INTO THE WOODS

SIX MEDITATIONS ON THE INTERDISCIPLINARY

 

by John Corbett

 

I.

 

What a funny word it is:  “interdisciplinary.”  

 

How can it hold any meaning anymore, this train-wreck of a term?  What pretense of significance can interdisciplinarity bear in a fusion-mad era like ours, when telephones are televisions and stereos rolled into one, all the world’s musical genres seemingly must converge, and (as of a dozen years ago) the word “multitask” has an official place in the dictionary?  In other words, isn’t everything interdisciplinary today?

 

Certainly, from within the world of art schools, the push has been towards the merger of disciplines.  Painters should be performance artists.  Video artists should learn to sew.  Sculptors should dance.  Animators should write short fiction.  And everyone needs to know how to use Photoshop, QuickTime, and Pro Tools.  Or at least Garage Band.  For better or worse, the world of the isolated artist in her or his studio, adept at one task, focused and forever lost in the pursuit of that single medium, is increasingly rare.

 

But is it the end of the discipline?  If everyone is a specialist at blending, in the end what do they blend?  Perhaps something else is happening.  Maybe there are now several different kinds of interdisciplinary.  Could it be that the older synthesizing model – the late 19th century gesamtkunstwerk of Richard Wagner or even the 1960s “intermedia” notion of Dick Higgins – which urged for a total unification of the arts, is being superceded by another way of mixing practices.  Rather than all arts becoming one, this model might be seen as one in which the different media are brought into proximity.  They respect one another’s autonomy.  Rather than co-mingling, they co-exist. 

 

II.

 

We don’t know how to solve the problems of being together.  And if we do solve them, I believe that each person should leave space around himself and the other person.  An emptiness between two.  So that if you do go with another person into the woods, and succeed in being in the woods, it will only be because you think of yourself as independent of the going into the woods of the second person.

                    – John Cage

 

The John Cage/Merce Cunningham formulation of the interdisciplinary as the promimate, as co-existence, was uniquely extreme.  Work is to be developed in isolation, brought together without pre-determined synchronization or advance notice of the meaning of the mash-up.  The dancers dance; the musicians play.  What happens between is for the audience to observe and experience.  Cage and Cunningham’s friendships and collaborations with visual artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and in turn the loose mentorship they all had with Marcel Duchamp, expressed ties in spirit rather than in material and method.  One has the feeling that these artists were able, for a moment, to solve the problems of being together by leaving space around themselves.  And around their work.  A vision of interdisciplinarity that is radically open because it requires no resolution, no conforming of one modality of art to another.  Independent simultaneous events occur without having to be reconciled.  Asked whether he thought of his writing as music, Cage said that it all depended on whether you attended to it as writing or as music.  Both mindsets were possible, but as activities, the disciplines stayed independent.  Writing was writing, music music. 

  

III.

 

In the mid-1940s, an extraordinary artist named Thelma Johnson Streat started dancing in front of her paintings.  The first African-American woman to show at (and be collected by) MoMA, Streat was on the Works Progress Administration and worked on Diego Rivera’s murals.  Inspired by a multicultural melange of traditional dance from Haiti to British Columbia, she gave recitals at her openings, interpreting her own visual art through movement.  It’s a surprising image: a young black woman, having already had her life threatened for making anti-KKK paintings, performing modern dance as a sort of ritual invocation around her watercolors and canvases. (Katherine Dunham is said to have collected her work.)

 

The most wonderfully strange idea here is just that Streat danced to paintings.  Not music, paintings.  And why not?  Paintings give off vibrations.  They hum at their own frequency, and if you pick up on their buzz they can motivate you.  Streat clearly felt this.  She understood the sympathetic resonance between painting and dance.  Perhaps she translated one into the other and back again.    

    

IV.

 

Which is why the best way to read me is to accompany the reading with certain appropriate bodily movements.  Against non-spoken writing.  Against non-written speech.  For the gesture-support.

                    – Philippe Sollers

 

Sollers’ notion of the gesture-support has always seemed to be about more than writing.  The idea of someone moving while reading, of being inspired to sway by words on a page – such a lovely concept.  But it applies as well to eating (when biting into something delicious, think of the possible gesticulations) or to listening to music or to looking at a great painting, which, a-la-Streat, sets one rocking on one’s heels, a sort of corporeal hilarity taking over and forcing one to nod, to dance, pulling the viewer toward and away from itself in waves.  Standing in front of de Kooning’s “Excavation,” I am always, quite literally, moved.   

 

Benjamin Millepied’s “Moving Parts” engenders gesture-support.  Here are Christopher Wool’s large paintings, mounted on wheels, swiveling and rolling, dancers interacting and literally dancing with the canvases, the encounter mediated by Nico Muhly’s springy score.  Wool’s stylized, lettristic images, which involve a dense thicket of layers arrayed in a shallow space, can be shifted at an almost imperceptible rate or quickly and dramatically reoriented.  The can be angled, changing perspective, allowing the dancers to cast shadows around them.  In this direct interface between dance and visual art, Millepied suggests a third possibility for the interdisciplinary, one in which it is neither totally syncretic nor totally autonomist.  The work is in proximity, but there is also an affinity expressed; it’s more than simply a neutral presentation of simultaneity.  The result is a gesture-support:  delight of motion set off by a work in a different medium.          

 

V.

 

For me, moving to music is a source of joy.

                    – Benjamin Millepied

 

Dance has explored the far reaches of interdisciplinarity since its birth.  The special relationship it has with music, almost as a given, has allowed for the exploration of myriad configurations – music can prompt, can counter, can move off on its own.  Consider Cunningham’s 1964 collaboration with composer LaMonte Young, “Winterbranch,” in which the latter contributes a very oblique atmosphere of stark, loud noises.  

 

This is hardly the chronometric, time-keeping relationship of some scores to their dance –the joyful experience that Millepied mentions – but it functions perfectly as a backdrop for Cunningham’s dancers and the equally uncompromising stage design and lighting by Rauschenberg.  One could argue that dance, like opera, is inherently interdisciplinary.  It is, nevertheless, equally a discipline of its own.            

 

VI.

 

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

                    – Martin Mull

 

The classic line, attributed to many speakers, its structure dating back to the early 1900s:  Writing about music is like [blanking] about [blank].  Early versions included “singing about economics.”  The variant that captured the world’s imagination, though, was Mull’s forumula.  It pondered: what kind of translation could that be?  Words can’t express what’s meaningful in music, any more than moving can tell you much about a building.

 

Weird thing is: there’s nothing remotely strange anymore about the idea of dancing about architecture.