By Karlien Vanhoonacker
New media are prompting people to create digital versions of themselves; usually better, Photoshopped ones. Online we show only our more succesful, happier selves. Super versions, with fewer human traits. At first sight it seems that digital identities and digital media are creating a greater distance between people.
And in our day-to-day lives, everyone is disappearing into their own digital bubble. Sitting across from each other on the tram, we are digitally connected with each other’s online versions through our smartphones. We observe the world via screens, constructed frames. On the one hand, this means the physical distance between people seems to widen. Face-time conversations are often replacing face-to-face communication.
On the other hand, from a global perspective, new media are bringing people closer together. Faraway places are pulled in closer. Remote villages are becoming less isolated. Connections across continents can be easily maintained because we can stay digitally connected. Thanks to such developments, local, nearly lost cultural traditions and folk-dance are gaining greater visibility; the coverage these fail to get from regular media can be generated through social media. Subcultures find a following and widen their fanbase more easily thanks to digital. Content is now controlled by all, and no longer by a ruling political and cultural class.
While all this is going on, the digital age has also sparked a renewed interest in both the tangible physical body (and its endless possibilities for movement) and in dance as a connecting agent in communities. The French Boris Charmatz opts for both, the physical as well as the collective, with a group choreography in which not a single movement is repeated. Like an infinite databank, a live- archive of unique human movements, 10000 gestures unfolds; a moment when individual movements flow into a collective, endless, yet never repeating movement. It results in a collection of movements that are shared simultaneously and as a group. And yet it is different for each individual because none of the movements ever returns.
In the past, local dance traditions and festivities helped strengthen social cohesion. Folk dance used to be part of social life in small towns and communities. But today, forms like these have largely been lost or are presented only – in often watered-down versions – in specific contexts such as tourism. Now that only small groups of people are still familiar with these traditions, the need is increasing to revive them or incorporate them into new forms. In new media, such alternative forms and dance traditions are increasingly generating attention. Moreover, the renewed interest is allowing the influence of such traditional forms of dance to trickle back into contemporary dance. It is slowly beginning to question the current definition of contemporary dance and reflecting on the gap that has for a long time appeared to exist between it and folkdance. The dominance of a Western/American-oriented definition of contemporary dance is challenged by and contaminated with forms of dance that have a long history.
The Greek choreographer Tzeni Argyriou, for instance, departs from traditional dances in ANΩNYMO, but she transcends its formal movement, structures and rhythms to focus on a collective encounter and shared experience. ‘If technology is controlling and determining our lives and human relationships, isn’t it time we returned to the source? The source of dance and movement?’ It is no coincidence that Argyriou has been working on the cutting edge of the performing arts and media art for 10 years. “In my creative processes so far, I have been preoccupied with questioning a society that is defined by media. In the work, the performers and their physical presence have functioned as tools and as figures that have inhabited and explored this digital reality. After the technological saturation I felt the need to return to the ‘analogue body’.” Dance connects us through a physical experience that is far removed from digital culture (which rather seems to be deepening the divide between us). ANΩNYMO was born from an artistic need to redefine the ways in which people feel connected, beyond any digital channel. It is an attempt to rediscover the connecting powers of physical contact: dance as a catalyst within communities.
The Singaporean artist Daniel Kok and the Australian Luke George are also seeking out the connective powers of physical contact within the collective experience of a show. They are literally tying both themselves and their audiences up (although never without permission or consent!). What they are asking for is not just the audience’s attention, but also the viewer’s mental and physical surrender. Every time they ask for viewers to participate, they push their audience a little further. Who will surrender? Who dares to position themselves as a dominant/submissive within a collective setting? Who takes their extended hand, asking to help facilitate the show? How far do you trust another person? And what type of complex group dynamic is triggered when one audience member is asked to hold another by the collar? Using simple sets of questions, fluorescent ropes and an intimate setting in which the audience encircles the performers and participating audience members, Daniel Kok & Luke George suggest a number of ways to become connected. And they question the hierarchy between makers/performers and viewers. Because, if there are no viewers ‘performing’ or participating in BUNNY, there literally IS no show.
Vincent Riebeek is questioning the patriarchal hierarchy and the white, heterosexual male norm in the representation of bodies, to determine identity and authenticity. With One of a kind he is creating a quartet, a musical, a rollercoaster of genres and images in which gender becomes fluid. Like in his earlier work with Florentina Holzinger, he combines grotesque pornographic imagery with a childlike naivety.
In the second instalment of her concert-trilogy Naomi Velissariou is also seeking out the grotesque. In her first concert she departed from texts by Sarah Kane, and this time she is taking Heiner Müller’s work as her starting material. In PERMANENT DESTRUCTION: The HM Concert Naomi also seems to want to take possession of the digital images surrounding her, challenging taboos within the dominant visual culture. She does this by focusing on themes that are avoided within this culture because they are not sexy or Instagram-worthy, like a broken heart, sexism, misogyny and destructive urges. The setting of a concert, which she is once again exploring with DJ/VJ Joost Maaskant by her side, is a perfect vehicle for this theatrical and grotesque exaggeration of the dark sides to our visual culture.
These artists’ responses to digitalisation differ widely. Tzeni Argyriou and Boris Charmatz pair the digital revolution with a traditional sense of the collective, translating contemporary digital developments into a revived attention to the physical body on the stage. Luke George & Daniel Kok are limiting themselves to a purely physical negotiation between the people in the theatre, zooming in onstage on the power relations in society. Riebeek and Velissariou are both very comfortable with the digital world they are reflecting on. They are very critical of digital representations of the body, and of which bodies are visible. And yet they are keen and comfortable users of these very media. They even ask which is dominant: physical presence, or digital representation. Do our physical bodies still matter? Or are their images dominant? Is the digital version of ourselves enough?
© Bernie Ng