Expanded practices from the experience of “crisis”: a couple of examples from Portugal

Issue #10: The Many & The Few - Assembling the political

But what about when the “crisis” is a perceptual state pertaining to the social collective? Do our bodies seek to embrace it as their own? And what influence does this shared feeling of social crisis have on the bodily artistic production?

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Akira Kasai once said that our essential memories could only be grasped through the engagement of our bodies to a “state of crisis”, and that dance should arise from the “pure” experience of this bodily crisis.1 In this sense, dance would be an outward consequence of a profound transformation of the dancer subjected to unstable conditions.

But what about when the “crisis” is a perceptual state pertaining to the social collective? Do our bodies seek to embrace it as their own? And what influence does this shared feeling of social crisis have on the bodily artistic production?

In 2011 – about a year after the beginning of the economic fallout and the subsequent political crisis in Portugal – the choreographer João Fiadeiro and the anthropologist Fernanda Eugénio started a collaborative project called AND_Lab, which stands for Anthropology and Dance Laboratory. According to the authors, the AND_Lab is a “theoretical and practical platform dedicated to research and artistic creation that welcomes all those interested in the issues of coexistence, reciprocity, de-growth, sustainability and the common.”2 One of its core outputs is the AND Game – formally described as “an ethico-aesthetic approach with transversal applications both in art and everyday life.”ii The game consists in a live encounter with a minimum of two participants at an empty table, or at another circumscribed space, upon which the players begin, in turns, to place a variety of objects and/or substances, like water or talcum powder, or even their own bodies, in some kind of structured composition. If the first player takes the initiative of composing something with pencils, for example, the next player must follow up the initial proposal, without imposing new courses of action or try to justify their plays by way of symbolic compositions – “the work to do is one of implication not one of explanation” – as clarified by the authors before each session. The idea is to respect the flow of the Event at hand, and not to make interpretations about it or letting the individual subjectivities get in the way of the Event’s needs – which are any compositional actions that might prolong, consistently, its existence. The goal is then to postpone the end of the game, and figuratively the end of the participants’ life together. The game follows a set of formal steps that are introduced and mediated by a trained observer, which in turn leads the participants to focus on what is taking place, regardless of any pre-conceived ideas they might have about their roles as social beings, their opinions or personalities. Essentially keeping them away of the temptation of making their individual presences over-felt – which would bias the course of the Event towards an ego-driven negotiation. In theory, the event would become a, co-created, world that points in one, and only one, direction – the extension of what is being mutually experienced. In the AND Game, the intention is then never to answer the question of how to live together, but to keep it alive.

Ideally, this game of coexistence would never end, but, as one can sadly conclude, it always does. There is always a point from which it is not possible to continue to develop these shared compositions altogether – or because no one can find any follow up solution, or because the composition entered into a repetitive loop, or simply because there are no more suitable objects or other elements to sustain it. When this happens, the participants should acknowledge it and consequently stop the game, to restart again under the same premises. With every new attempt, a new composition is inaugurated and developed, a new rhythm is found, new zones are defined and different intensity levels are created, to form its own consistency, particular to every new encounter, to every new event. The game provides for an experience of a perpetual state of becoming, never consolidated or complete. As a form of life together, it works by approximating a utopian world which is never achieved and ever prone to failure or corruption. This feeling of failure becomes inevitable and reveals something about our inescapable faults and perishable nature, but is, at the same time, accompanied by the disclosure of an ethical claim, an ethical impulse that nurtures the search of a life together, and that postpones its end – not as a survival strategy, but as the trigger that opens new possibilities, and gives meaning, to being-with-one-another-in-the-world, to use Heidegger’s notion. The urgency at stake is then the respect for the event of Life, for the Other and for the World, rather than the individualist pursuit for domination over the real and oneself.

The AND Game uses creative composition as an essential framework of play, but these are less tools to produce artworks than a means for the manifestation of new modes of co-existence. In a sense, it encompasses a movement exiting the realm of art towards everyday life, in which the poignant visual outcomes of the game serve only to enhance the unique way in which the artistic experimental practices can combine the aesthetic and the ethical dimensions. This kind of artistic interpellation over the social dimension has reassumed a growing importance in the context of the crisis in Portugal, especially because of what this crisis entails – a sense of failure about the recent past, distrust in institutions and in all kinds of collective identity formation, the feeling of insecurity concerning the future and the aporetic doubts with respect to possible solutions. Far from the political ideologies of the past, this project seems to point towards a life subverted by creative experimentation, in which the subject, in relation-with-others, is the main questioning agent, and from which socio-political change is made possible.

In 2013, Vera Mantero started a new project, together with other guest-artists, called More or Less, but Less than More. The project began with the design and planting of several urban vegetable gardens in several wastelands within Lisbon, in collaboration with more than fifty volunteers and the support of several institutions. After the conclusion of these plantations in 2014, the project was then followed by a broader program consisting of a series of performances, installations, concerts, conferences and debates about permaculture and green cities. Reflecting the choreographer’s concerns on fundamental issues such as the environment, economic sustainability, social cohesion and citizenship, the motivation behind the project was, as put by Mantero, “the dissatisfaction about the inability of art to change the world… and the urge to consider more responsible alternatives to our current way of life.”3

One of the main activities of this project was the performance-installation called One on one – Ruminants tours that consisted in guided walking circuits around several off-screen spaces in Lisbon – including the new urban gardens – in which the participants were led to interact with the local environments, in the search for new perceptions, new meanings, and new perspectives about living sustainably within the city. Probably one of the most symbolic stops within these tours was the visit to a small terrace garden that exists on the roof of the headquarters of the biggest bank in Portugal. There, the participants were invited to discover new sensorial relationships with the plants and to create new personal narratives within the garden. All of this in permanent contrast with the majestic building that supported it, which acted as a powerful representation of the influence of macroeconomics in our daily lives and the absurd sense of control over nature.

In another stop, next to a train rail – to give one more example – a new and beautiful biological garden, which had been intentionally planted there for this project, emanated a delicacy and grace constantly put to the test by the noise and the visual imposition of the trains passing by. The look for detail within large scale structures, the feeling of tension provoked by the sudden variations between manmade and natural ecosystems, individual and collective spaces, programmed and abandoned territories, or the overpowering juxtaposition between silenced atmospheres and loud environments were often the kind of perceptions spectators were invited to experience along the walking tracks.

In another paradigmatic event of this project called Aquatic action, a music concert was given in a stage in the middle of a small artificial lake. Here, the spectators were invited to seat in the edges of the lake, which in turn was covered with lettuces and other vegetables floating by, some of them carried by a group of performers that suddenly emerge from under water, and which everyone could pick and eat whenever wanted. As with the Ruminants tours and most of the other events, the setting was composed by edible scenography, which continually impregnated the artistic experience with this primordial urge for self-sufficiency and communion with the natural – and with this, the recuperation of ancient forms of socialisation, in which the common is the basis for individual autonomy.

During five days, a number of many other events took place. Some communicated in a more straightforward fashion – like conferences and debates – others summoning a more creative experience – like the ones described – but overall, with the intention to reach people’s everyday lives, drawing attention to their own ability to affect the world locally.

As with AND_Lab, this project was based upon an artistic practice that points first and foremost to the experience of the spectators in relation to their ethical implication in the public space. This withdrawal from the artwork’s center of attention into everyday life is not new in the world of performing arts, and can be compared to the similar impulses that drove much of the western artistic production in the seventies. The main difference to these past references is perhaps the fact that, instead of pointing towards liberating gestures, both AND_Lab and More or Less, but Less than More point to acts of resistance, from which is recovered a new sense of community and of social belonging – aspects that the current forces of consumerism and individualism have been obliterating, and that have been brought to greater evidence by the ongoing crisis in Portugal.

When the social frame changes objectively, the individuals are led to adapt and react to these changes subjectively, thus engaging in a process of self-recognition and self-reinvention, in which their own personal identity is reconfigured. Alongside this, the primacy of finances in current policies has been eroding the means of cultural production and, with this, the very referential structure upon which the Portuguese negotiate their own identities – thus contributing to the profusion of individual “states of crisis”, which have been pushing some artists to look for new forms of relating with each other and to discover different forms of re-building the collective. As argued by Claude Dubar in La crise des identités4, in present times, personal identities are no longer expressly influenced by institutional values or inherited from well-established communitarian contexts, but self-generated by the individuals during their life trajectories and social interactions. The impossibility to articulate single narratives around subjective identities is, from a social perspective, probably the greatest challenge today, and one that requires the discovery of new forms of conceptualising the past, the present, and, above all, the future of the collective. João Fiadeiro, Fernanda Eugénio and Vera Mantero have recognised this, and tried to foster experiences from which the recipients of their projects might address their own “states of crisis” – thus leading them to explore new understandings about themselves and the way they relate to the Other. And it is this process of forging an ethical connection with others that opens the way for new possibilities of socio-political transformation.

For João Fiadeiro and Vera Mantero particularly, pushing the frontiers of their artistic practice deeper into the sphere of social intervention was a substantial change in their choreographic careers. Which might lead to suggest that they were themselves – as several other Portuguese artists in recent years – responding to their own personal crises and to the need to build new futures from different perspectives, in which the relations between the self and the other, the individual and the collective, are crucial.

Works cited:
1 Akira Kasai, “Interview Akira Kasai: Dance closely Related to matter”, Nikutaemo, no.2, 1996 (18-39)

2 As stated on the (former) AND_Lab website, accessed 18 July 2014, the project is currently exclusively led by Fernando Eugénio and has assumed several modifications since the time of my participation in the AND_Game meetings in 2013 (to which this writing refers to).

3 Claudia Galhós, “Regresso à Terra”, in Expresso, 2014.

4 Claude Dubar, La crise des identités: L’interprétation d’une mutation, Presses Universitaires de France, 2010.