‘I shall stay OUTDOORS for one year, never go inside. / I shall not go in to a building, subway, train, car, airplane, ship, cave, tent. / I shall have a sleeping bag.’

Tehching Hsieh, 26th September 1981

Bryony: We have spoken here about what it might mean for us to come into contact. And that perhaps what we might call this act, is an act of liveness. This contact might not occur between the oft-reified presences of living bodies. This might be contact with a sleeping bag, with a solid floor or perhaps with the surface of a screen. We come into contact with Hsieh, and he may willingly come into contact with us. Hsieh also comes into contact with pavements, cardboard boxes and his sleeping bag. That is, concrete, cardboard and (I would imagine) a polyester mix. You suggest that it is this contact that might act as or extend documentation. That documentation might exist through his contact with ‘the floor and his altercations with the police and other street-dwellers.’ You spoke about how contact with the brutality of a pavement could be an act considered amongst those instances of live art. It is definitely uncomfortable and potentially problematic to do so, but I agree that it seems constitutive to consider how Tehching Hsieh’s Outdoor Piece may bridge the gap between both the hard, accidental smack of a child’s head on the concrete floor of the ICA, and that of a homeless person sat outside on the cold of a pavement.

To continue, I want to think further here about materials in performance. Specifically, I want to try and further draw out the relationship between materials and/in performance, and what the potential of this relationship might be. For example, in Hsieh’s performance, as you mention, there is the cardboard he sits upon, the chairs he inhabits, the wood he burns, and the tarpaulin and woollen blankets that he straps across his back. These are materials that might bear his weight, or materials that protect and comfort Hsieh. In particular, in one photograph Hsieh walks through a thick sheet of snow with a determined look, and across his back, rising above his shoulders, Hsieh bears the weight of a large piece of tarpaulin. (It is arguably important to note that the latter image bears striking resemblances to the large cloth material which Joseph Beuys covers himself with in I Like America and America Likes Me). Examining this photograph, the cloth-like, tarpaulin-esque material drapes down from Hsieh’s head and we almost sense the pressure that it bears on Hsieh as he walks through the harsh New York winter. Through the photographic documentation, the cloak-like tarpaulin allows us to read Hsieh’s hardship, his outdoor performance piece where we can understand these materials as both active and reactive forces. For the purposes of this piece, it is also the fact that these materials do and can behave around Hsieh that interest me. Hsieh not only bears down on these materials, but they drag and weigh upon him and in some cases; they partially obscure him from view. Thus, we might think of these materials as that which allow Hsieh to craft and sculpt his performance through the streets: materials that form an extension of his body, and his body, which form an extension of the surfaces of these materials.

To think about this further, let us look through another lens. At this year’s PLAYGROUND festival in Belgium, Leuven, I watched Meryem Bayram’s Autonomous Scenography; a performance entirely assembled through two performers’ contact with cardboard.[1]


Informed by the website that Autonomous Scenography began with Bayram’s fascination with pop-up books, the performance itself consists of a live, unfolding cardboard structure which is animated by and reciprocally animates the performers on stage. The performance begins with a triangular piece of cardboard and a man stood upon it. As the performance begins to fold into itself, the man crafts moving structures with this cardboard; each shape minutely and effortlessly hinged to the other, but with a flexibility that consistently issues a feeling of precarity in the audience. The performer begins by creating a series of stepping-stones; he jumps and stops, turning around to the stepping-stone that he has left behind. In an instance, this remaining stepping-stone is folded up, and ensconced within the cardboard structure that lies beneath his feet. From one jump to the other, and in a second, the performer folds away the cardboard. These pop-up, book-like constructions unfold and mutate across the stage, becoming both the eponymous autonomous scenography of the performance, yet also becoming singular acts and gestures. As the performer moves with the cardboard, they whirl across the stage, becoming mutable objects, folding into and out of themselves.

There were birds, and what I later realised was a chimney. In fact, I remember telling you that I had just realised that it was a chimney. As stepping-stones, and perhaps like Hsieh’s cardboard, the cardboard both functioned separately from the performer, an autonomous thing in and of itself, yet was also the performer’s prop, his stage-set, which he spent the first half of the performance tip-toeing across. Yet the cardboard also became extending appendixes of the performer’s body. The stretching, spiralling structures being created on stage were fleshed to this performer, they were coming from him and to him, the cardboard becoming a matrix of twisting, calculating shapes which both functioned to split material and body, yet also functioned to blur the two.

The arm of the performer stretches into the air grappling with a flailing piece of cardboard. In a swift movement, the arm of the performer tenses, slowly becoming a strict muscular structure and in a second, the floundering piece of cardboard becomes a bird, the flailing material now the wings of an animal, as the performer flaps the material in the air. Yet, this bird doesn’t seem to function autonomously from the performer. The viewer cannot see the performer’s hand anymore, the cardboard truncating his hand from view. The cardboard works to become the bird-hand structure of the performer and through this, the cardboard-bird becomes a matrix of the performer, an extension of the performer’s body. Looked at another way, the performer extends from this piece of scenography. The bird, like a kite in the sky, is prominent, with the performer hanging off and dangling from the structure. It is the movement of the performer’s hand that further suggests that these two are no longer separate from one another; they are one and the same cardboard-flesh body, interinanimating the movement of the other.

During one particular moment, the exertion of the performer accidently erupts from his body, and a pearl of sweat drips upon the cardboard. A surprisingly awkward moment to watch, it was as if the performer had showed himself, over-exposing himself by confessing something embarrassingly human on stage. I watched the sweat of the performer extend, spread out, and imprint itself on to the subfuscous surface of the cardboard, I watched this aqueous substance come into contact with this heavy-duty paper, seeping through its corrugated layers. The live, sweating, leaky body of the performer coming into contact with the dull, flat, unanimated surfaces of the performance’s materials. Yet, as the sweat extended, spread out and absorbed itself into the cardboard, as if the cardboard were slowly lapping the sweat into itself, desperate to dry itself out, a process of call and response, of active and reactive forces appeared. Between the cardboard and body, no one substance were more live than the other and instead two forces, two things met each other, both existing separately and changing one another, mutating to transform the other. Watching this moment, a useful analogy for documentation seemed to display itself. We might consider the sweat as the live product, the sweating body in performance, and the cardboard as a stage-set that is created through this live performance. Yet, as the sweat absorbed into the cardboard, it became clear that these two things, the live body and its fluids, are never autonomous to the materials through which it works and performs, and the materials of performance are never separate to its interinanimation with the live body. Indeed, it became unavoidably nascent that scenography could never really be autonomous; it is always a function of the body and of the performer. And indeed, the live body is never autonomous from the materials and surfaces it uses. Bayram’s piece seemed to offer a levelling out of the way in which the material, theatrical make-up of the theatre (its props, costumes, stage-sets) can be manipulated by the bodies of its performers and in the same way, how the materials of the theatre can manipulate the bodies of those who play within it. Perhaps then performance is never really autonomous from its ‘scenography’, from its base (actively documenting) materials. Indeed, these materials and the performers who work with them are always appending and are appended by the other, much like the structures that Bayram created in front of us.

[1] http://www.stuk.be/en/program/autonomous-scenography Accessed 08/12/2014

In Response to: http://feltacts.com/2014/12/18/04112014/

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