Watching Performance As Spiritual Practice

I was inspired by Claudia La Rocco’s essay in the Brooklyn Rail to share some thoughts on watching performance – because nothing proves the elasticity of time and our experience of it than watching a show.

I sometimes joke that watching performance is my spiritual practice. But I’m not really joking – engaging with live performance is an exercise in attention and presence, of honing the mind. It is a practice. One has to turn off the noise of the outside world, settle the mind and accept the action unfurling in front of you, prepare to receive the transmission of information. We know, since the discovery of mirror neurons, that watching is not a passive activity at all – mirror neurons cause us to act out (in our mind) what we are watching, we are learning through observing. This can be exhausting or exhilarating, depending on the work.

One of my major frustrations with inadequately realized work is the overabundance of extraneousness. When we place something onstage – human or object – we are saying “pay attention to this”. We – the audience – are in a state of heightened attention and every single element of movement, dialogue and design must offer vital information. The accumulation of this vital information should move us towards a totality of experience. Anything that is on the stage, or happening on the stage, that does not move us towards totality leads us away from it and we spend a lot of time and energy trying to make meaning where there is none to be had. It is exhausting. Time seems to drag on and on and on.

When something is good, time seems meaningless. In Eiko and Koma’s art installation “Naked” you can easily lose track of how long you’ve been sitting there watching them barely move. In the most beautiful and moving art, every single thing has been considered – even that which is left to “chance.” Some artists are geniuses of chaos – they create seemingly random accumulations of actions and words that overwhelm the senses and then resolve them in surprising and satisfying ways. Some artists are geniuses of precision – there is nothing extraneous at all, in the language, movement or scenography.

There’s a place I go when it is really bad. I admit it. When I go to a show I try to pay attention to every last detail, to BE HERE NOW, to be present and open and porous and empathetic. But sometimes a show is just really bad and I want to go away. So I look at the back wall and I visualize somewhere else I’d rather be, usually a beach. I listen to the gentle lapping of the waves upon the shore, I feel the sun on my face, I project my body through the hole in the back wall until I’m fully transplanted into my happy place.

But when it is really good I bask in the psychological, spiritual and emotional experience of wholeness. When it is really good it is like a mind meld into some vision of a world, this world or another world, an imagined universe that reveals truth beyond everyday knowing.

I think this circles back to the social value of the arts. The mind needs to be cultivated and disciplined, our inner lives need to be examined, articulated and refined. Watching performance, at its best, is an exercise in disciplined attention; it is the vicarious inhabitation of otherness. There is the audience and there is the stage and there is that other place where our will to suspend disbelief meets the projected imagination of the artist and we collectively create and enter into an alternate reality. This alternate reality is where we imagine new ways of seeing the world. Hopefully these visions are rich and transporting, hopefully they offer us something to bring back to our everyday lives, some bit of wisdom, compassion or humor that adds to our mental/emotional toolbox. It makes us wider and deeper and somehow more than we were before.

I know this sounds kind of hippie-dippie, but after all the talk about economics and marketplace I am getting frustrated by the arts being treated in the same way as entertainment product. I think our vision gets obscured by the busy-ness of doing and this prevents us from asking the question of why the hell do we want to do this anyway?

Aesthetically, I tend to veer away from work that is solipsistic or too ego-filled. I know great artists are usually coming from a place of profound self-involvement, but I like the illusion of the work being about something else. I get frustrated with art that is entirely about the ego, about self-aggrandizement, about look-at-me! look-at-me!

Not every work has to be about profound transformation – some things are just fun. Some things are just clever. And that’s okay. But I don’t think its totally crazy to say that there is a component of all performance that is about attention, and silence and consciousness. And I think it behooves artist and audiences alike to be more aware of the complicated spaces we create and enter together, of this fragile contract between observed and observer, to see these artistic exchanges as meaningful subconscious dialogues where humans come together to be more than what they are when they are isolated, alone and left to their own devices.

4 thoughts on “Watching Performance As Spiritual Practice”

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