My friend Sam and I were recently talking about the point where an action turns into a performance. The conversation was prompted by his story, about a night last winter when he walked home through Chicago’s icy streets and Sam started kicking a piece of ice to preoccupy himself along the way. At a certain point, when he decided to kick the ice home, the game took on a more serious quality and became a performance. He took pictures on his phone. He recorded video footage. He wrote a blog post about it the next day. When a pedestrian walking in the opposite direction passed him and kicked the ice back toward Sam, this interaction became part of the performance, too. What was it that made my friend’s playful action into art? It seems, quite simply, his quality of attention and focus, and this documentation.
In one sense, writing isn’t very different. Writers sit habitually before their keyboards (or with a pen and paper at the ready), and in doing this attempt to isolate moments from life and reframe them on the page. Another way of understanding the performative in the literary is through John Cage, who said that literature, “if it is understood as printed material, has the characteristic of objects in space, but, understood as a performance, it takes on the aspects of processes in time.” The blurring of time and space, and of art and life, are central to Cage’s conception of art, that “art should not be different [from] life but an action within life.” An action as habitual as brushing your teeth can become art if a certain conscious attention is paid to it. Alan Kaprow, Fluxus member behind the Happenings, made a point to say that an artist’s renewed awareness of performing a repetitive action can reinvigorate this action, that “Ordinary life performed as art/not art can change the everyday with metaphoric power.”
This blurring of art and life by turning the everyday into art is an idea central to Barbara Browning’s latest novel, I’m Trying to Reach You. The novel borrows its title from the working title of a book that the narrator, dancer-turned-academic Gray Adams, is writing from his dissertation, during a post-doc year in NYU’s department of Performance Studies. Gray is never not researching. He’s always observing, texting, photographing, and scouring the Internet for material, especially YouTube, his “first resort in dealing with questions from the answerable to the unfathomable.” In these preoccupations, he ends up far more focused on novel writing than fulfilling his academic obligations, and as a result he leans heavily on this fiction to generate his academic work.
For an academic who comes to performance through what he calls “the more literal and slightly less fashionable side of the spectrum” of performance dance, Gray is a virtuoso at dissolving boundaries and conflating art and life. His novel largely borrows from his life. He begins writing in the summer of 2009, when he is in Zagreb attending an international performance conference on the day that Michael Jackson dies. Jackson’s death fuels Gray’s first line, “I was in Zagreb the day Michael Jackson died,” and from this the rest of the novel unfurls. Jackson’s demise is significant not only because of its untimeliness, but also because his death marks the first of three innovative dancers. Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham follow in a matter of weeks, and this has Gray turning to YouTube for answers regarding the cryptic cosmic meaning contained within the coincidence.
It’s through his YouTube investigation that Gray discovers the mysterious and captivating videos of a dancer, posted by falserebelmoth. Gray is accustomed to reading messages into contemporary dance – his dissertation focused on semaphore mime in contemporary ballet choreography – and he reads into falserebelmoth’s dance, too, which includes a brief moonwalk homage to MJ. Gray observes that the dancer’s “gestures become more idiosyncratic and mysterious, as though she were trying to communicate some information.” Subsequent videos are posted with each death, and Gray lurks in an attempt to decipher their hidden meaning, viewing each video multiple times and scouring the comment thread. Gray’s desire to uncover a message, coupled with his multiple, seemingly related run-ins with a Jimmy Stewart lookalike, keeps him curious and on his toes. It also provides him with an abundance of material for his novel.
Browning integrates social media and contemporary modes of communication within the text as if it were second nature. Culturally we’re so constantly immersed in multiple layers of media – text messaging, emailing, chatting, posting photos and videos, and yet so few books actually convey this fluency with digital media (as was noted in a recent Millions essay, on the role of technology in fiction). But Browning pulls this off seamlessly. Images and video stills are integrated within the text. A picture of prized heirloom tomatoes snagged from a farmers market is snapped for later posting on Facebook; there are fruitless, patience-trying digressions within comments sections; text messages are volleyed back and forth across the Atlantic between Gray and his Swedish boyfriend; and Gray is always taking photos – to document the everyday, to research, to examine, to immortalize. Such is the case with the picture Gray takes of a man riding a stationary bike on his patio across the courtyard (also a nod to Hitchcock’s Rear Window). He reflects:
Documenting the guy across the courtyard was a way of gathering information for the book I might write. A kind of research. But after I’d taken the picture, I felt a little creepy. I made myself nervous wondering if anybody on the other side had noticed me taking the picture, and if they might have taken a picture of me taking a picture of the guy on a stationary bike.
This kind of lurking, in life and online, is something Gray touches on during his final academic talk of the year. He borrows heavily from Lauren Berlant (whose essay he found last-minute via Google search) when he says that we are increasingly “overheard and understated.” Gray is constantly listening in and observing others, whether they’re across the courtyard or leaving coded commentary, to fuel research for his novel, his academic papers, his performances. They are one in the same.
Life material becomes novel material, both for Gray Adams, and for Barbara Browning. Browning, too, was in Zagreb attending the very same conference on the day that Michael Jackson died. Browning, like her narrator, is an academic who teaches at the same university, in the department of Performance Studies. It’s significant to note that Browning refers to I’m Trying to Reach You, “not [as] a novel but a multimedia project linked to a series of chamber choreographies.” New digital media figures centrally within I’m Trying to Reach You; it provides the framework for Gray’s existence, as a tool for communication, for finding and archiving information, for documenting, for seeking solace while searching for an answer he has yet to find. But it dually becomes a medium for obfuscation, for misreading, for unleashing a labyrinth of potential meanings and inferences that may or may not exist.
Images of the twelve “chamber choreographies” that Gray watches are printed within the text. The videos are also posted for the reader to view on YouTube. In these videos, Browning is falserebelmoth, the dancer that Gray is watching. And so, if Gray Adams is Browning’s doppelganger, then falserebelmoth is another incarnation of the author, too, and through Gray’s gaze, she’s watching herself. By viewing Browning’s intimate dance performances, which take place in domestic quarters, we readers are made even more keenly aware of Browning’s multiple performances, the way that she parlays life into her art, and that every aspect of this novel constitutes an element of Browning’s performance. This fittingly is in line with Merce Cunningham’s emphasis of “each element in the spectacle.” And all the while, we readers are lurking and overhearing, watching Gray who is watching others, following Gray to YouTube, watching Browning as falserebelmoth dance in a bathtub. And by doing so, we are made newly aware of our own constant lurking, within the book and within our own lives too.