My encounters: Group Works #10

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In the festival’s only artist talk, White Horse said that they initially were defined as a group not by themselves but by the outside structures (programmers, festivals etc.). This means that you as a programmer have to be aware of your power to define the essence of the performances but also to categorise the artistic work as being group work.

In the case of Works at Work, I wonder what thoughts the festival team has had about their power to define? How do they see it? In the program, they write “We have invited international performance collectives, who are continually working together. And the specific collaborative model of each performance collective is far more complex than sharing an office and a coffee machine!” This is not problematic in itself. It is merely a description of the foundation of their curatorial choices. But to me it becomes a problem 1) when the festival does not choose to leave any space for the groups to talk about their performance collective and thereby gain agency over the term instead of it purely becoming a curatorial assertion 2) when we by chance learn that many of the groups do not work in the performance collective any longer/have just started/only does it when they have a project. Instead of the program text being a generous invitation to understand the festival’s curatorial praxis and the artists’ way of organising themselves, it becomes a statement that tells more about the political agenda of the festival than the artists collaborative model.

That a festival wants to promote a certain agenda can be important and create discourses in the cultural landscape. I think WaW has managed to do that (as the artistic director Cecilie Ullerup Schmidt also herself implies in an in interview in the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen), but I also believe a festival has to carefully consider what means it uses when promoting its’ agenda hence its’ power of definition. Do you invite the artists and the audience to think with you on the subject matters or not?

Attending Works at Work for the first time made me wonder why the artistic director has chosen the festival format as a method for talking about working conditions for artists. In my view, traditional festivals like Works at Work forces the artists into a problematic capitalistic working model where the artists are reduced to workers whose sole purpose is to create performances/products to feed the market. Today, one of the biggest challenges for the artists’ sustainable working life is the constant demand for new artistic production to fill out the programmes of festivals and theatre venues. I am curious to know how the festival programmers see their role and their responsibilities when talking about working conditions for artists?

To their credit, the curatorial team has programmed restagings of old performances. This choice is interesting because it touches upon a discussion about the status of performances in post-dramatic/performance theatre. As in performance art, most of the pieces are closely connected to the artists who made them but what happens when the artists/artistic collective are gone is that the end of their performances? White Horse deals with this problematic in an interesting way but since it is not closely connected to the thematics of the festival it does not get elaborated, but I do wonder what motive the curatorial team had when they chose to show restagings?

There is a lot of ways to compose a festival. Ways where the artists are not merely reduced to the provider of performances but also of discourses, dialogues and processual work outside the black box. Maybe it is the rigidity of the festival concept (solo, duo, group works) that works against the potential development of the festival concept. In the first festival of 2014 where the theme was solo works, the link between aesthetic works and working conditions might have been more obvious than in the third edition. Back then, it might have made sense to separate the aesthetic work and the theoretic work ending up with a feeling of coherence between the two. But when you talk about group works it is a far more complex structure. There are so many ways to realise it, and there is not necessarily an obvious connection between the aesthetic work made by the group and the group’s working conditions outside the black box. So when thematising group works, I think it might be more obstructive than constructive to separate the aesthetic works from the theories/talks since the performance itself only highlights the group work inside the black box, but not the working methods of the groups, the organisation of the groups etc. I wonder what thoughts the artistic director and her team had when choosing to stick to the conceptual structure of the festival? If they thought about adjusting the concept to fit the theme?

During the symposium on Monday, Female Trouble and Samlingen met on stage for an interview moderated by Sarah Charalambides they took over the interview and start talking to each other. Asking about work structures, processes and experiences. Inquisitively. Interested in knowing the other’s work. In these 45 minutes, a lot of new aspects of the understanding of group works were presented to the audience. This tells me that the theme of the festival group works is a viable theme that needs to be talked about in the artistic communities. The question is how you as a festival facilitate this talk – as a listener or as a talker or both?

When this is said I felt an enormous gratitude to have the possibility to witness a lecture of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Her insight, clear sight and high level of abstraction opened up to new thoughts and ways of resonating that was so interesting and impressive that I am forever thankful to the curator team for inviting her. Probably in ten years when I think back on Works at Work Group Works this is what I will remember.

Thank you for now.

Best, Naja

My encounters: Group Works #9

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The festival program ends with a classic from 2000. And on the Thousandth Night… by Forced Entertainment. When talking about group works, Forced Entertainment is certainly crucial to mention. As Tim Etchells points out in the text Collective Periphery printed in the program, “This shift seemed important to us [winning the Ibsen Prize as a collective red.], acknowledging as it does an alternative pathway and history through contemporary theatre, underscoring a mode of practice that exists in parallel to the more traditional modes and economies of single authorship, auteur direction, stage design and rehearsal. Forced Entertainment – with its long history of collective creation, ownership, decision making and planning – stands in counterpoint to these economies, articulating in practice not only another ethics, but also another temporality in which the creative work has always been bound up with the emerging shape, responsibilities and relations of human lives”. Forced Entertainment is spot on as an example of a group that has developed a distinct performative language and their And on the Thousandth Night… is as a prime example of their distinct performative language.

At the front stage seven people are sitting in a row. Each on a chair and each with a homemade paper crown on their head. Behind them is a table and a big red stage carpet that covers the back wall. For the next six hours we are going to be entertained by these kings and queens who tell us stories starting with the words “Once upon a time….”. In a Forced Entertainment piece, it is not necessarily the improvised stories that is the most fascinating aspect of the performance, but the group dynamics that catalyses them.

As in the museum, it is possible for the audience to leave and enter as they like, but since And on the Thousandth Night… is structured around improvisation, the performance does not follow a predictable dramatic curve.This means that the audience never knows if the show is going to peak while they are taking a break. They have to take the chance. This risk of the audience missing out is in accordance with the trademark of Forced Entertainment who operates in the field of risks and failures. In their performances the group members challenge and exhaust each other, taking chances and failing as they go along.

Since the performance And on the Thousandth Night… is 16 years old, what was new in 2000 is now common knowledge in the world of post-dramatic theatre. It is, however, still relevant to revisit the classic performance style of Forced Entertainment, just as the Ibsen Prize pay tribute to their influence and style both aesthetically and methodologically.

In a festival setting like Works at Work with its’ focus on group works, I wanted to know more in depth about Forced Entertainment’s working habits outside the black box. Not just as an overall retrospective tale about their working method as presented in Tim Etchells’ sympathetic writing, but as a dialogue with the audience about working conditions for artists. Due to their longstanding experience, Forced Entertainment could have contributed with a lot of knowledge and inspiration to some of the points mentioned in the curatorial program text. Once again during the festival I wished for a space outside the black box where a dialogical togetherness between the artists and the audience could have existed.

My encounters: Group Works #8

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The fourth performance Trip was also a result of a school collaboration, but this time from the school SNDO in Amsterdam 10 years ago.

On stage we see three female dancers standing in a triangular formation. The room is bare, and the light is dim. Slowly, the three women start to open their mouths widely showing all their teeth. Saliva is running down their tank tops and a rhythmical beat starts to play aggressively like drums on a football stadium. The bodies start moving in a unison and simple choreography. Light from the ceiling is faded up, and the shadows of the dancers are casted on the white floor doubling the number of moving bodies on stage. As the performance evolve the dancers get more and more exhausted, but the beat of the music demands the bodies to continue despite their visible tiredness.

When the movements, the music and the open mouths suddenly stop, the performers sit down on the floor and tell us that Trip will be over in five minutes so if we have anything we want to share this is the time. The light starts to dim. Some people shout out their enthusiasm while others sit still, but common for us all is that we are aware of each other sharing this moment and the experience. When the lights go out the performers and the audience have been on a trip together.

The universe of Trip is not a comfortable place to be. On the contrary it is a dark, aggressive and raw fight that goes on forever. As an audience member it is impossible to keep your distance whether you like it or not you become engaged in what happens on stage. Unlike the earlier performances, Trip is not presented with a program text that highlights the conceptual aspects of group work in the piece. To me it is thought-provoking that it is the least conceptual work that succeeds to deal with group work in an interesting and engaging way both when it comes to the performer- audience relation and the thematics. This makes me think of the split between presenting a performance in a text and the audience’s physical experience of it.

As in the black box there is a hierarchy between the maker and the taker so when you as an artist or presenter write about a piece, who do you imagine your audience to be? What do you want to give them with your presentation? And why do you think it is important? For some reason these questions seem relevant when reading Works at Work’s festival program mostly because I am not sure what the festival team wants with their statements WORKS at WORK says:. Why is it important for them to tell me what they think when I as an audience already have read what the artists themselves are saying about their piece and have encountered the programmers curation Who does the festival team think I am and what do they want to give me?

My encounters: Group Works #7

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The German group ScriptedReality’s Our Hands Against Us! is the third performance of the festival. They write “Do-it-yourself can function as relieving dilettantism as well as self-exploiting professionalism. What does the role of artists and art play here?” The WaW says “The delegation of work to the audience is an unabashed provocation from the students & alumnaes from Giessen: we propose that you do the labor, yes, but also that you take the decisions and find the solutions”

On stage, we see a simple pedestal with an oversized book with the title Read Me, a timeline with six chapters, a piece of paper with six light cues and, placed in the background, a text from Bertolt Brecht’s play Fatzer written on a big piece of paper. In the room, we also find a number of large cardboard boxes with objects and texts. No performers. The audience is supposed to make the performance themselves. The manuscript is written in the big book. Step by step the audience is guided through the actions of the performance.

As WaW states in the program it is the audience who are expected to do the “labour” of the performance, but labour in the sense of manual labour not mental labour. The concept development, structural and aesthetic decisions, which is a great part of making artistic work, has already been worked out by ScriptedReality. In the black box, we are workers in a build-it-yourself IKEA performance exposing our group mentality while we negotiate among ourselves how the collective is to respond to the manuscript and the framework of the play.

The artistic concept is clearcut and smart, but also recognisable because this is the strategy you would expect to meet in a team building exercise. Of course, this concept is relevant to the field of stage art because it questions the traditional relationship between the performance and the audience. The outcome, though, will hardly ever surprise since the black box propagates a certain kind of behaviour, and the power of the artist is too strong for anything unexpected to happen.The audience is, merely, playing out the dramaturgy of the artist and the only real decision they can make in Our Hands Against Us! is whether they want to respect the artistic work and play along or disrespect it and destroy it. Isn’t this the same options you would have in a conventional theatre setup?

Furthermore I wonder if it makes any sense to talk about Do-it-yourself in relation to ScriptedReality’s work. Isn’t Do-it-yourself a strategy to obtain production agency over something/a product that you want? If you as an audience member have not seen ScriptedReality’s Our Hands Against Us! before, you do not know what performance you are making, and therefore you don’t know if you want this performance or not. You and the rest of the collective are simply obeying orders.

At the artist talk Friday evening one member of ScriptedReality said that the audience members had always finished Our Hands Against Us! because they wanted to know how it ends. Having witnessed the performance and my fellow audience collective I wondered if there could be other explanations as to why the audience finishes the performance, and I came to think about empathy.

For some reason there wasn’t enough time for ScriptedReality’s performance to finish, and as the starting time for the next performance by White Horse came closer confusion emerged. The audience didn’t know what to do. Should they leave Our Hands Against Us! in empathy and respect for White Horse or should they stay in empathy with ScriptedReality. The result was that some felt obliged to stay and some felt obliged to leave. I stayed, and in my view, the atmosphere in the last part of Our Hands Against Us! was not as driven by interest as by empathy towards Scripted Reality and the festival team. I found this interesting because it made me think of the role of empathy in the black box?

My encounters: Group Works #6

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As the second performance in the program we are presented with John the Houseband’s In Concert. In the program, the artists describe themselves as, “A group of artists and friends. We met through our study in the Theaterschool of Amsterdam ten years ago and had a common wish to play music together”. The programmers continue “The band life of ‘the Johns’ is unfolded in holidays and summer camps. Utopian proposals and hippie-like feel-good-vibes flow through their songs and concerts”.

On stage we see four people dressed in a Diy-Kitschy outfit with glow sticks around their necks. Playing a great variety of homemade songs and covers in some sort of amateurish way that reminds me of Baktruppen performances or the post-dramatic trash theatre era with its’ cultivation of liveliness and mistakes.

Concert performances seem to have been quite popular lately in the independent theatre field (here I am not talking about the exhausted genre of Music Theatre that has been popular in Denmark the last decade). So it is understandable that WaW has included John the Houseband as an example of group work(s) into their festival program. Not only is a band commonly understood as collective group work, the group work between the band and their audience at a concert is quite different than the group work between the performers/performance and the audience in the black box. On the one hand, the concert creates a more equal togetherness between the band and the audience, but on the other hand, you can also argue that it is a more hierarchical togetherness because the band constellation is often connected to idolisation.

However, by cultivating amateurism and “non-professionalism” John the Houseband escapes idealisation, and can oppose the capitalistic music industry with the lyrics “this song is never gonna be a hit”, and probably they are right. The song is never gonna be a radio hit and neither is John the Houseband the new Radiohead, but they are a successful theatre band that is touring internationally showing their “amateurish skills” on highly regarded theatre venues. Everything can be capitalised as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak said at the symposium. Even DIY, amateurism and friendship.

When thinking about the theme of the festival, the non-professional band members (the Johns) and Alice Chauchat both exemplify a collaboration structure where everybody does the same tasks and have a good time. They represent the harmonious group. In the case of the Johns, the band and the audience are supposed to have fun. The kitsch elements function as markers of a space where we play around stripped of all self-importance. But what if you do not enjoy yourself in this setup? Are you then still a part of the group?

My encounters: Group Works #5

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The first performance presented was Alice Chauchat’s Togethering, a Group Solo. In the program, the festival introduced the performance in the following way: “This year we challenge our own materialist dogmatism when choreographer Alice Chauchat performs Togethering, a Group Solo: first of all, a solo in a group-festival!. In her artistic practice, Alice Chauchat has developed collaborative structures that have played an important role in the discourse of artists creating collaborative and sustainable working conditions for themselves. In ”Togethering, a Group Solo” the textual material Alice Chauchat uses reflects her 15 year of experience with different forms of collaboration. The material is presented in a conceptual frame that emphasises the fact that she, the performer, and we, the audience, are to share the roles of the performance.

The visuals on stage are kept to a bare minimum. It is Alice Chauchat, her pair of shoes and a small card box containing poetic instructions for the dance material she shares with us during her performance. As she proclaims, “I dance to keep myself company. The people watches the dance also keeps company”.

The take on group work that Alice Chauchat presents to us is sympathetic. It is about sharing. In the program, Alice Chauchat writes “While remaining in their formal territories (spectators watching, dancer dancing), performer and audience share roles: assistant, companion, collaborator or host, as protagonists of the theatrical event”. When watching the performance, I once again wonder whether this proposal of sharing the same roles in an aesthetic work is at all possible since there is a maker and a taker? And does the artist create a bigger sense of togetherness between the audience, the performer and the performance by speaking out her intentions and conceptual framework or wouldn’t an aesthetic performance automatically create togetherness if it engaged its’ audience? Isn’t togetherness also one of the basic conditions of stage art?

There is of course different forms of togetherness and as an artist you create the conditions for the one you are interested in. The black box is, however, a hierarchical space which means that not all types of togetherness can exist in this room. Alice Chauchat proposal of sharing roles is theoretically appealing but as a theatre experience it leaves me unengaged. Personally, I would have preferred to meet her thoughts and experiences with collaboration in another fora than the black box. A fora that is actually open for the kind of togetherness she aims at.

My encounters: Group Works #4

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“Theatre is always group work”. This was stated at an artist talk with ScriptedReality and White Horse on Friday evening, and isn’t it true that in theatre (contrary to performance art) we are all dependent on each other no matter if you are the light designer, the performer, a performance collective or the audience. The crucial question is how the collaborative work is organised in the artistic process. Is there a hierarchical structure, a flat structure or a completely different structure? Since every group constellation works differently there is no simple answer to what a group work can be in theatre, but that theatre is a group work there can be no doubt.

In this context, it is interesting to look at the examples of group works/group performances the that curator(s) of Works at Work have chosen for their festival, but before I start writing about the actual works I want to comment on my observation that non of the groups presented had members coming from light design, sound design, scenography etc. I have been thinking about why the festival’s focus on groups formed by performers struck me as rather peculiar.

In my time as a student at the Norwegian Theatre Academy, I was presented to roughly speaking two traditions within the post-dramatic theatre/performance theatre. One tradition had Forced Entertainment and Baktruppen (NO) as frontrunners focusing mainly on the performers and their interaction on stage catalysing theoretic terms like playfulness, presence and bad acting. While the other tradition was fronted by Robert Wilson (who of course is not a group, but to a large extend works with the same group of people), Verdensteateret (NO) and you could add our own Hotel Pro Forma to this artistic expression. Here, light, sound and scenography performs on equal terms as the human body, hence the theoretical concept of equal dramaturgy. And then you have everything in between: Other genres, other theoretical foundations, other groups.

In Denmark, the default mode in theatre is to focus on the performers and their actions on stage. The reason might be that Denmark does not have a professional education in post-dramatic theatre/performance theatre that can challenge this norm. Coming from my educational background, I could have wished for Works at Work to include group works that practiced equal dramaturgy not only to create diversity in the aesthetic expressions presented, but also to question the existing hierarchies in (Danish) theatre.

My encounters: Group Works #3

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The performance part of the festival program has ended. The body of the audience at Dansehallerne have been witnessing a lot of examples of what group work(s) in the black box can be and do, but not yet encountered a lot of articulated perspectives on what group work is as a working method/condition for artists. Addressing this aspect of the festival has mainly been happening in the media coverage of Works at Work. Today, Monday, the symposium will be a platform for reflecting on this topic, but somehow the two conceptual lines of the festival seem quite separated from each other. Maybe it is natural result of the fact that group work as a method for artists to create a sustainable professional working life together is a very different thing than group work as a collective process towards an aesthetic expression/performance. Since this is my first year attending the festival I don’t know if the link between the working conditions of the artists and the artistic works has been more obvious. When reading the posts of one of the former writer in residence it seems like the connection was most present in the first edition with its’ focus on solo works. The artistic director of the festival Cecilie Ullerup Schmidt has said that the concept of three festivals with separate focus on solo, duo and group works and the working conditions for artists has been the plan from the beginning. It makes me think about concepts and their relation to changing conditions.

In the following I will reflect on my encounters with the group works in the understanding of performance producing unites, but before I begin I have to express a wonder about where the light designer, the sound designer, the scenographer are in the idea of group works. Of course “Scripted reality” is a group of people with, as they said themselves, very different backgrounds (fine arts, philosophy, performing arts, music) and some of the other groups have also worked in the post-dramatic/post-modern landscape, but non of the curated examples of group works are groups that include other disciplines of stage art than the performer/dancer. I ask myself why.

During the festival I have been presented to the idea that when working in a group not only the practical sides of making a performance (sharing tasks, sweet talking technicians, not taking the rejection of an application personal etc.) becomes easier, but also that you dare more when you are not alone. This statement made me curious. Did I as an audience experience a daring in the group works when watching their aesthetic expression/performance? And what kinds of group works has the festival team chosen to include in their program?


To be continued

(My writing has the pace of a group work)

My encounters: Group Works #2

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Opening statement Collective Pace “RISK”

Tonight we enter a new phase.

The collective as a predefined project has drained us.
It has gone too far.
We have let our collective visions become contaminated.
Contaminated by our inherent desires to satisfy the structural mechanisms.
Contaminated by demands of art production.

Our art and wellbeing needs a structural economic detox.

These are not my words, but an excerpt of the opening act from the Danish collective RISK. As a framework both in regards to the collective movement RISK’s future and the focus points of this year’s festival the thoughts presented in opening statement touches upon a lot of the complexity of the structural “building” art works, art audience, art presenters and art supporting systems have to relate to these years. It is of no news that art workers both in the context of their non-employment, no-social-rights and no-social-security freelancing has become a wet dream for the neo-liberalistic working model. At Works At Work the search of new ways of organizing artistic practice and artistic work is concerning the “workers” in the field of art: the artists. It is a bottom-up “revolution” where the workers/artists change their working modes to set a good example for society and thereby change the system in a positive direction – no more gentrification and neo liberalistic wet dreams. Somehow it makes me think about the already existing structural landscape that surrounds the artistic modes of living. The structural piece-eater that demands to be feed like production houses,  venues, festivals, art councils, cv’s. How to change that? RISK is going to have a year of contemplation.

A year of not writing artist bios that make us look economically attractive.

A year of acknowledging that through our actions and productions, we have maintained the same structures that we are criticizing.

The opening statement of RISK and of the festival makes me look forward.

My encounters: Group Works #1

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Artist talk “Samlingen”

We are lying on the floor with our eyes closed at Forsøgsstationen in Copenhagen. A small group of people who are all interested in the work of the Swedish choreographic project “Samlingen”. I think the light is turned off because I think I heard footsteps and the characteristic sound of the light switch being pressed up. Or down. “Dance seems very wide like this” a female voice behind me says. I get a bit uncomfortable. She seems very close, but our bodies don’t touch. “Is there anything that is very present in the Copenhagen Dance Scene right now?” Somebody asks. I guess it’s a member from “Samlingen” since they are not from here. “Nakedness” a voice answers, and another voice adds “Skin”.  The conversation continues, but I drift off thinking about whether the setup of our verbal exchange allows other voices to be heard. If darkness somehow creates a freedom from the hierarchies in the room, a terminologi “Samlingen” used earlier in their talk, or just hides them. “How often do you have morning training?”. The question reaches my ears, and so does the answer to it “Every morning”. We are now talking about Danseatelieret – a Copenhagen based collective founded by graduate students from the dance education at the Danish National School of Performing Arts. “Wow! Every morning! From when to when?” “10-12” “How many are you?”. It suddenly strikes me that the conversation feels more like an interview with “Samlingen” as the rapporter and some of us as the informants, but I cannot see if it’s true what I’m feeling, and then I have to leave. On my way to my next appointment I keep thinking that I should have asked “Samlingen” about something. That it was my responsibility to challenge or break the hierarchy if there was any to be found. Maybe I could have asked them about the choice of using non factual truths/fiction when making the timeline in their project at “Stadsteatern” in Stockholm a year ago. What was the fictional facts they made up? How did they incorporate them? And why? In these Trump-atized times I think it could be interesting to talk about.

The conversation cited might have been different in reality or in other people’s mind.