michael j. morris

contribution to a field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


from May Sarton
31 December, 2009, 11:57 am
Filed under: inspiration | Tags: , ,

I have been reading May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude in full or in part annually for many years now. It makes a significant touch-stone in that every time I return to the text, it is changed (because I am changed). Passages strike me that I never found striking before, or they strike me in a markedly different way. Last night I read her entry on January 5th, and this passage echoed my present sensibilities profoundly. I wanted to share it:

“My own belief is that one regards oneself, if one is a serious writer, as an instrument for experiencing. Life – all of it – flows through this instrument and is distilled through it into works of art. How one lives as a private person is intimately bound into the work. And at some point I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend, and come out with personal truth. If we are to understand the human condition, and if we are to accept ourselves in all the complexity, self-doubt, extravagance of feeling, guilt, joy, the slow freeing of the self to its full capacity for action and creation, both as human being and as artist, we have to know all we can about each other, and we have to be willing to go naked” (77).

That’s what I’m thinking about on this full mooned new year’s eve.

So many things; so little

Tonight I saw the show Japan Dance Now at the Wexner Center for the Arts, featuring three contemporary Japanese dance companies: BABY-Q, Nibroll, and Sennichimae Blue Sky Dance Club. I am enraptured. All three were amazing performances, and although they had moments of stylistic intersection, overall were three profoundly different voices. It was a well curated show, and excellently performed. Oh, and there’s the part when I was moved to tears.

You can see a video with clips of these companies below (they appear in this order: Sennichimae Blue Sky Dance Club, BABY-Q, Nibroll):

The piece by BABY-Q brought me very much into my head it was a solo by Yoko Higashino accompanied by multimedia elements entitled E/G-Ego Geometria. It was for me a successful integration of dance and video (not all dance accompanied by video succeeds in successfully integrating the two, in my opinion). The meaning I brought to it had to do with the erasure of individual identity, the seen and the unseen, the known and the unknown of the person, and all the factors that contribute to these dichotomies. Descriptions that come to mind are:
faceless legs in silver platform heels
the body lost in the barrage of visual media
small conversations between a person and a camera, projected on a twenty-foot tall wall
white. black. red.
In the incredible density of the video projected into the space, which also served as the primary lighting for the first half of the piece, the body of the soloist became transported into an almost virtual world. The media was so much and so encompassing that it almost served to remove the dancer’s presence. Gradually stage lighting was added, and in seeing the body lit from multiple angles, and the lighting of the videos faded by the additional light, the body became more present. And then was further uncovered. We were allowed to truly see the dancer, her face, “who” she was.

The second piece was entitled Coffee by Nibroll. It was even more of a battery of video images, loud music, fast movement, constantly shifting costumes and characters and interpersonal dynamics. The program notes described it as an exploration of the boundaries we cross in the course of our daily lives.

The true gem of the evening (for me) was The end of Water by Sennichimae Blue Sky Dance Club. It was full of subtlety, slow movement, articulate gestures, gradual lighting fades, stationary dances, and a gamut of humanity and emotion. They describe their company: “this butoh-based all female troupe seeks to uncover new, original physical expression with a pop sensibility. Their choreography is born out of carefully observing elements from the physical memory of modern life and bringing them into new light.”
From the first section as the lights came up to reveal four figures lying on the ground slowly and gently stirring, I started to cry. I can’t necessarily explain this emotional reaction, except to say that it had to do with recognition. This is a big word for me, and is central to the relevance I see in art as a whole. The most profound experiences I have had with art, be it music (such as Meredith Monk’s mercy or impermanence) or dance (such as Yoshito Ohno’s Emptiness (Kuu) or Moeno Wakamatsu’s Dryope from Project OVID or CoCo Loupe’s In the Clear), standing in front of a wall sized Lee Krasner painting or a piece by Ann Hamilton, or reading Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson or Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton, the common thread of these experiences is that I sensed or saw or felt something familiar, something being created by someone else that I recognized as connected to my own experience. This sort of interpersonal human connection is why I engage in art, in dance, reaching towards a sense of knowing and being known through the work.
I felt that tonight with Sennichimae Blue Sky Dance Club. I felt understood and represented and recognized. I felt their humanity, saturated with nuance and complexity, immediacy and history.

It was a truly rewarding show. It has two more nights here. For those of you in the area, I hope you have an opportunity to see it.

For those of you interested in a more in-depth review of the show itself, and not just my experience, I found this nice blog by a commentator who saw the show a couple of weeks ago. You should check it out.