How Do You Want to Work Today?

Notes on an alternative choreographic mode for the production of speech (1)

Knowledge in motion 2007English
In Sabine Gehm, Pirkko Husemann, Katharina von Wilcke, Knowledge in Motion. Perspectives of Artistic and Scientific Research in Dance, Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2007, pp. 111-118

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How do you want to work today? Simple as it may sound, addressed to choreographers, performers and other workers in the field of dance and performance, this question yields myriad answers. Asked moreover within a dance congress that operated under the lofty banner “Knowledge in Motion”, the question’s performativity uncovers ambiguous and conflicting discursive streams and ideologies that nurture today’s debate on artistic research. Even if critical in nature, doesn’t the aim to mobilise dance as a field of knowledge risk to adopt the vocabulary of the knowledge society? (2) When artists are expected to be developers, researchers, even managers of creative knowledge, isn’t their experience all too easily labelled and instrumentalised? Aiming to standardise higher education in Europe and introduce a PhD in the arts, Bologna has stirred the question whether artistic and scientific research have a comparable status. If artistic research and production are not only to be discussed in frameworks that are foreign to them, but have to meet their standards and discourses, then aren’t we far from home? Even when artistic research is recognised to be intertwined with people’s experience – the knowledge it produces being specific, practical and often implicit of nature – what does all this neo-humanist speech about knowledge actually bring?


What kind of art do you want to make? What does this mean in the context of a congress that emphasizes knowledge so strongly? How can knowledge, theory and politics be transformed into choreographic modes of work? What could be the possibility of creating today? What are the performative implications of naming? How do labels relate to different waves in art history? What structure or form do you need to be able to address certain questions through the choreographic? How can the intersection of questions clarify the politics of different areas or produce something else?


At the Dance Congress Germany in April 2006, André Lepecki and Myriam Van Imschoot, both dance theoreticians and dramaturges, curated and hosted a salon during two afternoons on Choreographic Modes of Work. A core group of guests, including choreographers Amos Hetz, Thomas Lehmen and Lisa Nelson, researcher Scott DeLahunta, and producer Eva-Maria Hoerster, and many visitors participated in a series of conversations around a large table. Issues of artistic research, knowledge and productivity were addressed in an oblique way through the question: “How do you want to work today?” Indeed, without mapping the field of options and practices first, giving substance to the question, discussions about epistemology and politics may become futile. To deal with all those issues, avoiding at the same time the obtrusive vocabulary of the knowledge society, the unambiguous romanticisation of artistic practice, as well as the inclination to rehearse the commonplaces of critical theory, the salon’s option was an awry choreographic mode of discussion.

            Throughout the conversations, Van Imschoot proposed a shift of focus from the “choreographer” as a function to the "choreographic”, opening up the link with a certain person to a variety of choreographic activities, stances, questions, modes, processes and products. “There are activities that have certain features, tasks, responsibilities and modes that do not necessarily solidify in a function.” Considered even broader, choreographic modes of work concern creation as much as creativity, production, teaching, training, dramaturgy, etc. Lepecki related this issue also with performance studies, which are interested not in the accumulation of knowledge, but the creation of possibilities, the transformation of reality through the discourses, representations and imaginations that shape it. And to unravel the salon’s title a little further, a “mode” allows for a specific kind of expression: it ties subject matter to its expression and modification in a particular form, which is also expressive of expression itself (cf. Deleuze 1990: 13-14). Thus, a different way of thinking or speaking is not only a matter of content, but also requires a different mode of work, body, form or process. In that respect the salon Choreographic Modes of Work can’t be reduced to its content, the experimentation with an alternative conversational mode reveals as much its aboutness and gravity.

            How do you want to work today? It’s impossible to give an encompassing account of the salon here, or to trace the genealogy of all the thoughts that were uttered or developed in the conversations. I will simply suggest some of them in the form of questions extracted from my notebook, hoping that they will keep their openness and resistance toward compression. At the risk of generalisation, I will draw from there some observations about the “incompressibility” of artistic research and the knowledge it proffers.


What is choreography? What is its meaning? What is its (ir)relevance for your work? Are the processes visible in the result? How can the product be kept open? How do you perceive or read the ways of working? What do you see? What do you project? How can you choreograph this? What material do you gain when you observe the world through the lens of an artist? What is your responsibility when you claim to make art? What do you offer to people? How do you expect them to react? What if you don’t keep the distinction between life and art clear? Would you be lost?


These questions not only point in many directions, they also represent a multitude of voices and are in that reminiscent of a fundamental gesture: taking the floor. Throughout the salon, people’s eagerness to speak up, make themselves heard and participate in the conversation was striking. It was perhaps symptomatic of the institutionalised German dance field, in which many artists are invisible, and of a congress that left little space for audience participation and artists’ voices. What else does it speak of?

In the aftermath of May 1968, the French sociologist and philosopher Michel De Certeau wrote about the “capture of speech” as a new right that equals the right of being human and affirms existence. It is a gesture of refusal and contestation that rejects all identification, but in that specific context also “a ‘detained’ knowledge whose apprenticeship would turn those acquiring it into the instruments of a system; institutions enrolling each of its [sic] ‘employees’ in causes that are not its [sic] own; an authority devoted to imposing its language and in censuring nonconformity, and so on.” (De Certeau 1997: 12-13) It requires little imagination to realise the topicality of] De Certeau’s words and link them to today’s “knowledge society”, whose language permeates many areas and has been interiorised to a serious extent. The capture of speech needs to be repeated time and again in order to keep its question alive, to unhinge the power of legitimised knowledge and allow for new languages and forms of expression to emerge.

            The capture of speech gave everyone access to debates about important matters as society, knowledge, art and politics. But for De Certeau it is foremost the deep ambiguity of the gesture that has political value and contains the possibility to underpin a new society. The capture of speech creates difference through many (unheard) voices. Yet it also symbolises difference, as it precedes a new, different language to come. Fundamentally provisional, confused and irreducible, the capture of speech challenges us: “life in the future can be lived only by alienating one’s speech, just as existence will end when we begin to renounce the temptation to create.” (De Certeau 1997: 24)

            How do you want to work today? With each answer, this question entails another one: how can one speak about choreographic modes of work and productivity? Or also: how does one speak about artistic research in a different language than that of neo-humanism or the knowledge society? It’s worthwhile to remark that within the European field of dance, the modernist hierarchy of knowledge production was overturned when Pina Bausch began to address questions to her dancers and listened to their answers, thus redistributing with speech the position of those who know. André Lepecki (2001: 30) observes an epistemological break in Bausch’s gesture, that undermined existing authorities and turned the field of dance definitively into a domain of knowledge, but one in which all the parties involved in the creative process share the premise – and the promise – of “not-knowing” as a point of departure. The enthusiasm of many people speaking up also made the salon Choreographic Modes of Work ramble a little, propelled by the difficult task of departing from confusion and not-knowing, and embracing the potentiality of that as a mode of conversation.


How can you exhaust your habits? Can you actually make dance without habits? What about the habit of making dance or performing? With the expansion of modes of work, how do you choose? Are we facing a disappearance of clear expectations? How do culture and the formation of attention relate? How can you transform culture through managing attention? How can you make new sensorial systems to create attention? How do we read intention and attention in each other in order to survive in a social context? How do you craft the inner attention of the performer? How can you be aware of holes that you will never be able to cover?


“Can we be more clear about what it is exactly that we are talking about, these choreographic modes of work?” Lost in the salon’s meandering conversation, this participant’s request for clarity speaks about yet another ambiguity. The vagueness that lingers around “choreographic modes of work”, “artistic research” and related issues is intrinsically part of the terms, as they are so-called “essentially contested concepts”. The latter were defined by William Gallie as appraisive, internally complex and initially variously describable, but also liable to circumstances and therefore highly malleable (Gallie 1956: 171-172). A strong ambiguity is at work in these concepts, that links a shared, generalised intuition with the development of specific views, ideologies and agencies. The openness and performativity of these concepts allow for a different exploration of reality that is not striving for an objective, general account, but leaves space to include the singular, contingent and arbitrary. At stake are not universalist claims and certainties, but a continuous critical reflection on the “present”.

            In the essay “What is Enlightenment?”, Michel Foucault (1984; cf. Boomkens 2006: 24-27) proposes to approach modernity and Enlightenment as a critical attitude, a reflexive mode of relating to the present. He sketches the contours of a “historical ontology of ourselves” as philosophical project. It is a liminal, experimental and incessant attitude that enquires into the contingencies that made us who we are and enable us to be different. A particular body of practices and discourses serves as field of reference: what do people do, think and say, and how do they do it? And with which liberty do they act within systems and modify the rules of the game? Against a backdrop of existing habits and beliefs, the present reality is the touchstone for working on our own limits and sense of possibility. An ontology of the present provides only temporary, partial and local answers; it has a process-like character and is necessarily vague as it strokes our limits of understanding. With choreographic modes of work as an ensemble of practices, to make a start with an ontology of the present was perhaps the actual endeavour of the salon. How do you want to work today?


Is making art about launching into the unknown? Which intuitions, moments, choices travel with you and make up a mode that prepares for creativity? What are the conditions to enter a state of not-knowing? How do you listen to the melody of words, the gestures, the breaks, the hesitation and feel less threatened by the unknown? How can you deal with your own history, desires, secrets and invisibilities? How do you find the mind of a piece rather than project your own mind? How do you reflect the world without knowing how to do that? What about the authorial power of the choreographer? What about improvisation? How can you relate life outside the theatre in choreographic structures? How do you get to the outside? How do you understand that there are other perspectives?


Choreographic modes of work and the knowledge they yield are linked with the practices and experience of people. A recurring topic in the salon concerned the limits of our understanding and agency, formulated as a desire to relate to the unknown or to enter a state of not-knowing in one’s work. Rather than celebrating dance as the other within culture, this asks for an observation on the subject notion acknowledged in artistic research – adopting a modest stance toward both knowledge and not-knowing.

Roughly speaking, two kinds of heteronomy were discussed: first, production conditions, canonical legitimacy, economics, politics of visibility, and other external circumstances that thwart the artist’s autonomy. And second, technical skill and lack of control, authorship and the difficulty to grasp a piece’s mind, the quasi-autonomous logic of a method, etc: they remind one of the limitations and insecure position of the knowing subject, which is not self-transparent, but vulnerable. No need to stress that both categories challenge the modern, enlightened notion of the subject as well as the self-assured voluntarism of the knowledge society, in which we are all managers of our own reality – shopping and googling knowledge rather than collecting experience, that is to say “personally integrated, narratively and conceptually structured aggregates of knowledge” (Sloterdijk 2006: 344, cf. 93-96).

            How do you want to work today? How can one think, speak and act through heteronomy? It is a fundamental question on subjectivity that surfaces in artistic research enquiring into the ontology of the present. Foucault insists on the present as a touchstone to avoid modernity’s grand narratives and projects, and to simply sculpt and shape what is around with critical awareness. A similar dissent permeated a discussion in the salon that revolved around Thomas Lehmen’s proposal to regard art and other human activity as “making a piece of world”. Are you then adding, transforming, or creating a parallel universe? Who has access to the creation of reality, of the imagination and representations that shape it? What is the artist’s role? What is the ideology behind it? Are we actually the producers of our own life and its conditions? The weightier the subject matter taken on, the more delicate, contested and disparate the discussion on choreographic modes of work grew.

            Unresolved as the discussion’s content was, heteronomy was also explicitly addressed in the salon’s alternative mode for the production of speech: a choreographed conversation. Starting as an “open improvisation”, it moved to working with playful scores and game structures. The second afternoon, Van Imschoot proposed a score, in which people passed on the word to someone else through addressing a question, while others could intervene through “calls” for clarification, expansion or emergency. It redistributed speech and left space for modification: the knowing resided in the doing, resistant and incompressible. Rather than conclude the salon with a final word, Van Imschoot lingered in the conversational mode’s thickness, took up a suggestion by Lisa Nelson and invited all the participants to close their eyes and wander off groping.



(1) This essay departs from the salon Choreographic Modes of Work, which was curated and hosted by performance theorist André Lepecki and dramaturge Myriam Van Imschoot, and took place on April 21 and 22, 2006, in the context of Tanzkongress Deutschland at the House of World Cultures, Berlin.

(2) For a recent critical analysis of the “knowledge society” and its vocabulary in relation to humanism and education, see Liessmann 2006.


The questions in italics are integrally based on interventions by participants in the salon Choreographic Modes of Work. I’d like to thank Pirkko Husemann, André Lepecki and Myriam Van Imschoot for their suggestions and comments on this essay.

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De Certeau, Michel (1997): The Capture of Speech and Other Political Writings, Luce Giard (ed.), Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press

Deleuze, Gilles (1990): Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, New York: Zone Books

Foucault, Michel (1984): “What is Enlightenment?”. In The Foucault Reader, P. Rabinow (ed.), New York: Pantheon Books, p. 32-50

Gallie, W.B. (1956): “Essentially Contested Concepts”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 56, p. 167-198

Lepecki, André (2001): “Dance without Distance”, ballettanz 2, p. 29-31

Liessmann, Konrad Paul (2006): Theorie der Unbildung. Die Irrtümer der Wissensgesellschaft, Wien: Paul Zsolnay Verlag.

Sloterdijk, Peter (2006): Im Weltinnenraum des Kapitals. Für eine philosophische Theorie der Globalisierung, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.