Before the Beginning

In any discussion of Spatial Practice1 and critical approaches to public space it seems fundamental to consider what role time plays in the politicization of space and how the use of time can offer modes of resistance that escape the logics of normalization and productivity inherent in our society. A topological consideration of time that rejects the notion of linear progress and advocates time’s multidimensional nature can be useful to help us conceive forms of resistance that oppose the technocratic and neo-liberal rhetoric within which we are embedded. Through the analysis of works by Yvonne Rainer and Philippe Parreno this text hopes to reflect on such approaches and to underscore the importance of conceptualizing time, its use and misuse.

Preliminaries

In 1966 Yvonne Rainer created Trio A, a dance performance that has become one of her signature pieces. In it, dancers refuse to look at the viewers, demonstrating a kind of ‘alert detachment from the audience and fellow performers alike. A selfless rather than narcissistic absorption’ (Rainer 2010).

A chosen date of sixteen years before, January 1 1950, marks the cut-off point for radiocarbon dating and is considered as the date at which our present era begins. January 1 1950 is used in archeology and geology as the start-date to specify how far events occurred BP, before the present. The massive nuclear weapon testing in the 1950s altered the proportion of the carbon in the atmosphere, which makes radiocarbon dating after that time unreliable. By January 1 1950 the atmospheric conditions of the planet had irretrievably affected our measurement of time.

Sixty-five years into our present era, in June 2015, Rainer presented The Concept of Dust, or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move? at MoMA.2 The piece included a collage of texts, some piano tuning, the music being played when the Titanic sank,3 a painting by Rousseau and a predetermined choreographic structure within which the dancers could make choices at will.

In the same month, H{N)Y P N(Y}OSIS opened at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. Philippe Parreno has described his complex installation, which included film, music, moving screens, theatre marquee-like sculptures and live performances as ‘a space that will unfold into time’ (Kennedy 2015).

Some Thoughts on Time

Scientific hypothesis and historicism both contemplate time as developing in a linear fashion. This classical theory of time is based on duration, succession and continuity. Whether cumulative, continuous, or interrupted, time always remains linear, which emphasizes progress, synchronism, eternity and repetition. All such notions mark the modern understanding of the world order and are linked to the utilitarian logics established by neoliberalism, which imagine how everything and every form of culture unfolds according to the same time. Under such rationale, present and upcoming events seem determined by what happened in the past, which implies the recurrence of specific narratives and the re-production of certain forms of culture, knowledge and the consecutive achievement of predetermined results.

Authors like Michael Serres (1995) would argue that time does not always flow according to a plan or a line but that it responds to an incredible complexity riddled with pauses, stopping points, ruptures, accelerations, delays… all of which comes together in a fantastic disorder. Serres considers that the confusion between time and its measurement (as a metrical reading) leads us to conceive of it geometrically, as happening in a straight line, which is a flat oversimplification. For Serres, time does not flow, it percolates (Serres 1995: 58): time both passes and doesn’t pass as it is organized in a chaotic manner according to currents and counter-currents. In other words, Serres envisions time as topologically unfolding, twisting, expanding and evolving multidimensionally throughout space.4 Moreover, as we just pointed out in the Preliminaries, the atmospheric conditions of the planet are correlated to dating, which hints that time cannot be considered independently from the environment in which it unfolds.

In a conversation with Bruno Latour (1995) the philosopher reminds us how the French language uses the same word for time and weather: le temps. Meteorological weather is both predictable and unpredictable, ‘explicable’ but also fluctuating, turbulent, accumulative, developing at different speeds, occupying a number of superimposed layers… In other words: it is chaotic (and gives us a useful image of time as conceived away from linear simplifications). If we consider a form of time that unfolds multidimensionally and in a chaotic manner it seems natural to accept that events and things that exist within culture can be separated in time and yet—and this is truly revolutionary—be close conceptually and aesthetically. This proximity allows unpredictable forms of knowledge and novel narratives to emerge and flourish.

Unpredictability is precisely what Deleuze and Guattari emphasize in their early concept of chaos: they consider how ‘causalities will no longer function in one direction, and it will no longer be permitted for us to affirm that “all is played out in advance”’ (1994), or that the future is part of an ongoing form of present. Moreover, continuity, an inherent dimension of a classical consideration of time, can no longer mark our understanding of how events might unfold. As Quentin Meillassoux (2014) would argue, there is no inherent reason why things are the way they are (or why things become what they become): a conclusion which disavows the necessary stability of natural laws or causality.5 There are no immutable eternal laws of becoming, no way to state definitively how things or events will unfold. Or, for that matter, if they will unfold at all.

Some Thoughts on Choreography

As moving creatures we are constantly occupying time, reacting to artifacts and events that move us, organize us, choreograph us. In our daily experience we move through time and space in what seems like unison, a somewhat continuous flow. It is worth noting how time is measured according to distance6 and how, at a perceptual level, we determine the passing of time in relation to length, a distance traveled. From a phenomenological perspective time is considered according to duration, while its passing becomes perceptible only when a change is introduced in the otherwise interrupted continuity of consciousness (James, 2014: 13). This might be the fundamental reason for the predominance of a lineal and geometrical conception of time. (Non)-interruption appears here as the key.

According to Alva Noë (2016), experience is something we enact or perform in reaction to our environment and conditioned both by nature and by habit. He considers choreography a reorganizational project that unveils the ways by which we are structured. Choreography7 is there then to disrupt and to reorganize (or disorganize) us; it aims to free us and to create new forms of being and experiencing—which include chaos, delay, interruption and stops. A topological approach where, once more, disruption is key.

Figure 1 

Yvonne Rainer performing Trio A at the Portland Center for Visual Arts in 1973. Courtesy of Yvonne Rainer. Photographer unknown.

In fact for Nöe disruption as the basis of reorganization is what ties choreography to philosophy—and perhaps where the importance of a choreographic approach lies. According to the philosopher, Socrates did not talk to people: he systematically put a stop to their habits of thought, forcing them to reorganize themselves. His method was that of interrogation, disruption and reevaluation. Philosophy did not begin with a conversation thus, but with a disruption where so-called certainties and conventionalisms were exposed, rethought, re-asked. Socrates established a frame that would allow other perspectives to exist.

Similarly, art can be considered as that which creates the conditions for something undetermined to happen. Or a form of choreography that moves us in unexpected ways, disrupting preconceived approaches to the world around us and introducing ‘other approaches’, unimagined possibilities in a seemingly predetermined existence. Under such framework it does seem pertinent to observe choreography quite closely. What follows is a reflection on what I consider three particularly interesting cases.

I.

Born in California, Yvonne Rainer moved to NYC in 1956 where she studied first with Martha Graham and then with Merce Cunningham, who also worked with John Cage. Rainer applied certain of Cage’s methods, such as chance procedure and indeterminacy, to dance. Rainer questioned virtuosity and hierarchy by integrating gestures from everyday life and pedestrian movements in her choreographies.

In 1966 Rainer created Trio A8 for three unsynchronized performers, where both simple and difficult movements were given equal attention. There were no accents in Trio A but many coordinated movements and simple tasks happening in separate parts of the body, as if Rainer wanted to disjoint the body and unify it again in a sort of artificial organic continuum.

An extremely technical and precise piece, Trio A left no room for improvisation. That said, it starts with a number of upper body movements, twists from right to left helped by the arms, which set the pace for the whole performance. This repetition marks the speed of each dancer, whose task is to sustain their self-imposed pace throughout the whole dance. Evenness and consistency are keys.

This mechanism to set the choreography in motion involves a turn inwards: dancers have to connect with their own internal rhythm and maintain it while on stage. Far from any meditative intention the piece emphasizes movement, what the body does,9 which spotlights the visibility of the dancer’s body, making its gestures the object of very close attention. A second withdrawal happens as the performers systematically avoid looking at the audience: their gaze is turned inward (eyes closed, head moved away) in a refusal to enter any voyeuristic contract with the viewer. Rainer disavows both the pleasure of looking and of being looked at. Trio A is not about the dancer or the audience: it is about the dance, which congeals all the attention (and does not need to address anyone). One could argue, then, that Trio A unfolds according to its own time, independent of any external input, and that it asks from us, viewers, to merely be there and look as no emotional connection with the dancer is allowed. Now, what does such demand entail? Are we not asked to relinquish expectations, our voyeuristic appetite, and to interrupt our doing-ness, our thinking? And, isn’t that part of a reorganizational intent, as Nöe would put?

II.

In Rainer’s recent and ongoing performance The Concept of Dust, or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move?, a collaged meditation on the passing of time, historicism, aging and mortality, the fundamental question that arises is what there is to look at if nothing moves. In other words: what does happen while nothing seems to happen. Again, a very particular understanding and use of time is displayed (and disrupted).

Figure 2 

Yvonne Rainer holds microphone to Patricia Hoffbauer, Emmanuelle Phuon behind Emily Coates. Courtesy of Yvonne Rainer. Credits: Juliana Evans.

At MoMA the preparations for the piece were deliberately visible: the audience was exposed to some piano tuning while Rainer got ready to read, her five co-performers warmed up on stage and a couple of art handlers arranged Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gipsy (1897) at the left side of the stage, and then slowly rolled it out over the course of the dance.

Rainer starts with an account of the discovery of the fossil of an ancient hedgehog, 52 million years old. The account touches on global warming and climate change, unveiling the complexity of existence and setting the tone for the series of politically charged spoken texts that will be interspersed throughout the performance. Some of them are taken from wall texts in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Islamic collection and deal with the beginning of the Muslim calendar or the founding of the new capital of Baghdad, the ‘City of Peace’, among others.

Meanwhile, The Sinking of the Titanic by Gavin Bryars is played. Based on the hymn ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’ as allegedly played by the orchestra of the Titanic as the ship was sinking, Bryars’ composition is a meditation on the endless repetition of the tune under water and what would have happened if the ship reemerged (Bryars c. 1969). His revision introduces the past into our present moment emphasizing temporal simultaneity. Rainer’s choice of the piece refers not only to a highly symbolic episode in US history, but also to the continuity of things that no longer exist, and that might be conjured up by the music. At a certain point Rainer stops and asks where the music is coming from. What better question could one pose? After all, as Soyoung Yoon beautifully puts it: ‘Between here and elsewhere, it could be a distance of 52 million years. Or, it could be the distance between the dancer and the dance’ (Yoon 2015: 1). As we already know, facts that are apparently distant in time might be conceptually and aesthetically very close.

While being choreographed The Concept of Dust is also organized allowing for a certain degree of indeterminacy. Within a predetermined structure where specific movements are set, the dancers can make their own choices and start or stop at will. The sequencing is thus totally open and decided as the performance unfolds. When the dancers are not moving, rather than going offstage they remain visible in what Rainer in a conversation at MoMA (2015) called ‘a state of alertness’. What do dancers do when they are not moving? Rainer asks, what is happening when nothing seems to unfold? It is not that dancers are doing nothing but rather they are exercising a heightened sense of self-awareness10 and interrupting any other train of thought. They are asked to be fully minded, in the present, at MoMA, and to maintain their alertness in order to make decisions. Dancers have to become choreographers, decide how to arrange, organize and disorganize their bodies and movements, and how to distance or engage with their fellows and the elements on stage—all of which requires a great deal of understanding of one’s own pace and that of others, but also the full embodiment of their cognition.

Interruption, rearrangement, fluidity, multiplicity, layering, and presence: these are all words that come to mind when watching the performance. Dancers are interrupted by the texts and by others, sometimes they are chased by Rainer, who prompts them to read from a script that is clearly unknown to them (she sometimes has to correct their pronunciation). At times, she also joins their gestures, all of which forces the dancers to re-organize themselves. The Concept of Dust … is a fantastic meditation on choreography and on the negotiation implied in unfolding, together with others, through time and space. Experience, as Nöe claims, is definitely something we perform and not necessarily following a pre-established path. It rather demands our full presence and attention in order to carve out unpredicted forms of being.

Collecting texts seems to be a way of performing for Rainer, and as the piece unfolds the texts refer to the body, its objectification and visualization, but also to politics, ideology and war. Meanwhile, the presence of The Sleeping Gypsy, painted at the height of European colonial violence in Africa, reminds us that the gypsy is a wanderer with no clear social position. She is lost in her sleep, self-absorbed and vulnerable; a lion calmly sniffs her. The picture appears as a contrast with the moving (and aging) bodies of the performers (who, at times, lay down by the painting to rest) and heightens the relationship between the painted and the living—which addresses, once again, the invisibility of the performer’s work in relation to the hyper-visibility of their body (and poses the particular question of the objectification of the dancer within the museum).

III.

In her lecture ‘Transmitting Trio A’ Sara Wookey (2013), herself a dancer trained by Rainer to transmit Trio A, explains Rainer’s way of teaching it in ‘layers’. First come the movements, then the spacing, then the gaze, the pacing and finally what she calls ‘moments of registration’. Such moments are fundamental and are described not as pauses but as ‘moments to be cognizant of’, moments of absolute focus and mere presence. Disruptive moments of stillness, of unproductivity, that organize the piece and allow it to happen. This sense of ‘not-doingness’ is fundamental to Rainer’s work: it intensifies the abstraction and objectification of the dancer’s body, which becomes the focus of an apparent unproductivity and emphasizes its value (or its seeming lack of thereof).

Moreover, such form of ‘not doing’ exposes the neo-liberal rhetorical strategies that govern us. While dancers move they are doing their ‘job’, fulfilling their task, carrying out what is expected from them. But when they stop, when they ‘do nothing’, they interrupt this logic: they now just seem bodies that are not-performing, which disrupts any form of productivity. And yet their watchfulness evades the idea of ‘doing nothing’ as they are alert, mindful of the conditions that allow things to happen. Close to Cage’s idea of silence, ‘doing nothing’ in a strict sense seems, Rainer says, a rather unattainable state. A fundamental and elusive question is how we value it (Rainer, 2015 b). Or if we value it at all.

IV.

H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS is a multidisciplinary installation by Philippe Parreno that unfolded between June 9 and August 2 2015 at the Park Avenue Armory. Paraphrasing Simon Critchley’s words (2010), it is more than a show, it seems like Parreno has established a frame that ‘allows something to happen’. What this might be is, of course, impossible to put in words.

Figure 3 

Installation view of H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS at Park Avenue Armory, by Philippe Parreno. James Ewing Photography © 2015. Courtesy of Park Avenue Armory.

26 light sculptures that recall old-fashioned illuminated theater marquees organize the interior of the Armory, forming a spectral sort of theater-lined street. The ‘corridor’ takes us to a circular platform with bleachers that rotates slowly and allows us to see (and to be seen). Up to three screens, with films or colors projected on them, roll up and down around the platform. Two grand pianos, one of them playing on its own, some scattered chairs and a system of blinds that permit or prevent light from entering the hall, complete the scene.

Figure 4 

Installation view of H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS at Park Avenue Armory, by Philippe Parreno. James Ewing Photography © 2015. Courtesy of Park Avenue Armory.

The marquees are orchestrated to respond to a complex soundscape of recorded sounds, live performances11 and to the other works on view—all of which moves the viewer from one place to another, confronting her with a multiplicity of experiences that unfurl, like a choreography, taking her beyond the present moment. In fact H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS explores fantasmatic apparitions, absence, memory, visibility and the passing of time (or its eternal delay). The films, the music, the light, the moving elements, the performances: these all function as a whole and in sequences that change over the course of the installation as they do not follow a linear development and never settle into a fixed pattern. Parreno’s has choreographed a cycle that doesn’t repeat, which seems to recall Meillassoux’s undetermined becoming: causality is disavowed and there are no inherent reasons for events to unfold in a pre-determined way. Unpredictability once again is key, as it poses a disruptive approach to any linear flow.

H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS comprises four films and includes the piece Anywhere Out of the World (2000), developed by Parreno after he and Pierre Huyghe acquired the Japanese manga character Ann Lee. An empty container to be filled, a product devoid of memory, past or personality, Ann Lee became a technological shell, a ghost that was lent to other artists to imbue her with breath, which allowed her to have several borrowed performative appearances. One of them, the beautiful film by Parreno, is semi-synchronized with another, Ann Lee (2011) created by Tino Sehgal and incarnated by young performers. At the Armory they address the audience directly either by talking to them (‘I like museums. They communicate with the past’) or by posing ambiguous questions—and then systematically removing themselves from the encounters they have created, leaving visitors to wonder what just happened (or who just talked to them).

Among the films at H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS is The Crowd (2015). Shot for the occasion within the Armory’s space, it involves the pianist Mikhail Rudy playing a gleaming black Steinway, and approximately 100 extras who are moved around the dark and smoke-filled space as the camera follows them in a peculiar semi-apocalyptic and phantasmagoric choreography. To Armory visitors the film feels like watching their own presence in a seemingly foreseeable future. As Randy Kennedy (2015) has noted: ‘The Crowd is a film made in the past depicting a future that is their present’, in other words: past, present and future are all happening at once.12

Figure 5 

Installation view of H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS at Park Avenue Armory, by Philippe Parreno. James Ewing Photography © 2015. Courtesy of Park Avenue Armory.

In Marilyn (2012) we hear a computerized version of the star’s voice as we see, through ‘her’ eyes, a version of Monroe’s suite at the Waldorf Astoria where she once lived. Invisibleboy (2010) depicts an illegal Chinese immigrant boy living in Chinatown and the invisible monsters that inhabit his imagination. Particularly arresting is June 8, 1968 (2009), as it introduces overwhelming landscapes into the otherwise almost exclusively interior and secluded atmosphere of the Armory. The film is a reenactment of the train voyage that transported Robert Kennedy’s assassinated body from New York to Washington D.C. (originally recorded by Paul Fusco).

Parreno’s choice of movies seems to specifically address the North-American historical, cultural and social Umwelt, as they conjure up all sorts of ghosts. In fact, H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS, like Rainer’s The Concept of Dust, seems openly death-haunted. This condition does not seem to refer to mortality, but rather to a certain state of tranquility that introduces another order of time. In fact, Parreno’s films create an ‘atmosphere, a space of breath where some kind of stillness is possible in the turning world’ (Critchley 2010). A quietness that seems similar to Rainer’s alertness.

It is precisely such sense of stillness and breath that the whole installation exudes. Viewers, moving across the hall, are gently but surely ‘choreographed’ while being asked to relinquish any form of doing. When present at the Armory one did not feel compel to see, listen or move: one just felt part of a cosmology where, like in Melville’s work,13 both something happening and not happening would yield the same result. Productivity is not important any more—just mere presence as a sense of totality emerges. Parreno’s work instills the ‘moments to be cognizant of’ that Rainer asked from her performers in the viewers: a sense of alertness that makes them move and be moved where each gesture, occupying a specific time and space in the installation, is recognized as part of a whole. As in Rainer’s work, bodies are choreographed, going in and out of places and inhabiting different temporalities: sometimes the future, at other times the past, always in need of full non-productive awareness. At stake is absence, presence and the occupation of the body in forms of ‘not doing’ that oppose, once more, productivity.

V.

‘Not doing-ness’ seems to be the core of the work both of Rainer and Parreno: by being immersed in a choreography that requires constant presence, the embodiment of experience (be it that of the performers or that of the viewers), doing becomes futile as one can just be (while being, far from yielding any product, tends to be discouraged by any capitalist driven approach). It might be due to this lack of productivity that, in such pieces, one begins to realize how every thing and every gesture is connected to the entire work. Or as David Bohm’s implicate order suggests, how any part of a system is intrinsically related to the totality from which it had been abstracted: it enfolds the whole (2005). Every particular in Rainer’s and Parreno’s work appears then as necessarily related to a whole, everything is enfolded in everything else.

We could argue then that Rainer and Parreno ‘merely’ set the conditions for events to unfold and allow things to happen; for a (new) world to emerge. Such approach seems to emphasize that only when focusing intensely on a particular and by following it in the being there of the performance something necessary comes to pass and a certain form of ‘thinking’, that carries the potential for something new, emerges. Elucidating what exactly this necessary thing or thinking is, is, of course, an impossible task—as we all know, there are things that can be said and things that can only be shown. After all, just like the weather, art is told in one way (following a narrative form, like in these pages) while happening in another (rather unpredictably).

Moreover, the works examined here rehearse forms of resistance based on interruption, ‘not-doingness’ and non-productivity, all of which question the sense of value in our post-capitalist societies and discard notions like synchronicity and progress. Both artists consider time topologically; they reject linear development and predetermined forms of becoming, as what one might find in the being there of the performance remains rather ungraspable.

Similarly, a truly critical Spatial Practice that would allow us to conceive of alternatives to present paradigms and approaches to public space (which still have the tendency to be ruled, for the most part, by the productive logics embedded in neoliberalism) requires that we steer away from the oversimplification of linear narratives. Only then would we be able to come up with other accounts, only then would the future emerge as something other than the mere result of the past. Mine was a humble attempt to delineate a plausible way forward advocating for a new understanding of the use of time, which has traditionally been colonized by productivity,14 and following what I consider extraordinary examples of art—or, moreover, of (new) world making.