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Future Perfect

Autor: Allsopp, Ric

Año de publicación: 2010

Fecha de incorporación a la web: 17/03/2011

Referencia bibliográfica:

This text was translated into Spanish and included in the book HACER HISTORIA (Isabel de Naverán Ed.), on the collection CdL: Cuerpo de Letra, published by Mercat de les Flors, Institut del Teatre and Centro Coreográfico Galego, 2010.

Texto escrito en el marco del proyecto Autonomía y Complejidad. Metodologías para la investigación en danza contemporánea: Brasil, Eslovenia, España, Turquía. HAR2008-06014-C02-01/ARTE financiado por el Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación del Gobierno de España.



Ideas, or at least our attempts to come into some sort of negotiation with ideas, often start running in occasional or mundane ways: an invitation in 2008 from Tanz Quartier Wien to consider the future of performance; a chance (and on reflection perhaps regrettable) remark in October 2009 to a passenger in a train about to leave Ljubljana station that I usually prefer to ‘travel backwards into the future’. As regards the former I have tried to argue elsewhere that the future is in part produced by shifts of attention in the present. (1) This idea considered, tacitly in relation to Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’, how an attempt could be made (within the making of performance) ‘to deliver tradition anew from the conformism which is on the point of overwhelming it.’ (Benjamin, 1940: VI) Regarding the latter, and more explicitly in relation to Benjamin’s view of overwhelming conformism, I would like to examine the idea of ‘looking backwards into the future’, and what that might entail, by recalling three particular performances in order to think about this complex relationship between the past, memory, reconstruction, the present moment and the yet-to-come. My approach is to recall these performances with reference to a constellation of texts that inform the ideas that follow here; a sort of ‘cento’ or patchwork approach that in itself seems to suggest the disclosures that looking backwards into the future might evoke. (2)

In her introduction to this volume Isabel de Naveran, considering Marten Spangberg’s ‘irreverent’ A Swedish Dance History (2009) asks how we might write the histories of dance and performance if our experiences are no longer unidirectional. The increasing sense of the multi-directionality and openness of time and experience, partly brought about by the accessibility of digital technologies and the relative ubiquity of data, has an impact not only on a normative perception of history, or science, or social relations as ‘progress’, but also on our understanding of the politics of community, (3) its implications for ideas of authorship and conventional attitudes to art and art making, and therefore over a view of the future that is more complex that a simple actualization of the past. Talking of the difference between ‘re-enactment’ as a copying of forms, and ‘reconstruction’ as a ‘radically critical practice’ that engages both historical and present contexts of the work, de Naveran goes on to observe that ‘often, the most interesting practices, those that transmit the conflicts and strategies developed by artists, those that show our bodies as social and cultural signs, [are] not taken into account by the official dance history’.

The work that I want to consider here consists of two performance-actions that I saw in 2000 in Seedamm Cultural Centre in Switzerland, and at the Centre for Contemporary Culture (CCCB) in Barcelona, by the Cologne-based German performance artist Boris Nieslony; and a recent (2009) performance-installation in Berlin by the choreographer and dancer Ayara Hernández. None of these works would fall easily into the category of ‘official’ histories of performance or dance. (4) They do however in my view provide examples of how looking backwards shifts attention and, in so doing, constructs a future that is not simply ‘related to the past as an actualisation of its becoming’ but rather opens to experience ‘the plurality of ways that life comes into being and is exposed to possible actions.’ (Kunst, 2008: 1) Perhaps to recall such marginal works is already to resist that ‘mistaken notion that a painting is simply a depiction and money a representation of some prior visual or economic reality’ as Brian Rotman put it in his semiotic analysis of the concept of zero (1993:2); a notion which could be said to form a still prevalent view of the function of art work. The argument for ‘looking backwards into the future’ as a process of recollection, (5) is precisely to de-couple the descriptive function of the work and (re)assert that art enacts a complex vector of the past in the present moment, rather than describing a prior reality. The instability and constant shifting between body, object and value that enables us to negotiate the world is what art opens for us from the past, as a disclosure of what might be.


The first work is concerned with the question of objects - the everyday ‘things’ that mediate between our bodies, and the apparatuses that determine our subjectivities. (6) I saw Boris Nieslony’s performance-action in Switzerland in January 2000 with an audience of about fifty people gathered to mark the opening of the ‘Schwarze Lade’ - the Black Kit Archive - at the Seedamm Cultural Centre, Pffafikon (7). The beginning consisted of Nieslony opening a box (let us say it was a box of some capacity) which contained an assortment of small objects - more or less ephemeral objects, mundane objects - that, one by one, Nieslony distributed as gifts to each of the assembled audience. Nieslony in his shabby dark suit, in need of a shave, with his singular ability to disturb, to hold you on the edge of things, the beginnings of a ‘terror we are just able to bear’ in Rilke’s words (1912). Each gift was considered in relation to its recipient - a pen, a feather, a sweet, a mirror, a pencil, some make-up, shells, a plastic toy, and at last another box, covered in a loose red silk cloth, a box of photographs. The objects that formed the centre of the action stand in for a set of social relations that begin to bind us together as a group and in a particular relation to Nieslony himself. The ‘meaning’ of each of the gifts is at a certain level obscure - ‘why does he choose this object for such-and-such a person? - though most people gathered for the event knew of Nieslony or at least his work. The notion of ‘gathering’ becomes of importance here, not simply as a gathering of people, but in two related senses: the ‘gathering’ of associations and values that coalesce and accrete around the object as ‘thing’ (8); and the ‘futurity’ of such gatherings, the way in which things in performance can be made to disclose the potential of time, space and experience, which might also be described as one of the functions of art work. It is instructive to note that the process of building ‘community’, in its sense of a form of gathering engaged with here, combines ‘being-with’ (com-) and ‘gift (munus). (9)

The forms of gathering then that take place in Nieslony’s action - the processes of gathering time, space, association - intensify the objects as ‘gifts’ and, as such, extend obligations, which like much else in Nieslony’s work always hover at a relational edge, are always likely to transform or de-compose what seems familiar into the unfamiliar, the domesticated into the feral or monstrous.

The first object in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) - a collection of short, written ‘portraits’ of domestic objects, food, and rooms - begins with ‘A carafe, that is a blind glass‘ and confronts the uneasy space between words and things, where either ‘words are things, partaking of their solidity and presence, or [...] material things are hollowed out by an awareness that they can never be seen as anything but signifiers in a psychic space.’ (Schwenger, 2006: 23) The portrait, consisting of three sentences, ends with the sentence ‘The difference is spreading’. The classification of things that might, in a descriptive mode, involve likeness, consistency and narrative coherence, in Nieslony’s classification of things, as in Stein’s, offers only difference.

What kinds of ‘things’ are in use in this performance? How do they construct a world, a future? The everyday, familiar objects that we are offered as gifts, and which we might understand as ‘acceptable’ or normative gifts (pens, mirrors, make-up and so forth) are, in the ‘tradition’ of performance art, considered, but not rehearsed. They are ‘ occasional’ in the sense that they cohere and make sense in the context of a singular, once only, event, unlike theatre which might consider objects in a different mode as ‘repeatable’ and therefore able to provoke a predictable affect. (10) They build a set of familiar and ephemeral relationships in time, at least until the last ‘gift’ is offered. This is the red silk covered box of life-size black and white forensic portraits of victims of atrocity and disease that has formed a important part of Nieslony’s work, appearing in many of his actions (11). The gift’ is offered, but who would take the responsibility or the obligation inherent in such a gift? What does such a gift mean? The ungraspable nature of things, beyond their appearance, is in effect doubled here in the anonymous faces that appear on the surface of the photographs, seemingly neatly ordered in their archive, but crowding outwards towards us in each act of remembrance, recollection or invocation. (12)

The sense of disturbance that underlies Nieslony’s work, the necessity to summon and acknowledge our obligations to the past in order to inhabit a present and imagine a future, has many parallels in mid-to-late 20th century literary and performance work. Writing in the mid-1980s on Walter Abish’s experimental prose, Malcolm Bradbury noted that ‘[t]he world of atrocity and violence hidden behind signs is a recurrent concern [...] and has much to do with his essential tone. It is apparently neutral and analytical [...] but the neutrality is there to make us anxious, to make us look into utterance itself.’ He goes on to observe that under the flatness of Abish’s writerly proceduralism ‘dark meanings still hide, troubling the surface’. The ‘old atrocities’ (13) that concern Abish and Nielsony are also apparent in the work of Raimund Hoghe where, as indicated by Una Bauer, both language and the body are haunted by a relationship with objects that contain degrees of both atrocity and revelation:

‘The objects that Hoghe uses are mundane objects [...] but what is interesting is that he doesn’t treat them as mundane objects - in his hands and in his performances they become objects of sacred powers: to bring back the dead, to revive memories, to heal the wounded, to unite what is separated, to provide connections between his different pieces, to organize space, to provide acceptance for that which is difficult to accept’. (Bauer, 2010)

This is the function of the object: to defamiliarise, to resist the ‘overwhelming conformity’ of interpretation, to mediate and disclose its potential to a future that might, in Ranciere’s terms, both attend to social cohesion and bear witness to catastrophe. (Ranciere, 2009:120). The gatherings of association and investment that at any moment constitute a ‘thing’ are always at best a partial appearance - a disclosure of potential futures.

1. See Allsopp (2009)
2. The primary resources used here are: Abish (1984); Bauer (2010); Garces (2009); Kunst (2008); Rilke (2009); Ranciere (2009); Schwenger (2006).
3. See for example Garces (2009)
4. A point here is that the impact of artwork, or performance or dance, operates also at an individual level. It is not necessarily the visible, critically acclaimed work, (conformist in Benjamin’s sense) that shifts attention; but often the marginal (and marginalized) work that speaks to me as individual. In Robert Creeley’s words in ‘A Sense of Measure’ (1964): ‘What uses me is what I use and in that complex measure is the issue’.
5. I deliberately offer no scholarly guarantees that my recollection of these events is either sound or accurate, a point that I think Boris Nieslony at least would appreciate.
6. For a recent discussion of this relationship see Agamben (2009)
7. See additionally Allsopp (1998)
8. See for example the discussion of the etymology of the ‘thing’ in Heidegger (1971)
9. See Garcés (2009)
10. See Una Bauer’s discussion of Raimund Hoghe’s use of objects as structuring of emotional response in Bauer (2010).
11. For a further description of Nieslony’s performance work and his use of photographs, see Allsopp (2000). The red silk that covers the box of photos is an attribute that already distinguishes it as an object and begins to move it into a separate sphere. For a short discussion of this idea see also Agamben (2009) and his references to the ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’.
12. See The Odyssey: Nekyia (Book 11: 38-50): ‘Then the ghosts of the dead swarmed out of Erebus - brides, and young men yet unwed, old men worn out with toil, girls once vibrant and still new to grief, and ranks of warriors slain in battle, showing their wounds from bronze-tipped spears, their armour stained with blood. Round the pit from every side the crowd thronged, with strange cries, and I turned pale with fear.’

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