edition November-December 2022

Class Makes Bodies

Why Shame is not a Private Matter. On Classism in Contemporary Art.

Schrift an der Wand: “Love is ...”, in einem der Studios des französischen Residenzortes Performing Arts Forum. Foto: Sandra Noeth

At the Inter-University Center for Dance Berlin (HZT), Sandra Noeth and UdK guest professor Daniel Belasco Rogers have developed a lecture series, which is also available online. “The Performativity of Class” deals with mechanisms of exclusion in the arts and attitudes that become physically embodied because of your origin. How can dance approach these issues and what are the questions at stake?

Text: Sandra Noeth
Professor at the HZT, Curator and Dramaturg

Working Class & Precarity was the title of the working group Critical Practice – Made in YU which was initiated as part of a September 2022 meeting of various educational programmes in the performing arts. The aim was to trace questions of origins and social justice through everyday stories beyond often westernized theory, romanticized upward mobility narratives, and hardened clichés. Sharing anonymous or personal experiences between the students, artists, and scholars present, we soon uncovered material problems: the lack of or unstable resources that remain a central factor in being able to 'afford' culture and art as a profession or education.

Classism as corporeal phenomenon
Class has a body—or rather it has many bodies. It is constructed, present in gestures, looks and attitudes that are often learned and practised over generations, translating elusive but highly effective social boundaries and symbolic regulations into the corporeal realm. It operates on a somatic level when unequal participation is perpetuated in feelings of not belonging, of insecurity or shame. It can be felt in our own bodies when we change our language or our appearance when we attempt to fit into the societal value and evaluation systems of others.

Class makes bodies when precarious living and working conditions impact our life rhythm so greatly that exhaustion and fatigue become a permanent state. These factors certainly address many who work in art and culture, but what determines whether crises are experienced as interruptions or even moments of experimentation in a continuing process, or whether they pose a direct threat, is also related to the social capital and the material and psychological network that someone can draw on.

Navigating Visible and Invisible Boundaries
The word "Love" in tape is stuck and traced with black pen onto the washed-out green wall of the St. Lucile studio in PAF, where the accounts of those present keep mingling with my own experience. Narratives of assimilation, in which the professional leap into a field not really intended for you creates a distance from familiar terrain and people. The mixture of pride and the recognition of having supposedly 'made it' that meet feelings of anger and sadness in the face of unfair structures and the arrogance of some gatekeepers. There are financial worries about the future, even after the student loan has been paid off and the professional situation is at least temporarily secured. But there are also other moments, a resistance to things 'just being like that', and experiences of support and friendship of people who have accompanied you and turned your own ideas into opportunities, the sense and sensitivity developed in navigating visible and invisible boundaries, which have become an important working tool.

The Comeback of the Class Issue
The question of class has made something of a comeback in Germany in recent years and pointed to a gap in intersectional debates about inequality and discrimination. The realities are not encouraging: after a hard-fought push for education democratization in the 1970s under the banner of equal opportunities and solidarity, recent studies document a clear hardening of origin-based exclusion mechanisms. There is still less confidence in the abilities of 'working-class' children even before they start school and throughout their educational careers they struggle with prejudices that diagnose them as lacking motivation or being unsuitable, or integrate them into the educated bourgeois narrative as exceptions—especially if they are the first in their family to undertake higher education.

Class is always relational, dependent on context, and can only be understood in interaction with other forms of inclusion and exclusion. Returning to the topic of class in the field of art today does not aim at creating new demarcations, hardening existing ones, or playing one form of discrimination off against another. Rather, the discussion begins with recognizing that origin-related inequalities are not just individual fates. Shame about your class is not a private matter, but a symptom of a structure that is deeply embedded in our (educational) institutions as well as independent art spaces and forms of collaboration.  

Critical Action in Order to Face Class Dynamics
What we need is to work together beyond ascribed class affiliations. Words need to be found and tools developed to capture and describe these dynamics and translate them into critical action. Where are the places in our system we can adjust to make art and art education structures more porous, accommodating the necessity to do paid work, be a parent, or meet the challenges presented by care work and illness? How can specific class dynamics be integrated into the international art business? How can we convey more knowledge about (labour) rights and make offers that thematically and aesthetically place the question of class in art in a larger, historical context? How, in our own precarity, we can also identify our own privileges in order to develop sympathy for those who do not belong to our group?

The (online) lecture series “The Performativity of Class”, curated by Sandra Noeth and Daniel Belasco Rogers, offers an intersectional approach to the comeback of the question of class with a focus on work and life realities in body-based performing arts where social inequalities and privileges are often rather reproduced and not dismantled. With artists, curators and scholars Venuri Perera, Ana Vujanović , Gurur Ertem, Francis Seeck, Kerstin Honeit, Edwin Nasr, Tanja Abou. The public lecture series takes place between October 20 and December 8 2022 at the  Campus Uferstudios and as a live stream. It is a cooperation between the HZT Berlin and the Studium Generale of the UdK Berlin.
Detailed information at: www.hzt-berlin.de

English translation: Daniel Belasco Rogers

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