A Headless Interview with Mike Corrao & Evan Isoline BY LOGAN BERRY

An interview w/ writer-designers Mike Corrao + Evan Isoline re: CEPHALONEGATIVITY: On the Theater of Decapitation (Apocalypse Party) by Logan Berry (Selffuck co-editor).

Per the authors’ request, the interview was conducted individually to pressure-cook the process & see what synchronicities might make themselves known. Needless to say the results were interesting. Enjoy! 😉


LB: Mike, let’s say you had to ghost-write a 1-3 sentence artist statement for Evan’s ouvre. Evan, let’s say you had to ghost-write a 1-3 sentence artist statement for Mike’s ouvre. What would a first draft look like? 

MC: Evan Isoline is an autonomous set of hands writing esoteric materials, and converting yet-realized texts into their physical form.EI: Mike Corrao is a writer and multimedia artist whose work begins at the elucidation of literature as a historical concept, of theoretically interrogating the notion of the book as one would a body, machine, or a closed system, of text and image as a pathogenic or post-genomic virulence with a subjectivity all their own. 

LB: The book’s major figure is a cephalophore, a saint who carries their decapitated head. To me, your cephalophore works akin to how the phantom limb works in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological writing. Specifically, in the Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty examines the experience of having a phantom limb as a way to analyze what it’s like to be in the world with limbs, as we habituate ways of moving through the world with our bodies without necessarily being directly cognizant about it. Similarly, your guys’ treatment of headlessness  opens novel ways of exploring what it’s like to be headed in the world. The wild antagonisms between head and body–their antic rituals and queasy puppetries–struck me with an intense sense that having a head (and all the meat/spiritual/ethical-baggage that comes w/ it) is something I, on a day-to-day basis, take for granted.  Perhaps the “-negativity”in the title comes from this thought-process. What do you think? How off-base am I? Also, I’m curious about what cephalores you may have studied/looked at as you wrote this piece. What saints persist in the (inter-)text? 

MC:  I like this connection to the phantom limb. I feel that in certain ways, the body of Cephalonegativity often acts as if its head were still in place. There is an attempt at futile articulations. As there is for the head and name as well. M is often acting in ways that cannot be done without arms / legs / torso. I think that the cephalophore is a figure of unpredictable potential. Either coiling in on themselves, individuating their segments, attempting to reconnect, attempting to annihilate, orating, lamenting, etc. When the head is separated from the body, two new subjects are formed. I imagine another cut would further fractal. Decapitating each part of the body until there are infinite M’s. Perhaps the negativity is more literal. In the negation of the head from the body and vice versa. In researching the cephalophore, two prominent figures stuck out to me. One was Bertrand de Born, who appears in the eighth circle of Dante’s inferno. He’s described as holding his head like a lantern, which I love. There’s something really comical about having to appear so cartoonish in the place of eternal damnation. The other is Nicasius of Rheims who I don’t know all that much about, but there’s a story of him reading from psalms, and at the end of whichever he’s reading, his head is decapitated. Which I thought formed this interesting connection between oration and decapitation. It presents the head as oblivious almost. Locked into place as it engages with the text–susceptible to attack.
EI: I really love your connection to Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology and the concept of the phantom limb in regards to the habitual body. Framing theatrical gesture in this light is exciting. It’s even weirder to think of the head as a limb, or parasitic growth; the terminating apical extension of anthropomorphic hierarchy. In this way I think you’re right, exploring the head’s symbolic negation or ritualistic removal may provide glimpses of its innate purpose/utility.  Though it was me who reached out to Mike last year with the idea of collaborating on a larger project together, it was Mike who brought in the figure of the cephalophore. I have a background in art and art history which made this fun to play with. Going in, I thought that a serious literary collaboration would naturally be about two things: the body and the head. It was probably Blake Butler and Sean Kilpatrick’s Anatomy Courses that got me thinking like this. If I remember correctly we had liked the idea of writing a play that would be impossible to stage. Thinking of Beckett’s Play or Bataillean Acephalic ritual. From there we started talking about disembodied oratory which led to Mike’s integration of this concept of Cephalophoria which appealed to my aesthetic/stylistic sensibilities.  Starting when I was young, it became obvious to me that most sublimated senses and social virtues were centered around the head. Movies, consumerism, modernity’s advocation of science and reason over religious superstition. Later, reading Huxley’s Heaven & Hell and Bataille’s The Big Toe  illuminated relationships between materialism and symbolism in exciting ways for me. By the time Mike and I started exchanging text I had already begun experiments for a larger book that has to do with parahistorical monologues, ecstatic and epic poetry etc. so it felt very natural. I dug into imagery and hagiographic literature involving many martyrs and beheaded saints of Western Europe.  Because this was in the early summer of 2020 there is no doubt that the outbreak of Covid, the lockdown, and protests had really highlighted more contemporary and pertinent antagonisms between the BODY and HEAD—or, the government and the people. This seemed as significant as the specific historical and conceptual research I was doing so I began to write from that Cartesian schism/binary/imbalance inherent in myself and my surroundings at the time. I think it was a very natural (and cathartic!) subject matter for the period of time we started it. The title CEPHALONEGATIVITY could also connote having bad ideas. This country is full of those. I think you’re right on though. Depriving or negating one sense may highlight or potentially even exalt another. 

LB: Structurally, how much was planned before you dove into it? The play begins where it ends, making the book/performance a cyclicality. Did you have that ending in mind as you got started? 

MC: It all came together in a pretty straightforward fashion. I wrote the first act, then Evan wrote the second. We went back and forth like that until it felt like we’d reached a natural conclusion. Everything was really spontaneous. Evan or I would do something and the other would react and build off of it. A lot of those funky structural moments like the choreography or the cacographic scribbling were just us kind of riffing off one another. It was a lot of fun. It felt like we were in sync throughout without really having to talk about it. Almost all of the communication we had about the project was through the piece itself, or the emails that the new sections were attached to. And even that was mostly just us explaining ourselves a little bit haha. Without a plan everything is able to move with its own kind of freedom / flux.
EI: Almost nothing was planned aside from Mike’s concept of the cephalophore and ideas he may of have had going into the project regarding that figure. It was understood that we would be using the structure of playwriting and the stage as a place of experimentation. We each wrote four acts and we wrote them in sequence, Mike beginning with ACT 1 and setting certain things in motion. Each act (except for maybe the first one) is a meticulous response that feeds off of and deconstructs the previous one. 

We didn’t talk too much about structure or even the concepts in depth as we went but mostly focused on reacting to each other’s writing in spontaneous and impulsive ways. Patterns and themes began to emerge. Fittingly it starts in this kind of hyperbolic/hyperreal pastoral aesthetic and moves idiosyncratically into desert, sylvan and underworld backdrops. Starting with Act 4 I had the idea of “flooding” the stage and this opened up new aesthetic and theoretical potentials. In ACT 7, Mike writes the words ‘A PLANETARY STAGE’. This seemed like a subliminal gesture to get me thinking about taking this out of the ocean and into outer space. Regardless, it worked. It felt historically and biologically significant to start in a pastoral setting and end in space—to have one of us start the book and have one of us end it. Though as I was writing ACT 8 (even though I knew it would be the end) I asked myself what an ACT 9 would look like. What would a play that could never end look like? How could we make this play even more difficult to stage/produce? What comes after the abstraction of death and reunion and space and the stark duality of light and darkness and planets and galaxies and universes? And it occurred to me that something pastoral would come next. A new beginning! It occurred to me that this play would end where it begins, making its violence and imagery even more relentless, and so I think the piece had a cyclicality fated within it.

LB: To what extent did your writing strategies change in collaboration, if at all? 

MC: It felt like an extension of this desire to not take sole ownership over my work. Typically I do this by integrating content warped from other sources like YouTube videos, games, music, etc. Taking that and contorting it into a semi-new shape. Removing it completely from its original context. Here it felt like all of those exterior forces had grown into a counter-writer. Often I’ll finish a book and it’ll feel like I didn’t write it. Like I’m just intimately familiar with it. Like someone who has read it a hundred times. But here it was like I was approaching the work for the first time. Even my own sections felt new since Evan’s gave them this expanded context. I don’t know how much my strategies changed though. I was still just pulling all of these images out of the mass. But the sensation of doing so was different.EI:  Around ACT 3 and 4 new theoretical conceits or devices get tossed into the mix, things like multiple voices, bodily symbolism and philosophical language mixed with zealotous ravings and antagonistic exclamations. Ambiguous stage directions and setting descriptions appear. Very early on (in the first line of the book) it is insinuated that there are three presences in this “play”, almost like the three urns that the curtain opens on in Beckett’s Play, someone or something represented by the initial ‘M’, the ‘STAGE’, and the ‘SCENE’. As if to imply straight away that the ‘STAGE’ and ‘SCENE’ are not only possibly players in the play, but to be understood as malleable concepts. That there is this trianglular relationship between an actor, a stage, and a scene all as hypothetical concepts. This may imply that the central character (M) is also quite possibly a concept or a highly artificial construction or even just an extension of the stage design.  Around ACT 3 and 4 other things begin to be integrated into the text: like negated or redacted segments of oratory and schizophrenic dialogue, images begin to appear (though a few were added much later as a part of the dynamic formatting and design Mike completed for the book), but the majority were part of our back-and-forth through emails. Choreographic diagrams resembling vaguely biological, technological, or ceremonial movements, noisy cacographic and calligraphic text-images as if somewhere (behind the curtain or some location in time) something is being thought, scribed, or transcribed by a frenzied hand.  I think our collaborative volley of emails lasted over 6 months completing the text, and even longer designing it and building it out a bit. From my perspective the experience was really experimental and free in terms of constraints or rules. It felt mostly like a pandemic-chaos-speed-fueled game of chess but on a computer between two people in remote locations where no one wins, and there is just this hallucinogenic theatre-residue-scum-psychic-ejecta left over on the board’s surface after the players have left, some kind of smeared filth or cryptic graffiti. The conceit of making a play like this opened up conceptual frameworks which I felt I could inhabit with very raw emotion. This was a great relief through the relentless months of mid-late 2020. 

LB: The play takes place across the page. From the styling to the metatextual references, it’s clear the piece is “impossible to perform” partially because it’s intended to be read. Now to completely undermine your guys’ intentions and my last statement, if it were performed what sort of situation would be ideal for it? I’m being vague here to give you room to mess around. 

MC: I like the idea of a play that itself has to be adapted for the stage. Maybe not impossible to perform, but impossible to perform as it was written. In the same way that books become movies and movies become plays. With Cephalonegativity, I can imagine a sparse stage with three figures: one headless, one a severed head, and the third nearly invisible. All lamenting and wailing and orating. I was partly inspired by Heiner Muller’s Hamletmachine. Which is like 20 pages long, but every time I’ve seen a runtime listed for a performance, it’s like two or four hours. As if the script engenders some massive act of expansion. I think I would like Cephalonegativity to work like that. With each performance expanding into some new world-sized thing. With a dramatic apparatus constantly morphing the sets and mise-en-scene. I feel like it’s not my place to determine how it’s performed in real life haha. I don’t want to stunt any potential theater’s take on it. I would like to see a performance of it that I can barely recognize.EI: I’m glad to hear that the play felt intended to be read, as a book, investigating theater on a conceptual level rather than a script to be performed or acted out literally. If it were performed I always imagined it more in the vein of installation art or performance art in the realm of Allan Kaprow, Günter Brus or Bruce Nauman where the audience has not been fully clued into what they’re witnessing, or they are able to manipulate or interact with the stagecraft in some way, and meanwhile droning sounds and explosions and myriad voices are playing erratically but hypnotically over loud speakers, there would be a lot of interplay between body/head casts, sculptures, doubles, wax effigies, doll parts, mannequins, actual body fluids and viscera, real fire and real water, screens depicting all kinds of landscapes, colors, cosmic and submarine details…anuses, eyes, mouths and cameras depicting inside body/head, mirrors doubling and complicating everything, and maybe there is just one actor using the microphone in strange ways or painting or throwing text all over the stage with various projectors… or maybe there’d be more than one performer or “actor” in the middle of it all, but they’d have to all look uncannily and eerily alike, and finally maybe the stage is only a kinetic sculpture or device or extension of the body that is symbolic of “stage-ness”. I could imagine it would look something like that. 

LB: Let’s say you had to write a 1-3 sentence artist statement for your collaboration. What would a first draft look like? 

MC: Maybe something like: Passing the cephalophore back and forth until its head has been completely cut off and transported far away from its original stub.
The theater of decaptitation is immaculately conceived through the segmenting of the body into its infinitely severable parts. It is an articulation of the interior’s esoteric violence, and the stage’s potential to mutate with a desire to simultaneously accommodate and annihilate.
Cephalonegativity is a closet drama about the head, the body, and the self, floating in triangular formation through the abyss.
EI: I’m gonna have to break the 1-3 sentence limit. I get frustrated with artist statements so I was gonna write a haiku. But then this came out. I think the statement would read: 

The theater of decapitation is exactly that: a meta-theater of the thinking body having its head or reproductive sex organ sawed off, thrown into the audience’s lap. It is an obscene symbolic hallucination in which the theater becomes a not-real-but-urgent body of the sedated and sublimated autocriticism of a machine, an erotic performance of the sacred violence of disarticulation, drawing with it the anathema to the idol of Reason (knowing that it already is the monster of Reason) and the justice of destruction that is more than just a cleansing. It is a re-playable, quasi-medieval pantomime of the necrophilic nature of anthropomorphic solipsism and the imperialism of the human ego in which we are all the spectral kuroko dressed in black manipulating actors and stagecraft alike. An intravenous cinema with a post-pornographic focus on how bodies become the narrative of their own death and rebirth as if it were a mandatory salvation, church-bodies writhing in syncopated rapture and stupefying trance, movie-bodies desecrated and deconsecrated-by-dream-heretics, body-and-head wandering between Bardoic membranes, Self as a material detritus being quietly transformed, dragged, and arriving at a culminating analepsis, or a thought-picture vis-à-vis Masson’s Anti-Vitruvian Acephalite but as a feverish gif-loop of crime in paradise. Doomed manifesto, dys-lexicon. A statement of obsessive non-critique, of circular musing on theoretical lascivious rites whose outward surface cannot be understood. Cephalonegativity is the condition for a maximum deadpan, in the face of writing’s utter bleakness, its nihilism: a stage of orgiastic ritual enactment where your eyes replace your hands and your hands replace your eyes, where the gesture is where the voice is: the mouth of the Head of History clamped on the Phallus of Heaven and met by the fang of Death’s Womb. Pure ritual. Pure speed. To hell with time. This is the Now of The New Flesh. Autonomous. Transhistorical. Cruel, hyberbolic and delicious.

Logan Berry is a theatre director, co-editor of SELFFUCK, and the author of TRANSMISSIONS TO ARTAUD (SELFFUCK), NASIM BLEEDS GREEN (forthcoming from Plays Inverse Press) and Runoff Sugar Crystal Lake (forthcoming from 11:11 Press).

Mike Corrao is the author of three novels, Man, Oh Man (Orson’s Publishing); Gut Text (11:11 Press) and Rituals Performed in the Absence of Ganymede (11:11 Press); one book of poetry, Two Novels (Orson’s Publishing); two plays, Smut-Maker (Inside the Castle) and Andromedusa (Forthcoming – Plays Inverse); and three chapbooks, Avian Funeral March (SELFFUCK); Material Catalogue (Alienist) and Spelunker (Schism – Neuronics). His new book Desert Tiles is available from Equus Press. Along with earning multiple Best of the Net nominations, Mike’s work has been featured in publications such as 3:AM, Collagist, Always Crashing, and Denver Quarterly. His work often explores the haptic, architectural, and organismal qualities of the text-object. He lives in Minneapolis. @ShmikeShmorrao

Evan Isoline is a writer and artist living on the Oregon coast. He is the author of PHILOSOPHY OF THE SKY (11:11 Press) and the founder/editor of a literary project called SELFFUCK. Find him @evan_isoline.