against translation: in defense of inaccessibility

“An illustrational form tells you through the intelligence immediately what the form is about, whereas a non-illustrational form works first upon sensation and then slowly leaks back into the fact….[t]he moment the story is elaborated, the boredom sets in; the story talks louder than the paint.” –Francis Bacon

“All true feeling is in reality untranslatable.” –Antonin Artaud

Recently someone asked me to articulate why I don’t call my work “dance theater” even though my dances can feature text and actors. I answered: “Because my work is opaque. It resists narrative too much to be dance theater.” But certainly many of my friends in dance theater have a more nuanced relationship to narrative than my answer suggests.  The question got me thinking about why, as a choreographer, I choose “the ineffable over the translation” (Susan Rethorst).

In her Nay Rather, Anne Carson makes a “territorial claim for the untranslatable” (“languages are not algorithms of one another; you cannot match them item for item”) and discusses painter Francis Bacon’s aversion to story:

He hates all that storytelling, all that illustration, he will do anything to deflect or disrupt the boredom of storytelling, including smudge the canvas with sponges or throw paint at it….He wants to defeat narrative wherever it seeks to arise, which is pretty much everywhere since humans are creatures who crave a story. There is a tendency for story to slip into the space between any two figures…[In response, Bacon] makes what he calls ‘free marks’ on the canvas…He uses brushes, sponges, sticks, rags, his hand, or just throws a can of paint at it.

I relate to Bacon in this description: I’m constantly destabilizing content and process, often through the “free marks” that improvisation can unleash. Why do I make work that is inaccessible? I don’t quite believe, like some artists, that it’s important to make meaningless work (Marina Abramovic has said, “The actions that are useless [are] the most important actions in art today.”).  Rather, in Bacon’s own words,  “what I’m disrupting all the time is…literalness, because I find it uninteresting.”

Perhaps more to the point, I prefer to keep the relationship of my inner life to my vocabulary private.  In The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, poet Richard Hugo said there are two kinds of poets, public and private:

The distinction lies in the relation of the poet to the language. With the public poet the intellectual and emotional content of the words are the same for the reader as for the writer. With the private poet…the words…mean something to the poet they don’t mean to the reader. A sensitive reader perceives this relation of poet to work and in a way that relation—the strange way the poet emotionally possesses his vocabulary—is one of the mysteries and preservative forces of the art.

A “private” choreographer uses what Trisha Brown called “pure movement,” or movement without connotation. Pure movement allows the choreographer to keep the relationship of her inner life to the movement vocabulary hidden from her audience. Indeed, by using “pure movement,” or by distancing herself sufficiently from familiar movement so that it appears newly strange, a choreographer can allow other, unexpected meanings to rise to the surface.

For artists who are private—whose vocabulary is not immediately accessible—there is a difference between what the work is ostensibly “about” (what you tell funders a year before you get in the studio) and what is really at stake. Choreographer Tere O’Connor, whose dances resist narrative, often talks about the difference between the “surface” and the “engine” of his work.  For private artists, the subject is only “the bait” (Francis Bacon) for the deeper work of the unconscious.  Here, the painter Cornelia Parker:

For me the conscious part of making a drawing is deciding on a process. What the process then releases is something else. Your unconscious mind always knows more than your conscious,….What you need is a catalyst to unleash that knowledge. A concept can be that catalyst, or [it can be] a decoy.

A work of art, by resisting translation, can also be “bait” for the unconscious of the audience.  “Private” poet T.S. Eliot:

The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be…to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him.

By resisting translation, dance opens up a space for mystery for both the artist and the audience.  In the face of mystery, if the artist and the audience can stop asking “what does it mean?” and “what is this about?”, they are free to ask more interesting questions.

In 2015, I’ll be co-directing Anne Carson’s “translation” of Antigone, Antigonick, with theater director Mark Jackson for Shotgun Players.  This promises to be a fascinating collaboration in which Mark and I will be constantly in dialogue about what dance theater looks like. Here’s hoping that Carson’s radical text will be “bait” for the unexpected.  Stay tuned.


Responses from colleagues underscore popular resistance to inscrutability in art.  Choreographer Christy Funsch notes a review of the Christopher Williams show at MOMA complaining vociferously about the “difficult-to-read images” and lack of wall text in the exhibit.  Choreographer Katharine Hawthorne notes the recent New Yorker article by Rebecca Mead on “The Scourge of Relatability.”  In Mead’s words, relatability “has become widely and unthinkingly accepted as a criterion of value”:

To demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

How can artists and curators resist audience expectations for art as an experience of passive consumption, as opposed to an opportunity for challenging our habits of mind?