Archive for the ‘Responding’ Category

Release and Redemption in DV8’s Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men

Saturday, March 12th, 2016

Bell Chimes duet – 31:35 – 35:50
For better quality go to the eVideo at:

In the “Bell Chimes” duet from DV8’s Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men, Lloyd Newson (choreographer and performer) and Russell Maliphant (performer) dance unusual partnering that somehow contains both tender intimacy and violent aggression. The duet is situated within the narrative context of the story of serial killer Dennis Nilsen, who would lure men back to his apartment to strangle, kill, and then hang out with them.

The duet begins with Maliphant, standing in nothing but underwear and boots, facing a mirror in a dark room as sounds of bell chimes play the semblance of a hopeful dirge. Newson-as-Nilsen approaches from behind Maliphant, wearing a similar expression (and hair cut) but covered in far more clothing than the latter. Their gazes align with unmeeting eyes as Newson manipulates Maliphant’s ready but yielding, almost-lifeless body. Newson burrows his head underneath Maliphant’s arm and walks forward, causing Maliphant’s hand to trace along his shoulder. This theme of forced yet tender physical intimacy continues throughout the dance, always with Newson initiating and Maliphant yielding.  In one moment, Newson drapes Maliphant’s hand on his shoulder and leans away, causing Maliphant’s hand to fall gently down the slope of Newson’s torso, the perverse simulation of a lover’s caress. The chiming bells of the musical score follow the slow rise and fall of a beautifully discordant melody as the interactions between the two men pulse from sudden forceful acts that fade into tender, sustained resolutions.

The partnering in this duet exemplifies how released, draping weight can be used to lift a partner. Maliphant never demonstrates muscular exertion, though he does subtly redirect Newson’s force to cause himself to fall in certain ways or directions. Most of the help that Newson gets to shift and position Maliphant around the space is the weight of Maliphant’s mostly limp body. He allows Maliphant to drape across his back or fall into his arms, shifting the limbs as they trace heavily along the floor. This release of tension towards the surfaces of contact affords the partners unusual resolutions to contact initiations that they use to retell and reimagine between their bodies the sad disturbing story of Dennis Nilsen and his victims.

In his Dance Research Journal article on Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men, Gavin Wittje proposes that this duet and most of the physical relationships in Dead Dreams represent not only the story of Dennis Nilsen, but also of the “toxic shame” homosexual men historically feel about their sexual identities (63). Wittje also argues that Newson, by identifying with Nilsen’s and admitting to his own brokenness, elicited a kind of pitiful empathy, seeking to transform shame into redemption through connection (via the performance), and that the audience “… in our visceral reception of and compassionate response to [the performer’s] gestural expressions of pain and yearning come to know both their faces and Nilsen’s” (65).

The grief and dissatisfaction in Newson’s performance extends beyond his expressions and into the choreography. We watch Newson fail over and over as he tries to connect with an unaffected Maliphant. Each beautiful bit of partnering sullied by the unreciprocal nature of their union. The unimaginable dance of a serial killer and his recent victim stands in as a metaphor for any unrequited affection that might pervert, by totalizing, our imagined understanding of another person. But Wittje sees this as more than glorification or pure self-loathing.

Somehow just admitting to our brokenness within the context of sexuality can be nourishing, for the cycle of apology initiated by a dropping of our guard and an affirmation of vulnerability immerses us and our partners in a larger circuit of desire. We dissolve in an asubjective flow, as Deleuze or Guattari would say. Instead of seeking to stand outside the flow and draw from it, we feed into it and feed our partners, and come to feel no longer excluded, but included ­—by the very fact of our suffering and dissolution—in something much larger, something that heals. (Wittje 76-77)


Works Cited:

Hinton, David, Lloyd Newson, and Sally Herbert. Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men. London: ArtHaus Musik, 1990. Internet resource.

Wittje, Gavin. “Ethics in a Time of Aids: Dv8 Physical Theatre’s Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men.” Dance Research Journal. 47.2 (2015): 63-78. Print.


Antiwords at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2015

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Antiwords by Spitfire Company, performed at Summerhall Old Lab as a part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, August 26, 2015

Two women saunter on to the all black stage, which was initially populated by a lone table, two chairs, and a couple of buckets on the floor. Each performer carries their own large, bronze colored sphere underneath their arms and hold a net containing a glass mug and a beer in their opposite hand. They stand at the front of the stage, looking into the audience, making eye contact and occasionally smiling. The contour of their bodies hide beneath loose fitting white under shirts, suspenders, and wide black slacks. In unison and still holding the oversized brass spheres under their arms, they set their nets down, and each pull from it a beer bottle and secure the bottle between their legs up near their groin, the bottle’s neck pointing out and slightly up. They pull out a long rope necklace from under their shirt with a bottle opener dangling from its end. With one hand, they pop the bottle open and, the bottle still clenched between their thighs, lift the glass mug from off of the floor, situate it below the beer nozzle, and tilt their pelvises forward allowing golden liquid to flow and froth into the empty mug. Glasses full, they lift, salute, and empty the drink into their mouths in one long draw (one performer finishes before the other).

In Antiwords, the performers consume one frothy drink after another, switching character roles as they switch seats, going back and forth between macho instigator and sheepish prude. They don identical, oversized bronze colored bald heads that sink down to their shoulders, obscuring their own heads and necks. With identical costuming, similar builds, and covered faces, the performers rely on their physicality to present character and difference. With each switch of seats, the performers wholly embody the new character. If it wasn’t for the fact that they would lift their mask to drink the next beer, I would have forgotten which performer was which.

For the most part, the audience plays a traditional, passive role in the play but there was one moment during the show when the prude character silently begs someone in the audience to finish their beer for them while the instigator character is off stage. Someone in the front row took the beer and gulped it down, and the audience applauded them. In that moment, the social system represented on stage was translated to the audience, but I think the kind of pressure and reward was different. For the audience member to drink for the performer, it was an act of mercy, not one of bravado. Both instances involve the pressure to participate in a social event or to satisfy an expectation, but the character in the play drinks to avoid confrontation where an audience member stepping in to drink is the willful participation in a confrontation.

By involving the audience, the play, which was already performing the reality of inebriation by using real alcoholic beverages, extends and reflects its own reality on to those subjects filling the theater’s house. The person in the front row who drank the beer tastes it, feels its effects on their body which suddenly shares not only a physical space with the action of the show but also a chemical one. By echoing the actions on stage into the audience, the audience is afforded a real version of the artificial actions being performed by the actors. They can compare their own cultural subjectivity to that of the show’s and their subjectivity within the performance event.

At the end of the show, both performers, ostensibly at least a little drunk, slump in their chairs, bronze heads removed, and rest waiting for the lights to fade. One performer pops open another beer and gestures to the other performer with it. Upon a chuckled decline of her offer, she proceeds to sip the bottle, perhaps in relief, as the show gradually and gently concludes.

Reflections on Miguel Sicart’s The Ethics of Computer Games – 01

Sunday, August 2nd, 2015

So, I’m reading Miguel Sicart’s The Ethics of Computer Games and loving every bit of it. Well, almost every bit of it. Most of the bits. Anyway, while reading the chapter “Players as Moral Beings” I was struck by this passage:

“Becoming a player is the act of creating balance between fidelity to the game situation and the fact that the player as subject is only a subset of a cultural and moral being who voluntarily plays, bringing to the game a presence of culture and values that also affect the experience.” (63)

I had to read that a couple of times. Even after I continued to navigate the rest of that chapter, the “subset of a cultural and moral being” kept echoing in my head and becoming a point of departure for other understandings and considerations.

Sicart uses Michel Foucault’s ideas about power to frame the experience of playing a computer game. The player doesn’t exist until they engage with the game on its terms, and the game’s potentiality becomes actualized only when the player engages with it. The agent and the object exist separately, but the object creates the “player” and the player actualizes the object into experience.

I’ve started to to form some ideas about how this system of understanding could relate to teaching (which I think of in gaming terms anyway). The students are my players, each of my classes is a game or maybe a level inside of a larger game. I communicate with my students in real time, but the system that I have designed communicates simultaneously. I have been incorporating ideas that I have learned from game design into my teaching (shifting modes of engagement to maintain a steady flow state, introducing and integrating implicit and explicit goals, etc) and now I am starting to see parallels in the ethics of gaming and pedagogy (willing submission to particular power dynamic, those relationships having potential to create and inform). The information feels obvious but understanding how to articulate the exchange gives my participation in it a greater sense of agency (real, imagined, or otherwise, I don’t know). I want my students to see how they are participating and for them to consider why and to what end they submit willingly. I wonder how games and contact can present and challenge the mechanics of power.

That’s all for now.

Games aren’t always (just) fun

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

Effective Gameplay in Dark Souls


     I hate Dark Souls (a video game whose 2011 release can be blamed on From Software, Namco Bandai, and Hidetaka Miyazaki). At every turn, the game punishes you for playing it. And you play it over and over again. Your ex, who is terrible at playing video games, spends every waking moment with his hands gripping the controller and his eyes glued to the television. The game causes arguments, shame, guilt. You hate each other’s addiction and you despise your own jealousy, either of the game or of each other. And you play it… over and over again.

     I hate Dark Souls, but the gameplay is undeniably engaging.

     Within Marc LeBlanc’s categorization of game pleasures, Dark Souls easily satisfies all of the “8 kinds of fun.” The vast, immersive game world is filled with sensory delights. Challenges abound. The course of action throughout the game builds and erupts to unforgettable dramatic effect. The game also allows for extensive player expression, though most choices are ultimately superficial; you have to kill things, you have to die. This in concert with my initial paragraph speaks very literally to LeBlanc’s “masochism” category of fun. Even fellowship can be found in Dark Souls, both with non-player characters and in the interactions with other gamers’ ghostly avatars. All of these are only symptoms of effective gameplay, though. What leads us here? What elements of the gameplay produce this myriad plethora of “fun”?

     Looking only at the mechanics, or the play aesthetics, or even the player strategies (“dynamics” as LeBlanc words it) is not enough to define “good gameplay”. As Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman write in their book, Rules of Play, “… game play itself is a kind of dance that occurs somewhere between the dice, pieces, board, and the rules themselves, in and among the more rigid formal structures of the game.” I would add “strategy” and “player experience” to that list of atomic pieces that game play dances between. There we find the game play, but still, what makes the game play effective? What makes it so engaging?

     In Dark Souls, struggle is the game’s bread and butter. Everything in the game is unforgivably lethal and the danger increases exponentially to your avatar’s strength. Almost immediately, the game presents you with an insurmountable challenge. In that first deadly encounter, you die and you die until you discover (on your own or in a strategy guide) a circumspect path that trains and leads you to (more death and) your triumph. Triumph becomes your goal, your almost singular driving force. The game is merciless and you savor every modicum of progress you acquire. That sense of achievement is the requisite goal found in all games worth playing. The (merciless) struggle is what transforms “achievement” into “triumph.”

     Struggle is only meaningful if you can feel your potential to conquer it. I believe that sense of agency can be inspired by transparency of player effect on the game world. If the player understands clearly how their interactions operate within the world, then those interactions (though endogenous, according to Greg Costikyan) have meaning. I swing my sword, I see its arc, and when a game object falls within that arc my sword makes contact. If my sword’s swing only occasionally makes contact within its arc, that could be confusing and frustrating (unless explained by some kind of dodge mechanic). In Dark Souls, when a tossed fireball connects with a giant skeleton, a red bar indicating the enemy’s health appears and you see the bar recede and a number appears above the bar indicating the fireball’s damage. You perform an action and you immediately see its effect. When done elegantly, this kind of transparency of structure makes for a richly satisfying experience that contributes to good gameplay.

     Games can be agonizing, grief inducing experiences but can still contain incredible gameplay. I will always hate Dark Souls (almost as much as I hate the Mako vehicle from the first Mass Effect game) but I stand by its place as one of the greatest games of its time. Good game play, I believe, does not necessarily induce pleasure, but it must be engaging.

Seeing, Articulating, and Borges again.

Friday, September 26th, 2014

Of the four modes that Sally Banes writes about in her “On Your Fingertips” article about dance criticism, I feel most easily aligned with the descriptive and interpretive modes. I see within the absence of those preferences my struggle with evaluative and contextual modes.

Lately I’ve been trying to release my death grip on value binaries. It happens so fast when I see art. Almost immediately my brain either goes “Love it” or “Hate it” and moves on. I am trying to spend more time with those feelings; trying to find an understanding inside of those reactions and maybe see beyond them.

As for contextualization, I think maybe I like to fixate exclusively on what’s happening right now. Automatically, I think art shouldn’t require contextualization to be engaging. I know that isn’t always the case (Felix Gonzales-Torres “Untitled: Portrait of Ross in LA” for example), but my initial desire is for art to successfully stand independent of context.

OK! Below is a little response to a viewing of the first section of Anne Teresa de Keersmaker’s FASE and a quote from Borges (again) that reminded me of the feelings that came up while watching this piece.


FASE (1982), Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker
Director of FASE film: Thierry de Mey

Two diagonal lights cast four shadows of two, near identical women onto a blank white wall. Two of their four shadows over lap, blending/emphasizing the similarities between the two, near identical women. The women perform a near synchronous walking and turning pattern, back and forth in front of the white wall. Their movements ebb in and out of unison. Their shadows peel apart and fuse back together. The two remain within an approximate ten by three foot space. The music echoes this repetition of content and ebbing synchronicity. The video cuts between about four different shots. The duet (as in “a dance for two corporeal human bodies”) lasts for about eight minutes, but feels endless. It could have started hours ago, it may end days from now. Time folds in on the near synchronous movements and forms. It becomes a breathing, changing labyrinth of endings, beginnings, and near perfect similarities.

“Among the Immortals, on the other hand, every act (and every thought) is the echo of others that preceded it in the past, with no visible beginning, or the faithful presage of others that in the future will repeat it to a vertiginous degree. There is nothing that is not as if lost in a maze of indefatigable mirrors. Nothing can happen only once, nothing is preciously precarious.”

-J.L. Borges from “The Immortal” (1962)

A link to the video that I viewed:

And another film by the director of Fase, Thierry de Mey, called La Valse (choreography by Thomas Hauert):

Borges, Gibson, Me, and Myself.

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

There’s this great, miniature story by Jorge Luis Borges called “Borges and I”.  His story suggests that the artist has a dual existence, as an ephemeral, present body and also as a finite, disembodied collection of their work and opinions/writing about their work.  It’s scary, but relevant.  The self extends beyond our fleshy confines, and far beyond our control over it.  It is there in our Facebook profiles, and in our selfies, and in our purchases and browser histories (and even in our wordpress blogs).  So that theme feel relevant for me.

(thanks to a friend for this recommendation)

The self indulgent artist in me imagines lots of ways of visualizing that concept.  I actually made a video/installation that was “about” a different idea, but resembles “existence of self outside of body” very much.  Oh, that also reminds of this great short story by William Gibson called “Fragments of a Hologram Rose”.  Beautiful story.

 “Parker lies in darkness, recalling the thousand fragments of the hologram rose. A hologram has this quality: Recovered and illuminated, each fragment will reveal the whole image of the rose. Falling toward delta, he sees himself the rose, each of his scattered fragments revealing a whole he’ll never know – stolen credit cards – a burned out suburb – planetary conjunctions of a stranger – a tank burning on a highway – a flat packet of drugs – a switchblade honed on concrete, thin as pain. Thinking: We’re each other’s fragments, and was it always this way? That instant of a European trip, deserted in the gray sea of wiped tape – is she closer now, or more real, for his having been there?”

– William Gibson, “Fragments of a Hologram Rose” (1977)

I like the idea of separating body and self.  Digital amputation.  Maybe I could ask people to speak their names into a microphone and have their words manifest as a drifting, digital image of that name that floats and lands on someone else’s body.  Or maybe the name transforms the further away it gets from the speaker.  Turns into a bat or a monster or a unicorn or something random that they have no control over.

Anyway, here’s that video I made that I mentioned earlier: