Wake up call

Citation and the unmaking of amnesia in The Last Performance

Etcetera 1 Mar 2000English

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Contextual note
This text was first published in Dutch as 'Wakker worden! Jérôme Bel en het geheugenverlies van de dans', Etcetera, jrg. 18, nr. 71, maart 2000, pp. 37-39

It is a given in cybernetics that every system, in order to operate smoothly, necessitates a functional degree of amnesia. This amnesia is the realm of automatism, whether gestural, linguistic, ideological, idiosyncratic, or communal. To write on the work of Jérôme Bel is to suddenly awake from this amnesia of habit. It is to become increasingly aware of the quiet assumptions embedded deeply in the circuitries of our everyday language.

Indeed, if we are to follow, to its final consequences, the logic under which his body of work has been unfolding since Nom donné par l'Auteur (1993),if we are to fully address the implications the work brings to dance writing, then we must do so by revising so many invisible habits stubbornly connecting language to the economies of identity and of property. It is a question of choice - to follow / not to follow the path from functional amnesia to consciousness. It is a simple choice in its binomial dialectic, and one already choreographic, but, it is also a vitiated choice - one knows that failing to plunge into the very challenges of the work is failing to seize all of its awakening promises.

So, the writer decides that he has no other choice actually, than to respect the propositions being outlined by the choreographer since Nom donné par l'Auteur (1993), re-framed in Jérôme Bel (1995), made explicit in Shirtology (1997), and fully expanded to its very limits in The Last performance (1998). What must the writer do to keep up with his choice? He must start by finding a grammar. One in which sentences can be structured without the centripetal function of the subject in the linear sequencing of verb and complement. That is, he should be able to write a sentence on Jérôme Bel in which Jérôme Belor anything that stands for it must not make itself present at any moment. Then, he would have to add to that subjectless grammar a way in which nouns (objects) could be related to the absent subject without the use of possessives - that is, a grammar in which he could refer to the relationship between work and choreographer without saying: “This is 'his' work”. He would have to achieve this by taking into consideration that the purpose of the work in question is not necessarily to establish prohibitions, but to reveal the thick implications of subject-formation and property-formation embedded in the simple acts of writing or saying “That is the work of Jérôme Bel ” or “That is the work of Jérôme Bel.”

Thus, what is under heavy bombardment, particularly in the pieces mentioned, and most notably in The Last Performance is not only the more explicit - and fairly well discussed by now - critique the choreographer makes on the function of the name of the author, nor even his critique of the proprietary relationship between author and work. What is at stake is the hidden nature of the functionally amnesiac isomorphism between language, subject-formation and economy. When such isomorphism is critically exposed, brought to the surface, and then denied, quotidian habits of language and of attribution of credit must be thrown out of the window. One needs not only a reconfigured grammar but an economy without property. In this grammar self-consciously without a subject and in this economy firmly without possession, what starts to erode under our very eyes are the layered connections between self and body, identity and body-image, being and its social surface. Thus dispossessed from our safe habits, we are forced towards an emphatic phenomenology. Rather than writing on “Jérôme Bel” and “his” works, the writer must turn his attention to the works’ mechanisms, to their detailed temporality, their quiet impatience and humor. In this phenomenology, images emerge with extraordinary force, just as subject, property, and properly constructed sentences flounder.

As grammar flounders, names take on inordinate mannerisms, as they are released from their assigned duties. They spin around themselves in unsuspected patterns of recognition. While preparing for this essay, I exchanged a few e-mail messages with Bel over some details in The Last Performance Invariably, in all of the e-mails I received from Bel, his signature would destabilize more than affirm the identity of the bearer. “Je t'embrace". Signed “Jérôme Bel/André Agassi”. Those who have seen The Last Performance know what is in play here, in this double signature, that is also, and very importantly, a joke, but mostly, and even more importantly, not a joke. The piece starts by one of the performers, Frédéric Seguette, announcing to the audience: “Je suis Jérôme Bel. After a few seconds, this Jérôme Bel walks off stage, and the person to whom the name Jérôme Bel has been conferred upon by family and rectified by the (French) State enters, dressed up as tennis player André Agassi. He states: “I am André Agassi”. The piece continues, thriving on this constant destabilization of the proprietary relationships between body, self, identity, body-image and name, of which much has been written.

After Agassi, the figure is that of Hamlet, delivering the too famous line in Act I, scene II, “The be or not to be, that is the question”. It is important to notice the function of the cliché, of re-collection, of citation as mnemonic devices. The cliché line sinks deep. What is it that Hamlet/Carallo does when delivering his line? He announces presence as distillation of memory. Staring at the audience he states: “I am Hamlet”. Then, after a pause, the expected citation, less from Shakespeare, than from the archives of collective memory: “To be...”. He stops. Then walks out of the stage. After a brief pause we hear, from the wings, “... or not to be...” Pause. He walks in again, and utters: “...that is the question”. By underlying his speech with a literal emptying of the stage, the heavy question of being Hamlet drags around becomes saturated with the mnemonic and optical implications of presence. This saturation is the locus in which dance finally erupts as the central problem of The Last Performance .

Hamlet/Antonio Carallo performs a double function in the piece. Francis Barker noted how Shakespeare's Hamlet first articulated, in a clear manner, the conflicts surrounding the emergence of the modern subject - a subject that will launch the problematic of being as a powerful force reshaping the whole of the social continuum. Shakespeare's Hamlet (the reader notices how the writer has given up his writing without properly assigned properties) announces the monadic subject, a subject centered around a self, contained by the limits of the body, isomorphic to that body perceived as private property, bearer of a biography, container of repressed secrets and unique ghosts, autonomous before the State, strictly binomial in terms of gender. What is seldom noted is that it is the emergence of this subject-in-self-containment, this subject as monadic person within a body, that allows the very advent of modern Western theatrical dance - a dance, as we know, born out of a regal dancer embodying the choreographed State, manifesting itself as the total expression of a mysteriously autonomous moving body. Further developments in theatrical Western dance, as radical as they have been in their aesthetic surface and conceptual depths, in their turnings and revolutions, in their phenomenological intensifications and in their techniques, have gravitated around this empowered subject and the relationship between such subject and his or her body. (Sometimes in complicity with it, sometimes against it, but always, within his sphere of influence).

I believe this is why Susan Foster once defined choreohgraphy as “theorization of embodiment” I am expanding her notion to propose choreography as theorization of the limits the proprietary relationship between body and self, body and being, body-image and social self. This is why, when Hamlet/Carallo walks onto the stage in The Last performance his deliverance and presence come not only as statements on/from theatre, but as an extremely important statement on/towards dance. It is not by chance that, as Hamlet/Carallo leave the stage after so effectively peeling off being from presence, dance walks in embodied by Claire Haenni, who tells us, in her white dress: “Ich bin Susanne Linke”. She starts dancing a fragment of Linke's choreography Wandlung (1978) to Franz Schubert's Death and the Maiden. As I now turn to this dance, let us not forget the context of its appearance.

Nothing fixed the relationship between embodiment and dance, dance as privileged manifestation of a monadic, embodied subject, as vividly and as rigidly as the often quoted lines by W. B. Yeats that close his poem Among School Children. Let me refresh your memory with my own clichéquotation:

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

These two lines have held so much weight in capturing the isomorphism between dance and body, movement and subject that Peggy Phelan qualifies its effect as “intractable”. By that she means that the poem self contains dance within the boundaries of the body-subject, while rendering dance in our most deeply embedded ontological believes dance is a moving body being glanced upon under the sound of music. Let me quote Phelan's whole commentary on Yeats' lines, from her essay Thirteen Ways of Looking at Choreographing History . She writes: “The fact that modern Western dance is always indexed back to the dancer is more than the logical proof of the intractability of Yeats's echoing question, and more a symptom of the desire to see the body of the other as a mirror and as a screen for one's own g/lancing body.” (p. 206)

As those who saw The Last Performance might remember, the mirror/screen does make an explicit appearance - the mirror literally dances in the piece. However, it is a mirror that does not reflect, a screen that is black, that operates by refusing to return the gaze and by erasing the easy identification of presence with vision. Now, the mirror is a mimetic machine, and one that, along with the invention of the monadic subject, is central in locating and creating the body of the dancer in the history of Western dance. But, in The Last Performance the mirror makes its appearance as absurd parody. By withdrawing the dancer from the viewer's gaze, this mirror erases as well as defaces. It undermines the optical attachment of dance with the dancer's physical presentation. As opposed to Yeats, dance-as-dancer is no longer a “brightening glance”. Remember what happens onstage of The Last Performance dancer and dance happen beyond and behind the scopic field. But, while the dancer remains unseen, dance unobtrusively remains in our perceptive field - we can hear it, feel its rustling presence beyond the screen, follow its indexical counter-part in the motions of the black screen. The erasure of the figure of the dancer, its “not to be” does not erase the dance as Yeats' identification would require. Thus, the use of this black mirror/screen undoes mimesis. It undoes mimesis precisely by an overwhelming making explicit of the mimetic capacity - by a sort of insane parody. Enough has been said about the most obvious uses of mimesis in the piece - who “is” or “is not”. Jérôme Bel, who “is” or “is not”. Agassi, who “is” or “is not” Susanne Linke. Those plays on identity are so many critiques of mimesis as representational device -they problematize mimesis' implication in the construction of subjectivity, identity, and in the regulation of desire between model and copy within our culture of images. But there is another use of mimesis in play in The Last Performance.

Here, let's return to the re-staging of Susanne Linke's Wandlung. After its “still” beginning, dance finally finds its place in The Last Performance.Claire/Susanne enters, announces her identity, and then moves upstage right to start a dance, more precisely, the dance of The Last Performance . There is a release of tension in the theatre (where the audience, so far, has been close to riotous) as motion follows music in the recognizable patterns. Music, body, presence, femininity, motion, white dress. One enters the zone of recognition and may relapse again into the functional amnesia particular of distraction. When the short fragment ends, and Susanne/Claire leaves the stage. Then the punning starts, once again, and distraction is slapped on the face. Quietly, Susanne Linke makes her entrance in the body named Jérôme Bel. And the dance repeats, exactly the same steps, performed with delicate precision. Delicacy is of crucial importance here. The music, the pace, the gestures, all under the dancer's tight control operate as intensifiers of presence - a presence made hyperbolic by repetition, and the inversion of gender under the same white dress.

What is being referred to in this accumulating quotation, as Bel/Linke leaves, Carallo/Linke enter and then Frédéric/Linke? It could be Susanne Linke's “original”, or Claire/Linke's repetition of it. I like to think that what is being referred to here is Yeats' intractable lines. Every time Wandlung is danced, the force of presence detaches itself from the dance. After the third repetition, once one knows what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen (the fourth dancer will inevitably come in a white dress, state to be Susanne Linke and dance exactly the same steps) does the full impact of this simple scene sink in. We are witnessing a moment in which the “intractable” collapse of presence and dance are subverted forever. Dance is cast as dis-embodied, ready to be occupied by any-body as a site, rather than “expressed” as an inner impulse of a hermetically sealed body. Dance and dancer are no longer one swayed, autonomous, integral, self-contained, single entity.

Indeed, what becomes apparent in The Last Performance is that dance has very little to do with the body - at best, dance does bodies. With the quotational use of Wandlung in The Last Performance , the use of the dark screen on stage, and the consistent plays on identity, we now have all the elements of a compositional constellation complex enough to let us affirm that The Last Performance is the first performance of a - till then - unperformed dance paradigm. Hopes and praises for “the new” are part of the inertia of language and of economy in our modern(ist) discourses in the arts (not to mention in fashion and consumption). As Walter Benjamin so clearly identified, the production of the new in modernity functions as the perpetual-mobile of sameness. It is in this sense that the new functions as an amnesiac machine - which goes against the grain of what I believe is the revelation The Last Performance offers us. I am aware of the dangers of announcing the unprecedented in the work of an artist, particularly of an artist that is perceived by many (and this is an important fact surrounding the sociology of reception of the work in question) as “too intellectual”, “boring”, “killer of the dance”. But I am not so much interested in announcing the new - I am interested in how The Last Performance identifies, almost in a Benjaminian “illumination” what, until now, had been the “intractable” assumptions in the making of dances, dance's functional amnesia, an amnesia so pervasive it dominated the making of dances from the classical to the avant-garde. In this sense, The Last Performance is less “new” as it is “revelatory” - it captures the quiet mechanisms of functional amnesia that, on both sides of the stage, operate tocircumscribe the social recognition of certain body manifestations as “dance”.