Interview with Bojana Cvejic by Grégory Castéra
(Translation: David Pickering)
Grégory Castéra In the discussions following Running Commentaries similarities between the formal device it uses and that of sports commentary came up several times. One of the defining characteristics of sports commentary being that, beyond putting words to an event, speech patterns change when a victory or goal is close at hand. This is true of the change in intensity and intonation when a goal is called out in a soccer match, or of the acceleration of speech as a horse race progresses. Dance doesn't have this kind of photo finish, and changes in speech patterns are quite rare during Running Commentaries. It may have more in common with other kinds of live commentary, for example director's commentary on DVD, live news reports, police surveillance, etc. Did you study these forms at the time of the project's conception?
Bojana Cvejic During the early trials for Running Commentaries, I studied two of the aforementioned types of discourse: director's commentary and sports commentary. Later, during two trial periods—one with the students in my theory class at P.A.R.T.S. (Performing Arts Research and Training Studios) in Brussels, and another with the participants of the SixMonthsOneLocation project, held at the PAF (Performing Arts Forum) in St. Erme—the range of genres expanded to include four new kinds of commentaries, which brought us to a total of six different types of discourse:
1. Director's Commentary. You show the scenes one after another while constantly sharing your intentions, thoughts and ideas, especially those that aren't apparent from the performance. You also discuss the processes and techniques used in the execution of the work. You try to show the relationship between the show you imagined and what it turned out to be, holding your idea up to the reality of its execution. You also tell the spectator what you like or don't like in what you see. In this role, you must take responsibility for the show as though it were your own;
2. The dancer's perspective. You know exactly how every movement, every step was conceived. You know exactly what you need to do and when, how to use your body and where to take it. You mainly speak in the present tense, as though your were reporting on your physical and mental state during the actual performance. Yours is not the state of the choreographer or director—this is about your state and yours alone, which is a state only you can know. Your goal is to give the spectators a taste of this perspective they have never been able to access before. But you are only an imposter of course, because you have never actually performed the piece. It's all make-believe. And of course you don't even have to stay completely true to the real performance;
3. The storyteller. You watch the performance as though it were a work of pure fiction. You let your imagination run away with you, leaving behind the reality of the show. For you, everything that happens suggests or becomes something else. You will need to use language to create metaphor. You can even talk over the performance, literally putting words in actors mouths or dancer's bodies. You are in fact hijacking the performance. Your goal is to get the audience to close their eyes and give themselves over to the sound of your voice;
4. The interpreter. You establish you own interpretation of the performance while watching it. To do this, you are going to put all your cards on the table, all your knowledge, tools, concepts, imagination and analytical skills. Don't worry about exaggerating to the point of becoming absurd! You can contradict yourself, change your opinion, hesitate and even not know what to say. The important thing is that you be OUTSPOKEN, that you pretend to know everything about everything and never stop speaking...;
5. Memory. You find yourself in the interpreter's booth but you don't watch the projection with the audience. You close your eyes, listen to the soundtrack and try to fire up your memory. Using your commentary, you try to reconstruct or paint a picture of the performance you attended;
6. Live Sportscaster. You watch the performance as though it were a one-time-only live broadcast being watched by throngs of anonymous TV-viewers. Figure out what the object of the game is and follow the rules. Try to anticipate every change and movement. You have to be very enthusiastic because your objective is to pique the viewer's interest and make the event sound exciting. Your voice will be your only tool, so you can speak in exaggerated tones. It is as though you were an actual player who could only scream, sigh, mumble, whistle, etc. Try to become this invisible player. Your one goal is winning the game, except that the performance has no clearly defined objective. You must pretend that some unidentified goal will be attained at the end, but no one knows what that goal is.
While experimenting with these different genres, I started to realize they had become normative. If they were going to help the interpreter detach from his or her identity and become someone else they would necessitate a great deal of practice or a live audience captive for a long enough period of time—conditions that were impossible to achieve. So I decided to simplify things by sticking with just the principle of over-identification with the event. The interpreter would still whip himself into a frenzy, but would be allowed to shift perspectives over the course of the event. Most commentators opt for the director's or interpreter's commentary, or go back and forth between the two. "Storyteller" and "Memory" are two perspectives I would like to develop, especially because inventing a narrative that is a real departure from the original event requires practice, imagination, and courage. One can easily fail to capture the audience's attention.
GC Live commentary, as a formal device, combines the commentator's words with an event he or she is following. That means the amount of attention devoted to a given element of the piece, as well as its possible contextualizations, depend on the order and duration of the events contained within. This temporal constraint can make Running Commentaries less flexible for the commentator than more ordinary situations in which works of art are oralized: for example as part of a casual discussion in which reference is made to the performance offhandedly, or at a conference where the speaker is conducting an analysis of the work and can freeze-frame a detail, or rewind at his own leisure. That said, having to adapt the rhythm of ones words to that of the piece allows one to construct discourse in a very specific way. Which knowledge we invoke is determined by the form of its enunciation: the discourse gets organized according to breaks, references, shifts, and accelerations. For example, in his running commentary on Daniel Linehan's pieces, Noé Soulier took regular pauses of varying length, which had the overall effect of producing two temporalities on the recording: one temporality with commentary and one without it. On the other channel, Elisabeth Lebovici punctuated her description with digressions into historical cases. This had the effect of multiplying the number of possible interpretations, as well as changing audience perception by not directly referring to the elements present in the piece. Live commentary can be seen as a way of shaping a piece's temporality and proximity. In a certain sense, commentators "make" the piece discursively. Do these running commentaries allow us to relive certain effects of a piece that video can't restore?
BC Certainly, but what interests me most in your question is the part about the synchronization of several diverging temporalities. The spectator's perception, knowledge, and affection for the piece are altered depending on whether he or she sees the video or attends the piece on stage with or without commentary. These three processes change as a function of the articulation of the commentator's discourse. Clearly, translating the full flow of ideas into words is impossible. I attended an experiment in which musicians tried to create a discourse that would follow the precise structure and rhythm of the music. Some got stuck or felt incapable of matching their discourse to the speed of thoughts running consciously and unconsciously through their heads while the piece was played. Others gave an oral performance for which the music was merely punctuation. I would like to transform this impossibility of associating two actions into a constraint that could engender a new type of thought and discourse. The challenge here is to unleash more thoughts and emotions than are usually contained in the reductive remarks, opinions or texts we often hear after a performance.
GC Running Commentary demands that the commentator constantly mobilize resources to describe and comment the piece. Listening to the commentary, the viewer hears certain aspects of the dance named, but the description is necessarily incomplete. It is impossible to give a live description of images without picking out certain details, just as it is impossible to faithfully translate dance into an oral description. In this sense, live commentary can scarcely be perceived as an ideal interpretation of the piece. The spectator compares his or her own interpretation of the images with the commentator's and this comparison can lead the spectator to name his or her own interpretations. The spectator and commentator both try to name what they see. This gives the spectator the opportunity to compare, and thus to critique. Does Running Commentaries constitute a learning device, a sort of school for critiquing dance orally?
BC Several years ago, I observed a paradigm shift in criticism toward a pragmatic and radically empirical notion of experimentation and invention. The use of criticism as the main operational mode doesn't allow us to enrich the world around us. If by experimentation we mean producing and inventing, that construction must go hand in hand with evolution—gradual change that is unforeseen and unplanned. I consider running commentary to be a process that could potentially bring about an evolution of the performing arts. Its goal is to try to bring about a shift from automatic recognition to attentive recognition by using concepts developed by Henri Bergson in Matter and Memory. When the dancer performs, his field of perception spreads to encompass his every movement and he acquires certain motor and sensory mechanisms that have been formed and accumulated through repeated practice and repetition. When the spectator (observer) attends a performance, he isn't equipped to expand his or her sphere of perception to include a movement. As a result the spectator as observer undertakes a "description" of what he or she perceives instead of turning it into a motor and sensorial image. The important thing about a description is that whatever is being described is perceived as constant. If we observe that thing, however, we realize it is going through different states and the observer must renew his or her observation constantly in order to identify characteristics that are in flux.
GC You might say that each interpretation of a work is a different version of it. The more interpretations there are—both intended and unintended by the artist—the more complex the work. These interpretations are made possible thanks to the work's many forms of mediation: theatrical performances, exhibitions, publications, oral and written discourse, documentation, spin-offs and running commentaries too. These mediations are the sole means for a spectator to access a work. He can only see a work for as long as it is exhibited, photographed, described, etc. If an ideal representation of a work exists, it is a fiction produced by (or for) the spectator. These mediations determine the (necessarily partial) reading of an artwork. Each mediation allows access to one or several modalities of existence of the work. It is based on these modalities of existence that we construct our interpretation and understanding of the artwork's process of production, meaning the life of the artwork. According to this approach, the work is a complex and dynamic network of modalities of existence. What value does a running commentary have in relation to the work it describes? Can we say, for example, "I saw the piece" having only seen its running commentary? Or could we consider each running commentary as a commented version of the piece?
BC I prefer to take a more modest stance: the running commentary offers several transmutations of the piece, which aren't necessarily different from the piece itself. They can't take their place because they are partial (meaning both incomplete and subjective) and contingent versions. But, on the other hand, no "truth" of the piece exists, just as no single performance is its sole interpretation. During my thesis work, I developed a theory on the quasi-ontology of representation, wherein the work is realized on three parallel planes of diverging temporality, activity and function: the creation, execution and attendance of the piece. These three planes are intensive processes and correspond to different parts of the work because they give rise to experiences and concepts that are incomparable and ineluctably different. My task through Running Commentaries is to develop the work in the inherent multiplicity of these three levels. The discourse doesn't just follow or subtly modify the work, it produces it, just as the discourse is produced by the work if we adhere to an immanentist perspective. That doesn't mean the running commentary should escape judgment but that the criteria by which it is judged must be explicitly determined. Running commentary "fails" when it is reduced to a normative judgment or remark about the representation, to dull repetitions of fuzzy assertions: there could be a little more of this or a little less of that. Ideally the mere fact of commenting should generate a change, a transformation both for the commentator and for the spectator, and maybe even for the creators of the work.
Published in Le Journal des Laboratoires, September-December 2010
¹ For example, in the telephone interview between Elisabeth Lebovici and Bertrand Bonello on the DVD bonus of the film Cindy the Doll Is Mine, they dub a chronological narrative of the life of Cindy Sherman over the film, alternating descriptions about the making of the film and illustrations of the critic's comments.
² In the article "Indexation" L'Encyclopédie de la Parole makes a detailed analysis of horse racing commentary and the dramatizing effect of the final stretch. In the same article, l'Encyclopédie de la Parole analyzes General de Gaulle's 1967 visit to Quebec during which commentators unleashed superlatives such as: "They're practically ripping General de Gaulle's arm off." www.encyclopediedelaparole.org
³ The running commentary pertained to the pieces Montage for Three and Not About Everything presented at the Théâtre de la Bastille the previous week. The commentators were Elisabeth Lebovici, Noé Soulier and Daniel Linehan in conversation with Bojana Cvejić.