post_moot 2KX / poetry + performance: a convocation
Miami University (Oxford, Ohio), 22–25 April 2010

Meetings, encounters, events, various types of collaboration between people, games, festivals, and places of conviviality, in a word all manner of encounter and relational intervention thus represent, today, aesthetic objects likely to be looked at as such, with pictures and sculptures regarded here merely as specific cases of a production of forms with something other than a simple aesthetic consumption in mind.

—Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (les presses du réel, 2002), 28–29

Nicolas Bourriaud’s account of new forms of aesthetic practice is simple enough: after Pierre Bourdieu and Jacques Rancière, he identifies a range of “outer-directed” art practices that have emerged since the 90s in alternative venues. While originating in conceptual art, site-specific sculpture, installation, and performance from the 60s and 70s, these new forms translate the earlier ones into modes of social interaction. We are no longer speaking of “genre” per se, as with the position of painting and sculpture above. The aesthetic becomes the location of open interaction that connects artwork and community—to become a model, even instigator, of sociality. The open forms of formerly distinct genres—conceptual art, site-specific sculpture, installation, and performance—are further dismantled and recombined toward a horizon of social engagement as art practice.

In the domain of poetics, no event has come closer to the suggestiveness of Bourriaud’s post-genre aesthetics than last month’s post_moot 2KX convocation. Prior examples there are: the first post_moot (2006); the recent Poets Theater festivals; the five decades conferences at University of Maine, Orono (dates t/k); Diasporic Avant-Gardes at UC Irvine (2004); Assembling Alternatives at the University of New Hampshire (1996); and others I may not be aware of. What made post_moot 2KX remarkable was its repositioning of poetics within multiple fields of practice that included performance, criticism, film and media, digital and book arts, translation, collaboration, and others. Poetry per se became redefined in terms of practices that once were thought to be supplementary to it. The redefinition, in fact, was so total as to entirely reinvigorate the practice of poetics itself “in the expanded field.”

The convocation was organized by an interdisciplinary group of poets and scholars: cris cheek, Cathy Wagner, Tammy Brown, William R. Howe, and Maria Alvarez, with exemplary institutional support from their home university. It was gratifying to hear the chair of the English Department, Kerry Powell, nail the operative aesthetic premise in one word: “process,” in a way that brought radical aesthetics and new pedagogies together. Indeed, the entire event witnessed a translation of aesthetic community into a learning community, and vice versa. Each of the presentations had the quality of a “start up” of a new aesthetic/pedagogical enterprise, even as most accessed and reinterpreted the prior traditions that got them there. That in itself was news.

The fact that great stakes might result from this convocation was not entirely evident from its publicity. A kind of lower-case ethics that I link to the name and work of “cris cheek” was visible in the conference program, with its lack of specific titles for presentations and interpretive copy. Aesthetic democracy was a major premise of the event; there were no plenaries or keynotes to anchor hierarchy. Contingency was also a factor: the absence of most of the U.K. participants, as well as several Americans who had been stranded in Europe, due to the volcanic eruption in Iceland was a perfect segue to the kinds of “event,” in dialectical tension with “nonevent,” being explored. The fact that something “might not happen” became the prior condition of the fact that something might, and usually did.

I arrived, driving from Detroit with Carla Harryman, at the end of the first day’s events. I had expected a social occasion, in the more usual sense, and was not disappointed to find cris cheek, Alan Golding, Maria Damon, Lisa Samuels, and Chris Mann propped on a window ledge among a crowd of friendlies and as-yet-unknowns in the Bookateria. In the spirit of the coming event, I interviewed cris in the manner of a BBC reporter inquiring into the conference’s cultural pretentions: “What are the issues here for art practice, cris?” seeking to channel his public persona. Throughout the conference, cris performed the part of emcee in a way that reinterpreted the public as site for practice in an exemplary way, such that the conference itself took on the values of event it presented.

The first night’s reading was nothing but flarf. Adeena Karasick was brilliantly multimodal in both text and performance, radiating sex/gender tags everywhere: her reading was an essay on aesthetics as embodied sensorium. K. Lorraine Graham performed the act of putting on mascara before a performance onstage, balancing a gurlesque moment with hard-edged textuality. Her performance the following night, with hula hoops and splits, extended and outdid her moment of arrival. K. Silem played the role of “dean of flarf,” with effective spot readings from The Front and anagrammatic renderings of Shakespeare’s sonnets as subliminal ad messaging. The artfulness of this work, on its own, undoes itself—a kind of Self-Consuming Artifacts 2.0, after Stanley Fish. Mel Nichols and Rod Smith, at the end of their sojourn as avant-garde-in-residence at the Iowa Writers Workshop, gave strong and various textual performances that I saw as “state of the art”: the art of interpreting the contingent and random products of flarf in embodied readings. Overall, flarf was basic, grounding, a Chung Yung of poetics—a genre defining itself as we watched.

The next morning, the more relational, post-genre poetics of the conference began to unfold. With the absence of U.K. poet and text artist Lawrence Upton, cris cheek read a letter from Upton about his nonappearance over a Powerpoint of graphic poems. Mark Wallace gave a strong reading of politically oriented language texts that interpreted the cultural topography of Southern California as capitalism in crisis, extending the local and linguistic to the global and economic. Adeena Karasick and Maria Damon performed a “jew-et” involving a weave of Yiddish-inflected sound texts, diasporic interpretive glosses, and color-saturated text images. The piece conveyed elements of both cultural interpretation and transgression, given that the two women had redefined practices of midrashic interpretation, talmudic chanting, and gematria (traditionally provinces of men)—Kristeva meets Derrida at an intersection of cultural memory. The discussion that followed, centering on issues of “color” and “noise,” aligned these cultural practices with sensory/aesthetic terms—an edge that would be explored throughout the conference.

With these two early sessions as frames, the conference continued to unfold its variations of post-genre relational sociality. What was remarkable was the degree to which textual projects in their supplementarity could be so readily redefined as kinds of performance, and vice versa—an effect, it may be recalled, that Poets Theater perfected as a major post-genre in its own right. While I did not much like the content of Jaime Robles’s performance of book making against a background of nature-oriented images, it worked to demonstrate the refunctioning of text as performance. With Linda Russo’s self-reflexive inquiry into her social and natural relocation in western Washington State, the session merged text, site, and reading into each other. This merging became a poetics of emergence in the next session, in which Bonnie Jones performed at the intersection of ambient sound, text generation, and laptop improvisation. Carla Harryman focused on a neo-Benshi collaboration (with Konrad Steiner) in which she superimposed a disjunct, nonnarrative text onto a continuous sequence in which Jeanne Moreau walks through a postwar Italian landscape (intercutting texts by Marinetti and Antonioni). Lisa Samuels lectured on the use of deformance and subtraction procedures (after Ronald Johnson and Tom Phillips) to modify and erase her autobiography, the results of which were spatially displayed on a screen with Flash animation.

Further standouts from the archive of memory include: Laura Moriarty and Standard Schaefer’s detective novel based on aesthetic communities in San Francisco and inspired by a role-playing game site; Jonathan Skinner’s ecotext and slide show on bear-tagging in Maine, alongside his childhood teddy bear, Oso; Kate Sopko’s performance lecture on maintenance art, representing current radical community arts practices in Cleveland; Christine Hume’s surrealist-inflected texts, read against an oneiric and flowing film loop or processed through sound loops and echoes; Chris Mann’s improvised nonlecture in aesthetics, 50% ellipsis and 50% garbled theory, akin to the self-canceling performances of Steve Benson; John M. Bennett’s avant-eccentric textual performance; Dana Ward’s rolling expressive descants on linguistic and social availability; Tyrone Williams’s thoughtful essay on Collapsible Poetics Theater/Colored People’s Time (CPT), working Rodrigo Toscano’s methods through cultural difference (though I wanted a better sense of connection between the two kinds of CPT); and Erin Mouré and Oana Avasilichioaei’s performance of poetic translation as slapstick comedy, recalling Samuel Beckett.

Mouré and Avasilichioaei’s performance took the conference to another level; these were strategies I had not seen previously, deeply informed by questions of language as cultural mobility. A new horizon of sociality emerged at the intersection of text and performance, leading to perhaps the conference’s defining moment: the much anticipated staging of a Collapsible Poetics Theater piece by Rodrigo Toscano, and a work of conceptual theater by former Goat Island performers Mark Jeffery and Judd Morrissey. Toscano’s absence from the events of the conference up to this point—he had been in rehearsals with a group of Miami grad and undergrad students—had a performative dimension in its own right: it cleared a space for the conceptual theater that he would stage. The resulting piece was defiantly post-genre, antitheatrical, and low-tech, staged in a poorly lit mutipurpose room in the Alumni Building against a whiteboard with random graffiti and the text’s unmemorable title (something like “here’s your media, bitch”) as backdrop. The troupe of performers, five women and three men, staged a series of disconnected, episodic routines with a relatively low proportion of text to movement. In the first routine, a sexy female student primps before an imagined mirror; Toscano as dramaturg/performer puts her through a mock interview with slightly flirtatious, salacious tone. “Do you know what you want?” he asks, provocatively; the answer is affirmative, “Yes!” Desire is evidently a part of the structure here. In another routine, a male performance does an imitation of a fish flopping on a deck, arms akimbo (if a fish had arms). Why didn’t dramaturg/performer Toscano ask him if he “knows what he wants?” Gender was asymmetrical, in this sense. The succeeding episodes were minimal as well, resulting in a general sense of subtraction and non sequitur as dominant. The audience seemed enraptured, all right, but generally with “what comes next?” as an interpretive frame.

What was noticeable was the absolute refusal of illusion, an apotheosis of the Brechtian V-effect but with a minimal vocabulary of cultural critique. What we saw was a troupe of college students being directed through a series of langauge-and-movement routines. Some of the movement vocabulary was informed by prior examples, one the Ontological Hysteric Theater of Richard Foreman (for its mechanical use of non sequitur), but there were other positive influences as well (early Yvonne Rainer; Sally Silvers). My précis to Rodrigo later on was: “materialist critique of the college student,” and I believe that is what we saw. In a dingy space in the basement of a university building, students presented themselves in terms of language, physicality, and desire as horizons of expectation at that moment in life. It could be that this was a brilliant use of the occasion, but I am still unsure if my interpretation is really adequate. After that came the former Goat Island players’ demonstration of how to do minimalist arte povera theater: using a ladder, a table lamp in the shape of a star, and a microphone stand (with a projected background of reprocessed Twitter feeds), they performed an “object based” nonnarrative that addressed an edge between experimental pedagogy and performative result. If a theater piece could have been a lecture on what to do with objects as performance, in contrast to digital impermanence and flux, that is most likely what it was.

As culminating events, these theatrical statements raised big questions. On the one hand, they defined the pole most of the work at the conference was tending toward: textual performance. On the other, there was a definite sense of their insistence on “nonevent” as a political horizon or cultural critique. In terms of a relational poetics, this may very well be the point: performance becomes the nonaction or nonevent around which text, movement, image, content of all sorts may be configured. In order for a relational aesthetic to work, there has to be an empty center of some kind (so that the relational elements can be defined as not simply part of a whole, but as connected to things outside them). Performance as anti-genre is the necessary complement to new post-genre forms.

To develop this distinction, we may imagine two theories of performance operative at post_moot: 1) performance as the final horizon that makes manifest the materials and possibilities of the work; or 2) performance as an empty vessel, a necessary emptying out. As critical performance—radical art practice—the two theater pieces we saw tended toward the latter. The emergence of a horizon of nonact or nonevent left me wondering about the nature of the larger event we had witnessed, how it worked as an event. Its genius, in circling around performativity defined in negative, critical terms, was surely the capacity to create the engaged sociality that was everywhere available.

[In a later post, I will describe the dialogue between poet and critic that Alan Golding and I enacted as our contribution to the program.]

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