[The following re-view was originally planned to be published in the journal Studies in Theatre and Performance (Routledge). After going through the necessary edits and corrections, however, a peer-reviewer (whose rather redundant job is to review reviews) requested the re-viewer to make some connection with “exterior discourse,” by which he meant theories and works that are currently fashionable in academia. Since the methodology chosen to write the text, namely to describe and analyze the series of events from the situated standpoint—"itinerary of thoughts" and "trajectory of experience"—of one particular audience who experienced them made it difficult to include such references in the main text, and also because the list of people and issues the peer-reviewer listed up appeared arbitrary and irrelevant to the work being reviewed, the re-viewer offered instead to discuss such matters in a footnote. He received an angry reply from the editor of the journal who was somehow agitated by this response. The re-view consequently lay dormant for a couple of years, a length of time that resulted in making the text an exemplary case of past future perfect, a future imagined but not realized, which we were to explore in our subsequent work. We thank Cody for allowing us to publish his writing here.]
It was a spectacular disaster. The facade of panel discussion had collapsed within the first ten minutes or so. The five panelists struggled to maintain even the minimum pretense of a symposium while being moderated by two individuals who would have been most inappropriate for such a task by all common standards: a six-year-old child relentlessly interrupting any line of thought and demanding all attention to himself, and a sexagenarian German who understood no English, the language of discussion. All that the six-year-old apparently wished to do was to sell a book he wrote; all that the sexagenarian apparently could do was to remain silent. The panelists, all of them performers of one kind or another, were gradually pressed to do what they did best: to actually perform, rather than talk about performance. Visibly disturbed, they gradually abandoned the effort to maintain a conversation, let alone the hope that the moderators would moderate, and one by one drifted away from the table to engage in individual performances: scribbling on the wall, reading aloud passages from a book, crawling on the floors, dancing, making bubble sounds with the water in a glass. The entire situation quickly turned into a chaotic flux. The former panelists engaged in a painstaking endeavor to keep something—anything, really—going, which is to say they were putting on an act of performance. Meanwhile, the six-year-old boy, assisted by one of the panelists, started going around the audience members trying to sell his book in the most earnest manner. A contrast was therefore perceived: the boy was trying desperately to get something out of the situation; the adults, well, to get out of the situation—and both meeting with difficulty. The only person left at the table of discussion was the silent German moderator. After some time, the length of which was presumably measured by the physical as well as emotional limits of each individual, the panelist-turned-into-performers exited the venue, one by one. The forty or so audience members who filled up the space—some apparently upset, others seemingly bewildered, and still others just looking bored—gradually realized that maybe the evening was over. As people started gathering their stuff and walking towards the door, the panelist who was assisting the boy rushed back to the front and announced: “Thank you so much for coming today. This was Act 1 of ANY 4 ACTS. In Act 2, happening in four days from now, we will stage an ‘After-the-Fact Rehearsal’ of this Act, in which we will rehearse in public to re-stage what took place today as accurately as possible.”
From March 26 to April 9, 2017, the New York-based publisher Already Not Yet (ANY), “fabricated” by members of the international troupe No Collective, put on a series of four “Acts” in Berlin and Cyprus to launch two new publications: Matters of Act, a journal edited by No Collective, and Are We Here Yet? a question-and-answer book written and illustrated by a four-and-a-half-year-old boy named Aevi. These ANY 4 ACTS radically diverted from the ordinary form of book release events—“meet-the-author, appreciate-her-reading,” as the announcement mockingly phrased—to stage literary theatrics that conveyed, enacted, and expanded the core problematics of performance and theatre dealt by the two publications: namely, the mechanism of “act” (both as action and pretense), and that of “questions and answers.” These Acts were also the most recent development in (or, depending on how one sees it, a meta-commentary on) No Collective’s foray into theatre, following the previous year’s Immaculate Conception.
Since its inception in 2008, No Collective has been creating performance works across diverse genres—primarily music, but extending into dance, theatre, haunted houses, and books—which reveal and problematize what they call the “infrastructures of performance”—conditions and elements that a given performance work necessitates in order to be staged but are nonetheless usually taken for granted and thus naturalized. For instance, Concertos No.2 (2009), identified two indispensable conditions to put on a concert of electronic music: namely, (a) the presence of an audience, and (b) provision of electricity. These two conditions were coupled by setting up a motion sensor at the door of the venue and distributing flyers each with different starting times, all six minutes apart from each other. The sensor switched the provision of electricity into the room for six minutes every time an audience came in, so that the music, all performed with instruments that required electricity, would go on as long as the audience kept coming in. When the flow of the audience stopped, the speaker would be turned off, even though the instrumentalists continued to perform in silence.
As their oxymoronic name suggests, the nature of the “collective” is itself constantly questioned and left indeterminate. Although there seem to be five core members who are regularly involved in the various projects—You Nakai, Kay Festa, Earle Lipski, Ai Chinen, and Jay Barnacle—the collective re-invents its own form for each occasion: some of their works are indeed staged collectively—as many as 50 performers for Concertos No.4 (2012), for instance—while others are staged non-collectively, as a solo project by one of the members of the collective—most often You Nakai. The site of their production also shifts from one project to another: a part of the collective is linked to the network of artists in Brooklyn, others to that in Berlin, and yet others to that in Tokyo. In a way, No Collective (ab)uses the very form of “collective” as a theatrical apparatus, and there is therefore a sense that “No Collective” is itself a work of theatre—an act that is put on. Presumably related to this, a distinct leaning towards theatre has always been prevalent amidst the panoply of genres they have explored. Their first book, Concertos (2011), published from Ugly Duckling Presse in New York, was a play-script of Concertos No. 1 (2008), which took the preparations, staging, and aftermath of an evening-length music performance and re-framed the whole process as a theatrical piece. In the recent years, No Collective have brought this tendency to the fore, making works that more and more venture into the terrain of proper theatre, starting from Concertos No. 3 (2012), where they arranged the entire work based on a group of performers playing a specific “role,” each unbeknownst to all the others.
As a result of this idiosyncratic approach to performance, No Collective has operated mostly outside the conventional circuit of experimental music, art, theatre, or even performance art. The surface variety of their output may appear to many as incoherent, making it more difficult to pin down and frame what they are aiming to do (for curators, especially and notoriously). Although their works seem, at least partially and immediately, to deconstruct the past practices of John Cage, Christian Wolff, or David Tudor (You Nakai is a scholar on the latter’s music, now preparing a book manuscript under contract with Oxford University Press), the members have acknowledged a wide range of influence that extends all the way from Giorgio Vasari to Bustos Domecq, from Andy Kaufman to Abbas Kiarostami. In turn, their influence is apparent mostly on visual artists, dancers/choreographers, and performance artists than musicians or composers. No Collective has also curated several concerts of contemporary music, in particular the Argentinian composer Ellen C. Covito, whose beautiful monograph Works After Weather they also published from Already Not Yet. But they remain largely a maverick presence, still pursuing, perhaps anachronistically for our times, the avant-garde and experimentalism as the very essence of activity instead of a reified style.
Having followed their works closely and knowing several members personally, I find myself in a privileged position to account in depth for what this (non)group endeavors to do. In this article I reflect upon my experience of ANY 4 ACTS, attempting to disentangle the complex chain of happenstances that was deliberately designed to frame one another in retrospect. I also discuss how the nature of the two publications reflected on the series of acts, and how the series of acts in return illuminated the acts already engaged by the publications themselves. But what I mostly focus on and attempt to covey is the itinerary of thoughts, the act of one audience’s mind, so to speak, that progressed as the Acts unfolded. There is a necessity to this peculiar form, for the Acts were carefully conceived and cleverly designed to collapse any attempt to establish an a-temporal, universal point of view from which to review the happenstances, now in the past. Each act deliberately dismantled the understanding attained in the previous act(s). In order to review, therefore, one can not overview but actually re-view. Instead of offering opinion and judgment, therefore, I depict a trajectory of experience. [*] In this sense, I (ab)use the very format of review as a theatrical-rhetorical apparatus to both articulate and communicate my own revelations fomented by what I saw. But this act is also not far from revealing the nature of the Acts themselves. For after all, as we will see, it was No Collective themselves who claimed during the staging of ANY 4 ACTS that one can only witness an event by acting as if one were doing so. In this spirit, I play my part—I fabricate my own ANY 4 ACTS.
But first let me clarify what I actually saw and what I did not, for this very difference concerning the partiality of one’s experience was critical to the workings of ANY 4 ACTS. Act 1 staged a “Panel Discussion” about Matters of Act at the Berlin venue grüntaler 9 on March 26; Act 2 was announced as the “After-the-Fact Rehearsal” of Act 1, taking place at the same venue on March 31; Act 3, the only segment which took place in Cyprus, staged a “Denouement” at the ancient Greek Theatre in Kourion on April 1; Act 4 returned to Berlin to offer a “Question-and-Answer Session” at the Museum der Unerhörten Dinge (Music of Unheard (of) Things) on April 9. I was present at all the three acts in Berlin. Like all other audience members, I could not accompany the troupe to Cyprus, but the impossibility of seeing the third act seems to have been part of the plan, as will be explained later.
ACT 1: PANEL DISCUSSION
Act 1, as described above, took the form of a panel discussion about the new journal Matters of Act, with six panelists consisting of You Nakai (from No Collective/Already Not Yet), Lindsey Drury, Johanna Gilje, Teena Lange, Natália da Silva Perez, and Joel Verwimp, and moderated by two Already Not Yet authors: Aevi Nakai Gluzman, the then-four-and-a-half, now-six-years old creator of the question-and-answer book Are We Here Yet?, and Roland Albrecht, the sexagenarian curator of the Museum der Unerhörten Dinge, whose catalog raisonné The Museum of Unheard (of) Things was published by Already Not Yet in 2015. The Act began with a brief introduction in German by Albrecht, followed by an introductory reading of Are We Here Yet? by its boy author. The panelists reacted and responded to the reading though the full discussion scheduled to follow this first section never happened, as described above. Despite this failure to discuss the content of Matters of Act, I argue that the same content actually afforded Act 1 its peculiar form, including the very difficulty to hold a discussion about it. In other words, its ideas were enacted, without being talked about.
Matters of Act is a very strange journal, to say the least. For one thing, it is extremely difficult to say what this periodical is about. It gathers a variety of content in diverse forms from diverse genres: interviews with poets, musicians, and choreographers; documentation of art projects and exhibitions; detailed review of a philosophy book (written by a teenager, no less); analyses of new notational systems; an anthology of short stories (‘microfictions’); proposals of new works by choreographers; observation journal on how human infants grow. The brief description mentions that “the assembled materials question the general topic of fabrication,” though it is not clear whether this is meant to say that each article engages with the issue of fabrication, or is an indication that the whole thing was fabricated by No Collective. The fact that the contributors are grouped at the end under the category of “Dramatis Personae” might be suggesting the latter interpretation, though a quick Google search also seems to prove the existence of most of the personnel. In all cases, there is a prevalence of theatrical apparatuses at work in connection to the topic of act and fabrication.
But a more important guideline is provided, I claim, by the “Prescript” placed at the start of the journal entitled “Accomplished Acts,” written collectively by No Collective. The focus of this short text is in expanding the notion of performativity from what happens in a work to what a work makes happen. J. L. Austin’s definition of performative speech acts is criticized from this standpoint as confining performativity in the present where both the context as well as the intention of the speaker remain determinate. Instead, No Collective argues that the truly radical potential of the performative lies in the power of (speech) acts to transcend the present, becoming irreducible to the context or intention of their origin. Thus, “the works that works do (…) always surpass the author’s intention, the audience’s perception, and the critic’s interpretation.” Applying this formula to the entire journal, the difficulty of saying what the journal is about ceases to be a concern. For the focus of the journal, as implied in the title all along, is not what it is, but what it does—a matter of act. And the crux of the matter is that there is no way of knowing what it does before it actually—act-ually—does it.
And the journal did something in Berlin: first of all, it assembled a group of panelists who read it with interest and had something to say; then it brought together a group of audience members who also read it, and/or were interested in what the panelists had to say. It enabled, that is to say, the staging of Act 1. But it also did something for my endeavor as well, for it offered a perspective to re-view the actual form of Act 1 and its apparent “disaster.” In “Accomplished Acts” the condition of works that works do is rephrased as the difference between the performance in a work, and the performance of a work. From here, No Collective goes on to make a counterintuitive argument about the “efficacy of bad works.” In order to be able to judge and discuss whether a performance (or a journal) is good or bad, one must confine its workings to the content of what was staged. Outside this narrow confinement, however, a seemingly ‘bad’ work may bring about ‘good’ consequences. For instance, being confined in an audience seat for two hours watching bad theatre may give you good ideas. The act always surpasses judgment.
Because No Collective’s text is focused on the analysis of act, however, it leaves something crucial about judgment—which is in itself an act, of course—unsaid. For the confinement of performance into what was staged is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for judgment. To paraphrase in my own terms, the judgment of whether a work is good or bad is conditioned by not one but two factors: (1) the reduction of the work’s doings to what happens inside it; (2) the assessment of what happens inside in relation to what could have happened. What was deliberately hindered in Act 1 was the discussion—an exchange of judgments—about the journal. What was set in motion in its stead was the Act itself. If the performance was perceived by many—including some of the panelists—as a failure, it is because it deviated from the preconceived imagery of what could have happened. No matter how vague this imagery was—and it is destined to be vague for it is essentially an imagery of the future—what could have happened served as a ground to frame and assess what actually happened. Simply put, within the confines of the stage, Act 1 did not act as it could have. To be clear, there is nothing particularly “bad” about this process. It is always impossible to know and assess the totality of the act—the details are practically infinite—so we need to constantly regulate and constrain the sheer magnitude of what is through what we imagine it can be—a fabrication—which is always reduced in scale and complexity. The partiality of our experience demands this. But this is also to say that our judgment is inherently conditioned by blindness.
This mechanism of measuring and assessing reality—what happens—through fiction—what could have happened—was given a pertinent mise-en-scene in Act 1, for what triggered the collapse of expectations most evidently was the assignment of a six-year-old as the moderator. And what are children if not the exemplary model of beings always subjected to and regulated by the imagery of what they can be? We always expect so much of them, and they always collapse our expectations so spectacularly—for better or worse. They are scolded as being bad when they deviate from what we think they can be and praised as good when they meet our expectations. But here we find another “efficacy of bad works”—more related to the judgment of the act than the act itself—that No Collective did not articulate in Matters of Act but was nevertheless enacted in Act 1. For as all parents and teachers know, one positive outcome of things going really bad is that we are forced to assess not the particular act but our own judgment about it. The collapse of reality demands the assessment of our assessment—to assess our own fictional imagery that we have fabricated and projected upon happenstances. The end result of this is the realization that what actually happened cannot be encompassed in our necessarily limited imagery of what could have happened. We must thus face our own fictions. And this is precisely what the following Act 2 made apparent.
ACT 2: AFTER-THE-FACT REHEARSAL
Rehearsing an act takes longer than the act that is rehearsed—presumably for this reason, Already Not Yet decided to focus solely on the first fifteen minutes of Act 1 for the After-The-Fact Rehearsal. The setting and participants all remained the same, except for the absence of Roland Albrecht, the silent German moderator, who was replaced by an effigy—a stick figure with his photograph attached. His introductory speech which commenced Act 1 was played back as a recording. The panelist-performers each followed a detailed “score”—later revealed to have been made by You Nakai without the intention of being used as a general score—which articulated the happenstances of four days ago into a sequence of extremely minute and precise five-second time frames. There was much clamor at the beginning. Panelists did not agree on how the rehearsal should be conducted—knowing they needed to re-enact Act 1, they had each devised and put to use a different way to remember the sequence of events. Since the first 15 minutes consisted mostly in the reading of Are We Here Yet?, Aevi, the six-year-old author of the book had by far the most lines. Impressively, however, the boy, who could not depend on the “score” which was too difficult to read, had memorized the sequence of events, as well as what he and others said, better than anybody else.
The rehearsal began from the playback of Roland’s speech and halted every time something had to be corrected—all participants correcting one another—then resuming from the beginning or some previous point. This multiple playbacks of scenes and phrases was what endowed the quality of rehearsal to the Act, as opposed to a mere reenactment. But it was also what caused frustration on the side of the panelists, some of who seemed visibly upset at the lack of serious commitment on others (though from the audience’s perspective, their struggles and the overall tension was entertaining). Understandably, it was the boy who gradually got fed up by the sheer incompetence of other adults to accurately rehearse what he himself remembered so well. At one point, he started shouting out that he did not want to rehearse anymore. Then, a major discussion took place where panelists accused one another of not being serious enough or being too authoritative. A violent fight broke off, where one panelist squeezed some food to another person’s face, who retorted by throwing back a plate with whip cream to her attacker.
Hence, the Act had once again turned into chaos. But the sense of chaos was utterly different this time. If in Act 1 the panelists were forced to put on an act of performance (to pretend something was happening), in Act 2, they were performing an act (something was happening through the pretense). No doubt it was the theatrical frame of “rehearsal”—as opposed to “panel discussion”—that produced this difference of perception. In short, there was a strong sense of theatricality to it all. But let me analyze the mechanism in more detail. What the act of imposing the theatrical apparatus of “rehearsal” did was to set a clear delineation concerning the levels of (un)reality in Act 2: there was the rehearsal and there was the argument (and fights) about the rehearsal. This differentiation allowed a switching between two forms of reality, which prevented chaos to take over. Despite the fact that the act of rehearsal would normally be deemed more of a pretense than the argument about the rehearsal, the very distinction between the two levels gave the participants the capacity to frame the current “reality”—no matter on which level—as a fabrication, and move on. It was all matters of act, yes, but it was the plurality of matters articulated through the use of a theatrical apparatus that actually made this the case. Therefore, the fight was quickly dissolved by the plea of other panelists that they should all concentrate on getting the rehearsal done.
Soon after the fight, it was decided that they should stick to a stopwatch and go through the score from start to finish. The final section of the fifteen minutes was a fantastic conversation between Lindsey Drury and Aevi which encapsulated and problematized the very mechanism of the rehearsal itself. Asked why he still held onto the same answers he wrote in the book almost two years before, the boy answered: “Because I like keeping things.” “How do you keep them? “I keep them remembering inside my brain.” “Always inside your brain?” “Yeah.” At which point Natália da Silva Perez shouted “it’s a metaphor!” thereby bringing the After-the-Fact Rehearsal to an end.
Of course, Aevi was right, as far as he was concerned; and of course, it was a metaphor, as far as others were concerned. For he was the only one, as previously mentioned, who actually managed to keep things in his brain. Others resorted to external devices—metaphoric brains—to recall and rehearse. The extremely precise five-seconds score was no doubt produced by taking recourse to a video or audio documentation. In general, our devices capture and recollect the details of our own acts more—or at least differently—than we do. They are not hindered by the imagery of the future. I for one did not remember that particular exchange that took place fifteen minutes into Act 1. I was, however, suddenly struck by a vague recollection when it was rehearsed in Act 2. This alone proved a point: what happened in Act 1 was “more” than both how we imagined it could be, as well as how we remember it was. The imagery of the future and the recollection of the past both fail to capture the act. But then again, neither can the act be fully perceived in the present. So what is there to do?
After the rehearsal, there was a panel discussion—this time for “real”—where participants talked about what had happened. Following the initial discussion about the journal, the discussion moved on to focus on what happened at the first two Acts. At one point, You Nakai explained how he conversed with several panelists in the aftermath of Act 1 (and I can transcribe what he said because I resorted to an external device—I recorded the discussion on my iPhone):
Some appeared to be really distressed, feeling that the whole thing was a big disaster. So what I told them was that no matter how one perceived it, we need to regard it as an ‘ideal event,’ so to speak, because we will be rehearsing in order to attain it. And whatever Act 1 was, is not certain, but what it will be, depends on how serious we rehearse it after the fact in Act 2. On the one hand, it might be painful to rehearse something that you think went so wrong. On the other, however, that gives us a chance to really delve into what happened, which is not so obvious as it may seem. And in the end, I think this amounts to seeing our own acts in a new light, because that is what happened after all: you know, we acted.
Curiously, in this explanation (and in the rest of the discussion), the role of external recording devices was never mentioned. But the mechanism is clear: whether technical or conceptual (theatrical), it is the application of external apparatuses that allows the relativization and cancellation of the imaginary framing projected onto Act 1, and reveal the potential of the act in retrospect. In actuality both the technical devices and the conceptual framing are necessary. But it is also true that this is not a strict binary: for one thing, the use of technical devices follows the theatrical apparatus and not the other way around; for another, the conceptual is already technical in that it allows one to perceive things differently. At least for the boy that was enough. In this sense, theatre is already a recording device. It allows for the repetition of events, for sure, but the very fact that it does so also changes how we remember things. If I had kept in my brain the fact that Act 1 was going to be rehearsed in Act 2, I would have perceived things differently. Alas, it was only announced after the fact.
The necessity of having to rehearse an act that happened spontaneously is the necessity to regard it (conceptually) as if it was all acted. That is what seeing whatever that happened in Act 1 as an “ideal event” means. You Nakai’s remark therefore collapses two meanings of the word “act” into one. Whatever that happened was acted (in the sense of spontaneous action), and we need to regard it as if it was acted (in the sense of theatrical pretense). It is this collapse of two senses of “act” that was at the basis of Act 2. Hence the act of fighting (in the first sense) could quickly be rendered into an act of fighting (in the second sense) and be dismissed. And contrary to what is commonly believed, it is the act in the second sense that allows one to perceive the act in the first sense. And quite pertinently, it was Act 2 that allowed us to perceive Act 1, in retrospect.
In all this, there was a transition in the status of fiction or fabrication. Whereas in Act 1, the fictional imaginary of what could happen blinded one from seeing what is happening, the fictional apparatus of theater in Act 2 enabled one to see what had happened. So one form of fiction was used to counter the workings of another. This of course brings us back to the blanket thesis that it is all matters of act, but just how these two matters of act differ is important. As I see it, there are at least three distinctions.
(1) Intention: The use of fiction in theater is intentional, whereas the projection of the imaginary is, in most cases, an unconscious act. It is this deliberate nature that allows the former to function as an external apparatus, and to posit the clear distinction of levels of (un)reality as discussed above.
(2) Teleology: The theatrical apparatus is employed in order to excavate what happened but was not perceived as such. The fictional imaginary serves to judge happenstances but only at the cost of occluding the perception of what is happening.
(3) Temporality: The apparatus of theatre enables one to see what happened in the past. The imagery of what could happen is directed towards the future (though it affects how we recollect the past after the fact).
Articulated in this manner, the problem of this system becomes apparent: acts can only be perceived in retrospect through a deliberate intervention. In other words, theatre seems to pertain solely to the past. But wasn’t the whole implication concerning the works that works do, the radical potential of act, about their future? How is it possible to foreground this future which is obviously different from mere expectation? In other words, how can the theatrical apparatus of fiction allow for a future, if at all? By shifting the focus from Matters of Act to Are We Here Yet?, the following Acts 3 and 4 brought these precise points home—albeit in a surprising manner.
ACT 3: DENOUEMENT
The members of Already Not Yet/No Collective left Berlin the day after Act 2 and flew to Cyprus. At least that is what they said, though the fact that Act 3 in the ancient Greek Theatre of Kourion was staged on April 1—April Fool’s day—added a charming suspicion to their claim. In any case, the attendees of Act 1 and 2 were sent an announcement for Act 4 within a week or so. This email, both in its form and content, acted essentially as the “denouement” that was supposedly staged in Act 3—a proxy for the Act nobody saw. And as a denouement, the email indeed revealed surprising facts. Attached to it was a mysterious photo of the six-year-old boy standing next to a sphinx, pointing his fingers to the TV monitor above which showed an ancient Greek Theatre with the caption: “Four thousand spectators.”
The text is worth quoting in full:
If you were present at ACTS 1 (Panel Discussion) and/or 2 (After-The-Fact Rehearsal), you saw Aevi, the six-year-old author of ARE WE HERE YET? read his book of questions and answers. Actually, he never read—he either guessed what was on the page or simply repeated the words whispered to him. In other words, he only acted as if he was reading. But does one ever read without pretending one can read?
None of you could have been present at ACT 3 (Denouement), which took place on April Fool’s day in an ancient Greek Theater in Cyprus. All you can do, therefore, is to either guess what was staged or simply trust the account you are told (this would also be true about ACTs 1 and 2 if you were not there). But does one ever witness an event without acting as if one was doing so?
Here is a partial account of what was staged at ACT 3: Oedipus Rex is a play that revolves around the act of asking questions and receiving answers. Three times, Oedipus’ parents and Oedipus ask the oracles of Delphi about the future and are given answers that make them act in one way and not the other. Throughout the play, the answers given prove to be right only because the questioner is blind to the fact that he is already written inside those same answers. The only time a shift in perception occurs is when his position switches to that of the answerer: he solves the riddle of Sphinx by implicating himself in the answer—“a human being.” But is the lesson of the play that all acts are always prescribed in the atemporal matrix we call “fate”?
The partiality of experience is what conditions one to resort to acting (and experience is always partial). It is also what conditions one to ask questions. In ACT 4, taking place at the Museum of Unheard (of) Things this Sunday afternoon, Aevi will actually read his question-and-answer book for the first time in public. And then there will be a Q&A session on everything that happened and did not happen, which is to say that we wish to stage a discussion about the nature of questions and answers.
The email was indeed a revelation—but also, clearly, intended as a riddle. Let me try not so much to solve it, but to discern what it is trying to do (following the spirit of Matters of Act). It seems there are three main functions:
(1) It sets a parallel between the six-year-old author and the audience/readers. They share the same inability to act—to read, or to witness Act 3—and therefore also the necessity to depend on external sources. Furthermore, the foregrounding of this parallel demands us to see ourselves implicated in the system—and thus this revelation echoes Oedipus’ transition when he successfully solved the riddle of the sphinx.
(2) It connects the issue of “act” to the mechanism of “questions and answers” through the fact that both are conditioned by the partiality of experience. In other words, they are both models of “external sources” we resort to. This connection bridges the transition from the first two Acts to the last one, as well as from Matters of Act to Are We Here Yet?
(3) It summarizes the plot of Oedipus Rex as a narrative frame centering on the act of asking questions and receiving answers. There are three important issues here: (a) the transition that Oedipus goes through from the state of not-knowing to that of knowing; (b) the transition that Oedipus goes through from the questioner to the answerer; (c) the relationship between the temporal unfolding of events in a play and the pre-established matrix of “fate.” These three points are related, in that they all point towards a single condition: the irreducibility of temporality involved in the transition of states.
The first two functions revolve around an emphasis on the partiality of experience that drives one to resort to external apparatuses of fabrication in general. We have already seen this mechanism at play in Acts 1 and 2. The third function, however, points towards the temporality of transition that cannot be reduced to pre-established mechanisms. The email therefore seems to convey that this irreducible transition concerning questions and answers is the driving force of theatre (function 3), that it is what is taking place in the present via this email (function 2), and that it entails the revelation that we ourselves are implicated in it (function 1). In other words, the very transition that we enact by resorting to fictional devices is itself real, and cannot be pre-scribed in the past. Transition is always a transition into the future. But what is it that we actually do when we ask questions?
ACT 4: Q-&-A
At this point, it is necessary to explain how the question-and-answer book Are We Here Yet? was written, as it was recounted in Acts 1 and 2 by You Nakai, who happens to be the young author’s father. The story goes that when Aevi was four-and-a-half-year-old, he constantly asked questions. His father could not answer many of them, but at one point he decided to write them down (these questions included, for example: “Why is your hair stuck into your brain?” “What is the last number?” “Why do crayons have color?” “Why do I like things?” “What happens when you die?”) Then he waited for several days until Aevi had forgotten about the question he asked, and asked the same questions back to him. Now the boy, transitioned to the role of the answerer, did his best to answer his own questions, which he often did ingeniously. His father then asked him to make a drawing for each of the questions and answers (many of which were abstract and therefore difficult to draw). Finally, they compiled 26 sets of these questions and answers and drawings and turned them into a book. In this way, the process of making the book hinged on the author’s transition from the questioner to the answerer. Although the transition was enabled by the external apparatus that was his father, the actual act of asking the riddle and then solving it himself required Aevi to take a forceful leap and shift his position on his own. Rather than relying on a given external resource, which he aimed to do first by asking the question to his father only to find out that this apparatus was useless, he externalized himself in relation to his past self. In a sense, Aevi became his own future.
Act 4, perhaps reflecting the simplicity of Are We Here Yet? (in comparison to the baroque nature of Matters of Act), had the most straightforward and simplest structure of all the Acts. It was certainly the most serene: the boy author read his entire book and his father read the German translation of all the questions and answers. They both struggled, and the reading of the 26 questions and answers took about an hour with a break in the middle demanded by the exhausted boy. It was a most captivating and fascinating reading where the boy would try to pronounce individual letters and then connect them: “ku…ku…ku…nu…nu…nuo…o…o…o…u…u…kunu…kuno…kunou…” His father would assist him saying things like, “there’s a ‘K’ there but ignore it,” “okay, now put it together,” or “read it quickly.” The boy would follow these suggestions and repeat the combination of sounds over and over until he got the word right, or until he suddenly realized what the word was and yelled it out: “‘know’!!” Then it was his father’s turn to read German through the same process, this time assisted by all the generous audience members.
What we were witnessing was essentially another process of rehearsal: an act of repetition to attain the posited ideal. But this time, the whole Act actually depended on the success of arriving at an explicit goal. Otherwise, there would be no turning of pages. So we observed a series of tiny rehearsals and accomplishments unfold. Despite the smallness of scale, the staging of transition when the boy actually got the word right was a spectacular drama. Similar to phase transitions in nature, there was the reaching of critical points where Aevi would be uttering the very words without realizing it, and then a clear leap of state when he grasped just what it was that he was reading: a transition from not-knowing to knowing—the pure essence of theatre. And we were all absorbed in this act despite the fact that we all knew what the answer was (just like the spectators of Oedipus Rex). In this sense, the audiences were all implicated in the process. For why does one bother to go see a performance if not to experience something one hasn’t before? As announced in the email of denouement, our position was parallel to the boy’s: we knew what he doesn’t, but we came because we did not know what it could be like.
Then, while I watched the father and son read, I experienced a transition of my own. It suddenly dawned on me that all the four Acts and the two publications could be connected by a single term that to my knowledge had never appeared in any of the texts handed out nor the discussions staged: “pedagogy.” For the focus of pedagogy is nothing other than the transition from one state to another, aided by external devices, conducted through repetition, and most importantly, held together by certain imagery of what the learner can become in the future. Although similar in nature with the imagery of how things can be that blinds us from seeing how things are, the imagery of future employed by pedagogy is more akin to the positing of an “ideal event” that conditioned the inquiry into how things were. Another way of saying this is that pedagogy sets out theatrical apparatuses to produce real transitions that are irreducible to those apparatuses. It is in this outstripping of theatrical apparatuses after-the-fact, that pedagogy is theatre and theatre is pedagogy.
And all along, we had been implicated in this pedagogical process. The four Acts were specifically designed so that when they are experienced consecutively, a new Act always reframed the former one retroactively. If you only came to Act 1, you would have left thinking it was all a big disaster. But what is actually reframed in this process is not so much the Acts themselves, but the very position of each audience in relation to the Acts. It is the audience who go through transition. This also explains why the four Acts could not be staged in a single evening. Similar to how You Nakai had to wait several days until his son had forgotten his own questions, the switching of positions that pedagogy aims for cannot be accomplished overnight. It demands a patient dispersal of events over time. In short, an age-old truism: learning takes time.
It is this trajectory of my own learning that I wished to portray here. But before I end, I would like to posit one last riddle and try to answer it myself (following Aevi’s lead): What is the goal of pedagogy? Of course a myriad of things, but I’d like to resort to the model of Oedipus and answer that the ultimate goal of pedagogy is to learn oneself. The answer is always oneself. And this was what had been suggested all along: the theatrics of Act 2 was employed so that panelists could see their own acts anew. Which means that the binary between past and future is a false one. We always find our future in our past—and the past exists in the future: “And whatever Act 1 was, is not certain, but what it will be, depends on how serious we rehearse it after the fact in Act 2.” One embarks on a journey only to discover anew where one already is. As if to performatively prove this point, I now realize this contradiction had been nicely encapsulated in the simple title of Aevi’s book: Are We Here Yet? And the perfect answer to this conundrum was also right in front of us all the time: Already Not Yet.
(*) FOOTNOTE FOR THE PEER-REVIEWER
Due to the particular methodology of this re-view, I deliberately refrained from introducing materials that were not part of my experience and played no explicit part in the mechanism of the work as I experienced it. My re-view therefore does not do what reviews-as-overviews ordinarily do: cite external references or context, speculate on the influence from other works, or attempt to connect the discussion to general topics in theatre studies or other disciplines. However, I have been asked by the peer-reviewer—whose understandably complicated job is to offer a review-as-overview to my re-view—to provide exactly that: “contextualisation both of the work within a tradition of postdramatic theatre/conceptual music/visual performance, and of the argument within current scholarship.” As the peer-reviewer was kind enough to offer me a list of questions and people (artists and critics), I wish to return the courtesy by formulating an answer. That being said, since I do not want to deviate the reader from my focus, instead of inserting my response within my main narrative, I have decided to add them here as a long footnote, where I think it properly belongs—for its function is to ground my experimental analysis for others without interfering in the actual process of analysis. The peer-reviewer requested five sets of comparisons—I shall tackle them one by one.
(A) Comparison with “other artists who work with non-professionals (including children, e.g. Mammalian Diving Reflex/Tim Etchell’s work with his son)”
The difference between the theatrical endeavors of No Collective/Already Not Yet and other works that appear to similarly employ children lies both in the degree of complexity concerning mechanism and the degree of specificity concerning realization. Let me be specific here, because the enemy of it all seems to be careless generalization: my examples are limited to Mammalian Diving Reflex’s Haircut by Children, Gob Squad’s Before Your Very Eyes, Tim Etchell’s That Night Follow Day and his work with his son. Several contrasts can be observed: (i) Difference of age between Aevi—who wrote the book when he was 4 and moderated the Berlin discussion at age 6—and the children assembled in the other works, who were all between 8 and 12 years old. (ii) Unlike Aevi, who was the only child in ANY 4 ACTS, the other productions employed a group of children, who could be, and in many cases were, different from one performance to another. In other words, the delineation of “children” is utterly categorical and therefore its members replaceable, in both Haircut by Children and Before Your Very Eyes. (iii) In addition to this conceptual issue of categorization, reenactment by different groups of children is also technically conditioned by the relative simplicity of the mechanism in the other works. Even when the piece is seemingly complicated—such as Before Your Very Eyes, for instance—the whole complexity is staged in front of us. In ANY 4 ACTS, by contrast, complexity arises from the relationship between what is staged and what has already been, or not yet, staged: The writing and publication of Aevi’s book obviously relates in a complex manner to the four Acts, which among themselves repeat this chain of complex relationship. This to say that No Collective/Already Not Yet’s endeavor cannot be generalized under the category of “works with non-professionals or children.” Instead, ANY 4 ACTS subverts the facile dichotomy between professionals and non-professionals, adults and children. If anything, Aevi appeared to be the most professional and dedicated performer in a room full of so-called “professional” performance artists. But this also suggests that this enterprise of comparison is itself a trap that diverts the attention away from the work itself and to the observer making the comparison and his/her preconceptions. For instance, I could also blabber about how although Tim Etchell’s That Night Follow Day may fall into the same kind of work that uses children-as-category, his work with his son, as the peer-reviewer specifies, is more intimate and appears more akin to ANY 4 ACTS. However, the focus of ANY 4 ACTS is not about using a child performer at all, so such comparison will be most informative in revealing the concerns and interests of the peer-reviewer. As far as the actual performance goes, the focus was clearly in the sequential and exponential building of complexity and resolution that cannot be repeated, and this is what I aimed to re-view in my essay. I believe generalization and application of the specific mechanism of ANY 4 ACTS can only be made after detailing the itinerary traveled from within, not by hastily forcing external categories from without.
(B) Comparison with “other artists who create publications (the back catalogue of Ugly Duckling Presse, who published ‘Concertos’ would be a great place to start here)”
Melanie Fisher has brilliantly articulated this point in her recent review of Are We Here Yet? and I have nothing to add: “In their output as Already Not Yet, however, the radical experimentalism of No Collective appears to have been toned down: their books retain conventional form and structure without delving into the elaborate mannerisms and precarious deconstruction of the book format that one usually finds in the variety of so-called ‘artist books.’ Nevertheless, I think it is more accurate to say that the focus of the experiment has been displaced from form to content (in a broad sense) in the endeavor of Already Not Yet. The conventional format of the book is preserved as a ‘found object,’ so to speak, in order to package radical experiments concentrating on narrative and fiction in the guise of pseudo-marketable products. Sometimes the nature of experimentation calls for the output to not appear as experimental at all.” (Melanie Fisher, “As If We Were Here Already: A review of Are We Here Yet? Questions + Answers + Drawings by Aevi,” Compulsive Reader)
(C-1) Comparison with “scholarship on performance and failure (Sara Jane Bailes, Sarah Gorman)”
As I stress throughout my re-view, the workings of ANY 4 ACTS cannot be framed in terms of “failure” or in relation to “scholarship on performance and failure.” This is for a simple reason: the latter endeavor seems to entirely lack two entangled concerns that are central to No Collective/Already Not Yet’s theatrics, namely “consequence” and “pedagogy (learning process).” Sara Jane Bailes, for instance, analyzes the use of failure as a strategy in performance to subvert the established conventions and even the status quo of aesthetic expression. (Bailes, Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure: Forced Entertainment, Goat Island, and Elevator Repair Service (London and New York: Routledge), 2011) But because of this goal-oriented nature of investigation, Bailes cannot help but approach “failure” as a strategy—as something that can be calculated and executed under control, especially in theatre where directors are given privileged clearance to orchestrate such breakdowns. We could also recall here the depressingly tautological—and therefore utterly totalitarian—formulation by Nicholas Ridout: “that there is something wrong with theatre is the sign that it is theatre.” (Ridout, Stage Fright, Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 33) Thus, “failure” forms a part of the system even before it happens, along with its optimistically projected benefits. If one agrees with Bailes that, “failure is intrinsically bound up with artistic production and, by extension, the figure of the artist,” then artistic production and, by extension, the artist, can never really fail. These pre-packaged instances of rupture primarily serve aesthetic purposes, as Bailes repeatedly implies. But the whole point of ANY 4 ACTS was in demonstrating performatively how what was deemed as “failure” in one act could be drastically re-framed as something else in the other. In other words, the status of “failure” is itself indeterminate, relative to the necessarily limited cognitive frame that each observer casts on happenstances—for instance, Aevi never perceived any of the Acts as being a “failure.” What fails is not the act but the frame that seeks to interpret the act. Hence, failure is not aesthetic—something to be appreciated from afar—but catastrophic—something that disintegrates the very coordinates of appreciation that distinguish what is “good” from the “bad.” It therefore functions not as a mere rupture to the system (an aesthetic effect which, as Ridout admitted, only serves to re-strengthen theatre), but as a trigger for actually changing the system. The chain of consequences that ensues is what I have tried to track in detail under the rubric of “pedagogy.”
(C-2) Comparison with scholarship on “performance and work (Bojana Kunst, Nick Ridout)”
Labour as topic is less laborious to dissect than labour as practice. The examples Bojana Kunst picks up are, for the most part, conscious efforts by artists to deal with the issue of labour in their performance. The complexity of ANY 4 ACTS disrupts this clean-cut organization: who the artist is is not certain, and therefore what the labour is is difficult to determine. Where the very frame of the work is rendered indeterminate—if you only came to Act 1, that was that—tidy categorical delineations collapse. “The visibility of labour in performance” that Kunst and Klein rely on may not always be so apparent. (Gabriele Klein & Bojana Kunst, “Introduction,” Performance Research 17-6 (2012), 1) But if, as Kunst herself claims, “every aspect of life is an aspect of labour,” (Kunst, “Art and Labour: On consumption, laziness and less work,” Performance Research 17-6 (2012), 123) then according to her own logic, nothing is particularly more labour-like than any other thing. For this reason, the problem is not so much whether there is labour or how the “topic” is dealt within ANY 4 ACTS; it is rather, which particular labour should be focused and accounted for. My choice was my own labour of thinking and transforming my thoughts in order to understand the experience. As I confessed, “I fabricate my own ANY 4 ACTS.”
(C-3) Comparison with scholarship on “performance and the ‘project’ (Simon Bayly)”
I partially agree with Bayly’s observation that, “the project itself has proliferated as the basic mode of productive labour to the extent that it has become an organizing principle of life and work, of life as a work.” (Simon Bayly, “The End of the Project: Futurity in the Culture of Catastrophe,” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 18-2 (2013), 162) What I cannot agree with, however, is the facility with which he renders this observation to writing. For it seems to me that an organizing principle of “life-as-work” cannot be objectified into a general category with the same ease as “works-in-life.” The former inherently resists relativization. For this reason, the conceptual and linguistic framing of this meta-principle as “project” is always delineated and defined negatively in relation to the “work.” But the apparent dichotomy hides a difference of logical types; and when this doesn’t seem to be the case, the project is reduced to “projects-in-life.” Instead of capitalizing on this suspect nature of the convenient magic word “project,” I claim that sticking to the original terminology and considering the happenstances as “acts” provides a better linguistic tool to probe the complex trajectory of ANY 4 ACTS. I articulate the multivalent nuances of this term in the main part of this re-view.