In some ways, it was not fair programming.
The audience had gathered on an August evening at New York’s Wild Project, where the Current Sessions, a performing arts organization, was presenting a trio of works.
Things began on a serious note. In Studies #4, Tina Wang and Tingying Ma had their spectators assemble across the street from Wild Project’s East Village black box. A dancer traversed Third Street and into the lobby, as we dutifully followed en masse. Once inside the theatre, we were positioned everywhere but in the available raised seating. The dancer climbed over seats and in between rows, in a somewhat standard exploration of architecture through the body, in that classical critical investigation of “frame and work.”
Then, for the next piece, the lights darkened and we formed a circle directly on the stage surrounding a large turntable. In Dalel Bacre’s No Dancing Today, a masked dom brought their leashed sub onto the platform, and a saga of visceral gyrations, thunderous music and glittering fetish gear played out.
After a short intermission, things took a turn for the ludic.
We returned to the theatre where a ping-pong table awaited us on stage. Two young men appeared and plainly informed us they would play a game of table tennis until the supply of balls ran out.
What proceeded, in stark contrast to the dramatics that had come before, was a “performance” simultaneously gripping, mind-numbing, incredible, boring, and if you jerked your head too swiftly in following the ball, nauseating. The two Canadian performers-slash-players, Pierre-Luc Thériault and Antoine Bernadet, volleyed across their small arena for what felt like an unknown amount of time.
Speed Glue, as this performance was called, is the product of the Montreal-based duo Simon Grenier-Poirier and Dorian Nuskind-Oder. Each collaborates from their respective backgrounds in visual arts and dance: Grenier-Poirier trained at Concordia while Nuskind-Oder studied dance at NYU.
And just like ball bouncing around a ping-pong table, Speed Glue itself is also in rapid (for contemporary artworks) circulation. In October it went on at Galerie UQO in Gatineau; it happened again in November at Musée d’art contemporain des Laurentides in St-Jérôme; and funding has been achieved to a film a version of the performance in May 2018. Speed Glue has drawn on experiences in places as divergent as fabrik Potsdam, a German centre for international dance and performance, and LY Table Tennis Academy, a club in suburban Quebec. Movement is, in many ways, essential to what Speed Glue is, does and might become next.
For those of us unhabituated to table tennis (one assumes this describes the majority of the art and dance worlds), Speed Glue is also a crash course on the topic of skill—not just the on players’ own virtuosity, which in its precision, focus and risk of failure matched the daring of classical ballet, but on an audience’s own ability to watch.
As balls strike across the board in choreopraphic placement, as the players’ elbows shift to accommodate the range of attack, as more time passes, we appreciate modulation in stroke, deposition of landing, and rhythm of volley. No score is kept but competition is palpable; with our own attachments to Thériault and and Bernadet merely instinctual (there is no country to root for, no community, no celebrity), the agonism of sport itself becomes central. The pressure of the game only comes to an end when one athlete matter-of-factly announces, “This is the last ball.”
And when watching Speed Glue, the twinning of its creators’ skill sets in art and dance makes sense: in its rapprochement between athletics and artistic performance, Speed Glue summons the legacy of the Judson Dance Theater, which imbued modern dance with quotidien movements and gestures.
But Grenier-Poirier and Nuskind-Oder also look to post-Judson work, like Yvonne Rainer’s 1967 Volleyball (Foot Film), where the mere act of kicking a ball at a wall became a way to think about objects, matter, and environment. A year prior, in 1966, Robert Rauschenberg had in fact wired tennis rackets to an electronic network in his contribution to the famed 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, so that every impact with the ball shut off an overhead light.
Moreover, the strictly defined parameters of Speed Glue recall the scores of Fluxus and conceputalism. Grenier-Poirier and Nuskind-Oder in fact drafted their own strictures for Speed Glue:
– Try to keep the ball going as long as possible.
– Modulate speed in order to make the exchange sustainable.
– Stay interested.
– If you miss the ball, it’s okay, just keep going.
These guiding directives tie Speed Glue to the format of the score; but they also push the work’s concerns into more contemporary territory.
In talking “exchange,” “sustainability,” and “interest,” and in resorting to a reassuring, friendly tone to comfort their players, Grenier-Poirier and Nuskind-Oder address thematics of labour and its affective variants.
Here, the warped smile behind Fischli-Weiss’s public installation How to Work Better enters the picture. In 1991, the Swiss duo painted a series of motivational statements borrowed from a Thai ceramic factory: “Do One Thing at a Time,” reads one statement. “Be Calm,” goes another. “Smile.”
Grenier-Poirier and Nuskind-Oder’s collaboration as a pair is in its beginning years, but they focus on examining choreographic prompts, theatrical display, and interpersonal relations as scenes of exchange.
“Exchange,” in their work, is as mutable in its semantics as one might think; it is both a mesh of economic transactions and the set of less instrumentalized operations that occur between people.
Accordingly, Speed Glue is a piece of both hobby’s pleasure and sport’s work. The pair already kept a table tennis setup in their studio as means of working out ideas or taking a break.
But it was during a joint residency at fabrik Potsdam in Germany in August and September 2016 that the Speed Glue performance actually came together. Germany, they learned, is second in the world behind China in international table tennis rankings, and the game became a point of sociability in the residency’s duration. fabrik’s director even had his own paddles.
Back in Montreal following the residency, Grenier-Poirier and Nuskind-Oder brought Speed Glue to fruition. With an impending performance slated for March 2017 at the Centre de Création O Vertigo, Grenier-Poirier and Nuskind-Oder sought out table tennis clubs and players in the region.
At the LY Table Tennis Academy in the suburb of La Salle, they not only met Pierre-Luc Thériault and his students, but encountered the curious global economy of the game. On the international circuit, China dominates due to a rigorous, well-supported training infrastructure. Practitioners from elsewhere can only compete on far more local scales, where they can play in national leagues or coach younger players at home. Thériault himself retired from the sport at the age of 23 and moved on to studying engineering.
The table tennis existence is a precarious one. In its fierce competitiveness, insignificant remuneration, and personal demands of devotion, it can start to feel like the the choice to make art or dance. Speed Glue’s itinerant appearances contrast the peripatetic circulations of emerging artists with those of athletes playing wherever they can for a less-than-lucrative spectator sport.
In this solidarity across artistic and athletic labor, Grenier-Poirier and Nuskind-Oder explore both the collaborations and demands that issue from any exchange. These exchanges can be moments of inter-disciplinary dialogue, but they also instrumentalize people. The table tennis players, after all, are enlisted for their skills and told to adapt to a specific set of guidelines. (The artists have, in the past, enlisted one player, Edward Ly, aged just 14).
Yet this is not the social antagonism which participatory art has long grappled with; rather, Grenier-Poirier and Nuskind-Oder aim for mutual transformation.
While in Potsdam, the pair conceived of Biergarten für Alchimisten—a performance wherein they gave a lecture on the curiously entwined histories of alchemy, the scientist Ray Kurzweil, and the theoretical substance called computronium, a entity that if ever actualized, could change its very physical properties by an external or internal intelligence. The attendees in Potsdam sat at a table during the lecture and ate Bavarian food. And they all played tennis table after.
Transformation, then, in the work of Grenier-Poirier and Nuskind-Oder functions as both spectacular metamorphosis (in alchemy, in computronium) and in a more quotidian and uncertain coming-together (in Speed Glue).
Speed Glue binds together the aesthetics of dance and sport into a hybrid mode that trades between pleasurable and dulling viewing. A set script dictates its course, yet allows for more chance and internal competition than a typical choreography would.
Thus, like the glue of their title, a sticky set of relations bond in Grenier-Poirier and Nuskind-Oder’s work, relations that shape a space of open viewing.
In its possibilities, Speed Glue counters the institutional dramatics and emotional histrionics of so much performance art with a supple spectatorship that studiously avoids the ironic.
Maybe, in parting, we can consider the bizarre tone of the artists’ final injunction to their players. It speaks of both fun and fatigue, of both permission and command: If you miss the ball, it’s okay, just keep going.
Here, there is no choice but to play.
Joseph Henry is a PhD student in art history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a Helena Rubinstein Critical Studies Fellow at the Whitney Independent Study Program.