Andrea Božić and Julia Willms ‘The Cube’. Stadsschouwburg, Utrecht, SPRING festival.

 

Walking into Andrea Božić and Julia Willms’ installation The Cube, before I’d even taken in its visual material, I was aware of being immersed in its loud, (but not painfully so) natural, atmospheric sound design. Then I focused on the projection on the end wall. This showed a semblance of a white cube-like space that extended or mirrored the walls and ceiling of the room in which I and my fellow spectators were sitting.

This part of the Stadsschouwburg has two mid-twentieth century modern chandeliers and two more virtual ones were hanging in line with them from the ceiling of the virtual cube. In the latter was a landscape which, after a few minutes, slowly merged into another one.

[photos from http://willmsworks.net/en/videoinstallation/the-cube/%5D

Many of the landscapes were Alpine. But there were also storms, a tornado, the Northern Lights, a shoal of little fishes swarming out of the way of predatory sharks, and a jellyfish that looked curiously as if it might be a distant relative of the Stadsschouwburg’s chandeliers. All these places and events always remained part of the white cube-like space, sometimes filling it, at other times contained in a box or as a low platform on the floor. Always at least some of the wall, or floor, or ceiling of the virtual extension of the room remained visible.

semblance and affordance

To a certain extent, The Cube was a semblance of a stage, and the projections were scenography, (Peter Pabst created some wonderful landscape-based sets with rocks and water for later Pina Bausch productions.) But, as I will discuss shortly, part of what is fascinating about The Cube is that you can’t really categorise it. What it does is afford its beholder an immersive experience.

The floor of the room in the Stadsschouwburg had large black tiles and their grid continued in the virtual space. The perspective wasn’t quite right from where I was sitting. It tipped up slightly like a raked stage. Very quickly I found that I’d forgotten this and was totally immersed in the projected landscapes.

J.J. Gibson worked, in the 1940s, for the US Air Force researching whether flight simulators were any use for the training of pilots. His conclusion was that the virtual spaces that they simulated were useful because they afforded trainee pilots opportunities for learning techniques that they could transfer to real situations. The Cube affords its beholders opportunities for imagination.

on top of the world

There are no real mountains in England, and nothing like the Alps in either Scotland or Wales. I love the Alps. I love the views you get from summits and high ridges; the little high valleys (Alpages) with wild flowers that don’t grow lower down; the little, very blue lakes nestling just below a summit or a high pass; the little pockets of rather grey snow one passes on high sheltered slopes still not melted in July; the high moonscapes of gravel where, if you look closely, you can find tiny little Alpine flowers like edelweiss, or the snail whose giant image slowly slides over gravel in one moment in The Cube.

[photos from http://willmsworks.net/en/videoinstallation/the-cube/%5D

romanticism?

It all sounds very romantic, like the sheer, sublime mountain scenes that artists like Turner and Caspar David Friedrich painted at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In these, the over-powering forces of nature made humans seem tiny and ineffectual. This is part of the cultural baggage that Božić and Willms are dealing with in The Cube.

It is obvious from what I’ve just written that I have an affective response to the imagery in The Cube. The particular landscapes they show – and not all of them are Alpine – avoid the sentimental clichés of the tourist brochure or the grandiose conventions of much C19th romantic landscape painting. The way we affect and are affected by the environment is as important now as it was in Turner’s day, perhaps even more important. There is a need for new ways of looking and thinking about human and non-human relations that are relevant to contemporary values and concerns.

gazing

Božić and Willms have written that:

In their [the beholder’s] encounter, the room acquires the properties of the organic and behaves as an organism itself. The viewer standing in the space becomes part of the organism, both through their implied physical presence in the work and the inner movement of the gaze and attention and the experience it evokes.

The way they have organised the different video sections and inserted them into the virtual space directed my gaze, made me see things through their eyes. Just as I did not have any difficulty accepting the slightly wonky perspective of the virtual cube-like space, neither did I have any problem following the radical cuts and changes of scale from one video scene to another.

[photo from http://www.andreabozic.com/cube%5D

One video section showed men on a stone-filled clearing surrounded by larches. This bit of landscape only occupied a small part of the back of the cube-like space and the men were miniature figures, wandering around in a slightly mysterious way – what were they doing exactly? what were they looking for? In another video section I could just begin to make out a group of tiny people on a misty, rocky prominence. Was that an orthodox Christian cross they were carrying, and why were they there? Contrasting with this Lilliputian world, was the giant snail, and the giant jellyfish.

Božić and Willms have developed a dramaturgy in The Cube that takes advantage of the habit of experiencing contemporaneity as a succession of random fragmented events. At the same time The Cube also offer me – with its slow, gradual succession of landscapes – an antidote to the disruptive speed of much contemporary media, of online or cable music videos for example, that aim to make their impact in the short duration of our distracted attention spans. The slow, immersive properties of The Cube slow me down and keep me watching.

human presence

A little, rectangular box on the virtual floor of the cube contains tiny holiday makers in a sunny landscape with very green grass – perhaps beside a lake. The people are ant-like but the sound of their chatting fills the installation as if I were there on holiday with them on this hot summer afternoon. Gradually the scene darkened and turned into another video of a storm over water which seemed to have been projected onto all the white walls and ceiling of the virtual room.

[photo from http://willmsworks.net/en/videoinstallation/the-cube/%5D

There are signs of human activity in other sections. A snowstorm blanked out the landscape and the sound of the wind deafened me with its white noise. It must have been filmed on a road somewhere because a triangular road sign was shaking and bending in the gale. This video faded into another looking down from high up in the mountains where there were still little patches of unmelted snow. A wandering line of pylons indicated that the viewpoint was above a ski lift, dismantled for the summer, and at the pylon’s bases was the unnaturally disturbed gravel track that in winter would again become a piste. This video section was interesting spatially but these signs of human activity robbed it of any potential for the romantic or picturesque. Božić and Willms were directing my gaze towards contemporary uses of natural spaces.

Moonscape_3[photo from http://www.andreabozic.com/cube%5D

in-between

The Cube was made by a visual artist (Willms) in collaboration with a choreographer (Božić). The two of them have been collaborating on works for more than a decade. It was created for an exhibition that they curated Spectra: Light Like a Bird, Not Like a Feather at the Kunstraum am Schauplatz, in Vienna. I saw it as part of SPRING Performing Arts Festival, which mostly consisted of dance works. In a Fine Art context, The Cube is perhaps more theatrical than most installations in its stage-like organisation of virtual space. Seen in a dance festival one might ask: but where is the choreography?

The Cube is both dance and visual art and other things as well – like scenography, soundscape, and so on. It cannot be categorised or reduced to any one discipline. It exists in the spaces in between. Indeed trying to work out what it is, gets in the way of experiencing it for what it is, or of being open to what it affords.

Something that opens up a new way of thinking or offers a new kind of experience is political. We need new ways of telling stories because the old ways are so contaminated by habits of thinking and being that have got us into the situation we are in now, which is not a good one. Coming from somewhere that is in between and doesn’t quite fit with existing modes of categorisation is as good a starting point as any for trying to think and do things differently. The Cube affords beholders a wonderfully gentle, but deeply affecting way of doing precisely this.

Andrea Božić’s website http://www.andreabozic.com/

Julia Willms’ website http://willmsworks.net/

Art and Politics – Aesthetics, Activism and the City Symposium revisited.

I’ve been talking to people in Utrecht about some of the issues that came up during the Symposium last Friday. I did more or less guess that some of what was talked about had particular relevance in Holland that I as a foreigner wouldn’t know about. Not only relevant in Holland either but, it seems, in Germany and Belgium as well.

For a long time now I’ve been writing and teaching about the relation between dance and its social and political contexts. Dance is always political, I’ve been pointing out. Some of the things that came out of the Symposium worried me.

Here in Utrecht, it seems, the relation between theatre, dance and political activism is one of the hot talking points, and lots of artists and choreographers are making work that is – or can be seen in some way to be – political.

What I’ve understood from what people have been telling me is that Dutch artists have become politicised because of severe cuts to arts subsidies. This started about four years ago when the ‘Liberal’ party didn’t have a majority in the Dutch parliament and briefly went into coalition with a far right party and instituted heavy cuts in arts funding. (Correct me if I’ve misunderstood.)

Accompanying this was a belittling of art as a ‘leftist hobby’ and a demonization of artists as ‘subsidy slurpers’ – the similar rhetoric in the British media about unemployed people as ‘benefit scroungers’ comes to mind.

This is probably an oversimplification of what I’ve heard but part of the neoliberal project of turning the arts into a market has led to Dutch policies to prove the social value of art, under the title ‘Art of Impact’. So if an artist can prove that their work has impact on user groups outside the art world, they can apply for an extra subsidy stream and the Dutch government can point to the social value that the art they are subsidising has for society. Hence the discussions about political art, activist art, artivism – if you’ve not come across the latter term, try googling it.

I can think of visual artists in Britain who produce politically engaged work – Jeremy Deller’s re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave comes to mind. But that was out of a desire for political change or to inspire political debate. Some of the work I saw in an exhibition in Utrecht seemed to  present political content but not do anything with it either as artistic process or as public engagement.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some really interesting artistic interventions being produced, but I almost start to want to see work that isn’t proclaiming its politics so loudly. Something that opens up a new way of thinking or offers a new kind of experience beyond the normative is for me political in the potential it has for critiquing normative ideologies. Politicisation of people who have realised their ability to go on working as artists is under threat is not the same as politicisation because of a belief in social justice.

What I don’t like is the uneasy feeling that art and activism is so sexy that everyone wants to get in on the act so as to apply for ‘Art of Impact’ funding. (Again it may be more complex than that.)

As part of the audience for some of these artists’ work, I find myself wanting to wear a T-shirt that says ‘How dare you assume you can count me as one of your impactees.’

 

P.S. A friend who has read this has just sent me this link about the Arts Council of England and impact.

http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/exploring-value-arts-and-culture/research-grants-programme-2015-2018

Dolores Bouckaert & Charlotte Vanden Eynde: ‘Deceptive Bodies’. Theater Kikker, SPRING festival 21st May 2016.

I want to call pieces like this, which present two dancers of the same sex, duos rather than duets. A duet suggests some sort of romantic relationship but at the start of Deceptive Bodies the way that Dolores Bouckaert and Charlotte Vanden Eynde keep their distance from one another and establish a slight tension between them makes clear this is not a performance of friendship. We watch two women doing things on stage together that explore the performance of femininity in quite an exposed way that gradually builds up an intriguing intensity.

Early on they take turns to manipulate each other, Bouckaert treating Vanden Eynde as an object that ends down low, stretched out horizontally.

deceptive_bodies

Eynde dresses Bouckaert up in black velvet and a black leather crown like the Black Queen in Alice in Wonderland, manipulating her arms and hands like a doll to make histrionic gestures.

Every now and then they do things slowly and intensely that seem innocent but could potentially have a sexual connotation. For example, at one point each takes off their underpants. At another, sitting closely and staring intently at one another with mouths wide open, they both stuck out their tongues.

header_bouckaert_vandeneynde

Towards the end, seated on chairs on little low stage trucks, they dressed up in long rich velvet-like pieces of cloth and take up poses that conjured up for me many, many old master paintings, particularly by early renaissance artists like Van Eyck and Van der Weyden. The lighting design was excellent.

At one moment Bouckaert opened her dress to reveal her breast like a Virgin Mary offering her breast to the baby Jesus, but also somehow resembling one of Cindy Sherman’s self portraits dressed up as old master paintings.

[Cindy Sherman Self Portrait]

Other poses they took up at this time made me think of photographs of some of the female hysterical patients treated by Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-93).

bouckaertvandeneynde_480

[By Jean-Martin Charcot – http://www.flickr.com/photos/kristeberlin/4384320687/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9751460 ]

And the final poses under a strong red light surely referred to sex workers. Deceptive Bodies took us in the audience on a journey through different ways in which femininity is framed. This gradually led us into increasingly intense and intimate scenes. Bouckaert and Vanden Eynde performed all these representations with detachment, with neutral faces unless their tableau required a mask-like emotional expression. The result was subtle: they never presented caricatures, never seemed to take up a critical stance. They continued to appear detached and emotionally separate from one another throughout the performance even while physically close or touching. But each moved in and out of their poses at the same time and moved with the same slow rhythm.

They seemed, in their duo, to have a basic relationship as if they had accepted each other’s differences. And this kind of acceptance also seemed to extend to all the different ways of being feminine that they presented, however problematic or difficult some of these might be. In their quietly unemphatic, intimate but also sometimes edgy way, they seemed to point towards something important about the negotiation of gender norms in our contemporary, image saturated society.

 

 

Blue Tired Heroes by Massimo Furlan and Guilty Landscapes by Dries Verhoeven, SPRING festival, 21st May 2016.

The sun was shining down on Utrecht, and everybody was smiling as they followed the six, white haired men in blue tights, red socks and capes (supermen without the logo) on a leisurely stroll through the centre of Utrecht.

They walked in an unforced, neutral unison and at chosen spots stopped in a tableau which they held for a while standing perfectly still and all staring at the same thing. Sometimes they formed a half circle around their focus of attention, sometimes stood one behind the other, or lay down or took up positions in a particular location – like some stairs or on public seats.

Everything they did was very, very simple and clear. They didn’t clearly feel any need to hurry because, as the piece’s title put it they were tired old heroes.

As they progressed from the Stadsschouwburg towards the centre of town, they group who were following them gradually became augmented as passers by became intrigued and tagged along.

And in some ways the crowd themselves became part of the event. The people immediately behind the blue heroes seemed to become part of the choreography as they formed a line following them. The fact that people out shopping stopped and got out their phones to take photographs also in sone way seemed to become part of the event that the blue heroes in which the presence of the blue heroes acted as catalyst.

Two incidents for me characterised this. In a large paved area, the blue heroes lay down to have a rest on a square street seating fixture. This was presumably the plan, but coincidentally when they arrived they found a young couple already sitting their having an intimate tête-à-tête. When I got there I found the blue heroes all sprawled out with their eyes closed with in their centre a slightly embarrassed but smiling couple surrounded by a crowd taking photos of them with their phones. Here’s the one I took.

20160521_165403_resized.jpg

Later that afternoon I recognised them in a café (she had distinctive green hair) and talked to them. They said they felt it wouldn’t be good to walk away so just stayed. They didn’t know what the men were doing but worked it out afterwards.

The other incident was just before the end of the performance when the blue heroes together with some of the crowd, went into a men’s hairdressers and each stood watching one of the customers having their hair cut. As always they were calm, still, and intently focused on the customer. Their gaze directed our gazes, making us see them affecting and affected by the situation they were in just as we were affected by them and presumably they by us.

The relations we all made along the way as we wandered through the busy beautiful old streets of Utrecht on this warm Saturday afternoon were somehow as much a part of the work as the actual minimalist material that the men in blue performed.

As soon as this ended I had to rush across town to the Sanaa Gallery for my individual, timed slot in Dries Verhoeven’s Guilty Landscape. Since this piece will go one being presented throughout the festival I’m not going to spoil it by describing it, but will only say that it was also about relationality, about touching virtually a precarious other.

I’ve previously experienced two or three one-to-one participatory works and came to this one not knowing what to expect, hence the way I’m writing about it. For me Guilty Landscape demanded a lot, needed me to be open to the unknown. One thing that surprised me was that there was no one to tell me when my time was up. I had to make the decision myself just as I had had to make the decision to interact and allow myself to be led and thus to experience briefly a very little of the reality of the life of a precarious other who I would otherwise never meet. Like others I’ve spoken to who also went to this piece, I left in a daze.

Aesthetics, Activism and the City. City Symposium, Spring Festival, 20th May 2016.

I can’t really imagine this kind of event happening at a British dance festival: a philosopher/cultural theorist, an artist, an exhibition curator, an artistic director of an Arts Festival in Cairo, and a Project and Community Organiser working for an Utrecht-based arts project: all talking about Aesthetics, Activism and the City. There is too little recognition in the UK that people involved in or interested in dance might also want to engage in discussions about theoretical ideas.

To be fair there were some events around this during Betsy Gregory’s final Dance Umbrella Festival a couple of years ago. What was noticeable for me about today’s symposium here in Utrecht was that no one as far as I can remember said anything about dance.

The event may have been billed as being about aesthetics, activism and the city. What they mostly talked about however was what they do. And they are all fascinating people doing interesting things that involve art as activism in Utrecht and elsewhere.

I’m not going to try to summarise this two and a half hour event, just pick out a few things that I noted down because I want to think more about them.

– Ying Que of CASCO talked about unlearning as a practice, and how her organisation were trying to unlearn busyness by redressing the balance between the kinds of business that are valued because they are productive, and unvalued non-productive, reproductive labour like domestic work and caring.

– Ine Gevers, who has curated an exhibition Hacking Habitat, pointed out how much we have to learn from peoples who occupy precarious, marginal positions in society because they have survived.

– Dries Verhoeven, who has a one to one performative installation Guilty Landscapes in the festival, spoke about the need for disruption. The value of disruptive images, that some may disagree with, is that they make people take up a position. While our public spaces are increasingly turning into commercial spaces that are created with the needs of security surveillance in mind, the role of public spaces as sites for political engagement is disappearing.

some comments I noted in the general discussion but can’t remember who said them.

‘Liking’ a political post on Facebook might make one feel political but doesn’t do anything to help resolve the political problem that is the subject of the post.

There was a lot of discussion about Art and Impact which seems to be a big issue in Dutch arts funding at the moment that the panellists all felt was a bad development. No one actually explained to non-Dutch audience members what this was or how it worked, but I had a feeling that I didn’t want anyone in the British Arts Council to find out about it because it didn’t sound good.

Everyone was really worried about decisions that are about to be announced concerning the future (reductions) of arts funding in Holland. One of the questions we were left with was: what would it mean to be in a society in which there was no art? Hence the topic of activism.

Simon Mayer ‘Sons of Sissy’, Stadsschouwburg Utrecht, SPRING festival. 20th May 2016

There is something endearing about male dancers’ clumsiness. It proves their normativity – women dancers are generally more precise so that men’s almost unintentional clumsiness somehow shows that they’re just men. At the same time, this clumsiness constitutes a failure to live up to the unachievable ideal that men are somehow conditioned to think they should strive to attain. That ideal, of course, functions to maintain normative white heterosexual privilege. Clumsiness can undermine this, and can point to the persistence of other ways of performing masculinity. Sorry for this long, theoretical introduction, but this for me is the context for my response to Simon Mayer’s Sons of Sissy. Much of this piece is so odd that it is difficult to discuss it without first giving some description of it.

While some of the dancing that Mayer and his three male fellow performers execute was sometimes a bit rough and clumsy, their musicianship was immaculate. It began with them singing and playing Alpine folk music on two violins, an accordion and a double bass.

Mayer was wearing an ambiguous costume that could have been a folk costume skirt and blouse but also read as female drag. There was something very slightly exaggerated about the way they played with each other, an edginess that hinted that Sons of Sissy would be more than just folk music. And sure enough, this section ended in discord and some moderate trashing of their instruments.

Each subsequent section also ended in discord. Each built slowly, taking its time to gradually become more intense: lots of stamping precise rhythms; pirouetting that was actually quite beautiful but somehow seemed clumsy because of the harsh shouts that served as cues to start them.

Deliberately messy to hide their artistry. Traditional dance steps, folk rhythms, but with an underlying tension that eventually snapped when one of the men fell to the floor. A second moment of discord.

All four were by now tired and out of breath and took their time changing at the side of the stage, pausing before going on. At the end of this they were all naked and remained so for the rest of the piece.

Four white naked men danced a traditional-looking circle dance. To this was added body percussion whose repeated slaps on upper thighs and abdomen left these glowing red. While the folk rhythms hinted at mountain peasant culture, the spanking hinted at metropolitan gay tastes, nothing explicit, just hints and ambiguities. But when it became obvious that two of the men – standing closely face to face – were going to embrace one another, the audience became very quiet and alert. Soon another moment of discord arrived with whips, ropes, chain, and a bunch of Alpine cowbells dropping with repeated crashes to the floor.

3005_simon_mayer-sons_of_sissy_c_peter_empl

Then back again to the violins accordion and double bass, yodelling and more syncopated body percussion. This time it seemed ridiculous when performed by these sweating, naked bodies. And more ridiculous too when two of them men started doing little vigorous jumps that had been carefully devised to keep their penises bouncing up and down in rhythm. Then at the end, the four men, instruments put aside, faced each other in an inward facing square, singing quietly in close harmony.

I don’t think that Sons of Sissy mocked Alpine folk culture. What might have seemed normal in a straightforward, traditional dance and music festival was definitely queered. In doing so, for me it posed questions. With the fortress that the European Shengen area is in danger of becoming, what is the place of these white male rituals that seem to have survived within traditional dance? Why do we hold our breath when we think we are about to see two naked, sweating men embrace? Why is it so painful when these male rituals end in discord, in men in physical or emotional pain?

Clearly Sons of Sissy is about masculinity, and sexuality. But I think it is also resonant because it draws attention to what, for some, might represent an uncontaminated source of European cultural identity. Sons of Sissy manages to make this source seem very strange indeed.

 

 

Nicole Beutler, ‘6: The Square’, Stadsschouwburg Utrecht, SPRING festival. 19th May 2016.

 

This is, I understand, the second in a trilogy of pieces coming out of Beutler’s interest in the Bauhaus. As the title suggests, there are squares in the scenography – on the floor, in the backdrop and lighting design – and square formations continually emerge in the choreography which, of course, also includes an American Square Dance section.

The idea of a square conjures up notions of robustness, stability, plain clarity, and solid predictability. In the early C20th, geometrical abstract painting, including work by artists associated with the Bauhaus, seemed to suggest an optimistic embrace of the potential of modernity to create a better life. A nice little booklet that Beutler’s company, nbprojects, has produced about 6: The Square, mentions Malevich who condensed the western painting tradition to a simple black square for a famous exhibition in Moscow in 1915. Its pure form was a portal into a purer more intense future.

In Europe in 2016 with neo-liberal austerity, the on-going migration crisis, terrorist threats, uncertainty about Brexit, and so on, the optimistic certainties about modernity that inspired artists 100 years ago seem strangely remote and unbelievable. That’s what I felt Beutler’s The Square is exploring.

The cast of dancers are diverse. Sometimes their costumes hide this; an early section has them dancing in semi darkness all in loose black hoodies. Later their differences are emphasized. Four pairs mark out geometrical transformations of the points of squares, but each pair seems paradoxical: a hippy with a man in a business suit, a sikh with a b-boy, a woman of colour all in black and a headscarf – not quite a burka – with a woman in a sort of cosplay European folk costume with flowery skirt and lacy apron. Types rather than individuals, yet somehow failing to be the kind of universal everyman and everywoman of the modernist theatre of the 1920s and 1930s. And that’s surely the point.

The American square dance sections are danced with an easy flowing precision that I imagine was not at all easy to achieve. It is a modernist version of square dance in which all the little flourishes, the whoops and individual expression are missing. They effortlessly rotate in walls of two that become four and then eight.

To one side, with a microphone, is Deborah, an English performer, who is the completely superfluous ‘caller’. The dancers need no directions and she is just offering superfluous encouragements and then a rather awkwardly pointless monologue that is sad and meaningless. At least she’s trying.

The tension between the universal, abstract geometric qualities of the dancing and the underlying problematic emptiness of the monologue seems to be at the heart of 6: The Square. Why have we lost the faith in progress that underlay the work of the Bauhaus and artists like Malevich? And how do we go on trying to make sense of things in current circumstances? In the end 6: The Square seems to have a strongly positive energy. It certainly got its first night audience on their feet applauding. Something light emerging out of the darkness of our dark times.