Editor’s note: Conceived of in collaboration with Obie award-winning playwright and former Center visiting artist Ain Gordon, An Experiment in Five Acts is aimed at artists and cultural producers working in the Philadelphia region who are negotiating mid-career challenges—be they purely aesthetic or more practical. The primary goal is to stimulate refractive dialogue that may under-gird each participant’s ongoing process and address its quandaries. In an effort to share the project as it unfolds within the field, we enlisted the services of nonfiction writer and 2005 Pew Fellow Jay Kirk, as “creative documentarian” for each of the five sessions. The following essay reflects on the final session of the series.
We are in a square room, at a rectangular table, but it is not the usual rectangular table. It is a new table on the other side of the old city, and it has a curious construction, in that the table itself, cleverly composed as it is, is actually assembled out of a number of puzzle shapes, which makes me think it was originally made as one table and then divided into these separate puzzle components. In fact, to be honest, the table does not cohere very well as a unit and keeps shifting around whenever people try to set down their coffee, or lean against it to read—as when our curator first wanted to read from THE ACT III MANiFESTO, but then we read from our Act I report instead as a way to begin, or, I suppose, as a way to recognize that we have come to the end. Perhaps to give us a sense of narrative arc.
But, like I said, the table does not cohere all that well, so I have to wonder if it’s a metaphor for our experiment as a whole. Did it—did we—cohere? Or, in the end, do we remain just a bunch of artists cleverly thrown together? I am still not sure. I only wish there were more time to think it over.
As our choreographer speaks, as she gives a final report of her own work, on what she calls the “Archive of Gestures,” a solution begins to emerge in my mind. Hers is a better process, I think, than my own. The language of movement is less hung-up and stuffy than is the medium of words, which can be so, too—you know—overly cautious. This is more or less what I think as we follow her down the long corridor which she has projected in video on the wall. At the end of the corridor is a gallery. And in the corner is a bed. A cot, I guess. A bed in the corner of a gallery. It is where we find her lying down. Lying down, we intuitively understand, is the first gesture in her archive. Then she moves about on the bed restlessly, feet at the headboard, flailing, grasping the sides, as if clinging to a piece of flotsam in the sea. Then she flips over and climbs the wall with her toes. It is the choreography of asylum, incarceration, the claustrophobia of corners and tangled sheets. Standing on bed. Falling on bed. Stuck on bed. Writhing on bed. She makes a portrait of one gesture and then another: Choke, drain, hate, rake, purge, rave, sob, bliss, fly, crave, dig, take, hold, crush, break, pour. A gesture for saying: “I am comfortable being an object in this installation.”
The archive is comprehensive. On her knees now, at the foot of the mattress, her hands describe the inside of an invisible barrel suspended overhead, fingers probing the inside of this void, then the outer drum. She cowers as if it might drip on her. A moment later, her hands, busy, work at the loose ball of knotted something in her palm, yarn maybe, a ball of rubber bands, or, oh I see, she is holding a bird in each hand. One close to her heart, held in, like a deck of cards, the other held out, each offered in turn, as if she is asking us to make an utterly impossible choice.
There is a dance of equivalences, minor adjustments, in the motion of being: it is a reflection of our tendency toward internal symmetry (I guess). One hand, arm, seems to feel the need to resolve the other. One comes forward. One moves back. There is an idea, and then the idea’s correction.
Anyway. That is the archive of gestures. Stupendously catalogued. And quite resonant for the rest of us who have been talking about archives all along—the word crops up all the time. Everybody is an archivist nowadays. Preparing the archive has become the main act. It is no longer just a warm-up; it is the work itself. It is also our anxiety. It is our collective dilemma. There are too many potential nuances to select definitively. Too many possible arrangements. We worry about appropriation: when is it appropriate to appropriate, and how angry can I get at those who have plundered my own archives (especially if for fame and profit). Is this why the idea of archives in general is so of the zeitgeist?
Like the choreographer, who has compiled this archive as part of her research, we are all, to a degree, motivated by the same impulse—to compile, to index, to dwell in research more. Maybe it is because we have more material than instinct for what to do with it all so we can only think in terms of “process.” The problem is our technology, no doubt, if you want my diagnosis. No wonder our own archives are vast: our machines have already been collaborating for some time now. But there is nothing new about this idea, and that’s the problem with ideas today. New ideas are practically born with an archival mustiness on their baby’s breath. But, again, that’s why we can find refuge in process alone. One can divest oneself from ideas a little. If there is nothing new that can come out of ideas—ideas require at least the illusion of being new, if only for a few minutes—the only way to keep it all alive is to keep it whirling in the large hadron masher.
But now that I think about it, we have already had our own collider up and running in here over the past 15 months and five acts. We have already begun to whirl. So, for goodness sake, dear colleagues, perhaps what we should really do, is to just stay put a little while longer…? We can hardly just pack up and go now, can we? I mean, not now that we’ve discovered that we may in fact be each other’s most natural collaborators. Not now that we finally understand why we’ve been brought together into the same room…
And, besides, look, there are a few pastries left. A few of those fresh berries that you like behind the cantaloupe rind…Let us drag in a few more cots and stay the night if we must. No, please, I implore you, hear me out…You see, we did things entirely out of order—an experiment is supposed to be research first. We can’t go now, not with so much left on the table. Which, yes, look, I can fix it…See, the parts of the table—we can make the parts fit at last. Just a little wood glue, see, good as new! It coheres! Please stay. Just another hour…Don’t you see how entangled we have become? The time to finally get down to work has arrived. At least, at least, can we plan to come in for a sixth act? I am free the second half of July. Why end on Act V? It is not a symmetrical number.