buddhism, performance studies

The Heart [of Art] Sutra (and a long commentary!)

saraswati-lineThus have I heard. Once an Artist was living in Vulture Cap Lofts, alongside a great community of craftspeople, aesthetes, deep listeners, critics, and granting organizations. She entered the samadhi known as All That Is Made Is Beautiful, and radiated a profound aesthetic satisfaction that inspired everyone [to be] present. Inspired, the theorist Audio-Visio-Kinesthesis exclaimed to her friend and student, “Oh, Sharing-Production, art leaves no trace, tracelessness is the nature of art! Performance, reception, criticism, artist and audience all are like this.

In leaving no trace there is no hegemony, no oppression, no justice, no peace, and no end to hegemony, oppression, justice, and peace. There is nothing made, nothing unmade, and no separation between poles of any binary, and no end to the binary. The artist who understands Leaves No Trace creates without thinking she is creating, appreciates without thinking there is anything to appreciate or one who performs appreciation, and makes art for the good of all without succumbing to the limiting Views of “make”, “good”, “for”, or “all”.

Secure in the tenure that was never granted and thus can never be taken away, she praises the Perfection of Art thus: This! This! Also This! Everything Revealed, All at Once! No Complaints. Good night.


Emptiness in Buddhist thought arises in early Indian Mahayana as a flowering of the doctrine of the Three Characteristics of all sense objects as impermanent, unsatisfactory, and untenable as loci for a sense of self. These recognitions applied in the Pali Canon to moments of sensory experience of objects, not as ontological categories of the objects themselves — there was no discourse yet in Buddhist thought around things “themselves” parallel to the western tradition’s inquiry from Plato through Kant and Heidegger about the Nature, or Being, of things. The Buddha’s famous reprimand to Malunkyaputta, a monk who was consumed with philosophical speculation, embodies this early pragmatic stance: that questions about existence and causation are like a man coming to a surgeon pierced by a poison arrow but who won’t allow the surgeon to remove the arrow before the man learns every detail about the arrow’s substance and history. The Buddha tells Malunkyaputta that “The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him”.

In the centuries after the Buddha’s death, however, his teachings on the Characteristics were expanded from this austere apophatic pragmatism to become the root of the second flowering of Buddhist thought, called the Mahayana, which understood the apperception of Emptiness (shunyata) as the doorway to Wisdom (prajna) and turned the emphasis of practice away from individual cessation (nibbana, with the practitioner becoming an arhant) to universal salvation through the cultivation of Compassion (karuna, with the practitioner becoming a bodhisattva). These two foci — Wisdom and Compassion — are inseparable, and are considered to be “two wings”, both necessary for flight. With the twin expressions of fruition comes the relationship of the Relative (that which is specific, personal, material, contextual, historical, social, or in any way could be said to exist as a separate idea, identity, form, or occurrence) and Absolute (the impersonal, universal, fundamental, irreducible, all-encompassing, which does not exist in any particular time or space shy of All) as coextensive. This doctrine, called the Two Truths, rooted in commentarial inquiry into the nature of the Buddha’s discourse in the Pali Canon, reveals a beautiful ontological alternative to the western doctrines of Being, Essence, and Withdrawal.

Through the Two Truths we can interrogate objects and thus art and performance without getting caught in the problem of their existence (or our own), because objects’ existence can be held simultaneously in the light of withdrawal (Emptiness) and relationship (Compassion) both. If art consists in the crafting of sensuous or aesthetic experience, it is concerned with shaping the contact between sensing being and object. Graham Harman, recognizing the implications of Heideggerian withdrawal on “contact” and thus causation, refigures sense contact as proximity, and the effect of contact as allure. “By opening a window onto other objects, other levels of the world, allure is a phenomenon within the sensual bond that nonetheless plays out as a form of the physical/causal bond.”

Allure is the activity of proximity, the scent of Compassion, or “feeling with”. Engaging in the play of proximity, we each affect each other, and objects each other, everything rubbing up against everything else. At the same time, to forget the Emptiness of things is to risk confusion about their importance, and out of confusion and panic reify the self in opposition to things, and things in opposition to the self and each other. It is from this idea of violent collision — billiard balls being separate from each other — that classical mechanics and causality arises. From the posture of the reified self, objects are beautiful or ugly, relevant or ornamental, art, craft, kitsch, or prosaic. Remembering/embodying the emptiness of both objects and self, however, objects — better read as situations — are not “art” in the sense of a created experience, but shine simply as themselves, paradoxically all the more so when there is no “themselves” to be found. There is indeed nothing “intrinsically wrong” (or right, or any ethical consideration) with objects, but liberation comes from recognizing and abandoning grasping onto, resisting, or reifying them.

Western art’s concern with the object, via aesthetics, has played out in the last couple centuries as a progressive deconstruction of the identities of objects of art, peaking with Duchamp’s readymades, FLUXUS, and conceptual art after Cage’s 4”33”. But if the art object has been ripe for deconstruction to the point of ontological dissolution, what of the artist and audience themselves? Postdramatic performance as a modality is rich with possibilities for this dissolution because of its tendency to eschew the illusion of character and narrative in favor of a ruthless embrace of non-fiction, or of the “worldliness” of the theatrical situation. Three examples reveal possibilities for the dissolution, or seeing through the fixity of, the creator, the performer, and the audience:


In thinking about performance that either represents or enacts the dissolution of the creator, the two first have to be separated. To enact the dissolution of the creator is to release work that is deeply anonymous, which often implies “not documented” beyond its direct experience. When publicized, anonymous work generates as a byproduct of its publicization a spectral or trace author, who could be individual or collective, but plays a necessary role in the assembly of a narrative around the work. The interventions on the world stage of the hacker collective Anonymous perform a withdrawal of author even as the name itself now signifies an amorphous but definitely existent authorial force, thus the capitalization. Anonymous is a singular entity, even if structurally it is an anarchic collective. Collectives, like joint authors of a book, do this all the time, often with wholesome intent, as in the Buddhist texts published by the Padmakara Translation Group, which do not list the individual translators’ names. Collaboration is a form of authorial dissolution.

Other pieces perform representations of authorial dissolution, but retain authorship as a public, economic, and professional orientation. Much group performance lives in this paradox — Meg Stuart’s Auf den Tisch! (2005-11), for example, an “improvisation project” in which she “curated” ensembles of performers for a deconstructed “conference on improvisation”. The piece is clearly labeled and known as hers, but the curated performers all were so accomplished, and known in their own right, that their contributions not only were the content of the piece but in many ways were the piece, to which extent Stuart’s hand as author was substantially attenuated. The New York Times review of the piece mentions many of the performers and reflects on the nature of improvisation, but does not mention Stuart’s oeuvre or past work at all. She has been eclipsed by the very independent contributions of her cast. At the same time, only she is the famous American choreographer in residence at Volksbühne Berlin, a growing celebrity, and the undisputed author of this piece. Auf den Tisch! performs the dissolution of authority without deeply actualizing it, leaving Stuart in ontologically stable territory even as she celebrates group improvisation as collective authorship.


Friday I went to the Berkeley Art Museum to see a piece by Tino Sehgal entitled Instead of allowing something to rise up in your face dancing bruce and dan and other things (2000) that the wall plaque called a “constructed situation”, and which consisted of a single body moving slowly on the floor near an expanse of white wall. Every two hours a new person would enter the space and take over by lying down nearby and with a short (and interesting) period of moving in near unison till the first person left, take over and continue. My friend Jess Curtis was the dancer I saw when I arrived, and I was there because he had posted a note on Facebook saying that he was doing it. After he completed his “shift”, we talked about how Sehgal was very clear that they were not “performers”, but “interpreters”, and the implications of their names not being listed. These dancers, being paid a good wage (according to Curtis) for their presence, are in a museum, playing at the role that a statue plays: being the work of art. Curtis’s Facebook post read “I like being art!” and his moving here performs a very different public body than in his own performances, where his name and performer-nature are foregrounded. In some ways this performer-effacement is like the masked actor in a religious festival play — the role is what the audience sees, not the specific actor, and so the particularity of the actor, even if the role permits some agency (which the interpreter in Sehgal’s piece does have), is not important.

I recognized something like this when I was a monk in Burma, walking on alms round through Rangoon. When supporters would bow to me and put rice in my bowl, my instructions were to not respond, but keep my eyes down and walk simply and mindfully. I realized, after some time of being embarrassed that they would bow to me — a monk of very little accomplishment — that they were not bowing to me at all, but to the robe. As a representative of the Buddhist clergy, I would be received with respect that had nothing to do with my being a westerner or a skilled or unskilled meditator. I was simply interpreting the role “bhikkhu”, and my personal experience or identity in it did not matter much. Sehgal’s use or abuse of his chosen material — people — is interwoven with his insistence on non-documentation, which forcibly returns the viewer’s attention to the present, through denying the imperfect but easy satisfaction of simulacra, reproduction, or representation. This insistence can be read as a gesture of respect for the people he employs — they will not be doubly objectified: once unnamed in the moment of the piece itself and a second time unnamed in photographs and video of the pieces. And it makes their participation even more ephemeral than the piece itself, for while the work can be owned, lent, and sold (this version was labeled “Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, NY and Paris”), the interpreters will not travel with the piece as it is restaged. The instructions for the piece are the piece ontologically, while the contribution of the interpreters becomes the piece phenomenologically. The banks of a river define it as the particular river that it is, but the water, always different, thus can’t be called “the river”.


Audience-participation pieces have been around for decades, and structurally do blur the edges of performer and audience, creating a productive erasure of certainty and identity, but many still preserve the audience as audience. Invited to interact, we still know who is who, and that our role is fixed. More successful at destabilization/dissolution, some recent work has invited the audience to participate in ways that are designed well and controlled just enough to allow for safety and enthusiasm in the exploration, and for the audience to potentially lose themselves in the experience enough to slip out of “audience” mode and into something else (like “being myself”, perhaps). One example of a skillful participation score is Love Zoo (2004) by Felix Ruckert, a former Pina Bausch dancer who makes conceptual performances that use sensuality, touch, and audience interaction to “ the perception of living performance, sometimes allowing the spectator to play an active role in the performance and confronting him/her with intense emotional feelings”.

In Love Zoo, spectators are guided into exchanges with dancers and each other, using specific sets of instructions to facilitate explorations of touch, gesture, and intimacy, within a frame of consent and safety. As the piece develops, the audience members are soon interacting with each other as much as with the “dancers”, and the identity of the audience as a separate observer is in part dissolved. Ruckert refers to this piece as “a plea for promiscuity, and a manifesto for a more playful, creative, and sensual sexuality”. A question arises as to what differentiates this “piece” from a party that might also have framing rules around safety and consent, facilitation, aesthetic choices, and a focus on sexuality. Carol Queen’s sex parties, called Queen of Heaven, held through the 1990s at 848 Community Space in San Francisco fit such a description, as do many events that might be called parties, workshops, or rituals. This elision of “performance”, with its implication of performer and audience roles being separate, and social event is a thread that runs through postdramatic performance, and is a quality of some large public work as well, like Anna Halprin’s Circle the Earth dances, which use large numbers of amateur performers, and have become a kind of local holiday/festival, attended yearly by families as a community ritual event.


At the heart of postdramatic performance is the cultivation of presence as a radical gesture that collapses the distances and dyads that previously sustained the theatrical situation: performer and audience, on and off stage, actor and character, patron and worker, performance and “real life”. Presence, through contact with — or proximity to — the “real” surface of things, reveals the distinction between a thing and our thoughts about it. This training, which is what it is, as an intentional act, then can turn on thought itself, revealing the same distinction. A thought, received without recognition of it as a thought, creates the very convincing illusion of a substantial actor — called “me”. Seen in this way, thoughts confirm the reality of the actor behind the character. Hamlet isn’t real, but Branagh is. This might be a mindfulness of thought that is dramatic — reifying the actor-character process and the ontological reality of the actor, even if he is withdrawn from the surface of the character. The same thought, however, received through the lens of postdramatic performance might be seen for what it simply is — a psycho-physical experience — and thus not indicative of any withdrawn entity or actor.

Observing thought as postdramatic reveals it to be like a performer who is onstage in a transparent way, not pretending to be someone other than they are. This kind of recognition would not necessarily give rise to the thought “me”, and thus could disrupt habitual ego narratives. Presence is a tool for accomplishing such recognition. Taken further, presence can be felt as the ontological category that describes the singular Being-ness of things, and is the “fullness” (purnam) counterpart to Emptiness implied in the Two Truths. Form is Emptiness, but it is also Form. Postdramatic audiencing sees the actor as person rather than character, and thus knows thought as simply mental activity, rather than as the inner voice of the self. Deleuze grounds his post-phenomenological metaphysics in the recognition of “the univocity of simple presence (the One-All)”. Being is univocal, but is “fully compatible with multiple forms of Being”. Presence speaks with one voice, does one activity, but manifests as multiplicity. This double — or infinite — activity liberates through seeing with Wisdom and sustains relationship by arousing Compassion and Love.

This! This! Also This! Everything Revealed, All at Once! No Complaints. Good night.


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