Dancing About Architecture

Emma Haugh | The Joinery

By Hugh McCabe

Images from 'The re-appropriation of sensuality' Emma Haugh in collaboration with Aileen Murphy and Holly O'Brien, Dublin, 2014

The function of deterritorialization: D is the movement by which “one” leaves the territory. It is the operation of the line of flight.

Deleuze and Guattari¹


The origins of the famous dictum – “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” – are somewhat murky and unclear. It’s often attributed to Laurie Anderson or Elvis Costello but in fact variations of this phrase can be dated back as far as 1918 when a writer in the New Republic suggested that “writing about music is as illogical as singing about economics”². It’s often employed by artists (whether musical ones or otherwise) to express frustration and annoyance at the attempts by critics to explain or interpret what they are doing and, in the case of music at least, points to the notion that since it is essentially nonrepresentational, there is nothing to be gained by efforts to elucidate some kind of meaning through either written or spoken language. Even in cases where the music contains a strong lyrical component (such as Costello’s work) we commonly see a preference for this being directly interpreted by the listener, as opposed to being mediated through the machinations of the critic.

The interesting thing about the phrase though is not the narrow and reductive view of writing about music that it reveals on the part of those who use it, but rather that the formulation relies on the fact that its second part – dancing about architecture – is taken for granted as an absurdity. In other words, we are all supposed to agree that one cannot dance about architecture and that it would be preposterous to suggest otherwise. We can push this a bit further and suggest that there's an underlying assumption that it’s not just architecture that is immune to the attentions of dance, but that it’s absurd to use dance to address any other medium or art form, or even perhaps to use any art form to address any other one. Dance is dance. Architecture is architecture. These are self-enclosed worlds that have nothing to say to, or about, each other.

Such notions would be antithetical to an artistic practice such as that of Emma Haugh, that not only freely ranges across multiple disciplines (writing, photography, performance, pedagogy), but also explicitly sets out to challenge entrenched ideas about how these disciplines should, or should not, address each other. A case in point would be the workshops devised by Haugh, which she calls ‘reading troupes’, that gather together a group of participants with the intention of collectively exploring a text³. However, as the name ‘troupe’ suggests, this is not the usual staid seated exercise of reading and discussion; it involves an active physical engagement that employs elements of theatre and dance as a means of entering into the text. Participants employ a range of strategies, which Haugh calls games, to disrupt the normal way of interacting with the written word: speed reading, repetitive reading, reading the text aloud while listening to near-deafening music on headphones, imagining the text as architecture and trying to physically embody it, conducting interviews and conversations where participants take turns being the text and constructing and photographing body sculptures that try and physically represent lines, images or ideas from the text⁴. The use of the body is critical here, it not only points to the idea that things can be expressed by bodily movement and gesture, but also that there are ways of knowing and thinking through and with the body.

Images from 'The re-appropriation of sensuality' Emma Haugh in collaboration with Aileen Murphy and Holly O'Brien, Dublin, 2014

Haugh’s recent show at The Joinery in Dublin, The Re-appropriation of Sensuality, Act 1: a score for six photographs employs similar strategies as a means of addressing one specific question: what would a space dedicated to the manifestation of female desire be like? This question arose following an awkward and dispiriting visit to a women-only sex club in Berlin, a night that Haugh describes in an earlier textual work Black Bile. She suggests that the reason the night was a failure was a result of the architecture of the space in which it took place. The club was in a building normally used for gay male activities, and so the darkened rooms, hard surfaces and rigid geometry were designed to reflect a specifically male version of sexuality, and served to alienate everything else. But, if instead of taking place in a borrowed venue that is not fit for the female use, the club took place in one that was custom designed, what would this place be like? The work set out to explore this idea of how to envisage an architecture that is specifically oriented around female desire, but perhaps more importantly, to also investigate what sort of strategies and approaches might be effective in actually doing this.

There are a number of things at stake here. One is the question of how female sexuality comes to be dominated by male ideas of what it is supposed to be. Another is the extent to which physical environments serve to affect, constrain and control behaviour (sexual or otherwise). We can look at both of these things though as specific instances of a more general and more fundamental question around how identity is constructed, or perhaps more to the point, how identity is imposed. Michel Foucault’s book, The Order of Things, famously opens by quoting Jorge Luis Borges’ alternate taxonomy of the animal kingdom, lifted from an imaginary Chinese encyclopaedia. This taxonomy proposes bizarre categories such as “those that, at a distance, resemble flies” and “those that tremble as if they are mad”, and it is entirely at odds with our normal way of dividing animals into sensible categorisations such as birds, reptiles, mammals and so on. Foucault is not proposing that we switch to Borges’ system but rather that these categorisations we commonly use are human constructions that could easily have been different. He goes on to demonstrate at length how such categorisations are fundamental to what he calls the ‘human sciences’ and crucially, more often than not, are employed as a means of exercising power over those being categorised.

Images from 'The re-appropriation of sensuality' Emma Haugh in collaboration with Aileen Murphy and Holly O'Brien, Dublin, 2014

Foucault’s work is a strong influence on those within feminism and queer theory who propose that gender and sexuality are rife with these practices of reductive categorisation: for example Judith Butler’s argument that our gender is not something innate but something that we are taught to perform, a box that heavily embedded patriarchal structures shove us into at an early age and strongly discourage us from even attempting to think outside of ⁵. This propensity for boxing and labelling of people according to externally imposed identity categories was brilliantly lampooned in the event that took place as part of Emma Haugh’s exhibition at the Joinery. Billed as an interview with the artist conducted by the curatorial duo Kate Strain and Rachel Gilbourne, it was in fact a loosely scripted performance. Over the course of forty minutes the interviewers subjected Haugh to increasingly awkward and ludicrous questions, most of which asked her to explain her work from the perspective of various pigeonholes such as feminist, social activist, queer artist and so on. It’s a testament to how common such reductive categorisation is, even within the supposedly enlightened realms of artistic discourse, that the audience sat through this in stunned silence, only seeming to realise what was happening when Marysia Wieckiewicz-Carroll, curator of the exhibition, thanked everyone for attending “the performance” at the end.

This performative dimension extended into the show itself, which on the face of it consisted of six photographs and a text (written by Faye Green), but whose real interest lay in the process that gave rise to these particular artefacts. This process commenced with a workshop that took place in Lithuania at which the participants were asked to write about imagined architectures of desire⁶. The results were wildly inventive manifestations of inner erotic space, as if being asked to imagine desire as architecture freed the participants to think anew, and in doing so to construct novel articulations of things normally expressed in well-understood terms. These texts were then used as the basis for a further activity whereby Haugh photographed participants Holly O’Brien and Aileen Murphy attempting to further articulate the ideas contained in them by means of body sculptures and associated arrangements of objects. These images constituted the six photographs in the show.

In one of them we can see the two women embracing inside a makeshift tepee-like structure surrounded by balloons, cardboard boxes and other materials strewn across the floor. In others, we get one of participants wrapped in cloth and tape. The most striking photograph in the show depicts O’Brien lying precariously balanced across two chairs, holding a cardboard assemblage above her, and with black cloth hanging beneath her. None of these photographs demonstrate much in the way of obvious literal representation of any of the notions around desire that are contained in the texts upon which they are based. Nor do they function as some sort of documentation, as is often the case when photography is employed within the realms of conceptual or performance art. So if the photographs are not representation or documentation, what exactly are they?

One answer is that the photographs themselves, or at least the taking of the photographs, are performative acts. O’Brien and Murphy are performing for the camera and it is the opening and closing of the camera’s shutter that produces this performance as a piece of art, in the same way that the utterance “I do” produces a marriage, or the enactment of certain conventions of dress and behaviour produce a gender. It’s tempting to try and read the resultant artworks as autonomous aesthetic entities, as the photographs do not provide any easily legible route back through the process of their production. This production process is like a chain and each link on this chain is what a mathematician would call an asymmetric relation. We can understand how a led to b, but cannot reconstruct a from merely looking at b. Moreover, the mathematician might also insist that these relations are also non-transitive. We can see how a produces b and how b produces c, but the relationship between a and c still seems arbitrary and almost impossible. Or as New Englanders like to say when asked for directions: “You can’t get there from here”.

But how do we get to a photograph of a woman wrapped in a white sheet from a consideration of the politics of desire? How do we get from thought to architecture, from architecture to text, from text to dance, from dance to photography, and from there on to performance and exhibition? Perhaps more importantly, do we then need to get back to where we started from, and if so, how do we do that? I’d like to suggest that the way to understand these moves is not in terms of tentative navigations across some murky territory that is in the process of being mapped out. There are no breadcrumb trails being left behind here and the language of exploration and cartography does not serve us particularly well. It seems more fruitful to think of them in terms of what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call lines of flight. For Deleuze and Guattari, a line of flight is a deterritorialization, a resistance or escape from a sedimented way of thinking, doing or being, a means of going off the map, or indeed of tearing it up altogether. Asymmetry and non-transitivity are essential characteristics of this, as is a process of constant movement in order to avoid solidification into newly imposed constraints and identities. Emma Haugh’s nomadic practice embodies this principle of movement in a very direct way – at every point in time everything is quite literally in the process of becoming something else.

To return to the point from which we started, it seems clear not only that we can dance about architecture, but also that we must.

  1. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, Bloomsbury, p.591
  2. Source:
  3. Examples of texts used in these workshops are excerpts from Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era by Beatriz Preciado and Cruising Utopia - The Then and There of Queer Futurity by José Esteban Muñoz.
  4. Some of these strategies are adapted from the Theatre of the Oppressed – a theatrical practice of Augusto Boal, who championed a participative and physical form of theatre that aimed to break the ideological shackles of the actor-participants by means of dramatic embodiment of their own lived experiences.
  5. See for example Butler’s 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.
  6.  Workshop took place at Residency O-Yo in Lithuania as part of the DBYHR (Don't Believe You Have Rights) event. More info here -

Emma Haugh: ‘The Re-appropriation of Sensuality’ Act 1: a score for six photographs’

The Joinery, Arbour Hill, 27-30 November 2014

Curated by Marysia Wieckiewicz-Carroll