As a point of departure for “choreographing democracy” I had set out for some time now to write something of a definition of choreography. When I found myself struggling with this task I realised that any definition had to remain somewhat open and that our understanding was already heavily indebted to others who had sketched out definitions more successfully and probably more accurately.
Between ourselves we are able to agree that choreography is some kind of system that organises behaviour although each of us tends to use a different language to define this according to what our artistic needs require. Above all it became clear that any definition of choreography would serve as an analytical tool with which to describe other social phenomena. But mutually to understand choreography better by seeing it from these very social phenomena themselves. Consequently our understanding of choreography is actually constituted by phrasing it in relationship to other concepts that allow us to think the political, if not the politics of choreography.
At this point of our thinking I propose the concepts of body and power as the most suitable in order to bridge the gap between politics and choreography. In the following I will shortly touch upon these, first by addressing them for their constitutive moment in performance art and then in politics itself. To lastly think out loud some of my questions regarding the political body purported by the Occupy and other radical democratic movements.
BODY AND POWER IN PERFORMANCE
The importance of the body in performance art is fairly obvious. It serves as primary material and as discursive territory for diverse concerns of aesthetical or political nature. Furthermore it is possible to describe the dancer’s body as an exemplary instance of how power is literally inscribed into the body. Similar to other physical cultures such as the body culture around the turn of the 20th century for example dance is largely a combination of physical and ideological disciplining. The body is literally shaped through years and years of training and rehearsal to the requirements of an aesthetical regime while providing its subject with a sense of identity and self; be it as a ballet, contemporary or salsa dancer for example. This identity is suspended between the demand for versatility (conformity) and authenticity (individuality).
It is indeed the aesthetical regime of choreography, the moment when the power over the body is actualised and rendered visible. Not only by placing demands on how the body has to look and move like but also by how bodies are allowed to interact amongst each other. This can take various forms. By setting a strict hierarchical order amongst the dancers, allowing only soloist to interact with each other and delimiting the corps de ballet to framing the soloist for example. By limiting movement to verticality or horizontality. By choosing “pedestrian” movement over “dance” movement. Or by aiming for continuous physical contact, etc. Choreography is not just a system that will shape body but also demarcate the possibilities of bodies to interact with each other. Consequently power and as a result politics are always more or less overtly in operation in the choreographic procedure.
BODY AND POWER IN POLITICS
In political theory and sociology the role of the body is more controversial. On one side there is a claim that democracy is a disembodied system of communication. Its nature is iconoclastic to the point where actual bodies don’t play a significant role in the production of consensus. The seat of power has to remain empty, uninhabited, contestable. On the other side there is a recurrent interest in the body. In fact not only have the consensual politics been fiercely objected to by proponents of a dissensual politics. But their claims of democracy as disembodied have also been addressed as short-sighted.
From this second perspective there is and remains room and importance for a theatricality and performance featured in power that is connected with the actual bodies of political representation. There is a great effort spent in order to exhibit certain (aesthetic) ideals that more or less explicitly represent capability to govern.
This can either be the occasional show of athletic skill during a basketball match, the photographic manipulation of a flabby stomach during a holiday trip or actual cosmetic surgery to portray ideals of beauty and youth. Accordingly power is still embodied and still shaping the body that represents it. But is this perhaps an aristocratic left-over within representational democracy? Or can a radical democracy indeed mean the disembodiment of power?
It seems helpful to look through the lens of choreography in order to come closer to an answer to the question regarding the relationship between body and power in politics. Because what can be observed and analysed are the many intricate choreographies taking place during the processes of democratic decision making. One only needs to look closely at what bodily and spatial gestures and formations are required to organise the behavioural system of democracy.
Be it in a parliament or in the meetings of the Indignados or Occupy, the importance of organising the relationships of its subjects in time and space determine the functioning of each system. Where the half circle around a speaker’s podium allows for the functioning of representation, the spatial configuration of closed circles serves as an attempt at egalitarian visibility. Where the speaker’s voice is amplified through a microphone in order to allow everyone to hear a singular person speak, the utilisation of the “human microphone” perhaps de-localises, re-distributes, disembodies the voice of one through many bodies and many voices. Where anonymous votes allow subjects to uphold autonomy from affiliations, agreed hand gestures try to conduce a tangibility of opinions. It might thus be claimed that politics, the distribution of power, is always also produced through or dependent on choreography, the organisation of bodies in time and space.
Apart from the similarities between the social and spatial implications of the aesthetic regime called choreography and the organisation of public and political spaces called politics, it should also be stressed that these systems of power can only function through repeated enactment. Rehearsals in fact. Dance has to be rehearsed over and over again. Only through repetition will the dancer begin to identify with a set of rules to a point at which she is not required to think about them consciously anymore. And society rehearses not just art practices but many different often collective experiences whose rules differ according to its space, ranging from military marches to a casual stroll through a shopping centre. Indeed urban planning that aims at controlling the movement of populations is choreography par excellence! In an almost Butlerian twist, the work of choreography lies in being able to reproduce the set of rules of a space in order to fulfil the goals of an artistic or social purpose without its subjects having to think about them. The artistic and social choreographies of power have thus to be enacted through rehearsals again and again. Re-enacted by bodies that is, multiple bodies interacting amongst each other.
BODIES OF DEMOCRACY
Recently I heard Mark Franko elaborate a way to think the development of theatrical western dance alongside the development of political systems. I do paraphrase him here, and he didn’t want this to be understood as concrete historical categories. Roughly speaking though it should be possible to equate ballet in its initial form with the representation of the sovereign one body of the king, where all bodies but serve the portrayal of the natural order of that regime embodied in that one body, the king. Modern dance is synonymous with the advent of the bourgeois public space. It is defined by the you and I relationship, two bodies. Here the individual body becomes expressive of an inner life that is to be shared with another, the public. Contemporary dance, and here I probably interpret Franko rather than quote him, is characterised by disembodiment. The dancer’s body can now stand for many bodies or concepts. It is disembodied, non-localisable and rather than for itself stands for a third person, body. This complexity and potentiality is that of radical democracy. Freedom is not to be localised in one but in many bodies; where even one can be many.
This is a return to the question of the body in politics. Above I tried to stress the importance of actual physical bodies for the workings of democracy. This should not be ignored. However what these bodies stand for and what this enables them to do is another issue where the notion of disembodiment comes in handy again. Perhaps it is right to assume that in the case of radical democracy the place of power is existent but indeed non-localisable. Hypothetically speaking, through rehearsal power would be shared equally, distributed amongst all bodies, where none of the bodies stands simply for that of power. But it is still actual bodies that through choreography are conductive of power, in relationship and interaction.
Recent western contestations of representative democracy and the Arabian revolutions might be a way to illustrate this claim. I wouldn’t go as far as to claim that it was achieved to distribute power equally in either of these contexts but that they were at least attempts at radically re-organising, re-distributing it amongst its subjects. What they were however are radical choreographies of bodily presence, of a collective body standing for many bodies. In fact their demands for democracy and the actual change achieved (or not achieved) by either of these movements could only have been possible through the affirmation of a body, many bodies, collective. A physical presence manifested within demonstrations, meetings and occupations of spaces over a duration of time, through choreographies of this collective body.
It might be true that this political, choreographic body does not stand for a singular specific position, but for many, a third person and body. That its one voice is not traceable nor localisable. A collective body of many voices. But it was the actual, physical presence that resisted against their respective contexts. It was presence that actualised power. By thousands and thousands of people standing, sitting and camping on public places to express disagreement and formulate resistance.
But what kind of body is this collective affirmation? What is its choreographic purpose? At this moment I want to propose to separate into two collective bodies. An ethical and a moral body.
The latter is first and foremost a manifestation of disagreement, a conscience, a stating body. A sign to be read by established power, a policing power. Traditional political demonstrations are an example of the moral body. They function as expressions and within the established political, choreographic order.
The first, the ethical body is a collective body that extends beyond the moral into the realm of choreographic and political power to become an acting body. The ethical body is one that attempts to act, to re-distribute power amongst its many bodies, one that threatens its own stability as it sheds its moral skin, not knowing how to find ways of expression and action beforehand but only through the immediate actualisation of many bodies and voices in interaction with each other. The ethical body is that of radical democracy. Defined by its own physical potentiality and complexity in negotiating contradictory voices.
A PRELIMINARY CONCLUSION
If it can be said that the aesthetic regime of choreography always distributes power and thus engages in politics, then vice versa politics always requires a moment of choreography that organises its subjects according to power. Above I tried to sketch out the relationship between body and power both in performance art and politics to draw a connection between the two. But I also wanted to ask what kind of political body is required by what could be called radical democratic movements.
What remains to be asked is whether it can be said that the distinction between ethical and moral body is an adequate one in order to describe the political bodies of the Arabian revolutions and that of the Indignados, Occupy and the many other movements. It might be necessary to look at each of these instances separately and in great detail to test and elaborate this distinction. And since I think that the ethical body is also always a moral one but goes beyond it into action, it should be said that a distinction might not always be clear or possible. How indeed is it possible for a moral body to exceed the policing order and become an ethical body, a place of politics? But what I want to think through the category of the ethical body is the possibility of many bodies to constitute themselves as a political subject with the possibilities to act, re-negotiate, re-distribute power by means of their own physical presence. Many bodies as a third body, stating and acting.
Photography © Clara Hermans