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by Gwendolin Lehnerer

Transdisciplinary Curation in the Performing Arts

A Promise?
Transdisciplinarity—a term that carries an immanent permeability, a dissolving of modern categories, a neo-baroque promise to cut across disciplines, to push boundaries, and to become more hybrid in order to create something new? A promise also for collective structures and an exchange of knowledge between cultures? From the point of view of the philosophy of science, transdisciplinarity[1] is not as much a promise as it is a specific constellation, a curated gathering of disciplines with a common purpose that addresses and includes social issues and actors. However, it has not yet been defined what transdisciplinarity means in the arts, and more specifically in the performing arts.[2]

In order to explore transdisciplinarity as a frequently occurring phenomenon in the performing arts, one has to discover a method that makes it possible to dive into the trans and to reveal both the institutional and artistic implications in relation to transdisciplinary structures. For the purpose of approaching this phenomenon from multiple perspectives and to include both its structural and aesthetic form, a “structural-phenomenological double perspective”[3] as proposed by Nicole Haitzinger will be adopted here. This corresponds to the view of the philosophy of science that considers transdisciplinarity not to be a contingent meeting of divergent disciplines, but a concrete practice in which the collaborative work of different actors is curated, constellated, coordinated, organized, and contextualized, and which is accompanied by experiences of differences of all kinds. In the arts, this can be emphasized as a method that is a very integral part of a curatorial practice in which the abovementioned practices are united and are usually implied in a processual manner for a limited period of time. A transdisciplinary curation can not only involve different disciplines of art, but also actors outside the arts. This expands the perspective to scopes of action that include social problem areas.[4] The potential power of transdisciplinary curations lies in the handling of boundary experiences and in its reflexive and self-reflexive practices,[5] which become necessary and evident when it comes to an exchange with other knowledge cultures and their protagonists. From a purely formal point of view, transdisciplinarity as a practice and method of curating can be analyzed from the perspective of both the performing and visual arts, as it describes the conjuncture of both disciplines (and others) in common constellations. When the theater or the museum are taken into account as scenes of transdisciplinary curation, it is important to take seriously the different modes of theater (performance/black box) and museum (exhibition/white cube) as settings of the respective curatorial practice, which are influenced by divergent time structures, architectures, rituals, and codes and thus differ greatly from one another. Transdisciplinary curation in a black box faces different challenges than transdisciplinary curation in a white cube, even though the artistic formats become more and more hybrid in their form and often move fluidly between different architectures and time structures. The following analysis focuses on transdisciplinary curation in the performing arts, since it unites a wide spectrum of art disciplines such as dance, opera, performance, and theater, and the whole concept of the performing arts is oriented transdisciplinarity. For the purpose of differentiation, however, an example of transdisciplinary curation in the visual arts will be given at first in order to comparatively explore divergences in curation and to better comprehend different problem areas of the theater and museum as dispositif.

Kassel as a General Showplace
There is one venue in particular that lends itself to such an analysis in order to observe the correlation of transdisciplinary curation of the performing and visual arts from a structural-phenomenological double perspective: the Friedrichsplatz in Kassel. Not only is the Staatstheater Kassel located here, but the Fridericianum and the documenta Halle also adjoin its plaza, next to the theater. In May 2022, the Friedrichsplatz hosted two forms of transdisciplinary curation at once: on the one hand, documenta fifteen, curated by the Indonesian artist collective ruangrupa, who had just started the construction work on the exhibition that month. On the other hand, the Inbetween theater festival, hosted by the Staatstheater Kassel. Both are venues of transdisciplinary curation that lend themselves to a structural-phenomenological double perspective not only through their spatial proximity. The transdisciplinary exhibition concept of ruangrupa (lumbung – rice barn) transformed itself from the declared exhibition concept into a transdisciplinary gathering space,[6] where various artists and collective could meet and work.

ruangrupa considered lumbung to be an “artistic and economic model is rooted in principles such as collectivity, communal resource sharing, and equal allocation”[7] that was to be realized “in all parts of the collaboration and the exhibition.”[8] The curatorial concept focused on transdisciplinary encounters that were supposed to not only bring together artists and activists, but also social actors such as small farmers. This was to be achieved both through the individual works as well as the encounters between the different actors.

Paradigmatic for the transdisciplinary and curatorial positing is Baan Noorg’s contribution, “comprising a dairy farm exchange program, Nang Yai (Thai shadow puppetry), and a skateboarding ramp in documenta Halle.”[9] In ruangrupa’s conception, the research objective usually underlying transdisciplinary research is decidedly based on the enabling of an alternative economy and “work on new models of sustainability.”[10] It is thus quite consistent with the origin of the term transdisciplinarity in the philosophy of science, although in this case one would rather see it as some kind of curatorial research that explores sustainability models through transdisciplinary working methods.

Structurally, ruangrupa’s concept also opposes the representative world exhibition model that clings to documenta as a major exhibition, and which could have been given more historical and local contextualization, as Hito Steyerl noted in her critical contribution to documenta fifteen in the wake of the scandal around the artist collective Taring Padi’s banner.[11] In retrospect, the criticism of documenta fifteen is not only politically charged because of specific events, but is also evoked by the curatorial concept, which took conceptual risks from the very beginning. A space in which international artists meet social actors such as political collectives and activists would have to be curated in a way that is anti-discriminatory at every level. Furthermore, the curatorial team would have to accept liability—“response-ability”[12]—for both the content and the protagonists. In this case, neither was done adequately.

Nevertheless, lumbung at documenta fifteen is an astonishing transdisciplinary curation that goes beyond curating art and includes both political collectives and everyday actors in a performing way and contains research and practice aspects, which is also clearly outlined in its concept.

White Cube vs. Black Box
While ruangrupa was still preparing for documenta fifteen, the festival Inbetween: Theater zwischen Aufführung und Ausstellung started at Staatstheater Kassel on May 22, 2022. The festival explored the discursive, architectural, artistic, and ritual mechanisms of theater through transdisciplinary curation. Under the artistic direction of dramaturge Dirk Baumann, it explored disciplinary boundaries, posed research questions, and abrogated and problematized visual habits and rituals. The three-day transdisciplinary program included installations, performances, dance, theater, and debates.

In addition to documenta fifteen, the Inbetween festival is another example for transdisciplinary curation, although in the field of the performing arts, which offers its transdisciplinary repositioning as an experimental space or curatorial research laboratory. The priority of its curatorial concept is to answer the question of how the German-speaking theater will develop in the future in the wake of constant hybridization phenomena.

In a conceptual sense, this meant that the festival’s theatrical structures and rituals were abandoned and replaced by a museal course of action for a specific period of time: starting and closing times of the performances were replaced in favor of opening hours common for a museum, and thus aligned with museal conventions. Thus, visitors were able to visit the interactive room installation I am (VR) (Susanne Kennedy), the participatory installation The Situation Room (Franz Reimer), or Zeit-Fugen/inbetweens #3, Kassel (Wolf Gutjahr) all day long in the theater’s foyer, entrance area, or courtyard. This way, the festival visitors were also able to explore the spaces by themselves and schedule a unique art experience. The piece Häusliche Gewalt—a five-hour performance by Markus Öhm—followed this style as well, as the visitors could leave and re-enter the performance as if they were in an exhibition space. The classical conventions of the black box (the separation between the stage and auditorium, actors and visitors, opening and closing times) collided with a museal setting that allowed the visitors to become autonomous actors. In contrast to documenta fifteen, the aim was not to create a sustainable and collective gathering and working space, but to explore a different mode of the visitor as a subject, moving freely in the in-between of the dispositif. The immersive performance Vanitas by Sebastian Blasius suspended theatrical conventions as well. Here, the visitor or actor sat at a table with performers and non-professionals, who followed the rhythm of their pulse transmitted into the space. The suspension of the separation of stage and auditorium as well as the isolation or separation of the individual visitor from the audience turned the spectacle upside down—the visitor became the actor and the instigator of the performance and thereby gave it meaning.

In Between Disciplines
The festival also hosted a discursive format that negotiated the institutional, architectural, and aesthetic consequences of an increasingly hybrid and transdisciplinary focus in theater. International guests from practice were invited to engage in discussions together with protagonists from academia and the performing and visual arts. The discursive format was not part of a framework program, but an independent event alongside the artistic exploration of the festival’s objectives. This exploration focused on the specific performance practices and shifts in the performing arts and its transformation within its architectural, structural, aesthetic, and artistic modalities.

In her lecture Ausstellung und Aufführung als rituelle Toplogien, art historian and author Dorothea von Hantelmann addressed the different dispositifs of the theater and the museum, as well as the specific rituals carried out there, which constantly produce different forms of subjectivation.[13] When these topologies change because of a shift of performance modalities or a hybridization of art forms and institutions, the question arises as to which future subjects will be produced in these scenarios and whether—according to Hantelmann—a new ritual space is needed for the 21st century.[14] This space could bring together theater (collective gathering) and museum (individualized gathering), possibly even link all the arts with other disciplines. According to Hantelmann, such a transdisciplinary gathering space would have to overcome the “predominance of the visual,” “introduce opening hours,” and “offer transformative topologies.”[15] Hantelmann states: “The sheer bringing together of different art forms under one roof does not mean that they necessarily connect. […] Architecture is a key factor here, as it literally sets in stone how spaces are used.”[16]

The quest to find a new space for transdisciplinary constellations was also discussed by Barbara Büscher, head of the research project Architecture and Space for the Performance Arts at Hochschule für Musik und Theater Leipzig, in her lecture “Mobile Venues and Urban Palaces: Models and Projects of Flexible Performance Architecture.”[17] Büscher led the audience through a series of historical predecessors that were explicitly dedicated to a transdisciplinary orientation. Historically, one of the most incisive ideas is Joan Littlewood’s and Cedric Price’s Fun-Palace from 1961, which aimed to unite the arts and much more in its architecture. Other examples of the search for a space with a transdisciplinary architecture are contemporary architectures such as the cultural center The Shed in New York or the cultural campus Quasar Al Hosn in the specially converted fortress in Abu Dhabi.

Activist artist Marissa Lôbo invited to group show co-curated by the students of the Curating in the Performing Arts university course, 2017, SZENE Salzburg. Photograph by: Hubert Auer.

Models of Time and Space in Transdisciplinary Curation
The discursive format also dealt with the discussion around models of space and time and their effects on the curation of the formats. Participants were the artist duo Theda & Julian Nilsson-Eicke, Sebastian Hannak, Barbara Büscher, and Jörg Schafaff, who talked about spatial and temporal structures and formats—such as the rehearsal as an interspace[18]—or the work Zeitfugen by Wolf Gutjahr.[19] Curating transdisciplinary settings requires dramaturgies in space or even its very own narratives that are designed both spatially and temporally and react equally to the conditions of formats and architecture. On the basis of curation in dance in her relevant work Choreographies of the Curatorial: Performative Trajectories for Choreography and Dance in the Museum, Sarah Spies locates this development as a “contemporary extension in the experiments of transdisciplinary art forms and interdisciplinary crossover genres of the 1960s art movements,”[20] which can also be perceived as a parallel development of the performing arts.

In a museal context, the transdisciplinary curation of performing arts increasingly requires adapting the structures of the black box, or to offer them flexibly. Rehearsal spaces and dressing rooms thus become new spaces of consumption in the museum as well. Vice versa, transdisciplinary settings in theater result in divergent but similar drastic transformations: classical theater structures, such as a permanent ensemble, workshops, the ticketing system, or the logistics of stage elements must be structured differently when installations and other formats of the visual arts find their way into theater.

A Kind of Consequence
At the intersection of the arts and other disciplines—the Third Space of transdisciplinary curations—hybrid and processual identities are created in the best case.[21] Representation is replaced, or at least intended to, by collaboration and collectivity. The relational subject forming in this frame of reference gets to experience the arts rather in its actor-theoretical-material relation[22] and becomes an actor itself. On the other hand, there is the often inflexible and ritualized structure of the theater and museum as a consequence, being stretched to its architectural and discursive limits, but also at times exploring and shifting them. One of the challenges for every curation is the repurposing or reinterpretation of these ritualized places that often occupy spaces in a very specific way into a transdisciplinary structure. In the best case, however, Third Spaces like foyers, dressing rooms, or canteens develop and transform themselves. According to Homi K. Bhabha, Third Spaces are not places of mingling, but spaces where hybridity emerges through the “strategic and selective adoption of meanings.”[23] As he states:  

But for me the importance of hybridity is not to be able to trace two original moments from which the third emerges, rather hybridity to me is the ‘third space’ which enables other positions to emerge. This third space displaces the histories that constitute it, and sets up new structures of authority, new political initiatives, which are inadequately understood through received wisdom.[24]

It is in those spaces of negotiation where disciplinary perspectives and lines of sight are re-explored and different mindsets come together.[25] This applies not only to the repurposing of spaces, but also to different disciplines and actors or logistics that are important for transdisciplinary curation. In their performativity and theatricality, the performing arts facilitate forms of relationality in spaces, as well as interactions between movement and a static object, or visitors following the dramaturgical gesture of a narrative in a space. These are spaces that invite to act and that produce actors who are decidedly encouraged to make their own decisions about reception. But it is not only the black box and the white cube, not only exhibition and performance that use the tools of the respective other craft. New links working on a purely curatorial level between institutions and art forms are also on the rise and being renegotiated. For the social function of the institutions and individual curation also entails a responsibility that not only has political, social, and ethical implications. According to Donna J. Haraway, it also includes a “response-ability”[26] that transforms questions of care, sustainability, and hospitality[27] into decisive criteria of transdisciplinary curation and always comes along with a transformational potential.[28] In this respect, transdisciplinarity is not simply a given, but describes a specific practice of curating that has radical consequences and effects for the institution and its actors and visitors. The extent to which transdisciplinary curation is necessary, exciting, and has a promising future will be measured by the degree of its response-ability to its environment, its locality, its actors and materials, its relationships and linkages. Localities such as biennials and festivals therefore offer a good experimental space to that end. If we think further, however, spaces may emerge in the future in which this practice could further be elaborated and expanded for the benefit of the actors and disciplines. This could be achieved, for example, by organizing festivals in a way that creates longer-term structures for exchange and the development of relationships and mutual trust, and as a space for after-care to create networks between the theater and the museum, between the arts and society and between spaces and time.

Gwendolin Domenica Lehnerer lives in Berlin and studied theatre, philosophy, and media and culture in the Cluster of Excellence at the Ludwig Maximilian Universität of Munich. From 2017–2019, she worked as a research assistant for the ERC project Developing Theatre, for the Centre for Global Theatre History and for the Goethe-Institut New York. In 2018, she successfully participated in the university course Curating in the Performing Arts, for which she received a partial scholarship from the cultural foundation of Allianz. Since August 2022, she has been working as a research assistant for the course. Since 2019, Gwendolin has also been a doctoral student at the Inter-University Doctoral College Art and Public Impact: Dynamics of Change at the Paris Lodron University of Salzburg and the Mozarteum and writes about curatorial research. She also works as a freelance dramaturg and curator in Vienna, Munich, and Berlin, most recently for the Berliner Festspiele and the Kammerspiele München.


[1] Viorela Dan describes the understanding of transdisciplinarity as a “decades-long process of negotiation” that has been constantly changing since its introduction in the 1970s by E. Jantsch in his article “Inter- and Transdisciplinary University: A Systems Approach to Education and Innovation.” (1972). While J. Mittelstraß sees “the engagement with practical problems” as an important feature of transdisciplinary research, Dan describes today's understanding of transdisciplinarity as an “engagement with societal problems, the inclusion of actors outside academia in research, and the expectation that researchers support the practical implementation of their findings.” Viorela Dan, “Formen der Wissensgenerierung: Transdisziplinarität im Vergleich zu Mono-, Multi- und Interdisziplinarität,” in Gesundheitskommunikation als transdisziplinäres Forschungsfeld (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2017), 1–11: 4.

[2] “Transdisziplinarität,” ZHdK, last modified August 1, 2022, https://www.zhdk.ch/forschung/ehemalige-forschungsinstitute-7626/iae/glossar-972/transdisziplinaritaet-3841.

[3] Nicole Haitzinger, “Szenische Präsenz im Museum: Thesenhafte Überlegungen zur Ausstellungsanalyse aus theater- und tanzwissenschaftlicher Perspektive,“ in Evidenzen des Expositorischen: Wie in Ausstellungen Wissen, Erkenntnis und ästhetische Bedeutung erzeugt wird, eds. Klaus Krüger, Elke. Werner, Andreas Schalhorn (Bielefeld: transcript, 2019), 181–202.

[4] In transdisciplinary contexts, questions about the political, social, and ethical premises of collaborative research become particularly evident, as collaborations exist between different contexts, disciplines, and social classes; there is no such thing as a homogeneous research team that can refer to a common state of research.

[5] “Transdisziplinarität.”

[6] Dorothea von Hantelmann, “What is the New Ritual Space for the 21st Century,” The Shed, last modified June 8, 2022, https://theshed.org/program/series/2-a-prelude-to-the-shed/new-ritual-space-21st-century.

[7] ruangrupa, “documenta fifteen,” last modified June 10, 2022, https://documenta-fifteen.de/en.

[8] Ibid.

[9] See ruangrupa, “Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts and Culture,” last modified May 3, 2022, https://documenta-fifteen.de/en/lumbung-members-artists/baan-noorg-collaborative-arts-and-culture/.

[10] ruangrupa, “documenta fifteen.”

[11] Hito Steyerl, “documenta fünfzehn: Kontext ist König, außer der deutsche,” Zeit Online, June 3, 2022, accessed November 13, 2022, https://www.zeit.de/kultur/kunst/2022-06/documenta-15-postkoloniale-theorien-kunst-kontextualisierung.

[12] “Response-ability” is a term used by science theorist Donna J. Haraway in her book “Staying with the Trouble” (2016) to advocate a broader understanding of the political and ethical aspects of relationships in a more-than-human world (Haraway 2016, 232). In relation to the documenta fifteen team, this would mean accepting liability not only for the protagonists, but also for the use of resources by the festival, the locality they occupy, and the exhibited art.

[13] Dorothea von Hantelmann, “Ausstellung und Aufführung als rituelle Topologien,” in Impulsvortrag beim Inbetween Festival (Kassel: Inbetween, 22.–24. Mai 2022), 1–12.

[14] von Hantelmann, “What is the New Ritual Space for the 21st Century.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Barbara Büscher, “Mobile Venues and Urban Palaces: Models and Projects of Flexible Performance Architecture,” in Impulsvortrag beim Inbetween Festival (Kassel: Inbetween, May 22–24, 2022), 1–12.

[18] Jörn Schafaff, “Always rehearsing, never performing—Die Probe als Zwischenraum,” in Impulsvortrag beim Inbetween Festival,  accessed November 17, 2022, hattps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7aTwKVVj9w&list=PLrWdVIj5E-mmnapADynK4bzoCRLs6vnE4&index=2.

[19] Dirk Baumann, “Welche Auswirkungen haben neue Raum- und Zeitmodelle auf Aufführungsarchitekturen der darstellenden Künste?,” in “A panel discussion with Sebastian Hannak, Barbara Büscher, Jörn Schafaff, Theda & Julian Nilsson-Eicke and Wolf Gutjahr”, moderated by Dirk Baumann at Inbetween Festival, accessed November 17, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7aTwKVVj9w&list=PLrWdVIj5E-mmnapADynK4bzoCRLs6vnE4&index=2.

[20] As Sarah Spies explains, “Within this trajectory, curators and choreographers often seek to reinstate dance and choreographic thinking as generators of the micro- and macro-ecologies that have shaped creative practice in the 20th and 21st centuries. These include distinct public programmes that have been developed with prominent choreographers and curators at Hayward Gallery (Stephanie Rosenthal’s MOVE: Choreographing YouArt and Dance Since the 1960s, 2011), MoMA PS1 (Mårten Spångberg’s The Dancing Seminar: A Listening Dance, 2013 and Xavier Le Roy’s Retrospective, 2014), Tate Modern (Tino Seghal’s The Unilever Series – These Associations, 2012 and Boris Charmatz’s If Tate Modern was Musée de la danse?, 2015) and Centre Pompidou (Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Work/Travail/Arbeid, 2016 and reworked at Tate Modern, 2016 and MoMA, 2017) to name but a few. The above-mentioned choreographers, and many others, situate the conceptualisation of choreography and choreographic processes as an expanded practice within both the history of visual art and contemporary art practice by fundamentally rethinking dance works as exhibition pieces, rather than theatre pieces. This contemporary expansion has its roots in the experiments of the transdisciplinary art forms and interdisciplinary crossover genres of the art movements of the 1960s.” Sarah Spies, Choreographies of the Curatorial. Performative Trajectories for Choreography and Dance in the Museum (PhD diss., University of Reading, 2020), 11.

[21] Homi K. Bhabha, “The Third Space: Interview with Jonathan Rutherford,” in Identity, Community, Culture, Difference (London: Lowrence and Wishart, 1990), 201–221.

[22] See Isabelle Stengers, Spekulativer Konstruktivismus (Berlin: Merve, 2008).

[23] Homi K. Bhabha, “Migration führt zu ‚hybrider‘ Gesellschaft,” in Science.ORF.at, November 11, 2007, https://sciencev1.orf.at/science/news/149988.html.

[24] Bhabha, “The Third Space,” 211.

[25] According to Bhabha, Hybridization and the concept of the third space are not conceptualized in the sense of a strategy of leveling difference, but used as a metaphor for certain epistemic processes in which – according to Uwe Wirth – there is a crossing as well as an unexpected encounter of concepts from different scientific fields. In these, differences are not resolved, but new constellations are produced. In this way, foyers, dressing rooms or canteens of the performing arts can be reinterpreted as transdisciplinary knowledge spaces and thus, spaces for encounter can be created. Uwe Wirth, “Gepfropfte Theorie: Eine ‘greffologische’ Kritik von Hybriditätskonzepten als Beschreibung von intermedialen und interkulturellen Beziehungen,” in: TheorieTheorie. Wider die Methodenmüdigkeit in den Geisteswissenschaften, eds. Mario Grizelj and Oliver Jahraus (München: Wilhelm Fink, 2011), 151–166: 163.

[26] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Cambridge: Academic Press, 2016).

[27] Beatrice von Bismarck, Das Kuratorische (Leipzig: Spector Books, 2021), 185–223.

[28] Richard Beecroft, “Reallabore als Rahmen transformativer und transdisziplinärer Forschung: Ziele und Designprinzipien,” in Transdisziplinär und transformativ forschen. Eine Methodensammlung, eds. Rico Defila and Antonietta Di Giulio (Wiesbaden: Springer, 2018), 75–99.

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Issue 55

Curating Dance : Decolonizing Dance