Considering Time in Performance – Reflection of Workshop with Marilyn Arsem

Considering Time in Performance
Workshop with Marilyn Arsem
at Neutral Ground Artist Run Centre
as part of Queer City Cinema’s Bad(ass) Bodies: Performatorium Queer Art Festival 7, Regina, SK, Canada
September 18 & 19, 2019, 1-5pm

Exercises + Pravite writing / Self reflection + Group discussion

This workshop examines the significance of time in live performance. What is the effect of time on the artist? What is its impact on the audience? How does it become apparent through material process? Time operates on different scales simultaneously, and is revealed through different manifestations. This workshop considers some ways in which we might allow time to be an active element in our work. We will explore how actions, sites, objects and ourselves altered when we work with time, against time, and through time.

Workshop description from Marilyn Arsem

About Marilyn Arsem / Artist Statement

Q: How do you think about time? How would you describe your relationship to time? Did you ever understand time differently? If so, do you remember when that changed, and how and why it changed?

Yujie: (1) Time is the pill of healing; Time changes everything; Everything is about the rythme of time, a good joke, a great video/film, a blanced life; “Physical time” and “Chemical time”: Physical time is the fixed order of time, it’s 60 seconds in one minutes, the clock time, chemical time is the feeling of time, and when time been disordered, the experience / the perception.
(2) Relationship to time: consider everything in a long term perspective, self-growth is not what you have achived in the day/week, or year, it’s the rate/velocity of process; making art is a life-long thing, stay alive and be healthy.
(3) Experience time differently: experience time without looking at any watch / clock; Flow state, no sense of time; editing videos – cutting time, conbining time, throwing time.

Marilyn’s Introduction on the topic of time:

Time has a way of getting away from us. (?)

We can never live outside of time.
Our lives don’t stop when we make a performance.
And our performances happen during the same time as the audience’s time.
They unfold over the same shared time.

Our clocks and timing devices are intended to regulate our sense of time passing, but internally it never feels as if it were always passing at the same rate.
Sometimes time feels interminable.
Sometimes it disappeares and you aren’t even aware that it has passed.
It is impossible to be conscious of every single moment, of everything that happens in your presence, of everything that occurs in your mind and body. We always overlook something, leave it out, ignore it, forget about it even as it is happening. We let it go.

Exercise: Estimating time
6 actions ending when the timer rings. ( x 7 minutes each)

  • Sit silently and as still as possible, with your eyes closed.
  • Stand silently, as still as possible, with your eyes closed.
  • Standsilently, facing the wall, as still as possible, eyes open, and stare at the wall.
  • sit silently, eyes open and looking around the room.
  • sit in pairs, and tell the other the best thing that have happened to you yesterday.
  • stand and hold your chair over your head.

After each action write: How long you think you did the task? How you felt doing it, what you thought about while doing it. How you feld the time in your body, what you were aware of, and what aspects felt easy or difficult.

The First day was to consider and experience time in a more conscious way that we do not normally do in daily life. The Second day was surprisingly good!! It’s great! Something inside me changed, in a good way!

Day 2 Playing with Materials – Things become way more interesting when it starts involving materials.

We were asked to bring two different materials for the second day. One material lives longer than your own life; one is shorter than your life. When it involvs materials, that’s where it starts to become interesting. Everyone has different understandings and definitions of materials. Even though it’s the same material, some people may think it lives longer than one’s life, some people are opposite. I brought a bag of plant soil and a bottle of water.

Before the workshop started, we had 20 minutes writing time to answer three questions about the materials we brought: 1- Examination: the facts about the material – looks like, sounds like, smells like, and feels like. 2 – Experience: play with it, using the part of your body which you are not normally do. 3 – Shifting it further to think about what would happen when these materials have consciousness and emotions – happy, painful, angry, stressful, or secret desires.

The writing process gave us a chance of observing, thinking, reflecting, imagining, and getting familiar with those materials. After the writing part, we had two sessions of exercise that play around with the materials.

The first exercise was doing a thing with one of the materials, that is not repeatable action, and not rely on gravity.
I was using soil to define the edge of a white square.
We did the same action several times, and each time, the duration of the time is different. The first time was 1 min, then 2mins, 4 mins, 8mins, 16mins. Every time after the time is up, materials will be restored and then restarted to do the same action.

The most interesting thing in the whole process was the things that have been concerned in each time were different. At first, I was trying to figure out a way or a method to do it. After I figured out, I was kind of in a flow state, where I didn’t care much about the task itself, also put away about the outside/self-judgment. I started to feel the materials, look at them, make a connection with them.

Da: when doing repeated tasks, you are also dealing with muscle memory, the time needed will be shorter and shorter to achieve something similar to the previous times, the more you do it, the more you can offload the doing to other parts of your brain, you will leave more of your brain to be aware of time. You are present, at the moment, being mindful.

For a longer time, as all the movements been stretch, you need to do everything extremely slow. The body also became part of the concern which I need to adjust my body to finish the task.

Da: Ahhh, sounds a lot like Butoh’s practice

After the one that was 16 minutes, the last one was only 30 seconds! It looks like this. Everything I concerned was gone. Just do it and it ended up in a very funny way.

Result of finishing the task in 30 seconds

So, this’s the first excercise. For the second excercise, we were asking to do a repeatable action for 50 minutes. Eleven of us were separated into two groups – when the people in the first group are performers, the second group are viewers, then we change. I choosed to be the second group because I wasn’t coming up with an idea of what repeatable action I want to do.

When I was a viewer, I found Blair Fornwald’s performance was extremely interesting to me. The performer used a bunch of sponges to do her repeatable action. There were around 15 sponges that randomly fall on the floor. She squatted down and used one hand to pick up as many as sponges she can, and stacked them on the other hand, and then stand up, move forward to other sponges, squatted down to pick up, until all the sponges were picked up, then she keeps the balance. In the whole process, you will never know, at which point, the sponges that have been picked up in the hand will suddenly fall on the floor again. Then she needs to start all over again. I like this performance because I felt like she was always fighting with something, resist some forces. In a sense, it’s very much like Sisyphus rolls the immense boulder. In the meantime, there was not complete control, it’s kind of random. Each time when the sponges fall to the floor, they always generates new patterns. It’s never the same. Also, as a viewer’s perspective, I eager to participate in her process. Like, when she finally picked up all the sponges, and try to keep them balanced. I want to blow or push the sponges to make them fall. The performance itself attracted me to be a new external factor in the whole process.

Image of the Blair Fornwald’s performance (via. Neutral ground’s Instagram post)

The performance was 50 mins long. The performer has been really tired from constantly standing up and squatting down. So, we discussed afterward that if this performance is six hours long for example, then in the end, as she becomes more and more proficient to do the action. The audience may only see that she just standing in there with all the sponges perfectly balenced in hand. As in the process of constantly repeating her action, she also learned a more effective way to complete the entire movement, and the entire performance may be go to a completely different direction.

Besides this one, some of the performances in the first group were not that intrigued to me. due to tasks were too easy, straightforward and very robotic. The factors in the whole process were kind of fixed. As a viewer, it’s easy to get bored. There were no extra expectations as time passed, but the performance I liked remains lots of factors (or say parameters) – internal as well as external. It makes me symbolize fight with powers and rules in the society. And the gesture wasn’t that easy, she must be balanced, always trying! And as a viewer, when she could hold all sponges and try to balance them, I was nervous, too. However, at a certain point, I started looking forward to seeing them fall. When it finally dropped, that moment, the performer and viewer, everyone gets a chance to take a breath. As a viewer, I was very much involved in the whole process, either physically or mentally.

As I was in the second group after watched the first group’s performances, I considered the above questions, so I was trying to avoid the action being too simple. But on the other hand, I don’t want to do something that needs a lot of energy of the body, because it is a long time, I want to make sure I can make it the whole duration. I had one idea, like walking every 5 steps then taking a picture. In this way, I can observe the surroundings as much as possible. I am using my performance in documenting / live streaming everything in the room – others’ performances, viewers, objects, walls. I need to constantly find new things that are worth taking photos – lighting in the room, cables in the celling, textures of the floor. To observe the details that are not usually noticed. Because this is a “Performance”, I was given the power/eligibility to do something that may not able to do outside the context. Like, taking a photo of a person’s single hair, or shot very close to somebody or something, etc. But this plan just not seem to be interested enough to me at that moment. I kept asking myself the same question, “then what?” I got photos, then what? Most likely, I may browse them for once, then maybe deleted them? I don’t know. – Now thinking afterward, maybe not. The whole point was to discover, so I have to do it first then you would know whether something new actually can be found or not), It just seems not meaningful to me at that point. And the same issue was considered a few months before when I was trying to use a type of data as the input of the work, and then transform in a way that makes sense. But it’s hard for me at that time to make meaningful connections and translations. Here I would recommend to check out “Dear Data.” (plus, in this plan, I wasn’t using the materials I brought.)

It was almost the last minute before we start our turn, I decided my action that using a bottle of water and an empty glass cup.

My Performance Setting

I stood beside the table. There was no physical position movement during the whole process. A series of actions I did was to stand and look at the table, then I raised my left hand to grab the water bottle, and twisted the bottle cap with my right hand. Pour only a drop of water (or the minimum amount that I can control through my body – arms and hands) from the bottle in the left hand into the bottle cap in the right hand. So whenever I see water pouring out, I stop immediately. And then the water received in the bottle cap is poured into the empty glass cup. Then the bottle cap is twisted back to the top of the bottle, and the bottle is restored to the original position. Because of these actions, the water in the bottle will be shaken, so I stare at the bottle after putting it down, until there was no movement at all, after the water totally calm down. Then I start a new loop, raise my hand to grab the bottle, and then repeat the previous actions. In the beginning, it was a bottle full of water, literally full. I was focusing on the series of actions at the beginning. And it seems goes well. I repeated again and again. As time goes by, something changed.

In the beginning, because the bottle was literally full, I poured out the water. After I put down the bottle, the water in the bottle quickly calmed down because the bottle mouth was relatively narrow, there was not a large space for water to move. But after a while, as the water in the bottle started to decreases – of course, at a very slow rate as each time only one drop of water. But the horizontal plane becomes more and more time-consuming to recover to a completely immobile plane. The water in the bottle becoming less and less, and the clam-down process becoming more and more easy to be influenced by other factors that happen around the table and I was waiting longer and longer. Everything that happens around actually has a huge influence on the water, if the viewer walking by, it moves. From the viewer’s perspective, my entire performance changed from a series of repeated actions to a process of standing and just staring for longer and longer time.

Not far from me – about half a meter away, another person was doing her repetitive movements. She kept moving between the two chairs. She pulled out a piece of the napkin from a box on a chair. Looking at it, like reading a newspaper, although it is a blank napkin, walking to another chair, place it on a stack of napkins, and then moving back to the other chair, and repeat the whole action.

video of subtle movement of the water

I mention her performance because her movement, walking back and forth, became the main factor of my performance. At a certain point, the water can not stop being influenced by external factors. It can not stay still, not even a second, it’s constantly waving up and down. In total, it’s a very subtle moving. I would say the viewer probably won’t be able to even notice what am I waiting for, as we didn’t say a word before we started the performance.
So, I was doing nothing but staring at the water in the bottle. I was focusing on the subtle movement of the water.

I was staring at it, not even moving my eyeballs, I was like seeing a visual performance / generative patterns inside the bottle. I always found the water waving like something generated by a machine.

Photo of lake movement from Riding Mountain National Park

So even I was just staring at the water in the bottle, it for me is watching an animation or a movie, the pattern was very meditated, trigger some memories in my head, then I cried. That was totally unexpected. I just can not do anything else. The sublet movement was dragging me into a black hole. And I just not able to come out. It became very emotional. For the viewer, I was just standing, staring, and crying. I stopped cry fairly soon, and then was reflecting on what has happened. And then I seem back to the performance/action itself.

I start struggling that should I break my own rules? Should I just pick up the bottle and redo it? Even anyone else probably doesn’t know what was the rule. The whole performance setting looks failed, because nothing happened, I wasn’t able to repeat my actions for a quite long time. And for the viewer, it might not make sense why I am not even doing a thing. So this kind of self-doubting and self-adjusting happens in my mind for a while, and then finally time’s up. I ended up doing nothing. This is the water left in the bottle at the end.

After all the performances, we had an hour talking time, and that went very well. I heard some viewer views of my thing. As lots of things were happening in my head. When I described what was happened during my performance, when I said I felt been dragged into the hole, Marilyn said: “That was I look like! It was mysterious, watching the actions that are only a drop, and watching you watched it, knowing something was going on in your head about it, that I couldn’t figure out… But it also gave space to the viewers to project their own meaning on to it.” Then someone said: “Most people hate that though.” Then there was a small debate about the audience couldn’t figure out what’s going on or they don’t know what they think they should, giving space to the audience to be there with the work and think about themselves, project their own meanings, etc.

Overall, the workshop was great! And for myself, even more than that. I found something. And something in my heart was being healed.