Unfolding the critical: conversation between Helmut Ploebst and Barbara Van Lindt

Sarma 1 Jan 2003English

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Contextual note
This discussion was part of the colloquium Unfolding the Critical. Helmut Ploebst is an Austrian critic; Barbara Van Lindt is artistic director and co-organiser of the Amperdans festival, which hosted Saram's colloquium.

Discussion transcribed by Karlien Meganck

The next talk is between Helmut Ploebst, Austrian dance critic, and Barbara Van Lint, presenter and artistic director of workplace Zimmer, one of the co-organizers of the festival.

Barbara: I don't know you very well, but I think we have some things in common. What we might have in common, I would call a certain engagement towards artists. I suppose you've had a practice – or you still have it – as a dance reviewer in a newspaper or in a magazine.

Helmut: Yes, I am writing about dance since ten years.

B: But next to that you have been writing a book about some artists, whose work you like.

H: Yes.

B: So I was wondering, is there a difference in the critical component when you write out of love for a certain work or when you are going to see performances that you think you should see and that you think you should write about – the current practice of a dance critic. I was curious about the possible difference.

H: It was mentioned before that there is no school for becoming someone to write in a newspaper or in a magazine, to perform a critic in TV or even to write a book on an art form. There are schools for journalists. Out of these schools come very clever people, not good journalists. I had a certain education when I started at the university, 'communications', which contained media history, media theory and communication theory. And as I had a big urge to relate to visual art back then, I was always curious how the media of art and the mass media would relate. The first thing to find out was –and this was also mentioned- was that writing about something and creating something is a big difference. So when – for me at least – this kind of writing is an art form, like the art of cooking or making a functional chair or a table, I found there are many possible ways to learn what you should write about. The first thing is to see as many performances as possible. It is the same when you learn about visual arts, then you should really see artworks. And then reading about what other people think about art. You'll also know that it exists, you watched it etc… I started to watch dance performances relatively late. I started in 1992 and already in 1993 I started writing, which was really a short time of learning. But of course there is also the learning by doing it - by writing. I took the risk, because it was a small medium and not many people were reading it. The risk was pretty low that there would be big effects - neither negative nor positive. Back then I didn't recognize that a review is also functioning as an advertisement. It is going to be put in the files of the artists to apply for subsidies etc. If I would have known, it would have been a very interesting component in writing. Writing has so many components. So practical learning and then finding out how many possibilities there are to publish- and there are many different ones.

B: But my question was more about that I sense a difference between the job as an art critic on one side ... you could say the job of an art critic is you see, what is up, what is in the cultural agenda, you go there, you write about it, whether you like the piece or not, you are responding to what is presenting itself. That is one thing. But you did something else too. You decided to write a book with different texts about artists, whose work you love, you chose them by yourself and I suppose that even in that work you recognize the critical component. But that might be different than the critical component in the newspaper for example, like Marit Strǿmmen for example.

H: The book has a subtitle which was coming from a philosopher, Guy Debord, who was a master of criticism of the society of spectacle. It was clear that the work of these nine people I dealt with in the book, was absolutely important for me because of its critical perspectives in different approaches and layers. But talking about the job: proposing to write about somebody to a media and convincing them is a pre-form of doing something like this book. So it is not just a job. A job would be if I was a lawyer earning money. As a freelance critic, you are independent in your mind, but you have to run after jobs, and of course you have a certain choice. You propose to write about people you like to write about. But you're right, I also write about things I don't find so interesting as individual artwork. But then again, constructing the whole art field, all art is equally important. The bad, the very bad, the super good, the conservative, the progressive, the very intense, the very superficial… it all projects what the very stereotype of dance is projected on us…
But how do you see this from your position, Barbara? Sometimes I am very jealous, because all I can do is write a text and ask if they can put a nice photograph next to my text. Sometimes they do it, sometimes they don't. But I am 'jealous' that you can present people. You can really make it possible to appear. But I think this has also to do with a certain passion, also with a critical component. You have to be choosy. How does this work?

B: There are three things to say:
First, I am not really a presenter. I work in an organization that is trying to find beginners in the performing arts and support them in the first phase of their professional career. That means that most of the artists I work with, most of the times are artists without a broad professional consensus about the quality of their work.
Second, I have a very double position in my job. On one hand I have to be caring for the artists that I choose to work with. I have to be loyal to them. On the other hand, I know that every four years there is a commission gathering and they will decide whether or not I did my job well. There are different ways to judge that. One of the most delicate points of course is 'Did she make good choices and how can we see? How can we judge those choices? Did she produce some hits?' That double situation installs the critical component of my job. For those who were here yesterday and listened to Thierry De Duve … I would love to re-read his text and interiorise the words he used to talk about the critical. I recognized a lot of it, but I'm not able to do that now. In the critical work before the selection, when you choose artists, there is this thing called intuition and there is this thing called the framework that you bring, that you are in. Last week I got an email from an artist that I worked with last summer and it is an artist that I don't want to work with in the future. She told me she thought I was very intuitive. I realized that I never really thought about that word. I always thought intuition is a voice within yourself, that tells you what to do and then you do it. But I have been thinking about this and intuition is not a voice. It's terrible in fact. Intuition is pre-rational, it is not something that you can put in language. It is just something that pushes you to act. And that you can rationalize and put in language afterwards. But the thing itself is terrible. It is one of the main things in my job… for every producer or presenter who is working with artists. It is also an important tool for somebody who is writing about art or about anything. Intuition is just a shortage of ongoing discourse. The discourse that enables us to make quick (sometimes too quick, but sometimes quick enough) decisions … if we had to process one step after the other, it would take us too long and so the situation of being able to decide would be gone. I like this understanding of intuition very well, because in my situation – when you have to decide very quickly about the form and the content and the focusing, the layer of what can be a description, analyses about the metaphors to be used, about the style and the language, about the contexts to be implicated etc. If you would have to build up consciously their preparation and building up, you collapse. Or you need a lot of time. So intuition as a shortcut through experiences. I feel very close to this model you are talking about. But at the same time this intuition seems so uncritical. As if it is 'not done'. It is done constantly - I realize now.

H: This has to be questioned. Was the result or the position to come via an intuitive process a good one? Or was it like 'I missed it, but missing is missing.' Intuition is something that develops in process.

B: When you will question your intuition … your intuition will be questioned. By the fact that at a certain moment there is public coming, there are critics, there are presenters. It is something that I – in this Amperdans festival – experience very sharply. We present work that we support. We present work that we love. So we show ourselves. I would invite everybody to come to me if they don't like something. I would like to discuss. But talking about criticism on my work … there is nobody coming to me to say 'Barbara, what the hell are you doing? These artists are worth nothing.' Nobody does that. Somebody told me we are all so polite… So you show yourself and I must say that when I am at this festival with so many international programmers in the theatre, I multiply in my head the possible critical visions, because I know they are there and I also know they are important for the future of the artists and also for the future of wpZimmer. So this critical component is always there – from the beginning to the end – but it shows itself in very different faces. Sometimes it is 'me and the work' but when it comes to the kind of situation that we are in now, I am very conscious of multiple interpretations and critical visions on the work that I present.

H: We are talking now about an inevitable necessity…

B: It is not a problem. It is just a description of what happens.

H: I would just want to point out how good it is that there is controversy. Whether it is self-critical, critical towards an artwork, critical towards a curator or a presenter, critical to the reflections of somebody who is writing, who is critical towards the artwork or the curating. In making this little list of connections, there is a volume of dynamics being built up that we could call the field of reflection, which is caused by art and presenting. Finally we call it discourse, which is not a very patient term, but I still like it. Cooling the passion down can be very nice. Being cool about the critical and about discourse … So I am happy you brought that up … what is coming from all sides to you.

B: I wanted to ask you something else. I can imagine when you are writing for several years, you create an identity. The people who read your texts, get an image of your taste, what you like. I am interested in that because that may also happen to people who make a program or a festival. At a certain point it seems like you are confirming your taste and at the same time the art is in evolution. Are you aware of that, do you have problems with it or not? Do you feel that it is happening?

H: I was made aware of it. I was following people whose work I was very interested in, in Vienna where I live, or internationally. And after a while, people told me things like 'you are more writing about performance, not about dance.' And I was like 'what is dance, in opposition to performance?' I was writing about Jérôme Bel and Xavier Le Roy and all those people, coming from this kind of aesthetics which uses dance in a different way. And then I started to realize that there is a big power play from a certain conservative ideology which insists on the representative attractive stereotype of body. And then I became very interested in the politics of the abusing of an art form by people who pretend to defend dance. And I became very emotional about that, because it was against dance as an art form, as a free form to express ideas. And then I started to defend myself and be discursive: 'this is also dance and how can people be so arrogant as if to say visual art can only be painting.' Imagine visual artists coming on stage, doing performance art… is it still visual art? The success of argumentations like that is not very high, because there is no use in talking to people who are ideologically stuck. They want to defend, not to discuss. So I learned about the political system in which the art work is embedded. They made me aware and sometimes this does not make me very happy because it actually takes away opportunities to communicate things which should be communicated right in time. It takes away energy fighting for things which you would think were solved in the sixties. As if Black Mountain College never would have happened. As if Judson Church would be a place for preachers and prayers and nothing else. I am fascinated. It was hard to deal with that. And I intentionally took a job from a very conservative theatre magazine in Vienna, where I knew I could only write about a ballet of the state opera in Vienna, about people who would place very big advertisements, so very spectacular organizers. To see what would happen to my writing. Me writing about ballet – which I always avoided – what would that do? Would it just be another job? Because I can review anything. A cook book, a car, a ballet … I started to do this and I got compliments.

B: So it works for you. But does it also work for the people who made you a brand?

H: They are more polite to me now. Before, I didn't have to deal with them. They could not greet me because they were so angry at me. One of my greatest critics is not editing a dance magazine anymore. She is working as a press woman for a ballet company and now she greets me again. It is politics and its strategies. And it is interesting to see what is going on. It is like riding through a jungle and the plants might contain poison but still it is interesting to watch them. And I hope I can do it as long as possible because I have to finish my studies in this field.