Rethinking work and creative practice in times of socio-ecological crisis
We need more art projects, cultural practices and narratives that help cultivate sustainability, relationship-building and dialogue. Practices that are not only sustainable and ethical, but that also nurture human values such as collaboration, active participation, empathy and care.
Where I am: some thoughts on work and creative practice in 2022
Change doesn’t happen overnight. The evolution I have observed in my own creative practice during the last five years is the consequence of a never-ending cycle of macro and micro events that shape my worldview.
In my most recent projects (self-initiated and freelance), I’ve had the opportunity to put into practice some of the ideas, methodologies, processes and values that are shaping my current body of work. Work that has been in transition or in re-adaptation and re-evaluation mode since 2017. Re-adaptation to the recent and current social, political, economic and environmental changes. Re-evaluation of the traditional modes of curation, creation and production and the search for alternative methods that are kinder and fairer to our surrounding environment and its inhabitants.
This piece attempts to summarise the approach I took in one of my latest projects, Connecting the Dots 2021 (Mexico City) and the values derived from the practices and projects presented by the people I worked with on the programme. Values and working practices that I think are worth highlighting in a world that is becoming more and more complex and uncertain.
This is a text about art, education, dance, choreography, culture, society, politics, systems, climate change, values, care and much more. Overall, it seeks to illustrate how through art and culture we can offer many possibilities for transformative infrastructure building, including the infrastructure of human relations.
Dance and choreography: thinking about body and movement as tools for disruptive change
As a transient and time-based art form, dance usually takes the format of an event, rather than an artefact. This allows the artistic message to be perceived in a more direct way by an actively engaged audience. What makes this medium so relevant and compelling is its capacity to bring us back into the present moment: the here and now. This is especially important in a society overloaded with information and sometimes-unreliable news. In a world that is becoming more and more hyperconnected, it is essential to pay attention to understanding the knowledge, wisdom, memories and relationships that are generated through the experiences of the body. I wonder how often we think about the body and movement as tools for disruptive change. Tools that can help us wake up from our physical immobility and the oversaturation of the mind.
Originally conceived for a world that did not yet understand the concept of a pandemic, the third edition of Connecting the Dots was set to highlight the role of dance and choreography as vehicles for transformation and resistance against an increasingly alienated and technology-dependent society. A society dominated by brutal capitalism. With the 2021 edition, I was interested in exploring the narrative of dance and how this can transcend its own artform. I was also seeking to understand the way the artistic message can be expressed and perceived through the practice of dance and choreography.
Working with dance and choreography was a way to challenge the status quo of an increasingly digitised age: a situation exacerbated by the enforced immobility and “digitality” of Covid-19 and the lockdowns that went with it. We decided that it was more important than ever to continue talking about dance, and especially about the practice of choreography. Choreography not as a technique linked to the creation of contemporary performances for traditional dance spaces, but as a much broader methodology that spans other artistic, scientific and social disciplines. Choreography as a place from which social, anthropological, educational and creative research processes can be carried out. Choreography as an instrument for social transformation which can help us imagine and articulate new languages, protocols, relationships and coexistence. I believe that the nature of choreography is not only limited to the territory of dance. I see the practice of choreography as an interdisciplinary field of knowledge and creation in which connections with other fields such as cartography, architecture, writing, music and ecology take place.
Reasons for not working with art+tech/dance+tech
My practice has gone through a process of transformation in recent years. Although I specialised in the field of art, technology and digital culture, the last four years have meant a process of reconfiguring and refocusing my work towards more social and ecosocial practices. Towards approaches and processes that are more sensitive to and mindful of the rapid social and environmental changes we are experiencing.
The main reason why I chose not to work with art+tech/dance+tech at Connecting the Dots 2021 is because of the social and ecological impact that technology can imply. I am referring specifically to the consequences of technological evolution such as extractivism, planned obsolescence, the problem of e-waste and the increasingly worrying scarcity of mineral and natural resources. The extractivism of minerals and materials by governments and large technology companies involves, in most cases, aggression against the environment and local communities, forcing the displacement of many of them, which can in turn lead to geopolitical conflicts between rich and less rich countries. Planned obsolescence is what keeps tech companies in business, making huge profits by designing devices with a very short lifespan. This is a way to ensure repeat future sales and drive constant demand, which creates, among other things, a consumerist habit in the user. Not to mention the questionable practises by manufacturers to attempt to limit the repair or modification of devices. As for the problem of e-waste, a large portion of everything we consume ends up in countries that do not have the resources to manage this highly polluting waste. We end up dumping it in the same countries from which we extract natural resources, which is the very opposite of what a circular economy should look like.
The protagonists: who did we work with and what happened?
Connecting the Dots 2021 was dedicated to exploring the social, creative and educational possibilities of dance through the development and presentation of two projects and a new short documentary, a conference, a series of workshops and an international dance screening programme.
This year's theme was inspired by the ideas of choreographer and dance theorist Mårten Spångberg, who talks of choreography "as an expanded field of experimental practices and creative processes that are activated by various formats and expressive tools". In Spångberg's words: "The future belongs to choreography, but only if it acknowledges its potentiality as an expanded capacity. Choreography is not the art of making dances (a directional set of tools), it is a generic set of capacities to be applied to any kind of production, analysis or organisation. Choreography is not the art of making dances, it is a complex means of approaching the world."
We also took some of the premises of the Relational Art movement as a reference, identified by French art critic, historian and curator Nicolas Bourriaud. This movement places its emphasis on the relationships that are established between and within the people to whom the artistic practice is directed. Relational Art was born in the 90s, following the birth of the Internet, mass media communication and the concept of virtual networking. This movement attracted many artists whose practice took human relations and their social context as their point of departure. For the third edition of Connecting the Dots, we presented practices that, although mediated by a screen, make use of choreography to facilitate affections and social relations; to create spaces of care and listening; and to propose new narratives and approaches that challenge the status quo.
For the 2021 edition, we worked very closely with three choreographers from Mexico in the conceptualisation and development of two projects. In their work, we examined through choreography and dance how processes of care, listening and reconnection with ourselves and the world around us take place. By supporting their work, we wanted to make visible alternative modes of creation that place other corporealities and care at the centre of the creative process. The programme also featured the participation of artists and professionals from the world of dance and culture, as well as students and people from many different backgrounds for activities such as the conference and the documentary, “Cartografías de lo Laboral”.
With choreographers and performers Nadia Lartigue and Juan Francisco Maldonado, we developed a year-long interdisciplinary project focused on exploring other corporealities and topics related to the body, movement, work and workplace. Titled “ay, olor”, the project involved research, workshops with students, conversations and interviews with staff from different departments at Cenart (including cleaning, gardening, maintenance and security personnel), and the development and presentation of a new choreographic sound installation. This work builds on a previous research project called “Canciones para personas que también son espacios”, which was presented at the XIV FEMSA Biennial of contemporary art in Mexico. In this project, the artists explore the links between cultural institutions and the people who work in them, bringing them to life and ensuring their smooth running. This type of project is a tribute to the workers (in many cases elderly people) for their dedication and hard work.
Lartigue and Maldonado put a lot of care, patience and attention into the entire research process. This involved many conversations, email exchanges, interviews and site visits to understand, amongst other things, the organisation’s structure, how the different spaces at Cenart are managed and run, and the role of the different teams involved in maintaining the institution’s outdoor and indoor spaces. Understanding the needs of everyone involved was key at every stage of the project. Despite the pandemic, Lartigue and Maldonado managed to forge unique relationships with each member of the Cenart team, sharing ideas and reflections on their working conditions, the transformations of the body through work, as well as personal stories.
Another important stage in the project was the workshops with students during the summer of 2021. These were part theoretical, part practical and took choreographic thinking as a starting point from which to think about the relationship between the bodies of the different team members at Cenart and their workspace. The workshops were situated halfway between the research process and the creation of a sound installation, offering the opportunity for students to participate in discussion and theoretical debates as well as in the development and presentation of the project.
“Perhaps we are also reflecting on the very nature of the ‘political’, and on the idea that the ‘political’ not only refers to macro-politics, but also to the ideas and reflections that comprise the micro-political. Perhaps it is no longer about the great revolutionary changes, but about those changes that come from affections, from the ‘relational’ changes and the search for situations that generate new ways of thinking that challenge the status quo: the hegemonic. Perhaps we should think more in order to create. This might help us answer the question of how to rethink things like leisure, because there is nothing more subversive than creating time to listen, not only to ourselves and others, but to the music of the universe.” - Excerpt taken from the last workshop session. Text by workshop participant Gabriela Solano.
Mariana Arteaga presented a new iteration of her workshop “Pequeñas Danzas para Reforestar el Mundo” ("Little Dances to Reforest the World"). The idea for this project came about during the first months of the pandemic. The artist identified the need to open up a space for care dedicated to women and the empowerment of their bodies. The lockdowns and prolonged restrictions during Covid-19, home-schooling and the care of families and elderly people increased women’s caregiving burden more than ever before. Who cares for them? What do we mean by self-care? How have we connected with our bodies during the pandemic? Have we listened to them? These questions were the starting point for the project. Through six virtual sessions and an audio walk, a group of 40 women aged between 21 and 60 years old practised dance, storytelling and playful experiences as a way to reconnect with themselves and with each other. During the workshops, participants had the opportunity to approach movement, choreography, space, memory and time in a safe space.
A rich palette: what was the criteria for selecting the artists?
The work of Nadia Lartigue, Juan Francisco Maldonado and Mariana Arteaga address themes and values that are increasingly present in my work. In many of their projects, they use choreography to forge affections and social relations, to create spaces for care and listening, and to propose new narratives and approaches that challenge the status quo. Their practice transcends the field of creation. Through their work, they strengthen new forms of action-research, interdisciplinary collaborations and the dissemination of emerging languages in contemporary art and culture. Their projects help us imagine social systems based on values such as empathy, solidarity, collaboration, care and citizen participation.
What values and concepts emerge from their work?
- Collective dance
- Active participation
- Other corporealities
- Citizens as main participants
- Expanded choreography
- Choreography as a way to inhabit the public space in a different way
- Dance and performance as a means to choreograph the future
- Dancing together as a political act
- Students, women and elderly people as the main participants
- Involving audiences from many different backgrounds
- Opening up the creative process
- Making use of non-traditional art and performative spaces
- Expanding the boundaries of dance and choreography
- Exploring dance outside its artform
- Democratisation of dance: hacking the notion that only certain bodies can dance
- The idea that all bodies have a memory which is worth listening to
Another thing that takes a more central role in my work is the question of how to approach coexistence and creative practice in times of crisis. How are we going to coexist and go about our work/creative practice in a world where resources like water, materials and energy are scarce? A world that is becoming more and more uncertain and polarised. I believe we need more art projects, cultural practices and narratives that help cultivate sustainability, relationship-building and dialogue. Practices that are not only sustainable and ethical in their design, production presentation and distribution, but that also nurture human values such as collaboration, active participation, empathy and care.
This is where I am at with my practice. When thinking about the future, I see art and culture joining forces with other disciplines to propose alternative ways of organising society and being in the world that are more gentle with the planet we live in. I see more art and cultural professionals questioning the status quo and giving audiences the means to think differently and act more directly upon social, environmental or political issues. That is the future I want to live in.
Words by Carmen Salas
Carmen is a curator and cultural producer currently based in Southern Spain. She is the founding artistic director of Connecting the Dots, an international forum on creativity, art and digital culture that has been taking place in Mexico City since 2018. From 2017 to 2019, she curated the Paradigm Shift Forum for Mapping Festival in Geneva. In 2009, she co-founded Alpha-ville in London, an international festival dedicated to exploring the intersection of art, technology, society and digital culture through a series of conferences, exhibitions and audiovisual events. The festival became a curatorial agency and creative studio in 2011 and developed activities on a national and international scale until 2017. Her most recent projects and reflections explore the transformative potential of art and culture.