The genesis of Grace Schwindt’s new film Only A Free Individual Can Create A Free Society (2014) was an interview between the artist and a German cab driver about his involvement in the progressive West German political fringe from the mid-1960s. Over 70 minutes, their dialogue unfolds across a choreographed performance featuring 11 dancers. The stage is a three-walled, open-air set, reconfigured at intervals, which divides the film into movements. The set itself sits on a hillside overlooking London. Filmed at night, this mise en scène generates a peculiar magic: a kind of esoteric Restoration masque, re-enacted by the Bauhaus.
This is Schwindt’s most ambitious production to date, touring numerous venues internationally after its debut at Birmingham’s Eastside Projects this summer. Across the film, no dancer maintains a single, easily identifiable role: soloists in certain scenes dance as part of a group in others and then disappear, not dancing again for several sequences. The delivery of the dialogue is also randomly assigned – sometimes to one dancer, sometimes to two or more speaking jointly. Thus distributed, the dialogue becomes less the script of a coherent drama and more of an abstracted score. However, with the words being delivered in the flattest, most inexpressive tone possible, it’s a peculiarly unmusical one. By contrast, the performers’ costumes convey a world of imaginative possibility: the black-clad dancer whose limbs and shoulders are encased in long clattering white poles, like a Modernist skeleton (the most direct reference to Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet, 1922), or the figure draped from skull to wrists in long coloured ribbons, turning her blind head with little manic twists, like a fairground Graeae.
Through costume, Schwindt shifts the dancers’ movements in subtle ways and also enforces a kind of anonymity, lightly gesturing towards the negotiation of individual identity and public role. Similarly, the elaborate interpolation of solos with group choreography says something unspecific about self-sufficiency, dependence and restriction in social interaction – lofty topics that the film’s conversation-score in turn picks over. If this sounds like a lot to tackle, even in a 70-minute film, it is, and Schwindt’s interlocutor’s apparently boundless capacity to ruminate does little to advance the viewer’s understanding. At one stage, he describes his current job as providing ‘a lot of waiting time, when I can read or listen or think. That is some sense of freedom for me’ – true as far as it goes, but if having ‘waiting time’ is a measure of freedom, long-term prisoners might count as some of the most free. (Prisoners, that is, and those of us who have 70 minutes to watch a contemporary art film.)
Schwindt and the cab driver are surely smart enough to grasp this; the point of their back-and-forth must be less a matter of reaching meaningful conclusions than of illustrating the knottiness, paradox and, indeed, tedious despair prompted by prolonged contemplation of issues such as these. In this context, a lot might be expected to depend on the eloquence of the moving body: yet even the dance is disciplined rather than demonstrative, owing more to Merce Cunningham and William Forsythe than to Martha Graham or Isadora Duncan. Occasionally, the moves become overtly illustrative, mime-like: a description of the Red Army Faction’s advocacy of assassination of financiers leads into a short sequence in which a comically tall, sombre-suited figure wielding an umbrella and wearing a top hat collapses suddenly onto the floor, splitting into two constituent dancers who lie prostrate, as if shot dead.
Maybe falling down is the film’s leitmotiv: the reassertion of gravity against the mobility of dance. Early in the film, the dialogue ceases and the camera pans back as red glitter falls from the sky, a moment Pina Bausch-like in its simple enchantment. In its final frames, a car (the cabbie’s taxi?) crashes onto the set, knocking over the back wall. A dancer appears dragging a makeshift sleigh of coloured boxes, some of which topple to the ground; eventually, she abandons her burden to climb onto the car, only to fall flat on the floor. In a talk given during the exhibition, the artist noted that she can never quite believe that the body dies; in such moments, by turns bewitching and bathetic, there is the suggestion of the return of a repressed corporeal frailty (as well as, perhaps, a surrender of the heavy intellectual task the artist has set herself and her cast). The political imaginary of Schwindt’s period is full of fallen figures – think of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof on the floor of their cells, so hauntingly memorialized in Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977 cycle (1988). I visited the show the day before the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall: another symbolic collapse, with a very different political significance. It’s a tribute to Schwindt’s involved, obscure but ultimately stimulating language that this one gesture can convey both kinds of fall, without – which is one kind of freedom – being determined by either.