Politics of Affection and Uneasiness

In his essay Musealization of the East, Boris Groys lucidly detects a basic problem in the attitude towards the visual arts of Eastern Europe (the former communist states).

He claims that it is not the excessive exoticism of East European art that would cause it not to be musealized in the West because things perceived as foreign and exotic are successfully included in the Western museum environment.

The reason it cannot be understood as art in the west lies in the formal and aesthetic similarity between Eastern “non-art” (the western perception) and Western “art”.

The decisive difference, however, is that of the use of art, not that of form and aesthetic style. If Groys’ finding is applied to the performing arts, we are immediately faced with many interesting questions.

Despite the belief in a basic aesthetic difference, which should characterize the art of Eastern Europe, it also holds for the performing arts that, from the formal and aesthetic perspective, its oeuvre is in some way homogeneous.(Boris Groys: Spisi o umetnosti, ŠOU, Ljubljana, 2003.)

Therefore, in trying to detect an actual difference, we should not look for it in aesthetic and formal procedures.

What we should point out is a radical difference in the politics of performing; in this text, the politics of performing is understood as the ‘use’ of the performing arts.

In the West, performing arts have understood performance politics primarily as an intervention into the form of representation and filled it with a basic skepticism that wholly shatters the ontology of the theatrical event.

In the East, however, politics have taken an entirely different course. Every performance policy was developed in relation to the total model of socialist society, which self-performed itself constantly as the most authentic and at the same time, the most utopian (fictitious) of them all.

Therefore, in the East, this situation led to a basic inflexibility in the theatre event, however subversive and radical it may have been (e.g. experimental and oppositional groups in the sixties and seventies).

It could never fully develop its performance politics or, in other words, confront the emptiness of representation and a priori beliefs with a certain ideology of the theatrical event.

Thus, at the moment when a single legitimate and all-encompassing representation has been established, any attempt at a different sort of performance politics is not only reduced to an ideological function, but collapses into itself and its own madness.

The only gesture that seemed workable in the East was that of radical authenticity, which used similar aesthetic and formal procedures as those of Western theatre.

It was precisely the belief in authenticity that stunned the westerner’s searching gaze the most.

Not because the history of Western theatre was not familiar with such authentic gestures, but because this belief participated in the same aesthetic and formal procedures with which ‘non-authentic’ performance politics is believed to be invested.

In the East this kind of situation led to a basic inflexibility of the theatre event; subversive and radical as it may be (such as that of e.g. experimental and oppositional groups in the sixties and seventies), it could never develop its performance politics – in other words, confront the emptiness of representation, which seemed to be a fundamental trait of modern interventions.

If we generalize a little, this is the reason, even today, that theatre art of former communist states does not work as exotic, strange, or incomprehensible – but, in many cases, as something banal, amateurish, and already-seen.

It seems to disclose and repeat naively the very framework of the aesthetic and formal procedures that, in the West, already have its discursive corpus.

Even more, these procedures are settled in the pathetic body of the easterner, who still obsessively repeats his own authentic gesture and, in addition, participates in our most privileged closeness.

It is this feeling that generally overcame Western producers, who sought fresh creations in the East, despairing time and time again over the scarcity of dishes on the menu that they could offer their audiences who were hungry for new things.

Of course, exceptions could be found, but they were either presented in the artistic market as devoid of identity, or their exceptional status led to their being understood as exceptions that proved the rule.

The disappointment of the producers was all the greater because they, humanistically, believed in a “quick bridging of aesthetic differences.”

As a result, they found themselves facing the worst of scenarios: there was actually nothing to bridge, nothing exotic that could be confronted, nothing that could acquire an interpretational frame and be placed within festival or production contexts – there were no production discoveries in the right sense of the word.

Performances were aesthetically so similar that it is not really unusual that not only the majority of these works, but the entire cultural territory of Eastern Europe, seemed like a great, all-encompassing déjà vu – a repetition in time with the past performed in such a way that it unexpectedly hits us as pure present.

Talking about a real déjà vu effect, however, is quite inaccurate. In the case of a real déjà vu, the moment will be brought to a traumatic halt for its surprise, and fill us with a strong sense of unease.

In a single moment, our coherent chronology will be shattered. In the case of a true déjà vu, the traumatic confrontation with the ‘already seen’ deeply interferes with our perception of reality, which suddenly proves to be artificial, leaving us dislocated.

Due to aesthetic similarity (or cultural parallels), however, the confrontation with the Eastern ‘already seen’ did not have any radical consequences upon the recognition of both sides, but was more like the uneasiness that a spectator feels in a very bad moment of a theatre performance.

This intriguing feeling is, of course, a consequence of the event passing the sensitive point at which constant tension between representation and the authentic gesture is no longer possible, causing the event to fall into banal transparency.

The confrontation with the ‘already seen’ fails to enable a recognition; but it awkwardly reveals the naked reality of the procedures used by a certain politics of performance.

The most banal authenticity has come to the surface from under its elaborate theatrical disguise.

Why is this feeling interesting to me at this point? The reason is that it is not only a cultural uneasiness but an essential part of political uneasiness that overcame both sides after the first transition period and the first enthusiasm over one another.

This is very accurately described by Slavoj Žižek:

The disappointment was mutual: the West, which began by idolising the Eastern dissident movement as the reinvention of its own tired democracy, disappointedly dismisses the present post-socialist regimes as a mixture of corrupt ex-communist oligarchy and/or ethnic and religious fundamentalists. (…)

The East, which began by idolising the West as the model of affluent democracy, finds itself in the whirlpool of ruthless commercialisation and economic colonisation.”(Slavoj Žižek: “The specter is still roaming around – An Introduction to the 150th Anniversary Edition of the Communist Manifesto,” Frakcija, nm. 14, July 1999, 40.)

It is about nothing so much as the politics of affection and uneasiness, in which the same procedures and madness of both sides is revealed.

<pclass=”body”>At a certain moment, both West and East somehow performed themselves to each other as political futures, soon to meet in mutual disappointment.

The interesting part of this political theatre, of course, is that the madness revealed is not the authentic gesture of the one performing, but that of the one watching.

The intriguing feature of this feeling of uneasiness is that it so directly and mundanely reveals the function of the spectator.

The spectators are disgraced precisely because they have been so banally and directly revealed: they see something that they are aware they should not have seen in order to be spectators in the first place.

Consequently, we can say that within the political dimension of the meeting, the contemporary and problematic nature of democratic ideals and procedures is revealed.

At a certain point, the procedure that established both partners as spectators revealed their brutal (corrupting or economic) nature, a drained authentic gesture, which suddenly revealed itself from beneath its many disguises.

The dimension of political uneasiness can help us understand how, in the cultural meetings of the European East and West, the recognition of this aesthetic kinship can hold up a mirror to both sides.

This madness can be even more accurately detected by means of another notion connected with the feeling of uneasiness and the “already seen” in many ways.

It is banal, and yet it is used by all of us: we very often say that something is old-fashioned.

With its history revealed as that of topical practices, the art of the East was perceived by the West as generally old-fashioned.

This expression is interesting because, under its apparent banality, there hides an intriguing slyness within which various politics of performance can be read.

Perhaps it is precisely this kernel that – in Groys’ terms – represents the utmost banal dividing line between things recognized as art today and those that are not.

At a time when alien cultural environments are decreasing and familiar ones increasing, it is this banal term that is becoming the principal bizarre feeling, that omnipresent attitude towards one’s own centralized locality, and the consequently marginal locality of another, as if, in all of the contemporary homogeneity of space, only this bizarre time difference, this sly chronological hierarchy remains to judge.

Anything labeled as “old-fashioned” can only be something that is similar to, if not the same, as ourselves, and yet dislocated to such a degree that we can recognize it with an affection that produces uneasiness at the same time.

We can say that the notion of the old-fashioned is a reflection of cultural hegemony in which we do not acknowledge the authentic gesture of another.

We literally claim the notion of contemporaneity as exclusively our own. This hegemonic position works precisely as discussed by Andre Lepecki in an article on the genealogy of the perception of Portuguese dance in Europe: “synchronicity is here the exclusive matter of western dramaturgy, and chronology a matter of geography.”(Andre Lepecki: “The Body in Difference”, Body / Difference, FAMA, Frakcija and Maska, Joint Edition, no.1, vol 1, 2000, 6 – 13.)

The recognition of the hegemonic background of the notion of old-fashioned and the emphasis of the difference instead is not the end of the problem.

Havingfavored the difference and the different, we will have to deal with the dilemma of the multicultural position that always becomes very problematic when practically confronted with a different authentic gesture.

It has inevitably failed on all occasions, solidifying differences even more. We can say that the multicultural approach cannot go beyond its ‘aesthetic’ preferences; the other may always be visible (represented), but not in its madness.

What I would like to do now is to present a concrete example in which we could clearly observe how the question of physicality is not an easy one, and how it is always connected with ways of performing the body.

The example is from contemporary dance, more precisely from the “reunion” of Western and “Eastern” dance that occurred after the fall of communism (but could also be generally connected to performing the bodies of the ‘Other’ in today’s world of spectacular commodities).

As we know, in almost all communist states contemporary dance was relegated to the territory of amateurism, with no continuity in its development, and limited to various individual attempts.

We could say that, in the East, the dancing body was really expelled to the pure zero degree: with its amateur nature not at all recognizable as culture.

But how was this difference really articulated at the beginning of the nineties with the first discoveries of the east?

At first glance, the difference was seen primarily in the institutional status contemporary dance has in the West and in the East.

On the one hand, it has been acknowledged by institutions and history for quite a few decades, thus developing its own institutional, pedagogical, and production network.

On the other hand, it has been marginal for decades, condemned to non-existence or fighting for survival, without a basic structure that would assure its development, outside its dialogue with institutions, and a critique, attempting this only in more-or-less the last decade with the rise and struggle for a basic infrastructure.

But it is only at first glance that the opening of the East to West and vice-versa could be understood as the somehow natural need for professionalization and institutionalization, the exchange of models and knowledge, and the urgent need to bridge the difference.

What is interesting here is to observe how this institutional difference discloses the privilege of contemporary dance, how it was reinterpreted as a deep aesthetic difference.

Contemporary dance in its institutionalized form somehow paradoxically became a token of modernity, urbanity, freedom, democracy, and so on.

By means of pedagogical and other more-or-less developed infrastructural production networks, the Western body is trained and exploited to the maximum, with a number of techniques at its disposal, always disclosing to us its own physicality, which has to be always somehow “in-time” and, present.

What is very significant for this Western institutionalization of contemporary dance is an almost representative and exclusive relation to the present.

The way the body of the West-East reunion was represented somehow paradoxically disclosed different physicalities to us.

On the one hand, the Western dancing body was completely equipped for the present.

On the other hand, the Eastern unarticulated body – with its old-fashioned, dark, and incomprehensible attraction to the past – cannot communicate with the Western gaze without having a strong local meaning whenever it is articulated.

Note how this difference is interpreted as an aesthetic one, when it should be found precisely in the different ways of ‘use’ and performing.

On one side there is a western dancing body, which has somehow turned the potential and autonomy of the body – this discovering of the body in-between – into a specific and exclusive privilege; on the other there is an eastern body with its “old-fashioned nature,” with its belief in authenticity.

Both sides could be understood as the problematic faces of certain politics of institutionalization.

The problem here is that due to the ruthless dictates of the present, the position which is almost monumental in contemporary dance, we feel uncomfortable whenever we are faced with a difference, with the “physicality of the ‘Other.’”

To put it differently, the Western gaze remains hesitant when it comes to attributing the autonomy and potential of the body to the ‘Other’, and it rather perceives it as un-articulated, “still not there,” confused, somehow clumsy, too bodily, too romantic, narrative, not really present, and a delayed physicality that is always reduced to a special context (political, traditional, ethnic, local, etc.).

Western contemporary dance somehow institutionalized an exclusive right to modernity, urbanity, autonomy, and – what is even more important – the right to universality.

Contemporary dance that is not part of the Western institutionalization of “physicality” is not recognized as the same legitimate and original search for the modes in-between, for the potential and presence of the body, with its own privileged relationship to modernity and universality.

No matter how much it may seem to refer to aesthetic procedures, the notion of the old-fashioned therefore primarily relates to political issues – or ways of producing, representing and structuring certain politics of performance.

It belongs to the sphere which Groys defines as that of ‘use’. This notion of old-fashioned is the direct result of the hierarchical attitudes of certain cultural contexts over others.

It is a very ambiguous attitude, because it always disguises itself as an aesthetic difference.

We very often hear, for example, that the art from countries that are not a part of the developed west are still not there, or that it is naïve, merely recycling approaches which are already in use in the West, or that art has to be understood in a specific context, which is usually a patronising form of respect.

It is interesting to see what is really happening in this relation. In the contemporary globalised world, which seems at first sight so connected, certain contemporarities are visible and others are not.

In fact, they do not have the right to be contemporary, to be ‘in the time’, as ‘we’ in the west are.

They must always be, paradoxically, connected with the past, which is also presented as our past, not theirs (like the idea that much artistic work from non-western countries is still recycling sixties modernism).

This attitude is a way of giving the West the privilege of ‘being in the time’ and perceiving the other through a deviation in-time.

So old-fashioned is disguised as an aesthetic difference, when it is mainly merely the result of markets and politics, becoming one of the the main criteria with which products from the performing arts will be launched in the market, presented at festivals, andco-produced.

This criterion also determines important aspects like grants, state support, the shaping of cultural policies etc.

It tells us why this attitude is always about how certain politics decide when and in what way a certain field will be ‘in the time’ or not.

This kind of visibility regulation is extremely important, because it is only the one who is ‘in the time’ that can develop the whole structure with a very clear dividing line between the present and the past.

The majority of fields whose history is written about and represented primarily by others, are frozen at first in some kind of aesthetically obsolete archive, in which their visibility will always be established in relation to someone else’s privilege of modernity.

Even more important, however, is the fact that this notion reveals the genesis of the uneasy feeling of the spectator, which is actually present on both sides.

Both, in this case the East and the West, are mundanely revealed in the function that should not be seen in order for their meeting to take place at all.

Let us thus set out an unusual hypothesis, which we will not prove, but only indicate at present.

We have to overcome the fruitless understanding of this meeting as that of the hegemonic West and the helpless and chaotic East, where every successful contact can only go in the direction of some aesthetic ‘evolution’.

Getting to know each other, both partners discover a similar authentic gesture (realized, however, in two different ways).

This gesture, in which the gaze sees what should not be seen for it to feel comfortable, is a unique institutionalization of modernity.

This fact very frequently reduces the entire field of the performing arts to a commercial and market spectacle, in which everyone is framed and interpreted within a certain context.

Every deviation from the centre seems disabled in advance; the essence of contemporary cultural politics is that the centre knows very well where the guerrilla is the entire time.

However, this situation dangerously conceals the execution of much more important and penetrative strategies, which develop their minority, tactical politics of performance, parallel to the centre.

The uneasiness appears precisely because the meeting of the East and the West is very rarely used as a tactical advantage that does not participate in the privileging of modernity and the exhausting search for aesthetic similarities, but instead seeks to recontextualise these aspects of performance politics.

Here, tactical advantage means that there are parallel modernities which could be combined, where the difference in the politics of performance is not perceived as a crack in time, but as the possibility of different articulations, parallel resistances, and reactions to contemporary reality.

Indeed, the opacity of certain transitional societies can be viewed as a tactical advantage.

Their production models are different; on the one hand, they can be more dispersed, using different channels than a highly structured society.

This could be exploited as a tactical advantage for co-operation. These structures could also be oppositional to the spectacular demands of the market and may be a chance to find opportunities that are not part of the general spectacular way of presenting the other.

Not only familiar models are used and reshaped, but also recombinant situations are created which construct their politics of performance in a different economic, structural, cultural, and political environment.

This could be the common utopian moment – that of finding a parallel strategic subversion so that the obsession of both sides finally comes to an end.

What I have in mind is different politics, paths, emotions, and personal interventions, which are not interested in the privilege of time, but primarily in that of action.

With this privilege both sides can identify themselves and realize that their maneuvers can only be put into practice by means of a basic loss.

This common utopian matching seems to be the first prerequisite for visibility.

Without it, every territory (be it political, spatial, artistic, or that of love) will be lost in the stylistic and uneasy crack in time: the old-fashioned – the privilege of modernity, which allows us to keep nothing, and makes every future even more fabricated.

Previously published in Monty Catalogue, Monty Theatre, Antwerpen, 2003. Maska, Dance and Politics, Vol. XVIII, no. 5 – 6 (82 – 83), sum – aut. 2003, 27 – 30.

Bojana Kunst is a philosopher and contemporary art theoretician. She studied in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and currently works at the University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Arts. Her primary research interests are the problem of the body in contemporary performance, theatre, and dance, gender studies, philosophy of the body, art and technology, art and science, theatre and dance studies, and representation of contemporary identities.