Performing the Impossible Homemade Revolutionary Acts | Julia Handschuh

*an excerpt*

Performing the Impossible

Homemade Revolutionary Acts

By Julia Handschuh

I think it began when I tried something impossible. It happened in the context of a durational performance class: the proposition was to commit wholly to doing an impossible task for one hour.  I chose to connect with Andrew.  We’d known each other for some time already but were not romantically involved.  Andrew was backpacking somewhere in Europe while I was in a studio in Boston.  For one hour I tried to get his attention.  By immersing myself in that ridiculous act I was playing with the possibility of believing that I could shake some bit of the world so much it would send ripples out and run through him.  In a marketplace?  On a green hill?  Turning his head to the right?   Hoisting his backpack up onto his hips?  Sitting and reading a book?  Kissing a girl?  Hitchiking and beatboxing in the pouring rain?  Exhausted, content, full of wonder?  Later he told me if it were any day that perhaps it made sense that it would have been that day, sitting on a boat and thinking of home:

 

"home" photo by Andrew Hukins

In moments like these, with pause and brilliance, home seems just below the rocking hull and I find myself afflicted with another illness just as the previous one lifts: homesickness.  Home, even though conceived of geographically is more the longing for comfort, not in an espresso maker and morning paper sort of way, but in the rooms and fields I intimately know, and in the people who I carry with me.  It was with this last thing that I found myself absorbed by, sitting with Mateo, drinking some cheap beer or another, witnessing the burning harbor and goodnight sun[1]

 

As I moved in that studio and Andrew sat on that boat perhaps I was also experimenting with the capacity of my body to have impact and the capacity of my body to let go and transition into something else.  As I jumped around, whispered, danced, screamed, meditated, reminisced, and generally created a ruckus projected in the direction of his existence, something happened; if not in either of us specifically certainly in the space between.  I was giving into something.  I was allowing myself to be swept up in it.  I was falling in love.  Not just with him but with the things made possible in the space between us.  Sharing space with him in the following years I’ve grown to learn and lean into the deep satisfaction and radical change present in a willingness to unabashedly dive in.  

There seems to be great potential in the space of committing yourself to something you previously thought was impossible, just to see what happens, or to force yourself into believing the previously impossible.  Durational performance is a form that is concerned with the effect that time has on the performer, it anticipates that a given action will impress itself on the experience of the performer and evolve with repetition.  Endurance is oftentimes associated with durational performance; the labor or hardship that the body exerts overtime, the commitment to the act, the ability to transcend difficulty, pain and exhaustion, the belief in process and change.  A rhythm is found in repetition over time that passes with minute variations; evolving difference[2]

Learning about and engaging in durational performance art has shifted the way I think about performing life.  I’ve begun to think in terms of creating scores, or sets of rules through which a lived experience can morph and evolve while maintaining commitments to a basic rhythm: to a repetition of actions and habits that establish and uphold a performance for the duration of my life.  Some years after that initial durational performance, after more evolving structures were built between and around Andrew and I, he proposed a different structure.  He proposed a house.

Water. Mold. Moss. Lichen. Fermentation. Growth. Film. Leaves. Steel. Sweat. Finger nails. Flesh. Kerosene. Crust. Thread. Eye lash. Wood. Latex. Nerves. Tendons. Kiss.

in this tiny space we navigate each other

mapping. communicating. maneuvering. negotiating

dreams. troubles. desires.

compromise. extend. enact.

practicing boarders and measures

that hold each other accountable

to hold each other accountable

to house our hearts

to house our body of hearts

to take risks

to be courageous

to imagine the impossible

with love

We’re piling on the bricks and the habits

fortifying a sense (logic)

for a haptic relation

where we can touch our space (dreams) and this dream space touches us.

Meeting and making our world

co-constituting this moment

standing with the trees.

I like to think of Andrew carrying me with him on those days he traveled before we were together.  A talisman of home.  The physical and emotional gap between us somehow made smaller in the ways we’d begun to carry each other around in our minds.  Shared dreams beginning to well up between us.

***

The house was designed and built with people, seasons and sun in mind.  I was feverish the day we swiveled the house slightly to the right.  We had designed it to face south and built the first rendition slightly to the east.  I swung and slept in the brightly colored hammock as Andrew and Brian nudged and pulled the house to face the sun.  Now the light filters into our bedroom so perfectly: six am a geometric stream enters the room, seven: smooth along the wall, eight it crawls along the pillow, nine gathering in the corner and by ten accumulates and diffuses to a glow that misses the corners of the room and lays evenly over the bed.

Striking out together and building a home made something happen that continues to resonate today.  It made what was felt in that first durational performance take on the solid materiality of wood, glass and sweat.  It became a living object.  A dwelling to contain our bodies and the space between us.  A frame to ponder and dream and love.  We were ridiculous enough to let go and dive in.  Believing that this was possible meant that we believed in each other.  We love each other for this.

These eight by eight foot units held together with bolts rather than nails, were designed with the intention of impermanence, that we might dismantle it some day and move it to a bit of land that is legitimately our own.  With the addition of roof, shingles and a sink the space becomes solidified in my mind as something unmovable­ and I wonder if this processes of making habitat leads towards a cementing that can produce comfort without stasis.   As our house sinks into the land and finds its volume in the overlapping layers of wood insulation and paint, my hope is that it does not grow to be sedentary but rather evolves with the landscape of our lives.  I wonder how long we will stay here and if there will come a time when moving is no longer the lens through which we adjust our beings.  Is this no longer a structure that is collapsible and movable?  Is there still a possibility of dismantling, reassembling and aligning toward the sun?

***

What is the gathering force that propels our actions? Perhaps it is necessary to create a crisis or disjuncture, to trick ourselves into immediate and urgent response.  Does it need to be an issue of life and death? [3]  The war is so far away and the bodies are so neatly stacked.  How can we carry the weight of these things?  Embed them in our skin?  Perhaps they are already there, and we forget.

"the smoke" photo by Julia Handschuh

We’re seeking a space where actions have implications that you can feel.  We can no longer trust the eyes.  Searching for a haptic feed-back loop that empowers us to maintain presence, persistence, perseverance.  Where citizen participation is not redirected through votes and consumerism.  In the United States the implications of our actions are muted by governance, those systems held so tightly so as to restrict movement, whose gloved hands withdraw the bloody wounds of activists, soldiers, immigrants, prisoners.  The implications of our actions are effectively hidden to ensure a glossy finish, a gleaming surface that reflects and refracts, deflecting responsibility, deflecting guilt. I am looking for systems that I can feel a part of, that I have impact on and impact me.  So can I feel pressure push and push back.  That we might seep into one another.  A citizenry of dissent[4].

What spaces are here yet go undiscovered for fear, arrogance or exclusion?  What is truly possible in this moment?  In this life?  What impact do our bodies and actions have on others?  Does it make a difference if I don’t buy coca-cola products or pay taxes?  Two people living in one little house in the woods writing love sonnets to anti-capitalism.

***

There are books: shelter from 1963, feminist theory read and unread, Carlos Castneta, obsessed over and contested, Edward Westin’s images of Charis’ sincere body, Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte’s Web, Mathematics For Builders.  There are windows, some in, some out, leaning precariously in their unfinished sills between two pieces of plastic, trying to keep the winter air out.  There is a small woodstove with the inscription A & J HEAT welded to its side, the pipe leaks the distinct smell of creosote into the air which mingles with linseed oil, wood and incense.  Wax drips in pools of chard plywood amongst toothbrushes, bobby pins and nails.  It’s just the right size, if a little too small.  Eight by eight foot units, seems to be people size.  Built in a ratio proportionate to our adult bodies.  I feel as if I’m playing house.  Playing hippie, playing childhood, playing radical, playing make believe.  Make belief.  To make belief.

This was an action we could take that felt in keeping with our bodies, with our beliefs.  A reflection of the way we want to be (a way we are).  Allured by the logic of glossy capitalism and plastic bodies that pervade so much of the 21st century it seems necessary to remodel the connection between how we identify and how we are; to make stronger links between what we believe and how we act.  To realign and reorient the hows and whys of what matters, what forms this existence; negotiating the gap between polymer constructions and organic growth.  Between our place, our bodies, our selves.  To transfer these beliefs into our lives, into our bodies, there is a translation that must be made from ideas to actions, or actions to ideas, looping the abstract and the practical back onto itself, folding everyday reality into the weave of theoretical and ideological dreams[5].

Maybe we can make ourselves believe in this.  Make-believe.  Make-belief.  If I act as if, if I perform fear, perform preparedness, perform sustainability, play radical, play creative, practice hope, if I make actions that reflect the way I want to be (the way I am) at what moment would my actions shift to belief?[6]  The world is racing far ahead of us as we sit by and buy[7].  In our cushy debt and fear filled lives there is an impossibility to “be prepared”.  What if we sink into an unknown that is pregnant with possibility?  At what moment will something break, or open?

***

PART 2

***

"ours" photo by Julia Handschuh

To Score.  To cut through —making impressions and incisions, opening up the world.  To keep tally, accumulating and measuring up, weighing one against another.  Scores: a large amount of something: amassing numbers and volume.  A score: a set of rules or guidelines that provide structure for an improvisation.  A written composition, a map for something to be performed, to be enacted.

In this space there is a score, one that is upheld, revisited and revised.  We share in each other’s bodies, in our selves, in our body selves.  We’re charting a course, delineated with intention, a trajectory propelled by attunement, choice, permissions, breaking and making habits, a self-reflexive performance.  A flexible performance.  Flex, reflex, respond.  Building up strength and muscle memory, a flexibility that is determined by use.  Finding enjoyment in the duration, the passing and the process.  These charts map moving, orientation points shift, renewing origins remapping arrivals, re-visioning success.

The volume of the score, a medium through which the score makes manifest takes on its weight from what is perceived; made hidden and revealed: governance, systems, legitimacy, anarchy, freedom, capitalism, consumerism, cash flow.  Living alternatives to domesticity, between two bodies in a straight framed home, intimately questioning the queer possibilities within this place. Where home extends beyond comfort and familiarity to a challenge and support.  To count on one another.  To hold each other accountable.  An intimate challenge to dissect the lines of power and oppression that tie knots around our limbs.  Countering, escalating and grabbing hold.  Making careful choices for what binds us.  To have and to hold.  To hold. Using our bodies as bridges to the world, enacting the possibility of dissolving dichotomies: individual and collective, rural and urban, worker and intellectual, outsider and insider, citizen and dissent. Performed by to people within a home.  Performed by two people within the woods.  Performed by two people within the world.

And where is this performance seen?  How is it seen and by who?  Do our everyday actions dissolve just as citizens blend into the capitalist regime?  Is this a way to show up for oneself?  For the world?  I am told past generations have ruined this world for us, have failed and made things worse.  I’ve encountered some liberals who say they’ve done their part and it’s time for our generation to stand up to the task, others express regret at the failures of their generation to revolutionize, to tare down and reimagine the world.

I do not know that my actions towards sustainability and environmental rights and wellbeing are meant to incite actions in others so much as satisfy my desire to feel a connection between what I believe and what I do.  I would not say this is an existential, transcendental, religious or even spiritual desire, but one that is aligned with an ecological ethics which recognizes the materiality of our existence and the inextricable ties between human systems (be they governmental or cellular) and the ecological networks of life[8].  Networks that we are told again and again are rapidly changing, indeed failing, to detriment of life as we know it[9].  After all, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism”. [10]

Bookended between the failures of the 60’s and the imminent collapse[11] of the future, perhaps it takes the world to dismantle itself before we can begin to imagine something new, something outside this world order.  Are there actions that lead to believing?  Or believing that incites action?  What if we sincerely believed in this collapse?  Wouldn’t we act?  Are we just playing with this belief?  Toying with the possibility of collapse?  So capitalism totes it around on a brightly colored string, some wooden duck on wheels bobbing its head to the tune of derivatives and debt.  Derivatives and debt. Debt. Debt. Debt. Dent.  Making small dents on impact.  And we all fall down.

Failure rears its head

like some systematic nervous tick.

Automated

machines answer with

fall falling failure

political, economic, climate

collapse

and we all fall down.

What reliance and resilience?

What neatly leaning lines?

Deciduous leaves drop to the floor

leaflets

announcements written in digital paper trails

scribbling and scratching

marking witness to the

(falling)

American Dream.

Increasingly I am questioning the possibility of systematic change.  What could possibly change the performance of our daily lives if not global climate change or a global war on terror?  At what point and how must we feel these experiences in our bodies in a way that would instigate a response other than consumerism and fear?  Must we always do as we’re told?  Here I am caught between past failures and the presence of a left leaning toward the center pulled by an evermore-radical right.

All space is legitimized through contract and currency.  The space of land, the space of love, the space of creativity, are consistently co-opted by capital and governance[12].  The existence of private property ensures an inequity propagated by the initiation of arbitrary lines of ownership predicated on stolen goods and labor.  If this is true it may not be legitimacy that we must seek but rather an adherence to systems that we can believe in and a radical rejection of those forms of legitimacy that are upheld by systems of inequity and oppression.  Maybe we do not want to own some land after all[13].  If we already reject marriage as a form of private possession, a sequestering and tracking of bodies by the state, what other forms of property can be disentangled from our lives?

The magnitude of these knots are revealed in so many histories[14] whose contemporary manifestations further the foundational weave of this American life[15]; so much so that a radical disavowal of these systems requires an intricate interrogation of our daily lives.  These historical and contemporary atrocities deserve nothing less.  It is time that Americans not only reflect on but also enact strategies of radical equality, participation and self-governance and at the very least cease to be complicit with projects that ensure the United States as a dominating world power.   I refuse to participate and so I am attempting to disentangle myself from this mess.  Perhaps the spaces of action must be smaller, radically localized to touch the intricacies of how capitalism saturates our daily lives[16]. Perhaps there is an answer in condensation, like so many water droplets, fusing against the grain, blurring the panoptic view[17].  It will be a shared space: made small enough so we can feel each other in it.  We are not running away.  This retreat is not an escape.  It is a reconfiguring of the rules for our existence.

***

When I was young my family edited out television then meat then town then school.  Living without these things our lives were not defined by their lack but rather the worlds opened up onto in their absence: countless hours spent outdoors, vegetarian cooking classes; the nightly gathering of family dinners; long evenings in the company of friends and family without the pre-occupation of screens.  Before the Internet and personal computers took hold of our worlds, there was more silence, more singing, more conversation.  As pressures weighed on daily life this idealism lost its luster, or revisions were made to the score that had choreographed our lives.  Television, then meat, then school, were added back in for convenience sake.  Television became a respite to the troubles of economically sustaining a family, the ease of cooking meat afforded time at the end of a long day, school served to ensure oversight that working parents or a wider community could no longer provide.  With the addition of exhaustion from upholding ideals within a fading partnership, our collective familial dreams sunk into a picture of working American life.  And what American family would not be complete without divorce?  After nineteen years of participating in the play of a picture perfect family I witnessed my parents relationship dissolve into the folds of typical marital statistics.

Reflecting on this now it seems pertinent to the unfolding of a life with Andrew, in this little house in the woods.  It is fitting that I would surround myself with a structural integrity that lifts up and supports the childhood ideals that have sunken into my skin.  There are a good many things I could blame for the deterioration, or perhaps I should say, transformation, of my family.  Of many families.  It would be these things that create the lines drawn in the sand between acceptance and rejection of scores for ways of being in the world.  They form a basis for my lack of faith in American Governance and American Dreams.

***

"gone" photo by Julia Handschuh

I have spent the past year apart from Andrew, living in a city, pursuing another dream, always with the intention to return.  We’ve been apart now just enough that we can come together, a defining of self, skin and boundaries that opens pores; the sweating out of the other to let in a sigh of return and relief.  Brushing against the space of self-sufficiency and resistance, to know ourselves as individuals so that we might join snugly at the hip.  In this way space becomes a catalyst, a medium for transference of our dreams into the world.  The space of our house accumulates a history, like our bodies whose layers of memories and imaginings show up on our skin.

Sex, dirt, honey, olive oil, milk power and marijuana, ash and wax, salt and glue.  In the absence of sterilization the residue of life builds up the surface on our things, ingrained in the wood through substance and memory.  Bus schedule.  Ladder.  Staple gun.  Legos.  Forming some assemblage of childhood and becoming.  Our pasts are with us in these moments and spaces: the heartache, the bug bites, the smoothies and drug trips, hoola hoops and hitchhiking, truckers, fresh tomatoes, Mexican beaches, washing in the pond with peppermint soap, the tingle the rush of air the prickly grass.

We’re attempting to hold onto this thing that people see as fleeting, this idealism of the twenty’s that I’m told will soon slip from my 28-year-old body as it passes into jaded adulthood.  Disentangling illusions and reality.  We feel close enough to our childhoods that the dreams of them are still living.  That time is tangible; made within reach through our present actions, resonating in our daily lives.  Scrapping away the screens of surface tension on familial skin.  My father’s freckles my mother’s eyes.  What remains in this body, in this house, is the stuff of dreams.  This house, this home, this dream space moves, it moves us to enact the previously impossible, the stuff of dreams.  A score of durational acts that build space to ensure that we are living the life we want to lead.

***


 

Works Cited

 

Boltanski, L. 2008, ‘The Present Left and the Longing for Revolution,’ in Under Pressure:

 

Pictures, Subjects, and the New Spirit of Capitalism, (eds) D. Birnbaum & I. Graw,

 

Sternberg Press, Berlin, 52-71.

 

Bourdieu, Pierre. The logic of Practice. Stanford University Press; 1 edition. 1992

 

Gibson-Graham, J.K. The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It). Published by the University of

 

Minnesota Press. 2006.

 

Guatarri, Felix. The Three Ecologies. The Athlone Press, 2000.

 

Harmon, Graham. Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics. re.press. 2009.

 

Jackson, Michael. Things As They Are: New Directions in Phenomenological Anthropology. Indiana University Press. 1996.

 

Lefebvre, Henri. Rythmanalysis: Space Time and Everyday Life. Continuum. 2004.

 

Massumi, Brian. Parables of the Virtual Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Duke University Press Books. 2002

 A Shock to Thought: Expression after Delueze and Guattari. Routledge. 2002

 

McKibbin, Bill. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. St. Martin’s Griffin; First Edition edition. 2011

 

Ruppert, Michael. Confronting Collapse: The Crisis of Energy and Money in a Post Peak Oil World. Chelsea Green Publishing. 2009.

 

Thoreau, Henry David. On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Arc Manor. 2007.

 

Utopia in Four Movements. Dir. Sam Green, Co-Dir. Dave Cerf. 2011

 

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. Harper Perennial Modern Classics; Dlx

 

Rep edition. 2002.

 

Collapse. Dir. Chris Smith, Star. Michael Ruppert. 2010.

 

[1] Written by Andrew shared with me through an email.

 

[2] Lefebvre. 6.

 

[3] In the absence of any understandable response in a moment of extreme distress we act according to a body logic that makes it’s own sense, “generating words or actions that are both senseless and sense-full.” (Bourdieu, 95-96) Is it only in these moments of extreme distress that we will act? At what point will we feel the ramifications of United States foreign policy in such a way that would make us act in appropriately senseless and a sense-full ways? I am not so sure that the calculated compromising moves of the Left are the best ways to counter the impassioned senseless distress calls of the Right.

 

[4] Here I am thinking of Henry David Thoreau’s classic text On the Duty of Civil Disobedience as well as Bruno Latour’s notion of the Dissenter, as explained in Graham Harmon’s Prince of Networks. Harmon describes the Dissenter as a person who serves to question a process at every turn. (39) Both of these authors recognize the importance of oppositional characters to the process of innovation be it scientific, social or political.

 

[5] Here I am thinking of Michael Jackson’s introduction to Things As They Are in which he speaks about the production of knowledge; that which is lived and that which is disembodied. He calls attention to the paradox of theorization and practical knowledge and suggests that ethnography is one way to straddle the division between lived experience and linguistic articulation. Forming political critiques from lived experience and infusing political theory into daily life is an act of translation between the abstract and the embodied, making theory that is embedded in the world.

 

[6]Resonating with Jackson’s sentiments of embodied theory, Pierre Bourdieu’s theorizes in The Logic of Practice that beliefs (those things that are theoretically real) are materialized in our bodies; that they become real through the ways they are enacted. 69.

 

[7] In The Present Left and the Longing for Revolution Luc Boltanski sites various ways that the left has turned it’s politics away from capitalism and towards issues of bio-politics. Despite the ways that capitalism is tied to the furthering of bio-political oppression political action has been directed away from critiques of labor, market and capital and towards identity politics. 66. In the face of American culture, which encourages consumerism as every turn, Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping targets the complacent consumer reflex by making performances that aid consumers in breaking their addictive buying habits.

 

[8] Felix Guatarri makes a similar proposition in The Three Ecologies in which he outlines what he calls an “ecosophy”: an articulation of the ethico-political arenas of “environment, social relations and human subjectivity”[8] through the lens of ecology. His call to recognize the depth and breadth with which all things are interconnected (not as a singular unity but as a system that consists of a multiplicity of interacting forces) demands a deep interrogation and response to political and environmental issues, both individually and collectively. It is with this same sense of material interconnection that I reference ecological networks.

 

[9] In Eaarth, Bill McKibbin outlines the ways in which global climate change has reached a tipping point that erases the possibility of recuperating the destruction wrought to planet earth. He argues we must continue to develop sustainably solutions not based on an ideal of turning back the clock but rather facing how life might be able to continue given the continued climate shifts that are already underway.

 

[10] Jameson, 76.

 

[11] See Michael Ruppert’s Confronting Collapse: The Crisis of Energy and Money in a Post Peak Oil World and the related documentary Collapse.

 

[12] See The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It) by J.K. Gibson-Graham

 

[13]The Invisible Committee echoes this sentiment in their manifesto: “For us it’s not about possessing territory. Rather, it’s a matter of increasing the density of the communes, of circulation, and of solidarities to the point that the territory becomes unreadable, opaque to all authority. We don’t want to occupy the territory, we want to be the territory.”108.

 

[14] Such as is illuminated in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States

 

[15] The continued war in Iraq and human rights violations in prisons like Abu Ghraib are indicative of United States foreign policy, which functions on a blatant disregard for human rights both at home and abroad.

 

[16] In The End of Capitalism (as we knew it) Gibson-Graham note that “…on the left, we get up in the morning opposing capitalism, not imagining practical alternatives. In this sense, it is partly our own subjection—successful or failed, accommodating or oppositional—that constructs a “capitalist society.”xv.

 

[17] In April 2010 Alexander R. Galloway presented a lecture at the New School titled “Black Box, Black Bloc” wherein he speaks about the French collective Tiqqun who speak about “invisible revolt” in terms of fog, a veil through which subversive actions cannot be seen by the imperial state. 9.

 

Julia Handschuh writes, moves, and makes objects; oftentimes in relation to issues of improvisation, ecology and the politics of space.  This past year she and Andrew were forced to dismantle their cabin, and they now reside in Turners Falls, Mass where they are working to secure a cooperatively-owned building.  Julia intends to include these experiences into a further edition Performing the Impossible.  Please contact her if you are interested in reading or publishing this work: juliashoe@gmail.com