‘CAN YOU FEEL IT?’ The woman shouts. ‘Yeah!’ She cheers. ‘Woo-hoo!’ She is one of three performers each wearing a bubblegum-pink sweatshirt and flesh-coloured body stocking, bright white tennis shoes and white socks. The performers appear almost naked, doll-like from the waist down, with smoothed-over pubic areas and uniform fleshtones, and bear the sporty, sexy freshman look familiar from American Apparel ads. This scene is from Zurich-based artist Alexandra Bachzetsis’s performance From A to B via C (2014). The woman in the role of instructor – with a long Anna Kournikova-like blonde braid – stands to the side of the performance space, talking into a video camera. Via a live feed, her Neutrogena-fresh face appears in close-up on a flatscreen monitor at the front of the stage. She speaks in a seductive voice designed to lecture and command. The other two performers stand centre-stage, repeating each of her sentences in an enthusiastic chant. The instructor tells us she will take us through exercises that for ‘thousands of years have been used to give any woman a strong and beautiful dancer’s physique.’ This exercise, she continues: ‘increases the ability of the body to understand, the harmonious influence of the nature and the cosmos.’ Her speech is a concatenation of many instructional forms common today: equal parts preacher, personal trainer, yoga instructor, cult leader, life coach, scientologist and infomercial-starring celebrity.
Where I live, in New York, expensive exercise classes that employ this kind of language are rife. The best known – and most widely parodied – is SoulCycle, which trades above all on the persuasive charisma and positive energy of their instructors. Part of what they sell (and the name is the giveaway), via the altering one’s body through physical exertion, is a more intimate access to one’s ‘soul’. For better or for worse, yesterday I was in the company of a woman like this. She was leading a barre class I was taking on the outskirts of SoHo. With a squashy, wipe-clean gym ball between my legs I was told to ‘squeeze harder, push harder’. I tend to let the instructor’s language wash over me in these classes, but shouldn’t we pay attention to words meant to translate into action? Once, an instructor told me to imagine that ‘someone I loved was in trouble’ and I could only save them by squeezing or pressing. Can you feel it? Let me tell you what I feel: the throbbing pulse of this city and its terrifying economic pressures, the preposterous mantras of self-actualization and the constant pressure to perform – the competitive Manhattan memorably described in Zadie Smith’s 2014 essay ‘Find Your Beach’ in the New York Review of Books, which finds itself echoed in high octane, cut-throat cities such as San Francisco, London, Hong Kong and elsewhere.
Who is teaching whom here? As is often the case in Bachzetsis’s choreography, the act of mirroring begins to collapse. Before long in From A to B … it’s the two students who are leading the chant and the instructor who follows. This is the first in a series of vignettes where the performers take turns to lead choreographic sequences that move through a variety of genres. With each switch of tone an item of clothing is peeled away, and with it, the hubris under which various forms of desire are embodied – the id, the Dionysian, whatever your preferred name for it – is revealed underneath a variety of culturally freighted gestures. Clean, sporty white T-shirts are found beneath pink gym wear, and the choreography switches to a series of fast-paced moves swiped from tennis, boxing and other sports. T-shirts are pulled off to reveal nude bodysuits, and the movements of the trio alter to mimic those from R&B music videos such as Beyoncé’s 2008 Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) – all wiggling buttocks, dipping shoulders, snaky body rolls and ‘no no no’ finger wags. Eventually, the peachy skin-like fabric is peeled off too, revealing more body suits printed with images of the musculature and tendons found under the skin. The performers descend to the floor, accompanied by a soundscape of atonal reverberating noise, writhing and caressing in fleshy tangles. The combination of the costumes and the languid chaos of limbs also strips away some of the human body’s perceived coherence and instead displays it as a meaty composite – a roiling, simmering energy. The caress of red muscle and white tendon reads just as easily as a primal will to life as an enactment of carnal pleasure.
Several of Bachzetsis’s performances pivot on the ambivalence in which the body carves out spaces of autonomy within culturally inscribed languages of desire. In Gold (2004) Bachzetsis, dressed in a gold bikini and stilettos, performs a floor-based lap dance routine for a camera, which records her in close-up from above, her head for the most part cropped out. To the sound of a melancholic orchestral soundtrack she performs moves dragged from rap music videos, slamming her buttocks and thighs on the floor and shaking her ass at the camera on all fours, all the while whipping away sheets of paper from a pile and crumpling them up. The just-recorded video is then screened as the second part of the performance, to a soundtrack of powerfully sexualized female rap such as Khia’s My Neck, My Back (Lick It) (2002), and the audience can see that the sheets of paper have each track’s lyrics written on them. In Handwerk (2005) the artist staged a pole dance performance in a gallery that was then displayed as a form of contractual work available for purchase, following the logic of Seth Siegelaub and Robert Projansky’s work The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement (1971). After the performance, the gallery installation resembled a 1970s conceptual artwork: Bachzetsis had a lawyer draw up a contract defining the work – which itself became part of the piece that included diagrams, instructions and documentation – troubling the act of paying for a dance in a club and the purchase of a sexualized, labouring body within a gallery context.
The finest set piece in From A to B … is a tableau vivant of Diego Velázquez’s painting The Toilet of Venus (1647–51). In his flayed body suit, the reclining male dancer, his back to the viewer, stares into a screen held by his blonde female partner, who is now naked. The face on the screen that looks out, however, is that of the third dancer, Bachzetsis, who is performing for the camera off to the side, and who counts out numbers one to eight in a steady rhythm. The relationship between the various forms of material flesh on show and the screens that record them powerfully visceralize radically altered forms of desire. This scene located the eroticized body in a distinct art historical lineage, one that Velázquez experimented with by splitting the identity of the objectified away from her body. Yet here – the ‘object’ now male, the face, female – the queered emphasis was on a steady push towards broadcast and a space where multiple desiring gazes simultaneously meet. This is one of a number of moments in Bachzetsis’s recent performances that have staged an interplay between the live act and the portable screen. The Stages of Staging (2013), an earlier work centred on fitness and exertion, takes place in a gym-like environment in which the key props are gym mats, exercise balls and foam rolls used by a troupe of performers who work out to the point of sweaty, hard-breathing exhaustion. Certain sequences, such as a man falling backwards from a pile of mats, secure that the group will catch him, are as familiar from trust exercises and corporate team-building as they are from the gym, and the performance seamlessly links forms of exertion that appear motivated by pain, pleasure, ambition and euphoria. When a dancer dressed in a white bodysuit begins mouthing the words to Donna Summer’s I Feel Love (1977) while the other performers lift and move her around in her somnambulistic, self-absorbed state, it seems to highlight the way in which euphoria and any bodily experience is at once solitary and partially shared – whether dancing in a club, working out at a barre class or having sex. At several moments, the blue gym mats are used as screens on which to project live footage of the performers as they sing for the camera, most memorably when a couple – a strikingly similar looking male and female – lie on the floor and are videoed from above as they sing Madonna’s 1990 hit Vogue in lethargic a capella. The other dancers play with and arrange the couple’s long shiny brunette hair, splayed out on the mat around them, like a team of stylists trying to orchestrate the perfect shot, but also, perhaps, enacting a form of group coercion or embodying the public pressure to perform for an audience. The couple kiss and embrace, before, one by one, everyone leaves the shot save for the female singer. She eyes the camera flatly before reaching up to switch it off, as though the entire exercise – ‘let your body move to the music/go with the flow’ – might have been a promotional video. Indeed, this footage served as a promotional ad for the performance that was circulated online.
If the body is under certain pressures to perform, the soul is under others: ‘Go inside, for your finest inspiration, your dreams will open the door.’ Madonna’s lyrics speak of a 1980s culture of inner steel that references the financial trading floor as much as the dance floor. But it’s not just strength that is traded in the endless performance of the self, but charisma, imagination, emotion, love. As Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi has put it, discussing the soul as a material for economic exploitation, while it once seemed that capitalism would expand ever outwards to conquer outer space: ‘subsequently we saw that the direction of development is above all the conquest of internal space, the interior world, the space of the mind, of the soul, the space of time’1 The contemporary soul described by Berardi, in light of its economic value, is less spirit and ‘rather the vital breath that converts biological matter into an animated body.’2 This is the soul witnessed in Bachzetsis’s performances – one that both finds and escapes itself in respiration, perspiration, stretching and caressing. Souls that are forced into certain shapes by language and economic and social pressures; by technological developments expressed by and on bodies. It’s important. You can feel it.
- Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the Pathologies of the Post-Alpha Generation (Minor Compositions, London, 2009), p. 69
- Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, The Soul at Work – From Alienation to Autonomy (Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 2009), p. 21