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entre chien et loup

Stages of Resistance

This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more!

Political Contexts

This salon invites reflections on issues related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance. The underlying assumption is that we live in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and that (safe) spaces are needed for considered, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance. At least this is the implication I infer, namely that performance can resist hostility or perhaps, rather than being immune or immunisatory, can be hostile and volatile itself. In Katie Pearl’s discussion with Caridad Svich, regarding the latter’s new play Town Hall, Pearl inquires about the need for gathering, for creating a sense of community, for capturing – in the theater – something essential about the feelings of loss and lostness that many are experiencing under the new administration.

One might add, of course, the sense of loss may be particular to the United States, even if, admittedly, I recently participated in an online discussion group that raised the question of a global Trump effect, implying the new US government has instigated a “cultural, environmental, and political crisis that affects all of us” (empyre listserv, March 7, 2017). This effect on all is something I want to consider, while also questioning the assumption that theater and performance are resistance media or need to be taken to task for their political aesthetics. I can’t help remembering when a friend from New York City persuaded me to engage in a debate forum in November 2014, in response to the newly perceived threat of terror emanating from ISIS. We titled our online town hall: ISIS, Absolute Terror, Performance, seeking to engage as many people as possible in the discussion, regardless of background, location, work or beliefs. We just wanted to feel our way through diverse responses to chaos of a qualitatively different dis/order. Immodestly, we asked what might be a cultural or artistic response to terror, to scorched earth policy. How does one deal with this conceptually or psychologically, when every day brings new horrors?

Now, just a few years later, I feel a sense of impatience about myself. What could I possibly have said about ISIS and the military conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and on the border of Turkey? I did not have much of a clue, and although terror has crept into various towns in Europe now, I felt relatively safe and still do, and did not change my life style or artistic practice. During the subsequent two years, traveling for work between Texas and Europe, I became more immediately aware of some of the fall out of the Syrian crisis: namely, the massive migrations to Europe in 2015-16. I began to gather resources for workshops and public lectures on migration.

Creating workshops to ponder what hospitality means, and to learn from civil rights workers in Greece how one comprehends migrations on such an enormous scale, was not difficult. I conducted a series of such events at the university in London where I teach performance technologies. Yet my real interest was in finding out how much I could possibly understand myself, learning from others and their fieldwork. Performance became fieldwork for me, participating in exchanges that also touched upon the political future of my work location, after the British Brexit referendum.

None of what I have said so far relates to resistance: much more humbly, I now must assume observations and workshops, lectures and discussions were reactions. They were reactionary. As to my debating ISIS and Terror, I did not have a clue.

In other words, regarding my own dance and theater practice, the work I have produced over the past years has no political relevance, but it allowed progress and new learning experiences for me on the kinaesthetic level. The methodological level is collaborative and transcultural, the groups I work with are diverse, creatively chaotic, multilingual, and our latest installation, metakimosphere, was designed to be explored by a range of audiences, including people with visual impairment.

Blurred Performance Actions

In this installation-performance, I was the host. I observed the behavior of our guests, their questions and responses, their participation. We did not make a fuss about participatory invitation or interactivity, nor did we think the tactile engagement of the visitors could be idealized into any political sense of charge. In the beginning I quoted the echo of a call for community. Immersive theater appears to have a particularly strong claim to formation of community. However, I’d argue immersive theater is not necessarily more democratic, open, and convivial than other forms of theater. In his book, Theatre in the Expanded Field: Seven Approaches to Performance, Alan Read reflects on biopolitics and wishful thinking about “coming communities,” considering immunity in his final approach to performance.  Someone tells Read of feeling shamed by the invitation to members of the audience to participate in the contemporary theater works of several known companies, such as Punchdrunk, Shunt, Fuerza Bruta, Rimini Protokol, and Toneelgroep. Their approaches to theater are distinct, yet they favor a kind of emancipated participation, which in turn arouses Read’s suspicion. In a provocative maneuver, he adapts the term immunity from Roberto Esposito’s political philosophy1 where it refers to the policing of the somatic borders of the body. What threatens the borders is not a matter of what they include, but of what they exclude. Immunity is granted to the individual against the common (the community) which – in immunisatory terms – is alien and toxic.

The other weekend, an old musician friend, Phill Niblock, founder of Experimental Intermedia, came to give a concert at Tate Modern in London. I went on a Sunday, and spent six hours at the museum as I wanted to explore the Switch House, the new addition built on top of the rediscovered old oil tanks of the Boiler House that became Tate. Niblock and musicians performed 150 minutes of heavy, deep drone music, to four film projections of nature filmed in 1970. Niblock, now 83, brought along younger, guest musicians, while audiences gathered from all over. The mood was wonderful, relaxed, energetic, and moving. I entered not knowing anyone, and left meeting many.

This is half the story.  Before I made my planned trip to the Southbank, I got an urgent email from Chilean dancer Macarena Ortuzar, who had studied butoh in Japan on Min Tanaka's farm. She urged me to come in the twilight on Saturday, where Tanaka was to perform on the south terrace, in the fog. I got there a day too late. I looked up at the fog on the south terrace and stood inside it. Fujiko Nakaya's installation was in action. I got wet.

A pioneer of installation/video art in Japan, Nakaya had come to create this amazing fog sculpture, generated out of compressed water mist. The fog acts as a barometer, reading shifts in atmospheric conditions, reacting to the environment and rendering it visible and palpable. The fog was further animated by a light-and-sound-scape by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Shiro Takatani. And then, from nowhere, Min Tanaka, the butoh master, who in the 1980s secretly infiltrated the former Soviet Union to perform as an act of rebellion, appeared and danced into and out of the fog, like a ghost dog.

Min Tanaka, back to the camera, spreads his arms out and leans to one side, dancing in a cloud of fog.
Min Tanaka, dancing in Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculpture, Tate Modern, Ten Days Six Nights 2017. Photo courtesy Claudia Robles.
Ortuzar was there, and documented the quiet act. When I write her and mention the notion of the ghost, Macarena tells me: “yes, like an appearing and disappearing ghost indeed; so beautiful, so beautiful; his dance tells me also this kind of complete surrounding to the world that pushes us, sometimes I felt his own disappointment for the world created by humans, with hopeless love. He is extraordinary really, just a huge amount of energy and the inspiration to keep working regardless of everything, age, time, struggle, cold, hot, everything and anything.”
Wide frame on Min Tanaka dancing in fog, his back to the camera, leaning over at the waist.
Min Tanaka, dancing in Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculpture, Tate Modern, Ten Days Six Nights 2017. Photo courtesy Claudia Robles.

The sentiment expressed by Ortuzar seems to confirm Read’s notion of the immunisatory principle of theater which shames us. It allows us to resist as false offer of inclusivity. I feel energized too, all the same, and start to dance again a day later, developing a small improvisation, called “Lemur,” developed with a sensor on my right hand:  I move sounding through my body.

My lemurian dream is to dance in the twilight of the red island, the eng-land I need to leave soon. Blur, I would say immoderately, this is the sensation I want to express these past weeks, not wanting to be drawn in here; so blame me for being ignorant of your fears. Not ignorant, actually, but impatient. To think that Trump implies a global crisis I still have to see as presumptuous, as indeed the world is not decided in Washington. Briefly evoking the dance of Min Tanaka in the dim light, entre chien et loup (as French filmmakers call that blurry threshold time), I now only remember the glimpse of tremendous grace, love, and affection generated in the witnesses.

Thus, I merely share a tremendous positive moment of energy and sustenance with you, not a resistance.  One could draw many inspirations from other dances and sculptures in the expanded field. A sculpture went up in Dresden a short while ago, by Syrian-German artist Manaf Halbouni, who planted three gutted tourist buses vertically into the ground in front of the reconstructed Frauenkirche on the Neumarkt which was destroyed by British bombing raids in February 1945. The sculpture was a transcultural memento, associating with the struggle of Aleppo in 2015, when citizens erected gutted buses to create protection against snipers. The monument of course divided public opinion, and yet the controversy and subsequent discussions proved productive and healthy. The norm is that we have public discussion, arguments, debates. In most societies I know of, this is the case. When repression rules, other forms of protest will emerge, or float subterraneously.

I thank New Zealand theater director Simon Taylor for sending me Czech composer Pavel Haas’s “Study for Strings.” Haas wrote his piece in Theresienstadt, shortly before being transferred to Auschwitz, where he died. Here is a report from fellow prisoners in the camp who listened: 

In the end, a group of around thirty people formed, who had followed the concert of violins and cellos with emotion, remaining motionless and sunk in thought, moved, profoundly silent, as if recovering from the collapse provoked by what they had heard, and also by what they remembered, what had been evoked, almost reenacted, I’d go as far as to say experienced, because it wasn’t difficult to feel vulnerable and tragic there, like a deportee. It seemed incredible to me I hadn’t been aware from the outset that the political, or more accurately the eternal illusion of a humanized world was inseparable from artistic endeavours, from the most forward-thinking art.2

Enrique Vila-Matas , the author of the book where this is quoted, continues to ponder: “I would have liked to say: How could I have been so stupid? Or perhaps the opposite – Whatever the case, I opted to keep quiet and devote myself to carefully observing the general mental recovery of the people gathered there. I ended up identifying an intense communion between all these strangers, who, having surely come from such different places, had congregated there. It was as if they were all thinking, we were all thinking: we’ve been the moment, and this is the place, and now we know what our problem is.”

Enrique Vila-Matas writes fiction, and I’m not sure whether there is redemption in fiction, nor whether there exists such an invisible impetus for survival, or whether performance can ever redeem anything. For a very brief moment, Min Tanaka inspired me. But I also firmly believe one must be weary of sentimentality, no matter how overwhelming the sense of shame or of disbelief. The theater is a very unlikely place for revolution or resistance; it tends to most often fail its political aspirations and that, I think, is to be expected.