Last Saturday afternoon, I visited 'Hoochie Koochie' – an exhibition of dance performance choreographed by Trajal Harrell. It was a fascinating way to experience the breadth of work made by an artist who makes live performance – seeing all of these works, from across Harrell's output, performed in the same space (often simultaneously).
Browsing through the catalogue afterwards, I was drawn to how Harrell's practice is guided by questions. As Leilia Hasham says in the catalogue, Harrell's series of performances, Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church, is led by the question, “What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the ball scene in Harlem had gone downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at the Judson Church?” In imagining and exploring the potential answers to this question, Harrell created several works over a period of years.
New York theatre company The TEAM also talk about their work in terms of questions. Artistic director Rachel Chavkin wrote that “The creation of Mission Drift began unofficially in May 2008 with the question 'What defines American capitalism specifically, versus capitalism as it took shape anywhere else in the world?” (I had lunch with Rachel 18 months or so ago in which she informally suggested that its her job as director to set a new project's question, and allowing the members of the company to explore this question).
I have, countless times, heard artists talk about what their work is saying, or have people ask me what I want a piece of work to say – as if the meaning of the work could be reduced to a single statement. I have always felt uncomfortable about this because it feels reductive. It feels like it'll make work that is just illustrating and proving a single statement for the duration. A question, on the other hand, is open and unpredictable; it can allow for many different answers. Those answers might even contradict one another.
The way that Harrell talks about the questions in his work feels liberating. Talking about the Twenty Looks... series, he says “Once I had the question for the series, I had to put myself imaginatively in that possibility, and yet problematize my own position within that procedure.” In asking something as clear as a single question, he sees the ethical limitations of his ability to answer. Engaging with such clarity allows the work to accumulate new and different layers.
The question only needs to be simple. I remember attending a lecture about Andy Warhol's television work by American media academic Lynn Spigel. I remember her introduction clearly; the introducing speaker said that Make Room for TV, Spigel's mega-important study of television, was defined by the simplicity and clarity of its question: how did all families come to keep their TV in the corner of their living room?
Harrell's work becomes so fascinating and complex because he asks simple, albeit imaginative, questions about history and about society. On his piece Caen Amour, he says “I started researching the hoochie koochie and looking at its potential relationship to butoh in terms of formal practices, both from an imaginary and a realistic point of view”. No-one else is putting hoochie koochie and butoh together; the question itself is simple yet specific and unique, and it offers endless answers.
None of this is especially revolutionary to academics, artists or writers accustomed to devising work from scratch. Yet, as a director, I often work with plays or texts that already exist and, all too often, my question is “How do I stage this play?”* I don't kid myself that I'm so unique and fascinating, in the context of the history of theatre, that my answer to this question (asked hundreds of times before) is going to be significant in and of itself. You're just going to be repeating something that somebody else has done before. Instead, I need to ask questions of these plays or ask questions that encounter plays and texts in their answers.
What question are you asking in your work? And, when you encounter someone else's work, what question do they appear to be asking?
* There's a caveat to be had here about directing plays, especially new plays, in which the writer has already asked important questions. Too many questions spoil the broth, or something cleverer.