Fostering ambivalence to disguise dogma?

On the critical writing of artists in the project Afterwords, ImPulsTanz Vienna 2002

Sarma 11 Aug 2002English

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Contextual note
This text was commissioned by ImPulsTanz in Vienna and first published on Sarma. It provides a framework for the project Afterwords, curated by Jeroen Peeters for the festival ImPulsTanz Vienna in summer 2002. Every night, three critics in residence shared their impressions and thoughts on the performances immediately after having seen them, in an act of instantaneous writing. During the process of writing, these comments were projected in the theatre lobby and later that night made available on the websites and
A selection of the texts written by Jeroen Peeters is available on Sarma, in a slightly edited version, sometimes with a postscript. Two essays (including this one) elucidate the project Afterwords and reflect on its poetical and political implications. To retrieve the material, search under: ‘Afterwords’.

Within the framework of Afterwords, almost every night an artist was invited to sit in and join the instantaneous writing of two critics. The guest artists came mostly from within the festival and included choreographers, dancers and teachers. Their participation was often dependant on their availability in Vienna during the festival and therefore at random, although some conscious decisions were made. Priority was given to artists known for their writings in other contexts – they could choose the performance they wanted to write about. Sometimes particular suggestions were made by the curator (for instance to invite Susanne Linke to write about Jérôme Bel). Some people wrote about an artist or a performance they already felt connected to, others explicitly chose to write about something they didn’t know at all beforehand.

How does an artist see a performance? What would he/she write about a colleague’s work? After five weeks of Afterwords, these questions proved to be far more complicated than I would have expected. One thing is for sure: whatever their specific viewpoint is, artists do not struggle with canonised forms of critical writing, although they do bother about the implications of criticism, whether artistic or political. What follows is not an exhaustive analysis of their texts, but notes I took after discussions with some of the artists about the project and especially their ideas about writing and criticism – this time regarded from within, far from the cliché of artists complaining about being misunderstood by the critics. A series of statements and reflections, then, selective and at random.

One of the first guests was Steve Paxton, who walked in fifteen minutes late to a sold out show of Jérôme Bel, and performed a ‘strike’ to get another six people in. The diva role he had been playing with verve during his stay in Vienna was also apparent in his short piece of writing: some lines to intrigue, tease the brain, irritate. What he in the end thinks about Bel’s work is a mystery. A friend and former critic pointed out in an e-mail the difference between the writing of the critic and the artist in Afterwords: "The critic communicates with an attempt to formulate a transparent aesthetic judgement (and masks the ambivalences), the artist communicates with enigma and ambivalence (and masks his/her dogma)."

The text written by Boris Charmatz the following evening affirmed this summation: a reflection about the impossibility to write. Because a clear aesthetic judgement would betray in its discursive formulation the dogma of the artist? Charmatz apparently had been struggling with this question while watching; the pressure to have to write afterwards functioned as a filter to his perception. This filter revealed, along with the impossibility of a pure, uncontaminated viewing an array of possible translations of the performance into words, of possible discourses, and moreover the inevitable moment of choice when one starts writing: the decision to choose one particular translation. Where a critic utilises different discourses (a historical, modernist, psychoanalytic, gender… approach) as a tool, the artist (at least Charmatz) is paralysed by the mere fact that the structure of reason takes over his volition – and has to identify criticism as pseudo-writing, opposed to artistic media as a familiar means of articulation.

This phenomenon led also to more profound forms of self-censorship. Jérôme Bel performed a kind of act. He had been taking pages of notes during the performance and started to write them out on a computer immediately afterwards. The audience present that night could witness this process in the foyer downstairs where the Afterwords were screened as usual. During a discussion between audience and artists, Bel’s attention got diverted from his writing. The discussion made him realise that he would need at least ten pages to arrive at a point where words would be sufficient to convey his perception of the performance Weak Dance Strong Questions (by Jonathan Burrows and Jan Ritsema) in a precise way. He deleted the text he had written and decided to leave a blank page. Because the performance was well articulated and provoked a lot of questions. Because words are never a match.

A similar thing happened to Wendy Houstoun, but for a different reason: she wrote a rather long text about Akram Khan’s Kaash, in an associative and open way, congealed in a fragmented form with an experimental use of punctuation. The process of her writing was witnessed in the theatre lobby, but Houstoun decided not to publish her text on the website, for she "wouldn’t have written quite a few things if the material was going to be put out further. It is important to me that I am not misunderstood. Context is all, I think." (The problem of one text that has to serve two different objectives in different contexts is also broached in my general text about Afterwords.)

What about censorship inspired by a political context? Although texts were written and published about the performances by Rosas, the festival decided not to screen them in the foyer. Because the holy shrine of Viennese theatre called the Burgtheater and its audience should not be infected by critical writing? Though it might sound banal or not even appear to be censorship, the combination of a famous company performing in the Burgtheater is a political context that also influences criticism. Therefore it is meaningful that the Estonian choreographers Krõõt Juurak and Merle Saarva didn’t even bother to write in a straightforward fashion what they actually thought about the performance, instead utilising the subjective character of their writing as a means to trace the political frame and at the same time exceed it.

Several artists were confronted with the problem of liberty in their writing, also for political or contextual reasons. The most obvious instances involved writing about colleagues they know well, or about performances that were political in themselves. Cristina Caprioli stated very clearly "this is not a review" before she started her comments about Robyn Orlin, to release a space for writing beyond diplomacy. Jan Ritsema had a hard time in writing about Heddy Maalem, for he was "not free – one should be able to do it swiftly, like writing an e-mail." He related a short personal experience in order to displace the context of his writing. Though Afterwords were written right after the show and over a very short span of time, informality needn’t necessarily follow. Invoking one’s persona – whether fictitious or not – into the writing appeared to be an effective strategy, though.

I had a few hours of discussion with Jeanluc Ducourt about particular problems and questions emerging directly from Afterwords and in performance criticism as such. For instance, the problem of the two objectives/contexts: he proposed writing two texts, one instantaneously, the second one the next morning (which was actually never written due to technical reasons). And yet, one text is always read in hundreds of different ways, as hundreds of different texts, of which only several layers are clearly articulated in the writing itself. For Ducourt, a general strategy to approaching critical writing would be to unfold these layers explicitly by proposing several texts in one, and by explaining the procedures utilised, the double meanings generated on purpose… in short to make readable the process of writing itself, if possible to an exhaustive extent. Imagine an endless dissemination of meta-levels in writing, initiating a complicated – endless – reading process intended to liberate the multiple voices embedded in the text. The impossibility of deciphering a text, of exhaustively articulating the writing process, might mirror the impossibility of capturing a performance in language – and thus shed light on the attempts and failure of yet doing the latter. At stake is the inevitable question of critical poetics: how to approach an event in language and develop new forms of writing to achieve this point?

As our discussion moved on we came to one specific shared interest: a ‘dramaturgical’ way of writing. That is to include in the writing a description and analysis of the creative process, to avoid the common misconception that regards performance as a mere image that one can simply read. Moreover, the relationship between the creative process and the resulting artistic performance involves language on different epistemological levels, which could be addressed directly in writing on one particular point. One could say that during the creation process ‘words’ and thus language are utilised to formulate a certain intuition. As soon as the work of art is constructed or formulated, not to say ‘finished’, it suddenly transforms into an event and obtains a sacred status, which installs a unilateral relation between movements and words, between event and language. There might be a possibility for critical writing beyond betrayal, for it could rhyme with the temporality of creation, regarded as a process of formulation.

One last statement by Barbara Kraus: "Stellen Sie sich vor Sie als Publikum hätten eine Stimme, wie würde die dann klingen? Und was wäre, wenn Sie in genau diesem Moment stolpern würden?" (Imagine you as audience would have a voice, what would it then sound like? And what would happen if you would stumble precisely in this moment?) It seems like performance artists carry an awareness of their audience (possibly much more than visual artists or even writers do), even when writing. Critical writing as an invitation towards the audience: an invitation to surpass the common critical indifference of the applause in reflection, but also to accept one’s own ignorance and failure, to foster ambivalence and confusion, as a gateway to unknown places.