Some Thoughts, Possibly Related, on Time, Criticism, and the Nature of Consciousness

SECTION 1.

Thanks, everyone, for coming. You’re all sitting down so nicely for this lecture, which is a lecture in 10 sections—or, more accurately, a rough draft of a lecture, with you all as my test audience. Right now, I need you to do two things. First, I need you to take out your cell phones, and make a decision about whether or not you’re going to turn them off for the duration of this thing, which isn’t really very long. I don’t just mean on silent, which I assume you’ve already done.

Whichever you decide, I’d like you to pay attention, just a little bit of attention, to the ramifications of that decision. If you choose to leave your phone on, I assume that means you feel you have to. I don’t want to mess with the urgency of that feeling, as it’s one I have quite often, or shame you out of it. But I do want you to be aware of it, of what it is doing to your mind as you check incoming messages and zip between the here and the there. In other words, to be aware that, even sitting still, you’re time traveling. And, of course, if you leave it on, keep it on silent.

Likewise, if you decide to turn your phone off, whether as a matter of politeness or with a sense of relief, please pay some attention to that as well. My phone is on right now, because I am going to need it in a minute. And then it will be off, not to make any point to you, but to make one to myself, since I am one of those people who has difficulty turning her phone off but is always somehow calmed when she does.

Please make your decision now. There isn’t a right or a wrong choice here—not from my perspective, at any rate.

[give them a minute to do this]

Now, the second thing I need you to do is to get out of your seats and walk to any spot in the room—just you, not your stuff, not even your cell phones. You may come very close to me or move to a corner or travel only a few steps from your seat. Whatever—though if you decide to come onto the dance floor, which I encourage, please remove your shoes. You might also want to be in bare feet. Once you get to this point, please settle into a pose. It can be as simple as standing or lying down. Or it can be a lot more complicated. But you’ll be there for a little while, so please keep your comfort in mind.

Once everyone has found a pose, I’ll ask you to begin. By begin, I mean, hold that pose, and be as still as possible. Just be. Your eyes can be open or closed.

[give them a minute to do this; prompt if needed]

OK, is everyone ready? Ok. Begin.

[4 minutes and 33 seconds]

Thank you, please return to your seats. Please stretch or shake anything out that needs to be shaken.


SECTION 2.

People often ask me to describe what it is I do for a living. When I reply that I see a lot of art and write about it, the two most common responses I get from these people are, “Oh, how glamorous!” and “I could never be a critic, because I’m not good at being mean.”

Both of these responses strike me as strange. The mean one is a typical, and, I think, typically American, misunderstanding of criticism—we have this crazy idea that it is better to be polite than to be honest, that in fact you cannot be both polite and honest.

That, I think, is a topic for another lecture, albeit a related one, which contemplates the connection between the health of a democracy and the ability of its citizens to engage in honest, respectful discourse with each other.

The other response, about criticism being glamorous, always makes me smile. Getting dressed to the nines and meeting your similarly dressed friend or lover for an evening spent with art, followed by wine and dinner and who knows what for dessert—this can be glamorous. But it is not what I do. There is no “special occasion” involved in my profession.

Last year, for example, I saw roughly 170 performances of dance, theater and live visual art, or some combination of the three.

I’d guess that’s about 20,400 minutes spent traveling to and from the theater, typically by subway and often by myself, and maybe 12,750 minutes at the performances themselves. And there were about 2550 minutes of just waiting for the show to begin. Nothing ever starts on time in New York. But I like those minutes—they’re rich and floating, full and empty all at once.

Most of those 170 shows I wrote about in one form or another—usually an overnight review, which means that, at 11 a.m. the day after I saw the show, I had to have written and submitted 300 to 1000 hopefully coherent words about it (that’s probably another 30,600 minutes of writing, leaving 459,600 left for all of the other things I did last year). My words would then be finessed by myself and a revolving team of editors with opaque titles like “backfielder” and “slot,” and sent off to the printer by four or so that same afternoon, to appear in the subsequent day’s paper.

This is not, as it turns out, such an easy thing to do.

For one thing, that’s a lot of time to spend listening to and watching stuff happen. It really is true, what John Cage said: “There are things to hear, and things to see and that’s what theater is.”

Like a lot of his statements about life and art, much of its importance lies in its simplicity. Things to hear and things to see: theater isn’t really any different from life when you look at it that way. And, there are things to do, of course—from the audience perspective alone, there are so many things. And they all begin with being fully present, in space and time. Indeed, for the truly faithful watcher, they depend on it.

David Foster Wallace was, I think, saying something similar in the commencement speech he gave in 2005—you know, the one that begins with the old fish asking the young fish how the water is, and one of the young fish then asking the other, “what the hell is water?”

It’s a silly joke. Or, I should say, it seems at first like a silly joke. But we spend an incredible amount of time denying or otherwise avoiding the fact that we’re in water, don’t we? Think of how much of your day is spent almost entirely divorced from your current set of circumstances—whether you’re looking ahead to the future or replaying the past or simply sleepwalking through an hour.

A lot of us, of course, use the idea of a show as another excuse to sleepwalk. I remember sitting at a bar one evening, having a coffee before reviewing the New York City Ballet. I was enviously eyeing the cocktails being sipped by the two ladies next to me (drinking before a show is verboten for critics) when I heard one of them say to the bartender, “Well, it’s almost time for the ballet—time for our nap!”

It’s astounding, the number of people who sleep through performances, even shows they have paid a good deal of money to see. Sleeping through a performance to me always seems akin to putting on headphones in a museum and letting the audio guide tell you exactly when and where to stop and look: you’re there but you’re not there; it’s a form of sleepwalking, really.

And sleepwalking is always a tempting option. A lot of those 170 shows I saw, like a lot of what happens to any of us in the course of an average day, had problems: too slow, too manic, too much, not enough. Some of them were just plain wretched: no sense of themselves, yet possessed of a false sense of knowing. Or maybe I was the one with the problem: scattered attention, sore throat, incorrect understanding, bad attitude.

These problems, whether internal or external, always present the audience member with a choice: to engage or disengage. To stay in the present, stay in our actual time, or slip out through some back window of our mind.

For the responsible critic, of course, it is imperative to keep that window closed; reviewing live art isn’t like reviewing a book, where you can turn back the page when you realize you’ve been reading without actually taking in any of the words. There’s no turning back the page.

In this sense, watching a lot of live art isn’t such a bad way to practice a particular type of consciousness. In life, as in theater, it’s simple: you have to be there. Simple, but sometimes very hard.


SECTION 3.

Four minutes and 33 seconds passed between the time I said Begin and Thank you. I’m sure some of you recognize that duration: it is both the title and the material of John Cage’s seminal work, first performed in 1952, in which a musician sits at a piano but does not play, his actions consisting of raising and lowering the keyboard cover to signal when the piece begins, and when it ends. You’ve all just performed a variation of it.

Cage talked a lot about silence and noise, of course, how one didn’t exist and the other wasn’t the enemy. 4’33” is about both of those things. And it is also about time—we are always in it, are we not? In that sense, no matter our activity, time is our primary resource.

And it is non-renewable. None of us will ever have those 4 minutes and 33 seconds back to spend again; but having spent them, we will always, in some sense, possess them. “Living is a form of time travel,” Charles Yu writes in his novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Isn’t it just.


SECTION 4.

In 1957 at the 92nd Street Y in New York, the American modern dance choreographer Paul Taylor presented a concert titled 7 New Dances. One of the works in this program, Duet, consisted of Taylor standing and a young woman sitting absolutely still for several minutes. The curtain rose on them in this frozen tableau and descended four minutes later, and that was it. Such a work would be a tame cliché today; but back then, it was startling new territory.

This concert prompted Louis Horst to publish an equally startling review in the Dance Observer. He began by stating that Taylor had performed at the Y. This was followed by nine square inches of blank space, and Horst’s signature at the bottom.

I gather that Horst’s review was meant as a retort to Taylor’s artistic choices. But it strikes me as the most beautifully encouraging gesture.

Fast-forward five decades, to 2007. Paul Taylor is now the grand old granddaddy of modern American dance, and I am reviewing his company at New York City Center. 7 New Dances is not, alas, on a dreary and self-satisfied program, and I write that two out of the three works shown “seemed more filler than art.”

I was quite pleased with that review—as a young critic, it’s not always easy to say negative things about art world icons. And, indeed, less than a week had gone by when I ran into a much older colleague of mine, who punched my upper arm gently and said, “Well, kiddo, you really fucked up on the Paul Taylor review. You think Taylor needs you? He doesn’t need you—but you need him.” This guy then proceeded to rattle off all of the critics who had ever supported Taylor, actually ticking them off on his fingers, and ended by saying, “Do you really think you know something that they don’t?”

I gather this lecture was meant as a retort to my critical choices. But it strikes me now as the most beautifully encouraging gesture.

The best thing we can do, often, is to do nothing. And/or to fuck up. Acknowledgment from an outside party that we have done either of these things is great—it means we have been seen, really seen. And hostile acknowledgment—that is perhaps even better…


SECTION 5.

Video Still by Brian Rogers










SECTION 6.

It is Thursday. The neighbors are talking about the weather. It is supposed to rain, but you can tell no one quite believes it. Their grandkids are visiting, two little boys running around, trying to do things. I can’t make out the nature of these activities by sound alone, nor by the adult words of encouragement and censure, things like: “You’re pretty strong, for a little guy.” And: “Don’t touch that. Don’t touch it.” One of the kids keeps yelling, “You’ll never get me” and squealing like a dying baby dinosaur. A swinging metal gate repeatedly clangs shut.

I’m not getting up to look, because I am trying to write a lecture, about time, criticism and the nature of consciousness. It occurs to me that all three of these things are going on right next door, in my neighbors’ backyard, and that they are possibly more to the point than anything I might say in this room, today. (That awful little voice inside my head replaces possibly with likely).

“Living is a form of time travel,” Yu tells us. What he didn’t add, what he maybe didn’t have to, is that art is, too.

(Roberto Bolaño: “We just tell ourselves that art runs on one track and life, our lives, on another, and we don’t realize that’s a lie.”)

(Eileen Myles: “It lives in the present, it breathes there and that’s how you let anyone in.”)

If art keeps good time, it keeps us in the present. Its present.

Planes keep flying overhead, intermittently drowning out the birds. Someone is hammering. It’s so quiet here I can hear the delicate clicking sounds the skateboarders make as their wheels skim the uneven concrete.

The air feels moody and almost overripe, undomesticated. I’m in Tempe, but I’m not. My mind somehow keeps returning to a conversation I had with a waiter in an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, a few days before I left for Arizona. It was late afternoon, and I was sitting by myself at a long wooden table, with a glass of wine and a pile of books and papers, just beginning to organize my thoughts for this talk.

“Are you studying?” asked the waiter.

“I have to give a speech.” I told him.

“That’s fun,” he said, wrinkling his nose.

“It makes me nervous,” I replied.

“But if you’ve done the work and you know what you’re talking about, there’s nothing to be nervous about,” he said, spreading his arms and giving one of those charming, self-satisfied smiles Italian men do so well.

“This,” I told him, was the problem. “I almost never know if I really know what I’m talking about.”


SECTION 7.

Earlier this year I read a book called All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Herbert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. It’s a sort of self-help book for intellectuals—the sort of thing some of you might read in 15 years or so, after spending one too many days lying on your back staring at the ceiling, wondering what the point of all this is anyway, or if there even is a point, and if there might not be a point, what’s the point of doing anything at all? That sort of tedious drivel.

Anyway, it’s a sort of embarrassing book to admit having read, and I didn’t actually find it all that helpful. In fact, I found it kind of enraging, particularly the sections in which the authors attempt to analyze David Foster Wallace—these sections struck me as both ludicrous and unfair. Unfair because DFW is no longer around to defend himself, having committed suicide, an act which the authors use as a sort of trump card in pointing out his nihilism. And ludicrous because, well, one page of a David Foster Wallace novel contains more complexity and nuance with regard to the human condition than the entire contents of All Things Shining. So, really, who do they think they’re kidding?

Take this interview DFW did with Charlie Rose in 1997. Rose asks what the writer is planning to do with an upcoming sabbatical year, and DFW responds:

“If past experience holds true I will probably write an hour a day and spend eight hours a day on biting my knuckle and worrying about not writing.”

Rose responds: “Worrying about not writing? Not worrying about what to write?”

Correct, DFW says. “Worrying about not writing.”

From this, the authors deduce that “The central challenge of the contemporary world, Wallace seems to think, is not just that we don’t know how to live meaningful lives; it’s that we don’t even seem to be able to focus for very long on the question.”

Where to even begin with this asinine conclusion? These authors, I think, though they’ve written a book, and though they mean well, have no idea about what it means to really make something—how the worrying about not writing is as much a part of the writing as the typing or scribbling, which really, when you think about it, doesn’t take a lot of time entirely on its own. The thinking and searching and staring at the ceiling like a maniac for hours—that’s the stuff that takes time. When DFW says “biting my knuckle,” it’s a sort of shorthand for this daily act of doing and not doing, knowing and not knowing.

This act, which looks, often, like nothing, is central to the work. It is the work. How else to get to the itness of a thing? Or the itness of yourself?


SECTION 8.

We expect looking to be about more than looking.


SECTION 9.

There is a really terrible Western called Ulzana’s Raid, which was made in 1972 and stars an over-the-hill but still determined to be manly-as-hell Burt Lancaster. It’s almost unbelievably racist and clichéd and a lot of other things.

Early on in this movie, which takes place in Arizona, a conversation occurs between the grizzled major of an army outpost and his fresh-faced lieutenant, whom he is about to send into the field on one of those life-lesson assignments that happen in movies like this, and usually involve a lot of people dying.

So, after giving him this assignment the major asks: “Know what General Sheridan said of this country, Lieutenant?”

“No sir,” the kid replies.

“He said if he owned Hell and Arizona, he’d live in Hell and rent out Arizona.”

The kid laughs, and says, “I think he said that about Texas, sir.”

The major isn’t amused. He says, with feeling: “Maybe. But he meant Arizona.”

The movie takes place in the 1800s, when Arizona was still a territory. The town of Swansea hadn’t yet been built—it was settled around 1909, and already well on its way to being a ghost town in the 1920s. The video footage you just watched was shot there, just a few years ago, by the dance and video artist Brian Rogers.

Somehow I thought of Swansea during that ridiculous Burt Lancaster Western.

I’d never been to Arizona before last year, and I’d never heard of a place called Swansea. I still haven’t been to Swansea, though it’s in La Paz County, next to this county. You could drive there in a day, though I’m told it’s difficult to find, as it lies down a long, unmarked trail off a highway.

As I understand it, Arizona State University policy allows for students to miss one class without penalty. You could do worse things than use that time to try and find Swansea, a town whose time has passed, and whose buildings, now, do little else but mark the passage of time.


SECTION 10.

Thank you all for coming.

Thank you for being here.

Even those of you who maybe sometimes weren’t.

Contributor

Claudia La Rocco

CLAUDIA LA ROCCO gave this lecture on March 1, while teaching at Arizona State University. Afterwards, she told people "I wanted to see what would happen if a lecture thought it was a poem." Before: "Shit. I can't ever write lectures."

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