208 East Broadway: a conversation brewing at thefidget space
By Megan Bridge & Peter Price, January 20, 2013
Megan Bridge: When Susan Rethorst started working on 208 East Broadway in 2006 it came out of a need to work in her home, to have the ease and comfort of playing, of feeling “at home” enough to be not so serious, to lazily roam through movement possibilities. The current iteration of 208 (in which, along with 4 other Philadelphia dancers, I am dancing) will premiere at Bryn Mawr College in February.
Being in rehearsal with Rethorst brings me back to another creative process I was involved in with Austrian choreographer Willi Dorner a few years ago. A side effect of working on a dance at home is that there’s all this stuff there. “Objects.” Furniture, lamps, pillows. Dorner was also working with furniture, and in his creative process I often thought about the subject/object relationship. We fit into the crevice of a sofa cushion, we lined our bodies up and piled on top of one another, or on top of a table…the furniture shaped us into objects, but at the same time we could animate the objects and give them subjectivity.
Rethorst, too, talks about the way the furniture in her living room shapes, constrains, and frames the movements of her dance. But while she is concerned more with the furniture pieces as obstacles around which a dance might arise, Dorner was asking the dancers, and ultimately the audience, to forget that these furniture pieces were “objects” altogether. In Dorner’s dance, simply by bringing them onto stage and moving “with” the objects with the same performative focus as we moved with each other, with the space around us, or “with” our audience, we animated the objects with performative presence, we gave the objects in the set an agency in the piece that they didn't have in "normal" life. I’m not sure yet what kind of performance approach Rethorst’s work will ask of us dancers. I think that she sees the dancers as existing in a space, and there might be associated images that are brought up by the fact that that space has objects in it, and the fact that those objects are often also found in people’s homes. The furniture creates, and at the same time is part of, an environment that we dancers exist within.
Peter Price: After a reading Rethorst’s book, A Choreographic Mind: Autobodygraphical Writings, I am also left with a lot of ontological questions: what (for Rethorst) is an object? What is a subject? Do objects have essences – essential properties? Early on Rethorst quotes Wikipedia on “the pathetic fallacy” which says in part that “the pathetic fallacy is a special case of the fallacy of reification.” I thought a lot about reification while reading A Choreographic Mind. I associate reification with treating processes or relationships as if they were “things.” In what way are processes or relationships usefully thought of as objects?
In the book she also offers a diagnosis of the difference in orientation and approach between European and “American” art makers. She finds a value in the non-reflexive exhortations of “American” culture (“Just do it!”) against what she sees as a European tendency towards over-thinking. Ultimately she sees in the European approach a “…lack of trust in the body’s intelligence” that she finds “profoundly disturbing.” This brought up a number of basically epistemological questions for me: what constitutes choreographic “knowledge” and in what way is it a product of the “body” and of the “mind?” What kinds of intelligence are brought to the production of choreographic objects?
I remember having a few conversations with Willi Dorner at the time you were working with him in Vienna, and these conversations led to talking about Heidegger. This is perhaps an example of a European approach that seems foreign to Rethorst, but after reading her book I find some of her ideas in deep resonance with Heideggarian ones. Her concern for embodied knowledge and the legacy of Cartesianism in particular brought Heidegger to “mind” for me.
For Heidegger our everyday-being-in-the-world-ness reminds us that there is no transcendental point from which to observe our world with “scientific” detachment. The Cartesian split is likewise illusory as we find ourselves at every moment already “embodied.” Our “mind” does not have a “body.” Instead, our thinking is an emergent property of countless material processes that constitute us as an inseparable part of the broader material situation.
There is a danger in a kind of anti-Cartesianism that just reverses the terms, and in fact it has been argued that much of the avant-garde energy of the 20th century can be seen as a systematic reversal of the Cartesian method. But the reversal leaves the split intact and it is not surprising that avant-garde art has found itself compatible with the hyper-Cartesianism of contemporary techno-science. What Rethorst calls “sidewalk” thinking is a special kind of thinking - calculative or instrumental thinking - and it would be a mistake, I think, to associate this kind of thinking with European philosophy or “theory.” Rethorst maintains that “making is thinking,” and in this she is in agreement with much contemporary European philosophy.
MB: Thinking more about reification and objects, in her book Rethorst makes “An Argument for the Power of Ness,” and writes about her conception of “corner-ness,” which is “different from shoulderness, palm of the handness and outstretched palm-ness...” As part of her research for a dance she made with spoons, she walked around with a spoon for months, trying to figure out its “spoon-ness.” I can see how Rethorst’s concept of “ness” might conjure up associations with “essential” thinking but I don’t think she is using the concept of “ness” in this way. I understand the problem with essentializing objects, but I also think that the stumbling block here is a semantic one. I think the way that Rethorst is relating to objects and what she calls their “ness” is a view that encompasses relationship and process. So, she’s not looking at the spoon object and saying, for example, this thing inherently has nourishment and comfort built into it. She’s looking at it and saying this thing is an object that is associated with a whole culturally constructed set of ideas and experiences that have to do with all sorts of things, and for her at that time in that moment those things had to do with, to name a few, “Something inherent in concavity...Cultural associations of its use...Associations with beverages taken at leisure...”
My grandmother told me a story about some children she knew as a young woman. They were playing in a sandbox, digging with a spoon, and by some freak accident one of them gouged the other’s eye out. So to me, “spoon-ness” has a violent element that the spoons in my silverware drawer will never live down. Ok. So a “spoon” is all these things and stories and potentialities. But it’s also an object that we eat our soup with, and of course in that way it’s useful and important to think of it as an object, not just a set of relations, otherwise how would we eat our soup?
A movement, or a whole dance, is of course processual. It’s difficult and maybe impossible to separate a movement from its executor, from its performance, from its existence in linear time. It has relationship totally built into it. But just because we can’t separate a movement from all of its relations, doesn’t mean it’s not useful and interesting to try. It helps us form different discourses...body politics, aesthetics, history, performance theory. In choreography it’s very useful to think of the movement as an object, so that it can be examined and so that its relationships and processes can be recognized, teased out from the rest, analyzed and looked at from many angles.
PP: It makes me think of my own conception of “semio-morphic resonance.” Anything that is meaningful to us is meaningful against the horizon of our lived experience. The flavor of “spoon-ness” for you is colored by the story of your grandmother. And this explains somewhat how I felt about Rethorst's idea of “spoon-ness” or of “ness” in general. Spoon-ness is not a property, an essence of spoons, but a “semio-morphic resonance” - a relationship between subjective lived experience and a category of material assemblages.
MB: And the “-ness” of objects, their “semio-morphic resonance,” is completely individual. Of course there are tropes and consistencies across populations, and those are bound by all sorts of cultural acquisitions. My friend Nicole only wants to drink cognac out of “the big glass” in her cabinet because the feeling of the glass in her hand is bound up with the taste of the drink in her mouth, and the culturally acquired associations that the two of these things in combination conjure up in her...this is semiotic resonance across forms, or, as you call it, “semio-morphic resonance.”
PP: All this makes me reflect on what the purpose is in bringing critical frameworks to art-making or other forms of art experiencing. The idea that to “over-think” art makes the experience joyless and dour is something I cannot relate to. I find instead that bringing appropriate critical frameworks to the art experience can open one to a deeper sense of joy and surprise.
MB: I agree. Bringing critical frameworks to dance, in particular, has advanced the level of discourse in our field and brought the figures of dance and choreography more squarely into philosophical discussions (where they’ve been under-represented for far too long). In the worst-case scenario, the interface between art and philosophy has artists and choreographers using theory instrumentally, “to buttress, to justify, their art.” In the best-case scenario, artists are grappling with big powerful ideas directly in their work, ideas about life, about being in the world, about perception. And when these artists cultivate an openness to learning and engage in a practice of close reading, they all of a sudden become aware that there are philosophers out there grappling with some of the exact same ideas, but they’re doing it through text. Far from being alienating or joyless, I think these moments are amazing “aha!” moments for artists. It’s unbelievably exciting to encounter another set of ideas that reflects one’s own, but manifests in a completely different medium.