What would be another word for it?, talk on practice written for DOCH Stockholm, 2018
This talk was repeated as the closing event of the C-DaRE Somatics Conference 2019, Coventry University, with a slow motion black and white film of Katye Coe dancing at Rosemary Butcher's memorial, and harmonica and melodeon interludes
How to begin is a good place to begin, because practice usually begins by asking how to begin, and because in practice it only matters that we begin and that we might allow the practice to continue.
This continuing is a daily activity which should resist as far as possible the wish for an ending at all, though an ending like a beginning is usually present in the mind of the person doing whatever they are doing. The person for instance who is practising and longs to get somewhere and stop and look back and see how far they've come, and to rest and be rewarded and understand again why they love to do this thing.
I showed this talk to Katye Coe and she said yes, this word practice reminds me of the word somatic, which sometimes stands in for an everything and maybe gives emphasis to the wrong stuff, or puts people in camps or circuitous arguments that make money for the academy mostly. What might we mean by the word practice? What would be another word for it?
A short while back I heard Mette Edvardsen talk about practice and Bojana Cvejić said but oh this practice, this word practice is a way to be busy not doing, to avoid doing or something like that, I don't recall exactly what she said but I remember she was picking up and troubling the habit of all this. And by the way it doesn't matter if you know these people or not, it only matters that we go on speaking each other's names or else we'll all disappear.
Being busy not doing is one of the problems of the word practice, the habits of this word practice, so I find myself calling it 'doing'. And I find myself feeling worryingly sensitive or prickly when somebody easily uses the word, talking about my practice this and my practice that.
Mette Edvardsen said in a talk that when she was preparing her library project Time Has Fallen Asleep In The Afternoon Sunshine she had the practice, the daily practice, of reading and remembering the book I Am A Cat by Natsume Sōseki, and Jan Ritsema asked her to speak it there and then and she spoke it, and he was astonished and said 'Ha, but this is all you need'. And I worried he had made the mistake maybe of thinking that she'd thought this place that she'd arrived at as though it was a concept already flying, and that he'd forgotten the slow doing by which she had arrived.
The argument certainly made us think and someone said well alright what is this practice, and without too much preparation on the spur of the moment I said 'practice is a doing which is not yet art', but the exact meaning of what I intended to say only vaguely hovered, clouded with questions.
I repeated this thought afterwards at another talk in Birmingham and somebody came up and told me how much she'd liked the expression 'practice is a doing which is not yet art' and that it reminded her of working on her allotment. I had a train to catch so I didn't stop to ask what she meant, and anyway I was slightly afraid as it didn't really sound like what I meant, but walking away I thought she was describing how there on the allotment something happens, which by its slow and daily nature bleeds into her other doing, like her art doing. Or maybe she meant she wanted to call the vegetable doing itself a kind of 'about to be art', which I'm not against. But I thought again of Bojana Cvejić's being busy not doing, and I caught a glimpse of where the word practice ties itself into a knot and us with it.
Thinking about this confusion between practice and doing and performance and visibility, Katye said yes I don't think practice is a thing, but I think in its generosity it can include thingness. For instance, she said, me and Charlie do a movement practice together and we sometimes express it as a performed practice which makes it art, but it's a practice none the less and that's the point really. And I thought of her talk called 'She Dancing', where she declares for a daily practice that holds equal validity between the not yet art and whatever arrives as art, sanctioned or not in some barely imaginable future. But which stays urgent.
Chrysa Parkinson read what I'd written and wrote in the margin that she agreed practice is not an art object, but that nevertheless you art when you practice. She said it just doesn't become a noun yet. It's something about how the materials you practice with start to teach you. It's not just you digging, it's the soil getting dug. It's the trowel or shovel talking back to your hand. Smell of the soil. Maybe the soil is urgent. You do the allotment every day because otherwise something will die, or not grow, or grow too much.
And the philosopher Bojana Kunst added yes, practice is not yet art but it troubles the ways that art can be; so the moment when practice is becoming art, or slipping over into art, is exactly when it changes how art might be shared, or exchanged, or attended to.
I should say at this moment that it may sound confusing these voices overlapping, and you're wondering who they are and who said what and where we're going; but it's important we listen to different voices so maybe for now we can let them flow, and follow the flow and flow also.
Jeroen Peeters, writing about Mette Edvardsen's Time Has Fallen Asleep In The Afternoon Sunshine, quotes Jean-Jacques Rousseau wondering 'what it is to pursue this passion without learning anything useful or making any progress?' A familiar feeling. Each day before I make this daily practice of writing, I find myself reading a little of Jereon Peeters' text, and then I fall asleep and when I wake up I feel further away from wishing for an end. I digress more easily and these digressions point me in the direction of a better practice and I feel like I'm making progress, but only so long as I sleepwalk through it.
Walking now to my children's school I write a note on my phone saying 'practice is a ghost-like activity', by which I think I mean that this doing which is not yet art, is inhabited always by the ghost of other work which points insistently towards what might slip over into art.
When I dig on my own allotment I'm sometimes aware how far off the eating of the vegetables will be, in fact how impossible it feels to connect the two activities of eating and digging, and I wonder at this moment if I even care about the eating or if the digging is equally the point, on the road to some barely imaginable future. It's easy to think how this teaches a certain patience, but it's barely true. Practice is an urgent thing and right now my allotment overflows with weeds, I can't even see the paths for what is growing.
The poet Michael Donaghy, writing about why poets follow certain formal practices, describes their process as an enjoyment of what he calls 'that serendipity which comes from negotiation with a resistant medium'. By which he means that accident of art arrived at in a moment of almost mechanical fiddling about with a stubborn shape, which itself is not yet art.
The daily return to a place where things are potential. Where a certain democracy of possibilities sits alongside the ghosts of other work, untroubled by the dead hand of genius and all those well known conceptual leaps that became the story and stopped our breath.
If the real value of dance is that it has no value, what might that mean in this time which historically demands action? Simon Ellis said this and Efrosini Protopapa and I were there and we all three were troubled by the value thing, even though it had been a long road of discussion to get to it and we saw plenty of glimpses along the way of how dancing does evade capture and continues to declare itself free despite the evidence.
And Katye's right, that if practice is labour by choice then that suggests privilege. But at the same time as Bojana Kunst pointed out, practice also challenges the usual modes of production, because of the way it somehow refuses to be quite measurable, or exchangeable in any economic sense.
I've always been drawn to the person who knits clothing and goes on knitting; sweaters, hats, gloves, scarves, even socks, in excess of the wherewithal of friends and relatives to absorb such furious output, which stands like a stern reprimand to easily bought shop clothes. How this slow accumulation of knitting stays blissfully distant from the finished garment, which may or may not get worn in some barely imaginable future.
Standing at the back of a dance class, talking with friends to avoid that part of the class where everybody throws themselves across the room. Talking to pass the time, to avoid being drawn into the game, to put off the inevitable sense of never quite improving. Laughing. Watching the ones who take it seriously. The bond you feel with the others.
Jeroen Peeters writing about his experience of being part of Mette Edvardsen's library piece, says 'These technical matters quickly make way for what binds us, for the realisation that we are a small community of practice, whatever it is that we share through the doing.'
Practice has always had an awkward relationship to the promise of improvement. How we hold each other up despite the pressure to compete. How we help each other out from under the thumb of all that.
Practice is a doing which could never quite imagine its own success, because to imagine success would be to negate the accumulation of small almost inconsequential or close to unnecessary things that might be done to arrive somewhere, such that the quilter cannot imagine exactly the bed quilt from the scraps she hoards and sews one to the other over the slow months of her doing.
And what arrives through practice might more often than not anyway be put aside, or what Stefan Jovanovitch calls archived, and sit there in a place of not knowing or not yet knowing, like compost. Or as Stefan says, you have to put it aside as soon as something gets iterated, you have to trouble it, or contradict it, or lay it by for later. For some barely imaginable future.
My practice is under siege by the Arts Council of England, whose sensible policies ask me to make a promise on my own self-improvement, and even the lies I tell are ruinous to the health of all this slow accumulation.
Choreography is a tool for disturbing what happens as soon as it happens, which is a quality hard to quantify. It's too wasteful for university assessment procedures, outputs and funding criteria. It splashes about messily and the bits come together again too late, and too differently to justify the promises we might make.
Agh the tone of indignation you hear as I rifle through scraps of experience and try to build an argument, and it slips away because practice is a light thing, not much more than what it says. Not much more than a doing which disturbs another doing. Even talking about it feels wasteful.
I do my writing practice, my reading books practice, my speaking out loud practice, my dancing without a purpose practice, my practicing a new piece practice, my drumming practice, my harmonica practice. I make my folk music practice. I pick up the box with knobs held in a rubber band and two safety pins to replace missing springs. I'm working at the style of a man called Scan Tester through the playing of my friend Will, who plays Scan's concertina. Will has sold me this box with the rubber band and safety pins. The style is odd, counter-intuitive, and I swing between comfortable and uncomfortable.
Add four notes at the top, roll on the note before you'd normally roll then rise two notes higher at the end and roll back down in the usual place but entered at unfamiliar speed. Every day. Everything changed.
The feel of practice clothes worn down to the shape of your body. The way they sit for years afterwards in a drawer but never lose their familiarity, that sense of being about to be worn again.
Blindfold in a Bodymind Centering class, sniffing an old ballet shoe, like a gateway drug.
How that early luxury of daily dance class became at first a mild imposition and then had to be rejected, more or less entirely. Moving on to a healthier body image. Staying fit for a few years. Forgetting why you got into it in the first place. Being saved by the slow focus of somatics. Sitting longer and longer in front of a laptop.
Marcel Duchamps in his New York apartment, playing chess to fill the time he'd saved fifty years before with a conceptual leap.
This practice of writing a little each day. Trying to avoid the subject. Trying to avoid capture but failing. Thinking about Seamus Heaney's description of writing poetry as being the business of arriving somewhere he could not reasonably have expected to arrive, but which he recognised when he got there.
Practice is a doing that is not yet public image.
Up as usual to the top note then roll even higher, and a slur which sounds wrong but right wrong and back again to the start which is harder to play now than at the start. Daily practice. Not yet art. Everything changed.
The experience of dancing for Rosemary Butcher was a process whereby she slowly and persistently disturbed each moment and with it any possibility of ownership of gesture, even as you were busy embodying the gesture. Your body distanced by procedures, by practices, which diverted what you thought you were doing, splitting each impulse down other or multiple routes. Rosemary liked the movement that had been rendered archaeological, that had become an artefact altered by time and chemical, call them alchemical processes. Traces of resonant experience. Dug up, exposed again to the air but worn out, all surfaces unreliable. Everything changed.
Or Ralph Lemon's twenty year documentation of his friend Walter Carter from Yazoo City Mississippi, like an accidental aside to his choreographic work, accumulating slow layers of grainy and imagined story until Walter, already showing signs of early dementia, takes flight in a spacecraft made of junk. All surfaces unreliable.
All surfaces impermeable to the usual validation. No likes, no retweets, a somewhat uncertain relation to the art historic hierarchy. Resistant to the dream of a fully automated future.
Or Lee Scratch Perry up at dawn remixing beyond and beyond, a slow erosion of everything as he reduced four tracks down to one and began again, over and over, approaching the border of legibility, spending one year mixing bass tracks, his records almost unplayable by the sound systems but mapping everything the sound systems played.
Agh but the thinking of my practice is so much slower than the thinking of my emails, my texts, my calls, my calendar. The satisfied doing of all this self-administration erodes, confuses, washes out, stamps over, crushes, defeats, overwhelms, eclipses, is contradictory to, disguises itself as, replaces and stands in for the thinking of my practice, which brings no such sense of purpose or completion. I jealously guard it but the admin gets in. I try not to speak it but I spill it trying to prove I'm doing something at all. It does its work so weakly, like making stalagmites, or stalactites. Slow drip. Small particles. The accumulation of debris.
Chrysa Parkinson sent me a Gary Larson cartoon of sheep in a room and one of them asking 'Where are all the sheep dogs' or something like that. Practice is like that.
Practice is a doing which is not yet concept.
Practice tries not to think a future.
Practice keeps going in the full and foolish knowledge that these things might fail.
Practice looks best in articles about dead artists.
Practice resists white male genius leaps.
Practice unclenches your fingers from the idea that you will find some kind of performativity.
Practice laughs at authenticity.
Practice dies when you use it to tick a box.
Practice is like a corner of the attic filled with papers.
Practice is a field wishing for a map.
Practice makes dull marketing copy.
Practice is like scanning the universe for an alien life form.
Practice is like collaborating with everybody but in private.
Practice appropriates everything but doesn't yet know what to do with it.
Practice has never finished editing itself enough to say anything to anybody.
Practice wants to go visiting but can't stand the daylight.
Practice can't be collected.
Practice subverts perfect.
Practice is career resistant.
Practice defies all opinions, even your own.
Practising is the bathwater not the baby.
Practising is a doing which is not yet art.
With additional thoughts, comments, conversation, help and writing from Katye Coe, Bojana Kunst and Chrysa Parkinson
Thanks also to Hugo Glendinning for editing the film of Katye Coe, which was projected throughout the talk at C-DaRE Somatics Conference 2019
© Jonathan Burrows, 2018