Framing desire: Womane, encore

Framing desire:
Womane, encore

Ana Fazekaš

  Desire for knowledge is the mark of the beast: Aristotle says, “All men reach out to know”. As you perceive the edge of yourself at the moment of desire, as you perceive the edges of words from moment to moment in reading (or writing), you are stirred to reach beyond perceptible edges – toward something else, something not yet grasped. The unplucked apple, the beloved just out of touch, the meaning not quite attained, are desirable objects of knowledge. It is the enterprise of eros to keep them so. The unknown must remain unknown or the novel ends. As all paradoxes are, in some way, paradoxes about paradox, so all eros is, to some degree, desire for desire.
  Anne Carson: Erosthe Bittersweet

I. To desire/to know/to desire/to know

  At some point you will have to say what you desire.
  H. Pr.

  There is no question more penetrating than the one that refers to the nature and direction of our desire, the object of our desire. “What do you desire?” dissolves mind-body as the scalpel of the Anatomist who dissects live tissue and explores what moves our being. Freud’s wail in the letter to Marie Bonaparte, “What does a woman want?”, became a feminist running joke in the following decades; however, something saturated is placed within the question mark of that rhetorical question, something possibly more valuable than impossible answers. Classical mommy, daddy & me love triangle aside, psychoanalysis appeals to its least pragmatic fans because of its oblique focus on all that evades a focussed view, as a clinical philosophy of desire and sexuality, phantasmatic formations that build the fragile illusion of our realities. Masculinity and femininity are not complete categories in the basic psychoanalytic schema, but loose positions determined by the vectorial nature of desire; the question that is asked is not an identity question of what femininity is; it is a question of what and where from she wants, what she desires. And desire is defiant, we can only stop it by force, and even then, when we loosen our grip, the palm remains empty – the winged eros is already somewhere else. Of all the fields in which he vents, eros thrives and burns the most in art and contact between two electrified bodies.

  Womanliness knows nothing and laughs.
  Lisa Robertson: Face

“Woman just desires, she simply desires”, said Lacan for whom Woman as a position in asymmetrical dialectic, la femme as a being with definite article (without a definite article) equally simply does not exist. Established as a phantasmatic position of the ultimate Other, from whom derives the primal desire, Woman is a projection onto a veil behind which there is nothing substantial, an ideal which is equally impossible to own and embody, a permanently present threat impossible to look at directly, impossible to represent, just as death. Lacan’s aphoristic manipulations may persistently attract in thinking femininity because it is (sometimes? to someone?) easier to think of oneself/a woman as a being on a border, of emptiness and lie, and at the same time as a real, social body formed by that fiction into something we synchronously are and are not. I never felt there was something natural in gender reality/fiction, and as far as I recall my own existence, my own creation and disappearance, I only remember mimicry and melancholy.

  To like… faking it. To like to take time for faking it. To do our best. our best. our best.
  Sonja Pregrad: How Many Cubic Centimetres Can My Body Take Up

  It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple.
  Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own

  I remember the unease of (not) belonging, the extremes of self-awareness, the pressure of selecting from the catalogue of offered femininities; I remember how the delight of acquiring a certain package of aesthetics and behaviours quickly substituted the feeling of exhaustion and disharmony. How I falter whenever I wonder whether I’m running in a proper manner, the feeling that I had been created faulty, that everyone knows something I know nothing about or I am not allowed to ask questions about. Artistic and theoretical reflections build a mirror labyrinth in which those questions forever return, sometimes crystal, sometimes distorted, never final and never entirely real. The performances Close-ups by Silvia Marchig, in collaboration with Marina Bura, Lada Bonacci and Sindri Uču, and How Many Cubic Centimetres Can My Body Take Up by Sonja Pregrad, in collaboration with TRAS collective including Martina Tomić, Ivana Pavlović and Petra Chelfi, both build on the issue of self-representation. They both question the issues of feminine presence on stage, occupying space and performing (gender) self-awareness. A latent question in one’s female authorship which deals with self-thematization of femininity in a partial or focused manner is a question of how to talk about your own identity that is substantially performative, but escapes staging; which is produced discursively, but performs a permanent social role; which is lived intensely, but impossible to really say something about, impossible to stop talking about.

  The women is itself not a content
It is an unwavering faith in the fictional
Because they don’t exist
  Lisa Robertson: Of Mechanics in Rousseau’s Thought

  Although the history of theatre included long periods of women’s absence from the stage, the theatrical scene is somehow a natural habitus for a patriarchally constituted femininity, which is probably just a part of the paradoxical logic of why it had been represented exclusively as a performance, as a drag. Established primarily as masquerade, femininity is spectacular and elaborated, while bathed in glances it is narcissistically entirely self-sufficient. An unreal construct of such a devised, envisioned, and fabricated femininity always holds an important place in the experience of a lived femininity, but it is never entirely that, nor entirely here. Femininity is a magician’s trick in which we transform something that does not exist into something of a weight, while (for)ever containing inexistence.

            Dance history, on the other hand, is perceived as dominantly marked by women’s bodies on stage, guided by men’s looks; bodies that are silent and reflect/produce desire without or beyond their own desire. Dance bodies are elusive objects draped in artificialness and distance which warms and cools. That history is distant today, but its spectres still inhabit performing grounds in which radically different struggles, desires, turmoil, and presences take place.

  Sonja Pregrad: How Many Cubic Centimetres Can My Body Take Up

  During the Close encounters of the dance kind on 24 April 2021 Sonja asked whether “we can perform a drag of ourselves”, and that question stayed with me piled on top of the questions about the possibility of alternative identities that have been coming back to me for years. If we see the world in a Goffmanian melancholic manner, all our versions are played roles which more or less successfully fit the dramaturgy of the situation, layers of identity that hide a deep hollow, a crevice, a lack of essence. From that crevice the desire starts, eating away the restlessness without any clear and final goal. We learn the behaviour, we manage the roles, and in some undiscernible moment the roles start playing us. We exist precisely in the place where power overlaps with powerlessness of deciding, of saying what we want. How deep and far away is it possible to lie about oneself before that what we want to get rid of comes back to us as a boomerang? Can we, if we try little or hard, really be someone else, at least for a time?

  I will construct men or women.
  Limbs, animals, utensils, stars
  I crave extension.
  Look, I’m stupid and desperate and florid with it.
  I do not want to speak partially.
  My freedom was abridged.
  I speak as if to you alone.
  Lisa Robertson: Face

  Three bodies are in a square, one is lying immovably on the surface that protects it from the cold floor, the other two are placed on each of its two sides, they are sitting while observing it with an unblinking stare. The voice of the Choreographer gives instructions, describes the possible forms of touch. As the audience settles in, they start touching it, shaking it, lying next to it, re(animate) it. The bodies are covered with synthetic markers of femininity at the extreme: plastic wigs, false eyelashes, thick layers of makeup. We don’t see a person under the layers of the drag, we see the drag, a game of a layered appropriation, multiple moves which entirely de-balance the view. Soon the body in the middle starts moving by itself, through disconnected movements, as a doll that through each movement learns how to use its body in which the spirit has just been inspired. When it stands up, it relinquishes the spot to the other, which slides into static and the sequence restarts. Now all three rise, walk to the edges of the square, the contained, packed choreography of slow movements gets unravelled, increasingly fast and relaxed, the dancers separate, and the movements develop in variations. A voice from the periphery joins up:

  Sonja Pregrad: How Many Cubic Centimetres Can My Body Take Up

II. Archive of oblivion

  Drag requires a reference, an anchorage where it is possible to stack the layers of itself, to multiply and potentiate… how does one find them in the sliding point of the position in which we always self-assuredly say I? In principle, drag works because it is built on fiction which is always more stable than reality and regarding our identities, how do you recognize your own fiction?

            Identity is frequently defined as continuity of memories, which means oblivion; we think we are what we are and we add that to a story which besides the past also contains the future, but the story in time cannot stay the same, it cannot stay. The disorderly archive of our beings moves incessantly, its pages are jumbled, they fade and end up in unreachable nooks, boxes fall on our head. Oblivion never saves us, because it is never complete nor under control, and there is something particularly deeply violent in the incapability of (gendered) self-oblivion, a relentless penetrating of looks that ask who you are, what you are.

  I let myself write these sentences.
Of course later I will understand my misconceptions.
  I doubt that I am original.
Sometimes I’m just solid with anger.
  I have been like lyric.
Still, I don’t know what memory is.
  I have a chic ideal.
Such is passivity.
  I will not remember, only transcribe.
  Lisa Robertson: Face

  In the very centre of performing arts there is a dual hallucination: memory – forgetting; the experience of evasion, loss, scenes are immediately transformed into the weaving of thought. Talking and writing about a performance afterwards always refers to memory, it is always something else and it is always woven from the archive behind the talking voice and the moment in which the voice is located, the obsessive thoughts behind a textual veil. The voice of a torn, rattled, cleft I that writes, that weaves the tongue, its own and others’ tongues, that steals and flies. Writing about the woman’s climax in writing, Cixous balances the ambiguity of the word voler, which precisely means steal and fly; she commands, “Write!” She asks “que les femmes volent.”

I have always been fascinated and irritated by the way in which dance artists use language, how they expand it on one side towards multiplied abstractions like spatiality, temporality, objectness, while on the other side they always plunge it back into the body. That struggle is the opposition of the dance basics, the struggle against being restricted by the laws of the body and gravity, an ever-present sensation that the dance spirit has temporarily left the dance body, but it is also an absolute of inhabiting the body, leaping and landing, air and ground. It seems to me that no one talks so much about the limits of one’s pleasure, about the reflections of one’s feelings and needs as artists do in a dance; the imperative of appreciation reaches the limits of violence, the limits of tyranny when the subjectivities overlap in a show of strength. We were not created to be complementary and compatible; desire does not know demarcation.

  ”This is pleasure.“ He paused. “And this is pain.“
  Mary Gaitskill: This is Pleasure

  You must tell me if you are in pain.
  H. Pr.

  The moment in which pleasure turns into pain and vice versa, in which we reach the threshold of bearable, is not always clear, the extremes are displeasingly close. Jouissance implies pleasure which transposes into its oppositeness and that threatening tension is a component of pleasure, the suspense of survival. In the moment when we know how to and we’re able to say that it hurts, we have already crossed the threshold. And desire cannot come without a nausea attack, the feeling of constricted lungs, of the air being compressed under the skull, and blood throbbing in the pelvis. The amount of terror created by desire cannot be compared to anything else in the world because that is the only condition in which we simultaneously feel as if dying and we don’t want jouissance ever to finish and stop, although we know it will.

Sometimes we suffer too much reality in the space of a single night. We get undressed, we’re horrified. 
  Alejandra Pizarnik: SexNight

  How do we express everything we want? I want, I want, I want, I want, … it resembles the ‘leti-leti’ game (‘leti’ means flies / to fly in Croatian), in which the goal is to make your adversary raise arms in the wrong moment, to make movement overtake the words, to make someone show how a truck or a fridge also flies, not just a bird or a plane. If what flies is something that cannot fly, if in the moment in which the body is faster than thoughts, than the tongue, you believe that flying is possible, then you lose. I want I want I want I want… Maybe we needn’t know how to speak and say, maybe it may be good not to know.

            Is it insane to think about the relation between desire and love in terms of victory loss deceit?

  A little animosity is good for health.
  H. Pr.

 …you just have to feel the fear.
  Katherine Angel: UnmasteredA Book on DesireMost Difficult to Tell

  Dance and writing the opposition are somehow a quasi-complementary pair separated by a screen of melancholy. Eros does not speak through dance, dance is eros in action, something self-sufficient, which lives and dies in its fullness. Three female figures from behind, two standing, one in a wheelchair, move in a synchronised tempo over the full depth of the stage. Zoom out. Zoom in. The rhythm of the performance is being set. Close-ups is a performance which takes time, which indulges and pampers itself, which dwells in the thick emptiness of black or white stage and fills it with imagination and free, radical pleasure that reaches the very threshold of pain, but doesn’t cross it; on contrary, it takes it back to ecstasy. It might be because it departs from the “fragility that explodes in beauty”, it derives from opening space-time to sensuality and freedom of a body with diverse physicality, the cyborg body of Marina Bura, moving in an electric wheelchair. That body is marked with discontinuity, in its upper part it is ballet-like vertical, in movement it is powerful, hypnotic, while in its lower part it is moved by a sporadic jerk and the absence of pleasure and pain in the ways we are used to think about pleasure and pain, but still a unique body of a fantastic woman. Extreme beauty of her presence, a delight that is not without a latent discomfort of a body not accustomed to the space under the spotlight, but still as if it was born for the stage, is the starting point and the axis of the performance whose desire saturates and expands the space.

            To calm the anxiety of desire in such a way and fly on it, dance can do that, while writing is all in despair of desire, a message in a bottle, an imprint that hopes for a look in order to become alive, an encounter that exists only in imagination. Through writing we count on the encounter, we live and die in weaving, and we know we will never see it. The text is factually fixed, signs don’t have the ability to dance and change, and yet we know that every contact with the same text is different, we know that even the most pedantic reader skips and overlooks, breaks and mixes, allows thoughts to spill over the text and forgets. Weaving creates a contact between two desires that overlap and can’t see each other entirely in collision, just like the bodies can’t see each other in a hug, like a look blurring over a kiss.

* This is the space for what I can’t tell you. *

  There is an organic connection between desire and language: desire is the first thing that makes us speak, language derives from desire, but it always fails, falls into a chasm. The first word, written in the almost empty baby diary my mother didn’t keep consistently, is Give. An undetermined exclamation of desire which is not able to name its object, which only moves from one object to another pointed by the finger. Give. Therefore, there is an organic connection, but it is based on disappointment, even when you are given, and especially when you are given exactly what you asked.

            But using words to ask what we want immediately degenerates desire, it becomes like a whirligig caught during spinning, the magic disappears and we are looking at something that at the same time is and is not that what seemed different, magical a few moments earlier. If we want it to spin, we must release it. But not even that is entirely true, sensuality exists in articulation of desire too, when we tell our male lover where we want to be touched, when we tell our female lover what we want her to do to us. Sensuality always involves power dynamic which is never unambiguous; to ask means both to dominate and to surrender to uncertainty, whether the other body will be obedient or disobedient. To succumb to a request means to go through a moment of freedom of choice in which it is possible to reject, disappoint, postpone. To have an alien body at your disposal, or at your mercy, using an overused phrase. Every sensual act contains the ultimate threat, orgasm is called la petite mort for a reason.

  My body is not mine… I just visit it occasionally. It lives its own life.
  Lada Bonacci: Close-ups

III. The veil of metaphor

  What about the body, Judy?
  Judith Butler: Bodies That Matter

  What about the body? There is an assumption that theoretical work, the humanities with the entire burden of tradition of complex biases, implies the negation of the body, or at least privileging the mind and mental processes as essentially detached from sensation and sensuality. It must be clear to every person who has ever been immersed in theory that is an absurd lie of a dissociated world fighting its own paradoxes. Whether art or theory will mean something or nothing or everything to someone is a question of just attraction, desire, sensibility, but theory, when it is good, when it is organic, it becomes an experience whose intellectual sensation is least relevant, it becomes/remains sensual, sexual, corporeal. Theory passes through the body, excites, it means (if it means) because it touches us, and as everything that gallops on desire, it reaches eternity, strives for the horizon. There is a whole history of every individual body, an archive consisting of hurts and pleasures and pains and strange looks and touches that treat my body as if it were theirs, ecstasy and nausea that result from that contact. What about the body that is always separated, always in tension towards the rest of me?

            Writing instigates chasm, it seeks the resting body, which leans over paper and is transformed into knots, while only hands work, only fingers dance. It requires solitude, emptiness, silence so that it can expand so much that words must burst. One always writes in absence, especially when one writes to/about someone, such is the nature of desire. And the risk of the letter never reaching destination, or that it arrives damaged or to a wrong destination, that is a part of the game, but a part for which we cannot, we must not believe that it is really going to happen because that would be fatal.

  …it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman. And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death.
  Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own

  The relations between Author and co-authors, multiplied subjectivities (and pseudo-objectivities) that are continuously present in performing arts in the same way they are necessarily separated in the text, inhabit Close-ups and Centimetres in diverse ways. In both performances choreographers are on stage. In contrast to sub-dom tradition of choreographer(s)/dancer(s) relations, Close-ups and Centimetres bring a much subtler dynamic whose horizontal principle nevertheless flickers in the soft tension of asymmetry. Whose desire is realized on the holy space of the stage? Silvia holds an equal position next to her associates-performers, but it is significant that her monologue is in discord with Marina’s and Lada’s monologue; while their narration is dedicated to the adventures of their own fantastic bodies, which disobey, pull to diverse sides, vibrate in a crisis, expand over the Atlantic… Silvia narrates a colossal impossible performance, in her speech she directs a fantasy in which dance is carried by Marina and Lada, with a line of trees in the background, a sloth of bears breaking under the spotlights, a shower of red carnations that cover the stage. With her appearance, the imaginary performance becomes a part of the performance we watch, those scenes become shared memories of a jointly imagined reality. The performance is expansive, larger than life.

            Sonja, however, lingers on the edge of the stage that is divided into small pieces, almost claustrophobic. Continuing her artistic studies of objectivization/objectification of a (woman’s) body on stage, of the multiplicity/plurality of view, Sonja is sitting with a look fixated on her TRASes who inhabit and reflect her idiosyncratic dance movement. Being in drag herself like the character Mother/Madame/Choreographer, Sonja takes a liminal position, extremely present and almost absent, dispersed in the performance that makes the levels of mimicry intricate. The choreographer gives instructions, the process is visible, there is no mystification, it removes objects that lose function, it adds objects whose texture further builds up sensual layers of thick tactility. The foundation of the TRAS collective’s work is the exploration of the potential in working with diverse dance artists who bring their own aesthetics, poetics and thematics, dancers transform their bodies into a space for the projection of other’s visions, they become a hybrid of their own and extraneous desires. That dynamic seems visible in Centimetres, it figures on the stage occupied by all four performers during the finale, until movement is stopped by one of the TRASes. Stop.

a place
I didn’t say a space
I’m speaking of
  I’m speaking of what is not
  I’m speaking of what I know

  not of time
  but of all instants
  not of love

  a place of absence
  a thread of miserable union
  Alejandra Pizarnik: Useless Borders

  Alejandra writes about what is not, what she knows, about love yes/no, about a place of absence, about a thread of miserable union. I have always liked how Butler considers the gender constitution through the mechanism of melancholy, how she writes about the tension between the constitutional emptiness and the edge that always touches what is excluded, what remains outside, about the contours in which two emptinesses/fullnesses meet and press into each other. Borders are porous, movable, they constrict and dissolve, like skin, more than skin. And the feeling that accompanies those experiences is the inexpressibility of what remains outside, yet inclines towards the inside, a silent sorrow, melancholy.

  My body is supple, it is made of elastane.
  Marina Bura: Close-ups

  Woman’s body is often thought and talked about in metaphors, it is enclosed into representations to be controlled, but it always outgrows them. Metaphor is a veil that hides what is threatening, the abject. Close-ups and Centimetres speak about femininity in endless reflections, not by lifting the veil, but by multiplying it and activating a myriad of veils in dance, the seducing dance of desire, which can be equally soft and devastating, which could, if it wanted, carry away heads on a silver platter.

  I know bodies like mine can only be talked about in metaphors.
  Samantha Peterson: Dead Men Can’t Catcall

  Samantha particularly talks about overweight women’s bodies, bodies which culture finds disgraceful but at the same time makes fetish of them, which is a logic that equally covers, through diverse modes of control and sanction, all women’s bodies, as well as queer bodies, nonnormative bodies, bodies of non-standard capabilities and physicalities. Starting from the title question, How Many Cubic Centimetres Can My Body Take Up presents the experience of femininity in the world which includes an innumerable set of negotiations with the space, an endless asking of permissions. All in question marks, this performing miniature emanates the feeling of beginning, as a teaser, an overture, dominated by gentleness and awkwardness, a silent shriek, unfocussed and volatile self-awareness. Close-ups, on the other hand, start from the question of how proximity abstracts abject scenes, how it finds beauty in shapes that stop being discernible. However, both performances, being antipodes in many aspects, still return into body as body, within the foggy borders of women’s size.

  My mouth – does not firefly,
  My body is not a landscape,
  I am not a fucking orchard
  or a crate of bruised fruit on the road you stop at
  on the way to some beautiful hillside
  with curves in all the right places.
  My body is good like a body,
  I take up this much space,
  I’m not some sprawling thing in the distance,
  I am right here.
  I am right here.
  Samantha Peterson: Dead Men Can’t Catcall

“I am here, I am right here”, Samantha shouts in the song’s finale and stresses her own unquestionable presence to the two utterly questionable, fundamentally slippery words: I and here. Right after the words were spoken, they start moving, how can we trust those unstable indicators? Writing the same words into the text their ambivalence acquires new weight, they sit like a stamp into the fabric, but they only have meaning when someone else takes them over, when they simultaneously are and aren’t they I and here her and there, and become another I and here. The words give in, they permeate.

Epilogue on the beginning and the end, on apples

  I can’t live for leaves, for grass, for animals.
  All surfaces stream dark circumstance of utterance.
  I can’t say any of these words.
  Gradually the tree comes to speak to me.
  I collaborated with my boredom.
  I write this ornament, yet I had not thought of time.
  I come to you for information.
  Sometimes I’m just solid with anger and I am certain I will die from it.
  I conceived of an organ slightly larger than skin, a structure of inhuman love minus nostalgia or time.
  Lisa Robertson: Face

  Write about apples.
  H. Pr.

  Beautiful and apathetic, nature penetrates performances, but only through coloured light on the surface that it dissolves into an illusory depth. In Close-ups, intermezzo consists of a video-projection of birds’ faces, broken into parts and dispersed over the edges of the small projection screen, looks of flying beings that look without being aware of their looking. In Cubic Centimetres a continuous projection on the wall introduces sensuality of nature mediated by the screen, the foliage textures that are blurred and focussed, the presence of the absent nature in counterpoint to the absence of the present nature of masked bodies. A hole in the floor of a museum white square is covered/marked by a stray green apple. By the rules of stage magic, everything that gets to the stage lives on the stage, even a functional lump of plastic installed to protect dancers’ feet. One evening it gets catapulted from its place, another evening it remains exactly where it was. In flight and in falling its hollowness can be heard and seen, the apple is not really an apple. Everything on the stage is at the same time more and less than it appears to be.

  As a sweet apple turns red on a high branch,
  high on the highest branch and the applepickers
  well, no they didn’t forget—were not able to reach

  Write about apples. That will be a good beginning or an end.
  H. Pr.

  The baby diary my mother had kept inconsistently is not actually empty, it is full of my drawings from the time when every surface seemed adequate for leaving marks, before I even knew how to read what the little square on paper wanted from me, before I knew there was a correct answer. The traces of coloured pencils and glue I used to decorate walls with are now hidden under a pure layer of white paint in the room that isn’t mine anymore, and I have found new white surfaces to scribble on. The text on desire choreomanically strives for endlessness, but it must stop somewhere to restart somewhere else; somewhere we must open a new white surface, catch breath in order to lose it again somewhere else. At some point I/we must become silent while I/we try to understand what it is, where it is, and whether really there is a good beginning, or end.

  Sonja Pregrad: How Many Cubic Centimetres Can My Body Take Up

TRANSLATION: Antonio Oštarić


Ana Fazekaš (Zagreb, 1990) ia a critic, editor and essayist in the fields of performance arts, literature and pop culture. She graduated Department of Comparative Literature and Russian Literature on the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb, where she continues her postgraduate studies with a focus on gender theory and psychoanalysis. She writes regularly for, magazines Kazalište and KretanjaKritiku HDP, Booksa and ELLE Croatia magazine.