Who are we actually addressing through our work?

The text was written on the occasion of my experience as a member of the 5th cycle of the Critical Practice Made in YU Choreographic Turn #7_Deborah Encounters (choreographic-turn.net/CT-7) in Ljubljana. CT#7 was organized and produced by the Nomad Dance Academy Slovenia and curated by Dragana Alfirević in collaboration with Jana Jevtović, Dejan Srhoj, and Jasmina Založnik.

– The text was completed between the two Greek parliamentary election rounds of 2023.

This Sunday, on May 21, the Greek national elections were held. For the past four years, Greece has had one of the most conservative right-wing neoliberal governments in the last decades, which has contributed to the democratic deviation that is taking place in the country.

This Sunday in its overwhelming majority (about 40%, more than twice the number of the second progressive party Syriza) the electorate decided to re-elect this government while an additional percentage chose far more conservative parties with fundamentalist characteristics (about 10%).

(Deep Breath | These days with the prospect of leaving the country for good arising once again, the jasmine in the parks smells even better.)

It is understandable that the election results cannot be a presumption of the ideological, cultural, class and social background of the electorate, but they can be an indicator of certain characteristics. In a country that faithfully follows the Western standards of political conservatism and fascistization, there is a need to create some forms of resistance in the performance practices that will invest in critical production of artistic discourse and will focus on immersive methods of approaching the audience. At this point the circumstances are forcing us towards an important decision of dramaturgical nature: Who are we actually addressing through our work? The easy answer to this question is that we address our like-minded people, those we define ourselves to belong with, a privileged cultural elite who are able to understand our references, our symbolisms or our practices. Undoubtedly, it can be particularly useful and emancipating experience to participate in such performances, as it can remind us the presence of the other, who looks like us, in the darkness that prevails. As time goes by, however, our world seems to be shrinking and somehow emerges, as un urgency, the necessity for us to recognize that possible, till now excluded, audience, for which we know little, because it has never been in our priorities to learn more about them. Would it be a proper idea to take it for granted that the audience is already emancipated? I feel that while this approach would affirm a remarkable sense of equality between creators and audiences, it would also lead to a logical error while we would not take into account the privilege of an advantage we have : to be in the (un?) privileged position of caring, of advancing our social and political interdependence, of opening space for a new critical egalitarian contract. In any case we need the other to emancipate ourselves, it is not a self-referential emancipation process but a collective one.

(next day/ I’m afraid I’m getting off my topic. My thoughts create a net where everything is connected and I seem to see the world through its nostrils)

On the second day of our visit to Ljubljana we met Rok Vevar, initiator of the Archive and a member of Nomad Dance Academy Slovenija at MSUM where he had been granted a space for the dance archive. After a brief presentation of the initiative Rok was kind enough to share with us some documents from the archive. Photos, interviews, programs, tickets and magazines were displayed on a large surface. My attention was drawn to a black-and-white photograph depicting three bodies in a row. The middle solid one, was holding a body on its right while the body on the left side was upside down with its head resting on the ground and its shoes high in the air touching the back of the middle one. It wasn’t hard to recognize his shoes as the iconic star revealed the brand. “Dr. J’s magic moves are made in Converse Shoes.” said the advertisement of the time. A complex that was consisted by the shoes, a hunched shoulder, and a body surrendered and leaning against that shoulder, forming the central point of a composition which seems to be flanked by an axis, of a numerous audience. The space must have been the public space of the city. Some square maybe? Some inner courtyard of a building; The photo was from 1984.

Picture from the archive of Rok Vevar, the founder of the Temporary Slovene Dance Archive. The archive is housed in the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova in Ljubljana since 2018.

My gaze left the shoes with Micha’s question to Rok regarding audience numbers. “why do you think so many people watched the performances back then?” Rok’s answer surprised me: “many went because they wanted to see things they did not expect“. Instinctively I began to question this interpretation in my head. “Think about the shoes. Think you’re wrong.”  The presence of these shoes is what convinced me to forget everything I thought I knew. While being the alarming indication of my biased gaze and understanding, the image of these shoes was filtered through a certain framework of thinking, preventing me from allowing the unexpected. Who taught me history? Why did I believe that these countries were blocked from the West? Why hasn’t anyone corrected me on the matter? “Name the countries created from Yugoslavia… Prove that you know something.” Check. I tried to visualize in my mind the glasses I am wearing. They are probably cheap plastic. I bought them at a flea market next to E.C.B. I look ridiculous.

(Going through this experience back in my country, sharing my line of thinking and my surprise about the coloniality of my gaze, many tried to correct me. “This is not coloniality, it is a lack of historical knowledge” said those who, like me, did not know how the social, economic, political, and cultural structures of Yugoslavia worked. What is coloniality thought if not, in my case, the institutionally imposed reading of history? Τhe concealment of alternative paradigms away from the coveted western model ? My cheap sunglasses?)

Fortunately, I was persuaded because the ensuing discussion -in which Marijana[1] actively participated- would not have had the same impact on me if I had continued to question their narratives in relation to the cultural production and artistic practices that people from a very specific geopolitical regime shared with us. These stories created a great nostalgia for me. I shared a memory that was unmistakably theirs, and in it I saw a promise.

(I roll a cigarette and light it looking at the photo. At this point I’m afraid of how the text I want to write will turn out.)

I came to realize that there was an unexpected contradiction between the first two days of the program. On the very first day, I shouldn’t have felt any discomfort: I was welcomed in a setting that should have felt familiar, recognizable and safe without any surprises; A framework that looked like what I had been taught to recognize myself in. However this was not the case. I was given the feeling that there was constantly an anxiety, on behalf of the organizers, to respond to a series of hypothetical expectations of the infamous western artworld. This was eerily familiar. Once again, I found myself trying (and failing) to understand the need to affirm the Western standards of cultural consumption, a case similar to what happens in Greece as well.  That day I was the “locally produced pair of shoes” but I couldn’t realize it.  Yet.

In the very morning of the same day we met Jasmina Založnik, the representative of Nomad Dance Academy Slovenija, in a space that the cultural organization DUM had granted us. The atmosphere among the CPMIYU team was yet to be established, as it was our first physical meeting. After chatting with Jasmina on the cultural scene and cultural production in Slovenia, the conversation turned to the program “Choreographic Turn #7: Encounter with Deborah Hay”. The organizers knew from the very beginning that a very specific audience with cultural awareness, education and knowledge of contemporary (western) performance-making, would be interested to participate in the program. At that moment I shifted my gaze to the window and looked for people passing-by. There weren’t any. I had forgotten that the DUM venue was housed in a complex of buildings and could only be accessed through an inner courtyard not allowing uninvited visitors.

The group attended the various events of Choreographic Turn #7. As it turned out the organizers were not mistaken, as a very specific audience, small in number, who seemed to know each other, attended the performances. From the very beginning the CPMIYU team found no difficulty in becoming a part of that group, keeping the necessary distance, that of the observer. I was impressed that the event and the characteristics of the audience that participated in it, seemed to share the self-referentiality of the practices presented. By the end of the evening, the cover of Nancy Fraser’s book “cannibal capitalism” depicting a chain of snakes eating each other’s tails, was stuck in my mind. I remember not mentioning this to anyone.

(I find it even more difficult to continue. I let a few days go by and finally I go back to see what I have written. I make a decision: to write having constantly in mind those who were absent.)

In Fraser’s book the system, portrayed as an ouroboros, accumulates everything it can assimilate in the form of capital. That system does not refer to “a type of economy but to a type of society” (Fraser, 2022, p. 15) and I am wondering in how many different ways culture can serve this vortex. I will avoid to focus on the mechanisms in which neoliberalism commercializes art and incorporates the various discourses that are institutionally produced through public and private initiatives. However, I will suggest the opening of a dialogue in relation to the ways in which artistic production and curating of the independent scenes have adopted, perhaps unwittingly, practices intertwined with the neoliberal condition by promoting entrenched experiences in relation to capital[2] and by perpetuating various class-based inequalities by systemic exclusions.

I wonder:

– Is our choice of target audience, a political one? When a cultural event addresses a privileged few, does it become a class issue?

– What does it mean to exclude/include people? What does it take to invest in the concept of presence but also be aware of the absences this choice creates?

– Can self-reproduction be freed from neoliberal production processes?

Neoliberalism seems to create spaces that appear to be freely accessible to all while always concealing or applauding the fact that not everyone has equal access to them. This feature which is a structural element of the system, has deep ideological roots in elitism, inequality and the defense of privilege. If we refer to Friedrich von Hayek, one of the main founders of neoliberalism, we can see that inequality is the foundation of any form of progress as it needs “some” to be “far ahead of the rest.” (Hayek, 1978, p. 42) while this position “is clearly an advantage to those who are behind” (Hayek, 1978, p. 46). In this light, social inequality is founded and legitimized as a necessary element of human evolution and collective progress, as individual progress gradually spreads throughout the social body. Defending not only the unequal conditions of access but also by extension the social, class and economic inequalities, Hayek perceives social stratification as a pyramidal structure where all its stages “are reasonably occupied” (Ibid, p. 46) with those in the lower strata being benefited from the higher levels. In our times, the accumulation of capital, as well as the accumulation of material and immaterial privileges, seams not only to justify and defend a relentless elitism that now seems to be established in the doctrine “there is no alternative“, but at the same time it shapes the philosophical rationale of the West in an era when neoliberalism is no longer just an ideological point of departure but a prevailing established modus operandi.

Those circumstances do not leave the artistic production unaffected. The cultural management policies and the access to cultural consumption, as well as the politics of relations that are formed under the specific conditions are affected as well: let’s just reflect on the ways in which the majority of theaters, cultural festivals, open events in public spaces or public debates in private ones, museums, archaeological sites, cinemas with experimental cinema, galleries and others, are reasonably occupied by specific class groups. It is worth noting that the concept of class in modern neoliberalism ceases to indicate and be formed, not only based on economic divisions with income criteria, but tends to constitute a multi-dimensional structure which takes into account more complex ways in relation to the social and cultural capital that one carries[3]. Based on the above, we can claim that the privatization of cultural capital through the accumulation of artistic discourse in specific privileged class groups not only turns cultural production into a sophisticated affair that concerns only a cultural elite, but has the power to subversively promote the systemic inequality policies and tactics of hierarchy, cutting off art from a driving force of social and political change, if one chooses to understand it as such.

It seems of decisive importance for the disturbance of such cultural practices, the intentional expansion of those “occupied” spaces and their transformation into extended spaces, depending on the diversity of the participants, or yet, the intentional transformation of these spaces into common ones, through the collective assertion of their openness. Far from the dominant hierarchical policies, these spaces “acquire a dubious, perhaps precarious but also virus-like existence. Their power lies within their openness, their ability to overspill their boundaries and their gestures towards those who are not yet included.” (Stavrides, 2016, p. 251). Consequently, common spaces are not fixed but are constantly in an ongoing process of preservation and negotiation, and can be located in the repeated attempts of a group “in relation” to articulate a world, as well as in their intention to share that world among them.

Elaborating further on the concept of intention, I will start by briefly explaining my cultural understanding of the term. The Greek word próthesis which is translated as intention in the English language, comes from the prefix pro- “before” and the ancient Greek verb títhēmi “to put, set, place”. The word itself seems to carry a temporality that requires the choice of recognition and classification but also a contingency that links the present position to various future outcomes. A relational understanding of intention under the lens of endless possibilities, adopts addressing practices that include: the recognition of the position of the subject that “has the intention” by itself (with all the different identities and privileges it carries), the recognition of the position of the subject to whom that intention is addressed, the reasons for the choice of this addressed subject, the means that are used (the way of that intention is expressed) but also the purpose of this address.

In this light, intention seems to be linked to the concept of choice. Bringing the photograph back to my mind, I keep thinking of the audience that wanted to see what they did not expect. Maybe that “unexpected quality” mattered to them in ways that I cannot understand, just as the image of the shoes altered the way that I got to experience my presence there. However I think it would be unfair, if the audience bore the full responsibility of its presence without taking into account the intention of the artists to choose to address them, for example with the use of the public space as a stage. According to that, it is a matter of choice whether a cultural event includes or excludes categories of people, expands the discourse in a variety of directions or invests in existing ways of appropriating the cultural works it hosts, stands critically or ensures the preservation of privilege[4]. After all like education, cultural productions, curation of festivals, artistic direction of programs, etc. can “ensure the perpetuation of privilege by the simple operation of their own internal logic” (Bourdieu & Passeron, 2019, p. 81), as, many times the choices derive and aim at the initial privilege that equates systemic and selective exclusion with the self-exclusion of the less privileged. The cultural elite, therefore, legitimizes their cultural privileges in this way, integrating them into personal self-worth, while at the same time the absence is normalized by excluding other possible audiences who are understood as unable to perceive and approach such culture events without taking into account that those events invest in the established sociocultural reproduction.

In this light, it is not a coincidence that this very specific audience attended the festival. On the one hand the festival itself was not open to processes of artistic diffusion to a wider audience while on the other hand, this specialized performance presented seemed not to concern anyone other than the professionals of the field and especially in such a tight, sterile and self-referential context. Also, It is no coincidence that the closed circuit of self-referentiality of these curatorial practices often follows the self-referentiality of the works they host. The fragmented flat self, its reproduction and its aestheticization (Allan, 1997) constitutes the intellectual heritage of the postmodern, which, disdaining the absolute, unambiguous references and consistency, managed to consolidate questioning, self-expression and cynicism (Jeffries, 2021). The self as a point of reference, has returned to a pre-Galilean state, not recognizing oneself as the centre of the world, a world far from the Kantian conception of rationality and certainties, but “as a floating signifier” (Gubrium & Holstein, 1994) to an emphatic approach of interpretation, relativism and the active construction of subjectivity and fragmented self. While modernism was associated with “the potentiality of self-creation”, postmodernism seems to have resulted in “the impasse of self-referential signification” (Konings, 2023).

The body on stage with the advent of the postmodern ceased to be a representation but claimed only its pure, without references, presence. These tendencies were incorporated into dance practices much quicker, as there existed the ground for the body to be considered as articulating “not meaning but energy”, representing “not illustrations but actions.” (Lehmann, 2006, p. 163) Within this context, a “self-dramatization of physis” took place. Nevertheless, the body is historically determined (Fischer-Lichte, 1989), a fact that prevents us from perceiving it as one simple, pure, energetic presence on stage that just acts. The body will always carry a minimum of signifying material. So when the self-referential body is artistically exhibited, it is merged with the artwork, it crosses “the ontological threshold that differentiates the material object of everyday life and of undifferentiated experience” to the “autonomous artistic object of aesthetic perception” (Πεφάνης, 2007, p. 223). The absence of this aesthetic distance can lead to an authoritative self-referential artistic subject that turns the closed process of self-transformation as self-reproduction, into maximum aesthetic pleasure. On the other hand, if we assume that there exist an addressing and recognition of the spectators within a self-created and self-regulating system[5], a question arises as to which spectators we are talking about, since we will probably refer to a “a particular kind of spectator” capable of perceiving and documenting an emerging event “possessed of a particular kind of educated sensibility or susceptibility that can detect this emergence.” (Bayly, 2011, p. 197) a fact that cannot but create more self-referential closed circuits and cultural enclosures. So it seems that in the aforementioned ways, the aestheticization of the performing self-referential embodied subject leads to its objectification, while the closed processes of self-reproduction, based on exclusion and the construction of subjectivity, reinforce the commodification and the marketability of the subject-image-product through the accumulation by disposition of culture and creativity.

One would expect that in a festival in 2023, the presentation of a work belonging in an aesthetic movement that is slowly entering the realm of history of aesthetics, would be accompanied, if not by a critique in relation to the aesthetic regime that had been imposed on the cultural field in the previous decades, but at least with some questions raised, regarding the generative causes that highlighted this movement in its specific historical socio-political context, as well as with the perceptual forms it consolidated in order to create a space for its radical re-approach. It may be that postmodernism, whose theory cannot be separated from the theory of the post-dramatic model, has liberated the Western world, creating new spaces of expression and perhaps assertion, nevertheless we cannot deny that it has also created new enclosures. In these closed spaces, lies accumulated, the way we see the world and ourselves within it. Spaces full of means with no reason and justification, in which our freedom in relation to our admission in them, is defined as a lack of coercion and not as a right to access them.

Regardless of their great differences, the performing arts share the necessity for the presence of others, and in this particular case the absence of some, or the sought-after identity of us, allowed me, although coming from a theatrical background, to deal with the social experience of being present and the responsibilities that arise from it. Lehmann (2006) was right when he told us that the politics of perception, is at the same time an aesthetics of responsibility, and it is interesting to interpret this responsibility in terms of ability, as Response-Ability. An ability that creates space for being affected and at the same time for rendering us responsive to the recognition of the other. So I think that the relationship between politics and the performing arts is not only found in the presence and in the space of appearance, but in what Maaike Bleeker (2023)  describes as a practice of dramaturgy towards “care (for what is created and how, and for what is immanent in this process) […] ethics (of taking an ethical approach towards what is being created and how, towards what performances do, towards those involved in the creation, and towards what is implied by modes of working)” and I would add the prothesis (to a relational recognition of the performance in relation with the audience, to care “with” the included but also the excluded audience, to find the proper means for the audience, to aim in sharing something that matters).

I wonder if our obsession with presence, with self-referenciality, is a way of asserting ourselves, of forging a solid ground upon which we can confront the world. Nevertheless my experience in Ljubljana forced me to turn to absence, to those who are missing, to what we struggle to renounce in order to get accepted somewhere else, to what we forget or deliberately did not -and probably will not- learn. Here and now, in the loneliness that derives from the feeling that I am one of the offsprings of a historical mistake, in a world that keeps excluding us, in a political outcome that keeps canceling our presence; I think of the colorful volcano exhibited in a corner of the Museum of Modern Art Metelkova and recall the words that accompany it: ” We are the makers of the wrong maps, invisible and dead, hidden beneath the surface of the stone crust. For those who will be digging it up, a helpful note – Franci is the third from the left in the first row, and I am the second from the right, at the back. Look carefully, diggers, lest your tools injure us. We have long been weak and tender. If a rough hand touches us, we may turn to dust.” I have the feeling that if someone stays still and listens, they can hear their voices. There is an urgency for us to dig up our volcanos, keeping in mind that the volcanic soil, is most fertile one. For some of us, this way is the only one we have the privilege to take. The responsibility to recognize and respond to this absence, so that perhaps in some ways we can justify their loss.

Drawing from the exhibition “Selection From The Collections Of Moderna Galerija| ARTEAST 2000+”(01 February 2023 — 15 June 2023) hosted at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova in Ljubljana . Photo by Nefeli Gioti

(Tomorrow the second round of elections is held.

I am afraid because the drownings in the Aegean, the femicides, the suicides, the uprooting, the evictions, the state murders, the lack of care for cancer patients, the attacks on LGBTQ+ , the lack of access for people with special abilities, the elderly and femininity have not become a personal issue.

I’m afraid because we live in an age when it should be taken for granted that life matters.

I fear what we have agreed to call “normality”.

I am afraid that I have ceased to grieve for the loss, but for the absence of grief from all of us that are left behind.

I am afraid that someone may not understand how my fear is connected with the text I have written.

Everyone with their own “volcano”?)


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[1] Our mentor, coordinator, and companion, Marijana Cvetković, who is also a co-organizer of the Critical Practice program, accompanied us on our first journey, providing us with a broader context for our visit.

[2] At this point, when I mention the word capital, I am not only referring to the economic capital, but I am trying to approach it according to the circumstances of its appearance as multidimensional form of accumulation that develop within the social field, as forms of relations, following Bourdieu’s separation of economic capital, social capital and cultural capital (Bourdieu, The forms of capital, 1986).

[3] See Mike Savage, Fiona Devine, Niall Cunningham et al., ‘A New Model of Social Class? Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment’, Sociology 47: 2 (2 April 2013).

[4] Sara Ahmed in their attempt to approach the concept of “queer use”, poses an interesting example of the transformation of a post box into a nest for birds. (Ahmed, 2020)

[5]  The term autopoiesis, which was coined by Varela and Maturana to describe the regeneration procedures occurring within biological structures, has been used in the context of performance studies, in order to describe a self-referential, self-generated, self-organizing system, which comes to respond to the ongoing interactions of performers and audiences. (Fischer-Lichte, The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics, 2008)