Stefan Hölscher_Choreography as Form as Dance as AN Activity

Choreography as Form as Dance as AN activity

At a conference hosted by Tanzquartier Vienna between 2008 and 2009 entitled (Precise) Woodstock of Thinking, Bojana Cvejić in her talk We don´t have money, so we have to think proposed a couple of important questions: “How to plug in affect (or movement of thought) as a variation in capacity to change in one´s body, increase the awareness of this potential, focus and act upon in? How to experiment on the level of everyday life by composing one´s experience and ability to act with the movement of thought?“(1) She did so, quite obviously, in the wake of the so-called affective turn(2) philosophers like Brian Massumi or Erin Manning had released just previously and their displacement from former, rather textually rooted, performative theories such as the one offered by Judith Butler, whose name anon had tingled the lips of many during the late 1990ies. While at that time in the field of choreography a young generation had recently begun to board international houses and festivals in order to challenge modernism´s various inheritances, dance came to be conceived not as (pure) movement and as composed of naturally expressive bodily qualities anymore. On the contrary, like other art forms decades before already, it was rather conceptualized as a practice not only involving linguistic aspects, but initially as a linguistic practice. Choreography´s critique of institutions, we might paraphrase Benjamin Buchloh´s observations with regard to the visual arts field, at this time was often interwoven with a certain aesthetics of administration.(3) Howsoever: The language dance got enabled to “speak“ in this framework, consisting of course in quite a daring analogy, was deduced from performative iterations of pre-existing norms; the logos to be decentered in Derrida, discourse in general – before he encountered biopolitics as an entirely different formation of power and knowledge – in early Foucault, or, as we all know, the famous heterosexual matrix in Butler. – Dance then was considered an activity of bodies being only derivative and always given with respect to external norms imposed upon them by choreography as an already existing form and its components: Metaphorically writing and its letters, literally positions, poses, extensive movements, and steps.

If we consider several historical legacies of the term choreography since Thoinot Arbeau´s and Raoul-Auger Feuillet´s Orchesographies from 1589 on the one hand and 1700 on the other hand, we are reminded on what the latter´s treatise states about dancing as an act of writing. There we read: “Dancing is composed of Positions, Steps, Sinkings, Risings, Springings, Capers, Fallings, Slidings, Turnings of the Body, Cadence or Time, Figures, &c.“(4) In comparison to Feuillet´s strict Poetics, the experience not only metaphorically but indeed literally writing bodies, rejecting the universal command to “just move“, were able to produce at their core during the late 1990ies was reflected in semiology, although critical thinkers like André Lepecki criticized the various dominant poststructuralist models early on and put things the other way around. Dance in his eyes would be something entirely different from just the derivation of a norm and from a choreographical grammar as the condition of possibility of bodily activities. Choreography first and foremost were an apparatus of capture disjuncting bodies from what they can do and from their indefinite potential.(5) Following this track of arguments, Petra Sabisch in her PhD Choreographing Relations most recently has suggested to put virtual relations and intensive movements of affective bodies first and to secondly imagine actual terms and positions as their derivations. In contrast to extensive movements (all of whom John Martin enthusiastically celebrated in modern dance) which connect already established points in space and bring us from A to B and from pose to pose, intensive movements provoke an affective modification of the body structure, its components, and its capacity to act. They modify its internal relations and its relatedness to a given environment as much as they transform the environment itself. According to Sabisch

“a concept of relation allows for thinking change and consequently involves a practice as long as the relation is not subsumed as relative to something else but conceptualized on its own, as a limit-point of thinking change at degree zero, that is to say, there where the status of relations remains ontologically obscure.“(6)

In view of Sabisch´s observations choreography can be conceptualized in another way than an already constituted set of forms. Why then, soon after performance had come to be the subversion of norms and the parody of identities, another shifting took place, a shift of focus to renewed rememberances of the old Spinozian notion of affect and the question of what a body could do, that made a deep impact on choreography?

What happened between Jérôme Bel´s Jérôme Bel (1995) or his The Show must go on (2004) and e.g. It´s in the Air by Mette Ingvartsen and Jefta van Dinther from 2008? It might be claimed that poststructuralism´s push of modernism´s simplicity into adulthood at the end has been restricting the desire for experimental experiences as much as its previous chaining to and pinning down by expressive movement and already determined expressive qualities of the body. Why the introduction of a semiotically secured body into choreography was not the end of a continuous rendezvous between choreography and theory? How to keep on to render experiences into experiments? How to experiment with experience, without following already constituted criteria and not to be sheltered by all-too certain schemes beforehand?

In her talk from 2008 Cvejić argues for abduction as a creative and inventive methodology she wants to make productive for choreography. According to Cvejić abduction, in contrast to one´s submission under a general norm, triggered the generation of ever new rules and kept open the border between choreography and its non-choreographic outside. Through abduction the field of choreography could never be fixed or closed but stayed tangled in a continuous becoming of its components: “While induction is the mode dealing with actuality and the probable (from particular cases a general law is inferred) and deduction is the mode dealing with regulation and the necessary (a general law is applied to particular cases), abduction deals with potentiality and the contingent.“(7) – Hence the relation between, in the widest sense, choreography as an assemblage of forms/formats and, very broadly understood as well, dance as an activity of bodies ought to be revisited. The proposition of dance as an activity, unlike the ones making of it a derivation of previous choreographic norms, puts ever singular procedures center stage, processes which do not contain their results but above all bring them forth.

Adopting Isabelle Stengers´ reading of Alfred North Whitehead´s process philosophy for that purpose, I would like to concentrate on two key terms: (1.) Prehension (2.) Whiteheads notion of problems for whom there do not exist solutions beforehand. Right at the beginning of her book Thinking with Whitehead – A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts Stengers raises a striking question: What are you aware of in perception? For her perceptions, human and non-human ones alike, are contrasts to be synthesized, pure potentials not yet determined, and they populate specific datums in whom they are all assembled and upon whom we will act while they will act upon us.

Awareness then is what what results from a new synthesis and what remains after, when contrasts have found their satisfaction in an always singular activity of prehension. Whitehead, in his Process and Reality, interestingly enough as much as unintentionally published two years after Martin Heidegger´s Being and Time in 1929, distinguishes between “eight categories of existence“.

“(i) Actual Entities (also termed Actual Occasions), or Final Realities, or Res Verae.

(ii) Prehensions, or Concrete Facts of Relatedness.

(iii) Nexûs (plural of Nexus), or Public Matters of Fact.

(iv) Subjective Forms, or Private Matters of Fact.

(v) Eternal Objects, or Pure Potentials for the Specific Determination of Fact, or Forms of Definiteness.

(vi) Propositions, or Matters of Fact in Potential Determination, or Impure Potentials for the Specific Determination of Matters of Fact, or Theories.

(vii) Multiplicities, or Pure Disjunctions of Diverse Entities.

(viii) Contrasts, or Modes of Synthesis of Entities in one Prehension, or Patterned Entities.“ (8)

No prehension takes place twice. It will change the prehender as much as the prehended. Let´s imagine a rock near the seaside: As actual entities both the rock and a thousand drops of water will be modified by each new encounter between them with the result that for both prehending the self and the other will take place differently next time. Both are continuously transformed by their prehensions of each other. No wave hits the rock in exactly the same way as before. The rock in turn is altered with every breaking. Or me reading this text right now… While in the middle of a sentence, looking both back for past and forward for future words, I am changing as an actual entity while, hopefully at least, also you are changing (a bit) while listening. To make a long story short: Not only won´t an encounter between entities or an actual occasion take place twice as an event, also every single entity happens only once as an entity. The problem posed by Stengers could be translated into a couple of adjacent questions: What other actual entities do we take into account in the frame of a theory or a specific proposition we formulate? What kind of nexûs or public matters of fact do our theories produce as propositions? In how far do we, ever singularily, without being able to rely on pre-constituted procedures, if we prehend a given environment as posing problems to be solved, creatively invent our own solutions? What kind of new choreographic concepts are there to be brought forth, maybe even freely and wildly? Drawing parallels between them and Whitehead, Stengers comments on What is Philosophy? by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari:

“According to Deleuze and Guattari, an ‘image of thought‘ is not described but is produced in the very movement in which thought exceeds the images that fixate it, to itself become production-sensation, an ‘abstract machine‘ producing concepts that inhabit what is, in itself, neither thought nor thinkable, the ‘plane of immanence.“(9)

If choreography is conceptualized less as a norm but rather in relation to such a plane of immanence, if it is no longer conceived in terms of already given rules or some kind of Poetics which would determine the activity of bodies in advance, it is not determined yet, a methodology to be invented, primarily involving generative moments. Therefore we urgently need to specify what we understand by the prehension of problems and leave our overly self-sufficient poststructuralist frameworks, which we are still overly used to, since we decided to speak about the body as a text and dancing as a mode of writing some decades ago, behind and transit to an empiricist or even pragmatist point of view. What are you aware of in perception? Stengers points at the term form very differently than the ones who claim forms as already existing before bodily activities take place. She rather emphasizes the problematic tendencies of forms and claims them to arise out of incalculable prehensions. In this context she explicitely thinks about the production of art and its potential to have an impact on active changes in and of the world. If we focus on the border between already established territories and territories not yet formed, respectively the famous border between art and non-art or choreography and non-choreography, we will leave every certainty behind.

“The insistence of the problem does not implicitly contain the means for its solution; the work´s ‘idea‘ is not an ideal from which the artist takes inspiration. It exists only through the risk it brings into existence, by the fact that at every step artists know they are exposed to the risk of betrayal, particularily when, through laziness, ease, impatience, or fear, they believe they can decide on the path, instead of capturing, step by step, the question posed to them at that step.“(10)

Not necessarily is everything only the effect of an interplay of signifiers, not always is there no externality outside of language, and only seldomly does it bring us further to put our awareness on how bodies signify. Sometimes it´s much more important to find out how they can affect and being affected by others. Whitehead himself assumes: “Each actual entity is conceived as an act of experience arising out of data. It is a process of ‘feeling’ the many data, so as to absorb them into the unity of one individual ‘satisfaction.“ (11)

The notion of satisfaction leads back to experience as an experiment on the level of affective conditions and the investigation of relations in choreography Sabisch has been conducting: How to think and actively act upon choreographing relations? Can relations be choreographed? Are they the ones choreographing? Can relations choreograph other relations? Is choreography relations? – Until now many have claimed that there has to be something that choreographs something else, things choreographing and things being choreographed. Bodies versus forms. Forms versus bodies. Sabisch proves the opposite: It is first of all the virtual relations between things and bodies we have to deal with, relations without terms, organs without an already constituted organization of the body. Choreographing we have to start in the middle, inbetween. Only there we always can do more than we could imagine before.

Viewed against this background, choreography, as the choreographing of and by relations and as an activity of bodies prehending and transforming each other, cannot be considered an already given form being derived from a norm in that sense. It takes place beneath the already sedimented strata of experience and it experimentally problematizes and thereby relates bodies as much as institutional environments and other processual assemblages differently. Nothing is subjected or put under forms. While Sabisch in her Choreographing Relations rethinks David Humes dictum about relations which were always external to their terms, Cvejić reminds us on another insight drawn from Whitehead´s process philosophy.

“Speculative metaphysics in pragmatism takes as much risk as the experience it tries to describe. Namely, it reverses the classical principle operari sequitur esse (functioning follows upon being) into esse sequitur operari. Functioning precedes being, so processes are basic and things are derivative, because it takes a mental operation to extract ‘things‘ from the blooming buzzing confusion of the world´s physical processes. For process philosophy, what a thing is consists in what it does. Movement, passage, and processual indeterminacy have an ontological priority over position, signification and social determination.“(12)

What are you aware of in choreography? For sure not only of steps being performed and poses being adhered to by bodies. For sure not of a general technique to be applied to particular cases. What happened if we did not think choreography as a Poetics or a pre-existent form determining dance as an activity but as something that we have to construct and actively produce in the process of a Whiteheadian prehending? If dance as an activity were more than just the realization of pre-existent choreographic norms, we got aware of everything as being potentially choreographic: Intensive movements of bodies in what André Lepecki once called “small dances“ (13), tiny shifts in things, and, as Sabisch emphasizes, qualitative transformations of bodily assemblages, respectively even modifications of the relations between institutional mechanisms. In all these cases there is no norm under which our activities could be subsumed and which would restrict them as realizations of already given possibilities. As potential activities, arising out of the prehension of not-yet determined problems, our dances actively invented ever new contrasts and ever new satisfactions of these contrasts, without us possessing a manual explaining us how to proceed and without, as Stengers underlines, a (metaphorical or literal) grammar framing our singular utterances beforehand.

“The risk Whitehead faced can be stated on the basis of the contrast between language and grammar, in the sense that the latter demands conformity and claims to define the normal usages of a language. If one adheres to such a claim, each particular utterance becomes a simple case, and each locutor can be judged. Likewise, concrescence could be assimilated to a mode of realization of a preexistent possible and judged on the basis of the way this possible will be realized, the way the concrescence will produce, qua realized novelty, that whose pertinence has already been ideally defined.“(14)

In opposition to such grammatical forms, choreographic forms as forms of affective bodily activities do not constitute our dances but result from our unpredictible prehensions. They trigger, in Whiteheadian terms, a creative process which is deeply aesthetic since they provoke a becoming of choreography itself as, in the best case, a free and wild creation of concepts of what we can do.

Stefan Hölscher, TANZ IN. BERN, 28. Oktober 2011

1 Bojana Cvejić, We don´t have money, so we have to think – A Note on Speculative Pragmatism, in: Sigrid Gareis/Krassimira Kruschkova (Ed.), “Uncalled – Dance and Performance in the Future“, Berlin: Theater der Zeit, 2009, p. 338.

2 „Affect is born in in-between-ness and resides as accumulative beside-ness. Affect can be understood then as a gradient of bodily capacity – a supple incrementalism of ever-modulating force-relations – that rises and falls not only along various rhythms and modalities of encounter but also through the throughs and sieves of sensation and sensibility, an incrementalism that coincides with belonging to comportments of matter of virtually any and every sort.“ – Gregory J. Seigworth/Melissa Gregg, An Inventory of Shimmers, in: „The Affect Theory Reader“, Durham&London: Duke University Press, 2010, p. 2.

3 See Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions, in: “October“, Vol. 55. (Winter, 1990), pp. 105-143.

4 Raoul-Auger Feuillet, Orchesography, or, The Art of Dancing, Gloucestershire: Dodo Press, 2007, p. 1.

5 André Lepecki, Choreography as an Apparatus of Capture, in: THE DRAMA REVIEW 51:2 (T194), Summer 2007, New York University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007.

6 Petra Sabisch, Choreographing Relations – Practical Philosophy and Contemporary Choreography, München: e_podium, 2010, p. 71-72.

7 Bojana Cvejić, We don´t have money, so we have to think – A Note on Speculative Pragmatism, in: Sigrid Gareis/Krassimira Kruschkova (Ed.), “Uncalled – Dance and Performance in the Future“, Berlin: Theater der Zeit, 2009, p. 337.

8 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, New York: The Free Press, 1978, p. 22.

9 Isabelle Stengers, Thinking with Whitehead – A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts, Stanford University Press, 2011, p. 267-268.

10 Ibid., p. 216.

11 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, New York: The Free Press, 1978, p. 40.

12 Bojana Cvejić, We don´t have money, so we have to think – A Note on Speculative Pragmatism, in: Sigrid Gareis/Krassimira Kruschkova (Ed.), “Uncalled – Dance and Performance in the Future“, Berlin: Theater der Zeit, 2009, p. 335.

13 See André Lepecki, >Am ruhenden Punkt der kreisenden Welt< – Die vibrierende Mikroskopie der Ruhe, in: Gabriele Brandstetter/Hortensia Völkers (Hrsg.), “ReMembering the Body“, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2000.

14 Isabelle Stengers, Thinking with Whitehead – A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts, Stanford University Press, 2011, p. 360.