PhD proposal

Practice based MPhil/ PhD proposal

Fine Art Research Department, Goldsmiths

December 2016


Site Writing the MegaChurch: Orientations and Assemblages

Kate Pickering

 

Lakewood Church, Texas

Lakewood Church, Texas

 

Abstract

Taking as its starting point an understanding of ‘faith’ as socially constructed, the research explores how faith is materially constructed through site and body, focussing on the phenomenon of the Evangelical MegaChurch in the UK and the US. MegaChurch worship services are visually spectacular, amassing thousands of worshippers on banks of bleachers within stadium sized venues. Theatrical lighting and vast projection screens multiply the presence and forcefulness of charismatic preachers, cultivating faith through a message of certainty: experienced as a bodily orientation. Yet, conversely, the very embodiment which is implicated in the call to faith is repressed within Church culture, which locates value in the transcendent, reinforcing binaries of mind over body, interior experience over exterior action, transcendent immateriality over immanent materiality. This paradox and its effects forms the focus of research.

Developing a method of non-linear site writing, a readerly experience of disorientation is utilized to research how an assemblage of body, architectural site and screen space orients religious faith. Practically, research will draw on literary and affect theory to create a new body of site writing works, both audio visual and printed, within the MegaChurch. Embodied faith will be explored through plot (the collapse of the building), non-linearity (screen based disorientation applied to writing) and participatory reader response. Theoretically, a thesis in three parts locates the practice within the field of site writing through ‘critical assemblages’: a spatial method of art writing, informed by Donna Haraway’s concept of ‘situated knowledge’ and Jane Bennett’s articulation of ‘subject-object assemblages’. This will be applied to three artworks that exemplify grounding (Maria Fusco’s Master Rock 2015), ungrounding (Katrina Palmer’s End Matter 2015) and regrounding (Bedwyr Williams’ The Starry Messenger 2013).

 

Introduction

Taking as its starting point an understanding of ‘faith’ as socially constructed, the research explores how faith is also materially constructed through site and body, focussing on the phenomenon of the Evangelical MegaChurch in the UK and the US. MegaChurch worship services are visually spectacular, amassing thousands of worshippers on banks of bleachers within stadium sized venues. Theatrical lighting and vast projection screens multiply the presence and forcefulness of charismatic preachers, cultivating faith through a message of certainty: experienced as a bodily orientation. Yet, conversely, the very embodiment which is implicated in the call to faith is repressed within Church culture, which locates value in the transcendent, reinforcing binaries of mind over body, interior experience over exterior action, transcendent immateriality over immanent materiality. This paradox and its effects forms the focus of research.

Developing a method of non-linear site writing alongside a spatial form of critical writing informed by Donna Haraway’s concept of ‘situated knowledge’ and Jane Bennett’s articulation of ‘subject-object assemblages’ entitled ‘critical assemblages’, I will evoke the embodied conditions of the MegaChurch, and examine its social and political dimensions. In doing so, I aim to cultivate a sense of dis/orientation in the reader that mimics the materialisation of faith as well as the embodied repercussion of its loss. In this way, a readerly experience of disorientation is utilized as a method to research how an assemblage of body, architectural site and screen space orients religious faith.

This project considers orientation within this context as embodied through believers’ adoption of a narrative of faith. Disorientation is a state of confusion brought on by the loss of a stable horizon against which a subject may correctly locate them-self in space. Hito Steyerl, describing the effects of falling, writes: ‘Pilots have even reported that free fall can trigger a feeling of confusion between the self and the aircraft. While falling, people may sense themselves as being things, while things may sense that they are people’ (2011: 1). The disorientation of falling may blur the perceived distinction between subjects and objects. Applying this to my art writing practice, I propose that: if linear narrative functions as a stable horizon, disorienting non-linear narrative creates the possibility of a perceived mergence with objects conjured by the narrative, allowing the reader to perceive themselves as both embodied and embedded within an agentic site and context, and recognize the materiality inherent in faith.

 

Research background and questions

Building on the idea that object based fictions provide conditions in which a future subject might emerge (O’Sullivan; Avanessian), the research asks how do fiction, reader and site relate through the following questions: how might narrative non-linearity combine with the immersive site-specific reading environment of the MegaChurch to disorient/ reorient the reader? How might disorientation disrupt the current verticality (in both its’ hierarchical social structure and its spatial construction of stadium worship) of the MegaChurch by introducing a horizontal/ flattened ontological plane through writing, which foregrounds site, screen, and embodied affects as central to belief?

 The research contributes to a context in which artists use experimental writing to explore the materiality of subject-object relations within the expanded field of contemporary art. New Materialism is a recent category of theories which refuse reductive dualisms and emphasise our embodied selves are part of a dynamic network of relations with matter. As a reaction to the linguistic and cultural turns of postmodernity, the revived transdisciplinary interest in materialism and realism and concurrent discourse around post-humanism has had a wide impact on contemporary art. Bringing Jane Rendell’s concept of site writing together with recent works by art writers Katrina Palmer, Maria Fusco and Bedwyr Williams, my research, informed by New Materialist and literary theories, extends art writing into a context that specifically resists recognition of embodied materiality. The project also utilises disorientation as a mode of embodied thought. Additionally, it brings religious materiality to the fore within the secular and sceptical worlds of contemporary art and academia, where religion continues to be viewed as an embarrassing irrelevance, an awkward hangover from an irrational past. Despite the global social and political significance of religious extremism, evidenced for example in the white Evangelical vote in the US, religious material culture lacks ‘ ..serious empirical, let alone theoretical interest..’ (Meyer & Houtman, 2012:1).

 My art writing practice, nationally and internationally exhibited and published, will be developed through the project. Previous writing has drawn on Evangelical Christianity to create affective narrative trajectories for the reader in exploring the materiality and agency of religious and corporate buildings. My arts project management experience in founding and running Peer Sessions, an Arts Council-funded critique group for professional artists, will be applied to the project. I have previous experience of facilitating participatory writing and discussion workshops, and am trained in the Visual Thinking Strategies method, which parallels the participatory methodologies to be adopted.

 The proposed research outcomes are:

·       A new body of site writing works, both audio visual and printed, which evoke disorientation within the MegaChurch as a method of exploring embodied faith, developed through firstly, reader response and secondly, interdisciplinary workshops focusing on New Materialism and fiction, held with theorists, creative writers and artists within Goldsmiths and CHASE institutions.

·       A thesis of scholarly writing which locates the practice within the field of site writing, applying ‘critical assemblages’: a spatial method of art writing, to three artworks that exemplify grounding, ungrounding and regrounding.

 

Research Methods

Through participating in the life of a UK MegaChurch, I will combine auto-ethnographic research methods and literary reader response through experimental participatory writing workshops on site. Ethical implications of research (recognising my own bias as a long term Evangelical Church member) will be considered. Site writing will draw on narratology (Bal; Genette) and adopt the visual language of the MegaChurch through immersive screen-based written narratives. Subject-object disorientation will be created and analysed through plot, non-linearity and reader response:

·       Plot: Writing in the second person, the reader is directly addressed and written into a narrative in which a disorienting collapse engenders a fusion of the screen space on which the reader reads, the MegaChurch projection screen (a significant actant in materializing faith), and a transformation of the MegaChurch, merging organic and inorganic, through the falling body of the reader and the collapsing body of the building.

·       Narrative non-linearity and affect: ruptures, layers or branching will occur at specific points both textually and visually through the sensory stimulation of audio and screen-based imagery. For example, can the de-spatialisation of screen based affects such as the zoom function on google maps, or layering of browser windows, be combined with or transposed into site writing? Non-linearity will be linked phenomenologically to affect (a bodily experience or reaction, both interior and immediate). I will consider how affect might impact on our relationship to objects and the formation of rational thinking and ideology (Massumi; Leys). This will be extended into a consideration of how the non-linearity of affect might enable a change in perception of objects conjured by the text (Connolly).

·       Reader response: I will convene groups of Evangelicals and post-Evangelicals to read/ write whilst immersed in the reading environment. Experiential (Rosenblatt; Bleich) and social strands (Fish) of literary Reader Response methodologies, whereby reading is always both subjective and objective, are applied to consider reader and text as part of an assemblage and evaluate the impact of disorientation.

 

Schedule of work

Year 1: Grounding

Beginning with Sara Ahmed’s ‘Orientations Matter’ (2010), ‘Grounding’ will consider how spatial orientation and context makes thinking bodies and bodies of thought. I will develop ‘critical assemblages’, a spatial method of writing, informed by feminist theorists Haraway’s ‘Situated Knowledges’ (1988) and Bennett’s concept of assemblages (2010) to write through the actants within Maria Fusco’s site-specific audio work Master Rock (2015). Bennett theorises assemblages as uneven but agentic groupings of elements which modify and are modified by each other (2010: 22). Critical assemblages will enable an analysis of how Fusco, working with site, body and voice, thinks through the vantage points of historical labouring bodies in relation to a resistant and agentic ground. This will extend into a consideration of MegaChurch vantage points: where the believer is situated within the verticality and hierarchy of worship. Haraway writes: ‘There is good reason to believe vision is better from below the brilliant space platforms of the powerful.’ (1988: 583)

Year 2: Ungrounding

‘Ungrounding’ will develop the concept of disorientation as a means to perceive becoming-with-context by applying ‘critical assemblages’ to the shifting ground of the Isle of Portland in Katrina Palmer’s End Matter (2015). Site, audio narrative and body coalesce in an assemblage that produces a violent subject-object mergence. These elements produce a means to think through the instability of a literal, historical and narrative ground. Within the MegaChurch context, research will consider potential strategies of uneven non-linear moments through the loss of authority in communicative buffering, stuttering and stalling to effect moments of disorientation.

Year 3: Regrounding

‘Regrounding’ will constitute a consideration of the socio-political potential of art writing in speculative ‘alter worlding’, how embedded and embodied thought: ‘…becomes a very material process, a performative process of the world, a form of worlding itself.’ (Asberg; Thiele; Van Der Tuin, 2015: 152) I will analyse how site, image and audio in Bedwyr William’s images of bodies merging with mosaic pieces and pebbles in the narrated video work The Starry Messenger (2013), assembles a non-anthropocentric image of body as contingent on matter. In anthropomorphising the MegaChurch building, my practice will point to the contingency of believers’ participation and complicity in its’ culture, specifically the problematic adoption of capitalist ideology through running for profit and propagation of the ‘prosperity gospel’ (Ellingson; Lee & Sinitiere). The research considers how the practice might reground the reader away from the seemingly coherent and inevitable systems and totalizing ideologies of growth at any cost within both Capitalism (Fisher, Toscano & Kinkle et al) and Evangelicalism, to differentiated and contingent bodies which retain collective potential.

This project contributes to site specific writing within contemporary art through adding disorienting fictions to the assemblage of the MegaChurch, and through ‘critical assemblages’: a spatial form of critique. A blurring of object/ subject boundaries seeks to reorient the believer from a spectacular verticality to a situated knowledge of how bodies and beliefs are produced within the mega populated and mediated church.

 

Selected bibliography

Alaimo, S ‘Thinking as the Stuff of the World’ O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies, Vol 1: 1 2014

Asberg, C, Thiele, K & Van Der Tuin, I ‘Speculative Before the Turn Reintroducing Feminist Materialist Performativity’ Cultural Studies Review Vol 21:2 2015

Avanessian, A ‘Speculative Poetics’ Realism Materialism Art 2015

Bal, M Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative 1985

Bennett, J Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things 2010

Bleich, D Readings and Feelings: An Introduction to Subjective Criticism 1975

Braidotti, R The Posthuman 2013

Coole, D & Frost, S (eds) New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics 2010

Crockett, C & Robbins, J Religion, Politics and the Earth: The New Materialism 2012

Dolphijn, R & Van Der Tuin, I New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies 2012

Ellingson, S The Megachurch and the Mainline: Remaking Religious Tradition in the Twenty-First Century 2008

Fish, S Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities 1981

Fisher, M Capitalist Realism 2009

Genette, G Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method 1980

Haraway, D ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial PerspectiveFeminist Studies, Vol. 14: 3 1988)

Houtman, D & Meyer, B (eds) Things: Religion & the Question of Materiality 2013

Kinkle, J & Toscano, A Cartographies of the Absolute 2015

Kreider, K Poetics and Place: The Architecture of Sign, Subjects and Site 2013

Lee, S & Phillip, S Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace 2009

Leys, R ‘The Turn to Affect’ 2011 [Online] http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/uploads/pdf/Leys,_Turn_to_Affect.pdf

Massumi, B ‘The Autonomy of Affect’ Cultural Critique No. 31 1995

O’Sullivan, S ‘Art Practice as Fictioning’ 2014 [Online] www.diakron.dk

Rendell, J Site Writing: The Architecture of Art Criticism 2010

Rieger, J & Waggoner, E (eds) Religious Experience and New Materialism 2016

Riley, D Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect 2005

Rosenblatt, L The reader, the text, the poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work 1978

Steyerl, H ‘In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective’ E-Flux 2014 [Online] http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-free-fall-a-thought-experiment-on-vertical-perspective/