- Mischief’s disturbance as the initiator of movement with reference to Marcel Duchamp
- Goat Island and the workings of mischief
i. The preparation of mischief
ii. Mischief as a preparation
As a child I was very well behaved, my year group at school were not. I would watch from the side- lines as my year continually disrupted lessons until the system was pushed to its tipping point and the entire class was suspended. The school then had to work out how to restore order. It was through this process from order through disorder back to order that seemed to assist the school to change, to move, to re-evaluate who they employed and the whole system. This disruption also had a profound effect on the internal system of our year and I believe it is from this that we have all remained close friends.
From this time of my life I have been fascinated by the possibility of mischievous behaviour.
To understand how this misbehaviour can contribute in the wider social and cultural context this essay will investigate how the role of the archetypal trickster character as the bringer of mischief fits within the thermodynamic perception of living systems. The trickster is the archetypal character of mischief whose motif runs through much of mythology and folktales. The character itself differs greatly between myths yet its role in regards to both the internal and external structure of the mythic system can be undoubtedly perceived: whether by stealing, stupidity or any mischief, its primary purpose is to disrupt any given situation that appears stable (including both the narrative and the reader). Although there is no such being (to my knowledge) in existence in its purest form today ‘the trickster motif does crop up […] just as naively and authentically in the unsuspecting modern man’ (Jung, 1990: 262). I will look at this archetypal character as a force of energy on a given system with particular reference to the artist Marcel Duchamp through whom one can perceive this character.
Thermodynamics is the study of energy and systems, and acknowledges that all systems (be them weather, social, cultural, biological, etc.) operate in a complex form. The theory of complexity distinguishes between two systems, one that operates in a state of equilibrium and other in a state of non-equilibrium. A system in equilibrium is in a stable state that does not allow for movement or change within it, a social system in this state could appear, for example, between two friends whose
pattern of friendship is stable and not changing. To disrupt this state would push it into a state of non- equilibrium, the system of friendship then becomes a dynamic living system that must restore itself avoiding complete destruction. This essay will explore how mischievous action might facilitate this disturbance and further question what it means when it has done so.
The collaborative performance group Goat Island articulate an ecological awareness of the complex structures of the systems they operate within. I will therefore explore their system of collaboration investigating how the role of mischief is adopted in both their making and showing of performance. By drawing on my own practice based research project Between You, Me and the City in response to Goat Island, I will examine how mischief directly influences the individual.
The term, mischief, has a wonderful array of emotions, imaginations, and associations amalgamated within it. It is one of the few words that invites a sense of endearment towards a supposedly negative disruption. This essay is an attempt to validate its role within western society and culture. Within the context of the essay, I will explore the act of mischief as the disruption of a predefined order and a necessary action to generate both cultural, social and individual movement.
Mischief’s disturbance as the initiator of movement with reference to Marcel Duchamp
There once were two farmers whose friendship had been so for many years. The people of the village could not imagine the one friend without the other, they would do everything together. Eshu, the trickster God, saw this friendship and decided to disturb it. So he donned a hat coloured black on one side and white on the other and walked along the path between the farmer’s fields as they worked. Later that day the farmers were discussing this stranger, and for the first time in their life they could not come to an agreement, one man saw the white hat the other saw that it was black. An uproarious fight broke out between the men that was only calmed on Eshu’s return as he showed them both the hat. So the story goes.
The thermodynamic study of complex adaptive systems, such as weather systems, molecular systems and social systems, acknowledges that these living systems are in continual, non-linear change and are constantly ‘changing themselves to adapt to a changing environment’ (Baranger, n.d: 9). A living system is a complex system, it works between order and disorder in a non-equilibrium state. Many of the systems we have in operation today, systems of ritual, convention, tradition and institution, are in a stable state of equilibrium and do not allow for this dynamic change and therefore can remain unmoving, lifeless . Ruth Little asserts that ‘Growth, change and evolution is only possible when [the system] is disturbed’ (2007)
In order for movement to occur within such a system of equilibrium there must be an outside energy introduced to the system. Consider for example a container of water, its molecular structure is in a state of equilibrium and remains without change, yet when energy in the form of fire is brought in contact with it, dramatic movement and change erupts. Ruth Little (2007) re-contextualizes this molecular science applying it to the dynamics of social systems stressing that all “living systems  operate in exactly the same way”.
Western culture is dominated by institutions who attempt to ‘organise the chaos of personal experience’ (Novak, 1998: 99). Social systems are forced into a state of equilibrium constrained by these rules, laws and conventions. Much like water, the social systems enforced by an institution or governing body are in an equilibrium state where an outside disturbance is absolutely necessary to allow movement and change. It is here where the mythological character of the trickster, or indeed the artist as I will explain later, becomes important. As the name suggests the trickster character tricks others, steals and disobeys given rules. Lewis Hyde (1998: 115) suggests that it is the role of the trickster in any given myth to ‘break down convention and tradition and play with and disturb the regular patterns’. In this case mischief comes in the form of energy and disturbs the equilibrium into a non-equilibrium state forcing it to readapt to the disturbance, for I believe it is our inherent human nature to reorder what is disordered.
The story that begins this chapter depicts the trickster Eshu (the Yorubaland, West African God) act as an initiator of a new dialogue between the two farmers, testing the given friendship, demanding them to re-evaluate their situation. We can see how the myth depicts Eshu as the unwanted mischief maker who disrupts a given equilibrium between friends. The moral, or indeed the writer’s intention behind the story, suggests that one’s individual perception cannot be relied upon to show the truth. The story does not, unfortunately, depict how the friendship was restored and so it is difficult to judge the value of the mischievous act from the perspective of the famers.
Perhaps the most notable appearance of the trickster of recent times is through the artist Marcel Duchamp. Marcel was an artist who moved between worlds. Lewis Hyde (2008: 274) describes Marcel Duchamp as a ‘man always looking for the door’ and indeed it is the door that joins two separate spaces together. His series of Readymades (a title given to his work much later than there realisation) also crossed boundaries by bringing quotidian objects, such as a urinal, into the art world. In the doing Duchamp provoked the art world into a position of reflexivity, questioning its constitution and its relationship with the everyday. ‘What is art?’ is the question that dislodged the art world from its stable thrown, a question still in dispute. Here we see mischief as the crosser of boundaries, demanding a reflexive awareness on both sides.
The character of the trickster can be found in all corners of mythological literature whose portrayal extends between man, woman, god or animal and most often a combination of two, blurring the boundaries that demarcate binary oppositions. The portrayal of this character as dual identity reflects his position between worlds yet his impact and character is far greater than the given combination.
There is always the Other, a third term that disrupts, disorders, and begins to reconstitute the conventional binary opposition into an-Other that comprehends but is more than just the sum of two parts. (Soja, 1996: 30-31)
Edward Soja’s concept of the ‘Other-as-Thirding’ suggests that what would have otherwise been seen as a combination of the two others, becomes its own whole; it does not belong in-between X and Y, rather it becomes a third entity of its own constitution, influenced by both sides rather than resembling them. Critically Homi k. Bhabha’s postcolonial writing The Location of Culture adopts the notion of thirding as a disturbance to colonial discourse. Bhabha (1994: 41) suggests that in colonial discourse1 the ‘other is always occupied by [a] despot, heathen, and barbarian’ that threatens the power of colonial authority by undermining all binary structures and is thus void of recognition. Bhabha (1994: 200) seeks to bring acknowledgement to the other, the heathen or barbarian, by viewing them as occupiers of the third space who demand the recognition of a more ‘complex form of living’. Indeed it would seem that the trickster also inhabits this space.
What sets the trickster at the margins of society and culture is not only its ambiguous character but the possible dramatic consequences of its mischievous actions. The lasting chorus that resounds throughout Yorubaland mythology illustrates the fear of the trickster’s mischief.
‘”Eshu, do not undo me,
Do not falsify the words of my mouth, Do not misguide the movements of my feet.
You who translates yesterday’s words
Into novel utterances, Do not undo me,
I bear you sacrifices.”’ (Hyde, 1998: 239)
1 Bhabha (1994, 66) suggests that colonial discourse depends on maintaining fixity and promotes unchanging order. A system in equilibrium.
Although the friendship of the two farmers appeared strong it was very easily disrupted by Eshu. Like many materials, they can appear strong but when exposed to some force, are shown to be brittle. By tipping the balance of a system there are multiple possibilities for the outcome, not all disruption will necessarily result in movement, for to have movement the “systems must restore itself” (Little, 2007). There will of course be as many varying responses as there are receivers, yet for the purpose of this essay I will look at three distinct outcomes from a mischievous act of disturbance within a system:
1) Total destruction of the given system; once the system has been disturbed it can totally self-destruct, consider the farmers who may lose their friendship altogether.
2) Total rejection of the disturbance; the disturbance has the opposite effect as the system responds by strengthening its structure.
3) The system is disturbed in such a way that can allow for it to regroup itself in a new order to be disordered again. This then generates movement and change (some may call this progress, I prefer movement) and allows the “living system to respond to [the] disturbance through rearranging their pattern” (Little, 2007)
It is no wonder then, particularly due to the first two possible outcomes mentioned above, that the trickster and its mischievous acts are not welcomed into the social systems and remain as marginal characters that are to be avoided and institutionalised if possible. Here we can see it is imperative that the disturbance is executed in a way that allows the system to reformulate itself (I will discuss this further in Chapter Two).
One fundamental certainty inherent in both complexity and the trickster is their non-linear cause and effect. There is the celebrated notion of the butterfly flapping its wings that causes a storm on the other side of the world. Science cannot measure this cause and effect and that is the fundamental aspect of living systems. The Input, or disturbance, of a system can by no means be understood by looking at the output. To apply this to the trickster we can see their action/input cannot be judged by the output/effect because the ‘system must restore itself’ (little). Their action is therefore a facilitation into the unknown, out of the individual’s control, determined by the systems response as a whole.
There are several clear ways in which western society gains control over this ambiguous behaviour. The post-modernist Michel Foucault (1986: 5) coined the notion of ‘heterotopias of deviation: those [places] in which individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed’. Prisons and mental wards are built to house such deviants in an attempt to control them and block their influence. Similarly festivals and carnivals, although appear to encourage mischievous behaviour, act as a ‘social drainage system in which structure’s garbage2 gets expressed only to be carted away when the banners come down’ (Hyde, 2008: 187). The one environment in which mischief is allowed to flap its wings, as with the case of Duchamp, is within the more ambiguously demarcated realm of art.
In conclusion, it would seem that mischief holds a fundamental value as a form of energy that generates movement within both social and cultural systems. I feel that the system need not disturb itself, nor keep its own garbage in the house, but be more open to an outside disturbance. This requires acknowledgement of the initial disturbance as only a catalyst to a much greater effect. This will in turn open the recipient of the mischievous behaviour to its disturbance and be able to consciously control its outcome for the effect of the disturbance is not determined by the action of the trickster but rather by the response of the given system. Chapter two will focus on the making of performance as an environment in which mischief may be nurtured, and the showing of performance as a pore through which the fluid of mischief may leak back into society.
Goat Island and the workings of mischief
‘In art […] it is not a matter of reproducing or inventing form, but of capturing forces’ (Deleuze, 2003: 56).
To begin with I would like to take a step back to before the mischief has taken direct effect on the wider system. In written mythology the trickster’s actions always transform the ‘meaningless into the meaningful’ (Jung, 1990: 256) yet in life off the page it is quite clearly not such a simple matter. By exploring the performance work of Goat Island (first the making then the showing) I will investigate what it means to engage with the energy of disturbance, looking at how it might be used consciously in order to generate new material and experiences. I will also use my personal experience from my Practice in Context research project Between You, Me and the City to support my ideas.
Live Art might be the most noticeable bracket of art with which to examine the art of mischief and its role in society. The term Live art was developed to give legitimacy to those live practices that ‘do not comply with the strictures of traditional designation [and] make work on the margins of their discipline’ (Sofaer, 2002). Live Art is concerned with the relationship between the artist and their audience, and the showing of such an unclassifiable art form in itself acts to disturb prior notions of the art forms that it is influenced by. However I would like to focus on the Goat Island’s collaborative form of performance making as I believe it can show us more precisely how mischief is procured and its effect on an individual level.
i. The preparation of mischief
Within the collection of metalogues that begins Gregory Bateson’s book Steps to an Ecology of Mind is a short dialogue between a farther and daughter discussing Why […] Things Get in a Muddle. The farther comes to a conclusion saying that ‘[In] order to think new thoughts or say new things, we need to break up all our ready-made ideas and shuffle the pieces.’ (Bateson, 2000: 15-16). Here Bateson
implies that new ideas and thoughts are bound up within what we already have but it is in their disordering and reassembly where we are able to find new meanings. This metalogue finds a significant resemblance with the working process and performance of Goat Island who collate fragments of incomplete text in order to create a muddle.
‘Taking the familiar and using it to designate something else, to leap across meanings, to criss-cross ideas. I look for words that require assemblage - the gathering of parts and the fitting together, what I call constructing’ (Hixson, 1996: 152)
The combination of fragments destabilise the original meaning and symbol of the other, and in so doing simultaneously constructs new ideas and material. The combination of these fragments is in a sense Goat Island’s way of disturbing the ordered, muddling the tidy to generate new meanings and movement.
Karen Christopher describes the group as a scavengers who collect rejected objects of waste and by assemblng them transform their meanings ‘with a new twist on old matter’ (Christopher, 2007: 135). The process of combining objects is where the mischief lies, each part destabilises the other respectively becoming a muddle. If we consider Deleuze’s concept of the assemblage3, the mischievous force transforms from an act of disturbance to a deterritorialization4, where the objects in an assemblage are separated from their original constitution allowing for a multiplicity of new effects and meanings. Deleuze and Guattari’s (1988: 85) concept of the assemblage perceives a book as a multiplicity of assembled components (words) that in their assemblage generate multiple meanings.
As we can see in chapter one mischief facilitates a route into the unknown due to its non-linear nature where its input does not determine its output. Goat Island encourage this journey as can be seen with their incorporation of the assemblage, yet I wonder if this journey would be possible without the right environment. To go into unknown territory it would seem that one must have faith and trust in ones companions to travel this way. The performance-making process of Goat Island is indeed founded in a deep reciprocal trust between members of the group as expressed by Lin Hixson.
‘This is a group that appreciates the terrible fears of human experience in this life: the fragility of our bodies, the vulnerability of our confidence, the difficulty of our relationships and a dozen other burdens to be carried. This is a group that knows collaboration is hard work.’(Hixson, 1995: 115)
In Hixson’s words one can feel the innate trust and assurance that she experiences within the group, without this stability and foundation the unknown journey would be impossible to tread, and the disturbance may be experienced as a negative force. Its seems there must be trust because within all this chaos created by the disturbance, one will need to rely on each other’s intuition to make defining decisions that shape the movement of the devising process and the structure of the work itself.
I would like to adopt Gregory Bateson’s (2006: 256) image of a blind man tapping his way forward with a prosthetic stick as a visual analogy for this journey into the unknown, fluctuating between order and disorder. The man is walking constantly into the unknown, the stick is making points of contact that guide him forward, he must trust these points of contact that disappear even as they appear in order to move. To apply this to Goat Island we see that the path through the unknown requires points of contact, points of certainty, structure and decision which may be initiated by members of the group and so they must trust one another’s intuition to judge these points of contact to guide them safely through.
By consciously allowing the mischief too effectively take the group into the unknown is seems to act as a testing ground for the disturbance that will be carried into the performance. Instead of imposing the disturbance straight into a social system as the trickster does. Here the members of the group process the disturbance within the group, in some sense testing its safety, for one does not want total destruction. The group have been down the journey5 that they then guide the audience.
Interestingly Mathew Goulish (2004: 177) suggests that the moment of completion of the work is decided by its equilibrium within the performance, every scene points to the other scenes equally, and then it is ready to perform. If the system of the performance is in equilibrium within itself, then it seems that the trickster itself is in a state of equilibrium, suggesting that it needs the strength of stability and balance in order to disrupt the audience (or the famer in the case of Eshu). By filtering mischief through the devising process, can it then be re-introduced into society through the audience as a highly tuned mischief that will destabilize the audience in such a way as to facilitate a complex transformative process whose disturbance can be restored?
ii. Mischief as a preparation
Adrian Heathfield (2001) wrote a description of his emotional response to Goat Island’s piece It’s an Earthquake in My Heart. In which he clearly articulates the movement of a complex system. Moving through the chaos of ‘confusion’ reaching moments of complex ‘epiphanies of meaning’. The performance presents itself as a complex network of interconnected moments, objects, movements and meanings which seek to destabilise each other’s meanings. ‘Environments and worlds will arrive, accumulate, be constructed, taken apart, introduced, destroyed, [and] revealed’ (Heathfield, 2001). Here I suggest that the totality of the performance represents a living system of complexity in a non- equilibrium state that destabilises and constructs itself internally (the contradiction here is that this, seemingly chaotic system, is a highly choreographed performance due to its representation; it is perhaps a point of contact) and in the doing takes the audience with it, as expressed by Heathfield earlier.
‘To me the most important function of this ordeal process within Goat Island piece is the extent to which expectations or preconceived notions are broken down, disappointed, frustrated. And that is a preparation for what comes after.’ (Christopher, 1998: 52)
I believe Karen Christopher encapsulates a fundamental aspect of Goat Island’s performance work and indeed the work of mischief within it, by looking at the performance as a process of preparation. She acknowledges that the performance does not so much construct meanings and truths for the audience to either stand by or not, but rather destabilises any preconceived notions of meaning and truth. As a child
I remember feeling like I was being prepared to capture the world and define my ground within it, instead it seems that Goat Island are re-preparing the audience (including myself reading their book Small Acts of Repair) for the fragility, vulnerability, fluidity and complexity that is life.
To expand on this notion of preparation I would like to reflect on my own research practice Between You, Me and the City. For two months I sat with a sign reading ‘I am sitting here waiting to talk to you’ in the city of Manchester. I witnessed many people ‘break-down’ from themselves as they approached me; a hardy builder transformed himself as he approached me with uncertainty. Below is an extract from my diary describing a man preparing to meet me.
It began with a glance, the eyes caught hold, a decision was made, and the steps began. As he left his place by the bollard each step tolled a new stage of a process. I could see the inner workings and outer persona in a state of flux, freedom between historical decision and future self. Uncertainty showing itself through a precarious smile, flickering eyes, and an awkward step. There was freedom between us.
Much like the combination of fragments employed by Goat Island, I consider the stranger and myself as fragments made vulnerable as we lost our individual meaning to the assemblage that we joined in. Taking Martin Flugsang’s (2002: 22) suggestion that ‘an I and a Thou […] are encircled by meaning’ suggests that as ‘I’ and ‘Thou’ join within an assemblage a process of deterritorialization shifts the meanings of both ‘I’ and ‘Thou’ as we leave our prior meaning of ‘I’ behind. In the transformation from I as individual to I within an assemblage it would seem lies the transformation of becoming-thou6.
‘I can perform becoming, I do perform becoming, I have, in fact, no choice but to perform my becomings at the very same moment those those becomings become the ‘I’ that performs them.’ (Kubiak, 2012: 55)
To apply this to the relationship between Goat Islands performance work and their audience, we can see how the assemblage extends from fragments within the performance to incorporate the audience as well and I wonder whether through this set up the audience may become-performance and thus the performance becomes-other. Karen Christopher reiterates a memory of a conversation with an audience member after their showing of How Dear to Me the Hour When Daylight Dies that appears to mark this moment of becoming.
‘At first I was frustrated, and then I thought these people are crazy and I didn’t get it, and then I felt bored into anger. But then I felt a decision coming. I realized I could just check out and reject this performance or I could relax and not worry about understanding it and just accept it. I don’t want to call it a religious experience [those where his exact words], but I chose to relax and suddenly I started getting all these ideas and began to have all sorts of associations with the movements and gestures I was seeing. It was because I was able to make this decision to accept the performance without understanding it. I was able to make that choice.’ (Christopher, 1998: 53)
One can see here how the performance pushed the audience member into a state where they would either dismiss the performance completely or, as this member did, allow it into themselves, and them into it reciprocally. A becoming is formed, the audience member changes and thus their experience of the performance changes. I would suggest that this is a becoming-performance. The disturbance has guided this audience member into an unrecognizable situation, a third space, who has thus restored some form of new understanding and meaning out of it. It would seem that this experience prepared the audience for the same complex experience in everyday life within the comfort of a framed performance space. Critically the energy of the disturbance had been presented to the audience member in such a way that the responsibility and control to the extent of its effects was left in their hands.
In conclusion we can see how collaboratively devised performance offers the possibility and the environment to make a disturbance that is detached from an individual’s intentions. This then inherently relinquishes control over the re-construction of the system disturbed, it is for the audience to gather up the pieces and remould their reality, finding their own meanings. Ultimately by destabilising the audience’s habitual life and the patterns of knowledge and meaning that one lives by (much like that of the trickster in the mythological narrative) the performance prepares the audience to perhaps be more open to the force of mischief’s disruption within their everyday lives.
I would like to finish this chapter by looking at the ultimate dismantling of Goat Island. The undoing of Goat Island was a self-inflicted one. The group had been able to disturb itself in order to create, and it seems that this disturbance (although conscious) found its way out of the performance space and resulted in the dismantling of the social system that makes up the group.
‘How to continue to grow to venture into the unknown’ ‘it is time to find the change that growth necessitates.’ We end goat Island in order to make a space for the unknown that will follow’ (Goat Island, 2006: 223).
To read this in terms of complex living systems one can see how the group acknowledges that their internal system had found itself in a state of equilibrium, they no longer were able to facilitate the disturbance that leads them into the unknown.
This essay has investigated the necessity of the mischievous act for the destabilisation of equilibriums within cultural and the social systems. It is argued that the energy of mischief on a social system corresponds with the understanding of a complex living system, suggesting that the force provokes necessary social change. Furthermore, this essay has attempted to determine the ways in which mischief can be developed within the making process of performance in order to be rearticulated into the wider cultural and social systems.
In terms of the western institutional and governmental systems that attempt to control all that is within, with written laws and moral codes, it does not seem that the allowance of mischief will be accepted outside of the art world. It is clearly not a viable option for them to adopt as a facilitator of change, as they seem to be increasingly controlling of our environments, unless of course it is them who cause the disturbance to gain control over the system in a vulnerable state. It is for this reason I would suggest that all arts need to be aware of the system they are operating within so as to disturb it effectively. Art offers a heterotopia in which mischief is allowed freedom, yet as with Duchamp, it needs to cross over its walls to effect the wider system. What is imperative however, is that the one who assumes this position does not have any predefined goal that insists on controlling the re-construction of the disrupted system. It has been discussed that collaboratively devised performance offers the possibility to make a disturbance that is detached from an individual’s intention, thus relinquishing control over the re- construction of the system disturbed, it is for the audience to gather up the pieces and remould their reality.
We are in a global state of ecological uncertainty, global warming for example. I hope this essay might shift the overriding perspective of negativity in relation to this situation, looking at this uncertainty as an opening for possibility. We are reaching a tipping point, perhaps we are at that point, so now it is up to us, the all-inclusive system of nature, to restore itself. I cannot argue or preach of what might need
to be done, but I suggest that it is through performance where one can disrupt people’s traditions and conventions in such a way that opens up a possibility for a more mindful relationship with this uncertainty.
My farther left the family for another woman, the woman left her family for my father. Several years went by as my family tried to reorder itself and finally as I am writing this we are finding our new structure. Now we are a new family of three that bears no resemblance to the family that once was four. We were unfettered from the structured system that was the nuclear family.
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Mischief in the making and showing of performance; exploring the generative potential of disturbance
Nathaniel Mason PER320 Dissertation BA (Hons) Theatre
Falmouth University 2014
Thank you to Joanne Whalley for her support throughout this process.
Nathaniel Mason PER320 Dissertation BA (Hons) Theatre
Falmouth University 2014
Thank you to Joanne Whalley for her support throughout this process.