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OTHERHOOD // Circus and Identity

(4) VORTEX - Cie Non Nova - © Jean-Luc BeaujaultOTHERHOOD: Circus and Identity
Pogon – conference hall, Ul. kneza Mislava 11, Zagreb
14-15 November 2016
Participation: free of charge
Working language: English

The concept of identity has often been thought of in relation to the others. Be it identification with the others due to shared values and characteristics, or a contra-identification due to a need for differentiation, the others always play a major role in the ongoing process of identification.

The circus, often seen inseparable from a nomadic lifestyle, offers a place for various artistic fantasies and non-standard internal politics and seems to be an emblematic example of the Other, as it suggests to be a queer norm-breaker, provoking society’s rules, reality, and definition of stability. Therefore, circus is seen as a micro-society inhabited by social outcasts. However, does this assumption of circus as an inherent Other really hold up, especially in the shifting sphere of global networks of social, cultural, political and economic relations? Has its role as an Other changed? How do circus artists approach the subjects of gender, nation, religion, sexuality, freak…? Do circus artists become an other to the Other and in this sense stabilize rather than destabilize social and cultural rules? Do we over-romanticize circus and its capacities of a utopian place of a community of outcasts? Further, and presupposing that circus is still a place for difference, how do the schools, the market and the festivals support differences? In the shaken world of 21st century, which is witnessing enormous migrations of humankind due to political, economic, environmental and social reasons, how can circus use its tool (i.e. its technical and artistic specificities) to address burning questions in the cultural and political sphere and become a tool for social change?

“Otherhood: Circus and Identity” is an interdisciplinary conference that aims to address questions around identity politics, subjectification, queerness, and community in contemporary circus.  The conference hopes to facilitate the collaboration between artists, practitioners and scholars.

After the successful “Women & Circus” in 2009 (which resulted in the book of the same title), and the intriguing “Magie Nouvelle” in 2012, this is the third international conference organized by Croatian association Mala performerska scena and under the roof of the Circus Information Centre activities. This meeting has been made possible with the support of Ministry of Culture of Croatia and the City of Zagreb.

MONDAY, 14.11.2016.

10:00-10:15 Ivan Kralj, Circus Information Centre (Croatia) – Welcome

10:15-11:00 Natasa Govedic, University of Zagreb (Croatia) – The Brutality of Art: Circus as Non-Escape Place

Projectional space of circus arts, present not only in old fairy-tales but also in Laterna Magica or the famous autobiography of film-maker Ingmar Bergman (where circus is the ultimate escape-place) is quite different from actual circus experience or the personal encounter with the circus performance. And although many literary works about both old and new circus represent this carnivalesque arena as the ultimate fantasy space and utopia/dystopia of a petit-bourgeois (The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is most recent bestseller in that vein of thought), the actual circus arts are oftentimes much less flattering to the logic of “social escape” than we are used to think. Politically and aesthetically, circus confronts us with uncanny, deliberately over-disciplined and just as intentionally painful break with our perceptive comfort, our social norms and habits, and our affective boundaries. Of special interest in this paper will be the Australian new circus company Acrobat, described by John Ellingsworth in Sideshow as “a family show that sees Jo Lancaster and Simon Yates onstage with their two children“, which “put together a piece that explicitly lays out the ethical basis of their living, communicated through a series of propaganda slogans, written or shouted: RIDE A BIKE, DO WHAT YOU SAY YOU’RE GOING TO DO, GARDEN NUDE, TURN OFF THE TELEVISION, BE YOURSELF“. Even the mere enumeration of slogans quoted from their show Propaganda (2010) challenges the idea of the circus as “phantasmagoric otherness”. Quite the opposite – garden nudity they offer is bare, factual, playful and inspiring to the point of challenging our ideas of public and private intimacy. No exoticism. Every body is a circus.

11:00-11:15 Coffee break

11:15-12:00 Rosa Aguilera, artist (Spain) – TransmuT, Mutation of Contemporary Body in Artistic Performance

TransmuT is a research about the human contemporary body identity and its transformation. We are invited to review topics about the human condition: transhumanism, alternative concepts, body transition, metamorphosis, during this creative ongoing process called life. It is a move from the daily vision of self to infinite possibilities: hybrid organic and technical body, emotional and artistic recreation of the human self, plasticity, and mechanical body object. There is an issue about artist’s body tool: How to write from the body? How to talk about yourself by being in it? Is it the creator who donates the meaning or does the body mark the identity? What about the relationship with other bodies? With objects? With race, gender and cultural context? What is the next body? The future one? How to apply it to Circus language? TransmuT is the keyword to search new forms of alchemy between Circus and Science, Philosophy and Fiction, New Identity and Humanity.

12:00-12:45 Tina Carter, artist (United Kingdom) – Circus & the Missing ‘M’

“So, the Menopause. There are no men involved, but there’s an awful lot of pausing.”*
London’s Liberty Festival, 2016, presented work by Deaf and disabled artists from all genres. This year, I was invited by blind performer Amelia Cavallo to direct, choreograph and perform in Sailing through the Dark, a new devised piece commissioned by the festival. Presented as three acts, enveloped by an ensemble Intro and Extro, the 30-minute piece confronted elements of identity using live music, story-telling and aerial. Despite my long experience in working with Deaf and disabled artists, where we have often confronted issues of aesthetics and working methodologies, I was shocked to discover that I had hidden away from public participation in aerial activity predominantly due to the onset of the menopause. As the ostensibly non-disabled performer in the show, working alongside blind Cavallo and short-statured Ben Goffe, it was liberating to finally face and voice my aerial identity crisis. As circus is becoming more accessible in terms of disability, not least through the work of Graeae, London’s Paralympic Opening Ceremony and more recently Extraordinary Bodies, do we also have to address issues of age discrimination? Do we jump or are we pushed?
*Spoken by Tina Carter in Sailing through the Dark.

12:45-14:15 Lunch break

14:15-15:15 Panel – Circus Transformation Processes: From the Schools to the Market

Olga Lucia Sorzano, City University of London (United Kingdom) – Circus Identity on the Road of Recognition and Formalisation

Circus has occupied a central place in culture and societies across times. It has had the power of attracting massive audiences, entertaining equally the aristocracy, the elites and diverse publics. It has been considered a massive entertainment form but also an anarchic, dangerous and socially marginal endeavour. The 21st century, found circus in the borderline between rejection and recognition, drawing the attention of an increased number of artists, venues, audiences, policy makers and scholars. Such recognition carries a process of formalisation, through circus schools, academic programmes, venues, funding and policies, triggering the new transformation of the practice. To what extent values and intrinsic characteristics of circus are transformed in this process? Could we even insinuate the existence of ‘intrinsic values’ of the circus practice? This research enquires about people’s valuations of the circus; it explores the aspects that artists, managers and policy makers identify as significant when engaging in the circus. Why do they choose circus? Why do they spend time and effort on this endeavour? What circus brings to their lives in order to continue practicing such a particular discipline? The purpose is to know more about experiences and opinions directly from circus practitioners and those who work within the art form. Different arguments and confronted positions are observed; disagreements are mainly found between traditional and sometimes called ‘romantic’ views of circus and contemporary movements and critical approaches. What is perceived however is that more than disputes between practitioners and values, differences are detected in the values promoted by institutions in which circus practitioners interact.
The analysis is part of a PhD research on cultural value and circus arts that makes use of a cultural studies perspective and cultural policy critical examination in order to deconstruct economic valuations of the arts. The research observes circus movements in Colombia and the United Kingdom as cases of study. It is centred on perceptions, notions and values of circus and culture that artists, policy makers, managers and other practitioners provided through personal interviews or informal conversations, complemented with the literature on the emergent field of circus studies.

Olivia Hallie Lehrman, artist (USA) – Aspects of Political Economics of Identity in the Circus

The international circus market is poised at a dangerous precipice with regards to nation, class, and race. The ever-romanticized notion of ‘a place for all’ in the circus is falling prey to the encroaching stratification our capitalistic societies are pressuring. Performers’ pay levels are increasingly allotted based on class and patriotic identity, rather than skill or experience. To base a performer’s wage on their home country’s GDP, rather than on the risk and showmanship is amoral. The next question is: what are the schools’ roles in this trend? Are government-run circus schools helping diversify the highest wage earners? Is the capitalization of circus schools further widening the pay gap, based on class identity and ability to enroll? The exceptions to racially disparate wages in our current circus market are often explained by class, and the resources to raise production value of one’s particular act. Together, both schools and circus producers can help capture our world’s highest creativity in circus development by addressing these issues.
Olivia Lehrman is writing a book about Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s human resources practices. The pending book explores the history of exploitation in the circus, and examines how wage gaps and salary inequality have driven a wedge into the inclusionary vision of circus arts.

15:15-16:00 Franzi Kreis, photographer (Austria) – Clowny IIdentities and the Moment of “In-between”

A clown is always in love and lost at the same time. He is commissioned to remind mankind that the world is only partly ruled by rational law. The big gap in-between is a space of magic and chaos. The Clown and his godfather Harlequin are the ones who connect the wires in order to reach and milk this glimmering but confusing Off.
In 2015 I left university and started a photographic journey. I was doing theatre studies for more than three years and had been finishing my Bachelor’s degree on contemporary Harlequin-figurations. As an ancient character of the Italian Commedia dell’Arte the Harlequin is distinguished by the quality of a never ending role-play connecting him to a magic outer space. Similar to the Joker in a game of cards, the Harlequin changes his function and acting. He is playing with cosmic laws. If anyone tries to catch him, he will be jumping in the infinite space of everything and nothingness.
The mission of my ongoing journey is to meet up with the energy in-between antithetic poles. My medium and my channel is portrait photography.

TUESDAY, 15.11.2016.

10:00-10:45 Franziska Trapp, University of Muenster (Germany) – Identity and Narration: Circesic Life-writing

In the last years, there has been a growing interest in autobiographic circus performances. Acrobates – une histoire d’art et d’amitié performed by Mathias Pilet and Alexandre Fournier, Le fil sous la neige created by the company Les Colporteurs, Extreme Symbiosis by Acrobalance and even the forthcoming performance Reversible by Les sept doigts de la main are using autobiographical events, experienced by the artist or producer, to tell stories. Especially life-changing experiences, like a serious accident or the death of a friend, seem to be tellable.
This paper concerns the question of identity through the lens of narratology. Based on the thesis that narrating as an “activity that involves ordering characters in space and time, is a privileged genre for identity construction” (Michael Bamberg), it asks how circus disciplines are able to tell autobiographical or autofictional stories. How are author/director/artist, narrator and character differentiated? What means are used to distinguish between a “narrating self” and a “narrated self” if the artist is telling his own story on stage. In what way do autofictional circus performances design characters in fictitious timespaces in order to open up a new territory for exploring identity, reaching beyond traditional boundaries, and testing out other identities? These questions are discussed in light of the current academic discussions on life-writing.

10:45-11:00 Coffee break

11:00-11:45 Anirbhan Ghosh, Jadavpur University, Kolkata (India) – Histories of Beasts, Freaks and Bodies: Circus in Colonial India

The question of circus within the history of performance has been ignored within the South Asian context. Apart from the vernacular, semi-literary, autobiographical works (appearing mostly around the late 19th and the early 20th century) Circus as a cultural/colonial formation has been seldom talked about, only appearing tangentially in historical works (in English) in the postcolonial era on cultural aspects in colonial India. The fundamental vernacular text which initiated my intervention and interest into the performative area of Circus is a 1900 published biography of a particular lieutenant Suresh Biswas (whose career in circus spanned from the variety shows of London to Brazil), named ‘leftenant Suresh Biswas’ (sachitra oloukik ghotonapurno ottyashchorjyo jibonkahini), the English translation (mine) would speak a lot ‘Lieutenant Suresh Biswas, a biography illustrated with wondrous and supernatural events’. This particular biography defines how the colonial construction of Bengali femininity was overcome through masculine acts of taming wild, dangerous African beasts: “the popularity of Suresh is not because he is a wrestler or a gymnast, he is famous for taming untameable and cruel beasts”. The appropriation of indigenous performative practices within the colonial Circus and its secularization has been ignored within the broader history of theatre in the subcontinent. Moreover, Circus as a secular cultural performance sought to reorient the lives and identities of indigenous performers within the tent. Along with the emergence of the proscenium theatre in the major areas of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta around the later half of 19th century, Circus performance and its reception was tuned to the new regimes of time and space within the urban and the rural space. Most importantly, this paper would try to locate the representation of the exotic colonized other within the Circus space and how this representation reflected the cultural hegemonic trope of British colonialism. Circus within the colony served as a site where acts portraying stereotypical notions about race, gender and ethnicity were played out. One of the major circus acts in the late 19th century Bengal was the taming of an effeminate babu by a British captain and also there were the acts where ‘beasts of Africa‘ were tortured by the iconic English male hunter to show his masculine supremacy. Lastly, two individuals acquire centrality in this paper, firstly as mentioned earlier the lieutenant Suresh Biswas, and secondly, the European woman performer who seemed a continuous cultural threat to the Victorian behavioural and gender roles and emerged as having a liminal identity within the colonial state, instances like the ‘Maharaja Circus’ in Bengal performing in Calcutta around the late 19th century and their female performers getting continuous male and upper class attention. The proposal seeks to address these lacunae within the broader histories of performance. Circus as a colonial production and intervention within the colony is the mainstay of the paper.

11:45-12:30 Jana Milovanović, anthropologist (Slovenia) – From Ota’s Molimo to Markos’ Hats: Exoticizing African Other in Colonial and Post-colonial Coontexts

Encountering freaks, audiences of the 19th and early 20th century used to contemplate the potential dissolution of their own corporeal and psychic boundaries, the terror and excitement of monstrous fusion with the surrounding world. Encountering refugees from Asian and African countries, public of the early 21st century do not seem to react very much differently. The contribution touches the processes of exoticizing African Other in 19th/early 20th century and compares them to contemporary public perceptions of refugees. To whatever extent the attributed meaning shifted and evolved through post-colonial context, refugees from African countries who are reaching Europe are still – or, again – put behind the bars and perceived as either threat or a victim. However, through various public funding programmes and civil society initiatives they can get opportunities to promote and present their skills, talents and knowledge which they are bringing along, and which has the potential to enrich new living environments, thus provide their successful inclusion. Following personal stories of Markos and Dawit, two young acrobats from Eritrea, I will analyse the shift of perception from ‘image’ to ‘skill presentation’ – does the latter really denote the progression of Other from ‘object’ to ‘subject’ or is it simply just paying a lip service to inclusion and integration?

12:30 – 14:00 Lunch break

14:00-15:30 Panel – Questioning the Normality: Is all Circus – Queer?

Charles R. Batson, Union College, New York (USA) – From Explorations of Circus and Its Others to a Queer(ed) Cirque

As this conference’s Call for Papers notes, circus practices have long offered a celebration and an exploitation of differences, from stagings of exceptional performing bodies to the display of “freakery”. While modern and contemporary circus may have put considerable distance between itself and the display of bodies whose exceptionalism is born rather than acquired, Erin Hurley has influentially argued that “all circus bodies carry in them the residual mark of the freaks of the fairgrounds” (2008, 151). Such an observation may lead us to ask to what extent and in what ways is circus always-already different, and about difference? Indeed, the multi-year project called Circus and Its Others, first begun in Montreal with support from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, seeks particularly to explore such questions in the context of a contemporary circus scene that is arguably going “mainstream”, and whose mainstream cultural capital may affect its status as a haven for the different, the outsider. As a co-organizer of the Circus and its Others project, I will share the nature of our project’s questions as well as some of its findings developed across several scholarly meetings from Montreal to Las Vegas and, in particular, in the Encounters with Circus and Its Others held in the context of the 2016 Montréal Complètement Cirque festival. These Encounters brought together scholars, circus artists and practitioners, and the general public around conversations and presentations that examined “difference” in terms of gender, sexuality, embodiment, ability/disability, ethnicity, class, and species.
In the second portion of my presentation, I will present the nature of my own research on the queer Other within certain contemporary circus practices. I examine the potential rich results in bringing lenses provided by queer theory to analyses of the nouveau cirque. J. Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place suggests, for example, that the queer participates in structures outside of bourgeois familial and capitalistic enterprises. Might we, with Halberstam, say that all the run-off-with-the-circus kids are queer? Even as our answer must reckon with the billion-dollar revenue successes of, say, Cirque du Soleil and its role in the firmament of contemporary circus practices, the heritage of the freak and the exceptional body on display remains to inform what may well be a culture of (queer) failure to conform, à la Halberstam, with its celebration of excess, absurdity, and exuberance. I base some of these theoretical musings in an analysis of “Les Précieuses des nuits de Montréal”, a self-styled queer circus cabaret performed in Montréal’s Caf’Conc in October 2014. Through a close look at this explicitly queer performance, we may well move to an understanding of the shapes and drives of queer(ed) circus. My analysis points to the important place given to the blurring of boundaries – not only among genders and gender(ed) expressions, but also between performer and audience, and between spoken word and physical prowess – as well as a call for and witness to a commitment to a queer life beyond the norms of bourgeois capital.

Maria Lisa Pichler, Academy of Fine Arts Vienna (Austria) – Reclaim Touch: An Artistic Research on Subversive Body Politics in Contemporary Circus

The history of the circus is a history of body politics. The bodies shown on stage in the traditional circus can be seen as hyper-masculine/hyper-feminine “super bodies” on one side and the construction of “deviating”, “abnormal” bodies on the other side. With Stuart Hall, this can be analysed as the hegemonic construction of an “Other”. A common moment of these hegemonic body representations (both “super-abled” and “dis-abled”) is that they are located in a heterosexual matrix.
As a consequence of my engagement in a queer-feminist contemporary circus collective that subverts hegemonic body images, the aim of my artistic research is to widen the scope of critical research perspectives by analysing contemporary circus as a potential space of subversive body politics. I argue that there are two reasons why contemporary circus practices enable subversive potentials regarding body and gender self-relations: Firstly, the intensive experience with the body on stage, in the development of circus acts and in collective group work creates spaces for reflecting upon (gendered) body norms. Secondly, as a “[parallel world] in which the rules which seem to govern the world outside have no currency” (Helen Stoddard), circus provides space for tackling gender norms and normalities in an experimental way. I argue that this intensive body experience changes the ways of perceiving the body and it possibly leads to hegemonic body norms being attacked and modified as well as to a search for alternative representations of (gendered) bodies beyond a heteronormative matrix.
Coming to my artistic practice as a contemporary aerial performer, what are the practical implications of these theoretical assumptions? How can the aerialist’s body be a tool to destabilize hegemonic gendered body norms? How can the “white/male/heteronormative” gaze upon the performer’s body often thematized in circus history can be “looked back at”? What are the subversive potentials of “putting the body on display”? Or, maybe most importantly, how can the aerialist’s body be “reclaimed” from a queer-feminist perspective?
Reclaim Touch examines these questions by taking a close look at the relationship between the aerialist’s body, her/his apparatus and the audience’s gaze upon the body to reveal possibly subversive potentials. Taking my own body and my experience as an aerial rope performer as a starting point, I understand the “touch” of the apparatus/body as the moment that brings these three aspects together. My project is situated at the crossroads of contemporary circus, video installation and critical queer-feminist theory.

Petra Maria Ganglbauer, artist (Austria) – Rhizomatic Circus: Identities of Contemporary Circus – wild.weird.wonderful

Rhizomatic Circus is a contemporary circus collective in Austria staging the show “Identity” for the first time in Vienna in September 2016. The artists break with conventional notions of space, offering the audience a 360 degrees experience in a horizontal and vertical dimension including acrobatic, theatre, juggling, and music performances, as well as video and room installations. The spectators are invited to dream in and marvel about this innovative circus space, as they are being drawn into a magical while at the same time highly provocative atmosphere. By combining diverse art forms something new, almost explosive is created. We utilize this momentum of clashing and deconstructing in order to let something new emerge. The outcome is a differentiated and fragmented picture of identity and contemporary circus. At the same time, we question pressing social norms and re-create them in a playful way. Thus, we as artists can serve as a mirror to a status quo in society and simultaneously strive to be aesthetic co-creators of systems, groups, social and political movements and trends. How do we create our own identity in relation to others and the society we live in? How do we identify with clichés we are surrounded with such as gender roles and how can we deconstruct these ideas? Questions as such will be tackled during the show and shall provoke the audience and engage them in this discourse, while alternative realities are construed, celebrating “the Otherness”.

15:30 -16:00 Closing discussion

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