Conversations with Michael Taussig (Columbia University) and Hélène Baril (Visual Artist)
In its ritual-like aspects, The Sea Theater is fueled by the force of its makers’ long-standing engagement with their respective practices. From their avid readings, the piece retains great theoretical depth and erudition, and summons myriad figures from the realm of literature. The practice of writing, in an expansive sense, is particularly key here: it animates and stitches together The Sea Theater (which takes its roots in a text written by Taussig in 2000: “The Beach. A Fantasy”). Similarly, the question of performance has traversed both Taussig and Baril’s work and reflections from very early on— whether this involves, among other things, driving a painted racecar through rural France or studying shamanic rituals near the Putumayo river in Colombia.
Jasmine Pisapia: I thought that a point of departure could be the text that triggered The Sea Theater: “The Beach: A Fantasy,” first published in Critical Inquiry in 2000. As I was re-reading it, I realized that the piece ends with the words of Sylvia Plath, taken from her journal. She writes: “A god inbreathes himself in everything. Practice: be a chair, a toothbrush, a jar of coffee from the inside out; know by feeling it.” And so then you, Michael, write: “The beach, something we enjoy, an eternal childhood; we continuously lose to green twilight and green lightning, afterimage of waves arching themselves between myself and the sun. Practice.” I was wondering if you could say a few words about this piece, but also more specifically about the end, which suggests an invitation to practice?
Michael Taussig: It’s intriguing you bring that last bit up. My understanding of the Plath quote and its usage is the double-movement into joy. The playing with the water is an end in itself, and being immersed. This process whereby subject and object come together can be called immanence. My understanding is that it has generally been given secondary importance in much of Western philosophy and social science, but it also has its own history, its own pedigree, through Nietzsche with the Dionysian, and then with Deleuze and Guattari and so on. Now there is all this new talk about subjects, objects and things... I wasn’t aware of it, nor was I thinking about it at all when I was writing this essay. When Plath says “be this and be that,” it’s such an easily, calmly-stated appeal for transforming oneself, for becoming all these other people and things, situations and so forth. I was so taken with that, and that seemed to capture the impetus of the essay, the first approach to the sea or the beach. I could go on for a long time, but my take on the beach was obviously very influenced by modern Western civilization. I think that people using the beach is very, very modern—going down to the sea and swimming. I don’t think it’s more than 100 years old. It might’ve been done before that for health reasons, but it’s relatively modern that people take off their clothes and jump in the sea. Also, in the childhood essay on the beach (the fantasy) I was thinking about fantasy production as a result of not being able to have what you want. That’s how the essay starts, summoning Freud. I think when we’re thinking about the new view of the ocean, whether it’s from the beach or from a condominium on a gentrified waterfront, capitalist production of fantasy is a very important commodity form,and film seems to me part and parcel of that. That’s what I’d like to stress: that this is so much about the move from being close to the real, to substituting fantasy for it, whether you’re sitting on the tenth floor of a condominium, or sitting in the theater and looking at a movie of the sea. I don’t want to sound like an old-fashioned Marxist, but it’s so important to me that over the span of my lifetime, the sea has changed completely. The Sea Theater tries to get that across in different sorts of ways.
MT: In Plath’s statement, there is the fascination with metamorphosis. We obviously feel that we can’t really become something else, but there has been this urge for becoming, as Deleuze makes clear in his essay, “Becoming- Intense, Becoming-Animal.” My book Mimesis and Alterity ends in a big cri du cœur for the metamorphic. And I thought there were plenty of indications in the 1990s, in terms of making ethnicity, inventing traditions, changing sex, and so on. It seemed that people had a lot of fun re-making themselves, and that’s a metamorphic moment that fascinated me. I’m not so sure now about all of that but Hélène and I were really taken, I think, with the notion that the changing meaning of the sea, which is what the fundamental frame is all about, involved seeing the sea, having the sea view as a commodity. In relating to the sea now, most people relate to the sea as a visual sublime. And that’s I think where we started from.
disorder. That there was something—I don’t know how to put atmosphere, or in thought itself, whereby the more you pressed into
more disorderly it became; the more disorderly it became, the
demand came, and the reality of order and so forth. Whether it’s
nature, or whatever. So, there’s something I think transcendence/immanence movement, which does correspond to that. It’s definitely important to keep thinking of the continual restless movement.
But I should add that looking at recent documentary films such as Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel, 2012) also made me think how irritating this immanence can be, and made me want to back-pedal into old-fashioned documentary. I couldn’t believe I was thinking this, but there was something about it I found very disturbing. It is too easy, this immersion. Something has happened to filmmaking or the way we look at films, or look at order and it—in the order, the more the people, or in this screens: the emotion is not really emotion. It’s a sort of curious and fatal substitute for it. I was thinking... you can have your haptic, you can leave your haptic, you can zoom in, you can zoom out.
HB: The Beach essay is the first text from Mick that I read, actually. So I was very naïve, and I think the text is very naïve in itself— I mean in a good way. The first images that came to my mind were related to the eye of the child he was, the changed meaning of the sea once he became an adult. The beauty and then the catastrophe, the strength of them both interlinked. The adult and the child looking at that spectacle, whomI somehow chose to turn into Sancho and Don Quixote figures. I tried to be distant, still, from the text—from the Beach essay I mean. I think this text was like the very first string or root, and extensions came out of it. The Sea Theater is made out of layers of text, I see it as a big palimpsest. We also found out that the latest version is never final! I find that the words move and navigate a lot while the images stay rather still, like a ship carrying something archaic.
JP: I wanted to go into your drawings, and the practice of illustration. Hélène, you were telling me that you were influenced by Gustave Doré and Jean-Jacques Grandville. Can you tell me a bit about your perception of this older practice, and how it might relate to how you think about your work in the context of The Sea Theater?
HB: That’s a big question. But first I would like to specify that indeed, I told you about Doré and Grandville, as inspirations. But actually I don’t think they were a big deal while I was drawing,. What happened is that I discovered them in the act of doing. You know, I didn’t become a drawer—nobody becomes a drawer. I’m just doing. Practicing! I think it’s hugely important to be aware that it’s something that anybody can do, in a way. This afternoon I was talking with people who came here, and a woman who’s writing her PhD was enjoying the drawings, and she said “well, I’m going to start drawing again now.” It happens very often that people wish to go back to this. It’s as if the memory of it comes back. But of course there is this commitment to hard work. Anybody can draw, but one must give it time. If you have something else to do, you won’t have time to do it. But Grandville and Doré would not like the illustrative adjective a lot, because it was not something that was positively connoted, from the point of view of “higher art.” Flaubert, for example, hated illustration. He would say he liked images when they were suggestive, not illustrative. Anyway, I got into these kinds of issues and stakes by chance. What I think is that it’s very interesting as an artist to notice what places you in one category or another, and what’s going to allow you to show your work, or not. I am not an illustrator, definitely not, though I can be, at times. During the creation process of The Sea Theater, we would frequently discuss The Death Ship (1926), the novel by B. Traven. For example in relation to that image! And that one!
MT: Well, you look like you’ve never looked before, and these are the functional, instrumental qualities of drawing. You see better, you see more. You contemplate more, a particular scene. I follow John Berger (1977, 1982) that way: there is a way in which drawing takes you into the object, a weird corporeal thing. He equates it with dance and that is important to me, because some of the people I worked with are singers and dancers, in a way. Another aspect is that the effect on memory is deeper for me than a photograph. Looking at my own photographs is nothing compared to looking at my own drawings. I also find that drawing is much more mysterious, evocative, and all of these statements can seem overly general but damn, when I see someone showing images during an academic talk, and once in a blue moon, if ever actually, you see a drawing, chances are the drawing will be very evocative, in ways that the photo falls completely flat. They are different types of realism. The photograph has its component of realism, despite what people say. But then again I have to qualify it, because I’ve seen drawings, which are studied, realistic...like Spears ofTwilight (1996) by the famous French anthropologist Philippe Descola. There, I find they flatten the imagination completely. There are types of drawings that are done in the field which are very meticulous, very “real,” the little boy looks just like a little boy, there is not a detail that is not elaborated...And it makes me shudder actually. The drawings that I like are the bad drawings, the ones that evoke and suggest. And that is something that photographs don’t do.
HB: The tide cycle surely is something important to me, but I would be unable to tell you if it has an impact on my creative process. I guess it has, just like the changing of the day to night has one on all of us. I made most of those drawings in Finland, during basically a three months period, from November till January—the darkest days in Finland. That definitely had an impact on this series of drawings. It is actually my first series in black and white. Now that I have left Finland, I am already going back to color. The graphite on paper requires a lot of time and patience and it was probably related to my being in Finland at the time when the year was ending and when I was looking for a place to live without being sure that it should be Finland! You know, creation simply and magically overcomes some of our fears. So during that time I made about 40 drawings, either in A4 or A3. I believed in those drawings because they were so easy to do and also small scale. A pencil, a paper, and a table! And thanks to my collaboration with Mick I was provided with new images and new connections, which allowed me to assemble pairs of images and signs.. I was driven by our conversation—emails—, which was very playful withhim being Don Quixote and me Sancho Panza. That’s how we made fantasy come into The Sea Theater! So it was both easy and hard work. I had to “complete” the series wondering when the end would come. It is an intriguing thing to me, this notion of end in a series of drawings or paintings.
JP: Do you have memories of being a small child and drawing?
HB: Like all of us. I guess so, yeah. But it’s not like a skill, like when you learn to play an instrument. I don’t know how to explain it. When you learn to play music, you have to know the basics of subversion. In my view, drawing is not about technical skills. It’s about practicing them and playing and getting your mind free of references, all the while holding a lot of images in mind.
MT: This image you have over here.
Knight Errant, that’s another example of how to think about illustration-vs.- something else. ‘Cause this has a spark, an originating spark, in an essay by Peter Linebaugh—one of my favourites—called All the Atlantic Mountains Shook (1982).
HB: It’s not mentioned directly in the performance, but it’s actually in the belly of The Sea Theater, an important text at one point of the process!
JP: How were you thinking of the question of montage?
MT: I think we’ve been very casual about it—just do it on instinct. Which may be a good thing, maybe a terrible thing.
HB: We’ve been working on it very casually, sometimes just before the performance. Clumsiness is important. The background of the montage itself I think was very organized, we knew where we were going but then thought we should just let it go. Perhaps to avoid any kind of aesthetic effect and let it remain rough.
HB: The little ones, you don’t have them so much in the US.
MT: A really powerful evocation. In a second, I said: “why don’t we do this in The Sea Theater?” It’s certainly not only ironic, trying to poke fun... Ah ha! At last, I have the sea! But in a way it’s despair, which is close to irony I guess, despair that actually you feel suffused with the sea through this lingual—this taste—but all the more so because you haven’t got it. We wanted to use it as a critical moment, and not only as an ironic moment. There is the possibility of the magical renewal, the magical capture of the sea. Someone else said, “oh! The shrimp is the madeleine,” you know, the Proustian madeleine. For some reason I felt that was only half-right, because for me it was a critical thing, a critique of history.
HB: A sick madeleine.
JP: Transport is also present in Hélène’s previous artistic project with the automobile. Would you like to talk a little bit about this project with the automobile and how this connected with the boat for you?
HB: When I was working on an art project that involved a car, I considered the car as a symbol of commodity, definitely. The car was my little orange. It was my own car that I repainted several times, with racing cars stripes or with an imitation of the Shell logo. I gave it names and would travel with it across Europe. My point was to try to deal with art with other means than the gallery, the studio, and national identity. With the “Shell car”— its name was SBK—, I wanted to confront the commercial and ecological aspect of the brand with the social aspect of a basic gas station. In some of The Sea Theater drawings, the Shell sign is present, almost like a relic.
wanted to give voice to the way that even the ships have been changed. First of all, they no longer really are like ships, or have this organic relationship to the sea. Now I know everything I say there is charged and can be challenged, but I was thinking here’s a ship in which half the cargo is obviously above decks, and so it seems like the ship is almost labouring, carrying this huge superstructure of boxes that are containers, right? And it’s something I guess you’d never see before 1950; until then, ships always had everything under deck. Second, when you look at the container ships that were first made and I think are still being made in South Korea, they’re like boxes themselves. The ships that I saw in the port of Mejillones in Northern Chile are like floating containers. They’re like Chinese dolls. I mean, you’ve got this huge container which floats, and inside it you put the smaller containers. And presumably, inside of them there are other containers. There’s probably a lot to think about in terms of this Chinese doll phenomenon, but they certainly don’t look like ships anymore. That to me is a very charged metaphor for the transformation in the relationship to nature. Now, I could be challenged, and be told: well, you’ve had ships that have been built the same way, they’ve looked the same way for 2000 years, now engineers have discovered more “efficient” ways or something like that. And you know, I have to deal with that, but there’s certainly been a fundamental change, not just to the aesthetics but to the meaning of “ship.”
MT: The mastery of non-mastery is a sort of motif for me. It’s an elegant aesthetic movement, it’s a political ideal, and it’s an ethical ideal for trying to—even at this late stage in world history, as we see it— of trying to maybe ameliorate or even change the end of the world. These are phenomena we haven’t talked about yet, but a lot of the energy in the piece derives from the notion of the end of the world, and therefore transformed categories of philosophy and of the body. And the mastery of non-mastery is actually a way of talking about an ongoing strategy which is also a trick, that I myself relate to what I have thought about shamanism and magic tricks, in which there’s skilled revelation and skilled concealment. I call it a sort of figure-8 logic, which you never can terminate; it’s an unwinding, if you like, of the domination of nature, which can never simply just be reversed, it’s like a ju- jitsu thing in which the forces of domination have to be drawn into one, transformed in this continuous process. It’s a major anxiety in the piece. It’s a political aim for me. And that’s getting into the realm of practice I think. I would like to see that develop as a practice.
MT: I wonder if one could look at The Sea Theater itself and find moments of that, or a thread running through it like that. It’d be difficult I think to do justice to your question. And it’s an obvious question, and I should’ve thought about it a good deal more. I think perhaps the language, and also the drawings, contain a strange mix of directness and indirectness, and perhaps one could say that this is the sort of borderland of the mastery of non-mastery.
JP: One of the important questions should also concern the idea of joining together social theory and, in this case, performance. You have started exploring this with The Sun Theater at the Whitney Museum in 2012 [The Sea Theater is the second performance piece Michael Taussig has worked on, the first one being centered around the sun]. What compelled you to explore this mode of expression at first? What might that say about certain tensions within academe, when many scholars express the desire of going towards practice-based knowledge and techniques?
Now, the way I first answered your question it was sort of predictable, but the actual enactment and doing of it would answer your question in a different and better way, I think. I went to Texas where I read a section from my Nervous System (1992), it’s called “Homesickness,” a long, rambling essay, and I go through the Hugo Ball thing, so you’ve actually got the text there. I read it out in Austin, and everybody loved it, and I wanted to wear a Hugo Ball costume but I couldn’t fit it into the plane ‘cause it was too fragile and bulky, and so all I did was buy a shopping bag from the supermarket and cut holes into it, so it was pretty mundane. When I got off the plane—I was flying to California—the first question was, “what were you doing giving a talk with a bag on your head?” and I said “well the bag was only, like, for five minutes”, you know, it was just a bag. Then I got an invitation to apply for a job at a fancy university, and they took about two years to reject me, and the guy who attended the final meeting said “and they said you give talks with a bag on your head.” And I couldn’t believe this! It’s amazing how you talk about performance and here’s a person, they make a nice costume and they do their performance, but the real performance is occurring in the gossip channels and over the telephone, and they actually stop you from getting a job—I was really amazed by that. I went back to Texas about six years ago, so this is covering a period of maybe 30 years, and a woman was in the audience, and before the talk started she said “Hi Mick! Yeah, great to see you, I always will remember that talk you gave when you were here first and you mooned the audience.” Do you know what that means?
MT: Yeah, show your asshole. Take your pants off and show your asshole. HB: Well, it shows a lot about the academic world, no?
MT: I think this is a bit of a way of answering your question. So who’s the performer here? And what does that say about academic culture? I think for me, going back, the performative thing, is both the energy and what’s wrong with my texts. I think that the performances that I do are really stories, and I really do get into the storytelling, with all the warning signals flashing in front of me. That storytelling is dead versus storytelling has been recuperated, I think, in our time, in a very cutesy way which I am frightened of.
MT: And it’s not in a theater department, it’s in a social science department. That seemed really important to me.
JP: There have been, of course, many ways in which anthropology has engaged and continues to engage in artistic creation—documentary filmmaking could be the most obvious example. You seem to suggest a certain reticence towards contemporary immersive documentary forms, almost urging a return to more “traditional” documentary practices. What would there be to learn from these “older” documentary forms?
MT. “Return”? You can’t and shouldn’t even if you could. What’s more, in film, installation, the photo essay, drawing and ethnography, no one may trump another. There are so many ways of documenting—but in my little corner of realization for over a century there has existed what you might call a standard mode of writing and presentation tilted towards objectivism, impersonality, the un-humorous and the subtly authoritarian with no sense of reflexivity as to one’s modus operandi, no sense as to the act of representation and how one does that while undermining it at the same time, thereby miming the play of power. This is what I engaged with in The Nervous System (1992) and “The Corn-Wolf: Writing Apotropaic Texts” (2010) and what I think— for example—James Agee and Walker Evans are doing as critical realism in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).
And the waters came, and swept vast numbers
Of creatures through me, so that in my timbers Creature befriends creature in the gloom.
And the sharks inside me felt at home
As our bodies become lost ships
Invisible ships on far flung deserts of the soul by the Kill van Kull That nobody sees any more
Headed for lonely outposts on desert sands and mashed up slum drift
Stroked by seaweed Gently across our eyes
Sharks and octopi
swimming through the end of history unwinding, the Mastery of Non-Mastery
Michael Taussig teaches anthropology at Columbia University in the city of New York. He is the author of several books, includingThe Devil and Commodity Fetishism (1980); Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man (1987); The Nervous System (1992); Mimesis and Alterity (1993); My Cocaine Museum (2004); I Swear I Saw This. Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely my Own (2011).
Hélène Baril is a Paris-based artist. After earning an MA in literature, Hélène quit her job teaching French to study art. Moving to Finland, she began a career painting houses. Recently, she’s been working on a project involving racecars. In 2011, she created Orlandus Gallery, inspired by a fictional Finnish painter and racing car driver from the early 1800s. The artist also served as inspiration for SBK, an autonomous organization Hélène founded in 2012, which used her repainted car for meetings and as a work tool. In 2014, she worked in collaboration with anthropologist Michael Taussig on the piece The Sea Theater. Her first solo show at Museum Blue, Saint Louis, Missouri, focuses on the question of alternate and modular narration.
Jasmine Pisapia is an anthropology doctoral student at Columbia University.
Agee, James, and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Boston: Houghton Mifflin company, 1941.
Traven, B. The Death Ship: The Story of an American Sailor. Brooklyn: L. Hill Books, 1991.
Berger, John, and Jean Mohr. Another Way of Telling. New York: Pantheon, 1982.
Berger, John. Ways ofSeeing. New York: Penguin, 1977.
Descola, Philippe. The Spears of Twilight: Life and Death in the Amazon Jungle.
New York: New Press, 1996.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. “Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal.” A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi. London: Athlone Press, 1988.
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Random House, 1964 . Linebaugh, Peter. “All the Atlantic Mountains Shook.” Labour / Le Travail,
vol. 10 (Fall 1982): 87-121.
Taussig, Michael. “The Beach (A Fantasy).” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Winter, 2000): 248-278.
—. The Nervous System. New York: Routledge, 1992.
—. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History ofthe Sense. New York: Routledge,
—. “The Corn-Wolf: Writing Apotropaic Texts.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Autumn 2010): 26-33.
—. I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely my Own. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2011.