We wrote with our gestures the word “courage”

18.10.19 / Text
A Q&A with choreographer Manuel Pelmuş on Tricks for Tips, performed during the Opening Extravaganza of steirischer herbst ’19

Courtesy Keystone-France/Gamma Rapho

steirischer herbst: Please tell us a bit about the ideas behind the project. What is the role of performance and choreography in the service industry, and, vice versa, how far have performances become a service rendered? It would be great to hear more about where you position the project between those two poles.

Manuel Pelmuş: The idea for the performative intervention came as a response to the curatorial concept for the festival and for the opening evening. I liked the idea of becoming a sort of double agent with double agency. My aim was to subvert somewhat the logic of pleasure (Genuss) and the master-servant relationship. Not by directly confronting it, but rather by changing the situation we were in. I wanted to calibrate our actions so that they would not be easily recognizable as “performances”, but nevertheless be a bit “off” and produce a certain ambiguity that would, in return, produce an uncanny situation at times.
I wanted the actual waiters to be able to have some agency and decide for themselves whether they needed some rest, break away from serving or submitting to their task. A change in protocol that is.
Also, as we were interested in tricking clients into giving us tips, we wanted to establish some movement based language which produced empathy.
Sometimes our actions were the regular expected ones, and sometimes we added a little strange comment addressed to the guests, or we would walk away unexpectedly with the food. Or we asked strange questions.
It was also a very interesting experience for me in terms of class politics. I wasn’t anymore perceived as a special artist at work, but simply as a low-ranking worker. One of the bosses responsible for the catering company started yelling at me because I was wearing white socks. He told me, in German, that I was a catastrophe. I played along and apologized to him, offering to take my white socks off. But he dismissed me with disgust saying that next time would be my last. Another supervisor ordered me to not drink in front of the guests and sent me off back into the kitchen. And a young guest got very mad at me when I did not know how to describe the food I was serving. It was fun, but also a bit of a scary insight into the daily labors of the working class.

SH: Tricks for Tips was based on a collaborative effort with actual waiters. Can you tell a bit more about how this collaboration worked and how it went? Were the waiters receptive? Did anyone make any money?

MP: To my great surprise all the involved waiters responded very positively to my proposal and they all wanted to take part in the ongoing action. I only had ten minutes to brief them on the tasks they were going to perform, but they did a very good job. The tasks were very simple: they could decide to take some rest and sit down on the floor in the middle of the event. They could stop from continuously walking around and serving food and take a still moment for themselves. Even close their eyes. And they could start applauding each other, as if they were the main protagonists of the event.
I wanted them to be able to rest and disengage with their work whenever they wanted to. I wanted us to insert a different temporality into the rhythm of the event. One that belonged to us, and not to the design of the official arrangement.
Many of the waiters came afterwards to thank us for the experience. I don’t know if they received tips, but I received two euros from a lady. Not bad, haha.

SH: The choreography you performed with your co-performers and the scores for the waiters were in part inspired by the everyday actions that waiters employ to increase their gratuity, and in part you referenced eurythmy. Can you tell us a bit more about the source material and the role of Susanne Schmida and others in the development of the choreography and score?

MP: My live work often uses strategies of enactment and embodiment, remediating existing gestures, objects, actions, or events, in order to produce them anew and recirculate them in a different context from the original one.
For Graz I did some research, and ran into the name and historical figure of Susanne Schmida. She was one of the first ever women to receive a PhD degree in philosophy in Austria. She also established the first yoga and gymnastic school in Vienna. Her movement practice was informed by eurythmy and her training at the Loheland Schule für Körperbildung, Landbau und Handwerk (Loheland School for Physical Education, Agriculture and Crafts), which set out to educate a “new generation of women”—a school and community for women only established in 1919 near the small town of Fulda, Germany. I looked into the movement material for eurythmy, and together with two performers, Elizabeth Ward and Olive Schellander, I learned the eurythmy movement alphabet. At a few random moments, dressed as waiters, we performed this alphabet and wrote with our gestures the word “courage”, in English and German.

SH: What about art historical precedents for the work? We saw some quite classical post-avant-garde choreographies that seem to point toward a genealogy. Where would you locate the work in terms of its connection to New York avant-garde dance but also so-called “maintenance art” and other such things?

MP: My source of inspiration for the piece came rather from historical gestures belonging to the work of artists from the former Eastern Europe, in which minimal gestures or playfulness inserted into daily situations or existing conventions construct a different situation, which alters the established protocols and subverts institutional hierarchies. I am thinking here in particular of the artistic practice of Jiří Kovanda, Július Koller, or, more recently, Roman Ondák.