Small differences

April 18 2013

The following is an article I wrote and which appeared several weeks ago in Bulgarian-language publication Blister Magazine (no longer online, archive here). Even though the article was aimed at a local audience, I decided to publish it here in English because it does give a rare glimpse into the level that, unfortunately, contemporary art still has to be discussed at in this country.

It has been almost three years since the first students graduated from the then-newly formed digital arts programme at the National Academy of Arts (NHA) in Sofia. Several of these young colleagues have gone on to win prestigious international art awards, have taken part in exhibitions both in Bulgaria and abroad (Including Vienna, Berlin, Thessaloniki, Varna and a number of times in Sofia), and have collaborated with writers, musicians and dancers in performances. Two of the three nominees for this year’s Ikar awards for dance are interactive performances in Bulgaria that have been created by or with former students of the digital arts programme; Albena Baeva and Martin Penev. Only a few months earlier, both Baeva and Penev took part in this year’s Independent Theatre Festival ACT, both with a dance performance.

It is specifically these two performances that I would like to pay attention to here: Cadaver by Penev and dancer Stanislav Genadiev, and Azamen by Runabout Project, a collaborative project by Baeva with Petya Boyukova and dancers Alexander Mandzhukov and Sofia Georgieva.

Little has been written in Bulgarian professional critical literature about these two works, though a lot has been said off-record and (semi) publicly, most of which, however, so poor and inadequate that a first thorough analysis of these two works should be considered highly overdue.

Some have called Cadaver and Azamen “similar”, while others, especially on social networks, have gone as far as to accuse one author of “stealing” the ideas of the other. The absurdity of the very thought that ideas could be stolen is beyond this article, but I will make a strong argument as to why any discussion of these two works that remains at the level of calling them “similar” is inadequate. In a way it is like saying that any piece by Pina Bausch is “similar” to the Swan Lake for the mere fact that both feature at least one female dancer, or that Hockney’s landscapes are “similar” to those by van Ruysdeal or Titian simple because they are all landscapes done in paint.

Art criticism and art theory should be about being able to express analyses that go well beyond such superficialities. So far, no one has stepped up to the plate to do this for these two works. The fact that these works premiered literally within months from one another, and that they are such a remarkable change from what we are used to seeing in the Bulgarian art-world, makes this a much needed effort.

I have had the pleasure and honor of working with both Martin and Albena during and after their participation in the digital arts programme at the NHA. I have also seen both performances several times, both before, as well as at and after their premieres.

To me, both performances are outstanding works because of the extent to which they break ground for the local art scene. Much credit is due to the dancers involved, all three of whom have gone considerably beyond the safe grounds that many of their colleagues still seem to prefer.

Neither Albena, nor Martin, are the first to attempt to do interactive stage work in Bulgaria. Where such attempts have so far been met with an attitude of “I’m fine with us trying something interactive, as long as it does not involve me” from the performing artists (the above is a literal quote from an actor at the National Theater to the director’s suggestion that the play should feature interactive video projections), these two young colleagues managed to break through that, to find people who thought alike and who were not afraid to do things they and their immediate peers had never done before.

So what are the similarities and where do these two dance performances differ?

Similarities

For those who have not yet seen these performances (and there is really no reason why you shouldn’t); Cadaver starts off from a reference to Alvin Lucier’s 1969 composition I Am Sitting in a Room in which the author records and re-records his own voice as he reads a text that describes his physical situation as well as the process of recording and re-recording that is taking place at the time of the performance, and its expected outcome. In Cadaver, Genadiev records his voice as he reads a text, which he then goes on to manipulate and modulate using his muscles.

In Azamen, the two dancers are in a dialogue with both the audience and themselves, as they record specific words and sounds, that are then modulated through their movements.

Any similarity between the two dance performances ends with the description that a “dancer records sound, which he then manipulates”.

Both works put the dancer’s body at the centre of the creation of sound. The process itself and the way uses it, are fundamentally different and it is precisely why these two works, especially in comparison to one another, are so interesting. Not only are the actual sounds that are recorded different, but also their meaning within the context of the works. The way the dancers manipulate the recorded sound and the effect this has on the type of sounds they create, the nature of the dance, as well as the relationship between the dancer, their movement and the sounds created, are all utterly different.

Differences

There are two fundamental differences between these two works.

As already mentioned, Cadaver conceptually refers to the work of Lucier. The performance should be understood conceptually as a single work of art, where performance, the recorded text and the interaction design all serve the concept of the art work. The recorded voice is manipulated and filtered to the point where no voice can be recognized and its recording becomes pure sound, that of the body.

In Azamen, the relationship between concept, interaction and performance is completely different. Understood as a continuation of previous work that Baeva and Boyukova have produced under the name of Runabout Project, Azamen should be understood as an instrument that is performed by two dancers. The dancers are part of the instrument and, simultaneously, they dance to the music that they themselves play. The concept of the work itself is sufficiently open, to enable the dancers to change the words that are recorded, to change the choreography accordingly and, by doing so, change the work itself at every performance. This approach serves the concept of this work as an instrument for 2 dancers.

The second difference between the works of Penev and Baeva is in the way the body interacts with the recorded sound.

in Cadaver muscle tension is translated into manipulation or modulation of a sound, irrespective of whether that muscle tension leads to any visibly different position or posture of the dancer. Said in an extremely simplified way: contracting or expanding certain muscles triggers or releases particular modifications of the sound that is played back. As a result, Genadiev’s movements and their meaning are mostly focussed inwards.

In Azamen it is the physical position and motion of particularly the two hands of the performers that modulate sounds. The change in sound is directly related to the amount of movement and to the differences in position of the body of the dancers, not to the amount of muscle tension that is involved in the movement. As a result, the movements of the dancers in Azamen are of a different nature than those of Genadiev in Cadaver. At moments, it appears as if the dancers are caught in a giant machine with hidden buttons and levers surrounding them, which they manipulate through their dance.

Criticism

Having said all the above, I should also note that I do have criticism towards both works. For one, both works need stronger directing and, in a sense, a more developed dramaturgy. Even at a technological level, I believe both works are not fully developed. But all of this is peanuts, compared to what both artists (and their collaborators) have overcome! Besides, these weaknesses too can be overcome if we manage to take away a number of other hurdles that currently hold back the development of this type of performances in Bulgaria. I’ll explain what I mean in a second.

The works by Baeva and Penev should be considered in the light of current developments in contemporary art internationally. The topics, the approaches and decisions of both artists follow a tradition of how technology is used in the visual arts, music and on stage over the last century. Where these works differ from the work their colleagues abroad do is in scale, finances, and an environment that nurtures such young talent.

In Azamen for example we can clearly see the influence of the work of Michel Waisvisz, specifically his The Hands; an instrument he has worked on from 1984 up until his death in 2008. Baeva’s work develops in a direction that is also explored in works by, for example, Companie Linga in Switzerland and the Emmy-award-winning work by Imogen Heap. Influences on the work by Penev can be traced back, for example, to the work of Marco Donnaruma and others.

I have before written about how in Bulgaria it is still easier when doing a video exhibition, to get carpentry work for pedestals funded, then it is to get any financial support for necessary equipment like a video projector. The problem becomes even more alarming with technology-intensive work like the performances by Baeva and Penev.

The difference that a more nurturing environment makes becomes clear when we look at Linga’s performance entitled Re-mapping the body, which treats a different theme but uses similar technological approaches as those of Azamen. While Baeva by necessity uses DIY technology, Linga’s performance uses several dozen bio-medical instruments, each smaller than a box of cigarettes and each of which costs more than the entire Azamen production.

Of course this is not just about money. In an environment like Bulgaria’s, where a more serious analysis of work that is done, is completely missing, we cannot seriously expect anyone to have any desire to support new work. Or for others to spend months or even years working on the development of such works, when the comments they will receive are so superficial. If we cannot discuss and analyse works that are fully embedded in a contemporary, international practice, we will not be able to reform education, funding and other support systems that could help nurture the development of such works. And if we fail to do that, we will continue to fund the construction of ever more wooden pedestals as a form of contemporary art.

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