michael j. morris


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.



20 Rue Jacob and Performing Gender

On May 22-23, I was part of an event called 20 Rue Jacob which was conceived, choreographed, and directed by Courtney Harris and Charlie Brissey. It was a multi-media event that was simultaneously a live performance, an art exhibit, a dance party, and a contemporary salon, featuring dance, video, installation sculpture, text, and burlesque. You can read more about the event here; in this post, I want to reflect a bit on my own choreography and performance, and share the text that I wrote for the solo that I performed.

Photo from 20 Rue Jacob. This moment came later in the show, after the solo I write about below, but captures something of the context.

Photo from 20 Rue Jacob. This moment came later in the show, after the solo I write about below, but captures something of the context.

Inspired by the work of painter Romaine Brooks and the famous salons hosted by Brooks’ lover, writer Natalie Barney, on the Left Bank of Paris in the 1920s, 20 Rue Jacob was intended as a contemporary reimagining of a queer past, the communities and spaces in which gender and sexuality, their fluidity and performance, have been explored. Since Courtney and Charli first invited me to be a part of this project, I knew that I wanted to create a piece that referenced the culture of an intellectual salon while also drawing on my own work as both a scholar and a performer. The piece also emerged from a kind of characterization, if not a character: last year I performed in a short film entitled Left of Canvas, also directed by Brissey and Harris and also inspired by the life and work of Romaine Brooks. In that film, my role is intentionally ambiguous. I am an unnamed figure at a kind of historical queer dance party, a femme-androgynous person who moves promiscuously through those in attendance, exuding sensuality and eroticism through glances, touches, brief dances, lingering embraces, roaming hands and tender kisses. In the film, I am all desire and desiring, drawing close and closer, drifting away, and coming back again. For 20 Rue Jacob, I wanted my characterization to retain both the ambiguity and effluence of eroticism that I perform in Left of Canvas—which was projected in a series of video installations throughout the Hoffheimer Building where 20 Rue Jacob was staged—while also embodying the hybrid figure of a genderqueer scholar and burlesque dancer. The foundation for the piece is a spoken text, something between a manifesto and a lecture, the kind of text one might hear from a philosopher at a salon sharing provocative or innovative ideas about society and culture. The text was also an exercise in articulating the fairly complex critical theory of gender and sexuality that I study in a relatively succinct and accessible format. In doing so, I wrote a series of statements, my own words, without quotations or direct citations—while also carrying the undeniable influence of scholars and writers such as Judith Butler, Kate Bornstein, Susan Stryker, and Sandy Stone.

Still from Left of Canvas, the film that was shot a year earlier and was projected throughout the building during 20 Rue Jacob. I am dancing with John Dombroski.

Still from Left of Canvas, the film that was shot a year earlier and was projected throughout the building during 20 Rue Jacob. I am dancing with John Dombroski.

During my delivery of this text, I moved around a central space surround by elegant antique seating within a huge ballroom on the second floor of the Hoffheimer Building. Dressed in a floor length satin gown, black satin evening gloves, black heels, a brocade shawl and strands and strands of pearls, I walked around the space, making eye contact with the audience. My movements accompanying the text were choreographed, simple, demonstratively gendered gestures abstracted from the self-touching and teasing of a burlesque dancer or strip tease. I say “abstracted” because I think, at the beginning, it was potentially not quite clear that this was a strip tease, that I was or would be a burlesque dancer; in a sense, this revelation itself was part of a “reveal.” As the text developed, I began to remove layers of clothing, first the shawl, then a glove, then the other glove, unzipping my dress, slipping the straps off of my shoulders, then eventually letting the dress fall to the ground. The strip tease was intended to supplement the text and also provide it with dimension: these spoken words are not merely “theory.” I am talking about real lives, real bodies, the living flesh of my own body. My presentation of my genderqueer body was there alongside and beneath my words; receiving the gaze of the audience as I undressed, it could also be overwritten, re-dressed by the text that I spoke.

There were also moments of interaction in the piece. During one line, I approached another performer, came up close, pressed my body against his as he wrapped his arms around my waist. During another line, I approached another performer who—at very specific moments—slapped me in the face to punctuate the reality that dissenting from the gender binary risks punishment, even violence. At the end of the piece, the performer who slapped me—John Domborski—retrieved my dress crumpled on the floor, brought it to me, then helped me as I got dressed there in front of the audience as the next performance began, with a text written by Gertrude Stein. These fleeting interactions introduced to the piece that the ideas delivered through the text are not only theoretical and not only liver by real bodies; they are also social, relational, entangled with intimacy and conflict, desire and disdain.

I hope to provide photo and video documentation of the piece at some point, but for now, here is the text that I wrote/spoke, annotated with descriptions of the choreography:

[Entering the space, I pause and pose at the center of the ballroom: elbows back, shoulders down and very slightly twisted to narrow my silhouette, leaning into one hip, my hands lying lightly on my chest. Posture is integral to gender presentation: how I stand, how I move, how I hold my arms and shoulders and hips are all mechanisms that participate in what will or will not be perceived as feminine. When I begin to speak, I move through a series of gestures, stroking the satin and skin of one arm with my fingertip, my arms swiping seductively across my body.]

“Gender is an activity, something we are given to perform and that we continue to perform repeatedly over time.

[I repeat this series of gestures in three directions as I speak, moving with the text and also moving through silence. Each gesture takes all of the time it takes, luxuriating in the air and lingering across my body. The sustained pacing invites anticipation. With each gesture, I allow my shoulders and hips to push and pull in counterpoint to each other, a continuous tilting and twisting to produce postures that seem to sink into repose.]

By performing it constantly, gender appears to be static, stable, or fixed. It is not.

[I face the fourth direction and slide my hands lightly, sensuously down my bosom, my waist, my hips, my groin.]

No one was born a woman or born a man. These are roles we are assigned.

[I spread my arms wide, opening my shawl, letting it drape across my back, and then fall to the floor. I walk towards the audience, each step careful and measured, crossing one foot in front of the other, and my eyes lock with a man I do not know in the crowd.]

Any person who is called a man performs an approximation of an idea, an approximation of an ideal, an approximation that has already failed.

[Peeling off my left glove as I speak, sliding my hand across my chest, I hold his gaze with mine, knowing that while my gesture is potentially seductive, my words are an indictment. As I speak the word “failed,” the glove snaps softly off of the tips of my fingers.]

Any person who is called a woman performs an approximation of an idea, an approximation of an ideal, an approximation that has also already failed.

[Moving around the edge of the audience, my eyes meet those of a manly woman. I peel the glove off of my right hand as I speak and hand the gloves to the woman.]

Gender categories are aggregates of characteristics—behavioral, physical, chemical, sartorial, choreographic.

[I move back towards the center of the space and pose with each word: miming putting on makeup; stroking my hands down the front of my body until I am bent over, fingers at my ankles; sliding my fingertips back up my body; pressing my hands into my hips, my elbows forward, my belly concave, a model in the pages of Vogue; leaning forward slightly, my left hip jutting back, draping my right arm overhead like Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose.]

The more characteristics correspond with a given gender, the more successful the approximation of the category. The more the code does not add up, the more the approximation fails.

[I turn and face another direction, repeating the series of poses.]

These gender codes do not stop at the skin. Biological sex is the attribution of a set of meanings to a body. When we say, “It’s a boy!” or, “It’s a girl!” we are saying: we have already decided what your body means, and that set of meanings will constrain and enable what you can do, how you can live, how you can desire, how you can love. Or be loved.

[Here my voice gets louder as I walk in long strides perched precariously atop six-inch heels around the edge of the audience encircling me. On this line, my voice and presence feel rallying, more like a suffragette than a lecturer.]

Yes, gender is also a matter of desire: Who or what would you be if you found yourself desiring someone whose gender is ambiguous or shifting?

[I approach one of the other performers, Nikolai McKenzie. I look into his eyes, our faces almost touching, then turn, press my back against his front as he wraps his arms around my waist. As I say the word “shifting,” I take a few steps forward, and his arms drift open, trailing behind me as I move on. I turn and walk towards another performer, John Dombroski.]

You can fuck with the codes, but do so at your own risk. Those who dissent from the gender binary are usually punished. [When I say the word punished, he hits me, open palm, across my cheek. I stumble under the force for a moment, recover, then stand back up and look him in the eye.] Repeatedly. [He hits me again, this time with even more force, and I have to pause to recover myself. When I speak again, it is now with a near manic brightness, the voice of a person trying desperately to behave as if everything is completely as it should be.]

What if the codes were to break down? What if bodies refused the codes? In a society built on a gender binary, in which bodies are made to live within one of two mutually exclusive categories, all for the benefit and privilege of—let’s not forget—one sex, what would happen if gender and sex were made matters of not one or two but many?

[As I speak, I waltz back into the center of the room, stepping beneath myself, turning, waltzing around myself, to come to face a stranger. I slowly unzip the back of my dress, revealing the flesh beneath and the hint of a black g-string.]

As a body comes into view, remember that what you see is already overwritten with what you have been told it means, how that body, its gestures, its pieces and parts are allowed to signify.

[Slipping my arms out of the straps of my gown, I hold the top of the bodice with my finger tips, leaning forward and shimmying my shoulders as I speak. Finally, I lowering the dress, sliding the satin down my body, and letting it fall in a soft heap on the floor. Standing, wearing only black pasties, a black g-string, strands of pearls and black heels, I lift one fist high into the air, a rallying gesture, as I lean into one hip, cross one knee slightly in front of the other: a feminine posture.]

What if when assigned one of two genders, our collective response was: My Body Does Not Mean What You Say It Means.

[During one performance, a woman in the audience stood up and lifted her fist into the air in solidarity. I felt like we were sharing something, a gathering force,  the seeds of a revolution stirring in this sophisticated salon, amidst the twinkling lights and sparkling wine.
After a moment of stillness and silence, I cross to the edge of the circle. John brings me my dress and I step into it; he zips it up. This is for me the most intimate moment in the piece: stripping is a performance, a show, a spectacle. Redressing is always in the aftermath, after the clothes have come off, after whatever stage show or tryst, perhaps the same night, perhaps the next morning. There’s a kind of exposure in dressing oneself in front of others, and it felt necessary to share that tender moment with the audience as a counterpoint to the density of the text, the confidence of the strip tease.]

[text by Michael J. Morris]



death drive/obscene/on-scene

On November 13, 2014, I premiered a solo entitled death drive/obscene/on-scene as part of a show called 11 Tiny Performances, curated by Esther Baker-Tarpaga and Heidi Wiren Bartlett, and produced by The Englert Theatre and the Trumpet Blossom Cafe in Iowa City, Iowa. The show coincided with the joint annual conference of the Congress on Research in Dance and the Society for Dance History Scholars. The following is my own recounting of the work, as a component of its documentation:

photo by Atom Burke

photo by Atom Burke

My solo is number seven in a line-up of eleven five-minute performances that will take place on a four-foot-by-four-foot stage. I am standing off to the side, wearing my grandmother’s silky black slip, bare legs and feet, with dark black liquid eyeliner, and false lashes. When it comes time for my piece, one of the stage managers spreads a black bed sheet over the tiny stage, and I walk towards it.
I lay a small bottle of silicone lube and a steel dildo—an Njoy Pure Wand—on one corner of the sheet, and climb up onto the stage. The audio begins, and I listen to the sound of my own voice:

“Death drive/obscene/on-scene. We have never been human: I think we learn to be worldly from grappling with, rather than generalizing from, the ordinary.”

I cross to the opposite corner of the stage, tucking my elbows back behind my waist, keeping my knees close together, trying to approximate a more feminine silhouette that I’m not sure I can achieve. To my right is a table of prominent dance studies scholars: I recognize Tommy DeFrantz, Ananya Chatterjea, and Susan Foster, among others. I reach my fingers underneath the slip, and pull my black underwear down to the stage. Someone says something, but I can’t make it out.

“I am a creature of the mud, not the sky.”

I turn back around and kneel down, my knees wide, my feet close to my hips. I open the bottle of lube, squeeze just a little onto my fingertips, and reach underneath the hem of the slip to lube up my ass.

“I am a biologist who has always found edification in the amazing abilities of slime to hold things in touch and to lubricate passages for living beings and their parts.”

I lube up the smaller end of the c-shaped dildo. Sliding the left strap of the slip down, I fold my left arm inside the slip, reach through it, then guide the dildo in between my legs, underneath the bottom hem of the dress, and out of sight. I close my eyes; I’m not looking at the audience. I’m thinking about Annie Sprinkle and her performance “The Legend of the Ancient Sacred Prostitute.” I’m listening to myself read the words of Donna Haraway, and I feel the cold, hard tip of the dildo pressing against my anus. I tense up, then slowly exhale, trying to relax.

“I love the fact that human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such … I am vastly outnumbered by my tiny companions; better put, I become an adult human being in company with these tiny messmates. To be one is always to become with many.”[1]

The smooth, cold curve of the steel slides inside of me, past one sphincter then the next, and I curl forward from the waist, shifting my weight up and forward. Slowly I lower back down, and feel it slide farther inside. My eyes are shut, and I know that I am in a room full of people and they are all looking at me and listening to my voice and I try to focus, to feel myself from the inside out, to feel the flush of my cheeks and the curve of my spine and my breath and the wetness of the lube and the hardness of the dildo and the softness of my flesh wrapping around it and the whole invisible system of tiny lives that swarm and collect inside of me. We are a whole human/nonhuman collective, fully in sight while somehow remaining out of sight, out of mind.

“… an instinct would be a tendency innate in living organic matter impelling it towards the reinstatement of an earlier condition, one which it had to abandon under the influence of external disturbing forces…”[2]

I am rocking my weight forwards and backwards, up and down, the greased-up steel sliding in and out of me. My right hand holds the dildo between my thighs; my left hand is rubbing my cock, sliding over it pressed against my belly, beneath the silky slip. The audience can’t see exactly what I’m doing; all this sliding and rubbing and penetration is hidden beneath the slip, but they know what I’m doing. I hope they know what I’m doing. Right here, my body becomes the site for what can and cannot be seen, for what is simultaneously right here on stage and still out of view. There are multiple scales here: seeing my body, but not seeing what is underneath the slip; seeing my knees and shoulders and neck and face, seeing the motion of my arms, but not seeing the dildo sliding in and out of my ass; seeing the surface of my skin, the dark, shiny slip, but not the vast ecosystem of nonhuman lives that compose my body from the inside out. I am masturbating here on stage in front of a crowd for the very first time, but it was never only me here; my body is already a multitude.

“This final goal of all organic striving must be an ancient starting point, which the living being left long ago: ‘The goal of all life is death’, and, casting back, ‘The inanimate was there before the animate’.”[3]

I hear myself moan as the steel presses against my prostate, waves of sensation rising to meet the intensification between my palm and my cock. For moments I lose myself in the sensation, the pleasure, then I pulse back out to self-awareness. I feel my shoulders lifted high, I realize how far forward I am bent at the waist, and slow down. I take a deep breath, relax my shoulders, and try to feel myself feeling myself again. I hear my own voice, and I realize that I can’t quite fully take in the density of the text; I hear it and receive it in fragments, in pieces and parts that sink into my body in ebbs and flows. I wonder if people will think this is about critical theory being masturbatory or solipsistic, a statement about theory and academic scholarship being detached from a broad public. That’s fine, but I hope they also realize that even if theory is masturbatory, I am valorizing masturbation, and that I’m bringing the density of critical theory into intimate cohabitation with my own body. I consider this for a mere moment before my body reasserts itself, takes full attention, and I again lose track of the text.

“I would here subjoin a few words to clarify our nomenclature, one which has undergone a certain development in the course of our discussion … With the discovery of narcissistic libido, and the extension of the libido-concept to the individual cells, the sexual instinct became for us transformed into the Eros that endeavors to impel the separate parts of living matter to one another and to hold them together … Our speculation then supposes that this Eros is at work from the beginnings of life, manifesting itself as the ‘life-instincts’ in contradistinction to the ‘death-instinct’ which developed through the animation of the inorganic.”[4]

I hear Susan Foster chuckle when my voice says the words “death-instinct,” and I realize just how close she is, mere feet away from me, this remarkable scholar. I teach her work in my writing class; when I get back to Ohio, I’m showing my students her lecture “Choreographies of Writing.” She’s one of the great leaders in the field, sitting at a table with other great leaders in the field, and I am masturbating, fucking myself with a steel dildo, feet away from them. Susan laughs, and I wonder if this is professional suicide, whether putting my body on stage and on the line in this way will cost me as a scholar, as a researcher, as a professor. I wonder if scholars are allowed to be embodied, erotic, sexual, in public. I wonder if theory about sexuality, about ecosexuality, about pleasure and death are allowed to reside in the body, if the body theorizing sexuality in public is allowed. Then I feel my cock pulsing under my hand and my hips circling the dildo and I try to stop worrying about my career, try to remember that I believe this work I am doing is important.

“The pleasure-principle is then a tendency which subserves a certain function—namely, that of rendering the psychic apparatus as a whole free from any excitation, or to keep the amount of excitation constant or as low as possible… the function so defined would partake of the most universal tendency of all living matter—to return to the peace of the inorganic world. We all know by experience that the greatest pleasure it is possible for us to attain, that of the sexual act, is bound up with the temporary quenching of a greatly heightened state of excitation.”[5]

This five minutes feels so much longer than it did in rehearsal. When I rehearsed this piece on the floor of my living room, in front of a mirror, I felt like the piece had barely started by the time it was over. I felt close, like I could cum in another minute or so. Here on stage in front of all these people with my eyes closed, the minutes pass much more slowly, and I am nowhere near climax. I feel myself wet and hard beneath my hand, beneath the slip, but the pleasure is subtle and elusive. The context is full of pressure and exposure and vulnerability, and it’s a little over halfway through the piece before I realize just how vulnerable I feel, that I’m bent over at the waist in some kind of protective posture, that I might cry in front of all of the people, that I might actually cry, that I’m not really breathing, that I’m holding my breath…
I slow down. Sit upright. Let my shoulders release. I take a deep breath. I bring my attention back to the subtle sensations orbiting the dildo inside me.

“From the foregoing it would be possible to attribute an essentially sexual quality to extinction, and an extinguishing tendency to sexuality … Consider, in this respect, the sexuality of consumption: beyond organic needs … there exists a persistent and insistent process of ingestion that is blind to the (supposedly) proper and organizing limits of the living body. This is especially so if we consider the original proper living organism to be not the located finite human individual, but life as a whole, the organism of Gaia. The very processes that originated from the striving of organic maintenance—eating, reproducing, producing—have pushed the organism to (self-)annihilation.”[6]

Pleasure always has both personal and planetary implications. Sexuality is already ecological, and the pleasure of the human species is quite possibly propelling us towards our own extinction.
And yet: I’m starting to feel more aroused. My skin feels flushed, and my hips are following a rhythm that seems to come from somewhere else, a rhythm that my hips follow rather than control. I stop worrying about my posture or my shoulders or whether or not anyone understands what’s happening because it is finally almost starting to feel good enough to stop worrying about my posture or my shoulders or whether or not anyone understands what’s happening or whether they are thinking that I am a man or whether they get that this—all of this—is genderfuck too. The slip hanging off one should, sliding the dildo in and out, rubbing my hand over my cock: for a few moments I lose track of where I am in the five minutes.
“Works cited [everyone laughs, they think it’s funny]: Donna Haraway, When Species Meet; Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle; Claire Colebrook, Sex After Life.”

Someone claps when I say “Donna Harway,” and I’m glad. After the “works cited,” music gradually swells, and Antony Hegarty sings, “Are you a boy or a girl? Are you a boy or a girl? Are you a boy or a girl?” and the sounds of heavy, daunting strings cut back and forth through the air. It sounds overly dramatic but also sharply focusing, like someone dropping a glass in the middle of a crowd. I’m not close to cumming, but my movement has a kind of climax, amplified somehow by the sudden absence of text. With the background theory gone, my body feels like it takes up more space, more attention, more prominence, and this expansion itself feels like a kind of climax.
Then the room is silent.
My eyes flutter open, and my breathing is heavy. I slide the dildo out and sigh. I crawl off the stage, as if no one can see me, looking at no one. I bundle up the dildo, the lube, and my underwear in the bed sheet, and walk away. The audience claps and cheers, and I feel a little weak in the knees.

 

This piece was my first attempt to create performance art that specifically stages ecosexuality. The piece was an assemblage—its own erotic ecology—of my body, language, the writings of other scholars, music, lube, steel, and an audience. On the smallest scale, I hoped to inflect masturbation—the most solitary of sexualities—with ecological implications, in the midst of a crowd. Simultaneously, coming from my work in burlesque, I experimented with the line between what is shown and what is not shown, what can be seen and what is withheld from view. Lastly, I wanted to stage an intimate encounter between the rich theoretical texts that have informed my scholarship and my own body, returning theory to the body, and staging the embodied grounds for all this theory. I am thinking of this solo as one among several other previous and potential “erotic theory” performances. In 2012, I created a duet entitled “Horizontal Materiality: Judith Butler’s Lesbian Phallus, Donna Haraway’s Cyborg, and Beatriz Preciado’s Dildonics.” It consisted of two performers exchanging oral sex on a strap-on dildo that began on one performer then was transferred to the second performer. That duet was also accompanied by a soundscore of dense critical theory, staging a collision of sometimes-impenetrable theory and the penetrable bodies that such writing theorizes. I am interested in continuing to perform this solo, and also in developing further work that stages the text of critical theory alongside erotic performances, allowing the sexuality of bodies to participate in theory and theory to find grounding in live bodies on display.

 

[1] Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, 3-4.

[2] Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 44-45

[3] Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 47.

[4] Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 78-79, footnote.

[5] Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 81.

[6] Claire Colebrook, Sex After Life, 134.



naked
24 June, 2013, 10:51 pm
Filed under: art, Dance | Tags: ,

These are just a few stills from a photoshoot I did recently with Ric Petry for a piece he is exhibiting later this summer. The final piece will involve a video incorporated into a blown glass sculptural object. I’ll post more info about the exhibit when it becomes available, but I was really pleased with these stills from the shoot:
michael_001

michael_003

michael_006



MIKE: an exhibition featuring No Place Studios

Last night I had the opportunity to see a new exhibit at The Gallery at Till Dynamic Fare. I love this space. I’ve see exceptional performances in this space—such as Leigh Lotocki and Noelle Chun’s Hold Swayand participated in community events hosted by Till—namely the ongoing activities of the Peach District, such as last June’s Peach District Classic, an all day party featuring a spectacular line-up of live performance where I performed in a dance worked conceived of by Zachariah Baird and Sharon Udo, and this year’s Noble Peach Awards, an award show honoring members of the Columbus community who might otherwise escape notice, where I had the honor of presenting Eileen Galvin with the award for Biggest Genderfuck. This space is already special to me, and “MIKE: an exhibition featuring No Place Studios” adds even more significance to this list.

“MIKE” is the first exhibition presenting the work of No Place Studios. These nine artists graduated from Columbus College of Art and Design in 2012, and established the studio based on friendship, rebellion, and a shared drive to create contemporary art in Columbus. This introductory exhibition of No Place Studios coincides with a kicking off of exhibitions and arts events this season at the re-instated gallery inside Till dynamic fare. This exhibit was organized by Leigh Lotocki, adding to the list great work that Leigh has done in this city.

I didn’t think I would have time to write about this show, but when I continue to be struck by work that I’ve seen a day later, I don’t know how to not respond to it in writing. There’s a lot of good work in this show, but there were several pieces that specifically captured my attention:

The first is entitled “We’re going on vacation” by Erin McKenna (2013).

McKenna_1

Erin McKenna
we’re going on vacation
2013
altered pieces of hot tub, glitter, flocking, sculptamold, expanding foam, acrylic paint, enamel paint, vinyl, bowling ball

Erin McKenna we're going on vacation 2013 altered pieces of hot tub, glitter, flocking, sculptamold, expanding foam, acrylic paint, enamel paint, vinyl, bowling ball

Erin McKenna
we’re going on vacation
2013
altered pieces of hot tub, glitter, flocking, sculptamold, expanding foam, acrylic paint, enamel paint, vinyl, bowling ball

Erin McKenna we're going on vacation 2013 detail

Erin McKenna
we’re going on vacation
2013
detail

This work consists of five free standing sculptural pieces, each one a twisting topography of color, texture, scale, and luminosity, rough pinks and glittery silvers and shimmering blacks pushing against smooth, swirling teals and blues, resting on geometric puddles of highly reflective vinyl. I say resting, but these pieces don’t really rest; even stationary, they seem to turn, or rather they persistently insist that I move around them.

Constructed from altered pieces of a fiber glass hot tub, each form continually solicits my attention. As I approach it from one side, slivers and glimpses of another facet are reflected in the metallic vinyl. I am drawn around to another side by the hint and glint and glow of what I can see only partially, and once I come to this other side, the piece has changed. It is not the same shape from this side, and how its colors sit alongside one another has shifted. Here the black seems to leap out towards me between the pink and the silver. Here the beige of the fiberglass seems to wrap around and embrace the collision of pink and silver. Here the swirled acrylic blues and teals seem to wash up onto a hot glittering pink coast. Here the light is refracted differently, the shimmering glittery surfaces fragmenting the light from above into billions of twinkling points that are then caught and blurred and reflected by the metallic surface above which it sparkles. As I follow the play of light across these multiple twisting surfaces, I realize that I’m moving again, crouching to see how the piece seems to be glowing from underneath, leaning to see what else comes into view just around the curve of its side, stepping forward the see the full fragment framed by the glow from beneath. These objects are choreographing me, in a sense. It’s an indeterminate choreography, or maybe a joint improvisation, a score of movement given by the parameters of the piece. I keep moving in order to keep seeing what else this piece is showing me.

This is not the only way that I feel my body implicated into this piece: there is the unavoidable recognition of the curving ergonomic surfaces of the hot tub from which these objects have been cut. I feel how these sloping ledges and crevices might have curved against my body, supporting my reclining and sitting—not to mention the lifestyle that might afford such leisure. Or maybe this actually must be mentioned: maybe the destruction of the hot tub, the reorientation of its surfaces and supports cannot be considered apart from the lifestyles for which it was designed. The wealthy. The vacationers. The middle class who just want to treat themselves to something nice. However else these surface might have been, they can no longer support such bodies in those ways, and to the degree that the ergonomics of these surfaces were materialized through their orientation towards the surfaces of such leisurely bodies, to see them as they are now—dismembered, manipulated—I feel my own body differently as well. It’s subtle. I don’t feel myself going to pieces, but as I crouch and twist and lean and move along these surfaces with my sight, the body of mine that could press against these curves and slopes as they are now would not, could not, resemble the body for which they were initially designed.

I’m also interested in how the space gets drawn into the materials of the piece, not only in the play of light across the glitter and color and so on, but also how the room, the other art in the gallery, and the viewers get reflected in the sometimes hazy surface of the metallic vinyl. Each object seems to sit in the reflection of a distorted world, a world distorted in ways not dissimilar to the way that my body feels disrupted by the deconstruction of the shape(s) of the hot tub. I cannot tell you much about this world, except to say that it is made less familiar as it is brought into the looking-glass surfaces of McKenna’s work.

As each of these objects continues to disclose or offer more of itself to my attention, I am drawn in again and again by something like interest that bleeds into care. I am becoming invested in these objects, these materials, as they continue to unfold in my attention to them. I stay with them a little longer, and in doing so, I come to see more of them; in fact, my sense is that they come to show me more of themselves. There is something living, something almost ecological developing between us. Sustaining relations are in formation: the ongoing disclosure of the object sustains my attention. I cannot help but think that my attention, along with the attendance and attention of others gathered at this opening, sustains the circulation of these object, the production of such objects, the operation of this gallery space. Further, these relations between myself and these objects initiate and/or sustain other relations, such as social relations, the formation or sustainment of [this] community that has gathered in this space, in this neighborhood.

I have a similar experience with another work in the exhibit: James McDevitt-Stredney‘s “She was so cold to do so” (2013).

James McDevitt-Stredney She was so cold to do so 2013 oil, graphite, enamel on panel

James McDevitt-Stredney
She was so cold to do so
2013
oil, graphite, enamel on panel

This painting does something similar and different with me. Like McKenna’s sculptures, this piece continually draws me into seeing more of itself, more texture, more color, more detail. Rather than moving my body around the space, it draws my eyes over and over and around its surfaces. But the effect is distinct. Here I am drawn into subtle gradients that realize the complexity of what seemed simple on first encounter. For instance, when I first came to this piece, it seemed quite simply “a white painting” with some Cy Twombly-esque graphite doodles that could, from certain angles, suggest a form, with some thick streaks of white paint, and a cluster of hot bright spray paint near the top and off of center. But as my eyes move over its surface(s), I begin to see that this white is actually many whites, many viscosities, many strokes and strata, the accumulation of many actions. Many of these whites are not “pure” white, but rather contain streaks and strains of other colors, other contaminates that are somehow subsumed into what passes as white, but that eventually disclose their presence. Although the bright spots of enamel near the top—pink and orange and yellow bursting into one another—are the most pronounced intrusions of color into what might otherwise seem simply white, they merely mark the most extreme or the most intense of such intrusions. Indeed, as the more subtle spectrums of the painting disclose themselves—the lighter whites, the whites that are more beige, the flat and grey and pink whites—the intensity or extremity of these bright spots seems relatively diminished. They aren’t the only colors on an otherwise white and graphite surface; they are colors among other colors, perhaps the most flamboyant, but deviant only amongst other deviations. Similarly, what seems like an otherwise smooth topographic plane streaked by a few thick marks of white paint in a few places reveals itself to be much more textured, the thick streaks marking the highest “elevations” on a map of other markings. This is central to how I come to experience this piece, the ongoing disclosure of differences and diversity that were not initially visible to me, the rendering of what seems like extremes—white and color, flat and raised—into a spectrum of possibilities. It becomes something about the distribution of contamination, the impossibility of purity or singularity or even duality, the realization of multiplicity.

If I follow the thought process that I started above regarding the solicitation of attention as the constitution of almost ecological sustaining relations, then “She was so cold to do so” emphasizes the further recognition of difference as part of the establishment of such relations. I could almost call this effect queer: if we understand part of the function of “queer” to be the marking of otherwise unmarked possibilities, making feasible what might otherwise be impossible, establishing a spectrum where there was initially a binary, then I might articulate my experience of these pieces alongside one another as facilitating an experience of queer [ecological] relations, in ways that move and reorient my body, in ways that make visible the initially invisible spectrum of marks and surfaces, in ways the inspire my interest, attention, and care.

Needless to say, if you’re in Columbus, I hope you have an opportunity to see this show.
It will be on view from May 10-June 9.
The Gallery at Till Dynamic Fare is located at 247 King Ave, Columbus, Ohio 43201.
There will also be a party there after Gallery Hop, with live music and more snacks in the gallery on Saturday, June 1 from 8–11pm.



morgan thorson’s “heaven”
20 October, 2011, 10:26 pm
Filed under: art, Dance, dance review | Tags: , ,

This is still very much a draft. But I’m not sure when I’ll next find time to post writing to my blog, and I want to begin to give this writing a life beyond my laptop.

This is a short piece of writing that I did in response to a piece entitled Heaven by Morgan Thorson.
The piece can be viewed in its entirety at http://www.ontheboards.tv/.
This is a nice trailer for the dance:

And this video has some beautiful footage of the piece, as well as some interview footage with the choreographer:

My reading of the piece is not perfectly in line with Thorson’s explanation of her interests/process, but I think they create a lovely dialogue with one another.
I could have written far more about this piece. But it was a productive exercise to restrain the writing to (just under) 650 words.
Here are my words about the piece. Enjoy:

If There Is Always This and Here

Morgan Thorson’s Heaven, premiered in 2010, stages the affective possibilities of materiality. As exemplary of a contemporary “total art,” it choreographs not only the movements of bodies, but renders intentional organization to costumes, props, sets, lighting, and music as they evolve together through time and space. The work consists of a rigorous investigation of the materials from which it is composed—bodies, motion, light, textiles, and sound—offering an account of their immanent significance that relies not on systems of symbolism or representation with which they might be associated, but rather, on the inexhaustibility of their own potential.

Just over an hour long, Heaven unfolds as a boundless proliferation of differences that somehow feel the same. The use of “white” in the piece provides an example of one such proliferation of differences. Through often gradual and occasionally sudden shifts, I come to see white, not as ideal or sacred in its singularity, but as endlessly transformable, itself a composition of light, shadow, depth, and motion, always a different version of itself. The stage floor is white, and the three sides of the performance space are draped in white fabric that sometimes hangs like a veil and at other times billows in monumental waves on the impact of dancing bodies. The dancers are all dressed in assorted shades of white. White is the color of much of the light that throughout the piece reveals other “whites” in the play of lightness and shadow across the many surfaces scattered throughout the performance space. Across and between these surfaces, white unfolds not as a single neutralizing quality to which each surface refers; rather, “white” becomes a richly textured field of infinite variation that asks what else “white” might be.

The treatment of moving bodies is another mode through which Heaven demonstrates its internally differentiated unity. The dance begins in silence with the performers already moving in a lengthy synchronized procession around the parameter of the stage space. At various points during this procession, individuals drop out to engage in other tasks, while the original action of the procession is constantly maintained by at least one performer. This becomes a structural theme of the piece, particular actions carried on by one or more performers while others proceed into other tasks, gestures, and phrases.  Processing continues during bowing, bowing is simultaneous to standing and rolling and colliding, which someone carries on while others move into circling, circling that flows into singing and spinning, spinning while others break into running and later into kneeling, and so on: the cohesion of the choreography comes from its layering, actions always overlapping with other actions, and in doing so, smoothing out what might otherwise register as decisive breaks in a dance so varied in its movement vocabularies. The effect is a busyness of action that somehow over time feels like stillness, a broad domain of movement possibilities that paradoxically simulate uniformity.

In Heaven, Thorson not only accomplishes a compelling example of contemporary performance work that takes its own materiality as the source of its own possibilities of meaning. The title of the piece makes the deployment of many of these materials (pervasive whiteness, dazzling beaded curtains that might elsewhere suggest pearly gates, singing in groups with eyes closed and hands raised, the departure and return of bodies) notable: their abstraction from traditional representations of “heaven” asks us to consider the affective significance of symbols that need not signify, and to consider the immanent sacredness of materiality. What are the sensational possibilities of the physical and the familiar when they are no longer used for religious iconography, but are instead put forward to be considered in their very own glory? Thorson’s Heaven asks how our concepts of transcendence, divinity, or salvation might transform if the materials through which such concepts have been represented were to take on tacit interminable meanings of their own.



wexner fall exhibitions 2011

[this is a brief post that I commented on the WexBlog’s post “Fall Exhibitions: From plants to planetary destruction.” after a conversation with dear friends joshua penrose and mara penrose, I am interested in exploring the potential for the WexBlog to function as more than a space for the Wexner to share information, but also for the Columbus community to engage in dialogue around/about/towards/from the work+programming that the Wexner provides. this was my first attempt.]

I am intensely interested in this cycle of exhibitions. I was impressed by the exhibits mounted this past spring, particularly the works by Pipilotti Rist, but the “Double Sexus” exhibit and the works by Nathalie Djurberg as well. All three shows for me functioned as significant artistic interventions in the representation and perception of sexuality, perversity, seduction, and the ecstatic–each in unique but productive ways. [As an aside, this was for me an extremely exciting function/position for the Wexner to be taking on, both in the art world, but most specifically within the cultural landscape of Columbus. Too often public institutions, even arts institutions, seem to avoid engaging with issues of sex and sexuality. Such human concerns seem to confer contamination in our culture. To have the Wexner display work that dealt with these issues so directly, and multivalently, was in itself an exciting proposition for the cultural landscape to which it contributes.] Rist’s “The Tender Room” in particular began to address what for me is a profound intersection between issues of sexuality and ecology, the body and the environment, in ways that blurred the distinctions between these tidy constructed binaries and initiated [visual, aural] conversations that made these areas of experience more permeable and pervasive, a plane of possibilities bleeding through imagery and space rather than diagrams situated at the poles of a single dimension. My own research and performance work is currently investigating the concept of “ecosexuality,” and I found Rist’s installation to not only lend itself to “ecosexual analysis,” but also to contribute its own perspectives/observations/affects, articulated within its own terms, to further expand how we might consider/recognize the intersection of sexuality and ecology.

pipilotti rist's "the tender room"

 

But this new cycle of exhibits promises to explore these (as well as other) concerns even more broadly and directly. Diana Thater’s “Peonies” beautifully problematizes the distinction between the organic and the digital, the cell and the pixel, and (if I might borrow from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari) the smooth and the striated. This piece brings me to a state of examining the inherent tensions within the organization of time, space, the history of visual representation, and even (possibly) the convention of biological taxonomies. I am left considering that which exceeds these organizing frameworks, that which flows over from one frame into another (where spatiality becomes temporality, where the digital becomes organic, etc.), and–perhaps most importantly–what exists in the gaps between what can be represented in this frameworks of convention and organization. Her sensual experiments in the clarity and speed of her footage, her employment of tropes of visual culture (such as the grid itself), and even her use of technology as a medium for exploring “nature” functions well as both a precursor and, in a sense, gate keeper for the work to arrive in the other galleries. Among other things, Thater’s work seems to ask me to reconsider–in its most general sense–what I think of as “the natural world,” as well as the romanticism with which it has been historically constructed.

diana thater "peonies"

 

I am eager to see the other three exhibits. Paula Hayes work with living organisms, as Christopher Bedford so articulately introduced above [see video in WexBlog post, link above], introduces the question of “care” into both the art work itself, but also by extension the art institution, and perhaps even the spectator. I am interested in the potential of this work to introduce new affective and affectionate possibilities into the relationship between the human and the other-than-human. I am interested in the tensions between “care” and “management,” “affection” and “ownership,” and how the care of which Bedford speaks navigates tendencies towards subjectivation and objectification. I am interested in how this work participates in our understanding and production of a world of subjects and objects, and possibly how such concerns might suggest the works’ occupation of a register of sexuality (which is itself a political minefield establishing and enacting a landscape of subjects/objects). Most of all, I’m interested in how this work might be ecology-forming, literally establishing systems of interdependency in/through/as the art works themselves (environmental ecologies, social ecologies, symbolic ecologies, economic ecologies, etc.).

work by paula hayes

 

Alexis Rockman’s work promises to introduce an element of fantastic speculation to the galleries, imagining complex utopic and distopic visions of “the natural world,” further problematizing this construction through both that which is depicted as well as the methods of depiction. As landscape paintings and renderings of “natural history” are historical practices rich in the romanticization of “nature,” I am interested in how Rockman’s work might reconfigure such constructions through his enactment of similar painterly techniques. The speculative quality of his representations seems to suggest the speculative quality of all reflections of the world in which we [might] live.

work by alexis rockman

 

Finally Elliott Hundley’s refiguring of “The Bacchae”–for me, easily the most mysterious of the exhibits to come–at the very least seems as if it will introduce further contributions to the contemplation of history, pleasure, and the ecstatic to our cultural landscape. Along with this work, I am over the moon about the fact that Anne Carson will be contributing to the catalogue of Hundley’s work. Carson is one of the most exquisite authors of our time, and to have her contributing to the context and dialogue around this work is an elevating proposition.

work by elliott hundley

 

Overall, I’m excited by the rich yet-to-be-seen potential of these exhibits, and I continue to commend the Wexner on their active engagement with the production of culture in and beyond Columbus.



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.



control

Start.

My initial experience with Control [command+N, google “urban arts space control,” click page, copy URL, click “hyperlink” “button” in wordpress interface, paste URL], the game/exhibit being produced by Joshua Penrose and Nick Bontrager at the Urban Arts Space City Center Gallery, was a kind of confused amusement: various electronic apparatuses hanging on one wall, faced from the opposite side of the long gallery by a series of blank white canvases. I didn’t know what the machines were doing (but they were doing something). White buttons–almost camouflaged against white walls–punctuated the second wall alongside the white canvases. And at the far end of the second wall was a vintage television playing a vintage video clip of a man pressing several buttons and turning dials on a large computer-like machine. Surrounded by whirring noises, some mechanisms carrying on all by themselves (or so they seemed), and others accompanied by simple buttons–buttons unchaperoned and oh so seductive, their simply stated presence somehow already flirtatious, asking to be pressed–I felt implicated on a playing field suspended between hidden/classified/specialized mechanistic determinism(s), the titillating desire of my own curiosity, and an invisible proposal soliciting my participation.
“Are the buttons to be pressed?”
“Michael, aren’t all buttons to be pressed?”
“Yes, I suppose all buttons are to be pressed by someone. Are the buttons to be pressed by me?”
“Yes.”

I don’t know what will happen when I press any of these buttons, and I feel buzzing hints of intoxication in those moments of anticipation between my finger pressing the button and waiting to see what will happen. Paintings slide along walls. A dvd player drawer opens and closes. A little red symbol at the corner of the screen that says “NO.” I don’t know what is happening when I turn these dials. And it takes me a moment to realize the each time I press one of these buttons a different segment of audio recorded conversation comes through the headphones. The unpredictability is exhilarating, as is the sense of initiation into the secrets of the show as I begin to figure out what each button does. I experience a sense of belonging to the system of what has been designed in this space–even though much of what has been designed is hidden from view, complex concepts and circuitry concealed by walls and masked by simplified interfaces. I feel functional, useful even, because I am participating in the production of what and how the work does what it is doing. It feels good to be a part of something bigger than myself, implicated in the pre-programmed/deterministic function of each user/interface interaction.
“WAR”–a word flashing across a screen, on a vintage computer monitor.
The Gulf War Did Not Take Place by Jean Baudrillard. The mediation of reality and action (atrocious, tragic, violent) through systems of representation and technology.
The naive assumption that what I think/perceive my actions do and mean is the full extent/range of their significance. Trusting the transparency of cause and effect, the transparency of my role in a system of invisible mechanisms.
The pleasure of curiosity and anticipation begins to dissolve, replaced by a creeping anxiety concerning my eagerness to take action, to participate, so cavalier  and so unbothered [exhilarated, even] by the unpredictability of the outcome of my actions. The seemingly simple joy of pressing a button to see what will happen is supplanted by the discomfort of recognizing that my actions completed a circuit in a series of processes and outcomes of which I was ignorant. The actions that I took (take?) were/are always producing more than I perceive, and that unpredictability, previously so titillating, now edges towards terrifying. Certainly I can justify my willingness to participate in opaque (classified, specialized, hidden) operations: it’s an art gallery, it’s just a game, there’s nothing sinister here. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve been given a peep-hole look into something else, something like the ethical dilemma of curiosity, action, and uncertainty.

The three white paintings are blank, but their content exceeds their blankness. Each one is mounted on a machine that slides it along the wall when a white button to the side of it is pushed. Behind the first is a series of unmarked dials. I turn them with absolutely no sense of what each one does. I look around to see if any other pieces in the exhibit are noticeably affected, or to look for reactions amongst the other people in the gallery. Nothing. I press the button again. Nothing. I wait, and gradually the painting slides back into place to conceal the dials once again. Second: a small screen is revealed, and on the screen in a mildly distorted live feed video of the interior of the Urban Arts Space, people milling around the front desk and tables of food. Third: a tiny black peep hole is revealed, and through it I can see the space next door to the gallery, an industrial looking space gutted in a state of deconstruction/reconstructions. Behind each painting is a kind of access to something else: dials with which I interact, not knowing if they are merely decorative or if they are producing invisible effects elsewhere. Of course they don’t need to be metaphors, but I can’t help but think about the hidden mechanisms by which art or painting or even the gallery space does what it does, that which is behind what I’m encountering on the surface of the canvas that suggests that more is happening/being done than just canvas, stretched and gessoed [it’s difficult for me to not think of the history of painting behind the emergence of the solid field paintings that is a relevant background to the significance and even production of such paintings, and how that history functions relatively invisibly behind the austere surface of the canvas]. Behind the second canvas, I am given access to a live feed video, in a sense collapsing space between where I am standing and the inside of the gallery, and a tension between the “stationary” blankness of the canvas and the moving image that it conceals [also, I am struck by the piece as surveillance, and the sometimes explicit, sometimes surreptitious, systems of surveillance inherent in gallery and institutional spaces/cultures]. Behind the third canvas, a glimpse into a world beyond. I am immediately drawn into partial-metaphor, considering how art functions to open access to other [possible] worlds, literally providing us with more to see, and conceptually expanding our potential ability to see.
I am left with a sense of the partiality of my own situation/location and perspective. Control has left me was a strong sense of the hidden complexity of the world(s) in which I am participating, but they are worlds that remain invisible. I sit here, pressing keys marked with letters with a sense of certainty that letter I anticipate with appear on the screen, that strung together these letters will produce words which are then strung together by readers to produce meaning. But what I am doing always exceeds my awareness and intention. When I press these keys, I participate in a complex system of electronic/physical processes that produce a desired result on the screen. I do not know how this happens, not really, and although these processes are relatively benign (suspending for the moment any discussions about the ethical issues surrounding the use of electricity), I am aware of the opacity of processes that previously may have seemed simple, transparent. When I press “publish,” this text enters an infinite field of publics, networks, readers, cultures, etc. etc. etc., and its possible effects can in no way be fully calculated ahead of time. I am willingly participating in systems [of meaning, of signification, etc.] that far exceed anything I can quantify or know with certainty. It’s almost terrifying. And it leaves me feeling very still. My cursor lingers over the “publish” button, and I come back to add one more line of text, one more layer of information to give inflection and direction to the unpredictable action I am about to take (blogging). In this moment, with my finger hovering above this button, the stillness is a tension between the pleasure and anxiety of the unpredictability of the effects of my own actions.

[press “publish”]