Wow did we get lucky. Bob and I met with Abby Yager who was working with students on staging a performance of Trisha Brown’s 1976 piece Solo olos. Abby graciously invited her dancers to meet with our 8:30 class to show the work and discuss the process. Abby first gave the students a nice historical overview of the Judson Church folks. Then she explained the indeterminate structure of the piece. The timing for our class could not have been better. Three basic dance phrases (main, branch, and spill – the first two set, the third developed by individual dancers from an ambiguous set of instructions) are set n motion. Five dancers start with main – which – like all phrases – can be performed backwards or forwards – one splits off to become the caller. The caller, at specific points in the dance can call out a single or multiple dancers to execute the branch or spill phrase or to reverse any of the three phrases. The result is that each time the dance is performed it creates different arrangements. Very much like Cage’s indeterminate sound pieces. After performing it once (about 10 minutes) the dancers talked about their experience with the work. Here are some basic things that emerged from the conversation:
Exploring the friction between freedom and form.
There are no mistakes – everything creates something beautiful.
You learn to deal with what comes your way.
“Just try.” That was the point. She put us on a collision course with the impossible (to see what would happen).
She works with seemingly impossible instructions.
Line up (the warp – the baseline to create from – the underlying structure)
Play with visibility and invisibility, the emergent and the disappeared.
Work the edges of the space – transgress the space and play with the extremes.
Act on instinct
Keep it simple.
These ideas help you get past your creative genius.
She worked to destabilize the notion of right and wrong.
Then they danced the piece again with a different set of dancers and a different caller. Completely different – and yet - bot. Bob and I videotaped the presentation and discussion and then went over this material with the second class.
The following class Bob took the lead to present a slide show on where we have come from and how we got to the postmodern era. The presentation was complete with a few movement exercises based on the Solo olos material – but significantly simplified. Part of what we were exploring was indeterminacy, but also system – specifically group events.
Today was about fluxus – getting students ready to develop their own fluxus inspired pieces. So, brief history of the movement, some examples, and some discussion about La Monte Young. It was at this point in the first class that a student, who has remained largely silent this term, asked about intent – mainly – how is it possible to look at such things as art? It’s a question I love because then we have to talk about what we have been trained to see VS what we see in front of us. It also frames the question of categories and understanding in really interesting ways. Much of this is inherited in the sense that we are taught how to listen and watch and understand artistic expression. What I like about what the fluxus folk do is push on those understandings. By creating simple pieces they open up a space for a dialogue about “what is art?”
I felt compelled to follow up with the student via email to mention two things – how glad I was he posed the question (which I posed in the second section) and that he should continue this line of thought. Here was my response:
I appreciate you questioning the material today. I expect you are not the only student to wonder about the material we have been discussing (something true in both sections). The fact that you have thought about it and talked about it - even if you don't agree with it - means that the course material is doing what it is supposed to do. What I mean by this is that these paths to the present courses are designed to introduce students to material that they may not be familiar with. Much of this material raises the question you raised today in class - how can this be considered art? When posing the question it become clear fairly quickly that everyone draws that line differently. Part of what Bob and I are proposing is whether it is possible to define artistic expression not by skill or technique, but by concept and execution of thought. By the end of the term I suspect some students will reject much of what we have discussed. Which is fine. I don't believe that Bob's job or mine is to convince anyone where that line of art/non-art is - but merely to raise questions that you can wrestle with on your own.
Thanks for speaking up today - I encourage you to continue this line of questioning in the future.
So – now we are at spring break – it was actually great that the art question came up at this point – it gives the students something to think about. When we return students will be bringing in their three fluxus inspired pieces. Each piece is to be written out on a 3x5 index card. Then we perform them. In the past it has been a fun and interesting day. I have sold it as such to Bob. My hope is that it doesn’t disappoint – but who knows.
As a side note here – we have seen a number of students wake up and get engaged in the conversation in really interesting ways. But there are those that still feel asleep. My hope is that the somnambulistic tendencies don’t drag the whole thing down.