PLATFORM 2011: Body Madness writer-in-residence Huffa Frobes-Cross on “voix de ville”
February 9, 2011
PLATFORM 2011: Body Madness is being documented by photographer-in-residence Ian Douglas and two writers-in-residence: Huffa Frobes-Cross, who will cover Part 1 – Absurdity & Wit, and Ana Isabel Keilson, who will cover Part 2 – Rhythm & Humor. Their words and images will appear weekly on the Danspace blog, offering opportunities to make connections, further knowledge, and open dialogue. Their work will culminate in the publication of a platform catalog in May 2010. The catalogue is now available for pre-order. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve your catalogue.
Sliding from vaudevillian to voguer with as little as a shift in posture, the performers in Cori Olinghouse’s The Animal Suite: Experiments in Vaudeville and Shapeshifting, moved through the space of St. Mark’s Church as if they were rifling through an idiosyncratic archive of a century’s worth of dance and performance. Grasping for some point of stability, one might try to describe the evening through its three most ostensibly static participants. Three bare tree branches begin the evening laying quietly on the stage floor like an unassuming contemporary installation or sculpture. Stood upright on the iron brackets affixed to their stumps, they play very convincing trees. Later they are quickly assembled to form a proscenium stage that is just as quickly disassembled, allowing them to become fake trees once again. The form of the branches, and their biological origin, speak to something natural, something appearing in its naked, neutral form, but shaved of their bark and leaves by human hands, and mounted on platforms, these are former tree parts playing sculptures playing stages playing trees, with each role overlaying the last like so many layers of clothes. The Animal Suite sweeps all its elements living, non-living and once-alive into its metamorphic movement.
The Animal Suite opens Voix de Ville, a three-part night of performances curated by Olinghouse. Last Thursday night it was followed by a butoh-informed work by Kota Yamazaki and a performance by voguing luminaries Javier Ninja and Archie Burnett. Olinghouse’s piece begins quietly with Mina Nishimura spotlit and alone accompanied by hissing radio static. Even in these first spare moments, each gesture begins to wobble unsteadily between various possible readings, with Nishimura’s small, sharp motions tracing a connection between butoh’s controlled tension and the faux-robotics of popping and locking. This trembling soon gives way to even more promiscuous code shifting from eccentric dance to clowning to the Judson Church to the House of Ninja. In the midst of this, the piece centers on a recreation of a filmic dance, not just a dance on film, but a dance that could only occur through film. The dance occurs in the first portion of Buster Keaton’s 1921 film The Playhouse, which takes place entirely within the dreaming mind of a stagehand played by Keaton. In the dream, set in a playhouse, Keaton plays every role. So when two dancers walk onto the stage, Keaton runs into Keaton and the two dance together, almost, but not quite, perfectly in sync, each mirroring the other. It is apparent that neither one is the real Keaton, both lay equal claim to the same identity, as do the conductor of the orchestra and all its members, as do the woman in the balcony and the child next to her. In the dream space of The Playhouse subjectivity is not torn apart through multiplication, but exists as multiplicity, Keaton’s face reappearing in each shot like the same word in one sentence after another.
Several minutes into her piece, Olinghouse’s recreation of Keaton’s dance began as a series of false starts. Performers Neal Beasley and Kai Kleinbard, both dressed as Keaton, entered from opposite sides of the stage. Upon encountering each other they mimed confusion and shock, but rather than going on with the show as the two Keatons in The Playhouse, they retreated back offstage only to return and encounter one another again, repeating this process several times. The recorded piano soundtrack stopped and restarted in time, performer and record acting as interlocked gears of a halting machine. Although dressed identically, Beasley and Kleinbard are not twins or mechanical reproductions of one another. The sameness that confuses the two faux-Keatons in Olinghouse’s work is not their physical identity, but their shared role. Whereas Keaton, copied by the camera, had to become different in every shot, Beasley and Kleinbard must try to become more similar, moving together by mimicking the same filmed body. As they wind and twirl one leg around the other in synchronous imitation of Keaton’s performance, they create a kind of shared body that for a moment made me think of the strung together dancers of Trisha Brown’s 1971 Leaning Duets Two with the physical rope and board replaced by a shared referent in the memories of the two performers.
Olinghouse worked for several years with Trisha Brown’s company, and has described the development of her recent study of clowning, vaudeville and voguing as an attempt to get beyond the “neutrality” of that postmodern dance tradition. In one interview, she describes one of her first classes with Archie Burnett in which she “chose to walk in such a way that was completely not stylized, or at least my understanding of something not being stylized. [Stylizing movement] was so utterly unfamiliar to me that I literally did not know how to engage. And in that moment, something really interesting happened. Archie caught it right away, of course, and he was able to completely mimic and replicate my non-stylized walk.” In Burnett’s mimicry, “neutrality” and “non-style” suddenly appears as a style, as itself a controlled, describable, and particular practice. And if postmodern neutrality cannot claim to be an outside to illusionism, then expressivity is no longer the mere false presentation of emotion. Both lay equal claim to the psyche, neither one is any more or less the real psychic state of the performer, but both equally can be a way of being as performing.
Later, in The Animal Suite, Olinghouse and Eva Schmidt appear in the vest, trousers and straw hat of vaudeville dancers. Their expressions move from stage smiles and bright open eyes to confusion as they are repeatedly thrown into disarray by some unexpected aspect of their environment. At times, it is the music stopping or skipping, at others it is seemingly a sudden awareness that they are on stage. But in these moments the precise rubberiness of vaudeville gives way to something like the “neutral” appearance of a person trying to come to terms with their surroundings. Here Burnett’s lesson seems to have struck home, as these apparently unaffected moments are clearly no less acted, but also no less embodied, than the more formalized movements.
It is in this indistinction between lived experience and mere performance that Olinghouse’s work differentiates itself from another postmodernism. Despite its wide-ranging sources, it is unlike the hyperreferential, simulacral postmodernism described by authors like Frederic Jameson, Benjamin Buchloh or Jean Baudrillard in the late seventies and early eighties or made visible by artists of the same period like Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine or even Jeff Wall. (In the visual arts of that period, Cindy Sherman’s dramatic self-portraiture moves slightly closer, and Sanja Ivanovic Double Life project, perhaps closer still.) Olinghouse’s piece is not pastiche or parody or another reminder we are living something less than ‘the real.’ Appropriation, the once central term for referential or simulacral postmodern art, fails to capture Olinghouse’s engagement with vogue or vaudeville, just as it fails to capture vogue’s engagement with global fashion imagery. “What interests me,” Olinghouse writes, “is the power we can take from these low-tech forms. Sometimes the art we make from ourselves and our immediate environment can be the most human and direct. I enjoy the almost Jungian explanation of the origin of Vaudeville as being derived from the expression voix de ville, or ‘voice of the city.’ What will be our ‘voice of the city’? Our collectively emergent art form? Will it be the eccentric dancing, hat juggling, noodle-legging characters of the 20’s and 30’s?” Far from the psychic and corporeal distancing implied by the term ‘appropriation,’ Olinghouse describes her engagement with vaudeville as one attempt at being more human, more ‘direct’, closer to some collective experience of life in the contemporary moment. It is perhaps more similar to what Walter Benjamin understood as the ‘anthropological tendency’ in Surrealism. Something Jonathan Crary described in 1981, in contrast to many of the postmodern techniques in visual art at that moment, as a strategy that “incarnated a refusal of the imposed present, and in reclaiming fragments of a demolished past…was implicitly figuring an alternative future.” Such a strategy does not treat past forms as a set of unfettered tools for the artist beyond or after history, nor does it return to them merely to make visible their contingency or inauthenticity. Instead, this ‘anthropological’ strategy pulls into light those past forms whose invisibility, whose forgetting, lays at the root of a present order. In Olinghouse’s piece, as in the polyglot movement of voguing and butoh, other languages are taken on to model a way of being in the world beyond a heterosexist, racist and otherwise bounded, “imposed present.”
In The Playhouse, the boundary between man and woman is not laid down by a biological imperative but traced through the reading of performative gestures. Keaton becomes a man by holding his shoulders back just so, he becomes a child through a slouch and pout. What Keaton imagined in the dream space of the film, Olinghouse proposes as a living bodily practice.