Really saying something

Draft of text published in All for All! – Kinkaleri, ed. Piersandra Di Matteo, bruno: Venice, 2018

There is usually no mistaking the declared ‘politics’ of the more spectacular sort of cultural event, the arts festival for instance, or even the individual multi-part art project. Such operations have their ways of letting us know what it is they mean to say, and of situating themselves on the ‘map’ of the larger conversation. What, though, of the silent politics of the individual dancer, who – let us say – performs in such a context, and without letting on? What is to be grasped of that? This question – doubtless better expressed than I have given it here – was asked by the choreographer Jonathan Burrows during a seminar I participated in at the 2016 Sadler’s Wells Summer University. I had no satisfactory answer for Jonathan at the time, although I have thought since that a productive response might be found in certain theoretical considerations of language use. An important consideration would be the distinction philosopher Paolo Virno draws between language as a historical repertoire of expressive possibilities pre-existing the individual speaker, and the language faculty itself as biological endowment, indissolubly bound to the organism: its potentialities exposed in any acting, speaking body. A distinction, in essential, between what is said and the mere fact of speaking. For Virno, it is the latter that counts, at least as far human beings as political subjects are concerned. As he puts it, ‘politics is inherent in the very fact of having language’; and to this end he develops the concept of the ‘absolute performative.’[1] This would be a speech act by which what is enacted is this fact of someone speaking, of my speaking – an act of speech, an event of language – irrespective of any particular speech ‘content.’ At the individual level, to say, effectively, ‘I speak’ is enough for the child to exhibit a capacity for power and intention (whether that capacity, that claim is honoured and respected or not). At the macro-political level this same use of the absolute performative signals, for Virno, the ‘state of emergency’ pertaining when a safe context for human praxis – i.e. for whatever ethical-political action – is under threat. We present ourselves – or are presented – as political subjects, in potential at least, as soon as we are exposed upon the scene of our saying something in front of others (the philosopher proposes the theatrical scene and its ‘quoted’ utterances as an ‘a priori form structuring and determining the entirety of our verbal activity’), whatever that something might be that is really being said.

Ah, but what – still – of the silent dancer?

The performers in the various iterations of Kinkaleri’s ALL! are not, of course, all that silent. There are musicians, there are guns (and the guns go off). Even among the ‘dancers’, there are vocalisations, on some sliding scale between an ordinary grunt and a decodable phoneme. And then there are also speeches: instructions and explanations for the audience as the gestic alphabet is ‘transmitted,’ in the theatre or some other public space; or an onstage conversation with a passing venerable Beat poet. There is also – it would appear – a ‘text’ behind each of the dances, a literary text by one of Burroughs, Giorno, Ginsberg, Kerouac et al, chosen, intended and forcefully put over. Except, an audience’s (limited) capacity to decode the movement at speed means that the communication either doesn’t quite reach its target, or, at once, flies way beyond it, beyond words – beyond language, can we say that? – while remaining all the time with the saying, the insistent fact of the saying. Or say, if at some level the work is about resisting pressures of dehumanisation – be those environmental, existential, or more explicitly social and political pressures (Kinkaleri make reference in their contextual materials to Burroughs’s claim to a ‘freedom even under torture’) – they appear also to be attempting, humanly enough, to go beyond the human allowance, translating verbal language into a more animalistic incorporation of the whole physical being, and inviting other members of the human community – whoever happens to be there, in the studio or on the street – to join in. And to join in what? The possibility of an act? An act of speech – each to his or her own – that sets off in advance of what it means to say, and is always catching up with it? A performative gesture that seeks to reach outside of the ‘scene,’ and succeeds in doing so to the extent that observers of the scene can see, that this is what is being done, that this is how far now the scene extends?

It is a scene that extends, it should be said, into history. The 2013 performance Someone In Hell Loves You brings one of the surviving Beat authors, poet John Giorno, onto the stage. While, over the course of an hour, with the aid of a teaching skeleton, Jacopo Jenna, Marco Mazzoni and Simona Rossi induct the theatre audience into ALL!’s coding of the 26-letter alphabet into the physical gestures of the K code, they constantly break from their task to quiz the older, American visitor on his famous associates, his performance experience, his drug preferences past and present, and whatever else. It is a sort of amenable fan conversation, the European post-avant gardists as it were sharing speech and time with a survivor of one of the formative avant-gardes of the preceding ‘American century,’ and taking obvious delight – all four of the people together on stage – in the occasion and the exchange. There is real pleasure here, a pleasure that becomes substantive to the event when Jenna and Mazzoni perform Giorno’s text ‘It doesn’t get better’ back to him, in K code through Italian translation. Jenna’s and Mazzoni’s increasingly paroxysmal – and truncated – inhabitation of the phrase ‘Non si fa meglio di così’ (‘It doesn’t get better than this’) at once celebrates the encounter – and generously celebrates Giorno – with an enthusiasm beyond measure, while at the same grasping and running with something of the text that might implode or dissolve the seemingly asserted hic et nunc satisfactions of its opening line. When Giorno himself performs the complete poem – in English – to close the show, these dissolutions are drawn out in re-iterated and vocally elaborated lines about ‘the illusions that make life bearable.’ Meanwhile, as he speaks, the only prop that was used in the show, the (presumably) plastic teaching skeleton, lies discarded on the floor to the side of him. Here, a skeleton. In previous episodes, such as For Gun No Fake You (2012) or Fake For Gun No You (2012), the object was a gun, sometimes more than one gun. As I say, teaching tools. Something is being said. Given the titles of these pieces, it also strikes me that the thing about a gun – and perhaps the same can be said about a skeleton – in the theatre at least (and when it comes to a speech situation, as Virno might suggest, when are we ever not in the theatre?), is that the gun is always either a real gun or a fake gun, it is the first question you would ever want to ask. But it goes, then, along with other questions such as: Is this really as good as it gets? And: Are you speaking to me? And: Do you have something to say? And: Are you able to say it? The dancer – silent or otherwise – I suppose has heard these questions before, many times. And this is how she responds. It starts by doing this. Let me spell it out. A… B… C…



[1] Paolo Virno, When the Word Becomes Flesh: Language and Human Nature, Semiotext(e), 2015.