In his 1922 Manifesto for Biomechanics, Vsevolod Meyerhold set out his vision for a post-revolutionary avant-garde theatre. Rooted in the principles of Constructivism, the Soviet director espoused a new psychophysical paradigm for the expressive potential of the body – one that called upon a system of symbolic gestures (or ‘biomechanical études’) as a means of rethinking theatre as a social and political force. The cultural embodiment of the early avant-garde’s revolutionary aspirations has been a subject of enduring interest for Irish artist Jesse Jones, and The Struggle Against Ourselves (2011) continues a line of enquiry that she began some six years ago. Shot on Super-16mm and transferred to video, this 20-minute film is the product of a collaboration between Jones, Los Angeles-based theatre director Chi-Wang Yang and a group of CalArts students in the restaging of Meyerhold’s performance exercises. For Jones’s solo exhibition at Spike Island, it was presented as part of an immersive installation encompassing a sound and light display within a wooden seating structure designed by the artist that took its inspiration from 1920s Constructivist theatre sets.
A slow tracking shot situates the opening sequence of The Struggle Against Ourselves in an austere studio setting, its grey concrete walls and floor bare apart from the odd stage prop or tired-looking couch. Jones immediately draws us into the spectacle of the body and the language of its movements through the close framing of isolated actions: in one shot, the camera lingers on a foot tensing and relaxing; in the next, on an arm in extension. An unmistakable sense of pedagogical instruction is imparted in the biomechanical workshop that ensues. The participants’ movements are guided by the vocal directives given by workshop leader Yang, which establish something of a collective rhythm although the camera’s focus remains determinedly on individual figures within the group. Eventually, the frame opens out onto small groups of performers as the film shifts register – rehearsal becomes performance, the grounded reality of the studio gives way to an unearthly blue expanse. Silhouetted against this illusionary backdrop are elegant bodies in motion, each performing a repetitive set of gestures accompanied by a plaintive Bach-inspired melody played on the Theremin. The camera then retreats again, revealing for the first time the entire group as a synchronized unit: the spectacle of the collective.Jones’s engagement with Meyerhold’s études extends far beyond an exercise in re-enactment. The artist’s decision to transpose Meyerhold’s communist ideals to LA, a place where the collusion between capitalism and the production of mass culture finds its fullest expression, shouldn’t be overlooked. Drawing on the formal resemblance between Meyerhold’s theatrical methods and Busby Berkeley’s choreographed dance routines of the early Hollywood era, Jones exactingly brings together these ostensibly irreconcilable worlds to draw comparisons between the ways their narratives are played out through the body. Controlled, efficient and rationalized, the spectacle of bodies in both might be described in terms of their precise geometries and machine-like qualities. However, if Berkeley’s productions reduced the female body to a mere cog in a machine – epitomizing what Siegfried Kracauer termed ‘mass ornament’ in 1927 – then a much more optimistic and empowering view of the collective body is rooted in Meyerhold’s model. The performers in The Struggle Against Ourselves refuse to be diverted towards an innocuous form of novelty. Their movements, executed with great resolve and purpose, enact Meyerhold’s vision of a body that could, through its expressive gestures, symbolically communicate social meaning and constitute a form of political display. It is perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, here put into focus by Jones, that the unfulfilled potential of Meyerhold’s model can be best appreciated. It perhaps represents another path that could have been taken, suggesting an alternative form of mass culture to the one we know today.Yet what could easily have slipped into nostalgia for an unrealized dream is here transformed into something resoundingly optimistic and hopeful. As the film goes to black, the evocative soundtrack continues to play, triggering a display of gently pulsating lights that imbued the gallery space with a sense of warmth. By illuminating the construction of the installation’s proscenium environment, Jones places the spectator back into their space of illusion and, for a moment, implicates us as performers who, like the participants in her production, must continue to struggle against what might seem to be the inevitable course of history – or, in other words, to struggle against ourselves.