a u t o n o m o u s c o l l a b o r a t i v e p r o c e s s
p o e t r y - a s - p e r f o r m a n c e
words & compilations by Maxine Flasher-Düzgüneş
The following review places Anna Pakes’ interpretation of postmodern concepts of choreographic authorship, dance meaning(s), and scores in the context of a few artistic collaborations of today (2020, pp. 93-116). In her book Choreography Invisible, Pakes cites Roland Barthes’ philosophy that ‘the viewer must be involved in active production of meaning’ (2020, p. 99) or otherwise known as ‘the death of the author’ (Barthes 1977, cited in Pakes 2020, p. 99). This was adopted by choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage, whose collaborative process of multiple disciplines helped to liberate the dancing body from the authority of the choreographer (Pakes 2020, p. 98). It was through scores – unique visual documentations and poetic assemblages – that a new method of communication could be developed between the dancers and the choreographer, one that was democratic and catered to the creation of movement via interaction instead of authorial demand (Pakes 2020, p. 96).
The examples below are from immersive performance pieces that empower the spectator to come to a bodily understanding of the work, redefining its limits, if any. Poetry is used as a unifying discipline across the array of works, each of which are combined with additional artistic practices like dance, coding, audio-visual technology, site-specificity, and urban ecology. Each of these poetry installations operate like miniature lectures that usher the participation of all those surrounding it. Their complex structures attract ‘interpreters’ (Pakes 2020, p. 108), readers of letters that dance in-body, on-page, in-space, online. The internet, like the pages of a book and the wings of a stage, serves as a neutral medium through which to host work for audiences, and in this instance, work made by audiences through the process of experiencing.
In response to Barthes, choreographer Susan Foster believes ‘viewers become involved in the choreography itself, helping determine the response they make, so that they become immersed along with the choreographer and dancers in a playful yet critical interpretive practice” (Foster 1986, cited in Pakes 2020, p. 101).
This concept can be applied interdisciplinary to the collaborations of J.R. Carpenter with coders Jason Edward Lewis and Bruno Nadeau on P.E.M.M. (Poetry for Excitable [Mobile] Media), which is a series of visual poetry apps defined by the kinesthetic interaction between the app and the user. For example, “Speak” accumulates excerpts from a poem by arranging them on a snaking line that the user can drag in any direction across a mobile touch screen. The app “Rattlesnakes” offers a similar experience where the user’s finger is responsible for forming combinations of ever-fading scale-like words over a green backdrop.
It can also be applied to the work of Sumi Lee who developed a web experiment called Generative Concrete Poetry that visually and kinesthetically enhances the experience of reading poetry. Visitors first select a poem and then give consent to the site to use motion capture technology to manipulate the poem’s shape and final result (if any), based on how they interact with it. For example, her poem “The Path of the Stars” gives the visitor the ability to draw letters with their left hand and erase them with their left. This process references the poem’s comparison of forgotten memories to the adding and subtracting of stars to a night sky (Lee n.d.).
According to dance scholar Bojana Cvejić, collaborative works in which the viewer is also somewhat of an investigator ‘can be linked to the contemporary score, used as a mechanism for generating action but also for enabling an open structure which keeps the performance alive and malleable’ (Cvejić 2014, cited in Pakes 2020, pp. 109-110).
The following web-based experimental score from the research project, Choreo-graphic Figures: Deviations from the Line by Emma Cocker, Nikolaus Gansterer and Mariella Greil provides space for an encounter with forms of choreography, drawing, and writing that extends beyond the disciplines themselves. It follows the lecture format that Cvejić links to ‘contemporary conceptual dance,’ where more emphasis is placed on artistic investigation and practice-as-research (Cvejić 2014, cited in Pakes 2020, p. 109). The site invites visitors on a choose-your-own-adventure through a series of readable, watchable, perusable, and listenable pages.
According to Pakes, in galleries and museums, ‘the ephemerality of performance appears disruptive of presentational and arts economic conventions’ (2020, p. 108). For example, when live performances were placed on hold throughout the pandemic, their shift to web platforms highlighted the importance of audience interaction. Tamara Chu’s The Roads We Walk Together is an online performance gallery only accessible between the hours of 5pm and 5am Pacific Time. It serves as an immersive archive of the dancers’ online experiences in the form of recorded, filmed, and photographed movement narratives (Chu 2021). Its digital existence mimics the experience of walking into a gallery because of how each vignette shifts with a click or a scroll. At one point, it existed as a video installation at 1065 Mission St. in San Francisco, further hybridizing a chemical reaction of sorts between dance and new media.
This work perhaps falls under the terms of ‘avant-garde practice’ or in Pakes’ terms, ‘on-going experiments’ (2020, p. 110) that aren’t necessarily choreographic spectacles or merely works whose sole purpose is to entertain or feed audience members (p. 101). And it reclassifies the role of the author in works such as those which are presented here.
Early twentieth century ‘movement practitioners explored the effect of natural environments and elements on the experience of performing and viewing dance,’ (Pakes 2020, p. 112) including Anna Halprin who gave dancers tasks based on the challenges presented by the outdoors. Choreographer and field-researcher, Jennifer Monson’s A Field Guide to iLANDing: scores for researching urban ecologies is a collection of score methods for interacting with one’s surroundings using the body. Her company, iLAND: Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art Nature and Dance, houses a variety of interdisciplinary projects in relationship to nature and places importance on the community-based aspect of each mode of engagement. The scores are participatory, they ask for listening but also action. In this nature, they are effortlessly collaborative, they require a give and take that is often associated with the flurries upon treetops and the pull of the sea.
‘On the beach you could dig in the sand. In the city you could go shopping,’ said Halprin (Morgenroth 2004, cited in Pakes 2020, p. 112), in beautiful acknowledgement of the structures that could be devised by merely stepping into a place. In some of the worst months of the pandemic, I witnessed and photographed one of Monson’s latest works “Choreographies of Disaster” from Point Reyes National Seashore, California – the work renewed a sense of connection across climate-ravaged continents and the desire for community in times of loss.
As stated by Pakes (2020, p. 112), postmodern dance has established itself through its collaboration with other art forms. This may even include the bare bones of the written word itself, and the tangibility of philosophical concepts that initially appear out of our control. Writer and dancer Carolyn Roy, for instance, recently developed a durational practice of improvising with strangers called The Work of Not Doing: The Companionship Scores (Roy n.d.). I had the opportunity of attending one of her workshops at Siobhan Davies Studios last fall in which we explored her idea of ‘being-with’ (Roy n.d.) using thread as a signifier of our proximity to a partner. The exercise is designed for dancers and non-dancers and represents the 360 degrees of witnessing required when in the presence of others.
Returning to Monson’s Field Guide, it relates scores as information-holders of the future, as well as forms of notation for musical compositions and improvised dances. Dance specifically uses them to ‘revisit systems and structures for generating research, performances and events’ (Monson 2017, p. 2). In a sense, they ask to be authorless, autonomous, because they act as propositions for creative process but remain in a forever state of inactivity without fully engaged participants. Perhaps they are like floating hypotheses, waiting for the spark of scientific experimentation before moving towards results. They are offerings for observation, inactivated invitations to become the framework of future works.