Jack Smith, Thomas Pynchon, and the Spectacularly Disappearing Self
This talk explores two of the twentieth century avant-garde’s most unlikely bedfellows: performance artist Jack Smith and novelist Thomas Pynchon. Paradigmatic examples of maximalist performance and maximalist fiction, Smith and Pynchon show an investment in creating artistic works that explore the possibilities of spectacular self-effacement. Though homophobic structures of the closet and cold war conspiracies create an atmosphere of paranoia for both, neither decide to go completely “off-grid.” Instead, theyflirt endlessly with the possibility of disappearance — and in fact do so in the most spectacular way possible. Pynchon may refuse to appear in public or make his whereabouts known, but this refusal has also birthed endless hoaxes and reported sightings. He makes a brief and uncredited cameo in the cinematic adaptation of Inherent Vice (2014) knowing that it will incite inordinate gossip. Smith may have deliberately refused to advertise his performances and he may have been a notoriously guarded (and even hostile) performer, but he was also notoriously camp. He retreats from his audience, but he does so by layering upon his body an excess of colorful and intricately adorned scarves. His face is effaced, though not by a mask — it is effaced by glittery stage makeup.
In other words, this talk attempts to untangle — through a discussion of celebrity, paranoia, and maximalist aesthetics — what we mean when we use the seemingly contradictory term “reclusive persona”. By bringing together the cases of Smith and Pynchon, it also hopes to call into question traditional narratives about the insignificance of experimental fiction to American avant-garde theatre.
Elizabeth Wiet is a fifth-year PhD candidate in the English department at Yale University whose work focuses on the aesthetics and material conditions of American avant-garde theatre. She is currently completing a dissertation titled Minor Maximalisms: Theatre and the American Novel since 1960, which explores the confluence of experimental theatre and experimental fiction vis-a-vis the aesthetics of maximalism. Her writing has appeared in TDR: The Drama Review.
Christine Mok’s work in theatre and performance studies, critical race theory, and American cultural history focuses on the people, places, and performances where the limits of theatrical representation rub up against the limits of racial representation. This talk is a meditation on failure, frustration, and Asian American visuality through the photography and photographic practice of Nikki S. Lee. From 2007 to 2008, Lee, the Korean-born, New York City-based photographer, traveled to different cities around the world, from Prague to Madrid to Bangkok to Rome. In each city, Lee asked street artists to draw portraits of her on translucent tracing paper. Back at her studio, Lee arranged the images, layering drawings by artists in the same cities, one on top of the other atop a light box. She then photographed the resulting portrait. While each image, the composite of three separate drawings, from each city, is different; the multilayered images enact the difficulty of reading and seeing the Asian/American face. Defying its photogenic surface, Lee’s Layers performs the complexity and complicity of racial surveillance by frustrating viewers and reviewers alike across continents, uncovering the burdens placed upon the (Asian/American) face of the other.
Christine Mok is assistant professor of Drama and Performance in the department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Cincinnati. At UC, she is the Director of the Helen Weinberger Center for the Study of Drama and Playwriting. She is currently completing her first book project, which uses intermediality and theatricality as critical optics to examine the shifting politics and poetics of inauthenticity in contemporary Asian American performance. She has published in Theatre Survey, Modern Drama, and PAJ: A Performing Arts Journal. She received her Ph.D. in Theatre and Performance Studies from Brown University and holds an MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism from the Yale School of Drama.
Remote/CTRL: Theatrical Responses to Digital Warfare
As martial investments in drones and other remote-controlled forms of surveillance and lethal weaponry increase each year, contemporary warfare has come to resemble (and even depend upon for training soldiers) “first-person shooter” video games. Virtualized, remote images of battle are contained within screenal interfaces that simulate, but also cleanse and limit the multivalent realities and “lingering destruction” of war. As these frames both enact and hold “war at a distance,” the need to use theatrical representation to help audiences think and act with empathy across the remote distances, political differences, and cultural divides of post-9/11 warfare has become all the more urgent. This presentation analyzes several recent theatrical works that reimagine screenal interfaces of war as sites through which to create empathetic understanding across the great divides and distances of contemporary warfare. In particular, I look at George Brant’s Grounded (2012), Christine Evans’ You Are Dead. You are Here. (2013), and Wafaa Bilal’s Domestic Tension (2007) for the ways they employ digital interfaces to at once reference and counteract the desensitizing and distancing effects of remotely controlled, digitally rendered warfare. Through a range of representational strategies, these works attempt to stage screenal interfaces of war as sites of intersubjective identification and communication that might instead facilitate ethical and empathetic understanding.
Elise Morrison received her PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies from Brown University in 2011. Her book project, Discipline and Desire: Surveillance Technologies in Performance, forthcoming from University of Michigan Press, focuses on artists who strategically employ technologies of surveillance to create performances that pose new and different ways of interacting with and understanding apparatuses of surveillance. Morrison has published on this topic in International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media (IJPADM), Theater Magazine, and TDR. She recently edited a special issue on “Surveillance Technologies in Performance” for IJPADM (Routledge: Fall 2015, 11.2), where she has served on the editorial board since 2010 and previously co-edited a special issue on “Digital Performance and Pedagogy” in Fall 2012. Prior to coming to Yale, Elise worked as Associate Director for Speaking Instruction at Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. As a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Interdisciplinary Performance Studies at Yale (IPSY) from 2012-2015, Elise taught courses on Digital media in performance, Feminist theater and performance, Surveillance and society, and Public speaking. As the new Director for Undergraduate Studies for Theater Studies at Yale, Elise continues to teach these courses and to convene the Performance Studies Working Group.
Black Spartacus:Césaire, C.L.R.James, and the New Present
This talk is derived from a book project that advocates the re-thinking of time as a political urgency. It looks to theatre and performance for a singular kind of exploration of radical temporalities. These temporalities – penultimate time, kairos, and the new present – are presented as experiences, and new forms of politics, with the potential to challenge chronological and capitalist time.
The talk itself will focus on two plays about the Haitian revolution, which took place alongside of and in deadly tension with the French Revolution and its ideals. The first is Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History by C.L.R. James, Trinidadian author of the Black Jacobins, and an internationalist, Pan-Africanist, and revolutionary socialist. The second is The Tragedy of King Christophe: A Play, by the founder of the Francophone Negritude movement, Martiniquean Aimé Césaire. The former premiered in 1936 and the latter in 1963. Both plays are explored against the genre designations they are given, including “tragedy” or “chronicle play” or “history play”. Instead, they are treated as a resurgence of the slave Spartacus in Louverture that opens a revolutionary new present in Saint-Domingue (later renamed Haiti). This new present unfolds within, and in opposition to, the temporal logic of French, English and Spanish colonial expansion and its dependence on slavery, the accumulation of private property and European nationalism.
Maurya Wickstrom is currently teaching as a Visiting Professor in the Yale School of Drama’s Dramaturgy Department. She is on sabbatical leave from the City University of New York where she is Professor of Theatre at the Graduate Center and the College of Staten Island. She is the author of Performing Consumers: Global Capital and Its Theatrical Seductions (Routledge 2006) and Performance in the Blockades of Neoliberalism: Thinking the Political Anew (Studies in International Performance series: Palgrave Macmillan 2012). Her articles and essays have been published in Theatre Journal, TDR:The Drama Review, Performance Research, Modern Drama and others, as well as in edited volumes. Her book, Fiery Temporalities in Theatre and Performance: The Initiation of History is forthcoming from Bloomsbury Methuen Drama’s Engage series.