Identity in and out of Time

I wrote this text for The Black The Box The Theatre – Texting Textures, that was a series of events programmed by Pontus Pettersson at the stage Weld in Stockholm 11-15 mars 2014. The text was part of an ongoing exhibition, originally edited in a font made by Pontus and written about the piece Preparing for Battle.


MOPA, My Own Private Army, is a triology. This text is about the first part of that triology, MOPA – Preparing for Battle. Pontus once told me that he thinks of the triology as a series where the last part is a preparation for the preceding, and the middle one a preparation for the first. I find this description meaningful, also because each part in itself does something with time – letting the history, the now and the future of an individual body mingle, addressing experiences of being out of time in different senses.

I saw MOPA – Preparing for Battle at Dansens Hus (Stockholm) in early 2012. To come back to the alternative chronology of MOPA, it is strictly speaking the last part of the triology; the one that concludes the two following. However, I think it is fair to say that that this show also had a past outside its future, that the battle it was preparing for in a sense already took place. The battle that I am referring to is one about the timing of identity – what it takes in order to be perceived as consistent and readable subjects over time. For me, MOPA – Preparing for Battle was very much a work about precisely that.

Before I continue analyzing my experience of this piece, I wish to use myself and my route to writing this text as an example of why the question of identity in time can have conflictual aspects, also in the most mundane social situations – that is, not only in the dramatic transfer between carnivalesque explosive parties and the-day-after confessions/discoveries. It seems reasonable to not think so much of who I was in early 2012. It does not seem reasonable to hold myself in 2012 accountable to any higher degree for what I do now, and even less reasonable to hold myself in 2014 accountable for what I did in 2012. Retrospectively, however, it seems like I was in some sense preparing for writing this text about MOPA – Preparing for Battle already that night when I spoke with Pontus after the show, even though none of us knew it back then. Because I got the question to write this text now two years later, I have the possibility to establish a reassuring line of coherency in my self-narration, introduce a sense of meaningfulness between now and past. Who I was that night two years ago obviously has useful consequences for what I become now. At the same time, the very thought that reassures me of the meaningfulness and consistency of my identity can turn into a worrying potential of losing control of my self-narration. What other things did I do on different nights two years ago? What are the lines, consequences and coherencies that I cannot identify between then and now? What am I forgetting? What am I remembering? Why? In this way, my identity constantly remembers and recognizes itself as other. If the goal of identity is to stay the same, to be identical, then it is indeed very easily thrown into conflict with itself in relation to time.

Let me thus bring this conflictual knowledge of remembering it differently into my relating of what happened that night in 2012. When I saw MOPA – Preparing for Battle, it was the second show of two the same night. The one before was Between Dog and Wolf by Frédéric Alstadt, Kajsa Sandström and Ulrika Berg. During the course of this text, I will get deeper into the fact that shows lined up after each other always influence each other (no matter who is the choreographer). But I will now leave Between Dog and Wolf  behind.

MOPA – Preparing for Battle consists of solos, almost like a set of separate shows within the frame of one performance. Each dancer – the night when I was watching, it was Pontus Pettersson, Bosmat Nossan, Linnea Martinsson and Robert Malmborg, but on other occasions also Anna Pehrsson and Joe Moran – has their own stylized characteristics in terms of both costume, scenography and movement. Generally employing one signature color (blue, red, yellow, green, grey…) and one signature object (clothes, spoons, pearls, metal, boots…), as well as directing open gazes and striking poses towards the audience, the solos give an impression of presenting individual identities as readymade commercial units, like a series of warrior dolls or boy band members.

At the same time, the cuteness, sexiness (in the sense of presenting a lustful carnal quality to, or even for, the gaze of the audience) and general accessibility of these solos have an aspect that withdraws from being locked by the frames of identity. Or rather, if identity has a strive towards sameness, the solos insist that any sameness will inevitably negate itself. This, identity reveals itself as a process or action rather than an object: a constant movement between recognition and lack of recognition. In the solo where Pontus dances himself, timing in its most concrete sense is a part of that withdrawal from sameness. Movements can speed up or slow down in a way that connotes both fast forward, slow motion and the twitchy speed of silent films. This cinematic physicality inserts a certain unpredictability in the commercial unit of identity, something uncanny. Also the other characters presented in the series of solos have different uncanny qualities inserted in what first seems to be a solid, sellable frame. In Bosmat’s solo, the glittering pattern on a bright red cardigan reveals itself to be tea spoons that fall out of the knitwork, giving an image of metal splinters or splitter on the floor, which is also somehow consistent with the sense of inside pouring out that permeates her movement. In Linnea’s solo, she is busy with eating, spitting and spreading pearls all over the space, insisting on it until it changes meaning from fun to compulsive and back again. Robert in his turn engages with the isolation techniques and stop motion aesthetics of street dance in a way that completely overrules the established commercial identity of these styles, and taps into a very human, sulky, and messed up doll-likeness. In this sense, the solos are not only connected by their respective claim to specific and distinguishable salability, but also by how they insist on attacking themselves from within. My Own Private Army thus gets a double meaning in relation to the subtitle/module title Preparing for Battle. It is not only question of a neat collection of war dolls, but also a question of launching war on oneself, breaking down the exact thing that commodifies or locks identity into objecthood.

This said, I think MOPA – Preparing for Battle should not be understood as a piece that presents a critique towards commercialism in a polemic sense. Rather, it proposes an examination of the commercial as an aesthetic category, thus getting the audience hooked through playing on the basic desires and fears of having and losing identity. ”Commercial” becomes a language with versability and adaption as defining features, since its goal is to grab the guts of the consumers and keep them hooked, with whatever means at hand – but also to keep a healthy parasitic balance through refraining form consuming the consumers. Otherwise, the consumers have no chance of regenerating themselves and return for more. With this abstinence oriented way of addressing the audience, MOPA – Preparing for Battle does not have to argue for its own discursive usefulness, cultural importance or political urgency – or at least not anymore than a cup of bubbly dark brown soft drink with a red and white logo does.

Yet, MOPA – Preparing for Battle can never be that bubbly soft drink completely. It breaks out of its own salable category, inscribed as it is in a cultural economy of giving things away for free, and working as it does on and with live dancers that also embody different kinds of resistance to the reduction that commercial unification demands. Thus, the piece becomes a game where the audience can try out different experiences of both selling and buying into the longing, yearning and anticipation that is at the core of commercial exchange, which in its turn leads us back to a three-fold relation to time. To be able to wish for something implies both a feeling of having missed something in the past, of wanting to have it now and of being able to project it as a possible thing to have in the future. Longing is thus a promise of getting control over time – but it is a promise that cannot really be fulfilled. The history and the future is always out of control; the now always cracks, explodes into something unexpected. And this is how MOPA – Preparing for Battle operates: Inviting its audience to mirror both its strive for controllable identities and its capacity of letting go of control.