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2006-07 Humanities Research Groups


Sponsor: Cogut Center for the Humanities, Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance, and the Rhode Island School of Design

Coordinators: Rebecca Schneider, Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance, Brown University

         Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art and Architectural History, RISD

         Thalia Field, Department of Literary Arts, Brown University

         Daniel Pelz, Film/Animation/Video, RISD

         Wendy Walters,  English and Digital Media, RISD

Five professors from literary, performance, visual, and media arts at Brown and RISD will investigate the promises and limits of “gesture” as a mode of exploring intermedial artwork or any artwork that might be called “gestic.”  The group comes together in search of fruitful modes of discussing intermediality across disciplines.  The group is also interested in duration, extension, futurity, deferral, and the possibly enduring place of the live body or “liveness” in conventionally non-live artwork – from text to painting to photography to film, video, and digital arts.

They will pose a series of questions:

  • If gesture conventionally signifies a set of physical behaviors that accompany speech acts or other signifying practices, its role as accompaniment is complex.  What is supplemental about gesture, and how might poststructural textual analyses of the supplement be applied to the physical gesture without rendering the gesture primarily textual?
  • Can we differentiate the gesture and the text? What is the difference between approaching gesture as syncopation versus supplementation? It has become commonplace in art historical treatments to remark on the “gesture” of a painting, for example. Sometimes this signifies the trace of an artist’s hand, but what is at stake in using “gesture” as a figure for meaning at all? And why privilege “trace aesthetics” when approaching the bodily aspect of gesture? What is the history of such a turn of phrase, and why does gesture emerge as a newly privileged figure for meaning-making at this historical moment?
  • What are the socio-political implications in the gestural as it relates to the gestic? We are interested in revisiting Bertolt Brecht’s compelling concept of the social gest as well as in exploring the ways in which intermediality is possibly complimentary if not necessary to the articulation of the sociality of the gest.  We are also interested to ask about articulating the social gest of nongestic work in reiterative and intermedial art practices. We are interested in the relationship between the passerby and the monumental in terms of the so-called static stance of the statue (or text or painting) and the so-called ephemeral gesture of the passerby.
  • What does underscoring the “gesture” of an artwork suggest about the site of an artwork and/or its temporality? What is the relationship of the temporality of gesture to the way embodiment, or the sense of an embodied act, haunts the term?
  • The place of gesture has expanded with “interactive” digital media. This is in part the result of the potentialities in and requirements of the technology. But what are the implications of this expansion? What are the body politics – the sociality -- that follow or lead as “gesture” is newly privileged technologically?
  • Simpler questions may be even more compelling: What is the gesture of a word or of a sentence? Of a building? Is gesture necessarily “between” participants, i.e., interactive? What is the trajectory, durational capacity, and temporality implied in gesture, gestural, and gestic acts?

    These questions have been inspired by many theorists as well as artists. They will develop a reading list and present readings in group meetings. Beside Brecht, they might also mention Foucault's discussion of the calligram and Benjamin's notes on correspondences as well as de Certeau’s emphasis on passage and Shor’s investigation of the stray detail (related, arguably, to the supposedly supplemental gesture). They might return to Agamben’s early work on gesture as well as look again at early feminist takes on bodily writing (ecriture feminine). The group is interested to intersect their questions about gesture with queer theory that employs the affective as a mode of inquiry. They will probe the history of approaching gesture as a kind of double speak, sometimes articulated against the flow of the text or speech it accompanies. Arguably psychoanalytic approaches to gesture and the “unconscious” bodily slip employ this approach.  They will examine the intersection of the double speak aspect of gesture with studies in race and intercultural exchange (Moten, Gilroy, Bhabha, Devere-Brody), as well as artworks, performance works and literary works that point to the ambiguities, gaps, and potentialities of language and challenge the binarized hierarchy between reading and perception, the visual versus the verbal, the performative act versus the material document or object.

    The "Gesture" group is interested in commissioning proposals for future art or performance work. They will consider a call for proposals for work that might take place at or between Brown and RISD, initially only in the form of a proposal (a gesture toward a possible future). They are also interested in possibly collaborating with each other in experiments toward gestic (and collaborative) art/criticism, perhaps conceiving of possible future curatorial projects.