Dance to No Ideals
Thinking with Sequel for the Future / a Dance in 2043 / a Dance in 2044
By Shir Hacham and Livia Andrea Piazza
In common language, irony and cynicism might be perceived as similar registers. Yet, according to Franco Bifo Berardi, the origin of this equivalence is to be found in late modernity, when the two concepts were equated although they belong to two completely different ethical positionsi. This misunderstanding results from a distorted effect of the deconstruction of belief, initiated in the 4th Century BC by the philosophical movement of Skepticism, which also constitutes the common premise of both the ironical and the cynical position. Bifo sums up Skepticism as “the suspension of judgment at the level of knowledge and the impossibility at the level of morality”ii. This is useful to describe irony and cynicism as rhetorical tools based on suspending an assumed fixed relationship between reality and language. Still, according to Bifo, cynicism is “a form of enunciation within a regime of disbelief” aimed at “attaining or maintaining power or at least something in complicity to power”iii while irony could emerge as a powerful tool of critique against power. Relying on Sloterdijk’s reflection, Bifo maintains that this is true especially today, where a modern form of cynicism, which has nothing to do with the refusal to bend to power that characterized Diogenes’ school, is becoming the prevailing mind-set of the average man.
As capitalism finds its way through art production and discourse, questions on what is possible, on change and on the future are continuously raised. Capitalism’s absorption mechanism blurs the boundaries between the neoliberal and the resistant nurturing a widespread sense of ambivalence that on the one hand, feeds the system and on the other risks to disempower resistance. Here, humour is often channelled into satire in the public sphere and assumes a cynical aftertaste in the private one.
The general sense of ambivalence between what is neoliberal and what is subversive didn’t spare contemporary dance and seems to bring up different responses in terms of poetics and politics. Among them, irony represents for us a particularly interesting territory of exploration, because it exposes this ambivalence and also – by meaning the opposite of what is said – conveys a meaning fundamentally different from the words it uses, creating a suspension in representation.
The performance Sequel for the future / a dance in 2043 / a dance in 2044 (2014) created and performed by Sonja Pregrad and Willy Prager, inspired us to investigate irony as a mechanism that exposes this ambivalence and constitutes the main topic of this article, as we think together with this work, developing around the question “what is contemporary dance?” and putting concepts in brackets. The piece, we argue, operates a gap, interrupts a coherent narration and thus provokes a moment of suspension in which different directions appear as possible regarding an over-disciplined art form. This feature, which belongs to irony at large and puts it in a privileged position in comparison to other forms of humour, deserves a thorough reflection with reference to contemporary dance and critique. Here, irony is addressed mainly within the realm of humour and while satire is a form based on knowing the object of critique, irony finds its premise in a “false ignorance” of the subject matter that places critique on a different starting point. Interestingly, this suspension of knowledge characterizes also cynicism and cynical humour but, according to Bifo, irony produces a potential for critique that cynicism doesn’t.
On this basis, we think together with Sequel for the future / a dance in 2043 / a dance in 2044 and its two authors and performers. The work deals with the future of dance as an art form. The choreographers are not busy with inventing its future; instead, during the research phase, they documented dance practitioners’ statements about the status of the art form (how they choose to do dance, and what is their practice’s past, present and future). In the performance, their stories become paradigms of reality, visions for potential aesthetic and geo-political alternative futures.
The piece is divided into two parts: the first deals with the future from the stand point of what already happened; meaning, the present tense of the first part is 2043. The second part begins with a slow count down into 2044, the future per se; meaning, to what never really had happened, but is presented in present continuous tense. Especially in the first part, Sequel for the Future speculates on the future of contemporary dance as fiction. It does not predict the future, it doesn’t produce knowledge about it. It experiments performatively with certain images of contemporary dance, which depict the future of dance as a form of representation from the perspective of time travellers, of voyagers presenting us a virtual 2043, in which “everybody is a contemporary dance artist”.
The second part is extremely different from the first in its presentation, and especially in its production mechanisms, spelled out in a voice over at the end of the first part: the two performers received a surprising support of 25,000 Euros from the Berlin Senate, which was announced after the piece was already completed. The second part revolves around a “simple” presence of the body and a “neat” sense of the economy of dance movements, performed in slow motion, movements and gestures that were performed in the first part.
Throughout the whole piece, the performers act as “fools” and this general foolery is what we would like to single out here as a subversive mechanism of irony. This work inspired us to think about irony as an instrument for emptying out the medium of dance of all its representation and to thus expose its immanent connection with institutional critique. Moreover, it triggered our reflection on the consequences of this operation, raising the question “what is left?” afterwards.
The piece also offered some thoughts on the possibilities of gathering a collectivity around a notion that, devoid of representations and yet full of potentiality, opens up a shared reflection on the future of dance in order to propose an exercise of collective speculation that regards the future at large.
Speaking about Institutional Critique
“Sequel for the Future” is not a simplistic, positivistic speculation on the future of contemporary dance, but a methodological one. The performers were not sitting and talking about what will happen in the future of some dance practices, they were not transmitting or convincing any information, were not future tellers or artivists, building an ideological framework and imperatives regarding the future of the art form. In an interview with us, they described themselves as “pseudo-scientists” and stated that their research included putting dance practitioners statements in brackets. They asked two choreographers–one, who is 60 years old, who produced her crucial work in the 80’s, and another, who is active today–about their practices in the past, present and future, creating a script from their answers.
For us, the mere fact of reiteration in brackets was an ironic act installed as an instrument, which avoided the flux and coherence of representations of any knowable kind of dance, in order to interrupt it, to create a malfunction or a void in dance’s capacity to signify itself as administered art form.
For example, one of the choreographers interviewed during the research phase, prescribed dance as a manifestation of the universal law of extension, a branch in physics. “What is contemporary dance?” – he said – “it does not exist. Everything is movement, as we know from the Big bang… Everything is energy and information… To give time to things. This is choreography. Big stars cannot appear anymore… My parents said I was taking a big doll and dancing with it in 1983. I hope people will dance, not watch dance in 2043″.
Jacque Alain Miller states that the ironical persona is not a militant’s persona.v The ironical persona is like Socrates, she makes the ideals of the city tremble and sway, sometimes only by placing them in reiterative quotation marks. He posits the ideal- signifiers of the city – ‘freedom’, ‘property’, ‘mother homeland’, ‘equality’ – as empty signifiers that cover unconscious pleasure. Socrates annoyed the generals by discussing about ‘courage’, and pissed off the artists by discussing about ‘beauty’, he was strange in the way he kept asking questions, says Miller, kept repeating other’s statements, did not understand anything and generally acted like an idiot.
Irony is a linguistic register difficult to prove; it can sometimes appear as simple repetition of what has been said, and it is fully dependent on the style, kind of gesture, social conventions and intonation in which it was said. Miller says: “the ironic excels in only mocking other people’s projects. First he waits for the other to speak, then he makes him stumble”. Socrates fills exactly this function of the eccentric, the one with contempt for other people’s ideals. He threatens the ideals protected by the city. Socrates himself does not appear as a subject trapped between the ideal and his drives, he is not a subject of a dilemma. He is the one who doesn’t love, the one you can’t categorize in any way. Socrates fills a nullifying function in relation to the social context because the fool’s position is not a position of a subject tortured between the ideal and pleasure.
In sum, Miller defines the position of the ironic as a “neither-nor” position, as carried out by the double negative of the two political positions that Lacan presents in Seminar 17. The fool, or leftist, indicating social values as mere semblances hiding the division of pleasure that benefits the few, and the knave, the rightist, who believes that any change is reiterative and protects the ideals of the city in order to maintain the distribution of wealth. The ironic plays a scandalous neutrality by not occupying any of these two positions, which bought their particular importance when society got rid of the aristocratic dominance in the French Revolution, because she does not know that one needing to protect ideals (liberty, fraternity, equality) in order to continue to take pleasure is the political modus operandi.
Prager and Pregrad used old-fashioned 80’s science fiction stories and different rhetoric of celebrity scientists who gather information and make public speeches about the future, in which the kitsch paradigmatic example is of course TED-Talk. However, their research wasn’t weighing an anthropological or metaphysical tone. Irony, we suggest, is what creates a distance required to begin a critical action. Irony opens a critical gap in the analysed thing, it suspends it as a signified by putting a certain signifier on hold. Irony will appear not as a certain content, but as the gap of not really knowing, of being “pseudo”, of a foolery that only creatively repeats what others say, for example, contemporary choreographers. The gap in “Sequel for the Future” appears as a distance between dance as a capacity for human expression and its social profanation; a profanation which transforms dance into a market commodity, a sum of artistic and theoretical trends and an over administered cultural product. The ironic undertone arranges dance’s artistic trends as unstable, it creates a friction between them and mobilizes them against each other.
The piece presents some over stylized “dance” representations and exhausts them. For example, the performers wear opera costumes, perform codified modern dance movement, scream and moan while doing contact improvisation, and write on the wall “we are professionals” and “this is a business”, just so we won’t forget the critical stance that accompanies their excitations. In that way, they show the commodification of dance products and styles, what dance is doing now in making the future, the now as a vacuum of sense and artists that are in the service of capitalistic super ego that demands them to take pleasure. Instead of hiding their working conditions, they ask us to construct a dance project that will answer the imperatives of the neo liberal art market, and that’s how they expose it and contradict its transparency. Meanwhile, in the centre of the piece a fundamental question continues to echo the hysterical Socratic position: “what is contemporary dance anyways?”
A Socratic inquiry is one of the most subversive dialectical mechanisms, because it empties out all knowledge regarding a certain ‘x’ and exposes a reality that ‘x’ used to suture. The answer for “what is contemporary dance” in “Sequel” is the performance itself, its material conditions of production as a commodified dance piece and its ironic locus of dance images and trends. Meaning, the artists assume that this kind of question is a performative one, and should be tackled via performative means. Using irony, they open up a possibility for re-imagination of the art form, of a distance between “dance” and all its past ideals and master-signifiers. In that sense, “Sequel” belongs to a series of art works that perform an institutional critique. The two performers play with it in the first part, ‘a dance in 2043’, through words and irony, to fully embody it in the second part, ‘a dance in 2044’.
The performers played their institutional critique also by using consensus and banal statements regarding dance, for example: ‘30 years ago you had to learn some movements from a French guy to be a dancer’, and repeated them. Quoting the dogmatic historical and geo-political common sense of dance made visible the historical representational machine of dance, from Pina Bausch to contact improvisation, from pedestrian movements to classical ballet, all under the guise of idiots-professionals. Consensus such as how we enter the theatre and know that the dancer will be there, that he is available, that there is a choreographer’s thought, that there is a sense of contemporaneity, a repertoire or re-enactment of movements or suspending them, or a total work of contemporary dance in which the light, sound and costume are all devised, were exposed under the historicity of the machine of dance as totally administered art form, without residue.
The two dancers remain in the ironical gap they opened throughout the performance as, while asking the audience for their wishes, pull out two very professional folders and start inquiring about the existing coproduction’s, the gender and equality policies during casting and the details of the project-wish expressed by a member of the audience.
What does it mean to be professional is a question that does not affect contemporary dance only, but interests society at large as the neoliberal system pushes individuals towards never-ending self-optimization, such that the space between what one is and what one does shrinks. The author’s interest in professionalism lies primarily in raising a question: by doing that through irony – and thus acting as fools – they created a sequel for the future to reflect on the border between what is subversive and what is appropriated by neoliberal capitalism.
The artists reminded us that today the position of the ironist is also a position of a professional fool. But the professional fool knows that “dance” is a western invention, like “progress”, and that we are all trying to be more and more professional, and by exposing this, they problematize the question of professionalism. The tragedy of professionalism is that it is a condition for society but also for contemporary dance, a symptom but also a space for possible subversion and discussion. The performance criticizes professionalism as something that is already dissolving, because in the future “everyone will be a dance artist”, there will be no need for expertise anymore. At the same time, they engage with actively abolishing professionalism from their professional position. Professionalism works in “Sequel” as a prism that asks the question of the pseudo-universality of the conditions of labour in capitalism, it shows that by becoming “professional” the artists give up any ideological content or passion. As we picture a future where everyone is a professional contemporary dancer, we start to navigate between the utopian and dystopian visions brought up by such a statement.
The nulling mechanism of irony worked differently in different places in which they performed. In western European countries, the artists told us, Sequel’s first part wasn’t so much understandable but other things were, such as the scene, in which people were asked to elaborate their fantasies in a discourse of commodified art products. In the premier in Zagreb some even exposed their religious aspirations, and said that they would like Saint Mary to appear on stage. Due to the history of socialism, irony proliferated in Eastern Europe, and perhaps it was used as a critical tool for the inability to act politically. Because people who lived under eastern European socialist regimes couldn’t change or condemn the system openly, irony was a tool for creating a distance and open a space for possible re-consideration of how the regime should function or is actually functioning. The world situation today is that people are beginning to understand more and the trap of capitalism and the infinitization of surplus value, that there is not so much freedom as it may have looked in the 60’, 80’ or 90’.
What Is Left?
It is following this direction, that Sequel for the future gradually empties the notion of dance of all its representations and more importantly, raises the question: “what’s left?” by interpellating the collectivity around the empty notion of dance itself, transforming the question “what is contemporary dance?” into a territory of collective speculation.
This movement differs deeply from works that, exercising with critique, end up with notions that are not only devoid of representations but also of potentiality. By gathering a collectivity around a hysteric question, the latter stays open and alive, filling with potentiality the gaps it creates.
The conditions for this to happen, were set by Willy Prager and Sonja Pregrad already in the research phase, where also a gap between them and the material they chose was created, preferring not to choose an aesthetics with which to represent the future. This operation creates first and foremost a gap between the two dancers and the performance privileging the appearance of the gesture over the proposition of a certain aesthetics in the first part. Extracts of science fiction materials are combined with the thoughts of the choreographers interviewed on dance’s past and future, and what emerges is not so much a representation of future dance but how possible representations are constructed and organized. Here, they exceed the field of dance: treating contemporary dance’s specific representations as fictional materials is a way of identifying symptoms or paradigms of how the future can be constructed aesthetically also in other fields, starting from certain fields of science today, whose formulations and ventures are already fictive, as they can speculate the existence of aliens through the same truth telling they use when elaborating astrophysical data.
In the first part of the Sequel, we witness the images composing contemporary dance history just to hear then a voiceover, mentioning that contemporary dance “has been teleported” and “is not existing anymore”. What is left on stage is an idea of linear temporality – the same shared by science fiction narratives and common speculation on the future – where Prager and Pregrad operate some gaps in order to expose its consequences. Even if contemporary dance has been teleported, the dancers on stage know how to do art and are not afraid of stating it or writing it on the walls. At the same time, we see one of them cracking under the pressure of having to describe the future to a paying audience. What do we want from him? Here critique emerges in a specific mode when the two dancers inhabit the purposefulness implied by linear temporality in order to pierce and interrupt it, departing from the very same material produced by and unfolding within, that linear temporality.
Using an episode (i.e. contemporary dance) as a paradigm of how the future can be constructed, they take a methodological decision that opens the way for an interrogation at the collective level that happens during the performance in different instances.
After having performed a lot of “contemporary dance”, the two performers hide in the corner in order to exchange some opinions – a private conversation endowed with microphones– on the possibilities and impossibilities of dance in their contemporary time, 2043. Bringing to the surface one of the directions underlying their research, they clarify their ironical position first by making sure that their personal and confidential thoughts are amplified by the microphones and then by formulating it through the dialogue. As we over hear this conversation we understand that the situation is much better than thirty years ago, when first of all one had to learn some movements and only the best one might got the chance to be on stage. On the other hand, today “it’s amazing” that one could win the Jardin d’Europe prize just by expressing one self. In the corner, they comment the work they just did on stage and connect it to the dance context in 2043, inhabiting the ironical gap they constituted being insiders and outsiders at the same time. As performers they live and grow in the distance created through irony in order to raise some critical questions on contemporary dance but they don’t produce this critique from a completely external position, and on this basis they involve the audience in the critical reflection triggered by the newly emptied notion of contemporary dance: “Contemporary dance is great; you can do what you want and say it’s contemporary dance.” But who knows what contemporary dance exactly is? This question is soon brought to the audience.
As professional dancers – a position that they underline several times during the show, even writing it clearly on the walls – they are fully ironic, their knowledge is not a way of giving answers. This premise allows them to turn the question “What is contemporary dance?” into a performative question that really inhabits the gap operated in representation. To such performative questions there is no clear answer and while asking them is very important, answering them might be dangerous.
“In 2043 everyone is a professional dancer” – they say when the question addressed to public remains unanswered and inquire on the composition of the audience – “then we’re really close to the future”. As they share an open question on dance with the audience, the reflection shifts and becomes an exercise in opening the future to its different possibilities. Recalling the past, the two dancers retrace the events that happened before 2043: from 2033 when they celebrated Sonja’s birthday drinking and talking until dawn, to 2020, when the Festival Tanz im August took place in Ankara, as a result of Turkey joining the European Union.
Entering the threshold between different times, and telling the future as if they were remembering the past, they involve the spectators in an exercise of imagination that can unfold its potential only at the collective level: the future is not only the future of dance but our future at large. Are we really remembering together with them, the end of capitalism in 2023? Remembrance, for Walter Benjamin, has a specific temporality, which opens up the past from its apparent completeness and keeps the future open by paradoxically looking at the past as to yet unrealized possibilityvi. If Sequel for the Future doesn’t help audience imagine the past, it helps them imagine the present as incomplete. As we listen to them, we cannot help but think how these visions might shine back on our present.
In discussing the contemporary condition, Franco Bifo Berardi traces a possibility for resistance in irony, which with a reference to Guattari’s ethico-aesthetic paradigm, operates as a connector of the collective body and as a movement for the rethinking of ethics based on a form of ironic rhetoric at the collective levelvii. In fact, irony works on the premise of complicity between who talks and who listens; or among the artists and the audience. It’s also in this sense that Sequel for the Future succeeds in arranging a collective reflection based on imagination and in nurturing at the same time the ground for the institutional critique it produces. Consistently with the ironic attitude, this reflection doesn’t unfold through a negative, cynical attitude – a mode that has appeared in politically engaged works that sometimes lean on sharing information rather than opening up questions – but engages in what Sennet would define, relying on Mikhail’s writings, a dialogical conversation, “a discussion, which does not resolve itself by finding common ground”viii. Throughout the Sequel the search for a constructed dissensus leaves space for a subtler engagement with critique, which reaches its full embodiment in the second part of the work. In this sense, the audience here is not only interpellated on a notion of contemporary dance devoid of representation; also the modalities in which this interpellation is realized fulfill their potential only at the collective level and only after the performance itself; producing an imaginary dialogue where the parts are not perfectly fitting together. What stays is not a void, rather a space of potentiality filled not by a single subject, called to name and categorize the unknown but by a collectivity called to set conditions for the future.
Embodied Institutional Critique
“Sequel for the future” comprises a dance in 2044, without which the aspects discussed above wouldn’t be visible and at the same time clearly exposes the mode of production of contemporary dance in all its neoliberal aspects, bringing the artist not only to raise questions on the future but also to make a clear statement on the present. After having listened to the wishes expressed by the audience on the future, we actually move to 2044 and yet, there we find no invention. What remains are two bodies that indeed point at the past, so that what has been raised can “settle and unsettle”. Here the “physicality of remembering” is juxtaposed to the desires and projections of the future in the first part. The question of the second part is first aesthetical and methodological – how to continue with a performance that is already finished – but soon becomes political.
The funding of the piece is the extreme example of how the production conditions were manipulated in an ironic manoeuvre. The Berlin Senate announced the support for the piece (25,000 euros) only after five months into its production, when it was already completed, 20 days after it premiered in Zagreb. The artists were working with a small amount of money (5,000 euros) from Croatia. As “ambitious East Europeans”, as they call themselves, they thought they should continue the piece with the 25,000 euros, but still not to treat the surprising financial support as a transparent and a-political contribution. In a gap between the first and the second part, they share with the audience the absurdity in which they had to work, a surprising support of a relatively big sum of money, as the reason for even producing the second part, by making its cause obvious and literal, quite the opposite from denying it or simply dismissing its revelatory and political nature.
In between the two parts there is a small break. A recorded voice tells the audience that the first part was made in 2013 with 5,000 euros in the “Eastern art market” and the second one was created in the “Western art market” with 25,000 euros, meaning, the costs of production are higher in the West, a difference that has aesthetic consequences. When they received the 25,000 grant, their major problem was to continue with something that they already had completed, and the artists decided to deal with the second part as the “other side of the future”, as they say, the only future tense per se in the work. The second part is therefore extremely different from the first, it becomes about the physicality of remembering, and bears a resemblance to a moving sculpture of what was already ingrained in the corpus of ‘contemporary dance’ in the first part. The second part shows the absurdity of the epitome of dance as an eternal body. It exists thereof in a totally different realm, because what has been ironically projected can be pondered upon using the materiality of the body as a capacity for “dance”, whatever that represents, with no apparent ideal signifier. The second part is received therefore as a hidden speculation, a latent mode of the subject matter of ‘dance’ that was filled and covered with historical representation and workings of the ironical gap in the first part.
In the second part, in sum, the performers embody the totality of the memory, working with a non-body, the body that doesn’t speak, maybe the uncritical axiom of dance. When the text was taken away, the movements shifted from a representative mode – aerobics, Pina Bausch, ‘French’ movements, codified ballet – to a somewhat neutral presentation, to a “neat” sense of the economy of dance. It opened up the question of what happened with all this irony and the exhaustion of notions in the first part, and what is left is an allegedly non-representative, non-critical, non-pastiche, non-readymade performance, yet still not nostalgic or romantic in any sense. After they got rid of ‘dance’ in so many different methods, attempts, regimes of attention, they managed to show that we are not left with nothing, that irony can exhaust all values and notions but something stays, a left over, the capacity of contemporary dance as medium that doesn’t vanish in what it makes appear, the pure form as the material presence itself.
Have no mistake, the ironical gap never stopped working also in the second part, which might seem more conventional in terms of dance’s practices. Except for the fact that the reason for its conceiving was 25,000 euros from the Berlin Senate, and the disclosure of this fact in the performance, Prager’s T-shirt in the first part, for example, cost two euros, and in the second part its Hugo Boss and costs 95 euros.
The second part gives time for a digestion of all the irony and criticism. It’s about coming back to being present in the medium of dance as a common. It’s as if they were telling us that we are here in the room in the body, leaving the ideological weapons behind, that something stays, that a performance is an ephemeral experience but we are left with something; an experience which gives another level of knowing, which is affective and collective, embodied.
Conclusion: Exhaustion of Ideals
“Sequel” is an artistic proposal that exposes its conditions of production and is not manipulated by them, not trapped as having no other possibility to produce a dance piece. This is where the power of its irony lies. In “Sequel” dance is not praxis, a pure aesthetic dimension, yet neither poiesis, a means of production with a commodified end. It is a critique and a suspense of these two regimes of action, in the means of the historical representation of ‘contemporary dance’ as voided and absolutely administered, which exposed ‘dance’ as a human possibility for art that maybe exhausted all its ideals. As professionals, their job is not only to deliver the product and get paid, but also to create excess of effects of information which reminds us that we are not only buying and selling. Because of that, “Sequel” resembles an ironic manifesto for newness of contemporary dance. Different kinds of humour are part of the equation but only the ironic one entails a critical potential for the future of contemporary dance.
Irony can interrupt modern capitalism, because power struggle and creative resistance and development of human resources are ways to resist the highly exploitative format of power distribution, it is a way to distance ourselves from the present state of affairs. Contemporary dance, and this is what “Sequel” performs, provides physicality and embodiment as a resource of aesthetic resistance. It recognizes how the system works but doesn’t go along with it. They are artists who are insiders-outsiders, a malfunction in the machine of contemporary dance as commodified object stuck in the discourse about professionalism.
i Franco Bifo Berardi. Ironic Ethics. 100 Notes 100 Thoughts: Documenta Series 027, 2012.
ii Ibid: 16
iii Ibid: 16
iv The interview took place in the form of a round table conversation entitled “That Irony Thing” in the framework of Kondenz Festival 2015 in Belgrade, where Critical Practice Made in YU hosted some public discussions on the questions and topics raised by the artists and works presented at the festival
v Jacques Allan Miller Psychoanalysis, the City and Communities Psychoanalytic Notebooks no. 24.
vi Walter Benjamin. Theses on the Philosophy of History in Illuminations. 1968: 253-264
vii Franco Bifo Berardi. Ironic Ethics. 100 Notes 100 Thoughts: Documenta Series 027, 2012
viii Richard Sennet. Together: the Rituals, pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. Yale University Press. 2012:19