“Material” and “immaterial” are two terms that pertain to our reality and corporeality. They concern fields as diverse as economy, sociology, communication technologies and psychology, but also the arts. In the cross-disciplinary sphere where the performing arts and museums meet in a complex yet fertile area of shared processes and research, permanence and impermanence have become crucial issues and active parts of an interdisciplinary discourse around materiality and immateriality.
From a cultural perspective, UNESCO defends the necessity to support the transmission and conservation of immaterial knowledge and practices through its commitment to what is also known as temporary, transitory or ephemeral. In 1993, UNESCO introduced the Living Human Treasures, a program that led to the 2003 convention of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, and it was launched to encourage “official recognition to talented tradition bearers and practitioners” and to transmit “their knowledge and skills to the younger generations” (online). UNESCO proposed choosing the projects to preserve on the basis of their value, as well as their risk of disappearing. The new program suggested that people (artists among others) and not objects (such as material artefacts) could be selected according to “their accomplishments and willingness to convey their knowledge and skills to others”. As representatives of a given community, these people were recognised as a testimony to human creativity. Among others, oral traditions, rituals and the performing arts reached a different status within the larger concept of “cultural heritage of humanity”.
Thanks to their receptiveness to the major theoretical and cultural changes concerning the notions of heritage, transmission and archive, dance and performance studies have induced new political demands and cultural transformations in both their objects of study and their research methodologies and paradigms. Among the major contributions, Diana Taylor’s book The Archive and the Repertoire. Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (2003) made clear how different means of storing and transmitting knowledge, such as the key concepts of (material) “archive” and “repertoire” (of embodied memory conveyed in gestures, the spoken word, movement, dance, song, and other performative art forms) must be considered as inter-subjective and possessing dynamic notions. Aleida and Jan Assmann also underlined in their cultural research the importance of a functional approach to memory as a form that is not crystallised in the past, but remains available to collective usage and is, in turn, oriented towards the future.
The ongoing evolution of communication and information technologies affects the materiality of the art object and opens up new possibilities for interactive (and participatory) approaches in art-making and media production that can embrace ephemerality and fluidity. As pointed out by Christina Grammatikopoulou in her article “Shades of the Immaterial: Different Approaches to the ‘Non-Object’” (2012), among the changes that contribute to rediscussing aesthetic awareness and experience, the role of the senses is central as they help to perceive the immaterial understood as “physically imperceptible”. The term “immaterial” can be used “to describe elements that need to go through different processes in order to be perceived” (2012). Immateriality does not simply and immediately imply that materiality disappears; rather it alludes to a shift of focus from matter to energy and action, as well as from the object to the concept and the creative process. In other words, the object is disconnected from its material substance but this dimension can be understood as a new state of matter and organisation. This is the case, for instance, in many genres of the performing arts such as body and performance art, happenings, or dance performances.
The concept of immateriality is also connected to the notion of immaterial labour that becomes increasingly relevant in the (performing) arts as it “involves a series of activities that are not normally recognised as ‘work’” (Lazzarato 1996: 133). Dance forms, performed or watched as leisure activities and thus associated with a break from work, are barely considered as labour. Advocating for dance as work, Bojana Kunst, in her essay Dance and Work: The Aesthetic and Political Potential of Dance (2011), affirms that, on the one hand, dance practice instantiates in performing and making among its numerous manifestations, while questioning the problematic relationship between body and new modes of immaterial labour. On the other hand, dance is indeed considered work because of the material rhythms and efforts that characterise the ways movements inhabit space and time. From an artistic and logistic point of view, dance is work also because of “how bodies distribute themselves in space and time, how they relate to each other and how they spend and expand their energies” (Kunst 2011: 57) during the performative event, its preparation and dissemination.
Materiality and immateriality represent two aspects of dance’s nature. The ephemerality of movement is considered a fundamental trait of dance and it is related to the difficulty or incapacity to capture traces of movement unless assisted by writing and/or the technological devices apt to record and document. Ontologically speaking, the notion of performance may be less marked by immateriality and disappearance than it is usually assumed when considering that dance, although fleeting in its nature, remains differently as corporeal memory that resists the conventional methods of archiving (Schneider, 2001). Broadly speaking, a dance performance is materialised through endless repetitions that are enabled through embodied transmission and/or the choreographic score. The dancing/performing/participating body as the source and the medium of an artwork that is defined by movement and bodily expression set in a precise time and space is the primary matter for the actualisation of performance. Recent dance experiments inside museums and white cube exhibition models have demonstrated that dance as supposedly immaterial has the same legitimacy to convey historical evidence as other material artefacts. By transforming experiences into artefacts, the body “neutralizes the dialectics of negativity as absent and positivity as visible” (Cramer 2014) and therefore minimises the gap between materiality and immateriality. Additionally, we are also facing what is defined as the “hypermaterialisation” of everyday reality because almost everything, including dance, can be transformed into digital data that is endlessly re-transformed by means of technological devices. All these practices, when combined, are developing a “new materiality” with a potentially high political and aesthetic power.
Grammatikopoulou, Christina (2012) Shades of the Immaterial: Different Approaches to the ‘Non-Object’. In: Interartive. A Platform for Contemporary Art and Thought. Available at: https://interartive.org/2012/02/shades-of-the-immaterial (Accessed: 04/07/2011).
Kunst, Bojana (2014) Dance and Work: The Aesthetic and Political Potential of Dance. Gabriele Klein and Sandra Noeth (eds) Emerging Bodies: The Performance of Worldmaking in Dance and Choreography. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, pp. 47–60, doi: https://doi.org/10.1515/transcript.9783839415962.47.
Lazzarato, Maurizio (1996) Immaterial Labor. Virno, Paolo and Hardt Michael (eds) Radical Thought in Italy. A Potential Politics. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 135–147.
Schneider, Rebecca (2001) Performance Remains, Performance Research, 6:2, pp. 100–108, doi: 10.1080/13528165.2001.10871792.
Taylor, Diana (2003) The Archive and The Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
UNESCO (no date) Living Human Treasure: A Former programme of UNESCO. Available at: https://ich.unesco.org/en/living-human-treasures (Accessed: 04/07/2011).