Artistic research: New pathways to new knowledge? A conversation with Aster Arribas

Day of the Teacher Researcher, photo: Jonathan Andrew

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It’s no secret that artistic research takes place at the Academy of Theatre and Dance, but what does it actually involve? In this the thirteenth in a series of interviews, we take a peek behind the scenes, in conversation with choreographer Aster Arribas, who is a teacher at the School for New Dance Development (SNDO) and a member of the Embodied Knowledge in Theatre and Danceresearch group.

Part 13: Shy* play

It’s snowing outside when I meet Aster Arribas at De Engelbewaarder café in Amsterdam. A week earlier, in preparation for our conversation, I had taken part in a workshop led by Aster and visual artist Antje Nestel titled shy* playsessions – the artists use the asterisk in the title to expand the meaning of the word ‘shy’ to include a broad spectrum of shyness, introversion and neurodivergence [see below for more on neurodivergence].  Aster and Antje are also co-founders of the shy* play platform.

The workshop focuses on students with a lived experience of shyness*. It is held in a room filled with metres-long strips of cloth: white fabric of various textures – some translucent, others shiny, rough or fleecy. This is the space in which the eight of us spend several hours together. Shy*play examines the potential for taking shyness* as a point of departure for shaping a social space. What forms of exchange and being together might emerge in such a space?

Aster Arribas: We are so accustomed to neurotypicality and extroversion prevailing in our society, and tending to be more of a shy* person can be seen as a problem. Shyness* is thought of as something that must be overcome. You see this reflected in arts education, where you’re expected to sell yourself, to be outspoken and visible.

I started my studies at the SNDO back in 2009 having come straight from Spain and I barely spoke any English. But I would never have been able to speak in class anyway – ever. Then the time came when I received a warning letter saying ‘You are not “present”. If you don’t show yourself, you cannot continue your studies.’ I responded by doing a performance in which I sang opera on stage naked. I couldn’t think of anything ‘bigger’ to do. I’d never even sung in front of other people before, but I thought it was all or nothing.

And, did it help?
Yes – they loved me [laughs].
So in the end some of us can get where they want to have you, but at what cost? I can’t deny that being pushed in this way made me transform in ways that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise, but I’m also quite deeply scarred by my time as a student. In the shy* play workshops I hear current students recounting similar experiences to mine. Even when a programme is making conscious efforts to engage with the fact that everyone has different needs, the way people are expected to communicate and how they are assessed is often neurotypical.

What you mean by ‘neurotypical’?
It literally refers to the supposedly ‘normal’ functioning of the human mind (body-mind). If you identify with what’s called ‘neurodivergent’, the way you perceive, process and act in the world diverges from that norm. You might be more sensitive, for example, and be much more receptive to stimuli. Neurodivergent people include those with medical diagnoses such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia, as well as others without an official diagnosis – and people who ‘neuroqueer’, in an act of defiance against neuronormativity. It’s actually a very broad spectrum of people. It’s interesting to me that from the perspective of the neurodiversity paradigm, this sort of ‘difference’ is no longer regarded as a pathology. That gives me space to think about a learning process in different ways, for example.

Antje and I made shy* play to search for new forms of learning and creating. We want to approach learning from a non-hierarchical angle where there’s as much attention for the individual as for the space, the materials and people’s interactions – all these elements are connected anyway. As part of our research we read books such as Neuroqueer Heresies [2021] by Nick Walker, a queer, transgender and autistic author; and Shy Radicals [2017] by Hamja Ahsan, an artist, writer and activist.

How did you arrive at the idea of the strips of fabric?
I’d already doodled on bedlinen for an earlier project titled Dear Rubsters, Tribbers and All Those Who Want to Sign Up, and another time I did it as part of a practice I shared with a group of artists – just doodling together on a bed sheet. It struck me that it made for a very accommodating way of being together. It left space for silences and surprising turns in conversation. It all just fell into place – using fabric and markers I was able to strike up a pleasant conversation. When Antje and I first started shy* play, it wasn’t long before we were saying: ‘Let’s buy fabric.’ ‘How much fabric?’ ‘I don’t know... lots?’

After that we had two research sessions working with students from the ATD and AMFI [Amsterdam Fashion Institute, where Antje is a theory teacher]. In the first session, we identified the neurotypical and extroverted pressures we experienced, as well as our shy* needs and desires in the context of education. In the second one we worked with the fabrics, using techniques guided by our questions around attention, visibility and directionality of space. We explored different things you can do with fabric – you can wrap yourself up in it, envelop your body, hide, reshape the space, connect things and people, dress up – we explored the potential of a space in which few words are spoken. One thing you have to think about is how you’re going to introduce everyone to each other without the customary round of introductions. If I’m sitting in a circle with a group of people, the very idea of saying my name and something about myself brings me out in a sweat – and I don’t hear a word the other people say in the meantime. A group introduction circle is awkward for everybody, I think, but for some people it’s really unsettling – it’s a killer. That’s how we arrived at the idea of the introductory notes. [Participants are invited to jot down whatever they want to share about themselves on sticky notes and stick them on the wall – at the start or at any time during the workshop.]

 At the end of the workshop I was really curious about the other participants. You get to work all by yourself with the fabric the whole time, but you do share a sort of intimacy. You feel closer to each other without actually getting physically closer. I got the feeling at the end that everybody wanted to stay for longer.
Aster: Yes, that always happens. People don’t want to leave [laughs]. It apparently just feels good to be in that space. You don’t have to do anything or prove anything to anybody. But as a group you still end up creating all sorts of things. It’s precisely what Antje and I had in mind, but to see it actually working... well, it was an amazing experience. It was like, ‘Wow! It’s happening – it is possible!’ It really felt like a form of shy* sociality, without having defined beforehand what a shy* sociality could be. So it turned out that it is possible to come up with new ways of connecting with each other – and it feels empowering and healing. You don’t have to feel like an outsider because there is no central point in this work. You can just spend hours working on a single piece of fabric and nobody will judge you or think you’re being weird. That shy* sociality experience was the big moment when everything fell into place for us – there was a shift in learning, a new sensation, a new feeling.

Have you had any feedback from the participants?
Some. No long conversations – our groups weren’t very talkative [laughs]. But we got a lot of written and non-verbal feedback. There was one person who didn’t speak the whole afternoon, even during the break, and afterwards the only thing she said was: ‘Thank you very much, I will be taking a lot from this.’ And then she went away. I thought that was just great.

Interview by Hester van Hasselt

‘Neurodiversity’ describes the differences between people’s minds (body-minds) and by extension their different ways of thinking, acting and learning. It refers to an endless variation.

‘Neurotypical’ describes a style of neurocognitive functioning, or way of experiencing the world, that is accepted in dominant social structures as "normal". A person who is neurodivergent, or who identifies as neurodivergent, may experience the world differently and respond to it differently from a neurotypical person. The societal expectations of neurotypical standards disable neurodivergent people in different ways.

shy* play is a collaborative project hosted by the Academy of Theatre and Dance and the Amsterdam Fashion Institute. It is made possible by support from the Centre of Expertise for Creative Innovation (CoECI). The next phase for shy* play will be a series of workshops, installations and a shy* symposium at the puntWG project and exhibition space in May 2023.


Day of the Teacher Researcher, photo: Jonathan Andrew

Aster Arribas