Category Archives: aesthetics

Parameters of dance innovation

 

[script]

The British dance artist and researcher Emily Claid has identified a weariness that sometimes occurs within contemporary dance that she calls ‘middle mush’. This, she wrote in 2006, is ‘the fixed, thick, solid place that dancing can become when movement is predictable and watching is endless … It is the dynamic I fear most in British contemporary dance’. The cure to this malaise is innovation.
Being innovative in dance is not just something done for the sake of it. It is more than just dancers trying to be different. Innovation is part of the processes of social and political change.

The Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci explained the need for innovation in the notebooks he kept while in prison in the 1920s and 1930s, writing:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear
but, he goes on, this nevertheless creates the possibility and necessity of creating a new culture.

Gramsci’s interregnum is surely a relation of Claid’s middle mush. Gramsci’s idea has gained currency recently because it seems to describe the current state of disillusionment with austerity, and a widespread sense of the failure of neoliberal politics and economics.

Artistic innovation – including innovation in theatre dance – is a field that has a potential to respond to shifts in social experience. Artists can pick up on feelings that some aspects of contemporary life can no longer be explained by dominant narratives. Dancers can sometimes embody tensions between the status quo and what is actually happening before these feelings can be put into words. This is a phenomenon that the Marxist scholar and literary critic Raymond Williams called a ‘structure of feeling’. This, he wrote,

is firm and definite as ‘structure’ suggests, yet it is based in the deepest and often least tangible elements of our experience. … Its means, its elements, are not propositions or techniques; they are embodied, related feelings. (1973, p. 10).

Innovative theatre dance has a potential to create a time space in which it becomes possible to express or draw attention to these embodied feelings. My aim in this video essay is to discuss three different categories of innovation that can be identified in late twentieth and twenty-first century theatre dance, sketching some of the ways in which these are rooted in social and political experience. These three are: path-finding, disruption, and claiming space for progressive alternatives.

Path-finding is discovering new ways of creating movement or choreography. One example of this is the development of Contact Improvisation by Steve Paxton and others. Another is Pina Bausch’s development of tanztheater. If I describe a piece by a choreographer as Bauschian, you probably know what I mean.

Disruption in dance often lies in saying no, in an avant-garde way, to conventions that up until then had been considered essential to the creation or performance of theatre dance. The best known example is Yvonne Rainer’s so called ‘No!’ manifesto from 1965, which begins ‘NO to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformaions and magic and make-believe’ and so on.
[no to glamour and transcendency of the star image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved].
Rainer and her fellow dance artists in Judson Dance Theatre embraced this negativity in a way that was not nihilistic but was intended to unlock potentials for new kinds of aesthetic experience.

What I have in mind for my third category of innovation are works that demand an inclusive space within the centre ground of contemporary dance for groups or points of view that are hidden or marginalised. Examples here include works by queer artists, artists of colour, artists with disabilities, or elders still dancing beyond the age when it is expected that they should retire. I am also thinking of post-colonial dance works that intentionally dance back against dominant colonial ideologies and the expectations they produce, and works that take on European high culture by rethinking it with an African or Asian sensibility.

Dance works are often, of course, innovative in ways that touch on more than one category. For instance, the contemporary African dance technique that Germaine Acogny has developed is both path-finding and claims a space for progressive ideas. It draws on dance movements from West African vernacular and ritual dancing, codifying them into a comprehensive vocabulary and technique. By doing so, this way of dancing demands a space for African experiences, challenging assumptions that only white Western culture and society are modern while all others, particularly those in the global South, are still essentially trying to catch up.

In the rest of this video, I briefly explore some of the interconnections between these three kinds of innovation by briefly reviewing the context around Trajal Harrell’s well known piece 20 Looks or Paris Is Burning at Judson Church.

This work, first performed in 2009, takes as its starting point the thought experiment “What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?”.
 The twenty looks are the twenty titled sections of the piece.

LOOK 1 West Coast Preppy School Boy
LOOK 2 East Coast Preppy School Boy
LOOK 3 Old School Post-Modern
LOOK 4 American Casual Sport
LOOK 5 Sporty Contemporary
LOOK 6 Sporty Contemporary with a Twist
 and so on
[LOOK 7 New School Hokey Pokey
LOOK 8 Serving Old School Runway
LOOK 9 Serving
LOOK 10 Serving Superhero
LOOK 11 _________________
LOOK 12 Legendary
LOOK 13 Legendary Face
LOOK 14 Icon
LOOK 15 Eau de Jean Michel
LOOK 16 Basquiat Realness
LOOK 17 Runway Performance with Face and Effects
LOOK 18 Moderne
LOOK 19 Legendary with a Twist
LOOK 20 Alt-Moderne feeling the French Lieutenant’s Woman ]

Directly or indirectly, these titles nod in the direction of the different categories and concepts presented in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. She filmed this in and around the Black and Latino, gay and transsexual drag balls in Harlem run by Paris Dupree.

The vogue dancer who features most prominently in Livingstone’s film is Willi Ninja, whose career took off so that by the end of the film he had appeared in Madonna’s music video Vogue and gone on an international tour with her. Dorian Corey, an elder drag queen whose on-camera interviews offer a highly informative, wry commentary on the balls, remembers a time when Black and Latino drag queens used to go down town to compete in drag balls run by white impresarios. However good they were, they never won any prizes and felt unwelcome, so they started their own drag balls up in Harlem.

While there would therefore have been drag balls in Harlem in 1963, it doesn’t really matter whether or not people were already voguing around that time. Harrell’s clever proposition is to choreograph some movement sequences, that are based on the kinds of competitive categories at Paris Dupree’s drag balls, but which he has transformed into the kind of pedestrian, minimalist choreography for which Judson Dance Theatre became known.

I’ve already mentioned Yvonne Rainer’s ‘No!’ manifesto. Her minimalism arose from a critique of balletic virtuosity. A grande jété, she wrote, needs to be invested ‘with all the necessary nuances of energy distribution that will produce the look of climax together with a still, suspended extension in the middle of the movement’. Her choreography, however, needs ‘a control that seems geared to the actual time it takes the actual weight of the body to go through the prescribed motions’.

Most of the 20 Looks in Harrell’s piece consist of tasks danced in the actual time they need without hiding the body’s actual weight and effort. Some of the Looks, however, like the ‘Runway’ walking, are done in a knowing way that transgresses Rainer’s stipulations ‘no to camp’ and ‘no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer’. But part of what is exciting about Harrell’s piece is the way it claims the conceptually sophisticated space of minimalist dance for the kinds of Black and Latino performers that walked the balls.

Returning to my three categories of innovation, I suggest that Paris Dupree was a socially progressive innovator claiming space for alternative identities and experiences. Willi Ninja was a pathfinder, Yvonne Rainer a disruptor, and Trajal Harrel a disruptor and a socially progressive innovator.

There is a quotation from the British socialist politician Tony Benn about political progress that can also be applied to innovation in dance: ‘First’ he said ‘they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you’. The scene in Paris is Burning when Willi Ninja talks about his recent success reveals the moment when voguing was no longer mad or dangerous but was becoming monetisable.

My point is to try not to ignore or condemn the first signs of a development in dance that is troubling because it breaks with the middle mush of what is conventionally acceptable. Instead, where dance artists seem to be mining signs of still unarticulated shifts and changes, we need to do what we can to help and support the new that is trying to be born.

‘Liquid Gold Is The Air’ video installation by Rosemary Lee with Roswitha Chesher, Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh.

I’ve just spent some time in Greyfriars Kirk in the Old Town in Edinburgh looking at Rosie Lee and Roswitha Chesher’s lovely video installation Liquid Gold Is The Air. It is in the form of a small, glowing, Northern Renaissance triptych, with a picture frame containing a central panel and on each side a narrower wing angled slightly forwards. With it emphasis on simple frontal perspective and on brightly coloured natural details, it is a bit like a Van Eyck altarpiece with its green garden landscape and angelic figures in red and gold. In Greyfriars Kirk it has been placed in a side chapel to the right of the main altar with a few rows of church seating – with their slots for the hymn book and psalter – so that people can sit and contemplate it. It is not a new work but has already been shown in other historic churches and cathedrals. It was filmed in an arboretum in Milton Keynes that had been planted using the floor pattern of Norwich Cathedral. The resulting garden is called a Tree Cathedral.

Liquid Gold Is The Air screengrab_ By Rosemary Lee & Roswitha Chesher

Typical of other pieces that I’ve seen by Lee, it strikes a delicate balance between very simple task-based but strong, clear, almost conceptual movements, and a humanistic sensibility that comes from the calm, almost meditative concentration of the community of dancers – ranging from young children to senior citizens – who support each other as they execute them together.

It doesn’t surprise me to find Lee has made what is a fairly explicitly religious piece. It is quite open in its religious affiliation. There is no overt Christian symbolism that I could detect, but a kind of abstract spiritual ambiance. For some research about dance during the First World War I’ve been reading about Lutyens’ Cenotaph in Whitehall. When he was designing it, apparently, he was under a lot of pressure from the then Archbishop of Canterbury to include a cross on its front face, but Lutyens resisted, insisting that the abstract proportions of the monument would themselves create spiritual resonances. He himself at the time had been working in India and was interested in eastern religious ideas.

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Liquid Gold Is The Air is a bit like the Cenotaph in this respect. It has no specific religious message or any imagery that can be identified with any one organised religion. But, looking at it, it conjures up for me of all sorts of random associations. Some of it remind me of Gurdjieff’s The Movements in Peter Brook’s film Meetings with Remarkable Men. I was reminded of bits of Tai Chi – for example two hands surrounding an invisible globe of energy. One strong recurring image is of triangular groupings of dancers holding up their palms as if to bless a central, favoured man or woman. These reminded me of the pyramids blessing the bride or groom in Nijinska’s Les Noces.

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The hands also made me think of one of my favourite pieces that Lea Anderson made for the Featherstonehaughs, Jesus Baby Heater. Anderson explained that the title referred to the fact that some of the dancers responded to the idea that they were reaching out towards spiritual energy, while others were implacable atheists and had to imagine they were warming their hands on an invisible electric fire. The fluttering gold painted palms in Liquid Gold Is The Air make a mandala around the central figure, and at these moments Graeme Miller’s sound score includes the sounds of birds as if the hands are angels’ wings.

 

The figures in red could be seen as resurrected souls in a depiction of the last judgement, but they could equally be Hindu sanyassins. The figures in gold could also be renaissance saints but their whirling dance is reminiscent of Sufi dervishes while their ankle bells could be those of a kathak dancer but might equally have been borrowed from a morris dance side.

There’s a man in a motorised wheelchair in one of the scenes, and one young black girl in another, but it is not a very diverse group of dancers, predominantly white. When you are creating with non-professional volunteers you have to some extent to work with what you’ve got, a skill that Lee has perfected over the years. What I appreciated about Liquid Gold Is The Air is to detect its evident ability to appeal to the high-church Anglicanism of the Norwich and Christ Church Cathedrals as well as to the members of the congregation of this histrorically puritan church. I imagine it could also appeal to inter-faith groups and to those like myself with no religious affiliation. Liquid Gold Is The Air uses movement to convey joy – a quality that, like gold, is currently in somewhat short supply.

On Trajal Harrell’s ‘Hoochie Koochie’ at the Barbican Art Gallery, August 2017.

The first thing I found at the Barbican Art Gallery after I got my ticket was a scrum of people, over whose shoulders I got a glimpse of Trajal Harrell doing something repetitive and slightly ritualistic with a soup plate and spoon [part of The Return of La Argentina of which more shortly].

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I found a slightly better viewpoint but the piece ended shortly afterwards and everyone dispersed, most seeming to know just where to go. I didn’t and ended up with a few others watching a very leisurely solo, It Is Thus, in which a male dancer took vogueing movements and performed them very slowly and evenly with a lot of concentration on the gradual, deep articulation in the transition from one movement to the next. It was all executed in a strangely un-emphatic way, like a vogue version of Trio A.

Harrell’s now well known starting point for all his choreography was the question, what would have happened if voguers from the drag balls in Harlem had performed at Judson Memorial Church alongside members of the Judson group. I’ve been looking on line at interviews with Harrell who often points out that he’s not a voguer but someone who was educated within the Judson tradition which he think of in terms of minimalism and repetition. Minimalist vogueing like It Is Thus is a way of saying no to, and moving on from Rainer’s iconic pronouncement ‘no to spectacle’.

Some people stayed for a bit of It is thus and then walked away. In performative exhibitions like Hoochie Koochie this always seems to me to be in bad faith. If someone is concentrating on dancing like that – in a rehearsal or live – I feel I must give them my attention. But in an art gallery, one stays as long or as briefly as one likes in front of a painting and then moves on. That’s what people often seem to do with dance works in performative exhibitions. It must be hard for the dancers. But, on the other hand, I noticed here and elsewhere that people don’t seem to pay any attention to any artworks or projections on the wall or any sculptural pieces displayed alongside the performative elements. No one seems interested in the inanimate stuff, but are continually alert, keen not to miss anything live that’s happening.

What I’m describing here is the behaviour of twenty-first century consumerism. As markets get saturated with things to buy, they start selling us experiences instead, manipulating our desire for something new and different. And art galleries and museums are following or responding to this by exhibiting immaterial art, like Harrell’s Hoochie Koochie. They’re doing what the market does, which is to capture excess surplus value. And, to be honest, we all recognise now that’s what always happened. That’s a key difference between the counterculture in the 1960s, of which the Judson group were a part, and the art scene today. People have no illusions any more about the possibility of escaping capture. The question is, while they are following and responding to the consumerist modus operandi, are they maybe also on another level doing something else that might not be entirely capturable?

When Jennie Livingstone’s film Paris Is Burning was first released in 1990 and was immediately ‘the’ thing that ‘everybody’ wanted to talk about, Paris Dupree – whose balls are referred to in the film’s title – and others who appeared in the film, suddenly felt ripped off. They’d let this white Jewish lesbian from Yale into the balls, performed for her and let her interview them for nothing. What they had been doing had been captured through vogue’s suddenly fashionable exploitation by Madonna and the big international music corporations. In 2017 we are all always already captured all of the time. Our data is mined by Google and Facebook and the other mega-rich tech corporations, and our personal communications harvested on an industrial scale in the name of the security of our homelands. To attempt to avoid capture is to run the risk of attracting the wrong kind of attention. What some of us need to understand better is how to pass.

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[still from Paris Is Burning]

I’ve been showing extracts from Livingston’s wonderful film to my wonderful undergraduate students more or less every year since the early 1990s. The ball walkers documented in it knew all about passing. As gay men and transsexuals, the film makes clear, the ability to pass can be a life-saving skill outside the safe community of the balls. There is an element within this skill that is fundamental to theatrical self-presentation in general – an ability to make the audience see what it is you are presenting to them in the way you want to be seen.

If it is unlikely that any of the black or Latino drag queens ever attended any of the concerts of dance at Judson Church, it is possible that the gay performance artist and underground filmmaker Jack Smith might have done. And some of the dancers from the church and some of their audience probably went to see the fabulously outrageous and shambolic performances that he put on in his downtown loft a few blocks south of the church.

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[Jack Smith. still from Normal Love.]

Smith knew about passing. His essay on the 1940s Hollywood B starlet Maria Montez begins:

At least in American a Maria Montez could believe she was the Cobra woman, the Siren of Atlantis, Scheherazade etc. She believed and thereby made the people who went to her movies believe. Those who could believe, did. Those who saw the World’s Worst Actress just couldn’t and missed the magic.

Passing is about making the spectator believe in magic. Some of the pieces I saw in the time I was able to spend in Hoochie Koochie didn’t use any obvious vogueing movements but drew on the kinds of expressive modern dance movement vocabulary that Rainer, Paxton and their fellow avant-gardists reacted against. Harrell seemed to me to use these modern movements in an unrelieved minimalist way inflected with a butoh-like intensity. I’m thinking of Creon’s Solo and one or two other of Harrell’s Greek pieces. Again it seemed that people would watch for a bit and then leave in the middle. You could say that, here as elsewhere, I believed in what the dancer wanted me to believe while others, who lost interest and moved on, couldn’t, and missed the magic.

As I said earlier, when I entered the gallery, Harrell was in the middle of his solo The Return of La Argentina, one of his many references to dance history in general and Butoh in particular. I was lucky enough to see Kazuo Ohno performing a series of short solos, together with other solos danced by his son Yoshito, at the Japan Society in New York in December 1999. Kazuo was then 93. Yoshito was 61 and lurked in the wings while his father danced, rushing out at one moment when his father stumbled and seemed about to fall. The father’s entire performance was extremely shaky, including the extract he showed us from the signature work about La Argentina that Tatsumi Hijikata made for him. This drew on Ohno’s memories of seeing her perform in 1926. He was 20, she was 36. As with Maria Montez, Kazuo Ohno believed and thereby made the people in the auditorium at the Japan Society believe that the fingers and wrists and legs of this 93 year old man were not shaking uncontrollably but performing the movements of a young Spanish star at the height of her fame dancing with joy.

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[Kazuo Ohno in Remembering La Argentina. photo: Emídio Luisi]

Kazuo Ohno was wearing a white hat with faded flowers in it and a white lace dress, all rather distressed. Harrell, in his solo, was wearing shorts and t-shirt and holding a dress (that I later read was by the legendary Japanese couturier Reu Kawakubo). The dancers at Paris Dupree’s balls who competed in the high fashion categories were supposed to have ‘mopped’ their designer frocks. I don’t know if Jack Smith is one of Harrell’s points of reference but parts of his solo seemed to me more Smith than Ohno. But that’s not quite fair. It could be both, just as the 93 year old Japanese man could be himself and a younger woman and somehow, magically, make you believe in the joy he still shared with someone he had seen 73 years previously. Harrell too, in one section of this solo, seemed to project joy.

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[Trajal Harrell in The Return of La Argentina. photoTristan Fewings, Getty images]

I was fascinated by Hoochie Koochie and stayed as long as I could before I had to rush to catch my train for the long journey back to North Yorkshire. I now realise there were longer, more recent pieces and older acclaimed ones in the exhibition that I missed. However from what I did see, it was great to see this kind of conceptually intriguing work danced by such strong, skilled and sophisticated dancers. And when I got home I went to the bookcase. That is what a lot of the interviews with Harrell and reviews of his work almost encourage one to do. So I found my copy of Jack Smith’s writings and also something by Judith Butler. Not her well known essay ‘Gender Is Burning’ about Livingston’s film, but, to check out something about Harrell’s Greek pieces, Butler’s lectures about the first of Sophocles’ Theban plays reprinted in Antigone’s Claim.

To make my point, I need now to make a brief digression into the story of Antigone. She was one of Oedpius and Jocasta’s children along with her sister Ismene and her brothers Polynices and Eteocles. After Oedipus realised he’d committed incest by unknowingly having children with his own mother, he blinded himself and left Thebes. Polynices and Eteocles succeeded him to the throne, agreeing to each be the king for half the year. But when Eteocles’ six months were up, he refused to let his brother take over. Polynices went off, came back with an army, and, in the ensuing battle, both brothers were killed. The new king Creon – Jocasta’s brother – decreed a law that, because Polynices was an enemy of Thebes, no one should bury him on pain of death. Antigone promptly scattered soil on her brother’s body and then admitted to Creon that she’d done so and thus had broken his law. It was, she said, the law of the gods to respect the dead and bury them. After this, you know it is going to end badly. And here’s the thing I was trying to remember after I saw Harrell’s Greek pieces. In Sophocles’ play, Creon announces ‘No woman is going to lord it over me’ and later adds ‘I am not the man, not now; she [Antigone] is the man if this victory goes to her and she goes free’.

Here’s Judith Butler’s commentary on these lines.

Antigone comes, then, to act in ways that are called manly not only because she acts in defiance of the law but also because she assumes the voice of the law in committing the act against the law. … [Creon] expects that his word will govern her deeds, and she speaks back to him, countering his sovereign speech act by asserting her own sovereignty.

Creon’s performative speech is to make the law by announcing it. Antigone asserts her own sovereignty by the performative act of scattering soil over her brother’s body. I’ve already mentioned Creon’s solo which I saw in the ‘Solos and Duets’ corner of the gallery. Another piece I saw there, Wall Dance from the evening length piece Antigone Jr, was based on the dialogiue between Antigone and her sister Ismene at the opening of Sophocles’ play. Rereading Butler reminded me of the ways in which Antigone and Creon trouble gender norms – Antigone acting like a male, sovereign law-maker, and Creon as someone feminised by her defiance.

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[Creon’s Solo. photo: Tristan Fewings, Getty images]

There is a lot of gender troubling in Harrell’s work. To be clear, I’m not arguing that these are queer pieces, but pointing out how they problematize heteronormativity. There are the men dancing material drawn from the ball walkers who were performing like women on the runway of a fashion show. Then there is Harrell dancing with a Japanese designer dress, citing a solo by an old Japanese man who was dancing the role of a young woman. It is a generally accepted convention in some Japanese theatre forms that experienced male actors perform female roles. In an interview, Harrell points out that, in the Greek theatre of Sophocles’ era, men played female roles. So the role of Antigone would have been played by a man, as it is in Harrell’s Wall Dance.

Wall Dance is probably the piece I most enjoyed in the exhibition. It consists of two men walking rhythmically back and forth, one a few paces behind the other, along a horizontal track in front of a wall. Occasionally one would make a vogue gesture and the other might respond. From time to time, without missing a beat they somehow manage deftly to change so that they walk towards each other but turn before they meet. In the play, Antigone asks Ismene to help her bury their brother’s corpse and Ismene in effect tells her she’s crazy. I saw Wall Dance performed twice while I was at the Barbican and it seemed to me to be partly improvised around a tight structure. Mostly they just walk, quite minimalist, but it is somehow also electric. It is a sort of battle with each intensely aware of what the other is doing, braced to respond gesture for gesture, inflection with inflection.

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[Wall Dance. photo: Tristan Fewings, Getty images]

Reading the notes afterwards I found that Harrell was also thinking of the duet in the film version of de Keersmaeker’s Fase where the two women also perform a minimalist stepping sequence repetitively while going back and forth along a horizontal track in front of a wall. The more I find out about Harrell’s work, the more I appreciate his dance literacy – the range of references on which he draws and the smart, ironic but convincing and sometimes moving uses he makes of them.

I’ve talked a lot about the identity politics in Harrell’s work because that’s something I’m always interested in. But I don’t want to imply that that is what his work is all about. There is an inclusive diversity in Hoochie Koochie that hints at a transnational circulation of cultural values. One last example: Harrell has been working on material about Dominique Bagouet, the much loved Cunninghamesque French choreographer who sadly died of AIDs related illness in 1992. But Harrell is learning French and is only working with information about Bagouet that people tell him in French. (Félicitations! quelle bonne idée!) What, Harrell asks in Ghost Trio, might have happened if Bagouet had met Hijikata late one night in a New York bar?

There is a need to embrace diversity on this international scale and be open to wider frames of reference about planetary needs. Hoochie Koochie offers spaces for looking outside our usual frames of reference by making us believe in the expanded range of possibilities that the dancers offer, and see the magic.

 

Reflections on “material / rearranged / to / be” – part 2.

It’s a few weeks now since I spent an afternoon at the Barbican seeing different works in the performative exhibition material / rearranged / to / be. In a previous post I talked about the two themes underlying the exhibition: the kinds of associations between seemingly unconnected works that the art historian Aby Warburg looked for; and the anti-dualistic ideas about embodied subjectivity emerging from the discipline of neuroscience. What has stayed with me from my afternoon at the Barbican is the memory of being in an art gallery and watching, close up, some exceptional dancing. Here are my memories of three dance pieces.

Matthias Sperling’s Loop Atlas consists of a repeating movement that starts on the right side of the body and progresses to the left changing slightly with each reiteration. This might sound simple but the beauty and complexity of what Sperling does is quite compelling. In effect he turns, transferring weight from one side to the other, starting at waist height and ending around shoulder height.

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Each turn takes more or less the same time and uses the same amount of energy but what gradually changes is the path his hands and wrists take. The changes are clearly deliberate; they’re small but this is not a minimalist performance. For me, the precision and sensitivity of the movement and Matthias’s intense focus on it, right up to the final delicate gestural detail at its finish, is compelling.

The effect of these reiterations, their rhythm, becomes almost hypnotic. On many levels, Loop Atlas is about turning. Matthias turns from one side to another. The movement he performs gradually turns and transforms itself over time – an evolving creative process. And, in an almost mesmeric way, it turns the everyday into something transcendent – more beautiful, more intense, affective, and vital.

This is the simple version of Loop Atlas, but there is also one with a video loop projection. In this Matthias dances before a screen in front of a camera and projector. He records a couple of minutes of his material, then presses a pedal so that what he’s just danced appears on the screen behind him as he continues to develop further his movement material. Gradually more and more video loops appear behind him, going back in a tunnel of time. Here I’m seeing the history of my own spectatorship. I remember what I was thinking at each earlier stage in the performance. The effect is visually rich and the performance as compelling as the simple version. Both versions are great but looking back now, I prefer the simple one perhaps because I saw it first but also because for me simpler is often stronger.proxy

Andrea Buckley’s contribution is two live pieces and a video loop, all titled In Tension, suggesting both something intended, and also being held in a state of tension. These pieces seem to me to be a personal exploration into how she moves both through actually moving and through an informed, scientific understanding of what happens in the body when we move. How we necessarily, without having to think about it, are continually putting ourselves off balance and then balancing ourselves again when we move, and how fundamental the anatomy of the foot is to this on-going process.

In one of the two live pieces, Andrea shows slides of the bone structure and musculature of the foot and calf, while a live video feed projects onto another screen a close up of her foot when she dances. In the other, she performs around two screens on which videos are playing that relate to balancing and wobbling.

I took a short series of photographs of about 20 seconds of Andrea’s dancing.

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Looking at these brings back memories of sitting on the floor in the gallery, watching her elegantly sure-footed progress around the two screens. I remember her thoughtfully turning and reaching, reconsidering and turning another way. Her feet press firmly on the ground yet she seems so light and limber. Andrea has a wonderful sense of balance. Her movements are so sure, have an inevitability about them, and yet I don’t know where or how she’s going to move in the moment about to come. I remember sitting there entranced.

Charlie Morrissey’s performance is called Actions from the Encyclopaedia of Experience. I suppose it is like Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas; but, instead of gestures, it consists of all Charlie’s different bits of movement knowledge, muscle memory and so on, juxtaposed together. Apparently the conceptual frame for the piece arose from discussions with neuroscientist Anil Seth about the role of the imagination in the process of developing new movement potentials.

As with Matthias and Andrea, I always find the experience of watching Charlie move very special. In Actions from the Encyclopaedia … he performs in front of white screens on which are projected in plain black type, one after another, a series of descriptions of actions. E.g. actions governed by an external focus; confused actions; actions controlled by the projected thoughts of an observer. Charlie’s own body becomes a partial, temporary moving surface on which part of the video is projected so that his silhouetted shadow on the screen behind sometimes dances a duet with him.

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While I could see that Charlie was turning to see what the next ‘action’ was and responding to it, it wasn’t clear exactly how the action and his re-action were related. If it had been obvious, of course, it wouldn’t have been interesting. I could see that something had changed without being able to identify what was different, what had turned into what. As I sat there watching, I was totally absorbed by the way Charlie’s movements – which looked so ordinary, everyday, un-emphatic – seemed to have such gravitas.

Dancing is at its roots about showing the spectator things by focusing their gaze on the body’s ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’. What is ‘to-be-looked-at’ in Charlie’s dancing is so subtle. It’s what’s going on inside as he turns his focus into himself. Looking hard I can just catch tiny shifts in his focus and attention, tinier than one would have believed yet clearly, transparently there before my eyes. There is something deeply resonant about seeing someone moving simply and thoughtfully with such economy and making such seemingly ordinary actions look so profound.

Writing about these three dancers’ contributions to material / rearranged / to / be, I have kept coming back to the idea of turning. I have remembered physical acts of turning, processes where I see one thing turning into another, the returning of repetition and reiteration, the turning inside to make me focus more deeply and realise how little we expect or understand about what the body can potentially do. Maybe that’s what’s so special about Warburg’s library and his Atlas, which was the starting point for material / rearranged / to / be, the way that putting one action or gesture beside another turns them into something new that gives one a deeper understanding about who we are and what potentials are out there waiting for us to discover.

Reflections on “material / rearranged / to / be” – part 1.

I spent an afternoon last week at material / rearranged / to / be (henceforth m/r/t/b) – Siobhan Davies Dance’s new performative exhibition in the Curve Gallery at the Barbican in London. Among its highlights, for me, were a new duet by Siobhan Davies and Helka Kaski, and solos by Andrea Buckley, Charlie Morrissey, and Matthias Sperling. There were also video- and computer-generated installations, and sculptural pieces, together with some explanatory ‘info’ boards. In trying to write about these, I find I first need to explain my take on the project’s overall concept and themes.

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I didn’t buy the catalogue (I had no room for it in my rucksack) so forgive me if I’m repeating things in it. I did sit in on a couple of rehearsals in December and early January. As I understand it m/r/t/b has two main starting points: recent research in neuroscience, neurophysiology and cognitive psychology; and the work of the pioneer Art Historian Aby Warburg, in particular the Mnemosyne Atlas he worked on between 1926 and his death in 1929.

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I googled some of the scientists involved in the project and found lectures posted on YouTube by two of them: Being a beast machine by Anil Seth https://youtu.be/1syDjtlMGbo and Why a brain needs a body by Guy Claxton https://youtu.be/oqrz4cMQM5c . Both talk about the bodily self in non-dualistic terms, and discuss perception as a constructive generative process. Their ideas resonate with the way dance artists working with image-based approaches to movement research and improvisation talk about their work.

My guess is that this interest among independent dancers in neuroscience may come from Siobhan Davies and Gill Clarke. Clarke had a conversation with Guy Claxton for a Crossing Borders event. http://www.independentdance.co.uk/programme/view_entry.php?id=908

Clearly this kind of scientific research validates the kinds of dance knowledge currently informing much independent dance practice. What would be interesting to know is the ways in which the dance artists’ discussions with scientists have opened up new creative potentials in their dancing.

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[board from Warburg’s Atlas]

As well as meeting scientists, the team of artists involved in the project also visited the library of the Warburg Institute at the University of London (see https://youtu.be/rmAhxNzU41g ). There they were particularly interested in Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas of emphatic gestures. I’ve found that to get to grips with what the artists are doing in m/r/t/b it is necessary to go into Warburg’s ideas in some detail.

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[Aby Warburg – from Wikipedia]

Any Warburg (1866-1929) pioneered a new approach to Art History around the beginning of the C20th, by focusing on iconography and gesture rather than arguing about whether particular paintings or drawings were by great masters like Leonardo or Rembrandt or by their pupils or studio assistants, as other art historians were doing at the time. Warburg was interested in what he called ‘pathos formulas’ – particular corporeal forms and gestures that carry an affective and energetic charge.

In the Mnemosyne Atlas, as Dance Historian Gabrielle Brandstetter explains, ‘Warburg attempted to compile a large-scale visual inventory of pathos formulas and their transformation over the course of cultural and art history since antiquity’ (Poetics of Dance p. 87). For this Atlas, Warburg assembled and juxtaposed, in particular thematic groups, a very wide variety of different visual images, pinning them side-by-side on large, hessian-covered boards.

Through the juxtapositions he created, Warburg sought to identify ‘visual inscriptions of cult ritual – as the origin of symbolic representation – [that] are constantly transformed anew in the receptive traditions of art’ (p. 15). Looking at all the individual contributions in m/r/t/b, it is clear that the artists all share a concern with the idea of gesture; and they also seem to be making unexpected connections and juxtapositions that recall the kinds of associations generated in Warburg’s Atlas.

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[on the left: Matthias Sperling ‘Loop Atlas II’, in the background on the right, Efrosini Protopapa’s computer-generated ‘Disputatio III’]

One of Efrosini Protopapa contributions to the exhibition is a projection of images of people’s gestures from old prints and drawings. These are selected by a computer algorithm and shown side by side in continually changing pairs in different positions on the display screens – a machine for generating new associations. Davies and Kaski’s duet looks to me like an exchange of precisely observed and sensitively articulated gestures whose affective charge has as much to do with their juxtapositions as it does with the cultural memories they evoke.

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[Helka Kaski and Siobhan Davies ‘Figuring’]

Warburg’s view of history was one of progress and evolution. A key experience for him was a visit in 1895 to a Hopi Pueblo in Arizona where he witnessed a ritual dance. Such ‘primitive’ forms, he believed, provided a way of coping with experience by creating a distance from oneself and the world, by binding it to an image. As such images passed through antiquity to the Renaissance and the modern period, Warburg argued, they became less magical and came to operate in a more abstract, intellectual way.

Suspended from the ceiling is a mobile by visual artist Jeremy Millar.

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[Jeremy Millar’s Melancholy Mobiles]

From this hang three geometric objects based on ‘Durer’s solid’ – the mysterious polyhedron next to the introspective-looking angel in Durer’s famous engraving Melancholia I.

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[Durer’s Melancholia 1 – from Wikipedia]

Warburg was fascinated by this and wrote:

The truly creative act – that which gives Durer’s Melancholia I its consoling, humanistic message of liberation from the fear of Saturn – can be understood only if we recognize that the artist has taken a magical and mythical logic and made it spiritual and intellectual. (The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity p. 644)

In other words, Durer captures a moment when what was magical is becoming an object of scientific investigation.

An ‘info’ board in the middle of the exhibition is titled ‘magic and science’. It is the field of ideas and affects that occupy the continuum between magic and science that, for me, the dancing performed in the exhibition animates. This is enough for one blog. I’ll save writing about some of the dancing for the next one.

[notes on images: these are mostly from Twitter posts – please contact me on any issues about them]

Time to stop whingeing and do something?

Here’s a list of some of the things that seem to me to restrict independent dance artists in the UK at the moment

  • lack of sufficient, appropriate financial support
  • institutional systems that prioritise reach, engagement, and impact so that artists end up trying to meet agendas set by funding bodies and producers rather than their own artistic priorities and needs.
  • a dearth of physical space in which to make work, and then a dearth of opportunities for showing it and, in particular, a lack appropriate and supportive ones for untested new ideas.
  • a discursive vacuum, a lack of outlets for artistic discussions around innovative dance practices (choreography, performance, training etc.) thus inhibiting the development of a context for its reception and dissemination.
  • internalised restrictions, things that one perhaps doesn’t even recognise one refrains from thinking, let alone doing, for fear of making waves or going out on a limb. How easy is it for example to challenge ideologically contaminated assumptions about artistic freedom and individualism?

These thoughts came to me after two events I attended on the same evening in the final week of Dance Umbrells 2016. These were the talk Body Politic 2016: freedom of movement. How does a climate of censorship affect art? and a performance of Gala by Jérôme Bel.

Can one call the restrictions I’ve outlined here censorship? I associate censorship with the Law, something about which I don’t claim to have much understanding. The idea of censorship brings to mind legislation around the distribution of violent or pornographic material. One recent prominent example of this kind of body politics (though not one mentioned in the Body Politic event) was the case where Pandora Blake made a successful legal challenge against the Audio Visual Media Services regulations. She has pointed out that these, in effect, favour porn made for heterosexual male customers while banning video of practices relating to female pleasure and to those of sexual minorities (see https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/jun/06/feminist-pornographer-wins-right-reinstate-sadomasochism-website-pandora-blake and http://pandorablake.com/blog).

Natalia Kalinda of Belarus Free Theatre (http://www.belarusfreetheatre.com/) who was one of the speakers at the Body Politic event, talked about making live performance work in Belarus and how to tackle the abusive censorship in that country. She went on to point out, however, that in her opinion arts funding systems in the UK are comparable to censorship in countries like Belarus because financial pressures can be as restrictive as political censorship.

Jamila Johnson-Small, also on the panel, spoke about what she perceived to be a problematic when she performed or, as she put it, made an exhibition of herself. She read from a blog in which she asks herself ‘how do I not climb into a cage of my own making’. (https://jamilajohnsonsmall.wordpress.com/2015/06/04/on-silence-and-invisibility/) She talked about the constant physical negotiation of institutional systems, and of how to work within them without being taken over by them.

What kind of freedoms do such negotiations offer? That was the thought I took with me to Jérôme Bel’s Gala which I went on to see after the talk.

Gala reminded me of Bel’s Disabled Theatre which I saw during Dance Umbrella 2015. In the former the cast are made up of people who are autistic or have downs syndrome, while the cast of Gala includes a range of people ranging from pre-teens to someone who I thought was 70 or over, BME people, people with disabilities, and gender queer folk. A few were professional dancers or performers while most were untrained amateurs.

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[Gala, Dance Umbrella 2016, Photograph: Foteini Christofilopoulou 2016 from The Guardian]

In both pieces the participants seem to have been given tasks to perform which they then execute on stage on their own one after the other, with some group material at the end. I remember Bel saying last year that, in Disabled Theatre, the performers were free to do whatever they wanted, and that he couldn’t have made them do what he wanted if he tried. In Gala I assume there was a similar intention to give the performers freedom to do whatever they want without interference. The programme notes that they each chose their own costumes.

Whereas Disabled Theatre received quite a mixed reception, Gala seems to have been well received (see Judith Mackrell’s review for example). I’ve met people who loved it. The people I found myself sitting next to at Sadlers Wells had seen it at the Bernie Grant Centre and liked it so much that they’d come back to see it again. Interestingly they weren’t even regular dance goers. There was a standing ovation the night I saw it. But (did you sense there was a ‘but’ coming?) I felt uneasy about Gala.

I felt that the idea that the performers were free to do whatever they wanted was illusory. Its attraction as an idea comes from the idea of freedom that underpins the individualism encouraged by the consumer culture of C21st capitalism. I thought the performers in Gala were completely controlled by the rational system that Bel had devised. They were obedient, always performing their tasks faithfully without embellishment, event in the ‘Michael Jackson’ themed section when the audience’s laughs and cheers must have tempted some of them to add a little extra embellishment while they were still on stage.

The structure of Gala could be compared with that of a tv show like Britain’s Got Talent albeit with a more avant-garde aesthetic. In Johnson-Small’s terms, the work allowed the performers to climb into cages of their own making. Giving Gala a standing ovation seemed to me to be giving a stamp of approval to a system as totalising and controlling as that of most of our increasingly precarious working lives under neoliberal austerity.

And it is that system that people like Natalia Kalinda point out we need to resist.

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I like a good whinge or rant but realistically that is not enough (Eeyore has always been one of my favourite characters). Somehow we need to do something. But what? well, I don’t have a real answer to this but just some suggestions, ones that comes from a workshop by Paul Mason that I attended at the Momentum fringe conference The World Transformed during the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool last month.

What Mason said there seems to be based on a recent blog he wrote Find each other and act! Twelve principles for a neo-Bevanite left (https://medium.com/mosquito-ridge/find-each-other-and-act-dd566b812732#.lyabzjtae) Here are extracts from some of these principles that we might think about translating into tactics suitable to the needs of independent dance artists.

  1. Understand what’s really happening.
  2. Exercise free speech.
  3. Form affinity groups.
  4. Emulate social movements.
  • Resist in a way that forces those in power into a “decision dilemma”
  • Think of every action in three parts: prepare, act, reflect
  • Design actions either to communicate or to achieve concrete goals
  • Act in a way that reframes the story; re-set the narrative
  • Be peaceful, funny and human
  1. Link to the wider progressive movement.
  2. Learn new ideas. Or teach people.
  3. It’s their media but it’s our voice.
  • Populate the media. The letters pages, radio phone-in programmes, audience Q&As, vox popsthey are all spaces [in which a] radical voice needs to be heard. (…)
  • Create waves through social media. The newspapers and TV are important because they maintain a monopoly of distribution. The internet breaks that monopoly. Social media, no matter how heavily policed and distorted by algorithms, is an important tool in our fight for social justice. It can bring to the palm of everybody (i) truth (ii) undistorted arguments (iii) periodic calls to do something.
  • We need our own media. (…) The point is not to make propaganda. It is to report the news fairly, in a way the mainstream media will not do. In the short term we need a way of aggregating the content produced by small alternative media; professionalising what they do … (selected extracts from Paul Mason’s blog)

Is there a way of adapting Mason’s programme that might offer potentials for dealing with the restrictions I outlined at the start of this blog post?

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/