Agnes Martin's brand of minimalism isn't for everyone, but I am always star-struck when I come across one of her drawings or paintings. Like a gust of chill, fresh air, with a view of some wide, empty expanse, her work gives me a settled, alert feeling. The shimmering surface has an authority, a presence, and at the same time a little shyness, some space for me to enter. It took me a while to figure it out, but I think what vibrates with such vitality in her work, despite its elegant spareness, are those living lines, slightly shaky, varying in tone, drawn by hand, a manifestation of concentration, deliberate gesture, and a faith in meditative repetition. Is that why I am also drawn to dance, visual art’s fleet-footed cousin? —The human body transforming our capacity for basic physical movement into an encoded, practiced, startling presence, complete with deliberate gesture and manifest concentration? As I consider dance’s place in the museum, the big questions that arise for me are: What is dance’s place in our culture? What place does the museum hold? How is dance being framed for the public by the museum? Why do we keep defining artists by outdated genre categories? What are the practical and economic models of production that these categories imply and what happens when there is significant and ongoing crossover of genres? What kind of performance or body-based work thrives in a museum setting? To start, I’d like to address the outdated discipline of classifications used to describe artists, as this has implications for the role of museums as well as other arts organizations and dance venues. At this point, it seems clear to me that there is a trend: many, many artists are making work at the intersection of genres. The old labels keep needing qualifiers, or we have to resort to that clunky term “interdisciplinary”. What does this signal? Contemporary art-making is a huge, humming spectrum of activity. Visual artists are crossing into time-based and performance forms on a regular basis and with relative ease as their comfort in bucking the strictures of genre becomes a given, and as technologies such as video become ubiquitous and simple to access. Dance artists are equally versatile, jumping into new terrain, building collaborative and conceptual frameworks, employing a heavy dose of visual design and non-dance content/form as part of their practice. Collaborative art-making, always part of performance-based work, is becoming more prevalent among all artists as the mythos of the individual artist/genius dies a long overdue death and they rediscover that teams are more effective once you launch into work that requires other people’s expertise (i.e. film, performance or installation). But more than all that, there seems to be a desire to process the multiplicity of what constitutes contemporary life: the tidal wave of data, the human and environmental costs of our policies and customs, the shifts in national or personal identity, the accessibility of information, the blurring of fact and fiction. Source material for new works is wildly diverse as artists attempt to parse this world of too much information. Processes of creation are also proliferating. Out come the raging critiques, and the desire to create artworks that have relevance, power and meaning for specific communities, rather than works that uphold and decorate the status quo. And in the midst of it all, the artist must be a savvy businessperson, able to respond to opportunities and access scarce resources, rally their own base and stay attuned to the vagaries of institutional needs. Yes, the study of a single discipline, its history, and the accumulation of its skills are essential to the training of an artist, and so most artists will identify with a certain pre-existing art form. But this continuous exchange between visual art, dance, theater, music, and performance has opened up new forms. Institutions, venues, funders and fans have been taking note. The role of the museum, and more specifically, its role in relation to the increasing desire to have dance as a visible part of its new programming, seems to be shifting too. I can only intuit that current museum strategy is driven by the following convoluted assumption: potential museum goers are looking for social and interactive experiences, events, and spaces that bolster a sense of community while providing content based in art, that somehow are able to compete with the many entertainment options available elsewhere and at home. In short, the programming should provide connection, meaning, fun, and an aesthetic experience. In the past, museums were celebrated as places of quiet contemplation. You can still find that experience if you look for it, but more often museums bank on blockbuster (aka marketable) exhibitions to provide a celebratory, jostling voyeurism. In addition to pouring resources into major shows in the hopes of creating a phenom, museums are also offering a variety of programs to continuously draw in a broader, more diverse audience: thematic and curator-led tours, online access to collections, video content created to elucidate the collection, kids programs, lectures, parties, event rentals, galas, etc. The museum’s goal is to sweep in as many people as possible, especially if the institution is federally or state funded. The museum can no longer be an unassailable guardian and bastion of high culture and visual artifacts, but aims to be an essential center of urban cultural life. Bringing performance programming into the museum is a natural offshoot of this expanded mission. However, it means museums are no longer trading on their expertise in the visual arts to create more interactive content. They are now importing different art forms, and they may not have the expertise on staff to make the right choices or to be able to grapple with the implications and the practicalities of their choices. Now my first question is this: of all things, why are they importing contemporary dance? Why not stick with the basic fare that appeals to marketing departments, like VJ/DJ events, puppet theater for kids, or string quartets? Artists whose work is based in the live presence of the human body performing dance-based, non-virtuosic, non-narrative, and unintelligible (to most people) movement is not exactly going to bring in the crowds. At least it hasn’t for dance venues. Contemporary, experimental dance is so marginalized by our culture that it is barely on the radar. So why would museums turn to this esoteric genre to enliven their programming? The answer might be something more existential. If we start with the premise that we live in a complex, commercial age of endlessly reproducible visual media and that people are being cheerfully bombarded with visuals constantly, judging, commenting, posting, retweeting images that are moving and still, user-generated, professionally refined, for entertainment, for advertising, for art, then we come to a point where we have to ask, in this melee, what is the role of visual art? Or rather, what is the larger role of the visual art market—a market whose purpose is to circulate original and historically important images that can appreciate in value and are limited in number? Besides the obvious tasks of creating and protecting the value of visual artworks, does the art market desire to be culturally relevant, to drive innovation, to capture and express contemporary concerns? Museums play a crucial role in this ecosystem of course. Is it possible that they are feeling in danger of obsolescence? If they are not the keepers of and guides to important images anymore, then what should they do? We already addressed the museum as an urban cultural center, but is there a role to play in providing new experiences to a jaded public weary of looking at crafted images? Enter dance. If people really are craving original experiences rather than more images, dance can provide an unrepeatable, unique experience that is at once heightened and, for many people, downright strange. By virtue of its very precariousness, its ephemerality, its inherent non-commercialism, its rigorous physical demands made manifest, I think dance is being brought in as a tonic to soothe an art world that has overindulged and that, in the end, can’t really compete with the flood of images stretching out in every direction of our visual horizon. “Dance is the poetry of physical labor”, to quote Noemie LaFrance’s recent article. Like an Agnes Martin’s painting, it thrills with its presence, but without the resulting value-accruing artifact. The art world seems fascinated by dance as an artistic practice that has no viable market and yet that continues to thrive (at least in terms of birthing new works every year, as well as new MFAs). In addition to its economic precariousness, dance has a radically different approach to presence and the body to that of visual art. Performance artists, in general, are not performers. They are engaging in a visual arts-based practice that hinges on the idea that their body, or the body of others, is their material. Therefore, they are not so much “performing” their work as “being” their work. Marina Abramovic’s retrospective at MOMA was a case in point. Her work over the years has remained powerful and important, but the re-creation of her pieces, by hiring dancers and performers, created a firestorm within the dance community, along with serious contract disputes. There was so little understanding on both sides of what it meant to embody these personal performance art works in the museum versus hiring dancers to perform task-based activities choreographed by someone else. It is not the same, to state the obvious. In The Paper Canoe: A Guide to Theatre Anthropology, Eugenio Barba writes beautifully on virtuosity in performance as opposed to performance presence. He proposes that virtuosity gives the audience a “wow factor” which generally can be distilled to the feeling “She’s good! I can’t do that!”, whereas performance presence transfixes the audience and transports them into an imaginary world where literal thinking falls away and the audience is no longer mentally comparing the performer with “normal” people. Presence is what distinguishes an accomplished performer and it is what gives even their most mundane movements a sort of hyper-clarity, an energy that compels you to attend to it. It transcends style and technique. So, for me, dance has something that visual art does not, which is this presence, which is able to transcend the seeming limits of a situation, and which can communicate forcefully and directly. A manifestation of concentration, of deliberate gesture, alive, with faith in repetition and heightened awareness. People need to experience it, live. Like a fresh, cold gust that clears the air and opens a space. I don’t mean to suggest that performance artists can’t access this presence; simply that in dance it is one of the baseline goals of a performance, no matter the style. So what happens when you bring this level of physical presence into a museum? Can it survive in conditions that were not created to support it, and which in fact can undermine its ability to act? While many dance artists are successfully working in site-specific ways outside of theatrical spaces, there is also a reason all of those conventions of the theater, the architecture, the acoustics, the floors, the tools and techniques, came into being: to allow the performer as well as the audience to focus solely on the demands and effects of the art. If museums want to present dance work, they are going to have to ask themselves if they are prepared to create the right conditions for it. They will also need to cultivate and support the next generation of dance artists whose work fits naturally in the gallery context. Dance artists that thrive in the environment of a museum or gallery are ones who are able to navigate a hybrid form that accounts for the specific conditions of that type of venue. This may seem obvious, but concept and implementation are two different beasts. A few contemporary dancers and choreographers already do this as part of their practice, using some of the following strategies:
- Creating physical environments for the work by reframing or overtaking existing architecture/space.
- Inviting audience interactivity into the work. This runs the gamut from direct participation by the audience in the creation or performance process, to allowing freedom of vantage point and movement through the space for the audience, to giving multiplicity of content to attend to, so the audience must make a choice in how they relate to the work.
- Including a strong element of visual design in the work, either through collaboration with other artists and designers or within their own practice.
- Putting aside physical virtuosity in the dancing in favor of a hybrid approach, playing with the combination of movement/dance, sound design/music, visuals, interactivity and/or participatory structures.
- Facing head on the problem of performing in a loud, ambient, public space by designing specific choreography, structures and activities for the performers and the audience.
- Creating works that might not be classified as “choreography” or “dance” at all, but rather use choreographic principles in their creation, resulting in forms as disparate as websites, installations, films, videos, apps, and public interventions.
Agnes Martin, business, classifications, contemporary dance, Dance and the Museum, economic, ephemerality, genre, institutions, interdisciplinary, labor, Marina Abramovic, MoMA, national identity, Noemie Lafrance, personal identity, reproduction, tweeting, venue, virtuosity, visual art, voyeurism