PRINT May 2015


Cally Spooner

London-based artist and writer Cally Spooner has recently staged solo presentations and performances at such venues as the Bielefelder Kunstverein in Germany, the High Line in New York, and Tate Modern in London. The author of the novella Collapsing in Parts (2013), Spooner is the recipient of a 2013 Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Artists. Her multichannel film installation And You Were Wonderful, On Stage, commissioned by the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center in Troy, New York, will premiere in 2016.


    Brown describes December 1952 as a “field of the activity of music-making which can exist between sympathetic and reasonable kinds of people.” The score, generated via random sampling, is notated as graphically appealing horizontal and vertical lines. It is to be performed in any direction and at any speed, by any instruments, for any duration. In this way, it enables a musical event to manifest without predetermining what that event will be. To me, December 1952 is the most generous proposal to emerge from the New York School.

    *Earle Brown’s score for _December 1952_*, ink on paper, 12 × 16 3/4". From “FOLIO and 4 SYSTEMS,” 1952–54. © 1961 Associated Music Publishers. Earle Brown’s score for December 1952, ink on paper, 12 × 16 3/4". From “FOLIO and 4 SYSTEMS,” 1952–54. © 1961 Associated Music Publishers.

    In the deliriously campy ’80s movie, this song is performed by a minor ensemble playing skid-row bums and soul-singing bag ladies; their group choreography climaxes with an aerial crane shot that tracks up as the singers raise their faces toward the sky, until they drop their heads in unison on the last beat of the song. I’m interested in the part of a cast that serves as a constant-motion human backdrop, pragmatically recomposing a scene by, say, carrying a pane of glass through a shot, enticing the camera with a chassé or a snap, or, in this case, drag-stepping through grimy puddles. This dynamic between camera and ensemble (a transposition of theatrical set changes to camera) is my biggest filmmaking influence right now.


    In 2001, Armstrong collaborated with Nike on a thirty-second commercial in which the cyclist tells us, “This is my body, and I can do whatever I want to it.” Eleven years later, it was revealed that that same body had been continuously doping, rendering the spot’s punch line—“What am I on? I’m on my bike”—one of the more substantial lies in advertising history. Now banned from sports, Armstrong keeps busy with televised disclosures, engaging in competitive performances of a different kind. I have been enjoying the bizarre staging of these appearances, from his melodramatic Oprah confession to his Daily Mail apology as “structured reality” (with red wine and War’s “Low Rider” as sound track) to, most recently, an epic theater BBC interview set in a real-life bike shop.

    *Lance Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey during the taping of _Oprah and Lance Armstrong: The Worldwide Exclusive_, Austin, January 14, 2013.* Photo: AP/Harpo Studios/George Burns. Lance Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey during the taping of Oprah and Lance Armstrong: The Worldwide Exclusive, Austin, January 14, 2013. Photo: AP/Harpo Studios/George Burns.

    Joe Gideon is a workaholic, Dexedrine-addicted theater director obsessively creating the greatest Broadway show on earth. He eventually pulls this off as Bye Bye Life, a spectacular hallucination he has while in a hospital bed, where he is dying from a heart attack. Danced by glamorous women dressed as arteries and compered by a stand-up comedian who broadcasts Joe’s psychological shortcomings, the scene animates normally unseen forces; addiction, biological flows, and failing organs become fodder for Joe’s glittery ambitions. Loosely based on Fosse’s own life, the film exposes the insanity of sportsmanship and how heartbreaking and (confusingly) desirable it can be to push one’s body harder and harder until it dies.


    This is perfect filmmaking: one man and a venetian blind, a few props, a projector, and lights. The simplicity allows the viewer to focus on Spalding Gray’s incredible way with language, as he monologues about his experiences with the diagnosis and treatment of a rare condition afflicting his left eye. As in Gray’s work with the Wooster Group, his life (often controversially) becomes his art, his art becomes public therapy, and the audience becomes his shrink.

    *Steven Soderbergh, _Gray’s Anatomy_, 1997*, 35 mm, color, sound, 80 minutes. Spalding Gray. Steven Soderbergh, Gray’s Anatomy, 1997, 35 mm, color, sound, 80 minutes. Spalding Gray.

    From The Broken Rule (1979/2010) to Blind Country (1989), Beckman’s films are frequently structured as absurd video-game scenarios filled with luminous images, dislocated sounds (lip-synching, eerie choral arrangements), and bodies that function as game pieces or graphic markers within alien yet hyperreal sets. To create them, Beckman often collaborated with other artists, such as Matt Mullican, Mike Kelley, and Aura Rosenberg. The vitality and sociality of her ensembles, enacting the ways in which our best-loved fictions exploit us, are very important to me right now.

    *Ericka Beckman and Mike Kelley_, Blind Country_, 1989*, video, color and black-and-white, sound, 18 minutes. Mike Kelley. Ericka Beckman and Mike Kelley, Blind Country, 1989, video, color and black-and-white, sound, 18 minutes. Mike Kelley.

    Leigh’s casts and crews often begin working without knowing what they are going to make. Devising rather than directing, the filmmaker opens up time for actors to improvise and develop content in rehearsal; he widens the margins of error, allowing for last-minute shifts during production. Of particular note is Alison Steadman’s creation for Abigail’s Party: the ostentatious character Beverly, an aspirational car crash of middle-class manners and suburban boredom. An actor friend of mine thinks Leigh is profiteering from the genius of his casts, not his own unique vision. I am not so interested in unique vision, and I love to see what happens when you listen to the genius of your cast.

    *_Play for Today_, 1977*, still from a TV show on BBC. Season 8, episode 3, “Abigail’s Party.” Beverly (Alison Steadman). Play for Today, 1977, still from a TV show on BBC. Season 8, episode 3, “Abigail’s Party.” Beverly (Alison Steadman).

    As Flaubert’s famous story goes, Emma Bovary and her lover Rodolphe build a sickly sweet relationship on fictional foundations (he does not, in fact, love her; she is eager to consume any intimations of love). When Emma receives a breakup letter from Rodolphe, it is signed with a false tear: a drop of water from his drinking glass. The effect of the letter is as real as the emotions it promises are spurious; Flaubert’s heroine spirals into untenable debt and eventually commits suicide. Rodolphe’s tear is, to me, a nineteenth-century equivalent of the fake affect, the fabrications and mechanizations, of industrially manufactured pop songs that move fans to screaming hysteria, heavily curated Facebook pages that elicit FOMO, and algorithmically generated Amazon recommendations that provoke the deep satisfaction of discovering something.


    I am trying to understand the ways in which private life, intuition, and discourse might be protected from commodification even as they are increasingly deployed as immaterial, digital, and affective labor today. More than a decade after it was written, Virno’s text, which elaborates the complexities of post-Fordist work and offers an amazing analysis of virtuosic and cultural labor, remains of paramount importance. It is something like a handbook for me, and it underpins all my work.


    I have been thinking a lot about what happens when a voice is usurped from a body and a new body assumes that voice. My favorite lip-synching scandals are the products of German disco producer Frank Farian, the man behind pop acts Boney M. and Milli Vanilli. Farian capitalized on putting hired voices into hired bodies or, in the case of Boney M., attributing his own studio-enhanced voice to the better-looking dancer Bobby Farrell. The pop-industrial engineering of voices and subjectivities is something my work investigates, most often by subcontracting labor in a bid to transpose performance art’s historical debates around the body and presence into considerations of HR management. But in doing so, I worry I am starting to become more Frank Farian than performance artist.