Mårten Spångberg: The Were In The Wild
I Like Theatre
I like theatres. They have really nice stairs and the artist entrance is oftentimes minimally depressing. I mean the buildings. Theatres are lovely on the inside too especially after having been renovated too many times and altered to accommodate lifesaving IT-solutions and impossibly placed elevators that send people up and down unknown destinations.
Theatres are great because people work there. Not just actors, dancers, musicians, the sweet gang in the costume department and all the front of house people, but all the others too. Those who are occupied with things that have nothing to do with theatre but still work there, in the theatre. That’s really uplifting to think about.
Theatres are admirable because they have conflicts. What other workplaces have conflicts? In particular those that expand into the public sphere and media?
Theatres are brilliant examples of failed optimisation. The number of square meters completely cramped with activity, stuff and history is combatted only by gigantic areas that are used so rarely they are often forgotten. Nowhere else is the canteen so perfect as in theatres. The bigger the theatre the better the canteen. As long as theatres are around the welfare state is not entirely dead.
If I worked for a delivery company I’d do anything as long as I could deliver to the theatre. Oh, and nowhere else does it feel so good to be handed a visitor’s badge.
Theatres are fantastic. It’s not just the building. No, it’s like the activity that’s in there. In fact it doesn’t matter what or if it’s any good as long as it’s theatre, but once the theatre is no longer there the building also loses its cool lustre, its power, its inevitability. This to me is reason enough.
I like theatre. What feels better than to prepare oneself for a visit to the theatre? Buy the ticket, especially when buying two. Already looking forward to a glass of lousy champagne in the break before the curtain even opens. The knowledge that it will be way too long and probably rather boring, regurgitating some or other conflict that we have had so much too much of already. It’s awesome to sit there in the dark being completely immobilised, unable to make my own choices. In the theatre the lights are out, where else in neoliberalism does that happen? The theatre is a place that doesn’t know multitasking. Just think about it, where else do you sit for hours not doing anything else than sit? There’s so much freedom there and I don’t even expect it to be stimulating, fun or exciting. Theatre is really well spent waste of time. Congenial, and the information flow is so gentle and sparse. A bit too much video maybe but otherwise zero focus on user experience.
Theatre, the social situation, is simply amazing. So astounding it doesn’t really matter what happens on stage. As long as it’s theatre, the social can’t go wrong. We are there and together, not like in the cinema or the museum, for real together. Occasionally it can be tempting to confuse the social dimension of theatre with social theatre. But as we know there’s quite a difference between practice and representation. At times, theatre has engaged socially so intensely that the barrier between representation and practice has been breached. Those moments however must not be rehearsed, or the innocence of engagement transforms into simple manipulation. In our current societies, theatre, the social framework, is in itself a form of activism. The question however is if the political comes before or after activism, and what forms of homogenisation the different positions estimate?
Theatre is terrific because it doesn’t offer us to stand in front of it and take a selfie. It insists on being in front of us. Theatre whatever it is, is never neutral. I might be bad or good, political or trying not to be, fresh or dusty, big or small, it nevertheless fails being neutral. I love this about theatre and that I think is reasons enough.
Theatre is wonderful because its lack of guarantee. Where else do people ask for their money back? Isn’t it fantastic that there still exists an institution that doesn’t promise a complete, waterproof, dinner is served experience? There’s no Gerhard Richter retrospective that went sideways, or Hyundai sponsored Turbine Hall event that ended up with a booing premiere audience. In the theatre, even classics can fall over and they do repeatedly, but whoever heard about a Picasso exhibition that was a fiasco? With Picasso everything is agreed and settled, whereas Shakespeare still is or can become a pain in the butt. What other cultural institution that hosts art hasn’t eliminated that form of risk, if not any form of risk.
Theatre is smashing. We just need to remember to let theatre be theatre and not try to give it reason. When we do it quickly ceases to be theatre, stops being art and ends up at best being culture but more often pedagogy and management. Then it becomes an instrument of power and loses its openness and emancipatory potentiality.
But what about responsibility? Don’t theatre workers and makers have an ethical urgency to respond to the world that surrounds us? Yes, certainly as workers and makers but that responsibility is not identical to the responsibility of theatre, the artform. We should be careful not to transform art into an instrument, an extension or prosthesis of ourselves. It might sound paradoxical but maybe it is especially important to let theatre be theatre in times of crisis and hardship. Perhaps these are times, spring of 2020, when we urgently need a space that doesn’t guide our experience, that doesn’t tell us what to think or what opinion is appropriate. A space whose form is familiar but where experience remains open, indeterminate and generative.
That I think is reason enough. Every day.
When Anything Goes
If dance can be anything, how come so many try so hard to make dance that is as little dance as possible? Why devote yourself to dance at the same time as avoiding any and all of it?
If dance, or as long as dance had issues and were surrounded by barriers - I get it - it was important to jump, cross, and knock them over, but in 2020? What is it that choreographers and dance makers need to prove?
One would think that if all doors are open why insist on running into walls, or if anything goes it’s no longer a matter of if or not, but how? If difference always is relative (post-modernism) the meaning of “breaking out” kind of loses its appeal. The moment everything is possible it is perhaps time to listen to another mantra than the litany of the avant-garde, and instead of “groundbreaking” - which by default leaves a trail of wasted opportunities – engage in different forms of artistic ecologies. Ones that are not based on the same formula as extractivist capitalism.
What about if the avant-garde was nothing more than a smokescreen covering up the real reasons for thinking outside the box? Thrashing borders and threading the uncharted after all resonate far more with extractive and ruthless capitalism than with compassionate and gentle sharing of resources, renewable energy, or cultivating surroundings. Isn’t what art and dance history has baptized avant-garde moments, equally possible to identify as instances when markets, territories, or discourses reach saturation, burst, and pave the way for new grounds over which to claim ownership.
When conventional markets invite to compete - may the best product succeed - art markets for obvious reasons don’t. The artistic avant-garde has more to do with claiming territory, a kind of colonial behaviour, where “I was here first” is a way of dismissing any and every form of exchange and shared advancement. The artist, whatever expression or genre, is creating monopolies and what he or she sells are shares of the precious monopoly. In fact, it’s monopoly, singular, because since there are no agencies to safeguard monopolies in art most of the artist’s time is spent surveilling his, her, or their creation. The artists as a kind of Gollum - My Precious.
It is however questionable what position the artist has in this game of dominance. Might it be so that artist in corporate business is equal to R&D or innovation, and doesn’t that make curators, programmers and the likes comparable with stockbrokers, investment bankers or business that channel money into start-ups?
It is curious that the agreed-upon narration that proposes the end of art’s relation to the avant-garde more or less coincide with the birth of neoliberal capitalism. Say 17 December 1971, the release date of David Bowie’s album “Hunky Dory” which neither sold very well in the beginning.
The problem though is that even if the avant-garde attitude was violent, male, white, colonial, and capitalist, at least it – which certainly is no excuse – was a project, a drive or a concern about and around a certain medium, expression, quality or approach. It was a matter of being passionate vis à vis, obsessed with or driven halfway to insanity by something external to the self. It was the medium that was to be broken, form that should dissipate, norms that had to be shattered no matter what. The price might be high and however romantic there was a code: to not aim at breaking ground was to betray oneself, the artist community, even art itself.
The avant-garde was ideological. Obviously not in a political sense (which it probably also was most of the time), no I mean ideological in respect of art. It was carried by commitment, by cause, of unconditionality. Moreover, ideology is not the same as politics on the contrary when politics is all a matter of negotiation, ideology stands tall and would rather die. Hence ideology in practice is always political whereas politics can do without ideology or at least pretend as if. Indeed, neoliberal economy and governance are generating endless deviations in order for the common person to live the illusion that underlying structures are ethically tip top and decent. For politics anything can be everything at any moment and all doors are open. But wait a second, does that not mean that political affiliation is groundless and based only on subjectivity, because if anything goes and everything is everything I can as well base my political alignments on somebody’s dress code or choice of eau de cologne? If ideology’s business is matter and actuality, politics is all about appearance, and it goes without saying that ideology parties with geopolitics and forms of existence, when in truth politics share bathroom with biopolitics and have swopped existence for performativity.
The dominant western aesthetic canon proposes that art brings something into the world. Something that exists but can’t be pinpointed. There is no app to capture it and yet it is there, actual yet not reproducible. Throughout history this something has had many names: poiesis, originality, autonomy, genius, the oblique or unknown you name it, and has been discussed until many ears fell off a second time. It’s been the headache of philosophy since 1735 or at least for a really long time, and it still is. How can we talk about or define aesthetic appreciation, without either undoing the very notion of art or elevating it into “touched by God”, transcendence or eternal beauty?
A less pronounced question is where this something is located, where ingenuity rests? Is it in the artwork or is it in the artist?
I believe one of art’s big problems today concerns how to deal with - what in the early ’70s was seen as a blessing – the personal is political - but soon became a curse - namely a gradual shift away from the artwork in favour of the artist. Sure, it cannot be somebody else than the artist and her, his or their processes that generate or bring this something to life, but it is a magnificent difference whether the gesture is pointing towards the artwork and further to somebody having an encounter with the work. Or if it functions more like a boomerang returning to the artist, elevating the artist to be a chosen one carried by some mysterious force. It’s up to you and me to make our minds up with respect to where we want to situate the something. Do we believe in art as in artwork or art as in artist?
If art and art-worlds correlate with the rest of the world’s developments or condition - which it does - it is evident that today the something is in the artist and someone’s artwork is secondary to the person’s subjectivity. This is also why the contemporary artist must articulate a form of politics, but obviously a politics void of ideology and formulated only around appearance.
Before we conclude just a reminder that this shift is nothing unusual. On the contrary in art as in any other economic landscape what once was identified as commodity – painting, sculpture etc. – now encompasses everything not stopping with installation or performance but including also the artist’s subject. As a matter of fact, that is the real deal, subjectivity is the product par excellence, especially and in particular as long politics rules and ideology is generally cursed.
So why insist on making dance that is as little dance as possible. Well, what else can you do, if the dance starts to smell of anything “conventional”, articulated, advanced or complex the artist runs the risk that the work is stronger than his, her or their subjectivity, and at that moment the something in art slides away from the subject and into the artwork. This is also one reason why today the choreographer almost always is on stage, and identifiable as the choreographer or creator. And why a dance maker cannot not have a solo presenting his, her or their practice. A practice that is “in” the maker and not a work separated or external to the subject. Or why costume in today’s dance tends to be more or less identical to how the solo dancer/choreographer looks when dressing up. Even the costume has to confirm the subject. Not to mention why every second visual artist has to make performances, obviously.
If anything goes the real challenge is not to evacuate or to abandon, but on the contrary to remain in the middle as if for the first time, changing speed. To insist and stay put, cultivate the here and now, and engage in changing the conditions, the ecologies of the environments we have been given, that we are devoted to and cannot stop obsessing about.
”When I dance I dance, there’s nothing more to it” was one of Merce Cunningham’s slogans and a bunch of words that have haunted dance for different reasons ever since. Initially the sentence can be fended off as modernist nonsense, as it can be understood to convey a sense that there is essence to dance. That dance is something in and of itself thus communicating or cuddling up to modernist visual art where self-referentiality and media-specificity were elevated to a sort of heroism. Sometimes through a negative or withdrawing gesture as in the sense that the real hero evidently has no need to claim or manifest his position.
On the other hand, it is also possible, perhaps even necessary, to read certain abstract and minimal practices as strategic in respect of pulling out from dominant regimes of representation, hegemonic to begin with, in respect of strong binaries and identity.
In several interviews Merce Cunningham has made hints in the direction that the choice of abstract and aleatory procedures was a means to still “fit in” to the uptown Manhattan dance scene (somewhat more conservative etc.) still without expressing a male heroic, untouchable subject. After all to use chance operations or turning to I Ching in order to derive a work’s dramaturgical outlines evidently is giving the finger to contained forms of composition and Aristotelean dramatic tension, that both celebrate male potency and the notion of being in “absolute” control.
In connection to the popular introduction of drugs generating altered states – LSD, peyote, mushrooms and so on – two different approaches emerged. The more successful suggested that drugs can generate an augmented experience of reality, expand the senses and give the individual access to hidden realms of consciousness. Tripping supposedly opened pathways to your true self and enriched your subject. A second understanding instead argued that the substances offered a temporal annihilation of the subject, an erasure of the self in favour of the experience of oneself as oneself, or oneself in the sense of “nothing more to it”. Perhaps one could say the experience of existence without human or otherwise subjectivity. The world without filter, or even the world without world. The experience of experience, or just experience.
Without making an affair out of the fact that Cunningham’s life partner was a globally acknowledged expert on mushrooms, can we consider that what the quote proposes is nothing smaller than that when dancing one enters a certain form of altered state? A condition in touch with the second perspective, an annihilation of the self. Obviously, otherwise the quote would have argued something in the direction of when I dance I see amazing colours.
So rather than dancing as a way of gaining awareness of the self or finding one’s true self, which becomes central to dance from the early 1970s, it appears that Cunningham is vouching for the possibility of losing oneself altogether. A kind of surrender to the dance, a space and time that is not constrained by the boundaries of subjectivity, relations or power.
The tendency towards awareness and relations in dance, established since more or less 50 years starts with the basic premise: freedom with responsibility. The basic idea is that through training our awareness and finding agreements in respect of responsibility, these skillsets enable the individual to make creative decisions and discover new pathways. Perhaps wonderful and helpful but doesn’t it move in the precise opposite direction of Cunningham. In the temple of awareness we train ourselves to never let go of our devices, to never lose sight of the self and to never end up somewhere unknown, or only an unknown we know all about and how to get out of. Awareness is not a means to free oneself but implies the pleasure of mastering and perfecting one’s own decisions and their consequences in the world. In the case of Cunningham it is instead by letting go of awareness and responsibility, and just dance, trust that the dance takes responsibility for you that is central. It is thus not a matter of freeing oneself - in particular not from something this or that – but instead, experiencing freedom. An experience that for obvious reasons only can be fleeting and never captured.
The tension becomes even more interesting when taking into account different strategies. A widespread motif is that improvisation in dance offers the dancer and the dancer’s subject a sense of freedom. The improvising dancer being liberated from the commands of the choreographer, or the “rules” of a dance technique and thus able to express him-, her- or their self. Fair enough but isn’t this a form of freedom that pressures the dancer to at every moment consider every possible and impossible decision and its possible and impossible consequences? Which means that awareness implies the ability to know and optimise what a “good” decision is at every moment. Hence improvisation in dance in fact has very little to do with freedom and instead with the experience of being in control. Cunningham on the other hand seems to move in the exact opposite direction. Instead of improvisation he establishes a precise set of rules and a quite rigid technical understanding of dance. But is it thinkable that the rigidity functions as a means to undo the dancer’s occupation with decision making etc., in favour of a dancing that withdraws from consciousness to a state where one’s subject, or being, become occupied by dance and dance only?
Where improvisation tends to start with freedom and then piles up endless responsibilities, although responsibilities that always seems to be based on more or less vague agreements (obviously because otherwise the assumed freedom would be endangered), Cunningham flipsides the conditions, starting with a rigid “system” in order to rid oneself of responsibilities but also non-responsibilities. In somewhat more abstract terms this proposes that improvisation has an inclination towards being strategic in relation to vague, more or less, “non-existing” structures, where Cunningham’s idea instead suggests strong structures that are open to anything and shake off the deadlock of strategies. On a political scale concerning the understanding of art this proposes that Cunningham is a Marxist with a tendency towards metaphysics and spirituality, and improvisation, somewhat categorical, is neoliberal with a propensity in the direction of endearing populism.
Viewed through a different lens it could also be considered that improvisation with its general understanding of freedom, awareness and responsibility is a means of practicing being human better or being a better human. Improvisation homogenises what it means to be human and strengthens hegemonies of power. As long as you take responsible decisions you can do or be whatever you want, but only as long as you submit to our agreed-upon norms and conventions, and whose norms might those be?
Improvisation is human and moralistic. Cunningham on the other hand proposes an immutable structure for the possibility of practicing being human in radically different ways and without preconditions or inclination to evaluation. “When I dance I dance, there’s nothing more to it” in other words is a post-human practice that exchanged moralism with potentiality.
In another commonly used quote by Merce Cunningham he whines about how dance gives nothing back, it offers no guarantees and doesn’t generate something that makes the creator immortal. And he comes to the end “nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive”. There is however an important perspective to take into account, what does alive mean here? Does it mean alive as in waking up and feeling ready to seize the day – feeling alive as in my life and a fresh start – or does it rather mean alive as in the experience of life itself – not life but Life. For somebody who takes on the challenge “When I dance I dance…”, as we who dance knows, it can only mean Life.
Public Space, part 1
Something weird is happening with public space, something new and different. Over the last few months movement and presence in public space have taken on new dimensions not least due to state-sanctioned regulations. Directives that will have long-lasting and indeterminate effects on the understanding of what public space is, and what it means in respect of democratic and political life.
Public space has been a hot topic for quite some time. In particular in respect of a tension between re-animating forgotten, derelict or unsafe parts of our cities and gentrification and a general tendency towards privatisation on the other. Art and artists have been “used” to discover grey areas but have often ended up being the beginning of corporate gentrification projects.
A central argument in favour of public space, and a good one, is its necessity for a prolific political life, the opportunity to engage in forms of political manifestations as well as spreading political information. It is further of absolute necessity to protect public space as it ensures access to all people, individuals and groups. This is of course not true as we all know, but without public space there is not even a space in respect of which this can be claimed.
Moreover, public space today is never public enough. It’s always governed, sometimes through obvious powers but equally often by sneaky protocols that nobody seems to be able to explain. At some point in history there possibly were actual public spaces, spaces subject to no law or norm. In more contemporary societies those spaces are still around but manifest in different and more shattered ways. Individuals without papers or permanent addresses, large populations of refugees and immigrants for example are forced to conduct lives which the law cannot protect. Public space is a complex affair as it, on the one hand is a space where different voices can gain listeners but equally a space potential of extreme forms of violence. Paradoxically it is precisely this complexity that needs to be protected. Certainly not as a defense of violence but of spaces that are not reachable for surveillance or other technologies of control.
A less actual and yet acute reasons to insist on the necessity of public space concerns the importance of spaces where alternative forms of fiction can proliferate. These are actual spaces that need to be defended. I’m here referring to theatres, libraries, museums as well as public squares, sidewalks, parks and other forms of commons. It seems pretty obvious to me that we today live in political realities where those spaces regularly are sanctioned, censored, pressured by politicians as well as by a general public not least through social media. Libraries are being given policy documents providing clear indication of what literature to purchase. Theatres are equally threatened often by populist media when presenting politically complex work or perhaps even worse when offering resources to experimental art that might only reach a small audience.
Libraries, theatres, universities, museums – perhaps not always understood as properly public space but yet – are of utmost importance not only because of their programs, books or exhibitions but because of what they promise. They carry the promise of autonomous thought, of alternative narratives, histories of the repressed, fictions that never will be successful but never the less contribute, of sounds and images that demand unusual forms of attention and that tell stories that make the worlds grow.
All too often have we taken those spaces for granted but we should remember that once they are gone, the moment they perish or die it will take a lot of effort to get them back. We should remember that those spaces exist because individuals, groups and peoples have fought for them and not seldom lost their lives in the process. What makes those engagements even more difficult is that they are not struggles for this or that liberty or freedom, but for the possibility of freedom, any freedom. Forms of freedom that we might not even be able to recognise or consider, that we might find silly or unthinkable. It is exactly those freedoms we need to protect, and protect without asking questions. Especially not, why?
What defines public space, actual or metaphorical, is that they cannot be owned. The park that I spend time in, the bench that I read on, pavement that I discuss local political issues with my neighbour on, is owned by the city and in the end the state takes responsibility for keeping it clean and making sure it’s more or less safe. But we should recall that the state, at least formally, is the people. The republic is us and the park is ours together - all of us.
Public space is ours but cannot be divided into small parts and we each take one home. Public space withdraws from ownership and it’s in and through that gesture that it provides something extraordinary. Because what is generated, thought, sensed, experienced is also public and cannot be taken home, cannot be made private, at least not without transforming into something entirely different. This process of privatisation is not negative. On the contrary, it implies processes in which knowledge is challenged and transformed. Because what public space generates is exactly forms of knowledge that are public, that cannot be owned which means that the process of privatisation, of making them yours, to an equal extent transforms the knowledge as it transforms you.
An intricate side effect of public space is that, precisely because it is none of ours and the knowledge or experience it can generate cannot be owned, those spaces, in order to maintain their capacity as public, can also not be measured in respect of efficiency or economical revenue. Any form of measuring technology provides protocols for the inevitability of privatisation or ownership. Parks, the beach, a meadow can certainly be useful but they cannot be “designed” as a means to optimise a use or value. Public space is fundamentally useless, but as much as they are useless they can also host whatever, there are no limits to what can happen in a park. Since public space cannot be given direction, cannot be useful, it also means they carry the potentiality of making completely new thoughts or things happen. Privatised space is always carried by forms of probability in respect of for example activity whereas public space supports contingency, in other words anything including some thing that is completely foreign.
Perhaps there is something that connects public space with art, although it seems that art in public space often cannot help itself from privatising those spaces by creating strong frames or replicating protocols or contracts that we know from institutions such as theatres, museums, concert halls or for that matter shopping malls. Yet, is not art precisely of importance in respect of the spaces, actual and symbolic, it can create and the fictions and histories it can generate? And is not our times a time when those spaces need specific attention, both for what they can do but also because they are under serious pressure? It is time that we make a difference between art in public space and art that is or generate public space.
Public Space, part 2
Art in public space is rarely anything else than art changing its location from a confined or private space into the public realm. Something more is required for art to dissolve its status as property, engagement in ownership and forms of economic exchange. But how often have we not bumped into performing arts that brought into the park still remain or even strengthen its framing, bringing the theatre along thus ensuring individualised forms of participation although in the company of others. We indeed need to make a difference between the theatre as a derived form of public space – you know with its roots in Greece and all - and modes of attending theatre at least since the end of the 18th century, which to the letter replicates bourgeois culture or what conventionally is known as the liberal subject. This is a form of subject that has lost touch with properly public spaces as well as with sovereignty, the loss however was paid back through parliamentary democracy, steadily increasing individualism and modern forms of capitalism. Biopolitics in short. This moment, obviously not by accident, coincides with the formulation of modern aesthetic, the aesthetic regime that still dominates the western understanding of art and has colonialised art and aesthetic practices on a global level.
For an art to become public its first objective must be to let go of the desire to be recognised in respect of conventional forms of appreciation. It must understand that the modalities of appreciation available are based on an art that always is or easily can be privatised and transformed into property. Thereafter it also needs to make a decision in respect of whether it wants to be private or community art in public space or an art that formulate encounters that are public.
An overwhelming part of art in public space submits to the first form, especially art and projects that arrive with social, community and political agendas or incentives. The moment there is something, something defined and measurable that should be communicated or obtained the essence of an art approaching the public realm evaporates. At that moment art transforms from being an open-ended, indeterminate, experience or exchange to the exchange of information it tends to become hardly more than a vehicle, not much different from a newspaper or discovery channel. It is of course tempting to want to communicate something valuable, especially considering how much suffering the world carries, but from the perspective of public space, such an art rather than contributes to and maintains the specificity of public space it is actually counterproductive. Unfortunately this is the kind of art that contemporary societies want artists to deliver and it’s getting worse by the day. Perhaps one could even consider that that very society is somewhat afraid of an art that rigorously approaches public space?
To return to the notion that public space is a space that defies ownership, that slips away when trying to capture its essence and withdraws from conventional forms of attachments to value, even the notion of interpretation. Art that approaches public space with the intention of amplifying or making available this particular form of experience must underperform expression and instead establish itself as a form of constant rather than as a dramaturgical apparatus. It also needs to accentuate form rather than content, as well as hollowing out or the performance of subjectivity and instead emphasize a kind of gentle anonymity.
More or less contemporary psychology argues that humans need to be confirmed in order to generate a stable identity. Not necessarily in a positive way, just confirmed or acknowledged. One’s self-image is only completed once we are looked back at and can negotiate our presence in the world. Sounds good? Yes, but the price to pay is that every form of identity (self-image) is based on power and recognisability. Be whoever you want as long as power grants you recognition, and you cannot not be somebody because that poses a threat to established powers. Paradoxically, however, also the repressed desire power to be maintained because an image/identity although violent or repressed is still something.
But what happens if a space, situation or encounter insists on not looking back or just through a fleeting glimpse? Or if there are spaces that because of their structure aren’t able to confirm an identity?
Public space carries this capacity, it is a space that doesn’t side with anybody, it’s more neutral than neutral and it looks back completely randomly. It is public space and it is exactly not something, and hence it cannot but also not not confirm somebody that dwells within it. In such a situation the individual has two initial opportunities, either he, she or they look away, close their eyes, repress the situation. It didn’t happen or pretend as if nothing. A second opportunity implies letting go of oneself, to be carried away or even surrender to the withdrawal of confirmation, to the absence of somebody or -thing looking back. This process could almost be understood as a moment of becoming anonymous. Anonymous also to oneself and thus open for the experience of oneself, not only as this or that, but as something in its entirety different. No, this is even scarier, or more amazing because it is the experience of oneself as every possible, impossible and potential versions of oneself, and at the same time. An encounter with public space, or perhaps better The Public, is the experience of experiencing.
There are extremely few means or pathways to such an experience and it’s incredibly more demanding to make them become available – even just for a little moment – than sticking with design or something socially engaged. Art, and I believe in particular dance, carries this intensity, the ability to glans back at us just enough for us to not be able to resist coming along. But what is even more amazing with dance is that it’s not just the audience or a witness that can have this experience but also the dancer. To dance, to really dance (“and there’s nothing more to it”), implies to give oneself up and become anonymous, to become public. To dance means to spend time anonymously, knowing the experience is fleeting and never again. In such a moment the dancing reverberates in the body reminding us that this way of being human, of inhabiting the planet, of being afraid and exhausted is just one of endless possible versions.
Public space is not a grey zone in the city, a park or any particular space. It’s a practice and form of intensity that can emerge everywhere, even and in particular in theatres, museums, dance studios and concert halls.
It is our responsibility as artists and dancers to cultivate and guard those spaces, those spaces that carry the promise of autonomous thought, of alternative narratives, histories of the repressed, fictions that never will be successful but never the less contribute, of sounds and images that demand unusual forms of attention and that tell stories that make the world grow.
Public Space part 3.
After a run through the choreographer tells the dancers they were great. Of course, there’s some small adjustments and a few mishaps but all together excellent. Now, you just need to make it yours, the choreographer concludes. Some choreographers or rehearsal directors might even add, you need to own the material.
Make it yours, own it? Sure, on a superficial level I get it. It might just mean have some confidence, stop bothering about making mistakes and dance. Said to an actor it might also seem appropriate from some sort of Stanislavski meets method acting realism point of view but to a dancer?
At some point dancers needed to distance themselves from choreographers and the vulgar notion that dancers are simple instruments. The notion that the dancer is the dance implies that the dancer has subjectivity and agency and that the job in any respect is no stupid say after me practice. Perhaps it is also important in respect of how, if, or under what circumstances we understand dance as a mimetic practice and how dance relates to representation. Dance is fundamentally non-mimetic (at least since the 1950s) or -symbolic, it represents itself as itself and does not claim the dancer’s agency.
When improvisation grew into an autonomous dynamic within dance it also became important to state that the dancers and the dance were interchangeable or a practicing symbiosis. A less stimulating perspective, with its roots in the same beautiful era around 1968, was when the personal is political was mixed up with taking things personally and a somewhat paranoid view on ownership and agency. In any case the idea that the proximity between the dancer and the dance should be as minimal as possible is still fairly active, through improvisation, contact improvisation, movement research in the 1980s etc. all the way up until contemporary somatics, post-colonial dance and dance related to identity and queer politics.
The importance of the personal is political and the dancer is the dance is undeniable for a certain historical moment, but that moment is certainly different today and perhaps it ended up being screwed over by individualism, FOMU (fear of missing out), cryptocurrencies, cheap flights and Berghain derived club culture. Because what about if dance can offer a different perspective? Perhaps dance can animate a space where we for a moment don’t need to own ourselves, our identities (which certainly can be understood as a privilege but maybe not only), our relations, our actions and decisions, even our memories, dreams and thoughts?
The starting point for such a space to engage, to vibrate and form itself however, is to insist on not making the dance your, to own it, but instead letting the dance be its own and live its own life. To dance might have something to do with living together with a cat. You live together but you never really own a cat and from time to time it might seem as if it lives together with you but without overlapping or ever claiming territory. The moment I make the dance mine I also withdraw its agency, whereas when I dance parallel to the dance, insisting on keeping my distance I can learn something from the dance. Not to dance it better, or why I have a traumatised relation to my mother, but learn from the dance about the dance and its existence in the world.
This is what I want to do when I dance to learn about the dance’s world, obviously not through some sort of dialogue or discussion but through being there, parallel and together. Through a kind of dry intimacy or closeness without wants or projections, an intimacy and closeness that becomes so much more complex and difficult because the dance at the same time as it is there also only is a fleeting moment, something that disappears in and through its own becoming. It is on the other hand precisely therefore that dance and dancing are overwhelming. It can be as light as having a crush on a stranger on the subway, but it can also be like letting go of somebody you love with your entire being. That paradoxical sensation to love somebody knowing that if I don’t let go now the love will perish.
When we dance we have to decide whether we want to show the dance or to do the dance. The moment we show the dance we not only make it smaller but dissolve its agency. Perhaps we also make it admirable, but this means taking away the beauty it conveys simply by being a dance. I’d like to think about the beauty of a dance like I experience the beauty of a tree. Unimpressive and yet there. Instead of surprising still conventional, ordinary yet overwhelming.
Instead of trying to make the dance yours but dancing it as if it was just beside you, parallel and overlapping but never coinciding with you. Instead of making the dance yours, can we entrust it with ourselves, our identities, relations, actions and decisions, even our memories, dreams and thoughts without asking for anything in return? If that is possible, and it is, I believe that means to become public and together with the dance generate a shared, however temporary and fleeting public space. A space that can be shared by somebody looking at the dance, perhaps with his, hers or their eyes closed. Ordinary yet overwhelming.
What is a public
Having seen dance and performance for what feels like an eternity. There is something that all, at least almost, really almost all of them have in common. The expression, themes, topics, set, light, music, politics, form and so on are under constant scrutiny and the variations are endless. Still they all have something in common. Some have only one, some a lot, some might even be online, but they more or less always end up being the same good old audience. One wonders why is the audience, the public, always sitting there in a more or less dark room, contained in their seats almost falling asleep or counting minutes until they can multitask again. Christ, the theatre is the only place where multitasking is a major no-no, and totally verboten. Where else does that happen?
Where else are everybody silent listening to one person talking and look like it’s important. From a vulgar liberal perspective the theatre is a completely totalitarian space that forces itself onto the individual, making everybody in the room into that grey mass we call the audience. The audience, is like the people, individuals grouped together against their better knowledge and the price to pay is losing their individual voice, degraded to utter nothing else than a collective complaintive murmur.
Theatre has changed a million times over the last few hundred years but has the audience? Sure, it’s older or younger, more or less politically hungry, differently engaged in class struggle or middle-class comfort, but how they are installed in the theatre remains largely identical. It’s just less fun nowadays.
A theatre, dance or performance that aspires to any kind of social change must, even before it starts thinking about what it wants to say, reconsider where, who and what is the public.
One of the reasons it feels so good to visit the theatre - may that be an actual theatre, a studio, a gallery space an old warehouse or a park - is because as long as the frame is strong and intact we know nothing out of the ordinary can take place. In the theatre it’s extra exciting and so nice to engage because we know whatever it is have no or minimal repercussions in respect of ourselves, life, the world, you name it. It might not be so different from watching horror movies with the hands in front of your eyes. It’s very easy to turn off or just kill the illusion by looking at your watch or out the window. It’s not pitch black out there and you’re not in some terrifying forest, but in Seoul, Berlin or Buenos Aires and because of the pandemic nobody goes out after dark anyways.
In certain political contexts the theatre and art might be subject to censorship or even intrusions by a regime, but that very very rarely concerns the audience. Not to underestimate the violence that art can be subject to it’s pretty much unique that an entire audience ends up in prison. What happens in the theatre stays in the theatre, the strong frame regulates this and very efficiently.
Perhaps it is also a little confusing or paradoxical to visit performances that present different kinds of life, different kinds of being human in front of a ticket paying, seated, middle class, urban to a large degree professional audience. How often doesn’t those moments end up in displaying otherness not so different from 19th-century freak shows? This might be important, even though to a degree counterproductive, as the first step towards a more inclusive and tolerant debate, but it can possibly also be tempting to maintain the situation precisely because for what it confirms, the safe environment and the economy it provides.
Dance and performance, all forms of art, at the same time benefit and suffer under the fact that the frame is stronger than what is presented within. Theatre or dance, the activity is part of the dispositive theatre or dance and can neither evacuate, subvert or dispossess it.
By the way isn’t it slightly embarrassing to witness performances that tries to pose a critique to the frame? A little bit like extremely attractive people down dressing because they are constantly reminded about how beautiful they are. Institutional critique, which dance and theatre probably haven’t really experienced, similarly ends up as vain or arrogant (in the wrong way). Well hello, easy to criticise the museum when you’re already invited, and again, the museum has after all given you permission to make a hole in a wall, postpone the exhibition or exhibit email exchange between board members. So how badass are you?
Examining institutional critique it’s also all too obvious that its cadre of artists to an overwhelming part is white, straight men (there are of course exceptions, most importantly Andrea Fraser).
Add to that musuem directors that can’t wait supporting a critique of the institution they represent.
Of course, institutional critique also lives a different life. A secret life that is not about showing or representing a critique but rather practicing it. Those artists, however, will not end up in the history books or show up in the centrefolds of magazines. Instead they will make other show up because of the changes they have made possible.
Our question nonetheless remains, how come we witness such an amount of performances that are so intensely contemporary on stage but place the audience in a framework that is everything else. Comfort is one and important is certainly the fact that success in arts is relative to how an audience experiences being confirmed and able to engage without more than a teasing sense of risk.
Performing arts today tends to reproduce forms of attention that we know too well from corporate culture, social media etc. Attention is economy which means that contemporary economy constantly upgrades the optimisation of time and the way we attend to it. Perhaps we need to dissolve the bourgeois seating arrangements of the theatre, not by means of engaging in high speed attention but on the contrary by generating spaces where speed and time is drifting, not necessarily slower but differently paced. What is the attention that only dance or performing arts can generate? Perhaps the theatre and dance can function as a space where we aren’t haunted by online presence, yoga classes and Netflix algorithms not because of regulations or good behaviour but because dance and performing arts offer different modes of desire or relations to time.
With the economisation of time and the intensification of information flows in our lives, especially in relation to technologies, we are subject to a much higher ratio of decision making. Just think about how fast you decide for or against on your dating app, or how Starbucks bombard you with instances of taking decisions. Neoliberal economies are extremely subtle in making us think that we take decisions, that we make choices but we should, of course, remember that Starbucks only offers us to make the decisions that are economically viable. Americano or cappuccino, sushi or sashimi – they have already made up your mind… by offering you the illusion of taking a decision.
In many ways it couldn’t be otherwise, capitalism after all is a matter of property and accumulation of value, but is it possible to imagine that an encounter with art and with dance can offer the audience, the public, a different mode of inhabiting space, life or the world. A space that is not asking the spectator to choose between this or that, that doesn’t ask the individual to prefer one in front of the other, to interpret or analyse the situation at hand. Can dance offer a space and time where attention is not directed or designed, where the individual is treated as a thinking being and are given the opportunity to not make a decision, not to choose, but rather generate or not a decision from his, her or their vantage point or lack there of. Such a decision is not a matter of taking or making a decision in respect of a series of possible best choices, but instead of “ignoring” the possible and best, in favour of a properly personal engagement, which instead of a choice becomes a contribution. A form of production. On a political level this implies a shift from siding with this or that established position but instead of making politics or producing a position in the world.
Dance is not a matter of consuming space or time but to make oneself available to its unfolding. An unfolding that can only take place as long as space, time and activities inhabiting it (dance) simultaneously offer itself without asking for a return and becomes available.
Perhaps this is a moment when the audience forgets to be an audience and transform into being public.
Art Is Not Information
There is this story about a painting in some museum in St. Petersburg. The paintings portraits the master-saloon of Lenin’s summer house - whatever that’s called dacha - but there is also Lenin’s wife together with a handful of big shots from the revolutionary government all engaged in group sex. Nothing graphic but still without doubt an orgy. An American tourist looks at the paintings. Reads the wall text “Lenin in Moscow” and steps back again now inspecting and inspecting again. Taking on his Sherlock Holmes face - still confused. The tourist walks up to the guard – bored as usually – makes an attempt to communicate and asks: “S’cuse me, ehh but where is Lenin?” and the guard responds with a smile “Well, in Moscow”.
Maybe now they have taken down the painting. Although this one is rather sad it’s always slightly comical with these kinds of semiotic glitches but what both the American and the guard is missing out is how they both transform the painting into a set of information. Or that they together transform the paintings from art to culture. In a way they close the painting which now becomes subject to an entirely new regime of judgements. Did the painting communicate what it intended in a positive clear and efficient way? Moreover, is this an information that we consider valuable and positive for the community that visit the museum or should the painting be taken away because what it communicates is inappropriate?
Art is not information and it must not be. Think about it. An art that informs? Why on earth would I go to a museum to look at mostly square flat things hanging on the walls if their purpose was to inform or enlighten me? More over if that was the purpose what would the difference between an actual Daniel Buren and a reproduction be? Or wouldn’t that make Isa Genzken total shit. Barbara Kruger too not to mention well all the good ones.
If art was a matter of information nine out of ten artists should probably just get a haircut and another job.
If art was a matter of information how would we consider contemporary chamber music or the work by e.g. Steve Reich.
Information is always directional it tells us something and should be doing it well. Information is not seldom a matter of prohibition from gendered toilets to no trespassing or worse. Information makes the world smaller. A toilet door with out a sign is so to say richer than one with. An empty space on the ground floor is an opportunity until there’s a sign informing the world that KFC is moving in. Cock.
Art has another job. Instead of diminishing what something can be isn’t its job to augment what is possible what something can become. Information in this sense coagulates whereas art is more like turpentine – it’s job is to make something thinner and even better unclear vague dynamic and unpredictable. One thing is for sure information was never meant to make you dream away and trip. I mean who reads the New York Time in Berghain when you can take MDMA and look at something nice Wolfgang Tillmans.
Next chapter. Information is there to make sense and be useful. Arts job can not be to either or. Sometimes art mesmerises me and I fall for it heads over heel. I tell you information nah I never found myself contemplating a piece of information. Sorry. It goes without saying that art should keep away from anything useful. And again simple differences information is good for what it makes clear not in itself – there is no intrinsic value to speak of - with art the situation is reversed art is not good due what use it conveys but due itself. At least me I look at art because what it is not what it does.
Now there is a complex differentiation to make which in a way is what is in the e.g. painting and an art works context and surrounding actual and symbolic. Here Roland Barthes essay “The Death of the Author” proposed something prominent as the authors death also meant that we should check out the art not the authors biography identity and background – for art critique this was central – but one can also read Barthes from the other end as consider that when the “genius” dies then there is only context identity and background. And it’s of course great okay and wonderful to be informed about something through art but that’s not the art.
Isn’t the worst in the world exhibitions that tries to educate its audience about something urgent. If it’s a matter of learning something about the art and the artist almost fine but art historical rigor is a very different thing than a group show that wish to enlighten the viewer about the social situation so and so. And who is the artist who inscribed in the art world always capitalise on suffering no matter what. I want to learn a lot about social situations and so much more but if it’s about learning is the museum concert hall or theatre stage the place to learn? Wouldn’t it be better if we sat down and talked about it and skipped the art part or the aesthetic all the way? Because this is the worst right art that wants to inform but package information a little bit poetic. Djzouz oh yes I can totally support that information and knowledge often is strongly inscribed in western determination but we don’t overcome that through packing western knowledge with colourful poetics.
Art’s job is not the same as the job of an institution.
Nor is art’s job the same as the artist’s and they shouldn’t be mixed up. The person the artist is obviously responsible for the world like any other person. But her art cannot be accountable for saving or not the world. Art’s job is to be good art not a service for somebody/thing else’s struggle. How an artist is accountable for his or her work is a hard nut and ambiguous but it is definitely of importance to step away from a causality between the artist and the work. If so artist could possibly only make nice and good art with friendly people and sympathy. But none of this doesn’t say that the artist is not also the person making decisions and deciding if or not something should be shown for an audience.
It’s heart breaking to over and over again experience how art is made into culture how art is made into information and service and how art exhibitions and even the experience of art and an exhibition should be useful. Consider that you exit the Venice Biennale and some fonctionnaire pushes a questionnaire in your face: In what ways was the exhibition useful for you? In what ways has it increased your knowledge about… exactly what is supposed to happen then about what.
Even more if art is a matter of information who is to decided what is good or bad information? Maybe the artist will have to call the government or an oracle or so to find out? If art hooks up with information it becomes a service. In other words, it’s the artist’s goddamn obligation to refuse to inform and insist on art only then can art reclaim an autonomy an autonomy that carries with it the potentiality to change the world completely.
Practice Based Dance
“It’s more complex than that, really much more complex.” Isn’t that a horrible sentence and you, or at least I, hear it not so rarely. Because what does it really mean? Initially it points out that what I proposed was naïve or simply stupid, which I can live with, but more over it silences the person who made the proposal, and in a pacifying, deflating kind of way. Perhaps one could say in the style of Bartleby – I prefer not to - as the person probably is right but doesn’t need to answer to what, how, why, more complex? As if that wasn’t enough, in fact I believe the sentence is a smokescreen disguising a liberal opportunistic voice that simply chickens out from any real position. Or translated into neoliberal jargon, the murmur of a resilient subject that practice rather than states.
Practice has over the last few years emerged as the new cool in dance and performing arts, but as much as this move might be interesting one can perhaps also question if it’s not a shift that in more than a few respects rehearse neoliberal strategies and approaches towards subjectivity, production, distribution of power etc.?
An insurance company in Sweden no longer give their fresh recruits any introduction or tasks but simply propose, “This is your desk. In six months we expect a self-evaluation”. In other words, make yourself useful, we won’t tell you what useful but expect you to provide the company with a reason to keep you.
Performance as we know it, with a few exceptions, function as a statement. It is an utterance and a manifestation of a position, and hence something that can be subject to critique, discussion, disagreement and so on. It also means that a performance is never more complex than that but exactly that is also what gives it leverage, reason and justifies its existence.
Performance - theatre and dance certainly but also extended into performance performance – operate through what one could call transcendent capacities. We play Ibsen’s “Enemy of The People” but the drama transcends the local situation. However lousy it was done it’s still a great play. The director’s position of power transcends the individual, and we kind of know that it’s part of his or her job description to be an asshole. Similarly, the performers ability transcends the person, as it is some more or less discernible technique that is applied or as long as the dancer does what the choreographer proposes his or her personality, background, social skills, imagination, ability to collaborate etc. might be used but is secondary to executing instructions.
This is a modus operandi that evidently establish, live and thrive through power, hierarchy, exclusion, punishment, homogenisation etc. But as much as it is full of horrors it is also pretty much transparent and obvious. It’s a clear cut disciplinary complex, which means that it is fairly easy to navigate or simply avoid.
This is the template that is used by most conventional directors and choreographers although not rarely with blurred edges where the performers are being milked of ideas serving choreographers that have run dry, or use them as raw material inserting them in frames through which they are exposed as the off spring of a brilliant mind. Here discipline and control is mixed up into a rather nasty concoction that more than too often produce deeply toxic environments.
Practice, as in practice based dance, shifts things around, favouring more lateral forms of exchange, sharing, conversation, heterogeneity etc. in front of centralised transcendent power that gives itself the right to punish. Often this means inviting people more or less without preference to participate and share one or several practices, e.g. dancing in respect of a set of open instructions. Instructions that the individual participant interpret and give form and expression. After the practices it’s common that one shares experiences and observations which might be inserted into the instructions or form that base for a new set of instructions. In practice based dance instead of transcendent capacities what is emphasised is what is immanent to the situation, the initiator, participants etc. The practice can for sure be proposed in different context but what occurs in one situation cannot be compared one to one with another situation. The individual or group proposing the practice neither transcends the situation or themselves but are as individuals or group immanent to the situation. Similarly, the participants are not utilised in respect of identifiable sets of skill but instead of who, what and how they are - through what is immanent to them.
This on the one hand can be understood as an opportunity to realise oneself, to explore abilities, inner spaces, spiritual connections, or to practice different relations to one’s body, self-image etc. but one can also consider that, in fact, the initiator is “using” the participants themselves. It is not the participants’ skillset that is taken into account but instead what the person is, which is exactly what contemporary capitalism is largely about. Namely, the financialization of life itself.
If centralised or top-down power is disagreeable and leans towards asymmetry and possibly abuse, it seems like an emphasize on practice where the initiator rather than decides proposes is less prone to create toxic environments. If conventional methods of production claim the performers time it appears that practice instead allow the participant to invest in him- or herself. This is certainly agreeable but again, to what extent is this a matter of disguising power or of creating environments where the initiator through a minimal amount of information (decision) rely on the investment and creativity of the participant in ways that perhaps aren’t so far away from the insurance company.
Instead of practice based dance being understood as a form of resistance to contemporary phenomena in society, perhaps we have to consider that it might also coincide with neoliberal strategies and forms of governance. Strategies that we are all subject to concerning resilience, gig-economy, precariousness, affordance, identity and so on.
Evidently the art a society generates correlates to general modes of distribution of power, resources, production etc. Both artistic work benevolent to a system and an art that resist, protest or distance itself reverberate of its context. So perhaps practice based dance is just a child of its time, which certainly can be interpreted both as a small disaster – oh no what happened to our leftism – or perhaps as a indication and something we can learn from and hence transform or propose alternatives.
What however complicates the story is when practice based dance steps out of the “studio” and onto the stage. Because indeed the stage is a context that operates prominently through and with transcendent capacities, not least concerning how we look and how representation consolidates. Is it so that the promise of practice and its reliance and allowance of immanence collapse when it enters the dispositive of the theatre, deflates as it has little or no compatibility with “theatrical” representation, and end up exposing the illusion of freedom, the creativity of the individual or something similar? Is it perhaps the destiny of practice based dance to remain in the studio or in the park and as long as it does it is something rather beautiful and caring? The fact of the matter remains, when practice goes on stage it simply isn’t practice anymore and at that moment it loses its intricacy and end up in “it’s more complex than that, really much more complex” but to whose benefit or happiness?
We all know that there is no possible withdrawal from representation, for some thing to be something it’s necessarily entangled in complexes of representation. Practices are equally entangled but when on stage in what ways does its representational dynamics change? Or said differently how does its performativity shift, when it’s not just a practice but represents itself as practice? Practice turned demonstration?
Now, this is not an attempt to bash practice based dance but instead an attempt to shift perspectives.
What we have seen over the last bunch of years is a departure away from performance to practice, from transcendence towards immanence, from showing to sharing and situations where the relations between transmitter and receiver are blurred. Process has been emphasized and results secondary, which one can also understand as an interest in avoiding experiences that can be assessed in respect of measurability in favour of individual or even affective experiences.
Is it possible to consider that in certain cases that practice is twofold or operate on different levels at the same time, so that when we practice a set of instructions for how to move in or occupy space that we are also practicing the possibility for alternative ethics, of cohabitating space, caring for each other or whatever it might be? One question is what dynamics those ethics etc. operate in respect of (probabilistic, contingent or something in between) and even more importantly vis-à-vis what ideology or political positions? Because, evidently, nothing says that because “it’s practice based” doesn’t mean its politics automatically is hunky-dory?
It’s common to understand the encounter with art as a confrontation or engagement with potentiality. Potentiality outlined as an intensity that operates on the individual spectator expanding or compressing the individual’s opportunities to act in the world. It is an intensity, a vibrant capacity without direction, contrary to a force or power that without exception are directional. A force cannot not know it’s destination, it’s imbued with causality and can therefore only generate possible (and impossible) thoughts, experiences or sensations, whereas intensity, being void of causality can generate a thought, experience or sensation that is emerging from a realm beyond the possible (and impossible), namely potentiality. Using a different vocabulary force links to effect and measurability while intensity associate with indetermination and affect (as defined by Delueze).
With this in mind it becomes interesting to consider “where” this capacity is located? Is it in the art work itself, thus taking on a sense of anonymity, reaching a zone of impersonal indifference or perhaps better acquiring a form of publicness. Or is it in the artist, emanating through the “performance” and the creative and conceptual activity of the artist, rending the “work” a token of the artist’s genius.
Evidently aesthetic production and appreciation is never clear cut but it is never the less compelling to consider towards what direction practice based dance lean, and what consequences this suggests in respect of, on the one hand responsibility and accountability and on the other spectatorship and aesthetic appreciation.
It appears that practice based dance ends up in a somewhat awkward space, privatising the experiencing or even producing a proprietary environment that rejects the spectator, who finds herself being degraded to the position of admirer.
But what happens if we turn it all around and instead of departing from the stage and practice, instead make or generate dance in respect of a transcendental framework, creating performances but performances that when on stage practice, so to say with the audience or the entire “theatre”, which is to say destabilise the dispositive theatre with its coagulated strategies concerning looking, representation, elaboration of time and space, social code, strong boundaries between transmitter and receiver etc.
In other words make performances that create the illusion of submitting to the dispositive of the theatre at the same time as it engages the audience in practicing the possibility for alternative ethics, of cohabitating space, caring for each other and so on. In other engage in the possibility of different social ecologies.
Although a too simple diagram but for clarities sake. Instead of moving away from transcendent models of making and seeing performance in favour of practicing “all together” in the studio, and when this situation in brought on stage nothing remains (exaggerated), what if we use a transcendent model or awareness when making performance but in favour of generating a moment of practice or practicing together in the theatre, which would mean to blur the dispositive of the theatre just enough so that conventional modes of appreciation, judging etc. is dissolving so that we as audience, simultaneously, as individuals and a group, have to build or construct modes of seeing, understanding, sharing and being, in favour of the situation at hand. That is to generate a shift from transcendence towards immanence, where immanence is not already co-opted by process of financialization but instead gains traction as potentiality (in the Deleuzian sense of the word), a move that would also satisfy Jacques Rancière’s emancipated spectator.
To practice being an audience in an open-ended way does not mean to enter the stage and start dancing, singing or in other ways participating but exactly to practice being an audience otherwise or differently. To undo crystalized modes of seeing, interpreting, co-habiting space, experiencing, lose control and allow for other behaviour and habits to emerge. For this to occur it is however necessary to locate potentiality in the work of art, and this can only be done through insisting on transcendent capacities and reaching for a zone of impersonal indifference. The price to pay is of course identity, belonging and confirmation but what is gained are forms of complexity that dissolve power and ownership, through which the individual spectator can gain experience of themselves and constitute themselves as forms of life.
A special thanks to the theatre scholar Georg Döcker on whose genuine knowledge and research on practice based dance and performance this text relies.
Ecology, But How? Part 1
A bunch of years ago the Slovenian thinker Slavoj Zizek proposed that a human being that separate his, her or their garbage, perhaps even have a compost under the sink is a person who desperately focuses on “how can I contribute to climate crises” in order not to be paralysed by the fact that the world is going under, that we are so intensely fucked and nothing’s gonna make it better. Perhaps Zizek’s psychoanalytical background shines through a little bit too much here. Sure, substitute the real trauma with something that is easy to handle. Engage in something superficial to a hundred percent and add condemning everybody who doesn't to the eternal flames of hell as a smokescreen for the fact that the combination democracy and capitalism is unbeatable concerning an extractivists mindset. Textbook hysterical behaviour and not very complex.
In a current television series one of the characters prides herself and pushes others to live a zero or no trash life. After a year her entire contribution to the dark side of destroying the planet fits in a tiny glass jar. Congratulations and it’s great, but who else than an at least upper middle class, educated, healthy, single with a job person can afford the time it takes to this and that, no packaging, organic shop, no wet wipes or diapers you name it. There’s no doubt about it, ecological awareness is a form of privilege. Yet, the richest 10% of people produce half of Earth’s climate-harming fossil-fuel emissions, while the poorest half contribute with a mere 10%. So maybe the zero trash community should think again? Perhaps with a Greta Thunberg portrait as your Facebook profile picture.
Around the same time, just after the 2008 recession, Zizek proposed that the problem is that we – whoever weare – don’t take the crisis seriously enough. At that time the crisis was economical. Only economical. Look now, it’s a little bit worse, everything is a freaking crisis and still very few of us do very little, including me. No excuses, we – none of us individually or together – understand the scale of what is taking place right now and in front of our eyes. It’s pretty easy to understand, we simply don’t take the crises serious enough, not even a little bit serious enough.
Something quite horrible has happened to the publishing industry over the last couple of years. Previously it was quite simple, there was proper scholarly literature written without aspiration to be entertaining, an easy read or anything else than lengthy, rigorous and boring. Then there were popular science – nothing wrong about that even though scholarly had to go in favour of journalism – and everybody knew new the difference. Popular science was simply said Nescafé – rubbish aristocratically packaged. Lately something new has surfaced, a sort of hybrid that poses as being of scholarly accuracy but isn’t and still it’s not popular science, because most often those books are written by professors such and such, but add to that that the author without exception takes it very very personal, that the chapters are catchy and short and that they always to one third is a matter of identifying “the problem” (which the author of course always have) and the rest is an overview of how we in six or whatever steps can, or must, tackle it and save the world, our children, their children and further generations. I fucking hate this kind of books and the extended ecology shelves in our bookstores (actual or digital) are flooded with them. What these books further have in common is that they simplify everything, are sensational (no matter if the writer is a British leftist, a Danish populist, an American liberal or what identity the he, she or they sign up for), they operate as cognitive behavioural therapy, you know focusing on challenging and changing unhelpful distortions, improving behaviour and developing coping strategies that garget solving current problems – gööö horror – and they transform ecology into something that is external to the human but is out fault, that can be dealt with by the redistribution of resources and will have minor if any affect on how humans conduct life but if we don’t fix these forms of distribution really quickly we will all die.
Now, Zizek would turn it all around and argue that the first and most telling evidence that we are dealing with the current cluster of crises in a serious enough way is if life as we know it comes to an end, that the very notion of being human is transformed. And not just shifting from republican to democratic, right to left, Beyoncé to Katy Perry, but in ways that are indeterminate and irreversible. In other words, into something we couldn’t even imagine imagining.
The other day a friend proposed that the fact that theatres are the last anything to open again after lockdowns and the first wave of Covid-19 indeed is evidence enough that theatre isn’t important. Nobody and certainly not politics give a shit about theatre. So why should we go on trying so hard to be political, radical or socially engaged? Really it doesn’t make sense, or is theatre engaged in ecology more or less like sorting your garbage, both for those who make it and come watch it? It also doesn’t matter how engaged, it can be really really engaged and super committed, theatre is still like the garbage sorting, something you keep under your sink and the illusion works only as long as the doors are closed. Or said differently the garbage sorting, however meticulous you are, has extremely small if any repercussions into life which I think one can also say about theatre. What happens in the theatre stays in the theatre, which is also why it feels so good to sit there in dark for a limited amount of time.
On the other hand perhaps this irrelevance or hopelessness is exactly what makes the theatre and theatre (and dance) so exciting to engage in right now. Because to the same extent that theatre is irrelevant it and we who work in and with it can do whatever we want. We have nothing or very little to defend which simultaneously means risk is not an issue. We can risk it all all the time. So instead of trying hard to make more or less conventional theatre about ecology and climate crisis, instead of making more or less conventional theatre that pride itself for not flying, recycling costumes, using no set, not printing evening programs because paper is terrible for the planet, rehearsing using the internet or in a space without heating, or making more or less conventional theatre that attempts to change the ecologies of work, decision making and authorship, what we really need to do, in order to take the cluster of crisis serious enough, is to make theatre that has no smaller aspirations than to change what theatre is and can be. And not just a shift from blue to red, conceptual to somatic, Meg Stuart to Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, but in ways that are indeterminate and irreversible. In other words, into something we couldn’t even imagine imagining.
Post-human Or Something
“My Mama always said that a problem is just a solution that hasn’t been found jet.”
“Your Mama was an idiot then because if the solution hasn’t been found jet, it’s a fucking problem, isn’t it?”
“That’s the point, there is no problem, there’s just a solution that hasn’t been found jet.”
“Which is a problem. In fact, it’s the exact fucking definition of a problem.”
“We just gonna have to agree to disagree then, aren’t we?”
But, hello, what exactly is it that they will have to agree to disagree to? As long as we agree no need for either problems or solutions. Jackpot! Then again isn’t the very notion of agreeing homogenizing and repressive. Who can’t afford to or don’t have the agency to not agree? Behind an agreement there’s always a financial settlement whereas understanding seems to be built on ongoing exchange.
In any case isn’t it terrible with people that puncture discussions with that kind of rhetoric. That’s people that deserve to be called a dick or asshole. Goddamned passive aggressive. Is it only me that experience those few words in respect of a low form of ownership. Like two American men standing on each side of a fence barking at each other over something nobody really remembers what it was. See what I mean?
It is more exciting to contemplate the boundaries of imagination. If imagination is situated in language doesn’t that mean that we can only imagine what language allows us to imagine? Imagination thus remains within the boundaries of representation, of what we already are able to perceive. That, I think, unfortunately makes imagination trivial and sad. One can only imagine what language agrees to, and the most radical end product appears to be an unresolved agree to disagree. Disaster.
On the other hand, if imagination doesn’t have any form of boundary and is really wild, totally out of control, it becomes difficult to find it, define it or even talk about it.
Another thing American’s are great at, to insist on and set up boundaries. Practical maybe, but making things trivial, simplified, and one more time stinking of a sense of property. If there is a boundary there is also ownership and authorship.
One can wonder if imagination is a problem or a solution that hasn’t been found yet. If imagination has boundaries and is language based it simply isn’t imagination and yet if imagination is not bound it couldn’t be differentiated from the rest of life, the world, universe or Gaia.
It feels good to say things like: we need to think outside the box, even though one knows that it’s impossible to produce a moment when imagination exceeds its limits. Never mind what is outside the box, if not something unthinkable - because it is still thinkable, the outside is just the inside of another box.
A different jet related questions are whether imagination is something – being - or if it is a form of practice – relations. The trouble however is that a practice needs to be located in respect of something and something needs to be practiced in order to gain representation in the world.
Imagination is a slippery slope, but what we can know is that if imagination is language based it cannot exceed what is already possible to consider or think. This means that imagination always at least indirectly supports or consolidates the way we humans are humans. Hence, we cannot use imagination to change the world or the ways life is conducted, exactly because however much we imagine it is still imagination based on or derived from this world and this (the current) way of conducting life. Thus, only by considering that imagination is not attached to language is it possible to utilise imagination in order to conceive rigorously different ways of life, lives that do not confirm the human as the human. The only problem, which might just be a big problem, is that – as long as we remain human we can’t imagine what that something is. It is impossible to imagine what we can’t imagine and still this is what we have to imagine imagining. Shit!
Now, what is art’s opportunities and responsibilities in this mayonnaise? If art’s job was to “use” imagination in respect of what language agrees to, art making becomes strategic, calculated and in worst cases simply smart ass. If this is the case, art making, or art in any instance, cannot bypass ethical implications. In light of this art becomes through and through relational and has no value in itself. On the other hand, if art connects to some or other form of unbound or wild imagination it must carefully avoid mysticism, spirituality, vitalism and universalism. As long as imagination is language related art has no problem with truth, language is after all performative. The moment imagination moves “beyond” it is pretty complicated to not end up in essence, truth and white male straight modernism. Oups.
Post-humanism has nothing to do with the post-human. And neither has anything to do with after humanism or after human, and certainly not with something or somebody being humane. Being humane basically just means being compassionate and nice. Although that’s not exactly simple as it always implied ethical considerations. Does my compassion to the left undo my compassion to the right etc? Am I nice to this person because it’s nice to that person or because it makes me feel humane? Being humane is not always that generous but equally often simply calculated and economical, symbolic or actual.
Post- in the sense of for example post-human rather than referring to after, as it might do with post world war II or PTSD, implies some or other form of self-reflexivity, or the moment when for example humanism, modernism or the internet developed the ability to observe or inspect its own conditions, being in the world, engagements, ethical and relational complexities. Perhaps a stupid example. Post- is when something has gone through a serious amount of hours with the psychoanalyst. You know, not at all liberating itself from traumas but understanding them, being able to reflect their impact and consider them as resources.
Post-humanism is not not-humanist or anti-humanist, it signifies the moment when humanism develops the ability to reflect itself, and obviously humanism or post-humanism has absolutely nothing to do with being or not humane. Generally speaking humanism must be considered one of the more inhumane worldviews ever invented, vouching without a blink of an eye for colonialism, slavery, extractivism, a human and western centric world, patriarchy and so much more darkness. OMG capitalism.
Post-humanism is a humanism that at least figured out it might not be the best, smoothest and generous approach to the universe. Congrats. Never the less also post-humanism is a system of thought anchored in human capacity, human in the way we are human.
Post-human is an altogether different story and much more difficult because, for one, here post- starts to point in all kinds of directions. The initial point never the less is that post-human has nothing or at least very little to do with robots or monsters ( most of them definitely, ghosts for example). One point of view proposes that post-human designates the moment when humans or humanity became able to reflect its own position vis à vis itself, its relations and its environments. For example when humanity became able to comprehend that this way of being human is only one of endless contingent possible ones. That there is no foundation to this way of being human but that it’s just the result of contingent outcomes to which there is no destiny, no path, no reason etc. The post-human condition is the state when humans develop the ability to reflect their own being and doings in the world.
Another perspective onto the post-human seems to consider that everything that is not flesh and blood but appears like it is, is post-human. Terminator, as in the films, thus would be post-human but is he, it or they really, because in the end isn’t the creatures way of showing conscience and compassion exactly when he becomes human and cute. The Terminator, Arnold, is exactly made to be human, to practice being human like “we” do. This is also why, on a first level, the robot-being poses a threat. When the artificial being becomes too similar to “us”, our way of being human loses bearing as unique, special or whatever and that is threatening.
You or whoever doesn’t become post-human because you have “Artificial” tattooed on your biceps, nor because you obsess about techno music created only using processors, not even if your dress code is strictly polymer based or you shave some or other part of your head. It might feel great and can be valuable practices but at the end of the day the question is if they don’t in fact end up confirming even consolidating being human in the way we are? Not so different from tribal tattoos in the 90s that functioned as evidence for being real. “When I look at my tribal tattoo I know I exist, it’s permanent. When I recall the sensation of the pain it caused I can feel a heightened sense of presence. It makes me feel alive.”
If anything, these kinds of practices – by all means continue – at best experiments with boundaries - produces tension and awareness about conventions – but the onset is always binary - not not similar to a protest. It is enabled exactly because there is something to “revolt” against, to resist.
Post-human is far more complicated because it means to practice being human detached – completely – from being human in the ways we are. As long as the practice is a result of what we know, based on forms of imagination that remain in language it can strictly speaking not be considered post-human. As long as a practice or form of being is generated in relation or in tension with known practices they can equally not be understood as post-human.
Post-human is not a matter of stopping to be human, to be non-human is another story and maybe easier. Post-human means to be human contingently different from practices that can be identified with respect to how we are human, both being and human part.
Post-human therefore is neither part of a problem or a solution that hasn’t yet been discovered. There is nothing to agree to disagree about the post-human and however every form of post-human being is encompassed by boundaries it is boundaries contingent to boundaries we are able to formulate as relations or into a grid. In this respect we have to conclude that any post-human capacity, any rigorous post-human practice, is void of ethics and moreover politics. A post-human condition can in fact not coincide with the human condition as we know it, because the emergence of a post-human condition, in order to be properly post-human, eradicates what being human “once” implied.
Yet, is not what art is all about exactly that: to even if it is hopelessly impossible, generate the possibility for post-human conditions to emerge. Art’s responsibility is not to make this world a better place, neither to question or critique it, it is making it come to an end. The world as we know it. Finito.
Ecology, But How? Part 2
There are two kinds of problems. False or trivial problems are problems to which there are available solutions. Who’s gonna pick up the kids? You or me, the nanny, grandma, let’s call the police, pretend we forgot or why not do it together all of us including the police? Trivial problems are never a problem, it’s just a matter of calculating and optimising.
Real or non-trivial problems are problems to which there are no available solutions. They simply cannot be solved. Not because the solution has not yet been found but because there is no solution to be found.
So why are real problems interesting in the first place?
There is one option. Or maybe two. First, when we realise we’ve bumped into a real problem let’s forget about it and go back to normal, ordinary, trivial problems. Trivial problems make us feel safe and in control.
One could say that trivial problems are political problems?
“We need to increase the funding to education and offer teachers a better salary.”
“No problem, let’s increase the tax on… or decrease the funding for the arts…”
Or turn it around.
“We need to decrease the tax on...”
“No problem, let’s decrease the funding for education.”
Politics’ job is not to change how things work it’s just about keeping up the flow and making sure things make at least some sense. Politics’ job is to maintain the police, in the sense of maintaining the regulation and control of a community.
Politicians have two jobs, first to maintain the police, and second to take the blame if maintenance fucks up. No wonder they play it safe and come across as paranoid.
Second, referring to why real problems and options. Real problems are not supposed to be solved their relevance resides exactly in the struggle and how they persevere. A real problem is indeed only a real problem as long as there can be no solution. The moment there is a solution, even only one, it’s a trivial problem.
Another aspect is that a trivial problem has no impact external to itself. It doesn’t create irreversible repercussions to our mental, social or actual environments. A real problem is something altogether different. Considered that there is no solution available within the context or reality we live. If we still are determined to find a solution it means “we” have to change reality, we have to change the circumstances that determine life. Or perhaps the circumstances are flipsides, the consequence of finding a solution for a real problem is that reality inevitably will have changed. What makes this not just a little bit exciting or frightening is that the change set in motion is a form of change that cannot be determined, that is not probable in respect of what we know but instead contingent. In other words we have no idea what the hell we are up to or against.
Real problems therefore are not political. They are not negotiable. They are not a little bit more or less, better or worse but completely goddamn black and white and merciless. Still we cannot know what merciless, after all the result is contingent or indeterminate, which means it can also be completely ordinary and conventional.
Perhaps this is when we realise that we have arrived at a third or a new problem. The weird or obvious conclusion is that real problems cannot be posed, identified or determined. An entity that acquire representation needs to be “faithful” to representation and can therefore not point towards or designate an entity that is not yet inscribed in the same representational order.
One option would be to reverse the layout. Instead of real problems to which there are no solutions, we could consider that there “are” new solutions to which we need to articulate appropriate problems. These solutions arrive from the future, perhaps like symptoms of what is to come. Thus the formulation of an accurate problem implies rendering the symptom actual. The formulation of a problem is easy because there is already a trivial problem available, the difficulty is to formulate an accurate problem, i.e. a problem that treats the solution with respect. With respect to the extent that the problem poses repercussions in relation to how we conduct life.
I’m a bit reserved here, the idea that something arrives from the future feels a bit too kitschy, doesn’t it? And symptom is too psychoanalytical even for me.
Resilience is a notion that shows up more and more frequently. In today’s societies we need resilience to cope with everyday hardship and general bullshit. A high degree of resilience makes it easy to sail through life and make shit possible, but resilience can also be understood as being completely subsumed by the forces of society, which means economic interests. A single mother needs a hell of a lot of resilience to be able to cope with three jobs, kindergarten, childcare and running a household. Artists need excessive resilience to be able to navigate endless short contracts, applications, day jobs, parenthood, mobility, community, social engagement, glamour and you name it. Resilience is another word for precariat just without the negative connotation. Be resilient and neoliberalism loves you.
When it comes to problems resilience is a specialist on false problems. It finds solutions for everything and is an expert in combination, dynamics and flexibility, and don’t know the concept of resistance.
If you still haven’t given up on real problems we can see that resilience is not an option. What is needed instead is an overdose, or almost, of perseverance. A sense of n’importe quoi which is not just to insist but worse. It’s no way José, over my dead body and forever.
Trivial problems are attractive like candyfloss or body lotion, real or non-trivial problems are of a different caliber, they require perseveres. It is through persevering, or no matter what that something altogether else can emerge.
False problems agree or are okay, arguing that a little is good enough or however my contribution is small it’s after all something. Trivial problems is no problem. Real problems on the other hand is a no go, not even a lot is good enough. Real problems are all or nothing, take it or leave it and fucking unconditional.
Now, when it comes to ecology, who do you want to be? A trivial or real problem? Resilience or perseverance? Are you okay with a little less CO2 knowing that it will postpone the end of the world for 20 minutes? Or are you ready to change the way you operate, the way you conduct life – even if you don’t know into what in order to make this world flourish also for generations so into the future? Even if the world you contribute to is a world without humans?
Now, when it comes to making art, who do you want to be? Is art about false or non-trivial problems? Flexibility or no matter what? Interdisciplinary or media specificity? Are you making art in order to contribute a little bit to the ecological well being of your environments? Or do you consider that art’s relation to perseverance implies the possibility to articulate a space through which real problems and real solutions can emerge?
Sherlock Holmes’ Violin
Why does Sherlock Holmes have to play the violin? Was he a simple music lover that wish for a position in the local symphony orchestra or was the violin a substitute of his absent mother etc. childhood trauma? Nah, it’s neither but the violin is crucial for Holmes activities and key to his ability to solve the craziest crimes. The violin is nothing more or less than a concept, a devise that the detective inserts in order to stop thinking and for indetermination to possibly emerge. It’s when he runs into a cul-de-sac that he needs the violin, to be able to see what can not be seen through the lens of reason, deduction, conclusion. He has to have it to defuse his gaze, to stop being human. It’s not that he wants to or could look at the world through the “eye” of the violin. Not at all, he just needs to vibe with the violin, let the violin transfer its agency without knowing to what end. A concept is a machine that carries with it the capacity to dislocate causality. This can only happen through an agency that is non-human.
It has too often been considered that Gilles Deleuze is a relational philosopher among other postmodern and poststructuralist thinkers. It’s evident that phenomenology and its continuation can not have it otherwise; the world is its relations and there is no founding moment or origin. Value is relational or relative. With Deleuze nothing could be more wrong. It is true that transformation is central to his work but becoming is not a transformation from one known to another known, nor from a know to and unknown – which also is knowable as absence. Instead becoming is a change from something to some thing – contingent change – which is to say from something that is inscribed in a web of relations to some thing which has no relation, where the lack of relations instead renders it being, but a being that is withdrawn. A different way of describing Deleuze becoming is, from reality to immanence, and in a way back again.
This fact has almost consistently been ignored by continental philosophy, critical theory and anything Marxist because it would undermine, although to some extent different but yet their fundamental premise. Poststructuralism simply had to insist on Deleuze as relational in order not to poop in its own shoes. Deleuze’s reasoning on the other hand was that only through insisting on immanence or potentiality could philosophy have anything to do with truth, although not as in consolidating truth but instead as in generating or producing truth, a truth that when colliding with reality, language or representation without exception dissolve into and/or are violated by any of those capacities, that in any case is the same. Curiously however, it is not truth that is incorporated into reality but the other way around. It is reality that needs to transform in order to generate compatibility with truth, because: nothing can or must exist within reality that is not inscribed in a web of relations. For something to be true, on the other hand, it cannot have relations, if it has each relations is different, and hence truth cannot be true. In order not to collapse reality will transform contingently in order to establish any or some kind of relations with truth, however the moment relation is established truth loses its being, is swallowed by language. Deleuze knows truth can not be established only generated. This makes him a productive rather than consolidating philosopher, but it also makes him a philosopher, aware of the problems of relations, that places faith in being, or perhaps better, in realism.
It goes without saying that for Deleuze truth cannot be produced, because production is always directional and known – it just doesn’t work to produce “I have absolutely no idea”. Deleuze however proposes that one under certain circumstances can produce the possibility of production, but there can obviously be no guarantee. This production of possibility can not be linear or probabilistic but must be contingent which is why Deleuze needs to introduce a capacity for the possibility to possibly happen. This capacity, which is not a tool as a tool always knows it destination, is known as a machinic assemblage, or a concept. A concept is an indetermination machine, which also must be indeterminate to itself
Knowledge is performative whereas being is not. Knowledge is relative whereas being is true.
What does it mean to produce knowledge, or what are the implications of knowledge production? To learn, or participate in a course has nothing to do with knowledge production, but means to possess established knowledge. Education is the opposite of knowledge production, there is no production going on at all, all the student does is to consume established packages of knowledge. Creative or artistic education is no exception.
For the notion knowledge production to have any bearing it must signify to make or create knowledge, knowledge that was previously not existing or possible. Consequently knowledge production at the end of the day means to bring something new into being, something that is and must not yet be knowledge.
It appears impossible to produce knowledge, as one can not through determination produce what one can not know. Therefore in order to produce knowledge a devise is needed. As we have understood this devise is known as a concept.
To engage in knowledge production is to attempt to engage in being. To engage in knowledge production implies to engage in the possibility of the production of truth. To engage in knowledge production further means to call out an agency foreign to humanity.
Now, how does this relate to art and aesthetic experience? Art is to a large extent connected to knowledge, but is not the same as aesthetic experience. The moment art is “only” knowledge it transforms into service and aesthetic experience is nullified. Knowledge is consistent, causal and continuous, it is reliable and ownable. Aesthetic experience or the encounter with art is something else, it is that that goes beyond reason, cognition and conclusion, it is to vibe with that violin or in other words the aesthetic experience is to be engaged by an agency that is non-human. Since non-human agency cannot be knowledge and therefore must be being; aesthetic experience is a productive encounter with truth. For aesthetic experience to possibly take place there is a need for devise, indeed an indetermination machine – a concept - both in respect of artistic production and experiencing or viewing art. The aesthetic experience implies an engagement with foreign agency, it is to engage in something that is not yet human, which is something to which no relation can be established yet it is there. That that is yet there is being and being is always alien.
I have to get off soon
Imagination seems to be one of those words that only have one meaning. Like manipulation, is always bad. Laughter is almost always good and it is good, laughter. But imagination what is good about that, or perhaps more importantly how can imagination be good when it can be so many different things? Furthermore, imagination almost always comes with expansion, imagination is bigger than the world or my room or a television.
In the past kids had imaginary friends, so cute, and yet parents worried about minors with too much imagination. Those friends were based on some sort of general deficit and imagination was a way of coping with boredom. And yes, something expanded, you know wooden riffles (maybe not so expanded) but everything could become everything, a pine cone could easily be a horse in the wild west. When the internet showed up cones probably ended up forgotten and commercial platforms and in-game purchases took over.
American imagination never really worked on me. Disney for example is so full of imagination I feel suffocated and just have to open a window. The tempo is so turned up, colours so bright, voices so hysterical or simply so too much there there is absolutely nothing left for me. Instead of supporting imagination and enriching it, it seems American and soon the entire world’s children entertainment has only one goal in common, to simply eradicate everything imagination. Well, not so strange after all. Television, games or educational app’s earn money on making the user addicted and staying put not when throwing the iPad away and going to the forest or having a battle with the garden hose that just transformed into a giant sea monster or making drawings of something that doesn’t have names derived from some or other franchise. But then again why would that be anything better and not just fulfilling for a parent who can identify with some sentimental image of raising a child into authenticity.
Never the less a somewhat common understanding is that the dark side has no time for imagination. Consider Darth Vader zero imagination, Voldemort zero imagination, Scrooge same thing and mind you Stormtroopers or Orcs are certainly not equipped with anything imagination. In popular culture the only dark character with imagination is the genius serial killer but there again, his imagination is always only expanding on the basis of some or other unspeakable trauma. The Mother…
It’s comical with Donald Trump and how he accuses everybody for having a too vivid imagination [fake news] – especially concerning his involvement in Russian or whoknowswhat kind of dirty money or sex scandals – and at the same time is extremely imaginative concerning for example where the pandemic started, what a great idea to inject disinfectant or in respect of his self-image as not being racist, chauvinist, sexist and a general asshole. That kind of imagination enough many people can imagine on the top of the iceberg but not so many would vouch for Robin Williams in the same position, president - I mean hadn’t he been dead and all. But why not, it would have been way more fun. Really, way more.
It’s weird, obvious and sad that imagination and power have such a tense relation and how often power seems to both repress imagination and practice it in the most disturbing ways.
Perhaps the problem is that imagination always is conventional, surprising from time to time but conventional precisely because it is based on what we can already understand as sense perception, recollection, intuition etc. Imagination is not falling from the sky, it’s not put into us by some mysterious force. It is ourselves which is why it might also be somewhat scary. It’s me, inside my head that generated those images – exactly.
Children don’t have extraordinary imagination, on the contrary their imagination, although it might be cute or wicked, is based on the amount of perceptive input , how much the individual has experienced the world, inner and outer.
Conceptual art has problems with imagination. The conceptual artist either has no imagination and therefore hides behind rationalism and being clever, or is embarrassed by his, her or their imagination and therefore represses it into forms of harness often using irony to cover the dirty backside. In the first instance most, and I mean most, conceptual art are exercises in the exorcism of imagination.
On the other hand, perhaps it is equally depressing with art that shows off how imaginative it is and like Disney overloads the viewer with information, colour, editing and boosting music or beauty for that matter. What both seem to have in common is a form of ownership of imagination, keeping it to themselves either due to some kind of trauma or as a megalomaniac superpower.
Sometimes I wonder if and how imagination has changed historically. Not in the sense of what people imagined or what fantasies they had but rather if different kinds of societies, forms of governance, class structures, penal systems, systems of owning land, relations to colonialism and slavery, repression of sexualities etc. generate different kinds of imagination. Obviously, and perhaps imagination always is a matter of imagining the world otherwise and jet if imagination is formed by our environments it’s awkward to contemplate that also our ways of dreaming about foreign lands and paradise are fruits of our environments. How does a person who has lived through colonial times imagine foreign lands in comparison with a person that knows nothing about the possibility of owning land? How does a person imagine differently who learned to say “mine” before standing up, in comparison to somebody who never experienced and learned about property?
Especially in the 1960s it was en vogue in academic circles to emphasize the importance of difference. More difference in any respect was good, any kind. Difference was a way of giving voice to alternative forms of life, sexuality, property, race, bodies, improvisation, class relations, educational policies. Difference difference difference.
Strange in ways because difference conventionally would be understood in respect of relations and proximity, tensions, expansion. In the 60s the currency was other at that time difference had value in itself, or that was the argument. Difference mattered, and yes it did in a society with fixed, or seemingly fixed boundaries concerning all the above and so much more. Power knew where it lived and had no intention of refurbishing. Then something drastic happened. Starting in 1970 everything fell apart, with postmodernism, neoliberalism, oil crisis, the aftermath of 1968, the first steps towards globalisation, the final shift from geo- to bio-politics and most of all the crumbling of value. Everything, every form of value crumbled and become relative, floating, fluid and liquid. Language is performative announced Jaques Derrida in 1970, money is liquid proclaimed Richard Nixon the same year. And what happened to difference? Exactly, from now on everything was only difference, because there were nothing fixed any longer, nothing.
A problem however was that the understanding of difference didn’t upgrade itself. We can still hear academics claim the importance of difference qua difference. But tant pis.
Under these circumstances what happens to imagination. When difference went out the window, when value started to float did then also imagination start floating and needed to be controlled differently, needed to be something that could be differently used in respect of capital? How free is my imagination after all?
Finally. Is imagination a question or an answer? A statement or sensation? Is imagination a line or landscape? A story or a place?
Dance is perhaps not the first thing we think about when associating with imagination, but perhaps we should think again? Because dance has that specific quality of neither being a question or answer, a statement or sensation. Dance is not a medium that overwhelms with imagery, editing, colours, tempo, or at least it doesn’t have to be. Dance doesn’t need to tell a story, doesn’t need to be critical, doesn’t need to cast you off to another world. Dance is not a line, nor a story, it is a place and landscape, and you know the difference is that there’s nothing to follow and a lot to experience. Nothing to be told and a lot to discover. Dance is not imaginative but perhaps just because of that a place where a lot of imagination can be born.
But Use Your Imagination
What can we do when imagination is the only means we have to invent a different future. When imagination at the same time has been abducted by forces that encourage more of the same and the destruction of the world as we know it? What can we do when imagination is the last place of hope – let’s imagine a better world – and contemporary capitalism has kidnapped it and made imagination into a business model, and turned it into the product so many of today’s successful businesses sell?
If problems just are solutions that we haven’t found jet? What does it mean when a company sells creative solutions? Or tell CEO’s they will let them imagine the world differently? Imagination is in fact the ultimate product for contemporary immaterial capitalism? What they sell is nothing that if someone’s lucky will become something, and still these businesses guarantee the outcome will be amazing. Something is not right in this equation?
Imagination has grown to be at the same time the saviour and the enemy. Or, imagination is both the spark and the nemesis of the revolution. Both the enemy and the sponsor of the uprising.
Perhaps imagination has transformed from being an interestingly unpredictable weapon that classical capitalism, welfare state and general moralism feared to a cuddle toy for world changers that have mixed up interior decoration and revolution and an Instagram hashtag #highendhomes with political pamphlets.
What is in any respect obviously is that imagination is not about to bring us anywhere - at least not better – and the question is if the illusion still is operational. I mean, when imagination is nothing else than daydreaming and the neighbour of Amélie Poulain - not Hollywood but the French even tackier version.
Apropos imagination and resistance. It is undeniable that imagination historically had a kind of soft subversive quality, but for imagination to carry this force it also need to have something to push against. Something needs to be actual, there needs to be fixed or indexial values, and as we know with the advent of neoliberal governance fixed is not an option any more. One could say that today, everything is only imagination there’s nothing more to it. There is nothing real or actual or properly stable, but all there is imagination, fiction and floating narratives. Still isn’t it weird or obvious that in a world without anything to really hold on to there seems to be endless struggles and wars fought over openness and polarisation appear to grow stronger by the day.
At some point in the late 50s artists started to make happenings and later performances as a way of fucking around with museum structures, the understanding of the art object and its relation to commodity, the notion of collection, the idea of disinterested contemplation and a lot many more things. Performance equalled risk and signified resistance. Brave people made performances for brave audience. Performance was obscure and at the end of the day it could be understood as a critique of general modes of production (Fordism) and by its simple existence to be a critique of capitalist economies.
In the late 90s and early 2000s an endless row of books proposed that society, initially in the West but spreading through globalisation, since some time and accelerating was transforming into a society that is “build” around, through and from performance. Jon McKenzie in his book “Perform or Else” (2001) even implied that human life has transformed from having value by itself to only have value as long as it is performing, meaning is productive and generates financial movement. In economies based on immaterial forms of exchange the only thing that matters is to constantly generate movement. Humans today are like those sharks that can’t stop swimming because if they don’t move their breathing will fail and they will suffocate. Nice.
Alright, so what motivates anybody to make performance today? Just asking, because it can certainly not be in order to question museum or commodity structures, it can certainly not be in order to bring capitalism to a halt or consumer society to an abrupt stop? It somehow can neither be about, especially not in the old West, displaying or making the audience aware of different kinds of bodies or forms of embodiment. First of all because they are available 24/7 on the internet and if you say no it’s because you haven’t look careful enough. Internet is equally full of corporate, degrading, alternative, celebrating, amazing, disgusting, weird, wow, cynical, hippie, totally great, glitch etc. images. Moreover, if imagination has gone overboard why do we still need to push boundaries, they are already erased and in any case whatever is displayed, whatever is made available is whether we want it or not always only one step away, if it’s not already consumed and repackaged by corporate money.
Everything, really all of it, makes performance the absolute match to our current times – pre Covid evidently – and it’s tailored to the entire arena of neoliberal and late capitalist appetites. Performance enables the absolutely perfect subject for our times - individual, special, hyper social, non-conform yet compatible, resilient, business minded, young, beautiful, urban, single with no kids, mobile. Indeed, the subject that performance currently sponsor is hyper sellable and equally investable, especially since it on top of it all doesn’t travel with bunches of object or heavy sceneries but is mega flexible in respect of space, dressing rooms, technical support, when and where and cost efficient.
So, a million positive things to say about identity and subjectivity sourced performance but in respect of political resistance, proposing a different kind of imagination, re-thinking subjectivity or the position of the body in society, I don’t think so. I’d rather say that performance works like an external lab for the research and development department of contemporary capitalism. But most of all performance is nothing, absolutely nothing different. It might just feel terrific exactly for those reasons and the sensation of being radical. Performance confirms the artist as being completely embedded in contemporary society including its business model.
Perhaps this could all be d’accord and fine but something is itching concerning imagination. The question is if this kind of performance isn’t functioning more or less identically to Disney and corporate entertainment. It might offer a lot of, or at least a “special” imagination, it optimises attention and because of the focus on identity it strengthens the intensity which the encounter is confirming – positive or negative – which means that the experience, or what the experience does, is being framed, contracted, linear, economical and moral. In other words, the experience is not expanding imagination on the contrary it fastens and hinges value to what the individual is doing with the experience.
The problem with confirmation and hence identity truly lies in that once something is identified or located it is nothing else. The backside of identity is that is diminishes somethings navigational opportunities, or said otherwise it loses its potentiality. Moreover, if identity is considered something organised by language, which identity politics next to theories of performativity conclude, something can also only carry identities already made possible through and by language. This means identity invariably confirm the power structures that govern language and is to imagination counterproductive.
A most abbreviated definition of performance is that it is “a subject performing subjectivity”. Interestingly both sides appear to strengthen each other and form a kind of circular flow and expel any glitches, weaknesses, holes or inconsistencies. A similar definition of dance on the other hand is that dance is “a subject performing form”. In dance a tension or possibly a release is introduced between the signifier and the signified. The dancer is not necessarily confirmed by the dance, nor is the dance dependent on subject. A dance can naturally be “used” to express a subject’s status, position, power or simply voice, but even when that is the case due to the generic capacity implicit in form the tension between subject and form is, although dormant, still present. It is precisely this tension - or one could also consider it a distance - between subject, signifier and form, signified that makes dance on the one hand so “complicated” and so rich. When the distance gets to be too big a recurring question, in its most vulgar is expressed as “what is it about?” – and for many audience members that happens the very second the subject is not confirmed by the what is performed, but it is also in and through this distance - which perhaps is not a distance at all as distance is measurable and have two sides, here we have two but they are neither apart in the sense of measure not two sides of one thing or even shared – that imagination can start to move, oscillate, reverberate or flicker and become generative. The entrance to the playground, backyard, battlefield, double bed, call it what you want, of imagination is precisely there, in the seemingly empty “space” between, between two incompatible entities and imagination’s job is to generate coherence where incoherence rules.
It is imperative to consider relations between performance and performativity. Every artwork no matter what is performative. A poem performs poem-ness and a painting carries the performativity of painting which is not more or less performative than anything else immobile or not, sill or moving, with or without a subject. Everything is carried by forms of performativity but the performativity of a shoe and horse, a musical concert and a theatre play, a performance and a dance, a dance and a video of a dance, and so on are different. There’s no more or less in performativity just different. The performativity of performance and dance is often equalled, put together as if one and the same, but in fact the different positions of subjectivity separates them quite strongly.
Now, both a performance and a dance can only happen once, but that’s the same with any experience or event. Anybody who claims that theatre or performance is unique due to the singularity of the experience has simply not done their homework.
You can never step into the same river twice, never mind once. Correct, it can never be the same river since it is never the same river. The same river is just something we say however we know there is only change and flow, but it feels good and makes life easy. In this respect there is no difference between performance and dance but in regard of the position of subjectivity performance issue responsibility on four different levels of subjectivity: the performer carrying or being a subject, the performance carrying subjectivity, the subjectivity of the spectator confirming, in some or other way positive or negative the identity of the performer and the performance, and finally the subjectivity of the exchange between the three parties. Performance is, so to say, through and through performative and it deflates fairly rapidly is one of the entities missing.
Dance on the other hand, throught the introduction of form, which doesn’t mean it becomes formal, dislocates the continuity and confirmation of subjectivity, which means that the dancing subject is not confirmed by form. Which in its turn releases the spectator from confirming the subject of the performer and obviously cannot confirm form as anything else than form. Form further more withdraws from becoming subject. It withdraws from the desire to be given subject, value or symbolic charge, and remain something that has not value, except as itself as itself, and can therefore simply not be performative. In this sense one could argue that dance, although the dancing subject is, is not performative. Form is some thing- which is not carried by performativity - and the dancing subject is something– carried by performativity. Dance is located, not all but some, in the interstitial space between some thing and something and it is exactly in this oscillating instability or sliding perception that imagination can start to reverberate.
An understanding of dance as being top till toe performative, thus equivalent to performance, point in the direction that the space of imagination proposed always already is captured or, why not, entangled in language and representation. In other words, imagination as proposed above, forms of imagination that can be measured, exchanged and is charged with economic value. Turned around, interrupting the “equilibrium” of forms of subjectivity and introducing form - that is not carried by subjectivity and certainly not one that is generative to human equivalences – means that there is a space opened for imagination, which is not defined as a kind of ping-pong space where all sides confirm each other, but instead a space that, if at all produces responses or reverberations that, because they aren’t carried by human subjectivity cannot be interpreted. The spectator, also the dancers, cannot locate, place and confirm that exchange but must instead generate a location, must therefore invent a context, where the exchange can be hosted. It is in this tension that a different form of imagination can flourish, a form of imagination that is not jet imaginable, an imagination that exists but still has not gained form.
This might sounds terribly exhausting but is in fact exactly the contrary. For some it might be experienced as frightening because there is no service, nobody that offers you to choose this or that, but for others this is a space where the participant is not obliged, are not introduced to value or decision making. And mind you the dance need you as little as you need it. It doesn’t require your approval but knows how to mind its own business. It has no issues with whatever it is that happens in your imagination. It doesn’t hold you responsible not does it give you agency. Instead it offers the spectator generate his, her or their own agency independent of the experience. A form of agency that is supplementary to the experience and is created by your imagination.
Commissioned by Ob/scene Festival 2020, supported by The Swedish Art Council and The Norwegian Art Council.
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