to come (extended) Interview with Mette Ingvartsen
T.E. Before focusing on to come (extended), the reworked version of to come, I would like to do a form of retro-dramaturgy on the first version of the piece. At the time, you just had graduated from P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels. In school you already had been working on identity, nudity, sexuality, dis-identification, a.o. Could you retrospectively sketch the landscape in which the making of to come appeared?
M.I. to come was the first project I made after graduating from P.A.R.T.S. It was meant as an extension of the YES-manifesto, which I wrote in 2004 in relation to my performance 50/50. The manifesto revolved around the idea of affirmation, and it called for allowing expression. It went against saying ‘no’ and working through a mode of deprivation, which I felt was a general tendency at the time. The choreographic field I was part of was very concerned with the ‘society of the spectacle’ and how to say ‘no’ to it? I was interested in those strategies, but I also felt a different need for affirmation.
Another important aspect was my own questions around identity. I’ve always been interested in androgyny, and how to undo standardised codification of bodies. How could I think of my own body as multiple? How could I perform other sexual positions than the ones I’m maybe inclined to perform in real life? I was interested in how bodies can perform any sexual position. These issues brought up the question of collective structures in relation to individual ones. For example: how is sexual identification happening in and by the socio-cultural field? Or, how can we imagine sexual relationships in ways that differ from the ones that are dominating? Working on the orgies in to come was a way to directly question collective structures, and how individual sexual identification is moulded by them and vice versa. I was mainly interested in the sexual as a space of collective experimentation. And, in how desire is a machinery that is simultaneously cultural and bodily. At the time I was already thinking about family structures and how the couple relation remains the dominant model across different forms of sexuality. Even when people do experiment with living in collectives or triangular relationships, the dominant structure still remains the couple. Why is there this societal inclination towards that, and how does it determine what sexual relations can be?
Then, there was also the question of how sexual imagery anaesthetises our capacity to receive it. I had the theory at the time that we stop noticing or being sensitive to naked skin on billboards because we are surrounded by it all the time. It becomes a general state of things that no longer has an erotic or sensual effect on our bodies. Meanwhile I have changed my mind in relation to this, because I think it operates on an underlying and maybe not conscious level of perception. But at the time I was very much into the idea of how we could take these images that are so explicit, and remove parts of them to make them sensual in a different way. This formed the basic premise of the first part of to come. For example, if you take away the visibility of the skin, then all of a sudden these postures no longer produce the same effect. And also if you take away the possibility of penetration, then pornography is no longer the same thing. Or if you remove the faces, then the possibility of identification is completely transformed.
T.E. You mention the production of desire, and how imagery we digest day in, day out influences our capacity or actions. Nevertheless, one could say that the first piece from 2005 was made right before a landslide in the cultural field: Facebook and other digital media emerged, the smartphone arrived, etc. By retaking the piece in 2017, one cannot but think of a different relationship to digital media and to the production of desire. How to think the piece in relation to that, today?
M.I. At the time, I didn’t focus on questions concerning the public and the private sphere, nor on the fact that today they are difficult to separate from one another. On the one hand, I think this is really an effect of the Internet, social media and the permanent connectivity. On the other hand, it is also part of a surveillance society. Surveillance is far from new, but since WikiLeaks there is a new light shed on the kinds of surveillance at work. The same goes for big data collections. I don’t think we have a total grasp on what that does to us: how it changes the relationship between private space, privacy, intimacy, and the public sphere. At the moment we’re in the middle of the #metoo-movement, an explosion of intimate information on social media that until recently was kept behind closed doors. This opens up a lot of questions. It is another connection between the intimate and what’s public that starts to show: the intimate has gained a power to transform the public sphere and the underlying structures that controls it.
T.E. Does this relate to questions posed in The Red Pieces?
M.I. The Red Pieces, the series of works that started with 69 positions (2014) and 7 pleasures (2015) is more connected to that question than to sexuality as such, even though I work on sexuality as a topic. My main interest in this series has to do with trying to understand subjectivity in relation to these transformations and changes, distinctions and non-distinctions between private and public space. How is collectivity and the public sphere organised in relation to questions around privacy and intimacy? The fact that these mechanisms and movements from one space to another have become so extremely traceable, I find important. I remember that when I started working on 7 Pleasures I was interested in how the social is also active in us when we are behind closed doors in our bedrooms. How is imagery functioning even when we think we are outside of it, even when we are in an intimate sexual relationship with someone? We often think we are able to escape sexual economy and the stereotypical imagery on which it is based. I realised that sexual practices are actually very connected to these images, whether it is in a refusal or in an affirmation of it. They are in an unavoidable relation.
My interest in understanding the intersections of economy and sexuality was already present in 2005, but less strongly so. The way economy and marketing has been functioning over the last 50 years, and increasingly so in the last 20 years, has a lot to do with producing desire and promising pleasure. Commercial strategies get under your skin. Consumption is no longer about needs. This we know from marketing strategies where cross sensory stimulation is used to create bodily responses to products. Pleasure is activated as a reason to buy things. The impetus to consume has to do with bodily promises and with satisfaction, which are entirely performative. In relation to this issue in particular, I thought of retaking to come because the work was dealing very explicitly with that. By extending the cast from 5 to 15 dancers, it attempts to be a critique of the social or political condition that we are in. I came about this idea by doing a try-out with a group of 19 BA students at DOCH in Stockholm. We only worked on the blue part of to come. That was in 2012. It took me 3 years to decide to do more with it. But in addition to dealing with these notions of image circulation, I also felt a need for the joyful expression of the Lindy Hop, on which the third part of the piece is based. Joyful existence is not something that is just there, especially not in the difficult times we are living in. We have to create and compose it. I find this an interesting question: how can dancing create a joyful existence, one that is otherwise so easily capitalised on or suppressed by different instances?
T.E. During the rehearsal process you were stating that our practices are consciously or unconsciously informed by and always in relation to what happens in society. When you look at earlier works by feminist artists in the ‘60s and ’70s, there is most of the time a certain notion of freedom, or liberation, by throwing their own body in the heat of the action, and thereby claiming the need to rethink the position of the woman’s body in both cultural and political terms, paving a way for a freedom of expression. 50 years later you insist on the act of construction, and the rigour of construction. You said you want the rigour of the choreography to go against the freedom of expression. But when we think about notions such as pleasure, pornography, sexuality, we think them almost automatically in relation to expression and freedom.
M.I.: I’m a complete constructivist in the sense that I think that gender, our bodies, our understandings of things, our images and the way they operate, are all constructions. Furthermore capitalism is everywhere and it encapsulates everything, including the idea of freedom. That’s part of the performativity I was speaking about earlier on: this product will give you pleasure, and it is giving you freedom to experience what you want. So feel free! It’s not a coincidence the word ‘freedom’ appears in commercials everywhere. How has freedom been co-opted by capitalism? There’s a very strong current in society that proclaims the idea of self-liberation. One frees the mind and the rest will follow. I beg to differ. It’s a meticulous labor to work oneself out of the inhibitions of living in an over-capitalised environment. That’s one thing. At the same time I think that through construction you can work your body out of conventions and standardisations that are restrictive. For me freedom is connected to a practice of working against the restrictions, of the way bodies are represented, and the way one unconsciously reproduces certain forms of power, submission and domination, forms that are integral to how we behave socially and politically. Foucault has a nice way of saying that freedom is not something you can obtain; freedom is something you have to practice. That goes for democracy as well. Democracy is not something that, once it’s there, it will always be there. I like to think of practices of freedom as something that we have to construct, knowing that we will probably never obtain it. There is no finalised state where you can say “Now I’m free!” I like the idea that by constructing rigorous choreographic structures, you can have moments where you leave a certain way of behaving. For instance, in the Lindy Hop dance, it’s important that it’s not just about dancing around freely and improvising. If we would do so, it wouldn’t create the excess that is needed in order for it to break open. It needs a certain duration and rigorousness, and pushing the limits of what the body can do. It needs the sweat and the labour. The joy can only be produced, at least in a theatre context, through meticulous composition.
T.E. to come (extended) comprises three different parts. In the first part we can see a group choreography that unfolds amongst 15 dancers in blue full body suits. Over the course of 30 minutes they position themselves in various constellations which allude to orgiastic sexual acts, but without giving way to real identification and penetration, as the whole body is covered by blue fabric. In the second part, which almost functions as an intermezzo, the performers, now naked, position themselves in a group constellation and they reproduce the sounds of orgasms they are listening to through earphones. And then the third and last part of to come (extended) is an excessively joyful choreography which is derived from Lindy Hop, yet with the difference that the couple function of the dance is completely undone and the relations between whom is dancing with whom endlessly shift. In every part of the piece there is always one or more element missing for it to be a ‘satisfactory’ representation of a sexual act. Could you give some more insight into that procedure?
M.I. There are a lot of things missing! The idea is that if we would put the three parts on top of each other, then you would have a complete sexual act. With the positions, the sounds, the sweat, the fleshiness, the total of the ultimate sexual and orgasmic experience. By separating them, the first part focuses on the positions, the rhythms and the movements of the sexual act. The second part focuses only on the sound but isolated from the rest, and the third part focuses on getting the body into the state of heat. It is a heated body that sweats, which is not necessarily sexual – it could also just be joyful. Separating these different levels puts you in a state of wonder. When you look at it, you have to search for what it is. I hear many people speaking about projection, imagining what the body underneath the suit might look like. This mental procedure gets completely reversed in the second and third part in which you all of a sudden see these real, naked bodies that might not at all correspond with what you had imagined in the previous part.
T.E. Could you give an insight into your choice for the Lindy Hop? Have the questions around appropriation shifted, both in the work and the dance field at large?
M.I. In 2005, I must admit, I had not thought through the racial implications of appropriating the Lindy Hop. But now, during the creation of to come (extended) 12 years later, we addressed the violent narrative of the dance being developed in black communities in the 1930s and how it was appropriated by the white American population at the time. Over these 12 years the discourse in dance around appropriation and its problematics has also shifted. What does it mean to appropriate this dance today and not fully acknowledge its roots? I do acknowledge and know where the dance comes from, but it’s true that I only properly studied its history in 2017. In 2005, this dance was chosen because it was a couple dance that could be decomposed. Inherent to the dance there was the notion of the leader-follower relationship being an interchangeable one: Men could also be followers, and women could also be leaders, even though there were mainly male leaders and female followers. At least there already existed an openness to such exchange at the time when it was developed. Meanwhile, what we found out is that this dance was from the beginning, a hybrid dance, meaning that it was connected to European dances, like Foxtrot and the Waltz. These influences were merged and mixed with Afro-American and Jazz-related influences. Its genealogy is one of hybridity. We discussed the possibility of replacing this social dance with another. But to separate cultures and to not touch each other, seemed to me more troubling than to go through a process of thinking about how we could interrelate and how movement and dance is a place for blending styles and race, also historically. We spoke a lot about responsibility in relation to this and the importance of the dance becoming a new hybrid in the piece. It is a social dance, but we do this social dance as a performance. The dance is transformed, in the sense that it is no longer improvised, which also alters the questions it addresses. This transformation also happens in line with the dance having been through many waves of appropriation. In the ’80s and ‘90s, all of a sudden a lot of people in Europe started to dance it as a tribute. I’m relating to how this second wave of the dance started to appear in European culture. It’s from that perspective that I thought it was possible to work with it. A dance is not only its material, it’s also all the hybrids between different skills and knowledges. Already in 2005 I was thinking a lot about techno and rave dancing, disco… different kinds of social dancing, and how this one dance could potentially contain all the other dances as well. For instance, the moment where we slow down -this is even clearer in the new version- all of a sudden you can see club dancing. You make other associations that go away from the Lindy Hop. There is also another transformation proposed by the fact that we are bodies training in contemporary dance, insisting on doing this social dance, but without mastering it completely.
T.E. Lindy Hop is a social dance but is not represented as such in the piece. There are no costumes, there are no historical references. There are certain movements or steps one can trace back, but they are hardly recognisable as ‘true’ Lindy Hop. Yet this bastardised dance produces a socialising kinaesthetic effect. One can feel the room changing, both on stage and in the auditorium. There is an excitement present: a lot of people dancing together can produce something extraordinary. And here, while taking away the stereotypical representation of social dance, the underlying dynamics and energy of social dance arise without the image.
M.I. I think that the whole piece deals with the question of the social. What kind of relations can we have? What intimate connections can we think of? Dancing has always been a part of society and of mobilising, sometimes as a consequence of or even as an exception to the political, but also as part of what creates community, or a feeling of being together, a kinaesthetic mobilisation. I think there is a huge potential for resistance residing in joy. Oppression kills joy. Oppression kills desire. The power to act gets diminished by oppression. I know it’s not that easy as I portray it here, but I do think that on an affective level, to insist on a joyful existence is a powerful tool to mobilise and to create resistance, and to create energy for it. Without energy we are lost. Depletion is the biggest threat. In our society there is so much exhaustion, with burn-out, stress, all the new diseases that comes with neoliberal capitalism, where we are exploited, or voluntarily self-exploiting. In light of this, I see joyful existence as a real potential for producing affective and bodily resistance.