Making it up at MoMA

by Katrin Trüstedt

Irene 2On Friday, February 16, 2018, the screening of a documentary film titled The Rest I Make Up at MoMA's Doc Fortnight festival created something like a theatrical event. Moving images of the largely unknown avant-garde playwright Maria Irene Fornes (she goes by Irene) cast a spell on the audience that reacted with tears, laughter, and frenetic applause. The images of her, making up stories, walking down the street Cuba style, flirting with the camera, or questioning the whole filming project while lying on her bed, seemed to turn the basement film theater into an actual theatrical space, one that has always been Irene Fornes’s true habitat. The love story that this film is – the story of her love for the theater, for Cuba, for Susan Sontag, and, ultimately, for the film maker Michelle Memran – seemed to affect everyone in the audience, old friends as well as those who barely knew her name. And yet, as the event of this film had everyone so captivated (including me), I couldn't help but wonder: what exactly is the relation of an artist like Fornes to an institution like MoMA?

The title of this film The Rest I Make Up seems to perfectly capture a feature of her art essential to this relation. It points to a making up of stories and theater worlds that was the work of this writer, as well as to a practice as part of her now dealing with dementia: If she can't remember, she makes it up. Behind the charm and nonchalance with which she graces the screen, one senses an abyss of an unknown, terrifying darkness. It makes its presence felt in silences, glances, or the state that her kitchen is in. When Michelle and Irene return from their visit in Cuba, they stop in Miami to see Irene's sister; Irene cannot tell her about having just visited their family. She does not remember. But the title also seems to address the way Fornes's avant-garde theater used to work in the niche of the Off-Off-Broadway scene (and "Off-Off-MoMA," if you will): improvised and without support, institutionally or financially, it was experimentally "made up" as the productions moved along. Besides writing and directing the plays, Fornes would, for instance, also often do the costumes, with whatever happened to be there. And ultimately, the title also seems to speak to the filmmaking project itself. When I first met Michelle in Berlin about 15 years ago, she was not sure what exactly to do with her life. How to make money. Where to go. What to make. But she knew she was captivated by this playwright Irene Fornes (it was how I learned about her), and wanted to, in some way, do something with her, about her, for her. The rest she was going to make up "as we went along". It turned out to be this film, and she turned out to be a filmmaker in the process. was an overwhelming moment, seeing her present her film at MoMA. Bringing Irene Fornes to life as a theatrical presence on a movie screen. And yet there I was, leaving MoMA into the streets of New York, wondering: isn't what was captivating in this moment also in some way antithetical to what MoMA as an institution stands for? A question probably as old as art institutions themselves. An institution like MoMA needs art projects like these, and the art projects need these institutions. But in some way, what is being validated and institutionalized, what is being used not least for the reputation and thus the power of the institution, is precisely a kind of freedom and creativity in art that seems, from this perspective, to be linked precisely to an absence of honoring and structuring institutional frames. It seems like such an institution, to speak very broadly, constantly needs its other to secure the stability of its fame and strength (the definition of instituting: securing endurance) – an other that it in some larger way thereby also brings about. The outsider, the underdog, the off-off theater scene operates in the shadow of the large institutions that decide what is good out of the new. And it is this instituting character that then also seems to create the desire for something outside of itself, for something different, raw, or real: a desire for the event that is both part of it and at the same time – when it does happen – actually cannot quite be grasped by the institution.

During this documentary film screening, I felt like I was witnessing something like a genuine theatrical momentum – an event that at the same time left me questioning my own feelings for it. Wondering if the sadness, that this playwright lost her world – her theater habitat and the ability to write –, this sadness that touches me, is not in some way linked to the way the institution works, based on in- and exclusions. It can now rehabilitate what appears to be in some way also a product of its own exclusory mechanisms. This thought, however, did not undermine the exuberant experience of the event of this film; quite contrary, it seemed even to contribute to the force that the event of this screening had.

The next day I watched a performance of Returning to Reims at St. Ann's Warehouse. This was actual theater, living bodies on the stage performing in the shared time and space of the audience. It was a staged reading recording session of the book by Didier Eribon, with film material projected during the reading, interrupted by discussions and music performance, and with much meta-theatrical reflection about the implications and conditions of the reading itself. It was – like the book it is based on – very thought-provoking on some of the most pressing issues of the time. (Why did a large number of workers who used to vote for the left parties in France now vote for the far right? How do we understand the relationship between class, sexuality, racism today? The relationship between economic hardship and questions of identity and belonging?) It was a carefully staged and conceptually strong performance. And yet, it did not feel as much like a theatrical event than the documentary film screening at MoMA, a screening that was about a playwright, but itself not a theatrical play. Something, it seems, happened that evening in the film theater 1 at MoMA, that was both staged and presented by this institution, and at the same time, was also, for a moment, Irene and michelle 4shaking its foundations and opened up a space beyond and outside of itself.

A film with and about Maria Irene Fornes from Michelle Memran
Next Screening: March 10, 2018, 4:00 pm, MDC’s Tower Theater Miami