Moving Beyond the Forum
By Nora Amin
To think about performance is to think about time, space, and body, among other elements, of course. Time is the duration of the actions that are to be implemented, so the durational time where the performance takes place, as well as a continuity within which our actions and durational time are set. We perform for an hour, maybe, or within an hour, but we also perform within the bigger time of the year 2021, for instance, and the bigger time of the 21st century, and the even-bigger time of the history of dance. Our one-hour performance becomes part of all those time frames before it transforms from the durational time to the historic time. Time separates and time connects. Our actions recreate the focus either on separation or on connection. Our performative actions can seem independent and can seem interwoven within those different notions of time. The impact of performance goes beyond its durational time and expands into the psychological, metaphoric and historical time.
Space can also be the location of the performance – venue, room, building – and can be the bigger geographic region, a country, a continent. A performance space is an “Empty Space” – like Peter Brook’s – until it is filled by the time of the performance, creating and transforming it. Performance addresses spatiality through actions. Performance defines spatiality, its functions and borders. Performance can also recreate the spatiality and even transform it via the performative actions. It is a transformation of perception, and, most probably, not a physical or literal transformation of the space. The performative actions have the power of impacting perception, guiding attention to a specific place, object or construction, with the power to impact the way we interpret a place and, therefore, the way we “see” it and the way we connect to it. This power operates via the BODY: How the performative body places itself vis-à-vis that place, how it occupies it, how it interacts with it, how it might create new usages of that place, and how it moves within it – or, as our dance project intends – how it “moves” that space (Moving the Forum). Space, like time, can also be multiple and interwoven, especially when the performative body brings, within its actions, fictional spaces. The juxtaposition between the fictional and imaginary spaces, suggested and inspired by a performance and the concrete and material actual spaces, can also recreate the perception and the interpretation of the physical space and its history. If we add to that the multi-layered time consciousness, we can look at performance as being an expanded time and space together, as being a grid of performative times and spaces. Performance is the crossroads of histories and of possibilities. BODY is the medium that is able to make those connections, correlations and inter-weavings happen. The performative body holds the key to impacting perception and transforming it vis-à-vis a spectatorship. The powers of the performative body can be unlimited but can also be restricted by authority or the limitations of the guiding consciousness. But what is that performative body made of? What constitutes each dancing body?
The dancing body, or the performative body, is self, is identity, is everything that one experiences becoming embodied in a singular being. I cannot define my dancing or performative body without defining myself; all are connected and embedded in each other in a holistic way. Professional experiences cannot be dissociated from personal experiences. The body is one. Identity is one. Each of us can play multiple roles in our daily life, can go through transformations and migrations, can live the fluctuations of identity and personal history, but everything remains connected and feeding each other. Within the possible fluidity and transformation, there remains – in a holistic sense – a kind of oneness to our being. Our race, skin colour, ethnicity, gender and sexuality are all carried within our lives and within our performances. Every performance is a performance of the self and of the socio-political notions projected on that self. Hence every performance can also be a negotiation of the self towards a spectatorship – and possibly towards one’s own self, as well, in order to transform the perception of that self. Therefore, it transforms a tiny fragment of the history that shaped it – and for a temporary duration of time, the durational time of a performance, which possibly has an extended impact afterwards for the few spectators who witnessed it. Our future performances at the Humboldt Forum would also be negotiations of the self and of the dancing body, yet those negotiations will also entail positioning ourselves in that space/history. In that spatial history, a very dense operation would take place, that of the juxtapositions and correlations of: the self-negotiation vis-à-vis a spectatorship, the self-negotiation vis-à-vis the spatial history and political positioning, and the negotiation of the performativity of that spatial history within our creative actions. This juxtaposition exists in all museum performances; nevertheless, it is up to each project and each artist to find their way through this density: Diving right through it, engaging the personal and intimate realities within the processes of performance creation and negotiation, or making distance towards it all, creating alienation, objectifying the spatial history, etc. All the existing possibilities, and those that are yet to be invented, can go through affirmation, reproduction, deconstruction, and transformation, as Carmen Mörsch puts it in her essay on gallery education, “At a Crossroads of Four Discourses”. And while being personally in favour of “transformation”, I must question what “transformation” means if it does not start from the self. In order to understand the transformative power of performance, and the impact it can have on a politico-historical space like the Humboldt Forum, I must understand the performative body/self, and its relation to authority and autonomy. How is my dance shaped? How is my performative body perceived? What statement of the self do I provide?
In my personal experience, every movement I make is connected to my psychological and physical history. My emotional memory is triggered by gestures, movements and spatial positioning. I carry my trauma within my movement; I move my trauma – like we intend to move the Forum; and I move with it and beyond it. Nevertheless, my movement is not always focused on my personal history nor on the processes of re-enactment, triggering and transformation. Yet the dynamics of the movement grow – beyond my conscious control – and transgress my limited knowledge of what can be achieved through dance. I actually experienced many surprises while moving, improvising or devising a piece, to the extent that I was suddenly faced with the new revelation of being able to transcend my own memory of shame and protectiveness. It usually happened when I was off guard. The physical and emotional memory interwove and moved within and throughout my body, producing an effect of transforming an initial embedded emotion/memory into a new realisation of power/being that was then carried through movement and affirmed.
From my old Aikido exercises, I recalled the power of awareness, of resuscitating the roots of my automatic physical behaviour and responses, and of disconnecting them from the initial traumatic experience, which then led to a new knowledge of how I can transform my movement, embodiment and expression. My dance could then become a ritual of taking control of my history and transforming it from a history of being politically oppressed, socially subjugated, sexually violated and culturally muted, to a present position of self-empowerment, recreation of the experiential knowledge and re-positioning myself towards the space and the community all the way, while witnessing and examining the power of performance and its unique sensitivity in reshaping and re-positioning personal history – or, in other words, decolonising history. We should not forget the power of performance as an act produced vis à vis spectators, and how those spectators can recognise, embrace and absorb painful moments, hence transforming them by perceiving them and dissolving them within the community of spectatorship. The initial experience that I retrieve, express and perform transforms with spectatorship onto another experience, that of the performance. An experience that, in itself, decolonises the personal history and re-locates it within a professional, public and ritualistic shared process.
Two vital factors remain: openness, and re-positioning. The realisation of a possible impact or change extends my understanding of the potentiality of physical action as a medium for change and the transformation of personal consciousness. During such processes, I always question every moment, inquiring and talking to my inner mind. The questions are usually surprising, as I did not think they were possible to be asked: Do I want to be a subordinate, or do I want to be creator of a new reality? How can I employ imagination? What movement approach am I using? Is it a metaphorical approach? Movement as carrier of a metaphorical value? Is it a geometric movement? How to connect my inner space to the outer space? How to deal with the intra-projections? Does authority and hegemony have a specific architecture/geometry and a spatial organisation of power where the bodies are objectified and manipulated? How to interpret the geometry and the architecture of authority and create a choreographic approach that re-positions myself towards it, and transforms the spatial memory of authority into an affective and imaginary experience? How to change my corner?
And now, when I think of the bigger questions that we could ask in order to create openness for our creative and personal processes in general, I find that those questions should actually start from pedagogy, the field of the overall transfer of knowledge. So, pedagogy, in that sense, becomes even bigger than education. It is through pedagogy that my understanding of myself and of my abilities is shaped; it is through pedagogy that I am perceived within society, that I am shamed or punished or labeled or excluded or victimised. The pedagogy creates my image of myself, the pedagogy informs the gaze, both ways, from in to out and from out to in.
1- What kind of pedagogy do you live in?
As a child I lived in an oppressive pedagogy, where the authority was guided by patriarchy. That oppressive pedagogy, authoritarian and patriarchal, shaped my understanding of femininity and masculinity and of gender and sexuality; it shaped public and private behaviour and stabilised notions of dominance and hierarchy. That pedagogy also informs the notions of normality and normativity, shapes physical attitudes and social roles, and creates centre and margin, privilege and subjugation, recognition and exclusion. It sets exploitation as a valid right and excludes equality and dignity as primordial human rights and pre-conditions for existence. But did that pedagogy have an impact on my dance education as a child and a teenager?
2- How do you perceive your dance education?
3- How do you perceive the overall corporal pedagogy of your society?
In several parts of the world, the field of contemporary dance remains shaped by the knowledge and practises that have been provided by Western choreographers and dance educators. In several parts of the world, contemporary dance production can only be validated if it is abiding by a Western model. In several parts of the world, modernity in the performing arts means to stick to the model of the West. Such facts expand the significance of colonisation beyond the territory of the land and onto the territory of knowledge and the territory of expression and performance cultures. The intellectual and expressive colonisation signifies, among other things, the stripping off from your identity and having it shamed and made to feel inferior – a kind of very lethal weapon that exceeds any other form of colonization, as it guarantees that the individuals themselves would work towards implementing and extending their imposed oppression and their objectification due to the manipulation of their consciousness.
4- How do you think your performative body is perceived?
5- How do you perceive your own performative body?
Instead of opting, and even fighting, towards the possibility of creating one’s own dance form or out-of-form in an oppressive and colonial pedagogy, one would invest everything into proving that they fit into that foreign model. And while dance in general, and ideally, has a universal heritage that can be owned and developed by anybody, the global politics that are infected by authority, hegemony and racism, create an impossibility for such a situation as, by definition, any performative act is a political act that should be placed in its time and space, and connected to the factors of its creation and to the identities of its creators. Therefore, the global recycling of Western forms of institutionalised dance become global vehicles of instrumentalising the expressive body within a post-colonial discourse and within a steady discourse of coloniality. In this context, imitation and creating replicas are not a matter of naive attempt to resemble the “master”, but are, above all, an operation of self-subjugation and for exercising self-inflicted racism.
6- What form of dance or performance do you practise?
7- Has that form been influenced by colonisation? How?
It is outstanding to look at the current situation of dance today from the critical perspective of decolonisation and discover how much the history of dance has impacted today’s situation on every aspect of staged dance performance and dance education, whether globally or locally. It is an invitation to look back and to re-understand the histories that have shaped our artistic practise, but from a critical perspective, because to look back is to provide a solid ground for today’s change. Paulo Freire (great thinker, educator and philosopher) and Augusto Boal (founder of Theatre of the Oppressed methodology) worked hand in hand to transform the pedagogy of the oppressive and turn it into a pedagogy of the self-liberated. The authoritarian system in Brazil back then – in other words, “the dictatorship” – had guaranteed its life via a pedagogy of oppression. Paulo Freire, in 1968, created a foundational text of critical pedagogy, his celebrated book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, where he includes a detailed Marxist class analysis in his exploration of the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised. In the book, Freire calls traditional pedagogy the “banking model of education” because it treats the student as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge. He argues that pedagogy should instead treat the learner as a co-creator of knowledge.
I am suggesting critical pedagogy, as part of the bigger field of critical discourse in general, to re-examine our practises and environments. For example, the oppressive pedagogies, existing in many places across the world, would instrumentalise the citizens by making them reproduce the systems of their own oppression. An oppressive pedagogy in culture and performance would work towards creating replicas of the coloniser’s dancing body or of the dictator’s model of art and modernity, while recycling divide and separation and employing political manipulation, in order to protect supremacy and hegemony. A critical pedagogy would help us to decolonise our bodies, create an autonomous creative and artistic discourse about our identities, while trying to engage a spectatorship that also looks critically to its own gaze and reflects on the possibilities of unity, compassion and transformation within the intersections of the given space, time and corporeality, and within the interweaving of all present issues of discrimination and de-humanisation.
8- As a performative body, how would you like to be seen?
9- How do you intersect with issues of discrimination and objectification?
In his critical pedagogy, Paulo Freire defines the actions taken by the oppressor to preserve the oppressive system and pedagogy as anti-dialogical actions, which are: Conquest, Manipulation, Divide, Rule, and Cultural Invasion. He describes the actions taken by the oppressed who want to fight oppression through critical pedagogy, as Dialogical actions, which are: Unity, Compassion, Organisation, and Cultural Synthesis. Those actions can apply, as well, to the dance field, where an oppressive dance education and practise would employ anti-dialogical actions to preserve its power: Conquest in dance, manipulation in dance, divide in dance, rule and cultural invasion in dance. The artists, who want to change that oppressive system and reclaim their rights to equality, freedom and justice, can decolonise their performance culture by creating performative actions that work towards: Unity in performance, compassion in performance, organisation and cultural synthesis in performance.
10- Which anti-dialogical action effects you?
11- Which dialogical action can you embody within your performance practise?
When we work with community groups for training or for performance creation, the questions of pedagogy, transmission and mediation, are directly and practically present. They will also be present during our collective dance project at the Humboldt Forum. How can we use this unique opportunity and connect the questions of pedagogy, transmission and mediation to the questions of decolonisation? How can we connect those questions to each other from the perspective of critical pedagogy? Maybe conducting an egalitarian and participatory training and creative process would, in itself, be a way to oppose the authoritarian and imperial image of a museum? Maybe the sharing of knowledge from personal and intimate perspectives would be a way to deconstruct authority and intellectual manipulation? And maybe this process – within group work – can liberate the shamed bodies and the oppressed forms of dance and movement? Because, to pursue our own inner voices of sensitivities, desires and pain – without prejudice or shame – is also to pursue our own authenticity, autonomy and self-liberation.
12- What do you need to question within your norms?
13- What do you need to question within your professional positions?
14- What is autonomy for you?
In everyday life, as in museums and performance spaces, there is a spatial dramaturgy – a historical political spatial dramaturgy – of power and privilege; it is also a dramaturgy of hierarchy, separation, rupture and elimination. A dramaturgy of conquest, of the power of privilege, a capitalist economic power, a neoliberal globalisation power: Racism is embedded in all those domains; racism is an intersectional sphere in itself, a vast area of transcultural intersectionality where the flip side is sexism.
15- Is your professional field contaminated by sexism? How?
When working inside a place like the Humboldt Forum, one would be faced with the very strong representation of male figures, as part of the overall construct of patriarchal narratives, politics and male-dominated world vision. The performative and political transformation of the space entails not only a confrontation with a history of colonisation, but also with a history and system of thinking that is patriarchal. It is then crucial to create a solid foundation for oneself before entering into such a complex context of opposition. That solid foundation is nothing but the decolonisation of the self; this is where it all starts. And it develops at every moment of the creative practise where we question borders, categories, taboos and all forms of forced embodiments. Nevertheless, the process can be painful, as it may contain facing our own personal memories and trauma during the questioning, our memory of pain forms as part of our identity, and can be triggered through the physical memory that is involved in experiencing movement and shaping it. Dealing with personal pain is a necessary part towards the transformation of the performance space. It is an exercise of transformation, of confrontation and stamina, and a healing process that connects the personal with the collective, and the personal memory with the overall political injustice. We should also not forget trans-generational trauma as something that is scientifically proven, and that fuses past and present histories and affects them.
16- How do you carry your personal wounds within your performance?
17- What are your taboos?
Dance and performance, when decolonised from systematic and structural discrimination and authority, can play a vital role as spaces of communication and agency, while creating a human connection and a human bonding that may heal and transcend a heritage of divide, stigmatisation and trauma. Without much of a verbal language, dance is able to recognise our physical realities and experiences, our corporal histories and memory, and our multiple and transforming identities and sexualities, without borders or hypocrisy. It can provide openness, fluidity and plurality, versus a history of restrictions, obstructions and stigma.
18- How do you employ empathy as an emotional tool towards creating openness, fluidity and plurality?
19- Can empathy provide an access point for understanding and solidarity?
If emotionality is not shamed anymore, if the feeling of vulnerability and even tears is no longer regarded as shameful and stained, and if we are able as performers to decolonise our bodies and expression while bonding with the spectatorship selves, then a real act of solidarity and equality would occupy the performance sphere and carry it towards a new level of togetherness – a level that is crucial to transgress the history of injustice.
It is important to reflect again on the notions of space, time and body. Our performative actions will be finally set in time and space and within several BODIES. These are the parameters of our current power and authority. Those parameters are already huge. Their symbolic value can be lasting. Nonetheless, with the presence of so much intersectionality, density and continuous negotiations of the self, one strategy to guide our process could be to think within our territory of PERFORMANCE, our domain, and our strength, and invest all the personal and creative forces in order to have an authentic, autonomous, ambitious and transformative experience, starting from the decolonisation of the self and aiming to provide, via performance, an experience of togetherness, humanness and healing through dance.
Let us remember that we started our project, “Moving the Forum”, in 2020; let us remember what 2020 and 2021 mean to us – what happened, what will happen – in our personal lives and in our professional and political public lives. Let us remember the uprisings of Black Lives Matter, Covid 19, mortality, inequality, isolation, economic manipulation, privilege, restriction of mobility, restriction of gatherings, elections, unemployment, lack of rituals, populism, gentrification, governance, democracy, history, empathy, flesh, human bonding, insomnia, anxiety, love, the right wing, parenthood, home, homeland, public sphere, public buildings, culture, law, wounds, healing, Berlin’s Museum Island. NOW. DANCE. BREATHE.
I invite you to consider our dance project as a cluster of change. Very soon this diverse group made of almost 40 artists will have gone through a process of creating connections, understandings, interweaving and exchanges. To have 40 artists with this collective fabric within the dance field of Berlin is a massive power, especially if we keep connecting, being present, visible, active and strategic. Our cluster can keep moving, so that it does not stop at Moving the Forum but goes towards moving BEYOND the Forum.