The Ladder is Always There by Amanda Coogan
Before Richard Schechner coined the term “environmental theatre” in 1968, the concept had been in practice ever since Oskar Schlemmer, in the 1920s, experimented with “the building as a stage” by [End Page 99] placing six whimsically masked and costumed actors in a vertical/diagonal formation on different floors of the Bauhaus school. Schlemmer’s spectacle not only eliminated the distance between actors and spectators, but blurred the distinction between actors and architectural elements. Blending stagecraft with choreography, Schlemmer’s theatrical work established a precedent for our contemporary cross-breed between environmental theatre (where actors mingle with audience) and performative installation (where objects act). In Amanda Coogan’s The Ladder Is Always There, I saw an elegant specimen of this crossbreed, where no preestablished boundary existed between various types of moving components, whether they be human performers, their spectators, or those kinetic and painted artifacts that formed the encompassing environment.
Coogan’s piece addresses the creative potentials of theatre arts in an expanded posthuman performance field, in which animate and inanimate beings, the immediate and the virtual, have increasingly bled into one another. Her ensemble piece offered many concurrent solitary moments for each performer, who mostly interacted with the fabric sculpture. No prescribed audience etiquette inhibited the spectators’ autonomy for any verbal, gestural, or interventional actions. The enveloping sonic and kinetic installation constructed an immersive environ for a communal live action, where all present played a role in affecting the event.
Voluminous fabric draperies, suspended from the ceiling at different heights, occupied much of the main gallery of Contemporary Irish Arts Center, Los Angeles (CIACLA). My fellow spectators and I followed a slow procession of eight women, led by Coogan—all dressed in red, with one carrying a violin—to enter this flowing installation. The interwoven textile sweeps, ever undulating, looked like a loose weaving of waves, hills, tents, and sails. Blue ropes, tied to single women’s shoes, dropped like fishing lines, some dangling in mid-air, others reaching the floor. Murals of cobalt-blue on white, culminating in curvilinear edges like hybrids between stalactites and upside-down flames, spanned the four walls. Coogan’s title for this kinetic sculpture comes from Adrienne Rich’s poem Diving into the Wreck (1997), which traces the poet’s descent through a ladder hanging from her schooner into the ocean to explore a shipwreck. In Coogan’s piece, the “ladder” made of blue ropes was suspended above the sculptural waves in an unreachable height. The artist’s dream-like geography placed us at the bottom of the sea: full fathom five, thy performative community lies. [End Page 100]
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“This is the place. / And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair / streams black, the merman in his armored body. / We circle silently / about the wreck / we dive into the hold. / I am she: I am he.” Rich’s stanza from Diving into the Wreck might have served as Coogan’s choreographic score. In their striking red against the swaying fabric currents in pale flesh color, the performers dispersed into various blue-and-white corners, like pied-piper fish drawing schools of gazing anchovies around them. Now a mermaid pulled down the waves to hide her face; now a merman crawled about haltingly like a sea turtle; now she pensively grabbed onto another dancer’s ankle, her arm an octopus circling silently; now he paused like a Roden statue, a red remnant left to rot in the wreck. Meanwhile, an intricate soundscape, melodious here and pulsating there, emanated from composer Emer Kinsella’s bow, vigorously sawing on her violin. I heard Kinsella’s music as the shifting tempos of deep ocean currents, but her music might just as well be low and high winds in an intestinal forest, with all of us the “sea-change” microbes inhabiting this “rich and strange” microbiome.
An artist renowned for her durational performances within magnificent installations, Coogan first produced The Ladder Is Always There (2018–19) for MOCA Jacksonville in Florida. Intriguingly, the artist was inspired by a coeval of Schlemmer, Marc Chagall, to create her mural. Chagall’s costume design for the Ballet Russe’s Firebird—a collection by the museum—had contributed to the mural’s curvilinear blue patterns and her fabric sculpture’s pale flesh color. Traces of the Jacksonville installation appeared in this Santa Monica “re-performance,” a term that Coogan adopted from her mentor Marina Abramovic to identify her own site-specific adaptation of a preexisting piece. The shoes hanging from the ropes, for example, were produced by Jacksonville’s celebrated footwear designer Joseph LaRose. The rope pulley system, with extra ropes rolled up on wall-installed dock-cleats, reappeared here, accessible for raising and lowering the wavy canopy, like theatre curtains. In a smaller CIACLA gallery, documentary performance footage from Jacksonville was on display. Just as Coogan referenced Florida in her source opus, so her site-specific California reiteration incorporated several regional elements. The CIACLA curators helped her feature local Irish artists—the musician Kinsella, the vocalist McGuirk, and the poet Minniti-Shippey—as collaborators. But Coogan’s performers, recruited from LA-based dance schools, formed a multiethnic troupe, mirroring the demographically “mosaic” audience.
The Ladder was nonverbally enacted, but each performer occasionally made a bee line to a spectator and whispered something. Privileged with no secret whispers yet remaining curious, I inquired after each whispering. A woman heard “This is our show!” A man told me “The North is next,” and then helpfully added “I think that’s a Game of Throne reference”: GoT equals a veritable LA/US clan password! Somewhat irritated by this entertainment reference, Coogan later disclosed that all the whispers were verbal fragments inspired by Minniti-Shippey’s poem Belfast (2018), which is a dirge over “The Troubles” (1960s–1998) in Northern Ireland. To Coogan, the “North” conjured up the recent amendments to the abortion law and the same-sex marriage legislation in Northern Ireland. While such mistranslation of politicized information is hardly unexpected in an intercultural context, sounds of Ireland, which transcend translation, were vocally conveyed by an ancient Sean Nos song, which McGuirk burst out singing next to another dancer enacting what Coogan called “the flare,” in which a performer would raise and wave her red shift costume over her head in a spontaneous rage, revealing her leotard-covered writhing torso underneath. Another Irish language appeared silently, in some of the gestures that the performers palmed: ISL (Irish Sign Language), which was Coogan’s first language as a hearing child born to a pair of Deaf parents.
While Coogan’s key collaborators were Irish, her LA-based dancing ensemble embodied a slice of this metropolis’s diverse demographic pie. As such, Coogan’s theatrical piece provided a temporary cultural oasis for the region’s citizenry, showcasing a microcosm of our urban life, in subtle defiance against the current regime’s xenophobic articulations. The multitude of cameras on smart phones with which the audience voluntarily recorded the live performance exemplifies another posthuman ethnographic peculiarity, when the live and the mediated are intertwined and a collectively composed electronic archive often emerges simultaneously to accompany the live performance on social media. In this light, Coogan’s “ladder” is “the real” that cannot be reached without mediation.