Saturday, May 28, 2016

Faki Day 4: Blackness and Queerness, Self-Punishment, and... Yoga

It's morning on day 5, and it turns out the noise I heard at 3am was someone smashing up a kitchen sink in the courtyard. There's nothing like sweeping in the pharmaceutical factory Medika - it's a task dutifully undertaken every day but it's an impossible task nevertheless, the layers of dirt seem so caked on as to form their own surface. There's pieces of glass actually embedded into the concrete - they weren't planted there when it was setting, they've just been there so long they've kind of melted into the ground. I just sweep it in a big pile so that no one steps on the ceramic shards - and later it's gone, as if by magic. Medika taketh away and Medika giveth.

Day 4 was another assortment of powerful voices asserting wildly different realities. Things began as they do for many in the morning - with Yoga, courtesy of Jindřiška Křivánková and Markéta Magidová's blissfully parodic Migra Yoga. A sweat later, we were made to feel inferior by the extremely physical Neither Soft Nor Light, a punishing performance of masculinity, forming an interesting double with Malik Nashad Sharpe 's challenging performance artwork Assimilation. The night ended (for some) with Stephanie Felber's Medomai, a curious transfer of a street performance to a hyper-slow motion version of Strauss' Blue Danube.

Medomai is also the casualty for today - again for technical dance reasons I suppose, although it's categorised as a street performance. I will not give full breadth to Roxana Küwen's Shift, instead focusing on a specific claim made by the circus artist. See the end of the post for that.

Migra Yoga

I have friends who will be angry at me for admitting this, but I am a yoga cynic. Cultural appropriation aside - it feels, in a first world sense, like a solution created to avoid a problem: the void of the self created by capitalist societies is neatly solved by the commanding, believable spiritual leadership of the yoga teacher, with their promises of connection, wholeness, and openness contradicting those negative feeling you get from advertising or the more damaging elements of social relations under capitalism - all for 12€ an hour. There's something about the form of it that goes directly against my critical instincts - the way the student-teacher relationship is so one-way, the positivity of it, the economy around it. It seems to me a perfect example of instead of addressing the cause, we create a social counter-balance: in this sense it fits perfectly into other contradictory phenomena that characterise western society.

There's a particular code to the performance of the yoga teacher that's gently mocked in Migra Yoga, an all-too-real yoga experience by Jindřiška Křivánková. We enter what appears to be a 'normal' Yoga space, complete with pre-prepared mats and impossibly slim, holistic teacher beaming at us unnaturally from the front, making graceful gestures of invitation with her hands. We assemble as commanded, and the yoga class begins.

And it's a real yoga class. It begins with some gentle 'warm-up exercises' (which I already could not do) and proceeds from there into more complex positions. The variations on a normal yoga class (ok, I admit I never went to one, but idea is so culturally pervasive that, as with visiting the US - I feel like I already did) - instead of simply playing Michael Jackson's Earth Song, our teacher punctuates the spaces between MJ's sung laments with her own improvised responses (e.g MJ: "What about sunrise?" YOGA TEACHER: (whispered) Yeah... remember the sun?) and then in the chorus has us turning to our partner and joyously singing out "Hiiii-iiiiii-iiiii... how are you-uu-uuu-uuuuuuuuuuu". Whilst not beyond the realms of an average yoga class in the west, it's at least a little out of the ordinary. We strike a pose - I think it was 'The cobra' or something, and for motivation our yoga teacher screams at us enthusiastically: "now kick! Kick harder! You are a soldier defending your country against the invaders! Kick for Croatia!" and so on, before breaking into the inevitable "aaaaaaand, CHANGE".

It's basically a parody, but it's not too far removed from certain realities of ýoga, and it works on the suitability of its situation for such a form (everyone I have discussed it with afterwards has inevitably defended yoga with great earnestness, which indeed makes it a perfect target). The performance benefits from its soft approach and its connection with reality - as a fellow performance member stated afterwards, we actually did a 'real' yoga class. Whilst there is some space for laughter in bringing out the subtext ("look at your own ass! look at how round it is!"), I was left wondering at some of the other possibilities: what about a democratic yoga - where the participants have some say over their positions, and are not commanded by the all-knowing master? Such a claim will have the serious practitioners rolling their eyes: nevertheless, it would address some of the power structures inherent in the situation which are undoubtedly there, and are a cause for discomfort in a pedagogical sense. And not programming it at the beginning of an evening would be great in the sense of the discomfort in a physical sense. Nothing like spending the next performance drying out.

Still, it's a lot of fun, and if it doesn't slaughter a sacred cow, it at least offers a chance to look at it with a little bit of lightness for once.


The word 'assimilation' is commonly used today in relation to people attempting to join with a commonly-shared culture. The level of assimilation of an individual denotes to what extent they have successfully joined the 'dominant' idea of a culture- to what extent do they have fused with that culture's values.

The prevalence of this definition is interestingly complicated in the description of Malik Nashad Sharpe's complex work Assimilation, which focuses not on an assimilation of people into the dominant, but of various discourses and ontlogies within each other: it "imbricates queer, black, and anarchist ontologies with a current state of affairs". The broadening out of the description from 'people' to 'ontolgies' immediately suggests a reversal of this model of individual assimilating into the dominant. An assimilation of ideas, and not 'people' immediately raises an interesting paradox: if the process of assimilation focused on ontologies, there would, perhaps, be no pressure on individuals to assimilate. It's a subtle observation which marks a strong pivot - a potential immediately followed up on by the rest of the description, which focuses on the "Black body" as a site of stress and "the ripest site for radical physical discourse".

Sharpe's performance essentially fulfills this premise, remixing references from Black and Queer culture into a kind of stream of metaphors aimed at re-casting these ontologies as powerful resistance in the face of the constant violence against them. Malik begins in a state of posession - shivering, he chokes out a gospel-like refrain "My brother and my sister don't speak to me", seemingly referring to the posessive qualities of dance, alienation, and at the same time perhaps, posession rituals. He slowly strips naked, only to re-dress and later to strip again, launching into a cover version of Simon and Garfunkle's Sounds of Silence permeated by gunshots, possibly a reference to the distinct absence black or queer representation within that song's narrative of resistance - or more obviously, the loud silences from the dominant culture when a public (or private) act of persecution occurs. A reinforcement of this follows in the shape of the same song being sung with only the lyrics "blood blood bloody blood". A jumbled audio referencing 'black lives education' is played by a naked foetal-position Sharpe in the corner, before the glitter comes out for the big finale.

The audience's position is one of compromised witness - forced to watch on as the symbolic punishment occurs. It's undeniably for a U.S audience, as so many of the references are informed by that context, but the audience of Faki at least felt the thrust of Sharpe's argument. The performance is punctuated by occasional refusals and visceral mini-performances of different parts of the body, twisting and contorting into different shapes, or exploding as though from a cage. The space seems to morph as well, at times in the club, at times in Carnival, at times imprisoned - ever dominated by the slogans written in the background 'Welcome to the City' in various states of legibility - perhaps referring to these discourses collapsing into each other.

The word for 'King' which happens to be pronounced 'Malik' is scrawled in Arabic in the centre - as if pointing to those discourses not referred to by Sharpe, and perhaps ironically, the ultimate symbol of a dominance unreachable.

*Research credit for the Arabic translation - Lena Zavorotna, Wirad Kaddo

Neither Soft Nor Light

It’s a slippery slope, this feeling of male inadequacy. The patriarchy demands certain things of you: ‘be a man’ is the cliché, but if you’re Israeli commando-turned-dancer Dror Lieberman, the demands are high – there’s no attention from your mother, you’re father gives reluctant lip service to your dance career, and even sleeping with a woman every night with your massive endowment doesn’t fill the void. You make money by donating your sperm in sperm banks in EU countries, single-handedly re-engineering the genetic make-up of Europe. You punish yourself on-stage for the audience, but nothing will over-compensate enough. It’s. Just. Never. Enough!

The title Neither Soft Nor Light refers to this lack on account of the protagonist – who can’t even pull off certain dance moves because of his deficiencies. After an athletic opening, achieving a sense of eternity just long enough for the audience to settle into and present Lieberman as defined by the physical spectacle of his body, he wipes the sweat off his brow and begins to address the audience directly with his biography. Connections with his military service in the Army of Defense for Israel follow, as well as his failures as a banker and subsequent resort to dance. His inability to gain approval from his father are simply represented by throwing himself against a wall trying to reach the roof, with his mother, always too busy with the washing to speak with him, it’s a repetitive tumble in a pool of water.

It continues in the same entertaining, occasionally awkward gear – a kind of combination of failed masculinity and its unending attempts to prove itself through different metaphors of anguish and self-flagellation. It’s a kind of performative masculinity that’s fun to participate in as parody, but of course, there’s reality in Lieberman’s life story, and we’re watching the evidence.

So perhaps it’s just an unfortunate offshoot, then, or perhaps a point of discussion, or perhaps a point of paralysis for the audience, that there’s a sense of participation in the very regimes Lieberman seems to be opposed to. It’s as if he can’t escape recreating the systems that have ruined his life. The worst of these seem to be patriarchy, where any attempt to distance himself from the violent forces which compelled him to be in the military, a bank, and at times attempt to be a doctor, have contradictory end results: a kind of distaste close to hate, coupled with an obsessive need to prove himself sexually. These moments are at times problematic even though they are firmly embedded in parody and within a frame of damaged masculinity – or perhaps precisely because of this last point, as these kinds of perceived deficiencies are common to the worst misogynists, their damage seemingly justifying their mistreatment of women.

I’m quite sure there’s a consciousness about this point within the work – it’s still a contradiction for me though, let alone an activist feminist viewer for whom these points are key to acting against patriarchal oppression, and it’s not forgiven by the first-person nature of the story. There isn’t quite the distance required to view such a character critically – precisely because we are a little too involved with Lieberman’s struggles to think about such things with any reasonable cognition. Care must be taken in circumstances like this - as Spiderman would say: with great power comes great responsibility.

It’s a notable contradiction within an otherwise targeted performance, which brings violence to the stage through the dancer’s own biography, and otherwise makes us critically attend to the damaged outcome of the subject.

Epilogue: 'Can circus solve justice and world peace'?

Part of the way through Roxana Küwen's multidisciplinary circus act Shift, the performer lifts up the mattress upon which the performance was taking place, and writes the following, which is also the title of the writing about the performance: "This piece was supposed to solve justice and world peace". The words remain there for the remainder of the performance, until later the phrase is completed, "It did not", before the a final image -  a metaphor of disappointment or circularity.

This is a question not meant to be taken seriously - it addresses the reading of the piece (and perhaps it can be inferred, circus generally) as trivial and incapable of addressing world problems, a point the artist openly acknowledges. The cliched nature of Küwen's choice of cause - 'world peace' is an objective from the 80's, unthinkable to Generation Cynical, whereas 'justice' could refer to global justice, climate justice, or simply a (deliberately vague) sense of fairness.

But in the spirit of reverse logic, and because as well as taking my obligations as a critic seriously I also take my 'freedom to write' seriously, as limited as that is, I will address it thoroughly, precisely because I think it the question is valid, and the conclusion Küwen later makes, "It did not." I find false. (It goes without saying that this is at least in part for the artist to decide - so I mount the argument for interest's sake only).

The statement that a piece of circus cannot change the world (a slight rephrasing of Küwen's claim, but I think it retains the meaning) is suggestive of its inadequacies as an activist text or problem solving device. Briefly - I claim it is an example of both. The sticking point is the definition of 'world' - that global events cannot be shifted by single entities. However, don't we know this to always be the case? Doesn't the revolution always begin with an initially-driven transformation? Furthermore, if world peace and justice requires human connection, who's to say the tradition of circus can't perform this function - of course it's small scale, but circus has never been an individual practice. Like many of the arts, it is practiced by collectives and traditions, and each performance carries with it the energy of its predecessors and contemporaries. There is no 'single performance'. Conceiving circus like this, the refute of world peace and justice seems contradictory: this is, in fact, solving world peace is precisely what circus, with its focus on the wonder of objects and people, does. 

I could write such a slogan on a television, a laptop, a smartphone, any other technological advancement: 'this was supposed to change the world, but it didn't'. 


Migra Yoga
Devised by Jindřiška Křivánková and Markéta Magidová (CZE)
Performed by Jindřiška Křivánková

by Malik Nashad Sharpe (USA)

Neither Soft Nor Light
by Dror Lieberman (ISR)
by Roxana Küwen (DEU/NED)

Photo Credits:  Josip Viskovic and Florian Eibel

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