‘Artists, Activists, Writers: Go to Israel. Invade It’

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André Lepecki. 'Conservative governments often finish off ministries of culture'
André Lepecki. 'Conservative governments often finish off ministries of culture'Credit: Meged Gozani
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

In 2004, a Dubliner named Raymond Whitehead filed a lawsuit against the International Dance Festival in Ireland because of a performance by French dancer and choreographer Jérôme Bel. Whitehead demanded that the festival compensate him for breach of trust and negligence, since in contrast to advertisements by the organizers, he claimed, Bel’s act could not be defined as dance. Whitehead said he had been deceived into buying tickets and going to see the performance. In his definition, as quoted in the Irish Times, a dance performance “involves people moving in rhythm, jumping up and down, usually, but not always, accompanied by music.”

With that story Prof. André Lepecki opens his first book, “Exhausting Dance,” published in 2006. It is but one example, for him, of the process by which certain choreographers all over the world today deconstructing the conception of dance in the form in which it took root in the 20th century in North America and Europe.

'Art has a specific function which is to keep pushing at the crack between meaning and image, signification and expression, expectations and reality. If every artist will give that up for accessibility, that would be terrible'

For Lepecki, a researcher, curator and head of the performance studies program at New York University — who visited Israel last month — this process is expressed not just in a profound change in the perception of dance itself, but also in the way movement, dance and politics are linked to the individual in the current era. This change is reflected in the art of performance, which is seen by him as a political act, since it opposes regimentation of movement and the body, as was customary in 20th-century choreography.

This was Lepecki’s first visit to Israel, but he’s well known in the local world of dance and performance as one of the leading and most important theoreticians in his field. The visit was organized by the Kelim Choreography Center in Bat Yam, together with the Artis nonprofit organization, the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv and the international Outset Bialik Residency program. The seminar he conducted was attended by dozens of the most prominent local artists in the fields of dance, performance, art and theater. They drank in his words thirstily, impressed by the generosity and accessibility of someone who’s considered to be one of the leading intellectuals in the world of dance, yet lacking any pretensions.

Lepecki says that he learned about accessibility from his mother, Brazilian-born Maria Lúcia Lepecki, who was an important literary scholar and critic in Portugal and died there in 2011. “My mother would speak the same way to every single person,” he tells Haaretz in an interview during his visit.

“She was the only Brazilian woman who received the highest decoration the Portuguese state can give to a foreigner. So when she died in Lisbon, at her wake, there was the guy from the restaurant across the street, some carpenters who had worked for her years before, her students, friends and President [Mário] Soares’ wife and three priests, even though she was a communist atheist.”

In his lectures, he often quotes Peggy Phelan, the influential dance theoretician. However, some people in the audience scoffed when he talked about the disappearing nature of performance art — something Phelan dealt with at length — according to which the essence of that form of art is that it is evanescent, in contrast to art that leaves behind tangible products, such as sculpture or painting: The quality of disappearing thus allows performance art to avoid yielding to power, capital, objectification or regulation.

Unlike Lepecki, his Israeli listeners knew very well what the situation is here, where “disappearing” means not just the fleeting moment of a performance but the growing disappearance of conditions that are conducive to artistic creativity.

André LepeckiCredit: Meged Gozani

Their grumbling was also related specifically to the condition of cultural institutions in Bat Yam. The Kelim center, located in an industrial park, is thriving for now, but its neighbor, the Notzar Theater, whose municipal budget was cut off last year, is now facing imminent evacuation. That was the fate of the city’s Fest’Factory Art Center, which was shut down, plus a number of local festivals have been cancelled. The future of other Bat Yam cultural institutions is unclear under its new mayor, Tzvika Brot, who is wrestling with a budgetary deficit.

Lepecki is not familiar with Israeli politics, hearing for the first time of Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev and her concept of “freedom of financing,” but this does not surprise him. He says he knows of this phenomenon from other places, in other variations.

“Conservative governments often finish off ministries of culture,” he says. “They just put culture under some sub-secretary, that’s what happened in Brazil and in Portugal. The fact that a culture minister was formerly a military censor and an Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman explains why a conservative government in Israel would give more power to a ministry of culture.”

In Brazil, Lepecki’s birthplace, newly elected President Jair Bolsonaro got rid of the ministry of culture as soon as he assumed office, but art there had been dissociated from the cultural establishment long before that. The Brazilian culture ministry, Lepecki explains, was first established in 2002 by Lula Da Silva, a former union leader and the first president to have come from the Workers’ Party. He appointed renowned musician Gilberto Gil as culture minister; he served from 2003 until 2008. Gil created the World Culture Forum, and invited prominent members of the art world to its launch in São Paulo in 2004. Even Lula addressed the audience.

“He talked for an hour,” relates Lepecki, who also spoke, “but the word ‘art’ was not articulated in his speech even once, as was the case with Gil’s speech. What was clear was that culture was now an industry to which art did not belong. The speakers were all leftist people, some of them artists. The way culture was being promoted was that there was a cultural industry that was attached to film, television, all sorts of media productions, preservation of monuments for tourism and creation of cultural images of Brazil, such as the protection intangible heritage icons such as samba or capoeira. Those had to be seen as a kind of commodity that a specific ministry should take charge of — but art was not in there.”

Another indication of the existential danger art faces these days, according to Lepecki, is the disappearance of art criticism, particularly dance reviews: “The power of art can be fully maintained only if there’s a debate around it, so the decline in the institution of art reviews is a big problem. In New York one of the examples is the disappearance of [the print version of] The Village Voice. Deborah Jowitt, the most important dance critic of New York in the 1980s and ‘90s — when she was responsible for what was called the New York dance criticism school — had a weekly review column covering three pages. Everyone read it. Toward the end of the Voice’s life, she was allotted only 250 words. She then said: I’m quitting. The reviews that did come out covered mostly film and music. Industry completely has taken over, and art in the public sphere has become associated with this kind of counter-production, of the cultural industry. That’s the economic aspect of this whole matter.”

Why does art, which has no industrial attributes, threaten society so much these days?

'The fact that a culture minister was formerly a military censor and an Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman explains why a conservative government in Israel would give more power to a ministry of culture'

“It’s connected to what philosopher Jacques Rancière calls ‘dissensus’ — the element that modernism shares with politics. It concerns the fact that you can find a disagreement between the senses. It puts the viewer in an experience of di-sensuality. For him that’s the experience of the political. And if that’s true, then for every single art critic to respond or correspond to the art of the moment, [he] must necessarily write about politics. So it seems obvious to me that all of a sudden the mainstream media will find that its critics are occupied more with discussions about politics, in terms that are not actually about the political game, or the political system, but actually about what is really important in politics: how to strive for a good life together in society.

“So if that’s the case, it makes total sense to me that, on one hand, the implementation of neoliberalism corresponds with the disappearance of art criticism in mainstream media. You can find previews or interviews with the artists, but figures like Jowitt, who were able to have a conversation with artworks, cannot find their place anymore.

“At the same time, there are ministries of culture claiming responsibility over patrimony as opposed to art. Because art is ‘doing’ politics, and no government wants to touch politics. So, you see the abandonment of support for artists by the ministry that is supposed to support them, saying, this is not culture — this is a bunch of people doing crazy things, and we cannot support that activity. So art actually becomes an orphan, from the point of view of discourse and from the point of view of the political system and its support.”

As soon as art is abandoned by critics and by the establishment, says Lepecki, it can only be saved if it is turned into a product that can be sold. Thus, the artist becomes someone who is working for the free market — namely, for collectors: “Theater and dance are the first ones to suffer from this. Firstly, because they are the most expensive art forms to produce, and secondly, because they cannot be held [in one’s hands]. You will not have a bunch of actors in your basement for people who will come to visit your collection, right? So it gets erased, somehow.”

A terrible dancer

André Lepecki was born in Brazil in 1965, an only child. His mother came from a Brazilian family that went back many generations; his father was born in Poland and arrived in the country as a child, when his family escaped the Nazi invasion. His parents met in the city of Belo Horizonte, where André was born. They divorced when he was 5, and he moved to Lisbon with his mother; his father, a nuclear scientist, remained in Brazil.

Lepecki describes his peers in Portugal as the first generation to emerge into freedom following the 1974 Carnation Revolution, which ended the era of dictatorship in that country. All his friends became choreographers or musicians, he says, but he chose to study anthropology.

Later, after writing science columns for newspapers, Lepecki gradually drifted toward writing about dance and getting involved in productions of his friends’ works, although he testifies that he is a terrible dancer and never took a lesson in dancing.

“There was something in the air in choreographic composition that actually required the presence of a figure, in the dance studio, who was not a dancer,” he explains. “[German dancer and choreographer] Pina Bausch had done that with dramaturge Raimund Hoghe.”

In the early 1990s Lepecki met American choreographer Meg Stuart, who was active at the time in Europe. He began to work with her as a literary adviser and dramaturge; in 1993 he started writing his doctoral thesis at NYU, in the department of performance arts; in 2000 he got tenure there. He has two children from his first marriage, whom he calls his “American children.” He has a 12-year-old daughter from his current partner, Brazilian performance artist and researcher Eleonora Fabiao. They divide their time between Rio de Janeiro, where Fabiao has a university post, and New York, where Lepecki teaches.

In his book “Exhausting Dance,” Lepecki dealt with the connection between modernity and dance, and expounded on the political nature inherent in choreography.

“Modernity, as a stage in human development, is a regime of knowledge and power that is predicated on certain premises. One of them is the notion of the liberal individual, the notion of the citizen. It is also predicated on the notion of movement. This is something I wrote about in the book, inspired by the ideas of philosopher and cultural theorist Peter Sloterdijk, who argues that the essence of modernity is kineticism — a propulsion to move, this kind of desire to build moving machines, trains and automobiles. But also, within this propulsion,there’s the notion of being fully self-present. The integral subject of modernity is one who can move freely; he can claim the capacity to move. Dance has been happening forever, everywhere, but it was not an art form. Choreography is a European invention that coincides with the development of this ideology, modernity. In order to enter into the realm of the recognizable arts, dance had to ‘suffer’ an operation, called choreography. This happened throughout the late 16th century.”

Choreography, as Lepecki explains it, is based on training the body so that it becomes disciplined and capable of representing an image in the best possible manner. It’s also based on describing movements in writing so they can be repeated in the future.

“The more choreography becomes organized, the clearer it becomes that it is invested not only in creating dancers, but in creating subjects. The dance seemingly ‘knows’ that it is serving a social purpose, being captured from society and becoming a system of learning and transmission,” he says.

John Martin, the first dance critic of The New York Times, wrote in the 1930s, notes Lepecki, “that only with the advent of modern dance, which began with choreographers such as Martha Graham and Mary Wigman, did dance discover its true element: movement. Martin was afraid the audience wouldn’t understand what was happening on stage, since artistic dancing was too abstract, and humans had become alienated from their one bodies because of machines. He thought audiences should be trained so they could feel the movement of others in their own bodies. We need to find our bodies again.”

'The more choreography becomes organized, the clearer it becomes that it is invested not only in creating dancers, but in creating subject its'

André LepeckiCredit: Meged Gozani

Dancers gradually became the perfect embodiments of modernity, which demands constant movement. Thus, freedom is subjugated to a system that also demands movement: “In terms of the modern conception, if you don’t move, you’re just a bum, or a prisoner or a slave. In order to be a proper subject for modernity, I must be able to move. The more freely, gracefully and spontaneously I move, the better a subject I am of this system. Thus, we have a circular formula – because movement is freedom and freedom is the freedom to move. In the ‘90s, during the first Gulf War and the Balkan wars, there were choreographers such as Vera Mantero who argued that they couldn’t dance at a time of war. There was a kind of ethical need to move slowly, or not to move at all.”

Currently, dance and performance art are trying to break this cycle and to resist smooth, carefully directed movement. Since the 1990s, Lepecki says, new forms of expression in these realms have arisen. As examples, he mentions choppy or “stuttering” dance; dance that takes place in total darkness; and dance that looks like a spontaneous and disorganized outburst of emotions – like people dancing at a nightclub – or, by contrast, dance that’s devoid of motion.

In this context he notes work by an Israeli performance group, name Public Movement, about which he’s written in the past.

Lepecki: “They have something really interesting which is a military drill, a kind of military choreography with uniforms. I wrote an essay called ‘Choreography as Apparatus of Capture,’ and I think this is one of the perfect examples of thinking about choreography as an apparatus that captures not only movement but also subjectivity, and by capturing them condemns them to a certain kind of representation in society.”

‘Absurdity of movement’

In the neoliberal age, the challenge facing creative artists becomes even more complex, Lepecki observes: “If the liberal modern subject had a promise to be fully integrated [in society] as long as that individual could move, the movement still had to correspond with a certain organization of society – so that my movement is not going to be impeded by your movement and you will not be impeded by my movement. So there is a kind of agreement, there is a social choreography that presides [over] mobility.

“With neoliberalism, according to [former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher, there is no such thing as society, only individuals. She also says: Now you can move in whatever way you want, and anywhere you want, and if there is someone in front of you, the stronger one will survive. It’s an ongoing battle of the individuals. If you fall, no one will help you out. Neoliberalism seems to promote freedom, but actually is insidiously propelling this absurdity of movement to a higher level, [to that] of the soloist.”

Lepecki claims that choreography has the ability to interfere with neoliberal coercion, which distorts things, he says: “Dancing in the dark, for example – I think it’s totally brilliant. I come to see something, and dance must give [me] something to see. It’s the minimum. And now I sit there and see nothing? One of the works by Ana Teresa de Keersmaeker takes place in total darkness, and there’s an ambulance waiting outside because there’s always a viewer who doesn’t feel well, who has vertigo.

“Mette Edvardsen dances with her eyes closed – it’s really a criticism of the compulsion to see, of this optical obscenity that is propelled by capitalism. Or an attempt to find involuntary motions or motions that don’t have to do with subjects that obey a pre-determined score. Then you see that there is a possibility for the dancers to break this kind of vicious circle somehow. It’s much harder, actually, because neoliberalism is very egocentric and narcissistic. So, to go against that is really to dismantle yourself somehow. One thing is to go against the system of modernity, and the other thing is to go against the system of the self, of the subject, which is really incredible.”

Isn’t that almost a betrayal of the innocent audience? It means seeing the audience as the enemy, at a time when they’re actually the ones who are cooperating. Without them, it wouldn’t exist at all.

Segment from a piece choreographed by Jérme Bel, against whom Raymond Whitehead filed a lawsuit.

“First, I’m not so sure if the audience is so innocent. And second, the history of modernism shows that one of the roles of the audience is to create a scandal and to express opposition. And then 20 years later, what was scandalous is considered totally fine. When Pina Bausch presented her works in the 1970s, at the end of the performance there were three people left in the audience. Dance critics in New York at the time were kind of respectful, because they had to be, but you could feel they were revolted by the pieces – with all the women with this long hair and men with problems. And then there was a moment, a little click, when she became mainstream. Her performances today are packed with respectable women and crying men and the tickets are so expensive.”

But artists mustn’t give in and perform only the things with which the audience is familiar, warns Lepecki: “How is it that accessibility all of a sudden becomes complacency with respect to formulas about being able to enjoy only what I recognize? ... If I don’t recognize [something], or I find it a little bit strange – my immediate reaction will be rejection. Why is that?”

One can apply what goes on in the world of dance today to political situations, of migrants and other individuals, he adds: “Art has a specific function which is to keep pushing at the crack between meaning and image, signification and expression, expectations and reality. If every artist will give that up for accessibility, that would be terrible.”

But, Lepecki continues, “I’m not so sure dance is as inaccessible as all that. I don’t feel that Jérôme Bel or Mette Edvardsen do things in order to shock and to demonstrate their inherent superiority in relationship to the masses. It’s actually a very difficult act of generosity to produce something that will not be recognized. If one surrenders to only what is recognizable, one really surrenders a certain notion of the political, and you just give everything up for ‘business as usual.’”

Is artistic activism supposed to lead to political activism?

“In my view, not necessarily, and perhaps it’s better if not. I respect all the artists today that are activists, who work in the intersection between art and activism. There’s a huge investment and interesting work being done. And I understand the pragmatics of the situation and sometimes, maybe all the time, it’s important to be producing a direct dialogue with the forces that are governing society, controlling society, oppressing or sometimes even working for important causes.

“But if that’s all there is, then we are also agreeing with the terms of the game. We’re saying – the system is fine, we just need to fix it. I personally don’t think that the system is fine, so we need to re-invent modes of living. It’s unsustainable, what we have now. The works that I like and the ones that I like to write about are not necessarily addressing political actions as such, but they are proposing other modes of living, other possibilities for the eye, for the gaze, for language. Artists are also doing political work [but] you don’t need to be an activist to be doing political work.”

In an era when art is political and political regimes are interested in its disappearance and see artists as extremely dangerous – for Lepecki the visit to Israel was obligatory. “Many people told me not to go. Artists, students, colleagues. There were also uncomfortable silences from people” when he mentioned his trip, he reveals. “But it was very clear to me why I was coming, and the reason is related to my biography.

“I remember vividly the revolution in Portugal. I was 9 years old. My mother was very active in the Communist Party, clandestinely. From an early age I experienced dictatorship and fascism. Brazil, where I visited my father every year, was a dictatorship until the mid-1980s. I remember that for about a decade, when I was a teenager, I returned to my country that was still under a repressive regime, and I remember how important it was to the local intelligentsia and the artists to be seen [by someone] from the outside. To be told: ‘We’re here with you.’

“What would have been the impact on the Israeli state if I, André Lepecki, don’t come? First of all, the government – they don’t even know who I am and they wouldn’t have known that I didn’t come. It’s a decision that doesn’t interest them. On the other hand, the fact that I am here is far more meaningful. Not because it’s me, but just the act of travel energizes a micro-community that is important.”

In summary, he says: “I want to write an article that will call on people in the cultural field: go to Israel, go to Poland, go to Russia. Invade those countries, whoever you are. Artists, activists, writers, queers, philosophers. These places have to be flooded. Without that particular [kind of] activism, everything will disappear.”