michael j. morris

the intersection of extravagance and exhaustion is excess

Turbulence (a dance about the economy)
A collaborative failure choreographed by Keith Hennessy
18 December 2011

Performer/collaborators: Jassem Hindi (France/Lebanon), Julie Phelps, Emily Leap, Laura Arrington, Jesse Hewit, Jorge De Hoyos, Hana Erdman, Gabriel Todd, Ruairi O’Donovan (Ireland), Karina Sarkissova (Sweden), Empress Jupiter, Keith Hennessy plus special guests

I arrive at CounterPULSE at 7:58pm. I have never shown up that close to the start of a performance; I feel late even though I have two minutes to spare. I stand in line for will call tickets behind my friend Jiz. I am introduced to the person with whom they are speaking—her name might have been Jessica, but I don’t remember for certain—and “Jessica” comments that it’s nice to meet me and that she loves my eyebrows. I say thank you, that they are usually more manicured, but because I’ve been traveling they have gotten a bit out of control.

When we enter the performance space, there is already more happening than I can fully recount. There are more people in the audience than there are seats, and there is a kind of commotion of people greeting one another, moving in and out of the rows of seats, and trying to figure out where might be an acceptable place to sit. I say hello to Beth Stephens, Annie Sprinkle, and Joseph Kramer, with whom I performed earlier that morning at the Love Art Laboratory’s White Wedding to the Sun. On the stage space—a designation which will fluctuate in usefulness as the performance unfolds—members of the audience are lying in what feels like heaps, receiving various forms of body work from the cast of performers. Walking into this scene, it has already become difficult to clearly mark when the performance began; the ending will be similar in its ambiguity.

The first moment that I recognize as an image to be recognized is a human pyramid with six performers, each with their head wrapped in a sash of dazzling gold material.

photo by Jiz Lee

I am struck by the amount of information that is contained within a relatively simple image: this is a precarious structure; it will eventually collapse. It is composed of exhaustible bodies, and although the exact moment of each one’s threshold of exhaustion cannot be predicted, I can recognize that each component of the structure, each person/body, is operating within its own mysterious but inevitable timetable of fatigue. These performers are masked, made anonymous by radiant gold hoods. It would be simple enough to read this as a metaphor for the economy, or for any such social institution that is constructed from unforeseeable and unsustainable variables. I cannot help but see this human pyramid of hooded figures alongside the torture photos from Abu Ghraib, in which prisoners were stacked in similar pyramids, naked except for hoods that rendered them faceless. And these are perhaps significant associations. But they also seem to me too easy. The genius of this piece is not that it finds clever choreographic representations of society or of the economy; to understand Turbulence in this way—or, indeed, to be satisfied understanding any dance work in this way—impoverishes the dance itself. It is not enough that this human pyramid, amongst many other such choreographic experiments, might be considered metaphorical or representational (and to be clear, it can certainly be considered in these ways). More importantly, it is an experiment with bodies. I cannot abandon the connections between the dance and the economy or American society. It is, after all, entitled Turbulence (a dance about the economy). But the connections I make between the dance and the economy, the economic aboutness of the dance, are not representational. It is as if the forces that shape the economy, or at least the popular understanding of the economy (it would be interested to hear an economist’s perspective on this dance), had been put to these bodies. What happens when bodies form exhaustible and unsustainable structures? What happens when bodies assume the postures of tortured prisoners, here with no real threat of bodily injury, here fully clothed and hooded in gold? What happens when bodies grip one another in counterbalance and spin with such force that they barely maintain control? What happens when bodies spinning out of control collide? What happens when there are innumerable small actions being designed and executed, but any comprehensive oversight of all actions is impossible? What happens when bodies are displaced from the spaces that afford them identity (spectators put on stage, performers occupying the audience)? Rather than this dance representing the economy and the many forces that shape and are shaped by the economy, Turbulence seems to be produced through taking such abstract economic forces as the choreography and design for this performance, for these bodies.

The action of the performance is a bit of a circus, more happening than I can take in at the time or recount after the fact. And it is for the most part improvised, although informed by collaborative residencies held over the last year. Actions that stayed with me: an interactive project in which audience members were asked to read the labels in one another’s clothing as shout out where the items were made (I was wearing “Canada,” “China,” and “USA”); other audience members were transcribing the names of these countries with sharpies onto cardboard taped to the stage; performers wrestling with one another with full body force, tugging one another to the floor and back up again, struggling in such a way that seemed more about exhausting their bodies than overpowering one another; performers gripping one another’s arms in counterbalance and spinning with such force that they barely stayed in control of their motion and often collided with one another; one person being pinned down on the stage by five others, in a moment that evoked gang rape or mugging or a restraining a struggling prisoner or patient; performers directing one another and the audience during the performance; a trapeze act with three performers (Emily Leap, Jorge De Hoyos, and Keith Hennessy);

photo by Jiz Lee

Leap crumpled on the floor while Jesse Hewit reads from a notebook, whispering (but with a microphone) in her ear about love and tenderness, a shared history, risk, dancing an impossible dance, the desire to outmuscle exhaustion (this was a quote I believe was attributed to Peggy Phelan; I believe the full quotation reads:
“Love, despite its toxicity and violence, can bring us closer to the possibility of expressing human tenderness. If one is ambitious enough to want to create a shared history, then one must be willing to risk an impossible dance, one that pivots on a desire to outmuscle exhaustion, a desire alive to our wavering capacities to bestow and receive responses, and an apparently insatiable desire to question these capacities and what motivates and blocks them, repeatedly.”);
a game in which audience members are invited to exchange with performers whatever they had too much of; shouting (lots of shouting) throughout the performance; Hennessy reading a text that sounds like a polemic of some kind, but is obscured by the additional layers of sound and action reverberating in the space; the frenzy of the space breaking into a dance party, fueled by Rihanna and champagne and even a roasted chicken. Throughout all of this action, I am tracking the chaotic blurring of boundaries, borders like performer and spectator, beginning and ending, in control and out of control. I am aware of competing forces, forces (aural, physical, etc.) that are sometimes in oppositional conflict, and are at other times merely in parallel competition for attention. Much of the performance feels as if it is enacted somewhere between anger and exasperation. It feels like a protest, but a protest of many things at once, with no clear focus (and while these are descriptions that have been leveled at the Occupy movement, Hennessy’s website offers that this piece was instigated before the recent Occupy Wall Street actions: http://www.circozero.org/performances/turbo/index.html).

The organization of the stage space reminded me of a piece I wrote about earlier this year, Morgan Thorson’s Heaven. The space was large and predominantly white. It contained various “stations”: the sound boards and microphones in one corner of the stage, a large trapeze hanging just off of center, cardboard taped to the walls and floor. As the dance unfolds, similar to in Heaven, places around the space become indexed as the place where they _____. This mapping of the space is filled with overlap and revision. The corner of the stage where two dancers laid on top of one another becomes the corner where the audience members sat after being brought on stage. The central area where dancers spun almost out of control becomes the area where they danced to Rihanna, drank champagne, and shredded chicken onto one another’s bodies and the floor. In both dances, there is always more than one thing happening simultaneously, one action bleeding into another set alongside another and in competition with another. While the overall effect of Turbulence in no way resembled the overall effect of Heaven, these formal similarities situated Hennessy’s piece within a larger landscape of the field of dance.

I was also reminded more than once of the work Félix González-Torres. This had mostly to do with materials. Near the middle of the piece (or perhaps closer to the end), the largest and most extravagant prop piece was brought onto the stage: a massive gold curtain, probably somewhere around 10 feet by 15 feet, and which likely cost in the hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

image of gold curtain from previous performance of Turbulence

Performers walked at the edges of it, crawled underneath it, pulled against it, wrapped themselves up in it, all the while throwing dazzling light wildly around the space. There were some moments at which I could hardly look at it, the light was too intense. I was reminded of González-Torres’ golden curtains (I recently saw one installed at the Art Institute of Chicago).

In a museum, González-Torres’ curtain introduces a spectacular campy glamour to what might otherwise be designed as a pristine, respectable space. Both curtains— González-Torres’ and the prop used in Turbulence—are ostentatious. They are excessive, too large, to sparkly, too showy. They overpower the space with grandeur, and in both instances, I am made self-conscious of that moment when I must simply look away. This formal association with González-Torres gave Turbulence a situation in art history for me, and a distinct tie to queer art and queer formalism. In the performance, the brilliant Empress Jupiter ranted about the curtain as cash, as gold, as wealth and status. It was all of these things, both symbolically and literally (again, this was not an inexpensive prop). But it was also kind of tacky in its glamour, just a bit “too much” (where would you hang a gold sequined curtain of these dimensions?), extravagant in a way that reinforced the theme of excess in the work overall, and makes you avert your eyes once or twice.

The intersection of extravagance and exhaustion is excess. Extravagance exceeds the necessary, ranges into wasteful; exhaustion is the full expenditure of that which is available. Turbulence pushes madly into both extravagance and exhaustion as if to interrogate—sometimes playfully, sometimes brutally—what is possible on the other side of each. What is possible when dancing in excess of material necessity and physical stamina? What emerges from or lingers after such bacchanalian excess, where there is no single direction or director that can be held accountable for all that has transpired, where no single participant or observer can attend to a majority of what has happened? When we cannot say for certain when it began or when it had ended; when the spaces and coextensive identities designated “stage” and “audience,” “performer” and “spectator,” have been so thoroughly transgressed from either direction, what then? It would not be consistent with the nature of the work to even attempt a single or succinct conclusion. What I can recount is a variety of reactions: some people left once they realized that the performance was, for them, over; others began to engage in conversations, some talking about the work itself, others discussing the economy or the Occupy movement, others just catching up with old or new friends; many of the performers, and some people who were in attendance as spectators, cleaned the stage, struck the set, put away equipment, etc. Eventually, I left with my friend Jiz to get a drink and some food. I might suggest that, at least in this instance, what happens on the other side of excess is not predictable. It remains a variable, even once it has arrived. By its nature, it has exceeded what one was prepared to describe; to find oneself in excess—temporally, spatially, physically, financially, sensorially, etc.—is to exist in ways that exceed preexisting terms of description. I want to resist valorizing or demonizing this state; for now, judging whether to exist on the other side of excess is “good” or “bad” does not seem a useful question (I might suggest that it is rarely if ever a useful question). Instead, I want to focus on the unpredictability of excess, excess as a space of possibilities and potentialities. When the preexisting terms or frameworks have been exceeded, new terms or frameworks must be developed. This is the creative potential of excess. There are numerous theories and theorists with which/whom I might correlate these observations. The association of queerness with excess has been written widely, for example. However, what comes to mind immediately is a quote from Donna Haraway that I read recently: “Breakdown provokes a space of possibility precisely because things don’t work smoothly anymore,” (Haraway How Like A Leaf 115).  This mad drive into excess constitutes a kind of breakdown, and whatever else breakdown constitutes—remorse, regret, loss, disorientation, etc.—it is also the space of possibility, as Haraway suggests, “precisely because things don’t work smoothly anymore.”

I can also describe a kind of state that I experienced after the performance, a kind of disorientation after having my attention pulled in so many different directions simultaneously: a kind of madness from the over stimulation and the overall disintegration of that which I was trying to observe; a kind of hopeful nihilism (if that isn’t too much of a paradox—and if it is, perhaps one more “too much” is fitting), in which no one thing held any special meaning over another thing, and no explanatory framework held true for all that had transpired. It was a feeling of, “Anything goes,” “Sure, okay,” and, “Well, why not?” In this sense, it was positively affirmative without any real investment in anything I might affirm. By the end of the performance (although, again, I cannot quite offer when the performance “ended”), I had pushed through any anxiety about being incapable of explaining or recounting all that I had seen. By the time I left the performance space, I felt very open to possibilities, to what else might be done, to what else might happen. The disorganized proliferation of activity had softened (or numbed) my senses of order or ordering. In this state, very little seemed impossible.

photo by Jiz Lee

for more amazing work by Jiz Lee, visit: http://jizlee.com/wordpress/

1 Comment so far
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Great reflections!

Comment by zann

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