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No Mountains, Rivers or Trees

13-13 January 2021

A Conversation with Elke van Campenhout

A recorded and written conversation
 

Vladimir:
So, this is a third draft of our conversation, previously we have tried to talk about your workshop and spent a lot of time happily discussing our (I think we share it, right?) frustration with what you would describe as the “discourse harness” in the arts. Indeed, if I summarize it, it seems like an attitude of self-policing in the arts is augmenting and so is the pressure to adhere to an idealized conception of the critical artist. 
 
Elke:
Yes, the artists ‘discourse harness’ I am referring too, is indeed the cloud of critical theory and identity politics that envelop all institutional and self-reflective artist communications today. In my experience of life outside of the arts as a monk I see that there is still life outside of the critical discourse. And I see that this outside seems to have become a bit of a blind spot in the research discussions and environments today. The critical move, which was historically aimed at opening up new spaces for knowledge to blossom, and for other experiences to be recognized, is at this point often doing the opposite: closing down diverse ways of thinking by becoming the sole denominator of value, visibility and recognition. 
This development results in a shaming politics on the working floor: as artists we get shamed by a policy that tells us that we are not engaged enough in contemporary realities, by peers that shame us for any kind of political incorrectness, by mentors and teachers who unknowingly pass on the harness from generation to generation, without recognizing the limits of their own opinions. 

 

Vladimir:
Yes this passingon of critical anxiety is something I encounter a lot in myself as an educator.  I find myself on both sides of this “passing on”, I also feel it sometimes is passed on to me. The latter is actually more active on my part: I often actively take the work of others to feel “not quite there” in terms of discourse. 
There is an inner voice in my head that speaks like the Discourse. In response to your proposal to create a temporary space out of discourse the voice would for example say: “but, critical discourse permeates all areas of life. I think I lost the ability to use critical discourse as a helpful tool, because I have been taught  to apply it to all areas of life. For example if you talk about life outside of the arts, I think you are talking about the tantric monastery you founded… Do the critical positions on gender and sexuality and probably labor not apply there? I am asking this in an exemplary way, to get a sense of how reactive and in a way total/itarian this way of seeing the world has become for me…
So how do we progress in this situation? Because I actually dont want to keep having these kinds of caricatural conversations, they do neither life nor critique justice. 
    
Elke:
Indeed it is not a question of falling into caricature, or denouncing critical discourse, or creating dichotomy. To pick up on your remark on the monastery, for example, I would say that, no, I am not talking only about the monastic life – although in that environment the critical discourse notions do get put into perspective, and lose their overarching power. I am also talking about daily politics, about the daily lives of people that do not consider the critical framework to be the sole denominator of what matters. In our previous discussions we discussed the inability of the left to communicate issues of solidarity and engagement in such a way that they could appeal to a wider audience. Critical analysis does not necessarily bring about this sense of togetherness, since it differentiates with an increasingly fine mesh between diverse identitary positions,  as if the only possible way to understand and react to the world would be to divide it .
In The Monastery we do try to experiment a flexibility in dealing with diverse perspectives. From a non-dual point of view a lot of identitary issues disappear from view. But it is obvious our daily lives do not play out in that non-dual field, necessarily. So yes, issues of sexism, racism, segregation and privilege do play a major role in the monastic work. The experiment in the monastic practice is to start from a sense of unity rather than a sense of critical segregation. Much like the concept of ‘agonism’ as Chantal Mouffe uses it: the acceptance of a common playing field on which to act out difference. And again, it is not either/or. It is both: to be able to see clearly the problems of power and identity without excluding the underlying thread of connection. To be able to change perspective and move more fluidly from one register of experience to the other. Without the need to denounce or undermine the experiences that bloom on another plane. The flexibility to move from being a critical citizen, to becoming a sensitive plant, a sensuous animal, or spirit, or lose all form and dissolve into space. 
Often this flexibility gets denounced, as being ‘uncritical’. Much like the move in the feminist second wave to judge anything that was not formulated in the prescripted patriarchal analysis form as ‘backlash’: betrayal and intellectual rubbish. Which presupposes that 1: there is only one way of verbalizing criticality and one framework to express it in and 2: ‘critical’ is the hierarchical top dog for evaluating our life’s choices, thoughts and actions. Really? Is that so?
 
Vladimir:
    In your workshop “Debunking the Myth”, which you recently hosted at a.pass, you are trying to see and maybe undo some of these presuppositions.
    
Elke:
Not so much undoing, as making palpable. When I talk about ‘the harness of discourse’ I try to open up zones for the ‘suspension of belief: the belief that the critical analysis of the world through identity politics and leftist critique is the only way to ‘properly’ engage in the world. The invitation is to undress, to take off this harness temporarily, to experience life and work through other parameters. And to nourish and vitalise the artistic work in the process. In my practice, also in the a.pass block that is called ‘the asylum (for desiring bodies) I want to provide space for ‘the work’  to play beyond or outside the discursive field we think we already know – and as such affirming the status quo of the critical standoff – and meet on different grounds. 
I talk about “nakedness” as the moment we admit to our inappropriate desires, our non PC tendencies, our unchecked and adopted beliefs. Nakedness as a form of contemplation – not to destroy, but to unfold all the colours hidden under the surface. The rumbling bowels, the anxious contractions, the beating sex. And let these inform the research. 
 
Vladimir:
If I can sum it up in a sort of a sketch, we said in a previous discussion that the neo-liberal educational institution has made critique a matter of bureaucracy. It has quantified evaluation and made pre-approval of research trajectories more important than a detailed public critique of the research results. Could you describe this development and how it affected your perception of education and funding structures? 
 
Elke
To be more precise, I would rather say that critical theory has become the content for the boxes to be ticked in a bureaucratic system of evaluation. So in itself it is not the critical gesture that is the problem, but rather the prescriptive form that this critique is forced into. No longer fueled by a living, writhing state of discontent, it becomes a discursive framework that needs to be applied in order to ‘pass’.  And that excludes a lot of other forms of knowledge production that do not fit into the prescriptive frame.
 
So yes, the ’emperor’s new clothes’ stand for the bureaucratised forms of critique, the normative harness of self-evaluation that is doing the opposite of what it promises to do. And my point is, that this might not be the most inspiring field of ideas when we are talking about the arts. I question what might be there if we wandered out into the open, naked, not protected by the institutionalized markers of worthiness, relevance and contemporariness. Fueled by a more personal urgency, whatever that means. Maybe to address the same issues, but in another way. Or, in the same way, but breathed to life by a renewed sense of feeling connected to the issue.
 
Vladimir:
How would you describe this process of wandering off? 
 
Elke:
As a work of contemplation. A moment of reflection on the tools we are using. Allowing in influences that do not score so high on the standardized score maps. Or at least not taking those as the initial impulse to move into work. And in order to get there, I propose some ‘meditations’: some cleansing tools to question the beliefs we hold so dear, and to see if we can create space to broaden up the field of thought, but mostly of practice and experience. By working on non-dual philosophical frames for example, or by reconnecting to body work as another source of knowledge, or by digging into the unconscious, or slightly repressed sources of our desire to work. In my workshop I borrowed some methodology from Buddhist psychology, non-dual practice, and self-help work. And tried to bridge the divide between the person and the worker. Following my intuition that a lot of researchers have been alienated from their desire by being policed into the bureaucratic frameworks of relevance and contemporary concerns. 
 
Vladimir:
This reminds me again of this state of “passing on” of the harness: Do you think we should also apply this process to institutions themselves? Otherwise the risk of “going naked” is only carried by the artist, and not really supported. 
 
Elke
Yes of course. In the past I did argument for the coming into being of the Tender Institute, that would be much more vulnerable than its presumed political agenda. That would recognize its dependence on individual flights of desire and engagement, and on the communal coming-into-shape of an ever-changing vessel for coming together around the topics that incite our curiosity and connection. A naked institute runs the risk of being left behind in the cold, though. And has to accept its mortality.
 
Vladimir:
I think it is interesting that your work is inspired by tantra, and that you are using body and intimacy metaphors to describe how critique and discourse affect us. They point to a psychological, affective and embodied reality of our well-being. Can we talk more about this nakedness that we feel when our ideas are unsupported, unvalidated, un-aligned, when they are “private” desires and motivations? Are we ashamed of ourselves and our motives for for artistic `work`? And as educators do we pass on shame, are we shaming each other?
 
Elke:
For sure! As social beings our self-worth is to a large degree dependant on the opinion of others. And as performers, artists and people that make their life in the eye of the other, such concerns run even more deep. In Buddhism there is a particular attachment, that is considered one of the most difficult to overcome, and this is the attachment to reputation: what people think of what I do, what others think about what I think. In the artist context there are quite a lot of markers that are off-limits: I want to come across as critically aware, politically engaged, formally post-post-modern, post-conceptual, or at least socially relevant. As in any other attachment, this clinging to markers of approval produces fear. Which can symptomise in the stagnation of the creative process, or in the alienation to the work talked about before. 
 
Vladimir
Since it is such difficult and risky work, I keep wondering what would we give the attachment to reputation up for? In Buddhism the ultimate goal is detachment and thus the breaking of the circle of incarnation. And yet, art is of this world, its aims are rarely transcendent. Without undermining the temporary detachment you are proposing, I ask myself: are not art and spirituality sort of metaphysically mismatched as patient and method? 
 
Elke
In Tantra we work with the practice of overcoming obstacles (fear, anger, anxiety,…) by diving deeply into it, letting it manifest to such a degree that it implodes and turns into its opposite. That is a strategy that works very well for unleashing the suppressed energy in the body and for allowing a more vital flow to pick up momentum. In the work. I do I try to use the same principal on the mindbody of the research.
This might sound therapeutic, but it is rather a counter-therapy. Whereas therapy is aiming at restoring your relation to the social grid, Tantra is supporting you in letting go off the approval of the social. To open up to other possibilities of being and thinking and acting in the world. Which seems a good place for an artist to be. To be naked. A naked state of working is to look more honestly at what is there. To stop censoring our impulses before they got the chance to unfold. To hold off from opinions that are passed on unrevised and, often, uninformed. 
In the unfolding of the artistic work, there are moments of doubt, of anxiety that get translated into bodily states of discomfort, immobility. What often follows is a turning away from the material and the physical and a withdrawal into our headspace, where things are more clearly delineated as safe or not safe. The body does not have these clear markers. It produces its energetic and desiring flows in accordance to a multitude of influences: hormonal, vascular, unconscious, ancestral, cultural, You could say the body colours outside the boxes of the academically acceptable. Of the semiotic gridlines of interpretation. 
 
 
Vladimir:
You might be pointing to an important component of what the labour of the artist is. As much as it pains us, it seems less about intuitive creativity, and more about introspection, contemplation, sorting out voices, working with ones own notsoamazing impulses. There is a potential to support this labour in following someones research process in a structure like a.pass. I think we could embrace this often invisible work as the thing that is actually happening, the actual process. I think it is often invisible because we still concentrate on results, manifestable changes in methodology and approach, changes in discourse, new ideas. All the while this current of listening to oneself and processing is running underneath it all. 
 
Elke
Writing this, I am thinking about this well-known Zen phrase, which I can not rephrase verbatim, but goes something like this: First there are mountains and rivers and trees. Then you start on your path and there are no longer mountains, rivers and trees. And then you progress on your path and once again there are mountains, rivers and trees. In parallel with what we have been talking about, I would say that first there is the ‘contemporary artist’ caught up in its own struggle to fit into a predefined definition of what that is. Then there is the work, the research done, in which this artist loses shape, becomes formless, no longer sees the worker as clearly delineated from the person, or from the society around. And then again, the subject of the research and the individual subject separate in the coming-into-being of the art work, that then is free to roam the world, without being seamlessly linked to the author, the maker, the person behind. This gives the artist the freedom to use ‘dirty strategies’ in this third phase: to play roles, to play tricks, to not become identified with the work. This is where the challenge lies of most art that captures the attention: the impossibility of identifying the clear outline of the maker. The dirty politics that irritate, make you react, make you think. It is not the artist’s work to confirm to their personal beliefs on a one-to-one basis. Because then the work is done, the ideas formed, and simply passed on to a passive viewer to receive or not. It is the work of the artist, to let the work do the work of passing on the process of thinking and experiencing to the viewer/participant… Or not….
 
Vladimir:
At what stage do you connect your work/shop in this process you are describing
 
Elke:
As a monk, as a person, as a researcher and artist, I situate my work mainly in the second phase. In the moment I share work, in performances, workshops or texts, this work is trying to break through evidences. Dissolving beliefs and habits. The desire to undo for no reason whatsoever. But to allow some air to enter.
 
Vladimir:
How could we integrate this disidentification between the artist and the work for the process of artistic research? Maybe it is already on its way there… I don’t see artistic research as clearly separated into the three stages you describe. In my understanding of it I often use the idea of a set: a constellation of processes, artworks, concerns which is constantly worked and working. This set is always already separated from the artist, like a garden would be separated from the gardener. It would be interesting to imagine a discourse culture of research where what grows in the garden is allowed to be wild, unruly, but also cared for.. 
 
Elke:
For me research is also always situated in the second phase, which is the place where the unruly weeds roam freely. Only the weeds for me are not the works, but the different streams of association, physical and mental, material and immaterial, rational and irrational, that criss-cross the garden, get entangled into one another, into other’s vines, changing shape. The poisonous and the beautiful, the healing and the critical no longer clearly identifiable. Research for me is very much a pharmakon, both clearing and  obscuring the question hidden deep in the roots. At that point there is no longer a clear demarcation between the personal and the work. Although we most of the time act as if there is, and then get tangled up in the unforeseen consequences and vulnerabilities this  lack of clarity produces. 
 
Vladimir:
If I go back to critique and discourse, there is something about the wild garden image that I find very productive. Maybe there are some images here that change attitude and purpose with which critique comes into that garden. At what point it critique useful and for what? What would be the role of a mentor or an educator or a colleague entering this garden? I think in those roles we often function as biologists and farmers to each other: we identify poisonous plants, the wrong kind of soil, we weed out, we collect the pretty apples… is there another way? 
 
Elke:
Permaculture? As mentors and educators we often come in with a benevolent bottle of Weedkill. I think my dream of a supportive learning environment has always been to let the community figure out what is relevant in any given constellation. Not to water some plants more than others, but let them take care of each other. And to provide compost: the debris of digested and undigested history, feeding the weeds to flower more bountifully. Not necessarily to produce more fruits, but to find their grounding, rooting into a mutually challenging symbiosis. In which the concerns of the one become a matter of concern to the other by sheer proximity. 
 
Vladimir
Dear Elke, thank you for this talk!
 
 
 
 
 



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