performance studies, social justice

Interview with Keith Hennessy about “Turbulence”

Hennessy, "Turbulence". Photo: c.k. Wilson
Hennessy, “Turbulence”. Photo: c.k. Wilson

Keith Hennessy, interviewed by Sean Feit on 3/7/13 for UCD PFS newsletter. (A shortened version of this conversation is in our 2013 department newsletter. Here is the full conversation with minimal edits.)

Sean Feit: What do you consider the main conceptual frame for Turbulence?

Keith Hennessy: I try to stay away from any kind of central frame. I wanted it be complicated from the get-go, that there would be multiple things going on.

There are several ideas that motivate the project, including: complexity not chaos, failure as generative resistance, and queer as tactic/queer as failure. Instead of the humanist collective movement towards utopia, I asked, how about the failed collective with no future? We worked a lot with the idea of soft borders. Some of this goes back to my readings in the late ’80s or early ‘90s, of Gloria Anzaldua’s book La Frontera / Borderlands. I’m working with soft borders in all kinds of situations, soft borders at the beginning and end of rehearsal, people coming in at different times, as well as vague or blurred endings, beginnings, and transitions in the actual performance. Soft borders between the roles of artist and audience. I’m not looking for total interactivity, but just enough blurring so that it’s not always entirely clear who is “performing”. Other ideas that motivate the project: the guest artist as intervention on company cohesion, intentional hierarchies as objects of study and engagement, and a quote by Trinh Minh-ha: “All clarity is ideological.”

Then there are a bunch of ideas that kind of run into each other, based on the personal as political and political as personal. We played with the collective as a metaphor – the personal is political, the process is the product is the process, the political is personal, the project as an economy, and the artist as a neoliberal subject, meaning precarious, multiple, ambitious, connected, and working all the time. And finally, there was a big idea about working in the theater but not making a piece that fit the expectations of the theater. So we’re intentionally not fitting the rules of the theater while conforming to many of its rules. And I call that “disidentification as sometimes bratty, dissident action.”

SF: That’s a fabulous list. I love it. Can you say just a tiny bit about failure, especially that line, “Failure as generative resistance”?

KH: I think I first heard this from Sampada Aranke. We were at an anarchist book fair event, and we looked over at something that was just, there was just something disastrous about it, or however we perceived it in that moment, some crazy representation or appropriation, I can’t recall… And Sam said, “Failure is generative.” We laughed and I started carrying this idea around, noticing how it resonated with a number of books that had been written on failure, and failure has become as a trend within several sectors of contemporary thought and practice. Failure is very trendy in the business world right now, and if you go into the business section of a bookstore, they’ve got all kinds of books on failure. How to get your employees to fail better. They’ll come up with better ideas if they fail more often. Fail more, fail harder, fail better, fail more often. So that’s one track.

And then you’ve got this other track in the post-disciplinary worlds of queer and performance studies. There’s The Poetics of Failure, which looks at the staging of failure by performance companies Forced Entertainment, Goat Island and Elevator Repair Service. And then probably the book that affected me the most was Judith Halberstam’s book, The Queer Art of Failure. Halberstam’s main objects of study are Pixar animation films stupid dude movies, where she sees a number of ways to read characters, and relationships as queer. Halberstam breaks down stupidity as a kind of failure strategy, and how it works for white men, and how it works differently when other people try it. But all the failure stuff looks at the limitation of doing something that seems to work or fit – success is basically ideological in that sense, right? Not just clarity, but the idea that success, or even if you made a good theater piece, it meant that you fit into some set of ideas that are already pre-existing. And the idea about failure is that you somehow break a frame or disturb the pattern. There’s just much more possibility for new information. All of my work is research-based, so from the point of view of research, if your work is failing, then it means that you’re cracking through certain kinds of ideological sets or frames or fits. And that’s what I aimed to do with the Turbulence, to fail in order to produce some new curiosity, or potential, or awareness.

SF: Cool. That’s excellent. So the thing that that brings me to is what’s assessment, then? How do you assess, if failure, in the way that you’re talking about it, is aesthetic — it’s a surface look that interacts with common ideas, so that it looks like it has not succeeded. But actually, of course, if you do that and you’re pleased, then we call it success. Or you might call it success.

KH: I’m calling this “the game of failure” right now. And especially failure as a trendy idea or contemporary idea. The game of it is that any time you say failure, you’ve created a binary, and they create each other. Right? So you can only fail based on having set up what success is. So it’s not something to get too fixed with, or too committed to. It’s not like you know you failed because somebody walked out. Some people walk out of the piece, and then someone else says to me, “Oh, that means you succeeded, right? Because it failed for them.” And that’s too simple of a reading. The failure stuff for me is really about opening a door, or opening a window, into an approach to the work. It’s not how we evaluate the work.

So how we evaluate it, I think is some of the oldest stuff on Earth. Did everyone working on the piece feel like they took their practice to a new level, where they feel either smarter or more engaged, or more satisfied? Or if they were working on professional visibility, did it take them somewhere in their work? There’s the conversation with the audience members that we know personally, which is one layer of engagement that we can have, i.e., what kind of conversations and challenges did we have with the communities of friends and artists that we work with?

With Turbulence, one of the successes is just how far the work got to travel. One of the goals which we achieved was to develop the work in multiple economic contexts. We went from a DIY art space in rural Germany, where people camped out and ate together, and pooped in composting toilets, and shared a particular economy. And then we went from there to ImPulsTanz, probably the best funded dance festival in the world. We had a residency in San Francisco, where there was no fee for anyone and then we went to Portland, supported by a big grant, where everyone was being paid and staying in a hotel, and we had tech people working on the show with us every day. From traveling through these different economic contexts in multiple countries, through the various workshop versions of the project in which we worked with fifty or sixty people in intensive rehearsal and improvised performances, there were some really clear successes.

SF: It’s interesting, if we’re talking about failure to fit, to consider the review in the SF Chronicle. It’s not like it’s a goal to get a review like that, but there’s some way that it recognizes that the piece doesn’t fit.

KH: Right.

SF: That it is working outside or alongside some structure that we understand.

SF: What are some of the theorists and ideas that most informed your process? Who’s somebody that you’re excited about right now?

H: I think there have been several phases of the work and at each phase there has been an important book. Very early on, it was Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. It is a very particular and articulate historicizing of neoliberalism from the early ‘70s to now. And I feel like a lot of what the piece is referencing academically, which also coincides with my dissertation research, is what has happened in the last forty years. So there are ways where there are echoes and resonances in Turbulence of the ‘70s interdisciplinary collectives that I’m writing about. And one of the things that doing Turbulence has done to my dissertation work is make me rethink the history and context of Contact Improvisation as the history of neoliberalism. They both start in the early ‘70s and they’ve developed in almost a parallel track. Naomi Klein’s book basically walks you through the last forty years of American foreign and economic policies, but she also writes about Chile, Poland and South Africa. She charts the history of neoliberalism in relation to this idea that she calls disaster capitalism. We got a lot from Shock Doctrine, from studying economic structures and histories to prompts for movement and bodily actions and metaphors.

I would say there was a middle phase where Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure was a primary text. That book took us not so much into scores for movement, but it instigated a lot of talking about how we can see the work and its relationship to audience, and its relationship to our history, and what it meant to work politically. In the most recent phase, the key text, for me and a few others, has been The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance by Italian writer, Franco “Bifo” Berardi. Like many people writing right now in relation to the economy, everyone is trying to make sense of the last forty years, the neoliberal period. They either start with the gold standard being dropped in 1970, or they starting with some other key moment – the Vietnam War, the post-1968 era, the social and economic backlashes since the 60s, and then what becomes the move towards the free trade era, into the precarity era.

Berardi takes that history of neoliberalism, and he writes simultaneously about the importance of poetry. He sees a lot of the issues as a problem of language and discourse. He details the necessity of a new kind of poetry to respond to the moment. Using the idea of deregulation, Berardi says that poetry has always prefigured the economy and other things happening in social and political society. He looks at early Modernist poetry and gets into this idea of deregulation in language, at the point where “signified” and “signifier” are no longer linked. Or that the word, when we go into all of the things that are now very typical, with so much contemporary writing afterDeleuze, that every word is a key term, every word is slippery and contested and has multiple meanings within the same text, or that we have no stable or fixed identities or meanings. It’s deregulated, the relationship between the body and its representation, between the performer and the meaning of her gesture.

So he takes that deregulation idea, from recent economic policy, and projects it in all kinds of artistic and activist practice. Not just deregulation in terms of no longer government limitations on banks, but also the deregulation of time, for example in digital financialization. It’s not so long ago that stock trading happened live, between two people, over the phone. But now they’re happening in nanoseconds, so that trade, buying and selling of stocks, debt, currency… happen faster than can be either predicted or imagined. It’s why we’re in an increasingly precarious system, no matter how good or bad the economy might seem overall. We’re now in this moment where huge, huge, massive amounts of money are all just being moved on paper through algorithms in these microseconds. Canada is thinking of making a law that no trade can be faster than one-tenth of a second, and people are complaining that they’ll suffer the competition because trades are happening at the hundredth-second level. Especially in foreign currency market. Like the Thai baht, it just moved three cents, and then all of a sudden 40,000 people in different parts of the world all just bought and sold a huge amount of Thai bahts. It completely destabilized Thailand’s economy, and it happened by algorithm, quickly. There’s something about the book, the way he’s looking at histories of poetry and histories of the economy, and proposing certain kinds of movement or activist strategies. Berardi’s book started to feel like a manifesto for our work, a manifesto written after the work was made. Some of the things we didn’t know we were doing, it seems like he’s explaining for us.

So those are three books that it’s possible to look at. But I mean, we’ve been affected by a lot. We did a lot research on debt, both personal and social, and there were so many people working on these issues simultaneously. Every time I say a book, it’s important to recognize that the book was in partnership with whatever was going on in popular society, whether it was Occupy uprisings or Arab Spring uprisings. David Graeber wrote this awesome book called Debt: A 5,000 Year History. Several of us in the team heard him speak, or read the book, and its insights and questions entered our working process. At the same time, there was an escalation in the student debt movement, including within the UC system. So the books we were reading were always in relation to social movement and uprisings and public discourse.

SF: So how has Performance Studies been useful to you, as a field? I imagine it as a methodological orientation, but it could be multiple orientations. Are you a Performance Studies scholar? What does that mean?

KH: Well, one of the benefits about being a Performance Studies scholar is that PS is a catch-all for a different approach to the academy. If we allow it to be that and not an actual field, then yes, I am in Performance Studies and we don’t even need to go into whether I’m a scholar. But I’m definitely someone who’s both contributing to the field, as well as cannibalizing or being some kind of vampire in the field. Like I’m using it as a kind of platform for research and production.

It’s worth noting that I get as much reflection on Performance Studies while doing some of the tougher theory reading as I do teaching Drama 1, an undergraduate course. Because that’s the point where all these different approaches that integrate post-modern ideas and post-canon histories encounter cultural studies and gender studies and critical race studies… It’s the ground level for asking questions about what it means to work across disciplines and be able to work high , low culture and mid-brow culture all at the same time. How do you talk to undergrads about the word “performance” as a kind of window into a new way of looking at and engaging the world? And that’s where it’s super fascinating to me. So in the same course, to be updating them on trends and contemporary performing arts, at the same time as you’re having them go, “What does it mean to look at a protest in the street, a shooting at a school, and the aftermath of the school shooting, and your relationships to your girlfriends and boyfriends in your everyday life, to the social role that you play in your family?” And what if we used performance as this working set of tools to be able to analyze those things? And what if central to that analysis is the idea of giving you the tools to be able to re-imagine yourself to be less constricted, or to be able to feel like you’re a creative agent in the world? Sort of a Joseph Beuysian “all labor is creative”, but now you have the tools to do it because you’re using this lens of performance to look at the world.

And it’s actually an optimistic lens. PS engages a whole bunch of people who, even though they see how bleak it is, how intense hegemony is, how intense are certain kinds of apparatus, continue to theorize openings, possibilities, where we can imagine, embody and manifest change. So that’s where it’s super useful to me, it shifts how I view the world, and that then affects my teaching, and I recognize it all over my work. And again, in an interdisciplinary kind of place where I’m in a post-studio practice, where my work is no longer in just a dance studio, and it’s not a split practice of “I’m a teacher and I’m a working artist in the studio”. It’s more like, “I’m an interdisciplinary citizen with a practice, and performance studies gives me a constantly shifting or mobile or mutable frame for all of these kinds of life and art operations”.

SF: That’s great. You want to give me one or two sentences on what’s next for you?

KH: Although it’s a struggle, every day I am pushing through, actually writing paragraphs of my dissertation, and feeling closer than ever. Feeling like somehow the research that I have done, that I think sometimes has no shape, actually has much more shape than I had given it credit for.

I’m hoping to get funding this spring to build a version of a Trojan Horse to drag through San Francisco, in collaboration with performance artist Annie Danger. We’re hoping to do an interactive street intervention piece with this Trojan Horse on wheels, as a kind of subversive way to provoke conversation about gentrification and change in the city, and specifically in our neighborhood of the Mission.

Also, I’ve just started to propose a new work tentatively called Chronic, with an all-Black and/or African American cast. As usual, I’m going to spend my summer teaching at different international dance festivals in Germany, Finland, and Austria. I’m bolder and more open-ended with my teaching in Europe, so this will be a rich time for me to experiment. The festival in Finland is using as the prompt or theme, “What is post-contemporary?” If what’s been happening for the last twenty years is contemporary dance, what’s next? Where are people going with their practice? I’m thrilled to ask myself the same questions…

Keith Hennessy is a PhD Candidate in Performance Studies at UCD, and an internationally-recognized performer/instigator/activist.

Sean Feit is a PhD Candidate in Performance Studies at UCD who won an Izzie award for his work with Hennessy’s company Circo Zero in 2008.

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