Meredith Monk: Perception as Content

Isla Leaver-Yap

Reviews / 14.04.2010

'The use of sign language', said Alexander Graham Bell in 1871, 'is pernicious. For the only way by which language can be thoroughly mastered is by using it for the communication of thought without translation into any other sign language.'1 In Graham Bell's response to his deaf wife's desire to learn sign language, he suggests not only the primacy of the oral and written word, but also reveals his anxiety behind its transferral into other perceptual or gestural forms - in this case bodily communication.

Graham Bell, although a strong advocate of oral speech articulation in the deaf, never permitted his wife to learn sign language. In his view, supplanting the word with non-verbal forms was to directly denigrate its original content. The removal of language's essential structures in favour of the gesture was surely a decivilising act. But Graham Bell's primary concern stems from the apparent lack of consistency within alternative forms of communication: forms that combine a sensual or physical experience with a linguistic one. Inconsistency appears as a threat to linguistic comprehension.

Yet the tyranny of Graham Bell's monoliguistic endeavour has been rebuffed ever since. From Walter Benjamin's support of the transformative properties of sensuous mimeticism within forms of representation, Giorgio Agamben's concern over society's loss of gesture, to Susan Sontag's rallying cry for a sensory, erotic experience of art to rival a hermeneutic approach to criticism, the possibilities for alternative and multiple forms of physical language have been interrogated, expanded and supported.

Within the realm of performance, however, the problem of inconsistency has dogged attempts to build language systems that straddle the linguistic and the physical. Attentive to such criticism, the artist Meredith Monk shrewdly noted in her diary, January 1970: 'Most people only think of the containers, the names, the certain times, the repeatability, the objecthood. In theater process, mixture - category-lessness - is not understood. Sometimes inconsistency is actually consistency.' With her tone inflected both by frustration and ambition, Monk concludes, 'It is the conscious effort at inconsistency which is consistency.'2

Meredith Monk, '16mm Earrings', 1966, performance, still. Courtesy the artist

The possibility of meaningful content without words, where sensual physical perception is used in place of nonsensuous forms, is the basis of Monk's prolific output. She has found ways of making inconsistency both positive and plural, often working in collaboration with her ensemble, and with a sprawling range of references. From the internal relations between voice, movement and object in her early performance 16mm Earrings (1966), the aggressive and epic opera Quarry (1976), to the lean four-piece cabaret work Turtle Dreams (1981), she has worked as a composer, choreographer, dancer, singer and film-maker. Known perhaps most famously for her development of extended vocal technique in music, Monk has long been mistrustful of the word and its dominance as a form of communication. Arguing that communication is caught between the voice and language, she frowns on paper memorisation of her musical work, arguing for an acuteness of listening, not of reading. It is unsurprising that Monk's practice has eluded any single discipline, favouring instead an eclectic synthesis under the open term of artist. Monk's persistent inconsistency, then, is a byword for her freedom between forms.

Born in New York, 1942, Monk learned Dalcroze Eurhythmics - a method of physical expression of musical rhythms - as a child in order to help her overcome an eye problem and enhance her sense of balance. An early flair for dance earned her a place at the prestigious Sarah Lawrence College, where she went on to develop a highly idiosyncratic performance vocabulary, working in both the voice and dance departments (she was permitted to create her own combined study programme). During Monk's college years, the parameters of performance were then being redefined by New York's Judson Dance Theater, a group of practitioners who included Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton, among others. Rainer's infamous 'No Manifesto' (1965)3 was, however, the antithesis of Monk's highly synthetic approach. As Monk recalls, 'I was ten years younger than the people at Judson. I was fighting the Judson Dance Theater in my mind. At the time Rainer was saying 'no' to theatricality, I was saying 'yes'; she was saying 'no' to magic, I was saying 'yes' to magic; 'no' to transcendence, 'yes' to transcendence.'4

In the 1970s Monk's practice garnered critical attention in mainstream contemporary music, but her work has long remained on the periphery of discussions within contemporary art, despite various collaborations with artists such as Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, Carolee Schneemann, Dick Higgins and Ping Chong. Her early work sidestepped much of the debates surrounding the Judson group, and her composite oeuvre of voice, film, gesture and dance unfashionably worked against the grain of Minimalism. Of the period Monk notes, 'Minimalism was so much the currency of that time, but my mind went in a different direction. I was more interested in layering different mediums or perceptions. I wanted to create a mosaic way of working.'

The first work to interrogate this style was her solo performance 16mm Earrings, made when Monk was 23 years old. Describing it as a personal breakthrough in terms of how it shaped her later work, 16mm Earrings is a matrix for Monk's practice: a heady collision of sound, film, dance and voice. Working with various fragments and fictional scenarios - including a reading of Wilhelm Reich's text 'The Function of Orgasm' (1940); a series of 16mm films projected onto Monk's body and onto customised screens; a rendition of 'Greensleeves', slowed, looped and expanded; and a paper effigy of Monk that burns at the climax of the performance - 16mm Earrings comprises of an eccentric and personal syntax of gesture and image, where the former attempts to physicalise the latter.

Originally performed in the Judson Theater space in 1966, and later reconstructed for Robert Withers's film documentation ten years later, 16mm Earrings is a work of internal metaphor. Objects become ciphers and surrogates for one another. At one point, Monk dons a red wig that finds its correspondence in streams of red crepe paper blown about centre stage, while the paper provides a symbolic precursor to the film projection of fire. 'It's about the equivalence of objects,' says Monk. 'I thought of them as rhymes within a poem.

'In 16mm Earrings I realised that anything in my life could be used as material: my hair, my body, my crossed eyes, anything about me physically or mentally. I could objectify it. I didn't feel I was doing a confessional piece at all; it was just the opposite of someone like Karen Finley.'

While 16mm Earrings presented a sensual engagement with image, Monk's subsequent works excavated history and myth in non-linear forms. Her opera Vessel (1971) was a largely abstract work that used the story of Joan of Arc as a known mythic base in order to short-circuit the need to 'tell' a story at all. Monk also sought to alternate her scales of production, continually reworking the relationship between audience and event. In this vein, she developed Juice (1969), a theatre cantata dispersed over five weeks and three locations: the monumental setting of the Guggenheim, the court space of a disused Manhattan parking lot and the domesticity of Monk's own Tribeca loft. As the performance unfolded, the instalments were not only translated by experience, but more specifically by the memory of what had come before.5

With Juice and Vessel she seemed to reach the threshold of the possibilities of building textured and non-linear environments through theatrical means; subsequently, Monk's work took a shockingly sparse turn in her performance piece Turtle Dreams. The work was originally performed at Plexus Club in Chelsea, New York and later developed into a dreamy sci-fi video directed by Ping Chong.6 Produced in reaction to her growing frustration and boredom with proscenium theatre, Monk decisively moved away from theatrical unity and the illusionism of the fourth wall. Immersed in the far more slippery form of cabaret, she created an incongruous synthesis of chamber music, uniform movement and anti-narrative performance.

Throughout the five acts of Turtle Dreams, a quartet of two men and two women sway and goose-step with fascist regularity around a small, unadorned stage. Dressed as Manhattan yuppies, their left-right/back-forward movement acquires the strut of walking through the city grid. One player occasionally dares to break from the controlled march, either by individuating movement or voice, but in doing so her gestures increasingly appear as erratic, hysterical outbursts. While three performers continue in their steady waltz, the lone performer collapses in a convulsive heap.

'It has a very Cassandra-like quality,' says Monk, 'like the prophet or the warning of disaster before the bomb. It's before the disaster and post disaster. It's a reflection of the society then. But it was all non-verbal.'

While Monk's prior works, perhaps with the highly abstract exception of 16mm Earrings, were deeply invested in the pastoral, Turtle Dreams is one of her few works to focus on urban reality. Spurred by the desire to articulate the experience of daily life in New York in the shadow of nuclear threat, Monk made the work in 1981, one year into the new Reagan era, which was already entrenched in Cold War paranoia. 'It's a slick work,' says Monk 'There's a flatness, a surface style to the people, and maybe a kind of narcissism too - an ironic relationship to reality.'

One of Monk's most aggressive and direct works, Turtle Dreams is a theatre of gestures. With their deadpan expressions, the players embody archetypes of city dwellers rather than psychological characters. The proximity of players to audience, and the blank stare that they deliver, push Turtle Dreams into a place of intimate hostility, where the emotional charge does not derive from the content but from the format and tone in the work.7 Monk casually jokes that the work lacks any content whatsoever, but in doing so she simultaneously reveals that, as in Julian Beck's words, perception is content.

While Monk's practice may have existed on the margins of contemporary art, her heterogeneous oeuvre offers support and validity to art making that relies not on the consistency of a singular method, but rather on the absolute commitment to the internal logic of an individual work. It helpfully moves discussion away from identifiable and consistent practice, and towards an emphasis on polyvalent and synthetic forms of working, where the medium of perception is the core concern. The entangling of physical movement and sound is not a messy loss of coherence, then, but an integration of forms in search of a language of equivalence and transformation.

  1. Quoted in Anne Carson, 'The Gender of Sound', Glass, Irony and God, New York: New Directions, 1995, p.128.

  2. Published in Deborah Jowitt (ed.), Meredith Monk, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997, p.30.

  3. 'No to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe no to the glamour and transcendence of the star image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved.' From 'No Manifesto', 1965, reprinted in Yvonne Rainer, Feelings are Facts, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2006, p.263.

  4. With the exception of a few colour photographs, Juice is an unrepeated performance that exists only in the memory of those who attended.

  5. Describing the venue, Monk says 'In those days the West 20s was not that chichi place that it Chelsea is now. It was really funky. Later on I discovered that my lighting designer had plugged the lights into a single socket that was coming from next door and we nearly burned the place down. We also found out that Plexus was probably a front for drugs sales.'

  6. In her description of the cabaret form, Lisa Appignanesi defines the cabaret genre as one where player and audience exist at the nodal points of participation and provocation. L. Appignanesi,Cabaret: The First Hundred Years, London: Studio Vista, 1975, p.17.