On Dance as a Circumstance

Reflection on the Dance vs Circumstances symposium (Tanznacht Berlin, August 2016)

by Ana Letunić

In the context of rising precariousness in Berlin’s contemporary dance scene, as well as its influences on the production processes, it seemed only sensible to programme a symposium on working methods and production conditions as a part of the 9th Tanznacht festival in Berlin. The three-hour symposium “Dance vs Circumstances” was structured as four rounds of talks where speakers were grouped by their professional orientation: artists, curators, writers and a cultural policy maker, each of whom had a presentation limited to 15 minutes while only the last session was followed up with a short discussion with the audience. Although the four different discourses are indeed porous and there is an interaction between them, this format made it difficult not to notice how some discourses make it virtually impossible to think outside of their basic postulates due to hegemony of the discursive formation of the market[i].

Journalist Astrid Kaminski, moderator of the symposium, started the encounter with a call for self-reflection: “We need consciousness of what we’re doing here!” During her introduction several loosely connected issues were raised in this spirit of “permanent state of emergency” (Agamben, 2002). Kaminski warned about the scene sometimes being “too solipsistic and egoistic while not enabling enough space for critical awareness due to too much mutual dependency” i.e. precarious conditions of work. Consequentially, she proposed thinking about the possible conditions for creating criticality. Another relevant issue brought up during her introduction was the one of accessibility: “Whether art is for the chosen ones or it should be open for everybody?” In the array of dissonances laid out during the symposium, there were various responses to these subjects as well as propositions of other concerns.

While communicating the responses of the speakers, I will try to disentangle the appearance of the discursive formation of the market – that signifies a post political situation – around the presented topics. As well as the symposium itself, this reflection will revolve around numerous fragmented and dichotomized issues while, hopefully, serving as one of the markers of a need for a deeper, antagonistic discussion.

Poiesis vs Praxis

The first participants who were invited to propose any of the issues they considered most relevant, were the choreographers Jasna L. Vinovrški (Berlin/Zagreb), Martin Stiefermann[ii] (Berlin) and Andrea Božić (Amsterdam/Zagreb).

Jasna L. Vinovrški expressed her concerns in shape of a letter addressed to the “beautiful, powerful dance community” that she associates with a feeling of belonging. In the letter, she confides about the neuralgic points of the scene: lack of finances that pushes artists to work abroad within the residency system and “loss of the source of creativity due to running between projects”. While the latter has been heavily discussed within topics of self-exploitation in the project-oriented cognitive capitalism (see Kunst, 2015), Vinovrški mentions a problem that hasn’t been as nearly elaborated on: what she formulates as “self-organization for selfish reasons”. This motive will continuously reappear during the symposium and therefore receive more elaboration in this reflection.

While Vinovrški partially employs the discourse of fatigue when mentioning the work of organizing and curating, Andrea Božić considers doing “everything as a part of an artwork”. In proposing so, she views the gaps in infrastructure as an invitation to change the modes of production. Božić mentioned examples of her own self-organized work such as BAU[iii], TILT[iv], SPECTRA[v] and Come together[vi] festival. While also inviting the dichotomy of “artist in the studio” and “artist as citizen” into the discussion, she makes a pledge for the “reorganization of infrastructures, as well as affects”. From the position of a self-organized cultural worker, she perceives several problems around the field: standardization of the arts and “impossibility to acknowledge diversity”, non-suitable quantitative criteria for evaluation of the arts and the big gap between project and institutional funding.

In my understanding, these recurring issues are all a manifestation of the pervasive dominance of economic reason in the art today. To be more precise, the commodification of the arts demands reduction of arts’ cultural value to an economic value, while the policies reproduce that logic by making a shift from state subsidy to market survival, which ultimately leads to unsustainability of “unpopular” artistic practices in the cultural field. What remains to discuss is how some of the practices that promote oppositional political content are appropriated and taken over by exploitative interests, such as “self-organization for selfish reasons” mentioned by Vinovrški. A phenomenon of curating and collaboration from economic necessities, that I would like to call pragmatic solidarity, marks somewhat a contradiction of the organizational culture since it is simultaneously employing discursive post socialism and neoliberal strategies of work.

Due to all these issues, both Vinovrški and Božić are calling for change, as most of the speakers of the symposium will be. Still, during the talks, the ideas of the “artists exhausting themselves with non-artistic work” and “getting out of the passive artists role” will be repeatedly brought up. Unfortunately, to binarize poiesis and praxis in this way seems to be contradictory with the demand for change as it has been long recognized that their borders in today’s capitalist society are deeply blurred. To be more precise, artistic production and creation (poiesis) is today inevitably entwined with the political activity of the artists as free citizens (praxis), especially when “dealing with its own conditions of work, which accompany the performing arts as their ‘political unconscious’” (Vujanovic, 2011). Therefore, as if the political has never gone conscious, naming the artist role as “passive” seems influenced by the modernist image of an artist as a “genius” in isolation from society and, in my view, riskily simplifies the discussion due to enabling the spectacularity of that image to stem from the discursive formation of the market.

Instrumental vs Intrinsic

The second round of the discussion featured the curators and programmers Heike Albrecht (Berlin), Annemie Vanackere (Berlin) and Ash Bulayev (Athens/New York).

At the beginning of her presentation, Heike Albrecht pledged for a “more equal distribution of the public money”. In that regard, it is important to mention a policy measure of participatory budgeting that would facilitate her request: it is a situation when the members of the community directly (or through delegates) assume a decision-making power in distributing the public funds. Unlike this straightforward demand, another viewpoint on culture she proposes seems somewhat problematic: “Culture can be viewed as a strategy to enliven the city like the European Capital of Culture examples show us”. ECoC is a project that is supposed to contribute to the strengthening of the European identity while having a significant economic impact; which makes it a well-known example of convergence of economic and cultural goals, i.e. instrumentalisation of culture. Ultimately, that kind of logic leads to the valorization of culture only from an economic viewpoint. At the end of her presentation, Albrecht’s call for the end of “the application culture” was welcomed with an applause, which underlined the fatigue caused by the “project culture” and a need for a more structural funding, possibly within a participative decision making process.

Annemie Vanackere warned about the importance of cultural political work in finding a balance between roles of institutions and independent initiatives in the art scene. She uses the term of ecology of an art landscape that Markussen (2010) defines as “the complex interdependencies that shape the demand for and production of arts and cultural offerings”. In relation to this ecology, she emphasizes the need for mapping of the positions but it remains unclear what would be the aim of the mapping. Since mapping is a primarily descriptive research tool, it appears as fairly neutral if not directed toward a particular, more defined action. Vanackere responds to the title of the symposium with a different one: dance with circumstances instead of dance versus circumstances. Although this change of (pre)positions implies a particular adaptation to the “unchangeable system” (capitalism as the only possible system of work), she pledges for a new form of solidarity. Again, without proper contextualization and operationalization, the new form of solidarity might end up with just being a motive appropriated to serve as one of the ambiguities of the contemporary “marketplace of ideas”.

Ash Bulayev offers a more detailed overview of the areas where the symptoms of the neoliberal discursive formation are blatantly visible. He starts his speech with a quote from a cultural sociologist Pascal Gielen: “Artists are international or nobodies; curators are connected or nobodies” and right away emphasizes relevance that strategies of internationalisation and networking have for the art world at work. He then mentions “dance entering the museum” which could also be interpreted as the symptom of the art market expansion, as well as the proliferation of intermediary organizations and networks in the performing arts field, which reproduce the NGO logic. Further on, by mentioning how the Culture 2000-2007, a European Union programme that had a priority of intercultural dialogue and artist mobility, “pushed the artists to work in a different way”, Bulayev shifted focus to the impact of cultural policy on programming strategies and modes of production. Finally, he makes a pledge for shrinking the discrepancy between national policies that impact the division between international and local artists; investments in production besides presentation and rethinking of the quantitative measures of arts evaluation.

The latter, in my view, seem to be in strong connection: while the culture of presentation and care for the demands of spectators is developing more and more, the emphasis on financing the artistic production is seriously lacking. The care for the spectator, reflecting in the current cultural political “audience development” priority, is in accordance with the contemporary populist politics. It praises arts and culture in an utilitarian manner which, ultimately, leads to the impossibility of the arts to confirm its own generic value as art – but in economy, society, politics – that means it always has to be valorised through another logic.

Projective vs Institutional

Third part of the symposium consisted of the presentations by the authors Dorion Weickmann (Berlin), Kirsten Maar (Berlin) and Bojana Kunst (Gießen/Ljubljana).

Dorion Weickmann warned about the dance practitioners being “too busy with the internal problems and artistic concerns rather than the public ones”. Her observation relates to the poiesis/praxis dichotomy established in the discourse around the artists, as well as to Kaminski’s statement in the introduction about the scene being “too solipsistic”. She notes another issue that was posed in the introduction: “Dance as an art form is made for the audience and should be understandable to everyone”. Again, there is a certain focus on reception by the audience in the overall discussion, now having to do with the matter of accessibility. I believe it is important to express the complexity of this issue, since the framework of “what is understandable to everyone” could lead to the perpetuation of standard content at the cost of the emergence of new artistic paradigms. What Weickmann recommends in case “we want diversity in the audience and not only on stage” is to “offer content beyond the limits of contemporary dance and ballet”. Still, it is possible that this focus on the audience is coming from the discourse of the (economic) justification of the arts, which, again, has a consequence in programmers taking care of their audiences more than of the artists they collaborate with.

Kirsten Maar, whose presentation started around the discourse of collaboration, also points to the problem of collaboration being motivated by economic needs i.e. pragmatic solidarity. Recurrence of this puzzle in the discussion, in my opinion, only points to the fragility of ideology of solidarity in the face of the pervasive market reasoning and calls for more dialogue on these complex political questions of being together, thereby making contemporary dance a relevant space for discussing current social-political concerns. One of those issues Maar wants to question is about sustainability in collaboration: “How do we work together on the long-term level?”, beyond the projective time and how do make contributions “beyond institutions”. She formulates her question even broader asking the audience how can we “work beyond cognitive capitalism” in the conditions where the “artistic research gets more and more institutionalized”. Maar poses questions in a way that reveals her understanding of the institutions as a fixed category, which makes for a valuable introduction for Bojana’s Kunst presentation since she lays out a different perspective on the topic.

Namely, Bojana Kunst thinks it is important to think of “institutions from a temporal perspective, not approached as facts but as potential processes”. She observes a challenge in the simultaneous process of performing the institution and resisting the very process of it and asks: “What do we loose if we win in the process of institutionalization?” Institutions supporting dance, she continues, are especially interesting to capitalism: in the nineties there was an overall economization of arts and the discovery of Eastern Europe, then the rise of the support to the highly educated and nomadic grew in a continuous search for young artists until, finally, we are now being governed through continuous fear from insecurity i.e. precarization. Kunst reflects on the ways to reach rearrangements between politics, economy and value and suggests “a radical shift in temporal dimension” through a “restorative dedication to present time”, in contrast to the tensions of the project logic and its projective time. It is important to mention this might be an important layer of the “reorganization of the affective” Božić appealed for at the beginning of the symposium. Towards the end of her presentation, Kunst asks questions that conclude not only her presentation, but, in my opinion, underline the variety of fragmented issues exposed during the whole event: “How to rethink the knot between cultural politics, cultural value and cultural production? How do we produce the artistic value? And how are artistic, aesthetic values created in the society?”

Arts vs Creative

Fourth and the final part of the symposium hosted Sabine Bangert (Berlin), cultural policy maker from The Greens party (Die Grünen), and was the only one accompanied with a short discussion between the speaker and the audience.

Coming from a decision-making environment, Bangert warned about the Berlin politicians not understanding ”dance as a separate art form”, but perceiving it “as subsumed in performing arts and doing so great that nothing needs to be done”. That is, of course, in dissonance with the array of imbalances other speakers previously mentioned, some of which Bangert reiterates in her presentation. Again, it is the lack of institutional funding for independent dance organizations in Berlin that makes “working conditions in dance unacceptable”. Since there is “no possibility in Berlin to develop smaller productions”, a misbalance occurs in relation to the number of graduates in the field of dance from schools such as the Inter-University Centre for Dance Berlin. Besides the deficit of space to show productions, Bangert warns about the lack of time, as well, and proposes the implementation of a law that enables artists to have ”the possibility to develop something in five years, since one or two years of funding are not sufficient”. Also, following The Green’s focus on social sustainability, she calls for ”funding bodies to implement minimum wages”. As a pathway to resolving these issues, she proposes dialogue with the government and cultural institutions “to arrive to long-term funding for the independent scene” as well as to relocate the funds lost due to “complexity of the application system”, i.e. bureaucratization. Bangert stays pragmatic in saying that, while advocating for more funds, “this demand has to be somehow justified to the politicians”. To justify, she would use the argument of culture as an “economic force which has extreme advantages for Berlin and is good for society” while opposing culture becoming a market with neoliberal tendencies in financing. In the struggle for better conditions of work and a stable dance house, Bangert claims “artists achieved a lot in the last five years in the political field, there is not much more to be done by the scene and it is up to the politicians now”. This mindset might also stem from the established dichotomy of poiesis and praxis since, at the end, she claims that: “When artists exhaust themselves in political work, the artwork suffers”.

In the short discussion after this presentation, first discussant reflected on the change of the artists’ language towards the funders since they feel “they almost have to beg and are treated as children”. In my view, the language currently adopted in the cultural sector by the funding systems in Europe, is defective not just because it fails to provide an adequate means of talking about culture, but because it is a language of dependency and supplication that fosters relations of inequality. Although the other sectors (such as the army) are also funded by the citizens’ tax, only the arts are described as a subsidized sector, being not-for-profit (if we define profit in an economic sense). Another audience member continues down this line of reasoning saying that “we have strong tendencies to neoliberal in arts but art and culture are not a market”. Bangert replied to the discussants’ malcontented statement that “everything we do points in the direction of creative economy” by saying that she as cultural policy maker “fought against the ‘creative economy’, but other politicians let it pass”. It seems, I would add, the expansion of the market discursive formation is candidly visible even in the way we name our policies: first there were arts policies, then the cultural policies and now, finally, we have the creative policies.

Third discussant from the audience offered a short overview of the development of the dance scene in Berlin saying that “forty years ago in Berlin there were just ballet and opera; then Tanzfabrik came to being with no money and a lot of engagement of the artists” and, therefore, pointing to the relevance of artists’ praxis. The discussant continues with saying that “in the 80s, scene changed by inventing the job of producer, firstly in Amsterdam and Brussels” and claims that “this position should be more important again” since there are also “lots of big spaces in Berlin that are free most of the time”. She also implicitly describes a manifestation of the impact of cultural policy on aesthetics, by mentioning that “we have to allow artists to work until the end, not this short – then people will be convinced it is an art form”. Although the discussion with the audience started resembling to an almost antagonistic public discussion, it was interrupted due to beforehand-defined framework of the symposium.

Praxis vs Post-political

In conclusion, Kaminski stressed the need for more discussion since the “conditions are changing”. Considering that the format of the symposium left a very short time for dialogue, it seems the antagonism that “forms the essence of the political” (Mouffe as cited in Kunst, 2015) was constricted. Or, as Kunst stated when comparing the political stance of the artists to the ones of contemporary creative industries: “…they articulate their ideas by forming contexts and communicative social situations in advance, where particular relations can take place safely and without antagonism; this is where temporary communities can be formed, enabling the participation of different users, as well as the contingent and free-flow of various interests. It therefore seems as though it is actually the prevailing heteronomy that Žižek terms pseudo-activity” (Kunst, 2015). Further on, pseudo-activity produces a lack of real effect in society and marks the main characteristic of the post-political situation.

During the symposium, the invitation for change was often reiterated but still, it seems to belong to the normalised discourse of crisis and, without clarification of its normative relational system, exist on the verge of becoming drained of meaning. In my view, for the demand for change to achieve a real effect, its politicality should be brought to consciousness. But, due to the establishment of the poiesis vs praxis dichotomy, it seems the part of the speakers were still relating to politics as something external to the art. In my belief, in order to achieve the desired change, it is vital to overcome this separation of the artistic work and artists’ citizenship activity in society.

An example of such public activity by the artists that resulted in interventions into actual social relations has happened in Belgrade, shortly before this symposium, in May 2016. Due to contemporary dance in Serbia systemically being pushed to the outer margins of the cultural sector, members of the contemporary dance scene in Serbia sued their Ministry of Culture. Concretely, they demanded the annihilation of the results of the yearly tender for culture due to which nearly half of the budget for dance was given to a private commercial dance festival at the cost of 99% of the local choreographers not being supported for their independent work. The jury who made this decision consists of three members that do not have any education or experience in contemporary dance while only one of them works in the field of dance in a broader sense- specifically, in classical ballet. Although the scene is still waiting for the reaction of the Ministry, this endeavour fostered a broader discussion with the aim of “a public and open dialogue between the independent dance scene and decision-makers in the Republic of Serbia through a long-term advocacy process” [vii].

In that sense, this action is an example of how civil society’s members are equipped with the power to interpret and to transform the social and political structures within which they interact. In the times of the pervasiveness of the discursive formation of the market, it is necessary to remind ourselves of the role of civil society as the social space of freedom and solidarity, contrasted with the state but not reducible to the market.

Returning to the symposium, few other contradictions mark the situation where the prevailing political articulation is still imposed by the market, besides the recurring issues of the poiesis vs praxis around the discourse of the artist. For example, in proposing to dance with circumstances instead against them, as the title of the symposium suggests, Vanackere implies certain conciliation with the way things actually are. Yet, such accommodation to the current conditions usually lacks a sense of history. It naturalizes the present, forgets the past, and cannot imagine alternative futures. Coming from a similar reasoning, the mentioned phenomenon of pragmatic solidarity shows the frailty of ideology of solidarity in the face of the dominant ideology of economic servitude.

In order to abandon the political pseudo-activity, it seems requisite to make these different discourses more porous and oriented towards constructing an interdiscursive domain that is emancipated from the dominant ideology of the market, allowing for antagonism and articulations of being together without calculation. In that scenario, dance would not need to be positioned as an entity separated from society and standing either versus or with circumstances.  Hence I believe a more powerful idea of a highly heterogeneous discussion like this one, should be about recognising dance as a circumstance – as an activity in society – and, ensuingly, exploring the grounds for possible cultural resistances that could lead to a more autonomous world of cultural production.

[i] Foucault firstly introduced the term of the discursive formation as the “the general enunciative principle that governs a group of verbal performances” (Foucault, 1969). For the purpose of this text, the term is used on the basis of its definition from the SAGE Dictionary of Cultural Studies, i.e. “the discursive formation as constituted by repeated motifs or clusters of ideas, practices and forms of knowledge across a range of sites of activity” (Barker, 2010). More specifically, I observe the discursive formation as the configuration of discourses in a particular historical conjuncture that is neoliberalism at the present.

[ii] Due to technical issues with translation at the symposium, Stiefermann’s presentation, which was in German, is not featured in this reflection.

[iii] BAU is a platform in Amsterdam that aims to support the independent dance and performance art and develop its working coditions.

[iv] Tilt is an interdisciplinary platform founded in the Netherlands in 2009 by choreographer Andrea Božić, sound artist Robert Pravda and visual artist Julia Willms with the aim of supporting and inspiring artistic practice beyond disciplines.

[v] Spectra is a long-term project by Andrea Božić and Julia Willms (TILT) in which they engage with the whole space and the audience’s presence in it as part of the artwork.

[vi] Come together is an interdisciplinary festival in Amsterdam that gathers the artists of the independent performing arts scene, in a collaboration of BAU, Frascati Theater and Veem House for Performance.

[vii] The disscusion dedicated to dedicated to reflection on the current policies for dance in Serbia, as well as proposals for future policies, can be found at the Kondenz festival blog (2016): http://kondenz2016.blogspot.hr/p/reakcija-na-rezultate-konkursa-za.html.

Works cited:

Agamben, A. The State of Emergency, extract from a lecture at the Centre Roland Barthes-University of Paris VII, Denis Diderot, 2002.

Kunst, B. The Artist at Work: The Proximity of Art and Capitalism, Zero Books, 2015.

Markusen, A. et al., California’s Arts and Cultural Ecology. San Francisco: James Irvine Foundation, 2011.

Vujanovic, A. «Vita performactiva, on the Stage of Neoliberal Capitalist Democratic Society», TkH no. 19 («Politicality of Performance»), December 2011.


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