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.

performance journal: sketches of shame
18 January, 2011, 12:13 pm
Filed under: creative process | Tags: ,

I just wrote out a written description of the phrase material in “sketches of shame.” I may notate it (in Motif description, most likely) at some point, but this was a memory aid for both of us. It’s now a part of the project of what we are performing, so I thought it needed to live here as well:

phrase, 2xs small
phrase, 3xs accelerating
arm swing phrase (right arm, left arm, hands to chin, hands to mouth, right hand to groin, both hands to cheeks, three heart stabs), 2xs
first punching phrase (stomach, stomach, chin push, groin, two hands to chin, three heart stabs)
punching: chin, groin, left shoulder, right shoulder
repeat, without punches
punching in this pattern, accelerating
sudden shift to “positioning” (forehead, groin, left shoulder, right shoulder); accelerating
sudden shift to touching (forehead, heart, left shoulder, right shoulder); uneven timing
touch forehead/hand drops/lead to drop to the floor
scurry/crawl in a circle (1 1/4 circle to change facing a quarter turn to the right), continue forward on straight path
three “arm-pump” prayers, heart stab; 3xs
strong/slow “arm-pump” prayer to bow; 3xs
scurry back on all fours
fast forward on knees, chest+arms splayed
slow backwards on knees
fast forward on knees
slow backward on knees
fast forward on knees
basic phrase, pressing into body (eyes on high diagonal?)
basic phrase (with more resignation), eyes level
punching phrase (stomach, stomach, chin push, groin, two hands to chin, three heart stabs)–heart stabs take you to floor
shifting between two modes: pressing against something heavy on top of you; pulling yourself open; shift between these 3-4 times;
shift back into basic phrase, but lost in a kind of frenzy
back into “pulling yourself open”; burst/puddle
sudden moment of self-consciousness; pull yourself back together;
stand up, gather clothes (looking at one another/not looking at one another?)

performance journal: sketches of shame
16 January, 2011, 10:08 am
Filed under: creative process | Tags: ,

I am finally starting the “performance journal” that I was asked to keep as part of the Theorizing Performance course I am taking this quarter. I went through several versions of what this journal might address: it could look at my yoga practice, especially as I am now functioning in the role of student for the quarter (rather than teacher); it could look at this new relationship I’m in and how I perform my self, how I perform “relationship;” I am performing “Re-Membering the Mountains” twice in the next couple of months, and there seems to be content I could generate about how I prepare and perform that process; I also just started re-staging “Sketches of Shame” this week, and I think there is much to be said about the performance of this piece, our selves/my self in the rehearsal process, etc.
It is this last version on which I’ve chosen to embark.

We had our first rehearsal this past Thursday. I taught Daniel the material from “Clara’s solo.” I am always aware of the dynamics fostered between the role of choreographer and the role of dancer. It can sometimes be startling how much control I have in the situation (not that Daniel doesn’t retain his agency; but his complies, so very readily, with whatever action I give him). I’m still fascinated by this process of body-form, body-materialization, whereby my movement becomes enacted through his body, and in doing so, a form of power becomes enacted through his body as well. It leaves traces; his body is different after the rehearsal.

In the actual demonstration of the action, there is a constant sense of measurement, between what I’m doing and what it “really is.” This “really” is primarily in correspondence to Clara’s performance on the video of the piece (itself a performance of what my body taught hers, my movement now remembered through her body . . .), but also corresponds to my notions of  what the movement “really needs.” It’s a curious question, to interrogate my sense of “how it should be done.” I created this movement, so where then does the standard come from? What does it mean to perform with that constant sense of self-determined measurement? Isn’t that what the self-policing of performative identity is all about?

I’m also interested in how I perform openness, ease, playfulness, awkwardness. We are dealing with some fairly intimate choreography, and my mannerisms throughout the evening felt like/were a constant attempt at metabolizing tension.I performed ease (or attempted to perform ease) in order to make the situation easy. I performed certainty and contemplation. I performed intimacy (“this isn’t weird because we know each other so well”). None of these performances were false (that turns out a whole new question of truth/falseness, authenticity, etc.), but they were performed none the less.

Finally, there’s something about what it is the piece is performing, and this is the most ambiguous. On the surface level, we are performing sex then self-violence. The self-violence indicates an external regulatory force (namely religion, but also possibly observation; shame). In the sex, we’re potentially performing homosexual bodies, homosexual desire, but it’s subverted. The male-ness of the bodies comes into question (hopefully), when the sex is legible more as lesbian or trans sex. Are we performing supplementary bodies? Transmutable bodies? Transferable bodies? Queer bodies? Mutually penetrable bodies. We may perform safe-sex (performing the management of bodies, the policing of body fluids). If we don’t use condoms, are we performing danger/violence? If we exchange fluids, we are performing something distinct and potentially profound . . . but latex boundaries perform with equal profundity. Just differently . . .

Do we perform pleasure? This is a lingering question after our last rehearsal. We’ll see how this question might evolve. If we do perform pleasure, what does it mean to situate pleasure “outside” of the body, the pleasure of prosthetic? Does the performance of pleasure become suspect? Or does it become the act by which the prosthetic becomes incorporated in/as the body?