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Gezi Uprising and Corporeal Politics: Watch out history when a dancer goes still! [1]

Gurur Ertem 

“Imagine, but don’t do it, imagine that you are about to take a step forward with your left foot. What is the difference? Back to standing…

Imagine but don’t do it, imagine that you are about to do a step with your left foot. What is the difference? Back to standing…

Imagine but don’t do it, imagine that you are about to take a step with your right foot… your left foot… your right… your left, right, left…… standing.

…Slowly let your body collapse into a squat… release into a voluntary fall. Breathe, squatting with hands on the floor, neck relaxed… see if you can relax in this position… and come up.”

Steve Paxton. The Small Dance, The Stand (1977)

I

Gezi Uprising, the unprecedentedly large[2] civil uprising in modern Turkey that broke out at the end of May 2013, powerfully manifested the corporeal dimension not only of social protests but the bodily precondition of politics in general.

What paved the way for Gezi Park events were the culmination of discontentment with the appropriation and exploitation of urban public spaces upon the interests of private gain; the increasing authoritarianism and paternalism of the ruling Justice and Development Party; and the continual infringement of the freedom of speech. Police brutality against environmentalists who had set up camp at Gezi Park to protest the demolishment of trees for the implementation of a dubious, unlawful construction plan imposed by the government was the last drop that incited millions of people to the streets.

Against the backdrop of the post-political neo-liberal order governed by some kind of “majoritarian democracy”, Gezi Uprising presented the rebirth of the “political”[3].

In a way, it marked the reopening of what Hannah Arendt calls “the space of appearance”, a space where people appear to each other, speak to each other and develop capacities to act in concert.[4] For Arendt, it is this coming together that precedes all formal constitution of the public realm. However, who can appear in public is already a political question, and the public space of appearance, both in the physical sense, Taksim Square and the political sense, is not one single space, but rather a battleground where different hegemonic projects, a multiplicity of discursive surfaces are confronted.

In fact, as Judith Butler writes, it is the corporeal dimension, the basic conditions for survival itself that is the precondition of all possibility of assembling, and that political act is not only in speech and action as it is also in stillness and silence. [5] First and foremost, humans are animals, and their bodily existence depends upon systems of support that are both human and non-human. We cannot speak of bodies without environments, and the destruction of the environment, understood as both natural and man-made (in the form of institutions for support) is the destruction of the human.

For Gezi Park to become reconstituted as a public space, it had to be reclaimed as a dwelling space, where bodies not only gathered in speech and action but also ate, slept and dreamt. By reclaiming the park and self-organizing it as a dwelling space people were enacting the world they imagined. When commentators, journalists and politicians were asking protestors to state their demands, they were missing the point that the most obvious and important statement was being made by the very enactment– that public space belongs to the people. The social form of the resistance in Gezi Park incorporated principles of equality and horizontality in the organization and maintenance of the camp.

These actions were all political by refusing the normalizing of inequality produced by strict divisions between the public and private spheres and by incorporating into the very social form of resistance the principles for which they were struggling for.

II

On June 2nd 2013 protestors built barricades around Taksim Square and declared Gezi Park as their habitat. Over the two weeks that followed, those barricades became Alice’s “rabbit hole” through which people got uplifted into another reality, into the wonderland of communitas where an intense community spirit, the feeling of a great social equality and  solidarity prevailed. Communitas comes to being through a threshold experience, an experience anthropologist Victor Turner refers to as “liminality”, a word derived from the architectural term “limen” that literally means a door sill, the thin strip that is neither inside nor outside a structure.  Turner was fascinated with the liminal phase where he recognized the possibility for ritual to be creative and to make way for new situations.[6]

Gezi Park unleashed an explosion of creativity and humor, indeed. When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan referred to the protesters as çapulcu (“looters”) in order to discredit their political claim at the onset of the protests, the word was taken up by the protestors to be endowed with a new meaning. By changing their names to çapulcu – or a version of it – overnight on their social media profiles, protestors and their supporters marked their membership to an emergent community. It is notable that this “tribe” of çapulcus is depicted as a dancing one as in the humorous video photo-shopped over LFMAO’s Everyday I’m Shuffling (that became Everyday I’m çapulling) video clip that circulated widely over social media in early June.

A broad spectrum of performances[7]as performances and is performances – got intertwined during the protests, especially at Gezi Park in the two weeks of its occupation. The body became the medium and the message in the protests. A sufi dervish-inspired dancer in a gas mask whirled on and on as others formed circles to dance the regional folk dances of halay and the horon. Others took up yoga and held open sessions while others danced the tango. A b-boy moonwalked across a water cannon and football fans sang “tear gas ole!” jumping up and down. The distinction between art and not art, actor and spectator did not only get blurred: it became irrelevant. Viewed as Mikhael Bakhtin’s interpretation of carnival, Gezi Park protests celebrated the liberation from the prevailing order in a feast of becoming, change and renewal[8]. Virtual and highly mediated spaces of appearance sprang alongside new forms of immediacy in real places and times. One did not even have to be out there on the street for a bodily engagement with the protests: The very visceral effect of images of bodies such as the photograph taken by a Reuters reporter of “the lady in the red dress” as she was turning her cheek against a pepper spray attack on the first day of the protests attested to their performative power. As images of bodies subject to violence moved in virtual space, real bodies flooded to Taksim Square and Gezi Park.

On the morning of May 31st Lobna Al Lamii, a thirty five year old environmental activist woman, was shot in the head by a tear gas canister and stayed in critical condition for twenty four days, had multiple brain surgeries and lost speech and got partially paralyzed. I was struck when I read somewhere that she was a dancer. The moment when a dancer was stilled, an entire people rose against oppression and injustice.

Gezi Park uprising and the events that followed can be grasped for me in the image of dance as a fall and a spring, oscillating between vulnerability and resilience. In 1930s American choreographer Doris Humphrey developed an understanding of dance as “fall and recovery”.[9] She was one of the first choreographers to abandon the traditional concepts of dance where the body has to create the illusion of not being influenced by gravity and that all movement should give the impression of being effortless. The dance encompassed for her the fall from the security of a perfect balance yielding to gravity as well as the slow recovery to restore balance. In between, an infinite number of physical and emotional movements could be experienced.

It is perhaps not so surprising that it was another dancer who “stood up” after the violent police crackdown of the encampment at Gezi Park on June 15th. On June 17th, dancer and choreographer Erdem Gündüz engaged in a “still-act” that uplifted the broken spirits, repotentializing and remobilizing the protests to a different intensity. Out of a pre-discursive, unpremeditated, unchoreographed urge, relying on his corporeal intelligence and perhaps drawing upon years of somatic training, at the perfectly right time and the right place, Gündüz [10] stood silently in the middle of Taksim Square facing the deserted Ataturk Cultural Center. In a matter of hours, and thanks to the amplification and circulation of the image over social media and the accessibility and power of the act itself, the standing protest went viral all over Turkey and beyond. Standing still and still standing was what was left to be done, when other possibilities were crushed  by state violence.

I must note, however, that I do not see the fall and the rise here as binary oppositions as one side more worthy than the other. The fall here is not failure but an embrace, albeit a traumatic one. Lobna’s fall and Erdem’s rise form part of the continuum of the spirit of Gezi. Modern dance had struggled to fight against the vertical strive and linearity of ballet at the onset of the 20th century and embraced the ground. “Post-modern” dance, physical theater, live art performance, and somatic practices such as body-mind centering, all advocate awareness and transparency of falling as a necessary and inevitable actuality of living and being[11].

The political force of the still-act of Erdem Gündüz (known as “standing man”) is not so much in its verticality, but mostly in its stillness, as well as in his exposed vulnerability and non-violence. His stillness here is not a form of passivity, but rather a thoughtful and

strategic cultivation of forceful resistance that refuses to replicate the aggression it opposes.

While contemplating the standing man’s still gesture, one thinks of André Lepecki’s elegant use of anthropologist Nadia Seremetakis’ insightful notion of the “still-act” in his analyses of the incorporation of stillness in western theatrical dance, and  how it moved from being dance’s other to the role of dance’s primal impulse as a sort of generative force. As Lepecki writes:

“For Seremetakis, ‘still acts’ are those moments of pause and arrest in which the subject – by physically introducing a disruption in the flow of temporality – interpellates ‘historical dust.’ Against the flow of the present, – writes Seremetakis – there is a stillness in the material culture of historicity; those things, spaces, gestures, and tales that signify the perceptual capacity for elemental historical creation. Stillness is the moment when the buried, the discarded, and the forgotten escape to the social surface of awareness like life-supporting oxygen. It is the moment of exit from historical dust.”[12]

The historical dust at Taksim Square is indeed very thick and dense. It has always been a contested space since the latter days of the Ottoman Empire. After the founding of the Republic of Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Taksim was built in the image of a pro-western modern nation state. In return, Justice and Development Party government is trying to rebuild Taksim after its own conservative, traditionalist, Neo-Ottomanist image and this is one of the main reasons that led to Gezi Park protests. Taksim Square has also been the site of workers’ struggles and social protests, most memorably, the May 1st, 1977 Labor Day massacre.

III

It is worth further exploration that stillness was explicitly claimed as belonging to dance and even articulated as dance proper in the aftermath of civil rights and New Left movements of the 1960s. Already in the early 1960s, against the backdrop of civil rights movements in the United States, a group of artists consisting of sculptors, dancers, choreographers, filmmakers – known as Judson Church Dance Theater – were exploring everyday movements such as walking and carrying out simple tasks. But it was in contact improvisation[13] of the 1970s that the realm of concert dance rigorously investigated falling, standing, and stillness.[14]

In January 1972, Steve Paxton and eleven male students performed Magnesium, considered as the beginning of Contact Improvisation at Oberlin College gymnasium. The dance featured “The Stand”, Paxton’s signature exercise, also referred to as “The Small Dance”. In the Small Dance, practitioners stand upright, relaxing all muscles allowing the body to be held up by the skeleton without any mental exertion or extra physical effort. In this stillness, one ironically finds that there is a lot of movement – a subtle swaying back and forth as the body senses and reacts to micro-shifts in weight. During the exercise, one becomes attuned to the ongoing feedback mechanisms and reflexes that the body naturally uses for stabilization. Like the silence John Cage introduced to music, stillness was now discovered as belonging to dance.

In fact, Mere Cunningham and John Cage collaboration was important to the development of Judson Dance Theater and contact improvisation. John Cage had asked Robert Dunn, who had studied music theory with Cage at the New School for Social Research, to teach a class at the Cunningham studio at the fall of 1960. A group of choreographers, musicians, and sculptors gathered around these composition classes and what is now known as Judson Dance Theater emerged out of these explorations.

In the political climate of the 1960s, the core values of Zen Buddhism – acceptance of things as they are, yet also resistance to the status quo – were attractive to artists and dancers alike; amid civil rights protests, the cultivation of individuality allowed people to rebel while simultaneously seeking inner peace. Born out of this Zen philosophy, Robert Dunn‘s teaching drew upon elements of Buddhism as well as Taoism and existentialism. If one considers the meaning of Chi – life energy flow – it becomes clear that Paxton‘s training with Dunn influenced his creation of the Zen-like Small Dance, which focuses the mind to detect the energy that continuously flows through the body, even when standing – still.

Drawing upon the work of several other dance scholars[15], Danielle Goldman discusses the connections between the physical techniques some civil rights protestors and early innovations in contact improvisation.[16] Many non-violent direct action techniques to be used in protests (such as sit-ins and freedom rides) were developed and taught in workshops and published manuals throughout civil rights movements. Although reactions are spontaneous, they are the result of mental, physical and spiritual training. In a book called A Manual for Direct Action: Strategy and Tactics for Civil Rights and All Other Nonviolent Protest Movements, published in 1965, Martin Oppenheimer and Georg Lakey discuss several techniques such as the use of falling and rolling to be used in situations of duress. They advise that if the protestor encounters direct violence, she should keep the body very relaxed so that harm would be minimized, an attitude that can be compared to release technique.

IV

Stillness is not only deployed as a tactic or technique in protest or in dance. It is also a negation of the imperative to move in the hyper-mobile world of flows of cash, capital, and people.[17] Stillness is also a clear refusal; a blatant “no” to be (re)moved, no to be dispossessed, to insist on remaining public, to keep on laying claim to the public space in times of global neo-liberal capitalism. It is also in this negative sense that the still gesture of standing has critical potential as a counter-hegemonic political act.

I will further elaborate on the eternal entanglement of dances and dancers with politics in a following paper, but before I depart, here is a quote from Judith Butler on bodies on the streets and contemporary uprisings that provide a coherent snapshot on the corporeal dimension of politics:

“The demand is at once enacted and made, exemplified and communicated. Bodies assemble precisely to show that they are bodies, and to let it be known politically what it means to persist as a body in this world, what requirements must be met for bodies to survive, and what conditions make a bodily life, which is the only life we have, finally livable […] It is not, then, exclusively or primarily as subjects bearing abstract rights that we take to the streets. We take to the streets because we need to walk or move there, we need streets to be structured so that, whether or not we are in a chair, we can move there, and we can pass through that space without obstruction, harassment, administrative detention, fear of injury and death. If we are on the streets, it is because we are bodies that require infrastructural support for our continuing existence, and for living a life that matters. Mobility is itself a right of the body, but it is also a precondition for the exercise of other rights, including the right of assembly itself.”[18]


[1] This text is a further development of the ideas I originally presented at the encounter titled “Gezi Uprising as a Corporeal Political Challenge” held at Tanzquartier Wien on September 25, 2013. A modified version (in German) appeared in November 2013 Issue of Theater Der Zeit published in conjunction with Tanzquartier Wien’s SCORES Publication Project. The text can be downloaded here:

http://www.tqw.at/sites/default/files/TQW-Scores_Supplement1113_TdZ-Web.pdf

[2] The protests were the largest in the sense not only of the scale but also of in terms of duration and scope. While the protests started at Gezi Park located in Istanbul, it spread out to about 70 other cities in Turkey (most notably Ankara, Antakya, Eskisehir and Izmir). The constituents of the protests were extremely diverse and encompassed students; LGBT movements; Taksim Solidarity (the large network of NGOS ranging from environmental groups to neighborhood associations,  and The Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects); numerous (traditional) leftist organisations; Alevis (different from the majority of Sunni Islamic people of Turkey, Alevis are a complex religious/cultural group combining Anatolian folk religions with Sufi elements and emphasize traditions of poetry, music and dance in their rituals); Anti-capitalist Muslims (left-leaning Muslims who are opposing neo-liberal politics of the government); Kemalists (secular, nationalist adherents to republican values as prescribed by the founder Ataturk); Kurds; football fans; artists. Obviously, some members of these groups overlap.

[3] Chantal Mouffe proposes a distinction between “politics” and “the political”. For Mouffe, “the political” refers to the dimension of antagonism which she takes to be constitutive of human societies; while by “politics” she refers to the set of practices and institutions through which an order is created, organizing human coexistence in the context of confliction provided by “the political”; At the center of the political, lies the ineradicable dimension of antagonism. It is this sense of the political I use here.

[4] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 1999 [1958]).

[5] Judith Butler, “Bodily Vulnerability, Coalitions and Street Politics” in The State of Things (Office of Contemporary Art Norway, 2013).

[6] Victor Turner reintroduced the concept of liminality in 1967 that was first developed by the ethnographer Arnold van Gennep in his work Rites of Passage in 1909. Van Gennep he had identified three phases of rites, pre-liminal, liminal and post-liminal and noted that key transformations occurred in the liminal phase. See Victor Turner, “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage” in The Forest of Symbols (Cornell University Press, 1967).

[7] Performance studies scholar Richard Schechner claims that all human activity can be studied as performance because every action is made from “twice-behaved behaviors” (Performance Studies: An Introduction, 2002). Performances are restored bits of information, but they can be recombined in endless combinations. The uniqueness of an event does not depend only on its materiality, but on the interactivity and context. To treat any object, a work, or product “as” performance, it means to investigate what the object does, how it interacts with other beings or objects, and how it relates to them. In other words, there is nothing inherent in action that disqualifies it from being a performance from the start. What determines a performance is not intrinsic to the event, but to how it is placed and received.

[8] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (Indiana University Press, 1984 [1965]).

[9] Doris Humphrey, Art of Making Dances (Princeton University Press, 1991 [1959]).

[10] Although Erdem Gündüz never thought of conceiving his “still-act” as an artistic performance – I believe one of the strengths of the act is actually the fact that it was not planned and executed as some kind of “performance art” by an “artist”- it is significant that he has been trained as a dancer and choreographer. Gündüz was one of the performers of the Turkish cast version of Jérôme Bel’s Show Must Go On, co-produced and presented by iDANS Festival, Istanbul (2011). The staged work features a long section where all twenty five performers do nothing but stand still and stare at audience. In another section of the piece where performers listen to the song of their choice through headphones (unheard by the audience) and sing along to it while standing, Erdem Gündüz was singing “Ben bir ceviz ağacıyım Gülhane Parkı’nda” (I am a walnut tree at Gülhane Park). In a way, confirming Schechner’s theory of performance as “twice-behaved” or “restored behavior”, one can say that even though it is spontaneous, the act relies on an embodied knowledge.

[11] A recent issue of Performance Research Journal (Vol. 18 No: 4, 2013) is dedicated to a similar positive understanding of falling.

[12]André Lepecki, “Undoing the Fantasy of the (Dancing) subject: ‘still acts’ in Jérôme Bel’s ‘The Last Performance’” in The Salt of the Earth: On Dance, Politics, and Reality (Het Zout der Aarde: Over Dans, Politiek en Werkelijkheid). (Ed. Steven de Belder. Brussels: Flemish Theater Institute, 2001).

[13] Contact Improvisation (also referred to as “Contact” or “CI”) is practiced as both a concert and social dance form. It is an improvised dance form practiced by two or more people who attempt to keep a physical point of contact between their bodies while moving freely without music. The dancing may be slow or fast and often involves rolling and weight-sharing; it is practiced barefoot with loose fitting clothing. It has been described as “art sport,” theatrical form, educational tool, “urban folk dance,” urban sub-culture, therapeutic bodywork, even awareness practice.

[14] Danielle Goldman, I Want to Be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom (University of Michigan Press, 2010).

[15] Several other scholars provide insights analyzing nonviolent direct action from the perspective of dance studies. See Susan Foster’s “Choreographies of Social Protest” (Theater Journal, Vol.55, No:3, 2003) where she discusses the lunch-counter sit-ins of 1960s, AIDS activists’ die-ins that occurred two decades later and the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999. She contests the notion that protest is a purely spontaneous event lacking in form or technique. She is interested in questions how have these bodies been trained, and how has that training mastered, cultivated or facilitated their impulse.

Also see Barbara Browning’s “Choreographing Post-coloniality: Reflections on the Passing of Edward Said” (Dance Research Journal 35:2, 2004) where she writes that, as exemplified by Ghandi’s walk on the Dharasana Salt Works, nonviolent noncooperation requires a technique of the body which in many ways resembles what contemporary choreographers might refer to as release technique.

[16] For a thorough discussion of shared characteristics of Contact Improvisation and non-violent protests see Danielle Goldman, “Bodies on the Line: Contact Improvisation and Techniques of Nonviolent Protest” (Dance Research Journal, Vol. 39, No.1, 2007).

[17] As a comparison to the still act of the standing man as a political claim to public space and the live body’s unmediated struggle to achieve democratic participation in the city, one can note the phenomenon of Falun Gong.  In “Hong Kong Incorporated”, SanSan Kwan (2003) analyzes the phenomenon of Falun Gong    that emerged two years after China reclaimed Hong Kong territory. Falun Gong is a practice that was developed as a mind-body practice by the Chinese native Li Hongzhi. Established in 1992 in China, it is based on a mixture of qigong-like physical exercises, and Buddhist and Taoist philosophies. Has more than 100 million followers worldwide and the core of the practice is a set of exercises practices performed 5 times daily to cultivate mind, body and soul. On April 25 1999, 2 years after China reclaimed Hong Kong’s return to China, over 10000 people gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to participate in a mass sit-in urging the government to recognize Falun Gong as a legal organization! The quiet, non-violent, day-long-sit-in by the spiritual group marked the first time since the 1989 student demonstrations that such a large assembly dared to meet in that charged symbolic place. The group was officially denounced, calling it an evil cult and many of its practitioners were tortured and jailed. The corporeality of bodies in public space, Falun Gong practitioners resist Hong Kong’s disappearance into the mainland. Falun Gong actions help to keep Hong Kong’s separate status, Kwan claims. The final exercise of Falun Gong is sitting in silent meditation.

[18]  Judith Butler, ibid., p.167-168

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