An OPENLAB open letter for Devising Think Tank at TripSpace Projects

(I was invited by Laura Doehler to join the Devising Think Tank event at TripSpace and share in one way or another OPENLAB for a few minutes – I wasn’t able to attend, so I wrote this letter for them instead)

Hello everybody,

My name is Antonio de la Fe and for the last few years I have been organising this thing called OPENLAB.

Laura Dohler invited me to attend the Devising Think Tank at TripSpace last Sunday, 4 October and share in about 15 minutes, somewhat practically somewhat conceptually, what it is OPENLAB… or at least offer a taste, even if partial, of what it could be.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend as you may have noticed.

I decided, however, to take up Laura’s proposition and I proposed to write this letter instead. This is a letter through which I could hopefully share at least a facet of OPENLAB, even if OPENLAB as model is fluid and ever changing, responding to the different constellations of people who configure it throughout time.

OPENLAB normally takes the form of approximately two hour-long studio sessions which happen most Friday mornings at Chisenhale Dance Space… or it has been so for at least the last 2 years. The sessions are always facilitated by one of the participants. Normally it is myself who facilitate although any session could be facilitated by any other participant given that they show interest and propose a theme for the session – the offer is always there. Anyway, the prerogative of the OPENLAB is to offer a space for emancipation in our development as performers, in which we take fool responsibility as well as agency of our artistry. The idea is …

“do it yourself, but don’t do it alone”

… because there is something very special from doing this kind of work in the same space with other people.

… because it is reassuring.

… because it validates what we do even if we do it differently, even if our work is unique and idiosyncratic.

… because it may help us to get in the work itself instead of procrastinating or spending time working around the work of what performing is.

… and because after all it can open possibilities for activities that can only be done with others sometimes.

And the notion of a facilitator is to actually enable a common ground or frame which allows like in any laboratory that different experiments can co-exist together without interrupting one another. Basically the facilitator becomes the gate keeper who tries that truly you don’t do it alone but still do it yourself.


I said before that OPENLAB normally takes the form of regular studio sessions but not only. We have had outdoor sessions or sessions run by occupying other public spaces like art galleries, we have had sessions with audiences in different setting from studio theatres to concert halls, passing through sport centres or private homes. Although from all the forms that OPENLAB has taken I really like the form of the take-away session. So far I have only suggested a take-away session once. On that occasion the session was a recorded track that people could listen to and follow (or not) the best way it suit them.

The idea for the sound track came from the fact that I normally tell openlabbers to treat whatever I say during sessions as though they are listening to a set of instructions coming from a tape, so they can actually feel like it is not a big deal whether they follow the instructions or not, whether they missed the instructions or not, whether they understand the instructions or not, whether they achieve anything from the instructions or not…

For Sunday, I was wondering whether I could be able to offer another kind of take-away session. Take-away so you could possibly try it elsewhere. My proposition for this take-away class would be that you bring it to another existing dance (or maybe not dance) class. In any case, it is just an offer and you can work with it as it pleases you (or not). I hope some of you will try it sometime, maybe if you think that there is something interesting in it. Before I try to write down the parameters of the session let me share with you a little story that has to do in part with the reasons for me to organise and carry out this thing that I call OPENLAB in the first place.

This story has to do with education in general and with dance education in particular:

When I was a child I grow up to believe that there was such a thing as The Truth (yes, in capital letters). I believed that this Truth was complete and therefore it could be apprehended. Although I never believed that one person could hold this Truth in its entirety. However, I would see my teachers as all-knowing, or at list holding some portion of The Truth. I believed that when they were teaching they were offering their portion of The Truth, the part of it that they knew very well, and I thought that my work as a student was to gain as much as possible from that portion of The Truth. I thought learning and intelligence had to do with the ability to get the information they had on their brains and place it within mine. This may seem like I was a dumb arse who became a Dictaphone, recording everything it was told, but the truth is that it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. I knew that knowing had to do less with memorising and more with understanding. Anyway, I still saw my teachers as the ones who knew and me the one who didn’t know but could get to know if I tried hard enough.

Obviously dance training wasn’t so much about knowing what but about knowing how, dance classes didn’t have to do with learning about stuff but it had to do with becoming able at doing things, but even so I felt that my teachers knew something that I didn’t know, and at this point my relationship with my dance teachers started to become almost mystical. It felt to me that what my dance teachers really knew wasn’t data that they could share with the students through spoken or written word.

They new The Way (yes, again in capital letters). The Way a student should be guided through, which things they should do and when, the step-by-step order of things in order to achieve those technical skills which are required to be a dancer. It felt like they knew a secret (or many secrets) and that they would only show you a bit of those secrets each time, like the tip of an iceberg, with the promise that if you were a good student maybe one day, when you will be ready for it, the secrets will slowly be revealed to you.

I love exaggerations and my recount of the story is obviously one of those. However, I can’t help but wonder if in a way this attitude towards dance education is tacitly implicit in the many formats it takes. On the one had I think, maybe it was just me who ended believing that learning was happening in those terms. On the other hand I can’t help but wonder: isn’t it this reinforced paradigm in which the notion of a teacher’s knowledge of a class structure and of a technique are conceived as absolutes?

Throughout the years this attitude towards education made me feel a failure as a performer, because of all the skills I seemed to never achieve. No matter how hard I worked at it, it looked like I would never manage to do those idealised versions of technical treats that were thrown to me with the message, “This, my little kid, is what Dance is.”

Although from 2006 to 2011 my approach towards dance classes started to change. I kept going to classes but my attitude towards the hierarchy between myself and the teachers was shifted at first, and ended dissolving eventually (well, more or less… you know how they say, “Old habits die hard” so let’s leave it at that, I’m still working at it). I started to listen to myself more deeply, in a way through which I allow myself to try to do things but keeping in mind the gentle the task of learning new ways of doing.

The teachers little by little became these recorded tapes, only better because they were able to see what was going on and respond to it and so they would many times add valuable information. However, “valuable information” didn’t always came at the right time for me to be able to hear it or understand it, and if I heard and understood that “valuable information” it didn’t always came at the right time for me to do anything with it. So I started to accept that it. I started to accept that any given time was maybe the right time for any information to be processed, but then any given time could be maybe the non-right time for it and therefore I could let some information go. I started to accept that I could sort of do, more or less, what they were asking me to do but I didn’t have to be anxious or too worried about doing exactly what they were asking me to do.

Sometimes it would be obvious that I would do something else because I would allow myself to it really differently, or even stop doing altogether, just because it wasn’t the right thing for me – whether physically, mentally or emotionally – at that moment. Other times it would be less obvious, as I manage to continue doing something that didn’t look too different from what I was asked to do. I basically allowed myself to make any class to work for me (even those classes that I didn’t like much). A bit of a rebel, a pariah… but in a subtle way and always trying that what I did didn’t influenced me negatively with the process or with the other people taking the class.

However, this allowance to do whatever else didn’t mean that I always had to do something else by default. After all, if what I was explained and asked to do was possible for me to do it fully (because I was in the right place to do it, for example) then I would allow myself to simply do it. Or else I would do it (as I was told) and also add something of my own to it.

In a way, this thing I have just said is the OPENLAB take-away session I promised. At the beginning I imagined I would write a list of punchy sentences and I could still do so, to reduce it to its quintessence for you but… then I wouldn’t be trusting your inherent intelligence, would I? So what if simply after reading this you chose any class, maybe even a class you don’t know very well what’s about or who’s the teacher, and you decide to do the class as best as you can but doing so the best way the class fits you?


I hope that this letters has been at least interesting for you, and if you’ve fond it also useful I will be very happy.

Thank you for reading.

With best wishes,

Antonio de la Fe

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‘This is OPENLAB’ by Amaara Raheem.

This is Open Lab.

This is Open Lab.

This is Open Lab.

 

This Lab is Open.

 

Never been to this Park before. Expectant. Awake.

Good Friday.

 

Wetlands and marshes. A canal runs through

us. Duck feathers fall through Olympic

 

This is Open Lab.

 

One Ring to rule them all,

One Ring to find them,

One Ring to bring them all,


And in the darkness bind them.

 

suddenly walking. Not knowing

a way, just following

no-one

This is Open Lab.

This is Open Lab.

This Lab is Open.

 

Hooray, hooray, it’s a Holy-holiday.

 

she lies for a long time on the benches,

while the rest of them peer through

holes in the concrete

 

climbs the wall in her delicate shoes, spider

webs cling to her long, black hair.

 

This is Open Lab. This.

Is open.

 

Is half a reflection caught

in a mirror ball

 

his head swallowed up in constellations of glass

 

There’s a place I know where we should go

heydiheydihoh

Won’ t you take me there your lady fair

heydiheydihoh

There’s a brook near-by the grass grows high

heydiheydihoh

Where we both can hide side by side

heydiheydihoh

 

This Lab is Open.

 

is hidden and then again, not.

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).

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.