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In Proximity of a Public in Process

Originally published in The Brooklyn Rail, September 2011.


When I signed up for Xavier Le Roy's ProSeries workshop at the ImPulsTanz festival in Vienna, I knew little of his work, even though, having spent the last four years in France, I'd heard his name so frequently that I had started to sense that on some level, I knew what he was up to. He is most often grouped with the so-called "conceptual choreographers," a tag-word more problematic than it is useful. Le Roy points out himself that this label has typically been ascribed to choreographers who make "non-dance," working with "non-dancers." Read: amateurs. As a maker, Le Roy doesn't think he ever stopped moving. I don't want to spend the time here unpacking this imprecise label, but the fact remains that Le Roy is certainly questioning, rethinking, and sometimes redefining dance. Perhaps a more useful way of applying "conceptual" to his work in particular would be to suggest, as the writer and theorist Bojana Cvejic has, that his dance actually produces concept; that is, his choreography produces thought.

The workshop, part of a branch of the festival focusing on longer-term intensive research with working choreographers, was titled "Retrospective as Mode of Production." It was my only focus at ImPulsTanz this year, after having attended the entire five weeks of the festival last year. As we discussed during the two weeks together, "retrospective" implies a looking-back, a re-visiting, maybe even a re-making. Xavier was curious to make even more complex this notion of re-doing, and suggested that a large portion of the time be spent on creating our own retrospectives, using the timeline of his works as a structure. Furthermore, he constructed these mini-retrospectives using the form of one of his solos, Product of Circumstances, which he made in 1999. In this piece, Xavier used the format of a performance-lecture to illustrate his personal relationship to art and science (having completed his studies in molecular biology before "turning" to dance); he reads a text that outlines his scientific PhD research and then relates this research to concepts and practices of dance he was learning in tandem. There is a fairly even exchange between "theory" and "practice" as he moves to and from the podium from which he delivers the text, periodically demonstrating choreographies and movement patterns from his early dancing years. The performance finishes with a talk-back.

For our retrospective, the participants' stories—told directly to a single visitor or small groups—were based on this format. Translated into an exhibition space, these stories eventually became staged conversations, beginning with a rehearsed text that (in most cases) transformed into a dialogue with the visitor. There were at least three other performers in the room during any given retrospective. One was immobile, suggesting the presence of an exhibited "object" or "sculpture," the form taken directly from Le Roy's previous solo work; one was cycling through brief moments of choreographies from Le Roy's repertoire, creating a "loop" of material; the third was performing a slow sculpture, gradually morphing from one still image to another. The proposal was such that every time a new visitor entered the space, the cycle of these performance stations shifted. In this way, each visitor was addressed and acknowledged as literally altering the space and the previous events therein, with his or her presence. The performer recounting his story, however, continued addressing his original spectator until the story was completed, eventually exiting the exhibition space. In this way, the station of the storyteller accumulated, with anywhere from one to four different stories going at once (each told to a single visitor).

What each singularly-addressed visitor sees, of course, is the subject (performer) narrating his own "retrospective," or personal story. There is no object, no third entity to which each spectator and performer must refer and agree upon. What the spectator sees is the subject talking about himself; here, the subject is transparent.

So where is the object? This is, after all, an exhibition. I pondered this assumption of object numerous times throughout the process of preparing to show this exhibition to a public. I do not think it is possible to objectify oneself. The act of objectification takes place in the perception of the spectator (the objectifier), meaning we can only be objectified. How, therefore, can we create a situation in which this objectifying could take place? I think this must be an interest of artists working in this realm where the living body is put on display in a space normally destined for the inanimate. It is not that there is an interest in making the human an object; it is that there is a desire to suggest an objectifying gaze onto the human body. This is where, perhaps, this new research of Xavier's desires to suggest something other than the immediate instinct to empathize. What other options are there? Can we suggest a different gaze, a distanced gaze in which this emotional obligation of having to stay with one performer is not even a consideration?

For example, there were numerous points in my own retrospective story-telling where I noticed that the visitor was distracted by another performer yet remained with me; one visitor even stopped me, kindly explaining that he was no longer interested in listening. I wonder if this gaze I suggest (a different, distanced one) could make it possible for this politesse to not feel like an obligation, and that the option to look elsewhere, stop listening or even leave would then be inherently understood?

Or it might be something else entirely. I am not schooled in Art History. I have only my own experiences of both seeing living bodies and performing as one in an exhibition context. Surely, the reference to Tino Sehgal comes to the forefront of recent—contemporary—work in displaying situations that rely on human interaction. I don't think Xavier ignores this reference, and might in fact be happy to make it. But Sehgal's is not the only reference at play here and anyway, I recently saw Sehgal's This Situation (2007) in Avignon, and didn't at all feel as though the performers of the piece were objects (the work is an ongoing discussion ranging from politics to economics and philosophy during which the performers are moving in slow motion and constantly shifting their positions in the space). It was about exchange, participation, contemplation, conversation. In this way, and in nuanced juxtaposition to a tradition such as body art (where the body is the object), here the object becomes the conversation itself—an object that each person in the room (visitors included) can scoff at, be nervous about, listen to, depart from, enter into. What we witnessed in Le Roy's workshop was an opening into the possibility from constructed performance to "open" dialogue. From the subject to the object.

As events in time, exhibitions provide a space for choice. They allow for interest (and disinterest) to take place and in some way, to lead the singular experience of the exhibition. This interest determines the duration of exposure of the object/s to the visitor. With obvious references to the history of live bodies in exhibition spaces and "performances" as art-objects, Le Roy attempted in this workshop to re-think the relationship of the exhibited live body to the exhibition setting. As a group, we quickly got rid of the term "gallery" to define the space and the event. The notion of "gallery," of course, contains numerous connotations and references; it is difficult to generalize or assume a common understanding. "Exhibition," however, invites myriad connotations without closing in on any single definition of experience or event. We chose to pursue this language in our work. How can an exhibition designed around live performers still allow for spectators' choices to be made?

What became clear was that the majority of the spectators—since they were addressed directly—fell into an empathetic role; that is, they didn't want to walk away--to leave--when distracted by other bodies or events (even if they actually wanted to) for fear of offending the performer who was addressing them directly. Of course it is more difficult to place a value of the public’s interest on a human body than on an inanimate object. However, this interest of the spectator needs to be addressed, and the question then becomes: how can we as performers contain any given interest in our performance? Oftentimes, it was clear that the presence of the other performers who were not performing the story were there, in fact, to suggest this choice that all of the visitors have—the choice to watch something else, a body by which they could be distracted. The presence of numerous performing bodies allowed for such decisions to be made, which is what a visitor does in an exhibition: she makes the decision to focus her gaze. Or even if the gaze is not focused, as with some installation works, there exists an option to choose, to decide.

One of the most exciting aspects of the project is how Le Roy called into question a "solo retrospective," and what it entails. By inviting artists to create individual retrospectives (using the term, as he suggests, as a mode of production), he removed a sense that the exhibition is entirely about him. We all used his artistic timeline and works to structure our own retrospectives, but many of them remained very personal: descriptions of when we started dancing, memories of seeing a performance for the first time, choreographies from our own works, scenes taken from movies or elsewhere. There is, in fact, reference to much more than Le Roy himself, which upends the very notion of it being a solo retrospective. While we were very much "alone" in the room, cycling through different stations (playing objects, slow sculptures, loops), we were also integral to the group. We made reference to other performers, interrupted each other, provided space for the others to dance and speak. In this way, Le Roy challenged the notion of "solo" by not only allowing his works to be appropriated, to be re-personalized but also by addressing visitors one-by-one in a room full of people. Questions of being together, being alone, and everything that lies between were all in play.

I think what Le Roy is proposing is a certain ecology of performance. In its "immateriality," this newest work suggests a different relationship to art and performance consumerism and materiality. Here, the visitor is addressed, is engaged in participation. There are no sets, no costumes. The work does in fact take part in a conversation of new modes of production. This mode might just be to offer the potential for reinterpretation and change—which, in this day and age, is radical indeed.