By Arnd Wesemann
German critic and editor of the monthly magazine Tanz on the purification of art in theater at the expense of freedom, a speech originally delivered at the seminar Art As Force, Oktoberdans 2018.
I would like to introduce you to dancer Yaara Moses from Israel, for one good reason, since I would later like to talk about the danger happening to the arts if an art work is not framed by an art context – such as the frame created by film maker Amit Sides from the Tel Aviv-based Mamash production group in “Over A Low Flame Project”.
I was asked to talk to you about the FEAST.
Okay, most obvious, the feast appears to be the exact opposite to what we call the ARTS.
As you saw in the film it is not dangerous to dance on a street far off from a city, or in a supermarket, shifting your focus to fancy deals, or in front of a roller coaster with much more energy than you can provide yourself, and foremost: to present dance in front of an academic audience. You saw how beautifully the students were ignoring the arts.
Now imagine dancing at the Oktoberfest in Munich. What a frame! How would you call the Oktoberfest in Munich a work of art, hélas [sorry]!
But it is a feast, a fest, and you now may fear to mistake something: dancing at Oktoberfest or dancing at Oktoberdans is a totally different thing just to keep in mind any difference between the Bavarian one, and the one here in Bergen.
Anyway, you call Oktoberdans a festival.
Ritual praising the artist
So look at the word. A fest – and a val. “Val” from “vale” also appears in carnevale, where “carne” is meat, and “vale” is farewell. Carnival, in total, means: Good-bye to meat. This is because a carnival is a feast happening just before spring, during a certain given time: not to hunt any animals while they are breeding or nurturing their next generation under very difficult climatic circumstances. Animals hardly find food, and so, man is adopting the same rule. Carni-val means: Good-bye, meat.
Now, if we are going to translate FESTIVAL accordingly the exact meaning is: Good-bye, feast. If you consider a feast as something happy and wild, a gathering full of unexpected moves and turns, a liberal and even anti-moralistic dancing, eating, drinking, smoking… in consequence, when it comes to arts it says: say good-bye to the feast, to happiness.
An arts festival like this one is, vulgo [in common language]: the exact opposite of a feast. And Oktoberdans indeed appears being much closer to a holy artist's mass, a ritual praising the artists, with a distinct schedule of happenings (not to be mistaken with happiness), happenings starting and ending at exactly defined time schedules in organized venues, theaters, galleries.
This includes the strangest ritual of it all: In front of the art you are, and you have to be silent. You yourself have to be invisible.
Or seen from another angel, remember the film, the dancer appears to be invisible, except for the camera, of course. So, in theater only the actors may do strange things. You yourself must keep your mouth – shut (like now listening to me speaking). You do not eat, drink, smoke. You are subjected to an art work, you only may judge. You only may react to it at the very end with a merely strange reaction: you give applause. Your hands are clapping.
You react, as if you have to get awake again. Relieved. Good God, it’s over! You may think so, and you are giving applause, of course, officially, as a salute to the artists. In other times, during a feast – and I mean a feast without a 3000 watt amplifier and a 10000 watt bassface – clapping was an easy tool to create rhythm as a kind of collective back drop to the drummers. Today we may even consider clapping as an early immersive tool. So, clapping was originally meant to make the party-goers becoming a part – of the party, of the feast. Today, the so called curtain applause is marking the end of silence, and to be honest, also the end of the festi-val: Good-bye theater.
Curtain falls. We can go back to celebrations. Having a drink at the bar. Theater – a dark hall, a secret cave with a holy stage, can invoke the impression of being in a sanctuary, in a church – as you sometimes as well can get the impression of suffering like in a church, on your stool, rather than being part of a feast. Although: churches do mean their celebrations as celebrations. They call it feast, like Easter. And as such, Oktoberdans can still call tself a feast, too. In this sense, the church redefined the feast as something to make you subjected to god, – or to an art-work.
And this means, radically spoken: the ritual of a theater or dance festival is more likely an act – indeed – of suppressing your will to freedom instead of creating a free act, or a playful arts event.
Rave on stage
Why is that so? If you look at what we call the current mainstream in dance, the most recent successes in the dance world, one of the major tendencies is a highly complex way of using techno music.
Look at the recent shooting stars from Israel, Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar, who are strongly collaborating with a genius techno composer, Ori Lichtik. That's great work. The bass line is grooving, the dancers are like machines, puppets. The choreography is working like an algorithm, stubborn, precise, full of minor variations. Works by Sharon Eyal and her company L-E-V then appear to be a variety, a revue, in the good old sense of the “Ornament of the crowd”, a kind of post-military, post-industrial architecture of movement, even dedicating themselves to the digital revolution.
Or, look at Richard Siegal, a master and a descendant of the popular school of William Forsythe. In Richard Siegal's work UNITXT at the Bavarian State Opera for example, the audiences weren't shaken by the dancing only but again by the close collaboration this time with techno composer Carsten Nicolai, who is better known to many as Alva Noto, an East German pioneer of electronic music, who won every great prize: from the Golden Globe for best film music to the Prix Ars Electronica.
Both, Richard Siegal and Sharon Eyal, among many others (as at Oktoberdans this year: Softcore – A Hardcore Encounter, Ravemachine and Crowd), put the rave on stage. They were translating their personal experience of feasting, meaning: of clubbing into art works. Driven by the rhythm of a feast, they are taking signifiers of a rave to the theaters. They use the elements of a highly contemporary party, but subject it to the rules of the theater. You still have to be seated in your chair, while others celebrate their turns and turn-tables. This is a use and misuse of the good old idea of gathering to loose one's mind. These artists are exporting the losses to theater.
The feast of the mute
The feast, to this (and my) generation, consisted of techno music. A feast, that was founded through events like the Love Parade, or early bass-driven events in abandoned industrial sites or office buildings. To this generation techno was what I would call a feast of the mute. German writer Rainald Goetz had big successes with his novel Rave in 1998, a drug and music story of a lonesome walkman generation at the bottom of the forthcoming age of the so-called immaterialism (a word invented by the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard). It was this generation that started to invest less in cars or homes, but in boundless digital infrastructures like mobile phones while at the same time believing in a boundless Europe. Techno was the sound of it. The youngsters of those times are now in charge of being curators – for Sharon Eyal, for Richard Siegal, for a raving generation with its Berlin Berghain club adolescence, its Berlin KitKat-Club ambitions towards liberalized sexuality and a multicultural belief in the one-world-fun-park, as it is offered today by EasyJet or Norwegian Airlines.
All this happened right before the Facebook industry of the howling wolves came up filling its pages with any sort of concern towards ecological disasters (plastic garbage), climate change, sexual harassment, or fear of terror. A whole industry succumbed to political correctness. The feast of the mute – aka the Techno- and Chill-out-generation – staggered into the mad man's fear towards any pollutive festivity: No to cigarettes, no to plastic cups, no to riots. Concerts in Brussels, to pick one contemporary example, are opening doors precisely 7 pm. No bags allowed. No mobile phones. The first band's gig is in 50 minutes to the point. The main gig is one hour. No encores. No dancing. No drinks. 10 pm is meant to kick everybody out of the concert hall. Brussels’ music world is the cleanest in the world.
Compare it to the former rock concert, celebrated like a feast – think of the Burning Man Festival in the deserts of Nevada – it all turned into a well prepared theater show, adapting all rules of a civilized grave for the living dead. Very well organized for disabled persons as well as for the deaf. You will be mute. You clap your hands. Leave the space, don't disturb the neighbors, search for a non-smoking bar. Go to bed.
This is what we call art
Art is in other words controlling the rules of what we call culture. Art has been at the forefront of respecting the art as a holy gem, but not as an interruption in life. A feast, instead, would be a huge interruption. A parade of Samba Schools, or Techno wagons, or Carnival carts, filling the streets and destroying public transportation and security surveillance for a couple of days during an extended period of time. A feast as an interruption of your life would be like 72-hour clubbing in Berlin at weekends, diving into a different world, a club. This kind of feast is made to break with every rule: with sexual rules, with health caring rules, with rules of behavior and rules of reason.
Now looking back at Oktoberdans you saw it all, too, in a sterile way, on a stage protected like a quarantine station: In here, dancers are allowed to break with sexual rules, with health caring rules, with rules of behavior and rules of reason. It is all done over there, far away, on stage, in a secluded world, where people can show the breaking, the dancing, and a certain dis- or misbehavior. Great!
This is what we call art. I call it a well subsidized practice to prevent us, ourselves, from any dis- or misbehavior. We obey the arts. Those art-lovers, they hate the feast. They love Oktoberdans, They hate Oktoberfest.
Tell me, why is that so?