Dance and the Museum: Curating the Contemporary (Part 2 of 3)

Both Clements and Spangberg contend that there is not so much an interest in the interconnectedness of visual art and dance, but rather simply a contextual shift in the performative space as means to economic gain.[1] Dance writer and scholar Mark Franko has observed this contextual shift during a recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, curated by French choreographer Boris Charmatz.[2] The exhibition, entitled 20 Dancers for the XX Century, presented – as the titles suggests – twenty dancers performing work of various twentieth century choreographers. According Danielle Goldman who was also in attendance, Charmatz’s intention was to illustrate the body as archive – as museum – and thereby question traditional notions of museum practice.[3] According to Franko’s account, the

Dancers enact fleeting interventions in which the collections of MoMA are rivaled by the idea of a museum of dance, one in which the dancer him or herself is not only the “work of art”, but also the explicatory label and/or catalogue: in short, in which the dancer is at once artwork, pop-up materialization of choreography, and a living archive able to inform about it.[4]

However, according to Franko, the dances Charmatz had selected for the exhibition, which included works by master choreographers Merce Cunningham and William Forsythe, were relegated to the ‘transitional public spaces between galleries or at the base of stairways and escalators’.[5] Although Charmatz’s notion of the body as museum may support a theoretical framework for placing dance in the museum, it does not however answer to the curious dilemma of dance’s haphazard placement therein; the result of which was a noticed marginalization of the work of some of the twentieth century’s most celebrated choreographers.[6] This issue would certainly garner more debate if Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon were to be relegated to the backside of a third floor stairwell. What the Charmatz example underscores is that space irrefutably becomes context for dance, and that the particular placement of dance within the museum should require the same careful curatorial consideration tendered to painting or sculpture. Spangberg, Franko, and Clements all agree that curators do not regularly afford dance the same visual, spatial, or contextual integrity they do the visual arts.[7] To that point Franko asks, ‘how can dance as visitor compete with visual art in its home if dance does not occupy a space adequate for its own contemplation?’[8] It could be argued that, as it is generally now understood – following the white cube – context has come to form content and the ramifications of that shift must be considered for the intervention of dance in the museum as well. Without this consideration, dance will remain forever marginalized, in flux between meaning and non- meaning, chameleonic within the shifting frame of what can only be regarded as curatorial oversight. Curators interested in dance should be wary to forget that the contemporary museum space is saturated with ideology, and that as Brian O’Doherty has suggested, the museum or gallery is not a neutral container but rather an aesthetic object in itself.[9] Moreover it should be stressed, that the contextual re-placement of dance provides it a gravitas, a meaningfulness that is not necessarily existent in the work itself. This because, as Thomas McEvilley points out, the museum space – and particularly so when considering the case of the contemporary art museum as white cube – promotes a myth of sanctity, of reverence, that imbues the experience of the viewer and the viewed.[10] This means that the application of dance in the museum requires not only a specificity on the part of the curator to encourage an ethical dialogue between the choreographic and the museum’s spatial limitations, but as well a genuine knowledge of the art form to incorporate dance that does not undermine its ontology. As the interest in dance in the museum increases and the line between visual art, performance, and choreography continues to blur, this knowledge becomes increasingly important. It is an issue addressed by performance curator Sarah Maxfield who expresses concern that the growing interest in dance and performance within the museum has garnered a new generation of curators in the position of programming dance who still frame it in terms of a visual art paradigm.[11]

The challenges Maxfield suggests might further be informed by addressing two conical threads of influence in the relationship of dance and the museum. The first of which is the predisposition that dance in the museum is democratically positioned and therefore can be regarded as participatory. It could be argued that this bias originated under the influence of Duchamp, who regarded the creative act as a participatory activity; one that ‘is not performed by the artist alone’ but relies on the spectator to ‘bring the work in contact with the external world’.[12] In the last part of the Twentieth Century, Duchamp’s position justified a democratization of the performance space and a decentralization of choreographic composition. Consider here Merce Cunningham or the Judson Dance Theater. This – in turn – allowed dance to free itself from the restrictions imposed by the traditional proscenium venue, thereby opening the door for dance to alternative performance spaces such as museums and art galleries.[13] Furthermore, the condition of the museum audience as a roaming entity, free to engage or disengage with particular works at will, lent itself very well to this particular view of democratization. However as Spangberg points out, just because an audience can move freely though the space – is free to choose what to look at and when – does not make dance more or less democratic, does not make a choreographic work more or less participatory.[14] He suggests that simply to ‘expose an individual to an art work’ regardless of placement ‘always implies (a negotiation of) freedom, to regulate democracy in a diminishing or expanding manner’.[15]   As the history of dance would contest, from the nineteen sixties onward this democratic experience could happen equally in a theater or in a museum. It is therefore refutable to consider that dance in the museum proffers any more democratic experience for the viewer simply by the nature of its placement and thereby it is unnecessary for curators to continue to relegate dance to the museum’s marginalized spaces, supported by this vaguely egalitarian argument. However, although misguided, one need only consider the obligations imposed upon the museum as a post historic arts organization to understand the logic in maintaining such a bias. As countless research studies will attend, audiences have become more selective in how and where they choose to spend their leisure time.[16] This translates as increased competition for the museum sector in attracting and maintaining audience interest. Therefore, as Erinn Roos-Brown points out, ‘today’s curator must modify traditionally scholarly approaches and adapt in order to capture the attention of their audience’.[17] In the linguistics of cultural policy this translates as ‘participatory’. [18] Therefore, dance that is perceived as democratic is adherent to the ‘participatory’ agendas coursing through current museum practice and as such co-opted by museums that are seeking to secure their positions within a society that values knowledge and experience. This is problematic because, as Marten Spangberg points out, ‘the choreography and dance that correlates to the museum, places a specific emphasis on ‘abstraction and form’.[19] Abstract dance, to a large extent, maintains its foundations in democratic explorations of space, time, and perception. Again, consider Merce Cunningham and the Judson Dance Theater. However, what is necessary for curators to take into account is that, although abstract dance may lend itself to democratic theory, it distances itself from Duchamp in that it does not necessarily imply or require meaning-making or participation. This observation is imperative, as the type of dance most often courted by museum curators is not dance that is interested in meaning – or, as Spangberg might suggest, even dance that is truly contemporary – but rather it is abstract dance born or transplanted from twentieth century modernist traditions. [20] That is because in the museum setting – in the bid for audience attention – it is these works that function the best; choreographies like those of Cunningham, where ‘aesthetic engagement at the moment of performance is paramount’; any ‘residual meditation on the meanings of the work is secondary’.[21] Although many of these dances may have originated in democratic ideologies, they are not concerned with the current democratic and participatory requirements that today’s museum policy demands. Instead these works are concerned with the presentation of movement as construct. They are concerned with the choreographic in a most formalist sense. In addition – and herein lay the major point of contention – it is exactly because of their emphasis on the choreographic, because of their abstract and formalist nature, that these works can most easily be objectified. These works, which highlight aestheticism over participation, can be corralled in the ‘object’ tradition that serves as the ongoing foundation of museum practice. But as such, they will always remain a diversion – an entertainment commodity – and thereby a considerable threat to the potentiality that dance and the museum suggests.

Part 3 to follow


[1] Clements, Spangberg, Critical Correspondence 2013, 2014
[2] Mark Franko, ‘homeless in the museum, or, how to be a school’, Critical Correspondence, February 6, 2014
[3] Danielle Goldman, ‘More than Incidental Choreographies’, Critical Correspondence, December 8, 2013
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6]Goldman, Franko, ‘Critical Correspondence’ 2013, 2014.
[7] Clements, Franko, Spangberg, Critical Correspondence, 2013, 2104
[8] Franko, Critical Correspondence, 2014
[9] O’ Doherty as cited by Simon Sheikh, ‘Positively White Cube Revisited’, e-flux, 2009.
[10] Thomas McEvilley, ‘Introduction’, Inside the White Cube: The ideology of the Gallery Space, 1986, p.9
[11] Sarah Maxfield 2012, as cited by La Rocco, New York Times
[12] Duchamp 1957, as cited by Sally Banes, Writing Dancing in the Age of Postmodernism, 1994.
[13] Banes, “Postmodernism’, 1994
[14] Spangberg, Critical Correspondence, 2013
[15] Ibid.
[16] Colbert 2012, Schiffmann 2010 as cited by Graf, Shropshire, and Schell. ‘External Analysis Holland Festival’, November 2013
[17] Erinn Roos-Brown, ‘Academic to Entertainer: The Changing Role of the Curator’, Artcore Journal, 2013.
[18] Referring here to the term ‘participatory’ as coined by Nina Simon in her work The Participatory Museum, 2010.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Marten Spangberg, ‘Museum Dancing’, Spangbergianism, September 20, 2012
[21] Banes, Writing Dancing, 1994

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