Superfluousness and what this might have to do with my Sacre.

Last Friday I premiered a new solo at the HAU 2: OPFER/The Sacrifice of Kareth Schaffer. I performed this piece as part of a platform that asked ten choreographers to do their own take on Le Sacre du Printemps. The very existence of this platform seemed to beg the question: why do choreographers still do Sacres? It’s a question I ask in the piece, it’s a question most people with whom I spoke about the piece before it premiered asked, and it’s a question that has changed for me through the experience of actually making and premiering a solo about it.

So, instead of posting a video link to my Sacre (actually, the law firm administering the rights to the music made me sign a paper that I will NEVER show a video of my Sacre to ANYBODY, for WHATEVER REASON…that’s another subject. If you want to be subversive about this, contact me in the comments), I want to write about what I learned from Sacre, and why I think the dance to the death actually might be relevant today*–if we have the courage to reframe the narrative.

Let’s start with the figure of the Chosen One. In the second part of Sacre (according to the ballet by Nijinsky), the Chosen One is dancing in circles with her friends, and then all of a sudden she stumbles over nothing and that’s it, that means she is the Chosen One and she will dance till the death to ensure a good harvest for the rest of the village. What is so strange about this figure is that the Chosen One reconciles two disparate attributes in one figure: 1) She is SPECIAL, the Chosen One, it is up to her to ensure the survival of the village, and 2) She is SUPERFLUOUS, unnecessary, dispensable, überflüssig: the village would not be sacrificing this girl if they needed her to bear children or plow the fields or other useful things.

To whom might these two attributes otherwise apply?

How about artists? How about performing artists in general, and perhaps dancers the most specifically? People who perform on stage are important–their mere presence there proves that. Otherwise, somebody else would be on the stage. Think of all the freedom given to artists, the great romantic myth of the artistic genius, the general acceptance of weird-ass behaviour from artists because they are artists. Being special is part and parcel of being an artist these days, if by ‘artist’ you mean ‘contemporary dancer in Berlin’, which is obviously my context. Simultaneously, however, every performing artist is aware that “standing in the wings” (to use some nice theater metaphors) there are literally thousands of other artists or wanna-be artists who would gladly take their place in the spotlight. Nobody is irreplaceable in this business, yet everybody spends a great deal of time and energy  trying to convince everybody else they are the exceptions to the rule. We are dancing to the death and fighting for the privilege of being the one who jumps the highest while doing so.

This is why Sacre holds so much fascination for choreographers. It describes their condition. However, these two paradoxally linked characteristics of being special and being superfluous might well apply to many people in a ‘knowledge society’: the university-educated, middle-class type of people who keep the seats of the theaters filled. The experience of being special and superfluous, maybe even having one’s superfluousness be the very basis for one’s specialness, is common to us all.

…and I think it creeps us all out. After all, I and nearly everyone I know have been raised to think that they, just by virtue of existing, are special. And then one day you realize you are just as special as everybody else, and that you are just ‘averagely’ special, more lucky by birth and environment than in actual uniqueness. But then again, maybe the mediocrely special people sometimes get the biggest opportunities: after all, the Chosen One can’t even walk in a circle without falling over. I guess I’ve got one up on her already!

Ha. If I get into a discussion now of Robert Castel’s theory of exclusion and all the people in the world who are superfluous but NOT special; and then portray my flatmate’s description of growing up in a socialist state where no one was special; and then talk about the documentary Born Rich I saw this week where insanely wealthy heirs are interviewed–where it becomes quite clear that the only thing making them special is their wealth–well, I would need several more hours to do that, and to somehow connect this back to Sacre. But regardless, if I keep going with this solo, that might be the direction it goes in.

*I first tried out this story on a bunch of very smart 14-year-olds from the College Francais in Berlin, who had invited us artists to talk about Sacre du Printemps. I am pretty sure that they had no idea what on earth I was talking about during our conversation, so in a way this post is an attempt to try to make my thoughts a bit more clear.

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Gendered Interactions: some thoughts arising at ImPACT ’13 at PACT Zollverein Essen

Two weeks ago, I made my first visit to PACT Zollverein to take part in their yearly interactive symposium, ImPACT. The 2013 edition of this symposium was entitled ‘Someone Missing’, and featured invited artists Walid Raad, Kris Verdonck, and Vlatka Horvat. Each day was devoted to the work of a different artist, and the evening programme also included examples of their performance work.

I enjoyed myself at ImPACT; it was refreshing to meet artists outside my immediate (dance) field. PACT Zollverein is amazing–the theater itself is an incredible building, and the organizers outdid themselves to make sure everything ran smoothly. I received a scholarship from Kunststiftung NRW, so I stayed in a guest residence of PACT and the symposium fee was waived. Even better! I highly recommend the symposium to anyone with an interest in interdisciplinary performance work.

BUT I am not going to write a review of the workshop here–although synthesizing three days and very different perspectives on art-making would be worth a post. What I would like to talk about is a small interaction between Vlatka Horvat and the symposium participants on the third day.

Vlatka Horvat works in a variety of different media, but I would say she is primarily a sculptor and performance artist. She tends to work with everyday and delicate objects: cardboard, chairs, insulation foam. She premiered a piece on the Saturday of the symposium, ‘In the Balance’. I think that many people did not enjoy this performance, although I did: perhaps that is what created a certain type of resistance among certain symposium members in taking her work and what she had to say seriously. This is just an assumption.

In any case, Vlatka introduced a series of photographs she had made, entitled ‘Packages’. Every photograph in ‘Packages’ depicts a large package containing, well, Vlatka. It is a very subtle work, as at first glance it is not immediately clear that these packages are in any way significant, i.e. hiding a human body. Vlatka’s interest in making this series lay in ‘staging the invisibility of the body’ and referring to the fact that ‘all packages are transitional’: one image allows you to infer about the presence of the body in the other images, but also allows one to ponder the past and future of this body-in-transition: where did the package come from? Where is it going?

I feel that these are legitimate aims for an artistic work–not the least because this staging-an-invisibility remains close to my own artistic endeavours–but two people in our group obviously didn’t. The first question asked about this work was: ‘Do you really think that this is the appropriate medium for what you want to say?’

Now, the guy who asked this was not a native speaker of English, so we will give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps in German this would have constituted a polite way of asking a question (It doesn’t. But I am not a native speaker of German!). In any case, I will enlighten the questioner post-facto: ANY question with ‘Do you REALLY think that this is the right way to do such-and-such?’ implies two things: 1) the speaker does NOT believe this is the right way to do things, and 2) the speaker believes that he/she knows the way to do things. It is a passive-aggressive question. Props to Vlatka for answering this question perfectly soberly.

Immediately following this interaction, however, another guy sitting next to speaker number one made a comment that went something like this (I am paraphrasing hard): “You know, I really have a problem with conceptual artists who claim their work is about ‘the body’ or ‘transitions’ or ‘time’. They are ignoring the fact that the artwork they make have political and social implications….mutter mutter gender theory, post-colonialism, blah blah….these photos are not just about a body in a generic package, you have to be aware that this is a female body in a bag.’

Vlatka answered this question again perfectly humbly, stating amongst other things the extremely reasonable counter-argument: ‘I’m not interested in works that clearly limit what I’ve been invited to think about.’

Hell yeah, Vlatka. But to the person who was trying to appear smart by making this comment, I will spell out what it is you actually did:

You, a man, accused a female artist who consistently and reflectedly uses her own body in her artworks, of not being aware of this body’s gendered implications. In other words, you pointed out to a woman that a) she is a woman and b) if she does NOT feel like explicitly focussing on this aspect of her personhood in her work, her art is irrelevant.

In other other words, you are a man trying to put a woman in her place–and using gender theory to do so. All the gender theory in the world cannot help you if you cannot look at the arrogance with which you made this comment. Do you not realize that doing gender happens in interactions like this, where men try and narrow the scope of a woman’s artwork down to her femininity, deny her attempts at universality, and in general behave with a weird kind of arrogance that was not present during the days of the symposium featuring a male artist? On the previous day, male artist Kris Verdonck verbally dismissed the ‘gender issue’ because he wasn’t ‘interested in it’ (no one decided to further discuss this, by the way). Besides being inane (yup, it does appear that Vlatka is a woman, how good you are at noticing these things), this subversion of what the gender turn could mean gives me CHILLS.

The next time this happens (and I am SURE it will happen with increasing frequency), I promise that I will say something.

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The Venice Biennale

Yesterday I visited the Venice Biennale, for one day only. We made the mistake of “only” attempting the Giardini and the Arsenale areas, which means that we missed most of the national pavilions that are spread throughout the city, including the Golden-Lion-winning Angolan pavilion. This also means that we spent a lot of time at the international exhibition, The Encyclopedic Palace: in retrospect, the national exhibitions are more interesting simply because of the constantly changing curatorial perspectives one experiences moving from pavilion to pavilion. We saw some very good art, however, the following will discuss my personal highlights in the main exhibit and beyond.

The Encyclopedic Palace: The central exhibit of the Biennale, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, unfolds largely as the presentation of series of works, generally produced by a single individual (but not necessarily by a professional artist) who somewhat single-mindedly pursue a dedication to, (for example) building miniature buildings that, while imaginary, could easily have appeared in a 1970 provincial German town (Peter Fritz, presented by Oliver Croy and Oliver Elster). Or collections of carved wooden animals (Levi Fischer Ames), or photographic documentation of Nigerian women’s hairstyles (J.D. ‘Okhai Ojelkere). Ostensibly the exhibition intends to question the role of the artist, also by the display of many non-artist contributions, and the role of the contemporary, by displaying a breadth of 20th century art. There is indeed some kind of voyeuristic pleasure in examining someone’s hidden obsession (anatomically correct dolls in handsewn costumes, anyone? As long as he lived, Morton Bartlett never did share his creations–I wonder why), as for the most part I was indeed content to look at these collections–at least for the first 4 or so hours, and who doesn’t get tired after that? However, the proposition did raise 2 questions of, shall we say, ‘labour ethics’, that I’d like to at least mention:

1) Hey, wait a sec, exhibiting dead non-artists must be cheaper than paying people. Is this why we are seeing a historical turn in much contemporary art? I dunno. There do however seem to be an awful lot of contemporary visual artists who weren’t represented at the Biennale. I think it would have been interesting to take on the question of the value of encyclopedic endeavours solely based on the related problems that a) we have more professional artists than every before and b) the Internet is making these pockets of alternate knowledge futile. Do we blame Italy’s economic woes for the current curatorial concept? That’s an interesting (if not explicit) proposition…

2) Series or collections of works perpetuate the idea of an artist-as-genius while underlining the ‘labour’ involved in creating art. I think I am as sceptical of the former as I am secretly pleased by the latter: the exhibition mostly  ignores the many collaborative, complicit, social practices involved in art-making to focus on those individuals who attempt to make their observations on the world in relative isolation, often plumbing the depths of their own psyches to do so (the very first room of the exhibition is dedicated to Jung’s Red Book!). I think this image is upheld in the considerations of many of the art-seeing public. It’s effective because we enjoy watching labour (point two): while not everybody will call one painting of a circle-within-a-circle great art, if you make 387 such specimens at least your audience has some idea of the effort involved in making your reduced choice. I enjoy being able to see a process, evolution–but I am critical of what constitutes ‘acceptable’ labour in artistic work, and I don’t believe that everyone must have mono-maniacal tendencies in order to produce it. In fact, I think that lazy artists, meandering artists, easily distracted artists and artists who perhaps only produce ONE version of their painting or whatever are the only artists capable of seriously claiming they are subverting capitalist modes of production.

HOWEVER, my highlights of The Encyclopedic Palace were artists who presented clear and not really meandering propositions. And they are (drumroll):

Heaven (and everyone else) knows how much I love Tino Sehgal’s work. Performing in the documenta13’s This Variation had a transformative effective on my life and career, and I recently talked about the revival of his ‘untitled (2000)’ solo at Tanz im August 2013. Of course, with everything I see there is the temptation to measure it against This Variation, but the parallels to this new piece in Venice are obvious: performers beatbox and move to the music they produce. However, whereas This Variation had an added immersive effect of near-total darkness, the Venice piece (ashes on my head that I have no idea what it’s called) is in the light, surrounded by Rudolf Steiner’s chalk sketches on black paper and Walter Pichler’s lightly phallic sculptures. It seems that Sehgal has returned to the performance-as-object of his earliest gallery works. Performed with a maximum of three performers, the Venice piece appears to be more of a dialogue of the movers with themselves and their collaborators; kneeling on the floor with eyes shut, they aren’t really in a position to deal with their audience.

Vivian Saassen showed refined, nearly abstract portraits of locals in her chosen country of residence, South Africa. The series, Parasomnia , also comes in book form and is totally, totally on my Christmas list.

Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue (she earned an honorable mention for best young artist from the Biennale) is a strangely compelling video work featuring nail art, taxidermied animals, the desktop of a computer, and a pretty neat soundtrack. Pity I couldn’t watch the whole thing.

Ryan Trecartin produced a series of disturbing videos focusing on contemporary American voyeur/television culture. The distorted stereotypes presented in these LOUD works (which are presented in seating areas designed by the artist, a step up from the lonely bench and pitch-black viewing loops of most other video works…artists, take note) oscillate between banality and fiendishness.

Peter Fischli and David Weiss displayed innumerable unfired clay works using cartoon-like figures and motifs from fairy tales or the bible. Some sculptures would also work as absurdist comics (Two sleeping figures depict “Einstein’s parents shortly after conceiving the genius”).

Eva Kotátková worked with psychiatric patients to produce an installation dealing with the imposations and possibilities for transformation presented within contemporary psychiatric practices: a fragmented, disjointed body (and narrative) is proposed. The work simultaneously fits well with the other ‘encyclopedic’ works while subverting the notion of the artist as an individual and suggesting radically different taxonomies.

Onwards to the Pavilions. The pavilions vary greatly in quality, but if I had to do it over again I would see as many of them as I could….the shifts in quality (and perspective) that each nation offers is refreshing for the footsore Biennale visitor.

Antti Laitinen‘s tongue-in-cheek videos and photographs reflect on the unexpected event of a tree falling on the Finnish pavilion of 2011.

Akram Zaatari makes a video about an Israeli pilot who refused to drop bombs on Zaatari’s secodnary school in South Libanon in 1982. Wonderful story, somewhat disappointing video work. The accompanying tabloid-like compendium, however, fulfills the promises the installation does not.

Alfred Jarr wins the prize for ‘most unexpected’ (SPOILER ALERT): I came across the pool of water in the Chilean Pavilion and was like, ‘why is everyone standing around staring into mucky brown water?’. Why? Because at regular intervals a model of Giardini rises and sinks from the pool. A somewhat plastic admonition of the perils ahead for Venice when global warming comes a-calling, but enjoyable. Yes.

Berlinde de Bruyckere allows one to discover her sculpture (a fallen tree? A petrified kraken?) in the dimness of the Belgian pavilion.

The giant mounds of abandoned building materials spilling out of the Spanish pavilion are fascinating for the why they change one’s perception of the box-like rooms. I didn’t need to know that the materials were from a wasteland in Murano to haptically enjoy Lara Almarcugui‘s proposal.

Finally Tavares Strachan in the Bahamas pavilions demonstrating a breath-taking passion for the Arctic and space exploration. The video of Bahamas schoolchildren performing traditional Inuit songs (they were live in Venice at some point) and the glass prism  containing the barely visible skeleton of Matthew Henson (assistant to North Pole ‘discoverer’ Richard Peary) are the most delicate aesthetic proposals in a pavilion where the proposed ideas were many and good.

Biennale 2015: go for longer. See all the pavilions. Yeah.

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Ackerfestival review in Neues Deutschland

A very nice review by Tom Mustroph also featured a line of praise for ‘Wearing Masks’ by Kyla Kegler and I, and a whole paragraph devoted to the Artist’s Pledge, including some quotes from co-founder Julek Kreutzer–the title of the article, “Freizeit ist Pflicht” (“Leisuretime is obligatory”) is a tongue-in-cheek reference to our campaign.

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Acker’Festival Berlin this Friday and Saturday! Writing pledges AND wearing masks!

Wowwww, this weekend promises cold weather but hot art at the Acker’Festival Berlin

…and I’m involved with two of the events.

First off, the absolutely charming Wearing Masks, conceived by Kyla Avery Kegler but directed (as Ms. Kegler is doing her thang in Buffalo, NY this summer!) by moi:

Wearing Masks

It is going to be really beautiful. The masks are great, the performers even more so: Eva Maria Bakardjiev, Rob Gordon, Boryana Ivanova, Tarren Johnson ….and Kareth Schaffer! Showtime is 18.00 on Saturday, September 21st. Tickets are 6 euros, you can reserve at

Also, all weekend Julek Kreutzer and I will be hosting a ‘Write Your Pledge’ corner at the festival. We will be around to help people write their very own pledges, facilitate conversations about working conditions in the contemporary performing arts scene, and generally lend our political expertise to what promises to be a great weekend. Discussion rounds start on Friday at 14.00!

(By the way, we have a logo now, courtesy of Désirée Meul):


…yeah! All pledges written at Acker Festival will be stamped with our fancypants Artist’s Pledge Stamp. Now if that’s not motivation…!

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NEW NEWS NEWS ‘Closer to Us…’ will be performed at 15.00 on 5th September, NOT 15.30!

CloserToUs_amsterdam_flyerDon’t pay attention to what the flyer says, be at Het Veemtheater at 15.00 on Spetember 5th! Looking forward to seeing you!


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‘Closer to Us…’ is coming to Amsterdam!


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