Dancer in 'The Crater', a performance practice in Athens, 2020


Being together apart: the hollowing of the post-quarantine public

Read Icon Read
Time Icon Pink 8 min
A dancer in The Crater public performance practice, Athens 2020. Photo © Chrysanthi Badeka
S pink identity

A public performance ‘practice’ in Athens responded to the coronavirus crisis – but did ‘The Crater’ rethink or recreate its underlying conditions?

Following the unprecedented lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, performance artists and more specifically dancers were faced with the irreducible and urgent question: ‘what to do with our bodies?’ When our way of ‘being in the world’ – as our bodies verify – is considered a possible enemy that we have to constantly guard and neutralise in fear of viral dissemination, then the above question is not only philosophically valid but also a reminder that our bodies are political entities, whose project of ‘immunising’ society – often propagated as an individual responsibility or even as a matter of utmost national importance – called for a re-examination of human expressiveness and touch.

As Paul B. Preciado mentioned in his essay ‘Learning from the virus’, there are no politics that are not body politics. Though his statement was a critique of new forms of governmental power that were setting aside democratic values in the name of public health, it was quite amazing how fast our bodies were turned into invigilators – both subjects and objects in the management of the pandemic. In Greece, a country already burdened with years of economic crisis – most visible in sectors such as the public health system, education and culture – the virus has widened and deepened existing inequalities. Actors, dancers, musicians and other performing arts workers were introduced to dystopic scenarios concerning the future – and maybe the utility – of their craft: by prioritising health over aesthetic experience and any form of political dialogue, their bodies were turned into fragile links, their labour stripped of its value, reduced to something ‘temporarily unnecessary’. If performing arts are considered a useless luxury (to paraphrase Georges Bataille) then it is not necessity, but rather this notion of luxury that can help us understand the fundamental problems of our society and the ultimate goal of learning to be (in this) together.

Woman dancing in 'The Crater', a performance practice in Athens, 2020
Photo © Chrysanthi Badeka

But what does ‘together’ mean in the times of social distancing? And how could we perceive arts when sociopolitical priorities are capsized, turning arts into Bataille’s ‘accursed share’? Searching for a way to respond to the suspension of all cultural activities even after the quarantine (indoor theatres and most arts venues remain shut to this day), a group of artists – mostly dancers – came up with the idea of ‘The Crater’. The initiative was something like an ‘active relay of presence’ (as the initiators stated in their open call), that would last for at least five days (it eventually lasted 15 days; the idea also spread to other cities, including Thessaloniki, Ioannina and Komotini).

Situated in Syntagma Square, right across from the Greek parliament, the location was both symbolic and practical: it’s a busy spot during rush hours but also laden with political confrontation from the last decade of protests and demonstrations. The Crater, an invisible square known to everyone who would participate in this round-the-clock public ‘practice’ (the group wanted to avoid any resonance with either protests or artistic performances), was kept alive only due to the participants’ commitment and wakeful desire. For a single hour, a person would enter this imaginary square within the Square and she/he would respond to the surroundings with an improvised ‘dance’. Keeping things as simple as possible, this gesture was more about bringing into focus the proximity of dance/movement and public space and how, under social distancing directives, that proximity has been torn apart. However, the initiative seemed free of any persuasive rhetoric: its playfulness and interactive vigour with the flow of people crossing the selected spot, as well as its contemplative presence during early morning hours when Syntagma Square was dormant, turned these hour-long ‘dances’ into a collective practice of appearance for performer-artists whom post-quarantine restrictions have made ‘invisible’.

Woman dancing in 'The Crater', a performance practice in Athens, 2020
Photo © Chrysanthi Badeka

The shared misfortune of having no occupation for an indefinite period of time and being unjustly declassified as art workers by the Greek Ministry of Culture, made this public gesture overtly political. The weakening of any political action situated in public space in ‘post-Covid’ days – a threat so palpable in any form of protest and confrontation – also connoted a certain disqualification of the art worker’s body: if performing on stage was made impossible, could public space be reclaimed as a possible ‘stage’, a shared space for exposing one’s precarity as an art worker, an opportunity to make one’s opacity into a productive counter-dialogue? Is ‘dancing in the streets’ still an evidence of unsettling communal desire or an inspiring gesture to mourn one’s identity as an art-worker? Or has any implication of communalism and active political involvement turned once and for all into – to use Eva Illouz’s term – an ‘emodity’?

As days went by and dancer-artists kept showing up in The Crater aiming at an amplified public awareness – be it momentary or virtual, as photos of the event were gradually flooding various social media platforms – another crucial topic reached the surface: is there still ‘space’ in the public sphere, to discuss productively the fundamental notions of collectivism and pluralism? In other words, could an event such as The Crater retain its political significance through time, ‘keep the candle lit’ without fading into the narcissistic trap of sharing oneself in public for the sake of self-promotion? Perceived initially as an event of spontaneous fervour, focused on the frail relation between artists’ precarious conditions and the inadequate state policies, The Crater also risked the misinterpretation of making public appearance a self-contained statement by encouraging the performer’s competence and likeableness on social media.

Blue Quote Mark

How do we appear in public? How do we stand up for plurality while being obsessed with singularity? How can we be together apart?

Blue Quote Mark

Despite its political relevance and proclaimed spirit of collectivism, the project also testified to the persistent mystification of individual presence within the artistic and social realm. If the pandemic made our ‘being together’ problematic, it also made apparent that subjectivity is capitalism’s biggest output, and that the reopening of public space after quarantine would not automatically bring an analogous openness in how individuals inhabit, participate or shape the public sphere. Just think of the numerous videos shared daily during quarantine in the absence of ‘real life’: this uninhibited exposure appraised individualism as the source of an insatiable creativity. It doesn’t matter what you are doing as long as you present yourself doing it. From cooking to working out, from DIY instructions to political satire, individuals have proved to be a driving force in the hardcore neoliberal ‘economy of the self’. Applying the above to the socio-political field and the backlash the virus has had for any kind of public performance that expresses collective needs and concerns, also demands a re-examination of art within the public sphere.

Woman dancing in 'The Crater', a performance practice in Athens, 2020
Photo © Chrysanthi Badeka

It is a mistake to consider the public as an empty canvas for one’s creativity, or as a collection of individuals in a shared space. What makes public space urgently political in times of social distancing are the conflicting interests between artists/individuals and the state. Artistic practice, therefore, should not solely aim for creativity and emotive experience but rather for a reorganisation of human relations in the given moment. The idea of a body confined into its own way of doing, of sharing, of producing material that strongly identifies as dancey, beautiful and poetic – a stance also affirmed by the captions of the images shared on social media – reveals the persistent beliefs and values inscribed in the artists’ bodies: values functioning as an unconscious modus operandi for expressing, experiencing, perceiving oneself publicly. Hence a concatenation of questions arises: how do we appear in public? How do we stand up for plurality while being overtly obsessed with singularity? How can we be together apart?

As the attention shifted from political debate and the urgency to address concerns publicly, The Crater was gradually reduced to a ‘show’, or even became what it aimed to avoid in the first place: an artistic performance predicated on what registers artistically as commonsense and valuable. If ‘luxury’ is a term used to demarcate the excessive, then art as luxury could only be found in the latter’s ‘uselessness’. In other words, we didn’t need to be convinced of the bodies’ utility and value to legitimise what those bodies defended in public. What we needed was to question that legitimacy as the only way to approve the public existence of those bodies, to recognise their desire to be seen and speak for themselves, whether dancing or not. 

Location Icon
Athens, Greece
Theme: Covid
You may also like...