Vulnerable Rumbles: At Red Rover

January 17, 2014

Lyn Hejinian and Barrett Watten reading at Red Rover. Photograph: John Keene.

Interruptions unsettle. They confuse and amuse, annoy and relieve. Last weekend’s Vulnerable Rumble at the Outer Space Studio, an artist-run performance space in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago, presented interruption as the core principle of a “vulnerable manifesto.” An excerpt from the curators' statement (written by Laura Goldstein) reads:

the automatic discomfort at interruption—the exposure of muted layers that slide up against brains not programmed with patience. . . . here, interrupt me. start speaking. i invite you. in this raw and charged space, vulnerable need not necessitate attack. if i hold you off for a minute before i must succumb, will i experience the rare sensation of my voice as presence?

Reading alone or in groups of two or three, interrupted by outbursts, overlapping recitations, discordant recordings, improvised movement, and impromptu coronations with party hats and leis, twenty-five poets presented material. The performance was Red Rover Series Experiment #71, curated by Jennifer Karmin and Laura Goldstein, with special guest curator Laura Mullen, and included a line-up so laden with avant-garde superstars that some questioned its veracity. But it was true: participants included Lyn Hejinian, Barrett Watten, Alan Golding, Carla Harryman, Christine Wertheim, Kazim Ali, Danielle Pafunda, Evie Shockley, Amy Catanzano, Jennifer Scappettone, and others.

The reading began, after the curators made brief announcements about where to chill the beer, with Wertheim crouched in a corner sobbing “wuh” sounds that gradually accreted into “once upon a time.” Then cooing harmonies arose from the side aisle—Lily Robert-Foley and Heta Rundren performed an overlapping chant. Individual readers then rose (or rose and sat down and tried again later) to present material in accordance with “codes of vulnerability” that had been circulated ahead of time. There was no predetermined order, no laudatory recitations of credentials and achievements, no names.

Each reader determined when to begin and where to stand, and interruptions were welcomed: “The evening proceeds by readers interrupting each other to take turns onstage.” Other “codes” encouraged cooperative strategies:

  • Readers can communicate physically to determine when interrupting is welcome.
  • If a reader does not wish to be interrupted, shake head or make another gesture.
  • Readers can halt or disable their own live readings.
  • Duets and choral readings are divine, choosing to share the same moment together.
  • Strategies are encouraged that give each reader time and space for work to be heard.
  • Failure is also encouraged. See Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure: “Work together. Revel in difference. Fight exploitation. Decode ideology. Invest in resistance.”

The aims of the event, timed to coincide with the 2014 MLA convention as an off-site reading, verged on the utopic: “at a place where no badge is required i imagined us, at last, as gathered to open ourselves to each other.” In a year when the MLA Subcon assembled in the days prior to the convention to protest destructive university practices, rallying members of the profession to address the crisis of adjunct hiring and other inequities, the reading’s goal—of assembling without “assumed comfort in definitions: words, titles, names of organizations”—resonated as hopeful but idealistic. Calling attention to the absence of institutional framings underscores their indelibility: many of the participants were in Chicago, and available to participate, because of MLA in the first place. Reputations preceded. No one wanted to interrupt Barrett Watten (but several people did).

The experiment was nonetheless successful in interrogating those framings and riveting the attention of an audience of almost 200 for nearly two hours: the “codes of vulnerability” effectively dismantled expectations at every turn, creating opportunities for surprise, discomfort, and recognition. Choral performances—some rehearsed, some spontaneous—provided an energetic pulse. Several invocations of Amiri Baraka, including a chair set out to mark his place, lent a spirit of tribute. There were kerfluffles and jostlings. “Should I keep reading?” someone asked after an outcry. “Yes,” said someone nearby. And everyone was waiting to see what Lyn Hejinian would do and when she would do it. She appeared with a luminosity that was equal parts back-lighting, celebrity, and measured words. “Willa Cather never disappointed me,” she read, and I don’t care if she was being ironic or not. And later: “Cerulean, ochre, viridian, black.”

Vulnerability was exposed less by the content of any given work than by the work’s position in the context of the event as a whole—the reading’s non-format uncovered the bafflements and posturings and longings inherent in attempts to speak. Kenyatta Rogers’s short story exposed vulnerability itself as a trope, circling around the nature of personal, intimate, or embarrassing subject matter as a narrative device: “I have something to tell you and I don’t want you to be weirded out by this.”

Lyn Hejinian and Jennifer Scappettone read. Photographs: Laura Goldstein

The Red Rover Series—“readings that play with reading”—was founded in 2005 by Karmin and Amina Cain, and has so far presented 71 evenings of language-based experimental performance in Chicago, featuring many national and international writers, artists, and dancers. Steeped in an ethic of collaboration and a strong feminist energy, the series highlights creative work that explores imperfection, awkwardness, and incompleteness as alternatives to the conventions of typically staged poetry readings. Karmin describes curating the series as “making a live collage and witnessing the ways creative community gets formed.”

On this occasion, creative community was formed by questioning and countering, call and response. Evie Shockley’s performance was a litany of interrogatives—“Are nations natural?” “Are American corporations human?” “Are humans pharmaceutical?” “Can I deduce the nature of the reader?”—to which audience members replied with indignant affirmations and negations. Not all responses were solicited: Lily Robert-Foley interrupted Rob Halpern when he was several pages into reading his piece, picking up the first sheet of his manuscript and rereading simultaneously from the first sentence—“Looking sadly at my cock, I begin reading the autopsy report”—a comedic echo that both reinforced the protagonist’s ennui and appropriated his language in a gesture of feminist re-reading.

Interruption enfolded a species of heckling—heckling that interposed a layer of critique or enthusiasm (or both) and threw authority, authorship itself, off balance. The event revealed, and toyed with, the line between bullying and teasing, the line of unruly energy between what is denigrating or silencing and what is fruitfully ludic. Lovers tease. Teasing is acceptable among friends, kin, co-conspirators. No one was safe from interruption in this event, and thus everyone was: when attention to a performance flagged, when someone droned on too long, another person jumped in. One poet launched into the second phase of a monologue (alright, I’ll admit it, it was me) and Karmin started crawling around her on the floor shouting “classified!” Random, but fair enough. Throughout the event, there was urgency to hold attention. To captivate. To play to the crowd and acknowledge its power, its judgments arising from collective feeling but not (not yet) hostility. The effect of the interruptions was neither to level the playing field nor to elevate the established figures, but rather to highlight artistic and critical effect, the hard work of intuition and perspicacity, doubt and articulation.

The reading ended, seamlessly and charmingly, with Karmin starting to fold up chairs during the throes of Ronaldo Wilson’s hooded and noise-accompanied evocation of victimage (“Excuse me, but I need that chair”). A recycling bin was passed for cans. There was a collective pause, a held breath, then loud and lengthy applause. One takeaway: go ahead and tease, but don’t suppress. Be sheepish and be bold. Be responsive. Be accountable to your audience.

Read more: 


Collecting cans: maternalism focus ownership extra systemic invitational focus belonging lost outside.

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