Éric Mangion: You are identified as a dancer and choreographer, but also as a researcher, notably studying for your PhD at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. How do these various identities function together, especially between thought and action?
João Fiadeiro: There is an important text by Henk Borgdorff called “The Debate on Research in the Arts” where he writes that artistic research is usually understood and discussed on two levels: the first level is that of "research on the arts", which uses artistic practice as an object, and refers to processes which aim at drawing conclusions about artistic creation from a theoretical standpoint. This has never been my practice, at least not in a systematic or continuous way, since my research has always been around my own work. The second level is that of "research for the arts", where art is not so much the object as it is the objective, where the results are always at the service of artistic practice. This description covers a large part of the work I have developed as a result of my being an author; however I don't see this practice as research but as an extension (or as a consequence) of the process of creating pieces. Once the work is done, the “research” evaporates. But there is a third level, which Borgdorff proposes at the end of his text, and which transforms the transverse relationship between art and theory into a new paradigm. It is "research in the arts", which refers to an investigation that does not separate the subject from the object, and that bridges the distance between theory and practice. It is here that my research finds the right framework: when artistic practice is an essential component of research at large, both in terms of research processes and in terms of the results obtained. In the last few years I have been widening the scope of my research in order to get closer to other scientific disciplines - anthropology, complex systems science or economics - that work on and around similar questions - decision-making, collaboration, self-organization, emergence, etc. - and one of the goals is to understand whether knowledge generated through art can be placed side by side with knowledge generated through other fields and areas of thought. This is one of the reasons why I decided to do my PhD. It really feels like a waste that so much of the experience and knowledge generated by artists isn’t somehow more accessible and influential on the way we organize and think our social and political life.
É.M.: You have developed a very specific practice of dance: “composition in real time”. It stems from practices linked to improvisation, but it does not restrict itself to this sole field of action. So could you define this very specific notion that you have about dance? In particular you speak of the “pure present”, of “non-knowledge” or of “the experience of the void”.
J.F.: I wouldn’t say that Real Time Composition is a “dance practice”. It's more like doing research on time, space and decision making… which, one could argue, is how one could define “dance”. But strangely I don't see it as a dance practice. I see it more as a relational practice, transverse to many disciplines and areas of art and life. What I’m really interested in is the way “no-thing” becomes “some-thing”, or a “position” becomes a “com-position” (“com” means “with” in Portuguese). I’m interested in the mechanics of how perception emerges and how it conditions decision making. I'm interested in how different elements, with no initial relation between them, suddenly synchronize and tune-in together, generating a sense of belonging, of community.
Language is a great example of this magic. It’s amazing how I can be writing these words, in a certain order, and producing meaning that someone who will read it days, months or years hence can understand. But the “dark side” of language is the power structure it carries, and how it can be used very easily to control and manipulate perception. This is why dance is such an amazing field for my research. Because the body can, with appropriate training, “become a thing” and offer itself as every-thing else offers itself (rocks, light, chairs, cold, colors, trees, cats - just to name a few of the things I see and sense around me) so I can imagine reality. In order to “become a thing” the body needs to transfer the protagonist from the subject to the event, and to disappear within the obvious during the process. De-hierarchizing the role of the body, of the subject, of the author is, in my practice, absolutely necessary in order not to fall into the trap of what we (think we) know or what we (think we) represent. Not to be captured by our “sense of identity”, which will inevitably lead us to forms of manifestation of our presence that are dominated by implicit biases and preconceptions. This way of working is extremely counter-intuitive for most artists because we tend to operate based on the opposite notion: that a sense of identity is the condition to act.
Real Time Composition is the frame, the umbrella, where I can apply and explore these ideas. “Real Time” and “Composition” are two notions that I put together precisely because they cancel each other. “Composition” presupposes an outside gaze, the existence of a previous knowledge, and “real time” requires an inner gaze, which prevents this prior knowledge from becoming the sole element for decision making. In the tension created between these two forces, a gesture emerges to propose a paradigm shift in the way we make decisions: instead of reacting to challenges through our repertoire of knowledge, whether cultural, genetic or biological, Real Time Composition proposes suspending our certainties, and letting the interrogation of the unknown become a powerful way of working, and a place of welcome. Our bodies are conditioned and designed to replicate preset modes of reacting and relating, which have accumulated through our life experience, so this is not an easy task. But as "real-time composers" we train skills that allow us to identify possibilities that are anesthetized or hidden behind our habits. We find these possibilities in the interval that “pops-up” when there is an interruption in the experience we have of linear time, opening a gap in the sensation of continuity. Inside this space, time is not linear but "twisted" (like the topological surface of a "Mobius strip"), governed by laws that don't follow conventional notions of before or after, inside or outside, up or down, left or right. Inside this space, time has this rare quality of being simultaneously “no longer” and “not yet”.
É.M.: On one hand, you try to get rid of habits, particularly bodily habits. On the other hand, you work a lot with repetitive gestures during regular workshops. Isn’t this a paradox since we know that repetition creates habits?
J.F.: Difference is embedded in repetition. You can only change a habit if you recognize its existence and the way it influences on your decisions. When I insist on repetition, it’s to become more aware of the patterns that condition our existence. On the other hand the habit I am asking performers to break is not necessarily the habit that emerges from the answer to a question, but rather the habit that emerges from the formulation of a question. Meaning that the repetition I produce, provoke and perform is a repetition of the operation embedded in the process of decision making (the question) and not its formal appearance (the answer). What I try to do, in the context of artistic research or of a performance, is to create the conditions for repeating the question over and over again, and then waiting for the small changes (most of the time, infinitesimal) to appear. Once that happens, answers emerge organically and you perceive the surroundings from an angle you had never considered before. This has an impact on your belief system and connects you with the present moment in a way that would be impossible if you only relied on future expectations or past experiences to make decisions. And ultimately this is the goal of my practice: to doubt my own convictions and certitudes. Doubt generates curiosity, curiosity generates attention, attention generates care.
É.M.: You strongly rely on theories of self organization that govern a large part of our natural life systems. What do they mean to you? And how have they contributed to your research?
J.F.: Ten years ago I attended a condominium meeting of the building I was living in to discuss things like the urgency of painting the front door or the need to change the light bulb in the corridor. The meeting was so boring that myself and Jorge Louça, the neighbor from 2F, started doing some “small talk”. He is a computer scientist and researcher on Complex Systems Sciences (ISCTE, Lisbon) and when I told him I was a dancer and an artist he didn’t expect my research on collaboration, decision making and improvisation to mirror his research on flocking behavior or self organization in birds, ants and algorithms so closely. He then invited me to participate in a summer school event at his university and when I suggested that “real time composers” don’t use the “big picture” or their own interests as a reference to act but the properties and possibilities of a system, the researchers who were present at the event immediately started talking about fractals, emergence and stigmergy, concepts that were completely foreign to me at the time but that I have now incorporated in my vocabulary. It was striking for me to see how closely my approach to composition and improvisation matched what we observe on how birds, ants or neurons “compose”. Both our approaches of self-organization are based on the premise that the “agent” involved in making a decision shouldn’t look for the meaning and the intention of the other agent, but should look for the relation between the forces involved. Being a choreographer I work with human beings made of flesh and blood, and what interests me dramaturgically is the collision between these goals and the complexity of the norms and conventions that govern us.
É.M.: In one of your interviews you say you perceive “action not as an act of transformation but as an act of preservation”. What does this mean concretely?
J.F.: There is a very well known video by Francis Alÿs, from the series “Paradox of Praxis”, called “Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing”. It illustrates what I mean by preservation very accurately. For more than 9 hours Alÿs pushes a block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it’s completely melted (the video only lasts 10 minutes). During the whole time he doesn’t change his way of operating, which is pushing the block of ice until there is nothing left to push. But all the while he is maintaining the same modus operandi, his actions slowly begin to differ, adapting to the micro changes provoked by the fact that the block of ice is becoming smaller. This commitment towards a task, which is the result of a very clear and rigorous formulation, is rooted in my praxis. And it emphasizes my conviction that by shifting my focus and attention towards the preservation of a system, away from the tendency and temptation we all have to change (because we are addicted to the dopamine reward or simply because we are bored), the resulting transformation is more sustainable and has a better chance of touching others. But it's also important to say that while I insist with performers on the need to preserve, by practicing the capacity of “postponing the end”, I also practice the capacity of “accepting the end”. The goal is to host the double capacity of engagement and detachment simultaneously. When mastered, this skill transforms the act of decision making into an act of mediation between different doses of repetition and change, instead of an act of will or an act of God.
É.M.: A few weeks ago you were telling me that you enjoy the exhibition format, although it is not naturally your format. Why this attraction, considering that these last few years quite a few experiences of choreographed exhibitions were not necessarily very successful?
J.F.: My interest in the exhibition format, when compared with the theater or the blackbox venues where dance is usually presented, has to do with the relation with the viewer. The autonomy that the visitor of an exhibition has regarding her or his attention span, the path of the visit and the various viewpoints, is extremely rewarding for me. The theater’s architecture is very castrating. The seats for the audience are attached and motionless, and condition the way perception takes place. In a theater I am always looking for ways to place the spectator in the position of a witness and not of a voyeur. And, above all, I try to offer the spectator a proposal that doesn’t require interpretation (explanation or justification) but availability of the imagination. So, whenever I can, I try to play with the elasticity and plasticity of the viewer's expectations.
Concerning the success or failure of choreographed exhibitions I can’t say much because I haven’t seen many. But I think we are in the infancy of this relation and it’s really important that all parties involved (museums, curators, choreographers, performers, visitors), understand that it’s not just about doing a “cut and paste” of the blackbox works and putting them in the white cube. Also because this encounter makes it necessary for institutions to become sensitive to the presence of bodies in the exhibition space, it raises very complex issues concerning labor policies, security and available facilities (like something as simple as providing showers for dancers to wash themselves after performing). This encounter between dance and the visual arts is a place of enormous potential, but it will only be worthy of the event if “collisions” between notions of narration and installation, time and duration or dance and performance can have space to thrive. In my encounter with Violaine we really tried to meet in-between, without imposing the weight of our own paths and domains on each other, and by being, as much as possible, active contributors to this discussion.
É.M.: Lastly, during our earlier conversations I was struck by the fact that you did not perceive the crisis we are going through as an obstacle to forms of development, but on the contrary as a field of potential. It’s rather rare to hear this. How can I interpret it? As a kind of optimism? Of vitalism? Or on the contrary as a form of wisdom which covers up anxiety (which seems rather to unify you)?
J.F.: Of course it would be very arrogant on my part to say, from the pedestal of my privileged position, that this crisis doesn’t generate inequalities, pain, anxiety, loss, and so much more. But the way my body has been structured since childhood, both politically - being the son of exiled parents who traveled between Paris (where I was born), Algiers and São Paulo before going to Portugal (where, at the age of 7, I saw my mother being arrested) - and emotionally, witnessing the death of my sister in an accident at the age of 9 (an event that instantly put me face to face with the precariousness of life), helped me to have a more resilient approach to notions of end, disaster or collapse.
My research and work as an artist and especially as an improviser, helps me not to forget that one cannot take things for granted. And helps me to recognize that the sense of linearity we have about life (and the consequent illusion of immortality) is a fabrication. Necessary to build societies and feed capitalocene, but a disaster when it comes to generating human beings that are sensitive towards difference, towards the new and the other.
That’s why I am able to see the period we are in as a field of possibilities. As a field because I need to now where I stand in order to under-stand. And of possibilities because I have no other choice. Even when we weren’t in a crisis (were we ever not in a crisis?) my brain looked for the fissures and the cracks in the system. Because I know that it’s in this interval that I can be in touch with my inner fears and restlessness, which are the raw materials that my art is made off.