Excess, Precision and Presence: Dani Ploeger’s ELECTRODE. A Psychophysical Perspective1

Dr. Alissa Clarke, De Montfort University, Leicester (UK)

Echoing Julia Kristeva’s depiction of the abject body (1982), seepage and excess underscore Ploeger’s ELECTRODE, in which medical devices normatively deployed to treat faecal incontinence are used to recreate the sphincter contraction pattern of an anonymous experimental subject during masturbation and orgasm. Such excess points to the social shame and concealment that frequently accompanies (controlled and uncontrolled) leaking bodies, and is rooted in what HĂ©lĂšne Cixous depicts as the privileging of ‘propre’. Propre refers to what is ‘“proper”, “appropriate”, and “clean”’, but also has ‘overtones of property and appropriation’ (Wing 1996 [1986]: 167). Contrary to the pursuit of the clean, controlled and bounded body, Ploeger highlights his deployment of ‘taboo medical technology’, and its associations with a fragile improper body (2011). Ploeger emphasises how this serves to ‘undermin[e] a reading of the work in terms of normative gender performance in conjunction with digital technology’, where such normative gender performance adheres to ‘the realm of utopic visions of a future with superman-cyborgs’ (2011). Indeed, the confident, commanding, space-grabbing stance adopted in the performance by Ploeger’s ‘carefully maintained normative white male body’ (Whitehead 2011), is very deliberately counterbalanced by Ploeger’s denuding and the vulnerability surrounding the object with which his body is engaged.

This oppositional positioning is intensified through the contrast created between this fragility and the technologically-mediated ‘extra-daily’ practices deployed by Ploeger’s body in the present moment of performance. The psychophysical performance practitioner, Eugenio Barba, explains extra-daily practices as involving thorough and engaged re-enculturation of the body that completely opposes or heightens habitualised patterns of daily movement (Barba and Savarese 1991: 10). Barba argues that non-habitual patterns of movement are constructed through ‘pre-expressivity’, a biological pre-cultural level which precedes and is present during the performative expression of all performers. This level is rooted in the common technical principles used to create performance presence and which transcend culture and history (Barba and Savarese 1991: 186-204).2 Barba depicts somatic oppositions as a key principle of ‘pre-expressivity’, and highlights how, optimally, ‘the dance of oppositions’ within the performer’s extra-daily body (Barba and Savarese 1991: 176) create ‘a body – in – life’ that ‘dilates the performer’s presence and the spectator’s perception’ (Barba and Savarese 1991: 54). Through the re-appropriation of a readily available medical technology, Ploeger’s ELECTRODE weaves a web of oppositions through his body, rooted in precision and excess, that does exactly this.

The absolute precision of the work resides in Ploeger’s complete embodied focus on the specificity of the sphincter muscle contraction pattern, which is facilitated by the large-scale wall projection of graphs of the original experimental subject’s pattern and the real-time registrations of Ploeger’s own sphincter contractions. Psychophysical performer trainer, Phillip Zarrilli, articulates such focus as ‘a sense of assiduous attentiveness in the moment of performance or doing’ (2002c: 166) that develops ‘a certain type and quality of relationship between the doer and the done’ (emphasis in original. 2002b: 190). That attentiveness and relationship is enabled by Ploeger’s disciplined and fully engaged repeated replication of the contraction pattern. This replication mirrors the ‘physical score’ / task-based work pursued within psychophysical performance practices, where ‘physical score’ refers to the precise repetition of a series of detailed physical actions. Just as the extra-daily body repeating such scores opposes the ‘principle of minimum effort’ in daily unconscious movement patterns (Barba 1995: 15), so Ploeger’s repetitions over the duration of the performance become increasingly and overtly laboured. The ministry and endurance required by the task offsets the excess and unruliness suggested by the faked orgasms.

Jerzy Grotowski explains what can be done by the performer to surpass the situation where such laborious tasks seem to exceed the capacities of the body. It’s a question of inviting the body to the “impossible” and making it discover that the “impossible” can be divided into small pieces, small elements, and made possible
 the body becomes obedient without knowing that it should be obedient. It becomes a channel open to the energies, and finds the conjunction between the rigor of elements and the flow of life (“spontaneity”) (1995: 129)

Through dividing the muscular contractions into small elements, represented on the graph on the screen, Ploeger’s performing body shifts beyond laborious effort and rigorous precision. His body opens up and outwards, displaying this ‘flow of life’ through the rocking impulse, provoked by the sphincter contractions, that organically sways through his entire body. It externally suggests to the viewer the visceral pulsations of the moment of orgasm in an unbounded improper body.

This flow of life echoes the emphasis placed by psychophysical performer trainers, like Barba, Grotowski and Zarrilli, upon preventing the physical score from becoming a process of automated repetition, as Ploeger can be seen to inhabit the actions within his physical score of sphincter contractions with his entire bodymind. That inhabitation and the subsequent flow of life highlights a return to extra-daily oppositions through the necessary relationship between freedom and constraint with physical scores, as the performer searches for excess and spontaneity within the precise structure. In Beyond the Floating Islands Barba describes ‘the performance’, utilising a multitude of scores, as ‘a tightly woven net’ (in Watson 2010: 248). He reflects upon how the performers ‘try to dissolve, to annul the rigid iron structure through which they reveal themselves’ (in Watson 2010: 248). Ploeger pushes against and through his own ‘rigid iron structure’ to reveal his ‘fascination with normative representations of bodies whilst simultaneously problematising and undermining this attitude’ (2011).

Enticing as this reflexive exposure is, the most exhilarating moments of constraint and potential freeing release resides, instead, for the spectator in those points in between each repetition of Ploeger’s sphincter score. In these moments of silence, with knees slightly bent, energy evident in the hands, precise external and internal focus, open awareness to the space, audience and task, Ploeger inhabits a body in a state of heightened readiness that displays what Barba describes as ‘sats’. ‘The sats is the moment’ of ‘dynamic preparation’ ‘in the instant which precedes the action, when all the necessary force is ready to be released into space but as though suspended and still under control
 There is a muscular, nervous and mental commitment, already directed towards an objective’ (Barba 1995: 55-56; emphasis in original).

In these presence-filled moments, the spectator, too, waits alongside Ploeger in a state of gathering readiness and anticipation. This anticipation is then released through Ploeger’s muscular contractions, but also through the sonification of the EMG data, which vibrates, shakes and grates the body of the spectator. This visceral shared impulse, shared orgasm, between the spectator and Ploeger is echoed through the dialogue constructed between Ploeger’s visceral body and the embodied patterns of the subject whose muscle contractions he is retracing. Such dialogue serves to balance what Jill Dolan outlines as the ‘risk of coercive persuasion’ ‘run’ when ‘spectators [are] seduced by a performer’s powerful presence’ (2005: 30). This form of manipulative powerful presence, where ‘charisma’ can operate as ‘a force for fascism’ (Dolan 2005: 30), is reminiscent of the fetishisation of the hard-bodied superman cyborg critiqued by Ploeger. The worrying power potential of Ploeger’s evident presence, though, is ultimately undermined by this generous dialogic excess upon which Ploeger’s performance turns.

Dani Ploegers Performance »ELECTRODE« kann am 21. November um 17 Uhr im Festspielhaus Hellerau erlebt werden.

1 When using the term, ‘psychophysical’, I refer to practices that require performers to think through their bodies and to work towards a state where mind and body are unified.

2 – Unsurprisingly, Barba has been taken to task for this immensely problematic pre-cultural concept. However, for the purposes of this essay, the focus is purely upon the concretely useful ideas provided by Barba about somatic techniques and principles.


pdf download of the text


German version of the text is published in:
Clarke, Alissa: »Exzess, PrÀzision und Anwesenheit: Daniel Ploegers Electrode. Eine psychophysische Perspektive«, in: CYNETART 2012, hrsg. von Trans-Media-Akademie Hellerau e.V., Dresden 2012, S. 77-80. [ISBN: 978-3-9815597-0-5]
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Dolan, Jill (2005) Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
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Ploeger, Daniël (2011) …Sounds like Superman? On the Representation of Bodies in Biosignal Performance’, Interference: A Journal of Audio Culture, 1: 1.
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— (2002b [1995]) ›On the Edge of a Breath, Looking‹, in Zarrilli, Phillip (ed.), Acting (Re)Considered, 2nd edn, London: Routledge, 181–199.
— (2002c) ›The Metaphysical Studio‹, The Drama Review, 46: 2, 157–170.

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