notes on idleness and labor
This is the transcript of the talk I gave on January 25, 2016 as part of the TEN ARGUMENTS class series by Bruce High Quality Foundation University, where they invite two artists to discuss/present on a topic chosen by BHQFU. I was asked to present on the topic of “Idleness and Labor.” The other artist was Nayland Blake! The event took place at their Industry City location in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
you can also listen to the audio here https://soundcloud.com/bhqfu/ten-arguments-nayland-blake-miguel-gutierrez-on-idleness-labor
Thank you Bruce High Quality Foundation for this invitation. Thank you Sean for specifically inviting me and thank you, Nayland, for your work and for your inspiration throughout the years.
Here are some contradictory notes on Idleness and Labor
1. At first I wanted to take issue with the Facebook invite for this event. I am listed as a “dancer and choreographer.” I almost never refer to myself as a “dancer and choreographer” so when I see it in writing it feels jarring, or like looking into a funhouse mirror. I think of myself as someone who makes performances or shows, and someone who dances in those performances. These days I am trying to think of myself as something different – a writer, a music-maker, a bodyworker. It becomes increasingly weird at my age to hold up or sustain the conventional identity that is conjured when you hear the word “dancer.” I am often introduced as a “dancer,” at parties for example, and when this happens I usually cringe or roll my eyes. Why? Dance is the mothership, yes, but my practice extends to writing, making music, making the sets for my shows, sometimes even designing the costumes. But then why does the word itself frustrate me so much? Maybe it’s because the dancer is not really viable as a cultural worker. The dancer is a body; at best a moving body, but most definitely NOT a thinker or an intellectual, though succumbing to my frustration about this is a great way of reifying some Cartesian body/mind valuation that I’m giving it. Regardless, there is a tension between the identity, as it exists out in the world and the way that I experience it and that relates to today’s topic quite handily.
2. As a dancer you are fetishized and exploited for your labor.
3. Not once in my career as a dance artist has a single person outside the field asked me "What does a rehearsal look like for you?" The public fantasy entails, I believe, hours and hours of selfless exercising, straining for a perfect ideal in body and choreographic form. For certain corners of the dance world this may be true but for me, this has overwhelmingly not been the case. What is truer to what happens is a situation where I share time in a room with a bunch of collaborators and we alternate between dancing, making repeatable movements on our own or practicing weird improvisational structures and talking, lots of talking, about what we’re doing and what we’re trying to do, as well as catching up and talking about current events, people we are fucking or would like to fuck, gossip in the field, professional resentments, and making complaints about any number of things. Sometimes we do runs of the piece or sections of it without any real clear idea of what is going to happen. This is one of the most special aspects of making dances – this sociality, temporary but fierce community. Among the many things that bind us together is a shared understanding of how misperceived we are as artists – I don’t mean this in some victim-y “nobody gets me” teenager kind of way, though maybe I do mean it that way. I mean it in that we plod along, doing our work fully aware that what we do is something that a lot of the world just doesn’t fucking get. Sometimes we joke about recent frustrating experiences we’ve had where we tried to explain what we do to someone who doesn’t have direct experience with the field and we laugh and shake our heads at, what feels like to us, their apparent stupidity and ignorance, and then we labor on, making our strange, rarefied work.
If I’m by myself working on, god forbid, a solo, you can add to this list of methods: arriving to the studio very late, staring off into space, lots of reading or looking at pictures, laying around, making weird videos, watching porn and masturbating, or just masturbating without watching porn, napping, being seized by an idea, crying.
4. Much has been made of the Marina Abramović retrospective many years ago at MOMA but did you realize that most of those re-performers were dancers? She’s not seen as a dancer, and yet the people who were engaged to re-perform the pieces were. I don’t mean to add to the trendiness of Marina-bashing, but in my initial meeting with her, when I was considering being one of the re-performers, I was disappointed to find out that Abramović was as generic in her thinking about dancers as most people – “Oh you must be working on your body all day long in the studio” I remember her saying in the basement conference center at the MOMA. A little part of me died inside. Fuck, she doesn’t get it either I thought.
5. In dance, one of the many narratives that persist is the one of love as the balm or corrective for the lack of capital or recognition. But you’re doing what you love!
6. Loathe as I am to resuscitate the overused archive of the early 1960’s Judson Church Movement, I think it’s important to remember that one of its hallmarks was a break from the sturm and drang and dramatic fervor of modern dance. Another way of thinking about this is that it was a break from the effort of creating characters and certain kinds of roles and sustaining them for the duration of a dance piece. The Judson-ites brought pedestrian movement: walking, sitting, standing, “task”-based action, into the mix of available action for what you called a “dance.” In short, they brought idleness into what had seemed like could only exist as labor. I forget whether it’s in Sally Banes’ book Terpsichore in Sneakers or in Cynthia Novack’s book Sharing the Dance but there’s a great line where one of them says that “In the 60’s you went to a dance concert to watch people stand around and then afterward you’d go to the party to watch them dance.”
7. A lot of people’s eyes just glaze over when you tell them you’re a dancer. I’m not sure why. I guess it’s like suddenly switching to another language mid-conversation. This especially happens if you’re excited to talk about your esoteric interests. In 2010 I got a Guggenheim fellowship and I went to a reception at their fancy offices up on Park Avenue. Like a real dancer I spent the bulk of my time near the free food, stocking up cuz who knew where the next free meal would come from. The party was attended by Guggenheim fellows from the past. There were people who had received awards back as far back as the 70s. We wore labels with our names and our category. Miguel Gutierrez. Choreography. I was excited because I felt like I was now part of the intellectual elite – the crème de la crème of society! I’m not above admitting that. It felt good. I roamed around with my mozzarella sandwich in hand, husband-shopping through the crowd, cruising for other hot Guggies. I expressly avoided the other choreography fellows – I saw enough of them at shows. But my inability to talk normally to hot guys landed me in a conversation with an older, not particularly attractive biologist. He got a Guggenheim in the 80s for figuring out a way to transport bacteria cultures on planes without killing them. Okay. After going on for a while he looked at my nametag and said “Oh choreography. You’re a dancer.” I said, “Yeah, I got a fellowship to research the relationship between neuroscience, philosophy, somatics and choreography. I’m interested in looking at how thought and action are related and how we conceive of our bodies and movement to create a sense of self in relationship to others. I want to know where personhood lies.”
This, quite simply, didn’t land with bacteria guy. I think he said, hmm.
8. A thought experiment: Take a moment and try to think about or write the names of ten contemporary visual artists under 40 who have national profiles. Really, take some time to do it. I’ll give you a full minute.
Great now think of ten writers under 40 who have been published. It can be fiction writers, essayists, theorists, poets.
Ok now think of ten contemporary dance choreographers under the age of 40 of national significance or who have national touring careers.
9. Visual art and its tie with capital and value and, therefore, intelligence.
Dance and its inherent inability to be possessed and rendering it, therefore, irrelevant or at least, forgettable.
10. My mother gauges the merit of a dance piece by how hard it seems. “God you were sweating so much! And that woman just ran and ran in a circle it was exhausting…” that sort of thing. In a way I interpret this as my mother sensating with the performers, embodying the work that it sometimes takes to be on stage. But her equation of work and value irks me. I know her well enough to know that, as a devout Catholic, and as an immigrant, she has a lot of good reasons for equating difficulty and labor with value. Certainly she and my dad never had the luxury of sitting back and just waiting for life in the U.S. to unfold with ease and financial gain. Also, I understand that the abstract nature of contemporary dance leaves her, and so many people, artist and non-artist alike, in a pool of confusion and perhaps, self-consciousness. What the fuck am I looking at? is the question that I know haunts many a viewer of a contemporary dance concert. If the idea of semiotics based on movement rather than fixed signs or the notion that signification is not at all the operation in question when a body moves on stage is too elusive to understand, then certainly a place where a viewer (my mom) can enter and identify is WORK. Because we all understand work and sweat and difficulty.
11. In 2001 and then again in 2008 I performed a … something… called freedomofinformation. I blindfolded and earplugged myself and moved by myself continuously in a dance studio on New Year’s Eve 24 hours, from midnight to midnight, the piece ending at the beginning of the new year. Originally I did it as a response to the U.S. bombing and invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, and then in 2008 I did it because it was an election year, and we were still in that war as well as in Iraq and it felt like I needed to re-visit the practice. The idea of moving non-stop was originally, naively meant as a kind of solidarity with non-stop movement of refugees who were created by the US led invasion. When I re-visited the piece in 2008 I invited artists from across the country to do the practice as well, as representatives of the particular state they lived in. In all something like 32 artists performed the piece at the same time, starting at midnight in their respective time zones. The piece shifted from being about feeling how the refugees felt – an impossibility of course – to a practice of empathy and shared struggle and a meditation on struggle, bodies and worth. The blindfolding and earplugging were meant to force me and then later the other performers into interiority, a privileging of and, one could argue, imprisonment within the somatic confines of self. This piece was nothing short of grueling. By midday in both iterations I felt that I was out of my mind, that there was no way that I would be able to continue. I had to keep finding ways to trick myself into staying awake. The last five hours were total hell, time stretched beyond my ability to perceive its passing so that it felt like maybe no time was passing it all. In the 2001 version I started to think that maybe I was dead, and that this would be my felt reality forever. In both cases when the alarm struck at midnight of the new year I took off my blindfold and took out my earplugs and was overwhelmed with feeling. Ecstatic feeling, grief, relief, waves and waves of love for everyone around me. Everything felt delicate, perfect. For the next day or so my body felt aware of itself in ways I had never, ever felt. Something as simple as standing in the kitchen and reaching for a coffee mug was filled with wonder, nuance, poetics. I mean, it kind of always is, right?
12. I’m going to perform the first part of an old piece I’ve done various iterations of called The Problem With Dancing. Usually I do this speaking in unison with my friend Andrew Champlin.
Some people will say this looks like bleh
Some people will say this sounds like bluh
But this is my piece,
My piece my piece MY piece
The Problem With Dancing
It doesn’t sell
It doesn’t last
It doesn’t mean anything
It doesn’t translate well
It doesn’t make you rich
It doesn’t keep you warm at night
It doesn’t dance enough
It doesn’t make the ones who aren’t dancing dance
It doesn’t move product
It doesn’t sell papers
It doesn’t cure cancer
It doesn’t cure AIDS
It doesn’t stop global warming
It doesn’t recycle
It doesn’t impeach presidents
It doesn’t stop war
It doesn’t house the refugees
It doesn’t get you a visa
It doesn’t re-unite your family
It doesn’t impress them when you’re fat
It doesn’t pay for maternity leave
It doesn’t get you noticed
It doesn’t get you laid
It doesn’t fuck like a 25 year old
It doesn’t bring your ex back he’s never coming back
It doesn’t wreck homes
It doesn’t get you married
It doesn’t hold up next to movies
It doesn’t hold up next to music
It doesn’t open galleries
It doesn’t please your parents
It doesn’t make sense to go to college for it
It doesn’t change if you go to college for it
It doesn’t pay the rent
It doesn’t buy you a house
It doesn’t have a mortgage
It doesn’t look as hard as it is
It doesn’t matter unless it’s hard
It doesn’t have be to be hard to be good
It doesn’t tell you it’s good
13. In 2007 I presented a group piece called Everyone for seven dancers and one live musician. During the process, we spent one week doing what I called a napping practice. We would take an hour long nap together, then an alarm would go off and we would do an hour long improvisation of the piece. I had it in my head at the time that this napping would detach us from a production-oriented, forward moving time and invite, to paraphrase Joe Goode, a mentor of mine, “sideways” time. During that process I was continually looking for ways to abdicate my authorship and instead, distribute the authorship among the performers. Sometimes I really hate being in charge of things. Or maybe the more accurate thing to say is that sometimes I want to punish myself for being in charge by finding strategies or tactics like this one, where I imagine that the force of my ideas is tempered by inducing a state of laziness. Yes I am aware that I was the one imposing the napping. After a few days of this my friend, Elizabeth, who was in the piece, said that the practice made her feel depressed, or rather, reminded her of all of the times she’d been depressed. Maybe I was depressed, too. In any case, we eventually stopped doing “napping practice” and resumed a more conventional process of making. It feels important to state that a few months later, in the midst of some conflict of how to continue in the process, Elizabeth was the one who said, “Hey maybe we can do napping practice again.” I refused her offer. It also feels important to say that for the first part of this process my friend Anna, who was also in the piece, was in the final trimester of her pregnancy and so there were several rehearsals where I’d look over and see that she had separated from the group activity to nap in the corner, her enormous belly anchoring her in place. At first I was a little annoyed but eventually came to think of her as a cat, which I liked.
14. I have an ongoing frought relationship with labor in my work. In many of my pieces I deploy exhaustion as a strategy to reveal the limitations of virtuosity or of conventional ideas about dancerly superheroism. I think my default logic about this is that for as long as you don’t see tiredness on stage you can keep yourself separate from the performer, remain comfortably secure in a bourgeois way that the person on stage is not you, that they are trained and skilled to be a pretty, maybe even awe inspiring object for you to gawk at. At the moment that exhaustion is revealed so is vulnerability and with it so is mortality, or rather, the reminder that the performer has a body, the viewer has a body, and that both are located in not only the specific temporality of the performance’s duration, but in a life that existed before the performance began and that will exist after it’s over. Depending on the way the performer engages, succumbs to or resists this exhaustion, you might have insight into their psychological process in real time, and I will cop to being fascinated with watching that process reveal itself. This is why I resist theatrical ideas around “character” or “role.” I don’t want to see the performer safely contained in an architecture of singular identity. I want to, I NEED to see the cracks in the architecture, glimpses of something in between the seams.
Of course this is tricky territory, because I’m fully aware that watching someone labor can evoke other forms of distance-creating fetishism, or at worst, a kind of schadenfreude where you detach thinking, oof, I’m glad it’s not me up there! In my work I think of this moment as the point at which, potentially, the performer enters the realm of becoming a sacrifice for the audience, or something between sacrifice and spiritual cipher. I don’t think this is bad. Particularly in my solo pieces, I accept the labor of continuing past the point of conventional energy expenditure, I become willing to “take the hit” for the audience. For me there’s something that opens up here, something about the soup of identification, empathy, detachment, witness, complicity. Honestly I hope it’s some combination of some or all of those things. Labor is laborious because it happens over time. Time gives me space to move beyond impression and invites discourse. Discourse leads to change.
All this said, however, I have fought against the notion that doing and working and exhausting myself is the only route to a successful dance. Even if the result ends up having whole swaths of exhaustion the process is often deliberately gentle or anti-labor. Throughout the beginning of the process of making Age & Beauty Part 1, a duet for mickey mahar and me, I consciously employed what I thought of as an “irresponsible” approach to rehearsal. I would show up late sometimes, or we might spend an entire rehearsal talking about our lives, or, in some cases, we would go for a walk around the neighborhood or even go shopping to see what the current fashion trends were. I was inspired by something in an interview with Lucy Sexton in a Movement Research Journal where she talked about how she and Annie Iobst worked when they created their infamous and radically contemporary pieces as the performance art duo DANCENOISE.
“I never understood the idea of going to do a residency because our process was basically shopping on 14th street, coming here and watching soap operas in the afternoon, drinking a lot of coffee, often playing a variety of different music and seeing what we responded to, and putting on some props and costumes, and getting up and seeing if we came up with an idea of doing something to a piece of music that made us happy, made us laugh, seemed like something. And those pieces would get linked together or we’d figure out what we wanted to talk about afterwards. Sometimes we would have whole conversations about things we wanted to talk about, whether it was commercials on television or something we’d read in the newspaper. It was definitely about the world.” (Lucy Sexton in conversation with Leslie Satin)
15. Idleness is, of course, a privilege. In Bertrand Russell’s famous 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness,” he explains as much – how one person’s idleness is made possible by the work of many others, who don’t have the luxury not to work. This is the promise of capitalism – that all of the work will eventually pay off and we will be able to be idle like the ruling class, and of course this is also capitalism’s false dangling carrot – because many of us work and work and feel like we get nowhere, or that our work doesn’t accumulate into security or the level of recognition we deem appropriate. I have to mention that most of my friends who work in dance in the U.S. work in a variety of fields to sustain their practice. Food service, bodywork, personal training, arts administration, dog walking. So, often it’s the case that one group or class of people have their idleness facilitated by dancers, who are doing this work in addition to the work they are trying to do as artists.
16. I am reminded of my brilliant college professor whose name I can’t remember for my Feminism and Women of Color class, who, when teaching Paula Giddings’ book When and Where I enter, highlighted white feminism’s failure, when engaging in the political rhetoric about women wanting or deserving to enter the workforce, to acknowledge that women of color and working class women were already working, had been working, for centuries and so for them leaving their homebound duties as wives and mothers were not the issues of interest. This makes me think about the allegedly “passive” tactics of rebellion that slaves used where they would slow their work down, feign illness or break their tools in order to disrupt the cycle of production for their enslavers.
17. The expression WORK, appropriated from black gay culture, celebrates the ferocity of having done something very very right, either by design or by accident. I love saying work, and I write it in texts or messages to friends and others all the time. I recently incorporated one of “work’s” variations – W-E-R-Q – into the title of a show of mine from last year - Age & Beauty Part 2: Asian Beauty @ the Werq Meeting or The Choreographer & Her Muse or &:@&, to foreground the operation of gayness that frames and pervades the administrative meetings I have with my manager, Ben Pryor. This gayness queers the conventional hierarchy of employee and employer, because our attempts to clarify answers to work problems are interrupted by candid and graphic discussions of our sex lives, or our glib and undermining critiques of each other or other major players or institutions in the field. This kind of self-consciousness cyclically re-introduces the possibility of play or at least, some kind of meta-awareness of the absurdity of the administrative structures that we have to work with and within, and it also creates distraction from a conventional notion of productivity. It might not actually produce idleness within labor but it gives us some kind of reprieve from the LABOR of labor, and reminds us of the nature of filial relations that emerge in the performing arts community, where a boss or an employee is also a friend or colleague. That friend you had lunch and laughed with in the park one day might be the person you see on stage next week in a show you didn’t like very much and now suddenly the once warm interaction is replaced by a momentary chilliness, as you shift from friend to professional, or from friend to critic, or from colleague to person who sits on a funding panel at some point and ends up talking about, defending, or trashing your work to others who don’t know you at all.
18. In Astra Taylor’s film Examined Life, she walks, slowly, ploddingly, with theorist Avital Ronnell through Tompkins Square Park and talks with her about philosophy.
I want to quote some of the things she says because, to me, they relate to our theme today.
In talking about what is even happening with making this particular short film, Ronnell says
“The thing is we don’t know where this film is going to land, who this film is going to shake up or wake up or even bore
but even Boredom as an offshoot of melancholy would interest me as a response to these dazzling utterances that we’re producing,
but I would say that
even if philosophy,
and don’t forget that Heidegger ditched philosophy for thinking
cause he thought philosophy as such was still too institutional, academic,
too bound up in knowledge and results,
too cognitively inflected,
so he asked the question what is called thinking?
and he had a lot to say about walks
about going on paths that lead nowhere, one of his important texts is called Holzwege, which means - a path that leads nowhere, in Greek the word for path is methodos, so we’re on the path.”
Later she says -
“To leave things open and radically inappropriable and something, and admitting we haven’t really understood, is much less satisfying, more frustrating, and more necessary I think, you know, and that’s why I think a lot of people have been fed and fueled by promises of immediate gratification, in thought and food and junk, and so on, junk thought and junk food and so on, so that the, there’s a politics of refusing that gratification and I know that’s crazy making, but I think that’s where we have to pull the brakes.”
Pulling the brakes. This feels like something that a dance can do.
19. hobby vs trade vs career vs….
20. I never understand why the names of art assistants aren’t listed at exhibitions. I see an artist’s big name on the wall and I know that most of them haven’t even touched the work that is presented as theirs. It’s different in other fields of course. Go to a dance concert and every last person who was involved will be listed or thanked in the program. This is also true in film and theater. What is it about the impulse to hide the work of others in order to elevate the authorship of a single artist? It confuses me.
21. I think of all the conversations that I have with people that end halfway through, the effort it takes to maintain connection and the willingness with which I let go of those connections. I think about how this creates a sense of constant failing or little deaths. These momentary rises and falls of importance, or distraction disguised as importance. But yes, it takes so much work to keep them going. How do you hold on to all of these different connections? How do you organize them according to value and meaning? In sex addiction circles keeping lots of text-based conversations with different partners is called “intriguing,” which means that you’re invested in cultivating a state of fascination and arousal throughout your day. The flatness of life, particularly that of transitional time between events is replaced with baroque mystery. Suddenly a walk to the coffee shop or the bank feels illicit and filled with possibility. It’s a romance with yourself, of course, and with a fantasy figure of your imagination who, generally speaking, could never quite live up to your designs. And then suddenly you code switch, turn and expand your attention to the matter at hand, while the buzzing in your pocket reminds you of the fantasy world that vibrates just beyond this real-time encounter.
22. From 2011 to 2015 I spent 40 days of each year enrolled in a certification program to become a practitioner of the Feldenkrais Method, a somatic education system that uses movement as the “means whereby” you potentially become aware of how you construct your own self-image and how you do what you do, in order to invite other ways of perceiving yourself and your actions. There are two basic manifestations of the Method – one is an hour-long group class where you guide people in what is called an Awareness Through Movement lesson. The other is called a Functional Integration session, where a practitioner adapts the structures proposed in the Awareness Through Movement lessons to an individual client, based on their specific physical abilities and needs. In both cases the movement is slow, subtle, and contained within a small range of movement in order to appreciate nuances of sensation. Moshe Feldenkrais, developer of the Method, came up in the early 20th century as a mechanical engineer and martial artist. He saw the debilitating and dangerous effects of the Industrial Revolution on the ordinary citizen – both ideologically in that it became important for the powers that be to maintain the status quo and thus, a productive work force, and also physically, where mindless repetition often led to injury or reduced mobility. I came to the Method after years of recurring back injuries, and have found it to be one of the only modalities that consistently restores me to a sense of wholeness and possibility. The Method works in counter-intuitive ways, certainly counter-intuitive to someone who came up in the world of dance training, where rigor and repetition are regarded as the hallmarks of a successful path towards technical mastery. In the Feldenkrais Method, this kind of approach is suspect, a tool for creating a mindless, unfulfilled drone. Feldenkrais was quite intentional in calling the small units of physical explorations “lessons” rather than “exercises,” because he believed that where he was intervening was in the site of education rather than, say, medicine.
In a Feldenkrais lesson the idea of learning shifts from that of a “nose to the grindstone, gotta do great on that test” kind of idea of success to a realm that is more intimate and harder to quantify. In general, lessons are performed on the floor, lying down on your back, your sides, or your stomach. This mode of repose releases the nervous system from the work it usually does in order to keep you upright. Lying down you become of aware of relationships – your body to the ground, different parts of your body to each other, and often, the relationship of one side of your body to the other. Actions are initiated and move from smaller to bigger. And yet you are continually checking to make sure that you are using minimal effort. Feldenkrais would say “do less,” and “waste your time,” to his students, and certainly these are not the kinds of instructions we are used to when we think about the body and its capacity for improvement.
Let’s briefly try a lesson right now, just in sitting.
Scan your body. Notice where you feel pressure as you sit in the chair. Come forward in your chair slightly.
Turn you head right and left. Notice which side you turn to more easily.
Whichever side you turn more easily to, keep turning to that side but bring up your opposite hand. So if you’re turning to the right, bring up your left hand and if you’re turning to the left bring up your right hand.
Follow your hand with your eyes as you turn your head to whichever direction you’re going in. Go only as far as you can go with ease. Come back to the center and try it a few times. Go slowly. Breathe the whole time. If you stop breathing or feel yourself straining you’re working too hard.
Now keep your hand right in front of you and keep your eyes on your hand as you turn your head in the direction you’ve been turning it in. So you’re moving your head relative to your eyes. Try that a few times.
Then go back to moving your hand and following it with your eyes.
Let go of holding your hand up and just turn your head. Notice if you feel any changes or improvement in your turning. Notice that we barely did anything.
23. Something about this week, lazying about in my apartment. I kept staying up too late, waking up too late, not knowing what to do with myself. I told myself, you’re living the life of a writer! thinking that this message was a balm, a salve, for the isolation and the way it compounded upon itself. I found myself wandering around my apartment, then sitting in front of my computer, looking at Facebook when I should have been writing, and then looking at it again. Forgetting to eat. Reading snippets of hundreds of articles and actually finishing some. Zoning out in admiration for journalists, television writers who actually do this on the daily. Literally not knowing what to do with this time.
24. Just the other day I was lying in bed with a lover. We’d slept in and were naked, cuddling and chatting about a host of topics, none of which had to do with anything that either of us had to accomplish that day. I realized in the midst of this experience that it had been a really really long time since I’d done this with someone and in thinking about it later it seemed like most of my experiences of idleness were tied to erotics. When I lived in San Francisco in my early 20’s I can recall several mornings like this, where the day would arrive and unfold, without any rush to get anywhere. I remember having sex for hours and hours even – sex that wasn’t structured or directed by the telos of top/bottom roles, which now feel pervasive and inescapable. In general, living in New York, I feel urgency in the morning when someone is in my bed and I have shit I want to get done. Granted, I am older now and much more set in my ways. I don’t want to tread lightly around my own apartment. I want to turn the radio on loud and I want to get going. But, doesn’t intimacy demand that I take a break from this kind of thinking, that I just chill the fuck out? Most of the time I don’t want to do the work to relax into accommodating someone else’s presence in my life. I think this is a real problem. I had a boyfriend who would prop himself up like a gymnast on the kitchen counters and wrap his legs around me to keep me in place while I busied myself making breakfast. It made me fucking crazy.
25. But I like moving. Even if it’s just to escape. I have spent most of my life privileging a form where the answer to feeling, or the way to it is by moving. I do an exercise in my workshops called Continuous Movement Practice. It’s simple. You move continuously through space for an allotted amount of time. You can’t just stand and breathe or walk forward, though that of course is continuous movement. You can’t get involved in a physical, touch-based duet with someone else, and you can’t just stretch the whole time. Part of the way to fill up the time is to invent, play, resist authenticity or worrying about authenticity and just inviting all kinds of ridiculousness and character and action into the mix. Throughout the years of doing this exercise I have found that, being in a group doing this together, I find myself activated quickly, unearthing reserves of energy and propulsion I had no idea were there. This is why I am so suspicious of cortical rationalization, or the idea that my sense of how I feel is immutable. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve walked into this exercise with dread or with the sense that I was too tired to do it, and suddenly a few minutes later I’m running across the room and whooping or slicing my limbs in all directions and coursing through tens of identities within small units of time. What does this tell me? That I myself am not really even sure of what I contain or can do or be. Certainly not at the outset.
26. A few years ago I started to feel that I needed take a break from making performances. I was beginning to feel trapped in a cycle of making and presenting, touring and teaching. My friend mickey introduced me to Walter Benjamin’s quote “the eternal hellish return of the same,” and while Benjamin said this in relationship to the merry go-round of fashion shows and making new designs every year, it felt like a pretty accurate description for the cycle I felt trapped in. One jet lagged night in Hamburg I busied myself by counting all of the nights over the course of the past five years I had spent home and all of the nights I had spent away for work and it came out to 50/50. I was surprised because it felt like I’d been away from home even more than that, but I realized that that was because a lot of the time I spent at home I was either recovering from jet lag or gearing up for another trip. I felt like I could never settle into thinking of New York as my real home and pretty much, over time, most of my friends began to assume that I was gone even when I was home, as I lost the will to keep them up to date with my schedule.
At first I thought I would just stop making art altogether, but I quickly realized that that was ridiculous. It wasn’t about not making stuff per se it was about not leaving all of the time. I began to say no to every offer I got to teach out of town, as this is the kind of travel that usually feels the most isolating, because I’m by myself rather than with my fellow performers. I decided I would only leave New York to tour work that I’d already made. My manager, who, like me, is prone to drama, started calling this whole idea of mine THE SHUTDOWN. I found out he was portraying it as such to other professionals in the field, and this made me nervous. I know how quickly you can fall off the radar of relevance in this field. I started to say, no, I am taking a sabbatical. Seemed like a softer word. It’s conceptual of course because I don’t have a university job or a fellowship or any savings for that matter. I still have to figure out how to make money.
But I have to do it. I have become suspicious of this cycle of production because I feel like it keeps me from truly imagining other modes of artmaking or other notions of audience. I’ve made things that end up in mostly white spaces for mostly white people. I’ve made things that cost a certain amount of money that some people can afford and a lot of people can’t. I’ve made things that mean a lot to certain people in this particular city and that have no impact on most people in other places. The first two concerns are big – like, really, truly how does that change? The last concern feels like it’s about ego, or my persistent wish to become even bigger and more famous somehow.
This itinerant lifestyle is also partly to blame for the fact that I haven’t had a boyfriend for over four years. Although, at the same time, this lifestyle has helped me to appreciate and value the sweet intimacies available in other temporal modes of romantic or sexual relation. In Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure there is a cogent and beautiful critique of monogamous hetero-patriarchal family as the dominant and dominating form of kinship, and a real celebration of other, queer forms. I think of this critique often whenever I feel like I’m being too slutty. “I’m experimenting with other forms of queer kinship!” I tell myself and sometimes it’s true and sometimes it isn’t. The point is that the nature of constant production has rendered it impossible for me to know HOW I really feel or WHAT I really want from relationship.
So I’m in it now. 2016 – the year of the sabbatical. I’m not sure what to say about it yet. It’s early days. I CAN report that it’s incredible what a shift of intention or language to describe what you’re doing does to your psyche and to your interactions with others. Right now, quite simply, there’s nothing that I want from anyone. No show that I’m trying to get, no project funding, no good review that I’m hoping for. I’ve gone to a couple of performances this year and the process of sitting and watching something in the theater already feels a little alien and slightly purposeless. Not in a huge existential crisis way, I’m just feeling it out. I’m still comparing myself and my work to this person’s work – does that ever end? – but it feels… softer. I run into people, professionals, peer artists, who don’t know anything of my mythical “sabbatical” and they ask me “So what’s next?” And it’s satisfying to me and them puzzling to them (and to me) when I say, nothing. Nothing’s next. I’m not making a piece right now. And they look at me and I look at them. And they look at me and I look at them. I can’t really be sure what is happening in that moment but I can say that something else happens in that moment.
written by Miguel Gutierrez