Amperdans: Symptons, strands and potentialities of small-scale work

Sarma 16 Dec 2004English

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Contextual note
Bojana Cvejic was Sarma's invited writer-in-residence, and this text is the result of her observations. An earlier version of this text was translated in Dutch and appears in a forthcoming issue of Etcetera.

When a dance festival hosts a writer-in-residence, it clearly manifests the ambition to pair the efforts of producing with a reflection upon the works for a dance scene to develop. Internal self-reflection, like batteries for a longer life, is, thus, included. The invitation of Amperdans and Sarma, requires that I account for the multiple registers of producing, presenting, positioning and discussing performances instead of approaching them as works-in-themselves, unrelated to their specific economy and institutional mediation. The site of my writing job can be visualized as follows: I walk freely from one performance to another and engage in talks with the dance-makers; ideally this resembles paying a visit to artists’ studios. I enter a performance as if it were a workplace and I, a curious, disinterested (in terms of pragmatic interests) onlooker seek emerging directions, possibly indications of new perspectives on dance/performance. The performances of this year’s edition of Amperdans, sometimes intentionally, other times undecidedly, stood in between projects and ‘products’. As such they welcomed a midway ground for a co-writerly response between studio and stage. However, as soon as I adopted this approach, I was struck by a doubt: what if I am desired to suspend criticism in the context of this festival? What if I had been seduced by a large number of pieces that display the aesthetics rather than bearing the ethics of works-in-progress? So, several questions arose here regarding the properties and politics of small-scale work. The format of small-scale can easily be identified: duets, solos, small-group and small-stage pieces with the length of one hour maximum. One question I will examine is: when does the format become specific to the medium it explores? Another question I will be grappling with is: is the predominance of the small-scale production model a symptom of the artist’s flexible subjectivity and its social control, which outlines the domain of independent artistic work today?

Let me first consider the conception of the festival. At first, rather blunt thought: is it a showcase since there is no curatorial theme or criterion of selection overarching the festival program? Most of the performances had already been shown in Belgium. But at a closer look the intent of the festival may be to, first, increase the visibility of Monty’s and wp Zimmer’s artistic activities and, second, to disclose more transparently their preferences of the artists they support. The ‘choice for the artist’ has proven to be an ethical stance of the Flemish performing arts scene, which enabled a prolific development of dance and attracted so many young international artists to start their career in Belgium – the last to be confirmed by the mainly international cast of artists-in-residence in this year’s edition. The commitment of choosing for the artist, rather than the artwork (s)he makes, must have been politically radical in the times when the mainstream centers urged the critique from the then-called “alternative” voices who sought new venues to be heard. Hereby, I mean the eighties, which produced ‘strong-author’ figures, who broke a new ground for theatre and dance outside of the conventional repertory theater structures, and who are now running independent companies under ‘big names’. The nineties, in the rise of network society and global capital, brought about a shift from the authority type to the so-called flexible personality, a new subjectivity identified with the artist figure today: fluid, mobile, volatile, “intermittent”, networking etc. Once the distinctions between center and margin, that is, established/mainstream and experimental/critical work, have been blurred in the nineties (due to a proliferation of independent venues, an overall claim to research-orientation, and a recent economic pressure to justify non-commercial work programmatically), the motto Amperdans puts forward, “be curious and apply the & principle” appears an all too vague and general, perhaps even disengaging call for open-mindedness. Open-mindedness, but in relation to what? Who of the artists and public would claim the opposite? Sheer open-mindedness resounds the liberal stance of the free market: freedom to float, to compete for attention and novelty.

When the selection of artists and their pieces is not formulated in a statement of intent by the presenters, their program falls back on individual taste or on schemes of networking, where, to use Rudi Laermans’s expression for networking, the artist makes his or her way towards the scene through the effect of rumor. Having said this, I only plead that producers of contemporary performances communicate their stand in a more determined, clearly forwarded and thus committed way. What do we invest in the work of young international artists? What is at stake, both artistically and economically, when the territory carved out is predominantly small-scale? Is small-scale work necessarily to be regarded as research-oriented? Does it imply, in our understanding and usage of the term, a research methodology? Is work based on research and experiment doomed to be tailored to the size of duets and solos? Does the scale imply that the artist agrees with the conditions and limitations of non-commercial work, downsizing his/her independence to the quest of ‘a room of one’s own’ – studio space, a residency, a small production budget? (Compare, for instance, this individualist stance of the artist with Virginia Woolf’s famous opinion on what a woman needs to write fiction.)

Is the Dutch word ‘amper’ (‘hardly’, ‘almost’) in the name ‘Amperdans’ intended to mean: ‘hardly dance, because it challenges your perspective on dance?’ When is it a pretext for ‘almost something’, confining its ambition to the degree of small, always already self-relativizing what its proposition concerns? I do not want to disregard small-scale production a priori, I simply want to draw attention to the symptom which risks to become a sign for a ‘small is beautiful’ ethics, softening and enfeebling the artistic endeavor. Many works seem to finish the process of making when they acquire the satisfying looks of ‘searching for something’. Ethics of research, experiment and critique transfigures into an aesthetics of indie-work, foreclosing further development when the outlook of research is achieved. The symptom I describe here, becomes alarming when performances themselves promote a stance of indifference: ‘it doesn’t matter how you interpret me, everything’s open.’ “It is up to the spectator to pick them [images] up or let them go.” (Isabelle Schad, on Revolver – Good Work II in the program note).

On work and waste

Watching California Roll – Good Work I I was reminded of the argument between Joseph Kosuth and Robert Smithson around 1970. Smithson was criticizing conceptual art for trusting the value of progressive growth of ideas in an artwork (‘art as idea as idea’) as opposed to art assuming an active role in society. Kosuth responded with dismissing Smithson’s earthworks: “If you have thirty men digging a hole and nothing develops out of that idea, you haven’t got much, have you? A large ditch, perhaps.” (Kosuth, Art after Philosophy and After: Collected Writings 1966-1990, Cambridge Mass., 1991, 31) Kosuth’s argument addressed the problem of a disproportion between the labor invested and the resulting meaning in Smithson’s land art. In addition to this problem of signifying economy, I see a striking visual resemblance with Isabelle Schad’s performance.

California Roll opens a waste depot of clothes, arranged by color nuances on stage. Two female performers and a man, who joins them, present sequences of movements and sounds in changing light atmospheres, regularly punctuated by chiaroscuro scenes. They traverse the stage developing diverse, often rolling patterns of movement, and eventually iconographical postures emerge in moments of elucidation, based on baroque and classical themes, styles of expressing affects in gesture. There is a vague sense of structure looming from the repetitions, the reversal of roles, and the translation of the same movement sequences in space, but no clear direction to where it is aiming at and if it should be regarded beyond the self-evidence of material and formal manipulation. The infinite combination of ways to juxtapose and superimpose movement, sound and light material – already blurred at the origin – produces noise and overcodifies the information. As a spectator, I am not challenged by a database (Schad states that a database of heterogeneous material was developed during the working process), which would suppose principles of organization, but I am confronted with waste, posing no tension for me to resolve between what I perceive and what is communicated to me. Thus every interpretation involves a kind of ‘reading into’ the performance, similar to the situation where I face a myriad of discarded objects and can assume that each object has ‘a story of its own’. In order to pick a thing up, I have to be either looking for something in particular or be struck by the peculiarity of an object. All interest in procedures and material brought out by Schad is assumed to rest on the reinstatement of the fact that “we live in the late capitalism of overproduction and it often manifests itself in the indifference of differences.”

Relationships of indulgence: duets

Do duets necessarily have to unfold the disposition of human relationships? Several performances in Amperdans manifested such tendency. What strikes me is a characterstic shift of interest in the format: a duet reconfigures from two performers sharing a problem to two people disclosing a problem of sharing, communicating, exchanging, working on something outside the relation. On the one hand, it is a self-reflexive concern that negotiates, and includes collaboration in the laboring of the performance’s concept. Etienne Guilloteau and Claire Croizé, Alexander Baervoets and Heike Langsdorf, and perhaps even more the quartet of Christian Duarte, Shani Granot, Peter Fol and Fabiana Dultra Britto, have made the choices and decisions in working together, visible and constitutive for the performance. Embodied is perhaps an extreme case of letting the seams of composition show. Each performer is given space for an utterance in his/her own medium and for a performative attitude shaping the dramaturgy of the piece: Duarte and Granot, first, alternate roles of agency and flesh resistance in body movement, then Fol delivers a statement on discrepancy between stupid vanity and intelligence, and Britto, as a ‘theoretician ex machina’, wraps up the project with a cognitivist insight in the question of intelligence and intelligibility of body movement all four were consequently grappling with.

On the other hand, duet-relationships could represent a deviation from the emblematic performative form of twentieth century: the solo. It is no longer ‘I’ that speaks in the first person singular: ‘me, I’m my own story’, which was a way of abolishing the myth of origin and authenticity by identity construction in solo performance in the nineties. Now it appears that ‘I’ in its utterance splits into two, an ‘I’ in relation to a “you”. This strangely dualistic position acknowledges the impossibility of a strong self-sufficient and self-contained singularity through a problem of co-existence. But the nature of the relation isn’t explored as a condition of ‘being-with’ or ‘being-together’ (somewhat like ‘ego sum = ego cum’), or as what could be produced from the frictions of (un)desired contact. The duets either follow traditional principles of formal duplication (Baervoets, Hernandez), or express the commonplace of solitary non-communicating subjects. Skènè narrows the scope of the latter approach to a kind of self-indulgence, which obscures what is the priority: the subject of work and the subjection to working together. As a spectator, one is not compelled to discover what is at stake – so self-absorbing and self-evident their actions are. Guilloteau and Croizé perform as dancers yielding to their whims and desires in a relationship which could be symbolically rescued as a struggle for difference and understanding. First it is Croizé acting out a relationship with the chair, a torture of ‘all I could do with a chair’, which expresses an equation of: human + object = solitude. Then Croizé and Guilloteau mimic each other’s behavior until they develop a dance squeezed out of the gesturality of Mozart’s music, where simple movements translate point-to-point the gestures of music.

The duet of Baervoets and Langsdorf Schäme Dich indulges in an abstract formal set-up, whose unreadability rests on the oscillation between obscured intentions and obscene actions. They lay out a structure of chiasm, or inverted parallelism in scenes that symmetrically reverse and intersect roles between a man and a woman. After the Bach prelude for violin, Langsdorf, naked from the top like a man, performs a long action of repeatedly hitting an upright mattress with the exclamation “Schäme Dich”, while Baervoets, dressed in women’s underwear, slowly walks in the opposite direction and creeps himself onto a horizontal mattress. The same scene repeats itself in inverted roles, after the performers had delivered a dialogue excerpt from Salinger’s book Franny and Zooey in an affected manner, and the performance is rounded off by the same Bach piece while the performers listen and sit in opposite positions. Left to speculate on the possible ramifications of formal procedures such as repetition, inversion and symmetry, I was intrigued by the cinematic sound of a helicopter, in real-time duration, accompanying the overdramatized actions (in scenes with Langsdorf’s “Schäme Dich” and Baervoets’s reversed “T’as pas honte”). Clueless where this faint recollection of a film might lead to, I could only read ‘my own story’ into the performance, my own interpretation, and thus let the performance trick me into my own indulgence.

From essentialism to performative nihilism

Two performances promoted bodies whose image and movement style represent a re-essentialized figure of dance. Re-essentialization seems to be a reactionary backlash, a search for movement ‘per se’, opposed to meanings extrinsic to the ineffable expression of the human body, falling back on abstract modern or even Romanticist ideals. It postulates the essence of dance in movement as the vanishing point, emphasized by the emergence and contrast of darkness/light and silence/sound. David Hernandez’s Bi-polar stresses an abstract, elemental, white-purist vision of the body as a performing object, which results in two phallic figures revolving around themselves and perpetuating the same patterns in a unison duet by a naked man and woman. Arco Renz’s Opium similarly sets an aura of high-art abstraction, in this case, transfiguring the sensation of drug intoxication (I infer from the title) into a choreography with exotic, Asian-inspired flavor by means of a ‘total work’ of lighting, sound, text, image-projection, and dance.

On the site of another ideology, constructing performance as a contingent concept and event, are two works that engage in a performative critique of social spectacle: Otto by the Italian collective Kinkaleri and Confessions – the autopsy of a performance by Nada Gambier. While the former remains within a theatrical representation of the void act, taking daily-life manipulations with objects and stage appearances to the point of the banal, hyperbolic or absurd, Gambier shamelessly exposes the fake and the cliché in the act of the solo, thus undoing the assumptions of original, authentic self-expression of the fragile and vulnerable subject of the artist. When compared with Jérôme Bel’s Nom donné par l’auteur (1994), Otto displays the ‘looks’ of conceptualization, but lacks the invisible operations that would animate a discursive movement between empty actions on stage. Gambier, on the contrary, works with the iterative and self-referential structure of performatives, where each action is always already a repetition, quotation, or betrayal of intentionality. This is best exemplified when she incurs tears with hot food, mustard, tabasco and onions, reversing cause and effect of the action.

The medium of performance and dance: specific…

In the opening page of his recent book Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation Brian Massumi writes: “When I think of my body and ask what it does to earn that name, two things stand out. It moves. It feels. In fact, it does both at the same time. It moves as it feels, and it feels itself moving. Can we think a body without an intrinsic connection between movement and sensation whereby each immediately summons the other?” (Massumi, op.cit., Durham and London, 2002, 1)

If movement substitutes a new epistemological metaphor for vision in the theory on virtuality, how should movement in dance or performance be disposed so as not to be perceived solely by sight? Deep Blue’s Closer explores precisely this ground between movement, sensation and affectivity. The spectators immerse in an environment where they are tuned into a soundscape by way of headphones, roaming privately in the shared space of performance. Pierced through by light and scanning, they are literally caused to move by the movement of performers. Mixing media doesn’t just increase sensations, but multiplies the points of entry for the spectators. They are first collected and requested to take off their shoes before entering the performance space (barefootedness: the dance convention or Muslim custom of hospitality?), and then they imperceptibly disband and diffuse in space. Nothing is superfluous in the configuration of this event, and what is most intricate is the kind of movement Yukiko Shinozaki and Heine R. Avdal bring about. They wipe out their faces while their legs receive a separate program of movement, which dislocates one body part so that it is virtually disassembled and disembodied – the spectator is made to sense it no longer belonging to the same body. The virtualization of the body through movement without the aid of any technological prosthesis develops the sense of proximity for the spectators when performers approach them. Artificial and small, the movement cannot be totally grasped by vision; it needs the help of other senses without using them factually. Thus the tangibility of movement is suggested and perceived, the feel of its surface and texture. As Deleuze puts it, flesh can appear in the incorporeal event of the sense, the potentiality of the haptic in the privation of touch. We see in order to touch (but we can actually never touch) and move in order to sense, and hear in order to disappear despite our presence.

Compared with Closer, Embodied conceives of the flesh in movement in physical and corporeal terms. Bodies are brought to friction, to a violent struggle between being active agents and passive ‘resisters’, or between movement and floor support. First it is Duarte who moves his body against the surface of cracking plastic bubbles, not using any of the parts in their proper function, but examining how legs, arms and torso could move him as a horizontal assemblage of body parts without walking or supporting an erect organism. The same task is then distributed amongst two bodies, when Granot acts between active resistance and passive movement of reaction, and Duarte manipulates her body physically and later with performance instructions (“be strong... be simple... add color... look out... with passion... give yourself” etc.). What is primarily at stake there is an attempt to explore the capacity of body parts for autonomous expression. Duarte invents a movement style which stages something like the will being projected upon separate body parts rather than through the central (holistic) mind control. This ‘as-if’ situation represents movement detached in its coordination from the body, and body parts figuratively striving for primacy in the impossible quest of body intelligence proper.

… or monstrated?

The medium of the performances Closer and Embodied is specific, for it configures in each instance a different situation for the spectator, and each time another field of forces, sensations and affects arises from the disposition of movement. Flatland by Patricia Portela and Already played tomorrow by Carlos Pez seek specificity in monstrating the medium of performance. By monstration I mean the connectivity of a ‘monster’, the assemblages and connections between heterogeneous elements (media, genres, forms), which won’t lead to the establishment of a new kind that further reproduces itself. In Flatland it is a book, cinema, textual animation and live performance, extending from screen to a bodiless voice, which is eventually embodied by the actor that appears before the screen. A simple, perhaps even deliberately erroneous idea that the project stems from: a 2D-man realizes that he lacks a third dimension in his life. Accidentally he discovers that cinema and theatre offer a way to exist in the 3D world, as long as somebody is watching him. He shifts from a paper-like existence of word, letter, Euclidean line and point of two lines intersecting, to the virtuality of a character without bodily existence. Movement is thus a simulacrum generated out of a virtuosic vertiginous passage of thoughts, quotes, images, teasing games, diagrams, like in a strangely twisted futurist projection where the spectator has no time to hunt the non-sequiturs in the story, so fast is it.

Already played tomorrow begins with a performer describing a room and the people inhabiting it. We don’t need wild fantasy to imagine the quotidian homely atmosphere. Soon enough we realize that the whole performance deviates from live action, or defers it to the mode of narration. Pez’s story moves from his striving desire to depict everything that makes this atmosphere peculiar to him, everything all at once, which isn’t possible, or at least, makes him run, act, picture, tell, sing. He always has to verify his description with us, spectators, who have no reference to Pez’s reality. As the story unfolds, we begin to think that perhaps, the choreographer Pez is portraying, is Pez himself, that the idea of making simultaneously five solos in five different cities around the question ‘what do you do when you’re home alone?’ is already playing itself on us. The pregnant woman he describes browsing through the book of Vermeer’s paintings, evokes an atmosphere that cannot be transmuted from painting to performance but only potentialized in its phenomenal absence. Had it been represented, it would have been bordering on sentimentality. But, including himself in the story, Pez took something from that Zen lesson: in order to paint a flower one must become the flower. One might be reminded of the famous Chinese parable Lacan invokes regarding gaze: Choan-tsu once dreamt he was a butterfly and awoke only to forever question whether he really was a man who dreamt he was a butterfly or whether he might actually be a butterfly dreaming that it is Choang-tsu. But with Pez, there is no mirror play of consciousness and illusion in the inside-outside structure of the audience’s gaze. The painter paints and in painting he slowly enters the picture, not by way of signature or reflection like the baroque masters (Velásquez painting (in) the painting), but by a terminal point. The Latin terminus means ‘limit’, ‘border’ and was originally the name of a classical deity whose human-like body gradually faded away into a dot firmly planted on the ground. We realize that our spectatorship actualized the event of a non-event, a daily life story and a dance project put between brackets.

Constructing contemporary dance

Festivals nowadays often seek to theoretically frame their program with colloquia, panel discussions and artists’ aftertalks. One reason is always didactic: programrs seek out ways to invest intellectual apart from affective labor of mediating art work through theory. Another, more important reason – for which I’m grateful to Amperdans – is to raise a debate on a relevant issue which runs cross and through both theory and practice. For this year’s edition, Aisthesis, Research Center for the Study of Language and Body (University of Antwerp), organized a one-day colloquium featuring lectures of Rudi Laermans, Ramsay Burt, and Pieter T’Jonck, next to discussions with other representatives of the Belgian dance scene (dramaturgs, presenters, critics, choreographers).

As Myriam Van Imschoot remarked, addressing ‘contemporary dance’ in 2004, rather than, say, in 1984, when the practice was emerging, might be a symptom of the fact that the concept is outdated, “on its way out”. The sociologist Rudi Laermans in his lecture ‘Performing the belief in contemporary dance’ elaborated an exquisitely complex and compelling argument on the identity and reality of the concept ‘contemporary dance’, thus unfolding how we enact the term performatively, through the as-if reality of the speech-act, its institutionalization and belief. The most inspiring in Laermans’s lecture was the thesis he advances towards the end: a plea for ‘performativity in general’. Replacing ‘dance’, ‘theatre’ and ‘performance art’ with ‘performativity in general’, the medium is redefined as open, constructed and contingent: “a loose ensemble of elements which are temporarily coupled in every instantiation of the medium in question,” I quote from the lecture. This definition doesn’t necessarily entail mixed-, inter- or multimedia works but a de-essentialization of the medium as such, whereby each work sets a specific heterogeneous configuration of elements. These elements differ as they are historically and disciplinarily distinct and separate – unrelated forms, genres, media, aesthetics, performance attitudes, appropriations from daily life reality, which in their interaction refuse to perform the belief in the supposed reality of, say, contemporary dance. In that way, the medium of performance is general – there is always mediation – and reiterated specific in each instance of a project – the condition explored in the performances ‘Embodied, Closer, Flatland and Already Played Tomorrow.


There are two clusters of points I’d like to put forward in conclusion.
If Amperdans was a showcase, then this is manifested in the plurality of directions it unraveled, a self-evident fact of late capitalism, which needs no deliberation. I would single out as most interesting the (search for) performing different configurations of movement. By configurations I suggest different framings of movement, not necessarily physical or embodied. Performances like Flatland and Already played tomorrow reinvest in the disposition of the spectator in that they necessarily involve perceptual and affective workings: how I experience the virtuality of movement as that which raises its potentiality by not passing into actualization, how I relate to the bodiless voice of a drawn line and narration, or how I succumb to an imaginary atmosphere invoked by the traces of its simulating description.

The latent ‘grudge’ over ‘conceptual dance’, pervading the festival through the panel discussion of the colloquium and the comments of artists and spectators off stage, thus becomes superfluous and obsolete as is the Cartesian body-mind split and the reductive division between the ‘dancing’ dance and the ‘thinking’ dance. The performances by Deep Blue, Duarte, Pez, and Portela show that renewing interest in exploring movement and the body’s capacity for expression requires the production – contrary to a fetishist abstraction, a reduction to the ‘essentials’ – of a complexity of access points for conceiving movement. Movement is neither the low threshold of the phenomenon ‘dance’ nor an empty signifier for its evasion. It serves as a metonymy for a dynamic of both concept and sensation, which each of the aforementioned performances instantiates anew, that is, different.

Amperdans – when observed in the potentiality it offers, and a difference it could make in the Belgian dance scene – could be much less a festival and much more a resource platform. If the programrs of wp Zimmer and Monty aim at supporting artists rather than curating a program around themes and concepts, then the work has to transcend the representation of artists-in-residence. It is the format of presenting work that could be experimented with. Concentrating a number of makers and works in one event could bring much more discussion and exchange among artists, then between artists and other cultural workers whom artists and presenters choose to invite, and lastly with the audience. The festival would transform into an active working situation, which could either focus more intensely on a specific problematic which is then represented in the works of performance, or ramify its problematic through dialogue with other media or contexts of production. In the situation where disagreement or non-understanding is relieved by recourse to the protective shield of artistic individualism, opening the ‘room of one’s own’ could be a way for artists and cultural workers to claim another framework, which might advance work towards bolder parameters of research.