bare life (eiko) on wall street

Marx called money a “general equivalent.” It is this equivalence that is being discussed here. Not to think about it by itself, but to reflect that the regime of general equivalence henceforth virtually absorbs, well beyond the monetary or financial sphere but thanks to it and with regard to it, all the spheres of human existence, and along with them all things that exist.

Jean-Luc Nancy, After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes

Eiko Otake, A Body on Wall Street on June 20, 2016

(Aside: Eiko and Nancy are not a 100% match, but that’s not the point here.)

Eiko on Wall St 20 June 2016_DSC6922 Photo by Wm Johnston

I like this next shot.

Eiko on Wall St 20 June 2016 No_0196

And the same thing here.

Eiko on Wall St 20 June 2016 No_1228

Eiko teaches here (Colorado) in the fall.

The Most Naive Philosopher

[Foucault] may perhaps have meant that I was the most naive philosopher of our generation. In all of us you find themes like multiplicity, difference, repetition. But I put forward almost raw concepts of these, while others work with more meditations. I’ve never worried about going beyond metaphysics…I’ve never renounced a kind of empiricism…Maybe that’s what Foucault meant: I wasn’t better than others, but more naive, producing a kind of art brut, so to speak, not the most profound but the most innocent. 

(Deleuze, Negotiations 88-90) via Paul Patton via Vibrant Matter, 128

Ornamentality in Post-Minimalist Choreography: A Sketch for a Category

A friend recently returned from NYC brought this performance by Wally Cardona and Jennifer Lacey to my attention. Our discussion led us to think about the possiblity of thinking about ornamentality as trend in post-minimalist veins of contemporary choreography. Ornamentality would relate to a return to the beautiful, or at least, to trained awkwardness as a reference to the loss of beauty. This position relates to minimalism because minimalist dance traces the disappearance of visual forms, but in doing so paradoxically retains the visual. Installation and gallery-based works might be particularly predisposed to falling into this category, given that they cease to deal with temporal constraints and narrative framing.

Post-mininalist ornamentality? I didn’t see it, so this is all in theory.

Addendum: I’ve been reading a lot of Jean-Luc Nancy. He has a great quote about this issue— disappearance, transcendence, and the beautiful— in his essay, “The Vestige of Art.”

all of modernity that speaks of the invisible or the unrepresentable is always on the verge of renewing this motif… what makes for the beautiful, ever since Plato… for whom, in the access to beauty, it is a question of becoming oneself pure light and vision

At the limit…there remains nothing more than the Idea of art itself, like a pure gesture of presentation folded back on itself. But this residue still functions as Idea, and even as pure Idea of pure sense, or like an ideal visibility wihtou any other content than light itself (89-90)

(Hmm… I think this line of criticism may apply to my banner image from Deborah Hay…)


Annette Peacock: Spacing (not space)

A friend of mine who traffics in esoteric and avant-garde sounds has been dropping off loads of back issues of The Wire at my house. I came across this interesting observation in an article about by Daniel Shea about Annette Peacock:

Peacock’s early pieces often completely dispensed with chordal harmony, focusing instead on intervals between single notes. She had in mind an approach emphasizing slowness and space, partly in response to the frenetic pace and fireworks of free jazz. “Free music was very exciting, very intense, very male and energizing, but as a female I wanted to carve chunks of space out of it… you have to play waves 


Peacock has often described her pieces as environments, a term that… echoes composers such as Morton Feldman… [and his] preoccupation with decay, what he called “this departing landscape,” which “expresses where the sound exists in our hearing, leaving us rather than coming towards us.”


Robin Bernstein on Affect in The Rude Mechs

“Toward the Integration of Theatre History and Affect Studies: Shame and the Rude Mechs’s The Method Gun.” Theatre Journal 64:2 (May 2012): 213-230.




The Rude Mechs’s The Method Gun

I like this essay! In my opinion, it is consummately crafted and clearly frames its argument around a single concept: shame as an affect, as applied to a reading of The Rude Mechs’s The Method Gun. Bernstein’s reading is excellent, although this choice of subject strikes me as a bit improbable as a model for affect in theatre– but more on that later. First, the good stuff, in condensed form:


  • As an affect, shame replaces death

In a sense, death is overrated in theatre. It is, at least, too often assumed to be theatre’s ontological limit, the thing at risk in the foundational performance works of the sixties and seventies. Think Chris Burden. (Who is referenced in the name of the performance’s fictional guru, Stella Burden.) Or Marina. Or for that matter, Bernstein argues, Peggy Phelan’s Unmarked. (There are many other examples too.) As Bernstein points out, there is a lot of potential shame and embarrassment on stage, but “I have never seen anyone, onstage or in audience, die.” As I see it, the continuing perception of theatre and live performance with death is a sign that it depends on symbolic forms representation. Affect, on the other hand, does not conform to symbolic language– a fact that Kathleen Stewart points out repeatedly in the introduction to Ordinary Affects. Crucially, this shift also has consequences for the ontological status of performance, which is typically assumed to be “live.”

Lots to be said here.

  • The Rude Mechs’s Racial Shame

Bernstein deals with a numbers of ways in which The Method Gun consciously stages its anxiety about failing to live up to the example of one’s artistic predecessors, as well as the exacting standards of theatrical realism based on method acting. However, she points out that the performance also displays an unacknowledged source of shame: racial anxiety. Her two major pieces of evidence are compelling.

Firstly, The Method Gun conducts a meta-performance of A Streetcar Named Desire, which includes non-white roles occupied here by the white members of The Rude Mechs, who “play the roles as racially unmarked.” This unacknowledged racial substitution is a way of suppressing difference and the privileges accorded to whiteness. Here’s Bernstein:

“In The Method Gun, Burden’s actors’ self-involvement and self-examination stop abruptly before questions of whiteness; the Rude Mechs are willing to display themselves dancing awkwardly, crying, flubbing lines, or even tethering their genitalia to balloons, but they never acknowledge their cross-racial casting… They never acknowledge themselves as white.”

Convincing stuff.

Does race appear anywhere in the show? Why yes, says Bernstein, albeit unintentionally: in a clown-like figure who appears in the opening of the show– a tiger. Dressed like a mascot, it may not seem that this tiger is linked to racial ideology, but as Bernstein notes, it speaks with a Spanish accent for increased comic effect, even though “tigers are native to no Spanish-speaking part of the world.”

Method Gun

The tiger in The Method Gun.

Bernstein: “Its jaws sealed shut, the tiger performs the role of unmasticated shame– a cold lump of contemporary white shame that sits, unmoving and painful, in the belly of the show.”

What a great insight! Bernstein does an outstanding job in her racial analysis. Given her academic expertise, this reading should perhaps be no surprise. But one might also expect that the author of Cast Out: Queer Lives in Theatre would address the role of gender and sexuality in The Method Gun, especially since her conceptual framework is drawn from the queen of queer studies, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

To my mind, The Method Gun also strongly invokes anxieties about gender and sexuality, especially about white masculinity. Even without closely reviewing the performance, it is possible to see evidence that supports this conclusion. First of all, method acting is a notoriously hypermasculine pursuit associated with the self-destructive urge of star actors, such as Robert de Niro, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Christian Bale. (As seen in early Scorcese films, De Niro particularly epitomizes the hypermasculine display of masculine self-destruction.) Who can live up to the impossible intensity of these male stars? Hence, the ironic gesture towards the “gun”— an obvious phallic symbol— in the performance’s title, which was used by the company’s fictional acting guru, Stella Adler. As it turns out, the gun was always filled with blanks, a sign of metaphorical and literal impotence. Impotence is consistent with Adler’s presence of a female model for method acting. Perhaps the only thing worse than being unable to live up to one’s artistic forefathers is to be at the beck and call of a woman, who of course, turns out to be a fraud, a mere fiction. Little wonder that “she” never appears on stage, even in a photograph.

I suspect that there is other evidence to support this claim about the centrality of male anxiety to The Method Gun. One might, for instance, follow Bernstein’s racial analysis of Streetcar in order to examine how its gender politics affect the staging employed by The Rude Mechs. More pertinently, however, is the question about the absence of queerness. I am not sure if there is a “smoking gun” in this respect, as Bernstein found in her example of the Spanish-accented tiger. Perhaps The Rude Mechs’s anxiety about living up to Stella Adler invokes questions about artistic lineages that could be troubled by turning towards other models of kinship not based on the concept of inheritance and reproduction.

More broadly, what troubles me is the possibility that the performance of masculine anxiety at work in The Method Gun may also be present in work by other young ensemble theatre companies in the U.S.. As an example, the prominent group Elevator Repair Service comes to mind. Are they an all-white company? (Quick image searches suggest that they are, but that’s by no means proof of that fact.) Like The Method Gun, they are also dealing with issues of artistic predecessors in American culture, such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald– Gatz famously stages a full reading of The Great Gatsby, a man, it might be noted, who is the first and last of his kind, a fraud, much like The Rude Mechs’s Stella Adler. Oh, and he has some pretty big gender issues to boot.

Gatz Public Theater/Martinson Hall

Elevator Repair Service performing Gatz.

I have also had the pleasure to see ERS at work with my students. Several years ago, they gave an admirable workshop for us, which really energized students into thinking about different strategies for creative work– strategies that notably broke with models based on an internal process of self-expression. Instead of self-expression from within, they encouraged students to design movement sequences drawn from outside sources, taking this video of a performance by cheerleaders from Alcorn State as their model:


In the context of Bernstein’s analysis of the “race-blind casting” in The Method Gun, the artistic appropriation of this dance by ERS follows a similar pattern. Furthermore, it should prompt us to ask about the resulting dance in Gatz: what does it mean for these particular bodies and movements to be cited on stage by white performers? Does it reinforce specific racial anxieties and stereotypes, perhaps such as the powerful black female body, which could potentially overwhelm and overtake white civilized culture? In this sense, is the cheerleader’s dance implicitly likened to a primitive religious ritual? To what degree, if any, does the specter of miscegenation linger here?

In noting these questions, I have drifted from my original subject: the prospect of affect in theatre, especially as it relates to queerness. Following Bernstein’s model, thinking about shame— rather than death— may provide a way to rework anxieties here about death, be it the death of one’s artistic lineage and national identity or the social death imposed on subjects excluded from representation.


Exhibition: re.act.feminism at the Akademie der Künste


During a talk on the last day of last year’s Performance Studies International conference a participant from well outside the field– loosely defined as it is– leaned towards me and asked whether we had already heard this particular paper… about Marina Ambramovic? Or Carolee Schneeman?  Point duly taken– a certain strain of performance art from the seventies seems to exert a force that exceeds the dimensions of its historical significance.  In fact, one might speculate that that as image, this genre’s appeal has grown stronger in hindsight, and that its urgency has been consolidated through progressive historical efforts at its preservation.  But is body art not an exhausted avenue of inquiry?  One of my current academic advisers once said something similar in seminar while discussing Stelarc and Orlan, and he could be understood as either bemoaning the resurgent interest in body art as a lamentable phenomenon, or ambivalently turning over its legacy to a new generation.  Why this resurgence in a such a particular, momentary sub-genre of art?  If I were to speculate, I might suggest that such particularity itself, if perceived in opposition to the the generalizing regime of images deployed by spectacle culture, might reveal a threshold of experience foreclosed by spectacle– the Real.

As a recent exhibition of feminist performance art at Berlin’s Academy of the Arts indicated, this interest appears not to be limited to members of a younger generation who had not yet tested these boundaries.   Re.act Feminism was noteworthy for the clarity, conviction, and thoroughness of its scholarship, which resulted in a precise, accessibly designed combination of photographs, video, installations, and accompanying descriptions of both well-known (Valie Export, Suzanne Lacey, Colette, Yoko Ono, Orlan, Martha Wilson) and lesser-known– at least to my sadly jaundiced perspective– Eastern European artists.  Although this engaging clarity of presentation was its strongest point, it may have also been a certain weakness, insomuch as the exhibition seemed to present its diverse range of artists as engaged in the same monolithic, presumably “feminist” project across decades and cultures, emphasizing the abject experience of the female body subjected to the repressive order of patriarchy.

Two prominent examples come to mind as representative of the exhibition’s intended historical trajectory, Kate Gilmore (U.S., b. 1975) and Valie Export (Austria, b. 1940).

There were at least two pieces by Export, one the biggest names in the European history of performance art:

“Asemie: die Unfähigkeit sich durch Meinenspiel ausdrücken zu können” (1973),and a work using electrical wires, perhaps “Hyperbulie” (1973).  I am going to rely on  Roswitha Müller’s “Valie Export: Fragments of the Imagination,” (U. of Indiana Press, 1994) for descriptions, first of “Hyperbulie”:

“Once again, limitations and enforced social determinations are illustrated through electrical wires.  This time the naked woman performer must pass through a narrow corridor of electrical wires.  The frequent contact with the loaded wire decreases strength, so that she finally sinks to the ground.  She is only able to leave the enclosure thanks to a near pathological act of will (hyperbulia, the meaning of the title)… the price paid for breaking out of conventional expectations placed on women.  ‘Asemia’ describes what happens when this step is not taken.  The subtitle reads, ‘The inability to express oneself through mimicry.’…

Valerie Export's "Hyperbulie"

Valie Export's "Hyperbulie"

In [“Asemia”], a bird is tied down on a platform with thin strings (the bird is already dead before the performance).  The performer kneels in front of the bird and, using her mouth, pours hot liquid wax over the animal as well as over her own feet and hands: ‘the person and the bird as partners/parts in an anthropomorphic sculpture… demonstrate in the tension between the materials: bird (symbol of fantasy), wax (symbol of lifelessness) and human being, and in the tension between the forms (movement and rigidity) the tragedy of human self-representation.’  With a knife in her mouth, the performer finally cuts through the wax and frees her hands.  It is interesting in this connection that Export considered the knife to be a symbol of language, which by naming, separates the subject from the object” (40 and 45).

Valie Export's "Asemie"

Valie Export's "Asemie"

As in any description, interpretation and reportage are closely intertwined in this text, and I must confess that I feel uncertain assessing its accuracy, especially since I have never deeply engaged in Export’s voluminous oeuvre.  Nevertheless, in “Re.act Feminism,” Export’s presence felt as if it provided a model of practice and historical legitimacy for artists more perilously perched further East.  Despite my hesitations, Müller’s analysis of “the price paid for breaking out of conventional expectations placed on women” echoes with the simplistically specious rhetoric that too often clings to female performance artists, re-inscribing them into clumsily generalized symbolic oppositions, not to mention an entirely outdated concept concerning the function of disciplinary or repressive force.  Would the 33 year old Export of “Asemie” have agreed with Müller’s language?  It seems unlikely that the present Export would have been satisfied with this one-sided explanation, especially given the sophistication of quotations with which her website immediately greets its visitor: “I am, where I stage ‘disappearance.’ Existence preserves itself in the suture, in the tear.”  But what about the works themselves?  If stripped of their symbolic overtones and considered foremost as physical events, could they be understood in a more provocatively productive way?  Given Export’s propensity for concrete manifestations of pain and death, I am not sure I care to pursue such questions, especially as framed in the context of the exhibition, which emphasized her affinity for describing the “tear” in terms of physical pain by juxtaposing her work to that of another artist– whose name I have unfortunately forgotten– sowing her vagina shut.

A similar, albeit more canted and dynamic image from Kate Gilmore's "Star Might, Star Bright" served as the exhibition's public face.

A similar, albeit more canted and dynamic image from Kate Gilmore's "Star Might, Star Bright" served as the exhibition's public face.

Fortunately, the featured contemporary artist, Kate Gilmore– who happens to be American– and whose “Star Bright, Star Might” (2007) served as the image of the exhibition distributed throughout Berlin, is evidently more interested in awkward futility than tearing through the consciousness of her spectator.  As the above image of a tear would suggest, her work had appropriates the pathos of her artistic predecessors and transforms it into a clownish expression of artistic impotence.  This impotence evidently characterized her video work “Cake Walk” (2005), her principal contribution to the exhibition, a single video loop which depicted the tribulations of a woman on roller skates attempting to scale a shoddily constructed incline.  Although one might cite a number of potential venerable male influences– such as Beckett, Nauman, or Paul McCarthy–  I found “Cake Walk” to be unsatisfying simple, a work that created unnecessary obstacles in order to impart the semblance of an aesthetic result.  Moreover, Gilmore’s use of digital video seems more reminiscent to the sterile studio-based practices of certain contemporary visual artists than the low-budget, strongly site-specific tendencies that motivated performance art.  Even “Hyperbulie” and “Asemie,” which both appear to take place in a studio setting, emphasize the rough-hewn, physically provisional and exhausted nature of the space it inhabits, which is emphasized by the stains on the wall, the grains of the uneven wood floorboards, and Export’s chalk writing.  By contrast, “Cake Walk” seems trapped in its own unremarkable room, which has neither borders nor defining physical features outside of its cinematic set piece.  Like a rubber room, one never overcome the boundaries set by its baggage of inherited spatial concepts and its repertoire of exhausted artistic techniques, which superficially emulate the art of the seventies while omitting to the underlying conditions that catalyzed body art– an omission that may be in everyone’s best interest, be it “feminist” or not.

Gilmore's work featured in the exhibition was "Cake Walk" (2005).

Gilmore's work featured in the exhibition was "Cake Walk" (2005).

In general, the exhibition failed to convince me that performance art had survived its moment outside of the historical preservation of its striking, evidently mortally afflicted images.  Likewise, if the underlying question concerns the present valance of the female body in performance, and the legacy of its radical material practice in the seventies, Re.act feminism seemed to imply that this is not a problem at all– that the liberatory struggle still continues.

Nevertheless, beyond all criticism, Re.act Feminism did feature one invaluable resource– an archive of around seventy rare videos works or documentation from diverse artists, whose scope exceeded the apparent thematic focus of the exhibited works.  I inevitably gravitated towards favorites (Adrian Piper, Ana Mendieta, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha) or artists whose work I would like to know better, (such as Joan Jonas).  There were a few disappointments among these– the documentation of Piper’s “Mythic Being” project  turned out to be ten blurry minutes from a low-budget 1973 Australian documentary titled “Other Than Art’s Sake” by Peter Kennedy, or lousy footage of Carolee Schneeman’s “Meat Joy”– but Mendieta or Jonas’ work was as vibrant and varied as one might hope the period to be.

Ana Mendieta, "Alma Silueta en Fuego," 1975

Ana Mendieta, "Alma Silueta en Fuego," 1975

For contrast to Mendieta’s strangely haunting works, watch the video clip below of Joan Jonas’ imposing “Vertical Roll”:

Click on the image for a link to Joan Jonas' magnificiently disturbing 1972 video work, "Vertical Roll"

Click on the image for a link to an excerpt from Joan Jonas' magnificently disturbing 1972 video work, "Vertical Roll"