ABOUT THIS SITE >>> This site is a blog as well as an archive. It gives visibility to the continues working of radical_hope, its current move to radical_house, the research project Distraction As Discipline (2016 - 2019) and the process of OTÇOE - works for passers-by, a working trajectory (2013 and 2014).

radical_house is a long term project and has a threefold nature: it presents a physical place, a framework and a logic. When in 2013 teaching and mentoring became an extension of Langsdorf's artistic practices now radical_house stems from her pedagogical experience where 'being in dialogue' with others is her main principle.

Distraction As Discipline is an investigation into enactivist principles in art and education (research trajectory at KASK School of Arts Ghent 2016-19). It considers the potential of performance art and pedagogy in general, in resisting the current and massive desubjectivation, by critically reclaiming both, attention for the moment and participation in a process.

OTÇOE - works for passers-by was the development of radical_hope's artistic practice in the city and questioned how and by whom this practice (and its bodily, social and economical aspects) is perceived. The title refers to the public of a city and to how we encounter and register most things on our way through the city: Out of The Corner of Our Eyes. OTÇOE.

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CONVERSATIONS

Athanase Vettas - Woluwe-Saint-Lambert / Brussels

04-12-2013 [• sitting with the body • shop shop • economy ]
CRAFTMANSHIP

Athanase Vettas ... (bio comes in a bit)

Heike: Currently I am a student of yours, interested in understanding the Alexander technique you are teaching.

Like yoga, body mind centering, Feldenkrais, Katsugen, martial arts, etcetera, the Alexander technique helps us to understand and handle the self. It is a pedagogical method which makes us more aware of the ways in which we react to inner and outer stimuli and offers us tools with which we can control our habitual nature. I guess there are as many ways to teach the Alexander technique as there are teachers. You combine the bodily work with conversing with your students. You offer a setting within which your pupils can have the experience that it is worthwhile to move, feel or think in a body better organized and coordinated and then learn to recognize, accept, access and maintain consciously this improved state when dealing with life ... when performing any activity.Recently you said confidently that you see yourself as a craftsman. Crafting means being in dialogue with a certain material, shaping it towards a certain form, encountering unforeseeable obstacles, solving problems in a creative way,... It means developing a profound understanding of the material as well as the tools and methods allowing us to treat it well. They say it takes 10.000 hours to become an expert. We have to do something regularly and over a long stretch of time in order to gain some sort of excellence. Although as a dancer, yoga practitioner and performing artist I deal with a similar material (movement) and similar tools (observation, analysis, concentration, repetition,…), I am hesitant to claim that I am a craftsman. In search for new forms (which the ever changing reality asks from us), contemporary artists can use all kinds of techniques and tools, even if they don’t master them fully. This often makes them unconfident craftsmen.For many years I mainly developed my work in a conceptual way. Only the last three years I returned to what I learned as a dancer. I first need my bodily apparatus; thoughts and conceptualization come next. I feel I am more satisfied. I rather see and suggest directions instead of directing the working process. Sometimes it feels as if things develop by themselves… In his book ‘The Craftsman’, Richard Sennett writes about the connection between the hand and the eye, about bringing together mind and matter. Our present educational systems approach learning with the idea that the student’s mind has to be captured in order to generate interest and concentration. The hand-eye connection suggests that this approach is inaccurate, and that through working with our hand, our mind is stimulated and opened up for the reception of information. Our mind can be informed through touch.

I would like to ask you three questions:

1) How would you describe the material you are handling?

Athanase: My ‘material’ is the people I’m teaching the Alexander Technique to. Unlike wood or other materials, these people have chosen to be worked on. Human beings are living creatures possessing the capacity for self-development and as a human being myself, I am of the same substance with the material I am working with, which creates a unique relationship between us. This capacity is known for thousands of years. I don’t know about all the existing techniques, but some of them are similar to the technique Alexander developed more than one hundred years ago. He acknowledged the fact that in the evolution of humankind we have reached a stage where through conscious control we can regulate ourselves. Normally, it takes years and years and years to develop this skill. By applying the Alexander Technique principles, we can learn to access it in days, weeks or months, this varies a lot from person to person.. Of course some things are inaccessible for our consciousness. We cannot deal with the temperature of our body for example. To have a certain temperature is vital for us to survive in this atmosphere. But there is a lot we can have access to. In the beginning of the 20th century neurologists have understood the first function of the nervous system was probably inhibition. In other words: the nervous system has the capacity to prevent itself from doing something. We need to extend that competence to the conscious level, and for that we need help from qualified people. With help, it is much easier and takes less time than experimenting alone, which very few people manage to do with satisfying results. It’s a bit comparable to learning how to talk. A child that is abandoned cannot learn this on its own. Walking is the same. A human being abandoned very young doesn’t learn how to walk. Conscious inhibition requires very close contact. And you have to be at least seven or eight years old in order to be able to develop that. Younger kids do respond to our hands but not in a conscious way. Before you can work on someone else, you first have to work on yourself, because it’s impossible to convey the skill to somebody unless you’ve got it. That’s a big difference with other kinds of materials, like wood for example. The material and the one who handles it are of a completely different nature. Maybe this is understandable for people who also work on living organisms like a horse rider for example. He knows how to convey something to the animal… But in the case of the Alexander Technique the ‘material’ is even closer to us. And I can only have access to it to the extent I have access to myself. So, when I am working with my pupils, I am limited by my own level of awareness of myself.

2) Suppose you would change your occupation, which tools and methods of your current practice would you keep (regardless of the kinds of materials you will have to handle)?

Athanase: It’s clear that I would keep what I teach to others. When people come to me they don’t go back home to teach the Alexander Technique. They just go back to live their own lives and do their own work. The same would happen to me if I would change my occupation. And of course, I’m not teaching all the time! I can also spend three or four hours in front of my computer, go out to a restaurant, drive my car to go on holidays and so on. During all these activities I am aware of the danger of misusing myself. It will stay with me for the rest of my life. I know the signs that tell me if I’m going wrong.

Heike: I remember you once told me you were not a good cook, but you were still doing it… Are you then using…?

Athanase: Of course! When an activity is complex, the use of yourself is very important in order to be able to focus. And cooking is a very complex activity. It is considered as an art. First of all I would keep the capacity of not responding to any stimulus. When you work on yourself for years, then you get to know, feel and smell even the signs that tell you that you are going wrong. Even without knowing exactly what it is that goes wrong. When you ask people who master a skill, a dancer like you or a painter, anybody, they will tell you they can notice something is wrong the moment before it happens. Because they feel a disturbance, in a non-specific way, they can stop in time. The aim is to consciously create conditions where mistakes will not easily find their way in. In certain areas it might be more or less important for somebody than it would be for someone else. We must not forget that perfection is not the aim. It is a process where you learn to come back to a certain level of use of yourself, as a reliable reference, before any activity you choose to go into.

3) Why is a pedagogical method like the Alexander technique not embedded in our primary school system?

Athanase: Well, I’m not a specialist of educational systems of course… When we teach the Alexander Technique we’re working on an individual level. The rules required to control a group of people are automatically limiting individual behaviour. Anyway, an individual who has reached a certain level of awareness could very well go through any educational system, the most limiting or the most free. He would still make the best of it and learn something. But the first aim of an educational system is to serve the societal system from which it is derived. A school makes sure that there are no individuals who could be a problem for the group. So, you see there’s clearly an issue when you introduce the principles of the Alexander Technique, which allow people to develop themselves to the extent that they might not be able to fit the system… There are anyway several aspects of the Alexander Technique that could still be easily accepted and understood. The dimension of the bodily postures for example, the way to sit well… Right now in England, the Alexander teachers are trying to protest against the furniture in schools. But it’s extremely complicated because there is no desire to really use the knowledge we have in order to provide the best conditions possible for children. Otherwise we wouldn’t oblige them to sit down for hours and hours. Two years ago I gave a workshop for students between fourteen and eighteen years old, in presence of their teachers. I was told by the organizer that after that workshop an art teacher started to allow her students to rest when they felt tired during the lessons, using the Alexander Technique constructive rest position. It was an achievement. I don’t think that it would be accepted in a normal class, despite the obvious benefits.

Heike: For the moment I’m working for a project called ‘Move It’. In this project an artistic team works with teachers and students over a period of two months. Together with two other artists I work four times a week in two different schools. In dialogue with the teachers we try to find alternatives for the student’s behavior. I have noticed that when one kid gets tired or a bit noisy, the first thing the teachers try to do is to egalize it. When I ask why they react like this, they say the kids just have to listen and obey.

Athanase: They could lose control, that's what they are afraid of.

Heike: But as me and my fellow artists are not used to tell them to be quiet or to sit, we let them be. And actually they become calm by themselves after a while. There can be a bit of noise of course, but they don’t really disturb if you don’t make a big fuzz…

Athanase: I have read some years ago about a place in France where they had to deal with children of gypsies who had settled down. Until the age of ten these kids had always been going around and all of a sudden they stayed in one single place and had to go to school. They understood very well that it was better not to force them to sit down. So the children were free to do anything they wanted as long as they kept listening. They could lie down, try to find a comfortable position, go to the toilet,… and it worked. But now in most schools it’s the other way around. There is so much violence. Teachers are attacked… Well, if this is not a clear proof something is wrong…

Sébastien: So what you propose to do against this violent behavior is to back off, to not intervene?

Athanase: If there is violence it has been created. We first have to find out what would happen if you wouldn’t try to… Would violence be there to begin with?

Heike: It’s a very complex issue of course. Often violence comes from the situations outside of the school.

Athanase: Yes, indeed. Teachers are also not trained to deal with violent students, nor high potentials. They need to work with these students individually but that’s impossible as they are in a group. And mostly these groups are way too big. That’s a huge problem. A normal person can deal with a group of four persons, maybe six and if he is very gifted, eight. Beyond this amount of people, developing individual relations is very difficult. Beyond that, you’ve got a group. You spend a lot of time dealing with the group dynamic and you’re not teaching things. In this regard, the Khan Academy is an very interesting new phenomenon. It’s an online academy from the United States. Students can follow lessons at home, through videos on the internet. They can choose their own tempo, play these videos as many times as they need and afterwards they can contact the teachers with questions. So there is a one-on-one relation between a student and a teacher, even if it is through the computer. They come with questions from their one-on-one experience with the computer.

Heike: A bit like your students come to you with their one-on-one experience with their own life…

Athanase Vettas, Heike Langsdorf & Sébastien Hendrickx @ Athanase’s office, Woluwe-Saint-Lambert - Brussels / 04-12-2013