Video Club: Social Dance
(Reflections on Movement in Space)
by Loulou Oudshoorn
(Reflections on Movement in Space)
by Loulou Oudshoorn
May 2, 2023
Curator-in-training Loulou Oudshoorn deepened her curiosity in the Stedelijk’s time-based media collection. In this research log about the Video Club installation, she highlights the social relationship between space and performance. Over the next few weeks, we will share various student texts – pieces that reflect on current academic debates on curatorial practices. Read more on the Student Contributions project page.
While leafing through the hundreds of single-channel works in the time-based media collection of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, my attention was drawn to videos that reflect on movement and intervention in public space. Within these spaces, individual actions are highlighted, situating them within a greater societal context and raising questions about the influence of bodily presence and the interactions among them on these spaces.
Founded in the mid-1970s, the collection’s early acquisitions testify to this time, just after the decisive year of 1968 when political unrest ignited in cities across the globe; feminist and civil rights activists had burst out of the private sphere and into the public, destabilizing conventions through protest, now immortalized in artworks.
Fig. 1. Video still from Cauleen Smith, Space is the Place (A March for Sun Ra) (2011). Courtesy of the artist and Morán Morán. Fig. 2. Video still from Almagul Menlibayeva, Eternal Bride (2002). Courtesy of the artist. Fig. 3. Video still from Francis Alÿs, Looking Up (Plaza de Santo Domingo, México D.F. Agosto 18, 2001) (2001). Courtesy of the artist.
Philosopher Judith Butler argues that public spaces should be considered contested, especially for minority groups, and fought over to give way for change such that space is not a backdrop but an actor producing publicness. In the six works by five artists on view here, grouped under the title Social Dance, time, space, performers, and the spectator (audience and camera) interact in a relational and social setting, intervening in public space. The artists enact a metaphorical dance, crossing social boundaries and opening up possibilities for alternative realities wherein cities—Vienna (VALIE EXPORT), Almaty (Almagul Menlibayeva), Chicago (Cauleen Smith), Mexico City (Francis Alÿs), and Tijuana (Rineke Dijkstra)— are locales for social exchange, inviting us to ask: how do others perceive these interactions and what frictions occur because of them?
The earliest work in the screening is by VALIE EXPORT, among the first generation of feminist artists who intervened in public space in this way. Starting in the late 1960s EXPORT conducted a series of performances in Vienna. Tapp und Tastkino (1968-1969/2010) shows EXPORT walking around the city and asking people on the street to participate in her “tap and touch cinema,” in which people reach into a box-like structure on the artist’s chest, touching her breasts. In this provocative performance EXPORT presents her own body as a site that activates the participant. By denying the participant a detached, “passive” visual experience, they are confronted with the physical reality of female bodies and the awkwardness of its public encounter, challenging its spectacularized and heavily sexualized image. In Body Politics (1974), EXPORT and a collaborator stand on escalators connected by holding a rope while acting out movements to variations of the German word “einander” (each other). For “miteinander” (with each other) both performers stand on the escalator and move down the steps. With “gegeneinander” (against each other) they move in opposite directions. The simple exercises in linguistics and movement disrupt the everyday routines of passersby when EXPORT temporarily occupies the public space in such an unconventional manner.
In Eternal Bride (2002) Almagul Menlibayeva, dressed as a bride, wanders the streets of Almaty, Kazakhstan while curious bystanders strike up conversations with her.
One woman asks her, “did you run away from the wedding?” Menlibayeva responds, “Yes, I ran away.” “Is your husband bad?” the woman asks, “I didn’t like his nose,” Menlibayeva ultimately responds.
As the dress’s increasingly muddy train drags behind the artist, the performance unveils the symbolic status it transfers onto the bride, rendering her different, and the expectations and emotions associated with that role such as purity, joy, and hope. In another performance that alters the conventions of a formal procession, artist Cauleen Smith documents a high school marching band. Space is the Place (A March for Sun Ra) (2011) shows the band making its way onto the main square of Chicago’s Chinatown on a rainy day while performing a rendition of the music score for the eponymous Afrofuturist film, created by jazz composer Sun Ra in 1974. Smith connects the contemporary urban locale of Chicago’s South Side to the legacy of Sun Ra through the physical presence of the Black performers in the public square, bringing to life (if only briefly) the utopian Afrofuturist ideas that were conceived there.
On a similarly busy square, this time in Mexico City, a man lingers inside the frame of the camera shot for roughly two and a halve minutes before promptly walking off. The work Looking Up (Plaza de Santo Domingo, México D.F. Agosto 18, 2001) (2001) by Francis Alÿs explores a contemporary anxiety of being surveilled and an attempt to predict the behavior of others according to those suspicions. Before any humans have entered the static frame of the video, the sound of the city fills our ears. Movement, often by means of walking, through public and architectural spaces is a key element to Alÿs’s oeuvre, making the viewer aware of cities’ spatial possibilities and limitations. Intimacy is at issue in Dancing Couple (Tijuana, Mexico, 25 January 2004), Rineke Dijkstra’s film of a couple dancing in a discotheque aware that they are being recorded. Occasionally casting glances at the camera, they perform an intimate moment in a public setting, carrying on a hesitant relationship with the camera. Across her oeuvre, Dijkstra’s subjects reveal themselves in a vulnerable yet resilient manner, resulting in tender portraits.
Whether it is through showing vulnerability and the feeling of being exposed (Dijkstra, Alÿs), a feminist stance on women’s position in society (EXPORT, Menlibayeva), or activating the historical connections to a city (Smith), the works in this Video Club demonstrate how through exchange, society is reflected in all our actions. This inescapable entanglement, for better or worse, makes up our social fabric and opens up a way for change.
Loulou Oudshoorn is a Curator-in-Training at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam at the department of Contemporary Art and Time-Based Media. Her main interests lie in performance and installation art.
 Judith Butler, “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street,” Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 71.