Here you can read the text Absolute Hospitality, which was published in the Swedish magazine Koreografisk Journal in may 2014, together with my other text Naked Critique. The theme of that edition of the magazine was dance critique.
Before I will try to write this text I feel the need to reflect a little bit about the expression “aesthetic experience”. What would it mean that an experience is aesthetic? If an experience in it self could be aesthetic, what would then distinguish an aesthetic experience from a non-aesthetic one? These questions bring my thoughts to a performance I experienced at Konstepidemin in Gothenburg 19 of November 2013; the long durational solo-performance Absolute Hospitality by and with choreographer/artist Frej von Fräähsen.
Absolute Hospitality is an interactive performance where the performer invites the audience to do things with him/his body while he himself lies naked on a kind of table with his eyes shut. The reason why I came to think about this performance is that I experienced it as fascinating in its way of creating a space in which the internal reactions of the audience in a way became a part of the performance itself.
I cannot know exactly what kind of internal reactions other audiences had. But to me Absolute Hospitality created several rather intense mental, emotional and physical reactions/responses at some points. These internal reactions (as you will see later) influenced my choices of physical actions in certain ways. If my internal reactions influenced my actions in this interactive performance, I think one could say that the reactions, made visible by my actions, became part of the actual performance. Because of their visibility one could also say that these internal reactions and responses in a way became part of the aesthetic of the performance. Maybe this could be one way of understanding “aesthetic experience”.
So, how was then this “aesthetic experience” of mine? What kinds of internal reactions /responses did it consist of and how did it interact with the performance?
I walk up the stairs, enter the room. Immediately an unexpected physical reaction emerges in me. It feels almost like my inner organs is changing place and creates an un-definable form in my stomach; what I see spontaneously terrifies me.
A slightly white-painted, naked man lies on his back with his eyes shut on a table in the middle of the room, and around him on the table there are lots of white feathers. I am the only one there. Calm background-music. While keeping his eyes shut he is moving fluidly and almost sensual by slowly twisting different body-parts from one side to the other. At one point it looks like he is about to twist his way down from the table, but he does not. The whole time he is talking with a calm, gentle voice that is exactly so strong that I am able to hear some parts of what he is saying.
Should I go closer? The spontaneous fear soon passes and I immediately feel curious about this strange reaction of mine. Standing here, alone in the room, observing this person I hardly know makes me feel extremely self-conscious, and actually a little bit ashamed. Why? And why did I experience that immediate fear?
Probably it is a combination of several factors, and I think the nudity is only one of them. The fact that the performer also has his eyes closed gives me the feeling of doing something illegal, like I am observing something intimate I am not supposed to observe. I feel that I do not want to objectify him, but it is hard not to. Is he objectifying himself? In his constant stream of words I hear “Welcome”, he is aware that I am there. Having his eyes closed, naked and at the same time talking he gives me the possibility to chose whether I want to objectify him or not. I can choose to continue observing him from a distance, or to go closer, entering his hospitality and meet him as a human subject.
I choose to go closer. Still feeling very self-conscious I place myself quite close, but right behind his head. It feels safer there. Maybe because he would not see me right away if he opened his eyes. I feel a bit hidden. But why do I feel like hiding?
The situation is fascinating me. My feeling of being vulnerable appears to me as paradoxical. The performer is very exposed. Naked with his eyes shut, and in a very open position, he does not hide anything. His speaking seems to be an improvised stream of thoughts that comes into his mind, something that makes him even mentally exposed. This person does not seem threatening in any way, on the contrary he seems extremely welcoming and gentle.
So why was the situation so, in a way, frightening?
Compared to the performer I was safely “hidden” by my clothes. Since I had the role as audience in this situation I could even “allow” myself to leave the room as soon as I did not feel like being there anymore. He, on the contrary, was exposed for my potentially unrestrained aesthetical judgements, and as performer he even had the responsibility for maintaining the performance even if something would become uncomfortable for him. This apparent paradox leads my thoughts towards thinking about power. I experienced that he had the power somehow. Yes, he had put himself in an extremely exposed and therefore vulnerable situation. But as the performer he also knew what his role in the performance would imply, and I did not. Being the performer he is the one who defines the social contract between us, and this gives him power even if he has made himself vulnerable in his role. When I first entered the room and spontaneously reacted with fear, it was because that contract was not yet clarified and that made me vulnerable because I did not know how my role in this nudity was going to be. I felt the potential of getting confronted with my own limits of intimacy.
All of a sudden several other audiences is entering the room. I´m not alone anymore. I notice another little table next to the one of the performer. On it there are several objects, felt-tip pens, scissors, a lipstick, a scalpel and some papers that must be flyers. Now I get it. Absolute Hospitality. He’s inviting us to use the objects.
I got an immediate association to Marina Abramović’s performance “Rhythm O” from 1974, in which she put up a bunch of objects on a table letting the audience do whatever they wanted to do with her. The situation is similar. But still very different. Abramović’s performance ended up with people tearing her clothes apart, using a knife wounding her skin, and in the end one person pointed the loaded gun against her head, and in a way one could say that it explored the audiences’ limits of morality. She was standing still, passive, without talking or showing any sign of human will. I think this in a way made her becoming less “human” in the eyes of the audience. At least I think this factor made it easier for the people around to objectify her. Because isn’t a thing that (at least apparently) distinguishes human beings from plants or objects the fact that we have a subjective will on our own, and can chose to act according to this will? A human body without a will on its own thus appears more like an object, or like a plant, than a body that visibly acts out his or her will.
Standing here, considering whether I want to do something with the objects or not I´m at the same time listening to what he is saying. Is he talking to me? How does he feel? He seems so friendly, and I feel that I´m appreciating this hospitality of his. What is “absolute hospitality”? Limitless openness? Being exposed to an almost limitless hospitality of another person I´m actually getting confronted with my own. It´s not limitless. It` s not absolute.
At one point I touch his hand. By being present in this small physical communication happening between us I´m trying to figure out, somehow, what he might want, or how he might experience this situation. Now, when I´m so near, I experience his vulnerability much stronger, and I feel that I don´t want my actions to be experienced as some kind of power-abuse.
I think an important difference between this performance and “Rhythm 0” by Abramović is the fact that in Absolute Hospitality the performer is acting more strongly as a subject, with emotions, thoughts, and a will of his own. And the combination of this, and his eyed-shut, nude vulnerability, made me want to be kind and gentle, not abusive and violent as became the case with the audience in Abramović’s case. While Abramović’s performance pulled out the worst in people, I would say that Absolute Hospitality managed to pull out the best. Empathy. Compassion. Human responsibility.
The structure of the performance continued like this the whole time I was there and I remained for, I think, approx. 40 minutes, exploring my one limited hospitality and trying to challenge it in different ways, in a way by using the performer as a “tool” for this exploration. Of course I, as I have said, cannot know what internal reactions and impulses other audiences had, but I do know that during the whole time I was there, all the other people was also acting very gentle and nice towards the performer. Whether that was just random, a result from for example politeness or fear or if it was a result from a genuine will to be gentle I cannot know, but since we are all human beings and thus probably have quite a lot of things in common I find it likely that several of the others had an experience similar to mine.
From a choreographic point of view I find this performance interesting. It is a performance based on movement – in a broad sense. The performer was constantly moving while lying on the table, talking. In relation to physical movement Absolute Hospitality might seem to be a choreographically static performance. The performer did not move a lot in the space. Neither did he develop his choreography a lot during the performance. But the audiences’ actions are also movement (even in “time and space”), and the constant changing of people, the changings of the degree of activity among them, and the uncertainty in the performance-situation still created, in a way, a certain choreographic dynamic. Through encouraging the audience to act, react, and make choices connected to the actions of the performer, one could also say that his “utter” choreography (the physical actions of the performer) provoked quite a lot of emotional and mental movement within me (and probably within the other people in the room). It generated quite a lot of internal dancing. In this way I would consider the performance, in fact, choreographically very dynamic.