Photo © Patricio Cassinoni

Is it what it is?

The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.
Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag.

Shortly before arriving at Aerowaves for Springback Academy, a friend introduced me to the text Against Interpretation (1964) by Susan Sontag. In the text, Sontag decries the role of the critic in the context of the 1960s American visual art scene. The critic, according to Sontag, through the act of critiquing a work, too often creates a tertiary object – beside or above the artwork, sometimes even replacing it. Sontag asks: ‘What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place?’

In the search for meaning (oh dear), the critic may eradicate what is really there in favour of something else, a more convoluted explanation; a dreaded – interpretation…

In dance criticism this could roughly translate to something like: ‘The grand jeté in the final jubilant moments of the ballet, was not only a feat of otherworldly athleticism but also a powerful takedown of capitalist individualism in the early anthropocene…’

Or something to that effect.

Against Interpretation really struck a chord with me. I am often in conversations after dance shows where I hear people wanting to make sense of, or ‘understand’, what they saw on stage. As if there has to be an intellectual deciphering, uncoding, unpacking of the materials in the work. As if the artist created a puzzle to solve.

Even weirder for me, is when there comes a negative response to the exact things the work is dealing with. That the work about glaciers was ‘too slow’… It irks me that we sometimes struggle to sit with the feelings a work evokes, the physical reaction, the bodily response. That we position ourselves above it, like we know more. Look down on it from the Middle Circle.

Thus, Against Interpretation was the lens through which – I agreed with myself – I would try to approach reviewing the works at Aerowaves. To notice the ‘what-it-is-ness’ of the work, not the ‘what-it-is-trying-to-say-ness’. I would focus not on interpretation, or understanding, just how it made me feeeeeel! How liberating.

So far so good. But…

Whilst writing my reviews during Springback Academy, I was often aware that I was approaching the writing from a place of ‘knowing’. This is on one hand surely a good thing for writing reviews. That I can trust in my knowledge and experience, dare I say expertise, in the field of dance and rely on that to write about the pieces. I can also certainly know my own response to a work much better than trying to imagine what the artist ‘meant’ with it.

But this also didn’t sit well with me at one point. Could I really always understand these works? Always ‘get it’? Is it even important that I do? Can I assume that I am the presumed audience for the work? What if this work was made for someone else, in another context, with a totally different catalogue of references? Even if I try to stick to the facts of my feelings, they are in the end, my feelings and by no means universal.

Could the reviewer then also approach reviewing from the position of not knowing? Can a critic reveal their doubts, their uncertainties? To paraphrase Sara Ahmed, their ‘orientations’ or ‘blind spots’. In other words, the things we are turned towards and the things we are unaware of, or inexperienced in. Would this constitute professional dance writing?

In Queer Phenomenology, Ahmed says:

Perception hence involves orientation; what is perceived depends on where we are located, which gives us a certain take on things.

What resonates with me, what makes me feel something, what provokes a reaction in me is not neutral. I am imbued with all of the experiences of my life and they bring with them a lot (a lot) of baggage – all of which shapes my perception. Does my orientation already hold up an initial, discreet lens of interpretation?

I am left with more questions than answers, but at least, I hope, few interpretations.

Declan Whitaker