Are we here yet? Questioning the pressure to perform during the pandemic


Text by Anastasio Koukoutas

I’ll be suspicious, just for the sake of it. When I come across concepts like ‘togetherness’, ‘intimacy’, ‘care’, ‘sharing’, ‘empowerment’ within the artistic realm, I think mostly but not generally that a great deal of the values practiced and embodied by these concepts are put into question. I think mostly of vitalist capitalism and not necessarily of artistic innovation, or in better words, I believe that affect and knowledge in the arts field are activating new competences able to boost difference and insert a new form of intellectual and affective ‘capital’ into the work, thus inserting difference into the vicious cycle of capitalism. A new kind of ‘productive commotion’ is being achieved, one that modifies how the encounter with the work is lived and thought by the spectator — not only by the artists themselves — and ultimately boosts what is brought to the encounter. The added value comes not from what the work is but from what is not yet, just to paraphrase Franco Berardi [1], and thus calls into play new ‘distributions of the sensible’ (Jacques Rancière).

This is not something new, obviously. As Paolo Virno demonstrated [2], “where something which exists only as possibility is sold, this something is not separable from the living person of the seller” [-artist in our case]. However, instead of improving what we could call collective intelligence and sensibility as a form of co-immunity, we are oxymoronically creating new sources of profit, transforming knowledge and affect into direct agents of consumption, increasing the rate of innovation and invention through the acceleration of ‘connective mutation’ (Berardi). This is what Bruno Latour [3] calls “an animated economy in which entities being dealt with are not people but innovations.” To ensure that these arguments are not left without empirical foundation, but nonetheless remain partly speculative, I am using material from Onassis Stegi’s “New Choreographers Festival 8” curatorial note [4].

Without discussing the artistic value of the works presented in the Festival, since this is not a review, I am attempting to show how the works are framed in the curatorial note and how this is already placing them in a context where value cannot be discussed solely on artistic terms. On the contrary, how these works are framed, “expanding the hybrid and groundbreaking world of contemporary dance,” [5] squeezes value by amplifying the rate of innovation and ultimately redefines what counts primarily as value; Onassis Stegi as gatekeeper of new trends, incubator of a new generation of dance artists. It’s not a surprise that the above statement is made in a moment of cultural stasis when all artistic activities, not coincidentally, are put on hold; “pressing pause on quarantine” is already a privileged stance on how a year-long pause has affected the majority of artists/workers.

What is really interesting, however, is the way these works are disseminated, shared on digital social media platforms, blurring further what constitutes ‘consumption’, ‘commodity’ and indeed ‘innovation’. Stasis and moratoriums are not of any use to capitalism; rather, the new practices within the ‘experience economy’ are concentrated on devices like community and friendship networks, so much so that they bring closer to the skin what is the unrelenting drive of capitalism; the creation of value. Such process will not be possible without the emphasis on communities of knowledge — so precisely delineated by the participation of numerous ‘experts’, such as “filmmakers, scientists, programmers, digital media artists, and even YouTubers, influencers, and bloggers.” If innovation can turn up anywhere and is no longer necessarily restricted to labour, so does consumption. Efficient networking is a good indicator of the efficacy of consumption; even the value of this text depends upon the efficacy of its circulation.

I want to argue that our understanding of the operativity of the economy — including how works are valued by their efficacy and innovation within the proposed narratives of the digital — is crucial. This constructed sense of ‘rightness’ of the digital format, or even its necessity, “as the only place [in which] we can currently be ‘together’,” exemplifies how the very operationality of the system has been imbued into artistic processes and products, positioning affect and a series of concepts, such as ‘intimacy’, as the privileged ‘way out,’ the new cutting edge. This kind of fuel sources reminds us that affective labour is the hidden centre of capitalist accumulation, creating, as Lazzarato [6] argues, an experimental ecology based on continuous interaction sufficiently imposing to resemble an aspect of time itself. “We’re here, dancing away,” after all.

The effect of the ‘streaming ethos’ — caring is sharing — is oriented around making the work more empathetic (not in terms of content but in terms of function), responsive to our critical times, just as how a new generation of artists is “[using] movement to record the present moment and our current situation, giving us their takes on everything we’re thinking, feeling, and going through.” The digital platforms where projects and practices can be shared freely—but ironically will turn them obsolete faster —, this sense of custom-made availability, on which the project is differentiated from a product and is thought of, more creatively, as an interface, encouraging a series of intellectual-sensory registers, could not be sufficiently analysed unless we bring into question the pressure to perform; not just as artists but as a community of friends, peers, art-identified consumers/viewers.

Performing not in a way to respond critically to our current situation, but on the contrary, to create (market) value out of how we experience the pandemic. The pressure to perform, that would only prove right to a corporate logic, is propagating career growth and the modernist myth of the entrepreneurial self : “Try again. Sell again. Sell better.” — only to bastardize Becket’s famous words and put them into the perspective of marketing strategies, promoting individual competitiveness and commitment. When is our commitment elicited under false pretenses to enforce the ideology of high performance and boost someone else’s cultural capital? Are we (still) in charge? “Are we here yet?” — just to use Meg Stuart’s analytical question to contradict again the main slogan of Onassis Stegi’s promotional strategy, “we’re here, dancing away.”

This is not an attempt to create pseudo dilemmas or impose an accusation on artists trying to sustain their right to work — which means, ultimately, their right to defend their value. My initial proposition to be suspicious just for the sake of it underlies the importance to dimly sense that, in a moment of limited possibilities, our willingness to (still) perform is perhaps more in line with predefined options offered as opportunities by a system that does not do other but control them. Artists who chose to perform under the circumstances, face a twofold challenge: to understand the conditions of their agency, if not privilege, and to imagine if another logic of agency is possible, especially if they are “fully aware of the contradictions and functions [that] they are being forced to face and take on in this time of pandemic.”

Because if they are “dancing away”, others will be ‘here’ trying to figure out what to do with the impossibility to perform, to dance and the need to contradict the constant pull of the future.

[1] Franco Berardi, 2005. Biopolitics and connective mutation. Online source.
[2] Paolo Virno, 2004. A Grammar of the Multitude. For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, Semiotext(e).
[3] Bruno Latour, 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory,
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[5] This and subsequent quotes are taken from the Onassis Stegi curatorial note.
[6] Maurizio Lazzarato, 2002. From biopower to biopolitics, Warwick Journal of Philosophy,
13: 100–111.

Maria Mavropoulou, High Dive. Courtesy of the artist