Footsteps on the dance floor remind me baby of you … To all of my on-the-floor partners, friends and colleagues.
Every floor is a dance floor
I moved to Sydney in 2015.
I was constantly hungry because I was nervous and unhappy. There is some food you can buy and eat for under $10 — pork roll, salad, sandwich, a croissant — and some for under $5 — samosa, sausage roll, spring rolls.
Turn around — I find myself in a museum walking on the polished pale cream stone floor. I am dressed in predominantly dark colours: t-shirt with a minimal print inherited from previous work at a festival or biennale, or one with a short political message, or an image of a favourite rock band, or a logo of a local food co-op; a chequered flannel shirt on top, Dickies work pants, or overalls; Redback work boots; sometimes a cap. Traditionally, and still now a lot of the time, I am a white man, especially if you look at an older version of me, but lately I am also a woman of colour, and even a non-binary gender diverse person. If I am lucky. I am one. Lucky. I am an arts worker, an art holder, an art bearer, carer. My body is a tool using tools. I am ‘hands on’, hands too dirty, too many hands, not enough hands. Can you hold this, can you hang this, can you get this, can you lift this, can you solve this, can you come in tomorrow, can I cancel your shifts for the next four weeks? Can you stop, please!
Steps. How many steps does it take to cross a large museum foyer quickly? You know the route: walk towards the escalator, take it down to get to a lower level, a few more steps, another escalator down, turn left and slip through a crowd of visitors, artworks, museum furniture to get to the door of a hidden tool room. Simon used to open it with his glasses — to walk to a senior colleague who has the keys would take another four hundred steps. Greet an invigilator with a head nod. ‘How are you?’
How many times a day? Multiple times. Can you avoid this repetition? It’s not always your fault, it’s not always someone’s fault, it’s just work. As I walk, I hear my work boots hitting the stone floor and each step echoes and vibrates through my body. Bottom up. Every step gives my body all sorts of signals: from the pinching pain in the middle of the sole of my foot to the blister on the toe that I give up thinking will ever heal. Is that pain in the hip new or was it there before?
My body moves differently to the bodies of visitors — they move slowly, loitering, pausing, sitting down, taking a moment, looking for inspiration.
Museums are temples of culture and as cultural institutions they are predominantly experienced as places of representation, not as places of work. While the labour behind the work of representation and the strategies of representation are often invisible, the wear and tear on workers’ bodies also remains an unnoticed but essential scaffolding for the reproduction of art institutions.
Now work it. Cursed with static beauty, afraid of their own monumentality, praised as places of effort and achievement; self-proclaimed protectors, preservers and carers. We [on the floor] know that culture is a never-ending series of rehearsals.
It’s challenging to be responsible and to care for some cultures: kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, sourdough. Some of them I have come across before and some are very new to me. One of the cultures that I know is hospitality culture: set the table, take your shoes off when you enter.
Wash your hands, please, in solidarity.
Walking unleashes my thoughts and they start going up and down in my body like paraffin wax inside a lava lamp. What if my steps vibrate back to Earth through the stone underneath? Go down, put your ear on the cool, smooth surface. Can you [under the stone] hear my breath? Are they [my bosses] listening?
The floor is my point of connection to this place. The floor and I, we belong together.
‘On the floor’ is semi-official language to describe the kind of work that takes place in the museum once the art is ready to go on display. On the floor needs a body ready to labour: a body that can take things on, yet not take over; a body that is not asked to think, nor expected to think, yet has to be reactive; a body that follows directions yet must also take responsibility.
This body wants to work. This body is enthusiastic, excited and joyful. This body wants sugar, coffee and bread. This body turns up, walks the floors, takes stairs, executes someone’s wishes, ideas, requests, needs, emergencies, visions. A body whose job is not to think, is suspected of not being able to think. A body ready to burn.
On the floor is where what is not resolved, not completed, not yet decided upon — that for which there was not enough energy, time, budget — lands. On the floor is where uncertainty, insecurity and anxiety mingle with feelings of insufficiency. This is where we meet — where the hot mess is passed into the hands of the sweaty worker. Underpaid. Touching up.
I have heard that others of my kind, who work in a big museum in a big cultural city, are not allowed to attend the openings of exhibitions they have worked on because they have been wild in the past.
Lisa’s hands on me. I am lying on a physiotherapy treatment table receiving a dry needling treatment designed to ease muscular pain. Lisa has been my physiotherapist for three weeks. ‘It must be so interesting to work in a museum,’ she says. ‘Uhuh,’ I answer. The needle finds a ‘trigger point’ and I feel the pain.
The stone floor is holding me, and my thoughts move along its slippery polished surface. It’s easy to confuse this stone with marble because of its ability to take a high polish, but it is travertine. Travertine is formed by the chemical precipitation of calcium salts, cooling in mineral-laden hot springs often linked to volcanoes. As it forms, it includes any organic matter that has fallen upon the waters in its structure. As these leaves, twigs or occasionally animals rot away over time, they leave abundant voids that can fill with crystals as the mineral waters continue to flow through the formed deposits. If you look closely, you can see these negative spaces, these memories.
In 1929, German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe created the German national pavilion for the Barcelona International Exposition, also known as the ‘Barcelona Pavilion’. It’s known now as one of the most influential buildings of the twentieth century. It was a building not to be used but to be looked at. A building that exists for and because of itself. Complete. The quality and natural beauty of its marble, onyx, travertine and glass supported Mies’ vision of the pavilion as an ‘ideal zone of tranquillity’.1 Mies is known for coining the phrase ‘less is more’. The pavilion stood for less than a year, but a team of Catalan architects rebuilt it in the 1980s and added a basement level. The basement was later found to contain broken slabs of travertine, sheets of glass, cleaning equipment and a staff kitchen.2 The operational functions of the building were hidden underneath the travertine floor of the pavilion, quietly maintaining the boundary between work and leisure, beautiful and ugly, clean and dirty.
Thinking about stone formed by hot spring waters makes my muscles relax. I wish I could be an animal coming to rest in those warm waters. I have been trying to come close to that feeling with my $13 half-hour sauna visits for six months now. If I was that animal, my bodily sediments would turn into beautiful rock to be excavated by quarry workers, polished for use and shipped around the globe. It would be my absence that makes the stone beautiful.
The stone, the animal, the worker: we are all in this together but the conditions separate us.
Is there art without me and a temple without you?
In 2021, I am on Gadigal land.
I am hungrier than before. Unsettled — too much, not enough, looking for a new language within this language that is still new to me. Holding both pain and joy in my belly.
After eight hours of walking, pushing, holding, twisting, kneeling, being in uncomfortable positions for several minutes while decisions are made, problem solving, holding back emotions, caring, caring, caring, my feet are on fire. My joints are having an inflammatory reaction to pick-me-up KitKats. My desires are reduced to a pub meal — a strategic move that makes me stop on the way home so that I can manage the last few hundred steps. Once home I am looking for tips on ‘how to switch off’ and I find plenty of advice online suggesting I go for a walk, gym, run, work out. The window of hope gets smaller and smaller, and I am left out.
On fire. ‘Only those who caught fire can also burn out’.3 We [on the floor] keep walking and burning for our chance to be there, to give it all, reminded of always-present competition, of being disposable and replaceable. We are always warmed up, maintaining that flame by metabolising our fears, hopes and dreams with salty teary beer and oily pizza. On the floor is where we are not supposed to feel or belong, yet that is where we are strong, where we are together, where we touch and share and feel each other’s pain. On the floor we are ready for the transformation to begin. I am burning for change, and the change has to happen on the floor. Now. Here.
Lying here I notice slightly perceptible beats coming from the floor. At first, I think it’s my heartbeat. Slowly I can feel it in my whole body. Multiple steps by multiple feet hit the floor simultaneously in a disorganised yet united entity — the floor vibrates with the memory of a party. I can see bodies leaning towards each other, leaning on each other, shoulders and hands touching. Bodies break up in smaller groups, they disappear, come back to the dance floor. The desire to be together is stronger than anything. Each bodily move is liberating and full of effort. I’m new to the party but I have always been here. Now look at me. I am on fire. Only in this wild dance can we recognise each other.