Broadcasting: On improvisation

what is improvistion?

On Sunday 21 April I sat around a table with Illi Adato, Alison Blunt, Georgina Brett, Guy Harries, Martine Painter and Anne-Gaëlle Thiriot. We had a conversation about improvisation.
We were all invited by Ov London to answer the question “what is improvisation for you?” However, on that day I was more inclined to wonder “and what isn’t?” I guess that question was at the same time my answer.
The same way I am not sure about the difference between real life and performing any more, I have also lost the sense of where is the boundary between set and improvised performances.
You will be able to listen to this conversation (accompanied by some music improvised that day) next Wednesday 1st May from 10 to 11 pm on K2K Radio
I hope you will enjoy it… and if it happens that you received this e-mail twice (or more), please, accept my apologies and enjoyed it the double amount (or triple, quadruple… or as many times as you like).

Surrogate Possession by Benevolent Agent in Three Easy Steps: OPENLAB session on Thursday, 19 April 2013

possessionToday OPENLAB was made possible with the participation of Evangelia Kolyra, Manou Koreman, Thelma Sharma and Laura Vega as well as myself.

This is the 1st session we have managed to run after the Easter break and I finally took up the subject of surrogacy for the first time since promised last month.

With the idea of using a surrogate body, i.e. the body of another person instead of your own, what I try to create is an exploration through which learn to control that other body as it would be for you to move, and so becoming its agent, the same way we become agents over any kind of tool we learn to manipulate.

The concept of tools and technology being integrated to our own body schemas is quite a common one within the field of cognitive science. For example, in his book Natural-Born Cyborgs (2003) Andy Clark asserts that we actually are “human-technology symbionts” (p. 3).

This subject has always seemed very appealing for me to be brought into our OPENLAB sessions. The idea is that if objects can be transformed into tools by active exploration and practice, couldn’t we use other subjects instead of objects in a similar way? We surely do it with the taming of animals, what is dressage then if not this kind of surrogacy-control I’m talking about?

In any case, the use (and hopefully not abuse) of other person’s body is not as simple as that of an object and it probably needs to trespass many more moral taboos and resistances than those encountered with animal domestication. The benevolent possession of our surrogates will probably require from a long term period of learning and constant practice is probably necessary.

Today we followed 3 steps of lessons, all perform with the agents eyes closed:

  1. Get to know your surrogate.
  2. Surrogate/environment interface.
  3. Get to know your surrogate’s environment.

Does it sound like something interesting to do? I can say for myself that it actually was very much interesting… and we didn’t have enough! I even started fantasising about what would be like if a group of us went to spend a few weeks surrogating each other up. I mean to go somewhere safe where we could spend long periods of time exploring all the possible tasks and activities a human being may perform in his or her ordinary (although at leisure) life.

This means we will continue exploring the surrogating them in the following sessions, so if you think you may also find it interesting what don’t you just come next week?

Next session is on Thursday 25th (and not Friday 26th as Chisenhale will be busy with the Dance & The Homemade Showcase all day) in the main studio, 9-11 am.


Sartre, Time, OPENLAB: excerpt of a dissertation

As individuals, Sartre deems us unconditionally responsible for our lives and our experiences:

If I am mobilized in a war, this war is my war; it is in my image and I deserve it. I deserve it first because I could always get out of it by suicide or by desertion; these ultimate possibilities are those which must always be present for us when there is a question of envisaging a situation. For lack of getting out of it, I have chosen it. (2003, pp.574-575)

This extreme example serves to portray the freedom that, according to Sartre, is inherent to human life; as conscious beings, we always have a choice (2003, pp. 574-577). Although described in a highly simplified manner here, the personal responsibility that Sartre accredits us with might be seen as a foundation for many of his ideas. During improvisation I became very aware of being solely accountable for my decisions and my choices.

On a more functional level, Sartre’s interpretation of time influenced my practice by establishing a sense of presence, as discussed at the end of this section. For Sartre, temporality, in the practical sense, can only be regarded as a ‘totality’; past, presence and future are interdependent as concepts (2003, p.130). ‘Everything is present: the body, the present perception, and the past as a present impression in the body’ (p.131). Rather than saying we have a past or a future, he claims we are past, present and future (p.137). ‘The past is the ever growing totality of the in-itself which we are’ (p.138), where the concept of in-itself can be understood as the simple fact that being is ‘itself. It is […] an affirmation which can not affirm itself, an activity which can not act, because it is glued to itself’ (p.21, emphasis in original). Whatever we claim to be, it is already in the past. ‘I can make no pronouncement on myself which has not already become false at the moment when I pronounce it’ (2003, p.139), because the moment I speak has already passed when my words reach a listener. The past can be seen as an unchangeable collection of ‘what I am without being able to live it’ (p.142).

For Sartre, the present constitutes the for-itself (2003, p.143). His concepts for-itself and in-itself seem to be two overlapping parts of a whole being that can never entirely be separated (p.128). ‘Being is. Being is in-itself. Being is what it is’ (p.22) and ‘the being exists for itself as a presence to itself’ (p.127). The in-itself can be seen as what we are, the fact that we cannot be without ourselves, whilst the for-itself represents us consciously reflecting on ourselves, analysing our actions from the outside. This is a constant paradox, because we can never really detach ourselves from ourselves. Just as I am unable to detach myself from my skin. Returning to temporality, ‘the For-itself is the being by which the present enters into the world’ (2003, p.145). The present is where the past (in-itself) and the future (for-itself) merge together.

The future, ‘strictly opposed to the past’ (p.151), might be seen as a collection of possibilities, ‘that which the For-itself is not yet’ (p.149). The future has yet to be lived; here is where our freedom, ‘to itself its own limit’ (p.152), takes shape and where the ‘Self’ arises (p.150). In choosing our actions, we actively shape our future selves; our freedom consists in our having full authorship of our future.

When I was studying Sartre’s notions on time and experimenting with his ideas in the studio, I was fortunate enough to meet a group of people that, through improvisation, was developing similar interests to mine. Earlier (p.4) I described OPENLAB as a playful collective of perception-based movement practice and research. A weekly session of improvised movement, OPENLAB is facilitated by Antonio de la Fe and takes place in various settings, from studio to city park to somebody’s living room. It offers performers from different fields the possibility to experiment with different ideas of movement and functions as a platform for artistic development. De la Fe uses perception as a tool to practice performance presence. Through various simple exercises we undergo in-depth explorations of the senses, often culminating in an expanded consciousness of happenings inside and outside of the body, with the final aim of being present.

The present and presence are possibly amongst the most complex and richly layered of qualities that Sartre deals with (it is in discussing the present that he refers to the title of his philosophical masterpiece as ‘that indissoluble dyad, Being and Nothingness’ (2003, p.143)). Although we might not be able to escape them, we will not elaborate on the many meanings of the word presence here; for the purposes of this research we will apply Sartre’s ideas to our field of performance practice. Presence for us seems to be a very broad, sometimes vague term that might be used to refer to an otherwise inexplicable property of performance or, to be more accurate, of a certain performer. Langer describes dance as ‘a play of Powers made visible’ (1953, p.44). We could describe presence as an element that compels us to watch one performer on stage rather than another, a power that he or she exudes most visibly on stage. During OPENLAB sessions, we constantly ask ourselves what it means to be present while performing. Performance presence is assumed to be a skill that might be developed, comparable to the technical principles of pointing our feet or maintaining a rhythm.

Sartre opposes ‘present [to] absent as well as to past’ (2003, p.144, emphasis in original). Simply put, present appears to simultaneously mean here (as opposed to not here) and now (as opposed to before or after). Presence is therefore bound to a space and a time, the amalgamation of which I can only experience through my body. ‘Presence to a being implies that one is bound to that being by an internal bond’ (p.145). Establishing an interdependency of the various senses, we have seen (p.8) that the skin appears to be the sole organ that is able to discern duration of time and distances in space synchronously (Anzieu, 1996, p.27). If presence is bound to space and time, our skin would seem like a logical starting point to experiencing and practising our presence. Sartre defines ‘present’ as ‘the presence of the For-itself to being-in-itself’ (2003, p.144). Consciously reflecting on itself, the for-itself is present to itself. ‘No witness – not even God – could establish that presence; even the For-itself can know it only if the presence already is’ (P.145).

How might Sartre’s ideas about presence apply to performance? Working with the OPENLAB collective sparked an inquiry into being present by attempting to be here and now. This might sound deceptively simple; one might say that we cannot not be here and now. We cannot escape the present moment. But could this moment not be divided into innumerable particles of moments? How could we know when a moment has passed or when it is coming? During my practice, I always came back to these questions. In improvisation I developed a presence for me, or a sense of here and now; I know exactly when these moments of presence occur. They are rare and extremely fleeting, and they may be impossible to put into words. De la Fe states:

Maybe, when we are present, we can clearly recognise and understand that we are present… We can even remember the moment, but as soon as we are not in that place of presence while performing we do not know where that place is. We know when we are in a state of presence because we also know when we are not present, when our expectations or plans pull us away from the present moment. (2013)

Any theoretical explanation of the phenomenon I encountered in being present will necessarily be an abstraction. We have seen above (p.9) that time cannot concretely be split up into past, presence and future, which appears to render the notion of being present (without being past or being future) impossible. And yet it was in appointing my skin as a vehicle for presence that I encountered moments of being present, real experiences that provided landmarks in my devising process. I will attempt to explicate the practical notion of time that became implicit in my practice. Whilst moving, I aligned past (movement) with judgement (of movement) and future (movement) with planning (of movement). To be present would mean to momentarily escape the judgement of past movement and the planning of future movement. Truly moving in the moment, however fleeting that moment may be, means moving without planning and without judging. In practical terms, practising presence for me means training my ability to find moments of presence during improvisation. I encountered very few instances of movement that was not pre-conceived or post-judged during my research. However, these instances of being present seemed to be of the greatest importance, because they incurred new and unexpected movement that was specific to that particular moment.

Dalston Community Gardens: an outdoor session

An open-air session in Dalston community gardens. Beautiful space. Working with the idea of pictures and the passing of time; thinking of movement as the passing of images, like a photo-book you flick through, looking at some pictures longer than others.


Skin is everywhere. There’s so many ways to touch, rub, strike, stroke, clap… Featherlight to no touch at all, where does it begin or end? Touching of wind. Can I touch the air that surrounds me? Am I forever involved in this process? How can I not touch the air around me? Or does air touch me?

When I jump in the air in an X-shape for a split second it seems air is all that I’m touching. But then my hair still touches my face and my fingers touch each other. Overwhelming. So much to touch. Grass, ground, stones, flowers, sky, chairs, clothes, skin… My own skin. Where to begin? Stillness. There’s still movement. And touch. Does stillness exist?

Smell and taste.

I smelled the purple bushy flowers, a vague taste of oatmeal crackers lingering in my mouth. Strange combination. It had been there all along. Slightly nauseating.

Lying on my tummy with the purple flowers under my nose. Layers and layers of smell, flowers then grass then earth. I want to taste the air, what’s the taste and what’s the smell? Sweet purple flowers with a hint of honey.

The strangest thing…The earth pulsates. A fraction of a second, a brand new notice. I wanted to move from there, vibrating. The eyes felt unfocused but the body was syncing up with this earth.


My favorite so far. Intricate rhythms everywhere. Like with touch, smell and taste, the ability to tune into a sound, finer and finer, it’s not just one, there’s six, each of them again dividable in more sound particles… An everyday soundscape which is purely original right now. And yet sounds completely normal. Rhythmical in its a-rhythmicality. Trying to move to each different rhythm simultaneously with different body parts. Base rhythm with the legs, step step, rounded syncopation on top. Just to change it up. Making up rhythms in my head to go on top of these city sounds.


How much there is to see! On top of all the other senses. Too much to take in. I lay looking at the movement of the clouds, earth churning within a layer of sky, then bushes, grass… The others. Compelling me to move. Honoring by taking over a movement, a direction, an energy. A space. Knocking on a pole. Hilarious.

We had lunch and talked about time being infinitely divisible (second into split second into millions of tiny splits of seconds); the same goes for detail. There’s always more detail to be seen, heard, felt…

Then we had a sort of jam against a surreal backdrop of music which never quite came into being. Dancing with people can be so refreshing, they plant different ideas and thoughts in my head and make me come out of my thoughts. It’s weird how the positioning of the body sometimes all of a sudden can evoke an emotion that’s commonly associated with that position. It’s completely backwards; I’m moving around without planning, all of a sudden I find myself in a sort of ‘lamenting’ position which triggers an instant of feeling severe, sad… It slips away right away because it isn’t an actual feeling… Is it cultural?

Blindfold Breakfast no.1

A breakfast with a blindfold on. What an insanely exciting and weird thing to do, I feel like a child stumbling through the room trying to find some coffee and losing my chair when I come back. So much fun! Taking away the eyes changes everything: distances from juice to glass, timing when the glass is full, the sensation of a piece of bread in my hand, how I hold a knife and how to spread the butter evenly, a strong sense of smell determining what it is that I want, a bigger connection between smell and taste of food. Intense flavors. I want to try a bit of everything because it’s all so different, and I get bored of my toast with honey after two bites because I’m ready for a new adventure.

After we take off the blindfolds, the room and everything inside looks much smaller than I thought it would be. Colors are different. Even though I knew the room from before, it looks completely different than I expected. Even though I was aware of different people in the room, the blindfold provided me with a sort of inner experience of breakfast, with my own images and ideas and sense of orientation. How much there is in daily life that we just never notice… Because our habits are so deeply ingrained in us!

Square Roundness… Thoughts on Anthony Gormley’s ‘Model’

I am changed. Blocks are human are square are round and need my roundness to balance out their unevenness, which is present in my square smaller me.

Excited like a child I was to go in there. Now, writing this, I don’t want to hear the chatter yet. I don’t care. This is me here. My experience. I don’t want it to dissipate so soon, I don’t want to hear other bodies’ thoughts. Sometimes they can peel away from me, from my experience, chameleon that I might be, so susceptible to other people’s opinions thoughts feelings ideas.

The outer exhibition did not prepare me for this inner experience but of course it is all the same, just smaller or bigger. Building blocks that make up humans. Like atoms. Particles. Square = round. How lovely!

Loved it. An urge to push and experience these walls and corners and lines… A faint smell of iron. And the darkness… The darkness! So scary at first when I slid back on that first dark block, I thought I might fall into an abyss there, a hole in the ground. No ceiling above me, no wall behind me and yet I would slide on my butt farther away until there was a wall, there was a ceiling. All was just dark. When I found my space my eyes got used to the dark and actually I could discern vague shimmers of people. I think. Shadows. It was an eerie feeling, like a voyeur I sat in my little corner, quiet, observing shimmers passing me, feeling their way through the dark. No one knew I was there, it was as if I was hidden away, someone else. Other bodies that could have been illusions, vague spots until other bodies were touching me suddenly. Something grey crawling near me but when I lightly brush my foot over the area there is nothing there after all. I wanted to be sucked up by this darkness somehow, I wanted to be shadow. To be nothing for a little while.

Going further into the maze I want to be upside down all around exploring these corners. Some people there were scared, weird, awkward, talking about laundry and careers, not really observing. A few were. I was too self-absorbed to pay much attention to the attention of others, but I was startled a few times when I found someone, an unknown outsider, watching me. It changed the experience, which became suddenly about showing some sort of relationship between myself and this iron dark or semi-light squareness rather than about me exploring the darkness for me. The difference is subtle yet massive.

Performance presence, supposedly something we can ‘tune into’, a state we can reach for ourselves in individual practice or within a group of trusted openlabbers, and yet as soon as I sense I’m being watched the experience is changed. Almost a longing to go back to the darkness to be alone and move for me, a place where no one can see what I’m doing but it still exists for me. And sometimes wanting to be in the light, wanting to be seen. I am not weird? Am I weird? Are we all? Does it matter?

Not right now, not today, not for me. This is or was more a self-indulgent yearning to explore and then ‘sketch’ through movement than to scream out LOOK AT ME!!! Which is not to say you cannot look at me. You are welcome to be a witness to my experience. But what if I had wanted my being present to pull you in as an audience? Is that not what performance is about? To pull an audience’s eye?