Adrian Piper and everything I am scared of

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Born in New York City in 1948, Adrian Piper is a philosopher/conceptual artist/performer/theorist mixed-race woman who edits a journal in Berlin and teaches Funk lessons. Her work focuses around issues of xenophobia, gender, and race. Through street performance, installation art, pastiche pieces, multimedia, and theory, Piper meditates on her own African American heritage, and the ways in which this makes her an outsider in her own society. Her piece Calling Card (1986-1990) in which she would sit in bars and wait for men to approach her or for someone to make a racist remark, to then hand them a card explaining her ethnic background or her lack of interest, reveals the politics of race and gender, and of how the “other” is objectified.

This piece is especially resonant to me because it speaks to many of my own questions and insecurities. Being South American, race and ethnic background has always been part of my social and political spheres. Peru is a racist country marked by social and economic class divisions, where the cholos are deemed despicable and inferior, and the white pitucos cross shantytowns to get to their luxurious beach houses where discrimination thrives. Being an outsider to this society, I was not subject to their discriminations (Colombians are tanned and exotic, not cholos.) And so I see Piper’s work with astonishment, work that does not rely on protests and violence, work that lives in the grey areas of art, street performance, and mixed race. Her race, her gender, and her time allowed for her art, and so her political agenda is heard and communicated efficiently. Piper looked inside, into her heritage and her identity, to voice the struggle of a generation, of a social class, of a race. And why is it that we look at this, sigh, and say “we have nothing to fight for?” When our own identity, if we look closely, is flooded with politics, history, heritage, and contradiction. And it should be voiced, danced, painted, and screamed for everyone to see. Or should it?

Coming from countries where race dictates social class but it is also the hardest thing to pinpoint, where Colombian dark skin is not the same as Peruvian dark skin, where society prides itself of being half European and where indigenous tribes still pray to the Sun, I fail to identify my own culture, my own race, my own identity. And we speak of folk, and we define it as that which has not been decontextualized and I think, “Have I been decontextualized? Am I folk?” what are the politics that my skin carries today, here, in this place? What should my calling card be saying? What is the dance I should be teaching? Adrian Piper makes funk political and creates choreography of insurrection, of struggle, of emancipation. She advocates freedom, call and response, and ownership of one’s body. I am inspired and depressed, flooded by theory and detached from the present, but eager to keep searching.

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Dance, Dance

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Veronique Doisneau is beautiful, soft, and breathlessly talented. In 2004, she was also 42, about to retire from the Paris Opera, and the proud mother of two children. Although her dream is to perform the title character in Giselle, Veronique will never be a star ballerina. She is, nonetheless, the main character in Jerome Bel’s 2004 piece, “Veronique Doisneau.”

Jerome Bel (1964) is a French choreographer based in Paris. In his work, Bel pushes the boundaries of audience’s preconceptions, and plays with people’s expectations around dance, performance, and theatre. An experimentalist, Bel’s 2004 piece for the Paris Opera is a tender meditation on classical ballet. As Doisneau crosses the stage, she seems serene, even fragile, and alone. She carries her tutu under one arm and her point shoes on the other hand. She walks elegantly but with purpose. Standing downstage center, Veronique tells us her life story, her hopes and dreams. The performance is completely driven by her. She takes her time to change shoes, explain her opinions and views on certain ballet pieces, and then moves on to demonstrate some of these. She dances to her own humming of the piece’s music, and the microphone she carries allows us to hear her breath as she becomes agitated. It is a heartbreaking piece that bring the spectator’s attention to the performer, her fragility, her opinions, and her pain.

The most striking moment in the piece is when Doisneau demonstrates what a corps de ballet performer would do in Swan Lake. She moves into her position and keeps still as the recorded music for the famous ballet fills the sage around her. This moment is perfect. In a hierarchical system like the classical court ballet, a corps de ballet performer is not to be seen, not to be focused on. Yet Bel, by showing us Doisneau in this position as the music plays, is making a political statement. Especially because this comes way into the performance when we already have a relationship with her, we are invested in her, her career, her life, her dreams. And we long to see her shine, dance, and be center stage. Yet there she stands, a piece of scenery for an imaginary play. It is painful because it is real, simple, and long. Bel’s “Veronique Dosineau” is a meditation on ballet, on the ways in which it objectifies performers, erasing their stories and their inner lives. Doisneau’s performance brings the performer’s unique body onto the stage. Her breathing and her desire to be Giselle are hers alone, and we are exposed to them, become invested in them, only to be faced by the reality of a dance that has no interest in it. It is a heartbreaking peace about dance, but it is mostly a piece about dancers and the way the politics of dance objectifies them, and the ways in which they navigate this worlds and let themselves be objectified. 

Wooster Group House/Lights

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The Wooster group is a group of artists based in New York City. They produce and perform their own work at the Performance Garage in Manhattan, and perform in other venues in NYC and the world. The founder of the group is Elizabeth LeCompte, she is also the director of the group’s performances. Their 1999 piece House/Lights is based on Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights by Gertrude Stein, 1938 and Olga’s House of Shame, a 1964 film by Joseph Mawra.

 

The piece uses recorded soundtrack, live streaming, puppeteering, and voice distortion, among other tools to convey they strange speeches of Gertrude Stein and the specific genre of American horror films of the 1960s. All in all, the play creates a disorienting atmosphere where the audience is constantly being surprised and affected by sounds, unusual physical actions, and disturbing images. Particularly the use of live streaming to focus on the actor’s crotch area, and the opening in the actress’ dress to reveal her lace bra, keep the audience unsettled as we actively try not to focus on the performers’ genitals. Another tool that adds to this feeling is the myriad of physicality used to keep the audience in constant shifts. The moving of the tables, the weird distorted bodies, the biting of the inner thigh, the rubbing of the nipples, etc., add to the feeling of eeriness and unsettling that the play produces in us.

 

I found the piece disturbingly interesting. I am curious about each of the specific choices made to produce this universe of weird. I am not sure how the experience would be like had I watched it on a theatre. More specifically, what is the point of this play? Why are we asked to think about these bodies on stage and see them be distorted by elements of text, costume, make-up, and technology? The play certainly made an impact on me and many images remain in my head, but I keep asking, why? Why make a costume that makes the body look disfigured? Why is there a reptile puppet? 

Pehlwani Wrestling in Dubai

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Last week we went to Dubai, an few hours away from our Abu Dhabi, to witness the Pehlwani wrestling matches that happen every Friday around four in the afternoon. We arrived, headed to the fish market, and found our way to the playing area. This area was distinctly different from where we were coming from firstly because the ground was different. We were coming from the streets and were walking at a fast pace when we suddenly stepped on sand and entered a different space.

To get to the circle of Pakistani men situated around the wrestlers, we had to walk across the sand and through a game of cricket. Once outside the circle, we were able to make our way through and sit first row on the sand. We had arrived in the middle of a fight, and the event was in full heat. In the main arena there were the two performers and a man with a cane that seemed to be a kind of ring master, or chief, or referee of the event — who also was in charge of collecting money from the audience –. There was also a man playing a drum, he seemed to be, along with the ring master, the connection between the audience and the performers, linking us with the action in the center of the arena.

The part that was most interesting to me was the ending. At the very end, once money had been given to the winner, and music had stopped, the circle where we were sitting, the order of which we felt such a part of, dissolved completely. With the call to prayer and the sunset, the event was timely over. A man approached us and explained that this event was a way of escaping the life of work and taking time to remember a piece of home. They come together as community to tell themselves a story of who they are and where they come from. They work, they fight, and then they pray. But is it theatre? Is it performance? There was definitely a script, an order, a pre-made organization that they were enacting. The arena, the ring master, the small underwear worn by the wrestlers, are all part of an order that exists beyond the performance we witnessed. But is it theatre? And would it be theatre had we – and all those intruding photographers—not been there?

Theatre of the Absurd — Notes on Stein, Artaud, Ionesco, Sartre, Esslin and Ludlam

 

  1. 1.     Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)
  • Paris, 1900
  • Concern with Language: it’s meaning and form.
  • Non-linear plot, repetition, the fragmentation or complete elimination of character.
  • “Continuous present”
  • Influences: Avant garde cinema and cubism.
  • She Influenced: Robert Wilson, Anne Bogart, the Wooster Group, and the Living Theatre. http://arthurmag.com/2010/11/28/keith-richards-on-the-living-theatre/
  • The geography of theatre: a theatre of shapes to create a panorama of ideas
  • Plays (1934)
    • Emotion of audience vs. emotion of play – nervousness, jazz, the curtain.
    • Completion vs. relief of excitement.
    • Excitement in scene, book, or theatre.
      • Theatre as seen vs as heard (Wooster group, Living Theatre)

 

  1. 2.     Antonin Artaud (1896 – 1949)
  • Vs. theatre’s dependence on “the text”
  • A language exclusively of the theatre, not of novels or dialogues. “that sort of theatrical language foreign to every spoken tongue, a language in which an overwhelming stage experience seems to be communicated, in comparison with which our productions depending exclusively upon dialogue seem like so much stuttering.”
  • Theatre as plague: “creating a complete upheaval, physical, mental, and moral, among the population it stroke.” How does the plague affect your body? Flu epidemic 1918
  • Hieroglyphics of body language
  • On the Balinese Theatre (1938
    • Hallucination and fear
    • “the drama does not develop as a conflict of feelings but as a conflict of spiritual states, themselves ossified and transformed into gestures – diagrams.”
    • New physical language – signs>words.
    • Spiritual architecture – codified boy language. “A language without meaning except in the circumstances of the stage.” P. 207
    • Sound and movement go together – umbilical, larval (orature?)
      • “to wed movement and sound so perfectly that it seems the dancers have hollow bones to make these noises of resonant drums and woodblocks with their hollow wooden limbs.” P.214
  • “Mental alchemy which makes a gesture of a state of mind” p. 215
  • No More Masterpieces (1938)
    • “Masterpieces of the past are good for the past: they are not good for us.” P. 216
    • Theatre of now that appeals to the “general public”
    • Oedipus Rex vs. the public: Language must be changed for the audience to connect with the themes.
    • “recognize that what has been said is not still to be said; that an expression does not have the same value twice, does not live two lives; that all words, once spoken, are dead and function only at the moment when they are uttered; that a form, once it has served, cannot be used again and asks only to be replaced by another; and that the theatre is the only place in the world where a gesture, once made, can never be made the same way twice.” P. 217
    • Literature as fixed and dead, theatre as moving and alive.
    • Political commentary on bourgeois conformism.
    • Relationship society -> theatre.
    • Against Shakespeare and his mirror.
    • Against psychology
    • Art for art sake as decadent castration
    • Enough of personal art!
    • Theatre of cruelty: “We are not free. And the sky can still fall on our heads. And the theatre has been created to teach us that first of all.” P. 219
    • Theatre as acupuncture.
    • Theatre as a snake charmer.
    • Risk and Purification

 

  1. 3.     Eugène Ionesco (1909 – 1994)
  • Avant-garde and theatre of the absurd.
  • The Avant-Garde Theatre (1960)
    • Writer-prophets.
    • Avant-Garde: “Artistic and cultural phenomenon of a precursory nature,” p. 310
    • Avant-Garde as opposition and rupture. “an established form of expression is a form of oppression.” P.310
    • Avant-Garde theatre must be unpopular.
    • A tree is a tree.
    • Art as aggressive.
    • Theatre is being oppressed.
    • Bringing a tortoise onto the stage. (Total freedom)
    • “The theatre is dying for lack of courage” p. 313
    • “I am also quite certain that if all libraries were swallowed up in some great cataclysm together with all museums, those who escaped would sooner or later rediscover for themselves painting, music, and theatre which, like bodily functions, are as natural, necessary and instinctive as breathing.” P. 314
    • Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow
    • Theatre as an avant garde late bloomer.
    • The necessity for laboratories.

 

  1. 4.     Jean-Paule Sartre (1905 – 1980)
  • Beyond Bourgeois Theatre (1960)
    • Bourgeoisie control the theatre
    • The critic is the mirror of the public.
    • Objective vs. subjective !!
    • How to understand man
    • Bourgeoisie vs. Action (and theatre)
    • “To act, which is precisely the object of the theatre, is to change the world and in changing it, of necessity to change oneself” p.319
    • Partiality as subversion
    • “the gesture of stabbing gives birth to the knife” – everything else is unnecessary.
    • Passion as social
    • Against psychology
    • On Brecht.
    • Epic theatre vs. dramatic theatre : objectivity vs. subjectivity

 

  1. 5.     Martin Esslin (1918 – 2002)
  • The Theatre of the Absurd (1961)
    • Reception of Waiting for Godot at San Quentin prison
    • Breaking of normative expectations of theatre leads to unpopularity
    • In defense of absurdists
    • Identifying a movement
    • Absurd as metaphysical anguish
    • Absurdist form for an absurdist theme
    • Theatre of the Absurd vs. Existentialist theatre
    • “what happens on stage transcends, and often contradicts, the words spoken by the characters.” P. 332
    • anti-literary

 

  1. 6.     Charles Ludlam (1943 – 1987)
  • Ridiculous Theatre, Scourge of Human Folly (1975)
    • There is pain in comedy and comedy in pain
    • The irony of art

Balinese Cockfight

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Clifford Geertz’s essay “Deep Play: Notes on Balinese Cockfight” is an honest account of Geertz as he discovered, studied, and theorized cockfighting in Bali. Through observation and contextualization, Geertz arrives at the thesis that cockfighting in Bali serves as a necessary ritual where Balinese men can explore their own humanity and see themselves behave extremely different than daily life. Because the fight restricts the anger and the violence to the event – and to the animals, – it also maintains the social order.  They are illegal, but they are necessary; and they also create a sense of community that Geertz experience firsthand.

 

In the article, Geertz describes his first experience with the phenomenon. Him and his wife attended a fight and ran with the locals when the police arrived. He then describes the relationship between the different men in a cockfight. Most interestingly, he describes how the cock – the word in Balinese means both rooster and penis as in English – becomes a symbol of a man’s virility. Therefore, the fight is not a fight between two animals, it is a fight between two men’s bestiality. So long as it is restricted to the animals, men can go about their daily lives without their feelings of anger and desire to be violent surfacing. Geertz also talks about the different ways in which men raise their cocks – stuffing red pepper up the cock’s anus to give him “spirit”—and how they put them in cages and scare them before a fight so they will be more violent.

 

Animal cruelty aside, the thing that I found most interesting was the way in which the townsmen’s repressed bestiality desires were channeled through these fights. Geertz argues that because in Balinese culture bestiality is completely condemned, all the unresolved urges to submit to one’s deepest destructive desires of violence and blood are re-directed to this activity. This is what makes it necessary for society to maintain its order. The cockfight is a kind of purification that levels the Balinese society’s darkest emotions. This is why it persists despite being illegal, because it is crucial to the society. How can we build a theatre that supplies these urges? What is our cockfight?

Hell House

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Ann Pellegrini’s article “Signaling Through the Flames: Hell House Performance and Structures of Religious Feeling” looks closely at the fundamentalist US Protestant churches that have designed haunted houses depicting heaven, hell and sins for Halloween celebrations. A Hell House, Pellegrini explains, is a phenomenon that was born of a preoccupation that Halloween exposed and attracted young people towards the occult. Hell Houses are built like a Halloween haunted house, except they are run by the church, serve a didactic function, and finish in a prayer room.

Pellegrini discusses her experience of a Hell House in Colorado in 2006, the 2001 documentary Hell House, and the Hell House staged by Brooklyn base company Les Freres. Pellegrini’s focus is on theatricality and how it is used in a Hell House. She argues that for a Hell House to be ‘effective’ – i.e convert somebody or bring them to repentance and penitence – there must either be preexisting beliefs, or at least confusion about religion. This is why there is a controversy regarding Hell Houses and young audiences. As we discussed in class, a young boy or girl with uncertainties about his faith and his life would be easily scared into believing eternal damnation and will most probably stay for the praying session post-Hell House. However, the flip side is that the same young person will be exposed to sex, abortion, alcohol, and homosexuality – things he might not have been exposed to before – and will understand that these are possibilities within the realm of human existence. If they are not scared into the church, they might even develop an understanding – or an interest – for all of these so-called sins.

I found Hell Houses deeply disturbing, especially in the light of my deep curiosity for Ta’ziyeh. As we unpacked the phenomenon, we found ourselves judging it under different standards than we would judge a Ta’ziyeh performance, or an orature phenomenon. I think this is the same road we took with Mnouchkine’s play, where we had expectations or pre-made concepts about it. In other words, because Christian fanatism is a phenomenon that I have been exposed to before, –I grew up with my dad being fascinated and deeply irritated by preachers on TV – I was predisposed against it. However, as we compared it with Ta’ziyeh I realized there were many religious questions I was not asking the Iraninan tradition—policies on abortion, homosexuality, alcohol, etc. – and that were predisposing me against the Christian Hell House. Nonetheless, once we are past our personal attachments or judgments on these phenomena, we can begin unpacking them as theatrical experiences. It is difficult to separate a tradition from it’s fundamental ideas, however. And shouldn’t theatrical experiences always have a political, religious, or social agenda? And if we disagree with their agenda, should we still praise their aesthetics?