Tehching Hsieh and the Experience of Time

My initial impression on the work of Tehching Hsieh, a performance artist known for his ‘One Year Performances’, was awe. I could not imagine doing one thing the same way continuously for a year. Yet in some way, we all have our markings of time. We all have a ritual that we carry out every day, whether it is brushing our teeth every morning or eating rice everyday for lunch or going for a walk outside to bask in the golden skies of a sunset. Time is essentially a construct of man that our bodies have become programmed to respond to. The experience of the passing of time is central to Hsieh’s work.

Hsieh arrived to the United States in 1974 as an undocumented immigrant from Taiwan. Beginning in 1978, Hsieh had six various one year performances. In particular, it was in 1981 where he decided to spend a whole year living outdoors. In “One Year Performance 1981–1982 (Outdoor Piece),” Hsieh would not enter any sort of shelter, whether it was a building or a cave, and survived with money he had hidden beforehand in various places. Hsieh’s work can be seen as representative of a life of monotony or survival that some migrants go through. More than being specific to the theme of migration however, Hshieh’s work is a testament to the weight time can have on the body. Ngũgĩ eloquently defines performance to be a “representation of being – the coming to be and the ceasing to be of processes in nature, human society, and thought” (Thiong’o 11). In living life as a performance, Hsieh carves an existence that acknowledges time as a part of life. Far too often do we take the time we have for granted. Hsieh mentally and physically subjects his body in a way that acknowledges the space around him and yet rejects it through his willingness to be isolated and exist in another state of living.

In defining space, there is no one set interpretation to his work. Space can be seen as New York City itself and how the constructed environment overwhelms the individual to the point where the body can feel insignificant. Space can be seen in terms of the unknown; the idea that one migrates to a place for a purpose and tries to integrate into the society but feels alienated. Hsieh’s work is going to mean different things to people because he is going through an experience that we try to understand through our own experiences. Even more importantly, we each have a distinct relationship to time. The duration of Hsieh’s performances of lasting one year is representative of human existence itself and how it is connected with the earth. We are all pulled by the same gravitational force but (and this may be related to the Platonic ideal) we attach our own meanings to time. Time is the ticking of a clock or the movement of the sun; it is the weight of the past affecting our choices in the present; the rumble from hunger or the closing of eyes; it is a measurement of distance.

 

Works Cited

“NYC-Based Artist Tehching Hsieh: When Life Becomes A Performance.” The Culture Trip. The Culture Trip Ltd, n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2015. 
TEHCHING HSIEH. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.
Thiong’o, Ngugi Wa. “Enactments of Power: The Politics of Performance Space.” TDR 1988-) 41.3 (1997): 11.Web.

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Room of Lost Names & Cooking Oil

“Room of Lost Names” and “Cooking Oil” are two powerful plays by Sitawa Namwalie and Deborah Asiimwe respectfully. There are many similarities between them. They both tell the stories of young women who are untimely and violently murdered. The plays aim to convey the social problems that exist within their local contexts. In Kenyan playwright Namwalie’s work, her protagonist is “M”, a young girl who in Purgatory and meets two gods, Gumali and Omuwanga. In order to escape Purgatory, M must remember her name but she cannot. With the help of the gods, she tries to remember how she died and the events that led up to her death. Asiimwe, a playwright from Uganda, writes her play about Maria, a young woman struggling to pay for her education. She earns money by selling cooking oil. However this cooking oil is meant as free aid for a starving village. Maria is caught between the interests of Silver, a politician who tries to maintain firm control over the village, and Bataka, her father who wants her to sell the oil outside the territorial borders. The plays are about the unnecessary violence that erupts when the elite are motivated by their own self-interests.

In my own attempt to reconcile how the plays portray death as significant yet viewed as the norm because of how common violence against women is, I have written the following:

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Adventure, Apocalypse and Abu Dhabi

Find a place on the grass and sit down, relax. Look around you. Notice the trees. They would not be here if not for man. This would all be dust and sand if not for man.
My name is Rachel. I am not real but I will try to be your friend. Close your eyes and imagine what I look like. Do I remind you of someone you know?

With Sennheiser headphones snugly over my ears, blocking out the real sounds of the world so that I may hear pre-recorded sounds and voices, the sound walk began. Sound walks are a form of alternate reality, where in some cases a participant or player obeys an automated voice to guide them around a space. I have wanted to engage in a sound walk for quite a while now and so when Riminii Protokoll, a German theatre group, was going to organize a few rehearsals and shows around Abu Dhabi, there was nothing but pure excitement running through my veins. “Remote Abu Dhabi,” as the performance is called, would be a chance to turn the city into a playground and discover a side to Abu Dhabi I had not known before.

Or so I thought. I joined a rehearsal with about 12 others on a beautiful windy evening. I enjoyed the walk, but my expectations were let down a little. I expected to be part of some sort of discovery of a little road that takes you out to the water, or leave traces in an abandoned building or something. For the most part, I knew the places and the neighbourhoods we were in. I was expecting to discover the city’s secrets, but the places we went to were public and ones that you would be likely to pass on a regular basis. That however, is likely the point: to stop passing these public spaces and start acknowledging and recognizing what they truly mean in the context of the city and its people.

Guiding the sound walk was Rachel, a technologically constructed female voice who later when at the bus station, metamorphosed into Peter. The voice provoked the question as to whether we were most likely to trust a woman’s voice or a man’s. Rachel’s metamorphosis into Peter marked the midpoint of the performance, and although I and many others felt a sense of trust for Rachel as she kept reaffirming her friendship, I enjoyed Peter’s company more. Peter was affirmative and daring. The second half of the walk was when we as a group truly started to engage with each other and the public around us. This was part of the performance’s let down for me; the first half involved really noticing and thinking about the spaces we were in like a park, bus stop or a car park. I do not feel like at the end of the walk, I had created a meaningful relationship with the strangers around me, but rather that we happened to share the same experience. However, Riminii Protokoll do set the experience of trying to connect with the group well, giving us the chance to do something together like a wave at a football stadium but with no one really around, before dancing in the middle of a crowded mall with everyone staring. At its core, Riminii Protokoll’s “Remote X” performances are about the conflict between the public and the private. A group of strangers share the secret of the experience together, becoming ‘spect actors’ and really seeing all the world as a stage. As Ngũgĩ fantastically discusses, the power of performance is when “it incorporates the architectural space of material or immaterial walls into itself and becomes a magic sphere by its own motion” (Thiong’o 13).

When discussing immediate theatre, Peter Brooks states that “the theatre is the arena where a living confrontation can take place” (Brook 112). “Remote Abu Dhabi” was an opportunity to confront the built city and the invisible social norms that exist in this constructed environment. The significant moments for me were in realizing that really the trees on the road and all these parks would not be around if not for man and everything would just be sand, and people are uncomfortable in front of other people. Why should dancing in public be seen as an odd spectacle, when really people should be joining in? The idea that there are restrictions we impose upon our own selves is one of the things I have been concerned with, especially since taking a movement-based class called “Fundamentals of Acting”. Even the idea that theatre only exists around the framework that there is a separation between the audience and the performer, is nonsense. The sound walk, which takes on an apocalyptic undertone, can be seen as relating to Greek tragedy. One of the things that Boal notes of “Aristotle’s coercive system of tragedy” is that it requires “the creation of a conflict between the character’s ethos and the ethos of the city in which he lives” (Boal 40). Aside from the confrontation with morality, there is the confrontation of the political. Ngũgĩ eloquently asserts that “the war between arts and state is really a struggle between the power of performance in the arts and the performance of power by the state – really the enactments of power” (Thiong’o 12). Riminii Protokoll’s work questions the physical structures around us as well as the immaterial and invisible ones. Think about how much control and power you really have in your life. To what extent are we disillusioned to believe that we, as citizens and a people, matter?

We are constantly affected by the world around us in some direct or indirect way. How lovely and daunting it would be to see the city as an empty stage with infinite potential. “A man walks across an empty space whilst someone else is watching,” and that to Boal is all one needs to be engaged in an act of theatre. Ngũgĩ however believes that a performance site is never truly empty for it is defined by its internal and external relations. Internally the space is self-defined by its props, audience, lights and shadows, but what about the historical significance of the space? What about where it fits in relation to the town, city and world? What about its memories? To Ngũgĩ, a space can be “bare, yes, open, yes, but never empty” (Thiong’o 13). As much as I have come to love Brook, I wholehearted agree with N’gugi though at the same time I believe an empty stage is not empty, for this emptiness is something in it of itself.

 

Works Cited:

Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985. Print.
Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. London: Penguin, 2008. Print.
Thiong’o, Ngugi Wa. “Enactments of Power: The Politics of Performance Space.” TDR 1988-) 41.3 (1997): 11.Web.

“What’s that on your forehead?”

"don't tell me what to be"

“don’t tell me what to be”

I wanted to spend a little more time reflecting on my last post. Inspired by Adrian Piper’s “Everything” piece, Simon Wilkes and I decided to do something similar. Similar, not quite the same, as we had made our own alterations to it. Instead of replicating Piper’s “Calling Card”, we decided to write something short and to the point, and then wear it on our foreheads. I chose to write “don’t tell me what to be” in reverse with a paint marker. Henna would have been ideal, as in Piper’s “Everything” participants who would engage in writing the phrase “Everything Will Be Taken Away” would write it on their heads with henna so that it becomes a part of them whilst each day it fades away. The kind of henna we were able to find didn’t really work, so a paint marker (a wonderful invention I didn’t even know existed till this project) was our next best choice. I would rewrite the phrase when it began to disappear or wash out. I am choosing (-ing as I am still in the middle of this project) to wear this for about a week. This has been quite interesting as within a week I’ve had classes, meetings, performances to attend, and even had to go into the city.

Initially I felt a little nervous, wondering how people would react or what they would say or what I would say in response. After the first day, it became something I wasn’t conscious about. Till of course, someone I did not know would take a momentary pause when they saw me, perhaps contemplating the ‘should I ask or not ask’ question. It’s fascinating how self conscious people becomes of themselves. My responses to “what do you have on your forehead?” or “why do you have that?” were often:

“I don’t know. What do I have on my forehead?”
“Why are we here in this moment? Why has the universe brought us together?”
“Theatre stuff”
“I’m a theatre major. We’re weird. We should all be weird.”
“We’re looking at this artists called Adrian Piper in class who…. (explanation)”

I think my responses differed according to who I talked to or what I was feeling at that moment. If I was tired or really busy, “theatre stuff” would be my response. Generally I tried to give the explanation though, and other times I humored the situation with the first two responses. At times it felt almost like a game, where people (or should I say, the ‘spectator’?) would try to read what I had. Oddly enough they would start out fine by reversing the letters/word, but then would turn some words upside down (for some reason, ‘tell’ became ‘fall’). When they got lost f the words right, some would assume the sentence to end with ‘do’, not ‘be’. I also was keen on writing it in lowercase letters, so that it would seem more conversational than confrontational, and I also didn’t want the letters to be perfectly capitalized. I wanted it to be imperfect in some way.

The only time I felt uncomfortable was when a man I did not know was staring at me from a little distance away. Being a female hybrid kid growing up in Sri Lanka, I’m used to ‘the stare’ so this was reminiscent of that moment. It took me a while before I recalled that I have words on my head and he was clearly trying to decipher them.

This was quite a timely experiment to do. It has been a busy week. I feel like the meaning of “don’t tell me what to be” changed over time. Initially I had wanted it to be in response to how people would judge me based on the color of my skin or gender, assumer certain things because of these qualities, or would tell me not to pursue the arts. Other phrases I contemplated were “don’t tell me what to do” and “don’t tell me who to be”. Simon suggested ‘what’ over ‘who’, which I preferred because of that sense of being objectified. Now the phrase is in some way really in response to colleagues telling me to get some sleep. In fact, if I were to do a calling card now it would probably look something like this:

calling card

Inspired by Adrian Piper

Adrian Piper is a performance artist whose work revolves on breaking social structures and hierarchies, and diminishing the divide between the self and the other. She aims to make the invisible, visible through her work. “Calling Card” was one performance in particular where she wanted to confront people who made racist comments. Identifying as an African American, she would feel offended and so would distribute a calling card rather than make a scene.

Rather than write a calling card, Simon Wilkes and I decided to try merging Piper’s calling card with her “Everything” series. We each picked something to write on our foreheads with paint makers (henna unfortunately didn’t work).

Piper’s “Everything” series, which began in 2003, was about questioning what it is that drives them. This became a global phenomenon where people from all around the world would participate. They would write “Everything will be taken away” on their foreheads with henna ink. Participants would keep journals of people’s reactions.

It’s so interesting to see how people respond. Some attempt to try to read what the words on my forehead, others take out their phones on my suggestion that if they take a selfie with me they can read what it says. Some ignore and others stare. I become very aware of the sense of being stared at. The text just becomes a part of me, as I would sometimes even forget that I had written it on.

‘Flibbertigibbet!’ (or ‘The Problem Isn’t Maria’)

The Sound of Music” is an all-time classic. Growing up with the musical, specifically the film version with Julie Andrews as Maria, a nun who loves to sing, laugh, and embrace nature, the songs have just always stuck with me. For the rest of the nuns in the convent, she is a problem that needs to be solved. She is sent to assist Captain George von Trapp and his seven children as a nanny. Set against the backdrop of the rise of Nazi extremism, the children learn to adore Maria and so too does the Captain. Stacy Wolf in her book, A Problem Like Maria, argues that The Sound of Music can be read as having queer elements. Wolf does not believe Maria is a lesbian. In fact she argues that ‘the lesbian’ is never present in the film. However she does see how the audience can be inclined to believe that Maria is one. Wolf discusses how ‘the lesbian’ can be found in the “performative signs of body, face, voice, gesture, character, or narrative” (Wolf 37).

Julie Andrews’ character, Maria, both abides by stereotypical gendered constructs, but also goes against them. She is seen as motherly and caring, but on the other hand she also has such strong will and is fearless. In the opening scene she runs around in the outdoors. Being the first character an audience is introduced to, she runs in to the frame with arms outstretched and proclaims, “the hills are alive with the sound of music.” There is a strong sense of the divine conveyed as Maria is framed as being surrounded by the sky. The negative space around her and the camera angle from low to high adds to the suggestion that there is a divine quality to Maria. The real problem however, is that “Maria has chosen the wrong path for her life” (Wolf 3). Wolf believes her destiny was to always be a mother. This can be associated with the inner conflict Maria suffers between defining who she is and what her desires are.

Femme refers to a feminine lesbian, a definition that brings in both the notions of gender and sexuality. Maria goes against gender stereotypes; she owns the story from the moment the audience sees her and in fact she has the most number of solos as well. Wolf focuses primarily on the lyrics Maria sings, however the physicality of her movements needs to be examined as well. When dancing or striding, she moves with a sense of direction and purpose. There is something to be admired of and even intimidated by Maria’s physicality because they mean that she is opening herself to the world around her. Rather than playing a stereotyped role of a woman being submissive, she contests the ways von Trapp treats his children.

Works Cited:
A Problem like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 2002. Print.

Wrestling in the sands

There are certain associations people make when one says they are going to Dubai. Going to Dubai to see a group of Pakistani men wrestling in the late afternoon, is probably not one of ways people would think to spend their afternoon in Dubai. Pehlwani, the Urdu word for wrestling, was certainly going to be an experience unlike any other.

We were walking through this empty lot, completely open and right by the side of a main road. There were men appropriating the space to play cricket or volleyball, and as we walked we noticed something else. Further on was a ring made out of rocks placed on the ground. A few men were there, seated on a small rock slab so as to not get their kurtas dirty. We each took a place around the circle, and watched as a man brought out a several big bottles of water.

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Getting the arena ready

He proceeded to empty them one by one in the center of the ring, pouring the water over the ground to designate the playing space and make it easier to step on. There was another elderly man who appeared to be the ringmaster or rather, referee, of the event. As the sun was slowly setting, more men were approaching the ring, taking their seats on one of the rocks or preferring to stand. The referee spoke to the crowd, and they responded in unison. They cheered, and as they did so, two men began to run in place. Almost out of nowhere, a group of men brought out a carpet and place it on one side of the circle. A man walked with his shoulders rolled back and his chin held high. He approached the carpet, then jogged into the playing area to shake hands with the referee before sitting down on the carpet. He must have been the financier or organizer of the evening wrestle.

Men who wanted to fight would jump enthusiastically into the space and run around to get warmed up. After a few stretches, they began to undress. They dismissed their fine kurtas and stripped down to their underwear, and wrapped an additional layer of cloth, which they securely tucked into the rims of their underpants.

Wrestlers would pay respect to the playing space before stepping onto it. They would touch the ground and put their hands together, an act typically associated with religion. After stepping onto the arena, wrestlers would acknowledge each other’s presence. They would then be introduced to the audience by the referee, before approaching each other, ready to fight. They would take the dirt and sand from the arena and pat each other down. They slapped hands and then would commence with the fight.

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Introducing the wrestlers

The referee would speak to the audience, riling them up and challenging them to fight. It seems as though anyone willing could get up and fight.

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First match of the evening

By the looks of it, it seemed that a wrestler won when he had toppled his opponent over. The crowd cheered, and the winning wrestler would approach the men seated on the carpet to be congratulated by them. Afterward, the winner walked around the circle, collecting their winnings from the crowd.

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One wrestler finally picks the other in order to win the match

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The winner collects his match earnings

In defining performance, Schechner says that performance is what becomes “the whole constellation of events” (Schechner 8). It involves both the performers and the audience. Interestingly there is the opportunity for the audience to be the performers and vice versa as one can choose to wrestle or observe the matches instead. When Huizinga defines play he writes that it is voluntary and limited by time and place. The ties between ritual and play are so strong in Pehlwani. It did not seem disorganized; there was a clear structure and awareness of what was going on. Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects was to see the men that would be gathered around the wrestlers, there mobile phones in hand recording the match. Despite the fact that we are watching a fight between two men, the space never felt unsafe. The referee would be there to manage the wrestlers if they got too close to the crowd.

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Another wrestling match going on

I was so excited to be a part of this experience. It was strange to feel like what I was watching something that was not supposed to happen, yet it does in this very open space in a city that is supposed to be quite stringent in its laws. Men gathered around fighting each other seems like it should be illegal, but it really did not feel that way. In fact the form of play they are engaged in does seem safe; the men never punch or kick each other. They would push against or hold onto each other till there was an opportune moment to take the other down.

Being able to speak a few words in Urdu, I was able to converse just a little bit with the men that were seated beside me. They are all from various cities and towns in Pakistan, from Lahore to Karachi to Faisalabad. I was even introduced by one of the men to the main man seated on the carpet, but though I was nodding in agreement I really have no clue what they were saying. To me though this was an important moment because it meant that the crowd, wrestlers, and the ‘managers’ were comfortable with having us in the space.

Before the call to prayer, the men disperse and go back to the routines of their day.

Works Cited:
Schechner, Richard. “Drama, Script, Theatre, and Performance.” The Drama Review: TDR 17.3 (1973): 5-36. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web.

Understanding Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” by Shaping Text

Uncle Vanya is a play written by Anton Chekhov that premiered in Moscow in 1899. It is a play heavy with emotion. Each character has their own simple objective that is as important as any other character. Personally, I found the play difficult to follow at first because the principal characters are almost constantly competing for attention. In trying to understand the play, I wanted to reinterpret the words by experimenting with their form. I first created the following text in an attempt to summarize and find a way to relate to Uncle Vanya.

Watching scenes from Vanya on 42nd Street, the 1994 film by Louis Malle and Andre Gregory, certainly helped to visualize the characters and see the complexities behind the relationships. Based on an adaptation by David Mamet, the film presents Uncle Vanya in the form of the actual play being performed and witnessed by an audience. Actors are playing actors who are playing the characters, creating a structure of a play within a film. Periodically the small audience is shown as they walk through different rooms and witness a scene. Elements of the film reminded me of Birdman (2014), written and directed by Alejandro Iñárritu. Both Vanya on 42nd Street and Birdman begin by blurring the lines between reality and theatricality. They are both portrayals of plays within a film. Iñárritu also wrote his film as a tragicomedy, and similarly to Uncle Vanya the characters are seen as pathetic, hopeless, but also fearless.

In trying to portray reality and convey emotion, Chekhov’s work is so quintessentially honest. His characters spill on the page. In fact they are not simply characters but rather, people on a page. They talk with their hearts on their sleeve; they are fearless and open about what they are feeling. The words are not disguised and yet there is still that Chekhovian inclusion of subtext. For instance when Telegin says he is happy and that is the last thing he is feeling, or the moments of kindness Sonya expresses for Astrov because she wants to be more than a friend.

In revisiting the play, I pulled out a couple of quotes and represented them as typed text against a white background, experimenting with line spacing and font colours. There were certain colours I saw or emotions I felt that I wanted to express by repurposing the text.

uncvan2

-Vanya, page 18

-Vanya, page 18

I realized I was initially very taken by the relationship between Vanya and Yelena. Chekhov does not aim to glorify the characters or drive the audience towards a content resolution. His work is about the close portrayal of reality. In combining elements tragedy and comedy, Chekhov does not believe that they exist separate from each other but that they are mutually inclusive. Comedy can happen in moments of tragedy, and vice versa. It is not uncommon for people to resort to telling jokes in a time of grief in order to feel comforted or reflect pain. In exploring the nature of relationships in the play, I thought about translating some parts of the text into a digital form by turning them into a series of Whatsapp messages. We often resort to conversing by typing text instead of verbally communicating. Sometimes the process of typing the words, hitting send, and the waiting that follows, has more meaning than what can be conveyed in speech.

Astrov to Vanya, pages 4-5

Astrov to Vanya, pages 4-5

Astrov to Vanya, pages 4-5

Yelena to Serebryakov, page 14

Sonya to Astrov, pages 24-25

Sonya to Astrov, pages 24-25

Works Cited:
Uncle Vanya. Trans. Michael Frayn. London: Methuen, 1987. Print.

Vanya on 42nd Street. Dir. Louis Malle and Andre Gregory. Adapt. David Mamet. By Anton Chekhov. Perf. Julianne Moore, Wallace Shawn, and Larry Pine. Sony Pictures Classics, 1994. DVD.