Dienstag, 29. Dezember 2015

Action as Image Creator – Observation as Action

Written by Ilka Theurich, 2015
Published, 2015

I walk through the city
and see a small gesture in passing.
For a short moment, my gaze lingers
on this course of action.

Slowly, the course changes into a rhythm.
The repetition of this supposedly clear gesture irritates.
The fragility of the motion sequence touches,
makes me linger briefly.

I notice that it is not only me
who is personally seized
by this irritating gesture,
by this fragile rhythm of action.

My body pulsates, is awake,
adrenaline is released,
my cheeks glow.

How do we perceive people’s actions in public urban space? I assume that every action by a person in public urban space creates an image, and if the action creates an image, we perceive the action as  something, namely as an image.

On the one hand, this text discusses the action as an image creator and on the other hand, I examine observation as a form of active seeing and thus as the first form of action. Starting from public urban space, its specific daily rhythms, the different characters that cross it, use it, meet there by chance or ride past it, we can watch comedies, dramas, and crime stories. If we zoom into this narrative structure, we find ourselves on the level of emotions and of the corporeality of muscles changing shape. A smile is darted our way or a tear is suppressed. Wide open eyes that want to warn us with shock look at us even before the vocal cords can start to move and a warning cry becomes audible. During the rush hour, the sidewalk resembles a choreographed contemporary ballet. One tries to move along without colliding, people swerve, draw back, one decreases the pace, accelerates in order to start an overtaking maneuver, and eventually, one turns, runs toward the bus or descends into the underground. In the evening, we remember the various sequences of the day. They unfold like a film before our inner eye. With a little distance, we recall the day. Sighted people perceive life in images and sequences of images, at least in memory. Boris Nieslony writes in his as yet unpublished 2010 text that “no matter which profession a person will practice one day, how he will live, his body will be situated in a space and thus is potential 'image'.”(1) In addition, Nieslony compares the human body in space, among others, to a moving sculpture or a moving element in an installation. He explicitly uses the vocabulary of fine arts and establishes a direct relation to everyday life. I think that we perceive people through a series of images which they leave in public urban space. These images and sequences of images are sketched through active as well as passive actions. Urban space, that is, everyday life, influences the image of the action, as the action in turn affects the image of urban space.

I share H. Bredekamp´s opinion that “the image not only defines contents but also action”. (2) A very good example for this comes from the field of war photography – “L. Henrichsen: photo of his own death in Chile, 1973”. Leonardo Henrichsen filmed his own death in Chile in 1973. (3) The Argentine journalist was shot dead by a Chilean putschist when he noticed Henrichsen photographing preparations for a military coup. In this image, the camera lens and the gun barrel come into direct contact. “While capturing the picture, the hunter of pictures lost his life.” (4) This example can well be used to compare picture act theory (5) with speech act theory. (6) We see here that an action entails a really existing consequence. The journalist shoots his picture while the soldier shoots the journalist. Two actions, two intentions which are directly related encounter each other in the image. This closed circuit action, (7) as I would like to call it, has real effects on life. The German philosopher Herbert Schnädelbach assumes that actions always impact life: "Acting always means to make a difference in the world, and this also applies to the cases of failure, which usually has real consequences as well. Body movements are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions in this connection. The wink of an eye can be a mere reflex, but also a message, and only in a corresponding communicative context is it an action (…) The general consensus among philosophers is that actions distinguish themselves from mere body movements by their intentionality, that is, by conscious intention or intention that is capable of consciousness." (8)

Just as we recall the day in sequences of images in the evening, we also have created images in other people through our actions in everyday life. This may surely have caused one or the other physical reaction as an image, but most of our gestures and motion sequences are certainly connected to an intention. We do not want to collide with somebody. We want to get from one place to another quickly. And we want to smile at somebody or give them a wink. This wanting and hoping has consequences for our physicality, and this, in turn, shows up again in the evening in the image sequences of strangers and friends that we have seen and watched during the day. Likewise, this wanting and hoping is perceptible in the actions and in the resulting images of those we have watched and perceived. The reflection happens by means of images before a concluding opinion about the day manifests itself. Was it good or bad, exciting or boring? Therefore, it is images and sequences of images that mark the course of the forming of a manifestation. For Gadamer, this forming of a manifestation is reflected in the German term “Bildung”. In “Bildung” we find the word “Bild”.

„The Latin equivalent for Bildung is formatio, with related words in other languages – e. g., in English (…), “form” and “formation”. In German, too, the corresponding derivations of the idea of forma – e. g. “Formierung” and “Formation” – have long vied with the word Bildung. (…) Yet the victory of the word Bildung over “form” does not seem to be fortuitous. For in Bildung there is Bild (…), which comprehends both Nachbild (image, copy) and Vorbild (model). In accordance with the frequent transition from becoming to being, Bildung (like the contemporary use of the German word “Formation”) describes more the result of the process of becoming than the process itself. The transition is especially clear here because the result of Bildung (…) grows out of an inner process of formation and cultivation, and therefore constantly remains in a state of continual Bildung.“ (9)

The action which produces an image, the observation of this image and the reflective perception are closely connected. In order to prepare for my first bigger research project Kallio my Kallio (2011), I decided to regularly walk through the district Kallio in Helsinki for several hours over a longer period (between November 2010 and March 2011). Without a specific aim in view, I began my aesthetic journey through Kallio and started to watch the neighborhood. I tried to experience different sites of the district. I chose routes through areas with which I was less familiar, and I tried to pay attention to everything around me. It was a very cold Finnish winter, but I was really glad that I could walk for hours in silence. The last time I had taken these very long walks through unknown areas had been in Japan in 2004. At that time, I walked through Tokyo for one month, recording every sound which I could find for a sound art project. This time it was different. I did not have anything particular to do. I was just observing. No sound was recorded and no photo was shot. When I returned to my desk, I wrote about everything that I remembered from my walk. I asked myself: What was the most unexpected? What did I try to ignore? When did the walk get boring? In which situations did I become nervous? What does the walk tell me about the district? What does the walk tell me about myself? I took every walk twice, to see if it turned into something different. I was interested to find out if I would see different things the second time. The questions I asked myself after each walk were based on the questions that Marilyn Arsem formulates in “Some Thoughts on Teaching Performance Art in five Parts”. (10) After the third walk, I realized that slowly the site, in this case, the district Kallio, entered me. Kallio crawled into my nerve system. I walked through the city to the rhythm of the district. For me, it was like a micro-analysis which at the same time directs attention to a new dimension of perception and to the awareness about the new dimension of perception. The world was changing while I observed the world. I collected images of human acts, and the different sequences of images from my walks, in turn, settled in my body as a specific rhythm of the district. This district-specific rhythm is hard to grasp for short term visitors to Kallio because it is extremely weather-dependent. The length of daylight hours plays a role here, as do temperature and wind force. These walks were characterized, among other things, by a certain color spectrum which, two years after project closure, still reminds me of this district in other places in Europe. Even today while writing, the sum of the observations from these walks is my very own special perspective of perception. As it is a completely subjective perspective, perhaps I cannot really share it with anybody. Tietz explains: “According to Gadamer, there is no way to reach things that are not decidedly determined by the uniqueness of the own standpoint.” (11) Starting from this personal standpoint and the associated special perspective of perception, do we not nevertheless draw our cognition from previous knowledge as well? Do we not have to be able to sort the experience and to match it with situations we already know? Gadamer notes that perception and the associated cognitive function always relates to something common:

„Everyone has enough ‘sense of the common’ (gemeinen Sinn) – i. e., judgement – that he can be expected to show a ‘sense of the community’ (Gemeinsinn), genuine moral and civic solidarity, but that means judgment of right and wrong, and a concern for the ‘common good’ (…) The sensus communis is an element of social and moral being.“ (12)

This, then, means that we can find cognition only because it is composed of the experience of the common. I also took several walks through my neighborhood Dongjak-gu during my second research project in Seoul. Here, I was unable to resort to previous knowledge because I had never visited Korea before. (...) The smell of smoke… warmth… comfort… all these are perceptions which in their sum offer a wealth of experience that makes cognition possible for us in the first place. The specific rhythm of the neighborhood had written itself into my nerve pathways, and my very own subjective perspective of perception had manifested itself. The walks served to let the rhythm of the street enter my body. For Christina Georgiou, participant of the weekend workshop in Helsinki, the topic of observation and of walking through the district was “tuning to the frequency of that place in order to become part of it and even to feel confident to do something in it”. (13)

However, following the experience of my walks, I wonder whether the cognitive function is not characterized precisely by the differences to already known knowledge. In her elaboration on the comparison of the common and the special, Katrin Nolte specifically points out a perception which refers to an experience lying outside the situation just lived through, that is, a knowledge we have gained in the past:

„Heidegger´s and Gadamer´s hermeneutics criticize that dogma according to which perception is not directed at the sensory-individual. According to Gadamer, perception is directed toward the common, in which it always sees “something as something”. The view towards something common is not the result of a logic of the genre but instead an achievement of that cognitive function which lies in the experience itself and urges toward linguistic expression.“ (14)

I notice that at this point I inevitably start to differentiate between perceptions of colors, sounds, and rhythms on the one hand and observations of social interactions on the other hand. When I memorize the rhythm, the smell or the coloring of the district from observation, it is a different form of perception then when I watch human interactions and embed them in the context of my experience so far. One example is surely the experience I was able to gain during my 24-hour performance at the 05th of May 2011 in the streets of Kallio. One action out of many other actions during this performance was simply sitting on a bench and drinking coffee. On a park bench by a small lake in Helsinki between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m. I was sitting there with a cup of hot coffee - a real porcelain cup with a saucer and a silver spoon were my props. People with dogs and joggers passed my bench. I saw that people who came from the left gave me some compassionate glances, while people who passed me from the right were smiling at the same time. Those people who came from the right could see the porcelain cup and the steaming hot coffee. The other people just saw a woman in a coat that was much too warm and an old suitcase sitting on a bench. I guess they thought I was a vagabond. While the one group at once tried to pack me up into a social context known to them, the others had a chance to experience a humorous miniature scene including an aesthetic perception.
Schnädelbach stresses that “perception is not equal to knowledge” and quotes Plato´s Theaetetus as evidence for his thesis. Here, Plato describes that perception is “the means of the soul with which it gains knowledge.” According to Schnädelbach, Plato has no doubt that one does not obtain knowledge through the “impressions” (pathémata) themselves, but rather that one gains knowledge from the “conclusions” (syllogismoi) which one draws from these impressions. (15) I become aware that within my research, I have to differentiate between the cognition of the sum of aesthetic perceptions and the cognition of the sum of social experiences first. For me, this means that I have to:

1. deal with the phenomena of perception very consciously and
2. especially grapple with the interpretation of conclusions.

In order to be able to acquire cognition, in my opinion, an in-depth reflection about the way how conclusions manifest themselves has become necessary at this point. In which context have we drawn these conclusions? What prejudices, positive or negative, have we embedded in the conclusion? Did we have a specific goal in sight from the start, and if so, how has it influenced us? I have tried to include these questions in my workshop tool of social-poetical performance practice, and at the same time, I am at the heart of hermeneutics with these questions. “Hermeneutics is the science of understanding. But whoever wants to understand understanding would do well to consider the range of phenomena for which there is something to understand.” (16)

At this moment I note that I wish perception to be conceived as a preliminary stage of possible cognition here and that I would like to school the variety of phenomena that must be considered in a practice of active seeing. I would like to establish active seeing as a first action step of my social-poetical performance practice here. My aim for this first action step is to send the students and artists taking part in my workshops into public urban space with a special attention. For me, active seeing consists of three parts:

• The actions in public urban space are perceived as images.
• The participants watch their surroundings.
• They try to articulate, write down and fix their reactions and emotions during the observation during the following reflection mode.

In my experience, writing and giving written answers to several questions after returning from the observation phase in public urban space sets a reflection process in motion which leads to unforeseen and surprising perspectives of perception and reflections for most workshop participants.


1.) Nieslony, 2010.

2.) Trebeß 2006, p. 66, Jörg Tremper on the concept of Bild/Bildlichkeit/Bildwissenschaften.

3.) Belting 2001, p. 230.

4.) Belting 2001, p. 231.

5.) Trebeß 2006, p. 66, cf. Bredekamp in Jörg Tremper on the concept of Bild/Bildlichkeit/Bildwissenschaften.

6.) Schechner 2007, p. 123, cf. Austin “To say something is to do something.”

7.) I use the term “closed circuit action”, which is directly linked to closed circuit television (CCTV), as a metaphor.

8.) Schnädelbach 2012, p. 177.

GERMAN ORIGINAL VERSION: “Das Handeln ist immer ein Etwas-in-der-Welt-Bewirken, und das gilt auch für die Fälle des Scheiterns, was in der Regel ebenfalls reale Folgen hat. Körperbewegungen sind dabei zwar notwendige, aber nicht hinreichende Bedingungen. Ein Augenzwinkern kann ein bloßer Reflex sein, aber auch eine Botschaft, und nur in einem entsprechenden kommunikativen Kontext ist es eine Handlung (…) Unter Philosophen besteht weitgehend Konsens darüber, dass sich Handlungen von bloßen Körperbewegungen durch Intentionalität unterscheiden, also durch bewusste oder bewusstseinsfähige Absicht.”

9.) Gadamer 1960/2010, pp. 16-17.

WM: “Das lateinische Äquivalent für Bildung ist >formatio< und dem entspricht in anderen Sprachen, z. B. im Englischen (bei Shaftesbury) form und formation. Auch im Deutschen liegen die entsprechenden Ableitungen des Begriffs der forma, z. B. Formierung und Formation, mit dem Wort Bildung in Konkurrenz. (…) Gleichwohl erscheint der Sieg des Wortes >Bildung< über >Form< nicht zufällig. Denn in >Bildung< steckt >Bild<. Der Formbegriff bleibt hinter der geheimnisvollen Doppelseitigkeit zurück, mit der >Bild< Nachbild und Vorbild zugleich umfaßt. Es entspricht nun einer häufigen Übertragung des Werdens auf das Sein, daß >Bildung< (wie auch das heutige >Formation< ) mehr das Resultat dieses Werdevorganges als den Vorgang selbst bezeichnet. Die Übertragung ist hier besonders einsichtig, weil ja das Resultat der Bildung (…) dem inneren Vorgang der Formierung und der Bildung entwächst und deshalb in ständiger Fort- und Weiterbildung bleibt.” (pp. 16-19)

TM: “The Latin equivalent for Bildung is formtatio, with related words in other languages – e. g., in English (in Shaftesbury), ‘form’ and ‘formation’. In German, too, the corresponding derivations of the idea of forma – e. g. ‘Formierung“ and ‘Formation’ – have long vied with the word Bildung. (…) Yet the victory of the word Bildung over ‘form’ does not seem to be fortuitous. For in Bildung there is Bild (…), which comprehends both Nachbild (image, copy) and Vorbild (model). In accordance with the frequent transition from becoming to being, Bildung (like the contemporary use of the German word ‘Formation’) describes more the result of the process of becoming than the process itself. The transition is especially clear here because the result of Bildung (…) grows out of an inner process of formation and cultivation, and therefore constantly remains in a state of continual Bildung.” (p. 11)

10.) cf. Arsem, 2011.

11.) Tietz 1999, p. 19.

GERMAN ORIGINAL VERSION: “Nach Gadamer gibt es keine Möglichkeit, an die 'Sachen heranzukommen, die nicht durch die Besonderheit des eigenen Standortes entscheidend bestimmt wären.”

12.) Gadamer 1960/2010, pp. 24-40 cf. sensus communis & Urteilskraft

WM: “Alle haben genug >gemeinen Sinn<, d. h. Urteilsvermögen, daß man ihnen den Beweis von >Gemeinsinn<, von echter sittlich-bürgerlicher Solidarität, d. h. aber: Urteil über Recht und Unrecht, und Sorge für den >gemeinen Nutzen< zumuten kann. (…) Der sensus communis ist ein Moment des bürgerlich-sittlichen Seins.” (pp. 37-38)

TM: “Everyone has enough ‘sense of the common’ (gemeinen Sinn) – i. e., judgement – that he can be expected to show a ‘sense of the community’ (Gemeinsinn), genuine moral and civic solidarity, but that means judgment of right and wrong, and a concern for the ‘common good’ (…) The sensus communis is an element of social and moral being.” (p. 32)

13.) Georgiou, Christina, from the feedback form, answering question number 6.

14.) Trebeß 2006, p. 9, Katrin Nolte on the concept of Allgemeines-Besonderes.

GERMAN ORIGINAL VERSION: “Die Hermeneutik Heideggers und Gadamers übt Kritik an jenem Dogma, dem zufolge die Wahrnehmung sich auf das Sinnlich-Einzelne richtet. Die Wahrnehmung, so Gadamer geht auf das Allgemeine, in dem sie immer »etwas als etwas« sieht. Der Hinblick auf Gemeinsames ist nicht das Ergebnis einer Gattungslogik, sondern vielmehr eine Leistung jener Erkenntnisfunktion, die in der Erfahrung selbst liegt und zum sprachlichen Ausdruck drängt.”

15.) Schnädelbach 2002, pp. 71-72, cf. Platon according to Schnädelbach.

GERMAN ORIGINAL VERSION: “Das wäre doch erstaunlich, mein Junge, wenn in uns wie in hölzernen Pferden [wie im hölzernen Pferd von Troja] eine große Anzahl von Wahrnehmungen läge, ohne sich aber in irgendeinem einheitlichen Gesichtspunkt zu vereinigen, sei es in der Seele oder wie man es nennen soll, womit wir vermittels jener Wahrnehmungen gleichsam als Werkzeug alles Wahrnehmbare wahrnehmen,' (Theät 184d)”

16.) Jung 2012, p. 9.

GERMAN ORIGINAL VERSION: “Hermeneutik ist die Lehre vom Verstehen. Wer aber das Verstehen verstehen will, tut gut daran, die Vielfalt der Phänomene zu beachten, bei denen es etwas zu verstehen gibt.”


Belting, Hans. Bild-Anthropologie, Entwürfe für eine Bildwissenschaft.München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2001.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Wahrheit und Methode. Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik. Tübingen:J.C.B. Mohr, 1960/2010.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method, Second, Revised Edition. Translation revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 1975/2004.
Jung, Matthias. Hermeneutik zur Einführung. Hamburg: Junius Verlag GmbH, 2012.
Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction, Second Edition. New York:Routledge, 2007.
Schnädelbach, Herbert. Was Philosophen wissen und was man von ihnen lernen kann.München: Verlag C.H.Beck OHG, 2012.
Schnädelbach, Herbert. Erkenntnistheorie zur Einführung. Hamburg: Junius Verlag GmbH, 2002.
Tietz, Udo. Hans-Georg Gadamer zur Einführung.Hamburg: Junius Verlag GmbH, 1999.

Edited Work or Several Editors
Trebeß, Achim (ed.) Metzler Lexikon Ästhetik: Kunst, Medien, Design und Alltag.Stuttgart: Verlag J.B. Metzler, 2006.

Article in a Web Journal
Total Art Journal: Marilyn Arsem. Some thoughts on teaching performance art in five parts. (last visit 01.04.2011) http://totalartjournal.com/archives/638/some-thoughts-on-teaching-performance-art-in-five-parts/#more-638

Unpublished Articles
Nieslony, Boris. Entwurf einiger Gedanken hin zu einem Seminar. (2010): 1.


WM = Wahrheit und Methode
TM = Truth and Method