Update from Qudus' blog

Aug 30, 2011


…Dance in Space, Spaces that Dance.

In my other life I am an activist. I grew up in a nation that naturally makes political activists out of its citizens, a nation that might as well exist as a fictional story, a fable spun from the imagination of very strange storytellers. Nigeria is where I come from, but like most progressive living beings, where we come from is not as important as where we are heading. Unlike many Nigerians, I have been unable to shake off this hereditary calling of an activist even as I head my own solo way, I have however managed to make my career be mostly situated in the arts world, not so political – in the conventional sense of the word. This nation situated in an artificial place in the midst of an artificial situation, has been a better metaphor for me to understand what culture is tending towards in many parts of the world.

If I had a metaphorical barometer and put it out there, what it would register is insecurity. There is presently a boosted sense of worry about the inevitably diminished role that places like the United States and Europe (the West) might be playing in the world in the next decades – or less, but that discussion is almost exclusively defined in economic terms. What it means is that basic business practices that have existed in our art world might not continue to exist in the same way, I don’t believe that the arts is a different system to anything else; we will have to adjust to a different way of doing things, the challenge is not to be conservative in terms of content, because it’s the new that excites people, not a feeling of safety.

In difficult times like this, it is certainly immaterial to ask ‘what is the essence of art?’because we are all looking for meaning in our world right now, and can art really provide it? Is art able to maintain a primal relevance in a lay world? But as a 21st century artist with a vocation – each time I think of a new project, I often find myself asking these sets of immaterial questions again and again. What do I wish to build or break with my art?


Understanding architecture as a performative condition: acting on us and activated by us, and theatre architecture as civil space, which has impact on human social contracts and relationships. One can then understand the burden of the fourth wall, that imaginary "wall" at the front of the proscenium theatre stage, which creates a great divide between spectator and performer, between seeing and doing, that wall which professed to the audience that, this is a fiction, it will probably have little or no impact in your world, but for sure it will have a little impact on ours, because you have brought out your money to buy into this, and behind these walls are actual people; actors, comedians, dancers, singers, musicians, technicians, creative designers, cleaners, security personnel, sales persons, administrators, programmers, managers etc. all trying to also make a living by keeping the system of the performing arts alive.

If it is true that Dance is the controlled passage of bodies through time and space. Then the essence of dance is felt, from the uniform connection between the experience of the body and the experience of the space that reunites the dancer and his audience. Traditionally, if judging a book by its cover, one could say theatres embody the idea of a closed world where bourgeois and bohemians meet regularly, a luxurious architectural piece that only this privileged few experience from the inside, and it draws concerns to the consumer-based attitude towards art, because if we say talent and creativity is priceless, why then is art only financially accessible?

More like the notion of ‘fixed’ identity, theatres are conserved as something that is unchangeable and stuck in time. Meanwhile, reifying the idea of a “space” dedicated to creative live performance, as something that cannot be influenced, reinterpreted or changed, creates tensions between what has been, what is and what could be. The bounds of the theatre space with its rigidity, however separates time from the real-time, I mean its absolute universe is the proscenium stage with all that it represents, outside of which nothing else exists. The audience is thus bound within a 2-dimensional relationship – through the fourth wall – without the fullness of space and scope.


Another project may not necessarily be another undertaking, I know I’m not interested in those ideas that hammer meanings into our heads at every opportunity, but just like the saying "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." For me, every project is past from the moment it is done, and ‘repetition’ is only a means of establishing a continual dialogue, with creative materials used in previous project, in order not to suffer a divide between understanding and doing.

I’ve lately been exploring a new utopia. Unlike the Cartesian notion of "Utopia" as a specially planned and designed place of reason and rationality, I thought of treating the public sphere as a found-object to be manipulated and remixed at will, an approach that simultaneously reflects my core African values and basic needs, how art could be a part of life just as a tree or a billboard in an urban space, to create an atmosphere where the audience is brought to be part of an experience critically, without practical consequences, but by means of simple empathy with the performance. Using public spaces, in a manner that doesn't fit neatly together, like putting an AIDS hotspot in the middle of a shopping centre. This kinds of idea put people through a process of intimacy and alienation at the same time: intimacy as in accessibility and the alienation that is intimidating, and necessary to all understanding, out of such conditions come the unexpected encounter, the chance discovery, and the innovation.

The fact that the audience holds a detailed memory of a space and its function, creates a new curiosity when it is used for other purposes, the history they share with the venue, however makes them feel at home and open, they see it as adaptations or additions to existing buildings. My purpose is for the audience to give up every effort to understand ‘art’, because art becomes the most obvious thing in the world, when what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘startling’ share the same force in the same space, at the same time. This contradiction adds a new dynamism to the cultural and theatrical life of a city.

With my little experience in performing in formal and informal venues, for professional and non-professional audiences, I have come to realize that the audience that chose – for whatever reason – to go to the theatre, might have this experience:
- Yes, I sometimes feel that way too, the sufferings of this man touches me, because they are obvious – that was great art, I weep when he weeps, I laugh when he laughs.
There is a semblance to the artiste, he can relate with him, he can in-fact have a drink with the artiste after the show, and their discussion will be about everything but the show he saw, a sort of social climbing you may call it. But for the audience that didn’t expect to see a show, in the most inappropriate venue, and would probably not go to a theatre, might have this experience:
I’d never have thought of that, that’s extraordinary, the sufferings of this man touches me, I don’t know why, perhaps because they are unnecessary – that’s great art, I laugh when he weeps, I weep when he laughs.
If such audience stays after the show to have a drink with the artist, his entire discussion will be about the show. A way of climbing ashore of consciousness you may call it, or better still, a sharing of understanding of our worlds. For this two ‘kinds’ of audience, we might also conclude that, the method of understanding depends on the different contexts and ways of presenting the work to the audience, and in any case, it remains fully capable of life.


In different cultures before the 19th Century, public relations were more about theatricality than representation of the self, the former of which is more friendly to public life and had more impact in public life, it was the late 19th century that brought upon the idea of intimacy with openness of expression. Alternative artistes have now become more interiorized and ‘underground’, leading to a high level of social irrelevance.

Modern Western society has lost a key dimension of the notion of ‘public space’; the distinction between the private and the public have been erased. An attempt to the reason for this – will be to say that the loss of a religious order to public life, which once allowed the public and the private to coexist in a greater cosmic order, contributed to the destruction of the public space. A ‘space’ that removes the borders that protects us from each other in daily life. The public/private distinction is crucial to maintaining polite sociability, exchange of worldviews and rational political discussion, which didn’t transformpolitics into a clash of personality and an unending, brutal contest of who will have the last word.

The same process, has transformed the market from a public meeting place into a field for a compulsive quest for self-identification through mass consumption. We have lost not only the public good, but also the public artist in all his creativity and spontaneity and delightfulness. Public performance now has become a mere formality, a quest for the "authentic" self rather than a space for presenting ideas.

It was my quest for spaces of freedom – not as a form of protest, but for personal experience – that provides the foundation for my investigation into this
concept of ‘space’. I began this ‘free’ space project with “Do we need cola cola to dance?” in 2007, It was aimed at taking art outside its proper boundaries, With an investigation into other art making processes, through multiple improvisations, how DANCE, MUSIC, URBAN SCENOGRAPHY, PHOTOGRAPHY AND VIDEO ART, could organically come together almost as a coincidence to coexist in a particular space in time. This approach put accent not just on the performer's body and the audience's eyes, but also the camera’s lens, the music we produce and the communal space that we all re-create.

It is a way to reject certain habits, while we were unconsciously involved in the process of breaking down conventional ideas about what art could mean. It suggests movement, not only as a means on social existence of art in the public sphere, but also reflects the use of ‘movement’ as a social practice linked to our capacity as artists, to continuously orient ourselves to shifting terrain of economic activity and artistic disposition. Thus, the conclusion we tend to draw from this project is on-going, it is an alternative practice that creates its own context, the purpose is not to insert a new style into existing buildings or entice already formed audience away from existing venues, but to be involved in a special broad ‘free space’ art experiment, that extends the community of the arts.

Every professional in the arts world today, are – in their various fields – thinking about innovative and new ways to manage the Arts and its future in a changing world. Certainly what is at stake in this ‘alternative practice’ is not to simply take part in the contemporary nomadism which finds its most impoverished expression in tourism, my choice of research is guided by a fundamental impulse than the quest for performing or travelling. I hope we are not simply globetrotters, roaming the world with the aim of a hedonistic assimilation. This ‘social practice’ is rather a desire to be jostled and disrupted.


An ending set of immaterial questions my readers might be asking right now might be, why is this important? What does it matter? Be rest assured that I’m asking myself same questions, is dance able to maintain a primal relevance in today’s world? how do I connect to that world beyond the theatre walls? And should art connect with that world, or is it the problem of the world to make connections to the arts? How do I personally choose to make a connection? Is it that I miss all the connections I don`t have and could have had? Do I want to establish a re-connection with my formal audience in traditional venues? Or do I totally want to disconnect? Like I have always done with my works – Rather than offering answers to a world in search of meaning, I’m only using my creative energy to create a critical dialogue open to all, raise further questions and showcase my own experiences in the process, another user-friendly idea that I throw into the world; it can serve different purposes for different people in different places. I’m very much open to that.

STILL/life - Qudus Onikeku - Damien Jalet - IN Avignon