|text by Verena Konrad
Touching someone you are also touched yourself, allow yourself to be touched. A handshake, the moment in which gazes meet, in which a gesture becomes physically manifest and palpable as contact, are central elements in the artistic thinking and working of Jeannot Schwartz. For many years, the painter and performance artist has dealt with the “place of touch” and the traces left behind by physical contact.
This preoccupation is based on a complex structure of ideas, in the case of Jeannot Schwartz’s work being inspired above all by the writings of Emmanuel Levinas, in which he found a theoretical foundation and a constant point of reference. Terms such as “self” and “the other” are not just relevant for Levinas’ own socio-ontological and anthropological reflections, they also play a major part in a discourse that has involved and still involves numerous 20th century theoreticians, and that revolves around the topics of identity and otherness as well as tertiality, i.e. the position of a third person in this constellation.
In his habilitation treatise entitled “Der Andere: Studien zur Sozialontologie der Gegenwart” (lit. The other: studies on the social ontology of the present), the German philosopher Michael Theunissen, starting out from certain precepts of inter-subjectivity and the philosophy of dialogue, investigated the interdependency of the terms “Selbigkeit” (selfness) and “Andersheit” (otherness). In what way is the self or the other constituted? Linking and separating the terms, as well as their preconditions, he puts up for discussion, among other things, their “consequences for human self-perception, our relationship to the world and complex forms of sociality.” Central concepts such as the relationship between me and you, or also encounter, dialogue, communication and interaction have become constants in the discussion of inter-subjectivity and sociality. The “other” has had a fixed place in the theory ever since and has also been taken up in numerous philosophical treatises, e.g. in Bernhard Waldenfels’ Der Stachel des Fremden (lit. The sting of the other) or his studies on phenomenology entitled Topographie des Fremden (lit. Topography of the other) and Grenzen der Normalisierung (lit. Borders of normalisation) which clearly formulate the political and social aspects of this discourse.
In Jeannot Schwartz’s oeuvre these positions are subjected to a dialectic act of mediation. In a continuous process, identity and otherness, the self and the other are brought together or else analytically separated in the course of reflection, in order finally to be brought in relation once more in actual artistic activity, which in the case of the performances also is social activity.
Apart from the terms “the self”, “the other” or “countenance” it is above all the place and the physical contact itself that the works of Jeannot Schwartz put a special emphasis on. What they deal with is the perception of and the reflection on situations and everyday experiences, leaving behind both physical and mental traces.
Aesthetic practice and political action
Jeannot Schwartz’s painting as well as his grasp sculptures mark just such places of physical contact. For many years, the artist has been experimenting with the grasping action of the hand. His plastic hollow grasping forms, also put to the test in performances, which he likes to subject to a re-enactment process in collective test set-ups, are quite without par in the contemporary art scene. Like few artists, Jeannot Schwartz is here able to directly translate theoretical reflections into basic experiences. The presentation of these objects in the course of the performances is unobtrusive and straightforward conceptually. Also, they do not take centre stage, but are merely vehicles for a form of self-awareness, for in contrast to the touching of an object as we do in everyday life, the objects of Jeannot Schwartz are reflected forms to begin with, which themselves frequently are dealing with the movement of grasping, the grasping impulse, and with the hand itself. The grasping hand, in other words, here in itself is the object of reflection, in such a way as the hollow space of the hand is imagined, and the place of physical contact thematized as well as the mimesis of grasping, and of the hand. The hand’s cavity, le creux de la main, is not just the designation of a space addressing an absence, but also the potential of grasping as such.
One such test set-up Jeannot Schwartz developed in 2007 for Kunst im Gang at the Theological Faculty of the University of Innsbruck. The installation “anliegende Horizonte” (lit. adjoining horizons) consisted of a handrail installed in a corridor, inviting visitors to walk along and grasp along, as it were. What is remarkable is that participants, apart from their personal experience, also embarked on a parallel reflection triggered by short presentations, read out while walking and grasping, that confronted each person’s own experience with the experience of an opposite, of another person. The articulation of the individual experience in the situation of a performance also is an important aspect in the project entitled “ORT DER BEHAUPTUNG” (lit. Place of assertion, kooio forum für kunst und kommunikation, Innsbruck, 2010). In this instance, the metaphorical term “Behauptung” for one thing referred to the “Haupt” (German for head), for the idea was to carry objects on the head, on the other hand the project also aimed for “Behauptung” in the sense of making an assertion, for the objects, by being placed on the head, eluded the respective person’s gaze and observation. In 2000, Jeannot Schwartz, with his “Türschnallen” (lit. door handles), an installation at the Institute of Art History at the University of Innsbruck, which took their place as actual door handles on the staff’s office doors, set in motion a lasting reflection on people’s acts of grasping. In 2005, the collective aspect about the grasping experiments also found verbal expression in “Erprobungen im Kollektiv” (lit. Tested by the collective) at the Kunstpavillon in Innsbruck, an event in which both the work “Structures of an action with both hands” and “Greifen für Index und Daumen beider Hände” (lit. Grasping for index finger and thumb of both hands), a performance that Schwartz rehearsed together with the staff of an Innsbruck cardboard manufacturer in 2004, were taken up once more.
A crucial aspect, when attempting to understand Jeannot Schwartz’s works, is the artist’s approach to aesthetic experience. This experience is closely linked to the experience of processuality. Schwartz’s artistic practice aims for moments of reflection, that only through personal experience and concrete action acquire a basis for something we would like to term “movement of thought.” Accordingly, concrete action takes on a central role in his work as an artist. “Thinking is action. In this context we also have to deal with the question of signs/structures as action,” Jeannot Schwartz says. The gesture as action and the image as a metaphor for visibility are two categories that may be read as acts of mediation between aesthetic practice and political action.
Living in situations
Jeannot Schwartz’s performative works could be described as enactments of situations. The “situation” also has a place in the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, who in fact described his own phenomenological approach as an enactment of a concrete situation. The human existence is intrinsically linked to the experiencing of situations. We cannot evade them, we always are in situation, as it were. This inescapability Levinas pointed out in his early work De l’évasion (Engl. On Escape). Just as we have no way of escaping our existence, we will not be able to escape the situativity of this existence. Even if the experiencing of these situations may be an individual matter, there are no separate, mutually independent situations. Situativity essentially takes place through communication with our surroundings, through the experiencing of our own being in context. All of which already hints at a connection with the “other.” To recognize the other in his/her situatedness means to perceive his/her “visage,” to regard him/her as a person within a situational fabric. Linked to the thinking of the situation, therefore, is also the thinking of relations. Relationships pervade our lives. And just as the situation they are characterized by relationality, by the way in which we relate to each other. This positioning for its part refers to our corporeality. The relationship to the other and the experience of our own corporeality once more is a situation in itself, even though it may be fleeting and therefore can never be a real situatedness.
If Jeannot Schwartz’s experimental compositions here are described as movements of thought, then this happens while bearing in mind this basic situational constant and the relations arising from it. Situativity means the mediation between outside and inside, between our inner perception and that which we perceive of the world outside. This perception in the case of Schwartz’s art is reflected as an aesthetic process, which he situates between gesture and image, between acting and seeing, between activity and passivity.
In her book Ästhetik des Performativen (Engl. The Transformative Power of Performance), Erika Fischer-Lichte describes, among other things, how performance artists, over recent decades, have been dealing with questions of materiality and symbolism, and in a short episode depicts a phenomenon that also applies to the works of Jeannot Schwartz. “Once perceived in their materiality, these isolated emergent phenomena trigger a wealth of associations, ideas, thoughts, memories, and emotions in the perceiving subjects, enabling them to make connections to various other phenomena. They are evidently perceived as signifiers which refer to diverse ideas and contexts and can be related to a range of signifieds. The isolated materiality of the various elements thus effects an immense pluralization of potential meaning.” In this context the author also writes about the meaning and legibility of gestures and in particular about the self-referentiality of gestures. “The gesture therefore means exactly what it performs.” The basic idea is the separation of the gesture from its symbolic content and thus the perception of the gesture as movement and as that which actually emerges, as phenomenal being. This differentiation allows for a fundamentally different aesthetic experience.
Exploring the self and the other
In Jeannot Schwartz’s performative experiments of grasping the audience itself becomes active, insofar as each participant has to find strategies for accomplishing a task, which is usually based on the re-enactment of a certain gesture. This task usually consists of short instructions, or in the case of the door handles of repeating a perfectly everyday action starting out from a grasping impulse.
A central element here is autopoiesis, which Erika Fischer-Lichte describes as a feedback loop, functioning as a “self-organizing system which must permanently integrate newly emerging, unplanned, and unpredictable elements.” Autopoiesis is closely connected to the perception of the persons involved, whereby both the audience as a group and the individuals as well as the performance artist come to experience themselves as subject and active agent. This transformation of the audience into acting individuals, which consequently is of vital importance to the unfolding of the performance, is a basic constant of performance art since the nineteen-sixties and also finds a correspondence in contemporary theatre. “The artists exposed themselves and others to an uncontrollable situation created by them (…).” Now, there naturally are the most various approaches, and the strategies in performance art, especially a performance art that takes as a starting point the perception of the social and political body, are extremely varied. Still, there is one important correspondence to the works of Jeannot Schwartz that can be deduced from his conceptual approach, namely reduction. With his grasping experiments, Schwartz has found something like an artistic counterpart, applied to a very small, but highly significant segment, to the method derived from phenomenology and from Edmund Husserl of eidetic reduction, which in its clarity is very convincing.
Memory and sensibility
Jeannot Schwartz’s paintings, his grasp sculptures, and his performance set-ups, besides the elements described, also revolve around the concept of the trace. Traces are left not just by his own gestural and haptic involvement with the material in the process of forming, but also by the mediation of these forms in the re-enactment through collective or individual actions. The grasping action of the hand, the leaving behind of imprints, as well as the touching through the hand, are key elements of Schwartz’s artistic method of describing the world and to facilitate and reflect on aesthetic experience, that also at all times is political experience. The metaphorical and vernacular approach to the term of grasping in itself points to the most important associations: the grasping of something, the touching of something as an aggressive or appropriating act, or seizing something in the sense of acceptance and exploration. Emmanual Levinas wrote about the grasping of the hand: “The hand comprehends the thing not because it touches it on all sides at the same time (it does not touch it throughout), but because it is no longer a sense-organ, pure enjoyment, pure sensibility, but is mastery, domination, disposition – which do not belong to the order of sensibility.”
Negation and concretion
The hand as an instrument of touch is only one of the aspects here, for Jeannot Schwartz in his prehensile investigations goes far beyond the feeling or the forming of an object. The grasp hollow, the room in between, but also the touch of the hands and ultimately the reflecting on the place of touch make his works grow beyond the act of touching into processes in the course of which, by re-enacting and re-sensing, movements of thought are triggered.
On the occasion of an artist talk, entitled “Experimente am Nullpunkt der Malerei” (lit. Experiments at the zero point of painting), at Kunstverein Freiburg in 1999, Schwartz put it like this: “The contact surfaces of the door handles are formed over the grasping hand. They are objects grasped by the hand which invite the hand to grasp itself. A situation which, through the lack of a separating element – the door leaf is absent –, can unexpectedly result in a face to face confrontation.” The face is the central concept in the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, who in his writings laid particular emphasis on the relationship of the self to the other. The zero point of painting here consists of it being an act of translation and of leaving the picture plane in order to facilitate individual experience. That his approach, nonetheless, has a lot to do with painting is shown by Schwartz’s acute awareness of the gestural aspect in his paintings. In which the picture space plays as much of a role as does the acting within this space. Gestural and visual aspects correspond in an artistic work process that combines aesthetic experience with political reflection.
 Michael Theunissen, Der Andere: Studien zur Sozialontologie der Gegenwart, Berlin/New York 21977 (first published by de Gruyter in 1965)
 Transl. from Joachim Fischer, “Der Dritte. Zur Anthropologie der Intersubjektivität,” in: wir/ihr/sie. Identität und Alterität in Theorie und Methode, ed. W. Eßbach, Würzburg 2000, p. 103
 Cf. ibid.
 Bernhard Waldenfels, Der Stachel des Fremden, Frankfurt am Main 1990
 Bernhard Waldenfels, Topographie des Fremden. Studien zur Phänomenologie 1, Frankfurt am Main 1997
 Bernhard Waldenfels, Grenzen der Normalisierung. Studien zur Phänomenologie 2, Frankfurt am Main 1998
 This work was created as a contribution to the 2nd International Container Art Festival in Kaohsiung/Taiwan in 2003 and there was put to the test by twenty students of Kaohsiung Normal University.
 The project formed part of the company portrait “Dinkhauser Kartonagen 2004” by Jeannot Schwartz.
 Cf. Maryam Hayatshahi, Zur Kategorie der Situation im Denken von Emmanuel Levinas. Inszenierung der Liebe im Zugang des Weiblichen bei Levinas und Hafis, doctoral thesis, Frankfurt am Main 2008, pp. 11f.
 Emmanuel Levinas, De l’évasion, 1982; Engl. On Escape, Stanford 2003 (transl. by Bettina Bergo)
 Erika Fischer-Lichte, Ästhetik des Performativen, Frankfurt am Main 2004. Engl. The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics, London and New York 2008 (transl. by Saskya Iris Jain)
 Ibid. p. 140. In this context the author also describes the link between materiality, signifier and signified in performances since the nineteen-sixties, while taking a particular interest in the semioticity of theatre productions. In her description, the phenomenon in question emerges as contradicting another development that has made visible a tendency towards de-contextualization and de-sementization, e.g. in the theatre since the sixties.
 Ibid. p. 165
 Ibid. p. 163
 Emmanuel Levinas, Totalité et infini: essai sur l‘extériorité, 1969. Engl. Totality and infinity: an essay on exteriority, Dordrecht 1991, p. 161