THE CATHEDRAL OF THE BODY, THE BODY OF THE SHADOW – On online content, the physicality of dance and pandemic poetry
Som en del av Oktoberdans 2020 og diskursprogrammet FUTUREBODIES ba vi en rekke av våre internasjonale kontakter reflektere fritt over konsekvensene koronakrisen har hatt for kulturfeltet. Hvordan tilpasser vi oss vår nye tilværelse? I denne teksten deler kunstner, skribent og dramaturg Yasen Vasilev sine tanker om overproduksjon og den dansende kroppen.
Tekst: Yasen Vasilev
In the last months, probably like all of us, I've been continuing my professional practice online – attending numerous contemporary dance festivals around the world, watching live streams, lectures, discussions and panels, giving and taking workshops and trying to keep up with the pace with which the field jumped uncritically into the new normal of digitalization. I've attended online events at Dance Umbrella in London, International exposure at Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv, Taiwan Dance Platform at Weiwuying in Kaohsiung, Moving Body festival in Varna, I moderated a talk at the Choreographic convention at Antistatic fest in Sofia, gave an online workshop at FAKI festival of alternative theatrical expression in Zagreb, presented a work at Vrystaat Kunstefees in Cape Town, watched a bit of the 50-hour durational dance performance “Encounters”, streamed by Tanzquartier Wien, which probably was the last drop that pushed me to finish this text.
I started asking myself – this extreme overproduction, this intensification of sharing, this flooding of streaming, this miraculous technological advancement, what does it actually do and who does it actually serve? I initially decided to work with theatre to avoid the loneliness of a writer's room and then I moved into dance to be able to transcend the limitations of language. I chose to work with the body because I intuitively felt that the body has become the center of our culture, the site of political struggle, of repetitive battles between enslaving and liberating forces. However, I've so far managed to ignore the technological advancement, or let's say to pretend it didn't exist – as long as we could meet live together in the same space and our small bubble of contemporary dance existed, I could ignore the competition for likes, the obsessive self-objectification, the culture of influencing, the elimination of depth, the reduction of everything to content. I've noticed, however, when the market people invented the term prosumer (producer + consumer) to describe the new relationship between online platforms and their users and to promote everyone to produce (as opposed to create) content, therefore, to work for free for Silicon Valley, while presenting the cultural “industry” as democratized and accessible and completely erasing the differences between art and product. If you're making something good, people will notice it and they will reward you for it (with likes), the saying goes. If you fail, it's your fault.
Dance seemed to be the antithesis of these processes. Rooted in the body, based in the physical encounter of people in the same space, supported within a publicly funded infrastructure (despite the ongoing budget cuts), it was embodied, live, simple, at the same time exciting because it was breaking barriers and crossing boundaries, but also because it was continuing traditions, while being conscious and political and engaging in a way that only live practices can be.
Now all these embodied live practices are delivered through a screen in our own personal spaces which have become simultaneously spaces for work and rest, for leisure, pleasure, exposure, extraction and exploitation. The type and scope of exhaustion from online overdosing is different from the burnout from constant traveling which some workers in the dance field know all too well – but they're both located in the body. This exceptional situation which both interrupted globalization (as physical movement) and intensified it (as online attendance) was mostly done not to lose funding and the sudden access to so much material was at the same time exciting, overwhelming and blocking. Is money the only reason dance agreed so fast to betray its very nature and feed into this extracting and exploitative network that promises equal access to all but delivers an over-saturation of content which is made obsolete by its presentation and context? It seems that instead of focusing on the local and what we can do physically within our own communities, our energy is completely dispersed and consumed by our online presence and solitude.
Before the pandemic I was thinking that a big part of artistic work is about navigation between different contexts and institutions, about the importance of form over content and about the persistence in one's practice as a trajectory as opposed to project. Now I am thinking that what we need more than ever is some critical distance amidst all the neurotic overproduction, a stop where we are able to reflect, to listen to our own bodies and to see what the world have become.
For me personally the pandemic after the initial shock was a time to return to my roots in writing – a practice that needs a lot less in terms of funding and infrastructure than the performing arts – and can be done in solitude, in isolation, with just pen and paper. I used the time to go through a series of poems I've written in the last 5 years and organize them in a collection which I published digitally and freely under the title “The cathedral of the body, the body of the shadow” in my native Bulgarian back in June, supported by an emergency grant of the city of Sofia. These texts were informed by my international circulation in residencies abroad (in China, NYC and across Europe), by the people I met, talked with, worked with, was influenced by and by the way performance and dance and the body became central to my work. So these are poems inspired by theory and by practice and by life, dealing with the connection between writing and the body – and they ask the same questions that I've been asking (myself) through the other aspects of my work – questions about the current contradictions of global capitalism, the working conditions of artists within a decaying infrastructure, attacked by neoliberal austerity, the role of art within politics, the tension between content and form, the limits of representation in both aesthetics and politics. I almost didn't write anything new – it was a time of retrospection and maybe of closing a chapter in order to open space for something new to emerge, so I am using the chance to share the first four of them not as a way to add more content – they were actually written long before the pandemic – but to offer a moment of slowing down because as dance requires physical presence, poetry requires introspection.
Can you sense language changing?
I don't need you to research or understand it.
I want you to follow it on your body.
The body is a territory of various battles.
Can you sense language losing the war?
You can find the places as if on a map.
It is all marked. The mouth is no longer your mouth.
Where you still have control, you can try resistance.
Reinvent the functions, find a different type of speech.
However, everything you say, think, write
is no longer yours, it is a captured territory,
that does not belong to you.
Pervasive, immaterial, therefore so dangerous,
it extends and exists on a language taken over.
What weapon do you walk with towards that kind of territory?
The collapse of a building or of its functions
could be seen as liberation or enslavement,
or time compressed. It depends.
We have to come closer to recognize the faces behind the dust,
mouths gagged, palms in empty pockets, unable to react,
TV spectators of their own life,
they are told to celebrate and shop,
we have to come closer to the shelves,
read the small letters on the labels, measured in human lives,
that's how they pay writers to produce content – letter by letter.
New buildings are erected, a mix of kitsch and nostalgia.
Why wouldn't we come closer,
there's a risk to get dirty, but we will never fit in,
we look like a paper cut in the middle of the picture,
different aesthetic, there's a risk to get sick of it,
but why wouldn't we come closer?
This is a time of new fences and walls, of production of enemies.
Some are physically separated; some others are the same at first glance.
But let's see how a smaller system falls apart. Let's say, the human.
It is hard to recognize the enemy when he feeds your essence.
Different points of view might have common goals.
Two radically different positions exist. The third is the face.
One force that overthrows another does not always mean liberation.
There's no language to resist this.
Everything's captured and disarmed.
Devoid of choice, we reproduce the power
we have voluntarily accepted,
we serve something we don't understand,
we serve something we can't emancipate from,
a vast and uncontrollable net of dependencies,
the head is severed from the body,
the body is severed from the earth,
the earth is severed from the earth,
there's no metaphor for this hostility,
it's your sincere cruelty,
your essential ferocity,
your furious impetus,
your unconsciously accepted arrangement,
your second reversed nature.