A year after Society ended—which to clarify for readers thinking that they missed some cataclysmic end to life as we know it, I am referring to an independent curatorial program that I ran in Sydney1—I found myself on residence as an associate curator at the Amsterdam-based contemporary arts organisation If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution.2 Seemingly attracted to unruly names, and supported by an Early Careers Residency grant from the Australia Council for the Arts, my trip to the Netherlands was to further my thinking around the attendant responsibilities to multiple subject positions—including the artist, artwork, audience and institution—that intersect in the practice of curating, by experiencing the dynamics of another curatorial model.
With its performance and feminist focus, its lack of a dedicated presentation space, and its subsequent and contingent unfolding across time and various places, If I Can’t Dance over its ten years and counting, is somewhat of an anomaly within an ecology of global contemporary art institutions. To assist with giving shape to its unique formation, in an essay on the organisation titled ‘In the Time of Trying’ by one of its curators, Vivian Ziherl, she describes an image that hangs on the office wall and that acts as a succinct and light-hearted metaphor for If I Can’t Dance’s ambitions, ‘The page bears a schematic diagram of a tall, narrow bench, fitted with wheels, annotated with the title: Rolling (Curatorial) Platform: patent pending.3 Cleverly encapsulating If I Can’t Dance’s attempts to avoid its own foreclosure into a calcified institutional model, and its desire for a horizontal working structure, this description also indicates an investment in ‘liveness’ that extends beyond the artworks If I Can’t Dance produces into the operation of the organisation itself.
Having defined its own language for production, If I Can’t Dance’s activities typically unfold over two-year editions grouped around a thematic and that, to quote its mission statement, depart ‘from a spirit of open-questioning and long-term enquiry with artists’.4 These enquiries occur over a series of artist commissions and performance-in-residence projects by writers, curators or researchers, which are developed and presented at various intervals through partnerships with other organisations and publications. Also complementing these activities is what has often been referred to as the backbone of If I Can’t Dance, a monthly reading group that takes place in its Amsterdam offices and at three sister locations internationally—São Paulo, New York and Toronto—and which sees a group of dedicated participants in each locality read across, and discuss, an edition’s theme. To date these thematic investigations have seen If I Can’t Dance and its interlocutors think through: Theatricality (2005–2006); Feminism, its legacies and potentials (2007–2008); Masquerade (2009–2010); Affect (2011–2012); and, most recently, Appropriation and Dedication (2013–2014).
However despite If I Can’t Dance’s endurance, its unique format of operation also offers up its own issues. As Ziherl duly notes in her essay, If I Can’t Dance is also characterised by an ‘explanatory anxiety’5—something that my above introduction typifies—and which she incisively diagnoses as a symptom of its discord within the established models and behaviours of the art industry. As an example, she mentions recognisability and attribution, outlining how host institutions have sometimes been credited with sole authorship for If I Can’t Dance projects because ‘authorship is read habitually towards architecture and away from a multi-vocal position’. Such issues of ownership and property, and tensions between what is physically apprehensible and ephemerally dispersed, cut to the quick of the double edge bind of If I Can’t Dance’s activities. For while If I Can’t Dance exemplifies a potential for differentiation and relative autonomy, it also remains inseparable from the art world that it participates in, responds to, and relies on for funding and partnerships. Within this system where visibility is king, If I Can’t Dance maintains a carefully fractured appearance where it at once negates itself to allow for the singularity of an artist’s practice to be privileged, while working to establish a fundable image through clear design, communication and self-narration.
With these thoughts in mind, If I Can’t Dance’s Edition V—Appropriation and Dedication—curated by Tanja Baudoin, Frédérique Bergholtz and Vivian Ziherl—was a timely one. Underlying this Edition’s thematic trajectory was a broad interest in a ‘return to artistic strategies of appropriation of the 70s and 80s through subsequent theories of affect, and a querying of the condition of artistic agency’7 in order to ‘explore the productive friction between the notion of making something your own as a potential subversive strategy and the inverse ability to be transformed by the objects we would attempt to possess.’8 This was spurred on by a curiosity for ideas proposed by Isabelle Graw in her essay, ‘Dedication Replacing Appropriation: Fascination, Subversion, and Dispossession in Appropriation Art’. Originally read by If I Can’t Dance’s staff during their research into the work of appropriation artist Louise Lawler for ‘Edition IV—Affect’, the text came to inspire the new edition’s name and was set as the first text for the Amsterdam Reading Group, due to the potential it offered to think through Lawler’s work—and by extension appropriation and institutional critique more broadly—as an affective relation of acknowledgement and porosity that one establishes with their subject matter.9
In her essay, Graw problematises the position of the artistic subject in relation to appropriation by arguing, ‘Rather than regarding appropriation as a process controlled by one side only, it can be seen as a process of mutual influence, in which the dynamic of the appropriated material is transferred to the appropriator.’10 She also extends her rethinking of the term to include the relationship between artists and institutions, motioning the idea that, ‘This material can also have the form of an institution with which artists see themselves confronted, if for example they have an exhibition in a gallery.’11 To illustrate this, Graw emphasises institutional critique or site-specific practices, by alluding to how often the institution and presenting structures have become the material that is appropriated by the artists within these. From these ideas, Graw suggests that ‘dedication’ emerges as a potentially more apt and contemporary term for appropriative impulses, with her stating, ‘Thus when situations not only make particular specifications but also generate methods of appropriation, this must have an unavoidable effect on the term appropriation. Appropriation must now be understood as a form of dedication—because the situation appears to be dedicated to the appropriator.’^12
While each of the international Reading Groups plotted their own course, Amsterdam’s Reading Group followed up Graw’s text with readings that fell alongside it or pushed and pulled against it, and covered theories of allegory, object and subject relations, poetics and issues of appropriation across a wide geographical spectrum that challenged institutional systems of collection and display. Through these, the Group’s thinking was extended around what is at stake with subjecthood, ownership, art making, self-making and agency across multiple contexts. The subsequent sessions were also punctuated by the participation of two Berlin-based Australian artists, Alex Martinis Roe and Rachel O’Reilly, who hosted special Reading Groups. For one, Martinis Roe held an ‘Open Summer Reading Group’ on 25 August 2013 that saw participants take a bike ride into Amsterdam’s surrounding countryside, where she lead the group through collective thinking on what it might mean to intentionally resonate with another’s voice as a feminist political practice. To do so she referenced both the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective’s practice of affidamento13 and the Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero’s writing on the embodied uniqueness of each person’s voice and the relationship between selfhood and narration, that have been central to the genealogy of Martinis Roe’s own practice. These ideas left a strong impression on If I Can’t Dance, providing a useful practice for bringing subject–object and material–semantic relations into fluid movement, to both think through the terms ‘appropriation’ and ‘dedication’ or to be able to move away from them altogether. Later in the year, Rachel O’Reilly hosted the final sessions to consider the current interest in poetry in contemporary art ‘as a larger re-investment in performance, liveness and collectivity projects that take…an interest in ‘readerly’ practices and ‘figural’ experiments’.14
Similar interests were also diversely taken up by the artists of the four commissions, which included: Gerry Bibby, whose novel The Drumhead expanded his use of text in sculpture and performance into a full length work of fiction that featured a cast of shifting and libidinal subjectivities; Sara van der Heide, whose suite of films and performance, Mother Earth Breathing, proposed an alternative rhythm for living and art-making outside of a capitalist mode of production; Snejanka Mihaylova, whose project Inner Stage considered the experiential and aural aspects of the thinking process in order to produce a song and a publication; and Emily Roysdon, whose unfolding performance, By Any Other Name/ Uncounted, was made with a growing group of collaborators and resonantly posed the question, ‘What is time if not activism?’ at its beginning, and ‘How can we build a structure to be alive inside?’ and ‘Aliveness trespasses’ as two of its many propositions at its end.
Alongside these, the four performance-in-residence projects included: artist Gregg Bordowitz, whose Taking Voice Lessons plotted a personal trajectory across communities of poets in the US to think through the question ‘How do we all take possession of, give voice to, own, the work of artists whose commitments are generated from very specific, self-avowed subject positions?’;15 curator Jacob Korczynski and his research into the feminist strategies of Lucy Lippard’s experimental novel I See/You Mean (1979) and Babette Mangholte’s film The Camera: Je, La Camera: I (1977) that framed the withdrawal of the author’s body as a strategy of self-portraiture; art historian Sven Lütticken and his look at the performative qualities of Louise Lawler’s A Movie Will Be Shown Without The Picture (1979); and curator Grant Watson whose unfolding project How We Behave took Michel Foucault’s 1983 Vanity Fair interview and his question within it—‘what if life itself were a material of art-making?’—as a starting point for an audio-visual survey of contemporary subjectivities in London, New York, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Los Angeles and São Paulo. In one of Watson’s recorded portraits of the LA-based artist Michelle Dizon, she powerfully makes a claim to poetics being the ‘work of the space in between our being together’ and the importance of understanding ourselves as subjects of history stating, ‘we are subjects constituted within social, political, historical circumstances, which have in fact determined what we can understand as our desire, what we can understand as possible for ourselves in the world’.
Developed and presented at various intervals elsewhere across the two year Edition, this chorus of voices comprising ‘Appropriation and Dedication’ were all also brought together as part of Edition V’s culminating event—a self-organised seven-day festival titled Performance Days held in Amsterdam (27 November – 3 December 2014)—and complemented by the participation of special guests Andrea Fraser, Sidsel Meineche Hansen, Fatima Hellberg, Chus Martínez, Babette Mangolte, Fred Moten, and earlier interlocutors Alex Martinis Roe and Rachel O’Reilly.16 As the invited keynote speaker for the Performance Days, curator and critic Chus Martínez responded to her elegiac essay ‘The Octopus in Love’ (2014). In her essay Martínez refers to the artist and founder of El Museo del Barrio, Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s vision for a rainforest to be installed at the core of the art institution, alongside the decentralised sensory intelligence of an octopus, to consider the need and way to move beyond art as a critical project. In the essay she concludes: ‘Multiform and monotonous, repetitive of various forms of disorder, art since the mid-sixties—if not before—has sought ways to surpass the Era of Judgement, to find a path that preserves life and is able to transmute our sense of politics… It is one among millions of other demands that ask us to become life.’17
In E.C. Feiss’s visitor account18 of Martínez’s lecture, she responds to her call to ‘become life’ by first recalling a conversation that occurred in a program the day after, when Feiss responded to the poet and critical theorist Fred Moten’s conviction that ownership is to be continuously overcome as it obstructs any kind of freedom of being, both to poetry and equally to living.19 In response she asked Moten, ‘if he thought curating could separate itself from ownership’.^20 Reflecting on Moten’s affirmative response to the potential politics of the curator as a historic mediator between the public and what is owned, Feiss further muses,
perhaps part of the power of Moten’s presentation in particular came from the discord inherent to a discussion of ownership on a platform that is dedicated to the practice of curating—even if that dedication is committed to productive challenge. Historically concerned with the care and collection of owned objects, the location of ownership since the ‘neoliberal turn’ in curating can be traced to conceptual and spatial branding through the advent of entrepreneurialism.^21
Concluding with these reflections on curating, I wondered if Martínez’ appeal for the end of the ‘Era of Judgement’ might be taken up by the time referred to in the title of Ziherl’s essays, the ‘Time of Trying’—with its affective sentiment and allowance for things to be tested, repeated and modified. In ‘The Octopus is Love’ Martínez writes, ‘The image of the rainforest embodies an ongoing, performative speculation about ways of affecting and being affected, about ways of naming—a language, a place, a time.’22 Resonating with the unfolding performative speculations that lay at the heart of If I Can’t Dance’s own operation, and the real life matters of living bodies that cannot be so easily abstracted when curating live work, my residency with If I Can’t Dance and the engagement with the artists and projects of ‘Appropriation and Dedication’, concluded with me musing on a guiding question, at this moment in time, how might a curator best practice a duty to care when that duty extends beyond or reshapes objects and collections?