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SYSTEM MANIPULATION: DIAGRAM AS RECORD OF RESISTANCE

Are we perhaps at the point in the evolution of choreography where a distinction between the establishment of its ideas and its traditional forms of enactment must be made? Not out of any dissatisfaction with the tradition, but rather in an effort to alter the temporal condition of the ideas incumbent in the acts, to make the organizing principles visibly persist. Could it be conceivable that the ideas now seen as bound to a sentient expression are indeed able to exist in another durable, intelligible state?

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What else might physical thinking look like?1

EMPHASIS ON PROCESS

 

The twentieth century witnessed a paradigm shift in almost every major artistic discipline, including architecture, painting, music, and dance. Artists began to question not simply the what of stylistic themes but also the how and the why. The process of art was finally becoming just as important as—if not more than—the product. The visual work of Pollack, Duchamp, and Bacon are all prime examples, as well as Cage’s musical compositions and their unconventional scores. Artists began to question and experiment with media and representation—in Cage’s case, unconventional instruments and unique, often incomprehensible scores. These artists reveal an increasing preoccupation with the process of creation, emphasizing the intangible thought behind the work over the final, tangible product. I would like to discuss this trend in the disciplines of architecture and dance, focusing on the work of Peter Eisenman and dancer-choreographer William Forsythe. Forsythe’s first major works were a conscious extension of the “language of ballet into a new fractured, hyper-extended and inquisitive form fit for the late 20th century.”2 The comparison of the work of these two luminaries provides a fertile ground for an analysis on contemporary thinking in art, given that architecture and dance have gone through somewhat similar phases in the twentieth century, and the reactions of Eisenman and Forsythe to their respective disciplines are remarkably analogous.

 

Both Eisenman and Forsythe exert direct pressure on their respective established canons. Neither creates a totally new formal language, nor are their driving aesthetics tangential. Rather, they confront their disciplines head-on by directly engaging with the standards of the disciplines through manipulation of the existing language, using formal operations such as “transformation, decomposition, grafting, scaling, rotation, inversion, superposition, shifting, folding.”3  These methods are rigorously catalogued using diagrams. The proliferation of the diagram in the latter half of the twentieth century is evidence of a growing emphasis on process over product. The diagram serves this shift well by being particularly amenable to the difficult task of collapsing time and space, and as such it adeptly records challenges, or “resistance,” to the discipline in which it is being utilized.

 

For Eisenman and Forsythe, design and choreography (which are can be remarkably similar processes, just enacted through different media) are not linear or arbitrary; instead of being guided by sequential aesthetic choices, they utilize rule sets and iterative manipulations to reveal points of collapse, confluence, and divergence within the vocabulary of their disciplines. Consider the placement of the column in the middle of the staircase at Eisenman’s Wexner Center for the Arts, or the slow degeneration in synchronized timing of a short movement phrase in Forsythe’s Artifact, leading from a scene of perfect visual homogeneity to utter chaos. Both instances are results of collisions of multiple applied systems; “mistakes” of this kind would never have been made in classical architecture or ballet.

 

Eisenman’s analytical diagrams of Terragni and his early House series will comprise the architectural component for this discussion, and Forsythe’s work One Flat Thing, Reproduced in the year 2000 and its surrounding forms of notation will represent dance. These works share the characteristics of being sited in a grid, and that they are best represented in diagrammatic form as they were in fact authored that way. In contrast, classical ballet was meant to be read linearly, and can indeed be written in a finite series of words in lines on a page. Forsythe’s work—and Eisenman’s—cannot be recorded in a linear fashion; the only effective representation is a multidimensional score—a diagram.

 

 

RESISTANCE AND RELIGION

 

In the introduction of Into the Void, a second installment of Eisenman’s collected writings, Jeffrey Kipnis expounds on the concept of heresy. He explains the term in its original context, that of Catholicism. He states,

 

From the perspective of Catholicism, for example, neither an aborigine, or a Jew, nor an atheist is a heretic; they are heathen or infidel. Nor is a Catholic heretic who abandons the faith or converts to another, but rather apostate. To be a heretic, one must be a baptized Catholic who affirms and practices Catholicism, but in such a way as to defy official church dogma. Heresy, therefore, is not merely a synonym for sin, laxity, or misprision. Rather, in its essence it is a purposeful and precise theoretical act of resistance that can only be perpetrated by a well-schooled predicant.4

 

This metaphor crystallizes the concept of resistance, an act which Eisenman is clearly very fond of. To resist, one must consciously challenge an existing canon; to pursue something totally unrelated or to uncritically appropriate from the canon is simply an act of flight, not fight. This distinction between engagement and departure can be seen throughout the arts in the twentieth century; the trajectory of modern dance, starting with classical ballet and continuing to Forsythe, offers a particularly apt comparison to Eisenman’s position within the trajectory of modern architecture. Kipnis continues, “In those terms, Eisenman is Architecture’s consummate heretic, a high priest bent on challenging one dogma after another, but never so far as to deny the faith.”5 (If Eisenman is the heretic, then perhaps Venturi is the heathen and Graves the apostate.) Uncannily, Forsythe receives the same characterization by a critic of his own field: "Brilliant, inscrutable and wildly entertaining by turns, he is at once a ballet purist and the high priest of post-structural contemporary dance." The critic continues,

 

Forsythe's basic idea is that ballet is like a language. It has vocabulary and rules of correct usage. But correct usage is not his focus - he's much more interested in bending and breaking the rules. So watch out for how the geometries of classical ballet are twisted, tilted or pulled out of line.6

 

 

THE TRAJECTORY OF DANCE IN THE 20TH CENTURY

 

To grasp the nuance of this comparison, let us first go through a brief identification of the major developments in dance leading up to Forsythe at the end of the twentieth century. Dance as an institutionalized art form began with the development of classical ballet in the 15th and 16th centuries. The paradigm of highly codified movement and regimented technique remained relatively unchallenged until the early 20th century, when figures such as Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis began to push the boundaries of dance as high art, proposing that less constrained, vernacular-inspired movement should be brought out of the arena of purely social and ritualistic activity and into the realm of intellectualized dance. The most radical denouncement of classical ballet can be seen in the work of Martha Graham. She is considered the founder of modern dance, and her movement is characterized by a strong relationship to the ground and gravity, with an origin in the torso. This is in direct opposition to ballet, in which the dancer seems to attempt to defy gravity and achieve a sense of lightness through locating the power of the movement in the legs and feet.

 

Graham referred to her works as “dance plays,” which is indicative of the narrative quality that she sought to imbue in all her works. The crux of her project as a choreographer was that the vocabulary of ballet was too limiting to portray raw, unaffected emotion. She sought to show narrative beyond the constraints of balletic movement; the unnatural language of ballet distances itself from the human condition. Thus, she turned to more grounded, less codified movement. In terms of Kipnis’ religious metaphor, if ballet is like Catholicism, then Graham would be a heathen; her motivation behind choreography and physical style are so far removed from ballet to the point that Graham is practicing an entirely separate religion.

 

However, this religion, in its unwavering dedication to narrative and championship of portrayal of emotion over anatomical integrity left some of her dancers feeling frustrated with her lack of concern for the movement itself. The most notable member of this group was Merce Cunningham, who left Graham’s company in the early 1950s to pursue his own visions for the discipline of dance.

 

Cunningham completely eschewed narrative and indeed returned to a more balletic foundation in terms of his movement style. In this sense, Cunningham is like the apostate; he abandons the choreographic principles of ballet but retains the vocabulary at its most elemental level. Stated in a different way, his movement requires much of the same technique required by classical ballet and he does appropriate basic body positions and movement patterns, but he disregards all rules about timing and sequencing in favor of his own revolutionary organizational mechanisms, thus converting to a faith entirely his own. Cunningham was a pioneer of the use of chance procedures in the field of dance. He used devices such as the I-Ching to determine the sequence, quality, and duration of individual movements for individual body parts, resulting in a highly formal and unemotional style that was only recognizable as a recombined mutated shadow of classical ballet.

 

On the other hand, Forsythe is the one who could be most readily ascribed the mantle of heretic. In fact, the dance critic for the Guardian writes, “He's been called the Antichrist of ballet, which seems a bit heavy. He's also been hailed as ballet's premier deconstructionist postmodernist - though who knows quite what that means? I call him Mr. Post-Classicism.”7 Post-classical is an apt term for Forsythe’s work, because he is actively engaging and challenging the structure of classical ballet, whereas Cunningham casually quoted from classical ballet without consciously attempting to redefine its language. Cunningham took the components of a specific element in the ballet vocabulary—directionality, energetic quality, duration—and pasted them on the sides of dice and played Yahtzee with them to generate random combinations. In distinct contrast, Forsythe applies conscious manipulations (shear, fold, warp, translate) that ‘deconstruct’ ballet to its roots and intelligently selects operations (on duration, directionality, repetition) to elicit specific conditions from the movement material.

 

 

DIAGRAM AS PROCESS: GENERATION AND ANALYSIS

 

It was not until the twentieth century that the grid became the actual object of artistic rendering; prior to then, it was only a perspectival tool. The grid maps not the content but the canvas,8 so the shift of focus to the grid itself is synonymous with a redirection of attention to the field of creation itself from the figures it might contain. This is apparent in modernist art, with the constant appearance of the grid not in perspective but as a uniform, unending field in two dimensions. This non-perspectival rendition of the grid in the flat work of, for example, Mondrian, is translated into the axonometric drawing in representation of volume by his architectural contemporaries. According to Yve Alain Bois,

 

It [is] both logical and admirable that Eisenman, wanting to engage in a dialogue with the Modern Movement (De Stijl, Terragni, Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus), a dialogue that would be not simply an Oedipal protest but also a revision, would choose to take up that movement’s own favorite means of graphic communication.9

 

Again, Eisenman is engaging in direct conversation with his predecessors, just as Forsythe used the vocabulary of classical ballet. However, Eisenman does not solely use the axonometric drawing as a representation of the final built or to-be-built form, but as a catalogue of creation and analysis. He states, “The diagram is an intermediate or interstitial condition which lies between in space and time—between the architectural object and the interiority of architecture.”10

 

A unique characteristic of diagrams, which is necessary in their function of examining the strongly temporally based notion of process, is the attempt to collapse time. Forsythe states, “As poignant as the ephemerality of the act [of choreography] might be, its transient nature does not allow for sustained examination or even the possibility of objective, distinct readings from the position that language offers the sciences and other branches of arts that leave up synchronic artifacts for detailed inspection.”11 The diagram (and the grid) overcomes this ephemerality, allowing multiple changes over time to be registered in the same space, a function that lends itself equally well to generation and analysis of form, allowing for the creation of dance and, “architecture that has come to deviate from a priori geometry.”12

 

Assuming the reader is familiar with Eisenman’s diagrams, I think the following Quote from R.E. Somol’s introduction to Diagram Diaries will provide adequate support for the claims I have made about diagram thus far:

 

Through his axonometric diagrams, Eisenman argues that Terragni develops a conceptual ambiguity by superimposing two conceptions of space—additive/layered and subtractive/volumetric—neither of which is dominant, but each of which oscillates with the other indefinitely. The effect of this dual reading is not primarily aesthetic, but operates as an index of a deep structure: that is, it investigates and makes apparent the possibilities and limitations of the architectural language itself. Eisenman’s attention to form, then, can be seen as a means to advance this transformational method as both an analytic and synthetic design tool. It is an attempt to fulfill the historical avant-garde program of a temporal and spatial movement or dislocation that precludes any static contemplation of the high-art object… [and which] places the architectural object under erasure and initiates the process of its disappearance.13

 

The notational system that Eisenman developed in his analysis of Terragni is then employed as a generative tool in the design of his House series.

 

Likewise, Synchronous Objects, the name that Forsythe has given to the collected notational material for One Flat Thing, Reproduced acts as both an analytical and generative tool. Synchronous Objects is exactly what it says it is: a collection of “choreographic objects” that map, categorize, quantify, and qualify the dance. These objects act synchronously with each other and with the object of analysis. They function as a set of parametric tools which can act independently or in collaboration, and are offered to the public in the form of an interactive website. This website (synchronousobjects.osu.edu) and its contents are a result of a massive joint project between Forsythe and the Computer Science department at Ohio State University. One Flat Thing, Reproduced as a dance is comprised of twenty dancers performing twenty base movement phrases in the context of a grid of sixteen rectangular tables for a duration of about fifteen minutes. One of the main features of the website is annotated film footage of the dance, accompanied by a visual score. The score scrolls in synchronization with the dance; it is a record of every dancer’s sequence of specific movement phrases that also highlights “sync-up’s” and cues between dancers, and the duration and density of the movement phrases. The user also has control over viewpoint (top or frontal view) and visibility of formal and organizational notation that is superimposed on the video footage in the form of color-coded arcs, which persist slightly longer than the movement itself, and then quickly fade to make room for more annotations. Other modules, such as the “3DAlignmentForms” and “DataFan,” track the entire dance through a visually accumulative abstraction of a specific element of the choreography, resulting in an entirely new composition.

 

However, arguably the most innovative and useful features of the website are the interactive choreographic objects, which embody concepts that Forsythe used in the original creation of the dance and are here enacted as coded generative tools. All are interactive, visual environments in which the user sets parameters to define the control the choreography of the objects. Examples include the “Counterpoint Tool,” “GenerativeDrawing Tool,” and “VideoAbstraction Tool.” These tools give the user control over parameters such as density, speed, counterpoint, and viewing filters. The user has full agency to create her own perception of the dance itself, or, alternatively to find her own interplay of systems based on those used in the dance.

 

The collapse of time and the control of parameters that the grid offers are conducive to the practice and evincing of resistance, or heretical activity. Diagrams act as a palimpsest; they synthesize traces and overcome the failures of memory, allowing for both preservation and erasure which facilitates an understanding of how traces interact and the possible generation of alternative figures.  In terms of the creator, the diagram offers a way of understanding through synthesis of historical precedents and therefore aids in the creation of work that engages in meaningful conversation with its context and ancestors. Eisenman states,

 

The diagram does not generate in and of itself. It opens up the repression that limits a generative and transformative capacity, a repression that is constituted in both the anteriority of architecture and in the subject. The diagram does not in itself contain a process of overcoming repression. Rather, the diagram enables an author to overcome and access the history of the discourse while simultaneously overcoming his or her own physical resistance to such an act.15

 

Only through the diagram is Eisenman’s commentary on the politics of Terragni’s form as well as his process of formal manipulation in his Houses fully realized. Similarly, Forsythe’s systematic and thorough operations on the language of classical ballet only become fully effective through his use of diagram, which, in his case, are his formally abstracted choreographic objects.

 

In terms of the viewer, contemplation of the diagram, more so than the final product itself, elucidates the acts of heresy that the creators are committing. Regarding Terragni’s houses, Eisenman writes,

 

While traditional architecture tends to be understood sequentially and as an accumulation of perceptions intentionally ordered by an architect, the Casa Giuliani-Frigerio raises the possibility of a different kind of perception—accretion—the traversal of a path that is never unique or hierarchical. [These disjunctive fragments as opposed to a singular whole lead to a] more cognitive relationship between building and viewer—object and subject—than previous architectures.16

 

While experiencing the houses in the flesh is important, diagrams offer an augmented understanding of the architecture through offering additional perspectives in time, space, and authorial interpretation. Because diagrams consist of a language wholly conceived by the author, they require fresh intellectual work on behalf of the viewer to be understood. In the words of K. Michael Hays, a diagram is an “independent conceptual notational system distanced both from any external referent and from any determinable individual viewer… [in which the elements are] not only revealing and insisting on their own constructedness but also inviting, requiring even, a reciprocal productive activity of the reader or viewer.”17 This learning of a fresh language only makes it clearer where the author has deviated from past precedents.

 

Especially in the wake of Derrida, we know that written language as a comparative analytical tool is far from an infallible ideal. Given the instability of meaning inherent in words, their ability to communicate universally should not be left unquestioned. Deconstruction (of writing) opens the door to test a new system of analysis: the diagram. In the absence of preconceived meaning, (which, for words at least, is provided by the dictionary) the creation and use of diagrams necessitates the prior creation of a totally novel system of notation, in which the creator of that system has full agency to create her own definitions and rules, perfectly suited to the object of analysis, without having to take into consideration possible misunderstanding on behalf of the viewer due to a priori notions of meaning and use. Forsythe’s employment of methodically developed, parametrically rigorous choreographic objects is akin to the multidimensional functionality of diagram. His system, like Eisenman’s architecture, is incompatible with the linearity of language or the Derridean binary of absence/presence.

 

Eisenman and Forsythe propose provocative challenges to the design and organization of forms in their respective media, but they are careful practitioners. Diagrammatic methods at once legitimate their work through demonstration of extensive historical knowledge and a cataloguing of a non-arbitrary, intelligent process of artistic manipulation. Resistance, in the cases of Eisenman and Forsythe, is soundly and patiently plotted and executed, and for that it is all the more convincing.

 

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1 William Forsythe, “Choreographic Objects,” Synchronous Objects, accessed March 24, 2013, http://synchronousobjects.osu.edu/assets/objects/conceptThreadsAnimation/WilliamForsythe-ChoreographicObjects.pdf.

2 Sarah Crompton, “William Forsythe interview: Artifact is an ode to ballet,” The Telegraph, April 18, 2012, accessed March 24, 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/dance/9211413/William-Forsythe-interview-Artifact-is-an-ode-to-ballet.html.

3 R.E. Somol, introduction to Diagram Diaries, by Peter Eisenman (New York: Universe Publishing, 1999), 15.

4 Jeffrey Kipnis, introduction to Written Into the Void: Selected Writings 1990-2004, ed. Peter Eisenman (China: World Print, 2007), xi.

5 Ibid.

6 Sanjoy Roy, “Step-by-step guide to dance: William Forsythe,” The Guardian, October 7, 2008, accessed March 24, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2008/oct/07/william.forsythe.dance.

7 Ibid.

8 Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” October, Vol. 9 (1979): 52.

9 Yve-Alain Bois, “Surfaces,” In Cities of Artificial Excavation, ed. Jean-Francois Bedart (New York: Rizzoli, 1994), 38.

10 Peter Eisenman, “Diagram: An Original Scene of Writing,” in Written Into the Void: Selected Writings 1990-2004, ed. Peter Eisenman (China: World Print, 2007), 93.

11 Synchronous Objects.

12 Somol, introduction, 15.

13 Ibid p.16.

14 Eisenman, “Diagram,” 92.

15 Ibid p.94.

16 Peter Eisenman, “Terragni and the Idea of a Critical Text,” in Written Into the Void: Selected Writings 1990-2004, ed. Peter Eisenman (China: World Print, 2007), 128.

17  K. Michael Hays, Architecture’s Desire: Reading the Late Avant-Garde, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), 58.

// SAM GEBB

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