About the start of my research
I watch by listening. It may read paradoxically, but I start this reflection on my practice - which is about looking at bodies - with listening.
When you talk or write, you only repeat what you already know. When you listen you learn something new. I've noticed that most people don't listen with the intention to understand, but to answer. I write my ideas about looking, again, through listening receptively. The importance of listening is often underestimated. Receptive listening is not easy either. There also exists a subtext - a meaning between the words. And it is precisely there where humanity manifests itself for me. You hear the essence of a human being in the gaps. Essentially, between words, the human body behaves differently.
Carl Rogers (1902 - 1987), the founder of humanistic psychology, made listening an art. He distilled the basis of his views on the growth of a person's personality to nineteen theses, noted in 1951. One of them underlined that "A person's experience is his reality". For Rogers, the subjective world of an individual in the here and now is more important than the objective reality of certain psychotherapeutic constructs. A person’s experience of reality is deemed more important than the reality itself. After all, what is reality? Roger emphasises that a therapist should see the world through the eyes of the client and experience the feelings of the other, whilst still maintaining some emotional distance. This idea forms the basis of his therapy, known as Rogerian client-centered psychotherapy. I see the emotional distance taken by the therapist from his client as a textbook example of the listening-relating viewer. Rogers links listening to an important human phenomenon. He indicates that by listening to someone, you are interested in that person more humanely. Feelings, not words, are placed as paramount to the experience. This allows a deeper respect of others' opinions; even if you disagree with what is said, you are connecting with another body beyond words. You also discover what is important to you through this encounter, learning about yourself in the process. In looking differently at the other, you look differently at yourself. Rogers defines this as empathy; being able to empathize with the other. Listening takes you to an open and attentive view. You look more receptively, with less or no bias.
Image of the BARRY masterclass 2019, in Zuidpool Antwerp. Photo by Joery Erna.
I think that people are increasingly afraid to really look at bodies in the arts. When you look, a mental space is created in which your attention can easily stray. You might lose your focus, and initially have the feeling that you are losing your individuality. Then, to confirm your individuality to yourself, you will give an opinion on what you see. I would argue that it is better to keep hold of your attention, by temporarily putting your own opinion aside, and to be cautious of any judgement that may arise as a viewer. I see opinions and propositions as experiences that have hardened over time, that can obstruct the receptive moment of looking. If you have no intention of giving an opinion or answering when viewing, then you are truly looking. When we look in this way – listening-viewing - we experience deep peace and relaxation within ourselves. It is not the ego that determines our dialogue with the body being viewed, but the very act of being together with that body in space and time. We concern ourselves with what we feel, not with what we see. As a sensory organ, we do not appreciate listening enough in these times of visual deluge. We are all looking for an opinion; a non-listening viewing. We have become alienated en masse from what looking can tell us about ourselves. In recent years, listening has been a primary source of development for me as a person, performer, lecturer, and maker. By looking openly at other bodies, I could read and experience my own body better. Because of a changing physicality, a dynamic relationship between myself and my own body, I could again openly relate to 'the other'. I could approach other bodies in a receptive way, but also allow others to come close, and remain soft as a human being - towards myself and therefore also towards others.
When I talk about viewing in my writing, know that I am talking about listening-looking. Looking from openness and attention to what can be seen between the words. What manifests itself in the body of the other and makes it tangibly known. Learning to ignore how to relate to bodies as a viewer, away from analysis, understanding, and (preliminary) judgment, makes looking at bodies so much richer in the arts. You don't look at what you see. But who do you see? And what does that body want to tell you?
The question of how visual artists look at bodies, and at me, interests me immensely at this moment. In the first year of research, I asked different artists - within the 2D and 3D arts - to look at me. How do they view bodies? How do they use their technique, materials and vision to transform their viewing into a tangible form in space that is outside of themselves? A craft that to me as a performer - my body being my instrument, material, and embodied technique for making text or movement tangible in space - is alien. I open up my body and serve their practice, inviting them to look at me. At the end of our journey together, I ask them to provide me one image that they believe, within the framework in which we collaborated, is a genuinely embodied portrait of me, seen through their eyes.