|Jacket 40 — Late 2010||Jacket 40 Contents||Jacket Homepage||Search Jacket|
This piece is about 26 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Rodrigo Toscano and Natalie Knight and Jacket magazine 2010. See our [»»] Copyright notice.
The Internet address of this page is http://jacketmagazine.com/40/toscano-knight-theater.shtml
NK: Squat Theatre was oftentimes very intent on playing with and intervening in the ambiguity of a distinction between reality and theatre. In a sense, they staged reality literally as theatre and theatre very literally as reality. This seems quite different to me than Collapsible Poetics Theater (CPT), or to your poetic sensibilities in general. I’m wondering how their particular interventions brush up against your own tendencies. Here’s one example, from Squat Theatre written by Eva Buchmuller and Anna Koos, published by Artists Space in 1996:
“During the 1979 run of AWLL Squat Theatre was invited to speak to graduate students at New York University. Anna was on edge because of tensions in her private life. She looked it. The lecture began with the Sex Pistols blasting from a boombox, Peter drawing on the blackboard and Pisti pacing up and down. Anna suddenly turned the music off and started to speak haltingly about a terrible event that had happened to her the other day. She said she was still shaking, and that she had to excuse herself: she would not be able to talk about theater at such a point in her life. She said she was raped at knifepoint in the West Village. She was lucky and survived. Her husband Eric would not cope with the accident and would not talk to her, which drove her insane. Meanwhile, he showed up and stood sullenly at the classroom door beckoning to her with their baby son, Simon, in his arms. When Anna noticed them, she walked to the door and left with them.
The students were quick to offer their compassion. But, they were soon warned that it was all an act. Having been shortchanged, they preferred to believe the story. So Peter and Pisti allowed them to believe it was true after all.
Thus began the discussion on theater....”
RT: Hm. My read on that last paragraph goes something like this....
Some students’ apparent expression of compassion was soon addled by the invited theatre lecture folks’ pronouncement that the whole incident had been an “act.” Some of the students, having been very frontally presented with the dilemma of “reality” vs. “theatre,” chose to make more acute the quandary presented by declaring their “belief” in Anna’s terrible event. Scrambling, Peter and Pisti, quickly designated that moment (the students’ stage-making for discussion) as the beginning of the discussion on theatre.
And thus begins this poetics theater reading of that theatre-of-discussion “about” theatre…
First off, I feel like I could never report listeners’ responses in that way, as a uniform response (“they preferred...”). Even if the students had been surveyed, then — at that time, about what they thought, believed or disbelieved, the results of that survey, to my mind, would still be the stuff of fable-making, useful fable-making at that.
This is a way of saying that I fully accept the full-on fakey mariachi in a green glittery suit on fire dimension of theatre (more on this troubled declaration later). And to be fair, Squat Theatre (by the accounts I’ve read of their genesis — their wily raison d’êtres) had to confront and finely thread (or even explode) Stalinist party-line Socialist Realism aesthetics, from very early on. And so parsing the dimensions of “the real” I would imagine is part of the marrow of the bones that made them.
But here we are in this atmo(2009, NYC, U.S.A), in the midst of this scatter-yourself-when-you-wanna-how-you-wanna atomized, capitalist, free-culture, where such a reflexive gesture (“is it live or is it Memorex?”) can very easily slide into a grab-bag Duchampianism, the old “gotcha” spectator/reader “what you think it to be — is all that it might be — after all!” Fatigued late modernism. Straight up, I don’t give a shit about capers like that anymore. Frankly, I’m confused as to how I move in the world. I want to know more about it, and not as “solution” to “living,” but as Working Language to be co-thought alongside others. Poetics, in a word; Poetics Theater, in two.
Also, I guess I’m still Brechtian in a very elemental way as regards the struggled-over world: a push is needed, not just a look, but a push on things.
And perhaps jumping a little too ahead in this discussion...lately, I’m continuously challenged by thinking about (and scoring and sequencing) pre-speech (body-movement) prompting of speech utterances, coupled by after-speech body action. All this in a live space as demonstration, as social-political demonstration, fully contradictory, and, only tryingly “analyzable.” So I guess the “brush up” is that also I’m talking about enigma in some way. I really admire Squat’s embrace of enigma through exercises of endurance (a player hanging upside down for a full hour, etc).
NK: You’re right on to give a break-down of the historicization and lent narrative of students’ reactions at the NYU lecture, especially in regards to the way such narratives run the risk of being read narrowly within the realm of aesthetics (re: your comment on a possible neo-Duchampian reading). The way I see it, Squat interrogated and harassed theatre/reality and the narratives attached to perception, very similar in effect to the Andy Warhol “shooting” in the street, during their play Andy Warhol’s Last Love. You remember that? — a gun is fired outside, while spectators are inside the storefront; then, a player aims a gun through the window at a player outside, and the soundtrack plays a recording of a window shattering. Only seconds later do spectators “realize” (reported by a spectator herself) that the window has not shattered. What is shattered, potentially, is the spectator’s coercive singular perspective, and her own construction of what constitutes “real” action. This, I think, leads to the potential for dialogue about perspective and action, such a far cry from a museumified latrine!
I’m hyped about Squat because I see ourselves asking the question: “what is Squat ‘now’?” When really we’re asking “where is theater going?” I certainly think that their “refugee” status (as one advocate for their theatre called it), arriving in New York as Jewish Hungarians censored by the Stalinist government in the late 70s, contributed fundamentally to, and partially constituted, their shared creative groundwork. In the US, when they got here, they were “drawing from a European tradition that was staunchly anti-bourgeois, unapologetically political, and not overly concerned with looking pretty.” (Which was not-so-much the beat of theatre in NYC at that time, though maybe 10 years previously.) They were deeply concerned, I think, with our collectively-felt confused movement through the world that you mention....
For their last play in Budapest, in 1975, they intentionally went to a canonical text, and took out all the male lines of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, while the female characters’ lines were delivered, flatly, by male players — at which point, “the play’s essential thought was revealed” (their own reporting of that) which was: “longing to be elsewhere, or simply put, thought without the potential to become action.”
Condensed into just one sentence, this grappling with “thought without the potential to become action” is my own felt estimation of the quality of poetic-political (or in an entirely different sense aesthetic and “real”) urgency lurking in many works that compel me, not least CPT. And in the theatre, as well as the theatre of reality, it’s how to generate that potential for that thought to become action, which I suspect might be related to the challenge you report of working on pre-speech prompts and after-speech body action. From where does action derive its potential? Such a big question.
And obviously, it’s because I want to talk about deriving potential for action in 2009 that I think examination of Squat’s impulses are so key. So, perhaps, you might have more to say about your challenges with sequencing speech and body-movement.
RT: In Realist Psychological Theatre the Why of an action is almost always foregrounded (X kills Y to “get closer” to Z; Z and Y meanwhile have been casted into discernible motivic schemes, “Y” being a “king,” had it out for X (an ambitious prince, while Z was “responsible” for exacerbating X’s self-hatred as projected onto Y, etc), and so...such “action,” curiously, is not action at all! It’s speech-marking. Sure, on the streets of Brooklyn, a homicide is not “speech-marking,” but in a theatre situation, it’s different. Such speech-marking refers to states of minds — the players usually - “set it up” - for the audience to guess at it. So then what is “action?” Well, we often say, the “action” of a trigger, we also say “the elbow’s action,” also, “interaction” between sulfate and chloride. Are these speech-markers for psychological states? I’d say no. Are they theatric actions in and of themselves? I’d also say most definitely not. So what are they? They’re calculations and testing of elements in space and time.
In a recent CPT piece, “Feel Your Media - Bitch” — in episode 2 (toward the end of it), there’s the following body-action and speech-say designations:
Now, along a Realist Theatre code-&-expectation grid that sequence “makes no sense” as to how the body-action narratively “syncs” with the speech-say action. But from the perspective of Poetics Theater, it’s altogether different. The body-action is a coordination (between two players) as through a series of stress points (the limits of two anatomies). And the speech can also be thought of as a coordination (of materiality of the signs) as through a series of ideological stress-points (Globalization giving birth and truncating incipient urbanist art forms). The “(( fuck))” is where the two theatric designations would meet, but don’t. So action and speech are preserved (not pimped one onto the other), and what’s expended is the spectators striving to piece them together,“(( fuck)).” So, they’re disynchronous as regards unified gesticulatory purpose, but bisynchronous as regards an elemental theatric moment, that is, a demonstration of players coupled by a spectatorship making critical discriminations of such a demonstration.
In a later episode (5), the element of “a reader” is added, through the introduction of M as engaging the simultaneous (but separable) tracks of speech and body-action. And what will that“do” to the audience? Well, it remains to be seen / sensed! (especially as that particular text was written under the duress of waiting for reports out of Iran during the repression of the oppositionalist demonstrations; the context of that text will no doubt flow — but how far? and “that” — will be a test of “that”):
NK: Speech-marking, I like that, and homicide, I like that too — as metaphoric markers, that is. In North American avant-garde poetics now, I think there’s considerable disdain for that speech-marking (judicial and moralistic narrating) while it’s also nearly impossible, as consumers and producers of texts and language (in whatever form), to not be aware of that homicide occurring in Brooklyn, or Iran, or elsewhere. Speech-marking assigns a static position to language in motion — a claim to the character of this space and this time. And there’s a strand in poetics now, multiple strands even, that, in disgust of speech-marking, with ears held tight to the raging radio (or tweet stream), forego entirely the Collectively Confused Movement, foregoing the tight-rope-walk-moment of placing ideological stress-points. The risk of fessing up to a (necessarily-already-compromised) ideological stance in relation to this space and this time is the risk of both self-reflexive speech-action, and the risk of acting out vulnerability. The opposite of vulnerably speaking through a stance that one recognizes as already compromised is documentation-archeology (which of course, at the end of day, collapses under its own compromises too).
In my view, this circumstantial/documentary art of contemporaneity (simply “as that”) and a euphoric celebration of “the internet age” fails to flip, slip, tumble, do anything with stress-points, or in action (not reaction) to “globalization giving birth and truncating incipient art forms,” as you put it. How can you be euphoric about truncation? It’s that “ and” that I feel is absent from a circumstantial culling of information sets. From that “ and”...to me...comes all the problems and potentials of a Poetics Theater.
I think I’m after ecstasy in action, not euphoria in archeology. My own poetic “attraction” is to those “(( fuck))”-points, the ideological stress-points, which give a tip-of-the-hat to Our Collectively Confused Movement Through the World while simultaneously flipping out! Flipping out of and in confusion — into action — an experiment bisynchronous, disynchronous — a push of the individual-collective envelope. Of course, I think someone might say “that’s not everyone’s poetic attraction” and so to level a critique on certain strands, in these terms, is evaluating these poets’ poetic attractions according to my own — different projects entirely. My response to that is, there’s no need to shirk the negotiation of Working Language, as you call it, because speech-marking might be a narrativisitic-psychological tendency or because there’s “anarchic” or “egalitarian” computational brains and information sets to scramble. As if history is therein “leveled.” (While 7% of India’s population has access to and navigation skills of the internet, compared to U.S.’s 75%, really, the tabletop’s level now?)
But I’m also deeply troubled by all this too — as a “how-to” wrestling of the stage ( what stage, where to stage, whose stage) to make, alas, a concerted political-aesthetic wrestling match. It’s fine for me to say I’m compelled by an historically informed, ideologically-sharp poetics. It feels like a whole other ring and set of gloves to actuate such cultural-political work. For one thing, practice and execution (not to mention an art’s “effectiveness”) depends upon resources, and access to them — not least economic and labor-duration, or time. It depends, for my generation in a way perhaps more acute than ever, upon sustainability - in multiple regards - (that buzz of all buzzwords). It drives me crazy thinking that the struggles of making motion (ideological, political, social, interpersonal even) are qualitatively increasingly strenuous.
RT: “Flipping out...into action.” That’s precisely the challenge that I came up against in the heady 90s. Becoming increasingly activist oriented around Counter-Capitalist “issues” (in both the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ modes), I felt like I had to stretch myself in several directions at once (poetry, union work, labor party construction efforts, etc). But this all started in San Diego, where rents were at that time 300- 400 for a one bedroom (I had one place in the early nineties that was 200!) So that situation of not having to work the 40-hour thing was “do-able” for sure. But also, it was almost a fantasy that I could fully develop as a poet in San Diego (let alone take a crack at being any kind of poetics genre-bender!) There just wasn’t enough of a critical mass of poetic artistry for me to be challenged by. So my subsequent moves to San Francisco and New York in search of such challenges — under the “affluent Clinton years” (where part-time work became almost untenable in those cities as finance capital “re-zoned” entire cities as playgrounds for people-on-the-rise) finally, uh, “paid off.” That is to say, those moves definitely stretched out my poetic practice in crucial ways, but simultaneously, alongside that development, the 40-hour thing (plus 40% of income on rent) threatened my poetic activity into a non-existence(I outright “faked” my first two years into both the SF and NYC scenes, resting on my San Diego coffeehouse slacker writing laurels).
And here I’m talking about poetic performance at the podium, or at liquor-mean poetry “club” microphone bobble-head affairs. Both situations require the same sequence of activity: write it — read it. The material means to that theatric mode is ultra minimal: one person. There’s something hugely potentializing about that. One “takes the hit” directly for every production. And taking hits, whether one is “positively-received” or “negatively-received” — over and over, builds character! (“character” in poetic terms, would mean, getting split up — into many). Also, the vast majority of poetry readings are hosted by businesses not relying on arts patronage, so making or breaking “the house” is a non-issue. The singular writer-reader, as an ensemble, is very portable, and it can slink around certain Capitalist structures pretty easily. Conversely, the Producer-Writer-Director-Actor-Theater-Venue structure — as a mode of poetic activity, is practically a dead-letter game for most poets. So some years back, what I set out to do (“actuate”) — through the CPT, is to stretch out that initial advantage (of the singular reader) by fully embracing portability of writing-reading means and non-site dependent performances.
But to return to the “strenuousness” that you’re talking about. I feel that yes, it’s a “generational” thing in terms of Capitalist compression of space (something that’s ongoing) but it’s also an outright class differential thang too. Things are indeed getting worse and worse for young, working-for-wages, non-trust fund, non-future-heirs-and-heiresses urban artists. In the domain of “alternative theatre” (which in NYC is tons of true-and-tried classic “drama” texts recycled into a bells n’ whistles mode of theatricality), the situation stands out in stark relief. A recent study commissioned by the association of Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway nonprofit theaters in New York City, “Space to Create: The Theater Community in Crisis” (prepared by the Alliance of Resident Theaters/New York, a trade and service organization for more than 130 small theaters), found that the members of the association were paying an average of 75% more for rent than they did five years ago. So one of the material strains there is that writers and actors are getting “pushed up” — compressed — filtered & sorted, into modes of theatre (ie. Broadway) that are — to say the least — not so much interested in formally experimental political theatre. And that’s a strain that Capitalism should be happy as fuck about: an un-declared shooing-away of unwanted content. Additionally, it’s much easier for young people that are padded by family wealth to “wait it out” than for the wage-working young. This situation further makes “theatre” in NYC even more restrained in its outlook (by the way, there’s oodles of would-be theatre refugees in the poetry world because of those combined strains, economic and political).
The study goes on to say, “What the arts have done consistently is to go into marginal neighborhoods, where the rent is low,” “and by the very presence of the arts, they have gentrified the neighborhoods. They have provided light, and nighttime activity. Restaurants have flocked to the area. Then the property becomes more desirable, it’s worth more in the market, and all of a sudden the arts have priced themselves out of their own home, which they have created.” And so forth. So strain upon strain upon strain creates a cultural-political atmosphere, an atmosphere so dense and confusing to navigate for its inhabitants, that — well... I want to ask you some questions right in the midst of it...
Are you at a crossroads as to whether to “throw down” (or not) with regards to “actuating” a poetic practice (in any mode)? And if so, has and does that apprehension itself inform and shape the poetic works that you’ve done up to this, or are doing, or might do?
Also, one thing that consistently returns me to the workbench is the very thought of ceding the domain of Culture (specifically, poetic culture) to centrist, conservatively-adaptive forces. And so I tip in to the work anew, with renewed fury. And I don’t think of it as me, alone. I think of it as me in tow with other poets, here and abroad (and hopefully, in high aesthetic contrast to them). Now, of course, clearly, I’m much further along this “actuation” than you (and trust me, I’m also frustrated by that loose confederation’s murky motion, not to mention my own indolence added to it), but I’m talking about a basic viewpoint here. What macros does your age-group aspire to / mess with, in terms of the spill-out from individual to group, and perhaps from there to some “mass.”
NK: Experiencing contraction of economic and natural resources, as the “Space to Create” study reflects in a particular way relating to theatre folks, might be one way to view the stage on which young artists are developing poetic and political savvy. It’s funny though, right — we can talk about Capital’s increasingly compressed and stressed space even as fantasy finance is based entirely on an utterly uncompressed economic atmosphere. I feel like there’s an ever-increasing distance between poles — between contraction, conservatism, authoritarianism — and its compliment: truly unregulated spaces, like derivatives markets. We’re also in the midst of net neutrality debates which could help keep internet access from contracting to fit the imperatives of capital (more than it might already). So artistically and otherwise, I feel the strain of ever-widening poles and it’s this strain that characterizes my current apprehension surrounding poetic actuation. My work and my movement through the world is haunted by this apprehension. To me, this is the increased strenuousness of making motion today.
So we’re needing to (take a) stand on a poetic-political base that is itself in constant oscillation. A serious risk of seasickness, on these wobbly seas. And even when I think I’m doing something quite different, this haunting shows up in my work, almost constantly. Like in a recent poem, “in the sun’s frame, i wave constitutionally to you”:
the sun’s presence has repercussions.
what did you mean by that?
do you know what you meant by that?
“in the sun’s frame...”
there’s your epistemological shipwreck. there is
in the atlantic -
to the surface (of newspaper
print, and collective memory)
when ship is the plane from
Brazil to France and
the wreck is just your aloneness colliding
with what may or may not be a sense of
empathy that startled you.
what’s a wreck? and what’s a sun?
Juliet is the sun, or, the shipwreck of the singular
‘we immigrants’ ‘are bound’ in the solar system where ‘the sun
is also where it is not’
‘he’ is ‘my’ ( ‘the’ ) sun –
or, responsibly speaking:
we are in mutual orbit
that grow in increasing
proportion to my
love for distinct patterns &
the constitutional wave
bowing out on
The poem was written after the Air France plane crash, which it refers to, and during protests resulting from the July 12 th Iranian election. “Constitutional” from the title returns at the end, “bowing out on multiple [nation-state] horizons,” and the poem also recognizes an “epistemological shipwreck,” or, where and how information gains validity — what “sun” do we fix as our authoritative reference point.
Another thing that occurs, alongside “outside” stresses, is the placement of somewhat intimate “I” and “you” which posit my own interpersonal, and intrapersonal, agency into a poetic actuation that makes contact with those irreconcilable social stresses.
I think this poetic-abstract “I” and “you,” mingled with tracings of spill-outs into the social, relates directly to what you said about being “in tow” with poets here and abroad. Identifying a conversation to participate in, and communities as comradely groups, whether in a shared locale or virtually/globally in arms, forms that macro sense of what needs to be done, now. The generational sense of things. I want to jump-start this kind of group-inflected practice. Finding that “critical mass” you mention — even before contending with the economic challenges to artistic creation that you laid out so clearly — is the move to make at this point.
And this is where I see poetics theater as such a vibrant option, especially because it foregrounds embodiment, and uses text, speech, and body movement as complex creative tools for approaching the increasingly contracting, seemingly, space from which we create art and move through the world.
RT: Closely examining epistemology, bracketing “meaning,” detourning its elements, pooling “content,” is one thing I was very interested in doing in the 90s, like in my book, The Disparities. A sustained focus on epistemology made me feel like I could “begin” to enter into spaces where my “self” was “more re-definable” (very North-American occupation, obsession, come to think of it). By To Leveling Swerve, I had become a total agnostic as to whether that was an effective way to proceed at all. It all seemed to go into one ear (of the listener, or writer) and out the other. In the walking-waking world it (the work) didn’t walk so well. Maybe I put too much stock in syntactic triple-toe looping. So instead of Splicing I became more keen on Loading (even Over-Loading) cultural referents, and aiming those referents at other referents for maximum impact and shatter-pattern dispersal. I did this to the point of feeling like I was shirt-tugging the reader / listener (myself included), hence the “aah” feeling “gained” when the work “let go” of that tugging (Lucretius: pleasure is the gradual cessation of pain). I also felt that if even the most graceful epistemologically investigative moments were ideological manipulations anyway, then shit, why not just carry on como un cabrón, straight up, a rhetor on the prowl. And I think this is why the net (chunking-out large portions of text from it) was not that useful for me at that point (and even now) in that the collision points from where those social-political stresses are to be felt are emanating from pre-discursive locations (with changing ideological fluctuations), literally, from one single word to another. So what are they, “those words” binging me in the brain around the clock? Well, that’s one of the questions I constantly have to ask, or rather, re-frame (ha! I guess that’s a properly epistemological concern after all). This is a long drawn way of heartily agreeing with you that the poetics of what one is “poeticizing” is primary to any considerations as to where any given piece might end up as a performative moment (the great Augusto Boal would heartily disagree!)
It still intrigues me this “intimate ‘you’ and ‘I’” that you mention, especially as global-subject differential markers (those markers were, in part, the basis for my writing Partisans, which I wrote right after The Disparities). It intrigues me because the touch-point differential between them (“I” and “you”) changes drastically as history transforms the very terrain on which those two hail each other. I would even say their very size changes (one might swell up, while the other wilts, and vice versa). For example, in your poem:
“...the wreck is just your aloneness colliding
with what may or may not be a sense of
empathy that startled you.”
Well, that’s not exactly Bob Dylan scaling there (“how does it feel...when you’re on your... own”). This “may or may not be” moment is the cultural-political contact zone you posit, one where the reader (or a spectatorship in a Poetics Theater situation) has to enter into; plus the “startle” index, which is hard to estimate given the incredible amounts of slumber that the net exposes us to. But there it is — an enigma.
And this Global-Power-“I” (GPI) and Global-Power-“You” (GPY) — as exploratory cultural-political reach-out bots released onto a speculative grid of Global Understanding (GU), it’s not meant to cancel-out figurations of gender, race, and class, but it does mean to suspend those figurations. How else nimbly navigate a mass-touch net-based anonymity coupled with IRL (“in real life”) police water cannons at certain given locations? Again, poetics is key. Imagine if we could (and we can!) talk about poets’ “I’s” like that...“is it GPI grade?” “yeah, a circa 2001, but fully cloaked with traces of something new — what is it?”
But as amped as I still am by such speculative thinking around poetics, I’ve been in the process for some time now of becoming an agnostic as to whether such mainly textual social stress-measuring is stress-measuring at all! And that’s what led me to think of straining bodies in conjuction with strained texts, all dropped onto a pretzled up spectatorship wanting release — badly.
Will there be another Squat Theatre-like formation that can effectively speak to these times? I’d say, no. And if one should arise, it will likely be hobbled from the get-go given the, as you say, “unregulated” squashing cultural-economic compressions that face such a formation. The CPT always feels to me like a millimeter away from being utterly squashed, given its increasing time requirements on behalf of its volunteer poet-players (Capital’s fly swatter over their heads at every turn). So, tuning into these “Conditions of Poetic Production and Reception” doesn’t feel like just a scholarly departamentista workout, but more like a bare-bones survival and fight-back planning session.
NK: In Part 1, “Squat Theatre and Crisis,” you quote (and actually translate) one of Lucretius’s less quoted dictums: pleasure is the gradual cessation of pain. For me, this enticing maxim hinges mostly on one word: “gradual.” Gradual points towards duration in time and expansion/contraction in space, and, in Lucretius’s statement, indicates the quality of transitioning from one state into another. But importantly too, pleasure occurs in the transition... not necessarily after it. Afterwards might just be relief, or worse, a sentiment like: “that was satisfying,” a purely consumerist response.
In terms of Poetics Theater, I would think that duration is not only central to your composition of pieces, but perhaps even one of the concepts that spurred you towards body movement from more straightforward (but certainly not straight-laced) on-the-page poems. For a Poetics Theater, duration has dynamic implications not limited to: poets’ reading, speaking, embodying abilities; spectators’ thresholds; body movement scripting and execution; text and sound capabilities; space potentials and problems... and on and on. Dealing consciously with duration means head-on contending with the charged capacities and releases possible in a three dimensional textual-spatial arc. These capacities and releases aren’t just byproducts then; they’re part of a piece’s material mechanics and liberational suggestions.
And in thinking about your previous work, I’m curious about the point at which you moved towards body movement. I’m wondering if an increased inundation of text and information — in multiple formats — effected the duration of your creativity, whether during a singular piece, between pieces, or in the public performance of work. And I’m wondering if, in your particular poetics, body movement might give a certain piece a longer, or, qualitatively different duration during which, rather than resulting in pleasure (though it can), it acts as a political-cultural agent.
RT: The appearance of Body Movement Parameters (BMP’s) seems to have happened right at the time when Collapsible Poetic Theater’s (CPT) polyvocalism was reaching its peak in terms of expressing not only the saturation from the “outside” (media-lived life), but also from the “inside” (the capacity of this unconscious to bear the warp of that “arc” you mentioned as it streamed across “all discussable history”). Polyvocalism literally collapsed into body movement seemingly to express its - ha ha - new found grotesque-sexy body. There was hardly a thing I could do to stop it!
But here’s another way to approach that quandary, something I’ve been thinking about lately. Namely that, being a bi-ped is a wonderful thing. I marvel at this reality of mine (ours) all the time. But there’s a real price to pay for being bi-peds. First of all, the head is quite heavy to haul around, and the hips bear a lot of weight, which then affects the spine, and from the spine, all limbs and joints. For ages, most hominids have suffered from some sort of joint degeneration as they grow older. In the meantime, before such collapses — with some work, we can do marvelous things in relation to the constant of gravity. What we do individually with that fundamental force of the universe is one thing (never-ending); what we do with it in tandem (finite) is yet another. All team sports are about this “another,” and so is most dance. But not that much theatre accepts this anatomical raw fact as the place to begin (one major exception was, of course, the art of Robert Wilson, which turned capacities on their heads). So given that the CPT is invested in exploring Social Equality by way of Shared Fundamental Material Conditions, to explore body movement coupled and compounded by poetic text is an essential activity. At the beginning of “Pig Angels of the Americlypse” the following space & time parameters are set:
Initial Activity: for the next 30–40 seconds all three players alternate between a hands and knees position and laying flat on their stomach (legs active); the following activities for each player continues throughout entire piece, unless otherwise instructed: P1 is inspecting the floor very carefully, focusing on minute things, pulling apart the ground (and script), spreading it, like picking through thick carpet looking for something; P1 alternates between this activity with putting his/her ear to the ground, straining to listen for something ; P2 smushes small things on the ground (and script) with the tips of his/her fingers (later things are picked at with a pencil); P3 wipes the ground (and script) obsessively, like clearing a mirror, then looks at what’s there, sees nothing, and returns to wiping and clearing; all players never turn to face each other, nor do they speak directly at each other, but rather remain locked into their activities. That is, their field of attention is directly below them.
So the players at that point are all but smushed to the ground, “giving in to it” (its pull force) through different activities. Participating in this piece myself on several occasions, I can say that it was extremely challenging to endure the sequence. The point was to have speech squinch out of those bodily contortions, and not be as a (however skilled) “voice over” to a particular “staging” of a given “character’s part.” Squinched out, “painful.” And the spectators (“bi-ped hominids” — it’s worth repeating) recognize those stress-points, and start desiring — no! designing “pleasurable” releases. The mind jumps ahead looking for solutions to locked motions. Therefore the “solutions” that the CPT posits in subsequent sequences (i.e., all players suddenly springing up in unison, locking arms, running forward, jostling each other, and belting out lines, and so on), can be thought of as pivot-points in contrast to the spectators’ non-contemplative, but already exacerbated, sensory motions. That’s how “time” is created in CPT, from a body-to-body, offset clocking. The challenge, as a score writer for this overarching clock, is calculating when a space might open up for a new “setting.” And since a “setting” combines (actual-time) duration, bodily capacity, and conjoined sensual-intellectual searches for release points — oh, and messes in the making too, phew! there’s lots of “places” to jump off from. So progress here is not necessarily meant as something moving forwards, but just simply “somewhere else.”
NK: I’m very interested in the correlations you mention between sports, dance, and theater in testing the limits and capabilities of the human body — pushing into “somewhere else” through sustained endurance training. I’m thinking about how this “body-to-body offset clocking” is a method of creating time in CPT.
This is a very different measurement of time than that which is typically manifested in our daily working worlds. What your measurement of time seems to foreground is labor-duration, or, actually, work (since labor is socio-economic) — the work it takes to endure the sequences of “Pig Angels of the Americlypse,” or come to think of it, the work of not only training for but improving your time on a 5K race. You’ve been a runner for some time now and compete on a team in races in NYC, and I used to compete on a rowing team, and am just beginning to transition to running. One thing that stunned me about sports (since I’d never participated in team sports until crew) is that, as one trains one’s body and improves strength and endurance, the experience and passage of time of a 2K race (as it happens to be for rowing) changes drastically. I mean, the actual experience of the duration of those 7 and a half (hopefully less) minutes was transformed by the time I reached the end of the season, when I was many times stronger and more fit. In some ways, the experience became “harder,” as we were able to make the boat go faster by sustaining very high heart rates and using our built muscles at maximum capacity. But the distance traveled also gained many more tiny details, subtle indications — by way of me tuning in to my body’s response to the incredible task asked of it — of testing and pushing the limits of this “somewhere else” that you posit as the alternative “progress” touched on in CPT.
So in terms of demonstrating a potentially liberational poetics theater, I think the requirements of endurance (in physical tests of all kinds) plays a major part. It trains the mind, too, to recognize subtle details in the passage of time that aren’t otherwise felt, and to recognize pleasure where previously it only detected sensations of pain. Feel the burn. There’s nothing like an athlete’s yearning to arrive at that “edge” of his or her physical capacity.
And now I’m wondering how to explode this onto a bigger stage — a global stage, where that Global-Power-I and Global-Power-You endure physical tests in many “workplaces” and interact in Global Understanding, to bring back those terms you suggested at the conclusion of Part 1 of our exchange. You wrote that these Global Scale pronouns don’t cancel out identity-particularities, but simply suspend these particularities. And I think, suspend for what result? Well, after this discussion of time-measurement and physical endurance, I would think to make more glaringly obvious the effort underlying all physical acts, no matter location. This attempt to reveal — through staged “body-to-body offset clocking” — the hard work and sweat bolstering phenomenal wealth and debilitating poverty is an historically salient method of intervention, a way to open a conversation “here” about events “there” and vice versa.
RT: The three “pigs” (as they’re called during CPT “move-throughs”/rehearsals) — their motions, boxed-in overheated efforts with virtually no direct, collective communication with each other — all that activity, is meant to be homologous to most modern work conditions in the U.S. (and not just the time-as-duration aspect of that activity, but alienated labor as being essential to it).
When I worked for PACE (Paper-Allied-Industrial-Chemical-Energy-Workers Union) we used to call that condition, the “work-box.” What that concept meant to signify was that workers increasingly “gained” a sense of “control” within a very limited range of activities. This highly restricted sense of “agency,” where workers’ efforts become endowed with captain & commander status of “their own” restricted spaces, with no input whatsoever as to the overall stream of the workflow, was a huge problem to untangle in terms of organizing workers along deeper and broader lines of agency. Who likes to be stripped of their agency! with so little to be had in the first place. So you had men and women fighting to keep their work boxes intact (and honestly, the same thing happens in the poetry world, “We want our poem-poems in poem-poem journals! where poem-poem evaluation assures us of our poet-poet agency, our agency in… in… uh…”)
So in that initial floor sequence of “Pig Angels of the Americlypse,” there’s theatric ‘labor’ (or better put, body effort — borne of body capacitance) that is homologous to social labor as a whole. The goal, through the worker-to-worker trainings, was to get workers not only to think about the shop, but to help them gain the ability to conceptually link shop to shop, and eventually, to think & act on the social metabolic flow — as a whole (“society” we still call it, timidly).
And you’re right, in terms of preparing for running races, me too, I wouldn’t accord amateur training for a 5k as a matter of labor per say, but more as a matter of bodily effort (for example, someone marooned on a deserted island relegated to climb palm trees all day for coconuts, is most certainly “laborious,” but it’s not a matter of labor in that genuine labor requires at least two people, plus a social-relational arrangement to support it, one might say, to “stage” it). But what kind of political learning can be gleaned from a Poetics Theater that, as you say, “edges” bodily capacitance as a metric for effective intervention in culture at large.
I want to begin exploring that quandary of bodily capacitance as it relates to the crucible of “liberation” by way of an anecdote, one that I’ve mulled over for years. In 1927, Brecht was asked to select a prize-wining poem from over four hundred poems for a literary contest sponsored by Literarische Welt. Well, Brecht really shocked his clients by rejecting all of the entrants in favor of Hannes Kupper’s “He! He The Iron man,” a poem about Reggie MacNamara, a champion bicycle racer. Even more alarming to the would-be patrons of Quality Poetry Inc. was that the poem Brecht chose was from a recent issue of the journal Die Arena, a short-lived “avant-garde” sports magazine (1926–27), which featured among other things, a reverent painted portrait of the boxer Max Schmeling by George Grosz Erwin. What Brecht admired was the social-vitalistic “life force” of Kupper’s poem, something that contrasted sharply with the Hübshen Bildern un armoatischen Wörtern (“nice images and aromatic words”) of the impressionists and expressionists (“there they are again, those quiet, tender dreamy people, the sensitive part of a spent bourgeoisie with which I will not have anything to do with!”). Anyway, the reason I bring up this precedent of sport-jerks-art, is that at various times, both the left and the right have either rejected or fully embraced a “real” and/or projected sports ethos as being instructive to aesthetic practices. For example, many conservative politicians and religious figures of the Weimar period were critically disdainful of sports discourse as an undermining of Geisteskultur by Körperkultur. Anticipating Adorno, many liberal and left-wing artists and writers did not necessarily relate to physical exercise in itself either, but were politically critical of it, understanding sport as a form of distraction, of culture imposed by the ruling classes. And so in our cultural climate (circa 2009), what does it mean to be pumping up sports performance “edging” as being vital to a politics of “liberation?”
While on the one hand, there’s no shortage of performance-enhancing thinking and practices in the U.S. (from gas additives, to steroids, to caffeine-packed energy drinks, to Viagra), it’s also, curiously, a very sedentary culture, physically speaking, our car-culture being largely responsible for that base-line feebleness. And me, personally speaking, I’m not immune to many of those dynamics. I mean, the whole “couch potato to 5k” - flight of the imagination. It’s rather comical, or comical-tragic, actually. The contradiction cannot be erased by engaging “activity” “itself.” And, on my running team, we struggle all the time to take things in stride, to not be competitive, to flush out alternative visions for the club that are community-based and egalitarian, and then the next moment people are checking the web with their handheld devices to get our latest city-wide team standings. So it’s crazy. And like during the Weimer period in Germany, I don’t think there’s direct “left”/“right” imbrications to be drawn as concerns sports performance and poetics. But what I do mean to get at through the CPT’s “body-movement parameters” (BMP’s), is actually something more related to what we call these days, “ableism.” An ableist society is one that treats non-disabled individuals as the standard of “normal living,” which results in public and private places and services, education, and social work that are built to serve ‘standard’ people, thereby inherently excluding those with various “disabilities.” To me, individual body capacitance is only one index of the productive forces in the midst of their development. How social relations build up around those forces, as in who gets to (or doesn’t get to) benefit from the fruits of those efforts, that’s a central question. So the BMP’s are meant to foreground and re-distribute that meditation, especially in the increasingly just-text environments of “experimental” poetry. How to put this more simply. Every(body) is where they’re at. Period. And yet, everybody’s physical-social “edging” is (at the end of the day) everybody else’s too. So imposition of standards (for example, making the “ripped” teen male body be the paragon of “women’s” and “men’s” bodies — of all ages) that needs to be challenged, upended. Poetics Theater can be a space where “edging” means speaking & moving through multiple textures of capacitance — individual — dividual — trans-dividual — the imagined bushy-messy “mass.”
NK: As you foreground with the Weimar period in Germany, there aren’t inherent political leanings in athletics — the circuit’s open for “positive” or “negative” charges both (not to therein imply a simply dualistic political reality) — and so, I’m interested in speaking out about counter-interpretations of traditional athletics within these counters and twists to theatre, poetics, politics, and more. I’ve stayed interested in sports because it was initially presented to me as catharsis, and I continue to participate primarily from this motivation (of course, that doesn’t necessarily translate into “gameface” on race day, which I learned to develop too...). Tabling correlations between “putting on your gameface” and “getting ready for battle” — that is politicizing sports into conditioning activities for war, or, perhaps even scarier, unilateral commander-in-chief obeisances — I’m still compelled to train because I reach thresholds of mental discipline and physical capacitance, both. I want to say, along with you, let’s politicize that with whatever charge it has, for our own doings.
Yet it’s not so easy, of course! Fear(of pain, difficulty, challenge) is hot on my tracks, again and again, as I scope out thresholds for inhabiting. But where training becomes a microcosmic world to test mental and physical capacities for outrunning or staring down this fear, and therefore acts out that catharsis which initially drew me to the activity, Poetics Theater — and art — has another dimension, multiple others, that complicate this partial teleology of outrunning pain and emerging cleansed.
A staggering example: the performance art of Marina Abramovic. Her own body and her own pain are tools in many pieces of performed crises, not least “The Lips of Thomas.” Sitting naked at a table, she ate a kilo of honey and drank a bottle of wine; then carved a five-pointed star onto her stomach with a shard of glass from the bottle; and whipped herself senseless. Finally she laid herself on blocks of ice. The piece was over when audience members removed her, half an hour later. This is, actually, far from “senseless violence.” Abramovic’s self-sacrifice, and controversial embodiment of both submissive and aggressor, both Dionysian and Apollonian forces, as some have read it, created an opportunity for her and her audience to experience/witness — perhaps through a state of shock — historically gendered roles performed in unison. Such a visceral confrontation of social norms and expectations for performer and performance occurring in the mid-1970s (1975 to be exact) reflects and interacts with the socio-political charges of those times. It’s hard to quite imagine the political efficacy that “The Lips of Thomas” would have today — how such a piece wouldn’t be subsumed and consumed nearly instantaneously in the barrage of media within which we live (though the piece was re-performed in 2005 by Abramovic at, of all places, the Guggenheim Museum).
Anyhow, the “singular” performance artist/player embodying multiple personas catalyzes social traces left to be picked up (or not) in the audience; here’s one dimensional possibility much different from athletic threshold-hunting. In explaining the theatre of cruelty, Artaud wrote: “it is not the cruelty we can exercise upon each other by hacking at each other’s bodies, carving up our personal anatomies... but the much more terrible and necessary cruelty which things can exercise against us.” Here’s the spread of social, that is, the connective between bodies in relation to structural, material forces, in crevices of the most so-called “personal” performance art.
So if in an ableist society physical capacity is viewed in terms of limits, or what you can’ t do, capacities of body and thought remain bounded and contained like those alienated workers fighting for whatever slight agency is available in their “work-boxes.” But if capacities are considered thresholds, more along the lines of how I read body movement parameters in CPT, which fluctuate according to the materials (bodies) at hand, then we can ask not if but how we can transpose this into, literally, deconstructing the work-boxes in which we all struggle in order to see them as, and make them, permeable. And actually, thinking about your latest composition “Feel Your Media - Bitch,” I’m wondering what you might say about how media itself (unruly notion of a conglomerate “media” that it is), as explored in the piece, both charges and diffuses our abilities to “move through multiple textures of capacitance,” and perform specific work on our work-boxes.
RT: One of the bizarre social-psychic body-triggering effects of heavy Internet use in terms of sucking up “media content,” especially Nooz — be it “hard,” or opinion-splattered “soft” Nooz, is that it daily-creates The Big Wait. Every nooz-bot (circa 2009) within read-shot of this text knows what I’m talking about. One wakes up in the morning in a state of waiting, engages that waiting by getting newer infusions of waiting, and when that aggregative volume of waiting slows one’s flow to a crawl, one looks for “speed” — on the Internet — in vain. “Feel Your Media — Bitch” — one of its formal tasks — is to interrupt that “waiting” by punctuating speech-moments with corporeal movement, and vice versa. But this interruption is not just about supped up versions of ideological signal-jamming, it’s about an open air, public exploration of ratios of linguistic language to non-linguistic language as a marked-up form of readability. And when the spectators “feel” (or even better — refuse to “feel”) that tensioned readability as its developing, if they internally begin to dispute the ratios presented, then the piece becomes one of those “cruel things” that “exercise themselves against us.” Thus, the “private viewing” affordance of Internet media viewing, and subsequent waiting game that follows, all that shit — is messed with in that piece. And if I had a preferred “way” (singular aesthetic allegiance) to stage that exploration, then I’d have only one single episode (interference modality) to show for it. Instead, I take 15 cracks at it. Contrast (social, aesthetic) is at a premium for CPT. My bent, as an artist, is not only to exacerbate things, but also to measure things, and then adjust (I supposed that’s why I enjoy reading about particle physics experiments). So, definitely, what you say, the “how we can transpose this into, literally, deconstructing the work-boxes in which we all struggle in order to see them as, and make them, permeable” — that’s the devil in the details that are beyond theorizing “performativity” in classrooms forever.
But this notion of “game face” you hit on has really intrigued me (makes me chuckle even, in a self-conscious way). The notion of a series of “game faces,” touch-points along a changing axis of catharsis...I’m wondering out loud here...is that what typical poetry readings these days are missing? Or, I should say, I feel the absence of that...that is, too many readings aren’t overtly positing modalities of media receptability (as trial & tribulation of mind & body)...and thus, the possibility of other modalities contrasting with one modality is precluded: it doesn’t happen! I mean, theatrically, how are we — as spectalizers, allowed to “see” what we’re being involved in as listeners of language, let alone stumble upon what we’re involved with as “actors in the world.”
So these voluminous poetry readings dishing-out elegantine-intellectual, cool-conceptual, or “irreverent” nose-pulling — I say, whatever. My consistent question/feeling is: how am I involved in this shit — in any way — whatsoever? Am I being flung back, relegated to The Big Wait yet again?
Splintering up here...
I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on masks, both physical masks and social-psychic masks...
NK: In one way, the subversiveness of wearing multiple masks acts to populate the artist and the body with more tools and more potentialities; internally, to bring forward a part of one’s psyche usually relegated to the background, or externally, to reveal this persona socially by physically marking a change in one’s identity. A celebration of freakdom — I really support that. However, masks can be (and probably often are) fabrics of the socio-political status quo, or “those groups” who also wear similar masks. If you’re unconscious of these fabrics fluttering across your face, they lose their subversive qualities and become indistinguishable from, and indeed constitute, the unacknowledged positionalities (gamefaces in the social arena) we are all at-risk of reifying.
Without a mask-aware, mask-multiple poetic fabric, we get instead a pea-soup of poetry as such that becomes very hard to distinguish into, well, anything distinguishable. If many poetry readings today don’t readily offer up interventions in language and culture, what does this reflect about those poetry-reading-attendees’ actions in their working-world lives? While persona masking and re-masking is a totally provocative element to poetics theater in particular, it’s gotta (and here’s a hint of a program) be imbued with the pivot of positionalities too, which doesn’t necessarily follow from playful seamstress work. There’s a hardcore, can’t-really-slip-out-of materiality to working-world lives from which our positional gamefaces are derived. And, not everyone is interested in calling into question things like the private-viewing aspect of Internet nooz-gazing, or the compression of time and space in current modes of production. Interests in those questions aren’t masks to don. I want to exacerbate my own stance in relation to these questions and let this constitute the bare-bones of a poetics theater I might develop. There’s a level of urgency that I want to pervade my poetics with, and that I hope to discover in new poetics I’m unfamiliar with; this urgency is nothing other than a wake-up call to the global ramifications of “my” position at “this” moment. That is, nothing other than an historically conscious situated responsiveness that I view as the enduring way to edge into and among discourses, poetics, and politics to which I want to contribute, muddle, or use in the sewing of new masks for new players within and without my own internal/external stage.
So, freakdom busts in on the contemporary-world theater, asking poetics theater players to build and diffuse personas in split-second scene changes. Normalization’s antithetical to freaks, so history stands out in high contrast — undisciplined, anarchic, ready to bolt for the door. If we, as poets, activists, nooz-bots, whatever, can summon that high contrast in all the variety of ways one might do so, intervention into language and culture might increase its circuiting, rewire our circuiting, short-circuit that Big Wait with surges of electricity — exacerbating the scene for our next sustained political liberatory dance.
Part 3 of “Ritualized Sacrifice, Gauging the Material-Social” appears in issue 1 of Barzakh http://barzakh.net/site/current-issue/148 ; Part 4 “New Resistant Subjects (Bot to Bot)” appears in The Poetic Front Vol 3 http://journals.sfu.ca/poeticfront/index.php/pf; Part 5 “Transitions of Capitalist Hyperspace (shake your booty)” appears in Issue 2 of Critiphoria http://www.critiphoria.org/Issue2.html
Rodrigo Toscano is the author of To Leveling Swerve, Platform, The Disparities, and Partisans. His newest book, Collapsible Poetics Theater was a National Poetry Series 2007 winner. His poetry has appeared Best American Poetry 2004, War and Peace (2004 & 2007), and in the Criminal’s Cabinet: An anthology of poetry and fiction (2004), and in McSweeny’s “Poets Picking Poets”. He was a 2005 recipient of a New York State Fellowship in Poetry. Toscano is also the artistic director and writer for the Collapsible Poetics Theater (CPT). His polyvocalic pieces, poetics plays, and body-movement poems, have been performed at the Disney Redcat Theater in Los Angeles, Ontological-Hysteric Poet’s Theater Festival, Poet’s Theater Jamboree 2007, Links Hall Chicago, and the Yockadot Poetics Theater Festival. His radio pieces have appeared on WPIX FM (New York), KAOS Public Radio Olympia, WFMU, WNYU, and PS.1 Radio. His work has been translated into French, German, Italian, and Catalonian. Toscano is originally from Southern California. He works in Manhattan at the Labor Institute, and lives in Brooklyn. http://poeticstheater.typepad.com/photos/rt_pics/ and http://cpt.blip.tv/
Natalie Knight is the author of the chapbooks ARCHIPELAGOS (Punch Press), prairies (scantily clad press), and xenia (Furniture Press). Recent poems appear or will soon in ditch, Octopus, Little Red Leaves, foam:e, and H_NGM_N. She studies critical theory and poetics at University at Albany, SUNY.