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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.

 

 

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So this is blogging about EX (remade).

EX was first produced in 2014 for a space called the Thingmakers Union Hall in the California Building. Created in collaboration with Annie Enneking, Megan Mayer, and Billy Mullaney, with sound by Elliott Durko Lynch and lights by Heidi Eckwall, it was a piece I had made during and dealing with the illnesses and deaths of my older sister and mother within that year.

If I were not me and I came across this post, I would first ask Why. Why do EX again?

Guess what? I don’t have to tell you why EX is getting remade! This is NOT that kind of relationship. And — I have to tell you — I am SO glad about that. The rationalization and justification of ART is so prevalent and deeply ingrained in this culture that too many projects these days are not just incorporating their purpose and meaning transparently into their work, but conceiving of the project from the outset in such a way that the purpose and meaning is so self-evident (or, in some cases, so trite and vapid) that rationalizing is pointless. (“Self-defense mechanism,” let’s say, assuming the best.) It’s demeaning. Let us be free of those police here, at least.

In the interests of full disclosure, I would like to add that Skewed Visions did receive a grant to produce this remaking of EX and in that proposal it was said (in the passive voice) that blog posts such as this would help promote this performance and facilitate access to what might otherwise be somewhat “challenging” performance. (As if a challenge was something we view with despair, something we needed assistance in approaching, like an old man on a steep staircase.) We got the money, they get the blog. But I cannot guarantee that reading these posts will make any part of the performance more “accessible”. It is just exactly as accessible as it needs to be already and nothing I say or do will make it more so — not that I would wish to, even if I could.

Is this being petulant, ungrateful, or even arrogant? I’d like to make a calm and rational argument that, no, it is none of these. That it is, in fact, what ought to be a normal and expected corollary of the creation of a work of art that is both autonomous and imaginative (if it goes well). But I don’t think I’m capable of that tonight. And so I won’t.

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.