BODY POLITIC REFLECTIONS
We have asked the following three questions to a few artists whose works seemed to be sitting in the politically-engaged realm:
Do you consider your works to be political and if so, what motivates this choice? Could you describe the contemporary and political body your particular practice produces? Can we identify in the live arts today a sort of a body that understands what it generates, not only artistically, but also politically and socially?
SARAH JANE NORMAN
I would certainly identify my body of work as political, because I think the choice to make art is fundamentally a political act. I would also argue that all art is about the body, insofar as it is generated by, and concerned with, a stirring the senses. I’m an essentialist in this regard, which is why I make the work I make. The body is the alpha and the omega of human experience, and so my question to myself as a performance and installation artist is how, by speaking to and through the body, we might seek to hit the real heart of particular questions. I’m concerned with how my own body and, by extension, the bodies of my audience, are owned by particular cultural narratives- my practice at the present time is concerned largely with my own cultural and genetic inheritance as a person of mixed Indigenous and non-Indigenous heritage, and how by embracing the hybridity of my own flesh, I might claim a space from which to speak truthfully to our violent history and our contemporary struggle.
In devising performance, I tend to work close to the bone, drawing material from concerns that make me ill at ease, mining my own perceptions, belief systems and ground of social being particularly related to constructs such as gender, power and intimacy.
Whilst I’ve collaborated in explicitly political performance making, my own body of work is more intrinsically political, responding to social and cultural conditions in a fairly subjective and inter-subjective way. Less ‘head-on’ and more playfully lateral, without losing sight of the rich materiality and existence in time that frames the ‘realness’ of performance.
Whenever one works from the perceptually receptive body with a sense of compassion, we open ourselves to somatic identification, to our own ‘discomfort’ and to the disquiet or suffering of those around us whose voices are drowned out by the noise of the dominant economic and political agenda. ‘Those’ may also include animals. Currently, I am looking at the history of animal representation in art and performance, as well as supporting political activism for the rights and humane treatment of animals.
I consider my work political in terms of the structures and process I work with, but more societal in terms of content. I attempt to work with unconventional performers and hope that in the process I will access an audience who may never have visited a theatre.
Amongst other things, I concentrate on football as a form of movement approaching dance. Up to this point, I feel that such exploration has led to a quite raw, impacting, masculine form of movement, but I also feel that there is a lighter side, which I am beginning to touch on. I am also mainly working with marginalised people, their (and my) movement is not refined or trained in any particular technique. They have their own idiosyncratic technique and, in some ways, just their presence (which is not so common in many theatres) is enough to capture me. For me, often, it is just about not getting in the way of this presence.
A body that understands what it generates? I don’t feel that it is possible to entirely understand this because of the multiple interpretations. Quite on the contrary, my choice is to work against this and to work with a body that is not aware of itself in a theatre/dance context, but wholly proficient in a chosen arena. But I do feel that the process of breaking down such forms of movement and choreographing then leads to greater awareness.
I would consider my practice to be (not) not political, indeed a useless double negative, but one that massages the question of: can art be political? My earlier works were highly conceptual, situating my choreographic thinking in opposition to the Kantian notion of aesthetic disinterest—a classic position that refuses art to be anything but beautiful in its tickling of our imaginative faculties. Even in striving beyond the tickling vagueness of beauty, my works never had an explicit political agenda. And yet the use of white flour in one production provoked audience thoughts about world hunger, while the quivering of bodies in another was felt to be radically feminist. Rethinking the Kantian position, these readings/ experiences tie my work more resolutely to Jacques ranciére’s idea of the distribution of the sensible in his approach to a politics of aesthetics.1
Here, the political in art is possible at a ‘non-representational’ and ‘formal’ level, whereby a community shares and participates in a “distribution of spaces, times and forms of activity”(p12). I like this idea—so would Kant. It somehow describes the kind of ‘political body’ that my current system of transitions could produce: the weight, direction, line, speed, breath, scale and atmospheres of moving alone, with others, or in site. The formal registrations of a body moving in space and time might be enough to participate in the political. A body choreographed purely in its transitions is a non-didactic, transgressive manoeuvre where one can sip up their revolutionary slogans and concepts—much like liberated Labanian bodies that formed the tapestry and forces of Nazism.
The political body is subtle. Perhaps dance is politicking more than we recognise, and all that is required for participation is to feel the “rhythms of a dancing chorus” (p14).
My work and the work I facilitate with collaborators at Hydra Poesis always implies politics – our works are always hinged on delivering questions and provocations to audiences. They are delivered in surprising, strange ways, with varying degrees of aesthetic investment, but the questions are always prominent and explicit. This is a political exchange. but we aren’t deluded in thinking work in small theatres is a challenge to cultural hegemony or capitalism or that it will tear down the fences of Australia’s illegal prison camps. Our work might thematically connect to broader movements, but if we aren’t actively connecting, then this is mostly incidental or theoretical politics. Theory can be stimulating but practice that involves connection and exchange with real people on the ground is so much more. Our work is constantly moving towards direct connection to journalists, activists, campaigners, and presenting performance as a beacon at sites of cultural and political significance.
What has come up across all our works is that movements, stories, even data and research, need bodies. The body can be a beacon in human politics. No matter how rich the data, a journalist can’t tell a story without quoting somebody or showing us an image. We know that the media always needs an image. Stories in any form need either a protagonist or a mass of humans. A mass of humans is always more interesting and implies a body politic. And it also implies dance. there’s a major role for performance practitioners to play in associating abstract, complex work with conflicts or political narratives – not by reducing the inherent abstraction core to our artform(s), but by investing in the placement or connection between work through presenting them at iconic sites of conflict, or dedicating them to a particular active audience and doing this through a real dialogue.
In the Dance Journalism project, Hydra Poesis facilitated collaboration between dancers and activists from around the country to present a dance work at the Yongah Hill detention centre in regional Western Australia and cover the National refugee rights convergence. We literally paired dance with journalistic video dispatches from outside the centre, against the police lines. We were a beacon for this site of extreme cultural significance. The choreography was not at all an embodiment of a theme or narrative – it was an occupation tool. At the conclusion of a 45-minute performance we led (still dancing) the entire convergence onto the service road of the centre to protest, challenging the police restrictions that had stopped activists from visiting refugees during the convergence. I wouldn’t call this project an artwork.
It was an action. But it draws on and connects to a lot of our performance artworks. The contemporary and political body in our practice is one that’s alive and active and at the centre of conflicts of culture, representation, human rights, even the environment.
The body is a membrane. It is a border. It holds us together, it gives us life, it defines us but it can also confine us. We can’t grow without change and change involves degrees of violence. There’s a lot of queer performance that leads the charge in exploring the complex dynamic of definition and constriction. There’s a long history of body art that is very aware of what it generates politically and socially.
If there is a ‘live arts body’ to be identified, it is complex and it is changing, but not just for the sake of change or fashion or kitsch. It is changing through awareness of cultural and political forces. It is an exciting and scary body. It is far more concerned with conflict and metamorphosis and growth than beauty.
- Ranciére, J. 2004. the Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel rockhill. London and New York: continuum. D. ↩