‘Distances Smaller Than This Are Not Confirmed’ Confronts  The Unconfirmable
Dan O’Neil, culturebot

It can be a challenge, when writing about the work of other artists, to resist the urge to “solve” for it. I say this as a maker who is deeply invested in all the different tools that can be deployed and the myriad outcomes that become available depending on seemingly small decisions. (Let’s put that light here. Let’s add an extra camera… etc.) Distances Smaller Than This Are Not Confirmed, the new co-created dance/theater piece by David Neumann and Marcella Murray, which is being co-presented by the Chocolate Factory Theater and Abrons Arts Center and runs through January 25th, certainly tempts the maker and solver in me.

For example, you might try to solve for the amount and duration of movement sequences (that which one might identify as “dance”) versus object manipulation and camera play amid the world of the play, which resembles a sort of satirical talk show interview gone sideways. But to come up with that solution might require you to determine for yourself, on behalf or in spite of the artists intentions, what type of logic you used to engage with it. Did you regard it as a narrative piece? In which case, the limited use of dance at only very specific break-out moments makes a lot of sense. Or did you receive the work as a whole more abstractly, harboring a desire to have the conversation but not to have it like this. If so, perhaps you left craving more of the in-between and less of the talking-head dialogue.

The work is clearly interested in navigating those in-between spaces. More than other recent Advanced Beginner Group pieces, it straddles logic, style, and sensibilities. Sometimes the work recedes, goes silent, and lets space be space. Other times, the reverberations at the core of the piece suddenly suck all the oxygen from the room before exhaling into a slight deviation from what came before. Our understanding of the logic and the world advances fitfully, unpredictably. This can be exciting. It can also leave a residue of uncertainty in its path.

The work, it might be stated, is about race. And… it is. It’s also about science, science fiction, two humans trying to have a conversation on what appears to be a public access television show, the human body moving through space and how it moves and where that takes us. It’s about blind spots, misunderstandings, fear, and how attempting to be kind can sometimes work and sometimes not work. It’s about how we try to use stories to explain things that we otherwise can’t explain, and how sometimes even those stories don’t do the work for us. How do we keep doing the work after the story?

It’s also about how much you’re willing to give up before you’re done having the conversations that other people want to have. Marcella Murray, who is black, and David Neumann, who is white, are engaged in an interview. They are playing characters that are themselves but also not themselves. For example, we know that David is not actually a T.V. show host, although he appears as one in this show. I don’t know whether Marcella Murray is a rising science fiction novelist (I googled, for the sake of this article, and I don’t think she is? But it doesn’t actually matter). These characters are held up at the beginning of the show but are quickly exploded when Marcella asks David point-blank, calling him by his name, “David, when did you first realize you were white?” At which point, the piece shifts. The interview turns into more of a conversation. But it’s a conversation that Marcella doesn’t necessarily want to be having — she evades, stops and starts (it doesn’t help that David’s character has an affinity for interrupting, highlighted several times during the show). Even in the context of it being a “staged” conversation (i.e., they are not making it up on the spot, it’s heavily edited and is a recitation versus an improvisation), there is a sense that Marcella could get up and leave at any moment.

photo: Brian Rogers

Eventually, after David fails to answer Marcella’s question several times over, she finds a way to specify what conversation she might want to be having. It’s not that she wants to know when he first understood his whiteness in relation to blackness, she articulates, but that she wants to know when he first knew he was white. A member of a race of people. Not necessarily about being white in a white supremacist society (although that all comes later, and eventually cannot not be part of that self-reflection). In this moment, the piece shifts once more into something else. It keeps morphing, just as the question keeps asking.

We can’t solve for it. Not entirely. There is no obvious solution to be seen, just as (in a different section of the show) David rails against the logic or lack thereof of having to believe that the universe has no edge. How can anything not have an edge?

Without edges, things get confusing. It’s hard to tell where you are in relation to other objects, humans, ideas. This, ultimately, feels like the fertile ground that Distances Smaller Than This Are Not Confirmed is interested in sowing. Perhaps our work is not to solve but to simply contemplate the problem.

Dan O’Neil for culturebot – January 17, 2020