The Intervention of Loneliness
Intervention of Loneliness
By Agnus Tam (3rd March 2023, English Theatre Berlin)
“A nasty question”, a member of audience who also participated in the slow dance asked in the post–performance Q&A. The person was respectful and did not sound ill–intended, In gist he said, “I came here to see a performance but I didn’t see you dancing”.
I must say that I do not see why it should be inappropriate to express an honest opinion (although I have problem with moralising/demonising a thought). What is nasty about telling the truth? to tell the truth as the child in »The Emperor’s New Clothe« does. Especially, we audience are essentially fee–paying guests. From that angle it is all the more legit to ask how the contract (tickets sold is considered a contract) is performed. The performance promises the audience “the intervention of loneliness”. What did it deliver? The answer is in Poon’s choreographic note, quoted in the A5-sized printout of the article »The aesthetics of decision–making« by Liu Dandan, placed on every seat in the venue:
“I choose slow dance also because I see it as an act of resistance against the visual aestheticisation and spectacularity of dance. I want to move away from producing beautiful forms, and move towards creating connective actions and encounters […]”
To move away from producing beautiful forms is not altogether non–performance per se. The question and answer just now reminds me of a scene in Brecht’s »Leben des Galilei«. In it Galileo argues with his pupil, a monk, who is determined to give up his study of astronomy. Because the “knowledge” he acquired from Galileo, although supported by evidence, is in obvious conflict with the Church.
Galilei : Und kommen Sie mir nicht mit der Schönheit von Phänomenen, die das Alter vergoldet hat!
Mönch: Es sind die höchsten Bewegsgründe, die uns schweigen machen müssen, es ist der Seelenfrieden Unglücklicher!
Galilei : Herr, mein Schönheitssinn wird verletzt, wenn die Venus in meinem Weltbild ohne Phasen ist
Schönheitssin is explained in a later scene:
Mönch: [Galilei] sprach von seinem Schönheitssinn, der ihn zwinge, die Wahrheit zu suchen.
I would consider the Schönheit the monk embraces as the mechanical reproduction where beauty is about popular endorsement (gentle reminder: the church in Galileo‘s time was popular culture) qualified by the level of homogeneity and conformity. To its contrary is the Schönheitssin, in which activism sits. Imagine you come across the person that makes your heart skip a beat, what would be your impulse? To go after that person or go to the family doctor for a prescription to calm your racing heart? We try to “make sense” (as in the Schönheitssinn) of an enigma because it is our instinct, our pride, not to submit to ignorance.
It is on this sense of beauty that I return to Poon’s performance. The intervention of loneliness has been his undertaking since 2014. With a “dance with me” cardboard, Poon stands 2 hours in a row on the street for each intervention session. This private public interface has been a rather discipline practice not only in its formality. It follows a code of practice the artist tailors to ensure it is the loneliness being intervened and not the intervention itself. For instance, people intoxicated or people who cannot give legal consent would not be able to participate.
The “Dance with Me” street version proved the concept of affective space–making. But the process was not that rosy. Poon and the moderator told us in the Q&A, with such a cardboard in hand, the artist was often taken as a homeless person, in need of money and food. It is not about words–failed–me situation. It is where social code vetoes reason. We can easily contrast this with the “Dance with Me” stage version where the cardboard was multiplied in different languages. The more the language, the less comprehensible the words became. Nevertheless members of audience were eager to pick up the sign and some others willing to join. Were we as unreflective as the passers–by on the street? What is the common consensus that define the two settings that make people more or less willing to do the same thing? How do we construct that ideal space? (education to raise literacy rate is obviously not quite an answer)
Filled with undeciphered dance–with–me cardboards, among the many uncracked codes beyond the theatre, this performance brought one to light, namely, the cardboard = homeless association. Other similar bundled associations are countless, such as skin–color/class, skin–color/social function, gender/social function, to name a few. In a society of the spectacle, “tyranny of the eyes” (Liu) hits those who are not wilfully blind. Putting up the form of a tyrant, I remained seated during the performance. I was in fact secretly hoping that there would be sufficient majority or minority to remain in their seats, so that I would not be left alone – my share of intervention of loneliness. All the while my eyes were fixed on the stage, observing who got approached, who was less approached, etc. People on stage started to talk to their dance partners and those in their seats to their companions, whether to go or not, and why, etc. The aesthetic of decision–making (Liu) in front of my eyes was the matrix of codes that drove these bodies´ movements. The ubiquitous and invisible data traffic creates this scene of decision–making. Behind each moving and sitting body is its upbringing and socialization. Poon’s performance and his deliberation on the creative process holds a mirror to social, legal or moral codes and the reflection of which is projected beyond the theatre.
As I reflect on Poon’s performance, I cannot but be amazed by the similar structure between technology and human society. They are both coded environments and highly disciplined. A simple example, for us computer user, if we mistype our search input only by one key, e.g. 2023/2003, six/sex … our search will be returned with “bad” results. Likewise, we have to face “bad results” for a deviation from the social mores or for a slight faux pas. When we say that we are free to choose for ourselves, we are actually steered to make certain choices. But our thoughts are not hard coded. And as in machine and in programming, it is up to us to calibrate and fix the bug – the human/ cultural intervention.
In the same spirit of “creating connective actions and encounters” I allowed my thoughts to drift to “other” discipline, “other” textual reference (inappropriate even because they are written by dead white men), to examine, and in fact, to appreciate the dimensionality and relatability of the work as it tasks itself.