According the plan outlined in the introduction to The Commons Crit, we are providing two takes on Justin Tornow’s Performance as Responsive Practice, which took place May 31 in The Commons festival at CURRENT. One writer, Michaela Dwyer, was only privy to the final showing, while the other, Chris Vitiello, was embedded with Tornow throughout the month-long residency and development process. We invite you to compare the outcomes, and read Chris’s prior pieces here and here.

By Chris Vitiello, embedded writer

How do you measure the success of a happening?

When seeing a performance, most people tend to ask themselves, “What did that mean?” But when experiencing any other type of event, the more likely question is “What just happened?” What if, instead of analyzing a performance in order to construct meaning, you could just allow yourself to experience it as a part of your life?

Tornow’s happening encouraged this switching of tracks from significance to experience. Audience members entered CURRENT to find six activity stations set up around the perimeter, each with a short textual score about what to do there. These included a crafts table, a sound station where Caitlyn Swett electronically manipulated audience sounds, and a station where dice rolls determined pages of John Cage books from which to read aloud.

After allowing people to explore, Tornow had everyone sit down in a circle for an introduction and a body-awareness exercise. We were then released back into the room to visit the stations. A timer projected on the wall counted down to when the happening would end. After about half an hour, most people had run through all the stations, and the noisy atmosphere turned more manic. People left the scores behind and experimented increasingly freely at the stations.

By way of ending all together, Tornow brought everyone into a Pauline Oliveros sonic-awareness exercise. We each alternated between singing a tone that we heard someone near us singing and singing a different tone from a proximate one. The room filled with sonorous voices. Then we all applauded, returned to our circle for a talkback with Tornow, and applauded again at the end.

Was this happening “successful?”

As a critic I need to switch tracks, too, from analyzing this primarily as a performance with intended content to thinking solely about my experience of the event. But I’m stuck on the significance track. 

If there had been no official timing or start or finish, no hired photographer, and no ushers standing around, if people could have just interacted with stations and each other until deciding to leave, I could have switched tracks. Because the show had a formal introduction and talkback, and the audience applauded at the same moments as in a regular show, the track switching was undermined for me. Structurally, the evening offered a quite conventional performance, albeit an interactive and nonlinear one. And we all, as audience members, behaved accordingly.

I’m tempted to say that this wasn’t a happening, that it didn’t get there. But then again, in the middle, it did seem to get there. I watched people explore the space with curiosity, joy, anxiety, mischief, obedience, and many other emotions that are almost never activated when they sit in the dark at a staged show.

As for my initial question, it turns out to be pretty useless. Happenings happen. And we’re too socially programmed to just let them . We—myself included—seem compelled to frame and analyze them. Naming an experience automatically gives it certain significance. But if you can switch tracks to the action itself, maybe just for a few moments, perhaps that is enough to call it a success.

By Michaela Dwyer, final writer

What did it look like? Here’s one version: a long rectangular room. Individual stations designated by tables laden with objects: dice, books, radios, microphones. Amplifiers. Projectors and screens. And then, “us,” pushing chairs, zoning out, distorting our voices, splaying ourselves across beanbag chairs. At each station there are tiny typewritten performance scores—“recipes for action,” Justin Tornow tells us before we disperse for an hour to explore in the space.

I start with a score on a yellow slip of paper, handed to me by an usher:

Locate an object in the space, then move it to a new location.

(You lose the slip. You pat your limbs frantically to find it, but also to remind yourself that you’re still all there. The losing is a form of moving.)

What did it feel like? Here’s one version: frenzy, meditation, surveillance. The evening-length exercise carries the sensation of slipping, like a Dalí clock, like the topography of my face after taking migraine medication. I’m sensitive to the timer’s hour-long countdown, beamed onto a wall. I feel constantly that I am late, that my listening is broken.

Not until two days after this happening, via photo documentation on Facebook, do I fully grasp the event’s overall score:

Mine—endless deviations—were more like:

Break the frame, but stay present.

(You crouch in front of a friend who’s reading from a John Cage text. “What are you reading?” you whine-ask. You’re performing. “Do you liiiike Cage?”

He responds: “Is that your score or are you losing your mind?”)

Your score, my score. Who owns the instruction or action when both involve deliberations between the lines? The question points toward the performance score’s artistic and social capacity, and its charge: to expansively imagine the possibilities of move-making in any register.

Notice your energy. Lean into one end of its spectrum. Direct it at something or someone.

(Overactivated, you’re emboldened to be mean, destructive; you remember a suggestion projected in the entryway: “make ethical choices.” But being kind is not the same as being ethical.)

We’re acting out a weird version of togetherness in this container. I know but don’t know these people. Preoccupied with the object-oriented instructions at each station, I find it hard to parse and pierce the glazed familiarity between moving bodies. What have we consented to? What do we owe each other: cooperation, eye contact, apology? All my thoughts are sublimated in fidgeting with a radio dial.

Disappear. Re-emerge somewhere else.

(You decide to crawl, military-style, through a fortress of chairs. You’d like to stay underneath for a while, but you sense the structure’s precarity. You elbow toward the other end, and just in time, someone puts a pillow down to cushion your arrival.)

Near the evening’s start, Tornow asks us to meet someone else’s gaze and then change places. I find this score generative in its simple insistence on accountability, its affirmation that individual decisions always resonate beyond a single body. Responsiveness and responsibility function as twin fulcrums. 

In my swirling remembrance days later, I land, over and over, on that pillow and in the care of the hand that placed it. Limbs all there? Yes. Am I, are we, all there? Yes.