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Category Archives: History

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photo: Willis Bowman

This is the third in a series of posts leading up to Skewed Visions’ remaking of the performance EX from 2014 called EX(remade) in June 2016. In addition to supplying some history and background from the initial production, this series may also provide some context for the current production, including how the current piece is being shaped out of what came before.  Last time I talked about how the process originally began out of loss. This post has a little bit about the whole deal with using a song to shape the performance.

If there is a black hole at the center of loss, then my challenge was to resist making “something” out of that nothing, and instead to keep from covering that hole with “meaning” and let it remain the “nothing” that it is.

In making EX, I returned to structure to help me out.

Back in 2007 I gave my part of Strange Love (device/performance) a structure that I thought was intimately connected to the content of the piece as I saw it. If the initial impulse of that piece was to bring the life of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove film into contemporary political reality because of a rhetorical echo between “communism” and “terrorism”, than the trope of cyclic returning was apt, and so a cyclical structure seemed appropriate for the performance — even though  there was nothing inherent to the material I was using that demanded it. The film isn’t particularly cyclic.

It was my impression at the time that the triple recurrence of the performance gave shape to what was essentially a self-destructive entropic dive. I hoped that it also helped make my point, such as it was.

For EX, I didn’t want there to be this kind of “positive” outcome, a shape that lent itself to meaning. But my experience with Strange Love suggested that using a very concrete structure was useful to give the audience something to hang onto when what there was in terms of “plot” or “narrative” was being destroyed along with language, images, and theatrical conventions. So it was very purposeful to take the structure of Radiohead’s song Codex and use it as the scaffolding that the material that we were making in the studio could live on. I didn’t want to “destroy” plot, narrative, conventions, in EX. I wanted to get along with the tattered remains that I was left with. I wanted the emptiness.

So the connection between the song and the performance would be arbitrary, but purposeful. (The echo of the name was coincidental.) There were repetitions in EX, but they occurred not because I wanted them to, or because the idea of repetition was thematically relevant to the content of the piece we were making, but because the song structure provided it for us.

I took advantage of my participation in Emily Gastineau’s project for her Art Is Easy in 2014 at the Minnesota Biennial ,,, at the Soap Factory to map out the song’s structure. I taped a very long sheet of paper to the wall, plugged in my earbuds, and made a lot of marks. At the end of this mapping I had a chart that more-or-less represented the sonic aspects of the song over time, with each kind of sound having its own track across the page. Each second of the song translated into 12.63 seconds of performance. Billy decided to call this sheet of paper that we’d tape up and take down at every rehearsal, the Codex. Then, after coming up with a lot of different kinds of things in the studio, I assigned them to different tracks on the Codex. Voila.

That’s why although there are a few seconds of the Radiohead song that are looped at one point in the performance, there is no need to know the song, or hear the song, or know about this process, to experience the performance fully. The connection between the two is arbitrary and structural, and doesn’t allow the imposed gratification or meaning of the song to shape the content of the black hole. But it does — if you’ll excuse this runaway metaphor — mark the black hole’s event horizon.

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photo: Mario Giacomelli

 

As I write this someone is dying somewhere. I just hope it’s not me. Or anyone I care about. Or anyone who anyone I care about cares about. Or even really….

Sure, the more you open up the less your self matters. But what does that mean when that opening is a disguise, a deferral?

You start with a fact and the closer you connect it to your life, the more it becomes an impossibility. Especially when the facts are as hard as they are inevitable. It’s much easier to make something else out of these facts. An afterlife, for example, out of death. Or some sort of meaning. Out of suffering. Alzheimer’s. Cancer.

This is not news. But is it art?

It was what I was trying to avoid with EX. I needed to resist at every turn the conventional artistic effort to make something appreciable out of a great sucking vortex of awful. Not only because I didn’t want to sell my innards and those of my family for fun and profit, but also because it was so real — in a very mundane, practical, and pervasive sense — like skin. Or dust. Or blinking. And I wanted to see how close I could come to that sense of what it was like to live in that place. Allow my family members the dignity of their suffering without covering it with some kind of meaning. Trying to allow the facts to remain in their natural state, without becoming aestheticized.

Death is one of those things that is practically impossible to get right in performance. But it was all I had that year, and besides — I had already started working.

I remember the year before, in January 2013, I had a short conversation with Angharad in my doorway about how I wanted to start working on a new piece but I didn’t want to ask people to help because I didn’t have anyway to compensate them, especially when I didn’t know what I was working on. She suggested I just ask. So in February 2013 I started meeting with Megan because she agreed when I asked her. My sister was in the midst of chemotherapy treatments. My mother was soon to go into memory care. In the studio that day we talked about blocks of clear solid lucite with objects imbedded in them.

At some point around then I decided I wanted to make something that involved my mother and my sister. And I started with my mother because her dementia was so painful and so fascinating, and I saw her much more often than I did my sister who lived near faraway Boston. Megan and I started looking at photos of people in old-age homes in rural Italy in the 1960s shot by Mario Giacomelli, a series called “Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi (Death will come and will have your eyes)” the title of which comes from the first line of a Cesare Pavese poem that I quoted in Black Water because vision and death was something relevant to me when talking about drone warfare. This is how one awful piles on another.

We started with some movement she developed based on these photos and our conversations, that was built on work we had done previously on Black Water and a short piece for a fundraiser for Link Vostok.

I’m pretty sure that by the time I gathered enough courage to ask Annie and Billy if they would help out, I had been listening to Radiohead’s Codex repeatedly — the entire King of Limbs album, but that piece in particular.

Then my sister died.

 

 

JM

Earlier today I was listening to a review of Stacy Schiff’s The Witches and I had what was either a small scale epiphany or merely a regular everyday old realization. Because the reviewer made the familiar reference to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which made me think of Dr. Strangelove, which in turn made me think of the War on Terror (via Strange Love (device/performance)).

And if this is not an obvious chain of associations for you, you may want to grab on to something solid for the next couple of paragraphs. This is going to be messy and unsubstantiated.

Is it possible that these “witch hunt” phenomena — and their related anxieties (paranoia, xenophobia, violence rationalized through law, etc.) — are related to a historical/cultural guilt over previous historical/cultural acts of violence?

Maybe “guilt” isn’t the right word here because it implies a moral code, and one based on the individual, instead of a more material, practical, aberration based on collective dynamics and, well, the physics of social relations. In any case, maybe the violence inherent in the settling of this country (from attempted Native genocide and slavery through the radical resource depletions and the resulting blind entitlement of today) has developed in us a kind of national tic, like a learned physical response, that is manifested (at least partially) in the familiar witch hunt situations.

Because when, for example, you first hit someone you are not only learning that you can be hit, you are also learning what an enemy is. The situation out of which your little fist flies is a complex mix of emotions, sensations, social relations, cultural  context, etc. But at the moment you feel the other persons skin and bone meet your own you have stratified all those factors along a binary division: Us and Them. Do this enough, without learning to move beyond this stratification into the messy realm of negotiating the complex situations from which conflict arises, and you build a habit that is not only psychological but physical. An almost Pavlovian response.

Likely you’ve already had this realization, knew it all along, but I’m sharing it here all the same because it is among these thoughts and feelings that I’ve been swimming for some time, and I’m getting the sensation there’s meaning for me here.

So I’m wondering if this “witch hunt” behavior has developed out of our own response to our own violence, one that allows us to extract our sense of the injustice of our own past and place it elsewhere (in whatever Other we are hunting), delimiting its anxiety (and probably having the added benefit of acting out upon those who recall our inadequacies to us.)

There are a lot of questions I’d need to research to take this further, but they are ones I’d prefer at this point to investigate through performance than through psychology.