Vocal artist Yvon Bonenfant created the intimacies performance in 2006, with support from the Choreographic Lab of the University of Northampton (Bonenfant 2008). The intimacies video art was realized in 2008, within Bonenfant’s “extending vocal bodies into audiovisual media” project.
Among the reasons why Yvon was interested in developing this project into video art I would mention three: an obvious one was his willingness to investigate further dialogue between voice and movement. But he could have done so without the use of recorded moving image. So the two other reasons I would outline are: first, the audiovisual media can introduce a new distance, much tighter, between the viewer and the performance and permit him/her to perceive the tiniest gestures of the bodies and voices. Second, filmmaking involves recording and editing processes, which allow various specific narratives as well as a new range of documentation/ dissemination options to emerge.
This page will articulate the creative process of the intimacies video art, from the visual artist’s point of view.
First part: how could I record an improvisation?
Even though video is a time based media, which structurally speaking makes it a most appropriate media to re-write performance, it is made of recorded images. Those images therefore are digitally fixed, their [moving] subject ends up as still as a painting. Probably because of my fine arts background, I conceive video art as a durational painting: Intimacies as a 27 minutes painting. I cannot conceive a sequence as a succession of images, it always comes to me as one image, which movement would proceed from different layers, exactly like in painting I give consistency to colour and texture through distinct and successive layers of brush strokes. So the priority issue I had to address within that project was to identify the appropriate method to translate an improvisational process into a fixed moving composition. For the second time, following a previous collaboration with Yvon (Allegue and Bonenfant 2008: 240), the key was into the physical relationship with matter. At the earliest stage of the work, I felt limited by the presence of the camera, a technical tool that supposed a physical barrier between the performers and me. As it was an improvisational process, I had no script and no story-board to follow, I was totally free, so I first took a simple pencil to draw a few lines on paper, while receiving the early experience of the performers. This act involved for me the same direct and radical relationship with non-form and movement as theirs. My own drawing movement showed me their pace: it was about the inner pulse that underlies our impermanence.
When she tells her ten years initiation into calligraphy and painting in China, painter Fabienne Verdier insists on her teacher’s radically different approach of learning. Her old master transmits his knowledge to her according to the ancient tradition that the Cultural Revolution nearly annihilated. She explains how she is taught the untold by means of a direct engagement with experience, a method that contrasts with the systematical conceptualization of western art schools. She tells for example how her old master teaches her to fill her brushstroke with flesh and skeletal structure, by drawing her attention to the sap that inhabits a blade, constantly moving sap at the origin of the external vigor of the blade. She tells how he encourages her to go and watch the incessant movement of a river for her to integrate water into her painting. Movement —impermanence— characterizes the reality of all things, a brushstroke must transmit this reality. The master does not force his ideas on her, he rather sows them so the student finds her own way (Verdier 2003: 93-124).
This is exactly the methodology Yvon used on stage with the dancers, by sowing seeds he led them to their own way so their voice could emerge.
The sap that fed into their performances is what I sought to capture. That is the reason why I needed to feel a process of physical image making before entering that of movement photography and recording.
Filming inner silences
Like me, the performers initially had mixed feelings toward the camera. They were about to engage with a very intimate process that would evidence their human vulnerability and they felt my presence like that of a voyeur who might betray them as artists and human beings. They were also concerned about the fact that this presence could inflect their sincerity, that they might self-censor or manipulate their work for the camera. I remember Robin Dingemans saying that he could not do as if the camera was not there. We openly talked about it. Exteriorizing those feelings set down the bases for an honest collaboration. I also believe that my drawing among them on stage helped me to be as one with them and helped them to integrate my presence and, afterwards, the camera within their experience. Following the first shots, I watched the raw footage on my laptop, during the breaks at the performance studio, so they too entered the early stage of my video composition and could have a glimpse of the transformative potential that framing movement involves. They clearly ended up exploring what the filming process could bring to their work at times and, in a few occasions, even addressed me through the camera’s eye in a very direct manner.
I would identify three different performative and filming contexts:
A- the group exercises: Yvon based his work with the dancers on somatic, sensual and emotional stimuli. He first gave them exercises to realize. Whether they were doing so alone or with one another, they were always practicing within the same space, on stage.
B- the group improvisations: each one had to compose his/her performances by integrating what the exercises had revealed within. Part of those consisted of inter and trans-personal compositions.
C- the solos: Delphine, Caroline, Robin and Yvon also realized four solos each.
Group works gave me the possibility to get close ups: as in those contexts they were into inter/ transpersonal performance most of the time, they were focusing on the other and did not perceive so much my own movement. This way I could get closer, within the group, without getting intrusive. Skins, eyes, hands, feet images were shot during those group sessions.
On the contrary, getting close during the solos made me feel as a profaner. One of the reasons was that the dancer was alone on stage, the others were watching him/her from outside. I would have been the only other one on stage, which would have been damaging for both the improvisational process and the reception experience of the other dancers. The other reason was that during their solos the performers were in a situation of personal nudity, meaning their most intimate humanity was exposed. It was crucial to acknowledge the value of that shared intimacy. If I had chased it on stage, if I had appealed to close ups or established the presence of the camera by moving with it, I would have corrupted the intimacy. I preferred to protect its integrity by reflecting it within portraits. I used a fixed camera that I put outside of the performer’s space and visually treated the solos as human portraits. The performer’s particular intimate state was translated through his/her body’s place within the video frame, as I will explain in the second part of this text.
The nature of Yvon’s process as the choreographic facilitator and performance director, as well as the nature of the performers experience excluded a filming process that would have been a mere documentation of the whole thing. Documentation would necessarily have betrayed the experience because it would have kept me emotionally outside of the collective process. My construction of the fictional and visual narratives appealed to a major personal involvement and therefore engaged my own intimate humanity as it put me in a similar state of vulnerability as the dancers (I will address the fictional dimension of my compositional work in the second part).
Nevertheless, when I screened intimacies, in both a gallery and an academic context, the viewers’ questions on conceptualization and creative processes suggested that they had been able to keep the necessary distance to think and formulate theoretical questions while viewing the video. Even though I co-directed the video with Yvon and therefore I watched it hundreds of times and probably know it by heart, I can’t keep this critical distance when I watch it again. It keeps getting to the emotional core of my process. Because I was physically there: with Delphine, Caroline, Robin and Yvon. The viewers were not.
An exhibition at the Alsager Arts Centre gave us the opportunity to start developing intimacies as an art installation , which proved to be the most appropriate form to transmit the human experience, to make the viewer feel the touch of skins or the sensuality of breath. That new spacialization of the images, their dramatization through the multiscreen installation, their screening at a human scale, the fact that the viewer is walked to the vocal-visual composition, it all connects the visitor with the direct physical experience of the whole process. In so doing, the installation leads him/her to the humanity of his/her own physical gesture and multiplicity; this newly shared dimension of the work achieves impermanence by establishing an incessantly renewed in-progress-status.
Furthermore, this exhibition form is faithful to that of the on-stage-narratives and the audiovisual multi-layered narrative as well.
Second part: choice stories.
After the filming process, Yvon composed a 25 minutes multi-track vocal piece. He gave it to me so I could start editing the images on that base. On the CD, he had indicated the rough structure of his composition that included five parts corresponding to different aspects of the performative process. His vocal sequences were as follows:
I went on with my own experience of what we (the five of us) had shared during the filming. After listening to his composition, I identified nine parts that for me responded to framed movement. I had lived the performative and choreographic process through a video frame indeed, within which I had been composing moving images of improvisational performances.
My sequences were:
A- duration: 4:43 minutes FEET < Excerpt 1
B- duration: 3:43 minutes TOUCH
C- duration: 1:08 minutes EYES
D- duration: 3:05 minutes STORIES/VOICES
E- duration: 3:27 minutes BREATH
F- duration: 1:48 minutes CRY
G- duration: 0:38 minutes PLAY (MASK) < Excerpt 2
H- duration: 6:08 minutes NUDITY < Excerpt 3
I- duration: 1:02 minutes GIFT
I asked Yvon whether the moving images had brought new views to his performative experience with the dancers. Here is his answer:
This is very difficult to answer. Yes, of course, and also no. For me, the images are a document of experience and we created a whole new skin-existence through uniting sound and image. In essence, Intimacies the Video for me is a long reconstructed negotiated mutual memory. Does memory enhance the original experience? I suppose we might think it can. However it also can betray and undermine the pleasure of the original experience. In remembering, we create a new experience out of an old, and we rehearse what we think the former experience contained. Also, what is meaningful about the former experience changes as memory grows, modifies, and also bits of memory come back that weren’t important at the time.
I suppose the most interesting and surprising reconstructed memory for me is the sequence of Robin during my crying sound. This sequence allowed us to bring together two moments that had nothing to do with each other in real time but that in ‘video-time’ make complete sense alongside one another. Indeed, they become one memory, or a sort of union of memories, coming close to the essence of an experience through condensing that experience.
So perhaps Intimacies the Video is a condensation, a condensation filtered through your and my memories, a kind of gathering of dew after a long long day and night, a gathering of dew that distills experience into memories that take us in – in – in.
Yvon answered my question without knowing about the reflection this essay presents. His answer is not conditioned by any previous dialogue between us. This makes his view all the more insightful regarding his compositional process: I was not aware of the extend to which memories had fed into his work because I did not work with memories but with composed records. I never appealed to memory in my making process because I did not get two distinct perceptions of the performative experience —the live and the recorded—. My perception was framed and recorded simultaneously since the beginning, first by the piece of paper and then by the video frame. The editing process was the continuation of what I had started telling through moving image right there on stage. From that point of view I did not engage with reconstruction.
During the video editing, my concern about individual identification grew deeper. No original sound from the raw footage was used indeed. Even though Yvon integrated the human multiplicity into his vocal textures and the very structure of his composition, made of different layers of voice, the original tessitura of the performers voices would eventually disappear. This was removing an important element for identification. I gave precedence to durational and parallel portraits and insert sequences made of skins and body parts close ups that would work as hyphens between the portraits. In a way, intimacies’ narratives are not really edited: they emerge as parallel beings, parallel lives, parallel lines instead of one segment of time between a beginning and an end. Sometimes those unfinished lines get closer. Sometimes they intersect by means of an encounter.
I chose three excerpts (click on each excerpt’s title to view the video) to get into the detail of my choices.
Min. 1:43 to 3:05
My point was to establish intimacy since the very first images. This close up was shot during an exercise practiced in pairs. It consisted of a dialogue involving only that body part with no shoes or socks and no words so the dialogue would take place through and between skins. As for Yvon:
The skin is the corporeal centre from where all encounter – literal encounter and metaphorical encounter – take place. It is also the sensation-centre for our bodies’ abilities to perceive elemental proximity, warmth, safety and love. The other senses are extensions of skin. It is also the brain of sentience and replaces the brain for me when I want to transcend the normal perceptual limits of the Western body.
From a literal point of view, our feet are the body part that connects us with earth, they consequently connect us with our corporeality. A psychoanalytic approach would envisage the foot as an erotic symbol that represents our relationship with pleasure and the others. However, from my perspective, the feet’s symbolism is strongly rooted in literature and painting. In Le chef d’oeuvre inconnu (Balzac 1831), Balzac enters the secrecy of the painter’s creative process through a tale of failure. Master Frenhofer dedicates ten years of his life to portrait famous courtisane Catherine Lescault, also called la belle noiseuse, which he chooses as the title of his painting. His quest for Beauty is characterized by his desire to capture nature’s vital principle through artistic creation. His view tends to subtract the act of painting to corporeality: he becomes the creator and lover of the woman he is painting. Though he claims his contempt for merely technique considerations, in particular for drawing, his disdain only feeds into his constant frustration, which results in the final dissonance between the vision (the non-religious concept of the abstract idea that precedes form) and the act of embodying the vision. ‘Frenhofer vit le conflit insoluble du raisonnement et de la poésie avec le métier, la pratique et l’observation‘ (Eigeldinger and Milner 1981). Among the chaos of impastos and lines emerges Art, in the form of a delicate foot in a corner of the painting: the only vestige of the woman who once breathed on the canvas. This foot precisely reflects the perfect equilibrium between poetry and craft.
In 1989, Martin Scorsese ‘quotes’ the belle noiseuse’s foot in his New York Stories segment ‘Life lessons’. His protagonist is a painter who is consumed by unsatisfied desire toward his former lover, Paulette (Balzac’s feminine character who models for Frenhofer is called Gillette). Following an argument with her inside the room she is still occupying at his studio, he surrenders to his fascination when he notices her foot on a pillow. First are the painter’s eyes that indicate us where furtive Beauty has burst. Then Scorsese strategically isolates the foot by means of a circular frame within the image frame. The vision is immediately followed by a furtive close up on the foot. He signifies a fascination that is both sensual and aesthetic and poses Beauty as an incessantly moving principle. This sequence is to be considered within its context: the New York art scene where Abstract Expressionism emerged after World War II. As Ernst Gombrich explains, ‘action painting’ pioneer Jackson Pollock believed that it was necessary to recover a natural impulse. He used to put his canvases on the floor and dropped, squirted, threw colour onto it (Gombrich 1966: 470). The decisive role of the body’s position and movement within the way to form subsequently characterized Abstract Expressionism. If we consider Scorsese’s foot sequence within an artistic context that is a product of that painting school, the reference appears to acknowledge physicality —matter— as a co-constituent of art practice and a source of the intuitive process inherent to the creative process.
While I was shooting the feet images, I was fascinated with the mix of basic physicality the foot suggests and the refined subtlety of the dancers’ dialogic movement, which contrasted by manifesting the also ethereal level of their dialogue. La belle noiseuse’s lessons were embodied right in front of my eyes, and the embodiment seemed all the more relevant that it was unconsciously realized by dancers. The skins’ details, the sensual charge of the exercise, the fact that the feet appear within the frame as if they were cut from the bodies, emphasized the symbolic potential of the filmed subject.
Two influences of Pollock were American Indians rituals and Chinese painting. The second is particularly interesting within this reflection as the ancient Chinese tradition grants breath a crucial importance. Breath is envisaged as the principle that gives life —therefore movement— to all things and subsequently must be embodied by the brushstroke (Anzhi 1992). Like an unintentional echo, the vocal layers of this part give precedence to low, sometimes whispered and rather long tones that bring the listener into the secrecy of breath, the original breath that is to underlie the whole composition of Yvon. This beginning poses the base of voice that rises from the body’s centre to top.
Opening the videographic work with such a suggestive, symbolic and atavistic encounter posed the essential corporeal component of the intimate and transpersonal process that Yvon directed on stage and affirmed the corporeal and intimate dimension of art practice.
Min. 18:02 to 18:37
Delphine shot these images while dancing, with my mobile phone. Generally it seemed to me that the videography had to be as nude as the performers’ experience. The quality of the Sony PD170’s images served that objective. However the particular format and video texture of the mobile phone brought an interesting perspective. The nature of the tool and its primary use relate to both communication and intimacy as it is an utterly personal belonging. But this characteristic is also what places it within the public sphere: we can bring it everywhere and be reached anywhere. To certain extend it also involves a sort of exhibitionism, hidden loneliness, the fantasy that tends to erase the frontier between desire and reality: a public showcase that puts a mask on our face.
I gave the mobile to Delphine with no direction. On one hand she lets us in her vision, on the other hand she films her own face, in other words she transforms herself into a character she creates for the outside. The rough texture of the mobile’s image shows as much as it hides inwardness. By introducing this duality between the public and the intimate, she puts the whole process within a wider context. That intrusion of the outside puts forward the timeless search of otherness within that we were pursuing on stage.
The length of this shot matches perfectly with a 38 seconds playful voices sequence that includes identifiable words, short calls out to an unidentified person. There is no explanation regarding this correspondence. It was totally unintentional, I put the images on the vocal sequence: voice and image instantaneously belonged to each other.
A similar unexpected magic happened with the following six minutes sequence that certainly contains the most profound level of intrapersonal experience.
Min. 18:43 to 20:12
This excerpt is shorter than the full length sequence: more than six minutes cry sound. I would definitely not reduce the voice to tears though: it brings the listener on a journey from sob to laugh, lets him hear glottal and mucous sounds and feel how anguish rises from the abyss of the throat. This vocal sequence is not only the longest of the composition, but also single layered. It makes distraction impossible. You cannot escape from nudity.
This vocal work was also that of the solo that concluded the whole performative process on stage. Yvon vocally re-interpreted his last performance (excerpt 3C ), when he came out of darkness with his arms up and conscientiously pointed inward chaos at his vocal cords and face. None of us was expecting this. I filmed starting with a nearly close up and progressively zoomed out to enclose his whole body inside the frame. I suggested his walk by placing his body first on the right of the image and move it progressively to the left without letting it cross the frame and disappear in order to pose the body as the container of a trapped human being through identifying the body with frame (the image’s frame as the container of meaning). If I could film this again, it would be a front shot: by getting closer, Yvon would be filling the frame step by step until he fills the trapped human viewer. Filming improvisational performance brings the act of filming close to live art though: when it is done there is no room for repentance.
I did not use this footage because this would have reduced it to a mere illustration and therefore it would have lost its expressional power. The solo lasts more than 16 minutes, to cut it would have been a mutilation too. Finally, from a technical point of view, it would have been impossible to synchronize the image with the sound that had been recorded afterwards, independently from the raw footage.
I could have tempered both the contents and the length of this voice with series: portraits series and/or movement series that would have contrasted with the stillness the cry sound suggests. But I decided I would not allow the listener to escape thanks to the viewer. The profound nudity has no face so I would construct a transpersonal experience.
Robin had created an atypical solo too. It lasted 15 minutes and was composed by tiny moves, invading silences, inappropriate laughs, underwear and raw corporeality. Unarmed. I had filmed it as a full-length portrait and placed Robin’s standing body on the left of the frame, flirting with the limit (excerpt 3B: raw footage ). And he stood there, seemed to recover a profound unity until he burped. He then unleashed individual and social uncontrollable chaos.
I brought together the two loneliness: the single layered voice, the unarmed standing body. This certainly was fictional but I believe the two, separately though, addressed a human condition of being contained, trapped inside matter, as this condition might sometimes evolve toward the unwanted encounter with one’s own body. The two works seem to deal with the acceptance of such condition. And finally even their laughs turned out to be in sync.
Conclusion: the unwoven body.
I have been fascinated by the touch, the colour, the smell and condition of canvas since I started painting. I mean the linen canvas before it is treated for painting. During my Fine Arts first year at the university, I took a course called ‘approches sensorielles’: sensory approaches. The teacher, Lea Lublin, asked each of the students to choose a material so s/he would work on transforming it for the whole academic year. Her point was to lead us to explore all the intrinsic characteristics and resources of the chosen material. I chose canvas. I am still exploring it. Canvas has turned into my other skin, or, if I may borrow Yvon’s terminology, the extension of my skin. This is the other corporeality of painting: first is my body, and then the canvas that bears the mark of my temporality. The painting’s feet.
Nearly one year after intimacies, I watched the lines I had put on paper to catch some of the dancers’ gravity through my hand. I decided to re-interpret them by submitting that gravity to ink and canvas.
Canvas ceased to be a support as I started to partially unweave its threads to compose a reflected body. The unwoven bodies were then showing me what is before form: blankness. I was seeking a way to restore them to movement, to multiplicity, so I made a book. A book is an intimate object.
One and multiple, as it unfolds, page by page… until the end.
Anzhi, Zhang (1992). L’esprit et le pinceau. Beijing: Edition en langues étrangères.
Balzac, Honoré de. (1831) Le chef d’œuvre inconnu. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1981. Introductions, notes and documents by Prof. Marc Eigeldinger (Université de Neuchâtel) and Prof. Max Milner (Université de Dijon).
Bannerman, Chris and McLaughlin, Cahal. (2009), ‘Collaborative ethics’. In Allegue, Jones, Kershaw, Piccini (eds) Practice as Research in performance and screen. London: Palgrave-Macmillan, pp. 65-72.
Bernard, Judith. (2009), ‘Agnès Desarthe et l’assiette du placard’. d@ns le texte, online book programme published on 19 May 2009. http://www.arretsurimages.net/emission.php?id=3
Bonenfant, Y. and Allegue, L. (2008), ‘Textures and Translations: B(earth)in between Extended Voice and Visual Arts’, Journal of Adaptation in Film & Performance 1: 3, pp. 237–256, doi: 10.1386/jafp.1.3.237/7
Bonenfant, Y. (2008) ‘Towards a politics of felt pulsation: De-disciplining voice and movement in the making of a musi-dance performance.’ Studies in Theatre and Performance 28:1, pp. 39-58, doi: 10.1386/stap.28.1.39/1
Fitzgerald, Edward. (1859), Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. London: Zodiac books 1950
Gombrich, E.H. (1950 – last author’s edit 1994) The Story of Art. London: Phaidon Press Ltd. (2006) Histoire de l’Art. Paris: Phaidon for the french translation.
Scorsese, Martin. (1989) ‘Life lessons’. New York Stories. Episode in three-part film; other parts – Oedipus Wrecks, directed by Woody Allen, and Life without Zoe, directed by Francis Coppola.
Verdier, Fabienne. (2003), Passagère du silence. Paris: Albin Michel.
 intimacies is one of the three video art projects that constitute Bonenfant’s art research project: “extending vocal bodies into audiovisual media”, which was financially supported by the University of Winchester and the British Academy. Additional technical support was provided by the Institut d’Esthétique des Arts et Technologies (IDEAT: CNRS, Panthéon-Sorbonne University) and the University of Glamorgan.
Adapted to cinema by Jacques Rivette in 1991.
 Frenhofer undergoes the unsolvable conflict between reason and poetry on one hand, and craft, practice and observation, on the other hand. (translation: Allegue)
 Meaning repentir: the painter’s repentance that consists of covering a composition’s detail with a background colour in order to hide it and modify the composition. Afterwards the repentir can be seen by means of X-ray only.
 Click on “intimacies” to access a short video that documents the exhibition and on “3B” and “3C” to access the corresponding excerpts.