michael j. morris


Dancing in the Making Room, or In A Rhythm That Excludes Thinking: Bebe Miller Company Work-In-Progress Showing
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photo by Lily Skove

I just returned to Columbus after spending a month in San Francisco at a yoga training. Tonight I saw a work-in-progress showing of a new project by Bebe Miller Company at the Wexner Center for the Arts. Previously advertised as Dancing In the Making Room, Miller informs us at the start of the performance that they are playing with a new title: In A Rhythm That Excludes Thought. I know it’s unrelated, but I immediately think of the second sutra of book one of the classical yogic philosophical text, The Yoga Sutras of PatanjaliYogas-citta-vrtti-nirodhah. “Yoga is the restriction [or cessation] of the fluctuations of thought.” What would it mean to move in a rhythm that excludes thinking? I think I’ve approached this kind of state in yoga and meditation and butoh; it is a sustained, slow-moving temporality. But knowing Miller’s work, I have a sense that any rhythm that excludes thinking here will not be limited to slowness or sustainment.

As I enter the space, the dancers are already on stage, warming up, having small conversations, running through short phrases of movement material. Miller comes in and out of the space, moving a cart that holds different wireless microphones and iPods, talking with the dancers, referring to a yellow stenographer’s pad. On stage is one rectangular panel of gray felt; just off stage left is a large roll of what looks to be white felt. As the piece begins (and I will also maintain the possibility that the piece began before I entered the space, before Miller said, “So, we’re starting now…”), two more gray felt panels are added. One dancer stands on one of the panels as small, nearly imperceptible facial movements flicker across their face. As other dancers enter, they move around the felt panels, and I notice that the presence of the felt introduces the possibility of them dancing “on” or “off” of them into my perceptual framework. As their movements carry them around these felt panels in eddies of weight shifts and gestures that pull them in a new direction, the question of whether or not they step on or around the felt only becomes a question because the felt is there. I can’t yet say whether or not this is important, but I am attuned to the fact that the introduction of these materials in relation to one another—the felt panels and the movement—introduces possibilities for how I might find them significant.

The movement is both familiar to me as some aspect of Miller’s “style,” and also works itself out rather differently on different bodies: small twists become bigger twists, sometimes tossing out a limb or sometimes folding over at the waist, breaking the twist from the middle. Reaching pulls bodies on and off balance, up and over center, back down into the ground. Legs step between wide, low stances and posing up on high relevé, teetering between steadiness and falling into stumbling. Big sweeps and flicks criss-cross bodies in opposition to other gestures, wringing bodies into loose and unpredictable torsion that might fling a hip or head in some new direction. A hand softly caressing the air might suddenly burst into a thrust or punch off balance or down further toward the ground. Tiny gestures abruptly blossom in scale and momentum unit they are propelling bodies through space, alongside or into one another. There’s an element of surprise to how these bodies move. I mean this for myself as a viewer, but I also have the distinct sense that these dancers are intentionally moving in ways that can surprise themselves. [This seems related to my understanding of what is described as “Risky Weight” in the Motion Bank analysis of Miller’s work, TWO.]

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Bebe Miller, Angie Hauser, and Darrell Jones, from Motion Bank TWO

Some time into the piece, Miller says from offstage, “Was that a restart?” In just a few words, I feel disoriented in my relationship to the work. Did the piece begin again? Did a section start over? What did she see that I did not see? Was that a planned question, intended to disorient how we view, or was it actually a question to the dancers? Could it be both? This is one of countless examples of ways in which interruption occurs throughout the dance: songs or sounds interrupting other songs or sounds, with hard cuts (no crossfades). Dancers cutting into duets being danced by other dancers. A unison phrase that disintegrates or frays into solos (is disintegration an interruption? I’m not sure).

Not long after, the six performers form a circle that shifts around the space as different individuals and sometimes pairs move into the center to dance. It reminds me of a hip-hop cypher, and I wonder how many other forms of dance and ritual employ this kind of structure. The circle doesn’t really hold, not entirely. It morphs, sometimes really clearly a circle of people surrounding a person dancing in the middle, sometimes becoming more like a clump of dancers moving as an ensemble. This shifting between circle—clump—circle—clump, this uncertainty or fluctuation between who is in and who is out, who’s at the center and who’s at the edges, feels characteristic of much of what I perceive in this dance.

The dance is full of duets, partnering and pairings, sometimes at close range and sometimes multiple bodies finding partial or near-total alignments with one another with distance between them. As soon as these couplings begin to emerge, I feel like I am faced with choices about how to perceive what I am watching: am I looking at a woman coupled with a man? Women partnering with women, men partnering with men? I teach a course called “Dancing Gender & Sexuality,” in which we examine the ways that dance participates in the constitution and circulation of genders and sexualities, in part through the staging of dances and the spectatorship of those stagings. How choreographers pair bodies of different, similar, or the same genders matters. At the same time, I believe that we as viewers also have responsibilities regarding how we interpret the bodies of others—onstage and offstage. If we recognize that gender identity—the gender with and as which a person identifies—is not necessarily visible or legible based on what we see, then I really only know the genders of the dancers I know personally or professionally. If I choose to interpret aggregates of physical features as indicative of gender, consciously or unconsciously, I am choosing to operate in compliance with certain social norms—social norms with which I actively struggle as a genderqueer/nonbinary person. And so in this writing, just as in my viewing of the dance, I am left to struggle with where and how to attribute gender to performers’ bodies. Throughout this dance, as well as throughout much of Miller’s oeuvre, people partner with other people, not regardless of gender, but in many different combinations of the genders we might attribute to the performers. To the extent that we acquiesce to see women and men on stage, partnering takes place between women and women, men and men, and women and men. I consider this to be a feature of Miller’s work, this democratic approach to gender—and race—when it comes to partnering.

There is a fraught kind of justice in actively suspending the visual attribution of gender when viewing a dance performance. There is also a fraught kind of justice in allowing gender to be a factor in determining the significance of particular moments, even if that performance or presentation of gender may not be identical to the gender identities of the performers: when I see two “Black men” dancing together to a hip-hop track as a group of “women” look on, one at close range, what I am seeing is something that is demonstrative of gender and race, while not necessarily telling me anything about the bodies who are performing this demonstration. This is messy, to be sure, because to ask these bodies to carry these signifiers of race and gender is to ask them to carry a kind of burden, a burden to which they do not necessarily submit; however, an alternative, the pretense of viewing a dance without viewing race or gender, a kind of “colorblind” viewing, does a kind of injustice as well, particularly when bodies differently gendered and racialized differently experience different degrees of mobility and exposure to violence in our country and world. And so the viewing, as well as the writing following the viewing, is full of this tension, this struggle.

At some point in the performance, one of the dancers enters with a notebook computer, and from the computer plays an interview with Toni Morrison and Charlie Rose. Morrison describes her own writing, that she does not write from these categories (of gender, of race), that she doesn’t presume to speak for anyone or represent any group, but rather, she writes in order to deal with the things that trouble her philosophically; her work is where she works it out. This is Morrison speaking about her own work, but having it embedded into Miller’s work at least asks me to consider the position from which Miller is approaching these same issues. Can one know that an audience will see race and gender on stage, and can one take responsibility for what one is showing them, while also not choreographing “from these categories,” without speaking for or representing any particular group of people?

A rhythm that excludes thinking.
I just keep thinking. Thinking during dancing, thinking during writing.
I’m trying to think through this performance, think with this dance. That’s part of how I make my life with dances, thinking with them.
What if I try to not think the dance.
What if I feel my way through the dance. I can’t describe every detail, and what would be the point of trying? What does this dance feel like? Is feeling an alternative to thinking? (I know this is a false dichotomy, but as an exercise, what does feeling about the dance turn my attention towards?)

This dance is playful, unattached, in the sense of letting things begin and then letting them go, letting them become something else. There’s an utter lack of certainty (which is not the same as a lack of clarity) throughout, not only in the structure or organization of the space, but in even the smallest gestures, the never-quite-ness of shifts of weight and establishing connections between bodies and body parts, the big movements that pour bodies rapidly from one place to another. Never certain but nonetheless deliberate; intentional with no promise of permanence. That’s what this dance feels like, very much an ensemble feeling their way together through this intentionality and deliberateness that is fervently and playfully committed to uncertainty, impermanence, and non-attachment. And it’s not just in the service of relentless innovation; there’s plenty of going back, of returning to something we saw before, or letting something become something else only to go back to what it was. If the question is constantly, “What else could this become?” then slipping back to somewhere we’ve been before is an option as well, as long as this also remains active and dynamic.

At the end of the piece, Bebe walks around the stage speaking. I retain fragments and phrases of what she says:
“…how do we live there…so much of what we’re doing is trying to figure out what’s important…what is the meaning of this…what are we trying to say, and how…so elusive”
“it’s lightening the burden…it’s not avoiding all that happening in the world, the horror…”
“…demonstrating the music…am I demonstrating—could I be perceived as demonstrating, that’s part of this too…”
“I’m going to stop this.”

And then it was over and we transitioned into the talkback.
At the end, as Miller described “demonstrating the music,” I was struck by how little I thought about the music at all. This is an aesthetic bias to some degree; I hardly use music in my choreography, and in one kind of postmodern American approach to dance (not the only kind), I see music and dance as detachable from one another. I’m also suspicious of this. Is there something about whiteness in the fact that I hardly remember the music, that I can detach movement from music so easily in my spectatorship?

As I settle into my night, I’m thinking about how this dance/dancing lives within our world today, our troubles and joys, our political unrest and injustice, our changing climates, our pursuit of ethical coexistence, and all the questions with which we move through our daily lives. What this dance offers me is this complex mode of taking deliberate and intentional action, together, and doing so playfully, without attachment to permanence, doing so lightly, even when the actions themselves might be full of strength. I am reminded of another Yoga Sutra, sutra 1:12: Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah. “The fluctuations of the mind are restrained (or quieted) through dedicated practice and non-attachment.” Perhaps deliberate, intentional action that is done playfully, without attachment, is a rhythm that excludes thinking after all.



From One
2 December, 2016, 1:20 pm
Filed under: Dance | Tags: , , , , ,

Last night was the opening of a three-day run for From One, a production featuring the work of OSU Dance BFA students Lilianna Kane and Charlotte Stickles and MFA student Joshua Manculich. Presented at the OSU Urban Arts Space in downtown Columbus, the show consists of a series of solos stationed in different portions of the gallery.

So much about this show was richly rewarding to witness, and I wish that the demands of academic faculty life allowed me the time today to really trace out the contours of each of the works presented. Instead, I want to offer brief thoughts, responses, and reactions to each of the projects, participating in the aesthetic dialogue that each of these artists initiated.

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Charlotte Stickles in Paradise Park, photo by Norah Zuniga Shaw

The first piece I saw was a durational performance by Charlotte Stickles entitled Paradise Park. In the south gallery, a large, astroturf (or some other form of artificial grass) rectangle was situated in the middle of the floor, flanked on either side by gallery walls bearing video projections of clouds, water, tree bark, and greenery. The lighting in the gallery was dim and very, very green. Stickles was reclining on the astroturf, legs extending, twisting from the waist, gaze extending beyond the horizons of the synthetic field. At either end of the gallery space were posters with what seemed to be handwritten questions like, “What is natural?” and “What is natural in this room?” There were pads of post-it notes and pencils with directions to write answers to these questions and post them anywhere in the room. Already there were trails and clusters of post-its around walls and floor of the space. I found the questions almost rhetorical with all that Stickles had given us: the electric strips of green LED light, the artificial turf, the video projections, her own body. Nature or natural here is what looked like something we think of as nature or natural, a facsimile, a projection, a set of associations. I appreciated the interactive element, and as I read through the different responses posted on the walls and floor, I appreciated the disparity between the thoughts people had offered. As more and more post-its appeared, it became increasingly demonstrated that “natural” is dissonant, a series of disagreements and conflicting or diverging views, a matter of perspective. It is not a stable signifier or referent. I kept thinking about Donna Haraway’s useful introduction of the term “natureculture” or “naturalcultural,” which signals that anything we call “nature” is designated as such by a series of cultural, discursive productions, made into nature, usually as a strategy to support particular cultural values and formations. I wish I had spent more time with Stickles’ actual movement vocabulary; the multiple dimensions of the space she had fabricated occupied my attention.
I moved away thinking:
I wonder if her clothes are synthetic as well—polyester or some of petroleum-based textile.
Situating her body more-or-less at the center of this installation, I kept thinking about the project of “the human,” anthropocentrism, human exceptionalism, the ways in which our species relentlessly positions ourselves as the center of a world that we build up around us, designating some parts to be “natural” and other parts “unnatural” as ways of validating our ideological investments.
This installation of so much synthetic nature read like a provocation to ask: how much is the very concept of nature a fabrication, artificial, something we install and put into relation with other materials in order to affirm a particular kind of world, and are our bodies a part of that critique?
Was Stickles’ body, there on the floor at the center of this installation, also an “unnatural nature”? And was there some part of the performance that introduced this question—the body itself a sedimentation of so many cultural signs, arbitrary categories, organ-ized territories, just like the square of turf on the gallery floor?

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Portraits of the dancers in Monologues choreographed by Joshua Manculich. Photography by Spencer Lookabaugh. Photo of installation by Joshua Manculich.

Next in the show was Monologues, a series of six solos choreographed by Johsua Manculich and performed by Victoria Alesi, Tommy Bachelor, Callie Lacinski, Kat Sprudzs, Tadas Varaneckas, and Erin Yen. For me, the dancers themselves were the real stars of this project, in both their performances and in their large black and white portraits hanging on the gallery wall alongside the performance space in the central gallery. The solos were surrounded by seated and standing viewers on four sides, our bodies and gaze framing the dancers like the frames of their hanging portraits. These dancers are profoundly articulate technicians; their capacity to rapidly shift dynamic states—from frenzied agitation to spectacularly precarious balances, from weighted and sustained subtlety to explosive momentum blasting through the space—demonstrated considerable virtuosity at an intimate scale. Sometimes they made eye contact, but mostly they danced really hard and fast sometimes only feet or inches away from the audience, and it created the effect of almost desperate bids to be seen, to be felt. Each solo had a precise structural relationship to the music accompanying the dancing, and while there were some distinctions and different tendencies in the vocabulary and style of each solo, there was a pervasive quality that permeated all six of the dances: rapidity that zigzags unsettled through mostly adjacent body parts, like ungrounded electricity firing the jolting contractions of muscles, that then finds a channel or pathways into a breathtakingly fluid turn or a bolt into some nearly impossible balance. The moments that broke from this familiar style—when a gesture was repeatedly several times or when a dancer took multiple measures of the music to adjust her hair into a ponytail or her costume—were the moments I saw more individuality between these performers. This was a central tension for me as a watched: to what extent were these portraits of six individual dancers and to what extent were these six bodies trained to “speak” with one voice? The title of the piece was Monologues, but to what extent was this a single monologue, a “speaking alone” through six bodies?
I left the piece with questions, mainly about the music that accompanied each solo. How were these pieces selected? What relevance did they have to the performer or the choreographer? How did they sit alongside one another, and what did they do with these articulately virtuosic bodies beyond provide structure for their movements? Was the movement in any way in dialogue with the content or contexts of these pieces of sound?
In this series of sound related questions, there is one in particular which continues to linger with me the day after: the sound for what I believe was the third solo, danced by Tadas Varaneckas, was a spoken poem by Andrea Gibson entitled “I Sing My Body Electric, Especially When My Powers Out.” I kept wondering how to watch a dance choreographed by a white man for a dancer who is a white man while listening to the voice of a woman, a woman who spoke about her own experiences of her body and queerness. I kept wanting to see something in the dancing that suggested the these white male bodies were trying to learn from the experiences of this woman, from the ways that her experiences are different from their own. I kept want to see her influence on the work, more than simply patterns of speech and moving emotional content to support the virtuosity of the performer and choreography on display.

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Lilianna Kane in Silk, photo by Norah Zuniga Shaw

The final piece of the evening was Silk, choreographed and performed by Lilianna Kane. Before the dance even began, the space was striking, a vibrant red marley floor extending from the place where the white gallery wall met the cold cement floor. The piece began with surprise, Kane rushing into the space like a quick exhale and then collapsing to the floor. As her body folded and unfolded in a repetitive sliding, her hair falling around her face and the red floor, my eyes adjusted to her nearly-naked body, clothed in a sheer white jumpsuit. The near-nudity, the not-quite-naked body that was nonetheless on full display, elicited a haptic quality in my viewing: although I could see the surfaces, curves, and folds of her flesh, the hair on her body, my attention was brought again and again to those centimeters just above the surface of her skin, held in the fibers that draped over and around her body. In a sense, my attention became those fibers, a soft barely-touch wrapping easily around her. The choreography was a deft blend of sensual, solicitous, even erotic gestures—the toss of her hair, sliding out onto all fours, the slump and sway of her spine, different places and parts of her body coming into view as she rolled across to red surface—and a minimalist formalism that held these vocabularies within a structure for our consideration. Gestures and motions were repeated, articulated at multiple scales, brought to the floor and back to standing, using compositional strategies to make what might have been initially legible within particular affective registers into something less familiar, strange even. At one point, she lied in the center of the floor, slowly lowering her foot into her hand. The increasingly proximity between parts, the tension and anticipation of flesh meeting flesh, felt like a personal embodiment of the audience/performer relationship—relationships of attention, nearness, and mediated contact. Once her foot found her hand, she sat up and began kneading the sole of her foot with her thumb as she looked around the audience with a vague smile. She made eye contact as she looked around, and it was not entirely clear if her smile was a result of this contact or the pedal self-pleasuring or both. As she gazed around the audience, her body began to twist, her foot crossing onto her other leg, her body approaching a kind of knot, edging towards something that may have been discomfort.

At a crucial moment, I think during Patsy Cline’s “True Love,” Kane stepped beyond the edge of the marley, approached a person sitting in the front row, and asked if she could hug them. They stood there hugging for a while before settling back down, the person in their seat, Kane on the floor next to them. I sat, at first turned to continue to watch Kane, then back to the empty red dancefloor. Kane eventually made her way back onto the floor, back to the white gallery wall, and leaned against it, allowing it to support her. In the final moments of the piece, she rushed out of the gallery in a grand sweeping gesture as swiftly as she had entered; the audience applauded, and Kane did not return. It felt like a citation of so many elusive, fleeting performances before her, so many sylphs and faeries and ballerinas, always rushing off, out of reach. This encounter was both intimate and an examination of intimacy within performance, and then it was over and gone. The muscles and bones and flesh, the embodied person who had lingered almost within reach was suddenly absent, and we were left applauding the space where she had been.

Accompanying the performance, I was incredibly moved by Kane’s comments in the program for the show, reproduced here:
“Dance training and performance offers a space to practice our ability to listen to each other, see each other, move with each other, consensually touch each other, and exist peacefully together, regardless of where we come from, what we look like, how we identify, and whom we love … Dance celebrates and relies on difference, and teaches the practice of non-judgement. To dance, to witness dance, to love oneself and to empathize with one another are political acts. Dance requires experiencing another body in relationship to one’s own. Dance is a form of political kindness.”

There are two more days of shows:
Friday, December 2 at 7pm
Saturday, December 3 at 5pm and 7pm.
For more information, visit: http://www.uas.osu.edu/exhibitions/one-department-dance-bachelor-fine-arts-master-fine-arts-concerts



CKA: enough (2) text

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I wrote and performed this text for CKA: Enough (2), a dance performance event produced by CKA (Currently Known As) at the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on July 15, 2016. An audio recording of the text can be found below.

Enough.
Enough.
Enough is enough.
I’ve had enough.
Am I enough. Am I doing enough.
When is “doing” itself already enough?
At what point have I done enough to be enough?
Which might also be asked another way: how much must I do in order to become myself? If we might understand the self as not necessarily a persistent being unto itself, but rather the accumulation of a set of activities, an ongoing repetition of stylized acts—a bit like a dance actually—a process of doing doing doing doing doing until finally—or perhaps never actually finally, but always tenuously, always conditionally, always precariously—I become legible to others and myself as I am, as a person, as a human being, specifically under the conditions that to be human, to be a person, means that I am worthy of recognition, worthy of basic care and respect.
How much doing is enough to become recognizable as a person, as human, as worthy of recognition, care, and respect?
And how much is not enough?
Alton Sterling.
And Philando Castile.
And Sandra Bland.
And Freddie Gray.
And Tamir Rice.
And Eric Garner.
And Trayvon Martin.
And “Goddess” Diamond.
And “Reecey” Walker.
And Keyonna Blakeney.
And Shante Isaac.
And Maya Young.
And and and and and and and you know some of those names and the ones you might not know are the names of transgender women of color who have been murdered already this year, this year that follows last year—the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the United States, more than 22 reported murders of transgender people, and when no matter how much you do to live your life, you might still die, how much doing is enough to stay alive?
What will it take—what would be enough—to prevent state and social violence?
Enough is enough.

And what the fuck about Orlando? 49 people were killed and they were lesbian and gay and bisexual and queer and transgender, and on that night, in that space, dancing was enough to bring people together, but for many of them, it was not enough to keep them alive.
And the following week, members of Congress staged a sit-in in order to demand a vote to change gun laws in our country, and the sit-in was not enough, and the laws did not change.

Enough.
From the Old English genog meaning “sufficient in quantity or number.” The first part ge- meaning “with, together.” The second part nog from the root nek meaning “to reach, to attain.”
With, together, reach, attain: what can we attain, what can we reach, together?

I just spent a week in Melbourne, Australia at a conference on performance and climate, and we spent a lot of time talking about artists making work that deals with the global climate crisis, and on the 15-hour flight back to the U.S., I kept wondering: is any of it enough?
Is any of this art enough to affect how we think or live our lives, specifically in relation to the planet, to climate change, to this vast world of nonhuman others to which we belong—when world leaders can’t find a way to stop the global average temperature from rising 2 degrees, when all the promises about policy changes might not be enough to mitigate global warming and major extinction events?
Enough. With, together, reach, attain.
What can we do together to reach a future earth, and who gets to come with us?
And what if we can’t do enough to be part of the “us” that reaches that future earth?
What if we cannot or will not do enough to mitigate our own extinction. When time is running out, when time might already be up, “enough” means something different.

So when is dance and dancing enough?
This dance was enough to bring us all here, to share our time and space and bodies with one another.
Dancing was enough to mobilize bodies, to put our bodies into motion, not only here and now tonight, but also for weeks and months preparing for this performance—and also for years and years, as we’ve developed ourselves as dancers.
And watching dancing can be enough too. It asks us to stay attentive to bodies not our own, staying open to witnessing whatever comes next, the unpredictability of bodies, the moment by moment emergence of moving bodies not our own, and in watching them, allowing ourselves to be acted on by them, perhaps even to accept them, come what may, and in this way, dance—the event of both dancing and watching dancing—might be enough—or might begin to be enough—to foster a kind of ethics, an orientation of patient, receptive attention towards others…

This is not a protest dance, but it is a dance that’s taking place in a world of protest, protesting bodies, bodies gathering in rallies and vigils, bodies gathering in the streets, as our bodies gather here, and any dancing that we do or view is not separate from this world of other bodies that gather.

Whatever else it might do, dance gives us an opportunity to move and be moved.
As we watch, “enough” remains a question: for what is dancing enough? For what is moving and allowing ourselves to be moved enough? If we are moved here and now by the bodies that we see, will that be enough for us to be moved by other bodies in other times and places?
We keep asking: is this enough? And when we ask, “Is this enough?” we also continue to ask: enough for what?



TORRENCE 6-36-86
23 June, 2016, 12:14 pm
Filed under: art, Dance | Tags: , , ,

It was the kind of show at which you might end up in bed with someone.

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The Master Bedroom of Torrence 6-36-86, photo by Melissa Vogley Woods

On May 27 and 28, I performed as part of an immersive dance theatre project entitled Torrence 6-36-86, directed by Rashana Perks Smith and presented throughout her house in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. This project was developed over many months, with about 17 different contributing artists generating site-responsive contributions—in the forms of dance, interactive performance art, sculptural installations, and video art—to a 50-minute production. Together we explored the meaning of proximity (to others), accessibility (of material), and domesticity (within the social constructs of a private residence in a suburban midwest neighborhood and through the retrospective eyes of a personified ninety-two year old house). Over the course of two days, nearly 90 audience members were met by an ensemble performance that began in the front yard/driveway, proceeded into the basement garage, up into and throughout the rooms on the main two floors of the house, and finally out into the back yard. Dances took place in almost every room of the house—the kitchen, the guest bedroom, the dining room, a child’s bedroom; 3D video of the house at other times and places was projected onto the walls of the study and offered to viewers through the frame of a small handheld monitor; installations in the forms of light, fabric, origami, and sound created a multi-sensory ameliorations to the space as it is usually inhabited. Each performer embodied a distinct role; some performed very clear “characters,” while others performed actions that were more reminiscent of archetypes. As an ensemble, we offered a plethora of opportunities for the audience to create their own sense of meaning for the piece. Some perceived ambiguous narratives of marriage, infidelity, and aging; others described a sense of mystery, never quite knowing why all of these figures were together in this house, but experiencing a series of moments that came in and out of focus, resonating with their own histories and feelings.

My primary contribution to the production was a series of interaction-driven performances, in which I invited select guests to come with me to the master bedroom. Over the course of four days—including our test audiences for our dress rehearsals—I invited nearly thirty people upstairs to join me in the master bedroom. The bedroom was staged very simply: the bed was the prominent feature, along with bedside tables, the indirect light of two lamps, a small stack of books (each relating directly or indirectly to eroticism, sex, desire, or love), music playing softly (a mix of Etta James and Nina Simone), and a few other pieces of bedroom furniture—two dressers, a chair, and a stool. With each of these guests, I ushered them inside, closed the door all but a sliver, turned to face them and said, “This is the master bedroom. What would you like to do?” The interaction that unfolded with each person remained unpredictable, shaped primarily by their stated desires, their responses, and occasionally by my suggestions when they didn’t know how they wanted to proceed or when they asked what I wanted. The majority of these interactions ended up in bed; many ended up in ways that were beyond anything I had imagined or anticipated. Many of these scenes were observed by other audience members or performers peering voyeuristically through the tiny opening left by the door; on two occasions, other audience members walked right into the room (uninvited but not explicitly discouraged either) to observe the intimate interactions in the bedroom. Each interaction lasted approximately seven minutes, measured out by a fairly complex cueing system between the performers in different rooms. Each interaction ended abruptly, sometimes with someone outside the bedroom pushing against the door, and sometimes with another performer rushing into the room and throwing herself onto the bed. In each case, I alerted my guest that our time was up with an urgent declaration: “We have to go.”

What happened in the bedroom is beyond precise accountability. I could describe specific actions or interactions—one person wanted to jump on the bed, one person wanted to watch me as I held and stroked the pillows like lovers, another suggested that we rub each other’s feet, many ended up in bed lying next to me or spooned against my body, a few shifted nervously and made anxious conversation, for instance—but none of that exactly captures the moment to moment eye contact and shift in posture, the small smiles and laughs and careful balancing of cordiality with nervousness, the subtle actions and reactions, the words they spoke and my sultry, suggestive responses. I could fill volumes with descriptions of how people looked at me and looked away, the counterpoint of glance and counter-glance, the moments when a stranger or friend’s body relaxed in my arms or how cuddling our breathing fell into synch. I could write about the people who remained tense, anxiously looking towards the door either hoping to leave sooner rather than later or worried that someone else might enter. I read to many people from Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos and The Sensuous Woman by “J”—lines about a beautiful, cheating, disappointing husband or transitioning from vibrator masturbation to hand masturbation respectively. But those descriptions of the action would not capture the feeling of being together in a small room with the door nearly closed, the associations of reading to someone in bed or being read to in bed, the banging and thudding of performances in other rooms mixing with the rich tones of Nina Simone and Etta James as we together tried to figure out what we would do together in this situation. I could transcribe conversations about memories and stories of childhood, families, work, sex, and the performing arts, but such transcriptions couldn’t capture the way her hair fell across one eye as she laid next to me speaking through her smile or how he shifted forwards and backwards decisively, as if each movement was being choreographed moment by moment. I don’t know how to transcribe the state of attention that I was maintaining—trying to direct all of my focus on this one individual, crafting opportunities for interaction out of the things they said, while also staying attentive to cues coming from other performers in other rooms. Each interaction in the bedroom was itself an improvised dance of actions and reactions, propositions and responses, anticipation, projection, and uncertainty. With each stranger, we became more familiar, more intimate within a context; with those I knew, friends and loved ones who I brought to the bedroom with me, our familiarity became strange as we navigated a situation we had never been in before. Multiple people who I did not know before the performance afterwards described our time together as charged with potential eroticism, feeling illicit as they became intimate with a stranger in someone else’s bedroom. Several people who I did know described similar but distinct impressions: the fact that they knew me sometimes made the situation even more strange or unfamiliar, as if we had gone “off script” from the familiar relationship we both knew, inventing a new way of being together within the context of this bedroom/performance.

For the rest of the audiences—the majority of those who moved through the performance, who were not invited to the master bedroom—I was a more peripheral figure, someone who slinked around the edges of rooms, posing in a corner or perching on the edge of a desk, someone who invited the person next to them to the master bedroom then brought them back a short while later. One audience member (Angela Dufresne) described me afterwards as “a nymphette in a Balthus painting,” which I felt was an apt characterization of the figure I performed.

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“Thérèse Dreaming” (1938) Balthus

My interests in this performance project were multiple: first, I wanted to create a structure for scenarios that brought issues of intimacy, privacy, power, and decision-making into and out of view. I wanted to proposition people I knew and did not know, in ways that shifted their own attention to their responses, their desires, and their choices when they found themselves in semi-private one-on-one interactions in an unfamiliar bedroom. The scenarios that played out in the master bedroom—which began from the moment I approached someone and asked, “Would you like to come with me to the master bedroom?”—complicated the audience/performer roles, putting audience/participants on display for themselves. I did not know in advance what would transpire; neither did they. In a sense, the audience/participant performed for me as well, in as much as I performed for them. Although every single person who I asked to come with me did so, they didn’t have to make that decision. And yet they did: they chose to come, not knowing what would happen and also not knowing what else they might miss, perhaps not even realizing that they were choosing to have one unknown experience rather than others. This experience of making choices without all the information, as well as the experience of perhaps realizing that you had made choices without all the information, was also of particular interest for me, if for no other reason than that it utilized this performance situation to frame and accentuate an experience that is certainly germane to life beyond the performance. Most of all, I think I hoped that the audience/participants who joined me in the bedroom would leave with a heightened sense of self-awareness or self-consciousness—observing, reviewing and questioning their own behavior—mingled with what might include excitement, exhilaration, anxiety, pleasure or desire—if not for me or my company, then for the resolution of the scenario that remained interrupted and unfinished. No doubt the structure for the scene—an intimate liaison with someone in a bedroom that belongs to neither of us—creates the conditions for a number of affective responses. It was this affective potential as well as the audience/participants’ actions that followed from their immediate feelings that I wanted to put on display for each of them.

In posing the question, “What would you like to do?” I hoped to give audience/participants an experience of articulating or giving voice to their own desires, however mundane or rarefied those might have been. For those who did not know what they wanted or who asked for suggestions or asked what I wanted, I think I wanted to give them intimate experiences that maybe they had not had before, or maybe they had not had in a semi-public space before: lying in bed or cuddling with someone they did or did not know—a friend or former student, a stranger, someone whose gender presentation is ambiguous—having someone read to them in bed or seated in a chair, slow dancing together to Etta James, watching me dance at the foot of the bed, etc. It is a questions perhaps many of us have not asked before: if someone took us into a bedroom and closed the door, turned to us and asked, “What would you like to do?”—how would we respond? What desires would we be capable of naming? What actions would we give ourselves permission to venture? How far would we let ourselves go into our own fantasies?

I was also interested in the experience of exclusivity, both for those who came to the bedroom with me and for those who watched other people go to the bedroom, without knowing what happened there. Multiple audience members commented afterwards that they were disappointed that they didn’t get to go to the master bedroom; conversely, quite a few people who were with me in the bedroom expressed worry that they were “missing something” elsewhere in the house. Several people asked why I picked them; several people also expressed something like jealousy after having been to the bedroom with me then watching me take someone else after them. All of these reactions interest me, and they are the kinds of affective responses that I hope became palpable elements in the audiences’ experiences.

Each audience member’s experience of Torrence 6-36-86 was different. Of course, this is true of any performance—in that each viewer occupies a position/perspective entirely their own, and brings to the experience their own associations and meaning—but here this difference/uniqueness was heightened, with the audiences separated into different rooms, different positions in different rooms, seeing different parts of the performance in different sequences, sometimes experience a part (like mine) that few others experienced, sometimes missing something that many other people saw. For me it was an experience of following someone else’s desires, sometimes entangling them with my own, and somehow finding our way into one another’s arms and into bed—but only for a short while.

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The Master Bedroom of Torrence 6-36-86, photo by Melissa Vogley Woods



Retrograde (Solo series by Larry Doyle)
6 June, 2016, 12:19 am
Filed under: art | Tags: , , , ,
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Installation view of Retrograde by Larry Doyle on view at Mouton

Retrograde, a new series of works on paper by Larry Doyle on display at Mouton in the Short North, develops an emotive iconography for a culture of feeling that unfolds between cartoonish figures that might very well mirror ourselves. Each piece depicts similar although not identical figures drawn in Doyle’s signature style, little bodies composed of imperfect geometries, hard lines, and sometimes blushing with watercolor blues and pinks and violets. These figures aren’t specifically human; their little alien bodies include only a few shapes, yet there is something recognizable about them. Maybe it’s the subtle ways they seem to hold themselves upright or slouch into themselves, the ways they seem to incline towards or away from each other, or the fragility of what seems to be their spindly legs. Maybe they all seem shy and insecure because of how their tiny eyes are almost always set low and to the side, shifty and uncertain. These figures do not depict us in a literal sense, but perhaps their forms emerge from the details by which we know our feelings—the sensation of “towards” or “away,” “downcast” or “uplifted,” that feeling of “just to the side” or “just out of reach.” On their own, in pairs, and in groups, these little figures begin to compose metaphors—for loneliness, for intimacies, for desire, for displacement, for community—with their stationary choreographies of position and placement in relation to each other and the minimalist contexts in which they are set. Often adrift in white space, or sometimes set in the foreground of a light watercolor wash, these scenes function as illustrations telling familiar stories with bodies not our own in abstract spaces to which we may have never been.

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Cover The Path to the Heart (Dont Let No one In), Watercolor/Ink

Yet despite the minimalist quality of these illustrations, they seem at home in Mouton. Mouton is a small bar that specializes in classic and innovative hand-crafted cocktails. I’ve spent many first dates at Mouton, and returned here again and again with friends and people who I love. It’s an intimate space, a place to drink and talk and flirt, sometimes a place to see and be seen, and occasionally somewhere to maybe meet someone new. In this sense, Mouton is both a place and a kind of a place—the kind of place for dates and dating, for going out with friends, and maybe for cruising. Doyle’s drawings may have an otherworldly quality to them, but they are also very much of this world—a world of sustained or anticipated intimacies, intersecting socialites, and the mixology of hope and disappointment that can accompany the search for love and connection in this modern age.

Doyle’s pieces—all created during the planet Mercury’s recent retrograde, an astrological time at which communication and clear thinking can feel the celestial backwards pull of Mercury’s path—are titled things like “I Will Keep You by a Thread,” “Everyone is Looking but No One Can See,” and “Cover The Path to the Heart (Don’t Let No One In).” Each title offers a comment on some social, personal, or intimate state of affairs which then becomes the basis for that which the piece illustrates. Moving through multiple stages of translation—life and lived experiences to recognizable feelings and affects, then onto short but cutting phrases, then into visual iconography—Doyle uses the retrograde as an opportunity to reflect and process, the artworks emerging from experiences that seem to include retrospection, revelation, and rumination. In each case, Doyle uses the concise images and phrases as strategies for depicting and sometimes critiquing how we act and interact in our search for connection, companionship, friendship, and love. In many cases, the figures Doyle situates within these scenarios find themselves accompanied by specific entrapments—head encaged by wiry lines, perched precariously on a tiny ledge, surrounded by dark inky clouds, wrapped up together in red thread, and so on. These additional elements and objects in the images extend the metaphors, offering perspectives perhaps not only of ourselves but of the situations that we create for ourselves—and for one another. Even when they are shown together, their connections and collectivity seem tenuous at best; together or alone, the loneliness of these little beings remains relentless.

One of the most overt critiques in the show is entitled “Thirty is the new Death” and shows thirty little skeletal figures all laid out in individual coffins alongside each other, tinted in a spectrum of bright and soft pinks. Reflecting on the tendency in the gay community to mark 30 as the end of one’s life—or at least one’s dating life—the pink skeletons in pink coffins on a field of pink seem more like infants than anything else, a morbid nursery of pink-on-pink-on-pink. Death and infancy cross into one another in this flamboyantly rosy field of tiny coffins. If the piece is a metaphor for turning 30, it seems to ask us to consider what might only be beginning at 30? If we figuratively terminate ourselves or others at 30, what might never have the opportunity to grow, mature, and thrive? If 30 is a coffin, it’s a tiny one.

What I find most compelling in these works, however, are not the stories the seem to tell or the familiar scenarios of dating, isolation, and companionship to which they refer; rather, it is the vocabulary and syntax of their visual composition that fills me with feelings. Doyle’s use of line, scale, orientation, and repetition are evocative, in ways that both support and extend the implicit narratives of these pieces. The hard black lines with which these figures are drawn present clearly bounded forms, discrete within their seemingly impenetrable isolation. The images may suggest stories of seeking connection, but in their composition, these figures—alongside each other, overlapping, or even tied together by a thread—will remain outside of one another’s hard lines. My eyes might drift smoothly across these pages, but they register these lines, these borders, these boundaries, perhaps longing to be crossed while nevertheless perhaps also signifying “keep out.” More often than not, these figures reside in a primarily flat two-dimensional plane, a seemingly shared space, but in multiple pieces—particularly those entitled variations of “I’m Not Looking” and “Still Not Looking”—Doyle’s use of scale and orientation suggest that these figures may not be in the same place at all. However flat the space may seem, these figures—upright, sideways, upside down, far, and near—seem to ambiguously occupy different dimensions, with perhaps far more distance between them than first meets the eye. The repetitive use of form—all of these figures are more alike than they are different, nearly but not quite identical—envisions a pervasive sameness, and between what seems to be the same, connections remain elusive. Homogeny is not given as the cause for isolation in this self-same society, but it is evidently its condition. To the extent that Doyle’s works offer mirrors or metaphors for reflecting on our lives, we might ask: in what ways do we repetitively reinscribe our edges as such bold borders? How might we become attentive to the ways in which others who seem to be right next to us are potentially near or far in ways that are less immediately visible, or maybe even standing on an entirely different ground? How does homogeny or the expectation of sameness not only minimize or elide our differences but potentially condition our isolation, our difficulties connecting, and the breakdowns of our communication?

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Still Not Looking, Watercolor/Ink

Doyle writes in his artist statement: “My works are centered around connecting, dating and searching while all these feel retrograde. As my little beings are crowned, boxed and tied I hope you can place yourself within their adventures seeking companionship, friendship and truth. Please include us in your story.” While illustrating the search for love and belonging in this modern age, Doyle invites our projections, simultaneously or alternately asking that we place ourselves within his work as well as include him and his little beings in our own stories. Inasmuch as the exhibit “centers” around connecting, dating and searching, it also seems to reach out from itself, asking for connection and companionship as it depicts ways in which they are thwarted.

Retrograde will be on display until the end of July at Mouton.



partial alignments and degrees of difference

Several different areas or dimensions of life have recently pushed me to articulate what I consider to be one of the most fundamental tenets of my ethics: I want to live in a world of difference. I do not want to live in a world in which everyone is the same as me, in which we all aspire to agree fully, in which we presume that everyone’s needs and values totally align; I want to live in a world of partial alignments, a world full of not only different perspectives but different ways of life and modes of living that create the conditions for different perspectives. I want to live in a world in which we struggle to find commonalities, and in which we strive to coexist when no single commonality can be reached.

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This week there were a number of important presidential primaries, including Ohio. In the weeks and months leading up to these primaries, I have found myself in heightened states of disagreement with people in my community, on Facebook, and in conversations which sometimes unexpectedly turn political. I have continued to consider and reconsider my position—which I won’t lay out fully here, but which continues to find the existing political system dysfunctional, a position from which I struggle to trust or believe in any political candidate, from which I have admired the idealism and passion of Bernie Sanders, and from which I have consistently found myself more aligned with the practicality of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This writing is actually not about expounding on or defending that position. Rather, as I continue to navigate this campaign, I find myself faced again and again with extreme, superficial representations of candidates who I do not know personally, but who are undoubtedly much more complex—and in some ways similar—than what is presented to me by the media, friends, and loved ones. bell hooks very usefully reminded us yesterday: “As a firm believer in the importance of free speech, I consider it vital to feminist democratic process that all women be free to choose who they want to support—whether I agree with them or not. As a challenge to dominant thinking and practice, it is crucial to not construct images of individuals that are one dimensional and binary. No one is all good or all bad. Importantly, our focus should be on critical issues, standpoints and political perspective, not on personalities.” hooks addresses several points that I consider to be vital: first, that we simply must be able to affirm one another’s choices and perspectives, even when we do not agree, and that we must not continue to construct one-dimensional and binary depictions of political personalities. Again and again, we are presented with totalizing binaries—Clinton or Sanders, democrat or republican, us or them—binaries that depend on reductive, one-dimensional representations, binaries to which we subscribe and which we then proceed to reproduce and circulate. Not only does such thinking do a disservice to the world in which we live—the complexity of which rarely if ever simply complies fully with such reductive, binary logics—it distracts from the actually more difficult but important work of critical analysis and dialogue between perspectives and positions that are different in many ways, but also in some ways partially and contingently align. As Kate Bornstein taught me in Gender Outlaw: “The choice between two of something is not a choice at all, but rather the opportunity to subscribe to the value system which holds the two presented choices as mutually exclusive alternatives.” And as Brené Brown asks provocatively in Rising Strong: “…when faced with either-or dilemmas, the first question we should ask is, Who benefits by forcing people to choose?” Both Bornstein and Brown remind me that binary thinking is a tactic of power, of regulation, and both suggest that there must be other ways of examining situations that are forced into such binaries.

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Still from annotated video illustrating allignments, the way in which Forsythe designs relationships in space and time Credit: Synchronous Objects Project, The Ohio State University and The Forsythe Company

One approach that has been life-changing for me is to look for partial alignments within degrees of difference. This is an approach that emerged from a choreographic research project called Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced, which investigates systems of organization in choreographer William Forysthe’s dance One Flat Thing, reproduced. [You can read all about the project on the website for Synchronous Objects.] In this project, the research team—directed by William Forsythe, Norah Zuniga Shaw, and Maria Palazzi—studied the ways in which this dance “examines and reconfigures classical choreographic principles of counterpoint,” which they define as “a field of action in which the intermittent and irregular coincidence of attributes between organizational elements produces an ordered interplay” (see the Introduction essay “The Dance” in the SynchObj site). In other words, counterpoint emerges from an ongoing activities across which emerge moments of shared qualities or similarities, moments that appear briefly, intermittently, and irregularly. They describe these moments as alignments: “Alignments are short instances of synchronization between dancers in which their actions share some, but not necessarily all, attributes.” These shared attributes might refer to multiple actions executed with the same timing, or multiple dancers doing different things but all moving in the same direction, or different dancers that pass through similar shapes with their bodies, even if they are performing different actions, for example. Alignments often emerge in situations in which the “top structure”—or what we notice most prominently—is difference: dancers doing different actions in different ways coming from and going towards different places, etc. Within these heightened states of difference, at the deeper level of organization, partial and fleeting alignments occur, qualities or attributes are shared, briefly, incompletely, and even circumstantially. This dance and the Synchronous Objects researchers prioritize the importance of these moments, these partial alignments, as developing a mode of organization that relies not on unison or uniformity, but actually depends on difference, on the lack of total unison or uniformity.

This occurs in the dance itself, but Zuniga Shaw suggests that it might offer ways of thinking about other parts of our lives as well: “I think this is significant not only as a concrete phenomenon in dance, but also as a larger metaphor that’s applicable to how we look at and analyze ecosystems, to how we maybe notice the play of light on the water, or the interaction of branches in the canopies of the trees above us, and to how we interact with the complex realities of our daily lives. So what if in those situations when there is conflict in your lives, in those situations where we’re encountering maybe just a lot of difference, in our classrooms, in the downtown streets, in our workplaces: what if we approached those situations contrapuntally? And we didn’t try to squeeze these things into marching bands of unity, but instead we get pretty excited about that disagreement and difference, and heighten our attention to the deep structures, the deep sets of relationships, degrees of alignment, quirky little agreements, that are percolating under the surfaces of our lives all the time.” What if when we encounter difference—different values, different perspectives, different actions and activisms—what if even when we encounter conflict, we allow ourselves to become curious? Rather than first attempting to convince one another of our own perspectives, rather than trying to make you more like me, what if we started to ask questions: can you tell me more about what you think? What are the values and priorities that brought you to this perspective? What is it you desire? What is it you need? What are you afraid of? What might we be able to do together?

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Another event in my life that has prompted this line of thinking is Caitlyn Jenner’s reality docu-series, I Am Cait, which is now in its second season. I have a lot of opinions about Jenner’s presentation in the media, the way in which our culture has elevated someone of her racial and economic privilege—white, wealthy—to the status of “icon” so rapidly, the significance of her very public transition given her history as an Olympic athlete and hero for American masculinity, and the particular priorities of her show, none of which I’ll go into here. I think I Am Cait has done some things really effectively; I also think it has handled some people and their stories reprehensibly. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of hearing Angelica Ross—founder of TransTech Social Enterprises and actress on the hit new show Her Storyspeak at Denison University; she discussed the ways in which her appearance in the first season of the show had been cut down considerably, eliminating the successes and activism of her life, and reducing her to a familiar sound-byte regarding the struggles that many trans women face. I am sure that this is not the only instance of the stories of trans women—particularly trans women of color—being edited and simplified to fit the particular agenda of the show and Jenner’s image. That being said, the show is also introducing issues that I find important: one of the big themes that is emerging this season is difference. The premise of the season is a road trip on which Jenner is joined by a group of other trans people—mostly trans women—and several people who are not trans. On the bus and on the road, conflicts have already arisen—no doubt providing the kind of drama that make a reality tv show successful. Arguments have developed around politics—Jenner is an adamant conservative republican, everyone else on the trip seem to be democrats—and around different experiences with language. Jenny Boylan and Kate Bornstein have already had multiple conversations about the controversial term “tranny,” which Boylan and others find offensive and hurtful, and with which Bornstein identifies, as her “name,” her community, her family. The group has had conversations about what it means to be a woman, in which perspectives differ and in some ways partially align. Throughout the television drama of what is unfolding, what I appreciate is that the show is offering a representation of difference, conflict, and partial alignments. While it continues to show a somewhat narrow and extremely limited segment of trans communities, it is showing that not all trans people are the same, nor should they be. I appreciate that the show is not only giving visibility to [a few] trans people, but that within this community, there are a wide range of identities, perspectives, values, and feelings. We are not all the same, and if we were, that would be cause for concern. As Jenny Boylan tweeted yesterday, “‘Unity’ for the Trans movement, I think, means accepting broad range of identities. Not making us all agree on one.” And why not? As a culture, we have long been comfortable with a range of perspectives, values, positions, identities, and personalities with our cisgender celebrities; besides embracing a range of identities in trans communities, I would hope that we could also accept that kind of range for trans celebrities as well, even when we don’t agree with their perspectives and choices.

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Candis Cayne, Hillary Clinton, Caitlyn Jenner, [I think second from the right is Mimi Marks], and Zackary Drucker

Zackary Drucker, who also appears on the show, wrote earlier this week, “Friends can disagree. And in this historic primary season—fraught with anger, fear, and resentment—friends WILL disagree, LOUDLY … So let’s all take a deep breath. Let’s not feed into the fierce rhetoric that is destructive to the greater cause. Let’s have these conversations with respect. Let’s appreciate what we’ve achieved and retain the righteous willpower to achieve more.” Boylan and Drucker, in their writing and on the show, continue to hold space for conversation, for listening, for finding connections across disagreements. They have openly criticized Jenner for her unwillingness to listen and discuss other perspectives—an unwillingness that seems to be shifting as the season progresses—and they continue to engage one another at the places they align across their pronounced differences. Particularly moving for me was the way that the show handled the conflict between Boylan and Bornstein in the second episode of season two: at a dinner with the whole group, Bornstein describes how she and Boylan share values for the livability of trans people (which she jokingly describes as “trans supremacy”), but that their personal strategies and ideologies conflict. After having a long talk, the two came to the point where they could say: “Some of your stuff is hard to hear, and I know some of what I say is hard to hear, and I’m trying to throttle it back in your presence. But I know you listen to me, and I promise I’ll listen to you.” Boylan describes their friendship as disagreeing on so much but loving each other so much, and in that, I hear counterpoint; I hear partial alignments—here, love—within heightened states of difference, and the presentation of that as a mode of relationship and coexistence is something for which I am very grateful.

[This post has already gotten quite long, but I also want to acknowledge that I see this kind of relationship modeled expertly and beautifully by bell hooks and Laverne Cox in their public dialogue at The New School, which you can view online. On many points, Cox and hooks disagree, and then keep talking. They stay in the conversation. They maintain and investigate the places they align and agree, however small or temporary, within the context of other ways in which they disagree irresolvably.]

I want to be very clear: I am not advocating for difference and an appreciation of partial alignments merely out of some kind of liberal/PC fetishization of “diversity.” I am committed to these perspectives because of the very material reality that none of us live in a world of our own on our own; we live in a world with others, and we are making a world together in which we will all continue to live. That world cannot be formed from a single perspective, from any single set of values that manages to overwhelm, overturn, or eradicate all others. The world that we share must constantly be grown out of not only our differences in perspective, but also our different values, our different priorities, our different needs. It has to emerge not only from the irresolvable differences and partial alignments between people who consider themselves democrats and people who consider themselves republicans, but also between people who have different racial histories, who have different gender identities, who have different modes of ability, who have lived for different periods of time; and also between different species with whom we share this planet, different modes of life at a multitude of scales, living creatures who are so different from me that sometimes it seems the only way that they might survive is if we do not. I believe the question we must ask again and again is: how might we live together without eliminating our differences? Where and how do we align partially while maintaining our vast differences? The alternative is totalitarianism. The alternative is fascism. The alternative is the cisnormative heteronormative imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy—to borrow a term from bell hooks.

I want to live in a world in which we can hold different—even contradictory—perspectives without abandoning the pursuit of collective world making and coexistence, without resorting to violence. To be clear, I consider an insistence on sameness, an insistence on unity that eliminates difference, to be the ideological starting point for countless forms of violence; any desires for conformity, for sameness, for unity that does not allow for difference should be extremely suspect. As we continue in the year of this presidential election, I hope that we might shift the conversation towards curiosity, towards listening, towards examining partial alignments rather than trying to convince the other to fall in line with one’s own views. To be sure, I have no illusions that the current political system that we practice in the United States is not broken; however, within the broken system, I want to believe that intelligent, critically thinking people can and will come to different conclusions as to what might be the most effective direction for our nation. When the people I love unabashedly support a candidate that is not the person I have chosen to support, I want to believe that we can survive those differences of perspective. I want to believe that we can not only peacefully accept that our loved ones, colleagues, and community can intelligently reach different perspectives/conclusions, but also recognize those differences as opportunities to get really curious about one another, learn about these other people with whom we are sharing and making our world, and hope to understand something about the values, feelings, priorities and thought processes that shape their perspectives and desires. Within trans communities, within larger communities in which trans people live, I want to believe that we can hold space for our differences, and in doing so, also attend to the small, partial, potentially temporary ways in which we align, in which we can experience something shared, with which we can pursue a world that emerges from no single view or ideology, but from the rambling complexities and contradictions between the countless modes of living together on this planet.



NAKED WEEK at Denison University
22 February, 2016, 5:19 pm
Filed under: culture | Tags: , , , ,

At 12:30pm, as a small pep band plays “The Final Countdown,” hundreds of people have gathered around the edges of the Academic Quad at Denison University to watch as a small group of student bodies run naked out of the front of the William Howard Doane Library. These naked bodies streak down the steps, tear through a large paper banner that reads “LOVE YOUR BODY,” and sprint across the quad as the crowd cheers and gazes. I didn’t get an exact count, but it seemed like fifteen to twenty-five bare bodies amidst the hundreds wearing clothes; the whole event—the opening ceremonies for Naked Week—were over almost as quickly as they began.

My introduction to Naked Week has thus far been mostly in the form of rumors and myths: a long-standing tradition of students appearing en masse, in public, and naked all week long. This is only my second semester teaching at Denison, and my first experience witnessing this spectacle. Beforehand, I heard several different accounts of the significance of this event. For some, it is a festival of body-positivity, breaking with social conventions in order to affirm the inherent worth and beauty of bodies. For others, it’s been described as another excuse to party or to get attention. I heard one person say that it inspires them that people are so brave; another said that it just makes them uncomfortable. To be sure, the motivations and intentions of Naked Week and today’s opening ceremonies are plural, shifting, at times communal, at times individual, and likely sometimes contradictory. But as an artist and a scholar of performing arts, a reality with which I am intimately aware is that the effects of any performance, any actions, will always exceed any motivations and intentions. The potential effects of any performance will remain in part unpredictable, and will vary more than anyone can control. Rather than speculate about the intentions or motivations of those who ran naked in front of their university community today, I want to take a moment to consider some of the possible effects of that action.

There was such a specific temporality to the event: first, there was waiting. Having been told that the event would start at 12:30pm, a crowd had already started to gather at noon. Having worked for years as a queer burlesque performer, I’ve learned that there is a particular energy to waiting for nudity: anticipation, an edge of urgency that seems to intensify as it decelerates, moving slower and slower. Then when the band began to play, there was the announcement that something is starting, a prelude, a preparation for the act that would follow. Finally, the first naked body emerged, at first seeming to be a little lost, then as others joined, turning and moving swiftly down the stairs. Within moments, they had all appeared through the doorway of the library, and all that remained was a trail of naked body running across the grass. It was over and the crowd quickly broke away, drifting back towards their Monday schedule. It was an interruption in the regular timing of a Monday—an interruption for which many of us gathered, bringing our bodies together in order to interrupt—and it was an interruption paced out in specific timing. If we take the event as a kind of performance, and if we can understand performances as an experiment or proposition in how an action or bodies might occur, one effect of today’s opening ceremonies is a kind of temporal conditioning, in which naked bodies are anticipated, in which we wait and wait and wait to see naked bodies, and then as quickly as they appear, they are gone. They don’t stand still; they do no wait. They rush past, they do not linger, they are gone, and the interruption is over—even if the memory of the event continues to interrupt us throughout the day.

My initial reaction to the group of bodies was how young they all were. As a student action on a university campus, it isn’t surprising that they were all young, but youth became part of what we were invited to celebrate and gaze upon. With a turn towards how this event might present a meaningful presentation of bodies, we might say: we wait and wait for young bodies, and then they are gone, rushing past, barely here before they are gone. I found myself wondering if we would gather for a crowd of older naked bodies moving more slowly across the quad. There’s a relationship between the timing of the event, the age and ability of the bodies, and the ways in which both condition how we might view the nudity that we saw.

There were similarities and differences between these naked student bodies. Many were white or pale, a few had darker complexions. They varied in height and width. They curved in different places, had longer and shorter hair in different places, were small in some places and larger in others. This range of differences, even within its limitations, provided an opportunity to see and recognize how different bodies can be from one another, something we perhaps forget or ignore within a culture that constantly provides us with images of bodies that look similar or the same. We as viewers could then appreciate the differences as so many unique—and beautiful—variations of physical form. We might also judge, compare, measure, preference, and value some of the bodies that we saw more than others. The event allows for all of these effects and possible outcomes, celebration or judgment, an appreciation of variation or another scene in which to reiterate personal and cultural hierarchies of value, in which some bodies are viewed as better than others. In a sense, I hope, the event provided a context in which to critically observe and reflect on how we reacted to these bodies.

Nudity also introduces a particular challenge; it presents an organ-ization of signifiers that often passes as an object that is fully known or recognizable: gender/sex. It might be said that there were different genders on display, and that might be so, but I would rather say that each body presented a unique configuration of unique parts, and even in their nudity, the genders of these students remained opaque to me. However, when gazing upon chests and breasts and hips and hairy legs and vulvas and penises and wide shoulders and narrow hips and small hands and long hair, in arrangements that seem familiar, we tend to immediately read such bodies as female or male. We overlook or forget—or perhaps we’ve never considered—that in doing so, we are performing a culturally mandated act of interpretation, aggregating a set of fleshy signifiers to conform within one of two binary possibilities for bodies. This interpretation happens so swiftly, so automatically, that we don’t even realize that we’re doing it. This is one of the ways in which the performative force of gender gets applied to and circulated on the surfaces of bodies: how we see and make sense of bodies is often already overwritten with gendered assumptions. [And, drawing on the work of queer theory, transgender studies, and various strands of activism around gender, I would argue: attributing a “biological sex” to a body based on physical cues is also already a gendered assumption, an organization of bodies into a binary that supports a binary system of gender that facilitates a culture of presumptive, compulsory heterosexuality.]

In this sense, the opening ceremonies of Naked Week today gave the viewers multiple opportunities: on the one hand, we were given the opportunity to see the extraordinary variation and differences between bodies, differences that only fit neatly within two genders/sexes when we ignore all of the various ways in which they are different; on the other hand, we were given the opportunity to either unconsciously attribute sexes/genders to bodies based on the various attributes and physical features within view, or to suspend those assumptions, to look again—however briefly—at all that makes those bodies different, and to appreciate the failure of a binary systemic organization of bodies.

The spectacle was of course also an erotic opportunity. The basic structure of the event staged a kind of desire—masses of people gathering because of what we wanted to see, to witness—to gaze upon the flesh of other bodies. It didn’t have to be erotic; there are certainly ways of normalizing nudity, of integrating naked bodies into daily life in ways that do not solicit desire—even if the various parts and bare flesh of bodies themselves are already predisposed to desire and eroticism within our culture. I think prolonged exposure would be one way of normalizing nudity; seeing a naked body go about its daily life could be erotic, but I think the more we see of it over time, from this angle and that, how it supports itself, how it leans, how it sags, how it swings or pulls tight or interacts with mundane tasks, the more familiar and less taboo it might become. But as a burlesque performer and as a choreographer, I know that there are structural mechanisms through which we can and do generate desire. Anticipation, as I mentioned above, stirs longing. Waiting is a kind of distance, and across that distance of waiting, we reach for that which we came to see. Disappearance is another kind of distance, bodies receding across the lawn, barely here before they are already gone again, out of reach. Choreographically, this anticipation and vanishing solicits longing, and with those formal structures in place, bare flesh, the revelation of parts that usually remain hidden, are set up within an erotic frame.

So what then can it mean that the Academic Quad became a stage for longing, for desire, for viewing and being viewed, en masse? What is the significance of student bodies on display for other students, for staff, for faculty, for the outdoors, all organized within a desiring arrangement? Perhaps it transforms the space, makes it another kind of space than how it functions day to day. Or perhaps it intensified and made visible dimensions of the space as it always functions: a place where bodies gather and meet one another, setting the stage for all kinds of encounters; where bodies pass each other, glancing towards each other, perhaps longing after one another; where bodies desire to see and be seen, a longing that saturates so much of collegiate life.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that this event took place within a culture that remains largely misogynistic, a rape culture, a culture of violence against women and people who are assigned and attributed “female” based on their physical features. In an event like this, naked bodies are made visible within a culture that already gazes differently at the bodies of women, in which the bodies of women are often at more risk than other bodies, in which the inherent vulnerability and precarity of being a body is disproportionately exploited for women. And while there were many different bodies on display today, it is worth recognizing that those who were viewed and apprehended to be female or women performed an action than was different from those with whom they ran, different because the dominant culture already interprets the significance of actions performed by people who are viewed as women differently. As I said at the start: the effects of any action remain unpredictable and will always exceed their intentions and motivations. Perhaps presenting naked bodies that are viewed as women can function as an assertive feminist act, a reclaiming of public space with bodies that are in many ways often kept in private. Perhaps this presentation provided the viewers the opportunity to view these bodies with respect and reverence, in spite of the tendencies of our culture. And perhaps the event simultaneously recreated a familiar scene, in which crowds of people wearing clothes—many of them not women, many of them identified as men—gather to view other people—some of them women—who are naked and on display. The subversive or political potential of this act is haunted by the specter of a culture that puts women’s bodies on display for consumption—usually by men—a culture that objectifies and devalues those bodies on display, a culture that comes to equate “femininity” and “women” with less value, with objectification, with display and consumption.

The effects will remain multiple and unpredictable. Nothing I’ve written here should be considered a final word or an exhaustive analysis of potential interpretations. We might also think about the fact that these bodies ran, contextualize this action within the frame of sporting events and athletic heroism. We could consider the arrangement of the crowd gathered all around the edges of the quad, viewing and being viewed by one another far longer than any of us viewed the naked running bodies. We could think about how an event that is structured around a taboo—being naked in public—becomes a tradition, and the complexity that is generated by the concept of a taboo that is traditionally broken. The possibilities are countless. But I hope that my viewing and response can offer a critical perspective—a perspective that I hope will be joined by other such perspectives—as we consider the campus and culture that we are living and making and performing with and for one another. There is apparently a whole week of Naked Week activities ahead of us. For those of you at Denison, I hope with each event, you use it as an opportunity to not only celebrate the beauty of bodies, but also to critically reflect on what such events might mean, what they might reveal (other than flesh), and what they might show us about ourselves—those parts most hidden, those parts most bare.

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This image is not from this afternoon’s event. It is borrowed from Carrie Burkett’s article describing a previous year’s event, “Hundreds streak for body image,” The Denisonian, February 25, 2014.

 

*There is also a helpful, funny list of “Dos and Don’ts of Naked Week” in today’s The Bull Sheet:
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