Agri Ismaïl on BOATS & On Air

Secretions: cum, sweat and tears

— on BOATS and On Air (Very Understanding Radio Dance Festival)

Since the early nineties, an ever increasing number of artworks have been created on the basis of preexisting works; more and more artists interpret, reproduce, re-exhibit, or use works made by others or available cultural products. This art of postproduction seems to respond to the proliferating chaos of global culture in the information age, which is characterized by an increase in the supply of works and the world’s annexation of forms ignored or disdained until now.

(Nicholas Bourriaud, Postproduction)

The notion of cinematic grammar was spurred by the medium’s original limitations: cuts were a necessity as reels only allowed for 15 minutes maximum of continuous shooting, thus directors were encouraged to move away from the static shots of early film experiments culminating in a language so influential that it has changed all of art. Novels prior to the cinematic cut presented events in a strict chronology, characters being followed from one room to the next; it was only the freedom proffered by cinema’s new realism that freed prose to employ techniques that we today take for granted.

Just as cinema was blossoming, the avant-garde dadaist poet Tristan Tzara created a poem by pulling words at random from a hat, the collage and the cut-up were born. In the field of music this took the form of hip-hop’s samples and remixes, an ethos that permeates the internet as a whole today, for what is meme culture and tumblr if not examples of remix Culture.

As such both Mica Sigourney’s performance BOATS and Nadja Hjorton’s On Air at Turteatern’s Very Understanding Radio Dance Festival use the language of remix culture, both pieces flitting from one theme to the next, creating a mishmash of genres where the individuals seams between styles and themes are all too visible and yet, the patchwork is made to feel somehow coherent.

Sigourney’s thematics touch on 80s minimalism, what with its Philip Glass music and ethereal balloon-sculpture, as well as both 00s tech utopia (dancing to a music the audience cannot hear, music playing on an iPod shuffle an echo of all those “silent” iPod parties that were briefly so trendy) and, as a consequence to the music we cannot hear, contemporary anxieties pertaining to technological isolation. But the segment that the piece ends on is perhaps the most interesting from a theoretical perspective: Sigourney silently reaches out to an audience member to perform a poem about Zeus, rendering explicit Benjamin’s adage that “humanity, which in Homer’s day provided a spectacle for the gods of Olympus, has now become one for itself and playing with the biggest trend in art theory in the 90s/00s: relational aesthetics.

Theorised by the curator Nicholas Bourriaud, relational aesthetics broadly looks at how art practices in the late 90s looks at “the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space”. The artwork is created by audience participation, be it through eating Félix González-Torres’s candy mountain or preparing Rirkrit Tiravanija’s soups, echoing Joseph Beuys’s assertion that only art provides a space of playful activity free of the means-ends relationships of capitalism. The previous generations’ attitude toward utopianism has been set aside due to impracticality or perhaps fatigue, and replaced instead with “microtopias” where it is not the world as a whole that is the object to be changed, but rather the artwork that strives to find a temporary solution, merely “learning to inhabit the world in a better way”.

In inviting an audience member to give him a voice and to follow a script that is not simply text to be recited but also commands to be followed, the audience-member becomes part of the art-work, a computational device controlled by the instructions on the paper.

Of course relational aesthetics is not without its pitfalls, as memorably dissected by art theorist Claire Bishop in the journals October and Artforum in 2004 and 2006, respectively. Bishop considers both ethical and aesthetic dimensions, namely that there are implications in outsourcing artistic labour in this manner (unpaid labour, at that). Though Bourriaud considers the link between relational aesthetics and capitalism as a merely depicting one, as relational art is becomes a response to the “shift from a goods to a service-based economy”, it isn’t quite so simple. Labour is still labour, even if infused with the ludic elements that make it seem like “fun”, just as our uploading statuses on Facebook are us freely providing our labour-power to a corporation in exchange for our friends’ “likes”. The undercurrent of the gig economy’s unpaid labour remains, no matter how entertaining it seems.

Bishop also notes that relational art has a hypocritical element of self-sacrifice to it, namely that “the artist should renounce authorial presence in favor of allowing participants to speak through him or her. This self-sacrifice is accompanied by the idea that art should extract itself from the “useless” domain of the aesthetic and be fused with social praxis.”

In the end, Sigourney quietly leaves the stage as the chosen audience member finishes the poem. The artist both is and is not present.

In stark comparison with Sigourney’s patchwork of genres and time-periods, Nadja Hjorton’s On Air is a much more contemporary affair. Together with Jessyka Watson Galbrait, Zoë Puloch and Halla Ólafsdóttir, Hjorton is seated in a giant inflatable orb inside which there is assorted greenery, bringing to mind the geodesic domes of the environmental sci-fi classic Silent Running from 1972. The four women are inside the orb, in the midst of recording a podcast, the conversation running the gamut from the ethics of bestiality to the erotic love of inanimate objects via the logistics of inserting a menstrual Mooncup. How much of this conversation exemplifies contemporary literary trends of para- or auto-fiction is unclear, but the segment certainly feels authentic, as though we were witnessing an actual podcast being recorded, at times self-indulgent, at times-hilariously funny, all interspersed with actual music played in its entirety.

It’s only a half-hour into the performance that the four dancers leave the plastic orb, to wrestle in the post-apocalyptic wasteland as Beyoncé’s Drunk in Love blares, followed by a remix of the floor-crawling movements in Hjorton’s Medea — It’s a Classic, but whereas that previous work made the gestures seem ritualistic and disturbing, the tragedy is now repeating itself as farce, with dancers frequently bursting out into laughter. The seams in the collage are the most visible during this time, as it’s hard to fit the more choreographed events in with the rest of the performance. Upon re-entry to the orb, the dancers strip naked, and the podcast becomes the blurry manifesto of some socialist gardener collective — the infighting and disagreements mirroring the poisonous echo chambers of social media but also of issues that have plagued the left forever (as Doris Lessing said in 1969, it’s “the same old arguments, the same political in-fighting, that I went through years ago when I was a Communist. To tell you the truth, I’ve gotten so tired of politics, as decade relentlessly follows decade…It’s not that I’ve changed my mind, but that it gets so tiresome to say the same things. The left has gotten so dull, it’s just like the right.”). The extended metaphor of gardener-socialists arguing over the shape of their future utopia makes explicit what the initial setting only hinted upon, a sharp focus on the intersection between the global left and ecology that has re-entered public discussion due to humanity’s impending doom. To quote Naomi Klein: “we are left with a stark choice: allow climate disruption to change everything about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate. But we need to be very clear: because of our decades of collective denial, no gradual, incremental options are now available to us.”

Where Sigourney’s piece was, ultimately, toying with aesthetic signifiers, it mostly avoided political notions (not entirely, of course: the flimsy trash bags brought in the beginning of the piece is an oblique reference to ecological issues just as his drag queen make-up hints at gender issues) while On Air, as light and funny as it is, revels in these issues. Even the nudity, an often tiresome contemporary trend, echoes both ecological theory (Nicholas Mizroeff: “More generally, I would suggest that our bodies sense that the climate is out of joint. We have a strong sense of seasonal rhythm, to which anyone who has flown from the Northern to Southern hemisphere (or vice versa) can attest: the intense oddity of the ‘jet lag’ is not just the time difference but the seasonal shift. This is an aesthetics, not as a classificatory scheme of the beautiful, but ‘an “aesthetics” at the core of politics… as the system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience’.) as well as questions asked by choreographer Mette Ingvartsen, namely how to understand a system that “sells itself as being based on free choice and individual freedom” and the “effects that the (neoliberal) immaterial labor economy has on bodies in general”.

Hjorton’s piece ends with the four dancers performing a campfire-song redolent of hippie naturalism, the chorus claiming that we are all free-range. It speaks to the easy solutions proffered by corporations: as long as we consume correctly, we can avoid the planetary disasters inevitably heading our way. But the dancers sing with such conviction that for a brief moment it becomes possible to believe that we’ll actually be ok after all.


// Agri Ismaïl