Talk 12th Dec 2008

Barbara Matijević

Marjana Krajač



Barbara Matijević is an author, choreographer, and dancer, member of the dance company Combined Operations. Her current show “I am 1984”, which is a result of her cooperation with Giuseppe Chico, will soon be performed at George Pompidou Centre in Paris. The author describes this performance as a “pseudo-scientific journey through the year of 1984 – from the perspective of various realities, or rather various levels of fiction – events from national and world history, but also science fiction, films, and 3D animation, as well as the virtual worlds of internet and video games.”


I would like to begin with the end of “I am 1984”; it ends with a sort of equilibrium theme that is being described.

Equilibrium permeates the entire performance along with the Olympic games and Mia Slavenska. In her memoires, there is an anecdote on the perfect balance attitude. She once achieved an absolute axis that she could not exit of her own free will, so she had to wait for the balance to get disturbed by itself in order to be able to bow... Which was followed by ovations. The spectator can feel secure throughout the performance, since he is being accompanied, I follow him in his understanding with my words and I bring him to the same level of functioning, comprehending, and processing information. Our amount of information and our processing time become equal. The end is the moment in which I leave the spectator, even before I physically exit the stage. I abandon him through the first person narration, by quoting Billy Mitchell, world champion in Packman video-game. Since the quotation lasts for some time, it becomes identified with myself and enters my body, so I speak about its entry into my inner organs, my circulation, and so on. In terms of performance, it is the first time I enter a character. Thus, our idea was an idea of taking off, leaving, and abandoning, but through the text. In other words, it was a construed situation, in which the audience couldn’t follow where I was going as a character. It was something imaginative and virtual, which was only mine. Where only I had that perception of reality.

So equilibrium permeates the entire piece, reaching its apotheosis in the moment that you have just described, when you give it a certain meaning. I would like to know whether there is a statement in that metaphysical moment? Would you call it a metaphysical moment at all?

Yes, it is a sort of transcendental moment in art. It is that moment of Slavenska in which matter becomes a pure idea, which is loosely followed by the moment of virtuosity, or rather the mode of transcending from the material into the metaphysical... through art. To be sure, I am playing ironically with that, since it is outside of all rational understanding, so I’m the one who is holding the lecture and tries to explain these phenomena rationally. In a way, I represent the impossibility of understanding such phenomena, but I also represent the fact that at the same time we are still trying, since we are aware of the value of such phenomena. That is something that I am very much interested in.

I would now move over to the text, or rather script written by Giuseppe and you, more precisely to its beginning. I would like to relate it to the theme of impossibility of representation, or perhaps even more generally, the impossibility and inertness of the theatre medium. Is there something that dance, or the dance medium as a sort of phenomenology, simply cannot reach?

What matters to me is that something I’m dealing with originates in the reality... whatever it may be. At the moment, it is also linked to my private decisions, namely why I stopped dancing. Personally, dance was no longer sufficient to me as a medium for what I’d become interested in. In order to venture into any artistic exploration, and I am starting from being rooted in the reality, I must first question my perception of that reality, which I can do exclusively through information. Information is logos – word – it uses language as its medium. In that sense, I have begun using language as a medium and now I’m transferring it to the theatre. I do not wish to claim that dance and movement cannot be language, but the way of treating this type of information, my input and output, simply does not tolerate being transferred from the medium of language into the language of movement. I can’t do that at the moment.

Is that a treatment of language that can function within the modus of choreography, a choreographic approach to the lecturing situation? In fact, seeing it that way, we have never even left the field of the dance medium...

Yes, I have no impression that I’ve started something new and I can perfectly well see the continuity. It is about the understanding of language as a construct and its syntax as a cluster of rules that are given to me, but also changeable, and also about playing with all the semantic layers that we additionally complicate in the show, since there is also a visual – pictographically visual – logo next to the word as such.

Perhaps the background of this question was where and how we should go on with contemporary dance, perhaps with contemporary art in general. In other words, in the context of this actual performance, it is the choreography that sucks in other codes and makes them immanent to itself. Here the code of movement is transferred into the code of language, yet the choreographic medium is still given. Which are all the possible codes that choreography can suck in and still remain immanent to itself, which would then make it capable of implementing the movement more easily?

You are using the very notion of choreography in an “exploded sense.” I think that it may be a result of Goffman’s “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”: being aware of the fact that both our speech and our actions are in themselves representations of our social roles. In other words, being aware of the fact that is is all a construct, something that can be choreographed, staged, and combined in that sense – choreographed. In that sense, “I am 1984” brings that awareness into its form. The question whether it is dance, theatre, performance, or lecture...

Becomes irrelevant?

Yes. Moreover, the site of performance is equally irrelevant. I can take the paper here, I can take something from the table and hold that lecture, this performance here, on that wall behind me. The level of fiction in that representation is changeable and depends on the context. But its base remains that of a “very common presentation.

Let us remain for a while on that level of fictionalization that is changeable and the contextualisation that is changeable. It may sound a little pretentious, but is that some sort of new virtuosity? Substituting that virtuosity which we would normally call virtuosity?

Well yes... Those who operate the language in today’s world possess power. Which means that the very discourse as the representation of an idea is what “makes the world go ‘round.” The way of deciphering that discourse becomes the way of surviving in the society, since today you can hardly take things “at face value” in terms “he’s talking to me but what is he actually saying?”, or rather “what you see is not what you get”. The way of manipulating information is not only the basis of political discourse a priori, but also a general way of surviving in the world as a way of decoding the reality. For example, we all know that we read newspapers between the lines, so what is written there is not the actual reality – in other words, we decode it. The new virtuosity is in the way of reading codes that manipulate the language. In order to survive, you must work on the tools for decoding the discourse that surrounds you, which is composed of information that you not only need to choreograph yourself, but also to decode other people’s information.

So, if we go a step further, in the context of contemporary dance, do you think that even that what we call training is taking place somewhere else?

Yes, definitely. I can see the continuity of certain ideas that emerged in the 1960s. Training as I practice it today was developed according to mental choreography. And postmodernism in dance has relativized dance training as something that does not begin or end in the practise room. Take, for example, Steve Paxton: he once said that gardening was his best training. Not in the sense that he was gardening as a dancer, but because he put all his awareness into the way he was doing it, in order to perfect his tool – the body. The paradigmatic manifest of this view is, for example, “The Mind is a Muscle” by Yvonne Rainer.

In other words, by putting awareness in all our bodily activity, those bodily activities become dance in terms of art. In my notes, I have the information that the performance “Jerome Bell” by Jerome Bell was first enacted in 1995. That means that it was already present as a sort of new manifesto. Why are we still faced with the nostalgia for the “age of dancing”? If we do that mind leap now, even with this attitude of Mia Čorak Slavenska, we actually raise the question of becoming aware of sentimentality.

Yes, yes... I definitely feel it as sentimental. I constantly dance ballet at home, even though I am no longer artistically interested in it at all.

My great fetish is Sylvie Guillem.

Yes, I can watch her for hours on You Tube.

Yes. How would you explain it?

I think it is a very complex topic. It is linked to the myths on nature, nature as something that we can perfectly well identify ourselves with through our bodies, through the physiological. It is something immediate, spontaneous, and irrational, a flow of energy, enthusiasm. For example, the very physical experience of dance training has left unbelievable traces on my mind and my individuality. I was feeling the urge to train every day because I was aware of transformation: what was changing was not only my body, but also my personality, my awareness of the body in space and in relation to other people, as something that goes on and keeps nurturing that awareness of a complete being. So... I keep working on my body. I could not stop being involved in some sort of physical intelligence, that is still here. The fact that I stopped dancing in my performances does not mean that I think that dance is dead.

So you’re still dancing, only in a different code?

I cannot say whether I’m still dancing, but I’m involved in choreography in a complex sense.

Can we differentiate between choreography in a narrower and broader sense of the word?

There is a statement by Jerome Bell which I like very much. I like it, but I also find it ridiculous and quixotic when he says that he doesn’t want his spectators to interpret, he wants his spectators to – understand. (laughs)

“Understand” as a theological notion?

Yes, yes – to understand! (laughs) That is what he wanted to say. That means unifying the audience, making them all think the same thing and interpret in the same way, according to an implied idea that leads to a single conclusion. That is his implicit method. He actually works precisely in the same way; we can all follow it, understand the methodology, the codes, which code means what, he educates us in this sense, so to say. And that should culminate in a single conclusion in the heads of all people. But at the same time, he is contradicting himself, since that is not actually what he is looking for. For that reason, “The Show Must Go On 2” is no longer on the programme. So one plus one became two and at a certain moment it was done so well that...

The original fracture was lost.

Yes. That is also disputable in a way. It says that art happens when one plus one is three.

Your show also evokes the question of readymade on the level of information – taking readymades as the material for the substance of choreographic activation. We could also call it the choreographing of choreography, with respect to what we have just defined as choreographing in a narrower and broader sense of the word.

Yes. In our performance, there are entire copy-paste excerpts from the internet. We do not pretend we have anything original in our material. What is original is the way in which we combine it, the dramaturgy of information which then makes out the “choreography in a broader sense.

To what extent is it possible today to perform the discourse in any medium, yet avoid using some sort of quotations? Even if they are not consciously meant as quotations, we often find ourselves in a field of reference. I don’t consider it problematic, but rather interesting as a conclusion.

I would explain it by saying that what I find amusing is reading history. If I take all those past ideas as histories that I can play with, it turns out that everything can be used as material. Just as the body is material, so are the ideas. So I take these ideas in the context in which they first emerged, in relation to the person who first exposed them; thus the person also becomes “material” that you can adopt... In that case, I wouldn’t understand it as something oppressive, as an impossibility of saying something new, but rather as a historical fact that I can also subject to interpretation and adopt with a greater and smaller amount of fiction. Moreover – history is stories. Ideas are stories. Possible stories. Idea is a possible interpretation of the reality.

It is interesting that you have used the word “oppressive”. I have a quotation here: “The only thing left is surfaces on which the reality eventually becomes more real than the real, since copies become more authentic and more credible than the reality has ever been: the postmodern has produced a hyper-reality. In that hyper-reality, history no longer exists, all that is left are synchronous images of the eternal present.” Roger Behrens, “Postmoderne”. What do you think, is there a problematic field around that? Behrens does not invest it with any attribute of anxiety, but simply states it as a fact. The topic of the book is how and when we moved from modernism to postmodernism and what repercussions it had. So what I’m interested in is, on the one hand, the huge field of possibilities that it has opened, a sort of playfulness, but it also leaves a mild sense of...horror, which is indicated even in your show.

In the same way as we can speak of the eternal present, the reverse of the coin would be when you think of everything as the eternal past. So even this moment has already passed. I prefer thinking that way because it gives me some sort of distance. In my show, I also speak of the past in third person singular, which gives me an additional distance, since I do not engage in psychologizing, but simply observe myself in the context of the Communist past and legacy... And so on... So you look at yourself from the position of the future. What I find additionally comforting is to look at myself as “one in the crowd.” So not from a specific position of my own or some special connectedness with the reality, but rather from that perspective of the future, where I’m one of those people sharing this present in this very moment. And then, by offering, as you say, a playful relationship with the reality, I relativize the burden of the impossibility of understanding casual relationships. On the reverse of the coin, there is that sense of horror, because it is very clear that the position from which I speak is endlessly limited. That attempt at perceiving the reality that I am presenting is certainly also a sort of mocking the position of authority, of someone who knows and transfers this knowledge. What is it that I know? What is it that anybody knows.

You mean an authoritative person with that privileged, selective position to transport selected and contextualised information?

Yes, the information that first gets selected and then contextualized, so double-processed before it reaches you. We are all in that position, all the time. Well, I feel quite miserable in that position, drawing something there... some sort of... excerpts from the reality, a collage of information, links with my childhood memories. That is very creepy, since our perceptive tools are the only tools on which we can rely at all in order to orient ourselves in our reality, yet what reaches us through this channel is very porous and subject to manipulation.

Now I would like to ask you about the space between your previous work entitled “Vertigo” and “I am 1984”. What is the problematic and discursive field of that work, or rather, can you map the relationship between these two pieces?

“Vertigo” was my last attempt at engaging myself with dance and movement. I wanted to try out certain methodologies that I had not tried out before in order to avoid having any regrets later. I was interested in the working methodology as such. I wanted to start from the structural premises that would define the material itself, which could then be arbitrary. That strict working methodology resulted in consistency and self-sufficiency of the piece. So the conclusion would be that what I produced there was very formalized, which again meant that I had succeeded in my intention of dealing with the method of producing the material. So I started from the premise that if I used completely new methods from what I had used before, it would result in something equally new. But even though I persisted in the intention that I had imposed upon myself with that methodology, it did not result in anything new. Consistency in production did not produce any complete thought – complete in terms of superstructure – except the one that I constructed in the technical sense. It was a very unsatisfactory experience for me and I realized that I was not able to produce something communicative through dance or movement. Therefore, my crucial, very crucial decision was that I now wanted to communicate with someone. Even though people were coming to me with positive reactions, I was hearing various interpretations and it was very frightening. I mean, that I had so little control over the product of my work.


Yes, it was some sort of über-arbitrariness of the material that was very specific for dance. But at the same time, it was the awareness that it was something – the only thing that I could produce in that moment in the dance medium. The awareness of what I could or could not produce.

Do you think that, when we talk about the über-arbitrariness of dance, it could sound, coming from you and me, as a sort of new conservatism? In other words, how can we open the field of criticism around this topic without taboos and yet avoid doing some sort of negative PR for dance as such?

Yes. That is a difficult question.

A million dollar question.

Yes, you could call it new conservatism. I have the feeling that I have come full circle. After all my experience in dance and choreography, I am now in the position of someone, let us say someone who rarely watches contemporary dance and then asks himself on a different level – what does it mean? I am literally asking myself that question. I am no longer able to explain to my mom what it means. (laughs)

Perhaps we could save the choreography in a narrower sense of the word by transferring it for some time into a different code. Perhaps it is there that it could, at this very moment, be expressed much better than in some “chewed up” context...

That is what gives it freshness, definitely. I think that it is one of the possible methods or ways. There, we haven’t closed all the doors, we will open a window! (laughs) It is possible – by dislocating dance and adopting different codes.

Let us come back to you personally. I have a note here: personal archival hygiene. Do you have it? Do you think you need it? What is it like?

I have everything in my computer. As for the hygiene, the cleanest way is to save everything in your computer. But I also “scribble all over the place”... it is a very scholarly approach – scribbling! (laughs) In a way, I love to keep my brain active and I keep in my head as much information as possible, since I have the ability to throw out of my head all accumulated thrash as soon as I save something else. I try to train myself to keep as much information as possible in my head. Moreover, I tend to write notes that, if they are accurate, remind me instantly and completely on all that I was linking in my mind that very moment. These notes are often poetic, even ridiculous, a sort of essence that perhaps makes no sense at that very moment. But for me it is the codeword for opening up certain files in my brain. Or, if a note means nothing to me, I look at it as a different person and then I start with something completely new. As for the other aspects of my archival hygiene, working on this piece was much more systematic than before, so I can say that I see it as my first performance. Those other ones, those that were before, now seem to me like some sort of warming up. Also, my partner is in the show. In a way, it is like thinking in two... As a sort of table tennis that we play not only at the studio, at the atelier, but even while we are walking on the street or eating... It is like working and training in everyday life. It also relativizes our working space.

The last question: what will be your focus in the future? Your wishes, needs, plans.

Well, let’s say this is the first part of a trilogy. It is a challenge that we have set before us. I would be interested in working on a text, on the form of constructing and staging narratives, modulating and then asking myself what impact it has had on the spectator. The plan is to keep on working in two, which is a challenge after I witnessed various fiascos of collaborations and artistic collectives, a decline of some sort of myth about artistic cooperation... We seem to have found a formula that is exceptionally productive.