Originally published on H-Soz-Kult, published here with kind permission.
Tagungsbericht: Throwing Gestures – The Entanglement between Gesture, Media, and Politics, 08.12.2018 Berlin, in: H-Soz-Kult, 28.03.2019, <www.hsozkult.de/conferencereport/id/tagungsberichte-8183>.
While this would seem an obvious conclusion given the extravagant rhetoric and marketing metaphors like “virtual reality” or “cloud”, the current media-technological development by no means heralds a disembodied age. It is rather the opposite case, as dimensions of the body have (re)captured the focus of interest in many places: whether it is the control of smart devices by body movements and expressions, or the mundane use of digital functions for physical self-optimization; new economic and political strategies of control and regulation which an increasingly technological pervasion of the body allow, or the (renewed) focus on the material, the esthetic, and thus the physical in academic and artistic debates. All this signals the current virulence of the physical.
This flaring interest in the body also formed the starting point for the symposium, which had been preceded, as the exhibition with the same title, by a two-year inter- and trans-disciplinary research project focused on the physical gesture, its current forms of expression, and, not least, its political relevance. Clearly a complex undertaking, given that the gesture not only seems to be an ambiguous border figure, making the gesticular in the gesture ambivalent in itself, but it seems clear that in our time, it can only be approached as a radically mediatized phenomenon. At least this is what the project’s introductory text says, stating that the physical gesture gained a very specific everyday (pop)cultural as well as socio-political significance, especially in environments pervaded by technology or as a digital element of circulation.
Under the heading “Im/Perceptible Gestures”, the first panel discussed the relationship between movement and gesture as well as the one between these physical registers and technological media. The guiding questions were how gestures emerge from perceptible movement, in which manner (media) technologies are the ones that generate certain movements and gestures, and how they act on their presentation and representation.
In her introduction, IRINA KALDRACK (Braunschweig) emphasized that the gesture and its function had to be reconsidered with respect to current media technology, and thus the gestural itself had to be conceptually remodeled. She first addressed the fundamental ambivalence of the gesture as body movement and yet as something transcending this, as something strictly individual and still repeatable, and finally as a figure that had a twofold dimensionality consisting of the symbolic and action. The gestural therefore was something that has always been pervaded by ambiguous and recalcitrant elements. In a historical outline Kaldrack illustrated that that which a gesture is – whether for instance its symbolic or its action dimension comes to the fore – has always been determined by contemporary constellations of socio-cultural, technological, and power-specific structures. Within today’s media contexts, however, the gesture lacked such stabilization because here we are confronted with an excessive wealth of different gesture-like utterances. Meanwhile the current “desire for the gestural” that Kaldrack identifies with regard to social media phenomena, video platforms and computer games had the potential to restabilize the gestural.
MARIE-LUISE ANGERER (Postdam) on the other hand focused on the (bodily) movements that come before the significant gesture as well as the conjunctures of discourse forming around them. That it is precisely this terrain that is increasingly noticed, she proposed, was linked to shifts within the philosophical discourse. Here we need to characterize the material turn at the end of the 20th century as the decisive element. Matter was now conceptualized, as Angerer outlined with references including Donna Haraway and Karen Barad as well as several precursors in philosophy (Spinoza, Bergson, Whitehead, and Deleuze), as basically relational, as autonomous and inherently potent. Within such relational ontologies, the body became the scene of entangled movements, a dancing mesh of “moving forces” setting each other in motion. The body thus conceived turned into the signature of a renewed mode of existence and knowledge: the stable human agent of action and knowledge was replaced here by the situational production of agency in a “becoming-with” of humans and non-humans, which required the ethical ability of responding (“response-ability”) to such processes. Referring to Louis Althusser’s Aleatory Materialism, Angerer closed by calling on us, despite the undoubted relevance of these theoretical conjectures not to neglect the aspect of contingency in relational encounters, and also in knowledge production, with respect to phenomena of media-technological connectivity.
This theoretical perspective on the panel’s topic was accompanied by KONRAD STRUTZ’s (Vienna) contribution, an outlook from artistic practice. The theme of his presentation as well as the exhibition piece that was shown at the venue was the motif of lost motion. Following Frank B. Gilbreth, Strutz referred to those movements that are unnecessary and thus not significant for certain sequences of meaning, for goals of action or production. As he demonstrated, using his shown piece among others, it was particularly such movements that have critical potential, as they are able to – quasi gesturally – point out the incongruity of physical movements and the level of representation and depiction even in times of their increased technological recordability. Using artistic distortions of context, he argues, this potential can be utilized to make room for alternative narratives of movements and gestures beyond data-based collection, representation, and instructions.
This also was the starting point of the following panel discussion: if, due to the proliferation of media technology, also movements become readable and identifiable that are beyond any conscious perception, this begged the question who or what controls this terrain, and how we can confront such control. Angerer for instance pointed to the figure of dancers who depend on a knowledge of these “im/perceptible” movements and their precise performative use, indicating the beginnings of a possible political gesture of habitualized self-control.
While the first panel thus ended on an explicitly political note, the second panel, titled “The Gesture and the Political” followed on from there. The common theme were questions regarding the occurrence, use, and agency of gestures in situations of collective protest, their media-technological embedding, and the transition of political gestures into artistic, (pop) cultural and economic contexts. A first perspective on these entanglements was provided by FLORIAN BETTEL (Vienna) in his introduction to the panel. With a view to the joint project work and selected examples of media-documented protest movements, Bettel described the manner in which artists can incorporate the esthetics of protest into their own work, or, inversely, intervene in protests by artistic practice. In both instances, strategies of media visibility and dissemination were used in order to survive in today’s economies of attention.
Bettel identified a parallel movement to this in current pop cultural appropriations of esthetics of protest, for instance in music videos and advertising campaigns. According to him, this indicates not least that the aspect of crisis, with its political moments, symbols, and forms of expression, entered into a logic of exploitability in which the political gesture finally becomes a commodity. Given these developments, Bettel concluded with a theoretical proposal, we might extend Walter Benjamin’s art essay and his thesis of an “aestheticization of politics” with the assumption of a (certainly ambivalent) politicization of esthetics.
Beyond the artistic, pop cultural and economic aspects of political gestures, ZOE LEFKOFRIDI (Salzburg) went on to specify their symbolic effectiveness in protest movements. From the perspective of comparative political science and using a number of international examples of protest, she illustrated recurring patterns of the gesture as an expression of protest. Lefkofridi’s conclusions from her empirical analysis were that, one the one hand, while gestures of protest did not imply a universal meaning and reproducibility, they always indicated an aspect of crisis; on the other hand that symbolic gestures often target institutional symbols. In the future, she added, we need to continue our analysis by exploring the weight of symbolic gestures in macro-structural developments – for instance in regime change – and further to what extent gestures of protest influence individuals and their willingness to protest on the micro-structural level.
In response to the two preceding contributions, TIMO HERBST (Leipzig) looked into the question of how gestures of protest and their symbolism become visible and thus reproducible, in which manners protesters stage themselves and allow themselves to be staged in the media-saturated public space, including their gestures. As in his exhibited installation Play by rules (Budapest, Istanbul, Hamburg) he focused on the interplay between protesters and the journalistic reporters using three constellations of protest: at the Budapest Keleti Station (2015), at the Istanbul Taksim Square (2016), and in downtown Hamburg (2017). Herbst emphasized that the standardized production of images and news had a decisive influence on protests: rules of media production are followed both by the visible media makers and the protesters, which results in structural parallels and repetitive moments in the protest dynamics of contexts regarding different issues. On the other hand, protesters can also use this mediatization of the public space for strengthening the constitutive power of gestures Herbst addressed, and to mark groups in the process of formation as explicitly political movements.
The media’s construction and arrangement of protest was also the subject of the panel discussion. Asking for the gestural in political protest requires, according to discussion participants, a detailed exploration of current constellations of protest regarding the manner in which they are pervaded and communicated by the media. This analytical inclusion of media also applies inversely, regarding the question of which concept of the political has to be attributed to the gesture – an issue that was suggested by everyone on the panel, and that will certainly provide occasions for further debates.
The third and last panel “Staging the Entanglement between Arts and Humanities” provided a perspective on procedures and concepts of academic-artistic collaboration in view of the research project. To this end, STEFANIE KIWI MENRATH (Berlin) invoked Gesa Ziemer’s concept of “complicity” in her introduction to the panel. Compared to a collaboration as a cooperation of several actors over a limited period of time, she argued, complicity suggests intense and self-organized forms of entangled thinking and acting as well as shared responsibility that develop from jointly set goals and visions. Precisely regarding academic-artistic collaboration, such complicit work is characterized by the fact that in it, norms and their limitations, well-rehearsed positions and hierarchies are productively transcended. In this way, a successful complicity will for instance be able to disrupt the traditional dominance of academic knowledge over artistic knowledge and lead to equitable cooperation.
ANDREAS BROECKMANN and DANIELA SILVESTRIN (both Lüneburg) suggested the technical term interface in order to reflect on the cooperation of academic research and art, which they defined as “point[s] of junctures” between different systems of individual parts of a complex system, following Florian Cramer and Matthew Fuller. They used this definition as well as their own experiences as project curators to illustrate the fact that artistic-academic research cooperation not only includes the encounter of two distinct systems of knowledge, but also small-scale encounters like those between individual artists or between artists and individual funding institutions. The role of a critical interface in these moments of encounter, they suggested, was the one of project curators. As an interface, curators sometimes had to emphasize, sometimes to obscure asymmetries between different parts of the relation in order to – contextually – organize entanglements of cooperation in as productive and undisrupted a manner as possible.
It is by contrast the resistant, disrupting, and painful moments of entanglements that MARTINA LEEKER (Lüneburg) focuses on. Given the immense influence of media-technological networks of current ways of life, she started with distancing herself from all-too euphoric discourses regarding entanglements as can be identified in some relational-ontological theoretical approaches. Following Karen Barad’s “agential cut”, which aims to capture moments of exclusion in processes of entanglement, Leeker presented a model of entanglements that specifically addresses violent moments of exclusion and painful aspects. Artistic-academic projects may play a critical role in this because, she argues, in such projects, habitualized patterns of action and knowledge as well as their exclusions are made visible and thus negotiable by calling them into question in a performative and painful manner. The intentional subject for instance, which is fundamental to traditional academic research, will be confronted with a “befallen subject” in such settings that is only in entanglements with others, but also can only develop modes of reflective distancing via these painful aspects of entanglements. In times of a twofold “mediocrity” of the human existence – involvement with media and the attendant mediocrity of human capacity – such a performative practice (of knowledge) has a potential for the whole of society: through the movement of a distancing-in-entanglement, according to one of Leeker’s points, there might be a productive twist to today’s mediocrity of the human being, while still maintaining the possibility of a ‘critical’ disarticulation within networked constellations.
LAURIE YOUNG (Berlin), too, questioned institutionalized production of knowledge – in her case from her perspective as a dancer and choreographer. In her contribution, she focused on choreography in the broad sense of the term: choreography, according to her, is not only a method of arranging a network of relations with bodies in particular temporal-spatial structures, but over and beyond this can be applied to everyday constellations and balances of power, in the same way that it can serve to renegotiate, fracture, and rearrange systems in a new manner. As a concept but also as a practice in trans-disciplinary projects, choreography questions classical methods and terminologies and creates space for alternative methods and approaches, such as intuition and improvisation. This opens up spaces of possibility for the unexpected, for new connections and experiences in which failure, too, is a necessary component. Thus choreography, as Young explicated using Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s definition of research as a communal and daily “speculative practice”, also has to be understood as a cooperative social practice that allowed for a dynamic exchange between bodies, human beings and non-humans, and, not least, disciplines.
Under the impression of the panel’s contribution, the ensuing discussion resulted in the consensus that the presented alternatives to dominant modes of knowledge as well as the themes of their translation – for instance Leeker’s “mediocrity” – adequately address today’s life and knowledge under media-technological conditions with their challenges and opportunities. However, it also emphasized the need for a continuous attitude of questioning that, keeping its distance from all-too euphoric theoretical gestures, does not fail to problematize current forms of non-human agency as well as the (renewed) decentralization of the human being.
This conclusion to the event also allows us to establish links to the whole symposium which, over and beyond the individual panel contributions, embedded its research subject, the gesture, in a multi-perspective, questioning negotiation of the recesses of today’s media technologies. The strength of the conference became apparent precisely in the fact that the spaces of questions and negotiation of the gesticular under media-technological conditions that opened up in the juxtaposition and coincidence of – at times contrary – perspectives were not sealed shut in one unifying answer. Thus the lasting call of the symposium is that we need to confront not only everyday phenomena like the gesture, but also knowledge production, with perpetual shifts of perspective. Without indulging in any technological fatalism, it encouraged to allow us to experience and think today’s being (-in/-with)-media by way of unconventional (and embodied) positions of knowledge and experimental approaches.
Panel I: Un/Wahrnehmbare Geste
Irina Kaldrack (Braunschweig): Modeling the Gestural
Marie-Luise Angerer (Potsdam): Moving Forces
Konrad Strutz (Wien): Lost Motion
Panel II: Die Geste und das Politische
Florian Bettel (Wien): At the Center of Attention: Gestures of Protest in Art and Culture
Zoe Lefkofridi (Salzburg): Symbolic Gestures in Contemporary Protest Movements
Timo Herbst (Leipzig): Play by Rules
Panel III: Staging the Entanglement between Arts and Humanities
Stefanie Kiwi Menrath (Berlin): Collaboration? Transformation and Complicity in Arts / Humanities Practices
Andreas Broeckmann / Daniela Silvestrin (beide Lüneburg): Interfaces of Artistic Research
Martina Leeker (Lüneburg): Entanglement of Art and the Humanities for Mediocrity
Laurie Young (Berlin): Moving Through Membranes
 Cf. https://gesture-media-politics.de/ (31 October 2019).
 Cf. Karen Barad, Matter feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns and remembers. Interview with Karen Barad, in: Rick Dolphijn / Iris van der Tuin (eds), New Materialism. Interviews & Cartographies, Ann Arbor, Open Humanities Press, 2012, pp. 48-70.
 Cf. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in Michael W. Jennings et al. (eds), The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Cambridge (MA)/ London, Belknap, 2008, pp. 19–55.
 Cf. Gesa Ziemer, Komplizenschaft. Neue Perspektiven auf Kollektivität, Bielefeld, transcript, 2013.
 Florian Cramer / Matthew Fuller, Interface, in: Matthew Fuller (ed.), Software Studies. A Lexicon, Cambridge/MA, MIT Press,. 2008, p. 150.
 Cf. Karen Barad, Agentieller Realismus. Über die Bedeutung materiell-diskursiver Praktiken, Berlin, Suhrkamp, 2012.
 Cf. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons. Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Wivenhoe/ New York/ Port Watsen, Minor Compositions, 2013, p. 110.