Projects Writings

Where the Words Run Out

For AHA! festival in Gothenburg, Alexander Dam, Sara Rousta and I created this performance for two dancers and a writer running out of words.

There is no such thing as standing, there is only being held up.

– Franz Rosenzweig

A small audience sits scattered across a large auditorium at Chalmers University. The first thing we do is to invite them to move to the front, so that we can be closer to each other.

‘Thank you,’ I tell them. ‘You didn’t have to do that – and you did it.’

Where the Words Run Out is an experiment, a performance for two dancers and a writer running out of words, an improvisation that leads into a conversation.

It came about thanks to a chain of serendipitous encounters which became friendships. First, with the historian of ideas, Per Johansson (responsible for this Swedish-language podcast), who I met five years earlier in another auditorium in Gothenburg, the first time I went to speak at FSCONS, the annual Nordic hacker convention. He tells the story of our meeting here.

It was Per who introduced the dancer and choreographer Emelie Enlund to the Dark Mountain manifesto – and she took that text and ran with it, developing a whole practice of ‘uncivilised dance’. The most recent manifestation of that was the show We Love Holocene IV at Dansens Hus, Stockholm, back in April.

Sara Rousta and Alexander Dam were two of the dancers in that show. Back home in Gothenburg, where she is completing her final year of high school, Sara had got involved in organising the AHA! festival of science and art.

‘I’ve got a couple of ideas,’ Sara said on the phone. ‘We could get you here to do a keynote – or maybe you could collaborate with me and Alex on some kind of performance?’

That’s how we got here, on the stage. I’m talking about what I’ve learned, working with writers and artists, about the role that culture might yet play under the shadow of climate change. I’m used to talking without notes, I can always pull in a line or a story that will keep things going, but this afternoon is different – when I feel the thread slipping, that I’m starting to use the words to hold a distance between myself and what I’m talking about, then I let myself come to a halt. Hold the silence, long enough that it moves beyond any discomfort. At some point, I can feel movement starting up behind me, as Alex and Sara pick up the thread.

The theme of this year’s festival is ‘autonomy’ and that sent me back to those words of Franz Rosenzweig, from a letter to Ilse Hahn:

You know, you needn’t feel bad because you lack the power to ‘tell yourself the whole truth’, for once, for your own good. Believe me, no man has this power; no man can help himself.

As a writer, there is a temptation to take on the role of the lone truth-teller. The actual work of writing takes place, after all, in solitude. And one thing I’ve come to see through working with hundreds of writers, artists and performers is that the artistic duty – in so much as such a word makes sense at all – is a duty to whatever is missing from the ‘social truth’, whatever is obscured by the ways of seeing the world which are currently dominant (or simply taken for granted) in the neighbourhood in which you find yourself working. This is what makes art such an unreliable tool for all the socially-useful tasks it gets called upon to perform. There is something marginal – and potentially isolating – about such an artistic calling. Yet I find myself uneasy with the way that this is stretched by the romantic idea of the artist or the writer which still haunts us. It puts too more weight on the individual than any of us can bear.

This is where Rosenzweig’s words come back to me, gently mocking our tendency to claim the mantle of the lone truth-teller. The world is full of people who ‘try to make themselves believe’ that they can tell themselves the whole truth, he goes on, but ‘they succeed no better than Münchausen did when he tried to pull himself out of the mire by the scruff of his neck.’

In the moment when I sit at my desk, writing these words, I may be the only bodily presence in the room; yet I find it a relief to be reminded that ‘you never think alone’. As Sara Wolcott put it the other day, describing a conversation in her kitchen in New York:

While only two of us physically sat at the table as the sky turned from dark purple to a luminescent, turquoise blue, we were and we are […] surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, spirits and living memories. Let none of us make the mistake to think that when we think, we only think alone. For we are informed in so many ways by so many people. We are shaped today by communities of disparate time and space.

What I love about working with people like Alex and (the other) Sara, who work with such different skills and practices, is the possibility of seeing in each other’s blindspots. Dancers are, in my experience, less prone to the lone truth-teller fantasy than writers. And Rosenzweig’s images are splendidly physical and embodied, making a good starting point for a collaboration such as ours.

The hour that the three of spend on stage together seems to pass before we have noticed. By the end, we are sitting with the audience, moving in and out of silence, as they bring their own words to what has become a conversation.

AHA! festival gave us the chance to try out this work – and based on the warmth of the response it received and how much we enjoyed working together, we’ll be looking for the opportunity to develop it further in 2018.