Reggio’s corpus

In corpus, Jean-Luc Nancy articulates a complex, post-phenomenological account of the body. For my present purposes, it will suffice to say that Nancy’s corpus (not the body, corps) is not “the” body belonging to a particular individual or subject— nor for that matter, the order of signification. It resists such meaning in order to make sense, sense that does not quite make sense.

In one passage, Nancy describes corpus as a collection of singularities: many features that do not add up into a meaningful whole.

An other is a body because only a body is an other. It has this nose, that skin color, this texture, that size, this fold, tightness. It weighs this weight. It smells that way. Why is this body thus, and not otherwise? Because it is other— and alterity consists in being-thus [l’être-tel], in being the thus and thus and thus of this body, exposed all the way into its extremities. The inexhaustible corpus of a body’s features. (31)

I think it’s the first definition of corpus as such in corpus. He continues

The other will have come first, from the farthest, most displaced place, a corpus of features finally identified with “him”— yet remaining in itself unidentifiable: because these features are all foreign to each other, this arm and that chin, those hair and these hips, and this voice, and this……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

What an ellipsis! (There may be much to think of there…)

This arm, that chin, those hair, and these hips: we witness these singular features in Godfrey Reggio’s Visitors, a film of faces.

 

Nancy’s corpus is probably not a perfect match for Visitors. Reggio uses a score by Philip Glass that keeps the film squarely located in a the language of late modernist lyricism, at once both humanist and theological. I haven’t reviewed the film closely in some time, but it definitely bears traces of a nostalgic yearning for face-to-face contact in a pre-modern world free from alienation– certainly, that’s in keeping with his previous films.

 

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The world stripped of people.

And yet… there is also something potentially interesting about the indefinite, ongoing taxonomy of faces presented in Visitors. These are not faces to be known, but merely visitors, passing by among others in an infinite succession of features, which Nancy describes as “all coming together [faisant corps] and being dislocated at the same time [ensemble]” (31)

There are other such facial projects– taxonomies, not portraits. (Nancy also has interesting things to say about portraits in The Ground of the Image.) August Sander, perhaps:

 

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There is a lot to say here: features, clothes, light, stone, the many stones that bind and separate this body from other bodies, whose accumulation constitutes a corpus.

Would the Bernd and Hila Becher (whose work has never appealed to me) then be working on, towards the taxonomy of non-human features?

becher-anonymous2-900

 

Nancy on the Medium in Dance

Si je reviens par ce chemin au bord de la question propre de la danse, je serai porté à dire que le propre de cet art est de produire son sens en retrain de tout médium et par là  d’effacer le plus possible l’effet de signification que produit un médium. Ce dernier, en effet, comme son nom l’indique, opère une médiation, un renvoi vers un autre ordre. La peinture (au sens de pigment ou de pâte), le crayon, l’instrument (fût-il la voix), la pierre, la capture photographique ou cinématographique des événements lumineux, etc., semblent d’abord nous proposer un moyen pur une fin qui serait le dégagement de quelque signification (expression, présentation, comme on voudra).

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An image from Allitérations. The im-mediate?

Mais lorsque ce moyen est le corps propre de l’artiste […] on est d’emblée porté au moins à soupçonner un autre configuration. Le moyen et la fin se rapprochent, voire se recouvrent. C’est aussi pourquoi la danse est un art que son spectateur ne regarde pas seulement, ni même surtout: son regard se fait geste intérieur, tension discrète de ses propres muscles, mouvement inchoatif. D’où, sans doute, le fait que la vision d’un danseur (d’une danseuse), out d’un(e) acrobate, ait été un exemple fréquent de ce que l’on cherchait à mettre en évidence sous le nom d’empathie. Mais de là, peut-être, aussi […] le fait que le danseur (la danseuse) soit un(e) artist particulièrement “autoréférencié(e),” si je peux le dire ainsi. Je veux dire ni narcissique, ni autistique, ni égocentrique, mais dans un rapport immédiat à soi: im-médiat, sans médiation par un médium et pourtant pas non plus simplement immanent au sens strict du terme (comme l’eau dans l’eau…), mais se prenant comme médium de soi.

Ce qui, d’ailleurs, aussitôt me ramène, sans que je l’aie vu venir, au plus près de l’exercice de la pensée… Du même coup, se lève une question ou un thème décisif: comment l’être en rapport à soi est aussi bien entièrement tourné vers le dehors, car il ne cultive pas un “soi” donné, il interroge un “soi,” une “ipséité” qui précisément n’est jamais donné…

– Jean-Luc Nancy in correspondence with Mathilde Monnier in Alliterations: conversations sur la danse (2005), p. 29-30

Vers Mathilde, Claire Denis (2004)

III. PSi 15: “Murmurs, Mispronunciations, and Malentendus: The Medium of Language in Recent Choreography by Mantero, Hay, and Forsythe”

My own contribution to Performance Studies 15 was a traditional paper presentation entitled, “Murmurs, Mispronunciations, and Malentendus: The Medium of Language in Recent Choreography by Mantero, Hay, and Forsythe.”  In the following text, I am including the talk in its entirety.  Readers should be aware that it lacks oral annotations, which I elucidated in person, and a number of hand-written notes that I made en route to the conference.  I can include the most important aspect, my visual and aural examples, around which I sought to build an immediately tangible argument.  It is difficult to convey contextual nuance in a short period of time, but I relied on hard evidence– such as a meteor and contrasting use of drag– to provide sufficient argumentative grounds.  Especially since my discussion surrounds language, which must be heard, this format also lends itself to digital presentation.

Moreover, this digital forum permits me to add a few comments regarding the context of its composition.  For better or worse, I had locked myself into concisely describing performances by three different choreographers, and the bulk of my efforts were necessarily dedicated to developing an adequate framework of descriptive criticism.  As a result, I treated its various areas of conceptual interest with equal– that is, indifferent– emphasis.  Its principle terms, especially “the break,” would have likely benefitted from further levels of differentiation, but unfortunately there was insufficiently time to do more than hint at its theoretical inspirations and ambitions.

For instance, “the break” is derived from Samuel Weber’s “Theatricality as a Medium.”  It is a generalized term for the material inclusion of negated content within representation– the fractious borders of fiction.  At the end of its first chapter, Weber connects the immemorial institution of theatre with the “commerical break,” to which contemporary masses have been conditioned:

“This new situation [global mass media and the commercial break] is determined by a tension betwen anticipation and reflection, storytelling and interruption, that has a long history, reaching back to the emergence of theatre itself.  In the follwing chapter we will discuss a few of these earliest articulations in order to explore how the medium of theatre has, from its inception, responded to the enduring desire to survive the break” (Theatricality 53).

What does the “medium” of theatre mean?  Why does Weber just not write “theatre,” which would be equally effective in the above passage?  In short, Weber’s titular term indicates his desire to do more than merely “to survive the break,” but rather to integrate it into representation in such a way that representation no longer “works”– or for that matter, is an autonomous “work.”

This shifts the discussion into murky, esoteric territory.  Accordingly, Weber turns to Heidegger, perhaps 20th century philosophy’s most enduringly ambivalent figure, as he begins to transform his definition of “the break.”  Considered as a loose translation of Heidegger’s “Riß,” Weber states that the break ” is a tear that does not simply pull apart but in separating joins” (63-4).  Such language appears throughout Weber’s recent writing, most notably in connection with the notion of “imparting,” a translation of Benjamin’s– (this may seem like one to many proper names, but Weber is ultimately a reader and student of Benjamin, so it is inevitable)– “Mitteilung,” which features prominently in his early essay, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man.”  This is the subject of a chapter in Weber’s new book, “Benjamin’s -abilities,” which I picked up shortly before leaving for Zagreb.  To my delight, the title of the chapter was “Impart-ability: Language as Medium.”  Evidently, language and medium are conceptually intertwined, but how exactly?  What is the medium? And what does this have to do with dance?

Given the descriptive labor concerning Mantero, Hay, and Forsythe that I had imposed upon myself, any explication of the medium seemed beyond question.  As regards its relation to dance– I have long since intended to consider Forsythe’s work in relation to such “impart-ability,” and I was surprised and pleased when attending Forsythe’s newest work on June 28, 2009 in Dresden, “The Returns,” to find that its word-play principally involved “art, part, and apart.”

Needless to say, such intersections fell beyond the scope of my talk, as well as other major themes, including translation, concepts of non-unified representation, and a turn in theatrical aesthetics from predominantly visual to aural expression– a way of getting “in touch” with the medium.  Moderator Paul Rae having mentioned translation as possible transition between my talk and the following presentation of a performance-in-progress by Aberystwyth University’s Gareth Evans and Esther Pilkington, “Would You Like to Learn My Language?”, I know that I at least successfully hinted at a few of these themes, and later Rae suggested reading Alphonso Lingis’ writings on corporeal-environmental “feedback loops.”  (This also begins to tread into the terrain of the digital, but that’s a subject best left for later…)

Ultimately, I ended with more questions than I was even able to begin to ask.  Above all, perhaps, is the looming, unfathomable subject of language.  I was a bit nervous about embarking, poorly prepared, upon this path, and indeed I did draw one contentious, albeit possibly reductive question from a Croatian student who felt that Vera Mantero’s work was “pure Derrida.”  But can one face language, an impertuably massive subject, with complete preparation?  Especially when approached through the materials of my discipline, it’s not a task I intend to realize all at once, even though I am intuitively certain that language is the right place to be, as per a quotation from Kristeva I have kept in mind for the last three years, since the advent of my linguistic and gender turn:

For if modern theater does not take (a) place, it is only as of late, as a new subject
and a new society, here and especially in France, are running up against too many
archaic constructs (economic and ideological). This obliges playwrights and actors
either to play complacently with the verisimilitude of an antiquating society’s anti-
quating fantasies (a narcissistic and debilitating accommodatior,), or, in the best
situations, to develop a technical arsenal of “alienation” (the “Ontological Hysteric
Theater” of Richard Foreman), of Brechtian distance, thus keeping the audience’s
lucidity removed from a criticizable discourse or ideology, all the while waiting for the
coming of a “place”: the remaking of language.

Certainly, language is emerging, in dance, as a medium, and the question that remains is not how, but why?

***

“Murmurs, Mispronunciations, and Malentendus: The Medium of Language in Recent Choreography by Mantero, Hay, and Forsythe”

As you can see from my title, I am addressing the emergence of language in dance.  In order to demonstrate that this is not merely an incidental, isolated event, but rather a collective phenomenon– the incipient articulation of some emergent form– I am going to cover three different examples from no later than 2006, and I’m going to have to move quickly.

Just in case you don’t happen to recognize these three proper names– this is a panel on performance and language, after all– it is important to have at least a little context:

At around 40, the Portuguese choreographer Vera Mantero is the youngest of the three.  Since her breakout solos in the nineties, in which she interpreted culturally marginal feminine celebrities, such as Josephine Baker and Manet’s Olympia, she’s used little conventional dance technique, but consistently experimented with language.  As a result, she’s been critically associated with European “conceptual” choreographers.

Deborah Hay was one of the principal members of Judson Dance Theater, whose work during the sixties in New York is an indispensably canonical moment in contemporary dance history.  Hay subsequently retreated into isolation in Texas and the ethereal abstraction of opaquely optimistic Buddhist espousals.  Since 2004 she has consistently returned to New York, where she won a Bessie [(for what that’s worth)] and has received renewed international attention.  [aside: and I saw the piece I’ll discuss in Berlin]

Finally, William Forsythe is one of the widely celebrated practicing choreographers.  He came to prominence in the 80s and 90s for his cerebral, hyper-complex ballets, which use computer technology to push the limits of physically possible form.  It’s important to note that since the city of Frankfurt dissolved his state-financed company in 2004, his idiom has vastly shifted, a fact which has fully reached the U.S. since he resides and primarily works in Frankfurt and Dresden.

Introductions aside, before proceeding into detail, I think it’s necessary to establish a few premises regarding my research and the state of contemporary choreography.

First of all, I contend that this emergence of language does not constitute a generalization of dance.  It is not simply the product of dance belatedly entering the territory of conventional theatre– so-called dancetheatre– and its language is not naturalistic, ordinary, or even autonomous.  On the contrary, this language remains grounded in the history of choreography’s materials and techniques.

Like other disciplines before it, choreography has reached a historical impasse: dance finds itself increasingly unable to maintain a stable representational continuum.  Whether this is the result of external pressures– a response to general cultural acceleration or influences from other artistic practices– or the logical evolution of its own internal form, this instability manifests itself as an immobilizing disjunction.

For instance, Vera Mantero’s choreography, from her earliest solos until her present group work, admirably illustrates this critical condition.

mantero_stage

As I mentioned, her work is often considered “conceptual” insomuch as it uses little movement and thematizes immobility.  This was immediately conveyed by the mise-en-scene of her 2006 work, Until the moment when God is destroyed by the extreme exercise of beauty.  The performers are seated almost the entire performance, restricted to a small strip of the stage, and furthermore– that is a meteor behind them, an enormous, ironically redundant reminder of immobility.  It’s also worth noting that the meteor is a densely compressed substance, which is literally outlandish, much like its garishly attired performers.

mantero_performers1

mantero_performers2

Their stylized seating reflects the audience’s stasis and draws attention to the performer-spectator gap– an ineluctably constitutive limit of theatrical relation.  Confronting this limit is uncomfortable, and Mantero’s guests– that’s how they are billed, “Vera Mantero and Guests”– never seem at home on the stage.  Their nervously eager, absent-minded conduct betrays this discomfort, which is somehow comic and sweetly sympathetic– it is all too easy to recognize their anxiety from the innumerable instances of everyday life in which one is put on trial, tested, or otherwise asked to perform.  These scenarios and their corresponding anxiety are reactions to an underlying aesthetic condition, which one might refer to as the real, but which I prefer to call the break– the fundamental discontinuity to which choreography is presently bound.  Faced by the break, they literally begin to chatter– that is, both to tremble and to profusely and pointlessly talk, even though they cannot seem to recall why or to what end.  This obliviousness pervades their speech, whose syntax proceeds through evasions, ellipses, qualifications, questioning repetitions, irrelevant exclamations, dazed diversion, etc. etc.  In short, they rely on a repertoire of rhetorical detritus, common to ordinary speech, but antithetical to philosophical seriousness and superfluous to meaning.

In case you didn’t catch it, en route to thank you, they passed through “say taste strain straighten stay tray and state.”  Compounded by the performers’ competing confusion, collective uncertainty, and multiple mispronunciations, this scene exemplifies the morphing mutability of overlapping words, which move throughout the performance between pure sonorous value– the hissing “s’s”– and conventional referential function organized around subject statements– I, you, and in this case, “we.”  This roundabout process of expression permits a glimpse into an expanded range of possible articulation, even if merely consisting of quaintly insignificant variations.  It’s a virtuosic feat to make this muddle clear and chaotic at once.  In this regard, their ensemble coordination resembles a dance– in the traditional sense of maintaining an event’s impossible point of ideal unity– and its wobbling, fumbling, bumbling movement back and forth is– in an admittedly superficial way– a kind of weaving dance.  However, this swaying, almost drunken movement– note their party-like costumes and the reference to dionysus– actually reflects the rupture captured by Mantero’s visual contradiction, her meteor, an unmistakably ironic image of immobility.  Since the tension between [immobility and dance] can never be resolved, Mantero’s guests must stay in constant verbal motion.  They cannot stop because their speech compensates for the structural inadequacy that they literally face, but cannot see– that is, the break.  And because they can neither explain nor mend this gap, they endlessly excuse themselves and over-sollicitously thank their audience.

Language also assures structural continuity in Deborah Hay’s 2008 If I Sing To You.  The two pieces share other key characteristics, including constant, instable motion, an evident ethos of distraction, and a bittersweetly comic consolation that harbors desire for an unbroken communal place.  Even more than Mantero’s guests, who are certainly steeped in camp, Hay’s all-female cast situates this desire in queer, specifically lesbian terms.

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There are neither men, a set, nor an apparent conflict (as was grounded in Mantero’s visual structure).  Rather than emphasizing visibility,

mantero_performers2

Hay’s strangely corresponding costumes strive to be no more nor less noticed than members of traditional genders or sexual orientations– to be, in a sense, visible, but indistinguishably blending into the context of ordinary life.  [Judson ordinary?]  Instead of conflict, If I Sing to You radiates an elusive harmony, which as will shortly be seen, corresponds to its titular reference to song– the only recognizable words in the performance.  [future ref to H.G.]  Its predominant language is a diffused– vs. the density of Mantero’s meteor– chorus of murmurs, weird whispers, and incomprehensible muttering.

(video: comes in at “climatic” singing, please ignore shutter sounds, pay attention to language at start)

Quite to the contrary of Mantero, who plays between given meanings and sound, this is evidently a private language, perhaps even a fantasy language, which has no externally determined referential function.  Since she is willing to sacrifice intelligibility for continuity across its visual, aural, and even choreographic elements, Hay’s use of language constitutes a more radical challenge. [elaborate?]  Unfortunately, I don‘t have much footage of her richly intricate choreography, which combines a myriad of minute inflections, partial phrases, and small shifts in balance.  [maybe video: here’s what i’ve got– it’s a bit blurry] Moreover, the dance consistently produces a soft background of shuffling and squeaking.

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[picture: note sneakers– squeaking intentional]

Other choreographers — notably such as William Forsythe– have also experimented with incidental noise in order to convey the body’s irreducibly resistant materiality.  But unlike such attempts, which emphasize the friction between the body and the stage, Hay’s choreographic noise connects to and compliments its strange spoken language.  As such, regardless of whether or not Hay’s quietly revolutionary avenue of inquiry is a sufficient answer to the break, it establishes a fundamental connection between movement and language.

Despite If I Sing to You having premiered at The Forsythe Company’s home in Dresden, this connection between movement and language may be the sole trait common to Hay and Forsythe.  Nevertheless, Forsythe’s language does not evidently complement his choreography.  Since his celebrated, complex ballets, Forsythe’s choreography has tested the limits of technically possible form, and its increasingly elaborate combinations have resulted in a painfully fragmented appearance.

forsythe_twisted1

forsythe_twisted2

Likewise, his use of stage space has become fragmented, making it impossible to see the entirety of events onstage.  Granted, this technique is not his invention: many artists have sought to overwhelm theatre’s visual field in order to induce a euphoric experience of overabundance, as if representation were being burst open– producing the rapture of rupture, if you will.  However, Forsythe’s stagings do not cause such rapture– or rupture– but are perplexing obstacles that intentionally occlude a privileged perspective of the theatrical event– that is, its unity.  [photos. mention Heterotopia, use of two spaces.]  Forsythe has undertaken a contradictory task– he is trying to surpass the structural limitations of the body and theatre, but he remains nevertheless committed to theatre’s spatial particularity– and the embodied discipline of dance.  This contradictory imperative characterizes the title of his 2008 performance, Yes We Can’t.  This title is derived from one of its several language-based solo improvisations, which resemble child-like– but exceedingly sinister– word-games.  Like Mantero, the sound of overlapping, repetitious phrases catalyzes unexpected syntactic shifts, but instead of weaving and wobbling, their tensely wrought, frantically forced tone conveys panic and menacing mania.  For instance, in the title sequence, a male dancer stands before a microphone, repeating variations of:

open the box
yes you can
yes you can’t
the box is open

This sequence occurs as a rapid, unstable succession in which opposing terms collide and nullify one another, leaving only the quixotic resonance of overarticulated consants: “box” and “can’t.”  He is literally thrown back by the force of his words, only to be caught by two performers and hurled back to the microphone. This spastic process of self-negation suggests that “the box” is not open– and that despite his various shifts in tone– threatening, cajoling, pleading– all efforts of self-expression reinforce its mysterious power of containment.  In Yes We Can’t, language is a trap, which contains its speaker and cannot be broken.  Under such conditions, akin to an exhausting interrogation, one would presumably not speak unless necessary– and in fact, following the examples of Mantero and Hay, spoken language is necessary, for it provides compensatory structural continuity.  But unlike Mantero and Hay, Forsythe is not trying to elude or elide its limitations and restricts the continuity supplied by language to a tautly tautological force in order to realize non-unified or fragmentary forms– forms that exceed the limits of the possible.  Such fragments– reminiscent of Mantero’s meteor, but not symbolic– are thus irremediably broken off from intelligibility.  In turn, these fragments– and the tautological utterances to which they give rise– intimate the unintelligible, that which cannot be expressed within the box, or the boundaries of sensible representation.

So, in review, in all of these examples, language provides structural continuity, but only once its choreographic complexity exceeds dance’s formal unity.  Unable to suppress the structural disjunction that has haunted dance, these choreographers must incorporate its discontinuities into a diffused field of constant, insignificant syntactic shifts (Mantero and Hay) or incomprehensibly discrete objects (Forsythe).  As such, the potential which is negated by the break, and which has a priori, no place in representation, is introduced into language.  Indeed, language ceases to be a measure of intentional intelligence, but instead deflates and deflects meaning into inattentive (Mantero and Hay) and ill-intentioned (Forsythe) modes of expression.  For artists and spectators alike, the task of attending to this ambiguous non-sense is neither looking nor understanding, but, perhaps like a translator, listening in near stillness to what is not taking place on stage, what remains behind, obscurely delayed, but also acoustically relayed by choreographically conditioned language.

Reading Rudi Laermans, Dance and Media Theorist

*A quick technical note: Unfortunately, the last video on the page begins automatically.  You can pause the music by scrolling down to the bottom of the page.

Rudi Laermans is a professor of Sociology– and sometimes dance theorist– at the Catholic University Leuven.  A quick glance at his publications, many of which are not in English, indicates a particular interest in the sociologist Niklas Luhmann.  Although not one of my favored points of theoretical reference, Laermans’ investment in Luhmann gestures towards an interest in media theory.  In turn, media theory informs his writing on contemporary dance, which  seeks to respond to experimental work with a philosophically informed framework.  Granted, these days theoretical references have become obligatory markers of academic self-legitimation, but as a theorist writing about dance, (rather than vice-versa), his work takes care not to apply theoretical premises in such a bluntly instrumental way.  For example, in a footnote, he consciously forgoes applying Luhmann’s systems theory: “I for sure do not want to veto a systems theoretical approach of contemporary dance…Yet employing a systems theoretical framework implies a level of conceptual abstraction that I deliberately wish to avoid here.”

Much of his preceding work on dance coincided with the so-called “Flemish Boom” of the ’90s, especially Meg Stuart.  Incidentally, in my nebulous pre-history as a scholar, I actually cited Laerman on Meg Stuart in my graduate school application.  Having since experienced a significant transformation in my research interests, which included moving away for my earlier affinity for the aggressive, oppositional aesethics that characterized the second generation Tanztheater movement of which Stuart was a prominent member, I was curious to see whether his writing would still hold any appeal.

Hence, on the occasion of a recent lecture at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, I “picked up” (downloaded)  his latest major essay on dance published in a 2008 issue of the British journal Performance Research.  It proved to be quite interesting, and it has a number of merits that are worth sharing, especially since I have the impression his work is essentially unknown in the States.  However, the lecture ultimately took place in a format that did not facilitate a dialogue with this work– it was not a lecture at all– and my original plan to combine these two theoretical engagements in one blog entry no longer seemed fitting.

As an aside, in informal concluding discussion with Gabriele Brandstetter, he did mention one tidbit that I think reveals a keen dramaturgical consciousness, a question that he poses when speaking to young dance artists: what do you choose to show and what do you not show?  Such in person insights were the exception, since the event was a semi-staged presentation by the Master’s Seminar in Dance Studies that he taught as a guest professor at the Freie Universität Berlin.  Nevertheless, it merits mention, even if only insomuch as it provides a glimpse into the pedagogy of Dance and Performance Studies in a high-level European context.  As such, I have decided to divide this post into two sections that respectively present my observations as an American scholar in response to his seminar presentation with a direct response of his essay,  ” ‘Dance in General’ or Choreographing the Public, Making Assemblages”, to follow.

I. February 6, 2009: Laermans’ Seminar on Liveness, Live at Berlin’s Academy of the Arts

On Thursday, February 6, 2009, Berlin’s Academy of the Arts hosted a presentation by Rudi Laermans, a professor in the Faculty of Sociology at the Catholic University Leuven, who has been a guest  during the last semester at the Institut für Theaterwissenschaft at the Freie-Universität, where he taught an M.A. level seminar on “liveness” in the dance department.  To my surprise, Laerman’s presentation was not a lecture,  but rather a semi-staged series of timed discussions and performance actions with his seminar.  These actions consisted of short dance pieces, a lyrical statement of self-transformation in performance, two dialogues with “virtual,” recorded class members on video, an abjectly exaggerated application of red lipstick… in short, wholly acceptable, elegantly interlinked student work.  It was not unlike what one would expect to see from a mixed body of American students with performance backgrounds.

The rounds of discussions were reactions to quotations: two from Roger Copeland’s essay “The Presence of Mediation,” concerning the insufficiency of the grand canyon to live up to its televisual image and the inextinguishability of “signs” on stage; a plea by Herbert Blau for the dignity of  “silence” in the face of the media frenzy following 9/11; and a quotation from the FU Director of Theaterwissenschaft Erika Fischer-Lichte’s recently translated book, Ästhetik des Performativen, (the unbelievable translation is “The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics”– according to Fischer-Lichte, Routledge wanted something catchier) that located theatre’s unique communicative capacity in the mingling “co-presence” of bodies in space.  Rather than commenting on the content of these three well-written, (albeit seemingly “undergraduate”) texts, I simply want to observe on their surprisingly conventional disciplinary nature as a group, all of which one might very well find in American theatre department reading lists.  Likewise, Laermans consistently referenced the two principal works invariably discussed in the context of “liveness,” both written in the ’90s by American academics, Peggy Phelan’s “Unmarked” and Philip Auslander’s retort, “Liveness.”

This captive interest in liveness feels distinctly outdated.  And without being careful about one’s philosophical heritage– be it Cartesian doubt, British Empiricism, Rousseau’s sensual rhetoric of repulsion, or Derrida’s re-reading of Austin– it’s all-too-easy to fall into critical generalizations.

II.  ” ‘Dance in General’ or Choreographing the Public, Making Assemblages”: Performance Research 13 (1), pp. 7-14

The crux of the article is introduced near its conclusion in the presentation of the term “assemblage,” which is drawn from Deleuze and Guattari’s “Mille Plateaux.”  By his own estimation, “willfully abstract conceptual exercises of Deleuze and Guattari” are especially difficult to integrate into other critical contexts, Laermans’ definition of “assemblage” is invariably opaque.  This does not trouble Laermans, or his reader for two reasons: 1) he has already introduced examples of the emergence of assemblages in two close readings of performances, and 2) he immediately proceeds to provide a more concrete definition in the context of Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, which, like assemblage, seeks to redefine the collective structure of representation as a heterogeneous, “constantly shifting” structure that “can not be reduced to the individual actions of the associated actors.”  Such projects seeks to recognize a shift from the unity of work to the contingency of a form not subject to the closure of representation as an organizational force .  He concludes this section with an intentionally cryptic comment: “In a word: an actor-network configuration, or an assemblage is a constantly shifting force-field producing an emergent total performativity” (12).

An emergent total performativity?

In order to unpack this phrase, it is necessary to move a few steps back in the essay, to his examples, Meg Stuart and the Brussels-based artistic collective deepblue, through which he introduces the term “total.”  (I was quite happy to “rediscover” deepblue and am planning a separate post on my experience with their work.)  Generally speaking, Stuart and deepblue both emphasize “the constitutive split between the real and the sensory body observed by means of technical devices, such as microphones and video images” (9).  The compression of the theatrical economy results in the disruption of “the ideology of liveness,” but moreover, in deepblue’s example, it uses technical mediation in order to unite audience and performers.   Their performance “closer” uses an unusual mise-en-scene, which seeks to include the audience through the use of headphones:

“Every spectator first received a headphone and then entered a closed-off, only dimly lit space in which she could freely walk or sit down.  The space consisted of a small open area surrounded by a wood of bamboo rods attached to the to the ceiling but not reaching the floor.  Within this dreamy landscape, which had everything of ‘a world in the world’ or a monadical island, digital clicks and cuts emerged in the spectator’s headphones that sometimes condensed into a massive wave of e-sound.  Both the colour and the intensity of the lightning also changed regularly, partly in connection with the sound dramaturgy.  Now and then a video image was projected, but the overall focus of the performance was the actions of the two performers” (9).

An excellent video of “closer” is available at deepblue’s website.

Rather than unity, this radical approximation of spectators and performers produces a “total” environment, one in which intensities– the pure form of ordinary qualities– constrict the audience to this limited space.  Total, but Laermans insists, also “[o]pen, since the choreography did not fix either the performative presence of the spectators or the possible interactions between the performers and the public” (10) Whether or not one is convinced by this example of openness, (I suspect there are other ways of thinking about the “open,” a possibly important dramaturgical task,) I find its structural logic of this couple– total and open– intuitively persuasive and its consequences important.

Although I might prefer “enclosure” to totality.

There are resonances in other artistic projects.  There are certainly parallels with William Forsythe, who has notably also worked with “live installations,” part of what Laermans rightly observes as a “general trend in contemporary dance to redefine the usual role distribution between performers and public” (9).  But one could just as easily find parallels in other fields.  Take Jeffrey Shaw’s Eve Cinema, for instance:

In the context of Laerman’s article, the force of this predicate, total-open, results in the shift from work to assemblage.  Perhaps the essay’s most convincing moment is its illustration of assemblage through the dance environment realized in “closer,” which was composed of (to paraphrase) a forest of bamboo rods, changing light rays, and technologically mediated sound waves: “not only the human body but also sound, imagery, or light are treated as media of the dance” (10).  This is an important moment in the essay, as it connects the particularity of his analytical focus to its thesis’ general trajectory, namely the opening critique of the assumption that “the human body is the distinctive medium of dance” (7).  This thesis’ concluding descent ends by recontextualizing deepblue’s example in Latour’s actor-network frame: “If the assembling is successful, the outcome is a non-hierarchical performative network that is the acutal medium of the performance” (13).

I do not wish to suggest that I agree with every word and nuance of Laerman’s essay.  Of course, agreement is quite irrelevant.  Instead, what is important is that the essay is thoroughly stimulating, especially because it persuasively connects concrete evidence with theoretical elaboration.  Despite this fact, I remain skeptical with regard to his commitment to Meg Stuart, and it is unclear to what degree her aesthetics overlap with those of deepblue.  I am much more familiar with Stuart, and even though she certainly antagonizes passive presumptions of “humanist” presence, her work is strongly rooted in an aggressive theatrical tradition that seeks to antagonize the breach it perceives between technology and the human.  Hence, even as she begin to investigate interactive performance landscapes, her work remains principally informed by the very aesthetics against which Laermans is critically pushing– mourning the loss of the authentic or the open.  This is precisely what she does in her last work, “Maybe Forever,” which I saw recently at Berlin’s Volksbühne:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “DTW: Meg Stuart & Philipp Gehmacher“, posted with vodpod

Near his conclusion, Laermans concedes that “countless dance performers fall back… on the attention strategies of ‘the spectacular’– read: of mainstream cultural productions” (13).  Why should this not include Meg Stuart?  (In general, Laermans has a knack for pithy critical summation.)  Furthermore, he earlier observed that an anti-media bias often pervades contemporary performance, even when it makes extensive use of technological means:

“Video technology, microphones, electronic soundscapes, elaborated lightscapes…: it has all become so ordinary within the realm of contemporary dance that nowadays the sight of two bodies dancing in a white cube produces quasi-automatically an impression of austerity.  Yet, in many– if not in most– instances of contemporary dance, the non-human materiality of the performance is primarily taken up in an instrumental way” (10-11).

Laermans ends the essay by discussing the idea of “capture,” and defines  his title phrase, “choreography in general,” the extended and contracted field defining “total” performance, (the phrase in general apparently comes from Thierry de Duve’s “Kant after Duchamp,” but Laermans doesn’t specify de Duve’s use of the term) as a rather systems-like function, “the art of capturing and modulating, of governing the public’s sensory attention” (13).

As a term, capture is most likely derived from Deleuze and Guattari’s chapter, “7000 B.C.: Apparatus of Capture,” in “Mille Plateaux.”  It has also been used by Deleuzian-oriented dance theorist Andre Lepecki, editor of the issue of Performance Research in which Laermans’ article appears.  Lepecki’s essay, “Choreography as an Apparatus of Capture,” (TDR 51: 2 Summer 2007), identifies choreography as an ideologically self-instructed discursive tool, one intended to render movement reproducible. legible, and legal by producing clearly demarcated binary differences: “the concept of apparatus is one that foregrounds perception as always tied to modes of power that assign things to visibility and invisibility, significance or insignificance” (120).

This is where my own attention wanders nervously away from the term “governing” and “attention,” and back to the less explored term of his couple, total and open.  Perhaps traces of this elusive, contradictory openness might be found in the non-sensuous, in inattention, or even in the spectator’s passivity, in a line of investigation fallow in his analysis of “closer,” in “the difference between ‘doing’ and ‘seeing doing'” (9).

Appareil: An Open Access Online Journal for French Media Philosophy

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Sometimes distraction, even boredom, leads to little discoveries.  While “killing time,” following a circuitous route through digital territory– from the transmediale09 festival to the website of Montreal-based new media artists AElab to Wikipedia’s entry on Georges Simondon– led me to the biannual online journal Appareil.  Appareil was founded last year, and currently has three issues, “Le milieu des appareils,” “La ville dans les sciences humaines,” and “Autour de Simondon, ” which correspond to its media-oriented emphasis on contemporary strands of aesthetic theory.   The particularly exciting feature of the journal is that it provides full access to general users and also appears to be holding a high level of academic production, exemplified by readers (Georges Didi-Hubermans or Robert Harvey) and more importantly, writers (Eric Méchoulan and Jacques Rancière) whose names jump across the Atlantic gap.

I’m enthused.

The word “appareil” is not easy to directly translate into English.  I prefer “device,” in the sense of electronic or mechanical equipment– l’appareil photo (camera) being a common example.  In its masthead, the journal discusses the term as an organizational concept for the thinking of the event, calling the “appareillage” of art’s technical, institutional, and social history a “condition of possibility, the momentary opening of their manifestation, their event.”  It continues to define l’appareil not a fixed principle, but a mobile set of practices, “an agency of heterogenous elements that constitutes at a given moment the appearance of the visible.”  And it is not without significance that the authors touch upon the poetic, “the poetic of an epoch,” which les appareils generate by means of “en appareillant” its diverse compositional components.

I’m enthused.

First up for me is Rancière’s “Ce que ‘medium’ peut volouir dire: l’exemple de la photographie,” which promises to address the ongoing research for my upcoming paper at PSi #15 in Zagreb, “Murmurs, Mispronunciations, and Malentendus: The Medium of Language in Recent Choreography by Mantero, Hay, and Forsythe”…