Commentaries - May 2013
[N.B. : My dear editors have pointed out a problem with my using this image for the commentary's header, which is to say that the black background obscures my name and the column's title. As someone who has lived with an obscure name lo these many years, I would have been willing to chance it, but in the interests of consistency of style across our Jackets I have replaced the banner with another. The image lives on here, however, hovering over all that shall soon follow.]
I’m going to start simply by telling the story of this image.
Anna Everett was a young woman from Washington, D.C., who moved to Buffalo, N.Y., in the early 1970s to live with relatives while finishing her high school education. As a new student, she was sent to Lafayette High School, which was only then being integrated. If you’ve read about the integration and bussing battles of that era, you can well imagine the challenges she faced. There weren't attacks on school buses by angry mobs as in Boston, but there were groups of white parents picketing the approach to the school and making it abundantly clear to the small group of black students that they were not welcomed by all. With all deliberate speed, Everett set about making her mark at Lafayette. She joined in school community theatrical productions, and soon enlisted her cousins in the drama. Then she set about painting this image on the interior wall of the school. Even that was a politcal process — the school administration expressed worries about the depicted blindness of the iconic figure, didn’t know whether to push their young student more towards traditional views of Justice or the thwarted welcome of Liberty. In the end, she produced a figure that weighed welcome, that simultaneously promised and withdrew liberty, as if figuring a little known fact about Ellis Island; it was a scene of intake and expulsion. While some entered America through those portals (often undergoing a change of name in the process), others were imprisoned and expelled. Justice, the mural seemed to say, was at best a metaphor.
I had often heard this story over the years and was amazed to learn from a later Lafayette student that the mural was still on that wall decades later. While in Buffalo for a residency at the Poetics Program arranged by Steve McCaffery, I stopped by the high school, and with the staff's permission took this photo. Time and white flight have wrought changes upon Lafayette and upon its surrounding neighborhood, and the mural itself is flaking slightly on the crown, oddly enough in the very space where visitors might be imagined looking out across America to see how liberty and justice for all is faring these days.
Reconceptual isn’t truly a word, though if education writers keep insisting on using it we may one day find it in our dictionaries. The reintegration of Lafayatte High School was/is a project of reconceiving. Everett’s mural was the product of a young artist reconceptualizing America and her own work under the political pressures of her day. In the time of her painting, conceptual art had a purchase on the attentions of American critics and artists, if not many high schools. Poetry has reconceived the conceptual, we are told.
Adrian Piper, we need you, again.
The Unfortunate Truth of My Situation
Richard Foreman Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance)
The Public Theater, New York, the performance I attended was on Saturday, May 4, 2013.
After years and years of enigmatic and provocative plays, and after having announced that he was giving up playwriting for filmmaking, Richard Foreman has come back with a new play that at times almost appears to be a kind of film script, Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance). Like most of his works, this play is set upon a stage decked out with numerous alphabetical configurations, portraits of “significant” people, numerous odd props, and the strings that outline the horizontal shell of the stage, a kind of mix between a metaphorical representation of string theory and an eruv, the defining territory of the traditional Jewish community that outlines the boundaries through which certain objects can be moved or carried on holy days. The effect, no matter what Foreman’s precise purposes, is to draw a line between what occurs on “stage” and the audience. Above all else, Foreman’s plays are definitely not narrative representations that draw their audiences into the “romance” of the story, but are purposefully puzzling brain twisters that demand the audience think about what is being said and done within the author’s domain.
Even Foreman’s title is enigmatic: what are “old fashioned prostitutes?” And how can a romance, usually defined as a form dedicated to idealism and a preoccupation with idealized love, be “true?” In fact, the central character of Foreman’s new work, Samuel (theater veteran Rocco Sisto), never once has sex with the prostitutes he encounters, and although the central figure, Suzie (Alenka Kraigher) invites Samuel to her room and even spikes his gin, no love occurs—unless one speaks of the love of language and philosophical speculation. The only physical contact that Samuel has with anyone is a sudden hug between Samuel and the mysterious “pimp-like” figure accompanying the two “prostitutes,” Alfredo (David Skeist)
Alfredo, Samuel hug
SAMUEL: I do — beg of you, friend Alfredo
ALFREDO: (He grabs Alfredo's lapels)
— Convince beautiful Suzie
That when I speak to her directly
This is always the unfortunate truth of my situation
Suzie and Gabriella are not women of love as much as they are women who flirt, “coquettes,” as Samuel describes them, whose major activities include “sipping afternoon alcohol under the roar of distant traffic” and attempting to catch the gaze of passing men.
As Suzie convincingly argues, she is more a “teacher” than a lover, a woman who shows men the way. And she spends most of her time in this play grappling with Samuel’s attempt to come to terms with what “reality” is, what is the self, and what does it all mean in every day experience.
There is never a clear set of answers or even a set of codefied speculations to precisely what Foreman is arguing for or against in his provocative plays, but there are often clues to the animus behind them. In this case Samuel expresses it quite early in the work:
But perhaps, ladies and gentleman,
it is best never to speak openly about
But it did happen
That travelling these streets
In bright sunlight
An old man with white hair
Shabbily dressed, trudging slowly
In the direction opposite to the one
In which I was traveling
Carrying a large, soiled cardboard box
with what personal belongings
I could not guess
But — whispered hoarsely under his breath
"Go to Berkeley, make film".
I did not respond.
But I frowned
And a few seconds later
turned to watch him proceed, slowly
Down the street
Later in the day
Lying on the bed in my hotel room
I wondered -- I wondered should I have approached him
To ask for clarification.
Was he speaking to me
Or to himself
— yet it seemed appropriate to my concerns
And my possible
Go to Berkeley, my friend
Which could have meant, not the city in sun drenched
But possibly the long dead Irish
A philosopher of idealism, Bishop George Berkeley himself,
whose view of reality might be poetically re-imagined
as a vision of the world in which experience
itself was but a thin film, spread in illusionary fashion
upon human consciousness.
"Go to Berkeley, make film", could have meant, go
deeper into the notion of the world as
a transparent surface only —
depending upon the impress of a mental apparatus —
snapping the world into apparent being only —
Accordingly, Old-Fashioned Prostitutes does serve as a kind of “thin film” exploring the “illusionary” experience of consciousness, a bit like Proust (and the mysterious city in which Samuel exists reminds me of Paris) steeped in sensual appreciation. Even now and then a voice cries out “hold,” reminding us a bit of a film command. But of course it also suggests that the audience might “hold” that idea a bit longer in the mind.
Samuel, obviously, is also Samuel Beckett, and Foreman’s seemingly personal memories are often channeled through the great author, vaguely paralleling, in particular, works such as “First Love” and, at play’s end, “Imagine Dead Imagine.” It is not this play’s story is even similar to Beckett’s first love; there are simply associated threads between the character of the Beckett story who meets a woman, “Lulu,” upon a park bench, a woman just as determined as Suzie to bring home her man. Unlike Suzie, the fat Lulu does eventually lure the narrator of Beckett’s tale into her home, but the two sleep in separate rooms, yet as in Foreman’s play her coquetry (numerous visits to the same park bench) results in very little “love” and ends with some of the same questions about reality and experience that Foreman’s Samuel poses. Similar to many of Beckett’s characters, Foreman’s Samuel cannot even move when he is asked to follow Suzie home, his legs being suddenly frozen in space, wrapped in the production in a gunny sack.
Since, in Berkeley’s “film of consciousness,” however, nothing is precisely determinable even the memory of such experiences and the identity of self comes into question. If Beckett may lie under Foreman’s Samuel, so too does Foreman’s own persona, Rainer Thompson, recently appearing in his autobiographical film, I Am Rainer Thompson, and I Have Lost It Completely, lie behind this play’s character, as Samuel suddenly declares he is Rainer. And in this sense—although it seems preposterous to claim this in a oeuvre that has always been highly personal and autobiographical—Old-Fashioned Prostitutes seems to be one of Foreman’s most intimate works, a kind of strange memory play made up of his own and other writer’s intellectual detritus.
In the end, however, it is nearly pure Beckett in the final words of a play which has struggled with self-knowing and reality, with illusion and consciousness:
Emptiness is here
all to wall, then pause, then back: Music
Imagine no world but this world
Imagine no world but this world (THUD)
End of play. (THUD)
End of play.
Despite the play’s declaration of “emptiness,” Foreman, like Beckett, has embraced this world with his hundreds of questions and speculations over the course of his career, surely representing a “true romance” with “this world” with which we have such a difficult relationship.
New York-Los Angeles, May 5-May 13, 2013
A conservation with a rawlings
This naturally leads to questions about reading: What can we read? How can we read? She writes, that “Gibber hinges on exploring notions that humans read their environments and/or that humans are in conversation with landscapes and the inhabiting non-human species.”
For rawlings, reading becomes a biological and ecological act, one inextricably connected to environmental ethics. Poethics: “Similar to immersion in foreign human languages, immersion in foreign bioregions also heightens my capacity to sense environments partly removed from the immediate superimposed semantics I have inherited.”
She writes of the “Vialence” section of Gibber from which the above image of the vials is taken, that “Glass vials enact a moment when the urge to identify, name, possess grips the body. These vials extend beyond encoded messages in bottles to become synaesthetic museums of soundscapes. Land is collected, sorted, pinned for preservation.”
I spoke to a rawlings in her aerie/studio in Reykjavik. I was in Hamilton, Ontario at ground level.
GB: In Gibber, you explore how language names/claims the land, how it ‘marks’ it. But, you seem to say that, through a lively, engaged and aware reading, we can unpack the assumptions of language and consider how it can or cannot become part of the ecosystem and/or biosemantic lang/dscape. You explore how the landscape can be read as its own text as opposed to how we read the landscape through our preconceptions, through the conceptual (textual) frame work of our naming, our categorization. Thinking about Barthes’ Pleasure of the Text, would you say that we might imagine the environment a ‘writerly’ text as opposed to a ‘readerly’ one?
ar: I thought about Barthes’ Pleasure of the Text, and looked at Gibber gestures through Pleasure’s lens. Marveled at this potential revision: “That is the pleasure of the text: value shifted to the sumptuous rank of the” signified.
What does it help us to fashion an ecosystem (or any ecosystem components) as a text, or to fashion an ecosystem (or any…) as a writer of its own text? What does it help us to imagine an ecosystem (or…) as a collaborator? Each analogy roots the relational seed of interconnection; it pursues hope that we can sense our way into healthier relationship with all that surrounds, sustains, confounds.
Look again: is language an only / a lonely sense for conceiving the world? What sensory components build the linguistic? Listen well. Gibber may be more about conversation than text. Or if text, then text as representing, archiving, recreating the conversation. The conversation between (human and other-than-human) bodies.
Gary, as a fellow Ontario resident, you might get a kick out of this. You’re familiar with Ministry of Natural Resources conservation officers? I grew up in rural Northern Ontario, so conservation officers had greater presence in my formative years than police officers. And here I am, nowadays, always mis-typing as ‘conversation officers’ — though doesn’t that, avec plaisir, demark their craft, too?
GB: Maybe I should title this discussion, "A conservation with Ministry of Post-National Resources Conversation Officer, a rawlings." Indeed, I imagine your work in Gibber as some kind of Eco-post-colonialism. Of course this relates very specifically to the Australian context in terms of social colonialism, but also to your other work (e.g. Icelandic) that is eco-post-colonial. There is both a celebration of language, its ability to name, to sound, to make the mouth (and speech, writing, and sound) a landscape to explore, to live in, to celebrate, but language if not carefully and self-consciously considered, limits the landscape QED or OED.
I keep thinking about some notion of “eco-slave names” as opposed to a more aware, empathic, and listening awareness of the environment.
I imagine that the vials containing text point to how ‘language’ is separated from the world. How they are samples taken, contained, removed from what might otherwise be a more natural and in-flux biosemantic relationship the environment.
Vials are samples taken. Labels transported. Glass is sand subjected to intense semantic heat. But they are also messages in a bottle. An attempt at communication, often over a long distance. (B)each to (b)each. What washes up/ is washed over? Language? Just wash us.
From vials which are invialate and maybe vialating, to a more musical and polyvialent relationship. Viols in polyphony. Let language have no central nervous system but like a jellyfish be everywhere aware.
ar: Consider the (ages-old) impacts of soundscape and landscape on linguistic formation — on letter forms, syntactic construction, pronunciation. Imagine, too, the importation / introduction of languages into foreign ecosystems. With the slip of a tongue, what loss?
Each of the contained texts (“Land. Song. Landscape. Place. Island. Name.”) makes the reader/view consider how the contained text relates to its meaning in the context of its specific physical location.
Land? Sand is a kind of almost land. Liminal. Litoral. Does this land have a specific name beyond the generic category? (And I note that there are many little “land” labels in the vial. It would matter to those living there, yet we abstract with language. That can be helpful but also allows us to blunder on/over.
Song? Is this song? Can a song be in a little tactile vial? Is naming song? Is sand? Is the creative interplay between human and nonhuman? Is language a kind of song? Is there a specific song?
ar: Gibber is part of a larger project with the cheeky working title Sound Poetry & Visual Poetry. At North of Invention in NYC, Jeff Derksen suggested that I might consider redefining ‘sound poetry’ — a term whose history causes me itchiness. Offering a re-definition also made me itchy (as did coming up with another term which might define/claim the work I do), but I got a giggle from the idea of labeling an entire work Sound Poetry & Visual Poetry without clearly delineating what was what within the work. (Is this a conservationist gesture? Is it more the introduction of an alien species into the fold?) The synaesthetic gesture present within much of the Gibber work interests me. When I listen to an audio recording, what I receive is visual in that I construct the place, its inhabitants based on one sensory input; I subconsciously assume the task, as listener, of crafting the visual. If there is visual poetry on offer in Gibber, then, perhaps it’s (also?) in the audio recordings. And in there, then, is your writerly pleasure.
You know, the authorities on cartography would have us believe it’s a visual medium. But consider asking for directions, the verbal disclosure an act of counter-mapping against a dominant hegemonic authority. Consider Aboriginal songlines, a traditional aural cartography. Consider that voice in your head, whenever your eyes wash over an image (of land, of map, with or without text). If there is sound poetry on offer in Gibber, then (also?)… And here, your writing aloud.
GB: Gibber asks: What is landscape? It supposes a viewer, a namer, a framer. An inscape, perhaps. Are these few words landscape? Or construction set for a landscape? Is this ‘field poetics’ – words strewn about the page of the sand – landscape? Sandscape?
Often language (our conceptual rationalist framework) is our only ‘sense’ for conceiving of the world. But your image in its sensory vividness and details shows us a presentness, a different kind of language listening. Multisensory: Language. Langtennae. Landtennae. &tennae.
GB: And in order to read it, I think the image is telling us, we need to take into account the natural world where it is found, where our words and thoughts wash up, where currents pull us, a specific landscape and the tidings it bring us.
Gibber is available entirely online.
a rawlings is a poet, arts educator, and interdisciplinarian currently based in Iceland. More about her can be found at her website.