September 2024

Solo Exhibition, De Appel, Amsterdam

Dec 2023

Heterophony of Heterochrony has become a part of the collections of the MMCA (National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea).

Dialectic of Performance Skill

Conversation with Josefine Wikström

Min Oh, Josefine Wikström


Question by Min Oh

While reading Practices of Relations in Task-Dance and The Event-Score1, I was delighted to discover multiple intersections with my artistic practice: author-performer-viewer relationship around scores, art-works as “projections of possible consequences,”2 the idea of “reader's ability to objectify,”3 “structural object,”4 and a new skill for performance. Among them, I would like to give attention to the notion of technique in this conversation. The word technique gives an impression of being outdated these days. However, I believe that the concept of the technique itself is not old-fashioned but that there is just an old-fashioned point of view on technique. Perhaps neither performances nor artistic practices can be realized with the complete absence of the concept of technique. I believe that a new skill engenders new performativity, which creates a new type of art object.

From the collaborations with composers, musicians, choreographers, and dancers, I observed manifold differences in the technique of performing contemporary dance and music. The most interesting divergence for me would be how the musicians and dancers use their inner and outer space. Musical performance is goal-oriented work. The musician should pre-listen to the ideal sounds before they actually produce the sounds. Hearing a sound beforehand means imagining it in the head rather than hearing what is physically made. Therefore, the source of the sound is not outside the musician but inside. Meanwhile, the musician generates an actual sound based on the imagined sound and re-listens to them physically. At this time, the source of the generated sound is outside. However, considering that I had often closed my eyes while playing the piano to shut down all the unnecessary external stimuli and focus better on hearing the played sounds, the act of hearing the external stimuli still seems to use the inner space. On the other hand, certain types of contemporary dance that I am interested in are much less goal-oriented, and the decisions are relatively open to the dancer and the moment of performing. If there is any goal in those dances, at least in my works, it is closer to eliciting discoveries, experiences, or corporeal states encountered by the dancer in the process of carrying out a task rather than the task itself. In the process of executing a task, the dancer must look at many things. The more dialogues with the environment (other performers, the complexity of space, props, etc.) the dance requires, the more decisions the dancer should make on the spot, and the more careful looks the dancer should take. The dancers actively cross their inner and outer space while traversing between observing and deciding.

Both the skills mentioned above are a matter of recognition rather than muscle. Regardless of genre, the technique that the contemporary performer should hone is perhaps the technique to ‘be aware of’ or ‘react to’ the plans (past), states (present), and decisions (future). The ideal performativity for me can be realized when the performers keep knowing what to do (often including 'not knowing’), at the same time re-determining it here and now. I am interested in choreographing the movement path of traversing inside and outside of awareness to generate microscopic kinesthetic responses from the performers that are always unique depending on who is performing and when.

If performing is ‘being aware,’ the performance of the musicians/dancers on stage and the performance of technicians offstage should not be distinct. Technicians on a film set full of unexpectedness implement goal-oriented tasks that require a highly concentrated state to make prompt and synthetic decisions. Their bodies had been trained in this regard through repetitive experiences. A very bizarre time-space is created at each filming site. It exists as the only and most meaningful now-here during filming and then disappears without a trace after filming is over. In fact, re-running actions on a film set is possible as long as multiple takes are allowed. However, time is extremely limited, especially in low-budget production. So the least amount of takes are aimed, and every take wishes to be the final take. In that sense, each run that occurs here is unique. Whether this run can be the actual last run would be determined not only by the performers on-screen but also by the technicians off-screen. The performance of the technician is innately interactive. The technician's body must follow the way the equipment works, but in the end, the body controls the equipment. The space and time a technician can use are constrained by the position and ability of the cameras and microphones. I have been observing film technicians from the perspective of performance, and I am currently contemplating how to intriguingly reverse the relationship between goals and means in the filming process.

New skills emerged when Judson dance refused the strictly disciplined modern dance techniques. One of the new skills, such as “being present whilst performing movements,” seems to be similar to the skill of ‘staying aware’ that I am scrutinizing. In that regard, I would like to have a conversation with you about techniques in the performance. What is a technique in performance? What is performativity? What is the relationship between skill and performativity and performance? What do they mean in a work of art?

Answer by Josefine Wikström

Thank you for these interesting and difficult questions! I will do my best in trying to answer them. Before doing so I would like to begin by saying something about how I understand them. Firstly, I think they can be boiled down to one or maximum two questions. “What is skill and technique in a performance and what do they do to the performativity of an artwork?” Before moving on to why I think it can be compressed to merely one question, let me secondly also say what intrigues me the most with how you have formulated your question. As I see it, it indicates a conceptual shift, from what I would call a ‘metaphysics of performance in art’, to a ‘labour theory of performance in art.’ This move is visible in the different terms that you use to describe the act of performing in different kinds of performance situations (playing the piano and performing a score or task in a dance piece for example). Commonplace in art- theory and -history has been to situate the practice of performing within a phenomenologically and metaphysically oriented framework described by terms such as “awareness” and “presence.”5 You by contrast, in your question, depart from these, but only to then move on to terms such as ‘technique’ and ‘skill.’ Whereas “awareness” and “presence”, to a large extent have dominated, and in many ways still dominate the discourse around dance and performance, the two latter ones are less common in such a context, as well as within a contemporary art discussion, in general. The Western and specifically North American history of performance and dance within art (from, let’s say, Loïe Fuller to Merce Cunningham and Yvonne Rainer) has been swallowed up by a pre-modern understanding of art in which the act of performing has been looked upon as a time-capsule existing outside of historical time. As if performance and dance cannot be subject to questions of historical transformations such as social techniques and labour processes. Your question thus indicates a movement away from such a-historical phenomenological take on performing in an artwork to the perspective of viewing performing in relation to questions of technique and skill, which, as I will come to, also then implies categories such as history and labour. Finally, as a commentary to your question, although you mention the term “technique”, I prefer to stay with the categories of “skill” and “social technique.” The latter as John Roberts puts it should be defined as “the advanced level of technology and science as it is expressed in the technical conditions of social reproducibility.”6 ‘Technique’, like ‘presence’ and ‘awareness’, carries a rather heavy baggage of metaphysics with it and therefore is tricky, if not impossible to think, with a modern concept of art. Whereas ‘technique’ is derived from the Greek term ‘technê’ – the crafting or making of any object7– ‘social technique’ indicates that technique and technology are historically dependent. Because of this I am more inclined to look at the practice of performing from the categories of ‘skill’ and ‘social technique’ as they immediately connect to modern categories such as labour, the division of labour, capital and therefore also to art as a distinctly modern category.8

Now, let me re-phrase and cut down your questions: What is a social technique in a performance? What is the relationship between skill and performativity and performance? What do they mean in a work of art? To answer these questions from the remarks I made above we would firstly have to find out what we mean by skill and social technique, secondly we would have to see how they relate to artistic work in modernity, and finally connect the ideas of artistic skills specifically to performing practices.

So firstly, what is a skill? Etymologically the term can be traced to the proto-Indi-European word ‘skele’, the power of discernment and knowledge, as well as to the Latin term ‘cult’, cut and separation.9 Skill have throughout history, as Richard Sennett points out, been understood in relationship to craftmanship understood as “the skill of making things well.”10 With industrial modernity and the introduction of the capitalist division of labour, to be skilled is to be specialised on a specific part of the production process without necessarily being able to overlook the entire process. This is clear from Adam Smith’s use of the term in the introductory section to his Wealth of Nations (1776) where he writes about the transformation of the workers’ skills with the introduction of the division of labour. Using a pin-factory as example Smith gives an account of how the different workers need different skills for the labour to be divided and separated for the production process to be as efficient as possible.11 “The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgement with which it is anywhere directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour.”12 The increase in productivity in the factory is due to the “increase of dexterity in every particular workman.”13 The compartmentalisation of tasks and skills that was introduced with capitalist industrial production, so eloquently described by Smith, has as Harry Braverman, noticed already in the 1970s, continued and intensified through systems of bureaucratization, management and digitization.14 In capitalist modernity, the skills of the worker, have become increasingly separated and compartmentalised making workers increasingly alienated from their work.

Secondly then, what about skills in artistic labour or artistic activity in modernity? If, from antiquity until early modernity, the artist was a craftsman who followed certain rules (poetic and academic), in the mid 1800s, and as Charles Baudelaire formulated it in 1863, “the painter of modern life” entered the stage.15 But what kind of artist was this? One who did no longer rely on artisan painterly skills or rules of the academies, but instead, a painter who negated previous academic rules. This was the scandal of Édouard Manet’s painting Olympia (1865) since it depicted a naked woman in a way which didn’t follow previous painterly rules of how to paint nude women. The artist of modern life was part of the capitalist labour process and art in modernity, as Roberts formulates it, was the “dissolution of art into social technique.”16 Roberts, one of few art theoreticians who have formulated the role of skills in artistic production in modern and contemporary art, also argues that if workers in general under capitalism, have been subsumed under a capitalist division of labour, this has not and is still not the case with artists and their work. “The artist may choose to be a master of a given technical process – the manipulation of digital photographs, for instance, or weaving – but this does not determine our judgement of the artist’s skill overall.”17 So, yes Manet stopped using certain academic painterly skills, but only to gain new ones. Something that artists, from Marcel Duchamp and onwards, continued to do. Just because they quit painting or making sculptures with their hands, it didn’t mean that they didn’t gain new skills. On the opposite, Roberts claim, their production process was a dialectic of skilling, de-skilling, and re-skilling. This dialectic also ultimately changed the definition of technique. With Manet and other artists “technique, it is asserted, is not a neutral skill, something transmittable down the ages, but, rather, historically contingent, and therefore inseparable from the demands of artistic subjectivity, and the artist’s mode of vision.”18

Now, where does this leave us with the skills of performing in art in modernity and in contemporary art? And what about the relation between skill and performativity? Whereas Roberts and others have written about skills and their intertwinement with social technique not much has been written about performance skills in relation to such “labour-theory of culture.”19 This might be because it is easier to see how explicitly for example The Gutai Group in the mid 1950s left the brush and instead introduced tools such as spray cans and made performance to paint with, than it is to see how certain dance practices invented new skills or techniques. In the tradition of Western concert dance (from North American modern dance to the present), which is the performance practices I have worked the most with, there has also been a dialectic of skilling, de-skilling and re-skilling. For example, and as I write about in the book, by leaving classical ballet and Graham-technique, dancers and choreographers like Ann Halprin and Yvonne Rainer, developed a new set of skills in dance that were about making tasks developed from written and spoken scores. This transformation of skills amongst these and other dancers, and as Roberts also points out, also transformed the form of the dance works. From proscenium theatre made works to low-key everyday type dances. More recently choreographers like William Forsyth have developed choreographic systems from digital technologies and artists such as Elmgreen & Dragset “outsource” their performance labour by exhibiting the skills and labour of other social groups than artists.20 Following Roberts then, skills in performance practices (whatever they are), must be seen as historically determined and as embedded in the social techniques of the current social reproduction of the means of production. If such skills are to negate previous ones, in the way Halprin and Rainer broke with Graham technique, they also need to dive into new skills and techniques, which also invent new forms of performance. For this simple reason classical ballet, if trained and presented in the same way as it has always been, cannot invent new forms of performance in art.

Finally, with regards to performativity. As I try to argue in the book, performativity doesn’t mean much more than process or practice. Philosophically it is a term that describes how something produces itself as it is also presented, which, in a sense, all art from the 1960s and onwards do. (Something else that I argue in the book through the concept of practice.) This does not mean however, that all artworks labelled contemporary, are critical in relation to the skills and social technique used in them. To be so, contemporary artists need to scrutinize all aspects of the artworks production process, from the skills to the materials being used, to then see how these might create new techniques and skills as well as new forms of art.

1 Josefine Wikström, Practices of Relations in Task-Dance and The Event-Score. Published by Routledge. 2021.

2 Ibid. p.71

3 Ibid. p.106

4 Ibid. p.137

5 Peggy Phelan’s essay “The Ontology of Performance” in her book Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, New York/London: Routledge (1993) is the emblematic example of such a view on performance. It is also commonplace in the discourse of performance in contemporary art. See for example Amelia Jones, The Artist’s Body, London/New York: Phaidon (2012).

6 John Roberts, “Art After De-Skilling” in Historical Materialism 18 (2010): 77.

7 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book VI. Aristotle writes: “Wisdom in skills technê we attribute to their most exacting practitioners; for example, we call Pheidias a wise sculptor and Polycleitus a wise maker of statues, meaning nothing by wisdom other than virtue by skill.” (1141a). Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Translated and edited by Roger Crisp, Cambridge Massachusetts: Cambridge UP, (2004).

8 With ‘modern’ I here refer to that period from approximately the 1500s to the present and which have been characterized by the development of science, capitalism on a world scale, colonialism, racism and patriarchy. See for e.g. Marshall Berman’s classical account of this period, Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, London: Penguin Press (1982). See also Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, translated by Susan Emanuel, Polity Press (1996), which gives a thorough account of how art as a autonomous field develops in the 1850s France.


10 Richard Sennet, The Craftsman, New Haven: Yale University Press (2008), 8.

11 Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, London/New York: Penguin Books, [1776] 1986.

12 Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 294.

13 Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 268.

14 Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, New York: Monthly Review Press, [1974] 1998.

15 Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, Translated and edited by Jonathan Mayne, New York/London: Phaidon Press [1863] 1972.

16 Roberts, “Art After De-Skilling”, 91.

17 Roberts, “Art After De-Skilling”, 92-93.

18 Roberts, “Art After De-Skilling”, 80.

19 Roberts, “Art After De-Skilling”, 77.

20 Claire Bishop, “Delegated Performance: Outsourcing Authenticity”, October Vol 140 (Spring 2012), 91-112.