Recently I had the opportunity to attend a conference in Stockholm called “weaving politics” initiated by Cristina Caprioli. By taking William Forsythe’s “Human Writes” as its angle point the conference circled around the topics of human rights and choreography.
There was an abundance of intriguing and expertly delivered talks dealing in different ways with the body, politics and knowledge. However lectures tackling dance and politics head-on were rather in the minority. It was clear that most lecturers were experts in their respective fields but seemed that only few of them had a continued engagement with performance arts. Consequently I left the conference asking myself what the role of theory might be for a practice based art form; how a dialogue and cross-pollination between theory and practice could take place. In a conversation between Adorno and Horkheimer this question is posed as following:
The central issue is how to relate theory and practice in general. You said that the right theory wants what is right. We can go further than that. Firstly, we must say that thinking is a form of practice; when I think I am doing something. Even the most rarefied form of mental activity contains an element of the practical. (p.75)
Accordingly theory itself is to be considered a form of practice, the practice of thinking. Furthermore it contains an objective; it is object-oriented. For Adorno and Horkheimer the objective is to make things right. Can we, in reverse, assume that practice also always deals with some sort of theoretical thinking? Is our practice also always thinking? What would be the objective of our art? It seems a bit too easy to bridge the gap between theory and practice by claiming that either contains the other already, even if they do.
How much has the conference succeeded in establishing a dialogue between our practice and theory, between thinking and doing? Necessarily there needs to be a delay, a time of insemination, before an outcome of a dialogue can be observed. But to return to Adorno and Horkheimer, the issue of the relationship between theory and practice is a rather complex one:
Theory is theory in the authentic sense only when it serves practice. Theory that wishes to be sufficient unto itself is bad theory. On the other hand, it is also bad theory if it exists only in order to produce something or other. (p.76-77)
Would a lot of the lecturers agree with this statement, to see their theoretical work as serving if not subservient to our art practice? Obviously this is not what Adorno and Horkheimer mean either. As they point out theory cannot be theory itself if it only serves practice. Most lectures given were an analysis of the state of things or a proposition as to how to generate knowledge as a form of resistance. But still these propositions remain somewhat sufficient unto themselves. What they can mean for an artist is hard to decipher at first glance partly because the lecturers themselves were not posing this question. It seems up to the artist to ask what kind of knowledge their art practice could generate. And whether an aesthetic experience is perhaps already a political one?
By practice we really mean that we’re serious about the idea that the world needs fundamental change. This has to show itself in both thought and action. The practical aspect lies in the notion of difference; the world has to become different. It is not as if we should do something other than thinking, but rather that we should think differently and act differently. (p.78-79)
Is it perhaps that the aesthetical, kinetic experience of our performance art could allow us to think and act differently; indeed produce an experience of difference? Is this our objective and our politics; our way to make things “right”? Does this touch upon art’s utopian kernel; as art can never reproduce reality and will always be different from it? The question then is about what kind of difference we produce; what rift we pose between what is and what could be!
It seems clear that in order to fulfill this requirement our thinking about the art must affect our doing of the art. What we as artists think must be reflected in the outcome that we share with others. This extends beyond the moment of performance to the very mode of production. We cannot assume that we act differently when our working is simply a reflection of previous modes of production, operating in previous conditions of power. Our practice and our thinking, which is also our working and making, and finally our performing should be in some form a reflection of the desire to make a difference, to make a better world.
The conference offered some bright moments of how we might think this difference, but also at times how we might situate difference within our artistic practice. However it will remain up to the artist to define the role of theory, as in the wish to make things right, and how to communicate this difference in our practice and performance.
In an attempt to articulate this dichotomy I fall back to a futile play on words:
Thinking the relationship between theory and practice is and will always be a practice.
In fact, it will always be our part of our practice. As much as we should look to engage with thinkers of all sorts of expertise we ourselves are to find answers through our making. Their practice is another one and we cannot look for answers, perhaps only for questions there. In our practice we must aim to produce experiences that in some form or other engage in the ideological positions we assume to make the right difference.
Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer (2011). Towards a new Manifesto. London, New York: Verso. Translated by Rodney Livingstone
Photography © Clara Hermans