The Rhythm of Thinking

Immanence and Ethics in Theater Performance

The Rhythm of Thinking: Immanence and Ethics in Theater Performance is an artistic research project in which the practice of theatre directing and dramaturgy is critically treated through specific philosophical discourses. It was presented in the fall of 2016 as a thesis for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Fine Arts in Performance in Theatre and Music Drama at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. The dissertation is published as a book but also as a multimedia platform which is its complete format as it gives the reader access to filmed documentations and audio examples of the different performances that are discussed in the text, as well as additional material like images, scripts and music scores. This platform can be reached at However, in the following I present a very brief introduction to the project, as well as outlining my continued research. 1

Cover of The Rhythm of Thinking

The search and the material

The research is an attempt to explore the implications of the concept of immanence in the collective creative process of theater making. In particular, it is an effort to illuminate what we might call “processes of immanence,” or “theater of immanence.”2 It present a net of questions, observations, and thoughts ranging from the experiences of collective creative processes and collaborative work with the performers, to academic criticism on discourses related to the fields of performance studies, philosophy and performance philosophy, perception theory, and musicology. The project is envisioned as a contribution to the theories around the relationship between the structural specifics of theater – dramaturgically and compositionally – and the aspects of meaning and affect. That formulation encapsulates a number of investigative sub-areas that can be broadly defined as: transforming theories into concrete compositional and processual measures; developing dramaturgical discourses beyond semantic language; problematizing a binary relation between composition/ conceptualization and an intuitive, emotional creative force; discussing how to enhance a readiness for variation in the performers; problematizing hierarchical structures, both in regards to the hierarchy of expressions, as well as creative influence; mapping out a thought process for a directorial practice; and finally, searching for a possible reciprocity between compositional structures and ethics.

The investigation is based on my experience of conceptualizing and directing three different theater performances, all built around material that in one way or another originated from the American composer and artist John Cage (1912-1992), and function as the main reference in the research. They were constructed with different components, made under different kinds of production conditions, they incorporate quite different dramaturgical structures, and different groups of performers collaborated for each performance. There are however three important aspects that the performances share, and that illuminate the questions and areas that are being problematized. The first and most crucial aspect is what I alternately talk about as multiplicities, individual expressive trajectories, superimpositions, expressive polyphony, and overload. These are terms and phenomena descriptive of an expressive instability and convergent with the idea that the expression consolidates through the indeterminate unfolding of multiple expressive relations and not through thorough composition.3 The second aspect is that they are dependent on a strong creative investment by the performers – on their capacity to improvise and invent – since the conceptual setups place, at the center, the creative responsibility onto the individual performer. The third aspect shared by the performances is that they are all formed around musical compositions, and embedded in musical movements. The titles of the performances are John and the Mushrooms, vorschläge and Ryaonji – A Meeting.

The investigated materials are theater performances and the research questions stem from creative and perceptive situations during the making and perceiving of theater. Though, in the critical treatment I have chosen to activate philosophical discourses rather than applying critical perspectives that more obviously belong to performance studies. This philosophical approach is mainly represented by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995), but also by Canadian philosopher Brian Massumi (b.1956), and the Italian/Australian philosopher Rosi Braidotti (b.1954). A number of secondary sources and critical extensions that utilize Deleuze’s theories in discussions on art and theater are used, as well as some within the field of performance studies. Among these are philosopher and performance studies scholar Laura Cull, philosopher and Deleuze scholar Claire Colebrook, art theoretician and Deleuze scholar Simon O’Sullivan, performance studies scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte, and philosopher and Deleuze scholar Manuel Delanda.

Disposition and critical themes

Three different types of texts are presented in the project: descriptive texts, essays, and interviews. They intentionally unfold in somewhat different modes, hence, are meant to create a juxtapositional dynamic. The descriptive texts describe the making of the three theater performances, and go into detail, regarding: material, dramaturgical organization and conceptualization, rehearsal processes and the performance situations. The first is called Cage Interpreted and Performed, in which the process and thinking behind creating the performance of John and the Mushrooms is rendered. However, since John Cage’s art is so central to the project as a whole, the text also looks at his influences, his artistic development and what was central in his esthetics and compositional methods, and therefore decisive in the different decisions when making the performance.

Cover of The Rhythm of Thinking

The second descriptive text, Hierarchy in Creation, describes how the sound art piece vorschläge, based on a composition (with the same title), by the German composer Mathias Spahlinger, was made. It starts by outlining the work and esthetics of Spahlinger, and goes on to untangle his composition in detail, as well as the concept and the structure of the performance. The third descriptive text, Differentiated Presence, which tells about the performance of Ryoanji – A Meeting, takes on a slightly different quality. In the rendering of the two other performances, the descriptive gaze is positioned in the middle of the creative process. In this text, the critical dynamic is instead generated through a juxtaposition of the directorial intent with the experience of being a viewer. This position shifts the focus away from the creative process, towards possible ways that the performance can be perceived; its potentiality. These three texts are linked to filmed documentations, still pictures, side texts of an explanatory quality, sound/music recordings/documentations, interviews with the performers, and to musical scores and manuscripts. The underlying aim of these descriptions is to give an account of how the performances were conceptualized and created, thus to enable an understanding of how the critical discourse connects to the different conceptual levels and to the specifics of the material. Together with the documentations, the descriptive texts are also meant to offer a sense of the tactile aspects of the making of the performances, a corporeal substrate for the reflexive augmentations.

If the descriptive texts emerge out of the corporeality of the performances, the essays on the other hand pull the experiences into a more taut, reflective apparatus. They are developed to elevate the tactile experiences and the structural observations into an esthetic-philosophical reasoning, by investigating the connections between the performances and a broader existential/philosophical outlook on life. As such they enclose the practice by revealing what reverberates underneath the esthetics of the performances, as well as indicating what hovers above them, as possible prolongations.

The first of the three essays that descriptively attempts to translate the tactile experiences into a theoretical and philosophical reasoning is called Who is the Creator? Here the critical gaze is mainly positioned within the ensemble, and examines the complex flow of energies among the performers when chance and unpredictability are at play. The text makes use of the concept of immanence, to illuminate the difference between transcendent processes and immanent processes and the relationship thereof regarding the demands on the director and on the performers. This is further developed into the question of how immanent processes occur and can be sustained in collective creative situations. The two concepts consistency and consolidation are introduced to delineate and describe how expressive matter, produced within the immanent creative process, takes form and transforms. The text then moves into the question of creative responsibility in collaborative theater work where the concepts of chance, indeterminacy and improvisation are in play. It looks at the creativity of the individual and its dependence on and consideration of the group, asking questions like: what is the relation between the individual desire to express and the expression of the whole? What is the relation between individual creative responsibility and collective creative responsibility? The term shifting of roles is developed to further describe the individual responsibility in the collective creation, which in turn demands that the term collective creation is put aside in favor of the term instant collective composition. The discussion about instant collective composition instigates a closer look at the question of what the performers really experience they are a part of. What does the immanent process make them feel that they are creatively participating in? In connection to these questions, the last part of the essay extends the discussion around creative hierarchy, and problematizes my own position as instigator and leader of the collaboration.

The reasoning in the second essay Meeting – Meaning expands the question of an immanent process to include the exchange between the expression of the performance and its audience, i.e. descriptive of a mode of sharing amongst everybody simultaneously present in space and time, as participants in the theatrical presentation. It attempts to unravel how different formal structures can be created to enhance the possibility for the audience to be co-creative when experiencing the performance. This, in turn, extends into questions around the production of meaning: is meaning inherent in the experience of co-composition? And if so, can the experience of co-composition be thought of as a process of becoming? The communicative interplay that these questions indicate inevitably elicit other concepts and ways of looking at the performance situation, as preconceptions of what theater “is,” of what a theater space should look like, and of how a story “should” unfold, and must be confronted. So, taking off from this idea of an extended immanent process, the reasoning problematizes three aspects that, in their combined dynamic, encapsulate the complex question of meaning: The notion of communality in the shared experience of the performance; the workings of a representational coding, and the unfolding of a co-compositional activity. The idea that a group of people sharing space and time form a social community has, for a very long time, functioned as something of a dramaturgical substrate, an unavoidable condition, when critical investigations on the impact of theater have been developed. In contemporary theater, as well as in performance studies, this notion is however challenged on both dramaturgical and generalizing grounds, but the view that this dynamic consists of just two components – the performance and the audience – still, to a large degree, prevails as a precondition for different critical attempts. In expressive structures dominated by superimpositions and multiple expressive trajectories this has to be problematized beyond the idea of a meeting between these two components, because just as the merging of the expressive material is elusive and in flux, the communality of the audience is fully differentiated, and is examined with that in mind. When reflecting on the production of meaning, it is also crucial to problematize the function of representation: representation as a system where the codification of signs, symbols, semantic and semiotic language are established. This is the system in which the performances operate: They are part of a world built on a representational coding. But as representation purports definitions as fixed, as operating with defined measures, and thus can be seen as exerting a transcendent force, it is essential for the immanent creative process, as well as for the over all esthetic intention, to not only problematize its workings in the moment of perception but to look at how it can be counteracted and replaced by the notion of presence. The reasoning thus treat representation as an obstruction that enhances the goal of the performances, and as an unavoidable precondition in the creative processes, as well as in the dramaturgical thinking, and in the making of the compositional structure. Those are structures characterized by multiple expressions simultaneously set in motion to create superimpositions in which not one single narrative trajectory or expressive focus can be delineated and the audience therefore are forced to independently prioritize their sensorial impressions. The emergence of meaning in such a perceptual environment generates a need to exchange/transform/extend the concept of an immanent process towards the concepts of co-composition and co-creation, in diverse ways and combinations. As those terms can be said to connote a certain degree of active structuring/restructuring in the perceptive moment, the essay explores how this activity unfolds, what it is dependent on, and its potential.

The ethico-esthetic perspective is the main theme in the essay The Rhythm of Thinking. In the directorial and dramaturgical approach, in the nature of the creative processes, in the quality of the performed material, there is an overarching esthetic principle which I claim is an embodied vision of the subject; an ethics. This term encapsulates an idea, actually a conviction, of how an outlook on the potentiality of the human subject constitutes a foundation for an ethics. The artistic attempt is to transform this vision into performative structures and the research reflections, taken together, are then in turn an attempt to illuminate how this vision relates to the constitution of the different compositional aspects of the performances. To explain – and scrutinize – this claim of a reciprocal relation between a vision of the subject and the esthetics of the performances, the text tries to explicate how the dramaturgical and compositional construct of the performances correlates to my outlook on the world. It starts out with circumscribing how ethics is defined and used in the apparatus, and connects it to the activity of figuring-out. In explaining the use of that activity/concept I make something of a detour, in examining some related dramaturgical reflections made by Berthold Brecht. The text then goes back to looking at how an onto-ethics can be formulated and this is done through the thinking of Rosi Braidotti, Gilles Deleuze and Brian Massumi. The text experiments with connecting the experiences of co-composing and becoming with the movement of thinking and its relation to the purely sensed. In doing so, and by placing it in the directorial practice, the concept of “forming the circumstances” as a directorial approach is explained, and this is done in close connection to the concept of univocity. Reconnecting to the reasoning in the essay Meeting-Meaning, the last part looks at the relation between the forces of a representational and a non-representational coding in relation to ethics, thus exploring ways to approach some questions that run throughout this work: Can the occurrence of immanent processes in the exchange between the performance and its audience be ascribed specific values? If so, what kind of values are they and how can they be described? Are different values to be gained, depending on the structure of the performance and how the immanent process evolves? Can theater performances that lack the possibility to create an immanent process in the exchange between the performance and its audience, be given a general value, and those performances that do encourage it, be given another? Should performances with a multilayered structure that build on superimpositions, be given a higher value, for that reason alone? Can a performance, where immanence occurs in the exchange between performance and audience, thereby enabling an experience of becoming, be described as more ethical?

In the process of creating a critical dialogue pertaining to the questions that the project revolves around, an institute called The Institute for Unpredictable Processes was formed.4 This institute has over time conducted a number of interviews with me, and five of those are included in the dissertation. The questions taken up in these interviews emanate from the engagement and involvement with a large number of colleagues and the themes and aspects that transpire sometimes go into areas that are not treated elsewhere. The interviews are placed in conjunction with the themes reflected on in the texts surrounding them and should be seen as critical expansions, but in a different mode.


Processing process – Analytical perspectives

The performances encapsulate and cause processes of differing nature. This is clear and significant. Processes of creation, processes of preparation, processes of thinking, of self-organizing, processes of collaboration, processes of perception, processes of creating meaning, of problematizing, processes of interaction and of relations unfolding, processes of co-composing, and processes of becoming. Some of these processes are more solid since they include human relations, others more concealed, evolving in an inner world. Some of them belong to the creative situation and some to a perception process, and they are reciprocal. Even more important, in regards to in which dynamic milieu these processes unfold, is that some are consciously enhanced and exposed as an expressive part of the performance. Consequently, the analytical perspectives are not chosen solely for their coherency when problematizing and untangling all these different types of processes, but also because they are rooted in and affirmative of a process ontology. This is a term that cannot be disconnected from the philosophical discourse of process philosophy (the two terms occur interchangeably in the reasoning, but there is a point to staying with the former as it ties the reasoning, more concretely, to the corporeality of the performances). And as process philosophy, in different ways, influences the thinking of my main theoretical references - Gilles Deleuze, Brian Massumi, Rosi Braidotti – it is reasonable to say that it is a broadened definition of process philosophy that will be used in the investigation. The choice of analytical perspective is, more or less entirely, influenced and inspired by the nature of the material and the structures of the concepts that were used when creating the performances. This correlation is multilayered, but it can simply be said that the analytical perspective is chosen because it is confirmative and – more importantly – thoroughly critically aware of an esthetic that places processes as the main objective for both creation and perception.


I move

I move into the research exploration as a theater director, which means that the study has its roots both in collective creative work, as well as in those very personal energies, experiences, and convictions that constitute the incentive for creating what I do. These two strands are parallel but represent quite different impetuses. In the collective creative processes, sharing and collaborative building is central, and it has a rather concrete quality. Space, time, social dynamics and dialogue, and practicalities of all kinds influence such a process. It is the type of creative work that oftentimes needs a pragmatic approach. And that approach hovers, at least to a certain degree, over this critical undertaking as it aims to problematize rather expansive questions from a limited material. The personal aspect, on the other hand, infuses something that is more elusive and yet quite stern. Let me see if I can make this clear. As I have my roots in the tactile and sensual experiences of music making, there is an inclination to assign experiential importance to that which exists outside language, to the abstract power of rhythm, and sound and embodied relations. That level is elusive, it is sensual, but it underlies my esthetics, as well as my reasoning. It is the transparent texture that I hope can, to some degree, fill the gaps of language.


Further research

The above is, as said, a very brief introduction to the project and a deeper understanding of The Rhythm of Thinking: Immanence and Ethics in Theater Performance, can probably only be gained by engaging in the full presentation as a multimedia platform. However, this project is the base from which continued research will take off into a project with the working title The Polyvalence of Applied Esthetics. The methodology of that project is quite similar as the research investigation and the critical extrapolations are processed through my artistic practice as a theater director. It includes both laboratory performance work, and extensive critical analysis drawn from confronting the practical work with specific philosophical and theoretical references. The research is grounded in a series of questions that intends to explore the communicative potential of expressive material in time-based art. More specifically, how the experience of the expressive material changes depending on its compositional and dramaturgical handling. In this project, that is mainly about the relationship between the constitution of the specific expressive material and its treatment/disposition through time (material-duration) and rhythm (compositional relations). However, this investigative focus is honed down through the question whether the perceptive situation/experience, as an outcome of the compositional measures, can be analyzed, described and discussed in terms of values that exist outside the demarcation of the artwork, i.e. on an ontological level. Central to that critical treatment is the concept of ethics. Is it possible, and if so how, to allocate a political and ethical urgency to the aspects of duration and rhythm in relation to the expressive material? What type of relations (human) does the compositional structure sustain – and how can they be talked about as an ethics?

This outline implicates a focus on perceptive processes, but the research also poses the question whether an awareness of ethics can be talked about in the framework of performer sensitivity. Can the performative handling of expressive material be infused with – and guided by – an awareness of how different (instant) compositional measures can be valued in terms of ethics and transformative relations? And if so, what are the concepts, or notions, central to such a performer-awareness?

The research in the project The Polyvalence of Applied Esthetics operates on two simultaneously active levels. One is constituted by the theoretical extrapolations produced by the merging of compositional theory with an extended definition of process philosophy. The other level is constituted by a directorial and collaborative process, in which both the tactile creative practice – as well as its presentational formats – is permeated by the theories developed on the first level. The relation between the artwork – the collective creative process with the performances and their presentations – and the critical exploration is however not of an immediate analytical type. Which means that the methodology of the research is not built around the idea that the performance, and the process of creating it, should produce, or function as, evidence of sorts. That is not how it will be treated. Rather, the relation is thought of as emerging on a sublevel: What is put to test is if a possible ethical “impact” of the expression can/will ensue through an increased insight, understanding, and sensitivity to the relation between structural specifics and not through detailed compositional measures. The effacing of an immediate analytical relation between the practice and the reflections, combined with a use of references of a philosophical type in the critical/analytical exploration, presumes that the research evolves in a speculative mode. The research will emphasize, and argue, that this speculative mode is concurrent with its critical and analytical perspective.

The Rhythm of Thinking: Immanence and Ethics in Theater Performance Published by ArtMonitor, University of Gothenburg, © Johan Petri 2016 ISBN 978-91-982423-0-0 (printed edition) ISBN: 978-91-982423-1-7 (digital edition)

The book version can be bought through: Adlibris

The full multimedia presentation can be reached at:

1 To locate the references mentioned in the below text I want to refer to the list of references in full presentation of the dissertation.

2 The term “theater of immanence” comes from the book Theatres of Immanence (2012) by Laura Cull, a reference used quite extensively.

3 Thorough composition is a musical term descriptive of a compositional structure in which the material is precisely defined and set (all relations between the parameters), organized, and brought to consolidation according to internal, autonomous premises. The term will be used at some points in this reasoning as contrary to an immanent “logic.”

4 The Institute for Unpredictable Processes was founded in San Francisco, USA, in 2013. The institute is a center for art and research exploring collective and individual artistic processes where improvisation and indeterminacy are major factors, and it is organized around shorter or longer projects in which different artists and researchers participate. The institute is devoted to promote, publish and present art and research that examines the circumstances and conditions specific to processes where varied types of unpredictability are in play. The work of the institute is guided by the idea that the investigation into these processes can enhance the readiness to include unpredictable factors in processes outside the discrete realm of art making, and by doing so allow for more freedom of thought among people.