30 December 2017

On Fences

“The proliferation of borders between states, within states, between people, within people is a proliferation of states of statelessness,” according to Stefano Harney and Fred Moten. There is a certain creativity that comes from the liminal space between nation-states, a borderless border, a between-statehood, where home might be a distant memory, where home might be as real as Timboctou or utopia. (See my previous post.) Harney and Moten might wonder where Karl Marx got his “inheritance of the hold,” but it may be because he spent most of his life in an absolute state of statelessness, a refugee status of la nuda vita, bare life. Giorgio Agamben took his notion of la nuda vita from Walter Benjamin’s das blosse Leben, mere or naked life, of which “blood is the symbol” and over which “mythical violence” holds Blutgewalt, blood-power. (The German word Gewalt, interestingly enough, means both violence and power. If a border has a certain power, it might follow that a border also has a certain violence.)

Bare life is a notion Agamben gets also from ancient Roman law. The Homo sacer was a person who could not be sacrificed in religious ceremony, but also could be killed by anyone without being tried for murder under the law. The Homo sacer was set apart from society, too sacred to kill and too easy not to. Bare life today manifests as the refugee, the marginalized, the migrant—those forced to have no home. Unwilling to succumb to the lawlessness of his own bare life, Benjamin made the ultimate refusal by exercising power over his own mortality.

Theodor Adorno, like Benjamin and the many others forced to flee genocide in Nazi Germany, felt his own bare lifeness during his refuge in America. “Every intellectual in emigration is, without exception, mutilated.” Perhaps he only speaks of the intellectual because it is his experience, but it seems apt to extend this characterization to all migrants, especially those forced to flee violence, hatred, and oppression in their homelands. “No individual” is “unmarked.” The borders set up by a “bourgeois” which has become “impenitently malign” help create a further demarcation on the migrant body. “The caring hand that even now tends the little garden as if it had not long since become a ‘lot’, but fearfully wards off the unknown intruder, is already that which denies the political refugee asylum.” For this, we build fences and walls. Those who align themselves with the state become “totally inhuman” in their quickness to dismiss human concerns for the sake of their so-called security.

They say that good fences make good neighbors, and the irony is not lost on artist Ai Weiwei, whose “multi-site, multi-media” public art exhibition in New York City takes that old saw as its name. Showing the marks of his own bare life, and with an eye towards “how populist notions often stir up fear and prejudice,” according to the brochure, Ai’s Good Fences Make Good Neighbors is meant to bring a public awareness to the “global migration crisis.” One of the major pieces in the exhibition, among over three hundred other pieces big and small, is “Arch,” located directly beneath the triumphal arch in Washington Square Park. “Arch” physically fills nearly all of the empty space within the archway with its birdcage-like design in silver steel. In the center at ground level is a tunnel lined in reflective material, cut in the extended two-dimensional shape of what appears to be two figures embracing. (This is a quote of a Marcel Duchamp creation for the entrance to the Gradiva art gallery in Paris.) In one way, you are free to pass through the sculpture; in another, you are not allowed to utilize the archway’s full space, restricting movement. “Arch” recreates a border in operation, where everyone’s passport is valid in the spirit of camaraderie—for now. As you might expect most members of the twenty-first century to do, there is a lot of selfie-taking within the reflective walls of the tunnel—a self-capture at the border.

Another piece in the exhibition is “Five Fences,” which, as the name suggests, is five sections of chain-link fence which have been affixed to archways on the north side of Cooper Union. When the fences were being installed, I thought that, perhaps, someone had decided to jump out of one of the portals, so the fences were a precautionary measure. This piece is perhaps not as effective as “Arch” or “Gilded Cage,” in the southeast corner of Central Park, simply because it is less interactive. The pedestrian is not confronted with “Five Fences” in the way that “Arch” alters the footpath, for example. Where “Five Fences” does confront is on the visual level, imposing as a mesh of incongruous steel fencing against the deep red-brown of Cooper Union.

How is it possible for good fences to make good neighbors? The existence of the fence to begin with signals a distrust of the other, predicating a breakdown of good neighborly relations. If the idea is to keep people “where they belong,” what happens when an individual has no place to belong, is stateless, a refugee, a bare life? What societal benefit is the state missing out on by imposing a policy of absolute non-entrance? What economy is being created around the fence, where money, goods, or services might determine your fitness to cross through? And then, what economy is created counter to that one, where tunnels might be dug or trucks might be trafficking, circumventing the fence?

Adorno, Theodor, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (1951). Translated by E.F.N. Jephcott. London: Verso, 2005.
Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Benjamin, Walter, “Critique of Violence.” In Reflections, translated by Edmund Jephcott. New York: Schocken Books, 1978.
Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Wivenhoe, UK: Minor Compositions, 2013.
Public Art Fund, brochure for Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, public art exhibition by Ai Weiwei, New York, 2017.

29 December 2017

Timboctou: On Borders and Movement

The modern border is a strange concept. No longer just a physical line drawn between nations (another strange concept), the border stretches to every major airport in the world. The border has its own area, contains its own structures and strictures. The border doesn’t keep people out; it keeps people in, only permitting certain qualified individuals to exit through a certain door. I have seen the American border in Paris and Dublin airports. British border patrol begins in Paris’s Gare du Nord, a situation which no doubt will become more complicated as the United Kingdom moves to leave the European Union. One can cross into a border without leaving one’s geography and, sometimes, without knowing it.

The U.S.-Mexico border is a contentious battleground and conduit for several ongoing “wars,” as suggested by performance scholar Ruth Hellier-Tinoco in “Re: Moving Bodies in the USA/Mexico Drug/Border/Terror/Cold Wars.” The title alone indicates four wars shared by or fought between the two countries. As Hellier-Tinoco points out, the war over this particular border goes back to 1846, when the territory-hungry U.S. invaded and captured half of what was then Mexico, in the name of Manifest Destiny. (It was their destiny, so they manifested it.) Of course, we must remember that colonialism ran strong in both nations then as now; think of all the native people and culture displaced and destroyed in the process. Kofi Agawu has highlighted the “oft-remarked illogic of colonial boundaries,” pointing to “the increasingly urgent need to think beyond borders.” Just as borders trap bodies trying to pass through, borders can also entrap ideas, forcing a colonial gaze. As Fred Moten suggests, “The very taking of an anti-colonial stance looks crazy, from a normative perspective,” but using that perspective to come to “believe in the world,” which is an “other world,” is imperative to the work that needs to be done. Hellier-Tinoco does not directly address this, but focuses instead for the most part on the here and now of the ongoing conflicts in her analysis of Alejandro Ricaño’s 2012 play Timboctou.

Ricaño has created an absurd, darkly humorous piece which attempts, in practice and in content, to rethink borders. The play’s production presents a migrancy of its own, a two-way migrancy, having had a dual premiere in Guadalajara and Los Angeles, using designers and actors from both Mexico and the United States. Director Martín Acosta has said he wants to cultivate “a dialogue of gazes between artists from Mexico and the USA. The dual collaboration allows for a complex and rich framework: the only way of tearing down walls and crossing rivers and tunnels without visas, with the powerful flight of imagination.”

On the U.S. side, Timboctou was presented by the CalArts Center for New Performance at the REDCAT, a state-of-the-art experimental theatre space in downtown Los Angeles. On entering the space, one is confronted by a striking set design filled with atmosphere. The playing space is enclosed on three sides by tall, rust-colored panels; a large mound of interlocking chairs takes up nearly half the space on one side; a big, boxy television hangs upside-down in the center, suspended a few feet off the deck by a cable from the lighting grid some thirty feet above. The panels form a wall (the wall, the border wall? a cell?), the chairs form a hill (Capitol Hill? they’re interlocked—it’s complicated. “Take a seat, hombre.”), the television hangs like a strange ornamental light (so it is an interrogation chamber? “Why were you entering the U.S. illegally?”). During the play, the panels open and close, the mound of chairs migrates, the television swings—all parts of the set, more than mere objects, have their own piece to contribute to the overall performance.

The action of Timboctou, presented in an enigmatic fashion, takes place in contemporary Mexico and involves different pairings and groupings of individuals: drug runners, drug enthusiasts, the government (politicians, police, military), migrants. The media is represented by a cameraman whose captured images are shown on the dangling television. While the action is in Mexico, the actors (both in character and in person) represent both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border: the American tourist on vacation in Tijuana looking to “score,” the Mexican politician taking cold calls from the FBI, and so on. An international border is not the only border in play; the borders between logic and illogic, comedy and tragedy, possible and impossible are all under scrutiny. As the play progresses, the lines blur, and it becomes difficult to see where any border might be, if there is one. The notion of the border and its authority is tested. Edward Said has written, “There is nothing mysterious or natural about authority,” and the same can be claimed for the border which such “authority” puts into place. “It is formed, irradiated, disseminated; it is instrumental, it is persuasive; … it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgments it forms, transmits, reproduces.” Timboctou is an attempt to call out the unnaturalness of the border and steal away its supposed power.

* * *

The notion of “Timboctou” is of a mythical place, a place that doesn’t exist but you try to reach anyway (maybe Moten’s “other world”). An immediate connection might be made to the concept of utopia, whether as originally posed by Thomas More or as adapted (for the better) by José Muñoz. More derived the term utopia in 1516 from Greek, meaning not place. As a place (or no place), it’s something one can move towards without ever arriving. Muñoz says the existence of utopia “reminds us that there is something missing.” It functions as a comparative lens of idealism through which to view our current world and see what direction we need to move. The present is not enough: While utopia holds no establishment of a certain futurity, there is a sense that the future is at stake when we talk about the present, informed by the past. Furthermore, the very idea of presence (and “its opposite number, absence”) is not enough: There is some liminal in-between where the utopia exists or can be accessed. In addition to a not place, it is also a not there (yet).

In Timboctou the play, Chucho tells Dany about Timboctou, the concept, while they perform an elaborate running choreography facing the audience:
I can’t get rid of the image of my dad, Dany, talking about Timboctou before he died. He always spoke about Timboctou as the furthest place on earth. … I’m sure that no one knows where Timboctou is. … It’s absurd to think of the furthest place on earth when the earth is round. … Perhaps that’s why the earth is round, Dany—so that no one has to live at the end of the world. … Before I die I have to go to Timboctou. No one should die without knowing Timboctou, Dany. After all, it’s the end of the world.
The invocation of Timboctou implies a movement, just as utopia does. For Muñoz, “utopia is a stage, not merely a temporal one, like a phase, but also a spatial one.” A stage of time and space upon which a movement acts in time and space, a here and now which moves towards a there and then. In the play Timboctou, the movement is, thematically, across the border between the U.S. and Mexico, in both directions. Objects and ideas are exchanged along with the bodies. The actors’ movements in the play are highly choreographed so as to accentuate subtext; the text, spoken mostly in Spanish with English supertitles projected onto the wall panels, carries with it the sort of “heightened mundaneness” I typically associate with Quentin Tarantino films like Pulp Fiction. This heightened mundaneness is a style where the conversation at the textual level seems everyday—e.g., a light-hearted conversation about fast food—while the context and subtext suggest higher stakes—e.g., the two men speaking are hitmen about to commit murder. Hellier-Tinoco notes that in Timboctou “spoken words tell one story, and bodies articulate another, as corporeal forms, embodied postures, and multifaceted movement vocabularies offer insights into relationships and connections, power relations and attitudes.” It is interesting that Hellier-Tinoco uses the word embodied to modify postures, seeming to indicate that she means posture in the sense of an approach or attitude, or even a false impression, as opposed to the way one stands (though embodying a particular attitude would affect the way one stands). In another connection to Tarantino’s work, the temporality of Timboctou is non-linear, with elements of the plot presented as fragments out of time. As each fragment is presented, connections are realized, and we come to laugh at the absurdities while also cringing at the horrors each new connection brings.

Throughout her piece, Hellier-Tinoco relates the choreography used in Timboctou to the wars, real or imagined, which take place across, around, and about the U.S.-Mexico border: silent polar bears move around the space ignored by two men, symbolic of the silent war the U.S. fights in Mexico through intelligence agencies; two men perform a routine “reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy,” symbolizing the predictability of the U.S. war on drugs; two men run backwards and forwards in the space, the “running” of drugs and guns. There is a choreography to how bodies move across, around, and within borders, just as there is a choreography to how actors move around on a stage. Timboctou mirrors the movement of everyday lives and asks us, in an indirect way, to rethink borders.

Agawu, Kofi, Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Wivenhoe, UK: Minor Compositions, 2013.
Hellier-Tinoco, Ruth, “Re: Moving Bodies in the USA/Mexico Drug/Border/Terror/Cold Wars.” In Choreographies of 21st Century Wars, edited by Gay Morris and Jens Richard Giersdorf. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Muñoz, José Esteban, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
Said, Edward W., Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
Timboctou,” CalArts Center for New Performance website. Accessed 20 December 2017.

14 December 2017

Ocean Vuong

I just read Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a book of poems by Ocean Vuong published last year. It turns out that a good friend of mine went to high school with Vuong, and she happened to be in the same poetry class as him. She remembers his poetry being “pretty raw” and asked me if it made me cry. I didn’t press further, but I had the image in my head of Vuong reading his work in this high school poetry class and the students weeping around him. With him.

It seems to me that most poetry is analyzed as if every word is spoken by the poet, in the poet’s voice. We ascertain intent as if that’s the reason the poet wrote what he wrote and there must be nothing else. I have a feeling this is because poetry seems impenetrable to many, even those who purport to critique it, but because it is written in languages we suppose to understand, we scramble when we confront what is not easily understood and instead seek to figure out what the poet means to do with these words rather than consider how the words feel in our own mouths and ears. Also, the voice the poet uses is not always his own. In a piece such as “Immigrant Haibun,” Vuong uses the voice of his mother. And there’s “My Father Writes from Prison.” And there’s “Of Thee I Sing,” from the perspective of Jackie Kennedy in Dallas, 1963. Many of these voices come from a past Vuong could not possibly have lived, and yet can bring so much life and presence to with his words.

Poets, it seems to me, are drawn to certain words for their sounds and their images. In Lessons on Expulsion, poet Erika L. Sánchez uses the word “sucking” a lot, or at least enough to get me to notice it. Vuong uses a colorful vocabulary filled with names of flowers and sprinkled with his native Vietnamese (though he was probably not old enough to have learned a great deal of it in his home country, his family spoke it at home in Connecticut), but evocative repeated words and phrases (images) include hands (my hands, his hands, a boy’s early hands, blue thumbprint, blurred finger), shadows, mouths (and tongues), bullets, knives (blades, sharpening, cutting). There is a beauty to the violent, and a violence to the beautiful.

My favorite lines might be these, from “Thanksgiving 2006”:

       My mother said I could be anything

       I wanted—but I chose to live.