a curious, chancy little solo

From a review of the What Remains festival by Guardian dance critic, Judith Mackrell:

…Warhol did, however, catch [Herko] on camera before that, in the 1963 film Roller Skate, in which Herko attempted to dance all over New York on one roller skate. The film is now lost, but Atherton reimagines it in his own 35-minute solo, dressed in the same WMCA Good Guys sweatshirt that Herko wore in the film; executing his own one-skate “dance” while simultaneously reading aloud extracts from memoirs and biography that related to Herko’s life.

It’s a curious, chancy little solo. Perhaps in tribute to Warhol’s trademark style of blurring art and life, Atherton makes no effort towards a polished performance. Hunched, wobbling and tense, he scoots aimlessly around the studio, sometimes pausing to balance awkwardly on his one skate, at one point attempting a half-baked imitation of the classical attitude in which Herko glided through New York, his leg gracefully lifted behind him, according to Warhol, his “head lifted” his “throat free.”

Atherton’s vocal delivery is just as casual as his physical style. The material he’s assembled is riveting, portraying Herko’s New York as a place of skuzzy apartments and glamorous parties, of artistic ferment and promiscuous gay sex. Yet Atherton doesn’t attempt to make any kind of theatrical impact with the story – on the contrary, he stumbles and mumbles his words and occasionally drops the paper he’s reading from.

What might seem like wilfully irksome defects in another context, however, make a kind of sense here. Herko was attempting the impossible in Warhol’s film – towards the end of his marathon performance he was apparently hobbling and bleeding, and his pain was said to have been as interesting to Warhol as his most dancerly flights. Like Warhol too, Herko identified himself with a culture that rejected the polish of high art for the novelty of the pedestrian and raw. And most interestingly, to Atherton, Herko was also part of a gay community whose history remains largely untold, so what’s known about him now has been gleaned from fragments of gossip and anecdote. Atherton’s fragmented, half-achieved solo attempts to honour all these elements. And even though, as a standalone work, it’s too awkward and tenuous to succeed in a theatre, it takes on a convincing resonance in this festival context – lodged among works exploring parallel ideas, among artists making parallel journeys.

 

Possibilities for a Pleasant Outing

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This weekend (21-22 May) I’m showing the Fred Herko piece commissioned by Siobhan Davies Dance for What Remains… Anatomy of an Artist: a festival of 10 new works that I’ve been working on for the past nine months or so. It includes the following essay and bibliography:

 

Possibilities for a Pleasant Outing

There’s a bit in the collage of texts spoken in Possibilities for a Pleasant Outing in which Donald McDonagh lists all the roles — the “job descriptions” if you like — that might be attributed to Fred Herko: “…scene designer, underground movie star, ad hoc couturier, textile designer, interior decorator, babysitter, corporation officer…”. It was an attempt, I think, at preserving for posterity the fullness of an artist’s life not quite contained by the labels “dancer” and “choreographer” (as well as to let some light in on one shadowed by the staggering monumentality of its termination).

There is scant biography within the piece — after all a life-story is like a string, bluntly cut at each end, and here we are talking traces: tangled, unravelling messes; full of promise for the forensicist — so a little background… Fred Herko (1936–64) grew up in Ossining, New York. While studying piano at the Juilliard School of Music, he discovered dance and in 1956 won a scholarship to study at American Ballet Theatre School, taking extracurricular classes with Merce Cunningham and James Waring. He was a founding member of both the New York Poets Theatre — with Diane di Prima, LeRoi Jones, James Waring and Alan Marlowe — and the Judson Dance Theatre, where he contributed two original pieces to the inaugural concert alongside Yvonne Rainer and Deborah Hay.

Herko is all over early 1960s New York. At the Factory he could be found among the “mole people” — the subterranean speedfreak superstars burrowing down at the back — and starred in a handful of early Warhol films. So although he left virtually no written records, echoes of him resound widely, so much so that amid nine months of research I came to realise that the piece might exist without significant reference to the part of Herko’s life for which he has become most famous: his death, the moment from which his story is often told. Unsurprisingly so — it is dramatic: in 1964, following a rapid decline in physical and mental health, Herko danced out of a fifth-storey window. Whether this was the staged suicide performance he’d often spoken of, or the unwitting final act of someone who believed he could fly, no one can be certain. Addressing the way in which traces form strata of significance in varying widths prompted me to place my focus elsewhere, on a by-all-accounts more “positive” event: the making of Roller Skate, a now lost Warhol film from 1963.

Working outward from an absence — that of the original artefact — through descriptions of the film, poems, essays, articles, other films, accounts from those who knew Herko intimately and those whose lives brushed his only fleetingly, the process of confronting a queer archive became an integral part of the work. In lieu of an official record, ingrained perceptions, fuzzy memories and fealties come into play, all telling tales that slip around each other, never quite settling; gossip, rumour and speculation take on new value here and omissions reveal greater truths about the shape of queer history more broadly.

For Possibilities for a Pleasant Outing, I collaged fragments pulled from the pile of amassed material to create a text oscillating, I think, between lecture and poem. To make this physical I wanted to attempt something Herko excelled in: roller skating on a single skate. As a non-performer — challenged by tasks requiring dexterity and balance — the possibility of foundering seemed high, but I was interested in an idea that this failure might somehow provide a strategy with which to engage with Freddie, whose transgressions, unprofessionalism and self-destruction might commonly be perceived as failures, creating a sort of transtemporal dialogue. In turn, the texture of the language, the play with gravity and a tuning into phenomenological readings of a space thickly charged with its own traces of professionalism, skill and ability, has opened up my body to another language, one which has required trust, if not understanding.

Jamie Atherton, 2016

 

Bibliography

The spoken part of Possibilities for a Pleasant Outing consists entirely of text gleaned from a wide array of sources, cut-up, stitched together and occasionally slightly modified.

Douglas Crimp, “Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol, 2012

John Daley, ‘Billy Linich’s Party’, The Floating Bear, issue 27, November, 1963

John Daley, letter published in The Floating Bear, October 1963, quoted in Reva Wolf, Andy Warhol, Poetry, and Gossip in the 1960s, 1997

Samuel R. Delany, ‘Coming/Out’, Shorter Views, 2000

Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren, 1975

Edwin Denby, letter published in The Floating Bear, issue 19, 1962

Diane di Prima, ‘For Freddie, Fucking Again’, December 1959, Freddie Poems, 1974

Diane di Prima, ‘Formal Birthday Poem’, February 1964, Freddie Poems, 1974

Diane di Prima, ‘Freddie’s Monologue’, January 1965, Freddie Poems, 1974

Diane di Prima, ‘Invocation, a Birthday Poem for Freddi-O, February 23, 1957’, Freddie Poems, 1974

Diane di Prima, ‘Pome About Freddie’ 1958, Freddie Poems, 1974

Diane di Prima, Memoirs of my Life as a Woman, 2001

Grace Glueck, ‘Art Notes’, The New York Times, 26 January 1964

Fred Herko, Resume

Jill Johnston quoted in Sally Banes, Democracy’s Body: Judson Dance Theater, 1962-1964, 1983

Ray Johnston, ‘Review by Ray Johnston (In the Style of Floating Bear)’, The Floating Bear, issue 27, November, 1963

Stephen Koch, Stargazer: The Life, World and Films of Andy Warhol, 1991

Rosalind E. Krauss, ‘Mechanical Ballets: Light, Motion Theatre’, 1977, from Dance (Whitechapel: Documents of Contemporary Art), 2012

Gerard Malanga, ‘To Come and Leave Nothing Behind’, poem quoted in full in Donald McDonagh, ‘The Incandescent Innocent’, Film Culture, volume 45, 1967

Donald McDonagh, ‘The Incandescent Innocent’, Film Culture, volume 45, 1967

Frank O’Hara, ‘Dances Before the Wall’, 1959

Steve Paxton, quoted in Sally Banes, Democracy’s Body: Judson Dance Theater, 1962-1964, 1983

Yvonne Rainer, Feelings Are Facts, 2006

Mary Renault, The Bull from the Sea, 1962

Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica, 3rd century BC

Susan Sontag, Notes on “Camp”, 1964

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover, 1992

Amy Taubin quoted in Thomas Waugh, ‘Cockteaser’, from Doyle, Flatley, & Muñoz (editors), Pop Out: Queer Warhol, 1996

Unidentified author, ‘Rollerskate’, poem published in The Floating Bear, issue 29, 1964

Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism, 1980

James Waring, ‘Untitled poem’, c.1960

 

A selection of other texts — not sourced from directly — that have informed the work:

 

Paisid Aramphongphan, Real Professionals? Andy Warhol, Fred Herko, and Dance, http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/PAJJ_a_00255

Gavin Butt, Between You and Me: Queer Disclosures in the New York Art World, 1948–1963, 2005

Roger Copeland, Seeing without participating: Andy Warhol’s unshakeable determination not to be moved, http://ausdance.org.au/articles/details/seeing-without-participating

Leanne Gilbertson, Theatre Quote Unquote:* The Expansive Gestures of the New York Poets Theatre (American Theatre for Poets, Inc.), http://l.pastelegram.org/features/852

Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, 2011

Joshua Lubin-Levy (editor), Fred Herko: A Course Packet, Part 2, https://issuu.com/lumpen/docs/herko_web_copy_6/1?e=12191703/12434504

José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia, 2009 (Specifically chapter 9, A Jeté Out the Window: Fred Herko’s Incandescent Illumination)

Cameron Williams, Reading Frank O’Hara’s Loves Labor: an eclogue, an elegy for the New York Poets Theatre, http://l.pastelegram.org/features/857

Inventing the future

Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams:

From the radical left’s discomfort with technological modernity to the social democratic left’s inability to envision an alternative world, everywhere today the future has largely been ceded by the right. A skill that the left once excelled at — building enticing visions for a better world — has deteriorated after years of neglect.

Liking loss more than fulfillment

Possibilities development still 04b

Possibilities for a Pleasant Outing, a performance I’m currently developing for What remains… Anatomy of an Artist: a festival of 10 new works which takes place at Siobhan Davies Dance in May, is an attempt at making tangible a body of research  — both in terms of the strands and traces of biographical/archival information, and also the provocations arising from the process of research: the particularities of navigating a queer archive (that of dancer and choreographer Fred Herko), the responsibilities — or otherwise — of dealing in ephemera, gossip and rumour, as well as mistakes and misinformation.

Two excerpts from Fred Herko: A Course Packet, Part 2, edited by Joshua Lubin-Levy

Heather Love, Wanted: Failure

In the case of Fred Herko, the lure is almost irresistible. The image of the beautiful loser, the doomed but endlessly appealing outsider, emits what José Esteban Muñoz calls “burning queer incandescence.” Add to that the fact that we have so little evidence of Herko’s life, that he worked in an ephemeral medium, that it is so hard to touch him, and you will see why doing queer history might require liking loss more than fulfillment.

Ara Osterweil, Vanishing Acts: Meditations on Fred Herko, Andy Warhol, and What Disappears Beyond the Frame:

Writing queer history, or writing history queerly, asks us to ponder a series of vanishing acts, and the forensic traces they may or may not leave on the scene.

All along I’ve been pursuing failure as a possible strategy, and it remains — if this is not too much of a paradox — a vital tactic (how might the actual limitations of my physicality contribute to the work?). However as I spend more time in the performance space, an effort towards engaging (ie attempting to understand), and locating “body knowledge” must also come into play. This is not a separate route but a reworking and strengthening — a bolstering — of the one I’m already travelling down.

 

A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be

Ursula K. Le Guin, A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be:

Utopia has been euclidean, it has been European, and it has been masculine. I am trying to suggest, in an evasive, distrustful, untrustworthy fashion, and as obscurely as I can, that our final loss of faith in that radiant sandcastle may enable our eyes to adjust to a dimmer light and in it perceive another kind of utopia. As this utopia would not be euclidean, European, or masculinist, my terms and images in speaking of it must be tentative and seem peculiar.

Non-European, non-euclidean, non-masculinist: they are all negative definitions, which is all right, but tiresome; and the last is unsatisfactory, as it might be taken to mean that the utopia I’m trying to approach could only be imagined by women — which is possible — or only inhabited by women — which is intolerable. Perhaps the word I need is yin. Utopia has been yang. In one way or another, from Plato on, utopia has been the big yang motorcycle trip. Bright, dry, clear, strong, firm, active, aggressive, lineal, progressive, creative, expanding, advancing, and hot. Our civilization is now so intensely yang that any imagination of bettering its injustices or eluding its self-destructiveness must involve a reversal. …To attain the constant, we must return, go round, go inward, go yinward. What would a yin utopia be? It would be dark, wet, obscure, weak, yielding, passive, participatory, circular, cyclical, peaceful, nurturant, retreating, contracting, and cold.

I have not been convincingly shown, and seem to be totally incapable of imagining for myself, how any further technological advance of any kind will bring us any closer to being a society predominantly concerned with preserving its existence; a society with a modest standard of living, conservative of natural resources, with a low constant fertility rate and a political life based upon consent; a society that has made a successful adaptation to its environment and has learned to live without destroying itself or the people next door. But that is the society I want to be able to imagine — I must be able to imagine, for one does not get on without hope.

The full text can be found here.

all their days have rendered ludicrous their judgements on the night

Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren:

They play me into violent postures. Adrift in the violent city, I do not know what stickum tacks words and tongue. Hold them there, cradled on the muscular floor. Nothing will happen. What is the simplest way to say to someone like Kamp or Denny or Lanya that all their days have rendered ludicrous their judgements on the night? I can write at it. Why loose it on the half-day? Holding it in the mouth distills an anger dribbling bitter back of the throat, a substance for the hand. This is not what I am thinking. This is merely (he thought) what thinking feels like.