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The Way To Make Something Yours Is That You Fuck It Up By Giving It Your Body

Powered by Emotion , Medium Specificity or Situation?

Sometimes speaking about one performance can mobilize so many other works, media, and genres so that, eventhough it doesn’t mix media, but belongs to one single performing art, it produces chaosmosis, a dynamic passage and stirring of the field of performing arts en large via one medium: dance. Powered by Emotion [further referred as PbE] is such a performance, made by Mårten Spångberg on the basis of reconstructing an improvised dance from Golberg Variations, Walter Verdin’s film of Steve Paxton’s improvisation and performance with the same title. By chaosmosis here, I mean the movement of several registers of a problematic unfolding in PbE:

Are we dealing here with a parasite (eating on a masterpiece), a bastard-product ( the undesirable evidence of criticality), a hybrid (cross-breed of works and media) or, in juridical terms, a clandestine performance because of its unauthorized trespass on another’s territory? In other words: what is the status of the artwork PbE?

In the lack of what is considered an expertise training for dance (Spångberg, not being a conventionally trained dancer but being specialized in the field of dance and performance as a critic, theorist, dramaturge, performer), how does the performance produce a distinct specificity of its medium ‘ dance’? Does performing become a medium in itself when it operates by way of a single, unrepeatable mediation, which stems from a specific specialized training Spångberg undertakes to make the reconstruction of Paxton’s improvisation for the specific media situation his performance creates? In other words, does media specificity only apply to single instance of one performance, concept, project?

Does PbE require virtuosity to be rethought, this time along the biopolitical lines of labor without a product?

Before I plunge into these questions, I owe the readers a little history.

In 1986, Steve Paxton, in this case relevant to be mentioned as the pioneer of contact improvisation, started out a project of dance improvisation based on the two famous Glenn Gould recordings of Goldberg Variations from 1955 and 1982, Gould’s first and last recordings. Why call it a project: Paxton was performing the improvisation over many years in various situations, from theatre venues, festivals to the woods in nature, and Walter Verdin filmed one instance of an improvisation in 1992 and made it into dance video. The fetishistic multiplication of authors-icons already began with Paxton (from Bach to Gould to Paxton) to be continued with Spångberg. Twelve years later, a musicologist, performance theoretician and performer, Spångberg reconstructs the first part of the videofilm (Variations 1-15 on Gould’s 1982 version) performing himself the movement Paxton generated in the improvisation taken from the videofilm. As a second part to this performance called Powered by Emotion, Spångberg sings the leading vocal on the instrumental background to four songs from Buena Vista Social Club. The album, as we know, revived the pre-revolutionary son de Cuba, suppressed after the advent of Fidel Castro, and grew into a global mainstream blockbuster thanks to the initiative and production of Ry Cooder (1996) and Wim Wenders’s film (1999). In place of Bach’s Aria Spångberg sets an excerpt from the Köln Concert of Keith Jarett, and the reason for that is a peculiar coincidence of dates: one year after the first session of contact improvisation occurred, Jarrett performed his notorious Köln Concert, sitting down at the piano without a score or reliance to the traditional jazz idioms and played a full-evening concert improvisation.

Regardless of whether she is knowledgeable to read out all these references, the spectator is caught by a process of heterogenesis: a dynamic ideography, where the cognitive and sensory activities are all the more vertiginous when intertwining matters of aesthetics and politics at a high speed of switching media, instruments, techniques, authors and societies of reference. And they are:

Bach’s composition of the Urtext, the authentic non-edited edition;

Gould’s recordings, the first to be of a studio but as if live in-one-go playing of his interpretation from the beginning to the end, and the last made in the digital editing of miniature fragments of pieces with advanced technology;

Paxton’s danced improvisation, captured and edited by Verdin’s camera;

The improvisation of Cuban musicians in the tradition of son de Cuba, in Cooder’s studio production and Wenders’s film reproduction (which largely contributed to the global popularity of the album).

So, the poetic procedures already include various forms of mediation: from Bach’s composition via Gould’s first interpretation to his last editing recomposition in the recording studio; from Paxton’s dance in the improvisation listening to music with movement to the filmic framing of Verdin; traditional improvisation of the Cuban musicians going into professional studio production, postproduction under Cooder’s gui dance and reproductive representation of that process in the film of Wenders.
Attending Powered by Emotion in the presence of Steve Paxton and engaging in a discussion with Spångberg, Paxton and a group of artists and dramaturges gathered around the project of Connexive “Vera Mantero” in Vooruit Gent in March 2004, I realized there was nothing more problematic than insisting on the hierarchy of generative production and corruptive reproduction. A protocol respectful of a fundamental ontology of artwork would have to announce PbE as Paxton, amused by Spångberg’s performance, recommended:

Goldberg Variations by J. S. Bach, played by Glenn Gould, improvised by Steve Paxton, filmed by Walter Verdin, and reconstructed by Mårten Spångberg”

But what can guarantee an order from original to copy in Goldberg Variations , or, do we travel in our reception from the idealized Pythagorean hearing of Bach, through the fetish of ear-oriented body of Gould, a dancer whose listening involves the response of the organic body to music with motion (as Paxton says), a non- dancer for whom Gould’s music only assists to scaffold and fix someone else’s improvisation into choreography. The musician’s was to be a highly specialized body, the dancer’s body trained but behaving in a mixed regime of remembering ballet with the muscle of a contacter, and the non- dancer’s body foreign in reproducing the subjective expression and personal style of the dancer. Alien body, meaning just another, but also the other in kind, in the lack of skill and technique, inefficient and inappropriate.

If we followed the trajectory suggested by Paxton, it wouldn’t be difficult to understand why Paxton, and even Gould before him, chose to perform (on) Goldberg Variations. This set of variations from Clavier Übung vol. IV can hardly be considered a musical work in its paradigm, but it rather belongs to the social practice of music which had no other telos than a social purpose, occasion and ownership by dedication, as well as it is a p edagogic mission, serving as an encyclopedic display of various compositional techniques. That Western musical tradition has assimilated it into its musical canon is, as with most of music prior to 1800, a case of projecting the 19 th century concept of musical work to the practices of music-making before music acquired the autonomy of art. Goldberg Variations are a kind of pièce de circonstance, enlivened by the anecdote saying that Bach was commissioned by the Russian ambassador count Kaiserlingk to write a piece which Bach’s pupil Goldberg could play to the sleepless count suffering from insomnia. If there was space and interest to develop an analytical account of Goldberg Variations in this text, it would show that Bach’s method of “composition by variation” doesn’t produce organic unity of a piece, but a baroque monistic stance closer to Spinoza and Leibniz: the quest for the greatest diversity within the greatest unity, hereby from a single pattern, the theme, each variation being equally singular and important like a theme. The chief principle governing the sequence of the variations is, thus, local contrast in character, rather than a whole of the cycle of 32 variations be perceivable in the large scale rhythm of canon+2 variations. Each variation, including the too elaborated to be only a theme, and repeated in the end, aria, is a self-contained recomposition of the underlying harmonic ground and phrase structure. Bach’s encryptic and witty trickeries (32 bars of Aria and 32 pieces in the set, or the last Quodlibet variation weaving folk song refrains “I have for so long a time been away from you” and “Cabbage and beets have driven me away; had my mother cooked meat I might have longer stayed”) only prove gestures and not procedures of making an organic whole of variations. So it seems perfectly suitable for Gould to take up Goldberg Variations twice to move away from concert-like interpretation to studio work of recomposition. From the biopolitical point of view, Goldberg Variations are a product of work as poiesis: the product of labor separates from its creator by way of the score, so that in Bach’s time, after the payment of the commission, it fulfills its purpose. According to Paolo Virno’s biopolitical view, virtuosity is a concept only when labor acquires the autonomy of artwork. In that sense, a performance (musical concert or dance) and improvisation in particular, produce an event out of the illusion that the product cannot be separated from the act of its generation. Virtuosity is, thus, an activity that fulfills itself, finding a purpose in and of itself, not being objectivized in the final product, as the phenomenon of the artwork doesn’t last longer than the performance. The second prerequisite for virtuosity is its performativity: it is an activity that requires the presence of others, i.e. emerging only in the presence of an audience.

In his lecture “Labor, Action, Intellect”, Virno says that Gould was the pianist who rendered his virtuosity apolitical, nearing his artistic activity as close as possible to the idea of labor with extricable products. This is how Virno explains Gould’s act of leaving the concert stage for the studio where he would devote hismelf to exploring the techniques of recording and editing leading to the product of compact disc. Gould’s move reflects the paradox of a conservative and at the same time radical intervention of the performer. There’s not much excuse to play a masterpiece once again, unless one really has another interpretation: “I would like to shock the listeners to the extent that from the first note they are aware that something different is going to happen,” said Gould in an interview in 1968 when he had already 4 years been retreated from the concert podium. But the eccentricity of GV is paradoxically conservative at the same, as it should have a convincingly Bachian reason behind it, Gould also says, meaning the interpretation should strive for a fidelity ton the ideal entity of the muscial work: the most homogeneous and accurate instance of the ideal unity of the work. On one hand, he abandons the phenomenon of bringing music into being from the original source of live performance, the one-timeness of a spontaneous creation here&now. On the other hand, he uses multiple takes and splices of small fragments, and needs the temporal displacement in the process of editing, to eliminate inaccuracy and create an even more homogeneous entity of that particular work. If the commercial standards had permitted it, he would have issued variant performances on the same discs to make the listener participate.

The interest in personal intimation with a musical work brought Paxton to Gould’s recordings. If Gould’s method is analytical, Paxton proceeds from the point of synthetic, holistic and organic experience. Musing on the difference between the 1955 and 1982 versions, Paxton stresses that however the moment of performance can be fixed and manipulated today, this fixity cannot be experienced twice the same. “Every time I listen, I am different, my body undergoes different experiences, different conditions of reading, different states of spirit.” Improvising while listening to a CD recording is equivalent to searching for ever new spacing, new directions, new relationships to the notes of a sound painting, sonic sculpture or acoustic architecture in various occasions of performing in theatre venues or nature. As if he aims to restore the liveness of Gould’s humming baritone that guided Gould in his playing, Paxton extends it to movement, embodying a live response to listening. His performance conveys a form of everyday existence, as if Goldberg Variations replaced a partner in contact improvisation. Music provides support and resistance like another body or acoustic environment with which the dancer communicates maintaining an internal concentration in his own body as well as openness for contact. Until the video-recording, Paxton’s improvisation produces work without a final product. In Virno’s terms, it would occupy the place of Action, “political,” as it operates in a public context, not disturbing but interfering with it. It is exterior and contingent, conditioned by the “buzzing” of the many, many others observing it. When Paxton dances in the solitude of nature, the production without a product returns to itself, becoming a form of existential, rather than performative action. So do many improv jam sessions acquire a similar aura of a self-contained private event, not needing the presence of an audience.

Finally we come to Spångberg. If contact-improvisation in the 1970s broke the ground of a new territory of dance, represented by the communal body of the contact, abolishing instruments of dance in order to produce movement out of the function of a physical relationship between two or more bodies and the experience of it, then Spångberg’s transformation of Paxton’s autograph (the recording of an improvsiation on video) into an allograph (choreography), or writing, shows three registers of deterritorialization.

First of all, Spångberg introduces a mode of reproduction comparable with karaoke, showing in the second part of the performance, when he sings a real karaoke to Buena Vista Social Club that karaoke is far too present in our daily life to play a transgressive role on stage. He reconstructs Paxton’s movements by lending his foreign body to the site of the authentic speech of the other, to the landscape of Paxton’s “I dance the dance”, or would that be more like “I dance Paxtonism”, similar to Pollock’s and Cage’s claim “I create like nature” or “I am nature” or to “imitate nature in its manner of operation.” To reconstruct Paxton’s movement with an non-expert body is like inhabiting a self-expressive self-contained world without its assumptions, beliefs and techniques, imitate the sound of a foreign speech without understanding or being able to maintain the structure of that language. Spångberg performs subjection, undergoes the speech of a master without the knowledge of his language. As in the logic of hacking, he reveals the mode of subjectification, a way of making something yours by repeating it with uncanny difference, or bastardization. “The way to make something yours is to fuck it up by giving it your body,” the American visual artist Mike Kelley writes. PbE doesn’t parasitize on a masterpiece, but it exits out of Paxton like a bastard and a clandestine, an alien body which isn’t authorized neither for the discipline of dance nor Cuban music. This bastardization isn’t parodic, because its intentions for literal reproduction work by the effect of approximate double: yes, this is almost like Paxton, but it’s not, it strives for his expression, or we strive for him to reach it, we stand by his efforts. But at the same, who is this Spångberg? Somebody who is neither pedestrian, amateur, perhaps he is a correct player of someone else’s idiom. So we stand by his striving body, as long as it is an impersonal somebody, desiring and trying to achieve the impossible.

Second. Spångberg deterritorializes the territory of improvisation, in other words, draws a line of flight from the motives of emancipation in contact improvisation as well as the ideal of authenticity of Cuban music. His work shows that improvisation after many years of practice, even if it had been initially led by the libertarian quest for a body free from rational control, sediments the characteristics of a modernist high art practice (style, technique, virtuosity, mannerism, specific medium autonomy of movement which are attributed to an authorial signature). Lending his broken voice to the tunes of Ibrahim Ferrera, Spångberg processes the opinions by which the album Buena Vista Social Club configures our sensorium, our daily scopic+sonic environment. And these opinions are: “music transcends politics,” “let’s reestablish the link with the past of Cuba that has been lost,” or the desire of Wenders, after his film “Until the End of the World” to seek for the authentic “people bigger than life itself” (taken from the interviews with Wim Wenders)

Third and last line of flight. We shouldn’t forget that PbE is a solo, and that a solo in the ethic of performance represents the site of a contesting self-affirmation. Subjecting utterances of individual expression (by Paxton or Ferrera) to a karaoke reproduction, Spångberg indicates that self-expression is today a means of depoliticizing art in the age of global capital. He doesn’t achieve this effect by denying authenticity or speciality by way of an ordinary body – as it had been partly the critical edge of the 1960s – or by making it into a forgery and parasite. With the passion of a not-allowed, at first glance, literal, but not naïvely fascinated intrusion, he is making space for the expression of whatever body, whatever subject. A quodlibet ens, a “being such that it always matters.” Singularity of his body doesn’t spring from an aesthetic of equivalence between the spectator and performer (“what he can, I could do as well”), but from freeing it from all the tenets of individualism: inner necessity and ineffability, objective talent, technical merits. It doesn’t emancipate the spectator by promising a free individuality, and at the same time it doesn’t cancel the singularity of solo expression. With a body striving for the impossible (“being Steve Paxton”) and existing without authority on a foreign territory, Spångberg exposes just desire, being as such, that is, whatever you want.

The medium of dance in this performance proves that it doesn’t need the tactic of inter, mixed or multi-media crossing in order to exit the territory of essentializing the phenomenon of bodily movement. PbE reconfigures the medium as a situation of mediation, of mobilizing heterogeneous territories (media, instruments, authors, social contexts) for the questions: what is the value of anybody-somebody as a unit of a multitude? of my body, my receptive ears who have access to almost everything, bathing in the sounds of Buena Vista Social Club? Can there be virtuosity without technicality, but in any body’s activity of desire for the impersonal, quodlibet production of knowledge and pleasure?

Bojan a Cvejić

Paolo Virno, “Labor, Action, Intellect”, A Grammar of the Multitude, Semiotext(e), 2004, Los Angeles- New York, 47-72.

Mike Kelley, “Theory, Garbage, Stuffed Animals, Christ,” Educational Complex, Generali Foundation, Vienna, 1996.



Mårten Spångberg: Powered by Emotion

The Goldberg variations by J.S. Bach interpreted by Glenn Gould, improvised by Steve Paxton, filmed by Valter Werdin, danced by Mårten Spångberg

With and by: Mårten Spångberg
Music: Keith Jarrett: “Köln Concert”, J. S. Bach from “Goldberg Variations” played by Glen Gould, Buena Vista Social Club played by Robert Göber and Jürgen Reichartz.
Light realization: Bruno Pocheron
Co-produced: TanzWerkstatt Berlin. Supported by Arts Grants Committee Sweden, Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs. Made possible by: Gulbenkian Foundation, P.A.R.T.S., Kaai Theater. Thanks to: Mette Ingvartsen, Pedro Pinto.

Mimicry is not a consequence of space rather of the representation of space. It is with represented space that the drama becomes specific since the living creature, the organism, is no longer the origin of the coordinates, but one point among others; it is dispossessed of its privilege and literally no longer knows where to place itself. It is remarkable that represented spaces are just what is multiplied by contemporary science: Finsley’s spaces, Fermat’s spaces, Riemann-Chrisopffel’s hyper-space (we may add here too the space of virtual realities), abstract, generalized, open and closed spaces, spaces dense in themselves, thinned out and so on. The feeling of personality, considered as organism’s feeling of distinctness from its surroundings, of the connection between consciousness and a particular point in space, cannot fail under these conditions to be seriously undermined. We then have the feeling that we exist a little less, not with less strength, but with less precision, and our identities lose some of their arrogance.