IN THE YEAR OF MILEY CYRUS, we learned that pop’s rote vicissitudes are still key to how we metabolize, multiply, and refigure our common pleasures and insecurities. We learned that race and sex are still potentin other words, salablestocks, partly because we’re all investors. And we learned that the Disney dialectic of starlet to brand, as rehearsed by Selena Gomez in Spring Breakers (2013) and Cyrus at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, is a fairy-tale trajectory of market-savvy trolling, a low-risk portfolio for those angling to mobilize the “new” capital of hits, likes, views, and related pings. Caught up in the repetitive, endlessly recuperative rhythm of pop culture, learning itself sometimes seemed stuck in a loop, an eternal return of eternal returns.
In the immediate wake of Cyrus’s televised performance of her existential party anthem “We Can’t Stop” on August 25, we learned that accusations of cultural appropriation can consolidate a shopworn view of “culture,” and can have traction even in the face of a less-than-convincing performance of said “appropriation.” (Just as shameless, perhaps, as patrolling the “proper” usage of a stock gesture like twerking.) Cyrus embodied something both toothless and sticky about race, sex, and the inexorable party machine, though her particular genius was in how well she failed, how sui generis her performance seemed in that annoying/thrilling, record-breaking, 306,000-tweets-per-minute set. Perfectionists like Beyoncé (whose performances have riffed on everyone from Bob Fosse to Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker) and Madonna (who most convincingly staked out the territory of cultural appropriation in the last millennium with “Vogue”) belong to another, more preening and professional species of performer. Cyrus’s camp was less about appropriation than it was about de-skilling, a mode she characterized, channeling Artaud, in this year’s documentary Miley: The Movement as a “strategic hot mess.”
Performance as premeditated excess becomes one of the libidinal convulsions of capital. The “strategic hot mess” is viral-ready; it leaves remainders for you, commissioner and prisoner of the gaze, to exploit, turn over, parody, and self-publish. Could “strategic hot mess” also justify Loretta Fahrenholz’s Ditch Plains, 2013, her bracing, troubling video that resets the nocturnal streets of a Hurricane Sandy–ravaged Manhattan, East New York, and Rockaways as an arena for waacking and flexing virtuosos, mostly drawn from the self-taught dancers of the Brooklyn-based Ringmasters Crew? If William Forsythe is right that improv freestyle is the epitome of the autonomous “contrapuntal body,” then Ditch Plains is a paean to that technology of the self, a style of movement that outpaces the worlds of institutionalized dance authorities.
In Ditch Plains, the “protagonist,” played by Ringmasters Corey (Corey Batts), crawls and wanders like the amnesiac Kid in Samuel R. Delany’s sci-fi classic Dhalgren, observing without passion the debris of civilization, gracefully stuttering and gliding around sidewalks littered with bodies. Here the mostly black bodies are figured either on the ground, casualties of implied (structural? catastrophic?) violence, or coolly freaking out. Someone tells me Ditch Plains is racist, and suddenly I can’t tell if it’s because it’s “about” racism or because it’s racist in its intentions or if I’m racist for being glued to the screen, so thorny is this diagnosis. “People don’t know how to act. Lie down. Lie down and quit acting like you know,” goes the scrambled voice-over, and it sounds like good advice, this refusal of pretense. The apocalyptic mien was maybe overripechic like the “grit faces” of the step dancers hired to model Rick Owens’s spring/summer 2014 collectionbut the dancing was radical, brilliant, hypnagogic, flawless.
Of Owens, some, perhaps too quickly, cried exploitation; though one might argue, also too quickly, that exploitation is the baseline condition of the ambivalent relationship between performer and audience under the hegemonic regime of late-capitalist spectacle. We’re all exploiters/exploited, though the effects of this binary are systematically skewed to hurt those without likes or capital to spare. More tangible, perhaps, was the way in which the runway performance actually underscored, by pretending to undercut, the deeply inscribed conservatism of the fashion industryits addiction to pale, skinny bodies as well as to its own self-perpetuated myths of insurrection. But the real media war dilated on the women’s aggressive expressions. Were they “vicious” like Owens’s collection, or did they playin spite of the fact that a few of the dancers were whiteto the “angry black woman” stereotype? Was the “grit face,” allegedly favored by step teams in some historically African American fraternities and sororities, a sign of divaesque fierceness, or was it Owens’s convoluted attempt to project “street” attitude onto a definitively nonstreet dance form?
What would it mean to have it both ways, to accept and to hold this tension in relief? Many artists have taken the collusion of “street” and “academy” as their starting point, though recently none more explicitly, for better and for worse, than Trajal Harrell. This was the year in which the choreographer’s full cycle of Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church, 2009–2013, was finally presented, at ImPulsTanz in Vienna rather than in New York, where it has gestated over the past four years. The work, which comprises six dances and a yet-to-be-published booka total of seven parts that come in different “sizes,” from XS to XLtakes as its point of departure a single hypothetical question: “What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?” The question is anachronistic in more ways than one (the ball scene’s first house, LaBeija, was formed in the early 1970s, and voguing proper evolved in the years following), but its synthesis remains, in Harrell’s hands, a productive one.
The cloven heuristic of Harrell’s question is a “radical juxtaposition” in the spirit of Judson Dance Theater, a moment or a tradition or a culturetake your pickthat, in its heyday years of 1962–64, established an oppositional avant-garde set on re- articulating the rules of dance technique, agency, and spectatorship. (A related juxtaposition underpins Jeremy Shaw’s short film Variation FQ, 2013, shown at Berlin’s Schinkel Pavillon over the summer, which depicts voguer Leiomy Maldonado shot in the style of Norman McLaren’s 1968 ballet film, Pas de deux.) At the inception of Harrell’s project, the question seemed pure pastiche, but as the work grew, it became wilder, more expansive, more memorable, more infuriating. The cycle’s complexity is both its failure and its saving grace. It never gives a straight answer, never takes sides, even if, as art historian Claire Bishop has suggested, Harrell’s vision of voguing appears decidedly more fun than his vision of Judson, which often seems reduced to the hyperbolic “minimalism” of Yvonne Rainer’s 1965 “NO Manifesto”a list of negations (of spectacle, virtuosity, eccentricity, and so on) that Rainer herself continually tests and exceeds in her own strategic hot messes, then and now.
Harrell’s most recent work departs from the organizing impulse of his original question, and yet it was there that I found his central ideasabout invented genealogies, the cross-cultural and cross-historical movement of entrenched forms, texts, and gesturesmost convincingly manifested. In New York this past February, Harrell staged Used, Abused, and Hung Out to Dry, 2013, a work inspired by yet another question, “How do you vogue [Japanese choreographer] Tatsumi Hijikata?” Harrell and three other dancers (most memorably the fluid Thibault Lac) turned the Agnes Gund Garden Lobby of the Museum of Modern Art into a stage for sometimes sophomoric, sometimes moving collisions of club dance, declamation, and amateur singing. When the farrago was over, the lights went out and Harrell swayed, quivering with emotion, palms out and up, for twenty minutes to a moody, lilting sound track, like something from the end credits to a dystopian romance. Behind and beyond lurked Rodin’s canted Monument to Balzac, the robed pair of figures held in exquisite tension by the spectral glow of midtown Fifth Avenue spilling into the sculpture garden. It was an indelible momenta glacial dawningjamming, through cold fusion, any neat anatomizing of race, realism, modernism/postmodernism, medium/technique, nationhood, appropriation, or legibility itself. Paris is burning? Paris burned.
David Velasco is editor of artforum.com and a regular contributor to Artforum.