Can dancing be a survival strategy? Such is the question posed by artist Mirkan Deniz in her examination of a Kurdish “guerrilla dance” as a site of resistance. Deniz's query was included in the series of letters to the visitor distributed along with Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz's film installation Moving Backwards (2019) in the Swiss Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale (May 11–November 24, 2019). The urgency of our present moment permeated much of the sprawling biennial, grouped loosely under the apocryphal proverb and curse “May You Live In Interesting Times.” Artists tackled climate catastrophe, rising right-wing nationalism and authoritarianism, refugee crises, and other pressing social and political issues in a range of media and with a variety of attitudes.
Moving image installation invites surrender to a different temporality amid the fast-paced tempo of both these “interesting times” and the packed itinerary of biennale tourists, and it figured prominently in the group show curated by Ralph Rugoff at the Giardini and Arsenale locations as well as in numerous pavilions and collateral events scattered throughout the city. Of the twenty-nine national pavilions of the Giardini—the Biennale's original location and where national pavilions first emerged in the beginning of the twentieth century—eleven prominently featured moving image artworks, and these ranged widely in both quality and tone. Laure Prouvost's beautiful, frenetic, and surreal journey film Deep See Blue Surrounding You (2019) and Larissa Sansour's tense two-channel take on the psychological sci-fi thriller in Heirloom (2019)—in the French and Danish pavilions, respectively—were two of the most wildly inventive narrative installations, while Aya Ben Ron's gimmicky Israeli Pavilion project Field Hospital X (FHX) (2019), which screened video on monitors mounted in a hospital waiting room and on individual beds, fell flat.
Emerging from the Giardini's overabundance of moving-image work was a body of cinematic installations that posited dance and musical performance as both a potential answer to the urgent questions posed by the Biennale's theme and a critique of the concept of the national pavilion itself. These works explore expressive subcultures or create entirely new choreographies where movement of bodies challenges oppression, carves out spaces for representation and resistance, and generates new democratic assemblies. Shows fitting most securely in this category were the Brazilian, Swiss, and Australian pavilions. History Has Failed Us, But No Matter, the group show at the Korean Pavilion, also dealt with similar themes and featured four artists' work across flat-screen monitors and projectors in multiple galleries. I confine my discussion here to the first three, where gallery and diegetic space coalesced.
The Brazilian Pavilion featured the most direct study of dance cultures with Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca's two-channel installation Swinguerra (2019). Like many of Wagner and de Burca's other films, the project involves both the high production values and dreamy narrative of an extended music video and a radically collaborative mode of ethnographic documentary filmmaking. The project's title takes its name from swingueira—an urban dance trend loosely derived from samba and hip-hop and born in gymnasia in the artists' coastal city of Recife—and guerra (war), alluding to both West Side Story-esque dance battles between the groups within the work and the political backdrop of the moment. Wagner and de Burca also worked with practitioners of two other dance trends, brega and batidão do maloca, music styles that, to this North American ear at least, most resemble certain styles of club, hip-hop, and reggaeton music. The performers, many of whom are black and of nonbinary gender, move in tightly choreographed routines against the backdrop of locations on the urban periphery: an aging modernist gymnasium, the rusting frame of a soccer goal, a graffitied wall, an overgrown playground, and a sandy outdoor park.
When the music swells, the camera lingers on the performers in long shots that capture their athletic movements and allow their bodies to dominate the screen and transform their environments. Interspersed within these scenes of boisterous dancing are hints of narrative: shots of dancers watching each other or rival groups, eyeing each other up and down competitively, or looking longingly at other styles of movement, prompting cinematic segues into dream sequences where they imagine performing in other locations and in other styles of dance. When the music fades, we see the performers at rest and sounds of evening crickets, echoing gymnasium footsteps, and the singing of an old woman peddler make the setting again palpable.
As in Estás vendo coisas (You are seeing things) (2017), Wagner and de Burca's earlier exploration of the brega music industry, the artists are not interested in a reductive account of their subcultural objects of study, be it a culture industry critique or a populist defense. Instead, they work collaboratively with their subjects in order to both produce a space for the group's members to self-represent and generate a complex diegetic world that captures and interrogates each cultural form with a richness and generosity eluded by mainstream documentary tropes.
This complexity is revealed in both the interplay between the performers and their environment mentioned earlier and the project's exploration of gender. Despite the many nonbinary performers, gender difference pervades the film: in the frequent separation of male and female performers via costumes and dance moves, in the frequently misogynistic lyrics of the brega and batidão do maloca songs translated through English subtitles,1 and against the political backdrop of president Jair Bolsonaro's far-right politics, perhaps alluded to in low-angle shots of performers in salute during the opening lyrics of the film's outdoor finale number that evoke the motto on the Brazilian flag: “Order and Progress.” Rather than explicitly rejecting or acquiescing to gender norms and social pressures, the dancers swing between these binaries and in the process their bodies chart new, transversal movements.
Collaborators Boudry and Lorenz also worked closely with dancers and choreographers to create a cinematic space for a performance of tactical ambivalence in the face of increased authoritarianism with Moving Backwards at the Swiss Pavilion. Rather than exploring specific dance subcultures, the artists took as their point of departure the backward movements of our “interesting times”—the rise in nationalism and the feeling that progress is being asked to retreat. Instead of attempting to force forward movement or simply acquiescing, they sought to mine moving backward as a site of possibility and resistance. The camera moves in slow, smooth tracking shots, framing performers' entire bodies on a darkened stage identical to the space of the installation. Dancers move individually and in various groupings through a series of expressions and styles that explore the theme of backward movement: performers walk wearing their shoes backward, echoing the tactic employed by women of the Kurdish guerrillas; dancers alternate between impossibly slow avant-garde movements and acrobatic breakdances accompanied only by the sounds of their shoes and breath; groups march slowly backward to nationalistic brass bands; a sequined dancer grooves to Michael Jackson performing his famous backward moonwalk; and, finally, the film's various performers come together to cut loose to bass-heavy electronic dance music.
As the club beats take over and the tempo picks up in the final minutes, the film lets its hair down, literally. The dancers' movements become quicker and more fluid and the film's conceit is finally laid bare: the footage is mostly screened in reverse. The performers' more exuberant movements clearly read as backward; hair (both on heads and on wigs) swings in impossible directions, prompting a reconsideration of everything seen before. The installation's lights flicker and pulsate to the beat, and, following the reversed snap of the clapperboard (indicating the beginning of the shot but the end of the film), the film stops and the entire black-box space transforms into a dance floor, complete with strobe lights and thumping club beats.
Like the nonbinary bodies that grace the screens of Wagner and de Burca's Bolsonaro–era film, the resistance located within Boudry and Lorenz's project contains a queer politics. Queer theorist and philosopher Antke Engel, in her contribution to the letters to the visitor, considers how backward movement can be a queer strategy in the face of oppression, as a way to return to crossroads in order to intersect with other people and chart new paths, “as a chance of re-embodying and re-arranging desires, of inviting what has been ignored or foreclosed so far.” Turning our assumptions of “backwardness” in relationship to LGBTQ politics inside out, the polyvalence of the backward movement that Engel discusses is echoed in the complexities of the film itself. Viewing the reverse footage of performers' forward movements that are meant to be read as backward becomes so complex that the binary between forward and backward is smashed altogether and new directions and movements emerge.
Angelica Mesiti's three-channel work ASSEMBLY (2019) similarly explores the ambiguities and new social formations that can happen through translation. David Malouf's poem “To Be Written in Another Tongue” (1992) is the conceptual point of departure for a series of performances and assemblies set in the chambers of the Italian and Australian senates. A solo performer transcribes the poem on a Michela machine, a nineteenth-century stenographic device that resembles a piano keyboard. This code is transformed into a nonverbal musical score that a diverse group of musicians perform (at times discordantly) with piano, viola, clarinet, voice, and drums in otherwise empty rooms of official power. Hand signals like those used during the 2017 Paris climate demonstrations layer the musical performances with expressions of nuanced and active listening, in effect modeling ideal, horizontal, and democratic assemblies where new voices may not always fit easily with existing ones but are heard and brought into an ever-changing assemblage. The work culminates in the percussion interpretation of the score, performed on blue LED-lit drums by a circle of dancing performers and captured with sweeping camera movement—a dizzying visual and sonic crescendo that is amplified across the three screens. As the work reaches this lively peak, young people shoot tiny blue LED lights into the night sky against the backdrop of a Roman ruin of a phallic brick tower, in effect overtaking the architectures of the hierarchies of power.
As installed in Venice, all three works built upon their darkened sites of projection with architectural interventions that denied complete visual apprehension by either obstructing the image or deploying multiple screens. In doing so, they began to produce social spaces. The Swiss pavilion's nightclub transformation featured a moving sequined curtain that traveled across the space and momentarily obscured the screen, an interruption echoed by a similar curtain that moves in front of the camera at another point within the film. After leaving the stage, visitors entered a second room resembling a bar. Unlike the black-box stage of the film, this space was flooded with daylight and peppered with sculptural installations deriving from props in the film. It was also here that the newspaper print publication of letters to the viewer was distributed. Swinguerra featured an entrance space with photographic portraits of the three dance groups and free posters of the star dancer. The two screens played as pendant films that shared the same soundtrack but featured different takes. As installed in the Brazilian Pavilion, the two screens sat on opposite ends of a narrow viewing space and diagonally in front of plywood boxes and bleachers that recalled the seating arrangements in the film. Subtle differences in performance, framing, camera angle, and the occasional counter-shot caused me to frequently look at the screen behind, mimicking the intergroup glances within the diegetic space. The three-channel installation of ASSEMBLY, already pulling attention from one screen to the next in its circular form, placed viewers inside a red-carpeted amphitheater that recalled the hallowed halls of government and produced an assembly space for the audience. The particular cinematic situation of each work, architecturally reconfiguring the often-monolithic architecture of the national pavilion itself and structuring particular modes of viewing, echoed the diegetic spaces within the screens and attempted to transform cinematic spectatorship into a mode of gathering.
So, can dancing be a survival strategy? In the worlds created by performers in these three installations—yes. Dance becomes both a reterritorialization and a language onto itself. “Such ordinary events / are poems in another tongue and no translation / possible” reads an excerpt from Malouf's poem, speaking to the lacunae between experience, language, and translation. Etymologically, translation means to move from one place to another, to carry across, in essence, to migrate. In language as in space, such movements inevitably drop things along the way, leading to misunderstandings, incompatibilities, disengagement, and homesickness. In these three works, movement itself becomes language, carrying with it all that usually gets lost in translation, embodying and enacting all possible conjugations and permutations, and opening up new spaces for that which was previously unheard or even unsayable.