This short reflection will think through some of the differences between the conceptualisation of major contemporary art exhibitions (as evidenced by documenta fifteen) and major contemporary dance festivals (the writer was part of the curatorial team for What the Body Remembers at Akademie der Künste (ADK)/Berlin in 2019 and also witnessed the last four editions of Tanz im August/Berlin since 2019). This discourse is vital to me as an artist-curator who founded and has curated the first four editions of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), 2014–17. I curated a lot of contemporary dance at SIFA, and there was even an entire mini-dance festival in 2015 called Dance Marathon: Open With A Punk Spirit! within it. From this experience of SIFA, I initiated the international Curators Academy, including the Gorki Theater Young Curators Academy, to continue the interrogation of curation in performing arts and performance. My synergy with visual arts has mainly been in the form of laboratory processes curating contemporary artists to join The Flying Circus Project (FCP) occurring in Singapore (1996, 1998, 2000, 2004), Vietnam (2007), Cambodia (2010), and Myanmar (2013). My work with contemporary art and the laboratory process has continued into artistic directing the Prince Claus Fund Mobile Lab at documenta fifteen in 2022.
This reflection will not be attempting to list the pros and cons of either model, contemporary art or dance, but will instead propose some beginning thoughts for others to elaborate, contest, or discuss. In a sense, this is an invitation to co-think. As both events, documenta fifteen and Tanz im August, are not complete at the time of penning this reflection, I will stay with the speculative and the potentialities, as a way to free ourselves from facts and realities that may limit co-thinking. In this light, I will not discuss the allegations of anti-Semitism which have mired documenta fifteen, but instead reiterate its concept as an idealistic paratopia.
It should be emphasised that documenta happens once in five years and is very different from an annual dance festival. The financial resources available to both are incomparable. The expectations placed on the outputs of these two “bodies of work” are vastly different. With an exhibition manifested once in five years and a combustion of live art every twelve months, one is inevitably struck by the failure of co-relating both bodies. However, if we free ourselves from realities, we can begin to journey into the fantasy that the grass is always greener on the other side.
The Grass Is Always Greener on the Other Side
How many times have I encountered the wish of performance artists (including myself) to inhabit the more conceptual space of contemporary visual arts? Contemporary art, through a myriad of mediums, encounters the social, the political, and the cultural with a fluidity. Contemporary art constructs an imaginary, opening a porous space and an expanded consideration of the issues at stake. It seems to be able to shake off the subjective shackles of emotion, narrative, the body, and real-time demands from audiences in a physical venue who insist on specific conclusions for a performance work. The pressure of a cathartic collective experience before the curtain call often negates the reflexivity and introspection of meandering associations that freely accumulate in an exhibition.
On the other hand, there is the wish of visual artists who desire to engage with performance, the doing that goes beyond the object, the thing in a white cube. ruangrupa, the Artistic Directors for documenta fifteen, proposed the lumbung, or the rice barn, as the way forward for 2022. As they clarified with their press release on 18 June 2020, lumbung is not a theme for the exhibition but an everyday practice. The lumbung proposes a sharing of resources to gain sustainability in the long run. It is a practice of self-governance that advocates a collective responsibility of mutual care. It can be perceived as a common which springs from the Global South. “The lumbung as an artistic and economic model will be practiced alongside its values of collectivity, generosity, humour, trust, independence, curiosity, endurance, regeneration, transparency, sufficiency, and connectivity between a multiplicity of locales, [including Kassel,] rendering them planetary as a result.”
Identity, Representation, and Humans in Tanz im August 2022
Dance is deeply impacted by diverse identity politics and representation, vividly expressed in the 2022 Tanz im August opening performance by Marrugeku, entitled Jurrungu Ngan-Ga. It detailed the different experiences of indigenous, displaced, exiled, transgender, and settler subjects in Australia. The message of the indefatigable Virve Sutinen, Festival Director, is one of human resilience after the pandemic. It is headlined by “Nothing beats live experience!” The festival engages with practical aspects of new touring, ecologically smart mechanisms of travelling shows working with local casts. Human beings and their resilience are clearly at the centre of many productions in 2022. Sutinen concludes, “At any given time, dance is one of those human experiences that we share as people despite our differences. It is fundamental. Dance needs to be shared, experienced, and lived through together. It is always a conversation, which might challenge us, disturb us, but also empower, and even comfort us.”
The Non-Human and the Planetary in documenta fifteen
As I sit in my room typing, I sense that the gladioli in the vase have grown taller. I can feel the gladioli stems moving, as they inch firmly and purposefully towards the light coming from the window. There seems to be a force coming from within the gladioli stems, pushing individual flowers to peer out of the sepals and burst into blossom.
It reminds me of Nguyen Trinh Thi’s work in the documenta fifteen entitled And They Die a Natural Death where she has cast lights on chilli plants, projecting its shadows on the walls of the Rondell venue. This is the defence tower in fortifications of the old town wall built in the 16th century. Accompanying the shadows of this non-human installation are the concurrent sounds of native indigenous flutes blown, not by humans but, by winds in the forests of northern Vietnam. These sounds are programmed with the assistance of artificial intelligence into a live soundscape and connected to Kassel via the Internet. This audio-visual non-human installation is meditative and haunting, as one encounters it in the historical torture chambers of the Rondell. Nguyen was inspired by the still-censored autobiographical novel, A Tale Told in 2000, where Bui Ngoc Tan wrote about his life in the detention camps on the indigenous lands of North Vietnam. There, political prisoners were forced into hard labour amongst the ecosystems of the chilli flora. This was a recurring strategy of documenta fifteen, connecting the local of Kassel where the exhibition is and the local of the exhibiting artist.
The lumbung is a practice that embraces collaborations with non-humans. In particular, the lumbung focuses on the planetary. This was written about by Paul Gilroy in his book Postcolonial Melancholia:
[…] the translocal impact of political ideologies, social relations, and technological changes that have fostered a novel sense of interdependence, simultaneity, and mutuality in which the strategic and economic choices made by one group on our planet may be connected in a complex manner with the lives, hopes, and choices of others who may be far away.
The planetary has since been developed by Achille Mbembe as an ethics for a common custodianship of the Earth, continuing life for everyone and everything.
The Tradition of Care for Humans
Putting a larger context into dance festivals, it is valid to note that curators and festival directors often presented the new works of dance-makers they have supported, nurtured, presented. This is not always dependent on a conceptual approach but instead followed the trajectory of human labour. The heart of dance festivals can be said to be centred on the human being, the dance-maker. It stems from a legacy of taking care of dance-makers who have grown up with the festival. This is particularly clear in a workshop dance festival like ImPulsTanz in Vienna where the human being is taken care of in professional workshops designed for a community of dancers. This can also be seen in the wish of ruangrupa in documenta fifteen to move from a typical exhibition into a more commons practice of the lumbung, a practice of not just aesthetics but of political performance. With such a motivation, documenta fifteen made a clear break from presenting the usual suspects in a visual arts biennial or triennial. Some exhibiting lumbungs were not even visual arts collectives, such as Más Arte Más Acción from Colombia, which is concerned with nature, ecology, climate change, and indigenous rights including land rights (although one of the founders is a visual artist). The foundation of documenta fifteen was no longer just the human community of artists but the practice of sharing time, space, energy, and including non-human knowledge. There were numerous archival projects with tens of thousands of documents, speaking for themselves without human mediation.
A Planetary Archive and the Dance Festival
From 24 August to 21 September 2019, an ambitious dance festival, What The Body Remembers, was organised by the ADK in Berlin. It delved into the legacy and heritage of dance. Contemporary performance in the late 1990s was that which disappeared. But Rebecca Schneider, in her 2011 book, reframed performance as no longer the ephemeral. She proposed that performance is what remains. In the era of re-enactments, re-performances of an earlier generation of work, there has been a very strong reappraisal of what performance is. Instead of performance that disappears, performance remains. Schneider applies this to political performance: how do the Vietnam War protests remain and become remanifested again? I was a witness to how these protests remained and became reperformed as Occupy Wall Street in my days as a PhD student at New York University for instance.
It is this context of re-performance which guided my interpretation of the festival that I witnessed, as well as co-curated. The festival embraced strict re-constructions of scores following the principle of archival preservation, as well as re-performances which were new enactments of seminal dances developed from archives. The team of curators was Heike Albrecht, Gabriele Brandstetter, Nele Hertling, Johannes Odenthal, Ong Keng Sen, and Madeline Ritter. My role was added fairly late, as I joined in the fall of 2018 to provide some non-European perspectives as well as prevent a Eurocentric conclusion for bodies and memories.
This was the description of the festival in the ADK website:
The legacy and heritage of dance is immaterial. Yet contemporary dancers and choreographers are still building on an incredibly rich and powerful modern history, which covers more or less the entire 20th century. Artists such as Isadora Duncan, Mary Wigman and Valeska Gert stand for emancipation, for liberation from gender roles, for utopian awakenings and political appropriation, but also for resistance against societal conventions. Post-war modernism behaved in similar ways, be it dance theatre in Germany, Butoh in Japan, modern and postmodern dance in the United States, or contemporary dance in France and Belgium.
The end result comprised performances, discourse, an international campus, a publication, and an exhibition called The Century of Dance.
What I found particularly remarkable was that the legacy of dance was not immaterial but very material. Much remained in material sources: notations, writings, books, objects, stills, and some moving image recordings. Perhaps the only legacy that was primarily immaterial was Chandralekha’s from Madras, India. It was embodied in the contemporary dancer, Padmini Chettur. I had curated Padmini to not present a choreography of Chandralekha’s, but her own new solo Philosophical Enactment 1. Padmini’s body, attitude, and philosophy of dance had been completely designed by Chandralekha. Chandralekha’s modernist legacy was to rewrite the ancient Indian dances into dances of emancipation for the female body. These were all put on the body of Padmini. Padmini’s work after becoming an independent dance-maker was to consciously erase all that Chandralekha had embedded in her.
A book in the dance archive is an object which is clearly non-human. Yet, it is written by human agency. Perhaps it is confusing to separate human and non-human in the archival turn of contemporary dance. In the light of this, it may be useful to adopt instead, the aforementioned Achille Mbembe’s “planetary.” Mbembe developed this concept further in another interview:
For me, the planetary immediately evokes a connection between life and its futures on the one hand, and the Earth on the other hand. What comes to my mind is the biophysical organic material and mineral order—a geological magma-filled rock topped with the entangled orders of physical, organic phenomena such as plants, animals, minerals and so forth, as well as the artifacts and things and tools we have invented. In other words, the planetary evokes what we call in French le vivant, which in English is something like “the living world.” Le vivant is, for me, the planetary in its multiplicity, in its animate and inanimate forms, as it undergoes its endless process of transformation … I find it almost impossible to think of the planetary without thinking about life and about the Earth. I probably owe that to my interest in the animist metaphysics of precolonial Africa. That’s the archive I draw on to propose this kind of understanding of the planetary as so closely linked to life, which itself is an indivisible process.
We arrive at a complex fusion of life and the Earth, rather than a separation of human and non-human. In particular, the planetary refers explicitly to the artefacts, things, and tools which the human has invented such as notations, writings, books, objects, stills, and moving image recordings. The emphasis seems to be on living, multiplicity, and transformation on the “geological magma-filled rock.” There is also a connection made between animism and metaphysics, bringing in a spiritual, irrational realm which the human and non-human do not necessarily rationally include.
Below is the opening description of a fifteen-minute scene performed by Tomomi Tanabe in Takao Kawaguchi’s The Sick Dancer which I curated for the ADK during the festival. The Sick Dancer was created primarily from the texts of Yameru Maihime (The Ailing Dance Mistress) written by Tatsumi Hijikata. Hijikata was the founder of a genre of dance performance art from Japan called Butoh, or the Dance of Darkness, often said by American writers to have begun as a response to the effects of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.
A contorted body (rather than a human) writhing slowly on a tatami mat’s floorspace. The living body is unable to stand, helpless. The ends of the body, especially the fingers, are expressively grasping the air. Its legs and arms are bent, curled up, gnarled. At one moment, the elbow stabs into mid-air. The body is in a constant act of balancing on at least one point pressed into the ground, be it shoulder, elbow, wrist, hip, or side of the body, while the rest of the body pushes off, reaching into space. The body turns from side to side, rolling over. Sometimes the arm is twisted behind the body, seemingly grabbing something behind. The entire body is encased in a sheer nylon stocking including the head and face. Finally, after a painstaking length of time, the body is able to clamber onto its knees, only to fall back onto the tatami. The soles of the body stroke the mat and gradually the feet lift into the air. Now the soles are caressing the air. The two feet cross and begin to rub each other. The body changes its contact point with the mat, from the side of the body to once again the knees. It pulls and slides the entire shoulder back into the body. Now the body is precariously perched at the furthest edge of the tatami. The body begins to tear at the stocking material, peeling it off as if it is burnt skin.
The Ailing Dance Mistress, the longest single coherent text by Hijikata, was never made into a dance by him. This text is therefore not a dance notation in the conventional sense. The above scene was perhaps choreographed and transformed by Kawaguchi from the following words of The Ailing Dance Mistress of Hijikata:
The sickly person, hardly out of bed ever, was in the dark corner of the house, moaning and groaning all the time. I could say that my custom of releasing the body onto the tatami mat like a fish was learned and acquired from the lesson of this sickly dance mistress. One could observe her body was made of a silhouette as if making a wish, but even that would be trapped in the darkness of something that had bursted and borne fruit somewhere. The darkness of the other side known to none, a dark resurrection, a beginning which she would not have remembered. That’s why I grew up taking breaths in such a place where nothing can be taught or learned. When forced to watch an ill being like this, there would be scraped off out of my body a desire to have my shin bones smashed to my heart’s content with a club or something and thus, undo the knots of my body.
Butoh is notated not by a score but by words indicating qualia. Qualia is “the root of every segment of experience, connected with sensory interpretation.” Movement is fused with affect. With words as notation, the same butoh dance was subjectively and variedly expressed by different individuals, with diverse temporal dimensions, for instance. Most times, Butoh is documented by “Butoh-fu,” which are the words said by the choreographer to his dancer in rehearsal, workshop, or the studio, written down by that dancer. This leads to a diverse multiplicity of the same dance sequence, documented by different dancers in their specific Butoh-fu. One such dancer was Tanami, performer of The Sick Dancer. She had studied directly with Hijikata in his last workshops.
I have made a selection of Butoh-fu (from Hijikata as recorded by his dancers) which can be said to have planetary attributes based on Mbembe’s concept. These are taken from a wider collection of Butoh-fu in an instructive text by Takashi Morishita:
Burnt down bridge
Front and back of a mirror
Republic of nerves
From dry dust to ghost
Precarity vs Freedom from the Art Market
On 7 June 2022, I invited Gertrude Flentge to speak at the Prince Claus Funds Mobile Laboratory. Gertrude is part of the Artistic Team of documenta fifteen, and she spoke about the fear in the early days that there would be no art at documenta fifteen. It seemed that the executive at documenta was concerned that the artistic team was too concentrated on the lumbung practice and that nothing would be produced and presented, despite a €42 million budget. Over five years, this is arguably less than it seems. However, apart from this production budget, there is the annual operating budget over five years to produce one mega-product; documenta has very deep infrastructure pockets, unlike most dance festivals.
It can be said that because of the political power of the art market in the global neoliberal economy, contemporary art does not have to face the spectre of precarity that haunts contemporary dance festivals. Contemporary dance festivals are a late player in the arts scenes of most cities. Even though they are attractive to the public, historically, curators and festival directors feel that they have to take care of dance-makers, supporting them to create their new work. For European standards, there is still a very slight dance infrastructure. For instance, in Berlin there is still no established dance house in the city. Apart from ballet companies in musical and opera houses and a resident dance artist based in Volksbühne, there are HAU, Tanzfabrik, Sophiensaele, Radialsystem V, and Dock 11 as smaller presenting houses. Sometimes, extreme expectations are placed on a dance festival to take care of emerging dancers, mid-career dancers, and ageing dancers. This is not an issue for contemporary art. Biennials and documenta do not have to take care of the contemporary community of visual artists. This is the task of cities’ Kunsthallen, if at all. Nor do museums play this role. A lot of this is justified, as there is an art market where contemporary artists can sell their work. The market also gives freedom. It becomes a buffer against precarity.
The No-thing that Remains
Within the luxurious freedom of the art market, one can perhaps understand why the institution of documenta could afford to accept the ethics of lumbung practice proposed for documenta fifteen. ruangrupa sees lumbung as an essential practice to share resources, to encourage those who have more to re-distribute amongst those who have less. They proposed lumbung after they had successfully practised it in Indonesia. It is this political performance they proposed to the visual arts establishment in Germany, of producing nothing or, more precisely, no-thing. In a lecture on “Love and Community” in 2001, Jean-Luc Nancy mischievously asserted that “nothing” was not nothing. “Nothing is something, it is a something of no-thing.” Nancy talks in the same lecture about sharing no-thing, the space in between. Ex nihilo, out of no-thing, something grew. What grew was unpredictable and open.
The concept of no-thing is synergistic with performing arts and performance. After all, there is often no thing or no art object made for the art market. What remains of performance are the relationships between all the players, from the ensemble of dance performers to the dance-makers to the presenting house to the audience. The value of performing arts and performance is not a financial value but one of potentiality. In his Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy (1999), Giorgio Agamben writes that potentiality is the existence of non-Being, the presence of an absence. Performing artists, performance artists, and political activists are often aware that what they make are ephemeral relationships, associations, affects, and care, existing in space and time between different players in the theatre or on the street. What they have made is often in the becoming, rather than a completed art object to be sold in the art market. What these performers are making is still a non-Being; its existence in the work is still absent but its presence can already be felt. The non-tangible impact of some recent German examples, such as Theater Am Turm in Frankfurt, Pina Bausch, and the former Forsythe Company, is still ongoing, an absent presence. As I am writing, Tanz im August will be handed over to a new team after nine years. Time will tell what remains of all the performance in this last near-decade.
The no-thing of potentiality is completely new for contemporary art exhibitions, hence the resistance to ruangrupa’s practice of lumbung: of collectivity, generosity, humour, trust, independence, curiosity, endurance, and regeneration. This no-thing that is not nothing, this potentiality that remains, is alienating for the contemporary art exhibition, which is usually a precursor to the actual sale of artworks. What remains of ruangrupa’s documenta fifteen will perhaps become more resonant in time because of the planetary care it attempted to perform.
Ong Keng Sen is an artist-curator and educator. Apart from creating renowned productions, Ong founded the Arts Network Asia, and the international Curators Academy in T:>Works, Singapore. Since 2019, he has directed the Young Curators Academy at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin. In 2021, he was the Artistic Director of the Prince Claus Funds’ 25-hour Festival to commemorate its 25 years of existence. His seminal work was the nomadic artist residency, The Flying Circus Project, travelling international artists through Asia, sharing their contexts amongst themselves and young people at the local sites. Ong was the Founding Festival Director of the all-new Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) from 2013–2017. He holds a PhD in Performance Studies from New York University Tisch School of the Arts. In 2022, he was conferred another honorary doctorate from the University of Arts London for his work in live performance. In the fall of 2022, he will be the Valeska Gert Professor at Freie Universität Berlin.
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 “Takao Kawaguchi & Tomomi Tanabe, The Sick Dancer (Re-creation 2018) with the texts from Tatsumi Hijikata’s Yameru Maihime (The Ailing Dance Mistress),” Program of The Sick Dancer (9–11 February 2018), BUoY Arts Center, Tokyo.
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