Bill T. Jones’s new book, Story/Time: The Life of an Idea, published by Princeton University Press in 2014, reads as a set of nested works, each one progressively framing the next: The book is based on, and in some sense documents, a series of lectures Jones gave at Princeton University as part of the Toni Morrison Lecture Series in 2012. All three sections of the book, corresponding generally to the three lectures, serve as Jones’s meditation on his relationship to composer John Cage. Past Time and With Time, the more analytic first and last sections respectively, frame a collection of one-minute-long stories with temporal annotations for pacing that comprise the central and most performative section.
Three months before the Morrison series in 2012, Jones premiered a dance work simply titled Story/Time in which he read 60 of these stories aloud, seated prominently at a desk onstage, as members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company performed around him. A photographic still from the lecture-performance and a set of stills from this earlier group performance in turn bracket the collection of narrative scores in the text. And, hovering at the core of these nested documents and performances, we find Cage’s 1958 work Indeterminacy, which was Jones’s structural source for the continuous flow of minute-long stories. Both in Indeterminacy and in collaboration with Merce Cunningham for the piece How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run (1965), Cage read aloud a series of his own one-minute anecdotes, selected through chance operations.
Typologically, Jones’s and Cage’s stories are quite similar: They both include childhood anecdotes, self-reflective narratives that comment on their respective crafts as choreographer and composer, parable-style interludes featuring each artist’s friends, reflections on their parents’ own memories and narratives. They also share a recalibration of time in which disparate past moments condense into the varying textures of text distributed on a page in the graphic representation of a minute. In light of certain of Jones’s stories—his mother and her friend being fondled by white men as they drove from one job picking cotton to another; one of his relatives dying from the inhalation of rat poison—the privilege inherent in the “neutrality” of many of Cage’s narratives stands out in stark relief, however. Jones, in his framing first section, states explicitly that he wants to engage not only with Cage’s work but also with Cage the individual. So if Cage, the man, stands at the core of Jones’s book, we must add yet another frame around the whole work, namely Jones the man with his specific history and specific body.
Indeed, a color photograph of Jones, bare-chested and impassive, stares up at the reader from the cover of the book. Here, Jones’s silent face starkly asserts his authorial presence in the text. But the image also implicates the reader in the history of the primitivization of the black body. Jones’s choice to present himself shirtless invokes the visual prominence of race, its immediacy and its embodiment. “What is your intellectual home if you are [seen as] this creature that exudes primitive forces [while dancing]?” he asked in a recent interview. In the text, however, Jones in no way simply asserts race as something timeless and embodied. He presents it as profoundly undergirded by history and narrative, bringing it forward most prominently in the stories about his parents and grandparents. It is there as part of an inheritance that intersects with the other elements of his identity and with his relationship to Arnie Zane and others, with his art, with his present thoughts and insights as described in certain of the pages of the book bound beneath his photograph. Franz Fanon describes the black male identity as existing at a related matrix. Beneath the “body schema,” he writes in Black Skin, White Masks, there is a “historical-racial schema…woven…out of a thousand details, anecdotes, and stories” told by the Other and internalized by the black man. Jones takes on this storytelling, claiming it as his own, showing himself as the compilation of all elements of his identity.
In one of the stories within the middle section, Jones describes Zane changing out of pink pedal pushers and a polka-dotted peasant blouse into darkly masculine clothes between a confrontation with a car of young men and the arrival of the police. Not only does Zane avoid getting in trouble, but also his shift towards a masculine appearance brought with it a shift in power dynamic such that the police trusted him over the carload of youths. Zane’s performance of gender presentation allows for adaptations, for the taking on and off of the visual vestments of this element of his identity. Jones implicates himself in this story by telling it, by describing the event as taking place on their front stoop. Even as Cage places himself within many of his stories, it is never about revealing something of himself. The “I” is present as the subject position in the narrative, not as the self shaped by these experiences. Although Jones employed some chance-based procedures in determining the selection of stories, he refused to follow them completely, refused to get fully out of the way of the work as Cage did. Jones—his identity, body, story, and intention—stays ever present.
“One does not make just any experiment but does what must be done,” wrote Cage in his History of Experimental Music in the United States. This statement of the historical necessity of indeterminacy provoked Jones to counter that what is historically needed is not a further removal of the artist’s persona but instead the direct communication of both his experiences and his intentions to an audience. And this is where the series of nested frames comes back in. Story/Time: The Life of An Idea is Jones’s ultimate statement of intention. This final frame, down in ink on paper, guarantees that his stories are viewed in the context he intended. If the narratives define Jones, Jones makes sure that the reader never loses sight of how Jones defines the narratives. He seems to have decided that the stories, either as performed within a dance, given as a lecture, or printed in a book, do not sufficiently speak for themselves, do not successfully infuse the personal into the indeterminate. He bolsters his own bodily presence as storyteller in the live lecture-performances or his own narrative voice and photographic image in the text with self-critique and explanations of process, with a description of his first experience of Cage’s work and his recent disappointment with the state of live arts understood as “social uplift,” as described by educators at public institutions.
Jones claims at the end of the book that he turned to his personal experiences to let in a wider audience, to make his work accessible to those who are not part of the artistic elite to whom Cage most profoundly speaks. In so thoroughly circumscribing the core narratives within a framing meta-narrative, however, Jones closes down the interpretive resonances of the stories as they stand. Alone, the autobiographical elements of the stories have the potential to do what Jones asks of them: to testify to a specific lived experience; to let in audiences not versed in modernist art history; to critically respond to Cage’s artistic legacy by arguing that personal history—not just art history—matters as context; and, pivotally, to do more than Jones asks of them. And yet encumbered by the outer frames of the first and last chapters in the book, by Jones’s insistent presence around the work as much as in it, Story/Time: The Life of An Idea becomes merely the document of the life of his idea rather than the score it could be that opens onto more ideas.
Hannah Yohalem is a Performa Magazine 2014–2015 Writer in Residence.