Originally published in Movement Research Performance Journal issue #54, summer 2020.
Movement Research Performance Journal has long wanted to expose the role that rumors and gossip play in shaping how we perceive and think about dance. Simon Asencio is an artist based in Brussels who uses rumor as a choreographic strategy in his work. To better understand how rumors and gossip function within a community, and how they shape our experiences of dance, John Hoobyar spoke to Simon about his work and asked him what advice he had for Performance Journal. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
John Hoobyar: What drew you to working with rumors in your artistic practice?
Simon Asencio: A few things. The artist Ulises Carrión wrote that rumors are
crucial for the career of an artwork. I was quite interested in that — in thinking about how a work circulates and how it is talked about and the fact that
there are many works that we hear about rather than experience. How does
language or storytelling encapsulate a work? I try to see how choreography
is organizing living bodies outside of theaters and other performance spaces.
The idea of rumor as a choreographic study was very interesting to me.
I’m working on a book called The Book of Rumors [now published by
Divided Publishing, 2018]. I’m the editor, not the author. Rumors are a form
of collective writing — I’m simply their intercessor. People are contributing
them. There’s a phone number that circulates where people can call and
share a rumor with me. Sometimes they just leave a message with the story.
Sometimes we have a conversation about where this rumor comes from and
how it takes place, because each story has a different pathway or different
choreography and my job is to understand that. I’m trying to edit from what
is already there, but sometimes I’m commissioned to make rumors.
JH: What are some examples of the rumors that have been commissioned,
and what is the process of commissioning a rumor?
SA: I can’t give you an example of a rumor, because the moment I tell you
this is a rumor, it ceases to be a rumor and becomes a story. It loses part of its agency. There’s a questionnaire that I made to help in the process of elaborating a rumor, which is very important for defining the context of where the rumor will take place. What is the network of people? What are the strong ties and weak ties within this context? What are the subjects of conversation that people have in this context? What will be the drivers of the rumor? What will trigger it? Sometimes the trigger is a place, sometimes it’s a particular object, or sometimes it’s a person. The process of elaborating a rumor makes us more aware of our surroundings — it reveals hidden links, a collective unconscious.
JH: Can you tell me more about strong ties and weak ties?
SA: There have been a lot of sociological studies about this idea of weak ties,
meaning that information travels fastest through people who aren’t directly
linked to you. The person you sit next to on a bus, someone you don’t know,
is actually the best person as a link between communities, as a person to pass
information. This is also connected to how epidemics work. When you try to
reach back to patient zero, it’s very hard because you’re mostly dealing with
weak ties. First you have links within a household, and that’s how most contamination happens, but you always forget the person who you were sitting next to on the bus. That’s the person who really offers a bigger reach in the case of rumors and epidemics.
JH: When someone commissions you to make a rumor, do you strategize
about who the weak ties might be in order to extend the reach of the rumor?
SA: It’s important to map out how the information will move. It starts from a place of ambiguity. If the rumor only travels between strong ties, the ambiguity can be resolved very quickly. It’s basically a matter of picking up the phone and checking in with someone. But the weak ties actually ensure that
there’s a fiction, a space of doubt, that will grow. You end up hearing a piece
of information from the seller at the kiosk or from someone talking behind
you in line for the cashier. Weak ties have been used this way in contemporary strategies of marketing too. It’s called “word-of-mouth marketing,” when big
companies basically stop printing advertisements and only use word-of-mouth strategies. One company’s marketing tagline is, “Audience is the new medium.”
JH: How many commissioned rumors do you have right now?
SA: I have about five or seven rumors commissioned to spread at the moment.
Some are quite easy to spread; some are very difficult. Some rumors cannot
be spread until the right conditions are in place. And sometimes a rumor is
a little bit too directed, so the audience is extremely small, and that’s not
really a rumor.
JH: If the audience is small, is that more like gossip?
SA: Gossip would be like a chain. It goes in one direction. And it’s a bit more
disguised as fact. It appears to be true, whether or not it really is. It also relates to a specific person or specific place that everyone knows about — it affirms a community of people who are aware of each other — while the rumor has a more chaotic behavior because it starts from a place of ambiguity. The people who hear it and pass it along produce a fiction to make up that zone of ambiguity. It’s a form of collective resolution. It weaves together what we think we know, what we know we don’t know, and what we don’t know we
know. A rumor can grow, as it is collectively written. It will move through its
own life. Maybe the gossip might change a little bit, but it’s still very close to
a fact somehow. It’s the difference between, “Leonardo DiCaprio seen driving
home with Angelina Jolie” — the hook of a piece of gossip — and, “Leonardo
DiCaprio found missing during the gala evening, no news since, have you
heard any?” — the trigger for a rumor.
JH: Do you feel like print publications such as tabloids circulate gossip or
help foment rumors?
SA: I think it depends on each journalist. Maybe some are more interested in
the gossip and others are more interested in maintaining the doubt so they
can actually continue endlessly writing and speculating. Liz Smith, a very
famous gossip columnist who recently died at 94. For 65 years, she covered
American gossip. Many stars paid tribute to her when she passed. In a way,
she was one of their most important accomplices, making each of them more
famous by narrating their infamous acts.
JH: Right now in the tabloids, rumor has it that Kylie Jenner is pregnant. Is
that a rumor or is that gossip in your mind?
SA: The fact is that there is no exposure, there’s no official disclosure, and we
don’t actually know. I would say it takes more the form of a rumor. If we had
a picture from a paparazzo, then we would enter the realm of the gossip — we
could confirm it easily.
JH: Do you think that Kylie Jenner is pregnant?
SA: I have no idea. But I think she definitely could be if she wants to now.
JH: Now that the rumor is there?
SA: Yes. We can emancipate ourselves from fiction by confirming or denying
it, but we can also choose to consent to being written by fiction, if that’s
meaningful to us.
JH: So now that the rumor is there, it can be a story of interest if she does
decide to get pregnant?
SA: Maybe. There’s something interesting about hyperstition.
SA: Superstition is about being afraid to go under the ladder, to pass the black
cat. It is believing that an event happening in the present will have specific,
and often highly unlikely, consequences in the future. Hyperstition is about
something that might happen in the future and could then have consequences
in the past. It may not be real now, but if it becomes real in the future, that
will mean it has always been so. You produce a fiction, and if that fiction
becomes real, then it never was a fiction to begin with. If you have the rumor
that she’s pregnant, maybe she’s not, but she can totally get along with it,
and maybe that’s the moment when she can take a role in that fiction and
actually become pregnant now. Once this fiction is in the real, then you can
play a part in it and choreograph it.
JH: In 2016, Movement Research Performance Journal published a short
column focused on exposing how decisions and discussions about dance and choreography happen through gossip and rumor. Do you have any advice
for Performance Journal about how to best approach that in the form of a
column? Is it useful to start rumors about people?
SA: First, a warning: rumors are like magic. You have to be careful, because what you do can come back three times to you. That’s what they say in Charmed, the TV series, and I believe it’s true. Gossip and rumors can link unrelated things and people in unbelievable plots. They can be used in this way as a form of violence to gain power. If the column is taking itself too seriously as carrying information or producing information, then it might become an instrument of politics, or of power, within the broader community of readers. But if you take it too lightly, it might simply turn into fun facts: you read it and that’s it.
Maybe the key is to think of it as a choreographic score. What you write in the column is not the rumor. What you write is the trigger for the rumor. It has to have enough components to be inviting, as a score. And reading the score is already doing it, being caught inside of it. I never write a rumor to be explicitly transmitted from A to B. If I have to launch a rumor I pass it on as a fragment. I write an email to someone asking “Did you hear about this? Can you check with X about it?” and slowly the thing grows from there and I have no more control of it.
JH: Have you heard any rumors that are interesting to share with Performance Journal? Or do you have any gossip that you’d like to share?
SA: I think I would just say to Movement Research Performance Journal that
I haven’t heard anything…