William Forsythe

Watching the murmuration of starlings is one of the great pleasures of life. Thousands of birds moving together like a living cloud, creating an entity that surpasses the possibilities of presence a single member of the species could ever aspire to.

Text Damian Christinger
All images Courtesy by the artist

In his beautifully titled book “Thought-transference (or what!) in Birds” Edmund Selous argued 1931 that the phenomenon proofed that telepathy existed and could be harnessed by humans. In a more scientific approach, pioneering computer scientist Craig Raynolds created a computer model in 1987 as a simulation of a flock of birds. He gave each individual “boid” a simple set of rules: Try to move further apart from a nearby bird, align speed and direction with it, move closer to distant birds.

He writes in “Flocks, Herds, and Schols: A Distributed Behavioral Model”: “The aggregate motion of a flock of birds, a herd of land animals, or a school of fish is a beautiful and familiar part of the natural world. But this type of complex motion is rarely seen in computer animation. This paper explores an approach based on simulation as an alternative to scripting the paths of each bird individually. The simulated flock is an elaboration of a particle system, with the simulated birds being the particles. The aggregate motion of the simulated flock is created by a distributed behavioral model much like that at work in a natural flock; the birds choose their own course. Each simulated bird is implemented as an independent actor that navigates according to its local perception of the dynamic environment, the laws of simulated physics that rule its motion, and a set of behaviors programmed into it by the “animator.” The aggregate motion of the simulated flock is the result of the dense interaction of the relatively simple behaviors of the individual simulated birds.»

In his “Instructional Series”, be it “Untitled Instructional Series” for Tanz im August in Berlin (2020) or “Unsustainables” in Sao Paulo, Essen, Bruges and Gran Canaria (2019–2021), the artist William Forsythe does something similar, yet utterly different. It is true, that he creates a murmuration of sorts through implementing “independent actors” that navigate according to their local perception of the dynamic environment, it might be argued that he gives a “set of behaviors programmed into it”, and yet, there is a relevant distinction. While the bots in the program, the birds in a flock have a choice in how they move, they have none in the decision to participate. The fact that they are part of a group is a given. This argument of distinction might seem trivial or even academic, it aims at the core of the artistic heuristics employed by Forsythe, though, at the nucleus that informs and motivates his ongoing research into what he calls “choreographic objects”, and what could also be described as a search for choreographic kinship.

We are so used to comply with implicit instructions, that we don’t question them most of the time. Getting in line at the supermarket, at the airport, taking off our shoes and belt, the collective rituals at a theater or football match are implicitly understood to be the way we move as a crowd. The pandemic focus on mass behavior, the turn in biopolitics with its mandates and recommendations, watch the distance, wear a mask, avoid crowded spaces have sharpened our understanding of rules and their implications. Most of us complied, our understanding of solidarity trumping our unease. An important question arose, though: can we experience kinship while moving under instructions?

Watching a murmuration can give us a feeling of the sublime (like watching a ballet can). In the simplest case, the sublime can be defined as the experience of what “overwhelms the self with the idea of an overwhelming power”. In our confrontation with that which totally exalts us, our mental faculties are overtaxed, we do not understand what lies ahead, we fail to speak when we look at the mountains, for example. In this state of confusion, the sublime is constituted as “a contradiction experienced between the demands of reason and the power of imagination” to paraphrase Deleuze. The goal of the sublime experience as an aesthetic category is then to transcend the limits of understanding, for it forces us to reckon with what lies outside of ourselves and to flood our mind and senses.

The problem with this definition – and with inducing a murmuration of humans – is that it might lead straight into admiring fascist aesthetics. Forsythe knows this and works actively against it. This is, why the question of choice is so essential. Glistening bodies moving in unisono, a group of beings becoming part of something bigger than themselves, being overwhelmed by the loss of distinction between subjectivity and reality, have, often, led directly into catastrophes. One might argue that these are questions of the 20th century, that art has evolved after the revolutions of its avantgardes. At least after the first part of a pandemic, after the post-truth arrived in the midst of our conversations, we realize what art has always been trying to tell us.

Art’s post-revolution has perfected itself; boundaries have dissolved completely. Knowledge, data, and culture can now be processed, disseminated, and copied as many times and as quickly as is wanted via the code of pictures, places and the cannibalistic nature of its inhabitants. The islands of artificial worlds have finally attained a kind of oblivion, thus the systems of reference have also disappeared. This new age of digital enlightenment enables the creation of new worlds, and the dematerialization of the existing one, as well as the suppression of reality from sensory perception. The simulation blurs the difference between the imaginary and the real. In this world, not only have both the physical and the metaphysical systems of reference disappeared, but images have long ceased to be images. Signs no longer matter; the writing is on the floor and the wall. And still, some of us insist there is a possibility of real connections, the writing on the floor and wall can be turned into a positive signal – as is the case with “Unsustainables” – we can still forge real connections, among ourselves and with our surroundings.

It might not be a coincidence that walking has had a renaissance of sorts in the last couple of years, the pandemic has acted like a catalysator to reenforce this trend. The act of walking reconnects us to the act of thinking within the world. Rebecca Solnit writes: “Which is to say that the subject of walking is, in some sense, about how we invest universal acts with particular meanings. Like eating or breathing, it can be invested with wildly different cultural meanings, from the erotic to the spiritual, from the revolutionary to the artistic. Here this history begins to become part of the history of the imagination and the culture, of what kind of pleasure, freedom, and meaning are pursued at different times by different kinds of walks and walkers. That imagination has both shaped and been shaped by the spaces it passes through on two feet. Walking has created paths, roads, traderoutes; generated maps, guidebooks, gear, and further afield, a vast library of walking stories and poems (…). The landscapes, urban and rural, gestate the stories, and the stories bring us back to the sites of this history.”

Forsythe takes this seriously. The act of walking through a museum, through a neighbourhood or a city can become an artistic act. It can transform the way we experience our surroundings or each other. One could argue that the choreographic objects he employs are haunting the spaces they visit. In the sense that Mark Fisher has inscribed into the term when he writes: “Space is intrinsic to spectrality, as one of the meanings of the term “haunt” – a place – indicates. Haunting happens, when a space is invaded or otherwise disrupted by a time that is out-of-joint, a dyschronia”.

One could feel that personally when Forsythe inaugurated the still empty new building of the Kunsthaus Zurich together with the public. For “The Sense of Things” he installed a monumental sound sculpture made of church bells throughout the building, intending to activate not only the architecture, but above all the visitors. He knows the City and its Kunsthaus well, the first intervention into the space was through the exhibition “Action!”, 2017, in which a low-floating cube severely limited visitors’ ability to move. “A Volume Within Which It Is Not Possible for Certain Classes of Action To Arise” was meticulously fitted into the exhibition architecture, vividly demonstrating the limitations that oppose the politically active subject while simultaneously making the experience physical. This can be formulated as the core of Forsythe’s artistic creation: the aesthetics of visual beauty, be it object-related, sculptural or architectural, is only revealed to him through a holistic, physical sensory experience, the Greek aisthesis. And through him to the visitor as the created experience changes both body and space, enables the unfolding of forces in the interaction. In the relationship between movement and object, human and dynamics, the potential of departure is always activated.

The difference towards the birds is, as mentioned, our choice. We can choose to participate, and this choice is the first action towards aisthesis. The aesthetics involved serve a clear purpose though, which can be understood in the idea of activation (as in activating the visitors in the Kunsthaus Zurich). When visitors emerged from the depths of the connecting corridor into the oversized hall of the new building and, like a collective echolot, attempted to locate the sources of the polyphonic, contrapuntal composition, they couldn’t help but perceive the spaces in the absence of visual art. The icons of Western modernism were still missing, the voids allowed an unbiased and new approach to the concept of art. The choreography that Forsythe proposed to us was a movement of contemplation and reinterpretation, a peripatetic meditation on the absence of things, the sense of things. While realizing that our movement within the specific architecture allowed us to appreciate the space in a different and sensual way (we were “haunting” it) a strange choreographic kinship emerged. The choreographic objects of Forsythe always work as empathy machines, turning us not into “boids” but sensing beings, attuned to each other by choice.

   Guiding his exploration of the bells was his recollection of a poem by A.E Housman:

When the bells justle

The hollow night amid

Then on my tongue the taste is sour

Of all I ever did

What a beautiful poem, what a strange incantation… If we define this haunting as a basis of kinship, then we might develop a better understanding of the performative functions of Forsythe’s choreographic objects. They lead us beyond the words.  When we get moving in a dance-like murmuration of our own choosing for example, a fresh look at canonized art and architecture might become possible, and a new appreciation for the bodies moving alongside us.

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