Reality Check, a series of essays initiated by Tanzquartier Wien’s theory curators, is currently dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
JP: In your practice as an artist, researcher, and curator, you are determined to detect various social phenomena, putting them in context and defining them. You have always considered the role of the individual as being part of a collective body and in direct relation to ongoing socio-political challenges or even crises. All of your projects and their content weirdly seem to overlap, collide, and intersect in this moment of extreme uncertainty and change. How do you perceive this? Would you agree?
BD: I would say that my work has always been about crises and anticipating their arrival, but for others, it all came together in times of COVID-19. One needs to live urgency to recognize it. My job has always been about looking at people and trying to understand what they are consciously and unconsciously communicating – my research is on nonverbal communication and other forms of expression that are the result or sign of urgencies. It is sometimes still surprising to me, but one can recognize a movement and predict when a crisis will happen, if you look carefully. The work I do is also something I live and experience. I navigate through my work with my own body.
It all starts with straightforward observations. For example, with the project I Dance Alone, I asked myself, do bodies move or not move in clubs or concerts? When looking at the last 20 years, bodies did not move all the time.
What made them stop? What will make them move again?
There was this moment of something that I called a “body crisis”… Many people are visiting concerts or clubs, but they don’t move. They do not dance. Or even worse, visitors of clubs would take photographs with their phones and pretend to enjoy it. Maybe they do not move because of the technology attached to their hands, but I think that they do not dare to move because they fear it, or they just don’t feel it. In many cases, bodies are numb.
There are two ways to understand this: Either they are not moved by the moment and music, or they are bodies which are perfectly repressed and controlled by the regime, by the culture in which they are moving in, by their education, their job, etc. They are not in charge of their own bodies; they are adjusted to be and perform a certain way.
On some level, they know this, but most people don’t even dare to dive into these thoughts…
My other project, FACELESS, was about how people react to socio-political changes and the development of social media, and how they are participating as individuals by putting on masks in front of technology or in times of technological development. Why do all public protests in the last 20 years involve masks? Why do we feel FACELESS?
JP: With “FACELESS”, you initiated an investigation into the subversion of surveillance strategies and the maintenance of privacy almost ten years ago. What do you feel has changed since then? What has been added to the topic?
BD: Well, first of all, we have to acknowledge that certain events happen in the life of individuals or groups, and that those events trigger specific dynamics and strategies. They can be personal, mini, micro, or macro events. I’m, in fact, more interested in events that synchronize us as a collective. It doesn’t happen very often. Examples are the second world war or 9/11 – now, it’s the coronavirus pandemic and the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. I’m interested in those events because each of them introduces a new way of how we deal with the body and how governments deal with our bodies. Society, nations, and different cultures are always in a fight over the ownership of these entities.
“Is my body mine or does my body belong to the Dutch government, being of Dutch nationality? Does it belong to my church, if I’m practicing a particular religion? Does it belong to my parents, to the company that I’m working for?
Or, does it, in my case, belong to the occupation of being an artist/curator/researcher?
What kind of body do I perform in academic circles, what kind of body do I play at home?”
What I’m really interested in is how certain events trigger this sort of consciousness.
It’s this fight of trying to reclaim the body from new kinds of authority.
Surveillance choreographs us daily. We are walking “nicely” not looking suspicious, performing normality. That’s the power of surveillance. Even if the camera that is blinking is fake, we kind of change our posture, our presence in the public space. Even consumer technology is adjusting to our bodies; just think of ear pods, and how they are changing the position of a person wearing them. Think of flat keyboards on new computers or touch screens. Dance will always be there for us to reclaim the body from technology too.
JP: Lately, discussions around identifiability and methods of staying under the radar have become more popular than ever. In light of recent international developments, with massive and incredibly intense protests happening all around the world and amidst a global pandemic: Do you think we have established a new consciousness or sensibility for being unrecognizable? What’s the role of the mask nowadays?
BD: Starting with 9/11, the way we travel has changed, and this was just a minor change. Islamophobia continues to exist and the demand to show your face, to be transparent, was followed by discussions on wearing a burka or a hijab. The fear of terrorism led us and made us accept face detection and surveillance systems, which are by now clearly there to control us, or as Shoshana Zuboff would call it, to implement “Surveillance Capitalism”. It’s there to extract from us, learn about us and use our data in order to sell us more of how to be better, look better etc. So when we look at these particular events, they are always a moment of realization and a way to introduce more precautions or control. They are used to exploit our identity and bodies. The concept of a mighty god that sees us all is quite in line with surveillance.
FACELESS was about that. It was about a ritual of masking in a post 9/11 society, which means at a time when surveillance became massive, and in a moment in which online dynamics changed and social media stepped in. I was interested in how stories about the unexpected impact of wars in the middle east were fabricated in unexpected and uncanny ways; how a society that wants everyone to show their face will transform into a community where masks will be used on a daily basis; how covering your face in Austria was illegal in public, but now it is mandatory on public transport.
We are moving in a time when masks have become a necessity. They are there for our protection, but they are also the only way how protests can happen in many societies, for example in Hong Kong.
What is significant for me here is that for the last few months I have seen two of my interests merge; one is the ritual of masking, the other one is the ritual of dancing.
JP: OK, so let’s start talking about dance then?
BD: Kélina Gotman said in her book “Choreomania: Dance and Disorder”: “When political protest is read as epidemic madness, religious ecstasy as nervous disease, and angular dance moves as dark and uncouth, the ‘disorder’ being described is choreomania.” For that book, she looked at medical literature and the history of all these dances that were introduced as a disease, or which were unexplained, peculiar phenomena. If you think about who had access to this medium (media), which at that time were books, written about 400–500 years ago, it was mostly the church.
So, the way these dances were documented is completely filtered and ultimately manipulated. This also brings back memories of how the press depicted different music styles that were connected to a type of strength or rebellion, such as rock-n-roll, punk, hip-hop in the early days, or rave culture. It’s in a way connected to rather wild dancing, moving in a state of ecstasy and in abandoned zones, areas, or empty buildings. It is a form of resisting the normative ways of behaving and body expression, practicing an alternative togetherness. So, I think all these dances are in a way trying to reclaim the body from governmental, educational, parental, religious interference, etc. For me, dance, in that sense, is beautiful and that’s the dance that I am interested in.
JP: Yes, and I think especially now we’re being confronted with constraints that aim to regulate our freedom of expression and movement, and which are designed to control bodies and crowds. We suppress and accumulate stress and anger, ultimately demanding a specific form of outlet. In your project “I Dance Alone”, you looked at different aspects of freedom and personal liberation manifesting on dance floors throughout the globe. Could you explain more about that, also in relation to recent events?
BD: I think about dance as the freedom of movement. However, there are different kinds of dance. Dances can be competitive, they can be nationalist, too. They have different functions. What I was always impressed with is when, through the practice of dance, you can create socio-political opposition, a form of activism. This was recently demonstrated, for example, by a series of events that took place in Tbilisi, Georgia, when people gathered and danced in front of the parliament for two days. Peaceful protests, with bodies in sync and dancing together. This is how “We Dance Together, We Fight Together” came about.
Dance or Die by Naja Orashvili and Giorgi Kikonishvili. Commissioned by Bogomir Doringer and Q21 MuseumsQuartier Wien.
JP: Another thing that you briefly mentioned, and which I would like to discuss further with you, is related to current freedom and human rights movements. You talked about “Black Lives Matter”. Do you think that dance and music play an essential role in these waves of resistance, and if so, how can you detect that?
BD: Yes, it always has. In the exhibition Dance of Urgency, there were some great examples, like the “Toyi-Toyi” dance, which was a political protest dance, or “Krumping”, which we all sort of know what it looks like, but no one usually knows its origins. You know, it is always a question of: Who has a club to go to? Who is on the list? For whom is the club?
You and me, we probably always had some club to go to, but if you think of all these communities that do not have a club to go to… For example, in Vienna, Wiener Freiheit is such a place. Where would all those Roma people go dancing in Vienna? They are not allowed to enter most places. So what they do is they start gathering on school playgrounds, under bridges or in some closed spaces, and they start practicing their dances.
And this dance, “Krumping”, came precisely from that, and it represented resistance. It came from not wanting to be identified as a black person connected to gangs. It is a form of resistance that created this dance, and then it was swallowed up by pop culture, and the context got lost. It is one of the most recent examples of a dance that is genuinely derived from an act of resistance.
The collective Underground Resistance created a kind of mixture of visuals and sound where they got into the history of the African drum and how playing it was prohibited during the time of slavery, because of this fear that it might lead to rioting. The African drum then started to transform into these different instruments that slaves would use to produce the music we have by the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th century, coming together in the form of a drum set. That’s basically when music started to be “produced”. So, music and resistance have always, always entered the scene together, and I will never forget that one time when I walked the streets of São Paulo and came across a poster that said: “When you feel pain, keep on dancing.”
Traditional African dance sequence from the documentary Rize by David LaChapelle
JP: Wow. That’s a very beautiful ending to everything you just said.
When you feel pain, keep on dancing. We have to keep moving.
BD: Yes, and it’s also a very different situation. I mean, Corona made everybody sort of look at themselves and think: “Okay, is this the speed of living that I want to live at? Is this my life, or am I trying to follow some kind of corporative decisions?” So, I think it is very logical to have this movement today, yes.
And, of course, every movement has somebody who choreographed it. So, I think we should not underestimate that there are also political interests involved in this kind of situation. But, yes, it seems quite weird that this movement did not happen earlier. Actually, it makes you rethink and question your own power.