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.