Essay Series 2018 #08
She She Pop / The premise of our work is not freedom but lack of it
She She Pop
The eighth and final essay in our series exploring themes related to women is by German performance collective She She Pop, who aspire for experimental creativity that transcends hierarchy. Their work invites onto the stage the stories of various people’s lives, such as the members’ actual mothers or women who grew up on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall.
About the Essay Series:
Kyoto Experiment 2018 focuses on women artists or artists and companies that identify as female. Bringing the words “woman” or “female” to the fore in this way encourages us to realize a wide variety of perspectives that offer a cross section of contemporary society, from the unease we feel from everyday conversations and customs to broader issues of gender seen in social and historical contexts. This relay-style series of essays presents texts by specialists from different fields that problematize feminism not as an issue only for women but for society as a whole. We hope that they will provide opportunities for audiences to gain deeper insights into the festival programs. (The articles will be published approximately once every two weeks.)
The premise of our work is not freedom but lack of it.
There is a physical exercise we invented for ourselves over 15 years ago. Since then we have often taught it to other performers when we give workshops. We call it “Flower Dance”: A group of dancers gather in a half circle. Spontaneously, they now try to perform a synchronous dance to any given music. They should appear as if someone had choreographed their movements from the outside. In this exercise the dancers must work together to hide the fact that there is no choreography and no choreographer. It means they must hide the artistic impulse their movements spring from and the person who generates it. It is a very demanding task. To succeed in this exercise, a couple of rules are helpful:
1. Avoid sudden or fast movements.
2. Keep your eyes always on the other dancers. (Don’t roll on the floor or you loose sight of the others and the synchronicity breaks.)
3. Do your best without competing. (Don’t try to better than the others.)
When we tell other people about this, the common response is: “But isn’t it frustrating to work like that?”. It is a likely question. Non-hierarchical work is egalitarian. The peaks are cut off. Apparent achievers are punished with non-recognition. There is very little individual gratification. Nobody can be proud of the product. It is not mine. What must follow logically is a lack of achievement, a lack of attention and appreciation. Indeed, it is very easy to be frustrated by collective work. The artistic and intellectual challenge is to find an interest in collective work, to find an interest in the idea that something only belongs to me, because I share it.
The question whether something like the Flower Dance is interesting at all, can only be answered positively if we dismiss important criteria that generally help us to recognize and understand art: authorship and individual expression. The question can be answered positively only if we recognize the concentrated yet flawy attempt to create community – against all odds. While the flower dancers search actively for collective artistic expression, they also work to hold back their individual mastery, their self expression and their wish to work for themselves. Instead they commit to the experiment: to organize spontaneously and to show a productive interaction. In doing so, they – as artists – dismiss the socio-economic value of individual recognition that is existential for the artist. The exercise of the Flower Dance is an attempt to break away from the routines of artistic production in capitalism and the social routines of distribution of attention and recognition that accompany it. It bears the risk of the artist to loose everything in doing so. It is no less than the search for a redefinition of what accounts for “good” in art.
From the female artists in the 1960s and 1970s who staged themselves in front of the camera – like Valie Export, Hannah Wilke and Martha Rosler – we have learned to look at the image we present and feel alienated. This alienation is something we cherish. We take an interest in taking the picture apart and look at the fragments it is made from, the construction of identity that lies beneath it. We take an interest in the constructed identity of women.
We work with our biographical material with “our self” on stage. The body becomes a field for the division of labour: We look at its fragments with an alienated gaze as if through the lens of a camera. We are both the eye and the image, the object and the subject of our art. We take on the dominant part of the one who defines the object by looking – and the submissive, passive part of the exposed.
Our very own biographical material is not exposed because we consider it genuine, not because it represents the performer, not because she identifies with it or knows its meaning. On the contrary. She exposes it because she wants to distance herself from it, to get rid of it. The performer does not say: Look what I have, what I can do, what I am! That is very remarkable, good, sad, dramatic. She says: What is that? What is it good for? How can I rid myself of it? Can I share it?
When we stage ourselves – as we most often do – in a self-portrait of a group, our very own biographical material is always present. But it is never arranged according to an individual inner logic. It is never presented to yield an inherent meaning. It is presented as fragmentary and in relation to the material of others. Its meaning is always alterable. The performer reduces herself voluntarily to an example for an uncertain purpose and yet she takes full responsibility for these fragments. She relieves them of herself and then uses them freely to built relationships. A fragment is incomplete, it may be meaningless, it may be banal, even ridiculous and without value. It lays no claim to representation. It is an opening, it asks for completion.
The freedom of the performer to work with her very own personal authentic material (e.g. her father on stage, her naked body, her story, her shame) is limited. It does not equal the freedom an actress has towards the text of a dramatic role she plays. The freedom the performer gains from her autobiographical material takes great effort. The premise of our work is not freedom but lack of it. To alienate, to free ourselves from our material is an act of emancipation.
She She Pop
A performance collective founded in the 90s at the Giessen Institute for Applied Theatre Studies She She Pop has been based in Berlin since 1998. The collectives members, predominantly women, are Sebastian Bark, Johanna Freiburg, Fanni Halmburger, Lisa Lucassen, Mieke Matzke, Ilia Papatheodorou and Berit Stumpf. Their creative producer is Elke Weber. Working outside the hierarchies that are found in a repertory theatre company, they perform and create works as a collective. The performers see themselves as authors, dramaturges and practitioners of their stage art. She She Pop’s work is a form of theatre firmly committed to experimentation. Since 2003, the HAU Hebbel am Ufer theatre (Berlin) has been a continuous co-producer and co-operation partner. In 2010 they received the “Wild-Card” prize for their work Testament and in 2011 the Goethe-Institut Prize at Festival Impulse. Following Drawers in 2013 and THE RITE OF SPRING in 2014, this marks She She Pop’s third appearance at Kyoto Experiment.