Text by Anastasio Koukoutas
The title of this article comes from another era, that of the AIDS pandemic, and how victims dealt with their own representations of trauma — how they turned a narrative of extinction into something empowering, not just for themselves but for society at large. Though Arlene Croce at that time refused to review the show of Bill T. Jones Still/Here by naming the work ‘victim art,’ its title somehow still echoes the trouble adhering to words like victimhood and stigmatization, especially when these terms are contextualized in the arts field today and discussed further through testimonies of sexual violence.
It is true that, for many of us, working in the dance field means not just depending on our body to create value, but submitting our body into an array of forces that very often approach abuse, mistreating, and ultimately lead to normalizing malign forces — with the acceptance that dance demands dedication, sacrifice, hard work, transcendence and most of the times silence. Silence about pain, violence, trauma. It seems, from a certain perspective, that dance is an artform which deals a lot with silenced pain, both physical and psychological. The culture of achievement, which is often implemented from an early stage at dance education, is not exclusively about physical finetuning, it is rather about creating a particular mindset, one that allows inner, psychological conditioning for what it is — although generalized — a much-discussed canon in our lives: wherever power is unequally distributed, there is violence.
Of course, violence comes in many forms, so let’s pin it down to something specific: acts of engendered aggression. You have probably read the screaming headlines, seen a show or a movie about it, shared a post or a testimony to inform your friends, tagged #metoo when the theme is trending on social media. It’s out there now, whether done anonymously or eponymously, which means we have reached a decisive moment (again) to “discuss the undiscussable.”
Finding language for this type of violence is the first hard step to mitigating its effects; stripping it from the terror of disclosing such information, breaching the silence, and of course, the connotations that come with it. Silence is often the only choice left to the victims; not because they choose it but because, to paraphrase Judith Butler, they have been exposed to their human vulnerability in the most terrifying way, in that their pain cannot be shared without questioning the system of abusive power that caused it.
Terror shuts down our understanding, it disrupts shareability once the victims are irreversibly exposed to their lack of power. If violence is breaching the very fundamental bond between humans — as dancers we are basically trained to offer our bodies outside ourselves to achieve a collective understanding of movement and of relating to one another — then any type of emotional and physical injury caused by others calls into question human relationality.
What the victims undergo to regain the very access to words — to speak often presupposes that you can be heard as a voice — allows us to think that there cannot be total access to language as long as language remains a tool of power. Testimonies are fragile language because the victims have to prove and to speak of something that doesn’t necessarily bear visible damage — which ultimately, in patriarchal societies, leads to underreporting. They don’t merely have to speak about their experience, they have to convince that their speech is evidence of some truth.
Reporting violent assaults in our workplace, physical or psychological, enables a certain type of memory; not just relating to who has been chronically vulnerable, but also revealing that future conditions cannot be altered if the mournful past is not relieved from the burden of silence. A stance also contradicting the question “why now?” many would pose on the victims after their attempt to disclose their experience. The misinterpretation of exploring any painful memories publicly with the desire to be recognized as a hero or simply as a tactic to gain visibility — as if there is already no discomfort in bringing private matters into the public eye — is the perfect example of how representations of identity entail their own thorny issues.
Indeed, many would talk about empowering whomever is most vulnerable — whether such vulnerability comes from class, gender, race, ethnicity or profession — by contradicting the persistent narratives of pain and struggle. Working with your body, making your body both a ‘product’ and a ‘force’ to add value to your work is a very complex situation. The sensationalism that comes with exposing our bodies, idealizing beauty and beautifying struggle, carries its own signs of moral hazards and controversies. However, this is not a plea to add controversy to our embodied experience or to make room for any type of conservatism regarding how we deal with our bodies and explore our physical life in the fullest.
We need, on the contrary, to understand how dance and choreography participates in the economy of pleasure by producing docile bodies, by “arranging its participants” — only to quote Sade — in power structures based on hierarchies. The latter is not only a topic concerning human resources and expertise, but rather it deals with the conjunction of pleasure and power, the apparatuses of capture that are employed in the work of dance. The lingering question is: how to reconcile differences between empowerment and vulnerability, to implement counter-techniques that will allow trust and intimacy without making fear the only tool to fight back? To answer this troubling question means we have to remove the onus from the victims — as if they are responsible for their own safety — and think more radically of how violence is naturalized within the working environment.
Radicality demands to be attentive to any scale of violence as it unfolds, to retell its history and how it is reproduced. Within families, institutions, formal training, career opportunities, interpersonal relations. Violence isn’t instinctive nor primary; it’s inflected on specific individuals, who are persistently targeted by power relations, cultural biases, political perversions and patriarchal fantasies. If we acknowledge there is rape culture, we will be able to read carefully the meanings attached to it, to recognize the individuals who are captured, immobilized and disciplined by its apparatuses, to undo the wrongful implication that victims are irrational, masochistic or complicit to any violence imposed on them. More importantly, it means reaching a consensus towards the victims without negating the antagonistic narratives within it, thus revisit the ethics of consideration.
To consider the victims doesn’t imply sympathy, mercy or philanthropy. It interpellates us in political action, it demands to rethink the political through an ethical stance that recognizes the inestimable importance of the Other. There is a dramatic incoherence between what we stand for and how we act for what we stand. We are sometimes the first to realize the gravity of violent incidents but still remain the very last who act on time. For how long? We need to become aware of the emergency to act against violence but also against the cynical pessimism that there will be victims anyway. One of the most conflicting situations of our times is our exonerating nihilism, with which we approach not just the social and political crushing of people, but also our indifference towards the ethical and spiritual impoverishment that will deprive people of the possibility to resist violence and sovereignty.
The use of the title from Croce’s article is not coincidental nor unintentional. It reminds us of the multiple complex issues within our community that remain “undiscussable” to this day. It urges us to think differently of “why now?”, whereas “why then?” still haunts us. Both now and then remain unresolved, undiscussed, causing so much pain in our bodies and in our communities. This pain is not irresolvable, it just remains undiscussable depriving us of any possible, imaginable futurity.
Pictured: Kyklothymia, Parasito, 2020. Page from The Others Is You, a collaborative zine between Kyklothymia and To Sfalma. More info here.