ESSAY // Flirting with the Judson Church, PS1 Dance Panels, and the FUTURE

Trajal Harell at NYLA, photo by Ian Douglas
“Conceptual dance is ova’!
Conceptual dance is ova’!”

After thirty minutes of boredom watching Trajal Harrell’s Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem…(M2M), M2M standing for Made-to-Measure, Harrell’s adapted size for the larger project aptly titled Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church, Harrell’s dancers enter what I would like to call club mode.  It’s a mode that sometimes surfaces in Miguel Gutierrez’s works that seem to respond to Harrell’s call that Conceptual dance is ova’! The most recent of these took place via Skype at the Prelude Festival last October.  To fully understand the descent into club mode, a brief history of recent NYC interest in Judson Church by visual arts museums must be explored, starting first with Judson itself.

To put it simply, Judson Church was and still is a Christian Baptist church in Greenwich Village that was used in the early 1960s by what are now called the first postmodern dancers.  These would include Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton, David Gordon and Yvonne Rainer.  The post-modernity of the movement stems from a systematic rejection of the virtuosic body and choreographer.  Matching their contemporaries in visual arts and sharing their shortcomings, this movement saw itself as democratizing movement by celebrating the pedestrian and neutral bodies, whatever these may be.

Now, the necessity for this move away from virtuosity, away from modernity even is a decision very much chained to its presence in time.  The utopian ideals of Modernist dance in Europe (the German Expressionist dancers, Laban’s movement notations, etc..) expired and were also placed into the great debate around the relationship between utopia and totalitarianism.  One could claim that the intensive group movement workshops of the early German Expressionists formed the seeds for the mass processions of Hitler’s Third Reich.  And in many ways, Judson was a clever political movement, if not a strategy.  Its rejection of institutionalized styles and classic forms found its strength in its very non-utopianism, forming a push that was in fact cautious and measured.
This is the idea:


And now to contextualize this dance within the larger vibes of the times, here’s a quote from Lucy Lippard, a conceptual visual artist revisiting and critiquing her own work in the introduction to a new edition of her essay Escape Attempts:

“Communication (but not community) and distribution (but not accessibility) were inherent in Conceptual art.  Although the forms pointed toward democratic outreach, the content did not.  However rebellious the escape attempts, most of the work remained art-referential, and neither economic nor aesthetic ties to the art world were fully severed (though at times we liked to think they were hanging by a thread.) Contact with a broader audience was vague and undeveloped.”

One can only reject an impetus and exist as an anti anything for so long.  Ultimately, the dance or visual art created in reaction to the virtuosic institutions of the past are imprisoned by their very self-referential rigor of rejecting a perceived monolithic past.  Yet this is not a liberation of a form nor is it transgressive.  The constant self-definition as against this or against that is very limiting, and it becomes dogmatic to a point of full branding, really begging the question of whether Judson was more of a strategy rather than a movement.  The discussion still revolves around this term of conceptual, what the f#$ck is conceptual dance?  How is it that other forms of dance from before were not conceptual?  Why is it over, Traj?

So Trajall made the call after thirty minutes of boredom, presumably illustrating the very lack of energy that a Judson dancer would bring to the Harlem ballroom voguing scene.  Along with his three dancers, Traj sat and sang while a subtle gust blew through their simple black dresses.  Following, the club music came on and the trio got their voguing vibe on, strutting, commanding and demanding, culminating in small solos by each dancer, supported by their two other comrades.  This is where full club mode begins, among rallying cries of Don’t stop and work, each dancer took on their form of liberation, backed also by the repeated chant of conceptual dance is ova’.  And their movements were hot, sloppy, and mostly annoying.  Now, these sloppy jams constitute one part of club mode.  I’d like to think that club mode for dance on a stage is similar to relational aesthetics for MFA students just finding out about Bourriaud.  Here it is: relational aesthetics reappropriate happenings in society by placing them in a new setting, the white space of the gallery with the mission of subverting or reinterpreting social relations.  Here’s a quote from Hennessy Youngman that touches on some profound issues with relational aesthetics :

“...getting drunk in a bar, having a one night stand, and contracting herpes.  I guess because at a bar you gotta pay for a drink in order to be there so that experience is tainted by Capitalism’s dirty fingers and shit, but somehow congregating in a gallery you take part in the same activities but as a socially autonomous refusal of capitalism.  Because we all know that a gallery is an ideologically neutral environment that has nothing to do with the accumulation of wealth or the advancement of global capitalism or any of its sordid subpractices and uh, that’s why the walls are white in a gallery, because white’s neutral, blank, I can think! I can think, that’s why I’m here!”

pffff conceptual dance

So then club mode is the exuberant end of conceptual dance.  Somehow seeing Harrell’s work in PS1’s performance dome, or at New York Live Arts, or at the Abrons Art Center elevates it above the fun times that could be had dancing at one’s local discotheque in the same way that inviting people over to cook pad thai in a gallery somehow elevates the simple act to unprecedented values.  (you can now buy the kitchenware that was used for Tiravanija's work for forty to sixty thousand dollars)
But club mode is kind of fun.  In Miguel Gutierrez’s context, especially The Problem with Dancing, he states repeatedly that dance doesn’t do this and it doesn’t do that, but after affirming that dance doesn’t do anything, Gutierrez enters club mode and each dancer embraces and kisses a man next to them.  It’s an elated, hopeful jam that should not be forgotten.  However, declaring that conceptual dance is ova’ really sounds like the virtuosic dancer body is ova’.  We are very quick to declare the end of things without proposing new moves toward the future.

And now enter the museum as an institution gathering dance in its galleries and its collections.  It has been pointed out numerous times that the very act of collecting a dance piece is oddly reductive, as if attempting to purchase an experience, an event.  Certain museums and galleries would collect ephemera: left over pieces of set design, props and costumes, maybe even scores of music.  However, as we approach a more profound integration of the human body within the gallery, we are confronted by the works of one Tino Sehgal, who insists on selling his performance pieces as physical objects.  His refusal to label his works dance or theater stems from the fact that he doesn’t see his dancers (sculptures?) as persons.  He sells works, or rather the rights to perform his works, to museums for $85,000 to $145,000.  Is interest in dance a result of museums finally finding a way to commodify the uncommodifiable?  Now, choreographic works have only had the ability for copyright since 1978, most recently culminating in a debate over Beyonce stealing the choreography of one Belgian, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker for her video entitled Countdown.  This really begs the question of whether a point has been reached where a body becomes an art object backed by the law.  The Walker Arts Center has Sehgal’s This objective of that object listed as acquired in 2004 as a “constructed situation.” What is a constructed situation?

So contemporary!

It must be noted that museums such as MoMA, the New Museum, and PS1 to the greatest extent are very aware of this problematic.  I would go as far as saying hyper self-aware and just that.  Following Harrell’s performance at PS1 came a panel discussion on dance’s place in the museum and in the cultural milieu today.  Of the five panel members, Peter Eleey, curator at PS1, and Mårten Spångberg brought up two seemingly conflicting points that eventually converged in their complacency.  Peter has curated a landmark Trisha Brown exhibition at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, establishing him as more or less of an expert in the realm of curating performance.  He spoke about the confounding place of human beings on exhibit in the museum, reflecting on the fact that object based is shifting toward production-based.  This is to say that the very interest in live works inside of the museum, especially the more durational works, is centered on labour rather than finished product.  In this way, curators curate labour and action, dealing internally with the very dancerly issues of performers not showing up for work while externally hailing the human body as the final frontier of exhibition.  Eleey seemed ready and able to consider the new issues that arise with art as labour, but why is it that performative labor enters into this new elevated discourse that borders on the abstract?  In 2006, Santiago Sierra was invited to stage a piece at PS1.  His work deals directly with labor, one could say labor as labor. (vs. art as labor)  Here is a quote from Sierra about PS1 denying his exhibition idea:

"I suppose I was censored at P.S.1. I wanted to line up all the P.S.1 workers according to the position they occupied and photograph their backs. Of course they knew that if I did that, there would be a perfect gradation from white to black, because the people who work at the door are black, but when you go upstairs, the watchmen are more Latino, and at the top, it’s the paradise of the white man. So they stonewalled, telling me I was trying to create a problem that didn’t exist. But I’m going to keep the idea and try to do it again."

Now in 2012, Eleey’s explorations of labor in the museum, granted these explorations were only beginning in 2006 during Sierra’s proposal, are aligning themselves with some more adventurous advocates of dance.  The convergence with Spångberg occurs when the latter expresses his grand vision for choreography in the 21st century.  He posits that because we live in a condition where production has become more important than product, museum visitors will no longer be interested in seeing objects but would prefer to see the action, the production, and the labour that accumulates value.  Essentially, he is comparing the visual art objects of the 20th century to the product-based economies of the same century.  Conversely, in the 21st century and belonging to a largely service-based economy, one will see a call for a form that reflects this item-less system.  If interpreted in this context, dance and choreography (non-traditional) could very much fit this role, it is only a matter of adapting in order to properly challenge the museum’s old ways.    And Spångberg is ecstatic, literally noting that he’s been getting laid a lot more often now than twenty years ago as a dance critic.  But there is a critical distance to the whole discourse, the radical self-awareness and self-critique with lack of action.  It shows a level of first-degree art conversations that border on something essential, but still don't dare to arrive to close to home.  What about the actual labor that is currently taking place at PS1?  I do rest hopeful that the museum will place itself in riskier and more compromising situations in the future.  If anything, it's a small payment of respect to Alanna Heiss's legacy.

This is an ongoing discussion, of course, the conclusion at PS1 being that it was radically inconclusive.  However, let’s not forget that dance and physical arts have a very special ability for engagement and liberation, whether they are the avatars of our production and service obsessed society or not.  Hyper self-awareness is great, the curatorial practice is becoming more and more transparent.  However, does this raging discussion overcome the essential of the moving arts?  It seems that Tino Sehgal’s work is as involved with the distribution model of the contemporary art object as much as it is involved with the radically emancipatory potential of active experiences.  It shares more parallels with Damien Hirst’s Crystal Skull than with, say, Adam Levine’s Habit.  And there is nothing wrong with this.  We do live in an age where body, object, and image are becoming increasingly interchangeable and having work that reflects this condition is not just convenient, but necessary.

LEIMAY in residency at the New Museum (via Movement Research)

conceptual dance (is ova’!) took place during Movement Research in Residence at the New Museum.  Six individual choreographers and collectives were invited to confront questions about the place of the Judson Church today, ranging from dance vs. performance art, strategic branding of Judson, and the neutral/pedestrian body vs. the virtuosic.  The final presentations were rigidly labeled as not-performances and strictly presentations, but it became very clear that Judson’s conceptual place is played out and irrelevant today.  Walter Dundervill slithered on the ground with tin foil and pushed some bodies around with his head.  He said, “I just make a big mess, and I thought I was done with tin foil, but I guess not.”  Both the collective AUNTS and the Bureau for the Future of Choreography talked about being a collective and the problems that come with this, becoming meta-collectives.  conceptual dance (is ova’!) doesn’t really belong anywhere anymore.  It is clear that this was a sort of first-option for museums interested in curating more dance, but according to the discussions at PS1 and to a greater extent, after the New Museum residencies, movement in the museum will have to become something less hung up on its past and more prepared to challenge the gallery setting with its virtue as a form.

What does this mean?  It is clear that performance can take place on a proscenium stage.  It is clear that it can take place in a gallery, on the street, on the Internet.  Moving away from terms such as performance art, museum movement will have to find a new form, oftentimes requiring something that is durational and captivating for a long period of time.  And it doesn’t have to lose its force; if anything, durational performances in museums stand to challenge the entire object-based system, provoking an outdated form (via Spångberg) by showing the true power of engagement that dance is capable of staging.  Ximena Garnica of LEIMAY, also residents of the Movement Research @ The New Museum, posited that dancers simply have to choose how they work with a setting in mind.  Clearly, a piece for the stage will not work in the MoMA Atrium.  Clearly, 1970s performance art cannot be staged.  It is all very simple: pieces are indebted to the space they are performed in.  This is it.  Skeptics will attack museum curation as inappropriate for dance, because it doesn’t understand the production and ethos of dance works.  What I would say to them is that it simply isn’t dance as we have been taught to see it, it is not conceptual dance that will be curated and it will not be experimental dance that will be curated either.  Whatever is happening right now, it is wholly other, not belonging to any discipline, a bastard in the greatest.  And it will be hot and fab and mesmerizing and transcendent, provocative not so much in the cheap way that provocation works in today’s society, but provocative insofar as how this other will redefine what kind of experience may fit inside of a gallery space, what kind of physicality will be revisited, and finally, what we are afraid of while running full speed toward it.

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