The Dis_locating Object

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The Dis_locating Object

Tim Behren

Il y a plus d'objects que de personnes dans nos souveniers.1 (Our memories contain more objects than people.)

Contemporary circus shows a wide range of references to objects. Sensitivity2 for the materiality of things as well as a multisensory3 reference to spaces, architecture, and non-living bodies are visible in many works by circus artists. Neo-materialistic philosophical, feminist and scientific aspects of the interplay between body, object and space have increasingly found their way into the reflection and artistic practice of circus since the mid-1990s4 at the latest.

How circus artists train and carry out their practice depends in particular on which circus discipline they are shaped by. Most of these disciplines are defined by work with material objects. Diabolos, clubs and other objects of manipulation represent juggling, for example. Larger objects such as the unicycle or the teeterboard belong to acrobatic circus disciplines that take place on the ground. Apparatuses such as the aerial rope, the tight rope or the Chinese pole offer the human body access to airspace and often appear in artistic works in the form of space-defining stage sets. Often these are also technically developed or altered in such a way that they appear as a sculptural structure or as part of the spatial architecture.

Jörg Müller „Noustube“ © Mario Roehrle

In German, no satisfactory designation for these space-occupying apparatuses has yet been established that could indicate a potential expansion of the meaning of the human-dominated handling of objects. In French, circus objects are referred to as "agrès," in English as "apparatus." The latter is defined by philosopher Giorgio Agamben, following Michel Foucault's notion of the dispositif, as being anything "capable of capturing, orienting, determining, modeling, controlling, or securing the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings."5 Such a notion opens up the possibility of reading the (circus) arts in multiple ways and writing and speaking about them in this sense.

The Flemish circus dramaturg Bauke Lievens describes the historical development of the relationship between body and object as a radical shift "from the dominance of the body over the trajectories of the object (traditional circus and Nouveau Cirque), to the dominance of the object over the trajectories of the body (contemporary circus)."6 Lievens speaks of a shift that represents a changed view of the world in which humans are no longer the focus as colonizers of their environment. This refers both to the period in which modern circus emerged during industrialization and to a colonial legacy that culminated with its history of exceptionalism and objectified presentation of marginalized and exotic creatures beginning in the mid-nineteenth century.7

I would like to supplement Lieven's description of the relationship between body and object in contemporary circus with a coexistence of mutual influence between body and object, in which non-living entities are also granted an independent interactive power - so-called "agency."8 This relationship removes the human being from the center. I would therefore like to describe the object, in the sense of active power or agency, as an object "dis_locating"9 the existing relationship. It detaches the human being from the binary dominance relationship (active-passive) of body and object and opens multi-layered levels of reference. Through the removal of boundaries from the (passive) objecthood assigned by the human being, the potential for action expands. The dis_locating object can also be (in the circus), for example, the architecture or a specific surrounding space that encloses the human body or opens up a space for interaction.10

To illustrate this, I have taken two artistic positions that can be seen in this year's CircusDanceFestival in Cologne:

The juggler Jörg Müller belongs to a group of dance and circus artists whose research received great impetus from the invitation by French choreographer Kitsou Dubois to participate in parabolic flights. An insight into her movement and body studies on weightlessness is helpful to follow the genesis of Jörg Müller's work "Noustube"11 in a three meter high, transparent cylinder, filled with up to 1800 liters of water. In the 1990s, Kitsou Dubois was commissioned by the Centre national d’études spatiales to prepare future astronauts for the physical demands of space using dance techniques and behavioral strategies. This gave her the opportunity to participate in numerous parabolic flights. During these laboriously prepared research flights, a specific flight maneuver creates reduced gravity in the interior of the aircraft for a period of about 20-25 seconds — so-called microgravity. Dubois mentions several paradoxical feelings in weightlessness, of which I will pick out only a few, as examples of a complete reorientation of the positioning of one's own body in space and in relation to the environment: the feeling of no longer having a body and thus a sensory focus on visual perception through the eyes; the impression of a complete expansion of one's own body and one's own boundlessness; a three-dimensional perception of space; when touching something or someone, one is pushed back by the lack of gravity and has to hold on to avoid flying away.12 In weightlessness, the demarcation of one's body from the space surrounding it is no longer clearly separated. The positioning of the body in relation to itself and to inanimate objects, as well as to people, must first be reconstructed in weightlessness. In order to continue working with partial aspects of these sensations on earth, water is a typical environmental milieu. Jörg Müller, specialized in the manipulation of objects, begins, as he himself calls it, "to juggle his own body."13 He establishes the aforementioned glass cylinder filled with water as an environment for a human body. Here, the dis_locating object apparently eludes any kind of conquest. Rather, the body must relocate itself in relation to its surroundings.

Swiss circus artist Julian Vogel is dedicated to the deconstruction and reconstruction of diabolos made of ceramic and porcelain dishes, making them the main actants14 in the context of independent exhibitions of his "CHINA SERIES". Vogel creates individual installation and performance elements for each location. The locations can be museums, empty halls, theaters or, as in Cologne, a circus tent. The exhibition invites visitors to walk freely into spaces in which objects - some driven by small electric motors - constantly roll, fly, turn, hang, swing, or break. The effect of these are spaces is determined by objects. For example, the soundscape of the objects' movements creates an atmosphere of abundance on an acoustic level and, in places, of chaos, too. Everything seems to be constantly in motion, even without the presence of people. Julian Vogel also uses his body in individual components of the series, but the focus is on the attention and the tension generated by the presence of the respective object. The object's relationship to human bodies is created, above all, at the moment when the audience enters the room. Porcelain artifacts hanging from the ceiling and swinging in large radii make spaces traversable only by evasion and set the human body in motion. Objects also appear in unusual places, such as hanging over toilets or urinals. It is a performative exhibition that puts the object at the center, playing with texture and materiality as well as location and the permanence and fragility of things.

Multi-layered relationships to the object in contemporary circus allow for unusual, original, but also challenging or amusing perspectives on the human body. But it is not only the human body that is at the center of circus practice, it is the interaction between human and object, environment and architecture, that characterizes this art form in particular. In order to comprehend the complex relationship between the human being and its multiple environments, a variety of approaches are needed. This spans an arc from the findings of the natural sciences and the humanities to the experiential knowledge that the arts — and in this case especially contemporary circus — offer.

1 Louis, Edouard. Qui a tué mon père. Paris 2018.
2 Vgl. Focquet, Vincent: „Towards a humble circus.” In: Lievens, Bauke / Kann, Sebastian / Ketels Quintijn / Focquet, Vincent (Hg.): Thinking Through Circus. Gent 2019, S. 22.
3 For the use of the English term "multi-sensorial" in the interview with Farrell Cox, see Peschier, Francesca: The Extraordinary Bodies of Aerial Circus. 03/2019. (accessed Jan. 5, 2022).
4 Since then, French-influenced circus-theoretical discourse has spoken of the era of the Contemporary Circus, cf. in this regard Trapp, Franziska: Lektüren des Zeitgenössischen Zirkus. Ein Modell zur text-kontext-orientierten Aufführungsanalyse. Berlin 2020, p. 3.
5 Agamben, Giorgio: What is an apparatus? Stanford 2009, S. 14.
6 Lievens, Bauke: First Open Letter to the Circus: The need to redefine. Dezember 2015. (Zugriff: 30.3.2022)
7 Trapp, Franziska: Lektüren des Zeitgenössischen Zirkus. S. 14.
8 Actor-network theory and neo-materialist currents such as Graham Harman's object-oriented ontology or Karen Barad's performative materialism challenge the understanding of humans as acting subjects and objects as passive. Cf. in this regard Hoppe, Katharina / Lemke, Thomas: Neue Materialismen zur Einführung. Hamburg 2019, p. 11 ff.
9 The underscore spelling suggested here is borrowed from Mad Studies (Study of madness and psychiatrization), with original reference to mad conditions.
10 With reference to Karen Barad's conception of "intra-action," see Kavanagh, Katharine: "Thoughts from the Anthropocene." In: Circus Thinks. Reflections 2020. circus thinkers platform/circus syd: 2020, p. 8.
11 The piece was originally created under the title "c/o" in 2001 and then became "Noustube" in 2008, as an invitation from Jörg Müller to other artists to create in this setting.
12 Dubois, Kitsou: Danser l’apesanteur. Brüssel 2021, S.18, S.20.
13 Hivernat, Pierre / Klein, Véronique: Panorama Contemporain des Arts du Cirque. Paris 2010, S. 510.
14 For non-human acting entities Bruno Latour suggests the term "actant" in the context of actor-network theory: Hoppe, Katharina / Lemke, Thomas: Neue Materialismen zur Einführung. S. 30, P. 45.

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