By Claire Bishop
THIS SEEMS TO BE THE YEAR that dance went discursive. The possibilities and limitations of this shift marked the two most influential performance experiences I had in 2014. The first was Ralph Lemon’s Value Talks at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, a yearlong series of discussions and performances, and the second was Boris Charmatz’s expo zéro in its two-day iteration at Berliner Festspiele in July. And, sigh, full disclosure: I was partially involved in both projects, as one of a lineup of invited participants.
Lemon’s Value Talks were organized as part of his one-year Annenberg Research Commission Residency at MoMA and seemed to spring from the choreographer’s unease with the way in which dance has begun to appear in museums since the mid-2000s (i.e., as entertaining fairy dust, injecting live thrills into sterile spaces). This trend requires choreographers either to edit preexisting work or to produce new pieces that relinquish atmospheric specificity (including lighting and acoustics) for the unforgiving harshness of the white cube. Lemon proposed a series of seven events that dealt with the question of value, beginning with the incommensurate economies of visual art and dance but also extending more widely into issues of race and culture. Although most of the events were filmed, only a couple are available on MoMA’s website—itself raising questions about where performance’s value lies: in the event itself or in its documentation (of which this article forms a part).
The first event, in October 2013, was a discussion that included Lemon, Charmatz, and the venerable choreographer Simone Forti, which reportedly got off to a bad start by asking how visual artists manage to sell a conversation for a million dollars, all of which seemed like a nasty case of Tino Sehgal envy. Finance also dominated the second event (the first that I actually attended) a month later: an intimate gathering held in the “Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New” show, where MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry recounted the difficulties of acquiring Robert Rauschenberg’s combine Canyon, 1959, due to its inclusion of a bald eagle (illegal to trade or own in the US). The talk was fairly innocuous until associate director Kathy Halbreich asked my opinion, which inadvertently opened things up to an explosion of criticism of MoMA’s institutional values, particularly the depoliticized neutrality of its displays and Lowry’s claim that the museum was no longer canonical. Finally, those of us frustrated with MoMA could speak truth to power; it was therapeutic, although it almost certainly won’t have any impact.
Later in the series, in March, art historian Kellie Jones spoke on the theme of absence and ancestry in the work of David Hammons. For the first half of her talk, Jones lectured in absentia, her disembodied voice filling a small screening room with the poetry of her father, Amiri Baraka, who had died two months earlier. This was a powerful opener to a discussion of Hammons’s work in relation to bebop. Two weeks later, artist Kevin Beasley and poet-scholar Fred Moten put together an evening themed around improvisation (“On Value, Poetry, and the Turntable”): Beasley mixed records while Moten simultaneously composed a rapid-fire response in poetry. In May, we gathered off-site to see choreographer Sarah Michelson “in rehearsal” with two of her dancers; she spoke so sotto voce that this was easily the least language-driven event in the series, effectively presenting the rehearsal as pure image. Inviting us to enter after the discussion had already begun and to leave before it had ended, Michelson refused the usual format of performance-and-talk-back in favor of opacity, a fantasy of rehearsal.
Of course, had Yvonne Rainer’s contribution been realized—a proposal to fall asleep underneath Henri Rousseau’s 1897 painting Sleeping Gypsy—it would have trumped Michelson’s antidialogic provocation. The event was nixed by the museum for reasons I don’t fully understand (something to do with Tilda Swinton’s sleeping performance the previous fall). Finally, there was yours truly, leading a guided tour of the contemporary galleries at MoMA fifty years in the future, overwriting the Sigmar Polke retrospective then on display, positing a utopian hang of art prompted by a total change of social values. (Rainer’s proposed work managed to make an appearance in this imaginary display.)
Lemon has referred to the Value Talks as “performance essays,” but I experienced them more like a seminar or workshop: a chance to gather regularly with peers to hear one-off experiments in our respective mediums. The series also put me in dialogue with the African American art and performance scene, which is still far from integrated into the city’s museums. When one reflects on the series as a whole, however, it seems discouraging that MoMA can only give so much space to African American artists, and to this degree of experimentalism, in the form of fleeting events like performance and education, rather than being able to admit such forms of creativity and criticality into its exhibitions and collection displays.
BORIS CHARMATZ, meanwhile, has been developing a speculative and discursive approach to dance since 2009 under the auspices of the Centre Choréographique National de Rennes et de Bretagne, France’s National choreography center, which he has renamed Musée de la Danse. Expo zéro, which I first saw as part of Performa 11 three years ago, isn’t an exhibition so much as a drifting series of encounters between the public and ten performers. I was invited to be part of the team for its Berlin debut last summer, alongside performance artists Rabih Mroué and Tim Etchells, curator/writers David Riff and Hu Fang, dancers/choreographers Shelley Senter and Pichet Klunchun, and choreographers/dancers Mette Ingvartsen and Meg Stuart. In July, we gathered for five days to workshop an event that then opened to the public for two days.
In its lack of structure, the experience was at once maddening, terrifying, and exhilarating. Charmatz’s only organizing principle was for us to present our individual proposals for a museum of dance in the seven empty rooms of the Kunstsaele Berlin, a classic nineteenth-century bourgeois apartment turned art gallery. We were forbidden from using costumes, props, objects, scores, or scripts; there was no furniture and no music or video. (In this respect, it was not dissimilar to Lemon’s pared-back approach to performance at MoMA: using only the tools available to create hypotheses about museums and value.)
The result was a combination of strategies with a higher conversational and collaborative component than any previous iteration of expo zéro. Invisible histories of performance, questions of ownership and reperformance, improvisation versus scores, social dance and pedagogy were all put on the table (or, rather, the floor). Riff was a walking repository of information about Karl Marx, especially his relationship to dance (who knew he’d wooed his wife with a quadrille?). Ingvartsen explained and enacted a collection of now-iconic erotic performances by Carolee Schneemann, Vito Acconci, and others. Etchells performed exhilarating streams of verbal improvisation, either in dialogue with Stuart’s choreography or in tandem with Mroué as they spent hours amassing imaginary objects in a room. I pursued discussions about social choreography with the other performers or asked them to teach me how to dance. These wordier contributions alternated with quieter, more physical presentations, such as Klunchun’s sculptural excerpts of Thai royal dance, Hu’s meditative tai chi sequences, or Senter’s back catalogue as a dancer for Trisha Brown (and authorized instructor of Rainer’s Trio A, 1966). Charmatz himself veered indefatigably between turbopowered dance improvisation and high-energy discussions with the audience.
To my amazement, it all kind of worked: People settled in for this five-hour hybrid of exhibition/conference/ performance, with viewers and performers continually flowing between rooms and words and movement. Discussions were not preprepared and repeated but spontaneously erupted after a week of sitting in a room and listening to each other. The overall structure was raw and unpolished, in part because we weren’t being filmed for posterity, and in part because we were in a continual state of testing. (In this respect, it couldn’t have been more different from the übercontrolled boot camp of Marina Abramović’s 512 Hours, 2014, running simultaneously at the Serpentine Gallery in London.)
That dance is now moving into exhibition spaces and adopting a discursive register seems to be an inevitable consequence of Sehgal’s popularity, even though his “situations” are indebted to a ’90s generation of French choreographers (including Xavier Le Roy, whose “Retrospective” just closed at MoMA PS1, and Charmatz). But both the Value Talks and expo zéro point to paths beyond Sehgal in harnessing performers who were allowed to let their own knowledge flourish; lifetimes of research and expertise were not so much performed as made available to new contexts and collaborations. As an academic, I welcomed the ways in which the Value Talks and expo zéro opened up alternatives to the conventional scholarly formats of the symposium or lecture; rather than taking these presentational devices as a given, these projects made possible the option of embodying and enacting ideas in other performative formats. And yet the joy, pleasure, and risk of each series were directly indexed to its intimacy and scale: The freedom of these experiments only seems to be possible with limited audiences and a lack of repetition. (In Berlin, tickets were restricted to one hundred and fifty people. In New York, the events were invitation-only, although at some point Triple Canopy will publish a record of the series as a book titled On Value.) Whether this exclusivity of address and resistance to popularization is a creative necessity—or a crippling drawback—is one of the trickiest questions that experimental choreographers now have to confront. I just wish you all could have been there.
Claire Bishop is a professor in the Ph.D. program in art history at CUNY Graduate Center, New York.