on immigrants and animals, Part 1

i was asked at recent interview to talk about a dance artist i admired – i mentioned immigrants and animals (Jamila Johnson-Small and Mira Kautto), who seem pretty well known in the scene despite not appearing on any major platforms. i like talking about them with people; i think they’re great, but i’ve never see any critical writing about their stuff. anyway, the interviewer then asked me what ‘piece of advice’ i’d give them, which seemed kind of funny, as i’m pretty sure if i tried to give them any advice i’d expect them to spit at me. i’m going to put this here and then maybe go underground for a while:

Laura Laura
 was the first thing I saw them do, and (so embarrassing to say…) I thought their matching Adidas outfits were the coolest costumes I’d ever seen. they stage themselves dancing – club dancing, dancing in your kitchen, the sort of pulsing you might do with your headphones in & sitting near the back of the bus – not really interacting with each other, but more coming across as a kind of gang: identical, cool clothing, effortlessly weaving around each other, stalking around the space & sinking into their music. walking home with a friend, we jumped about the streets, totally charged by their movement. framed by Rich Mix’s semi-clinical/institutional vibe, they set up a sort of temporary camp, with plug-in lights, a cheap projector, loud music. they danced about, sang karaoke, took videos of themselves, played them back and danced to them; private angular gestures of pleasure and confusion, telling the audience who lined the sides of the stage that this space is theirs. their territory felt less secure in Terminal, a solo performed by Mira. her diminutive figure, eyes banded in black, wearing a tight black dress, repeatedly enters into the performance space (Yinka Shonibare’s project space). she comes in from a door at the back of the room: quickly and boldly; to stalk around; a lingering presence; to undertake a bit of dancing. it comes across as an anxious gesture, sifting through the possibilities of inhabiting this room, to be here before our gaze. both works are infused with a bold casualness, a looseness, charged with a restlessness; attempting to access or operate with genuine feeling (whatever that might mean when being watched by paying strangers).

thinking about these shows now, they both feel a bit laboured and clunky – Terminal was constrained by the stage door, which felt like it limited some possibilities for dynamic and surprise that a wing could offer (the door opening always upstaged Mira herself) – and Laura Laura’s video stuff & fiddling about the lights(?) felt like ‘material’ they did just for the sake of it – whereas the looser and more intangible stuff in-between had an unsettling power. with their latest work, Pony, they’ve gotten more bold in stripping this stuff away. they start the piece crawling around the space in sheer clothing: i remember lots of men looking like they didn’t know where to look. this hypersexuality, this exposure of the body in servitude, explicitly raises questions for the audience about their gaze & power. while all of i&a’s shows feel quite long to me, in their deliberately eschewing standard composition and rhythms – Pony in particular works to a mix-tape of songs, with their dancing occasionally relocating to different parts of the space. a sequence of songs is an awful way to structure a show – the energy never builds to anything, the gaps in between are awkward, there’s no sense of an arc, or any development towards anything – but the sheer narcissism of it perfectly sets up their position. the performance space is saturated in their personal tastes; their dancing is driven by their own desires and they seem indifferent to presenting anything to the audience. it’s brilliantly indulgent – they’re self-absorbed, getting on with their own thing, sinking into themselves.

and, i mean, i fucking hate the phrase ‘dance like nobody’s watching’ – it suggests some kind of naive honesty or intimacy or authenticity, based on their being unconscious of the viewer, in order to invite a voyeuristic spectator to watch the dancer without any fear that their gaze might be highlighted, returned or questioned (Michael Fried’s ‘Theatricality and Absorption’ looks at a history of ‘absorbed’ figures inviting viewers) – but immigrants and animals somehow manage to make it work. while totally absorbed in their own thing, their audiences become extremely conscious of their own viewing, and are aggressively questioned. what does it mean to sit and watch a (highly trained) dancer be (embarrassingly earnestly) introspective? the solo (female) dancer in a club is such a clichéd image: are we meant to be able to empathise with them, read their thoughts & feelings? do they make themselves available to our watching, and perhaps even invite us to join them? do they produce a clear distance: are they telling us to fuck off? no matter how far Jamila and Mira appear to sink into themselves when they dance, it never coheres to a clear relation with us, but rather seems to both invite and reject the viewer. as they get more and more involved in their nostalgia, ecstasy, earnestness or narcissism, they invite a starker self-questioning – why have i come here to watch this? why are they inviting me to watch them like this? what can i see and what remains hidden? who in this space in moving, who is still, who is watched, who is doing the watching?

maybe an interesting contrast is GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN’s stuff – while their work similarly puts the audience in an uncomfortable or self-questioning position, everything the VAN do on stage is totally turned out – it’s constantly directed to us, the audience (including their stage-whispers chastising each other). it calls into question our watching by going the opposite direction from i&a. they dedicate their efforts to pleasing the audience – like Lucy in Number 1, The Plaza, crawling around the floor in a stupid animal impression, mewing pathetically, trying to charm and delight us while she rolls around in fake shit; or in Big Hits, as she continually repeats an X Factor-style delivery of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, a self-exposing ‘everyday’ virtuosity & authenticity. while i&a don’t directly engage with the audience as the VAN do, neither does their introspective dancing produce any sense of kinaesthetic empathy. to borrow the words of André Lepecki in discussion of Mårten Spångberg’s La Substance, but in English: “[the performers] immediately destroy any illusion that dance is that art of harmonious flows and of ’empathic resonance’ […] predicated on a shared humanity or shared corporality, or even a shared subjectivity. There is absolutely no place for empathy between subjects here.” (‘Substance-resonance’. TDR. 2014, 58:4). i’ve started to use the term ‘kinaesthetic dissent’ to refer to this quality.

but then again; as an audience for their work I feel uncomfortable, held at a distance, & questioned. but i could also imagine someone coming out of their show feeling elated & connected – who’s witnessed their dancing as a celebratory act. there’s that quote – “art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable” – maybe i’m exactly the kind of person they wish to disturb, while their work simultaneously forms a close & intimate encounter with another. and anyway, maybe this is just total bullshit – didn’t i walk home jumping about ecstatically after the first time i saw their work?

my favourite thing i saw i&a do was their night Laura Laura: Double Penetration at Chisenhale Dance Space. they performed their duet, then gave the audience a small break, and then invited us back in to watch Eve Stainton and Michael Kitchin from The Uncollective perform the same piece again. they introduced it as part of their research into how this kind of work – which mostly is performed & toured by the choreographer/artist themselves – might exist ‘in rep’; i appreciated their questioning, and was delighted by the formal proposition of seeing the same work twice in a row, interpreted by different performers. for a work that consists mostly of loose and moody dancing around the space, it exposed some of the structuring of the work, and it brought up a lot about the possibilities (and limits) of their choreography to be inhabited by others. Laura Laura is deeply deeply cool – or rather, it’s saturated in coolness when Jamila and Mira perform it, and not so cool when Eve and Michael do it. this can partly be put down to the audience watching it for the second time in a row; and maybe to do with these guys struggling a bit with what we can understand to be short period to learn the work; but i think it also to do with the performers’ different attitude as collaborating artists to Jamila and Mira’s. if this kind of work is to be performed by another group, then it seems like i&a’s general air of coolness might need to be replaced by whatever undercurrent or vibe it is that drives Eve and Michael’s work (i’ve never seen anything of theirs). could i&a structure/score the show in a way that it could be re-infused with whatever different mode (e.g. awkwardness, or tenderness, or earnestness, or rage) their touring company would bring to it? would this generate different possible relations to their audience? trying to be as cool as i&a in their own work seems like a tough job; rather than inevitable fall short of the mark, could Laura Laura be rewritten with a different set of energies & moods?

but anyway, to come back to i&a themselves: i always actually end up thinking of their website as much as any of their live performances. it ignores most of the clichéd structures of artist websites, and becomes a sort of token of their activity. existing outside of, or in between, institutions, their work seems as much about how they negotiate spaces and resources as what they stage – how they maintain a distance to certain platforms, or organise their own, inviting and supporting their friends. their website for me persists as a continued visibility and presence of their work even when they’re not showing anything on a stage (it’s worth mentioning that Mira runs a blog in which she invites artists to upload their applications, making visibility an otherwise unseen labour that doesn’t necessarily result in any tangible outcome). thinking about their name a bit, Giogio Agamben’s great book ‘The Open’ charts how historical, philosophical and artistic understandings of the human and animal are always dependent on each other – animals are that which lack humanity; humans are those that go beyond animal. a similar thing happens with the ‘immigrant’, or the ‘foreigner’, and the ‘citizen’ – the state can only define the one without rights in relation to the one who holds them, and vice versa. if Jamila and Mira position their collaboration alongside these roles, then we can’t just read this self-identification by itself, but need to think about how they’re picturing ‘legitimate’ or mainstream artistic practices. immigrants and animals raise an aggressive and refreshing challenge to artistic practices that claim independence and critique, yet continue to remain fully ready and digestible for when the institution decides to welcome them in.


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