Feelings Are Facts: A Life, by Yvonne Rainer

Ian White

Tags: Yvonne Rainer

Reviews / 06.05.2007

Yvonne Rainer was a key figure in New York throughout the extraordinary cultural re-evaluations that occurred during the 1960s, experimenting actively within the new paradigms of minimalism and conceptual art as a dancer, choreographer and filmmaker. She was one of the founders of Judson Dance Theater in 1962, a revolutionary forum for a loose association of radicals who took their cue from Merce Cunningham and John Cage, attempting to develop an unprecedented postmodern aesthetic. Rainer's work has invariably been about a radical exploration of the 'everyday' in art, evident in her incorporation of quotidian movement and her complex use of diary material. Along these same lines, Feelings Are Facts: A Life is Rainer's attempt to rewrite her life as a memoir, albeit in a similarly experimental, exploratory way.

Feelings Are Facts in part extends from an essay Rainer was asked to write by Pacific Film Archives on her formative influences as a Bay Area filmmaker. The book incorporates her life up until 1972 in great detail but from that point on, her narrative is abbreviated into an 'Epilogue (as Prologue)' at the end of the book. Like her film and dance practice, it is shaped by her highly developed and formidable use of montage ('mosaic', in her words), coupled with a lack of narrative sentimentalism. Third- and first-person description, diary entries, extracts from screenplays, letters written by herself and by others to her, credited anecdotes and cross-questionings figure liberally. Rainer is generous in her acknowledgements, and makes this diversity of source material visually apparent, each register having its own heterogeneous graphic identity within the book.

Rainer does not begin her story with the usual biographical details of her immigrant upbringing or the vicissitudes of her turbulent adolescence, all of which she details later in the book. Instead, it opens with the casual admission to a series of teenage sexual partners and of dropping out of Berkeley in 1952, aged 18. It is an audacious precedent to set while avoiding salaciousness. Rainer's sex life was apparently quite full and the details of her (mostly heterosexual) relationships during the period the book the covers figure prominently throughout Feelings Are Facts in various articulations. Rainer experiments liberally with the text, juxtaposing events and terms, elliptically sifting through memories, while constantly in search for a vocabulary: one of her early sexual partners, Wilbur Bullis, 'nearly got in'; another, Frank Trieste, was the man she trusted to 'deflower' her (this peculiar word, 'deflower', used only once, here, rang through my mind throughout the rest of the book); a quoted diary entry describes making love to Jack Warn as 'It is all him-me-the-world'. Rainer constructs a literary prism, describing around and deferring to other accounts than those made from a normalizing perspective of history, somehow managing information by telling it.

Rainer's presentation of fragments is both extensive and revealing. For example, instead of a retrospective eulogy or nostalgic account of her arrival in New York in 1956 (marking a period of profound engagement with a radical and burgeoning network of artists - Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Yoko Ono, La Monte Young, John Cage and Robert Morris), Rainer defers to a 4,000-word letter to her brother dated 25 August 1961. Of it she says, 'Its irreverence and details offer a far more trenchant account than were I to reconstruct the period from memory'. 1

The letter shifts from her relationship with her mother to early dance classes, working with chance procedures, dancing with Jimmy Waring, the Berlin Wall, the nuclear bomb and Simone Forti. After reprinting it in full, Rainer adds a further deferral: 'The New York cultural events in the following years have been amply documented in the writings of Jill Johnston, Michael Kirby, dance historian Sally Banes, and others...'2 It is a similar, cursory pragmatism that echoes in her self-criticisms. In another letter to Ivan in 1953, Rainer describes her job in a factory, in which she worked with an increasingly politicized group of black women. Commenting on the letter, she displays an angry reaction to a co-worker's suggestion that she joined a group for racial equality, and castigates her own reactions as those of an 'unreconstructed anarchist individualist'.3

Image from Yvonne Rainer, Feelings Are Facts: A Life, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.

The narrative deflections and ellipses of Feelings Are Facts play like multiple attempts to crystallize the truth of something - some notion of historical accuracy - thrown into tension with (and through) the construction of a present, emotional truth. It is this combination of stylization and subjectivity that Rainer's first feature film, Lives of Performers (1972) definitively makes manifest. But this is not the reason that Rainer decided to stop her memoir right after the film was made. In part, she flips the decision back onto the conjunction of life, art and melodrama that make the film so remarkable: 'More and more of my private life went into my films, such transposition, though fictionalized, reduced my need to reconfigure it elsewhere'4 and 'Sturm und Drang makes a better read than a stable life'.5 We might understand this 'Sturm und Drang', so bluntly acknowledged, as containing an indication of the multiple factors surrounding Rainer's suicide attempt in 1971. This is the book's other climax and perhaps the determining factor in its formal derivation of a language.

Rainer's thorough, formal descriptions of her dance practice in the book complicate and reconfigure the theoretical-political readings through which it has been commonly understood. By her own account, this was not a practice derived from an explicit political position or agenda, but rather the enactment of one body thinking and feeling in time and space - a body that developed, in this way, a radical activist politics. The subtle occlusion of this construction is important, and this could be what informs the desire for (and absence of) another explanation, a clearer indication of her decision in the 1980s 'not to enter into any more ill-fated heterosexual adventures'.6

With much of the same localizing impact, Feelings Are Facts prescribes its own reading. It is difficult to escape the awareness of the act of reading, because of a composition that is as visually signified as it is cogently played out. If feelingsare facts, then what this book also argues is that the fact of a feeling is inextricable from its means of expression; the fact of these feelings is ultimately the fact of this book.

- Ian White

  1. Yvonne Rainer, Feelings Are Facts: A Life, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006, p.199.

  2. Ibid., 219.

  3. Ibid., 124.

  4. Ibid., 433.

  5. Ibid., 436.

  6. Ibid., 437.