process Phenomenologies,” forthcoming in Modes of Embodiment: The Poetics of Phenomenology in Performance Studies, eds. Maaike Bleeker, Jon Foley Sherman and Eirini Nedelkopoulou. London and New York: Routledge (expected 2014).