Beginning: an incomplete correspondence



by Anette Therese Pettersen and Diana Damian Martin


Nov 22, 2017.

Hello my love,

How are you?

Like I spoke to you briefly about yesterday, I thought that in the middle of all this other work, I would establish a line of communication that is a sidetrack, so to speak. A series of letters, where we don’t talk project and deadlines, but life in a more general way.

Of course it will somehow be a project in and of itself, but with no immediate deadlines.

I start by writing this initial letter, you can reply whenever is suitable for you – and I think it could be a series that doesn’t necessarily have to be balanced – meaning: the other doesn’t have to reply to a letter in order for the first to keep writing, and the length of letters can vary – always.

I’ve been thinking a lot about failure and exhaustion the last years – it was initially something I wanted to write about, in dance/performance, as a phd-project, but it might be a topic worth exploring over an even longer period of time.

I’m especially interested in how our bodies and minds cope with the level of insecurity and amount of work we are dealing with. Seeing as there is no clear boundary between work and life-outside-of-work: how can we imagine a different way of working and, basically: living?

I was thinking this could be a correspondence where the thoughts sometimes are sharp and with a clear direction to it, and other times more spaced out – with quotes and images and references and whatever comes to mind and mail.

I’ll start with some excerpts from Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter:

I find myself in a bright room that appears to be a converted porch. The sunlight picks up spider webs and dust through the windows. She stands at the doorway. She looks around the room with a worried expression. There are papers scattered everywhere. I realize I am supposed to go through these papers of a former self, a self that used to have her own business apparently.

It is an impossible chore. I am an inept curator. I play around with the piles of paper for hours at a time, rearranging them, moving them from place to place, into files marked with my hand, sometimes placing a scrap or a check or a scrawled missive under her nose, under those eyes and asking her – Do you remember?

At the end of each afternoon she pays me. She writes me a check, ripping it off from her book. Her cow-like cursive so different from the tight neat curlicues I’ve come to recognize. First I must find the checkbook. The pen. And then tell her what the amount should be. I remember, I am tempted to lie. I am both broke and unmoored. But I remember also feeling the guilt, as if under my skin, my uselessness. My empathy also still there, somewhere, pounding yet tremulous. For she is already paying me too much, for what I am doing, which is nothing. 

This experience of failure. How it repeats throughout my life.

The electrical taxonomy of memory: Louise Bourgeois’s blue antique wooden cabinet with empty glass vessels backlit with light – perfume bottles, carafes, vases, pharmaceutical jars, silver trays, all once used by the artist. To walk by this installation, to stand before it, when I see it at the Tate and then the Guggenheim years ago, as I travel in pilgrimage before her Cells, feels like an act of risk. How precarious they are. How they could come tumbling down.

All the women Louise Bourgeois collected like these fragile glasses, women I also collect, fictional and fictionalized, that I abandon myself to in acts of intense research and investigation – Anne Sexton, Antigone, Marilyn Monroe, Medea, Ophelia, Cassandra, Sylvia, Virginia, Zelda.

Addendum: Barbara Loden, Nella Larsen, Diane Arbus, Shulamith Firestone, Valerie Solanas, Susan Sontag, Kathy Acker, Chantal Akerman, Louise Brooks.

Any woman remote and unknowable. Any woman furious and desperate. I collect them for my mantle.

Sometimes when I think of these months – when I let myself I rarely let myself – I feel the guilt rise up like black bile, like the Furies chasing me.

Cassandra sputtering uncomfortable truths. For Cassandra was the real daughter of Clytaemnestra both women assassinated for their violence and chaos.

I would like to set the house on fire.

The crowded theater of my mind.

For now, as a start, I’ll say this is enough.

To be continued, hopefully for a very long time. Miss you lots, love you even more!




Mar 19, 2018.

Hello my love

This email has been a long time coming yet I’ve been saving it up, as if the more life gets in the way, the more questions can enter here.

So it feels apt that our side conversation has been marked, at least in the beginning, by so many events – personal, political and of course those two are inseparable. ‘The crowded theatre of my mind.’

I’ve been teaching a lot lately and I always find that such a pleasurable, embodied experience, given all the battles that fold into the same space – the neoliberal education system, the patriarchy of academia, the toxic culture that requires both self regulation and abandon – how it leaves little space for crossing different territories of knowledge, or moving between art and life and theory and these modes of thinking.  When I am teaching I am almost always, necessarily failing; not on account of temporary knowledge or even multiple subjectivities, but on what I feel I carry with me in the room,  something which I also try and leave outside – canonicity; cultural imperialism; hierarchies of knowledge; institutional silencing; cultures of abuse.

The students and I talked a lot about critical care this winter and it struck me that in our conversations we have moved more and more remote from structures of learning that are silently imposed: how can you fail together when there is an aesthetics of failure that does not actually enable it, just performs it? I’m particularly grateful to have worked with a group of students a while ago who dedicated their final project together to that: unlearning, to thinking failure and pedagogy and performance. Generational poetics.

I was thinking about this in relation to performance, too – the postmodernist concern for failure and systemic/formal deconstruction has somehow resulted in the occasionally cynical position, or, more common, rejection or displacement as the only site for real failure. It seems radical spaces continue to be shaped externally – what counts as radical performance work, work that has real commitment to failure on account of its commitment to politics or form, is rendered from the outside not the inside. It seems much more than coincidental that for a neoliberal culture that is obsessed with structures of visibility and collapse that this would be the case (just thinking about Prevent for eg).

I’ve started the year with a real energy despite this being the time in which I battle one of my biggest professional conflicts. But it’s also had this strange energy – to do with public feminisms and intersectionality, one of the worst and most aggressive governments the UK has had in a while (though by no means the only one committed to supremacy, colonialism etc) and parallel global crises. I wonder how what we fight in our lived experience and collectives is mapped onto that and I also wonder the extent to which structures around that constantly render these threads invisible.

I was thinking about our talking about the sea as a space to turn to (be in?) and as a place where some of these embodied experiences and thoughts can be held for a while; as you know last year I ended up in hospital for the first time due to a mix of illness and exhaustion and since then nothing has changed apart from my commitment to finding moments of hope and relief and agency – and of course, the sea. I miss it so. (And you)

One last thing: I’ve read The Power and found it a misguided reverse politics – have you read it? It feels like it embodies some of these confusions so well.




Anette Therese Pettersen (b.1979) is a theatre and dance critic, editor, curator and
freelance writer. Has an MA in theatre science from the University in Oslo, and writes
reviews for the weekly paper Morgenbladet as well as periodicals. Co-founder of
Writingshop, a long-term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice. In addition to being a critic, she gives guest lectures and tutor students at the University of Agder and Oslo Metropolitan University, as well as being editor of a series of books on criticism, theatre and dance. Project leader of projects of criticism, such as Critics in Conversation and Dansekritikerrørsla. Curator of theory in the art festival TOpublic, and of a lecture series on scenography and costume design at Oslo National Academy of the Arts (2015-17). Part of theisen/pettersen, which curates a series of guest performances in Kristiansand.

Diana Damian Martin is a co-host of Something Other. 

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