michael j. morris

contribution to a field

the last few months I have been bothered by an important question. actually, I will say that I have perhaps been plagued by this question in all my years of making and thinking and writing. it is a concern: how does my work contribute to the field/culture/world? for years, this quotation taken from May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude was a significant guiding force in my work:

“Millions of boys face these problems and solve them in some way or another–they live, as Captain Ahab says, with half of their heart and only one of their lungs, and the world is worst for it. Now and again, however, an individual is called upon (called by whom, only the theologians claim to know, and by what, only bad psychologists) to lift his individual patienthood to the level of a universal one and to try to solve for all what he could not solve for himself alone . . . not everyone can or will do that–give his specific fears and desires a chance to be of universal significance . . . one must believe that private dilemmas are, if examined, universal, and so, if expressed, have a human value beyond the private . . .
-Erik Erikson, Robert Cole, May Sarton

times have changed, my work has changed, and my [shifting, mobile, fluid] beliefs about the world have changed as well. I no longer believe in universals, and producing work of universal value is no longer my intention. however, I still concern myself with producing work that has value beyond–however much it might be grounded in–my own interests and dilemmas. with each dance I make, each paper I write, each interest towards which I direct my attention and efforts, the question of, “how does this contribute?” arises. especially, as of late, with my primary research, that of ecosexuality as a framework for performance analysis.

one thing that I think is of value in the work I hope to accomplish is writing artists and art works that have not been given critical academic attention into the literature of performance scholarship. the work that interests me–Love Art Lab, Karl Cronin, queer porn, butoh, etc.–is work that has in some cases not been written into scholarship at all, and in most (if not all) cases, not been considered for their potential interventions in the formation/production of sexualities and environmental ecologies. this seems to be an accomplishment worth pursuing in/through my work.

but over the last couple of days, something more/larger has occurred to me. it might even seem obvious, but it has become central to how I understand the potential importance of what I am doing, beyond my own dilemmas or interests (and I am indebted to Maree ReMalia and Deder Gordon for talking through these ideas with me). the fundamental assumption/assertion of the work that I am doing seems to be: through performance we are given access to other possible worlds, other possibilities in/of our world, in ways that reconfigure the sedimented registers of meaning within our cultures and societies. performance is not [only] an act of representation or re-presentation, but is as act of doing the world differently, and that doing has radical potential on the physical level at which bodies are formed/deformed/reformed through the actions that they take (the potential for the performer), and on the level of perception, of the visual display (the potential for the spectator). performance (perhaps all arts, in their own ways), has the potential to operate within recognizable symbolic registers and systems of meaning attached to the body (such as gender, sex, sexuality, race, age, ability, nationality, etc. etc. etc.), but to do so in ways that go against the grain, reconfiguring familiar codes in ways that function in new/unfamiliar ways. this is what I mean by performance giving access to other possible worlds, or ways of world-becoming (yes, there are hints of deleuze and guattari here).
this may be obvious. my friend Deder actually responded by saying, “well, of course. isn’t that what we always do?” and my answer is yes, it is, on some level, but performance is not always considered in this way. too often performance (dance, theatre, performance art, porn, etc.) is approached with the expectation of representation, that the work is showing us something of or about the world, or (perhaps even worse) telling us something about the world. and it might be. but I am interested in what else the work might do, how it might provide as space in which we can both imagine and enact other worlds, other meanings, other bodies and beings and becomings. and I’m not opposed to representation/re-presentation, but rather than looking for representations of the [affirmed] actual, I’m interested in how performance works might actualize virtual landscapes of possibilities. that is (perhaps) the radical potential of performance, that is actualizes/physicalizes the virtual. it is never fully artificial; it is embodies and thus always to some degree actual.

this is how my work with ecosexuality began (I now realize/articulate). ecosexuality is a configuration of sexual and environmental subjectivity that emerged from performance work, specifically the work of the Love Art Laboratory (Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens). their performance work offers another possible world, a reconfiguration of the world in which we live and the way in which we live in/as/with it. it performs new possible sexualities that are not constrained by human organ-ization or global territorializations, and it has done so through reconfigured performatives such as the wedding, the vows, and the roles associated with the wedding ritual. it’s from this set of reconfigurations, this performance work that raises the very possibility of an ecosexuality, that I turn my attention to other performances to ascertain how they too might contribute to the expansion of what can be understood as sexuality, ecology, and the environment–shifting notions of humanity, personhood, ethics, and even love.

so I suppose how I answer myself today when I raise the question, “how does my work contribute to the field/culture/world?”, these are my answers. I am looking to performance works for the ways in which they configure other possible worlds, other possible sexualities as ways of relating not only to one another, but to the world in which we live. this shift in what “sexuality” and “environment” can mean carried with it a shift in possible ethics, the extent of which I cannot even begin to articulate (except to say that it is significant). in a larger sense, I hope I am modeling a way of attending to performance, not for its capacity to represent the world as it is, or to express some hidden feeling or belief about such a world, but for its capacity to enact different possible worlds. performance can never be fully artificial; it is embodied, and as such it is always fundamentally real. it is, in itself and in its display, a movement towards doing/perceiving/doing the world differently.


5 Comments so far
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these concerns are very close to me. i’m trying to explain this very thing in a grant application and trying to explain the dynamic and paradox that exists between “real/actual/daily levels of perception/action/embodiment” and that exact thing or the exaggerated forms of that exact thing that can be mixed/mashed/created/built/torn down and up again in performance to make “unreal/more real/surreal/NOW not then/i’m performing this BUT still living it as a real moment in my life” ……see? the language for both is similar. or maybe the language for the latter hasn’t been created yet.

anyway. creating these things…these performances…these opportunities to live/embody…”do the world differently” via a “theatrical” or “framed” performance of that action is what i was after in “we live here” and what i feel i’m doing in “the runner”. and what is the “purpose” all of my work recently. to take something rather ordinary in my singular life (“my own interests and dilemmas”) and place it in another context in which that sensation/that perception/that experience can be warped and rebuilt into something hyperreal or experiential on a larger scale.

yes it’s me. and yes “you/they” are seeing me doing my world this way. but i am “performing” this experience.

i don’t know. i now feel like i’m just babbling.
but i was going through my notes from “the runner” the other day and came across this “this dance is the performance of a practice.” when i say these words, i don’t need any other words.

Comment by cocoloupedance

ah wait. in the context of “the runner” the performance of a practice is very specific to deborah hay’s idea of practice.

when i truly feel this statement i perceive the idea of “practice” as something quite different.

the repetitive attempt to create new experiences that do not exist and/or can not be accessed in the “real world”.

a separate construct (the performance of ….) is made to enable this hyperreal/surreal experience to unfold. in real time. by real people.

but i’m continually amazed at how REAL that performance of this thing is. right?

it’s not virtual. it’s not make-believe.

it’s not narrative storytelling to an audience.

it’s “here are these things that i want to experience or make ‘come into being’ because i want to do my/your/this world ‘differently'”. i experience it as something very real but know that when i step off of the stage or wherever i’ve just “performed” this reality, that that particular reality ceases to exist.

for all of us. we enter back into the world as it is constructed here and now. not back there in that “other world”.

although i do know that “that reality” is possible because i just lived/embodied it. how to carry that forward into a daily life is …. problematic. for some.

i encountered this “problem” during and after “we live here”. i SO wanted to do that practice at home on a daily basis. the gazing. the performing for…the deep connectivity …carry that “performance” into my daily life. but that depended on my husband “doing the world differently” with me. or the entire cast meeting daily to “do the world differently” with me.

not possible. but the display of that other world and its potential via a public performance of allowing / making that “world come into being”?….possible…a few times.

so our contributions to the field/community/world….?
creating “popup worlds” that allow those of us who are interested enough to find them/seek them out/share them with us…….to redefine what we all consider to be the physical/psychic potentialities of the human and his/her relationship to the place/space/time in which he/she is performing a practice. During the time of that popup world’s existence we get to question and interrogate the nature of that world and see if it is something constructive, destructive….what are its features? what is valued there? if it were possible to keep this world in existence for a while, would we love it, hate it, seek to live in it or find another “world to do differently”?

not bad for a day’s work in the studio, on the stage, in front of the computer, at the coffee house.

Comment by cocoloupedance

thank you for reading/writing. it means the world to me.

I think you are on to something very, very important here, especially by bringing your experience with “the runner” and practice and deborah hay. I think the potential in a performance practice, or practicing performance in this way of actualizing potential/virtual worlds is that although it is (in a sense) a world apart, distinct from the world as it “currently exists,” it’s also not. the “popup worlds” of performance never completely cease to exist . . . like any practice, whether it be yoga, or ballet, or butoh, or gaga, or rehearsing a piece of choreography, it stays with us/becomes us. the things that we practice are (literally) formative of who and how we are, both on the physical level (shaping how our muscles and tissues and bones, etc., develop) and on the level of consciousness (practicing modes of attention/awareness/consciousness that are translatable from the specificity of that practiced popup world into daily life).

so maybe I’m taking this a step further.
maybe performance (especially performance as practice, or practice as performance) does more than reveal possible other worlds. I think what I’m trying to say is that they themselves are steps towards the formation of those worlds, the proliferation of those ways of being. they function as gateways into other ways of being because what you experience/understand/know in/through performance cannot be reversed just because you enter other modes of daily life.

I think this about butoh and gaga and yoga all the time. we can’t necessarily break out into a full-blown practice of any of these forms as we go about our daily lives, our jobs, our relationships. but what we experience/learn in/through these practices migrates (or can migrate) into those other settings. in moments of anxiety, I can attend to my breath and prana (yoga) because I have practiced that on the mat. in moments of ego, I can soften my sense of self and dissolve into a cloud of smoke (butoh) because I have practiced that. sitting at a desk working on my computer for hours, I can tap into [what maree calls] the “modern day mantras” of gaga (find the pleasure … decorate my insides … find the smile in my organs, etc.), and that changes how I am living. and changing how I live changes the world I am making through my living.

maybe it seems more obvious in these forms we think of as “physical practices,” because we think of them as a kind of training. but I think this is no less true in the rehearsal/practice/performance of choreography. I constantly think of the piece I did in 2009-2010, “autumn quartet,” and how the experience of rehearsing that dance, the relationships formed in/through that process, the intimacy of stripping and biting and wrestling one another . . . all of that actualizes a virtual world of possibilities, and once the possible is made actual, it can never fully (physically, consciously) become immaterial again.

last thought: in sheila marion’s course “the history, theory, and literature of the analysis of movement,” the class got into a disagreement one day about whether or not our “performing selves” were REALLY us, whether our roles could ever be fully removed from who we “really” are. sheila said something simple and profound: she said that when we’re performing, it is us and it is not us, simultaneously. it is both virtual and actual, never completely one or the other, but always in the liminal space between the two. I think there’s something to that.

it sounds to idealistic to say, “I make work in order to change the world.” I think it’s more accurate for me to say, “I make worlds in the work I make, and in doing so I am actualizing the world(s) in which I want to live.”

see you tomorrow. we need to pick a time/place for coffee pre-playtime.

Comment by morrismichaelj

In all of that text, I sensed an interesting void of any discussion of my experience, the viewer. What is all this to me? I walk in, find my seat, the curtains open, and I see bodies moving on the stage. Curtains close, I leave. How much of the discussion of worlds within worlds and reformed culture do I experience? Did I even need to be there? Could you have reformed the world by simply having your practice alone?

There seems to be an interesting parallel in my mind between this discussion of cultural reformation through dance performance and cultural reformation through a liturgy. So much energy is attached to the form, the structure, the ritualizing framework, while the particulars of experience are left assumed – the dance, the hymn, these simply fill the container, and someone will probably experience something of value. They have to, right? We’ve worked so hard…

But in both cases, my experience is that I am a replaceable part, filling in the pew. All I can experience in either situation is the blaring white noise of the assumed structure, and the lack of attention to the situation itself. If I go to see a dance presented in a proscenium, with bolted down chairs, lights and a curtain, ushers, programs and music, what function can I expect to be served? Would I be out of line to expect to be entertained? Or *should* I expect to be culturized in some way? Like getting roughage in my diet? Maybe there should be a call at the end to come forward if the dance has expanded your world…

Comment by Joshua Penrose

Joshua, I’m so glad to have your words here. You always bring my attention to sides of things that I haven’t seen yet.

So what is/might be the world forming potential of performance for the viewer/spectator? I think my first answer is that, to be honest, I don’t always know an answer to that question. I think that’s why I don’t always present my work in public spaces for viewing. I myself don’t present work (whether that work is choreography or writing, etc.) without considering the container/context (which is, of course, always part of the content of the work). And when I do operate in predetermined situations (theatres with seats and lights and a proscenium arch, for instance), I do so mindfully. For instance, I submitted my solo “remembering the mountains” to osu’s winter dance concert last year, but with a particular agenda in mind. My intention was to contribute work to that concert that created a space for work of that nature (slow, minimal, tightly focused) to be in a concert of that kind. My “world making” intentions for that piece in that space (beyond the effects of the practice on the formation of my own body/consciousness) were specifically as an intervention in the culture of what is permissible in that context—permitted to be shown by the institution, permitted to be seen by the viewer (assuming they don’t leave, they are choosing to let that kind of work be a part of what they will give some measure of their attention to). That intervention, in itself, without putting any stock in a supposed mystical dance experience, forms a different world—a different world of dance concert culture at osu. But I digress.

Second thought: part of what I’ve been questioning (actually, what I am primarily questioning) is not my choreography or dances being presented, but my research and writing, which is in itself looking at the work of other artists (love art lab, karl cronin, queer porn, etc.). So in that sense, maybe all of this is starting from a place of question my own role as a viewer/spectator, and what I do in/with that role. I’m a spectator of this work like any other, and so in a sense, my work (my research, my writing) is an effect of their work, one way in which the value of the work exceeds the limits of its value to the artists themselves. Their work has been world-making for me, and my work can then in turn (I hope) introduce those other possible/actualized worlds to others. So I would suggest that even if my position for the work is predefined (in the dark, in a theatre, in a seat bolted to floor; or engaging with paintings in galleries or films in movie theatres, or rituals in liturgical settings, etc. etc. etc.), I am not simply replaceable (or disposable even), because what I bring to the work, what I take from the work, and what I then do with the work is unique to my own position/perspective. Do I expect every spectator to bring that kind of attention to the work? No, of course not. But the work does do something more with the participation of that kind of attention. I am not “necessary” for the work to exist, but I am necessary for the work to do what I can do with it. In that sense, each spectator/participant is necessary to the work that comes out of their engagement. I always hope that I’m pursuing (and modeling) a way of engaging with work in such a way that it does something more in the world because of my engagement.

My last thought at the moment: regardless of the value I can extrapolate from spectatorship, I do think that actual practice/enactment is infinitely more productive. That’s why I take a lot of interest in teaching, in facilitating the establishment of practices in other people’s bodies/lives. And even when I do make dances, my primary interest is in the world creating potential for the dancers/performers themselves. And maybe that in itself is another way to consider performance as a spectator: that which is being performed is not [only] a static object to be observed/scrutinized, but can also be considered as a model of practice, a demonstration of another way of being/becoming.

And I love the idea of calling people to come forward if dance/writing/art/etc. has changed their world. As much as I might resist any analogy to “answering a call” [for salvation, etc.], maybe there is a possible analogy to the necessary initiative/participation of the spectator. Work does invariably effect/affect me more when I “open my heart” to it, or try to get inside of it, rather than it fully seducing/intoxicating/coercing me completely by its own form and content. If that makes sense.

Hope I see you tonight!

Comment by morrismichaelj

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