I’ve spent weeks trying to write about my experience of Chris Mann’s work, and every time I sit down, I decimate what I’ve written before in a maelstrom of editing. The more I think about his work, which is centered in language, the more I recognize the inherent lack of precision in words themselves and in my own phrasing. In my effort to more exactly convey my thoughts, the impossibility becomes frustratingly more apparent. It’s only now that I am realizing how hilarious this is given that Mann’s work – though exacting and precise in his use of language – embraces ambiguity, is open to multiple meanings, and prizes audience interpretation over authorial intent.
“Language is the mechanism whereby you understand what I am thinking better than I do (where I is defined by those changes for which I is required)”
The first time I saw Chris Mann perform was in December of 2015 at Experimental Intermedia, Phill Niblock’s cavernous (by New York City standards) and raw loft space in lower manhattan. I had very little idea what to expect, having not heard or read his pieces beforehand. He sat in bright light at a dusty little table with wheels, a glowing island in the surrounding darkness of the audience. I was in the front row, watching and listening intently, occasionally wishing I could take a picture.
What I experienced that night was an onslaught of thoughts seemingly impossible to follow and occasionally comprehensible. The references he made included language, grammar, philosophy, literature, politics, morality, performance, audience, and current events. My memory of the performance is more of an overall impression than an attachment to any specific ideas. What it did leave me with was a strong curiosity about what he was doing, what he was saying, a sharper attention to words and meaning and a desire to learn more.
It had been a long time since I needed such a high level of sustained concentration to try to follow what someone was saying. The words were English – my native tongue – but I was reminded of my experiences as a beginner in other languages: French, Italian, Spanish. Sitting at a dinner table while others speak fluently, sound and melody superseding meaning in my ear, the moments of understanding jumping out of the song of vocal sounds, the delight of momentary comprehension.
“Interestingly enough, the meaning of a word doesn’t change when you get it”
-Chris Mann from his piece “speaking is difficult”
Straining to understand is part of the performance, as is an awareness of the effort and all the ways it can go wrong. I kept finding myself operating from the assumption that he meant something. Sometimes, his string of words were nonsense and my interpretations were imaginative leaps based on personal experience and current intellectual predilections. I wasn’t getting what he meant, I was getting what I meant. Which is not a mistake. The times I suspected he was deliberately being absurd, my momentary sense of alienation never developed into apathy or annoyance. I have felt that with others artists’ work that strained too hard to be strange or shocking, with no indication there was anything of substance to learn.
The difference with Mann’s work is that it is dense with ideas and pointed observations, so many you won’t have time to contemplate them all in your first encounter. If you are making an honest effort to listen, it is often exhausting. But in the stream of Mann’s thoughts – sometimes annunciated, sometimes mumbled, stuttered or incomplete – there are moments of clarity. Your attention is rewarded.
Chris Mann’s performance may be centered on language but it is also a very visual experience. The subtle or exaggerated facial expressions, erratic hair, and beautifully delicate gestures – hands and arms moving and dancing, punctuating thoughts – adds crucial information to the impossible task of deciphering just what he is trying to say. Having read the texts of his pieces and also heard just the audio, seeing him perform makes one thing much more apparent : just how funny he is. The comic timing of the spoken words paired with his body language highlights this.
This first time I saw him perform I knew I wanted to film it. I’ve long been fascinated with filming conversations and interviews and studying them later. For one, even though I usually make an effort to actively listen, the amount of information I miss in the first encounter in real life is astonishing. A second viewing of a recording alone also allows for a calmer contemplation as it removes the social expectations of an immediate response or interaction. Audience members at a live performance play an active social role – especially when the space is small, the performer can see you, and (even more so) when you personally know the performer. If I don’t feel the need to be thinking about what I will say or do, my bandwidth of attention to listen increases dramatically. And then there is the pause button. With Mann’s work particularly, the ability to pause and research what he references – even though there is still no guarantee I will understand them (“negative probability” anyone?) – is a joy. Lastly, it allows for repetition. Learning a language requires repetition, and Chris Mann’s language is no different.
Watching a recording of Mann’s performance is a very different thing from physically experiencing it in the moment. The film is not a substitute for the live experience, but one of many ways to encounter his work, along with reading his texts and hearing the audio. The satisfying thing about his pieces are how much more they reveal upon further study.