Saturday, August 9, 2014

New Aesthetics and the Vancouver Sublime

Yesterday, at the invitation of Theatre Replacement's James Long, Maiko Bae Yamamoto, and Sarah Moore, I gave a talk at SFU Woodward's to participants of the 2014 New Aesthetics workshop, as well as interested members of the public. New Aesthetics, now in its second year, is a two-week summer intensive in which mid-career artists from Vancouver, elsewhere in BC, various parts of Canada, and the United States share their practices with each other, while also working in the studio with two internationally respected performance makers. This year's facilitators are Mariano Pensotti, from Argentina, and Toshiki Okada, from Japan--both of whom have presented their work to Vancouver audiences as part of the PuSh Festival (along with SFU'S School for the Contemporary Arts, a community partner in the workshop).

This year, the folks at TR were interested in supplementing the in-studio discussions and exercises with public conversations led by local artists (including Althea Thauberger, who will be speaking next Tuesday afternoon) and critics (me). Having been given a sense from Jamie and Sarah of what Mariano and Toshiki were planning for the NA participants, I pitched a talk that would focus, among other things, on "walking and talking; fiction and ethnography; social choreography and mobile intimacies; art in public places; and the Vancouver sublime." The latter topic, excerpted from a larger inquiry into recent site dance in the city, generated a fair amount of discussion. Seeing as we're in the midst of some pretty sublime Vancouver weather of late--but mostly because it's been a few weeks since I've seen any live performance, and I'm starting to feel negligent in my blogging duties--I thought I would share the introduction to the paper from which yesterday's remarks on dance and the Vancouver sublime were adapted.


"Dancing the Vancouver Sublime from Dusk to Dawn"

Against the painterly, late evening backdrop of the north shore mountains, and with the last of the sun’s rays glistening off the water of Burrard Inlet, the first bars of The Flaming Lips’ “What is the Light?” issue from a set of makeshift speakers as first one body, and then another, and then another, manifests on the horizon. Each seems to have emerged directly from the sea, and now advancing up the beach and onto the grass where ranks of onlookers are gathered—some of us purposefully and expectant, others accidentally and merely perplexed—these strangers pause to hail us. One, a man, raises his arm above his head in a static wave, while the woman to his right drops to one knee, supplicant to our collective gaze. Yet another woman, younger than the first, merely stops and stares. Soon these three are joined by others, until they number more than twenty, male and female, young and old, of different shapes and sizes and abilities, all gradually fanning out onto the grass and adding to the group’s cumulative repertoire of proffered gestures: here a woman puts her hands to her head and slowly folds in on herself; there a man opens his chest to the sky; and over there a young girl and a woman I take to be her mother lay down on their backs. Eventually all of the performers will end up supine on the ground. Until, suddenly—how did I miss this?—they are not and, standing upright once again, they begin to march en masse toward the first row of the assembled audience. Despite the warmth of the evening, the open and friendly faces of the performers and my fellow spectators, I feel a slight shiver down my spine and I wonder, in retrospect, if this is due to my excitement at the “destination experience” I am having in my own city, or a suppressed anxiety about who else in this park is being excluded from the eventfulness of this event.

Over three successive weekends in July 2013 I attended four different performances of outdoor, site-based dance in Vancouver, each yielding moments that were similarly sublime—in the dual Burkean sense of inspiring aesthetic awe and inducing feelings of uncertainty, sensory confusion, even fleeting terror (Burke 2008 [1757]). These moments occurred as part of: the Dancing on the Edge Festival’s (DOTE) presentation of the Ontario-based series Dusk Dances, from which my opening description derives, and staged for the first time in 2013 at CRAB/Portside Park in the Downtown Eastside (DTES); New Works’ All Over the Map midday program of “global” dance and music on Granville Island; and Kokoro Dance’s 18th annual Wreck Beach Butoh, held at low tide every summer on Vancouver’s famous clothing optional beach. In the larger essay that flows from these introductory remarks, I suggest that these performances, and my experience of them, help to map a kinesthetics of place particular to the city’s urban geography, and to the cultural, economic, and social asymmetries historically embedded in Vancouver’s performance of publicness. As Lance Berelowitz has persuasively argued, that performance owes much to Vancouver’s waterfront setting, with the consequence that a great deal of “Vancouver’s constructed public realm” takes place “at the edge,” especially along its sprawling seawall and in its many beachfront parks, spaces of leisure activity that have gradually superseded in importance the city’s working waterfront, and that “substitute for the more traditional centrifugal public spaces of older cities” (2009: 128). However, far from being “theatres for vital, legitimate political expression”—as, ideally, most urban public spaces should be—these apparently “’natural’” and “socially neutral” amenities mask, according to Berelowitz, a “highly contrived, ideologically controlled and commodified reality, in which the city’s beaches [and related waterfront destinations, including Granville Island] can be understood as a series of discrete public spaces, in terms not only of built environment but also in social formation, use, and regulation” (245).

Contributing to the “artifice” of publicness produced by these spaces are the increasingly choreographed and highly spectacularized performance events that take place within them, of which the annual Celebration of Light fireworks festival at English Bay is paradigmatic in Berelowitz’s estimation (257-8). The sited dances I am concerned with are in many ways the antithesis of the Celebration of Light’s commercialized ethos. At the same time, each also displays different degrees of social and environmental awareness and solicits different levels of community participation, an attentiveness to the civic dimensions of public ritual that is more or less acute, I want to argue, depending on the extent to which the dances take opportunistic advantage of their sites in order to either strategically uphold or tactically resist the normative placed-based discourses that adhere to those sites. Those discourses, I assert, can be articulated as three versions of a distinctly “Vancouver sublime,” producing a cognitive map of the city that moves—east to west—from the biopolitical to the touristic to the natur(al)ist.

In using dance to lay bare the ideological fissures undergirding Vancouver’s “sense of place,” I am seeking, on the one hand, to foreground the fundamental importance of the physical experience of movement to what Frederic Jameson sees as the alienated metropolitan subject’s “practical reconquest” of the “urban totality” in which she finds herself (1991: 51)—of which we may take (differences in gender notwithstanding) any of Walter Benjamin’s flanêur, Guy Debord’s psychogeographer, or Michel de Certeau’s city walker as exemplary (see Benjamin 1983; Debord 2006 [1955]; and de Certeau 1984). At the same time, I am also hoping to use these case studies from Canada’s west coast to explore, more broadly, the “place” of kinesis within performance studies as a discipline, especially as it helps to connect, conceptually and methodologically, the field’s different strands of aesthetic, ethnographic, and social analysis. Here I take my cue from Dwight Conquergood, who challenged us to push beyond Victor Turner’ influential notion of performance as poeisis, as “making, not faking” (Turner 1982: 93), and to embrace performance as an expressly kinetic form of doing, “as movement, motion, fluidity, fluctuation, all those restless energies that transgress boundaries and trouble closure” (Conquergood 1995: 138). Bearing in mind as well Conquergood’s injunction that “performance-centered research takes as both its subject matter and method the experiencing body situated in time, place, and history” (1991: 187), I thus include as part of my larger analysis partial transcriptions of some of the verbalized thoughts and observations I recorded on three separate walks I took in April 2014 in an attempt to map, both cognitively and kinesthetically, the physical distances and affective connections between my different sites of research.

The idea for this comes from the sensory and performance anthropologist Andrew Irving, who has pioneered a kind of ethnography of interiority, taking a page from modernist writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf by recording the stop-and-start narratives of his subject-informants’ inner lifeworlds as they wander the streets of Kampala or New York City, their observable social actions sometimes more, sometimes less congruent with the dramas going on inside their heads (see Irving 2007; 2011, “Strange”; 2011, “New York”). Because my walks were task-oriented, and tied to specific routes between fixed points, it is perhaps no surprise that the dialogues I conducted with myself (when I actually remembered to speak into the head phone mic attached to my smart phone) end up reproducing aspects of the coercive power structures on display in the city’s grid system, my remarks often tied to familiar landmarks that demarcate a strategic version/vision of recent urban development in Vancouver. At the same time, I have taken abundant liberties with the performative transcription of my autoethnography, tactically editing, reordering, interpolating, and even inventing in order to interrupt prescribed circuits of movement and excavate their sedimented layers of history, deliberately leading readers astray with discursive perambulations that derail the logical flow of my argument. But I am also seeking, in these sections, to superimpose another kind of map of Vancouver, one that constellates the landscape of performance and performance studies research in and of Vancouver by putting my exteriorized interior monologue in dialogue with the voices of other scholars and artists.

In so doing, I am drawing not only on Michel de Certeau’s characterization of city walking as an enunciative act similar to writing and speech, but also on his distinction between the strategic as that which represents the “triumph of place over time” and the tactical as a mobile nowhere “that must accept the chance offerings of the moment” (1984: 36-7; emphasis in original). Thinking about site-specific dance in relation to the social choreography of cities thus means paying attention not just to the (pan)optics of where that dance takes place, but the much more ephemeral and fluid kinesthetics of when, a movement in time between past and present that can produce surprising instances of situational confluence or juxtaposition. As Susan Leigh Foster has argued, in her discussion of the specific social and choreographic tactics deployed by American site-based dance and contact improvisation in the 1970s, “tacticians seeking insights into the kinds of resistive action pertinent to their moment will find that their responses can only be formulated while in motion, in response to the movement that their situation creates” (2002: 144). Applying this principle of kinetic intersection to the aesthetic and identity formations produced through different dance communities in the contemporary global city, Judith Hamera (who studied with Conquergood), has similarly argued for contextualizing dance technique as part of a larger archive of the social work of bodies in “practices of everyday urban life,” one in which “movement with and around other bodies” produces a “relational infrastructure” that binds bodies “together in socialities with strategic ambitions” and produces “modes of reflexivity” that “tactically limit or engender forms of solidarity and subjectivity” (2007: 3, 22). Further, Hamera argues that these mobile intimacies engendered by dancing communities—friendships between dancers, instructors and students, performers and audience members—in turn comprise an important layer of the “civic infrastructure” of contemporary urban living, making the case via her specific Los Angeles focus “for even closer examinations of the ways the daily operations of performance expose, manage, finesse, evade, and often transform the tensions, constraints and opportunities that must be continually negotiated by embodied subjects within the global city” (210).

I am similarly interested in what social, aesthetic, community, and civic relationships get mobilized or, to use Hamera’s phrase, “danced into being,” in outdoor site dance in Vancouver, as well as both the physical and metaphysical limits placed on these relationships by the political horizons in and through which they are constituted. “Such horizons,” according to Randy Martin, often “promise to enlarge the sense of what is possible,” but can also get “lost in daily experience to the enormous scale of society” (1998: 14), a terror in the infiniteness of our local obligations to each other as residents of the global city that in this instance I am calling the urban sublime. For Martin, the bodily mobilizations of dance, especially as they “contest a given space,” can “condense” and make “palpable” what otherwise remains immensely obscure about political mobilization; while Martin resists idealizing dance as “the solution in formal terms to absences in other domains of social practice,” he does suggest that an analysis of the “politics of form” in dance can serve as a method for “generating concepts that are available to theoretical appropriation,” including for critiques of different “forms of politics” (1998: 14-15). This is the method I am attempting in the paper derived from this introduction, using recent examples of site dance in Vancouver to advance a theory about the sublime experience of the city, and its politics of place.

Benjamin, Walter. Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. Trans. Harry Zohn. London: Verso, 1983.

Berelowitz, Lance. Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2009.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. 1757. Second edition. Ed. James T. Boulton. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Conquergood, Dwight. “Rethinking Ethnography: Towards a Critical Cultural Politics.” Communications Monographs 58 (1991): 179-94.

---. “Of Caravans and Carnivals: Performance Studies in Motion.” TDR: The Drama Review 39.4 (1995): 137-41.

Debord, Guy. “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography.” 1955. In The Situationist International Anthology. Ed. and trans. Ken Knabb. Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006. 8-11.

De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Randall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Foster, Susan Leigh. “Walking and Other Choreographic Tactics: Danced Inventions of Theatricality and Performativity.” SubStance 31.2-3 (2002): 125-46.

Hamera, Judith. Dancing Communities: Performance, Difference and Connection in the Global City. New York: Palgrave, 2007. 

Irving, Andrew. “Ethnography, Art, and Death.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13 (2007): 185-208. 

---. “Strange Distance: Towards an Anthropology of Interior Dialogue.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 25.1 (2011): 22-44.

---. “New York Stories: The Lives of Other Citizens.” cities@manchester, 12 December 2011.

Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Martin, Randy. Critical Moves: Dance Studies in Theory and Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.
Turner, Victor. From Ritual to Theatre. New York: PAJ Publications, 1982.

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