Posthuman Spiritualities in Contemporary Performance

Politics, Ecologies and Perceptions

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Silvia Battista
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , June
     2018.
     220 pages.
     $74.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9783319897578.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The central concept in Silvia Battista’s concentrated study of posthuman spirituality in contemporary performance art comes through her re-working of Michel Foucault’s “technologies of the self.” Looking back to the term’s etymological roots, Battista considers technology as “repetitive activities and behaviours: a specific methodological organization and arrangement of activities employed to modify how individuals, and whole categories, perceive themselves” (10). While Foucault’s “technologies of the self” focused on self-formation (i.e., how an individual might create and maintain, individually or with the help of others, states of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality), Battista turns this around to consider such technologies as emptying, fragmenting, or blurring the self, and its boundaries with others and its environment—examples are contemplation, meditation, prayer, breath work, isolation, silence, repetition, sensory deprivation, and ecstatic dance. 

Approaching “technology” as a concept that operates outside and beyond institutionalized religion, Battista employs the language of scientific research within a laboratory’s controlled setting to describe the experiments and explorations of the artists she analyzes, in a way that allows the realm of the spiritual to be both the basis for empirical research—looking at brain waves during meditation—and also the means for subjective transformations and revelations. If, on the whole, a technology of the self produces new means of self-perception, then Battista’s Posthuman Spiritualities in Contemporary Performance provocatively asks what it means to perceive the self in a world obsessed with self-assessment—what it might mean to have a view from “no point of view” (21), or to experience the self as “wholly other” (18). 

The book maintains its tight analytical focus as it moves through five case studies of very different contemporary performance artists whose works employ and offer technologies of the self: Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present (Music Box Films, 2012); the environmental installation Deer Shelter Skyspace by James Turrell (The Art Fund, 2007); CAT by Ansuman Biswas, which is a thought experiment in a gallery space; the community-based shamanic performance, Journey to the Lower World, by Marcus Coates (2003); and Wolfgang Laib’s eco-critical work with hand-collected pollen. While each chapter can be read as a stand-alone essay, the book as a whole offers a comprehensive guide to the central concept of technologies of the self, and a refinement of the idea can be perceived as the reader moves through the chapters.

Another intriguing aspect of Posthuman Spiritualities is that it challenges Western critical and philosophical approaches to non-theistic spirituality that overlook both the ancient presence and current practice of precisely such non-theological systems. Posthuman scholars such as Jane Bennet, who speaks of the nondifferentiation of inert matter and human life, or Karen Barad with her theory of the “intra-active” relationships between subjects and objects, mirror other introspective traditions that approach ontology through nondifferentiation rather than difference. Vipassana meditation, for example, which has roots in the Theravada tradition but also gained popularity as a new movement in the 20th century, is one such technology of the self used by Biswas in CAT. By integrating religiously and culturally historical perspectives into her analysis of contemporary performance art, Battista opens posthuman spirituality as practice that can simultaneously respect traditions, engage with current cultural practices, and also look to the future. 

Battista’s work also expands and challenges Western assumptions about what it means to do academic research. For most of the artists analyzed, Battista devised auto-ethnographic experiments that replicated some or all of the artist’s practice, so that Battista herself can more thoroughly understand their technologies of the self. Then, she used her experience as raw data to process the theoretical parameters of the artist’s work as a form of posthuman spirituality. For her analysis of Abramovic’s The Artist is Present, Battista performed eight sessions of two hours each of reciprocal gazing with a friend. The almost hallucinatory experiences that ensued subverted expectations of normal human vision and opened “a field of visibility that is utterly ‘other’ from the ordinary,” entering the realm of “visionaries” (59). She attended shamanic workshops and observed others undertaking shamanic journeys in order to understand Coates’ Journey to the Lower World, which was a shamanic journey performed on behalf of the Liverpool residents of a storey housing block that had been listed for demolition. To better appreciate Turrell’s Deer Shelter Skyspace, an installation of light and space in the forested Yorkshire Sculpture park that encourages visitors to, as the artist’s Quaker grandmother used to say, “go inside and greet the light,” Battista spent many hours inside the space contemplating its skyward aperture and observing other visitors. Doing so revealed Turrell’s work as a technology for introspection as well as comprehending one’s connection to the outside world (88). Working with the image of Erwin Schrödinger’s cat from theoretical physics, Biswas’ CAT consisted of the artist performing Vipassana meditation for ten consecutive days and nights within a black box placed in the middle of a gallery (119). In the most dramatic example of auto-ethnographic experimentation in the book, Battista takes Biswas’s proposition that “we are each in a box, the boundaries of which are drawn by the body and its senses” seriously by herself engaging in Vipassana meditation as “an introspective configuration of spectatorship constructed by directing self-attention within through sharpening an internal, perceptual sense” (120). Taking part in a ten-day meditation course, wherein she meditated on average from eight-to-ten-hours-a-day, Battista learned that Vipassana meditation as a technology of the self creates self-awareness on a totally new level, one where Battista discerned her body “performing internally, following a script that was not ‘mine’”, which allowed her to see beyond the assumption of her own individual, personal agency, because she experienced the disruption of all previously known senses of her “self” (125-126). 

Through auto-ethnographic experimentation, Battista concludes that technologies of the self make possible “an internal performative condition which, depending on the practice performed, enable the ontological modification of reality as previously perceived” (192). It is this overflowing of the singular, and the dissolution of the assumption of absolute barriers between body, mind, and being that makes Battista’s “technologies of the self” an important contribution to understanding contemporary spirituality as involved in posthuman performance and theory. This reader surmises that Battista may, in later years, may be regarded as one of the first performance theorists to give voice to an important subfield: posthuman spirituality.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Claire Maria Chambers is Associate Professor of Drama at Sogang University.

Date of Review: 
August 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Silvia Battista is an artist and writer. Over the last twenty years, she has engaged with a multidisciplinary set of artistic languages and research methods.

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