with Latifa Laâbissi
by Julia Bohlin | Responses translated from French by Ingrid Dahlén

Gold teeth and neon,
lust, rituals and rage,
screams and laughter.

reinvented identities. What I know is not here.

Latifa Laâbissi’s performance White Dog deals with preconceptions/prejudices/prescribed identities by creating fictious traditional rituals and cultural symbols. Using neon threads, she creates a future forest where different feelings and thoughts prevail — where other cultural identities are shaped. Together with the thread, the four dancers, including Latifa herself, become forest. The work investigates how we can discard our preconceptions, as well as tie and untie — undo — situations linked to power. Some may say that she balances on a thin line towards cultural appropriation, challenging it by making new rules. Many may say she opens it up for discussion.

I had the opportunity to dig deeper into the dancer and choreographer’s work and to hear her thoughts about it when we met for a talk in connection with attending the German premiere of White Dog during the Tanz im August festival at HAU. We discussed “the other”, the body, a new type of anthropology and the inspiration behind her work.

Latifa Laâbissi, White Dog. Photo: (c) Nadia Lauro.

Julia Bohlin: I saw White Dog yesterday and was really amazed by it – a lot of emotions came through. I particularly enjoyed how you interacted with the neon threads, in combination with the moving bodies.

Can you elaborate on the relationship between the book White Dog by Romain Gary and why you took this book as a reference point, in terms of processes of un-learning prescribed notions of identity?

Latifa Laâbissi: White Dog by Romain Gary is an old source of mine. I returned to it because the story was something that really interested me. It’s about a dog that has been trained to attack black people, but a trainer eventually decides to re-train the dog to cure it of this violent behavior. This process of healing from racism caught my attention. The book also interested me since the person that heals the dog is black, and upon meeting the dog, has an impulse of revenge – a feeling that also interested me. It is as though we are all sick, to a certain degree: everyone, deep down, struggles to overcome something. You are always the other to someone. If there is anything that I take from the book, then it is about what we do with the fact that we must cope with always being the other to someone. The other point is that the dog dominates the other by biting. This matter of biting, of being caught by being bitten, is something that remains in the performance. In one part there is a trio of dancers that hunt and bite each other. But the performance is not about the story of White Dog — not at all. It’s the ontological principles that interested me.

JB: I got the feeling that the four of you had a very complex relationship to the neon thread. Can you tell me about the use of the thread in the performance and its relationship to the dancers?

LL: The thread has several meanings. On the one hand, it’s as though the forest embodies us; we become forest. But the threads are also a means to create things together as a group. What do you want to keep for yourself and what are you able to share with others? It’s how you work together that makes things possible – a metaphor for a very heterogenic group. It represents a world, a fiction – almost science fiction – wherein the group spends their time tying and untying situations, because to try to make something together means to both agree and disagree at the same time. All these relations are problematized, and the threads seek to be an extension of this question – an extension of the body. At the same time, it’s like the forest of filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki – wherein the forest climbs into the body. That idea, to become forest, appealed to me. But it’s also literally speaking about knots that get tied and untied; like knots of power or knots of construction.

Latifa Laâbissi, White Dog. Photo: (c) Nadia Lauro.

JB: I find it interesting that you incorporate both political and social matters, like the marginalization of certain groups, into a lot of your work. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about how the body and dance can work as a tool for addressing certain political and social themes – in this case, cultural appropriation.

LL: For me there is no true essence of the body. There is no “THE body”, as though a precious metal or pure as a diamond. The body is compound, it’s mixed, it’s unregulated/contradicted, it’s hybridized on all levels. I myself feel compound; I don’t feel like one thing. And when I meet others, they are multiple, too. Regarding my work, it’s right that the question about the social and the political body is important to me. It’s hard to cut out my poetic and artistic relation to the political and social world. It goes into my work, into the body, and for me translates into the question of un-doing images. Not images of strength, but images of power: always trying to dethrone the emperor inside each of us – the power position. That’s why there’s a lot of silliness and laughter in the performance.

What I want to say about cultural appropriation is from a historical point of view: how Western history is constructed on regimes of domination, especially with colonial empires, and how their relationships of control and power have created almost sick bodies – it has created traumas, at least. Today I believe we are at a point where the traumas burst/explode. We are at a point where the oppression is visible. And then, at this point, there is a tense moment when each is trying to say: I’m coming from this community, I’m feeling like this, I’m feeling like that, I’m compound. Over-identification. I think it’s a normal process, because when your integrity has been violated, you spend your time building it up. Although this is something very logical to me, I want to oppose it because I think it’s a process and not a goal in itself. I absolutely don’t want to summarize myself in a culture: because I live in France that would make me a Frenchwomen; because I have Arabic roots, I would be an Arab; or because I have a female appearance, I would be a woman. I oppose this, and this resistance is visible in my work. I want to work with the multiplicity that is me. I seek to un-identify rather than to identify myself.

JB: As a former student of anthropology, I am interested in hearing your thoughts on how you in your work can tackle the problematic history of colonialism that anthropology is struggling with.

LL: I use anthropology to achieve decentralization: meaning, the observed and the observers change sides. A Western viewpoint of the rest of the world does not exist; as in, ever since Lévi-Strauss, it has changed and since then an anthropological evolution has taken place. You might have heard about Eduardo Viveiros de Castro? If I’m close to an anthropologist today, it’s definitely his type of anthropology. He almost ”self-anthropologizes”. He un-makes what was born during the Enlightenment – that the Western world views the rest of the world with the idea that its norms are universal. For example, in Viveiros de Castro’s work with the indigenous in Amazonas, the anthropologists and this indigenous society tell their dreams to each other. And suddenly, without any critical judgement, the indigenous people say: it’s strange to hear white people talk about their dreams. You are the main subject in them. The white only dream about themselves. To say that is not to criticize; it’s only to say that the indigenous are in another cosmogony. They view the animals and nature as a part of them, which fills their dreams. When they hear “the white people’s” dreams, the human is the main subject. For me, it’s as though they are speaking about the West via psychoanalysis: the subject is at the centre, and you explain the world based on that subject. But one can also imagine this being different somewhere else.

I think it’s amazing that the ethnographical museums are facing demolition. I wish Europe did not have ethnographical museums anymore. What are all these works, these ritual objects, doing in Western museums? On the one hand, they have been stolen. On the other hand, if these objects have magical dimensions, they are not for us. We don’t know how they are used. So what are these objects doing behind display windows? What are they doing in the museums? I think that anthropologists just recently started to un-make the relation that captured the other – that has museumified the other, made it reified, fetishized it. I’m pro that type of anthropology. I read a lot, I follow anthropology closely, in order to un-make, to decentralize a relationship to the world.

Latifa Laâbissi, White Dog. Photo: (c) Nadia Lauro.
Latifa Laâbissi, White Dog. Photo: (c) Nadia Lauro.

JB: Lastly, can you tell me a little bit about what you are working on at the moment?

LL: Right now I’m thinking about another project that I will do in a year or so in collaboration with a Brazilian artist named Marcelo Evelin. The work requires me to do a lot of research, as I need to increase my knowledge in practices other than dance. We talked about anthropology before, but also philosophy, humanities in general, and a lot of cinema. It takes time. That’s how I start: gathering information. And I will talk with Marcelo to understand how and what this collaboration will be. I’m also finishing a performance/installation with a visual artist named Manon de Boer, who lives in Brussels, where I will be spending a lot of time finishing the project.