Dancer and choreographer Dragana Bulut’s new work Beyond Love is the third piece in her trilogy about technology. She talks to Tom Mustroph about commodification, the nature of love and making work with a female companion robot.
Tom Mustroph: What is it like rehearsing Harmony, a robot? How do you blend improvising human bodies with programming artificial intelligences?
Dragana Bulut: It’s a very particular process. You have to project things a bit ahead, because Harmony is not as spontaneous as human performers. It is more similar to a filmmaker’s work, because you have to plan everything in advance.
Harmony is sold as a humanoid artificial intelligence companion robot. She is branded as female and manufactured to develop a relationship with the owner. Her movement is limited, but her head and face are animated. She talks and she has something very specific: a vaginal sensor.
Tom Mustroph: What is her role in the performance?
Dragana Bulut: She’s the main performer, but also a matchmaker and relationship advisor in the performance, that is choreographic speed dating for the audience members. The performative presence of Harmony is instrumentalized to unpack different constructs of love. We also have a critical stance towards the commodification that happens through the production of such a robot. They are sold as a tool to counter loneliness. But she’s, on the other hand, a total commodification of a female body. So we play with this tension and problematize it through the performance.
Tom Mustroph: How did you got interested in working with robots in an arts context?
Dragana Bulut: I started working with social robotics in my previous project, Future Fortune. I collaborated with scientist from the field, with Heinrich Mellmann from the Adaptive Systems Group of Humboldt University for instance. And I got to learn a lot about these problematics. The bigger question is how do we end up living in a society where there is a need for such a thing or where we get so alienated from each other that we find the use of robots to be a solution. Robots are already sent in homes to elderly people, who are not integrated into society anymore..
So the underlying interest is in these invisible dynamics that organise our behaviour. When I worked on Happyology [which premiered in 2018], a performance in a form of a life coaching seminar for audience, I focused on the way how happiness industry basically places pressure on individuals to constantly optimize our sense of well-being and how this becomes really oppressing because there the responsibility is placed on the individual. So if I don’t do my yoga, don’t meditate, or get a life coaching, I might fail in achieving required well-being.
Tom Mustroph: Do you believe that technologies may help individuals to attain happiness or do you see them contributing to ongoing commodification and further alienation from other human beings?
Dragana Bulut: I do have a critical perspective towards commodification and, in the performance we are creating, the tension between these two positions. We are living under capitalism and its premise of growth, and technological development play a big part of that. As it seems it’s just going to continue that way, I would like to ask whether there is a way where technological development can somehow offer alternatives for building relationships, rather than propel further commodification.
Tom Mustroph: What would these alternatives be like?
Dragana Bulut: Romantic love has such a primacy in our life. From Cinderella onwards we are fed these narratives of romantic love. It becomes something that we have to unpack through our whole life. Also mass media influences this perception in our realities. That also contributes to the commodification. The opposite might be, if we think about how love can be a social force. Imagine If we grew up in a society where friendship or community was equally praised or present in the narratives: Wouldn’t we have completely different needs and a very understanding of what is the value of different types of loves? It could be something which would build stronger communities, rather than isolate us to the choice of one person, from whom we expect to fulfil all our needs and desires. And again and again we realize that, in this search, we lose. Love is more and more narrowed to self actualization. And what we see is a rising level of alienation where communities are being eroded.
At the moment technology contributes to that [process]. But the question is how technology can be employed in bringing us together and be a tool for amplifying human relationships. I know, it is a very utopian thought. And that does not refer to robots only. In the performance we also tackle the question of digital dating and what happens in that vast field where individuals place themselves on the marketplace as desirable subjects to be matched by an algorithm, while at the same time it mines your data and capitalizes on your private preferences.
Tom Mustroph: How much has the research in the fields of happiness and love had an influence on you as a subject and how much have your own desires shaped your research?
Dragana Bulut: Oh, a lot. For me, art and life are not separate, they feed each other. I consciously use that as a part of my methodology. When I work on a certain topic, next to the theoretical aspect of work, which is always important, and I do it in collaboration with a dramaturg or other specialists, I also really immerse myself in the more experiential and empirical research. When I worked on the happiness topic, I actually worked with a life coach who was also life coaching the process of production of the performance. I also started a process of psychoanalysis, which of course completely changed my life and me personally. So of course this feeds into the work, but also changes who you become. It also can happen in this kind of processes that you as a subject become a kind of guinea pig in your own research, and for a moment you can lose the distance. But it’s important for me, to negotiate how deep you are immersed and how much of a critical distance – necessary for deconstruction – you can keep.
Tom Mustroph: Have you ever encountered a really happy subject?
Dragana Bulut: That’s a good question. Have you?
Tom Mustroph: Hm, there are moments when I think that people are happy subjects. There also moments, when I think I am, just now, a happy subject, but it’s not a continuous thing.
Dragana Bulut: Things cannot be always right. What I think is part of being happy is also accepting the darker side of things. But the happiness industry is ignoring this, and this is a part of the problem.
Tom Mustroph: Have you ever asked Harmony how she defines love or what she thinks love might be?
Dragana Bulut: Sure. Harmony clearly says that she experiences love in a different way. But her AI is constantly evolving and she’s learning from humans. Funnily enough, if you have any suggestions, she will share it with her developers.
Tom Mustroph: And how you would define love?
Dragana Bulut: That’s a very hard question. I would say that for me, love is more than a romantic love. I think it has to do with care a lot, care for the other and for the different and not only the same. I think love is often defined as a love for the same and this is how matchmaking algorithms works, they always match you with a similarity. I really agree with Michael Hardt, who reflects this much better than me. Love is also a love for difference. And love is a sort of social force, a fuel on which we run, whether if it’s a romantic friendship or for a community. It moves life and gives it a sense because it relates to the other to something outside of oneself.
Tom Mustroph: Yes, I was thinking the same in this moment, because it’s a fuel. Driven by love you do strange things, things you wouldn’t do without love.
Dragana Bulut: Exactly, and it is about relating to the other, and that’s why I’m saying it is the antidote to the more self-interested system that drives us actually.
Tom Mustroph: As I understand it, you grew up in Belgrade, but for a couple of years now your base is in Berlin. Do have still links to the Balkans work-wise? And how do production conditions here compared to Belgrade?
Dragana Bulut: Originally I am from Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We came 1992 as refugees to Belgrade. And there I ended up in a ballet school. You know, sometimes those random things define your life. I had a scoliosis and my mother brought me to the doctor who said ballet should be good for that. So went there and did eight years of ballet. After that I studied literature, because at this time there was no higher education in dance. It was just post war, the 90s, embargo, no information coming in or out.
While I studied literature I was also active in the independent scene in Belgrade. I was very young then and really hungry for knowledge. I got an offer to work on a project in Ljubljana, in Slovenia. For three years or so I was in between Belgrade and Ljubljana, and I was part of Station – Service for Contemporary Dance in Belgrade, which was one of the organisations for contemporary dance then and which tried to systematically bring in contemporary dance as a relevant form of art.
Parallelly I had a collaboration with two Romanian artists, Maria Baroncea and Eduard Gabia. After that I relocated to Berlin. At the beginning here, in the first five years, I was keeping much stronger connection with Belgrade, specifically with Station. But as the time passed, when you embed yourself more in a new context, you can’t relate so good to the conditions of the other local context. So priorities shifted. I did my master’s studies here and after I just had to work a lot to maintain my visa. At first I worked as a performer at first as well for different choreographers. And this was a great learning experiences while I was also doing my own work.
Tom Mustroph: Did you work as a performer for others because you liked working with them or was it more to maintain your visa?
Dragana Bulut: I liked to work for them, and I worked for good artists, (for Meg Stuart or Tino Sehgal for instance). But all that work tied me more to this context and I was less engaged in the other one. I still do guest performances in Belgrade sometimes, but honestly not as often as I would like to.
As I am not there much, there are also less invitations from that region. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to have more connection. But it is like it is. At this moment I’m quite happy to have conditions to do my work here. It also took me a while to build that. Although it is still unstable, it is definitely a more stable production environment than I could have in Belgrade. But I would definitely be happy to have some kind of structural support which would allow me more long term relationships in terms of collaborations with people, so that I don’t have to start from scratch every time I start a new project.
Tom Mustroph: On your home page you put an essay about contextual art and the countries of Eastern Europe. The text raised the issue that artists from Eastern Europe develop a stronger sense of structural thought while Western artists are more engaged in intuitive and individualistic approaches. Do you stiil agree with this idea? And do you see yourself as someone driven to analyse structures? Does this come from your East European background?
Dragana Bulut: That’s an interesting question, but not easy to answer. I spent the last 12 years in Berlin, in the Western context. And that slightly shifts your perspective on things, and I’m changing through that. So looking from this space at it, I think the text was saying, that there is a strong legacy of the artist as genius still present. It is not in the practice of artists necessarily, but in the way the practice becomes the brand, that operates on the marketplace. And the Western, let’s say at least the German, art market is definitely much more established than in Eastern Europe.
When there is not an established art market, then the freedoms are different because the rules are not as established and the structures don’t exist. One has to think more of the structures and approach them from the ground. Here instead we have established structure. So it’s a very different space, because it’s there, assumed, and therefore you don’t have to think about it. You follow the rules that someone before you established. And even if you want to change them, it’s not always easy. It takes time. It’s super bureaucratic. And although the conditions in Eastern Europe are a bit more precarious on the other hand they produce different thought processes. And that maybe has still to do with more structural thinking and questioning.
Tom Mustroph: One last question: After the shows, where will Harmony end up? Will she be part of an ensemble you maybe create or will she end up in a box?
Dragana Bulut: It’s not yet decided, but hopefully she doesn’t end in the storage. And usually I continue projects, one project is rarely enough to tackle a bigger topic. So she may also appear also in other performances.
Main image: Marta Popivoda
For tickets and further information, visit: hebbel-am-ufer.de
For more on Dragana Bulut’s work, visit: Dragana Bulut.com
Tom Mustroph works in Berlin and Palermo as a freelance journalist and dramaturg. He operates in several journalistic fields, such as theatre, fine arts and sports. He is most interested in how self-responsible work can succeed elegantly and in accordance to minimal moral standards. He collaborates with several German language publications such as taz, FAZ, Neues Deutschland, NZZ, Theater der Zeit, zeit online, Deutschlandfunk and WDR.