Writing

12 exercises for moving cities

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Future City Inflatable is a durational dance performance by Ellen Davies and Alice Heyward, which was presented in the Industrial School at Abbotsford Convent as part of Next Wave Festival 2018. The work proposes to manifest a utopian future city through performance, using Superstudio/Piero Frassinelli’s 1971 text Twelve Cautionary Tales for Christmas as a jumping off point. The promotional copy alludes to ideas of radical architecture, positing to revive a futurist perspective on space and the city. What follows are 12 meditations on the relationship between dance and architecture, in response to this work. 

  1. Henri Bergson pointed out in the early 20th Century that there is a difference between our internal sense of duration, and time as it is scientifically measured. Duration is not only something that we constantly perceive and experience, but the base unit of consciousness itself, that state of both continuity and change.
    As is true of many ‘durational’ performances, it’s easy to be aware of this divide between the internal and external in Future City Inflatable. There is no homogenous, unified experience of the work — the audience come in and out at different times and bring different energies. Spectatorship is de-ritualised. The significance of my individual presence is de-emphasised. The ‘performance’ doesn’t seem to change because I am there. The performance space becomes a de facto public meeting place where I am partly there to watch dancers, and partly there to exchange smiles, waves or quiet greetings with friends. The durational work fits around my schedule, and I arrive late and leave early without the burden of having to stretch my urban schedule to accomodate it. The durational work demands less of you but maybe expects a little bit more. In exchange for the freedom to come and go, to pay attention or drift off to sleep, it then expects you to bring a little curiosity and maybe even creativity in how you do choose to interpret it. But then what are we watching? The work or ourselves? Or is there something unique that sits in between that makes a ‘critical response’ possible?
  2. There is something very appealing, arguably even utopian, about the idea of an artistic process that resists, hides or erases the singular auteur artist-subjectivity at the core of the work. Inevitably an auteur will make their work with a certain interpretation in mind, and people who are similar to the artist will interpret it the same way, and others will look at it differently. This idealised homogenous performance experience is problematic: it doesn’t reflect the reality that the ways people experience work are always necessarily heterogenous to each other, because of factors including dis/ability, education or cultural background, race and gender and sexuality and class. And therefore when an artist assumes to be creating a homogenous performance experience, certain spectators are necessarily privileged over others. There may then be a tendency towards more homogenous audiences, a monoculture.
    Many well-intentioned artists observe this and say, well we don’t want a monoculture audience because that’s not the kind of society we want to live in, so let’s go in the other direction and try and put this heterogeneity front and centre and see what happens. Durational work is one tactic. Collaboration is another — if there are two choreographers rather than one, for instance, then the unified homogenous experience is already destabilised because there are two artistic subjectivities in the mix.
  3. Possibly even the title ‘artist’ is in itself problematic. Does ‘artist’ imply that I have specific ‘intentions’ (i.e. an idealised homogenous experience)? How can I encourage the audience to be less interested in that and more interested in their own response to the work, to their own heterogeneity, the things that make them unique? One possible approach to this problem is the adoption of an ‘architectural’ mindset to creating work rather than an artistic one. With a couple of minor exceptions, architects are not celebrities and generally speaking, contemporary architecture is not designed with an idealised homogenous intended response to the building. Obviously the field of architecture has over the last century straddled this fluctuating debate between form and function and how they might be negotiated together — but to speak generally, architects are held more accountable to the notion of function than they are to form; their work cannot hide behind a rationalising essay, it has to justify itself. Those who see or use a building may never know the ‘intentions’ of the architect and this has to be taken for granted at the start of an architectural design process. An interesting architectural example of divestment from this notion of the singular artistic subjectivity is the Melbourne architect Roland Snooks who uses multi-agent modelling (where, similar to a flock of birds, a computer simulates hundreds or even thousands of ‘agents’ who follow certain rules, and then follows their path as they interact in real time) to make designs. 
  4. Contemporary dance makers are familiar with this kind of process; much choreography is now borne out of group improvisations where individuals follow certain rules, and we watch what emerges out of that in time. Then what follows presumably for Snooks as well as many choreographers is an editing process where the heterogeneity is shaped and moulded in different ways back into a more unified form. In Future City Inflatable, the editing seems to fade in and out of visibility, with some moments appearing deliberately unified and other moments given more of a trajectory, but allowing heterogenous improvisations to emerge.
  5. So is the field of architecture somehow intrinsically more radical than that of art? Obviously not; plenty of contemporary architecture is designed to serve a function that reinforces existing social hierarchies rather than attempting to break them down. Dance spectatorship is also generally markedly different from the experience of architecture because of the conventional unifying ritual wherein we all sit in the seating bank at a certain time and leave at another time. Put another way, dance generally exists within a certain material architecture — both spatial and temporal — and does not challenge it. This is not to say that dance is immaterial, but that its materiality is more of a petri-dish materiality in a broader architectural swamp. The problem with the notion of choreographic radicalism is that many if not most forms of oppression are embodied and therefore have to be negotiated in material terms — at the swamp scale, not the petri dish. To name a few issues under the scope of architecture and oppression: wheelchair access; public housing; safe spaces; quiet hours; prisons; borders; gentrification. 
  6. But what does it mean for a dance work to challenge oppression in architectural terms? To answer that I think we have to answer: What is the function of the dance? And then, has the architecture been sufficiently challenged such that this function can be served regardless of your position within the social hierarchies?
    There are, of course, material limits on what a dance work (and the work that happens around the dancing) can in reality do to challenge oppression. It takes resources to do that, lots of labour and capital and “blood, sweat and tears” as Frassinelli reminds us. Acknowledging that limit then, Future City Inflatable speaks to the importance of dreaming, and the role of the imagination in making this radical architectural future. We revisit Superstudio not because these proposals are tangibly any nearer to manifestation but because utopianism serves a real purpose and psychologically speaking, it takes imagination, envisioning, maybe even faith, to push through the challenges that come with shaking things up. 
  7. By positing an architectural approach, it seems appropriate to hold Ellen and Alice accountable to this function given above. Did the work really facilitate this envisioning, and did it do so in a way that was accessible to people of different positions in the social hierarchy?  For one thing, I was curious about the choice of the space. The Industrial School is an incredible and in many ways immutable space, and it is hard to project futurity when the past is speaking so loud. Lit with bright fluorescent lights, nothing about the room was hidden, even though darkness is the realm in which our visual senses are most often prone to wander. This said, darkness can only provide a general space for visual meandering; our choreographers understandably hope for the bodies of the dancers alone to facilitate the future-envisioning. This is perhaps to engender rigour and specificity in the envisioning act, but it also makes the task harder for themselves and the audience. 
  8. In the context of watching dance, what is envisioning? Is it when you mistake one body part for another? When you see a mass of bodies and cannot precisely account for how it assembled itself? Is it simply a space of ambiguity – between dancers and audience members, between dancers and the walls or floor of the building, between dancers and the furniture. I can remember times when I have watched dance and experienced brief glimpses into the pure unknown through choreography alone: “what is that?!” And maybe for a brief moment I suspected something utterly alien, before realising how the image was constructed and settling back into reality. I do think that when you witness the pure unknown, it stays with you and changes something inside you; it inspires some embodied feeling that remains even after the logical part of you has made sense of everything. It’s also hard because I think the more dance you watch, the more desensitised you can become to that moment of wonder – not as much can surprise you anymore. I also think you can consciously attempt to envision something foreign even when you know exactly what you are looking at: sometimes (to pass time?) I notice myself inventing little metaphors to inject something unexpected into the sometimes overwhelming sameness of bodies. There’s a moment in the dance where I thought their feet together reminded me of petals blooming around a tall stamen. At another point they seemed to be fucking the walls, just a bit abstracted into a general ritualistic thrusting. I do, over the hours, start to get a sense of visual distortion. Am I watching the dance or watching myself? 
  9. This idea of envisioning looks at dance as being made of a set of essentially static images which emerge and disappear, or in other words, are constructed and deconstructed. This is one sense in which a dance could resemble a city, if we imagine a city as a set of constructions which are built and then crumble in time. Is a city simply a set of buildings, which either exist or do not? Moreover, does this interpretation neglect the essentially dynamic nature of dance? The idea of the static 'image' might be a useful interpretive (and creative) tool, but we shouldn't forget that dance always exists in time and is about movement as much if not more than about any given spatial configuration. 'Envisioning' is a reduction of dance to the visual, which erases our sense of duration. As Bergson argues, duration is what constitutes consciousness; its indivisibility is what makes 'free will' or agency possible. 
  10. Beyond the 'constructions', there was something like a game about the work. Because there was no position in the space where you could sit and see everything; you had to keep moving around, or be happy with missing bits. Some sitting places would also be collided with; forcing spectators to either move out of the way or temporarily become in contact with the dancers. There is something playful and chaotic about this. A glimpse of a future in which we are all the dancers. 
  11. Sometimes the dancers would speak text from Cautionary Tales, fed to them through headphones. The work feels to some degree structured by this obscure artefact of history. This stands in contrast to the Italian Futurists, who would have hated the idea of having any kind of reverence for the past, even arguing in The Futurist Manifesto that once they themselves passed a certain age they should be pushed aside to make way for the younger generation (the Italian Futurists were also largely war-glorifying misogynist fascists, so this is probably for the best). It is nonetheless worth asking how and why we draw these historical links.
    I understand that the notion of ‘adaptation’ or its more relaxed form, the ‘response’, seems to offer a ready-made dramaturgical frame to structure or justify a performance, and also that this frame is something that dance works always need and often lack. However, the text, like the Industrial School walls, feels more to be anchoring me in the past than propelling me to a radical future. I would have loved to see something less referential and a bit more unhinged from the known. Use the text as inspiration but answer these questions for yourselves: what role does the past have in the future? How can you dig further into the performative paradox of performing the future? In real terms I think Frassinelli’s ideas don’t feel so tangible in the work; the jargon of the text just becomes a singular texture, where I was expecting multiplicity. 
  12. It is interesting that he offered twelve futures rather than one. It feels similar to the various projections offered by climate scientists, dependent on certain actions that humans take in response to global warming. None of those projections would be described as utopian; they are a looming reality, the effects of global warming are already affecting people around the world, and these future and present realities desperately require envisioning by artists. Otherwise the only visions we will see will be presented by the ever-spectacular corporate news media, and we will feel isolated and scared by the spectacle, and the spectacle will make us forget compassion and generosity and trust. We need to envision futures where these things are strengths and not weaknesses. Future City Inflatable willingly resists the flight towards terrifying spectacle, and moves instead, carefully, towards a space where we can all act together with trust.