Habitus and Posture at the Podium… and beyond

Bettina Steinbrügge, Curator 21er Haus, Vienna


In her installation work The Female Conductor’s Back (2011), the artist Marion Porten takes on the question of power. There is “no more obvious expression of power than the performance of a conductor,”¹  according to Norman Lebrecht. The conductor personifies the mastery, control and artistic expertise associated with musical self-determination. He is “the eye of the needle” between the performing musicians and the musical result we hear. In this case, making music together doesn’t function by means of the communication structures amongst the musicians, but rather by virtue of their “submission” – after all, it is the conductor who sets the tempo. Absolute dictators at the podium, such as Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler or Herbert von Karajan, continue to serve as role models for this male domain, whose steadfast consistency can possibly only be compared to that of Formula 1. When Nadia Boulanger conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1938, it was nothing less than revolutionary – and, in fact, to this day only a few women have managed to gain acceptance as conductors. Elke Mascha Blankenburg has written – with good reason – that “female conductors present a challenge to the deeply rooted social gender roles.”²

The idea of focusing on female conductors in order to examine power structures becomes even more profound, in my opinion, when we consider the theoretical framework developed by Bourdieu. His theory is based on the concept of the social field, in which all agents compete against each other for power. This can function like a game with certain rules, principles, or procedures. The very procedures – or dispositions – which best serve the agents’ identification with the field become firmly instilled in the agents, building the basis for the habitus, which then continues to define the field. The difficulty involved in changing existing dispositions within a certain field become evident when we take a look at the evolution of the conducting profession, the number of female conductors, and the progress of equal opportunities for women in general.

In her installation, which consists of two video projections and a series of nine drawings, Marion Porten subtly and strikingly unravels the various power structures and their intricate working mechanisms. At the center of the work is the profession of conducting, as carried out by a woman who has claimed the tools of her trade for herself, who’s not afraid to exercise her power and therefore to call gender roles into question. Basically, what’s happening here is what Pierre Bourdieu contemplates in his book Masculine Domination. According to Bourdieu, male domination is the model for, as well as the subject of, the established order – one which is indeed so well established, that it need not justify itself. Gender inequality has manifested itself in the social realm, and it is present in the prevailing attitude, or habitus, as a kind of universal principle of seeing and categorizing – a system of subjective structures of perception, thought and action. This is why such domination even continues to be accepted. Thus, Bourdieu believes that a symbolic revolution is necessary: it would take a radical reorganization of the social relations that are responsible for the fact that the dominated women see their male dominators and indeed even themselves in exactly the same way as their oppressors do.3 And this is precisely what Marion Porten’s installation makes explicit.

Porten’s installation translates Bourdieu’s theoretical approach into spatial structures that allow this experience to become palpable on a physical as well as an intellectual level. In the press release for her exhibition in Leipzig, Porten addresses an important cliché of the male conducting profession: that a conductor must possess leadership qualities, authority and “the ability to handle major formal concepts intellectually. A conductor who creates with empty hands has something intangible, something abstract about him. Women were long considered to be lacking these qualities.”4 In one of the video projections, Maria José Villamil-Rodriguez, a student of conducting, traces the lines of conducting patterns, while simultaneously explaining and commenting upon the techniques these diagrams depict. What’s interesting is that we only see her hands, never her face. Her hands thus become a sort of expressive and yet universal token of a social structure that is indeed able to communicate the conceptually abstract. Conducting (i.e. guiding and coordinating the musicians, and shaping the sound of the ensemble) adheres to certain rules and techniques that have a long history. The tempo is indicated according to strictly defined conducting patterns, which are essentially codes that the musicians are able to read and interpret. While delineating these socially legitimized codes, the female protagonist in the video acquaints us with several standard expressions – including gestures for indicating upbeat, cutoff, phrasing, or crescendo –  before going on to criticize these old-fashioned models and to correct them herself, drawing over the figures she disagrees with. She’s taking possession of these social codes, and this self-empowerment is accompanied in the video by quotes, forming another layer of meaning that supports and sustains her actions. Interspersed between the conducting patterns, we hear an excerpt from a text by Elias Canetti that deals with “standing”:
“[…] People normally stand before they begin to walk or run, and because standing is thus the antecedent of all motion, a standing man creates an impression of energy which is as yet unused. Standing is the central position, from which any other position can be directly reached and any movement initiated. We tend, therefore, to ascribe a relatively high degree of tension to anyone who is standing, even when he himself does not in fact feel it. He may, for instance, be about to lie down and sleep. We always overrate the man who stands.”5
And this is where conducting becomes political. After all, this passage is from Canetti’s Crowds and Power, a text that analyzes the way crowds develop, starting with the Weimar Republic in 1922, and going on to examine the impact that these dynamics had on fascism. In an attempt to understand how power structures evolve and persevere, Canetti begins his analyses by examining the similarities between rulers and their subordinates. He doesn’t regard these as having originated in the “culture” as such, but rather in the individual and in his interaction with his cultural surroundings. In order to decode the nature of power and therefore be able to change it, Canetti considers appearance and reality to be equally forceful, in terms of their effect on social systems. Whereas Canetti wonders how age-old power structures can be dislodged, Porten has already gone a step further: she shows very clear models for self-empowerment. Man – or, rather Woman, personified by the female conductor – is at the heart of the second video projection. Contrary to the work’s title The Female Conductor’s Back, we watch the conductor Monica Buckland at work from the front, at eye level. The camera has captured not only her hands, but her face as well – as if this projection represents a synthesis of this entire critical investigation. The excerpt shows Buckland in a rehearsal with the Dresden University Orchestra. She is quite concentrated, and yet likable, as she energetically flourishes the conducting baton, keeping her orchestra under control. The commands, which Canetti discusses in his book, flow effortlessly from her lips, as if requiring no physical or mental exertion. In fact, they even seem friendly, and the whole topic of power that has accompanied the conducting profession for centuries seems to be irrelevant. We could hardly find a more masterful expression for lightness of being, nor could we more flawlessly abolish the dynamics of power that have reigned for so long in our society. Watching this woman, we have to wonder, “Did we miss something here?” – and the question arises once more: how could the well-rehearsed roles have remained unquestioned for so long? And why do they continue to be reinforced by both men and women?

As we move before this projection, watching Buckland and listening to her commands, we become the orchestra as well. In this moment, we are not only positioned opposite the maestra Buckland, but we are faced with behavioral guidelines as well, in the form of a series of nine drawings that hang unframed on the wall, depicting the conducting patterns described in the video by Maria José Villamil-Rodriguez. These diagrams, taken from a textbook from the year 1921, seem to utterly invite appropriation.

For Canetti, as well as for Porten, there is a shared need for action, a necessity to change social structures that focus on the individual person. Here, the character of the female conductor becomes an independent, competent agent who holds these structures in her own hands, and therefore holds the key to their change as well. With this installation, Porten has managed to analyze a social practice by taking a reflective view, one neither implicitly nor explicitly formed by normative standards, but rather one which is shaped by a relational approach that allows her to expose the effects and dynamics of power and domination in society.

Social subordination is never rational, but can be understood as a psychological construct awaiting its defeat.6 The fact that this goal is not easily achieved becomes obvious in the Canetti quote used in the video with Maria José Villamil-Rodriguez. The off-screen voice reading Canetti’s text does not sound confident and neutral – on the contrary, it is unpracticed, sometimes insecure, and yet sustained by a sincere concern. Well-established gender roles and well-rehearsed subordination exist alongside the justifiable and long overdue demand for social equality. If we take a second look, the conducting patterns seem to be changing before our eyes, and a link between them and the Canetti quote becomes hauntingly convincing. The speaking voice seems only able to approach or to resist the formulas of power hesitatingly, as if out of a need for self-assurance. It clarifies, illustrates, or translates the metaphor at hand with a concerted urgency, which is not only exemplified in the person Monica Buckland, but which suddenly surrounds and impacts the spectator (who usually stands to view such an installation work) physically. The power of the “standing man” is thus demonstrated by the viewer’s own physical presence. The individual is confronted with the question whether this power hasn’t in fact been overestimated, or whether it’s simply out there for the taking. Conductors are allowed to turn their backs on the audience. And they’re the only ones who may, since turning one’s back on the audience would normally be regarded as an intolerable affront. That being so, this back, which society accepts and indeed expects to see, is not shown in this installation – a fact that again alludes to a reversal of traditionally defined behavioral mechanisms.

The installation plays with such physical forms of perception, creating a space that facilitates a subconscious reflection on the subject of power. The space becomes a phenomenon of perception, as the viewer’s body and the classification systems displayed – in other words, the subjectivity of the individual and the objectivity of the diagrams – no longer contradict each other, but rather suggest a bridging of the gap. The body understands Marion Porten’s subtle shifts in power earlier than the intellect is able to assimilate them. When Maria José Villamil-Rodriguez challenges and changes instructions, when Monica Buckland’s powerful and expansive presence leaves an impression, and when the anonymous onlooker becomes aware of her own upright posture as she moves through the exhibition, then this has to do with subtle power shifts, which slowly permeate our awareness and then quite clearly come to light. This clever insistence, which works on an intellectual as well as a physical level, is the quality that makes this installation by Marion Porten so meaningful. It is the fusion of body and intellect, which, according to the texts of Canetti and Bourdieu, is the most powerful weapon, and which we suddenly find ourselves surrounded by in this room.

1 Norman Lebrecht, Der Mythos vom Maestro (The Maestro Myth), Zurich 1991.
2 Elke Mascha Blankenburg, Dirigentinnen im 20. Jahrhundert – Porträts von Marin Alsop bis Simone Young (Female Conductors of the 20th Century – Portraits from Marin Alsop to Simone Young), Hamburg 2003.
3 Cf. Pierre Bourdieu, Die männliche Herrschaft (Masculine Domination), Frankfurt am Main 2005 (1998).
4 Eva Rieger, Frau, Musik und Männerherrschaft (Women, Music and Male Domination), Berlin 1981.
5 Elias Canetti, Masse und Macht (Crowds and Power), Hamburg 1960. English translation © Victor Gollancz Ltd., London 1962..
6 If we implement Bourdieu’s terminology, then we can apply the tools of habitus (the concept of symbolic violence) and the construction of social space with its social fields to comprehend social practice with its own implicit practical logic and practical sense. This entails a renunciation of the notion that social behavior may be understood rationally. Cf. Steffani Engler, Habitus und sozialer Raum: Zur Nutzung der Konzepte Pierre Bourdieus in der Frauen- und Geschlechterforschung, in: Handbuch Frauen- und Geschlechterforschung, ed. Ruth Becker/Beate Kortendiek, Wiesbaden 2008.

Text from:
The female conductor’s back / 2012
Publ. Künstlerhaus Schloss Balmoral