The Ethics of Employing Intimacy in Audience Participatory Performing Arts

I was invited to give a lecture at a conference with the title Post-Epic Dramaturgy –International perspectives on the dramaturgical practice taking place at Stockholm University of Arts the 28th-29th of March 2018. On the 28th, when I was scheduled, the headline was Spatial Interventions. I ended up talking about the ethics of employing intimacy in audience participatory performing arts. I also ended up recording the lecture. Here is the recording:

If you would rather read than listen, you can download this pdf:

The Intimacy Records

The Institute of Political Therapy (home page in Swedish), a project that I run together with Lisa Färnström at Skogen, did not only offer political therapy but also hosted a program where related themes were discussed and examined. One of our guests was Valentina Desideri. She is a wonderful thinker and artist. We have also had a number of interesting conversations, and this text (that will also be published in Skogen’s yearly documentation book) is the result of one of them.

6th of September 2014
Valentina Desideri and Tova Gerge


Recording N° 1.

T: We have a starting point: we are holding hands on a bench. And we’re on an expedition to look for intimacy as if it was a drug.

V: No, to look for intimacy the way one would look for drugs.
So looking around, following trails and sequences of events, but also looking for it as in looking for something that one wants to know about. One might also not find anything but that doesn’t diminish the experience.
What is the interest that you have in intimacy? What is the assumption you have about intimacy?

T: I think I’ve been busy with it from different perspectives. In terms of performance, I’ve been interested in this way of handling precarity that is a part of working with intimacy in performance. To be a performer working with intimacy is to meet people under very ephemeral conditions. And for some reason I desire that ephemeral quality. I wonder why and I wonder how that is connected to the precarious conditions of performance workers in general. Also, for me personally, intimacy is connected to questions of when I feel that I let something close in a way that is meaningful to me. How much closeness can I handle, why/not? Things like this. I mean then closeness in quite a broad sense, not only physical.

V: I wonder if we can extend – when we think that intimacy, it’s not only between people. You can also be intimate with an idea or with a certain way of living. It is also a form of knowledge. You know the other person when you can be intimate. So for example holding hands produces an intimacy because it produces another knowledge. So I can feel the temperature of your hand, if it is sweaty, how you hold, if you release. There is a lot of information we’re dealing with. I don’t remember, I think it is from Isabelle Stengers, but there was something about hesitating together, it was the definition of something…

T: What was it?

V: Hesitating together. I’m not sure. I think it was about practice, that to practice is to hesitate together. But whatever, the formulation “hesitating together” has a lot to do with intimacy to me…

[Someone passes by]

What are they talking about?

T: I heard a few sentences. It was like: ”It just becomes more empty. There was this hysterical man running at me, and I just…” And then I missed the rest.

V: Let’s follow them.

Recording N° 2.

T: I think we lost track of the people we were originally following.

V: We were incidentally walking behind two women begging for a while, so we started to think of the intimacy of begging. We speculated that a situation may be intimate when it puts power relations or power into hesitation. When it makes power hesitate. The question “Do you have some spare change” between two strangers is not only a question about the change, it is also a question about how the people involved should and could relate to each other: will there be any other exchange than money and so on…

T: If intimacy can make power hesitate, it is also constitutional for how we perceive the world. What I mean is that the hesitation that the request for some coins can put in motion usually ends in a specific situation, something that no longer vibrates, and that “end product” is easily  understood as representative. So both the active parts in this interaction, and other people witnessing it, might think that they get to know something about society as a whole from what happens in the singular situation. And whether they are so to say “right” or not, what people think they know about this situation constitutes certain dynamics in our shared lives.

V: This is also one example of how intimacy is not that fuzzy little cute sense of connectedness with somebody you love. Rather, it is about the moments that open up vulnerabilities in the people involved. And sometimes of course you are willing to share this so you go for an intimate moment, but sometimes it comes whether you want it or not. These are also the moments when you can be very embarrassed or ashamed…

T: Totally. To be ashamed is to be at the hands of something bigger than you; an imagined and real society that points finger at you, reveals you in a way that you don’t want to be revealed. And that is intimate if intimacy is about getting to know something that you didn’t know before.

V: Intimacy makes something known, reveals something, but maybe what it reveals is power, the power relations at play. It gives a picture of how power is distributed, how it is operating. Not as a fixed picture, but as a picture that is twitching, hesitating.

T: One more thing. I think intimacy is always something happening in between: in between people, objects, words. It is not belonging to one or the other even though it happens also inside the people involved. Like a position that becomes available for a while, something that allows us to acknowledge that we exist not only in and by ourselves, but also through the perception of something radically other than us. Us consists of you and me, and you are always radically different from me.

Recording N° 3.

T: We started to speak about the intimacy of the masses, like when you’re a part of a crowd and you lose your face in that crowd, no longer knowing who you are outside of it. Like being in a party, dancing and sweating and sharing other people’s sweat, and also going in the metro and feeling the pressure of other bodies against your own. And then I also thought about Järntorget, a square that we were walking over. In 2001 in Gothenburg when there were big political protests, a lot of my friends were held there for several hours. They couldn’t go out from the blockades of the police and they were just sitting around. So there was this forced intimacy with others where thirst and hunger became a part eventually. When you are hungry and thirsty and don’t have water and food yourself, you are at the hands of whoever has the decency to share. That kind of collective experience was deeply radicalizing for many, also because of the aspect of being forced into it I think.

V: So what you say is that violence can produce intimacy? Also right now, we are sitting close to the hunger strike of Palestinian men. These 25 men are sharing their living space in this occupation of public space because they got caught in this situation. They can’t return to Palestine and they are not allowed to stay here. In a way this specific collectivity, and the intimacy it comes with, is being produced by this violence: Both the intimacy within themselves and the hesitation they produce in any passers-by. The hunger strike is both a result of, and show, the absurdity, racism, violence of the situation. It confronts everybody with it.  And rightly so, because we are all involved.
Of course it’s not a matter of glorifying violence, it’s not that you suffer and then from that, don’t worry, great things come out, beautiful collectivities etcetera. But we have to take it into consideration because we are all subjects to some form of violence and we do perform various degrees of violence every day. It’s not something we can just avoid because it’s “bad”. This hunger strike is just a more clear example because they aren’t just activists in the classical sense of people who decided that this is a good action to make the conflict visible. They are the conflict. It’s happening in and on their bodies and lives.
And this also has to do what we talked about earlier today concerning the recurring question of how to become a ”better” ethical subject, what organisation to join with so many problems in the world…  like we could pick and choose between other people’s problems. For me the starting point is another one: Even if you think you’re some privileged Swedish middle class white person, you have enough problems of your own, because you are a very active part in making this world what it is. So there is no extra organisation or charity to join if it is not something that allows you to really understand the violence that is done to you as well and how you reproduce certain patterns of it. From there I see a real possibility to recognize the political consequences and value of what you are already doing and how that can/should/could reorganize. And not because “Ok now I got it, I have a plan and if I do that then I will be fine and the world is gonna be a better place” but because you try to associate differently, to assemble differently, to produce yourself and the world you live in differently, already now. I mean it simply, like in the way you live or love or pay the rent or not pay the rent…
I also then think a lot of intimate relationships like lovers or friends, how they are organised and reorganised and how we take risks with them, what we want to know with them. I consider it an interesting field of experimentation because those relationships have the capacity to unleash very strange forces! Certain close relationships can bring us to such impasses that we feel we can potentially be destroyed. And for me that space of intimacy with myself and the other is a great rehearsal space. It’s a place where we can prove ourselves wrong, when we can perceive ourselves in contradictory positions that do not exclude each other. There I can sometimes have a sense of knowing, feeling, being A and not A at the same time without it destroying the world, the relationship or myself – it’s an amazingly empowering feeling.

T: I’m thinking that the A and not A can be both empowering and alienating, and that it is symptomatic for the urban condition in general, or maybe even the human condition in general. Like we sit around in the closeness of this hunger strike and also we are somewhere else, in our own bubble. Thrown in and out of it.

V: I really like now, this is the best moment.

T: With the people jumping on the springboard?

V: The guy was jumping on the springboard alone listening to music in his headphones but just by his ways I almost could feel the music. And I also felt like I felt yesterday walking back home at night listening to music and having a great time on my own.

T: One guy there was more like passing through. Taking one jump at the springboard and then continuing.

V: It’s funny how intimacy works through distance too. How the gaze in this case brought together not only us but also different moments in time, and songs and people who are not actually here now.

T: There is a kind of tactility in the gaze.

V: Yes, maybe intimacy could be understood as touch…

T: I feel that the air is touching me in a way that makes me a bit cold.

V: You’re just being intimate with cold.

T: There is this play… No, now I’ve forgotten the title of a play that I haven’t read. It’s a nice combination of words.

V: Oh, now he is there with a joint too…

T: Do you feel tempted?

V: I feel connected. And these three guys hugging. So nice. It is also how being cold prompts physical proximity or movement. The have to get closer, cosier…

T: Oh, I remember this thing from Paris… You know on the ground, on the streets sometimes there are these grids where hot air is streaming up. One winter night when it was at least five degrees below zero – kind of cold in Paris – I walked past three quite young guys sleeping on this grid, completely cuddled up. I don’t know who they were, but obviously in some kind of precarious situation. And it was such a beautiful and odd image somehow. Like you would like to join almost, because there is this bunch of sleeping…

V:…bodies on warm air…

T: Yes. But then at the same time it is a completely bad situation to be in.

V: Imagine that intimacy would be administered, organised or felt differently, that it could be possible to join because it wouldn’t be such an inappropriate thing that I can’t also lie there.

T: But it’s a question of trust also, I think. For both them and me. To get close to someone sleeping… that’s very violent.

V: True. But when I was in China everybody was sleeping in the street, it’s normal. You know, people are working and then they just snooze. You can always take a nap anywhere. And I thought it is good because you are so vulnerable when you sleep and yet you practice this in public. I think there are all sorts of things that must affect us on some level. You can’t sleep here, you can’t eat here, you can’t pee there… Is it possible to imagine a system of power that allows body function to be self-regulated?

T: I don’t know. I think our bodies are always social and depending on each other. But how we approach that aspect of the body can of course change, also from context to context, time to time. Sometimes I have the feeling that before I started to work with movement professionally, there were different kinds of touch that felt more intimate to me.

V: I think becoming aware of what I do as i do it is a way to get more intimate with it. Looking for example. The more I practice looking, the more looking at anything feels closer, more intimate. And I realize there is no natural look, nothing more than what is agreed upon. You know the thing they says that you only look into the eyes of someone for a certain amount of time before it gets weird? It doesn’t work like that. There is no natural way of looking. It’s just like with words, the more you are aware of them the more words you have to express what you want to say. I never think there is a risk of exhausting the words because they are made of the world and the world is always in excess. I don’t think we will ever know too much.

T: It is a question of how we use it, I think. With something that I incorporate as a technique; a goal more than an awareness or process, I could maybe be possible to know “too much”. But this also leads me back to what we said about not confusing connection with intimacy. A technique can get under my social and actual skin and get to know me in a way that is not necessarily fuzzy and sweet. But I could also find more tools to relate, to be aware of how I am relating and be empowered through the technique, let it become my tool rather than the opposite. It’s a throw of dice, again.

Language is also an interesting parallel I think. When I learn a new language or fragments of a new language, sometimes I get so touched by the fact that a stone is called a stone, or a pierre or a pietra. I’m getting dizzy thinking about the fact that something has a name, sort of. With Swedish, this only happens for me when I have been away from the language for a long time. It’s like I forget how intimate that language is to me, how it is constantly shaping me. It doesn’t mean it isn’t, just that I can’t always be in the discovery of it.

V: Yes for me too, language is never a knowledge that pins down; like ”stone” is ”stone” and that’s it. It is also pietra, pierre, ah Pierre like my friend and so on, you know there is always more to the things than…

T: Sten. That’s what we call it. Which is also a name.

V: Sten. And Stina also?

T: No that comes from another name, and I learnt that yesterday because one of my hosts is called Stina. It was short for Kristina which is ”the Christian”. What’s the meaning of your name?

V: Valentina is ”valente”, something with value.

T: That’s an interesting name, I think. For someone who is into philosophy and movement…

V: Well, the surname is Desire…

T: Value and Desire. A wonderful name. Let’s not close it down. Maybe we walk a bit.

Recording N° 4.

V: We are holding on, holding hands again. That is our ending point. We are sitting on, well, not a bench, but something else. Holding hands until we let go, and then it’s over.

T: We sneaked away from this party and we are in a yard with a barking dog.

V: Also stone dogs. Statues.

T: Very big ears.

V: The dog that barks we can only hear.

T: Do you think the bark is real or recorded?

V: It’s real. That would be too much of a conceptual turn for this messy backyard.

T: I’m also sure that it’s real. I wonder why, but I really strongly hear that…

V: Yes, you can feel it.

T: There is someone there.

V: And about tonight, during our mission, did you see any intimacy? I mean in the way we defined it. I could see people hugging and screaming and dancing together, couples holding hands, but…

T: But you mean this hesitation, ondulation, vibration of power?

V:  Maybe unless you are involved in an intimacy you are not going to be able to know that it is there. That is also the nice thing, that you may not be able to see it from the outside. So maybe it is the wrong question to ask if you have seen it. Maybe if you sensed it?

T: I think we were in a kind of intimate bubble, though if we put something at risk, I don’t know yet what the outcome was or where we are heading with that. I also think we observed people and some people observed us and wondered what was going on when we took out the mic. Couldn’t that be something that vibrates?

V: I’m gonna take a picture of ourselves. If someone would walk into the scene… they would see this.

T: It’s like ghosts. Very pale light. Beautiful.

V: It’s over. We unleashed the hands.