Jan Verwoert, A Conversation between Jan Verwoert, CGB and WM (2008)
JV Let’s talk about the philosophy of performance that underpins your works. It seems to me that one crucial characteristic of your method is something that you described as a collage in time: you bring together different people during the duration of one performance who do different things parallel to each other, things that are not necessarily synchronised. How do you feel about this method of creating synchronous asynchronicity?
WM One central aspect is the attempt to bring together things that are not supposed to be together but might have a relation – so the setup of the performance enables them to enter into this relation. To allow for that to happen we give each participating performer the full freedom to decide what he wants to do.
CGB In our peformance Ellipses Electric Birdhouse ( 2007) quite a lot of things happened at the same time, and these different things had their own particular temporal logic. There was the time of films, the time of songs, the time of reading. Bringing these times together meant that they were interrupting each other and overlapping in particular ways. As a result there was no way you could pretend that you could understand everything. So the inherent dynamics of the performance destroyed the illusion that a conclusive interpretation of what was happening was possible.
JV So there is not one choreography or one temporality that governs the entire event. How do the performers then find their place within the fragmented spatio-temporal continuum of the performance? If you have different people performing at the same time, I could imagine that it takes a lot of social intelligence to allow for anything to be heard. How does that work?
WM It entails a certain risk. We usually spend quite some time talking to the participants about how that space of possibility could be created. In this process the frame of the performance gets continuously expanded through the possibilities that the performers see at that moment. With some of the performers we have performed quite often. Mahalchick for instance has become one of our dearest friends. We really love his work on every level. Other people appear only intermittently, because, for instance, they live in places where we can only meet once in a while.
JV So would you understand your practice then as a form of community building, and if so, what kind of community are you building? Is there a particular spirit that this community is built around?
WM I guess there’re certain themes or ideas that we keep coming back to, like imperfection: doing things when you think you can’t do them. Vaginal Creme Davis once said, there is nothing you can do wrong. These are some ideas that matter to us in relation to this community.
CGB Yeah, I think caring for each others fragility is a very important or specific moment of that space.
WM To make it safe, to make it a safe space…
CGB, for that kind of fragility. A space where you perhaps know you don’t want to be what you are but you don’t really know what you want to become. A space where every participant has the chance to experience this potentiality. Wolfgang often says when he is putting on makeup, I don’t want to be a man but I don’t know what I want to be…or how do you say it?
WM It’s related to this beautiful moment. Many years ago I had a conversation with Roni Horn and she said: I don’t know what you are but you are not straight. I felt that yes, that was it – for me it was a port of entry into a certain world of ideas; you could say queer ideas but in the wider sense, not only in the gender sense. That is extremely important to me.
JV But how do you create what you call a ‘safe’ space for queer performances, for this open-ended process of becoming? What are the coordinates that you need to establish to create a space where that becomes possible?
CGB Yes, that’s…we are busy all the time with that, trying…One of the things that we were speaking about after doing the performance Duet No. 1 was how perhaps there are certain fantasy forms that help to realize queer fantasies, but we are still thinking about that. I’m not sure whether there’s an answer at all. Probably there are some moments where somebody found an imaginary place. Like Jack Smith did in his approaches to exoticism that allowed him to stage queer fantasies in time and space.
JV I guess, declaring your method in a manifesto is the contrary to a queer spirit. But, still… have you ever attempted to write a manifesto?
WM We’ve never attempted to write one. It seems to be more useful to articulate individual aspects in conversations. The performance is then what might be our form of manifesting something … or allowing for something to manifest itself.
JV Talking about ideas for a different sense of community, there is a concept that the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy writes about: the notion of an inoperative community. He argues that the dominant principle for the organisation of authoritarian social structures is the forming of operative communities. An operative community unites around a task, like a band of brothers in arms, for instance, that comes together to go to war. The bond of their mythic community is forged as the task is performed. In contrast to this, the concept he develops to describe an alternative is the idea of an inoperative community. It is inoperative in the sense that it is not created through people being united by performing one task. It is rather born out of performing on the limits of your ability or performing these limits. What brings the inoperative community together is the experience that you move to your limit and on these limits you encounter the other person at their limits. The experience of the limit is that which connects, paradoxically. As a model or metaphor the idea of the inoperative community maybe describes some of the aspects you have been talking about in relation to the community that manifests itself in your performances.
CGB The question would be what kind of time such an inoperative community might need, or what time their inoperative time would be. And that would bring us back to the first point.
JV Nancy gives a beautiful example. He speaks about that moment when the music that was playing before stops; the moment you hear the shuffling of the feet and the coughing in the space. The tension created by the event is still tangible in the space but in the aftermath of the event something forms and becomes audible. It’s not the opposite of the event, but it’s more in the shadow of the event that the kind of multiplicity of noises becomes audible.
CGB Actually, when we were planning or finding out what our desire was for Ellipses Electric Birdhouse, we called it a pause in a song, which is the moment when you’re holding your breath in order to keep on singing – these seconds where the song is suspended. So it’s not that there’s no song; it’s the moment when one can realise, I am singing, or she’s singing, and we are hearing or she’s hearing. That is, an action is needed to realise I’m hearing or I’m singing, but it is this moment of suspension that brings me to that awareness …
JV … of some kind of potentiality.
WM It reminds me of when, in the very beginning, we tried to imagine the sound and feeling of our performance. We were always talking about that moment when you go to a concert and the band comes on stage: all the music and sounds produced, say, when you pick up the guitar, before you play it …like the drummer always sits down and plays a couple of beats on the drums and the guitarist touches some of the strings. I always felt that this moment should last forever, because that’s where, as a spectator, I am most active towards the performer – before they start playing, but after they have entered the stage.
JV So that would suggest that one of the motives at the heart of your work would be to dismantle the logic of monumentalist events, to allow for other experiences?
WM To make the spectator active …
JV … and activate yourselves as performers in a different way. I guess, this is where you are in a sense re-addressing some of the key ideas of Fluxus in your work, the desire to activate the spectator and to create a different form of community by organizing the space and time of their assembly in an asynchronous manner. In an avant-garde sense Fluxus is usually interpreted as the expression of a revolutionary drive. So what about the revolutionary?
CGB The revolutionary is something that we tend to read in a heroic way. It always has a climax. Our work is different in that sense. We work towards a concept of time that breaks with the normative terms of ‘progress’ and rejects the temporal logic of operative goal-oriented actions. If you think about it like that, the revolutionary gains another meaning.
JV Which is?
CGB A non-heroic one
JV So what’s an unheroic concept of being revolutionary?
CGB Well that’s what I’m trying to think about while I’m saying it… hmmm.
JV Was Fluxus even heroic in its revolutionary stance?
CGB Something that Yvonne Rainer once talked about in a seminar was how influential Cage was for Fluxus. His idea that everything can be music opened up amazing creative potentials. You can create with anything; anybody can create anything. This also breaks with the heroic modernist concept of a necessity for absolute innovation, because when anything’s music, you don’t need to worry about being the first or last to do something.
JV So you could say that Cage proposes a non-heroic concept of being revolutionary because his idea of performing is not linked to a heroic act of transgressing the law. When anything can be music that means: nothing is true; everything is allowed. That is revolutionary but it’s not related to breaking the law because, when anything can be music, there is no law. So an understanding of Fluxus derived from this idea would be deeply anti-Oedipal. It’s about letting your body decide where it wants to go, rather than working hard on intentionally doing the forbidden. Yet, still you could interpret the motives of certain maybe more European, German or Austrian, forms of Fluxus as revolt against the Nazi fathers and an attempt to liberate yourself from the traumas produced by their authoritarian society. If you look at it this way the drive to work towards a certain heroic climax, as you say, or point of catharsis, expresess a historical necessity to act and work things out. Would you say there is a historical necessity for you to perform? Is it even possible for us today to construe such necessities?
WM Well, I think it’s very necessary for us to try through performance to create and think of different forms of spaces and encounter. I think I have a desperate urge to figure out how I can create this space that lets me and other people think differently.
CGB A historical necessity, or rather a historical chance for performance would be – this is something I’m just beginning to think about – to create more tactile ways of relating to knowledge. Ways to make knowledge accessible that are not exclusively based on transmitting information – but also about conceptual sensibilities that might give rise to a decentralisation of the subject in relation to, for example, ecology.
JV So you would define these historical necessities in relation to contemporary concerns – in terms of the need to create spaces of potentiality and find alternative forms of communication at a time when communication has become an industry. I guess that need is very tangible in the context of contemporary art production. Today, when we are asked to perform it is usually quite clear what this invitation implies – to put it cynically: an event needs to be created and content has to be provided, because there is a cultural institution or presentation format that needs to be filled with content. And so cultural producers become content providers. We generate the fuel to keep the machine running. What for? What other philosophies of performing could we think of? To stop performing altogether is maybe not really an option, because then we would deprive ourselves of the joy of performing. If we embrace this joy of performing, what ways do you see to negotiate the terms differently, to perform differently? What is your philosophy?
WM One decision that we arrived at, confronting this situation, was to try and perform or exhibit in as many different kinds of spaces as possible, and not by definition exclude the marketplace, an institution, a private house, the street. Then there are also other possibilities to vary your strategy: you can do different performances for different places but also repeat elements from the same performance in different places. These are just some ways to try and open up that space of potentiality as much as we can, in the hope of not becoming trapped and excluding yourself and other participants from the experience of possibility.
JV So one counter-strategy is to multiply the frames …
CGB Another consequence of the demand to deliver content is that only certain ways of delivering are recognised. To work against that, it’s crucial to find, to activate those aspects that are not recognised, and include them. I think we try to do so in the process Wolfgang is speaking of. For instance, doing a performance on the street at one point, and then three years later we incorporating a part of it into a performance in a museum, while in the time in between you’ve actually been teaching workshops with artist colleagues. So you actually take this content for yourself to make it a potential for different fictions.
JV In that way the content is not authorised by one particular institution. The institution does not have the “spiritual copyright” on it. You preserve that spiritual copyright within a practice that evolves over time. But you were saying that this evolving practice could also be considered as a fiction?
CGB Yes, or as a potential for fiction. I was thinking of how Borges would use the same character in different stories. So it would be the same person but not, and this person could have different features and activate different fictions because of the different stories. As an artist, I think, you can gain autonomy in a similar way.
JV When fiction becomes that zone of relative autonomy, is that fiction then also the space of potentiality that you were speaking about? So is that then also a way to turn an existing space into a space of potentiality – by staging your fiction in that space and transforming that space through your fiction?
WM Yes (laughs). I think fiction is very important in that regard – but also in order to not to be a slave of authenticity. To use fiction implies the freedom to imagine things that maybe have never happened, but that I want to happen. Fiction is a space that is everywhere: in front of me, behind me, on the left and right of me. The point is to fill it with the reality that I carry with me.
JV So we return to alternative concepts of how to experience time. The fiction you speak about can be a temporal continuum – a continuity – that you construct through your practice. Is that similar to the continuum that, if you were a painter for instance, you might construct within your oeuvre by continuously moving backwards and forwards through time in a language of form that you develop for yourself?
CGB I’d never thought of that but it could be a way of describing it. While you were saying this, I was thinking of our friends El Arroyo Los Cagaos, a folk group, with whom we really experienced how repetition can become a space for fiction. They create a space that they feel at home in through the repetition of certain elements. Yet it’s precisely this that gives them the confidence to improvise radically. So as with El Arroyo Los Cagaos, continuity created through repetition can be the condition for radical spontaneity.
JV But to come back to Borges’ use of fiction as a model: You multiply the subjects. And you multiply the frames. You exist as different subjects and you perform as part of a collective subjectivity, a community of performers, that continuously changes. All that happens within the space opened up by th fiction of Discoteca Flaming Star.
WM Gregg Bordowitz said once so beautifully, there is no single work done by only one person or one gender – which I fully agree with.
CGB I’d like to think of questions of authority through the medium of time. We were speaking of suspended time. I would speak of suspending authority… authorship (laughs).
JV …the authority of authorship…
CGB I think we have to renegotiate the concept of authorship in relation to a continuous or discontinuous practice. So it helps a lot to relate authorship to time rather than to a person. By doing this you dismantle the economic and juridical rules of authorship which are about who made what at what point in time. If I abolish that point then it’s not important any more. As an exercise of the imagination I try to do this. As Gregg Bordowitz writes, there’s no work made by one person or one gender. This would imply that there’s no work made at only one specific moment in time.
JV So we’ve spoken about a particular ethos of performing which is about the desire to open up spaces of potentiality and explore the temporal continuum of ficiton as ways to create zones where things may happen. But you also mentioned the tactile as a medium or quality that may enable other forms to access knowledge. Could we briefly return to that? What does that idea of the tactile imply for you?
CGB Yes, so it’s a synaesthetic approach. It’s about using everything; it’s about using all spaces and moments. When it think of the tactile, I think of the touch of the hand. The German words for performance, act or action – Handlung – is very helpful in this sense. Handlung has the word “hand” in it. In a similar way the word for concept – Begriff – and for understanding – begreifen – has the word greifen, to “ grasp” in it. So to conceptualise and grasp something is like putting it into a Handlung. Performance than is a tactile way of grasping a space, a moment in time and the desires of the performers involved.
JV But how does the music enter into this philosophy?
WM Music was always one form of text for us. The music is always the song that carries the text. Almost all of the songs we perform are chosen for their lyrics. Sometimes it’s only one line. It could be this one powerful line embedded in a really bad song that we want to extract and protect. And then there are some songs that are poetic and powerful as a whole. So the music carries the poetry of the text.
CGB I would also say that music could be perceived in a tactile way as a form of Handlung – as a form of listening and making while listening. The listening is the making. It is a way of being touched and it is a learning possibility based on perceiving and receiving each other – and each other’s practices and inputs.