Turning, turning, returning

Sarma Jul 2015English

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Contextual note
This essay was commissioned by Sarma as a reflection on the walk+talk series that took place at the Reykjavik Dance Festival in February 2015. Annotated videos of the performances can be found here.

Sitting next to me, during the walk+talk series at Reykjavík Dance Festival on 13th February 2015, was a woman I did not know but decided to have a coffee with in the break between solos. Side by side, we watched three walk+talks together. The first was by Erna Ómarsdóttir, the second by Philipp Gehmacher, and the third and final solo was by Margrét Bjarnadóttir. Over the coffee, she seemed keen to talk, but not so much about what we’d just seen, but rather about the coffee we were drinking. According to her, the coffee tasted very similar to the coffee she used to drink as a child working on her family’s farm – some fifty years ago. When she spoke of working on the farm as a young child, she was talking about long days doing full manual labour – not a couple of hours a week, more like a full time job. At least this is what she told me. She explained that coffee was all they would consume in the mornings to fuel their farm work – and as such she would always associate ‘black, gloopy, and overbrewed coffee – with workers, doers, with physical labourers’.

Curious, I decided to ask her whether she felt this type of coffee was fitting for this event, for walk+talk Reykjavík. To this she answered a straight ‘no, not at all’. I suggested to her that perhaps such coffee was perfect for this situation – as the solos we had been watching were made up almost entirely of physical labour. Yes, there was plenty of talking – but the work of the bodies was unremitting. She remained unconvinced. For her, the labour on that stage was not that of the farmer, or even of performers that work in this theatre on most other days. For her, these walk+talks ‘appear[ed] to lack all desire to produce anything’ at all. There was ‘a lot of talking, and an absence of a product’ according to her, that made so-called ‘worker’s coffee’ seem an entirely inappropriate brew for such an event.

Her observations were uttered with a sense of humour, I thought, but nevertheless she was making quite a bold distinction about differing labour models, and what they produce. ‘Farmers’, she said, ‘produce a harvest of some sort; a consumable item. Similarly dancers that usually take to work in this theatre, dancers in Billy Elliot, or dancers for the Iceland Dance Company, produce something meaningful. In all three examples tried and tested methods are used to deliver predictable and predesignated results’. Adding, ‘and I like that, I like knowing what I am going to get’.

The distinction she was making was clear. For her there stood an affinity between the dancing of Billy Elliot, the dancing of Iceland Dance Company and the farm work she did as a child. Despite farm work producing raw material things (corn, milk or something else), and the dancing of Billy Elliot and Iceland Dance Company producing narrative, drama and spectacle – she found an affinity between their labour operations, because in her view there is, in all three examples, a clear mode of labour in place that yields predictable harvests, so to speak. In her view, the same could not be said of walk+talk. She felt, in the case of walk+talk, that there was a lack of desire to produce, and that the talking disturbed and interrupted any productive potential there might have been. It was on those grounds that she felt it would make sense to her that people would drink black and gloopy overbrewed coffee at Billy Elliot and Iceland Dance Company, but not at walk+talk. A bit prescriptive, I might suggest, but okay.

Considering my initial question towards her was quite a flippant one, I was surprised by the answer it produced. It was as though she used the coffee in question to deliver to me her grievances regarding walk+talk, frustrated that it was not the dancing of Billy Elliott, nor Iceland Dance Company. Somewhat surprised at her thinly veiled complaint, I paused to consider how to engage with her further, but unfortunately, this pause was to mark the end of our conversation. This momentary quiet between us extended into an indefinite silence – as our conversation was cut short by the resumption of the evening. It was time to return into the theatre to see Margrét Bjarnardóttir’s solo – and afterwards I did not find her again. And as such, since then, I have been left to fill in the gaps behind her ideas; left to speculate alone on how her commentary might have been concluded – and how our conversation might have developed.

The remainder of this article takes on this speculative task – and concerns itself with trying to address 1) this affinity she identifies between the dancing of Billy Elliott, the dancing of the Iceland Dance Company and the labour of the 1960s Icelandic Farm; 2) the preference she has for labour such as this; and 3) what walk+talk is doing, if we do not entirely accept the woman's premise that ‘talking’ disrupts the productive potential of ‘walking’, and that walk+talk lacks all desire to produce anything at all.


Billy, Icelandic Dance Company, and farming the old way

So, beginning with the affinity she draws between Billy, the Iceland Dance Company and the 1960s farm, I do wonder if maybe I can in some sense see her point. Billy the dancer, both fictionally and in real terms, was trained up through an academy system and graduated with a single set of skills that are rigorously designed to operate within a rigid technology of meaning-production. The dancing body of Billy is situated as a vessel that should establish an uninterrupted and efficient line of meaning production that runs from the author through to the audience. Added to this, it is maybe interesting to note that despite the crux of the Billy Elliot narrative hinging on an apparent division between the work principles of the coal miner and the work principles of the dancer, the dancer Billy becomes a dancer founded on the same principles as a miner’s labour. Namely, blood, sweat and submission to a rigid technology that inflexibly demands the body delivers and re-delivers a specific and single set of skills to a production line (of either coal production, or narrative production). The work of a 1960s Icelandic farm could have been very similar. We don’t know what type of farm the woman worked on, but we can imagine that she would have had a very specific role and at that time perhaps she was the last generation to believe that she would work on that farm, or another farm once married off, for the rest of her life. As such, she would have been developing a single set of skills, just like Billy with his dancing, and his coal-mining relatives in the pits, that she would have expected to work with her entire working life. This was not the life she led however. She told me herself that she left the farm for Reykjavík and now works an administrative job.

As for the Iceland Dance Company, it’s an organisation that also adheres to this labour model in its own way. Academised dancers, on long-term contracts, are required to have a specific set of skills that allows them to efficiently deliver the work of the invited choreographer to the Company’s audiences. Training in the mornings ensures their set of skills remains intact and up to date, with rehearsals periods (lasting roughly six weeks per production) taking up the afternoon slots. Every day functions in this way – with performances periodically running in the evenings. It would seem that this woman I had been speaking to, gave preference to this labour model. But it is a labour model that is increasingly rare – which begs the questions why, then, the preference for such an increasingly rare labour model? Is it perhaps, precisely because of its rarity that she longs for it?


Precarity, instability and communication fatigue

As philosopher Richard Sennett puts it in his study The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in New Capitalism (1998), these labour conditions that would have once involved a worker establishing a specific set of skills geared exclusively towards producing and reproducing something specific; a set of skills that would have allowed a worker to promote their way up a fixed organizational hierarchy over a forty year working life, have all but disappeared in highly developed capitalist societies. Instead, it is replaced by a nomadic workforce that is required to perpetually re-skill as workers move from role to role, as well as from organisation to organisation – a labour market in which, as Sennett puts it, there is ‘no long term’.

Echoing Sennett, philosopher Mark Fisher writes in his book Capitalist Realism (2009), that today’s highly developed capitalist societies operate a post-Fordist labour model. Whereas previously it was normal to have one job for life, to stay in one organisation for forty years, to begin every day at the same time and finish every day at the same time, to clock in and clock off, so to speak, today:

‘Work and life are inseparable. Capital follows you when you dream. Time ceases to be linear, becomes chaotic, broken down into punctiform divisions. As production and distribution are restructured, so are nervous systems. To function effectively as a component of just-in-time production you must develop a capacity to respond to unforeseen events, you must learn to live in conditions of total instability, or precarity, as the ugly neologism has it. Periods of work alternate with periods of unemployment. Typically, you find yourself in a series of short-term jobs, unable to plan for the future.’


These changes, according to Fisher, were partly driven by the desires of workers, who quite rightly did not wish to work in the same job, or organisation, their whole lives – but this desire to break from fixity, resulted in its extreme opposite. It resulted in perpetual instability, precarity and short-termism in the labour market.

The changes, of course, were not only in terms of the life-cycle of a job, but in the nature of labouring itself. As Fisher points out:

‘The Fordist factory was crudely divided into blue and white collar work with different types of labor physically delimited by the structure of the building itself. Laboring in noisy environments watched over by managers and supervisors, workers had access to language only in their breaks, in the toilet, at the end of the working day, or when they were engaged in sabotage, because communication interrupted production. But in post-Fordism, when the assembly line becomes a “flux of information,” people work by communicating.’


Walk+talk, of course, wilfully labours by communicating. And although I will not now have the chance to ask this woman whether she identifies with Fisher’s description of today’s labour conditions, I would have liked to have asked her whether it is the precarity and instability that Fisher describes that perhaps leads her to give preference to labour that is modelled on, and produces, fixity, familiarity and stability. And furthermore, whether it is an almost disdaining attitude towards post-Fordist precarity that renders her unavailable to the talking in walk+talk. Perhaps her complaint about the talking in walk+talk being disruptive was not specific to walk+talk at all, but rather her attitude to talking in general. As Fisher points out, talking in the assembly line was considered disruptive to production – and the woman seems to echo this sentiment exactly when discussing walk+talk.

If it is a tiring of post-Fordism that motivates her views, she would not be alone in holding them. Ubiquitous among many in Iceland is the saying that contemporary artists are ‘latte drinking wankers’. And implicit in this slur is the perception that contemporary artists ‘talk too much, and produce too little’ – with the former considered disruptive to the latter. The perception is that all talking gets in the way of work and productivity, and as such it’s as if their collective nostalgia for Fordism renders them somewhat allergic to talking as a potentially productive mode of labour – regardless of its context and of what is being communicated. This sounds fairly ignorant. And absurd, for what could seem to be obvious reasons.


Producing Lists

Contemporary art production in general, as well as walk+talk specifically, are productive. Both produce things. And often, not in spite of their communicative labour but precisely – in part – because of it. If nothing else, walk+talk produces lists of things – or to be specific: itineraries of choreographer’s toolboxes. Choreographers are thrust onto the stage alone and labour to instantiate, and as a result almost itemise, their choreographic toolboxes via a ‘walk’. It’s requested of the choreographer that whilst ‘walking’ they add ‘talking’ – which has, in many cases, taken the form of both a naming of tactics, as well as a commentary on the history of how they have applied these tactics in the past; what the intended effect of such tactics were when they previously applied them; and how such choreographic tactics were developed in the first place. Typically, through this operation, a walked and talked list emerges – and attached to that list there is a series of claims about what these tactics were strategically applied for.

Across Erna, Philipp and Margrét, they spoke of and instantiated – among other things – the following tactics:

‘Quoting’, ‘walking forward’, ‘turning’, ‘taking your kinesphere with you’, ‘being on all fours’, ‘extending an arm’, ‘uttering’, ‘touching someone else’s shoulder’, ‘looking out’, ‘rolling’, ‘screaming’, ‘entering the stage’, ‘headbanging’, ‘shaking legs’, ‘deception’,‘moving hands up and down’, ‘wearing make-up’, ‘standing on stage’, ‘running’, ‘taking your skin off’, ‘borderlining’, ‘dancing ugly’, ‘moving authentically’, ‘lying on the floor’, ‘listening’, ‘speaking’, ‘dancing on the inside’, ‘dancing with the voice’, ‘the in-between songs moments’, ‘dancing with the tongue’, ‘dancing with the tits’, ‘allowing the body to say what cannot be said’, ‘dancing solo’, ‘failing’, ‘getting drunk’, as well as ‘leaving something unsaid’.


These tactics were contextualised in walk+talk in the past tense – referred to retrospectively as something that once happened as opposed to something happening in the present – situated within the strategic contexts of the past works wherein these tactics were previously deployed.

The ‘lying on the floor’ was a search for authenticity, the ‘shaking of the legs’ was a search for ‘more love in the body’, and the ‘touching of someone else’s shoulder’ was a search for ‘intersubjectivity’. Across the three of these choreographers during their walk+talks, it was heard that some of the tactics listed above were deployed strategically in an attempt to engage with, among other things:

‘Scopophobia’, ‘intersubjectivity’, ‘failure’, ‘embarrassment’, ‘authenticity’, ‘self-pity’, ‘freedom’, ‘freedom space’, ‘life’, ‘death’, ‘safety’, ‘ritual’, ‘truth’, ‘making space for love in the body’, ‘borderlining’, ‘holding yourself’, and ‘fear’.


These were the tactics and strategies that made up the lists that were produced. And at first glance, therefore, it does seem confusing, to say the least, that someone could say with such confidence that walk+talk lacks all desire to produce. Or as the slur implies, that all contemporary artists produce too little, because they talk too much.

On the other hand – what if despite the dismissive tone of the lady’s assertions, and the societal wide slur, their basic assertion that the talking in walk+talk sabotages the format’s capacity to produce and take effect is essentially correct? Because, despite the foundations upon which I believe their arguments are based, I can’t help but agree with their basic thesis. The talking is disruptive. Firstly, it’s because the instantiated tactics are presented in the past tense. And this retrospection, in my view, has the consequence of resigning the effect of the instantiated tactics to the past. The implication of the retrospection is to say that these tactics are not happening now, but are merely represented in the present. Secondly, it’s because whilst the walking and the talking do work to give clarity to one another, they are equally as likely to undermine one another. Sometimes, although most certainly not always, the talking exposes the failure of the walking (the tactics) to do what it appears to be attempting to do. Likewise, sometimes but most certainly not always, the walking exposes the failure of the talking, the claim, the promise, to give clarity to the tactics they are talking about. As Philipp puts it himself when writing to Jeroen Peeters, walk+talk’s every ‘attempt to express brings confusion as much as clarity’. The audience are invited to imagine the effect they might have, as opposed to the effect they are having. As such the consequence of this confusion, like the effect of the retrospection, is to blunt the potential of the instantiated tactics from taking effect. Rendering the tactics doubly suspended – firstly in the past, and secondly in the hypothetical.

In this way, walk+talk is not modelled on post-Fordism at all. Where Post-Fordism seeks to produce through communication, walk+talk actively blunts its own capacity to produce through communication. It communicates lists, and then blunts the capacity of the tactics it lists to act and take effect. As such, walk+talk is a labour that is perpetually turning on itself, in a sense – actively turning away from its own capacity to have any effect in the present. As such, the original question I posed at the beginning which asked what walk+talk is doing, if we don’t entirely accept the premise that the talking in walk+talk is disruptive, is wrong. The talking is disruptive, but then the question should be: what is the disruption in walk+talk doing? And why is walk+talk public, if it wilfully denies its own capacity to have an effect on its audience with the tactics it instantiates? To address these questions, I would like to take a brief detour to what might be called the labour of my childhood.


Turning, turning, returning

The labour of my childhood was, I imagine, quite different to the lady’s. As a child, I went to school and had a lot of free time in between. In this so-called ‘free time’, I would often stand alone in my family’s living room spinning around on the spot. I would spin and spin as a way of turning myself into other things. Other people, animals, plants, trees, as well as supernatural things like ghosts, elves and vampires. As I remember it, this spinning was something I started around the age of six or seven – and perhaps continued up until about the age of twelve. Most of the time, I wouldn’t know what it was I would turn into when I would begin turning. Rather, I would discover what my body was turning into through the turning itself. I would spin, and through the spinning, I would find myself turning into a fly, or a car or a ghost for example. And then, as a ghost I would fly around for an hour or so – floating and invisible. Or as a car, I would rumble around making noises, and spluttering with my lips.

Over time, this turning became a returning also. Rather than always finding new bodies to turn into, I would begin to return to old bodies that I had turned into before. Technically speaking, of course, these were all my bodies, as the turning didn’t so much deliver new bodies to me, but expand the capacity of my body to adopt other modes of being. This spinning then – we could say – was the choreography of my childhood. A choreographic alchemy, providing me with a physical procedure for turning myself into modes of myself. And although I would not have described it as such at the time, this was a choreographic practice I was developing – a practice of turning, not merely a practice of spinning, but precisely a practice of turning. Because to turn is not only to spin. To turn is to shift, to change, to evolve, to alter – and not always by choice or engineering.

This turning was a form of escapism, but also a search for alternatives. It was a private act that was both a palliative gesture that would shelter me from things, and at once a speculative one, that always promised the slim possibility of stumbling upon an alternative set of conditions for doing, thinking, speaking, making, sensing and making sense of things. When I was young, and still often today, I felt quite despairing of the world, as well as quite confused by it. I could have – I think – turned to religion when younger, because of the narratives it might have provided me with for making sense of things. Instead I’ve managed without, but it means that I’ve felt more or less confused throughout my life. I’ve always had the sense that the world is underpinned by no foundational principles or values at all – and as such must instead be underpinned by a total nonsense. Today, the world feels more confusing than ever, and the narratives we have for explaining our own social, political, economic, and existential contexts seem increasingly ill-equipped for explaining how we should proceed together on this planet. More than that even, we are continually told today that the world is falling to pieces. Austerity measures in Europe tell us we cannot afford democracy, climate change tells us we cannot afford to keep consuming, terrorism tells us to fear religion, the news repeatedly tells us to fear our borders, to fear our neighbours, and to keep our personal belongings with us at all times. And yet, we seem to lack the narratives that can redirect us towards an alternative set of social, economic, ethical and existential conditions. When you know on the one hand that you are not comfortable with the social, political, economic and existential project you are participating in, but simultaneously have no idea how to proceed differently, then, turning might be the only alternative to absolute nihilism.

It is not such a different idea to Martin Luther King Jr.’s, who once said ‘even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree’. Nor is it different from the string quartet that decided to continue playing on the Titanic despite knowing it would sink them to their deaths. Nor is it different to the characters in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia that decide to build a little frail shelter to sit in, as they discover that planet Earth will be destroyed along with all life on it. The chances the shelter might save them are next to zero, but they build it anyway. Nor is it different to the CNN network commissioning a brass band to play the world out on air – if it comes clear that a world-wide nuclear holocaust begins. In all four cases here, the action in the face of absolute desperation, is to take another opportunity to turn the situation into another one – however unlikely it is to happen. For me, as a child, my attempts at turning my body and my situation was a private act – but it does not have to be of course. And when it is public rather than private it gains a whole other currency.  In the case of the four examples above they are all truly last resorts – but what, then, about the idea that walk+talk is a public choreography of turning?


Turning towards every body

In blunting the possible effects of the instantiated tactics in the present, they are either resigned to the past, or what? Perhaps they are not blunted, but instead just postponed and displaced. Postponed into the future where they would need to be returned to, and displaced onto the public who would need to be the ones returning to them in the future. The displacement and the postponing implies walk+talk implicitly believes there will be a tomorrow, at least. It is not clear that Martin, the string quartet, the CNN network and Lars von Trier’s characters did. The retrospection blunts their potential effects in the present, the confusion ensures that their potential effect cannot be known in the present, but this just means that the only way to discover what these tactics can enable in terms of expanding our capacity to do, make, say, think, write, read, sense and make sense, is by returning to them in the future and reinstantiating them there and then. It’s comically laborious. And it is fairly desperate as a strategy. Religion would be easier if it worked. Clearly defined utopian horizons would make it easier for every body to get to work on something and head more directly for something, but in the absence of these things, but in the promise of a future for better or for worse, turning might be the only possibility of making that future a better one. It’s a strategy of a last resort – a collective scrambling in the dark for alternatives that might just bring us closer to some improvements – if improvements are what is called for. Some, of course, are just happy with how things are, some don’t believe in improvement at all, and some – perhaps like the lady I had been speaking with – just wish they could go back to ‘the good old days’. Walk+talk is, then, a format for the desperate, a format that invites every body in the audience to return in the future to the tactics it turned out and blunted in the present, in the hope that every one of those bodies can do more with those tactics in the future than has been done until now. Walk+talk is labouring to instantiate more than lists, therefore, it’s working to instantiate future movements: physical movements, spoken movements; and more than that, it is laboriously and democratically seeking to instantiate a movement of every body. The artist’s body, my body, the lady’s body and the bodies of everyone else who was there. A movement of doing, making, saying, thinking, reading, writing, sensing and making sense that is searching for other means and is instantiated by every body that was present, and will be present in the future.

And with all that in mind, I’m off for a latte and a wank. Thanks for reading every body.