Pauline Boudry/Renate Lorenz’s Telepathic Improvisation
Bentson Moving Image Commission, Walker Art Center

co-comissioned by Sheryl Mousley and Fionn Meade in collaboration with curator Mason Leaver-Yap

Essay by Mason Leaver-Yap:

In their new film Telepathic Improvisation, Boudry/Lorenz invite the viewer to telepathically communicate with elements depicted onscreen: humans and non-humans, movements, speeches, gestures, music, light, and smoke. With reference to current violent social conditions, Telepathic Improvisation explores the ways in which others (including other objects) might become part of our striving for alternative political and sexual imaginations. (2017, video, 20 minutes)
A Demonstration for a Demonstration
“Close your eyes and send an action.” So begins the opening appeal to the viewer of Pauline Boudry / Renate Lorenz’s Telepathic Improvisation. This isn’t just a film that wants to connect with an audience; it wants its viewers to be complicit in its very production. “If you see or hear your action appearing in the film,” the first actor goes on to explain, “raise your hands as feedback to the performer.” Call and response, transmission and feedback—these things will happen telepathically. Even if the format of this request—a prerecorded video, broadcast to an online audience—forecloses a physical interaction between the viewer and the film’s contents, the instruction is dead serious. One may doubt the efficacy of such a command, but let’s not forget: closing one’s eyes is not just a method of evading the confines of reality. In conscious life, it is a way of listening harder; in unconscious life, it is a prelude to dreaming. Telepathic Improvisation asks for both.

Adapted from the late composer Pauline Oliveros’s musical score of the same name, Boudry / Lorenz’s Telepathic Improvisation reflects and extends the ethos of it precursor. Oliveros’s 1974 version sought to disassemble the hierarchies of traditional Western music and its distinction between musician and listener, choosing instead the equalizing form of group meditation. With no discernible rhythm, sound, or value given to the notion of virtuosic play, the 1974 score reconfigured interactions as forms of collective attunement. Boudry / Lorenz extend Oliveros’s desire for an inclusive space of listening towards a broader consideration of how different people, objects, and times may relate to one another. Here, the idea of relating to something or someone is not simply limited to describing the meeting between subjects and things. Rather, it is engaged in the moment of encounter, where subjectivity is both produced and transformed. It is this relational quality—as well as one’s capacity to pay attention to such relations—that is at the core of Telepathic Improvisation in 2017.

With its minimalist props and simplistic approach to physical movement that, at times, deliberately teeters on the edge of slapstick comedy, Boudry / Lorenz’s film attempts to make relations visually plain, even if the cause-and-effect of such relations is more complex. Telepathic Improvisationadopts the format of a demonstration. The performance cycles through a set of actions, sequences and gestures that exemplify certain operations: how to move, how to turn a light on, how to look into the camera, how to look away. But within those operations, causation is elusive, direction opaque. Do the pristine white pedestals move in response to the action of the performers, or do the pedestals exhibit and arrange the performers in relation to another schema? Do stage lights switch on and off in relation to the performer’s movements, or is it more that the performers move in relation to signal of the lights? Who or what is performing whom?

Unlike their previous film works—where Boudry / Lorenz would briefly make cameos, appearing before the camera to place objects, snap a clapper board, or else ask questions of their performers mid-flow—in Telepathic Improvisation the artists are completely absent, seemingly abdicating from the role of director altogether. As they noted prior to shooting Telepathic Improvisation, the actions depicted in the film “are not subjected to our will, control or mastery,” but rather have their own systems of action and value. “It is about the tension between the desire to act, the fantasy of a political action, and the acting itself.”

The timing of Telepathic Improvisation is key in comprehending its different forms of political and historical address. Developed by Boudry / Lorenz in the second half of 2016 and shot in New York in February 2017 during the initial rollout of the US government’s Executive Order 13769 (the “Muslim travel ban”), the work’s interest in finding ways of participating in “intergroup or interstellar telepathic transmission” (as the opening monologue suggests) is concurrent with urgent political desires to seek freedom of movement, speech, and thought. From the very beginning, Telepathic Improvisation declares itself as intimate and distant, possibly even “light years” away from the viewer, though it is notably ambivalent about whether it comes from the past or the future. Although Oliveros’s underpinning score dates to 1974, Boudry / Lorenz’s version is also host to other times and actions. The motorized units reference choreographer Deborah Hay’s 1966 Solo performance (itself an echo of artist Robert Breer’s ground-breaking automated “float” sculptures, first made in 1965), while Telepathic Improvisation’s closing monologue is adapted from a 1968 article by Ulrike Meinhof. The latter’s text, “From Protest to Resistance,” was published at a critical moment both in German political history and in Meinhof’s own life, between her transformation from left-wing journalist into militant guerrilla in the Red Army Faction. Widely circulated in the political magazine konkret, her article responded to the first major violent demonstration of the German student movement. On the one hand, the text bemoans the material indifference of the protest against a capitalistic system (“Arson in a department store is not an anti-capitalist action,” Meinhof notes. “On the contrary, it maintains the system and is counter-revolutionary) and, on the other, it acknowledges the students’ action succeeded in targeting symbolic value: the demonstration brought into question the right of bourgeois ownership.

Embedded also within this mosaic of aesthetic, political, and personal histories is the most visually explicit reference of Telepathic Improvisation: the temporary apparition of a pair of suspended handcuffs. This comically over-sized anthropomorphic prop seems to mirror a peculiarly contemporary moment, one where the line between political farce and actual threat begins to blur. The handcuffs are in fact a replica, drawn from director William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980), a crime thriller starring Al Pacino as an undercover NYPD cop hunting down a serial killer of gay men. As backdrop, the cuffs originally served as a droll party prop during Cruising’s most infamous scene, wherein Pacino visits a BDSM leather club only to find its occupants dragging as policemen. Once picketed by activists who claimed it stigmatized depictions of gay men, Cruising has more recently been reassessed (and, in places, recuperated) as a film that depicts a rare moment in American queer life just prior to the spread of AIDS. The handcuffs that resurface in Telepathic Improvisation serve not only as a complex symbol of past sexual liberation on the cusp of crisis, but also as a modern emblem of carceral environments that seek to restrict and surveil the existence of racial, religious, or sexual difference.

Artist and writer Harun Farocki (1944–2014) spent much of his life analyzing the symbolic power of images within the overlapping structures of prisons, governments, militaries, and consumer worlds. Of prime fascination was surveillance, a mode that raises “the question of what status, significance, meaning—and intention—are supposed to be.” Surveillance was a way of seeing that abolished the need for the presence of a human controller or an on-location witness, and Farocki was attentive to the fact that its images are made neither to entertain nor to inform. Such “operative images,” Farocki explains, “are images that do not represent an object, but rather are part of an operation.” While he did not live to see the vast reach of such technology today, Farocki’s writing serves as a compelling and often remarkable forerunner to considering the implications of the modern drone—the apogee of mobile surveillance and decentralized war. Noting the increasing complexity of war machinery and the way it analyzed information (including humans), Farocki frequently drew parallels between surveillance development and its failure to connect with ethics. In Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1988), he examined the capacity for humane vision. The film documents the CIA’s discovery that Allies had successfully taken aerial photographs of the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944—and yet somehow failed to spot the camp’s operations. Despite an image so clear that footprints of prisoners were visible in the snow, as Farocki notes, the Allies “were not under order to look for Auschwitz, and so they did not find it.” The film and many of his later writings are at pains to show that the disembodiment of vision is a distortion that can extend the time of war. One must pay greater attention not only to what is pictured but also to assessing the command of an apparatus that can enable and preclude humane vision.

The eye of the drone is featured at the very heart of Telepathic Improvisation. In a radical break halfway through the film, the traditional proscenium view of the audience eye briefly switches to something far less certain—a mobile and vertiginous view of a camera mounted on one of the motorized platforms. No longer a static composition distantly observing the comic interactions of actors and clunky automated machines, this “operative image” suddenly surveils the scene from within the space of the stage, reducing the performers to statuesque objects. At one point, the unmanned camera circles behind a figure that sharply raises their arms, either in submission or a signal to stop. In the mode of mechanized stalker, the camera’s arbitrary sense of menace is palpable. The stage lamps and fans whirr and click with dizzying alarm, the sound of their industrial processes no longer simply an aural byproduct of their operations, but a choral impulse within the film’s soundtrack—an unlikely “siren song” or alien hum delivered at a fever pitch. That the initially playful and retro sci-fi nature of Telepathic Improvisation’s mechanized props can so quickly turn into something closer to horror should come as little surprise to the users of information technology. As Farocki writes, “Machines can perform more complex works today, the war machinery will then similarly set itself more complex tasks.”

* * *

If telepathy is, at its most basic, an attempt to intercede upon sensory channels and physical realities regardless of time and space, then Telepathic Improvisation desires to interrupt and haunt the present with objects, voices, and gestures from the late twentieth century. Such historical materials—the Meinhof text especially—have the capacity to tip over into a mode of prophecy, though only if one chooses to listen. As the film shuttles back and forth through different times—political past, the just-past, and the future—this film’s staging of cultural anachronisms presents the viewer with a historical tool kit of radical latencies that, in their demonstration, hover between performance and rehearsal. As the drone eye stalks its subjects, so too does the half-life of historical memory; the operative image comes up against the politics of resistance.

The feeling of Telepathic Improvisation is that of being primed—being primed to listen, to communicate, and to work within the logic of an impossible interaction. It is a demonstration for a demonstration. Within a contemporary Western context of political inversions, alternative facts, and mass surveillance, telepathy surfaces as a viable mode for future acts of radical solidarity. “Raise your hands as feedback to the performer,” commands Telepathic Improvisation. The film wants to know if this is a moment of participation or surrender.

--Mason Leaver-Yap

Copryright Fionn Meade unless otherwise stated