NOW IS THE DOMAIN OF THE NOW
ENRICO D. WEY with Jaime Shearn Coan
I met Enrico Wey during a heat wave in August 2013. Walking up to where Varick Street meets Grand and Canal, I entered the triangle of Lentspace where Wey was conducting a rehearsal with his three dancers. Once we got to talking, Wey mentioned the genesis of his then-current project: a slim book of fragmented prose called água Viva, written by the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. I flinched. Clarice Lispector is one of the great obsessions of my life, I told him, incredulous.
That conversation was erased moments after taking place when I pressed the wrong button on my recorder. Now, more than a year later, we conduct a new conversation by typing into a document that comes into being simultaneously in New York and Berlin. Each word arrives to the other a letter at a time, turning into thoughts only gradually, in a manner kindred to Lispector’s project—which is loyal only and ever to the present: “Whatever will still be later—is now. Now is the domain of now. And as long as the improvisation lasts I am born.”
Jaime Shearn Coan (Rail): One of the things that brings us together is a shared fascination with Clarice Lispector’s novel água Viva, which was a source text for your last piece, where we are right now. Enrico, where are you in relation to áV right now?
Enrico D. Wey: What I think is particularly brilliant about água Viva is this through line regarding breadth and clarity about the moment. It is definitely strange to be considering something in hindsight that is so finitely about acknowledging where one is at present.
I broke my clavicle two months ago, just as I was compiling research and embarking on a newish project that is much more “personal” in scope (that being said, all work is personal). I had a series of firsts: first broken bone, first general anesthesia, first hospital stay—dealing with healthcare in a language I recently started learning. The foreignness was jarring but, basically, I just had to accept where I was or rather, am, and place my attention there.
Rail: This all feels enormously linked to água Viva—although of course áV is a text that seems to absorb itself and everything around it. Did reading áV shift your approach to making work?
Wey: Yes! That is how I felt reading it. Absorbed and even when not, it was somehow present in my life. Even now, when I move on to a new piece, I know that there’s a part of the last piece that exists.
I think I have always felt this way, because I haven’t been solely one thing or another. I have always collected and observed moments. And the expression of that, whether as a defined performance, a collection of writings, a series of photographs, or a blur of notes, continues to play into the next expression. The unintentional can and should come into play.
Rail: How did you decide to work with áV as a score?
Wey: I struggle with this idea of working in the studio, because I’ve never made things that way. I probably never will. There was something about the text being somewhat of a stream of consciousness, this rumination on what was and what is there and how we hold onto those notions. And the double-edge of this character trying to express herself for the first time through writing words instead of painting images. And not being held to specific methods.
I wanted that for myself. Or really, I wanted to accept that about my own process without feeling apologetic (for not being a trained anything). And instead, say: I am, in part, all of those things, and now, like the woman in the book, I attempt; I explore. I can and will fail but it does not end there. It is an impossible task to capture: to preserve a moment. To take it for what it is, and not fight the urge to change or reshape something because of some original concept, or idea of what it must be.
Rail: It seems to me that beyond its genre-crossing, the book’s circular structure—with it never really “arriving” anywhere—is part of what has drawn you to it. I’ve read it a few times myself, each time thinking I’ll get “deeper,” but it resists sticking—there seems to be a resistance to that type of sticking in your work as well.
Wey: I thought it would get deeper, too, but it still feels indecipherable on so many levels. Every time it is a wash. Like layering paint when you’re painting. It seeps into you—it’s not a matter of depth, per se, but texture. And sometimes certain areas feel more textured. And what once felt potent is no longer, because we ourselves change with each reading. It feels less like taking a plunge into something deep and rich and easily managed—more like being suspended in something.
Rail: You’ve articulated that beautifully—suspension seems like a great way to think of the text, of working within the text. How did you bring áV into rehearsal and how did the performers react to/interact with it?
Wey: For some reason, I grabbed that book. An improvised moment perhaps. I wanted a text that would serve as a unifying language or dramaturgical vocabulary that we could refer to, even if the interpretation varied. More often than not, I would pull small phrases or passages I felt challenged by and then adapt them into scores. Sometimes the interpreter would not feel the same. I would then ask them to find another and we would agree upon what worked as an entry point. Then the scores would be spatially aligned or arranged in relationship to each other. We could interchange or discard or reinterpret at any time, to release ourselves from compromising, or holding onto an origin.
Rail: Your work seems to have a kindred sensibility to Lispector’s in its resistance to the static, the known, the pre-determined. The “instants” and the flow between them are what interest her. For her, that is life: the mobility, the movement, the shifting.
Wey: I was fascinated with standard gravitational acceleration and freefall: how you can hit a point in the fall where you feel suspended. I related it to the idea of suffering some amount of trauma. You continue to move forward, and yet there is this stasis that rides underneath everything.
Rail: Let’s talk about the viewer. You said in a talk-back that you were interested in shaping the viewer’s experience of duration, developing a way for the audience to see.
Wey: We are making something that is meant to be seen. Coming from some formation of a visual, photo, and video field, I see a lot from the outside. Even when I am performing, it’s as much about how I am being seen as it is how I am experiencing that moment of being seen. In improvisation, we are editing that moment, closing and opening pathways for the audience to see.
Rail: I also really have so much more respect for performances that give me options—sometimes there is no space, no quiet, no room to wander in and out.
Wey: We are used to having too much to see, and then instead of choosing what to see, we block it out. So allowing someone to see is really a lovely moment.
Rail: Lispector writes in água Viva: “A tiny piece of mirror is always the whole mirror.”
Wey: Now that you mention it, the idea of a mirror is really quite scary. I have always questioned my place in the world, whether I should be making performance, whether I am American, or Asian, or Asian-American. Whether I am a dancer, or a puppeteer, or queer or straight or gay or bisexual or or or or. Or whether I just want to live in a cabin in the woods.
There’s this sort of gray space, I find, being Asian in Western cultures, and I start to generalize here: we are the “model minority” (a problematic term), we are consistently overlooked in terms of aesthetic beauty, unless exoticism is involved, and we are left out of many conversations regarding race in the U.S.A., and many other countries. This is nothing new, and nothing that I find unique to me, but this is the first time that I am choosing to navigate those waters in a more direct way. In many senses, the idea of being displaced is a complex feeling of wanting to belong, to be wanted, to be seen, and also not to be.
So there are personal stories, of when I was a child, growing up in Arizona as one of two Asian kids in school (the other being my brother), of my interactions with strangers who exoticize, or fetishize the “Asian” body. A very specific text that really started to get to me was Richard Fung’s article, “Looking for my Penis.” It speaks to the idea of an Asian man being eunuchized, being fetishized, being an unwanted body, and an unnecessary part of a greater equation. And then there’s the idea that I do have a penis, and yet, I am labeled a bottom, a Ming vase, a fragile flower, a nerd, a sidekick—this useless tool. When I was a child, I remember very vividly when I would look in a mirror and watch my face move, and see a white boy in my head. I have spent a lot of time saying: I am not this, and I am not this.
Rail: This is all beautifully articulated, thank you. And the mirror, yes—I can see how that could be disarming. In your history as performer, and as puppeteer, your body has been visible/interpretable to varying degrees—
Wey: With where we are right now there was this constant question of: Okay, seriously guys, where are we right now? And I could never see myself as a performer in the work, even though we tried a couple times, each time I felt horrendously out of place.
Rail: Do you think this was related to the fact that all the performers were white?
Wey: Well, yes, probably, but it was also an issue of the person who is structuring the work appearing within it. It’s a sad state that I feel obligated to consider those immediate surface differences of color or gender. But I do. I have to justify the choice to work with men or women or genderqueer people who may or may not be people of color. And then I have to also defend why, as a person of color, I am working with white people.
Rail: It seems that dance-makers who are racialized and/or trans or gender nonconforming are expected to make a choice to explicitly address these differences, whereas normative dance-makers are not.
Wey: Yes, exactly. After seeing my performances, people have asked me if I study martial arts. Or they would mistake me for some other Asian male performer. Or when I make a piece, I constantly think, is this too Asian? Can I move slowly without being considered butoh? Can I be minimal without being considered someone who loves Asian aesthetics (by the way, I do)? But, do I want to be someone who is an Asian artist making Asian work or a queer artist making queer work? Why do I have to think these thoughts at all? So perhaps what I am working on now is more Asian or queer than the previous work—but it’s from the same source, so how can it be?
Rail: Can you talk a little about 1, this useless tool, this folded flower, which is set to premiere at Abrons once you are healed?
Wey: It’s a series of solos, a personal navigation of sorts. I’ve been using the title “this useless tool.” It’s basically a massive cross section of tangents and parts that form a larger whole, which is probably how I would describe my own background. This first exploration of all these ideas stems from this thinking and relates it to about 10 million other things, ranging from Greek myth, to the Athletic Model Guild, to Genet, to Gengoroh Tagame, to a nautical and/or bovine yoke. The yoke, in nautical terms, is the part of a boat that helps steer the rudder. The bovine yoke is what is strapped onto a cow or buffalo to carry or pull or plough. There is this idea of a yoke being a burden. In Western civilizations, the yokes are often double yokes for two steer, whereas in Eastern cultures, they are more often single yokes for a single buffalo. The yoke is also a tool. This is where my associative brain starts going crazy: the cow or buffalo signifying beef, and/or beefcake, as in beefcake magazines and this white ideal of masculine beauty. The shoulder girdle rests on the ribcage, extending and floating above, connected only by the collarbones, essentially. It rests like a yoke on top of the ribcage, so it’s also pretty funny that I broke mine. Because I really need it.
Rail: Wow, that stream of associations feels so close to the style and stakes of água Viva.
Wey: I often catch myself thinking associatively, in similar fashion to Lispector’s main character. That’s probably why I found áV to be so fascinating and difficult and troubling, in its constant discovery of new intersections between seemingly disparate moments, revealing the complicated space it inhabits. We need those complicated spaces—of genre, of gender, of race. If I came to you with a clear vision of what this work should be, if it should be a book, or if it should be a film, a performance, or a sculpture (and these are the dividing lines that are used to circumscribe this space that I am in), that would be alarming. It should be difficult—and exciting. When it comes to creation, to viewing, and to performing, when are things really clear? Even a mirror reflects back something skewed.
ContributorJaime Shearn Coan
JAIME SHEARN COAN is the author of Turn it Over (Argos Books, 2015) and Ph.D. student in English at The Graduate Center, CUNY.