I believe in an alchemy of time. That a certain combination of words, a length of inaction, a discomposed room, or with some such cipher, I believe we can make time.
In a memorial poem to Yeats, W.H. Auden wrote “poetry makes nothing happen.”1 Nothing is the realm of uncounted experience.
Uncounted experience, unseen in time. If only a wave in proximity to other waves. If only a wave that made a texture of a surface of a top of the line. If only a wave expressing the contour of a bottom, its bottom, the under. If only a wave a rhythm. All potential to break. Crash. hit. rock. wander. If only a night wave, peaking. If only a wave never counted. Measured if a threat.
In the same poem Auden repeated but one refrain, “what instruments we have agree” “what instruments we have agree.” What instruments have we?
Beyond the will to measure.
Gertrude Stein said: “The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything.”2 what is seen. How everybody is doing everything. In 1926 Stein wrote “Composition as Explanation” to talk about time-sense, distribution, using everything, and a continuous present. In her elliptical statement on epochal thinking, imaging and representation (what is seen, difference) are aligned with the ability, potential, and mechanics of the body and technology (how everybody is doing everything). To which I add: How everybody is doing everything is what is different, and how difference is seen. What is seen depends upon how everybody is doing.
What is time if not activism?
I’ve been thinking about the word “to discompose” for about two years now, and I can barely use it in a sentence. In some ways I have taken this as a good sign, and in others, the failure has felt constitutive of the idea itself—a focus on the frame, a limit. My pleasure in holding on to it was to work with something open-ended and hard to harden, a word that eschews form and opens to the queerly formed. That, as a horizon of thought, I could not see the end of its line. Now as I write this I am noticing something. A scene I have been seeing and not saying that has gone unnamed. Behind the eyelids. I realize that I am someplace when I see this word. When I hold this word, to discompose, there is a particular wall in the Museum of Modern Art that I feel like I am walking past. It is a blank wall, taller than I, whiter than I. There are other people in the room, gazes in all directions. It is no coincidence that it is one of the atrium walls used in MoMA’s performance program. I’m looking in the direction of this wall and walking by. . . . And now moments pass in writing and I can examine the “scene of my thought,” it is in fact still, a still picture. I have the gesture of a stride, but I am still. The people around me are fixed points. To discompose, I have always resisted conjugating it. The infinitive form is part of the proposition, an integral part of the dramaturgy of the idea. That it’s in motion. But the action I cling to in the word, is stilled by the scene of its thinking. My struggle to understand it has been in this contradiction—that the movement became an image, fixed and framed out of time. And I could not use it in a sentence.
What if the museum becomes the authority on alive time? How does an organization, built to historicize and exhibit, work in aliveness? Practically, everybody’s asking, practically. Institutions discipline live time within an architecture of power, so how now, thinking through movement, what is an ethical way to authorize alive time?
I look to Lucinda Childs’s masterpiece Dance, a collaboration with Phillip Glass and Sol LeWitt. About this work Childs has said, “The conflict in Dance between the image and the dancer is very much intended.” I know that here she is referring to LeWitt's projection onto the dancers. I know this is formal and that Dance is the title of the work. But what if we extended the metaphor into all elements of this collaboration . . . Glass’s monumental repetition with variation. LeWitt's perspective- and scale-altering projection. Childs’s rigorous epic continuous movement. Some of these elements, adjectives, are of the house already built. For is not traditional exhibition making “monumental repetition with variation?” And then some of the elements are strategies for how to recognize conflict in that house—rigorous, continuous, scale-altering, movement. Could Childs’s intentional conflict be a script for liveness in institutions?3 I look to Jack Smith, who was obsessed with what he called “landlordism” and made work that started seven hours late and lasted five hours long. Undisciplined time to counter the culture of owning and renting. I listen to David Hammons when he says “nothing fits, but everything works.”4
How to be alive in a museum? Any living thing becomes queer in the museological. Queer in the museological. Aliveness trespasses. It doesn’t know it’s marginal. Aliveness as marginalia, genitalia, queer in the museological. How to be alive in a museum? Labor and leaving. How to be alive in a museum? Use everything. How to be alive in a museum? I once saw MPA hump, mount, and destroy a Carl Andre sculpture at the Hessel. Living for a few moments in the thought that it might be real and really happening.5 How to be alive in a museum? “Make nothing happen” and revel in the uncounted.
Collectivities instead of collections. Is this a question? Can we support collectivities instead of collections?
Does naming time generate time? Rehearsal is a great name for time, solitude another. Clock into darkness. Clock into leave. Falling, a time. What if we all agreed to live a year on moon time shunning the sun. Name it. Your period is a great name for time. Now another. Alive time, name it, now another, is there anything else? Alive time, call and response. There is the right time and punctum. And the unstable value of kairos and around, the end in the beginning. Now another.
For the past while I’ve been thinking about transitions. The shifting of weight, changing of direction. Genders and governments. Choreographic and interpersonal. Transitions, no matter the context, are a political moment. A chance to detach from weighted positions, a chance to be moved. What is a transition that is not a solution? What’s a transition that is not a solution?6
With every passing, any awareness of time, the choreographic discomposes the space around us, asking how we arrange our bodies in response.
Virginia Woolf opens A Room of One’s Own with a disclaimer, “I have shirked the duty of coming to a conclusion upon these two questions—women and fiction remain, so far as I am concerned, unsolved problems.” Woolf resists the call to a conclusion and instead performs as an unsolved problem—she thinks. She writes a scene of thinking.
Thought—to call it by a prouder name than it deserved—had let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it until—you know the little tug—the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out? Alas, laid on the grass how small, how insignificant this thought of mine looked; the sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating. I will not trouble you with that thought now, though if you look carefully you may find it for yourselves in the course of what I am going to say.
But however small it was, it had, nevertheless, the mysterious property of its kind—put back into the mind, it became at once very exciting, and important; and as it darted and sank, and flashed hither and thither, set up such a wash and tumult of ideas that it was impossible to sit still. It was thus that I found myself walking with extreme rapidity across a grass plot. Instantly a man’s figure rose to intercept me. Nor did I at first understand that the gesticulations of a curious-looking object, in a cut-away coat and evening shirt, were aimed at me. His face expressed horror and indignation. Instinct rather than reason came to my help, he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me. Such thoughts were the work of a moment. As I regained the path the arms of the Beadle sank, his face assumed its usual repose, and though turf is better walking than gravel, no very great harm was done. The only charge I could bring against the Fellows and Scholars of whatever the college might happen to be was that in protection of their turf, which has been rolled for 300 years in succession they had sent my little fish into hiding.7 What idea it had been that had sent me so audaciously trespassing I could not now remember. Thinking as trespass.
She hopped up, Virginia Woolf popped up and sprang about. Her thought had her alight and the territory fell away. That she was minor, and should be mindful escaped her. That she was minor and should be mindful and un-thinking escaped her. That she was minor and should be mindful and un-thinking and un-passionate and not un-bound escaped her.
There were bushes aflame in autumn light and soon proud thoughts hither and thither. So there was no territory. There was a stream and a line down. So there was no territory. So there was no, so there was. Was territory. The thinker, call her by any name you please, had trespassed where there was no, where there was.
How can we build a structure to be alive inside? To to to-wards a building of space and commons that privileges movement and margins.8
Not to be the thing itself. I was in a workshop with Miguel Gutierrez, he asked us twenty-six questions and this was one of my answers. Life, permission, conditions. When I build something—a project, phrase, collaboration—there are little holes everywhere. I encourage the space between 0—0 Little gaps of intention that life fills up with conditions, with proximities. Little holes everywhere 0—0 little holes. Permission. Not to be the thing itself. It’s also a way of saying “with” 0—0 entanglement and alignment. Honoring a margin from a movement. Not to be the thing itself is a transition that is not a solution. Is this the queer form?
On April 4th of last year I had the idea to write a play where “something fantastic is discovered, something that debunks the white supremacy ideology of the ruling patriarchy.” This lost thing would let loose the ordering energies, shift the paradigm. You could find it under water. Or it could be in a major collection’s closet. Underwater, that would be theatrically productive. Gravity would shift. The audience could be weightless. Blue. Shouldn’t we be constantly surprised, a politics of surprise.9
This year it was suggested that humans had the capacity to conceptualize time 5,000 years before previously believed. Stone Age holes filled by the light of the moon. The will to measure. The moon the method. The ordering energies of day and night. Hanging our narrative on breakfast lunch and dinner.10 The construction of time and history itself. What is under the water after the moon? A minor planet dragging through the galaxy? Scale-altering temporal drag.11 Something to slip through.
The most crucial and most queer thing I can say is that these thoughts are all about that which is unseen in time. All that exists and goes unnamed, uncounted, disregarded. In a queer life you use and mis-use shards of time, search out references, create your own constellation and pull small threads forward. You dig and discover all that was, in its time, against the continuity of its time. That which stepped out to a different speed and didn’t reproduce itself in the pendulum’s binary. Can we grab the discontinuous untimely and name it in the future it didn’t know? Where is the permission to name? To use, to materialize, to make due.
If yes, if we do—do revel in the uncounted, do wave, do transition, do trespass, do make due. If we do, then we live in the experience of uncounted futures. A commitment to the unseen in time. Beyond the will to measure.
What instruments have we?
1. While reading and researching around the idea of “uncounted futures” I found a book called Open Secret by Anne-Lise François where she discusses uncounted experience. I first found the Auden quoted there. The poem, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” was published in Auden’s 1940 anthology Another Time. François, Open Secret: The Literature of Uncounted Experience (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2007) and Auden, Another Time (New York: Random House, 1940), pp. 93–96.
- Gertrude Stein, “Composition as Explanation,” in Ulla E. Dydo (ed.) A Stein Reader (Evanston: Northwestern University, 1993), p. 497.
- As Robin Bernstein says in her text “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” “the term script denotes not a rigid dictation of performed action but, rather, a necessary openness to resistance, interpretation, and improvisation.” Bernstein, “Dances with Things,” Social Text 27, no. 4 (Winter 2009), p. 68.
- Hammons quoted in Peter Schjeldahl, “The Walker,” The New Yorker (December 23, 2002) p. 156. The full quote, as it was published in a 1986 interview with Hammons by Kellie Jones: “I just love the houses in the South, the way they built them. That Negritude architecture. I really love to watch the way Black people make things, houses, or magazine stands in Harlem, for instance. Just the way we use carpentry. Nothing fits, but everything works. The door closes, it keeps things from coming through. But it doesn’t have that neatness about it, the way white people put things together, everything is a 32nd of an inch off.” Kellie Jones, “David Hammons,” Real Life Magazine, no. 16 (1986), p. 8.
5. MPA performed Untitled Response to Works in the Hessel Collection on May 1, 2011, as part of the exhibition What’s past is prologue curated by Julia Paoli at the Hessel Museum, Bard College.
- This question was developed in conversation with Eleanor Bauer.
- Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own  (Orlando: Harcourt, 1989), pp. 5–6. A beadle is “a minor official who carries out various civil, educational, or ceremonial duties.”
- Three quotes below the line:
“Act so that there is no use in a center.” Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons  (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1997), p. 43.
“The place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it.” James Baldwin, 1957 letter. See James Baldwin and Sol Stein, Native Sons (New York: One World Books, Random House, 2005), pp. 96–97.
“How we define public space is intimately connected with ideas about what it means to be human, the nature of society, and the kind of political community we want.” Rosalyn Deutsche, “Agoraphobia,” in Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press, 1996), p. 269.
9. In the introduction to Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power, Elizabeth Grosz writes about a “politics of surprise.” Grosz, Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2005), p. 2.
- A story through Sara Jaffe about Lynne Tillman realizing her time structure could be meal time.
11. Temporal drag was coined by Elizabeth Freeman in Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
I dedicate this text to Ian White. I had the pleasure to discuss some of these thoughts with Ian in our last conversation, his fierce mind a reflection. Ian was a beloved friend and inspiration, and I dedicate these uncounted futures to him.
I wrote this inconsistently between 2012 and 2014, accumulating questions and phrases and sometimes presenting them along the way, notably at three performance conferences: “How Are We Performing Today?” at MoMA, New York, in November 2012; “Dancing With the Art World” at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, in April 2013; and “Is the Living Body the Last Thing Left Alive? The new performance turn, its histories and its institutions” at Para Site Hong Kong in April 2014. Simultaneous with these symposia were two year-long commissions from Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s TBA Festival and a partnership between If I Can’t Dance and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, which encouraged these questions in textual, material, and performative ways. Grand Arts, Kansas City, supported the writing of this text.