Koans of dislocated experience

A Shifting Conversations EXCHANGE//PART III: Kathleen MacQueen responds to Raqs Media Collective’s previous post: OF TRAVELERS, TRUANTS, AND TROLLS.

Dear Raqs (Monica, Shuddha & Jeebesh),

Just as your performance of The Last International brought a broad smile to my face so this response drew tears such that I had difficulty reaching the end of your letter. How is it you discern so well my struggles? Or is it that we find in an exchange not necessarily what we seek but what we need? You reminded me of disillusionment, loss of faith, discouragement, and, yes, “being shafted.” And I think of failure and its resulting chaos and one’s precipitous efforts to make amends without the benefit of detachment, inevitably adding to confusion and increasing a sense of impotence.

Pergamon Museum display, Berlin, © Kathleen MacQueen.

Pergamon Museum display, Berlin, 2012 © Kathleen MacQueen.

These words of yours in particular assuage my repetitive reflections at year’s end:

Although we know that we die and are reborn a thousand times even in a single lifetime. When you think this way, you are not waylaid by the history of a few defeats. You know that the life-time of a dream or an idea, like the Last International, passes through many twists and turns, through many ‘births’ if you like.

I imagine for the moment the four of us (five if you include the rhinoceros!) on the same ship and, in answer to your questions, I relay to you certain regrets (which here I edit and redact):


A:        DVHDMZY, MZNKZXOZY, VIY GJQZY OCZ VMODNO QZMD HPXC WPO CZ MVS NGDUNCJY JQZM KZJKGZN AZZGNSBN. Apologies were for him like dangling participles lost on the page disconnected from their proper pronoun.


A:        I trusted him and considered him a mentor but, ultimately, we parted company in grave misunderstanding and haven’t spoken since.


A:        As Proust would say: “What does it matter? It means nothing.” (His descriptions, however, speak otherwise.) These are the vanities of inner narratives far removed from what goes on in the outside world.


A:        CZVYCJMZN OJKMJOZXODQZ RVQQNVIY VMHJM; DOMPNO DIVRDGG OJPIYZMNOVIY. He was Wittgensteinian, believing that understanding ends at the surface of the skin. I am Bakhtinian, believing it worthwhile to return to interrupted conversations.






A:        How does one know? It was an overwhelming humiliation but as I round out my life once again, I ask myself if it wasn’t in its own way necessary? Hurtful, yes, and damaging but, also, an impetus to add complexity to one’s field of vision: to acknowledge, if not accept, chaos and confusion. I came out of it less trusting but with greater self-reliance and resilience…with a tougher hide…

Illustration for a poem by Giovanni Giacomo Penni published in Rome in July 1515. (Biblioteca Colombina, Seville). Source: Wikipedia.

Illustration for a poem by Giovanni Giacomo Penni published in Rome in July 1515. (Biblioteca Colombina, Seville). Source: Wikipedia.


A:        Yes (laughter), I suppose you could say that – the armor of a rhinoceros hide! Well, if I am willing to concede, then CZHDBCO VYHDO OCVOHT QDZR VGNJCVN HZMDO

But how useful is the image of the rhinoceros? Why not a chameleon? Or a snake? Isn’t it better to alter our color or shed our skin and change in this way? Ideally, I would like to have skin that is more opaque and colorful…less transparent and melancholic. One could be almost acrobatic, twisting and turning, flipping and flying through life, defying defeat as one defies gravity! 

That’s precisely how Peter Brook staged A Midsummer’s Night Dream – on trapeze with no actors touching the floor of the stage. It was 1970. He had done his protest and now would imagine spontaneity, freedom, and delight! If we cannot manifest our dreams through culture, then we can never hope to change the systems governing our lives. It’s not enough to expose the inequities of life; art might also propose new ways of being in relation to one another.


A:        Failure brings us to stasis; it interrupts momentum and demands a halt to life as usual. Eventually we become restless once again, begin to move, and, though hesitant, to reach out. As we regain muscle, we discover momentum.


A:        How does momentum become a movement? Ah, yes, that is your question, isn’t it? It is perhaps the most critical question because it implies the joining of hands and linking of arms. It brings us back to arms akimbo and linked in defiance and solidarity.

Yerevan, Armenia, © Kathleen MacQueen.

Construction barricades, Yerevan, Armenia, 2012 © Kathleen MacQueen.

Compassion is being capable of imagining ourselves in the predicament of others without the compulsion to take over. And, here, Siddhartha returns:

Of course he felt that this love, this blind love was a passion, something extremely human, that it was samsara, a muddy wellspring, a dark water. And yet, at the same time he felt it was not worthless, it was necessary, originating in his own being. Even this pleasure must be atoned for, even these pains must be experienced, even these follies committed.

To be human is to be fallible – messy – but when we do not abandon hope or each other, there is potential, …movement, …do we dare say revolution? I have felt intimidated – I admit this – fearful of reprisal. Why? Because I loved? Had dreams? XMPZGOD VGRVTN XJHZNVN VNPMKMDNZ

And speaking of Rhinoceros: how interesting that you discovered a passage in Siddhartha with a rhinoceros when I did not! This is indeed a unique translation of the German…but why not? Fewer letters and more a propos to our discussion. I am certain that you have been reminded of Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” (1960). His rhinoceros in great multiplicity represented the fear of thoughtless conformism, yet he, too, believed that we ought “to participate in being so as to live as if it were the first day of creation, a day that would every day be the first day of new creations.”[1]

Chairs, New York Public Library, 2013 © Kathleen MacQueen.

Chairs, New York Public Library, 2013 © Kathleen MacQueen.

Of course Ionesco also wrote a play entitled “The Chairs” in 1952.[2] Intent on upsetting logic with absurdity, the play ends in silence with only the audience remaining to fill the space of sound. When you produced The Last International at the Connelly Theatre in New York’s East Village, on the first night just as there was no distinct beginning to the event, the audience was unsure if the performance had ended and so we too filled the space of sound. “The last decisive moment of the play should be the expression of … absence,” Ionesco is said to have written in a letter to Sylvain Dhomme, director of the first production. 1952 is also the year that John Cage created his best-known and most controversial composition, 4’33”, which David Tudor performed as silence.

Why do reflections on time often prompt meditations on silence? After World War II, John Cage invoked the relevance of silence: “There seems to me to be no truth, no good, in anything big in society. But quiet sounds were like loneliness, or love or friendship.”[3] Derrida considers silence as a “latent” responsibility toward the other. He calls it “a sort of counter-culture of knowing-how-to-keep silent … to evacuate words to gain breathing space for friendship.”[4]

The Last International, though not quiet, speaks of friendship. However, an earlier work – Whenever the heart skips a beat (2012) – is all of what Cage intends. For this you created billboard displays of analog clocks that tell time through the placement of disconnected words and phrases: “Try” “Me” – one clock invokes Alice’s sample of the mysterious vial or the plea of a would-be lover – “Where else?” “Disappear” – while another clock scatters presence within a politics and an intimacy of intimidation. Elsewhere, the hour hand points to “Blood” while the minute hand indicates “Noise” in a silent duet reminiscent of Felix González-Torres Untitled (Perfect Lovers) (1991). Such pairings of non-sequiturs become modest koans of dislocated experience fused lovingly into meaning.

Berlin, 2012 © Kathleen MacQueen.

Berlin, 2012 © Kathleen MacQueen.

So after a breach of trust, like a hermit in search of salvation, I took a vow of silence, maintaining it for six months, yet without secluding myself from public view.


A:        No salvation. No friendship. No greater understanding of silence. But space for confusion…

Words Don’t Come Easily…

This is the title of an exhibition at the Center for International Light Art Unna through 16 March 2014 where you present an installation: Revoltage (2011) in which light bulbs illuminate nine oversized letters alternately so that different words – “Revolt” and “Voltage” – are formed. According to the exhibition statement: bunches of black and red cable unite and split right before the light bulbs, like the backwater of a massive, turbulent current. In the wake of democracy movements across the globe, it is interesting to reflect on the quiet stasis of backwaters as the germination of massive, turbulent currents of united energies. Perhaps this is why our skin is transparent – so that the depth of humanity is visible beneath its surface. To return to the standing man in The Last International:

When an artist stood his ground in Taksim Square, he made space for others to stand next to him. This is the way the world finds room for itself.

As the New Year is born, you ask me to consider that time is not something to grasp but like the wind, to set sail and let fly! – eros, not thanatos – with or without a rhinoceros on board but with room for all the world…

Be well, work well, live well for all your twists and turns of time,

Woodworker's tools, Yerevan, Armenia, 2012 © Kathleen MacQueen.

Woodworker’s tools, Yerevan, Armenia, 2012 © Kathleen MacQueen.

[1] Eugène Ionesco, Present Past, Past Present, 1998, 149.

[2] When I think of chairs, I am reminded of sculptor Charles Ross’s collaboration with the Judson Dance Theatre production of November 1963 and of Pina Bausch’s Café Müller from 1978.

[3] John Cage (1959) “Lecture on Nothing” in Silence (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2011), 117.

[4] Jacques Derrida (1994/97) The Politics of Friendship, trans. George Collins (London and New York: Verso, 2005), 52-3.



  1. […] KOANS OF DISLOCATED EXPERIENCE, Kathleen MacQueen […]

  2. priyanka · ·

    The generosity with which you write, and share your writing, is mind blowing… or perhaps it is that you are such a tremendous conjuror of words that each line merely feels like you are laying bare your most vulnerable thoughts, whilst to you, it remains just words ‘strung together with the utmost grace’! In either case, it is utterly exquisite.

    1. Thank you, Priyanka! The artist, Muntadas, quotes Dutch director Joris Ivens (1898-1989) in his video piece “La Siesta, The Nap, Dutje” (1995) – “All works of art are always autobiographical.” And, so, shall we say – “All works of writing are always autobiographical” but no more so than they are all also fiction! Be well, Kathleen

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