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Building conversations

Photo: Guy Cools

Part of the Invisible Diaries series

Week 12 / Day 5


I am really not a screen person. I have always tried to limit my time in front of a computer to a maximum of a couple of hours a day. I bought my first PC only in 2009, when I started to work on my PhD, obliging myself to go into other’s people offices if I needed to use a computer. It was a way to control the time spent on it, but also as a freelancer to socialize and have a working place I felt I somehow belonged to. Also, in the past months, I tried to find a way of organizing my screen time that bridged the new reality of most work going online and my own needs. It took a while but eventually I found a good rhythm: trying to keep most mornings free for my own work and writing; to limit online professional meetings to a maximum of two a day, preferably in the early afternoon and keeping the last part of the day free for family and leisure (which would include, I have to admit, watching some Netflix series in the evening, on the couch with a glass of wine, together with Stephanie).

So, the outpour and overdose of online creativity and the free release of archival material hasn’t been really spent well on me. The tension between the liveness of our art form and this obligatory online presence has been the topic of a lot of (mainly online) Covid-19 discourse and actions, with the IETM report, ‘Live arts in the virtualising world’ summarizing well the key issues.

Last night, however, there were two online events that both interested me, also because I thought that they would further stimulate my reflections on this tension between liveness and virtual reality. The first one was Twenty20 FRAMEWORKS, created by the Aerowaves network. The second one, Where Should We Begin #48/Digital Silence, organised by Building Conversation, the artistic project of the Dutch theatre director Lotte van den Berg. Both where announced as unique, free online events, for which you had to register or reserve ‘a ticket’. They seemed to only partially overlap in time, with the Aerowaves event starting earlier and lasting longer, so I booked both in the hope that I could experience at least a part of each in order to report today on my experiences in a comparative way.

Frameworks announced itself as a “new initiative” that “dives into new dance territory opened up by interactive technology”. The Aerowaves network has already developed over a much longer period, experience with live-streaming performance events and due to the Covid-19 crisis, they also transformed the 2020 edition of their annual festival Spring Forward into an online event, The Show Must Go On-Line, on which dance critic Emily May’s beautifully reflects on ‘“Will we lose the memory of what it meant to go to the theatre?” Reflections on Spring Forward 2020 #TheShowMustGoOnline’.

It turned out it was not possible to zap between the events so in the end I had to make a choice, and only saw the waiting room announcements of Frameworks, which made me realize this is completely not my cup of tea. I had already had in the recent past private exchanges with some of the Aerowaves partners (who are mostly curators/producers) and their director John Ashford about the fact that, in my opinion, their focus on staying competitive in the international arts market by creating a successful ‘brand’, doesn’t necessarily make our dance community more sustainable. Moreover, now, the trailers were overusing quantitative criteria and marketing newspeak: “900 minutes of Zoom, 74 countries”; “It was so slickly and engagingly presented”, “a very special, one-time event”, “completely novel concept”. I still hope to see in the future some of the works created for Frameworks in their own right, but last night I was already oversaturated with fast, ‘slick’ images before the event had even started.

The waiting room into Digital Silence was exactly the opposite. We were all waiting in silence for the other participants to log in, taking the time to look at each other and each other’s environments. In the email, confirming our participation, it was specified to choose a quiet room (I chose my bedroom, a room I usually never take my computer to) and to put the camera in such a position that you could see part of it. At the beginning of the event, Lotte van den Berg explained both her inspiration sources and what would happen. Her artistic organisation, Building Conversation researches the different ways we communicate. With the Covid-19 crisis, this research now also includes the digital environment. Referencing Homi K. Bhabha’s notion of the ‘third space’, van den Berg invited us to explore how the physical and virtual co-exists.

We were invited to spend an hour in silence, starting from being invisible and looking into the empty room from the same perspective as the camera and spending the rest of the hour in any way we liked, reflecting on the questions we were giving about what makes us more present or absent in our own physical space or online. After this hour, there was a 5-minute break after which we had a 30-minute conversation with all the participants exchanging our experiences.

It was exactly what I needed. The short trip to Hamburg had exhausted me more than I had realized, so I spent the first half-hour doing my yoga nidra on the floor and the second half on my bed, writing down my reflections on the questions and rereading some old forgotten letters (amongst other from Sophia) that I keep in a small cupboard next to my bed. All the time I was aware of the presence of the others, mainly by the background sounds in their respective rooms, as if I was hearing the conversations and television screens of my neighbors, living in a ‘cardboard apartment building’. It made me curious about what was happening in the other ‘virtual’ rooms, but often a distant, sideward glance on my screen would be enough to satisfy that curiosity, as I felt the silent time off for myself to be too precious.

The half-hour conversation that followed and which remained punctuated by silences, which were this time surprisingly not awkward at all (in comparison with most other Zoom meetings), gave some more inspired thoughts to consider and eventually we were invited to think about the way we wanted to leave the conversation. I left my computer on for a while, only turning the screen to the window so that the others would have the view of the dark courtyard outside and the lit apartment windows around it.

I slept very well and did get up at 5 am to start this entry. It is shortly after 8 am now. I had breakfast in-between with Julian and Stephanie who are getting ready to go out to the Kindergarten and the rehearsal studio, and I still need to add today’s dedication to my close friend and artistic partner Lin Snelling, with whom I developed over a period of more than 15 years, an improvised performance practice called Rewriting Distance, which includes moving, spoken word and writing. The exchange of knowledge between Lin and me, whether somatic, intellectual, philosophical or just about practical life matters has been both the most profound and horizontal in my career, and it feels, even after all this time, as if we still have only scratched the surface of its potential. The one thing I will be forever grateful for, is her challenging me to perform. It remains a BIG challenge each time we do RW and I still don’t have any ambition to be on stage with anyone else as I always enjoyed my invisible role behind the scenes, but I do think I am better dramaturg because of these experiences, and my admiration for the dancers and performers, the ‘frontline workers’ of our field has only increased because of it.

Rewriting Distance, Guy Cools with Lin Snelling. Photography: Michael Reinhart.


Guy Cools is a Belgian dance dramaturg, currently living in Vienna. He has worked as a dance critic and dance curator. He curated from 1990 till 2002, the dance program of Arts Centre Vooruit in Ghent, Belgium. As a production dramaturg, he worked amongst others with Jean Abreu (UK), Koen Augustijnen (BE), Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (BE), Danièle Desnoyers (CA), Alexander Gottfarb (AT), Lia Haraki (CY), Akram Khan (UK), Joshua Monten (SUI), Arno Schuitemaker (NL) and Stephanie Thiersch (DE).

As a dramaturgical mentor, he has been mentoring Anghiari Dance Hub, the International Choreographer’s Week in Tilburg, the project Danse et Dramaturgie in Switzerland; the Biennale Dance College in Venice and the Atlas program of Impulstanz in Vienna. He lectures and teaches at different universities and arts colleges in Europe and Canada.

His most recent publications include The Ethics of Art: ecological turns in the performing arts, co-edited with Pascal Gielen (2014); In-between Dance Cultures: on the migratory artistic identity of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Akram Khan (2015); Imaginative Bodies, dialogues in performance practices (2016) and The Choreopolitics of Alain Platel’s les ballets C de la B, co-edited with Christel Stalpaert and Hildegard De Vuyst (2019). With the Canadian choreographer, Lin Snelling, he developed an improvised performance practice Rewriting Distance that focuses on the integration of movement, voice, and writing.

He is currently using the time-out of travelling, working at home on his next book, Performing Mourning, Laments in Contemporary Art.


Portrait photography by Pawel Wyszomirski.

Screenshot image is courtesy of the author.

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