New Circuits: Curating Contemporary Performance

— Diary by Caroline Spellenberg

Walker Art Center
1750 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis
September 28 – 29, 2015

This fall, the Walker Art Center held New Circuits: Curating Contemporary Performance, in their own words a “curatorial research convening that will focus on pressing areas of inquiry facing the field of curating contemporary performance.” The invited speakers were performance curators from important American institutions including the Dia Art Foundation, Performa, Danspace Project, and MoMA; local projects like FD13 Residency (Sandra Teitge) and The Bindery Projects (Nate Young); as well as artists whose work is linked to the above mentioned institutions and projects (Ralph Lemon, Maria Hassabi, Pope L., Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell). The history of the Walker Art Center itself reveals that the museum is a crucial field of reference or distinction for the relatively new institutional work with performance art. Its relationship with the art market, the question of archiving formats and documentation, or the definition of (exclusive) ownership are just some of the many natural disparities between object- and event-based arts. There are also different artistic needs for space and time that show the possibilities and limits of the interchangeability of the white cube and black box, not to mention the role of the observer, of whom a different way of seeing and behaving is expected when facing a performance. These questions about the terms of production and presentation have been raised in different ways in (Central) Europe where there is a relatively well-functioning performance network of co-producing festivals and venues between Berlin, Brussels, and Paris etc.; and a likewise cross-border working community of artists. There, a curatorial program is usually developed specifically for a particular environment, in other words for a local audience and (cultural) policy context. The American colleagues at New Circuits: Curating Contemporary Performance argue for the relevance of curatorial choices more in relation to art historical contexts, such as making previously underrepresented artists visible. Establishing a meaningful connection between a program and programmatic attitude is, by all means, the core of this strange profession of being a curator.

WalkerArtCenter© Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

Sarah Michelson: Let’s Play!!!

— Diary by Caroline Spellenberg

Walker Art Center
1750 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis
September 24 – 27, 2015

“The question is what is a dancer, what are you doing, what’s dancing, what’s excellence, what’s virtuosity? Is it possible to shift how you would look at a dance?” – Sarah Michelson

This year, the Walker Art Center opened its performance season with the world premiere of Sarah Michelson’s tournamento. The New York-based choreographer has an almost legendary reputation not only because of her outstanding art, but also because of maintaining the maximum possible control over her work’s documentation. There is practically no way to experience a Michelson show second hand: hardly any photos, no video, no website. In today’s world, that is a statement. With her formal choreographic systems, which incorporate not only dance, but also textual, architectural, and visual elements, she creates her very own interpretation of the American dream of post-modern dance. Conventional dramaturgies of time, space, and attention are sacrificed to serial, indeed obsessive repetitions, up to the point of exhaustion. Though, it’s not so much about analytical deconstruction (of post-modern or contemporary dance) as about energetic work. For everyone involved, also the audience, a Michelson dance means work and commitment – as reflected in the title of her most recent series Devotion (2011-2014), which was presented at The Kitchen, MoMA, and the Whitney Museum. The current tournamento is a highly stylized competition that is only disguised as a performance, disguised as a competition, disguised as a performance … Michelson stages it in ranks with the big American sport games and impressively transforms the Walker Art theater into her very own stadium. In the seriousness of her game, the schedule of a show is overwritten with a tournament in progress, running daily for five hours from Thursday to Sunday. Four dancers/players wear colored jerseys for the teams of Southern California (blue), Hawaii (red), Oregon (green), and Ohio (yellow). There are other functions such as teamsters, table assists, round card girl, or scribes, performed by professionals as well as students from the local Perpich Center for Arts Education and the Bard College. The disciplines or rounds consist of repetitive movements out of Michelson’s cosmos of reference, which ranges from Merce Cunningham to yoga. Various screens and boards register scores of each round as well as the total result of the four days. Above, or rather in front of it all, the choreographer herself sits, who, armed with a golden microphone and some keyboards, seems to be pretty much in control of it all. In regular intervals her wall and soul shattering shout “Let’s Play!!!” resounds through the space. The longer the performance/tournament goes on, the more perseverance against the increasing physical exhaustion is visible: this game/dance is for real. tournamento is a strangely familiar yet inaccessible realm of signals. “Capture! Capture!” the side judges and referees shout. But capture what? Regarding the complex network of signals, movements, scores, comments by the judges, and Michelson’s instructions, two different levels of gaze are created: The choreographer not only excludes the audience from the rules of the game, but strikes through aesthetic brackets and shifts her dance to a different system. Decisions, dramaturgy, and evaluation, indeed, the outcome of the evening, all this does not occur as an artistic, but as a kind of sporting event. This is at least the way it seems to be.

Sarah Michelson, tournamento, 2015. Performance view, Walker Art Center, September 25, 2015Sarah Michelson, tournamento, 2015, Performance view

Hannah Perry: Always

— Diary by Vivien Trommer

Steve Turner Contemporary
6830 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles
February 14 – March 14, 2015

“Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?” – A child contemplates as it timidly looks into the camera and tries to answer the complex question. Moments later, the video distorts and a mash-up of private and found footage flickers across the screen. The plot seems sporadic and the montage sequences are more associative than logical. As a repetitive techno sound accompanies the flood of images, the editing process transitions into a sensually perceptible moment. Artist Hannah Perry’s 12-minute video work You’re Gonna Be Great (2015) forms the epicenter of her first solo exhibition Always at Steve Turner Contemporary. For this show, Hannah Perry conceived a multimedia display in which sound sculptures generate themselves via reverberation between speakers and physical objects: from the dark movie theater audio cables meander into the bright exhibition space and transmit the video’s soundtrack to seven loudspeakers. Muffled basses make stretched silver sheets vibrate in sync with the music. This set up not only creates a collective 4-D experience, but also produces new kinetic imagery. “I’m thinking about vibrations and sound and how they resonate through our bodies—it’s very visceral. When that is paired with some kind of visual narrative, it can create quite a strong feeling—I guess the same feeling as when I go to a techno club and I’m really in the rhythm”, says Hannah Perry in an interview. It is the quality of the synchronized sound that dominates Hannah Perry’s immersive installation and turns it into an experience of time and space. As a physically-felt exhibition, Always can be seen as a comment on the digital age and its impact on our contemporary society. The accumulated imagery initiates a series of autonomous processes and thwarts our naïve visions with a real futuristic experience of the present.

Hannah Perry

Hannah Perry, Always, 2015, installation view, Courtesy of the artist and Steve Turner Contemporary, Los Angeles

Speaking of People

— Diary by Carolin Alff

Studio Museum Harlem
144 W 125th St, New York
November 13, 2014 – March 8, 2015

Thousands of American-African women in swimming suits are printed on the walls of a space at the lower level of Studio Museum Harlem. These women were photographed for the page “Beauty of the Week” in the magazine Jet from 1953 to 2014. The chronological development of black ideals of beauty materializes in this work called Black is Beautiful (2014) by Hank Willis Thomas. The vast amount of semi-naked bodies displayed produces a disconcerting feeling because, although pride is visible on all women’s faces, their bodies are readily available to look at. This piece and the objectification of the women exposed in it can be put into context with the work DeLuxe by Ellen Gallagher and My beauty is political by Theaster Gates. These works, displayed at the beginning of the exhibition Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art, reflect racial, political, and feminist issues of displaying black beauty. The show, which unites the works of sixteen artists, uses the prints or themes found in the African-American owned magazines Ebony and Jet. The selected works join to produce an exhibition, which carefully and effectively plays off themes against each other.
Elsewhere at the Studio Museum Harlem, a plethora of artists is exhibited: Under Another Name displays eleven artists. Two other exhibitions focus on one artist each, Titus Kaphar and Kianja Strobert. Yet the exhibition space maintains a personal ambience with many corners and small rooms on four levels. The intimacy of the rooms creates a basis for exchange and dialog over the subjects at hand. The space is not only a valuable field to exhibit and institutionalize African-American art but it allows a multitude of opinions and views. In light of the polarity of arguments stated in discussions of race, it is precisely this variety and the vast forms of expressions, which are needed to continue looking at African-American identities.

Speaking of PeopleHank Willis Thomas, Black Is Beautiful (1953-2014), 2014, inkjet print on adhesive paper, variable dimensions, installation view at Studio Harlem Museum, 2014, Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York


Laura Poitras: 9/11 Trilogy

— Diary by Vivien Trommer

Artists Space
38 Greene St, New York City
December 14, 2014 – February 15, 2015

A fly buzzes about the living room. It lands on the sofa, then the carpet, and once again on the sofa – suddenly a yellow fly swatter comes slamming down beside it. Shots are fired outside. Devastating bombs can be heard in the distance. Laura Poitras’s film My Country, My Country (2006) documents the life of Riyadh al-Adhadh, a medical doctor who stood for the first free elections in Iraq in 2005. Poitras and Riyadh met at Abu-Ghraib prison, where he was recording the inmates’ complaints and providing them with medical care. During the film, Riyadh and Poitras become closer friends: she visits his clinic in Baghdad, accompanies him around the city, and eventually lives with him and his family for many weeks. Since the release of the film My Country, My Country, Poitras has been placed on the US government’s watchlist. Alongside the premiere of her new film Citizienfour (2014), a number of her documentaries and short films are being screened in the exhibition 9/11 Trilogy at Artists Space. Research, insights and personal stories sketch an image of the fragile democracies in this global age. 9/11 Trilogy shows Poitras’ productions with great respect, allowing the films to speak for themselves, and thus bring the voice of a filmmaker living in exile back to the United States.


Laura Poitras, My Country, My Country, 2006, digital video, 90 min., a co-production of Praxis Films and The Independent Television Service (ITVS) produced in association with P.O.V./American Documentary, courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

Dani Gal: As from Afar

— Diary by Vivien Trommer

Jewish Museum
1109 5th Ave at 92nd St, New York City
September 12, 2014 – February 1, 2015

Thick fog covers the ground. A freight train brakes. Cut. The camera moves on to the next shot. Three men stand in front of an architectural model of Mauthausen concentration camp, closely scrutinizing it. “But that railway track … there wasn’t a railway track. I remember it exactly,” Shoah survivor and writer Simon Wiesenthal suddenly observes. Standing beside him is Albert Speer, Nazi architect and close confidant of Adolf Hitler.
In the 30-minute film As from Afar (2013), Dani Gal recalls, reconstructs, and distorts the unusual relationship between Speer and Wiesenthal. Drawing on archival letters and excerpts read out from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Brown Book” (1958), Gal tells a story that straddles between personal memories and fiction. He links researched information and archive material to form a convincing story that has a single drawback: it seems like a play. But the logic of the film lies precisely in this realization and Gal thus succeeds in bringing across the fictions – “the ghosts,” as Jacques Derrida calls them – that creep into the processes of remembrance.
Apart from the film, the Jewish Museum also presents Gal’s model of Mauthausen concentration camp. As an installation in a museum, it grants a moment of immediate experience and understanding. Suddenly and coincidently, we gather around the table, study the model – and by doing so repeat one of the key scenes in the film. This impressive (re)-enactment allows a coming to terms with a fragment of Shoah history that highlights the shifts, which arise between experience and narration.

Dani Gal

Dani Gal, As from Afar, 2013, HD-video, color, sound, 26 min. © Dani Gal, courtesy Freymond-Guth Fine Arts, Zurich