Shake of the past and take it in your hands. Artists’ questioning of dominant politics of historical research
In this paper I would like to discuss a very interesting quotation by Benjamin, extracted from his essay ‘Edward Fuchs: collector and historian’. Cultural history only apparently represents an advance in insight […]. Of course it enlarges the burden of the treasures which accumulate on humanity’s back, yet it doesn’t provide the strength to shake them off and hold them in one’s hands (Benjamin, 1937: 356). I’m particularly interested in a concrete question arousing from this quotation: the idea of working with history, instead of putting historical documents behind a showcase as if everyhting was already given and done. The principal premise is: the past is not closed. The “treasures which accumulate on humanity’s back”, the documents of culture (and of barbarism, as Benjamin would have pointed out) are above all a burden that humanity has to endure if we keep on understanding historical documents in the Foucaultian sense as ‘monuments’. The way of scape that Benjamin proposes is to shake them off and hold them in one’s hands. This paper focuses on the intepretation of this sentence, which contains a very clear and powerful image which is of great help in order to understand certain current performative practices dealing with historical materials. For the analysis of this sentece, I will base on Agamben’s interpretation of Benjamin’s philosophy. As the italian philosopher comments, Benjamin’s concept of a redeemed past has been repeatedly interpreted as the retrieval of alternative and despised heritage or traditions which are, once recovered, inserted into history. This would mean a restitution of a forgotten past within the dominant praxis of writing history. But, as Agamben points out, this operation also entails that the tradition of these “opressed past” (let’s remember that his vocation was mainly political), of this neglected and unacreditted art which up to a precise moment was invisible in the historical discourse, is completely equivalent, in its goals as well as in its structures, to the tradition of the dominant past, of the ones who have written history. The only difference would lie in the contents of this history, but in any case would it affect to the general structure history nor to the way it is written. I’ll continue with Benjamin refering to this redeemed past: With regard to what can something from the past be saved? Not so much in respect of discredit or disdain, but in regard to a certain modus of tradition. The way in which this past is estimated as “heritage” is even more disastrous than its possible disappearance (Benjamin, 1974-89: 1242). Benjamin’s proposal is very radical. And is still valid, specifically as a tool to think about certain contemporary performing arts practices which are dealing with materials from the past, such as pieces by Janez Janša, Boris Charmatz, Martin Nachbar, Saša Asentić and Ana Vujanović, to name but a few. All these practices are not limited to re-inserting a more or less forgotten past within an already written history in order to complete it, but above all they question the historiographical methods that have created the history we know. Past in these works is not retrieved from its abandonement or its discredit, but above all it is retrieved from a certain mode of tradition, transmission and writing. These practices generate other forms of historicity, other forms of dealing with the past. This operation is equivalent to re-invent tradition y and along with it and above all to create other ways of writing history: not keeping an objective distance and following traditional procedures of academic writing, but on stage, from and with the own body. Past is therefore not heritage located behind a glass-cabinet and protected from the passage of time by it, but material that is taken out of it and appropriated. This would be an interpretation of the expression “shake off the history of culture from your back”, the first part of this powerful image that Benjamin created; the second part was “to take it in your own hands”, which I understand as looking at it in the light of present time: that is, to discover the hidden potential in it, to actualise it as a past which is still able to talk, as a living language which has not said yet all it had to say, as Agamben may have put it. The dance retrieved by these artists does not represent a dead language, but material which is still able to transmit something; it is not a forgotten language to get back, but materials with possibilites of changing our present. It is about understanding past not as something closed and therefore prescriptive, but only as something that helps us to understand the present and to project possible futures. Let us understand this in the light of a concrete practice: Boris Charmatz’s 50 years of dance (2009), in which the French choreographer retakes Cunningham’s work in its entirety; instead of focusing on restaging a concrete piece, he chose a peculiar procedure: to take as a point of departure David Vaughan’s book Merce Cunningham: fifty years, which photographically documents Cunnigham’s work from year 1944 to 1994. Charmatz developed for this project a very particular dispositive: the book is physically before the first row, only partially visible from the stalls. One person leafs through the book, page after page, while on stage a group of dancers reproduce these photographs jumping from image to image. As an spectator, one is constantly comparing the static images of the pictures -usually capturing moments of great intensity and virtuosity, as it was usual in dance photographs- and the movement on stage. The spectator’s gaze is distributed between the original and the always defective and incorrect reproduction of the live performance of these photographs. This generates a strange, interrupted and fragmented dance which is organised around these incomplete and scattered images. There is a number of questions we could tackle regarding this piece that could help us to clarify the role of the choreographer as historian to which I was refering at the beginning: this idea of Charmatz shaking off Cunningham’s work and taking it in his hands. One relevant figure to understand the choreographer in this way could be the bricoleur, as it was defined by Lévi-Strauss (1962: 50-94).1 Instead of creating a system from scratch, departing from raw material and instruments conceived exactly for his/her project, the bricoleur has to organise his/her work around a series of heterogeneous materials. Playing rule is always “to manage with what you have”, that is, a finite collection of documents: incomplete and used materials and experiences, waste materials, historicals remnants. Thus, the choreographer-historian’s gaze or questioning is not directed towards the world at large, but to a concrete part of culture. These documents, the materials for the bricoleur, are elements wich can be defined by a double criterium: they have been useful as words of a previous discourse which is today dismantled. And they can still be useful as elements in a composition which follows a different gramamr. Refering concretely to Charmatz: he takes snippets from Cunningham’s oeuvre. Instead of being faithful to certain compositive principles based on chance or to a certain abstraction of movement for example, he recomposes these photographical remnants within a new and much more playful logic: one following parameters of composition based on the analogy between picture and movement and on the imagination of the spectator filling time gaps between images. This double definition of historical materials may sound evident, but its consequences surely not: the fact of working with materials that have already had a function and a particular meaning that have been fixed in the tradition, implies something fundamental for the poetics of bricolage: the choreographer-bricoleur does not only speak about things, but also and above all, through them, by means of them. This is particularly significant, considering that these materials are not objects, but movements which have to be embodied. And there would lie the fundamental difference between the historian and the bricoleur-choreographer: the first organises an outline or a diagram with things as objects, whereas the second structures a system through them not only as objects (of study), but also and above all considering them medium and material, and in doing so, letting his discourse being contaminated and influenced by them. This is the way in which they create a second discourse; this discourse could be reifying and mystifying when the bricoleur tries that the materials tell the same that they had already been supposed to tell throughout the tradition, if s/he pretends to respect this truth that has been established they conceal. But if actually the choreographer assumes his/her condition of bricoleur and consciously works with it, taking into account the new situation of the materials in the new historical and artistic context of production, the destructive and redeeming potential about which Benjamin wrote about can maybe be found. The past is not understood as a truth or authenticity one has to respect, but as materials that have not told yet all they had to tell, as materials that suggest a new discourse in the context and in the new order in which they are now disposed. 1 Benjamin also proposed many others, such as for example the collector, but I’m particularly fond of the bricoleur, as it also suggests other forms of rationallity and ways of thinking (the savage mind) in the already existing knowledge hierarchies; and I consider this epistemological dimension specifically relevant in the context of artistic practice understood as research, which is the issue at stake in this paper. What do historical choreographic materials speak about in the context of dance nowadays? In many cases, they talk about the current perplexities and problems that choreographers are facing today, such as finding performative and choreographic ways of dealing with history and writting of history. One of the main concerns, as I understand it, in dance working with historical materials is the idea of the body as a document. If documents are the physical existence of history, a means to put us in contact with historicity or even to invoke a past moment, the body as a document is par excellance the historical event embodied. In Charmatz’s piece we could find two kinds of documents: the photographs in the book and the dancers understood as a kind of living memory of Cunningham’s movement system, as fas as the performers of 50 years of dance are all ex-dancers of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. These bodies are documents of a choreographical experience which is somehow intended to be actualized. The interesting point however is that, unlike object-documents, these body-documents do not operate as guarantors of the supposed autenticity of the reconstruction or of the correct excution of movement: the dancers participating in this piece are differently old and some of them haven’t danced Cunningham for some years, a very demanding technique. Some of them are bodies which are not able to precisely execute the movements; they are, so to say, outdated documents, subject to oblivion, distorsions of memory and ageing. On the other hand, coming back to the photographs: what these body-documents reconstruct is not a piece, but movements departing from static images: they generate a subproduct in the translation of one medium to the other: from dance to static images and from them, through a new reinterpretation, to movement again. The other relevant point of this choreographic procedure I would like to underline lies in Charmatz’s decision to put on stage what actually uses to be a commmon method in dance reconstructions, one which is exclusively done in the studio: to depart from photographic materials in order to reconstruct a piece, and in this way filling with imagination and intuition the inbetweens, the gaps and movements between one picture and the next one. Putting this method on stage exposes in a very playful way, the high amount of imagination, subjectivity and personal imaginery that are a relevant part of the processes of reconstruction, although this is not the main goal of Charmatz’s piece; I would say that the purpose is one much more enjoyable; to finally see Cunningham dispossesed of its seriousness and inserted into another logic: that of opportunity and failure. Nevertheless this piece permits a reflection about the difficulties associated to the body as historical document of movement and about the problems linked to reconstruction departing from static images. This represents a procedure which could, under certain circumstances, be called antimystifying and having a certain destructive potential (in Benjamin’s sense) of a reinterpreted past. But let’s examine another piece in order explore this issue more in depth. Urheben Aufheben (2006-10) is a piece created by Martin Nachbar, based on the reconstruction of Dore Hoyer’s Affectos Humanos (1962), at the beginning of which the German choreographer focuses on a playful display of the procedures he developed in order to create this reconstruction, breaking down the different phases in the process: his visiting diverse archives or interviewing former Hoyer’s collaborators, etc. After proposing a definition of the body as an archive of disciplines that have sedimented throughout its years of training, he writes an interesting formula: “hoyer ≠ nachbar.” Indeed, Hoyer’s body was trained in expressionist dance; on the one hand this discipline entails an extreme movement, loaded with tension and which demands a great level of concentration and a extreme control of the body. On the other hand and referring the corporeality associated to this technique, it is a trascendental body which is supposed to have the ability of transmitting superhuman forces, being certainly close to ecstasy: a body personyfing and transmitting the absolute, a body which is different to that of the spectator. This dance has an intense and expresive power in this combination of opposed elements, in this mixture of technical perfection and emotional rapture. Nachbar’s body has a different kinetic education from that of Hoyer: his body is an archive of education and training in Release technique. The corporeality associated to this language is not ceremonious, but more neutral and casual. It’s not a body posed at the center of attention, but a vector-body2, which directs the attention to the other elements on stage or to its relation to them. The dancer’s body is in principle no different to these of the audience members. The question raising from these differences and which is exposed and problematized in Urheben Aufheben is: how does a contemporary body do in order to incorporate this other so alien body? Instead of assuming it and attempting to iron out their differences, Nachbar highlights them: he is a man dancing a woman’s choreography, he dances in jeans and exposes his difficulties trying to reproduce these movements. Instead of hiring a female dancer with a similar technical education to that of Hoyer and trying to create the ilusion of authenticity, he confronts the audience with the presence of two disparate codes in one body, creating in this way a kind of choreographic palimpsest. It is impossible for the audience to become absorbed in Hoyer’s poetics; the spectator is continuously oscillating between these two paradigms of dance. Nachbar, instead of assuming as a formula the video materials he had been working on (and therefore maybe generating a codification of the materials, a prescriptive and rigid form) focuses on a reconstruction that exposes the difficulties associated to every attempt of reconstructing historical materials, doing it exclusively with theatrical means. Charmatz’s and Nachbar’s reconstruction pieces are relevant in order to think about the potential of artistic practice as (historical) research and as practices challenging traditional procedures of historical investigation. In these pieces reconstruction is not an end in itself, but the procedures they display serve to reflect on the very activity of reconstruction; and this is done exclusively with theatrical or choreographic means. These practices reveal not only as historical research processes, but above all, as historiographical exploration, to the extent that they are dealing with the ways and procedures of researching and writing history. At the same time they are proposing to rethink 2 Vector-body is a term proposed by my colleague Isabel de Naverán to describe contemporary corporealities on current performances. fundamental concepts of historical research, such as the archive or the document, but from the new perspective of the body. These pieces could be considered choreographic meditations about perplexities or specific problems of the medium dance, possible ways of thinking, reflecting and solving not philosophical problems, but choreographic ones: meditations about problems of current dance praxis which are expressed in choreographic or theatrical terms, such as the impossibility of reactualizing a historical body or the big doses of imagination and fiction that are always associated to every process of remembrance and reconstruction. Coming back to Benjamin’s quotation, we could say that what these reconstructions propose is to consider tradition as a living past, as exactly the opposite of Hegelian finished history. The past these practices work with is not considered as something which has abolished its relation to present and future, an exhausted discourse which is treated as fixed, done and closed. For the only possible activity with this past would be to fasten it once and for all and the only possible way of dealing with it would consist in being as faithful as possible to the meaning and functions that have sedimented throughout its history. Instead, the appropriation practices of these choreographersbricoleurs redeem the past with which they are working on by extracting it from its context and in to this extent destroying it in order to allow it to continue speaking. It is truly about destroying it and not trying to re-integrate to where history has determined it belongs; it is not about taking it back to its origin understood as an eternal and real position, as Benjamin would have said. Once again, to redeem a past is not to reinstate it in its dignity in order to transmit it to future generations. Above all, because these concepts of authenticity and dignity are associated to a particular idea of truth: one that should be watched over, protected, preserved and transmitted. Benjamin’s idea of fidelity to history is totally opposed to this one: it does not mean to recognise a concrete truth, but rather to maintain an openness towards it, which actually means a constant critique towards the past and the form in which it is transmitted. Truth is not something to faithfully further deliver, but above all, a historical-temporal openness, a memory open to historical development and change. The relevant historical work is therefore not so much the preservation of heritage understood as canon, but as materials with which to express the present, as a language that is still able to speak, a living culture which has not fullfilled itself and that we use in order to critically relate to our present. As Nachbar, Charmatz, Vujanović, Asentić and other artists have proved, a retrieval of the past can therefore not be that of the cabinet, deployed by the tradition of cultural history. Arriving to my conclussion, their pieces are asuming the role of culture and research with a clear (although not exclusive) function of instrument of knowledge. The artists developing these creative methodologies of historical and historiographical research take the roke of the historian and in doing so, transform it: they appropriate historical materials and create new narratives in which to expose a series of problems in dance related to memory. Using the body, they manage to question this system and along with it, dominant politics of historical research. With the same token they manage to overcome disciplinary limits and allow an access to discourse for areas that up to that moment have had no right to enter it. In this case, when these practices are taken seriously and acknowledged as research, the false hierarchies that keep separated a variety of approaches to knowledge could be abolished; these are practices that could help us get rid of the schizophrenia of Western culture with which Aby Warburg was concerned. I’d like to finish with a quotation by Agamben on Warburg’s science without name, Mnemosyne, in which the Italian philosopher pleads for an association of the word that remembers (history) and the word that sings (art), and which in this particular case we could understand as the word that dances (choreography). Perhaps the fracture that in our culture divides poetry and philosophy, art and science, the word that “sings” and the word that “remembers” is nothing other than one aspect of the very schizophrenia of Western culture that Warburg recognised in the polarity of the ecstatic nymph and the melancholic river god. We will be truly faithful to Warburg’s teaching if we learn to see the contemplative gaze of the god in the nymph’s dancing gesture and if we succeed in understanding that the word that sings also remembers and the one that remembers also sings (Agamben, 1999: 100). Berlín, Mai 2011
Agamben, Giorgio (1999) Potentialities: collected essays in philosophy, California: Stanford University Press.
Benjamin, Walter (1937), “Eduard Fuchs, der Sammler und der Historiker”, in: Max horkheimer (ed.) Zeitschfrift für Sozialforschung Jg. 6, München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, pp. 346-381. (In English: “Edward Fuchs: historian and collector”, New German Critique, No. 5, Spring 1975, pp. 27-58.)
Benjamin, Walter (1974-89), Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann / Hermann Schwepenhäuer, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1962), La pensée sauvage, Paris: Pocket. (In English: The savage mind, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press).