To See You, To Be You, To Become You: I Miss You, phenomenology, performing bodies and other things

• Ruvi Simmons (2017)

Introduction: an entangled history of performance art and phenomenology.

Phenomenology and modern performance art were born at the dawn of the twentieth century tasting the same historic decline and hubris in their mouths.The death throes of one era passing out of being and colliding with the convulsions of another not yet fully born. Edmund Husserl founded his Jahrbuch für Philosophie und Phänomenologische Forschung (1912) at the University of Göttingen just four years before the earliest Dada events appeared on the nightclub stage of the Cabaret Voltaire. At first blush, the enquiries of one share little in common with the glossolalia of the other. Yet they shared an urge to interrogate, perhaps to negate, the orthodoxies that surrounded them, that was in turn bred in the same collective trauma – a physical and intellectual harrowing that cast its shadow long into the 20th century, and into the world we now inhabit.

The 4-year passage between a journal's founding and a Dada cabaret saw European imperialism implode in a squalid display of stalemate and slaughter. At Verdun, nearly one million mostly French and German soldiers died or were maimed in a year-long battle no less sacrificial than the ritual deaths staged at the summit of Aztec temples. Bataille's description of pre-Colombian sacrifice could equally describe the mass annihilations of Verdun, or Ypres, or Passchendaele: “You belong to the countryside where battles are fought; you were sent to go there; your function and your skill is warfare; your duty is to give the sun the blood of your enemies to drink and to supply the earth with the bodies of your enemies to eat.”[1]

It is from this maelstrom that two apparently discrete yet psychically, intellectually and emotionally entangled disciplines – one philosophical, one artistic – shared their origins. Their evolution and those issues with which they struggled were located on the same terrain, denuded of plant-life and shattered by bombs: being in the world and being of the world; the frail body and the unspeakable consciousness; meaning and non-meaning, gibberish, fever-dreams and lies. Above all, both shared a compulsion to excavate and reassess the foundational assumptions of their worlds, those disciplines rooted in a Cartesian and Enlightenment rationality that, by the first half of the 20th century, appeared intellectually complicit in history’s most infamous acts of collective self-immolation.

If both terrains of thought and art shared origins in the convulsion with which the age of empire passed into modernity, they were broken open by the conscious cruelty and annihilation that erupted barely a generation later. That the Holocaust, the slave labour of the Eastern Front, the deportations, were the inexorable conclusion of a Nazi ideology expressed first as language brought utterance itself into question. Performance and phenomenology articulated themselves in the blasted cities of post-Armistice Europe, both searching for uncontaminated meaning, or meaning in the midst of contamination, followed immediately after by the dawning Nuclear Age of Cold War bullshit and suavely expressed insanities later known as M.A.D.: Mutually Assured Destruction.

As the study of experience and consciousness, phenomenology forged a space where philosophers developed beyond the stable categories of body/mind, self/other, subject/object, thought/thing that order the Western Cartesian tradition. They returned with visions of a world where to see is to be seen and there is therefore always a reflexive uncertainty between inside and outside – always, therefore, an abject zone in which the two are forever dissolving into one another.

How does rationality proceed in an age of mass-produced slaughter or the proximity of nuclear annihilation? The ineluctable forces of Nazi ideology turned everything – industrial technologies, science, reason, language – into factors leading to the abstraction of death itself. When the teleology of progress becomes the highest form of modern eschatology, when MAD is the hill on which the human experiment dies, what can be salvaged, what can remain – and how will those remains find the will or the language to speak?

Thought and art found themselves in this haunted landscape. How Nazi crimes and Cold War millenarianism were embedded in the spirit of post-war philosophy is encapsulated by Julia Kristeva when she writes, in 1980, “The abjection of Nazi crime reaches its apex when death, which, in any case, kills me, interferes with what, in my living universe, is supposed to save me from death: childhood, science, among other things.”[2] Or, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote in his 1964 essay, Eye and Mind, “science manipulates things and gives up living in them”. How can philosophy, how can art, lead us back to life itself, when reason, ethics, and language had themselves been conscripted into the service of their, and our, destruction?

Visual art was developing its own strategies for self-recovery in a newly constituted world. When, in 1950, Hans Namuth shot his now-legendary series of photographs documenting Jackson Pollock and published in Art News the following year, he was not producing familiar portraits of the artist-genius at work. He was revealing the painting as a dynamic representation of physical acts – as a document of its own creation. Straddling a canvas laid on the floor, we see Pollock moving ritualistically, painting with his entire body as if he, and the paintbrush, embody the argot of his darkest, and most vivid, interior places. We see the work as not just representation, but as the evidence of a reflexive relationship between the living, present artist, the living gestures of the brush, and complex dialectics of body, mind, and external world.

Less than a decade later, performance art was developing languages, strategies of its own. By the 1960s, pioneer artists were exploring a radical performative praxis that extends it modes into the present day: Günter Brus, in 1965's Vienna Walk, painted himself entirely white to proceed alone through the Austrian capital and final resting-place of the Holy Roman Empire; in Sentimental Action (1973), Gina Pane sat cross-legged with the thorns of rose-stems dug into her forearm like a modern-day saint, and in Seedbed (1972), the New York-artist Vito Acconci lay beneath a gallery and masturbated while whispering the fantasies provoked by the visitors who walked on the floor above his head and who could, in turn, hear every thought, every grunt and climax, amplified through the otherwise empty space.

Representation and reality; viewer and viewed; spectator and participant; art and life – at a time of insecurity and existential churn, of potentially revolutionary change, it was performance art that opened new territories with radical potential for discovery. That it did so using the language and spirit of phenomenology, or those philosophers influenced by it, is, as we have seen, an entanglement with roots in the dark heart of modernity itself.

Franko B and I Miss You (1999-2005): ways of seeing, ways of being seen

I write this partial history not only because I want to draw attention to historic origins and mutual struggles while connecting them to the complexes of modern experience. I believe, too, that they come powerfully together in the work I now want to face: Italian-born, London-based artist Franko B's performance, I Miss You. The history of performance art is the history of the twentieth-century body just as the history of phenomenology is the history of our battered consciousness; it is through a combination of the two that, I believe, we can best understand what Franko B is doing in a hauntingly beautiful work that expresses some of performance's most enduring, potent hinterlands along with our own embodied cravings.

First performed in 1999, I Miss You is perhaps the artist's best-known work. In it, his naked body is covered from head to foot in white paint, thick enough to conceal completely the complex of tattoos that lace his torso and upper arms. White is a recurring motif in his work, along with materials related to medical procedure or its symbols (red crosses, bandages, intravenous drips). Immediately, both white and medical implements return us to the works of performance-art pioneers like the Viennese Actionists, especially Brus and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, as well as the Catholic artist, Gina Pane, all of whom can be seen as influences in I Miss You. Naked and whitened, a winged infusion set or butterfly needle is inserted into the veins of each arm at the crook of the elbow. The drips are taped against the skin but, left unattached, Franko B's blood is left flowing ceaselessly from his veins, down his arms and legs, and onto the floor.

With his body thus prepared (anointed?), Franko B takes his place at the head of long stretch of canvas unrolled along the floor like a white parody of an opening-night red carpet. It resembles too, of course, the catwalk of a fashion show, an echo amplified by the arrangement of spectators on either side. They, in turn, are left to photograph the performance; the snap of their cameras, the whirr of their film, and the pop of their flashbulbs provides a sonic backdrop to what is an otherwise silent, ceremonial work. The canvas, and Franko's passage back and forth, is illuminated by fluorescent strip-lights running on either side of the canvas-catwalk.

Bleeding from his arms, Franko walks from one end of the canvas to the other. He reaches the end, almost blindingly white, like a negative of a man, before returning to the beginning. The journey is repeated, and with each footstep, his blood falls in bright-red rivulets down his naked legs and onto the canvas beneath him. At the beginning and the end, when he pauses in the ironic poses of a catwalk model, his blood has time to collect in thickening pools around his feet. As he continues, therefore, his blood tells its own story of his passage, his gait, his moments of pause – it is the part of him he leaves behind, the part that tells the story. It acts as both an instantly incarnated, physical memento (like footsteps in the sand) and a series of directions (like the stones left in the forest by Hansel and Gretel). The vertical trails of blood that run down his forearms and legs meet the ground and continue as horizontal pathways below his feet – up and down, along and below. The performance continues in this way until Franko B is no longer steady enough to go on – roughly 10-15 minutes.

Since its original staging in Antwerp in 1999, Franko B has performed I Miss You on ten occasions, with the last in 2005. Like other performance artists before him, he works within the complex space between live work’s conclusion and its continued existence through documentation. In addition to the ten live peformances, video recordings of I Miss You are available as well as collections of richly detailed photographs – both commissioned by the artist and those taken by each iteration’s spectators. Since the development of performance art in the 50s and 60s, such documentation has taken on a life of its own, separate from the live works that produced it. They are a by-now established aspect of performance art's vocabulary. To these, however, Franko B has added the canvas-catwalk itself. Sections of it have been cut up, stretched and framed for display on the wall. More importantly, however – and something to which we will return – other pieces have been dried, preserved, and used by the artist for collages and as the basis for bloodstained object-sculptures: balls, small fish, standing lamps and other things.

The performing body and the artist-as-object: towards a phenomenological hermeneutics[3]

We can see here the ways in which performance art expands on phenomenological concepts of experience and our contiguous status as both observers and observed at the same point in the same world – the reflexivity of our own negotiations with the space in which we exist. More than that, I Miss You highlights how performance art embodies the “carnal formula” described by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in relation to the cave paintings at Lascaux – in its live form, performance art is both itself and its representation, and in I Miss You the viewer becomes an integral part of both.[4]

The entire architecture of the work is expansive: I Miss You is not just a live performance with an existence sequestered in a specific space and time. It exists, too, in its photographic/video records – not just the official documentation displayed alongside the artist's name but the personal images produced by the spectators. Beyond that, the work exists in the bloodied canvas that is a literal record of Franko B's footsteps, of his own body's passage. The artist’s blood provides the pathways to other performances, other productions – the seminal/sanguineous material of new content and new form. Just as, by performing live, Franko turns himself into both artist-subject and art-object, by using his own blood he turns the performative oil painting of Jackson Pollock into a bodily transference of essence into actual works of art.

This expanded understanding of artistic contingencies includes the relationship between the entangled acts of viewing and being viewed. In I Miss You, the spectators of the live performance become a part of the work itself – visually, from their positions lining the canvas, and sonically, through the clicks, snaps and flashes of their cameras. Just as Merleau-Ponty writes, regarding painting, that “the roles between the painter and the visible switch”, in Franko B's work, the constant flow between seeing and being seen form the basis of the artwork's existential tonality.[5]

Can a thing speak its name without becoming merely the naming of itself – can the passage into symbol be reversed, stalled, or excavated on its own terms? In an age of ontological crisis, is it possible to be and to be seen at the same time and for that to itself become the basis for future acts of artistic invocation? To appear without also to disappear? In 1966, in an invitation to one of his performance-screenings, Günter Brus wrote: “My body is the intention. My body is the event. My body is the result.”[6] Over forty years later, Franko B approaches the same horizon of reflexivity and embodiment when he states, “I use the body as a canvas and I want the canvas to be blank”.[7]

Transforming The Body without Organs: being and becoming, ritual and reality

A white body walking on a fresh white canvas, lit by fluorescent white strip-lights, naked, vulnerable and alone. Franko B is a nobody – and for that reason, he becomes an everybody, a projection-screen onto which (into which) we see ourselves. Like an anonymous, mute angel, he performs but he also becomes – us, perhaps, or perhaps himself-as-other. He is not just quoting from the history of performance art, of course, just as Gina Pane or Günter Brus were not simply transcribing the language of Zürich Dada. Franko B speaks, too, in the ancient language of martyrdom, sanctity – and incarnation.

He bleeds, and by being seen to bleed, we participate in his suffering. Our integral status transfers the burden of his suffering to the senses that record it and the spirits that receive it. He bleeds for us. The parody of a fashion show is transcended by the intimacy of his wounded, weakening body, and by watching him there appears a bridge by which that suffering, that awareness is transferred – his pain becomes the link between our bodies and his own.

Open veins are not just the way his blood flows. They are ruptures in the otherwise closed system of the performing body. Caked in thick white paint and with his head shaved clean, Franko B presents himself at the performance's beginning as an incarnated Body without Organs. He stands before us in the sense described with lacerating acuity by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus:

“You never reach the Body without Organs, you can't reach it, you are forever attaining it, it is a limit. People ask, So what is this BwO?—But you're already on it, scurrying like a vermin, groping like a blind person, or running like a lunatic; desert traveler and nomad of the steppes. On it we sleep, live our waking lives, fight—fight and are fought—seek our place, experience untold happiness and fabulous defeats; on it we penetrate and are penetrated; on it we love...The BwO: it is already under way the moment the body has had enough of organs and wants to slough them off, or loses them.”[8]

But if he begins as an archetype, as a Body without Organs, he is always-already in the process of transformation somewhere (into something) else. His status as the deterritorialised, depersonalised non-person with neither ingress nor egress is an illusion; the butterfly veins in his forearms render impossible the body's total (and totalising) circumscription. They are an Achilles' heel – the point that makes him vulnerable and therefore returns him to himself.

The butterfly veins that connect his whitened body to itself are almost invisible. The result is as important as the fact: Franko B's body presents itself, its wounds, its openness and its life not through stasis but through movement. At the work's beginning, he is as hieratic and unknowable as the kore of early Athenian scultpure. In motion, he becomes something other – but also something more human. The act of movement becomes, therefore, the act of artistic creation, but not only in the sense documented by Hans Namuth in Jackson Pollock's studio. Here, each footstep and each drop of blood soaking into the canvas adds not only to the artwork under the artist's feet, but to his own process of materialisation. Passing time inscribes itself as part of the performance, and its results – the emergence of the performing body – fold space and time together in a bloodied contingency of being and becoming.

There is a visceral ambivalence at the heart of these exchanges: the artist creates the work by draining his own blood while visually assuming his humanity as the same blood ruptures the alienating white paint in which he came shrouded at the beginning. The duality – in time and space – of performing and recording mirrors the duality of creation (of art) and destruction (of body) where loss of blood from the body becomes addition of blood to the canvas, but even these dialectical relations are further complicated by the artist's metamorphosis from sculpture to man: the entire performance is in this sense a modern-staging of the Ecce homo where Christ's suffering is the cipher that reveals him most powerfully to be – to have always been – a man.[9]

In this way,the act of performance transforms Franko B's corporeal state in tandem with his self-destructive realisation as an artist in his art. The white, abstract body at the start reveals itself through its loss; the artwork is created through the process of the artist's disappearance; the awareness of life is rendered concrete through the approach of death. Is this the spot to which his feet are tending? Blood to signify life and loss, presence and absence, art and abnegation – sensitivities and sensualities that Franko enacts that go beyond representation, beyond even self-representation, to enter the  realm of embodiment, and the soul of performance as it lives and dies like life itself.

From closed to open, open to closed: abjection in I Miss You

The blood that Franko B sheds over himself and onto the canvas provides the abject matter that renders almost unendurably present the interraction between artist-subject (the performer as performer) and artist-object (the performer as work of art) while never giving up the co-existence of human suffering itself. Abjection, as described by Julia Kristeva, is that state of liminal experience when we inhabit the border separating us as subjects from the world as object. Reality, or merely dream? Logical means to understand the world and our place within it, without which being collapses, or necessary delusion to prevent our dissolution into the ether? Abjection is the state where we realise that such divisions are already in the process of dissolution, returning us to a pre-cognitive state of flux and flow: “These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being.”[10] 

This is the liminal experience we are watching while Franko B performs his naked processional on his lonely catwalk. That the catwalk doubles as a canvas, that the canvas will eventually become other artworks, other relics, other things, returns abject performance to the oldest traditions of art – takes us back to the oldest core of the sacred.

Doubling and the Uncanny: the dual-character of I Miss You (and its implications)

The significance of Franko B's re-use of the canvas-catwalk in other artworks, often intimate, uncanny objects, therefore becomes clear. The performance of I Miss You, in which he literally loses life-blood to produce art-work, does not end with his physical collapse. It does not end when the audience packs up its cameras and leaves. It transforms. The blood on the canvas dries and forms the material for other things. Combined with the fabric or canvas from other, contemporaneous performances, he has produced a wide selection of new works. Some of these are fragile, sometimes they are humorous and sometimes troubling: toy balls, little fish, a model church. Others, like the series Haute Couture, made I Miss You's ironic references to fashion shows and modelling explicit in a collection of handmade, blood-soaked garments. Combined, they express how the artist's body and its transformation, through transfer of abject fluid, into art-object, does not bring a process to its conclusion so much as enable one thing to transform itself into a multitude of others.

This reflexivity, this doubling, is the very heart of what makes witnessing I Miss You the most troubling. In her essay on attending the work's staging at Tate Modern in 2003, the critic Jennifer Doyle describes breaking down in tears at its conclusion.[11] Here we recall that the origin of the word 'witness' is the Ancient Greek word for martyr. Franko B's whitened, corpse-like body becomes, over the course of its processional, increasingly altered by the blood as it flows from his arms. The sides of his legs and the soles of his feet redden and the emptiness and purity of the canvas-catwalk become a path freshly mapped in drops that, collectively, represent something new, something perhaps as liberating as it is destroying.

But like a constant chord beneath these processes and transformation, with each foot-fall, we know that the artist is literally dying. Dying, yet coming back to life – from the corpse-like qualities of his freshly painted body to the brilliance of his freshly fallen blood – and the rivulets that in flowing over his whitened skin, bring him back to life even as they empty him of life. From the empty canvas leading nowhere to the bloodied canvas telling you where he has been. The creation of I Miss You is the embodiment of these reflexivities and their origins in an uncanniness of living and dying in which we are all trapped. Franko B loses himself in the work he is producing; its becoming is his disappearance, yet at the same time it is in the work that he becomes his most visible and most human.

Phenomenologically, then, we are not simply seeing and being seen, just as Franko B is not simply producing and being produced. His work lives while he disappears – but at the same time, it is through that disappearing that we, as viewers, participate in his coming into being. And by including the presence of viewers in the performance of I Miss You, Franko B makes clear that they are not just there to receive a work as passive spectators, but integral to the very (f)act of its creation. With this in mind, and in conclusion, I would like to examine more closely how this viewer-artist-artwork relationship is made manifest, and why it represents the essence of the work as well as the potency of performance/body art itself.

Back to the beginning: the performing artist, the viewer, and an intimate dance

The post-war history of performance art is also a history of radically re-defined relations between viewers and artists. When the artist is transformed from subject to object – or, in the case of I Miss You, when he is both at the same time –  the viewer is likewise transformed. But into what? Perhaps it would better to ask: into whom? I Miss You does not exactly answer this question, but it does produce terms of co-existent discovery, cathexis and obsession, perhaps even love (as the title implies). If the art-object is, traditionally, a fixed representation, then when it embraces as a constituent part the viewer-in-the-world, it redefines its relationship to life itself. The classic avant-garde praxis where art ceases to be a reified discourse and returns to the blood and sweat of living. I Miss You implies an absence while simultaneously embodying past presences, past loves, past presences. To miss is to have been together. To lose is once to have had. The implied histories meet the new ones forged by the physical confrontation of artist and viewer, in a synthesis that makes fresh demands on both.

The viewer is thus an integral part of the work to an extent where he/she can no longer be defined purely or straightforwardly as viewer at all. Watching Franko B is being Franko B through complex historical processes by which we sublimate ourselves in the bodies of those who suffer. Seeing his falling blood elides into identifications, strange longings, the process of transformation. There is always space in the audience for us to find a vantage point and to witness his passing – there is always room for one more. Just as performance art re(dis)covers artistic aura in an age of mechanical (now digital) reproduction, so it finds a secular sanctity within the complex of relationships by which we see and are seen, bleed alone and bleed together, love and are loved.[12]

We have carried ourselves an enormous distance from the sacrificial rites of the early twentieth century, but its history remains embedded in the performing body itself even as new histories seek, perhaps, to close those bodies, their abjections and their revolutionary content. The auto-destructive acts or those of abnegation and authorship are, in their way, microhistories of our own collective trauma, radiating outwards in a convulsive search for message, meaning and exchange. I Miss You becomes, in this context, a staging of a story that we carry with us like our very own, and very secular, original sin. They endure even as they embed themselves in new forms of suffering and discovery.

Just as the artist kills himself in the act of recovering the work of art, the viewer is caught in an embrace – of loss, need, blood and becoming – that both erases and reveals. The fact that the performance ends before the actual moment of death does not interrupt its internal logic or the profundity of how it binds us in horror, in awe, in a tangle of empathy and collaboration – the complexities by which the art of performance and the performances of life become inseparable, watch each other, and watch us as we watch ourselves.

[1] Georges Batailles, The Accursed Share: Vol. 1, New York, p. 53.

[2] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, New York, 1982, p. 4.

[3] The phrase “heremeneutic phenomenology” derives from Paul Ricoeur; his contribution to the interpretive and reflexive structures of experience have assisted with my own engagement with Frank B's I Miss You. For more, see Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, New Haven and London, 1970. For the concept applied to art, see also Giles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: the logic of sensation, London and New York, 2003.

[4] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 'Eye and Mind', in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, Evanston, 1993, pp. 126-7.

[5] Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind”, p. 129.

[6] Günter Brus,

[7] Franko B, interviewed by Jessica Greenall for (July 2016)

[8] Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Minneapolis and London, p 150.

[9] Ecce homo, “Behold the man”, are the words uttered by Pontius Pilate in John 19:5 when he presents the scourged Christ to a hostile crowd prior to the Crucifixion.

[10] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror, p. 3.

[11] Jennifer Doyle, 'Critical Tears: Melodrama and Museums', in Getting Emotional, Nicholas Baume ed., Boston, pp. 43-44.

[12] This was understood and described by critics who witnessed the first performances of I Miss You's  – for example, the Independent's critic, Louis Gray, described the work as a “secular passion” (Independent, April, 2000).


© 2017 Franko B and the contributors