UTTER OPENNESS: what happens after is “our” task
A chain letter between Franz Anton Cramer and Mónica Guerreiro
I asked the German critic Franz Anton Cramer to me by guest star. We first met in a book he was publishing in, which I organised (and co-translated); we afterwards swapped places when he asked me to contribute to a book he organised (and co-translated). So are both editors and translators of each other. But that is just one of many features we have in common: the interest in art, and performance in particular, being another important one. We are also both critics. So I couldn’t think of a better company for this trip around Going To Your Place [Vou A Tua Casa]. Hopefully, he accepted this unorthodox challenge: he had never come into contact with the project. I sent him some information and photographic material about it. He had a poor online access, so he was unable to look up most of that. Still, we kept our discussion. And speaking with Franz was, as always, enlightening. [Mónica Guerreiro, 2006/2007]
Thank you very much for inviting me in this project, and above all for your patience. It has taken me a long time, an unusually long time in order to get things sorted out enough so as to come back to your proposal now. In fact, if normally I am invited to participate in some kind of project around performing arts, or indeed dance, this happens (in my perception, at least) because of my “expertise” and/or my “knowledge” concerning a specific event: a show, a choreographer, a historic subject… I think what has troubled me so much was that in this case, none of these applied: I don’t know the choreographer in question (though I have managed to find out something about him), I have not seen any of his shows or, to be less consumerist, his performative proposals, I have not talked to anyone who was directly involved (at least not until recently when Tiago Bartolomeu Costa made an interview with me and in the end I asked him about what all this was about) other than you. And, let’s not forget, I don’t speak Portuguese very well (in fact not at all, but I can figure out something once it is written), and I don’t have a hi-speed internet access, so it was painful sometimes to check the blog on which the project is presented. So all of these instances make it absurd in a way to react, as it forces me to talk/reflect/speak of myself much more, and in a much more direct way, than in “usual” professional writing. Without wanting to take too much of a detour, this makes me think (and I feel an urge to let you know this) that whilst a very severe personal crisis I lived in the beginning of this year (2006) I made the strange, and somewhat also thrilling observation that with all the inner turmoil and devastation I felt extremely productive in my authorial activity. It was as though a certain reluctance, or fear of doing the wrong thing (of writing beyond discourse, of missing the proper academic or journalistic jargon, of not connecting the relevant theories and sources…) suddenly had disappeared. My output during these weeks therefore was tremendous. This strange and also painful freedom is something that has not fully left me even though my life is now much more stable and consolidated than it was a few months ago. So when you first asked me to join in this thing and I immediately responded that yes, this was an interesting project and yes, I would like to contribute, it was also in this mood of “everything is possible”. Which of course holds true also for the performing arts in general, and dance in particular, which is why I keep feeling attached to this field since so long. Someone has talked to me recently about his problems with “avant-garde” behaviour or, rather, contemporary cultures of difference, designating this as “the arrogance of small difference”: as though it all were just about being different, finding “original” answers, dismissing “common” grounds, etc. This intrigues me (and reminds me that Forsythe called one of his chef d’oeuvres The loss of small detail, thereby implying – also, maybe – that art practice might not be about stylistic intricacies and aesthetic subtleness, but about fundamentals) for it poses the question of what to look for in contemporary dance and performance, and how to evaluate, how to judge (in the Kantian sense of the term: how to acknowledge) that which is being presented.
The fact that right know I am trying to relate to an idea which I don’t know from live experience (or witnessing) and that I have nothing presenced to me except our ongoing exchange on various subjects concerning our professional field, this fact leads on slippery ground. It is great that this initiative be taken: breaking away from the convention of presence, and be it tele-presence, in live art, transposing the communal aspect into a discursive realm that no longer needs synchronicity (even if the aspect of consecutive actions and reactions remains untouched). But of course there is the aspect of visual and spectacular experience necessary in reacting, in relating to this project. In trying to formulate thoughts, and later on maybe even questions I will have to draw on my own experience; I will have to make up that which I do not know in order to fulfill a situation of dialogue. (I strongly believe in dialogue and know that sometimes it is among the most difficult things to achieve; see the crisis I have been talking about earlier). Anyway, this experience remains the basis. This may be a good thing or a bad thing (sticking to conventions rather than discovering new paradigms, or creating a kind of hovering hermeneutical mood apt to integrate the New in the Old…).
Finally, as you know, I have been very much concerned with archives lately: as administrative collaborator and assistant curator of the Leipzig Dance Archives, as researcher in a project on the International Dance Archives in Paris in the 1930s, and with a book project on archival traces of definitions in modern and pre-contemporary dance. So basically it is once again all about the traces, about that which remains, about the essence and the grounding of and for dance. This question, as you might know (I am not sure whether we have talked about this previously) leads me to asking quite fundamental questions, or rather: to develop considerable doubt concerning the project of rationality altogether. It seems to me that dance, in a certain conceptualised way and a certain historic and social function, deals with the critical underpinnings, the crisis of the rational which keeps haunting modernity and its self-assuredness. (Can you say that in the plural: self-assurednesses? different ways of displaying self-assuredness, but all with a more or less crippled robustness…) I am not sure whether they will hold thorough and critical examination, if they can make it through the cleansing fires of contemporary discourse (even though I am planning to write a book on them). But I do know — I am convinced (which is not the same) — that the trace, the remains of that which we see or think or have believed to see or have thought to be thinking, that this trace is more crucial in the end than that what has actually happened, that which has been the phenomenological output.
I would like to be more precise, or more short. And I would like to think that this is not aimed at lessening the priority impact of live performance. Rogério Nuno Costa’s initiative sounds great and will always be the trigger of whatever comes after. But at the same time Going To Your Place will by its very conception and definition never be a project that can manifest itself other than in the reactions it may have provoked. You told me about the people in whose houses this performance took place, and how they keep sheets of paper or imprints on the wall as some kind of vernacular reliquary. This is great. But it does not change the fact that the idea, the conception of this work is more durable than the actual realisation. Maybe this is too naïve an interpretation of conceptuality in art, a concept art-label par trop grossier? Anyway, I should talk less about myself and insist more on the facts: What is it that YOU found and saw? Why is it that you asked ME to testify on something I would not know and to which the barriers were considerable (even though this has more to do with my electronic and IT-illiteracy than with a lack of documentary material). What makes you believe that this particular project deserves that much attention, a catalogue, a lasting trace? And will there be a continuation to which I might assist once I have reacted in absentia so extensively? All of these are questions that might be more done into dialoguing and less in presenting my individual concerns and themes. For as I said before: usually it is just for them that I am invited. So there must be another reason which maybe I overlook right now. Thank you again indeed for your patience, and let’s see whether or not this is a durable trace. It would be great if moreover it might be a useful one. But as an old archival motto goes: You never know what might be of interest in the future…
Best regards, Franz
©Rogério Nuno Costa, “All the people I’ve ever slept with” [imagem de arquivo], in Vou A Tua Casa/Projecto de Instalação, Transforma AC, Torres Vedras, 2006.
I’m terribly sorry for the delay in this answer of mine. Turning the end of the year, my life took some awkward twists and turns and I feel, more often than not, that I’m not up to the challenge. Exciting proposals and some distress, in equal measure, have caught me not in the best of shapes. So I’m glad to finally have some free time, some time to which I can call my own, in order to respond to your questions. I hope to be clear. When Rogério and I first started conceiving this book, there where two main ideas we wanted to convey. First, all the materials that were to be part of it must be original, by which we tried to express our conviction that the book was no longer a “prolongation” of the artistic process, but a whole new thing altogether. Something born from, but independent of, its origin. This meant, since the artistic project Going To Your Place was no longer in course (our first work reunion took place sixteen days after C Side was terminated and, symbolically, it occurred in the very same venue, Rogério’s flat), that all the accomplices we were to invite would have to have witnessed some part of the project or be intimately related to it in some way. And, second, that each of these closer partners — a rather heterogenic ensemble, consisting of a programmer, a choreographer, a professor, an artist, a photographer, a theoretician, a graphic designer and an art historian — would invite a third party into the group, in so doubling the number of contributions, but mostly operating another enlargement: opening up the book to the contributions of distant strangers. That’s how an architect, a writer, a jeweller, a twosome publisher, a critic and investigator, several visual artists and a dancer, some of which have never heard about Going To Your Place before, some of which live abroad, some of which aren’t connected to the performing arts milieu, came to touch with this book. That’s the experiment: can we actually address an artistic object strange to our direct knowledge? Is there some way in which we can discard the empiric relation — as spectators or specialists — and emphasize on the communicational aspect of art? That is, is it not true that objects circulate not only when they actually travel but also when spectators share with others the experience they’ve had? When they communicate art?
The conceptual and even ethical differences between art and communication often tend to separate us into two almost opposite spheres. Art shouldn’t be concerned about communication skills: art should be free from the need to address a large number of people, should be free from the need to equalize social and educational discrepancies, should actually be free to play with our willingness to learn and understand; art should even defy understanding. Communication, as we know, holds other responsibilities. Art can dare to be irresponsible. I, as holder of a degree in communication sciences, wouldn’t be caught dead defending anything else. Only (funny thing), Rogério also has a major in communication. We only found that we had that in common a long time after we met. He followed towards a master’s degree in art history and became an artist, I started writing about art and never stopped. And when I first saw Going To Your Place (A Side) and wrote a small essay on it, back in the summer of 2003, the revealing was obvious: this is one of those artistic ventures that won’t survive unless it is mediated through thought and speech. Its very inner structure depends on it, depends on the production of discourse from it and about it. Intensely lyrical and sensorial, yet solidly based on theory and research; longing for personal interchange, but thought-provoking and proud of it; slightly priggish in its will to be universal, yet assuming the limits of a local reference. If Going To Your Place can be accused of something, is of trying to respond to most of art’s contemporary problems, and in so doing, starting a whole bunch of other questions. It implicates the spectator well deep in the process: but isn’t always the author’s command that determines the extent and quality of the spectators’ interference? Fiction will be fiction, even when the story I tell is my own: but hasn’t truthfulness in art turned into something else, always product of a construction, since we no longer believe in autobiography? Representation became a big no-no, because everyone performs itself: is there still room for characters, actors, plots, stories and some 2500 years of theatre history? Are we done with it?
Belief. In art we trust. After all and each aporia, after death and rebirth, we will still want to related to each other, to tell each other our experiences and share the images we’ve seen or imagined. At least, we have to believe we will. Ask, ask, ask, always; sometimes, answer. Other times, whistle away. This book (and the documentary with which it is complete) aims at a different form of approaching the performing arts system: a world apart from that of the visual arts, in which documentation and catalogues abound. It is extremely difficult to trace back the history of a performance, since creation methods aren’t organised or documented, the process notes and stages are lost in the author’s memory, the presentation is poorly recorded and viewers can’t be trusted to shed light on the demanding angles of history making. So what if there is a way to turn the system upside down? If one could affirm that memory, experience, residue, are actually fundamental in the building of critical historicity, since the product of it is not what happens but what it generates? I trust this is what you were considering when, in our message, you wrote that “the trace, the remains of that which we see or think or have believed to see or have thought to be thinking, that this trace is more crucial in the end than that what was actually happened, that which has been the phenomenological output”. Indeed. Going To Your Place has been encompassing these purposes since the early start. It has, then, long lived solely concerned with the moment before the performance (the projectual phase) and after the performance (the residual phase). The actual moment of execution, of realization, hasn’t interested Rogério until recently. And, in that late awareness, it was the reactions and input of the viewers — whom, he hoped, would do more that just view — that mattered most. He would always go back to them for enlightenment. He would bring home photographs of them. He would leave stuff behind, sometimes just a hug. He would go and talk to them, a couple of years later, and they would remember vaguely the storyboard or the movements he made: but that one sentence, that single gesture or that hug, was what they recalled more vividly. How does one archive that?
I feel Going To Your Place is all about memory, affection, tearing down hierarchies — between genres, between process and result, between theory and practice, between performers and spectators. It is, I defend, especially about generating speech. And that’s how I return to my early argument: it is an art project, but concerned with communication. Concerned with accessibility of experience, with making it affordable for everyone; concerned with rendering public each and every development of the project, immediately posted online; concerned with provoking relations between people and concepts, which is a rather primary way to translate communication. I wish I could, in simple terms, answer directly to your defiance. I trust that Rogério has a strong drive for digging into the very core of artistic justification. Nothing, in his process or in his “performative proposals”, ever seems to be gratuitous or unfounded. To be true, he is more likely to commit the opposite misdeed: strive to explain, relate and resolve every single feature involved in his undertakings. This project has occupied him, and interested an increasing number of people, for almost four years now. A while ago, Rogério asked me to be one of several “observers” for his process. He met me, at times, to discuss his doubts and decisions, his progressions and retreats, not seeking counsel or advice but in order to build a long dialogue with a few persons in whom he trusted with his uncertainties. I don’t think it is a product of chance that most of those observers are writers or chose to express in writing their relation to the project. Some of them are now contributors to this book. I felt the urge to take the matter further: can someone, through writing, fully address and question a project it has come in contact with exclusively through the writings it triggered?
This book is for me a possibility to “prove” (in the sense of “testing” a hypothetical chance) that critical thinking can be the privileged interlocutor of artistic endeavours, be it either as compagnon de route during investigation and development, as dialogical presence throughout the settling of choices or as reactive comeback to the project following its completion. I have never been so intimate or knew so well a work process that the relation provided the necessary availability, generosity and openness to welcome critic, analysis and reply. I needed help with envisaging all the modalities of this relation. The problem of documentation and archive was the first obvious issue. Then, the distortion often applied on relations involving artists and critics. The unbearable distance between the work of art and the discourse produced about it. All of these are questions I wanted to tackle in my own process of considering this book (one-half of a “documentation project”) and it is for that fact that the remembrance of you stroke like evidence. All our previous contacts, throughout our relation, highlighted strongly that this was a concern for both, notwithstanding the different experiences we had to report. We first met at a project fully focused in such difficulties, to the point that it actually ended up commissioning writings and producing a book. Later on, we reunited on another project, again a book, deeply engaged with dance, archival problems and authorship. I must say I sense there is a pattern here, a guideline forcing us into establishing relations we could have neglected, if, once again, I hadn’t been led to concentrate on such questions. Which brought me back to you: to what you would come up with to design a connection with this book, somewhere in-between the “knowledge” and “expertise” you bring and your dictum “everything is possible”. There is no way of assuring what will happen next. Will Rogério ever present Going To Your Place in Germany? Will you ever be given the chance to witness Going To Your Place — in any of its three “materializations” — as a life experience? Or will this relation always be mediated through speech, through a “documentation project”? We’ll be here to find out. In the meanwhile, I enjoy thinking of it as a test. Thank you for enduring this experiment. Thank you for taking part in an unknown voyage, and for doing so with such a giving attitude. Thank you for listening, and thank you for writing.
Best wishes, Mónica
©José Luís Neves, Vou A Tua Casa/Projecto de Instalação [processo], Transforma AC, Torres Vedras, 2006.
Isn’t it strange that we both seem to be living a period of hardship while setting up our conversation on Going To Your Place? My first letter was delayed because there was too much work, too many concerns, too little force. And your response is likewise delayed, and for somewhat the same reasons, if I get you right. This may be a pure coincidence. It may also be a matter of course, for we are both working in a field and in contexts and hold a status that are precarious, to use a trendy term (trendy at least in Germany where I am right now, and in France, where I happened to live for some time before). So the material and social precariousness might be linked to an emotional one. Or maybe more something like a vulnerability. Sometimes I do wonder, so I have to admit, whether the particular and sometimes stubborn interest we take in the performing arts, and dance in particular might not be related in some intrinsic way to this uneasiness in coping with the things of the world. Whether not the fleeting, processual, insecure and at times also perturbing way of being, working, and communicating calls for a certain instability. Are not projects like the one you invite me to write about, born also form this search, this longing for “new” ways of communicating, for “truer” forms of interaction, for “sincerity” in the performances and framings we show and adopt? In order to avoid any kitsch underpinnings (maybe this is not possible to avoid) in such mumbling, I wish to add hastily that I am not referring to the “dance can say more than a thousand words”-thing. If you want to say something, you always have to say it in words — this is one of our shared insights, I guess. Even though these words may entail some physical precisions, some kind of bodily rhetoric that affirm, deepen, polish these words. But still we go out constantly (more or less constantly, at least regularly) into venues and confront situations of exchange, situations in which “we” participate in acts of communication of which we like to believe they are special or intelligent or profound or something. In any way we think of them as an offer, as something which is not just there, but which is being made in order to reach out to “us”. Of course this reaching out has forms quite manifold, and many of them do not appeal at all, some of them are even repulsive, offensive, disgusting. But are they so because of their “style” or because of the specific making, the rendering of the contact one can establish towards them?
In this sense, Going To Your Place would be exemplary in problematizing the communal aspect with the interpersonal one: the stage, the theatre, the institutionalised venue assemble a crowd (even if they are just friends) to whom something is presented. Whereas the intimate event of inviting to the making and the partaking in the made seems quite different a procedure — even if the general label may remain, and rightfully so, “performance” or “performing arts”. But you know, I recently re-read Luce Irigaray’s The Way of Love (I am sorry, that’s what it’s called) in which she talks about the notions of difference as fundamental concept in speaking, and the Western philosophical attitude of creating sameness, and of speaking “about” something towards one self or someone who is considered “same as me”. Philipp Gehmacher in his 2003 performance mountains are mountains has used excerpts of this difficult book, and he has one of his performers say the following quote: “If we renounce to wanting to say it all, then the intimate is possible with measure” (I am quoting from memory). Now, Irigaray may stand for what she stands: the notion of intimacy as that issue at stake in the performing arts strikes me again and again. In a lot of productions I have seen lately, I seem to detect various shades of intimacy made possible or impossible. And the qualities of the performers — if they were to be measured — evolved from, or originated in their capability of being intimate, of “going out” (out of their own frames) in order to “come in” (into my perceptive references, systems, capabilities). This includes, of course, the being conscious of the limitations, sometimes also of the fictitious character of such “movement towards”. If difference there is, and if the thrive towards connecting exists, then it would be in dialogue and exchange that these two paradigms can be articulated. And is not the situation of performance a kind of “privileged field of action”? So the interactions between the different territories of performer and public — or guests — and the intersections between their respective frames and references seem to be crucial for Going To Your Place, and just as fragile, but also just as crucial as the following traces, the reflection and discussion and dialogue it provokes, or stirs up, or makes possible. The fragility of our own intimately public and social condition thus corresponds with the precarious condition of performance taken in its emphatic sense of human interaction, or at least discourse on difference. This is not to lament the millions of misunderstandings and misleadings we have to experience in our writing (I liked your professional-biographic description: “I started writing about art and never stopped”). Nor am I implying that this would be a specificity of performance or art journalism or the like. But it seems to be an asset that is predominant in shaping our lived experience. Which is why I am eager to react quickly to your last mail, so as to break out of the routine, or the model I am not always happy with.
“I feel Going To Your Place is all about memory, affection, tearing down hierarchies — between genres, between process and result, between theory and practice, between performers and spectators. It is, I defend, especially about generating speech”. That’s what you say at one point in your touching letter. I would add: between professionalism and privatism. For we all have come to accept — and for good reason — a distinct line between our own conditions and the way we look at art things. However, I more and more come to believe that this line cannot be drawn; just as the performer’s reality shouldn’t be eclipsed for the sake of “professionalism” or “integrity of the work”. But how to translate the actual state of mind into a show without plunging into therapeutic concerns? For it obviously is not about being privatistic; but maybe should there be more concern about the fact that everybody has their privacy, and that in it lie the foundations of all difference. Which, in turn, is the basis for enabling “intimacy with measure”.
Dear Mónica, I am not quite sure why I am writing all this; maybe because too many shows I have seen lately seem just too “wanted”, too much “composed” and contained in formal considerations that in themselves do not create precarity or instability or dialogue. Maybe it is because I have given a lecture-performance some weeks ago while suffering from a nervous depression and the reactions in the following discussion seemed so beyond that what was being presented but which I had — of course —tried to contain for the sake of “The show must go on”; maybe it is because I am working on a book right now and give a lot of thinking to the question whether I should conceive of it as an academic dissertation with all of its formal constraints and objectifying strategies, or whether I should insist on its being “personal”, autobiographic, “heartfelt”, even though it is to be on history, methodological analysis, and ethical aspects of dance. Probably it is a mixture of all of these. Maybe I should leave up to you to decide. Just as answering the question whether this has to do with “knowledge” and “expertise” or just a professional turning-point, or the odd but fruitful challenge to talk about something I know only from hear-say but feel familiar with through a written exchange.
This spring I participated in a three day talking-event in which four performers were invited to talk about what knowledge we might produce, without having papers, written statements or concise guidelines. It was a kind of theoretical improv-session, and it worked surprisingly well. (The public were allowed to listen but not to intervene or ask questions.) It was in a way the opposite, but complementary event to this one: We were all present and tried to find a topic and subject in common. Whereas we here have a subject in common, but don’t share the experience. Unless we create our own. Which is what we are, what I am doing right now. I hope this will be useful at all for your documentary project, and it would be a great thing to see either the performance itself (that is: parts of it) or some of the traces it has left in situ or in mentis at one point. But I know that this is not the important issue in our conversation. Of which I hope it will continue. Thanks again for having me in it!
Bien amicalement, Franz
©José Luís Neves, Vou A Tua Casa/Projecto de Instalação [processo], Transforma AC, Torres Vedras, 2006.
I hope you are feeling well, and that the holidays have alleviated you from the work burden, as well as from the concerns it brings along. For my turn, though I was inspired beyond my ability to express in words by your last letter, I couldn’t find, not until the holidays that is, the peace of mind I needed in order to satisfyingly answer. What first startled me was acknowledging, through our dialogue, that we are actually building something, beyond our many questions and difficulties, in this conversation. We are building something in addressing our own professional experiences to relate them with a given artistic object (of which we have dissimilar information) and the problems it raises, and we are definitely building something by sharing whatever inconclusive thoughts we have produced on it. It is a process I’ve never been or asked anyone to be involved in, so the very prospect feels totally fresh and a bit electrifying. But its potential, the very first idea I set out from, has been incredibly exceeded by the awareness that we have been establishing a frank and discerning exchange of ideas about the strings Going To Your Place has left untied.
Your introduction of the issues and reflections associated with the notion of intimacy is absolutely crucial to the assessment of this project. In fact, rendering such a demanding balance as “intimacy with measure” is precisely one of the objections spectators and critics have regarding Rogério’s approach. Another is the pertinence of autobiographical depiction, which seems to take a big part in his process —even though it is probably used as a path to obtain fictional material with which to work from. The fact that the whole system is set to go from an individual invitation presupposes some level of interaction different from the one — as you sharply classified — occurring in common performances. But has this difference been taken to its full extent, has it allowed one to feel disconnected from the usual role of viewer? Another critical question often asked. These are, for me, the most sagacious arguments asserted. Some of which I still don’t have a final answer to. I don’t think I dominate completely the purposes, the methods, the intentions and the ends that Going To Your Place aspires to achieve. I guess my main reason to accept coordinate this project is a need to further understand what’s genuinely at stake here. What I’ve written or read so far, what I’ve came into contact with in the three “sides” of the materialization, as spectacle, of the project, have only provided me with glimpses of it. I don’t mean to suggest that the author is too complex or profound to be read; on the contrary, I’m actually convinced that Rogério is yet to fully realise what Going To Your Place is ultimately about. Perhaps that is why so much discourse is being produced about it: almost each spectator can add a new outlook, a specific opinion on a given feature, a fresh interpretation to the account of a young man discovering the roughness of life in uncharacterised Lisbon (could be any capital city). A young man disappointed at his learning of art, who feels that the relation between life and work can’t be oversimplified: as he stated in a letter sent to Thomas Hirschhorn in December 2005 (which he read in C Side), “I like honest artists with their own artistic condition. I don’t like artists that take themselves too seriously. Those artists that usually believe that art should be an alternative to life, and that spend sleepless nights during the time in which they embark in that absurd chimera of transposing into their artistic work what common life doesn’t allow them do. I’m not really interested in what is surprising and innovative in my life, in those things that are ‘off the beaten track’. I love routine. I always did. Things that deviate from it can not enter the performance; I’d rather keep it in the space of dreams. (…) Because being an artist, implies also not being one. (…) I enjoy more and more artists that have a life, a common life. One can understand that fact during the first moment of the dialogue. Contradictory artists (and non-controversial), since life is contradictory, not controversial. I like more and more the artists that don’t care to run their heads constantly against the wall, to enter dead-ends, to contradict themselves each time they open their mouth”.
Fragility. Truthfulness. An honest and common life. Letting your art work be contaminated by the life principles you promote. Creating an emotional relation with those you share your life and your house with — which are not friends, but spectators. That’s a huge problem: since the appeal is to interact with your own empathic feelings, how is it that you rationalize the interaction? What remains from that relationship, to be accounted for, but affection and memory? As a non-spectator, how can you, Franz —deprived from empirical knowledge, from the possibility of access to the artist’s presentation, the presentation of his own ideas, resources and kinetic energy — be encouraged to participate in an exercise of deferred memory, one that fully encompasses association, reflection and analysis? Can writing be the escape? Can language, in its written form, express the complexity of a multi-disciplinary system of signs and symbols, as dense as in order to justify our adherence to spectacular forms of communication, like you talk about? (Are we, the practitioners of writing, the last safe haven for setting in motion the preservation of memory of such encounters?)
One might find a similar question to Rogério’s in Tino Sehgal’s attitude. In a text about this artist, Pedro de Llano explains that the strategies developed by Sehgal require an approach “with no intermediaries, only through direct knowledge. His work is not reproducible through any documental resource —photograph or video — if not the very body of the ‘actors’ that personify it, so it is not possible to write about it if one hasn’t witnessed it in person. The artist himself has once commented that memory constitutes a more adequate form of documenting his work than any technological form, since it produces the kind of impression that most resembles the experience of the work. In this perspective, writing, conceived as a report and a transitory process, seems to be the appropriate vehicle to present his work”. So, dear Franz, I think it is fair to say we might be on the right track. The world’s history started with writing; apparently, performance history still can’t renounce to writing. Photograph has provided us with more words than we can count and video may have killed plenty of stars, but the possibility of description, explanation, interpretation, examination, analysis and evaluation, all charged with the writer’s own spirit and character, is only attainable by means of words. Curiously enough, are the artists from the performative sphere — disciples from the ones that advocated the primacy of process over result, of action over object — the ones we more often find to be preoccupied with such matters.
I would like to hold on a bit more to your reference to the fact that we both are at some sort of professional turning-point (that doesn’t necessarily entail a modification in the object of our labour, but more of a shift in our perception of what is done by what we do). Your astoundingly warm and insightful letter shook me from the sort of indeterminate state I have fallen into, halfway convinced of myself and the values I believe to be true and halfway deeply immersed in distrust and scepticism. The “real world” in which everything of importance takes place — a world stuffed with awkward relationships of power, influence and favour-trading — is hard to deal with, at least if one is sensitive enough to abhor the falseness of it. The fact that it is strictly one’s decision whether to cope with it or refuse to be part of it, at the cost of moral decline or social ostracism, is certainly devil’s doing. Working hard and, so one judges, honestly, is often interpreted as an attack on other people’s right to enhance their importance and status. So it is not easy to be looked upon as a smudged caricature of something you despise, for the mere reason of occupying a significant post, of gathering some unanimity regarding the quality of what you produce, of trying to act according to your principles — when they appear to no longer apply. I’ve grown to learn that envy is friends with spite, as dislike is with badmouthing. And the laws of politics say that these things run in cycles. Posterior learning has even showed that there are strategies to overcome moments of recession. But it all comes back, harshly, if one is placed in situations that require some self-confidence. My daily job, this collaboration with Rogério, a couple of other commitments I’m involved in, have all, in the recent weeks, brought back these issues for me to deal with.
Dear Franz, please forgive me for resolving, both as a catharsis and a form to expose my revolt, to share this with you through writing. The fact that I’m doing it isn’t without context: these reflections came strongly to me during the first of many readings of your previous letter. Perhaps it wasn’t what you wanted to mean, but it became obvious to me that we were as if in parallel circumstances when you wrote: “Sometimes I do wonder, so I have to admit, whether the particular and sometimes stubborn interest we take in the performing arts, and dance in particular, might not be related in some intrinsic way to this uneasiness in coping with the things of the world”. I hope I haven’t irremediably turned this into some sort of public admission of vulnerability. I sometimes tell my friends that maybe I’m not cut out to dealing closely with artists, for they have a way of being too intense, too extreme, even too passionate, if I’m allowed to call it that. The difficulty is not only to withdraw myself from feeling fascinated by them — I often can’t help from feeling fascinated; the problem is that I can’t keep up with such intensity, with the kind of emotional turmoil I’ve been finding while working closely with artists. Actually, I feel that many creative authors can’t separate themselves from their work (but can anyone?), which culminates in taking as a personal insult what one deemed to be a critical remark on a given artistic proposal. The frailty of the process involving creators, curators, critics and spectators, in the milieu I work in, casts everyone into unsteadiness when it comes to working together to accomplish something. I think that the precarious state you have mentioned is related, in some twisted fashion, to all these conditions: the insecurity felt by artists (it is only in part related to financial uncertainty), the anxiety taking over programmers and curators, the doubt daily experienced by the critical crew, the vacillation running through the audience. Yes, precarious is the word. Even now, I hope you won’t feel identified with this image: I take comfort in the thought that the reality lived in my country is still a deposit from the many years we were kept from a responsible and mature societal organization. And that a lengthy democracy shall bring another level of debate. Perhaps globalization of thought is the answer — or the first question? — to relieve these constraints. For me, inspiration is the key word: we do have in common with artists the yearning to provide valuable experiences for those we share with, no? Forgive me for being too messy in my expression, and allow me to insist on how meaningful I feel this to be, especially at the verge of a new and ever-so promising year…
Aceita um forte abraço da Mónica
©José Luís Neves, Vou A Tua Casa/Projecto de Instalação [processo], Transforma AC, Torres Vedras, 2006.
Your letter arrived just when I was starting to wonder whether our exchange had maybe come to an end — in which case I had already been thinking about how to find a good reason to continue. It came also, as you rightly supposed, after some days of distance: of rest, of no phone calls, of long walks and some deep breath, also in the light of the habitual process of assessing the past year and its highs and lows, and of trying to figure out what the issues will be for the upcoming year. The professional doubts and turmoil will most certainly stay with us, whether we like it or not. Me, too, I have had some unpleasant experiences, probably similar to what you have been alluding to. The peak was reached just recently, in December, when a local artist had printed postcards with a text in which he insulted me and expressed his disgust over my work, the intellectualism in all of dance in general and my despicable role in it in particular. The postcard was distributed to all visitors of a major dance festival here in Berlin. And as usual with this kind of initiative you find out who actually has been waiting for this and is relieved that “somebody” “finally did it”. It is not an encouraging attitude. But it speaks a lot about the contexts in which dance and performance are taking place, the complexities of the discourse produced, and the issues raised by the very fact that performance does happen and is contained in a certain frame. I am not implying that critical action, discord of views, and difference in appreciation should not occur nor that there would be one side good, another deficient. However, I do believe that certain forms and interests may be reclaimed: what you hinted at with “ostracism” and the lack of exchange is probably what we both experience, and what seems to be inevitable. It all depends, in the end, of how powerful you are yourself, and who is backing you, if need be. My experience is that there is very little support once a true conflict breaks open. And more often than not your own power base is quite limited. This seems to be part of the game. But I didn’t want to insist that much on these issues.
In fact, I have been trying to read the title of the project we are setting up our exchange on. With my rudimentary notions of the Portuguese language I come to understand Vou A Tua Casa as “I come to your place” or maybe “I go to your place”, in the sense of home, of house. Or maybe even Your House, with majuscule letters? In German this would be “Wohnung”, wohnung being the apartment, but etymologically the place were you live, in German “wohnen”, to dwell, to inhabit. Inhabit refers in some way to habit, so the situation of routine, of where you “are”, where you stay, where you go and come back to, regularly, always, where you don’t have to think or to decide, where you “just are”, until you decide to change place. During the vacation days I have been to Ikea’s in order to buy bookshelves so as to reorganise my papers and intellectual storage-systems. And the German advertisement slogan currently reads “Wohnst du noch oder lebst du schon”, Are you still dwelling or already alive; probably in Portugal you have a similar campaign. Now, Ikea is implying that the routine part of your flat, the things you have had since long, the ways and steps that you perform in it blindly, the automatically felt distances between door and table and from bathroom to living room, the spots on the floor that make funny noises when you step on them, all that which is familiar in your habitation would be something other than that what you live, or what would be your life. Of course this is an advertisement trying to stimulate people’s desire to consume and to continue consumption. The TV spot that goes with it shows “dwelling (heterosexual) couples” throwing their “old”, their “habitual” furniture out of the window in order to reinvest their space with Ikea items. It is about the strive to never be content with what is, it is about the capitalist calling for eating up resources and for creating market structures in realms of life that were sort of exempt from mercantilisation and commoditisation. Adding the different languages and their ambiguities, this campaign of Ikea’s basically states that the fact of living somewhere is not life but needs a commercial input to become “full”. By inhabiting a space and filling it in with all your habitual behaviour, knowledge, and furniture, you remain in a state cut off from life, from the real thing, from the life you can buy, obtain, purchase, receive, take — in short, from a life that would never be yours unless you make an effort and go grab it, preferably in a special offer campaign, as “saldos” (Ikea claims to be “cheap”, so the life you go buy there is supposed to be at a good price).
And what would this mean to a performing arts project that goes out there in “your home”, in that place were according to Ikea’s capitalist logic life is not taking place, in order to materialise its essence (or its scope — you rightfully said you weren’t sure to have understood completely the methods, intentions, ends Going To Your Place aspires to achieve) and insist on some kind of condensed moment of life, or action to be taken, or experience to be made: the step from sheer habitual dwelling to replenished conceptual life. In this sense, there might be a subversive and “resist!” aspect to a show that is not really one and that trespasses the commoditisation-borders of common spectacle. It steps out of the spatial organisation usually (habitually) inhabited by performance, the place where the viewer’s locus is excluded (but in this very distinction of course setting up also a specific dialectics that instates the two realms as being one, as being dependent one of the other), in order to unfold an intimately artificial situation there where life would be — I am still paraphrasing Ikea — in a more authentic, or less heightened state of being. (That dance would be a “heightened state of mind” is a commonplace among early 20th century dance authors and dance discourse.) Going To Your Place, then, inscribes itself by its sheer strategy, and just by deducing from what knowledge I have gathered, into the field of the performative as political consciousness. Not in the sense of ideology, but in the sense of set-up: a place, or situation, were certain parameters have been deactivated in order to enhance others, and where there is neither/nor, not yet and not quite, in and out, life and art.
Of course the relationship between both is never easy and always ambiguous. Nothing but trying to draw a distinction already presupposes so much. But what you say about Rogério’s own views, his distrust towards certain arts attitudes and the constant thrive for surprise and innovation is striking in the entire presentation, I would hold. For the newness in the idea seems proportional to the smallness of its scope, that is its public visibility, thence its spectacular value. It is innovative in not trying to be innovative; it is inhabiting and alive at the same time, to come back to Ikea; it is constructive and deconstructive without shrieking out loud all of its content. Maybe this shrieking out loud is our task — if we find terms more calm, like “speaking out loud”, for instance.
Dear Mónica, as I am writing this I keep thinking about how far (maybe) our respective lives are intertwined with art, art making, art discourse, and the reality of artistic production. Maybe it is a fiction we nurture that we would be somehow “outside” the arts, the fact that it is “them” who do art and “us” who communicate about it. True, in these times there is some kind of a stagnation in this exchange, and my own professional contact to artists and their concerns is reduced; you seem to have similar difficulties, also stemming from your activity in funding bodies, commissions, juries etc., me as a critical mind too little involved in local affairs in order to be accepted there (that is: here, in Berlin, where people distribute nasty postcards and colleagues won’t let me publish any longer). But all of this is just one aspect, the commercial one maybe (we are trying to make a living). Otherwise, our form of work, of inspiration, of resignation, of combat (sometimes it is combat, don’t you think?) and of production seems in a way much more related to the artistic instabilities than to the fixations of career and commerce. I don’t know at all whether this is good or bad; sometimes I feel overwhelmed and hate what I do, sometimes I sense it’s the only thing that really inspires me in life. Not necessarily watching a show (as this is a public act malgré tout), but later on trying to understand what has been going on and what all this is about.
Understanding never comes to an end; which is why I believe this dialogue on Going To Your Place never will have a solid result with respect to the original question (do we know what the original question was? Was there one at all? Or was it not rather a wish to communicate?). But this is maybe what will be worthwhile. At least I feel this debate by correspondence has opened a lot of doors in my thinking and perceiving, and it is in this way that Rogério, whom I don’t even know, has visited my house too. This is maybe the fundamental difference between “true” artists and commenting staff as we are: the first step, the coming into being is performed by “them”, what happens after is “our” task. It is not the worst thing that could have happened to us, don’t you think? Wishing you a rewarding New Year, with lots of possibilities to do what you would really like to do. I thank you again for your utter openness.
All my very best, Franz
©Miguel Melo, remodelação e re-decoração da sala onde se realizou a 3.ª parte da trilogia “Vou A Tua Casa” (Lado C), com base em artigos do IKEA. Festival Alkantara, Lisboa, 2006.