7. Kinesthetic Transmutation of Theatricality
Consuming Art Performances
The Tone of Mutation
On the plate that ends all the plates gathered in this book, I give offerings that join sacrifice with celebration—the sacrifice of logic and the celebration of sensibilities; the sacrifice of empirical verification and the celebration of perceptual immersion; the sacrifice of historicity and the celebration of fluctuating intensities. I traverse a zone of negotiations between knowing and being, between perceiving and slipping half-awake through time; my words stagger from their desire to articulate coherent responses to their resigned participation in sentient confluence. I enter a terrain of indeterminate forms where excess spills into economy and incompatible categories cavort in a hybrid embrace. I chart a region of multiplicity that matches reticence with sensory surfeit, allowing an indifference to semantic ploys to drift alongside a forest of strange sounds, which ebb and flow like a memory collage: the concert of a screeching owl imitating a hog; a pack of robotic rats blinking away their newborn blindness; pots of genetically engineered tulips blooming and decaying; a turbulent grating of bacteria in multicellular fusion; a humming of electric currents in eddies of pollen-infested wind; boxes of cereal, syrup, and ketchup flying through the limelight; lumps of flesh testing the elastic pull of gravity on a concrete pavement. Call me a cartographer of nonsense—
Art Performance: The New Wave?
My story about art performance deals with the manifestation of this genre in the work of four artists/ensembles in L.A.: Johanna Went; Toti Mercadante O'Brien, John O'Brien, and Steve Roden; Oguri and Renzoku; osseus labyrint. It would be succinct and convenient to introduce these groups as characters in my story and to describe how they all relate to one another in creating a unique L.A. style of art performance. But these groups are more like animated figures occupying four distinct geographies than characters motivated into action by their conscious and unconscious decisions. Just as my “characters” are not dramatic in the strict Ibsenian sense, so their shared residency in this chapter reflects primarily the accidental fact that they all live and practice in L.A. Among the artists, however, there is no consensus as to what their “practice” consists of. One thing is for sure: none of these artists identifies what s/he does as “art performance.” Went simply calls her work “entertainment,” which reveals more of her artistic intention than the nature of her art. O'Brien, O'Brien, and Roden regard their work as a collaboration among three artists. Considering that they refrain from even giving a name to their ensemble, it is not hard to speculate how they might react to an identificational tag for their art. As artistic director of Oguri and Renzoku, Oguri usually presents his works as dance, but he also works in other capacities to produce performances that exceed the conventional framework of dance. The only group among the four that goes consistently by its company name is osseus labyrint, a loose constellation of artists led by Hannah Sim and Mark Steger. Sim and Steger call themselves “aliens” and conceptualize their art as “a laboratory of random mutations.” Thus, the theme I choose for my story about these artists—art performance—is better understood in a musical than a narrative sense. It sets up the mood fluctuating in between my verbal notes rather than restrictively delimiting the possibilities of my engagement.
In my usage “art performance” is neither a totalizing concept nor a prescriptive label. Rather, it is a provisional code for an immense field of divergent and evolving activities. It has a similar function to the name given arbitrarily to a newly discovered galaxy, not to fix its position permanently in the remote sky, but to approximate a territory of repeatable observations in the course of reorienting the telescope. In fact, as a nominal designation, art performance serves my purpose here not for its exactness in naming my objects
Aware of the artists' possible resistance to my classification, I place their live art outputs collected here in the genre of art performance primarily to distinguish these works from those I've discussed in previous chapters as redressive performances. Since redressive performance has been the dominant performance art genre in L.A. for the past three decades, to highlight the concurrent existence of an ideologically antithetical genre—art performance— reinforces my general observation about the region's multicentric performance art scenes.
In what ways, then, is an art performance antithetical to a redressive performance? Above all, an art performance differs from a redressive performance in that it does not originate in a remedial desire but departs from the premises of its own medium. An art performance does not strive to offer a positive alternative to a preexisting condition of stasis or malaise; nor does it attempt to compensate for the ills produced in realms of occupation other than art. For an art performance rarely responds to anything other than its own expressions—even though it may play with a wide range of themes or subject matter. Characteristically, an art performance shows little interest in contesting an unsatisfactory social condition or in overcoming a personal trauma. Although it may not define what art is, an art performance, unlike a redressive performance, makes no claim to be other than an artwork. The artist's role in an art performance is seldom ambiguous: s/he is simply a live body accomplishing an intentional and durational action in a certain site, having simultaneously suspended her/his other potential roles as a citizen, healer, patient, seer, or provocateur.
By the same token, an art performance often retains a sense of detachment from topical issues and political agendas, exercising a higher degree of aesthetic autonomy. An effect of such detachment is that an art performance usually assumes no more than a tangential relationship with a given regional culture. An art performance marks its own territory as if in hermetic isolation; despite the fact that no performance is free from the constraint of its space and time (as the historicized place of its production), detachment is at least the operational presumption of an art performance. Most art performances, however, do interact with the globalized popular culture or allude to the postmodern reshuffling of the historical high and low cultures. Therefore, contrary to localized redressive performance, an art performance seldom manifests an inevitable connection with the locale of its production. An art performance produced in L.A., for example, would not necessarily exhibit signs linking it to L.A. Despite its noncommercial status and limited circulation, an art performance is essentially as transportable a product as a Hollywood
The distinctions established between art performance and redressive performance tell us little about their historical relations. This is a blind spot resulting from the limit of multicentricity as my conceptual angle. While multicentricity stresses the coexistence of multiple centers, it does not account for each center's relative scale or commonly conceded legitimacy on the overall historical map. My assertion that art performance has always occupied a space in L.A.'s performance history reveals nothing about its course of development. To trace the trajectory of art performance in L.A. depends on a comprehensive study of its practitioners, which this study is not. Since my multicentric inquiry avows the radical inadequacy of any one center, I stress that the picture I am drawing for art performance is no more than a particularly vigorous corner/center in the galaxy of this genre. The terrain of my exclusion is bound to be larger than the zone of my attention. This apology notwithstanding, I contend that my samplings are disparate and paradigmatic enough to signal the evolving configurations of art performance in L.A. A corner indeed my narrative inhabits, but a corner with hologrammic potentials, for my collection offers a fragment that radiates the whole.
Most of the artists/ensembles treated here as exemplary of art performance started their performance careers in the mid-1990s and continue to present new works. They happen to be the latest practitioners in my ongoing performance genealogy. Myselection of these artists may then encourage the speculation that art performance has replaced redressive performance as turn-ofthe-millennium chic in this fashion-hungry town. Such speculation is both exaggerated and reasonable. Note that I've included an exception in my sampling: Johanna Went, who has been presenting art performances in L.A. since the late 1970s. Went's long career suggests that art performance did not suddenly emerge in the 1990s out of the exhaustion of redressive performance; that, instead, art performance has always had its place and audience, even when redressive performance was considered the conceptual norm for performance art. The flip side of this observation is that redressive performance is not necessarily obsolete. Actually, in my opinion, only the assertion of a discontinuous historical map coordinated by linear progress wherein one trend substitutes the other is obsolete.
To question the notion of linear progress is not to deny that there is certain shift of emphasis, or unforeseen mutation, in the field of performance art. I may use the case of Went to pursue this analysis. There is as yet no single extensive scholarly study of Went'sperformances, even though she has been a highly prolific performance artist who attained a huge following in the punk rock and “industrial” club scenes during the 1980s in L.A. Why is there such
The Theatricality of Art Performance
As I argued in Chapter 1, most performances are hybrid in substance and reveling in mixing genres. There is hardly any single performance that may be called a “pure” reflective performance, a “bona fide” redressive performance, or a “pedigree” art performance. Given this general caution, my focus here is on the mode of live performance that can be most incisively described as art performance. Yet another word of caution is needed: the privilege given to live performance here by no means asserts that an art performance piece is necessarily performed live for the public or that it can only be appreciated live. Chris Burden's work, discussed in Chapter 1, clearly disputes such a collapse of identity between art performance and live performance, since his art performance projects are largely appreciated by posterity via their (reproducible) documentation or prosthetic representation. Nevertheless, in an attempt to unravel the psychosocial mechanisms underscoring an immediate theatrical event, I choose to explore live (art) performance in this chapter.
Among all performance art genres, art performance most approximates theater art. This statement does not equate an art performance and a theater work. While a theater work revolves around the fabrication of a consensual illusion, an art performance seldom overstates the metaphorical function at the expense of its literal dimension. What we see in an art performance is both what it is —a kinesthetic exhibition —and what it evokes —a fantastic enactment. While the artists may metaphorically suggest imaginary personas in an art performance, they never relinquish their matter-of-fact roles as the artists, but rather they foreground their status of being objects/materials, which are lit-erally the mass, volumes, and surfaces available for aesthetic manipulation.
This fascination with the literalness or actuality of their present-tense actions
All in all, based on my functional conceptualization, theatricality is not a quality specifically produced by a theater work; it is instead a floating affect occasioned by the constant interactions among the five elements in the theatrical matrix. Theatricality results not from the type of performance presented, but from the live performance medium itself, which creates the condition of the theatrical matrix. An art performance seizes the theatrical matrix as the subject matter and the central aesthetic task. There is a total collapse of methodology, form, and content in an art performance: the methodology creates the form that is the content of an art performance. By virtue of this total collapse, I argue, every art performance—theoretically speaking—submits a singular solution to the problem of theatricality. The generative function it serves is ultimately the accumulation of aesthetic possibilities for theatricality.
The above argument leads to an immediate question: Doesn't another performance genre, say redressive performance, also involve the process of presentation, hence the contact with theatricality? This question, I believe, arises from a confusion about intent and focus. To be carried out at all, a redressive performance certainly entails a process of presentation, but that process itself does not reflect the intent nor does it constitute the central task of a redressive performance. The focus of a redressive performance lies in the concepts
The fundamental difference between a redressive and an art performance results in an intriguing phenomenon: whereas a redressive performance is individually shaped by the target and the content (the what) of its redress, an art performance is molded by a prototypical quest for the specific articulation (the how-what) of theatricality. In this context, a redressive performance is a localized genre; its power emanates from its individually tailored microcultural-politics. The more sharply this micro-cultural-politics is communicated, the more irresistible the redressive performance. An art performance is evaluated by an antithetical set of criteria. It is a globalized genre, not in the McLuhanian sense that it caters to a global village, but because every art performance continues to explore the condition of theatricality. Each new piece adds to the global body of theatricality, activating certain hitherto littletouched potentials and generating novel configurations for the theatrical matrix. The power of an art performance, then, lies in the originality and in the degree of rigor, polish, delight, or depth an artist/ensemble is able to bring to the work, which in turn displays a particular interpretation of theatricality.
Admittedly, my theorization of art performance so far smacks of anachronistic mysticism. How can there be a global body of theatricality? Where is it located? In the moon rock shining in Westwood, the gated artificial lake in Glendale, or the Terminator ride at the Universal Studio? Are art performances not individually tailored and microcosmically cultivated bycertain conscious and responsible artists?
To be sure, like any other artwork, an art performance has to be created piece by piece by a certain individual (or individuals). An art performance is nevertheless not a localized or individuated genre like a redressive performance, because it places the focus of its investigation on how to manipulate the theatrical matrix. In other words, different art performances similarly address the same theatrical matrix, which encompasses the five common elements: time, space, action, performer, audience. The global body of theatricality is constituted by the assemblage and interaction of these five elements. Theatricality is then located in the theatrical matrix, which is not a location perse
If all art performances function unifocally to animate theatricality, how do we distinguish one art performance from another? The instant answer would be: by the distinctive signature of the artist/ensemble, the performer within the theatrical matrix. In the case of art performance, the signature of the performer has less to do with its members' individual identities than with the style of their presentation. Two questions ensue from this assertion: What is the style of a performative presentation, and how does a style turn into a recognizable signature?
In the practice of art performance, the style of the performer is created by the recurrent deployment of a particular set of solutions to resolve the problem of theatricality. More specifically, the characteristic ways in which a performer approaches the theatrical matrix constitute the how-what of an artperformance, which is perceived by the audience as the style of a presentation. Thus, theoretically, there could be as many different art performances as the number of their stylistic variations, which arepotentially infinite. While there is no ontological or teleological divergence between different art performances, these artworks' singularities are marked by the multiplicitous styles the performers apply to embody and express the theatrical matrix. The need to establish a distinctive style features prominently in art performance, for it is through the reiteration of a certain style over time that a performer (as a performing unit) acquires its memorable signature.
If the style of a performer epitomizes its particular engagement with theatricality, then its recognizable signature represents the most valuable commodity in art performance. Like a designer's brand name or a celebrated painter's touch, the signature of an artist/ensemble in art performance offers a special aura to the live event. This mysterious quality called “aura” is, in my
Benjamin'sessay introduces several key terms relevant to my argument here: aura, ritual function, cult value, exhibition value, and reproducibility. Benjamin explains two kinds of “aura”: the aura emanating from a natural object and the aura attributed to a work of art. The former results from “the unique phenomenon of a distance,” which renders, for example, the contour of a mountain seen from afar alluring. The latter is the obverse effect of an artwork's “authenticity,” a concept related to the presence, the unique existence, and the history of the original artifact. To elaborate on Benjamin's thesis: the aura of a natural object stems largely from the imperfection of our eyes, which can never fully surpass the distance and penetrate that which we behold— however close it is. The aura of an artwork, on the contrary, depends on the effort to mend our perceptual imperfection, since the authentication of the original often requires chemical procedures. Integrating these two essential aspects—distance and authenticity—will shed light on the primeval basis of aura, regarded as a quality inseparable from an artwork's original use value as “an instrument of magic” in ritual. In this sense, the aura of an artwork is intimately related to the object's “cult value.”
The obsession with authenticity in the tradition of art reveals the sway of the artwork's residual cult value, believed to proffer on its owner, more so than its maker, immeasurable power. Imbedded in this tradition is the disdain for a replica of the original by manual reproduction, which is branded as a forgery and by default can possess no aura: a false idol tenders no benediction. This reasoning, as Benjamin brilliantly anatomizes, shifts radically with the advent of mechanical reproduction, which overcomes both the distance and authenticity that have hitherto secured the aura of an original. Photography and film, two popular media that create art through mechanical reproduction, enable “the original to meet the beholder halfway”: the distance dissolves when the faraway mountain is brought to our local screen and when the capacity of our vision and hearing is astronomically enhanced by mechanical instrumentality; authenticity becomes a non-issue when the technology of mechanical reproduction annuls the dichotomy between original and replica. Thus declares Benjamin: “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” An artwork's cult value, grasped as a magical property, has henceforth been displaced by the artwork's “exhibition value.” Just as the cult value decreases when an object loses its privilege to remain largely hidden, so the exhibition value increases when an ob-ject is able to circulate among an increasing number of viewers.
Following Benjamin's proposition, the decay of aura finds its root in contemporary
In my observation, an art performance tends to construct its exhibition value precisely on its cult value. The most frequently seen prototype of art performance in L.A. goes against the grain of mechanical reproduction and other technological imperatives by resuscitating the cult value of live art and by intensifying the aura of a performer. Such a retrieval of cultish aura is done with a twist, however. Benjamin distinguishes traditional visual objects from mechanically reproduced images by linking the former with “uniqueness and permanence” and the latter with “transitoriness and reproducibility.” While qualities such as uniqueness, permanence, and authenticity indeed characterize the value of traditional artwork (e.g., a classical painting), they don't necessarily all apply to a live art performance. The primary artifact exhibited and produced by a live art performance is, after all, a single human body or an ensemble of bodies, which assume the curious property of simultaneously being natural objects and manipulated artworks. As natural objects, these bodies are unique but impermanent; they are enveloped in a perceptual distance that cannot be eradicated by the unequipped human eye. As auratic art products, their “authenticity” never really becomes an issue, for the human bodies cannot be forged—at least until the day when cloning technology will change my present common sense. Both phenomena resulting from a performing body'sdual propertyas art elucidate the art performance practitioners' propensity to display aura as the manifested value of their works.
Let's return to our discussion of artistic signature. An art performance succeeds in establishing a premium signature at the moment when the aura radiating from a performer's live presence becomes not only nonreproducible but irreplaceable. Adding to the aura of such a signature is the cultish promise that the exhibited sights and sounds are rarely found anywhere else and that they are seen and heard only byaself-selected few. Re-endowed with these
My exposition now turns up in a paradox. I hypothesized that art performance is a globalized genre in that each piece in this vein contributes to the circulation of theatricality. I also maintained that an art performance can distinguish itself bythe performer'sinimitable signature. While the first statement serves to diminish the individuality of an art performance, the second conversely inflates a piece's value by its singularity. How do we reconcile these seemingly contradictory claims?
I suggest that each of these paradoxical qualities has the potential to appear in an art performance, but they may not always coexist. My first thesis comments on the aesthetics of art performance, whose primary task is to express, utilize, and manipulate the theatrical matrix. As such, the problem of theatricality is a constant condition in an art performance, a condition that remains central to the aesthetic dimension of this genre. My second thesis points to the particular attraction of art performance as a theatrical enactment that capitalizes on the performer's exceptional signature. This observation focuses on the variable quality of an art performance, whose highest appeal may be compared to a state of grace embodied by the performer's auratic presence. Not all art performance pieces, nor every piece by a well-known artist/ensemble, can reach the state of grace. For the state of grace is never a guarantee, only a promise.
My chosen vocabulary (signature, aura, presence, cult, grace) for the charismatic potential of art performance plants this variable quality in the metaphysical dimension. Tome, the irresistible charm of an art performance arises from the layering of its aesthetic and metaphysical dimensions. The ingenuity of its aesthetics —fleshed out by its treatment of theatricality—delights our senses, while the evocation of its metaphysics —the invisible cosmology triggered by its visible actions—enthralls our being. “Metaphysics” and “the mise-en-scène”—the two dimensions submitted by Antonin Artaud more than half a century ago to be the essential criteria for his theater of cruelty— endure as a viable gauge for the power of art performance. One distinction must be made: an art performance may not be a theater of cruelty, whereas a theater of cruelty is, by Artaud's paratheatrical intentionality, a composite of redressive and art performance.
The aesthetics and metaphysics of art performance belong to two different perceptual orders. In my conception, the aesthetics of art performance is
If theatricality occupies the aesthetic center of art performance, it follows that every piece in this genre, while revolving around the common center, adds to the proliferation of styles, which signify the manners of ornamentation. The raison d'être for ornamentation lies not in its meanings or narrative contents but in the multiplication of forms. I may therefore characterize the aesthetic tendency of art performance as the generation of multiplicitous forms organized by a recurrent style. This tendency explains why different art performance pieces produced by an artist/ensemble frequently look like variants of a continuous aesthetic quest, for they are ornamental modifications on a reiterated stylistic mode. As an experiment on ornamentation, an art performance is vulnerable to accusations of irrelevance or anemic indulgence precisely because it exercises a self-referential pursuit for aesthetic variation. By the principle of aesthetic variation, an art performance creates its visual surface or formal appearance by the accretion of diverse ornamental motifs.
The aesthetic principle of ornamentation, however, cannot account for the full power of an art performance, when its surface materiality is transfigured by the depth of its affect. Such a depth resides in the metaphysical dimension of art performance. To my taste, the highest thrill of an art performance resembles the sudden encounter with an apparition. An occurrence beyond all expectations has intruded into the scene, transporting the beholder to a state of ecstasy that mixes awe with fear, surprise with disbelief, violent tranquillity with unspeakable illumination. It is the experience of a visual passion so electrifying and of a psychic predicament so pleasurable that it approaches the perception of a miracle. When a miracle happens during an art performance, the spectator's single act of cultural consumption delivers an epiphany charged with spiritual, perceptual, and cognitive elation.
Figures in a Field
More as installations of various art performances than testimony to my theory I fashion what follows. The figures installed are culled from L.A.'s performance art scenes, which are as dispersed as the city's built-environment and its more or less segregated cultural terrains. Johanna Went has presented her performances most frequently in Chinatown's and mid-Hollywood's punk and new wave music clubs, which she prefers over the regular theater venues. The trio formed by Toti Mercadante O'Brien, John O'Brien, and Steve Roden has staged performances in art galleries, museums, studios, garages, and a friend's backyard. Their home base “at the Brewery project,” an alternative gallery run by John O'Brien, is located in the northeast corner
As art performances, the majority of works produced by these artists have at most a covert relationship with their individual identities. But the personal backgrounds of these performers, like the frame that supports the painting or the fringe that contaminates the center, do add interesting footnotes to their art. Fact Number 1: most of these artists were originally out-of-towners or foreign-born. Went grew up in Seattle; Toti O'Brien is Sicilian and her husband John O'Brien was born in Japan and grew up in Italy; Oguri is from Japan; Hannah Sim and Mark Steger started osseus labyrint in San Francisco. Fact Number 2: many of these artists never anticipated becoming performance practitioners when they grew up. They worked at odd jobs, traveled incessantly, or pursued other art disciplines until one day they stumbled across a performance artist or a theater/dance workshop that accidentally changed the course of their lives. Fact Number 3: all of them have settled in L.A. because they discovered in this unpredictable and sprawling city divergent pockets of support that have enabled them to present performances without depending on the box-office intake. Many of their performances are supported by (very) modest grants and open to the public for free or a small price. They all have found semiregular day jobs roughly related to the city's entertainment or educational industries in order to subsidize their art. Unlike New York City, L.A. imposes no stigma on “professional” artists who regularly work only parttime on their crafts.
Went was a store clerk in Seattle before she met her mentor Tom Murrin, the Alien Comic, whose anarchic humor so inspired her that she began doing guerrilla performances on the streets with the Balloon Theater, which in the early 1970s featured actors in androgynous makeup building “huge floating structures out of helium-filled balloons.” Went also joined Murrin's North America-Europe tour with DWARF (or, Theatre That Doesn't Get in The Way), producing improvisational actions in schools, shopping centers, and small theaters. She made her solo performance debut at the Hong Kong Cafe
Multicentricity provides a sharp angle to view the disparate aspirations and diverse biographies of these art performance practitioners. Their live artworks, however, do share some discernible tendencies to justify their adjacent placement in my virtual gallery called “Chapter 7.” These tendencies characterize the aesthetic affinities among my selected artists/ensembles, although they are not necessarily typical of all art performances. The terms I use to describe these aspects—nontext basis, body technology, improvisation-genesis, homixenology, and audience consumption—may sound unfamiliar; the techniques contained in them are by no means revolutionary. In fact, each aspect corresponds to a tentative idea laid out by Artaud's The Theater and Its Double in the 1930s. What is remarkable is the degree to which the four groups take these techniques into their performances, as well as the variety they display.
Nontext Basis. Almost all the performance works produced by the selected groups are movement-based rather than text-based. In appearance, these performances might be broadly recognized as dance theater, although visual design and performance concepts also feature prominently. Music, instead of
Body Technology. But often it's more than the Artaudian “poetry in space” that these movement-centered performances exhibit. The body gestures of a Went piece are so dominated by a wild abandon that her movement language is more akin to a tornado on stage than poetry in space. Poetry in space is more appropriate as a description for the somatic lyricism issuing from O'Brien, O'Brien, and Roden's movement pieces, but a generous awkwardness at times staggers the performers' motions, turning their poetry in space into three-dimensional nursery rhymes or nonsensical tongue-twisters. Oguri and his collaborating dancers enact both haikus in the void and grotesque scriptures on the earth. The hybrid choreography danced by this intercultural ensemble mixes the exactitude of anatomical physics with evocative poetry in space. Sim and Steger of osseus labyrint have created an astonishing series of kinetic vocabularies that veer between acrobatics and extreme sports, between corporeal animation and a transgressive ballet. Their movements systematize poetry in space with a mathematical rigor so that it becomes a body technology, a science of cyber-mechanics operated by little else than their own flesh.
Improvisation-Genesis. “The theater is the only place in the world,” observes Artaud, “where a gesture, once made, can never be made the same way twice.” Artaud's claim for the uniqueness of theater art may be grandiloquent, but his remark pinpoints the nonduplicatable quality of gesture. In contrast to a written language, a gesture can scarcely be copied exactly. There is a higher degree of liberty and distortion involved in mimicking a gesture than in transcribing a discursive text; this is so even with the coded sign-language, for any impression—vocal, facial, or gestural—made by the live body is affected by the impermanence of the flesh. In this sense, to create kinetic sculptures in a body-based performance is to be always in the throes of improvisation, no matter how rehearsed the enactment may be. Since the selected art performances all apply certain types of body technology, improvisation both features as a supreme methodology in making and rehearsing the pieces and extends to the performance process as a continuous generative force. When no rehearsals
Homi-xenology. To cultivate the technological capacity of the body is to mold or transform the body into hitherto unexpected, unimaginable, even impossible, corporeal forms. A consistent strategy adopted by the four groups to showcase their body technologies is to allow their human actors to merge performatively with the bodies of others —gods, demons, monsters, animals, plants, minerals, insects, bacteria, machines, sign systems, natural elements, extraterrestrial beings. I offer the neologism “homi-xenology” to account for the transitory fusion of two mutually alien forms—the body of the human performer (“homi,” an inflected prefix derived from the Latin homo) absorbing the postures, gaits, proportions, behaviors, and imagined psychic states of other species (“xenology,” from the Greek xenos and suffix “logy”). A freeranging creative method, homi-xenology draws inspiration from the biological, scientific, and fantastic worlds in order to extend the ornamental reach of the performer's body. Such a kinetic merging of the human performer with the body of others resembles what Artaud posits as “totemism,” which is created on “behalf of actors”: “the old totemism of animals, stones, objects capable of discharging thunderbolts, costumes impregnated with bestial essences— everything, in short, that might determine, disclose, and direct the secret forces of the universe.” Artaud believes that totemism, like brimstone, is a source of constant magic, which will help us rediscover and exercise the vital forces of life. While his belief is esoteric and unverifiable, Artaud's comment serves to analyze the inexplicable sensations that we might experience while witnessing a spectacle of “the marvelous.” What we marvel at perhaps is the tremendous power of the human imagination that craves for maximum expression, which is indeed a manifestation of vitality.
Audience Consumption. In his Second Manifesto for the Theater of Cruelty, Artaud imagines the production of a spectacle so encompassing spatially that it utilizes the entire hall of the theater, from the floor to the wall to the light-hanging catwalks. The spectators are so assaulted by the constant onslaught of light, images, movements, and noises from all directions that “there will be no respite nor vacancy in [their] mind or sensibility.” I doubt that Artaud's spatial scheme is the only way to create a vigorous theatrical experience, but his analysis insightfully portrays a spectator's all-consuming involvement (no perceptual vacancy left) with an intense manifestation of theatricality. I find Artaud's manifesto most useful as a description for how a live audience relates to a (theatrical) performance. Although Artaud might well reject my chosen vocabulary, I venture to suggest that this relationship between a theatrical enactment and its immediate receivers is best construed as an act of consumption on the part of the audience—taking “consumption” as
Gallery Chapter 7
It's time for me to plunge into the real thing—to trace individual trees and remember their scented branches, having meandered so far in the forest.
As I have argued, art performances have potentially two dimensions: the aesthetic and the metaphysical. The first dimension is a constant that belongs to the order of ornamentation. The second is a variable that belongs to the order of miracle. What is constant is easier to capture than what is variable— for both the artist and the critic, I suspect. Such reasoning guides my inscriptions of the selected art performances in this virtual gallery. There might or might not be moments of miracle bursting forth from my inscription. For it's the nature of miracle to defy anticipation. Tender mercies are upon us, however, for miracles also thrive on a perpetual promise.
Entropic Carnival: The Art of Johanna Went
W.B. Yeats, having attended the first performance of Alfred Jarry's pataphysical farce Ubu Roi in 1896, sadly wrote in his diary, “… after our own verse, after all our subtle colour and nervous rhythm, after the faint mixed tints of Conder, what more is possible? After us the Savage God.” Yeats's sadness came from mourning the loss of subtlety, elegance, and suggestiveness pro-jected by his poetry in the face of the onslaught of a spectacle so alien to his taste and so aggressive in its impact that he had to invent a new name for it:
Here are some sketches from Went's Alchemy of Monsters (1991), staged in the Gallery Theatre, in Hollywood's Barnsdall Art Park.
An assembly of bizarre spectacles transforms the midsize proscenium stage into a pastiche of an unholy church. The symbol of the Passion appears as a silver skull-face made of papier-mâché, resembling a giant Halloween mask, which gapes at the audience from backstage right. To its left stands the altar, a largely flat, screenlike sculpture composed of three panels of uneven sizes. Or maybe the sculpture is actually a grotesque triptych: the right panel is covered in black; the middle panel looks like a mixture of the Sphinx and an Egyptian princess, with a painted face in royal headgear, a torso sporting two flesh-colored breasts, and a lower body that swells into a throne; the left panel, shaped like a displaced neck and shoulder, carries the caption: “we are monsters.”
In front of this screen stand three ambiguous personas cloaked in mock priest'shabits, like hellish projections from the triptych; their green half-masks lit in (the purplish) black light fashion this bestial trinity into mongrels between a monkey, a tiger, a bear, and a troll. “I am a beast and I've always been a beast,” chants one of the figures. “I've never been human. Never. Never.” The other two pick up the refrain and join in at different moments, “Human, human. Never been human. Beast beast. Never never.” Their cacophony chanted a cappella repeatedly confirms the bestial trinity's status as a chorus of monsters.
Moreshadowy presences haunt the vicinity of the unholy church. A gnome in a Day-Glo green full-body mask with two pointed ears and no facial features plays with acircus ring on the side; suddenly its head pops out, becoming
35 Johanna Went, Alchemy of Monsters, 1991. From left, Johanna Went as the witch and Carol Cetrone, Peggy Farrar DiCaprio, and Stephen Holman as the monstrous trinity. Photo: Stuart Cornfeld. Courtesy of Johanna Went.
The next parade of monsters moves the scene to a makeshift botanical garden. A black-robed ogre with a red dot for a face wrestles with the vine that encircles its body. A Smurf with ahumongous flower head made of red-tinged, floral-patterned flannel and a stem with blue leaves waltzes on the side. The background “mood” music, arranged and performed by Mark Wheaton off-stage,
But new life pushes forward before the dead is fully digested. In flies a birdgenie with a yellow cockscomb, an orange tuxedo-jumpsuit that exposes two naked legs, and a pair of wings made of layered tatters. “Give it to me. I want it. It's mine. Give it to me now.” Incessant cries of an invisible but demanding monster flow in from the wing. The cries conjure up a living phantom of Avarice, wrapped from head to toe in squares of fragmented U.S. flag patterns, a stylistic motif dubbed the “White House lawn” by Went. The covetous invader sneaks in toward the bird-genie, trapping its prey in a large butterfly net and dragging it out of sight. Distorted American anthem melodies usher in a hideous but incongruously funny act: the orange bird-genie is now harnessed, pulling the avaricious bird-catcher in a cart, the kind customarily used by janitors for their mops. The bird-catcher triumphantly waves a toy shovel as his scepter, oar, and whip.
“Johanna Went regards monstrosity with great tenderness, and makes use of its power,” writes C. Carr in her review of Twin Travel Terror (1987), performed by Went and her “twin” assistants, Lucy Sexton and Anne Iobst of Dancenoise (fig. 36). Carr's prescient observation of Went's “tenderness” toward monsters recalls Jarry's fondness of monstrosity for its “inexhaustible beauty.” Like Jarry, Went shows no hesitation to embrace those who are typically seen as “abnormal,” “strange,” “revolting,” “filthy,” “freakish,” or “unsavory.” She surrenders her stage for their habitation, turning monstrosity into her standard of beauty.
If Went understands the power of monsters as an undertapped source of aesthetic pleasure, how exactly does she draw from such power in performance? I approach the question from two interrelated sides: the experiential dimension and the stylistic dimension. The experiential dimension arises from the convergence of visual, aural, and tactile sensations triggered by the performance. High decibel impact and tremendous energy release characterize the sensations provoked by a Johanna Went show. Went screams, sings unintelligibly, chants in hypnotic codes, turns her voice into a noise synthesizer,
36 Johanna Went, Twin Travel Terror, 1987, performed at Shuffy Theatre, Amsterdam. Johanna Went is the two-headed nun, and Lucy Sexton and Anne Iobst are seen wrestling. Courtesy of Johanna Went.
The experience offered by a Went performance cannot be separated from the effects of her style. Although Went says she is not familiar with Jarry's work, the French playwright's notions illuminate her attitude toward and treatment of monstrosity. “An unfamiliar concord of dissonant elements”—Jarry's summation of the common perception of “monster”—describes the central design concept of Went'saesthetics. As illustrated in the opening scenes from Alchemy of Monsters, Went creates monstrous characters primarily through un canny costumes. The effect of uncanniness is induced to a great extent by the freedom with which Went manipulates objects. A naive freedom allows Went to ignore taboos and commonsensical restraints and an aggressive freedom enables her to exercise a fantastic logic.
In her costume design Went employs at least three characteristic ways of prompting the sense of incongruity, displacement, and twisted scale. Most of her costumes collage incongruous elements: an animal head on top of a human body, a troll in a priest's habit, a feminine visage twined with a masculine one. Parts of the masklike costumes are combined in an improper, or rather improbable, way: a neck extends from behind the brain and curls around the body like a serpent's tail, leading to another head, which in a later scene becomes an exhaust tube for quantities of shiny blue spaghetti.
An untitled 1998 retrospective performance by Went exhibits many of her costumes/monsters. A gigantic head with three eyes walks alongside its lower body, whose central feature is a huge vagina that opens at the center of a boxlike mask worn byan actor, who occasionally spews liquid from the furry hole. Parading together with the head and the vagina is an enormous palm that waves at the audience seductively, reciting a mantra: “Touch me”! In this pageant of costumes, we see not only improperly combined body parts but body parts improbably driven asunder. The weirdness of these displaced costumeparts is heightened by their excessive size: what is cute becomes monstrous when it's blown out of proportion. The distress of a humongous flower fairy seems both pathetic and hilarious because its proportional aggrandizement renders its tragedy out of focus. The fairy's twisted scale is so alien to my habitual cognizance of a delicate flower that I cannot respond to its catastrophe with the monotone of unconditional sympathy. My response is thus doubled: compassion mixed with incredulity, or rather quadrupled: the Aristotelian poetics mixed with the Artaudian cruelty—I sense pity for the flower even as I fear its monstrous energy; I laugh at the ritual of its deflowering even as I heed the danger of that allegorical violence.
In Portrait of Johanna Went (1989), a video documentary by Lauren Versel commissioned by the Woman's Building's “Eye on Art” series, Went declares that she has “an affection for objects” and that “this affection is mutual.” A mutual affection suggests an emotional intimacy between the artist and her artworks so that an intersubjective exchange is possible. “I believe that observing and touching these objects stimulates my imagination in such a way that I actually feel they communicate to me. It is similar to those sense memory exercises that a person might learn in high school drama class, but much faster and frenetic,” claims Went in an interview with Karen Finley. The intersubjective communication with her artworks enables Went to treat these objects not only as the end products that become engaged in performances but also as catalysts in her creative process. To prepare for a piece, as Went explains in various interviews, she starts by collecting found and leftover articles from thrift stores, garbage bins, junkyards, supermarkets, and her own past shows. She gathers all sorts of items indiscriminately—“Styrofoam, plastic,
Went's creative process resembles the activity that Claude Lévi-Strauss analyzes as “bricolage.” A bricoleur is used to work with a limited stock of materials and tools and learns to “make do with the leftover products of earlier efforts, so that ends now come to play the role of means.” The method of bricolage directly affects what Went herself describes as her “unschooled” artistic style, which features the do-it-yourself spontaneity, the childlike deconstruction and recombination of incompatible parts, the unexpected recycling of quotidian commodities, and the exaggerated retailoring of massive remnants. The overall effect amounts to an aesthetic of the grotesque: Went's objects are monstrous, kitsch, hyperbolic, transgressive, humorously coarse and lascivious, and blatantly theatrical.
Geoffrey Galt Harpham, in his illuminating book On the Grotesque, argues that the grotesque does not exist “in some positive form” but is rather a “species of confusion,” “defined and recognized in common usage by a certain set of obstacles to structured thought.” Harpham's grotesque approaches Jarry's concept of the monstrous at the moment when our perception searches for but fails to find a satisfactory conception. This moment of failure expresses the frustration of our senses in reaching “structured thought,” capable of verbalizing the encounter with an excessive and often disturbing stimulation. Take, for example, a typical scenario from a Went performance: A woman in monkey suit opens a zipper to deliver an infant monkey-dummy, suckles the newborn in her fake blood for a minute, and the next minute squishes the baby-monkey to a pulp (Interview with Monkey Woman ). Are we to understand the scene as a representation of pedocidal rage? Or are we to see it as a sequence of abstract images that quote from yet simultaneously deride our habitual narrative impulse, for everything on stage seems too overtly artificial and playful to feign verisimilitude? We are likely to remain confused, because neither option seems entirely adequate—“though our attention has been arrested, our understanding is unsatisfied,” as Harpham reasons. The aesthetic of the grotesque then involves not solely formal properties that invite taxonomic confusion and interpretive difficulty but also our cognitive process itself. In Harpham's analysis, the sense of the grotesque depends largely on “the elements of understanding and perception, and the factors of prejudice, assumptions, and expectations… It is our interpretation of the form that matters, the degree to which we perceive the principle of unity that binds together the antagonistic parts. The perception of grotesque is never a fixed or stable thing, but always a process, a progression.”
As Harpham's analysis makes clear, although the aesthetic of grotesque
Went's unsystematic creative process may be likened to a freeing of the self from egoistic preoccupation. The artist forfeits her control over her artworks, hence allowing her subconscious, her preverbal or tactile consciousness, to be let loose in an animistic environment. “The way I prepare for a show is often as raw, emotional and unintentional as the actual performance, and almost as messy,” says Went. In a functional sense, then, the improvisation process for a Went performance actually starts with her solitary work in a studio littered with materials; it extends to the stage populated by her monsters and stamped by her spectators' attention. What I analyzed earlier as the “anarchic democracy” characteristic of Jarry's world of monsters therefore governs both Went's creative and performative processes. Her experience of rawness and spontaneity has much to do with her lack of sovereignty over her material others. The emotional intensity discloses the extent of her belief in the inspirations of alien beings created byand now creating her. The messiness probably results from her frenetic pace, but it's also a sign of the want of boundaries and hierarchies between the artist and her artworks.
Went's aesthetic of the grotesque subjects her to a continuously volatile and frantic process. The first phase consists of a progressive encoding, in which she learns to collaborate with her objects. The second phase might be called a process of transcoding, or, in Went's term, one of translation: “I try to translate [the] information [communicated by my objects] into action, dialogue, music, emotion, et cetera during the course of the performance.” Such a ceaseless engagement with improvisation heightens the chaotic and festive feel of a Went performance, where all creatures, objects, and sounds are in thrall to spontaneous combustion; it also frequently renders the performance a surprise to its author. Went told me in our interview that she often doesn't remember a past performance and has to rely on the video document to know what exactly has happened. Inother words, while Went translates her research into the instantaneous language of an impromptu performance, she shifts
Sometimes I have felt manipulated by the very creatures that I have created, and that I am also just a tool carving out a very cluttered dreamscape. Other times I feel like I am in a trance. When that feeling carries over to the performance and I feel as if the audience is also entranced, then I feel a heightened awareness and I wonder if the masks and props have really taken possession and they are controlling the dream.
What is being “possessed” or “entranced” if not giving in to the force of otherness?
The primacy given to improvisation in a Went performance maintains her aesthetic of the grotesque; even more, it is intended to serve the artist's ideological preference for performance art as a transitory medium. “Since I believe that Performance Art is an art form of the moment,” Went explains, “I try not to rehearse the show, only walk through entrances, exits and costume changes if there are other performers in the piece. There is no exact plan.” In fact, before 1984, when Went started giving titles to her pieces for booking purposes, she did more than two hundred performances, most without documentation, not to mention a script. With Passion Container, a 1988 performance that involved an ensemble, Went began creating a script so as to prompt other performers about her “minioperas of the mind.” Went's“script” consists of a sequence of storyboards (fig. 37), linking her actors' names with images of costumes identified by functional labels, such as Toilet Water (for a blue hospital gown) and Sewage Demon (for a rectangular box with a valvecovered outlet). How these characters or monstrous caricatures movetogether is left to the whims of the performance itself.
Perhaps reflecting the sentiment characteristic of the decade when she started performing, Went'sunderstanding of performance art resembles other 1970s artists' insistence on the ephemerality of this intermedium, a tendency deeply influenced by Allan Kaprow's theorization of live art. Went's remark on performance art as “an art form of the moment” might be heard as reiterating Kaprow's most unflinching definition of Happenings: “Happenings should be unrehearsed and performed by nonprofessionals, once only.” Kaprow's statement reveals his investment in the elements of chance, transience, unreproducibility, and the nonart/lifelike qualities of Happenings. Without overstressing her “unschooled” (non)artistry, Went's conception of the performance medium echoes Kaprow's utopian and firmly anticommercial vision for action art. Kaprowfurther claims, “Happenings are events that,
37 Johanna Went, complete script for Passion Container, 1988. Coutesy of Johanna Went.
Not only is Kaprow's comment on Happenings an apt description for a playful Went performance, but it also presages Went's assertion about her indifference to thematic meaningfulness, “I do not intend to convey any message political or otherwise.” Indeed, in a Went piece even topical references are adulterated in such a way as to appear anachronistic and mythical, just
While Went shares much of Kaprow's vision for live art, she is unique in her championship of entertainment. In Versel's Portrait of Johanna Went, Went states that her performance art is “first and foremost an entertainment” for herself. And if there is any message in her show, it is this: “Entertainment does not have to be pleasurable in order to be enjoyable.” Went's remark on the nonpleasurable quality of her brand of entertainment recalls her grotesque artistic style, which, as Harpham'stheory suggests, tends to elicit from a viewer the contradictory response of affinity and antagonism, attraction and repulsion, rather than the monolithic gratification. Just as she relates the difficulty of her art to an aesthetic dimension, so Went associates the enjoyment of her art to its formal attributes. In contrast to Kaprow's aversion to modernist formalism, Went locates the central interest of her anarchic theater precisely in her formalism. She warns her audience not to seek narrative meanings in her performance but to appreciate the “color, form, sound, movement, texture, and symbolism” embodied by her manipulation of objects. Kaprow's emphasis on performance as an evanescent medium pointedly redresses a perceived condition of stagnancy in modernist aesthetics. Went's ideological conception of her meteoric art, on the contrary, reinforces her own aesthetic of the grotesque, which is, in essence, a formalism that hovers in between forms and categories.
Because of her devotion to executing her grotesque aesthetic at the extreme, Went's performance work contributes ingeniously to the time-space-actionperformer-audience matrix of theatricality. Among the five elements, the least perturbed by Went's artistic intervention is that of the audience. Although Went's presentational style punctures the invisible fourth wall maintained by realistic illusionism, there is still a dividing line between the performer and the audience. In fact, the line must exist for the performer to break. Went has striven for a higher degree of interactivity between the spectacle and the spectator by throwing articles into the auditorium and by pushing some of the actions beyond the proscenium confines. In a structural sense, however, her treatment of audience is not substantially different from that of most theater
While the audience remains a relatively neutral component in her art performance, Went does have a highly idiosyncratic take on the other four components. In my view, action takes precedence in Went's live art, molding her expressions of performer, space, and time accordingly. An offshoot of her style, the paradigmatic action in a Went performance verges on a particular aspect of the grotesque: the carnivalesque. In Mikhail Bakhtin'sconception, the manifestation of the grotesque revolves around the movement of degradation. To decode such a downward motion in bodily terms is to exult at the functions specialized by “the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs; it therefore relates to acts of defecation and copulation, conception, pregnancy, and birth. Degradation digs a bodily grave for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one.” Scatological, carnal, destructive, and regenerative motions are the constant rhythms in Went's anarchic haven for monsters. These rhythmic and grotesque rituals—giving birth, licking blood off an enlarged dripping heart, shoveling Day-Glo porridge into all the holes in a dummy, conducting a sadomasochistic courtship, brandishing a butcher'sknife next to a human-size turd, covering a giant penis with a tent-size condom—often occur haphazardly in Went's theater, becoming visual cacophony and audible caricature: a tenuously framed performance carnival threatening to burst the proscenium seam (fig. 38).
If the typical action in a Went performance recaptures the vigor of a medieval farce, then its carnivalesque activities are carried out by an array of maniacal characters. While the denizens roving on the Wentian stage are rarely human, their figural expressions take after what Peter Stallybrass and Allon White annotate as the Bakhtinian grotesque body: “multiple, bulging, overor under-sized, protuberant and incomplete. The openings and orifices of this carnival body are emphasized, not its closure and finish. It is an image of impure corporeal bulk with its orifices (mouth, flared nostrils, anus) yawning wide and its lower regions (belly, legs, feet, buttocks and genitals) given priority over its upper regions (head, ‘spirit’, reason).” The stress on the grotesque body'scapacity to stink, swell, leak, ooze, and overflow chimes with the recurrent tendencies in Went's actions, which, as the artist observes, usually involve “some kind of bloodletting and some kind of wet explosion toward the end.”
The liquidity and looseness of the body imply its openness to exceed the boundary of the self and to take on qualities of others. Thus, Went's per-formance personas are predisposed to follow the morphological predilection of what I called homi-xenology, which entails the merging of a human figure
38 Johanna Went, Monkey Woman's Inferno, 1987, performed at Abstraction Gallery, L.A., with Went as the Monkey Woman. Photo: Stuart Cornfeld. Courtesy of Johanna Went.
Went'sgrotesque aesthetics manipulates the performer component (the unit that performs) in the theatrical matrix by radical alteration. Almost without exception, the performer in a Went piece is either a single protean monster or a group of shape changers—solo or ensemble, it comes as legion. Although these freakish personas are primarily constructed by their uncanny masks and costumes, these masks and costumes are not so much surface adornment as prosthetic bodies that stand for the flesh-and-blood, the organism-and-carapace, or the inner-vessel-and-outer-shell of Went's sundry monsters—biological or otherwise. My perception of uncanniness is provoked by the psychic discomfort of witnessing these fantastic prostheses moving on stage out of their own supra-or sub-human volition—their frenzied otherness throws me off-balance.
Adding to the strategy of morphological substitution is the frequency of transformation on Went's stage. Her performer shifts from costume/persona to costume/persona, never standing a chance of getting stale or solid. The grotesque image, as Stallybrass and White emphasize, “is always in process, always becoming, it is a mobile and hybrid creature, disproportionate, exorbitant, outgrowing all limits, obscenely decentered and off-balance, a figural and symbolic resources for parodic exaggeration and inversion.” Went ingenuously maximizes the mobility of her maniacal characters through formal devices. Most of her costumes are double-faced, displaying at least two monsters in one body—front and back; even her props are mutable: they alter in their theatrical functions—a cleaver turning into a fan into a pork chop—or they become the containers for other props—a plastic globe propped open so miniature human skulls can drop out of it.
Kinetic mobility also characterizes the sense of space constructed in Went's anarchic theater. Went has presented the majority of her performances on a small proscenium-like stage. Since her monsters, props, and set pieces are usually stupendous in size and imposing in their attention-grabbing abilities, Went's theatrical space often seems claustrophobic (too confining for what it contains), like a purgatory for her restless phantoms. But this purgatory is also mercurial; it shifts bythe suggestions of its inhabitants. In Alchemy of Mon sters the opening scenes move from an unholy church to a portable garden as the monsters change from mock clerics to floral goblins. During the performance, the backdrop structure is gradually turned around to become a freestanding wall of the damned, covered with painted faces in frontal glare or melancholy profile. As the wails of police sirens invade the last scene, the wall of the damned miraculously shifts its configuration and becomes animated, like a mammoth cruciform puppet or a scarecrow on wheels, deserting the stage to chase its own shadow.
It is by now commonplace to assume that our perceptions of space and time are intertwined. We find it harder to sustain a belief in absolute space and absolute time than to accept theoretical physicists' hypothesis that space and time are “dynamic quantities: when a body moves, or a force acts, it affects the curvature of space and time—and in turn the structure of spacetime affects the way in which bodies move and forces act. Space and time not only affect but also are affected by everything that happens in the universe.” While I make no claim that Went follows the scientific rules of nature in formulating her ideas of space and time, Stephen Hawkins's explanation serves
The carnivalesque action, as mentioned earlier, is the center of gravity in Went's theatrical universe; it creates the patterns of energy that mobilize her performer and affect her performative sense of space and time. Her theatrical space—as contradictory and transgressive as her carnivalesque action—is both claustrophobic and free-ranging, seemingly enclosed within a pictureframe stage, yet mutable in its geomythological contents and penetrating in its lunges into the audience space (through the performer's assaulting voice and movement). Went's performative interpretations of time have a similar oxymoronic bent. Corresponding to her claustrophobic space, the course of time in a Went performance stays in a constant state of being recycled. As her phantasmagoric spectacles do not follow a linear order, there is no progressive sense of time to gauge the duration and note the passage of an event. Her monsters come and go, without obvious cause or effect. Their unmeasurable mobility thus perpetuates the perception of timelessness, for time has reached the point of equilibrium with the homogeneity of fruitless motions.
But the perceptual indolence of time in Went's universe tells only half the story, like one side of a double-faced monster. Alchemy of Monsters is actually an exception in Went's corpus in that the stage becomes empty with the exit of the scarecrow monster. Most of her other performances end with an extremely cluttered stage—an almost inevitable result considering the erratic way that Went puts up a show: “I take all of these things to where I'm going to do a show, and the musicians come and play whatever it is they want to play, and then I sing anything that comes out of my mouth. There's lots of blood and messy things and then I fall down and it's over.”
Went's remark accurately describes the action trajectory of a typical piece, say, Knife Boxing (1984), the first piece she titled. The performance starts with Went—in a mask with several heads sprouting like wild mushrooms and a pair of boxing shorts—pulling out a massive tampon from a vagina wall, passing it on to the audience, and continuing to pull out immense quantities of guts to scatter them around her. She proceeds to disembowel a dummy as the tampon is transported back to stage. A menacing snake appears out of nowhere, spilling blood everywhere it lurks. Went then punches a sandbag until it bursts open to emit a multitude of paper balls (magnified sperms or pure trash?). The performance ends with her fainting in the mess she has just made.
Time, therefore, does move forward as well in Went's performance, for the rate of chaos increases as she expends her energy. “Entropy is time's arrow,” exclaims British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington. The exclamation indicates the essential link between the law of entropy and the irreversible forward
The last image in Knife Boxing graphically represents what the physicist speculates as the “heat death of the universe” in which no further occurrence of work is possible. The performer lies prostrate amid a dump of waste materials accumulated throughout the show. As Wheaton's head-splitting tapelooped noise music drifts to silence, the cyclical movement of time that has driven Went'sexuberant carnival spirals down to cradle/bury a depleted figure in entropic space-time.
Symbiotic Permutations: O'Brien, O'Brien, and Roden
Now it is the time of night That the graves, all gaping wide, Every one lets forth his sprite In the church-way paths to glide. And we fairies, that do run By the triple Hecate's team From the presence of the sun, Following darkness like a dream…
—William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream
Puck is relaxed and cheerful when he utters these lines. He has just helped his King Oberon obtain the Indian changeling from Titania through a trick that has bewitched the Fairy Queen's vision; he has removed Bottom's ass head and restored the weaver's humanity; he has repaired the mispairing among
“We are interested in investigating the potential for enchantment in the art of performance,” reads the artistic statement from Toti Mercadante O'Brien, John O'Brien, and Steve Roden. To me, enchantment is a key term that not only proclaims the three artists' intention but also captures the evocative atmosphere of their performance world. Byforegrounding enchantment— an aesthetic property almost obliterated from contemporary art—as a core interest in their performance collaboration, the trio's remark harks back to the equally forgotten world of the fairies. My assertion, however, like Puck's poetry, manages to half-reveal and half-conceal the ethereal complexity and offhanded lyricism of the trio's performance art.
Like the fairy trail, the trio's art performance traverses the realm of moonhaunted illusions. As the fairy world exists both within and outside Shakespeare's Athens, the trio's fabulous (fablelike) art is marked by a sense of other(worldli)ness that separates it from the solar/secular preoccupation of contemporary art, within which the artists take up their residencies. While the trio's performances often conjure up the fairyland as an impressionistic backdrop, they are never wholly absorbed by the common wonders and feudal politics reigning in Shakespeare's enchanted forest. To the extent that the fairy nation mimics the human's imperial statehood, the trio's art actually stands at equidistance from the spectral and the mortal worlds. Or, to be more
Puck'sverses may offer another clue to the trio'snear-affinity for the spriteful ethos. “And we fairies, that do run…/ From the presence of the sun, / Following darkness like a dream.” Darkness quickens the fairies and twilight sets them in flight. The fairies lie dormant while daylight lingers on and they vanish with the mere hint of sunlight. The dusk is then the embryonic hour for the fairies while the dawn their refugee time. Contrary to the fairies' discomfort with anything less than what John Milton calls “darkness visible,” John O'Brien suggests that “twilight”—when things are not very clear and the human brain is physiologically transforming in its struggle to see—is “a good analogy” for the trio's performance; it is the metaphorical state in which their work resides. “You can actually see more clearly in the darkness than in the dusk,” O'Brien adds. “In the night, there are monsters. In the day, there are monsters. But in the twilight, you don't know.” Whereas the fairies depend on the sense of distinctiveness in the all-encompassing darkness to navigate their nocturnal excursions, the sine qua non for the trio's art lies in the potential confusion, ambivalence, and equivocality associated with a constantly adjusting vision. The performances created by O'Brien, O'Brien, and Roden thrive precisely at those ambiguous states—the dusk and the dawn—from which the fairies must retire. Their art is then made of very different stuff from the magic of the fairies. For the three artists situate their collaborative performances literally on the pre-fairy (the dusk) and the post-fairy (the dawn) stages.
Consider these visions in a terrace filled with naturally grown and built objects.
There are two moons, one in the sky and the other suspended behind a large translucent canvas with a square metal frame and resin-filled screen. Or perhaps there are three moons: the third one appears as a flat, round surface, slightly slanted toward the front, lying a few feet away from the screen. Three human-shaped figures emerge from behind the bushes to step onto the lunar stage. Posing their bodies individually in stylized gestures, they resemble stopmotion puppets in a live drawing class. The three then join their bodies to create a sequence of corporeal signs that look (to me) like letters from the English alphabet: two standing figures join their heads with a third in the middle—“A”; two vertical lines align parallel with a third on the ground— “U”; and so on (fig. 39, p. 311).
In the next segment, the three are divided into a solo and a duet. The solitary figure starts singing in a pure and high-pitched voice from behind the
Linglot, as the piece is called by O'Brien, O'Brien, and Roden, took place one evening in 1999 on the terrace of the art critic Joan Hugo's backyard in Los Angeles. Characteristic of the group, the title of this performance fulfills at least three functions: (1) it leaves a trace of the trio's creative process particular to the given project; (2) it conveys what I might call the group's “twilight aesthetics”; (3) it proposes a referential framework for the project that broadly informs the artists' creative investigation and subtly orients the spectators' perceptions and interpretations.
The developmental trajectory of Linglot reveals how the three artists have created their collaborative projects since 1995. “Usually it's a place that invites us to do something,” says John O'Brien. “On the basis of that, Toti and I will start talking and usually involve Steve right away. We begin to throw things around and in the process of that we develop a theme and out of that we find a title.” The trio'scollaborative performance is spurred bycommissions, which, in the beginning at least, were mostly based on the reputation of their individual careers prior to their joint ventures. The conditions of the commission provide the artists with the impetus for planning their presentation, which is in essence a broadly construed response to a specific occasion. From this impetus, then, the trio extracts the theme of performance and decides on a title that resonates with the planned action. The title serves as a record for both the circumstances of commission and the initial process of creative research;
it also becomes a catalyst for further creative development in rehearsals.
The piece I described above, for example, was the second and the live performance version of a project initially produced in video format: Linglot (terrace version), commissioned bythe Laband Art Gallery of Loyola Marymount
How does the signifier Linglot illuminate the trio'stwilight aesthetics? “Usually the title is ahybrid word,” John O'Brien explains. “It's intelligible to many, but it's not immediately translatable.” Like the temporal span of twilight, when the source of light exists in hastened flux and pigments of color keep losing their visual distinctiveness, the neologism Linglot melds divergent elements in a vibrant continuum. The first syllable of this fusion word has a readily discernible etymology from the Latin lingua, meaning “language. “It also evokes related words such as “lingua” (a tongue or tongue-shaped organ), “lingo” (language that is strange because it is foreign or specialized), and “lingua franca,” which generally indicates a hybrid language used as a medium of communication between people of different languages and, in its capitalized form, signifies a mixture of Italian with French, Greek, Arabic, Turkish, and Spanish, historically used in the Levant. The second syllable—“lot”—may indicate an object used in making a choice by chance or a plot of land. Thus, Lin glot, in its most accessible connotations, suggests a series of linguistic games directed by chance and improvisation as well as a language play that interacts with a space (e.g., a performance site such as a terrace). But it's important to note that neither interpretation is definitive. There are many other possible readings that I omit here because they are too elusive, too fractured, or too indeterminate, hence not readily speakable.
What I have gone through in deciphering the word Linglot is a miniature reflection of what the three artists have undergone in creating their performances. Roden likens their creative process to a linguistic exercise: “It's like taking a word and writing down its definition, then all its connotations, then everything it relates to, then everything it suggests, then historically how it has been used, so what you are left with is the presences of the word, rather than only its specific definition.” Roden's comment reveals that the trio's twilight aesthetics—however chancy and amorphous—actually follows an underlying structure, which, with Linglot, involves established and recombined linguistic conventions. His preference for hermeneutic ambiguity recalls the trio's interest in those intervals that we loosely delimit as dusk or dawn. The semantic multivalence of Linglot, along with its symbolic, material, and sonic “presences,” signals the plurality of visual interpretations with which we tend
Although the title can neither dictate the artists' scopes of research nor fix the meaning of a given performance, the nuanced linguistic ramifications of Linglot inspired both the compositional motifs and the formal vocabularies of the initial commissioned video performance. The video performance subsequently became the prototype for three live performance variants, Linglot (terrace version too), Poly Linglot1, and Poly Linglot2, performed respectively in the spring (at Joan Hugo's Terrace in L.A.), summer (at Santacangelo dei Teatri in Santacangelo, Italy), and fall (at the Brewery project in L.A.) of 1999. All these pieces are similar in choreographic structure, technical effects, and props, but they also diverge from each other, like different versions of texts drafted on a model outline.
The video performance starts with a shot of John O'Brien's tongue (lingua), which displays a sequence of his body gestures that simulate the alphabetic signs. The same sequence is repeated later by Roden (fig. 40) and by Toti O'Brien. Inaddition to its literal material presence, the tongue is also featured as an organ for eating and speaking. An action segment shows the individual artist eating a piece of drawing paper using only his/her mouth, teeth, and tongue. Another segment consists of the three artists respectively and sequentially pronouncing a chain of seemingly freely associated words (linked by chance) in many different languages, practicing their lingua franca, which sounds to my ears like coded lingo. Exploration, testing, experimentation, playing, and practicing are the recurrent kinetic motifs in the piece, imitating the frequent tasks related to the production of written and spoken languages.
So far my reading for the Linglot series is profoundly influenced by my linguistic analysis of the title. The title becomes the lens through which I view the performative motionscapes that extend before me, while I chart my own narrative itineraryinto them. I enjoy superimposing my reasoned vision upon these uncertain sights in order to iron out the incongruous details that fail to support my equation. I see two men and a woman playing in purple-black light on a terrace, throwing paper balls that gradually unwind into ribbons, rippling with purplish sheen. Because of my preconceived desire for a coherent story, I deny what I see and instantaneously translate the human performers into nouns, verbs, adjectives, and participles, announcing them as “illuminated manuscripts.” But at the same time I am aware of my peculiar denial; I doubt there is an equation to coordinate all these ambiguous and multivalent actions. Am I not simultaneously guided and tricked by the title of this
39 Toti M. O'Brien, John O'Brien, and Steve Roden, Linglot (terrace version too), 1999, performed in Joan Hugo's backyard, Los Angeles. Here the three artists exhibit the letter “M.” Courtesy of the artists.
40 Toti M. O'Brien, John O'Brien, and Steve Roden, Linglot (terrace version), 1998, videotape. Roden's open mouth with a juxtaposed image of the alphabetic sequence. Courtesy of the artists.
“We tend to have language-imbedded structure that wedisarticulate,” says John O'Brien. “We use more time-misplacement and not a completely invented language,” adds Toti O'Brien. If there is a methodology to the trio's twilight aesthetics, it is the combined techniques of disarticulation and (time) misplacement that the three artists have developed in various projects.
Disarticulation suggests a constructed discrepancy between enunciated sounds and their habitual senses, thereby causing a cognitive drift in the audience's understanding of the action. Time-misplacement or misplacement through temporal manipulation locates such an act of disarticulation in the duration it takes to enunciate the sound—a daily phrase such as “It doesn't matter” variously hastened and prolonged into “I—td-oes——ntmatte——r.” Both techniques, in their immediate usage, address the aural environment that the trio creates in performance. These techniques are also applied conceptually to other areas of performance, such as the weaving of narrative threads and the choreography. Thus, in a comprehensive way, these techniques establish the foundation for the theatrical matrix activated by the trio's work.
There are five consistent and intersecting elements in the aural environment characteristic of the trio's performances: silence, speech, existing and produced sounds, a bed of prerecorded electronic music composed by Roden, and improvised songs/vocal works planted sporadically in this bed. Silence is produced by a speechless state of physical motions, so it is never utterly soundless. The trio's silent mimes are frequently invaded by the existing sounds in the open-air sites they often choose or by the sounds of the physical tasks they perform. A segment in Linglot (terrace version too) shows each artist carrying a long pole with bells attached to its edges. While the performers manipulate the props in silence, the poles themselves become musical instruments that disarticulate the silence. The ethereal jingling of the bells is further interrupted and displaced by an (uninvited) police helicopter flying overhead. In the trio's performance, the speech used is usually a haphazard mixture of English, Italian, and French, delivered at ordinary or distorted paces; it functions more like a cog than the engine in an overall sound ma
Disarticulation and misplacement metaphorically applied influence the narrative design for the trio's performances. As my reading of Linglot illustrates, this narrative design utilizes the title of a given piece as its inaugural element, which often mis/directs the spectator into a certain frame of perceptions regarding the subsequent action. Take Husk (1998), a performance enacted once in Barnsdall Municipal Art Gallery in Hollywood.
Unlike Linglot, the title Husk is not a neologism. The denotations of “husk” include the dry outer covering of an ear of maize or of some fruits and nuts; the worthless external part of something; an insect's cocoon; and bronchitis affecting farm animals, causing them to cough in a husky—dry, hoarse, lowpitched, rough—voice. The performance starts with the illuminated shadow of a seated Roden singing in a smooth, high-pitched, and drawn out voice behind two hinged screens. His serene visual/aural presence is not exactly that of a hog suffering from husk. Such corruption of the lexical repertoire of “husk” continues with the incorporation of animal imagery. Wild rather than tamed/domesticated animals feature prominently in Husk. This narrative thread misplaces the core meaning of “husk” by exaggerating a subsidiary aspect (animals), hence insinuating a story based on one of the word's semantic tangents. The performers' costume designs and choreographed behaviors establish and reinforce the animal imagery. These thematic, visual, and movement components in constant interactions create two superb episodes in Husk.
In one episode, each performer takes up an ingeniously sculpted costume, which has hitherto been lying on the ground as part of the scenic installation. John O'Brien suits his left arm and upper body in a contraption made of steel and brownish weblike fabric. Toti O'Brien carries her symmetrically designed, light blue, elliptical covering like an oversize hat or a full-blown kite. Roden wears his purple-tinted, bone-stretched structure on his shoulder as if he were lifting a tent—decorated with octopus legs. The appearances of these costumes and the ways the performers wear and move in them suggest that they function like exoskeletal shells for mollusks—surely not some worthless castoffs, but crucial to the animals' survival and entertainment.
In another episode, the three performers are each hidden inside a two-foothigh, urnlike covering made of interwoven and imbricated brown paper. They movein synchronicity, like three color-and-shape-coordinated mounds. Suddenly their uniformity is broken by their curious hands, which stretch out from built-in slits/pockets on their cocoons and tentatively explore the air, ground, and companions nearby. This humorous episode evokes the innocence of the animal world, where leisure and work, learning, hunting, mating,
Disarticulation and misplacement employed as kinesic principles add to the general sense of strangeness that the trio introduces to their movements. With every piece the group has done so far, a subliminal but specific narrative structure is discernible early on in the performance. This narrative structure— be it the linguistic terrain of Linglot or the zoological expanse of Husk —also functions as a particular formal typology within which the artists select various kinetic modes for the given piece. While these kinetic modes become reiterated throughout the performance, they are simultaneously subject to the process of disarticulation and misplacement. In the triple cocoon scene from Husk, for example, the three artists proceed to disarticulate the illusion of their selfsame bondage by standing up from their hunched-down positions (fig. 41, p. 317). In a short while, they husk their shells to play with these conelike but collapsible objects like toys. Thus, by the mere suggestion of their kinesic attitudes and misplaced costume pieces, the performers evolve from chrysalises, to shellfish, to bipeds with scaled upper torso to Homo sapi ens exploring newly invented tools/toys. The zoological structure in Husk is then both pursued and derailed, resulting in a kinetic collage of multiple fragmented narrative snatches that never quite cohere but rather coexist in an out-of-kilter fashion.
Strangeness is a principal effect in the art of enchantment. The trio's twilight aesthetics and their techniques of disarticulation and misplacement resonate with the three artists' interest in “investigating the potential for enchantment in the art of performance.” I hold that the trio's investigation, as it concerns the intrinsic attributes of the performance medium, defines the theatricality embodied by their works. To me, the central element in the trio's theatrical matrix is the performer, which, in this case, comprises three artists of varying training and artistic proclivities. Their collaboration determines the distinctive and variable ways in which the group approaches the other components of the theatrical matrix.
This collaboration is based, in John O'Brien'sphrase, on “elective affinity,” which means in practical terms that the three members involved have chosen to work together on an equal artistic footing. The success of their working relationship depends on the artists' willingness and ability to find an aesthetic common ground without compromising their differences. The group's signature twilight aesthetics well exemplifies how such a common ground is found. John O'Brien approaches the twilight state of ambiguity from a linguistic angle, because he is keen on utilizing language to create misunderstanding and confusion, which was actually the basis of his solo “language
The way O'Brien, O'Brien, and Roden'sartproducts formally mirror their evolving working relationships fascinates me. Their first joint performance was Ippirati (1995), for which Roden composed and performed soundwork as a musician from the sideline. Later, he accepted the O'Briens' invitation to participate more fully and became the third performer, weaving in and out of sound and movement as either a solo component or part of a trio. In keeping with their individual strengths and preferences, the three are nominally assigned decision-making responsibility for certain areas: Toti O'Brien for choreography, movement, and costumes; John O'Brien for sculpture and set installation; Steve Roden for sound. As their collaboration has developed, they have become much more relaxed in guarding their own areas from the others' intervention. Their working relationships are materialized in two performative ways: (1) the hybrid confluence of visual, spatial, kinetic, and sonic dimensions, combining their divergent disciplines; (2) the choreographic patterns incorporating their different levels of kinetic expertise, mixing sophisticated and highly refined dancesteps with simple movements made deliberately awkward, childlike, and clownish.
Except for the similar creative process developed by the trio, there is no predetermined course for the three artists to navigate the theatrical matrix. As John O'Brien remarks, they do not work with a formal core but rather allow themselves to notice and accept “a given trajectory… dictated by desire.” A common desire among the three artists is to remain mutable. John O'Brien describes himself as a restless person who resents repeating things. Toti O'Brien likes to approach their performance pieces as a continuous body of work with little repetition but much variation. Roden enjoys “re-learning things rather than redoing them.” As a result, the trio has never staged the same performance twice in a given site. Instead, they put a premium on improvisation as well as on the expected and aleatory circumstances specific to each project.
The audience remains the least problematized aspect in the trio's theatri-cal matrix. Since all their performances are open to the public for free, the audience is positioned as the recipients of the artists' gift of performance. In
Distinct from the relative stability of the audience's role, the other three theatrical components vary from project to project. As examined earlier, the trio's evocative title for each project forecasts the kind of action that will transpire during performance. Modification rules supreme, however. The trio revises the action score to fit a specific site even when they perform the sametitled project in different places (which are usually located in different cities or continents). Likewise, the sense of space is informed by the interaction between the found and the constructed environments. The given condition of the presentational venue is both joined with and transformed by large-scale set pieces and dividing screens. The sense of time follows two arcs: the arc of the episodic structure and that of the musical/sound structure. It therefore wavers in tempos and durations, like the time for fables, measurable by the tasks fulfilled, and the time for songs.
And the time for dreams. A woman lays her head on the knee of a man, whose head rests on the shoulder of another man (fig. 42). They seem to have fallen into deep slumber—three bodies of verydifferent sizes and shapes making a molehill. A breeze passes and they wake up. The diversion of (in)Som nia, they realize. A man picks up his flute for a midnight melody. Another man circles around some wooden sticks that he just placed on the ground. The woman, in her late pregnancy, lifts up a big bag and pours out its fallen leaves, letting them rustle like busy fairies.
Thermokinetic Syncopation: Oguri and Renzoku
Three crouched figures in trenchcoats move haltingly toward the edge of a room, tracing the radiating path painted black and red diagonally across the floor. They arch their backs to such a degree that they look like home-grown snails hesitating to crawl. When they complete about a quarter of the path, they abruptly lift their lower bodies and flip open the trenchcoats, revealing their naked buttocks and bare legs in dressy high heels. Next to their bodies in humorous arrest is a square mat made of blown-up Japanese newspapers featuring the headline “Sankai Juku,” the Paris-based Japanese Butoh company that made headlines when one of its members accidentally fell to death from a skyscraper during a 1985 performance in Seattle. The three trenchcoat figures are dancers from Renzoku, performing Fu Ru I (sift)#2 … Behind Eyeball (1995) at the chapel turned warehouse theater La Boca a decade after the Sankai Juku accident (fig. 43).
41 Toti M. O'Brien, John O'Brien, and Steve Roden, Husk, 1998. Scene with cocoon costumes. From the videotape document. Courtesy of the artists.
42 Toti M. O'Brien, John O'Brien, and Steve Roden, Somnia, 1996. From the videotape document. Courtesy of the artists.
43 Oguri and Renzoku, Fu Ru I (sift)#2… Behind Eyeball, 1995. The man with half-shaven mustache and beard is Oguri. Photo: Kevin Kerslake. Courtesy of Oguri.
The sound of steps walking away mixed with that of water flowing evokes a mood of idyllic suspense, while meandering dry ice lit in red turns the State Playhouse's proscenium stage into a misty landscape. At different corners of the stage pause six black umbrellas, their full-blown surfaces facing the audience. Almost imperceptibly, the umbrellas start to crinkle and move. A finger sticks out from behind an umbrella to tug at its edge. The stage lighting brightens. I notice more umbrellas slowly collapsing and more fingers coming out to play: fingers as faces, searching for signs of intelligent life everywhere. The severity of the umbrellas' minimalist movements contrasts sharply with the sensuality of the flirtatious fingers. Just as I become used to these dialogues between the collapsible plastic skins and the vivacious digits in organic forms, I am startled byaleg thrusting upward from aruffled umbrella—the leg looks inordinately huge and brutal compared to the Lilliputian fingers. The scene comes from Renzoku's Behind Eyeball (1995), a radically altered “sequel” to the version described above.
Oguri is cocooned in a piece of blue plastic canvas and lying quite still on the concrete-paved courtyard next to La Boca. Knowing that he always begins dancing before a performance formally begins (say, with the arrival of spectators and the lighting change), I heed his stillness as intently as I do the simple ikebana of a white lily in a glass vase lying a few feet away from him. Inside La Boca Jamie Burris, in a white shirt that hangs on her body and a
Although Butoh is the obvious reference to Oguri's work as a choreographer, his career in L.A. has maintained an ambivalent relationship with this Japanese postwar dance form that has become increasingly popular among Western artists and audiences in the past two decades. When Oguri and Renzoku began presenting dances at La Boca in 1993, its two founders used the term Body Weather Laboratory (BWL) to propagate their aesthetics and methodology. References to Butoh were given obliquely through “circumstantial” evidence such as the news item about Sankai Juku pasted on the floor or the ganimata gait, the white makeup, and the overall somatic grotesquerie. More recently, Oguri has collaborated with numerous non-Butoh-specific artists to produce two large-scale performances: with the musician Shane Cadman and his Illustrious Theater Orchestra for A Flame in the Distance (1997), and with the Buddhist priest/Kyudo archer/performance artist Hirokazu Kosaka and the Israeli composer Yuval Ron for In Between the Heartbeat (1998). These works are multidisciplinary and more pronounced in their matter-offact coexistence with a technological culture. Ironically, however, as his work has diverged from the predominantly anti-technocracy ethos of Butoh, Oguri and Steinberg have found it necessary to mention BWL's affinity with Butoh as a promotional tactic to draw a larger audience. This ironic shift in the
Butoh is nevertheless the fountainhead from which Oguri's art both derives and diverts. Oguri's career as a solo artist began in 1984 by enacting conceptbased happenings on the streets of Tokyo. He was fascinated with the famed Anti-Art (Han-geijutsu) performances of Hi Red Center and its cofounder Genpei Akasegawa's highly publicized trial in 1964. Akasegawa was convicted of forging counterfeit thousand-yen notes, even though those notes wereonly printed on one side. Identifying himself as “a Happening artist,” Akasegawa turned his trial into a quasi-art exhibition bydoing sample performances and inviting many artists and critics to appeal on his behalf. His renegade spirit was shared by another iconic personality, Tatsumi Hijikata, the secretive and charismatic artist/dandy who, together with another master dancer/ choreographer, Kazuo Ohno, founded Ankoku Butoh (the stamping dance of utter darkness). Unaware of Ohno's practice, Oguri took a few dance workshops with Hijikata. Then, through Hijikata's recommendation, he began formal training with Min Tanaka, who was the principal dancer for Hijikata's choreographic work Ren-ai Butoh-Ha Teiso: Foundation of the Dance of Love (1984). Tanaka had been conducting a series of exercises in workshops called Body Weather Laboratory since 1978. In 1981 he founded the company Mai-Juku, in which Oguri participated between 1985 and 1990. Thus, Oguri's direct artistic lineage stems more from Tanaka's BWL than Hijikata's Ankoku Butoh. Tanaka, however, prefers to identify himself as “the legitimate son of Tatsumi Hijikata.” There is then a certain connection—aesthetic or otherwise—between BWL and Ankoku Butoh.
The history of Butoh in Japan, as Steven Durland observes, has mirrored that of performance art in the United States and Europe. Because of its visceral abandon and taboo subject matter, Butoh's early reputation was intertwined with moral controversy and political rebelliousness; it won over a coterie of art audiences but antagonized conservative officials and upset the general public. Kinjiki (Forbidden Color, 1959), Hijikata's first major performance, which introduced “Butoh” into the Japanese cultural lexicon, explicitly portrays homosexual/pedophiliac passion. A young boy (played by Kazuo Ohno's then-teenage son Yoshito) jams a live chicken in between his thighs simulating sex and an older man (Hijikata) strangles the chicken to death over the boy's prone body. The silent dance ends in pitch darkness with the sound of running footsteps from the fleeing boy and the pursuing man.
An adaptation of Yukio Mishima's novel, Kinjiki might well be a vehicle for the dancer/choreographer to express his own forbidden desire. Hijikata's vision for Ankoku Butoh nonetheless found sympathy among Japanese artists
Fed by Hijikata's interest in the primal forces of nature (hunger, lust, disease, aging, death) borne by the “Japanese body,” Butoh was, I suggest, originally a paradigmatic post-Hiroshima art. Its subsequent development, however, veered away from Hijikata's obsession with violence, decadence, marginality, and dark eroticism, further jettisoning his anti-West attitude. Butoh quickly turned into an intercultural postmodern dance/performance style, partially through the influence of Ohno, whose own eclecticism and frequent international tours inspired many Westerners to study Butoh and spawned schools of Butoh-genic practitioners throughout the world. The international cachet stamped on this grotesque kinetic style has in turn persuaded the Japanese public and dignitaries that Butoh is indeed an art form to merit serious attention. Therefore, as Durland points out, “butoh now seems to exist in and of itself in Japan, not as a subset of dance,” similar to performance art, which “went from being a disturbing subset of visual art to more or less a ‘traditional’ discipline in its own right.” Moreover, the autonomous landscape of Butoh has become multiplied, evolving from its original founders' opposition to fixed techniques into a discipline that offers multiple sets of extreme kinetic styles, all open to liberal adaptation. Oguri's aesthetics and choreography informed by BWL are rooted in this abundant and intercultural landscape, adhering neither to Hijikata'sprotest against social prohibition nor to his anti-West and anti-industrialization bias.
Body Weather Laboratory, the format of exploration devised by Tanaka and currently taught by Oguri and Steinberg in L.A., consists of a three-part training program that starts with “rigorous mind/body, muscle/bone training,” moving to “specific stretching and relaxing exercises concerned with breathing and alignment,” and then to “explorations designed to sharpen focus and
For me, BWL's focus on the circumstantial juxtaposition between the “soft” body and the “hard” environment recalls a terrifying image in Fumio Kamei's film Ikite-iteyokata (The Shadow on the Stone): “the preserved silhouette of a man burned into a rock by the atomic flash” in Hiroshima. Abstracted from its catastrophic history, a human imprint on a rock provides a specific image for Tanaka's elusive coinage “body weather.” Tanaka has never fully articulated the conceptual foundation for Body Weather Laboratory, but, in my conception, it involves at least three thematic propositions: (1) The body is troped as a microcosm with different climate zones (weather)—the body as a thermokinetic landscape that generates both heat (thermo-) and motion (kinetics). (2) The body (as a microcosm) is placed within the weather (the macrocosm), which is in turn a metaphor for the uncontrollable environment. (3) The body is merged with and becomes (part of) the weather; the body (perceived as a mere object with temperature) is assimilated into the weather's dynamics. This last proposition stands in closest proximity to the post-Hiroshima image of the human profile on the rock, which demonstrates the power of an immeasurable (nuclear) force that mineralized a human body at a split second, the second that equalized all weather zones.
Combining the first two propositions brings us to a common theatrical situation where a performer—as a microcosmic body weather—enacts a work at an open rather than an enclosed site. The weather at this open site is the performative condition confronting the performing body; the performance is literally an experiment in the body weather laboratory. This scenario offers us an angle from which to read Oguri and Renzoku's dances, for the company has often performed outdoors, raising the stake of their BWL work. The choice of an open site subjects the dancing bodies to the contingencies of an uncertain environment/weather, while it simultaneously renders that open environment a live set for their performance. The performing bodies are read as specific thermokinetic landscapes juxtaposed with a larger landscape; there is a free circulation of multicentric weather zones in between these bodies and amid the weathered environment that sustains and frames them.
This montage of moving flesh and an extensive, unframed site contributes to an innovative use of space in the theatrical matrix. Oguri and Renzoku performed A Flame in the Distance (1997), for example, in the California Plaza, the outdoor common in a shopping mall built in the Downtown Bunker Hill area of L.A. Like a basin carved into mountains of architecture or a large clearing
44 Oguri and Renzoku, A Flame in the Distance, 1997, California Plaza, Los Angeles. This image shows both the Renzoku dancers and the Illustrious Theatre Orchestra. Photo: Roger Burns. Courtesy of the photographer.
My third proposition related to BWL—that the body is absorbed into the weather—appears as a preternatural performative trait in Oguri's choreography. Through what I might call an aesthetics of animistic transmutation, Oguri and the dancers directed by him often identify with the creatures they embody, the props they use, the themes they represent, and the environment they inhabit to such an extent that they become perceptually fused with these others.
I have witnessed the process of animistic transmutation performatively achieved by Oguri and Renzoku—from whatever inspiration their art is derived. Surrendering their humanness to the impetus of performance, Oguri and his dancers become a tree, a pair of high heels, a fixture on the wall, the wind, or a monkey-duck in a dune. The playful umbrellas in Beyond Eyeball, for instance, do not serve the dancers as utilitarian instruments; on the contrary, these umbrellas have temporarily usurped the dancers' bodies, with their performing fingers and limbs functioning as the umbrellas' antennas or extremities. Such a homi-xenological fusion is, to me, also a core experience in the stream of consciousness.
All three dancers in the stream of consciousness employ the strategy of effacement to suspend their own subjectivities. Oguri covers his face with a dipper, as does Burris with the umbrella. Having drenched himself with water, Chen eventually works his head and one arm inside the empty bucket. In addition to this deliberate strategy of disguise, the dancers'attitudes suggest their union with the objects they manipulate (fig. 45). They become so commingled with these objects that they keep their former postures even when these props are dropped. Are the dancers suffering from the phantom limb syndrome, missing the lost props as their severed body parts? Or are these human figures actually the dipper's, the umbrella's, and the bucket's phantom limbs? Who are the selves and who are the others in this scene? Who is the dreamer whose streams of consciousness have made this perceptual transposition between (human) subjects and (nonhuman) objects possible? Maybe the dreamer is the site La Boca, with its walls of peeling paint, its windows opening to the thoroughfares of South Central, and its adjacent courtyard within a Mission. Maybe the spectators, myself included, are the dreamers, led on by the dancers' trips to the unknown and hypnotized by their ruminative tempos. Because time seems infinitely protracted by the dancers' slow
45 Oguri and Renzoku, the stream of consciousness, 1998. Sherwood Chen immersed in the spirit of the bucket. Photo © Roger Burns. Courtesy of the photographer.
A similar kind of perceptual transposition creates some spectacular scenes in A Flame in the Distance. The opening action centers around a small flat and low fountain base in a side pocket of the California Plaza. The audience sits on the concrete steps opposite the round fountain base, which contains numerous waterspouts, now dry, framed by metal rings. In low squatting positions, four dancers (Lakshimi Aysola, Boaz Barkan, Jamie Burris, and Dona Leonard), dressed in white and each holding in her/his mouth a string attached to a white balloon, move from different corners. Oguri whirls on the fountain base in a gyrating solo, while other dancers, accompanied by a solo clarinet, eventually join him from their halting routes. Their white balloons, promptly released, disperse into the graying sky; in the distance, they look like fireflies carrying their contained flames on an autumn journey. Suddenly there is the sound of an explosion, then another, and another, building a rhythmic chant. Itis the sound of motors pumping out water from the metal rings. The streams rush out with such velocity and diffusion that they look
Whereas the transposition of natural elements provides a highlight for the opening sequence, an emotional admixture of contrary moods—melancholy and jubilation, solitude and plenitude—demonstrates a different kind of animistic transmutation in A Flame in the Distance. Nomadic dancers prompt the audience to move to California Plaza's central courtyard, which features a huge square pond connected to a dam. Renzoku dancers, now changed to black, pick up canvas water buckets with their mouths and promenade around the waterfront. They move like grazing cows or donkeys on the bank, while Oguri walks across the pond into darkness. In an adjacent pavilion, the Illustrious Theater Orchestra (with Greg Adamson's cello, Shane W. Cadman's and Ron Shelton'skeyboards, Arthur Bowansky'sviolin, Scott McIntosh'sclarinet, and John P. Hoover's bass clarinet) presents a minimalist melody evoking Catholic mass. The dancers with buckets cruise into the pond, gradually lowering their bodies until only their heads and the buckets float above the water. Their apparitions emerge in encrypted contrast to the steel-andglass urban environment, which encases their kinetic rituals.
The performing site's visual geography comes into vivid play at this juncture. Like the other spectators scattered around the shopping mall, I watch the action from a distance, for we are all blocked by the pond's boundary. Against the grandiose urban landscape and the illuminated water, the floating objects look lonesome, like hapless birds caught in the waves. Yet, from a different perspective, they look like full-blown lilies, at home in their element. Oguri's solitary figure appears, as if out of thin air, on the upper-middle level of the dam, dancing his way down while other dancers are veering upward. The moment they join cues the dam to come alive: a magnificent waterfall cascades from the top of the landscape to immerse the dancers in its grandeur.
Even as I chart the “body weather” of my perceptions, Oguri's art affords my thought philosophical space—Zenlike or not. The animistic transmutation occurs only in the realm of perceptions, for the dancers remain intact after their performance ends, unlike the post-Hiroshima profile on the rock. The climate of my perceptions is manipulated by the ability of these dancers to empty themselves of human will and become continuous with their surroundings, existing as unintrusively as a blade of grass in a meadow or a sand painting in a desert. Without an external force like the atomic flash, these dancers allow their subjectivities imploded like a breath-holding tranquillity, while they endure progressive fossilization with patience and intensity. I am
An active stance of passivity characterizes Oguri's tendency to let multivalent action unfold without imposing an authorial commentary. Such a noninterventionist stance also affects Oguri's treatment of modern technology, which was a prime target of critique for Ankoku Butoh. In contrast to Hijikata, Oguri professes no resistance to the industrial weather that hovers over us all. Instead, he accepts a fortuitous union between body and technology, as illustrated byastatement from his press kit: “The harsh and stunning dance of Oguri signifies the marriage of the primordial body/self with the modern, industrio-technological world.” This noncritical attitude toward technology takes a complex turn in In Between the Heartbeat, a collaboration by Oguri (choreography), Hirokazu Kosaka (scenic installation and archery), Yuval Ron (music), and Morleigh Steinberg (lighting).
Clean-shaven and naked except for a flesh-colored fundoshi that covers his privates, Oguri lies prostrate on top of a photocopier raised to the stage level at the central aisle of the auditorium in the Japanese American Theatre in L.A.'s Little Tokyo. The first motion comes from the repetitive, vacillating lights projecting from the copier, which simultaneously beats out amplified rhythms of locomotive percussion. Propelled by this mechanical, thermokinetic stimulus, Oguri slowly arches his back, pulling his midriff up from the glass surface, yet remaining on all fours. His body is bathed in the radiation from the copier, which casts a humongous shadow of his subtle dance on the white screen that stretches across the proscenium stage, while carving out swinging pendulums of light. Oguri suddenly jumps on the machine like a frog. The white screen, now illuminated from behind, becomes a translucent shield, through which we see a sumptuous backdrop made of two hundred colorful electric blankets: a dappled mural and a neatly patched-up carpet of quilts. Next to this lavish visual drama is a humorous allusion to the theme of copy-ing. Boaz Barkan, also naked and clean-shaven, jumps like a frog on top of another xerox machine placed behind the screen. This amusing cloning is soon
46 Oguri and Renzoku, In Between the Heartbeat. Roxanne Steinberg and Jamie Burris dance in midair, while Oguri and Boaz Barkan jump on the floor. Photo © Roger Burns. Courtesy of the photographer.
Although the piece is performed without intermission and the choreographic style remains consistent throughout, In Between the Heartbeat is formally divided into two acts by the change in scenery, which radically shifts its thematic implications. The scenic environment for the first act is defined by the electric-blanket mural and the photocopiers, ten of which are scattered around the stage, together with a big pile of electric blankets folded on the floor. These spectacles disappear in the second act, hidden behind a screen that features a wall-size black-and-white target.
All the major scenic components have autobiographical associations for the designer Kosaka. When he traveled from Japan to L.A. as a child, his first encounter with Western technology was an electric blanket, which kept him warm during the night. The photocopier is a technological vehicle on which his work as the exhibitions coordinator for L.A.'s Japanese American Cultural and Community Center depends. The image of the target in the second act echoes the performance's title, which was inspired by Kosaka's practice of
Kosaka's comment finds resonance in both Zen Buddhism and prehistoric animism. The former stresses voiding the self, whereas the latter believes that a spirit resides within every object. In a program note, Kosaka reveals his adherence to both spiritual disciplines, offering an impressionistic rendition of the unusual scenic elements: “The warmth of the electric currents cascades over our bodies as we sleep and the ubiquitous spirit rises through the eternal light of the copy machines as anthropomorphic figures.” Kosaka's note compares the electric blanket to a cascading waterfall of warmth and turns the copiers into animistic hosts. The Renzoku dancers are accordingly the “anthropomorphic figures” emanating from the charged copiers, which project “eternal light.” By implication, Kosaka does not necessarily take the electric blanket and the copier as symbols of technology. Instead, these objects are merely different formal phenomena endowed with such fundamental attributes as temperature and light.
In contrast to Kosaka's introspective nonchalance, Oguri's program note carries both an apocalyptic tinge and a redemptive claim: “Today the world is top-heavy with information / Humans are losing instinct and are like domestic animals without masters / Dance is a way to restore the senses to a body in crisis.” An anti-technology ideology that recalls Hijikata's stance underlies this comment. Moreover, the phrase “a body in crisis” brings to mind Hijikata'sremark about Butoh: “Through dance wemust depict the human posture in crisis, exactly as it is.” Oguri's pointed comment marks a departure from his noninterventionist stance, indicating his editorial gauge in selecting the choreographic patterns. During the actual performance, this thematic imperativegoes through two stages of realization, both in direct interaction with Kosaka's sets.
In the first act, four Renzoku dancers wander in a constructed landscape, which is peculiar but not necessarily oppressive. By analogy, the electric blankets assume the roles of mountains, seas, caves, or mansions, and the copiers of trees, boats, hearths, or rooms. Each dancer occupies an independent space without any hint of territorial struggle. One explores the electric blankets as if seeking shelter; one displays attenuated postures atop a copier; one crawls
But apocalypse does arrive in the second act, with the descent of a vertical “sky” centrally dominated by atarget. Music corroborates with the scenery to heighten the tension. The dancers—sans raincoats—look intently at the sky, scrambling to different corners. Like frightened animals, they have sensed danger in the wind, which carries Kosaka's flying arrows. The dancers cower on the ground, trying to become as small as possible. In an impressive choreographic segment, all four dancers assume the same posture of stiffened head and torso, with both arms closely attached to the body and perennially bent legs (fig. 47). In a quickened tempo that conveys alertness and anxiety, the four disperse in different directions, walking and pausing repeatedly. An unmistakable narrative has emerged: the human figures on stage are hunted prey. Perhaps they are hunted by the force of industrialization, which has produced an alienating urban environment ridden with surveillance and crimes. Another scenic device by Kosaka bears out my conjecture: A searchlight placed outside the Japanese American Theatre projects a brilliant cone of light on stage. Steinberg, Burris, and Barkan gradually exit, leaving only Oguri standing at stage center, opposite the towering target. Impelled by the searchlight, Oguri stretches out his arms and drops his head backward, holding this arduous posture, which resembles a Christ-figure in reverse, for an eternity. Here is a spectacular image of martyrdom, of a solitary Expressionist hero pawned by technology's dehumanizing violence—a man posed against the poisonous sun!
Such aheroic posture is rare in Oguri'schoreographic repertoire. Most Renzoku performances I've seen end with a collective portrait of celebration, ritualistic awakening, or humorous provocation. The effect of those collective portraits seems antithetical to the semantic certainty of the culminating scene of In Between the Heartbeat, for the image of a man being sacrificed on the
47 Oguri and Renzoku, In Between the Heartbeat. Second act, with dancers in stiffened postures (the fourth dancer is barely visible in this photo). Photo: Roger Burns. Courtesy of the photographer.
Cyborgs in Mutation: osseus labyrint
The subjects are cyborg, nature is Coyote, and the geography is Elsewhere.
October 2, 1999: A crew with heavy-duty cables, electric generators, sound and lighting equipment, and video cameras gathers in Los Angeles River'sconcretefilled riverbed for a location shoot. This rather frequent sight in L.A. is the cover for an impending live performance, which doubles as the filming of a documentary byosseus labyrint, the multidisciplinary ensemble founded and led by Hannah Sim and Mark Steger. Sim and Steger had tried without success to obtain a permit for an on-site live performance here underneath the First Street Bridge. They changed their strategy to apply for a film permit
September 22, 1999 [Backtrack]: An air of L.A. confidentiality begins to generate ten days before a planned live event in the downtown section of Los Angeles River. osseus labyrint announces the coming of THEM with a postcard, which displays what appears to be a classical perspectival painting of the First Street Bridge astride its postindustrial site, flanked by railroad tracks on both banks. At the center of the postcard a pale spectral figure walks on all fours; on the postcard's lower edge a series of cryptic lines and dots look like a mixture between a barcode and telegraphic signals. “A Scout from Mars snooping in L.A.!” flashes the image's subtext, an almost compulsive “reader's response” in this sci-fi-fed, tabloid-news-jaded metropolis. “The truth is out there.” And we must go find it! So prods the cryptic postcard from osseus labyrint, which omits most details but lists an information number. At this number a three-minute recorded message instructs the caller where to meet, what to wear, how to get down to the riverbed, and when to call again for contingencies. The scent of a semilegal clandestine affair lingers.
October 2, 1999 [Fast forward]: In the late afternoon osseus labyrint arrives at the side alley next to the First Street Bridge to find its planned entrance to the riverbed blocked by a mile-long train. The railroad police exacerbate the situation by forbidding anyone to cross the track because of an accident that killed two people the day before. The company has to change the performance site to the opposite bank, while improvising a human map by stationing attendants at strategic spots to guide the audience through the urban labyrinth of downtown L.A.
October 2, 1999 [Five hours later]: The audience arriving in cars is rerouted by guides in orange night-glo jackets, swinging flashlights. More than a hundred cars trail each other, circling around factory lots and downtown shops and then diving through the storm drain that plummets into the riverbed. We spectators are instructed to drive close to the bank, cross the water that slightly hugs the tires, stay away from the central current, and triple-park on the riverbed. We then climb up the concrete bank and cautiously hold onto the barbwire that divides the river from the railroad track as we trek toward the performance site for THEM. There are already people sitting on the sloping bank underneath the concrete bridge, waiting.
All this is the circumstantial drama preceding osseus labyrint's THEM, a project that both marks the group's return to open-site performance and signals its closer relationship with the geography and culture of L.A. Before Sim and Steger moved to L.A. in 1994, they spent a lot of time abroad enacting
In conceptual terms, I regard the performance of THEM as beginning with the dissemination of the postcard that invites audience participation. The information “hotline” urges callers to reconnect at a later date—preferably an hour before the designated event; potential spectators become enmeshed in a psychic theater that attracts their consensual actions with a promise tantalizing in its mystique. Since there is no advertisement for THEM other than the postcard and since the performance is free and its site unusual, callers for information become messengers carrying the clues to a treasure hunt. Word of mouth spreads these lures among potential viewers like self-generated rumors hatching a cult. The condition of exchange—free spectatorship for volunteering as an extra in a film—heightens the excitement, even in a city where being in a movie is as “impossible” as eating a takeout pizza!
Considering both its circumstantial drama and the impact of its environment, I may best describe THEM as a “habitat performance.” A habitat is a unique locus where certain organisms survive and thrive; a habitat performance is then a new species of performance that lures the audience to a specific (open) site to observe the bio-activities of rare creatures. The highlight of a habitat performance arises from the dynamic interplay between the performer, who assumes the roles of the biota (flora and fauna) in the given habitat, and the habitat itself, the time/space within which the bio-performance occurs. Biology and ecology, in short, are the major themes of a habitat performance. Inall likelihood, the audience for a habitat performance resembles avoyeuris-tic theater audience once the action starts. The bio-ecological context of a habitat performance, however, places its audience by default into the positions of
48 osseus labyrint, Gordian(not), 1997, performed at Highways, Santa Monica, California. Hannah Sim and Mark Steger's bodies as habitat. Photo © 1998 Richard Downing. Courtesy of osseus labyrint.
The intertwining of biology and ecology has been a predominant feature in osseus labyrint's numerous performance sightings in L.A. Before they were able to stage their “biology” within a found “ecology” in a project like THEM, Sim and Steger managed to conflate the two themes in their choreography, creating their habitat through their bodies (fig. 48). There is a direct correlation between their corporeal formalism and the fabrication of their habitat. In a metaphorical sense, one may suggest, every theatrical environment is a simulated habitat and the players in it, caught in the sound and fury of that artificial microcosm, are histrionic creatures worthy of our curiosity and scrutiny. What makes osseus labyrint stand out from this theatrical/metaphorical usage is that the group literally constructs its habitat out of the performing bodies, thereby fusing the bio-ecological topoi of ethology and habitat.
Sim and Steger invent a formal language with little else than their bodies. They start with the visual design of their stage presence. Skin as uniform: the couple's standard costume is their naked and clean-shaven bodies. Their convention of not wearing any clothes in performance emulates the natural state of other animals, while reinforcing the ethological dimension of their choreography.
While osseus labyrint's performances are rife with allusions to the natural world, the company's aesthetics belongs more precisely to the liminal zone where the natural, the artifactual, and the paranormal converge. Such an intermixture may be partially ascribed to the prevalent postmodernist tendencies of aesthetic hybridity and fragmentation. It is also a studied result of Sim and Steger's joint quest, specified by their mission statement as “a laboratory of random mutations.” Central to osseus labyrint's art, then, is the continuous experimentation with ideas and acts of mutation.
To start with, Sim and Steger routinely print their company name in lowercase bold type as osseus labyrint. This typographical design shows a mild mutation, for it diverts from the customary practice of capitalizing a proper noun. Etymologically, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “osseus” is a Latin adjective for “bony”; it has evolved into the English adjective “osseous,” meaning “resembling bones; hard or firm as bone,” and it can be used to qualify a geological deposit as “containing many fossil bones.” Bones have a major significance in understanding the history of life because they virtually document the evolutionary process by leaving fossil records. In addition to this biological implication, “osseous” seems a visually precise term for capturing my immediate perception of Sim's and Steger's bony physiques. By adopting the word's archaic Latin form, the artists give priority to the sense of unfamiliarity in tandem with the effect of mutation.
“Labyrint,” is related to the noun “labyrinth,” indicating a complex structure like a maze or an intricate system. In anatomy and zoology, “labyrinth” denotes “the inner ear,” which is, according to Gray's Anatomy, “the essential part of the organ of hearing, receiving the ultimate distribution of the auditory nerve.” Sim and Steger found their company name in this nineteenthcentury medical textbook, which notes that the labyrinth consists of two parts: the “osseous labyrinth, a series of cavities channeled out of the substance of the petrous bone, and the membraneous labyrinth, the latter being contained
The current usage of “osseus labyrint”came about when, during their 1990 tour to Czechoslovakia, the local press happened to drop the “h” from “labyrinth.” Sim and Steger decided to accommodate this accidental slippage— a move that exemplifies the artists' affinity for mutation, which is in essence a radical alteration through chance or design.
This affinity for mutation also fosters Sim and Steger's kinetic style. I like to describe their movement style as “alien body art” for two reasons: because Sim and Steger have half-seriously identified themselves as “aliens” and because I've never seen anything quite like it—a hybrid between dance, acrobatics, body art, and extreme sports. Predictably, the artists themselves resent fixing their art in a definite category. They object especially to my labeling of their work as “dance” and complain that they have frequently suffered from the press'smisidentification of their work as “Butoh.” Ikeep the term “dance,” however, as a viable reference to their work in the light of the many nontraditional movements developed in the dance field since the 1960s.
To the untrained eye, certain traits in osseus labyrint's performance, such as nudity, strenuous movements, or hanging upside down, do resemble Butoh. These superficial resemblances dissolve under scrutiny. One formalistic difference lies in osseus labyrint's neoclassical approach to balance. Whereas most Butoh styles privilege asymmetrical movements, osseus labyrint features an overall emphasis on symmetry, without excluding some asymmetrical moments. As I surmise, this difference results from the different bases of kinetic mimesis. The philosophy of animism in Butoh allows the dancers to express the spirits of both animate and inanimate beings (such as animals, deities, plants, minerals, and natural elements). I find that osseus labyrint has the different objective of creating forms for animate and animated beings (such as animals and machines), which commonly depend on symmetry for locomotion and spatial orientation. Thus, whatever kinetic patterns Sim and Steger have learned from Butoh, they have sifted them through a process of mutation to issue a product stylistically alien to Butoh.
Infact, Steger and Sim have had only limited encounters with Butoh. Both artists believe their performance style has more to do with other factors from their personal backgrounds than with Butoh—although Butoh was considered postmodern chic when they first started osseus labyrint in the Bay Area.
In biology, mutation is considered a mechanism of evolution. Mutation and genetic recombination produce variability among individuals and this variability is then subject to natural selection: a certain variant may increase the organism's adaptability and potential for survival and reproduction or it may be de-selected as unfit. In genetics, mutation denotes an inheritable change in genetic information in an organism's chromosomes. Mutation may occur spontaneously, through errors in DNA replication, or result from exposure to radiation or physical or chemical agents. Mutation may produce harmful effects and eventually be eliminated; or it may enhance an offspring's adaptability; or it may be inherited without any apparent benefit to the species' survival.
Although mutation is implicated in the evolutionary process, we may distinguish the two phenomena bytheir temporal span and thematic accent. Evolution traces the extended line of development based on natural selection and on all living beings' instinctive drive for survival. Mutation is often perceived as abrupt, aberrant, and intractable, for it may happen accidentally or with-out easily discernible reasons. While evolution encompasses both the conservation and change of certain genetic traits, mutation has a singular stress
In Woof (1998) Sim and Steger interpret mutation as an evolution hastened by the desires to learn, to play, and to mate. The action begins with Sim slowly descending onto the stage by tilting her head backward and resting her nape on a strap with a loop hanging from the ceiling. From the wing Steger crawls in, mainly by contracting his shoulder and waist muscles to propel himself forward. Sim lies prostrate on the floor, struggling to climb up, beating her arms against the ground. She encounters Steger, a random meeting that occasions series of changes to both their bodies, intimating mutations across the species line. They make first contact by smelling each other out, gradually raising their upper torsos. They establish further communication by imitating each other's body languages. Their flirtation ends with a simple ritual of layering their bodies on top of one another. After their union, they seem to climb “up”the evolutionary ladder to walk on all fours, bobbing their heads around in an osseus labyrint routine that Sim and Steger call “pachyderming” (walking like a large, thick-skinned, hoofed mammal such as an elephant, with the neck waving like an elephant's trunk). The piece culminates in a humorous tour-de-force when Sim, in her pachyderming posture, lays an egg in plain sight! The evolutionary “woof” has gone awry, mating a vulture-ermine with a slug-lizard and letting an amphibian hippopotamus lay a single bouncy egg.
Evolution as motivated mutation coordinates the action of Woof, which stars two phenomenally adaptable creatures rooting for pleasure, procreation, and survival. Yet, more often than not, mutation is an involuntary act, producing consequences beyond the control of the mutated subjects and their others. The crisis of mutation becomes a pre-text for THEM, evoking a pre ceding text —a 1954 sci-fi movie Them! —and serving as a pretext for osseus labyrint'slargely plotless action. The Gordon Douglas movie takes its title from a scene in which a horrified little girl barely identifies the killers of her family by blurting out, “Them! Them! ” The homicidal “them” is a horde of nuclear-mutated, carnivorous giant ants, escaping human prosecution from New Mexico to California, while preying on people, destroying property, and stealing sugar. The movie's final countdown spectacle takes place in the Los Angeles River's drainage system, where an army directed by entomologists overtakes the mutant ants in their new nest.
The preexisting narrative framework from a cult Hollywood movie adds an inflection to the circumstantial drama of THEM. Byanalogy, wewho come to wait and watch become either the worker ants attending the queen's mating dance, or the human defenders who seek to sabotage the habitat of them: the antenna-sprouting aliens. In either scenario, we have entered their territory,
To some extent, the movie reference also exists as a pretext, considering that it only reinforces osseus labyrint's recurrent motifs of alienation, mutation, and migration without supplying THEM with a search-(the monsters) and-destroy-(them) plotline. In fact, there is no program note citing the scifi movie as a pre-text, an inter-text, or a post-text. Knowing about Them! is by no means a prerequisite for enjoying THEM, although awareness of the movie may add some provocative nuances to the event. THEM unfolds in and of itself more like a hyperdance, a happening, and an extreme spectacle than a narrative drama. A tightly constructed visual opera, the piece consists of three distinct acts. Each act happens in an isolated microlocation within the habitat and progresses through a sequence of effervescent movements.
The first act might be called an acrobatics of flight, echoing the giant ants' escape through the air in Them! The action begins with an electronic auralscape of natural and mechanical sounds (the wind, the water flowing, a train) prerecorded from the river environment and recomposed and performed by Daniel Day and Ann Perich. Sim and Steger enter in their standard costumes: hairless and bare despite the chilly river wind. The duo swiftly strap themselves on foot harnesses, pulling their bodies up on two ropes that hang from the bridge (fig. 49). Suspended about thirty feet off the ground, without a safety net, Sim and Steger loosen their harnesses to hang upside down bytheir ankles. They keep their chins tucked and their arms upside down to pause in midair, like bats in hibernation. Their stillness and apparent ease induce the perception that they operate on reversed gravity. The only telltale sign about their “unnatural” postures appears as the subtle differentiation of colors: their upper torsos look slightly redder (bloodier) than their lower limbs.
The twinlike body artists, illuminated byasearchlight, cast mammoth shadows on the skein. The uncanny similarities of their physiques and bodily surfaces elude sexual differentiation, even individual distinction. Such similari-ties are fortified by their symmetrical choreography, which renders their shadows virtually identical and synchronized in motion. At times they modify
49 osseus labyrint, THEM, 1999, performed at the Los Angeles River, underneath the First Street Bridge. Photo: Eric Tucker. Courtesy of osseus labyrint.
50 osseus labyrint, THEM, 1999. Photo: Eric Tucker. Courtesy of osseus labyrint.
The second act proceeds as an alien tango with the ground, evoking images of earthbound insects. The duo, with their backs toward us, descend into a pool of red light. Keeping their faces averted and legs bent, their backs are canvases for transient muscular forms. They extend their spines and lie prostrate, inching forward, allowing their flesh to rub on the hard surface. Crawling in a horizontal motion, they twist and thrust their arms backward, circling their fingers and turning their hollowed fists around inquisitively like diligent antennas. They raise their whole bodies upward by resting on cheeks and necks; their legs branch out, testing the air (fig. 50). Who are these creatures? I can't help wondering. Sim and Steger are able to transform their anatomies to such adegree that their movements often appear directionless—
While the duo adopt symmetry to produce doubling between them, their kinetic art follows a linear structure to create a flow of metamorphosis: their torsos and limbs mutate in progressive variations without much cyclical repetition. This choreographic linearity formally represents the successive course of evolution; it also emulates the seriality of animation frames. The two artists move through fluid configurations unhindered as if they were projections in a program on “Liquid TV.” Their somatic gestures are both rhythmic and jerky, attenuated and proficient, volatile and rigorous, presenting angles so exaggerated and shapes so difficult and outlandish that they seldom look human. Like hybrids between bugs and engines, reptiles and robots, Sim and Steger evolve from one species to another, or rather, they morph from one animation trope to another. Then, they end the state of constant motions to become ossified specimens. Are they aliens poisoned by human pollution?
The music stops. Two men in plain clothes approach the pair. Jointly they move Steger from the dry concrete to the shallow water about fifteen feet away. They return to move Sim to the water. Some people sigh in disbelief. One guy behind me mumbles, “They are crazy!” But most of us spectators run quickly to the waterfront. Pushed by the two men, the frozen bodies start rolling slowly on their own toward deeper water. Before I can register what is happening, the performers drop into the central current and their twin figures are instantly carried away by the rapids. Against the moonlight, we see only two heads plunging into darkness, oceanward. THEM disappears with this breathtaking exit.
Precisely because of their daredevil courage, prowess, and physiological aptitude, Sim and Steger appear to embody postmodern sci-fi visions of the cy borg, a cybernetic organism compounded of the animal and the machine. Celebrated by Donna Haraway as “a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction,” a cyborg is—in my lexicon—a homi-xenological invention that symbolizes the human's cohabitation with and assimilation of the intelligent machines in our thoroughly technologized existence. According to Haraway's elaboration in “A Cyborg Manifesto,” cyborgs are post-Second World War hybrids with two contemporary guises: first, cyborgs are “ourselves and other organic creatures in our unchosen ‘high-technological’ guise as information systems, texts, and ergonomically controlled labouring, desiring, and reproducing systems”; second, cyborgs are “machines in their guise, also, as com-munications systems, texts, and self-acting, ergonomically designed apparatus.” I suggest that Sim and Steger'sperformance personas recall a third type
The context of cyborfication offers another rationale for the near-mirror images of Sim'sand Steger'sclean-shaven, nude, and smooth surfaces. As Haraway observes felicitously, “The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world; it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-oedipal symbiosis, unalienated labour, or other seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity.” Given their sexual difference, Sim and Steger have downplayed their anatomical divergence in performance. Their stress on back movements, for instance, is an overt strategy in masking their sexuality. The equivalent difficulty in the two's choreographed movements also turns their genital dissimilarity into a nonissue, while heightening their machinelike efficiency and exactitude. Seemingly beyond gender and beyond gravity, the androgynous couple out-trump the high-tech cyborgs with their own low-tech performance magnetism, a mega-science hu manly powered by little more than their technology of the body. (Unless I am tricked by my suspicion that Sim and Steger cannot really be, as they profess, aliens.)
The technology of the body is the central appeal of osseus labyrint's art. Understandably most of their performances are wordless dramas of high athleticism. But even this tendency is subject to mutation. In a 1999 adaptation of Macbeth, osseus labyrint throws Shakespeare's tragedy of premonition, usurpation, and damnation off in a spin. Interestingly, the title of this piece has inadvertently endured successive mutations. Sim and Steger named their project The Tragedy of Macbeth, which appeared as the title in its performance at Highways. But, from a prior miscommunication, the work was advertised on Highways' performance calendar as Something Wicked This Way Comes. Most recently, in promotional literature prepared for an exhibition of Sim's installation/performance Unsex Me Here (2000), the project was identified as Mac Beth. Considering the central role mutation has played in osseus labyrint's corpus, I have decided to take Mac Beth, my favorite title among the three, as a shorthand for identifying this project.
The text of Mac Beth includes many of Shakespeare's words, albeit freely shorn and reassembled. The project employs six actors, one runner billed as
Like THEM, Mac Beth presents a gestalt experience, accomplished by osseus labyrint's comprehensive design for the event. This design typically encompasses the program brochure, the production concept, and the fabrication of an altered state of existence. Moreover, it is through the company's kinetic dramaturgy that the mutant theatricality of this multisensory experience is fleshed out.
The program for Mac Beth is a slender booklet tied with a cotton rope. The cover features The Tragedy of Macbeth in chiseled letters, illustrated by the image of a dagger sliding through two tumbling figures conjoined at their thighs. A symmetrically folded insert in the brochure opens to a distorted anatomical picture of a skull, stretched to link to a trumpet-shape channel/tunnel. The caption reads: “The Right Membranous Labyrinth with Cerebral Hemispheres exposed.” The picture is divided in the middle, opening to reveal a circular map of a brain. The brain map doubles as the diagram of a feudal castle with six compartments, marked respectively “Crown; Letter; Dagger; Vessel; Candle; Wood.” Its caption reads: “The Base of the Cranial Cavity as seen from above,” followed bysix quotations from Shakespeare. Each quotation in turn refers back to an emblematic object outlined in the brain-castle.
Like the Witches' riddlelike oracles, these quotations allude to six paradigmatic scenes in the source play, further mapping the adapted course of Mac Beth: (1) “fair is foul, and foul is fair”—the prophecy from the three Witches, who promise the future crown for Macbeth; (2) “come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty”—the ambition of Lady Macbeth ignited by the let ter she receives from Macbeth; (3) “light thickens, and the crow makes wing to th' rooky wood, good things of day begin to droop and drowse, whilst night's black agents to their preys do rouse”—the assassination of Duncan by Macbeth and the dagger with which he commits regicide; (4) “blood will have blood”—the appearance of Banquo'sghost to haunt Macbeth, who breaks his wine vessel at the banquet; (5) “and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death”—Lady Macbeth's candle -lit sorrow before her suicide; (6) “peace. The charm's wound up”—Macbeth's stabbing by MacDuff, who
Sim and Steger sum up their concept for Mac Beth in one phrase: “an archeological ghost story.” The concise phrase captures the gist of osseus labyrint's reinterpretation of Macbeth, which lies in interpolating a narrative perspective through the figure of an Archeologist. This framing character (played by Marianne Magne) functions much like a surrogate for the spectator and a catalyst for the performer. Her periodic entrances into the scene thread together the six disparate sections noted in the program. Her action, moreover, is defined byher interactions with the six emblematic objects in Macbeth'sbraincastle, offering crystallized titles to the episodes dramatized in Mac Beth. The Archeologist, for example, finds a candle and takes a snapshot of her find, thereby triggering the episode in which Lady Macbeth (played by Sim), lit by that verycandle, washes her hands repeatedly in a ritualistic swan song of madness before death. The action of Mac Beth is therefore not exactly propelled by the plan of a usurper, but rather by the adventure of an explorer. The explorer's meddling with the past accidentally awakens the ghosts condemned to rehearse once again their erstwhile passionate moments. Inview of this concept, our opening of the folded program takes on another significance: like the Archeologist, we are excavating an ancient site, terrain by terrain, in order to consort with lingering shadows in the cave.
And in the cave we find three bald and naked figures sitting still in foot harnesses hoisted up in midair. On a platform further back stands a similar naked figure, tilting his head toward a big horn hung together with a speaker. Two musicians with noise instruments and synthesizers are installed in a corner to the east. Blackout.
Some strange clunking sounds enter the space, followed by the click of a switch for a tiny spotlight. The light comes from a headlamp worn by a figure fully wrapped in bulky attire, consisting of a miner's helmet, a pair of goggles, a mouth-muffle, rubber gloves, a jumpsuit with assorted tubes plus mountaineering gears, and hard-shelled boots. Moving clumsily about and peering through a magnifying glass, the Archeologist creates a first impression of an astronaut-cum-bounty hunter, sporting her thrifty-store fashion from the future. By her infection-proof costume and by the way her boots clunk and suck on the floor, I sense that we have been transported to another planet or to a remote space/time zone where a different gravity is at work.
Lights come up on the three Witches (played by Sim, Carol Cetrone, and David Hardegree), who gradually unfurl from harnesses to dangle upside down by ankle straps. Their belly muscles contract in full spasms, while musicians speak their greetings amid a prerecorded chorus loop that sounds like ethereal omens. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair, / Hover through the fog and filthy air.” Lights cross-fade to the platform with MacDunquo (played by Peter Schroff)—a hybrid character fusing together Shakespeare's Duncan, Banquo, and MacDuff—listening to battle sounds from the speaker and holding onto the horn, a blown-up “Eartrumpet” that conveys tidings concerning his kingship. But his Crown, as the Witches foretell, is about to be ripped from his forehead to land on his victorious subject of the moment, Macbeth.
Released from their harnesses, the Witches slug-crawl toward the center to meet Macbeth (played by Steger), who enters from the east, unsteady and wavering like, in Ron Athey's keen description, a “graceful gimp, each foot turned out at a disfiguring 135-degree angle.” In a snappy cartoon voice, Macbeth announces his confusion:
|What are these,|
|So withered and so wild in their attire|
|That look not like th'inhabitants of th'earth …|
|You should be women,|
|And yet your beards forbid me to interpret|
|That you are so.|
Hailed as he “that shalt be King hereafter,” Macbeth is now surrounded by the “weird sisters,” who have transformed from sluggish snakes into pachyderms. The manner of Steger'sdelivery heightens the humor of his questioning, for the pack of pachyderming Witches, in their sleek nakedness, surely have neither haggard “attire” nor “beards.”
This opening segment encapsulates all the dramaturgical strategies of Mac Beth. Two levels of reality are staggered across its phantasmic terrain: the reality of the Archeologist, who exists in an indefinite future, and that of the labyrinthine ghosts, who haunt a prehistoric limbo. The juxtaposition of these two “realities” complicates the sense of time and space constructed by Mac Beth. The Archeologist's paced survey of the relics creates an event-structured frame for the spectators, who witness her action slowly progressing forward inside a ruinous space much as a theater audience does for a play. The Archeologist's (linear) quest periodically launches Mac Beth into six exhibition cycles,
The theatrical matrix engaged by osseus labyrint revolves around the interactions between the versatile performers and their conceptually and visually provocative action. In Mac Beth this action unfolds as an intense poetry in space and a sonic mishmash comprising the characters' dialogues delivered live by actors or musicians or mediated by broadcast, in addition to music and sound effects looped and performed live. Some presentational dimensions are more successful than others. Tweaked by the patented osseus labyrint choreography, Mac Beth 'spoetry in space retains my visual interest throughout— this despite and because of the actors' different levels of kinetic expertise. But I find the sonic dimension less resolved. As Macbeth, Steger delivers most of his lines live, in an eccentric cartoon style that at times undercuts the tragic tension. Most of Sim's speech as Lady Macbeth is recorded, flowing in like faded memories. I hear pathos in her soft mediated voice, but the audacity of a woman who vows to be “unsexed” escapes me. At the same time, I have to wonder if my hunger for dramatic flair isn'tareaction from a habitual Shakespearean spectator, who feels both charmed and ill at ease confronting these phenomena of incomprehensible mutation. Am I not searching for an already fictionalized Scotland in an irretrievably mutated Mars?
Two choreographic segments in the “Letter” episode, however, stand out as exemplary scenes where visceral poetry, twisted anatomy, and semiotic rigor do join.
Holding a dusty parchment by pincers, the Archeologist begins reading a letter from Macbeth to his partner in conspiracy, Lady Macbeth, who is now resolved to be queen. Steger reasons out Macbeth's conflict and hesitation by walking a circle in an even pace, while Sim dramatizes Lady Macbeth's simmering anger and deliberation by a complex dance in the middle of the circle. She twists her arms to lock in her head and chest, gradually lowering her stature by spreading her legs, while rocking her body softly back and forth. When Macbeth reaches the pinnacle of his fear of “vaulting ambition,” this osseous Lady Macbeth also sinks to the ultimate reach of her splits, parting the legs laterally to 180 degrees on the ground (fig. 51). Such is the extremity of her resolve!
The persuasion of her gifted body continues. Lady Macbeth kneels in a fetal position; her voiceover whispers seductively,“When you durst do it, then you were a man; / And to be more than what you were, you would / Be so
51 osseus labyrint, The Tragedy of Macbeth, 1999, performed at Highways, Santa Monica, California. Hannah Sim as Lady Macbeth. Still from video document. Courtesy of osseus labyrint.
The dialogues between Sim's and Steger's body languages leave some of the most indelible impressions behind the ruins of Mac Beth. I may cite their hypnotic doubling in the piece as graphic evidence why Mac Beth is the most pertinent title for this performance. Its story morphs from an Archeologist'slucky dig, through a baroque warfare among unforgetful ghosts, to an intemperate affair between Mac and Beth. Marianne Magne, as the Archeologist, humorously captures this realization in her program note, written as a Memo by her character:
Findings on site 66, Cawdor, Scotland. Palimpsest #3, deciphered as follows: “I've been bald once” He said. “I've been bald twice” She said. “I've been bald
52 osseus labyrint, Liquor Cotunnii, 1991. The twin figures conjoined at the thighs represent Sim and Steeger's partnership. Photo by Kathy. Courtesy of osseus labyrint.
Mutation is the absurd made flesh.
If redressive performance resembles polemic essay or revisionary novel, then art performance is akin to poetry. Like poetry, art performance grapples with the essence of its expressive means. As the ontological language of poetry is the author'sword, so the foundational lexicon of art performance is the artist's body. But art performance parallels poetry not so much in its purity of means as in its flirtation with ambiguity. This fondness for ambiguity—even in its most brutal manifestations—renders the production of an art performance a doubly poetic act. The artists find their performance receding toward the unknown as much as the critic/spectators do in their struggle to generate a pros-thetic
How does this poet relate to her poem, remembering the pain of confusion just before writing and the release of tentative clarity with that first verse? The transition from many possibilities to one requires compromise, which tastes like experience. As Rainer Maria Rilke says, poems arenot “simply emotions” but “experiences.” “For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning.” The poet sinks in to the cores of those multitudinous beings and creeps out from their nostrils, from underneath their carpets, from the tips of their wings, and from the middle of “Things.” Yet, to know is not just to be, but also to be-not. To “know the gesture which small flowers make” is to imagine being that gesture and to observe the action of a subtle other in the midst of remembering it. Here Rilke advises, “And it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return.” She is the one to whom the many return, but their comings and goings never really follow her schedule. And she has no bus to ride on when they are gone.
What to do when the bus is gone? Could one ride on the picture of many buses? In Rilke's “The Idiot's Song,” he suggests playing with an imaginary ball—it's bouncier than Didi's and Gogo's hats—while one waits:
|Oh look at that beautiful ball over there:|
|red and round as an Everywhere.|
|Good that you made it be.|
|If I call, will it come to me?|