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Critical Writing

Pausing Form: Stills From a Hurricane

Gillian Young

L. Alina Tenser, Pong with Herself, video still, 2012

In Pong with Herself, a 2012 video by Alina Tenser, objects float across a swath of blush drawn from the spectrum between the living and the embalmed. The forms themselves—a knee joint, a bowl shape, and an uneven wedge—also exist in this zone linking the animate and inanimate: shifting between the second and third dimensions as they occasionally bump up against, caress, and repel one another. The movement is orbital and intimate, troubling our ability to resolve stillness from motion. While hinging on the mechanics of digital rendering, this amplification of the video still evokes an early vision of the universe offered by the atomist philosopher Lucretius. In the atomist worldview, stability and coherence exist only as the temporary slowing down, or pausing, of the unceasing flow of atoms. Generated by the collision of particles, creation is the result of fluid material processes rather than the product of a divine hand or individual intention. With its magnified particles interacting within a mauve void—where they challenge divisions between stillness and motion, action and inaction—Pong with Herself prompts a rethinking of creative capacity and artistic agency that is in dialogue with both an ancient model of world formation and contemporary paradigms of information.

Tenser’s video is a take on PONG, the iconic computerized game of table tennis developed by Atari in 1972. Reversing the assumption of a digital avatar, Tenser inserted the temporality and dimensions of the material world into the virtual space pioneered by this early video game: the objects are handmade and mobilized by Tenser, camouflaged in a green screen suit. Tenser has described the making of Pong with Herself as involving practiced postures and slowed breathing to move these objects and her body through space at a measured pace. She is intrigued by the way in which the video’s “initial CGI or animation read gets interrupted by the human rhythm/pace of the actual performance” (Tenser). The simulacral drive of CGI or green screen technology is uncannily disrupted by a physical exercise that questions what is real and what is simulated. Rather than losing ourselves in the realm of entertainment, we are compelled instead to pay attention to the destabilization of perceptual and physical categories distilled by Tenser’s mesmerizing, unsettling tableau.

The materialization of simulation enacted by Tenser in Pong with Herself echoes a Lucretian understanding of representation. As the anthropologist Stuart McLean has written, Lucretius asserted that images, or simulacra, are composed of a kind of outer skin sloughed by objects as they move through space: “Physical bodies, sensations, and products of the imagination thus share the same origin and the same materiality” (225). In Holistic Approach, her recent Session at Recess in Red Hook, Tenser initiates a similar reevaluation of things and their representations through the concept of the “video still”: a term she has applied to the individual wooden frames hung with fabric that comprise a set-like atmosphere in her studio at Recess. Whether viewed through a video camera or not, these “stills” position matter as a temporary freezing of time and movement, on the one hand, and video-recording as participating in the material universe, on the other. The still, in other words, provides a space in which the animate and active and the inanimate and inert may coexist as continually (and literally) in-formation. In this way, Tenser constructs a platform to slow down and investigate processes of information across physical and virtual spheres, sparking a reconsideration of artistic agency and creativity not as “an attribute of individuated human or supernatural agents but as a relational process operating between bodies of different kinds (‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’) and blurring their contours” (McLean, 214).

Holistic Approach evokes the 1960s turn in medical treatment toward an attempt to deal with the whole person, including environment and mental state, in addition to the physical condition of a given patient. As applied through medicine, holism—the belief in twentieth century Western philosophy and science that natural systems function as wholes, not assemblages of individual parts—challenges the Cartesian split between mind and body, as well as the limits of the physical being in relation to its surrounding environment. Tenser’s practice, as it unfolded at Recess between October 2012 and January 2013, with an unexpected hiatus imposed by Hurricane Sandy, questions the contours of the human body and the autonomy of intention in this vein: destabilizing the division between the figure of the artist and the form she produces.

Tenser, who trained as a sculptor, has described her art making as unfolding through a series of “contact points,” or intersections between hand and material through which the form of the object and that of the artist are simultaneously delimited. Chunks of black pumice stone resting on the floor of Tenser’s studio at Recess are indicators of this process. At once soft and abrasive, they yield to the touch while scraping those who handle them: they both effect and are affected, inform as they are formed. Zones of contact are also explored through a series of untitled video experiments from 2012 (also using green screen), in which a pair of flitting hands feel for and describe the contours of forms that emerge from a textured surface by virtue of this touch. Here, the hand of the artist—that concept which tethers agency and authorship to embodied production—is evoked to challenge traditional notions of artistic creation and the limits of the artist’s body. The action unfolds against grainy backgrounds that conflate particle and pixel: suggesting a common atomic milieu between physical and digital forms that make movement and stillness difficult to discern.

Tenser often appears in her videos, but only obliquely: through the time it takes her to complete a task, for instance, or through her manipulation of material—her body always abstracted through temporality and relationality. In Stage Comes Together, a recent video made for Holistic Approach, four cream-colored slats arrayed against a black ground are fitted together, forming a shell-shaped platform. The rhythm of the action (the aligning of the boards) is constituted by the time it took Tenser and another woman—neither of whom are visible—to lift and fit the boards against one another. Contrary to the traditional function of stages—i.e. to serve as the platform for performance—this platform is also a performance: one that collapses representation and material process as well as actor and object into a still. Rather than capturing ephemeral actions, as photography and film have historically done, Tenser’s stills (informed by electronic media) vibrate with bodily resonance, oscillating between the potentialities and limitations of the virtual, the corporeal, and the material. Continuing her video explorations, Tenser’s stage indicates a redistribution of agency and the body across the lines of effect and affect that have marked the history of performance.

As it has developed in dialogue with visual art, the medium of performance is intimately related yet often opposed to theater (the stage as a platform for affect and fraudulence), on the one hand, and material making (the stage as enduring, inanimate object), on the other. The happenings of the 1950s and 60s indicate this ambiguous status of performance. The “event” regarded as the first multimedia happening, devised by John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg at Black Mountain College in 1952, for example, coincided with and was heavily influenced by the initial reception of the writings and ideas of the anarchist French playwright, actor, and director Antonin Artaud in America. Artaud’s The Theater and Its Double, translated by M.C. Richards at Black Mountain in 1958, would continue to influence the pioneers of happenings in the 1960s, such as Allan Kaprow, Carolee Schneemann, and Claes Oldenburg, who made performances that straddled the rudiments of theater and the gestures of painting, sculpture, and collage. A common element of these happenings was the use of human actors as objects or raw materials, who were then brought back to life—enacting a similar fluidity between the animate and inanimate distilled by Tenser’s work.

This uncertain relationship between the material effects and affective force of performance may be traced back to the premodern period. As theater scholar Mary Thomas Crane has observed, in the Elizabethan era, actors did not yet “perform” plays—which were also not yet called “performances.” As Crane writes, “‘Perform’ in this period had the primary meaning ‘to carry through to completion; to complete, finish, perfect.’ In this sense of the word, the relationship between ‘performance’ and material reality is direct, not paradoxical” (172). The unreality or falseness typically associated with theatrical performance is thus curiously tied to this original meaning of performance as producing real effects. Crane cites the example of a document from 1505 recording payment for “performing a dore”—that is, literally constructing, not impersonating, a door (172). As Crane notes, this early significance of performance already suggests a notion of performativity: a concept developed by J.L. Austin in the 1950s to theorize how something immaterial—a contract, promise, or instruction, for instance—produces material things or concrete results (173). Emerging from the ambiguous relation between the performed and the real at this time, this initial significance of the term “performance” illuminates a historical nexus between performance and material making.

In lieu of “performances,” premodern plays were often referred to as “exercises.” Though linked to and eventually eclipsed by performance, the concept of exercise carved out a discursive space for theater that was distinct from the necessary completion or perfection of something like a door, which, for all its ordinariness, was nevertheless lodged in the Elizabethan hierarchies that shaped early modern culture and ideological systems. As Crane writes, in contrast to the notion of “discipline,” which “connotes a teleology of control” underpinning this hierarchical worldview, “‘exercise’ is more open-ended, naming the movement or action through which the body learns…it gestures toward a prediscursive kinesthetic form of learning that need not necessarily a bear a representational or ideological force” (179). Echoing the Lucretian idea of representations as comprised of and thus always potentially disturbed by the “combinatory and generative power” of atomic matter (McLean, 225), these early plays existed as “kinesthetic forms” where representation was not yet resolved and conventional ways of being in the world were not fully determined. Accessed through a slowing down or normal processes and attention to affective resonances pulsing beneath (and perhaps contradicting) the surfaces of everyday life, the stillness pervading Tenser’s production is similarly unsettling.

Tenser has said that the difference between sculpture and craft—performing and perfecting a door, for instance—is that, in the realm of art, the outcome is indeterminate. As she told me during one of our conversations at Recess, “the way something comes about matters.” Pong with Herself and the pumice stones suggest this reciprocal, kinesthetic process of information between artist and object that propagates outside of planned action or end result, as does Hug, a 2012 work built—or grown—from a t-shirt, wire armature, expandable foam, fabric, tarp, and spray adhesive. The work is at once adorable and slightly menacing, reaching with its empty armholes and bloated substance. To make it, Tenser ceded artistic agency to the materiality of the object, eschewing “formal decision-making” for unbridled growth, until the piece could just squeeze out of her studio gate (Tenser). Hug not only indicates Tenser’s extraordinary knowledge of materials and playful investigations of surface, but the way in which her objects perform. In this way, Tenser’s practice illuminates not only the physical effects of performance, but the affective resonance of objects: their theatrical, material force. As a remediation of her objects, Tenser’s stills—which span video, performance, and sculpture—allow unresolved approaches to physical and perceptual existence (historically indicated by atomist philosophy, holistic medicine, and premodern performance) to surface through uncanny reconfigurations and sensual processes of information.

In keeping with the rhythm of Tenser’s practice, if Hurricane Sandy temporarily stilled her work, it also distilled something about her challenges to the boundaries of the artist’s body and agency. Red Hook was one of the areas of New York most affected by the hurricane, which ruined homes and businesses in the area and prevented Tenser from accessing the studio space provided by Recess. While a collective effort immediately arose in the aftermath of the storm, the staggering destruction and striking stillness imposed by Sandy require a rethinking of creation in relation to our increasingly altered environment. On the one hand, a storm such as this humbles the impact and lastingness of human production with a volatile force. On the other hand, this volatility is increasingly understood as linked to the human role in climate change. Tenser’s Holistic Approach offers a questioning of creativity that engages both facets of this problematic: while taking into account non-human, seemingly inanimate forces, her work also investigates networks of human impact that exceed the limits of the body as traditionally conceived, and traverse the divide between natural and cultural production. In the midst of debates over real effects and fraudulent accounts that characterize climate change, Tenser asks us to pay attention to the radical instabilities and unexpected senses welling in the calm between storms.


Works Cited

Crane, Mary Thomas. “What Was Performance?” Criticism 43.2 (Spring 2001): 169-187.

McLean, Stuart. “Stories and Cosmogonies: Imagining Creativity Beyond ‘Nature’ and ‘Culture.’” Cultural Anthropology 24.2 (2009): 213-245.

Tenser, Alina. Interview with Amanda B. Friedman. “Studio visit with artist, Alina Tenser.” Little Paper Planes 5 Jul. 2012. 16 Jan. 2013 http://blog.littlepaperplanes.com/studio-back-fourth-wartist-alina-tenser/

About the artist

Gillian Young

Gillian Young is a PhD Candidate in Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, where she studies histories of art, performance, and media of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her writing has appeared in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, e-misférica, and caa.reviews.