Carola Dertnig

The last beats of the techno wave are finally fading out, and after watching countless videos of dancing artists in recent years, I wasn’t altogether eager to see Carola Dertnig’s recent exhibition, which was titled “Dancing with Remotes.” But it is only at first glance that the videos of this Austrian artist who lives in New York bear any relation to techno’s oft-celebrated theme: the withdrawal from the social into the private sensation of one’s own body merging with musical rhythms. What distinguishes Dertnig’s work from such privatisms are her subtly deployed references to social conditioning—an aspect of her work that appears in Dancing with Remotes, 1998 (the subject of her recent exhibition), but which was already apparent in the earlier, similarly titled Dancing with Remote, 1997.

Dancing with Remote shows Dertnig in her studio, dancing exaltedly to techno music, all the while regulating the video camera that records her actions and the music to which she dances via remote control. The artist holds in her hands the power to manipulate the perceptions of the spectator, and what we see as a result is a “happening” repeatedly being broken off and started anew. The work’s jerky development comes across, like her exaggerated dance, as artificial, almost compulsive. The piece is notably different from the forced voyeurism of so many other recent art videos, in which one “secretly” observes the performers in the course of their private actions, as if through a window. The space in which Dertnig dances is clearly a work space, not a living room or bedroom. To this extent, her performance is also designated as work. Her actions are no more subjective or private than the movement exercises in Bruce Nauman’s early shorts that define art as something that artists do in their studios. Carola Dertnig accesses the solitude of the artist, but opens it up, gives it a direct relation to the outer world, the observer, and the chosen media. If in the ’70s one could still dream with Dara Birnbaum of “talking back to the media,” Dertnig identifies the remote control, a supposed instrument of mastery over the flow of images, as the technological (if inadequate) answer to such dreams of subversion and participation.

In the new work, Dancing with Remotes, Dertnig continues her investigation of the remote control as a false substitute for freedom and community. Here, what first looks like a party gradually gives an impression of forced abandon. About twenty friends of the artist, each armed with a remote control, dance to (or against) a dj’s techno mix. Regulating once again both the music and the camera, the remote control in this context appears not only as an instrument of phantasmic power, but also as an absurd prosthesis of social relations. Nothing seems to take place between the dancers, all gestures and gazes arc directed toward the things that they can apparently manipulate—the music, the images—elements that would apparently unite them but to which they are, in the end, delivered up. The way the individual dancers struggle with one another for the control of their media-driven representation bears a horrifying resemblance to the fight to the death of the small insects in Dertnig’s 1994 video Roach. The club society presents itself as if onstage, performing their imaginary community and their fun—but for whom or for what?

Christian Kravagna

Translated from German by Diana Reese.