The writing that follows reflects my own provisional thoughts, interruptions, assemblages of materials from three events with choreographer Tere O’Connor: a conversation between O’Connor and I, a rehearsal and invited group Interrogation of the work, and a performance of the piece outdoors…
A question: What are the “secret detonators” lying in wait within choreography?
Guided by a photograph of a tombstone covered with flowers taken by Félix González-Torres, Dahn Vo wanders Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris searching for Gertrude Stein’s grave. His encounter reveals a second name—not only Gertrude but also Alice—that explodes his idea of González-Torres’s photograph. What he finds remains invisible in the image, not given to be seen by the artist, existing rather as a secret detonator lying in wait behind a bouquet of dying flowers and scattered petals.
Something about the photograph unsettles in its sad nostalgic beauty, in its simplicity. Subverting the ways in which the photograph plays with the mnemonic function of a name and of an image, particularly a name inscribed in stone to last into eternity and an image marked as memorial, Vo conjures a multiplicity of histories, memories, interpretations, assembling a choreographic requiem for Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Isadora Duncan, Victor Noir, and for González-Torres, as well.
Vo’s rendering of the encounter speaks of a choreographic thinking; enacting a fluidity of time and history that while critical is also incredibly intimate. It offers something of what I want to call critical intimacy as a mode or practice of watching or perhaps witnessing choreography, particularly that of O’Connor’s current in-process works. Critical, not only as Ryan Kelly so eloquently explains as a degree zero of negativity that evacuates all meaning from a work of art, but critical as a mechanism of creative thinking that attends closely to the material, political, emotional, technical, aesthetic qualities of an object, a dance, a text, an image. Critical labor: what a dance could do (must do) right now. And this relationship to contemporaneity is also something that Vo touches on quoting González-Torres: “Things happen within culture when it is needed.”
There is a subtle erotics at work in Vo’s writing alluded to in the multiple couplings happening in the photograph, in the cemetery, in the shimmering of the past in the present, in the shifting distances and proximities between Vo and Gonzales-Torres, Stein and Toklas, Noir and his adoring fans, artist and writer, curator and artist, and on and on… Inciting what O’Connor speaks of in his own process as a kind of polyamorism—a mode of multiplicity that stands against narratives of monogamy and monotheism (conceptually, spiritually, physically, relationally).
What Vo activates in his writing resonates for me with what O’Connor describes as a “letting go of knowledge” to incite instead a “new balance away from laws foisted on dance…allowance versus strangulation.” And then O’Connor speaks about his first encounter with Swan Lake. Asking why the audience only sees swans and when he experiences many other images and layered energetics. “I saw a hallucination of architecture of legs…another math.”
In O’Connor’s choreographic process, other modes of knowledge, of coming to knowledge, of knowing are activated through “braided velocities” and an “immersion in choreo-timing” where temporality expands and contracts and “everything turns into four things and everything is possible.” Choreography opens up to a grammar of future anterior, a process of anticipation and presence simultaneously through the constant layering of systems and spaces, of arrivals and departures. So there is no telos or endpoint or narrative climax, but instead a series of events played out against each other that sometimes repeat and sometimes happen only in singular flashes.
O’Connor’s process is plural and paratactic: assemblage, collage, bodies, sculptures, texts, movements, murmuring, bending over, lying down, leap, carrying, holding, hiding, and always watching. What Hilary Clark names the “spacious” quality of the work holds all of these aspects together through an intensity of gaze that invents the dimensionality of the work. Always aware of each other’s presence even when they are looking away, the performers constantly shift from characters to non-characters to Judson tasks to classicism always “draining meaning as it is built.” Amidst all the movement, the attention to gaze produces this relational space, a cube within which all of these episodes play out.
Asked to define choreography in terms of his own work, O’Connor speaks of its fluid nature that is
“defined by working…a complete exit from singularity of meaning…that highlights another way of being in regular life.” Choreography is a “champion of complexity and convolution and contradiction…an observational modality. Surface is not important to what is going on” but how these events sit next to each other is.
“I want to be outside the nexus of reconcilabilty, not as a rebellion” but as so many ways of working with what is inherent in the form of choreography itself. Not to create incoherence, but to work with the incoherence present in choreography as medium. And in this way, the “value system” of “unviable structures” is created where “everything co-exists and nothing is looking to be a winner.”
I imagine this attention to the construction and dissolution of legibility against meaning as participating in the work that Georges Didi-Huberman demands art history do. Or if not art history or dance history, than a counter writing to these discourses that draws out the uncertainties, the wounds, what Didi-Huberman calls the “rend” in the images, the choreographic vanishing points within the work itself. And in these moments of writing, of seeing, of being inside the work, we might touch what O’Connor calls the “fog or ghost of the work that doesn’t include the imagery anymore” but instead a more “porous projection” oscillating between viewer and work. And here, in this aporia is where he hopes a politic of the work might reside.
This kind of syncretic value system draws as much from dance as it does from cinema and in one moment, O’Connor proposes that cinema more effectively does choreographic work than most dance. Speaking about Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 film Separation and Jean-Luc Godard’s Socialisme (2010) he describes the “undermining of narrative certitude through camera movement and time.” Put another way, film and O’Connor’s work attempt a kinetics not of movement but of “degrees to which modes of presentations switch.” Playing with difference and disjunction, Godard concocts elaborate architectures and scaffoldings of history and language and image fragments such that it is not the tableau that hints at content or politics but what is “happening with the mechanism itself” that becomes the purveyor of the politic as it “hammers against standardized human behavior.”
So many ecologies, surfaces, networks… I spoke with O’Connor the day after listening to Dorian Sagan read from a paper at Artist’s Institute (sitting in front of a Rosemarie Trockel image of a truncated étant donnés with a tarantula applied over her pubis) about other life worlds and his proposal for a conception of evolution as aesthetic assemblage rather than Darwinian survival mode. What if, Sagan asks, we humans are the artworks of slime? So that assemblage rather than composition becomes the operative force.
In a quite a different way (although for me completely connected) there is something of the choreographic assemblage as O’Connor describes it in the condensations of materials in David Altmejd’s sculpture just now on view in Chelsea. Painted birds pulling on golden chains; tiny plexiglass towers and mirror geometries; cities in miniature pressed up against a rotting torso composed of paint, dirt, hair, glitter, makeup; the bones of a hand with fingers touching; crystals morphing from blond wig hair; a body in pieces splayed out on a raised white plinth accented with red flowers. Altmejd’s work speaks of critical intimacies and desire’s illegibility, cutting caverns into the dominant logics of geometry, representation, and form; and this piece too is a requiem, a conjuring operation on beauty and history and meaning through exquisite decay.