Science as a metaphor for the practice of dance

Etcetera 1 Dec 2001English

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Contextual note
This textwas first published as 'Wetenschap als metafoor voor de danspraktijk', Etcetera jg. 19 nr. 79, pp. 38-42. Translated by Martin Nachbar.

What do scientific and artistic activities have in common? Mostly just the call for autonomy. Except for this, they are strictly kept distinct from each other. The notion of autonomy is increasingly regarded as a historical ideal, which became common ground in the 19th century and hardly survived the 20th. Autonomy and objective truth always strongly seem to be ideological constructions. The scientist uses his creative imagination as much as the artist is fascinated by chaos theory, quantum physics or biology. In the world of science, this regularly leads to fierce arguments, whereas artists remain inexhaustibly fascinated by science. So, in 1998 and 1999 the Beursschouwburg organized Wet art, encounters between artists and scientists, and the Antwerp Museum of Photography was occupied by Laboratorium in 1999. Curators Barbara Vanderlinden and Hans-Ulrich Obrist created an interdisciplinary project whose aim was to examine the generation and distribution of creative and scientific processes through exhibitions, lectures, and artists’ projects and in guided tours through operational science labs.

Why unravel and examine all this now? Last summer, the especially interesting and beautifully designed catalogue of Laboratorium was finally published. In the project, there were also two choreographic laboratories with current resonance. Meg Stuart spent two weeks in seclusion in order to prepare Highway 101 among other things. Highway 101 kept her busy until March 2001 and little spin-offs are still performed. Xavier Le Roy worked on a session of e.x.t.e.n.s.i.o.n.s., an on-going research project with methods and results occurring in other projects of his, as it could be seen in the last KunstenFESTIVALdesArts. And the ten-days of BDC/Tom Plischke in BSBbis last March took place under the name of the laboratory as well. And in the recently opened Viennese Tanzquartier, (now ex-)dramaturg Jeroen Peeters gives a rather big amount of space to the lab as “integrated research”. But what is it that makes science and art meaningful to each other past a mere mutual appropriation of each other’s discourses and prestige? And what are the results of science philosophy and history rethinking the laboratory?

The vulnerability and transportability of the laboratory: Meg Stuart

According to tradition, the laboratory is a protective surrounding. Inside, experiments can grow in order to return to the outside in specific applications. During the examined process in the laboratory, as many variables as possible are manipulated or excluded. Undesired or uncontrollable phenomena can always endanger the examination, which has just been removed from the chaotic balance of its normal environment. Therefore, the laboratory resembles very much the studio of a choreographer: this is the place where the artist creates optimal conditions for him- or herself. Here, new work matures until it can preserve its essence in the variable circumstances of the hosting theatres. At the instigation of Laboratorium, Meg Stuart retreated for two weeks with dancers, musicians, technicians and a dramaturge in order to work on a number of provisional ideas that had their turn in Highway 101 and Crash Landing @ Moscow. The biggest part of the process was not public. On a first level, their laboratory served also as a dance studio even in its unconventional shape: not more than a small office space without direct daylight.

But Stuart went deeper into the relationship between art and science. The research question revolved around the connections between the dancing body and technology in its forms of e.g. genetic manipulation, data processing, digital image manipulation and translation modules. Rather than working with the technologies, their processing was central: how can the body answer for itself, past simplistic and insufficient imitations of other media? Thus, the laboratory was not just a place but also a method – for the context of choreography, the term “research” became exceptionally literal. The more Stuart deals with the research, always aiming at its theatrical realization, the more she gives credibility to this crossover. The work’s precision reduces the danger of the laboratory and the scientific activity becoming just an esthetical exercise resulting in a rhetoric operation.

A central question of the laboratory revolved around the topography of the lab. Where is it, where is the space of the laboratory? The lab is more than a collection of research methods, because it connects these to a specific space. According to philosopher Isabelle Stengers, the laboratory is essentially a closed place. There is less unanimity concerning the materiality of this space. Biologist and philosopher Francisco Varela defends the concept of a subjective laboratory that results from a form of meditation, a closed space that can be transported anywhere: the portable lab. Bruno Latour doubts the transportability of the laboratory. Doesn’t one always fail when trying to repeat an experiment in another place or in another time slot? Physical and cultural factors play a fundamental role even in the closed rooms. But they actually become visible only by the transfer.

The transport of the laboratory can also be applied creatively. In the six European places where Highway 101 appeared, each time the performance opened up a dialogue with another architecture, other collaborators and another cultural context. This resulted in fundamentally different performances, each with a new structure. At the same time, a strong conceptual thread went through the whole project, revealing recurring scenes, themes and motives. These were re-used down to the level of individual movement with totally diverse results. Stuart had put her lab onto transport and continued to change systematically the basic set-up of her research in different contexts with sometimes baffling results. Thus, the closed laboratory becomes a network. The contemporary science lab restricts itself more and more to single physical locations, but also becomes an expanding architecture with the Internet as backbone. Researchers in different places and within disparate research contexts set out with a central collection of data.

The laboratory then is no longer one single spot. Yet, this does not make it an open space. In the dance field, the laboratory is popular, because it opens up time to develop ideas free from any production pressure. Nevertheless, the organizations that make this possible mostly feel obliged supplement the lab with a public event (a showing-moment). They want to prove to their public that there actually is interesting work happening. But the status of this supplement is very delicate, as in fact the lab is closed in order to protect its vulnerability. Within a traditional and production orientated rehearsal process, such a showing-moment is clearly transitory. One gets to see this and that with a commentary like “we still have to work a lot on it”. Certain unease and a form of modesty are built into such a format: this is just one step; the eventual result is coming. But as the work in the laboratory is a research independent of product, the organizer’s desire can lead to misunderstandings and to a complication of the research’s work.

The showing-moments of the Highway-laboratory clearly suffered from this lack of clarity. At the end of the two weeks’ research, four short showing-moments were organized in the small lab space. The showings lingered desperately in between various forms of presentation: there were many sudden changes from a didactic illustrated lecture to an open rehearsal, an improvisation performance or something in between. This demanded a lot of energy and attention from performers and audience. The desire was to allow a little look into the laboratory’s work and not just offer its results, because actually there weren’t any yet. The audience’s presence seemed to put great pressure on the vulnerable work process.

Nevertheless, the opening of the lab to the public was a central question of the project Laboratorium. To just open doors and windows didn’t seem to work in Stuart’s case. The whole world can become an object of research and everybody should have access to the results. But a sluice gate seems indispensable. A solution to this problem could very well be the simulation of the laboratory’s work. The passages of the showing-moments that leaned the furthest towards a “performance” with improvisation, music and explanation were most effective in making understandable the methods and themes around which was worked. Stuart and her colleagues were not really satisfied by this, because then it all became theatre and didn’t remain the “real” lab work. Laboratorium and Bruno Latour also organized the “theatre of proof”, a series of reconstructions of historical laboratory situations. This model was able to weaken the dilemma. Stuart’s fight with the publicity of the laboratory is an example of, as Latour puts it, the problem of “the laboratory’s laboratory”. This is an experiment in which the parameters of the laboratory explicitly get to work themselves – normally the research gets more attention than the lab where it takes place. Maybe, this theatre is the only possibility to overcome the incommensurability of both levels and to protect the fragility of the research without having to keep it secret.

<Choreography as work, the lab as process: Xavier Le Roy

Today, a lot of scientific labs are connected to the industry, and they adopt many of its structures: serial production, productivity and market orientation, among others. The lab keeps its material and methodological autonomy as far as necessary for doing research. But it starts to depend on other desires than the pure expansion of knowledge. One can ask, if the practice of science has ever been able to answer to this ideal. But it still determines strongly the perception and resonance of the laboratory: independent research that sets its own limits and conditions of production and decides autonomously, when and how the results leave the protected space.

Xavier Le Roy knows the working conditions of the laboratory like the back of his hand. He holds a PhD in molecular and cellular biology and, for several years, led an experimental research on breast cancer. Not satisfied with the social and intellectual organization of scientific work, he chose for a career as dancer and choreographer. Yet, he took along the ideal of the independent research practice. In 1998, he started up the project e.x.t.e.n.s.i.o.n.s., an experimental situation in which the parameters of choreographic production, such as authorship, process/product, creativity etc., were examined. Closely connected to the production methods, the actual aim was the search for new concepts and images of corporeality. The body as individual entity was exchanged for dynamic and non-hierarchical processes of interaction among body parts, among bodies and in between bodies and all kinds of objects. The body was practiced as a dynamic assemblage of a network. Each attempt was defined by one starting point, such as limiting movement with an object, transforming known movement patterns (e.g. playing soccer with your head or following a pathway backwards) or a combination of divergent activities (playing ping-pong on a moving table that is simultaneously used as a badminton net). The most important methodology was the game. In it, the construction of a hypothesis (the rule) is explicitly present and can also be transformed, if the game’s course demands or allows this: thus, simultaneously methodical and dynamic, under the temporary exclusion of the outside world’s conditions.

The artist, just like the scientist, is firstly interested in the process of setting up and rejecting a certain practice. Only afterwards, he or she tackles the communication with the public (which naturally already forms part of the research). But as interested as the organizer may be in experiment and innovation, the dance world demands that one surfaces with a product that can be looked at free from its emergence’s history, as vague and unstable this difference may be. This frame of presentation has the form of a product that is marketable and therefore carries an author’s name. The questioning of this condition has become a current practice in theatre.

One can, for example, expend the term “product” by giving more attention to the preparing process and by turning the “consumer’s attitude” of the public (whatever this means precisely) towards more involvement. This can be realized by means of a long and diverse residence as in the Toneelfabriek, a well-organized festival with a lot of attention to re-framing, or even simpler, by organizing introductions and workshops. All of this can contribute to a stronger presence of the work process in the perception of the product.

The laboratory legitimates a reverse strategy; it challenges the product as such, and thus immediately questions the whole organization machinery around it. The first series of e.x.t.e.n.s.i.o.n.s. took place in gymnasiums, consciously chosen as non-theatrical spaces. The experiments took place during office hours and were constantly open for free to the public, including warm-up, discussion and lunch-break. By spreading the public’s presence over time and by refusing to provide the usual performance’s timeframe, the impact of the audience’s presence could be limited or, as wished, become a new extension and topic of research. Consequently, those people who expected a more or less traditional performance saw and understood very little. As a result, the size of the public remained limited. But this didn’t mean that “theatre”, “dance” or “performance” weren’t brought up anymore: these terms were at the work’s heart and could be perceived as such, provided that there was some patience and analysis.

Thus, Le Roy has at least partly succeeded in converting the conditions and contemporary conceptions of the laboratory into choreographic practice. The concern was clearly a work process that was understood as a free and autonomous creativity and not as an object. At the same time, he is aware of shortcomings and inconsistencies. In Self-interview (2000), one of the outcomes of the project, Le Roy concludes that the idea of working totally non-hierarchically, thus pushing the process model to the level of human interaction, seemed an impossible utopia. As the designer of the project, he was pushed into the roles of author and leader, which he didn’t want to accept but couldn’t escape. This insecurity at the heart of the radicalized laboratory often resulted in a lack of direction and diminished the research energy.

Questions around authorship, the related status of artistic work and the structure of the choreographic market are central to Le Roy’s work. The solo Self Unfinished (1998) gives physical form to the desire of deconstructing the traditional structure of the body, which guarantees a name and a lifelong identity. He behaves, for example, like a robot or turns his position around, so that his head- and sexless body resemble an “organic alien”. These are procedures seen elsewhere, too. But in opposition to the work of for example, Eric Raeves or Charlotte Vanden Eynde, there is almost no desire for aesthetics. Le Roy rather tries to erase himself in a dry and persistent manner. In the performance-lecture Product of Circumstances (1999) he talks about his trajectory as scientist and choreographer in strikingly negative terms. His conscious and rational choices seem to be of little importance. He retreated from being a scientist as he had to compromise too much with the drive to publish and to make his mark; as dancer he was often rejected because of his figure; he moved from Paris to Berlin out of love…These are processes in which the character “Xavier Le Roy” doesn’t seem to be more than just an element.

Also in Self-interview the author implodes. Using a recording of his voice, he interviews himself about e.x.t.e.n.s.i.o.n.s. The failure of communication between Le Roy-interviewer and Le Roy-interviewee is noticeable: halfway through they switch roles, the interviewer insists stubbornly that the answers are confusing and incomprehensible; the interviewee opens every response with “I don’t know, but…” This implosion goes the furthest in Xavier Le Roy (2000), a performance in which he morphs with the character “Jérôme Bel”. The piece is announced as a work of Jérôme Bel, the company of whom indeed functions as the executive producer and organizer of the tour. Yet, the choreography is made by Xavier Le Roy in Jérôme Bel’s style, which likes to play games with identities and cultural icons. Hidden under a silver Warhol-wig, a character takes several poses (from Michael Jordan to Napoleon), while doubt about the identity of the actor is slowly implanted: is there one or two or more, men or women…Indeed a witty piece, but too much of a pastiche to stick in one’s mind.

The big paradox is, of course, that Le Roy, just like Bel, enjoys more and more fame. More than his choreographies, his name has become a product, with which festivals, organizers and writers can work, success, controversy or interest guaranteed. This gives him naturally more possibilities to do his work, even under less production constraints and with more “laboratory time”. But this goes hand-in-hand with his face and name becoming an icon. While Bel goes further and further in the production of his person’s disappearance in favor of his name/brand, Le Roy keeps bringing his body into play, stubbornly trying to stick to the laboratory work and to negotiating his position as author and worker. He also does so by giving chances to other artists in connection to his name and company. The second phase of e.x.t.e.n.s.i.o.n.s. e.g. consisted of evenings presenting a whole series of related projects. Also in this sense, Le Roy stays seeking for an alternative economy in theatre.

The laboratory of the everyday: BDC/Tom Plischke & friends

According to science historians Peter Galison and Carolyn Jones, the laboratory was inserted in the industrial production process at the same time as industrial methods were applied to the artistic practice of pop art, among others. The romantic individual artist was replaced by the loose-fixed collective of collaborators, busy with a production process no longer constricted to disciplines. The result openly led to mass products (Warhol) or just consisted of the reproducible documentation of the creative process (concept art). Andy Warhol’s Factory is still regarded as the icon of this way of production and surfaced several times in order to describe the ten-day residency of BDC/Tom Plischke in the BSBbis, which Stefanie Wenner describes in detail earlier in this magazine. As well as this image, that of the laboratory made the round, maybe in a less articulated way: sometimes it referred to the event as a whole, sometimes only to the workshops.

<BDC/Tom Plischke & friends was a Factory in the sense, that there were constantly bustling and diverse artistic activities going on. Hygiene Heute worked every day on a new installation for their philosophical fit-o-meter, the workshops occupied unexpected spots in the building, several dancers/choreographers came to ask if they could use a bit of the space to tinker with their own work, performances were set up and played etc. An “artists’ factory” so to speak, with the aim to create by means of diverse methods an image of “artistic productivity”. The factory also included a laboratory or rather many activities had laboratory aspects to them. First of all, the BSBbis clearly operated as a shielded and protected space. Access was restricted to participants wearing a badge and to audiences with tickets to evening performances. Regarding the urban and organizational context of the BSBbis, this was first and foremost a functional measure. But it allowed the participants to concentrate on their own activities. To go outside, even within the context of the workshop, was therefore always a bit adventurous, as if it was to do with collecting experiences in the field to be examined later more closely in the lab. The factor “urbanity” was here reduced to a theme and an environment excluded by the gate of the theatre, a fact that was also true for most of the other choreographic laboratories. According to Isabelle Stengers, the foremost activity in the laboratory is the discussion among scientists rather than the actual research activities. These anyway don’t have any meaning unless they are discussed, defended, and collectively confirmed or rejected. This discussion, the form of which tends to swing between the discursive and the performative in the choreographic lab, was the central thought of the BDC-event, especially of the workshops. For that, topics were defined and heads for each workshop were selected. But the debate, being the actual activity of this lab, exceeded the time limits imposed by the curators (among whom the writer of this) and could not spread out in the temporal-spatial whole of the event. The emphasis on debate also meant that the research-community had to “operationalized”. In this case the community consisted of a heterogeneous and international society of performers, choreographers and theoreticians. The environment for it had to be created artificially. But in order to keep it alive and fruitful it shouldn’t be formalized too much. Therefore, the BSBbis also became a laboratory of the everyday during ten days, held together by Lieve Van Buggenhout’s cooking art and by the care of Carine Meulders and the BSBbis-team. The theatre became a work place, an eatery, a dormitory and a living room. Big and diverse enough to support different forms and concentrations of exchange throughout the rhythm of everyday activities such as eating, sleeping, hanging around and working.

Thus, the everyday-ness was artificial and simulated (sometimes it seemed to be a scouts’ camp or a Club Med for artists). But the filling of it, the emergence of a fragmented but passionate community was indeed real. There may well have been some discontent with the regularity and the pressure that were imposed by the public character of the performances, but this was inevitable and necessary: the everyday is always restricted and needs such publicity in order to prevent a lethargic vacation mood. The event succeeded in bringing together the debate and the research within the place of the laboratory, more than Stengers can claim for the scientific practice. The canteen of the scientific lab and the reception space of the science congress, where the core of the debate lies (and thus not in the places of its formalization such as the congress and the conference room), are next to the material lab. In the BSBbis the physical and the mental labs were merged thanks to its focus on the everyday.

Spoken in utopian terms: within the figure of this laboratory of the everyday, the scientific and the artistic came back together: the place where both of them eventually belong to. Of course, this was only possible for an exclusive minority, which could permit itself the time and was pampered excellently by the organization of the theatre – in other words, a minority that could escape temporarily from its normal everyday. Of course, this was only for a limited time. Of course, this was never totally without conflict. But its effectiveness shows itself outside the boarders of the self-indulgent circle. New events, new performances, new collaborations and new configurations between theory and practice emerged from this temporary conjunction. The same fertility marked the labs of Stuart and Le Roy. As there was no pressure to deliver worked-out results, one could concentrate on the work rather than on the production. Therefore it might have been boring and even pretentious for some visitors: there was indeed little to see.

The laboratory’s use may legitimate artistic freewheeling and the escape from his or her responsibility to communicate (as the money needed is public property). On the other hand, it can contribute to deepening the artistic and scientific activity and to the creation of a wider vision of the term “artistic work”. Within the scientific world, this kind of privilege is put under the increasing pressure of achievement- and production-obligations, which reduce the lab to a functional and dependant part of a production process. It is therefore good to realize what a luxury such a choreographic laboratory is. At the same time, its protection must be encouraged.