Presence in Contemporary Circus
An interview with Prof. Tillmann Damrau by Jenny Patschovsky
Jenny Patschovsky (JP) In your essay "Bewegte Körper - Ostentative Physis" (Moving Bodies - Ostentative Physis) you write about circus as a body-based art form and about excellence in circus artistry as a symbol of the increase in production through industrialization. However, you do not aim here at the anthropocentric worldview often mentioned in this context but describe another aspect of circus artistry.
Tillmann Damrau (TD) Circus performances are often described as high performance squeezed out of nature, realising a disposition over the body, which was particularly driven by industrialisation in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, these performances are also purposeless, in a sense meaningless. They thus actually fulfill exactly what Kant demands of a work of art, namely that it is free of purpose and does not satisfy any functional aspects.
JP So, you're referring to the first moment of just doing — and not what follows — the marketing and selling of artistic acts in a market system.
TD I think that this ambivalence is simply there. With the first industrial revolution there was this rapidly increasing technical access to the world and, with it, the question of how we open up completely new possibilities of use and exploitation via machines. And on the other hand, in circus, for example, there is this moment of luxury, of waste, when someone says: I'm doing something from which I now have no immediate profit, except that I want to do it and can do it.
JP In your essay you also write that the circus is a culturally formed place, with its own rhetoric, where the body is attributed a special power to generate new experiences. What exactly do you mean by that?
TD I'm basically trying to trace this to several points. First, the considerations of Roland Barthes, a French semiotician, who discussed this question on the basis of films, that is, details in films that do not directly serve the narration of the plot but provide us with an effect of reality. That is, they support the believability of the whole. And he assumes for these details a so-called blunt sense; a sense that blocks itself against discursive expression. These details remain difficult to interpret. In relation to the circus, this means that the body in artistic movement, paradoxically, "makes" sense precisely when it repeatedly frees itself from attributions of meaning. Another point I start from is the notion of presence. In circus, there are many moments that don't get absorbed into fixed codings or into a particular narrative. And that's where I find the notions of presence, emergence and epiphany of form, as used by literary scholar Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, plausible. Gumbrecht also explains the concept of presence with reference to sports, meaning that in sports, suddenly during a game, striking forms appear, in the sense of postures, movements and of moves that cannot be broken down into actions, sentences or discursive elements, but which affect us momentarily as a whole, in the experience of our own presence. Gumbrecht speaks of the emergence of presence, of our starting to become conscious of a particular presentness in the forcefulness of our perception, only for it to immediately withdraw again, precisely because it is fleeting. This is an aesthetic experience that he believes is essential to our culture today. He does not say that this is the only thing of actual interest — he says that there are discursive moments in works of art or various other forms of presentation that are interesting and that have their justification — but there are many things that resist this absorption in a discursive sense, and a particularly essential moment of this is this special feeling of becoming present, of physicality, of substance, which we then encounter in this form.
JP I understand this presence as a very intense experience, which is increased in artistry by the strong physicality and the modes of action of the mirror neurons. It's a physical perception, so to speak, you feel your own body when you look at it.
TD Yes, that's right. The perception of other bodies always corresponds with feeling one's own body, the experience of one's own body.
JP In this context, I wanted to talk about the nonhuman turn and the new performer-object relationship that increasingly characterizes contemporary circus. To what extent does the experience of presence in contemporary circus have to do with the nonhuman turn, or more precisely with object-oriented ontology?
TD What Graham Harman's object-oriented ontology2 is all about is that there is no longer a distinction between objects and people. That is, people are objects too. The effect is that there are no longer objects and a privileged mind — that is, people — referring to these objects, analyzing them and then using them for something, but that a more ecological exchange takes place, between different objects; the moment I come into contact with an object, I form a new object together with this object. This plays a major role, especially for contemporary circus, because it's not just about the virtuoso mastery of objects, things or items, but about an explorative exchange with them. Experimentation may well have ritualized moments, i.e. an experiment is repeated, as in a series of routines that are performed again and again, but concentration, openness and also tension must be mustered each time in order to generate precisely what Gumbrecht calls the epiphany of form. And this presence, in which the spectators suddenly form an object together with the artists, which then generates a completely new experience of the world that is only possible in this aesthetic context of the circus act, that is what is liberating about this non-human turn. That we as humans are in the world, are a part of the world, and that our bodies also belong to us. Another point Graham Harman makes is that there are no longer privileged objects. It's not only the artists who work with an object, the object also works with the artists.
JP I have the impression that agency, that is, the ability of objects to act, is precisely the prerequisite for a presence experience. If the object does something that I can't foresee and can't control, then I am in a constant experiment, an improvisation, and then a presence experience can arise.
TD Yes, I think so. The possibility of anticipation is then exhausted. That's an essential moment; you have to get involved in the situation.
JP Could we say that this performance situation — in which the objects and props have agency and which, because of its unpredictability, can evoke an intense experience of presence — becomes a new code, that is, a new rhetoric of contemporary circus?
TD I could well imagine that, at the moment when circus frees itself from traditional rhetoric, new possibilities of staging and presentation will emerge and we will encounter a completely new kind of performative art, which we will call circus.
JP In circus studies, a lot is currently being written about circus as a perceptual apparatus. I think there have already been similar approaches in art history. Do you see any overlaps there?
TD I think of the minimalist art of the late 50s and 60s with Frank Stella, Donald Judd and others. As Frank Stella once said in an interview with "Artnews", "What you see is what you see." You can call that trite tautology, but what he was getting at is that this kind of art should present an experience accessible to all, in all its simplicity, but also in all its fullness. In other words, enabling an experience with objects that do not fool viewers, but have a solid presence that they can physically encounter and that, initially, do not want to be anything other than what they are. The viewers do not have to understand the image or the object, but have to deal with it, for example, by moving in front of it. This brings a new experience of pictoriality and space. And this experience should be protected from a reduction as defined by the European concern "art must have content". Frank Stella also said in this interview that this is much more interesting and much more forward-looking and has a lot more to do with people's lives than rearranging any optical effects. Performance art of the 1960s already experimented with the body — for example, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, Valie Export, Marina Abramovic and Ulay, or Franz Erhard Walther, with his "clothes" that can't really be put on, where you have to stand inside and find your way in. These are also objects that visitors deal with and which deal with them too.
JP These works of minimal and performance art are participatory, and an experience of presence as described above can happen — but with the difference that the discursive is completely excluded, quite deliberately. Gumbrecht, however, nevertheless includes the discursive as well. He says, yes, there can also be a swinging back and forth, which I think develops an interesting power.
TD I don't think a pure presence experience is possible. Because there is always the question of classification, of categorization. In the cultural context alone, in which the object, the work of art, the performance, the circus act is encountered, there are already many codes, some of which are consciously called up, some of which are not. This is why Gumbrecht also emphasizes that this presence is something fleeting, a flash.
JP In light of our current challenges in the so-called Anthropocene, do you think that this kind of experience of art and these experiences of presence have a greater role to play than they did in the past?
TD I think so. I have the impression that the participatory moment, which is both empathetic and action-oriented, plays a greater role in art. There is also the ecological aspect, that we humans don't just make the world work for us, but that we are part of the world and have to look at how we deal with the world; the world also deals with us. And I have the impression that young artists of all genres are less interested in creating works than in proposing the production of moments of friction that can be perceived as an exchange and as an experience in dealing with the world. And this is particularly true of work in contemporary circus, because here we are live and present at the creation of the work of art.