'And Yet, There They Still Are!' Is a conversation and a screening programme developed by Cally Spooner and SidselMeineche Hansen on the thesis and anti-thesis of high performance. It was presented at LUX the 27th of Sep, 2012 to coincide with Spooner's show 'Collapsing in Parts' at International Project Space in Birmingham.
As the fourth footnote event, in her long term project at IPS, Spooner has invited Meineche Hansen to select a number clips from feature films and music performances that represent her current thinking.What follows is the clips and notes from this screening event together with a biography of the artists at the end of the page.
They Shoot Horses don't They? Sydney Pollack (1967)
"Here they are again, folks! These wonderful, wonderful kids! Still struggling! Still hoping! As the clock of fate ticks away, the dance of destiny continues! The marathon goes on, and on, and on! HOW LONG CAN THEY LAST?"
CALLY & SIDSEL INTRODUCTION: This film, which was recommended to us by friend, is about a particularly grueling dance marathon, a phenomena which rose to prominence in 1930s America, in response to the economic hardships of the great Depression. Driven to dance by the promise of prize money, fame, reputation and twelve meals a day (whilst much of America went hungry) competitors paid an entrance fee to 'keep their feet moving' for thousands of hours, over several months, with fifteen minute rest-breaks per hour, in front of a paying, spectating audience. Those who couldn't stay on their feet were ejected from the dance hall, back into the Depression, with assorted injuries and no work prospects. High-fliers with good stamina were singled out as crowd pleasures and gained puppet-like celebrity status (though only as permanent as the attentions of the paying spectators and the four walls of temporary event). Winners would end up with less prize money than expected, usually the result of fixed outcomes, and food bills.The film led us to speak about how and when competition enters performance, and how sociability and popularity becomes a mode of survival. We each had quite different understandings of this area, and we realized that the best way to speak about this was to continue to represent our thinking by selecting material from existing films and moving image. We are not experts on these films and rather than forming and thesis and anthesis per se - choosing these films became a helpful way of articulating our thinking around what the stakes are in performing publicly, and the basic mechanisms that makes it possible or impossible to perform highly.
Sidsel's work around nervousness, has for the most part have been developed though inter- disciplinary talk series and seminars in an attempt to trace a genealogy of nervousness across art and fiction, science and law as a form of “physiological” institutional critique. Her work tries to examine how nervousness, feeling self-conscious and the concept of self esteem on a micro- political and subjective level can be linked to the ideals of productivism in a broader social, economical and political framework.
And Cally's productions have been dealing with the form of performance (both organisational, cultural, sporting and technological) as a promise, wherein the promise to deliver and the challenges within this, become part of the performance itself, and trying to find alternatives to that, and ways of performing that might move or arrive in indirect of inefficient ways.
The Up-side of Anxiety, CNN (2011)
"In just the right amounts, the hormones that drive anxiety can be powerful stimulants, arousing the senses to function at their sharpest. Psychologists refer to this very straightforward idea as the difference between a challenge stress, which can light our competitive fire, and a threat stress, which can douse it fast. Most of the time, it feels as if our brain makes that choice by itself, without ever consulting us. What we want to learn-need to learn to stay calm and well-is how we can take charge."
SIDSEL: This news clip from CNN and the article in Time Magazine, that it refers to, is interesting I think, because of the two sides of anxiety that the curve represents; the up-side of anxiety where the hormones that drive anxiety work as a stimulant for high performance, and the downside where anxiety becomes an obstruction for thought and action - in short, a failure to perform highly and be productive more generally. I think it's problematic to think of the relationship between anxiety and performance, in terms of either channeling anxiety towards excellence or eliminating anxiety (medically or otherwise). At the same time - I think it's quite interesting to think of the sine wave pattern that TIMES science editor Jeffrey Kluger describes as the link between an economical crisis and an affective crisis - because it situates anxiety, and the production of nervousness if you like, within a broader socio-economical and political framework. The prehistory of America as an anxious nation and also the attempt to make anxiety "into a positive" – first conjured with the global economic crisis of 1870's when Neurasthenia, (a medical term used to describe nervous exhaustion) was discovered and nicknamed Americanitis. From this point on anxiety and other forms of nervousness (fatigue, hysteria and neurasthenia) became considered a disorder and a resistance to productive labour, in the Fordist working model. What I find interesting about nervousness, is how nervous exhaustion as a symptom - is so intimately linked to the regimes of productivity both historically and now during the current socio-economic crisis.
Rocky (excerpt) Sylvester Stallone (1976)
"Won't be long now..."
CALLY: So my first clip is Rocky, which I know is a bit of an obvious choice, and I'm also showing the most obvious scene too, which is Rocky training in his tracksuit and running up and down the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with the Bill Conti sound-track, 'Gonna Fly now'.
I'm really interested in the ideas of challenging and idea of trying to do something, but what I really wanted to think about first is the final scene in Rocky, which is the classic ´he's not a winner but he's a winner moment, whereby Rocky cannot beat the world champion Apollo Creed, it’s just impossible, and everyone knows he wont be able to , but he nonetheless strives to 'go the distance', which means staying upright for the full rounds for his self respect. I'm interested in this notion of self respect and how that overlaps with ego., but what I wanted to speak about, more specifically, is that, by Rocky losing, this opens up the possibility of more Rocky films. So, through being defeated, the potential for more performances is perpetuated, generating Rocky II where he comes out on top and wins fame, Rocky III where he's ready to retire only to be jostled back into competition by Mr T, Rocky 4 where he has to defeat communism incarnate as Soviet boxer, Rocky Bilbao where he comes back as a video game, and potentially a yet to be made Rocky 6. As Stallone says - "The older I get the more necessary it is to write another Rocky movie. I know I'll probably make a fool of myself. I also know there's gonna be a lot of criticism. Even my wife says, 'Don't do it. You're embarrassing the kids'. But I told her, 'If I don't try I'll be a really unhappy man.'" because “Artists must again and again go through the dark.”
Recently I've been thinking a lot about the idea of high performance as a form of a promise, whereby one is told to perform or else be fired, be outsourced, be rejected. So, in a way, the key aspect of high performance is to finally deliver and arrive. So that completing is a key part of high performance. I've also been thinking about a potential mode of resistance to this as being forms of performance that don't finally complete, and don't finally settle or arrive, so speech or conversation in particular, in that it is indirect, inefficient and doesn't necessarily finally settle in one place or aim at one thing, but, in this case, Rocky's restlessness, and inability to finally arrive eventually destroys his life, and his brain and also means Sylvester Stallone can keep on making more terrible films.
Minor Threat (excerpt from concert) Unknown (early/mid 1980's)
I'm a person just like you
But I've got better things to do
Than sit around and fuck my head
Hang out with the living dead
Snort white shit up my nose
Pass out at the shows
I don't even think about speed
That's something I just don't need
I'VE GOT THE STRAIGHT EDGE.
SIDSEL: Minor Threat (previously called: The Teen Idles) were a Hardcore punk band that came out of Washington DC, in the early 1980's. The parents to these teens typically worked in the administration of the White house, in ivy league colleges or the news media industry in Washington, during the Reagan era. Hard core gigs, where a physical, mental and emotional live attack on Reagan's politics and a main stream culture on drugs. I wanted to show the clip in here, because it reminds me of my friend, who was Straight Edge when he was younger, and I recognize his dance moves and gestures in there. What I like about Hard Core punk and the Straight Edge movement is the collective embodiment of an outsider position and the role of the looser- used in the classic career sense of the word as a antonym to the ideals of success promoted by the above mentioned institutions.
Sweet Charity (excerpt), Bob Fosse (1969)
"Wow! This place sure is crawling with celebrities. I'm the only person here I've never heard of."
CALLY: I wanted to screen "All That Jazz" which is a film by the Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse, who was an incredible performer, and a famously tyrannical task-master. The film is loosely based on Fosse's own life, as a workaholic choreographer, obsessed with producing the greatest show on earth, which he eventually achieves from his death-bed, delivered as a spectacular , musical hallucination. Essentially the collapse from his over-achievements becomes the performance itself, which seemed appropriate for this programme, but in the end I decided to screen an extract from another piece of his choreography, against this idea of his unrelenting quest for brilliance. This dance sequence is called 'Rich Man's Fruge' from Sweet Charity, which Bob Fosse choreographed and directed. I picked this because I simply wanted to talk about high performance in terms of human skill and hard works towards a very specific goal – in this case synchronized perfection. I'm interested in the physical aspect of this, in terms of labor time, and training, which has to go into making this possible, but also wanted to think about how ambitious choreographers and directors, are essentially fascistic managers, and Fosse's success at choreographing arrived because he was pretty fascistic. This famously produced quite a lot of misery, both professionally and privately, and some unfailing impressive results. When I showed my friend the clip, he told me that while greatest shows on earth are, by their nature, very appealing I shouldn't forget that Genesis (rock stadium favorites) and and Albert Speer ( Nazi party favorite) had the exact same lighting aspirations and both were equally convincing. But either way, I kind of hoped this clip would open up a part of a conversation around excellence and what the benefits of achieving or striving to achieve that might be.
Privilege, Peter Watkins (1967)
"The given reason for the extreme violence for the stage act that we are about to see, is that it provides the public with a necessary release from all the nervous tension caused by the state of world outside... So successful has this violent act become, that Steve Shorter now finds himself the most desperately loved entertainer in the world.”
SIDSEL: Privilege by Peter Watkins from 1967, is set in the then near future of 1970's Birmingham. The film starts with the worlds' biggest pop star Steve Shorter, arriving back to Britain after a tour in the US,to a ticker tape parade. After this Steve Shorter is getting ready for his performance - a 'theater of cruelty' act based on the sentence that he 'allegedly' once served in prison.
The first scene in beginning of the film, where Steve Shorter, is incarcerated on stage, is an interesting display of sovereign power. Later in the film, Shorter's act is changed from the anguished rebel to a born-again repentant, supported by the ministry of information and the Church of England, who buy into his performance to make the youth culture confirm to this new order.
For the “pre-release of the release of Steve Shorter”, a representative of the Church of England, explains the means that the church has used to gain convents: “Historically the church gained converts by inquisition (...) we found that using Steven Shorter was a little less painful”.
What is important, and what I think Watkins is pointing out, is how a violent but possibly more subtle form of pastoral governance was introduced in the late 1960 and early 1970's, though glamour, entertainment and the mass media. And in this sense, I still think that Watkins' near future fiction is still relevant, as a description of performance as a political tool and the corporate and institutional investment in the cultural industry more broadly. As a tangent to this notion, I came to think about Occupy London and how the Church of England, by facilitating the camp at St. Paul's used the site to promote it own politics though the movement.
CALLY: This is a clip of Barack Obama receiving an extremely big round of applause from supporters in New York, when he sings a few bars of Al Green's soul classic, lets stay together, in a message to his funders, and as part of his fundraising drive for his 2012 re-election campaign. I picked this because I'm mostly interested in the round of applause.
The proof is in the response, and this relationship between performing art and politics, and that which requires an audience as being necessarily political is something I've been thinking about for a long time, and something that underpins my project at IPS. As far as I know, it was really raised by Hannah Arendt and later by Virno, in terms of virtuosity, as an activity that finds its realisation in its own activity, not in an end product. So this is Arendt now, she says "the performing arts on the contrary have indeed a strong affinity with politics. Performing artists - dancers, play- actors, musicians and the like need an audience to show their virtuosity just as acting men need the presence of others before whom they can appear; both need a publicly organised space for their 'work' and both depend on others for the performance itself.”
I guess there's a possibility of opening up a conversation round this, via Obama, specifically because of just how present the audience is in this clip, but I equally wanted to simply talk about the idea of being able to fuse a good political performance with a good pop and entertainment one, by playing to one’s audience, and suggest that, to be good in one field, one may need to bring in tools from another. I'm also especially interested in the relationship between acting and politics, which is something Hannah Arendt talks about, and Sennet picks up on this; suggesting that by being a good public actor, it may make it more possible for you to act, and be active in public.
The Cremator, JurajHerz (1968)
"God did well when he said to man: Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return. Such a crematorium, dear friends is good and pleasing to God. It helps the Lord to speed man's transformation to dust (...) You see, my dear friends we live in a good, humanitarian state, which provides crematoria (...) to give people a chance to turn quietly into dust after the tribulations of life. As this beautiful book on Tibet says: We must do away with the evil of suffering or alleviate it, at least. The sooner man returns to dust. The sooner he is set free, transformed, reincarnated. Animals too, in the ground takes 20 years, in the crematorium, 75 minutes."
SIDSEL: The Cremator is a Czech New Wave film from 1968 by JurajHerz. I picked the film because over the past months I've been thinking about death and gallows humor, and this film combine the two in a very precise description of fascism. The film is set in 1930's when Hitler rose to power. In this political climate the main character in the film, Karl Kopfrkingl, a professional cremator, comes to consider himself to be a Buddhist gatekeeper, who's mission is to speed up the transformative processes for the 'salvation of the world'. I think it's interesting to think about this transformation (the cremation process, the conversion of the body to dust by combustion) and the transformation of forms of life into labour power, as the morbid core of the performance principle. The film, I think, is pretty mind blowing, in that it operates on a surrealist and expressionist level of horror. In parallel to the relationship between performance and exhaustion, I think that the motivating force for high performance (the idea of efficiency, progress and the induced fear of failure) in fact operate on a similar horrifying and fascistic level. High performance, I think, might be a somewhat fascist mode of being, in the sense that the high achiever directs his or her desire towards the very thing that dominates and exploits us.
SidselMeineche Hansen is an artist whose work deals with the genealogy of nervousness across art and fiction, science and law as a form of physiological institutional critique. Her individual and collaborative practices manifest as exhibitions, publications and seminars: Nervousness: The Micro-politics of Human Interaction, the Jutland Art Academy (2012). Model Court, The 21th. Century program at the Chisenhale Gallery, London (2011); Model Court, Osloo, curated by Rio Bravo, The Danish Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale (2011); Model Court An Ecology of the Courtroom, CCA Glasgow (2009), Generic Stone, Hordaland Art Centre, Bergen. (2009)
Cally Spooner is an artist based in London exploring the staging, movement and behaviour of speech and the effect of organisational performance in the workplace. Her work includes writing, film, live events, and broadcasting. Recent solo presentations includes Seven Thirty Till Nine, Shanaynay, Paris; Footnote 5, ICA, London;Collapsing In Parts, International Project Space, Birmingham (2012); It's 1957, and the Press Release Still Isn't Written, Hermes und derPfau Project Space for Contemporary Art, Stutgart (2011); Memory Marathon, Serpentine Gallery, London, UK, I Proclaim You Proclaim We Proclaim, Stroom, The Hague, NL (curated by CapucinePerrot), Making Words Marking Words, Cooper Gallery, Dundee, UK Triangle Arts, Actoral Festival, Montevideo, Marseille, France, Les Ateliers de Rennes, Biennale D’art Contemporain, Rennes, France (all 2012)