I once heard a performance-studies scholar explain the difference between performance art and theater as that between presentation and representation. She was wrong. For the essence of theater lies not in representation, but in the duality between presentation and representation, as well as in the indeterminacy infiltrating this dichotomy. A play takes place in between action and act—and, as Gregory Bateson observed, the line separating one from the other always remains vague. Theater plays with this double identity (performance art often pretends it doesn’t exist).1
John Cage transposed this mechanism into music when he claimed that music is encompassed within theater. However, instead of grappling with its duplicitous nature, the composer hastily reduced “theater” to what is “seen” during a music concert. Hence the famous dictum: “We have eyes as well as ears, and it is our business while we are alive to use them.” But more important than the plural nature of our organs of perception is the plural nature of what is perceived. Music is theater, not because it involves visual elements that cannot be reduced to the presentation of music, but because the presentation of music itself harbors a duality. Simply put, it is never certain whether one is in a “concert of music” or in a “play about a concert of music.”
Immaculate Conception by No Collective, which premiered on January 22 at MISE-EN_PLACE in Bushwick, staged a remarkable exploration of theatricality in music. No Collective is a conceptual musical-theater-dance troupe that has been wreaking creative havoc in Brooklyn and beyond for some years now. It was commissioned by the up-and-coming ensemble mise-en to compose two new works, one for the ensemble to perform, and the other for themselves to present. What they conceived was something quite different: a single piece composed of six acts of ten minutes each, performed in turn by the members of ensemble mise-en and No Collective. At the core of their conception was one idiosyncratic contrivance: No Collective was formed as a doppelgänger of ensemble mise-en, with exactly the same instrumentation (flute, violin, contrabass, piano, bass clarinet, trombone, and a conductor), played by a performer of the same gender and even the same ethnicity as the musicians of ensemble mise-en. In other words, No Collective “acted” as ensemble mise-en—and vice versa. The piece was credited accordingly as “composed and performed by No Collective as ensemble mise-en and ensemble mise-en as No Collective.”
The sequence of acts first unfolded and then collapsed a narrative of sorts. Act 1 consisted of “ensemble mise-en as No Collective” (according to the program notes) performing a ten-minute sequence of music. But they only gestured the performance on their instruments without producing any sound. The sequence also involved the musicians exiting the stage or talking to each other at various moments. In Act 2 a live-feed video was projected, which seemed to capture “No Collective” watching the video of Act 1 and discussing what kind of music was being played. This same group appeared on stage in Act 3 (this time credited as “ensemble mise-en”) and performed the ten-minute sequence with exactly the same gestures, exits, and talking as the first group, but actually producing sounds. Thus a linear causality seemed to be in place: one group watches the performance of the other and proceeds to imitate it. In Act 4, the same group from Act 1 (now credited as “No Collective”) performed the same gestures in silence again. But this time, the recording of Act 3 was simultaneously played out from the speakers, so that the group appeared to gesture-sync to the other’s music. In Act 5, the group from Act 3 reenacted the ten-minute sequence, this time in silence. The video from Act 2 was projected again, though it was now dubbed with a different conversation. This rendered the “live” status of the video dubious, dismantling the narrative that had been engendered. In the final act, Act 6, “No Collective” performed the ten-minute sequence, producing sound for the first time in the evening, which, despite (or because of) the constancy of gestures, could not have been more different than the one played by “ensemble mise-en.”
The simplicity of each act marked a strong contrast with the complexity of the piece. More accurately, things suddenly seemed complicated when we tried to make sense of how the sequence of events formed a whole. The performance revolved around the two “gaps” inherent in the initial theatrical set up—between the two groups, and between gesture and sound—and a constant theatrical effort to fill-in this gap—i.e. acting. But the layers of acting accumulated to the extent of being unrecognizable. As many audience members expressed after the concert, the whole evening appeared as a giant puzzle to be solved. Which group was No Collective and which was ensemble mise-en? When was the video filmed? Who was having those conversations? These questions went unanswered. When asked, You Nakai from No Collective responded mischievously, “What did you think?”
Okay then, my thoughts are simple: the appearance of the puzzle is itself a decoy—a stage prop. What seems to escape the all-encompassing condition of theater is the conception behind it. For this reason, spectators tend to harbor a desire to grasp the mechanism behind what is presented. A puzzle is something that demands solving. And by solving it, we are released from the complexities of the actual events staged, and can happily take home a more simplified truth of the matter. Like all things economical, this condensed solution provides comfort and assurance. Immaculate Conception stages a strategic dissolution of this reductive tendency of the audience. The overtly complex structure is precisely aimed to discourage the search for an underlying system that supports all acting. Throughout the concert, every seemingly causal ground turns out to be itself fabricated upon other grounds, similarly unstable. The narrative evoked by the first sequence of events is shattered by what happens later, the program notes only mislead, and what is written and what is staged do not converge. A feeling of groundlessness imbues what is staged. Not giving up on my own desires to unlock the mystery, I suspect this was the meaning of the strange claim in the program notes that the work intends to “reverse causalities.” Actuality only lies within what is acted—there is no exterior cause that happenstances can be reduced to. Conception, if any, is thus rendered immaculate.
- Though, actually, the most interesting recent developments in the so-called performance-art scene of Brooklyn seem to be taking this condition of theater seriously—think of the “operas” presented by Panoply Performance Laboratory, for instance, or the “post-dance” of Lindsey Drury. It is interesting to note that Brian McCorkle of PPL and Lindsey Drury both performed as part of No Collective in this concert.