Moderna Dansteatern in Stockholm, Sweden, the place of contemporary dance presentation and production for many years, has a new director. His name is Danjel Andersson and not only has he changed the name of this well known venue on Swedish soil, but brought with him a new slogan - “MDT — THE PLACE TO BE” - in an effort to re-vamp its identity. This is a conversation between Zoë Poluch and Nadja Hjorton. It is a response to the text that is published as the program. Using Elie Ayache’s mash-up of financial market theories, the metaphysics of contingency and creative writing the two MA students in choreography are trying to detect some connections around and between management, speculative realism, performance making and economy.
Nadja: Can you try and explain why you’ve changed MDT’s slogan to “the place to SEE” and what this has to do with the contingency theories of Elie Ayache?
Zoë: This is a bit of a long shot but here goes: according to Ayache, via Meilassoux and his 2007 speculative realism treatise called “After Finitude” there was a huge inversion of the ontology-contingency relationship. Previously, thanks to Kant via loads of others, we had being (defined as ontology) and THEN the being of this, that or not at all (defined as contingency). Post-Meilassoux we have a radical shift: contingency first and ontology later. The only absolute is that it is contingency itself that is absolute. If MDT were truly “THE PLACE TO BE” than in a Meilassouxian MDT world, this place could/would first and foremost be anything, different or not at all. But in the text, written by Danjel presenting his new program for the season and mission of MDT there is a continuous display of possibilites based on a probability inflected notion of being. Therefore, for these purposes here we will call it “the place to see.” Because seeing is already only seeing what is there, what is possible to see, what we have seen before. Ok. That is indeed a long shot. Where are you and why?
Nadja: We are in PAF-Performing Arts Forum, situated 150 kilometers outside of Paris. Somewhere north and west. We are here with our school (University College of Dance and Circus) and are having a course in management, officially called ‘Performativity: Tendencies in Management.’ The buzz around “MDT- THE PLACE TO BE” is undeniable and has tangible effects on the performing arts scene in Stockholm at the moment. The audience is bigger and unrecognizable. This is fantastic and this course is a perfect opportunity for us to take a look at this already existing structure and its new proposal formulated by Danjel. As young makers in an education that facilitates thinking and knowledge production on format, disposition and economy in the art world we will try to connect Elie’s seminars titled ‘The Blank Swan or The End of Probability’ to MDT’s proposal in an effort to think ahead of ourselves, towards a future of making.
Zoë: In the opening paragraph, soon after declaring himself the enemy of doers and makers in the PAF context, Danjel goes on to say that “My job is to invite artists to perform in my festivals or here in MDT, so if I criticize in this forum it’s the same as saying I won’t buy this or that.” While hearing a statement like this from someone in his position, being so blunt about the real economy of buying and selling performances and the power that this entails, is somewhat rare it is also a bit irksome how he etches out the relationship between his power to criticize, purchase and the impending alienation of becoming “the enemy.” What do you think?
Nadja: Right off the bat we will thank him for being so transparent and open with his agenda. This is what makes it possible and even welcoming for us to reflect openly and share our views. We hope and think this is what Danjel wants. But there are problems in his text, not whether or not he will do a good job, we are sure he will, but rather the way he thinks economy and structure in relation to hierarchies. What is the relationship between critique and economy? If criticizing means not buying what does buying mean? Not criticizing? What is the role of the so called “buyer” and how do they contribute to the artistic work itself through critique and discourse? Can it be that one of todays biggest challenges in the performing arts is exactly the division between doers, makers and programmers? What if the programmers should only be people that also make, and makers also move in the programmers sphere of engagement? Would there be a difference? How can we change the economy and the discourse around buyers, performances and makers. Ok, here comes another long shot connecting MDT’s ideas to Elie Ayache: if we look at the market makers they, of course, act in terms of probability. Through experience one can learn to read the market, but as Elie Ayache puts it market makers also just “know” how to do it. It is because they can “be inside” of the event, they can predict the future. And this is not out of probability but out of something else. So if MDT wants to be a black swan, a swan yet unrealized, an event so highly improbable and with such a massive impact (ok, ok very high expectations… but I also sniff high ambitions in Danjel’s text) it needs to find other ways than trusting theatre statistics in Europe, in other words, trying to copy the economic structures that are running the performing arts market in Europe. But maybe MDT just wants to be a white swan who can hang out with his white buddies in the same small lake.
Zoë: But he is saying explicitly that they will say no to the choreographers and projects that the state did not support and instead support artists that have the urgency they believe in. That is not following statistics but really going towards setting standards. And in the text Danjel talks about a very generous and welcoming gesture: “we will start with the artist and the idea….we will discuss it and help get the right funding for it, and perhaps the most important aspect of it all, we will believe in the work and support it all the way.” What more could an artist in the midst of the rat race hope for? An unconditional support and belief in one’s work. But wait a minute. Of course, there are conditions, there are loads of implicit conditions determining the selection and reasoning for the selection of these artists, an inherent ideology that is revealed, if murky, by such statements as “If I want to call myself a curator than I should be able to control my program.” And this control seems to be quite driven by international recognition.
Nadja: Yes, I thought we were past/post nations but apparently we still operate with that logic and want to put Sweden on the map. But why do we do it in regards to “Europe”? The system already exists and the discourse around it is much more complex and diversified than Danjel’s text presents. What if we could come up with a new system? How is that possible? Would Danjel be ready to leave all the programming responsibility to different people every year, who could run MDT according to their desires? Anonymous programming? What is urgent in contemporary performing arts today? To perform in the “right” venues? To always obey either programmers or funding systems or festival formats? We don’t think so.
Zoë: This benevolent sheltering of these chosen artists is not so bad, especially when we like these chosen ones. But that there is an unobserved ideology and artistic mission lurking behind as subtext is simply impeding the questions that we consider extremely relevant at such a beginning stage for a new space. We believe that being a curator is much more significant than being able to control one’s program. Behind, above and inside of that control lies a responsibility to articulate why one controls as one does. It is not enough for us to be told that these are “the most important choreographers of today” for them to be programmed as such. It is not about branding and advertising, nor is it about educating a public and polularizing a space; it is about making a dynamic and critical (well, this I may have to take back…) space for presenting and making art. MDT is on its way, yes for sure, but the clues given in terms of artistic agenda for the activities in such an important venue in such a small pond are cryptic at best. For example, “most pieces are not even completed by their 4th performance. So all the money the taxpayers provide is most of the time put into investigations, rather than art making.” I can deduce therefore that performances worth showing are “complete” and that this happens exclusively with time; that
- performance + time = art
- performance - time = investigation
- art does not equal investigations.
And then: “First time we might present a finished work and invite colleagues we trust and respect to come and see it, give feedback, perhaps in a written form. This will lead to co-production”. Do you know who this “we” might be?
Nadja: Our experience is that makers are their best critics. Ok, that is maybe lame to say but it is also a way for us to empower the discourse around our work. We don’t know what Danjel means with “Colleagues we trust and respect” but if he also wants to be part of the artistic work, which could be positive in a way, he should let the artists themselves invite the colleagues. But what is new in this proposal? Are we tired with the politically correct, supposedly transparent operations of local grants committees and embittered enough to regain our power at any cost? MDT is in charge of what becomes visible. If taking the money from the big guys (the state) to re-situate oneself at the top of another chain of command in order to redistribute it according to one’s own taste and ideology is a change from the former strategy then we don’t really see a difference. Or maybe a difference, that is obvious in the program, but not an actual change in the system where some people choose some people for some reasons. It smells of top down hierarchical institutions. So, the question for us again is, despite the inviting and appealing proposed conditions of work and community, is this really how a theatre should be run today? Because we see that by confirming and consolidating what ought to be recognized and seen in this way proposes nothing other than another version of the same: taste making, recognition….any last thoughts? We are running out of time.
Zoë: Danjel’s text is so much about belief. Over and over it speaks about presenting artists that this “we” believe in. We, Nadja and I, insist that it is more than being about belief. If it is about belief then it is no longer open for negotiation. These invisibly settled terrains of alliance building, nepotism and inarticulable tendencies are contestable and we really, really think, no we know, that this space can do more. Sure, it can be about belief so long as the doors are open for questioning, renegotiating and dismantling this belief.
Nadja: Once again it its important to say that MDT is one of the most interesting happenings in the Swedish performing arts context in ages, but while we are really excited about this we also take Danjel’s text as an invitation for a more complex and diversified discourse about performance making. It is absolutely necesary to re-think theatre today. What roles do performances actually have today? But this might be a topic for the next text…
Zoë: Exactly. How about we invite a debate? Come on readers….