Lisa Robertson, ‘Wide Rime’ (2019), lecture. Photo: Marcel de Buck.
It has been an unusually warm spring in Amsterdam. The sun shines bright over the quiet canals of the city’s centre. In another space-time configuration, those streets would have been bustling with bodies from around the world and their uncontrolled emanations. They would have mostly been travellers in search of pleasure, excitement and perhaps a few gleeful moments of escapism — in search of an elsewhere. The sun today illuminates different sights, and in the last two months it has trained different gazes. The so-called ‘intelligent lock-down’ prompted a redefinition of public space, heightening the signification of being a body out there. In countries under severe confinement laws, the simple fact of inhabiting outdoor space became a criminalized act, automatically turning anyone outdoors and — most worryingly — anyone without a home into an outlawed body. In the Netherlands, where the restrictions have been more mild, different reconfigurations of public space have instead been unfolding in public squares and on emptied-out café terraces. The informal occupations of these shared spaces have also been criss-crossed by invisible boundaries mapped out by life stories that carry within them a multitude of material and psychic realities — those who still have to rush to work, are facing evictions, or fear what awaits them back in the household sit alongside those enjoying a work-at-home break from office life or meeting a friend for a much-needed afternoon walk.
As we write these words, the global number of coronavirus infections and related fatalities is still slowly increasing, exacerbating the unevenness of these realities and the pre-existing inequalities across them. Nonetheless, many nation-states, including the Netherlands, are slowly beginning to relax domestic quarantine measures. Out of economic necessity — but also in the interest of psychic relief — ministries and governments are rolling out tentative timelines for how the lifting of the lockdowns will proceed through the summer. After roughly sixty days, here at least, larger and larger groups have been able to re-collect and move across cities. Despite the relaxations, however, the pervasiveness of markers of the 1.5-metre distance rule, as well as for us in Amsterdam the soon-to-be compulsory face masks in public transit, remind us that there is no going back and that we are still ‘in the middle of’. These new statutes hardly begin to address the myriad negotiations of micro-gestures that constitute life in public space during the pandemic and after the first outbreak — what feels safe to one, feels like a risk to another. The time to re-find one another and to gently learn the empathies and accountabilities necessary to move in-step with the needs of others does not really sync with the timeline of the lifting lockdowns or the uncertain movements it is requiring on the part of labouring and leisuring bodies.
In thinking through this situation we at If I Can’t Dance remain hopeful that the rocky and shifting terrain (from our own economic uncertainties and restricted mobilities to those of the individuals, collectives and institutions around us) can also ignite renewed senses of interconnection and interdependence in the landscapes, haptic and virtual and everything betwixt and between, which we are inhabiting. How and where can we as an institution contribute to mapping new paths, which take into account the fraught propositions of making our way back to public life, and to offering new footholds, which centre access, safety and equity?
With such vanishing points as our entry into thinking landscape and its relation to the body, we want to share with you a third cluster of readings from the If I Can’t Dance Edition VIII – Ritual & Display Reading Group, organised by our 2019–20 Research Fellow Giulia Damiani [link to the texts]. It includes texts from Indigenous scholars Hannah Donnelly, Léuli Māzyār Luna’i Eshrāghi and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. Together the readings key us into thinking of knowledge as something built from the ground up. They make us wonder what it might look like, feel like and sound like. Describing the pedagogy of the Nashmeeba Indigenous community in what is today called Canada — a term derived from the Iroquoian word for village or settlement — Betasamosake Simpson writes in As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance (an excerpt of which is included in the readings): ‘Like governance and leadership and every other aspect of reciprocated life, education comes from the roots up. It comes from being enveloped by land. [...] Theory is woven within kinetics, spiritual presence, and emotion. It is contextual and relational.’
Betasamosake Simpson’s call for reciprocity-thinking is echoed in the preoccupations of Lisa Robertson, whose current research commission project, Wide Rime, looks back at the invention of the rime within medieval Trobadour poetry between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries in the region of Aquitaine, today’s South West France [listen to Lisa Robertson’s lecture Wide Rime here. Though Troubadour culture is not land-based in the ways that Nashmeeba epistemologies are, there are parallels between the violent histories of territorial colonization and devaluation that these cultures have experienced or still continue to experience. The Troubadour form is based on the spoken vernacular language of Aquitaine, an open zone of migratory confluences, where Arab, Jewish, Christian and secular popular traditions blended and jostled. Unlike the stability of Latin or of the then forming French territory, Troubadour rime culture emerged from a place of intermixture — linguistic, marital and otherwise, across wide geographies and seas. In Robertson’s own words, this language, ‘learn[ed] from birds, leaves and tree frogs as well as people,’ each of which moved between lands and over the borders of colonized territories. ‘Through an endlessly generative play of signifiers that decomposes and re-links across temporalities and species,’ Robertson proposes, ‘a culture infinitely recreate[d] itself as other.’
Taking the lead of Betasamosake Simpson and Robertson, as we hope you might find productive to do as well, we ask ourselves: In what ways do colonisations of territory and language, and, conversely, technologies of deterritorialization affect our embodied relations to the land, to the landscape and to each other? What kinds of horizon lines can come into view — for the If I Can’t Dance curatorial mission, specifically, and for the different lands, landscapes and territories we inhabit more broadly — from this position of envelopment? From reciprocally lived relations to power, place and pedagogy?
For now we can offer you no answers; indeed, no facile or singular answers exist. As we tip-toe towards, if not answers, at least footholds in formation, the possibilities of infinite variation derived from the ground up are something we want to keep with us and to share with you. In our ongoing reflections on these possibilities and the configurations they can foster, we remain committed to maintaining a long-view, as well as a situated one, which stretches from the embodied conceptual thinking of Betasamosake Simpson, to the traditions of the wandering voice explored by Robertson, to the dizzying horizon lines of the digital domain and its potentials for rhizomatic dispersal, to the events unfolding and enfolding in the political and economic territory of the Netherlands where we reside. We at If I Can’t Dance are at what is for us a new beginning of sorts, which, like most beginnings, envelops us too somewhere in the middle.
Team If I Can’t Dance
Marcel van den Berg, Frédérique Bergholtz, Anik Fournier, Sara Giannini, Megan Hoetger, and Hans Schamlé
Wednesday 27 May 2020
Featured researcher: Lisa Robertson