Infectious Nostalgia in Ishmael Houston-Jones, Dennis Cooper and Chris Cochrane’s THEM

by on Jan.16, 2011

This past Monday I caught the revival of Them at the Abrons Arts Center in New York.  A violent and vivid dance/text/music piece, Them is a collaboration between a choreographer (Houston-Jones), a writer (Cooper), and a musician (Cochrane) as well as several young male dancers.  Cooper calmly narrates over the dancer’s writhing bodies, which Houston-Jones ushers in over Cochrane’s chaotic guitar playing.  All are present on stage in what is, significantly, both an interdisciplinary and intergenerational effort.

I say “significantly” because the original performance of Them took place in 1986 in the midst of the AIDS epidemic.  As Burt Supree wrote in the Village Voice that year, “Them isn’t a piece about AIDS, but AIDS constricts its view and casts a considerable pall.”  And as Houston-Jones himself admits, “the piece was made at a very specific time/place/circumstance and that is what makes THEM, them.”

So then why the recreation of such a historically situated piece?  When asked about this potential act of 80’s nostalgia, Houston-Jones claimed to be “an artist who is seeking to make a history text of himself, especially while he is very much alive”; he “really care[s] about how [his] work is seen and that it is seen and remembered.”

Yet, I see more than artistic legacy at stake in this recreation.  While the original performers in Them were experiencing and channeling the AIDS crisis as it emerged, the young dancers in the current cast find themselves playing out the fear and panic of a historical moment they never witnessed.  This moment inscribes itself on their bodies when they feel their armpits for swollen lymph nodes.  Flanked from different sides of the room by the older men who conceived Them, the young dancers become children of a perversely reproductive nostalgia.  A nostalgia not for the AIDS epidemic, to be sure, but rather for the act of youthful yearning itself:  a yearning then, if not so much now, pronounced and produced through the taboo and risk it carried.

The temporal traversal inherent in Them‘s reconstruction finds unexpected force at the end of the piece.  If nostalgia is implicit in the recreation itself, in the transference of somatic memory into young men’s bodies, in their tracing of fatal desire, nostalgia for prehistory erupts with the appearance of a dead goat.  Here, the piece perfectly animalizes and eroticizes Joyelle’s concept of necropastoralism:  a blindfolded man wrestles the pastoral animal on a mattress, even inserting his head into its hollowed-out abdomen, until it vibrates with life after death.  Eventually, both collapse in a pool of blood.

If the animal was our first metaphor, in Them the animal becomes the metaphor we end up filling out–and literalizing–through ‘blind’ desire.  Then, suddenly, briefly, there is no “them”:  a white sheet falls on animal and man.  As if, by spiraling into infectious nostalgia, man could reverse and correct his humanization.

6 comments for this entry:
  1. Joyelle McSweeney

    Lucas, wo(u)nderful post, thank you. It sounds like the presence of the goat also has something to do with reanimating the dead metaphor of ‘tragedy’, etymologically ‘goat song’. To reanimate the dead goat is to reverse the poles of tragedy and sacrifice, perhaps, and to make oneself a parasite in an animal body? Your use of the term ‘vibration’ seems pointed here, since a ‘vibration’ is a kind of lawless, compulsive (pulsing?) intensity that disrupts or denatures the proportionality of conventional form, wounding it and forcing an excess to flow through the wound.

    Not incidentilly, the connection to AIDS and parasitism is actually occulty present in my own thinking about necropastoral. One of my points is that the membrane of separation the pastoral gestures towards is actually always permeable– the courtiers cross it, carrying the plague, but also, traffic goes the other ways. In addition to the lymph nodes and PCP that characterized the first alarming cases of what would be eventually labelled HIV in the early 80s, there were also cases of lethal sheep parasites in the intestinal tracts of urban men….

  2. Lucas de Lima


    Great points. Apparently, for the first performance of Them, Houston-Jones took a goat from the Meatpacking District, itself a place of ‘lawless, compulsive, pulsing’ vibration at the time where men met each other for sex. So to reanimate the goat is to displace this original lustful vibration, to reorient desire and invest it with (self-)sacrificial grief. A parasite in an animal body, absolutely.

  3. Johannes

    This sounds like an amazing performance. Do you know if the script etc is available anywhere?


  4. Lucas de Lima

    Johannes, I haven’t found much online beyond reviews and interviews. It would be interesting to see Cooper’s text, which struck me as more vulnerable and fragmentary than his published writing.

    Also I feel compelled to say, for accuracy’s sake, that there wasn’t blood in the performance i saw (maybe the goat dried up?). But it was there in previous performances, so I threw it back in.

  5. Ishmael

    Lucas, I just happened upon this, (I confess to Googling myself). I find your post to be a rather intelligent read on THEM. My remarks on the MR blog about being concerned about “legacy” were in response to a favorite former student who found it “odd” that I would do a revival of an older work; she didn’t think I was “that kind of artist.” I was correcting her of that illusion. I have an ego. The goats we used for the reconstruction. The blood in the photos comes from the first time the dancer danced with one – at dress rehearsal. We got these from a Halal Butcher in Brooklyn. When it arrived it was still warm.

    I could send you the script.


  6. Lucas de Lima


    Thanks for the info! It is good to have an ego and even better to admit it. I’ll e-mail you re the script… that would be lovely to have. I still think about this performance a lot.