American Realness

How to Do Things With REALNESS

How to Do Things With REALNESS

by Ryan Tracy
Published on: January 9, 2014

To speak, to say something, is no simple task. We all have to learn to speak. Speech implies teach, or pedagogy. We teach speech by example, or, by offering our own speech as a model to be copied, echoed, repeated. Put another way: The process of speech is a process of appropriation. And yet we also rely on speech to represent ourselves as authentic individuals. The imperative to know oneself is accompanied by an incitement to speak oneself, to express one’s true self in speech and, by doing so, to become sociable; able to mix in a world of self-representing, speaking subjects. But the ability to speak is not distributed uniformly. Speech is not immune to vectors of power. In fact, speech, speaking, is a demonstration of power, or evidence of power’s operation as speech. Who can speak has everything to do with who can be heard. Gayatri Spivak will tell us that power as speech determines not only who may speak but also who may be spoken for. Sometimes we have to fight to speak; to be heard. Speech, we might say, is the oral/aural fight of feminism. But speech’s entanglement with powers of domination, thankfully, is not totalizing. We figure speech. We play with speech. We plie; we pun. No wonder our speech gets us into trouble. Sometimes we invite that trouble. We speak a dare. Sometimes our speech “misfires” and we are challenged with the paradoxical task of correcting our misspeech with more speech. Queer theory and poststructuralism have taught us that speech constitutes at the same time it disturbs. The “I” of troublesome identity is, it is said, a “speaking I,” one that can never lodge itself into a stable position since every claim of identity displaces prior claims, or, as Judith Butler coming down from the mountain has revealed to us—“The copula is empty.” A speaking being, rather, becomes a doing that undoes. Speech haunts our attempts to represent a fixed world in speech. Psychoanalysis will tie the ability to speak as a speaking subject to the acquisition of desire. A world that speaks through speaking subjects is thus a desirous world, a symbolic world, one at constant odds with childish need and maternal narcissism. Julia Kristeva will describe this as a tension between the echolalia of childhood language games and that of a symbolic order of speaking (masculine) subjects. But the subjects we teach to speak—children, characters—return our speech to us appropriated, altered, other, and out of bounds. Speech, then, we might say, abounds; and bounds. Speech leaps between subjects. Speech ties, twists and turns. Derrida once figured the repetition in speech as a pirouette. Thus, speech might only be dance after all; not the dance of presence, but the dance between absence and presence; the ever passing between them.

To speak of Ben Pryor’s American Realness festival, returning to the Abrons Arts Center for a fifth iteration, is to speak of a curatorial endeavor that speaks in multiple ways. The festival speaks to performance; specifically, to contemporary performance. American Realness speaks insofar as it states, or, makes a statement, and in doing so, makes particular currents in performance legible, learnable, in fact, speakable; i.e. pushing boundaries, crossing disciplines, thinking sex, making performance in “an American context”. Looking back, speech—in all its complexity, calculation, fabulousness, magic, danger and ecstasy—seems to be a current that runs through each statement of this festival. Put another way, speech might be the currency of American Realness.

Of the eight shows presented in 2010, a few speak immediately to this. Ann Liv Young, Jeremy Wade, Miguel Gutierrez, Jack Ferver, Trajal Harrell, Layard Thompson. All of these artists speak in their work, and speak uniquely to the work of dance and performance making. Ann Liv Young regularly speaks out of turn; that is, when she speaks as Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty, or Sherry…or Martha Washington…her speech betrays the expectation that a character will fully encase the performer in a world of alterity. The “real” of speech, if we can say there is such a thing, is never far away or predictably locatable, and its threat of emergence, no doubt, is what drives Young’s work while fascinating, frustrating, and inciting her audience. Jeremy Wade and Layard Thompson, in different tracks, speak to the ineffable in speech, or to the places where language as such breaks down and the speech we are left with is ecstatic, dumb, visceral, and deeply reliant on affective hermeneutics. Miguel Gutierrez speaks—a lot—of the political, of the poetic, of the erotic and the emotional. Jack Ferver speaks the “I,” the “me,” the “my,” and the “mine,” maybe more than anyone. And Trajal Harrell speaks to the politics of representation, the trouble with authenticity and the need to ask ourselves questions. Then work from there.

In 2011, Pryor worked with Ishmael Houston-Jones, Dennis Cooper and Chris Cochrane to restage THEM, a work originally made and performed at the height of the AIDS crisis when being heard often came down to one’s willingness to act up. 2012 brought Big Art Group’s Broke House and an in-progress showing of Keith Hennessy’s Turbulence, both speaking to the perils and fantasies of an economy in crisis. American Pussy Faggot Realness conjugated two curatorial practices (Ben Pryor + Earl Dax) around an affinity for queer speech. Todd Shalom and Niegel Smith gave us Elastic City’s Salve, where to participate was to speak, more or less, poetically. And I joined photographer Michael Hart for UNREAL, an exhibition of performance portraiture, or a performance of portraiture, inscribed with an acrostic I wrote based on Jacques’ monologue from As You Like It. If all the world, after all, is a stage, then it is a stage that speaks not only in the speaking of its players, but in “the rest” of their silence as well.

Perhaps as important as the identitarian question Who speaks? might be the ontological question What speaks? It is easier to say who speaks. “He” speaks. “She” speaks. Often “it” speaks. At the very least, someone speaks. Institutions, no doubt, speak. But speech speaks not through, but as bodies; between bodies. Can we say bodies speak? Or, speaking bodies speak? Does speech, in fact, require something like a person? Or, can we say that speech, above all, requires an event; an embodied event; a speech act? Foregrounding, as it does, the question of the body—its abilities, its limits, its problems, its feelings, its surfaces, its fluids—American Realness begs the question: What body speaks? Or. What is the event in which the spoken body is speaking? Looking at some of the lineup for this year’s festival, we might draw some answers. In Miguel Gutierrez’s myendlesslove, the lovelorn body speaks. With Sherry’s Art Fair, the therapeutic body speaks, as does the makeshift capitalist. In Neal Medlyn’s King, the iconic body speaks. In Adrienne Truscott’s …To Freedom…, the laboring body speaks. In Dana Michel’s Yellow Towel, the remembered body speaks; the black body speaks. In Prodigal Heroes, with Lucy Sexton, Ann Iobst, and Scott Heron, the legendary body speaks. And in Rebecca Patek’s ineter(a)nal f/ear, the fucked body speaks.

The trouble with speaking bodies is that they regularly say what we don’t want to hear. Speaking bodies possess the capacity to hurt and enrage just as easily as they have to capacity to bring pleasure and a sense of order to things. Perhaps this explains Americans’ particularly thorny relationship to speech, if “relationship” is even the word to use. Perhaps, independence is a better word. To rephrase, then: Americans have a particularly thorny independence to speech. America (already an appropriated name for “freedom”) as a project of the democratic turn of modernity, was inaugurated with a declaration, a speech act, of independence. This declaration, and its subsequent constitution, ensures a freedom of speech. But does this mean, simply, that citizen-subjects are free to speak as they please? Speaking freely? Or is this freedom of speech an acknowledgement of speech’s independent status from ever being fully regulated? So that speech, if it likes, can take its leave of us, and we are drawn to the sisyphean task of reining it back? Or might the freedom of speech mean that the freedom we are guaranteed possesses a quality found in speech? That is, the freedom of body, or, the freedom to act as citizens is in some crucial way speech-like? If we figure Americans’ independence to speech as a compulsive ambivalence toward speech’s ability to delimit freedom, then we can see more clearly the ways in which the freedom of speech vexes the project of a secure American democracy founded upon the speech act of collective self-representation (i.e. “We, the people…”). Americans do acknowledge that sometimes action is speech, as in the action of burning an American flag. We have also acknowledged, for a time at least, that speech is action, as in “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”s proposition that to say “I am a homosexual” is in effect to commit a homosexual act. And I can’t think of anything more American than the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizen’s United, a decision made the same year that the American Realness festival was founded, that money, at the end of the day, is speech. If money is speech—and, as currency, it very well might be—the de facto cultural agreement in America that the government should not fund the arts speaks volumes. The artists presented at American Realness are all working to speak (as artists) against a political context that reserves speech (as money) for the utilitarian, the pragmatic, the reactionary, what we might just generalize as, the military. What does it mean to speak in this context? It will be telling that all the artists presented at this year’s festival are being billed as “international artists” whose acts, often, speak elsewhere; places outside American borders; places where speech—as money—invites and sustains American artists to speak there. It is here that American Realness has always been, wonderfully, a bit unAmerican.

Likening democracy to literature as a space in which everything must be said, Derrida’s saying of everything articulates the conceptual structure that ensures democracy’s self-destabilization, as well as its penetrability to otherness, and its inability to be contained within the parameters of a given border. I would like to argue that the stage of contemporary performance shares with literature and democracy this quality of a saying of everything, this utter(able) penetrability, or interpenetration of speech and event. As an event, American Realness extends the field of speech, expanding both what we call performance and what performance says, while also rewriting the context in which these performances are made and presented. Five years along, “Realness” is a personal, political, aesthetic and, to no small degree, financial investment in an ideal, and, like all investments, there is no guarantee of return, which is what makes currency, democracy and this festival—as the saying goes—a risky business.

image: Ian Douglas