Throughout the process of constructing the 34th Bienal de São Paulo, its curatorial team, participating artists and guest authors will send out letters with open dialogues that directly and indirectly reflect the development of the exhibition. The text below was written by Brandon LaBelle and will appear in its complete version in the catalogue of the 34th Bienal, to be released in September 2021.
Interview with a Clown
A few years back I had the fortunate luck, while visiting the clown archives in Eastern Kentucky, to meet a retired circus owner by the name of Z, who, due to a flair for research, developed an outstanding collection of interviews with clowns (mostly American) dating from 1979 to 2015. […] After some hours of plumbing the depths of Z’s collection, I pleasantly came upon one folder that still captures my imagination, and which I go back to now and again when questioning what it is about clowning that I feel so drawn to. This single folder contained various materials: a number of photographs […]; scraps of receipts and papers […]; some letters that were unfortunately indecipherable as they were written in such a scrawl of a hand as to leave them beyond comprehension; […] and finally, a stack of pages of an interview that Z himself had conducted with this lanky figure – whom I will simply call “Doc” owing to an obligation to leave his identity unknown and also since it is clear that the clown in question was a rather philosophically-minded performer. (I say “was” since Doc passed away shortly after the final interview was made in 2015.) […]
Z: Can we start with laughter?
Doc: Do you mean, we should laugh?
Z: Well, we could, certainly, but I was thinking that we might talk about laughter?
Doc: Yes, this is such a special aspect. Absolutely. The energy...
Z: This energy?
Doc: The body on the edge.
Z: The edge? Of what?
Doc: Losing control. And... the limit.
Z: But laughter is extremely social, is it not?
Doc: It is, and it isn't... I would say that it immediately fills us with something uncontrollable. Laughter is always disruptive. As I said, the edge.
Z: It does cross boundaries, for instance, in moments of ridicule, I see the point...
Doc: But it is more fundamental. As Cixous says, “laughter is aligned with the monstrous”.¹
Z: Do you feel like a monster?
Doc: I am a monster, precisely, because I am unnamable.
Z: But I know your name, I think...
Doc: Of course, there is a word that designates this body, and that you can use to call me, to talk about me, that is clear. But at the same time – and this is what captivates me – here we arrive at the crucial center – I'm also the one that escapes the name – that is my job, my task, it is what I'm called upon to do: to create uncertainty. To embody the margin.
Z: Is laughter an expression of uncertainty?
Doc: It is absolutely an expression of a certain limit. It shows that limit, by crossing it.
Z: This makes me think of what Georges Bataille writes about laughter, as being tied to non-knowledge. This limit, as you say, of what we know. Is that it?
Doc: Of what can be known?
Z: Of what knowledge may hold, because there is always a periphery to knowledge. You might say, it is haunted by something outside it.
Doc: The edge of knowing... Yes, but it is definitely a question of the body – it is not only cerebral... That is not the point.
Z: But to go back to laughter, how do you feel about it?
Doc: Laughter is like a suspension of time, or maybe a suspension of rules. It is a great movement, of everything, like a rupture – it is so beautiful and so dangerous at the same time. But we must remember, the clown does not laugh – he is to be laughed at, and that's a position. The position.
Z: To be the object of ridicule?
Doc: If necessary, absolutely, but also, of radical pleasure. Of what others may only dream about.
Z: I'm always struck by how often we laugh while in the middle of a conversation. There are so many moments, and so many different types of laughter that occur between people talking. And yet it is so far from speech.
Doc: Which is why we're having this conversation, right?
Doc: The political imagination... I think these are desperate times really, and one of the reasons I say this is I think people really miss a certain level of sharing, of being together, time for being more open to each other. There are a lot of struggles today, but I think there is also a lot we can do together, especially in terms of renewing utopian ideals. The erotic... the drive... I...
Z: You mean, organize?
Doc: No, I mean, poeticize.
Z: And what is poetry to you?
Doc: The trace of an idea... the edge of signification... I can’t tell you –
Z: Is the clown poetic?
Doc: Absolutely! It is nothing but poetic – the clown undoes reason, it is on the side of the unspeakable. This is at least what interests me in clowning, especially as it brings us to the body – all I have is my body, and clowning puts us in touch with the body as a power, a kind of body wisdom – maybe I can even say witchcraft, you know, medieval logic, homeopathy, alchemy... It is really a question of nonsense... and the power of laughter.
¹ Hélène Cixous, Le rire de la Meduse. Paris: L'Arc, 1975.
Brandon LaBelle (Tennessee, 1969; lives in Berlin) is an artist, writer and theorist working with questions of social life, voice, and agency. Guided by situated and horizontal methodologies, he develops and presents artistic projects within a range of international contexts, mostly working in public and with others. He is the author of The Other Citizen (2020), Sonic Agency (2018), Lexicon of the Mouth (2014), Diary of an Imaginary Egyptian (2012), among others.