Tag Archives: paul pinto

AUGUST 3, 8:00pm-AUGUST 4, 8:00am

Empty Words Written by John Cage, Arranged and performed by Varispeed

8 PM – 10:30 PM: Part I: Roulette, 509 Atlantic Avenue

11 PM – 4:30 AM: Parts II & III: Exapno, 33 Flatbush Avenue, 5th floor

5 AM – 7:30 AM: Parts IV: Procession from Borough Hall over the Brooklyn Bridge

All parts of the performance are free and open to the public.

This overnight realization on Cage’s centennial is a meditation on the voice’s power to transform language into music. Varispeed’s new arrangement will lead audiences on a 12-hour journey of sound, from an ensemble of electronically manipulated and mutated song in the concert hall of Roulette to the noise of naked voices on the Brooklyn Bridge at dawn.

Written in the early 70s, Empty Words stands as an epic culmination of Cage’s exploration of the “demilitarization” of syntax and the voice’s power to evacuate meaning and create music. Using Thoreau’s journals as his source text, Cage employed chance procedures to remove all syntax from the original, creating four separate movements through which the level of textual abstraction grows.

Part One (utilizing phrases, words, syllables, and letters) begins in the concert space of Roulette, employing multiple performers and theatrics to employ the musical extremes of language. The performance then moves to the new music community space Exapno, where Varispeed transform Part Two’s words, syllables, and letters into new spatial arrangements. Peppered with food (and perhaps a nap), Part Three scatters syllables and letters around the building in a performance that is both a participatory scavenger hunt and a solo lecture. In conclusion, listeners will become performers on a communal sound walk through Downtown Brooklyn across the Brooklyn Bridge at sunrise, vocalizing the letters of Part Four in equal partnership with the surrounding urban “silence.”

Varispeed’s premiere performance of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives Manhattan was listed on Time Out New York’s Best of 2011 list and received praise in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Varispeed has worked to discover new inroads into contemporary vocal music and opera in creating site-specific, sometimes-participatory, oftentimes-durational, forevermore-experimental events. As individuals, they are all multi-faceted performers, composers, songwriters, and thinkers who collaborate in ensembles such as thingNY, Panoply Performance Laboratory, and Cough Button. (text from the Facebook event)

Don’t miss this ephemeral epic. Varispeed is (from left to right in image above) Gelsey Bell, Paul Pinto, Aliza Simons, Dave Ruder, Brian McCorkle, and the ghost of John Cage…

Thank you to the artists who participated in the two days of performance and the round-table during Compendium: Technics!

For Friday, the no-tech night, thank you to Alejandro Acierto, who built a web in the performance space all day with Compendium curator Paul Pinto, then made a complex labyrinth of white fabric tape on the ground. Thank you to Emily Wexler, who rubbed her hair in construction dirt at the end of the street, rolled on the sidewalk back and forth, pounded her chest as the rain began to fall, and was doused by 5-gallon buckets of water and two buckets of mud and water by Compendium curator/CPR techmeister Thomas Bell. Thank you the audience members who came on time and got to see this, and got wet in the process. Thank you to Ivy Castellanos, who undressed and had us draw marker circles around her “blemishes” then put herself in a black plastic trash bag and became another animal. Thank you to Lindsey Drury, who tried hard to erase her equilibrium and throw up, spinning around for 20 minutes, drinking salad dressing, jumping, and did not succeed. Thank you to Rafael Sanchez, whose piece about Ghazala Javed’s murder was interrupted by fire trucks, police cars, and an ambulance, all pulling up to deal with this performance, and thank you to Rafael for saying “can’t a man grind a brick to dust using his hands in peace?” and the fireman’s response: “good luck with that,” and thank you to that neighbor kid across the street who had been watching and shouted “IT’S PERFORMANCE ART!” as a balloon carrying fragments of the brick disappeared up into the white sky. Thank you to Sister Sylvester, the entire team, who presented an excerpt from a new work-in-progress drawing on Moby Dick and many other sources involving a live goldfish, small models of the larger set pieces in a terrarium, and a lobster claw cooking mitt, among other items of speech, action, and object. Thank you to Hiroshi Shafer for making a piece using music box guts attached to tin and plastic plates and a hand-drawn (by Derick Wycherly) series of story boards. Thank to Matthew Silver for telling us the story, it made us laugh hysterically. Thank you to Charmaine’s Names for performing an un-amplified version of their post-modern Philadelphia experimental lounge glory without microphones, without lights, and thank you to Toby Driver (and 2nd clarinetist? lost the name…) for performing virtuosically, of course still without any technical assistance whatsoever, and concluding a day of intensity and intimacy.

The video documentation of the 2nd “full tech” day should be posted by CPR soon, but in the meantime THANK YOU to the artists of June 23, including those who came to the round-table and participated in the discussion! Thank you to those who performed technical incarnations of their work (or had performed no-tech versions of these pieces the night before): Lindsey (who did throw up a little), Ivy (who got to wear her sculptural armor), Sister Sylvester (who live-fed the taking of a weather balloon out onto the street).

Thank you also to the hi-tech Saturday-only artists: Jorge Rojas taping his face over livestream, Whitney Hunter for giving a talk about two of his pieces and their use of technology, animator/video/visual artist Brian Zegeer and banjo-player Baby Copperhead for showing/performing their film/sound project Pull My Daisy, performance artist Anya Liftig and assistant Michael Newton for their cell phone communication, and thank you thank you to Robert Dick, for demonstrating the height of human technical ability, blowing our minds (glissando headjoint®!)

Finally, thank you the audience for participating in this experimental micro-conference/exhibition! Thank you to CPR, and thank you electricity!


I have been reminding many of you to send performance documentation to Emergency INDEX, here’s another reminder: SUBMIT A DESCRIPTION OF YOUR PERFORMANCE TO EMERGENCY INDEX!!! (by January 3)

hope to see you at two panels/talks in which PPL co-directors will soon be participating:

Publishing Performance in the 21st Century: Ugly Duckling Presse / Emergency INDEX

Wednesday, November 30, 2011, from 6:30pm -9:30pm at

365 5th Avenue, New York, NY

This evening’s performance-infused forum will address performance criticism, documentation, and the relationship between writing and performance. A panel discussion with performance publishers, critics, and curators will be followed by performances by artists and playwrights based on critical writing about their own work; and open discussion between the panelists, artists, and audience members.


Antje Oegel (53rd State Press)
Esther Neff (Panoply Performance Laboratory)
Claudia La Rocco (Brooklyn Rail; New York Times)
Sylvan Oswald (Play A Journal of Plays)
Lana Wilson (Performa)
Moderated by Matvei Yankelevich (UDP)

THE PERFORMERS: Aki Sasamoto, Jim Findlay, Julia Jarcho

ABOUT Ugly Duckling Presse/ Emergency Ugly Duckling Presse, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit run by a volunteer editorial collective, is the home of the “Emergency” series: the former Emergency Gazette; Emergency Playscripts; and Emergency INDEX — a forthcoming annual publication, in which artists reflect on the work they created in the past year. More info at


Performers Forum
at Exapno, 33 Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11217

Sunday, December 4, from 3:00pm to 6:00pm

On Nov. 6, Performa 11 presented Perfect Lives Manhattan, a day-long, site-specific celebration of Robert Ashley’s seminal opera for television, arranged and performed by the burgeoning art collective, Varispeed. Please join Varispeed at the monthly Performers Forum where members Aliza Simons, Dave Ruder, Paul Pinto, Brian McCorkle and Gelsey Bell will be presenting a performative “live documentary” and public forum on the process, practice and production of Perfect Lives Manhattan. Site-specificity, arrangement, ownership and questions of what contemporary opera is will be discussed through live excerpts, new musical compositions, video and dialogue with attendees.

“Less an act of rescuing a work from oblivion than one of repurposing its materials to unleash latent potential…. That Varispeed’s members could express themselves so readily through Mr. Ashley’s work while remaining faithful to it was impressive.”
-Steve Smith, The New York Times

Varispeed is a newly formed collective of composer-performers from music and theatre groups Panoply Performance Laboratory, thingNY, and Why Lie? that creates site-specific, sometimes-participatory, oftentimes-durational, forevermore-experimental events.

Performers Forum is anything you want it to be.  Curated by Corey Bracken. Suggested donation – Beers for $$$ – Awesome Vibes Gratis. Visit Performers Forum on the web for more details!

Facebook event

(Performers Forum is not to be confused with PERFORMANCY FORUM, though the latter welcomes any association with the former…)

Turkeys on Theory: Thursday November 24

The sub-titling of the upcoming Sweat Lodge show Ashram Couture on Oct. 8, “an evening of amateur choral music” curated by Dave Ruder prompted this long amateur-theory post. What does the term “amateur” mean when we use it in experimental music and theatre at this very moment? (the two general artistic mediums in the Ashram Couture show) Why is this term popping up like a coin pulled from the ear of a little kid? What is meant by, and what are the political implications of different sorts of “amateurism?” How have other artists historically politically, practically conceived of amateurism, and how has amateurism become an “-ism” at all?

My Amateur Theory/Amateur Scholarship

well-known "outsider artist" Henry Darger's 'At Wickey Sansinia They fight their pursuers still nude'

Open. First, the idea of “amateurism” as I explore it here will be pretty darned limited my own context (that should go without saying), it will be as short as possible, U.S centric, seen through a lens of sociology-based performance research, and so on. In terms of geographic context, various German and Dutch collaborators with whom I have recently spoken identify an “amateur movement” on that side of the Atlantic in the theatre sphere, calling it “Crudity,” but that’s a whole other post as those complexities unravel fast and this related moniker needs more specialized attention. Also, I will not be considering the “amateur musician” contests all over the world, which award cash prizes to non-professional musicians, like the Olympics pre-1988. These are parts of other (albeit entangled) production paradigms, another post, another stage, and I won’t be considering American Idol or any other amateur contest, here’s a good article about “Work of Art” [for which I was a preliminary juror in 2010, what a weird experience that was]). I was tempted to include a long rant on public intellectualism but I’ll save that for another time too. Rather, in this post, I’d like to explore the concept of amateurism springing from the interesting titling of this particular show in Brooklyn, full-tilt across artistic mediums, (while maintaining regard for delineations between them, as I think a variety of ways of seeing complement one another and “fracture” otherwise teleological conceptions of amateurism that may or may not be held by any one of us within the horizon of our own medium) and referring to composers, theater-makers, musicians, sculptors, professionals, amateurs, everyone alike using the word “artist.” Sources and further reading materials are cited at the end of this post. Sesame.

amateur prez

What must be said: Amateurism may be initially defined in reference to the practice of an artist who is untrained, unskilled (in a technical sense), or only partially dedicated to his work (a so-called “hobbyist’). The work produced by a practice solely seen as “amateur” is worthless, sentimental at best, laughable garage-sale garbage at worst. Using this distinction alone, we would be lead to ask “how much time or money does an artist need to make to not be an amateur?” which I think is the wrong question for multiple reasons that I won’t go into (because I’m an amateur scholar).

Instead, let’s talk about Amateurism, with a capital “A” and with the “-ism” at the end, and how it’s used. Generally, nouns in English earn their -isms by being identified as a particular way of operating, as delineated by theoretical, ideological, or functional or other “-al” matrices and messy means to various ends. In this case, value judgment, the ultimate magic, must be performed by an authorial party regarding the economic and artistic success of artistic practice in order for bring “amateurism” to emerge from its vague connotational state and become an “-ism.”  Value judgements may be performed along what I perceive as two primary trajectories. Please allow me (for the sake of my sanity at least) to split “Amateurism” into two these two trajectories, or meta-categories: what I’ll call Ideological Amateurism (included Dada, Futurism, Art Brut, etc) and Cultural Amateurism (social and political ways of describing, defining, selling, and theorizing the “inherent” human tendency to make art).

Amateurism and Agency

Let’s save the first meta-category for a moment and look at Cultural Amateurism alone, as constructed historically, economically, and/or sociologically, by dominant academic and contemporary criticism, which has authorized the “-ism” primarily to frame the entrance of teleologically defined “amateur” art into markets and bubbles and record labels and modes of cultural production within the U.S.’ particular brand of hypermimetic capitalism.

Fundamental value systems regarding what is “inside” culture, and what is “outside” culture directly construct Cultural Amateurism almost as a double negative, valuing perceived “Othernesses” via the parameters of its own academia and dominant, self-cognizing culture.

Lead Belly: master musician + "amateur" + artist-as-commodity

Theories about this are prevalent and those to which I subscribe indicate a further semantic categorizing and commodification that serves a convergence of institutional, national, political, and commercial concerns. A great place to see some of these processes operating is in the academic sub-terming of “folk,” “traditional,” “tribal,” “naïve” or “primitive” art, as a separate conceptual cluster from “outsider art,” “Marginal art/Art singulier,” also most recently called “Intuitive” or the politically correct “self-taught” art by various museums, archives, centers, and auction houses. The former cluster contains terms from behaviorialist ethnographers, the NEA, and collectors of strictly catalogued and priced types of amateur art. “Outsider,” on the other hand, is a term coined by Roger Cardinal (after Jean Debuffet, see texts below), belonging more directly to an academic and theoretic sphere. Both of these clusters, let’s call them “folk” and “outsider,” predominantly use the cultural position of the artist to value works of art and attempt to explain why works are valuable, more than simply “amateur” to collectors, museums, and should be included in and used by the Great Memory Theaters of Civilization.

Outsider trajectories assign value to the art-products of culturally, physically and/or mentally “disadvantaged” individuals. Language about this has shifted, but most extremely within this type of amateurism, individual artists are seen as “naïve” or less than self-aware/intentional due to age, ethnicity, cultural background, class, or the artist’s lack of training or “learned ability.” These ideas often emphasize the individual artist’s inability to function, sometimes hinting at “divine inspiration,” and exaggerating autobiographical detail.  Here, we find a selling of the artist herself as a product. For this objectification of the artist to be most efficiently possible, that artist’s agency must be reduced and chalked up to instinctual drives, aberrant behaviors produced by abuse and disease, or self-indulgence of private fetishes, while works themselves are described as “primal,” “pure,” and “childlike.” Any idea or “meaning” present in form or content thus becomes masked by the very fact of the product; under what circumstances the art object was made, and how it was made (via automatic asemic writing, after a lobotomy, while on heroin, etc). This, combined with sentiments regarding “torturous artistic processes” overwhelm the experience of the work itself, or that of the artist, and aborts its operation, political or otherwise. This illusory circumscription of artmaking’s role in human experience to an automatic byproduct of circumstances speaks to an outright negation of the authority of individuals to sensibly express and describe their reality or visions of/for reality.

Adolf Woelfli

Folk art then reaches a similar removal of agency by drawing hard distinctions between nationalities and cultures, fetishizing individuals as pure products of their religious beliefs or valuing art objects as talismans of overarching exotic histories and experiences. Instead of individual artists being seen as cultural anomalies, artists are seen as conduits and/or representatives (symbols) of a culture or way of life. Thus, any idea or “meaning” present in the work is subsumed by the ethnographic “facts” of the culture in which it was made, and agency is again removed from the artist and from the individual work.  While Orientalism, Nativism, and many other “Other-izing” modes are a major concern of postcolonial sociologists and anthropologists, many of those music, visual art, and performance scholars for whom a projection of Otherness is a concern unfortunately end up arguing not for a shift in conception-artist relationships, but rather an inclusion of specific individual artists (in the U.S, individual women, African Americans, members of Appalachian and rural areas, elders) in the dominant “canon.” This usually serves to simply shift this individual artist into the “Outsider” category (i.e autobiographical detail serves to symbolizes/commodifies the individual and his or her work).

always missing michigan...

Both Folk and Outsider ways of valuing artistic work and artists are driven by institutional and market-driven authority to construct the history, identity, and modes of art, to analyze and control its social production, and attempt to encompass its overall operation in human experience. Such dominant amateur/professional schemas can adjust themselves to almost any isolated value, not all of which are “bad bad bad,” there are always arguments for diversity, sustainable tourism, increased access to cultural resources (supplies, space, training), preservation of cultures and languages, and so on, which only sometimes remove agency, or do it by proxy, without intention, or as a function of a flawed overarching conceptual framework of a different ilk.

Amateur Avant-Garde (Italian Futurism, and Fuck Yeah)

So let’s go back to the other meta-category, Ideological Amateurism, the other trajectory along which certain artworks and artistic practiced are legitimized, or authorized via the designation as “Amateur.” This trajectory primarily values having no value, defining “value” in the same way that the above trajectory does. Perhaps artists can claim “real amateur art” now as an umbrella term for a reified, reclaimed “Other;” as any art that rejects dominate modes of production, including the modes of “traditional” art and categorizations on purpose (ideologically) by calling itself “amateur.” In this sense, Amateurism becomes a “movement,” proposed and advocated by artists reacting to or in critique of dominant modes of production.  We can even reify garage sale art, finding love for the ugly, the crude, the disconnected, and the unconsidered, taking it under a culturally anomic wing.

"Amateur society" the Kibbo Kift (

Even ignoring all that complaint about commodification above, and my own institutional engagement in the arts (are we uneducated? No, unpaid, yes!) I might end up with a view of amateurism then as a magically platonic “alternative” to monolithic Occidentalism, patriarchy, classicism, and as a respite from elitism, social oppression, and so on and so forth, a view which certainly brings us back to Jean Debuffet and his original (French accent) art brut, the raw art, COBRA, the punk rock, the beats, the loners, the outcasts, the artists and the queers, fuck yeah. Yet, this is tricky too because at this point in time we may understand too well how a reactionary art movement might co-construct the “inside,” sketching and strengthening its structures via negation (see Walter Benjamin, Frankfurt school et all) and/or become commoditized itself as a sub-culture or “genre.” Perhaps a reactionary stance from an artist such as myself, or any of the Ashram Couture artists, would be too too connected-via-negation to really be considered “outsider” or “amateur.”   It would be a symbolic positioning only.

Henry Flynt reads "From Culture to Veramusment" at Walter De Maria's loft, NY, February 28th, 1963 (the picture is of Mayakovsky) photo by Diane Wakoski

In the avant-garde music world, such ideologically posed “Amateurism” primarily connotes a formally anti-establishment trajectory and there are some great success stories about artists—reactionary or not—operating very effectively (which I define as influencing cultural doxa while staying almost entirely unknown and outside of material culture, and shakin’ things up) for example Irwin Chusid and his The Atrocious Music Hour in the ‘80s, to which some source the birth of irony and the “so wrong it’s right” aesthetic and of course the awesome Henry Flynt (who was brought to my attention by this same curator-of-the-show Dave Ruder) whose influence surges on and is perhaps the inspiration behind this actual show’s subtitling. Read this and this.

"Don Vliet"

Amateurist Practice

While it seems unhelpful to insist that commodification and removal of artistic agency and abortion of a work’s operation is an unstoppable machine, or that cultural anarchism is wholly ineffective as soon as it cognizes itself, or that education removes the “purity” of any “real Amateurism,” (away with such pessimisms and cynicisms I say) I do maintain that consideration of the economic and political implications embedded in “Amateur-ism” can clarify concrete modes of agency for us as (amateur or professional) artists, not just in terms of our work’s operation as a political or ideological voice in a public sphere, but also our in terms of our own ability to make decisions about how we want our work to “operate.” We neither want to confine ourselves inside an “inside/outside” binary, follow the amateur movements of Italian futurism right into the mouth of fascism, nor fail to consider that resurging interest in “folk” movements in Germany were as the beginnings of the rise of fascism while “degenerate art” was seen as the opposite and used to describe all modern art  (nor fail to analyze how American folk and traditionalist movements have not always led us towards more inclusive or less oppressive social structures) etc.

Inside this maze of terminology and temptation, we have the opportunity to experiment with how Amateurism can be both Culturally and Ideologically constructed, and towards this end I advocate methodologies from the political sciences of aesthetics (of course). It is my sense that we seek a kind of de-hierarchized agency, an active, formal situation that is both unreducible to product, and least explainable via theoretical negation or accommodation; I hope that we can find a careful selection of ideas from movements in the avant-garde, from art world rhetoric, from performance studies and social practices, et all over time; from social sculpture and Joseph Beuys’s “EVERYONE IS AN ARTIST,” from social practices, from “documentary” and engaged practices such as Richard Maxwell‘s,  through punk rock through art brut and more, more, more in search of this narrow path between commodifiable autonomy and un-commodifiable non-autonomy. Some interesting forms in a performance context that might make this type of “Amateurism” work now include:

1.)   open-end or improvisational scoring/text (anyone can interpret and perform a work)

2.)   collaboration across disciplines and ways of thinking about art

3.)   “audience” participation, audience-led performance, or audience-performed work.

4.)   No rehearsal, stream-of-consciousness, or other “intentional lack of consideration”

5.)   Inclusion of those who consider themselves non-artists, or work by individuals who do not consider themselves professional artists (self-defined amateurs)

6.)   Lack of monetary gain for the artists and/or lack of institutional involvement.

What else?

60 kids singing their favorite songs, taught using Carl Orff's methods

These elements, taken from the pieces to be performed at the Ashram Couture show and from recent self-proclaimed “amateur” work, do indicate a kind of aesthetic amateurism as well as ideological and cultural sorts. In their light, I am excited to align theories of and advocacies for Amateurism with participatory modes, collaborative performance, and music, all at once. There is a lot of experimentation to be done in interactive art and “public” groups of amateurs, collaboration with self-titled non-artists, and in the development of an Amateur Avant-Garde, which is constructive rather than reactionary. In the work of choral cohorts Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, Dave Kadden, Brian McCorkle, et all, I am excited about amateurism as Öffentlichkeit, amateurism as collective action, and as inclusive organization. These are the tricks that comprise the act itself.

Ashram Couture: An Evening of Amateur Choral Music
October 8, 8pm

Exapno New Music

33 Flatbush Ave., 5th Floor
Brooklyn, NY

L’Art brut préféré aux arts culturels byJean Debuffet
Blinded Insight: On the Modernist Reception of the Art of The Mentally Ill by Hal Foster
Futurism and politics: between anarchist rebellion and fascist reaction By Günter Berghaus
Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives (World of Art) by Colin Rhodes
Raw Creation: Outsider Art and Beyond by John Maizels and Roger Cardinal
Outsider Art  by Roger Cardinal
Self taught, outsider, and folk art
by Betty-Carol Sellen, Cynthia J. Johanson
Testimony: vernacular art of the African-American south : the Ronald and June Shelp collection, by Kinshasha Conwill
Pictured in my mind:contemporary American self-taught art
from the collection of Kurt Gitter and Alice Rae Yelen
Everyday genius: self-taught art and the culture of authenticity by
Gary Allen Fine
Art Brut by Michel Thévoz
The Raw and The Cooked, by Claude Levi-Strauss

Other Random Resources from the Grand Amateur Index, the Internet:

Outsider Art Fair
Raw Vision magazine
INTUIT: The center for Intuitive and Outsider Art

9 warning signs of being an amateur artist
Outsider Art Pages (built environments)


If you do not have a day job, go do business on a holiday and check out Gelsey Bell, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder & Aliza Simons‘ plans for you tomorrow, Tuesday June 7th, 2011 starting at 11AM.

They (and you too, if you like) will be performing/paying homage to PERFECT LIVES at the Bank, the Church, the Bar, the Backyard, and so on, as needed for Robert Ashley’s seven 30-minute made-for-television opera “tapes.”

Times and locations here: Perfect Lives Brooklyn.

This post is written by one Midwesterner who is very very excited about it.

(title quote from Art, performance, media: 31 interviews By Nicholas Zurbrugg)

After the Conference of Works at University of the Streets this past weekend I feel the need to write some kind of “assessment,” so here it is.  During the Conference, Ben Spatz (Urban Research Theater) used this term, “assessment” in his discussion of technique and transmission/education, as did Dave Thrasher in his discussion of his situational, interactive project, and I think it’s a very interesting word/concept in terms of live performance. Yes, much has been made of performance’s “liveness,” its transient, temporary state and the impossibility of concrete or “scientific” assessment.  Having dissipated several days ago now, how can this Conference of Works, which included around 60 participants (most of us played multiple roles of participant/audience/performer/presenter) over the course of the two days and amassed a multiplicity of concepts and concerns, be assessed? How can its effect be charted or analyzed?

Many artists over the course of the weekend (especially those who hope for socio-political operation in some way) said that they can’t assess how their work is operating, how it’s taken by an audience, assess whether or not it’s been “effective,” and if their choices in terms of Mode, Method, and Medium have been the “right” ones.  Carrie Dashow expressed a desire for documentation and review after a participatory process, notarizing material forms as Yesiree The Notary for the Conference attendees that swore to their self-assigned artistic identities.  Towards additional permanence, Amapola Prada makes haunting videos of her staged actions, which allow the works to travel internationally and last beyond the sunny Lima days on which they are shot. Other artists participating in the Conference expressed a rejection of assessing their work and practices at all, choosing to “feel through” audiences and their reactions in order to determine if and how performance modes are effective. Chance and Melanie of The Nerve Tank said they sometimes measure the success of their work by “walk outs,” knowing that it’s literally affective when individuals can’t handle it in some way. The project Nate Hill shared often produces active responses of offense, as his website selling milk gargled by “pretty white girls” rubs salt into more than one exposed cultural wound.

But do reactions to our work control our practical experiments in the “scientific” sense, or assist any direct cause-and-effect assessment? “Science,” they say, relies on an index, something left behind where there was once the thing, while offense, or amusement, or trains of thought, quickly dissolve into life itself and can’t be indexed at all, other than by the individual to which they belong.   How can we follow through on the research aspects of our practices and put performance research towards the development of our modes and methods?  During the course of the Conference, we experienced Martín Lanz Landázuri, William Bilwa Costa, and dancers researching resonance, embodying the concept and examining  how resonance can be used in performance and performed as such.  We also experienced part 2 of Handan Ozbilgin’s 3-part Maids project,  which jumps off from the “research” text of Jean Genet’s Maids, Hyatt Michael’s  Syb’L Vane piece, drawn from The Picture of Dorian Gray, and  Hector Canonge‘s Immigrant 101, a performance-context lecture on immigration, incorporating found research images and statistics. The idea of “scientific” exploration, research, and “problems” (especially in Lindsey Drury’s intense, improvisational and site-specific dance work and Angela Washko‘s performance in which she attempted to disrupt two men building cardboard boxes), and the place where these intersect with participation and collaboration kept coming up, at times fusing into related concerns, and other times breaking apart into concrete statements about reasons for working in a certain way.

Several artists expressed during the conference that they consider the analysis and assessment of our work, and the choices we make during the process of creating work, a completely subjective task, which can’t be performed in a scientific or even articulable manner, as no unified or communicable, objective analysis or set of decision-making criteria can be constructed.  On this note but in a different key, J.J. Lind of Immediate Medium spoke during the Sunday round-table about how his collaborators, coming from varying mediums, backgrounds, and fields, working immediately and in the moment together, can build a stronger aesthetic and conduct powerful experiments. This idea perhaps suggests that collaboration is inherently a form of constant analysis that negates the need for formal assessment. Collaboration across disciplines seems to provide an anodyne in this way to the “problem” of subjective analysis, as multiple artists can walk away from a collaborative with something subjective learned or explored, or they can create a kind of “meme-plexic” index, that pools subjective responses outside of the individual selves involved. Jason Andrew, founder of NORTE MAAR for Collaborative Projects in the Arts has found that co-creation between artists from different disciplines produces new modes of expression and experiment, as have experimental music ensemble thingNY’s Paul Pinto and Gelsey Bell. With collaborative and participatory processes in mind, I believe that the inherent “subjectivity” of an analytic process does not make such a process of assessment or analysis less useful; “subjective” sometimes becomes a buzz-word that means we don’t have to talk about it in public, but perhaps it means that when something is seen as subjective, we simply must perceive it in a different way, through the convergence  of a wide range of subjective perspectives.  Perhaps we need to collaborate on experimenting with analysis itself.  In my mind, this was the task of the Conference, to get a multiplicity of subjectivities out of a private sphere and into an analytic public one.  In the organization of the conference, the attempt to combine a number of subjective perspectives and analyses wasn’t about getting closer to “objectivity” by finding the similarities/common denominators between subjective perceptions, rather it was about gathering and being able to see more than one perception at a time, gathering perceptions outside one’s own, and considering them as a range of assessments.  Perhaps one could also say that this goal (of seeing more than one subjective perspective) is one of the primary operations of performance arts, performance research, and the subsequent experimentation that these modes catalyze.

I can only say for certain that the experience overall with this conference, for me, was consuming, overwhelming, at times confusing, and powerfully moving, and that the plethora of subjective goals, assessments, tasks, and conclusions took me closer to knowing how to research, through my own practice, the multi-dimensional reality that we all experience from such difference angles. I am incredibly grateful to all who participated, for their generosity, articulation, expression, communication, recognition, organization.  Thank you to those I mentioned here, and to the many others who came, participated, performed, perceived, and practiced (esp. Paul Pierog, who was the only person other than Brian and I who attended the entire conference, both days, first to last).  I hope we do it all again soon!

We don’t have much time (haha) to make new posts here, as we near the opening of TIME: A Complete Explanation in Three Parts but it’s worth noting that tickets to the culmination of this gloriously strange music-theatre collaboration between PPL and thingNY are now available online! Click HERE to purchase them, HERE to download a Press Release and see both preview videos, photos, and HERE to read about the accompanying 300-page Performance Book!

Performances are: Wednesday, May 4th, Thursday, May 5th, Friday, May 6th, Saturday, May 7th, Thursday, May 12th, Friday, May 13th, Saturday, May 14th all at 8pm

 The Brick Theater
575 Metropolitan Avenue
Williamsburg, Brooklyn

(L/G to Metropolitan-Lorimer)

The performers! clock-wise from top left: Matthew Stephen Smith, Erin Rogers, Brian McCorkle, Esther Neff, Jeffrey Young, Gelsey Bell, Dave Ruder, Paul Pinto. (not pictured: Jason Anastasoff)

Arts in Bushwick’s SITE Fest hits Surreal Estate, 15 Thames
on the 1st anniversary of the PERFORMANCY FORUM!!!

Saturday, March 5, 7pm-1am
Sunday, March 6, open SITE, 2pm-6pm

Work by:

Alejandro Acierto (installation with performance on Saturday night)
Gelsey Bell (performing from her solo song cycle “Bathroom Songs”)
Hector Canongee (performs ‘Ocular-Trance-Ocular’ with Maria Fernanda Hubeaut)
Ivy Castellanos (installation with performance on Saturday night)
Brian McCorkle (music/performance)
Esther Neff (YOU)
Paul Pinto (experimental music)
Brian Rady (theater/performance)
Matthew Stephen Smith (theater, excerpt from an upcoming one-man show)
Meghann Snow (performance art)

This past year has been incredibly stimulating for PPL and for Surreal Estate artists, thanks in large part to the influx of new collaborators and the work of artists participating in the PERFORMANCY FORUMS. Hector Canonge performed at the very first PF, opening the door on a whole host of exhibitions, conversations, and collaborations with other powerful artists; as a curator, organizer, and friend, Hector empowers everyone with whom he comes into contact.

Additionally, at least half of the artists in this exhibition collaborate with one another as experimental music ensemble thingNY, with whom PPL is currently collaborating on this piece for May, 2011. Click HERE to watch thingNY performing one of the pieces of SPAM 2.0, the awesome show they just did at LPAC.

Others in this exhibition are collaborators as old as the hills (9 years!) and some are newer collaborators and influences, as the old rhyme goes, precious metals and whatnot….heck, there is nothing like gratitude for people you respect to cut through the depressing weather of March!

“For time flows on, and if it did not, it would be a bad prospect for those who do not sit at golden tables. Methods become exhausted; stimuli no longer work. New problems appear and demand new methods. Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change. Nothing comes from nothing; the new comes from the old, but that is why it is new.”
Bertolt Brecht

How are we “of our time”? What does “historical context” mean in-the-moment in performance? How can we develop an approach that deals with our contemporary and evolving conceptions of time, history, and the contextual “location” of individual conception? Here is something that emerges as an ideological  and aesthetic dichotomy through collaboration with thingNY on TIME: A Complete Explantion in Three Parts: “of the moment” drama vs. “epic” or dialectical theater.

This post is in response to various aesthetic sentiments and then to an e-mail written by Jeffrey Young, arguing for text that he calls “of the moment.”  Gelsey, please feel free to weigh in on this, I don’t necessarily share this definition of your text, would love to hear what you think about it all.  Mostly, I began this post in attempts to understand my own aesthetic reaction to Jeffrey’s statement and Matthew and Paul’s affinity for autobiography/contemporary reference—which comes up in me as a hairball in a cat—and where this reaction on my part comes from so I can be more mature about it…

First, I think it’s only fair to state that the main ideological positions under which this post functions are inseparable from the idea that public performance can and should catalyze and assist something like “Complex Sight.” (“Sight” not as a sense, but in terms of ways of seeing, or view-point, again, the-ory, the-atre, the = view) which of course is just a “post-colonial reification of Bertolt Brecht” if you want to be like that about it.

The dichotomy between our reactions/preferences, if I attempt to see it on the most concrete level possible, might be described as one between “in the moment” (what could this be called?) work and “epic” or “dialectic” work. On one hand, there is this “in the moment” work that is meant to exist during its first and last performances and in the time period of its creation, refer and describe/express its own time, and pertain directly to the decisions being debated and anxieties being dealt with in a particular time by individuals of that time (zeitgeist?).  This work is often autobiographic, non-theatrical, task-based, and contains references and images that are part of the shared (supposedly) daily lives of the performers and the spectators alike. On the other hand, “Epic” (or “dialectical” as Brecht called it later when Epic was given a capital “E”) work is meant to be re-performed many times (there may be some ritual element even to its performance, as a conceptualized task or political action), describe and express human time, and be relevant to the decisions and dialectics that human beings make and participate in, throughout time. References and images are mythic, historical, conceptual/nature/body/thought-based, often more expressionistic or abstract.

Opera, the only medium other than musical theater that is even remotely similar to what we’re doing,  is firmly rooted in its tendency towards the latter “epic” presence and re-presence in time.  We know that Wagner advanced a tautology of unified works of art, Gesamptkunstwerk, which not only unites artforms but assumes that a piece will be perceived in the same way (uniformly, predictably, mimetically) by a united public. This is how Wagner’s work is in alignment with theories of Volksgeist, and an audience with common conceptions, ideology, national identity/biological race, and homogeonous volk-instructed culture via aesthetic, expectant, and formal transmission. Wagner’s work especially is supposed to be “timeless” in a very particular way, and I think we can agree that it does pretty well at this and that this is why Hitler liked it so much. There is more than a hairball in the way here, so I understand reactions against timelessness/epic-ness as it stems from Wagner and Western classical music traditions.

However, in the theater,  in politically-rooted reaction to Wagner’s type of timeless focus, Bertolt Brecht begins with a separation of the work’s elements, which allows an audience to see how a work is made (this is why NYTimes reviewers say a work is “Brechtian” if the lights are exposed, the music is atonal, and actors are sitting onstage or changing costume in full view of the audience) and makes sure that spectators don’t forget that they are seeing a play (which will inevitably end in time and is a subjective way of seeing). This is important (though separate from mimetic timelessness) because Brecht perceives an audience as an engaged body of individuals who must be forced to  “See Complexly,” becoming conscious of their own subjective and cultural conceptions alike and comparing them with those present in the work (held and acted upon by, etc).  Brecht proposes that when audience members understand what their conceptions and expectations are and where they come from, they become better prepared to make just decisions for themselves and others (which is a proposal that is easily tied into Adorno and various Marxist and phenomenological aesthetic and political theories).

Brecht then moves farther away from Wagner by placing this work in a “real” time, a historical time rather than a fantasy/mythic time. In addition to this, Brecht proposes that awareness of time (both in terms of history and stage-time) is a crucial part of an audience’s ability to think Complexly, to remember that they are watching a play, to recognize that they exist as socio-political agents, and to understand that people’s actions and understanding are forever evolving and transient.  In Brecht’s circular narratives, historical context is defined and relevant, both in terms of the piece’s setting, the author’s context, the story, and the audience’s “location” (historically, geographically, culturally, and so on). I think that these distinctions are are best understood through reading Brecht’s own ‘Modern Theater is Epic Theater: Notes to the opera Aufstied and Fall der Stadt Mahagonny’ (1930), the source of that dual list that we all saw copied to the point of disintegration in university course-packs wherein we see the crucial distinction relevant to our exploration here, of “man as process” (Epic Theater) vs. “man as a fixed point” (Dramatic Theater) and a negation in dialectic/epic theater, of linear development, evolutionary determinism, and ‘eyes on the finish’ (progress/product focus).  I just ignore some of the other dualisms…

Brecht’s viewpoint on time can also be understood  through the hermeneutic lens of his contemporary, Hans-Georg Gadamer, who wrote on the nature of human understanding and the range of an individual’s ability to understand based on his or her own personal “horizon” of influence and experience, and the nature of ‘historically effected consciousness’ (wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein).

In order to help a spectator’s understanding of her own context, or even evoke the general sensibility of context, Brecht favors Umfunktionierung, the refunctioning/ repurposing/re-presenting of  Time: In the dialectic or epic theater, like the aspects of character, narrative, political debate, and moral parable, time/historical location is separated out from the other aspects of the piece and made into a Gestus; Brecht chooses past historical contexts for his works (for the most part) so that historical context (time) may become an isolated element that can be packed and unpacked as a Fabel (an analysis using socio-political ethics, context, and a certain materialism/naturism to determine cause and effect relationships and situate the work of art in time and context), and therefore likewise engages Complex Sight and its analytical socio-political function.

IS it possible to use contemporary and pop-culture references, first-person narratives, autobiography, the self onstage (“real” time, “real” character) and other “of the moment” elements to catalyze and engage Complex Sight (and each of these devices are individual in their implications)? If so, I would like to learn how. Until that explosive day when I understand how, it will seem to me that these “of the moment” elements (and the sensibility, mood, aesthetic, and form that they perpetuate) are the opposite of Gestus, causing the individual audience member’s experience during the performance to merge with his or her daily life and thought, and reinforce his or her existing ways of living and thinking, and allow him or her to leave the theater without having been compelled to action, engaging in Complex Sight, participating in a collective experiment, or any kind of experience that he or she can’t get from film or television and all of the contemporary theater that wears the garments of these mediums during its masochistic identity-crises on the way to extinction. Likewise, I don’t like the way this end of the spectrum leans towards a Wagnerian-type conception of the audience as a unified body that can identify with us, the authors, in the way we identify ourselves and in the way that we intend, as if we are fairy tales or other mythic figures; to place a person into performance, fictive, historical, or “real,” is to extend that person  and his or her statements/opinions/experiences into subsequent subjective analyses and catalogue-forming of “what is sensible.”  I am not coherent enough to be a theory of the sensible (no individual is, that’s why we make characters), so I don’t want people to use me to determine anything.  For an interesting argument that works against this, there is always Herbert Blau’s post-modern bible Take Up the Bodies: Theater at the Vanishing Point (yeah, but Blau has different agendas, his work is relevant to an argument against this but not exactly in opposition, it’s focused differently…)

Likewise, in terms of time, I think “of the moment” work encourages individual audience members to have a “passive culmination” response, which is the erroneous feeling that what we are now, and what we think now, (and what the individual is and thinks) is the highest evolutionary point so far on some kind of Platonian journey, which shuts down analysis and the desire to learn and change (this journey towards the sun is also called “dialectic” so maybe this is where Brecht gets left peering from his own personal horizon of conceptions?) by reinforcing the value of the now and the value of the authorial positions in time (and in this case, about time) held by the work’s authors (playing oneself further reinforces this, which I do see as a positive thing in performance art but not in theater, WHY? Another post).  Also, “in the moment” work may prevent us from having much of a relationship with our audience’s grandchildren, as they will see us as products, relics, and the irrelevant dead, forever confined to our own self-reference, like a snapshot of a snapshot.

I do think, however, that perhaps “of the moment” engagement can become epic, or dialectical, if it is presented not as a mirror but as part of a Lehrstück, in which the unity of form and content is part of a meta-dialectic of socio-political function, as per “the means have to be asked what the end is.” But of course, who can do this asking? I am very interested in seeing if Paul Pinto’s one-minute lectures (as himself, as part of this TIME piece) can hit something interesting in this area, I think they are beginning to, which is very exciting. Also, this whole debate is about TEXT, and text with music, not about forms that have audience engagement, or incorporate aleatoricism.

Let us see if work with text and music (memorized by us as performers, etc) can be simultaneously “of the moment” and dialectic. Perhaps there is no dichotomy between these two at all, it seems likely that it’s better modeled as a spectrum, (with “in” the moment somewhere in the middle? Perhaps as a beginning to a way of dealing this this?) we’ll have to define our terms better, and I think the analytical merging of these two weirdly polarized hands might be exactly what we should be working on…I additionally propose that perhaps we’re only able to move towards a compromise in terms of this dichotomy now because the split in postmodern reaction to a traditional leaning towards epic-ness (in Modern opera) vs. a postmodern reaction to a short-sighted populism (in theater) in part creates such a dichotomy. I might also suggest that preferences for “of the moment” work may, in fact, be pre-determined by a position as part of the post-modern avant-garde music dialectic, just as my vehement defense of epic-ness is a part of the post-dramatic theater dialectic.

In anti-conclusion, Robert Leach on how Brecht dealt with this: “ duality of form and content was replaced (to over-schematise briefly) by a triad of content (better described in Brecht’s case by the formalist term ‘material’), form (again the formalist term ‘technique’ is more useful here) and function. In Brecht’s dramatic form, these three constantly clash but never properly coalesce to compose a rounded whole.” (from Leach’s notes to Mother Courage and Her Children.)

Now if only we can only combine Brecht with John Cage somehow, we’ll have the TRUTH….

PPL met thingNY Artistic Director Paul Pinto back in 2008, when we were looking for new collaborators. Since that fateful day in a recording studio beneath a motorcycle garage owned by alt-pop band Collective Soul, his ensemble thingNY has been a big part of our immediate influences; although the things approach work from a classically-trained music background, and PPL approaches work from a mish-mash of music, theater, performance art and other backgrounds, we all occasionally arrive on what we (at least semantically) call “opera,” and have overlapping aesthetics in interesting and often surprising areas.

experimental music ensemble thingNY

PPL in 2008, including thingNY's Paul Pinto

Now, we are excited to be in the beginning stages of a collaborative project. We’re devising a work together about time called TIME: a complete explanation in three parts. So far the individuals involved are Paul Pinto, Gelsey Bell, Jeffrey Young, Alejandro Acierto, Katie Johnston, Michael Hanf, Matthew Stephen Smith, Brian McCorkle, and myself (Esther Neff). We may gather more people as we roll, snowball-like, into the realm of concrete production, but so far this diverse group of collaborators, after only two meetings, is moving forward with enthusiasm and ease: we’ve arrived on a project concept, title, exercises for trans-disciplinary materials generation, and a sketch of the form for the piece.

Expect to see the fruits of this collaboration in April, 2011!