Performance Journal: Vibes
From performance-inspired diary.
SUN DEC 1st 1 PM MUNICH
I’m in a cafe of an old beautiful art deco spa in Munich. I’m waiting for my 1 o’clock meeting, who is half an hour late. There is thirty minutes of extra, or empty, time to fill as I please. I decide not to play Candy Crush this time, but rather write down some Vibes -related thoughts that have been looping in my head for a couple of weeks now. Separate thanks go to Nicolette Kretz, Barbara van Lindt and Annemie Vanackere for talking trough some ideas with me.
Can a show be addictive?
On my way to Munich, I read an article in Time about the “phenomenon” of Candy Crush, why it is one of the most popular games in the world right now. The main purpose of the game is exactly the same as in thousands similar games — you move objects to create rows of three. The article stated that the key to success of the game is not in this basic mechanics, but in the way the game engages the psychology of the gamer.
The keys to success are:
- The game praises the gamer, giving positive feedback after almost every move.
- The game alternates difficult and easy levels, to balance the player’s frustration with a sense of mastery
- The game never ends: developers add new levels every week.
So I began thinking, is it possible to apply this, or some other, formula to a performance? Being a performance series, Vibes could be a perfect case for this experiment. Is it possible for this show to develop its own fan base, with an audience who would follow the series for years to come, follow it everywhere, anytime, become a part of the show the same way as the artists are? Can Vibes be addictive?
It is 1.33 pm. My meeting is still not here. I try not to get annoyed.
New language of spirituality
In the beginning of November, I went to see a Vibes rehearsal. It started with mediation session, that immediately made me think of the Living Theatre and the work they did in the 60s. The search for new spirituality was then a political statement, an attempt to break out from the existing socio-economic structures. Then the language of spirituality was hijacked by the new-age movement and subsequently commodified in the same way sexual revolution was. Nowadays, one cannot say the word “spirituality” without the distinct smell of Indian incense sticks in the air. I strongly feel it is about time to return to both topics, and it can be an important and socially relevant mission for the arts, to invent new languages of both spirituality and sexuality.
This is why Vibes are so really, really important.This is why I stand 100% with the artists in their search. And this is why I feel that my responsibility as a curator is, together with the artists, try and take it further. This is a critique written by a fan.
Disclamer: I realize that all of it can be my projection, not an “objective” analysis.
Few days ago in Munich, I saw “Wellness”, a show by Florentina Holzinger and Vincent Riebeek, which made me think of Vibes again. There are a lot of parallels: references to the new wellness culture as spiritual experience, seeing pop culture icons as spiritual leaders, and a constant search for intimacy.Wellness also works with power structures, but in contrast with Vibes who decide to work without hierarchy, Holzinger and Riebeck go full-on into the domination/submission and power disbalance.
There is another show that comes to my mind, ——
MON DEC 2nd, 11.50 AM, Helsinki
In my own kitchen, struggling against my own insecurities. Just read another text that came out from Mark Brown’s critics’s workshop — it seems that the whole group, about a dozen people, had really, really bad time all through the festival. Like, really hated the whole experience. I’m trying to go past the first emotional reaction “these stupid critics don’t understand me” and try to analyze what did we do wrong? Why the philosophy of the festival did not communicate to this group? Why they were not excited by an exemplary bravery of the artists, who took risks and dared to pose difficult questions, that went beyond basic dichotomous dilemmas? Why they were left out of the best conversations during the festival? Why they never asked the question “why”?
—- There is another show that comes to my mind, “Night Tripper” by Ingri Fiksdal. The performance takes a place in the forest, where the audience is seated in a ritualistic circle. Two dancers and a live band create a slow, repetitive, meditative performance, while the sun is setting and everything slowly dissolves into darkness. It connects to spirituality in a very “Nordic” manner, through nature and the forest, still there can be detected the same intention of extending the performance into spiritual realm.
My intuition is that Vibes comes from a similar point of departure. I do not buy for one minute the project description Ami sent me in October, which talks about “deconstruction” of performative situation. I actually think what they are trying to do is quite the opposite.
For the Vibes, the artists chose a model of production that very much reflects the model of labor and living of our “freelance generation”. It is seemingly random, it is nomadic, its inner structure is that of a network rather than hierarchy, it is in a constant negotiation with all kinds of different partners and employers, huge part of the work happens online, there is never clear sense of closure. So I feel that the deeper question is, how do you find wholeness in all this chaos? How do you find intimacy in random encounters? How do you build a process that has some inner logic to it, when you have to jump from one project to another, from one place to the next? I think Vibes is a search for wholeness in randomness, for intimacy that can be shared in a nano-instant, for new language of spirituality.
Virtuosity vs. simplicity
What “Wellness” and “Night Tripper” also have in common is artistic virtuosity. They both are amazingly well done. I never thought this would become important for me, but I have to say when you see intricate, complex, dense work, it is also much more difficult to reject it completely.
The problem with the first Vibes show was that it was way too simplistic and not thought through. Although the artistic proposal was extremely relevant (What happens if the responsibility of performative situation is shifted 100% towards the audience?), it was easy for the audience to reject and ignore it completely, just because to the audience, it seemed that the artists themselves did not put any effort into the show. Why should I, a spectator, work hard, if the artists don’t seem to?
I do understand the fact that this was an attempt to create a one-time-only, never-to-be-repeated experience that seems illogical to rehearse beforehand. However, the question that should have been explored is: what skills the artists must have in managing the situation? What is the responsibility of the artists in this situation? What is the audience — performers relationship that you would like to build? It is especially relevant question when we come back to the intention of developing a continuous relationship with the audience for the whole performance series. As it was the first Vibes ever, the audience should have been “hooked” forever, right there and then.
Coming back to responsibility. The working group of Vibes decided to establish a fully democratic working process, with zero hierarchy and all decision-making based on consensus. In the research prior to the project, it would have been easy to check, for example, resolutions produced by OSCE (The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe), that are all decided upon by consensus. The resolutions never address any real issues, never take any real responsibility or pose any real critique. Some lesson can be learnt here.
I feel that this model does not work, because if it creates a situation where none of the individual artists bears any real responsibility, because “it’s the group that has decided, not me”.
I have worked with many great collectives that function well without the hierarchy inside the group. However, from what I have seen, even without the hierarchy, everyone’s responsibilities should still clearly assigned. In well-functioning non-hierarchical collectives, although all artists working in the group participate in the creation of the whole performance, each of them has her/his own responsibility area. This organization structure allows for collective creation process, but at the same time lets the group to draw upon the skills of individual artists. Knowing how talented the individual Vibes artists are, I felt disappointed that the group decided to reject this enormous individual potential in favor of some common idea. Especially with my Soviet traumas, this felt really, really bad, because it reflected very much the way we were taught in the Soviet schools. Collective before individual. Fuck it.
Now, to financial responsibility. I do not believe in political mantra “we are supported by tax payers money, so we should be accessible, and entertaining, and perfect, and shine bright like the stars”. I strongly believe that this is exactly why art should be supported by public money: because it can be difficult, and very non-entertaining, and sometimes a total failure. Failure takes us forward, sometimes even better than a success would.
However, as a cultural producer, I am very sensitive to how the money is spent within the festival, and it is important that the artists we work with share the same sensitivity. If Vibes take all the resources that are given to them and decide not to use them, to waste them, the reasons behind this decision should be verbalized and argued well. There are a lot of interesting issues that could have been raised from this situation, about how and why the arts are financed, what are the expectations behind the money, what is the euro<->creative output ratio in the arts, etc. However, again, the artists did not take responsibility for any of it, and I just looked at the technique that they have ordered but left unused and thought “shit, I could have paid one extra month of salary with this money”.
A note on the side: I really blame the theatre academy for this inability of most finnish theatre artists to problematize money. How would you ever learn this, if for 5 years, all the resources for your productions seem to materialize from the thin air?..
I believe that the artists are responsible for not bringing half-baked ideas to the audience. Every part of the art work should be thought through, everything should have a reason, including its financial structure. Already so much of our everyday experience is shallow and not thought through at all, so when I come to engage with an artwork, it hope it would differ somehow from the rest of white noise.
It is 2.06 PM. This text is now much, much longer than what I was planning to write.
Creating and dealing with wrong expectations
A tiny self-interview:
- What do you expect from an artist?
- What do you expect from your audience?
There is a huge potential in live performing arts for generating intimacy. This is the main reason I’ve been working with performance for so long. I feel that Vibes might be also on the search for intimacy. In both performances I saw, I could feel very strongly that the artists have found this intimacy among each other, within the collective. The next question, I think, is how to transfer this intimacy, to include the audience into it.
It was obvious that in the first performance the audience felt excluded, and irritated because of this. It felt the same is in the school, when the tight band of cool kids walks into the room. Although there are much many more “uncool” kids in the room, there is no power in numbers, you still end up feeling excluded. Although confrontation and conflict can be very productive in performance, it was not real confrontation, because productive confrontation cannot produce this feeling of exclusion.
In the second performance, we were again made to witness this amazing intimacy in the collective. We had to come really really close to the artists, becase in the smoke you would not otherwise see anything. I stood literally in 10 cm from Anni Puolakka’s painted breast. However, this closeness did not produce intimacy. The artists were communicating among themselves, calling to each other through the smoke, but the audience was again left out. It was a much calmer experience, and definitely more enjoyable, but still rather lonely.
I was left to wonder, will the audience ever feel included into the Vibes intimacy? Or will it be always left out? Is it possible to transfer intimacy, for one short moment of performance? If the Vibes is to develop into a movement, into a community, it really has to destroy this bubble around the collective, or make it big enough for the audience to fit into. This is the same critique I address to myself as well, when analyzing this year’s festival edition.
I go to vibes.fi. I check in every few days, to check if something happenned there. Still no changes.
It’s early twilight. All of a sudden, I decide to publish this text, rather than just send it to the artists as feedback. That means it would be probably read by two or three more people than originally thought. That means I would be more vulnerable. Scary.
Dec 4th, 1.06 AM, back in my kitchen.After I published this text yesterday, I haven’t slept the night. The thing is, I wasn’t sure if the outmost respect I have for Vibes comes through in this text, or does it just look like another “negative review”. God knows, they had enough of those. So I just had to come back and add this sentence:
With all said, Vibes is definitely one of the most exciting things happening in Helsinki right now, and their search is super important. And when they find what they are searching for, you’ll want to be there. Because this just might be a legend in the making. Maybe this is why I got hooked, after all.