Sisyphus, Sisyphus, Wherefore Art Thou?

by Chas Womelsdorf

A funny thing happened on my way to being. When we hear the word “performance” in an artistic setting, we often think of stage and film, but some of the greatest performances happen elsewhere. I remember going to a Renaissance Festival as a kid and my interactions with people inhabiting characters away from their periodic “staged” performances with every bit as much integrity and detail as any actor. I’ve also watched musician friends transform into their rockstar stage personalities as they got off the barstool. As much as Johnny Depp following Hunter S. Thompson or Keith Richards around, these are character studies. These are researched, thought out, and intentional ways of being. They are expressions of selves that are different than what are considered the supposedly “real” selves. And, while these are identities that are mostly consciously “put on”, I wouldn’t call them fake or anymore unreal than the way I act around new people. In fact, we all sometimes mostly consciously “put on a show” for our family and friends during various social gatherings. We’re just getting carried away with ourselves.

 

A lot of my work deals with everything but what we normally consider “the performance”. Whether I’m working with an actor taking on a new character, a competitive debater, a public speaker, or a businessperson, the real trick is always developing the habits of their eventual performance so that when “the performance” moment arrives it’s only mostly conscious. People often conflate the concepts of “finding your voice” and “finding yourself”. They certainly intermingle, inform, and transform one another, but I tend to think of “your voice” as a particular way in which you present “your self” in particular situations. Thus, “your voice” is a character you get to play. If you want to play the role well, you’ll need to master the habits of this character, and habits are the physical expression of repetition and accumulated history.

 

But, then, what is the self if not precisely our very habit of being? Erving Goffman, in his masterwork The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, took the Shakespearian “all the world’s a stage” metaphor to a whole new social scientific level. He began to look at our everyday interpersonal interactions through the lens of the theatre beyond the metaphorical stage to include the backstage, the audience, the front of house, the wings, the script etc. The classic example of this way of seeing the world is our experience of a restaurant. There is a defined script (“can I start you off with a drink or an appetizer”, “what’s your special”, “check please”), defined roles (customer, host, waiter, cook, busser), defined scenes of action (entrance, seating, bar, kitchen, bathrooms, back alley), and a defined plot (waiting to be seated if you’re American, drinks, appetizers and bread, soup or salad, main course, dessert). All of these have little variations and flourishes, and the drama of the plot emerges from how well or poorly each part goes. All of this is true of our family lives, friendships, and workplaces. Within all of these largely scripted interactions, a habitual self emerges and is presented. As depressingly routine as this might sound for some of us, Goffman is also opening the door to the art and liberation of the self, the lifelong character study, the examined life, the ability to recognize and disrupt the script. That, I suppose, is the funny thing that happened on my way to being.

 

To go further down this rabbit hole, French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan argued that the idea of a unified self is a myth that we repeat over and over to avoid the traumatic realization that the “I” that is “me” doesn’t exist. In other words, we are merely a hodgepodge collection of interpretive memories leading up to each moment of our existence, and we are desperately driven to fill the hole where our selves should, according to us, be. All that we do, our intensely staged world, attempts to fill that void. As Judith Butler often articulates, our bodies and presented selves are just simply not our own. The self and the body that I present to the world is a part of other people’s narratives and scripts, their pleasures and violent realities. Indeed, in a desperation to be, the I’s accumulate into we’s and us’s that violently correct the they’s and them’s in order to affirm our individual performances of self.

 

But, again, there is also magic in all of this (even if it is sometimes a bit dark). It’s somewhere in that shift between voice and self, that moment which travels from the barstool to the stage, that playful and thoughtful becoming. One more pretentious name drop. Roland Barthes, one of my favorite thinkers in history, spent a lot of time thinking about text. T.E.X.T. As for many who love to read, textuality was an exquisite explosion for him. He called the experience of reading great writing “la petite mort”. That’s French for “the tiny death” and, of course, orgasm. This tiny death is deeply connected to the ideas underlying Goffman’s front and back stage, Lacan’s notion of the self-filling void, or Butler’s interminglingly performative bodies. It’s that moment when the characters in a book, play, or movie jump off the page, stage, or screen into our suspended belief systems. It’s that moment when a painting whispers something important to you. For just an instance, you and they almost truly are some sort of a real us, some sort of truth that you can just almost touch. It’s that moment that all performers (and their audiences) strive for, that moment that we all want to ride even though it must be fleeting to carry it’s enormous weight. It’s a moment that we can’t be fully conscious of because the moment we become aware of it is the moment it dies. At best, we can only be mostly conscious of being and being carried away with our selves.
For me as an artist, the way to there is through a both/and opening, or even a neither/nor, as opposed to just the constant normative either/or. Performance that we recognize as performance, in an artistic and existential sense, can be both a declaration and recognition. I love Jacob’s notion of the studio as laboratory. I like to think of the self and the voice as being laboratories for one another. The magic happens when you notice it, stop noticing it, realize that you stopped noticing it, and then you get to re-member it with your own habits (nun intended). Welcome to Hogwarts. Welcome to Wonderland. Welcome to the vanishing point of your painting adventure. This is my Basin Arts. I look forward to yours.

Join us at Basin Arts on Wednesday January 18th for Chas Womelsdorf’s Vocal Arete workshop exploring the body and self as text! More info here.

 

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