Exchanging Embers

by Roisin Jenkinson

I stepped into a semi darkened room partitioned in the middle (performers and installation on the inner side, audience on the outer side) with intriguing, at times unsettling, sounds played by David Stalling, while EL Putnam first appeared covered head-to-toe by a dark cloak. I took a spot on the floor, engrossed by her slow and precise movements, as she slowly lifted the cloak to pier out at the audience, to then remove and drop the cloak on the floor, where it remained for the rest of the performance and had become forgotten as we became transfixed by EL and her skirt decorated with lights.

On the darkest day of our calendar year, that is when the magic happened. Ember was a captivating and intoxicating performance of light, sound and the body that transported me to another world. EL interacted with two small cameras that were strategically placed on the floor before her, by distancing herself to closing in on each of the cameras, to tenderly yet decisively picking up each camera and moving it around her body, to holding it close to the lights she wore. This translated to all manner of colours which were projected, through two projectors, onto the entire wall behind EL and David, and also onto themselves, creating a temporal painting. It was aesthetically exquisite.

As EL responded through movement to David’s sound composition, creating a dialogue between them, there was an inquisitive nature to EL’s movements, such as reaching out a hand as if there is something just beyond our physical and mental capacity. This could suggest that I had been reading into the performance too deeply, but then I ask the question, why do we perform? There are many other ways to communicate other than speaking. When we perform, we create a dialogue revolving around a certain topic and between certain people. We learn from each other and learn from ourselves. In regard to Ember, perhaps we have not found the words to articulate the experience and emotions this performance evoked, however through movement and sound, something in each of us (performers and audience) has been realised and translated through colour and beauty.

To understand more completely and carry the energy first lit by EL and David, allow Embers to exist in your daily conversations. Exchange thoughts on the visual aspect of this performance and performance art in general, but also on the spiritual unseen aspect, the winter solstice, celtic heritage, and ultimately, where we come from and where we are going. What is this unknown other we reach for?


The artist’s response

by EL Putnam

At the heart of Ember is an ineffability — an inability to express something in words. This something is an angst; not anxiety in the sense of fearfully fretting about, but in the sense described by Heidegger in Being and Time as a quality of uncanniness and indefiniteness, the nothing and nowhere, that corresponds with being in the world.[1] The particular intersection I inhabit in Ember is that between the corporeal and the digital, with the digital as a mode of expression and mediation. My aim is to navigate this terrain—a space that has become mundane in our culture of ubiquitous computing and social media. However, it is a space that doesn’t cease to surprise and provoke me as an artist and a human being, resulting in an ambivalent relationship with digital technology where I am both excited and disturbed by its capabilities.

Thus in Ember I turn to gesture as a means of communicating what I am unable to put into words. Giorgio Agamben describes how gesture is “essentially always a gesture of not being able to figure something out in language.”[2] Gestures are the actions taken when we are unable to articulate or are at a loss of what to say. At the same time, Agamben describes how gestures are actions as means without ends — a mode of performing that is not working towards a specific outcome or finality. I find a lot of potential in this space of mediality and it is a space that attracts me as a performance artist. As I create images of light and shadow using my body as the manipulator, David Stalling crafts sounds that respond to and drive my actions. I am caught in the middle of a simulation of fire, designed to emulate smoldering coals that are at the brink of being extinguished or re-ignited. I am intrigued by the images created in this scene, using the tools of fiber optics and the two webcams feeding into the slitscan projections that fill the space. At first my intention was to remain static, to let my subtle movements slowly coerce the fiber optics in relation to the cameras placed at my feet. I found these parameters to be too constraining, however, and so I decided to pick up the cameras, further integrating the relationship between the bodily and digital gestures. As I lift these cameras with one in each hand, connected by a wire to the Raspberry Pis that are generating the images, I am reminded of the infamous photograph emerging from Abu Ghraib years ago, when awareness was brought to the torture of prisoners in the prison in Iraq. I wonder if anyone picks up on this reference. I pause in the moment; letting it linger, but not exhausting it. Later, an audience member mentions to me in an email the evocation of the image and how it conveyed vulnerability, though this vulnerability is hybridized with images of power.[3] I find this description appropriately captures some of the seemingly paradoxical emotions driving the performance.

I continue my actions, cultivating a gestural dialogue with David through light and sound, bringing together the two cameras and holding them at my abdomen, where the brightest source of light sits. I realise that the relationship of the cameras to my body is similar to an ultrasound during an antenatal scan, which makes me smile as I was 16 weeks pregnant at the time of this performance. At that point, I was not visibly pregnant, and few audience members knew of my state, so I was aware that this reference would not be caught by many witnesses, if at all. That does not bother me as I claim a right to opacity[4] in my work as an artist; an ability to express without having to be explicit though still capable of engaging with others.

Roisin notes in her response to the performance how there are moments where I reach out to the audience, though it is unclear what I am trying to reach out to. Since I was performing in front of the projectors, the brightness of these lights inhibited my ability to fully see who was present in that dimmed side of the room. As a way of drawing strength, I tried to engage a relationship to the audience through eye contact, though this was an impossible task as I was unable to clearly see who I was looking at. I compensated through bodily gestures as I lifted my arms to reach to what was beyond the limits of my visible perception. Roisin’s description of how this led her to consider why perform if not to explore other means of communication touches a key quality of the work. Much of what I am trying to express in Ember I am unable to do so verbally, though still desire to share. Emotional sensations, colour and beauty emanate from the gestural connections created through these moments. In the middle of all of this is an unknown, but an unknown that is experienced mitsein — being together.


Ember by EL Putnam and David Stalling, a co-production with the Complex, was performed at the Ground Floor Gallery on 21 December 2017. Photographs are by Paul McGrane.


[1] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 176.

[2] Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End, trans. Vincenzo Binetti (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 59.

[3] Glenn Loughran, “Personal Correspondence with Author,” January 10, 2018.

[4] See Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

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