For his participatory project The Fall artist José Carlos Teixeira invited people to stage, to have them to start a dialogue with him, around the notion of falling and what falling would represent for them. In two great conversations with Jeremy David Bendik-Keymer, Beamer-Schneider Professor in Ethics, Case Western Reserve University (USA), and Erica Levin, Film Historian, Assistant Professor, History of Art, The Ohio State University (USA), he talks about the concept of catharsis and therapy, contradition and paradox, failure, fall, and American culture.
In conversation with Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, Beamer-Schneider Professor in Ethics, Case Western Reserve University (USA):
José Carlos Teixeira: I’ve approached the fall in many of its legacies: historical, philosophical, literary, artistic, theatrical, performative – all these different histories and lineages have been using the concept of falling in different iterations, throughout the centuries. What I decided to do here was to schedule an encounter with these people, to have them start a dialogue with me, around the notion of falling and what falling would represent for them, specifically and individually. There were some philosophical, metaphorical, and very personal responses. And then I invite them: »Can you please look back? You have a mark on the stage. Go there and fall.« So, basically what you have is the compilation of such responses and the way each participant co-creates and collaborates with me, shaping the overall meaning of the piece. The way they decide to fall, the way they decide to enact this request, is completely up to them. This is very connected to a core practice in many of my participatory projects: I set up an encounter and then I am genuinely interested in whatever the participants and the situation have to offer me … and I want to be open to that endless possibility.
(…) What I was trying to establish here was also this movement that looks at the theater stage as a public space, but it is in fact converting it into a private space. This is an encounter that exists between me, the camera, and the participant. There is nobody watching. It’s a movement from a public sphere into a private one in which I conduct these interviews and falls. Then I return to the public realm through the video-essay, the video-installation, and give back to the audience.
Jeremy Bendik-Keymer: Why the stage, why the theater? It is hard to not think back to Beckett, or Pinter, or Ionesco.
JCT: My first idea was connected with the desire that I had of having a space where I could engage with ordinary moments, ordinary conversation, and make them out of the ordinary, extra-ordinary … where moments of sacredness could take place, in a way. I thought of the theater stage as a place where you could literally elevate, you could heighten a kind of co-creation. And also I was thinking of the stage as connected to the concepts of catharsis and therapy – going back to the origins of theater.
JBK: This is the interesting thing: Formally this is a comedy and it’s a comedy because the fall is actually one of the basic forms of the comic for Aristotle. So, when for example Bergson wants to talk about laughter in Le Rire, two thousands years plus later, he spends a lot of time talking about the mechanics of fall in Aristotle. It’s really central. A fall could be tragic, and often is … but because this piece is in a very safe environment, I would describe it formally as the comic, which is good for the people; it involves trust. What would be really disturbing would be if formally there was distrust in the environment, and at that point the fall starts to become something else, it would become something potentially tragic. You could imagine an awful intervention piece where somehow a person, unknown to them, is pushed, or slipped, or tripped, or the camera is in a completely different relation, or even as the viewer you are jolted somehow … This would be trying to formally create failure. To be able to already let the fall be in the realm of the comic means that it’s actually, for me, closer to the religion, or the spiritual, than, say, being in the realm of the tragic. Do you know this line of Kierkegaard? »The comic is always closer to faith than the tragic,« which is just a point about a sense of life. (…)
What you are doing here, by doing this, is actually empowering the participants, you are supporting their agency. This is a very agential piece, although ironically it’s about losing your ability to locomote.
JCT: Going back to this notion of theater, catharsis, and therapy that we were talking about previously, how do you relate to that?
JBK: Therapy is an interesting word, but catharsis is tricky here. Catharsis in the Greek sense requires a build-up, usually, and the building requires that there be something like a tragic contradiction that is produced and then developed. The problem is that we are in a situation where by taking plot out, and by being on this kind of installation format – where you are not using time in the same way as action – it’s hard to get catharsis in the classic sense, but that doesn’t mean that the word is irrelevant.
So, here is what is interesting to me: I came in today very tired, mentally happy, feeling good, but knowing that I am really tired. And within twenty minutes of being in here, I felt clearing going on … and that is very much related to your aesthetic, or rather I would say that the aesthetic here works well with the gallery, and they have a synergy to each other. This is why I was thinking of people like Beckett, Ionesco, and Pinter – one of the things that great modernist playwrights do is that they isolate elements, they allow you to think, there is this beautiful modern isolation of elements.
I felt that my consciousness cleared, and that is very therapeutic. I trust instant affect, and yours is, from the lighting, from the centering, from being interpersonal, a piece in which I felt that I could clear. So, what is interesting, in a therapeutic sense, is that my level of background static, background anxiety, just fell. The level fell down, which is a very good thing. (…)
What you have here is something that I call the subtle adjustments of self-awareness, and of intimacy or trust that allow people to live more in the land of equality (the land of catharsis is the land of inequality). Again, this is a very empowering piece, it has that effect on viewers. Viewers can understand it, actually viewers of many different intelligences, from kids, to the elderly … If you didn’t even have the subtitles, people would still understand this. It’s a very democratic piece – kids would love this piece, I always trust kids.
JCT: Do you know what children do, quite often, while watching this piece? They fall, they imitate, they replicate the action …
JBK: Of course, they want to do that. You see, this sets up the possibility of people needing catharsis in their life, this would be a piece that reminds them of the contradiction. The danger in our world, right now, is to forget the contradiction. When I deal with some of my students, and I really care about my students a great deal, I respect them … but they forget the contradiction, they are performing so often, so hard, all the time.
JCT: Contradiction and paradox – should we place them in a cultural framework? Do you think it might be something very American to not be aware of contradiction?
JBK: Yes, I do. I completely agree with you on that.
JCT: The political correctness has pervaded all levels of people’s lives, from the public, social sphere, to the most intimate, private levels of life.
JBK: And for people who are spinning in the realm of the »white« concept called America, contradiction doesn’t exist because the contradictions have to be repressed. It’s the condition of appearance for the aesthetics of America: it must have no contradictions.
JCT: People are unable to welcome that place of contradiction, of paradox, of failure, of fall. People are often unable to speak about that, to embody that, to deal with that on a daily and also more philosophical level. Well, they might approach it philosophically, as an interesting concept …
JBK: No, not even. That is the other thing about the piece … My other first reaction to this, when I read what people are saying in the video (and I wish I knew the Portuguese, it is such a beautiful language), was »ah, I am definitely in the presence of Europeans, they are so freaking philosophical.« You can say: »What do you think about the fall?«, and here you go – a culture built around the arts and the long tradition of people being able to think poetically about everyday concepts.
JCT: That is something that has a strong resonance with me. What I miss is the poetry, in terms of my native language, and not only the formal structure of it. You perform your language poetically, all the time; Portuguese is very prone to poetic prose … From the linguistic to the living space of reality, that is how people tend to live their life, always in between poetry, earnestness, and pragmatism.
JBK: I strongly believe in the poetry of response. I strongly believe in it. (…)
But I don’t think it has always been like it in this country. This is a country where, nowadays, it’s extremely scary to be earnest, it’s dangerous to be earnest, which is how people feel about it. I don’t think it’s dangerous to be earnest, it could be in some cases with the media … There is constant evidence given of people who by virtue of being earnest have that turned against them. But in an interpersonal life it’s actually a good thing to be earnest. The main thing is that failure in this country is not an option, because the »public« has been destroyed, and every failure is your own failure, which is an awful thing to do to human beings. Wendy Brown says that: »The morality of neoliberalism is to make every failure personal,« and this failure being personal destroys the notion of the public – »There is no public body in the neoliberalism, according to the way it would like to configure things.«
JCT: Nobody can then empathize with failure…
JBK: No, because it’s your fault. If it’s not your fault, then it might be our fault… but we don’t have a notion of »our,« right? This is what it is so screwed up about this country right now.
The one thing that hasn’t come up, that I was really thinking about, is gravity. It’s very fascinating to me (I don’t think anyone in the video mentioned gravity, did they?). I don’t know, it’s interesting: people went to pain, they went to failure, they went to vulnerability, or they went to possibility, which is basically a reflection of the same kind of area, and I thought about two things. The first thing was gravity. I asked myself, what is gravity in this piece? What is gravity in relationship to the fall? And the second thing I thought about was this: If you were falling long enough, even though gravity would be there, you would probably not remember or realize that you were falling.
JCT: Well, there are some allusions to that… There is this woman, in the middle, who says that falling is part of her everyday practice because she is a dancer, and as dancer she always deals physically with the notion of gravity, and the ground – how you choreograph and support the fall.
JBK: If I had a wish for a piece that would complement this, it would be a piece on gravity. I think gravity is very important. Given that the people were so poetic, and there was so much figuration going on, I really want to think more about gravity. And then, I guess, my scary thought is just that I, myself, have been in situations where I think I may have been falling for so long that I had no idea anymore that I was falling. Think about it – if you are really falling for a long time, there would be moments where it’s as if this is just the way things are, you don’t realize you are falling …
JCT: You don’t have enough distance to understand the process of it.
In conversation with Erica Levin, Film Historian, Assistant Professor, History of Art, The Ohio State University (USA)
Erica Levin: You pointed out earlier that there is this shift from the »I« to the »We« [in The Fall] – I was thinking a lot about it as I was watching the piece. On one hand, you have these highly focused, individuated statements about very personal experiences, some of which are accessible, and some of which are inaccessible (because people are calling on memories and experiences that they can only gesture towards with language) … and on the other hand since it’s such a pregnant, rich, layered idea, there are some people who draw out reflections that are about experiences that exceed one’s own personal experience. And so, even though visually there is an intense focus on the individual in this space (with literally a spotlight on each person), there is also an interesting fluid thing happening in the way we speak of ourselves as individuals, and the way we understand our experiences as being greater than just an individual experience …
José Carlos Teixeira: The piece becomes almost a canvas that might allow a more collective projection. At first, when I started having the initial ideas about the project, I was coming from a very personal place, but also understanding and putting forward that pregnancy, that richness of the concept that has so many legacies and histories … philosophical, literary, biblical (»the fall of man«). It’s so rich in metaphors and analogies, also with the history of visual and performing arts where, throughout the 20th century, artists recurrently explored this theme (Bas Jan Ader, Sam Taylor-Wood, Judson Dance Theater, and so on) and enacted it. Therefore, a movement happened while creating the piece; a movement from a highly personal premise to a wider, collective human dimension.
EL: That is what strikes me as the real difference between the dialogical mode you explore (amplified by the repetition of different people taking up your invitation to enact this gesture), and Bas Jan Ader’s very romantic approach: the artist as individual. His gesture is ultimately a poetic gesture, but not social. Your work is situated within the context of this show [Community Works: Artist as Social Agent], which is raising interesting questions about what it even means to say that something is social. That’s why I’m interested in what you say about how in the text, and also in the piece itself, there is this indeterminate space between individuality, very personal kind of experiences, and something that is not personal, something that registers as having a meaning that shapes the way you understand your relation to other people – which is the most fundamental way to describe something as social.
JCT: It’s interesting … your comment leads me to the very place of labeling one’s projects under certain conceptual »umbrellas:« is this a socially-engaged project, is this a video-essay project? In reality, I see my work as a convergence of many different vectors. It is a participatory and performative structure (and that’s the way I tend to approach my projects, normally having the moving image as outcome), but it is not a socially-engaged piece that is necessarily seeking a specific community, A or B, or looking for a predetermined plan to change community C or D. I see it more as an open format … In fact, the way I launched the call for this project was very open-ended: »I will do this and would like to invite participants.« So, this pool of people represent activated individuals, emancipated spectators who decided to respond: »I want to be part, and build the meaning of the piece with you.« At that level, I was pleased with the project, and with the way I framed it. Sometimes, when looking into next projects, where I would like to deal with this or that community, and/or channel my attention to a certain type of issues, I fear that I might run into ideological patronage. Thus, what I like about this project is the fact that it’s a very eclectic one, encompassing different types of people, and being a little sample of humanity.
EL: I think what I hear is your discomfort with and recognition of what you call a »label« … But what I’m finding compelling is the idea that instead of starting with that as an idea already given, part of the question here, in way is: »Where is that transit between very personal experience, very individuating ways of presenting yourself, and something that is beyond that?« You pose this question without deciding or defining ahead of time what social is. You explore what happens when you take a sample of different people, each a unique individual. What I experience, watching the piece, thinking about these statements, or these gestures, is that they are incredibly individuated and yet, as they accumulate, something else happens that is beyond just an isolated set of interactions.
JCT: They [the interactions] talk to each other; it’s an unavoidable cumulative process. We are also looking at something that, as in any moving image piece, deals with editing; therefore, as a viewer, by accumulating these fragmentary moments of response, you will probably make sense of what this person is saying in relationship to what you heard two, five, or ten minutes before. Also, you will project into the future – what is going to happen? What king of answer will be elicited? How is this person going to perform a fall?
Now, I just wonder … if you project yourself as a spectator, how do you do that here? How do you embody this?
EL: I think because it’s this kind of screen test, in terms of form, where I am aware that I am sitting in the place where you were sitting when you shot the footage (or that is how I think of it), that there is this mode in which you are interpellated as the questioner; the person is speaking to me, the viewer, as they were speaking to you, the filmmaker, and that is very interesting.
In that way, too, you allow the viewer to imagine being the person who is soliciting the response, soliciting the gesture. But then, of course, because as you say that the piece is about people self-consciously self-presenting, making choices about what to say, or how to stage a fall, I also find myself thinking about that question of self-presentation. (…)
It might just be my fascination with this problem … that people are willing to label art as social, taking for granted that they already know what that word means, whereas I am much more interested in art that doesn’t know what that word means yet: in art that is about the question of the social – how do we encounter it, how do we feel ourselves a part of it?
JCT: The notion of community that is present, if present at all in this piece, is something that challenges preconceived definitions of the social and questions it. I am establishing a very transient, temporary community here; it’s through my video editing that I am performing that, I didn’t form that community a priori. Maybe I feel more comfortable in situations where, actually, I don’t have a pre-established community, and it’s my project that fosters that community. Moreover, when you look to many socially-engaged projects, the best ones are those aware of the positive but also negative aspects of engagement, projects that are constructing but at the same time deconstructing the communities they are engaging with, making and unmaking, and revealing such tension. (…)
So, if you want to place this project under a narrower umbrella of community-based practice, maybe it doesn’t quite fit – which is something that’s not necessarily a problem for me, but that might be an issue for others who might ask: Do you want to define your project as such (social) because it is participatory, or because you are eliciting community? I think that my premise, my starting point is actually needing less answers and having a plate full of questions; that is how I approach the world, that is how I approach others, that is how I approach my projects.
EL: It is interesting that you say »a plate full of questions« … because in some ways the process of doing this project is like falling, where you are giving over quite a lot to the participants. The whole point is to literally make a space where they can take a very simple but rich idea, and respond to it in any way they want; but you are trusting, you are giving over something. We can think of a fall as something that produces momentum – you give yourself into it, and when that happens it produces a different kind of experience than if you were trying to fight it.
I’m also interested in the way you ask someone to do something impossible, which is to fall on purpose …
JCT: The reason I put Rute’s segment at the end is because she is questioning the whole process and request …
EL: Yes, and you have been seeing that in this very physical way, the decisions that people make about how to do it, but yet she articulates it, confronts you with the dilemma you have created for your participants. But, somehow, this confrontation speaks to a problem of a creative process that is bound up with making space for others, right?
So, again, the idea that this work is not necessarily social, in the sense of summoning a preconstituted community (or that anything that is participatory is, by the fact that it’s participatory, social), I think this work insists that it’s actually a much more complex process to create a space that is indeterminate, where a lot of different things can happen to show how people’s very individual experiences are actually related, inter-related.
JCT: Exactly, and what you are stating makes me thing that if we want to talk about the social in this piece, it is a social that is produced at the moment of reception, and not a social that is produced at the moment of conception.
EL: I find myself thinking about the idea of the screen test. I read something recently (it might have been Hal Foster on Warhol) that thinks about performance as a form of labor, and thinks about the screen test as the site of the labor of performing yourself. Obviously, one sees the really distinct differences in tone, situation, and structure of your piece compared to Warhol’s screen tests. Your work is dialogical. You are an invisible character, most of the time the unseen Other, which is already relational while Warhol’s screen tests are more of a mirror: someone is looking and imagining the relationship is with themselves. It’s a performance of pure aura, of pure presence… The Fall is different in so many interesting ways. You bring in memory, reflection – and there is a poetic quality to the way people are grappling with the idea of the fall, maybe also because Portuguese is a poetic language.
JCT: It is a more poetic language … Even in colloquial Portuguese, the level of metaphorical speaking, let’s say, is really present. People navigate that very easily. Also, let’s not forget that the potential of the word »fall« in Portuguese is slightly different from English. Almost nobody talks about falling in love – why? Well, because in Portuguese »falling« doesn’t relate so much to the idea of love. I think if I’d had an American group of participants, I would have gotten different responses, not only because culturally it would be a different context, but also due to the semantic complexity. The English is very rich, you can use »fall« in so many phrasal verbs related to marvelous things, but also to very tragic events. In Portuguese, the fall is something that lends itself more to the site of the tragic.
EL: It is very Portuguese. [laugh]
JCT: Yes, it’s very Portuguese… very Portuguese. [laugh]
EL: One recurring theme is the notion that falling allows you to get up. It’s by failing that you move to another stage. There is one moment when someone says: »Well, I come from a country where if you fall you just get up the next day, and pretend that it didn’t happen, you don’t make meaning out of it,« but with almost everyone else the fall is recuperated as something which is, even retrospectively, meaningful because it was only by failing, or stumbling, or being unsure, that this person came through a meaningful experience.
JCT: I would say that most of the participants see the fall in a very therapeutic dimension. There is one in particular who says: »Well, falling can actually be a great thing, if you don’t get stuck in the horrible moment you went through when you were falling; if that becomes a tool for further reflection, and further movement in your life.« Or this other one: »The greatest fall is the access to the truth, is a fall into yourself,« and that is the primal, most essential fall – a good one because it raises the bar of self-awareness, important for you as therapy.
Last week, I was approaching this notion of catharsis with Jeremy, a professor of philosophy, and he was saying that he doesn’t see this piece as cathartic because, drawing from the Greek tragedy, this doesn’t reach the tragic contradiction that catharsis needs. He agrees that this can be linked to notions of theater and therapy, but not necessarily catharsis …
EL: I think it is about the dynamics of self-awareness … as viewers we have access only to something that comes after the catharsis, a report on an experience that is inaccessible, because it’s in memory, or it’s in that place of experience where meaning itself is made.
JCT: Exactly, because it didn’t happen there, it comes from the evocation of it.
EL: It is very much a piece about how a fall could be something that happens by pure chance, with no meaning to it. At the same time, the piece seems to be about the possibility of making meaning, in a personal, or more than personal way, about experiences that might not carry any meaning at all.
JCT: Do you think that the process you were describing now (of making meaning) could very much be cultural? I remember this woman, a writer, who said to me: »It’s interesting, because if you were going to set this piece up in New York, you wouldn’t probably have the same type of reflections from people.« People wouldn’t display this type of awareness, generosity, and straightforwardness about the most intimate places in their lives. So, do you think that American culture, if I can generalize to that extent, is a culture that relegates the notion of fall to a place where one doesn’t want to go (the place of failure, basically)?
EL: We are a bootstrap culture. We talk about picking ourselves up, overcoming adversity. Even though every American story follows this logic, I think there is more resistance to attach meaning to the loss of control, or to failure. On the other hand, if you think about the typical biography of a big American CEO, there is always a turning point where some failure made way for some later success.
JCT: It’s always at the service of success, it’s never a story that just ends on failure …
EL: Yes, I also think that failure doesn’t have the same dimensionality in American culture. In your work, the fall might not even register with other people, it could be the most personal type of experience. I don’t know, culturally, if there is this much range for people to talk about those kinds of experiences in the U.S.. It’s more like: »If a tree falls in the forest« … if you have a moment of shame or a moment of self-doubt, but no one from outside registers it, did it even happen? (…)