rethinking why performance matters through the matter of performance
Trashing Performance

18 October 2009

The breaking and renewing of promises

Author: Joe Kelleher

There are balloons in the air – I seem to remember red ones – attached to the roofs and towers of the small hilltop town of Santarcangelo di Romagna, where the 2009 Santarcangelo International Festival of Theatre is taking place. It looks – if looks could convince – like the town might take off, be carried up into the air, over the hills and far away. It is, though, an unlikely possibility. This, I suppose, is what possibility sometimes looks like: a promise that is bound to be broken. A promise that is already broken, as soon as we imagine it. Things will do what they are capable of doing, no more no less. The rest is imagination.

   The animals penned for the evening in the Piazza Ganganelli, the main town square, the goats and horses and sheep and cows and farmyard foul and what have you, will bleat and shit and stand about, giving off that air of looking without seeing, that crazy look that creatures have when they start turning into images. Meanwhile, inside one of many makeshift venues, a small cave carved into the hill above the town, where a 15 minute performance by Yoshimasa Kato and Yuichi Ito is taking place, a clump of us will gather round to watch the white powdery substance in an upturned speaker liquefy and leap about when the bass-heavy sound is turned on, like some sort of indeterminate life-form momentarily shifting for its existence. In another venue, set up like a lecture hall, veteran sound artist Alvin Lucier is reviving his 1969 performance I am sitting in a room, recording himself speak then repeatedly re-recording the playback, gathering the resonant frequencies of the room into an ever-thickening aggregate of acoustic surfaces, like a scaly body of noise, sounding out the image that was there to be sounded out. And then later, in a cramped front living-room at the top of the town, linguist Giancarlo Schirru lectures us on the international phonetic alphabet, taking us through a chart on which our own capabilities of sounding out are captured already in letter-like symbols that map the resonant cavities, the foyers and through-ways, of mouth, nose and throat.

   Things have their capabilities; the rest, I suppose, is a matter of exploiting the potential, of putting these things to work. The theatre, or so it would appear, has its own ways of doing that. It seeks – at least it does at this festival, which aspires more on the whole to the set-up of an open laboratory where production is still going on than an exhibition of completed product – to mine out of the human material at its disposal the transformation of this material into something like an anatomy of its image-producing capabilities. So it is, for example, that Kinkaleri’s Io mento, a study towards a future production based around Genet’s The maids, involves one middle-aged woman at a table, a little curtain behind her, set in a sort of micro-theatre, doing a task that may have no other function than to be something to do in the space, cutting pictures out of magazines with a pair of scissors. Some way of using up the time that the theatre demands, collecting images the theatre has no use for or need to share. She also speaks. However, the woman is a ventriloquist: throughout the performance we hear her voice, but she does not appear to be producing the words. We can barely see her lips move. Her voice enfolds her, reaches out gently into the space between ourselves and her, like an effect of presence, but somehow removed from whatever is actually going on, whatever is felt and experienced by those of us that are there. Here perhaps the broken promise is that which would associate an utterance with the body that is supposed to support it, literally the body that would be speaking the words. The body of the performer, it would appear, has other things to do than make good on the words that nevertheless she produces for us to hear. In the face of such an image-effect we may feel our affections are being played with. It’s a play in which I find myself taking a childish delight.

   There is, perhaps, an affection – or a form of affect: call it love, compassion, grief, enthusiasm, desire – that goes with imagination, even in the embrace of the sort of broken promises that imagination trades in. This affection is an inexhaustible store; or at least it is not exhausted yet. It has to do with something juvenile in our natures, something retarded even, something incomplete, something not yet fully adapted to circumstances, which – rather than setting us on the horizon of the promise that can never be made good – keeps us back as it were in the place of the ‘not yet’: where the town has not yet failed to take off and float over the Romagna mountains, and where the animals, who do look as if they might be there for a purpose and may even have something to say about it, have not yet declined to speak. This juvenilism, of course, is no less exploitable than any other human capability. It can be put to work – benevolently enough no doubt – by theatre and performance cultures that depend for their own capacity to reach beyond whatever exhausted promises the ‘culture’ holds out, on our capacity to be constantly re-trained, to learn new languages, to find promise and surprise in what we see and hear when we encounter the work so to speak face to face.

   It is also a capability we can exploit ourselves, as we rehearse, however modestly, however unconsciously, the praxis of the good life in the un-curated spaces in and around the public spectacle. Chiara Guidi, the director of Santarcangelo 2009, describes, for example, the childishness of participants at the festival greeting each other in the streets and squares of this small town, like children recognizing each other again and again in the same places over the course of a day. In these encounters we encounter each other, with whatever delight and embarrassment, like strangers who had forgotten each others’ faces until that moment of acknowledgment takes place. There is a potential politics here, if we care to dig one out; or, if politics is too strong a word for the moment, something like a forgotten promise in the store of latent affections that this civil encounter pre-supposes. We had forgotten each other from this morning, from yesterday; we had other things to do, pictures to look at, words to listen to, things to think about. We broke the promises we made to remember each other better. But, in the beginning again of re-encounter, as the theatre as it were leaks out into the streets and squares – as we become momentarily images for each other – something like a promise is renewed. And, maybe, trusted in. We will be coming back to this.

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