pause as resistance

Reflections – Photos – Voices following the project "pause as resistance"
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Resisting the Rest

On Pausing a Cultural Institution

 by Jacopo Lanteri & Felicitas Zeeden

Disclaimer: This text comes from a privileged position. It is written from an organization in Germany, where structural funding makes possible to work on supporting, producing, and presenting arts. The project we initiated and the questions behind it is set out of these circumstances, as we are experiencing it. We acknowledge this reality is not shared by many.

“I would prefer not to.”

It started with Bartleby’s polite yet resolute refusal to work.
Together we read some pages of Melville’s book on the first day of the pause: We were ten employees from the stage department at Tanzfabrik Berlin, joined by four artists who have been invited to pause with us. We were about to embark on a month-long pause: no schedules, mails, meetings, productions, events, only time filled with reflection, and emptiness and silence.

Listen. (1)
The silence resonated with us. It echoed the effects and sensations of a recent, global slowing-down, the result of the first wave of the corona virus and subsequent lockdown, when cities turned eerily quiet, and the seismic noise levels normally caused by the ceaseless modern human activity were demonstrably reduced worldwide. (2) But the absence of people and vehicles from the streets and city squares, and the grounding of airplanes and the cessation of industry and commerce across the globe, did not simply create a vacuum; rather, they created a silent space to be filled by new things, quieter things, moods and beings. One only had to try to listen more carefully.

A year later, in the spring of 2021, our small team - like many others in the field of cultural work – was exhausted by the second pandemic year. Yes, theaters were closed to the audience but that didn’t mean less work inside the organization. We kept on working, and postponing event after event; canceling many performances and reimagining others, often starting over from scratch and redesigning them for streaming online; indoor programs adapted and held outdoors. All of that was, of course, on top of the ordinary, day-to-day work, which includes hosting artists and rehearsals in our studios, each and every day.

It felt like we were running around blind. We wanted to support our artist community, do whatever we can to continue to provide them with a home and a place to create and exhibit their work. Faced with a situation in which nothing seemed to make sense, we were determined to carve out an island of normalcy, find a little bit of logic in a world clearly turned upside down.

One morning in early 2021, we sat together at Jacopo’s kitchen table to conceptualize and put together the annual program for the following year. A simple question guided us that morning: “What if we were to cease our day-to-day activity for a time in order to recover, rethink, and reimagine what it is exactly we are doing? And HOW would we go about it?”

We found the idea of slowing down – in keeping with a radical reduction of urban noise – immediately appealing. Not just as a political stance but at a personal level as well, having realized how we, too, have been feeling overworked. We felt we can strongly identify with the notion of consciously and mindfully slowing down, of earnestly exploring the possibility of noise reduction in our own lives and seeking a more sustainable working rhythm. But can we allow ourselves that: applications piling up unanswered? Suspending the never-ending zoom meetings and simply become still? But we saw the opportunity to look differently at our world, our environment and ourselves, to try to scratch the surface and see what is underneath.

The morning light was shining through the window, casting a calm and peaceful atmosphere in the room. For a moment we stood there in silence, imagining how beautiful it would be. We glanced at each other and thought how foolish it would be not to see this idea through; and how foolish it would be if indeed we do.

Scratching the Surface
Although the idea was born out of contingency, the concept of pausing was shaped by the thought of many artists and authors before. (3) Similar subversive strategies have been proposed as a reaction to the predominant system of “capitalist realism”, as Mark Fischer has called it. For Fischer we live in a society in which profit, private property, and exploitation have become so deeply ingrained in every aspect of our lives – and bodies— that we can no longer imagine other forms of social organization. The “pause” precisely means to acknowledge this condition and heed the fact that art, like any other form of human activity and productivity, is historically conditioned to be governed by the logic of exchange values; art too, like other forms of human activity, tends toward (self-) exhaustion, (self-) exploitation, and often brutal, potentially dehumanizing competition.

Moreover, in the context of a society that is essentially “performance” driven (e.g., “improving performance”) and which understands performance as a mode of being (i.e., self-making as self-representation), the refusal of a cultural institute of the performing arts to perform its duty, i.e., to “perform”, must be understood as a gesture of self-criticism and as a critical intervention into what we understand as the art world’s compliance with economic programs and dictates in the age of relentless (self-) optimization.

Finally, in affinity with existing ecological strategies, resisting production, artistic production included, is consonant with environmentalists’ subversive calling for strategic degrowth (4), and with feminist calls for “doing less” – both powerful forms of resistance designed to challenge patriarchal and capitalistic expectations (e.g., free household labor, eternal growth, the value of progress, etc.) (5)

The theoretical background alluded to above was compounded by our and our team’s experience of distress surrounding the failure of a project. The project, which was initiated by the previous artistic director in collaboration with an external curator, sought to address questions regarding the impact of colonialism in dance and dance institutions. Among the causes for its failure was an (overworked) organization that had been unprepared to deal head-on with the consequences of structural racism, white privilege, and decolonial work.

During this intense period it became clear to us that we were unable to tackle these issues in an honest and profound manner without creating the capacity (in terms of time and space, to say nothing of funding at this point) to read and learn, and importantly, the capacity to implement change inside and outside the institution. To initiate and try to sustain a serious learning process, with all the entailed consequences of learning, especially concerning such complex and consequential topics, on top of our normal tasks and commitments as workers in a cultural institution, was bound inevitably to fail; moreover, it was fundamentally disingenuous, and incompatible with the spirit of this undertaking.

To our mind, the idea of pausing would allow us to scratch the surface and uncover what lies beneath it; to find the necessary peace of mind for real (self-)reflection, by turning away from, and turning down, the noise; to discard, if only momentarily, our commitment to external appearances in order to look ourselves in the eyes and asks: What are the mechanisms that drive us? What are some of the underlying privileges, presuppositions, motivations and self-deceptions underneath our day-to-day work in a cultural institution? To what extent are we complacent in feeding (ourselves) to the ever-turning wheels of production? Are we workaholics? What would be of us, had we suddenly stopped working?

Pause as resistance
It took us little over a year to realize and to materialize the idea of the pause. Our project was now – to pause; to put other projects on hold so as to keep the pausing period completely free.

Next, we decided to promote a whole month of pausing. Partly as a political statement, partly a subversive action: we composed a text explaining our reasons for pausing and posted it on our website (6); we created posters to be hung around the city; we generated slogans or manual instructions for pausing our website (7), contacted journalists and offered to give interviews. (8) By early May, our idea has become a reality, which was sealed by an autoresponder installed in all of our emails. The auto-respond read:
During the month of May 2022 the team of Tanzfabrik Bühne will practice a pause. By this, we mean a radical reduction, or a complete interruption of the everyday activities of Tanzfabriks stage department, at all levels. E-mails/ phones / social media are not used, meetings are not held, planning and production stand still (…) For these reasons we will not read you email! (…) If your message can wait, please write us again beginning of June.

Since pausing was effectively defined as work-time, it meant keeping to “strict” pausing schedule. Two daily session of three hours each, were scheduled, in which the participating artists and employees paused, before going home to rest.

Full-time workers had five days of pause per week; part-time workers paused in proportion to their contracts.

Tuesdays and Thursdays were collectively decided upon as days in which everyone was present. Mondays and Fridays allowed for more singular activities – including actual work, if one so desired.

Offices, studios, the entire space of the institution was strictly dedicating to the pause.

Obviously, the withdrawal from productivity was met with various reactions. Most were indeed highly charged and passionate, only few neutral or indifferent. Two criticism that were repeatedly leveled at us were:
↪ “It is a luxury project! It’s a privilege to pause!”
↪ “You are too busy with yourself, art institutions should be available!”

To be sure, from the very moment of the idea’s conception, we were very much aware that the pause we are imagining will be a child of privilege, the product of our privileged positions.

As valid as the criticism may be, we still felt confident about our cause – about the pause. And we believed that the good that will come out of our action shall outweigh the bad. Knowing full-well that most, if not all, freelance artists could not afford to pause at will, especially those who are new to Berlin and the German bureaucracy, and who don’t enjoy any form of state support, we decided to share our limited resources with as many individuals as we can, so they can join us in pause. To that end, we published a call for applications, inviting artists to send us CV’s and a short text detailing their reasons for wanting to pause. On a lottery basis, we were able to offer four grants of 2.500, - € each.

Granted, we were indeed busy with ourselves. But it was also a necessary step if we were to try to do - try to be – better. For that, we needed to reflect, to learn, to listen, to share our thoughts and knowledge with one another, to evaluate and, if necessary, to rethink our habits, work practices, and ways of doing. Shouldn’t art institutions be able to do precisely that?

Open does not mean always available. We wanted to stay open, and we invited anyone from the public who wanted to join us to our open pause sessions, every Tuesday afternoon.
There were, also, very supportive, positive and enthusiastic reactions (9). We soon discovered that we were not alone in imaging institutional pausing. An article titled “The Jello, the Nothing, the Something and the Rest(s)” by Agnés Quackels and Barbara Van Lindt, (10) which appeared as we were carrying out preparations toward the pause, had resonated with and in us, delighted and encouraged us to see the project to fruition. 

Wide Aawake in Slow-Mmotion.

Reading Melville on the first day of the pause, we then turned to discuss what it would, or could, actually mean for us, and for an institution like ours, ‘to pause’. To define what ‘pause’ would mean, we had to take time to clarify our understanding of ‘work’. As a number of critics of capitalism have pointed out, what one sells when one works for a wage, is not actual labor nor even the working body, but time. Time  is a commodity, utilized by the owners of the means of production to generate profit.(11)

As a cultural organization, we may not produce a monetizable profit directly, but we produce symbolic profit for ourselves and the artists involved in our projects. Moreover, cultural institutions nowadays are an integral part of a thriving economy that – especially in a city like Berlin – is effectively transforming social relations starting at the level of local neighborhoods, and far beyond.

The stakes of the pause thus became somewhat clearer to us: by making the refusal to work, we were actually reclaiming time; by deconstructing our relationship to (work) time, we were reclaiming time as a medium for self-determination.

In the course of the four following weeks, we have engaged - as a collective, as an institution –  we decided to cook and eat together outdoor, feeling happy and relaxed for the first time in months. Whether intensely focused or lax in nature, performed together or alone, the month of pause was a profound learning experience.

We brought in books and shared them with one another.(12)
We read together.
We discussed what Feminism means for each of us and what it could mean for us collectively and institutionally.
We took time to write down and reflect on our policies.
We shared meals.
We danced
We repurposed old wood to create additional storage space.
We participated in sensitization workshops, especially focusing on accessibility.
We hosted a spontaneous get together of people doing decolonial work.
We watched a movie.
We openly discussed possible changes to our working structures
We traveled.
We hosted sessions of Alexander Technique.
We took the time to talk with artists we support, instead of the so-called “meeting”.
We spent time outside.
We  listened.
We were delighted to be joined  by so many artists, colleagues and audience members in our open sessions.
We created a space where one could simply be without having to consume (not even culture) or be consumed.
We created a space to reconnect with each other after two long years of social distancing
We wrote a new mission statement.
We talked about quotas in cultural institutions.
We imagined how to bring the pause with us in the upcoming months.

Let’s be honest: we didn’t quite manage to pause the institution. The institution kept running – obviously and fortunately; and we kept running, too, but in a  different pace. And more mindfully, to be sure. At the end of the first week, many of us were already checking their emails again. We told ourselves that we wanted to do so,  so as not to be flooded by a torrent of emails when the pause is over. In reality, we were all a little stressed that something might land on our table requiring our immediate attention.. We didn’t acknowledge this feeling until later on, but it was our brain conditioned so thouroughly  to resist the pause as well. It became clear that this internal resistance to pause, which we kept fighting until the end was a physical symptom of a society that simply can’t tolerate the notion of being unproductive.

But the fact that it is nearly impossible to halt an institution doesn’t  mean it’s not worth trying.. It was precisely the attempt  that became so conducive to learning.  Under the aegis of pause, there was a livelier, more open and honest exchange, and we discovered exciting forms of  growth under the guise of the degrowth. And maybe we succeeded in  inspiring others to try pausing as well.

Come and sit with me.
A few days into the pause, we are sitting in a park in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art at Belgrade, surrounded by dry grass and trees (13). It is noon, the sun is shining and it’s quite hot for this time of year. We are reading out loud a short text called Thinking with the Swamp by Ingrid Vranken, Sepideh Ardalani and Mihaela Brebenel. (14)

The authors invite us to reflect on the characteristics of a swamp, asking  what it would look  like if we were to align our thinking with the nature of the swamp. To the authors, adopting a swamp-way of thinking  means first of all,  abandoning binary thought: the swamp has no clear beginning nor end, it „ doesn’t allow for a cartesian way of mapping it”. Instead, swamps are transient zones, composed of water and land;  they are indeterminate beings.

When a human being wants to move through a swamp, they must acknowledge and adapt their gait, tempo, orientation, and navigational dispositions to its unique  character - the intercourse of soil and water, and the boggy thick liquid that they form: „The swamp invites us to find alternative temporalities and evaluate our ideas of progress. A stable ground founds our contemporary world and allows us to rush forward, giving resistance to push ourselves at speed through space/time.“ Far from being solid and stable terrain, the swamp forces us thinking-with it, rather than take it for granted. The swamp urges us to  give up our (unconscious) neo-capitalist habits, the familiar mindset and habitual  speed, our sense of purpose and direction. Due to its acidity, but also its own internal nature, the swamp preserves, it does not decompose or decay organic matter at all or - depending on various factors such as geographic location, water composition - only very slowly. It remembers, so to speak. We can learn from the swamp.

Was our pause swamp-like?  By pausing in the middle of life, were we simulating passage through a swampy terrain, practicing an art of  thinking-with-the-swamp? Can we learn to embrace the disorientation, that the swamp teaches us, and let ourselves drift? – And in the midst of this pleasurable purposelessness, we unexpectedly might find something, we perhaps stumble upon something.

Throughout the anthropocene, humans have regarded swamps as hostile environments and as abject, draining and transforming them into fertile lands for agricultural purposes; as with many other natural spaces, prioritizing economic benefit over preservation of unique characteristics ultimately spelled out their destruction. Only in recent times, an awareness of the extraordinary significance of wetlands has been emerging and growing (15). It is urgent to preserve these indeterminate beings both in the literal and the metaphorical senses. This means also to stay with their strange consistency and indefinable viscosity, to think-with and navigate-through the swamp, as well as the pause. Allow ourselves to give in to their temporality, and be ready to learn from them.

The text resonated with what we were doing in Berlin, and thinking of it now, it mixes with the specific sensual impressions of that noon in May: In retrospect we are imagining our “pause” as a swamp, as a multi-layered marshland. Instead of sitting in the dry, almost arid grass in Belgrade, we see us sitting in the wetlands, surrounded by swamps and peat fields, from which the fog steams forth.

Jacopo Lanteri & Felicitas Zeeden are directing, together with Barbara Greiner, the Stage department of Tanzfabrik Berlin, since January 2022.

 (1) These headings are based on short phrases that were shown on our homepage during our PAUSE.
(2)  In their article published in Nature Ecology & Evolution in September 2020, authors Christian Rutz et al. refer to the this “global slowing of modern human activities, notably travel" as the Anthropause. The decrease in activity has led to a measurable reduction in seismic noise ¬- the Great Seismic Quiet Period. Cf: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-020-1237-z
(3)  Among others: AZOULAY Ariella Aïsha (2019) Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism. ODELL, Jane (2019). How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. BIGÉ, Emma (2021). Nap-ins. Politiques de la sieste, GORDON, Avery F. in Interview with Krystian Woznicki (2019).: “Unshrinking the World: An Interview with Avery F. Gordon about The Hawthorn Archive: Letters from the Utopian Margins”. HALBERSTAM, Jack (2011). The Queer Art of Failure. HEARSAY, Tricia (2021). “Rest and Collective Care as Tools for Liberation” [Lecture]. MOTEN, Fred (2015) "Blackness and Nonperformance”.
(4) See: Down to Earth, Bruno Latour, 2018

(5)  Among the enormous bibliography that explain the connection of unpaid women’s labor and capital we suggest: Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the witch, 2004.
(6)  https://www.tanzfabrik-berlin.de/en/pause-as-resistance-742a8eff-eb60-42b7-91da-fa678005d411#FAQ
(79  During our Pause, users of the webpage came across these phrases before they could access the actual content of the homepage. These phrases correspond to the headings of the paragraphs in this article. 
(8)  https://www.tanzraumberlin.de/magazin/artikel/pausiert-euch/
(9) A precious conversation partner and ally has been Alix Eynaudi.
(10)  https://www.kaaitheater.be/en/articles/the-jello-the-nothing-the-something-and-the-rests. Thanks to Barbara Greinner, who brought this article to our attention.
(11)  See, for example, Eva von Redecker, “Revolution für das Leben“, S.Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt a.M., 2020
(12)  ‘We’ is here intended referring here to  by the group of people who took part of in the pause.
(13)  In May we joined for few days a “retreat” of the European Network apap – FEMINIST FUTURES. A get-together with colleagues and artists from all over Europe imagined as spare time, for sharing, exchange and connecting. The retreat didn’t include any presentations, workshops or networking pressure.
(14)  Thinking With The Swamp (2018), Ingrid Vranken, Sepideh Ardalani & Mihaela Brebenel:
https://fo.am/publications/thinking-swamp/. With thanks to Harun Morrison who brought this text to our attention.
(15)  Intact swamps and other wetlands hold an extraordinary significance for our biodiversity and climate; bogs can reduce the consequences of global warming, as they act as reservoirs for greenhouse gases; they provide habitats for a variety of insects, fish, plants, and other organisms. https://www.bfn.de/moorschutzstrategien-europa; https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/wiederbewaesserung-von-moorgebieten-nasse-moore-echte-100.html; https://www.dw.com/de/rettet-die-moore-als-treibhausgas-speicher/a-51199311
Marginal note: It is important to acknowledge that we probably managed to realize our idea without putting the institution – or our positions - in danger, because of the specificity of Tanzfabrik Berlin and the Berlin cultural landscape. First of all, Tanzfabrik is a private organization (a non-profit cultural association) and the stakeholders are a group of artists, cultural workers and employees, all very keen to strange ideas. The relation with the funding body (the city of Berlin) is very supportive, but definitely centred on bureaucracy, as long the project would fit some sort of statistics, they would accept the pause as a strange project.


Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.
The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.
But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling a terrific distance.
Stillness. One of the doors into the temple.
Mary Oliver

This poem by Mary Oliver was sent to us by Milla Koistinen as an inspiration for our PAUSE.