Thirza Cuthland, from Less Lethal Fetishes, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.
Fusing self-representation with philosophy and critical theory, autotheory moves between “theory” and “practice.” It is critical and it is creative; it is experiential and experimental; it is scholarly and it is popular. It brings theory to life and life to theory. It plays with personal polemic, positing a speaking self in the act of writing “I,” and then, self-reflectively and self-reflexively, it deconstructs itself. Autotheory’s genealogies spring from the institutions it seeks to critique. It privileges thinking with over thinking against; its politics of citation unveil its relations. From social media technologies to the publishing industry, from live performance to visual art, autotheory’s escalating ubiquity in cultural production serves as a provocation: why autotheory and why now? What motivates the methodological melding of an autobiographical “I” with academic scholarship? What implications does theorizing the self have for the politics of knowledge production?
A digital companion to the special issue of ASAP/Journal, this cluster animates the autotheoretical intersections of art and art writing in time-based media. Transmedial in form and provocative by design, these works appear accompanied by autotheory’s telltale synthesis of critical-creative writing. The cluster includes film and video by Maider Fortune, Annie Macdonell, and Ree Botts; performance for the camera and documentation of live performances by Ceylan Öztürk, Calla Durose-Moya, lo bil, and Mel Keiser; web-based work, including memes, by Simon Evnine and Piper Curtis; other moving-images, including GIFs, by Migueltzinta C. Solis, and sound-based work by Arezu Salamzadeh. Off the page and on the screen, these autotheories invite as much as they imagine, contest as much as they contrive, and exude as much as they include.
— Lauren Fournier and Alex Brostoff
WHAT IS A PAPER
I want to prioritize what the body is feeding me in the moment. This document is a flickering between reflection, speculation and what was to be my paper for the Sick Theories Conference, organized by Margeaux Feldman and Lauren Fournier through the Jackman Humanities Institute in Toronto in 2018. I decided in the moment of standing at the podium that the paper wasn’t appropriate for an academic conference. Instead, I delivered the confusion that I did—an improvised version of the paper I had intended, exploring similar ideas, but within a performative paradigm I call “moving weirdly.”
It could be that my mind was playing tricks on me and I decided to sabotage my conference paper but I also accept that it was in service of my intention to ensure that my academic readings include utterances of the body over forcing language to make sense. By hiding my own paper from myself, I created a panic that led to a heightened performative state that generated unexpected gestures as I picked up the pieces of grief in front of everyone, a rhythm punctuated by a loss of words, and gave into the messiness of understanding in dealing with these nonlinear physical propulsions that are an inseparable part of what I’m trying to say with the paper. Although it is not possible for the audience or for me to integrate all the layers that are at play in what I’m communicating, I hope that something of dimension, reverberation and felt sense is delivered that goes beyond what we think we know.
I call this “moving weirdly.” My hypothesis with moving weirdly involves an action of feeling into the moment of being witnessed and allowing surprising physical responses to surface. I let myself be distracted from a preconceived aesthetic of academic presence. Moving weirdly is different from the behavioural description of “acting out” that might imply a displacement of desire or the release of a repressed counter-aggression. Moving weirdly involves a conscious choice to let my trauma-informed responsiveness be present in the moment in a non-harming expressive way. As an artist-academic, my actions are listening, accepting, responding, following and not imposing on myself a need to encode those physical responses into language. I believe that the meaning of the text is generated in the interstice between my language and my physicality. I have generated a world of inner workings related to the connection between moving and talking through acting and clown training and practice. But instead of using this as a technique to make you believe I am an alternate identity, moving weirdly is a transparency of my inner life that offers the audience a porousness through which they can engage with the text—e.g. the uncanny feeling of “What is going on with this presenter?” is a question that can potentially activate the embodiment of the listeners. There is also an allegiance with therapeutic method and with clown in the acceptance that non-linguistic meaning is generated in the space between the speaker and receiver.
So I chose this option to move weirdly even though the choice might have led to an outcome of presenting myself as sicker than I am. But I feel this form is more true to my relationship with language as a communicative vacuum and excess simultaneously. I’m dancing outside the window all the time and that’s the way it is. I have brought my body here and that body has a history. At the conference you are looking at my body as this vehicle of communicative transmission and my response system is undeniably activated. My body is part of the text and content is embedded in the physical action.
Do speakers quiet the body so there are fewer distractions for the listeners? Is that what is going on here? To reassure us of the objectivity of the investigator as a blank slate who received the information impartially? Why is this the default convention for the academic conference? Does the stillness impart trustworthiness? We all know, I have a body and you are looking at it and that is a stressful part of the equation. Why don’t we use our time wisely and send information on more registers than what meets the ear? What if we embrace the conference as a place to take such risks? I don’t care if you love me—and yet I admit, I hope you do. I also hope to vie for a job someday so I can reduce the low-wage constraint. But is your approval more important than the sicker version of myself that I want to come to terms with? Why am I letting my wires of life and work get crossed here when of course I appreciate those individuals who can stand and deliver their words so confidently? I think it has something to do with my art-based approach to question perception and academic outcomes.
Can I be half sick within your presence? My mind can write a paper that makes sense. My fingers, eyes and torso all conspire the night before the conference to show me that I am capable of writing sentences clearly. But on the day, I don’t force my body to deliver it “properly.” I hide the paper in a folder full of other readings. I call the pile of papers my archive or fragments of my second body – an image from my studio practice. The second body survives an imminent death, that fear-swell of trauma. I need to notice what comes to mind in front of the people in order to tap into this layer of sensation that generates meaning. I will remember what is written in the paper because I wrote it, I will remember only what needs to be spoken—and what else is here when we are together that I can speak to? The unexpected information that arrives with the presence of witnesses is more vital in this conference moment because it will not come to mind when I’m sitting alone. This is a moment when new knowledge can be revealed if I tune into my physical response. Why would I want to deny these inklings? I want to bring them into the room.
The conference is a unique lab filled with minds, hearts and bodies invested in related fields of scholarship. This noticing is worth casting far from a collectively unspoken idea of perfection. I allow the body to disrupt the delivery of the coherent thing that would make instant meaning to others and perhaps form friendships or scholarly connections. But can I perform my colonized-by-consumerism-whiteness in a way that disrupts my own mind? Can I breathe underwater long enough to notice the water I swim in? Is there a possible future in not having to repeat the lie that the body has a calmness? Myself as witness, I can receive the sense of the Youtube Krump crowd more than I can of the orderly guest of the TED Talk. In return, I get to experience feeling the consequences of being in a disruptive body. I take some research in for myself and I reveal to you an experience of what I am trying to say.
FEAR OF RISKING IT
After the panel I am shaking in embarrassment of not measuring up or presumably letting down the organizers and in the gasp-slime of what was it that leaked out of my physicality? I don’t know, see, or understand the leakage but I admit that is the content. It reminds me of the adolescent idea-time that my body is telling stories that I myself don’t know and the fear and panic impulses of disconnection and hiding. But now, I stand present and say, yes well, this is me. I foregrounded unspoken content that surfaces when I am with you, to showcase what I am living as a predicament worth valuing. I’m a scared mouse triumphantly.
It’s a strange arrogance that probably has to do with my whiteness. In my whiteness I’m allowed to be this messy. Albeit maybe an expression of whiteness that is in support of the Bernie Sanders-like outliers by virtue of not playing into the imaginatively pre-formed models we are continually repeating and projecting. Is this a way of diminishing privilege or of claiming it? I get to do it like this because I won’t be feared. It becomes an expression of difference, a novel thing but not the kind of novelty anyone else would wish to adopt.
So am I using my privilege to draw attention to my privilege? Or am I acting out because I hate following rules and disregard collective care like the anti-maskers? Or am I doing something else altogether—pursuing what my body knows to be another way of speaking, more honestly, maybe? I feel that my academic goal is to be in my integrity, to work from a place of unravelling an honest point-of-view. I don’t need to disrupt. I am asking myself what else is possible. I ask myself this question again and again: Why am I doing this? I am driven to self doubt and scepticism. I know from my experience of performance making that I will know more of why I am doing this after it has been done. I have a strong impulse to test my intuition around this axiom. The knowledge never comes until I do the thing. This is all that will tether me to a real research, or lead me to the reasons why it looks like this, and why that is not just about displaying a personal entitlement. I am willing to make mistakes because for me the main point is that I can learn something and with you here, anything is possible. And we will never be together again in this particular group. New knowledge comes from new conditions, new kinds of meetings enact a radical empiricism, the material between us is part of the content.
On the break, I feel some avoidance but some people tell me they enjoyed my presentation. Kristen said, “It took the edge off the pressure to be organized.” I am all for this relax-response; nervous system disabulution of disassemblances. I have nothing but respect and affection for the people who accept my decision to go with unconventional choices. But I do feel marked by my own wayward performance drive. I am happy there is a conference that can hold all of this. Later I learned that Lauren, one of the conference organizers, held this as her favourite presentation of the day—if she was allowed to have a favourite. She said, “It made me feel seen.”
Along with the hidden/buried paper I find a document entitled “Nov 7-additions” that speaks to intentions for the conference – in performance the objectives, motivations, intentions are what set in motion what the body is working on. However my intentions are abstract rather than actionable verbs: “I write in hypotheticals. I have only process to question. Find the unhomed home. Describe a mental architecture of authentic presence. A collection of experiences of being with other artists and noticing myself in these relationships. How to begin?”
How can I continue long enough to allow a discovery to surface? If my ancestors walked with fused spines bracing themselves, I’m shaking my body to release the spirit of the repression they took to their graves. I’m shaking off what is and is not mine as the traumatized animal shakes to recover his or her equilibrium. This is the knit. This is all I’ve got to go on. Approach the mat. Just begin.
I am a speculative artist. I am not an expert in traumatic indications. What I have collected here are ideas that are developed from inspiration for studio work wherein I’m imagining and making work on my body that has encoded a history of trauma. What matters to me is what do you see and feel and am I letting you down? I have been participating in various forms of therapy—psychic healings, physio, chiro, osteo, psychotherapy, CBT, art therapy, week and month-long trauma intensives—for the past 20 years and I have been making performances for the past 25 years. I am now driven to enquire into the serendipitous confluence of these parts of my life.
Seeking connections between performance practice and trauma therapy has been a productive route to new images and activations that seem to tie together thinking from decolonization scholarship and how to acknowledge that performance often emerges as a drive for existence rather than as an aesthetic desire—the aesthetic desire is a layer that helps form the existential drive, but the drive is too often left out of the critical framework and that is an unfortunate miss. I want to train myself to reveal the drive. Let the aesthetic be what the drive in action looks like. How many human art actions are done to reveal us to ourselves? I propose work in support of that directly. It’s about the systemic vibrancy of tiny details that spin into balls of yarn and are then painted in colour that sends a tone to the digestive system so we can dream better collectively.
I articulated an interest in non-repeatable work in 2017 after a performance I created for Harbourfront Centre’s Hatch Production Residency entitled “Procedures: Audience as Knife.” The title references the experience of being in production phase for a long time alone until the process is turned inside out as it moves into the theatre with all its history built into the bricks and mortar. Twitches turn epic. Suddenly in front of a public it is/I am suddenly slashed open like a raw watermelon with too many seeds and sweet juice leaking out that is mopped up quickly or not, just left sticky in the messy detritus of green circular shells. Sad but it is only when they arrive with their eyes and their genitals that I can see the performance I’m looking at. When they arrive and I am expected to speak, I can immediately see where I was fooling myself and I want to fix that as the realization arises. Don’t wait to do the brutal thing because I won’t have energy for it later.
Do it now, take this chance in front of everyone. It is an activist practice. CUT what isn’t working, DISASSEMBLE my thought process, REPOSITION myself, FEELITFEELITFEELITFEELIT, receive the response, listen for tiny activations in audience bodies. Do not give up on myself by releasing the tension into doubt. Do not think: I know that they hate me. Notice what comes because this is the moment when I can actually accept the unknown while being with the others. I am acceptable, I am lovable, I am intelligent… These are not the thoughts in the performance but they are foundational truths I need to agree to in order to be present in this moment of lostness, because you have agreed to be here. These are the rules of the room: We are all intelligent, beautiful, lovable active bodies and we say Yes to what comes from this level of radical acceptance of one another and of oneself.
DO WE NEED TO HIDE THE REAL IN ORDER TO HOLD TRUTH?
Okay, it’s performance. That artifactual layer allows us some distance to promote the absorption of what is really going on in the world that has given rise to the performance. If you walked into a theatre or gallery or you came to what was called “a performance”—the artifice is already installed so there will be a feeling of a safe distance. Everyone can hang out with reality as long as the word performance keeps performing itself, keeps keeping us safe. I see the function of keeping it repeatable and yet I wonder how alternatives might also function to different results.
What layers of artifice do we need to develop during the pandemic when we receive these performative emanations from our homes? Is the prolific interactivity of digital interface enough of an artifactual intermediary? When I see someone online now I do not immediately see it as performative as I used to when the screen was all about push-media. Instead now everything is extra-Real. I assume the people have rolled out of bed, had the perfunctory shower and coffee and now they are there in body without anything extra, i.e. the extra one needs to conjure a performance. People are performing themselves as themselves-in-a-pandemic, with a layer of anxiety that is sufficiently defamiliarizing. But within the continual zoomscape I am trying to drop into my body awareness that the people I see on the screen are real. I have to remember the screen is an ocean of love not a riot-squad shield that offers unnecessary protection for the already overly armed protest robocops.
These words came to mind during the run of “Procedures”: Why do we repeat things in art spaces when repetition in our culture has led to continuation of forms of problematic thinking that reground colonization, racism, sexism, ableism, class prejudice? All my cultural training is teaching me how to repeat things, to develop skills of denial specificity through practices that always point to an end goal rather than a continuum of complexity in interaction. I see the tragedy in Richard Schechner’s “twice behaved behaviours” when efforts to normalize colonial violence is why the funding is appearing: “Performances function as vital acts of transfer, transmitting social knowledge, memory, and a sense of identity”—I appreciate the value he identifies but whose identity is reproduced and what passes for knowledge when what we are performing must measure up to colonial aesthetics that has erased everyone’s lived reality for some kind of utopian homogeneity?
TO NOT REPEAT / THE UNREPEATABLE
Can we unravel the repetition by imagining and experimenting with the conditions for non-repetition and also call it art? A painter is not put to the same task of repeating, every canvas is different. Why when a body is introduced on the scene does repetition become the foundational gesture? Does art really have to repeat the status quo in order to be visible? Why are artists suffering in poverty because their work doesn’t measure up? Can it not be that artwork is more valuable when we cannot see the sense? We cannot compare it to what we value and so it tells us more about what we value than the reinforcing drive of the things we do know and acknowledge. The simplest version of non-repeatability is to aim for the worst possible outcome that results in a revulsion: I can never fail like that again because it was too awful the first time. But maybe something will never be the same again. And maybe that experience offers us all a glimpse of our own genius in failure.
Dolleen R Tisawii’ashii Manning told a story during her keynote at the 2018 Canadian Association for Theatre Research Conference, wherein she told her grandmother when the white kids at school do something wrong, they say sorry and they are forgiven. Her grandmother said she doesn’t have the authority to grant forgiveness: when you do something wrong, you can never do it again or you will have to spend the rest of your life trying to rectify the harm that was done. I hear in this story the ethics of non-repeatability, a credo that was quashed in the floodgates of settler greed and trickery. Let’s say we apologize and do it again. It definitely leads to one kind of wealth. Of course repeatable structures proliferate in all forms and cultures, and these repetitions generate meaningful and sustainable outcomes—but in looking for a way to train the mind to see outside of the mental structures and mechanisms that have formed my thought alongside language as a lie, in the potentially non-harming process of making art—the simplest way I see to approach this is to aim for non-repeatability. I practice to understand what I know so that I can arrive at the performance to discover something of what I don’t know.
With all due respect to my 30 years of performance training and engagement with artists from around the world—I sense there is a desire to open up an unbranded understanding of what freedom might mean in the context of interdependence that arrives without apology. In my work, I’m still at the stage wherein the things that happen when the people arrive are the revelations that I can’t go back to because I didn’t know exactly what was happening when it happened. Is this just the drama of the unexpected traumatic moment replaying itself? Where was I in the performance moment? I was speculatively following you the witness. And now you have left the theatre. We may never come together again. It’s just baby steps but it’s at least a tiny poke on the shoulder of the giant. But I agree to practice toward remembering everything that happened so that I can tell if I am repeating something and micro-shift into the untested possibility. I will keep checking in with the validity of my hypothesis that: It is in this way that new futures might become visible.
THE LANGUAGE OF ACTION
And it’s autotheory as action that is helping me to see this accrual of history and interpolate that remembrance into action—theory helps me categorize or at least question the components of experience and deconstruct the causal relationships in studio that potentially reveal gaps in understanding wherein I can shift my own behaviour. Theory might allow me to notice, frame and remember what has already happened. It seems obvious that decolonization is about listening to those who have not been heard and about white people seeing and remembering the destructive nature of upholding white supremacy even though it might seem to serve immediate beliefs about scarcity. But what are the ways I can practice noticing my actions within the complex network of intersectional material conditions when so much history has gone into invisibilizing these realities? It has to be a physical practice of doing, saying, public response, renegotiation, breathing into the feeling to process and shift the behaviour while recognizing what is really coming up. It’s this micro-genesis of change that needs to occur. And performance is a place where we can legitimately hold space for this kind of work. As long as we are actually working toward a shift in perspective and not just practicing trying to know what we think we already understand. We can actually make real discoveries in art spaces about who we are and why we are alive. To enter into spaces of not-knowing seems regenerative by default.
My impulse toward notation and citation in performance comes from a desire to witness my relationship to history, but acknowledgement of the lived experience is the baseline not the effluent. Mapping theory onto an intuitive practice is an attempt to defy my unidentifiable resistances and despondency, to decompose the perceptions that block metabolic processes on the understandings-I-have-adopted back into carbon dioxide, energy, water, nutrients, resynthesized organic carbon compounds and complex organic matter that is inclusive of this body as conduit. I leave the thesis in the snow and hope for the best. Perhaps the binder will form a snug for an injured squirrel. Let that be so. For me it is not the outcome I expect that matters, it’s the result I could never have foreseen that reminds me that performance is vital. And you are with me. It is what is happening for you as a process that matters. To see the potential for unformed forms to have an effect on your body is a memorable occurrence. And your memory is a reciprocal performance, another dispersion of the unrepeatable, unique for each witness body.
There is a level at which we can all begin this work. Rancière wrote about intellectual access equity and our ability to teach ourselves whatever we want to know. His theory offers momentary relief because I felt trapped in educational models that seemed to deny my point of view and my possible existence. I would leave every class feeling that I just don’t get the technique or I’m incapable of ever getting it right because of my brain-body or my history. I was forever defeated whenever I began. I think it comes from a pedagogical belief that the learning comes out of the struggle. And while it is good to come up against an incalculable dilemma, it’s good to have a sense that the answer to what I am fighting for can actually be found in my own body. Otherwise it leaves people in tears or despondent at their desk questioning the value of their life. Maybe it’s just me. But over time I developed an obsessive commitment to learn everything under the sun in order to find a sense of home in the world, only to come to see that experts are only experts in their own way of knowing, and that only in witnessing myself can I begin to notice my own ways of knowing. And that is where the work is, whether repetition is part of the practice or not, it’s about all the effort leading to the moments when we can notice things shift into the pleasure of I have never been here before and I know that in a physical way.
Audience members are participants in Ranciere’s estimation, a watching body is an active agent. The work of art continues in the minds of those who have made, participated or witnessed the performance—in unseen ways, for indeterminate amounts of time, my performance art teacher Sylvie Tourangeau reminds her students of this. The continuation of those images and actions in every witness’ mind is a recreation of the thing that happened and a non-repeated reformation of the contents within the image life of the active-audience-witness-participant. After seeing something that affects me deeply, I feel my actions are new, revised, I become a little copy-cat that looks nothing like the original when transposed onto my body. I am moving in ways that echo what I have seen. I can immediately notice an integration of parts of myself that resonate with what I have seen. This is another aspect of performance that opens up possibilities from non-repetition—when the viewer notices what the content is by self-sourcing where what they have witnessed and experienced lands in their own life practice.
But to go back to the idea that it is in the studio for the artist or in the field or the street for the non-studio going human—where the learning occurs, in the very tiny every day repetitions that start sliding into entrenched states. What does not kill us just requires that much more therapy. When I enrol in academia, I discover that all the things I have witnessed in practice are already in these books. I’m horrified. It’s a new trauma—what was privately mine has been written about and articulated in ways I could not imagine. I stop reading. I suddenly misjudge this experiential thinking, either I know everything or it’s too late to begin. The books form a wall called: the grief of everything I have never read. It’s a grief because the studio generates so much that is never published and will never measure up in light of written theory that holds weight, has authority, hovers in the world of conferencibilty. What I used to happily call self-taught now feels like the scar-tissue of wasted time, encasing my body in a papier mache form.
I feel resistance in reading, an immobilizing resistance, a dropping out rather than an activist’s mobilization against aggression. Is it my mind suppressing the sadness or my body resisting jumping up and running so I can feel the things I experienced in the way I once understood them? Or is it an insistence on listening? In this way the action of autotheory becomes cogent. It’s a layer of language, a cloak of invisibility—but the body still intuits under the material. I still exist with integrity even if this doesn’t make sense to you. My experiences are mind. They have not been absorbed by someone else’s language. I’m gleaning ways of articulating the ineffable through dizzying into the gaps in my understanding. I know it is my responsibility to read, my desire to have conversation, to make discursive work—so find a way to be with the books that does not usurp my legitimacy to myself as a balm for the spirit, an artifactual thus performable erotic. One layer, twice removed.
BODY OF AGENCY
I still want to argue, to say I have proof I thought these thoughts before reading the books—this is why I did these things I have done, these beliefs are already interwoven in my life in so many tiny ways. I accept that I have received all the philosophy of the culture through my conversation with it, by noticing every being and psychically asking for forgiveness before listening. But I can’t deny that I was the thinker that interceded with a body of agency, that decided to put it in my art despite the social suicide of saying, “I don’t know what it is but this is what it feels like, and this is what I want, and this is my articulation and it has a thingness in its existence and that is what I call aesthetics. Maggie Nelson reminds us of Deborah Hay’s advice, “What if where I am is what I need?” I add to the compendium of good advice from Deborah who is also well known for saying, “Turn your fucking head.”
You can’t tell me my language of trauma indications is not sanctified in cultural locations because it is already being spoken everywhere by everybody whether they know it or not, in very tiny ways. Meanwhile, microaggressions against these intuitive impulses are causing the deaths of creative ideas before even the first word is uttered by an unsuspecting interlocutor. I don’t want history’s imprint to tell me what I already know in/through/past its surface of memes. It still matters to do the thing and to refind the language through cellular anatomy. Autotheory includes me. I can exist. My language is allowed at the table—an excess, moving weirdly through me—though I have to say it and perform it for this possibility to be seen. And I have to say it in my language that includes the visible and undeniably intelligent body that will not be controlled.
It is a choice to meet in the middle by walking the way history walks. A choice based on intuition that the only way into the conference of history is to converse in the legitimized forms of communication but knowing in my body that this proscribed language repeating is definitely not the way out.
This is one of twelve contributions from the ASAP/J cluster of Transmedial Autotheories. Read the other pieces here.
Read the Autotheory special issue (6.2) of the print journal ASAP/Journal here.