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Performance as Solo – A contribution to the discussion by Martina Ruhsam

The following text by Martina Ruhsam gives a concise account of some arguments made by her in her lecture at PANik 4 – Performance as solo.

The topic that Jan Machacek and Clélia Colonna chose for this performance-series is quite unusual. „Performance als Solo“ – the format is the topic, but the relation between the topic and the presented performances of Kozek Hörlonski (Thomas Hörl & Peter Kozek), Katharina Ernst & Bartosz Sikorski and Charlotta Ruth & Mirja Brunberg is not a descriptive one, it´s not just the common denominator of all the works that we saw today but the performances they chose rather put a question-mark behind this title. The format became a topic that was actually questioned by the performances – first of all by the fact that the performances didn´t fulfil the expectations that are conventionally connected with a solo as they were all performed by more than one person.
The common definition of the solo is, as we all know, that one performer or musician is performing/playing. The term „solo“ comes from the Italian word „solo“
which means „alone“. Solos are sometimes embedded in group-pieces and in this case we mean by solo exactly the moment when one individual steps out of the group – into the centre of attention – and performs/plays kind of seperately from the group. We saw in the performances today three different couples but at the same time six different individuals, we observed six solos but at the same time we could say it was three duos or even sometimes trios, quartets? All the performances dealt with the relation of two performers and were not in the first place about the moment in which one individual steps out in order to take over all the attention. The authorship was blurred in all three performances.
I would like to make some short historical remarks on the upcoming of multiple or shared autorships. Especially in the context of visual arts it was the avantgarde-artists that tried to oppone what they called „pseudy-expressionism“. Avantgarde-artists tried to subvert the traditional romantic idea of the artist expressing his/her individual soul in his/her artwork or if not the individual soul then at least oneself. This old-fashioned, romantic conception of the artist (that was quite dominant in modern art) leads to the belief that all the things the artist refers to in his/her work are only relevant in their relation to the inner feelings of the artist´s soul or self. That´s what the avantgarde later criticized as „pseudo-expressionism“. The idea on which this romantic understanding of the artist is based is that behind each human individual lies a coherent soul or at least a secluded stable subject that expresses itself when it indulges in ideosyncratic choices. I consciously speak about choices and not about decisions in this matter because I think that the difference between making choices and taking decisions is that if you make a choice you choose between given alternatives whereas taking a decision would be if you break with the given alternatives or options in order to go for something fundamentally new. I agree with Marcus Steinweg in making this distinction between making a choice and deciding for something that exceeds a selection between given options and „cuts into the (existing) texture of facts“ as Steinweg formulates it.
So, the modern artist-notion that I described before imagines the artist as someone who is making choices that are absolutely subjective and these subjective choices are considered to be a necessary step on the path of self-realisation. This way of thinking has hermeneutic consequences: For example that the artwork in the end is perceived as an individual achievement that makes the expression of the inner self of the artist visible. And in the museum for instance we can then see the objects of glorious self-realisation. According to this way of understanding every artwork is a portrait of the great individual´s soul/self and solos were a kind of ideal territory for this kind of self-realisation in the field of the performing arts.
(What I described as expressionism so far came up in the early stages of expressionism, later the focus was not really on self-expression any more but rather on expressing something, giving a voice to a voice-less experience, on being in a state of high receptivity, like a kind of channel, in order to express first of all the horrifying aspects of reality.)
In the context of music the solo is more connected with the individual stepping out of the orchestra or the ensemble and becoming visible/hearable as an individual and often the idea of the solo was connected with deploying the virtuosity of a musician. In dance – and I´m thinking in a historical context now – the solo-idea was often coupled with the attempt to free the individual from different kinds of cultural constraints, claiming free expression as a kind of natural right and thereby revolting against very rigorous traditions like ballett for instance which are highly codified and systematized and give little space for indivdual expression.
Why did I make this historical detour? The point for me is that all these ideas about the free individual that can freely choose according to it´s inner voice or impulses, is nowadays totally absorbed and overhyped by capitalism. The neoliberal economic system can only work within a culture in which individualism is the non-plus-ultra because the market permanently addresses each of us as an individual (consumer) with the desire to distinguish him/herself from the others by making product choices: Do I wear Adidas or Puma? Shall I buy a Freitag-bag or a Nike-bag, secondhand-shoes or GEA-shoes etc.?
In order to be able to make these kinds of choices which make us believe that we are free subjects that can realise themselves, the market constantly has to supply us with a range of products we can choose from for our comsumption. And we all know that this consumption is lately not just about goods like milk, butter, clothes and furniture any more but that capitalism in the time of postfordism is marketing whatever: places, images, life-style, opinions, organs, knowledge, wellness, pictures, access, representations and so on. So, by choosing commodities and wares (in an extended sense) we permanently affirm our individualism and we maintain the belief in the idea that we are free subjects.
The fact that individualism became the credo of neoliberalism is one reason why I think that solos are then especially interesting today if they make the relationality of the artist, the interdependency of her/his work as well as the productivity of the context and the circumstances of the work visible. There is a specific quality in solos in which the artist is not just emphasizing the own autonomy and individuality but rather thematizing his/her relation to other – maybe absent – subjects, objects or ideas. I find it radical if solos let us feel a glimpse of the collaborative dimension of the work.
There were many attempts in the performance-context in the 60s and 70s of working together in or as couples. I could mention as examples Gilbert and George, Marina Abramović and Ulay, Judith Malina and Julian Beck and many many others. What is interesting for me is that – compared to the works that we saw today – the intention in the performances of the aforementioned artist-couples was to become one, the aim was most ly to merge the ideas of two people in order to come to one expression. Thereby these artists of course subverted the romantic artist-idea that I described in the beginning because if two people work so closely and intricately together, it becomes impossible to say or see which ideas came from whom and who is the author of what. So, the whole idea of authorship is questioned and moreover the performances that these couples developed often had the relation of the two artists (or even a bigger constellation of artists) as a topic.
But at the same time it is clearly visible that there was an emphasis on showing two persons that come to one expression, that the aspect of uniting was stressed. This fact is very obvious for example in the most famous statement of Gilbert and George: „Two people make one artist.“
What I saw today is in a way the opposite: That two artists perform together, are dependent from each other – while at the same time affirming the own autonomy. This is the most interesting point of today´s afternoon for me. All the performances took place in two spatially seperated areas and brougt the relation to another person to the foreground. By performing in different spaces the performances of Kozek Hörlonski (Thomas Hörl & Peter Kozek), Katharina Ernst & Bartosz Sikorski and Charlotta Ruth & Mirja Brunberg emphasized the aspect of separation but by relating to the performer in the other (half of the) space they at the same time highlighted the mutual dependence and connectedness. „Being together alone“ could be an abbreviation of this afternoon´s pieces which are radical insofar as they avoided totalitarian positions both of an extreme form of individualism („Look at the originality of my ingenuity!“) and an extreme form of collectivism (which would mean a forceful subjugation of individuals under a common identity and ideology with the promise of an imminent unification).
I think that the concept of being-with developed by the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy is worthwhile in regard to this discussion and a closer examination of the solo as a format. Nancy started to publish texts on a new way and meaning of community/being together in the early 90s and finally described his concept of being-with in the book „Being singularly plural“ that was released in 1996. In this book he attempted to write about „the community of those who don´t belong to any community any more.“ This phrase is a quotation of George Bataille and became the premise of Nancy´s thoughts about a new meaning of the word community. Bataille´s phrase – a kind of motto for a whole group of curious intellectuals who wanted to think about the idea of community without the historical ballast that resonated with this notion, touches upon the paradox of being together alone or being alone together that was also at stake in the performances today. Nancy´s writings are in favour of a community that is not made in regard to any communistic or communitarian goal. In fact, he wanted to talk about a community that doesn´t have any goal any more, that is not formed because of a purpose or aim that should be reached together in the future. Nancy imagined a community of totally heterogenous singularities. (He doesn´t talk about subjects any more, he talks about singularities because he wants to avoid all the ideas that are connected with the term subject – for example that the subject is a secluded and autonomous entity. There is the dominant idea in our culture that the subject is smth. like the atom of society, so that all the subjects together would together make a society. This logic of addition is totally misleading in his opinion.)
So, to make it short: He is asking how it is possible to be together without having the same identity, the same ideology or the same intention/goal because of which one comes together and he speaks in this respect not about being together any more but about being-with. He wanted that being-with has nothing to do with unifying or with being the same and also not with the idea of a utopian community in the future that should be reached. So, he is emphasizing the importance of dispersion for a community and not the aspect of coherence. Seperating and separation are the new keywords for the phenomenon of being-with for Nancy. According to him it is only through the distance that we can come closer. He is always explaining this issue with the example of touching: He says that you can only touch somebody who has at least a minimal distance to you – otherwise touching is impossible.
Every person is for Nancy always already a nodal point of the with. And this may sound banal and obvious but if it is thought radically to it´s limits, then this concept leads for example to totally different ontological conclusions. So, Nancy says that being is only possible as being-with. A person is nothing else for him than a being in permanent becoming, a being WITH others, radically open and therefor a permanent transition from space to space, from location to location, from encounter to encounter, which means, permanent communication. He calls the subject also the first person plural. And a constitutive aspect of being-with is according to Nancy „etre à part“, being apart.
So, my conclusion is that it is very important to emphasize the collaborative dimension of our work, to be conscious about the fact that what we develop is developed in collaboration – even if we work alone (because there is no inner essence that could be expressed in/with what we do). That is why I pleed for radical collaboration but within these collaborations we have to maintain a certain autonomy. It´s a highly paradoxial and challenging but also exciting endavour: Being aware about the fact that we are all very interdependent and at the same time affirming a certain autonomy from within these collaborative constellations.

Martina Ruhsam


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