Heterotopia A possible approach in analysing intermedial art forms

“Heterotopien. Perspektiven der intermedialen Ästhetik” [ f.e. Aesthetics of Intermediality: Play – Ritual – Performance], Nadja Elia-Borer / Constanze Schellow / Nina Schimmel / Bettina Wodianka (Hg.)
“Heterotopien. Perspektiven der intermedialen Ästhetik” [ f.e. Aesthetics of Intermediality: Play – Ritual – Performance], Nadja Elia-Borer / Constanze Schellow / Nina Schimmel / Bettina Wodianka (Hg.) | Cover (detail) © Transcript Verlag

A space consists not only of that which one sees, hears and feels. The most recent publication to emerge from the research programme of the Swiss National Science Foundation, Intermediale Ästhetik: Spiel - Ritual – Performanz (Aesthetics of Intermediality: Play – Ritual – Performance), focuses on art and its spaces.

A neologism from the oeuvre of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, conceived in his essayistic thought, has proved particularly sustainable: heterotopia. The rather adventitious lectures and thumbnail sketches in which Foucault outlines this term seem to describe aptly the current state of the world we live in. Heteropia – that refers generally to all those sites that encompass other times, open spaces other than those present in the here and now. It is hardly surprising that these days the term is also applied to those technical appliances that make possible an apparent overcoming of times and spaces: equipped with screen and camera, microphone and loudspeaker and above all with memory, these devices minimise distances and lead to a compression of the temporal-spatial structure.

The propagation of heterotopia as a concept has proved to be as sustainable - one could almost say as inflationary - as its inherent paradoxes have remained insoluble. The term coined by Foucault unites one place with another as if they were co-extensive. Heterotopia does effect an overlay of diverse spaces and times, yet ultimately it opens only that space which lies between the one and the other: the difference. Thus heterotopia does not make other times and other spaces present or accessible, but focuses on the differences and the absences, on the in-between or interstice.

Media and forms

It is this interstice that is addressed by the book Heterotopien. Perspektiven der intermedialen Ästhetik (f.e. Heterotopias. Perspectives of Intermedial Aesthetics). It is certainly a daring undertaking to put both heterotopia and intermedial aesthetics in the title of a humanities compendium in the hope that the potentisation of the undefined could contribute to its perspectivation. The editors are evidently well aware that this is a risky venture. In the very first lines they already toy with the doubts surrounding the productive appropriation of the term: “What more could one possibly add to the ongoing and extensive debate about heterotopia?” they ask – before going on to discuss this and other questions on the following 600 pages.

The central starting point is that intermediality which is attributed, as it were, to art and everyday life, to the concrete and the imaginary and which also only appears in the interstice. Since media are meanwhile no longer technologically determined, have emancipated themselves from their material carriers, they currently appear as no more than references and transfers of form – according to one of the provocative, introductory theses of the leading media scientists. It is not the material differences of radio, television, film and computer that enable one to outline a conception of media and their specific quality. Because of their “post-technical status” media must generally be understood as cultural representation forms whose respective quality only becomes clear in the difference to other forms. Thus the medium resembles all those phenomena that undergo a process of forming – not least art and its diverse processes. And since media now become evident as no more than a forming principle, the appertaining discipline finds itself forced to poach in the field of aesthetics. So does “intermedial aesthetics” then actually mean that media science has now become the better “art science” - in which the various cultural and artificial representation forms can be compared without methodical restrictions?

The subjects consequently compiled and analysed as representation forms cover a remarkable aesthetic spectrum: choreographies, music and theatre performances, as well as situationist performances and video-installations, while films and documentary photographs are also included, as are examples from the classical literary genres such as drama and the novel. Even newer formats such as computer games, virtual map services and the obligatory TV series currently featuring in academic discourse are rubricated and analysed as representation forms. Indeed, most of the examples really do not fit into traditional genre poetics, aesthetics and into the academic canon of subjects – in their case is the reference to intermediality a way out?

Gaining insight between disciplines

The authors of the various articles tend not to follow the quite controversial premise of intermedial aesthetics; in contrast, they bring into play the resistance of its underlying formed material and the appurtenant scientific method. In this they counteract the definition of art and culture as a forming process. Art may, of course, deal with medial and forming principles, yet it is always bound to specific materialities, not least due to its recipients. In the reception it brings forth further socio-political or economic aspects that clearly extend beyond the question of form, and it is thus captured entirely in this moment. Accordingly, the articles outline not only counter-positions to the concept of art as a medium but also to Foucault’s concept of heterotopia, and the focus shifts increasingly to the specifics of the respective artwork and its own particular effect. This approach can also pave the way to the absence and the difference, and provide a link for further, more general theorisation.

The title Heterotopien. Perspektiven der intermedialen Ästhetik thus represents a metaphorical bracket, which, by evoking resistance, is able to combine quite divergent approaches and showcases the qualities of the respective discipline as well as the specifics of the form it analyses. The humanities evidently benefit by turning to the specific object rather than embarking beforehand on meta-theoretical and discursive flights of fancy - if they remain aware of their differences and heterogeneity.

Hence, according to the authors, Foucault’s heterotopia can also be understood differently: not as a passe-partout concept that subsumes all forms of art and culture, but as a metonymy that reveals those necessary shifts that inevitably occur in collaborative discussions of diverse art forms. Heterotopia is thus clearly shown to be a principle that sets in motion the prescribed order(ing) of the discourse and highlights the interstice of fields of knowledge and university disciplines as that space where insight is possible.