Agency, Materiality, and Affective Potential in Koosil-ja's Dance Without Bodies

Koosil-ja's Dance Without Bodies, performed at The Kitchen in December 2006, introduced a new performance method called Live Processing. Live Processing utilizes live-feed technology to explore the movements, interconnections, and cross-connections of flows of the dancers, audience, and media components throughout the performance space. Koosil-ja utilizes Live Processing technology in order to challenge the strict distinctions between improvisation and choreography—that is, between 'movements chosen moment-by-moment based on the dancer's training and whims' and 'movements [that are] pre-determined and rehearsed' (Koosil-ja 2006: 1)—so that 'the agency driving the movement is entirely external and the movement source material is changed frequently so that the dancers cannot memorize it' (1). In other words, Live Processing, through placing the source of agency[1] external to the dancers themselves, achieves a confusion of boundaries between improvisation and choreography. However, if, as Andre Lepecki suggests, 'rethinking the subject in terms of the body is precisely the task of choreography', what is the task of choreography's other: improvisation (5)? Does the task of improvisation reside in the escape from the boundaries of our subjecthood and in the 'divergence, difference, and departure [...] from uniformity or similarity' (Albright 2003: 129)? Finally, what implications does a reformulation of the subject have for agency and the materiality and affective potentiality of the body?

Lepecki likens choreography to the process of subjectification, that process of active becomings, of forces, energies, and potencies, which, according to Michel Foucault as well as Gilles Deleuze, is constitutive of subjectivity.[2] Lepecki suggests that choreography creates a process of subjectification that is not necessarily at odds with yielding, submitting, or disciplining the body in order to achieve and fully execute the demands of the choreography. He writes:

[S]ubjectivity is not to be confounded with this conception of a fixed subject [that is, with 'the assertion of the person as a self-enclosed, autonomous individual bound to a fixed identity, and with the identification of a full presence at the center of discourse']. Rather, it is to be understood as a dynamic concept, indexing modes of agency (political ones, desiring ones, affective ones, choreographic ones) that reveal 'a process of subjectification,' that is, the production of a way of existing [that] can't be equated with a subject. (8)

Like Lepecki, Saba Mahmood, in her book Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, also suggests a reformulation of agency for women of the piety movement in Egypt. She turns to Foucault's techniques of the self in order to theorize a way in which the submission to daily (choreographic) demands of ritual and piety does not necessarily entail the sacrifice of individual agency. Mahmood writes, 'instead of limiting agency to those acts that disrupt existing power relations,'[3] Foucault's work suggest a concept of agency '(a) in terms of capacities and skills required to undertake particular kinds of moral [and choreographed] actions; and (b) as ineluctably bound up with the historically and culturally specific disciplines through which a subject is formed' (29). Therefore, for Foucault, ethics (and choreography which provides similar kinds of external rules, discipline, and regimes of practice), 'permits individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others, a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and ways of being' (Foucault 1997: 225) in order to transform or cultivate their own subjectivities (that is, cultivate themselves as subjects with particular modes of agency) in relation to a particular moral discourse or choreographic demand.

Particularly interesting for dance studies and for theories of the body in general, Foucault is suggesting that agency—instead of being that which challenges dominant, oppressive systems of power—is actually constitutive of the self. In other words, Foucault is suggesting an affirmative or positive notion of agency—agency as affording freedom, for example—as opposed to a negative notion of agency—agency as fighting against non-freedom. For Foucault as well as for Lepecki's understanding of the choreographic, agency thereby provides freedom to constitute the self, to engage in a process of subjectification or active becomings, to realize one's own potential through a disciplinary regime, ritual, or practice. In light of these discussions of agency, what kind of agency is there in practices of improvisation and choreography and what implications does such agency have for the materiality and affective potentiality of the body?

It is this question of agency in choreography and improvisation that Koosil-ja's Dance Without Bodies explored. The performance space was divided into two identical stages, and each side had raked seating for the audience facing a large screen on which the activity of the other side was portrayed. There were also five clusters of three televisions on each side playing random sequences of visual imagery which acted as an 'external agency,' motivating the movements of the two dancers (Koosil-ja 2006: 1). The video contents on the screens were taken from what seemed like rehearsal footage (upper right screen), clips from old movies, some immediately identifiable (upper left screen), and animated video games, cartoons, etc. (lower screen). The musical component was originally developed in conjunction with the video score and was a likewise randomly played sequence; however, in the development of the piece, the audio score became set and processed in predetermined ways in order to 'inspire their [the dancers'] movements or provide them a different mode of expression to work with' (Koosil-ja 2006: 2).

In addition to the video and audio scores, there were various props that were utilized by the dancers, including a headset microphone (that worked) and a microphone stand (that did not work), a bass guitar (plugged in but also not functional), a scarf that was detached from and reattached to their costumes after being used to mimic gestures on one of the screens, and flat, red, geometric circles (of metal, it seemed), used to mimic the gestures from the same footage. In responding to all of these stimuli, the dancers were neither merely reacting spontaneously in a performance situation in which the external environment was constantly changing (i.e. an un-bounded, interior agency), nor were they performing set, rehearsed choreography that lacked any choice on the part of the dancers (i.e. individual agency subservient to the choreography). Instead, they were reacting to visual stimuli that changed in sequence but not content from performance to performance, the moments of choreography occurred in the random sequence determined by the Live Processing technology, and the dancers were not moved by some internal agency but from an external agency that was accessed through the visual sense.

Along with this question of agency, Live Processing was developed in conjunction with Koosil-ja's study of Deleuze and Felix Guattari's concept of a Body without Organs (BwO). The BwO is constantly seeking new channels and different combinations of flows in order to realize itself, not as a fully-formed and fixed subject, but, as Elizabeth Grosz describes it, as 'a discontinuous, nontotalized series of...organs, flows, energies, corporeal substances, and incorporeal events and durations' (164). The question for Deleuze and Guattari is not what the BwO is—not the identity or significatory aspects of the naturalized, fixed, stable, organic organization of the organs which are bounded into a self-contained organism—but what the BwO does—how it functions, its affects, what it produces, its movements, its speeds and slownesses, its intensities. In performing with the Live Processing system, Melissa Guerrero (the other dancer along with Koosil-ja), commented that 'because of the speed of the footage and random combination of the sources, I shifted from seeking out what may be visually "interesting," to allowing the images to simply enter...information flows in and flows out. As soon as the movement/the moment arrives, it is gone' (Koosil-ja 2006: 1). The dancers, therefore, were interacting with the visual and audio components of the Live Processing system with an immediacy, an intensity, a speed, and an indeterminacy that complicates notions of a fixed, stable, bounded body and introduces a porosity, an openness, an of-the-momentness that defines the body not as what it is but, as Deleuze and Guattari write, 'what it can do' (257).

It should be noted, however, that Deleuze and Guattari are not advocating the complete dissolution of the body; they are not suggesting that the subject itself and its modes of agency (i.e. subjectivity) be completely dismantled. They write that one has 'to keep small rations of subjectivity in sufficient quantity to enable you to respond to the dominant reality' (160–1). What Deleuze and Guattari offer is 'a rare affirmative understanding of the body' (Grosz 1994: 165). Therefore, in moving towards a BwO, as Koosil-ja is, the entire body, the entire organism, the entire sense of agency belonging to the subject cannot be dismantled. The need to 'respond to the dominant reality' is imperative, not only for the functioning of the BwO, but also for dancers and for bodies in motion. Never can a body move without having some sorts of constraint, be it gravity, the walls of the room, the existence of time, etc.; a Deleuzian body, therefore, retains small rations of agency, subjectivity, signification in order to respond to these constraints of the dominant reality. Koosil-ja's piece plays with the status and the makeup of that dominant reality by disrupting the distinctions between improvised and choreographed movements and by displacing the source of agency to something external to the body. In this way, she is both extending the boundaries of the body to include external mechanisms and to play with the sense of spatial boundaries, while also maintaining markers and constraints of an external reality (for example, the choreographed moments, the instructions sometimes projected on the video screens, the content of the visual stimuli).

However, I find myself wanting to substitute 'stimulus' for 'agency' when talking about Dance Without Bodies, perhaps because Koosil-ja's use of the concept of agency as being external to the bodies of the dancers is not fully explored. While Koosil-ja claims that Live Processing both grants a different conception of agency and constitutes a Deleuzian body of open systems, energies, and flows, I wonder if this insistence on maintaining the concept of agency by displacing it to an external mechanism (instead, perhaps, of reformulating the body's relationship with the externally imposed constraints and stimuli) prevents a full and thorough move to a BwO. In other words, I wonder if positing the source of movement—i.e. the agency entailed in producing movement—as a primarily visual stimulus outside the body compromises Lepecki's reformulation of choreographic agency, and also compromises the material and affective potential of the body conceived of as a BwO or process of becomings. Affect, for Deleuze and Guattari, destabilizes the organism; it throws any fixed relation between subject and representation into upheaval; it is the 'effectuation of power' (240) of becomings, and thereby rests in the relations of flows, intensities, and energies between BwO. When watching the dancers' movements, I was distracted by their eyes, glued intently, almost maniacally, to one screen or another. With every change in body position, their reorientation was achieved by searching for, then locking in on, one of the screens in the new proximity of their vision. Even when the two dancers were on the same side of the doubled stage space, they did not react or respond to each other, only to the external visual stimulus. While this may have created a sort of 'extended nervous system' from their visual sensory apparatus to the external visual stimuli/agency (Koosil-ja 2006: 1), it did not create an affective, multiplicitous, and overlapping interconnection of flows or energies between the bodies of the dancers themselves or between the bodies of the dancers and the audience members, nor did it succeed in creating an affective response to the external stimuli. Instead, Dance Without Bodies seemed to merely displace the source of agency from the predetermined choreographic to the random ordering of images and the spontaneous reactions to them without thoroughly complicating or exploring the notion of agency itself and its relation to a body's affective and material potential.

Therefore, Koosil-ja's piece, while questioning the choreographic agency in determining movement, does not emphasize the materiality and affective potential of the body, mostly because the Live Processing system creates a primarily visual, as opposed to material or affective,[4] stimulus to elicit movement. In Dance without Bodies, the major stimuli for movement are visual ones, and they are visual stimuli that are already deeply embedded and invested in representation (i.e. the old movies, the cartoons, and even the practice footage all engage in practices signification and meaning—we can identify most of the old movies, we know what the scenes mean, we know how to play most of the video games, and even the practice footage has come to represent the nascent stages of the performance we are now watching). I do not mean to suggest that visual stimuli or responses to visual stimuli necessarily lack materiality or affective potential. However, there is a way that the imitative repetition of gestures (mimesis) traps the subject within the discursive realm, which maintains a distinction between representation—what the gesture means or signifies—and materiality.[5] Therefore, when I claim that Koosil-ja's piece lacked materiality and affective potential because of its primarily visual stimulus, I mean that the particular kinds of stimuli and the particular responses to the stimuli are such that the piece does not produce an affirmative conception of agency in relation to the body's materiality and affective potential.

What I am interested in, after experiencing Dance Without Bodies, is what is at stake—politically and artistically—in moving away from visual indicators as the primary sources of agency and towards material or affective sources of agency. My objections, therefore, with Dance Without Bodies reside in my expectations for the piece, based on the Live Processing technology and how Koosil-ja spoke of Deleuze and Guattari's BwO as inspiration, not being fully met. That being said, I do think that the issues raised by Koosil-ja—the distinction between improvisation and choreography, questioning an inherent source of agency that is particular to the liberal humanist subject, and working towards becoming a new, extended, open body—are indispensable projects. To reintroduce the body into philosophical thought, to break down the dualistic hierarchies between mind and body, and to reconceptualize experience, desire, and subjectivity in corporeal terms are tasks with political as well as artistic and theoretical consequences. However, as Lepecki's reformulation of choreography as rethinking the subject in terms of the body shows, such tasks are far from over and it takes not only theorists and critics but also artists, as those engaging explicitly with what the body does, to reformulate a notion of subjectivity in terms of the body in all of its materiality and affective potential.

Musetta Durkee cursa actualmente la maestría en Estudios de Performance en la Universidad de Nueva York. Estudió Filosofía en Columbia University y su trabajo se centra en la relación entre filosofía y performance, particularmente en lo relativo al cuerpo, la subjetividad, la agencia, los confines y la libertad. Con educación profesional como bailarina de ballet y cantante de ópera, Musetta busca integrar sus actividades prácticas con su trabajo académico para poder trazar las diversas intersecciones que emergen entre el campo teórico y el práctico.


[1]Agency is a highly contested term and its definition, meaning, and scope of influence is part of what is at stake in this paper and in Koosil-ja's work. I see two major strands of agency dominating intellectual discourse: one, the agency-as-resistance model, in which agency is something that is afforded to a stable, autonomous, bounded subject; and two, the agency-as-self-cultivation model, in which bodily practices cultivate and form the self. Saba Mahmood, in her book Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, provides a wonderful overview of these two models. Her project is to reformulate ritual piety practices in Egypt as a kind of agency that is different from 'the normative political subject of poststructuralist [...] theory [that] often remains a liberatory one, whose agency is conceptualized on the binary model of subordination and subversion' (14). In her reformulation of agency, taking from Aristotelian-Foucauldian models instead of the above Kantian-Enlightenment model, the individual is contingently made possible by the discursive logic of the ethical traditions she enacts' (32) and the bodily practices, according to her analysis, participate not in the transformation of consciousness or the destabilizing of dominate significatory systems, but in 'the retraining of the sensibilities, affect, desire, and sentiments—those registers of corporeality that often escape the logic of representation and symbolic articulation' (188).

[2] This use of 'subjectivity' is not to be confused with the subject itself; instead, 'subjectivity' is both the subject and its modes of agency.

[3]A disruption of the demands of the choreographic is often how improvisation has been understood, i.e. improvisation as that which eludes fixed power structures (Albright 2003: 9).

[4] Brian Massumi separates affect from sensations and emotions and claims that affect is precisely that point of emergence of the 'virtual coexistence and interconnection' between mind and body, language and experience, image and expressive event, activity and passivity, visual representation and matter (33). The primacy of the affective is 'marked by a gap between content and effect;' it resides in the missing half-second between experience and language, in the boundaries between supposedly binary oppositions (24).

[5] Lepecki claims that 'Western choreography [is] part of a general economy of mimesis that frames subjectivity and encloses it' (46); in other words, the mimetic economy of representation closes off the potential for an open, porous BwO and for an agency that is not based on the Enlightenment models described by Mahmood.

Works Cited

Albright, Ann Cooper and David Gere, eds. 2003. Taken By Surprise: A Dance Improvisation Reader. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Barthes, Roland. 1991. The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation, trans. Richard Howard. San Francisco: University of California Press.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1997. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. ed. Paul Rabinow, trans. Robert Hurley and others, from the series Essential Works of Foucault: 1954–1984. New York: The New Press.

Grosz, Elizabeth. 1994. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Koosil-ja. 2006. Dance Without Bodies. 6–9 December 2006 at the Kitchen; program notes.

Lepecki, Andre. 2006. Exhausting Dance: Performance and the politics of movement. New York and London: Routledge.

Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Massumi, Brian. 2002. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham and London: Duke University Press.



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