On Failure and Fake Healing: An Interview With Keith Hennessy
With recent appearances at PICA’s Time Based Art Festival in Portland and Velocity Dance Center in Seattle, Turbulence continues to shift, with three local artists added to the core group at each location. The “collaborative failure” orchestrated by Keith Hennessy opens at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco this week, followed by performances at New York Live Arts Oct. 4-6. Back at his Mission District apartment on Aug. 28, Hennessy talked about his recipe for instability and chaos, which compose Turbulence. Below is an abbreviated version of the interview.
Some of your students have mentioned that your way of pushing is to destabilize yourself and the performance container. Can you talk about this way of working?
Two big cliches are to work from failure or to work in relation to failure or unstable structures or destabilization. If people are slightly snobbier they’ll use Deleuze’s term deterritorialization. I think that these theories are ways of trying to look at oppressive structures or closed loop power dynamics. For people to have any sense of personal or communal power we then need to disturb or destabilize structures in order to have any free space. The ideas of failure out there are super trendy.
In the business management world, there are books like Fail Better. Then in the academic world two texts came out recently. One looks at experimental theater and performance and the idea of staging failure, with narratives that fail or characters who are failures rather than heroes, called Performance Theater and the Poetics of Failure by Sara Jean Bailes. It looks at Forced Entertainment, Goat Island and Elevator Repair Service. Then Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure came out.
The first book was an affirmation of a certain kind of working and way of looking at experimental theater since Brecht and what kinds of ideas peeps are pushing…even this genre of film called mumblecore, where nothing really happens is an example. It’s young people and their lives aren’t shown as being meaningful. These are failures in a way because these people are not becoming something.
How does failure function in relation to the work Turbulence?
With Turbulence the event itself is a failure and fails to meet the expectation of the audience about what the show should be…I have been trying to think really in terms of political structures and hegemony in a both psychological and institutional weave of structure that is fragile, always changing, and takes a lot to maintain. Every time it needs something to maintain the structure, those are weak points that could be exploited.
So it’s called Turbulence: A Dance About the Economy. How do you address economy?
The piece started as a dance about the economy so I’m coming back to economic structures: how they’re set up, how economically unsustainable they are, how they morph and enjoy crisis. We used to think crisis was really bad. Now we have Naomi Klein who has actually gone through the last fifty years and has shown how so much has been either a fake crisis started by the financial system or a crisis that was not predictable like a tsunami or an earthquake, or war in a small place that the larger places could not have predicted, and those crises are then exploited by the financial structures… so all of these things I think about in terms of what it means to work in instability and exploit failure…
Another strategy thats very active for me is this idea of queer. To look at what new trends are happening and to imagine they won’t fulfill your dreams. To be queering them or working outside of them. I think with Turbulence I recognize the mainstream nature in contemporary art of proposing an unstable project that exploits failure. Then I ask “what does it mean to queer that?” Do you deliver part of the spectacle or not? I sometimes just think about being nice to audiences, giving them what they want.
I think what works for me in art is somewhere between classical, modern and postmodern approaches. Somewhere in that mashup and not necessarily any one of them. If it’s just a classical or modernist work, it’s really easy to critique. The kinds of theater I like, which is what I want to make, is one where there’s a lot of inquiry, a lot of self reflection and exposing the process. It’s post-Brechtian, its postmodern, unstable in terms of what we expect from theater and also somehow has a sense of magic and ritual that you couldn’t have anticipated.
So what is the unstable structure for Turbulence?
There’s no score. I have a list I share with the dancers including things like fake healing when people come in, creating the pyramid… I decide how many things I insist on that have to happen in each show. At a certain time I might stop and say “Hey audience, I was hoping that by this time the pyramid would have happened, but it didn’t.” If I just talk about it and ruin the flow it’s a kind of failure and improv strategy…
With the Turbulence process, some of us now have been working on the piece for two years. I’m getting to know people better but I’m not making any material for people or creating situations where they’re making material. I’m really trying to create context in which to improvise and see what happens.
Every now and then I ask to try and keep something like what was created in rehearsal. Gabriel Todd wrote a song and I think he didn’t even share it with the group for like six months because he was like “Oh you’re going to insult it.” and then we did insult it. We’ve sung it in every performance since.
How did you select the artists you’re working with for this project?
I invited people who I thought were makers, even if they didn’t have a long history of being a maker. I invited people who make their own work and then I brought them into an unstable situation where the group is always changing …we’re in this weird laboratory together that’s heavily reliant on people feeling confident enough to just make images spontaneously or take action.
I’m sure in my psychic process what I’m doing is something related to the most far reaching research aspects of Sara Shelton Mann’s work. There are many moments when I think about Contraband with this group, especially now that we’ve toured a few times together…theres something really different being with each other 24 hours, seven days a week, or traveling to a foreign country together, or flying in airports together and sharing hotel rooms. Now we’re building on that set of experiences and also looking at those as economic relationships that influence the work.
How do you hope people interface with the work?
Every piece of theater speaks to the last piece of theater people saw, but it also speaks to the life they led before they walked into the theater. That’s one version. With the current piece, Turbulence, we’re working with this idea of soft boundaries. It’s not clear when it starts and when it ends, so I tell the audience that the piece is over when a certain amount of time has gone by, but we don’t leave the stage. It’s clear that so many things are broken down by then that you could just leave, or come onstage and start talking to artists that you know, or you could go over and look at the trapeze, things just keep going.
I’m hoping to bring a different perspective and a different urgency for people to look at how the economy shapes their everyday life. So the follow up to me is quite personal. I don’t think that’s about everyone deciding to participate in Occupy, but it is about considering how deeply embedded the economy is in their life or that economic relations impact their social relations, which impact the way they imagine their potential in the world, and the ways they give and receive, and how they shop and how they pay rent or mortgages. In some ways that’s just already going to fail since the piece is not a lecture. People have to enter it poetically or that won’t happen. If they’re just waiting for the content to arrive it won’t happen.