facebook twitter tumblr newsletter
By Maryam Monalisa Gharavi
Whose universal is it anyway? South/South 2009-2012
rss feed

The Labor of Performance (Part Two)

Part One precedes this post.

Veronique1 Veronique2 Veronique3

How mesmerizing could a choreography based on ballet and spoken word be? Very. I find it difficult to approach Véronique Doisneau (Jérôme Bel and Pierre Dupouey, 2004) with anything short of endearment.

The Paris Opera Ballet commissioned a documentary about Doisneau from Bel, a “low-rank” dancer a week away from retiring after a 20-year career. The evening of her last performance makes up Veronique Doisneau. Doisneau delivers a monologue like Zidane, but through direct oral address. Physically she is featured front-and-center onstage, not unlike a TED talk speaker, only gripping. She reveals that her career was marred by a back surgery at the age of 20, and works up to more revelations in a soft but resilient tone.

Doisneau never rose to the ranks of full étoiles or principal ballerina but remained a sujet, a performer who dances as a permanent fixture of the corps de ballet, often as a background dancer to the soloist. Her measured cadence and whispery tenor belie rarely spoken, even taboo, disclosures: she divulges her monthly salary, as well as her belief that she may not have been talented or physically strong enough to become a principal soloist. Like the inscrutable-turned-expressive Zidane in Gordon’s film, Doisneau breaks the performer’s fourth wall through monologue. Direct address places her in a spare but engrossing economy of language.

A full 85 seconds (6:15-7:40) of pacing, heavy breathing, doubling over knees, and rehydration to regain her composure (much like a professional athlete). An unaccustomed scene, watching a stage performer caught in the breaks of her act. As Ramsay Burt enumerates in “Revisiting ‘No to Spectacle’: Self Unfinished and Véronique Doisneau,”: ”One could tell from a strain in her voice which movements were the most demanding, and one could hear her becoming increasingly out of breath as the extract progressed. At the end, she took her time to get her breath back, sipping water, her heavy breathing broadcast throughout the auditorium. Her exhaustion was perhaps surprising. Not only had the stately quality of the material she performed not seemed especially strenuous, but ballet dancers conventionally strive to create an illusion of effortlessness.”

Doisneau’s physical exhaustion—her abrupt break from the airy perfection of ballet to the lethargy of a grounded earthling—is mesmerizing. (Here I must disagree with Burt when he writes that “watching her get her breath back was boring.”) I was made uncomfortable not by my own inactivity, contrasted against Doisneau’s actual breathlessness, but by the pleasure induced by watching such exertion. An guarded stage secret is set free. It’s literally mortifying watching gods humbled to mere mortals.

Pleasure is a funny and flawed concept, and Bel x Doisneau interpolate all its ambiguous parts: the pleasure of making art (a “calling”), the pleasure of pain, and reciprocally, the spectator’s pleasure in watching a working performer deconstruct their work.

Doisneau declares herself a spectator and great admirer of fellow ballerinas. In a memorable segment she invites Céline Talon on stage to dance Mats Ek’s Giselle as Doisneau herself watches in a clever mise en abyme. (I had to look up both the name of the dancer and the piece; despite her protestations, Doisneau remains a riveting étoile here.)

Of being one of 32 dancers to perform immobilizing poses in Swan Lake: “We become a human decor to highlight the ‘Stars.’ And for us, it is the most horrible thing we do. Me, for example. I want to scream, or even leave the stage.” Stripped of her 31 colleagues onstage, the previously wrenching and frenetic act Doisneau performed collectively hushes down to a frozen, staccato-like solo.

Both Gordon x Zidane and Bel x Doisneau rustle up a documentary form without being conceptually bound to the label at all (Bel calls his a “theatrical documentary“). What joins the works together is the dismantling of spectacle at the same time that we are caught almost helpless before it. Through the raw materials of performed labor—sweat, breath, technical skill—they furnish a rare space to visualize labor typically hidden from view through atomization, cheapened human life, and the technical flawlessness of spectacle.


Little Earthquakes


“Come, contemplate these frightful ruins,
This wreckage, these shreds, these unfortunate cinders”

Accourez, contemplez ces ruines affreuses,
Ces débris, ces lambeaux, ces cendres malheureuses

—Voltaire, “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster” (Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne), 1756

At the end of a two-week residency at Darat al Funun in Amman, Jordan, I’m delivering a lecture and visual performance called “Performative Ground,” which takes its name from a photographic series being developed in Palestine.

I’m formulating connections between the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, the devastation of Gaza, the arbitrary nature of survival, friends and enemies, nature un-naturalized, and the transitory and vulnerable quality of the ground, which one must never take for granted.

The Labor of Performance (Part One)

141006-0003 141006-0002 141006-0004

Douglas Gordon’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006) addresses itself solely to Zidane during a Spanish Liga Real Madrid versus Villareal CF game in April 2005 at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium. As Gordon tells it, a crew of 150 filmed Zidane in real time using 17 synchronized cameras, each camera equipped with its own operator, focus puller, loader, and runner. The crew for the live event, like Zidane himself, worked without a storyboard. Their only directive came from the Goya portraits Gordon arranged for them to study at the Prado.

Zidane, notoriously private, delivers a testimony of his innermost thoughts in the subtitles. He doesn’t “talk” vocally or give a talking-head monologue; the awkwardness of that genre staple is displaced on an elegantly fonted text track. A private life unfolds over a highly public moment. Something between public and private slips through, seductive precisely because it’s so out of reach.

The close-up shots aren’t so close up as intensely deictic tracking shots. Sometimes focus pulls toward the crowds, with Zidane’s figure blurred out. Yet the subject never falls out of view. Zidane is the central compositional element in every shot: every shot rests on him and depends on him.

The main performative gesture of football is ball possession and striking goals. The film muddles this entirely (Zidane seldom possesses the ball, and for a few seconds at best, but the goal is not the goal). By gazing intently at the utter mundaneness of a person at work, the film denaturalizes their labor.

Labor is denaturalized the economy of “real life” too, with college athletes voting to unionize and Muslim players singled out and fined for kneeling on the field in prayer.

But in Gordon’s film, the labor of sports performance is laid so bare—or rather, so richly in compositional texture and sensorial minutiaethat its star escapes reduction to political issue or global spectacle. We never forget that we are watching Zidane, yet neither is he the sum-total of his stardom. Man working.

Against Nepenthe


The landlady brought news
of your death

just as I was on the ledgers
of a great discovery,

on the edge of the New World’s
old treasures.

We would have been neighbors.
Me: um pequeno ponto no mundo

In the world without a world.
You: the reluctant shepherd

of false starts and lost stars.
You: to grasp the reins of chromium horses

through intergalactic charterbelts,
To map the course of factory smoke

in blue ink nephograms.
Me: to undead the living,

To grasp with the mind’s eye
that last image of you in a doorway.


Transcript on a Face

“Now these criminals are recognised even from their earliest days because they have extraordinary anomalies of the face and of the skull, asymmetry, macrocephaly, exaggeration of the length or breadth, strabismus, ears badly placed or too large, enormous jaws, bad conformation of the teeth, especially of the incisors, now too large, and again too far apart, nose flat and crooked, hair abundant on the forehead, an exaggerated development of the body (a child of seven having the stature and weight of one of nine), strength precocious, left-handedness more common, and above all great dulness of the senses. There is then a criminal type, so that your intuition leads you unconsciously to shrink from a person who has the face of a thief. I explain this fact scientifically…”

—Cesare Lombroso, “Criminal Anthropology Applied to Pedagogy,” The Monist, 1895, p. 57

“Do they know how those bullets hit my son? What they did to his body as they entered his body?”

Lesley McSpadden

◊     ◊     ◊

Demons are god-like, yet feared because they take the place of a legitimate deity.

Medieval demonology cast them as unsparing figures to whom sacrifices were made instead of worshipping God.

From the Middle Ages right through the European Renaissance, their physiognomy corresponds to the moral repugnance they arouse, like the demon-figure Belphégor in the Dictionnaire Infernal.


As Kelly Hurley’s The Gothic Body elaborates, belief in the body’s mutable boundaries hardened by the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. That “morphic variability,” in which the demon-human is “continually in danger of becoming not-itself, becoming other,” colluded with the rise of anthropological criminology, which produced deviance in physiognomic features.

The face charts “scientifically” presented by criminologists like Cesare Lombroso and Havelock Ellis demonstrate this tendency.


A demon’s face, like all faces, is a product of its age. And never has the face been more of a battleground than in the racialized expression of state violence in a liberal-democratic empire.

The transcript of the Grand Jury investigation of Officer Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown reads like a flip book jumping between the demonological past and the criminological present.

It’s not Wilson’s culpability that is on trial, but Michael Brown’s face.

mike brown testimony

Wilson’s account of Brown is almost entirely focused on the encounter between their faces.

Wilson’s own, doughy and subtly reddened in hospital photos, looking like he’s emerged unscathed from a bad hangover, is submitted as evidence of his victimhood.

Photos of Brown’s post mortem face is not publicly admissible evidence; in any case, the medical examiner failed to photograph Brown’s body (“My battery in my camera died.”)

All I see is his head, and that’s what I shot

He was just staring at me, almost like to intimdate me or to overpower me

The intense face he had was just not what I expected from any of this

Wilson claims he told Brown to “get the fuck back,” but instead Brown allegedly hit the side of his face “with a fist.” The attention paid to the detail about Brown’s proximity to Wilson’s face is excruciating. 

There was a significant amount of contact that was made to my face

Wilson alleges that dispensing mace on Brown wasn’t an option because Brown was covering his face:

The chances of [mace] being effective were slim to none. His hands were in front of his face, it would have blocked the mace from hitting him in the face

And he contradicts himself by issuing another reason, that macing Brown would have left Wilson’s own face unprotected:

I considered using my mace, however, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my left hand, which is blocking my face to go for it

Wilson’s description of Brown’s face as “demon”-like requires scrutiny (even as it invites revulsion).

He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face

While Wilson didn’t waste a single breath in painting Brown as a “Hulk Hogan” to his shrimpy “five-year old,” he projects Brown as having looked up at him. (Both men measure at 6’4”).

And that’s when he lays on the most damning part of his testimony, that Michael Brown had a demon face.

The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked 

The “it” is Brown’s face, a non-human entity intermixing with human emotional characteristics. In The Gothic Body, Hurley calls this the abhuman.

And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way

In the same breath as when he mentions the “demon” face Wilson allows,

He comes back towards me again with his hands up

The crucial and illicitly overlooked phrase in this sentence is “with his hands up.”

Throughout the testimony Wilson clings to a portrait of the killer-cop as ghost, whitely transparent, spooked out, and hollow in contrast to a bulky, angry, unpredictable it-figure.

It’s at this point that Wilson says he cocked and shot his gun with the bullet that would kill an unarmed (defenseless) Brown squarely in the head.

When he fell, he fell on his face

I remember his feet coming up… and then they rested

When it went into him the demeanor on his face went blank, the aggression was gone, it was gone, I mean I knew he stopped, the threat was stopped

The threat was stopped.

The only questioning of Darren Wilson’s own face is painfully and comically debased. Asked about the supposed bruises to his face, both the prosecution and Wilson display confusion about what even constituted the injury.

Q: Now, what are we looking at there?

That’s the left side of my face

Q: So you had, describe what we are looking at?

I can’t really tell from that.

Q: Okay.

I can’t see from this angle.

Q: Let me let you look at it again.

I think there was swelling to my face in that area too. I never saw my face after, this is the first I’ve seen.

Q: Does it look like swelling? You know your face better than we do, does it look like swelling?

I can’t tell with that angle with the ruler.

Q: You can’t tell on that one? What about this one?

That one I can tell from down by my, down in this area looks swollen to me.

Wilson’s invisible bruises are nauseatingly pawed over. Brown’s face, unphotographed but cast in retrospective narrative by his killer, is left questionably demonized (the prosecution never takes issue with Wilson’s freakish account).

Finally, Wilson concedes that his killing of Brown was a foregone conclusion. In any other secret court proceeding, were the defendant not a police officer, this testimony could likely be used as evidence of premeditated murder; Wilson’s gun was (passively) “presented as a deadly force option” when his face was threatened.  

Q: In your mind him grabbing the gun is what made the difference where you felt you had to use a weapon to stop him?

Yes. Once he was hitting me in the face, that was enough, was in my mind to authorize the use of force

Q: Okay. So if he would not have grabbed your gun while he was hitting you in the face, everything was the same, but he would not have grabbed your gun, you still would have used deadly force?

My gun was already being presented as a deadly force option while he was hitting me in the face

Wilson’s characterization of the community surrounding the killing scene (what the prosecution called “folks that lived in that apartment”) is of an equally fear-inducing, if not totally demonic, body.

It is an antipolice area for sure

That community doesn’t like the police

[I]t is a hostile environment

It bears noting that the origin of the term “abhuman” (which Hurley dissects in her book) is with William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912).

Hodgson used “abhuman” to name species of intelligent beings evolving from humans that breed with alien beings, adapting to their deteriorating or decaying physical environment. The “abhuman” were maligned by denizens of the Last Redoubt who managed to artificially preserve their human characteristics, “though they were not fit for the new environmental conditions.”

The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon

And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there

All I see is his head, and that’s what I shot

Between the lines of Wilson’s stupefying scenario (his ghost to Brown’s demon) is a stark material and psychic landscape (his preservation to the community’s unraveling) matching the reality of a deeply hateful and segregating world, one that includes and transcends Ferguson.