- A Dance Happening at steirischer herbst?
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A Dance Happening at steirischer herbst?
BORIS CHARMATZ [TERRAIN]’S NOLI ME TANGERE
A happening is a staged cultural event. Not only a performance organised by artists is a “happening”, but any other cultural event where a more or less randomly assembled group of people gathers to see something, being performed by some for others, without paying for it, takes on an event character.
The term happening dates back to Allan Kaprow’s seminal performance event “18 Happenings in 6 parts”, presented at the Reuben Gallery in New York City, October 4 in 1959: The beginning and end of each act was marked by two strokes of a bell, no applause in between, with the audience being immersed in his setup environments and given specific tasks to do. For Kaprow, who graduated with a degree in art history and studied painting with Hans Hofmann, the point of making something happen as art was to “make something new, something that doesn’t even remotely remind you of culture.” He made this remark his rule #1 of his lecture on How to make a Happening in the late 1960s. With rule #2 being to “steer clear of art by mixing up your happening with life situations” so that it becomes unclear “even to yourself if the happening is life or art”.
I am writing this straight after the eventful opening days of the annually reoccurring steirischer herbst, an avantgarde festival that has since its initial event in 1967 gathered local and international artists working in the fields of music, theatre, dance, and the visual arts in the South of Austria. Every autumn artistic work is shown almost everywhere in the city of Graz—marking the beginning of the autumn season—as the festival’s curatorial program is aligned with exhibition openings at most of the city’s art institutions.
As I am currently a research fellow at the institution of steirischer herbst where I engage with the festival’s history, I have been preoccupied with asking about the festival’s current institutional politics in light of its historically persisting, rhetorically and aesthetically provocative politics. Each year the city festival’s interdisciplinary program presents events in spaces devoted to the arts as well as in other public locations. Its approach to the arts operates in clear reference to early 20th-century and postwar European and American avantgardes that blurred the line between art and everyday life through their political positioning towards cultural production, conceived of as artistic modes of interference.
Dance Happenings and the Visual Arts
By the 21st-century, the expanding institutionalization of artistic practices, including performance events, has led to an increased standardization of the cultural field. On a global scale, this development has been fueled by the increasing number of performance festivals, visual art biennials, object-based art fairs as well as through the growing field of educational (artistic, critical, curatorial, and contextual studies) programs since the 1990s. The recent exhibition history of contemporary dance in visual art contexts in particular represents this infrastructural transformation of the cultural industry. Performances focused on bodily movements by Tino Sehgal, Maria Hassabi, and Boris Charmatz (to name the most widely known and internationally toured ones) have been shown in visual art museums as well as at art festivals.
Before showing Noli me Tangere with his group [terrain] at this year’s steirischer herbst War in the Distance, realized under the artistic directorship of Ekaterina Degot, Charmatz staged his dance work at visual art museums such as MoMA in New York (2013), steirischer herbst (2014), Tate in London (2015) and at several European festivals where he presented his historically reflexive project 20 Dancers for the XX Century as well as other dance productions.
The classically-trained French dancer has been experimenting with physical movements in regards to dance forms and modes of staging dating back to his seminal duet À bras-le-corps with Dimitri Chamblas in 1993. Since 2009 the question of audience participation has moved into the center of his dance work when he became the director of the Centre Chorégraphique National de Rennes et de Bretagne. Charmatz’s most recent choreography, Noli me Tangere, is representative of body-focused and participatory contemporary performance that is not primarily spatially and formally defined by a theatre set-up but instead generates its meaning through the architectural cadre in which it operates.
Noli me Tangere: A Happening for Herz-Jesu
At the opening weekend of steirischer herbst Boris Charmatz’s group dance, Noli me Tangere, was showcased with nine dancers forming the group [terrain] at the neogothic Herz-Jesu Kirche, the biggest Catholic church in the City of Graz. The performance event was programmed for three hours around midday, split into six acts, with each being interrupted by a short break, and was freely accessible.
On Saturday, the day I attended the performance, a small crowd of people gathered in front of the church around 2pm, overlooking the square and park in front of it as the main gate was closed. Some of us were sitting in the sun chatting, while others took time to pause for a moment or just watched what was going on until Charmatz’s performance started to happen. Some time later, a group of nine dancers, all mainly dressed in black clothes, moved from the small building on the side of the church where they were waiting to the square. They energetically ran around in front of us, stopped from time to time, or fell down to the uneven and hard cement ground where they lay still or rolled around, breathing heavily.
After their first warm-up appearance, the dancers showed off more abstract dance movements in part two, spread out around the square in front of the church. When droning bell ringing (difficult to tell what if it was real or not due to me loosing track of time) consumed the silence, the dancers started to mimic images of ringing bells, breaking away from dance’s abstract expressionism. In another part of the performance the dancers repetitively sang, or rather shouted, inspired by Punk singer Peaches:
Fuck the pain away, fuck the pain away
Fuck the pain away, fuck the pain away
while simultaneously starting to interact with the audience. They moved in between the members of their audience, touched and interacted with them. The dancers’ intrusive interactions were followed by them then inviting people to take each other’s hand, to form a circle, and to make them repeat together with them lines from the English poet John Donne:
no one is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main
This took place first only in front of the church’s gate and later when walking around in the square in the form of a human chain. When the handholding scene came to an end, about halfway through the performance, the staged social happening stopped, before the performance moved into the church.
Taken to Church
Inside, the performance’s spectacle character started to exaggerate. Charged by the dramatic atmosphere of the neo-baroque religious building, sometimes reinforced by live organ music, the performers moved closely together in central aisle near the entrance. In one scene Laura Bachman slowly covered the eyes of Charmatz—who now performed particular sequences with his dancers besides overlooking the performance from the side—with her fingers; and in another some of the dancers walked over the bodies of the others, lying on the floor, generating moving images of deadly surrendering. The performance ended with a physically powerful contact impro duet between Charmatz and Johanna Elisa Lemke in front of the open gate of the church, facing the outside. Both now performed, perhaps also for practical reasons, in underwear, drawing attention to the haptic sensuality of moving interactively.
Retrospectively, I cannot remember hearing anything at the end of the performance. No organ music. No one talking. No bells ringing, neither real nor recorded ones. It was just the two performers and us the viewers, sharing a quiet moment of looking together at what is being shown to us as contemporary dance as well as at the other viewers. Standing there inside the church, this final image of Noli me Tangere reminded me of one of the most classical historical images: I could not help thinking of Adam and Eve, representative of a man and a woman who mark an origin of human storytelling, bridging good and evil. While postmodern and conceptual dance fought to rid itself of established narratives, movement forms, décor, and theatricality, Boris Charmatz’s enduring choreographic work seems to return to an existentialist, ideological issue, namely that of make-believe as the moving bodies, including his own, are the operators of the performance.
The Body a Religion?
In dance, the body is often considered a sanctum. The corpus is the substance, the material surface through which we perceive and form our conceptions of reality. As dancers cannot escape accusations of being representative of their own and the choreographer’s body fetishisms, Charmatz [terrain]’s dance performance foregrounds that conceptions of performance’s societal function are linked to what we understand as an aesthetic practice. Body-based work is in a way similar to religion: It is a societally reproduced but also historically transforming and ideologically produced form of social practice that underpins ways of living. As Karl Marx notes in his critique of Georg Friedrich Hegel’s philosophy of law from 1843, “man makes religion; religion does not make man […] Religion is the general theory of this world” as it justifies human existence; religion is, he goes on to stress, the “sight of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”; it is, as Marx famously proposed, “the opium of the people.” 
The Libidinal Economy of Dance
Because dance spectacles, such as Charmatz’s (considering the consistent physical training of the dancers), emerge through the playful exploration of what it means to work with and feel through the body in a group of people, they can also incorporate sublime moments. Given that capitalism has however become a dominating religion, shaping everday rhythms of life and work, and especially since the first half of the 20st-century through its free market ideology, the bodily pleasures staged in Noli me tangere represent a cultural ideology in it itself. The dance is physically stimulating and financially supported by an art institution.
It seems ironic that Charmatz’s most recent performance literally takes us back to church, because praying to God is as inefficient as the performers’ punky call to “fuck the pain away”. As long as desire is the driving force of the libidinal economy, within which artistic work operates, performance spectacles that play with the power relations of being seen and seeing, and manipulate ways of moving, continue to strike a social chord.
Making it Happen
Following the final rule, #11, of Kaprow’s manifest-like lecture, a happening should not be performed for an assembled audience. He admonishes us, “leave the shows to the theatre people and discotheques. A happening is a game with a high, a ritual that no church would want because there’s no religion for sale.”
Charmatz’s continuously touring choreographic work and dance performances have, similar to the steirischer herbst festival programme, produced an exhaustive body of pioneering artistic work. In light of the progressing global institutionalisation of cultural work, I am left wondering: wherein does the inconvenience of such performance events lie, and what are the risks that they take?
- ^ Kaprow, Allan. 1966. How to Make a Happening, LP record, recorded in conjunction with Mass-Art, produced by Mass Art Inc.
- ^ For more on the development of contemporary dance in the neoliberal enrichment economy see Moravec, Lisa, “Dressage Performances as Infrastructural Critique: Mike Kelley and Yvonne Rainer’s Dancing Horses”. In: Dance Chronicle, Vol. 45, No. 1, (2022), pp. 57-78, here p. 74.
- ^ Laura Bachman, Régis Badel, Guilhem Chatir, Tatiana Julien, Georges Labbat, Noémie Langevin, Johanna Elisa Lemke, Bruno Senune, and Solène Wachter.
- ^ Marx, Karl. 1977. A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’, edited by Joseph O’Malley, translated by A. Jolin and J. O’Malley, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 131.