Commissioned by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, original article on the website of The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage (www.pcah.us) under Essays and Interviews, dated July 31st, 2014
Editor’s Note : The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage commissioned the following short, two-part interview between Tate Modern curator Catherine Wood and choreographer Jérôme Bel as part of the research for a book tentatively titled, “The Language of Contemporary Live Performance,” co-edited by Paula Marincola and Shannon Jackson (University of California, Berkeley). In Part I, Wood and Bel discuss the concept of “theatricality.” Part II is on “amateurism.”
Catherine Wood : Let’s start with the term “theatricality.” For me, from an art historical point of view, theatricality is primarily a term of complaint by Michael Fried about minimalist sculpture. It was seen as a negative for a long time, the opposite of the “pure presentness” of an encounter with high modernist art. What does the term mean for you, as someone who literally works in a theater?
Jérôme Bel : Interesting. First of all, I have a confession to make: I still haven’t recovered from my first “encounter” with minimalist sculpture and, more precisely, with a Carl Andre floor piece! It has been a revelation for me, a source of endless joy. If I would have to keep only one artist it would be Carl Andre! Theatricality, or théâtricalité in French, is perfectly described by Roland Barthes:
What is theater? A cybernetic species (a machine that sends messages, that communicates). At rest, this machine is hidden behind a curtain. But once you discover it, it sends to your address a number of messages. These messages are unique, they are simultaneous, and yet they have different rhythms; at a single point in the show, you might receive at the same time six or seven communiques (coming from the décor, costume, lighting, the place of actors, their gestures, their facial expressions, their speech), but some of this information takes (in the case of setting) while others turn (speech, gestures); so we are dealing with a real informational polyphony, and this is the theatricality: a thickness of signs. — Roland Barthes, English translation of “Littérature et signification,” Essais critiques, Seuil/Points, 1981 (1963), p. 258
“A thickness of signs”!
In English, as théâtricalité doesn’t exist, the dictionary says: an artificial and mannered quality. I, too, complain about theatricality in contemporary theater or dance, but it can be fun in some performances sometimes. I accept and enjoy it in traditional theater or dance, like Kabuki or Bharatanatyam. In my work, I would like to try to produce on stage a “pure presentness” of the performer! I would personally reduce the theatricality of the work in order to produce as few signs as I can. How confusing, no?
CW : So Barthes’ theatricality celebrates a polyphonic layering specific to the set-up of the theater—competing signs are part of its mode of presentation (and aspects such as the “revelation” by a curtain in turn fetishizing the fact that we know it is all faked!). His way of thinking about theater resonates with postmodern art, including minimalism, through its sense of openness, and its incorporation of duration and action, instead of this high modernist moment of suspended optical engagement. But your dislike of theatricality in certain theater or dance is something else, isn’t it? It is about a mannerist, yet unselfconscious style of acting/performing that is somehow unnecessary? It thinks of itself as being-for-the-theater and acts accordingly? I can see that in the traditional types of theater you mention, it is solidified into tradition in such a way that this becomes interesting. But if you are working to reduce theatricality (of the mannered sort) are you aiming for authenticity? How does that co-exist with Barthes’ fetishization of theater’s polyphonic signs? And with regard to Carl Andre, while he may deny it because he does not like the idea of his work in “performance,” he gave some of his sculptures as props to Yvonne Rainer for her 1960s dance work. So beyond the literal idea that we walk on the work, there is an implicit link for you to dance in the work as well, perhaps.
JB : Strangely enough, the most important experiences I have had as a theater spectator were the ones that revealed the truth—the truth against the fakeness on which theater is built. In those instances, I experienced the revelation of something more real in the theater than in life, where reality is hidden by social and cultural conventions and habits. I can’t use the word authenticity, because as long you are on a stage you lose this authenticity. But let’s say that my belief, paradoxically, is that the stage can be the place where you could reach it, where there are no social rules. The stage should be like the Marquis de Sade’s Republic of Salò; or your room when you are alone—a place of freedom. (In the case of Salò, obviously, this is a place of freedom, but not for everybody, unfortunately!) That’s why I don’t use the polyphony of tools that theater allows of me. On the contrary, I try to reduce them down to what theater is for me: the performer. Or I should say—as you have written, Catherine, a great book about Yvonne Rainer—the life of the performer. In a way, that is what I have done for the past 10 years with all the biographical solos. It is as if the performer was the only tool I could use to reach life. The reduction of means to try to get at the core of what can be the theatrical experience is, I think, comparable to Carl Andre’s operations in the history of sculpture. Minimalism is interesting because it leaves a lot of space for the audience. The artistic experience is an encounter between a spectator and an art work. They share the energy. (Oops! I can’t find right now a better word…shall I ever find it? The closest idea to what I want to express here is probably “the art coefficient,” theorized by Marcel Duchamp in his text, “The Creative Act”). There is the energy of the work, the emission and the energy of the spectator, the reception. Most of the time, either the art work or the performance tries to over-power the spectator, it tries to impress him or her. In the case of minimalist sculpture, or in my pieces, they are deliberately weak in this relation to the spectator, in order to give more energy to the spectator in the experience of the encounter. This creates a kind of void (i.e. “there is nothing,” “nothing is happening,” “I can do it myself”). The spectator has to fill this void, the empty space, or the time left. That’s why people can walk on a Carl Andre piece, as some spectators came on stage during my performances! It leads again to Barthes, with his thesis of “the death of the author,” which is concluded by “the birth of the spectator.”I am working right now on pieces that can be shown in museums, and one of them is a kind of living minimalistic sculpture. When I found it I knew it was a floor piece but with living bodies, bodies which are reduced to the most minimal action I could imagine. In a way, the recent invitations I have received to present my work in museums push me towards more reduction. Writing this, it comes to my mind that this piece could be performed on one of the most minimalistic Andre’s sculpture like this one. The sculpture as a possible stage.
Catherine Wood : In making so-called “non-dance,” is it or was it a concern of yours to move dance away from a perception of “elitism,” in the sense that you do not prioritize showing off the trained skill of, say, a ballet dancer, or a Cunningham-trained dancer, but rather deconstruct their presence as such, via personal narrative (Véronique Doisneau, 2004, or Cédric Andrieu, 2009) or by giving the stage to “bad”/club dancing (The Show Must Go On, 2001 and 2004) or those who are non-dancers altogether (Disabled Theater, 2012)?
Jérôme Bel : The syntagm “non-dance” is not relevant for me. This is the invention of a lazy journalist. (Please don’t use it anymore, dear Catherine!) My strategy was to bring the performer on stage closer to the reality of the spectator. My aim was to work on issues that could be those of the audience. I wanted to create a greater identification of the spectators to the performers by de-skilling them. Skills are only exciting for the (stupid) performers themselves and the specialized audience (the elite? I am not sure!). But in a way, if you are an artistically ambitious artist, you need to please both the elite and express your political stand on equality. This is a difficult equation, but this is the one you have to resolve. Skills concern craft, which bores me; I find this decadent. I try not to use the skills of the performers and that is why I started to work with amateurs. If I have to work with very skilled performers—like Véronique Doisneau from the Ballet of the Paris Opera, Cédric Andrieux from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, or Pichet Klunchun from the Khôn tradition—I ask them to do something at which they are not skilled at all: I ask them to talk. The Show Must Go On is the perfect example of this strategy of de-skilling, as all the performers (professional dancers and amateurs) are dancing as though they are in a club or at a party, but doing so in a theater in front of an audience who has paid for tickets. With Disabled Theater, the work with the mentally disabled actors, I reach the ultimate point maybe. In fact, I have been disabling dance since the beginning.
CW : Where amateurism features in your work (would you even use the term amateurism for non-skilled dance?), do you understand it as a “readymade”? It seems to me that you have less of a fantasy of neutrality/authenticity than was seen in Paxton/Rainer importing “ordinary” movement?
JB : Yes, I use ready-made dances, absolutely. I don’t know about Paxton and Rainer. I should think about this.
CW : In stopping Véronique Doisneau from just dancing and having her speak, perhaps you move from one kind of elitism (ballet) towards another (the game of conceptual art, which disappoints those who just like the dancing)? You can’t win!
JB : Disappointment is part of the game. My work has been often characterized as deceptive. This deception is part of my strategy. In order to gain something, you have to lose something else. So the dramaturgy is often to disappoint first the expectation of the audience, to start from zero again, and then you can, maybe, build something new with the audience. You have to destroy the dream of the audience, its desire, which is most of the time the recognition of what they like, in order to prepare them for a new experience.
CW : How do you think about the term “amateur”?
JB : The amateur is the one “qui aime” (who likes), etymologically speaking. The professional is the one who works for money and maybe who doesn’t like anymore. The amateur hasn’t any knowledge, and usually he or she does what I ask perfectly well. Professionals, unfortunately, have naturalized many ways of being on stage; being contemporary dancers, they are not aware of this anymore. I think it is disgusting because they are reproducing the same thing again and again without being conscious of it. For me, this is a nightmare—that’s how I discovered that contemporary dance was dead!
CW : Could I possibly press you to reflect on the Judson difference at all? Is Paxton’s importing of ordinary walking a similar strategy to your found club dance, tennis playing, or disabled theater? Or does he believe in transparency or purity of neutral movement, which is the opposite of these ready-made styles/forms?
JB : Well, I think the ’60s /’70s and the ’90s/’00s were different times, but the operation is the same. There is maybe a pre-cultural industry era, and la société du spectacle. My esthetic is a Warholian version of Paxton’s esthetic. But when I saw Satisfying Lover, I remember I thought that I should have done this piece! It was so perfect. But in fact, I did a piece incorporating pop songs, [such as] “Let’s Dance” or “I Like to Move It.”
CW : Regarding Judson versus now, I like your Paxton-after-Warhol characterization (even if Warhol had thought of all this at the same time: we just took five decades to understand him!). I am very interested in how art, historically speaking, often goes through a process of reiteration to be understood: how the ideas of the ’60s are immediately rejected by the next generation (late ’70s/’80s) but are reiterated/revitalized from the ’90s in ways that deepen our appreciation of the original work, and add to it. I think the seeds of Warholian knowingness were already there for Rainer/Paxton (consciousness of the image, of the fakeness of ordinariness as a style), but somehow that knowingness has been submerged in our historical understanding of them, so that we believe that they only believed in authenticity in a naive way. However, your work seems—to me—to draw out and exaggerate/go further with that implicit seed of ready-made-ness and make it of our time completely.