[image description: Katharina and Tanja are wearing the same stripy jumpsuit in colours of blues, green, reds and salmon with bare-skinned arms, shoulders and backs. Tanja is sitting on the floor with her back facing us. She has a round tattoo in the centre of her upper back. Tanja is slightly leaning to the left, which lets parts of her upper body escape the picture frame. Her head is turned to the right and her gaze is following a black crutch, which she is supporting with her stretched-out right hand. The tip of the crutch catches Katharina’s jumpsuit, furling it and revealing more of her white skin. Katharina’s two legs and her backside are visible and in a motion of moving towards the right, therefore the rest of her body is escaping the frame. It might even seem as if the crutch is luring Katharina back into the picture? End of description.]


Skype, crutches and pleasurable glitches

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“j_e_n_g_a” by two crutches, Tanja Erhart and Katharina Senk. Photo © Franzi Kreis / Im_flieger
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Collaborators Tanja Erhart and Katharina Senk talk about multi-sensorial connection, technological pleasures and the aesthetics of access

Tanja Erhart and Katharina Senk are currently in the middle of a creation process for their new work j e n g a – a choreographic exploration of pleasure as a radical interface in the discourse between disability and feminism. But unlike many artists who are suddenly turning to digital media, these two have been using online formats as part of their artistic research way before the pandemic started: from intimacy to Skype, accessibility to care practices, they share insights on their digital and sensual working process.

As we gather to chat via three computer screens, I ask the two colleagues to introduce themselves in their own terms. Tanja proceeds: ‘I would usually begin a digital meeting with an audio description of myself for participants who are blind or visually impaired: I’m a white woman with blue eyes and long light brown hair and I’m currently sitting on my olive green bed in London. My pronouns are she/her, I’m a dance artist, pleasure activist, cultural anthropologist and I identify as Crip (Disabled and chronically ill). I think of myself as a being with three different bodyminds – with my wheelchair, one-legged, or three-legged with my crutches – using each of their unique potentials in my movement practices.’

Katharina continues with this approach: ‘My pronouns are she/her and I’m a non-disabled white woman currently talking from Vienna. My friends and colleagues call me Senki, which I love because it’s a less gendered version of my name. Next to me is my dog Chili and I’m sitting on my living room floor, surrounded by green plants that I very much enjoy keeping alive. I’m a dancer, choreographer and facilitator. My movement practice is deeply influenced by my love of martial arts and sports and I’m interested in the intersections between post-humanism, feminism and social justice.’

The two artists met at a conference in Berlin in 2017 and have been collaborating ever since, developing unique methods along the way. Being based in two different countries, they have become experts at digital rehearsal processes, working from their beds, and long-distance intimate relationships. Tanja explains: ‘For us working online was a necessity, for ecological and economical reasons: We wanted to reduce our carbon footprint as much as possible and also we didn’t have the money to travel back and forth between Austria and the UK. The decision to work on Skype was an easy one, because we both were equipped with laptops and a fairly good internet connection.’

Katharina elaborates on the embodied layers of their digital approach: ‘For our first collaboration non_yielding we rehearsed and performed online via Skype. In this setting we used Tanja’s crutches not only as an animated dance partner but also as a connective tool to bridge our different physicalities. This strategy became a baseline of our collaboration. In one of our performances Tanja moved with one of her crutches in Berlin and I moved with one of Tanja’s crutches in Bangalore. Of course we were very dependent on the technical set-up, but knowing that both Tanja and I felt the cold metal of the crutches on our skins simultaneously, gave me a deep sense of connection. So in that way we were clearly nurtured by our online experience.’

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[image description: The image shows a black crutch in the centre, which is being supported by a hand while touching an arm from another person. Glimpses of the two people’s white skin arms, legs, stretched fingers and a face’s profile, as well as parts of a stripy jumpsuit in blues, green, reds and salmon colours, are also visible. The perspectives on the black dance floor and the white wall are slightly angled. The whole motion in the picture has a wavy feel to it. End of description.]
“j_e_n_g_a” by two crutches, Tanja Erhart and Katharina Senk. Photo © Franzi Kreis / Im_flieger

At a time when frustration with online formats is ever-growing, it is refreshing to focus on the physical impact of technology. In their work, Katharina and Tanja wonder: what is the somatic feeling that the digital connection brings? How do the audience members participate in this constellation? By concentrating on shared haptic experiences, they also highlight our interconnectedness and interdependence.

Moreover, they find inspiration, and even pleasure, in the different pace provoked by technical difficulties. Tanja explains: ‘I find it very interesting to have those glitches present, because they remind me of the concept of Crip time, in a very condensed and visceral way’ She quotes Ellen Samuels, saying ‘Crip time is time travel. Disability and illness have the power to extract us from linear, progressive time with its normative life stages and cast us into a wormhole of backward and forward acceleration, jerky stops and starts, tedious intervals and abrupt endings’ (Samuels, Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time).

She goes on: ‘The moments of glitch ask for patience as well as passion, to keep going and not give up. The internet connection has been lost? Then we look for it again. The screen has frozen? Then we wait until it unfreezes again. It lets us be in the moment, very much with each other, going back where we started, if necessary, and spiralling to a new beginning. Limits are a matter of perspectives. I think working via a screen, it gave us different ways of looking at each other, listening to each other, confronting each other.’

Aesthetics of access – ‘the ways in which accessibility concerns are not simply last-minute add-ons but actually influence and shape the work in wonderful, unexpected ways’ (Paul F Cockburn, The Aesthetics of Access) – have been integral to the duo’s working methods. In their new piece j e n g a, for example, they are working with audio description and sign language interpreters to create a live version as well as an interactive video performance in which the audience can choose what they want to see. Or hear. Or experiment with their own bodies. But they also apply this multi-sensorial approach to their movement research: the touch of a hard plastic handle meets the taste of a crutch on the tongue, the sound of a distorted voice suggests a movement score, indulging into sensual and playful choreographies with an ever-multiplying number of bodies and languages involved.

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The speed with which the transition to online formats happened once the whole world was locked down also revealed the blatant unwillingness of institutions to address their ableism beforehand

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Finally, while they share their excitement about digitalising performances and the accessibility it inherently provides, Tanja and Katharina also point out concerns. Many people don’t have access to the internet or to computers, so there is still a classist hierarchy about who can consume culture. Moreover, the overwhelming focus on video is only catering to audiences who can see. And of course, the switch to online mediums shouldn’t be a replacement for making theatre venues accessible for folks who identify as D/deaf, Disabled and/or Crip to visit in person.

The speed with which the transition to online formats happened once the whole world was locked down also revealed the blatant unwillingness of institutions to address their ableism beforehand. Tanja elaborates: ‘In my personal lived experience, the demands from D/deaf, Disabled and chronically ill people to access, attend and present at conferences or festivals, remotely from home, has been ignored for a long time. And then suddenly, overnight, it was possible for everyone to work, perform and visit the theatre from their living room. And I think that is what we should bring awareness to. When non-disabled people get access to different structures, we need to make sure that disability communities are not being left behind, pushed out again or even removed completely, so non-disabled people can make it bigger, faster and further, in a capitalistic sense of productivity and exploitation.’

Katharina agrees: ‘Through the collaboration with Tanja I became aware of my responsibility as non-disabled artist to keep fighting for access, to include strategies of access into my work and to give credits for this knowledge to the people who developed these strategies.’

It is striking when talking to both artists, how intimate their relationship has become over the years. Despite the long-distance nature of their working process, their excitement and care for one another is palpable, tactile, tangible. Together, they are joyously deconstructing what collaborations between Disabled and non-disabled artists may be, practising allyship with intersectionality in mind. They call each other out and in, and use the digital interface as a sensuous breeding ground for pleasure and connection. It appears that the patience, ingenuity and playfulness needed to work digitally has already permeated the way they relate to one another. Hopefully it will also reach an audience (online or in the flesh) very soon. 

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j e n g a will premiere online and at brut Wien, Austria, in January 2022.

Katharina and Tanja will also be sharing their practice during the research project ‘Oh, Pleasure!’ at Impulstanz Vienna, Austria, 26–30 July 2021. ImPulsTanz Research Projects 2021 – Tanja Erhart & Katharina Senk

Theme: At work