EXERCISES FOR SOLIDARITY AS PERFORMANCE ART

Abstract: This article presents the research and performance practice behind ‘The Performing Solidarity Project’. Drawing on perspectives from choreography, performance, anthropology and neuroscience, I try to elaborate on the relationship between empathy and solidarity through rescue in the context of civilian and activist intervention. The article presents conceptual and performative perspectives in order to understand the potentiality of artistic practice to facilitate alternative conditions for practising solidarity through performance. How can we generally exercise solidarity—and, specifically, through art—in a way that does not need catastrophes to make solidarity visible to the public? How can we begin to value solidarity in the same way we value other human abilities and fundamental knowledge?

Keywords: solidarity, artistic research, rescue, empathy


Figure 1. Aerial perspective on the rescue operation after the collapse of the Rana Plaza, Bangladesh, 2013. (c) internet source/screenshot.

In 2018, I created ‘The Performing Solidarity Project’ as a research framework with the intention of investigating civilian and activist solidarity performed in the context of humanitarian crisis. How do civilians and activists engage in support of human rights? How do they assist people in life-threatening situations? And what kind of interventions do they perform?

For the purpose of the performance research, I compared ‘civilian engagement through intervention’ with ‘active audience participation,’ while focusing on the somatic experience—that is, the experience through the body. As case studies, I looked into civilian and activist solidarity in the context of a) the emerging human rights violations (from police brutality and refugee crises to legal prosecution and imprisonment of activists and civilians for helping people in need; and b) the 2013 Rana Plaza rescue intervention in Bangladesh, in which 300 civilians volunteered in a 30-day long rescue operation after the collapse of the eight-storey commercial building, which trapped 4,000 garment factory workers and killed 1,134. In both contexts, I was interested in the act of rescue as a work of urgency that is being performed in the sense of something needing to be done that involves cooperation.

On the other side, during the 2018 international refugee crisis in the Mediterranean Sea, activist and civilian intervention through rescue became subverted from heroic act of solidarity to political crime (crimes of solidarity). The problem of solidarity, so to speak, was a problem of active participation, a problem of intervention and rescue. Several activist groups and civilians faced legal prosecution and imprisonment for assisting drowning refugees because their work had been legally blocked. For those of us who were observing such radical measures through media, it began to feel that standing or acting in solidarity with the oppressed and in support of human rights is to the total detriment of those who actively engage, whether activists or civilians. Banning and impeding practices of solidarity began to endanger the building blocks of civilisation. It began to feel that the time has come to stand in solidarity with solidarity itself. Instead of centring my artistic practice solely on criticism, I was instead invested in exploring performance practice that holds space for the expression and experience of solidarity through art, with a focus on audience participation. As a performing artist, an independent researcher, and a teaching artist, I am interested in performative experiences that remind us of how important human cooperation, solidarity and care are in times of extreme social, political, environmental, and health upheavals that also invite us to engage in some shape or form. I began visualising a project where the artistic research can facilitate a context for the experience of solidarity, not necessarily through a re-enactment of the past, of violence, catastrophe or crisis, but as an experience where one re-establishes somatically the relationship with their solidary self.

Discourses on solidarity and care continue to ‘perforate’ our reality. We are asked to perform differently—we are asked to carry out our solidarity with the world with more awareness, sensitivity and care for others. In the context of the current upheavals, practising this kind of difference is an essential, urgent and ethical choice, a choice of being in solidarity with the oppressed, the suffering, the struggling, and the exploited world. Be it human or non-human, this is a world in need of recovery. Therefore, how and what would we have to exercise to (re)connect with our self in relation to the communal, a point from which we can perform differently? How can we experience solidarity through enactment in the context of art? How can we begin to value solidarity in the same way as we value other human abilities and fundamental knowledge that we normally acquire through education?

Figure 2. Civilians performing rescue. A detail from the 2013 rescue operation at Rana Plaza, (c) Sk Hasan Ali/Shutterstock.com.

Solidarity Through Rescue

Both photographs above (figures 1 and 2) document the 2013 rescue operation at the site of the collapsed commercial building Rana Plaza, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I discovered the two images during research on Rana Plaza for the purpose of the performance project ‘The Way You Touched Me Tonight’. As I found the images, I began learning about the proportions of the rescue operation. Before professional help arrived at the site, passers-by began intervening. In the 30 days that followed, civilians helped saving women and children, did risk-taking and traumatic tasks, from climbing the rubble in sandals without proper safety to performing limb amputations.

For someone who hasn’t experienced either the rescue or the incident, the photographs, YouTube videos, newspaper articles and official rescue report represent the only documentation available to understand what was happening at the site over those 30 days, as well as the reasons for the incident. At first, I began this research solemnly because I was interested to know and understand the context of the rescue. The more I learned about it, the more I began to feel that I am not just looking at an industrial incident but a story about humanity. The act of true solidarity touched me deeply. The knowledge that I was gaining through this research made me understand and feel how the dimensions of this rescue intervention keeps resonating in my body and mind for the years to come. The body of work that I have dedicated to ‘performing solidarity through rescue’ over these years represents a way of sharing memory about the humanity of our times—not necessarily as a critique of systems that we hold accountable for the Rana Plaza incident or any other humanitarian crisis but as a way of understanding how to work with artistic research towards much-needed and urgent societal and spiritual recovery.

In the first photograph (figure 1), we see the inhabitants of Dhaka gathered in front of the collapsed Rana Plaza. Some are holding space for the civilians performing rescue, while others are climbing the rubble to attend to the victims. Situations like the one captured in the photograph are often scenarios for the emergence of solidary feelings. In such circumstances, it is not only the roots of empathy that can grow but also branches of sympathy. Both empathy and sympathy are about experiencing shared feelings. While ‘to empathise’ means to feel what another is feeling through the ability to imagine their feelings, sympathy emerges when the mutuality of feelings is experienced through feeling with the other (Greek: sum pathea) while being with the other.

The neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese has proposed that human consciousness begins as a self-other identity, and that this shared existence precedes the distinction between self and other. Next to the emotional component, his conception of empathy has also included physical sensation, which has reaffirmed empathy’s connection to kinaesthesia. Gallese argues that mirror neuron networking provides a functional mechanism, which he calls embodied simulation, a mechanism that supports human capacity to share actions, intentions, feelings, and emotions with others. The same neurons fire when an action is performed and when it is witnessed; so, we are constantly enacting the actions we see around us at a neural level. The correspondence and mutuality between observing and acting Gallese calls physical resonance, as if neurons in these motor areas of the brain start to ‘resonate’ as soon as we see an action or a physical situation. However, physical resonance does not necessarily produce a movement or action, but a profound and immediate connection on a neurological level is most likely to take place. The embodied simulation of actions that we perceive constructs a kinaesthetic connection among those who recognise an equivalent intention and goal to their own feelings in the actions of others. Yet, to act on the basis of the observed action takes a decision.

The image of the Rana Plaza rescue by Sk Hasan Ali (figure 2) captures a risk-taking and emotionally charged situation. Next to representing the rescue, the photograph captures an intimate moment between the involved individuals. A televised documentary of the rescue operation reported about a case of personal bonding between one victim and her rescuer as they grew close after the rescue. Their experience, the theories on how kinaesthetic resonance constructs profound empathetic connection on a cellular level, and the action captured by the photograph suggest to me that human bonding may be tightly related to the experiences of being saved, helped, taken care of, held close, and carried. Helping someone in need may provide that kind of fundamental condition, whereby going through the struggle together can foster a bond of sympathy. Being in the same situation with the other at the same time we can truly understand what is at stake. Being in a direct kinaesthetic relationship with one another we potentially develop the ability to empathise in a more embodied way.

Similar conditions have been indirectly described by the American anthropologist Margaret Mead, suggesting a particular insight into the act of rescue while expressing its meaning in connection to culture and civilisation: ‘Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilisation starts.’ 1 To the question of what she regards as the first sign of civilisation in an ancient culture, Mead replied that ‘the first sign of civilisation in an ancient culture was a thighbone that had been broken and then healed.’ She then explained that ‘in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery.’ 2

The situation of rescue that she described reveals an image of a body in life-threatening circumstances, who, saved from the danger, is brought into a safe space to be taken care of until healed. This is not an image of a lonely and suffering human body in a critical situation. Next to the injured body we can imagine figures of people performing rescue and care. We can find three stages of rescue in Margaret Mead’s example above. Stage one: ‘someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, (and) has bound up the wound’; stage two: ‘has carried the person to safety’; and stage three: ‘has tended to the person through recovery.’ These stages portray a succession of gestures, actions and movement resembling a triptych-like depiction of care through rescue. This imagery brings my attention back to the 2013 Rana Plaza rescue photograph by Sk Hasan Ali (figure 2). Looking at it from the Meadean perspective, we begin to see that the focus is on the act of rescue rather than the figure of the victim. The focus is on the humanity, the kind of humanity that builds a community that stems from readiness to engage with the struggle to rescue the other from a life-threatening situation. A humanity that helps the other in spite of the risk and discomfort and works together to protect one another.

The Meadean perspective is an emblematic or symbolic representation of true solidarity; a figure of interdependency through care; with bodies entangled through mutual support and protection; an image that embodies ways of bonding which represent human (inter)action in and through struggle.  Any space that allows for such practices to take place is a civilised one, a space for restoring our collective sense for solidarity, a space to recover our sense for community and our own self-other identity through enacting solidarity and care. Each participant, no matter how active, can both recover their own civilised self by means of action and also awaken the sense of civilized self of the non-active attendants. This happened, for instance, with the witnesses of the rescue in figure 1, who were gathered at the site of the collapsed building. Their sense of civilized self can be potentially awakened or revived through empathy.  

Now the question is whether we truly need crisis to discover such profound dimension of humanity in ourselves? Do we really need a crisis to make solidarity visible and recover our sense of solidarity? What other contexts allow us to experience solidarity and care for one another? How to experience solidarity through performance, as art, without having to re-enact crisis or trauma? How to create spaces and performative settings as art where one can feel their impulses of solidarity while holding space for them? How to encourage people to act upon such impulses and help other participants to restore their relationship with solidarity vicariously through attendance?

To experiment on the basis of these questions in the frame of performance, I looked into the concept of the ‘active attendant’ and the potential of imaginary, emotional and physical resonance as agents that mobilise the sense for participation, feelings of empathy or sympathy. The three works that follow— ‘Suddenly the floor was not there’, As we pick up the pieces, and bodyspeaking—are performative proposals for exercising solidarity in the context of art, exploring the idea of ‘active attendance’ through the format of a performative workshop.

‘Suddenly the floor was not there’

Figure 3. Nayana Keshava Bhat in ‘Suddenly the floor was not there,’ guiding the audience through the imagery of Rana Plaza rescue. tanz_house festival 2018, ARGEkultur Salzburg. (c) Wolfgang Lienbacher.

The ‘active attendant’ is an audience member who not only attends the performance as a spectator but rather ‘attends to’ the performance in the sense of holding space through ‘being attentive to, or ‘taking care of,’ either on their own impulse or by being given a task or a role to play (figures 4 and 5).

Suddenly the floor was not there’ developed in the frame of a public call for participation. The scope of this call was to engage the interested community in artistic research, while exploring the idea of the ‘active attendant.’ The performance, in collaboration with the performer Nayana Keshava Bhat, was imagined as a guided tour in the building of ARGEkultur Salzburg and was performed during the tanz_house festival 2018. In the performance, the ARGEkultur building represented the collapsed Rana Plaza. The audience was taken on a walk inside the ‘collapsed building,’ listening to Nayana describing rescue scenes that involve the active participation of civilians. Inspired by the photography of the Rana Plaza rescue as captured by Sk Hasan Ali, Nayana described the rescuers, their clothes and actions based on the photograph. Her descriptions intentionally intersected reality and fiction, weaving the ‘there and then’ with the ‘here and now.’ Some details about what the rescuers in the photograph are wearing were replaced by the clothes of the audience.

In the second scene, instead of describing the rescuers’ clothes from the photograph, Nayana began to describe the rescuers wearing clothes that the chosen audience members had worn during the performance. To what extent would the audience recognise themselves in the description of the rescuers, and to what extent would the narrative of the performance appeal to the imagination of the audience (activated spectatorship)? To what extent would this approach to identification with the ‘actors’ of the described performance of solidarity stimulate the audience to join the last scene of the performance, where a lying body needs to be lifted and carried out of the building? To what extent does the audience feel compelled to enter the scene? Do they enter the scene at all?

As we pick up the pieces

Figure 4. From Laboratory for Participative Imaginaries. Claudia Heu with guest during the research for As we pick up the pieces at Im_Flieger, Vienna. (c) Tomaž Simatović.

As we pick up the pieces (2021) is a project about people who engage with the world through solidarity, who take risks to act in support and help people in need. It represents how intersected, interwoven, and interdependent our lives are. It is not to say that solidarity doesn’t exist in this world but rather explores contexts to exercise it— through art, for instance.

As we pick up the pieces developed in collaboration with the artist Claudia Heu, in the context of the research project ‘Threading solidarity’ during two residencies at Im_Flieger Vienna, from 2020 to 2021. Set as a situation in which the aim is to disentangle interlocked clothes on a platform, the project explores the concept of active attendance and the idea of supportive gaze, inspired by the themes of rescue intervention and the game Mikado. Participants learn about the Rana Plaza incident through a booklet, while two performers introduce the interactive concept. By asking the question ‘how can we treat clothes today to honour the lives and work of people who act in true solidarity?’, the booklet invites the participants to engage with the practice. Usually, As we pick up the pieces takes place in park-like settings, spaces for leisure, socialising, games, physical exercising, reading, a conversation, or a study. What else can we exercise in a park? What else can we engage with through the usual ways of being in the park? In this sense, As we pick up the pieces opens a potentially new space, a space for the experience of empathy through the practice of sensitivity, concentration, mindfulness, observation, contemplation and attention. Eventually, a state of peaceful serenity emerges, which allows the participants to start a dialogue about the place of care, solidarity and compassion in this world, and about their impact on our ways of treating ourselves and one another through the analogy of clothes. We also learn how essential this is in the quagmire of our collective present, where time and resources for taking and performing care are continuously challenged on so many levels of human existence. With As we pick up the pieces, we explore how to facilitate conditions for a game-like experience that can replace feelings of competition and comparison with compassion and care, introducing an actual game-changer both in the way we treat the world and one another and how we can actively participate in changing the world we live in.

What can we observe, learn about, or see changing in ourselves and in other participants as we are picking up the pieces or actively observing others doing it?

Figure 6. András Meszerics and Tomaž Simatović during the performance bodyspeaking, 2020, at the tanz_house Festival, Salzburg, (c) Hector Palacios.

Bodyspeaking: A Performative Workshop for Sharing Somatic Experience

In 2020, as part of research for ‘The Performing Solidarity Project,’ my collaborator András Meszerics and I contemplated photographs that capture the act of physical violence in the context of abusive and oppressive authority, from police brutality to prosecution of refugees, and political prisoners. We were not interested in representing the act of violence but rather in bringing attention to the figure of the oppressed body, represented through the perspective of the aesthetic concept of figuration.

How would an oppressed body feel from inside? With a focus on exploring the form and sensation of a crushed and crumpled body, we were interested in carving out thephysical resonance’ embodied through a sculpture-like figure. Using kinaesthetic and somatic imaginaries to explore possible inner movement, we applied the aesthetic concept we call somatic figuration, a way of embodying feeling through the perspective of figure and somatic imaginaries. We presented the research in the form of a performative workshop bodyspeaking, where we share three exercises for sharing somatic experience. The idea was to use the three exercises to: a) carve out the somatic imaginary and physical resonance of our own experience with images of violence that we contemplated; and b) demonstrate through this process how the three exercises create figures of the oppressed body. Bodyspeaking invited the audience to participate actively in the workshop as observers who contemplate the performed materials and who will be asked to eventually share their own somatic experience of the demonstrations with us and one another. The audience received a notebook (the bodyspeaking workbook) to journal about their impressions, while the two dancers performed the demonstration. After journaling, the participants and artists exchanged their notebooks and read aloud each other’s notes.

The second exercise began developing from a place of physical contact, referencing the Meadean figure concept, a figure of solidarity, mutual support and care. The scene was also inspired by the sculpture Solidarity by Oreste Dequel that stands in my hometown Izola, Slovenia, representing two sailors in the act of rescue. From this place of contact, we developed a slow dance, representing the complexity of interdependence, embodying the idea of moving together through oppression, through what we called a choreography of mutual support. This was rooted in the somatic and kinaesthetic experiences of both dancers who now converse through sensation and their feeling for one another’s bodies. What mobilises them is exactly the emerging somatic relationship, the actual sharing of somatic experiences, mediated through physical contact and kinaesthetic sensation, now represented through the dance.

The study on sharing somatic experience within the format we presented was also intended to explore to what extent can the proposed setting in development enhance kinaesthetic empathy and physical resonance, determined by the way the audience responds somatically. This is an activity that can be measured by their actual feedback through journaling and reading aloud. How are they moved from within? What impulses do they feel? Would they enter the scene and approach the two performing bodies if allowed by the setting, and if the pandemic safety measurements were not in the background? Would this format create situations where the audience decides to participate through proximity and touch? Would this format manage to enact the Meadean triptych through the physical involvement and interaction of the workshop attendants?

After the performance of bodyspeaking in 2020, one audience member expressed her impulse to come closer to the performer during the performance in a conversation with us. Yet, due to Covid-19 safety measurements, she wasn’t allowed to act in accordance with her longing. The audience had to remain seated the entire time and were allowed to leave their seat only to exit the room. A similar experience of desired proximity without being able to come closer was described by an audience member a few years prior to bodyspeaking as part of the performance Extraordinarily Intolerable (2019), which was before the pandemic. Extraordinarily Intolerable explored the same concept of active attendance from the somatic perspective of the figure of the activist and her ‘call for participation.’ In a letter to us, she expressed her struggle for hesitating to come closer to the performer, to sit next to him and place her hand on him. She felt frustrated for not allowing herself to come near him, despite feeling called, and despite being invited to do so by the setting.

The bodies of the two women speak of how the kinaesthetic and emotional empathy worked in the two performative situations. Both described a kind of calling or a force pulling them into the scene, an urge growing to be more intimate with the scene, yet, each for their own reason, not being able to act upon it. It seems that their kinaesthetic and sympathetic feelings and the imaginary of seeing themselves as part of the scene in a physical sense or through action was, in their cases, juxtaposed by regulations of public safety (as well as doubt, insecurity or fear), which are very often reasons why people withdraw from acting out of their impulses. In neither of the two examples that I have just described did the act of coming closer or stepping into the scene and acting upon the imaginary or the kinaesthetic response (that inherent feeling that Gallese names physical resonance) take place. To act based on the observed action takes a decision, yet what also needs to happen is that interaction and intervention are (legally) allowed.

Human interaction or intimacy with a situation of struggle, in the context of ‘performing solidarity’ or ‘rescue’ is not necessarily inhibited by the visual and kinaesthetic materials that construct the scene but may be a result of projections based on emotional experiences, even trauma, that reflect in the situation. In the context of performance, such inhibitions from engaging with the work may occur for a variety of personal reasons, from shyness, fear of failure, embarrassment, to simply not wanting to take part, even if the setting is interactive and participatory. Allowing oneself to be observed in action, especially when said action requires intimacy, is a matter of performance and rehearsal. So, how to help the participant to let go of the self-judgement and engage, to permit oneself to experiment with the proposal in the safe space of the performance? The performance setting I am describing in this work is not a space where one gets to be judged or punished for failing at the task. It is a safe space where we experience ourselves through exercise, and in so doing, experiment with how to deal with our own struggles, and hopefully overcome them through a form of collective engagement that is carried out as a rehearsal or an attempt. 

Conclusion

Solidarity is a very powerful human experience. It binds people together; it provides a feeling of unity and a sense of communal belonging. Solidarity is fired by empathy, yet it manifests only through action. So, it is care. One of the participants in As we pick up the pieces expressed her desire: to be able to have enough time and space in her life to act with the same care and attention that she experienced during the work with us. To have the possibility to live with as much attention and care is almost impossible in the world we live in today because just to survive we are already over-tasked. This realisation brought up feelings of frustration but also of hope.

The situation that Margaret Mead described in 1950s has introduced a perspective on civilisation through the lens of solidarity and care. Her view suggests that solidarity might be one of the building blocks of our first communities. While, on one hand, empathy is a human ability to feel what another is feeling, on the other, it does not prove that people are able to act in response to these feelings. To be able to act in support of someone else, despite the discomfort that such feelings can bring along, one must acquire perhaps another ability that allows them to act out of empathy. The ability to act despite discomfort and help someone else in need is what true solidarity represents. The historical context behind Mead’s perspective suggests that the kind of human ability to rescue someone else from danger is ancient. It suggests that solidarity is, after all, an ancient wisdom, an inherent knowledge, a human instinct, or ability to act in solidarity with the person in a life-threatening situation. The Meadean figure of solidarity is, therefore, being continuously re-embodied throughout history, through enactments of solidarity of any kind, and made visible by each catastrophe again and again. Each time when solidarity is performed, this ancient wisdom is passed onto the next generation. Indeed, in the face of the unprecedented events of the last decade that we have been experiencing on a global scale, the same events also gave rise to new dimensions of what it means to act out of empathy, humanity and decency, to act in solidarity of people in need of support. Yet, I again wonder if we really need another catastrophe of global proportions to make us feel and understand how interconnected we are and what binds us together as one. In what way can an artistic practice intervene in our daily lives and facilitate experiences where we exercise solidarity, where we continue restoring our relationship with that ancient, embodied knowledge, even if there is no obvious need to act out of solidarity such as a crisis? In the same way as it is important to know how to write and count, shouldn’t we also give empathy and solidarity the same value? Shouldn’t we create a place for learning how to interact with the world through empathy and solidarity? A place to build communities through mutual support, care and solidarity? How can we begin to value solidarity in the same way as we value other human abilities and fundamental knowledge that we usually acquire, for instance, through education?  

Tomaž Simatović

Tomaž Simatović is a Slovenian-born choreographer, dancer and performing artist based in Austria. Tomaž is developing his work through performance, research, teaching and writing, and through collaborations, the practice of active listening, and dialogue. His creative path is motivated by human (inter)actions that stem from solidarity, compassion, mutual support and care. For the past few years, he has been focusing on projects that exercise those through the art of performance. Tomaž is a graduate of the ArtEZ M.A. programme in Choreography and a recipient of multiple grants and residency awards for his research in performance. Next to his career in performance, he has been teaching regularly from 2011 to 2018 in universities and academies for dance performance internationally. Currently, he is developing a project on utopia and queerness with András Meszerics, working on the Laboratory for Participative Imaginaries, and conceptualising the exhibition for The Performing Solidarity Project.

Bibliography

Bibliography

  • Byock, Ira, The Best Care Possible: A Physician’s Quest to Transform Care Through the End of Life. New York: Avery, 2012.
References
↑ 1

Quoted in Ira Byock, The Best Care Possible: A Physician’s Quest to Transform Care Through the End of Life (New York: Avery, 2012).

↑ 2

Ibid.