YOUR HEART IS A STRONG MUSCLE, IT SQUEEZES VERY GOOD
Double Life: Jerome Bel, Wu Tsang, Haegue Yang Contemporary Arts Museum Houston 2014
I guess what I'm trying to say is that, at a certain point, what one comes to grips with—and what I think we all need to come to grips with continually (because it's very, very easy to forget)—is that the kinds of stuff that we actually want to do, I mean the kinds of things that I think we all desire, are the kinds of things that you cannot do by yourself. So that, what's at stake, precisely, is the irreducible necessity of collectivity.
—Fred Moten (1)
Are you there?
Are you there?
Are you reading me?
Are you reading me?
And do you like what it is you read?
And do you like what it is you read?
I am sitting at my lover's desk. The desert stretches out before me, mountains in the distance. One voice comes through my left ear, the other through my right and together they are a honeyed cacophony of syllables and sounds, mixed responses and missed questions, the swallowed giggle of self-conscious laughter, the kind that happens when you are mostly laughing at yourself. There is shyness to them both, as if they know they will be listened to but not exactly when they speak. And their voices are low toned, as if speaking very closely but not (quite) to one another. One voice comes, a kind of polished, smoothly out, originating in the throat, propelled by breath from further down, stomach muscles taut, holding. The other voice comes from a low down place, maybe this world maybe not, and the belly of its timbre is so broad you could lean right into it and it would hammock you—the kind of voice that makes you want to fall, in. The voices speak and they are two but they do not talk to one another, not exactly, and they are not talking to themselves, not quite.
You could stay here for a long time.
I (is) am somewhere in between.
We are listeners.
I am in the darkest room. My arms keep reaching out before me to feel their way along the black but I snap them down each time, embarrassed in advance, in case other people's eyes can somehow see me in this light. She arrests me long before I let her take me in (I see her right away). She is cut off at the belly, her light pink white figure held suspended inside a field of fur-like black. She is so erect that as she stalks across the stage, her body is a backslash, a punctuation point for every patch of ground she passes over. She walks slowly, measured, and when she reaches front and center, she stands, tutu-tulle beneath one arm, a bottle of water in the other, breathing. She surveys the scene, gauges. A tiny tug of eyes, squint, she is watching them as they are watching her and she is watching them, pause, gaze. Very slowly, her voice climbs a ladder like a question, Je m'appelle, hangs there, and then descends into the name, Veronique Doisneau.
You could stay here for a long time.
I (is) am somewhere in between.
We are watchers.
You come to know her work through a 13-inch rectangular computer screen. You see everything you can before you settle into Red. You think constantly of blinds—the kind that block the light out from the windows, the kind that block peripheries of sight, the kind that snatches sight away from someone, something—you are thinking of these always. You remember all the myths when loss of sight makes way for vision. You check out The Song of Ariran from the library and read it bit by bit. All this time, the hissing sound metallic blinds make when they are raised or lowered against the sun, against the night—the whistling scintillation when they are worried by a breeze—this is the sound that haunts you. You follow the peaks and ridges of the red, you follow the perfect circles of the light, spots, you think of searchlights roaming craggy mountains, you think of spotlights grazing titty-tassels. You wonder what it means to illuminate, to know, and you remember the darkness that illumination, knowledge, depends upon to be.
You could be here for a long while.
And so you are.
And so you,
In Jérôme Bel's 2004 video piece Veronique Doisneau, named for the performer it features, we see a woman emerge onto an empty stage before a packed Parisian audience. She wears a pink leotard beneath black stretch pants and a light pink coverlet. She looks as though she might be attending a ballet class or a dance rehearsal. She has white skin, light brown hair, a strong brow and intelligent eyes. There is nothing costume-like about what she wears; her hair is loosely pulled back from her face and she wears no makeup. A tiny microphone protrudes from her ear, making a short dash of black near her mouth to pick up her voice, her breathing. She says plainly, her name is Veronique Doisneau and proceeds to give an account of herself. She is 42, she will retire in eight days, and this is the last performance she will ever give at the Paris Opera house. She goes on to explain that although she has danced her whole life, she never became a "star," that it was never a question. She says simply, "I think I was not talented enough." As the piece proceeds, what we are given to see is both the story of a dancer's life and also the ways that life would usually remain invisible to us because she has not attained the celebrity that would render her offstage life of interest. Despite Doisneau being on the stage for the better part of a lifetime—that is, despite her body's hyper-visibility as a performer—her relations, her preferences, her joys, all this would generally remain invisible, unknown. The telling of her story makes visible both her own dimensionality as well as the deep erasure of the countless many other stories just like hers that we will not know because of the ways we (do not) see.
Performance has the power to reveal lacunae in our ways of seeing. As in the case of Bel's work, it can open up complicated critiques of the ways we see or don't see, of the kinds of beings we do or don't privilege, and of the ways in which these assumptions and presumptions are inextricable from how we see ourselves. If you look up the word "performance" in the dictionary, you will find a long list of definitions, many of which diverge from one another, depending on their contexts. The two primary senses are that of staging an action—a play or some other composition—and the more general sense of the doing or carrying out of a task or of a function. What both of these point to is the way in which human being has extension: we are bodies that extend into space, and so our being is inevitably bound up with a kind of perceptibility. We are available to be perceived. We can be seen.
The works called together in Double Life move the way performance moves, they ask us to rethink what performance is, what it can be, and what can count as "it." They tell us something about how our seeing works: what contributes to that sight, what makes it possible and also, what elements take the possibility of it away. They ask us to consider the ways that we respond to objects, video and sound in a manner much like how we respond to beings. Similarly, they urge us to consider the ways in which objects might also be responding—asking us to consider the response-ability of objects, the possibility of answering-machines. This is not simple poetics. (Poetics are never simple.) This allows us to critically consider the ways in which some people are granted human status while others are refused it.(2) A series of questions opens up that investigates the ways being human is contingent upon perceptibility and perceptibility, in turn, depends upon relation. The ability to be perceived is not a given. It is contingent on the ways we do or do not conform to the normative structures that confer on us the ability to be recognized. As Judith Butler writes of the particular structure of gender, our movements in it are "a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint."(3) We are all players playing to a public and at the same time, we are that public. Being seems to happen in between.
It is no accident that Butler's language draws on the vocabularies of theater ("improvisation," "scene"). What she is moving toward are the complex set of relations that are constantly happening in performance, and so are constantly happening in being. While performance is often framed as oppositional to something like authenticity, (human) being is itself bound up with performance, is always performing, is always performing to be recognized.(4) In resisting the notion of an authentic, singular self, being-as-performance stands to tell us something about what it means to be and about what it means to be always already in relation, to be always already players dependent upon others who are also playing. This is the proposition of Double Life.These works ask us to rethink notions of performer and viewer, actor and audience, self and other, upsetting binary relations so that we might rethink them, re-feel them. They coax us toward a multiple kind of being, a kind of being-multiple that has to do with difference and with resisting the normative structures that would limit that difference. They coax us toward seeing (being) in between.
Wu Tsang's 2012 work For how we perceived a life (Take 3) unsettles. Shot on a single roll of 16mm film, the piece plays in a loop over and over again, disrupting conventional notions of linear time, what we expect of film and what we expect of performances––their beginnings and their ends. In a night-lit loft space, five bodies enact a series of movements, gestures, and scenes that slip over one another in sound while the players blur the spaces between one another with their bodies. Interchanging lines and switching perspectives without warning, the ensemble unsettles dominant narratives about race by allowing the players to slip in and out of markers and designations fluidly and often, irrespective of appearance. This fluidity also unsettles conventional notions of gender as the players move through different positionalities, upsetting the traditional importance placed on presentation by marking themselves through gesture and speech, linking gender inextricably to performance. Traditional authorship is complicated by Tsang's having culled dialogue in part from the archival material related to Jennie Livingston's documentary film Paris is Burning (1990), injecting further question and critique into the already complicated debate around ownership of words and the authorial role of the filmmaker. The players lip-synch to a prerecorded soundtrack of their own voices so there is a subtle discrepancy between what we hear and what we see, disrupting the seamlessness of the work as a whole, and asking us to consider the break between performance and being, unsettling any facile distinction between the two.
Following the break in the film that signals the loop has begun again, a shaky camera steadies as the transitional sound echoes into silky quiet. A voice emerges, hot and close, as if the mouth that made it hovered just above the microphone that picked it up: "I believe that there's a big future out there, a lotta beautiful things, lotta handsome men..." The camera moves us, handheld, deeper into a loft space with a long wall of painted white brick running down one side, ending in a large window where a city night shows through from outside, lights a-sheen. Two banks of bright footlights rest on the concrete floor, shining lantern-like shapes on the bricks a foot away. In the dim space on the other side of the footlights, unlit, a huddle of bodies: we can make out two feet, maybe naked arms, a head, but no distinction—they are a mass, together, and they move that way, writhing. "I want a car," another voice breathes, slow and bedroom, desire-laden. These voices are not mapped onto particular bodies: it is not possible to tether voice to form, desire to (a) self. They are not mapped onto particular genders either: each one sounding as if it could be a woman's voice pitched lower or a man's voice, breathy, pitched higher—rendering the categories, these binaries, slippery and suspect. The voices and the huddle that seems to be their origin-point present a range of possibilities, opening up a spectrum of femininity-masculinity, a spectrum of possible selves doing the desiring.
As the camera moves closer to the huddle, we begin to have a sense of the shapes of the bodies that make it up. All are clad in black and remain tangled together, sliding limbs in and out slowly, so that the mass of them looks like a single organism, breathing. Collective, whole: the people as a body. They continue to articulate their desires, each of which originates from a spoken "I." But this "I" is neither singular nor fixed, instead sliding interchangeably between and among bodies, marking the fluidities among them rather than observing the policing of borders that so often works to keep us separate, distinct. Although everything about this being, these beings, resists normative formulations of selfhood and singularity, the desires the voices articulate adhere almost entirely to markers of normative success, to the possibility of being recognized within these frames. What is desired is to be married in church in white, to appear in magazines, to be a professional model, and to complete a sex change, realizing possibility in these desires. Here the piece opens up an inter-implied space of critique––in which the violence of the strict confines of normativity is perceptible at the same time as normativity itself is shown to be subvert-able, less strict or confined than it may at first seem. Simultaneously, these players inhabit the roles they play so seamlessly, so completely—every gesture, every nuance of voice, pitch—calls to mind the faces in Livingston's Paris is Burning. And so here too there is a kind of being double: being at once the player playing as well as hearkening back to the person played. The huddle of bodies disperses to each play multiple characters, to swap and slide among and between the roles they enter without warning, without rupture, again breathing and seeming almost as one and also always multiple. A version of the work has also been staged live under the title of Full Body Quotation, a term that (among other things) indicates the level of practice and study that the adoption of these voices and gestures require. This theatricality, the ability to fully come inside the body, the breathing, the movement, of another, allows the players to exercise a kind of being that is neither singular nor stationary. Each of them refuses to take up or hold just one place, just one position. Within this system of relations, our own position is allowed to proliferate, inviting us to consider being as always already (at least) double.
If the kind of doubling or proliferation we are given to see in For how we perceived a life (Take 3) is one that hinges on theatricality, on inhabiting multiple positionalities in such a way that each reveals itself to be fluid, relational, not one—then the kind of proliferation we are given to see through Jérôme Bel's Veronique Doisneau has something more to do with a theater of the authentic. In this piece, Veronique Doisneau recounts her inner workings, her interior experiences—the kinds of stories and information we would never usually get from an ensemble dancer. The result of revealing what is traditionally occluded or erased is manifold. We are given to see the limits of our own sight, the ways in which spectacle corrals the attention to focus it only on what it wants us to notice and follow, thereby occluding the beings, the lives of the people who make it up. And we are given to see that being is always more complicated, more proliferate, than we imagine. As Doisneau reveals (one could say here, by way of reminder, as she performs) her own interiority, we are given a kind of retroactive insight into what happens in a dancer's psyche while the audience is paying attention to her body. The hyper-visibility of her form and her movement carries with it the inevitable invisibility of her other realms, the other ways in which she is/experiences being. This tells us something about spectacle but it also tells us something about the way being works within the theater of the real.
A few minutes into Bel's work, Doisneau sets down the props she has brought out onto the stage with her—the tulle-tutu, her ballet slippers, and a bottle of water. She does this in order to illustrate a passage of dance that she says she loves. She walks back to the corner of the bare stage. No light follows her. And then she turns around, pauses, and begins to dance. No music accompanies her movement so she hums the tune herself, tapping it out with her tongue, her lips. Surprisingly quickly, her humming becomes more breath than sound as the microphone she wears at her mouth amplifies the effort of her movements. In this moment, we realize that we are accustomed to seeing this kind of physical exertion (for someone untrained in ballet, her movements do not seem extraordinarily challenging) but we are totally unaccustomed to hearing its effects. Bel's work is fascinating in part because he has chosen to showcase ballet, a form of dance that works strenuously to erase all traces of effort, all evidence of a body's limitations or strain, foregoing process for product. As Doisneau comes to the end of the dance passage, she lets go her poise, places her hands on her hips, lets her shoulders cave in and turns away from the audience, allowing the percussive rhythm of her breath to fill the theater. After some moments of this, she turns back towards the audience, places her hands on her knees, bending over, showing us the time it takes to recover from just a few moments of dance. She does not hurry. Throughout the piece, her movements have a kind of defiance in them, as if after a career of hiding the effort required to do what she does, she is through with masking and now takes all the time that she needs to catch her breath, to change her shoes. A frequent furrow haunts her brow, there is an encroaching downturn to the edges of her mouth, and she often looks out into the darkness of the theater with a kind of challenge on her face, as if taunting us with what we have so long left unknown, erased: the her of her.
Approaching the end of Bel's piece, Doisneau puts forth that one of the most beautiful moments in classical ballet is, "the scene from Swan Lake where 32 female dancers of the Corps de Ballet dance together." Her face shines as she says this, as if for a moment she can see and appreciate this dance the way an audience member might. "But," she continues, "in this scene there are long moments of immobility...we become a human decor to highlight the 'Stars.' And for us, it is the most horrible thing we do." Her face seems filled with rancor: the most beautiful thing for the audience to watch is also the most hated thing for the dancers to do. This is the cost of spectacle, of not allowing for multiplicities when witnessing the work of others, particularly works that call upon the presence of the body, work in which being is made to be singularly physical. The piece turns this tendency back on the audience, a form of critique that allows us to see what we have not been seeing. Doisneau proceeds to illustrate the very thing she most detests, the thing that makes her "want to scream, or even leave the stage." For the first time in the video, she requests music to accompany her illustration so that she is able to render the long passages of stillness she so detests. In over eight minutes of music, she holds barely three poses—two of which require her to keep her arms high, outstretched—with only a smattering of small steps in between. This illustration showcases what is never showcased, foregrounds this figure designed to remain in the background and go unnoticed as "human decor." And so Veronique Doisneau mounts an act of resistance, challenging us to see better and more fully, challenging us to not allow our vision to funnel being into an only-ever-one-thing, into the confines of singularity.
Something more than a critique of spectatorship arises throughout Bel's piece: there is also a critique of just this notion of singular being. By showing us the inner workings of a dancer as she moves through her craft, by giving us to see the way she wants to scream when holding the "poses" in Swan Lake for so long, we are given to see the (always at least) doubled life of spectacle. For every body rendered visible, Veronique Doisneau cautions us to remember that vast realms are being occluded at the very same time. Appearance and disappearance are interlinked. Although the frame of the work is spectacle, the critique of the way we see the world and other beings in it translates into more quotidian frames. Just as we siphon out a performer's experience to focus on what is highlighted, so too with the people in our lives. If performance is one of the primary modalities of being—if, indeed, in order to be, I must perform myself and be recognized, received, by others, then my being extends somewhere in the gauzy space between performance and recognition, between self and other—living, breathing—somewhere in between.
This sense of extending ourselves out over the precipitous risk that is the attention of, the need for recognition from, the other is part of what lends itself to the feeling of melancholy that haunts Veronique Doisneau. In the beginning, she looks out over the audience and we are able to see what she sees: a crowd in darkness, breathing but invisible. She looks to the highest reaches of the balcony to advise those that are too far to see her that she is often told she looks like the French actress Isabelle Huppert. People laugh. But the camera gives us to see, just for a moment, what those in the balcony are seeing, and it is precious little—they must be barely making out the figure standing there. This fact of the piece is equally a condition of being: that our messages, our extension outward, need not garner response. Indeed, response-ability is contingent, which means it has the possibility not to be.(5) In this way, Veronique Doisneau tells us something about spectacle as well as something about the real.
Doisneau may perhaps take the train home from the opera house, as she may have done countless times before. She will go to the husband she speaks of, and to her sleeping children, to the sounds of their breath. And––other than the intuitive feeling that she has been heard––she may not know, she may not ever know, the impact she has had, the ways in which she is (still) teaching us to see.
Haegue Yang's Mountains of Encounter (2008) does not open up performance through human being but does so instead through the response-ability of objects, by asking viewers to move through a field of things, sensing and noticing the ways in which that field may answer back. The piece is comprised of a series of custom-made Venetian blinds, hung from the ceiling and clustered together to look much like the top of a mountain range or like a scar coming into bloom. The blinds are a bright poppy-red and large size circles of light—spots—rove over them at hypnotic speeds, tracing out infinity loops with occasional digressions as they go. Yang's work was directly inspired by the story of a Korean national named Jang Jirak and an American journalist who wrote of him and perhaps also fell in love with him––a woman by the name of Helen Foster Snow. Under the pen name Nym Wales, Snow wrote and published a book called Song of Ariran (1941) for which she drew primarily from secret interviews she conducted with Jirak (whom she calls Kim San in her book), a freedom fighter working to resist Japanese imperialism in Korea. Perhaps most noteworthy in their communion is what Mieke Behm describes as the "existence and extraordinary life of the outsider Kim San...conveyed from the perspective of another outsider."(6) These two figures exemplify the ways in which certain encounters we have can make mountains in the topography of one's life: we are altered by them, we seek refuge in them. And perhaps most importantly, these beings that most figure in Mountains of Encounter are beings that shared a sense, culturally and socially, of being outside.
If being can be said to be a kind of performance wherein I am (always already) called to be for a listener, seer, receiver who is (always already) there listening, then what does it mean to be outside? Who gets to be outside this movement and who has to be, is required to be—and what is the difference? What does it mean to be asked to encounter these blinds, this structure that looks like a mountain range or a mechanical blossom, and be quietly invited to move through it, to be with it, to see one's self being with it as a set of inanimate objects that should not be breathing but seem to respond to me nonetheless?
The poppy-red blinds are similar sizes to the ones usually found shading the light from windows. But when they are pieced together side-by-side, they form an enormous constellation that literally engulfs space. They are placed in front of one another at labyrinthine angles, so that what one sees when wandering around or through the work are striated versions of the real, slatted glimpses of what is there but no pretense of a complete picture. In this way, Mountains of Encounter offers its own critique of human sight, of recognition and reception of the other. In addition, it offers a proposition towards being—a sense that we are always more than what we see, and that what we see is always only a sliver of what we are.
Yang's critique of human sight or of vision renders wholeness impossible, a fantasy, because what one sees—the partial image that so often becomes a whole—is in reality more like slatted striations, glimpses of and snatches between. We are only given to see parts at a time. Being as performance, or rethinking performance as primary to being, allows for that striation to be at once only ever a part of the picture as well as its own complete picture of sorts. In Mountains of Encounter, what we are often given to see through the blinds is no outside at all, but other blinds: seeing blinds through blinds through blinds, because these red ones are hung as a constellation, a network both angled and adjoined. Performance here offers up a similar logic: thinking about performance-as-being, beyond a particular performance is often another performance, and another, and so on: a kind of variegated landscape of showing and disappearing. The idea is not that with enough searching one might find an origin point, some ground for authenticity. Instead, the work is to allow being itself to proliferate, to refuse it the singularity so often imposed on it—to let it be multiple, striated, strange.
Watching the lights rove around the network of blinds, it becomes clear that these searching lights speak also to the ways we tend to see. Peering through the slatted striations, the mind fills in the picture of what it sees, assuming what is there even (perhaps especially) when it can not see fully at all. We cast the things we cannot see in certain light—perhaps more accurately in certain darkness—imagining we know them or judging them to be unknowable. This movement of seeing through blinds is another way in which Yang's work critiques a kind of sight that assumes what it does not see, or else renders invisible what it can not envision. This is the way we render others outside. In the face of a being I can not see fully, I either assume the parts I can not see, or I pronounce the being's nature impossible to see, unknowable, not available to be recognized, thus rendering a human being other than human, other than being—outside. If our interaction with the network of blinds is reminiscent of our interaction with the performance, the appearance, of others, then the piece shows us the ways in which we tend to make up or assume the things we cannot see. Here too, Yang offers up a critique of sight that opens up questions of ethics: How do we stand before the other? How do we see and how do we receive? In what ways might it be possible to come before the other and not assume, not presume to know?
In his book Poetics of Relation, Martinican poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant, speaks to the possibility of an ethics arising not from knowing the other but precisely from an acknowledgement of non-knowing. We cannot see fully through the blinds. In a chapter he calls "For Opacity," he postulates claiming the rights not only to difference but also to opacity, to non-transparency, the right to being not see-through-able, not assumed to be able to be seen (through). Ethics, he puts forward, might start from here—from an acknowledgment of non-knowing. He writes:
If we examine the process of "understanding" people and ideas from the perspective of Western thought, we discover that its basis is this requirement for transparency. In order to understand and thus accept you, I have to measure your solidity with the ideal scale providing me with grounds to make comparisons and, perhaps, judgments. I have to reduce.
He goes on to ask us to consider instead what if we were to "Agree not merely to the right to difference but, carrying this further, agree also to the right to opacity..."?(8) Because, he writes, "Opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics. To understand these truly one must focus on the texture of the weave and not on the nature of its components."(9) To focus on the texture of the weave is to bear witness to what is before you, to attune to (only) that which is directly before you. To focus on the texture of the weave would be like focusing on, allowing for, the striation of the blinds: what they do tell us, and all they ask us to allow to remain untold. To focus on the texture of the weave without extrapolating out to presume the nature of (the totality of, the wholeness or the essence of) the weave's components, is like saying “yes” to this slatted version of reality, to not presuming or filling in the parts we cannot see.
In a 2012 interview for the Tate about a piece that also uses Venetian blinds, Yang explains that what she most desires to produce with the work "is that you feel disconnected."(10) The elements through which one usually connects: unobstructed sight, sound, a presumed transparency of meaning are, in Yang's work, disabled, disoriented, obstructed. In spatial form, Yang proposes a similar thought experiment to the one Glissant engages: the possibility that non-understanding, non-transparency, might be the basis for ethics, for a kind of regard for the other precisely because you do not know her, because you can not see. Yang's work mines the condition of the outlier, the alien, the jettisoned. In an older interview for the Carnegie International, she says, "any place which is—" and here she stops to correct herself, any place which, "sounds—unfamiliar or uncanny seems to me very familiar..."(11) Her correction is important: she will not essentialize or speak to the nature of a place by asserting that it is unfamiliar or uncanny. Instead she reminds us of performance and amends: some place, some thing that might sound unfamiliar, seem unfamiliar, leaving room for it not to be. And then she tells us that these are the exact places in which she finds herself most at home.
The composition of the interview video bears mention. In it, the artist appears with short black hair and a black suit on in the middle of a stark white field. This removes her from a context that is anything other than whiteness, and makes her the only and inevitable foreground or focal point in what seems like an effort toward just the kind of transparency Glissant critiques. One thing that interests me here is the fact that the questions posed have been edited out, so Yang is shown sitting alone, clearly looking carefully at a person who is before her but whose voice and image have been erased. And so she speaks, opens, with no clear or certain sign of response. Like in Veronique Doisneau, there is a sense of missing here, a lag time or disjoint between the speaker and the one who responds that opens up questions around communication and the possibilities of connection. In an effort to generate a sense of timelessness, Yang's real-time interlocutor has been edited out, casting doubt on the possibilities of response-ability in real time, leaving us like listeners to a series of messages, wondering what exactly happens in between.
The work that completes the proposition that is and will be Double Life is the premiere of Wu Tsang's Miss Communication and Mr:Re (2014), a two-channel video installation made in collaboration with the poet and scholar Fred Moten. For the piece, Tsang and Moten agreed to call each other every day at 9am over the course of a two-week period during the summer of 2014. Each one hailed from a different time zone and had agreed not to pick up the call but to instead leave messages for one another. This raw material was then jointly, mutually, edited. Tsang made selections from Moten's messages and Moten made selections from Tsang's. These were crafted into a sound track for a two channel video installation. The video records each of them, framed separately in black, able to be placed side by side or opposite one another. They look directly into the camera and so directly out at us. We never see either one speak, although their mingled voices tap, trip, sigh, constantly along in sound as we watch their faces seeming to watch us. They shift from suppressing laughter to expressing something that looks like deep love, to longing, to seeming to well up with tears, to no legible expression at all.
Although they do not speak, between the intimate trotting of their voices and the intensities of their gaze, we seem to see them, to know them, and we see them seeing, knowing, each other. We hear each voice call out to the other from a place of solitude: around them mostly silence. And each one calls out, searching toward togetherness, towards being (mutually) heard. At the same time, their work is made available for an audience, for us, to hear them hearing one another. Even as each voice, each image, remains on a separate channel, their words speak to one another, call out, respond, mingle. Sometimes they sync up to say the same words at the same time; and their faces seem almost as if they are seeing one another, gazing into one another's eyes as they seem to gaze into our own. The piece raises questions about the structure of communication as well as the possibilities of meeting someone, of connecting with them. It opens up the space/time of the telephonic, a space/time in which a call is made and a response is given or, as in this case, a message is left as a form of response, to be subsequently received. The delay between the leaving of a message and its being heard––as well as the possibility that the message will not be heard at all––opens up questions of sociality and connection. Where are our messages while they are not being heard? And what kind of being is this that extends into and through a gauzy network of calls, answers, responses—the voices that we are and the ones that we listen for?
Towards the beginning of the piece Moten's voice raises the idea of the message itself. Both faces stare tenderly into the lens of the camera. They seem somehow to be able to see us, the viewer they can't possibly see is there, at the same time as it seems as if they must be able to also see each other—despite the fact that the video can place them side-by-side, technically unable to meet eyes. Tsang's voice on the left channel moves through pieces of a story—we hear him say "hate crime" and then, with more careful listening, he confesses to losing clarity around how it's possible to know someone, to know their struggle, and then also at the same time, to "have no idea"—the worry of unknowability setting in. While this is happening, Moten slowly, carefully, wonders if:
...every time anybody touched anything what they were also always doing was sending a message back somewhere...that what it means to walk, you know, through the air, to brush up against atoms, to brush up against molecules...
think maybe it's all just sending a message, think we're walking through an atmosphere of messages.
In the moment that one voice articulates the existential worry that arises from not being able to be sure we (can) really know another being, the other voice describes an existence that is full of messages, messaging, one in which we are inter-written, through and through, with signals and sendings between others and ourselves—indeed, maybe so much so that the boundaries between other and self blur or were always already (a) blur. Moten asks us to imagine that, in the same way that we brush up against atoms and molecules simply by moving through the air, simply by walking, so too it might be with messages. Perhaps we are constantly brushing up against them, perhaps being is necessarily porous to them because they are literally atmospheric. This leaves being intrinsically open to being crossed into or touched, open to being multiple, together, constantly receiving messages and sending them, an almost involuntary calling toward and answering to. So this network of voices and information leaves being—"my" being or "your" being—as actually something that is interwoven, something that spans the space between us—being as a place that both is and marks the call.
What is a message, exactly? Formal definition places it as a recorded communication sent to or left out for someone who cannot be reached directly. What does it mean to leave a message for someone? What does it mean for a being to not be able to be reached directly? What if this condition spoke less to something situational in a person's life and more to something intrinsic to being itself, something more about what it means to be? The word "message" comes to us from the Latin root for the word that means "to send." In an older etymological dictionary, one that works with the root syllables of words, I find embedded in message's meaning a word that means "to throw."(13) The example given is to throw dung on a wall to dry it and use it for fuel. There is hurling here, flinging, a thrown-ness—marking being as a kind of emission, a throwing out (a being thrown) into a span. This being has agency while at the same time it depends upon a pre-existing network of voices, messages, other agents, in order to be recognized, in order to be. This is Fred Moten's "irreducible necessity of collectivity." It has to do with being, and with being always and inevitably between.
Thirty years ago, when I was only seven, Jacques Derrida delivered the opening address at the Ninth International James Joyce Symposium in Frankfurt, Germany. During his address, among many other things, he describes the central character of James Joyce's Ulysses as a "being-at-the-telephone."(14) He says, "...he is at the telephone, he is always there, he belongs to the telephone, he is at once riveted and destined there."(15)
What is this telephone, this tele/distance—phone/voice, the voice that comes to us from a distance, the voice that (in its being one) is a distance, a measure of a distance, at once a bridge across it and, too, the very sound that takes its measure? What is it to have one's being riveted there, unable to move, engrossed, transfixed but somehow also and at the same time destined there, intended there and so always traveling (that is, moving) towards it? How can we think these two—rivet and destine—at the same time? What would it mean to do so and why would we want it? I think it has to do with the other, with the way we find ourselves always already in relation to the other, the one that is always already within us and, too, the one(s) we find outside.
In his address, Derrida elaborates that this particular kind of being is, "...hooked up to a multiplicity of voices and answering machines."(16) He says, "His being-there is a being-at-the-telephone, a being for the telephone, in the way that Heidegger speaks of the being for death of Dasein."(17) Da (there) and sein (being) is often translated as existence or presence but is, more simply and more complicatedly, a there-being, a being-there, where 'there' becomes a term at once familiar and also wholly strange. Where are we when we find ourselves being there? Where are we when we find ourselves there, being? To these questions I will return (again and again) but first return to Derrida's telephonic linking after his brief touch on Heidegger's ontology, a linking in which he reminds us that, for Heidegger, being is always a "being-called." Here Derrida delivers two consecutive formulations that I hope will hover in the mind. The first is a description of Dasein, this there-being/being-there, as one that is "summoned, provoked, challenged toward its ownmost possibility of being (ahead of itself)." And then, immediately following, he writes, "And in this way the Dasein is summoned by this call from or out of the fall into the 'they.' "(18)
In this brief consideration, Derrida is able to link the gravity of Heidegger's notion that being is always a being for death to the idea that being-called or this "being-at-the-telephone" is also, quite seriously, a "being for the telephone," a being whose existence is in some fundamental way oriented toward the telephone, being at or with this distance-voice. Derrida's elucidation is analogical and so it is important that Heidegger's conviction is that being is only properly being—can only be in its most full and realized integrity—in the moment that it shows itself to be finite, in the moment or the fact or the occasion of (its) death. Human being, for Heidegger, is always a being for death—a being most proper to itself in the very act of its own dying. So when Derrida articulates that the being he is working to illuminate is one that is a "being for the telephone," what he is arguing for is a kind of being that is most properly itself in the tangle of relations it experiences to this network of voices that are the distance-voice, the distance-voices, the tele-phone. In other words, this being is one that is always already "hooked up to a multiplicity of voices and answering machines"—hooked up, attached to, entangled in this web of voices in which the telephone is both the context and its instrument.
What does it mean to be undetachable from answering machines (machines that answer, objects that have response-ability)? I keep wondering what it means, what the implications are of this relation of being "hooked up"? The expression implies a cleaving: a snare, a needle or a hook sunk deep in the flesh that tethers the body, often to a line that attaches to some other thing or being that perhaps also has these hooks sunk deep. Other senses that resonate inside this being hooked up denote entanglements of flesh, sexual encounters, or even sometimes, as in "the hook up," the line through which one finally scores the narcotic plug we might desire. These possibilities are important because of what they tell us about the ways we meet the other.
What does it mean that "...the called one is...summoned, provoked, challenged toward its ownmost possibility of being (ahead of itself)"? If we think of the telephone as a network of voices to which we are always already tethered (hooked up, hooked in, hooked on), then we are summoned by these voices—a summons: a call that is stronger than a call, more urgent. This summons is always a request, sometimes an order, to appear: to show ourselves, to make plain our being for (or before) an other, to be present, to present ourselves. Provocation exists in a different register, but operates in much the same way: it incites, it arouses and—like a summons—a provocation causes us to rise (up), to appear. To be challenged is also to have to take a stand, to come forth and accept the terms of contest, perhaps to dispute or call into question but all of these involve a showing of being, a being-there more immediately, more obviously (apparently—appearing) engaged. For Derrida, being at the telephone, being for the distance-voice, is the condition through which we are at once tethered to and also always moving toward answering that call. It is in this inevitable moving toward that we step into the possibility of the being that is most proper to us. Our fullest integrity is thus intimately bound up in, indeed, inextricable from, the "multiplicity of voices." And this multiplicity, this network, precedes us—the condition of our most manifested being (to be in relation to that call)—always exists ahead of ourselves. The most-my-own possibility of being, therefore, lies outside of me, "ahead" of me, in the vast network of others that comprise the interrelated distance-voices I (will) respond to. It is for them that I am. It is for them that I make. It is for them that I perform, and so become, myself.
In this way, I am summoned to present myself—I am called into presence/appearance—and in so being, I am called forth from "out of the fall into the 'they,' " into being-with, into the "irreducible necessity of collectivity." This is our double life. In all the doubling the works in this exhibition reveal and encourage us to think, this is perhaps the most pressing. There are those who imagine we are separate selves: many of us are taught, encouraged, to think so. In some ways, capitalism requires it of us, rewards those of us who imagine that we are whole unto ourselves, impermeable. The works in Double Life resist this reading, asking us instead to see the ways in which being is itself always a being in between—it can only happen in the spans between us, it can only be in, with, for others.
In this sense of the real, Tsang's Miss Communication and Mr:Re raises a profound ontological possibility. What emerges throughout the piece is a being that refuses to be singular, that slides and swells and siphons off, that opens up to audience and collaborator alike, generating a space of experimentation, a network, moving and pulsing between. Towards the end of the piece, Moten raises the possibility that the ultimate connection, the fated sense that someone is meant for you means not that they complete you but that, as he says, "they incomplete you," suggesting this as the ultimate connective possibility. We hear him say:
...and what it means to be with somebody is that you get cut all the time and bruuuuised and you lose part of your foot, you know, and and and your arm fades out but there aint nothin you can do about it, see? or, being meaning for one another...it it it it's always at a loss, I mean, it always happens as a loss, it always leaves you at a loss but but but you want it anyway, right? I mean, ain't nothin you could do about it, ain't nothin you can do about wanting it. It's rough-edged, hard edged, you know? Ummm...incomplete or it incompletes you, you know, fuck Tom Cruise and that...fuckin...what was that movie?—'you complete me'—No! That's not...Fate, being meant for somebody means they incomplete you, right? They tear you up, they mess you up and you mess them up and it's all messed up.
Your heart is a strong muscle. It squeezes very good.
He puts forth in this riffing thinking that "what it means to be with somebody" is that you lose parts, that you get incompleted, dispersed in some fundamental way. This is the nature of being. This is the nature of being-with: coming apart, coming into parts, seeing we are all parts—multiples, pluralities. There is a politic here. We are interwoven, inter-written. We may see ourselves as separate, wholes, but we are constantly sliding through a field of messages: porous and doubling, answering, calling, receiving. We need each other to be recognized, I can not be alone. Because of this, I can not be impervious to the experiences, the sufferings, the joys, of others, another. We are leaving messages all the time. I (is) am somewhere in between.
In thinking through a title for this piece, I seize on the one I've used: Your heart is a strong muscle, it squeezes very good. I write "seize" but that implies a kind of will, an agency, a way in which I chose and conquered these words, took possession of them. But what really happened is something quite different: they took possession of me. I heard Fred Moten say them and then, you could say, I started to hear voices—his voice(s). I am inter-written, inter-messaged, in-between. Your heart is a strong muscle, it squeezes very good. I start to hear it everywhere, wake up and hear myself whispering it to the air, the atoms, the molecules in my bedroom. Your heart is a strong muscle, it squeezes very good. On the morning when I finally part with this text, when I send it off to be publicked, published, I wonder again and for the first time at whose words these are. Moten says a name right after saying them: Ramin Tabibiazar, Ramin Tabibiazar, Ramin Tabibiazar. He says it three times. And so I look it up, wanting to find this poet whose words have inter-written me. The search engine calls up a series of pages on a doctor in Santa Monica and I assume I've gotten it wrong. But suddenly I realize Moten has been talking about a heart test, a medical experience and I am laughing out loud, hard to stop, laughing to the dishes waiting for me in the sink. A marvel: Ramin Tabibiazar, a doctor in Santa Monica. I can only guess that he told Moten: your heart is a strong muscle, it squeezes very good. We are inter-written, interwoven, caring for our parts, all parts—dispersed, multiple, double. Life.
(1) "3/6 Social Text 30th Anniversary Panel: panelist, Fred Moten," YouTube video, 9:36, Columbia University, November 13, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/wach?v=rLrTYbD-sKw.
(2) Judith Butler, "Acting in Concert," in Undoing Gender, 1–16 (New York: Routledge, 2004), 8.
(3) Ibid., 1.
(4) Ibid., 2.
(5) Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 2002),142–48.
(6) Mieke Behm, "'Mountains of Encounter,' but whose story?," Haegue Yang website, 2007, http://www.heikejung.de/work-MountainsOfEncounter.html.
(7) Édouard Glissant, "Of Opacity," in Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997), 189-190.
(8) Ibid., 190.
(9) Ibid., 190.
(10) Tate. "The Tanks: Haegue Yang," YouTube video, 4:37, September 21, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ef8Af9OO2oQ.
(11) Carnegie International. "Life on Mars: 2008 Carnegie International Artist's Interview, Haegue Yang," YouTube video, 7:16, June 23, 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4KnN0-u0rw.
(12) Wu Tsang with Fred Moten, Miss Communication and Mr:Re, Contemporary Art Museum Houston 2014.
(13) Joseph T. Shipleys, Dictionary of Word Origins (Dorset Press, 1995), 368.
(14) Jacques Derrida, "Ulysses Gramophone: Hear Say Yes in Joyce," in Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge, 253–309 (New York & London: Routledge, 1992), 273.