Being-with a Loss: The Productive Possibilities of Darkness in Gary Hill’s Dervish (1993-95).

Megan Toye
“I would argue that unease, discomfort or frustration – along with fear, contradiction, exhilaration and absurdity – can be crucial to any work’s artistic impact.” -Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship

Gary Hill, Dervish, 1993-95, Aluminum and wood structure, four plate glass mirrors, two modified video projectors. Image courtesy of the Artist. Photo Credit: Robert Keziere.

Taking as a starting point the above statement from Claire Bishop in her recent book Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, this paper will look at the spectator’s experience of Gary Hill’s Dervish (1993-95) in light of the affects it produces, the unease it creates, and the discomfort it establishes. Drawing upon Bishop’s notion that it is the spectator’s experience that needs attending to in order to discern how installation art (or what she terms “socially engaged art”) is functioning politically, I will examine how the viewer is interpolated within the space of Gary Hill’s immersive installation. Throughout this paper, the experience of anxiety, fear and self-annihilation will be explored through the way in which Dervish denies plenitude, certainty and identification in the field of vision. By agitating sight, and by situating us in pure darkness, we are put in a place of knowing and not-knowing, recognition and non-recognition. This initial temporary blindness forces us to attend to the movement of the body as co-constitutive (with the mind) in the production of knowledge. Furthermore, as our sight begins to adapt to the space, the succession of vision becomes explicit, and the excess of the image that disrupts the stable consolidation of meaning within visual culture comes to the fore. Facing this void and overwhelmed with a sense of alienation and uncertainty, a sense of fragility and vulnerability surfaces, and we are made aware, if only briefly, of our common precariousness.

I will approach Dervish in terms of the theory of visual culture that Irit Rogoff proposes in her article “Studying Visual Culture.” In this essay, Rogoff reminds us that “images do not stay within discrete disciplinary fields,”[1] and that visual culture as an arena of inquiry should engage with various fields of study to approach the question of vision and how it functions within culture. This, in turn, provides the opportunity for a “mode of new cultural writing existing at the intersection of both objectivities and subjectivities.”[2] Through questioning how Dervish functions for the viewer, the hope is that I can begin to put into process a mode of criticality that attends to the ways in which we inhabit culture.[3] In a way, this is a move beyond analytical frameworks that function to establish answers, point out faults, unravel ideologies, and allocate meaning.[4]

Engaging with art historical analysis, psychoanalysis, cognitive science, ethics, philosophy, and inquiries into visual culture, this paper will enact a writing that exists in the liminal spaces between disciplinary fields, at the intersection of objectivity and subjectivity. As such, my inquiry into Dervish will pose the following questions: How does the viewer inhabit the space of Dervish? In what ways does Dervish complicate the process of viewing? How does this complication of vision affect the viewer in an embodied sense? And how is this affective self-awareness productive culturally, socially and ethically? This paper will not provide answers about the importance of Dervish within contemporary art historical discourse, but will attend to ways in which the viewer inhabits the space, and how this form of inhabitation is productive by the way in which it opens up ways of seeing, knowing and relating.

Dervish is a semi-circular installation that is pitch dark. You cannot see the form of its structure from the outside, for there is only a doorway located between exhibition spaces. Upon entering the room, all the viewer can hear is a forceful, violent sound. Standing in the doorway of the installation, hearing this noise, and seeing nothing inside, does not necessarily make one want to enter. During my experience at Musee D’art Contemporain Montreal, people behind me peaked their head in and decided against it all together. At first, I decided not to go in. However, while walking away I changed my mind. I realized that if I did not go in I would regret it. Already Dervish had set up a risk-taking experience just by the noise it was generating and the darkness it contained. It was like taking a leap into the void. I did not know what I was going to find in there; but, I knew that if I did not try it I would regret it. So I stepped in. Initially, my vision was debilitated by the darkness. I could not see a thing. I put my hands out and walked forward, towards the sound. The sound got louder and louder, and suddenly a row of images began rampantly flickering around the room, in the middle of the semi-circular wall, surrounding me, and bombarding my vision (Fig.1) The whirling noise began to speed up, getting louder and louder. I stood in the room in awe. I was overtaken by the sound, the images and the darkness. I was suspended there, looking, trying to make sense, trying to put the pieces together. What are these images of? Is that a body? Are those books? Is that an arm? A house? Before I could register or recognize anything the image was gone, flickered away, and turned into a different one.

I could not focus on any one thing other than the act of trying to make sense of it all. I became increasingly aware of my desire to make meaning happen. I wanted to make sense of the work in a meaningful way so I could leave and feel satisfied – the void is understood – I, like Yves Klein, jumped the void and have a photo to prove it. But this Dervish void was never fully understood. I did not know what to make of it. I could not capture it in an image. I was overwhelmed, lost, anxious and defeated. I was at a loss. I left the room feeling exhilarated in a way. The momentary depletion of my ability to see coherently and make meaning stripped me bare and made me feel again. I was rejuvenated, aware of myself, my surroundings, and felt very much present and alive. In the next few paragraphs I will explore Dervish further in such a way that puts its formal aspects in direct dialogue with the experiential aspects.

The work of Gary Hill has been conventionally placed within the discourse of structural film, which arose in the 1960s as a way of combating the illusionistic techniques dominant in narrative cinema. Structural film was concerned primarily with disclosing the filmic apparatus in order to disrupt the spectator’s absorption into the ideology of the screen. There is no doubt that Hill’s work fits within structural film practices; indeed, Dervish itself could be read in terms of how it quite centrally discloses to the spectator the apparatus that is generating the noise and producing the images (it is in the centre of the installation space and becomes visible at the end of the piece, when the lights turn on), while also making explicit the fragmented shots that go into constructing a linear, temporal filmic structure by presenting flickering images on the brink of coherence. I purpose, however, a re-reading of Hill’s work, outside of the discourse of structural film, to instead to look at Hill’s Dervish in terms of the possibilities it engenders for the spectator; that is, instead of considering what Dervish is about, I think it is worthwhile to rather consider what Dervish does.[5] Laura Marks addresses this type of re-reading of structural film within contemporary art historical discourse in her text Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media. Within the discourse of identity politics of the 1980s and 1990s, structural film was disregarded as a practice that was too formalist in its concern, while being largely dominated by straight, white males who did not address questions of gender, race or class, as Marks argues, “We often assume that nothing good can come from the hermetic formal experiments of a buncha white men, self-selected artistic elite, who embodied experimental/avant-garde filmmaking in its formative years.”[6] Indeed this notion is still present, and is no doubt an important consideration. However, this study will enact a re-reading of structural film by Gary Hill in order to discern the politics that are at the heart of the act of perceiving. Laura Marks argues that “ that simply offer the right configurations of politics ready for consumption are boring, safe and ultimately conservative ... we need to deal with the very stuff of perception, which is what experimental film does, if we want film to take a political position.”[7] Thus, the re-reading of experimental or structural film, which has been somewhat neglected by contemporary art discourse due to its lack of attention to identity politics, presents an opportunity to reconsider the “stuff” that constitutes identity politics itself: the politics of seeing, recognising – of making meaning happen – by attending to the very ontological structure by which we see. Furthermore, by shifting the focus on to what this piece does, the hope is that I begin to discern how the spectator’s engagement is productive socially, politically and ethically.

The obliterating darkness that overtakes the viewer of Dervish at first destabilizes the “self.” When one first enters they cannot see, and this temporary blindness debilitates the viewer in a way that forces them to rely on other forms of sensory knowledge to navigate the space. By locating us in a partial state, wherein our sight is greatly diminished, Dervish allows one to become aware of the way in which knowledge is never purely reliant on vision, as we still manage to navigate the space through other senses. Cognitive Scientist Alva Noë has theorized this in terms of the sensori-motor skills that we develop over time. The ability to grasp and understand your environment, Noë argues, is dependent on the way you understand how to move your body within it. He states, “There is no quality that is so simple that it is ever given to us all at once, completely and fully. However simple the object of our attention, the field of experience will outstrip what can be taken in at once.”[8] In a way, Dervish brings to the forefront the notion that vision is always partial. The space strips the imaginary plenitude of disembodied vision from us and instead forces us to sense how we come to know something as a process that is reliant not just on cognitive faculties but also on movement and bodily senses. As such, the world is not there and represented for us, but accessible for us.[9] Again, Noë elaborates on this in the following passage: “My sense of the presence of the detailed world is grounded in my ability to gain access to that detail by the movements of my body or the shifts of my attention. The world is present to me now, not as represented, but as accessible.”[10] Instead of feeling as if the world is there for us to see, the darkness diminishes the imaginary coherence of representation and forces the spectator to move in order to access and experience the piece. As such, we never are able to fully grasp Dervish in a whole sense but are able to access it in different and varying ways by implicitly understanding that the movement of our bodies will generate more knowledge about the space.[11]

In her book earlier work, Installation Art: A Critical History, Claire Bishop provides a discussion of installation pieces that function to abolish self-coherence and destabilize viewership. In the chapter entitled “Mimetic Engulfment,” Bishop looks at the work of Turrell, Kusama and Bill Viola to name just a few. Of particular interest with regards to Dervish is her discussion of psychiatrist Eugene Minoswki’s case study of schizophrenia, wherein the everyday schizophrenic, feeling like they are absolved into space, may be what is more generally an experience of pure darkness, she quotes, “Dark space does not spread out before me but touches me directly, envelops me, embraces me, even penetrates me completely ... the ego does not affirm itself in relation to darkness but becomes confused with it, becomes one with it.”[12] Minowski’s theorization of the experience of darkness recalls the anxiety that one feels when experiencing pieces like Dervish. In the dark, the “self” is reminded of its non-coherence, its partiality, its “lack.” Merleau-Ponty perhaps put it best in Phenomenology of Perception. Discussing the experiential aspects of the darkness of night he states,
All space for the reflecting mind is sustained by thinking which relates its parts to each other, but in this case, the thinking starts from nowhere. On the contrary, it is from the heart of the nocturnal space that I become united with it. The distress felt by neuropaths in the night is caused by the fact that it brings home to us our contingency, the uncaused and tireless impulse which drives us to seek and anchorage and to surmount ourselves in things, without any guarantee that we shall always find them.[13]
In the darkness of the void, cognition has no object. Instead, it is the space itself that engulfs the spectator. The ego becomes one with the space, enveloped in blackness, and finds no object to attribute the anxiety to. As such, anxiety penetrates the experience and overtakes the viewer.

Danielle Quinodoz, in her psychoanalytic study of the symptom of vertigo, states that sufferers of vertigo usually experience a profound sense of anxiety. She argues that vertigo appears when one is transferring from a fusional mode; that is, from the experience of being part and parcel with the world, complete and whole (self / other as one), to an object-relational mode, which threatens to split the “self” by acknowledging that the “other” is different and “unknown” (in the sense that the “self” can no longer imaginarily fuse with or be in control of the other). She states, “Vertigo appears during the transition from the mode of fusional relationship to the object-relational mode, the latter not yet being sufficiently familiar and tested to be experienced without apprehension.”[14] Anxiety permeates the experience of Dervish at first, as one occupies an in-between state located between imagined self coherence and recognition of the threat to that coherence. The apprehension that one experiences when approaching Dervish can be explained in these terms: the void of darkness presents itself as an unknown space that I did not comfortably feel I could fuse with, or exist in, as a person in control. As such, I was apprehensive, felt anxiety about entering, and was afraid that there would be an awkward run-in encounter with another person that would shattered my sense of stability and certainty. In terms of the experience of vertigo and the way in which Quinodoz describes it, upon entering Dervish one asks oneself, “Is the object going to be where I expect it to be? Or will I fall into the void?”[15]

The question remains if Dervish actually allows one to fix this anxiety, to fill the void; or, if it suspends knowledge and situates us between the “self” and “other” in an agitated state of excessiveness and groundlessness. In their article “Riding the Back of the Dark – Dervish” George Quasha and Charles Stein imply that Dervish allows one to occupy the space between dualities, and that this liminal occupation is a meditative space that leads to an embrace of the images and environment: “ ...those who stay embark on a little psychotropic journey that goes from disorientation to reflection to engagement and strange embrace.”[16] However, this still point of meditation said to be central to the swirl of the dervish dance never fully allows one to embrace the images as they suggest, “One gets acclimated and sees into the content of the images that are like spaces opening into the walls to a certain life inside...”[17] One could argue that this seeing into the images is a seeing that is in process and never fully grasped. Since the images flicker at such a high speed, the content of the imagery is never fully obtainable. The images are also blurry, adding another layer of distortion that denies mastery. If one eventually achieves equilibrium in the space of Dervish, it is an equilibrium that is re-defined. It is a paradoxical situation of centeredness and de-centeredness.[18] It is a centrifugal force in the midst of becoming centripetal, but it never quite arrives there. It never settles. When the images and sound stop and the lights go on, we are not left with a homogenous understanding but a heteroglossic experience that allows us to attend to the multiplicity inherit in the process of visuality.

This partiality of the self that is brought upon us, or this lack that we are made to stick with, can be seen as a re-awakening of consciousness that brings to the fore both the notion that knowledge is not something we have in a pure sense but is always partial and accessible; and conversely, that the self is never whole but always lacking. In discussing the importance of “symbolic ruptures” within socially engaged art, Claire Bishop draws upon Lacanian ethics by arguing that affective engagement asks the spectator to embrace unconscious desire in the face of the Other – to learn to be-with a “lack.” Bishop draws our attention to artistic practices that do not fulfil our desires by providing a sense of plenitude, but rather works which withhold identification and confirmation: “Instead of obeying a super-egoic injunction to make ameliorative art, the most striking, moving and memorable forms of participation are produced when artists act upon a gnawing social curiosity without the incapacitating restrictions of guilt.”[19] As we move through the space of Dervish at first, we are forced out of our imaginary identification with a stable reality – with the mirror, the screen of representation. This establishes a symbolic rupture which forces the spectator to confront a sense of “lack.” In turn, we become attuned to the way in which the body and mind are co-constituted, as we must attend to how our bodies feel to sense the surrounding space. In this sense, Hill has set up a situation that suspends and disarms our habituated ways of knowing by making us confront our partiality as subjects: we do not grasp the external world in full, through a stable screen of representation; but rather, through structuring a space of symbolic rupture, we grasp the external world in part and in relation: through both the body and the mind.

Whitney Davis, in A General Theory of Visual Culture, discusses the process of vision, or what he calls the “succession of vision” and how it comes to be consolidated into a culture of visuality. For Davis, “visuality,” as a term, is used to describe how each individual comes to understand and see familiarities in the visual world; that is, how they enact processes of recognition that allows for meaning making and signification to take place. Although each individual sees differently, they all occupy a culture or network that produces a certain form of recognition and knowledge, he states,
Visuality is not the collective seeing of a social group, though it has sometimes been treated this way. In human forms of life within the human life-form, the group does not only have one pair of eyes. Visuality is the seeing of each human agent when he has succeeded to a network of likeness in the visual affordances of visible configuration – a visual culture in a theoretical sense.[20]
So for Davis, visuality is the consolidation of available meanings within a specific culture or network. Visuality as a process is always individual, for no one sees how I see, but none the less, what is available for me to see, and the meanings and comparisons I take in from the visual world is a part of the visuality of my visual culture. For instance, he continues, “But because the analogies of the visible world, its relation to common criteria, we can recognize other people to recognize the same world, even if we realize that it must look somewhat different over there.[21] Davis begins to problematize the assumption that visuality is just there and given by instead attending to the succession of vision to visuality: the space between the two could open up ways of looking to re-form visuality and create different ways of looking. He suggests that a focus on the tension between recognition and non-recognition could allow for one to see differently: “It means that our analysis consists in finding the irreducible tension between formal expressivity that might be open to us and depictive significances whose secret remains impenetrable to the mind.”[22] Furthermore, Davis highlights how visuality is historically situated, and because of this fact, the recognitions that we find might not be the recognitions that others found before us, thus pointing the flexibility of vision and how visuality consolidates itself through time: “But the very fact that our vision is historically located (we see that we have not seen what others saw in the picture) implies that we might reconfigure our vision to see differently – and to perhaps see things somewhat more in the way others have done.”[23] This statement reveals the potential that is opened up when we attend to both the tension of the image and to the act of seeing as a historically specific act that is relative. By recognizing this process, and by raising questions about how we see when and why, we can begin to enact a form of vision that is ethically more sound, more open to the other, and respectful of other ways of looking and knowing.

Dervish troubles visuality. It returns the viewer back to the process of vision, to the liminal space between seeing and attempting to recognize and consolidate meaning into a given network of significance. For instance, Davis states that vision and visuality are always in constant dialogue, working with one another and in tension with one another. However, visuality can digress into vision when aspects of vision fail to signify within culture, he states, “Visuality succumbs to vision when visible configuration cannot be visually coordinated as formality, style, or pictorality in terms of the self-fulfilling tautologies of cultured envisioning.”[24] In Dervish, the images are so agitated and blurry that they fail to coordinate into forms, styles or recognizable pictures. We are returned to vision itself, and forced to attend to the tension of the image and the act of seeing, before it has succeeded into a culture of recognizable forms – into visuality. The agitated images that flicker at a high speed deny recognition and suspend knowledge. As we stand there, we attempt to grasp and to know, but right when we think we are figuring it out, attributing our vision to a network of visuality, the image disappears. As such, the images in Dervish perform an irreducible tension: it is never settled and always in question. This opening up of the process of vision allows for one to become aware of seeing as an act that is performative in itself. By exposing the gap between vision and visuality, and making us attend to the act of vision, Dervish perhaps makes explicit the possibilities for seeing differently that underlie the surface of visuality. For as we occupy the space, our vision is constantly changing, meaning is in flux, and we must move to know. As such, the “self” is recognized as a site that chooses to see in ways, to move in ways, and this agency re-attributed to the act of seeing opens it up for potential transgressions or subversions. Since I barely recognize the images flickering on the walls of Dervish, I am left with an uncertainty that leaves me partial and open to other readings and understandings of the image. Thus, an ethical subjectivity is enacted by leaving an image in tension. This tension denies knowledge and by situating the “self” between recognition and non-recognition. We become partial beings, open to the other, situated with the other, without a hierarchy of value.

This partiality of vision that takes place in Dervish can be understood in terms of Noë’s theory of change blindness. Noë argues that looking does not entail that we see everything at once; that is, the perceptual world is not all there, represented before my eyes, but accessible to me through movement and interaction with my environment. I see the images of Dervish in such a way from my perspective and from the way in which I move inside the installation, however I cannot grasp all of the images at once, and I cannot experience them all at once even if I am aware that they are all there, he states, “If a change takes place while attention is directed elsewhere, the change will go unnoticed. In general, you only see that to which you attend.”[25] From this premise, Noë goes on to argue that we all experience a certain form of blindness that calls attention to the fact that we see only what we pay attention to. In a way, this implies that we see only what we want to see. This however does not imply that we are all victims of our own illusions; but rather, it is that the world is there in an objective sense, it is just that we have access to it rather than being able to grasp it all at once, “Of course it does seem to us as if we have perceptual access to a world that is richly detailed, complete and gap-free. And indeed we do! ... We take ourselves to have access to that detail, not all at once, but thanks to movement of our eyes and head and shifts of attention.”[26] As such, Noë is re-inserting the body and the senses into the process of cognition. The notion of change blindness points to the ways in which we can access a plenitude, but we never have plenitude.

This can be tied into the images of Dervish in a manner that points to how it functions to interrupt the imaginary plenitude of the self and deny complete knowledge and mastery of the other. In the space of Dervish, the images form of a semi-circle around your body; and thus, as you draw your attention and focus onto one image you are inevitably losing sight of something or missing the content of another image. You must move around the space in order to grasp different aspects. There is no way for the viewer to access the entirety of the installation and the images presented within it without missing an aspect at some point or another. Therefore, the imaginary plenitude of selfhood that is predicated on the notion that knowledge is created through unmediated, disembodied observation is problematized in Dervish.

In a certain sense, it is a form of looking that Jean-Luc Nancy terms the “regard.” The “regard” is a look that is openly attentive to the power of the image but does not attempt master it by projecting a final meaning:
Looking is regarding .. A rightful look is respectful of the real that it beholds, that is to say it is attentive and openly attending to the very power of the real and its absolute exteriority: looking will not tap this power but will allow it to communicate with itself. In the end, looking (regarder) just amounts to thinking the real, to test oneself with regard to a meaning one is not mastering.[27]
This is a way of looking that approaches the limits of the image, the excess that lies beyond signification, that cannot be mastered and given a meaning but can be attended to, listened to and witnessed.

The experience of sound within Dervish is central. Created from a turbine engine, it is loud, violent and aggressive. It startles and interrupts cognitive faculties. The sound at first replaces the primacy of vision. Initially, all the viewer has to rely on is the sound in the dark space in order to achieve a sense of orientation. As such, the sound acts as a marker that echoes and emanates; it vibrates off of the material space to provide a sense of its density, limits and depth. Noë discusses sound as a sensori-motor form of knowledge that functions in relation to the environment in order to activate movement, he states, “We continuously adjust our head in order to better take in noises belonging to one happening or another, and the fact that we do so shows that we are implicitly familiar with the way changes in our relation to events alters sensory stimulation.”[28] For Noë, the fact that we move to hear better shows how the body is co-implicated in cognitive acts. Furthermore, Noë states that sound interrupts the acoustic environment in such a way that it provides an awareness of that environment’s structure. Taking the example of a car back-firing, Noë states, “When you hear the care backfire, what you hear is the way the event (the backfiring) affects the ambient acoustic arrary, that is, the way the medium-filled environment is structured by this sort of disturbance to the medium.”[29] Two things here are crucial: the way sound affects the ambient acoustic array, and furthermore, how sound produces a disturbance to the medium, disrupting the medium-filled environment, which then generates an awareness of how the environment is structured. In effect, the sound of Dervish generates this sort of knowledge. The acoustics of the space, and how that sound disrupts and echoes within the space, enables a form of knowledge to be constituted about the space itself. As Jean-Luc Nancy put it in his text Listening: “The sonorous outweighs form. It does not dissolve it, but rather it enlarges it; it gives it amplitude, a density, a vibration or undulation whose outline never does anything put approach.”[30] Understood in this way, it is through the way the sound is transmitted within the structure of the installation space that we are able to grasp a sense of the installation’s spatial form. By-passing the act of viewing all together, the sound allows the spectator to orientate him or herself within the installation. Grasping a sense of the space of the installation becomes an embodied process, not there for me to see, but for me to access through sound. Indeed the act of listening itself can be understood as always partial and in-tension. When we listen, we are attempting to grasp onto what is being heard, and we do so in order to determine the meaning of the sound. Again, Jean-Luc Nancy summarises this process, stating “ listen is to be straining towards a possible meaning, and consequently one that is not immediately accessible.”[31]

This embodied process increases bodily affectivity and corporeal apprehension. The centrality of the sound vibrates in and through the spectator’s body, rupturing imaginary self-containment. However, and more importantly, this affectivity has ethical potential through the way in which it opens up the subject such that they are no longer essential “beings,” but as Jean-Luc Nancy would have it, they are subjects constituted through relation – through a being-with: “At every instant singular beings share their limits, share each other on their limits.”[32] Here, Nancy is asserting how we are fundamentally constituted through a being-with, and this being-with is formulated around an awareness of our own finitude. Discussing the importance of sound in creating an apprehension of this state of being-with, in which the “self” is constituted through an opening up to “others,” Nancy states “To listen is to enter that spatiality by which, at the same time, I am penetrated, for it opens up in me as well as around me, and from me as well as toward me: it opens me inside me as well as outside, and it is through such a double, quadruple, or sextuple opening that ‘self’ can take place.”[33] That is, sound obscures the boundaries between inside and outside: the outer sound is felt in and through the body, and makes me aware of my vulnerability, my fundamental openness to the external world and to others, which constitutes me and brings me into being. Returning to the experience of Dervish, this vulnerability is brought to the fore as the darkness, flickering images and sound overwhelms the spectator and leaves them at a loss: what is that noise? Where is it coming from? What are those images of? Are there any other people in here? This affect onto the body opens it up to a curiosity; an apprehension of alterity or otherness that sparks an awareness of our fundamental condition of being-with.

Thus, through situating us within the process of vision, by denying us full understanding of the imagery, and creating an overwhelming sensual, sonic force that displaces the centrality and coherence of the “self,” Dervish affects one in a way that points to an origin of being-with; a being-with marked by a sense of finitude, fragility and lack, wherein the existence of the self is predicated on co-existence with and meaning-making through relation to others. If there is a consolidation of meaning within the space of Dervish, it is only established through relation: the “self” cannot make sense of the space without extending outwards, relying on the sound, other people occupying the space etc., in order to understand and establish their position within it.[34] This is not to say that Dervish is evacuated of all meaning, but rather it is to say that Dervish potentially forces the spectator to attend to the processes of meaning-making as meaningful within itself: how do we create meaning as embodied subjects in relation to each other and the environment around us? Can an embodied apprehension of the “self” as constituted in relation to “others” open up the way we understand the act of relating as a process of reciprocation rather than recognition? It is the primacy of darkness, the limited ability of vision, and the penetrability of sound, which forces us to attend to these questions and apprehend their implications. Dervish asks us to know through feeling, and it is this type of knowledge which perhaps needs more privileging and attending to within our habitual everyday lives.

[1] Rogoff, Irit. “Studying Visual Culture,” in The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff (London: Routledge, 2002), 16.

[2] Rogoff, 2002, 16.

[3] Ibid., 18.

[4] Rogoff, Irit. “What is a Theorist?” Alphabet Prime 1, (2009),

[5] This is the main concern in Bishop’s Artificial Hells, wherein she states, “The central project of this book is to find ways of accounting for participatory art that focus on the meaning of what it produces, rather than attending solely to process,” 9.

[6] Marks, Laura. Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 64.

[7] Marks, 2002, 65.

[8] Noë, Alva. Action in Perception (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: MIT Press, 2004), 193.

[9] Noë, 2004, 192.

[10] Ibid., 192.

[11] It is important to note that Noë’s theory does have limitations, and has been criticised for not accounting for the specific context of the embodied subject – its cultural, historical constitution – in relation to the surrounding environment. Furthermore, the emphasis on the movement of the body, and sensori-motor skills in particular, does not flesh out the role of memory in these processes, and therefore has its limitations when acknowledging the co-constitution of both the mind and the body. Thus, it is not the case that the body determines cognitive processes or that cognition determines bodily movement, but rather the point is to consider how mind and body work together and constitute one another. For criticisms on Noë and the enactive approach see Mark Rowlands The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology, as well as Scott L. Marratto’s chapter “Subjectivity and the Style of the World,” in The Intercorporeal Self: Merleau-Ponty on Subjectivity.

[12] Minowski, Eugene. Lived Time, Evanston, 1970, 429, quoted in Claire Bishop, Installation Art: A Critical History (New York: Routledge, 2005), 84.

[13] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962), 330-331.

[14] Quinodoz, Danielle. Emotional Vertigo: Between Anxiety and Pleasure, trans. Elizabeth Bott Spillius (London: Routledge, 1997), 54.

[15] Quinodoz, 1997, 13.

[16] George Quasha and Charles Stein, “Riding the Back of the Dark – Dervish” in Gary Hill (Musee D’Art Contemporian De Montreal, 1998),49.

[17] Quasha and Stein, 1998, 49.

[18] Claire Bishop elaborates on this notion in Installation Art: A Critical History, arguing that the fact that installation art relies on an centered presence in order to subject us to a process of de-centering creates an irresolvable antagonism that is itself de-centering.

[19] Bishop, Claire. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London and New York: Verso, 2012), 39.

[20] Davis, Whitney. A General Theory of Visual Culture<(Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011), 319./span>

[21] Davis, 2011, 319.

[22] Ibid., 258.

[23] Ibid., 258.

[24] Ibid., 339.

[25] Noë, 2004, 52.

[26] Ibid., 57.

[27] Nancy, Jean-Luc. Le Regard du Portrait (Paris: Galilee, 2000) quoted in Ian Balfour, “Nancy on Film: Regarding Kiarostami, Re-Thinking Representation” Journal of Visual Culture 9, no.1 (2011), 35.

[28] Noë, 2004, 160.

[29] Ibid., 161.

[30] Nancy, Jean-Luc. Listening (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), 2.

[31] Nancy, 2007, 6.

[32] Nancy, Jean-Luc. “The Inoperable Community” in Participation: Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. Claire Bishop, (London: Whitechapel, 2006), 69.

[33] Nancy, 2007, 14.

[34] This can be understood more fruitfully within the context of Mark Rowlands theory of the amalgamated mind in The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology, in which cognition is theorised as the process by which an organism extends itself outwards, performing, manipulating and transforming external, information bearing structures that are relevant to the given cognitive task. He states, “The actions that the organism performs on the world around it are ones of manipulating, exploiting and/or transforming external structures. What is distinctive of these structures is that they carry information relevant to accomplishing a given cognitive task. And by acting on these structures in suitable ways, the cognising organism is able to make that information available to itself and to its subsequent cognizing operations.” Thus, within Dervish, this extension outwards onto a information-bearing structure to help the cognizing process is strained in that we cannot see clearly or hear anything but the sound of the turbine engine. The straining of this habitual process, wherein we use the external world to off-load information and provide information, makes us aware of our reliance on external structures and the ways in which we perform, transform and relate to the external world and others within it.


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Megan Toye is currently studying at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, where she is completing her MA degree in Art History. Her research explores contemporary installation arts that address cognitive disorders, language use and gestural forms of communication, memory studies, embodied spectatorship, and the intersections between cognitive science, phenomenology and critical theory. She has previously worked as a curatorial assistant at The Alternator Centre for Contemporary Art in Kelowna, British Columbia, and as a curatorial intern at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto, Ontario.