I could never imagine where I am now so how can I imagine where I will be next
Paul Hughes and Hamish MacPherson
Paul Hughes and I co-presented a paper at Digital Echoes 2018, a symposium organised by the Center for Dance Research in Coventry University. With the title ‘Reflections off the future’, the symposium sought to address the question: “Where are we going?”.
We won't be talking about this or that particular echo of the future - for example how we might predict dance is going to be taught, or be changed by new technologies. Instead, we’re interested in how the future plays a dynamic role in the present throughout our work as independent artists. We are interested in how the future, or rather the idea of the future, influences our understandings, desires and decision-making. The future is something we construct, sell and attempt to avoid. The future is something toward which we - individually and collectively - continually re-orient ourselves.
We don’t have an argument, so to speak; instead we have a collection of loose notes drawing together our reflections on a constantly deferred future. At times, it risks qualities of naivety, precociousness, narcissism and irresponsibility - as we attempt to speak with a frankness about the realities and aspirations that underpin our working landscape. Alongside our position as practicing artists, we embrace the roles of amateur scholars, or para-academics.
We think that risking the embarrassment of this naivety might be useful. And perhaps we are practicing writing and speaking as we work towards a future in which we write and speak more often in these kinds of spaces.
Ok: enough of the disclaimer, let’s get on with it.
We are more likely to secure institutional support with convincing predictions of the future: an idea is deemed more trustworthy when the artist maps out a timeline of funding bids, R&Ds, further institutional support, premiere dates and detailed plans to tour.
In Finland, the funding system requires you to say what you’ll be doing at least 18 months ahead. In the UK, it’s a quicker turnaround; unless you’re working at the 4-year scale of an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation. Sometimes, call-outs for new work only give a month’s notice. How far ahead must we predict as we attempt to sell our work to programmers and audiences?
Each artist finds different strategies to resolve the dilemma of working with not-yet-existing work.
Perhaps you can articulate a clear practical description: ‘I’m going to make a dance; it will be a solo, it will be an hour long’; ‘the performers will wear roller-blades’. Or you can surround it with ideas and language: ‘the piece will address gender’. ‘It will critique neoliberalism’. ‘It will be an entertaining piece for families’.
Or perhaps you work for free on the early stages of a project before seeking for formal support. Maybe you can sneak in a little bit of work on it during time and space dedicated to another project.
Commissioners might be more willing to trust artists who have been working for a longer time - it might be easier to predict the sort of thing they will make - although perhaps this binds the artist to working with a certain consistency. Younger artists might have to be bolder in their predictions. But perhaps by working at a smaller scale, there will be fewer expectations or pressures that will surround what they will produce.
The same is true when pitching for PhD funding: you have to say what it will be about, how it will take place, what it will contribute to the discourse, etc.
I was advised by an artist-researcher - herself knowing the economic structures in which we both undertake our work - to outline exactly the support I have lined up for this PhD proposal for the next three years - even through we both knew this economy at best really only organises its support at around 9-months to a year into the future.
But whatever: you get the funding, you start to do this artistic research, and begin to make the work. But what happens if the work starts to be about something other than what you predicted? I was speaking to a friend who’s a Practice based Research student last week; she said that it’s utterly clear that to push into further understanding will necessitate the risk of her departing from the stated research question; and further, her supervisors know this; everyone in the institution knows this. However, the structures that she, and they, continue to participate in continually demand that they maintain this pretence.
From our perspective - as artists who have applied to, but are not yet undertaking a PhD - it seems very clear that this continual framing (even if a conscious pretence) has real effects on the process and the work that’s made. When seeing the work of exciting and intelligent peers, It feels depressingly common to feel like the new work they undertake during their PhD is forced to return to and comply with pre-articulated questions that they have lumbered themselves with. You can see it: you can see the work wanting to be something else; and you see them reign it back to what they feel that the work must be about.
But is this demand real? Do they really face this pressure? Or is it only a phantom; a felt yet imagined authority of the academy? Either way - it’s happening, something is happening, and it has a very noticeable effect.
Of course, this problem of work being pre-laden with expectations and pre-formed understanding happens outside of artistic research too. But it is particularly glaring within a context which seems to profess that work is rigorously questioned and committed to developing new ideas. From the outside, we don’t really see it being called out, or much work being done within the community to deal with this problem.
So we both want to make work that we don’t yet really know about yet; rather than predicting the answers we’re going to find. But how do we access this future artwork, these thoughts and knowledge, if this future is by definition shrouded to us with our current ignorance?
Theodor Adorno - a twentieth century German philosopher - describes developments in art as operating through a ‘dialectical process of negation’. In his book Aesthetic Theory, he writes that “Art acquires its specificity by separating itself from what it developed out of”. Art in itself can’t really say what it is, or what it will become; but rather reveals more about the existing canon of work at the moment it departs from it. So rather than stepping into a future you can imagine, Adorno suggests that it’s more like we’re stepping backwards into an unforeseeable space; and in doing so, only really beginning to notice the details of where we were once standing. As artist-scholars, we cannot expect artworks to answer questions we put foward; rather, we need to recognize the power of artworks to pivot away from our pointing finger, and to pull the rug out from under our feet; to take us to some previously inconceivable position; and in doing so, reveal to us the narrowness of where we once were.
The artist Jesse Darling writes that: “‘The practice’ is only what u cant stop doing”. We take it for granted that we will only make new interesting work in the future if we keep making stuff: by keeping making, we’ll start to push at our own edges; and maybe if we’re lucky we’ll end up pushing the edges of the wider conversation too.
My sense of time around my art practice shifted a lot when a collaborator suggested that I shouldn’t use a certain type of glue as it wasn’t ‘archival’. Most common glues and paper are acidic - they will slowly disintegrate over time. Why do we want to ensure our work will survive? Are we imagining the artwork’s encounter with a future audience? Do we wish this work to be continually represented within the long arc of a practice? Do we just want to maximise the potential return of making this piece of work? This is not just a question for material work - performances can themselves be made with a sensitivity to how easily they might be re-performed in very different contexts; or whether they will simply end up as a ‘one-time thing’.
And what does it mean to preserve something for a community that we might not directly be participating in? What will represent my body of work in 20 years time? It’s often said that one of the most important resources for an artist to achieve institutional success is really good photos.
Without being able to afford storage space, or have the capacity to keep physically trained for a particular work, documentation becomes a sort of stand-in for artwork that no longer materially exists - documentation becomes the promise and means through which something might be revived, restaged or remade at a future point, if and when there might be sufficient interest.
We’ve got hard-drives full of data - one day they’ll crash and we’ll lose them all. Do we care? Is this a problem? Maintaining a diligent archive is a bit of a gamble: perhaps one day a researcher or an institution will take it on; or perhaps we might just die in a flat as a hoarder, surrounded by an overwhelming excess of talismans to an otherwise insignificant legacy.
But going beyond the preservation of objects or performances, we might consider the legacy of an artistic practice through a consideration of how a work emanates in more intangible ways. We might think of our work as contributing a small drop to the ocean of knowledge that composes a particular discipline; as a legacy of anecdotes, myths, feelings and ideas. Is that a bit mystical, or poetic? Perhaps this is just a consolation for someone who feels like the right people never turned up to the work in the first place. Precisely what is the flow of this transmission; how does this work extend? And to whom: our collaborators and peers? those who experience the work? Or is this a more indirect flow out into society?
Maybe there’s just something about how a person undertakes their work; whether you do the same sort of thing with the same sort of name with a community of interested people over years and years that might build up a significant following (say Contact Improvisation or Gaga, for example): but we both seem to be more interested in continual tinkering, experimentation, dropping things, getting distracted. Or at least, we are at the minute; and it sort of feels like that when you lose that, when you start to believe the bullshit that you’re forced to spout to support your work; when you imagine you’ve got a load of really smart ideas about something or that you know what something’s about, and you try to hold onto it: that the work starts to suck. So it becomes a question of how to preserve this continual tinkering, this uncertainty, across the institutional landscape that demands certainty. And also not to get too complacent, either - not to let our uncertainty itself become certain. If we look around at the many practices that profess ideas of process, and research, we can see easy it is to fall into comfortable clichés: uncertainty begins to have a very recognizable look.
But let’s zoom out: we’re not quite doing these things by ourselves. We’re working within a network of independent practitioners, all pursuing odd and semi-obscure work; attending each others stuff; each artist understanding themself in relation to their peers. We make contact, we become friends, we champion one another. We’re in similar positions, or perhaps we’re in very different positions. We might self-organise: putting together structures and platforms to support our work that otherwise wouldn’t exist. These might exist totally on the outside; or find partial support in the cracks of institutions. It’s rarely black and white. We borrow space, authority, visibility - from each other, and from the places that we convince to lend us support.
With what expectations of the future are these projects organised? Do we hope that our individual practices will be elevated by a collective renown? Do these self-organised projects seek to become taken on by institutions as formalised aspects of their programmes? Or do these groups themselves become the new institutions? Do they hold themselves distant from seeking any external support - is such a purist position sustainable? Do they even want to be sustainable? Might we do stuff that doesn’t have a desire or hope - or perhaps actively obstructs - institutional purchase?
And of course, our sense of ambition is running throughout all of this. The desire to be seen as important, valuable, intelligent; to be validated and celebrated. The hope that we could experiment with scale; that at some point we might be adequately supported in making our work; that we could get by and live comfortably from working in art.
Do we compare ourselves to more established figures within our discipline - thinking about where they are now, how they live their lives , and how they got there; as a way of orienting ourselves towards how and where we might be moving next? What are the limits in using these role models when imagining our futures? Fantastical comparisons risk eliding the different contexts in which we work. How much can I imagine working as a lecturer in a dance department in 10 years time when the future of the university as we know it is so precarious? Fabled generations of experimental UK performance practitioners - X6, Forced Entertainment, Gob Squad - have acknowledged that they were only able to make the work they did as in the 70s, 80s and 90s because space was cheap, and you could get by on the dole.
And regardless: these practitioners, these iconic artists - alongside whose work we understand and situate ourselves - have already done what they’ve done; rather than reproduce, the question is again of how to avoid; to evacuate; to pursue something unknown.
Again, this is not just solo fantasy: who do we imagine our work will be sitting alongside? What artistic contexts and movements are we working towards: what is the future context in which we imagine this practice will operate? We want - or at least we want to tell ourselves that we want - to be working towards a future where art spaces and structures as well as society more generally look nothing like they currently do. How are we dealing with our whiteness and maleness here? What does it mean to work towards a future that might radically decenter the centered position the current system places for ourselves? Does our persistence or growth within this system come at the expense of others?
Writer and artist Chelsea Hodson writes “When you’re young, everyone’s an artist. But it’s a game of endurance, a fight against addiction, children, comfort, stasis, health insurance, home ownership. People drop off one by one. No one ever tells you that.”
So we persist, making whatever work is possible in the situations in which we find ourselves. So one question is: What faith is needed to persist in this? What energy, what will, what belief, what affective force keeps us with this? What validation or legitimisation do you need from institutions; or critics; or the judgement of peers? But perhaps a more pertinent question is: what are the conditions such that you can keep doing this, in a financial and material sense?
But also let’s be clear here. Having any kind of artistic practice let alone what is traditionally recognised as experimental is a lot easier if you are from a middle class family, if you are white, if you are a cisgendered man, if you are able-bodied. And how many artists do we know that are not being materially supported by their partners or family? Alongside many other traditionally intellectual activities, art becomes the labour of those who have the free time and other resources to practice their work.
I google Fred Herko, one of the Judson Church lot, who died when he was 28. He was homeless, and had nowhere to go; he killed himself. For the first time - I really understood him as a peer. I have a middle-class background and support network; there are low chances that I’ll end up on the street in the short term. But for many in the scenes in which we work, his fate is a very real possibility.
The question surfaces again as to the future of the stuff we’re working on. How does this work - around dance, around experimental practice - live on: as a tradition, a discipline, a history, a set of practices, a body of knowledge. The precarity we’re discussing suggests a future in which we - us, the specific people in this room, the people outside of this room - might not necessarily be the ones who will be taking part in this. Or perhaps some of us will; as others go on to infiltrate the bigger institutions; or replace these institutions altogether; while others will just disappear, move on, and die.
While discussing our fantasies of the future we often presume a sense of progress: more support, more status, more money, more stability. What about a future in which we just keep in the same position as we are now? Or end up doing less?
What might it mean to not carry on? There’s been a recent and seemingly positive wave of older artists launching international careers - for example Phyllida Barlow, Rose Wylie - carrying the tantalysing suggestion that it’s never too late to be ‘discovered’; that we should keep hanging in there. There’s something insidious about art practice that suggests that if you stop doing it you’re a failure, that you’ve lost, or lost out. It keeps people in art who you suspect don’t really want to be in art - or at least, in institutional art contexts.
Can we imagine ourselves still being interested in choreography in 5, 10, 20 years time? Can we imagine ourselves to be as thoroughly committed to an entirely different field - say coding, or gardening, or political activism; or maybe having a family, a regular job. What would it take to recognize that something you’ve committed so much time to is no longer of interest; will we be ready to stop, and do something else?
Across these reflections, these questions to which we don’t really have many answers, we ask ourselves: Why have we come here - to this symposium - as non-academics? How does being here manifest an orientation to a future? Do we want to be part of - and perhaps influence - an ongoing conversation at Coventry? Do we wish to bring more rigour to our thinking? Is this merely a CV boost for a PhD application? Or are we practicing something for a future in which we might more directly be active in these spaces; to test the voice and possibility of the non-academic; to ensure these spaces are alive and open. Or perhaps we just wanted the threat of a deadline: to force ourselves to speak with each other, to think through these questions of what it means to choose to continue to be an independent dance practitioner today.