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Jerome ROTHENBERG (USA)

Jerome Rothenberg (b. 1931) poet, essay writer, translator, editor, publisher. Author of more than fifty poetry books. Since 1966 he has prepared for publication a number of anthologies of traditional and contemporary poetry, most of which were repeatedly reprinted in the years to follow. Author of a number of fundamental translations of ethno-poetry, as well as of works by K. Schwitters, P. Picasso, E. Gomringer and others. He is a Doctor of Philology, deeply involved in lecturing both in the USA and abroad. Prize winner of the American PEN-Center (1994) and holder of a number of prestigious American literary rewards. His poetic works have been translated into the main world languages. For more information see the bio-bibliography of the participant. The material has been especially prepared by the author for the present edition based on the: Jerome Rothenberg. New Models, New Visions: Some Notes Toward a Poetics of Performance (1977) Performance in Postmodern Culture (ed. by M. Benamou & Ch. Caramello, Coda Press, 1977). 1977-2000 Jerome Rothenberg, New-York, NY.

SOME NOTES TOWARD A POETICS OF PERFORMANCE

The fact of performance now runs through all our arts, and the arts themselves begin to merge and lose their old distinc­tions, till its apparent that were no longer where we were to start with. The Renaissance is over or it begins again with us. Yet the origins we seek the frame that bounds our past, thats set against an open-ended future are no longer Greek, nor even Indo-European, but take in all times and places. To say this isnt to deny history, for were in fact involved with his­tory, with the sense of ourselves in time and in relation to other forms of human experience besides our own. The model or better, the vision has shifted: away from a great tradition centered in a single stream of art and literature in the West, to a greater tradition that includes, sometimes as its central fact, preliterate and oral cultures throughout the world, with a sense of their connection to subterranean but literate traditions in civilizations both East and West. Thought is made in the mouth, said Tristan Tzara, and Edmond Jabes: The book is as old as fire and water and both, we know, are right.

The change of view, for those who have experienced it, is by now virtually paradigmatic. We live with it in practice and find it more and more difficult to communicate with those who still work with the older paradigm. Thus, what ap­pears to us as essentially creative how can we doubt it? carries for others the threat that was inherent when Tzara, as arch Dadaist, called circa 1917, for a great negative work of destruction against a late, overly textualized derivation from the Renaissance paradigm of culture and history. No longer viable, that great Western thesis was already syn­thesizing, setting the stage for its own disappearance. The other side of Tzaras work and increasingly that of other artists within the several avant-gardes, the different, often con­flicted sides of modernism was, we now see clearly, a great positive work of construction/synthesis. With Tzara it took the form of a projected anthology, Poemes negres, a gathering of African and Oceanic poems culled from existing ethnog­raphies and chanted at Dada performances in Zurichs Cabaret Voltaire. To the older brokers of taste the bearers of Western values in an age of chaos this may have looked like yet an­other Dada gag, but seeing it now in its actual publication eight decades after the fact, it reads like a first, almost too serious attempt at a new classic anthology. In circulation orally, it formed with Tzaras own poetry the process of a life and its emergence as performance in the soundworks and simultanei­ties of the dada soirees, etc. one of the prophetic statements of where our work was to go.

Eighty years after Dada, a wide range of artists have been making deliberate and increasing use of ritual models for performance, have swept up arts like painting, sculpture, poetry (if those terms still apply) long separated from their origins in performance. (Traditional performance arts music, theater, dance have undergone similarly extreme transforma­tions: often, like the others, toward a virtual liberation from the dominance of text.) The principal function here may be viewed as that of mapping and exploration, but however de­fined or simplified (text, e.g., doesnt vanish but is revitalized; so, likewise, the Greco-European past itself), the performance/ritual impulse seems clear throughout: in happenings and related event pieces (particularly those that involve participa­tory performance), in meditative works (often on an explicitly mantric model), in earthworks (derived from monumental American Indian structures), in dreamworks that play off trance and ecstasy, in bodyworks (including acts of self-mutilation and endurance that seem to test the model), in a range of healing events as literal explorations of the shamanistic premise, in animal language pieces related to the new ethology, etc.1

Avelino de Araujo.
Dietpoem, 1989

While a likely characteristic of the new paradigm is an overt disdain for paradigms per se, it seems altogether possible to state a number of going assumptions as these relate to per­formance. I wont try to sort them out but will simply present them for consideration in the order in which they come to mind.

(1) There is a strong sense of continuities, already alluded to, within the total range of human cultures and arts, and a sense as well that the drive toward performance goes back to our pre-human biological inheritance that performance and culture, even language, precede the actual emergence of the species: hence an ethological continuity as well. With this comes a rejection of the idea of artistic progress and a ten­dency to link avant-garde and traditional performance (tribal/oral, archaic, etc.) as forms of what Richard Schechner calls transformational theater and art in opposition to the mimetic/re-actualizing art of the older paradigm.

(2) There is an unquestionable and far-reaching breakdown of boundaries and genres: between art and life (Cage, Kaprow), between various conventionally defined arts (in­termedia and performance art, concrete poetry), and between arts and non-arts (musique concrete, found art, etc.). The con­sequences here are immense, and Ill only give a few, perhaps too obvious, examples:

that social conflicts are a form of theater (V. Turner) and that organized theater may be an arena for the projection and/or stimulation of social conflict;

that art has again recognized itself as visionary, and that there may be no useful distinction between vision-as-vision and vision-as-art (thus, too, the idea in common between Freud and the Surrealists, that the dream is a dream-work, i.e., a work-of-art);

that there is a continuum, rather than a barrier, between music and noise; between poetry and prose (the language of inspiration and the language common and special dis­course); between dance and normal locomotion (walking, run­ning, jumping), etc.;

that there is no hierarchy of media in the visual arts, no hierarchy of instrumentation in music, and that qualitative distinctions between high and low genres and modes (opera and vaudeville, high rhetoric and slang) are no longer opera­tional;

that neither advanced technology (electronically pro­duced sound and image, etc.) nor hypothetically primitive de­vices (pulse and breath, the sound of rock on rock, of hand on water) are closed off to the artist willing to employ them.

Fernando Aguiar.
Musical writing, 1990

The action hereafter is between and among, the forms hybrid and vigorous and pushing always toward an actual and new completeness. Here is the surfacing, resurfacing in fact of that liminality that Victor Turner recognizes rightly as the place of fruitful chaos and possibility but no less here than there. It is, to say it quickly, the consequence in art-and-life of the freeing-up of the dialectical imagina­tion.

(3) There is a move away from the idea of masterpiece to one of the transientness and self-obsolescence of the art-work. The work past its moment becomes a document (mere history), and the artist becomes, increasingly, the surviving non-special­ist in an age of technocracy.

Phil Corner.
Untitled, 2000

(4) From this there follows a new sense of function in art, in which the value of a work isnt inherent in its formal or aesthetic characteristics its shape or its complexity or sim­plicity as an object but in what it does, or what the artist or his surrogate does with it, how he performs it in a given con­text. This is different in turn from the other, equally func­tional concept of art as propaganda, at least insofar as the latter forces the artist to repeat truths already known, etc., in the service of the total state. As an example of a non-formal, functional approach to the art object as instrument-of-power, take the following, from my conversations with the Seneca Indian sculptor/carver, Avery Jimerson:

I told him that I thought Floyd Johns mask was very beau­tiful, but he said it wasnt because it didnt have real power [the power, for example, to handle burning coals while wearing it]. His own father had had a mask that did, until there was a fire in his house and it was burnt to ashes. But his father could still see the features of tlie mask and so, before it crumbled, he hurried out and carved a second mask. And that second mask looked like the first in every detail. Only it had no power. (J. R., A Seneca Journal)

Jas Duke.
Untitled, 70s

(5) There follows further, in the contemporary instance, a stress on action and/or process. Accordingly the performance or ritual model includes the act of composition itself: the artists life as an unfolding through his performance of it. (The consideration of this private or closed side of perform­ance is a little like Richard Schechners discovery that re­hearsal/preparation is a theatrical/ritual event as important as the showing it precedes.) Signs of the artists or poets pres­ence are demanded in the published work, and in our own time this has come increasingly to take the form of his or her performance of that work, unfolding it or testifying to it in a public place a physical space in more traditional work; a virtual one in the age of hypermedia.2 The personal presence is an instance as well of localization, of a growing concern with particular and local definitions; for what, asks David Antin, can be more local than the person?

Hartmut Geerken.
Erwartet bob sambo...
(fragment), 90s

 (6) Along with the artist, the audience enters the perform­ance arena as participant or, the audience disappears as the distinction between doer and viewer, like the other distinctions mentioned herein, begins to blur. For this the tribal/oral is a particularly clear model, often referred to by the creators of 1960s happenings and the theatrical pieces that invited, even coerced, audience participation toward an ultimate democratizing of the arts. In a more general way, many artists have come to see themselves as essentially the initiators of the work (makers of the plot but not of everything that enters into the plot Jackson Mac Low), expanding the art process by inviting the audience to join them in an act of co-creation or to respond with a new work in which the one-time viewer/ listener himself becomes the maker. The response-as-creation thus supercedes the response-as-criticism, just as the maker/particularizer comes to be viewed (or to view himself) as the superior of the interpreter/generalizer. It is this which Charles Olson had in mind when he saw us emerging from a generaliz­ing time, etc., to regain a sense of the poem as the act of the instant... not the act of thought about the instant. More dramatically, as a contrast between the involved participant and the objective observer, it turns up in Gary Snyders story of Alfred Kroeber and his Mojave Indian in­formant, circa 1902, in which Kroeber sits through six days of intense oral narration, the story of the world from its begin­nings, and then writes:

When our sixth day ended he still again said another day would see us through. But by then I was overdue at Berkeley. And as the prospective day might once more have stretched into several, I reluctantly broke off, promis­ing him and myself that I would return to Needles when I could, not later than next winter, to conclude recording the tale. By next winter Inyo-Kutavere had died, and the tale thus remains unfinished. <...> He was stone blind. He was below the average of Mojave tallness, slight in figure, spare, almost frail with age, his gray hair long and un­kempt, his features sharp, delicate, sensitive. <...> He sat indoors on the loose sand floor of the house for the whole of the six days that I was with him in the frequent posture of Mojave men, his feet beneath him or behind him to the side, not with legs crossed. He sat still but smoked all the Sweet Caporal cigarettes I provided. His house mates sat around and listened or went and came as they had things to do.

Karl Riha.
Sonett, 1993

To which Snyder adds the single sentence: That old man sitting in the sand house telling his story is who we must be­come not A. L. Kroeber, as fine as he was.

The model switch is here apparent. But in addition the poet-as-informant stands in the same relation to those who speak of poetry or art from outside the sphere of its making as do any of the worlds aboriginals. The antagonism to litera­ture and to criticism is, for the poet and artist, no different from that to anthropology, say, on the part of the Native American militant. It is a question in short of the right to self-definition.

(7) There is an increasing use of real time, extended time, etc., and/or a blurring of the distinction between those and theatrical time, in line with the transformative view of the work as a process thats really happening. (Analogues to this, as alternative modes of narration, performance, etc., are again sought in tribal/oral rituals.) In addition an area of performance using similarly extended time techniques toward actual transformations (of the self, of consciousness, etc.) parallels that of traditional meditation (mantra, yantra, in the Tantric context), thus an exploration of the boundaries of mind that Snyder offers as the central work of contemporary man, or Duchamp from a perspective not all that different: to put art again at the service of mind.

Jean-Pierre Bobillot.
Poem, 1993

For all of this recognition of cultural origins and particularities, the crunch, the paradox, is that the place, if not the stance, of the artist and poet is increasingly both within and beyond culture a characteristic, inevitably, of biospheric societies. Imperialis­tic in their earlier forms and based on a paradigm of the dominant culture (principally the noble/imperial myths of Western civilization and of progress, etc. on a Western or European model), these have in their avant-garde phase been turning to the symposium of the whole projected by the American poet Robert Duncan. More strongly felt in the industrial and capitalist world, this may be the last great move of its kind still to be initiated by the Euro-Americans: a recog­nition of the new/old order in which the whole is equal to but no greater than the works of all its parts.

Addendum 2000. When I began to consider the new and old models and visions that marked our contemporary perspective, the great surge of developments in media and global communiction was just beginning. Its my sense that what were seeing today at the turning of the century and the millennium is both a continuation and a transformation of the performance model that Ive described above. On the more experimental side, the localization of voice and body has both been recovered and transformed reversed over the last hundred years, and this process has continued and been magnified in the present. The rapidly developing electronic media have both frozen the voice and transmitted it as virtual image across a global pathway. Performance, while remaining largely localized at inception, has lost some of its transientness, its singleness in space and time, and has challenged the limitations under which we had long labored. In its newness such work is inherently experimental, while in its sweep across boundaries and cultures, it has the possibility of bringing together in a curiously continuous present (G. Stein) cultures and forms that had been thought of as inherently distant and apart. Along with this has come a renaissance of experiments in the verbivocovisual (J. Joyce) with a potentially unprecedented reach. Buoyed more recently by the Web and Internet, the arts of voice and gesture, of sound and movement, have found the virtuality of cyberspace to be a new and sometimes germinal arena for creation and performance, for work in present time and for the storage and preservation of much (oral as well as written) that came before.

That the balance here between the local & global and the old & new is precarious at best, goes surely without saying; that it is hopeful in its implications is also something to be stressed.

1. When I made a similar point in Technicians of the Sacred some years ago, I attributed the relation between primitive ritual and contemporary art and performance to an implicit coincidence of attitudes, where today the relation seems up-front, explicit, and increasingly com­parable to the Greek and Roman model in Renaissance Europe, the Chinese model in medieval Japan, the Toltec model among the Aztecs, etc.: i.e., an overt influence but alive enough to work a series of distor­tions conditioned by the later culture and symptomatic of the obvious differences between the two.

2. It is characteristic of the developing new media that personal presence shifts from a physical space a precise location in space and time to a virtual one; and yet performer and observer are bound together with a sometimes heightened sense and possibility of interactivity. At the same time performance in the stricter, more physical sense is not so much diminished as revitalized. It is very much like the fate of the book a surviving and revivified form even in this age of electronic reproduction.

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