Between Box and Body: On a Dance Improvisation with Machteld Rullens’s Cardboard Box Sculptures / Meindert Peters

Meindert Peters, Improvisation with box. Photo courtesy of Machteld Rullens.

In one of the vignettes of the supplementary list (1928-1934) to his One-Way Street (1928), Walter Benjamin discusses Trotsky’s description of his father at work in the field. Trotsky emphasizes the man’s seemingly insecure ‘probing steps’ in an otherwise flawless execution of the task.1  For Benjamin, this is true expertise at work:

There we have the way of the experienced, who has learned to start anew with every day, with every swing of the scythe. He does not stop at what has been accomplished, indeed, what has been accomplished evaporates under his hands and becomes unnoticeable. Only such hands can cope with the most difficult with ease, because they are careful with the easiest. “Ne jamais profiter de l’élan acquis,” said Gide.2

One of the most important questions in today’s ever-changing societies is precisely how we can stay receptive and responsive to our ever-changing environments in the way Trotsky’s father seems to have been to his crop. Social-cultural changes, through technology, emigration, and changing cultural landscapes, as well as the large environmental changes that are coming our way, ask us not merely to adapt to new circumstance but to stay open to learning new ways of engaging. Such an attitude of openness, of one who, in Benjamin’s description, ‘has learned to start anew with everyday’, is what I set out to investigate further in a dance project with the sculptures, or 3D paintings, of Dutch visual artist Machteld Rullens.3

As a former professional dancer, I was interested in exploring what happens when we approach unfamiliar objects like Rullens’ sculptures. In dance, we often improvise with objects, that is explore, try out, test, in the moment, new movements with and around an object, as opposed to performing an already thought-out choreography. We , try to find new ways of molding our bodies to familiar objects. How many ways are there to ‘sit’ on a chair? Working with Rullens’ work, however, added the aspect of the unfamiliar. Her work uses mundane objects, cardboard boxes, but she paints, stiffens, and fixes them into sculptures. An overly familiar object becomes unfamiliar again. What happens, then, we wanted to ask, when we attempt to improvise with the not-yet habituated, with the unfamiliar? If much of our life is spend habitually opening doors, driving cars, and handling all kinds of other familiar objects with the least bit of thinking, how do we approach that which we haven’t yet incorporated into our daily choreographies? How do we test its affordances? And might this bring lessons, like Trotsky’s father did for Benjamin, about how we might engage more attentively to our fast-changing worlds? As the first part of an ongoing project, Rullens and I spent two days in a studio together, exploring these questions through movement with and around her work.

Box and Body

The cognitive sciences have the concept of ‘affordances’ (drawn from the ecological psychology of James J. Gibson), to investigate the ways in which our bodies shape our perception and understanding of objects. ‘Affordance’ describes the way in which animals understand their environment in terms of what they can perform in it (their abilities), that is to say, the possibilities for action given by a certain environment to a certain ‘form of life’. A chair, for humans, thus has (among many other affordances) the affordance of sitting on. Our ‘selective engagement’ with affordances is importantly normative (as Erik Rietveld and Julian Kiverstein have shown4); we learn over time that there is a ‘right’ way to sit on a chair. Creativity and play on the other hand allow us to discover new affordances. They are found through trying out possibilities for action and listening to the responses of the objects and our bodies in these interactions, as well as, normatively, to the responses of our social environments. When improvising with an object, then, the concept of affordances is useful to think about the relationship between body and environment and how we come to understand our possibilities for action in a given environment.

Cardboard boxes, the raw materials Rullens works with, are full of affordances. They allow for many different uses, from housing kittens to a cheap nightstand. One only has to look at the interaction of children with such boxes to see a whole new ecology of cardboard affordances. But what these boxes are usually produced and used for is the storage and transport of other objects. These days especially, our lives are filled with the cardboard boxes that online sellers bring their goods to us in. Previously, they were perhaps mostly associated with the practice of packing up one’s belongings and unpacking them at the other end of a city, a country, or the world.

Whatever their larger horizons of use and the changes in them, they suggest and elicit human movement and practice: they are unfolded and put together, taped, closed, opened, closed again, opened again, filled with all sorts of items, they are torn up and discarded. Boxes are made for such movement and we are taught, over time and to the best of our abilities, to perform them. They imply, too, a normative body, of a certain height, strength, and with certain abilities.

Figure 2. Improvisation with box. Photo courtesy of Machteld Rullens.

Much of such movements and practices are upended in Rullens’ boxes. Some of her boxes are closed and some of them are in different states of openness, with flaps in different positions, but they are all hardened and fixed with resin and thus practically unalterable in the ways we are used to when opening and closing cardboard boxes. The implied movements of cardboard box affordances have been mostly bracketed, but they haven’t disappeared. Rullens’ boxes are still obviously boxes; much of what makes cardboard boxes useful to begin with, like shape and size, is still there. The audience knows, and perhaps even feels corporeally, the practices that the cardboard boxes once afforded but that are now upended. The ‘it’s just a cardboard box’ kind of commentary on contemporary art implies that the mundane character is still present to audiences. Indeed, as Rullens noted, her boxes still strongly imply a body, namely hers. The boxes have a size that can be handled easily by her.  If boxes in general are already made for certain normative bodies, rarely too large for one or maybe two people with such bodies to carry, in Rullens’ world they have to be handleable too. There are restrictions placed on the selection of the box and its alterations based on what Rullens can perform by herself (a whole other set of questions arises when we think of the kind of material limitations that are put on such works through limitations of storage and studio space and by costs of materials). The boxes now afford very different things too: they are heavier and steadier suggesting the possibility of new affordances and thus movements. They suggest a re-acquaintance, but one the audience can only perform through seeing, not through touch or any other sense. Part of my improvisation with the box was exactly finding out, with the whole of my body, what these new affordances precisely may be. A dance improvisation with an object exactly consists of exploring what happens when one physically encounters it, what movements the interaction affords.

Rullens’ boxes are not merely hardened and fixed, they are also presented as art, usually hung on a wall in a white gallery, which suggests in turn its own set of affordances. Our cultural understanding of what art is, means that while the ordinary movements suggested by cardboard boxes are latent in the work, one is first of all approaching her work as a work of art, that is, with a certain, culturally ingrained, respect. And that respect usually brackets movement and touch so inherent to our usual engagement with boxes. Rullens’ boxes are here thus a double vision of affordances; those practices they no longer allow as boxes and those that they now elicit as works of art. When improvising with the boxes in Rullens’ studio, it took me surprisingly long to get over that feeling of respect for her work.

Figure 3. Box as shelter. Photo courtesy of Machteld Rullens.

Close Reading

So, what happened in my physical encounter with Rullens’ box? I used careful steps, walking around it first, watching it carefully. I tried out little movements: feeling carefully what happened when I pulled on one of its sides. How heavy was it? How much strength did I need to move it? Where was the box’s center of gravity? Could I balance it on one of its edges? I tried out my grip. I lifted it up, tried to balance it on different parts of my body and tried different simple movements with it. All the time paying attention to the information that was coming from both the box and from my body, or perhaps better, about the box through my body. If the box starts to yield when I lie on top of it, it is through the shifting of my weight that I notice this (although sound, the sense of hearing, also plays an important role.) One comes with expectations about how the box might react; I thought it would be much heavier than it was, for example. Your body adjusts quickly to the information that is coming in through sight and especially touch. You approach it slowly. You can take a very different approach, of course, rougher, more dominating, and we did that too at later stages, but that means a yielding of the box to my pressure. But if you want to get to know all the different things you can do with the work, you have to do it in this slow, sensitive way. You start to think about how your body relates to the box. Can I wrap my arms all the way around? Can I place my chin on top of the box; perhaps if I tiptoe? You measure it with your body. And such corporeal measuring tells us more about the objects of our daily lives than their sizes in centimeters. It is no surprise that parts of the world measure in feet. This is what Martin Heidegger was getting at when he was exploring know-how, the ‘ready-to-hand’, as a more primal form of knowledge of the world than the knowledge of ‘objective’ properties (such as their weight in kilograms or length in centimeters). The way in which we use an object, he argues, may say more about it than its objective measurements.5 But it is in the ‘probing steps’, I argue, that we fine-tune our corporeal knowledge.

Figure 4. Improvisation with Blue Tower (Box). Photo courtesy of Machteld Rullens.

Sculpture is not just an object but also an intervention in space. A sculpture is also the negative space it creates and the relation that is created to the bodies that engage with it. That is to say, I was not only trying to figure out what I as a body could physically perform with Rullens’ work but also how my body related to it when I wasn’t ‘using’ it, when I wasn’t directly attentive to it. I was also exploring the spaces that are created by the object in the room and how my body related to those spaces. It was also what first attracted me in thinking about Rullens’ work. My first encounter was with her work hanging on the wall, almost two-dimensional. But that also created a clear and interesting gap between box and floor. And I was immediately attracted to Blue Tower (Box), especially, as in the image I saw of it, it was too high for the ceiling and was standing at an angle against the wall creating an interesting triangular space which looked like a shelter (again that immediate thought of the affordance, of the box as shelter [see also figure 3]). That is all to say that the improvisation that was happening was situated, too, beyond body and object. The practice that emerged was necessarily specific, not only to the relation between box and body, but also to the larger circumstance.

A crucial element of this care was a heightened self-awareness, one that perhaps comes more natural to dancers, but can be found in everyday life too. In improvising, I wasn’t merely exploring movement with an object in a space, but also creating a piece at the same time. That is to say that I was also attentive to my body in this context as an image. I was not only dancing with a box but also thinking about how we looked, careful of the images I was creating with it. I understood that when I was standing next to the box which was standing upright, and which had a similar shape as me, that I was creating a certain image (best described as the twin towers, perhaps), and I also ‘knew’ that if I lay on the floor with my feet to the upright box that I was making myself into a kind of shadow of the box (see figure 6). And the same, I think, is true for our everyday lives, in which we care not only for what we do and get done but also about how we do it, how things may look from the outside.

Figure 5. Improvisation with box. Photo courtesy of Machteld Rullens.

Choreography and Improvisation

It is this careful attitude, responsive to the object and the context that I automatically took on, which not only seems to stand in contrast to habitual use, but also seems to work, as Benjamin shows in his image of Trotsky’s father, with, or on top of, habitual use. Care does not necessarily suggest a complete bracketing of the habitual movements of, in this case, using a box, in favor of careful steps of exploration and discovery; care can be added to habit, as when the experienced person treats every situation nevertheless as new. It is this ‘care’, I believe, which is elicited by art more generally. It asks us to not necessarily bracket habits and do things radically different, but be more sensitive to the details of the world with which and in which we move. It asks us to look harder, to feel harder. It elicits closer readings, probing steps, not just of the art itself but also of the wider world it addresses.

In dance, the difference between choreography and improvisation may illuminate this relation between habit and care further. Once we get into the space of performance, the object can also become a prop, a canvas for projection. If my probing steps allowed me to test the object, to find out what it was and what could be done with it, there are also more forceful approaches. Rullens suggested that I would try to do a duet with the box, one that I had choreographed years earlier for two dancers. I tried to perform that with the box and, unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. What was surprising, though, was my feeling of frustration with the fact that the box just would not conform in the slightest to the image of the partner I was projecting onto it. The box became recalcitrant. I realized that this choreography marked the very opposite of the probing steps; that, like a dominating parent, I was projecting something onto the box rather than testing what it might be able to do. That is to say, I came with a pre-choreographed practice and tried to put that on the box, ignoring what the box ‘was saying’. That is all to say that I think art can be handled habitually, as we often treat the world, with the force of a pre-established, rehearsed choreography. But art also asks us exactly not to do that. It tries to make us more sensitive to its own complex details as well as the details of the world around us. It is that tension between the everyday and art which is at play in Rullens’ boxes. Ultimately, then, this improvisation with Rullens’ work brought into relief something essential about art more generally, that in contrast to what is often said about it in the last century: it doesn’t necessarily make us reflect, but sensitizes us to details, asks us to slow down, to perform probing steps, and to adjust a little to this new knowledge. It is that care, it seems to me, that also allows us, like Trotsky’s father who is ready for the minutest changes in his field, to be more responsive to the large social and material changes occurring in the world.

Figure 6. Shadow improvisation. Photo courtesy of Machteld Rullens.

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  1. Quoted in Walter Benjamin, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. by Christoph Gödde and Henri Lonitz, vol. 8, Einbahnstraβe, ed. by Detlev Schöttker and Steffen Haug (Fankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2009), 90. My translation.
  2. Ibid. My translation.
  3. The working title of this ongoing project is ‘werkwoorden’. Rullens’ solo exhibition entitled ‘Container’ was on display at Gallery Martin van Zomeren in Amsterdam until 4 December.
  4. See Erik Rietveld and Julian Kiverstein, ‘A Rich Landscape of Affordances,’ Ecological Psychology 26, no. 4 (2014), 330ff.
  5. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962), § 15.