PLATFORM 2011: Body Madness writer-in-residence Huffa Frobes-Cross on Ursula Eagly and Chris Schlichting’s Shared Evening of work
February 23, 2011
In the opening pages of Daniel F. Galouye’s 1961 novel Dark Universe Jared, a boy raised in a post-apocalyptic underground civilization that has existed for decades in complete darkness, runs into a gigantic mutant bat. But it is not the monstrous flying animal that terrifies him.
“Jared only stood there, paralyzed by a sensation altogether beyond comprehension. His impression of the monstrous form was clear: it seemed the thing’s entire body was made up of fluttering sheets of flesh. But there was something else- a vague yet vivid bridge of noiseless echoes that spanned the distance from the creature and boiled down into the depths of his consciousness. Sounds, odors, tastes, the pressure of the rocks and material things around him- all seemed to pour into his being, bringing pain. He clamped his hands over his face and raced [away].”
Hitting Jared’s virgin retina, light is not vision but trauma. Alone, beyond the shelter of a shared language to give his new sensations form, his eyes become holes in his defenses.
A few minutes into her piece, Group Dynamics and Visual Sensitivity, Ursula Eagly asks the audience to close their eyes. During last Friday night’s performance it seemed that most of us complied. In the preceding moments, Eagly, sitting in a chair in our midst, had announced that this would be “an experiment in visual sensitivity” in which she would “describe exactly where to look.” She then asked for our trust. Our eyes were guided around the two-story colonnade framing the central space of St. Mark’s church to the balcony of above the entrance where performer Jeremy Holmes took on a pose reminiscent of the figure Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), as Eagly said, “high up in the mountains, on a cliff, you’ll see him.” Then we were instructed to close our eyes. When, cued, we opened them again, and Holmes was frozen leaning towards the railing. Close. Open. And he was frozen with a panicked look about to fall. Close. Holmes screams, suddenly, seemingly moving around the church, down towards the floor. Eagly returns reassuringly, “Now if you got surprised, and opened your eyes, please close your eyes and keep them closed.”
In this opening sequence, narrative unfolds through the miniature mass choreography of the shared blink. And the moment we are provoked to open our eyes is not a moment of revelation, of unveiling, or of knowledge, but a moment of shock, letting all the light in, leaving the trusting community of closed eyes, not knowing where to look or what to see.
But the night began with the lights off. Chris Schlichting walked in through the front entrance of St Mark’s Church as the lights came on to open his piece Public Hair. He walked up a little too close to the audience. His expression, slightly open mouthed, wide, relaxed eyes, is the same one sees on the face of a very young child so engrossed in some new part of the world they have forgotten their own body. Or, better, forgotten that there is any distinction between their body and what they are observing. Standing and looking at the audience the inarticulate movement of his gaze passed over faces and chairs indiscriminately. He began to move the pinched fingers of one hand as if he were applying lipstick, this motion quickly turned into a violent, almost spasmodic, swinging of his arm around his head. With no accompanying music, the piece unfolded as a series of unraveling actions. Throwing an imaginary ball in the air, Schlichting would catch it once, throw it again and then seemingly leave it hanging there. A gesture that began by appearing to investigate some invisible object would pass onto Schlichting’s own body with the same sense of discovery.
Schlichting, who discovered dance rather late in life while an undergrad at University of Minnesota, has written in his artist’s statement that when first beginning dance classes he “felt vulnerable and out of place,” “ignorant of the codified language of dance.” Rather than seeking to erase this initial uneasy experience he has, as he writes, embraced his “out-of-placeness.” Public Hair develops a language of naive discomfiture with one’s own body and the objects of the surrounding world. In his 2008 love things, Schlichting based his movements on his pop cultural obsessions as a child, in Public Hair he seems to have pushed even farther back into the imaginary indistinctions of earliest infancy, as if the shift from darkness to light that opened the piece modeled a kind of first natal thrust into the exterior world.
First freed from darkness, the prisoner of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in “pain” and “distress,” is “so dazzled…that he cannot even discern the very objects whose shadows he used to be able to see.” As in Galouye’s novel, itself a retelling of the famous allegory, being thrown into the light does not grant the cavedweller sight but causes blinding pain. Prior to his forced liberation, the prisoner, deep in a cave watching shadows reflected on a wall, had been a part of a community of shadow watchers with whom he could share his experiences. Outside in the sun, he is stripped of this community and its shared experience. For Plato, this is a necessary pain, turning away from a world lost in illusion towards truth, towards “the Good.” This argument only functions if “the Good” is abstracted beyond our worldly interactions, beyond the life we share with others. As Kaja Silverman has written, without such abstractions, the prisoner’s abduction, becomes less a gift of light, of truth or “the Good,” but, rather, the denial of the prisoner’s world and all who live within it.
I failed to mention above that Eagly’s piece began with a gift distributed to every member of the audience, a small folded cardboard square tied with a string. After hearing his traumatic scream, and discovering Jeremy Holmes lying on the floor, we were instructed to open it. It folded out into a comic drawn by Jesse Harold which tells the story of Jeremy as a man who, after his fall from the balcony-mountain, finds himself in a village populated entirely by people without eyes. The ‘village’ appears in Harold’s comic as the audience itself, drawn as an eyeless crowd sitting at the church. His attempts to tell them of the wonders of sight only lead them to think he is crazy. Eventually, he and the villagers reconcile, he “becomes a citizen of the valley,” and falls in love with a villager. The villagers demand he remove his eyes, in order for them to marry, and the story ends with this choice unresolved. The first half of this story is accompanied by Harold’s illustrations. The romance appears entirely as a series of still tableaus performed by Holmes and Abby Harris Holmes; once again closing our eyes on Eagly’s command all of Holmes’ and Harris Holmes’ transitional movements are edited out.
Presented with the choice of whether to follow Eagly’s instructions we are placed in Jeremy’s position within the story. Thrown from our secure perch above and beyond the performance before us, we are faced with a choice between opening our eyes to what is going on before us and seeing the performance as directed. Neither choice can easily be referred to a higher truth. We must instead chose whether to follow directions and join those around us, or try to strike out, eyes open, but blind to the perceptual device that makes the piece visible.
Group Dynamics and Visual Sensitivity concludes with Eagly asking us to open our eyes to an extended solo by Lindsey Dietz Marchant. Looking back through Harold’s comic one finds Dietz Marchant making a brief appearance as an angel described by the villagers to Jeremy as a figure that can be heard but never touched. Jeremy surmises that the ‘angel’ is the villagers way of explaining the out of reach sound of birds. In Dietz Marchant’s solo the seemingly immediate vision of a body dancing remains caught between competing perceptual modes, existing in disparate communities of sense as bird, dancer, and angel.
Showing a falling body through a scream, describing a body’s texture through gesture, both Eagly and Schlichting ask the audience to perceive synaesthetically, to use one sense in place of another. However, for each artist this sensual substitution, gives way to another kind of synaesthesia.
Synaesthesia derives from a classical Greek verb whose meaning is substantially different from the term it spawned. Daniel Heller-Roazen has argued that sunaisthanesthai is “[f]ormed by the addition of the prefix ‘with’ (sun-) to the verb ‘to sense’ or ‘to perceive’ (aisthanesthai), the expression in all likelihood designates a ‘feeling in common,’ a perception shared by more than one.” As if discovering the world for the first time, Schlichting moves through half-recognized gestures as if just joining a shared community of language. Eagly tells a fable about perceiving together that only appears through the audiences shared ritual. Sensing only as synaesthesis, seeing only by substituting our autonomous sense for a sense shared with others.