December 30, 2009

Gauging Freedom and Constraint

The Text Festival and the Language Moment have led me to engage more recently with Live Art practice. In January I will be talking to the Live Art Development Agency about running some of their DIY artists’ training sessions with a language slant as a Text Festival partnership. So I approached with interest a creative dialogue that has started on the related website between Live Art theorist Adrian Heathfield and choreographer Jonathan Burrows. This dialogue also attracts me because my Gauge Symmetries work with Helmut Lemke (sound) and Ruth Tyson-Jones (dance) is a live project with issues still to be resolved. So adopting the same conceit of correspondence, I write to Adrian and Jonathan:

Dear Adrian and Jonathan

It is interesting to see that you have taken up the discussion of the relationship between the writing of words and the writing of dance – it seems very much of the moment that other artforms’ relationship to poetry is being reconsidered. That said, I am a little underwhelmed but at the same time not surprised by the poetry you reference. I have to admit that I was unfamiliar with the work of the poet Michael Donaghy. When I checked him out online I realised why I didn’t know his work. It doesn’t surprise me that his line on form is located in tradition; apparently ‘he chooses the analogy of a traditional dance, the form of which acts as a container for what is shared without restricting the freedom of each individual to be spontaneous in response to it.’ This fits completely with the comfortable output of Hegemony of the Banal in UK poetics
- from what I read online, Donaghy was more talented than a lot of his peers but it is still Official Verse Culture, to use Charles Bernstein’s term. The problem with the container with freedom for individual is, as William Carlos Williams said, “all sonnets are the same”.

Adrian asks: ‘Can one consider forms without first considering traditions?’ Of course; not only can one, one must. I would counterpose (paraphrase) Raymond Queneau’s line that we should be rats who construct the labyrinth from which we plan to escape – after all who needs to escape from a labyrinth that’s already been cracked? Again, Adrian identifies the impossibility of the absence of constraint, “and the ways in which constraint is absolutely necessary to the movement that resists and surpasses it.” I think that any formal constraints are what you make them. Referenced in the title ‘Gauge Symmetries’ which I am working on with Ruth Tyson Jones and Helmut Lemke, the only constraints that are impossible to avoid are the gauge symmetries of gravity and the laws of physics. Far from it being compelling that tradition is invoked as a space of freedom, I find it rather dismal; specifically because the ‘tradition’ which is venerated in UK ‘poetry’ is pre-modern. This phenomenon is readily recognisable to contemporary poets - “those who are truly contemporary, who truly belong to their time, are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands” as Agamben wrote. The oft turning to tradition never seems to register the poets who actually had something progressive to contribute to Adrian’s ‘nowness’ (and dance) such as, most notably, Bob Cobbing. I hope that Jonathan’s sense of liberation when his cherished notions of dance were challenged by Peter Stamer can also apply to the language challenge to his notions of poetry.

There was a discussion at the recent launch in Salford of the Journal of British & Irish Innovative Poetry along the lines that the UK mainstream is now so artistically bereft that the journal would be wasting its attention to critique it; instead it should focus on the innovative and experimental. Certainly that is true, but as I said in that discussion, there is a field of contention wherein contemporary poetic practice has to engage and this is the dialogue with other artforms. As the Language Moment posits, despite the global art stylistic multiplicity, language is the increasingly unifying, if often unrecognised, constant. Your correspondence on “Performance Matters” manifests the urge of the Language Moment. As does Hans Ulrich Obrist’s recent Poetry Marathon at the Serpentine Gallery. But as I fear both your conversation and Obrist’s Marathon indicate the disconnection of innovative poetic practice from other artform discourse, the void which is filled by the School of Quietude, to use Ron Silliman’s phrase. As a poet I know little about current choreography theory and practice, so why should I expect dance, live art, music or any other form to know where poetry is. As Caroline Bergvall wrote of the Poetry Marathon: “it was something of a disappointment to see so many of them [non-poet artists] react with undisguised anxiety at that same word, ‘poetry.’ Otherwise lucid, articulate artists found themselves in the throes of open self loathing, “I don’t know poetry,” “I don’t know what to read,” choosing to calm the audience by reading from known values such as Eliot, Ted Hughes, Lorca, and Hamburger’s Celan, rather than tracing their own engagement with writing”. I wonder which Celan translation Adrian is using. My concern voiced at the Journal of Innovative Poetics launch is that the poetry mainstream’s only hope of artistic credibility is a critical relocation with an illusory validation from other artforms that have had a path of progress rather than stagnation. It becomes vital for poetry, and for other artforms themselves, that the other artforms know that this is a cul-de-sac which will sideline a vital field of cultural enquiry.

I don’t want my contribution to this conversation to appear patronising about non-poets grasp of contemporary poetics, just to point out that there is a cutting edge and blunt edge and a lot of other artform practitioners and curators are frequently using the poetry latter.

I am interested in Jonathan’s comments about his dedication as a performer to trying to be more 'in the moment'. I had the challenging experience of realising this problem in the first (and often subsequent) development rehearsals with Helmut and Ruth for Gauge Symmetries. Although their interest was the response and dialogue with my linguistic spatialisations, I was forcibly struck by the remarkable ease with which a dancer and a musician can immediately generate ‘nowness’ drawing on their artform’s traditions and capacity for improvisation. As my writing is generated through long slow processes of edit, textual reference, and poetic structuring, it would take me weeks to generate a meaningful text to work in spatial relation to dance-sound actions, to which they can respond spontaneously at the point of unveiling. We did develop forms of interaction over time: I tried various strategies such as pre-installation, so I was slightly ahead in generating a language space, in addition to projections of text but none of these seemed particularly successful or that interesting – projecting texts in a performative space just repeated what many other performance poets have tried. In the sound landscape created by Helmut with his amplified strings attaching him physically to the space plus his use of the sax, I developed a process of installation of lines aiming to uncover spatial geometries and the temporal thickness of Ruth’s responsive movement – the three forms intertwining with each other. However, Adrian’s description of Boris Charmatz’s crashing movement in comparison to dancers in the workshop rings a bell for me. This happens inevitably: an untrained, uncontrolled body has to be clumsy and lumbering beside a crowd of dancers. Having generated the same effect myself, despite my desire to be invisible, in relation to Ruth Tyson-Jones' Laban lyricism, it seems to me a pretty slim and obvious manifestation – what does it actually say other than juxtapositions of some artforms can clash with the aesthetics of others? I am still working on how to delete this effect from our collaboration as I think it doesn’t move the dialogue forward and has little formal value.

To seriously develop this correspondence, I don’t think that there is much mileage in looking at why a written text or dance is what it is, and when it might not be useful to write? Certainly on the latter, it’s not really very useful for a writer to not write. Similarly ‘unpicking the opposition between dance practice as a seemingly uncontained and prolific generator of “the immediate gesture” and language as a more restrained form’ may put me in an analogous danger of Charmatz-like of not recognising the problem you describe. If you locate poetry and dance in Cobbing’s view of poetry as a convergence ‘between’ all various performances, considering dance “perhaps the key to them all” the opposition doesnt exist. Indeed, amongst innovative poets “language as a more restrained form” would sound a very strange idea (OULIPO not withstanding). And maybe I need to get out more, as I have not heard of people comparing the powers of an artwork as like a wound or scare – is this common parlance in dance circles? If this relates also to the burning that Donaghy speaks of – it simply sounds like Romanticism to me.

I find it interesting how discourse about production of art, of whatever form, nowadays so easily shifts to discussion of its reception or consumption – as Jonathan terms it: the old argument about where we place the audience, or readership, in relation to the practice of art making. This argument was also there at the Innovative Poetics Journal launch. It was proposed that Matt Welton’s recent programme in Bolton which placed, for instance, Allen Fisher on a bill with Simon Armitage, and Scott Thurston with Sophie Hannah was valuable because it gave audiences which would come to the mainstream poets the opportunity to access the more innovative practitioners. I recall that Ron Silliman has also been on a bill with Armitage somewhere. I should ask him whether that was to allow an audience access to Armitage's less interesting work. It is the same attitude which informed the Serpentine Poetry Marathon. Although there wasn’t time to argue against this practice at the launch, on reflection, in relation to this correspondence, I feel it needs to be challenged for a number of reasons. Contemporary visual art never gives over exhibition space to traditionalist figurative painters or watercolourists, because historically visual art has been driven by the emerging, by the innovators, by the new. In live art I don’t imagine anyone has attempted to programme Tehching Hsieh in the same programme as X-factor style dancers – correct me if I am wrong. I just don’t see the aesthetic point in the juxtaposition. It will obviously expose the work of Armitage or Hannah or any of the others as not very interesting, but that is obvious anyway without the juxtaposition. Much more interesting is to create experiment:

I agree with cris cheek’s observation about Cobbing that “a performance of writing, in the majority of these cases intended to be in conversation with the possibilities for the poem, was an occasion of a moment”. When I started developing Gauge Symmetries I held to a position of not ‘sounding’ my texts, which I have now modified, as I blogged back in November ( so I look forward to investigating the possibilities this holds up. This may seem contradictory to the powerful validity Adrian attributes to choreographers and performance makers negotiating performance propositions in social space. But I take Bob Perelman’s position that writing in all its dimensions is fully social. It has been said that the difference between an innovative poetry reading and a mainstream reading is that the latter has an audience of readers and the former is an audience of writers. Something similar to Adrian’s comment that the audience is a co-creator of the work and is integral to its meaning, they are not simply spectating ‘upon’ it. Indeed I think that an audience’s job is to contribute a magnifying intensity to the artist’s deeper ontological investigation of the work. Charles Bernstein observes that “To speak of the poem in performance is, then, to overthrow the idea of the poem as a fixed, stable, finite linguistic object; it is to deny the poem its self-presence and its unity. Thus while performance emphasizes the material presence of the poem, and of the performer, it at the same time denies the unitary presence of the poem, which is to say its metaphysical unity.” I am not sure I'd go all the way with Charles on this, but I think, in performance the artist is generally characterised as outward
facing from the work, offering it up; conversely I believe that the existential dynamic of the audience’s Otherness focuses the moment of presentation, it offers the artist an implosive potential energy to turn inwards to the work, and with this intensity for future works.

Best wishes

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