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Deleuzian sensation and unbounded consciousness in Anna & Corrina Bonshek’s Reverie I (2002)

The work Reverie I (2002) by Anna and Corrina Bonshek has a special significance when considered against the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze in which he proposes the idea that art is experienced as 'sensation' (1981; 1997; Deleuze and Félix Guattari, 1994). This way of thinking about art departs from a traditional Kantian view in which art is a transcendental experience occasioned through the contemplation of form. In his writings with Felix Guattari, Deleuze maintains a view that art by necessity exposes the viewer/listener to an impersonal, differential flow of life that is felt rather than understood or comprehended. He contends that this aspect of art is potentially revolutionary. By exposing the viewer/listener to sensations that go beyond everyday perceptions and opinions, art is able to 'open up' new ways of thinking about and/or engaging with the world. Incorporating the notion of Deleuzian 'sensation', this article analyses Reverie I, an audio-visual installation that evokes a sense of unbounded consciousness by abstracting the voice and face from the spatio-temporal co-ordinates of the body.

Reverie I (2002) is a dual-screen, quadraphonic (four-speaker), audio-visual installation created by digital media artist Anna Bonshek and composer Corrina Bonshek. This work aims to create a sense of unbounded consciousness in which one's usual sense of self is elided. It draws on the idea of 'transcendental consciousness' in which subject and object, or knower and known, become shades or aspects of an 'infinite field of awareness' (Anna Bonshek, 2001: 57). [1] This idea of 'transcendental consciousness' is located in Vedic theory which draws on Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's reading of the ancient Indian texts, the Vedas (Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, 1996; William S. Haney, 1989; Rhonda Orme-Johnson, 1987). In Vedic theory, consciousness is not the property of a subject. Rather it is an 'unmanifest field' of 'pure awareness' or wakefulness that can be spontaneously accessed through art or meditation (Orme-Johnson, 1987: 333-336). This view of consciousness resonates with Robert Forman's description of a 'Pure Consciousness Event' as a state of 'wakeful' but 'non-intentional' awareness (1990: 7). Reverie I's evocation of unbounded consciousness necessitates a framework in which unmediated experience, or an experience of 'pure consciousness' can be theorised. Deleuze's view of art as 'sensation'—as a 'force' that ruptures everyday opinions and perceptions—provides a means of theorising ineffable experiences. In this article, Deleuze's concepts of 'intensity', 'affect' and the 'affection-image'—which he applies to perception, art and cinematic images—will be used to analyse the way Reverie I's creates a sense of the infinite (1994; 1986; Deleuze and Guattari, 1994).

Deleuze's philosophy is not limited to what can be seen, heard, understood or comprehended. Indeed, Deleuze regards human perception as a 'subtraction' or 'contraction' of the 'real' (Keith Ansell Pearson 2001: 417). Pearson suggests that Deleuze's philosophy can be regarded as a response to the 'insufficiency of the faculties of perception', a means to address 'reality' or things which 'do not explicitly strike our sense or consciousness' (ibid, 418). Deleuze uses the concept of 'intensity' to describe elements at the limits of perception (1994: 144). He describes intensities as pure differences, a form of ontological difference that gives rise to 'actual' or perceived entities (ibid, 246). As qualities of pure difference, intensities are virtual, though nonetheless real. They cannot be directly perceived. Rather, as Deleuze suggests, they can only be felt, sensed or perceived in the ‘quality’ they give rise to (ibid, 144). Claire Colebrook uses the example of the white light to illustrate this (2002b: 83). She suggests that we experience the pure difference of white light (which creates the colour spectrum), only through the ‘intensity’ of a single colour, such as a shade of red (ibid). She writes, our eyes do not perceive ‘the difference of each vibration of light’, but ‘contracts complex data into a single shade or object’ (ibid, 28). Intensities are imperceptible, she notes, because ‘a perceived difference’ is a difference that has ‘already been identified, reduced, or contracted’ (ibid, 27). For this reason, intensities are outside of, but implicated in our experience of them. Deleuze uses the term 'extensity' or 'extensive' difference to describe the way intensities are homogenised in everyday perception (1994: 230). Colebrook suggests that, in extensive' or everyday perception, the world is organised 'into distributed blocks', 'extended objects' that are 'mapped on to a common space' (2002a: 38). She writes:

Everyday vision takes this extensive form. I do not see a world of colours, tones and textures fluctuating from moment to moment. I see objects set apart from each other, stable through time and within a single and uniform extended space. Extension maps or synthesises the world in terms of presupposed purposes and intentions. (I go into my office and see the books that are there for me to read, the chair I will sit on, so on. I 'see' the world as a world of distinct functions continuous through time) (ibid: 38-9).

In Deleuze's view, art ruptures extensive or everyday perception because it draws attention to singular 'intensities' (such as the vibrancy of a colour). Daniel Smith suggests that Deleuze understands 'sensation' to be the sensory experience of intensities or pure differences (1996: 37). Importantly, sensation is realised in the materials of art (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, 1994: 167, 193). Like perception, Deleuze does not regard sensation as the property of a subject. Deleuze is interested in the 'virtual' flow of intensities that give rise to 'actual' or perceptible objects. Hence art, like any 'thing by itself', is virtual in so far as it is only through the activity of perception that the perceived object is actualised (Bogue, 2003:34). In Deleuze's view art draws attention to this virtual flux. It transforms recognisable feelings (affections) and perceptions into impersonal affects and percepts: forces of sensation that are unrecognisable or a-signifying (Deleuze & Guattari, 1994: 164). Colebrook suggests that Deleuze regards this aspect of art as political in so far as it 'decomposes' everyday meanings and opinions. It moves away from 'fixed and moral' notions of what art 'means' or 'represents' (2002a: 48). In his writings with Guattari, Deleuze suggests that the aim of art is to invent new affects and, therefore, to create new possibilities for perception and experience (1994: 175).

Image & Space

In Reverie I, two large projected images face one another, trailing light across a blackened space. To the right, a woman's head and shoulders are suffused in gold. Eyes closed, her only movement is the rise and fall of her chest, her body breathing. To the left is a second image, a silver, negative double of the first. The woman faces herself in silver and gold. Her eyes remain closed. At regular intervals a pulse of light glows behind her head then fades. As the piece progresses this glow becomes more intense. Flecks of gold appear across her silver cheeks, a silver wash momentarily submerses the gold screen. She is both subject and object: subject, a transparent, silvery double; object, a gold concrete form.



The images of Reverie I comprise two close-ups of a woman’s face and shoulders, African-American dancer, Vershawn Saunders. In his writings on cinema, Deleuze describes the close-up as an 'affection-image' (1986: 87). He suggests that the face, in film, is usually associated with three roles. It is ‘individuating’ (it allows us to recognise or distinguish a person), ‘socialising (it manifests a social role)’, or it is relational (‘it ensures not only communication between two people, but also, in a single person, the internal agreement between his character and his role)’ (ibid, 99). However, in the close-up, all three of these roles are elided. As Deleuze argues, the close-up treats the face as if it were no longer part of the body (88). This process of abstraction, the divorcing of the face from 'all spatio-temporal co-ordinates’, turns the face into 'pure affect' (96). Deleuze cites Béla Balázs, who writes:

The expression of an isolated face is a whole, which is intelligible by itself. We have nothing to add to it by thought, nor have we anything to add to that which is of space or time. When a face that we have just seen in the middle of a crowd is detached from its surroundings, put into relief, it is as if we were suddenly face to face with it. Or furthermore if we have seen it before in a large room, we will no longer think of this when we scrutinise the face in close-up. For the expression of a face and the signification of this expression have no relation or connection with space. Faced with an isolated face, we do not perceive space. Our sensation of space is abolished. A dimension of another order is opened to us (Balázs, Le cinéma: 57 in ibid).

Deleuzian affect may be regarded as akin to intensity in that it is not recognisable, like emotion, but is felt physiologically. Ronald Bogue suggests that, for Deleuze, the face in close-up 'allows an affect (quality/power) to appear in itself' (2003: 78). Nevertheless, affects are not completely divorced from its social-historical context. Deleuze suggests that the affection-image can be considered as an 'expression of a space or a time' in so far as every close-up occurs in a particular milieu (1986: 99). In Reverie I, the affection-images of Vershawn Saunders create an expression, an affect of tranquillity. The affection-image of this face, with its quality of serenity, can be linked to other affection-images: the face of a Cambodian Buddha carved in stone, Nam June Paik's T.V. Buddha (1974), the face of the 'Other' as a sign for non-Western spiritual practices.

Colour is a vital component of the images in Reverie I. Gold or silver fills each screen, subsuming the woman's face. In gold, the woman's face is more concrete, more manifest. It conveys the object aspect within 'transcendental consciousness'. In silver, the woman's face is translucent, insubstantial. This luminous image suggests a witnessing value of the subject within 'transcendental consciousness'. The colours of these images might also be viewed in Deleuzian terms as intensities that aid the abstraction of the woman's face. The placement of these images 'face-to-face', or opposite and parallel, creates a dynamic between them. Pulses of gold light appear on the gold object image at regular intervals. In counterpoint, the silver subject image begins to pulsate. These pulsations create a rhythm. Their interaction might be said to create a sensation of 'forced movement' (Deleuze, 1981: 48-9; Deleuze and Guattari, 1994: 167-8). Barbara Kennedy describes Deleuze's concept of 'forced movement' as a sensation that activates a space (Kennedy, 2000: 113). She notes that, in the sensation of 'forced movement', space becomes ‘a molecular element' in the connection between images (ibid, 114). For the viewer, situated in the gap between images, this sensation is enacted through, across and around their body. The interaction of these intensities (silver and gold) reconfigures consciousness. Rather than being the property of a subject who directs her awareness like 'flashlight illuminating a dark world' (Bogue, 2003: 34), consciousness is presented as an impulse, a vibration, a play of light within matter.

Sound & Space

Sound, in Reverie I, is spatial. It embodies the liminal space between two video projections, placed opposite and parallel. Four speakers, each pair placed on either side of an image, create a border, a territory. Moving from one side of the space to the other, fluctuating timbres (guitar and marimba) can be heard, not as single instruments, but as textures of sound, conglomerates of intensities or affect (mellow, pulsed, plucked, incessant). Each sound colour is multiplied. Multiple iterations of guitar and marimba refrains (recorded and overlaid) can be heard. They swell outwards, expanding then contracting in instrumental register, volume and time. Guitar sounds congregate at the subject (silver) image, while marimba sounds fluctuate around with the object (gold) image. Each group moves across the space, merging, dissolving, and disrupting their distinctive forms. Aden Evens suggests that sound as intensity encompasses all the vibrations of an instrument, its resonating body, a performer's body, and the performance space including the vibrations of air in that room at that particular moment in time (2002: 171-2). For this reason, sound as intensity is necessarily imperceptible. It can only be heard in the quality, timbre or 'tone-colour' of a sound or note. Reverie I emphasises timbre or the unconscious or imperceptible qualities of sound by obscuring individual notes or tones. In the example below, guitar and marimba are no longer heard as single entities. Delay has been used to smear tones, while reverberation transforms them into clouds of colour extended in duration. Within these diffuse entities individual tones come to the foreground then dissipate. These sounds play at the threshold of conscious perception. Following Deleuze's description of Leibniz's passage on the murmuring of the sea, these sounds might be regarded as 'obscure', in so far as they are not 'individuated', yet 'distinct' in their status as imperceptible intensities or singularities (1994: 213). Because, for Deleuze, intensity is ontological—intensity gives rise to objects or extended forms recognisable in everyday perception—Reverie I might be said to draw attention to the unbounded or intensive qualities of perception that precede conscious awareness.

Musical excerpt 1 (instruments in stereo)

In Reverie I, spoken voice can also be heard (text written by Anna Bonshek, spoken by Vershawn Saunders). Fragmented, and digitally manipulated, the syllables within words are separated and heard across four speakers. Equalisation attenuates high or low frequencies, rendering words indistinguishable. Words shatter on the edge of meaning, then reverberate into space. In Reverie I, the voice is experienced as affect. Like the face, it is abstracted from its the spatio-temporal co-ordinates of the body. We do not see the woman's lips move, her voice is not heard from a fixed position. In a quadraphonic (four-) speaker arrangement, her voice can be heard from every corner of the room. Digital processing transforms textual meaning into sensation. Words are rendered sensuous, not just by their content ('a dropless sea within a continuum'), but by digital processing that stretches syllables and creates rhythms out of sibilants.

Musical excerpt 2 (spoken text in stereo)

In Reverie I, voice and face are less an image of a person than affects, abstracted from the spatio-temporal co-ordinates of Saunders body. Their abstraction creates a hiatus in space-time, a sense of unboundedness. Colour subsumes the face, making it imperceptible as a subject with a name, identity, or role. The pulsating colour of the images creates intensities that suggest impulses of consciousness unbounded by specific forms. Voice is similarly abstracted from the body. Fragmented and digitally manipulated, the voice is rendered sensuous through the stretching, distorting, and repetition of syllables. Instrumental sounds also play at the threshold of perceptibility. Moving between obscure and distinct, imperceptible and perceptible, the instrumental composition, in Reverie I, might be correlated with Deleuze's notion of a vital, differential flow of life that gives rise to recognisable or bounded entities. Reverie I evokes a particular view of consciousness as unbounded. Consciousness is less the attribute of a subject who perceives an object, than a movement, an impulse, an imperceptible component of light or sound. This view resonates with Deleuze's description of Henri Bergson's notion of consciousness as located in matter rather than bodies (Bogue, 2003: 34). As such, Deleuzian sensation—as 'intensity' or 'affect'—provides a means of examining the way Reverie I creates a sense of unbounded awareness.


[1] See Anna Bonshek (2000) 'Transformations within the Gap: Liminality and Principles of Vedic Language Theory in Performance', Body Space & Technology 1(1)

[2] ibid.


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