rethinking why performance matters through the matter of performance
Performing Idea

4 October 2010

A matter of deviation

Author: Jonathan Burrows


Dear Adrian

Last year while teaching in Perth I stumbled in a bookshop across a quote from the English theorist Terry Eagleton's book on poetry, in which he gives a wonderfully articulated reappraisal of what the usefulness of the new might be within a work of art. Here it is:

'In Lotman's view, a good literary work is one rich in information; and information is a matter of deviation. The more stable, predictable elements of a text, such as metre, belong to what one might call its dominant code. But because they are so regular, they tend also to be less perceptible. These are known to information theory as 'redundant' elements, which are necessary for conveying information but not in themselves informative. Think, for example, of the letters of the alphabet, which are meaningless in themselves but a necessary medium of meaning. The text is at its most informative when it deviates unpredictably from one of its codes, creating effects which stand out against this uniform background.'

I love here the idea that the rift, or shift away from the ordinary, is not a matter of stimulation or excitement but rather a moment of increased visibility. The durational forms you describe also often contain these moments of information arising from an unexpected deviation, amplified in this case because of the time taken to arrive there.

I think of the great dub reggae DJ Jah Shaka, whose seven hour performances use repetition of tracks, often three of four versions in a row, to slow our expectations and then throw us. His events finish always with an astonishing moment of courageous transcendence when he switches on the fluorescent lights in the room half an hour before the end, as though to stop the dance, but in fact signalling the moment when the gloves come off and the dance can really begin.

There is no answer to the seizing back of the new from the cultural economy, and I have no idea yet for myself whether resistance is useful or whether acceptance might be more productive. To investigate anew what function the new might have at least opens the doors and windows again.

The presentation we have worked on for Toynbee Hall has remained mainly in the realm of words. This may be a facet of my current curiosity about words after a lifetime of silent showing, or it may just be that words have been the medium that has best served us. However, this wordiness doesn’t remove from my memory moments experienced together in recent workshops where we have observed both the potential power and emptiness of movement, and the potential power and emptiness of words. This has been liberating for someone coming from dance: the discovery that the language of words can no more guarantee communication than my own dumb world.

'Am I doing too much (or too little)' is the perennial cry of the performer. It arises usually from a fear of personal exposure, but offers also perhaps a glimpse of the way in which performance itself might embody the idea that information is communicated in the moment of deviating from a ground established, by an explosion or retraction of self in the moment of performing.

The irony is that for an artist, as you said in your last letter, to 'come to be seen beyond or beside their selves', they must give up the idea of any remote possibility of that. It is in this zone of always potential failure that the pleasures of performance lie, a pleasure which, I am happy to say, is not so often found amongst the sensory overload of consumer culture.

With best wishes, Jonathan

The Terry Eagleton quote is from his book How To Read A Poem, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p. 55.

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