Concrete Ambiguities – Susan Kozel

At the ticket collection desk of the Malmö Palladium last April there was a bowl offering earplugs to audience members. It was empty. No room for misinterpretation: this dance performance would be loud. And it was, but this blog post for the Error Network aims to open out error by means of exploring ambiguity, not clear categories such as loud or soft.

Ambiguity was the theme of the Network’s September workshop in Sweden (14-16 September, at the Inter Arts Centre in Malmö) and it continues to be my ‘way in’ to error, both artistically and philosophically. Ambiguity helps to side step potential binaries between right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate, desirable and undesirable that still spring to mind when someone says the word ‘error.’

The performance for which earplugs acted as a kind of aural safety net was This is Concrete, danced by Jefta van Dinther and Thiago Granato (choreographed by Jefta). [1]

This is Concrete
This is Concrete

It glinted with a palette of greys, strong edges and loud sounds, the way concrete does. Yet it confronted us with peculiar contrasts, distortions, bends and traversals that are also typical of concrete: like the occasional appearance of bright green. My friend Jennifer Greitschus curator at the engineering consultancy Arup recently reminded me that concrete is poured; it starts off soft; it can be moulded in a myriad of ways, and, depending on its composition and treatment during construction, its finish can range from burnished to bush hammered. [2] When curating an exhibition called Concrete Inspirations for ARUP Engineering, she emphasised the sensuality of concrete; I think of how a meeting between a body and concrete, with velocity, can break bones.

Concrete Inspirations
Concrete Inspirations

Concrete Inspirations exhibition walls, made of concrete spacer blocks mortared together, at Arup, 8 Fitzroy St, London, June 2016)

The porous (and pouring) material spectrum of concrete was found in the differential equation of Jefta and Thiago’s moving bodies: the softness of skin swimming in the composite of greys (lights, clothes, scenography), the way erotic movements were present rather than swamped by the loud electronic club-style sound score. This was about a sliding across registers – a sort of concrete burlesque – and it caused my thoughts to return once again to William Empson’s classic text of literary criticism from the 1930s ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’. [3] In considering error it is possible to find something of interest in each of his seven types, but for now I reflect upon the first, second and third:

  1. when a detail is effective in several ways at once (antitheses with several points of difference)
  2. two or more alternate meanings are fully resolved into one
  3. two apparently unconnected meanings are given simultaneously

A phenomenological glimpse of concrete.

Tracing how these ambiguities exist concurrently requires a phenomenological interlude describing my own awareness of their presence: ambiguities, like errors, sometimes take time and different states of awareness in order to be registered consciously. [4] Most of us are creatures of clarity, trained to disregard or to tidy up what does not fit clearly into categories. And this does not refer only to meaning, it refers to affective states. As such, certain moments of ambiguity were not immediately intuitable to me sitting in the audience that evening with Efva Lilja. [5] Strangely it was not the movement that planted the seeds of ambiguity, it was Jefta’s use of recorded voice and facial expression. His face stretched to mouth the words that we heard on the sound score – at the same time rubbery and mask-like.

Here are my notes – transcribed below.

Susan's notes
Susan’s notes

“5 days after seeing this performance I found myself thinking again, not of the powerful movement, scenography, dramaturgy or sound – but the recurring use of “non-language.” A strange part of the performance that I could not quite place — or categorise (this should have been my first clue) words, not spoken but in the sound score. Distorted beyond comprehension, a sort of animal or machinic burble, but still a sort of dialogue or monologue, with an affective quality. Ambiguous. Not quite pain not quite animalistic, not quite robotic, and significantly (for me at least, not fitting exactly into paradigms of the grotesque or abject). The oddness was intensified by Jefta’s facial expressions and his mouthing the words: they came from the speakers but he seemed to be speaking.

Out of “This is Concrete” … could equally be called … we identify moments of: This is Ambiguity … “

The last sentence of my notes fell apart, as you can see in the scan of the writing. The notes were quite carefully written until I attempted to map a convergence between the performance and ambiguity. At first I wrote that ‘This is Concrete’ could equally be called ‘This is Ambiguity’ but then drew a line though the phrase suggesting equivalence and added “out of” and “we can identify moments of,” thereby opening the space of uncertainty and permitting glimpses of ambiguity. Not to overplay the textual exegesis of my own notes (a bizarre scholarly move but one that makes sense phenomenologically) I notice that categories of analysis and use of language become more complex once a state of ambiguity itself is being questioned. The difficulty resides in expectations of linguistic and conceptual clarity when approaching the topic of the ambiguous.

Even Empson’s fine-grained and ironic work in clarifying the unclarifiable breaks down once ambiguites are performed, once we chart ambiguity on a somatic level, not just in poetry or on the therapist’s table (recall that a majority of somatic practices occur in the context of a variety of body therapies) but in movement improvisation. There is clearly work to be done. The earplugs and mindplugs should be courageously cast aside.

Falling upwards

I’ll end with another lingering memory from This is Concrete juxtaposed with a specific reference to a somatic quality Error Network member Ruth Gibson mentioned in a recent discussion: “falling upwards.” [6] Such contrasts (like the one between fall and up) can easily be dismissed to the realm of poetry, as merely powerful clashes of metaphor existing in our emotions or imaginations. But it is possible to have a clear sensory experience of falling upwards. Or of floating downwards.

As I sat in the audience of Jefta and Thiago’s performance I asked myself how it could possibly end? Meaning how could a choreography with a series of affective and sensory exchanges but no clear narrative arc draw to a close in the aesthetic-economic framework of a one hour long contemporary dance performance? The piece was like life: a series of affective exchanges between people rendered through patterns of movement. As it turned out, the dancers did not end the piece. Something else did. White helium balloons suspended unnoticed in the overhead rig slowly illuminated themselves, drawing our attention upwards. Then the balloons descended. Not falling upwards, but floating downwards. Slowly but inexorably. Time and bodies stood still. And Empson’s first three types of ambiguity converged.

Image from video of "This is Concrete"
Image from video of “This is Concrete”

Image taken from the video of This is Concrete:

Falling upwards, floating downwards. These ambigiuities make perfect sense somatically and experientially once we respect the co-existence of seemingly irreconcilable registers of meaning or sensation. Once error is mapped onto ambiguity the research questions expand in complexity and nuance, making interdisciplinary research initiatives such as the Error Network valuable forums for exchange.



  1. Image:  Video available:
  1. Concrete Inspirations was on show at ARUP, 8 Fitzroy St, London from 14 July – 7 October 2016
  1. William Empson, 7 Types of Ambiguity (first published 1930), Stellar Books, 2014.
  1. I have an on-going interest in the processes of actually enacting or performing a phenomenology (in other words, how to do phenomenology). These notes reproduced here are part of this project. See ”Process Phenomenologies,” in Modes of Embodiment: The Poetics of Phenomenology in Performance Studies, eds. Nedelkopoulou, Sherman and Bleeker. Routledge, 2015.
  2. Efva Lilja will give a keynote for our final Error Network workshop/symposium in December
  3. See Gibson/Martelli’s study of Falling Upwards and Ruth Gibson’s post for the Error Network discussing somatic approaches to error:

Susan Kozel, Malmö University, Sweden,