Friday, February 21, 2014

The interstellar mission of ceaseless movement

Ceaselessly we moved through this moment, passing into the next without a glance backward.

This piece is about the Henderson/Castle collaboration with TDT called voyager. Like so many of Ame’s choices, the absence of capital letters in the titles of her work is surely intentional. I’ve never asked her about it though. In fact, we have rarely had the chance to discuss her work outside of my self-serving motivations for framing a grant proposal. Almost nothing that I write here is tethered by conversations I’ve had about the piece with Ame, or any of her collaborators. I hope I don’t say anything stupid, but that’s always the risk with writing. Actually it’s true of any expression at any time, in general, about any subject.

Voyager’s task is at first simple: move without stopping, never repeat. A straightforward description, nine bodies take the stage in sparkly outfits. *** I didn't mean to say Jennifer Castle and her piano don't take the stage, they do. I realized after publishing how movement centric this writing is. *** To say these bodies are costumed is inaccurate. They are not ‘costumed’, but dressed and revealed to us in naked lighting that relentlessly unmasks the dancers to us as audience, and us to each other as people who sit and watch the endless procession of movement and sound. Costuming in dance and performance can serve many purposes, but is commonly thought of as an expression of something related to the content of the piece, that relates in some way to the distinction between audience and performer. When the dancers move into the space, I feel as though I am seeing each individual body ‘dressed’ in clothing that expresses their movement, rather than an ensemble of bodies costumed as an expression of the content of the work itself. This initial impression becomes more palpable as the piece progresses: I am in love with Marie-Claire Forté’s ankle boots. It’s not just because I like them and wish I owned them (though this may also be true but she’s very tall so I would guess they’re too big for me). Rather, the precision of her never-stopping motion is anchored in the sound of her heels on the marley flooring. The articulation of her limbs is drawn in contrast to the flopping of the oversized bows on the front of the boots (drool). The outfits exist in contrast to the at first delicate quality of the dancer's movement. The texture of this movement builds and in its full force it is anything but gentle, though we don’t notice its force until it’s over.

So then, let’s talk about the task, as a task whose immediate definition isn’t anything more than just the condition of inhabiting, being or having a body. A way to address this work is by simply saying that embodiment is a sort of condemnation to continually move and ultimately to never move in ways that aren’t already conditioned by our experience and history. These are questions shaped by my experience of watching:

- What counts as repetition?
- If you can’t repeat anything, how do you measure time? (that question I’ll take up in a little more detail in a minute)
- If the goal is to avoid repetition, does that mean that the body (or subjectivity) never reflexively encounters itself?
-  If there’s no repetition as such, can our eyes or our bodies recognize, see, feel, hear or otherwise sense progression? 

The work is at times, totally unbearable. This frustration is partly due to the fact that we don’t, at first, have any way of measuring time without immediately discernible patterns of motion and rest. This kind of shit drives people crazy. Ultimately watching performance is pretty hard to begin with, especially when people want to be at home watching True Detective or whatever, which is considerably easier to pay attention to. Voyager articulates something different about the conventions of its form. It is challenging to watch.

(I wonder what Paula Citron will say/ has said. Does anybody know who the critic sitting in the top right corner seat of the audience was? I'm 90% sure now that it was Michael Crabb, you can read his review here, though I'm not sure one should. My favourite part was when two people left and Erika Hennebury (coincidentally also Public Recording’s artistic producer) with lightning reflexes, caught them through the railing with their forgotten iPhone, abandoned on the seat during a hasty departure. I’m glad that people left during the show. I often think about doing that but it’s more difficult when the house lights are down. The house lights stayed up for the whole piece.)

The experience of being an audience for voyager is a bit like trying to have a conversation with a new person who talks non-stop. It’s frustrating because you can’t sense their speech patterns and they don’t give you space to digest any of the things they’re saying, but rather just move on. I have a friend like this. When we were first becoming friends, I don’t think I ever understood a single thing he said. As I got to know him better, spent more time in his company, I began to pick out phrasing and cadence habits, though it still seemed like the flow of his words was endless and never self-referential. Likewise, I learned how to distribute my attention rather than concentrating on picking out meaning in the ways I was used to. By using this example of becoming acclimatized through conversation with someone, I am pointing to the way that repetition requires two distinct but related areas of our motor-perceptual lives. First, movement always comes from somewhere, from a preceding bodily action on its way to the next. It is in this way always reflecting itself, its own history. It is impossible to find movement that doesn’t in some form contain its own genesis. As a condition of being what it is, movement is thus only ever self-referential (in the sense that in order to continue on moving it must have its history built into it). If this weren’t true you wouldn’t really even be able to lift your arm. Probably this is redundant for dancers, but try it. Try to lift your arm as if the movement you can identify as ‘lifting your arm’ came from out of nowhere. It’s impossible. So the first sense of repetition implies that all movement has this character of always belonging to itself. Second, repetition is part of how we encounter the world in structures that are usual, regular or habitual. For example, “hello” is usually followed by a pause that allows the other person to respond. My reciprocal hello is an acknowledgment of a familiar pattern of greeting people.

Movement’s necessary condition of containing its own history becomes perceptible only as habit. A particular person’s way of lifting their arm, or saying hello, as containing a past movement history and gesturing towards a future one, is identifiable only through becoming accustomed to that gesture or that greeting. When you know someone’s regular bodily ways of moving, you might be able to sense the beginning of their arm gesture or anticipate the tone of their hello and the length of pause that follows it. We are thus deeply attuned to the ways in which movement habits show up in the people around us. This is largely how we make sense of the world. Ultimately voyager’s journey is futile for the reason that our perception, both of our own moving bodies and the bodies of others, is so deeply conditioned by habits which take hold in us, only to emerge as simply capacities of the body or something. 

The futility of voyager’s exercise is precisely what makes it compelling. Each moment of voyager feels almost like nothing is happening because everything is happening. You cannot at first rely on the regularities of habit and repetition, which normally structure our perception. As the piece progresses, new forms of pattern, habit and ways of marking time begin to emerge in the perceptual field, but they are not built from the currency of the familiar. Henderson, Castle and Co. demand that we suspend the expectations and sedimentations of our ordinary ways of engaging with the world, in order to see things as they really are.