Two Musicals (Part I): Michael Portnoy
Relational Stalinism: The Musical

Issue no2
Apr -Mai 2023
the horror, the horror!
Michael Portnoy, Rooms in Which…, onderdeel van Relbijional Stalinism – The Musical in 2016 bij Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, fotograaf Aad Hoogendoorn

—Hendrik FolkertsSomething that struck me from the first scene of Relational Stalinism: The Musical, is its commitment to providing a critique of how dance – and other forms of performance – are currently presented in visual art contexts, i.e. the museum, gallery space, etc. In the very first sequence of the piece, a dancer doing an exhausting foot routine is passed a series of books which she opens and reads briefly. These books bear such titles as Duration for Dummies, Curator Say: Dance Good, Theater Bad, Dance in the Museum Vol. 1: Knee Surgery, Dance in the Museum Vol. 2: Be Boring and Charming and Dance in the Museum Vol. 3: The Seagull Problem. So, this Seagull problem, what is it precisely and how do you use it as a premise to articulate a critique?

—Michael PortnoyI formed The Improvement League for The Taipei Biennial (2010) whose mission was to "improve" other contemporary artworks in the manner of a mad geneticist or horticulturist of concepts, mixed with the spirit of a comedian's roast. Taking the things that bug me about certain breeds, tropes and operations of art today and using them to fuel invention. The show at Witte de With took many turns since 2012 when I began discussing it with the curator, Defne Ayas, and later joined by Natasha Hoare. The original idea was Difficult Forms of Amusement, which later swerved into The Seagull Problem - a direct improvement of Tino Sehgal's yearlong retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum, and then finally into its current form as Relational Stalinism - The Musical. As such, it is very much a response to the types of dance and performance presented in museums today, which to a large degree are po-faced, palatable, minimalist conceptual works, deeply under the spell of Judson Church and French Post-Dance, and nominal forms of participation which are somehow held up to be radical and transformative. I decided to adopt the same degree-zero palette as these immaterialists, in virtually empty rooms, and see how maximal I could get within that frame, drawing upon most of the breeds of performance that I've had experience with, from physical theater, dance, stand-up, song, dense language play, dictatorial participation, etc. I wanted all these different registers and languages to occupy the museum together, combining high and low entertainment, seeing how low entertainment like the prank call can be elevated into poetry or high entertainment like repetitive durational dance can turn into comedy and critique. The reason it's called a musical is because the title is much funnier that way -- it provides some nice dissonance with the Stalinism. It has very little relation to an actual musical except the entire cycle is two hours long, I wrote some music for it, and there is singing and dancing, and snazzy costumes.

—Hendrik FolkertsRelational Stalinism consists of twelve sequences that are performed across seven spaces on the top floor of Witte de With. Each of these spaces has a different constitution, that is to say they evoke different types of performance spaces: theater, dance space, gallery space, “participation” space. These spaces appear to be used against the grain: in the space with the elevated stage, the minimal gesture of (un)packing a suitcase, becomes a grand theatrical act; in the sequence 100 Big Entrances the gallery space becomes the site of physical theater; in the ‘dance’ space, a minimal(ist) choreography is almost overshadowed by the absurdist language uttered by the performers; and so on. How did the conditions and rules of these spaces and the practices associated with them affect the respective sequences in Relational Stalinism and vice versa? A lot has been said recently about the conflation of these spaces, artists moving swiftly and smoothly between the white cube and the black box, so to speak. How does Relational Stalinism relate to this recent assertion?

—Michael PortnoyI think the movement between white cube, black box and grey hangar is a bumpy ride for most artists, with a) even the best art spaces still ill-equipped for live bodies and sound, b) very few curators having experience producing demanding live events, and c) artists dragged into or attracted to performance who have little knowledge of the medium, discourse or history - with results similar to asking your plumber to give you heart surgery, although less inventive. The overall aesthetic of Relational Stalinism was a lucky accident of the production circumstances. In my performance installations prior to this, there were only one or two performers and I created elaborate architectural or sculptural environments. At Witte de With, however, I wanted to work with a cast of around 10 performers and have a lengthy rehearsal period which would afford me the luxury of being able to develop work with the cast, to discover things and build a language in rehearsal and not beforehand. This meant that the majority of the budget needed to be allocated towards the performers, leaving relatively little for designing the spaces. Embracing this, I then tried to find minimal alterations and additions to each of the seven spaces to situate them on different and unsteady points of the ART--DANCE--THEATER spectrum within the existing palette of white, grey and black. The black and white costumes also follow suit. So the room with the elevated stage where DARSTELLERZWANGSLAGE takes place is a black triangle or prism rather than a box, the room where 100 Big Entrances happens is a standard grey floor gallery space but with a white stage curtain at the back, and the "dance" space is almost a parody of a dance space, with white Marley flooring covering two thirds of the floor and very unfashionable side-lighting with theatrical lamps more suited to a 90's dance piece at the Stadsschouwburg. One enters a space like this and expects to see, well, 90's Stadsschouwburg dance, so it was fun to play both into and against that, the performers standing visibly in the wings before their entrances but then having to take ten or so steps before they perform only one move and word and then exit to the opposite side. As that piece develops, and each performer does their solo/monologue, making the most of their limited vocabularies of 30 moves/words, you see that dance and language are fused and equally important, so that it fits that the space's position on the spectrum is almost recognizable, and almost legible, but not really. Legibility is one of my biggest beefs with art today. The spaces were also designed to create the different types of attention that each of the pieces required. In The Citibank Sessions, which contains a lot of tricky language, we needed the audience to be comfortable and focused and yet somehow in collusion with each other and the performer, as if they are all accomplices in this prank - so seating on carpet in the round worked, but with the added touch of white Marley flooring in the center signifying DANCE - a dance of logic.

—Hendrik FolkertsI am interested to talk more about the topic of legibility. In 100 Big Entrances a seated narrator provides the other performer with instructions to make different kinds of entrances, which he then embodies to the fullest: Make a slightly bigger entrance but whose difference in intensity might only be noticed in the thumbs / Enter collapsing the dichotomy between the practical and the intellectual / Enter questioning the relationship between an art institution and its public, etc. In The Agglutinators (Rigoberto), as you have mentioned, the performers are limited to 30 words, which they seemingly select, combine, entangle and disentangle through the movement of their limbs and muscles. Almost all of the sequences work through this embodied, incorporated and excorporated forms of language. Why is it so important to make this work legible through the body? What is your beef with legibility, as you say? And what is this dance of logic, that both the performers and the audience seem to be enacting in the spaces at Witte de With?

—Michael PortnoyI'd noticed a while ago that Citibank call operators have an extremely high tolerance for abstraction. They will try to make sense of speech that to most other ears is far too ambiguous and whose clauses are connected by only the finest threads of logic and meaning. So in The Citibank Sessions, we call the customer service reps with a general question about Immateriality or Performance - concepts relevant both in the realms of banking and visual art - and we push their parsing abilities to the breaking point. Many of our methods are adapted from language disorders common to schizophrenia: paraphasia, word approximations, faulty inductive inferences, derailment and etc. The performers also constantly re-route their sentences midstream by randomly inserting evocative yet open-ended phrases, such as Hormonal Loaning, Automated Depression, Character Apocalypse, from a list of hundreds we've created, and then attempting to explain these terms through even more confusing metaphors. There are certain types of confusion and para-sense which are distancing and shut the mind down. I'm after an emboldening confusion, one which sets incompatible ideas, logics and mental images aloft and careening into each other in an aerial act that excites the viewer and has a weird emotional resonance. Humor is an essential part of this equation for me and really the engine that keeps these ideas from falling on the ground. My beef with legibility, and by this I'm referring to art which announces its concept, operations, or meaning the first second you encounter it, is that I'm done after that first second. I always loved this punning quote from Auguste Préault - "Je ne suis pas pour le fini. Je suis pour l'infini." - where he equates the finished with the finite and the unfinished with the infinite. I read that kind of art in a second like a sign on the highway and I'm finished. It might be a beautiful, elegant sign, but I'm finished. There's no journey in legibility. When you ask - "Why is it so important to make this work legible through the body?", I take it to mean "why do you use the language of the body?" and "why do you put language through the body to enact the sorts of confusions you seek?", since I certainly don't want this work to be legible in any finite sense. I think the answer is that I've always sought to unite dance and language and dance is one of the most slippery languages there is. Each movement triggers multiple connotations, images and emotions, and ones that are different for each viewer. A dance phrase is then equivalent to an infinitely combinatorial sentence where each word could be a hundred others depending on who you are and where your brain's at that moment. Now when you layer this highly unstable language with words, whose meanings are more stable, you get all sorts of fantastic fleeting compounds streaming energy at you like radioactive isotopes!

—Hendrik FolkertsAnother type of language is present in Relational Stalinism, that of sound, rhythm and music. How do these elements bridge the movements between body and language?

—Michael PortnoyUnpredictability is very important to me in language, movement and music. As a musician, I like irregular timing, accents and pauses, and establishing patterns which mutate unexpectedly. Yes, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool prog-rocker. I also love to see the body move minutely to the music. Moving at all to the music is a big no-no in contemporary dance, unless you're doing it naked to club songs and twerking. In 77 Blinks, for instance, I wanted the timing of the track to be very intricate, so that the viewer cannot predict the accents on which the performers blink. This made it very hard for the performers to learn, however. Not only is the rhythm complex and always changing, they must make sure they don't blink at any point during the dance other than those specified. You have to retrain your eye's natural impulse - it was like blinking boot camp! Similar micro-choreography to the music happens in DARSTELLERZWANGLAGE, as performer Gerrie de Vries provides synchronized vocal accompaniment to every step and gesture of her packing and unpacking act, like Mickey Mouse singing his own soundtrack but without moving his mouth. In The Agglutinators, the timing of the performers' speech is totally determined by the timing of their movements, since each word must be spoken with its accompanying move. So in cases where a dancer has a multi-part move for a particular word, their speech is delayed unnaturally giving it a quite uncanny effect. The opposite thing happens in An(al) Lee(k), where Keyna Nara must speak in a strange robotic rhythm while she moves quite intricately to another rhythm, but at certain times the words and gestures align, giving a nice jolt of synchronicity. In the increasingly abstract instructions in the final section of Advanced Touch, musicality almost overtakes meaning, the rhythm and sound of words building into an incantation. I'm a real believer in the almost alchemical potential of words, and use it to guide me compositionally - how certain sounds in words lead to other sounds which are the seeds for other words, how the sounds of words have potent effects upon us which we barely understand.

—Hendrik FolkertsPreviously you mentioned that you wanted to have a lengthy rehearsal period for this piece, which undoubtedly resulted in opportunities to create some of the sequences together with the performers, such as the phrasing in The Citibank Sessions. How did you shape this process of collaboration between you and the performers? This also leads to questions about how participation and collaboration is proposed within the framework of the exhibition itself. Some of this participation is rather inviting, other moments are a bit more intrusive than most people are used to or downright dictatorial, as you say. While noting the criticism and satirical intention in these scenes, I am curious to ask you how you draw up the lines between performer and audience in this piece?

—Michael PortnoyThe rehearsal process involved a lot of collaboration with the truly remarkable cast. The first two weeks of rehearsal were spent mining different improvisation techniques from dance, theater and comedy, and hybrids of all of these, as well as a method Ieva Miseviciute and I developed in our teaching which uses movement to generate speech and character. This coupled with the confusion training I mentioned created tons of material, a bit of which made it into the show. Some pieces were made completely from assignments I gave the cast, and others are movement scores that allow for improvisation within a set vocabulary. The Citibank Sessions are completely improvised, although there is a set structure, method, topics, and the list of phrases which are interspersed. I find it very inspiring to "write" or "edit" dance in the movement vocabularies that each individual performer "speaks" due to their particular training and imagination, rather than only imposing my own movement habits and impulses upon them. As for the second part of your question, yes, there is a spectrum of approaches to participation in the exhibition and a variety of modes of attention and spectatorship. "Relational Stalinism” is a satirical term I've been using for some years now to describe the kind of absurdist dictatorial techniques some of my works, like 27 Gnosis, employ to rewire participants' language and behavior in the service of invention. I'm not a fan of relational works that simply reinforce or restage existing modes of communication and experience within an art space, or put faith in democratic constructed situations as a way to gently produce knowledge. I believe you need a slippery iron fist to produce real change in people. Relational Stalinism, as such, is only one of the breeds of participation in this exhibition, but the overall construction and tone of the show very much depends on destabilization and active involvement and commitment by the audience. To get the whole experience, you need to stay in the museum for two hours, which is certainly much longer than people are used to doing for one exhibition. I was actually amazed that most people stayed the whole time!

A condensed version of this text in Dutch was published in Metropolis M No 2-2016 Who's Your Daddy And What Does He Do?

You can read Two Musicals (Part II): Cally Spooner HERE

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 2 — 2023