Choreographing Empathy

April 23, 2012 § 1 Comment


I recently read this book by Susan Leigh, Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance. Three words in the title have already occupied me for years; now I can add choreography. Leigh is writing about dance, but the underlying tone of her book suggests that she has something to say about life more generally, about the ways in which we feel into each other with our bodies. I’ve been trying to think about this in relation to the memorial. How do visitors experience the space of the memorial, how do they perform the chronotope of its architecture, physically and cognitively? Empathy, Kinesthesia and Performance are all part of the memorial experience, but I believe we can also think it in terms of choreography. It is a choreography at one prescribed and improvised: a collaborative choreography between the visitor, the space, the other visitors. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin is the perfect stage for such performances and their collisions; here we see choreographies of play and laughter coincide or conflict with dances of sadness and solemnity. These videos posted by visitors serve as records of the dances, and show the similarities and differences between performances. In each case I think we can speak of a form of kinesthesia or embodied empathy at work between the space and the people occupying it, as well as between the people themselves – all three are linked, so that the observer is the observed, the spectator spectated (a metaphor well extended by the videos themselves, and us watching them). Why do people post these videos? Is it to prove they were there? To find an audience for their performance: what is the performance to them? Do they see it as a form of witnessing, or simply a form of fun?


An exercise in devil’s advocacy, or: on the violence of representation

November 23, 2011 § 1 Comment

I am currently preparing a paper that goes against the grain of idealism that has up to now characterised my work on memory and trauma – sometimes cleverly concealed behind a show of academic scepticism, but always there, as it has been since my childhood (I always insisted, at school and university, on ending my essays on an optimistic, positive note, on finding the dim ray of hope for a better future for the characters in the books I was studying, the readers, the world in general). Now I find myself playing devil’s advocate, the cynic and detractor, and there is more pleasure in it that I imagined. The topic of the paper is violence and representation or, better said, the violence of representation. I have argued in the past, following Susan Sontag and many others, that the representation of violence and suffering has the potential to inflict further violence upon victims of atrocity who, being ‘represented’ in museums, images, films, and texts, also all too often become victims to objectification and appropriation, displayed for voyeuristic pleasures. The notion of ‘concentration camp pornography’ (Karen Goertz 2001: 179) is not new, and certainly the possibility for representation to symbolically (and sometimes literally) repeat the harm and humiliation inflicted upon victims is a real one. Nonetheless, I have frequently argued that the representation of suffering also allows for the possibility of an ethical response to the victim’s plight by the spectator, a response based in empathy, care and a sense of social (in)justice inspired by the encounter with the representation of the other’s suffering. In this way, I have repeatedly suggested that representation – in the form of memorials, art, and literature in particular, but also (although often more problematically) photography, film and media images – can have a positive social and ethical impact by encouraging or eliciting a culture of cosmopolitan response-ability (to use Kelly Oliver’s term) and secondary witnessing. But the focus does not lie merely with the representation; of equal importance is its spectator, receiver or interlocutor – the potential ‘secondary witnesses’ themselves. A visitor to a memorial or the spectator of an image of atrocity also contributes something to the representational moment. He or she not only brings personal experiences, fears, perspectives and prejudices but also a conscious or unconscious willingness or unwillingness to engage ethically with what is being encountered. ‘Ethical secondary witnessing’ is thus a two-way process.

Representations of violence and in particular our ways of encountering them, I have suggested, run the risk of inflicting a second violence upon the victims of atrocity. The perceived ‘victim’ of the violence of representation here is almost invariably its object, that is, the victim of the original event; the spectator, on the contrary, is positioned as a purveyor of or accomplice to violence. My proposal for the paper I’ve been writing is work against this instinctual analysis in order to examine the ways in which representations of violence and suffering can and do exert violence upon their spectators. Is it also possible to speak of a violence inflicted upon those asked to encounter representations of suffering an atrocity? If violence can be identified as part of spectator experience, then the question that remains to be asked is whether and in what circumstances this violence of representation can ever be productive. Is the violence of representation ever ethically justifiable, and if so, is this one occasion where the exception applies?

So far I have identified three instances of violence as being potentially present in spectator experiences of representations of atrocity:

1. The violence of Emotional and Moral Unsettlement (sometimes known as ‘Vicarious trauma’, though this is problematic, I will come back to this concept in another post)
2. Accusation and Manipulation
3. Disempowerment and disenfranchisement of the spectator as moral agent

It is of course crucial to be as specific as possible about the forms of atrocity representation we are dealing with; the potential for and the nature of violence exerted by representations will vary greatly according to this and other variables. Nonetheless, reflecting on my own experience, as well as that of some of the respondees to my survey on visitor responses to memorials in Berlin, has made me think it is time to take spectators’ experiences of violence more seriously, whatever representational form the source of these experiences may take.

The paper is still a work in progress, so for now I am still asking questions: is the encounter with representations of suffering – in the many and varied forms they take, on the news, in museums, in films, photographs, memorials, literature and art – an encounter marked by violence? What are the effects of the proliferation of atrocity images on the internet and in the media (I am thinking, for example, of the image of a dead and dying Gadaffi that made it on to the front page of most major British media websites, including the BBC and the Guardian)? Does our exposure to representations of the suffering of others empower us by giving us knowledge, or does it rid us of our moral agency, by ‘numbing’ us to the reality of injustice and our role in combating it?

Marilene has recently moved to Angola, and is, I know, being moved on a daily basis by the realities that she sees there firsthand. Can representation ever move us in the same way? Doesn’t it always also manipulate us, framing our knowledge and understanding of events in a way that exercises power over our politics as well as our perception?

Bearing witness to the witness: some thoughts on hearing wounds talk

May 15, 2011 § 2 Comments

Talking wounds.
Can wounds talk? Pain is often a great silencer; unshareable and often uncommunicable, it frequently cuts us off from others. But it is also true that, as in the story of Tancred and the tree, wounds never stop speaking, seeking out listeners who will hear them or, if such a thing is possible, heal them.  Holocaust survivor Primo Levi writes in if this is a Man of his recurring nightmare: the ‘ever repeated scene of the unlistened-to story’. The dream expresses a fear he says is common to survivors, and which is connected to the need to ‘tell our story to the rest, to make the rest participate in it’ (1987: 15.) The plea of the survivor, then, is to be heard, it is a request that we, who did not have to suffer the trauma of the surviving the Holocaust, bear witness to the witnesses of atrocity. It is a request that was for a long time painfully denied, but which has in recent years found itself at the heart of a burgeoning interest in trauma and, along with it, an emerging ethics of witnessing. For Cathy Caruth, for example, the call of the ‘crying wound’ of trauma represents an ethical address of the other to the self that ‘demands a listening and a response’ (1996: 9). Similarly, in the psychoanalytic model of trauma testimony described in Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s by now seminal study Bearing witness or the Vicissitudes of Listening, ‘it takes two to witness the unconscious’ (1992: 15). Holocaust testimony is here described as a performative act that can be understood not as a statement of truth but as ‘a mode of truth’s realisation’, in which the witness to the witness is an active participant. For Laub, the listener is an ‘enabler of testimony’, he or she is ‘party to the creation of knowledge’ (Felman and Laub 1992: 15). The listener, as the ‘enabler of testimony’ is what makes possible the process by which ‘the narrator (the survivor) reclaims his position as a witness’ (Felman and Laub 1992: 85). To witness then, is no solitary act; the wound that talks always seeks the secondary witness that will hear it. French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard has also theorised this relationship in his succinct and oft-cited formula for a ‘testimonial pact’. Among the conditions necessary for successful and politically useful testifying Lyotard notes the importance of ‘an addressee, not only willing to listen and accept the reality of the referent, but also worthy of being spoken to’ (Nance 2006: 87).In his model the listener – who actively and ethically listens, recognising the voice and subjectivity of the testifier in the process – is not merely an additional benefit, (s)he is a vital element without which the testimony would not exist. Put simply, it is only in the company of a (worthy) listener that my story can be told. This is perhaps no great revelation, and indeed the notion of an audience as a necessary part of the act of witnessing is nothing new. One of the earliest categories of witness, the martyr (etymologically linked to the modern term witness, via the Greek martur, itself said to be linked to the Indo-European word for ‘remember’), is a case in point.  In early modern stories of sainthood – often called the pious pornography of the middle ages – the martyrs bear witness to their faith in God always and necessarily in front of an audience. The martyr becomes a saint by virtue of her tortured, gruesome, bleeding body: flesh and limbs are torn apart, breasts are sliced off, and nubile young girls are set to boil in vats of hot oil. But this body does not suffer in isolation, for the witnessing body of the martyr is in all senses a site of performance and spectacle – of the pagan torturer’s power (which is undermined), of the faith and endurance of the saint, of the miraculous blessing and protection of God, and of the sublime nature of suffering and abjection. As with every spectacle, the audience is crucial to the success of the act. Without the belief of the audience, both within the narrative (the pagan spectators who convert to Christianity, the God who observes and intervenes), and without (the medieval layperson who reveres relics and images of exotic martyred flesh) the saint would quite simply not be a saint. As Blondheim and Liebes put it, in biblical witnessing, ‘the witness is the addressee, not the medium. It is the collective which performs the witnessing’ (Blondheim and Liebes 2009: 115). If Judaeo-Christian storytelling is not as popular as it once was, the principle of religious witnessing seems to be making a come-back in the secular creeds of trauma, memory and human rights discourse. The entreaty made to us by survivors who tell their stories or historians who construct their museums and mausoleums in remembrance of the ugliest of pasts is, indeed, as Levi put it, an entreaty to participate in a community of collective remembering in which witnessing the witness becomes an ethical imperative. So what does this mean for us? What should it alter about the way in which we regard the wounds that speak to us every day – in books, films, or artworks; through the museums and memorials that we visit; or even in the news as we eat our dinner? For me the first step is to begin to think of ourselves in this position of reader/spectator/visitor/viewer less as the passive receivers of media projections and more as active listeners, as secondary witnesses whose role in the production of memory and its meanings is far from obsolete. This is on the one hand an empowering move: as active listeners we are also free to question the narratives constructed by these media projections of the past into the present; to do so is critical in all senses of the term, for to challenge something is also to engage in it. This does not, however, mean that by becoming active listeners we should or would callously join the league of deniers; for when we accept our role as active participants in the ongoing conversation with the traumas of the past, we also enter into that testimonial pact that Lyotard has outlined. We commit also to partake of an ethics of listening by which we are positioned first and foremost as witnesses to the witness. Through this commitment we acknowledge our responsibility of recognition towards the original witness who, like so many of those survivors of the holocaust who have so graciously given us the gift of their terrible stories, are no longer there to tell their stories, but whose wounds nonetheless continue to speak, and must continue to be heard.

Doubting Thomas

May 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Posted by Marilene

An image and story that often returns to me is that of Doubting Thomas, or the Incredulity of Thomas. In the Gospel of St John we are told that for Thomas to believe that Jesus has Risen again he demands to insert his finger into Jesus’ wound. The many images made of this story I find repulsive, they make me feel ill, for me it is truly abject. Unlike a medical cut, clean and soon to be closed again, it gapes open and Thomas putting in his finger into an open wound is surely bad – he is putting germs into it, making it worse, increasingly his pain. Why put your hand into a wound to believe it is true? He needs to touch, feel the wetness, the warmth, the stickiness of the wound. Why is it not enough to just see the wound, why enter it?

I don’t want to discuss the religious significance of Doubting Thomas, but the symbolic power of it and its possible relevance to this project. Jesus is dead, he is risen, he is a ghost – just before the lines about Thomas, he breathes the Holy Ghost into his disciples. I find it very hard not to think of the body scan data like this state and this story – it is a fully detailed immaterial version of the body and it offers itself to be fingered open, virtually leafed through. It offers insides as proof, it offers its wounds as proof. In the face of unbelieving, of not knowing, in a search for knowledge it opens itself.

When I made Protest the second time (it is an edition of 3) I had to go back at the end and restring the gapes between sheets. I wish I had taken a photograph of it now as it was quite a powerful image – a body full of gaping wounds. A body rendered enlongate through its wounds.

Could this be an interesting model of an ethical witness? Maybe – Thomas doubts but rather than just stating his doubt he dares poke his finger inside the pain, inside the abject hole. He is willing to risk contamination, to dirty himself. In Carravagio’s painting he looks like he is blind – his eyes stare blindly away from the wound and he looks like he is being guided into the wound by fellow disciples.

I remember reading a book which had a chapter about Doubting Thomas – for some reason I think it was Amelia Jones but it wasn’t – it had a pink cover. The Invisible Body? I really want to read it again! I think I borrowed it from the RCA Library… was back in 2004….

John, Chapter 20

1 The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre.

2 Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the LORD out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.

3 Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre.

4 So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre.

5 And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in.

6 Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie,

7 And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.

8 Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed.

9 For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.

10 Then the disciples went away again unto their own home.

11 But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre,

12 And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.

13 And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my LORD, and I know not where they have laid him.

14 And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.

15 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.

16 Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.

17 Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.

18 Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the LORD, and that he had spoken these things unto her.

19 Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.

20 And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the LORD.

21 Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.

22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost:

23 Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.

24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.

25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.

27 Then saith He to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God.

29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

30 And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book:

31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name.

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N.B Incredulity: in·cre·du·li·ty

noun /ˌinkrəˈd(y)o͞olitē/

  • The state of being unwilling or unable to believe something

The Wound and the Voice, Cathy Caruth

April 15, 2011 § 3 Comments

Last week Sophie sent me a text to read by Cathy Caruth. It was the introduction to ‘Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History’ published by John Hopkins in 1996. She said that when she read it that she had thought of my work and a project I had told her about. Sophie spoke particularly about a quote in the text;

Wood as a sculptural material for me has a strong allure – it was alive and now is dead and it bears the story if its life in its grain. This coupled with the possibilities of laser cutting have made me think of a number of possible sculptures. For the Carne Vale show I waned to make a wooden post like those used in a Xingu Quarup. The Quarup or Kuarup is a Xingu (an indian tribe in the Amazon) funerary festival/rite. I first saw a Quarup post in the Museo National da Hisotria in Rio de Janeiro. A Quarup is a tree trunk that has had its bark stripped and the exposed wood painted. The trunk is then decorated with feathers, coloured string and beads. It is a very curious object and somehow it reads as an object which stands in for a human. It feels like a place holder. The Quarup ceremony is a festival for the dead – the post standing in, or possessing the spirit of the deceased.

My idea was to play on this notion using a CT dataset. Trees, especially in Brasil are so evocative of human form that it was very easy for  me to imagine a trunk which ‘possessed’ a human form. I worked on repeating and rotating the scans to create a form that was made up of a human body but that in its repetition its derivation lost/confused. The idea was then that the stripped bark of this ‘trunk’ would reveal the inside of the body (muscles/bones).

I didn’t make the work for the usual reasons – lack of time and funds (I wanted to make it out of laser cut 3mm pear) but it is an idea that keeps coming back to me. Maybe I should make a maquette using some cheaper material – cardboard……

Anyway – this text and the concept of a spirit being held inside a trunk is relevant here.

The idea of blood coming from a cut in a tree is also very strong and again something I have been thinking about. Here in Brasil there is the Pau de Brasil (hence why Brasil is called Brasil). It was a very important export for its red dye in the 18th Century which has now led to it becoming an endangered tree. There is one in the botanical garden which seems to ‘bleed’ from a knot. I need to photograph it but in the meantime;

I also really like the idea of a cut into a trunk revealing a scan, a cross section. A bit like Orixa but with wood, a trunk.

To return to the text. I highlighted some other passages, made some other notes;

  • Since Freud, Trauma is understood as being inflicted not only on the body but also on the mind
  • persists in bearing witness to some forgotten wound
  • Is the trauma the encounter with death, or the ongoing experience of having survived it?
  • Listening to the voice and to the speech delivered by the others’s wound
Pg 7.
Pg. 9

Dave Eggers

April 11, 2011 § 1 Comment

Some while back I heard Dave Eggers talk to Mariella Frostrup about his novel ‘Zeitoun’ on BBC Radio 4. ‘Zeitoun’ is the story of a Syrian-American survivor of Hurricane Katrina who found himself arrested as a suspected Al-Qaeda member while helping other victims of the disaster. Not only did the interview make me want to read the book, but it also made me want to learn more about Eggers and his work. In the interview he spoke about ‘Voice of Witness’ and I thought of Sophie straight away. Just the name of the website and the discussion of Zeitoun made me think that this might be a model of ‘ethical witnessing’ Sophie would be interested in.

This is their ‘MISSION’

‘Voice of Witness is a nonprofit book series that empowers those most closely affected by contemporary social injustice. Using oral history as a foundation, the series depicts human rights crises around the world through the stories of the men and women who experience them.’ I have since read ‘Zeitoun’ and ‘What is the What’ and am eager to read anything else. I really think this is an incredible project and wish I could be part of it in some way. I see they are calling for Columbian Spanish speakers to help translate but sadly I am can’t do that… So I will for now continue to make my way through the Voice of Witness/Dave Eggers catalogue.

LINKS Link to Eggers interview with Mariella Frostrup

Video of Valentino Achak Deng talking about ‘What is the What?’

Amelia Jones essay

April 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Jones, Amelia (2009) ‘Performing the Wounded Body Pain, Affect and the Radical Relationality of Meaning’, Parallax,15:4,45 — 67

To read this paper go to

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