Give me a problem!

Notes about BADco. 2007-2010

Bojana Cvejić

The ant understood that

the producer could overtake power

only if he occupied

the site of the parasite.*

 

I remember meeting BADco. in 2001 and they left me confused in regard of all I considered then were matters of performance. At that time, the European contemporary dance and theatre were deeply immersed in the polemics and politics of polarization for/against spectacle, non-acting, choreography as opposed to dance, the transparency of a self-referential act, and other protestant gestures of renouncing representation. I came to Zagreb armed with some imperative questions such as: How can dance make one think? How can the need for recognition be subverted in a 19th-century audience? How can we produce nothing so that “they” must produce everything?… Seeing Diderot’s Nephew revealed to me that there was more than one difference in position. And that BADco. was a group of dancers and dramaturges, plus a philosopher, who neither saw an urgency in acquiescing to the paradigmatically Western modernist claim for medium contemporaneity nor loomed as a self-absorbed ludic face from/of the East. Somehow, they knew better. For them, being nomadic meant staying at home in order to explore one’s own foreign territories or “countries” of work. One of them was the Croatian performance art from the 1980s. By reworking Man.chair by Damir Bartol Indoš into a reconstruction with “dance variations,” BADco. were in 2000 appropriating a history which opened a possibility for another future in Croatian performance. It was a “manifesto of co-belonging,” misrecognized both at home and abroad!** Misrecognition at home, i.e. lack of any substantial support by the city, which rejected all that was not representing it, finally proved to be an advantage. It propelled the movement’s autonomy, since all movements need continuity and duration in order to keep transforming themselves.

Speaking about BADco. today, it wouldn’t suffice to focus on a few favourite performance examples. Fourteen performances and six projects in seven years – even if a considerable opus – only form an open and fragmentary oeuvre. Each of their “pieces” shows an entirely different set of relations between space, problem, and people involved, briefly: a different situation. From the Confessions (Ispovijedi, 1999) to Changes (Promjene, 2007), these situations have changed to a degree of becoming incomparably different – in the sense that none of them can be considered as representing one aesthetics, politics, or working method that BADco. should be identified with. Every performance and every element in that performance appear to be expressions that modify everything we may think BADco. is about. That makes it rather difficult for all those managing business and marketing, or representing politics in art: What is BADco. like? Where should we place it? What should we compare it to? How should we compare it to its non-coinciding, varying self?

Speaking about BADco. means tracing these heterogeneous movements as forces of expression that crystallize in singular points. The issues I will raise here are nodes through which ideas qua problems pass, rather than themes. Problems qua problems are the real objects of ideas, since having ideas entails posing, i.e. inventing or constructing problems as a category of knowledge and also as a category of being.*** In order to grasp something that BADco. “does”, one shouldn’t seek “thoughts” in their content, but rather understand the situations BADco. are creating in order to force one to think. Because thinking is not a natural possibility, but a creation, while concepts are not evidences of common sense, but products of imagination, even fiction. Let’s begin:

 

“Give me a problem!”

It always turns out problematic to retell what BADco.’s performances are “about”. In Diderot’s Nephew, Or Blood is Thicker than Water (Diderotov nećak, ili krv nije voda) there is a text, even more so: there are references to two plays, “Rameau’s Nephew” (by D. Diderot) and “The Death of Socrates” (which exists only in a synopsis for the “perfect philosophy play” by the same author), but that faith in the text is soon betrayed: the narrative is hollowed into an empty shell. Yet the performance is not voided; it teems with parallel worlds, whereby each performer develops the entire performance like a physical and emotional automaton. Systems of improvised action, formed around impossible or paradoxical movements, as well as extreme physical or emotional situations that each performer must face, compose a (model of a) world of compossible worlds without a vantage-point (viewpoints being multiple qua performers).

The question of thematising a single problem or issue is not just a misleading shortcut; it is like cutting out a multiplicity of components and then trying to unfold relations, connections, and encounters in which these components have merged, forming zones of indiscernibility and abandoning the simple linear causality between the ideas and the performing actions or materials behind them. Memories are made of this (2007) thus becomes a joke of a title when reversed: “This (performance) is made of memories”. The performance is subtitled “Performance notes”, referring to the Notes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a taxonomy of his notes accumulated over the years: “Observations”, “Ideas”, “Scenes and situations,” “Conversations and Things Overheard,” “Feelings and Emotions,” “Anecdotes”, “Descriptions of Places Where I’ve Been,” “Things I Should Remember,” etc.

An open-ended string of conversations, stories, statements, movements, radio voices, evergreen and jazz tunes, actions, film scenes, imaginary scenes, images, and spaces… is extended, while notes are shuffled, performers, subjects, and predicates exchanged. But what does F. Scott Fitzgerald, the American writer of the jazz age with “The Crack-Up”, a story he wrote in 1936, approaching the end of his life, as an intimate confession of his “emotional bankruptcy,” have to do with Dean Martin? No matter what he was doing, his biographer said, Dino has never had much interest in this world; he was “a menefreghista – one who simply did not give a fuck.” He would never finish the songs he sang at his concerts. He’d sing the song halfway through and say: “No point in sing [sic!] the whole thing, you might not buy the record.” Put your hand on my shoulder… But this is not Dino, this is Elvis. While Elvis is with us always, Dino returns only at Christmas time.

Who was it, was it Pravdan Devlahović who said it (first)? I don’t remember. What I remember is that at some point I wasn’t sure any longer whether those words and images were circulating for real, or I had a dream about them which now strikes me as a kind of déjà vu or foresight, an awareness of something before you see it, the ability to see something from the past in its full Technicolor glory.**** Of course, this sensation may have been evoked by substitution, a procedure that defines both metonymy and a kind of confusion of categories in dreams where a house can become two legs can become a word can become yellow. Unlike the metonymy in poetry, which still leads to a metaphor or a symbol, the memory construed by a dream is concrete, which makes it all the more virtual, real but not actualized.

I will dance (live) (shop) (stroll) so that every movement (payment) (step) I perform (walk), I never really perform (live) (pay) to the full, but interrupt with another movement (payment). I will not attempt to connect these interruptions. With the parts of my moving body (apartment) (shop’s architecture) (path) I won’t form lines and planes; I will imagine that lines and planes have perpetually existed in this space (park). I will work (live) (shop) with (in) multiple (shop departments) parts of my body (apartment) simultaneously. I will not give in to inertia, but will impede it. I will not explore construction, but deconstruction of space into geometrical forms that strike me, speaking with contingency, from the exterior and motorise my body (habitation) (shopping). I will dance (pack my goods) (stroll) in the left-right-front-back directions, and in all combinations of those directions.*****

 

Substitution started at the very entrance, where the performers were directing the audience into the theatre hall. Each one was describing a different space with a radically different architecture, according to the function of the space that the audience was supposed to see, or rather imagine: a shopping mall, a cultural centre, an underground railway, a housing project. They were not arguing, but rather complementing each other, or deviating in a conjunctive way of adding “this… and then that…,” despite some funny matches or mismatches among their visions, or between these visions and the actual theatre hall we were standing in. By the end of that overture, the space had been overwritten and transcoded so many times that the audience could only have a generic memory of it.  Perhaps the result was that kind of simultaneity or synchrony of images that is mobilised by new generic cities, which Rem Koolhaas has termed “memories of memories: if not all memories at the same time, then at least an abstract, token memory.”****** The same applies to a Dean Martin song, or a dialogue from Tarkovsky’s Stalker, or an album of intimate photos of strangers. The memory or even nostalgia we might feel is actually a nostalgia for nostalgia, which isn’t the same as recollecting the sensation of having had a sensation in the past, when you were affected by something. It is not a matter of loss or the victimhood of ephemerality that performance takes pride in. In memory, time can slip into a future-past. Films and music, or some of their historical genres, but also the home-media like TV, home-video, and photos, exercise that power of foresight, partaking in the sensorial with no reference to the lived and the personal. I have never been in the 1950s or to the Grand Canyon, but I can evoke the way it feels. Did you read Karl May when you were a child?

“Give me a problem” spells out as: “Give me a concept, then!”, precisely because the concept is not given as a regulative idea or a proposition for the state of affairs or the possibilities of knowing. For instance, there is no pursuit of the essence of memory, or of our capacity of inferring about it. “The concept is the contour, the configuration, the constellation of an event to come”, Deleuze and Guattari wrote (WP: 32), because it extracts an event from the existing situation and sets up a new event at the same time: a cross-cutting of a new situation. The conceptual methodology in choreographic practice usually assumes working out certain concepts that have been borrowed from a meta-linguistic discourse of theory (cf. “language”, “text”, “deconstruction”, “becoming”, “body without organs,” etc.). But in BADco., concepts are never represented, they are the events of problems, the expressive concepts. The construction amounts to invisible procedures, providing occasions for the spectator to make connections. Procedures are never demonstrated as knowledge that is aware of itself. For instance, when Krešimir Mikić and Sergej Pristaš perform a refracted dialogue of answers in Memories…, which acts as questions generating new questions, we don’t know that they are not talking to each other, that the questions are invented on the spot, as a consequence of answers obtained in a previously conducted interview. This “disjunctive synthesis” is probably at work in their movements as well: the performers pull out opposite points or strokes of lines in an often contrary motion. Movement doesn’t separate from the body or lead beyond it; instead, the body is glued to it, as a delayed tracking volume of the body in space. The text on the screen reads: The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

These connections necessarily pass through affections and perceptions, but what is expressed is not the chain of many causes, the destination of which should be the target of analysis/exegesis by the spectator, but the power of thinking, equal to the power of existing in the spectator: renewed or expressed. “Give me a concept” screams for:

 

“Give me an audience!”

We might even start a new text here, one that would concentrate solely on the way in which the space and the audience are constitutive for BADco.; or maybe it is the reverse? The etymology of theatre defines it as a show established by having a witness in the audience (teatron). The role of “reception” has been widely stretched nowadays to include the notions of “spectatorship”, which emphasizes the scopic regime of perception, and “participation”, which overstates the social part to be rehearsed. I wouldn’t exaggerate in claiming that with BADco. it is neither a matter of “participation” nor of “activation”. The audience is being constituted, or rather implicated. Solo Me (2003), a virtual duet of two actual intertwining solos, unfolds in a square arena of audience. The auditorium isn’t just a frame, it is a tactile springboard for movement, a mirror of glances to exchange, a recorder of ears to be whispered in. Nikolina Pristaš and Pravdan Devlahović have developed a manner of approaching the audience by offering them something they didn’t ask for. Nikolina stops before just any spectator and starts snapping her fingers: “What does it mean?”

With Nikolina still snapping her fingers, the woman replies:

“I don’t know.”

Nikolina responds by snapping her fingers once again from the opposite direction:

“I don’t know either, but here it comes again.”

Addressing dissolves as an act and becomes a cynical provocation, hijacking the audience. It implicates them in a kind of co-composition. In Fleshdance (2005), the audience is sitting at an intimidatingly close distance from a wide white wall. Watching the three dancers hinge the horizontal (floor) and the vertical surface (wall) by movement can dismantle the organism in favour of the body, of flesh and nerve, only if the gaze acts as a camera: literally framing and deframing a composition of figures, body parts, or wave-flows, traversing the tension between the bone and the flesh.

A careful analysis of spaces, their uses, and spatialisation in BADco.’s projects would be needed. I have only suggested a conditioning between audience and spatial set-ups so far. However, something can be established as a principle: partly due to the fact of not having a regular hosting theatre, BADco. is always migrating within its own city. This deprivation enforces quite an affirmative, proactive approach. Instead of getting bored (and boring others) with a critical routine question: “What is the readymade dispositif of the situation we are invited to?” or “How should the territory be de-territorialized (and re-territorialized)?” – BADco. has integrated space as the first component into a situation where transformation should issue from.

Deleted Messages (2005) plays up the audience involvement in space to an extreme proportion: there’s nothing to thematise, everything to include! A discreetly delineated territory is inhabited by both the performers and the audience, which simulates a quarantine (the performance usually takes place in abandoned shipyards or factories). The system where each performer performs his or her own material within a pre-given framework of five parameters (the genetic matrix was imported from Funktionen by the German choreographer Thomas Lehmen, which designate the type of movement, space, manner, image, and relation towards people and objects in space) encourages exchanges and mutual infections among the materials/performers. The particular meets the singular: while the performers, starting from their own particular movement/action materials, are heading towards the genesis of a shared code (all five parameters shared by all the performers) – as Niklas Luhmann would claim that only complexity (of mutations) can reduce complexity (leading to a new code) –  the audience is organizing itself in moving about the space at their will. The interaction between self-organization (operation + observation of the audience) and “soft” control (surveillance through screening all movements as the collective behaviour of swarm intelligence) gives birth to singular contacts. Here, approaching the audience means investigating the collective/singular behaviour in regard to attention. There is a political sense in identifying attention with response: if “attending” is translated as “responding”, then responsibility becomes less of a duty and more of an ability to respond. If BADco. engages in a politics of attention, then it is identifying attention with a degree of power expressed in one’s capacity/disposition to be affected (acted upon) in plenty of ways.

 

Aesthetically unburdened

The fact that BADco. is sometimes regarded as a theater collective, and other times as a dance company can be accounted for by a lack of burden of questions in Western legacy of modernism, a certain de-linking from Western modernism and its colonial discourse of many experimental art practices in former Yugoslavia   At the notion of “aesthetic burden” I arrived by trying to explain myself the function and language of choreography in BADco.‘ s performances. Questions like “why do you dance?” and “why do you dance this” or “like this”, BADco were often addressed, imply that “this” be read in comparison with a style or an idiom, an arrest of image on which to hook a meaning or conceptual determination of any kind. When the answers seem unsatisfactory – because “this is like Forsythe” or “this is conceptual dance” does not reveal the operation of this choreography – the very function of choreography in its mimetic logic is questioned. “My movement adequates an idea” (adequates isn’t the same as translate or exemplify), it poses a problem, I paraphrase Nikolina Pristas, dancer and choreographer from BADco. Does this entail instrumentalizing choreography against its autonomy? Does it mean rethinking and practicing choreography as an instrument to pose and solve problems, which wouldn’t only be specific to dance, but would exceed the disciplinary?

The choreography is called Changes (2006) by Nikolina Pristas and BADco, and entails a transformation of environments of limited visibility that the audience is part of. Being physically part of it – like in this homogeneous purple light block – means being implicated in the problem that this performance poses: being in the relationship between parasites and environment. According to Michel Serres, for a parasite to seize control, it has to clear the space from other parasites; it needs to eradicate noise for the message to pass through silence. Serres’s “parasite” is a trope for Pristas to first pose a specifically choreographic problem, but in such a way that it then immediately transmutes into a political concern. The problem addresses the double articulation of noise and message, or more specifically to dance, noise and gesture in movement. Dancing in this choreography develops in constant fluctuation between gestures and noise, or those other movements that tend to obscure the channel of communication. As Pristas describes, at one point dance is just humming in the space (the word “noise” in Serbo-Croatian isn’t just the antonym of “sound”, the way Cage puts it, but it also means “humming”). Figures merge with the environment, constituting a shimmering background in magenta light. Dancers spin in pirouettes for 4 minutes 33 seconds and longer. Movements as noise don’t produce cognitive meaning, but have intensity and effect.

Parallel to dancing, a voice-over delivers a stream of text, a verbal channel through which various anecdotes and observations spin around the fable about the ant and the grasshopper, about labor and leisure, work and laziness. These stories diagrammatically expand as the fable-parasite devours them, one of which is the famous anti-May1968 speech by the leader of French ants (clearly, Sarkozy). While the voice-over runs as a smooth message, dance physically labors in the space. At a certain moment, a dancer speaks out the following text:

“I am not a charismatic person. I am a hard worker, a pragmatic and a good ant. I beat all my competitors with work, love and kindness. My message to my rivals is that they can fight against me only with more work, love and kindness. All those poor fellows cannot knock down what I can build. The ant tried to persuade the cricket: I am the humblest ant in the world. There are not many like that. You show me another one in the ant hill who works as much as I do and who is willing to sacrifice 16 hours a day and 363 days a year like me. I don’t think there are many like that. You tell me if you know one if you are claiming that there is such an ant. Inside me emotions are not dead, I am not crude pragmatic and a politician, sterile and castrated. I am still an ant.”

This touching portrait of the dancer as a hardworking ant echoes what Andrew Hewitt pointed out in his brilliant theory of “social choreography” – the dark side of the ideology of freedom operating in dance, or how the modern dance subject who experiences her truth in her own body becomes the best workforce always ready for exploitation under the banner of experience. To pose the problem in dance of labor and leisure, Changes explores movement in its efficiency of communication, and its opacity of meaning. Changes is a choreography that instrumentalizes its own means for positing a problem that might not only concern the discipline of dance. But to do that, it must dissociate itself from a certain modernist notion of dance and its aesthetic burden. Symptomatically, the opacity of Changes earned labels of being conceptual with too much dancing as yet, or the contrary, of being “underrehearsed”, paying too little attention to the body. This criticism fails to understand that this messy, nervous and hurried movement without idiomatic unity or signature, is indifferent to the aesthetic demands. The choreography of Changes  is simply aesthetically unburdened.

Unburderning from the principle of the aesthetic in Western dance demands the right of dance to denaturalize. This calls for many points of resistance, resistance to the natural, free&creative, to fluency and effortlessness, to entertaining a necessary relation to form, to the self-actualization of the dancer, but also the self-actualization of her community of spectators. All these could perhaps be subsumed under the mimetic logic of image, vision and visibility, as well as clarity, understanding, and judgment.  Perhaps, choreographing community ought to be rethought as choreographing an assembly, where the theater dispositif equals the parliamentary, representational procedures for assembling. There are many ways of gathering, and choreography must explore conditions for spectators to construct their positions and perspectives in the situation. The performances of BADco. are choreographies in that sense. It will never suffice to approach them from a medium-specific perspective, trying to locate the “what’s contemporary” interest of theater or dance about them, because this is simply not what they sell. Instead, they give the audience a problem to engage with, and this involves experimentation and work on both sides. To conclude these notes, I would like to stress that what distinguishes BADco. from many contemporaries they share intellectual affinity and sophistication with is a political confidence in the intellectual and sensorial capacities of the spectators.  Zero cynicism – quiet, spirited force.

/Bojana Cvejić


* Manuscript from the performance Changes  (Promjene) by BADco. (2007): “Monologue about Work.”.

** Man-Chair (Čovjek-stolica) is a performance by D. B. Indoš that took place in 1982. In 2000, it was reconstructed under the title Man.chair or Čovjek.Stolac in Croatian.

*** Cf. Gilles Deleuze, “The Image of Thought” in Difference and Repetition, Continuum, London and New York, 129-167.

**** The notion of prevision I owe to Liam Gillick, Prevision: Should the future help the past? See http://www.unitednationsplaza.org/readingroom/Gillick_Prevision.pdf

***** This text is a result of overlaying several texts performed in Memories…, where the words in brackets substitute each other in each of the texts.

****** Quoted from the projection in Memories…

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