"I wanted to teach the white cube how to take theatricality"
Adam Linder is a trained choreographer and dancer who produces works for stage and art spaces that he calls choreographic "services". These services are not for sale: the hosting venue has to put on view a contract in which the artist lists for how many hours the venue has hired the service and how much each hour costs.
As the title of his latest work Service No. 5: Dare to Keep Kids Off Naturalism (which was on view at Kunsthalle Basel, 8.–28. September 2017) suggests, Linder objects to the idea that contemporary performance should appear naturalistic and "authentic" through the stripped-down aesthetics of amateurism and de-skilling. In this interview, Linder talks to visual artist Uri Aran about how to do things not badly but well.
Uri Aran: Perhaps we can start by talking about what the word services means for you, and why you turned to the idea of a choreographic service for several of your recent works?
Adam Linder: When choreography circulates in the visual art field, it needs an economic form that distances itself from that of objects, because it cannot be an object in a typical material sense. Existing outside the theatre format, these works offer a way of thinking about choreography that is not defined by elements of “staging”, maybe even distilled to just a singular intention (rather than scenes), which travels around with its own commodity form i.e., is not underpinned through audience ticket sales. In our society we are used to hiring people to do things, which is much like the role of performing. The idea for the services came from witnessing performance and particularly dance, being wheeled out as supposedly "immaterial" alternatives to an interest in objects. I found this quite patronising toward the form.
Do you feel that as a dancer, you are providing a service to a choreographer, with your body – channelling someone else’s vision – is that something that brought you to make the service works?
I haven’t necessarily thought about it that way. With Service No.5: Dare to Keep Kids Off Naturalism at Kunsthalle Basel, I wanted to teach the white cube how to take theatricality, so Noha [Ramadan], Stephen [Thompson], Justin [F. Kennedy] and Leah [Katz] are up against the walls and the floor a lot. They form or effect these fictional, enigmatic, or even absurd situations in relation to each other or the material structure or the situation of being observed. They resist naturalistic manners – a fetish for the amateur, a fetish for stripping away theatrical affect in favour of a reality effect, along with the seemingly almost mandatory Brechtian exposure of social relations, that visual art performance has been so enamoured with. Instead, they do ornament – and they do ornament seriously. They do it virtuosically.
I feel like the work hovers between something that can be read or experienced as conceptual and the mystery of the different elements: the verbal language and choreographic language, the space, the minimalism and theatricality. Working in concert, these things create something like a sad humour, right? Especially since each of your service works are presented alongside the contract with the hosting institution, which makes the politics of offering a service almost sentimental. Is this tension between minimalism, affect and manipulation where you feel most comfortable?
I like the contract being very interpretive: it’s very playful. When a normal contract would maybe just stay fixed on technical details, I over-explain in a descriptive manner what the service will purvey. That is a tension in the work in that it starts off with this kind of rational logic, a carving out of parameters. But then – overtly in No.5, almost purposefully contradicting the previous services – it moves towards fiction and expressivity. A live experience of dance and of being with dancing bodies can be very hard to contain, to read through rational logics: it’s very sensory, it’s juicy. So the contract for me is delightfully pathetic, in the way that it’s grappling to contain something or trying to put an ordered measure around it.
"A live experience of dance and of being with dancing bodies can be very hard to contain, to read through rational logics: it’s very sensory, it’s juicy"
An understanding of the task and, if you will, the suffering of fulfilling the task, is I think much more physical. Experienced as a sentiment rather than the dry sort of…
I think fulfilling the task is an honour, in a strange way. I don’t see it as suffering but a wilful undertaking. If I say that the contract is pathetic it’s because the attempt of this rational containment at the onset is pathetic in comparison to the experience of the materiality of performance. After it is taken into account, I want the contract to fall away in importance or loosen its grip, you know what I mean? Maybe it’s not so much an honour but rather an ethic: that I say that I’m going to do this thing, I believe that it’s worth it, and I’m going to come with this expertise that I have, I’m going to fulfil this premise in the way I subjectively know best. So this pulls it away from suffering, it’s not like “I have to do this”, nobody’s telling me or the dancers I work with that we have to do this. Rather than thematising an external politic, it’s about enacting a course of engagement that I want to stand behind.
Can you stand behind the rules, or the system, that are presented in the tradition of dance on a stage?
Yes, I can.
Are you interested in proposing a service in that space?
AL: Somehow not. There are two factors that allow me to propose this work in the visual arts. One is that the rules of the game that go along with a format like the services have a tension because the dominant operation in art is with objects, and dance has such a different way of being handled. The other is that I think that the theatre world is less interested in thinking about and has less of a history of dealing with notions of “context”: It’s a metaphor, but remember in the theatre the space that surrounds the focalised activity is still dark. Thinking of a work not just as a discrete thing but as the conditions that bring it into being is not that common in dance, in the theatre – at least not among the people I’ve thus far encountered. I think that somehow the field of visual arts has allowed me to work through these ideas in a way the theatre has not.
Part of how it works in No.5 is through time. I definitely thought the piece was doing different things because I allowed it to, because I stayed, because the conditions allowed it. I could move around, I could come in and out, and – I am reluctant to use this word – the mood was so important.
That’s not a bad word in my house.
I’m talking about how much time can you ask, or not ask, just have something going on for someone to visit, stay or leave, and I feel this would be very hard to do anywhere else other than in an exhibition.
With a staged performance, the viewer knows the extent to which they can engage, in temporal terms, before they even enter. Whereas here, you walk in and you don’t know what kind of experience you’re going to have. There are always some people who don’t even stay ten seconds – why would you, if it’s of no interest to you?
"here, you walk in and you don’t know what kind of experience you’re going to have. There are always some people who don’t even stay ten seconds"
I found the musical score very interesting, because while it does give different contours to the piece, it also activates the audience and the theatricality of the audience as participants. The audience becomes more active, almost functioning like characters, in some of the tasks. It’s almost hyper-cinematic, like the props, which are beautiful and very considered. There’s a sense of a uniformity, right? There’s a number that repeats with everyone, there’s a unification, and there’s an almost – I wouldn’t say aggressive, but militaristic element. A different sense of the word service comes back.
That is a play with a ready-for-action mode: we have uniforms for specific activities, for that singular purpose one is going to drop the “individualism” of being self-appareled and wear a thing that was designed for a particular endeavour… when I said honour, it felt too proud, too on show, or whatever – but there’s maybe some sense of humbling purpose that could come with a uniform.
Does that relate to a notion of respect to craft? I felt like everything is tidy, your aesthetics are very attractive, some of them might be sculptural, some of them might be necessary, but they’re very considered.
There’s respect for the craft, for sure.
Like the pride of a small business?
Hah! Yes, it’s a small business, the services could definitely be something like that!
I like that idea, but at the same time I find it sentimental. You have the tension between the clear cuts and the coldness, the white surgical stools, to the humour of these silver trunks that divide the space compositionally in this elegant way. But they’re inflatable balloons, you know? Through choreography you somehow manage to make them like elegant vessels, weapons, tools, brushes.
I thought of it as an extension of what painters do – they also divide space through choreography.
The words of our conversation are now circling, because you said suffering and then I said honour, then craft came up and now we’re talking about an artisanal small business. The craft of dance has got to do with discipline, virtuosity has got to do with having discipline and then letting it fly and discipline has got to do with a practice of engaging with a thing, focusing on it, meditating on it, and throwing yourself into the fire of it. Do you know what I mean? And I think that is why I stand behind these ideas of virtuosity and craft, and these specifics of dance, rather than it being solely driven by the dancer’s expressive impulse. And I don’t think this craft is submissive or subordinating when engaged with on reflected terms. Nor do I think labouring over a specific and complex physical craft is a less intellectual disposition.
Well, that’s not even a question in my mind.
But it is a sublimated question in some recent practices of dance that have been so focused on an extension toward the fields of philosophy, critical theory and science, perhaps rather than delving further into what the specifics of a virtuosic physical practice in dance might open up today.
And this leads us back to the fetish of the amateur, a reality effect, and where this whole question of naturalism comes in, which might be code for a distrust of formalist attitudes. I feel like the history of visual art performance and some recent practices in dance have aligned on this kind of lefty hangover that a democratic politic is synonymous with non-aestheticised bodies, stripping away virtuosity to tap this authentic experience of a social relation. Dance that looks and smells of an accessible, liberal, freeing activity. A saviour for the public-program departments of art institutions. And I think these assumptions around aesthetics, around form and its hitherto “good politics”, are something that I am trying to counter – with how I have been working on the services.
Service No. 5: Dare to Keep Kids Off Naturalism is a co-production of Kunsthalle Basel and South London Gallery and will be presented at South London Gallery in February 2018.
ADAM LINDER is a choreographer and dancer and lives in Los Angeles and Berlin. He recently participated in the LA Biennial, the Biennial of Sydney and the Liverpool Biennial (2016). His solo or duo shows where presented at Institute of Contemporary Art, London (2015) and The Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin (2016). In 2016 Linder was awarded with the Mohn Prize for artistic excellence.