Basically I Don't But Actually I Do
By Jochen Roller and Saar Magal
Earlier this year I read some kind of sciencey study arguing that the process of putting our gut responses into words often causes us to reverse that initial position; that is, in verbalising an instinctive reaction, we engage in some kind of interior dialectic that sees us taking up the side opposing ourselves. The people who took part in the study weren't critics, per se, and I've no idea of the validity of the testing, but it's an interesting conclusion, donchathink? Certainly one that most critics can probably find some connection with. It's a similar response to the one I had watching Jochen Roller and Saar Magal's Basically I Don't But Actually I Do. I distinctly recall feeling, during the performance, that much of it was naïve, confused, overly difficult, overly contrived. In the days since I've revised that opinion, and now I find a lot of intellectual pleasure in pondering the piece. Is that a bad thing? Is a gut response somehow more intrinsically authentic, more real? Maybe. But we don't live in the moment of reception; if I were to try to hold onto the feeling of that moment, I'd be writing my name in water.
Language plays a big part in Basically I Don't... but besides the actual spoken component (which isn't that much) it's language in a much deeper sense. We (I) tend to consider metaphor as a primarily linguistic notion – there's even a realm of neuroscience proposing that language is a convenient by-product of the evolutionary need for metaphor as a survival mechanism. But this production activates metaphor through spatial and physical means. We're not told meaning. We're not told much. But we're put into an environment that forces association, articulation, an internal rewording of what's occurring around us.
Upon entry we're asked to remove our shoes and place them in a line along one side of the playing space. They sit there, our inert and mute items of footwear, for the next hour, in full view. They're our traces. We weren't warned of this before arrival, so they're also our embarrassingly intimate lives put in a spotlight. They're what we have to publicly reclaim if we want to walk out, as a couple of people did during the show. They might, if we let them, be the mounds of shoes stripped of millions of Jews in WWII, or the images of such that have been indelibly stamped on the modern consciousness. But we need to make our own words to make sense of this, if sense can be made.
The show is replete with images and situations that ask us to make connection. There's an apparently simple sequence in which the two performers stack books on their heads, each attempting to make a teetering tower taller than the other. When one pile collapses there's a sense of defeat. But what do we make of it? In one way it's a literal 'balancing of the books' that proves impossible to maintain. In another, it's trying to win a contest of knowledge – the weight of my learning is greater than yours. Yet again, it might make me think about history as contest rather than collusion, or about the way it takes great precision and dynamism to make a book more than just a dead thing or, worse, a weapon (during an early sequence the pair fling the same books at each other across the space).
Some moments seem too obvious to me: a heavily stylised routine where the physicality of Hitler's showmanship is repeated and amplified to an abstract kind of dance. But then, you had to make the connection to Hitler at all, since there was no overt sign that he was the subject of this sequence (I even wondered if I was just reading the dictator into it – then again, even if that had been the case, it still gave me pause to reflect on the performativity of tyrants and the terrifying artificiality of charisma).
If I had a vaguely negative reaction during the piece itself, it's not unwarranted. I recoiled a little when Magal walked along the line of the audience unspooling a thread of audio tape and asking particular members to hold it, helping erect a barricade of sorts. At the same time, Roller wore a backpack emitting a recorded speech in German, and from my very limited ability with that language it seemed to me as if something anti-Semitic was being said. I didn't know why any of this was happening, particularly, but I didn't want to be complicit in it and wasn't going to help hold up no darn fence. I still don't know if I was reading something into this that wasn't there but, again, I had a long think about how terrible things are helped along by people just doing what they're asked to do, and how the aura of performance (including that of tyrants) can seduce us into an unreflective participation more dangerous for the passivity it seems to allow. Doing what everybody else is doing can seem as innocent as doing nothing at all.
As I've said, some of the production still seemed too blunt, or ill-considered, or I just didn't get it. Maybe I didn't get it at all, and did a bunch of wrong-headed post-show revision or projected too much onto the work. But if I saw something compelling and deeply provocative where no such thing existed, I'd rather live with my illusion.
Basically I Don't But Actually I Do ends today at the Meat Market, North Melbourne.