Choreographies of Precariousness. A Transdisciplinary Study of the Working and Living Conditions in the Contemporary Dance Scenes of Brussels and Berlin.
In her influential article on “Cultural Entrepreneurialism: On the changing Relationship between the Arts, Culture and Employment” (2003), Andrea Ellmeier observes that in the post-Fordist work regime, artists, along with all creative workers, have become entrepreneurial individuals who work anywhere and anytime in exchange for low wages or immaterial income. In that context, Isabell Lorey introduces the idea that precarization can be defined as a process of normalization of socio-economic insecurity (Lorey 2006, 198). However, governmental precarization as coercion induced by the state and the market is complemented by self-precarization, because creative workers in particular seem to be willing to sacrifice material benefits for the sake of immaterial ones (Lorey 2006).
In line with the description of ‘the new spirit of capitalism’ by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello (2005), the artist performs immaterial labor on a flexible basis within the context of temporary projects, a situation that also demands persistent networking in order to ascertain future work opportunities. Various scholars, including Paolo Virno (2004), Pascal Gielen and Paul de Bruyne (2009), Katharina Pewny (2011a), and Bojana Kunst (2015), have even nominated the performing artist as the paradigmatic example of the creative workforce occupied with immaterial and transnational project work. In 2002, dance scholar Mark Franko was probably one of the first to address the convergence between dance and work with the release of his book The Work of Dance. Labor, Movement and Identity in the 1930s(2002), which offers new tools for dance scholars to study the relation of politics to aesthetics. Following up on Franko, I have explored in this dissertation what is particular about contemporary dance artists today and their relation to work and how it ties in with more general issues of the project-based labor market and neoliberal society at large.
As the works of Pewny (2011) and Kunst (2015) demonstrate, the socio-economic position of artists and the working conditions in the (performing) arts and in late modernity in general, have increasingly become the theme of contemporary (dance) performances. I proceed from the hypothesis that precarity is reflected in the work and lives of the artists as well as in the aesthetics and subject matter of their artistic work. Within this frame, I examine the extent of precarity within the contemporary dance scenes of both Brussels and Berlin, which can be seen as creative capitals (Florida 2004, Pratt 2008) attracting a high number of contemporary dance artists from elsewhere in Europe, the US and beyond. However, I encountered a noticeable lack of research on the values, motivations and tactics involved in contemporary dance artists’ trajectories. We do not know to what extent precarity is intertwined with motives, such as the desire to avoid working within hierarchically structured dance companies or to engage in projects that allow democratic forms of decision-making. Therefore, this transdisciplinary study primarily questions if and in what ways the socio-economic position of contemporary dance artists affects the working process and the end product. How are contemporary dance artists, who work in a project-based regime in which they are largely dependent on
conditional funding for financial and infrastructural support and who therefore work in- between institutions rather than within, physically and mentally affected by these working conditions? Or in other words: to what extent is precarity in its plural forms (socio- economic, mental, physical, etc.) intertwined with working on art?
The methodological approach within this study combines research skills and methods from both performance and dance studies and the social sciences. Firstly, I constructed a theoretical fundament through the profound literary study of recent theories on post- Fordism, neoliberalism and precarious labor. In addition, drawing on several conventional methods from the social sciences, I conducted a quantitative study in order to get a more empirically grounded status quo on the contemporary dance scenes of Brussels and Berlin as a starting point for my research. The contemporary dance profession seen through the lens of the 94 Brussels-based and the 63 Berlin-based survey respondents is marked by a multifaceted socio-economic precarity.
In the next phase of my research, I undertook ethnographic fieldwork in both cities to explore more in-depth the multidimensional precarity and more complex issues the survey findings revealed. In order to do this properly, I spent one year observing, participating and following seven case study informants in the Brussels contemporary dance scene. Thereafter, I moved to Berlin to do exactly the same. In terms of ethical considerations, I decided from the start that all informants within my fieldwork would remain anonymous. As part of the fieldwork, I conducted longitudinal semi-structured in- depth interviews with the fourteen case study informants over the course of two years. Additionally, I undertook participant observations in the studio while my informants were working on their own creative processes and asked my informants to keep a logbook in which they documented at least a week of work activities. Furthermore, from a dance studies perspective, in order to fully grasp the working conditions in contemporary dance through the lens of its practitioners, it was necessary to explore the artistic output in which contemporary dance artists in these two fields of inquiry publicly address their socio-economic position and precarious working conditions, and this as key part of the fieldwork. This dissertation thus also discusses the emerging aesthetic of precariousness in which the precarious nature of artistic work has been made visible on stage.
In the first part of the dissertation, I juxtaposed the notions of lifestyle artists and survival artists, which at first sight seem opposite terms. In the chapter on Lifestyle Artists, I argue that a bohemian work ethic prevails among the contemporary dance artists within my fieldwork. The concept itself is oxymoronic as it consists of a combination of self- contradictory elements, including a bohemian lifestyle versus a strenuous work ethic. A career in contemporary dance thus seems to come hand in hand with a common work ethic shared by all informants. However, the idea of autonomy captured by the notion of bohemian, is oftentimes an imagined autonomy because in reality the contemporary dance artist is confronted with a work pressure that is deeply interwoven with life. In the next chapter on Survival Artists, I discuss that within the bohemian work ethic artists have developed a variety of survival tactics so they can carry on to practice their profession
despite the economic challenges affecting their work and lives. Especially the outline on the different forms of internal subsidization illustrates that in the art world, money is thus not an end but a means. All in all, I have addressed several survival tactics that demonstrate that the contemporary dance artists in my fieldwork show themselves resilient towards the prevailing precarity in their profession. However, the outlined survival mode impacts not only the lives but also the artistic work of my informants. A noteworthy consequence of the survival mode is the creation of tactical pieces and precarity solos, which ensure more sustainability in a climate of projective temporality.
The second part of the dissertation focuses on the causes and effects of the fast, mobile and flexible modi operandi in the contemporary dance scenes in Brussels and Berlin. The first chapter on The Fast deals with a threefold chase after funding, programmers, and papers. Project-based funding engenders a precarious position that is not necessarily unattractive for artists, because it allows them to experiment and collaborate (see also T’Jonck 2013, 22). However, there is a three-dimensional sense of uncertainty when applying for funding: you do not know if you will receive a subsidy, how much money you will be granted, and when the sum will arrive. The search for funding, and thus work opportunities, is accompanied by maintaining a network of professional contacts.
networking skills, self-promotion abilities, and the development of tactics in communication in order to sustain itself. I explore how
contemporary dance artists utilize and develop their social capital for exploiting work opportunities in the second chase after programmers. The third chase deals with the bureaucracy that comes hand in hand with autonomous work. As a consequence of the bureaucratic freelancing systems for artists in both Belgium and Germany as well as the public funding systems dominated by project subsidies, contemporary dance artists have to deal with a fair amount of paperwork. In uncovering the mechanisms of the project- funding and freelancing systems in Brussels and Berlin, I detect a type of permanent colonization of the artistic by the non-artistic.
In the chapter on The Mobile, I discuss the mobility of contemporary dance artists, especially in uncovering the mechanism of the residency system on which most project- based contemporary dance artists have come to rely. On the one hand, the dance field becomes fragmented as a number of adaptable and semi-finished dance productions are created in bits and pieces and, on the other hand, after a few years in this work rhythm the conjoining mobility seems to put a huge strain on the contemporary dance artist’s quality of life. In the next chapter on The Flexible, I focus on the faculties of respectively polyvalence, flexibility and adaptability as seen through the lens of contemporary dance. At length, I discuss the 2014 dance performance of VOLCANO by Liz Kinoshita, which illustrates how the threefold dimension of The Fast, The Mobile and The Flexible can be reflected in dance performance.
The third part of the dissertation is essentially the pinnacle of my research, fusing the anonymous qualitative data with the performances of precarity I encountered during my
A career in contemporary dance in Brussels and Berlin develops between
institutions, which demands
fieldwork. In these performances of precarity, contemporary dance artists publicly address the plural forms of precarity and their penalties on one’s physical or mental state within their artistic work. In the chapter on Burning Out, I distinguish physical and mental forms of precarity that affect contemporary dance artists other than the already addressed socio- economic precarity. I argue that the plural character of artistic precarity in the accelerated work regime oftentimes results in a twofold deceleration of burning out and slowing down. As a consequence of the fast, mobile and flexible production modes in contemporary dance, I observe that not only do several informants struggle with burnout (or have suffered burnouts in the past), so do projects. Furthermore, I analyze in-depth the contemporary dance performance Only Mine Alone (2016) by Igor Koruga and Ana Dubljević and Jeremy Wade’s video performance Crisis Karaoke (2016). To avoid burning out or in response to overburdening, my fieldwork exposes several tactics of deceleration, which I address in the second chapter on Slowing Down. I unveil the double paradox of slowing down as a tactic of resistance against the forces of neoliberalism: ultimately, slowing down does not turn out to be subversive, because firstly it proves to be rather an accelerating form of deceleration so as to increase our productivity, and secondly, slowing down has become commodified itself. In this chapter, I analyze the solo RECESS: Dance of Light (2016) by Michael Helland, and the dance performance Meyoucycle (2016) by Eleanor Bauer and Chris Peck, which both address the consequences of the neoliberal work regime and explore what can be done to shape a more sustainable future in life in general and in contemporary dance in particular.
Finally, I conclude that the unfair and precarious working conditions that contemporary dance artists specifically deal with are thus tied in with a more general point at issue affecting our society in late capitalism at large.