Exhibition Prosthetics VIII:
A How to on Knowledge Construction: What the performance-lecture can teach us about holding each others hands?
I began my first teaching position this semester, and one of the things I was most excited about (and made sure to take advantage of no matter what) was that I was allowed to take a class for free. By some stroke of luck—perhaps even divine intervention—there was a spot open in Joseph Grigely’s class titled Exhibition Prosthetics. This series of writings will be reflections from the week prior on talks I have gone too, virtual exhibitions I see (since I am taking this class during a pandemic I cannot in good conscience visit in person ones), as well as the readings assigned to me by Joseph, and any conversations we have together in the interim through email or instagram. We’ll see how it goes.
This week’s send out is the current state of what will become the conclusion, which also is in relation to the topic of class this week. I think through the performance-lecture as a way to round out some of what has been thought through during the course of the book. What is coming to you this week is absent of footnotes or a conclusion, so keep that in mind when reading. If you are interested where a quote came from just comment or email me.
“I advise students interested in performance then, to methodically stage ‘an observation of the periphery’—to look to the edges of a piece of art to grasp and deploy it’s wider impact and intent.” - Aaron Williamson, The Collapsing Lecture
The year is 1964. The lights dim as a man walks out dressed professionally in a suit and tie as he approaches the podium. He begins his lecture which is itself a reenactment of the well known text Iconography and Iconology by the German art historian Erwin Panofsky which—taking the gesture as greeting and using the example of a man raising his hat to another on the street—takes “iconology, the genealogical research of cultural forms” as the beginning point to better understand the seemingly mundane forms of communication. However, this man who gives the lecture is not Panofsky, but the artist Robert Morris, and this is no art history lecture, but a performance in the context of the Judson Dance Theatre. The piece is titled 21.3 which is the course number for a class Morris taught at Hunter College, which would have most definitely assigned the text that he now performed. And this was no straightforward recontextualization of the lecture as dance, but rather the lecture as material for dance, and therefore lecture as performance. The lecture itself was prerecorded by Morris up to and including the rustling of papers, the drinking of his water, and the shifting of his body, which was then meticulously choreographed in his lecture notes. And through these notes Morris, almost imperceptibly at some times, and quite clear at others, placed his in person performance out of sync with the prerecorded version that everyone listened to. So he would go to take a sip of water and then in the middle of sipping you would begin to hear it, for example. As Gordon Hall puts it in Read me that part a-gain, where I dis-inherit everybody, “The lecture was a dance of a lecture—an exercise in embodied speech and gesture, the disjunctures in his lip (and body) synching were mechanisms for drawing attention to the performed aspect of public speech.”
I have been writing, moving, performing, and thinking through the performance-lecture format (and in that time switching what I referred to it as constantly) for a few years now. One of my first involved me presenting a video with everything I would say already captioned out at the bottom of the screen as images and videos flashed by, and me in the corner behind the podium holding the computer reciting this text while slowly taking all of (leaving on my socks and underwear replicating the oft repeated maxim that one should imagine the audience in their underwear when nervous) my clothes off. And in all of that time I’ve always started my out of order history with this piece by Morris. Although I could have also started with Adrian Piper’s Funk Lessons, the practice of soapboxing, John Cage’s non-traditional lectures in the 40s, Plato’s dialogues, Medieval plays, or many of the other distinct cultural forms of enacting knowledge including the role of the griot in many West African cultures (whose job it was to preserve the oral traditions and cultural heritage) and the Māhū in Native Hawaiian and Tahitian cultures (who were third gender persons who’s job it was again to preserve cultural practices). This is to point out (as I hope I have done throughout this book [I’m writing this before a lot of it]) that the ways in which we formulate the knowledges that constitute the base for which writing occurs are, as David Wojnarowicz would put, pre-invented. To return to the example I’ve used elsewhere (I’m at least assuming I did, again I’ve written this before these other chapters) that Edward Said uses in the introduction Secular Criticism to his book The World, The Text, and the Critic of Erich Auerbach’s writing in exile of his book Mimesis which is considered one of the most influential books of literary criticism. Auerbach wrote in exile from not only Europe, but all of those pre-invented modes of knowledge production: the library, the periodicals, contemporary accounts of his area of study, and critical editions of the texts he referred to. He was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, and in the stroke of irony that can only exist (it seems) in historical accounts he was a scholar of the old tradition of German Romance. But the reason I bring this example up here is because of what he said in the epilogue about this book’s writing which took as it’s subject “the representation of reality in Western Literature” that is, “If it had been possible for me to acquaint myself with all the work that has been done on so many subjects, I might never have reached the point of writing.” In my long-winded explanation what I mean to say is that, knowledge bases are not the stuff of nature. It was because Auerbach was in Istanbul that he did not have the “knowledge” he needed, because in this other place—which Said points out was in “medieval and renaissance Roman literatures…[the ultimate representation of] the terrible Turk, as well as Islam, the scourge of Christendom, the great Oriental apostasy incarnate… The Orient and Islam also stood for the ultimate alienation from and opposition to Europe…”—he was alienated from the knowledge, and the built in biases and the parameters of his project precluded the use of these other knowledges in the project. And what performance-lecture as a practice does best is expose these formulations of knowledge, the cultural constructions of disciplines and ideologies which structure where we come from. So to point out where I start my history, but also where other people could start their’s is to preclude any possibility of origin point as constructive of this practice, but rather a happenstance time and space which I begin from so as to formulate my thinking, to allow myself to reach the point of writing, if only to then (in this case) collapse what that could mean.
Talking is Dancing, and Dancing is Talking… The performance-lecture positions us to think through the greater relationships between writing, moving, thinking, talking, reading, producing, subsuming, constructing, dancing, speaking, expressing, explaining; verbs which constitute the modes by which we exist in relation to others, which necessarily includes the harmonious, the neutral, as well as the oppositional. To start from Robert Morris’s performance is to start from a place where the very ways in which we communicate, gesture, and create knowledge are the mediums by which we critique normative versions of those mediums.
To think this idea of the normative in regard to communication, gesture, and what we know is to also say the normative in the context of the social. Lectures are themselves highly specialized and regimented version of general communication between two people, scaled up and then made to deliver the information more coherently and concisely (two adverbs which I struggle with). However, this is not without a layer of obfuscation inherent in the medium so as to limit who can understand—deliberately or otherwise. An example I will give (and return to later) is that of all-faculty meeting at the institution I work for. In these meetings (now held over zoom a virtual meeting space) there are mechanisms for the sharing of information in place so as to concisely and coherently present said information. One of these (which I absolutely loathe) are the use of percentages to describe growth and decline especially as it relates to budgets and the allocation of money. To use the percentage as opposed to the numbers written out allows those viewing to more quickly grasp the ways in which money is moving or shifting in abstract terms. If, for example, percentages are used in regard to how much different groups of employees pay is being raised, then we may see something much different than if we saw how much that raise was. If administration sees a 2% increase in their pay and part-time staff sees 10% then it looks pretty good to those part-time faculty right? 10 is more than 2. However, if administration is in the 10’s of thousands of dollars (sometimes even more) and the part-time is in the thousands, there really isn’t much of a difference, and the administration is still making far more money than those part-timers. Sure the percentages are much more efficient, but they are much more prone to obfuscation of the material realities of payment. The artist Panamarenko mimics this inadvertent obfuscation in his video-lecture Toy Model of Space in which he argues with himself on stage about his own version of Pre-Einstenian physics, challenging the authoritative nature of how the knowledge around his flying objects are thought about. These flying objects themselves always failing to fly, like fucked up Leonardo Da Vinci flying machines (a more profane paraphrase of a remark Joseph Grigely made about these works).
In the epigraph to this chapter, Aaron Williamson comments on the importance of the periphery when it comes to understanding not only art and performance, but the ways in which it is constructed. Much like you would perhaps look at someone’s hands, shoulders, and mouth when they talk to you in order to construe the entirety of their meaning. Or how you would look at the actions of a presidential administration as well as what they say in press conferences. “As a deaf student I sat through much of my education without the provision of a sign interpreter and to counter boredom I would spend the hours observing peripheral distractions such as the lecturer’ body language, attitudes and interactions with their lecturing apparatus. [emphasis mine]” Williamson points to these extratextular body and knowledge apparatuses as peripheral distractions, and it is precisely these distractions which epitomize the marginalia of which I’ve been speaking, or rather those marginal details which are hidden from view by virtue of their seemingly ubiquitous status.
Williamson’s critical response to the lecture format comes in the form of its meticulously planned collapse. In the essay that I’ve taken the quotes of his from, The Collapsing Lecture, he lays out three of his collapsing lectures that had occurred (two more would later be performed) in which he slowly collapsed this lecture format in which it was the failure of the lecture to come. This was a delay as lecture, a lecture whose collapse deferred it indefinitely, but whose deferment was the very mode by which it came to exist. And importantly while the modes of failure were themselves ubiquitous to the lecture format (dropping notes, projector failures, loud doors, coughing fits, spilling water, etc.) and we’ve all seen it, they disrupted the performance precisely because of the modes of difference that they brought in. Lectures often work because we know what to expect, we know how it will go, and we know how to glean information from these modes. It’s why the percentages are never questioned, the tables and charts make sense as containers of information, why a beginning, middle, end, and these are necessary, and why we as the audience sit still and allow ourselves to absorb what is occurring. But here the very notion of differential activities occurring on the stage which are themselves part and parcel with the lecture format exposes the ways in which one can see the periphery or the margins in all lectures, and by extension in all forms of knowledge dissemination. I will make the distinction though, while we can view Williamson’s playing up of these “failures” as the point, it is rather that these failures are non-productive. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a failure, but it does need to go against what we believe to be productive: as a use of our time, as a way to get information. And not just productive, but efficient.
In Gordon Hall’s performance-lecture Read me that part a-gain, where I dis-inherit everybody, which I quoted from earlier, and which lays out a version of a possible history and theory of the performance-lecture the body and its positioning is understood as necessarily constitutive of what is given. Hall’s work is in many ways itself constitutive of my own, in that my work is indebted in many ways (including friendship) to the work they have done. At their solo show at Document Gallery in 2019 they showed that their was a small hole on their sculpture OVER-BELIEFS that was just the right size so that their finger fit perfectly in the absence. This was in the midst of the opening precisely where this kind of action would have been generally prohibited or avoided, but Hall’s work lives for these moments. This act of generosity with me is indicative of what I am trying to get at, and what their performance-lecture nods towards.
During the course of Hall’s performance-lecture they move around the stage containing props that have been built specifically for it. Hall sits, leans to the side and back, stands, climbs, delivers at the built podium, and relaxes. Some of the objects do double duty in acting as projector screens, holding different images that relate to the talk given. The text itself is read from a set of cards made perfectly to be held within Hall’s hands, signaling to us the audience that this text could have other lives. Moving around the space we are alerted to the spatial component of thoughts. That is to say that there is not a strict divide between the mind and the body, but rather they are themselves always intertwined. Sitting on the tallest structure is where the letter to Jan Verwoert was recited, I assume to make sure the sound waves traveled far enough. They speak on public lectures from behind the podium. They leaned against a structure that allowed some part of them to be obscured when they leaned back to listen to George Benson’s Give Me The Night during the intermission. And in the very beginning of the talk they situate us in a time and space years before this lecture where this thinking began,
A decade ago I am sitting at a desk in the library of my college. It is a carrel desk, the kind with short walls on three sides, to close you in and minimize distractions. There is a window to my right, out of which, if I lean back in my chair, I can see the campus green and buildings, and beyond the mountains of Western Massachusetts. I am spending a lot of time in the library that year. And a lot of time in my studio, across campus. Most days are long and halved between the library and the studio, separated by a curved path.
And a little after this they articulate something which they had articulated to their students, and which I have quoted in many a writing since first hearing it, “POLITICS IS SOMETHING YOU DO WITH YOUR BODY!” And in companion to this I often quote from Johanna Hedva’s Sick Women Theory which is alternatively titled in it’s lecture format My Body Is a Prison of Pain so I Want to Leave It Like a Mystic But I Also Love It & Want it to Matter Politically,
I started to think about what modes of protest are afforded to sick people – it seemed to me that many for whom Black Lives Matter is especially in service, might not be able to be present for the marches because they were imprisoned by a job, the threat of being fired from their job if they marched, or literal incarceration, and of course the threat of violence and police brutality – but also because of illness or disability, or because they were caring for someone with an illness or disability.
In thinking in what ways politics is something done with the body, we must open up the ways in which the body enacts politics. All of those ways in which people live their lives, act in the world, are excluded from the world, all of this constitutes the ways to think and rethink and rethink again the body politic. Rethink the ways in which our language does not always allow for a more accurate understanding of the intertwining nature of body and mind. To think again the immune system as textual overlay onto the world, we are always in interface, we are permeable beings, mind and body.
Adrian Piper’s Funk Lessons which came shortly after graduating from Harvard with a PhD in philosophy, was a space in which she would teach a mixed group of “mostly white art students about the histories of African American funk and soul music, and, with great specificity, endeavored to teach her participants how to dance to this music.” Elucidated in her essay Notes on Funk, the aims of the Funk Lessons and the importance of the experience that it has, as well as how this experience allows for a more nuanced navigation of difference.
I suppose that what finally vindicates the performance in my own eyes (as well as the effort to continue engaging with very different kinds of people in doing them) is the undeniable experience people seem to get, almost invariably, from participating in them, including me… For me what it means is that the experiences of sharing, commonality, and self-transcendence [elements which Piper aligns with the social effects of dance in black culture] turn out to be more intense and significant, in some ways, than the postmodernist categories most of us art types bring to aesthetic experience…
But perhaps the real point of it for me has to do with the ways in which it enables me to overcome my own sense of alienation, both from white and black culture… [In this ellipsis Piper discusses her experience of being a Woman of Color (which she acknowledges as itself a constantly shifting determination referencing her parents complaints of the shift in terminology) and as white passing and as someone who is acculturated into white culture, and what the performance allows her to do in regard to an acceptance and engagement with both aspects] It also reinforces my sense of optimism that eventually the twain shall meet!
For Piper this dual situation of a didactic approach to the explanation of Funk and the dancing components of it, as well as an enactment and practice of dance, allows for a situation in which people must engage difference and grapple with their preconceived—what she would call xenophobic—responses to it. Throughout Notes on Funk the problematics of context, the language we use, and the entrenchment of cultural difference (especially that which she sees embodied in white Americans who attempt to conform to whiteness and European precedents) are interrogated as malleable and learned concepts. In the video produced by Sam Samore that shows a Funk Lesson, as well as various clips, and a post lesson interview with Piper, she remarks in response to the question about why “whites can’t dance” she remarks that it is a “matter of practice”. For her there are practical ways in which, especially white people, can work against the ingrained cultural prejudices which contribute to racism and xenophobia, and Funk Lessons is an attempt to show that. Here this simultaneous performance-lecture/“GET DOWN AND PARTY. TOGETHER” event creates a space in which people were “LISTENING by DANCING” that is perceptual modes became intermixed. The peripheral and marginal effects that come from actually dancing allowed those who had never even thought they could dance before work against and within difference. Here, difference was not itself eliminated, but those cultural differentials which are manifest in stereotypes and assumptions melted away.