I am at the center of the world, bestowed with the gifts of time, geography, and body. Power for my demographic relies on maintenance of the status quo and controls the Past to justify this. Refusing to be complicit in the lie, I attempt to use my performing body to disrupt this socialized authority. Please allow me to share some of my experiments in decentralizing myself with my active body while engaging spectators in the act of historiography. This piece of writing intends to illustrate the theoretical apparatus behind my performance research to impart a more useful temporal consciousness for the breaking of hegemonies and the remaking of the Past/Present/Future.
I should begin with some facts before I forget to mention them later. Sometimes I take things for granted, it’s part of my condition(ing). When this piece was first written, I was sitting in front of my Macbook at my apartment in Queens, drinking several cups of black coffee. I have had the luxury to attend college in the pursuit of my art. And I do not walk through the streets of New York City afraid that a strange man might accost me or that a cop will shoot me. I identify as a performance-based artist, but one could/should describe me as a 20-something/straight/white/lower-middle class/American male. I am situated in a demographic constellation socialized to locate itself in the center. This has produced the tendency in me to consider my viewpoint as the universal "I" and therefore privilege myself with the lie that it is somehow above subjective statement. I am inherently free from the responsibility to localize myself racially, politically, etc.
Recently I have had to reflect, in response to reading Edouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, if I should be striving for greater transparency in my work. Not adopting transparency in the work’s intentions, attempting to illuminate or guard “absolute truths” as Glissant might write. The work should be vague enough in thesis to challenge the spectator to step up a wrestle with it. And it should be open for the spectator to fill it with something personal. Instead I am curious about the potentials in pursuing transparency in the cultural origins and references that helped generate the work. Perhaps I am always provided with the privileges of opacity due to where I am positioned and greater transparency in my work is therefore essential to decentralizing the white cisgender American male? Disorienting the center is an important first step. Maintaining opacity of argument without opacity of its source, in this case the artist. Is it possible? To what end?
White American male-ness and a narrative, linear History flow from the same spring and sustain one another. This male-ness depends on control of the past to legitimize its power. Déjà vu. I have always felt a troubling consistency in the support History gives to me. It’s as if my awareness of the centuries of subjugation and genocide that allow for my present privilege liberate me from any responsibility. A tyranny over the historical narratives is essential to preserve the status quo of this tenuous power.
So I try to apply my peculiar temporal consciousness to my work to disrupt this stranglehold. My Western/American/NYC perception of the flow of time is doggedly frenetic. A lymphatic heart injected with adrenaline. This pace is learned and infectious. The minutes and the seconds are carefully scheduled and nothing ever moves fast enough. Everything is harsh sounds and smells and fits and stops. My performance research has lately been preoccupied with understanding how time is filled and made meaningful. It began with an endurance piece titled Over, which was an 8-hour physical conversation with a clock belonging to my great-grandmother. The most recent iteration was a 24-hour continual performance called A Renewed Repudiation of Time, responding to the short writing by Jorge Luis Borges. Projects like this and my most recent Hours of Childhood are investigations of the occupation of time, keeping in mind the imperialist impulse to claim those moments and make them work for me. Those experiences taught me that above all else, the value of Time is how one experiences its’ passing/passage.
History, however, is how we restructure passed time. It’s the pattern/shape that we give it as one small facet of our collective memories. Easier to define through negation, History is simultaneous remembering and forgetting. I am thoroughly persuaded by the academic Joseph Roach, who describes Time not a linear but as 3-dimensional, stating that the 18th century for example is still happening now because our understanding of it continues to change in response to our contemporary perspective. Hence, the 18th Century is still growing and changing. History is a found object being worked upon, manipulated. It is the using, the adding onto an object that is always falling apart and wearing away. This is not always necessarily addition for preservation. Sometimes it is unadulterated transformation since our understanding of the Past is always in flux and highly associative.
So if Time fluctuates through experience and History is rhizomatic and percolating then the act of historiography must be executed through the active human body. It cannot be left to the written word any longer. The written document has a history to it that ironically makes it less suitable as a tool of historical exploration. It has long been a key resource for my demographic to preserve its authority. Literacy is an exclusionary skill. An active body has the capacity to express History in a newer/truer manner. My performative understanding of historiography is action bound up in time, is a performance, and using a form that directly represents this allows for the destruction of the lie that History is a static Truth waiting to be illuminated. Performance makes metaphor manifest, makes it present. Metaphor is key to history because knowledge and understanding of the past is associative and constantly being reshaped. History is always breaking down but never broken. It is always in the present. And the exchange between performing body and spectator forces the present. And simply, having my body perform in the work forces it to be a part of the work, it doesn’t become translucent like when you read my words on a page.
My performance practice strives to create work that is deliberately dissonant and acts as disrupter against History-as-written-document. My performances are heavy with overtly appropriated language, gesture, and choreography. Even portions that are entirely of my own devising always respond to another source, be it literary text or archived music, etc. I make deliberate abuse of appropriation as a tactic since it is one of the most potent tools of my demographic. They take something, a cultural signifier, claim it as their own and erase whatever else they do not want. I try to undermine my authority as “storyteller”, try to force spectators to question what they are hearing and think critically about my performance persona’s legitimacy and the work in which they were taking part. This disoriented space becomes ripe for creative, transgressive thought as I dare audiences to rebel.
The selection of my source materials is ironically largely text based. They are mainly literary sources, blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction because all of it is historical, and made up of authors like Friedrich Nietzsche, Rainer Maria Rilke, Gertrude Stein, Jean-Paul Sartre, W.G. Sebald, and Samuel Beckett. Anyone familiar with these writers now immediately understands my aesthetic. My selection from this canon could unwittingly be a reaffirmation of my cultural authority but I have found them to be wonderfully subversive. The historical text is used as the prism for my own biographical material, which is easy enough with a pantheon of largely white, male sources.
My praxis involves physically altering found objects through performance, transforming them into new art objects. The pieces are usually salvaged disjectia, thrifted antiques, or personal family heirlooms, which possess their own history before I even put them into play. Also being open to spectators imbuing them with a history dependent on their own particular associations, not having that control is ok. Is important. They already possess the knowledge that these are recycling goods and family heirlooms. I develop rituals where the recycled objects are tied/wrapped/fractured/collaged together (with a rag-and-bone aesthetic) and finally reanimated to aid in sharing of deeply personal stories. Spectators are often enlisted to be complicit in the cycles of creation/destruction/creation/etc. In an older piece Zara Notes, a performance installation responding to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, spectators were given hammers and invited to smash the works they did not like. Then we used the fragments to build new ones together. Many of the objects employed are worn and fragile. As I use them and add on to them, they are also falling apart and wearing away. This is the process of historiography.
Audience engagement in the ritual keeps the event fluid and the control uncertain. I would rather lose control of a performance than have the spectators surrender to the “Intentional Fallacy” of losing sight of their own experience in pursue of my intention.
Of course, the work is still undertaking very clear experiments, as I have laid out before. My most recent performance installation, Hours of Childhood staged the necessity to forsake the arcane, shallow, and ultimately useless idea that Time is linear and progressive. Hours was an attempt to share a different way to conceive of the past. It was an active restructuring. History and memory are associative, so strips of time were reordered, woven together for the spectator to make new meaning from them. They were partially artworks made in response to the nostalgic poetry of Rilke, some were from my own childhood, photographs and toys and objects from my youth in New Jersey, These pieces were displayed as works of visual art, artifacts frozen in time. A third component was a live performance happening around and with some of the objects, an act of extreme presentness. My body fragmented, muscles moving in slow little circles, marking their own disjointed chronology. Then supine on the floor in the center of the exhibition, after moving around calling focus to each part like clock arms, the body becomes inactive and only the voice speaks, calling out language on behalf of the whole exhibit, the energy of each object through the even-metered vox. For some generous spectators, they are moved and busy filling each moment with their own little madeleines, using each artifact to remind them of their own toy, costume, bicycle, what-have-you, that they can then ride into the fantasy of their youth. Others stare at my white male body fixed to the floor, spouting words of a dead Czech poet that had been translated by an also deceased white American poet, and the book is present in the room for those who have bothered to pick it up and skim its pages. These spectators are standing politely and perhaps wondering, “Is this it? Is this all that’s going to happen? [More on audience interactions – so what?]
Decentralizing conservative, reactionary hegemonies frees the Past to support the possibilities of a healthier present. My performance aims to shatter historical paradigms and construct new ones with the pieces. This act of historiography hopefully disrupts the deadly grip of my demographic. I am writing this from a country where law enforcement are killing unarmed citizens and half the population is on the brink of electing a volatile demagogue to the presidency, all the while perpetrating appalling destruction abroad unencumbered by any doubts of legitimacy. All of this is done through the bastardization of History and through subtle acts of daily reinforcement. And the irony is inescapable: that this is a written document, a theoretical treatise, a pseudo-manifesto, an essayic review of my work which claims to exist in opposition to text. Can I force my body in the white spaces between the rows of words? So read this aloud, to someone with someone. Take the language and make it your own. This is what it means to write history, to inscribe it with bones and breath and action.
Patrick Scheid is a writer, historiographer, and performance-based artist who lives and works in NYC. His original work has been shown at galleries, theaters, museums, bars, and street corners across the city. You can find more of Patrick’s writing on Culturebot and Queen Mob’s Teahouse. www.patrickscheid.com