At eighty-eight years old and confined to a wheelchair, Merce Cunningham choreographed John Cage’s masterpiece 4’33’’. The British artist Tacita Dean created a video installation of the performance, which shows the seemingly immobile choreographer from three different angles. With close attention, however, the viewer will notice that Cunningham is, at times, moving his hand slightly and trembling throughout most of the performance. Just as Cage’s silence is not complete, Cunningham’s immobility is only partial. For as long as ears are listening, noise is created, and for as long as life inhabits a body, movement persists. But while watching Craneway Event, I wondered what exactly the collaboration of an artist like Dean offered to the dimensions of Cunningham’s and Cage’s work. More broadly, the question remained: What precisely can the dimension of dance offer to that of art and vice versa?
A few years ago, Laura McLean Ferris wrote an essay about the collaboration of artists, choreographers, and musicians. She noted that dance had become the main avenue of artistic exploration for many contemporary artists, such as Pablo Bronstein, Mike Kelley, and, perhaps more significantly, Tino Sehgal.1 1 - Laura McLean Ferris, “Let’s Dance” in Art Review, October 2010, www.artreview.com/profiles/blogs/let-s-dance, accessed January 4, 2013. In her essay McLean Ferris questions why, after more than four decades, institutions and artists have restored this collaborative practice; she wonders what it is about our particular time that has made it relevant again for various disciplines to work together? For Ferris, the answer resides in the particular shift of interest creative professionals. In more recent times, Ferris argues, the interest of artists has shifted to a more behavioural exploration as the exhibition Move at the Hayward Gallery seemed to suggest. Artists aim to decipher the reasons behind the way we interact with each other within designed spaces and cities.2 2 - Ibid. I would argue that rather than testifying to a shift of interest as such, the practice of an artist such as Sehgal demonstrates the evolution of artistic aspirations found in the 1960s. In fact, Sehgal’s interest in Conceptual art dates back to his first project as an artist, Instead of Allowing Something to Rise Up to Your Face Dancing Bruce and Dan and Other Things, in which he loosely appropriated conceptual works by Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham.
Sehgal had a big year in 2012. He was the author of This variation, one of the most acclaimed works at dOCUMENTA (13), and was also the chosen artist for the prestigious Unilever Series presented at Tate Modern. Trained as a dancer, Sehgal’s practice oscillates between art and dance, between participation and performance. Sehgal creates situations in which he choreographs the involvement of his audience. Forcing the viewers to enter into a physical engagement with the space and become the actors of his mise-en-scène, he surreptitiously turns viewers into performers.
These associations was the title of Sehgal’s project for the Unilever Series presented from July to October 2012 in Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. On entering this gigantic space, visitors were welcomed by an actor, who proceeded to recount the tales of his or her childhood, including intimate details of an unasked-for personal story. To keep up with the story, however, the visitors were forced to follow the teller, and thus became engaged in Sehgal’s choreography, trapped by their own curiosity. Adrian Searle, who wrote a review of the show for The Guardian, admitted that he could “barely drag [himself] away.” 3 3 - Adrian Searle, “Tino Sehgal: These associations,” review in The Guardian, published July 23, 2012, www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/jul/23/tino-sehgal-these-associations-review, accessed January 4, 2013.For him, These associations was one of the best Unilever commissions, as it simultaneously touches on communality, intimacy belonging, and rejection. It came at a significant moment, he remarks, in the “brouhaha and corporate fascism and jingoism of the Olympics.”4 4 - Ibid.
A few weeks before These associations opened, I visited dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany. On my frantic schedule of things to visit at this fashionable art event, Sehgal was not to be missed. As I walked into the dark room, where I was previously advised something spectacular would happen, I could feel I was not alone. I could not discern how many of us were sharing the space — it was impossible to even imagine the shape of the room as the obscurity was impenetrable, but surely there were a few other souls close by — I could feel and hear them move around me. Suddenly, in this confused situation, a harmonious movement seemed to grow. It had been triggered by a series of cues, taps, and kicks. People started singing and dancing together in the darkness of the room. My eyes slowly adapted and I could finally discern the silhouettes of the dancers all around me, sometimes so incredibly close I could feel their breath. I felt the desire to join them, to also be part of what was happening; maybe I could even fool other visitors into believing I was one of them. For a moment I did, pretending I was a performer, because I could. Then, I decided to revert back to my role as a spectator and waited for new visitors to have the same surprise, to observe them within the darkness. Upon re-entering the light of day, I was unsure if I had just assisted, or had actually performed in This variation. What I knew was that I had been made more aware of my body, of how my sight is affected by light, of the proximity of visitors in the subsequent exhibition spaces. I had been made acutely aware of the boundaries of my own body; I had been made sensitive to the space I occupy, and to how I physically communicate with others through movement.
Before becoming an acclaimed artist, Sehgal danced for experimental choreographers such as Jérôme Bel and Xavier Leroy. However, even though he is a trained dancer, and despite the performative dimension of This variation and These associations, they have radically dissimilar structures to contemporary dance spectacles. First, his works are continuous and cyclic; they do not follow the pattern of a show with a beginning, middle, and an end, but rather, happen incessantly over a period of time. They are punctuated and determined by the flow of visitors, which constitutes the other major difference to the traditional spectacle. In both pieces, as in most of Sehgal’s previous works, the performances do not happen in spite of the viewers, but because of them. The show does not happen in front of a public, it happens among and with the public. As such, both projects, as well as most of Sehgal’s other works, are anti-spectacles.
In his most influential work, The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord defines the “spectacle” as the fetishization of the culture of consumption.5 5 - Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholas-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1994), 160. Turned into a passive subject, the consumer’s social relations are defined by the action of consuming, of accumulating commodities. Every aspect of society, from education to sports, holidays, or even architecture is designed to create a spectacle that incites mindless consumerism. One only needs to think of a few creative advertising strategies to realize how deeply these “spectacles” have become integrated into our lives. For Debord, the purpose of these spectacles is not solely economic. Trapped in consumerism and passive in front of a continuous series of spectacles, social subjects surrender their political selves to become pacified and manipulable. In short, the society of spectacle acts as a powerful narcotic. Debord and the Situationists International were associated with a group of avant-garde artists that aimed to bring art and politics closer after the Second World War. These avant-garde movements greatly influenced the production of new forms of art in the 1960s and 1970s — including performance art and happenings — which are the historical roots of Sehgal’s artistic practice.
The idea of the anti-spectacle is precisely wherein lies the disruptive potential of Sehgal’s practice. His projects, which he calls “constructed situations,” are experiences that have or produce no tangible objects. This is rendered even more evident through the artist’s stubborn decision not to document any of his projects. They happen once at a given time and space and subsist only in the participants’ memories. What is truly striking in Sehgal’s pieces is the retrieval of (social and spatial) relations not dictated by possessions, and the reengagement of basic human interactions. What he offers are alternative environments, anti-spectacles in Debordian terms in which the subject is thrown out of his or her passivity to become the living engine of the artist’s choreography.
In March of this year, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal announced the presentation of Kiss and the acquisition of This situation. It was the first time that a museum acquired one of Sehgal’s works before even presenting it. This situation is a work that is inscribed into a series of pieces that share the same anti-spectacle structure as These associations or This variation, with the particularity of having been adapted to Montreal’s bilingualism. Kiss, on the other hand, has a significantly different structure than the above–mentioned works.
Continuously, throughout the day, in the centre of the hall, one of six local dance couples performs an eight-minute work — choreographed to re-enact the most iconic embraces of art history. As visitors navigate the space of the museum, they encounter this uninterrupted performance at least twice, once as they enter the building and again as they leave. The complete lack of information, either in the form of a wall label or a museum mediation of some kind, leaves them to seek a rationale on their own by studying what their eyes have captured. Viewing the interlacing of two bodies made me incredibly aware of my own physical frontiers as my physiological memory tried to make sense of the performance.
But is Kiss an anti-spectacle? After all, it is presented in front of the public, not amongst it like most of Sehgal’s “constructed situations.” It is not triggered by the visitors’ presence, but happens whether or not someone is watching. And as for that last characteristic, I contend it is the most anti-spectacle of Sehgal’sworks. Kiss is surprising when you first see it; the choreography’s sensuality is striking. Then, every time you pass the museum hall, or when you lean out from the café’s mezzanine, there it is, going on incessantly. The spectacle is always available; it is unavoidable and you feel the undeniable desire to go back and experience it again.