The New Discipline and its Artificial Hells: On Art, Pain, and Responsibility

We are none of us inviolable. We are none of us free to craft affectual experiences without taking responsibility for those creations.

We do not have the artistic right or social license to signify recklessly, simply because we feel bored or creatively limited or unsatisfied with our current domain and have chosen to play within the bounds of another—with no examination of the contexts of ethics and consent that underwrite that craft.

This piece deals with questions of creative ethics that arose from my experience at the Darmstadt 2016 Summer Course. I specifically speak to the Composer-Performer Workshop “concert” on the night of August 10th.

My response arises from and details a personal experience that was true, non- optional, and not at all represented in either the student concert or the performances and discourses at the Summer Course as a whole.

The Composer-Performer event of August 10 was an evening of student performances, largely ill-crafted and hackneyed performance art, dealing with the representation of feelings of trappedness, psychosis, pain, and containment.

Pain is not a spectator sport. For people like me, with traumatic bodily histories, panic attacks and/or disorders, and other forms of real, present, psychic pain, trauma is not an aesthetic event.

— —

I am not an expert in creative ethics, performance art, or trauma studies, but after conversations with peers and strangers at the Summer Course, I believe a voice like mine can contribute to the conversation arising around the topic of The New Discipline, and its guiding values of diving deep into the human realm, interdisciplinary amateurism and troublesome affectual territory.

I speak as an avid concert-goer who is passionate about experimental music and invested in its creation. I am lucky in that I am able to attend concerts a few times a week, even in the busiest times of my academic schedule, and I care deeply about what I hear and see. I invest in personal education and reading about art, music, performance art, feelings, and philosophy. My writing is—and always has been—an outgrowth of my love of rich artistic and philosophic experiences; I wish to continually grow as a responsible, receptive, and sensitized audience member.

— —

I’ve been known to argue vocally and expressively from both sides of the current conflict over “trigger warnings”, a debate that has arisen from pieces in such high-visibility publications as The Atlantic and The New York Times—not to mention directly from a professor at my alma mater, Northwestern University. However, after attending the concerts and lectures that engaged with The New Discipline at the Darmstadt 2016 Summer Courses, and following up with careful reading of the excellent and thoughtfully-written articles in Musiktexte’s volume, I feel sure that this New Discipline cannot continue without serious shared discourse about the ethics of creativity as it intersects with trauma, the false flag of amateurism, and the presence of a many-bodied audience.

— —

The quality of the student performances on the night of August 10 was so poor both in content and execution that I ordinarily would not choose to comment upon it. It was a student workshop, the culmination of about two weeks of work. As a lifelong student myself, I understand the value of experimentation in new methods in a pedagogical setting; I am not disappointed that it wasn’t an exquisitely crafted professional performance like many other shows on the Summer Course.

The performers were young, not much older than me, and clearly green to the working practices of The New Discipline. Their seven performances indicated that they had indeed eschewed new-music genre practices, in the way the Musiktexte articles have collectively described so ecstatically. However, most of the performers were simply not able to engage with either the history of performance art or the relevant critical and art theory.

Like many student art shows, this is the result of a fine balance of poor education, egoistic relations to the audience—regarded as an object to be acted upon and not a varied, feeling plurality in itself, perhaps with histories and knowledges of [their] own—and a performance of white middle-class thoughtlessness. It was an evening of general inanity and craftlessness. Each performance reinvented the wheel with pathetic, almost pitiable grandiosity. 

Take, for example, an opening performance by an inexplicably shirtless man that purported to deal with vulnerability and the body. Rather than dealing with actual physical limits such as breath, physical extension, or stamina, he performed a clownish calisthenic struggle against imaginary environmental constrictions, which invited comparison with both constipation and (re-)emergence from the womb. 

As the evening progressed, the content of some of the performances raised questions of experimentation and outright artistic irresponsibility. The blind spot centered around not knowing what it means to perform for an audience with histories and knowledges of its own, and being cavalier with those power relations invoked by performance itself.

The audience was shepherded into a dark, multi-stage space, each performance taking place in it own room and indicated on a map included in the program notes. Our trajectory through the performance space was cued and guided, and all doors closed behind us. I thought of containment, enclosure, fish traps, the Panama Canal, the digestive tract.

Right away I was in a state of critical unease. A young white male in a frat tank lip-synched confidently over documentary interviews of iconic Ms.Dorian Corey from ‘Paris is Burning’. The B-section was a looping constellation of hand positions on a darkened wall, mapping out the relations between“Art. Poverty. Racism. Me.” The final stage was a saucy, finger-over-the-lips, “whoopsie-I-appropriated” pseudo-self consciousness about the irresponsibility of his own content, which seemed to give the performer the go-ahead to appropriate to his heart’s content. It was White Guilt performed, and naming it as such doesn’t make its performance any more worthwhile. 

— —

Next, we were shuffled into a room shaped like a kidney, while two young composers performed a dizzying, disorienting dance around us. These were the only performers to acknowledge the potential discomfort of their audience.  Yet even they had integrated their only disclaimer as a part of their content. It surfaced midway through the third stage of the performance, as we were all standing around in that small room, looking at each other: “Oh, the door is right there,” the performer said, “You’re here by choice, and if you don’t like it, you can leave.”

Cameras were everywhere.

— —

We were shuffled into the next room and, without warning, the next stage of the cycle thrust itself deep into the most hellish place in my past. 

Some stranger, some woman was performing a vivid, realistic panic attack in front of the audience.

I heard her first. She moaned and my heart moved. Why are we hearing this? I thought. Is she pregnant? Why is she bent over with one hand on her belly? Why is she doubled over? Why is she staggering on her feet? Why is she leaning against the wall, sobbing and weakened? Why is she beating the wall with both hands?

And then I had to leave. 

I realized later that it was my body, the behaviors of my body, and those I empathize with, that was being performed, aestheticized—if that term can even be used, the single unmitigated concept of observing the panicking female body. She stumbled, wracked with pain, abstract and unnamed pain. She slammed herself against the walls of my private hell. 

— —

Let me be clear: I didn’t want this. I work extremely hard in my life to prevent situations like this. These are not public-access feelings of mine, available to be co-opted in the name of some half-witted pedagogical performance art piece. Disorientation is not drama for me, but a terrifying reality that I must organize and order and work to avoid. 

To me, pain and panic are ever-present, just around the corner, moderated only by constant hyper-attuned control over my sleeping and eating and work and socializing habits. That pain that does not distinguish the mental and physical. It is the eradication of the boundaries between thought and response, leaving me in a state of pure visceral fear, rendered incapacitated to my own body. 

Unsafety lurks in me. I have been taught how to moderate and manage it, with strategies and thought patterns and care. I am responsible with my pain. I am a good and dutiful wielder of it; I do not let it express itself in most situations and I do not let it challenge my self-directed status quo. 

But I couldn’t think of this in the moment. The tears came so quickly. My breath shortened in reaction and empathy. Too much empathy. I felt how she feels—No. I felt how she was pretending to feel, for an audience. The utter shame of my worst fear being performed for an audience, friends and strangers watching my most private, intimate pain. 

She was a stranger to me, so cloistered by the intensity of this workshop that I did not recognize her, though as an observer I have been present at almost every lecture and almost every concert.

— —

And then the worst of it. 

Walking out. Hearing my partner Weston slam the door violently behind me. Feeling my systems fail, my calming mechanisms being overridden one by one. Sitting outside in an unoccupied corner of the hallway, sobbing quietly into Weston’s shoulder as he held me like he has too many times before. I couldn’t stop crying, first at the shock, then at the sadness, then at the utter insensitivity of the performers and designers of the event, and finally at my feeling of aloneness. 

I realized suddenly that the corner into which we had we tucked ourselves was in fact a gigantic window of floor-to-ceiling glass. I was, as ever, visible, penetrable, on display. 

I moved through the crowds to get to the toilet, seeing as if for the first time their rich, intelligent, unattainably privileged whiteness and coolness and youth, their dark pseudo-bohemian clothes and good skin and smartly sociable smiles, seeing them unmoved while I was unmoored. I felt so unlike them, un-kin, isolated by their calm sociality. “Yeah it was really good! Such a refresher after all these concerts!”, I heard. 

I felt my difference in that moment—my exclusion from the calm-feeling community of the room, a community of individuals I find compelling and inspiring, a community I wish to be part of.

I also felt the strength of my sensitivity, my live-wire nerves. They allow me to challenge what is being done here, to see it in vivid clarity as irresponsible and selfish appropriation of affect. It makes me different, perhaps, in my sensitivity, but it makes me proud to be alive and strong as a thinking, perceiving being. 

From my darkest place, I asked over and over: how can they do this? How can they be so thoughtless? How can they send us in without a disclaimer or warning? How can they imagine us so removed from pain, so safe, so uniformly cosseted and careful in our lives? How can they do that without telling me?  

— —

We are none of us inviolable. We are none of us free to craft affectual experiences without taking responsibility for those creations.

We do not have the artistic right or social license to signify recklessly, simply because we feel bored or creatively limited or unsatisfied with our current domain and have chosen to play within the bounds of another—with no examination of the contexts of ethics and consent that underwrite that craft.


I realize that I am no longer ~~down with~~ co-opting performance traditions in the name of personal exploration.

Breaking down the barriers between genre practices to achieve increased artistic range, while acting and creating under the pretense of amateurism within those adopted practices, has been shown to open the door to egoism, juvenile artistic limitations, and charlatanism, not to mention taking liberties with the rich social histories of those disciplines. 

— —

The New Discipline is precipitated by the discovery that performers have bodies; its practitioners seem to find this discovery very fruitful and inspiring. I suggest that audiences have bodies too, and that those bodies have histories and feelings of their own.

My suggestion is not that pain and trauma be extradited in any way, of course, but that performers and composers must incorporate questions of sensitivity and creative ethics when creating their performance situations and negotiating mediation of powerful affectual realms.

A simple note in the program would have been enough, I suppose. But that would have necessitated a conversation between the creators, between students and teachers and advisors. To my knowledge no such conversation has taken place, either in the lectures and presentations or in the growing digital trail of discourse around this New Discipline and its exciting potentials. I hope it does.

CITATIONS AND RECOMMENDED READING  (Please write me if you have more suggested reading. This is a new topic for me and I would be grateful for any new sources)

Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells

Sophie Anne Oliver, Trauma, bodies, and performance art: Towards an embodied ethics of seeing

Disman, Adriana, Performance Art, Pornography, and the Mis-spectator: The Ethics of Documenting Participatory Performance