On Friday, September 6th, a Pittsburgh dance company called the Pillow Project presented/installed a public “performance” on Strawberry Way in downtown Pittsburgh called “The Motion of Now.” Here’s how they describe the event:
This is a public durational work about assumed time and space. The passage of time continuously chalked behind slow tumbling motion down the street. A temporary art installation marking an 8-hour moment. To be observed only in passing fragments or in-full by the motion-trails chalked behind” (pillowproject.org).
I went to see it on around 10:30am with a friend from the art history department, whose professor had described the event as “an artistic gesture.” When she first said this to me, during a conversation over how our courses were going, I of course attached our definitions of gesture to it. I assumed this would be an artistic gesture as in a performed gesture, or, the bodily action of rolling down this alley as gesture. Her connotation of the term “artistic gesture,” however, is something that may or may not be art, but is moving toward art. This allows art critics and historians (she says) to keep a safe distance from naming the work as art, if in some future moment it is determined not to be art. In her sense, it is not of the body or descriptive of bodily action. So we went in with two different questions: 1) is it art? 2) is it gesture?
I was also keeping an eye out for passersby and their gestures in response to the installation. Would people just walk past, and deny themselves any kind of acknowledgement or gesture toward the piece? Would they point? Would they hold their hands up in distaste? I love that in this second photo I accidentally caught my friend’s hand gesturing toward the chalk lines in the bottom left corner of the photograph, as well as the dancer’s head, with his arm tucked under his cheek, which would seem anti-gestural, except he’d placed his hand there before his next roll, during which he kept that hand held up against his face. Particular moments like this during the roll could be recognized or interpreted as gesture, and I suppose that is the one thing I discovered from the experience of questioning this “performance,” which Kendon reaffirmed for me when I turned to the readings: “Whether an action is deemed to be intended or not is something that is dependent entirely upon how that action appears to others” (15).
If I take in Kendon’s definition of gesture, “a label for actions that have the features of manifest deliberate expressiveness… [and that] tend to be directly perceived as being under the guidance of the observed person’s voluntary control and being done for the purposes of expression” (15), and, more simply, “a name for a visible action when it is used as an utterance or as part of an utterance,” (7) then we found ourselves asking, if this is gesture, than what was being uttered through this movement? Especially in moments where the performer’s body lie flat on the ground, arms splayed in the image of dead bodies chalked on the pavement, symbolic images of murder and the iconic images of the murder-mystery (in the chalk lines) were present, as well as images of protest “die-ins,” as although the performer was rolling, at any instance he appeared to be still. I wondered what it would have felt like to have the woman dancer on the ground being chalked, which would have added a potential commentary about women’s violence to the mix. Other members of the pillow project who sat for a moment and talked with us about it, said that earlier in the day EMTs had been called, a fact they were amused by, which undercut the possible perception that these kinds of utterances were what the troupe intended to project through this movement.
Rather than go to referential meaning, we had to then consider the moment and space within which the rolling was taking place. We learned from the Pillow Talk member we spoke with that, as a dance company, members of this group were asked to bring their moods into their dance, rather than act as though their own feelings did not impact their bodies, by exhibiting their feelings through movement. These motions would seem to me to be gesture in so far as they are a means of communicating the dancer’s emotional state. Given that, this person’s tightly wound body as he rolled, often obstructing his face with his hand or scrunching up his face in effort as he restrained his movement against gravity and then gave in, took on gestural meaning. He seemed to be saying, “don’t look at me,” or “I am in pain,” (and some more complex version of feeling as expressed through his body). I could imagine that another body rolling down the hill, if in a pleasant state of mind, might have been smiling, head lifted to the sky when looking up, hands outstretched in gestures of welcoming or openness (images that might conjure, for me, memories of the childhood joy of rolling down grassy hills). To know that one of the premises for movement in this troupe’s projects included being authentically of your own body was eye-opening to me, and helped me interpret the possible gestures I saw in the dancers.
The gestures from passersby were easier to interpret. Most people pointed to the chalked path or the person rolling, and one woman came up to the roller and chalker throwing up her hands to demonstrate that she’d thought something was wrong and her relief that this was an art piece, a re-enactment of her earlier emotional state. My friend and I pointed a lot, without even realizing it, until one of us would say it out loud. These moments were especially accompanied by our commentary: “well this here looks like a body, but this part in the chalk is more abstract,” or, from me, “look at his face, how his hand is up.” As I’m writing this, I’m not sure why I’m trying to translate the gestures into language… I suppose it’s because of the nature of expressiveness and drawing meaning, or the meaning the gestures are meant to support.
To say claim this movement as rhetorical, and not purely aesthetic, seems reasonable to me, even if I’m not sure what is being claimed through this movement. The fact that I can ask what is and come up with some answers is support enough that this movement can be interpreted as rhetorical, by which I mean, I can interpret it to be claiming something, even if I’m unsure what that something is (see below for more on rhetoric). Again, I’m careful to place that position in my own eyes as the perceiver. I was helped by Agemben’s example of dance as gesture insofar as it is the “exhibition of the media character of corporal movement. The gesture is the exhibition of mediality: it is the process of making a means visible as such” (59,7, author’s emphasis). Dance thus heightens our awareness of what it means to be in a body as a means—making use of the body as medium—especially considering this troupe’s mission of exhibiting their emotional state through dance. While Agamben’s claim is couched in an overall argument regarding cinema and gesture, even the woman who raised her hands while she reconstructed her relief that the roller was on the ground for a purpose was making use of gesture in this way. She was re-enacting her previous emotional state and thoughts in bodily terms, and her means of doing this was through the gesture, and thus her means were exaggerated and made visible. Agamben’s position that gesture is “essentially always a gesure of not being able to figure something out in language [in the context of cinema]” (59,8) seems to me to be true in our public lives just as much as within cinematic experience. We make use of gesture not only in the context of utterance, but in recreation or the ways in which we perform instances in our lives for others.
While classical concerns regarding rhetoric consider “all forms of communications short of physical violence, even such gestures as raising an eyebrow,” (Booth, 4), the gestural quality of the movement, or the gestures contained within the movement, of this dancer rolling down the alley seem rhetorical in the sense that it is “‘a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action'” (Bitzer, as cited in Booth, 8), although the reality created exists somewhere between performer and perceiver, in the act of mediation as we attempt to perceive the connection between our thoughts and the roller’s actions. Again, it is rhetorical insofar we perceive it as such. If we take Lunsford’s definition of rhetoric as the “‘art, practice, and study of [all] human communication'” (Lunsford, as cited in Booth, 8), then we can call the action rhetorical insofar as we interpret it to be communication. The gestures by the passersby were more evidently rhetorical, in that they played a part in their utterances, trying to process the occasion and make a point for how they were interpreting the experience. Where those people pointing simply to ask what was happening also using gesture rhetorically? Of that I’m not yet sure, except in the sense that I could interpret it as such, without hearing what exactly they were saying in verbal language.