Reading Rudi Laermans, Dance and Media Theorist

*A quick technical note: Unfortunately, the last video on the page begins automatically.  You can pause the music by scrolling down to the bottom of the page.

Rudi Laermans is a professor of Sociology– and sometimes dance theorist– at the Catholic University Leuven.  A quick glance at his publications, many of which are not in English, indicates a particular interest in the sociologist Niklas Luhmann.  Although not one of my favored points of theoretical reference, Laermans’ investment in Luhmann gestures towards an interest in media theory.  In turn, media theory informs his writing on contemporary dance, which  seeks to respond to experimental work with a philosophically informed framework.  Granted, these days theoretical references have become obligatory markers of academic self-legitimation, but as a theorist writing about dance, (rather than vice-versa), his work takes care not to apply theoretical premises in such a bluntly instrumental way.  For example, in a footnote, he consciously forgoes applying Luhmann’s systems theory: “I for sure do not want to veto a systems theoretical approach of contemporary dance…Yet employing a systems theoretical framework implies a level of conceptual abstraction that I deliberately wish to avoid here.”

Much of his preceding work on dance coincided with the so-called “Flemish Boom” of the ’90s, especially Meg Stuart.  Incidentally, in my nebulous pre-history as a scholar, I actually cited Laerman on Meg Stuart in my graduate school application.  Having since experienced a significant transformation in my research interests, which included moving away for my earlier affinity for the aggressive, oppositional aesethics that characterized the second generation Tanztheater movement of which Stuart was a prominent member, I was curious to see whether his writing would still hold any appeal.

Hence, on the occasion of a recent lecture at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, I “picked up” (downloaded)  his latest major essay on dance published in a 2008 issue of the British journal Performance Research.  It proved to be quite interesting, and it has a number of merits that are worth sharing, especially since I have the impression his work is essentially unknown in the States.  However, the lecture ultimately took place in a format that did not facilitate a dialogue with this work– it was not a lecture at all– and my original plan to combine these two theoretical engagements in one blog entry no longer seemed fitting.

As an aside, in informal concluding discussion with Gabriele Brandstetter, he did mention one tidbit that I think reveals a keen dramaturgical consciousness, a question that he poses when speaking to young dance artists: what do you choose to show and what do you not show?  Such in person insights were the exception, since the event was a semi-staged presentation by the Master’s Seminar in Dance Studies that he taught as a guest professor at the Freie Universität Berlin.  Nevertheless, it merits mention, even if only insomuch as it provides a glimpse into the pedagogy of Dance and Performance Studies in a high-level European context.  As such, I have decided to divide this post into two sections that respectively present my observations as an American scholar in response to his seminar presentation with a direct response of his essay,  ” ‘Dance in General’ or Choreographing the Public, Making Assemblages”, to follow.

I. February 6, 2009: Laermans’ Seminar on Liveness, Live at Berlin’s Academy of the Arts

On Thursday, February 6, 2009, Berlin’s Academy of the Arts hosted a presentation by Rudi Laermans, a professor in the Faculty of Sociology at the Catholic University Leuven, who has been a guest  during the last semester at the Institut für Theaterwissenschaft at the Freie-Universität, where he taught an M.A. level seminar on “liveness” in the dance department.  To my surprise, Laerman’s presentation was not a lecture,  but rather a semi-staged series of timed discussions and performance actions with his seminar.  These actions consisted of short dance pieces, a lyrical statement of self-transformation in performance, two dialogues with “virtual,” recorded class members on video, an abjectly exaggerated application of red lipstick… in short, wholly acceptable, elegantly interlinked student work.  It was not unlike what one would expect to see from a mixed body of American students with performance backgrounds.

The rounds of discussions were reactions to quotations: two from Roger Copeland’s essay “The Presence of Mediation,” concerning the insufficiency of the grand canyon to live up to its televisual image and the inextinguishability of “signs” on stage; a plea by Herbert Blau for the dignity of  “silence” in the face of the media frenzy following 9/11; and a quotation from the FU Director of Theaterwissenschaft Erika Fischer-Lichte’s recently translated book, Ästhetik des Performativen, (the unbelievable translation is “The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics”– according to Fischer-Lichte, Routledge wanted something catchier) that located theatre’s unique communicative capacity in the mingling “co-presence” of bodies in space.  Rather than commenting on the content of these three well-written, (albeit seemingly “undergraduate”) texts, I simply want to observe on their surprisingly conventional disciplinary nature as a group, all of which one might very well find in American theatre department reading lists.  Likewise, Laermans consistently referenced the two principal works invariably discussed in the context of “liveness,” both written in the ’90s by American academics, Peggy Phelan’s “Unmarked” and Philip Auslander’s retort, “Liveness.”

This captive interest in liveness feels distinctly outdated.  And without being careful about one’s philosophical heritage– be it Cartesian doubt, British Empiricism, Rousseau’s sensual rhetoric of repulsion, or Derrida’s re-reading of Austin– it’s all-too-easy to fall into critical generalizations.

II.  ” ‘Dance in General’ or Choreographing the Public, Making Assemblages”: Performance Research 13 (1), pp. 7-14

The crux of the article is introduced near its conclusion in the presentation of the term “assemblage,” which is drawn from Deleuze and Guattari’s “Mille Plateaux.”  By his own estimation, “willfully abstract conceptual exercises of Deleuze and Guattari” are especially difficult to integrate into other critical contexts, Laermans’ definition of “assemblage” is invariably opaque.  This does not trouble Laermans, or his reader for two reasons: 1) he has already introduced examples of the emergence of assemblages in two close readings of performances, and 2) he immediately proceeds to provide a more concrete definition in the context of Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, which, like assemblage, seeks to redefine the collective structure of representation as a heterogeneous, “constantly shifting” structure that “can not be reduced to the individual actions of the associated actors.”  Such projects seeks to recognize a shift from the unity of work to the contingency of a form not subject to the closure of representation as an organizational force .  He concludes this section with an intentionally cryptic comment: “In a word: an actor-network configuration, or an assemblage is a constantly shifting force-field producing an emergent total performativity” (12).

An emergent total performativity?

In order to unpack this phrase, it is necessary to move a few steps back in the essay, to his examples, Meg Stuart and the Brussels-based artistic collective deepblue, through which he introduces the term “total.”  (I was quite happy to “rediscover” deepblue and am planning a separate post on my experience with their work.)  Generally speaking, Stuart and deepblue both emphasize “the constitutive split between the real and the sensory body observed by means of technical devices, such as microphones and video images” (9).  The compression of the theatrical economy results in the disruption of “the ideology of liveness,” but moreover, in deepblue’s example, it uses technical mediation in order to unite audience and performers.   Their performance “closer” uses an unusual mise-en-scene, which seeks to include the audience through the use of headphones:

“Every spectator first received a headphone and then entered a closed-off, only dimly lit space in which she could freely walk or sit down.  The space consisted of a small open area surrounded by a wood of bamboo rods attached to the to the ceiling but not reaching the floor.  Within this dreamy landscape, which had everything of ‘a world in the world’ or a monadical island, digital clicks and cuts emerged in the spectator’s headphones that sometimes condensed into a massive wave of e-sound.  Both the colour and the intensity of the lightning also changed regularly, partly in connection with the sound dramaturgy.  Now and then a video image was projected, but the overall focus of the performance was the actions of the two performers” (9).

An excellent video of “closer” is available at deepblue’s website.

Rather than unity, this radical approximation of spectators and performers produces a “total” environment, one in which intensities– the pure form of ordinary qualities– constrict the audience to this limited space.  Total, but Laermans insists, also “[o]pen, since the choreography did not fix either the performative presence of the spectators or the possible interactions between the performers and the public” (10) Whether or not one is convinced by this example of openness, (I suspect there are other ways of thinking about the “open,” a possibly important dramaturgical task,) I find its structural logic of this couple– total and open– intuitively persuasive and its consequences important.

Although I might prefer “enclosure” to totality.

There are resonances in other artistic projects.  There are certainly parallels with William Forsythe, who has notably also worked with “live installations,” part of what Laermans rightly observes as a “general trend in contemporary dance to redefine the usual role distribution between performers and public” (9).  But one could just as easily find parallels in other fields.  Take Jeffrey Shaw’s Eve Cinema, for instance:

In the context of Laerman’s article, the force of this predicate, total-open, results in the shift from work to assemblage.  Perhaps the essay’s most convincing moment is its illustration of assemblage through the dance environment realized in “closer,” which was composed of (to paraphrase) a forest of bamboo rods, changing light rays, and technologically mediated sound waves: “not only the human body but also sound, imagery, or light are treated as media of the dance” (10).  This is an important moment in the essay, as it connects the particularity of his analytical focus to its thesis’ general trajectory, namely the opening critique of the assumption that “the human body is the distinctive medium of dance” (7).  This thesis’ concluding descent ends by recontextualizing deepblue’s example in Latour’s actor-network frame: “If the assembling is successful, the outcome is a non-hierarchical performative network that is the acutal medium of the performance” (13).

I do not wish to suggest that I agree with every word and nuance of Laerman’s essay.  Of course, agreement is quite irrelevant.  Instead, what is important is that the essay is thoroughly stimulating, especially because it persuasively connects concrete evidence with theoretical elaboration.  Despite this fact, I remain skeptical with regard to his commitment to Meg Stuart, and it is unclear to what degree her aesthetics overlap with those of deepblue.  I am much more familiar with Stuart, and even though she certainly antagonizes passive presumptions of “humanist” presence, her work is strongly rooted in an aggressive theatrical tradition that seeks to antagonize the breach it perceives between technology and the human.  Hence, even as she begin to investigate interactive performance landscapes, her work remains principally informed by the very aesthetics against which Laermans is critically pushing– mourning the loss of the authentic or the open.  This is precisely what she does in her last work, “Maybe Forever,” which I saw recently at Berlin’s Volksbühne:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “DTW: Meg Stuart & Philipp Gehmacher“, posted with vodpod

Near his conclusion, Laermans concedes that “countless dance performers fall back… on the attention strategies of ‘the spectacular’– read: of mainstream cultural productions” (13).  Why should this not include Meg Stuart?  (In general, Laermans has a knack for pithy critical summation.)  Furthermore, he earlier observed that an anti-media bias often pervades contemporary performance, even when it makes extensive use of technological means:

“Video technology, microphones, electronic soundscapes, elaborated lightscapes…: it has all become so ordinary within the realm of contemporary dance that nowadays the sight of two bodies dancing in a white cube produces quasi-automatically an impression of austerity.  Yet, in many– if not in most– instances of contemporary dance, the non-human materiality of the performance is primarily taken up in an instrumental way” (10-11).

Laermans ends the essay by discussing the idea of “capture,” and defines  his title phrase, “choreography in general,” the extended and contracted field defining “total” performance, (the phrase in general apparently comes from Thierry de Duve’s “Kant after Duchamp,” but Laermans doesn’t specify de Duve’s use of the term) as a rather systems-like function, “the art of capturing and modulating, of governing the public’s sensory attention” (13).

As a term, capture is most likely derived from Deleuze and Guattari’s chapter, “7000 B.C.: Apparatus of Capture,” in “Mille Plateaux.”  It has also been used by Deleuzian-oriented dance theorist Andre Lepecki, editor of the issue of Performance Research in which Laermans’ article appears.  Lepecki’s essay, “Choreography as an Apparatus of Capture,” (TDR 51: 2 Summer 2007), identifies choreography as an ideologically self-instructed discursive tool, one intended to render movement reproducible. legible, and legal by producing clearly demarcated binary differences: “the concept of apparatus is one that foregrounds perception as always tied to modes of power that assign things to visibility and invisibility, significance or insignificance” (120).

This is where my own attention wanders nervously away from the term “governing” and “attention,” and back to the less explored term of his couple, total and open.  Perhaps traces of this elusive, contradictory openness might be found in the non-sensuous, in inattention, or even in the spectator’s passivity, in a line of investigation fallow in his analysis of “closer,” in “the difference between ‘doing’ and ‘seeing doing'” (9).

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