Bill’s Blog: Signifying
This is part of a series of monthly blog posts–penned by Bill T. Jones–designed to provide further insight into his creative process, inspirations and more.
The shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC didn’t really strike home, or at least strike the place that matters, until I, like most , was bowled over when our President, Barack Obama, started singing (!!!) Amazing Grace. After last year’s long hot summer (remember Ferguson, remember Michael Brown, remember Eric Garner…) I was – as I am sure others were – beginning to feel that I was suffering from a kind of fatigue. Call it race, call it violence in America, call it the intractable conversation, call it the 24 hours news cycle… But now, this public and heartfelt expression of an age-old African American ritual, in which our President was literally leading, was wrenching and even clarifying. So this is where we are at now. We at New York Live Arts are moved and we are looking for the correct actions and partners to help make this tragic event, so burdened with symbolism or should I say signification, a meaningful and potent action. Our next season’s Open Spectrum series is a logical place for this work to begin…
New York Live Arts is cooking! Kim Cullen (Interim ED), Tommy Kriegsman (Director of Programs), Andrea Nellis (General Manager), Jean Davidson (Outgoing ED), Bjorn Amelan (Creative Director) and myself (Artistic Director) continue to negotiate this transitional moment under the tireless leadership of our Board Chair, Richard Levy, and the Board itself.
Downstairs in the Theater, an impressive lineup of rentals has been keeping things lively and the company’s dancers, fresh from their successful premiere of Analogy:Dora/Tramontane at Montclair State University, have embarked on a weeklong workshop intensive with students from across the nation.
Jenna Riegel and Talli Jackson, two BTJ/AZ dancers, invited me to drop in on that workshop and share some insights and ideas about Story/Time, the subject of that week. As I walked into the studios, a group of young students were drilling a short sequence from Blauvelt Mountain (one of the menu items used in the choreography of Story/Time), an important duet that Arnie Zane and I created in 1980. Unlike Arnie and my own pairing, these young students’ pairings were mixed in ways (gender, body type, race…) that I could not have accepted some 10+ years ago when we began restaging the dance. I was overwhelmingly attached at that time to the “short/tall, Black/White, male/male” template that I felt was essential to the very meaning of the piece. It’s curious how these signifiers of flesh and bone reality, Arnie’s and my relationship, have receded with time. What is left is the ritual of gesture, spacial negotiation, sound and the all-important task-based choreography.
Leaving the workshop and killing time before I attempted this blog, I picked up the April 2015 edition of the very handsome Congress on Research in Dance – Dance Research Journal published by Cambridge University Press. All the articles are well researched, striving to articulate timely issues in the field of performance, scholarship and history.
Two articles caught my attention:
The first is Erin Brannigan’s Dance in the Gallery: Curation as Revision. Editor Mark Franko describes the article as “questioning the extension of the choreographic into the gallery setting, and interrogating the consequences of the over expanded concept of ‘the choreographic’ that has served to veil the influence of dance on visual arts since the early 20th Century. Brannigan points to the challenges of revising the history of a relation that is now being made visible, but is also distorted in the gallery context. The relocation of dance to the visual art site of display in the museum implies a deskilling of the choreographer whose function is now appropriated by the curator. The drive to extinguish medium-specificity is considered as another strategy of expropriation of dance as a discipline. The anxiety of influence hangs like a dark cloud over this scene of transference.”
I suppose this anxiety is of the same variety I feel with the brand new Whitney’s new theater, its Curator of Performance, the New Museum’s Performance Series and the ongoing curation at venerable institutions as the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Arts. I was a bit chilled by a quote from one part of this essay entitled Body as Archive in which the writer (Brannigan) says “The power play between the robust gallery and the transient dance is clearly articulated in Jerome Bell’s opening quote in which he suggests that the gallery as an institution bestows worth on dance as an art form: ‘Dance is starting to be recognized as art. In the end it is as if you had to enter the museum to be legitimized!’”
Silly me, I thought dance was an art already… or, at least, that was the way I have been behaving for the past 44 years…
The second article that caught my attention is Tiffany Barber’s Ghostcatching and After Ghostcatching, Dances in the Dark. (See excerpts at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aL5w_b-F8ig and https://vimeo.com/12957216). Editor Franko describes it as concerning “the relation between two versions of a work of digital dance and the underlying transfer of Bill T. Jones’s improvisation with its virtual rendering through motion capture. Ultimately, the article discusses how digital culture as a ‘utopian space,’ can erase all traces of race, gender, and sexuality from the dancing body, coincides with a post-racial discourse where race is no longer visually marked. This is complicated by Jones’s turn to a formalist approach to choreography in the wake of the Still/Here affair. Barbara skillfully teases out the contradictory desires (of Jones as well as his critics) to detach Jones’s material body – marked as it is by race, sexuality and gender – from the virtual body depicted in Ghostcatching and to insist on the impossibility of that detachment.”
You can imagine the “frisson” I experienced when reading this article on the same day as the obituary in The New York Times of NY City Ballet’s – do I dare call him “Black” – dancer, Albert Evans, wherein he is quoted saying “People should know you from the stage, and not from your life. If someone can find out who you are from the stage, that’s everything.”
Ms Barber’s article, like the Dance Research Journal itself, is evidence of keen intelligence in search of truth(s). Whenever I read such analysis dependent on a strict, esoteric use of “art-speak” and proceeding from a passionately researched platform of historic detective work, I ask: What is it for? And after, what does it mean? What does it signify
Nonetheless, I am honored to be part of a serious discourse, wherever and however it occurs!
Two sentences in the article gave me the theme for this blog’s entry:
- “In Ghostcatching, Jones’s dancing body – which arguably had become a sign for black, gay male sexuality by the time artist Robert Mapplethorpe photographed him in 1985…”
- “Critical accounts by dance study scholar’s Ann Dils and Danielle Goldman exemplify the difficulty in making sense of Jones as a signified body among the digital dancing bodies that populate Ghostcatching… For Goldman sweat, breath, and flesh ‘matter’ and she leans on Jones’s physical (signifying body) in order to make sense of the work.”
On the verge of hyperventilating, I tried to disentangle the various threads of my discomfort at being assigned a role in which I had very little say. I began gathering a list of colleagues and wondering what their bodies have come to signify. Merce Cunningham – also mentioned in this article as de-sexing his dancers’ digital avatars – was he ever a white, gay male dancing body? What about Stephen Petronio – my generation – certainly gay and a flamboyant performer to boot? What of Mikhail Baryshnikov? Is he a signifier of white, male heterosexuality? What about Ralph Lemon, Trajal Harrell? What about recently departed Dudley Williams? What about John Jasperse? The list certainly goes on, but what about Trisha Brown, Sarah Michelson, RoseAnne Spradlin? This maddening head game goes on and on like a vortex spinning to heaven or hell…
The following quote, while certainly not intended as any pejorative jars me and certainly flies in the face of historical record:
“Jones’s use of motion capture technology as a response to the confines of race and racialized looking practices cannot be dismissed, given all the preconceptions surrounding his choreographic output in the 1990’s and his attraction to the medium.”
This authorship assigned to me is curious and enervating. I rang up Paul Kaiser of the Open Ended Group who, along with Shelley Eshkar, conceived the technological scheme behind this trailblazing work. Paul, who informed me that while he always meets requests from academics about these works with generosity seldom reads what they write, had several comments about the article.
- He feels that authors of academic articles seldom speak to their living subjects, but rely on the record of what is printed and said, often by their colleagues.
- They approach a work, which is in fact, a collaboration in the spirit of the “great man theory”, that is, I (Bill T. Jones) am the most public figure – the most famous if you will – therefore the work has to be of me and by me. It is much more difficult with the passage of time to pinpoint the various points of agency in a collaboration like Ghostcatching.
- They attach themselves to the artifact – perhaps necessarily – at the expense of loosing the wide array of impulses, notions and avenues of exploration and questioning that are embedded in the collaboration.
- Paul feels that by placing such an emphasis on my Black, gay body, they shut off any ability to recognize the myriad metaphorical forces at work in the piece.
I personally take issue with the assumption that the Arlene Croce Still/Here affair made me rush to digital technology’s “utopian” space that promised race-free, sex-free entre in the upper precincts of the race-free, sex-free serious art world. Such a notion ignores all of the highly formal, constructivist works done with Arnie Zane, as well as works like D-Man in the Waters, a work of music driven formalism not to mention contemporaneous works such as Love Defined (to music of Daniel Johnston), Absence (to Berlioz’s song cycle La Nuit d’Ete), and on and on…
In my conversation with Paul Kaiser, I mentioned the use of the term “signify”. Paul was mildly perplexed saying, “Oh, that term. They do that… it’s because of that Swiss linguist… What’s his name? From way back…?”
Where to turn? To the Internet, of course! I learned a great deal from Semiotics for Beginners by Daniel Chandler. He introduces two thinkers: linguist Ferdinand de Sassure and philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce. Chandler takes the reader on a fascinating journey in the curious world of semiotics.
- – a ‘signifier’ (signifiant) – the form which the sign takes; and
- – the ‘signified’ (signifié) – the concept it represents.
The sign is the whole that results from the association of the signifier with the signified (Saussure 1983, 67; Saussure 1974, 67). The relationship between the signifier and the signified is referred to as ‘signification’, and this is represented in the Saussurean diagram by the arrows. The horizontal line marking the two elements of the sign is referred to as ‘the bar’.
If we take a linguistic example, the word ‘Open’ (when it is invested with meaning by someone who encounters it on a shop doorway) is a sign consisting of:
- a signifier: the word open;
- a signified concept: that the shop is open for business.
At around the same time as Saussure was formulating his model of the sign, of ‘semiology’ and of a structuralist methodology, across the Atlantic independent work was also in progress as the pragmatist philosopher and logician Charles Sanders Peirce formulated his own model of the sign, of ‘semiotic’ and of the taxonomies of signs. In contrast to Saussure’s model of the sign in the form of a ‘self-contained dyad’, Peirce offered a triadic model:
- The Representamen: the form which the sign takes (not necessarily material);
- An Interpretant: not an interpreter but rather the sense made of the sign;
- An Object: to which the sign refers.
‘A sign… [in the form of a representamen] is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea, which I have sometimes called the ground of the representamen’ (Peirce 1931-58, 2.228). The interaction between the representamen, the object and the interpretant is referred to by Peirce as ‘semiosis’(ibid., 5.484). Within Peirce’s model of the sign, the traffic light sign for ‘stop’ would consist of: a red light facing traffic at an intersection (the representamen); vehicles halting (the object) and the idea that a red light indicates that vehicles must stop (the interpretant).
After this serious immersion in “signify” as both semiotics and arts-speak, I could not shake the feeling that the word has another, perhaps more profound, association for me personally. I recall as a child, hearing two men – or it could have been a man and a woman – arguing.
-“After you done finished all that signifyin’ I’m gonna kick yo ass!”
This fragment of memory opens a door into a room I had not entered in years. This room could be the entre into what Skip Gates calls a strategy of the African-American literary tradition in his 1988 The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism.
“The Signifying Monkey is a character of African-American folklore that derives from the trickster figure of Yoruba mythology, Esu Elegbara. This character was transported with Africans to the Americas under the names of Exu, Echu-Elegua, Papa Legba, and Papa Le Bas. Esu and his variants all serve as messengers who mediated between the gods and men by means of tricks. The Signifying Monkey is “distinctly Afro-American” but is thought to derive from Yoruban mythology, which depicts Echu-Elegua with a monkey at his side.
Numerous songs and narratives concern the Signifying Monkey and his interactions with his friends, the Lion and the Elephant. In general the stories depict the Signifying Monkey insulting the Lion, but claiming that he is only repeating the Elephant’s words. The Lion then confronts the Elephant, who soundly beats the Lion. The Lion later comes to realize that the Monkey has been signifyin(g) and has duped him and returns angrily.”
I thought I would leave you with two items and let you decide what they “signify” in the context of this blog:
- The Signifying Monkey*
Deep down in the jungle so they say
There’s a signifying motherfucker down the way.
There hadn’t been no disturbin’ in the jungle for quite a bit,
For up jumped the monkey in the tree one day and laughed,
“I guess I’ll start some shit.” (5)
Now the lion come through the jungle one peaceful day,
When the signifying monkey stopped him and this what he started to say.
He said, “Mr. Lion,” he said, “A bad-assed motherfucker down your way.
He said, “Yeah! The way he talks about your folks is a certain shame.
I even heard him curse when he mentioned your grandmother’s name.” (10)
The lion’s tail shot back like a forty-four,
When he went down the jungle in all uproar.
He was pushing over mountains, knocking down trees.
In the middle of a pass he met an ape.
He said, “I ought to beat your ass just to get in shape.” (15)
He met the elephant in the shade of a tree.
“Come on long-eared motherfucker, it’s gonna be you and me.”
Now the elephant looked up out the corner of his eye,
Said, “Go on bird-shit, fight somebody your size.”
Then the lion jumped back and made a hell of a pass. (20)
The elephant side-stepped and kicked him dead on his ass.
Now he knocked in his teeth, fucked-up his eye,
Kicked in his ribs, tied-up his face,
Tied his tail in knots, stretched his tail out of place.
Now they fought all that night, half the next day. (25)
I’ll be damned if I can see how the lion got away.
When they was fussing and fighting, lion came back through the jungle more dead than alive,
When the monkey started some more of that signifying jive.
He said, “Damn, Mr. Lion, you went through here yesterday, the jungle rung.
Now you comeback today, damn near hung.” (30)
He said, “Now you come by here when me and my wife trying to get a little bit,
T’ tell me that ‘I rule’ shit.”
He said, “Shut up, motherfucker, you better not roar
‘Cause I’ll come down there and kick your ass some more.”
The monkey started getting panicked and jumped up and down, (35)
When his feet slipped and his ass hit the ground.
Like a bolt of lightning, a stripe of white heat,
The lion was on the monkey with all four feet.
The monkey looked up with a tear in his eyes,
He said, “Please, Mr. Lion, I apologize.” (40)
He said, “You lemme get my head out the sand
Ass out the grass, I’ll fight you like a natural man.”
The lion jumped back and squared for a fight.
The motherfucking monkey jumped clear out of sight.
He said, “Yeah, you had me down, you had me last, (45)
But you left me free, now you can still kiss my ass.”
Again he started getting panicked and jumping up and down.
His feet slipped and his ass hit the ground.
Like a bolt of lightning, stripe of white heat,
Once more the lion was on the monkey with all four feet. (50)
Monkey looked up again with tears in his eyes.
He said, “Please, Mr. Lion, I apologize.”
Lion said, “Ain’t gonna be no apologizing.
I’ma put an end to his motherfucking signifying.”
Now when you go through the jungle, there’s a tombstone so they say, (55)
“Here the Signifying Monkey lay,
Who got kicked in the nose, fucked-up in the eyes,
Stomped in the ribs, kicked in the face,
Drove backwards to his ass-hole, knocked his neck out of place.”
That’s what I say. (60)
“The Signifying Monkey” is a classic routine originally on a comedy album by Rudy Ray Moore”.
*Taken from Roger D. Abrahams, Deep Down in the Jungle: Negro Narrative Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia (Hatboro, PA: Folklore Associates, 1964): 149-51. This variant of “The Signifying Monkey” is a toast, a narrative poem improvised in performance from a store of themes, conventions, and formulas.
2. And lastly this link to a clip from the Blacksploitation flix Dolomite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Voxp3ckwJZ0&app=desktop
On Dora’s last breakfast with us we pulled this link up. At one point looking pained and confused she said to us, “That’s a lot of ‘fucking’” before tuning out and turning her attention elsewhere!
Our new brochure of next year’s exciting season is just being released. Take a look at it is a stimulating line-up!
Do You Like Film:
I recommend Netflix’s WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE. A moving, sometimes troubling portrait of a great artist!