'If I Can't Dance...' at De Appel

Bart van der Heide

Tags: Amsterdam, Review

Reviews / 01.03.2007

Curators Frederique Bergholtz and Annie Fletcher have been exploring their desired synergy between 'celebration' and 'the ability of art to take a political and critical stance' in a series of performance projects that operate in response to Emma Goldman's declaration, 'If I Can't Dance I Don't Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution'.1 Since its conception in 2005, 'If I Can't Dance...' has managed to substantially influence the Dutch cultural landscape, avoiding the dominant vortex of temporary exhibitions and successfully reshaping conventional curatorial practice. 'If I Can't Dance...' abandons the model of brief, one-off collaborations between artist and curator in favor of a multiplicity of public and creative contexts, different in location, time and character.

After the success of Edition I, in which artists such as Johanna Billing, Gerard Byrne, Yael Davids and Matti Braun presented their work in various festival and publication formats, 'If I Can't Dance...' took up residence at De Appel in Amsterdam for the production of Edition II. De Appel, renowned for its influential support of performance and installation art in the 1970s within the European context, proved to be ideal for this event, both as partner and location.

As usual, Bergholtz and Fletcher adapted their curatorial approach to the specific context of the space. However, in this case, they seemed to increase their control over the situation by choosing a clear theme and a carefully selected (historical) point of departure. Accompanied by the subtitle 'Feminist legacies and potentials in contemporary art practice', Edition II, Part II2 takes an important feminist event organized by De Appel in 19783 as the framework from which to assess the relationship between contemporary artistic production and the feminist legacy of the 1970s. In order to address this topic, De Appel and the curators organized a series of symposiums, an exhibition and a closing performance weekend, which took place from 17 November 2006 to 14 January 2007.

The focus here is the performance weekend, which proved to be the most emblematic part of this extensive program. For this event, the exhibition spaces where transformed into a succession of stages individually assigned to a variety of performing artists. These included international producers such as Planningtorock, Haegue Yang, Sarah Pierce and Judith Hopf, as well as Dutch artists Pascale Gatzen, Will Holder and Maria Pask. The stage designs remained unaltered throughout the weekend. As a result, the performances were charged with memories of a past event but also announced an upcoming one.

Planningtorock, 'Inside Me, Outside You', 2007. Courtesy of De Appel, Amsterdam. Photograph by Sal Kroonenberg

In theory, this was an inspiring way of dealing with exhibition spaces, but in this case it created a problem. By putting contemporary practice into relation with a period that the majority of the participating artists were too young to have experienced, only secondary sources (such as technical representations) were at the artists' (and thus, the visitors') disposal. Within the context of the performances, the connections could only go as far as a mere formal analogy. Ultimately, performers in the series who used divergent strategies in their work were forced together by an overall formal relation.

Nevertheless, 'Feminist legacies...' regained its credibility when aligned with the general aspirations of 'If I Can't Dance...' Within this broader perspective, the bilateral juxtaposition mentioned above becomes part of a proliferating set of contexts that is offered to contemporary artistic production. In the case of Edition II, Part II, the overall context could roughly be identified as one of historical consolidation. In relation to this, Bergholtz and Fletcher chose to identify an artistic strategy that had the subversion of history as its main objective.

To support the context of the performances, videos and transcripts taken from the De Appel archive were strategically placed at the centre of the event. Carefully chosen by the curators, De Appel archivist Nell Donkers and artist Stefanie Seibold, this selection of archival media provided the only memory of the preceding exhibition, while the setting in which it was presented remained untouched. The historical transcripts summarily described the feminist legacy as an art form that seemed to operate best in an alien framework. 'Feminist art reflects a different set of values,' read a quote from art critic and curator Lucy R. Lippard. To counter bourgeois ideas of history, representation and the handling of art objects (and in this respect, underline their alienated position as women) these artists preferred an outsider position and were interested in the conditions in which that position could be accomplished and expressed. 

Judith Hopf represented this in the most straightforward way when she re-enacted a now classic performance that Dan Graham produced for De Appel on 8 June 1977.4 The original piece, entitled Mirror Performance/Audience uses dialectic 'shifters'5 to describe the artist's outsider position in relation to his audience and his public representation in a mirror. Shifters like 'here' and 'there' (the 'here' of the performer and the 'there' of the public, the 'here' in front of the mirror and the 'there' within it) are descriptions common to this performance, and become in the words of Hopf a metaphor of the way feminist art found its position within art history. 

On the other hand, this performance illustrates a 19th-century ideology according to which the primitive source of life and creativity is idealized, and seen as the origin of alternative meanings. This notion of the 'noble savage' as the incarnation of desire was a common denominator for a surprisingly large number of the contributions to 'Feminist legacies...'. In this spirit, the pagan dance contributed by Maria Pask became a counterpoint to the striking masks used by pop performer Planningtorock.6

On the one hand, this ambiguous side-effect underlined one goal of the organizers (namely the 'celebration'), but did, on the other hand, disappoint the members of the audience who expected a clear political standpoint. So the relation to the original motivations of 'If I Can't Dance...' remained strongly in place, albeit stressing the idea that not taking an explicit political stance could be political in and of itself. However, this was clearly not what the organizers of 'If I Can't Dance...' had in mind. 

In the end, every participant navigated the feminist legacy on his or her own terms. It was dealt with through the lens of each artist's personal trajectory, but always in relation to a common interest in the context of artworks and to a critique of archetypical forms of representation. For example, while Sarah Pierce executed feminist critique on a theoretical level by proposing alternative ways of reading the work of Eva Hesse,7 Pascale Gatzen activated it in a more practical way when she defined alternative ways of approaching the fashion object.8 All of the participants of 'If I Can't Dance...' Edition II, Part II seemed to take different positions against bourgeois standards. 'Feminist legacies and potentials in contemporary art practice' should therefore be considered as an experiment in framing current conceptual practice - a practice that is nowadays generic to the point that it 'celebrates' its sovereign diversity. In this respect, 'If I Can't Dance...' met its objectives. But doesn't this kind of project always manage do that?

- Bart van der Heide

  1. See http://www.deappel.nl/nederlands/exhibition/IICD/index.html. Last accessed on 2 February 2007.

  2. De Appel, Centre for Contemporary Art, Amsterdam, 17 November 2006 - 14 January 2007.

  3. Feministische Kunst Internationaal (International Feminist Art), Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, Amsterdam, 10 December 1978, a conference including Lucy R. Lippard, Cillie Rentmeister, Betsy Damon and others.

  4. Judith Hopf, 'What do you look like?', Acrypto Demonic Mystery, 2006.

  5. For a discussion of the term 'shifter', see Marga van Mechelen, De Appel: Performances, Installations, Video, Projects, 1975-1983, Amsterdam: De Appel, 2006, p.146.

  6. See http://www.planningtorock.com

  7. See http://www.themetropolitancomplex.com

  8. See http://www.pascalegatzen.com