I was delighted to be invited as a respondent for a performance by Fabrizio Manco, an artist who works with sound, place and embodiment. My response focused on the power of the genius loci – the spirit of place – which seems to me to be a key strand of his work.
Fabrizio presented his video How to Explain a Field to a Dead Magpie (?) as part of the performance. In this haunting piece the camera moves across a lonely field in rural Italy where magpies hang on trees as ‘scaremagpies’.
Magpies are often considered birds of ill-omen and the species is plagued by superstition. Ironically, although the farmer was trying to exorcise the magpie spirit, the dead magpies now haunt the field.
At one moment it seemed that the magpie spirit haunted the room we were in too: Fabrizio, wearing a magpie mask, danced slowly across the wooden floor as the video played, and then the sound of a bird screeching echoed around the room. It was not the soundtrack, but the artists shoes squealing on the parquet floor. How appropriate for an artist who references John Cage’s aleatory music of chance!
Questions remain about what is chance and what is synchronicity – Jung’s “acausal connecting principle”. Classical Western thought is founded on notions of causality grounded in the strict division of ‘subject’ and ‘object’, but an animist viewpoint blurs such distinctions. An animist might well hear the squealing shoes as an echo of the magpie’s cry, especially as it came from a figure wearing a magpie mask.
Animism has long been considered as a primitive notion we can ignore, but it can take us beyond subject/object duality. Merleau-Ponty, for example, refers to “that primordial being which is not yet the subject-being nor the object-being” (1970). Perhaps the genius loci is neither subject nor object, but emerges from the way we are enmeshed in place. As David Abram explains, the human body is “a sort of open circuit that completes itself only in things, in others, in the encompassing earth” (Abram, 1996). Fabrizio explains that in his work place “is posited as process, a simultaneous unfolding before and within us”. He seeks to explore “[h]ow is it possible to co/in-habit through the aural with an environment”. Such explorations can lead us into an animist reality where spirits of place can be heard in a slip of the foot.