Wrestling with complexities – Trying to first understand what is now going on and then act in a responsible way
Text by Kirsi Monni
I was invited to speak in a Performing Arts Research Centre’s post doc circle, to discuss black performance theory related topics on 16.4.2021. This text is based on that event.
I’ll speak about three topics
- my research path towards intersectional histories
- different lines of development in white and black dance aesthetics
- briefly some visions on ‘post-race’ future.
In my dissertation that I did twenty years ago, I explored paradigm changes in dance in the 20th century. The motivation for the research stemmed from the marginalized and culturally minority status that contemporary dance had back then, and still has, and the lack of conceptual comprehension of its premises, histories, methods, and philosophies. To contribute to that situation, I studied the critique of western idealistic metaphysics and aesthetics in relation to dance ontologies, and deepened my understanding of what epistemic body-mind dualism does to dance ontologies, how there have been different approaches to modes of representation and why in dance history there has also been a strong rejection towards representation; not only towards the question of what is being represented but the whole idea of seeing art as being mimetic in nature.
How I see it now, is that this reading was following the strategies of progressive white art and did not include black progressive strategies and aesthetic concerns in its analyses.
My history-reading was not apolitical, but indirectly political. Its focus was very white and the question of black, or queer dance aesthetics and their relationship to these paradigm changes were not properly addressed. Of course, this is a twenty-years-later afterthought, but for me it is important to notice, because it reveals how complex issues we are wrestling with these days. Trying to reconcile very different histories, discourses, aesthetics, and philosophical aims is not a simple task. For example, the complexity of the question of which discourses to engage with, how and by whom?
With whom to discuss and how?
In my dissertation I discussed dance mainly with female dance artists but theory mainly with white male European philosophers, and maybe with the most controversial of them all, Martin Heidegger. A white male from the most dominant intellectual tradition, German philosophy, and a short-term member of Nazi party, who should be perhaps totally abandoned by these merits. But he is a thinker who also deconstructed in a profound manner the canon of western philosophy and claimed it was built on the ideas of objectifying universalism, metaphysics of subjectivity and the Platonist-Aristotelian-Hegelian-enlightenment lineage and how this had led us to exploitation of everything that exists. This is very political, in my understanding, but in indirect way.
So, from today’s perspective, should I abandon him totally, or could I still develop my research in reflection to his thinking? Which practices, techniques, methods, reference artists and theorist are still, or now, valid and important and by what grounds? During the last years I have understood painfully clearly that I must ask what and who are missing from my radar? And I must also put those “old references” under a so-called stress test.
Hanna Järvinen asked me before the post-doc meeting whether I was able to name some events, texts or encounters that had made me reconsider my practice? How I see it, there is always a need to reconsider the interaction between world and choreography, art and education. I think this is at the heart of my practice as artist-educator. It is to continuously reevaluate my understanding of art, its histories, practices, localities and discourses and engage with aesthetic and societal concerns. I’ve been actively looking for possibilities for theorizing the practice of choreography from the posthumanistic and systemic point of views and to develop some methodological propositions approaching choreography as an intra-active practice. So, it is more than natural that the intersectional and societal views need to be looked at as well as working towards redefining the genealogies of western art, that have so far been largely based on ideas of the superiority of white western thought.
Naming some important encounters
As one of the important encounters I could mention André Lepecki’s book Exhausting Dance, Performance and the Politics of Movement. It has been part of the choreography programme’s reader since 2010, especially the analyses of the methods of representing or deconstructing identities in choreography and how that is entangled with the ontologies of visibility and presence in the western thought. All choreography students have been reading about the crawling practice of William Pope L., the friendliest black artist in America or Vera Mantero’s dance of postcolonial spectral. We have also translated this book into Finnish by Hanna Järvinen’s amazing work, and it is published by LIKE and the Theatre Academy.
Fast forward 10 years, in 2020, we received letters from students, also one jointly posted from Aalto Arts and Uniarts students, demanding rapid actions to diversify the syllabus and take into consideration intersectional societal aspects in all teaching, my child being one of the signatories and my sharp mentor in intersectional issues. I consider these letters as a new impetus for re-evaluation of both my own knowledge and the syllabus.
But, when receiving these letters, I was also quite annoyed of the sometime harsh wording in them, saying that not showing public support, or being silent would be interpreted as a sign of supporting white supremacy. Wau, touché, my non-racist white fragility was shaken. I wanted to understand where this way of speaking is coming from. I started to read, watch and listen even more lectures, seminar papers and other broadcasts available online.
From Ibram X Kendi’s The difference between being ”not racist” and antiracist, I learned that being silent is not antiracist, but action is. Talad Ahmed’s lecture on French-West-Indian psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s heritage and influence also deepens one’s understanding. Fanon was diagnosing the emotional and psychological traumas and anxiety that the dehumanizing racism causes to a person and to a community. He believed in the necessary role of violence by activists in conducting decolonization struggles. Through Fanon I could renew my understanding of the long history of decolonization struggles all the way from Algeria to Black Panthers to Black Lives Matter -movement. It also helped me with understanding white people’s emotional, often defensive, and counter offensive reaction to the anger of the oppressed. From Achille Mbembe’s lectures I got wonderful visions to think about race in the age of Anthropocene, futures of art from the perspective of decolonized world and from Tommy DeFrantz’s lectures on black dance as well as his co-edited book Black Performance Theory I’ve got to understand more deeply the aesthetic differences and special characteristics of black dance, which is crucial in order to revise the formation of aesthetic theorization in education.
Finally, must be mentioned the demands that our work-in-progress project to publish an open access book on dance histories in Finnish, set for revised and updated knowledge. To rewrite dance histories seriously and responsibly is not a quick reactive project but requires research and time that might seem too slow for those who demand immediate revolution.
Hacking the syllabus or the re-evaluation of aesthetic theories and values
Our higher art education is largely based on the notion that we strive for progressive, innovative and autonomous art and education, which is not ideologically or politically committed. I am an example of this kind of thinking. But at same time I am aware that there isn’t any art which is not affected by the historically formed ideas, ideologies, values and aims that are included in each aesthetic discourse. Instead of talking about the autonomy of art, in the sense of societal or ideological independence, should we just try to develop our abilities to understand and articulate the various aesthetic and other aims we strife to achieve with each artwork, each practice, each curatorial choice. I say this for broadening the views and deepening the insights not to narrow or restrict them.
To take a closer look at my own white views I am operating with, and to renewing my views in relation for example to black dance and performance, I need to study their history and aesthetic concerns from their own perspective. One of the insights that helped me understanding the different developmental lineages of white and black dance-performance aesthetics is Susan Foster’s interpretation of the aims of the neo-avantgarde dance of the 1960s, namely the dance performed in the Judson collective. According to Foster, this dance was explicitly breaking up the relationship with the traditions and conventions to liberate expressive possibilities, to practice institutional critique, to update the relationship to lived everyday world. These artists were able to do that, because the white western traditions were dominantly visible and in power. To disturb that power, they needed to disengage from the dominant meaning-creation system in dance art. From the first avantgarde on, since the beginning of the 20th century this strategic pattern has been the means of the neo-avantgarde and the progressive in art, sometimes even to the point of nihilism and loss of audience or community connection, also in dance. One could call it even as fetishizing the new in art. To totally disengage from the over-generational traditions is renewing this old pattern still today.
But for the African American black artists of the 60s this was not a reasonable or only strategy, because the African American heritage and traditions were not visible in the first place, their status was, and still is, oppressed and underrated. For black artists it was more important and progressive to explore the diasporic heritages and traditions to draw innovation, creativity and community-empowerment from them. Also, the possibilities to take part in higher art education or to economically carry out a marginal and unpaid art labor, were radically different.
Therefore, from these quite opposing strategies the white and black aesthetic values kept on growing mostly on two parallel lines, of which only the white one has been continuously visible and valued as progressive, new art. But now in the 2020s the black dance and performance is present in multiple, theatrical, social, popular or spiritual ways. Black performance theory’s ideas and concepts such as black affect, black sensibility, energy exchange with the audiences, skill and virtuosity, special use of language, varying relationships to popular, social and religious realms, as well as afro-pessimism or afro-futurism are important ideas to reflect on. I consider it important also to turn one’s eyes and ears to contemporary Asian art and pop culture where one can find passion, dedication, innovation and skill which leaves one in a total awe.
Some brief words about possible futures
In spite that I need to learn more about the history and presence of racism, it is also necessary to give room for those thoughts and artists who don’t want to be looked at only as representatives of oppression or non-western origin but representatives of futuristic thinking, high-quality driven work and innovations in art field and cultural industry.
Both, Tommy DeFrantz and philosopher Achille Mbembe have talked about art after race or post-race, and how black culture and art is not one-dimensional but many, in its own complex relationships to different traditions, to cultural industries, to postmodernism and posthumanism. For instance, Mbembe asks, how to decolonize race, what is race in the age of Anthropocene? Could it be metamorphosis, transformations, resharing of resources and inclusion of all human but also all non-human, a new kind of kinship? Or, could it be, what the afro-futurist writer and artist Kodwo Eshun claims, that because the denial of the status of human in the first place, this historical situation has given for the black artist a greater access to posthuman? Also, to ignore for example the huge movement that the non-western, South-Korean based, Korean speaking, stadiums filling, ARMY-fan supported band BTS could offer for contemporary dance as an example of relatable thematic, high-quality engaging performance, consistently built multi-channel reciprocal audience relationship and technological innovation would be truly unfortunate. To not study and reflect all these phenomena would be my loss as well as contemporary dance’s loss.
Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzales (ed.) 2014: Black Performance Theory. Duke University Press, Durham and London.
Eshun, Kodwo 1998: More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. Quartet Books, London.
Foster, Susan. 2002: Dances That Describe Themselves: The Improvised Choreography of Richard Bull, by Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Achille Mbembe: Raceless Future
Talat Ahmed: Who is Frantz Fanon?
The difference between being ”not racist” and antiracist | Ibram X. Kendi
Thomas F. DeFrantz on Trisha Brown and Race and Postmodern Dance
Thomas F. DeFrantz: Corpus Africana
Conférence: Thomas DeFrantz (Duke University), What is black dance? What can it do? Modération: Pierre Bühlmann
Thomas Talawa Presto – The Black Body As an Archive & What You Are Trained Not To See
Hacking the Syllabus: Critical Solidarities with Ananya Chatterjea and Thomas F. DeFrantz
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