Quite unexpectedly, one certain day Bertram Dhellemmes invited me to write about Angel Meat. He never explained anything much – he only asked me to write something. So I did write something, trying to convey to the reader my impressions about their performance. I also tried to keep this text as impersonal as possible, in a (most likely naïve) attempt at “objectivity”: to try to capture their strength and make it visible through a different register, by giving room to my individual perception while saying things that could dialogue with the perception anyone might have of their work. Bollocks, maybe, but maybe then…
There is a series of entries to their work, whose complexity I’ve tried to do justice to. One can only understand a complex body by dissecting it, and I eventually selected some of the “entries” that most appealed to me and analytically separated one from the other, in order to understand how they function in themselves as well as the kind of effect their interconnection produces. Of course anyone who’s experienced Angel Meat’s performances knows that this separation is only, at best, analytical: whenever they’re on stage, everything erupts simultaneously. So to bring those aspects together by making them juxtapose one upon the other is our final aim here: we separate the elements in order to better appreciate their fusion.
The male figure’s face and the female figure’s face are covered with deep white make up with details in black. If that weren’t spooky enough to catalyze attention, we soon realize that their faces are not only white: they’re blank. The male and the female figures are devoid of expression: their faces do not dramatize their presence on stage, they do not dramatize their interconnection, they do not dramatize the events of the narrative plot, they do not dramatize or suffer or react to anything. Dramatic intensity is certainly there, and sometimes in abundance – but it never comes from face expression. Not even when the female figure starts to move (to dance?) do faces tell you anything: they don’t help you, they don’t tell you how to behave, they don’t tell you how to feel. This means that it’s you who’s stuck with the buck: the faces won’t guide you, and all reaction is strictly your own. That makes the experience more difficult, in a way – it adds roughness to it. The two figures do not stand by you, they refuse to offer you any kind of identification or personal connection (either with them or with you fellow member of the audience, with whom you will have no laughs or tears to share), and so they make you alone: their presence does not leave you alone, it makes you alone.
In a way, altogether with the music the male and the female figures are part of setting, but that is not the whole story. For even though they’re absent when perhaps you most need them (is it humorous what I’m seeing?, is it ironic?, who is it they’re criticizing?, but again, is that criticism at all?), even though they will not tell you how to think, they’ll never let you forget they are there – as if forcing you to react, to stay until the end, to endure. And even if you somehow manage to get used to them, they will still feel expressionless to you: anything else would – and to a great extent – spoil the life that the narrative plot has by now acquired in its own right. A single smile, a single twist would be too intrusive: it would divert the impact the narrative wants to produce by itself.
MAN AND WOMAN
You can put three men or three women on a stage. You can have ten or twenty men or ten or twenty women onstage, and that’s ok: at some point the number will explain itself. But two men or two women might be in excess. Two men or two women, that just cannot fit: some tension, any tension has to erupt between them. Two people from the same sex onstage, the least you’ll expect between them is dialogue – if not straightforward conflict.
But the same does not apply to a man and a woman. In Angel Meat’s performance it soon becomes obvious that the male and the female figures are not “together” in any sense of the word: there is no “relationship” between them. That is precisely why they have to be from different sexes: it is the only combination that allows for two people to occupy the same stage without generating absence or excess. In Angel Meat’s case, that seems to be precisely the effect intended: the two figures are simply there – they have no clear connection with each other, they do not interact. Even their playing music together is hard to be read as partnership: since their sound does not feel like actual “composition”, it simply doesn’t look like they share the complicity or perhaps even the “division of labor” that an ensemble conveys. In direct contrast with a musical group performance (where it is obvious and visible that everybody needs one another), the two Angel Meat figures are just there, in the strong non-interacting presence of their bodies – and that’s enough. This takes not a “couple”, but a man and a woman: that’s the equilibrium that seems “natural”, the combination that allows for two people to be onstage without arousing the expectation of conflict, that allows their bodies and faces to dispose themselves without raising the question as to what will happen between them – and we know that nothing will have between them...
Is there music in Angel Meat? Why not, but maybe… Maybe the answer is no: maybe it’s not about music, it’s all about sound…
At which point someone will step on and ask me to point out the essential difference between one thing and the other. This person will then proceed to deconstruct my argument by crushing any attempt at distinguishing sound from music, finally embarrassing me into recognizing that, well, there’s no essential difference between one and the other, which everybody always knew from the start, implying as a consequence that Angel Meat do, after all, compose and perform music… But that’s not the point, that’s simply not the point. My distinction is instrumental: as the female figure, for instance, starts to step heavily and rhythmically right before the male figure starts stretching out noise from his guitar without even looking at the audience, what their is doing is to create a setting – it’s to create an ambience. Even if their stuff demands a lot of composition (and rehearsing), “composition” is not of the matter here: their sound is there for a specific effect, and nothing they play would ever make sense if detached from the context in which it’s played. And it’s sound over sound over sound…
It is the instruments speaking themselves: it’s not the guitar playing a certain “tune”, it’s the guitar playing itself, playing off its own set of possibilities. The flute does the same (it’s pure flute), and the (beautiful) moments of convergence between the two do gather momentum – but such momentum does not seem to be conceived as a musical achievement (it is not produced for itself or for the sake of its own fruition) but as a setting and ambience for the narrative flow. In Angel Meat, sound is part of narration.
This is the biggest surprise you’ll get: a little after the performance begins, instead of following lines spoken by actors you’ll find yourself reading the lines of a text (projected on a screen on top behind the male and the female figures). And lines are exactly what they are. There are no “paragraphs” appearing, but lines succeeding one another in a sharp telegraphic pace. Right then you realize how much Angel Meat’s faces, bodies and sound have created a setting: they are the medium through which the narrative now begins to unfold. Unbelievably enough, this is what it is: Angel Meat is a form of literature, or I should say: Angel Meat is a literary form.
In a very surprising way, they do the unthinkable: they make reading a collective practice. Press culture got us used to silent individual reading; Angel Meat creates silent collective reading. The audience is now reading a text, and one can only imagine that their reactions vary a lot – but that’s something you cannot easily see, or at least not all the time. Sometimes you sense you neighboring crowd silently laughing or expressing other reactions to the text, but collective reading remains for the most part individual (or subjective). That’s the risk of turning performance into reading: coming from personal habits and tastes, reading reactions remain individual, so that the impact of Angel Meat will be atomized to a great extent. No two readers are the same, and there will be no such thing as the general reaction a traditional performance can arouse: reading can be collective, but the response will be personal.
But that is, of course, part of the game – that is part of the risk. The lines succeed one another within the setting created by sounds and bodies. The workings of the male and female figures construct the context for a narration that is as telegraphic as that of a graphic novel (where the context is visually built – just like in Angel Meat’s performance, in a certain way). The inflow of lines works through a principle of addition: bits of information juxtaposed on one another build up what will eventually read as a story – a real story, with well-defined characters and actions, happening in well-delineated contexts, evolving through complexly-built situations… until it strangely ends in suspension. This is something crucial: their text doesn’t function like the lines of a song (unless you’re thinking about Lou Reed’s Walk on the wild side and its sudden successive exposition of immediately vivid characters). But even the comparison with Lou Reed (who Bertram himself confirms to be a source of inspiration) doesn’t explain it all, for Angel Meat’s texts give themselves the time to develop the characters in ways that would never be available for a four-minute musical track. They present characters (and not only “types”) with their own personalities, fears, doubts and pursuits, slowly revealed as they’re settled within a picture, situation or plot. But in the scope of the performance theirs is not a story that “comes” from a place and “leads” to another: it begins and ends without properly beginning or ending. As readers, we are “ejected” in something that is already ongoing, to be left in a situation that is largely undecided.
The lines are smartly built. Instead of adding 1 to 1, they generate lacunae or else bring unexpected information in. They might dialogue directly with the public, they might turn surrealistic, they might bomb you down with heavy anti-systemic political content. They might gather tension among the characters portrayed, they might produce suspense or expectation. They can be funny, witty or surprising. They can be bleak, somber or acid. This upholds any safe position the reader might look for, especially since there’s no sense of complicity between him and the narrative voice enunciating the text: for instance, there is no irony or criticism that the reader could appropriate as his own, pretty much in the same spirit as the male and the female faces do not provide him with emotions he can appropriate. The text does not give you a firm ground to hold on to – it’s even hard to get a sense of where it’s leading you to.
Much of the equilibrium is conferred by gesture. Hand movements by an otherwise static male figure, changes in the position of the body of the female figure (without any proper “dancing”) are strong enough to create a whole setting.
Gestures create expectations about what comes next. They also set the pace of the presentation; they give it rhythm. Gestures announce changes in rhythm that match the events narrated on the screen. And they strengthen the distance (and distinction) between the persons on the stage and the people that surround them: it is through gesture that the male and the female figures create their own space – which is never a given is an event such as a performance, where the physical-but-invisible border between public and stage can be crossed over in a number of ways.
So gestures produce ambience, setting, rhythm. Together with dance – as well as with the blank presence of expressionless figures – it is through the bodies that performance happens: “The actor-interpreter, during the performance that exhibits his body and its setting, does not call on visuality alone. He opens himself up to contact. I hear him, I see him, virtually touch him: a very close virtuality, one strongly eroticized.” (ZUMTHOR, OPAI, 153) In their non-hermeneutic presence (in their suspension of meaning-attribution) bodies do, after all, configure the setting for the flow of information with their movements, with their clothing, make up and hair style, and with their physical, sensorial, chemical, kinetic (and somehow semantic and emotional) impact. Without being immediately charged with meaning, they nevertheless conduct meaning – the give meaning a shape. But Angel Meat do so by inverting Zumthor’s description of “closeness”, or at least by producing some closeness that inverts the expectation the concept might arise: their shaping of meaning happens through a total refusal of identification; their bodies are other to the public; even if they’re standing right before your eyes, they could not be more distant.
Performance creates a collectivity, or at least it might. But in Angel Meat’s case, literature takes over – or at least partially.
Zumthor once said that “Performance is the complex action by which a poetic message is simultaneously transmitted and perceived in the here and now. Speaker, receiver(s) of the message, circumstances […] are concretely confronted, are indisputable.” (ZUMTHOR, OPAI, 22) The weight of circumstance is thus incommensurable: a performance is circumstance in a number of ways; it is governed by circumstances to which it actively responds by acting upon them. In Zumthor’s description performance appears as interaction, dialogue, and emergence – does that apply to Angel Meat?
It is true that, when it comes to planning, Angel Meat does a great job in dealing with contexts as they come. That’s pretty much what happened at the Röhmerstrasse performance, when they got tied up in a corner with the audience pressed right upon their noses and with almost no room for movement at all, and still got away with it. But it is also true that Angel Meat tries to assume control of the action, somewhat turning the performance into a theatrical representation, with its traditionally well-defined partition of roles between actors and audience. The divide is too strong to create interaction, the attribution of roles is too sharp, and in the end control takes over: what you actually see is a presentation, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Of course there is nothing wrong with that (and it might only be the Brazilian in me reacting to an all-European frame of behavior), but I cannot help holding the utopia of seeing Angel Meat’s performances erupt as a surprise. Their audience should be unaware of their coming, and never know how to react. They shouldn’t have their names printed on any leaflet, or have people over expressly to see them – they shouldn’t be anticipated in any way. That would give birth to real context – abruptly, with little room for control. Aesthetic distance would be broken to pieces, which might be good for Ines Birkhan and Bertram Dhellemmes: as writers and musicians and actors they could find ways to have their public not as spectators, but as co-authors of their own production. I, for one, deeply and honestly believe that Ines and Bertram could get me – if they really wanted to – into screaming and shouting and banging my head and shaking my whole body under their input, instead of comfortably seeing their pieces (which is already cool enough, it’s never too much to repeat). But perhaps their pieces could be less thought of as “pieces”, “plays” or “works”, and bring on some loss of control...
Or maybe not. It already stuns me to see the amount of elements Angel Meat use, the amount of detail they’re able to handle, their so innovative use of text (in its plethora of image-creation without image support), which altogether makes me feel their work as being always in progress – which is great. They do hold the power to always become other to themselves, and I can only be curious about what will come next.
Unpublished article by Pedro Dolabela Chagas (junior professor at the Department of Linguistic and Literary Studies at the Universidade Estadual do Sudoeste da Bahia), written in January 2010.