A process of response:
It is the first Thursday of the abandoned practices course and we have been working on these performances since Monday. I have been assigned to respond to the first group. Each of the responders have been given the following instructions:
“Commonplace Book response to performances:
Design a two-part response to the work that you have been selected to respond to. You will present this response to the whole class.
Part 1. Read a quotation aloud
Select a quotation from any source in response to the work, and begin by reading the quotation aloud, along with the citation of its author.
Part 2. Present a gloss on the quotation
Devise a gloss that is your response to the quotation that you have selected. Your gloss may indicate why you selected this quotation in response to the performance. Your gloss may disagree with the quotation. Your gloss may associate from the quotation. Your gloss may adopt some of the specific vocabulary of the quotation.
Your gloss may be in any form. You will present the gloss by reading it aloud, showing it, or performing in some other way.
Maximum presentation time (quote+gloss): 4 minutes”.
I watch the performance attentively, attempting to make a note of images that catch my attention including: three failed attempts to name yourself, a huge projected eye, radio silence, chains around a performer’s legs, two circles on the floor.
After a few minutes of observing I start to hear a slow blues song playing on a crackling radio (I later learn that it is Mississippi John Hurt’s version of Will the Circle be Unbroken). As I watch a naked woman getting dressed into a purple suit and helmet I have to move to make way for a performer in a top hat who drags another performer’s body along the floor on a black cloth. There is an unexplainable moment of resonance between the music and the images, which I cannot explain.
I decide to focus on this moment in order to structure my response. Later, in an attempt to remember how I felt in this moment of the performance I listen to Will the Circle be Unbroken and realise that the narrator of the song is describing his mother being taken away by a hearse.
I immediately think of the following passage from Roland Barthes Camera Lucida:
“One November evening shortly after my mother’s death, I was going through some photographs. I had no hope of “finding” her, I expected nothing from these photographs… I had acknowledged… one of the most agonising features of mourning, which decreed that however often I might consult such images, I could never recall her features (summon them up in totality). What I wanted… was to write a little compilation about her just for myself.
Sometimes I recognised a region of her face, a certain relation of nose and forehead, the movement of her arms, her hands. I never recognised her except in fragments, which is to say that I missed her being, and that therefore I missed her altogether… I was struggling among images partially true, and therefore totally false”
Roland Barthes Camera Lucida (1980)
Barthes’ descriptions of being unable to recognise (or remember) the totality of his mother after her death resonates deeply with my own experiences of losing my mother when I was 14. I decide that my gloss in response to this quotation could be a “little compilation” of movements as a tribute to my mother.
I decide that I would like to accompany this compilation with a female voice. Having been introduced to the Scottish folk singer Lizzie Higgins earlier this year (after hearing her voice sampled by Scottish musician Martyn Bennett) I started to search for songs that were evocative of my response to the group performance. I settled on Higgins’ acapella version of Gentle Annie and devised a series of repetitive movements based on Barthes’ text “Sometimes I recognised a region of her face, a certain relation of nose and forehead, the movement of her arms, her hands. I never recognised her except in fragments”.
I have described my process of response above in order to hopefully illustrate some key ideas that we explored during this course; that through this kind of creative response we can bypass negative judgement and critique in order to focus on finding the value in the work of others in order to extend the work, or in the words of Matthew Goulish to “allow its resonance to proliferate”. To prioritise doing over thinking, at least as an initial approach for responding to work (of course the reality, and perhaps desired approach, is a type of “doing” that engages a process of critical thinking as well, but more on that below).
For the duration of the Abandoned Practices course, Matthew, Lin and Mark carefully structured the way in which we approached these responses (both intellectually and practically). Half way through the three week process Matthew shared the following thoughts on why this approach might important:
“What we need is to understand how to value what we have done, to understand what value is. Valuing is an act of naming, or acknowledging, some quality of the work or its practice that a person brings consistently to it, and that another person wants to understand, perhaps to emulate, to carry forward, to keep near, to carry as a reminder. To value is to engage with the materials of the work, the forces that the work captures, and to speak of it and what it is like; to allow its resonance to proliferate. To understand a work’s value is to endow it and the practice that produced it with profound durability. To value is to try to escape the power game of praise and policing, and to replace it with acts of understanding, of moving forward with a candle in the darkness”.
Matthew Goulish On Response (full text available here http://www.abandonedpractices.org/onresponse.html)
Certainly my response was an attempt to carry forward the particular feeling I had when watching the performance. To unpack and try to understand my own emotional response to the (potentially) accidental resonances between images in the work. According to Matthew Goulish’s reflections on response in the book Small Acts of Repair this is not an approach that attempts to separate the critical mind from the creative mind (a task that is in fact impossible) but rather to focus on the generative rather than the negative in our response to work. As Goulish argues:
“if we can destabilise the boundaries between the critical and the creative, we may enrich them both, and discover a communal practice – one that relies on one another for inspiration and energy, both critically and creatively”.
Matthew Goulish Small Acts of Repair (2007)
For me, the inspiration and energy that might be gained from this communal practice could be extremely valuable to my current community of performance making in Glasgow. This year I have been profoundly aware of the strength of this community and its ability to come together to support each other through difficult times. If these already strong networks and relationships can be extended to the ways in which we value each other’s work then this might contribute to an exciting and compassionate performance ecology.