Fabien Maltais-Bayda and Victoria McKenzie discuss Flowchart 3 – with works by Fan Wu and Thom Gill, Robert Kingsbury, and Lo Bil – presented by Dancemakers Centre for Creation on April 6, 2017.
While scrawling notes in mid-performance darkness, I sometimes cling to words. Often quicker than writing out a formal or sensory description, jotting down a brief quote can mark a moment in process.
Or a calling answered by the unconscious. The quote, the image, see themselves onto my page without thought of what I’m writing, and yet … pure trust.
A citation might offer a brief crystallization, where the many facets of a performance temporarily coalesce, before diffusing again. At the very least, quotations can function as mnemonic devices, reference points that conjure memories of the perceptions, sensations and movements that surrounded them.
Lo Bil’s words, which form our title, felt like something I needed urgently to record, and they might perform some of the functions I’ve just described. Her utterance may also provide a point of entry to the final iteration of Flowchart at Dancemakers this season, as well as a link between the pieces that comprised the program. In the evening’s second work, Robert Kingsbury’s Conversation Conservation, a sung refrain became something of an anthem: “Performance is a spaaaaace to dooooo things you don’t usually dooooo.” Or said otherwise, with Bil’s language in mind, performance gets us to a place of difference? The program’s opening work, Fan Wu and Thom Gill’s Lock Up Your Sons, trod into the psychoanalytic, rehearsing dynamics of talk therapy and recollection – practices that work to bring the subject into “a different place.”
Questions logically follow: To what place do these artists go with their work? Consider Bil: to what place does she take us?
To a place where dualities collapse upon one another, no? A liminal place where language both invites and refuses label. A liminal place where a track field and a runway are mine for the catwalk.
To a place where a shard of glass is a waterfall, and so too is a downpour of liquid from a bucket onto a body. To a place where she asks if we see, and thus asks us to see, a projection on a wall. Bil seems to take us someplace where materials, perceptions and understandings are playfully mutable. “This is the pond, that’s just some splashing?”
And these are just some preliminary thoughts. Where else do these performances take us?
To my death. My symbolic death that is. There was certainly a sense of transportation happening not just within the choreography of each performance but the flow of Flowchart, so to speak. From Wu and Gill, to Kingsbury, to Bil what resonated was a birth/rebirth, a liminal existence and a death. To answer your question, let me begin with my death. What I mean is that it was the idea of death that allowed dualities to come through in Bil’s performance. In fact there was a certain point where Bil walked a network of pathways, linear yet chaotic, from upstage right to downstage left, upstage left to downstage right, right centre to left centre. Grasping my attention with her body, she spoke: an anecdote about her brother. Do you remember that last sentence? “The funny part about living is that you’re dying too.”
That moment – a quick, sparking, oscillating shift between humour and satire that Bil often engages with in her performances – marked one of many instances in which dualities were not only recognized but synthesized. These entanglements of meaning and matter created a potent chatter: there is this within that, that within this, the speech within the act, and the act within the speech.
Philosopher of language J. L. Austin describes the performative utterance with the following, slightly convoluted, definition: “to utter the sentence … is not to describe my doing of what I should be said in so uttering to be doing or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it.” Let me clarify with one of his examples. To say “I do” in a wedding ceremony is not to describe getting married or to state that one is getting married, it is to become married. In the performative, indeed, we do find, “the speech within the act, and the act within the speech.” Bil’s performance made me realize all the imaginative potential, the possibilities of worlding, that exist here. Her performative utterance does the work of making paper into a pond.
Many movements within the movement and at each movement, something different.
Is this transformative activity one of Kingsbury’s unusual things, for which performance is “a space”?
Bil’s remark about death and her brother is something I also made note of during the performance. And riffing a little longer on these ideas of duality and transportation, for me, Bil’s reference to death functioned like a volta – the shift in thought, or argument, or tone that comes toward the end of a sonnet. Bil’s utterance modulated the stakes.
Lately, I feel like I’ve been asking what’s at stake in performance. In Kingsbury’s work, perhaps it’s the use, or the value (or the use-value?) of performance that is on the line.
Hahah, I feel like I like that you’ve been asking what’s at stake in performance lately!
That question of use, value and the Marxian ‘use-value’ always bares itself in some sense.
Right, and the stakes in Lock Up Your Sons feel high, almost untenably so. Wu and Gill’s performance invests in meaning, signification and the self, and to perform all of this is, indeed, a weighty task.
What I found interesting about Kingsbury’s work is that the “use-value” propelled us into the self-reflexive. The performance itself was self-reflexive and our societal notion of self-reflexivity is one that is often not questioned. Moments of ruminating on our existence, our actions, our entire being, are denied or simply not encouraged. But this encouragement could be as simple as considering the concept of time, or the concept of ‘taking’ time. This is something I think Kingsbury heralds into his own performance.
Kingsbury spent much of his performance interacting with a camera rigged up to a contraption – something between a tripod and a crane. He moves with this mechanism, gazing into the lens while lip syncing to a track of his own voice. I recall wondering, what does the camera see? And moments later a projection appears on the back wall of the performance space.
But the projection is not what the camera sees, rather it’s what the camera saw.
Yes! Time was put into question.
Recorded footage and the live moment catch each other in mimesis, simultaneously reflecting and projecting onto one another.
What I saw from the perspective of the audience was a ‘mis-en-abyme’ which simply means ‘placed into abyss’ or more colloquially, the image within the image. In Kingsbury’s work, this engagement became the live image falling into the camera’s image, interacting there in a sequence that appeared infinite. I found that Kingsbury did this many times throughout the performance even without the invitation of technology. When he first entered centre stage he explained that this was a “non-pedagogical dance” and encouraged us, should we see him clap his hands to his sides, to enact the same. That moment, that point, dissipated the distinction between the artist and the audience – we became the performers by extension.
The continually operating feedback loop provided by the performance, whether through the technology employed like you mentioned above, or simply through the artist-audience interaction, heightened our awareness of the event’s autopoiesis. Right? Autopoietic systems are the self-producing operations of living systems that we as embodied beings are naturally engaged with. Literally, life.
What Kingsbury does in his aesthetic question of time and event is simply ask for a sensitivity to this process.
The questions, with regard to time, follow: When, truly, are we urged to take a moment out of the day to simply recollect, revise, breathe? When are we urged to use time through another mode, one that might not be producing but entails we reflect on the previously unassessed? What becomes of the unassessed? That might be the segue into Wu and Gill’s performance – a segue into the psychoanalytical.
What is not assessed, in many instances, might be movement, might be the body.
In what sense?
Well, in a published conversation with the queer theorist Mikko Tuhkanen, literary scholar Leo Bersani asks, “what is the importance of gesture in psychoanalysis?” Bersani goes on to suggest some answers by way of the analyst Christopher Bollas. According to Bollas via Bersani, psychoanalysis usually focuses on problems of knowledge, which might occur, for example, in “the mother’s failure to know the infant or the mother’s failure to encourage the infant to get to know her as an independent person.” Yet, “when we imagine the mother and the infant in a room together alone, maybe more important than the enterprise, either successful or failed, of knowledge, is the way in which the mother has positioned herself and the child, the way in which they gesture toward and touch each other.” So here, Bersani identifies Bollas’ main question:“What was her aesthetic of handling?” An aesthetic of handling – that’s an extraordinary program for what’s important in being brought up.
Putting aside some issues – the assumption of a “mother’s failure,” or the mistaken (I think) implication that knowledge and embodiment are necessarily distinct – Bersani’s proposition – about the importance of gesture – via Bollas, is a stimulating one. And it brings us directly to Flowchart. “It is about asking you to watch for choreography,” Dancemakers curator Amelia Ehrhardt writes of the performance program.
And, might I add, the “hope alongside choreography” that Ehrhardt so consciously points toward.
Simultaneously, Bersani asks, “How were you handled? What was the movement, what was the choreography of your relation to the primary person who was taking care of you?”
I think Bersani’s questions are directly taken up by Wu and Gill’s work. Knowledge, or at least linguistic knowledge, is withheld here. Many viewers likely cannot read the characters that Wu paints on a portrait of his mother during the performance. But the corporeal, moving relationship with the mother, the embodiment inherent in memory and reflection – these form the material of the piece.
Bersani discusses another example of gesture in psychoanalysis: an anecdote from the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. The story is too long to reiterate here, but the essential thing is that Lacan deploys spontaneous, interactive movement and touch during a session with a patient. Bersani comments on this moment, saying, “Of course, the example is not repeatable; it can’t be made into a program of psychoanalytic technique.” But I wonder if Wu and Gill’s work, and indeed, if each of the works in this Flowchart, might be doing just that – suggesting programs of (something like) psychoanalytic technique based in relational movement. Or at least, they might be gesturing toward this?
There’s a lot here, but let me first start with my instant thought which is to recall a conversation a friend and I once had about psychoanalysis as a practice before a theory. The whole idea is that the patient within the psychoanalytical session is allowed to begin speaking freely – on absolutely anything. The freedom in psychoanalysis is granted in its speech because the psychoanalyst knows that within that speech will come unconscious revelation. You could be staring at the ceiling tile, describing the colours, the shapes, and then out of nowhere you’ve mentioned your mommy issues, your daddy issues, those secretive fetishes you weren’t sure had an internal origin but are sitting inside of you waiting for release: the proverbial “Freudian slip”. In a sense, psychoanalysis is a practice of listening on both fronts: on the one hand, the psychoanalyst must listen to the patient in order to encounter, and engage with, the Freudian slip. On the other hand, the patient must be open to acknowledging that the past helps with the symptoms of the present.
Now, what I recognize in Wu and Gill’s piece is a moment of choreographing listening. We, as the audience, witnessed this moment at the midpoint of the performance where both Wu and Gill had moved from their initial relation with Gill seated, serenading and stringing gently on his guitar, and Wu standing behind him to his left, painting linguistic strokes over an image of his mother. Gill moves to the sofa and Wu follows to the chair in front of him: what happens next are individual monologues within a dialogue unprompted. Each does and doesn’t play the part of the psychoanalyst, revealing trauma and memories at the sight of one another. But what this scene reveals is that the psychoanalytic process isn’t just the practice of listening, but a performance of thought. And I say this while thinking about the mantra that Kingsbury repeated to us throughout his performance: “Performance is a space to do things you don’t usually do.”
What don’t I usually do? What don’t I do, that if I do, will lead me to the origin moment of my anxieties, my desires, my fears? What do I do that you also do, and when we recognize those doings, do we recognize commonality, community, collectivity?
Arriving at the notion of collectivity, I recognize a phrase uttered in Bil’s performance: “This is a pond and I need your mouth to breathe.”
Amid pain, deprivation, fear, hunger – all of the things which deregulate us and make learning impossible, make understanding one another extraordinarily difficult, make connecting and humanizing a forgotten task – Bil asserts that life cannot exist on its lonesome.
We need each other; we exist together.
And if performance is a space to dooooo things we don’t usually dooooo, maybe it’s precisely a space for us to recognize the Commons of the pond, the Commons of existence – an active, participatory, shared space that requires all our mouths to breathe.