The Political Technique of Complex Bodies

Monique©AlexanderMeeus

Embodying potentiality

Let’s introduce Alix Eynaudi’s choreographic concerns by briefly discussing her piece “Monique” (2012). During the course of the final 20 minutes of this piece – and without having much time to reflect on what I was seeing – I experienced a strong physical reaction as an audience member. Blushing slightly due to an accelerated heart rate, I felt playful, somewhat empowered and prone to laughter.
As I tried to explain to myself what was happening to my body – the cultural processing that turns bodily affect into an expressible emotion – the first words that came to mind were: “everything is possible”.
To this day, I am still surprised by the immediate transfer that took place between the live performance and my flesh, the experience of an embodied potentiality.
“Monique” could easily be considered a monstrous piece: its raw materials are contact dance, bondage and Les Ballets Russes. When I told my friends about this awkward combination they all wore a similar frown: “And it works?” Surprisingly, it did.
As a matter of fact, not only were contact dance, bondage and Les Ballets Russes the raw materials for “Monique”, they were also each treated with utter respect and seemed to share equal importance. Considering that these elements are deeply embedded in the work and sometimes explored simultaneously, the act of giving exactly the same importance to each layer is an acrobatic exercise of balance, which is an important aspect of Eynaudi’s practice that we will discuss more in depth later on.
However, this tightrope walk was not only limited to the main references of the piece, but was also present in the theatrical approach to these materials. It refused and embraced spectacle at the same time. It was deeply serious yet utterly funny. It flirted with both minimal and baroque. To use an expression of the Skeptics (ou mallon, “no more than”), it was no more contained than it was spectacular, no more serious than funny, indeed – no more minimal than baroque.
In his essay “Bartleby, or on Contingency” Giorgio Agamben explains that the Skeptics used the ou mallon expression to achieve

epokhé, the suspension, which is a condition in which we can neither posit nor negate, accept nor refuse. [ ] the Skeptics viewed suspension not simply as indifference but as an experience of possibility or potentiality. What shows itself in the threshold between Being and non-Being, between sensible and intelligible, between word and thing, is not the colorless abyss of the Nothing but the luminous spiral of the possible” (p. 257).

Resonating with my physical experience as a spectator of the paradoxical “Monique”, Agamben’s essay goes on to quote Sextus extensively in order to emphasize the role of affect in this operation: “In uttering this expression, the Skeptic says the phenomenon and announces the affect without any opinion” (p. 256). In a text titled “The beauty of Paradox” Alice Chauchat similarly associates affect and paradox in Eynaudi’s work: “Alix’s art is paradoxical. Paradoxes produce unrest, and this unrest is beautiful. It is mysterious. It makes us think and actively not know, which is a sensual experience.”
As discussed below, numerous examples show the choreographer’s interest in such crossroads of affect and cognition and how these mutually influence each other in varied ways.

Connectivity

Like “Monique”, “Edelweiss” (2015) is powered by a multitude of references, which in this case, often come from the field of craftwork. However, many of these references fade away in the blur of movement and are not readable by the public. Here, the referential paradoxes are not used as described above, however the inclination towards everything that lies “between” or “halfway” persists under a different guise.
In the program text, “Edelweiss” is described as “a danced rebus”. A rebus is an allusive device that uses images to represent words or parts of words. The term “rebus” comes from the Latin expression “Non verbis, sed rebus” which translates to “not through words but things”. However, in this piece, the signification of the rebuses that are presented is never revealed. As stated in the performance text, “signification is on leave”.
Although the meaning never reveals itself, when the principles of rebus are applied to dance, the movement itself oscillates between the concrete and the abstract, the sensible and the intelligible. This fluctuation establishes a complex relationship between language and matter, where things and bodies appear to be imbued with meaning, but it is not clear what they signify. Similar to “Monique”, the “not knowing” of “Edelweiss” induces a particular physical state in the spectator.
Nevertheless, here the affect lies not only in a specific embodied potentiality. Invoking meaning at the same time as making the interpretation of this meaning impossible, Eynaudi deactivates rational analysis as a tool to address the work and we are confronted with an experience that emphasizes the sensorial.
This gesture resonates with a classic essay whose claims, despite the decades that have passed since its publication, remain pertinent.
In 1964, Susan Sontag complains in “Against Interpretation” about a culture “whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability”. According to the author, in addition to this pre-existing cultural bias, overproduction and excess further arrest our senses and for this reason Sontag affirms that “what is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more”.
Although this demand could be understood as the umpteenth complaint about the subaltern role of the body in Western culture, it becomes especially relevant because of its political implications. A society of sensorially-dulled individuals turns into a heap of bodies partially isolated from other bodies, objects and the environment. As Richard Sennett declares in his essay about the craftsman, “people seek refuge in inwardness when material engagement proves empty” (p.145). These self-contained bodies will have a reduced capacity to penetrate the world and let the world penetrate them, to enter into others and allow others to enter into them.
On the contrary, the overwhelming sensuality of “Edelweiss” suggests a poetics of connectivity towards the ocean of materials in which human bodies are inserted. As sensuality implies pleasure, it also comes with a certain joie de vivre, and the piece also inevitably becomes a celebration of the things that surround us.

Edelweiss©AlexanderMeeus

Touch, balance and care

Eynaudi’s multifaceted choreographic practice goes far beyond a poetics of connectivity. True to craftsmanship spirit, when we put “Edelweiss” under the microscope we discover a whole range of strategies and formal aspects articulated like the gears and springs inside a mechanical watch. Among these, touch, balance and care stand out as the most important and what’s more, each of these choreographic devices carries its own political implications.
The relevance of touch in “Edelweiss” can be associated with the symbolic dimension of this sense. If gaze allows us to compose a hermetic image of the bodies and objects we encounter, tactility tends to blur the boundaries between us and the world. Touch also engages us in a physical negotiation where perceiving the world implies simultaneously trying to understand what the world is made of, how it impinges on us and, even, what the properties and history of the materials with which we come in contact are. No wonder then that in some moments of the piece we sense that there is a material dialogue going on between bodies and objects, which occurs, for instance, in the scene of Mark Lorimer and Cécile Tonizzo with loudspeakers mounted on wheels or in Eynaudi’s duet with a wood scultpture. On the other hand, balance occasionally becomes a prominent aspect in the choreography itself, but above all constitutes the result of a certain attitude towards things. This is why I would like to suggest that the material dialogue we have just mentioned is a balanced dialogue, where there is as much speaking as listening. This is important because, as Kate Lacey states, too often we think “about agency in the public sphere as speaking up, or as finding a voice; in other words, to be listened to, rather than to listen” (p.165). Indeed, if we want to develop new sustainable paradigms we require enhanced listening skills towards our environment.
In “Edelweiss” balance also implies that all theatrical resources acquire the same relevance. But more specifically, it means that nothing is left unattended, which already anticipates care as another important aspect in the piece.
Care manifests itself both in the symbols of the piece (a baby, a heart, a bird feeding its offspring…) as well as in the movement quality and the way the performers relate to objects. That is, every gesture of the choreography is executed carefully: bodies dance as much as they take care of each other, and great care is also taken in the manipulation of the objects onstage.
In our society, care is linked to female identity and sexism would explain why it is economically and symbolically undervalued. Vindicating care as Mierle Laderman Ukeles did in her “Maintenance Art Manifesto” (1969) remains an urgent task today.
In the same way, David Graeber shows how contempt towards this dimension of care has consequences in the way we understand labor:

“It’s just our obsession with certain very specific forms of rather macho male labor-factory workers, truck-drivers, that sort of thing which then becomes the paradigm of all labor in our imaginations; that blinds us to the fact that the bulk of working class people have always been engaged in caring labor of one sort or another. So I think we need to start by redefining labor itself, maybe, start with classic “women’s work,” nurturing children, looking after things, as the paradigm for labor itself and then it will be much harder to be confused about what’s really valuable and what isn’t.”

Far from being merely theoretical, this approach underlies, for instance, the political practice of one of the most interesting figures of the European New Left, Manuela Carmena, the new mayor of Madrid, who in her inaugural address declared that she was “going to work with politics of care (…) also known as women’s culture”.
Of course the most common objection to this kind of proposal is that it seems to avoid confrontation as a tool for social transformation. We should be clear that the point is not to avoid conflict at all costs, but rather to consider it only as a last resort.
Another source of resistance towards this approach comes from its lack of epics. That is, ardent discourses filled with heroic resonances tend to be much more effective and seductive both in politics and art.
As the “hero” is the privileged archetype of traditional masculinity, our “spontaneous” inclination towards epics might reveal just how much work is left for us to do in order to get rid of sexist thinking patterns still inscribed in our bodies. In other words, the same binary understanding of the world which sets male and female or body and mind as opposites self-perpetuates itself by privileging conflict – literal binary antagonism – as a way of relating to the world. Becoming aware of this tautology might be a first step towards breaking away from it.

Exit©Hendrik-De-Smedt

Technique

Believing in modernity has become increasingly difficult because the fulfillment of the promise of progress associated with the development of technology is constantly failing. This occurs because techniques do not serve a Humanist program, but they proliferate uncontrollably, their only goal being economic profitability.
Working around the idea of craftsmanship in “Edelweiss”, Eynaudi gives special relevance to dance as a technique for proposing a certain way of inhabiting the world. With this gesture, the artist moves away from both virtuosic exhibitionism (technique as a value in itself) and the refusal of technique as a source of symbolic inequality between artist and audience. Putting the craftsman’s technique at the service of a political proposal implies reconnecting technique with ethics. Even though the craftsman is not a modern emblem, paradoxically, it is only by collectively engaging in this endeavor that we might rehabilitate the concept of progress and in so doing, experience true modernity.
Although this technical approach – and its ethical concern about the ways in which bodies connect to the world and each other – is particularly evident in “Edelweiss”, I would like to argue that Eynaudi had already made clear her concern for technique, both in “Monique”, through references to bondage and ballet, and in “Exit” (2011), the piece made in collaboration with Kris Verdonck that preceded “Monique”.
In “Exit”, the audience is greeted by a space strewn with cushions, and Eynaudi invites them to relax, make themselves comfortable, and find a position in which they could fall asleep. She then projects a brief video of the psychiatrist Robert Stickgold.
In this video, the dream expert explains that, counter to the commonly held belief that our brains switch off while we sleep, in reality sleep allows our brains to process the information that we have absorbed during the day, and to extract knowledge and experience that we can then use later on. In Stickgold’s words, sleep provides us with “an understanding of our lives”.
At the end of the video, Eynaudi executes the same choreography ten times in a row, in which she applies hypnotic techniques to her movements. While this brief choreography repeats, small variations in lighting, music and the performer’s costume take place, aiding the public to enter into an altered state of consciousness. Though the experience varies greatly depending on the spectator, between moments of dozing off, the work becomes, for many, a series of disconnected, dream-like and almost hallucinatory images. In this state, of course, thoughts also behave in a very particular way, drifting from one topic to another and creating unexpected connections.
I would like to emphasize how Eynaudi and Verdonck suggest hypnosis as a political practice that would permit our bodies to rest in a hyper-capitalist context in which rest is often an impossibility. That is to say, the piece deals once again with the application of a bodily technique with an ethical proposal.
Thinking of techniques in terms of their political potential makes it possible to consider one of the simplest, most important and most difficult questions in artistic practice: What do we do this for?
It is important to take this question into account since representation produces subjectivity, and new subjectivities modify social relationships as well as affect reality. For artists who consider that their work comes with a political responsibility, it is essential to reflect on the potential impact of their practices in a certain context.
Inevitably, this perspective also puts another question on the table: what, in our current circumstances, could be the political potential of techniques such as contemporary dance, trance, mantras, yoga, psychotherapy, Pilates, Feldenkreis, exorcism, Alexander technique, hypnosis or the innumerable rites of our – and other – cultural heritages? How can we use these techniques to our advantage in order to reformulate our environment? How can we adapt and/or combine them, in which occasions and through which means?

Complexity

Of course, the relevance of each artistic gesture is debatable, and something that we must discuss in relation to the present moment and to other artistic gestures.
Until now, we have approached each of Eynaudi’s recent pieces separately in order to investigate its particular relevance. Now we will briefly summarize certain aspects that we have previously touched upon with a view to consider their relevance when put in perspective with the choreographer’s work as a whole.
In “Monique” the artist shows how the tension between seemingly opposing elements produces the experience of an embodied potentiality. In “Edelweiss”, Eynaudi prevents – to a great extent –  interpretation as a method to approach what we are seeing, thus evoking a feeling of greater sensorial connectivity. Finally, in “Exit” we are plunged into a hypnotic trance that induces us to perceive her dancing as a blurred vision in the midst of a dream while our mind wanders. That is, beyond showing just how closely reasoning and sensation are related, the works of Eynaudi also reveal to what extent these elements affect each other in highly variable ways, depending on the circumstances. This small catalogue of states of being brings awareness to the complexity of the human experience and the variety of the psychophysiological phenomena to which we are subject. The choreographer thereby reminds us of the ample and kaleidoscopic spectrum of possibility of the human condition and invites us to explore the limits of what we are able to live.
We have affirmed that Eynaudi works at the crossroads of affect and cognition and explores just how these elements mutually influence each other in varied ways.
Indeed, through her pieces we learn about our body and its mechanisms. However, we must not forget that our perception of the world depends directly on our very bodies. Taking into account that the world “as it is” is inaccessible to us and that we are only able to know that which we can process through our bodies, then the complexity of the outer world itself depends on the very intricacy of the codes and mechanisms that we manage in order to develop our inner world. Therefore, our understanding and exploration of the complexity of these mechanisms that govern our material existence lead directly to a richer and more complete experience of the world. As Mary C. Bateson explains,

“any kind of representation within a person of something outside depends on there being sufficient diversity within him to reflect the relationships in what he perceives (…). The possibility of seeing something, the possibility of talking about it, and probably the possibility of loving, depend in every case on arriving in yourself at a comparable complexity, which depends in turn on the kind of complexity existing within yourself. (…) We can’t relate to anything unless we can express its complexity through the diversity that is ourselves” (p. 286)

In this understanding of reality, the complexity of our bodies and the environment in which we live become intertwined and dependent on one another. An impoverished experience of our bodies will inevitably lead to a simplistic, shallow and clunky experience of the world. That is why, as Mary C. Bateson further affirms, “we need to focus on the dangers of systematic degradation, reduction of complexity – which is equivalent in evolutionary terms to reduction of flexibility and responsiveness” (p. 276). If Bateson goes so far as to link complexity with evolutionary possibilities – what we could become – it is because complexity relates to the quality of experience, that is, what we embody at a certain moment in time or, to say it in colloquial language, what we are.
At a time when we are able to think quite easily in diverse political and economic currents that are based on the oversimplification of reality, I would like to suggest that the experience of complexity – inscribed in the body by way of memory – could offer a certain material resistance against the various siren songs that are attempting to flatten the world.

References

AGAMBEN, Giorgio. Potentialities. California: Stanford university press, 1999.
BATESON, Mary C. Our own metaphor. New York: Hampton Press, 1972.
CHAUCHAT, Alice. “The beauty of Paradox”. http://www.alicechauchat.net/text-beautyofparadox.html Retrieved on 12th January 2016.
GRAEBER, David and FRANK, Thomas. “Bullshit Jobs, the Caring Classes, and the Future of Labor: An Interview with David Graeber” http://hamptoninstitution.org/bullshit-jobs.html#.VpUl3_FDvGJ Retrieved on 12th January 2016.
LACEY, Kate. Listening Publics. The Politics and Experience of Listening in the Media Age.  Cambridge and Maden: Polity, 2013.
SENNETT, Richard. The Craftsman. London: Penguin Books, 2008.
SONTAG, Susan. “Against interpretation”. http://static1.squarespace.com/static/54889e73e4b0a2c1f9891289/t/564b6702e4b022509140783b/1447782146111/Sontag-Against+Interpretation.pdf Retrieved on 12th January 2016.

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