The City. Walking. Saying No.
By Zee Hartman
The conceptual and temporal progress of art and performance is indistinguishable from the procedures by which they have been, historically, destroyed. Those that have negated popular artistic impulses either critically or practically have pushed art, its processes and its reception to new limits with every defiant action. Saying no is the original creative step towards potential, and potentiality is the medium of the dramaturg. What happens when we say no to assumption, to convention? Why is dramaturgy obsessed with determinable places like theatres? How does dramaturgy function in-between buildings, on the streets, in open air? How can dramaturgy interrogate the contract between the human and the city?
In the introduction to her 1961 book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs writes that “cities are an immense laboratory of trial and error, failure and success, in city building and city design. This is the laboratory in which city planning should have been learning and forming and testing its theories. Instead the practitioners of this discipline (if such can be called) have ignored the study of success and failure in real life, have been incurious about the reasons for unexpected success, and are guided instead by principles derived from behavior and appearance, […] from anything but cities themselves.” I would like to instead propose that “performance is an immense laboratory of trial and error, failure and success, in performance building and performance design. This is the laboratory in which performance planning should have been learning and forming and testing its theories. Instead the practitioners of this discipline (if such can be called) have ignored the study of success and failure in real life, have been incurious about the reasons for unexpected success, and are guided instead by principles derived from behavior and appearance […] from anything but performance itself.”
The city as a site for performance continues to gain popularity as social temperatures rise to be increasingly democratic (accessible) and inclusive (available). Performing in public is also cheap, and with dwindling financial support for the arts worldwide, it is not surprising that artists are turning to more economically viable alternatives, like public-sanctioned space. Public spaces are sites of repetitive gestures, whether in the shape of a walking pattern or any other habitual manifestation of human action (tourists act out their notions of civilized life, while locals expertly get-to-where-they-are-going). There is a relative constancy to public space that provides city-dwelling humans with a reliable premise on which to carve out unique pathways that in turn make up the experience of the everyday. Once an alternative decision is made, especially by a crowd, the everyday is disrupted and ordinary life becomes extraordinary. (Saito 2007)
Where does it start? Muscles tense. One leg a pillar, holding the body upright between the earth and sky. The other a pendulum, swinging from behind. Heel touches down. The whole weight of the body rolls forward onto the ball of the foot. The big toe pushes off, and the delicately balanced weight of the body shifts again. The legs reverse position. It starts with a step and then another step and then another that add up like taps on a drum to a rhythm, the rhythm of walking. Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2001)
Recently, in a dance improvisation workshop held by Katie Duck at the experimental performance space OT301 in Amsterdam, we started off by discussing the child’s first step: that moment where the head, spine, pelvis and ankles align for the first time in balance, the endorphin rush that happens as the result of that alignment, and the natural impulse to locomote, to propel ourselves forward in space, to never stop moving. Before we were allowed to dance, we had to make clear and informed decisions about walking.
Walking upright is the essential human movement. It is not the first deliberate movement we execute as children (perhaps that would fall into the category of gesture), but it is a significant qualifying milestone in the child’s developmental path. As a child, the enormous achievement of taking those first steps and the subsequent time spent walking, is busy, purposeful work. As an adult, walking –especially strolling or “sauntering” (as Thoreau explains in his 1851 lecture The Wild)– is the closest we can get to doing nothing, to having nothing, to being “sainte terres” (holy-landers: vagabonds/pilgrims that walked the earth in search for redemption) or “sans terre” (having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere). When we saunter we rebel against our own temporal expectations; when we march we rebel against the city’s.
Definitively, the no I speak of is not the no of Plato’s ‘Stranger’, a no of otherness or difference, and, consequently, the historical perception of negative statements as somehow ‘less valuable than affirmative ones, in being less specific or less informative.’ It is also not the no of the I-Ching, denoting creativity (activity) to the affirmative Yang, and reception (passivity) to the negative Yin. Instead, as Marxist sociologist John Holloway proclaims in No (2005): “No is a question, yes is an answer. No leaves us unsatisfied, wanting more, asking, admitting that we do not have the answers. No pushes against verticality, pushes against dogmatism, pushes us to listen.” No pushes us to action.
The impulse to walk, to communicate via walking is often manifested in Protest and Anarchy, movements that actualize in the city, in the embodiment of against-ness, of antiisms, of the full potential of the negative. These are powerful models made more powerful through the conviction of its disciples, discarding the metaphysical presence of affirmation (I think therefore I am) for the physical manifestation of matter (bodies in space), used productively to initiate change. Often this physical manifestation comes in the form of sabotage –human beings in an active state of blocking, hindering or impairing procedures of law, common practices, or the everyday.
Saying no may provoke sabotage, though it is not a dramaturgy of sabotage. If dramaturgies of sabotage are (and I’m substituting the word ‘city’ for the word ‘performance’ here once again) ‘particular weavings of action that emerge from but work against the city and that are initiated from within the city by any one of their makers (including those who come to the city at or after the point of its emergence)’ as well as a ‘dramaturgical mode designed to interrogate, expose, and reorganize the social and economic contracts between those involved in the making of the city’ (Stanger 2016) then saying no is merely the step that unleashes the potential for this type of anarchic urban performance. Saying no unleashes the potential of walking,
It unleashes a new contractual potential between the human and the city.