21 ︎︎︎ It is hard to be soft

The MOVING BODIES / MOVING IMAGES / MOVING WORDS workshop was a rich experience in exploring possibilities for writing – with care and with rigor – about the expansive and ever-shifting genre of dance film. Due to the pandemic, most choreographers have had to expand their practices across the last 2 years into the digital sphere. Because of this shift in the conditions and interest in moving bodies captured in moving image works, we, Melanie Jame Wolf and Louise Trueheart, offered a selection of dance films to the participating writers Mai Avis, etaïnn zwerr, and Aidan Riebensahm. The selection of works dealing with dance on screen included examples from French cinema, theater, social media, as well as three POOL film festival pieces. They were, “BINARY“ by Edifice Dance Theater, “SALTO2” by Marc Philip Gabriel, “EVERYTHING THAT'S LEFT“ by Sita Ostheimer, “ALL THIS IS THE CASE“ by Diego Agulló, the dance scene from “Bande a Part“/Jean-Luc Godard, its referential dance scene from Simple Men by Hal Hartley, an hour’s worth of TikTok dances, the film Cox Orange from video artists Malina Heinemann & Joseph Kadow, and “Still not Still (scenes for Camera)“ by Ligia Lewis and Moritz Freudenberg.

The gaze, the image, and how they operate in flux was very much the topic of the two days we spent working together in the shop at DOCK 11 whilst the POOL Festival was under way. “ALL THIS IS THE CASE”, as well as “Cox Orange”, engage the eye in constant shift and flux. Their movements point to politics and questions around who is looking and from where.

In these two examples the eye conversely belongs to a drone, and to the weather, or was it the divine panopticon? How funny it was to juxtapose the close ups in Gabriel’s “SALTO” with the selfie angle of a TikTok artist: one small element made visible at a time, as the series of images flash by like a death scroll. The cinematic attention in “BINARY” recalled classic Hollywood tropes and values, while Lewis and Freudenberg made a cinema of the stage.

On the second day, the participants read drafts of each other’s texts out loud. Mai, Aidan, and etaïnn are proficient writers of poetry, theory, and critical text. To be exposed, whether on film, in words, or in front of colleagues is a powerful, vulnerable, volatile, and dynamic position. It was interesting to see how the principles we came up with around dance film – the tug-of-war between subject and object, an aversion to systems of logic that insist on 'good' or 'bad', or the extent to which the reader/viewer’s gaze can or should be controlled, played out among us. As a group, we noticed the generative power of the careful generosity that we had developed as a shared practice. How to be tender and rigorous at the same time, how to remember that the edit is intrinsic to the work, how to respect artistic labor? This desire of generosity as a central ethic of good critical practice fed the writing that was produced in the workshop. It was a transformative process for all of us. (Melanie Jame Wolf & Louise Trueheart, workshop inventors)

MOVING BODY –  About trained sight and trained bodies

By Mai Vis

The distorted image of the drone’s reflection in the rectangular, convex, traffic mirror triggered a rush of thoughts about representation and questions about reflexivity. This traffic mirror presumably has a more precise name, but I can’t think of one just now. It’s hard not to write using my own training when addressing images like these. Technology is currently what I make my living thinking, reading and eventually, also writing about.

The image I’m describing appears in “Cox Orange”, a film by the Berlin-based duo, Malina Heinemann and Joseph Kadow. To watch the watcher in a mirror like this, is a powerful moment. We see a shape reflected in the undulating glass and realize that this is what our real eyes have been “seeing through”. This momentary visibility of the object producing the distant, view-from-nowhere gaze, feels like an answer to questions asked publically about perspective, privacy and surveillance. Terminology is a part of watching this film now that we’re increasingly gaining a collective language to describe this kind of gaze.

Equation 1: The drone in the traffic mirror from Cox Orange, 2020, by Malina Heinemann and Joseph Kadow

The duration of the shots from above were so long, dreamy and elegant that it felt like flying over lakes and forests. The body of a person, then an animal, being followed came into view. At one point the figure being followed, a slim white woman, looks back directly at us, though it’s actually the drone following her that she’s looking at and we are that drone, or at least our gaze is embedded in it.

And as I watch I try to think about my own body. I am watching and my training shapes so much of how and what I see and notice. The detail of what we see and how, makes me wonder whether it is possible or even desirable to turn that training off and see otherwise? Training for what? Training as what? As proximity, grasp, intimacy, preparation, readiness, distance, ability?

I am unable to escape the feeling of freedom in the drone’s flight footage. That wide-open, easy perspective drifting over the landscape, far above it, not at all engaged or entrenched in which forest, which people, which drone… only the gaze. This continuous feeling, until I catch myself and reflect on all the thinking this distanced gaze prompts in me and how trained that thinking is in a particular form and tradition: academic distance.

In the workshop MOVING BODIES / MOVING IMAGES / MOVING WORDS where this text was born, we talked about the trained bodies in dance films and I know that surveillance is also supposed to train bodies to act in particular ways. Are we supposed to know that we are being followed, tracked and surveilled? We do know that now and maybe we are supposed to. Maybe that’s part of how surveillance works. If we think of “Cox Orange” as a dance film, and if dance film is the filming of trained bodies, then is writing about surveillance, writing about bodies in training? How it’s happening, to whom and by whom? The way the figure from the film looks back at the drone is a part of a conscious unconsciousness of the fact we are being watched. But not by an individual or some evil entity, necessarily. The watching is numeric, quantitative not qualitative.

But what does this distant, numerical, disinterested, gaze do? It’s never actually that distant. Distance is always distance from something – an object, an experience, a feeling, a position, a place, a collective. We all know about distance. We all had to practice it strictly these past few years, except for with a select few who we chose to be a part of, and not apart from – our bubble, our pod, our family, our public.

Another scene I was struck by was a moment in which we – the viewers – see the drone again, but it is only a shadow of the drone not the actual thing. It is very clear though, clearer than it is in its reflection in the traffic mirror.

This fact that the shadow is clearer than the reflection haunts me and I reflect about the shadows cast by training. My words have been trained and are now directed at trained bodies, but not necessarily ones trained by surveillance. I know a lot about those bodies.

I sat in Berlin and read a lot about how 5 days ago, 6 prisoners escaped from a high security prison in the north of Israel. Police are searching for these bodies, watching everywhere. People are calling in to report having seen the bodies, but it turned out those calls were fake – meant to disrupt the police’s appeal to the public for help in seeing. The public was unhelpful. And then the questions came to my mind again: Who is the public? Who was asked? What were they asked for? The police asked the Israeli public to watch and Palestinians responded to that call for help. How they responded mattered. They saw how to distance the gaze by responding. [1] [2]

Awful security camera footage of torture inside the prisons soon circulates online [3]. It’s similar to the gaze we see in “Cox Orange”. A small device, high up, looking down. What it captures is the abuse of imprisoned bodies. It’s dark and current. But I’m supposed to be writing about the film we watched and what I saw in it: the tall, spindly pines captured by the drone camera, view-from-nowhere, gaze. The gaze is so distant and still intimate because of a letter we hear about a placenta. Is that the subject matter of this personal prose? A close up of flesh and digging and then distance.

This is how I always imagine surveillance. A remote and uninterested gaze that’s very close and intimate: distance and detail. Distance unless it is interested in you, and then the details matter, very much. It’s very close. It comes knocking. Police at the door. Arrest.

Towards the end of “Cox Orange”, we are exposed to two figures in a horror scene moment. With a start, I understood that the drone is not in fact the real watcher when the drone operators appear to us, standing by a car on the side of a road, in a German (?) forest. Their faces are disfigured in the editing. One of them is holding a phone – are they filming the drone filming them? Where is that footage? We never got to see it. I was really hoping we would.

That we never really got to see the watchers has stayed with me. We were lulled into thinking we’d seen the watcher when we saw the drone in the traffic mirror – but as the faces of the two drone operators come into focus, as in a horror film, we know we haven’t. Is it the horror of reflexivity, anonymity or distance?

A dreamy feeling of freedom is activated by the drone’s flight above pristine landscapes before the details matter and I’m plunged into presence, into who I am as the watcher. I am the watcher and also the watched. I am writing about what kind of watching is happening and you are reading that.

The absolute ease of being able to watch in this way is what allows me to feel freedom as I experience the flight: the flight of the prisoner, of the drone, of the gaze. From a distance.

About the author:
Mai Vis likes words. She likes their subtlety and power. They help move feelings and thoughts and strong convictions. Looking around at personal and collective crossroads, she wishes for new forms and for more care, more play, and more movement. That is what she wants to find through her current research about The Digital. In an oracular reading she was offered online by a friend, there was an image of a guardian whose feet “touch intuitive waters where an egg incubates”. This image propels her to explore what might #hatch.

[1] This was written before the recapture of the captives.
[2] Ed. Note: A variety of news reports appeared on the escape, here a choice:
[3] Ed. Note: The sources are not verified. An background article is to be found here: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/24/amnesty-catalogue-of-violations-by-israeli-police-against-palestinians

MOVING IMAGES – Affective Involvement of Those in Safe Distance

By Aidan Riebensahm

“Still not Still” is a dance performance choreographed by Ligia Lewis, taking on philosophical questions of history, particularly the linear imagination of time. In these (scenes for camera) we get to watch the ensemble of multiracial performers (Boglárka Börcsök, Darius Dolatyari, Corey-Scott Gilbert, Cassie Augusta Jørgensen, Justin Kennedy, Jolie Ngemi, Damian Rebgetz) move in loops and repetitions among each other and the stage of Hebbel am Ufer. The choreography involves both the performers and the camera person surveilling the expressive, timewise explosive movements of the Black performers. In a close up, one of the Black performers creates a rhythm, clicking their fingers onto their teeth. Thereby adhering to the burden that is placed upon this body to perform innovation with the tools at hand.

The camera (operated by Max Fierchau and Moritz Freudenberg, edited by Moritz Freudenberg), alternates between moving among the dancers as an eighth performer, and watches from the empty box theater of the theater HAU Hebbel am Ufer 1. A stand-in for an audience remaining distant as a measure of safety – the camera’s position, still or not, remains one that defines itself by what it directs its' attention to, and from which position it does this, still or not still. Its view is a subjective perspective.

While the camera person moves through the bodies choreographed by Ligia Lewis, the hand movements of the Black performers are carefully surveilled. Keep your hands where I can see them. The anxious tracking of the Black performer’s movements stands in contrast to the lingering, slow and steady images of white performer’s swinging, swaying, as it willfully directs attention to them, catching glances at the empty seats. It seems as if these slow movements are conducted with certainty that the focus will remain on them, which it does, until Black hands need a close eye on them.

In one of these first (scenes for camera) three Black performers sit, stand watch, upright, holding eye contact with the crossfire of the lense. Two white bodies scattered around them, whimpering, jerking, resting? As the camera moves in on the three Black performers at center, the white performers lift and lower their faces towards the height of the camera. Zooming in on a Black performer's face they mouth the word Help. Tethered from these images, the soundscape whispers a continuous breathy opening and closing of a mouth in close proximity to the microphone. Fierchaus and Freudenberg’s camera diverts its attention from this silent cry for help. Only briefly does the camera linger on this Black performer's face, moving on to a close up of a white performer shedding a tear. Then, still bodies in blue light. Bodies at night do look a lot alike.

In the bright light of HAU’s stage, gestures travel among the cast, echoing from body to body. The semantic charge of each of these bodies affects the taxonomical interest of the camera: Whenever the Black bodies overexpend themselves, the camera moves closer, follows the performers. Fierchau and Freudenber, themselves

shaking, moving, circling around the performers and surveilling their gestures – like a handheld phone, grasped in an effort to document urgent events. As white bodies stumble and fall, the camera offers them benevolent attention, lingers on their attempts to perform slow movements. Calmly granting them however much time they take to perform for the empty seats in the Theater.

Then, the ensemble moves into each other, leaving barely any place for the cameras’ gaze to move in between. As an erotic sphere shaped by pushing their bodies together as close as possible, the ensemble slowly slides down a slope. Even as they hold on tight, the advancement of their shape moving downwards remains inevitable. The tethered soundscape of intimacy, erotic, sniffing, breathing, gasping playing. The visual shapes and shades of these performers are distinct from one another in low hanging smooth lighting – as smells, sweat, limbs, and crevices of this sphere move closer together, leaving out the choreographed camera, its function as a subjective observer is exposed as a driving force in how these bodies are viewed. If this were the last scene for the camera, it might be a hopeful dance film about how the burden of a surveilling gaze could be redistributed. But this is not that kind of optimistic outlook on violent gazes. Lewis’ choreographed loops and repetitions don’t hold space for hopeful utopias in the telling of history. Once these erotic proximities are severed, the camera returns to its process of moving between the bodies with either its hunting or glamourizing gaze. Thereby demanding affective involvement of those of us in safe distance of these (scenes for camera).

“Still Not Still (Scenes for Camera)” by Ligia Lewis and Moritz Freudenberg
Camera: Max Firchau, Moritz Freudenberg
Edit: Moritz Freudenberg

MOVING WORDS – (i cannot stay still watching you)
an impression from Ligia Lewis’ and Moritz Freudenberg’s “Still Not Still (Scenes for Camera)”

By etaïnn zwer

pleasure, pain, pain, pleasure, pleasurepainpleasure, they are so close, it’s hard to tell, i can not chose, i do some yoga, every day, e-v-e-r-y day, stretching my capacity to take that world in, flexing ethics here, i’m carefully listening to my nerves, this is the only method i can use to unfold, gut feelings: my criticism, i’m not the Academy, you can tell maybe (wait, put that in the footnotes), and still i go to the show, narrator goes to the living room, rewinds, which shirt should i wear? which gestures? which myself in the mirror? a spell, here i put some dope rap on as metaphorical introduction, can you hear me now?

Mykki Blanco in a blond wig, in a black wig, sorry, Mykki Blanco as a critic, as a body, as not there, not in this piece, sorry, images can be blurry, this 70’s Living Theater camera, operating through time, so close
a close up, reminds me of your lips, digital gothic really, reminds me of (ah!, don’t reveal too much yet)
makes me cry,
emotions stripped, drop drop drop,

i leave some sweat and hair on the seat, a liquid fake blond, a brown laugh, i am brown, yes, and it is not a mundane thing to witness Black performing on stage, i’m hungry for this power: representation, presence, my identities have no access to the theater dome, i navigate myself a way through Cultural Whiteness by witnessing, that is (sometimes): writing, this is my regime of look, i see you, i see all of you,
writing, happiness sorry, is a warm gun, Performer aims an arm at Performer, shoots, repeats, some gestures can kill, history of violence, i know how it feels to punch someone in the face, i’m not sure the experience feels the same here, delay, operator please, i’m thirsty for connection, the show does something into my spine, tensed, organic, feelings?, ripped outside, embodied in strangers, and this Instagram astro advice: f e e e e e e e e l the feelings,
i fear for them, i fear for us, i want to rage, too, who’s trapped in which reality? someone please call 911,
i need comedy, i laugh at a corpse, laying down, Performer resists the narrative grip, i cannot stay still watching you,

a close up,
bodies collapse and throw themselves and stumble, stage hurts, hurt falls
off the screen, falling, like in love, like a (dancing) piece of meat thrown from a cloud (who’s out there, watching, leading, ironing fate costumes for ebay kleinanzeigen humans, laughing at us?), i don’t know if i like cloud rap, slow mo makes me emo, could it be? (no, save it for later)

a close up,
a floating pool of sorrow (how deep is the sea?), a headbang greeting death, a language of drama, musicals can kill, Performers sing sing, syllables, take the shape of a thrill, reminds me of (yes), Performers, do it again yes (wait, what time is it?), i am lost, a close up, close up, close, how close is too close? put a screen on it, intentions navigate a landscape of skinship and bones,

moving, moving, moving,
this is too much (it does matter) and still they rise,
Performers, trained
my heart, trained,
we, all,
a muscle,
a system of touch, could it be love? some gestures can heal, it takes a life to experience it, this is what we’re thankful for, this is why i’m here, i feel myself, i stretch my gaze, gaze: our most mortal portal, i died many times already, i’m not afraid, i take that in, this world, i see you, i see all of you, bodies, a specific form of heat, on the dark side of the room, on the make-me-dance side of the stage, merging, i’m learning about holes, and about boundaries, can we actually do it relational? can i dig in and still let go? can flesh ever become a safe container? i need to do more yoga, i need a soft discipline, it is hard to be soft, i'm learning, i'm learning here, here