Red lines – A conversation with Bojana Cvejić
Bojana Cvejić, who specializes in continental philosophy and critical theory, aesthetics and performance studies,
This is the original English version of the interview. The text is published in a Norwegian translation in the paper edition. Ed.
lectures dance and choreography at the MA studies and guides some of the PhD students at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts. She also teaches at P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels. Her work is manifested in several book publications, including Choreographing Problems: Expressive Concepts in European Contemporary Dance and Performance (2015) and Public Sphere by Performance, written in collaboration with Ana Vujanović (2012). As dramaturge, Bojana has collaborated with Mette Ingvartsen, Eszter Salamon, Xavier Le Roy, Anders Paulin and others. I met Cvejić, who is currently based in Brussels, via ZOOM in June. We talked about ambitions, limitations, political drive and the joy of steering clear of compromise.
Jonas Øren: As a creative artist/performance maker, what are leading factors in your own work?
Bojana Cvejić: Although I have been working in the performing arts as a maker (dramaturge, performer, director) since 1996, I consider myself to be more of a theorist and writer rooted in Continental Philosophy, performance theory, dance studies and musicology. I think that the principles, rather than the factors for my work, mainly pertain to that terrain, and not just to my work in performance-making. A criterion for my own work is to recognize my blindspots in thinking critically – and to undo them. That also include considering how my work is perceived and what I do not see or misrecognize. The blindspots points to the history that I belong to: how much it is a Western-centric history of the art, Western modernity, even though I come from East Europe, marked specifically by the Yugoslav experience of socialism in the second half of the 20th Century. My biases could be unpacked through“critical whiteness”, something I recently have started. The second driving force for my work is to learn about fields and cultures I know little about. This must of course be done with caution, because a part of being privileged is also to consider that you have the right to enter and access every knowledge and culture. An investigation I quite recently embarked in Senegal, where I was supposed to go back in May and June to continue my work. Another – perhaps a more internal parameter – is to check the rigor of my own thinking, how consistent it can be and how far it reaches. Where does it become too strict? Where do I experience limits of my concepts? Can I exhaust conceptualization and go into an imaginary where I do not know exactly where I am heading to? Being able to take risks, but also go forth with a wish to accelerate thought beyond the intellectual control that I can exercise very well. The last criterion would perhaps be that I cherish collaboration and seek to advance collectivity in performance making that is already part of its given condition. However, it is not always achieved in an experimental or politically satisfying way. So, I think what matters for me are the others – not myself – and what we can do together, questioning how to go beyond ourselves as individuals.
JØ: How did you go from an education in music (MA: “Performative Practices beyond Musical Work: Satie, Cage, Young, Fluxus, Zorn” and BA: “Open Work in Music: Cage, Boulez, Stockhausen”) to obtain a career within theatre, dance and performance, both as a performance theorist and maker?
BC: I chose to study musicology in the early 90s in Belgrade, as I had studied music from early on. I was interested in theatre, but I forbade myself to enter the theatre academy because my father is a famous actor. Musicology seemed quite an advanced programme at The Faculty of Music, as it involved studying philosophy, aesthetics, art theory, art history and psychology in addition to the quite practical conservatory type education shared with composers and conductors. There was a strong basis in the practice of music-making, but I also received a thorough education in humanities and philosophy. What was quite decisive for me was a trip to Bayreuth during the summer festival of Wagner’s operas. I joined a students’ choir singing in an opera, which was a way to acquire access to the performances of The Ring and especially Tristan and Isolde at the Festspiel Haus, directed by Heiner Müller. At the time I was a Wagnerite. Opera seemed to me not only dead, but also the most constructed of all art forms. Each work of opera seemed as opportunity to redefine the medium, the artistic quest, and the political outlook. So, I was nineteen or twenty years old when I decided with a close friend – who later would go to Berlin to study conducting – to stage the first opera by Mozart. This is how I got myself into theatre; through a quite juvenile and somewhat experimental piece I would be ashamed to show today. It was quite wild; including animals, children and a lot of pop music together with Mozart, Wagner and so on. In my twenties I explored stage directing with friends and young people, so I was not sure at that point if I would continue an academic education or if I would become a theatre maker. So, I continued studying theatre at summer schools and there I met the Dutch theatre director Jan Ritsema, with whom I later started making theatre with. I wrote texts and performed in a number of performances at Kaaitheater. Once I found myself there in 1999, I understood that dance was the performing art that I wished to explore further. Both practically as a dramaturg – not as a dancer obviously, as I lacked training – and a theorist. I recognized watching the work of young makers coming out of P.A.R.T.S, the school of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, that what they were missing was a theoretical education. About that time theory got widely recognized as a source of methods to rethink theatre, stage body, time, expression. It was around year 2000 that I decided to direct my interests and energy at contemporary dance and philosophy.
JØ: You have been an important catalyst for the work of several dance artists and choreographers – e.g. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Mette Ingvartsen, Xavier Le Roy and Eszter Salamon. How do you work as initiator in the artistic creation for other artists?
BC: I am not sure if I would refer to myself as an initiator. Nor have I really been a catalyst to Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. As a collaborator – often as a dramaturg – I develop different relations with these choreographers and I have played different roles in their work. What is more prominent in my work with De Keersmaeker, are the books that she and I co-wrote; a series of three books about her early, mid-period, and late work, titled A Choreographer’s Score (2011–2013). However, after that I also joined her in several creations: Vortex Temporum (2013) to the music of Gérard Grisey. WORK/TRAVAIL/ARBEID (2015), was the adaptation of Vortex Temporum set in different museums. With the others – Xavier Le Roy, Mette Ingvartsen and Ezther Salamon – I have worked more closely and more creatively. There are still some differences. For Salamon, I worked on two large scale pieces that included other media than dance (film and choreographing sounds, voices, music and light): and then (2007) and Tales Of The Bodiless (2011). For these two pieces I was a close collaborator with Salamon from the beginning, which meant working on the creation of the concept, doing research in various areas for a couple of years, assisting her with the creation of music, commissioning composers, I co-wrote the text, and co-directed the recording of voices. With Xavier Le Roy it is again a different story. He invited me to join him on choreographies created to the music of Helmut Lachenmann and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (based on the conducting of Sir Simon Rattle). And with Ingvartsen I have continued a collaboration since she was a student at P.A.R.T.S. in the first generation that I taught, in 2002. Our exchange started with discussing concepts and philosophical ideas in the classroom, and then continuing to do that in performance creation, also sometimes organizing theoretical seminars with her dancers. Ingvartsen is very good at sharing theoretical resources with her collaborators. What I attend to in all this work is to remain faithful to the problematic the creation starts with, and to minimize compromises required by producton. In one of my texts I designed this role as being a “special friend” of the choreographer, a kind of comrade around problems. Some of these choreographers were very happy to share the work with me in a non-hierarchical sense, but not everyone. This is also embarking on a process, the process of investigating and teaching each other. And within that, what I despise and try to minimize in my work – maybe that is also the reason why I do dramaturgy less now – is to compromise. If you are an artist nowadays, there are many requirements that you have to meet in your work, and I try to avoid. That is the luxury of my position. I do not need to compromise in my texts. And the other is being the psychological buffer between the choreographer and performers. As long as I can stay far from that dark side in dramaturgy, I am happy to collaborate.
JØ: Dramaturgy for dance is still something new and unfamiliar for many within the Norwegian dance scene. Through your work, I experience dramaturgy as an independent and autonomous artform. How do you see the function and/or role of dramaturgy in relation to choreography?
BC: Dance has adopted a term from theatre; dramaturgy. Dramaturgy was developed for dramatic literature in theatre, but its mandate became much wider after the post-dramatic theatre. An important part of a piece – as spatio-temporal event and socially speaking, an evening out in the theater – is the perception of it. The attendee’s or attendant’s experience – I prefer to call the spectator someone who attends to a performance – is both cognitive and sensorial. After the performance, there is always the resonance of the event: the meanings it inscribes and the place it might carve out in the landscape of the performing arts. For me dramaturgy entails all that: how we shape this cognitive and sensorial journey through a performance. I think my initial studies of music provided me formal and structural tools for dance dramaturgy, as music is primarily temporal. In music, there is little meaning in a semiotic sense that musical dramaturgy must tackle. One is primarily working with sounds and noises, sensations and affect, but also understanding mediated through formal structures. Another aspect of dramaturgy where dramaturgy is close to creation is poetics – the study of the making from literature to theater. That is something I am particularly interested in in what I teach and write.
JØ: Please tell me about your agency in writing about performance and choreography.
BC: Performance and choreography are wider than the artforms they designate. That is my stance: I believe we, who specialize in these artforms, must be aware of how they carry and extend beyond the margins of our field. In my last research that dates back to the book Public Sphere by Performance (2015), conducted together and co-written with Ana Vujanovic, choreography and performance are the blueprints of the aesthetic ideology of a social order. They have a capacity to structure to bodies, movements, gestures, spatial arrangements, and thus propose, instill or rehearse another social order rather than being reflective of an existing one. That lens, which primarily is analytical, enabled me to see the importance of choreography and performance beyond the stage.
JØ: You are finishing your new book about performing the self. Please comment about your work with the book.
BC: The main claim, or point of departure for this book, again co-written with Ana Vujanovic, is that formation of the self can be best accounted for by performance. Then the question arises: what does performance actually mean here? Is it a performance in the sense of a performative utterance or speech act? Or is it about a restored behavior, showing doing before, in the presence of others? The latter defines our main claim. What prompted Ana and me to continue our research from the public sphere to a more mixed public/private sphere, is the prevalence of individualism as the ideology that drives the liberal capitalism in its most vicious current form, which is neo-liberalism. So, through possessive individualism, aesthetic individualism, self-production or autopoiesis, we observe how individuals perform themselves. But we also offer an alternative to individualism. Despite its threat to totalize the social sphere – because performativity shapes productivity – there are still protests and moments of resistance, attempts to build collectivity beyond individualism on the basis of the common, in solidarity on which communities are built. The anti-thesis to individualism is not collectivism as we know it from totalitarian societies, but a process of collective individuation. Understanding the individual and social groups as two dimensions of the same process, arises from affection and imagination, rather than from distorted ideas or shared conscience. Consciousness comes in the moment where feelings like indignation and rage turn into more affirmative calls to gather, to form alliances, to self-organize, to practice communing in production and in social and political life.
JØ: Has the situation marked by Covid-19 and the BLM-movement made you re-think your own analysis of performing the self?
BC: Not fundamentally, except that I have been looking with great interest and support to the BLM-movement. And also, to local solidarity, which is a type of social rather than political solidarity, that happens in crisis. Initially I hated the situation of isolation. The idea of social distancing in a society of neo-liberal capitalism where we are already so atomized, seemed absurd to me. We have already so few occasions to gather live in public, and to give up even the classroom where we would meet as a group seemed like a terrible sacrifice that we had to undergo. I was so glad to be a part of a 10000-number crowd, protesting for Black Lives Matter with masks in a rather tiny square in front of the Palace of Justice in Brussels. The only thing the right wing could comment was that we did not respect the one-and-a-half-meter distance, social distancing rules. The positive outcome of the isolation has been more localization, getting to know your neighborhood, more sharing and shaping common concerns about how to live together. But we also know that in a time of crisis, we have a global duty to self-organize beyond our local neighborhoods. I am worried about the political public spehere and the further loss of it.
JØ: Please tell me a bit about your childhood and upbringing in Serbia.
BC: I grew up in the late 70s and 80s in former Yugoslavia – neither belonging to the East bloc, nor to NATO that is the West– with the sense of belonging to one world; one world that was divided into two poles. Since I was in that third “camp” (Yugoslavia initiated the non-aligned movement with Egypt and India and later other African and Asian countries), where the west and the east met, I enjoyed some individual liberties with a strong socialist infrastructure. I grew up in a mixed family: communist and anti-communist. My grandfather was a celebrated opera singer who never joined the communist party, while the other grandfather was a communist who suffered in a gulag. I was lucky to be directed to culture from very early on, and also to somehow be left alone without parents helicoptering me, letting me discover things on my own. When I went to high school and university, education was an instrument for social climbing and it was available to everyone.. The common good, such as education or health, was guaranteed. Yuguslavia but also France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, tended towards social democracy in the 90s, when I became an adult. Now this has changed, so I feel incredibly privileged because of that and because I believed in art and education – a faith I try to transmit to my students. At the same time, I cannot promise them the same conditions that I had when I studied, which is hard. From the early 90s I was involved in the students and civilian protests against Milošević s regime and the Balkan wars. This was my political education and probably the most important experience I keep from growing up in Belgrade in the 1990s. Why? Well, it keeps the horizon of my political views and actions rich with other historical perspectives. There are better worlds than the one we are currently living in.