On Self-remembering Theatres
First published as Sui teatri autorimembranti in B.Motion: Spazio di riflessione fuori e dentro le arti performative edited by Viviana Gravano, Enrico Pitozzi and Annalisa Sacchi, Costa & Nolan, Milan, 2008
They call this piece The Quiet Dance
and it is quite quiet, at least at the start. It begins with the two of them, a couple of forty-something men, noticeably balding (you notice, perhaps, because of the way it makes them look so similar, and the way that this similarity makes you notice, and remember, the differences between them), standing beside each other on a bare stage in simple white light. One of them – Jonathan Burrows, who happens to be a dancer – starts to move, and the other – Matteo Fargion, who happens to be a musician – makes a sound as Burrows does so, a sound that interrupts whatever silence had been established in that initial, anticipatory pause. It goes like this. Burrows takes seven or eight paces forward, arms swinging beside him, descending into a sort of stomping crouch as he does so, while Fargion accompanies – or directs – this movement with a wordless, also-descending cry, ‘Aaaaahhhh’, that stops when the movement stops and Burrows turns around to face his partner from across the stage. And then they take a moment. And then they do the sequence again, and then again, and again, both moving, both vocalising at times, at other times not, developing variations and evermore complex layers and patterns so that, to cite a recent description by a connoisseur of this sort of work, ‘what maybe began as something you could teach to eight year olds, ends up more like Bach.’(1)
That is to say, this is a piece with a lot of thinking going on. That much is evident in the way that Burrows and Fargion go about doing what they do, not just completing the activities but also showing, with glances between the two of them and other minimal communicative exchanges, an awareness of this ‘doing’, which has as much to do with the performance of thinking and feeling as it does with ‘mere’ movement and sound. This is evident too in the compositional structuring of the piece (and equally so in the other two performances, Both Sitting Duet
and Speaking Dance
, that make up the rest of the Burrows and Fargion trilogy), where, as with the sort of pleasure that we – or they – might take in a Bach fugue, the enjoyment involves the re-collection and projection, the repetition and variation of established expectations and anticipated experiences. The work of thinking, though, is arguably most evident, and in the most direct way, when a performer forgets – or appears to forget – what it is they are supposed to be doing next. The last time that I saw the work it was, if I remember correctly, Matteo Fargion who was doing most of the forgetting. This might have to do with a dancer’s habit of internalising or hiding their movement instructions, whereas a musician may be more used to performing with a visible, externalised, printed score. Or so we might say if it weren’t for the fact that the written score is there on the stage with them anyway – we see these pages brought on and put down on the floor at the start of the show, even if it is hard for us to see what is written on them – and the fact too that both performers, for all their virtuosity, appear only too happy to allow any glances that are taken at the score or at each other, or indeed any other indications of the deliberations of memory, to appear as part of the texture of the ‘doing’ that they are engaged with.
That said, what might appear in one light as a performance of the work of remembering, can appear from another perspective as something else, something more like labouring with an incapacity to forget. Performers remember in spite of themselves. After all, a performer might happen to forget their next move, or misplace the next variation in the sequence, but the move and the variation are still ‘there’, in the composition of the piece, in its imminent unfolding, and can be found there easily enough by looking to one’s partner for an affirmative glance, or looking briefly to the score on the floor, or indeed looking to oneself, as it were without thought, for what is already stored there. This happens demonstrably in the third piece in the trilogy, Speaking Dance
, where Burrows’ ultra-rapid hand gestures and Fargion’s irruption into rote Italian folk-rhyme, expose an automaticity that is indeed ‘there’, once it has been acquired, irrespective of what the performer thinks or remembers or invents upon it. It’s not, perhaps, the remembering that has to be worked on after all, but the stopping, the looking, the noticing, the thinking while the thing goes on: the quietness that is articulated so to speak between the lines, and the more provisional and delicate gesturality that takes place as it were ‘off the score’.
What, then, of those pieces of paper – we are still presuming these belong to a score or script of some sort – that are brought on stage and held on the knees during Both Sitting Duet
, or placed on the floor, close enough to be seen if need be, in The Quiet Dance
? Surely a script or score, as a place where the actions are recorded and well-remembered, by virtue of what is ‘fixed’ in the medium of writing, whether internalised or externalised, is supposed to be a fail-safe against forgetting, a way of sustaining the continuity of the idea in the emergence of the act. What, though, if there is too much remembering going on, rather than too little? What if it is the remembering after all that stops our mouths and freezes our limbs, and not the forgetting? Or, to put the question another way, what if we, the spectators, recognise – along with the performers themselves, who are ‘in the moment’ with us and who recognise these things it may be anyway on our behalf – that it is not the show, the composition, the performance, the spectacle, that is ephemeral, disappearing or un-reproducible, but ourselves, who will not survive the theatre’s mechanical and perpetual self-remembering? What if we realise that there is no way to stop the machine turning over than by forgetting how it works, something we are constitutionally incapable of doing? And what if the thing that we come to the theatre for has to do, then, with a collective self-election to the community of the soon to be forgotten; a way perhaps of mining silence from too much remembering, if that is all we are good for, if not claiming a power of speech (a speech perhaps on the part of the others who couldn’t make it this evening) from the jaws of oblivion?(2)
Or, to come at it again, which at the last may be all that we do in the theatre, coming at the same thing again and again to find it strangely altered at every recurrence, although ever so similar: what if the ambivalent pleasure we take in the things that we find there has to do with a perpetually renewed disavowal on our part, a rehearsed encounter with our inability to forget, even while the theatre – as a frame for thought, a platform for action, an ‘empty space’ of sorts – forgets us anyway, holding us all in its remembering and letting us go one by one?
A self-remembering theatre would be one that survives the best efforts of the human congregation that gathers there. This is always a mixed crowd, made up of the spectators who will give their attention to the presentation of the theatrical ‘thing’, as if they’ve never seen the thing before, as if they bear no responsibility for it appearing before them again tonight; and also the writers and performers and makers and arrangers of things and appearances, whose gags and inventions are designed to cover over the fact (a fact exposed through the gesture of attempted erasure) that maybe none of us remembers what we are doing here, why we make or participate in theatre ‘in the first place’, or what it is that any of us want from any of this.(3)
There are, of course, all sorts of seemingly self-remembering mechanisms, man-made devices for ensuring the troublesome continuity of the human ‘thing’, which we take fascinated pleasure in returning to, as consumers, as performers, as scholars and scientists, as if these devices had been found or given to do our remembering for us, and we were still figuring out how to make them work. A list of these might include modern means of mechanical reproduction such as cinema, but also pre-modern devices such as the migration of forms through iconographic history, or the ‘demonic’ survival of transliterated words from language to language(4)
, or the unforeseen return of ‘lost’ social gesture as psychic ‘symptom’(5)
, or else the function of repertoire in ‘classical’ and ‘traditional’ performance forms from ballet and Thai khon dance to commercial pop music. The show must go on and it continues to do so, taking the form as often as not of a nervous over-exposure of modernity’s haunted corners, where for instance ‘the “classical” often emerges and re-emerges not so much in the form of a rediscovery as in that of a rebirth or return, as though it were a phantom with its own will and personality, and capable of returning whenever it feels like it.’(6)
These apparently self-remembering mechanisms are also instances of how the sorts of things that perennially ‘take place’ in the theatre would appear to demand a collective mode of recognition in order to appear at all, a sort of historical or even mythical imagining; and also a ‘political’ accounting for agglomerative systems and forces that are gathered up, seemingly like acts of nature or like the work of a hidden hand, of an off-stage director, out of our individual acts and intentions. What may touch us, though, with an archaic but still immediate disturbance (no less disturbing for the banality of its expression, however it is expressed, given that we know that nothing appears on stage that hasn’t been put there by the likes of us, whether we are talking about the ‘indeterminate’ abstractions of contemporary dance or the most ‘intentional’ corporate spectacle, with its elaborate and blaring efforts to determine collective remembering) is that the theatrical machine will appear, when we come back to it, to be re-producing itself anyway. It will also be found to be reproducing the separations and divisions upon which its operations are founded, irrespective of the particular attempts at recall and erasure that are made in the face of these operations and our best efforts to interrupt the spectacle by attending to its needs and giving it what it wants. Hence our small steps across the stage while another marks our progress. Hence the short stories we share with each other, our outcries at our own predicament and the predicament of others. Hence the busy traffic that makes up the spaces between us, our mumbled lines, our pauses for thought, our exits and silence.
Theatre has, surely for as long as any of us can remember, been a machine for remembering, a fail-safe against losing one’s way in the elaboration of thought and the production of feeling. We can say that one of the ways it does this is through a certain set-up or dispositif, an arrangement of things – texts, images, objects – in a particular place or set of places that are more or less recognisable or engaging, more or less possible for an interested spectator to ‘relate’ to, given a disclosing of this arrangement to that spectator over a specific distance and temporal sequence. To this extent theatre can appear to function, at a glance at least, like a physical manifestation of the old art of remembering, a sort of ‘inner writing’ as Frances Yates famously described it,(7)
the classical rhetorical art of imagining peculiar images or forms placed in imaginary places or loci, the places themselves arranged in a particular order so as to enable an orator, who is thinking through this architecture as he speaks, literally as if he were taking a mental walk there, to elaborate a suitably persuasive speech, seemingly ‘on the spot’.
To return for a moment to Burrows and Fargion: when I recall the two of them appearing to trace the thought that passes briefly between them, or tracing a gesture in the air with a hand, or tracing a short circuit around the stage, they too seem to be very much thinking and acting on the spot. At the same time, as I exercise my memory upon the scene, it seems that passage of seven or eight steps is like a passage around the perimeter of an invisible pit, as if those pages on the floor weren’t so much instructions for activity but maps and diagrams, warning signs effectively, that mark out the pit’s edges. That pit, like a sort of self-remembering hollow, would constitute the unforgettable thing against which the performers’ actions are to be measured and valued, as it were for pathos and efficacy. Dances that appear, then, to be being danced on the thin and friable ledge of the immediate and the contemporary, ‘in the moment’ and also in our own time, might also function as a sort of induction into something stranger and more arcane. Looking back on what happened, seeing Burrows set off again on his small descent across the stage supported by Fargion’s rather tremulous cry, I imagine what I am watching is a sort of ‘walk-around’ an invisible mnemonic architecture; except what had been a fail-safe then, now has to be negotiated differently, has indeed to be short-circuited, given that something other than persuasion may be at stake in the politics of affection that would appear to be at work in such a performance.
What, then, of affection in the theatrical arrangement of memory and performative improvisation? In a book on the development of classical rhetoric’s mnemonic techniques in medieval European monastic meditative practices, Mary Carrruthers emphasises the inventive, improvisatory character of the art of memory.(8)
In doing so she counters Frances Yates’s emphasis on the retrieval of previously stored and arcane knowledge. Carruthers offers the example of the contemporary practice of collective remembering at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington as a way of understanding this ‘creative’ or ‘compositional’ aspect of the mnemonic tradition, and the practice of an improvisatory (and future-oriented) ‘craft of thought’ that survives, she would argue, at a certain remove, in the current day. For Carruthers the memorial wall with its mass of inscribed names is not in itself a remembering of the past so much as a ‘machine’, a locating of res memorabiles set ‘like stones in a mosaic’, that serves as a site for individual acts of remembering that are yet to be performed. As such the wall does not tell stories but invites stories from the individuals who go there to remember, where remembering is a ‘shared activity of recollecting stories about that time and that place in this time and this place, stories that are individually different from one another and yet share the authoring res of the locus itself: the black granite mirror cut sharply into the ground, the need to walk down into it and then up again, and the seemingly endless crowd of names from that war.’(9)
In this reading collective remembering is a contingent, creative practice that takes place through the ‘invention’ and accumulation of myriad evanescent acts of storytelling.
What, then, of affection in the theatrical arrangement of memory and performative improvisation? In a book on the development of classical rhetoric’s mnemonic techniques in medieval European monastic meditative practices, Mary Carrruthers emphasises the inventive, improvisatory character of the art of memory.(10)
In doing so she counters Frances Yates’s emphasis on the retrieval of previously stored and arcane knowledge. Carruthers offers the example of the contemporary practice of collective remembering at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington as a way of understanding this ‘creative’ or ‘compositional’ aspect of the mnemonic tradition, and the practice of an improvisatory (and future-oriented) ‘craft of thought’ that survives, she would argue, at a certain remove, in the current day. For Carruthers the memorial wall with its mass of inscribed names is not in itself a remembering of the past so much as a ‘machine’, a locating of res memorabiles set ‘like stones in a mosaic’, that serves as a site for individual acts of remembering that are yet to be performed. As such the wall does not tell stories but invites stories from the individuals who go there to remember, where remembering is a ‘shared activity of recollecting stories about that time and that place in this time and this place, stories that are individually different from one another and yet share the authoring res of the locus itself: the black granite mirror cut sharply into the ground, the need to walk down into it and then up again, and the seemingly endless crowd of names from that war.’(11)
In this reading collective remembering is a contingent, creative practice that takes place through the ‘invention’ and accumulation of myriad evanescent acts of storytelling.
So far, so performative. What we might draw out of Carruthers’ account, however – an emphasis that she herself makes throughout her analysis of the creative and ethical rigour in the improvisatory practices of monastic memoria – is the observation that what is at stake in these analyses, whether the object is the persuasion of others in classical oratory, or ‘forming citizens of the City of God’ in western monasticism, or ‘the social phenomenon of civic story-telling’ at the Vietnam memorial, is always one form or another of rhetorical practice. And we would want to add to this observation the proposition that for all of its explicit deployment of rhetorical means, and in spite of its persistent manifestation of rhetorical intentions, there is something in the specifically theatrical arrangement, in the functioning let’s say of theatrical mimesis, in the way perhaps it lays claim to the privilege of authenticity and at the same time exposes the reproducibility of that effect,(12)
that will always, like a short-circuit, over-ride or interrupt the rhetorical operation. It’s the sort of short-circuit, for instance, that enables us to gaze upon the toga’d or besuited demagogue who would address us as his friends, Romans, countrymen and ask us to remember what we owe to the memory of Caesar, as if by doing so he might stir us up to acts of civil war (or at least the tearing limb from limb of an unluckily named poet or two); a gaze which we might feel being returned to us so to speak unused, as if we were not really there for him in the way that he appears to be there for us, an effect that can make mistrust and even contempt turn into something more like pity or even compassion. It’s also the same over-ride that enables us to register, it may be pitilessly, the gesture of ‘helpless compassion’ performed by the hooded figure at the side of the stage in Beckett’s Not I
while keeping our attention trained on the gabbling mouth up there in the darkness, the owner of which, it would appear, is cursed with an incapacity to forget that we can barely imagine. Or maybe ‘she’ could forget, if it wasn’t for the actress, who remembers all her lines, impelled as she is not by a rhetorical or social or ethical imperative but by the crudest of theatrical imperatives, which may come down to nothing more than the imperative to make the image appear, and take responsibility in the sight of others for that appearance.
3. Two twentieth century memory theatres
That ‘nothing more’ is not a simple matter, though, as a brief examination of a couple of late twentieth century memory theatres will seek to demonstrate, each of which were encountered by this writer recently in the context of large group art gallery exhibitions, where the sense of being thrown back on a self-remembering past that is indifferent (whatever the rhetoric) to present relationality, is likely to be exacerbated.(13)
In both of these works, meanwhile, individual – or collective – acts of remembering take place at the edge of a pit that does not gape from the stage invisibly, and where the self-remembering engines that are at work in that pit have less to do, it may be, with the improvisations of memory than with the indelible mise-en-scènes and irreversible dramaturgies of history, even as history appears to be still in the process of being made.
Gustav Metzger’s Historic Photographs:To Crawl Into – Anchluss, Vienna, March 1938
doesn’t look like much as you approach it. A green and rather manky-looking rectangular cloth, a couple of metres square, is spread upon the floor. Everything that you could want – or would expect – from the theatre is here: curtain, platform, action, story, and an opportunity for a spectator to get involved in human activity without having to engage in any actual social congress; although the inelegance of that cloth, its placing on the floor where anyone could stand on it, and the absence of any explicit acknowledgement of ‘theatre’ as such, implies that these relics of the theatre dispositif are operating as it were on automatic memory, they make no other claim. Fixed to the floor (and we have to get down on our knees, go under the cloth to see it, and we can only really do this one by one) is a black and white photograph blown up to the same size as the cloth that covers it. The image is a press photo from 1938 of middle-aged people on their hands and knees on a street in Vienna, with brushes and buckets, scrubbing the paving stones, overseen by a crowd that includes several uniformed youths. Given the title of the work, which serves also as a caption for the found image, there is no mistaking the studium of the action that entirely fills this little stage. Even so it is difficult to see, literally difficult in that you can pull back the ‘curtain’ to reveal the display, but then the image is too close, too large at that distance, too encumbered by the cloth for its legibility to be given, even though the details are stark and – literally – in your face. There’s a mimetic literalism too, of course, in the fact that you have to crawl to encounter the image, and crawl over the representation in a way that’s not going to be comfortable in any sense of the word, latecomer spectator that you are at the scene of other peoples’ suffering. What notches the difficulty up, though, if anything, is that this literalism doesn’t really get you anywhere. It doesn’t get you any ‘closer’ to what is going on in the scene, except in the altogether literal sense of getting your nose closer to the cardboard surface of the printed photograph. If anything, the very notion of thinking about or feeling with is denigrated by this easy literalism, to the extent that much of what remains difficult about this work (and Metzger himself has talked about an aspiration to engaging a certain degree of difficulty(14)
) has to do with the way a rhetorical invitation to think, feel and remember is somehow undone by the theatrical means in which that invitation is extended – an undoing that might be intimated by the next spectator in line or indeed any passer-by, who sees only the shape of someone fumbling around under a floor cloth, who may be the only ‘actor’ on that stage, and who may emerge sooner or later no less attached to the banal continuity of this time and this place, this weekday afternoon in a central London art gallery, than when they went in. Our increase and decay goes on apace. At the same time, this peculiarly resistant memory theatre, which you have to enter in order to ‘see’ anything at all but which keeps you always up against the surface of the image and out of the scene, is unchanging and indestructible. Any of its parts are, presumably, replaceable, i.e. replaceable with other parts that tell the same story and do the same thing, not least the display of the denigration of the citizenry of mid-twentieth century Vienna. There is, in that replaceability of parts, something peculiarly indifferent, which might be felt as an indifference to our contemporaneity (or any contemporaneity to come) and the acts of memory – of engagement and ‘relationality’ – that are performed there. This theatre does its own remembering, which it performs with a sort of mechanical blankness. To crawl into it is to become an actor without image, without responsibility, without memory to speak of, on a stage where the action is always already going on and long already over.
Indifference again, alongside an intense form of scrutiny, appears in another ‘remembering’ work constructed around photographs, Triangle
by Sanja Iveković, four small black and white snapshot photos, exhibited side by side, all presumably taken from the same apartment balcony in Zagreb, documenting a 1979 action by Iveković ‘on the day of the President’s visit to the city’. We see in one image, as it were in long shot, an unremarkable apartment block across the way with a tiny black blob on top that may well be another human being, although it is hard to tell. In a second image where the details are more unmistakable there is a crowd of citizens in the street below, a ‘national’ flag suspended from the building, some police or soldiers in the empty boulevard, the expectation of an event. In the third image the presidential motorcade passes along that same boulevard; the crowd watch them pass; the soldiers watch the crowd. The fourth image is in close-up, a young woman on a balcony in an American t-shirt, with whisky, cigarettes and a book, clearly ignoring the events in the street below, if we take these events to be spatially and temporally related. Iveković describes the action:
...it develops as intercommunication between three persons:
a person on the roof of a tall building across the street of my apartment; myself, on the balcony; a policeman in the street in front of the house. Due to the cement construction of the balcony, only the person on the roof can actually see me and follow the action. My assumption is that this person has binoculars and a walkie-talkie apparatus. I notice that the policeman in the street also has a walkie-talkie.
The action begins when I walk out onto the balcony and sit on a chair, I sip whisky, I read a book, and make gestures as if I perform masturbation. After a period of time, the policeman rings my doorbell and orders the “persons and objects are to be removed from the balcony.”(15)
What is performed here is the exposure of the architecture of a situation that the performer, as a representative citizen of the situation, inhabits. Her action of mimetic self-exposure is designed to provoke the situation to expose itself: a situation, among other things, of patristic surveillance, that functions as if the entire civic space were its archival purlieu, and which will act swiftly to ‘remove’ from the scene (even if that scene is visible only to itself) all unwanted eruptions of mimetic behaviour. It would seem that what Iveković’s action draws attention to is indeed a sort of invisible pit, ‘invisible’ to the extent that it is hard to see when one is in it, the self-remembering theatre of a State apparatus that – even while its more obviously rhetorical activities take place visibly on the street below (the crowds, the flags, the presidential motorcade) – doesn’t really expose its theatrical efficacy so to speak until provoked to do so by a young woman who as it were ‘goes on stage’ to perform, in full view of the interested spectator, the most ordinary-looking actions, the most unremarkable appearances. With these actions and appearances she rehearses the gesture of forgetting the very theatre on whose stage her actions are given to take place, feigning indifference to what cannot be forgotten, what refuses to be forgotten, the self-remembering machine that is already devouring the ‘persons and objects’ on its stage just as soon as the quiet dance begins in all its self-involved intensity. As a more benign spectator, cited earlier, writes of the quiet dances of Burrows and Fargion:
They are doing things (movements, sequences, actions) and as they do so, they seem to be thinking about them. […] As things proceed sometimes Jonathan and Matteo seem puzzled or perplexed by what they do and at other times they’re apparently amused, but whichever or whatever their attitude is we’re always aware of them as thinking subjects just behind and inside the action; trapped by it, framed by it, living through it.(16)
This thinking and doing, like that thinking and doing, is performed, I would like to imagine, as a sort of momentary utopian forgetting of that which is already written (or presents itself as such), and as such will not allow itself to be forgot. They are ‘trapped by it, framed by it, living through it’ anyway. Remembering that much and forgetting what they can, they each open a space ‘just behind and inside the action’ for something else to be acted out, an inkling of something perhaps that has not been written yet and which will be worth remembering in the future, when we ever find ourselves there.
© Joe KelleherNotes
1) Tim Etchells [i]Both Sitting or Brecht Might Have Liked It[/i], Monday, 21 May 2007. Programme note for Jonathan Burrows & Matteo Fargion, Lilian Baylis Theatre, London 2008
2) See Daniel Heller-Roazen’s essay on aphasia, [i]The Lesser Animal[/i], in Echolalias: [i]On the Forgetting of Language[/i], New York: Zone Books, 2005.
3) ‘Western theatre is founded on an amnesia, on an absence, on something lacking. We don’t know why we make theatre, we don’t have any idea.’ Romeo Castellucci, in C. Castellucci, R. Castellucci, C. Guidi, J. Kelleher and N. Ridout, [i]The Theatre of Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio[/i], London and New York: Routledge, 2007, p. 245.
4) Davide Stimilli, [i]The Face of Immortality: Physiognomy and Criticism[/i], New York: SUNY Press, 2005.
5) Giorgio Agamben, [i]Notes on Gesture, Means without End: Notes on Politics[/i], tr. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
6) Salvatore Settis, [i]The Future of the ‘Classical’[/i], tr. Allan Cameron, Cambridge: Polity, 2006, p. 7.
7) Frances Yates, [i]The Art of Memory[/i], London: Pimlico, 1966, p. 22.
8) Mary Carruthers, [i]The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images[/i], 400-1200, Cambridge: Cambriedge University Press, 2000, p. 9.
9) Carruthers, p. 37.
10) Mary Carruthers, [i]The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images[/i], 400-1200, Cambridge: Cambriedge University Press, 2000, p. 9.
11) Carruthers, p. 37.
12) For more on ‘the privilege of the theatrical situation’ see Bojana Kunst, [i]On Strategies in Contemporary Performing Arts[/i], Maska, January 2003.
13) For a brief but vigorous engagement in the ‘relational aesthetics’ debate from a theatre and performance studies perspective see Shannon Jackson, [i]Social Practice[/i], Performance Research, 11.3, 2007.
14) ‘I am hoping that because they are difficult, because as you said earlier they are repellent, they block off the approach of the spectator.’ Gustav Metzger interview with Alison Jones, Forum for Holocaust Studies, http://www.ucl.ac.uk/forum-for-holocaust-studies/metzger_interview.html
15) Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb 1998, S. 27. See www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/triangle/
16) Etchells, op. cit.