Under the Current

SPicassoSharon Picasso
Illusion Theater
July 30, 2015
by Charles Campbell

“Picasso is continually in pursuit of simple and concise performance grounded in relentless authenticity and honesty.”
— promotional material

Jesse winding twine around his fingers and then a cork(?) and then a clothespin was interesting to me in part because of the little fragments of twine that are inevitably shed in the process and collect in a spill of fibers on that little mobile table. Then after they are swept to the floor, we can see them and their shadows on the floor for the rest of the performance. That’s nice.

The recorded interviews were interesting and I could see how they were meant to coincide with the non-sonic elements, but I had trouble taking them both in simultaneously. I wanted to focus either on what I was seeing or on what I was hearing. I felt that the tension between the two was neither resolved into a whole nor pulled so intensely apart that it led to a productive antagonism.

Lights and cords:
Sharon’s manipulation of the producers of light was familiar, comforting, and exciting to me, as I imagine it might be to anyone working in performance. The fascination of watching a lighting crew set and focus is a close relative of the fascination with watching your first vinegar and baking soda volcano. People who know stuff are doing things: it’s making. Making in a very immediate and unassuming way that is like watching science happen. There is the possibility of a kind of trance-inducing patience that can sprout in an audience. Because we don’t know what’s happening but we can see that something is being done and it is going somewhere, even if it doesn’t. When a switch doesn’t (or even when it does) cause an immediate visual effect it becomes a dramatic moment that bursts outside the bubble of staged performance — like a physical failure (or triumph). This kind of manipulation of reality is effective because it is local and personal and communal in the best sense.

I suppose there’s a danger here of privileging a functional reality over an imagined reality, but I think that’s a manufactured threat. After all, there is a limit to my interest in just watching the world go by. I do want to be taken to another place. But that doesn’t mean I want to be kidnapped and bound in the back of a Representational Car and Emotionally Driven to some Story Land by Narrative Thugs. This particular manipulation of reality is like an open door to another place. And you do have to take the step over the threshold all by yourself. You can complain all you want about how boring it is sitting outside the door where nothing seems to be happening, but that’s your problem and has nothing to do with the performance.

The Fall:
When a fall becomes a dance move it plummets from the gripping sense of potential danger into a “step”. Steps fall into a hierarchical contest of technical skill and choreographic audacity that is difficult to watch without feeling like you’ve been spat on by James Cameron. But Heidi’s swinging a dolly-light-tower around in circles by its rope-pull becomes not only a move and a lighting effect but another hypnotic engagement with a local reality. Things are happening and they are being made to happen and we are part of that. It goes beyond step, beyond effect, and becomes Something Else. That’s nice.

Much of this three-part piece was working with objects. I found the interactions with these objects (whether twine and table; backless wheeled chair; assorted cords, cables and powerstrips; or dollies and light fixtures or instruments) the most engaging aspects of this piece. Probably this is due to my background and proclivities, for what it’s worth. However this also seemed to be a central concern of the piece and that is interesting to me. It’s not so much everyday, or “pedestrian,” movement being demonstrated or exhibited for our consumption as it is providing the elements of activity that involve people’s bodies engaged with parts of the world around them. Here, the elements of the “real” world that are brought onto the stage gain a sense of artificiality because they are onstage.

This complication of real and artificial points out my shortcomings in understanding this piece. Is this a piece about movement that is clearly “dance” or about doing things in a dance context and suggesting we watch these activities (that fall into a range of dance-like or -unlike gestures and motions) as dance? Both? I don’t know. And I’m not that interested in the answer really, but my need to pose the question suggests to me that I am not fully understanding this piece. Where is the “relentless honesty and authenticity” to be found? Whose “authenticity”? Which reality? In what is happening, physically, onstage? In a suggested or expressed emotional/spiritual representation? Reality of action, reality of object, often conflated with the functionality of action and object, become juxtaposed with the suggestion of representation, narrative, emotion, etc. that is supported by the recorded text. But which is which, and how to synthesize or contrast them? What is the connection, or where is the borderline?  I’d rather be told I don’t belong than to have to choose sides. Are there sides?

There are real things onstage — chairs, wheels, cords, shelves, etc. But they do not live there. They don’t belong there in the way that they belong in, say, my basement, because the stage is a place where nothing “belongs” in this way. They are there to serve a creation of some artificiality. So there is a tension between the functionality (and mis-functionality) of these objects and the place in which they have been put. I like tension, but I think maybe there is either too much or not enough here. It’s amost a demonstration, but not. But I don’t know: it’s more than likely I’m missing something.

There is also a tension between some of the sweeping movements and the more practical ones that involved interacting with objects (like turning of the head towards a light after a switch was flipped — or the winding of twine). This tension suggested that there was a represented reality I was meant to engage with — narrative, emotional, psychological, or something other — that lived in a place beyond the winding of twine and the flipping of switches. I feel that the recorded text was meant to enhance or support this represented world, but I found that less interesting that the movement of extension cords.

I know that this makes me sound pretty odd: that I prefer to watch uncoiling of orange extension cords over the enacting or representation of an ephemeral human moment. And maybe I am extravagantly marginal. But I think there’s an important aesthetic question involved. I’ll be relentlessly honest: I do enjoy drama, emotion, narrative, and the ephemerally human. But I find that the familiar modes of presenting these things to an audience are insufficient to, or distractions from, the weight and importance of these intangibles. And to discover a mode of representation in which the ephemeral and intangible aspects of living are allowed to glimmer momentarily is for me intensely related to questions of the real, of authenticity, of honesty — or better yet, of the way we think about these questions. It is possible, still, to experience the unadorned ephemeral reality of living in the everyday functional practicality of unwinding extension cords. I believe this possibility does not exist when we rely on more familiar modes — at least in the here and now.

This for me is a strong argument in favor of experimentation and what often derisively, dismissively, or ignorantly gets called the avant-garde. Whatever you call it, it’s not about being merely different or strange or exclusive or elitist or “intellectual.” It’s about a struggle to find a means of making that is equal to the intensely complex reality of our contemporary lives. And that struggle demands difference, strangeness, a knowledge of our history and the work of those who came before us, a commitment to being hit in the face with a sledgehammer, and an unremitting demand for failure. No one is born knowing how to do this, and because our contemporary lives change from day to day the course of this search must be continually adjusted. No past success is a sign (much less a guarantee) of future success. Which means every failure is a mark of wisdom rather than a scarlet letter.

I call it “being an artist”.

So the swinging of the dolly-light-tower (for example) and its potential for hypnotic engagement with a local reality not only allows a mode of audience interaction beyond consumption, but can be an enacted model for a way of responsibly existing with the world. It does not attempt to dominate and control the world and force it through one-sided representation to imitate what we want it to be. It enacts a conversation, an encounter with the Other, in which we are shown the weaknesses of our own position and the magisterial difference of what is not us. Given the realities of our contemporary lives at his moment, I think there needs to be more of this everywhere.


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