Living together on stage

Herbst. Theorie zur Praxis 1 Sep 2007English

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Contextual note
This text was commissioned by the festival steirischer herbst 2007 and published in their annual magazine 'herbst. Theorie zur Praxis' (pp. 20-23), edited by Christiane Kühl, Florian Malzacher and Andreas R. Peternell. In January 2014, the essay was incorporated in the bilingual (English/Arabic) collection 'Cairography', which was initiated by HaRaKa (Egypt), edited by Adham Hafez and Ismail Fayed, and produced by ARC.HIVE with the additional support of Sarma.

In today’s performing arts, the question of living together is omnipresent, and mostly addressed from a political perspective. The keyword is ‘(cultural) difference,’ the work more often than not haunted by what is ‘politically correct’. Celebrated under the guise of critique, the ‘political’ risks to become merely a noble interest: happily embraced as long as the reality under discussion doesn’t come too close. Moreover, a rift is looming between the ‘political’ (as discourse or representation) and ‘politics’ (as actual engagement or action). Of course, art deals with representation, with different ways in which we experience, describe and imagine ourselves and the world we live in. But this doesn’t make the distancing between the political and politics less acute a topic. Discussing the question of living together, it occurs to me that there are similar paradoxes at work when it comes to the social (as subject matter) in relation to processes of artistic collaboration: the two are often related, but how close do we allow them to be?

Collaboration often entails a critique of authorship, alternative approaches to artistic research and the creative process, and interdisciplinary exchange. This trend is indebted to the groundbreaking work of the American performance collectives Judson Dance Theater and Grand Union in the 1960s and early 1970s. In her intellectual biography Feelings Are Facts (2006), Yvonne Rainer insists on rewriting the history of that era though, and adopts a fierce, confessional style to this end: “Ignored or denied in the work of my 1960s peers, the nuts and bolts of emotional life shaped the unseen (or should I say “unseemly”?) underbelly of high U.S. Minimalism. While we aspired to the lofty and cerebral plane of a quotidian materiality, our unconscious lives unraveled with an intensity and melodrama that inversely matched their absence in the boxes, beams, jogging, and standing still of our austere sculptural and choreographic creations.” Radical though their ideas and art were, what their aesthetics covered up were the many cultural, familial and historical events that make people who they are. This also includes the social force field that moulds collaboration: Rainer speaks of machismo and sexism, the star status of the visual artists and the hierarchy it imposed on the group, and so on.

A creative process is not only a site of collaboration and negotiation, but indeed also shaped by the actual living together of artists in residencies, by quarrels and personal crises. These aspects don’t get much attention in discourses on collaboration, nor are they tangible on stage. Not that the performing arts should become private and confessional, but if living together is at issue on stage, then to what extent do artists allow the social aspects of collaboration to affect it? I discuss a few performances that depart from a collaborative process and address the question of living together more or less explicitly from a social perspective, unfolding different answers and strategies.

Project (2003) by Xavier Le Roy investigates the interconnectedness of performance, process and their productional preconditions (economical, social, political). A group of performers plays a series of games on stage, developing their individual strategies within a given set of rules: without the engagement of the performers, the games can’t exist. In Project, everyone involved is a performer of the game, but also an artist and an individual, ready to appropriate and negotiate the rules of the game according to their own history. The game is also a model for living together, which brings up another question: our lives are made of representations, yet how do people live in a representation? How do performers ‘live’ on stage?

Over the course of a year, Philipp Gehmacher developed the performance project Incubator (2004-05), inquiring into the social with three performers, a dramaturge and a production manager. Gehmacher’s interest in the social was connected with the working process itself, aiming to value the many differences between the collaborators. In the Berlin version of Incubator, Gehmacher and co. worked with live composition, an experimental form that gave space for the performers to develop their own trajectory. But afterwards, Incubator took on a strict form and dramaturgy, bridling the unruly forces of collaboration again in order to convey a clear representation of the social. Their proximity or interference was not only prevented by Gehmacher’s strong sense of authorship, but foremost by a classical understanding of dramaturgy that values the spectator’s perspective higher than the performer’s.

In Until the moment when God is destroyed by the extreme exercise of beauty (2006), Vera Mantero seemed more at ease to address the social by esteeming the performer’s place. Thinking together is Mantero’s motto when it comes to collaboration, welcoming the multiple backgrounds at work in a group and the sense of possibility they entail. Until the moment… shows a strictly choreographed group of six characters, discussing what it means to be a group, while being part of a model that functions as a disinterested, otherworldly machine – not unlike a modernist proposal for the organization of living together. After a few performances, Mantero drastically changed the piece’s dramaturgy, allowing the performers to embrace more play and juice. The six characters now unleashed a multitude of alter egos, starting with the ‘performer’ (with their private dramaturgy), the ‘artist’ (with their own poetics), and the ‘person’ (with their own life, limitations and desires). The performance foregrounded the collaboration that underpins it, and this in a direct confrontation with the audience – who are after all also present as a social group, called on to participate.

The performance artists Kattrin Deufert and Thomas Plischke, who see themselves as ‘artist twins’, seek to “share a work in life and a life in work,” for which they developed a practice of exchanging personal memories. For the group piece Directory 3: Tattoo (2006), deufert + plischke extended this method of “formulating and reformulating” also to the development of movement material. Collaboration is instigated by the impossibility to write one’s own biography without the presence of others – who all bring in their ‘tattoos’, their memories and inscriptions. Through the practice of exchanging memories, the lives of all the collaborators are inscribed and transformed in the working process, which finds a prolongation on stage. deufert + plischke’s reflections on memory and identity are exercises in socialisation, which resonate on a fundamental level with collaboration. In their work, the social as representation and as artistic collaboration are made of the same fabric – a radical gesture of approximation that manages to pair an elaborate sense of writing with the reverberation of personal voices and their many differences.

In their new cycle ‘REportable’, that starts with the premiere of the group piece reportable portraits at the steirischer herbst festival 2007, deufert + plischke will further develop their collaboration methods in order to inquire into the social constructions of our bodies and desires. The point of departure is again their relation as ‘artist twins’, to embark upon an investigation of mutual portrayal and gestures of kinship. In her study of Antigone, Judith Butler asks “Is there a social life left for kinship, one that might well accommodate change within kinship relations?” Following her deconstruction of the distinction between the symbolic and the social, we may as well ask: Is there a social life left for artistic collaboration, one that might well accommodate change from within? Or is collaboration bound to become a lofty fetish in the performing arts, severed from the living practices it pretends to host?