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Sabeth Buchmann & Constanze Ruhm

Subject Put to the Test

Buchmann/Ruhm Maya Schweizer / Clemens von Wedemeyer, "Rien du Tout", 2006, film still

Doing the same thing repeatedly in order to bring it to a point of perfection would seem, at first glance, to conform to the logic of efficiency and the expectation of self-optimization that characterize today’s working conditions. In contrast, strategies of rehearsal, which have long been enacted in artistic work, reveal that routine and repetition can possess a subversive potential.

In Sabeth Buchmann and Constanze Ruhm’s analysis, “rehearsal” is also determined by the aspect of repetition on a formal level. Following a seminar and a film series, the two are now preparing a conference on the subject. Here, they formulate the theses of their project in a co-authored essay, which examines modes of production in avant-garde film and sets them in relation to contemporary artistic practice. [1]


These are my neighbors, these odd people. In constantly changing costumes. What are they doing there, I often ask myself. For some reason, they have decided to halt time in order to do certain things again. It’s almost as if they wanted to limit themselves to give themselves less time. And since only finite things are given a body, they have perhaps resorted to this habit of repeating everything, because limitation through death does not suffice.

—“Porträt aus Desinteresse”, René Pollesch, 2008

Under the title “Decide and make your move”, the Financial Times [2] recently presented sociological advice literature dedicated to the enhancement of decision-making. Starting from the diagnosis that good management usually fails due to the nonexistent structure of those methods that lead to efficient decisions – a problem that also affects the organization of one’s own life – the professors and brothers Chip and Dan Heath suggest finding a remedy in the principle of trial and error. Short-time emotions that risk fizzling out all too quickly should be replaced by a regular reality check of one’s own convictions and methods. Only through a readiness to think beyond what is already known and to weigh the diversity of options does one learn how to deal with one’s errors and mistakes. Chip and Dan’s colleague, Francesca Gino from the Harvard Business School, is also of the opinion that an awareness of the extent of extraneous influences on decisions could help one better control them.

This kind of everyday wisdom along the lines of “practice makes perfect” or “make the best out of mistakes” seems to nestle up without resistance to the neoliberal ideology of “lifelong learning”. The theater scholar Kai van Eikels, for example, noted that improvisation techniques modeled on free jazz long ago entered into management and organization theories, where they are referenced as means to enhance creativity in collective production processes: “In a process of improvisation, there is neither definitively right nor definitely wrong, since everything that someone does is principally under reserve and attains its value only from what he has effected. […] Valuation management, i.e., the control of possible extraneous perceptions in the relationship to oneself, replaces the simple do-it-well. Virtuoso performance in a team is essentially based on the ability to assess at each moment what I am worth to the others (or the value of what I am doing at the moment to what they are doing).” [3]

This view also corresponds with the widespread proposition made by theorists such as Fredric Jameson, Luc Boltanski, and Eve Chiapello that some forms of work possess a significant catalyzing function for capitalist dynamics – particularly those that in the name of commodity, alienation, and reification critique are committed to the non-perfect, processual, and temporary as well as project-related quality of artistic activity. Indeed, socially and affectively intensive – thus collaborative, communicative, and participatory – practices still count as effective ways to avoid market-oriented product thinking – even if the awareness of the expanding creative industry, which falls back precisely on these means, has certainly grown.

At this point, however, one shouldn’t cater too rashly to an explanatory logic that subsumes all artistic and human activity under an economic morality or that basically acts as if this didn’t play a role. No one can reject an interest in promising decisions – it accompanies any kind of work in a more or less conscious way: whether it is work on a text, on art, on life, on a relationship, or on oneself.

Precisely this only conditionally controllable relationship between decision and rule, productive repetition and stagnating routine, is the core subject matter of the rehearsal. As an artistic format, the rehearsal has become a popular means of the cross-media and cross-institutional linking of visual and performative forms of presentation. The format of the theater or music rehearsal is employed, for example, in (installation) films and performance videos, where it is understood as an integration of potentially dysfunctional methods that tend to challenge the rules of their own genre and question or replace what is all too skillful and virtuoso by the visible testing of new rules. In doing so, artistic production often performs itself as a structurally open-ended learning process in front of the running camera. According to Ruby Rich’s characterization of Yvonne Rainer’s debut film from 1972, “Lives of Performers”, in which the non-narrative conventions of minimalistic dance lead to symbolically broken narration on archetypical power and gender conflicts, it is often about a simultaneous act of rehearsal time and screen time. [4] While on the one hand the format of rehearsal aims at linking distinct media and genres (dance, film, photography), on the other it is the mixing of private and public spheres of production that focuses on moments which are usually not included in the final product: moments of waiting and observing, of making mistakes and failing, of hesitating and repeating. Such experiences typical of artistic producers are staged in relation to social, emotional, and media-related behavior and role patterns. They frequently appear in the form of a both planned – because script-guided – and situation- and process-dependent making of identities, affects, movements, gazes, and actions. In “Lives of Performers”, the format of rehearsal is played like an instrument that inextricably entwines reality, mediality, and fictionality. Already here, there are signs of the interest, manifest in contemporary (installation) films, in reflecting upon the problem of artistic decision-making in regard to social relations of power and representation as well as to the prevailing forms of subjectivization. Examples of these tendencies can be found with George Kuchar (“I, an Actress”, 1977) and Andy Warhol (“Screentests”, 1960s), as well as in contemporary works by Rashid Masharawi, Omer Fast, Keren Cytter, Martin Beck, Pauline Boudry/Renate Lorenz, Eske Schlüters, Clemens von Wedemeyer, Maya Schweizer, Wendelien van Oldenborgh, and Constanze Ruhm – works in which a shift takes place away from the individual and toward collaborative and systematic forms of production consequently. The format of rehearsal provides the opportunity to have those involved in art production (artist or director, camerapersons, light technicians, assistants, et cetera) enter the picture in the sense of a demystifying visualization of hierarchies dominated by the division of labor. It appears as if the format of rehearsal, mostly vacillating between improvisation-, communication-, and process-oriented staging, manifests the flipside of an all too genre-specific performance art and the linking of visual and performative arts at the intersection of “ordinary” [5] and artistic work. The exposure of disciplining methods and standardizing conventions is accompanied by gestures of the aimlessly unproductive, aborted, wasteful, and erroneous – Warhol’s “Screentests” can serve as a historical example of this. “Before the Rehearsal” (2009) by Maya Schweizer is a contemporary example in this sense – a short video in which a comedy group, alternating between rehearsal and critique of maneuver, discuss in detail how they can best promote their work. But they seem to get nowhere.


Notably, the rehearsal, which is in most cases oriented toward the performing arts, can be found foremost in those performative forms of work that, while relating to theater, do not want to be theater in an explicit way. Staged as an anti- or meta-theatrical work-in-progress, the rehearsal as a self-reflective presentation of the rules based on the repetition of conventions, roles, and behavior patterns that the actors and actresses (and with them the viewers) must first comprehend in order to see through their own, oftentimes ambiguous, positioning within hierarchical orders permeated by claims to power and validity. While Yvonne Rainer’s presence as a choreographer giving strict instructions in “Lives of Performers” has an ephemeral and fleeting, almost after image-like character, the Palestinian director Rashid Masharawi stages his body as a dominant pictorial content, including classical, trademark profile postures reminiscent of Hitchcock. The American author and theater director Richard Foreman, in turn, appears physically absent in the images of his most recent film production “Once Every Day” (2012, his first film in 30 years), but with his spoken, command-like stage directions he is an acousmatic, indeed authoritarian figure of the performance.

For the evidently die-hard author, the rehearsal provides a stage for (self-)critical questioning. Nowhere else do artists appear in their privileged position as decision makers who are allowed to fail. At any rate, admitted failure makes them sympathetic and one of us, [6] as the recipients agitated in this way could believe with relief. The hesitant subject tormented by the awareness of the form not completing itself corresponds with the code of conduct that is as critical of modernity as it is (neo-)romantic. Yet the image of the (self-)entrepreneur widespread in the context of post-Fordist and neoliberal debates often also appears broken in the genre of the rehearsal: Time and again one sees directors beset with doubts, acting out their insecurity in exaggerated claims to perfection – in the face of which they must necessarily fail. Our proposition is therefore that, precisely in the format of rehearsal, one can discern an ambiguity between the logic of exploitation (in the sense of the performance optimization and efficiency enhancement of artistic resources) and its unavailability (in the sense of undercutting self-marketing and quality standards or a surplus of utilizable output), and thus a particularly suitable field for contemplating the tension between the autonomy and determinateness of artistic decisions.

For in the end, the rehearsal is also aimed at the institution and history of modern art, which thus appear as an instable repertory of rules and practices, and brings the validity of their constitutive rituals of rejection, which are based on repeatable norms, into the arena: Composition is followed by decomposition, the professional performer by the amateur, plan and script by participation and social experiment. Tellingly, the rehearsal also serves as a means to bring artistic decisions into agreement with the concerns of social milieus beyond the classical exhibition visitors. By operating as a source code to produce symbolic and real situations, the rehearsal becomes a fictionalized form of instructions typical of Conceptual Art – a “linguistic” form of work, then, that allots the viewers the status of potential producers.

What began in Rainer’s “Lives of Performers” as putting something to the test – the entwinement of real and fictive, social and symbolic roles – today appears not only as sine qua non, but as a normative performance requirement of artistic productions between theater and film. They are often at the service of performatively rehearsing those flexible and self-reflective multi-identities that artists and media consumers share – a moment that the film “Rien du Tout” by Clemens von Wedemeyer and Maya Schweizer makes a (meta-)subject. It is a 35mm and video film from 2006 copied to HD format, conceived – like most exhibition films – as a spatial installation. While the world of theater is represented by 35mm film and thus associated with customary cinema in material-aesthetic and technological terms as well, video technology documents the world “out there”, in this case in the form of a parking lot that is obviously to be understood allegorically. Like Rainer’s “Lives of Performers”, “Rien du Tout” also makes reference to the theater-based traditions of (art) film, to Samuel Beckett’s theater-reflective play “Catastrophe” that deals with an authoritarian director and his actress, whom he patronizes excessively. In “Rien du Tout” it is school pupils who are being cast for a theater play about the Parisian banlieue in the Middle Ages. In the face of the imminent failure of the production due to the director’s rigid formal corset, they start mixing “fictive” and “authentic” roles. In other words: The work form ossified by its conventions becomes a vibrant event thanks to the amateur rehearsal.


I mean, you rehearse how to be someone else, and then you try to rehearse being the one who was first learning how to be someone else.

—Bree [Jane Fonda] in “Klute”, Alan J. Pakula, United States 1971

Insofar as the rehearsal alternating between improvisation and staging in neo-narrative avant-garde film tends to intertwine “Minimalist” conventions (modularity, seriality, fragment) and ordinary gestures, actions, and movements, meaning the everyday body, it manifests itself as a biopolitically coded model situation. Reflecting on dominant forms of subjectivization in their interaction with institutional, social, and media-related identity formation, these kinds of rehearsal formats raise the question as to the portion of artistic work in the obviously fetishistic representation of “other” (because dominant) actors in the art business. The (avant-garde) fear of the social ineffectiveness of art has given way to the fiction of a medial (re)producibility of socially precarious subjects. While the artistic “experiment” suggests a seemingly open-ended, improvised, and playful procedure, the artistically conceived rehearsal tends to stage the production process in correspondence or confrontation with institutionally and socially prevailing forms of the division of labor and the attendant subjects and bodies.

Nevertheless, it is by no means the case that the rehearsal merely serves to celebrate the artistic experiment as a social or media event, as was the case with the (neo-)Fluxus or performance spectacles starting in the 1960s. Instead, the rehearsal takes recourse to unspectacular routines of repetition, albeit to increase virtuosity. The impression of long-windedness and at times boredom is deliberately accepted – see Warhol’s “Screentests” or Masharawi’s “Waiting” (2002) – in those work forms that serve (programmatically voyeuristic) long-term observation. In these cases, it is less about optimizing performances than failure in the face of the task of not playing a role, of playing actors who act as if they were rehearsing the ability to play someone else, as if one were this other person – and for the first time at that: “You try to rehearse being the one who was first learning how to be someone else.” Such a ritual of constantly starting anew and not being able or wanting to fulfill a well-played role, gives rise to a motif comparable with the rehearsal that can be equally attributed to exemplary positions in painting (from Edgar Degas, to Sigmar Polke, all the way to Silke Otto-Knapp) and works conceptually situated between drawing, photography, film, sculpture, and installation. For example, Keren Cytter’s sketches and films are at once accelerated and intensified portraits of libidinously entangled people (like you and me) – narrative modules engendered by scripts exposing the artist’s equally affective and aesthetic view of her subject matter, her own social milieu. In the process, its essence reveals itself to be just as transient as the variable and ephemeral identity of the characters. What arises between the figures is not always a comprehensible system of relationships permeated by social and emotional conflicts, which endeavors more or less successfully to bring itself in harmony with the script – it is not the actors and actresses who rehearse the performance, but the performance that rehearses itself within a course of events oscillating between improvisation and staging. It thus performs itself as a part of a progressing, serial rehearsal without – as is the case with Clemens von Wedemeyer’s films, for instance – the “rehearsal” itself becoming the genre. In Cytter’s “The Victim” (2006), script and film are instead bound to each other in a feedback loop. In that the form of the story emerges from the fact of being filmed, new loops are repeatedly created, which themselves log social scripts. While the film proceeds self-reflectively on the level of plot and dialogue, the script, the acting, and other conditions of the performance – the process of decision-making, for example – are brought to the fore. The actors and actresses talk about their wages, like with Brecht, discuss their functions, like with Godard, or describe the camera movements, like with Rainer.


In the aforementioned examples, the principle of trial and error recommended by the management and organization research cited at the beginning correlates with a systematic subversion of performance and quality standards – either in the form of exercises repetitively revolving around themselves or of an unproductive, because all too scrupulous, putting to the test. Traces of failure (in the face of the norm, the system, the market, or one’s own expectations) that are kept visible or also claimed often serve the (self-)verification of a distinctive subjectivity – precisely where rules format artistic decisions or force one to deviate from the norm in order to comply with it. In this respect, production forms that are comparable with rehearsal processes seek not only to examine and expose mechanisms that require deviating repetition in order to constitute rules and simultaneously put them up for debate. As already suggested, they additionally imply a fundamental work on art – understood as “history”, “institution”, “business”, “system”, or “network”. It is therefore historically and socially specific forms of organizing actors, methods, and resources that point to altered or changing power structures and give rise to an interest in the readability of artistic decision-making as a process alternating between plan and contingency, system and chance, coercion and free choice. The tensions between autonomy and heteronomy associated with this are one of the key issues of Annemarie Matzke’s recently published study “Arbeit am Theater. Eine Diskursgeschichte der Probe”. [7] Regarding the rehearsal as an ideal “medium of representation for artistic work”, [8] the theater scholar and performer attaches to it the distinction between labor and agreed wages, which is “pre”-artistic and structurally underpaid artistic labor. Matzke analyzes “the relationship between art and labor […] via the discourse on theater rehearsal […]: in the sense of working on theater”. [9] This can entail a type of labor that contradicts itself, namely in regard to its complicity with the political-ideological constitution of the institution of theater (or of art and of cinema).

One could regard Masharawi’s video “Waiting” as an example of this, since the rehearsal marks a moment of interruption and standstill. The Palestinian actors and actresses who subsequently appear are instructed by their director not to “play” the state of waiting, but simply “to wait” – an instruction that amounts to the attempt, which is doomed to fail, to stage the act of waiting in front of the camera as a state of inactivity. On the one hand, “Waiting” thus becomes an example of the dedifferentiation between “art” and “life”. But on the other, the film is also a metaphorical reflection on the state of political standstill and the permanently installed form of transition (life in refugee camps), in which the Palestinian population finds itself: Contradicting the assumption that the rehearsal always already implies the anticipation of a result and an event toward which one can work in a sensible manner, the process of waiting is indifferent toward the notion of a future that can be planned. Insofar as the filmic fiction is unhinged by Palestinian living conditions, Masharawi’s “Waiting” appears as the metonymy of a political-artistic project for whose realization it is worth rehearsing. Produced as a commissioned work for Fareed Armaly’s contribution to documenta 11, “From/To” (2002), [10] “Waiting” was shot as – ostensible – documentation of the casting process for Masharawi’s then planned full-length film of the same title (produced a year later), in which actors and actresses from Ramallah were to take part. Due to the tense political situation, the director was not able to return on time to the casting in Ramallah, so it ultimately took place in Jordan, where Masharawi was at the time. The question his filmic study poses regarding the interplay of (self-)perception and being perceived as the conditions allowing the possibility for interaction, action, and participation becomes an allegory of institutional and social power structures. In the division of person/figure and actor/role, the schizophrenia of a subject comes to light that requires the fiction of community to be able to put itself to the test.


As for the question of whether and how artists – or even more difficult, groups of artists and activists – come to decisions regarding the forms and contents of their productions, the rehearsal appears to be a suitable means for addressing precisely this theme. It enables one to overcome idle habits, routines, and role relationships by visibly acting them out and revising them. At the same time, rehearsing in front of the camera demonstrates an interest in overcoming stereotypical perception and emotional patterns through unpredictable affects as the conditions allowing the possibility of the new, of what has not yet been tested. In this sense, Richard Foreman has sustained interest – this applies to both his theater work and his film productions – in amateur actors and “bodies that haven’t rehearsed,” as he once said. In “Once Every Day”, a number of actors perform fragmentary procedures, repetitive choreographies, and semi-ritualistic patterns of behavior that are repeatedly interrupted by instructions given by the director himself. On a constantly changing set, Foreman’s actor-bodies (comparable with Bresson’s “models”) rehearse series of sequences in ever new variations. The tableaux vivant created in this manner elude any kind of narrative logic and appear as loops, ellipses, and fragments in the filmic montage. The documented work process seems to get nowhere due to the reiteration of gestures, movements, and actions, and the function of artistic decision-making is thus deleted.

In contrast to the rhetoric of experiment that established the unintentional, processual, and never-ending as a value in itself, the described examples also imply the recognition – which could be called ethical – of the impossibility to exploit every emotion, every idea, and every performance in the sense of a higher economic morality: The rehearsal inevitably also produces unusable time – precisely because it aims at optimization and results. For the process of rehearsal (or its performative undermining) not only consists of progress, but also of setbacks, empty rituals, and routines that fizzle out, just like something else can only emerge through (Fordist) repetition or, as Matzke’s book shows, also through (seeming) inactivity or senseless activity. She cites the account of a rehearsal given by Carl Weber, one of Bertolt Brecht’s assistants and dramaturges, from 1967: “I walked into the rehearsal and it was obvious that they were taking a break. Brecht was sitting in a chair smoking a cigar, the director of the production, Egon Monk, and two or three assistants were sitting with him, some of the actors were on stage and some were standing around Brecht, joking, making funny movements and laughing about them. Then one actor went up on the stage and tried about 30 ways of falling from a table. They talked a little about the Urfaust-scene ‘In Auerbachs Keller’. […] Another actor tried the table, the results were compared, with a lot of laughing and a lot more of horseplay. This went on and on, and someone ate a sandwich, and I thought, my God this is a long break. So I sat naïvely and waited, and just before Monk said, ‘Well, now we are finished, let’s go home’, I -realized that this was the rehearsal.” [11] In the example described by Matzke, which reminds one of photo and video works by Bas Jan Ader, Bruce Nauman, Francesca Woodman, and others created at the intersection of visual and performative arts at the end of the 1960s, the life (of the artists) appears as a permanent rehearsal in the inextricable field of tension between play and work. Not only the difference between production process and work, but also the difference between art and life, is literally put to the test here.

What remains, in the end, is the necessarily open question of whether the modern avant-garde’s dream of transferring the practice of art to the practice of life has now been transformed into the neoliberal imperative of optimization that keeps subjects in a permanent state of productivity, exhaustion, and precariousness in that the subjects impose a self-chosen limitation on themselves. Understood in this way, the rehearsal would convey itself as a contemporary form of life.

(Translation: Karl Hoffmann)


[1]Parts of this text refer to the essay “Probe aufs Exempel” by Sabeth Buchmann (in: Stefanie Diekmann (ed.) Die andere Szene. Theaterproben und Theaterarbeit im Dokumentarfilm, Berlin 2013) and to the lecture and event series “Probe aufs Exempel”, which Sabeth Buchmann and Constanze Ruhm are currently presenting at the Akademie der bildenden Künste and at mumok Vienna.
[2]Philip Delves Broughton, Decide and make your move, in: Financial Times, March 26, 2013, p. 12
[3]Kai van Eikels, Collective Virtuosity, Co-Competition, Attention Economy. Postfordismus und der Wert des Improvisierens, in Hans-Friedrich Bormann / Gabriele Brandstetter, Annemanie Matzke (eds.), Improvisieren. Paradoxien des Unvorhersehbaren. Kunst-Medien-Praxis, Bielefeld 2010, pp. 125–160, p. 146.
[4]“If the performer could not be separated from the performance, nor the performance (with its ‘ordinary’ movement) from daily life, then how to sort the dancer from the dance? Thus rehearsal time was now screen time, the private now public, and emotion […] The unity of the film derives from its constant themes of artifice and deception, as variously manifested in dance or film, product or process, story or image, male or female, art or life.” See Ruby Rich, “Yvonne Rainer: An Introduction”, in: The Films of Yvonne Rainer, Bloomington, p. 4.
[5]Cf. Jacques Rancière, “On Art and Work”, in: same, The Politics of Aesthetics, New York 2007, p. 42.
[6]In allusion to the work and exhibition title of Martin Kippenberger and Tanja Widmann.
[7]Annemarie Matzke, Arbeit am Theater. Eine Diskursgeschichte der Probe, Bielefeld 2012.
[8]Ibid., p. 78.
[9]Ibid., blurb.
[10]From/To, shown for the first time at Witte de With in Rotterdam in 1999, is a research-based, collaborative installation that maps “Palestine” not as a topography but as a contemporary topos. An updated version was made for the documenta 11, curated by Okwui Enwezor, that retraces concepts of identity based on connecting lines between idealistic and essentialist positions, in which art production is set in relation to orientalist discourses.
[11]Carl Weber, “Brecht as Director, in: TDR 12 (1967–1968), No. 1., pp 101–107, p. 102f.; cited in: Annemarie Matzke, op. cit., p. 237.