The pauses we need to become conscious
Part of the Invisible Diaries series
Week 12 / Day 2
Although the Covid-19 lockdown acknowledged and heightened my desire to be more at home and travel less, I consciously decided to plan a short trip today and tomorrow to Hamburg as part of my ‘dramaturgical self-fashioning’, on one of the very first days that is allowed and possible again. How will I experience the ‘new normal’ of travelling after Covid-19?
I haven’t seen an airport as deserted since I flew on 1st January 2000, when it was recommended not to fly because of the danger of the so-called millennium computer bug that would crash all computer systems and possibly also the airplanes operated by them. This trip to Hamburg is to see an exhibition Mourning. On Loss and Change and meet its curator, Brigitte Kölle. It is as much a personal ritual and pilgrimage as a professional necessity, but I am happy that it happens now and under these circumstances, and that I can reflect and report on it in these diaries (see tomorrow’s entry for my experiences of the exhibition).
Yesterday, my colleague and university buddy, the Belgian theatre dramaturg Koen Tachelet wrote an open letter in De Standaard, a Belgian newspaper, about his first experience back on an airplane and how unfair it is for different institutions and economies to have different ‘rules’ to follow, as the rules for re-opening theatres and their audiences to re-enter seem much stricter than those for airlines.
It was clear from day one of this crisis and the lockdown resulting from it, that the measures taken would be a lot of trial and error; to try to control something that remains to a certain extent uncontrollable and that some of these measures would touch upon the absurd. (For instance, in Austria a first announcement to temporary close bars only after 5 pm, or the announcement of the State Secretary of Culture that when rehearsals would start again, it would remain impossible to rehearse love scenes. She said this without irony, and shortly afterwards resigned.) And even now, more than three months later, it is still very unclear which combination of measures (masks, social distancing, testing, tracking) is the most effective. The huge differences in casualties between different places might have much more to do with environmental factors, such as air pollution or failing health care or political systems than with the actual virus. We seem to live in a time where the technocratic and bureaucratic systems we put in place prefer to further infantilize us in order to keep their position of power, by deliberately underestimating people’s common sense and solidarity, and denying them any agency over their own actions.
What I objected to in Koen’s letter (and I have seen many similar statements in the past months) is that he stereotypically pitched ‘us’, the good, poor artists against ‘them’, the bad, neo-liberal, capitalist others, and moaned why can they (already) do things, we are not allowed (yet). The only way out of this crisis with a long term perspective is to take care of our own communities and to be critical for the injustices and inequalities in our own field, like, for instance, the growing gap between the privileges of the institutions and their salaried staff and the growing precariat of freelance artists and cultural workers, whose working conditions have been systematically worsened since the previous (financial) crisis of 2008, with those institutions being often complicit in this exploitation.
We also need cross-sectorial solidarity and as artists, we are much more experienced in dealing with the unknown and insecurity, and we have many transferable skills to support us in this. As artists we know how to surrender and be moved by the circumstances. We are much more resilient than we think or pretend to be. In that way, I appreciated much more the voice and analysis of the Chilean director and dramaturg Ernesto Orellana G, which I read this morning while waiting at the airport:
We need more politicized criticism of the performing arts, criticism that takes into account its conditions and modes of production as well as the needs and demands of the cultural workers who produce it. […] I don’t mean we should focus only on how many people can safely fill a theatre, nor merely question a priori aesthetic experimentation with new formats. I am inviting us to critically reflect on the fact that the new modes of artistic production for the performing arts are weakening our collective position as workers.
To return to my own ambivalent attitude towards travelling and the larger issue of the sustainability of our international mobility: many artists have explicitly questioned and thematized this. There is the more recent, outspoken position of Jérôme Bel to only travel with public transport and to create work from a distance, but there have been older examples, such as the Swedish choreographer Gunilla Heilborn or the Flemish performance artist Benjamin Verdonck, who have been defending and applying some of these ecological principles over a much longer time period and career. Verdonck in 2011 already created an artwork called a Manifesto for Active Participation of the Performing Art Sector in the Transition towards a Fair Durablity, in which he invited the whole Flemish performing arts sector to sign and apply its principles. Only one organization did at the time, but the public debate that followed, increased a general ecological awareness and started to have an impact on how organizations worked.
As for myself, I have a more mixed position on this issue: without international mobility I would not survive as a freelance dance dramaturg, working with artists, who live and work in different countries and communities. Although a larger part of my work had already gone online before the Covid-19 crisis, mainly for practical and economic reasons, I still need to be able to be in the rehearsal studio with the artists to really understand their work and the questions they are dealing with. I would also regret the further closing of borders and the loss of international exchange, which would foster the conservative, populist agendas, prioritizing again national identities over international solidarity.
What does need to change, however, is the hierarchical system we have installed and which is used by the media and the funding bodies, in which working internationally is considered more successful, and a qualitative appreciation and validation of one’s work. We all know that the international circuit also follows fashions and trends, often created by only a handful of influential curators. It should remain a choice how we want to work and how this is appreciated, and if working locally is considered equally valuable, more artists might prefer to do so.
“The pauses in-between the asanas are equally important as the exercises themselves”, my original yoga teacher Eric Gomes would say, “because it is in the pauses that the body becomes conscious of the adjustments it needs to make.” Recent neurological research has proven that a regular, sound sleep is similarly important for our brain functions, memory in particular (see, for instance, Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker). This worldwide pause of the ‘neoliberal marketplace’ might turn out to bring the necessary consciousness that maybe the way the ‘market’ has been organized over the past decades is no longer sustainable, not only in aviation but also in our own field.
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.
Photography by Pawel Wyszomirski.
Image is courtesy of the author.