Chora, Growing Time

Talk at the Association for Philosophy and Literature (APL) 2019 Conference in Klagenfurt, Austria | Panel: Potentialities to Come – in Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, Writing, Art | June 1st 2019

Sandra Man

I will take the topic of this panel very literally – I will talk now about a future art project, a future artistic genre and the role of time in both of them. I will give you a not yet existing, only right now developing example of a not yet fully visible and not yet defined potentially new art form. I will talk as an artist, as a writer and choreographer, fully involved in the experience of what I will try to describe and share with you – so I will speak from within, from the making. I am just coming out of an intense production and rehearsal period of Chora, that is the name of the project I am going to talk about, this only now growing example that belongs to a maybe future genre; a maybe future genre that is appearing in the world of contemporary art as or as part of one of its most significant tendencies.

One of this most significant tendencies in contemporary art is the aim to work in-between installation and performance. Many artists explore and expand the boundaries of on the one hand objects, stillness and exhibition settings and subjects, movement and stage sets on the other. By doing so they question and challenge the respective ways of being an audience: walking freely through the space or sitting still in front of an action developing in time. Relating with the own individual body – approaching an object, walking into an installation room, strolling through an environment of things; OR sitting in a designated area, surrounded by other people and watching one or many actors, dancers etc. perform in front of a collective audience.

Implicitly or explicitly, consciously or intuitively artists like Anne Imhof, Tino Sehgal, Cecile B. Evans, Goshka Macuga, Philipp Gehmacher, Reza Mirabi – to name just a few who are very different in their aesthetics, approaches and intentions and also in their backgrounds – work in an area where objects of the exhibition space and subjects of the performance stage meet, engage with each other, affect each other, assimilate; in an area in which the role of the audience becomes unclear, multiple and fluid – spectator, visitor, participant, witness, individually walking around and/or being in a crowd: all of that, maybe even at the same time. Questions of gaze, how to look (back), what to do, how to be part of what is going on, appear – on the side of the performers and makers as well as on the side of the audience. Very often in these works the action of the performance is spatialized and happening everywhere at the same time and/or the objects are somehow alive, moving, performing themselves (think of any kind of robots or remotely controlled devices etc.). Very often the question of who is doing „it“ (whatever „it“ is) and if it is in any way done for someone (an audience) or if it is somehow more object-like „self-sufficiently here“ remains open. The ways in which subjects/performers relate to an audience, address it, and the way objects simply are, merge, blend, cross-fade.

Performance has always been related to a certain time frame – the duration of a piece, of an action that is being performed and watched; installation art has always been related to a certain understanding of space: the set-up makes you move but doesn’t move itself. If, to put it shortly, performance has always been related to time and installation art to space, time being action and movement whereas space means stillness, I would claim that the most significant tendency in contemporary art consists in working on these very conditions: the materiality, perceptions and sensations of time and space themselves. I think that many of the works – many of the works by the artists I just named – works usually referred to as transdisciplinary art and called a cross-over of genres etc. are not just simply a mix of strategies or media while the overall frame would stay the same. I think and I would like to think of a transformation that is deeper and more substantial. It has to do with a spatialization of time-based movements and a different understanding of space. An understanding of space that doesn’t take it as a container but as environment, as moving relations, as temporal in-betweens of all sorts between various entities – living bodies, mobile and immobile objects, images, sounds etc. Out of this different understanding and for the arts more importantly: perception of space something new is emerging on the level of singular art works as well as on the level of genres. In-between or beyond performance and installation art something is coming up, maybe a kind of „third genre“. I think it has to do with choreography as the art of movement in and of space and with a potentially new practical and theoretical understanding of it.

I would like to use the frame of my talk here as a try out to sketch what I mean. I will do so from my own artistic perspective as choreographer and writer and very directly out of the work I am currently busy with together with my artistic collaborator, visual artist and choreographer Moritz Majce. I will pass from rather hands on descriptions of what we are doing in this piece and how we are working to more general aesthetic dimensions of what a future choreography as genre in-between performance and installation could mean and what role the ancient notion of Chora could play in it. 

We started our current project under the title Chora quite some time ago – the idea for it being at least 4 years old – and we will present a first stage of it in November in Berlin. We will set up a space of video, audio and text installation and of a live performance by 12 dancers. All together we are a lot of different kinds of things, media and a group of 14 people on an expedition into time. Time is the central topic of Chora. We dedicate the work to questions and experiences of growth. From many different angles we dive into various streams of growing. We start and understand Chora as a process of growth that will continue and last into its time of being publicly presented. We will grow into publication, through it and out of it. We intentionally expose ourselves to a period – the growing – that is usually over when a work is presented, when it is finished. In Chora we explicitly set a frame that allows us to stay open to time, to be affected by time, we want to let time come to us.

All which is happening in Chora, every text, movement, image, object, sound etc. will be somehow related to dimensions of growth. First, as content: we take as inspiration growing processes from the level of cells, bodies, groups, flocks, herds, up to whole geological entities such as landscapes; we are particularly interested in zones of intertwined artificial and natural growth; one of these zones you can see on the video behind me: It is part of a series of videos we shot in Lausitz, an area in former Eastern Germany that is deeply characterized by many decades of coal mining. As Germany is trying to exit coal mining, now many of these areas are being „re-naturalized“. What you see on the video is a completely artificial landscape: every plant there has been planted and there is no single fish in the lake which is still far too acid for life from the remains of the mining – and it will stay so for the next 200 years. Nevertheless it is nature that you see and also feel when you go there and there are for example rare birds living as they are comparably undisturbed; and the wolfs are coming back to this area as well. It is a strange artificial, peaceful wilderness. It was originally planned as a future tourist spot, but there is no one going. You rather feel like having landed on the moon. It gives you an idea of the earth as a planet, a foreign planet. Take Lausitz and the video as a good example, maybe even as a symbol, for what we are interested in: the wild, maybe even archaic dimension of what could be called with Jean-Luc Nancy and Susanna Lindberg a „technonature“. Take the organic in its ambiguity of tool (organon), form and force of transformation. And take the landscape as shared space of heterogenous elements, as ensemble of different kinds of movement, including that of humans strolling through it.

Space Walkers | Moritz Majce + Sandra Man

It is the landscape as ensemble of timings, rhythms, different kinds of growing, moving, of being time and space that we are interested in and working with in Chora. In November we will be setting up an indoor landscape of images, objects, sounds, texts, performers. Comparable to this artificial landscape in Lausitz we will plant in Chora everything – and everything is specifically made for it – we will plant everything in an indoor landscape. And then we let it grow; we let it be and become itself within the ensemble of others. This process of each thing becoming itself within the ensemble of others by together forming and transforming a landscape is the core, the score of Chora.

This takes time. Time is probably the most important „thing“ that is growing in Chora. The overall time will grow in a specific way, it will grow exponentially. In its first presentation this November in Berlin Chora will take place for all together 5 days. It will happen for 1h on the first day, for 2 on the second, 4 on the third, 8 on the fourth and 16 hours on the fifth. During these exponentially growing opening times everything in space will become more: there will be more objects coming in, more videos, more texts, the space will become more and more crowded and according to the opening times the performers will perform more and more hours – up to the 16 on the last day. All together Chora will develop as a growing landscape of many heterogenous elements all coming together with their own drives and desires and needs of growth. Over the course of five days the space will fill up, and time will become longer, expand.

Our interest in this set-up is to find ways through this „more“, to find ways to be, to move in and to be moved by in this ever „more“. We – performers, us, the makers and in the end also the audience – are exposing ourselves to being together with things, sounds, images, objects, plants – „others“ of various kinds – in an ever changing space; ever changing on the level of the individual elements as well as on the overall. Chora will be a space transforming itself by getting more and more dense and at the same time ever longer, more and more stretched in time. We are particularly interested in this ambivalence or at least simultaneity of filling up the space and extending the time of being together. We want to know, to experience how this set-up affects the way performers perform, how this shifting and also confusing space-time-movement makes them move – each of them and together. And we want to find out what ways of watching, being in it, inhabiting it, returning to it, etc., what kinds of audience beings Chora will create.

By setting up a space like this we produce, of course, unpredictability, or, as I would prefer to see it, we are opening up to contingencies. In a space like Chora it remains open how and where and what will connect in an audience member’s experience. Someone might make sense between what she is reading and the sounds she is listening to; someone else will match a video and a performer’s movement; another visitor might focus on the performers first and switch to the videos later, taking them maybe as an extension of the live performance, leading into another time and space. There will be no overall story and no overall guideline. Some visitors will come only for once, others might start to return and link what they see to what they already saw, creating their own archive. We as makers don’t know and we cannot know. There are many entrances and infinite relations and every audience experience will be very singular although all of them take place in the same space.

In Chora we want to take the kind of infinity that is implied in the ever growing relations between the elements and the ever growing length as a source. We want to find out how to move in it and be moved by it – on the side of the audience as well as on that of the performers.

We are working with 12 performers and we work with them on their somatic and affective relations. We train together being connected one to another and at the same time being open to an outside – to the space and its objects, sounds and images and also to the audience members. Being connected, being open is referring to senses: to listening, looking, perceiving with skin, back, all sensitive zones, the whole nervous system. The first and most relevant movement of this choreography consists in opening up, deeply opening up all senses and all receptive zones. The performers train to enter a shared state, a state of hyper-openness and hyper-presence as hyper-relatedness. This state of increased sensitivity and receptivity is nothing else than an intensification of what is already here. It intensifies seeing, listening, feeling as being outside, being in the relation of with. The intensified seeing, feeling, listening, in short: the receiving is not before a movement but it is or becomes movement itself. Activity and passivity are turned into letting pass through, becoming permeable and thus being moved not by production but by reception. The intensification of what is here already is the source of movement and the movement of the source. What the dancers let through their bodies – what they let themselves sense – are relations, a being with, a Mit-Sein to use an expression and a concept by Nancy; the dancers are a being in-between something and/or somebody, spatial and affective connections. By receiving-moving they do not form anything in order to shape it, they do not follow a pre-given form, they constantly trans-form. Their movement is embodied time floating in space, stretching, expanding, thickening, releasing the space, thus giving it back to time. If it works, if the sensorium, the reception is really open, it is a constant and continuous space-time shifting, it is the opening of time in space and space in time, a movement in-between. And it is this movement in and of time-space-relations that I think comes close to what the ancient mythological Chora designates.

The ancient Greek name Chora is at the same time very concrete and a very enigmatic mythological concept, mainly known to us through Plato’s Timaeus and its famous contemporary interpretations by Derrida, Irigaray, Kristeva and others. It is though interesting that next to the philosophical history of the word still today the main village on every Greek island is called Chora. It is the name of a specific place, the place where everything and everyone comes together and that usually also connects the islands through the sea (the ports). Chora is the place that lets the connections happen.

On a far more general and enigmatic level in Plato’s Timaeus Chora is also a space of connection and transformation; it is the space of movement as such that lets everything else – the elements and their movements – emerge; it does so by not having any shape itself and by being permanently moving; in Timaeus it is said that Chora is a space which is never still and never in balance; it is shaking. Timaeus also links this mythological precosmic shaking of Chora to the human body, its health and its desire to move (in order to keep the elements in healthy relations). Similar to chaos and yet very different in its temperature, rhythm and tone, Chora inspires us to think of a moving space, a space of and in movement, a space clearly very different from a static container but also from abyss, crack, chasm that for example chaos as the other famous mythological space opening is related to.

Almost on the contrary, Chora seems to be totally referring to connection, stream, nurturing as constant transformation. Long passages in Timaeus describe how Chora shakes and stirs everything even on a pre-elementary level out of which the elements only emerge. The emphasis on emergence and constant transformation is even more obvious in the famous personification Timaeus finds for Chora when he calls her the „wet nurse of becoming“. A wet nurse is in any sense all about connection and it could hardly be in a more bodily, sensual sense: breast, milk, stream, touch, mouth, sucking, nurturing, growth – a current of life itself. It also reminds of Hera and her milk that forms the galaxy, the milky way (Hera was a wet nurse herself: while breast-feeding Heracles, one of Zeus’ illegitimate sons, she pushed the kid away from her breast and the milk sprayed out all over the heavens, creating the milky way - the galaxy, still containing the greek word for motherly milk). Chora as the wet nurse of becoming, nurturing growth, transformation. Chora as the name of a receptive space in constant movement giving space to movement. Chora is a mythological name – dating from before classic Greek philosophy and also from before classic Greek theater –, storing archaic ritualistic dimensions. In its relation to Choros – another archaic, pre-theatrical name and practice, referring to the choir, the dancing group and the dance floor – Chora – lets us think of dancing and singing or speaking in resonance with and as resonance of the space of movement as such. It gives us an idea of movement as giving in, enjoying the elementary imbalance that is passing through, shaking, swinging and nourishing every body, every particle and making it move and dance. Chora opens up a potential to think of movement and choreography as its artistic form as an ever transforming encounter of time and space, receiving and echoing in every movement the reception of movement and the movement of reception. Chora allows for an understanding of a space that moves us – in us, through us. A space that flows, connects and transforms. I think, still having the images of Lausitz running behind me, that in many ways today we are called to think and practice not only how to move in, to, through spaces but to think and practice how we are moved by spaces, spaces in constant artificial and natural transformation.

Chora, the mythological concept as it is mentioned in Plato’s Timaeus is the name for a space in movement, a connection between time and space. It is the opening movement of and for movement itself and as the wet nurse of becoming Chora is a highly sensual, gentle and caring image for any kind (species) of movement, of time-space-relation. From here on, I think it would be possible to draw a new and very different picture of what choreography as notion and practice is and could be; how – in a very special and spatial understanding – it could be and somehow already is the third kind beyond or in-between time, action, stage oriented performance and space, object, stillness and exhibition oriented installation art.

Chora, both, the specific project I was talking about and the mythological dimension that is still in this word, and the state it announces, envelops the bodies and allows them at the same time to stretch out, to grow, to share space, to move – streams beyond shapes. Swimming in a liquid, a fluid, a current – milk. A space which is itself movement in every element and every relation of which it consists. Before/beyond active and passive Chora is space in transformation and transformation of space. I would call choreography the art of being its resonance, its intensification. Choreography as creating echos of transformations we are and we are in. Of letting feel the ever surprising moves and shakes of that which is constantly transforming, of that which is never in balance.

A choreography inspired by Chora would not only go beyond the time-oriented performance and the space-related installation; taking movement as transformation before and beyond activity and stillness Chora can be a shared space of and in heterogenous movements. This comes close to ideas and images of an environment. The reason why I like the name Chora though is that in its ancient and mythological dimension it is offering not only an image of a space in movement. In Chora this very contemporary perception of space as no longer still and stable, of ongoing streams, circuits, circulations is linked to another, maybe more vertical dimension in time. Through the name Chora the contemporary and futuristic perception of space in motion, of a world and a planet in fundamental transformation is historically, etymologically, philologically and philosophically linked to the peripheries – pre-philosophy, pre-theatre – to the deep times of Western thought and art. Chora, the name, is a channel to the ancient, the mythological and even archaic and to their symbolic and affective potentials. And in a maybe strange way it seems very right and coherent that today in the most futuristic conceptions of space the most archaic image of transformation re-appears just as the most natural and the most artificial meet at the same time deeply disturbingly and convincingly in a place like Lausitz.

Thank you.