Monday, March 19, 2012

A Cure for Insomnia


The Cure for Insomnia - Beyond Attention on the Sel

1. Introduction

Chess, Insomnia and other Paradoxes

I live and pursue an arts practice in the post-modern era and choose to participate in that era. Although I do not specifically want to write about post-modernism in this essay, I can at least state that there are certain assumptions within which I am writing. I must take up a language system in order to write and post-modernism has a well-known chess analogy about this

“To study chess properly one must therefore look at the simultaneous system of principles for making moves-the simultaneous system that lies behind every move at every point in the game. This system precedes any actual moves. Like language it must be internalised in its entirety, in terms of its structural coherence rather than its individual parts. Where the structure is common, the moves are not. Only when both players have internalised this structure does the game become meaningful.” 

- Post-Modernism: The Twilight of The Real, Neville Wakefield, p73

Structure comes before content. Setting up a language system is my initial intention in the essay. I define the terms in which the writing has meaning … or at least various readings. Very dryly speaking, I have chosen to maintain structural coherence by writing the essay as a series of beginnings or ‘preambles’, which keep overtaking each other to the top of the page. The preambles become sections of the essay which communicate with each other and inform each other.

I have also read Interpretation and Overinterpretation by Umberto Eco and considered “the poetics of the open work”. In contemporary art, considerable autonomy is left to the individual reader to complete the work in the act of reading.

Finally I have observed in the writing of this that I relish especially my own thoughts around the paradoxical condition of insomnia as well as other paradoxes. This is an obviously self-conscious essay about not being self-conscious. It is an essay about being boring, a cure for insomnia indeed, and yet not so boring when it is read. This may further inform the reader in his or her act of completion, although whether or not our relation to each other is analogous to chess players is open to question.

2. The Essay

“There are days like that, one isn’t very inspired. (Pause.) Nothing you can do about it, just wait for it to come. (Pause.) No forcing, no forcing, it’s fatal. (Pause.) I’ve got on with it a little all the same (Pause.) Technique you know.”

- Hamm in Endgame, Samuel Beckett, P40 (talking about his chronicle)

“We might make or break ourselves by just shutting out the world and neatly ordering everything that we are doing and that is happening to us already.”

- A personal journal entry, 2004

Being an artist I, of course, wanted this essay to be a work of art. At first I envisaged it as principally a preamble only to itself. It would contain only itself, refer only to itself and put in context only itself. But then immediately I had a reason for broadening out my subject matter, I needed to refer to supporting texts that might set and affirm the language system by which my writing would be written. In terms of questioning meaning, I might plausibly be able to say the writing is about almost nothing, but at least the ‘nothing’ is in context.

I questioned why such an essay might be an attractive proposition to me. I am attracted to having only ideas when I need to have ideas. The work does not get ‘muddied’ by claiming to be about something. In this I am influenced by a play-write, about whom I will proceed to muddy my essay.

a. The influence of Beckett on the Essay

Samuel Beckett was an insomniac and I like to speculate that he wrote his plays as an alternative to sleeping. Near the end of his life he characterized his writing as "a stain upon the silence" and concluded that "there has been nothing else worthwhile". He invented a new kind of character in his drama.

“Physical, mental, and emotional cripples lurch along dark paths toward oblivion, fighting poorly, loving ineptly and misunderstanding almost completely”.

-The Unnameable Samuel Beckett, Daniel Lindley

They have motivations only in the very short term. All these unfortunate characters ever consider is whether or not to sit down, whether or not to stare into the distance, or to take time for another sigh or curse. They are moment-to-moment beings and moment to moment the narrative is propelled. Tiny motivations and passing thoughts do little more than pass the time of day. Ideas are revealed more in the structure than in the content of the plays, which we might describe as non-narrative narrative. Insomnia also feels like a ubiquitous state for the characters. Often sleep would seem a more interesting activity than what is actually happening on stage, yet we stay engaged.

As well as illuminating the primacy of sleep in human existence, Beckett takes us towards moment to moment consciousness as being ‘enough’, characters ‘are’ rather than ‘do’. It is a conception of theatre, of performance, in which stage directions become very important and in which space and the physical body are central to the action. It is not what you might describe as exhilarating. I take inspiration from Beckett in acclaiming the mundane, giving the everyday-ness of life a pedestal.

His plays are also physical which brings us onto the next broadening out in the essay.

b. Juggling between the Essay and the Physical Realm

My attraction to this kind of essay also leads directly to my attraction to this kind of dance practice. So now I see that by exploring the idea of an essay only about itself, I may illuminate a dance practice that is only about itself. It also works the other way around, by further broadening out in the writing to include my dance practice I am, in a circular way, informing my writing again.

In my dance practice, I have recently identified that there is only a small gap between doing something and not doing it. That gap is almost nothing; the dance is almost not made because it is inspired by so very little. The motivating idea can be very small indeed, not really an idea at all, it is like motivation by absence of ideas, which admittedly is an idea in itself. The motivation to make a dance work can simply be a tiny physicalization which generates material.

I do not have or want to have a belief in or reliance on inspiration as a reason for my arts practice. On the surface this may be a form of stress reduction, to make creativity, in itself, less important in life. I value the precursory moment to doing something as the actual doing of it, the mundane as the vessel able to contain inspiration. When requirements upon my creative mind are almost nothing, paradoxically my creative mind might thrive.

In my own dance practice I like to view this mundane vessel as the activity of juggling, or more specifically working on numbers juggling, five and then seven balls. This is what I get up to in the studio as a kind of a neutral gear, a state of being useful without being inspired. I like to talk about ‘the juggling condition’ rather than ‘the juggling trick’. I am not so much interested in the debate, within the circus world, around whether the placing of juggling in a theatre or dance framework is a good idea. There is also even a debate on whether or not juggling is an art form. I am fine for juggling to be without a consensual context or language system. I define these for myself.

Through juggling I can manoeuvre myself into a position to create dance work without the danger of wasting time, I am also choosing to say very little about anything in my work (almost nothing again). I am only making an unavoidable statement about the state that I have got myself into as a dancer who juggles or juggler who dances. It is also a viable view of dance that it might only be about itself in the way juggling is. Dance might learn from juggling and be about occupying yourself with a difficult task and keeping the body available to one or both of these activities.

So in reducing to the essentials, the key is to establish a daily practice which allocates (or locks in!) certain routines to the body, routines which may, like working on the 7-ball cascade, appear startlingly humdrum or mundane. By extension, looking again at this essay, there must be no pressure for it to be a work of art in itself. But because it is trying to say very little, it may be easier for it to be one. Samuel Beckett said “The less there is to say the better it is said.” In this way his plays are works of art speaking about very little and all the benefiting as a result.

c. The Influence of Zen on the Physical Practice and the Essay

Over years in my physical practice, dance and juggling, I have mounted a search for something that I will call a ‘model of practice’. This is experiential. It goes beyond the mere ‘language system’ of the written realm (although both yearn for structural coherence). If it works, it works. In this section I speculate that the model of practice might be inspired principally by only one book, a key text and a text about doing almost nothing for years on end! It is this book that completes and affirms the model of practice. That book is Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel.

Archery is another paradoxical activity. The main aim is to stop thinking about the arrow and the target, for the mind and the body to act as one and for the archer to stop paying attention to himself or herself. We must get beyond self-consciousness, we must ‘be’ rather than ‘do’ something. At first Herrigel bemoans the point of self -consciousness in himself when

“....Calculation which is miscalculation sets in. The whole business of archery, the aim is to re-find a child-likes state which is beyond thinking.”

He postulates that

“If one really wishes to be master of an art, technical knowledge is not enough. One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an artless art growing out of the Unconscious.”

We discover that Zen is only about daily life or daily application to an art which becomes a way of life. Zen is simply the everyday mind; it is not far-fetched. We do not want to be thinking about what we are doing while we are doing it. This is a state of habitual meditation. Even more mundanely, it is simply a state of habit, a state of perfect integration of mind and body rather than attention to the activity with a ‘calculating’ mind. There is a ‘one-ness’ about it. We touch the transcendent and we hit the target with our arrows as easily as we lift up the toothpaste tube in the morning. I think of the best jugglers as the ones who are most often in the habit of keeping balls in the air.

The habit is also no big deal; it is played down. Feelings of euphoria and despair also get in the way:

“You know already that you should not grieve over bad shots, learn now not to rejoice over the good ones. You must free yourself from the buffeting s of pleasure and pain.”

Or as I would say it, emotionally there is very little difference between doing it and not doing it. We must stay just on the doing-it side of not-doing-it and it will be better. In fact the just-on-the-doing-it side is all that there is. There is a sort of monotony or boredom involved here, a necessary flatness.

d. Summary

In summary, this essay is a preamble to itself. In being such, it is a work of research which I write by reading other people’s ideas about art, while trying to stay connected to my body and my experience of being a dance artist. It is an explanation of and a context for a physical practice. There are lessons from how I read and write for my dancing and lessons from how I dance for my reading and writing. The paradoxical dialogue is ongoing and open-ended with myself and with the reader.

3. Reason for the Essay

Advice for the Insomniac

The reason for this essay is only to maintain an ongoing-ness, to allow events to continue to take their course on the page and in the body. How do I write about this in the body?

It finally dawned on me that the way to write about maintaining a physical practice is by means of an analogy between inspiration for the artist and sleep for the sleeper. The usual advice from the therapist for someone who is having trouble sleeping is to keep doing stuff until sleep comes of its own accord. “Do not go to bed until you feel sleepy. If you cannot sleep, get up and make a cup of tea, read a book. Don’t lie in bed tossing and turning. Your body will take sleep when it needs it.”

This advice implies the mind and the body are run on separate agendas, separate expectations. It is as if the body is seen to have a mind of its own, which is at odds with the desire or the will to sleep located in the rational or calculating mind. However, crucially the source of the good thing, the desired quality, is firmly placed in the body rather than in the rational mind. The rational mind then ‘pretends’ it is not interested in what the body gets up to, even if there is a great desire to be well rested before the next day.

It is this kind of trickery, paying less attention to a problem in order to solve it, which I like. Rather than forcing myself to sleep, I make the sleeping less important until the body is no longer pressurised into coming up with the goods. I like to run a parallel between the advice for the insomniac and my approach to making dance work. It is a parallel between the definition of sleep, a desired property of the individual located in the body, and a definition of artistic inspiration in a physical practice, which is also located forthrightly in the body.

There is great benefit for me in constructing a conceptualisation of an arts practice, which eliminates expectations about how I will be feeling when I am practising my art. Every time I start making art it is like saying “This is as good as it is going to get”. The arts practice becomes the activity to get on with while waiting to receive inspiration rather than the search for inspiration, searching like the tossing and turning insomniac.

It is juggling that gets over the pretence that I am not interested in whether I am inspired or not as a dance maker. The juggling is like the activity of the insomniac who finds something to do while unable to sleep. If I go to the studio to make choreography, it can be very difficult not to arrive with needs and expectations about being inspired. Juggling is training in co-ordination and a body conditioning at the same time. It is a state for the ‘dancer’ of being useful while not needing to be inspired. I can remain useful in any circumstance.

It is a curious analogy between being asleep and being inspired, and between avoiding lying awake and juggling. I see it like an arts practice involving various forms of ‘abdication’. There is the abdicating from the active mind that needs to keep making choreographic decisions. There is the abdicating from the need to look for inspiration from within on demand. In the same way the sleeper is abdicating from the need to be awake.

To lie awake at night noticing you are not sleeping is a glorious example of non-productive self-consciousness, that quality that my model of practice is so keen to get beyond.

4. Conclusion

Juggling Paradoxically Picked Cherries

In this essay, I have attempted to do something (or nothing) rigorous with the written word. I am mirroring the approach of not searching for inspiration and it is always my most recent thought I am writing about (Perhaps this is to state the obvious). I have followed the line of what is revealed in my work, and not sought out ideas. I have observed my ideas leapfrogging each other to the top of the page, a continual returning to the beginning and altering of the title, always re-appraising what I have written and recycling ideas in a different order. I have an image of an open-ended essay, never finished (or started) but completed by the reader.

As I have stated in my introduction this essay is written in the post-modern era, an era which permits me to cherry-pick ideas from my experience and from written history, philosophy, dance, theatre and psychoanalysis. I can bring these ideas together into this work of art’s language system. I have even noticed that within the confines of this system, Zen has brought mind and body together, and my aversion to insomnia has separated them again! This is all part of the post-modern chess game, which relishes the unearthing of paradoxes.

In a post-modernism language system, if a work of art is not speaking about anything it is at least always speaking about its own condition. So the performer who dances and juggles is, at the very least, dancing and juggling. Similarly Yvonne Rainer in 1965 formulated a strategy for demystifying dance and making it objective. It was described as a strategy of denial:

“No to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe no to glamour and transcendence of the stage image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp not to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved."

* Terpsichore in Sneakers Post-Modern Dance, Sally Banes, p41

What she was left with of course was the dancer in the space. Her dance was neither drama, nor revelry in costume, lighting and image. In short it was almost nothing. It was something that could only be fully realised in the imagination of the spectator. It was, like Beckett and theatre, a reduction of dance to the essentials.

In my own dance practice, I have observed that it is just a fact that I pass through inspirations which I cannot hold onto. They come and go like clouds in the sky. I accept this and hope I have found a way for there to be no pressure to be inspired, only to stay engaged and, I guess, resist the urge to sleep. In this way I want to get beyond thinking and calculation, beyond craft and technique, beyond attention to myself and self-consciousness.

This model is personal. I do not want a separation between life and art. I advocate process over product. My theme is the integration of body and mind and the merging of art into life. This made it inevitable that I would bring questions around sleep into a discussion around a model of practice for a performance practice. I may continue to bask happily in paradoxes!

Friday, March 2, 2012

What is Man-I-Pulate?

The 3 ‘Founding Fathers’ of Offaly County Council funded Man-I-Pulate bring themselves down to your level, by writing about what they do.

Nick Bryson, Dancer

Unique to Offaly, Man-I-Pulate is a performative interface, emerging in a curiously spontaneous manner from the bog before returning to it. The group consists of a highly incongruous jazz outfit ‘’Miles ‘O Bog Ensemble’, a rather unlikely farmer’s son from Cloghan, and myself an out of joint contemporary dancer who loaths being described as ‘from a community’ in Northern Ireland, yet who secretly permits himself to be described as an ‘interpretive dancer’ (even though the term lurks in the back pages of some Irish-American philanthropists rejected ideas notebook, who thinks he is covering every base by considering even for a second that I am deserving of his filthy lucre). In any case Ronan can call me anything he wants, I don’t care. The only question we are concerned with is “who is manipulating who?” – as ever. And it does all come down to language and vocabulary, powerful people are powerful because they occupy the vocabulary of power, like a pair of 80’s shoulder pads.

As well as us founding fathers, Man-I-pulate consists of the highly skilled and motivated musicians Anne Mcghee (flute), Connor Hein (guitar) and Dave Cashen (drums). Us crowd of Sunday Miscellanies has performed equally bizarrely to a crowd of dance aficionados at last year’s Absolut Dublin Fringe. In what was a rather argumentative pub Sweeney’s on Dublin’s Dame Street, I can still remember my angst-filled stomach turning as I envisioned my dance funding being cut instantly as Ronan Coughlan launched into his next tirade against the arts establishment and the wisdom of Tullamore building its own community arts centre. Meanwhile I juxtaposed him with some dredged-up arabesque from my distant ballet training, desperately trying to placate myself, before reassuring the bewildered audience with some deliberately meaningless bar room chair manipulations.

This is us then… a lot of manifestos and bluster, counter culture and countering counter culture, posturing and provoking plumped-up city folk to think we are rustic no-hopers. …until they actually write as much in the Irish Times. At that moment we can whiz back down the M6 to reconvene with the heartlands and yodel with some Offaly gum–plodders, who are lurking on a Friday night in some end-of-the-world Midlands drinking den.

For sure we are involved in a strange thrashing about for an identity. I have realised my fantasy of switching between post-modern ballet poses and a continuous battle of one-upmanship with Ronan, fighting and rudely denying that we are deserving of any funding as we outwit any council instruction manual, by mocking our obscene gestures as we make them. So if you think my writing is pretentious, that is on purpose. You get the picture, this is an ongoing aim to outwit you simply because you are the reader and I am the writer …but also...something else. The sound of the band is in the background as I write this. But how might this translate to dance? I regularly shout these days in my performance work “I am not scared to live in Offaly!”

Ronan Coughlan, Loud Mouth

I worked with Man-I-Pulate for one year so far. What brought me on this course? Two fine gentlemen from different countries to me. One is a Nordie and the other is a Kraut. Now don't be so easily offended they do not play up to their stereotypes, these two men are of International mind.

Pablo Picasso stated that 'A great artist has no nationality'. I am a firm believer that a great artist has no borders or boundaries and can see national identity as a farce in itself. Every artist knows that, right? Maybe not. So the two bucks decided that they wanted to have a sit down with me to potentially milk a few bob out of the County Council in order to try and put on a touring show of what its like being a male artist in Offaly. It was a simple plan and we began in January, talking that is. We all understand that half of any piece of art work that is produced must develop over many coffees, cigarettes and certainly waffle. I f**king love waffling,, but I also like being incisive and cutting the bullshit. Any time we were veering off course I tried to lasso the idea and bring it back to what we were considering at the start.

Over the next two months we met in Maureen Kelly's house and discussed tactics. We knew our basic premise and sent in a funding application. I made sure to lay it home that if we did not get the funding, we would do it anyway, by hook or by crook. My two counterparts agreed and we decided to call ourselves Man-I-Pulate. We were three men of different generations trying to make pulate a verb. Our shtick was that of the rural avengers, I wanted to let people know that we are HERE! LISTEN UP, we are artists from Offaly and we want people to realise that its ok to be an artfag from the countryside. I have put up with years of stick over being an artist from my contemporaries but I don't give a shit what anyone thinks of me, I would prefer if they had an opinion, position or angle, but ultimately begrudgery does not keep me awake at night. Plus at this stage people have accepted that I am an artist and do things they wouldn't dream of doing. My skin is almost like granite, any abuse or potential violation of my character is much obliged.

Our first gig was in the Daghdha Dance Space, for their closing down shin dig in Limerick. Nick told me to go to town on dance on the way down in the car, which was our briefing. So I started to go to town, Joachim played his lonesome bass, throbs and wabbles flitted through the air and Nick started to prance around. I made the audience stand up and interact, with me at least. They didn't know what to think of us. Like so many shows after, I think people find it hard to talk or approach me because they think I am some sort of manic arsehole who has more time than sense and chip on my shoulder that you could deem 'considerable'. I suppose I am these things but for the performance not on my leisure time. Our first gig was a huge success for me, I got to slag dancers and officianados into thinking they didn't know what was happening because, lets face it, they didn't. People act like they know what is happening because they are so clever or learn-ed, but they are just normal people like everyone else and sometimes what happens in an art space makes no sense at all. To act like you have figured it out when you haven't is called pretending.

Now I have pretended for long enough that I could be part of something such as the art system but I cant. I have too big a mouth and I don't give a shit if people don't like what I say. Edmund Burke, the Irish philosopher stated that 'evil prevails when good men do nothing'. Or in this case bullshit prevails when Great men do nothing. Man-I-too-great, but not only me, the other members of the group also. Joachim, Nick, Dave, Connor and Anne are all brilliant at what they do and I got plenty of praise along the way also. We did a good job with the limited resources that were on offer. We worked together to try and challenge the status quo. The arse-licking, the shmoozing and the body politic were not part of our agenda other than to break it down or demolish it.

We performed for a group of artists in Tullamore at an artists meeting regarding the Tullamore Community Arts Centre. We performed our piece for 40 minutes or so, maybe a little less. Our work is about working together as artists, fusing different approaches and views. We slag ourselves and question our motives and the motives of others. After we performed a bitching session ensued about the lack of visual arts representation in Offaly. All artists seemed to stick by their art form and verify all the tripe that had been spilling out of me for two thirds of an hour. None of our performers engaged, none of us cared. What we had being performing panned out right in front of us committee style.

Artists would rather bitch and complain and try and get on committees rather than make challenging art with people from different disciplines. The division is astounding and over what, a few bob that wont really sustain you anyway, just that of a project. Is it really worth it? I can assure you there are other ways of doing things and other ways of acquiring money or materials if needs be. Not falling out with half the f**king County over your solipsism. Artists need to get over themselves, stop talking shite, drinking coffee and start doing. Things are abysmal in Ireland at the minute so people need to band together in these tough times, work with lean budgets or no fodder at all. Challenge the machine and be heard.

We wanted to get the word out about being artists in Offaly, most time antagonised by our own existence as creative whoors. We do it because we have to do it. That's her in a nutshell.

Joachim Hein, Bassist/Composer

As a musician who grew up with Miles Davis, Coltrane, Mingus, Monk and all the other groundbreaking people, the prospect of working with Man-I-pulate as the musical " Founding Father" was and remains beyond my wildest dreams.
It is about creating, through free form improvisation, the soundtrack to the spoken word and dance performance, responding to subtle changes in dynamics or mood, sometimes prodding the guys on to reach even further, dig deeper, search more intensely etc. It is such a challenge every time and in so many different ways, that I do not think a creative musician could ask for much more.

With this amount of complete creative freedom comes a bundle of responsibilities, such as NEVER overpower the performance of the front men, nor let them down when they are reaching for their respective heights or, worst offence, just comp away and bore the socks off everybody. Like a binding circle that is permanently challenged until it bursts and then you hurry back to create a new, perhaps bigger but certainly different form, to avoid flying off completely. Give yourself plenty of stuff to keep you on your toes, trying to tame a subtle chaos only to unleash it again until the performance eventually comes to its end.

As a player in a collective of like minds, yet individually inclined to bring their very own creative juices to the pot, I believe this is as close as you can get to heaven this side of the coffin and I would not want to miss it for the world. Long may it continue!