Possessed by Method: The Split-Screen Farces of Aki Sasamoto

Aki Sasamoto, Performance Attempt #2, Screenshot. Courtesy of the author.


From October through December of last year, Aki Sasamoto performed—or attempted the performance of—a broad array of experiments, each filmed and streamed online at the Japan Society as part of their From Here To There series, meant as an “alternative platform” in the age of Covid. Sasamoto’s performances, in particular, feel like beautifully futile attempts to transfer the grit of matter across digital space, and to communicate across our individual predilections into the wide gulf of social circumstance—until these twin concerns amount to the same thing, and we are matter as matter is spirit.

Each "performance attempt" is time-marked for when it happened live, while I watch two months later: 

Performance Attempt #1 

October 22 at 6 PM EDT

Performance Attempt #2

November 19 at 6 PM EST

Performance Attempt #3

December 3 at 6 PM EST

I know Sasamoto’s work, previously, for how it propels what feel like highly-personalized, autolectic investigations through precise material and procedural parameters. Her rigorous approach belies the eclecticism of her materials—from blown glass to fried donuts, with frenetic diagrams scrawled on paper, drywall, plastic bags. She pursues her curiosity as equal parts child in the kitchen and scientist in the lab, and the results are likewise illuminating and farcical. Her processes consume her and she becomes almost invisible while remaining, functionally, the center of attention.

The performances in the Performance Attempt series expand her approach to include an expanded cast of performers/collaborators, while returning again to a common theme of her work: the instantiation, both literal and figurative, of frames. In the case of these performances, the predominant frame is that of the camera, how it can connect as well as isolate—a timely investigation in the age of social media as accelerated in the age of Covid.

A crucial test: can we permeate the frames between us? Sasamoto stages the difficulty of communicating while celebrating communicative opportunities so rich and plentiful that only in their relentless pace and variety could they finally register as discord. In each performance, we’re left on a razor’s edge and an arm’s length away from where an act coalesces into a thing. We never get there, though it’s all right in front of us: 

Sasamoto is tacking drawings to the wall when she gets a call on her phone. This feels like a rehearsal yet the electric tension of risk lies in the air all the same, if only because the camera’s on. Even now, live, she continues to prepare. Preparation is a constant event, porous so that anything may intervene and nothing—everything—is sacred.

Over the course of three evenings and an hour and a half, Sasamoto never stops preparing, and yet while the work feels always provisional, it’s also tightly wound up in structuralist conceits that ground her searches in their place. The results are s(low)-burning punctuations that feel like tight-lipped discipline and playful irreverence at once: everyone is doing precisely what they’ve set out to do, while stumbling all the time. Fun-loving yet dutiful, the performers are something like Trappist monks, brewing beer on-site while constantly at prayer.

Their attempts are brief and restless, each splashing into the next, and the stumbles are the point: 

Three floating heads on three different screens direct two boxers toward their respective opponent, searching with punches, seeking blows, laughing at their near-misses: “Punch! Punch! Straight! Duck!” The boxers occupy the same gridded field—a technophile’s boxing ring—at different times, the transposition indicated by their translucency. Translucent but not ghostly, they are empty and disciplined, clumsy video game characters within the larger farce. What they see they cannot act, or what they act they cannot see. Displaced in time, no punch can ever connect, even if everyone involved got their motions right.

The pacing is such I never stop to ask why.

Two painters, conjoining a circle bifurcated, again, by a split screen. To see paint applied as though watching paint dry, I am attuned to their techniques as a radio to its signal. Roland Barthes has a term, punctum, for particular types of details in a photo that consume us. The punctum, neither pedestrian nor spectacular, draws the eye into the mind’s psychological depths within the frame, an unpresuming vortex that seems to call onto you alone. Sasamoto foments a similar attention: The problem here is how to cover the large field of a military-green tarp with yellow paint from such a relatively small brush. The minutiae are captivating: How to cover the tarp, in awkward variations of drip and slash, short and long gesture, extension and retraction. I cover space—right here from my computer—while the laborer covers time. Or—?


Sasamoto is possessed by method, drained of self-awareness. The effect is that of confronting an extraordinary individual who is both impossibly cool and outlandishly dorky, in a space where seriousness and levity stand in continuum: at the extreme of one emerges another.

And another:

Bits of rope everywhere. The rope is purposeful, a line embodied to take measure. But these are no standard stoppages: they are stoppages of technical impossibility, or possibility indefinite or deferred. Like all the other tools of our time, these tools feel too ubiquitous to be of use. A woman testifies in a voiceover, “it feels like…” She finally admits, “I’M FUCKING HUNGRY.” Is this outburst a failure of articulation or articulation’s victory?

Aki Sasamoto, Performance Attempt #3, Screenshot. Courtesy of the author.

A narrative element: Sasamoto doubles down on abstract problems until they become embodied, immanent; questions about contact and consumption become representations of eating and food. What does it take to persuade us that everything is procedure, until a procedure may recede into its materials, giving them new dimension? 

In one portion of the last performance, various people describe particular objects. Sasamoto herself describes a very old lemon she’s kept in her studio for observation—it is now desiccated and dark. Another person describes her own intestines, concluding: “We all have the tube in us. Tubes all around us. My tube is also 15 feet long.” Tubes like ropes. 

Another person describes blueberries scattered on the asphalt, cooking. To sequester an object of consumption is to render its impossibility acute. These are things described under the process of their time, a time that we ourselves cannot bite into.

Sasamoto repeats: "The color is much saturated, but it's still very fragrant.”

Repeated enough, it’s like we can almost smell it.

In another portion, featuring a kind-of improvised pinball game, a solitary hand rolls a white pebble across a black graduated surface and watches it roll back, in contact with various obstacles. The obstacles are earth-toned and otherwise hard to describe, except that one has metal strings— I know because some hard little bits are dropped on it and they strike the strings, emitting a sound on contact, harmonious yet shrill. 

The lemon, less yellow and more brown over the weeks, evokes Joseph Beuys’ lemon that powers a lemon-yellow light bulb. From the RISD website:

Beuys connected a lemon to a light socket, thus demonstrating that the typical Mediterranean fruit can power the attached yellow bulb and creating a metaphor for nature’s transformative and healing power.

The unspectacular/pedestrian miracle is that it works. The lemon demonstrates a brute, impartial fact while, through Beuys, instantiating an attempt at social being through metaphor. 

Performance Attempt #3 confronts, most baldly, the information glut of the digital realm. In the last—I want to say “skit”—I’m overwhelmed by the cacophony of independent tactilic explorations, altogether as profuse as Information. We end with “GREEN,” an incantation wherein we are awash in this color as indistinguishable from the deliberate effort paid its presence, so that green becomes more than the sum of this information. Little blocks of the stuff are stacked in front of the camera until they’re about all we can see.

We are no longer dealing with green, handling green, using green, or referencing it—from an experiment about enforcing the boundaries of signification we’ve finally made it to a glitchy dream where, for this moment, green is elevated unto itself, as itself— and we too, all of us, can see it. WM

Spencer Everett

Spencer Everett is a poet and writer based in New York City. Other recent work of his can be found at Avidly, Fence, and The Brooklyn Rail.

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