corpsing, bad faith and the uneven relationship to life and death
The premiere of Ligia Lewis’ choreographic project for seven performers Still Not Still had to be postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Maja Zimmermann talked with her about her approach.
Maja Zimmermann: In Still Not Still, the audience is confronted with a choreography in which seven performers portray their own death as well as a certain degree of physical cruelty towards themselves and the others in a rather indifferent way. The choreography unfolds in a loop that renders these cruelties absurd and comical.
During the making of the piece, we talked about the idea in Western modernist thinking to conceive of history as linear progress. And that this version of history is founded on systemic violence and the subjugation of Black, Indigenous and People of Color.
Ligia Lewis: The whole piece kind of emerges out of a question, or maybe a critique of historical reason that renders both my subjectivity and other black and brown folks irrelevant. A historicity that always operates as a dangerous ratio to and/or cannibalization of the other. How do you create meaning as a subject if your subjectivity – you – are erased, more or less directly? Rather than taking the position of trying to write oneself into the history books, into History, do an opposite maneuver of trying to deaden History itself; to deaden this relationship to time, to linear progress.
I was inspired by Tina Campt’s book ‘Listening to Images’ and her proposition of stasis, or listening to the subtle vibrations of a still image. I am working in theater, with dance, choreography, movement, language, embodiment, which all operate as process over time. You’re writing time, basically, when you’re writing choreography. How can I arrive at this feeling of stasis that isn’t just literally standing still? How can I play with a relationship to time that reminds us that we’re still in the same place? That’s where the idea of the loop came in.
The cyclical representations of dying on stage emerge out of an intense, political moment where we see a kind of proximity to death amongst certain bodies versus others. This piece doesn’t provide a political answer. It’s more like an aesthetic proposal that speaks to the problem of the present. This uneven relationship to death is recurring, and old, and musty. The uneven distribution of power is still a problem, and so is any relation to power itself. How to think of a world outside the grip of power, particularly the kind that has been orchestrated by Europe through centuries of overt and covert violence? Power is shifty in this piece. People are constantly violating one another and are, in turn, being violated without rhyme or reason and with total indifference.
The performers’ indifference, even to their own bodies and pain, intensifies the sense of cruelty for the audience.
They all demonstrate their pain very explicitly to those watching. The whole piece is designed to be looked at, it is always taking the witness, the spectator, the audience into account: “Look how much this hurts, but you don’t care.” It’s kind of throwing this indifference and that violence of indifference back at the audience, to the point where it becomes comical and at times painful to watch.
In this piece as well as in your work in general you deal with the white audience and their gaze.
Yes, the white gaze is terrifying and seemingly omnipresent. And it’s something that – as much as I would love to step back from it, even ignore it – still haunts me. Some would argue that it’s just a fiction, and I’m like, yes, but it’s a fiction that has made many things real. This fiction imposes so much logic on certain bodies, on embodiment, and renders some people more than or less than human. Trying to produce an alternative is a beautiful gesture. But I have choreographed the violence to try to exhaust it, in a way, to the point where I could expose its cruelness, its absurdity, often with and through irony. Exposing the corpse that is modern life for some of us, what modern life has disabled, is a way of confronting this horror, this macabre. Dramaturgically, through the exhaustion of the loop, this cyclical violence, though funny and grotesque, gets pushed to the point that it produces discomfort, while also, hopefully, producing a feeling or desire for something else. The future would require rethinking everything that we’ve learned.
There are also these expectations towards black artists to provide solutions or alternatives. You’re more concerned with forcing the audience to question their own views, aren’t you?
Totally. In a way, I exacerbate the problem, which is deeper than just a simple plea for representation or understanding – deeper than the deepest form of empathy. It’s like how we’ve come to understand that what a subject really is, is to understand what a human really is. Humans are frightening. This uneven relationship not only to death but even to life and the fact that those two forms of existence are inevitably entangled, historically and materially for some. One big problem recently surfaced for me: that is the need, particularly for white folks or European-descended folks, to know the other in order to render them worthy of life. For me, that’s a really violent formulation of thought. So yeah, empathy isn’t it.
You mentioned the different relationships to death for black people and whites. One of the inspirations for your work was an essay by David Marriott, ‘Corpsing; or the Matter of Black Life’, where he writes about corpsing, this blunder in theater when a performer falls out of character. He transfers it to the social realm. He’s saying that blacks are considered to be symbolically dead, so corpsing would actually mean to claim life…
…or a kind of life that is not meaningful to whites. The modern world keeps re-representing Black Death which it continues to feed on. It’s no surprise that those images of George Floyd or any other black person that has suffered or has been murdered at the hands of the state circulate so much. To corpse one’s own death is to fall out of character, not to perform the thing that the audience needs to feed on. Not to ask for life. To be like: “Look, I’m human inside of your fucked-up order.” To do something else that fails, as yet, to have a name, or clear purpose.
For centuries, we were rendered nonhuman. What makes people so convinced that we even want to be human in their sense of the term? That’s so dark, because to say that you’re not human means that you are going to be made more vulnerable to injury.
Another recurring theme in the piece is suffering. Not only do they all suffer, but whose suffering is more worthy of the audience’s attention? Part of this violence of indifference is also the desperation produced by being watched, looked at, made to reduce oneself to a ridiculous conception of what is valuable, what suffering is more worthy. So the performers also perform the grotesquery of performing their pain, their suffering so as to be like – “no, but me, I’m hurt more”. What’s important for me in this piece, however, because it is a kind of ‘danse macabre’, is still not to equalize suffering, and to not pretend we are all the same. This doesn’t eliminate coalition-building.
These expressions of suffering lead me to the musical source material you used to create the soundscore for the piece: Guillaume de Machaut’s ‘Complainte’ from the 14th century.
Yes, I was obsessed with that complaint, this extended lament by Machaut that I stumbled upon. It is about unrequited love, but it’s also a lament on ill fate. I transfigured this lament to one that reflects the conditions of bad faith, racism straight up, in all its forms including the most pernicious, the invisible forms upheld by liberalism. For me, it was like a love letter to those that suffer as a result of this condition. Being in this world for many feels like a condition of ill fate. The whole piece is built on this musical complaint.
Part of the heart of the logic of the piece is that things recur, this lament is recurring, the actions unfold on a loop. So I worked with S. McKenna, who made the music based on different ‘corpsed’ forms of the original complaint, arriving at distorted variations. His music helps feed this darkness, this corpsing of reality. You think you overcame something and gotten somewhere and then we’re back where we began, however in a more grotesque or amplified way. The cycles are pretty messed up.
The scenography creates an impression of Americana, the world of cowboys, which becomes quite prominent in the piece.
I developed an interest in this kind of guitar music and this whole idea of Western expansion, and the American cowboys as a watered-down, whitened image of that. This watered-down image also creates the narrative that the world is mine, I can go and I can take it, I have the right to claim it as mine. In the United States, the term was Manifest Destiny, this big idea of moving westward. And, of course, there are obvious parallels to European expansionism and violence perpetrated through colonialism.
Originally, I thought to make the set really dark, with figures faintly appearing, the frame capturing only parts of the violence. I was inspired by medieval painting. Then I looked at this Pieter Bruegel painting, ‘The Triumph of Death’, more closely, and what makes it so amazing is that it’s so colorful and so funny. And so dark. It mixes play with horror. So it was clear that the set, developed by Claudia Besuch, had to be colorful, almost like a playground, but they’re doing these terrible things to each other on this playground. Yellow as a color has something naive to it, it’s hopeful while feeling child-like. I wanted the set to be amplified as well, to heighten the viscerality of the piece. Also, the sonic resonance of the wooden panels, particularly when moved or hit by a body, gives a strong feel to the mood of the piece.
Throughout its loops, the piece gets more and more comical. You also worked with the specific performativity of ‘Deadpan’.
Yes, I remembered a video piece by Steve McQueen called ‘Deadpan’, where he is standing still while a house falls down around him. It’s an allusion to Buster Keaton’s ‘Steamboat Bill’. In McQueen’s version, he stays standing, he doesn’t run away, yet the house continues to fall on a loop. And I felt that this embodied very clearly the kind of mood of living while black in this world, being constantly aware of your proximity to tragedy, that it is potentially just around the corner. So tragedy was something I wanted to work on in this piece. It’s also very slapstick, a way to underline both violence and tragedy, but through comedy, laughter and dark humor.
I just realized, there was one part of Guillaume Machaut’s composition in one of his laments, stating: “My grief has turned into my laugh / For this don’t say what to do.”
That’s the complaint, that is what this piece is.
Maja Zimmermann works as a dance dramaturg and collaborates with artists such as Dragana Bulut, Ligia Lewis and Miriam Jakob, among others. In her own research she explores touch and relationality in contemporary contexts of labor. She is based in Berlin.