Thought in Resistance
by Sarah Heuberger
Is exhaustion the result of endless attempts to maintain intensity in our lives? The issue with intensity — if we understand it as the interruption of the monotony of everyday life, of the unchanging, of existential platitude, as sudden excitations — is its ephemeral nature, its volatile and necessarily unpredictable, always surprising character. Intensity is a pure internal experience that escapes any judgement from the outside, is owned only by the individual, given “[t]he feeling that it could not be the life of any random person”, as Tristan Garcia argues.1 The search for these moments makes us create situations that lift the pulse, energy drinks, leisure parks. Paradoxically, we try to create settings for what extends beyond our control.
But isn’t it limiting to think about intensity only as a short-lived rush to the top? Is exhaustion only the shadow of the intensive life, the consequence of an infinite quest for the unreachable fulfillment, the total breakdown — or is there something to exhaustion, that is sensitive, emotional and intense in a different way, like the feeling of having spent the night dancing?
“Exhausted is a whole lot more than tired” writes Gilles Deleuze; according to Alain Ehrenberg, exhaustion is the result of the continuous effort of contemporary individuals to become themselves. Buyung-Chul Han refers to the structural change of our attention, which is overwhelmed and fragmented through excessive stimuli and information. The future is exhausted, the formerly radical “no future” of punk has become common sense in the 21st century, states Franco Berardi. We can no longer even imagine an alternative to capitalism, as Mark Fisher describes, while sleep, as stated by Jonathan Crary, is the last human sphere evading capitalisation — so far.
Contrary to these negative approaches, and beyond understanding exhaustion simply as diagnosis, can exhaustion also be appropriated as a method, as a way of understanding our own vulnerabilities and to engage with the conditions of our time, while maintaining the intense in more sustainable and sensual ways? Exhaustion, not in the sense of standard calls for slowing down, re-imagined as a reorientation of the relation to our environment.
Our everyday life, which is characterised by constant categorisations — in relation to others and ourselves — has created a context in which polarisations shape the political climate. Simultaneously, an all-pervading creative paradigm dissolves opposites and incorporates deviations.Against this background, a state in which forms of absolute identifications and classifications are no longer possible nor necessary appears as the only leap forward.
Where oppositional attitudes today are often expressed in particularly radicalised visions, either in accelerationist’s or traditionalist’s terms — art, in its negativity, can open up a different space and address possibilities to engage with this conflicted contemporary from another angle. The performances of Anne Imhof and Omsk Social Club initiate a dynamic that oscillates between energy and powerlessness, a momentum that can potentially tip over at any moment. An ANTI attitude, “between power and revolt, and sometimes dwelling on the in-betweens”.2
The movements of the performers in Anne Imhof’s “Sex” (2019-ongoing) are never at rest. They move fast or slow, indulge in activities or distractions, check their phones, run, towards each other or apart, connect, scatter and repeat. Sometimes they remain in positions, formations, pictorial constellations, holding on until exhausted, always pointing beyond the presence of the situation. When bodily boundaries are reached, performance and physical reality intersect. Performing exhausts the real body.
In the absence of a coherent narrative, they produce images, motifs, being instagramable at every moment. This melancholy, according to Roland Barthes, is inherent in photography as a record of disappearance. Photography is not only the medium of longing, but also of evidence, witnessing an existence. Acceleration, desynchronization, chronopathology are frequently discussed reasons for the exhaustion of society. Standstill is no longer about contemplation, but is the pose for the perfect image; to be seen means to exist, to stand out means to remain. Driven to be unique, we turn into stereotypes.
But not only the content of an image determines its intensity — “A seemingly harmless moment, a gesture performed a thousand times […] can suddenly emerge and evoke the epiphanic impression of an electric shock.”3
Is it these gestures we are waiting for in Imhof´s performances? These gestures that never clearly occur throughout the 4h-duration of the piece, which constantly oscillates between speed and slowness, between climax and boredom? At most, they seem to be hinted at, and yet the intensity of the atmosphere is what is most often reviewed by spectators. Thought proceeds in resistance – while the prerequisites for intense pitches are given at all moments, in the beat of the strobe lights, the music, the performers’ movements, battles turning into caress. Vaporisers, beer cans, sugar, what keeps us going. Mattresses, usually places for sleep, relaxation and intimacy, become plateaus, staging, exhibiting a state of latent exhaustion — rather an undersensed mood, than yet revealed. The intense is experienced when waiting for it, while exhaustion is the conscious attempt to maintain energy and postpone the breakdown. In delay, exhaustion and intensity collapse. Within this collapse, intensity detaches from the notion of the rush or the entertaining force of interruption and can be thought of as an attentive act of sustaining energy, in between thinking and feeling.
The performances of Omsk Social Club are designed as role-plays. The traditional format of LARP (Life Action Role Play) is based on the transformation from one identity to another. Modified as RGP (Real Game Play), Omsk Social Club abolishes the strict separation between reality and game, using bleed as metaphor. The performances are emblematic of the existentialist paradigm of being-thrown-into-the-world, in which freedom and the fear of the responsibility this freedom brings with it, merge. This indefinite fear, tied to the requirement for constant self-transgression, is as often discussed as the reason for exhaustion as acceleration. Thinking of exhaustion as hybrid state between the pleasure of losing control and the consequences of having lost it, could we also embrace it?
Games, in the ordinary sense, embody the possibility of the unexpected within a secure framework. A functional game demands clear rules and a clear demarcation from the world outside of it. Omsk clearly suspends this differentiation and thus destructs a natural ground for communication. This makes it difficult to read each other, resulting in the inaccessibility of other players, whose behaviour can never be conclusively identified as real or performed. Contact is therefore dependent on intuition instead of language. In the frequent attempt to understand and interpret the other, the individual is constantly thrown back on itself. This physical and mental involvement, throughout the duration of the performance — “Dead Air” (2018) is 72 hours of sleep deprivation — may lead to a limitation of the reflective, associative capacity. But doesn’t this restriction of alert reflection on the other hand lead to a strengthening of emotional perceptions and thus also of intuition? Doesn’t the distinction between reality and play then lose its relevance and appear as artificial as other fixed categories and identities?
Mattresses are no place of rest in Omsk´s performances either. Rather, they are the place for tarot card rituals and crystals, where a blind glance into the future is cultivated. Timothy Leary describes the experience of LSD as ritual, leading to ecstasy by expanding the senses through the means of the body. It is the body that obstructs our adaption to the acceleration of contemporary life; sluggish, conservative and tied to a day and night rhythm it is tied to periods of recovery. Exhaustion is more akin to the experience of amphetamine, it is the effort and the struggle to keep the body awake against its fatigue, without spiritual impulses. Instead of expanding the senses, they are restricted, or rather, re-focused: exhausted minds uncover ambivalences in the already given, as the members of Andy Warhol’s Factory explored in the 70s. The expansion of time awake intensifies the contracting oscillation between positive and negative feelings, between euphoria and anxiety and instead of rejecting these feelings, the desire to indulge in paranoia evolves, the desire to revel and to linger. Above all, however, what arises in the tension between sleep and wakefulness in the performances of Omsk is another sense of collectivity, “the feeling of not quite belonging, of not feeling togetherness, but of being together in spite of that lack […].”4
Exhaustion is not only passive, but an act of commitment — to remain awake and to suspend breakdown. It is intense in its delay and has the potential to accelerate emotions rather than thoughts. It could be initiated as a form of agency, which enables more subtle and sustainable forms of excitement and enhances intuitive approaches to communities and maybe even solidarities beyond the “objective conditions that divide us”.5
1 Garcia, Tristan, ‘Das intensive Leben. Eine moderne Obsession’ (transl. Ulrich Kunzmann), Suhrkamp: Berlin 2017 (2016), p. 17.
2 Hessler, Stefanie, Poka-Yio und Stafylakis, Kostas, ‘ANTI-’, s. 22-29, in: ANTI-. Athens Biennial 2018. Exhibition Catalogue, Stefanie Hessler, Pokal-Yio, Kostas Stafylakis und Augustine Zenakos (Hrsg.), Athens Biennial Publications: Athen 2018, p. 23.
3 Garcia, 2017 (206), p. 11
4 Weathers, Chelsea, ‘Drug time’, p. 653-686, in: Criticism, Vol. 56, No. 3, Andy Warhol (Summer 2014).
5 Aarons, K., ‘No Selves to Abolish: Afropessimism, Anti-Politics and the End of the World’, Mute Magazine Online, 29.02.2016.
SARAH HEUBERGER is a researcher and writer with a background in art history, philosophy and aesthetics and with a main interest in contemporary performance and the conditions of the body. She is currently based in Stockholm, were she curated “The Archive as Body, the Body as Archive” at Index. The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation (2019). Previously, she collaborated on the projects “What Orthography Was”, with SAC (2019), “Narratives in Boundless Space” at Mousonturm and “Subject:Fwd:Unknown” at fffriedrich, all in Frankfurt am Main.