Giving Shape to the Ephemeral

“It is incredibly beautiful when the conditions are created for people to open up. For me it results in a totally different quality of interaction and artistic work. I think this is one of the greatest achievements of this contextual. I see it in the others, and I can also see it within myself. Mladen Alexiev on the 2014 Contextual.

Every year, DasArts organises the ‘contextual’: a two-week collective learning programme, or situation, created by students. This year DasArts participants Agustina Muñoz, Tchelet Weisstub and Mladen Alexiev organised the contextual Giving Shape to the Ephemeral. The first week of the contextual took place at DasArts. For the second week, the participants stayed on the Dutch island of Terschelling. Mladen explains: ‘We wanted to move outside the city, outside the institutional and outside the art context.’

What was the central idea of this contextual?

Alexiev explains: ‘Our proposal is a response to a need shared by the whole group; we tried to reflect our own ideas and needs, but we also tried to include shared thoughts and ideas from group discussions. This is also why this year’s programme is so diverse. We observed a clear desire to counterbalance the work we did this autumn in the block ‘Every Nerve’. From September to November we worked in the city and in public spaces, dealing with activism, social, political and urban issues. We wanted to step away from this. In order to balance things out, we decided to give ourselves space outside the institutional, outside the city and outside the art context. We wanted to be surrounded by nature and have time for self-reflection.’

Muñoz adds: ‘We designed a contextual where the task was to look inwards. It was a reaction to what artists have to do today and sometimes feel burdened by: to be informed, participate, and be aware of the market. The contextual wanted to stimulate an awareness of something equally important: the need to create. Not to be pushed by the art system, by peers, or by fashions and trends; but to be motivated by real impulses.’

What do you mean by ‘the ephemeral’?
‘We use the notion of the ephemeral as something that is beyond our direct understanding’, explains Alexiev. ‘It was addressed as the abstract and as the spiritual. The question was whether we could step out of the context that we inhabit professionally. Our programme Giving Shape to the Ephemeral aimed to address how you - as an artist - can give shape to your ideas and how you can turn them into an artistic practice. How can this be developed further, and what are the tools for shaping this? To help answer these questions, we invited mentors who deal with these topics in their work. It was all about what you want and what you need.’

Adds Muñoz, ‘For me, it was also an invitation to explore something that had neither a name nor a shape. In a way, it’s about working with mystery, with the ‘not knowing’. It’s also about dealing with time: Where I am going? How long I will be here? It is re-infusing art with a sense of adventure, and avoiding the predictable and the controlled.’

Who did you invite as guest teachers?
Alexiev: ‘The first step was to contact Jonathon Burrows and Matteo Fargion. At that point we also contacted Robert Steijn, to invite him for the second week on Terschelling. They all said yes. So the next step was to think about the two introductory days: who could begin this contextual and how? We contacted a teacher of Gurdjieff’s Dances, because their practice has many aspects that correspond to the work of the other guest teachers. So the first two days of the contextual consisted of an introduction to the Gurdjieff dances led by Christiane Macketanz.

Their approach is – I would say –  rather unusual and confronting when compared to the dominant notions and practices in the contemporary art world today, because of their authoritative teaching method. It is very structured and based on following; there is little space for personal freedom or individual expression. In this practice, you are not addressed as a creator, but as a performer. You are not invited to invent, but rather to experience what is given. This turned out to be difficult for some of us, but in the end – in combination with the other workshops – it was recognised as meaningful and beneficial.
We invited Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion, after reading Burrow’s book A Choreographer's Handbook. It comments on a wide range of notions in dance, music and performance – such as improvisation, composition, and repetition. We wanted to familiarise ourselves with their artistic practice and to find a new vocabulary and new tools to articulate in our own work processes.

On the first day, Jonathan and Matteo performed two different pieces as a way of introducing their approach. Commenting on and discussing these already gave us a clear idea of how to approach our own ways of working. The two days spent working with them consisted of a series of practical tasks and discussions, reflecting on specific aspects of our experiments, as well as on more general issues concerning current artistic production trends and policy.’

The first week of the contextual was at DasArts and the second week was on the island of Terschelling. Why did you move to Terschelling and how was this second part of the programme constructed?

‘The need to go into nature was clearly stated in all the proposals handed in all by of us from the very beginning. It was clear that everyone wanted to leave the city and its issues for a while. We wanted to give ourselves space to rethink and reconnect with our individual practices. So for the second part of the contextual programme, the whole group moved to a little house on the less densely populated coast of the island; we were very much on our own and in nature. This was a wonderful outdoor setting for the activities proposed by Robert Steijn, who was leading the first part of our stay at Terschelling,’ says Alexiev.

‘Robert incorporates shamanistic strategies, rituals and symbols into dance practices, and he showed us how the spiritual can enrich the artistic. This presented us with another way of dealing with movement and shaping group experiences. The sessions with Robert were mainly about sharing. In a very delicate way, he managed to create a space for everyone to open up and share things that went much deeper than the layer of politeness and professional distance.

This atmosphere still prevailed after his departure. In the second half of our stay on the island we set up kind of tombola with our names, like the ones you have for Christmas when you are handed a name of someone to whom you have to give a present. So the last two days we spent giving ‘presents’ to the person whose name we had been given. Every present was a performative event for that person, but designed so that the whole group could join in’, explains Alexiev.  

With this contextual, you wanted to create a countermovement to the block. How did this work out?

Alexiev: ‘The energy created in the block was very much a dynamic atmosphere and a constant feeling of: go-go-go-go-go! I would describe the block to a state of constant movement and non-stop partying. In the contextual, it was interesting to experience the opposite; to see that it is also possible to create when you are relaxed and at ease.

It is incredibly beautiful when conditions are created in which people can open up. It results in a totally different quality of interaction and mode of artistic production. I consider this to be one of the greatest achievements of this contextual.’