The question guiding this research is "how does a Punctum manifest itself in a computational live performance?". The following essay is an exploration and conceptualization of the specific sensuality emerging from materialized/embodied “thingness”. This philosophical query of “thingness” is related both to the problem of the body in the art of dance and performance, and to the discourse of technology and computational arts. Consequently, my main interest is the aesthetics of a reciprocal relationship which surfaces by juxtaposing these realms together in an art piece. The artifact I have created is also in the form of a computational live performance.
produced by: Sai Rapoports
My proposition is concerned with developing an artistic aesthetic approach to computational art involving the body. It is an ontological rather than teleological research which sticks with classical physics understanding of matter, a decision I will elaborate on further on. Added to the latter is a critic of the instrumental approach to technology which allows the exposure of the sensuality by stripping functionality (of both the body and the computational thing).
The starting point which inspired this focused investigation was Barthes definition of “Punctum” in his book on the art of photography “Camera Lucida” (It is important to note that I am reinterpreting the term and using it as an inspiration rather than following Barthes exact viewpoint on its role and manifestation in photographs). Barthes own journey stemmed from the same curiosity I have for finding the sensuality in computational arts- trying to identify this thing which “sets me off”, and produces “…an internal agitation, an excitement, a certain labor too” [2, p.19]. I now turn to explain this concept as an underpinning for later evaluation of sensuality and effect in a computational live performance.
According to Barthes, the two forces acting upon the spectator looking at a photograph are the “Studium” and the “Punctum”. The Studium engages us by being a rational intermediary based on ethical and political culture. It serves as a kind of coded contract between creator and consumer with the latter being completely aware of the photographer’s intentions. Furthermore, the Studium is a kind of reconciliation of the photograph with society, and it does so by endowing the photograph with functions recognized by the spectators: “to inform, to represent, to surprise, to cause, to signify, to provoke desire” [2, p.28]. Being aware of it in advance possibly situates the Studium in the order of “liking” and not “loving”, avoiding pain and delight (although allowing a restrained pleasure).
The Punctum on the other hand breaks/punctuates the Studium. It rises from the scene and pierces the spectator as a shooting arrow. It is also described as a “sting, speck, cut, little hole- and also the cast of the dice” [2, p.27]. Without Punctum a photograph is unary and stable. Using Barthes words, it can “shout”, but it does not “wound” us. Barthes gives the pornographic photograph as an example of a unary one and the erotic as its disturbed/fissured and more effective counterpart. The erotic photograph does not put the imagery of the overly exposed organs at its center. In fact it might not show any sexual organs at all, which leads to understanding the Punctum as a “kind of subtle beyond- as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see” [2, p.59].
Furthermore, it is important to note that the Punctum must not be intentional (or at least perceived as such) to have this effect; “What I add to the photo is what is nonetheless already there” [2, p.xi]. Respectively we should not look for it deliberately when looking at the photograph. Let us compare the Punctum to a subject of our gaze in a dark room. If we try to focus at something deliberately, knowing it is there- we will fail to witness it. This is due to the two different light-sensing cells in our eyes: rods and cones. Similarly, says Geoff Dyer in the Forward of the 2010 edition of “Camera Lucida”, once we look for the Punctum deliberately, it loses its power, fails to surprise, and joins the overt almost banal satisfaction of the Studium.
This dialectics between two main forces (Punctum and Studium) is a prevalent conflict taking many different forms which continental western philosophy is trying to address for many years now. Some main examples of aesthetics philosophers dealing with it include Kant with the “great gulf” (grosse kluft) between the sensible and the supersensible with the power of judgement as the mediating concept, Nietzsche and the struggle between the two antagonistic forces the Dionysian (sensible) and the Apollonian (intelligible), and Heidegger and the two oppositional ontological forces World (matter) and Earth (world of meanings), or even his definition of Das Man which opposes authenticity in an individual Dasein [3, p.38]. Art is frequently perceived as being the conjunction of two oppositional forces such as the aforementioned, presenting the clash in its essence. Aesthetics is the category known for pointing out the two elements of sensible fabric and intelligible form in the art [4, p.162]. Although aware of binary categories being the Bête noire of contemporary academic discourse, I still argue that due to our own existence as both intelligible and physical entities which cannot be taken apart and yet still act differently from each other, this dualism should always be taken into consideration rather than nullified.
Serving as a connective tissue between the conceptualization of the duality and the “thingness” of elements which exposes sensuality in the computational live performance, I will first seek to examine how these dialectics come to being in the live body (which is the body performing but also the body witnessing the performance). In both her essays “On the Possibility of Authentic Movement” and “The Body Aesthetic”, Dr. Rona Cohen tracks the intricate relationship of philosophy with the human body both as a phenomenological “lived body” and an “aesthetic object”, with dance being the central study case. Regarding the ontology of the body, some of the prominent philosophers of the body in the 20th century such as Jean-Luc Nancy and Maurice Merleau-Ponty reject the traditional dualism of Descartes’s Cartesian res extensa and partes extra partes and the understanding of the body as merely a bearer of the mind and sense. However, they do not deny the two acting forces. Both see the body as existence itself, to the extent that our being cannot be deciphered without analyzing embodied experience. As Nancy claims in Corpus, the body is “ontology itself” and “the Being of existence” [5, p.41]. an inseparable part in the átomos (from Latin: indivisible) body-mind. How than can this understanding lead us to decipher the role of the material body in the art?
Drawing on Kant’s “marginal case” of the aesthetic object, it can be deduced that a new type of knowledge and sense is produced when looking at art in general, some knowledge outside of traditional cognition. Furthermore, according to Jean-Luc Nancy “art makes sense outside of sense” [6, p.20], and has the potential of escaping mental representation and petrification of making sense, by exposing excess of sensibility. Correspondingly the body in dance is also not reducible to a mere mental representation and is equivalent to the aesthetic object by making sense outside of sense. The relationship between the sensible and the intelligible form in the dancing body is incarnated in “a gesture that is only ever a gesture towards meaning, never reaching completion, never coming to a closure and conceptual determination” [7, p.168]. The Punctum of the dancing body therefore lies in its ability to escape signification and bring forth the potent power of aesthetic judgment. It is the same imagery as Barthes that Nancy uses to describe the body which comes into being; by rupturing, disturbing and intruding upon sense. This is how “the material in a work of art, or in this case, the body in dance, is brought into presence and is made patent” [7, p.169]. It might be clearer now why I chose to stay within the classical physics understanding of matter when conducting this research.
Granting all this, it is still quite vague how this Punctum rooted in the ontology of the body in dance is related to other elements in the performance genre I am looking at, specifically computational elements. To connect the dots and articulate my hypothesis on what acts as Punctum in a computational live performance as a whole, I chose to harness Heidegger’s notion of “Thing”, Bill Brown’s “Thing Theory” and some perspectives on queering computation.
In his essay “What Is a Thing?” Heidegger tries to investigate further into the Kantian definition of the “thing-in-itself” (Ding an sich) rather than his “thing-for-us” (Ding für uns). It is important to note that Heidegger is going on this journey completely aware of his possible failure in answering the question he poses: “Perhaps we can never experience anything concerning things and make out anything about them except as we remain in the realm in which they encounter us” [8, p.32]. His motivation for asking the question is an alienation he feels we have as human beings towards what is around us and that which can be touched, reached, seen; present-at-hand. Bill Brown, largely the founder of critical “Thing Theory” claims that rethinking things is an effort to reinstitute society in reaction to the imposition of “corporeal imagination” which he identifies as a degenerative symptom of modernity.
Heidegger argues that the knowledge sciences produce on things is different than knowing the “thing-in-itself” and is derived from the will to “[…] promote the progress of science, or to satisfy the joy of discovery, or to show the technical usage of things, or to make a livelihood” (8, p.9). Instead, similar to the knowledge produced when witnessing the artistic object or the dancing body, knowing what is a thing-in-itself could outline the ground and limit of science so we could determine the latter’s effectiveness as a practice which presents itself as absolute truth. Going back to Barthes, we can look at this difficulty of explaining what this “thingness” of a “thing” is as a step in the right direction towards the Punctum: “What I can name cannot really prick me. The incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance” [2, p.51]. Without disregarding the understanding of what a thing is, starting from the Greek philosophers to modern science, Heidegger sees this as an opportunity for initial transformation of the existing position towards things that could change the way we see, evaluate, question, and decide.
Nonetheless it is in his earlier essay “The Origin of the Work of Art” from 1950 that Heidegger points out the key concept underpinning my assumption on where the potential Punctum might reside. In this essay he mentions that in a piece of equipment, the material tends to disappear due to its function, utility, and serviceability. It is for-us not just in the sense of mental representation but in the most concrete way; “no one thinks about the steel when the knife cuts well […] it disappears into the equipment-Being of the equipment” [1, p.171]. This argument is further elaborated in Bill Brown’s “Thing Theory”, in which he differentiates between two pairs of definitions: things and ideas, and things and objects.
Regarding the first pair; “Things are what we encounter, ideas are what we project” [9, p.5]. As for things and objects, Brown says that as things circulate through our lives, they become objects, they function. We tend to look through them and to see only what they disclose about us- culture, politics, history, society, nature, etc. We would only catch a glimpse of things and confront them when they break or stop working for us as they usually do: “when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily” [9, p.6]. The ambiguity that emerges in these moments with such powerful sensuous and metaphysical presence is situated in a liminal space between the nameable and unnameable, the figurable and unfigurable, the identifiable and unidentifiable. The thing and the object negate each other in the sense that a thing lies beyond the grid of intelligibility, outside the order and economy of objects. In other words, the object in its presence annihilates the enigma of the thing, flattens it. To use Barthes terms, “object” is part of “Studium”, and “thing” is part of “Punctum”.
I suggest we now position each of the two elements in the computational live performance, namely the body and the computational artefact, vis-à-vis to the object-thing dualism. Starting with the body, we can argue that in our everyday life it is for-us in numerous useful purposes: it communicates, takes us from place to place, labors, produces energy, reproduces, presents us as we dress it a certain way, we nourish it etc. The body always fulfills a certain function to the point that we hardly ever really see it as a thing that is not instrumental. In dance and even in the case of relational aesthetics performance art, its “thingness” becomes visible, just like Heidegger’s metaphor on colors which when used by the painter as opposed to by the craftsman, suddenly shine forth. It is the power of framing art harnesses, the moment of stripping off functionality when we come to understand how “the body is a thing among things” [10, p.163].
Heidegger also addresses the same issue when coining the term Das Man; the inauthentic mode of existence which is part of the Dasein and is a culturally constructed body using a “repertoire” of movements encrypted and imposed by the social context [7, p.41]. In a way, it is the Studium of the body. The authenticity contrary to the Das Man, is the revelation of the ontological body, or as the philosopher Alain Badiou puts it (following Nietzsche’s approach to dance): “the body before the body” [11, p.42]. Cohen argues that this authentic movement, this Punctum, is irreducible neither to the mere materiality of the body or to the abstraction of the mind. Rather it situates itself in this liminal space, exposing sensuous ontological presence. It is a movement of “coming into being” [7, p.43]. We could make use of the concept of coming-into-being to discuss how these ideas manifest and resonate in technological computational artefacts.
In his work from 1954 “The Question Concerning Technology”, Heidegger attempts to capture the essence of technology by taking an ontological rather then an instrumental or anthropological approach to it. In correspondence with the “coming into being”, the essence of technology is a way of bringing-forth, of revealing of truth. This is done not by making, manipulating, or using certain means, but in enframing (Ge-stell). The enframing is nothing technological in itself but is the mode of challenging nature which sets-upon an ordering of the actual as a standing reserve. To simplify this concept and in my own words, we could say that the essence of technology is encapsulated in observing the potential which lies in existing entities/resources. Enframing “lets what presences come forth into unconcealement” [8, p.7]. When humans understand their technological endeavors are based on a subjective construction of the definition of nature, there happens a revealing: “the object disappears into the objectlessness of standing reserve” [8, p.6]. Heidegger also tackles the question of how does the enframing come to being. His thesis is that enframing does not happen completely outside of human doing, neither it happens exclusively in or through humans. This leads to the conclusion that the essence of technology, its presence, is situated in an ambiguous, mysterious liminal space as well.
I would like to argue that the essence is a movement towards fulfillment which is not yet completed (just like the body movements in dance mentioned earlier). Once it gets its structured, calculable final form of a tool, or an apparatus by going through unlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and switching about, the essence escapes our notice. To quote Heidegger: “[…]in the midst of all that is correct the true will withdraw. The destining of revealing is in itself not just any danger, but the danger” [8, p.10]. This claim of Heidegger is the antithesis of the prevalent perception of the fantasy of technology. This fantasy misleads us to think that through the aggregation and quantification of data we can access some unmediated truth [12, p.485].
Clarifying the aesthetic approach required to expose a computational technological artifact’s Punctum means tying together the notion “thingness” and the essence of technology. If we move past the instrumentality of an object, by for example by “misusing” it, we are more susceptible to note its “thingness”. As mentioned before, this “thingness” is its ontological presence, effective Punctum. Furthermore, we then also get the chance to contemplate on what Heidegger calls the “constellation in which revealing and concealing, in which the essential unfolding of truth comes to pass” [8, p.13]. It is not by chance, says Heidegger, that techne was historically used to describe several other things including the bringing-forth of truth into a beautiful radiant presence, and the poetics of art.
To conclude this section, it is time to address the question of how the Punctum comes into being in a computational live performance. The presence of the material “body before the body” projects, almost casts a spell on the computational element. The body’s shaky transition between being a functioning object, mindful subject and a “thing” has the ability (when the performance is structured correctly according to this idea) to impose the same qualities to the technological object, situating it too in the liminal space and excavating its “thingness”. It is also possible that this process will happen the other way round, meaning that the computational “thing” will endow the performers body with a unique unfamiliar being. In both cases this erratic existence leaking out of the juxtaposition of the two is where the Punctum of the piece may be found.
In the process of creating the artifact there where many artistic references along the way. Most of them do not correspond with the current form of my thesis, and so I chose to point out only the main ones. At first, my assumption was that the Punctum lies in the presence of danger or risk as it appears quite evidently in Barthes terminology: “A photographs punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” [2, p.27]. Consequently, “to stab” from 2013 (part of “Loops of Relation”) by Nelmarie Du Preez and “Exoskeleton” by Stelarc both inspired me in two main aspects.
Firstly, they both treat the live body as material (thing) which can be cut, manipulated, thrusted. The playfulness with matter, combined with the suspension of rational patterns of thinking is a powerful strategy of extracting the sensual effect. The relationship between the elements is of fragile dependency, which awakens the body instinct of fear long before the mind comes into play to acknowledge the improbable computational mistake of the robot. Secondly is the non-functional functionality of these creations. These systems will clearly never be incorporated into the economy of products we use, nor were they planned to be. This frames them as artistic objects for aesthetic judgement, leading to the potential exposure of their “thingness” and disclosure of their particular Punctum.
The third reference is the practice of coding with an “esolang” (esoteric programming language) named “bodyfuck”. I encountered this practice/art piece quite late in my research, and I feel that it complements my current artifact to a large extent. “bodyfuck” was developed by artist and programmer Nik Hanselmann as a deliberately frustrating coding language. Each of the system’s seven commands is assigned a discrete movement or gesture, so that in order to write in it the human goes through a tedious process using only his/her/their whole-body movement. To quote Hanselmann: “[…] While bodyfuck maintains its ability as to automatically compute, the process of transcribing the code into the computer becomes an arduous task. The embedding of the physical difficulty into the creation of a computer program reifies the gaps between machine performance and physical performance. The computer didn’t get sore. I did.” . Extracting such energy from the material body elevates its sensuality, i.e. thingness. Moreover, it is used as nutrient for the computer, which in itself does not produce any useful output for us at the end of the process.
The last section is dedicated to describing the artistic artifact I have created throughout the research process. “Squeeze it” is a computational live performance consisting of two artistic objects/things: a spectator<=>performer and an element of computer graphics algorithm written in C++ and generated in Visual Studio IDE . Once the program starts running a particle system can be seen expanding from the middle of the screen outward. The spectator who also takes the role of the artistic object and is part of the performance, is asked to use his voice in order to interact with the algorithm. Once sound is produced by the spectator, its amplitude influences the particles and these in turn react by changing direction and contracting towards the center. The force of expansion is constantly active so that in order to fully contract the particles one needs to raise his/her/their voice to the extent of shouting and “fight” the restore factor. If the sound is loud and consistent enough, the particles finally reach their primal position in the 3D space and compose a coherent pulsating image of a pointing finger. This image is very unstable and could only be witnessed if the sound keeps on feeding the algorithm. Whereas the meaning of the imagery, dramaturgy and concept could be subject to many interpretations, I would like to point out some key ideas which I find relevant for this essay.
First in line are the images in the piece. Regarding the pointing hand, Heidegger notes that our most intuitive way of indicating something is by addressing it physically using our pointing finger. Yet it must not be confused with acknowledging the “thing-in-itself” which he is aiming for in his search for what is a thing: “When we say of something which encounters us that it is this, are we saying anything about the thing at all? […]. In “this“ lies a pointing, a referring. We indicate something to the ones who are with us, with whom we are together” [7, p.24]. Dependencies of time and space are folded into such action, and these in turn support determinations that do not belong to knowing the “thing-in-itself” but rather to the “thing-for-us” discussed earlier. In the piece, this pointing finger image is quite evasive and cannot be fully pointed at all the time, nor can it stably point at something itself without the risk of falling apart. In fact, it does not really point at anything specific, which draws our attention to it being an art object rather than an indicator of some sort as we may identify it. It turns into an objectless thing.
Another main image in the piece is the expansion of the particles reminding us of how we imagine “The Big Bang”. This model represents the endeavor of tracking back the initialization point, the origin, the essence of it all. Therefore, it resonates philosophical attempts to reveal the truth, and in some way also the Punctum which is already there but cannot be actively searched for, named or deciphered. In addition, this model of expansion can be found in Ian Bogost’s elaboration on his Tiny Ontology theory . Bogost utilizes the computational model of coding with OOP (object-oriented-programming) to describe existence as an expansion where each element builds on top of another, thus creating a class system with interdependencies between classes and objects. Save the very literal representation of expansion, this class system is present in the mutual dependencies between all elements of the performance. The spectator-performer moves between being subject-object-thing and mostly plays the role of the object (OOP terminology) in this class system, feeding and being fed by the algorithm. The computational element is indeterminately moving on the axis of object-thing, providing a semi-functional object which is quite inefficient yet aesthetically pleasing while always holding a secret.
Second in this short analysis is the “mechanism” of the piece. We could definitely say that the particle system does not succumb to us willingly and that it is not made for us to enjoy in the common way of experiencing joy. Effort needs to be made in order to resist the particle’s tendency to expand into infinity, run away from form, escape the concrete image. This effort is made by investing energy which is extracted from an available standing-reserve: the spectator-performer’s body. Using Heideggerian terms, the computational particle system (technology) sets-upon (challenges) the human body (natural resource) to expose and unlock a potent power.
However instead of being functional e.g. like coal might be for the production of electricity, it seems that the activation process is a bit distorted. The system already operates and does not need anything to keep on going. There is no objective in going back other then holding the particles from doing what they already do. In addition, the voice of the human is also not used in what we might call “efficient” way. Instead of being used mindfully to verbally communicate, or instinctively produce sounds such as pleasure or distress as a reaction to a certain stimulus, in “Squeeze it” the voice is literally squeezed raw out of the human. This action in not intuitive, and is potentially embarrassing, vulnerable, and non-functional according to socially constructed habits. At this very moment, the material aspect of the body, its thingness <=> Punctum is exposed.
To end this essay, I would like to argue that a possible sensual essence, or Punctum could be brought to light by accentuating the “thingness” of the artistic objects taking part in the art piece. In the form of live computational performance, this potential is enhanced due to the reciprocal relationship of the ontological “body before the body” and by its non-functional interaction with the computational element. In addition, it is the physical materiality of things which plays a crucial role in bringing forth this unique ontological Punctum. “Art, just like Dasein, is capable of disclosing Being” [7, p.43].
Special thanks to Armando González Sosto for guiding me through the coding challenges I have encountered along the way, and to Nadin Hadasy who took part in the documentation of the performance.
 R. Cohen, "The Body Aesthetic", Proceedings of the European Society for Aesthetics, vol. 11, 2019. Accessed on: April 9, 2021. [Online]. Available: http://www.eurosa.org/proceedings.
 R. Barthes, and R. Howard. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010. Print.
 H. Carel. Life and death in Freud and Heidegger. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopoi, 2006.
 J. Rancière. Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art. Trans. Zakir Paul. London: Verso, 2013.
 J. L. Nancy. Corpus (R. A. Rand, Trans.). New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.
 J. L. Nancy, and M. Monnier. Alliterations: Conversations sur la danse. Paris: Galilee, 2005.
 R. Cohen, "On the Possibility of Authentic Movement: A Philosophical Investigation", International Perspectives on Dance Movement Therapy: Dance and Creative Process in Theory, Research and Practice, 2020. New York: Routledge. Accessed on: April 9, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.academia.edu.
 M. Heidegger, and E. T. Gendlin. What Is a Thing?. South Bend, Ind.: Regnery/Gateway, 1967.
 B. Brown, “Thing Theory”, Critical Inquiry, vol. 28, no. 1, Things (Autumn, 2001). Accessed on: April 6, 2021. [Online]. Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1344258.
 M. Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind”, trans. Carleton Dallery, The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History, and Politics, trans. J. M. Edie et al., ed. Edie (Evanston, Ill., 1964).
 A. Badiou. Handbook of inaesthetics (A. Toscano, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.
 J. Gaboury, "Critical Unmaking: Towards a Queer Computation", The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities. UC Berkeley. Report #: 49, 2018. [Online]. Available: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/0cq870wh.
 N. Hanselmann, “There Is No Hardware”, M.F.A. Thesis, UC Santa Cruz, 2009-2010. Accessed on: May 1, 2021. [Online]. Available: http://nik.works/project/bodyfuck/.
 The code is based on “particle lab 3” example code explored in “Form and Process” module led by Andy Lomas at Goldsmiths as part of the Computational Arts MA: https://learn.gold.ac.uk/mod/page/view.php?id=927776.
 Pointer Blender mesh downloaded from this online mesh library https://free3d.com/3d-models/anatomy
 I. Bogost. Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Accessed on: May 1, 2021. [Online]. Available: www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttsdq9.
- Nelmarie Du Preez’s “to stab”, 2013. Single-channel video with sound. Duration: 45". Retrieved from: http://www.nelmariedupreez.co.za/loops-of-relation.html
- Stelarc’s Exoskeleton in Cankarjev Dom, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2003. Igor Skafar. Retrieved from: https://magz.tempo.co/read/36142/stelarc-a-third-ear-a-third-arm
- Nik Hanselmann’s “Bodyfuck”, 2019-2010. Retrieved from: http://nik.works/project/bodyfuck