The Conviviality of Art (and the Death Drop)

by on Aug.01, 2011

Joyelle wrote an interesting response to my post on voguing, in which she considers the death drop (otherwise known as the ‘shablam’) an act that does not subvert violence, but rather “counterfeits it […] uses the ‘real’ violence as a template to make more violence which goes in new as yet unmappable, spasming directions.”

I like this description.  I think the sensation of violence is not so much represented by the death drop as it is embodied, (un)lived, somehow sustained when each dancer’s body hits the ground.  I would add that one condition of this violence, as well as one of its spasmatic effects, is its convivial nature.  In its context before a crowd, or even a YouTube user, the death drop enacts violence as well its antidote:  a queer ritual and sublime exaltation of queerness, a commingling of bodies that absorb and channel trauma for, through, and with each other.

Jasbir Puar, whom I quoted in my original post, defines conviviality as when bodies “come together and dissipate through intensifications and vulnerabilities.”  For Puar, “[t]hese encounters are rarely comfortable mergers but rather entail forms of eventness that could potentially unravel oneself but just as quickly be recuperated through a restabilized self.”

I wonder if we might extend the death drop’s conviviality to all art as, in Puar’s words, “the open materiality of bodies as a Place to Meet.”  The art that appeals to us does so by directly impacting the nervous system, by exciting the senses through stimulations to which we’re susceptible or vulnerable.  Sometimes, as with the death drop, that stimulation is a reenactment of trauma that heals the wound while simultaneously inflicting it.  To suffer the gunshot on a dancefloor, in this sense, is also to excise the bullet when a cheering crowd rouses each dancer back to his/her feet for yet even more dropping, even more dying.  This potential coextensiveness of wounding/healing is one way, maybe, we can call art a truly ‘experimental’ endeavor.  An endless reopening and repurposing of wounds.  We can never predict what art will do to us, but we approach it at the risk or promise of our own undoing, mutation, and regeneration through the bodily encounters it enables.

Vogue Evolution, whose death drops were featured on So You Think You Can Dance.

12 comments for this entry:
  1. Joyelle McSweeney

    Great post– and how awesome is the metaphor ‘Vogue Evolution’… necropastoral! Alternative evolution through death drops– through fashion– through shiny blue synthetic jackets– and alternate route towards mutation–made visible– on a stage and on tv!

  2. Sarah Fox

    I’m reminded of other performances in which death is revised/revived through the “open materiality of bodies”:

    Pilobius Dance Co in collaboration with Maurice Sendak enacting the selection, by Nazis, of Jewish children on a train platform, and revising history by having the character of Death award the “selected children” the “death they would have preferred.”

    And Eiko & Koma, who perform death and resurrection, the body’s excruciating transformation through the medium of time, most recently in “Naked,” their month-long installation at the Walker:

    Both performances, like the voguing death drops, as you imply (I think), are transcendent, are ritual & in a sense medicinal/shamanic acts, in which “violence” is productive, altering, consciousness-expanding, essentially empowering (along the lines of childbirth, ritual self-mutilation, winter…the Kali/Plutonic kind of annihilating creative force). Which, I think you’re saying, seeks to reconfigure & deliver us from the trauma of those who’ve trespassed against us via the Uber Crime of patriarchal imperialism. Maybe, in thinking about violence/crime/art, it’s a matter of distinguishing the Sacred from the Profane, as you Lucas alluded to via Notley a few posts ago: “I have defined degradation:/Your valuing of present time/above sacred time and its site/in the world’s body.”

  3. Monica Mody

    I love the notion of conviviality. You might like this story, Lucas. A few weeks ago I was at an Ecstatic Dance. Shortly before I got there, a co-dancer went into these spontaneous, spectacular spasms as his body started releasing energy. I heard about it from other people at the “sharing” circle at the end of the dance. While this guy was sitting there calmly and shyly, we were all looking at him, remembering or imagining his body gone crazy. Conviviality of bodies on the dance floor, transmitted via oral narrative, and now via the urban sewers of Montevidayo.

    Also, gunshot/gnosis.

  4. Lucas de Lima

    Sarah, yeah, I think it is about empowerment, but as I think you’d agree it’s not in any self-constituting, individualist sense, i.e. there are no sovereign subjects here. It’s all a dissipation of bodies, through which the profanity of social exclusion might become sacred, or retooled as such.

    That’s so interesting about the Pilobius dance co. Naked was cool.

  5. Lucas de Lima

    Neat story, Monica. Crazy bodies, crazy bitches!

  6. Sarah Fox

    Of course, I agree. As the Dali Lama says, “Anyone can say ‘I am the center of the universe,’ and be correct.” And as you know I would not limit the dissipation of and exchange between bodies to the human or even animal kind. We all eat after all, among other things. Some, it is said, eat their children, but I am not one of those. I only encapsulate placentas.

    This collectivity/conjoined expression of dyingly dancing bodies seems to tie into the whole “author” thing, above, wouldn’t you say? It’s like (speaking of Maurice Sendak, with whom I and Daniel Borzutzsky’s son share a birthday), “I’m in the gator and the gator’s in me.”

    Monica your story reminds me of the possession by the loa in participants of a Vodou ceremony, a somewhat random affair–which body(ies) the loa choose to ride and writhe ecstatically. Maya Deren claimed to have become possessed by the Vodou goddess Erzulie (“cosmic tantrum”), a phenomenon featured both in her own book Divine Horsemen as well as James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover. Deren was a dancer before becoming a filmmaker–her gateway to art was somatic. She has a great film about Vodou (also called “Divine Horsemen”): Hope to have a post up about Mommy Deren soon.

    Of course dancing is often part and parcel with ritual and ecstasy (Sufism, raves, dance-offs, rain dancing, Sun Dance, Jaguar Dance, and on and on.) I don’t know much about the Ecstatic Dance movement, Monica, but I’m pretty sure I’d swiftly fall in love with it, and think that Lucas and I should find out where, if at all, it happens in Minneapolis so we can get us some, don’t you think LdL? I hope you’ll write more about this!!

  7. Monica Mody

    Hey Sarah, Maya Deren has been on my list for a long time. Thanks for the nudge to read & watch, and do write that post! Dancing is a portal, isn’t it. I’m feeling obligated to propose a Montevidayo trance dance party for whenever we get together for a retreat/surrender.

    “It’s all a dissipation of bodies, through which the profanity of social exclusion might become sacred, or retooled as such.” ⇒ There’s this amazing character in China Mieville’s Iron Council, Qurabin, who must lose something – such as someone’s name, or a language – in order to unhide something else. I just can’t get over him. Or her. S/he lost hir sex during hir initiation.

  8. Sarah Fox

    This is my current favorite Maya Deren film, nudge nudge:

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  11. Johannes

    Great post Lucas; it seems “conviviality” is something I have to read about; seems that’s what in many ways what I was getting at with my post yesterday.


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