March 25th, 2012 § § permalink
“But I am cold. It is dark. Let me come into the house.”
“There is a lamp on my table. And the house is in the book.”
“So I will live in the house after all.”
“You will follow the book, whose every page is an abyss where the wing shines with the name.”
-Edmond Jabès, “At the Threshold of the Book”
In one of the fragments from his book the Idea of Prose, Giorgio Agamben relates the anecdote of the ancient scholar Damascius who spends years laboring over a text on the origin of thought until he is exhausted with his effort. Abandoning himself in a pause of repose he recalls the threshing floor of the peasants from his youth where the wheat is separated from the chaff. He see the empty floor (the empty stage) before differentiation and realizes that the first thought would reside in the moment when the word separates from the world: “The uttermost limit thought can reach is not a being, not a place or thing, no matter how free of any quality, but rather, its own absolute potentiality, the pure potentiality of representation itself: the writing tablet! What he had until then been taking as the One, as the absolutely Other of thought, was instead only the material, only the potentiality of thought. And the entire, lengthy volume the hand of the scribe had crammed with characters was nothing other than the attempt to represent the perfectly bare writing tablet on which nothing had yet been written. This was why he was unable to carry his work through to completion: what could not cease from writing itself was the image of what never ceased from not writing itself.”
Jabès tells us that we are not allowed to live in the house of the book: we follow it. This carries two senses: one temporal, one spatial. We are always temporally after, always following, the blank page. But in the other sense, how to find a way to chase it through space, to follow it?
Even when I was writing poetry it was the closed book that I circled endlessly. I wanted to write around the thing itself, as if the poem could have a book within it untouched. I wanted the poem to have the thing itself because I knew that I could never have it. And now, writing about performance, I find that I still cannot live in its house. I would that I could light the lamp of my attention, shining only on those outside covers, those external walls.
January 27th, 2012 § § permalink
Photograph by Patrick Witty
At the end of the zero zero decade, for the first time in my life, I’ve been obliged to recognize that the actor is absent: you see actions, but you don’t see an actor. Actions without an actor play out on the ground of social visibility, but they don’t create any common ground in the space of consciousness and affectivity. Actions are performed in the theater of social production, but the agent of recombination is not there, in the theater, but backstage, and the consciousness of the process does not belong to the process itself.
-Franco 'Bifo' Berardi, After the Future (2011)
There is a scene in Sam Shepard's 1965 play Icarus’s Mother where a group of young men and women stare skyward at a fireworks display on a typical American summer evening. We in the audience watch them wide-eyed and wondering at the spectacle taking place just beyond our view, a catastrophic glory fading just offstage behind us. Christopher Bigsby describes the scene as follows: “Despite its apparent naturalistic setting, the play is concerned with potential, with a fear that lurks just below the surface of routine, so that when one of the characters describes the firework display his language simultaneously contains a reference to the apocalypse of which the display is itself merely an image…”
The display is “merely an image” because it can only be a partial representation of the apocalyptic, as such. The apocalyptic is necessarily a process of becoming suspended between two worlds—the one it ends and the other it begins; it is not a stable entity that can be captured fixedly. As an event of constant variation, representing the apocalyptic in all its catastrophic chaos poses a problem for the stage. For, as soon as something appears onstage, it begins to mean or represent something; in other words, it projects forth an expected future, a character’s objective, an object’s use, or a plot’s end. An image passes over the eclipse of one world and institutes another, already there and already waiting. How do we stage a future full of what Bigsby calls the “potential” that “lurks beneath the surface of the routine”, the potential that promises the unexpected, the darkness between two suns?
Perhaps this scene acts as a premonition of that most recent and glaring instance of collective witnessing when one world ended to begin another: September 11th, that traumatic event where the expectations of the everyday world suddenly split open to reveal the seemingly implausible, the unpredictable abyss behind any wall. What future was this, is this?
In 1979 Jean-Francois Lyotard famously wrote of the Postmodern Condition as one in which the grand narratives of progress are no longer possible, heralding a continuous present dislocated from past or future: the endless, nonstop crises of the 24 hour news cycle. More recently, in his 2011 book After the Future the Italian radical philosopher Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi has expanded this critique to specifically emphasize the faith in futurity that characterized these now-defunct narrative structures. According to Bifo, the modernist promise of a better time to come as inaugurated in the 20th century with the Futurist manifesto in 1907, petered out again and again in increasingly desperate articulations towards the end of the millennium, until we now live in a temporality without direction, with no future. This isn’t to say that the temporal dimension of futurity is lost, rather that the characterization of such a time is no longer possible. Whoever acts now--whatever acts now--acts just beyond the lip of our stage. Great forces swirling beyond any visible possibility. All we can see is the crowd looking on, transfixed in here and now without any prospect for a time to come.
November 30th, 2011 § § permalink
Antony Gormley, Blind Light
A selection from my essay “Not Looking into the Abyss: the potentiality to see”, forthcoming in Frances Guerin’s edited collection On Not Looking: Essays on Images and Viewers.
We stood on the cusp of that great abyss, expecting a vastness miles deep and wide. We had imagined it many times before, had preconceived its possible contours in the mid-morning light from photographs and landscape paintings that had tamed the massive formation into recognizable compositions and complexions. But when we came upon the Grand Canyon on our drive Eastward, there was nothing at which to look. Trees giving way to rocky descents plunged into the blank fog suspended in the air all around. Nearly a whiteout, the thickest fog, no reimbursements at the visitor’s center. A palpable sense of disappointment also hung in the air, whispered in German and French. Crowds gathered longing for the occasional shreds in the veils of white to show suggestive forms below: the shadowed curl of a tree, hunched backbone of a boulder, surfacing in midair for a glimpse before sinking under again. These hints of appearance eliciting responses far greater than a full view would have entailed, awe that much more acute.
We continued our travels east, wondering if we had seen the Grand Canyon. We certainly had not looked at it, for what was there for the eye to catch hold of, to reel the pupil into focus? But was there something more sublime, more inhuman, in this disappearing act than in the sight itself, the way it beckoned our further approach and promised to disclose its veiled secret? For there we were waiting for that great red beast to make its appearance. We knew it must be there—the signs said as much—but what it would be when it arrived was suddenly a matter far beyond the snapshot. We had seen the abyss and it had seen the abyss in us.
November 15th, 2011 § § permalink
Bruce Nauman, Floating Room
For a long while I have been thinking about how performance addresses a future not as a known entity–the making of a house–but as a door in that house. What lies behind the door has always been an anxiety for the theatre. As Lin Hixson and Matthew Goulish put it “every house has a door,” and it is the door that holds our attention, keeps us waiting for someone to arrive.
Let me borrow from the philosopher Michel De Certeau’s sense of the word to say that place is a fixed and demarcated location, one of a finite closed set of points within a coordinated plane, that “the law of the ‘proper’ rules in the place.” A wall lines the limits of the placeable, a shore to this island where the place we call sea begins and ends. It is a room, a book. In the opening lines of his chapter on walking in the city from the first volume of his Practice of Everyday Life, De Certeau describes surveying the city of New York from above, the expanse of vertical rises flattened out into a comprehensive view. The intricacies of buildings, parks, and roadways all are leveled into a text for the unseen eye to read. He looks down from 110 floors up in the observation deck on the south tower of the world trade center–completed in 1971–a year after its twin became the tallest building in the world. “When one goes up there, he leaves behind the mass that carries off and mixes up in itself any identity of authors or spectators. An Icarus flying above these waters, he can ignore the devices of Daedalus in mobile and endless labyrinths far below. His elevation transfigures him into a voyeur.” It was a prophetic analogy from De Certeau. He would die fifteen years later, in 1986, another fifteen years before seeing his image burn itself across our sky. It was then that our Icarus, too involved in the strategies of larger armies and nations, would fall before the most tactical of operations.
Performance is always a fugitive’s game. One holds ground as long as one remains stationary, but always moves on, at least until that final resting place of death. We mark these permanent occupations with a stone, that more lasting medium than the too fragile flesh. We make a place and say here lies X. To hold ground. In De Certeau’s understanding, this retains its militaristic cast, yes, but so does the tactical of the performative task. The general sees the war from above, configuring a strategy that projects into the future according to the expectations of what will happen, who will move where and to what end. He moves pieces from territory to territory, as if the passage through the land were removed from the land itself, the mover and the moved separate and clean. There is another logic, though, the logic on the ground where one makes choices in the moment and off the cuff, performing an improvisation that compensates for, or takes advantage of, the divergence of the actualization from its expected enactment. This is the tactical, the everyday movement of those that use places towards their own, at times perverse, purposes. The purposes of Terror, of anxiety. Performing onstage, reading of a book, saying a line, walking a street, flying a plane–each can be contained by the expectation of a path, the placement of a wall, but one can open different doors, or open doors differently, one can climb out through windows, fly into walls. An empty box or an empty wall is only a place waiting for a fugitive gesture.
I cannot stay here, for I am not dead and I am not safe. And yet, I must keep returning to this place to open a new door and make a new space.
October 21st, 2011 § § permalink
photograph by Hiroshi Sugimoto
The necessity for this book is to be found in the
following consideration: that the lover’s discourse
is today of an extreme solitude. This discourse is
spoken, perhaps, by thousands of subjects (who
knows?), but warranted by no one; it is completely
forsaken by the surrounding languages: ignored,
disparaged, or derided by them, severed not only
from authority but also from the mechanisms of
authority (sciences, techniques, arts). Once a
discourse is thus driven by its own momentum into
the backwater of the ‘unreal,’ exiled from all
gregarity, it has no recourse but to become the
site, however exiguous, of an affirmation. That
affirmation is, in short, the subject of the book
which begins here…
-Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, 1
I would collect the entirety of Barthes’ unbearable book in this archive, but I choose these opening lines as an invitation. The words I have written over these past months, which I will write in whatever time follows, are nothing but a kind of affirmation severed from authority. Or perhaps I should have offered the lines that follow this passage under the heading ‘How this book is constructed’ to explain instead ‘How this site is constructed’. It seems best to start with a mistake, a feint, an apology. I quote: “What is proposed, then, is a portrait […] the site of someone speaking within himself, amorously, confronting the other (the loved object), who does not speak” (Barthes, 3).
And I must admit that this, too, is a false start, another mistake. I have spoken some version of this script before: first in Chicago and now, again, differently. I am always improvising on the same themes, testing my breath against that fine window between stage and audience. Still that child writing on the mist I’ve formed briefly on glass or on mirror.
Barthes’ book describes a series of fragments or roles taken up by the lover in relation to an Other—the loved—for the most part silent and deaf to his entreaties. These roles are available as practices for the lover to undertake, masks to inhabit and games to play, perhaps as a means of imagining a meeting or some moment of shared acknowledgement. The table of contents offers us a sampling of such figures: absence, waiting, body, demons, embarrassment, informer, magic, clouds, waking, will-to-possess. Likewise, the texts I offer here are claims I stake out in glosses, on screens and windows, each half of the dialogue spoken to an absent other (the quoted text or image put forth and my own text to follow). Since it seems that all commonplace books record a private dialogue, I should warn you that this veers at times hazardously close to the precipices of self-indulgence.
I ask you: isn’t my attendance to the performance that always escapes my capture no less than that between the lover and loved who will not or can no longer speak? I confront the enormity of your silence in my own extreme solitude, you—my performer—who dance on in inscrutable arabesques, always further, because I am always confronting you. I had thought the word love a kind of passkey, a thin word that fit any lock. As when taking up the word I, one takes up the whole of speech, finds a place for you and for then and for there, for right and left and wrong, for now. I thought love that kind of promise, the basis for directions through all that followed. I would call you simply love but could not satisfactorily elaborate because all of language, all of meaning surrounded you. And so I realize now that you are also what I’ve been calling potentiality this whole time, because I needed another name. Secreted in the deepest recesses of discourse so “completely forsaken by other languages”—as Barthes would say—that it might as well stay silent, might as well suspend any statement and maintain its potential to say itself, such love means nothing more than the pure affirmation of an attachment, an attention to what you do. Or did.
And so I will stay silent in an attempt to keep hold of all I could say.
October 15th, 2011 § § permalink
For the past few weeks I’ve been posting a collection of fragments under the heading “imagined theatres”: scraps of text that could be dialogues, perhaps, or even a single voice speaking to itself, texts that could be images and sequences that trail off and away. In some senses these are inspired by the working process of Romeo Castellucci, a director whom I greatly admire and who has shaped my thought for more than a decade now. The Theatre of Societas Raffaello Sanzio, the first and only English-language monograph on Castellucci’s singular body of work, reprints several pages from the Italian director’s notebooks:
“The light comes on. A diorama faithfully representing a primitive landscape: two ‘Neanderthals’, one make and one female (represented hyper-realistically), have sex with each other. No pretence. Once the sexual encounter is over, the male gets up. End of performance.”
“A suite of gym machines that ‘come to life’ and function on their own. High amplification. The microphones pick up and make a din of the pneumatic and hydraulic mechanisms that move the part of the machinery.”
“A big countdown display at the back of the stage. On stage, there is just a chimpanzee. The countdown starts at twenty minutes. And at zero?”
“Washing a leather armchair really well. Washing it with water and soap, with scrubbing brushes and sponges. Washing it thoroughly, with commitment and determination.”
“A deer, free on the stage, which looks blurred behind a semi-transparent PVC curtain. The idea of dawn. The idea of fog. A panorama appears to be a long way away.”
“Work on time. Time alone.”
”An infinite series of black curtains (forty or fifty) which open one after another (they have pieces of white material sewn onto them, in different shapes), until they reach the back of the stage. At the end, the brick wall of the theatre can be seen. The end.”
–selections from The Theatre of Societas Raffaello Sanzio (Routledge, 2007), 265-266.
For Castellucci, these conceptions collected over the years act as the raw material for his later work, so that reading these many fragments now will incite an occasional glimmer of recognition: in a sentence or a short paragraph, we catch sight of the seeds of some performance we have already seen, the fingertip of the larger body to come.
I am a writer and only occasionally a director, so my imagined theatres must remain in utero, suspended in conception without actualization. In this way, these imagined theatres take seriously the theatre as a site of “theory”, where the theoretical performs and makes the scene. For better or for worse, these are not merely poetic statements or dream images, but propositions in the language and shape of theatrical traditions, set against the rules and dimensions of a certain stage. So that when I speak of passing through a room, for example, or standing on the final cusp of a great desert, I am always also speaking of an event in a theatre. What this means is that these most private conceptions are always public: for a public and/or performed by a public. I imagine that we are all speaking these lines together. What this also means is that behind each imagining lies the expectation that these will take place some day or that they have already taken place in one of the countless theatres that gleam dimly in some subterranean quarter of this world of ours. A kind of contradiction in terms, an imagined theatre is an impossibility clinging fast to its eventual realization. Finally (at least for now), by putting my imagined propositions and theories on the stage, I am acknowledging the inherent duplicity or what J.L. Autin would call the “parasitic” nature of these thoughts, how they are “etiolations” of both theory and theatre. I own the fact that these are only flimsy cardboard cutouts, that no one is actually getting hurt or weeping. If you look closely enough that dead man in the corner is still breathing.
October 3rd, 2011 § § permalink
Photo of a room at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel
I remember years ago sitting in on a friend’s performance–the name of the piece has escaped me at this great distance–and finding one segment particularly compelling. There she was, describing the hotel and its many rooms, filled with its many inhabitants or littered with the traces of last night’s parties and arguments, and then describing us in our rooms doing what we would be doing, could be doing should we ever arrive there. It was an imaginary hotel and I am probably misremembering its architecture. Perhaps I am even imagining the memory. This idea of a possible hotel certainly collapses into other dreams and other occasions where similar images have entered into the theatre and held me captive.
I’ve been struggling for the past few weeks with how to put words to the most moving performances I saw at Edinburgh this summer and then it suddenly struck me the other day: the three pieces that held my attention more than any others all centered around this figure of the Hotel. There was the New York-based TEAM’s stunning excavation of the myth of the American frontier, MISSION DRIFT, which ended in the fantastical eruptions of Las Vegas, its hotel-casinos themselves dreams of a culture-turned-spectacle; there was the Australian performance artist Nicola Gunn’s AT THE SANS HOTEL with its room-less and endless hotel at which one could not stay and in which one could never check in, find the room in which to belong; and there was the Brazilian company Zecora Ura’s six-hour adaptation of the Jason and Medea myth, HOTEL MEDEA, which had its handful of audience members tucked into bed as the couples’ doomed children and as onlookers and even as lovers themselves.
Having found this common ground, I want to spend the next few days writing more pointedly on each of these pieces in relation to this figure of the Hotel. For I feel (and these three pieces confirm that feeling) that the Hotel offers us a contemporary reference for the state of the theatre as a temporary home. Here we spend a night and pretend to access some kind of intimacy before leaving the space in a slight disarray, confident that another will come to clean up the mess and that some other stranger can soon come to live through their nightly life. If the late 19th century and early twentieth century had their domestic dramas, we now have our hotel dramas. Anonymous affairs with strangers in the night. One night only before leaving town for other quarters.