I was struck at this season’s second edition of Flowchart, held at Dancemakers on February 23rd, by two informally presented works by Syrus Marcus Ware and Aliya Pabani centering on the relation between marginal racialized experiences and normative idiomatic expressions. These stood in contrast with the third and final work by collective Open Fortress, an abstract swathe of sensorial aesthetics practically devoid of signifiers. The topic of appropriation loomed large, introduced by Ware, who ultimately subverted what at first appeared to be a stand-up comedy mode of performance. Identifying himself as a trans person of color, Syrus meditates on the seeds of his art practice: sewing magic bags in a psych ward while medicated on Lorazepam. Here I see him humorously broaching a commentary on privilege and the arts, querying its elitism, pretentia and authoritarianism.
Ware seems to reclaim value as the ability to meditate on his subjective experience as it connects to a dominating frame. He describes a now defunct pharmaceutical as “Hollywood rocket-fuel”, remarking, “I feel like a celeb” [on it]. Next he shares the lines of a poem that he claims to have written, and we slowly become aware that it’s a song we’ve all heard before, being read to us (probably for the first time), with emphatic personalization. Ware continues with more ‘poems’, each a pop hit containing the word “crazy,” now recapitulated in a symbolic act of appropriation, by a person who has shared with us the intimate details of having spent time living in “manic-depressed bunkers with balconies.”
Ware describes British Columbian valley vistas obscured from said bunkers by the metal caging meant to prevent suicides. Each of the songs he reads aloud was written by a person of color. I considered comments from friends in the past about the normalization of the word crazy and remembered many failed attempts on my part at substituting for the potentially stigma-inducing term. But I doubt that the artist’s intention was to erase a word from our vocabularies. To end his ‘set’ Ware said, “Ok so I’m just gonna go back to sewing some magic bags, thanks,” reiterating the reference to artistic practice. Here I’m reminded of the economic aspects of the art market (the institute was selling the magic bags for profit) as well as the role that art can play in maintaining mental health.
Recalling Ware’s work reminds me of another pop-cultural mental health phenomenon: the comedic representation of obsessive compulsive disorder. As someone with diagnosed OCD, I’ve always felt its portrayal as something quirky or charming to be frustrating and belittling. And I imagine the same goes for the even more pervasive appropriation of the word “crazy.” And yet, I wonder if we can also read these things another way, against the grain. What if we reconsider every little “crazy,” said casually in song lyric or conversation, as an intervention in our assumptions of normalcy. Preceded by Ware’s seemingly confessional narrative, and spoken in his voice, each “crazy” resonated with a little more meaning. The tonality of experience. If we take the word for what it is more fully worth, the songs and speech that surround us daily might actually (and maybe unbeknownst to those singing and speaking) become filled with powerful repetition: an incantation for the non-neurotypical.
We can also think about repetition as a choreographic mode. To repeat is to deploy both explicit sameness and tacit difference. Repeating a gesture or movement phrase insists upon its consistency across consecutive iterations. Simultaneously, however, the proximity of repetition makes visible the small modifications and shifts that inevitably emerge between versions. In repeating “crazy” across so many contexts, Ware voices these dynamics and again offers us moments to reorient our relationship to the word: the little fissures in which bloom the different, the surprising, the unexpected.
Of course repetition offers both potentials and problems, and when deployed along gradients of power, it can reinforce their troubling hierarchies. I think it is this version of repetition that Pabani interrogates in her work. The repetition of Lena Söderberg’s photograph, the repetition of her whiteness across image processing and computer history, and the repetition of her position as the object of male gazes: these repetitions are complicit in a plethora of troubling subjugations. However, by repeating Söderberg’s’s image in a new context, perhaps Pabani’s piece works – like Ware’s – to open space for reconsideration where before there was only rote continuity.
Aliya Pabani performed a kind of demo-lecture, addressing race through methods of quantifying information, often digital. Like in an explanatory powerpoint presentation, short videos play between stories delivered by Pabani, clad in a checkered unisuit with matching face paint and a fake-potted-flower hat. The first video describes how an image of Lena Söderberg’s face was cut out of a 1972 issue of Playboy magazine and, after having been used in a scientific article at a conference, became and remains a standard test for image processing algorithms. Pabani doesn’t need to explain the significance of this white industry standard and its previously sexualized context, having told a personal story referencing domestic abuse just prior. The next video describes how “dogs are a technology for color preference” (racist) and then Pabani presents several images of groups of people, repeated with different digital color adjustments made to them. She asks us to decide for ourselves whether we prefer A or B. The pictures modulate from warmer to cooler, lighter to darker, more to less saturated. Preference is invited to the table, to be considered in a short group experiment. Are we dogs or are we people?
Another clip discusses how Twitter attempts to measure levels of happiness on different days based on frequency of keywords. The day on which Osama Bin Laden was reported dead scored as a very sad day and Pabani reflected on the algorithm’s inability to see that posts including supposedly dark wordings may also be paired with celebratory hahas. The video ends with a comment on how with an adjustment made to this algorithm, perhaps it would be possible to see that “the populace will celebrate death en masse.” Hinting subtly at the ultimate genocidal end arising through unbridled discrimination, Pabani then brings out a helium balloon with the word ‘celebrate’ on it, which roams freely around the Dancemakers studio, propelled by a fan in the wings. She lies casually on her side over a blue tarp, a video behind feeding us instructions to text her phone based on the auto-suggestions that pop up, forming sentences based on our past phone usage. The sentences are meant to appear on her Twitter feed behind her, with responses from the artist. However each time she refreshes her feed, a different ad comes up after the first post, interrupting whatever incidental continuity may have otherwise ensued. The interactivity, personal stories and theoretical commentaries conveyed herein offered to the dance presentation context a kind of digital learning or working environment with a very playful host. This shit ain’t dancetheatre, folks.
Incidental continuity. This phrase feels particularly apt, not only for the interrupted techno-choreography you describe, but also for the format of Flowchart as a whole. The exploratory permissiveness of the program’s multidisciplinary approach uniquely opens the possibility for accidents of cohesion. It might seem like a stretch, but we can even find, in minutiae, commonalities among what otherwise might feel categorically dissimilar – here, the metallic surfaces of Pabani’s balloon and Open Fortress’s Mylar sheets.
The latter work feels like a formal exercise in surfacing, and the piece’s content takes shape in interactions of light, sound and material. Or rather, it emerges in the graphic potential of these interplays. Vibrations and movements reinforce one another, light from handheld sources glints and ricochets and subtle patterns of illumination form and deform almost simultaneously. Committed to abstraction, the work certainly does seem, as you described, “devoid of signifiers.” And yet, perhaps even here, there is the potential for meaning-making in the process of perception.
On the subject of abstraction: Kirk Varnedoe described, in a 2003 A. W. Mellon lecture, how the abstract expressionist movement emerged “from the context of surrealism, with its stress on visual free association.” There’s something of this associative endeavour in looking at clouds, for example, and there might be something of it here too.
Of course, the abstract is frequently placed in opposition to the figural, or the representational. It is interesting to reflect, then, on the situations in which we see figuration even amid abstraction. The costume Pabani donned for her work, a geometry of pattern, line, shape and colour, seems to pointedly deploy the abstract. And yet, her performing body remains sharply visible. Throughout Pabani’s work, bodies are constantly figured and re-figured, imaged and re-imaged. They may appear in different resolutions, different exposures, different contrasts – yet the choreography asserts their imaging as bodies in the eyes of the viewer. Pabani seems to be toying with which bodies we fixate on, and which we see as fluid. Her work hints that only some bodies are permitted to assume abstraction, while the regimes of spectatorship that surround us seek out and shore up the figure-ness of others.
Almost all of the media in Open Fortress’s work – ranging from audio to movement and projections – are created live, in the moment. Whether the performers make their choices for their own experience or that of the audience seems intentionally unclear. Riding the line between somatic autoeroticism and clear but empty formality, the work summons the aesthetics of experimental music in this installation-based experience. It is surprising then, that it functions in a traditional, black-box performance setup. This is necessary though, to enable the loop effect between the performers’ manipulations of the reflective materials and their retranslation through abstract projections of light thrown back over their bodies. A musician sits onstage, more central than the dancers, slowly modulating perambulating hums and drones. Industrial fans in the wings support the gestalt of immersive, constant yet wavering stimuli.
Choreographically, we witness how these bodies affect and manifest our shared visual space through their careful and sustained attention. Yet the results of their actions are never obvious and curiosity towards the process remains throughout. At one point, the two dancers very slowly disappear into awkward Mylar bodysuits. This happens in the downstage corners, dividing them from their scene and allowing it to exist without their participation. In other moments they tread carefully backward over Mylar runways, shake and press into wads of the material or roll through it as if suspended in oil. As the work comes to a close, they gather all of the Mylar into a pile the size of a small abode, which because of its size and reflectivity registers for me as an abstracted spacecraft. At this point, they crawl in and hide beneath its messy folds, while the first pre-recorded projection appears behind, an image that could be two digital suns over an alien planet. I can’t help but think of the countless documentaries that attempt to reinterpret the moon landings as products of cultural manufacture. In the context of dance, this piece worships at the altar of the audiovisual, almost like a pop-up at a concert or art party. The bodies involved act as mediaries for aesthetic production, with little focus on their own gestural potential. The corporeal becomes secondary to the created environment.
Somewhere between sacrificial and appropriative, this work faithfully reproduces the impersonal framework of sculptural performance installation, though without direct reference to its lineage. Here we have a recently reestablished mode of performance, which in its dedication to the collective and somatic within experience, also begs questions around whiteness, the normative and what it means to work artistically toward a transparent materialism. Does this shift necessitate a removal of personhood or authorship and is the attempt at doing so actually erased or revealed within the performance? In recent contemporary dance trends I am left with a superficially utopic feeling, which is starting to seem both nostalgic and problematic. Whose work is this? Have I seen this before? What are we doing here? What year is it and what is going on in the political world? It seems important that performance and artistic venues both hold open a space away from the economics and compulsions of the political, yet also remain desperately in relation to them.
Given recent events in the political world you reference, I want to return to questions of figuration and representation, of whiteness and personhood. It’s interesting that precisely as we’ve been having this dialogue, important conversations have formed around the inclusion of Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s biennial exhibition. Schutz is a white artist, and her piece depicts the open casket of Emmett Till, a fourteen year old Black boy who was brutally murdered in 1955 after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman. Many have expressed concern with regard to the work, and as artist and writer Hannah Black succinctly states in an open letter, “the painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun.”
In a review of the biennial that troublingly ignores the problematics of Open Casket, Jennifer Samet lauds Schutz as one of “two figurative painters who stand out.” Again, we arrive at the question of whose bodies are subject to figurative representation, and by whom. Consider what Black describes as “the willingness of a largely non-Black media to share images and footage of Black people in torment and distress or even at the moment of death.” Such hegemonic networks of spectatorship, rooted in whiteness, demonstrate an insidious assumption that bodies of colour, and Black bodies especially, are universally available for figuration, and what is more, that they cannot exist in any other mode. These attitudes are, of course, a matter of white privilege, and must actively be dismantled. As Black writes: “Although derided by many white and white-affiliated critics as trivial and naive, discussions of appropriation and representation go to the heart of the question of how we might seek to live in a reparative mode, with humility, clarity, humour and hope, given the barbaric realities of racial and gendered violence on which our lives are founded.”
Returning to your other queries: “Whose work is this? Have I seen this before? What are we doing here? What year is it and what is going on in the political world?” These are questions that have been echoing for me a lot of late. And I am curious to see how they will resonate with the forthcoming Flowchart as well.
The first two questions, in particular, bring to mind Fan Wu’s work in and around poetic translation, which, he writes, “aims for an aesthetically crafted and justified final product it deigns to keep its faith to the original. Poetic translation scrabbles, sometimes boldly and valiantly, sometimes like a mute with fists of ham, to mediate these oft-disparate goals.” We might draw a connection between these ideas and the translation of images, both narrative and visual, that circulates in Pabani’s work. Simultaneously, I wonder what forms of imaging will emerge amid the texts, sounds and presences I anticipate in Wu’s collaboration with Thom Gill. You also ask what we are doing here, which I think foregrounds the notion of choreography as encounter. I am curious to see how Lo Bil’s work, what Amelia Ehrhardt refers to as her “conscientious practice,” might open such experiences.
And since you, too, will be performing on the program, may I end by asking something of you? A brief reflection on what’s to come?
I have been thinking about this increasingly popular notion of non-performativity and how it might relate to dance, obscuring historical dynamics of performance spaces by making quiet claims to a newly established level playing field between creators and their so-called contemporary audiences. But what group of often white elite arts fashionistas author this trademarked notion of anti-performance and, when it is claimed to be more accessible, is that not a problematic assertion of inclusivity? How does totalitarianism intersect with authority in performance modes and aesthetics?
With postmodern task-based approaches to dance, faces became more neutral. Later this look was ‘put-on’ in order to keep up with the trends and by the 80s, the level of hyper-formality that was getting funded resembled outright fashion fascism. Meg Stuart openly critiqued this dominant mode in her seminal Disfigure Study, which while initially radical in its tormented deformity, eventually bore another generation of dance artists who shunned their own abilities, while championing queer theory. Is the grotesque a cyclic, more inclusive mode? Have we landed in state-based research or are we back in dancetheatre?
Non-performativity is a more collectively organised hierarchy of anti-values that profits from rejecting the dramatic modes it claims to supercede as it reclaims spaces that were previously dance-theatrical. Having created work in the past that attempts this myself, I now feel stuck in the middle between increasingly polarised modes of formal and conceptual or somatic dance.
From this position I consider the possibility of making a non-pedagogical dance, and in the process become ever cathartically didactic. I invite the audience to explore performance as a space to do things you don’t usually do, which relates for me to queerness. Can I step aside without pretending I’m not there? Probably not, but it is through this question that I attempt to negotiate my place within this community, conversation and moment.
Dancemakers presents the season’s third Flowchart with Lo Bil, Fan Wu/Thom Gill and Robert Kingsbury on April 6th at 8pm at Dancemakers Centre for Creation, Toronto.