A reflection by Karola Lüttringhaus about a live performance by Ekaterina Zharinova (March 12th, 2019, Davis, CA, USA)
Lab A. The room is dark. Ekaterina is setting up for her performance entitled “Multiple Selfie in the Dark”. From what I can see, she has several capture and playback devices positioned on stage, including a video projector, laptop, and cell phone. She invites us to come onto the stage to sit or stand along the back-wall of the theatre. We are facing the audience space, which is empty. Ekaterina and all of the technical equipment are to our right and the projector is positioned to throw images onto the black wall to our left. The equipment is positioned on the floor, wires exposed: everything is very simple, and driven by functionality; process is revealed.
She is wearing a black high-cut and long sleeve dress and black stockings, which highlights her pale skin and sandy-blonde hair. The outfit is a sort of signature uniform for her; like what black suits are for me, a 'go-to' outfit of relative neutrality with a hint of character and theatricality.
Her set-up seamlessly merges into the performance. The informality of the event and her pedestrian but focused presence make me feel like I am observing Ekaterina as she is completely absorbed into some private inquiry. It feels a bit like stepping into a scientists lab. She doesn't seem overly concerned with formally 'presenting' something to us, but she appears mesmerized with her current task of setting up, aligning, organizing, experimenting, and finding something out. Everything in the room: people, equipment, air, light, materials, time, and even temperature are part of a constellation that will have to be calibrated to produce a particular outcome.
Ekaterina positions herself into a light so that it is illuminating her face. She picks up a cellphone and takes a selfie. She goes to her laptop, connects the cellphone to it and we wait and watch her stare at the screen as the image is uploading slowly and then gets projected onto the wall of the theatre. Due to the small size of the space, I am not able to see everything at the same time and for a while I have to look left and right like at a tennis match to keep track of the projections and Ekaterina's actions.
The projected image is slightly distorted and about 5 times as large as Ekaterina's real face. It appears pale from the stark lighting source and the image overall is translucent a bit, illuminating the details of the rough theatre wall revealing nails, holes, tape, different textures of paint, and various scuff-marks. Later in the talk-back she tells us that she finds these details beautiful. I am curious to ask her more about beauty at a later point in time.
Ekaterina steps into the projector's light. Parts of her projected face illuminate her real face and torso. She moves back and forth a bit between the lens and the projection surface until her face appears as big as the projection and she has the arrangement of images she wants to capture in this 'selfie with self'. She pushes the capture button and moves to her tech station, enters the image into her laptop, feeds it to the projector and projects that image onto the wall, replacing the first image. The result is a layering of faces, of shadows and light, one face affecting the other, and both affected by the texture of the wall.
INQUIRY INTO THE FACE
She repeats this process multiple times, and each time the image becomes more and more estranged, grainy, and confusing. Each image is an assemblage and defamiliarized copy of the previous arrangements of faces. The level of complexity increases exponentially.
What does a face do, what does it reveal, what stories does it, can it, tell? Ekaterina's features remain neutral throughout the entire performance. This performance is not about emotion. It is not about a narrative in the literal sense. Rather, the unfolding and layering of morphing images evokes contemplation about a philosophy of 'faceness'.
A projection of the face is not the face itself, as a matter of fact it is quite different if looked at in detail. We witnessed how the image was extracted from the human original. In those few seconds, between taking the photo and projecting it onto the wall, it was altered many times, more so than we are aware of at first: by the lighting, the camera taking the first image, the translation from 3 dimensional to 2 dimensional, the pixelation caused by the projector, the translation of color and depth from phone to laptop to projector, the darkness of the projection surface (which adds to the washed out effect and the merging with the details of the environment), the distance between the projector and the wall, the angle with which it is projected (which distorts the face and emphasizes the flatness of the photo and the thinness of the image; how thick is a projected image?), and by the translations that our eyes and brains do.
The thinness of the image, even though we readily accept it as a representation of the original, creates a virtuality of the projected original and the image that is surreal and actually quite incomprehensible.
The above photos are great for remembering the event, but they, too, remove us even more from the original experience. They alter the images substantially, reducing them also to something much smaller and much denser and less translucent, less alive than the virtual images and the real Ekaterina in the space. Most of the details do not translate into the above photos at all.
She plays with endless mirrorings of a moment, superimposing instances over top of one another. She creates realities that are impossible; Ekaterina is posing with herself, arresting images from time and having past and present meet. Her performance is bringing up questions around the temporality of the moment. What happened to the moment?
What does it mean to capture, project and recapture over and over again endless renditions, endless additions of yourself, endlessly removed from yourself, changing you along the way? Each time Ekaterina steps into another projected multi-layered image, it overlays onto her real face. She becomes harder and harder to read. We rely on seeing her walk out of the image to check in with her face, to see it the way we think it 'actually is'. If the image of oneself gets further and further removed from its original, from the source face, then the comparison is one of how estranged a face can become from itself.
The altered features of her face accompany her present self: each time she steps our of the projection the bizarre image lingers a bit longer on her features, and each time she steps into the projection, we anticipate the changing of her face. The self created alteration inhabits a mode of representation that questions the validity of the original, and the validity of the capturing process. What can a copy reveal? What can a copy promise? What promises do we want? Do we want security, and the belief in a stability of the face as a medium for divulging the truth about a person? Is a face stable and remains the same. Has it changed and would we even notice such a change?
I understand the word 'somatic' as a descriptor for a first-person in-body experience of our own unique corporeality and moments in life. I think that we, as a culture/society are becoming more and more estranged from the somatic experience of life: we begin to overlay ideas about ourselves, as we live and experience our lives, through viewing ourselves in mirrors, car- or store windows, on cell phones, on skype, through apps that change the shape or our faces, the color of our skin and the size of our eyes. Our digital realities are becoming more and more consuming of our attention and of our identity. The ways in which we create our image through agents that remove ourselves from our actual bodies, we become more and more digitized, virtual, fractured, and refracted.
What does a face communicate? For Lacan the face is the site of identity. Many people would say that the face is the location for situating identity and character. The rest of the body loses importance. Deleuze and Guattari talk about the 'overcoding' (*0) of the face onto the body: “A concerted effort is made to do away with the body and corporeal coordinates through which the multidimensional or polyvocal semiotics operated. Bodies are disciplined, corporeality dismantled, becomings-animal hounded out, deterritorialization pushed to a new threshold — a jump is made from the organic strata to the strata of signifiance and subjectification. A single substance of expression is produced.”
In this performance, Ekaterina's face becomes the object of investigation. Isn't the face always in this position of scrutiny? We see the face as special, as more defining, articulatory, than the rest of the body. I often feel that only if I see a person's face can I be certain it is a specific person... The face is what we interact with when we communicate. So we think. So we believe. But we are also fooling ourselves about the importance of the face. We can communicate just fine over the phone, not ever seeing the other person. One could argue that the face can clarify intention. But I also think that once the face is in the mix it complicates, it dominates, it changes everything. Seeing the gradual dissolution of Ekateria's face into chaos reminds me of the unjustified weight we put on our faces. We expect the world from them.
As with so many other things, we view the importance of the face through the denial of the body; in this performance I see this very simply represented by the black clothes, black floor and black space and minimalist lighting used solely to emphasize the face. Everything we do 'expresses', in one way or another, intentionally or not. And if it doesn't express, it will be interpreted nevertheless as expressive. Articulating takes place as a default setting of human function. We make meaning of things. Our very being and the materials that make this being are constantly expressing and articulating. The images that Ekaterina evokes express, they articulate. And she articulates through these images. She articulates the images, carefully constructs them. It lies in constant practice that we develop the ability to bring the articulated events into a cognitive format that can be translated into linguistic expression and communication.
In this performance I don't get the impression that we are investigating an identity. I feel more that I am drawn to contemplate how the gaze of the viewer onto the face changes the meaning of that which is viewed. I am drawn to contemplating more conceptual ideas about the layering of surfaces, and the resulting changes in the face of the performer. I am fascinated with the ease with which something changes, and not so much with what it has changed from or into. However, simply speaking: the center of inquiry is the face in general, a specific person's face, and the idea of a face.
Articulating. The word contains many associations and meanings: I am thinking of articulations, words, expressions, joints that facilitate movement. Articulating entails the ability to respond, to adjust to changes. The images keep changing, each affecting one another, they articulate with one another and thereby create something new. The projections begin to distort Ekaterina's actual face, adding shadows, shapes, darkness or light in places that are not congruent with her features; de-familiarizing, de-territorializing, articulating it in new ways. Soon, her face with the many overlays has become a scramble, or a 'mangle', as Andrew Pickering might say: a multiplicity that is complex beyond our understanding and outside of our ability to construct and control.
The images express. But more so, the witnessing of the creation of the images, the process, is what evokes thought. We see how far, in an instant, the image becomes something else than merely a representation, a copy, of its original. The copy has its own face, is only a representation, a reminder. And the copy is once again changed by the actual face it is projected on.
“Dismantling the face is the same as breaking through the wall of the signifier and getting out of the black hole of subjectivity.” (1) So reads a quote by Deleuze and Guattari. What can we deduct about subjectivity in this performance?
By zooming in, by familiarizing, by shadowing and reproducing, Ekaterina dismantles the face. We look at the face, and similarly to repeating a word over and over again and it eventually losing its meaning, her face morphs into something that demands reevaluation. Subjectivity is the somatic experience. My experience watching her. My experience of her face changing. Becoming illegible. Whose subjectivity is questioned? She is changing her subjectivity by seeing and capturing her image. But who says that subjectivity is stable? Or that it should be stable to be considered as that? Subjectivity can only disappear if the experience of subjectivity disappears, the sense of self. Is Ekaterina experiencing anything like this as she looks into the screen of the phone and sees her face with the layers of faces behind and on top of her skin?
The images articulate a contemplation on the origin and the copy, on the layering of layers, of skins and the nature of skins, of features, and the arbitrariness of their expressiveness. How quickly something becomes illegible, incomprehensible is mind boggling.
But is Ekaterina questioning subjectivity? In my opinion, this performance is not exploring the dismantling of subjectivity but the mechanisms of subjectivity and the stickiness of its attraction.
STABLE CHANGE/CHANGING STABILITY
Ekaterina does not change, does she? Her attitude toward her images does not change. Or does it? She does not become confused. It is an experiment that speaks of change and unsettling, while she remains stable and unchanged?
At this point in the performance, Ekaterina begins a second chapter. She abandons this idea and moves on to another investigation where she projects the images onto her body, playing with them and the shadow of her body on the wall in the theatre piercing the images of her previously generated layered faces. Is the body reclaiming its territory? If I imagine the various layers of familiarization/defamiliarization: the audience, Ekaterina's body, the first selfie, the second, the third, etc. The reversal, the change happens in the abstract, the change happens in the defamiliarized layers of the self first. It is a slow emergence, as for now the body remains clothed in black and the focus is still the face. With each layer eventually reclaimed, perhaps the body will be uncovered, freed to express itself fully and equally to the face.
By Karola Luettringhaus
(0,1,2) Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Félix (1987), p.181. A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0-8166-1402-8.
(3) Andrew Pickering, 'The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science”, The University of Chicago Press, 1995, ISBN-13: 978-0226668031
The performance and thematics explored in this essay came out of a UC Davis Course:
CRI 200C “Faciality”
with professor: Kriss Ravetto Biagioli