Yvonne Rainer and The Aging Avant-Garde

I have been returning to some old material about Y.R. and updating it. Along the way, I’ve gained a new appreciation for her new choreography, which I had initially dismissed (sorry!) and ceased to follow. In particular, I have been taken with her use of aging as a figure that straddles a number of literal and metaphorical constructs: aging dancers, aging art, age-old art, the economics of aging, the inexorability of aging, the denial of aging, etc… We are all already old: that’s the truth of precariousness. Or as Jasbir Puar puts it, everyone is well on their way to debility. Another elderly metaphor: the ineffectiveness of political rhetoric or “rants,” across the political spectrum. For Rainer, however, this rhetoric is still all we’ve got. Plus, it’s sometimes (often) true, even it does not do anything. For more on this, I refer readers to her films. The incessant verbiage produced in The Man Who Envied Women really stands out, not to mention the fact that it does not ever visually depict the female protagonist in an all-too-literal attempt to take of the libidinal economy of cinematic spectatorship (and inevitably fails, but that’s not the point.)

It is interesting to compare this approach to political “failure” (see Halberstam?) to other choreographers, such as Keith Hennessy’s Turbulence (a dance about the economy) and koosil-ja (I am capitalism).




A link to a treat: The Concept of Dust or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move? (Note: this title is itself too long, verbally excessive, counter-productive)

In search of relief from text, we turn to images… unless they look back at us? (Kristina Talking Pictures, 1976)


Or a related counter-look from another favorite, Chantal Akerman:





600 highwaymen: the fever

there was a legit show— 600 highwaymen’s the fever— in colorado springs!

(shout out: kevin landis for making it happen)

(disclaimer: a response that makes no attempt to do any contextualization.)

a rough description

the fever revolves around an unusual approach to audience participation: it begins with simple acts of imitation and invites (and sometimes calls on) audience members sitting with performers (main company members: Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone) on the edge of the space to play along. you’re led in amazingly gentle, generous ways to do simple dances and gestures, to touch the performers, to save them from falling, to convey their bodies across space, etc.. There is a simple narrative frame that recalls an evening party with friends— and the unseen grief of the woman hosting it— with a bit of nostalgia and melancholy, but this narrative soon fades away in the distance and serves to set up the main theme: the imagined memory of being together, happily. The exercises in audience participation then become a recreation of this imagined being together.

It’s innovative and engaging.



thoughts (disconnected)

  • Actually being together is timely and topical, but the fever is not socially-engaged art, even as it does connect people. But this connection depends
  • I thought of it as producing a flattened intimacy. Or muted lyricism.
  • Unlike socially engaged art, it is still operating in the symbolic. SAE flat out rejects
  • Since it relies on symbolic communication, there are certain clear limits on contact.
  • There is little direct verbal contact.
  • The lack of direct verbal contact means that the audience doesn’t encounter certain degrees of difference. This is especially apparent in Colorado Springs, where political and social differences can be explosive.
  • What is happening to difference here? Is it being sublimated?
  • Instead of verbal contact (the primary medium for social signification) there is simple movement— namely, kinesthetics, or what John Martin would have called “metakinesis.”
  • That’s a very modern concept, by the way.
  • Hence, the name: the fever, which apparently was “loosely” based on the rite of spring. It’s not much like the rite of spring save for being an attempt to renew our social bonds by returning us to fundamental human experiences. unlike stravinsky, there’s no primitivism, no primal savagery to encounter.
  • I almost wrote: “we are sick, of course,” but then stopped myself. Illness and contagion are high modernist metaphors. (I have turned to Derrida and Nancy for other forms of figuration.)
  • The Fever deals with symbolic language by not speaking, at least very much.
  • It creates a largely pre-discursive space.
  • Pre-discursive spaces are always dicey.
  • They tend to naturalize things.
  • There is technique in the fever. It’s what holds the performance together. It isn’t disguised or concealed in any way, but is just simplified, which makes it seem natural, even though it’s not.
  • This contradiction leads to a kind of melancholy lyricism.
  • And a bit of faith. Self-consciously so, however.
  • It also relates to the frequent thematization of children.
  • There is a fair bit of talk about children: “what if” we could relate as each others’ children?
  • In this way, children = pre-discursive.
  • I am tempted to challenge this figuration of children. To bring up the limits of thinking about bonds of relation in terms of conventional kinship networks. But then I remember Nikki Schotzko’s piece at Tuning Spec IV on seeing the other as a mother. Is that different? Perhaps a bit, because it does not posit the child as the relational point. In her talk, the child is estranged, made strange, and we are asked to relate to this alterity from a maternal perspective.
  • I like the fever very much.
  • But…


Bonus: a quote that suggests that some version of the above is consciously integrated into their work


AB: Blankness is, indeed, impossible. It’s a false premise to imagine that it’s possible to be blank, bare, empty. But falseness as an idea must be addressed when you’re working in theater. It’s such an inherently fictional, false medium. The falseness of memorizing words and then reciting them effortlessly, the falseness of fictional circumstance, the falseness of acting like you are not being watched, when in fact what you’re doing is sculpted for surveillance (and often by a large mass of people). Michael and I tend to deal directly with this falseness, to really engage with it. Each piece has a different relationship with this.



The Emancipated Spectator

Notes on an important text for theatre and performance

The paradox of the spectator = there is no theatre without spectators but being a spectator is a bad thing because:

  • viewing is the opposite of knowing
  • and the opposite of acting

This essentially leads to the Platonic position that “a true community… does not tolerate theatrical mediation” (3)

(see Rancière, archipolitics in Disagreement (1998): Archipolitics, whose model is supplied by Plato, reveals in all its radically the project of a community based on the complete realization of the arkhê of community, on its integral sen sibilization, replacing without any leftover the democratic configuration of politics)

For Plato, theatre is “bad”; for modern theatre practitioners, it is solely the spectator, who must be:

  • roused from stupefaction using dramatic identification  and “won over by the empathy that makes them identify with the characters on the stage” (4)
  • or distance must be abolished

Ranicère argues that these strategies relate to Brecht and Artaud, which seem different, but ultimately are both part of the same Platonic worldview, which dreams of replacing the “ignorant community of theatre” with “a different community encapsulated in a different performance of bodies” (5). For Brecht and Artaud, this means “theatre” is “the place where the passive audience… must be transformed into the active body of a community,” which involves a foundational presumption: the “idea of community as self-presence.” Since “German Romanticism… theatre has been associated with this idea of the living community” (6).

Roncière also applies this critique of presence to Debord’s society of the spectacle. It seems “anti-Platonic,” but revives “the Romantic vision of truth as non-separation.”

It should come as no surprise that at several points he hints at the theological character of this “vision of truth,” which he characterizes as “communion” (15).

It begins to become possible to see one of Rancière’s most important insights: he is challenging the late modernist orthodoxy predicated on overcoming aesthetic separation and instead insists on its necessity. He turns to his famous work on the philosophy of education (Joseph Jacotot’s The Educated Schoolmaster) in order to claim that:

 “Distance is not an evil to be abolished, but the normal condition of any communication” (10).

I am not sure that I can follow Rancière into his democratic alternative, which consists of insisting on the equality of the teacher and pupil, who may not share the same knowledge, but nevertheless share the capacity to exercise thinking and interpretation. For Rancière, spectators are not passive, but are already active. Regardless of being aware or not, the spectator “observers, selects, compares, interprets” (13). They are thus “distant spectators and active interpreters.” This is the essence of the emancipated spectator: “an emancipated community is a community of narrators and translators” (22) or “the emancipation of  each of us as spectator” in that “being a spectator is not some passive condition that we should transform into activity. It is our normal situation. We also learn and teach, act and know, as spectators who all the time link what we see to what we have seen and said, done and dreamed” (17).

(This claim is consist with the critical approach taken by scholars of fan cultures, which are relatively easy to celebrate. But what about the most bourgeois  example of audiences, the sort of spectator that originally inspired the French avant-garde tradition from which Artaud emerged? Is the distracted spectator of The Nutcracker also an interpreter? By his account, it would seem so.)

I also find myself wondering about the strangeness of equating the activity of the schoolmaster and the pupil. What does this “exercise” of our various “capacity” for “unique intellectual adventure” entail? In this scenario, what becomes of difference? I assume that it is redirected into the dissensus that composes the fabric of democratic politics, but that outpaces this particular essay about theatre.Honestly, I am not are that Rancière begins to work out how art and theatre might put this process of emancipation to work. He knows this, too, and ends the essay by acknowledging that it might all be taken as “words, yet more words, and nothing but words” (22).

There are concrete clues in the essay “Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community.” They merit a brief digression. In this essay, he identifies two examples:

  • a video piece by Albanian artist Anri Sala, Dammi i colori, which “uses the resources of ‘distant’ art to question a politics of art which tries to fuse art and life into one single process” (78)
  • a lot of Pedro Costa. This is the better example. Like Sala, Costa “does not seek to make viewers aware of the structures of domination and inspire them to mobilize their energies. Nor does it revive the avant-garde’s dream of dissolving artistic forms into the relations of a new life. Rather…”
    • Costa: “affirms a  an art in which the form is not split off from the construction of a social relation or the realization of a capacity that belongs to everyone.”
    • It “uses the sensory riches… that can be extracted from the life and setting of these precarious existences and [returns] them to their owners”
    • a letter that combines texts from Cape Verdean immigrants and a Desnos letter from a Nazi camp
    • another example, somehow: Godard’ Histoire(s) du cinéma

Bottom line: Rancière reintroduces aesthetic separation into personal material, which is at odds with the direct politic empowerment advocated by relational art. The goal is not the transformation of consciousness or the mobilization of the spectator, either in literal or aesthetic terms. Instead, it forms a “dissensual figure,” which provokes an internal conflict between registers of sense (58). But what is the conflict in the example of the letter from Costa’s film? It would be gratifying to specify this function, but Rancière is clear about his theory: “To the extent that it is a dissensual community, an aesthetic community is a community structured by disconnection” (59).

The dissensual community is different from the Platonic vision of a community without theatre. It is different from “anti-representation” and from the modernist impulse to essentialize the medium and also from the aesthetics of the sublime that he detects in Gilles Deleuze’s concept of “pure sensation.”

Back to The Emancipated Spectator.

These examples don’t quite illustrate how the equality of intelligence that binds together emancipated spectators might appear, but they are suggestive. And they reiterate the importance of not transforming the consciousness of spectators or attempting to mobilize them— that is, emancipation does not overcome aesthetic separation. For Rancière, this separation is essential to politics and aesthetics alike.

This diagnosis of the antagonism towards separation in theatre is in itself a crucial contribution to thinking about contemporary theatre. As he sees it, theatre is stuck in several variants that repeat this impulse, be it in as the Gesamtkunstwerk or postmodern “hybridization” that sets up “a constant exchange of roles and identities, the real and the virtual, the organic and mechanical and information-technology protheses” (21). This “blurring of boundaries” is used to “enhance the effect of the performance without questioning its principles” (21). I think this statement describes a lot of contemporary performance and art.

Avant-garde modernism, the “postmodern,” and even relational art all have this in common: they reject mediation. As Rancière’s words above suggest, this also means literal media, which is often used as a “hyper-theatre that wants to transform representation into presence and passivity into activity” (22). At some point, I will use this point as one small arrow in my own intervention into contemporary theatre and art.

For the time being, I want to make one more observation about an important consequence of his critique of the antagonism towards aesthetic separation. According to Rancière, rethinking separation means challenging the oppositions that undergird the dichotomy between passive and active. It means challenging the “distribution of the sensible” that organizes concepts into oppositional forms.

One result of challenging binary thinking is breaking the assumption of “an identity between cause and effect.” Instead of understanding a logical sequence, the emancipated spectator encounters something mediated, a strangely unnamed “third thing” that is “owned by no one, whose meaning is owned by no one, but which subsists between them, excluding any uniform transmission, any identity of cause and effect” (15).

Time to jump back to Aesthetic Separation.

This third thing, just being there, produces what could be described as having a whatever quality, the strange quality of something being whatever it is, shorn of particular identity. These are not Rancière’s words, but it is consistent with his description of aesthetic autonomy that does nothing, is for no one, and is “disconnected from any specific destination, offered to the same ‘indifferent’ gaze” (69).

Perhaps it is this for no one, this whateverness that spectators encounter in Costa’s films, in a letter that is both real and fictional, without being a conflict between the two, which exhibits waiting without expectation of arrival or change: a sense of separation that is vital to being connected and asks us to rethink our relation to mediation and the break.





Tuning Speculation IV: Some Personal Highlights

Tuning Speculation

one of the few places that sound (but not necessarily sound studies) can take the lead

heartfelt thanks to the occulture: ted, marc, david, eldritch

some personal highlights:

katherine behar’s keynote on fake news, Facebook, context collapse, and human + non-human relationships, as told from the perspective of object-oriented philosophy

(i lost my notebook, so I have no specific notes, just deep admiration for the clarity, patience, and incisiveness of this talk, which is inspiring me to think about the possibility of teaching about social media as performance and to dive deeper into object-oriented philosophy, especially her new edited volume, oof. in contrast to o-o-o, i was, however, struck by my own untimely return to the subject via Nancy…)



Also, always: Margret Grebowicz on the sounds and lives of sea mammals, so suspiciously like our own. Specifically, on researcher Margaret Howe Lovatt’s erotic relationship with her dolphin, Peter, which she re-read as a possible instance of interspecies sexuality— one that requires that we rethink sex and intimacy— in contrast to Carl Sagan’s own “love affair” with whale song as part of the Voyager Golden Record sent to space in 1977. In her words, “Spoiler Alert: All of this is true because you can’t make this shit up.”


Eldritch Priest’s performative paper that was an exercise on mimicking the process of thinking, which revolved around (forgive the pun) creatures being stuck in circles, beginning with a cockroach and ending with a gorilla. I don’t intend to do justice to this complicated talk here, especially I just don’t know what to do with images of living beings that are apparently in distress or pain. It seemed to be a metaphor (is that the right word?) for the difficulty of thinking. I really appreciate the attempt to bring the non-linearity of thought into discourse, but what does it mean to use pain as a metaphor (if that’s what it is)?

[An interesting alternative take in Q&A: animals suffering from a pheromone imbalance and must be thought in relationship to toxicity]


A great performance-lecture (not a lecture-performance) by Joe Snape



By Nikki Schotzko (Performance Studies, Toronto): a much-needed take on the possibility of love, of love for the other from the perspective of the mother.What would it mean to look at pictures of the other— that is, of refugees— as connected to us, as coming out of us, forever in relation, despite being apart? Evoking the possibilities of reconfiguring kinship networks that has begun in queer life and thought, she directs her audience towards a really remarkable image of a stitched version of a photo of a refugee boy by Franko B, a performance artist known for its graphic depiction of queer erotic themes and corporeal pain (and for that reason I’ve always struggled to appreciate):


Franko B, Not a Number (2015)