rethinking why performance matters through the matter of performance
Trashing Performance

7 June 2010

The life of things

Author: Adrian Heathfield

6th June 2010

Dear Jonathan,

   It is ages since I last wrote to you formally but in the meantime - sometimes through the silences, in thought alone - the dialogue continues. I guess these on-line letters are just one manifestation of the transactions between us; arising when one or other gathers the focus to press the disparate particulates into a certain consistency. Since you last wrote we have spent some time together in Brussels talking through ideas, so I’ll try to bring a few fragments from this less apparent ‘backchannel’ into view.

  In part, isn’t what we have been turning over here - with all this talk of the relation between tradition and newness, constraint and excess, the pre-fixed and the improvised - that age-old dilemma for any artist: how to keep work fresh? I’ve often noticed how performance-people feel gripped by a particular urgency with this question, as the co-presence of an audience gives them an immediate return, if not a definitive answer. Perhaps we are a little like the performers after the show, sensing their way back through what just happened, chasing those elusive forces, asking why one part really flared and another turned to stone. And I guess whatever mode your making of art takes, you conduct these evaluations of the living force of your art work between some seductive but deadly poles: your sense of a creative impetus or muse and your take on what other people think of, or want from, your work. The approach to each is at once necessary and impossible, littered with traps and readily over-determined.

   In terms of our discussion of these tensions as they manifest in performance aesthetics, perhaps what we are also touching on is the constitutive paradox of any chosen form: that it is a holding together of divergent or contradictory qualities. I suppose that’s where I was going with the Celan poem. The resolved carries within it the unresolved. Form is always a negotiation with formlessness. This reminds me of Paul Valery’s well-circulated aphorism, cast towards the highest ordering principle: ‘God made everything out of nothing. But the nothingness shows through.’

   Thinking again about what it is I most admire in works such as your own that test out the rich space of play between dance and language, between moving and speaking, it is the potential unleashed by the inter and counteractions: body to word/word to body, gesture to sense/sense to gesture. Looking at a range of contemporary dance performance works, it may be that movement and speech are separated across the time of a piece and the spectator is asked to read between these different modes of articulation, or that speech is cast into a space of embodied movements by a performer who does not move, or more commonly the performer speaks as they dance, entwining and interrupting word and gesture. In each, at best, what happens for me is that meaning is returned to movement, sense coheres only to the degree that it is carried off elsewhere; something weighs on us in the very frailty of its assertion. An idea is felt in transit: significance is ‘found’ in its recession, in its leaving of itself. Of course I am speaking here (far too generally) of moments or passages, of specific affects, rather than continuous qualities.

   Reading the theorist and poet Nick Piombino on the subject of listening to poetry, I found a nice term for similar kinds of poetic effects: he calls them ‘aural ellipses.’ By this he means linguistic contractions or omissions that, when sounded, cause the listener to fill in the gaps with their ‘inner experience.’ Piombino trained as a pyschotherapist, and so his interpretation of these effects and interactions is focused through psychoanalytic ideas. His work is most associated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, and so he sees in their use of poetic ellipses, a proximity to the qualities of language in thought. These forms then give the listener ways to encounter and be attentive to meaning whilst avoiding its closure.

   ‘This opening or freeing of forms of focusing in turn makes possible an intensified collaborative sharing (between a poet and listeners at a reading, for example) in the effort of organizing otherwise anomalous, disparate and incommunicable perceptions into patterns of meaning that can be further articulated, refined, and better understood, in an ongoing process.’

   I rather liked this picture of a community of listeners gathered in some kind of intense relation around some echoing, indeterminate and ineffable articulations, moving steadily towards their sense, but without the need for certainty. This is an idealized notion of readership of course, but it at least outlines some potentials of unresolved linguistic forms for an audience.

   One thing we found in some earlier performance workshops we made together was that if we worked with language and dance alone, either through improvisational structures or through more pre-scripted means, language came off as the dull partner. It was always collapsing the space of play, accruing weight and significance that deadened the relations between the things performed, and consequently between the enactment and the audience. Worse still: it seemed to narrow the capacities of movement itself, consigning it to empty abstraction or redundant illustration. There was much to be explored here, experimenting with language: with its forms and its modes of articulation, de-stabilizing its authorities and its means of reference in order to make it a partner fit to play. In a sense we were sensitizing language to the conditions of movement; altering it, so that it reverberated in relation to the things it sat aside. Yet, almost regardless of these experiments, language often appeared unresponsive to mobile contexts: inflexible, heavy and stubbornly referential. We found that if we disturbed the binary, either by inserting work with non-human objects, or by using musical principles and sounds, suddenly the performance was back in a space of productive possibility, fluidity, density or complexity of meaning.

   Well, all of this may sound a little blunt, vague or abstract if you weren’t in the room, but what I took from it at the time (from scribbles in my notebook) was this: ‘Two orders of signification always exhaust each other. Usually one ‘wins.’ Three is better: it keeps things moving. The life of meaning in this performance is found in the interplay between material objects, bodies, language and sound.’ So in these delicate performance ecologies that we made, to sustain dynamic tensions over time, more than two counteracting formal elements were required. No doubt, beside an aesthetic parameter, there are also some mathematical and neurobiological principles in play here?

   Art works that bring together objects and performance have always interested me – since they are a part of a rich tradition of live art works investigating the relations between performance and the plastic arts, engaged with and opening the materiality of bodies and things. I am not just thinking of those artists and art works that have been gathered under the genre of Body Art and have thus received the most attention, but a diverse constellation of works from artists such as Lygia Clark, Alastair MacLennan, Anne Bean, Stuart Sherman, Rebecca Horn, Paul McCarthy and Janine Antoni, for whom an installation in space, found or sculptural object is seen as being inseparable from a performed act. My sense is that the movement dynamics and choreographic potentials of this array of practices are not yet well articulated in art theory and history. Recent dance-performance has made some marked interventions here. Take for instance a set of dynamics investigated in Jérôme Bel’s earliest piece Nom donné par l’auteur (1994) and resident in different ways in your most recent work with the composer and performer Matteo Fargion, The Cow Piece (2010). Both Bel’s piece and your own use objects in a complex set of performed exchanges that draw attention to the materiality of things and the way in which, far from being inert, things act in the world. Bel’s piece is focused on the relation between objects and language, where the objects are shown to function as propositions in a gift-space between two performers. Objects like letters, words or phrases are deployed in a cut-and-paste relay game, assembled into ‘statements’ that are evidently subject to the linguistic structural laws of slippage and deferral. As Bel has noted, the piece follows ‘the choreographic paradigm but without dance.’ What emerges most memorably is the way in which things speak and act - have ‘a life’ - as they are always part of some transactional circuit.

   The Cow Piece seems to take this for granted, but moves elsewhere, thinking through the relations between a more dynamic and formal choreographic language, a set of affects / sentiments, and the ‘life’ of things. As you move beside the playing space of your two tables on which your objects and instruments sit, you are blending patterned, abstract gestures with functional and dysfunctional actions. So there is a more animated sense of dance potential here. Like most of your work with Matteo, the piece seems founded on invisible musical principles that provide its structure and timing. You play musical instruments too, so a powerful question is raised on the difference between instrumental objects (that extend human intentions) and symbolic / redundant / misused objects (that may do no such thing). I remember feeling very affected by your complex rhythmical arrangement of the things, their appearance and disappearance, their nearness and farness, their presence and their loss. It is a gently funny yet plaintive piece, in its exploration of the limits of human-object relations and its ruminations on mortality.

   I was reminded, thinking of both of these works, of some earlier performance pieces with objects by the artist Stuart Sherman. Here are some short clips from his Eleventh Spectacle (The Erotic) televised in 1979 with some pretty comic low-fi late 1970s art-tv added on at the end:

   What is striking about Sherman’s work, in this clip at least, is its hermetic, forensic and analytical feel; it is as if he has sequestered objects from everyday life, placed them in his laboratory and conducted a set of private experiments. Sherman is a blank agent, going through the motions of an elaborate set of body-action-object relations, whose origin / logic is resolutely elsewhere. Of course this kind of micro-theatre is great at accentuating our scrutiny, drawing detailed attention to objects as they are. But the brilliance of this work for me (more evident in the shows I saw in the mid 90s in Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater space quite sometime before Sherman’s death) lies in its ingenuity with bricolage. Objects are estranged from their associated functions, contexts and meanings; once alienated they find surprising new affinities and acquire radical sense. There was something of the shaman in Sherman on the nights I saw him perform, as he enacted his almost-magical transformations of things, through their agitated re-combination and re-association. Apparently Sherman described his work as ‘language without language’ and stated that he saw everything he did as a kind of writing. But what’s interesting when you trace these connected aesthetic interests through Bel’s work and then your own, is the move towards the kinetic and the choreographic as the key through which the ‘life of things’ might best be understood.

   Recent dance performance or ‘conceptual dance’ has often been associated with a critical impulse in relation to the kinetic: stilling, restricting or erasing movement, in order to question what movement is, in and of itself. It asks us to question movement’s ground, its nature and its potential. Hence, Bel’s statement that he uses a choreographic paradigm but strips out the dancing. But what interests me about your aesthetic turn in The Cow Piece is that you explore a space where movement and objects are dynamic and mutually questioning, and this is a space in which the affects and feelings given to and by objects can be keenly encountered. Objects have a holding power and they move (us) in many different ways. For me this is one of The Cow Piece’s strengths: its capacity to draw us into a space where we can think and feel our transactive relations to these things. There is much more to be said here about the cultural context of these realisations, but the length of this letter cuts me short for now. But just to add, that the sense of the kinetic ‘life of things’ is helped along by the growing popular awareness, filtering out from developments in science, that matter itself is not static permanence but a form in (less visible) processes: that substances are products of energetic forces. And the attribution of animacy to things that were once seen as ‘dead,’ is hard to separate from the shifting relation between the human and the non-human, particularly the machine, which is increasingly imbued with an uncanny ‘life.’

   Tracking back to the plot, I liked your comments about Kirkpatrick and his investment in sustained and heavy repetitions in musical forms; returns that eventually produce something else for the listener. Repetition has been such a staple of live art practices since the 1970s at least. We are used to hearing it defended - usually against criticism that harbors an unacknowledged or unquestioned taste for narrative progression - by emphasizing that every repetition carries difference, as it takes place in time. Time then, as a restless force of differentiation. The argument is philosophically robust, but is less persuasive in experiential terms, as we are all too aware of the deadening effects of some forms of repetition. Sometimes the same again is just more or less the same: critical difference seems to evaporate. What I like about Kirkpatrick’s thought is that it suggests that the deadening might also be productive, a kind of hypnotism, a way to lull us out of ourselves, our caged perceptions, to pass from boredom into reverie. This reminds me that I should someday undertake a more intensive investigation of experiences of boredom and their relation to performance, as boredom seems to trace a vital zone of contention and experimental potential in terms of our Western condition of cultural overload and exhaustion. There’s also something very resonant in Kirkpatrick’s argument (cast against the prevalent culture of violent fracture, multiplication and speed) about slow and simple forms – I am thinking in particular of durational performances - and their inherent capacity to draw us back to ‘elemental’ conditions of being and awareness.

   You said this wonderful phrase when describing Kirkpatrick’s effect: ‘To distract yourself from yourself so that your self becomes more visible.’ You were describing an auditor’s experience of music I think? But perhaps this principle is a good one for the making of performances too. (Isn’t that, in part, what Sherman is doing?) I like the way that you link this idea to ‘quietening,’ and in your phrasing of this phenomena, we shift from hearing to seeing. After the distraction and self-seeing has happened, ‘your’ and ‘self’ are uncoupled, no longer in a relation of proximity or inherent belonging. This brings me to my abiding interest in what I think of as ‘the unconscious of performance.’ By this, I am not only concerned with the innumerable ways performance makes apparent that effect and affect always exceed intention, but the aesthetic ploys by which an artist may come to be seen beyond or beside their selves.

   Looking forward to our encounter in Bremen at the Lime workshop and the exchanges and experiments we will make there.

-- Adrian


Piombino, N. 1998. The Aural Ellipsis and the Nature of Listening in Contemporary Poetry. In: Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, Ed. Charles Bernstein, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 57.

Bel, J. 2008. Jérôme Bel: An Interview. In: On Choreography, Performance Research 13 (1), Taylor & Francis, p. 44.

Electronic Arts Intermix hold a good archive of Stuart Sherman’s performances and films:

His papers are kept in the Fales Library and Special Collections at NYU:

Robin Deacon has been investigating and redoing Sherman:

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