This autumn, dance and performance provided an essential means by which curators Chris Sharp (Mexico City) and Gianni Jetzer (New York) could reimagine public sculpture and the potentiality of urban space for Le Mouvement, the latest installment of the Swiss Sculpture Exhibition (founded in 1954). An expansive, threefold exhibition, Le Mouvement invited numerous works and artists to engage their critical inquiry into the nature of the body in public space, its vulnerability, materiality, ephemerality, affective relations and economies, and potential to intervene within a history of public art, architecture, and sculpture in the town of Biel/Bienne, Switzerland. Focusing specifically on Mouvement II, titled Performing the City, a six-day series of ongoing “open-air” performances, Biba Bell asks Sharp about the details of he and Jetzer’s engagement with movement, discussed by Giorgio Agamben as “an unfinished act,” as it relates to the choreographic, dance’s histories, and the reach of the body’s own theoretical interventions, inflecting and articulating their curatorial vision and journey. Participating Performing the City artists: luciana achugar, Alexandra Bachzetsis, Nina Beier, Trisha Brown, Pablo Bronstein, Eglè Budvytytè, Willi Dorner, Douglas Dunn, Simone Forti, Alicia Frankovich, Maria Hassabi, San Keller, Köppl/Začek, Jiří Kovanda, Germaine Kruip, Liz Magic Laser, Myriam Lefkowitz, Jérôme Leuba, Ieva Misevičiūtè, Alexandra Pirici, Prinz Gholam, and Lin Yilin.
Biba Bell: What was your inception for this project?
Chris Sharp: Gianni was invited to compete for the commission of curating the 12th edition of the Swiss Sculpture Exhibition–a large-scale, public sculpture exhibition that has been taking place every five to ten years in Biel/Bienne since 1954, the Munster Skulptur Projekt of Switzerland, if you will–and he in turn invited me to compete with him. Although we were very excited about the prospect of doing the project, we immediately found two things problematic. The first was public sculpture, something that tends to be imposed upon whatever space it inhabits, rather than possessing a symbiotic relationship with it. And the second was public space itself. Could it, in a neo-liberal paradigm be said to even exist anymore? This being the case, we decided to liquidate, so to speak, the traditional conception of public sculpture, and focus our energy on public space, reducing it, and our investigation of it to its most fundamental, constitutive elements: physical space itself and the human body.
The Departure From Her Feet, Lin Yilin, photo: Meyer & Kangangi
BB: As primarily visual arts curators, what brought you and Gianni to work exclusively with performance (and a good deal of dance) in this exhibition?
CS: This commitment to the physical space and the human body naturally led to what the body does in public space– move through it, in it, occupying it, withdrawing from it, moving on. These considerations naturally led, at least in part, to dance. However, not just any dance, but a dance rooted in the tradition of Judson Dance Theater. In shifting our focus onto the body in public space, it was very important that the body not be something foreign to it, which is to say, not spectacular, exceptional, theatrical, but rather something natural to it, un-costumed, pedestrian, every day, but which, of course, tested the limits of the pedestrian body in public space (and no one did this more than luciana achugar).
SHOW, Maria Hassabi, photo: Meyer & Kangangi
Additionally, we were very keen to remain within the tradition of the Swiss Sculpture Exhibition as a sculpture exhibition almost in a Pygmalion sense, and therefore sought to include performances, which, in many cases, had a relationship with sculpture (Maria Hassabi for example), and which emphasized the materiality of the body (Simone Forti’s Huddle, in this context, became very sculptural, even, somehow, baroque).
Huddle, Simone Forti, photo: Meyer & Kangangi
On a more personal note, these interests dovetailed perfectly with my own growing interest and investment in contemporary dance as well as its relationship to sculpture. I saw it as an opportunity to really engage with the materiality of the body from a sculptural perspective. What do I mean by that? I mean an approach that really renders the specific, dynamic materiality and volume of the body visible from a three-dimensional perspective– as, with a few exceptions, these performances were experienced three-dimensionally, i.e., not from a single, fixed perspective (seated in front of a stage). Like sculpture, they could be circumnavigated, taken in from a variety of angles.
The work of André Lepecki was also important for me in this respect, particularly his characterization of dance as the self-erasing art form par excellence (not sure if those are his exact words). As such, what we created was a self-erasing public sculpture exhibition, which ultimately restored whatever space it inhabited to its initial state, unencumbered by objects, but nevertheless haunted, I hope, by the traces of the bodies we loosed within it.
The Departure From Her Feet, Lin Yilin, photo: Meyer & Kangangi
BB: You discuss the imbrication of the body and space as an elemental engagement in this exhibition, were there works within the biennial that expanded your curatorial vision in unexpected ways?
CS: I think virtually of all the works did. It was one thing to organize them on paper, emails, etc., but the moment the whole thing came together, what the theorist Maite Garbayo refers to as “the incalculable” (the element of unpredictably that attends any gathering of bodies) inevitably took place, altering with each performance. At times, public space was sincerely put under pressure. For instance, when Lin Yilin performed The Departure from her Feet, which consisted of him rolling on the ground from the Zentralplatz to town hall, one (drunk) man walked over him and basically tried to stop him, yelling in French, “Should I call the police or an ambulance?” But Lin ignored him and just kept rolling and eventually the man, flummoxed, went on his way. Something about a man rolling on the ground piqued his sense of civic duty. But no work, I believe, stirred up and vexed people’s sense of civic duty more than luciana achugar’s The Pleasure Project. Randomly encountering these eight people writhing and weltering on the ground, against buildings, street light polls, garbage cans, etc., many people seemed to have been slowly slapped in the face (in fact, that is probably the best way to describe many spectators’ reactions– these bodies reveling in their utter body-ness against the uncomprehending face), and in the end, were so surprised, so sucker-punched, as it were, that, after wondering for a moment if they should intervene or react, but, probably seeing that no one else was reacting, they ultimately capitulated to this urban enigma and let it be.
BB: How did you consider the specificity of the city of Biel in your curatorial concept? How did this city in particular support the invited performances?
CS: The specificity of Biel was closely accompanied by the specificity of the Swiss Sculpture Exhibition, which is to say, the fact that this public sculpture exhibition has been taking place for the past seven decades. This was very important, providing, at least historically, a kind of context within a context. No less important however was the city itself– its size and population, which is 55,000. In a larger, more densely populated city, say, like New York or London, the exhibition would have been totally lost. But Biel was somehow the perfect place, a micro city, to try such an exhibition out.
BB: I’m very curious about the body's relationship to sculpture, a relationship that is important to this exhibition. Is sculpture a form that precedes the corporeal when negotiating this performance context? Or is there a different rhythm of emergence that we can consider when thinking bodies or performance or dance within the visual sphere?
CS: To a certain, if limited degree the sculptural precedes the performative here by virtue of the fact that this is a public sculpture exhibition, that is the context. But that precedence had a kind of fluctuating presence. At certain times, the distinctly sculptural quality of a work would emerge for a moment like a form within a cloud, but the majority of the time, the vitality of performance overshadowed the sculptural content of the show. Generally speaking, this worked because we did not want performances to be what they’re not, we wanted them to be precisely what they were. That said, certain works, such as Alexandra Pirici’s Tilted Arc, were expressly referred to as time-based sculptures (by the artist) and functioned as such. In the majority of the cases, however, the sculptural quality of the body– materiality, volume, and the haptic– could be said to play a key role in the performance but did not constitute it. I think it was this particular emphasis, along with a genuine investment in the nature of public space, that distinguished this exhibition and its use of performance and dance in the visual sphere (contemporary art) from many others, which in some cases, tend to fetishize performance and dance as a justifiable curatorial conceit in itself. Le Mouvement was not about performance and dance per se. It was about a number of things: sculpture, the body, public space, lack thereof, movement, lack thereof, etc., which naturally engendered an exhibition constituted by performance and dance.
BB: I really like the lack of constructed stages for exhibition, but it also brings up the question of alternate means by which space is demarcated in/for performance. Did you witness a range of possibilities?
CS: Not really. In almost every case, there was no stage, no demarcation, but the performance itself. This was very paramount for us. We did not want to create a theatrical situation in which the viewer was removed from the performer. We wanted them to take place on the same level, in the same space, so to speak, to share it. The idea was not to isolate or compartmentalize public space, to break it up, but rather to activate it in unusual ways by letting performances take place directly within it (incidentally, we made a point of not getting permission for any of the works, with exception of Pablo Bronstein’s, which took place on a private balcony over looking a public square, and Willi Dorner, who requested it as part of his working procedure. This allowed us to really interrogate the existence of public space – which, by definition, belongs to everyone).
The Pleasure Project, luciana achugar, photo: Meyer & Kangangi
BB: A number of New York based choreographers participated in the exhibition, some artists/works who trace back to seminal Judson-era choreographic interventions. How were you engaging work from this moment within the larger program?
CS: The legacy of Judson was present throughout the entire exhibition by virtue of its emphasis on the pedestrian, everyday body/performance. If we said “No to spectacle,” among other things, we knew weren’t the first. However, we did so for reasons that had less to do with unseating the hegemonic codes, rituals and bodies of modern dance than a sincere desire to keep it on the level of public space.
BB: I’m very excited by your proposal of performance as a type of counter-monument in relation to more common practice of public sculptural installation. Maybe you could say more how performance allows us to rethink public art through this lens?
CS: I’m not so sure that Le Mouvement necessarily presented performance as a sustainable antidote or alternative to more traditional forms of public monument. It’s interesting to think about, but I have doubts about its feasibility (it nevertheless has a kind of novelistic charm, something one might find in an Italo Calvino novel, or in some proponent of magical realism–this living monument maintained day in and day out by performers). Perhaps on a deeper, structural level, Le Mouvement was a response to the ideological untenability of the public monument, the extent to which it’s connected to a former two-power ideological system, and ideology in general. Of course one could easily argue from the perspective of post-Fordism and immaterial labor that our response was nevertheless driven by and embodied a certain ideology (reification of the body–but to what end?), but we prefer to see it as pre-ideological.
The Pleasure Project, luciana achugar, photo: Meyer & Kangangi
Taking our cue from Agamben and his definition of a movement as something unfinished and which has therefore yet to harden into ideology, we sought to represent the raw stuff of the body, alone, in pairs, and with other bodies, as something beyond the ken of language (pre-lingual) and narrative. No position was being defended, nor was a cause taken up except the capacity to defend a position via the body and public space. To a certain degree, and no matter reductive it might sound, you even could say that we, like Judson Dance Theater and even Anna Halprin, merely formalized what was already there (that is reductive). If any monuments were created, it was perhaps in the spirit of the Argentine proto-conceptualist Alberto Greco and his Vivo Ditos (art of the living finger), in which he would circle a pedestrian on the street and sign it, as if they were living sculptures.
Biba Bell, biel, Chris Sharp, dance, Dance and the Museum, Dance in the Museum, Le Mouvement, Lin Yilin, Luciana Achugar, Maria Hassabi, Simone Forti