Saturday, 29 November 2008

sight fall - the time of light

'Falling into the World: Gravitational Space'

An interview with Paul Virilio, by Laurence Louppe and Daniel Dobbels

Translated by David Williams 

'After the nuclear disintegration of the space of matter, we have finally arrived at the territory of the time of light' (Paul Virilio)

Laurence Louppe: In the course of your pedagogic activities, Paul Virilio, you have become interested in dance notation. This fact, in conjunction with the importance of your work, prompted us to enquire about your perspective on a field that is still rather misunderstood.

Paul Virilio: I became interested in choreographic notation as a teacher of architecture. I had a Moroccan student who was working on this subject, she was doing a diploma on dance and space; and for my own part I was interested in a measure of space in architecture that would no longer simply provide facade sections, which comprise a wholly abstracted vision. Space is movement, that's the quality of a volume, so it's very difficult to notate. When I became interested in choreographic notation, I was wondering, for example, whether there might not be a way of qualifying space through Labanotation that would help develop architectural drawings and sections; as they stand, they're utterly primitive as measures of a space since they provide no measure of time. Whereas in dance, where notions of time and space are interconnected, there's a relativity which translates that reality effectively.

In architecture, people were only producing geography; and I thought it was time that the urban or architectural geography represented by the survey plans of a community, or by the floor plans of a house, should be further developed with a choreography: in other words, a measure of the quality of volume. Here Labanotation would function in ways other than as the body's preparation for a movement practice.

LL: What you're saying is at the heart of our own preoccupations. I would like to add in this context that Laban saw the body as a sort of score, essentially arranged by what he calls 'effort', in other words the displacement of weight. But this displacement of weight organises an interior cartography, and at the same time a geography in which the relationship between space and time already comprises an architectural space. When he talks of 'effort shaping', he means constructing space with one's weight, with the displacement of one's weight; it's a geography too.

PV: When I say 'only geography', I'm not denying its importance. I mean that it must be taken further through a measure of movement, and not only a measure of surfaces. In architecture, surfaces are measured, but volume isn't apprehended at all; now it seemed to me that in addition to the measure of surfaces, there was a measure of time through movement, for which Labanotation could be useful. I wasn't suggesting that it had to be adopted literally, but that it could inspire architects to qualify the space of movement, for example when going from one level to another. When architects draw up plans, they're interested in these things, but they're only able to measure surfaces for the lack of any tools to qualify volume.

LL: What you're saying is very important; but in actual fact this idea of apprehending objects, not so much in terms of quantitative measures, but in terms of qualitative criteria, is something very new.

PV: Yes, absolutely. And as far as architecture's concerned, it's still not resolved at all. I'll give another example. Earlier on you talked of interior mappings; and in fact I get my students to work on mental imagery. For about ten years I have conducted exercises where I get them to draw mentally and then graphically. In this way I try to synchronise the mental vision of plan, space and the graphic or geo-graphic representation, as we've evoked it. At present this research in architecture is not yet finished, but it's continuing in the same direction. Something else that also interested me a great deal at the time was what was called 'musicography': in other words, research undertaken by musicians into new notational forms, not simply the solfeggio. This too offered us an example. How could architecture interpret and make use of. such techniques so as to further develop its traditional practice of space?

Daniel Dobbels: What seems important to me is this definition of displacement through weight that you indicate by the word 'qualify'. The impression today being that this primordial sensation of weight is compromised, altered, imperiled.

PV: That's what's at the root of the word 'glory'. Glory means a weight, not something that's brilliant, shiny. When one thinks of 'glory', one thinks of stars, of things that shine; it's not that at all; it's weight, density.

DD: At the same time, when one 'qualifies' space-time and movement through the displacement of weight, one must immediately think of the imponderable, as a corollary. It seems to me that in Laurence's work on choreographic notation, one of the recurrent obsessions that conspired in the invention of notation related to the fact of never seeing this imponderable aspect inscribed anywhere.

PV: I would like to deal with this question in another way. I have been working on a text, which will be published shortly in Chimères, on the notion of falling. I don't think that one can perceive the world without falling into the world. This is not a metaphor. Human vision is dependent upon weight, in other words upon the fact that one either falls or one doesn't. Horizontal displacement, walking, is a way of falling from one foot to the other; similarly, the perspectival vision that we have of the horizon is connected to the fact that we are falling into the horizon. Let me explain. The Renaissance perspective of real space is already conditioned by weight, by gravity. The notion of up and down doesn't exist, no more for the living body than for the visual cortex independently of weight; so there is a fall at the origin of the perception of the world, and I would suggest this connects back to Genesis; when the eyes of Adam and Eve open, they discover their nakedness, which signifies that they fall into the real.

But I think this symbolic vision is also a practical vision. I think that any relation to the real is one of falling therefore one of weight. I am sufficiently interested in this perspective to bring gravity to bear in perception. Why? Because what interests me is speed, and because I don't believe in the purely geometric perspective of the Renaissance, with those lines that converge at infinite, the vanishing point; I find it primitive, it doesn't correspond to reality at all. I don't think the visual cone has any reality independently of the weighted body that's at the origin of this vision of the world. Hence my interest in 'vision machines', technologies of perception which eschew weight; they escape gravity since their perception is automatised, it occurs through the recognition of forms stemming from a computer being connected up to a camera.

So it's true that there's a reinvention of the body's weight, but in my opinion it could go much further philosophically speaking; what's still missing between subject and object is the trajectory. We must reinvent and retrieve meaning for the nature of the trajectory - I say this in a very concrete way; nowadays I talk of the trajective and of trajectivity, in the same way one talks of object, objective, objectivity. The existence and nature of the trajectory has to be reinvented. And it can be if we give gravity back its force, its power to emit and express reality. We are creatures of gravity. When we say we're terrestrial beings, this means that we are creatures of the earth's gravity - not of the moon's gravity, or of any other planet's.

LL: What you're saying is particularly disconcerting, because a system such as that of Feuillet, as far back as 1700, bases the essence of dance on the 1055 of support. What creates the transaction of the danced movement is the exchange between the supporting leg and the free leg, and it's the way in which the supporting leg loses its balance that is notated. So it's the quality of the loss of support on which the dance is based. And when Laban discovered this, he was astonished, because there was already, as far back as the 17th century (and it's not surprising that this was the Baroque period), an idea of the gravitational.

PV: Today what interests me, and this picks up on what you've just said, is what in parachuting is called the 'sight-fall'. A sight-fall is a free fall without recourse to an altimeter. I'm also studying those people that throw themselves into the void with elastic attached to their feet [bungy jumping], because it seems to me that this contains a shift to the very limit of falling, which reveals in an essential and very pure way the elements we have just been discussing. A sight-fall is when someone throws themselves into the void relying only on their weight to evaluate their vision of the moment when the parachute should be opened - and their weight in this context is absolute, since they're free falling. Usually parachutists use an altimeter for this purpose, and they open it up at the last moment. But the sight-faller (which is a beautiful term in its own right) attempts to base the decision to open the parachute on the perception they have of the ground, and this perception wholly results from their body weight. If they make a mistake, and the parachute opens too late, obviously they kill themselves.

DD: How is this moment of evaluation inscribed?

PV: I can't go into much detail because I'm still working on the subject. But I am interested in the number of people involved in falling sports: bungy jumpers, or cloud surfers who throw themselves into the void with a board on their feet so as to glide on the wind relative to their fall, or sight-fallers. All reflect the attraction of falling, which seems to be another way of explaining the allure of drugs today - except this is a drug of weight, it's 'gravitational' rather than chemical; it's a question of attaining and exploring one's limits exclusively through one's weight, rather than through the ingestion of substances of varying degrees of danger.

LL: One must also attain vertigo ...

DD: In situations of extreme vertigo one clings on to something; what's the ultimate point at which one still clings on to life?

PV: If one's perspective is connected to one's weight, there's a moment at which one can fully experiment with it; and that's the sight-fall, because there the measure of one's weight in free fall brings the rational person to the moment of decision. So the vision they have is directly connected to their perspective, since it's related both to what's fleeting, in flight (remember that vertigo is an effect of the fleeting), and at the same time to one's weight, which provides an absolute perspective. A sight-faller's perspective is the only true perspective. We must really try to analyse in a very fine way what occurs at that moment. Furthermore, as you well understand, it's a phenomenon of speed, a dromoscopic phenomenon; this vision is really very pure, it doesn't involve any mode of conveyance with its own trans formative, mutative effects.

When you're in a train or in a car, rather than a true perspective, what one sees is bluff - deformations related to the motor and the vehicle's position in relation to the ground. In sight-falling, the vehicle is the body in free fall; it's the trajective which reveals the objective.

DD: Is this trajectory rectilinear, or rather, is there still the possibility of effecting a sort of clinamen, of opening an angle of inclination and producing a deviation?

PV: No, there's no change. When you listen to sight-fallers you realise that there are states of perception which change on one hand with the speed of acceleration of the fall, and on the other with the modification of the relation to the ground. So something very complex occurs at the level of stages gone through before the parachute comes in; and they say this quite explicitly, one's vision is modified several times until the moment at which it stops changing, because one's afraid of going too far and that the ground's too close. So the free fall manifestly contains radically different sequences. At the beginning, it's clear that the ground doesn't seem to be coming towards one, one gets the impression of being in a kind of nirvana, although admittedly this is at about a thousand metres up; subsequently the ground does look as though it's coming up - in other words, one inverts; and finally in the third stage, the ground seems to open up. There would be still further stages after this, but they are beyond human possibility given the risk of crashing into the ground.

DD: What would be the status of language in this experience? One often associates the cadaverous state inertia, death - with the fact that the body no longer has signifiers; in this context is the signifier suspended, as if it's in parentheses, or, on the contrary, does it fall with the body? One gets the impression that when one falls, one makes language fall too.

PV: There's a very misunderstood word, and that's vertigo, which you mentioned just now. In some ways, quite apart from chemical vertigo, in other words something stemming from bad digestion or similar phenomena, vertigo without chemical effect is something wholly unknown; I would even suggest that the word 'vertigo' is a carry-all concealing what vertigo is. I would suggest that it will not be possible to discuss vertigo until the existence and nature of the trajectory has been rehabilitated. In a certain way, 'vertigo' is what serves to conceal trajectivity. I talk of the trajectivity of someone walking or of someone falling. What interests me behind this idea that any vision of the world is a fall, a literal fall that entails weight, is that we have a perception of the world because we are falling into the world.

A friend of mine, who was going to have his liver removed before a transplant, was saying to me: 'It's extraordinary, now my liver's sick it weighs; it's no longer a liver, it's a dead weight'. As if something was falling inside him; it's not only the body that falls into the world when it's living, but when the life of an organ starts to fade it falls into the body like a dead weight, as if an interior weight inside the body doubled up the exterior weight of the body in the world. To my mind, corporeity-as-fall is a wholly interesting element of the materialism of corporeity. And one is reminded of religious and mystical thought in a non-metaphorical way: falling into the body, falling into matter - these aren't metaphors, they're concrete.

DD: In the word that you use, trajectif ('trajective'), I'm hearing trajet-dit (' the said trajectory'); as if something in the trajectory is 'said' at the very moment the fall occurs. Is consciousness of this 'saying', particular to the trajectory, embodied at such moments? Is the signification of the gesture 'spoken, in such a way that it suspends other forms of speed, other forms of reduction, other forms for the advent of dead weight? Finally, don't you think that all these systems of notation, as well as the actual practice of choreography, seem to be haunted by an obsession: to suspend time, in such a way that another time can come and double the dead times?

PV: This takes us back to Husserl and the notion of a 'living present'. There is no time, no temporality for someone not living; time doesn't exist for stone, or for water. Time only exists for the human being looking at the stone, or watching the water flow. I think that the notion of a living present is very current, particularly given how much we talk today about real time, present time. The real time of technology is only real time because of the living present of the spectator, listener or actor. So dance is effectively the implementation of the dancer's living present. And this living present is an enigma. It's not the present of the past, or of the future; the living present has neither past nor future; it's in the 'quick' of life, it exists in the speed of being in the world - in the speed of falling into the world. And it is so in a total way; in other words the body of the dancer is wholly implicated, like the body of the parachutist we discussed just now.

DD: Which is not to confuse it with the ephemeral. In what you're saying, I still hear duration.

PV: Absolutely: the living present is life itself. It's not a chronological time; it's a 'chronoscopic' time - in other words, the time of presence. And I would suggest this kind of time avoids the tripartite structure of traditional time; the living present contains no before/during/after. […]

DD: There's an exhibition about J. Van Cleve on at the moment, and it contains two representations - one by him, one by Gerard David - of Adam and Eve, naked, after they've been expelled from Paradise …

PV: The nude should be reinterpreted, in terms of a fall into appearance ...

DD: What 's magnificent with Gerard David is the impression one gets that the body, in particular Adam's body, is a fall into the world; behind him is a shadow drawn on a grayish blue background, and the shadow grows increasingly slender towards the bottom. Could one fall into the world either with or without a body? This is also one of the questions of dance. Of course I fall into the world, but perhaps I don 't fall with the body I require to be able to support this relation to the living, which awaits me in some way as destiny, as the unknown, as enigma.

PV: I think that images possess a weight. I disagree very strongly with people who say that images are nothing and that the thing is all. I myself am an image with weight, and I'm nothing other than an image. Besides there are certain technologies which allow an acceleration of visualisation; in fractions of seconds, one can show a mouse in perfect condition decomposing to the point of crumbling into dust. I find that there's a truth in such documents, so that there's no difference between the living mouse and the representation of the mouse. In some ways, I'm a Berkeleyan; I find many things in Berkeley very interesting and very relativist. So for me we're images that have weight.

The decline of the image is a decline in reality. To say that "images are nothing, the thing is all" in some ways sweeps away the thing, it sweeps matter away. To my mind, the materialism-gone-astray we've inhabited for about a century, contains a 'tragedy' (back to your word again [trajectif/trajet-dit/tragédie]) of the visible. "What's visible is nothing, matter I all”: what does that mean? It means that an image only has value when one touches it; we valorise a tactile image to the detriment of a visual or auditory image. Is something more real because I have it in my hand, or because I see it? We know full well that we can't do this, all the more so given the technologies we have today for 'tele-palpation'. Therefore it's clear that the image has weight, the image is the thing.

DD: This brings us back to Léger's 'Ballet Mécanique', to that rendering of a woman who, by climbing some stairs in a way, takes weight in the image and gives the image its real weight. There's also the work of Bill Viola, which shows how a body is constantly in the process of reestablishing balances, and that in fact a body comprises
pure moving.

PV: Movement is nothing other than an imbalance fostered and entertained.

DD: Why do you want to point that out?

PV: Well, why is imbalance negative? Why does moving take precedence over imbalance? Because, I would suggest, there's an old underlying pride, in the Biblical sense of the word, that says that what drops, what falls, is not good … Well, I believe exactly the opposite. I believe that the original accident - the 'fall' - is a blessing; we exist because we inhabit an original accident; we are because we're 'sinners'. Maybe this is a poor interpretation of the Bible, or a resistance to the Scriptures; but I believe the accident to be original, at the root of humanity. I myself am accident-prone, I'm a man in the process of falling, a fall-ible man; that's my greatness. Terms like chaos, imbalance, accident are located as negative, whereas they constitute us as humans. In reality we only exist through our failures, we only exist through our falls; we only exist through the accident that our life itself is. This is true of human beings and of many other situations one could mention. And what's interesting in the idea of dance as fall is that in some ways it reintroduces humanity as accident rather than as 'glorious substance'.

DD: And this is the starting point for our inventions of the real.

PV: Yes, for our constitutions of it. Which brings us back to the philosophical adage, which is now rather forgotten: "Lightning doesn't flash if there's no eye to see it; thunder has no sound if there's no ear to hear it". This table is not solid without a hand to feel its solidness. In a certain way, therefore, the entropic principle (which we now talk about at a cosmogynic level) reintroduces the notion that as the observers of the world, human beings thereby constitute the world. And this takes us back to Berkeley. And it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with immaterialism. Unfortunately analysis of Berkeley's thinking has revolved completely around immaterialism, whereas to my mind it constitutes another kind of materialism. Perhaps today, through Einsteinian relativity, the analysis of Berkeley can be reinterpreted in another way.

LL: If in fact we constitute ourselves in falling, how does one interpret the idea of rebound, suspension, the function of holding oneself upright? In Doris Humphrey's work, for example, there were two principles in dance: fall and recovery. And she also said: "Movement is an arc of life, strung between two deaths: vertical death and horizontal death". And movement is precisely what describes the curve …

PV: It's the trajectory.

LL: Yes, but a trajectory that's not on the ground: it's in declivity.

PV: It's a parabolic trajectory.

LL: And, furthermore, one which can also cut podal supports. But how do you locate suspension, rebound? In relation to this ancient desire to fall, how can we hold ourselves up, suspend and rebound? For you, is this something negative for the existence and nature of falling?

PV: No, not at all, because a fall to the horizontal, which means one goes towards the horizon, includes a rebound. One shouldn't understand falling as being exclusively from up to down; it can also happen from down up. A jump is a fall upwards, just as taking flight is an attack in reverse. I don't think there's any centre to the fall, except for the living present of the dancer. The centre is the dancer's own body, there's no centre elsewhere, there's no ground. If one accepts that walking is a falling towards the horizon, there's no ground; the ground is relative, it doesn't exist at all any more except for someone falling from up to down.

In order to understand what sight-falling means - the fall into reality - one must try to forget traditional referents: down and up. So as to locate oneself exclusively in the particular body as centre of time, centre of the living present. And all technologies today lead us back to the human body. Tele-technologies mean that it's at the centre of the world, that the ground has less importance; hence deterritorialisation, the horizon has less importance, it's possible to see weapons over the horizon with radars … In a certain way, the last planet, the final frontier is the particular body, and the particular body is the living present. This isn't only a 'body' in the materialist sense of the word, it is the living present. Behind desocialisation, behind the return to individuality, I think that in reality there's a resurgence of the human being as centre of the world, the human being as egocentrism. The conquest of the universe, whether infinitely large or infinitely small, the conquest of space, all technological conquests lead us back to 'egocentring'. And dance is in fact one of the arts of egocentring. To avoid falling over, to turn around and find oneself confronted with an audience, an egocentring is constantly exercised, just as it is in certain sports too. And this brings us back to the sightfaller, who is a sort of planetary body: weighted-ness making them fall, like planets attracting one another mutually. The sight-faller is Newtonian.

DD: At this stage in your thinking, what would be the status of the presence of others in relation to this egocentring? Can more-than-one fall into the world together? If so, how?

PV: One does nothing else, since one is engendered, one is reproduced. The fall begins with parental reproduction, and through a reproduction of the social body. I would like to suggest that there's more than one fall. There's the fall into birth. In certain techniques of giving birth, in fact, the women allow the child to fall: it falls as it is born. Similarly, society falls on to the territorial body, it's projected by the territorial body. If one takes the three bodies - territorial body, social body, animal body – they each fall into each other. Because there's a territorial body, the species falls into the world. If this world wasn't the earth but a planet with gravity x, life would be entirely different, as would the vision of the world.

Similarly, the family makes the animal body of the new-born child fall, because the family itself is expelled from the social body; it distinguishes itself through the loving relationship and marriage, through what I call the 'peopling unit'. The peopling unit, which will produce the animal body of the new-born child, is itself expelled; hence the importance of the family, of this structure which is both outside of society and its very foundation. What a long way the notion of 'social class' is from the materialist, animal origin! The origin of society is male/female reproduction; hence the gravity of instances of in vitro reproductive 4 technologies today.

It seems clear that there are three falls. Firstly, the fall into the world of the earth [terre], of gravity; without gravity, there would be no society; the terri-torial body is fundamental, it's the first weight, the first measure. Secondly, there's the social body, in other words the species; and the species will engender a couple who will become the source of a new fall, the third fall, into birth. Therefore the movement of falling is global, gravity is everywhere; and it's not a metaphor.

DD: And we talk of ‘descendants’, ‘offspring’: that’s what this is.

PV: Absolutely.

LL: You feel this falling when you give birth.

PV: It's like the problem of my sick friend and his liver, except that the weight in giving birth is that of a living being. When one carries a child, one feels its weight, and then it's pushed out.

LL: And it'll weigh differently too.

PV: Yes.

LL: I'd like to deal with the question of the choreographic. You spoke of territoriality. Does a sign in fact have the right to mark out this falling into the territorial, as choreographic plans and notations do? To what degree is it imbricated in wider ideological mechanisms? I'm thinking in particular of Laban's relations with Hitler. Laban distributed copies of his scores all over Germany, to different dance and gymnastic groups, and about a thousand dancers gathered in the stadium in Berlin. At that moment, Laban was frightened because he saw that the sign had been reassembled instantaneously as something far beyond his own wishes; and they were all using his signs as their starting point. Ultimately he recognised that his signs reterritorialised an absolute, centralising power. I mention territory because choreographic territory isn't exclusively metaphoric, it's a real space too. So isn't the sign-itself dangerous?

PV: I think that pushing off with one's feet, when one's at the bottom of the swimming pool, is one of the elements of the rebound. And there's no rebound without a collision of bodies: the feet touching the diving board, the body rebounding, the bottom of the pool … Your reference to Laban seems to me to be an important element; I wasn't aware of his relations with Hitler.

LL: The following day, he was forced to leave Germany very quickly.

PV: It's true that Nazism has a very strong relation to the territorial; blood and earth are core elements. And it's not surprising that Laban felt so strongly, because he was touching directly upon something central to Nazism. What I mean is that there's something in the ancient, even pagan, myth of the earth-mother that continues to fascinate me: not in the sense of the ancient goddess, the alma mater, but in the sense of what we've just been discussing - in terms of the relations of falling from one body to another, from the body of the earth to the body of another, and from the body of another to the birth of the new man or new woman.

I want to say that there's a mysterious conspiracy or complicity between inert elements (matter) and animate elements; and inevitably my favourite saint is Francis of Assisi, who said that the inanimate and the animate are closely related; he talked of a 'fraternity'. If one says 'my brother the sun', it's not simply a beautiful phrase; if one says 'my sister the rain', something of this conspiratorial relatedness of animate and inanimate is articulated. And in terms of the body's gestural life, dance is another aspect of this relationship; one needs a floor to rebound, and a spectator to see the movement the dancer won't see ... So there's a mysterious complicity of animate and inanimate, which means one can no longer oppose spiritualism and materialism; one can read Berkeley again with eyes that don't blink at the 'absurdity' of his immaterialism and of his materialism - absurd because he supposedly fails to take into account the complicity of living and non-living. To my mind, dance is one of the important sites of this. Moreover it's not just chance that so many mystics use dance as prayer.

DD: This reminds me of the work of Edouard Boubat; in his photographs, one perceives a sort of 'solidarity' between the inert elements and the solitude of bodies. One of Boubat's photos is of an old woman, who really looks to be near the end of her life, resting on a bench in the Place Saint-Sulpice; and what's wonderful is that one gets the impression that the street, and the feet of the bench holding her up, are in a strange relation of solidarity with her; they share and accompany her in her solitude. That's why, when you mentioned Nazism - the blood and the earth – I think it also entailed a change of light, a shift in the register of light, such that a flood of bodies were carried off and away; this was one of the vectors of what was called total mobilisation. How can we invent systems of movement today which will enable the creation of effects of solidarity between distinct bodies and morphologies, distinct rhythms and dynamisms, without this inevitably and ultimately producing a mass effect, in the totalitarian sense of the word?

PV: That's absolutely true, but it had started with Futurism. One mustn't forget what Nazism took from Fascism and what the Fascists took from Futurism; it started with Futurism, although for them it was an attack, an assault. One finds something similar with Heidegger; an attack on the world is not a fall into the world; it involves a movement of course, it's simply that its interpretation is quite different; an attack on the world is a violence enacted in a fall. The Nazi assault contains a fall, but it is a conquering fall. Whereas the sight-faller's fall is exactly the opposite. I risk dying in order to gain the world, for the acquisition of a goal. Parachutists who throw themselves into the void want to acquire the world through their weakness; it's an anti-assault.

DD: That's always the crucial question. What is it that always makes for a possible ambivalence between the moment of either gaining the world through my weakness, through my fall, or becoming the kamikaze that's the extreme point of this? So the question, for choreography for example, is: at what point am I even half-sure that my fall is not going to be a kamikaze fall, but a fall to 'gain the world through weakness', to be on the side of weakness, as Bram van Veld said? It's a question of this difference.

PV: Once again I can't respond. This is where the freedom of human beings is to be found; in a certain way it's the enigma of the liberty of the living. Moreover there's a lot of work to be done on the notion of liberation; remember that there's a speed of liberation, that of rockets, which enables human beings to free themselves from the control of gravity. The free-falling parachutist is the opposite; they remain constrained within gravity, and indeed it's from within gravity that they acquire the world as experience of falling; in this way, they prefigure a new perspective - their fall is vertical and horizontal, it's a fall towards the horizon, and no longer a fall towards the ground. This touches on elements to which we lack answers - in other words, questions of liberty; one can choose assault, one can choose suicide, one can choose grace, but it is a choice.

DD: Is it a choice, or isn't there still in fact a completely unforeseeable or imponderable part which determines at a particular moment whether you come down on the side of falling or on the side of grace?

PV: There is death. It's clear that today's bungy jumpers possess a suicidal dimension similar to that of drug abuse; it is very dangerous. In some ways, one can throw oneself into life just as one throws oneself into death; that is one of the great differences between attack and flight. We've just seen an example of flight in Iraq [at the end of the Gulf War] - a rush towards life; we could have seen the inverse, a rush towards death. There's nothing more I can say. It's a problem of choice, and one is free to choose death.

DD: One's own death.

PV: Yes, one's own death.

DD: But what about being brought to the point of choosing the death of others?

PV: That's a completely different discussion.

DD: There's a sort of disproportion …

PV: I think that when one chooses the death of others, one has already chosen one's own. But this is an altogether different matter, we're touching on areas that I'm not willing to develop further; I'm not a moralist.

DD: Nevertheless there's a threshold at which one would like morbid or death-dealing things to be suspended. In the practice of dance and choreography, this possibility of deviating exists, amongst others …

PV: Let me give you an image: the difference between dance and combative arts. One can dance with pride and one can dance with modesty. To my mind, the greatest dancers are not proud. I have seen some great dancers - I won't name names - who were so arrogant, so proud that their work was technically perfect but emotionally dreadful. What does falling with grace mean, if not falling with modesty, dropping into the world with humility? I'm tempted to say that the great dancers I've just mentioned, those that I find so horrifying, are combatants; they have gestures and a way of revolving around themselves that resemble warriors, martial artists; they have a strength, an arrogance, a pride which makes them both perfect and dreadful. I've often felt that in dance.

DD: And yet one gets the impression that some people want to see arrogance. They see more interested in an occupation of space than in a pre-occupation with it. It seems with some choreographers that, rather than being preoccupied with fashioning a space, inhabiting it, knowing how to enter into it, observing its implicit rules, they try to appropriate it - sometimes despite themselves, because they are under great pressures.

PV: Once again there's not much I can say, except that I don't want to see that kind of dance, which has had its day. I saw too much of it in the 1950s and 60s, after the ballets of the Marquis de Cuevas, which I attended regularly; and it dated very quickly, it aged enormously; in some ways, it became a parody of dance. What interests me in contemporary dance is its invention, its innovation, the fact that it is never the same, it's always other. One learned a great deal from those dances on vertical wall surfaces [Trisha Brown], for example.

LL: With regard to the living present, how do traditional systems of representation function? Semiology assumes the absence of the living present in order for a sign to be formulated; are we dealing with something concomitant here? For example, dance notation attempts to trace out its territory, and at the same time reveals its own confusion, constituted as fall, as hollow trough within the territory. In relation to the living present, how can such a constitutive tracing be effected?

PV: It's the difference between the aesthetics of appearance and the aesthetics of disappearance. Despite its informing principles, a lot of older dance inscribed itself in the aesthetics of appearance: "did I bring it down properly?" Dance today is rediscovering the principle of fidelity to the aesthetic of disappearance; its movement shows much more effectively that the body is in flight, that it's falling. So it's reconnected with the arts of representation, like music and cinema; in other words, it's accepted the primacy of the aesthetic of disappearance over the aesthetic of appearance. Remember that in the aesthetic of appearance, what persists is matter; whereas in the aesthetic of disappearance, it is retinal - the 'persistence of vision' - or the persistence of memory, of the mental image. I saw a lot of dance in which appearance was a very important element; it sufficed to see the dancers' costumes to realise that there wasn't anything 'fleeting' there, these were things that encumbered. The aesthetic of disappearance informs and supports our own time; now the body is naked, in the sense we discussed earlier - nakedness as a fall into appearance, or rather a fall into transparence.

The French essayist, philosopher and urbanist Paul Virilio is the author of a number of books, including The Aesthetics of Disappearance, War and Cinema, Vision Machine, The Lost Dimension, Vitesse et politique, La Dromoscopie, ou la lumière de la vitesse, Open Sky, and The Virilio Reader. This interview first published in Laurence Louppe (ed.), Danses tracées: dessins et notations de choréographes, 1991.

This unpublished translation is by David Williams.
Thanks to Barry L for his unwitting reminder, and for sending me a copy of a translation I had long since lost but not forgotten.

A rather different translation, by Brian Holmes, is published as 'Gravitational Space' in Laurence Louppe (ed.) (1994),
Traces of Dance: drawings and notations of choreographers, Paris: Editions Dis Voir, pp. 35–59.

Monday, 24 November 2008

as my soul me ella ella tell me

'The use of the word 'subjectivity' is as enigmatic as the use of the word 'responsibility' - and more debatable. For it is a designation chosen, in a way, to preserve our portion of spirituality'
(Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster).

A November drift in freezing London with Sue, around visits to Roger Hiorns' exquisitely self-generating sculpture/installation, Seizure, and to Susan Hiller's brilliant ellipsis-filled exhibition 'Proposals & Demonstrations' at the Timothy Taylor Gallery.

Reflections on scale, reproduction, proliferation, consumption, astonishing beauty, morphing magic lantern colour fields, dream life, angels, spirits, the paranormal.

A copper-sulphate crystal encrusted abandoned flat in South London.

Levitations. Voices from beyond the grave in the static of old recordings. Unknown ghostly languages. Churchill says, "Mark you make believe my dear yes". Another voice: "He begged for bread in a dream".

Cushion covers with print images of Ann Frank, Mother Teresa, Prince William. (Let's face it, an unlikely trinity in any context. Why these three? My mind races around possible connections between them).

Serried ranks of little edible people.

Who needs drugs?


Susan Hiller, on abandoning anthropology for art: 'I didn't believe there was anything called objective truth, and I didn't want to be anything but a participant in my own experience. I didn't want to stand outside it'.

Monday, 3 November 2008

fleet fox

'Our view of man will remain superficial so long as we fail to go back to that origin, so long as we fail to find, beneath the chatter of words, the primordial silence, and as long as we do not describe the action which breaks this silence' (Maurice Merleau-
Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception).

Why are some singers & musicians so alluring? (Is it in part because I am neither?) In particular with certain singers in a live event, something very mysterious can happen: the spatialising of an interiority, the making manifest of the topography of an embodied, affect-laden internal process. Perhaps it's related to Beckett's fascination with the transposition of breath into sculpted sound and into language: the conjunction of immateriality and the materially palpable in the border lands of the mouth. Perhaps it's related to something like Lorca's duende, a passionate & ephemeral life force in the face of mortality. Beyond technique into the marrow of forms within the sounds of shadows, blood, wound, wind: duende the smasher of styles, like Goya 'painting with his knees and fists in bituminous black'. A body burns, becomes transparent to release contoured energy that is of that body but does not seem to belong to it; and it touches us, moves us. Maybe. Who knows? I'm sure as hell no expert.

But what's clear to me (although hard to articulate without recourse to epiphanic metaphor) is that, live, some singers flare into appearance in a context so often deadeningly laminated by surface appearance(s). Something else happens - the paradox of vulnerable courage in present-ness, rooted in a body here/now and bearing the grain of that body's 'musics'. The event of breath moulded into vibration, rhythm, texture, intonation, colour: music as feeling's kinetic sculpture; song as a soul portrait written on the wind. It can feel like the privileged witnessing of the baring of a soul that implicates us all, and sometimes we meet and fall in love with those that have this power.

(It is perhaps interesting to note in passing the news from Italy last week that stringent new measures passed by Silvio Berlusconi's government to further restrain mafiosi and other convicted criminals in prison include a ban on inmates singing. It seems they've been passing on messages and orders in songs in native Southern dialects which are impenetrable to their Northern Italian wardens - Neapolitan, Sicilian, Pugliese etc. So, song as outlaw private language, seditious conduit for society's others).

Last Thursday night, Fleet Foxes played in Bristol. A beautiful 5-piece band from Seattle who understand the layered conjunctions of close harmony voices and sounds (they've called their music 'baroque harmonic pop jams'). At the same time they create space for astonishing solo sections sung by Robin Pecknold, alone onstage with his guitar. Looking like a lanky pioneer hybrid of a somewhat shy Russell Brand and my friend Swen Steinhauser, Robin has the face of a Giotto or Cimabue, and the spectral presence of Bob Dylan close at hand. He sang solo versions of 'Oliver James' and 'Tiger Mountain Peasant Song' from the Fleet Foxes album, as well as Judee Sill's 'Crayon Angels' and a startling unplugged 'Katie Cruel' (drawn from Karen Dalton's version on her album In My Own Time). He stuffed the lead from his guitar into his jacket pocket, walked out into the darkness on the apron of the stage, and sang. Just the rhythmed chop of his guitar, his silhouette, a tapping Blundstone, and that voice unleashing and reanimating a traditional song with its roots hundreds of years ago. And something happened ...

A fleet fox in the room.
Power and fragility. So young and yet so old.
Somehow, it fills me with hope and courage.
This action which breaks the silence.

When I first came to town they called me the roving jewel
Now they’ve changed their tune, call me Katie Cruel

Through the woods I’ll run through the boggy mire

Straight away down the road til I come to my heart’s desire

If I was where I would be then I’d be where I am not

Here I am where I must be, where I would be I cannot

When I first came to town they bought me drinks aplenty

Now they’ve changed their tune and leave the bottles empty

If I was where I would be then I’d be where I am not

Here I am where I must be, where I would be I cannot

When I first came to town they called me the roving jewel

Now they’ve changed their tune, call me Katie Cruel


For a shakey-cam with good sound Youtube version of Robin Pecknold singing 'Katie Cruel', go here, click 'see high quality version', @ 1 min 14 secs in

For Karen Dalton's 'Katie Cruel' on In My Own Time (1971), go here: 'I was going to say it’s a fragile voice. But of course it’s not a fragile voice, because it’s been smashed into a million pieces. In ‘Katie Cruel’ she does embody the character absolutely. There’s something that’s inherent in her voice, an understanding of this kind of sorrow. She knows how to be sad' (Nick Cave in album booklet).

'Karen's voice is a voice for the jaded ear; a combination of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Jeannie Ritchie, the Appalachian singer. There's a horn quality to it and her phrasing is exquisite. I once heard it described as cornmeal mush, but it's more than that. When she sang about something, you believed her ... Karen had true, true greatness that had not been recognised. I said to her, 'It's going to annoy the hell out of you but you'll probably only get recognised after your death'. I think her time is coming now, because people are fed up of slick, over-produced voices. And this old world is not a child any more, we need the truth. It doesn't need to be in words, it needs to be in delivery' (Lacy J Dalton, in Laura Barton, 'The best singer you've never heard of', The Guardian, 23 March 2007).

If I should leave you
Try to remember the good times

Warm days filled with sunshine

And just a little bit of rain

(Karen Dalton, 'Little Bit of Rain'')

For Robin Pecknold's Black Cab Sessions version of Judee Sills' 'Crayon Angels', go here

For Robin's brother Sean Pecknold's videos for Fleet Foxes' 'He Doesn't Know Why' and 'White Winter Hymnal', and other animations, go here

For Fleet Foxes' MySpace page, go here

Sunday, 2 November 2008


'People thrown into other cultures go through something of the anguish of the butterfly, whose body must disintegrate and reform more than once in its life cycle.In her novel Regeneration, Pat Barker writes of a doctor who "knew only too well how often the early stages of change or cure may mimic deterioration. Cut a chrysalis open, and you will find a rotting caterpillar. What you will never find is that mythical creature, half caterpillar, half butterfly, a fit emblem of the human soul, for those whose cast of mind leads them to seek such emblems. No, the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay". But the butterfly is so fit an emblem of the human soul that its name in Greek is psyche, the word for soul. We have not much language to appreciate this phase of decay, this withdrawal, this era of ending that must precede beginning. Nor of the violence of the metamorphosis, which is often spoken of as though it were as graceful as a flower blooming ... The process of transformation consists mostly of decay and then of this crisis when emergence from what came before must be total and abrupt'. (Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Edinburgh: Canongate, 2006, 81-3)

'But the changes in a butterfly's life are not always so dramatic. The strange resonant word instar describes the stage between two successive molts, for as it grows, a caterpillar, like a snake ... splits its skin again and again, each stage an instar. It remains a caterpillar as it goes through these molts, but no longer one in the same skin. There are rituals marking such splits, graduations, indoctrinations, ceremonies of change, though most changes proceed without such clear and encouraging recognition. Instar implies something both celestial and ingrown, something heavenly and disastrous, and perhaps change is commonly like that, a buried star, oscillating between near and far'. (Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, 83).

All photos from the Butterfly Farm at Buckfastleigh, Devon
© David Williams 2008

Saturday, 1 November 2008

you are here

All photos from Plymouth drift - © David Williams