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gesture towards

Published 18th May, 2020 in MRP Guest Blogger

At risk of cross-promotion, and perhaps at greater risk (considering the sentiments of my first blog for this series) of a touch of hypocrisy, I’ve recently engaged—and distracted—myself by curating a series of short ‘gestures towards performance’ from performance-makers in my various networks, both ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’. This began on a sunrise after a typically sleepless night in late March; my mind and body revelling in the mania of uncertainty, until finally, just before the sun rose against the night, I found myself caught up in a desperation to do. ‘Contribute’. Or perhaps—to simplify this urge to its purest form—desperate for any sense of motion at all.

Over the next days I contacted a swathe of artists in different places—people that had crossed my path at festivals or conferences; people that I had worked with briefly and wished to again, if borders and finances were not a perpetual maybe-next-time; people that I was close with, and people that were closer to acquaintances. I drafted a set of prompts from my usual toolkit of bullshit: materiality and distance, Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, seroconversion and illness, a fish swimming through one’s veins. And then I let it go, for a while. This seemed to me to be both my attempt towards (and, though not immediately apparent, a critical shying away from) responding to the idea of digital performance, or adaptive programming, during the uncertainty and demolition of these times. I was effectively asking artists to donate a work-in-process, or an answer to an idea, and as such it felt vitally important that they be able to forget about it, or agree in principle and find that they did not have the time or spoons or drive; and just as important that anything that they wanted to share with me in response to these prompts should not take up anything approaching the scope of their world or their workload. In that sense, perhaps, it was not so hypocritical towards the sentiments of my first blog in this series, which yearned in favour of the uncertain and the unfinished. I didn’t want a production, I didn’t want to demand productivity, and I wasn’t so interested in a product. Perhaps, also, the simplest possible explanation is not a desperation for motion, but connection. 

I dubbed this project ‘Mermaid Distance’ and the results are a series of ten short pieces either made for, or documented on, video and posted on the Squid Vicious theatre facebook page and Instagram TV over the last two weeks. You can see them archived here, or on Facebook here, if you are so inclined. Looking over this series—these varying relationships to the politic and intimacy of each artist’s body—I arrive again at the phrase, ‘gestures towards performance’. That is, to me, what these pieces are, and what makes me happy about my complicity in their existence: they do not scramble for completion, or fixity. They are not demanding space. They exist as concepts; as fragments. Gestures: towards the artist, towards their curation, towards each other, and the tenuous abyss of the digital plane onto which they’ve been placed. 

To that end, I suppose I want to speak about the idea of gesture, if I am able. As I finish writing this blog—over the course of this gesture—I promise I will start ‘actorly’ and try to end up somewhere at least approaching literary, as I imagine Margaret River Press may prefer me to do.

When I teach performance, I frequently start and end at Anne Bogart of SITI Company’s ‘Viewpoints’. Bogart categorises the elements of performance into nine viewpoints through which theatre exists, or through which the body considers performance: those of time (tempo, duration, kinaesthetic response, and repetition) and those of space (shape, gesture, architecture, spatial relationship, and topography). Gesture, I feel, is both particularly practical and easily conceptualised for young theatre students; where they, perhaps, can most immediately see the possibilities of application or of progress in their own performing bodies. Bogart, in succinct fashion, tells us that gesture is “a movement a part of parts of the body; Gesture is Shape with a beginning, middle and end.” (The Viewpoints Book, Anne Bogart & Tina Landau, Theatre Communications Group New York 2005). Gestures can be behavioural—like those we see and perform in our ‘everyday’ lives—or expressive—attempting to physically translate a concept, idea, or feeling. Personally speaking, I never tire of this process. Gesture takes a fixed image or construct and suddenly sets it into motion, and, in doing so, lets it become something other. Each gesture is structured by its beginning, its movement, and its arrival. This may all seem self-evident and simple—and it is!—but take the time to break it down into the hyper-specificity of your body, and I promise you a fantastic morning. What I love, too, is that Bogart’s conception of gesture can be far more open and more inviting, I think, than the hegemonic semiotics by which we are so often told we must read performance (and literature). It is, after all, located in your body—not an idea of how a body should move, or how a body should be read. I often tell my students that gesture is shape + meaning, but I don’t think this is necessarily true. Gesture is incredibly specific, yes, but it is specific with intention. It moves, and in the movement is the reason. Meaning, I could take or leave.    

To let this idea shift away from the ‘actor’—the performance of the body—and towards the conceptual and/or the processes of authorship and making, I would consider the idea of gesture as a primary dynamic by which my work is constructed, be it for performance or for the page. When I work with Joe Paradise Lui, one of my constant performance-making collaborators, it becomes increasingly apparent that the work we make is oftentimes no more and no less than the act of pointing to the disparate works and ideas of others, as if to say, ‘see? This thing.’ In a rehearsal room, we might sit and watch YouTube videos for days, until we feel finally ready to move. The various potentialities for meaning, in this configuration, are found in the layering of association upon association—until the work—this thing we have authored—is birthed wholly in the ‘gesture between’. 

This idea (like everything) is in no way new. These relations are a key facet of the postmodern, which is surely old hat to us now and doesn’t need further explication in itself, as well as the driving power behind the generation and multiplication of memes (AKA the great literature of the present). But it feels important, now, for these connections to be reiterated, and perhaps framed in a conception of gesture, since reiteration is in itself a form of rediscovery. To ‘rediscover’ is key—particularly as I attempt to shift this paradigm, in myself, from the bounds of performance theory into other practices. I am constantly reminding myself of the ways poetry is constructed in gestures: in the relation, the motions, between image and concept; insight and memory. To remember this is to give ourselves permission: to be freed from the claustrophobic pretence of invention; of origination. To instead find ourselves in relationship. And though I speak about the layering of associations—one thing to another—in my practice, I find I prefer to stick with the idea of ‘gesture’ over, for instance, metaphor. The opaque kind of coverage that fixed metaphor can provide so often threatens to crack apart with its certainty; with disappointments. What if you ‘don’t get it’? Does it then fail? And what if you ‘get it’? Is that all there is? Gesture can be deliciously literal: simply ‘pointing to the thing’, and letting its meaning multiply in the pointing. I think of the first time I read Hera Lindsay Bird’s poem ‘Monica’ as one of the first times that I felt a generous, glorious sense of ease in reading poetry (and not because I’ve watched Friends, because I haven’t, but for the sheer joy in its citation at all). The way that Bird goes on to locate herself—and, in the doing, us—within the pop-cultural has been, as I write, a decisive source of ‘permission’ time and time again. Or—turning another way—those works constructed by reaching through one’s personal archive, where, in the distance from now to ‘then’, (re)statements of memory and the archive reconfigure themselves with startling density, as in Yamaji poet Charmaine Papertalk Green’s brilliant Nganajungu Yagu. Particularly now, I find it incredibly generative (and regenerative) to remind myself that to write is to be in constant motion towards the continuing trace of other ‘things’; perhaps, even, the potential space filled by every other thing. 

To return to Bogart’s Viewpoints (and to return, inevitably, to the present), I would suggest that the viewpoint that may seem to define this moment is that of spatial relationship. I have read many pieces on the performance and choreography of public spaces, and the distance between our bodies; I imagine there will be a swell of literature grounded by the ‘problem’ of our changing spatial relationship to one another. To that end, I suppose I would like (without arriving at any fixed certainty, which is surely a trap) to offer gesture as an alternative dynamic through which we can understand our experience and engage with the changing stakes of the ‘covid era’. To consider ourselves as a sequence of motions in relationship to ourselves, our points of reference, our archives, each other … towards ‘every other thing’. To equally consider that to gesture towards is not to affix ourselves, but to cite, or to acknowledge. Acknowledge, place ourselves within an exponential network of possibility, of community, and leave room for that critical uncertainty and care by which associations multiply. In trying to complete this week’s blog, I wonder if all I’ve managed to do is freewheel away from anything resembling a point; but that’s fine, too. It’s enough just to try to see past oneself, which is all that a gesture really intends, anyway. And surely, it is enough to construct oneself and one’s process by such gestures, in their smallness: motions, sources, references, archives which may never fully align, but which find fresh artistry or meaning—or, at least, intent—in the trajectory between. 

P.S. Since I mentioned memes earlier, here is my favourite meme (vine?) right now, which I think perfectly encapsulates everything I’ve tried to say.

Read Andrew’s first blog post, ‘not writing Lear: against productivity, against the hustle in crisis’ here, or his second post, ‘Lake, draft’ here.

Andrew is a Queer writer and performance-maker creating work between Boorloo/Perth and Singapore. He was awarded Overland’s Fair Australia Poetry Prize 2017, and his poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction can be found in numerous publications nationally and internationally, including CorditeWesterlyScum Mag, Margaret River Press’ We’ll Stand in That Place and Proverse Hong Kong’s Mingled Voices series. As a performance-maker, he has twice been awarded the Blaz Award for New Writing, and makes up one half of independent theatre outfit Squid Vicious (@squidvicioustheatre). He is re-learning the flute in isolation, which he occasionally broadcasts on Instagram @spandyandrei, amongst tragic selfies and pictures of birds. 

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