Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 19, 2011
Carrie Lambert-Beatty Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008. 384 pp.; 83 b/w ills. Cloth $34.95 (9780262123013)
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Few readers, I imagine, were surprised to discover that Yvonne Rainer’s stunning 2006 memoir, Feelings Are Facts: A Life (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)—a sprawling book intertwining the artist’s early personal and artistic developments, rendering them inseparable—would conclude with an epilogue. Such a coda typically affords authors an opportunity to wrap up their ideas and cast a retrospective gaze over the whole of a book once its myriad elements have settled into shape. Rainer’s conclusion would seem only to follow protocol, in a sense. And yet this particular postscript, like so much of her production, effectively displaces expectations around such conventions of form: In Feelings Are Facts, the end of the book is positioned as a place to begin again.

Specifically, Rainer here addresses her unusual decision to conclude a “memoir” nowhere near the present-day but instead precisely at a pivotal moment arising long before: in the year 1972, when she, at age thirty-eight, began to turn from dance to film-making. This shift, Rainer maintains, represented a chapter in her life distinct enough to end on; but even then she still performs no real closure, such that the epilogue must be seen, as Rainer herself puts it, as “another prologue.” In the final thirty-three pages of her nearly five hundred page tome, she details and considers the ramifications of her life and work after 1972: her efforts in film; her eventual return to choreographing dance; her love-and-life partnership with the film and cultural theorist, Martha Gever (and the attending “euphoria” and political import of becoming a lesbian at fifty-six). Nevertheless, the implication is, the nearly four decades that have elapsed since 1972—and which are gestured to compellingly in the epilogue cum prologue—are not yet so fully in the rearview mirror as to count as history proper. Rainer’s Feelings Are Facts demonstrates, if not overtly, the methodological difficulties inherent in writing about the recent past, particularly when one refuses to dismiss or diminish one’s own shifting subject position within it.

It is, then, no small coincidence that the “conclusion” of Carrie Lambert-Beatty’s Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s—itself a kind of “prelude” since this author, too, opts in the last pages of her own book to turn from Rainer’s work in dance to her earliest work in film—describes how an audience for Rainer’s 1972 film Lives of Performers might engage the characters inhabiting its frames as such: “We feel for them.” So are the final four words of Lambert-Beatty’s complex, art-historically rigorous, methodologically risk-taking study. There is, however, much more at stake than an overt rhyming with the title of Rainer’s memoir, and the correspondence signifies a kind of overt advocacy and allegiance between art historian and her subject that I find remarkable and rare. Historians of all bents are so regularly trained to disregard an artist’s words, intentions, and recollections (to say nothing of their “feelings”) that it is striking to see Lambert-Beatty’s obvious desire to enter into dialogue about not only the particulars of Rainer’s decades-long practice but also the much messier (but no less tangible) affective drives it has been propelled by and responses it has produced. Yet an investment in Rainer’s—and Rainer’s audiences’—interior as such is hardly what Lambert-Beatty’s gesture toward the realm of the non-objective addresses. Indeed, if the overall arc of her book purports to detail the shifting triangulation between performers, audience members, and modes of mediation during the American 1960s, her ultimate gambit is to show how every such set of historical terms is relational, through-and-through. Which is only to say: one cannot consider Rainer’s works without examining equally her audience; one cannot consider that audience without considering the modes of representation they encounter and produce; one cannot consider those modes of production without thinking about the counter-models from which they borrow and against which they press. And then one must reverse the order of that cycle . . . and so on.

To be clear about my own angle here: I invoke first and foremost the shared attention of both Rainer and Lambert-Beatty to “feelings” not because this is the overt subject of either of their writings nor because I want to argue for the relevance of the affective register over the analytical and critical. Indeed, quite oppositely, I foreground this element because it points to one way that Lambert-Beatty’s historical study is marked by a very particular methodological clarity accomplished only as a result of hindsight and a willingness to consider artistic practices through multiple—often conflicting—contextual lenses. Prying Rainer’s practice away from a too-easy reduction of its tenets to clichéd aspects of “minimalism” on the one hand and the “ephemeral nature of performance” on the other, Lambert-Beatty insists instead on Rainer’s works as constellating and making visible processes and practices of seeing and being seen. To this end, Lambert-Beatty insists as well on reorienting her own study in relation to how such problems have previously been addressed and reconsidered more recently. While acknowledging, for instance, allegiances to legacies of Brechtian alienation within much of Rainer’s work (in both dance and film), Lambert-Beatty wants, as well, to challenge the ways conceptions of criticality have become too tightly—or, better, too simplistically—tethered to notions of “distancing.”

To this end, placing Lives of Performers in the position of overt crux (not just a hinge between Rainer’s “live” and “filmic” works but also between “direct” and “mediated” images more generally), Lambert-Beatty allows that within Rainer’s ninety-minute film there are plenty of such “Brechtian devices that disrupt the normal operations of filmic identification,” but she remains unconvinced “that the viewer sits at a cool remove from the action onscreen—or lack thereof” (266). Going so far as to describe her own experience of watching the film’s drawn-out, often event-less shots as equivalent to so many “perceptual equivalent[s] of a muscular cramp,” she concludes that even while Rainer’s “cavalcade of mediations strips away the narrative meaning of the depicted scenes and forecloses the possibility of understanding the characters as people with whom one could emotionally engage, by these very means the physicality of the performers is brought nearer to the activity of the viewer—the seeing difficulty of performance intersubjectivity is more nearly resolved—than anywhere else in Rainer’s work of the period this book has studied (266; emphasis in original). There is, Lambert implies, a largely unexamined side-effect to practices like Rainer’s, which, in momentarily stripping from the body so many codes and signifiers, also renders its base materiality more available: a kind of anxious (though by all means not wholly unpleasurable) intimacy.

In the spirit of Lambert-Beatty’s book and Rainer’s memoir, my own short review has proceeded in what might be considered a rather backwards manner. Here I have discussed Lambert-Beatty’s final section first and thus focused somewhat myopically on her conclusion, where she takes up Rainer’s first film as the place where one might most concretely assess the culmination of the artist’s previous experiments in performance. But there is no resolution in Lambert-Beatty’s conclusion (no firm closing of this book, as it were), either. Instead, she sets the stage for further conversations not just about Rainer but about “seeing difficulties” overall. The phrase is one that appears throughout Being Watched, and it derives from Rainer herself, who wrote of her own explorations of movement and gesture as partially addressing something of the irreducible, ungraspable nature of dance proceeding through time and space, by way of body. Yet the phrase, as guided by Lambert-Beatty, takes on an art-historical valence as well; the book, while delivering a treasure-trove of archival findings, consistently points to its own inaccuracies and uncertainties. Lambert-Beatty’s analysis takes into account the inevitable blind-spots and dead-ends inherent to any chronicle of the past.

If I have, then, any criticism of the book, it is only of the title, Being Watched. For, in Lambert-Beatty’s five beautifully considered chapters (returning to Judson Dance Theater; contextualizing Rainer’s works in relation to shifting ideas of time; Trio A as a case study for considering the “relation between bodies and pictures” (131); the body as object and the object as body in Rainer’s work; and the social conditions—and politics—of spectatorship during the Vietnam era) and conclusion, it is precisely “seeing difficulties” that are pursued, and from different vantages all the time. Rainer’s work, as Lambert-Beatty shows, did not aim to obliterate the divide between spectator and performer, but instead emphasized the complicated texture of spectatorship: as something external to the performance but also central to it; as a situation not only of visual grappling but also a site rife with conflict, contest, and difference. Indeed, “seeing difficulties” is a shape-shifting phrase, and it applies just as much—if with very different valences—to performer and spectator. “Being watched” would seem to describe a much less contingent situation, one in which passive and active roles are far too prescribed.

The front and back cover of Lambert-Beatty’s book bear images of Rainer. They both show the dancer in some way avoiding the direct gaze of (and avoiding gazing at) the film camera clearly visible within the frames. It is impossible in these images to decide which body, machine or human, most controls the field of representation. If Rainer is refusing to become one kind of image, she nonetheless simultaneously creates another: She is being watched, in other words, but only while powerfully redirecting the means and end of the gaze.

Johanna Burton
Director of the Graduate Program, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.