Surrounding Disorder. A conversation with Jonathan Burrows
24 January 2017
In the framework of ART CITY Bologna and ArteFiera 2017, choreographer Jonathan Burrows and composer Matteo Fargion set out a “future-based retrospective” entitled Hysterical Furniture, retracing the duo’s body of work. The three-day performance project to be presented at Circolo Ufficiali is conceived as a retrospective and a collective trajectory, curated by Xing in collaboration with ERT/Arena del Sole.
Piersandra Di Matteo interviewed Jonathan Burrows on the occasion.
Piersandra Di Matteo: The title: Hysterical Furniture. How will the ideas of furniture and hysteria take shape in the halls of the Circolo Ufficiali in Bologna?
Jonathan Burrows: Well I thought of this title Hysterical Furniture kind of intuitively and then I wondered what it meant, but I guess it’s a reflection on the formal musical means which Matteo and I use, and at the same time how this is subverted by all the things we can’t control, which is called performance. And it feels that the work of the performer is to try and keep the nervous system calm in the midst of a wholly fearful and adrenaline fuelled experience, which seems always about to tip over into hysteria, in even the calmest of contexts. And the title also makes reference to Erik Satie’s Furniture Music, which were short studies with indefinite repetitions, revived mostly due to the interest of John Cage, who we borrow from in our Cheap Lecture piece.
People often ask what the work we make is like, or what it’s about, and it can be hard to answer with any certainty, but both Matteo and I studied classical music composition with the composer Kevin Volans, so although we use many different mediums in our performances, like gestural movement, video, projected language, text and singing, we tend to call all of what we do music. And from the music comes a sense of formal logic and intellectual questioning, which engages with the intelligence of the audience to figure out what’s going on, and at the same time we understand performance as being a conversation with the audience, which like all conversations must allow also the reassuring signals of smiling and laughter. And this smiling and laughter is not always seen as art, but for us it is a human and political necessity, and a form of resistance.
PDM: This three-day performance project in Bologna is conceived as a retrospective and as a collective trajectory. It looks into your almost thirty years of history, and the fundamental moments that gave life to your particular form of collaboration between gesture and sound, with compositional and choreographic aspects – for example, in the presentation of the classical duets Speaking Dance (2006) and Body Not Fit For Purpose (2014) –, but also looks towards the possibility of a living relation with other artists and thinkers (Eleanor Sikorski and Flora Wellesley Wesley, Kinkaleri, Francesca Fargion, Hugo Glendinning, Mette Edvarsen), some of whom will interpret well-known works of yours from the past. What does opening this space mean to you, aesthetically and politically?
JB: Matteo and I have always had a philosophy about the pieces we make, that they are new at the point of performance. This idea is in opposition to the notion that pieces must be made and shown and thrown quickly away, to make room for the next piece, which is a kind of consumerism we should and can resist.
All the pieces we’ll show in Bologna are things we’ve gone on doing over the years, and all of them recently, so nothing is revived especially for the event. We’re currently touring I think 10 or so different pieces that we’ve made, and for us they’re all current.
The way we use scores in performance helps in this respect, because although there are many skills involved in showing the pieces, reconstructing long passages from memory is not one of them. This is another thing we take from classical music, that the score represents and holds the piece so that we are in some way free of responsibility for it, we just have to do what the score says, and meanwhile the score mediates between us and the spectator.
In terms of inviting other artists into our work, this is something we’ve figured out how to do better recently, which chimes with a period of time when many dance artists are working again in more collective situations. Dance is a very generous art form, and although we’re criticised at times for not being political enough, in fact there are very strong inherent politics within our practice, to do with open sources, group activities and access to the work. It’s just what we do, and it comes partly from the fact that unlike the visual arts there’s no particular financial value to most of our ideas, so we share them freely. And this is part of the attraction of the art form of dance, in a period when we’re witnessing the consequences of decades of neo-liberal ideology, premised upon rigid individualistic thinking.
PDM: What does enquiring into the limits of dance and music mean to you?
JB: The idea that I could push the limits of something sounds a bit egotistical, because it takes many people wanting and working together for things to slowly shift, and always in relation to what came before or might happen in the future. But I am interested by what in dance we call the expanded choreographic field, which is the idea that these elements of the choreographic, dealing with consciousness, time, space, the logics of patterning, memory and so forth, might involve dancing bodies but can also translate into many other areas and mediums of performance.
And for me, watching anybody dance is a strange experience, whatever they’re dancing. I find that the spectator of a dance is always experiencing a mixture of deep self-consciousness and visceral physical response, which awkwardness produces this thing that we call the performative, where small affects trip over each other, accumulating into something which momentarily alters our whole perspective. This is more or less what choreography is.
PDM: The three days will be accompanied by the complete installation of the project 52 Portraits, an epic ‘love song’ that lasts a year, whose segments have been published on the web weekly, marking out a calendar of sung and danced autobiographies by 52 friends and colleagues from the world of international dance. The Barman’s Portrait will be the 53rd portrait of the cycle dedicated to the barman of the Circolo Ufficiali…
JB: 52 Portraits started with the question how Matteo and I could make a large scale piece working with many different artists, and at the same do what we always do, which has this handmade and human scale quality. So the portraits went out each Monday throughout the entirety of 2016, and each subject was sat at a table, looking back at us sitting at our laptops, like a meeting. And each portrait involved Matteo singing the autobiography and ideas of that person, dubbed over a video of them showing fragments of their gestural history. And what I love about the stories is how they contradict the cliché of the beautiful dancing human being who is close to the angels, showing instead the committed, social, political and all too human frailty of dancers, which is so much more interesting than what we see on talent shows.
For Hysterical Furniture we’ve worked closely with Silvia Fanti from Bologna, who has curated the event with generous skill and vision, and it was Silvia who had the idea that we make a 53rd portrait of Jacqueline, who works behind the bar at the Circolo Ufficiali. It’s always been Matteo and I’s philosophy that everyone who works on a performance deserves equal respect, from the performer to the person cleaning the stage, so this opportunity to invite Jacqueline to join us felt right, making visible someone who we might otherwise overlook, and asking her what she feels about dancing and about working behind the bar. And Jacqueline’s portrait will be complimented by a live version of the portrait of dance artist Mette Edvardsen, who has been a strong influence on our work.
PDM: Could you indicate two pieces of music that have been fundamental to you, that have a relation with the project and an (acoustic) madaleine?
JB: This is an interesting question for me, because there are certain pieces which helped me turn a conceptual corner in my own work, like Morton Feldman’s For John Cage, which we literally translated into movement to create Both Sitting Duet and Eleanor And Flora Music, or John Cage’s Lecture On Nothing, which formed the structural base of Cheap Lecture. But the truth is that the music I love most is something I’d rarely bring into the work, because it’s where I go to escape. I play English folk music in a hardcore way with friends in the town where I live, and spend hours every week practising and accumulating new tunes and techniques. And both Matteo and I have been followers for many years of the heavyweight godfather of UK dub reggae sound systems Jah Shaka. And what the folk music and Shaka have in common is that they’re both premised on the power of the upbeat, and both arrive at a kind of trance experience through long exposure. They’re kind of the opposite of what Matteo and I do, which is premised upon close attention to small detail over a short period of time, with an overload of information that should keep you thinking about it for some time after it’s finished.
Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion have been working together since 1989, and their ongoing series of duets go on touring all around the world, with recent retrospectives in Lisbon, Porto, Philadelphia and Bologna. Their work is hard to place, combining intellectual rigour with unexpected humour, but it has its roots in a shared love of classical music, which they clash against an approach to performance that is at once open to audience but also anarchic and joyful. The two men are currently touring 10 pieces internationally, as well as running a year-long online project called 52 Portraits which is releasing a different gestural portrait of a dancer every Monday throughout 2016. Their most recent duet Body Not Fit For Purpose was a commission from the Venice Biennale, and they premiered a new installation as part of the Derra De Moroda Archive exhibition at the Salzburg Contemporary Art Gallery.