Friday, 12 December 2008

The final evening: Muda Mathis, Annie Sprinkle & Elizabeth Stephens, Sands Murray-Wassink & Robin Wassink-Murray (Part 2)

At the end of the final evening of Performance Saga - Bone 11, the Open Dialogues writers Mary Paterson (MP), Chris Regn (CR), Dagmar Reichert (DR), Almut Rembges (AR) and Theron Schmidt (TS) discussed the performances and the context of the festival.

Read a brief description of the performances by Muda Mathis, Annie Sprinkle & Elizabeth Stephens, Sands Murray-Wassink & Robin Wassink-Murray, here.

MP: Is there anything in particular that anyone wants to talk about?
I’ll start with a topic: how to be intimate in public. Annie and Beth have a very touching relationship, but it’s also very public, and I think Robin and Sands did exactly the same thing [on stage] – they enacted a kind of public intimacy. But it always also makes me feel slightly uncomfortable, and I think that’s because I’m quite a private person; I feel like that kind of intimacy really is very private.

Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens, ' Dirty Sexecology' at Performance Saga Festival - Bone 11, Schlachthaus Theater, Saturday 6th December 2008. Photograph (c) Martin Rindlisbacher

DR: Let me think for a second … let me think for a second.
AR: For me, if I compare how the performance of Beth and Annie felt, it was like they have a routine in doing that. Whereas with Robin and Sands, it was an experiment, they were doing for the first time– and still, they were so confident about it: maybe that’s why it was much more touching. That was a big difference for me.
MP: I think also because they weren’t quite the same. They obviously had different levels of how they felt comfortable.
TS: Robin and Sands weren’t quite the same?
MP: Yup
AR: To me, Annie and Beth were more like characters who talk about something. It is important that you know that they are also a couple in private but they are also characters. I found that also very fascinating, but it was not so much about intimacy.

TS: Well, I suppose now is as good a point as any to raise a question that I was mulling over in the break between performances. Which was…. Let me walk myself back through the programme.

Muda’s performance really introduced this very theatrical mode. Throughout the week we’ve been seeing these oscillations between that which is very much a planned performance for your benefit, and that which is trying to escape the plan and break free of constraint. And some things which have a kind of planned escape within them – I think that’s how the very first evening was, with Alison Knowles’ work and Die Maulwerker, with these scores that set up a plan – but the score is there in order that something new can be discovered. Something unplanned. So I think this evening we were back at the ‘planned’ end, with this really wonderful series of monuments that Muda presented. But which had this feeling of showwomanship about them, which …

CR: Showwomanship?
TS: Yes, like somebody who’s practiced in carrying a crowd along. Like a …
MP: Like a seasoned performer.
TS: Like a seasoned performer. I was going to say like a magician, as well.
CR: Yes, I thought she was a magician.
TS: And that piece had that kind of feeling of setting up …
CR: … a magician’s scene.
TS: Yeah, and it was setting up for tricks.
CR: It was tricky!

TS: Yeah. But not in a deceptive way, in a pleasurable way – the pleasure of watching a trick unfold.

And then, you have the shift from that to Beth and Annie, who were perhaps even more seasoned in their routine. They start right off with this kind of shtick, really. They have a performance presence that could be vaudeville. It comes out of an entertainment tradition, I guess, of being really authentic and open, but in a way that is stylised and is probably not the way they are when they first wake up in the morning with each other.

MP: I agree with what you’re saying but I think the reason we think that is because we all watch a lot of performance art, but really … I guess it’s a staged thing as well, but [Annie and Beth] have this amateurishness, which is what seems so intimate about them because they’re checking that each other is ok, and not getting the words right … you know, as if it has to come out of their relationship rather than … they give the barest nod to that kind of showmanship, but it really is only like putting a cherry on top of a homemade cake, or something.
CR: Oooooh. The cherry is nice.

TS: Yeah, I agree, Mary. That’s true. You’re right, that’s part of the dynamic.
Sorry, I know I’m taking a long time, but I’m trying to build up to the point, and also figure out how I got to it. How I got to that thought through the evening.

Then, Annie and Beth presented these really ridiculous gestures. I mean, preposterous gestures. Preposterous actions. That it might be enough to save the earth to do a ballet dance, or that it might be enough to make love to the earth, is a really ridiculous proposition. And they know it, and they celebrate that ridiculousness. They really indulge it. It’s not … I’m not saying this to be critical of it – it doesn’t undermine what they’re doing. It is what they are doing, is saying, yeah, it’s absolutely ridiculous and let’s go for that ridiculousness. All the way!

But it is a kind of symbolism, as well. This is a kind of symbolic gesture. So the question that I came to in the interval was: Is symbolic change the same as real change? And does this symbolic act, with earth that comes out a pre-packaged bag…. With plants that are potted. With plastic flowers in their costumes. With seeds given to all the audience members that may or may not actually be even capable of germination, and that probably most people won’t do anything with. And even if they did it wouldn’t really make a difference to the earth – if everyone planted the seeds that they’ve been given, it would be an insignificant effect. And none of that is in any way to say that, oh, therefore they’re wrong, that they’re misconceived. This is all part of the conception of their plan. But it just makes me realise that this is a symbolic act.

So where I’m coming to with that then, was this final piece from Sands and Robin, and something that Sands kept saying at the very end was, you know, saying to the audience that ‘you might never have a chance to ask a naked gay man any questions’. And that made me look at him … that partly what he was doing was adopting a symbolic role. You know, ‘Let me speak from my experience as a gay man. As a bottom. And I will show you a symbolic asshole.’ This stands in for all assholes, in a way.

Sands Murray-Wassink and Robin Wassink-Murray, ' Town Hall Philisophical Living Color Drawing' at Performance Saga Festival - Bone 11, Schlachthaus Theater, Saturday 6th December 2008. Photograph (c) Martin Rindlisbacher

And of course, that’s not totally true, because it is definitely Sands, and it is definitely his experience which is very much brought to the performance, and is as important as the other bit. But it made me think, ah, there’s this symbolic act. And it made me think that actually… that somehow I felt that the symbolic gesture made a huge difference. In the way that he referred to Public Cervix Announcement [a performance by Annie Sprinkle]. The way that these kinds of gestures do have an impact.

MP: The biggest symbol in the entire evening was Annie Sprinkle. Every performance had Annie Sprinkle in the middle as a symbol, as something else. They all referred to her, even her own, referred to her … she’s this character, this construct, with the wig and the tutu and the massive boobs. Like she was the symbol that tied it all together …It’s the same as, like I was saying to you [Theron] the other day, every time you read something about Annie Sprinkle it always says, ‘former prostitute’, or ‘she was a prostitute’, and it’s like she’s the artworld symbol for a sex worker – it’s something that runs after her like it’s part of her name or something.

DS: [to Theron] I didn’t understand, what is the opposite of symbol for you?
TS: [laughing] That’s a good question …
DS: I do not agree at all, I think! I want to understand better.
TS: Well, the thing I said was, ‘is symbolic change the same as real change?’, so I guess my opposite is ‘real’. But no, that’s not a binary that I necessarily believe in either.

DS: I think what we have raised now is first your question about public intimacy, and then this question about the strength of the symbolic. Theron, you said that it is ridiculous, what is written here [pointing to the programme] and what they did on stage, that it would be enough to save the world. I don’t read it on a symbolic level. I read it on, I don’t know … a more emotional [level], on the type of atmosphere they create. And there it is not symbolic at all. There it is very real for me. It’s not so much how she’s dressed or all that but in a way also what atmosphere she is able to create. And this was also already in Muda’s piece, that she was really something that is not working with opposites, and that it is very self-accepting in many respects, and to me this is very academic, to put this into distinctions like symbolic or real or something. It’s more difficult to capture or to describe.

But then when I was thinking about your question of public intimacy, I felt that somehow, these two pair-situations [couples], I did not interpret them as very intimate. It was more … and there maybe I get closer to something you mean by symbolic. It was more talking about intimacy. Or, it had a kind of political or pedagogic project in the back. In the case of Sands, I thought it had to do with working on a new understanding of maleness in our culture. And therefore I never had the feeling of being a voyeur there.

MP: No. But you didn’t think they were using this kind of … it doesn’t make me feel like a voyeur but it does make me feel … I don’t see what it’s got to do with me. I accept it on a symbolic level and in that case … I feel like … only in a small way … but there is this thing in the back of my mind where I feel, like they’re betraying their intimacy. Like they’re exploiting it a bit … no, exploiting is not the right word, but that they are betraying it by making it public. It makes me feel a bit sad.

DR: Maybe it is two completely different things.
MP: Then it’s just an act? It’s just an act of intimacy?

DR: No. It’s two different things. One is a political or pedagogic project, that they also do out of their heart and not pretending. And the other thing is their daily life. I don’t know. Maybe Annie Sprinkle and Beth have not had sex for two weeks or two months!

MP: Maybe the reason I feel a bit weird about it is just because that form of address doesn’t … I don’t open up to it. Perhaps just as a medium … it’s not a reaction against intimacy as a concept but against that form of address as a performance style, watching, because it’s not something I empathise with. Anyway, I’m tired!

DR: Is that what …. When I read this as a political or pedagogic performance, is that what you meant as symbolic?

TS: No, not exactly. Maybe that’s part of my speculation here, is whether the political and the symbolic are different things, or whether you have these different flavours of the political, I guess. Whether there’s symbolic politics and then there’s actual politics. But ... that’s a bit kind of philosophical, and I’m not really sure it makes much of a difference at this point in the evening, after these performances, whether that does feel a bit like it’s nit picking.

I just wanted to try to throw something in, which is going to be me trying to speak on Sands’ behalf, which is a bit unfair but he’s not in the room with us now. I just overheard a bit of conversation after the performance, which is relevant to what the two of you were just discussing, which was Sands saying to someone that wasn’t me … so this is an enactment, I suppose, of turning the private and intimate into the public … he [Sands] said that yes, he was aware of people who thought there should be a division between, for example, the therapeutic and the artistic, and that one shouldn’t turn to art for therapy, or turn to therapy for art, for that matter. But for him that distinction didn’t make any sense, and that for him these actions that he does for a public are part of the same activity, which is him being him and dealing with the things that he has to deal with. And that he also doesn’t see any difference between the conversation that he would have with a room full of people and the conversation he would have with the one other person who was there asking the question.

MP: He certainly seemed like that. Very relaxed.

TS: So that seems a complete acceptance of the dissolution of the intimate into the public, and there not being any distinction between the two. Whereas for you there’s something at stake, Mary, in keeping a distance between the two?

MP: I guess it’s just a personal preference, isn’t it?
MP: I guess it’s just what people are like … you can’t help it.

Sands Murray-Wassink in Sands Murray-Wassink and Robin Wassink-Murray, ' Town Hall Philisophical Living Color Drawing' at Performance Saga Festival - Bone 11, Schlachthaus Theater, Saturday 6th December 2008. Photograph (c) Martin Rindlisbacher

DR: Can I suggest that we altogether try to recollect what we have seen in the process of the evening.

It began with Muda’s performance, and she came out on the stage with this barrel on this rolling table, and she was dancing to the rhythm of the music.

It was a feet dance. There was this kind of barrel dancing …

DR: And then she did a dance where she was just shaking her breasts a lot, so it was on the one hand a playful and pleasurable acceptance of her body, and soon it became like a strong joke how she associated the barrel with Annie Sprinkle and femininity.

Muda Mathis, ' Seven Monuments for Annie Sprinkle' at Performance Saga Festival - Bone 11, Schlachthaus Theater, Saturday 6th December 2008. Photograph (c) Martin Rindlisbacher

TS: A strong what? Joke?
DR: No, that is wrong. A strong association, a theme. And then there was this juxtaposition between this, what do you call it, this piece of wood?
TS: The board.
DR: The board and the barrel, as something that she associated with femininity and masculinity but then also said that there’s no … that she did not judge it in such terms. But she played with it. Also this lesbian connotation of putting her head into the barrel. So that’s what I remember!

For me it was extremely touching, the whole evening. There was one thing that connected and determined all of the performances that night: they were all about the desire, or art of relating to other people, in many different ways. First, from Muda Mathis to Annie, and then that love thing between Annie and Beth of course, and this was then even expanded in the performance of Robin and Sands:. You could really feel how they love each other, and then how they relate to the audience and to the here-and-now. The three pieces, really they came together like, POW! [hits her palm on her heart] And that really hit it … and it really; it changed my life a little bit. It opened up something. I could have difficulties to go back to normal life now.

So that’s one thing. And then, I really like that they used three very different art forms. In Muda’s performance the power came from these multi-layered images that suddenly also hit you. Because it sort of builds up in front of you and then suddenly it makes like … crash. And that was really emotional; it really put me in the right state for the next show. And there it was really striking how flat the whole thing is. I always thought, they don’t really mean the earth, or to make love to the earth. It’s about a secret … something else. And at the same time, they really want to teach this lesson about the earth and all of that.

And then Sands and Robin, who count on the here and now, and this essay form.

TS: Essay form?
AR: It’s like an essay performance. Do you know the term video essay, video performance?
CR: Yeah, it’s an open forum.
AR: He gives examples, different examples, of how he wanted to talk about why Annie is so important to him. And it was also about the history of performance, and feminism … I mean, he used a lot of references, and a lot of knowledge.

CR: I will write about Muda because she’s my friend. And I was very fond about her, and I was not fond about this kind of pot-making part of Annie Sprinkle. But I liked the performance very much.
MP: So what did you enjoy about the evening?
CR: I enjoyed the whole evening very much. I like Annie Sprinkle even because it was irritating for me when I was very young, to see her. Because I was very embarrassed about her style when I was young ... I thought she’s pretending this openness first, I couldn’t see her using this American way of showing things. Crazy, I identified in a strange way that was almost painful … now I see her work as very serious and I am more relaxed, I like it. And I also like that I’ve changed. Because when you are young, you identify with everything. That’s a femininity, you identify … that’s a masculinity, you identify. It’s always something you identify … and then you’re very, very sharp. But I am much looser now, so I have to cope with that. So you can be sharp, I can be loose. Do you want to be sharp about anything so far? [laughing] For this evening?

TS: No, I don’t want to be sharp. Because to be sharp is to be masculine! And I’m suddenly aware of being the only man in the writers’ group.
CR: I’m such a man!
TS: That’s a good point.

I’ll make a brief point, and this is really stating the obvious … In terms of thinking about the function of the symbolic and also of the collapse of the private and the public… and thinking of Beth and Annie’s work, the kind of unifying theme is the marriage ceremony, and their repeated marriage rituals. And it’s somehow pleasing to me to think about this evening as a series of marriage rituals. We had a board marrying a barrel. And then Beth and Annie marrying the earth. And then a kind of renewal of the twelve year wedding vows – well, they’ve been together twelve years; I don’t know how long they’ve been married – of Robin and Sands. And this may sound absurd, but the location of the asshole as the site of the wedding is I think what they achieved.

Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens, ' Dirty Sexecology' at Performance Saga Festival - Bone 11, Schlachthaus Theater, Saturday 6th December 2008. Photograph (c) Martin Rindlisbacher

AR: I like that he [Sands] said it’s the asshole that connects all genders!

DR: I was amazed today about the variety of performances we have seen, these four evenings. These Fluxus performances were so different … there were qualities in some that did not reach the qualities of others, but it was enormously wide, the spectrum. I did not realise how wide it could be.

It interests me to think along those lines that you mentioned ... is it characteristic for what we call performance, what you might call live art, that it is not theatrical? Those pieces that were theatrical, like the beginning yesterday of Vittali’s piece, and also some things today, that they would already be away from the main tradition that these live arts have. I don’t want to exclude anything ….

MP: When you started to speak about that I was beginning to think how this evening has been really … emotional, rather than cerebral … rather than intellectual. Like you were saying how the emotional atmosphere that they create is the effect of everything: it’s what comes out, and there is a real atmosphere. And as you started talking about the different kinds of evenings I thought, the atmosphere tonight is similar to the atmosphere on the first night where, in the concert, there was that real… just this beautiful tenor, this atmosphere of people really concentrating. And it was like everyone got involved. Not having seen a lot of that kind of work, I really felt that it was incredibly beautiful – but also not verbal. It was pre-verbal, or post-verbal …
CR: Pre-historic
MP: Yeah, pre-historic, like Alison Knowles’ term. But then, actually, every evening had its own atmosphere. Obviously it was curated that way.
CR: Last evening was semiotic.

MP: Yes. Like what Almut said, which I thought was a really insightful comment: when Irene and Jorge were putting the pins through them everyone was going ‘ow’ [and imagining the pain as if it happened to them]; but when the guys [Wagner-Feigl-Forschung] were putting the sheriff pins through them, everyone was like [shrugs], ‘Oh well, oh yeah, you know.’ As if it didn’t hurt.

For me it was like a certification. It was like a proof that they were real performers.
DR: I called it today a cynical quote. A cynical misquote.

But we cannot talk for ages. We all have to decide what we want to write about.
TS: This is it. We’re done. We type this up tomorrow and then we’re done.

Any last comments, anyone?
DR: I have a last comment. It was interesting with the atmosphere. There were similarities with the first and the last evening, but the atmosphere in the first evening was more in the head but the atmosphere now was more in the belly.

Read a brief description of the performances by Muda Mathis, Annie Sprinkle & Elizabeth Stephens, Sands Murray-Wassink & Robin Wassink-Murray, here.

Open Dialogues: Performance Saga Writers. Photo courtesy Almut Rembges.

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