This past weekend I attended Part I of an event that is a hybrid amalgamation of performance art, video art, social practice, and theatre games wrapped into a pseudo-academic conference format with an audience of equally hard-to-label artist/scholars. This event is Theorems, Proofs, Rebuttals and Propositions: A Conference of Theoretical Theater – and Part II will take place this Thursday and Friday, September 12 and 13.
Hosted not on a university campus but in the heart of Brooklyn’s experimental theatre and performance art playground – at Glasshouse Projects, Panoply Performance Laboratory, Momenta Art, and the Collapsable Hole – the conference has an air of being birthed from within the artistic community, refreshingly uninterested in the blessings of the ivory tower. This first weekend consisted of four plenary performances that offered “positions” to the interactions between theory and performance. Part II of the conference, coming up this week, will consist of about twenty conference participants responding (in whatever way they so choose) in ten-to-twenty-minute chunks to what was shown this last weekend. The conference was put together on the premise that “performance is not just an artistic medium, it is also a vast and complex conceptual/philosophical structure.” As organizers Esther Neff and Yelena Guzman put it: “The project seeks both to recognize, theorize, and authorize performance-making as a constructive act that escapes autonomous artistic spheres and participates in co-construction of public discourse.” Basically, all performance enacts a criticality of some sort, but during this conference, the audience and participants work in discussion to voice and examine how the theory/practice marriage actually functions. The four plenary performances were chosen by the organizers to aid this investigation. The beauty of the conference is putting ones money where their theorizing mouth is and seeing who (and how and what and why) can walk the walk while they talk the talk. Since criticality is an essential part of so many artistic forms – from social practice to conceptual art to performance art and beyond – the nerdier it gets, the cooler it is.
For anyone who decides to come out to Part II but missed some or all of Part I, perhaps this little guide will be of some assistance:
The first plenary performance was the Finnish Reality Research Center’s Plato’s Symposium, in which twelve dedicated participants took part in a four-part performance created with and around them over the week leading up to the conference. The piece used the large time commitment and small “audience” to create, from what I could tell from the participants I spoke to, pretty profound and moving experiences. With four “acts” taking place on different days, Act One consisted of a one-hour Socratic dialogue between an individual participant and the four members of the Reality Research Center about a single image, which the participant chose from a stake of options, that he or she found beautiful, making arguments for why and in what ways. Act Two consisted of dialogue between the artists and two participants about meaningful objects brought in by each party. The participants’ homework before the next part was to create an imaginary ritual they could perform that would make the participant more beautiful. In Act Three, each individual participant was lead through a guided visualization of their ritual and then surprised with the news that during the conference weekend they would be invited to perform their ritual at a “symposium” with all the other participants. The artists worked with each individual to prepare for this event and the symposium (Act Four) took place over many hours with every individual performing their ritual and sharing a great feast on Sat. Sept. 7th. Over the week-long process, the movement of critical discussion into performance practice was illustrated in the creation and performance of each ritual – ultimately exploring the larger topic of beauty that permeated the whole symposium.
The second plenary performance, which took place on Sept. 6th, was actually a video triptych by Peruvian artist Amapola Prada called REVOLUTION. On a large screen in the middle room of the Glasshouse basement played “La Unidad (Unit/y),” a steady shot of the artist standing in the middle of a street in Lima over an extended amount of time as the dogs, people, and cars of the city moved around her and the sun rose. In smaller rooms to the left and right of this screen played “La Fuerza (Power),” which consisted of the adult artist sucking on her mother’s breast, and “El Movimiento (Movement),” which showed three naked female bodies laying horizontally while other figures (men and women, sometimes three of them, sometimes just a solo individual) moved in a rowing fashion large wooden spoons from between the women’s legs. Both films contained dark, shadowy light with minimal, repetitive sounds, and played on loop for many hours, with subtle, barely noticeable differences between each loop. The interaction between image and title, particularly as it relates to the specifically Peruivan distrust of the efficacy of Revolution (with a capital “R”), offered a great deal of fodder for examining the interaction between theoretical language and the movements and stillness of live (filmed) bodies.
The next performance, also taking place on Sept. 6th, was Poultry Paradise and Its Discontents: Nightshifts by Japanese New-York-based Kikuko Tanaka. Squeezed late night into the Panoply Performance Lab with little room for the spectators to sit, the solo artist began with a “southern belle” type character inviting everyone to her salon, and quickly moved to a security guard character at a desk seemingly passing the time of her night shift by drinking coffee, reading out loud, and absent-mindedly touching herself (by which I mean, sexually). Due to her thick accent, what the artist was reading was almost impossible for me to understand. I think at one point I heard something about Giorgio Agamben’s concept of “bare life,” but for the most part the snippets I understood sounded like a romance novel. One third of the way into story-time, Tanaka took out a six-tentacle phallus from her pants and played with it to varying degrees of masturbatory intensity throughout the rest of the performance. There was also video playing the whole time but I couldn’t see it from where I was sitting. Nothing like issues of intelligibility and sexual desire to get a Freudian twist inserted into the conference.
The final plenary session was a workshop – called Idea Machine – by theatre director, writer, and producer Mike Taylor exploring what she has labeled “compression techniques,” or “audience transformation technology.” She worked with participants to examine the artist tools of “learned significance” (in which, the meaning of something is created in repetition contained within the performance), “forced synergy” (when two diverse things are put in conjunction with each other), “being present” (maybe that speaks for itself?), “proven frameworks” (which uses the understood rules already in place around a particular type of performance), and “predetermined cultural significance” (using the cultural baggage phrases, objects, characters, and other things are all rife with). Besides the techniques themselves, the desire to codify them exposed the interplay between theory and performance always active in the art of directing.
Each plenary artist was also connected with a critical interlocutor, who learned about the project to varying degrees of involvement – from friends that share a studio to strangers talking over skype. Each performance was accompanied by a discussion or dialogue between the artist and their critical partner with the conference participants. Couple these discussions to the productive conversations that took place between artists and participants between events, while walking to a new venue or having a cigarette outside, and it becomes clear that a great deal of the power of the conference has been in the conversations taking place in the cracks between plenary showings.
This Thursday and Friday the conference participants, consisting of a veritable hodgepodge of artists, scholars, writers, performers, and many folks that fit all those descriptions and more, will each have ten to twenty minutes to respond in whatever way they see fit – from academic lecture to embodied performance to participatory exploration – to either a specific plenary performance or the ideas of the conference as a whole. I have no idea what to expect. While it is uncertain how interesting the responses will be to anyone who did not attend the first Part of the conference, if you’re a nerd with an intense fascination for the intertwining knots between theory and practice, you will find yourself right at home. Beyond the gift of the performances and the space and time to talk about them in a depth and complexity not usually given, the event has turned out to be a real party of like-minded and interested performance thinkers and creators who are genuinely striving to create an honest way of engaging with performance as a constructive and critical force. They are mindful of successes and undeterred by failures. This hybrid form of performance festival and scholarly conference will be given the real test in the coming days of the limits of various forms of philosophical discourse – both linguistic and embodied – as well as the generative impact of a diversity of thinking bodies in action. The two days are sure to be filled with waves of absolute confusion and scattered bursts of sudden epiphany over a blanket of talking, laughing, and trying to make sense of it all while not letting “sense” get the best of us.
PART TWO OF Theorems, Proofs, Rebuttals and Propositions: A Conference of Theoretical Theater will take place at the Glasshouse Project, 246 Union Ave. Brooklyn, NY from 7-11PM on Thurs. Sept. 12th and Fri. Sept. 13th. Friday night will end with a party.
Part II presenters will include:
Chloe Bass, Gelsey Bell, Laylage Courie, Gavin Kroeber, Milton Loayza, Amahlia Mathewson, Erin Mee, Howard Pflanzer, Igor Rodriguez, Karen Schiff, Samita Singh
Julia Lee Barclay-Morton, Lorene Bouboushian, Sarah Butler, Shawn Chua, Michael DiPietro, Valerie Kuehne, Dhira Rauch, Kikuko Tanaka, Cat Tyc, Nik Wakefield