So there is no present moment? I say, incredulously, to Sylvia Rimat as we discuss her new show, “This Moment Now.”
“What they would say,” she replies, talking about physicists from Einstein onwards, “is that it’s not an important factor.” This is because time, in Einstein’s terms, is relative. It is experienced in relation to location, Rimat goes on to explain, which means that there is no universal present. You only experience time in the same way as another person if you are standing very close together. An atomic clock will go faster at the top of a mountain than at the bottom of the sea.
Einstein’s theory of space-time, in short, poses an interesting problem for performance: an art-form predicated on the mutual present tense. And it poses a problem for the performer Sylvia Rimat in particular, whose work explores the fragile magic of collective experience. “All we have,” she says, “is this moment now.” We can’t predict the future and we can’t relive the past; we can only occupy a shared splice of the present. It’s in performance, Rimat says, that the “ephemeral moment” of the “life encounter” is at its most intense.
For this show, Rimat has talked with physicists, mathematicians and philosophers in order to approach time as an idea, a feeling and a structure of meaning. As well as general relativity, she has researched entropy – the inevitable instability of states over time; and she talked to the philosophy professor Huw Price about the moment of ‘now.’ “I was hoping Huw would provide some kind of bridge,” she says, between scientific concepts and real life – that is, between the idea that there is no universal present and the experience that there is. But he could not provide a simple answer. Instead, it is Rimat who must balance these impossible truths together in the temporal, temporary life encounter of her show.
The tension between how things feel and how they really are is also the theme of Season Butler’s “Happiness Forgets:” a performance lecture punctuated by dances from the title sequence of the US sitcom ‘The Cosby Show.’ Gliding between personal exposition and “inhabiting other people’s expression”, Butler’s one woman show weaves together the personal, the popular, and the political.
‘The Cosby Show’ was one of the biggest TV series of the 80s and 90s. It followed a middle class black family and as such, Butler says, became a key player in “the politics of respectability” – the sense in which African Americans must perform their mainstream, bourgeois credentials in order to be accepted in a society, whose (mainstream, bourgeois) values always and already mark them as other. At least, that’s how ‘The Cosby Show’ appears to Butler now, watching the series as an adult. As an adult is also when she discovered the show’s star, Bill Cosby, holds questionable opinions about black identity. In a high profile speech to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of racial segregation in US schools, for example, Cosby criticised African Americans for their bad parenting. Black families, he said, as opposed to discrimination or institutional racism, are to blame for a ‘culture of poverty.’
One of the central themes of “Happiness Forgets”, then, is the dissonance between the world as it’s viewed by a child, and the same world viewed at a different point in time. (Or should that be, from a different location?) Twenty years after it was first broadcast, the father figure in ‘The Cosby Show’ does not seem so safe, so wise or so domestic. Moreover, while Butler was developing the show she became aware of “a quarter century of rape allegations [that] moved out of my blind spot and further into my field of vision.” To date, Bill Cosby has been accused of drugging, assaulting and sexually harassing at least 57 women. The allegations against this mainstream, black celebrity could not be more damning. And the response to the resulting shift in truths, says Butler, is complicated. Will you believe the women, whose stories are so horrific and so horrifically credible? Or will you believe the man, a high-ranking statesman in the politics of respectability, who therefore stands (in the racist stereotyping of Western culture) for the respectability of all black people in America, and wider afield?
And what if, like a generation, your childhood ideas about race, equality or fatherhood were informed by Bill Cosby? What do these revelations do to the meaning of the world? You might imagine they force the world into entropy. You might imagine they plunge the world into an ever-changing state, where energy is reconfigured: a forceful search for equilibrium, which is also, inevitably, a state of maximum disorder.
Both Rimat and Butler are concerned with the nature of truth – at once compelled to search for fragments of truth, and to acknowledge the fact that it will never be found. They uncover conflicting beliefs that cannot be reconciled, but only held. And if they cannot be held by the institutionalised endeavours of science, philosophy or popular culture, they must be held by individuals. Perhaps this is why both performers embody as well as explore the vast intellectual terrain of their subject matters: terrain that is embodied, not just because Rimat and Butler draw their ideas into one woman shows, but also, literally, because they both dance.
Rimat imitates the dances of a young girl and an old woman – this movement, she says, is a way of manifesting time in the physical world. And here, she absorbs different experiences of time across her body. When Butler imitates the cast of an 80s sitcom that once shone like a beacon of society’s collective aspirations, she dances her own self into the politics of race relations, of the gaze, and of the effects of hindsight. “Some dances,” she says, depending on which part of her show’s narrative they punctuate, “are less comfortable than others.”
Rimat makes a comparison, drawn from philosophy, between remembering the past and building a nest. The past is a home we construct for ourselves, using elements we find in the real world. But this doesn’t mean that the past is, itself, reality. The nest is a story. The nest is an invention. An unexpected gale might blow it down. Accordingly, there is nothing universal about the experiences we (think we) share – time, art, or even television – except, perhaps, for the desire to make sense of them. ‘Making sense’, therefore, is both a collective fiction, and our best attempt at truth.