Research paper: The sensation of the fold
The sensation of the fold: By applying Deleuze’s concepts of the fold, body and intensity to artworks by Bill Viola and Olafur Eliasson this paper will investigate how sensation in itself is central to understanding immersive experience.
By Cecilie Waagner Falkenstrøm
Artwork by Bill Viola and Olafur Eliasson immerse the viewer in multi-faceted sensory experiences. Previous studies have explored the neo-romantic and dialectic aspects of the artworks by emphasizing subject-centred experience, representation and transcendence. However, articulations by Eliasson and Viola indicate that the immersive experiences are created at a more fundamental level of sensation. Thus, this paper emphasises sensation in itself as the main focus point of investigating in order to understand immersive experience. Sensation in itself is core in Deleuze’s radical empiricism, which forms the theoretical and methodological foundation of the study. By applying Deleuze’s concepts of the fold, the body and intensity to work by Viola and Eliasson this paper explores how artwork come together as an infinite process of creation and how energized sensation and intensity emerge in the folds of this process. The paper investigates how artworks have no substance, but are always-differentiating processes of folding, unfolding and refolding time, space, imagery, sound and motion that produce intensity. The paper suggests, that immersive experiences in artworks by Viola and Eliasson appear because the artworks fold time and space into one-long-moment of intensity where the body without organs emerges as pure sensation. By disembodying bodies the artworks open to the field of pure energized sensation. Hereby the study enacts a shift away from subject-centred and representational understandings of immersive experiences towards reflections on an understating of the folds of inter-sensation as drivers for immersive experiences. Further research is needed in order to investigate if these findings are limited to work by Viola and Eliasson or if they are applicable to interactive new media art generally.
New media art, experience, sensation, the body without organs, radical empiricism, Gilles Deleuze, Bill Viola, Olafur Eliasson
“The same construction of the point of view over the city continues to be developed, but now it is neither the same point of view nor the same city, now that both the figure and the ground are in movement in space.”
– Deleuze, The fold: Leibniz and the baroque.
Bill Viola and Olafur Eliasson are some of the most celebrated new media artists working today. Both artists are known for taking the viewer’s entire sensory experience into consideration and creating art, which immerses the perceiver in multi-faceted experiences. Viola is recognised for exploring themes like death, suffering and spirituality by means of new technology. Eliasson’s work is noteworthy due to its experimental installations combining technology, light, water, fog and mirrors in explorations of how movement and interaction influence our perception of our selves and our environment. Both artists connect with their audiences in ways that are more emotional or visceral than they are intellectual or rational. Thus, their artworks challenges two mains tendencies in contemporary art being a privileging of intellectual response and a refusal of emotion (Beccaria, 2013; Townsend, 2004).
When studying the uniqueness of the immersive experiences in work by Viola or Eliasson researchers have, up until now, primary drawn upon critical and theoretical frameworks founded within philosophical imperatives of dialectics and Neo-romanticism (Bolter and Grusin, 1999; Hansen, 2004; Munster, 2006; Rynsztejn, 2002; Lunenfled 1999; Broeker et al., 2004). More specifically the term Techno-romanticism (Coyne, 1999) has been used to ascribe meaning to the cross-section between Neo-romanticism and the use of new technology that pervades artwork by Viola and Eliasson. Existing research studies explore the neo-romantic aspects in the artworks by emphasizing concepts like subject-centred experience, transcendence, universality and utopia and further soliciting a unifying, spiritualizing aesthetics in contrast to the shifting terrain of politics and identity. Further, research studies have interpreted the works as representations of human life in relation to the human soul, universe, nature and death (Townsend, 2004; Morgan, 2004; Beccaria, 2013; Bergmann et al., 2013). For example Bergmann et al. (2013) articulates that Eliasson draws upon the theoretical paradigm of Romanticism where the reflected adoption of nature and the possibilities of representations are key aspects. Likewise, Townsend (2004) suggests, that in contradiction to most art in our age of reproduction and multiplicity, the work by Viola seek profundity and transcendence.
However, the following articulations by Eliasson and Viola have caught my attention, because it seems that there is some else at stake in the works than subject-centred experience, transcendence and representation. Eliasson explains that his artwork Your blind passenger (2010) is:
“(…) tied to our ‘now’, to the moment between one second and the next. It constitutes (…) an opening where concepts such as subject and object, inside and outside, proximity and distance are thrown up in the air only to be defined anew. Our sense of orientation is challenged, and the coordinates of our spaces, collective and personal, have to be renegotiated.” (Eliasson in Arken, 2010, p. 2).
Likewise, Viola states the following:
“The fundamental aspect of video is not the image, even though you can stand in amazement at what can be done electronically, how images can be manipulated and the really extraordinary creative possibilities. For me the essential basis of video is the moment – something that exists at the moment and changes in the next moment.” (Viola, 1993, p. 1)
It seems that there is a lack in existing research in terms of trying to understand the momentary energy and immersive sensation that pervades the experience I these artworks. Since previous studies of experience in artwork by Viola and Eliasson have primary been informed by philosophical imperatives of dialectic and neo-romanticism little attention have been paid to investigating the qualities of experience in the artworks by emphasizing sensation in itself as the main focus point of investigating. My aim in this paper is to contribute to fill this gap by investigating how the energetic experience of pure sensation comes into being in artwork by Viola and Eliasson. In other words, in contrast to the conventional interpretations of Viola’s and Eliasson’s artworks as being subject-centred and representational experiences I will explore sensation in itself as a way of conveying the sense of impersonal forces that unfold in the artwork as well as the relationship between the installation and the visitor. Sensation in itself is core in Deleuze’s radical empiricism, which will be the theoretical and methodological foundation of this study. Delueze’s concepts the fold, the body and virtuality will provide the conceptual framework through which I will investigate the immersive experiences in the artworks by Viola and Eliasson. With this aim as the point of departure, this study inscribes itself in a filed of research studies that challenge and questions the dominant dialectic and neo-romantic gaze within studies of new media art by emphasizing the sensational qualities of such works (Murray, 2008; Hansen, 2004; Olkowski, 1994).
The reflections in the above have led to the formulation of the following research question:
By applying Deleuze’s concepts of the fold, body and intensity to artworks by Bill Viola and Olafur Eliasson this paper will investigate how sensation in itself is central to understanding immersive experience.
Theory and methodology
This study is informed by Deleuze’s radical empiricism (Deleuze, 1993; 1994; 2010). To Deleuze the most general aim of art is to produce a sensation and through this intensity. Sensation requires no mediation and is not representation – sensation is energy, force and rhythm (Grosz, 2009). In an art encounter we experience sensation that transmits intensity. When experiencing art the viewer “puts life at risk” for the sake of sensation itself – for what can be magnified and intensified. The sensations produced shall not be understood as sensations of a subject but as sensation in itself. Deleuze locates sensibility in an intensive conception of space and a virtual conception of time, which are actualized in a plurality of spaces and a complex rhythm of times. To Deleuze experience is not the representation of a transcendental object by means of intuition but actualization or expression through complex process of differentiation (Deleuze, 1993; 1994; 2010). The virtual is pure difference, which is non-spatio-temporal. The virtual gets actualized by way of intensive processes of differentiation and repetition (in Deleuze’s terminology the virtual replaces the potential and the actual replaces reality) (Deleuze, 1993; 1994; 2010). The fold is as a machinery of energized inter-subjectivity and inter-activity. Sensation “lives” not in the body of the viewers but in the folds of the artwork – it is a vector for transformation. The folds infinite motion appears to Deleuze as:
“(…) a flexible or elastic body [that] still has cohering parts that form a fold, such that they are not separated into parts of parts but rather divided to infinity in smaller and smaller folds that always retain a certain cohesion. Thus a continuous labyrinth is not a line dissolving into independent points, as flowing sand might dissolve into grains, but a sheet of paper divided into infinite folds or separated into bending movements, each one determined by the consistent or conspiring surroundings.” (Deleuze, 1993, p. 8).
The fold is a concept that emphasizes connection, correspondence, interdependence, continuous motion, shaping, change and transformation. Rather than investigating immersive experience by focusing upon destruction of self or the transcendence of self I explore how artwork by Viola and Eliasson produces sensation and intensity in the fold of the in-between – in the “space of the middle” where virtual potentials will be released, because it is in the middle that one experiences the becoming, the movement, the speed and the vortex (Deleuze, 1993; 1994; 2010). Thus, the fold provides a framework that enables me to approach the ways in which Viola’s and Eliasson’s interactive new media artworks come together as an infinite process of creation and how energized sensation and intensity emerge in the folds of this process.
Art allows the incommensurability and difference to be opened up. Thus a part of my investigation is to explore the enfolding of seemingly incompatible possessions (e.g. technological and emotional) and how process of repetition and differentiation actualizes intensity in the experience pieces by Viola and Eliasson. Informed by Deleuze (1993; 1994; 2010) the simultaneity of juxtaposition might constitute the very promise of artistic expression. Thus, it foregrounds the creative enigmas of the many tensions driving modernism: being and non-being, resemblance and simulation, body and spirit, material and imaginary. In my study I explore the critical valence of enfolded juxtapositions rather than dialectical oppositions in order to move beyond usual binary representation. My study of artworks by Viola and Eliasson distinguish itself from previous studies due to its revision of how we understand simultaneity and its folds in something other than a metaphysical, neo-romantic or dialectical manner. I explore how work by Viola and Eliasson enact a shift away from the remnants of visions of subjectivity, projection and representation toward reflections on an understating of the folds of inter-sensation as drivers for immersive experiences. Hereby, my study enacts a turn away from emphasizing single-centered subjectivity and transcendence towards unfolding the immersive experience as energized sensation in itself in the in-between of the fold. In other words, I investigate the potentials that arise when unfolding the artworks as in-between carriers of intensive sensation.
Enfolding time and space
Your blind passenger (2010) by Eliasson is a 90 meters (295-foot) long tunnel where the visitors are surrounded by thick fog, which is enlightened by color. Walking through the installation the spectators loose sight of the spatial surroundings and at moments even their own bodies. Due to the tunnel’s limited visibility visitors must use senses other than sight to orient themselves. In Viola’s Passage (1987) the spectators also walk through a long narrow corridor arriving in a small room with walls covered in tall video-projections showing bodies and faces that move in extreme slow motion. Since the room is very small the viewers cannot gain much distance from the video projection and hence are not able to assemble a coherent narrative whole of what is going on in the video. In both the installations the experience in itself is at the core. The works synthesizes sound, motion, light and eventually video and images into a single enclosed space that absorbs the viewers. The artworks activate the senses through color, from, movement and interaction but at the same time they liberates the lines of creative manifestations from their fixed representative functions. Construction, space, video, sound and visitor emerge and re-emerge as lines of differential changes of intensity. Thus, Viola’s and Eliasson’s works become transmitters of intensity. The artworks do not have one substance, only an always-differentiating process folding, unfolding and refolding. The experience of intensity is created through difference in itself. As polymorphous intuitive experiences the works exceed any system of representational logic – instead they become manifestations of pure processes of sensation.
There is a great force of time in artwork by both Viola and Eliasson. We find the conditions of sensibility in the virtual notion of time, which is actualized in a complex rhythm of times where the extreme extension of time is core. In Eliasson’s works Your blind passenger (2010) and Feelings are facts (2010) the visitors walk in slow motion due to the lack of visibility. The use of slow motion is also central Viola’s art works e.g. The raft (2004), Two Women (2008), The crossing (1996) to name a few. Further, the eternal loop is essential in the works. Much like a dream or fantasy, Viola’s video installations – e.g. Five angels for the millennium (2001) and Martyrs (2014) – accustom the spectators to the eternal return of the loop rather than the unidirectional narrative progression of cinematic film sequence. The loop is also central in Eliasson’s The New York City Waterfalls (2008) and especially in Your strange certainty still kept (1996), where fine water falls from the ceiling being illuminated by light. The water is collected in a plastic basin and pumped up back to the ceiling creating a continuous loop. No beginning, no end, and endless loop of intensity. Through repetition the eternal loop modifies the perception of the moment. The normal flow of time appears as a continuous present set in slow motion. By means of repetition and looping the notion of one-long-moment is created. In other words, Viola’s and Eliasson’s artworks become variations of repetition and difference (Deleuze, 1994) and thus it seems as if time itself is being created inside the art installations.
Emerging into “the body without organs”
Viola has explored the body descending into water, floating in water or being floated by water in works such as The Refecting pool (1979), The passing (1991), Nantes Triptych (1992), Stations (1994), The raft (2004) to name a few. These works call to mind events such as baptism, ritual cleansing, birth, death and rebirth. In most interpretations of these works the body is a central theme because it is understood as the medium for transformation – e.g. Morgan (2004) suggests that rituals and myths are grounded in the body in Viola’s works, thus making the body the register of transcendence or the medium for spiritual experience. However, I will suggest that the body in the artworks shall neither be interpreted as a physical body nor a spiritual body but rather as the body without organs (Deleuze 2010). Beyond the body one finds the body without organs, which is an intense “body” i.e. an intensive vibration (Deleuze 2010). In Viola’s work The reflecting pool (1979) the body with out organs emerges in the in-between of the process of folding en re-folding: The water, the figure moving, the slow motion, the loop, the presence of the visitor. The visitor who sees, feels, moves, speaks. The visitor viewing the body escaping itself by falling into the water. Simultaneously, the visitor’s body escaping itself in the total experience of the artwork – i.e. the visitor’s intensive body without organs unfolding itself.
By going beyond the body one discovers sensations rhythmic unity of intensity. Physical or material character cannot be ascribed to the body without organs – it is the invisible medium of experience. Eliasson’s Beauty (1993) seems to be an artistic expression of this subject matter. In the art installation fine droplets of water fall from the sealing of the indoor exhibition space and a spotlight illuminates the mist hereby creating a rainbow. Further, the spectator’s senses are stimulated by the smell of water, the feeling of the raindrops touching the skin and a soft sound. The rainbow is a purely optical phenomenon, which can only bee seen by the viewer when he/she stands in a particular angle to the water curtain and it disappears when the viewer moves away. Thus, the rainbow emerges in the intersection between the light/droplets and the viewer’s sensation. Traditionally the rainbow is considered a bridge between God and human. However, in this case the rainbow seems to be the illusionary visual manifestation of that which cannot be visualised – the body without organs. The rainbow becomes an advent, a hint of intensity arriving. The body without organs comes into being as intense sensation in the enfolding of technology and perception, subject and object, observer and observed. However, this “body” of intensive sensation is not a transcendental ego, rather it comes into being in the field of condescendence i.e. the point of intersection between immanence and transcendence (Kirkeby, 2004). By disembodying bodies the artwork opens to the field of pure energized sensation.
The the body without organs is evident in the following articulation by Eliasson:
“It is necessary to unlearn space in order to embody space. It is necessary to unlearn how we see in order to see with our bodies. It is necessary to unlearn knowledge of our body in three dimensions in order to recover the real dimensionality of our body. Let’s dance space. Let’s re-space our bodies. Let’s celebrate the felt feeling of presence.” (Olafur Eliasson in Hirsch and Miessen 2012, p. 38)
The human condition is a central theme in both Viola’s and Eliasson’s artworks. Typically their artworks are considered by researchers or the artists themselves as representations of death, re-birth etc. putting the subject’s transcendence at the core. For example in preparatory notes to the work Going forth by day (2002) Viola express his desire to create a spatial representation of the place where death is or to make a work of the place beyond death (Morgan, 2004). Likewise, Eliasson’s long fog-tunnel Your blind passenger (2010) has been interpreted as a representation of death or re-birth. However, instead of considering Viola’s and Eliasson’s works as representations of important life-events I will suggest that they can be interpret as manifestations of humans setting their “life at risk” for the sake of the event of pure sensation.
“Every event is like death, double and impersonal in its double. It is the abyss of the present, the time without present with which I have no relation, towards which I am unable to project myself. For in it I do not die. I forfeit the power of dying. In this abyss they (“on”) die – they never cease to die, and they never succeed in dying.” (Deleuze, 1990, p. 152)
Informed by this quote I find the understanding that the artworks are representations of death (in the sense of a person dying), birth etc. to narrow and limited. The artworks do not represent the human condition and important events e.g. death. Instead, the artworks are the human condition because they are in themselves events of sensation. What is at stake in the artworks is not at person dying but materiality becoming-sensation (Grosz, 2009) or becoming-inhumane (Holland et al., 2009) – i.e. the human overcoming itself and re-emerging in the fold of pure sensation. The artworks produce folds of the in-between where the humans are neither subject, nor object but emerge and reemerge as processes of energized sensation. The artworks enfold the human condition being the constant becomingness, the continuous production of sensation and the energetic rhythm of intensity.
The main transformative potentials in Viola’s and Eliasson’s works are not a mystic dismantling of self through an inward turning or representations of themes like death, birth, nature etc. Instead, the artworks position the spectator right in the in-between where time and space enfolds and the body without organs emerges as intense sensation. Thus, the artworks enable the human overcoming itself by becoming-inhuman and re-emerging in the fold of pure sensation. Everywhere there is presence acting directly on artwork, artist and visitor. The artworks fold and unfold in an ongoing process of becoming. By experiencing the works the visitor gets in contact with the immanent impulse driving the creative process and life itself. Through the intense sensory experiences the artworks remind the visitor that life is here right now in this moment – in every moment. The visitor discovers the pure presence and is “ready” to return to the world outside the artwork. Or to use the words by Morgan:
“The world outside (…) confronts the viewers as they leave the installation. They emerge to a second change. The world awaits and the work of the art exists to help them see it.” (Morgan, 2004, p. 28).
By applying Deleuze’s concepts of the fold, body and intensity to artworks by Bill Viola and Olafur Eliasson this paper set out to investigate how sensation in itself is central to understanding immersive experience.
Artwork by Bill Viola and Olafur Eliasson immerse the viewer in multi-faceted sensory experiences. The artworks have no one substance, instead they are always-differentiating process of folding, unfolding and refolding time, space, imagery, sound and motion that produces intensity. Thus, the artworks become transmitters of intensity. By means of repetition, looping, slow motion and movement the artworks come together as infinite processes of creation enfolding time and space to create one-long-moment of intensity. Hereby the artworks produce folds of the in-between where the visitors are neither subject, nor object but emerge and reemerge as processes of pure energized sensation. The artworks position the visitor right in the in-between where time and space enfolds enabling the visitor’s process of becoming-inhumane. The artworks enable the human overcoming itself and re-emerging in the fold of pure sensation. Thus, the body without organs comes into being as intensive vibration. By disembodying bodies the artworks open to the field of pure energized sensation. The artworks enfold the human condition being the constant becomingness, the energetic rhythm of intensity and the present’s pure sensation.
Summarizing, it can be concluded that immersive experiences in artwork by Viola and Eliasson appear because the artworks fold time and space into one-long-moment of intensity where the body without organs emerge as pure sensation.
But in the end, why should all this be limited to work by Viola and Eliasson? Can we speak of a distinct experience of intensive sensation and transformative becomingness of interactive new media art generally? In other words is there a special relation between interactive new media art and sensational intensity? Can we say that with interactive new media art experience of sensational intensity becomes art? Further research must explore such questions. Such research is needed in order to investigate if the findings of this study are limited to work by Viola and Eliasson or if they are applicable on interactive new media art generally.
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List of artwork by Bill Viola
Bill Viola: The Refecting pool (1979)
Bill Viola: Passage (1987)
Bill Viola: The passing (1991)
Bill Viola: Nantes Triptych (1992)
Bill Viola: Stations (1994)
Bill Viola: The crossing (1996)
Bill Viola: Five angels for the millennium (2001)
Bill Viola: Going forth by day (2002)
Bill Viola: The raft (2004)
Bill Viola: Two Women (2008)
Bill Viola: Martyrs (2014)
List of artwork by Olafur Eliasson
Olafur Eliasson: Beauty (1993)
Olafur Eliasson: Your strange certainty still kept (1996)
Olafur Eliasson: The New York City Waterfalls (2008)
Olafur Eliasson: Your blind passenger (2010)
Olafur Eliasson: Feelings are facts (2010)