michael j. morris

L’A./Rachid Ouramdane “World Fair” and Staging Surveillance

How is one to demonstrate surveillance? How might the body be put on display in such a way as to bring attention to the attention in/for which it is situated? What are the conditions for and effects of bodies being examined, and how might such conditions and effects become inscribed in/as “the body” itself? L’A./Rachid Ouramdane’s World Fair offered an ardently focused and meticulously measured multi-media rumination on the theatrical situation as a space of surveillance, while positioning this function of performance in the larger anxious landscape of the surveillance, recording, exploiting, and conditioning of the body at the levels of the state and national(ist) identities/histories.

from World Fair, photo by Patrick Imbert

Being surveilled produces the subject/body in a specific sense: a sense of suspension, a sense of anxiety, a sense of anticipation that inscribes the constant observing other as not only a persistent condition of sociality, but—on a phenomenological level—possibly even a constituting condition for our existence. The perhaps uncomfortable reality is that we appear far more for others than we do for ourselves; those who see us see more of us—more of our bodies—than we can ever see of/for ourselves, making our appearance in the world inherently social, and our experience of sociality inherently about seeing and being seen. I found these facets of social existence to be central to World Fair. From “before” the performance began (I say “before” because in this vein of thought it seems important to acknowledge that “the performance” is more of a constant/persistent state of being than it is something that can be demarcated by theatrical spaces, tickets, audience seating, and a specified 8:00pm start time), as the audience was ushered into the performance space, we were directed (itself possibly worthy of comment) to only enter from one side of the audience seating, an entry that necessitated walking past Ouramdane, already displayed on stage. He stood stationary on a large turntable that rotated slowly, displaying the three-dimensionality of his body. His eyes were closed, and it seems to me that this in itself might have functioned as an initiation into the recurrent themes of the piece: we as viewers began in a more-or-less compulsory encounter with the performer, whose closed eyes reminded me that this performance situation (all stage performance situations?) was organized around the axis of our viewing, and his being viewed by us.

Yet Ouramdane’s performance did not situate himself/his body as a passive receptor of our gaze. Throughout the performance, he demonstrated his own complicity in this surveillance of his body: removing his shirt at the start of the performance, a gesture that seemed somehow both medical (“Go ahead and take your shirt off”) and criminal (think strip search), while also more subtly addressing gender itself as a form of surveillance (the removal of the shirt as a kind of confession or confirmation: “Yes, see here, I am indeed a man. Rest assured that there is no ambiguity about my gender/sex, and that, yes, this is an identification that can be made/affirmed by way of my own visibility”); pushing the large counter-weighted light/camera rig hanging center stage as if it were a millstone, contributing his own kinetic energy and strength to the circulation of illumination and recording, both of which at various points mediated his own visibility; the raising on the flat screen television high into the air as if hoisting the national flag, a “national symbol” that was ostentatiously alternatively recorded and live-feed images of the performer himself. In each instance, he revealed his own complicity in the formation of the ways in which he would/could be seen.

I could not help but feel further implicated in this power play of seeing and being seeing by virtue of my position as a member of the audience. Although there were several stage devices that seemed invented for this particular production (namely the large light/camera rig that hung ominously in the center of the stage), by and large, the materials through which this performance was conducted were those of the theater: the relatively intimate proscenium stage, the organization of the audience in relation to the performer, and—most notably—the stage lights. While it is certainly possible to consider this piece for its relationship to—and even commentary on—the world beyond the theater, it is important to recognize that any such relationship or commentary was carried out through these rarefied theatrical tropes. In this sense, although the politics of seeing and being seen that were addressed by the performance extend far beyond the context of the event itself, such extensions never fully evacuate the theater; the political and cultural history and tropes of the theater itself functioned in this piece as both the means of articulation and, to some degree, that which was itself articulated. Large grids of white theatrical lighting hung high above the four corners of the stage, and throughout the performance, their illumination suggested the possibility of visibility from all sides. Although my visual perspective was limited to my particular seat, the activation of these lights on all sides of the performer gave me sense of being able to see even that which was not visible from my point of view.

Circularity was a theme throughout the performance: Ouramdane circled on a turntable at the start of the performance; a small siren-shape sound amplifier circled; the large rig suspended center stage circled; the performer himself circled the space over and again; finally, at various points, the light itself circled, moving from grid to grid in a way that for me evoked a prison yard. But what could possibly be the connection between this theatrical space and a prison yard?

Michel Foucault writes in Discipline and Punish that, “Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere,” (195). He proceeds to discuss Bentham’s Panopticon, a prison designed to heighten the visibility of the prisoners in such a way that the experience of constant surveillance becomes internalized, a perceptual prison that forms from an internalized sense of being seen.

Foucault writes that the principles of the panopticon are opposite those of the dungeon. “In short, it reverses the principle of the dungeon; or rather of its three functions – to enclose, to deprive of light and to hide – it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two. Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap,” (200). He continues: “… Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so,” (201). The last point I would like to borrow from Foucault follows: “The heaviness of the old ‘houses of security,’ with their fortress-like architecture, could be replaced by the simple, economic geometry of a ‘house of certainty’. The efficiency of power, its constraining force have, in a sense, passed over to the other side – to the side of its surface of application. He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection,” (202-203). What Foucault suggests is that the effect of the panopticon, the prison in which the prisoner is fully visible at all times, and in which the prisoner can never fully verify whether or not he is being watched, becomes internalized by the prisoner. The constant awareness of the possibility of being seen restrains him; this sense of internalized anxiety becomes his prison.

This model of the panopticon is pervasive in our modern world. We live in an age of constant surveillance, of our bodies, of our borders, of our information, of others, and of ourselves. We police our own behaviors, our social selves, our gender, etc., always with the anxiety of being seen and the consequences of being seen. Because of its formal properties—the light, open space in which three-dimensional visibility was emphasized time and again, the repetition of the circular form through which such visibility was both evoked and achieved, the circulation of static and moving recorded and live-feed images—themselves demonstrating either their own histories as sites of inspecting/recording the body or the very instance of inspecting a re-presenting the body, the suggestion of the racialized history of minstrelsy and the expropriation/exploitation of bodies encompassed by that history through the brief and unexpected tap dance wearing white face, etc.—World Fair operated in logics similar to those of the panopticon. And it was not only the performer who was enacted through these logics: throughout the performance, Ouramdane’s musical collaborator Jean-Baptiste Julien entered the space and looked directly into the audience, a reminder of our own visibility, our own implication in these regimes of surveillance and regulation.

I have heard several of my colleagues and my students say that World Fair felt incomplete, unfinished, or unresolved. I would like to suggest that this is perhaps the nature of power as it operates through visibility and surveillance: its efficacy is not purely in its ability to follow through, to exact punishment for the transgressions that it observes. Rather, its true power is in the constant state of anticipating such consequences, the internalized apprehension of what might happen, what could happen. By never fully delivering a satiating climax or resolution, Ouramdane’s performance effected a sense of anticipation that I then carried with(in) myself, unfulfilled and unresolved. Like the performance itself, I can never fully predict the consequences of my own visibility, and thus I live with a constant uncertainty and anticipation of how I might be seen. As disorienting as this might seem, the anxiety of visibility, the constant state of uncertain anticipation, and one’s implication in vast systems of seeing and being seen, may in fact be formative of who and what we are. These effects of power are inherent in sociality, and—in ways I will not attempt to explicate here—being itself depends on sociality. Thus, it seems, Ouramdane’s performance of the situation of surveillance is not limited to a commentary on the theater or even the political sphere. To address surveillance seems to address the conditions of ontology itself.

[I had the opportunity to see World Fair on 22 October 2011, at the Wexner Center for the Arts]

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

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.

Bound (Southern Bound Comfort)

Bound (2010)
Artistic concept & choreography: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Material devised & performed by: Gregory Maqoma, Shanell Winlock


This evening I had the pleasure of seeing “Southern Bound Comfort” at the Wexner Center for the Arts, a double bill project of work by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Gregory Maqoma, perfomed by Gregory Maqoma and Shanell Winlock. As I continue to make a daily practice of writing, I decided to give attention this evening to writing my experience of the second piece on the bill: Bound.

This piece was for me an unraveling and re-ravelling of semiotics and interpersonal entanglement (and in some senses, the semiotics of interpersonal entanglement). The ropes that comprised the set and properties with which the dancers performed (many hanging from the ceiling, others coiled or piled on the floor) functioned as the materials for a shifting play of references and representations. It was not that the piece had a singular narrative organization, but instead that it made use of a series of symbols (and symbolic structures) that alluded to poignant recognizable situations enacted between two people, entwining, colliding, supporting, containing, dividing, etc. At the start of the piece, I had the experience of being led through a kind of childhood playtime: Winlock explored a range of possibilities with a short length of rope, how it swings, how it wraps around her body, how it pulls, etc. There was a coolness and ease in the way that she moved, but also a sense of attentive exploration, as if seeking the unfamiliarity of what was (most likely) “set” movement material. Even in these earliest moments of the piece, I experienced hints of danger in this “playtime.” Each time the rope was wrapped around her neck, I felt my breath get shallow. But it never lingered around her neck, and I felt as if the neck as a danger zone was being denaturalized, demonstrated as a possible formal configuration alongside a plethora of other entanglements between body and rope. What (and where) we think of as dangerous is perhaps less specialized than we might think. This denaturalization of the familiar in its deployment was a theme that lingered with me throughout the work.
This playtime took on a more representational (almost make-believe) quality as a long coil of rope on which Winlock stood was transformed into a pathway unwinding towards a pile of rope in the upstage left corner of the performance space. The pile of rope (an island perhaps? this edging towards the symbolic, the representational, was not overt; although I recognized the pile-as-possible-island, I didn’t feel as if that was my only choice. It was perhaps a make-believe island, but it was also self-evidently a pile of rope). From the pile emerged the second performer, Maqoma. He sat up, still wrapped in ropes–almost as a deity or holy man–and more I began to feel invited into something between the playtime of children and a ritual from an unfamiliar culture. Either way, I was in a semiotic space, in which materials and bodies (even, perhaps, the materiality of bodies) were simultaneously both axiomatic and symbolic. I was aware of trained dancers in a particular theatrical situation that had been choreographed and costumed and lit, for which tickets had been sold, of which I was a participating spectator; these were ropes configured in various ways to create scenic designs and even costumes. But I also felt the symbolic potential exceeding the immediate context/actuality of what I was seeing. I do not often look for symbols in stage dance works, so as I felt myself ushered into a landscape of shifting signifiers and allusions to situations beyond our immediate experience in the context of the performance situation, this joint experience of both axiom and symbol became for me a significant portion of the content of the work, part of what it was “about”. From the rope island, Maqoma moved to the center of the space amidst the hanging ropes; Winlock soon followed with a small rope doll, being handled like a child. Maqoma began to connect the hanging ropes, building a hanging structure that soon emerged as a “house”—the outline of a house, a recognizable symbol for the form of a house. More make-believe. Playing house. A house made of hanging ropes; rather, an outline of a house made from hanging ropes. Where/how do these forms collide? Ropes, they bind (as suggested by the title of the piece), they tie, they are woven and wrapped, they hang and support, they ravel and unravel; a house that binds, a house that ties, a house that is woven and wrapped, a house that hangs and supports, a house that ravels and unravels. House as symbol begins to slide into ideas about “home.” Home as entanglement, as formed out of our entwining lives, with all the properties suggested by these ropes. And here I took a [post-structuralist] step back, and asked myself why I recognized this configuration of tangled ropes as a house/home, why it is that the entanglement of lives (and the suggestion of a child) takes this particular representational form, for me as a viewer, and for people in a more general sense. To what degree are all houses/homes a kind of “playing house(home),” and why does that play take on this (recognizable) form? Why is it that I see this tangle of rope, these two people, a rope-doll, and also see a [heterosexual, procreative] home? From what is that fantasy woven? Moored in part in the shifting sands of questions of social constructivism, I return to the dance.
The dancing that took place in this rope-house was a tangle of weight and limbs and supports; it reminded me of watching partnering developed from well-figured contact improvisation, but it took on additional meaning (or potential signification) because of the ropes. Here is a house/home built from ropes entwined; inside we find bodies/subjects/lives entangled/entwined. There was an odd exchange of the rope-doll with a larger rope puppet performed by Maqoma. And then the house became unraveled. In a strobe light, Winlock disentangled the ropes that had formed the outline of the house. The house/home/symbol undone, and with it a question concerning the residue of what was in what then remained. How have these materials been marked by their symbolic deployment? These were no longer just hanging ropes; now they were hanging ropes that had been a house. They are the remainder of a house/home/fantasy undone.

Later in the piece, each dancer gathered up a bundle of the hanging ropes and wrapped them tightly into vertical cords spreading out into the ceiling above. The divorcing of the previously entwined ropes, the deconstruction of one form and the reconstruction of another, had an immediate “first layer” symbolism (separation, the rending of lives, shared spaces, the materials from which two people made a home together, etc.), but more interesting to me was the shift in how the ropes came to symbolize. Was I now looking at two trees? Was there a relationship between seeing first a house and now two trees? I never fully escaped the self-evidence of the situation (dancers, theatre, ropes, costumes, lights, etc.), but in a space suspended/removed slightly from the immediate actuality of the performance event, I found my “scene” had changed, and that scene change had been accomplished by the redeployment of materials from which symbolic forms were constructed. This redeployment was significant for me, a suggestion that one thing can be reconfigured to become something else, and in doing so, the entire situation changes. The two danced and returned again to their bundles of ropes. They brought them together in the center of the space, and wrapped their “trunks” together, merging the separate “trees” into one larger “tree”-form. Aside from the “separation-reunion” symbolism, I found myself thrust into a different situational register. Specifically, I was confronted with (most likely unintentional) references to the racial politics in Jena, Louisiana in 2006. In a series of incidents involving escalating and horrifying racial tensions, nooses were hung from a tree on the grounds of Jena High School, a tree that was referred to as the “white tree.” Within a few moments, this image was dramatically reinforced in the performance when the two performers hung nooses from the large bundle of (white) ropes, and put the nooses around their necks. This was a tree; those were nooses; and the symbolic potential of the image exploded beyond the constraints of the immediate/actual circumstances/context of the performance.
And yet another layer of symbolism was still lingering beneath the surface of what was striking as an overtly political/racialized image: I could not ignore the fact that these were the same ropes that formed the “house” and the separate(d) “trees;’ a narrative was forming for me, a narrative concerning the entanglement of lives, the fantasy and imitation of particular social ideals (heterosexual, procreation, etc.), the rending of that fantasy/ideal, the reunification of separate lives into a new form, and that form providing the support for this hanging/joint suicide.

All of this was immediately subverted by a comedic turn in which a musician provided a sound score for a series of gestures that evoked a bickering husband and wife (all while still hanging loosely in the nooses). While the drama/tension of the moment was diffused, the bickering couple did reinforce for me the unfolding narrative of particular relationship ideas/ideals.

The piece “resolved” in an illusionary game of double-dutch. A long rope was stretched between the two dancers. The exchange began as each one whipped the rope, sending a forceful ripple down the length to the other (terminating in demonstrative impacts, as if thrown by the force of the other’s impulse). Symbols here abound: references to distance and attachment, exchange and injury, etc. These impulses escalated into a rapid swinging of the rope between the two. The lights shifted again to a strobe light, creating a visual effect of two ropes swinging opposite one another in double-dutch style. Again, potential symbols abound: the discrepancy of one or two, the discrepancy between actuality and illusion, difference across distance, etc., and what each of these association might have to do with human entanglement/relationship. All the while still, these possible signs were informed by the unique propertied of the ropes: ravelling, binding, hanging, tying, etc.
The ending was perfect. A sudden break: simultaneously, the music stopped, the rope hit the ground, and the lights went out. In a dramatic shift, all of the materials from which the scene was crafted (sound, props, lights) were abandoned, and all we were left with was darkness and silence (or approximations of darkness and silence).

As beautiful as their dancing was, I am not left with crisp memories of their movement. Rather, the piece functioned for me as a playground—sometimes tender, sometimes sentimental, sometimes terrifying—for recognizing the constructive/deconstructive formations of [performative?] semiotic potentials; the ways in which material properties suggest meaningful content when deployed to symbolic/representational ends; the redeployment of materials, and the residue of previous significations in the newly shaped/recognized signs. This theatrical exploration of semiotics was not removed from the bodies by which it was performed; in fact, the bodies themselves as never purely axiomatic matter may have been central to my understanding of the work. The bodies, like the ropes, were never stable in their signification/representation. They were never only the bodies of dancers (as if that position in itself could be considered simple or non-referential, non-discursive); they were deployed in formal configurations, in make-believe scenarios, in domestic(ated) ideals, in interpersonal relationalities, in socio-political scenarios, etc. The redeployment of bodies throughout these shifting “scenes” was perhaps less overt than the transformations enacted through the ropes; but the bodies were not circumstantial: it was a body-based performance, and as such the bodies became implicated in this internal logic of signification, representation, construction and deconstruction. The situation in which I found myself bound, then, was not as simple as the binding capacities of ropes or bodies (although certainly these properties were demonstrated), or even the “bind” of human relationships; rather, what I am left considering is the binding capacity systems of signification. The recognizability of the images deployed on stage, the relative stability of symbols put forward, and the demonstrative arbitrary instability of the materials that comprised them. Arbitrary should not here connote meaninglessness, not randomness; rather, the arbitrated/mediated stabilization of what is essential unstable associations between form and content, signifier and signified. Bound within [performative] conventions of [symbolic] meaning, cultural ideals and social realities surfaced, and I was left to observe myself associating signifier with signified, referents couched in custom and normative convention. Herein, for me, was the bind.

Factum, phenomenology, biopolitics, embodiment
13 February, 2011, 1:04 pm
Filed under: creative process, research | Tags: , , , , , ,

This week has involved several new insights into potential shifts in my creative/research processes and practices, alongside a stream of personal revelations, many of which were artwork-inspired.

Of particular note was a profoundly affecting experience with work recently introduced at the Wexner Center for the Arts. the pieces are entitled Factum, by Candice Breitz. On display are three of Breitz’s two-channel video portraits of identical twins. I spent about an hour with this work, and it is my intention to revisit it throughout its time at the Wex. The basic form of the work are videoed interviews/portraits with identical twins, dressed and styled identically, interviewed separately in the same seated locations. When I first approached the work, I thought the two screens displayed the same person; when I realized that they were twins, a lifetime of experiencing assumptions about the sameness of twins came rushing up, and I myself was implicated in these assumptions by my encounter with the visual display. On a formal level (which carried a weight of emotional significance for me), an interesting component of the pieces are how the individuals begin to register in their differences as time passes. After having spent almost forty-five minutes with the piece Factum Misericordia I realized that the sisters no longer looked anything alike to me. I’ve experienced this with twins I’ve known (and frequently been informed of this process as people knew my brother and I for longer durations, especially when we looked more alike): the gradual differentiation that takes place, the recognition of asymmetrical details in facial features, mannerisms, patterns of speech, etc., but this usually takes place over longer stretches of time. To have the recognition of this content condensed into a matter of minutes (facilitated by the concentrated looking, reinforced by the exactly identical attire and setting), had a shocking quality to it, one bolstered by my own emotional content (calling up experiences in which I felt that I was or was not being seen clearly because I am a twin).

There were so many poignant moments in the narratives being shared in the interviews. There were specific experiences with which I could identify acutely, but also just a general sense of familiarity with the kinds of lives being told. The tendency for people to assume that twins are the same person; the shift when people begin to differentiate and impose/inscribe polar qualities to each twin (the dominant v. the passive, the light v. the dark, the happy v. the brooding one, etc.); the powerful anxieties surrounding death–not particularly around one’s own mortality, but the weight of knowing that two came into the world together, but will not leave the world in the same way; the inevitable sense of losing that connection.
In watching the Factum Misericordia piece, I was struck by a particular resonance. Both sisters used very clear language distinguishing between being “a twin” or “a single” in the world, and periods of their lives in which they were apart and were living in the world as “a single.” I brought up notions of passing, a certain historical (not so pervasive in our present moment) stigma of being a twin (particularly a conjoined twin), and the differences in the existential experience of being in the world as one rather than two. Right now my twin brother and I live in two different cities. For all practical purposes, we live in the world as “singles” rather than “twins.” This distinction (and the recognition that even if we live as “singles,” we are still twins) has made me ponderous. I’m curious how this sense of a shared history, shared life, shared flesh/fluids/body has impacted my particular research interests (the loss of the subject/object binary, the fluid boundaries of the self, intersubjectivity, etc.). It’s a curiosity, one that may not come very much into play, but I am curious how a particular “twin subjectivity” might come to bear on these areas of interest in my research.

Also of note was a rather important conversation I had with my friend/colleague Mair Culbreth. We were discussing the development of our areas of candidacy for our exams in our doctoral program. I mentioned that I keep questioning whether or not phenomenology will be one of those areas for me. Phenomenology might be the research paradigm/methodology that makes the most sense to me in the investigation of dance as a site of knowledge. What I view as the real potential significance of our field is the experience of dancing, the experience of being inside of physical practices and choreographies and creative processes and performance situations. This is not to say that the spectatorial experience of viewing dance is not of any use; I don’t believe that to be the case. But it functions differently, more into the realm of signification and kinesthetic empathy. I am interested in analysis of dance works/practices from “the outside,” as it were, because those performance events circulate in the production of culture. I am fascinated by projects like Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced that conducts an analysis of choreographic structures, as if from the outside, but developed from the insider accounts of dancing inside of the work. This hybrid inside/outside analysis interests me. But of even more interest is the research developed from the phenomenological experience(s) of being inside of the work. I see the practice of dance to be a practice in forms of biopolitics, learning and unlearning, forming, unforming, reforming bodies (thus subjectivities) through the acts of doing, the practice/rehearsal being the space of reiteration, where new bodies with new potentials and new knowledge are formed. Most significantly to me is that these practices and bodies have the potential to subvert the dominant biopolitical discourses in our culture, the various ways in which bodies are regulated, produced, and normalized within society. My interest (it seems) is broadly in a phenomenology of biopolitics, and particularly how dance/body-based practices participate in these biopolitical discourses. More particularly, my interest seems to be a phenomenological account of the biopolitical potentials and effects of the lived experience of dance practices. Most particularly, I am interested in the production of an ecosexual subjectivity through the lived experience of various body-based/dance practices, and giving an account of these.

As I gradually move towards candidacy exams and dissertation, and attempt to understand what it is that my project is/might be, I have been considering the development of a theory of ecosexuality (drawing from studies in ecofeminist philosophy, ecology, queer theories, psychology, phenomenology, sexology, etc.), and then applying this theory as a system of analysis for various historical/contemporary body-based performance work (such as Rudolf Laban’s movement practices, Butoh, Anna Halprin, the Love Art Laboratory, Karl Cronin’s Somatic Natural History Archive, etc.). This has felt like a rewarding pursuit, but it struck me that I would still be offering an outsider account, an analysis of work based on viewing, documentation, conversation, etc. This is where Mair connected a dot for me: she was discussing research from embodied knowledge, researching from a place of practice and the knowledge produced by the body, and it occurred to me:
why would I not engage with these performance works as practices, “re-staging” them as it were, in order to experience them myself, to encounter the lived experience of Laban’s practices, writing from Butoh on the inside, marrying the earth, sky, sea, moon, mountains, snow, etc., embodying the kinetic patterns of various species of flora and fauna and holding those as a corporeal archive, all in the production of a different body, an ecological body, and researching the potential production of an ecosexual body.
Last year I wrote a paper giving a phenomenological account of learning and dancing Trio A from Labanotation score. This project has felt adjacent, off the map of my primary research interest (ecosexuality). Now it feels as if that paper could function as a kind of model for how I might engage with this work. It could of course be paired with outsider analysis, but it introduces embodiment as a methodology for research, a methodology that I see as germane to the field of dance. Our practices are those of physicalizing movement, particularly movement patterns generated by others. We are practiced in taking “the other” in/on/as ourselves, in technique class, in choreographic processes, in various improvisational techniques. This feels like a potential shift in where I thought this work might go. It will of course be grounded in the development of a theory of ecosexuality, which will involve a grounding in critical theories, BUT it centralizes a embodiment as a mode of engagement, the body as the site of knowledge, the body as a practice in knowing the biopolitical potential of body-based performances, rather than only offering an external account.

I’m excited about this potential development.

“Out of Context-For Pina” by les ballets C de la B
9 October, 2010, 1:21 pm
Filed under: Dance, dance review | Tags: , ,

Because I have something like 150 pages to read, a full length dance video to watch, two grants to finish, and costume shopping to do, I’m sitting down to write out some of my thoughts on last night’s performance of Out of Context-for Pina by les ballets C de la B at the Thurber in Columbus, OH (a U.S. premiere).

You can take a quick look at the trailer here:

Also, a conversation is unfolding surrounding the work both on facebook and on the Dance in Columbus ning network. Join in the conversation here.

I’ve already shared some of my experience(s) in the above mentioned conversation(s), but I wanted to jot down a bit more of what I’ve been left pondering today:

For me, it was a piece full of citation, approximation, and recontextualization. I found myself swung between laughter, tears, tenderness, and perplexity. It was a work of radical juxtaposition between the sexual, the child-like, pleasure/pain, isolation/community, covering/uncovering, etc. etc. etc., and most importantly, the places in-between these seemingly familiar and stable binarisms. It was full of suggestion and allusion, not in the sense of symbolic or metaphor, but in the sense of starts without always finishing. I was sent down paths of consideration that were not necessarily where the dance itself went; my experience became a (fairly intense) network of the actual and many adjacent imaginary trajectories. The piece was more rich for me because of how much was in the air/in the bodies. There was so much invocation (again, corporeally and aurally, not metaphorically) of popular cultures and their configurations of the body, dance cultures (ballet, jazz, butoh, music video choreography, etc.) and their accompanying expectations for the body, childhood, “disability,”  autobiography and cultural ethnography of bodies . . . I felt as if all of these were tossed into the air, into the space, into/as bodies and then I was left to examine the spaces in-between, the meaningfulness of the juxtapositions/recontextualizations.
For instance, if a body appeared to move as if in pain or “disabled,” what was my reaction? Why was that my reaction? How did that reaction change when set against a thumpa-thumpa beat and one-liners extracted from pop music sang into microphones (another function of the body in space/time)? How did it shift farther in the evolving contexts of dress and undress, covering and uncovering, and the relationality between bodies?

The piece functioned for me as a provocateur, inciting reaction for my examination. When I laughed I was allowed (asked?) to consider why I was laughing. When I was uncomfortable, I had a similar opportunity. When I felt aroused by the near-naked bodies on stage, I was invited to examine/question/consider the situation of being moved towards (or away from) arousal by the bodies being shown to me, the context (a sold out theater, colleagues on either side of me, the implications of deriving pleasure when gazing on bodily spectacle, etc.).
Perhaps this is simply how I’ve come to view dance, or perhaps this work was particularly suited to this kind of viewing, but I felt more drawn towards self-examination in my viewing than I felt moved to consider the “intrinsic” strengths or weaknesses of this piece. I am increasingly convinced of this being a valuable function for the arts (not new, but sometimes overlooked): rather than considering the “quality” of the “dance as product,” I am offered to opportunity to come to this experience as a method for self-and-cultural examination/reflection. When I stand before a painting or film or dance or any work of art, I am being given the opportunity to observe my process of observation and reaction. The art work offers me the concerns and work of the artist, someone other than myself, as a context/site for examining myself.
Because: the dance (or any art work that we encounter) is not simply/only the dance itself, but more specifically our own experience of the dance, an experience constructed and made meaningful from the “materials” offered us by the dance/art work. Just as the world in which we live is the world as constructed and made meaningful in/as/from our own experience, the art work provides the opportunity for examining this condition. Of course we can still consider the formal elements of the work, it’s categorical qualities, etc., but in the end, we are left (perhaps inescapably so) with how those formal elements matter or take on meaning for each of us. Therein lies the opportunity for self-examination/self-awareness.

Other lingering thoughts from the piece

I am continually seduced by the revelation of the discrepancy between the clothed and unclothed body, how we shape and perceive imaginary/ideal (even homogenous) morphologies with our clothing. Bodies uncovered reveal the true range of bodily difference (even when that range is in a sense limited by the fabulous sculpting of the bodies on display last night).

I’m still considering the implications of the dancers starting (clothed) in the audience, undressing for the piece, re-dressing at the end, and returning to the audience (with the transgression of the one undressed dancers moving through the audience during the piece). I’m left considering things like the separation between who/how we think of ourselves and how that takes on definition through the distance of an “other,” and how that who/how is shifted when that distance is collapsed.

I wish I could have spent more time with the final moment of the stage, before the standing ovation when the dancers returned to that space (stack of folded blankets upstage-center, two mic stands left in disarray downstage-center). It was like an installation, a trace of event/action. Even though I had witnessed what had led to that moment, I was still struck by the subtle reference/implication that “something had happened here.” I wish it could have stayed up for a day or two as an installation piece.

I really enjoyed the rampant citation/approximation of popular/dance culture(s). It reminded me of the kind of critical approximations that I experience in Jérôme Bel’s work. It is (for me) not about fully mimicking or embodying that which is cited/referenced; the real liveliness of the piece is in the distance of the approximation. It demonstrates itself as not quite that thing in such a way that feels familiar (perhaps) to anyone who has learned choreography, or imitated dancers in a music video, or tried to look a certain way on a dance floor at a club, or sang along to the radio in their car, or even experience a kinesthetic response to watching any of these things . . . it was in the “not quite” of the approximations, even in the final moment of the piece as the dancers stared sadly into the audience as a sappy song played in the background before they redressed and made their way back into the audience: I didn’t feel as if they were fully employing these familiar “popular” and “dramatic” devices. I felt as if they were showing me something about range of effectiveness and ineffectiveness in these tropes, the kind of cultural hard wiring that informs me “I know what they’re doing; I’ve seen this before and I know its intended effect” alongside the realization that it doesn’t quite work. I was invited to examine my own suspension between knowing the intended effect of the tropes being suggested, the fact that maybe “they don’t work like they used to,” and the flow of my own human condition/self-awareness beneath that all.

I’m sure there’s more rattling around in my messy contemplations, but that’s all I have time for. Back to work.

Chalk Boundaries

Today I had the opportunity to see Dante Brown‘s new work in progress Chalk Boundaries, presented as part of the Wexner Center for the Arts “Super Sunday” event. The piece was presented as a response to, or illustration of, the images and expressions of masculine identity being shown in the Wexner’s new exhibition, Hard Targets, including work by artists such as Catherine Opie, Paul Pfeiffer, Matthew Barney, Jeff Koons, and many others.

To begin with, I have had overarching concerns surrounding this term “masculinity.” It is a term that implies qualities that are typical or characteristic of men, or maleness. Because I question the essentialization of ideas like “man” or “male,” I am immediately wary of demonstrations of typicalities or characteristics of these broad categories. While I don’t have time to author or recount a treatise of the complexities of gendered identity (although I recommend Judith Butler, among others), I wanted to offer that as my disclaimer: from the start, the stated subject matter of this exhibition provokes questions concerning the viability/discursive limitations of such language/ideas.

In looking at Brown’s piece, my immediate reaction was how well developed and well rehearsed it is for a work in progress that has only been in process for approximately five weeks. I found its vocabulary to be intriguing and well developed, its overall movement qualities pervasive amongst the cast of five men, and its structural qualities (such as its use of space, groupings of individuals, the interplay between unison and partnering, all very contrapuntal) rewarding to my attention.

Thematically, I appreciated the nuanced demonstration of several facets of “masculine” identity. It is not exhaustive in its exploration of the nature of “masculine” identity, the nature of maleness, or what it is that makes this a cast of five men (besides their presumable identification as such; if I did not know these dancers, I would be less prone to make this presumption). Yet the facets of “masculinity” that it does demonstrate are articulated with a mix of subtlety and referentiality that bordered on caricature: aggression/domination, weakness/softness, and mediation between these. These qualities are demonstrated abstractly throughout the eight-to-nine minute piece in its forms and movement qualities, but are offered rather literally in an brief “scene” partway through the piece: one dancer, Chafin Seymor, turns and advances aggressively towards another dancer, Quentin Burley, who retreats across the space with lightness and softness. Seymor’s aggressive gestures, looming over Burley, eventually pressures Burley to the floor. At the point, another dancer, Eric Nordstrom, intervenes, grasping Seymor from behind while making gentle “Shhh” sounds, as if persuading Seymor to calm down and control his agression. There may be potential for reading symbolic references to power dynamics derived from who is on top and who is on bottom throughout this exchange, however, it reads most readily as a fairly literal demonstration of what I perceived as the aspects of “masculinity” being considered throughout the piece. On first viewing, after digesting my awe at the choreographic development of the work, I felt resistant to this limited consideration. I think that I felt narrowness in the spectrum of “masculinity” being demonstrated. I questioned the absence of sensuality, sexuality, and fluidity in what I was seeing. I wanted to also be presented with “masculinity” that might be classed as “femininity,” and be forced to reconcile the “uncharacteristically masculine” as the male body. So much of the vocabulary of the piece, while absolutely stunning to watch, stays in the polar spaces of strong, heavy, and direct, with punctuations of lightness, softness, and indirectness. The power of most of the movement, the strength of its execution, and the profound contrast between it and the softer moments was all captivating, a pleasure to witness. And yet I felt a desire to see more along this spectrum, demonstrations that were not so immediate in their contrast, so specifically recognizable in their qualities or potential references/meanings. I wanted to see attraction, investigation, and discovery between these bodies, not only camaraderie, aggression, and conflict.  And yet, by the third time I saw the piece, I began to appreciate the somewhat reductive, limited depictions of “masculinity” as part of the provocation of the work. The piece was shown twice today, and I had the privilege of seeing a rehearsal of the piece last week. Between today’s showings, I took time to peruse the Hard Targets exhibit. While that exhibit deserves a response all its own, I felt that there is an education in ways of looking offered through the collection of work. I was specifically moved by photographs by Catherine Opie and Collier Schorr, both offering portraits and action shots of young male athletes engaged in game play or standing in uniform. I was struck by the near life-size-ness of the photographs, and the extremely reflectiveness of the glass behind which they were displayed. I saw the silhouette of my person superimposed in their work, juxtaposed with their subjects. Just as I was being shown a forthright portrait of these young male athletes, I was being reminded of myself, my own presence before the image, and I felt the draw towards comparison. How did I see or know myself in situation with the image being presented to me? How was my stance different from the stance of the boy depicted, or perhaps more interestingly, how was it the same? What parts of myself/how I know or consider myself did I not see reflected in the figure I was being shown? These kind of questions were recurrent for me throughout Hard Targets. I identify as male, and yet I find very little of my “maleness” depicted in the work being exhibited. Yet because of that exclusion/omission, I became even more aware of those qualities. This was the way of looking that I brought to Brown’s piece on my third viewing: despite the fact that the ways of being male being demonstrated in the piece felt incomplete and not representative of my own maleness, or perhaps even because of this disparity, those qualities or attributes within myself were brought more profoundly into my awareness. I felt my softness respond to the hardness of the action, I felt my attraction to the male dancing bodies in the absence of attraction being demonstrated between them. I cannot help but feeling that this self-reflexivity becomes implicit in the piece itself. In a post-modern age in which authorship, authority, and meaning are being questioned, reconsidered, and redefined by post-structuralism, it seems even more evident that the experience provoked within the viewer, the meaning that I then in turn attribute to my experience of the work, becomes a part of the work itself.

I think it is important to acknowledge the specificity of the language I am using to discuss this piece. I saw it very much as a demonstration of aspects of “masculine” identity. I did not experience it as a definition or redefinition of “masculinity,” nor an exploration or investigation of the validity and viability of these aspects. This demonstrative quality, which I think is pervasive in the Hard Targets exhibit itself, insists on reflexivity. Just as I stood before a Catherine Opie photograph and came to examine or understand myself in the context of that image, I was provoked to examine myself and bring forward my own expressions/understanding/experience of “masculinity” in the context of Chalk Boundaries. This, I think, was a strength in the work.

I feel it is necessary to destabilize the potentially simplistic re-presentation of Brown’s piece that I seem to be establishing. To be clear, the piece is not without nuance or subtlety. While it has moments of literality, it is primarily an abstract piece with room for interpretation and ambiguity. I think the brief theatricality of the “aggressor scene” between Seymor, Burley, and Nordstrom serves to anchor the abstraction and ambiguity to those more literal references, but it is still a choice to consider it in such a way. There are nuanced exchanges between bodies, hands and chests reaching towards, moving away, avoiding, and circling back towards. While the overall qualities of “masculinity” depicted in the piece seem very recognizable and relatively fixed, it seems clear that the relationships or connections between these “fixed” bodily identities are characterized by hesitation, uncertainty, and brevity. There are deliciously subtle moments, such as a trio of men sitting together loosely slumping into one another, each one being caught and supported by the others. This is not the central action of that moment, but adds depth and counterpoint to the more spectacular partnering taking place at the center of the space (being danced beautifully by Brown and Mike Abbatiello). There is a wonderful shift in tone when all five dancers move from rebounding standing-forward-folds into sniffing the air attentively and moving abruptly, animalistically, as if on the scent of prey. This moment dovetails smoothly into an extremely literal and somewhat surreal reference to sports (football, I believe), with one dancer, Nordstrom, calling out “Down! Set! Go!” “Go!” seems to morph into “Goal!” or “Girl!” This was rewardingly ambiguous enunciation, calling into question the difference or sameness between going, goal, and girl. When I heard “Girl!” the men were immediately recontextualized, especially if “Girl!” might be confused with “Goal!” In naming that which is apparently absent, the female in the crowd of male, that which inscribes “maleness” becomes situated outside of the male himself, outside of the male individual, and at least partially with the object or Other, potentially even the object of desire (if one is to relate the sniffing to to “Goal!/Girl!”). Suddenly “male” is so at least in part because it is distinct from “female.” This is not the only moment in which “masculine” definition seems at least partially arbitrated by an “other.” Throughout the piece there are moments of looking, watching, gazing, men looking at men, and in doing so raising a question of that which is established, reinforced, or problematized by the gaze. What does one man see as he looks at another? Just as I found my perception of myself and my own “masculinity” brought up by watching this dance, how does each of these men come to recognize and define themselves as men through their looking?

The piece as it now ends seems to offer a glimpse of its own resistance to these somewhat simplistic reductions of “masculinity.” After collapsing before other four dancers, Burley springs up into a position I read as definitively “Peter Pan”-esque. By introducing this image, the boy who adamantly refused to grow up to be a man, this maleness seems to be challenged. It reminds me of a quote I have used in the sound score for the piece I am currently making, taken from Tommy Midas in “Fluid: Men Redefining Sexuality.” He says:

“I definitely identify as queer, I definitely identify as a boy. I hate that, like, ‘man’ word. It’s really gross to me. I feel like there’s a separate, like, gender for, like, ‘boy.’”

The “Peter Pan” pose seems to echo this sentiment. Subsequently, each of the dancers move into postures or poses that seem synonymous with “posturing” and “posing,” a kind of pretense of “masculinity.” The stability of these forms decay as legs appear to become weak or unable to support the weight of the form. The dancers make their way off of the stage in a sequence of posing and collapsing, offering what I perceive to be one hint at questioning the viability of these “masculine” forms. The final moment of the piece leaves Brown alone on stage, walking slowly and carefully, bouncing in each step as if to question its stability. It is a moment of concern and uncertainty, and while it may not immediately offer alternative expressions of “masculine” identity, it definitely calls into question the stability of the preceding depictions.

Being a work in progress, it feels appropriate to have questions for the piece, for how it might develop or evolve. When discussing any work, especially finished work, I hesitate to discuss choices or possibilities beyond that which has been crafted by the choreographer/artist. Too often I think the critical responses to dance/art orbit what else it could have been rather than giving critical attention to what it is. However, having address my experience of the work as it is, I have several lingering questions: To what degree does body type determine role? In the literal moment between Seymor and Burley, why is the long, slender, elegant man the one retreating? Why is he not the aggressor? How might this situation be reinvestigated/subverted if the expected roles (based on body type, etc.) were subverted? While I found a fulfilling experience in echoing within myself the aspects of “masculinity” absent in this demonstration, what are ways in which other less predictable, less archetypal, aspects of male identity might be shown? Perhaps these are not only questions to this piece itself, but more broadly to dance works that address gender (and, in a sense, all dance works address gender), and to the experience of perceiving, negotiating, and demonstrating oneself as gendered. What are our assumptions, how might those assumptions be subverted, and what new, perhaps ambiguous or unfamiliar, perceptions might we discover in subverting our own assumptions?

Overall, I find Chalk Boundaries to be extremely successful. It is provocative, well developed, well executed, and a beautiful accompaniment to the Hard Targets exhibition.

You can see footage of Brown’s rehearsal process on his blog or here:

recipes during wartime, etc.

Tonight I am driving to Cincinnati to attend the opening reception of my brother‘s new exhibition/installation “Recipes During Wartime” at U.Turn Art Space:

A few images that have been released thus far:

I am very excited. I can have consistent confidence that Matthew’s work will offer the subtlety, ambiguity, and profundity that I crave in aesthetic experiences.

Here is an excerpt about Matthew and his work from the U.Turn blog:

“U·turn Art Space is pleased to announce a solo exhibition by one of its collective members, Matt Morris. Recipes During Wartime is a site specific installation characterized by a transparent veil ensconcing the central portion of the gallery. Within the veil Morris presents a floor installation involving powders, an array of subtle objects, and experiments with lighting and scent. The work developed alongside Morris’ research for his upcoming lecture “After the Party: Artistic Hindsight as Crowns Were Passed at the French Revolution and the Localvore Revolution” at the 6th Conference on Food Representation in Literature, Film and the Other Arts in San Antonio, TX. Almost as if laying out a picnic feast for gathering ghosts, the installation within the veil becomes the charged focus of the room. The artist asks viewers to project themselves into a space that is right in front of them but cannot be entered. In this brand new installation, Morris is interested in inquiring into and exploring our psychologies as they relate to place, memory and the edges of perception.”

(for more, please visit this post)

Tomorrow I am going to the Wexner’s “Super Sunday” event for the new exhibition Hard Targets. I am very excited to see this exhibit, especially because of its inclusion of Catherine Opie photographs. Also, as part of the event, Dante Brown is presenting his new work-in-progress, Chalk Boundaries. I saw a preview of this piece on Wednesday, and I am in awe of it. I hope to have more articulate language with which to respond to the piece after Sunday.

Dancing in Galleries at the Wexner

Today I had to pleasure of witnessing a performance of dance at the Wexner taking place in the gallery spaces as part of the Super Sunday event. The last time I saw dancing in the galleries at the Wexner was “Monster Partitur” last April.


Dancers included Erik Abbott-Main, Dante’ Brown, Mair Culbreth, Fiona Lundie, Eric Nordstrom, Rashana Smith, and Abby Zbikowski. I was truly inspired, and came away with thoughts that I needed to get down somewhere. That where is here.

From the beginning, there was a wonderful ambiguity. The dancers were in “pedestrian clothes” (nothing specifically marked them as “the dancers”). And there was also the question of, “Has it started?” Which called into question the arbitrary beginnings and endings of performance. This echoed a marvelous piece that’s at the Wex right now (“The Silent Echo Chamber” by Harry Shearer): it is a series of screens showing footage of famous figures in the moments preceding their television appearances (Barack Obama, John McCain, Anderson Cooper, etc.). These videos came to mind as I watched for the “start” of the dance performance, and offered a lovely connection between my perception of the performance and other work being exhibited in the space.

The basic structure of the performance began with all the dancers on the long ramp that runs on the east side of the galleries, leading up to the top galleries. From here, dancers spread into different spaces. Throughout the performance, dancers migrated into  and out of spaces.

Immediately and throughout the performance I was aware of the implicating of both spectator in the performances and performers in the role of spectatorship. By introducing this “non-normative movement behavior” (outside of the prescribed gallery etiquette), the movement behavior/patterns of the spectators were called into consideration. Because my attention shifted to include their movement for consideration, the situation of “the performance” was expanded to include all those present. This was reinforced by the lack of described performance spaces. The dancers could be anywhere; the performance could be taking place anywhere, at any time. Boundaries of beginning and ending already having been called into question, boundaries between performance and audience space, performer and spectator, softened as well. I felt even more aware than usual of my relationship to the other bodies in the space. My perspective would sometimes shift from that of an observer of a discrete dancing body to a larger observational perspective of the entire situation in which I was implicated. It was the way I prefer to experience dance, not through the role of spectator but through the role of the experiencing body, aware of my own movements, my spatial relationship to the other bodies in the space, my relationship to the architecture, etc.

In this ambiguity between “performer” and “spectator,” I became aware of layers of perspective (dancers, audience, dancer, more audience, art, art being viewed, etc.). This was most overt in the top gallery. I was watching Eric Nordstrom and Dante’ Brown dance together. Beyond them I was able to see a cluster of spectators watching the same dance, but from the other side. Beyond this group of figures, I could see Erik Abbott-Main dancing in the next gallery. Beyond him were spectators viewing the art work on the walls of the gallery (Luc Tuymans). I found the boundaries of performance again to be malleable, shifting. I could extend my attention to any of these layers, in which all that lied in my field of vision may or may not be considered part of the performance, or part of the emerging composition.

This concept of “emerging composition or choreography of spectators” was one of the most potent observations I felt today. Beyond the dances of the dancers, as my perception of the performance space expanded, I became increasingly aware of the emerging compositions in space an time, compositions made up by both the dancers and the spectators, and even the architecture. This made me think of the Synchronous Objects project and an article I read last Winter discussing the intersection of concerns in the fields of dance and architecture: both are concerned with the movement of people. In dance, the choreography in the directive for movement. In architecture, the structure itself directs the flow of movement in the space. I was keenly aware of these elements during todays performance, and the effect they had on the organization/choreography of the “spectators” (now a term less distinct from “performers”). To begin with, the gallery spaces themselves, each with a different set of art works, negotiated the flow of the viewers. Then there was the added element of the dancers, themselves a moving focal point for attention and activity. The viewers went where the dancers were. Depending on what they saw, they moved to another gallery in search of another dancer, or they stayed. The movement of the viewer, while emerging partially from his or her own agency, was also being directed by the presence/actions of the dancers.

I was also aware of this agency of the viewer. I came to think of it almost as a “curatorial agency.” Unlike the artworks hanging on the walls, the dancers and their dancing is not persistent over time. It changes. Just as in an active stage performer the viewer must select objects of attention on which to focus, this agency was expanded by the distribution of the dancers throughout the gallery. The viewer was given the role of “curator” of their own experience (even as I write this, I realize that there is a sense in which this is our responsibility all the time, but perhaps the sense was heightened by the gallery setting, the movement through various gallery spaces, etc.). The work was constantly unfolding; the viewer composed his or her own thirty-minute experience.

There seems to be a light tension between the choreography of the spatial/temporal organization of the “spectator population” emerging from the architecture and the distribution of the dancing bodies (it carries a sense of determinism) and the “curatorial agency” of the viewer constructing his or her own experience within the gallery.

Finally, I was aware of my posture of observation: how was I standing in order to watch? How near or far was I from the dancer, and how did my stance change given the proximity of the dancer, and any other number of socio-cultural factors. For instance, standing and watching Nordstrom and Brown dancing felt easy, casual, at a safe distance. Then  at another point I was watching Fiona Lundie dance. I was standing relatively near to her, and as she moved through various levels of space, I became aware of how much of the dance I spent “above” her in space. I felt complicit in the “male gaze,” man higher than woman, gaze transforming woman into object. Not that those were my experiences, but the posturing of it felt like a social model that I generally reject. I decided to kneel, bringing myself lower in space, and almost assuming a reverential posture (again, participating in the emerging choreography, implicated in the performance situation).

Other brief observation/thoughts:

-How did things change when one of the dancers “exited” their performance mode and simply watched one of his or her colleagues?

-How did the presence of one dancer change a specific gallery space differently from the presence/dancing of another dancer occupying the same space? How did that affect the perception of the art works on display?

-At one point during the 2:30 performance I was watching with Eric Falck. He put his arm around mine. Eventually we shift to holding hands. At one point I was aware of other spectators behind us watching the dancers we were watching. I questioned how it affected the performance, the role that we were playing in our spatial and relational situation: two gay men holding hands being watched while watching solo female dance in art gallery; two gay men holding hands being watched while watching two male dancers dance in art gallery. How was our “demonstration” (which was emergent from a personal relationship, not just a nexus of aesthetic/cultural/social/political dynamics) a part of what was going on performatively?

There are many more smaller thoughts, but that’s all I have time for at the moment. Needless to say I was deeply inspired, so pleased that work like this is being done, and hopeful that maybe I’ll participate in a differently prescribed role the next time it happens!

Conversation with CoCo

So I tried to blog about seeing my friend/colleague/teacher CoCo Loupe perform Deborah Hay‘s “The Runner” yesterday at the Agora festival at Junctionview Studios here in Columbus, and it just didn’t happen. The experience just did not lend itself to the third person. So I have instead decided to invite you, gentle reader, into my “personal” creative conversation with CoCo. I offer excerpts of our email correspondence as another way of looking into this dancing life, another way of contributing to the “cultural library” of dance literature. Here we go:

Michael wrote to CoCo 9:11am, 17 May 2009:
“I loved watching you dance. I will never tire of your movement quality. And maybe it’s just because we’ve been working on this in class (or maybe it’s part of why we’ve been working on this in class?), but I was transfixed by your ability to move from focus to focus, from extremely inner concentration, to smiling and making eyes and playing with a puppy, etc. I was fascinated how this affected your entire body attitude, or way of carrying yourself, your way of moving through the space, through your joints, in and out of the floor, etc. This plays a huge role in the “big thought” I left with.

I left thinking a lot about context and perception and framing and how dance is a truly physically transgressive medium. It rejects so much of how we’re “supposed to be” in our bodies. And as long as it is removed from us, sanitized by the proscenium or the performance space or even just a demarcated time and space in which it has been stated “this is a dance,” society/the culture of society can palate it. They can recognize their way of looking, their role of coexisting with this moving body. In the opposite “extreme,” when a space has been designated or described for “social dance,” in a club or bar or whatever, there is a kind of clarity in the expected role or way of looking/coexisting with the moving body. In the performance yesterday, all of this become blurred, and it was all related to the shifting of your “body attitude.”

I watched the dance, watched you dancing. But maybe it was the choreographer in me . . . I couldn’t not watch how it existed/negotiated itself in the space, with those others present in the space. And this is where I hit my “descriptive wall” in my blog, so bear with my meager language. There was a process of watching the audience not recognize, then recognize that they had not recognized, but rarely did they ever quite grasp what it is that they had not recognized. This was most palpable when your physical countenance was the most “normal” (fit neatly within the definition of the socially acceptable body), moments of just standing and looking, or meandering. They were brief, and those co-habitants (I’m not sure I can call them “audience members” in this speculation) who came upon you in those moments did not distinguish you/your body as atypical or anomalous in the space. But then your countenance would shift. Sometimes it was as subtle as the pacing of your steps, a shift in focus, or a sudden stop. Sometimes it was more overt, like a sudden battement or rond de jambe en lair. But whatever it was, in that moment, they would realize that there was something present that they had not previously recognized. That body (your body) was not “playing by the rules” and they did not know why. They were in this strange in between space of almost panic? When they had this moment of recognition, still had not oriented themselves in it, recognized that they had very likely walked right “into the middle of something,” and knew that they had been seen doing so. Maybe too much of my creative ideas right now have to do with shame, but I saw these flickering, vibrant moments of shame, when they recognized not only that this body (your body) was not playing by the rule, but by implication, neither was theirs. They suddenly weren’t quite sure of the rules, and they were aware of how public their “misstep” had been. Different individuals handled themselves differently in this suspended space, but it was that moment that I found fascinating.

And what it says about our perceptions of the body, our expectations and rules for it. And how quickly we take cues and prescriptions for ourselves from the other bodies we encounter. I felt like it revealed something so fragile: maybe the choreography of identity? Maybe when you develop a research interest you begin to see it everywhere, but it was something like that. Up until their encounter with you, the others in the space knew the “rules” and they were playing by them! That’s maybe the crux of this connection is that it revealed some layer of awareness or intentionality of the ways in which these other individuals were handling themselves in their bodies, the way they were choreographing their actions to fit within their understanding of the “rules,” and by encountering you/your dancing body, their understanding of the rule, and thus their “choreography,” was called into question. So fragile.

Moving past that moment/observation, I was interested in the moments in which your actions were recognized as a dance. And it seemed really clear. When there were spectacular actions (again, battements, rond de jambes en lair, roles to the floor, jumps, etc.), it was seen as a dance, you as a dancer, and thus both as entertainment. The viewer would stop and offer their attention. And when the “moments of spectacle” (for lack of a better term) had passed, so did the attention of many. I thought to myself, “These people are not ‘people-watchers’. They are not the kinds of people who are drawn into subtlety, who sit on the Oval and simply observe how people are their bodies, and how that works itself out. They don’t find themselves captivated by the gate of a person, or the architecture of the body.” I don’t know if it had to do with the amount of STUFF going on visual/aurally/energetically/etc. but so many people walking around seemed to be doing so like . . . something dense and blank, and gave pause to whatever made a large mark/impact of their perceptual fields. Because of this, it was interesting to watch people come in and out of an encounter with your dancing body as a dance.

It made me think of something Bill Forsythe said about the thought behind “Monster Partitur” and the whole exhibition at the Wex. He talked about how in the art gallery culture, their is a certain “viewer agency” to meander, to wander, to direct attention for whatever duration, to come in, to leave, etc. And in the dance world, we tend to hold our viewers captive. They come in, they sit down, we turn out the lights, and for the most part, they are expected to STAY. He was interested in moving dance into the gallery space to potentially explore this viewer relationship. it raises questions like, “Dance, unlike a static object, literally changes and unfolds over time. How does its meaning or relevance shift if the viewer can come in or exit an encounter with it at any point? How is its value effected if they don’t see the ‘beginning’ or the ‘end’, only some piece in the ‘middle’?” I felt that “The Runner” leant itself to this way of viewing remarkably well. There is something about the piece, how it moves from one thing to the next with very little through-line, how each moment it partially characterized by the total abandonment of the previous moment, that gives immense permission to see/encounter only a part of it. I felt like I was fully engaged with the piece for its duration, but by the end I could not begin to describe the sequence of events, or even recount all of the events that had transpired. Just as it seemed as if you moved from moment to moment, event to event, with a total abandonment of what came before, I felt that I was invited to do the same. Which seems to relate much more to that “gallery, come and go as you please” mentality than to the proscenium “come in, watch from beginning to end, then leave” way of engagement. In that sense, I commend you hugely. I think Agora was a perfect match for the piece. I think I would also love to see it in the Wex, either in a gallery or outside on that quad . . . something about framing it in the manner of engagement associated with gallery/museum spaces that I described above. I think that is a fascinating connection between the context and content of the piece.

And I think that’s all I have right now. I have this other thought, something about interpersonal engagement, the way the socially devious body, or the dancing body, becomes less “personal” or “human” in the way that people relate to it . . . but I haven’t found the words for that yet.

Thank you for an amazing performance, for creating such a thought-provoking experience, for being “benignly socially devious” in your body/environment, and the commentary that offers. Thanks for introducing me to Agora. I would love to experience it again in years to come, maybe even share work there.



CoCo wrote to Michael 9:54am 17 May 2009
“[from reading what you wrote], I immediately heard Deborah saying something to the effect of YOU MUST BE IN LOVE WITH IMPERMANENCE. i will get the exact wording from my notes later and send them to you. but that is one of the foundations of this work. her point being….you can’t take this moment too seriously..it’s gone. the next is here and you’re it and your cells are it and it’s gone. don’t die when that moment dies and goes….just let it go and enjoy the next. this is one of the big things i’ve been trying to share with our class at OSU……maybe i need to dig up Deborah’s exact words and share them with the class…..that’s what i’ll do.”

and at 10:30am 17 May 2009:
“there is great vacillation b/w interacting with people/objects/energy in the space and the same entities that are built into the structure of the work. the inner logic of the practice is constantly melding/threading/weaving with the natural flow and construction of the logic that comes with the environment in which the practice is being …..practiced…..(word weirdness)

anyway….it’s a very strange and lovely state that i’m in when doing The Runner…..i never feel like i’m “being” a particular way towards the environment….like extremely inner concentration, to smiling and making eyes and playing with a puppy….although i am doing those things…..while i’m doing them, i really don’t have an attachment to the connotations of those gestures and actions…..like “oh i’m doing this and it means this or can be read as that so therefore i’m building/having/presenting an experience that must hinge on this/that meaning”……it’s more like, “oh….i’m attending to this right now because it’s in the lab….and i need the lab….but i’m inviting being seen and surrendering the pattern of facing a single direction, while every cell in my body is getting what it needs….and it’s no big deal”…….so while the action seems very specific and makes it appear that i’m “meaning to make a statement by doing something like snarking a dog’s nose”, it is actually very omni-dimensional …..from the sheer physiological/anatomical physicality of the experience to the linguistic/textual interpretive potential of the experience……………….

does this make sense? in a way it means having to let go of accepted notions of dancemaking…..dancedoing…..dance-ness. there is no structural heirarchy….the rules are laid bare in the moment and constantly shift so that no goal or meaning can root itself other than the perpetual attention to the directive.”


I hope that offers you some insight into the performance, my perspectives, some of CoCo’s perspectives, and maybe in the larger sense the way we dancing artists think of/talk about what it is we do. Welcome.







Constellations of Thought

I am so overwhelmed at the prospect of sitting down to write this post, and I can hardly even justify the time, knowing that it will be insufficient and incomplete (as are most things) for all that I am interested in exploring/expressing. And I have not even expanded on my “tag cloud reflection” in my last post. But I also feel that in three days of this new quarter, with new and important classes, as well as the density of inspiration coming from all of the Forsythe work in and around OSU/the Wexner, I am adrift amongst veritable constellations of thought. I am sure that I will only be able to address a few specific ideas, and even then, from light years away (as opposed to the microscopic examination I would prefer), but here we go. In no particular order.

Yesterday I attended a lecture by Alva Noë. His primary research concerns are philosophy and cognitive sciences, specifically exploring the nature of consciousness. He posits that consciousness in action, it is something we do, not some internal phenomenon that exists somewhere in our brains. He is questioning a somewhat established assumption that consciousness takes place specifically in the brain, and that thus on some level we are our brains. He asserts that the brain is only a part of the larger structure of consciousness.

And all of this is fascinating to me, especially in the context of dance.

But more of what I would like to address in these brief lines, in this brief time, is his comparison or art and philosophy. I commonly reference my choreography as being specifically concerned with the exploration of aspects of the human condition through the moving body. In a sense, it is an action of philosophy (and research). The piece I just premiered in March, “About,” was previously entitled, “Phenomena to Noumenon: This Simple Thing,” which is essentially a philosophical discourse concerning the nature of reality and perception, objectivity and subjectivity. Noë began by saying that art has been a problem for philosophy for a long time (in the same sense, philosophy is the central problem for my art), asking what is art, what is its value, can it produce knowledge, etc. He asserted three points:
1. Both philosophy and art either have neutral or no subject, or their subject is the whole or time and space, anything about which there can be thought, consciousness itself. Unlike other fields, they are not subject specific but more a way of approaching or addressing subject, which might be anything, and certainly arises out experience and thus consciousness.
2. Both philosophy and art find themselves problematic. Both raise the question for themselves, “How can a dialectic that does not need to produce results be a thing of value?” Both are in a constant state of reevaluating, recontextualizing, reenvisioning and questioning the nature of themselves, what they are and what they do. This relates to a subject Bill Forsythe has spoken on several times this week, that of doubt. We as artists/dancers/choreographers/philosophers are problems to ourselves because we have the ability to doubt or question what we know of ourselves, what has been previously established in our fields.
3. There is a blurring distinction between method and result, process and product. There is a sense in which the results of both philosophy and art only have value in the context of their methods/processes, and thus where on ends and the other begins because a difficult edge to find.

Noë also spoke about the nature of understanding, of understanding or recognition as the essential way in which the world reveals itself to us, and that this understanding is one of context. We recognize a thing in that way in which it fits within our frame of reference, our particular continuum of experience. A thing is unrecognizable, unseeable, when it completely unexpected, when you don’t even know what to look for. This is perhaps one of the values or interests of art, that it cultivates an ability to truly see, to recognize and understand, a microcosmic experience reflecting the macrocosm of all of life. All human experience is a process of bringing the world into focus through understanding and consciousness. Engaging with art gives us the opportunity to cultivate this process of understanding; it is the domain of investigating the process of perception and understanding.

And this is the work of “Synchronous Object for One Flat Thing, Reproduced” (NOW LIVE! CHECK IT OUT!). It is the process of cultivating the experience of understanding. If understanding is truly a phenomenon rooted in a context for perception, than understanding is the problem addressed by “Synchronous Objects.” It the exposition of choreographic work and information in the form of choreographic objects, or visual or pictorial expressions or representations. 

Today, in conjunction with the launch of “Synchronous Objects,” the Wexner Center for the Arts and the Department of Dance at OSU hosted the Choreographic Objects Symposium, bringing together a panel of collaborators and experts in the fields of dance, computer programming, animation, geography, architecture, philosophy and beyond to discuss the work of this project. I cannot possibly address all that was said by which I was inspired, but I will throw out a few key moments.

Maria Palazzi, the director for the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design, commented of the process of understanding through the process of making, the creative process as an act of recognition or understanding. This ties directly into the lecture Noë, and adds another layer, taking consciousness as action into an area in which context for understanding is constructed through the process of making. This was a consensus across the panel, many of whom had very little experience with dance previous to this project, that is doing this work, in creating about this choreography, the choreography became legible for them. The hope is that these points of entry that emerged during their creative work are then transmitted into the objects offered on the new site. It raises new ideas (or new to me) concerning the development of audience literacy in our field. Beyond the incredible work that has been done on this project, what is the potential for making dance legible through creative activities? An obvious application is that once people take dance classes, they understand dance further, but what are other creative (by which I mean generative, making) activities in which might audiences in order to make this art form more accessible? In order to establish a context in which understanding might thrive?

This relates to ideas that are coming up in my graduate teaching seminar with Susan Hadley about the relationship between content, the organization of material, and methods of communicating. What are the ways in which we transmit information?

Which connects to ideas I have been pondering surrounding the application of Labanotation to adjacent dance studies. I am finding my research profile situating itself somewhere between choreography/composition and history/theory; notation serves as a ready link between the two. In Labanotation, choreography becomes a written history, and a written history becomes choreography. I am becoming more and more interested in how this system might lend itself to embodying what is essential an embodied history. Far too often I find that we read, write, view and listen to our dancing history. It is transmitted textually, orally, and visually, but rarely corporeally. I am curious about the potential for notation to lend itself to the study of history, giving students the opportunity to embody seminal dance works that have previously only ever existed for them in disembodied translations. I am considering taking a Labanotation Teacher Certification Course this summer to these ends, to fuel this inquiry. 

Amidst much of this other thought there is the constellation of Somatics. I am taking a course this quarter with Abby Yager that surveys various somatic forms and methods. It may reveal itself to be one of the most significant (to my own interests and research) courses that I have taken thus far at OSU (and I have taken some incredible courses). Among its goals are:
-to cultivate deep listening
-to awaken awareness and clarify a sense of Self 

These are essentially my primary research interests in dance. I am fascinated by how awareness comes from movement of the body and how awareness then affects the way in which the body moves. Ever since I experienced the work of Pauline Oliveros (who has developed a musical/meditation technique described as “Deep Listening”) I have been interested in what a “listening body” might be, and more specifically, how it might move, and how choreography might arise out of that movement. I have felt a resonance of this idea in the somatic fields, but having it so explicitly stated in the syllabus excites me to know end (I am also in a course with Bebe Miller entitled “Creative Processes” exploring the process by which we make dances; I am interested to see how this research interest might be addressed in this composition course, supported by the work I am doing in Somatics with Yager).

My larger research interest has been evolving into something like “the choreography of identity,” the ways in which we come to recognize ourselves and others through the ways in which we move, and how we participate in the formation of who we are through these same processes. Clearly this relates to awareness. It also relates to issues of gender representation, queer theory, gaze theory, relational politics, social conditioning, etc. And it addresses another larger issue, that of the individuals connection to their body. I am interested in resisting the dualistic Cartesian model in which the body is merely the vehicle for the mind, the mind being the essence of the individual. The individual is composed of a mind-body, a body-mind, a cohesive, holistic, inseparable unit. A person is as much their body as they are their mind, and in honoring this fact, we discover that part of knowing ourselves and knowing one another is through an awareness and investigation of the body. This was illustrated in a piece that I designed in my seminar with Ann Hamilton and Michael Mercil last quarter but have yet to enact entitled KNOW(TOUCH)ME(YOU)(MY/YOUR BODY) in which participants engage in a physical conversation with one another, directing one another in a dialogue of physically exploring one another’s bodies.

And perhaps here is where this post comes full orbit and finds its pause: beginning with cognition/consciousness as more than the brain and ending with the person as more than the mind. The essence is that it is through the body that we come to know. Through dancing, through making, through embodying history through a practice of Labanotation, through somatic study, etc. we come to know ourselves and the context that makes up that concept of Self.

Other subjects that deserve attention but must wait for some other time: seeing the performance of “Monster Partitur.” Twice. The process of continuing work of this new piece “Red Monster,” and how it relates to the subject of identity and a sense of Self. The potential for “Synchronous Objects” to inspire further investigations into the representation and exposition of dance and choreographic knowledge. Briefly, this relates to a conversation I had with a friend this evening after the symposium. He raised the question of how this work might be continued. Forsythe has expressed interest in developing a Motion Bank, a library of these sorts of investigations, and while he is currently pursuing funding for the next addition to this “library,” one wonders how else this continuum of information my evolve. Partly, I see it as present in endeavors such as this blog (in the most basic and fundamental of ways): by this blog serving as a public creative platform, I am contributing to the exposition of the internal information of my dancing/choreographing life. I think the more interesting potential evolution of this “library” is one that emerges from public culture, embedded in public culture, rather than continuing to develop out of the work of a single (admittedly remarkable) choreographer. That is yet one more potential development for “Synchronous Objects,” how it my inspire and provoke additional investigations of a similar nature . . . 

And finally an announcement for my readership:
For those of you at OSU or in Columbus:

This Sunday, 5 April, I am restaging “About.” The cast and I had a particular interest is re-contextualizing the work site-specifically. We were interested is how it might be experienced in a circular space, and also how its choreographic structures might be further revealed when seen from above. So this Sunday we are going to explore the piece in these contexts by performing it in both Sullivant Hall rotundas, first in the one next to Studio 6 (the entrance faces Mershon Auditorium) around 5pm, followed by the High Street rotunda (the entrance faces High Street, between Sullivant Library and the Music and Dance Library). The first rotunda offers a circular, domed space with seating in the round, the second has a full mezzanine, from which the piece can be viewed in the round and from above.

I am not particularly advertising this event; it is less about a public performance and more about exploring the nature of this choreography in a different space. It will be informal, and there is no pressure to be in attendance. I simply wanted you to know that this was happening in the event that you had an interest in experiencing the work in this context.