Limits of the Self

Abstract

‘Limits of the Self’ is a poetic exploration of our senses, written from the personal point-of-view of a scenographer. The text is part of Into Territories Unknown, a cahier exploring artistic research, written by Gaia’s Machine, a performance collective the author is part of. The cahier compiles their practices of interdependency and staging ecological spectatorship—a performative way of being-with the world, and a worldly way of being-with an artwork.

The text is inspired by the author’s artistic research into sensory scenography, exploring our human senses as the connection between our inner and outer realms, which can be attuned through awareness, criticality and language. As actors in the Anthropocene, we are increasingly becoming single-perspective humans, who seek to understand and dominate the world through vision alone. In practising the language of the senses, we can give value to the invisible, tipping the sensory system away from the hegemony of vision towards a sensuous world with more than one possibility of perception.

The text weaves together notions of interdependency, non-human agency, sensory awareness and aesthetic knowledge. The images within the text are visuals taken from the author’s scenographic installations, aiming to evoke a certain tactility of language.


‘The world itself has a role to play in our liberation. Its very pressures, pains and risks can wake us up—release us from our bonds of ego and guide us home to our vast, true nature…

The way we define and delimit the self is arbitrary. We can place it between our ears and have it looking out from our eyes, or we can widen it to include the air we breathe, or, at other moments we can cast its boundaries farther to include the oxygen-giving trees and plankton, our external lungs, and beyond them the web of life in which they are sustained. I used to think that I ended with my skin, that everything within the skin was me and everything outside the skin was not. But now you’ve read these words, and the concepts they represent are redoing your cortex, so the “process” that is me now extends as far as you.’

—Joanna Macy 1

In the spirit of interdependency, I invite you to cast the net of your ‘self’ into this following text, and join me in weaving through some of the themes crucial for my artistic process.

Ecological Spectatorship I

During my M.A. in scenography studies, I began exploring a term I call ‘ecological spectatorship.’ The term calls for a certain attentiveness to our human senses, which are the bridge between our inner realms and outer reality. Our senses offer us an in-between-space where we can experience the reality of other-than-human forms of life, and where we can open the confines of our restricted logocentric perspective to join with an experience in its becoming. In my scenographic practice, I create intimate sensory experiences which call for a surrender of our human senses to the shared sentience of space. I use a sensory toolbox packed with ambiguous natural scents, stroboscopic light, ambient shamanic soundscapes, tactile stimulation and slow duration. I compose these sensory elements into sensory choreographies, designed to guide an audience on a journey of increasing surrender. In these experiences, I aim to create glimpses of sensual awakening, allowing a participant to experience the transcendence of their individual limits towards moving in synchrony with space itself.

Becoming

The purpose of developing experiences which incite this form of spectatorship is to create more sensually aware spectators. In my experience as a spectator, I have witnessed artworks which call me to change my way of being before I can step into them—for example, Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals in Room 3 at the Tate Modern. Upon entering this room, I can feel the air change. Away from the endless caverns of art past and present in the Tate Modern, this room offers a slice of solitude. I can feel the colours’ weight in the air, and how this changes people’s behaviour—walking even more slowly, whispering, sitting for longer to take it in. The paintings demand that I change my point-of-view; I have to alter myself in order to approach the work. As my physicality begins to hum along with the vibrating colours that burn themselves on the back of my retina, I become immersed within something bigger than myself. The longer I stay in this space in surrender to the sombre tones, the clearer it becomes that the painting which I’m looking at is actually some deep unknown part of myself looking back at me.

Diving deeper

Ecological Spectatorship II

A performance that awakens an ecological spectator is a performance that demands you leave your position as an individual to meet the performance in its own environment, at its own pace. The ecological spectator is a retaliation of wonder against the rise of disenchantment (modernity’s usurpation of mystery by mastery).2 To be an ecological spectator is not to seek to rationalise every experience but to be comfortable with not-knowing; to accept and meet our fears, and to sit with them through the drawn-out hours of the night. The only way to understand is to try not to understand it. But to feel it.

Mutual intention

When was the last time you had to step out of your individual boundaries to encounter an artwork?

Take a moment to recall a memory of this…

How did the artwork invite you to step outside of your ‘self’?

What happened when you surrendered your ‘self’ and joined with the artwork?

How did you feel after the experience had ended?

Darkness

Being in the dark gives us time to be with the unknown.

If we give space to the unknown, we come to know intimately that which we felt was far from us, until it becomes as close as our own breath. In my experience, the unknown we fear is not outside of us, it is us—it is a dark space within ourselves which we project into our outer reality. If we refuse to acknowledge the dark spaces which exist within ourselves, we refuse to experience the true depth of what it means to be human.

Night3

In reverence of darkness and the night, we can be confronted with our own mortality, and this experience ennobles our sense of emotional dignity. There will always be a dark spot in our human knowledge;4 the only way to understand this unknown is not to try to understand it in a logocentric way, but rather to try and approach it through our emotional and sensual intelligence. In my scenographic installations, darkness is an important element that can guide participants to suspend their expectations and become part of the experience. For example, participants’ comments on my installation Sound.space 5 stated that the darkness created a deeper sense of awareness, placing the participants fully in the present moment. Darkness calls the spectator to surrender to the here and now, to the place on the edge of their senses and the space. Through their senses, they can connect to the space they are submerged in and they can become with the experience, a key feature of ecological spectatorship.

In our present 24/7 economy, it is hard to escape the perpetual glow of fluorescent light, which reaches every alleyway and across to the outskirts of town. Today, to truly experience the darkness of night is rare. We live in undeniably dark times, but, paradoxically, our collective fear of the dark stops us from truly experiencing the totality darkness can offer.

It takes your eyes 40 minutes to adjust to total darkness.

The unknowable absolves all.

Look up to the night sky.
Darkness is an invitation into the unknown… into an unfathomable mystery 100,000 light years wide.
As the Milky Way above us rotates, our sun and solar system travel with it at 515,000 miles per hour.
Reading this right here, right now, you are spinning with 200 billion stars of our galaxy.

Held in delicate embrace.

Breath

You are the world sensing itself.

You are of this world, from this Earth and this air.

Your breath is a direct interrelation between you and the environment. With each inhale, you draw from your surroundings.
And with each exhale, you give over a part of yourself to the world.

Just take a pause from these words, and for a moment just consider that… consider all the breaths that are being shared
right at this moment
between all living beings and our environment.

To be Touched by Air

I turn to the west, and I merge with the wind. The winds which blow across mountain ranges, through valleys, which spark the tip of sand dunes ablaze and which bring the trees alive in ecstasy, the wind which raises carcasses of leaves in a macabre ode to death and life, which wafts a scent of autumn, which urges a change of heart… and which whispers against your cheek ‘I am here’—listen:

In my elemental purity, I am raw power. I am urgency, senseless sensing, gentle fire, whirring daze, chattering silence, urgent restlessness.
I am each breath you exhale and every breath you inhale.

Susurrus (from the Latin) a low, soft sound—whispering, muttering, murmuring, brustling, humming. What do you hear when you listen to the trees talking to you in autumn? What word describes that scratchy leafy conversation you hear when you run, whoop and kick through piles of dried leaves?

Sensing in Daily Life

In this text, I have shared some moments of curiosity, doubt, and friction… such moments are where I feel we can expand the limits of the self.

You are not a separate self

you are e v e r y w h e r e.

You partake in all processes, visible and invisible.

We exist in the unknown spaces in between.

I will close this meander with a personal experience…

On my way home, there is a particular long tunnel I cycle through which always delights my senses. Upon leaving the confines of the tunnel, you are overwhelmed by the impossibly large expanse of sky and space. It is truly dazzling on a clear, starry night, and even thinking about it now makes my skin quiver.

What I feel contributes to this sensual encounter is the spatial experience of cycling through a tunnel, which feels like a narrow confinement of your rational self, which then expands into a wide, vast opening. It feels like taking a swig of cool water on a sweltering day. Upon leaving the tunnel, you turn your face towards the embrace of the night sky and soak in the expanse of the universe. A man passing by who has witnessed your emerging laughs and claps at you, your face upturned to the sky, caught in wonder, as if seeing it for the first time.

An experience which awakens an ‘ecological spectator’ invites a participant to step out of their position as anthropos, and meet a performance/experience in its own environment, at its own pace. To reorientate our anthropocentric position and surrender our human tendency to control can be a radical act of sensual awakening. May we be enamoured with existence and have true appreciation for all of life’s experiences, the micro and the macro, the human and the other, the known and the unknown. Through slowing down and opening our senses we can discover a world raucously alive, and waiting for us to play.

Into Territories Unknown is planned to be published by HKU Performatieve Maakprocessen by the end of 2020.

Rhian Morris

Rhian Morris is a scenographer who creates intimate sensory experiences which call for a surrender of our human senses to the space. In these experiences, she aims to create glimpses of sensual awakening, allowing the participant to feel that they transcend their individual limits and start to move in synchrony with space itself. Morris recently graduated with an M.A. in Scenography from HKU University of the Arts, Utrecht. Morris is a member of the performance collective Gaia’s Machine, whose artistic research lies at the intersection of the human body, nature and technology.

References

Macy, Joanna, World as Lover, World as Self (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1991), p.159.

Bennett, Jane, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

Henry Beston, The Outermost House (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2003 [1929]).

Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

Rhian Morris (dir.), Sound.space (Utrecht: HKU, 2017).

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