Performance in telepresence. The body in telepresence

Maria Beatriz de Medeiros


            What we want to discuss here is the possibility of communication in telepresence; the possibility of the absent body to participate in effective communication, that is, the capacity of a spectral presence to be part of an interlocution. And, since Performance Art requests the interaction with the “spectator” (the live art truly interactive in which the spectator becomes creator of the work), telepresence is one of the languages of Performance Art.
            The speech is technical. The scream, the grunting, the cry are also languages. However, the word, from the vocal chords’ control to the relationship between things and sounds, verbs, and the complexity of language is the primary technique or the first technique. The body is the place of this technique. Language is technique of communication. The body seeks another body, it draws the other near, it advises it of the danger: interaction. The element that enables subjectivity is the other. Intersubjectivities deepen relationships through interlocution.
            Many authors refer to the other, or to the encounter of the other. No disagreement was signaled in what it refers to the intensity of the encounter with the other, another human being, in opposition to the encounter with things. Mikel Dufrenne speaks about invitation to an answer, invitation to a comprehension. A wait. We respect the other one who teaches us our own inner life. Jean-Paul Sartre tells us about the other who transforms us into object, witchcraft. “ The hell is the other”. Christian Delacampagne sees ignorance and impenetrability in the other. We do not agree with Sartre; on the contrary, we believe that the other is the only possibility for creating subjectivity, for it is only with the other – whom I respect and give the right to have a say in – that interlocution takes place.
            To proceed, a wide discussion on the concepts of interactivity, interaction, and interlocution would be necessary. However, since we do not want to discuss these concepts, we will limit ourselves to the following definitions, committing ourselves to treat them deeply in another essay. We understand interactivity as the activity between the human being and the machine, and we would not dare to use the word “dialogue”. In an interaction, a body influences another and modifies its behavior. In interlocution, however, there is the mutual influence and modification, there is mutual transformation and formation during the process, and this is possible only through sharing with an equal.
            According to the philosopher Jean Paul DOGUET [i] “ an interlocutor is a protagonist of the process of communication who is capable of enrolling himself explicitly as a direct part. Therefore, it is not enough to transfer information (“communicate”) to become an interlocutor”, it is necessary for that interlocutor to be a conscious author of the word. The automatic communication, or the communication between animals and even the involuntary forms of communication (indirect) do not belong to interlocution.

The present body

            First of all, the body implies conscience of itself. This conscience happens only in the presence of the other. The other, distorted and unreachable mirror, makes me aware of myself. It is through the other that I know me, know me as different person, and I build up my particularity from this difference; I become a unique subject; the subjectivity is sealed in myself as it is in this other. The vital need of communication comes from this incommensurable solitude of my conscience, pressed in the borders of my body. I scream to touch this other. Monad (Leibniz)? No, in monad there is no communication. Communication is the very possibility of intersubjectivity, the supply for my body as well as the only way to produce thought.
            The presence is disposed, there is no alternative, imposed and exposed; it is despot and dear. Thus, we slit the maternal sex, slithering through thick, still hot liquids, facing life with the rage of being alive in this rough world; this is expressed in our first cry. So we are given to suckle on a cozy lap, the sour smell of human milk, a more or less donor nipple. The salty, hot, and humid air indicating I should have been in the tropics. The cold sheet and the hot body: presences. The present body and suddenly, there is the pain of the absence. While present, there is communication – gests, cries, screams, and then speech fills the gap of the agglutinated body, of the drunk milk and the shared sweat. While absent, Bernard Stiègler would say tertiary remembrances [ii] that are supplying or trying to supply living communication.
            The human body is flesh and its secretions, movements and laments, smiles and hand waves; the human body is the residence of subjectivity, and I remain confined in it.
            According to Paul Levinson, [iii] communication and transportation coincide, for communication would require presence. However, the tertiary props allow, through the more or less sharpen disembodiment, the sustaining of a gap of the other’s absence. Through his mother’s photograph, Roland Barthes weaves a longing for her presence, revealed and satisfied in the photograph. Communication here is then impossible, for only Barthes sees and “shares”, with his mother, his theoretical thoughts about the photograph. And the latter remains a spectral part, without words of the intended communication.

The television and other temporary objects

            The radio and the television were called means of communication; however, communication implies interaction between subjectivities. The radio and the television are means of information. The telephone and the internet in actual time (just text – chats – and telepresence) allow communication. Both require a partner and participation: becoming active part. Here, communication and transportation coincide: there is voice teletransportation by telephone, there is teletransportation of moving image and voice by internet.
            Umberto Eco, in Kant and the Platypus talks about prostheses and mirrors. The prostheses would be extensive (they extend our senses), intrusive (they intrude into our bodies), and also magnifying (they amplify minuscule spaces and reduce huge spaces), and occasionally, deforming. The mirrors would be prostheses that do not deceive – paraspecular image: an absolute double, incapable of lying, with no indicial value; image in which type and occurrence coincide.
“Thus, and always taking into account a theoretical point of view, what appears on the television screen is not a sign of anything: it is paraspecular image that is apprehended by the observant with the belief we give to a specular image.
(…) We do not doubt the television because we know that since each prosthesis – extensive and intrusive, does not provide us with signs in a first instance, but only perceptive stimuli.” [iv]
            Therefore, from our trusting the mirror – paraspecular image – would result in a general trust in television, and, in front of it, there would be a tendency of undervaluing the interpretative strategies. We ought to emphasize that Eco alerts to be working “from a theoretical point of view”; however, if we take into consideration Bernard Stiègler’s analyses,i.e., from a practical point of view, the television carries out this capacity of suppressing the possible critical judgment not because of its specular or paraspecular image which we trust, but as a temporary object, its flux coincides with the flux of conscience.
“It is in this way that the mass media evolved to pick up and sell the times of the consciences, exploiting specific virtues from the audiovisual objects while they are temporary.
[…] This coincidence of the conscience flux, with that of its object allows adopting the time of the object as the time of the conscience. From this moment on, this conscience can “live” its time by attorney, during the living time of the objects broadcast by the mass media. The result is that the time of the consciences, which synchronize and homogenize simultaneously, becomes the organic matters of the industries of communication, for programs are not what these industries sell, but audience to the advertisements. The programs are employed to attract the consciences to be sold.” [v]
            Thus, the television and also the cinema - which Eco affirms to be signs we do not trust – and the videogames have contributed to “destroy the spirit” [vi] . It is destruction of the “time of the conscience”, and consequently, of the spirit, by the adoption of the time of the temporary object.
            Even if the temporary objects are conscience builders or the very conscience itself, according to Stiègler, these objects are not capable of communication. They are implantations, intrusive and constitutive prostheses, incapable of founding subjectivity because there is no interlocution. Thereafter, there is a number of individuals semi-capable of words, almost incapable of being responsible for their deeds. These are made up individuals mined in their ability of building personal thoughts and criticism, inept to decide upon their own destiny.


            Some authors state that one of the factors that engenders the desire for telepresence comes from the fear of the actual world. An individual can be fearful of reality, and this fear has always existed. However, this fear is much more present today due to the fact that some idols and “stars” have their bodies sculpted or shaped or, many times, they are presented in magazines with “corrections” made directly on the photographs. These beings do not exist; they are truly non-places (according to Marc Augé). Many adolescents, incapable of looking like their sculpted idols, have a feeling of self-rejection; they become locked inside themselves; they deny themselves and spend their lives communicating via computer. This communication, mainly in telepresence, though slow and obscure, is the possibility of meeting the other who is not physically present; it is the possibility of meeting and communicating – not necessarily rejection of reality.
            “Multiple ghosts populate the body imaginary. How can one recognize one’s own body in the flux of images that reveals or dissembles bodies, which appear and disappear in the continuous game of intimacy and spectacle? It all happens as if we constantly had to prove the actual existence of this body we experience as our own…It is necessary to give ourselves a body, or simply designate it as real through an act – a word – that gives it a second birth and makes it live, we could say, by baptizing it.” [vii]
            Bruno Huisman and François Ribes, in the citation, do not absolutely think the new technologies of information and communication. They refer to the symbolic body, to ghostly bodies. But we could easily bring their consideration into this reflection: present body, absent body, embodiment, disembodiment. Various are the ghosts that populate the body imaginary. This statement takes into consideration the perfect bodies shaped by body building, plastic surgery, silicone, and liposuction. The ghosts, presently created by the body industry, do not even look like our naturally awkward bodies. How can I recognize my body in an imagery with which I do not identify myself? The incessant flux of images, the bombardment of images do not even allow stabilization of idols, the ones we could, perhaps, try to imitate. Yet their lives are more and more meteoric… Since I do not identify with those they want to impose on me as idols, I simply do not know who I am.
            In advertisement, cinema, in the numberless video-movies that we take within our families, the bodies are not only perfect, but also winners. In actual life… someday parents were their children’s idols. Today, confronted with supermen and wonderwomen, parents have been put in checkmate for a long time.
            Sick and somber minds confined in gray cubicles and cold cities maybe do not desire the actual bodies. They may hide their flaccid and pale skin, but this is not a rule: the actual body, naked, twisted, fat and decayed is exhibited with no psychological complex, or with some complex, but truly naked, it exposes itself with no prejudice to an audience; it is exposed and, bizarrely, it wins its way. I believe that those artists such as, Richard Billingham, Ron Mueck, Jenny Saville, Joel-Peter Witkin, amongst others who display their “disfigured” bodies, do no more than open anyone’s body widely, that is, far from the aesthetic rules imposed to the body today.
            The one who fears reality, presence, can not happen in telepresence.
            I do not believe that we will choose telepresence instead of presence even when telepresence is more evolved. I allow myself to tell almost a joke here: I was a tourist lost in Rennes, France, in 1999… In fact, I was not lost because I had a Brazilian friend with me. We were going to attend an international conference. One afternoon, we decided to take a walk in the city and buy post cards for family members and friends, and we came to find a post card that made us think, for both of us did not know the saying that was written in it:
            “Love is blind; so it is necessary to touch. The word of a Brazilian”. [viii]
            We feel flattered that others think that only Brazilians feel like that. We believe that the physical presence, capable of smell and caress, capable of actual voice and superimposed talking will never be totally substituted by telepresence, be we Brazilian or not.
            I obviously bought the post card, but I never posted it. I had never heard the saying before, but how homesick I was!
            The bodily experience in telepresence is incomplete, for it does not allow touching; and the sense of smell does not exist yet. In fact, the experience of the spectral presence is just ghostly like; it is low quality image, with no flesh, with no possibility of secretions and contaminations. However, relationships may be kept through internet and in telepresence a long way off. This aspect is referred to as negative by some authors. Letters written and sent by postal mail also allow the existence of relationships between human beings who have not seen each other for decades, and these letters were never considered negative: they are very important documents when we think of mail between two great writers. What was never considered is that these writers formed ghettos with those they shared assiduous postal mail, and could understand their thoughts.
            Levinson, in the article cited, remembers Freud to state that “writing is the voice of the absent person”. Writing, somehow, also allows the spectral presence, even if it is more ethereal; and we do not fear it even when Socrates, or more recently, Jacques Derrida remind us of their danger as phármakón: medicine and poison. Telepresence is of the same order: poison and medicine; however, it allows communication in actual time; it comes close to a dialogue, which Socrates praises: live word, place of interlocution, Doguet would say.
            “ While alive, the logos comes from the father. There is no written thing for Plato. There is a  logos more or less alive, more or less near it. Writing is not an order of independent signification; it is a weakened speech, but in no way something dead: a live dead, a dead in sursis, a deferred life, an appearance of breathing; the ghost, the spectrum, the simulacrum (…) of the live speech is not inanimate, is not insignificant; it simply signifies little and always identically. This scarce signifier, this discourse with no great responsible is like all the spectrums: erroneous”. [ix]
            Telepresence is spectral image because it has no physical presence. The spectrum referred to by Derrida is the father’s absence; it has no origin; it is immutable and, as it is, dead. Telepresence is sensible; it comes from the father; it is live logos.

Performance Art in telepresence

            “… with no doubt, the improvised work (happening, firework, dance, land-art) leave but traces in its participants’ memory; however, the truth of the work is in the experience of the presence and not in what the repetition becomes possible.” [x]
            Performance art is the language that allowed art to become alive. In the late 70s, it wanted presence and presence as revolution; revolution in the art that accompanies, in fact, the events of 68, the hippies, the sexual liberation, Rock’n Roll, … protest against the market and against the art market. Performance art, in principle, does not produce artistic objects for that market because it is ephemeral, and many times, centered only in the artists’ bodies, and not in objects. The spectator’s participation is another aspect of many performances.
            Today, performance is one of the languages of art: some artists make it their own language; others use it as another possibility. Since the advent of video, many were the artists who worked with video-performance, notably, Vito Acconci, who used this technology to make the first performances in telepresence: the video-camera and the artist in a place, and the public in front of a monitor in another place. Nowadays, with internet and computers with cameras and microphones, performance in telepresence is an artistic language that some people have been investigating. In fact, this technology has evolved very rapidly, and “presence” in telepresence has become, day-by-day, more consistent. However, we still have to ask ourselves, to what extent the body in telepresence – disembodiment-  is only sensation of experience, imagination, and the art only object of idea.
            As in the programs used for telepresence, each “spectator” is also sender and builder of his own screen. The “spectator” becomes effectively co-author of the work. The work is constructed as a truly live dialogue, as Socrates wanted, and, even if writing is present, it is live word.
            It is necessary to emphasize the necessity of a critical work. The new techniques allow us to experiment with the inedited. It necessarily causes fairy enchantment, and enchantment inhibits critical capacity. There is enchantment for what we do not know, and some, against the first experiences with new technologies – when confronted with the new – soon call it art, forgetting that art should generate percepts and affects, as Deleuze and Guattari wanted [xi] , or yet, it should bring its very world, as Mikel Dufrenne wanted.” [xii]
            “The absent element, I allow myself to suggest, is the human being… Art, …, has become an area in destruction in modern life, … it engages in a desperate battle against disdain and the final abandonment of desert houses. It is due to this fact that, with all our flattered mechanical efficiency, with all the  superabundance of energy, food, materials, goods, there is no proportional improvement in the quality of quotidian life; it is due to this fact that the great majority of “well-housed” people of our civilization live their emotionally apathetic, mentally torpid existences with insipid passivity and weakened desires – lives that contradict the actual potentiality of modern culture.” [xiii]
            In fact, we live in a society that has serious problems, as Lewis Munford has advised since 1952 (!), and, for sure, telepresence will not be the first instrument to redimension it; otherwise, we can expect that, as did Munford, after turned into art, it will be capable of repopulating life, making the human being present, and engendering the desire for actual presence, and then, and fully allowing the restitution of subjectivity in interlocution.

[i] Douguet, Jean-Paul, “Je, tu, nous. Contribution à une philosophie de l’interlocution”, magazine Les Papiers, # 48, Collège International de Philosophie, Paris, July 1999, p. 5.
[ii] According to Bernard Stiègler, “If it is true that from molecular biology, the sexed mortal is defined by its somatic memory of the epigenetic, and the genetic germinal memory, and that these, in principle, do not communicate between themselves (…), the exteriorisation process is a rupture in the history of life from which a third memory, which I called epifilogenetic appears. The epifilogenetic memory, essential to a living human, is technical: it is inscribed in death… the epigenetic experience of an animal is lost when the animal dies; however, the life that continues through other means of life, the experience inscribed in the objects become transferable and accumulative: that is how a possibility of inheritance becomes possible.” Therefore, this third epifilogenetic memory is technical. It is constituted of images and texts inscribed over props, tertiary remembrances such as writing, photography, cinema, … “that testify a past legated by the disappeared ones.” STIEGLER, Bernard, La Technique et le Temps 2. La désorientation, translated by ourselves, Paris: Galilée, 1996, p. 12.
Bernard Stiègler is a philosopher, author of La technique et le Temps, two volumes, and La faute d’Epiméthée, 1994, and La désorientation, 1996; published by Galillé, two other volumes will soon be published. Nowadays, Stiègler is Director of IRCAM, Paris.
[iii] Paul Levinson, an interview with Jeremy Turner:
[iv] Eco, Umberto. Kant e o ornitorrinco. Ed. Record, Rio de Janeiro, 1997. Translation – Ana Thereza B. Vieira. P. 313. In the French translation by Julien Gayrard, ed. Grasset, Paris, 1997, we read:
“Donc, et toujours d’un point de vue théorique, tout ce qui apparaît sur l’écran de télévision n’est signe de rien: c’est une image paraspéculaire que l’observateur appréhende avec cette même confiance que l’on accorde à l’image spéculaire.
(….) Nous ne nous méfions pas de la television car nous savons que ce ne sont pas des signes qu’elle nous fournit en premier lieu mais des stimuli perceptifs, comme le fait toute protése extensive et intrusive”.
[v] Stiègler, Bernard. O preço da consciência, in Arte e Tecnologia na Cultura Contemporânea, MEDEIROS, Maria Beatriz (org. e introdução), Brasília, Mestrado em Artes, UnB, 2002.
[vi] Idem
[vii] HUISMAN, Bruno & RIBES, François. Les philosophes et le corps. Translated by us. Paris: Ed. Dunod, 1992, p.386.
[viii] “L’amour est aveugle, it faut donc toucher. Parole de brésilien”.
[ix] DERRIDA, Jacques, A Farmácia de Platão. São Paulo: iluminuras, 1997, p. 96.
[x] DUFRENNE, Mikel, essay “Oeuvre d’art”, in Encyclopaedia Universalis, vol. 12, Paris, 1980, pp. 13 – 18, p. 17.
[xi] DELEUZE, Gilles and GUATTARI, Félix, Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? Paris: Minuit, 1991.
[xii] DUFRENNE, Mikel. “Objet esthétique e objet technique”, in Esthétique et philosophie. Tome 1. Paris: Klincksieck, 1967.
[xiii] MUNFORD, Lewis. Arte e técnica. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 1986 (1952), p. 16 e 17.