February 2, 2016: Miriam Felton-Dansky

Towards an Audience Vocabulary: General Idea’s Viral Performance

General Idea, "Going Thru the Motions," 1975.
General Idea, “Going Thru the Motions,” 1975.

Decades before YouTube, Twitter, and Vine, decades before the Internet inaugurated the phenomenon of fleeting, digitally-enabled popularity—back in the early 1970s—three underground artists declared themselves viral. A.A. Bronson, Jorge Zontal, and Felix Partz, of the Toronto-based collective General Idea, employed this charged concept to describe their modes of creation and dissemination in visual, performance, and conceptual artistic practice. Virus was a form of art, a means of making art, and above all, a description of the relationship between General Idea’s art and its audiences. Virus meant political subversion, cultural infiltration, and subtly radical satire.

It also meant audience participation. In this talk, I trace the central role of live performance in the group’s pathbreaking viral vision. At the heart of General Idea’s work between 1969 and 1978 was a series of elaborate, playfully strange beauty pageants, in which contestants competed for the elusive title of Miss General Idea. From the original pageant, which accompanied a media-saturated staging of Gertrude Stein’s play What Happened, through an escalating series of participatory performances, General Idea developed a mode of viral art that explicitly relied upon the live presence of performers and spectators. Art-historical scholarship has frequently sidelined these works in favor of the group’s visual art. I seek to restore General Idea to performance history, arguing that the live encounter shaped and propelled their viral vision—and that their viral vision marks a fundamental turning point in the history of radical participatory performance.

Miriam Felton-Dansky is assistant professor of Theater & Performance at Bard College and acting director of Bard’s Experimental Humanities Initiative for 2015-16. Her essays and articles have appeared in Theatre Journal, Theater, PAJ, and TDR, and she is a regular contributor to the theater section of the Village Voice. A contributing editor of Theater, she is also a guest co-editor of two themed issues: Digital Dramaturgies (2012), and its sequel, Digital Feelings, forthcoming in 2016. She is currently working on a book about viral performance.

December 8, 2015: VK Preston

Baroque Relations:
Performance and Extractivism in Circum-Atlantic Worlds, 1626

“Baroque Relations” investigates precious metals associated with Andean mining in the archives of early modern ballets in France. Identifying events and tropes of Inca protest within early French ballet, this study situates dances in an Atlantic world vortex, drawing the ‘parts of the world’ into international political disputes, extractivism, and scenes of Indigenous and African slavery. The work invokes a ‘performative commons’ (Maddock Dillon) of an early baroque-era, addressing global circulations of metals through proto-industrial mining, trade, and ecology as well as performance in the early modern Anthropocene. This talk is based on a chapter from my current book project, expanding my research on performance and aesthetics of emergent sites of global trade and capital. Another essay on these sources is forthcoming in a collected volume edited by Mark Franko, with Oxford University Press.

VK Preston is a visiting assistant professor of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies at Brown University. She pursues contemporary as well as historical research, writing on the witches’ Sabbath in the early modern Atlantic World, Franco-Indigenous North American and Caribbean intercultures pre-1800 and in contemporary performance, early ballet, transmedia, choreography, and queer theory. She has published essays in The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Theatre, TDR / The Drama Review, TheatreForum, and History, Memory, Performance. As guest editor for Canadian Theatre Review she has also ‘Views and Reviews’ on curating performance. She teaches contemporary political and engaged performance, performance historiography (1500-1850), and performance studies. VK comes to performance research with an interdisciplinary background in practice, and she teaches Laban-based movement research and interdisciplinary performance fundamentals.

Preston-Image-PSWG

December 1, 2015: Jacob Gallagher-Ross

Mediating the Method: Lee Strasberg, Marlon Brando, and the Sound of Authenticity

Marlon_Brando_Streetcar_1948_f Method acting, the mid-twentieth century performance style developed at the Actors Studio in New York City, was both renowned and reviled for its monomaniacal pursuit of emotional authenticity in performance: sacrificing textual integrity, and sometimes even intelligibility, to feeling. (Marlon Brando’s infamous mumbling is a case in point.) But our obsession with the Method’s psychological contortions can cause us to overlook its creative dialogue with new technologies. In this talk, I’ll examine the media behind the Method: Recording undergirded the exercises and thought of Lee Strasberg, the Method’s Svengali. And Brando’s mumbling, upon closer scrutiny, reveals itself as a canny sound experiment.

The Method, in Strasberg’s conception, purported to be a system bringing the vast trove of affective experience registered in the unconscious mind into rehearsal rooms and auditoriums. But I’ll consider the Method as investigating a different unconscious, what Walter Benjamin called the “optical unconscious”: those uncanny aspects of everyday life revealed by the surgical incursions of the camera and microphone into reality. The Method’s most salient legacy may have more to do with media—with the ways that recording had already changed performance and spectatorship—than emotional recall.

The debates about Method acting were symptomatic of a new postwar landscape of theatrical performance—and a new conception of everyday life— in which theater was only one of many possible modes of encountering spoken art, most of them mediated to greater or lesser degree by technologies of recording. And these technologies of reproduction and transmission were becoming ubiquitous: squalling radios, TVs rattling in the background, Muzak in elevators. Life was getting noisier, and so was acting.

Jacob Gallagher-Ross is assistant professor of theatre at the University at Buffalo, where he is interim director of the MA and PhD programs in theatre and performance studies. His essays and articles have appeared in Theatre Survey, TDR, PAJ, Theater, Contemporary Theatre Review, and Canadian Theatre Review, among other journals. A contributing editor of Theater, he is also a guest-co-editor of two special themed issues: Digital Dramaturgies, from 2012, and Digital Feelings, forthcoming in 2016. A frequent contributor to the Village Voice’s theater section since 2009, he also writes criticism for other national publications.

This talk is based on a chapter from his current book project, Re-Enchanting the World: American Theaters of the Everyday, which is under advance contract with Northwestern University Press. An article-length version of the chapter appeared in the September 2015, issue of Theatre Survey.

November 17, 2015: Lilian Mengesha

A Different Kind of Cont(r)act:
Building a Record of the Missing in Rebecca Belmore’s Vigil 

This talk is concerned with the following question: how does one build a record of disappearance through a medium, like performance, that troubles the foundations of traditional record keeping? To answer this question, I examine a 2002 performance entitled Vigil by Anishanaabe artist Rebecca Belmore. On a street corner in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the artist nailed her red gown to a wooden electric pole. Belmore nails her dress repeatedly, and then tears her body away from the fabric, until there is nothing left of the material and we only see Belmore in her under garments. This is the same downtown intersection where First Nations and Aboriginal women haunt the sidewalks looking for ways to survive, often times by participating in sex work. Many of these women have gone missing, were murdered or have disappeared. The precarious labor of many of these workers lands them in a tight paradox: they are both publicly recognizable and spectacularly visible yet invisible, or negligible, when it comes to securing their protection and safety in the economic sphere. Belatedly, in 2014, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported a total of 1,181 missing and murdered women between 1980-2012. This amount is staggering given that Aboriginal women make up 10% of the homicides in Canada, yet they are only 3% of Canada’s total population. What these percentages tell us is that First Nations and Aboriginal women are often forced to occupy some of the most precarious social positions in order to survive. These disappearances and murders are at the heart of Belmore’s performance and we see her persistence in questioning where they might be.

The redundancy of Belmore’s hammering asks audiences, both local and otherwise, to consider the relationship between time and action differently, repetitively, as a measurement that is a function of syncopation. Rebecca Schneider’s concept of syncopated time asks “what is the time of the live act when a live act is reiterative” arguing that live acts happen “then” as well as “now” (Performance Remains 37). How do Belmore’s actions in the live moment, through a reiterative act of putting her body at this intersection stretch time or stretch through time to recall the “then” of disappearance prior to the performance? This talk will trace these genealogies of time and redundancy to reconsider a different kind of contact between life and death, particularly through Indigenous worldviews, as well as a different kind of shared agreement that the action of nailing might suggest.

Lilian Mengesha is a PhD Candidate in Theater and Performance Studies at Brown University. Her dissertation, tentatively titled Hard to See: Disappearance, Indigeneity and Performance, examines the widespread disappearances of Indigenous women throughout North and Central America and performances and plays that use abject aesthetics and affects of/in violence to respond to the lack of  accountability of these deaths. Her work folds together Indigenous and Third World Feminisms, decolonial thought, aesthetic theory, and performance theories around liveness and disappearance. Her work seeks to bring together the resonances between Native Studies and Performance Studies in their shared concern around states of dispossession.

Still from Rebecca Belmore's 2002 Vigil, Video by Paul Wong.
Still from Rebecca Belmore’s 2002 Vigil, Video by Paul Wong.

November 10, 2015: Elizabeth Wiet

Jack Smith, Thomas Pynchon, and the Spectacularly Disappearing Self

Thomas Pynchon hides from a photographer, placing a pig piñata in his stead.
Thomas Pynchon hides from a photographer, placing a pig piñata in his stead.

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, they flirt 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 maximalismHer writing has appeared in TDR: The Drama Review.

November 3, 2015: Christine Mok

On The Face of It: Nikki S Lee’s Layers

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.

Nikki S. Lee, Layers, Istanbul 1, 2, 3, 2007
Nikki S. Lee, Layers, Istanbul 1, 2, 3, 2007

October 27, 2015: Elise Morrison

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.

October 20, 2015: Maurya Wickstrom

Black Spartacus: Césaire, C.L.R.James, and the New Present

vertieres 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.

October 13, 2015: Christopher Grobe

Why It’s “Easier to Act with a Telephone than a Man”

IMG_0042Among theater critics, then among their film counterparts, a strange consensus emerged in the early 20th century: the greatest performances were drawn out of actors by a particular scene partner, the telephone. “If I could figure out why, I’d write an essay on the subject,” wrote theater critic George Jean Nathan in 1928. The telephone, this talk argues, was like a set of training wheels, steadying many actors’ first wobbly attempts at realism. Only when acting with a telephone, as one actress relates, can you learn to exist “subconsciously” onstage.

Scholars tend to present technology as a disruptive force, one that can deconstruct the deep and centered self. The opposite is true, though, in the case of the telephone: this technology helped mystify this sort of self in the first place. Through a wide-ranging exploration of the telephone’s stage and film career, this talk affords new perspectives on media studies and suggests new applications for acting theory. Media history has tended to ignore performance culture, much to its detriment; this talk demonstrates what performance studies can contribute to that discipline. Meanwhile, the talk suggests new pathways from the study of acting to larger cultural histories: new technologies birth new acting techniques, which, in turn, make whole new technês of the human feel suddenly possible.

Christopher Grobe is Assistant Professor of English at Amherst College. Broadly speaking, his research concerns the fluid and reciprocal influence of America’s literary, performance, and media cultures. He is currently completing a book called Performing Confession: From Robert Lowell to Reality TV. His reviews and essays can be found (or are forthcoming) in PMLA, Theater, Modern Drama, New Literary History, Public Books, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

October 6, 2015: Kimberly Jannarone

French Revolutionary Festivals and the Invention of Tradition

Federation, big

In 1793, the Committee of Public Safety dispatched functionaries into small villages in the French countryside to refashion local customs of public assembly.  Traditional gatherings, such as those at churches, were outlawed.  Instead, officials re-routed loyalties by instructing citizens to gather under secular circumstances to communally praise the nation. They introduced elaborately conceptualized ceremonies in which the young and old would embody unity and fraternity in new mass ceremonies: Dancing, physical exchanges of symbolic objects, and group participation in just-devised celebrations formed necessary parts of solidifying the new republic.

These ceremonies demonstrate how the French Revolution conceived of the power of bodies in space as a defining element in organizing the new, post-monarchical nation.  This talk will focus on two aspects of these festivals: how they embodied what Eric Hobsbawm has called “the invention of tradition” and how they demonstrate the power of live performance in the process of crafting a new social and political world.

Kimberly Jannarone is a scholar, director, dramaturg, and translator.  She received her MFA and DFA from the Yale School of Drama and is currently on leave from the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she is Professor of Theater Arts, Digital Arts and New Media, and History of Consciousness, and where she holds the Gary D. Licker Memorial Chair.

She is the author of Artaud and His Doubles, winner of the Honorable Mention for the Joe Callaway Prize for best book in drama. She has published in journals including Theatre Journal, French Forum, Modernism/Modernity, TDR, the Chinese journal Theater Arts, and others.  She won the Gerald Kahan Scholar’s Prize and Honorable Mention for the Oscar Brockett Essay Prize for essays on Artaud.  Forthcoming books include Mass Performance, History, and the Invention of Tradition and the edited volume Vanguard Performance Beyond Left and Right (University of Michigan Press).