“Philosophy simply puts everything before us, nor deduces anything. — Since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain” (Philosophical Investigations 126)

Philosophy as therapy diagnoses our conceptual ills. Symptomatic of such ills is intractable debate, and if we find ourselves in such a situation, then we need philosophy. Or art.

Conceptual art perhaps better exemplifies the presentation of conceptual difficulty – certainly at least because presentation has been one of the specialities of art. I don’t mean to say that art is better at getting the point across in general – the potential precision and explicit nature of philosophical discourse is unrivalled, in its own way. What I mean is that successful presentation of an idea should elicit audience engagement, and engaging people is what art is good at (this is an armchair empirical statement: lots of people go to look at art, not many people read philosophy).

So, assuming that conceptual art is good at presenting conceptual problems, then what can we aim our art at?

Imagine three performers copying the movements shown in a series of dances shown to them on a screen. They do not see whole performances of works – only sections from them, so it would be very hard for someone to recognise all or even most of the sources.

They are ‘reading’ the dances in the sense that they see the movements and attempt to copy them, and given each performer’s history, training, emotional state, commute to the performance venue…. they will colour what they see just as different people will read things in different ways and that will colour each reading. (This is perhaps the point of having three performers – the differences make this aspect more obvious.) They are ‘reading’ and not ‘interpreting’ because we would normally reserve the latter term for a process involving much more creative input from the performer, perhaps even workshops or rehearsals. Instead it is closer to exact copying, there is less creative input, but of course there is some, so it’s not ‘copying’.

It is not a ‘reconstruction’ of the works because we only see extracts.

It is not a ‘quotation’ because normally when we quote something we intend to bring some of that meaning from that which we are quoting into what we are doing. This is not what is happening here because the extracts are so short – actions in dance performances are a little like lines from poems, they depend heavily on the context they are in for meaning, by shearing off so much of that context we cannot pretend to be quoting because we are not bringing enough of that contextual meaning with us.

For similar reasons it is not ‘plagiarism’ either – though it would’ve been perhaps if more ‘meaning’ could be transmitted for the movements replicated are not attributed to their ‘authoring’ choreographers.

And it’s not ‘reading’ either. The act of reading does not normally draw attention to itself in this way. I mean in the way that I can expend a few hundred words saying what is not going on. Perhaps that is just simply because we normally read books.

And at this point we can return to Wittgenstein. What we’ve encountered here is a conceptual problem. Placed before us is a question as to what is exactly going on? What process are the performers engaged in? And the answer is there too: something a lot like various other processes, but also different from them in some way that seems significant enough for it not to be quite that process.

This is significant in an artform that has for a long time lost most of its history in a way that doesn’t occur elsewhere. Choreography died with the times they were in. Not in terms of the loss of contextual meaning that happens to other art, but a much more blunt loss: when the people were dead, no-one knew what the movements were anymore. There have been attempts at encoding movement, but it is hardly the equivalent of the existence of the actual painting, or, an audio recording of a piece of music say. And this latter is an interesting point of departure – the audio recording brings in commoditisation, author- and ownership, and copyright.

If a sequence of movements were reproduced in the context of a theatre or similar venue with an audience, what relationship would this have with the choreographer? But what then happens when I recreate other movements I’ve seen? Even when I do it unconsciously as humans so often do?

Matthew Mead