Body States and Cross-territorial Choreographies

Diana Damian Martin
Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London

1.
Let’s rehearse state-ing the title, without a pause.

 

Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmuş, Public Collection Tate Modern, 2016. Tate Modern, 17 June – 3 July 2016 Photograph by JHumphreys © Tate, 2016

It is the summer of 2016, shaped by a public debate on the politics of free movement, its privileges and exclusions, sovereignty and coloniality, and I find myself, again and again, in Tate Modern, with Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmuş’s Public Collection. The performance series occurs during a summer marked by the vote for the UK to leave the European Union and the Immigration Act of 20161, which further enacts regulation on ‘illegal migration,’ a development of the Hostile Environment Policy that seeks increased enforcement in and through the category of illegality, as well as the recurrence of immigration in public discourse.2 Public Collection implicates the politics of migration and the institutional tensions of performances of and about the archive – a choreography in which movement is gestural and territorial. As Julietta Singh proposes in No Archive Will Restore You, archives are expansive and embodied: ‘if the archive is a remnant, it is one that keeps whispering to me,’ says Singh. ‘I am a disquieted archive that fumbles in words’.3 The traces of this embodiment and its nodes extend beyond the archive as Public Collection constitutes it – a canonicity dispersed and enacted through cross-territorial, migrant bodies, themselves of the archive – bodies fumbling through the archive.

By means of re-enactment, Public Collection states itself as an archival incursion. Originating at the Romanian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2013, Public Collection uses the body as a means to constitute immaterial collections – where objects become material through embodied action. At the Tate, artworks are re-enacted by means of embodied composition: Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII, a rectangular composition of 120 firebricks, sees a group of performers piling their bodies on top of each other, whilst Martin Creed’s Work No 227, a work in which lights turn on and off at regular intervals in an existing gallery, sees the same performers inviting visitors to open and close their eyes. ‘The work is playful,’ states the text introducing Public Collection in Tate’s programme, but it also ‘proposes an alternative system of value in which the live act prompts us to consider how we might embody a shared heritage’.4 The speculative – ‘we might’ – operates as a gesturing to archival occupation. The gesturing also implicates the work within wider museological shifts towards the immaterial – shifts which engage those very bodies in discussions around transactionality and labour.5

In Public Collection, bodies state another work of art, by means of a politics of reference. Within the logic of the work, the body is both document of this referent, as well as an entity procedurally engaged in act of translation, from materiality to embodiment. In her discussion of the work, Georgina Guy points out the ways in which it engages in processes of translation that require the performer to ‘adopt a different mode of conveyance and, in return to language, provide a spoken instruction’.6 The ways in which the procedures of translation operate in the work, however, hold implications beyond its compositional politics, towards a wider discourse on the cross-territorial body. Translation here is not just corporeal or formal: it also holds a poetics of cross-border movement in and through visibility. It is this sustained ambiguity that marks the work as choreographic. Whilst Public Collection is a transnational work, in its multiple iterations in institutions beyond Italy and the UK, it is also a localised performance, as it engages with different archives and their art historical politics. To this end, the cross-territoriality is held within the movement of the bodies undertaking the labour, inherently crossing different institutional and artistic histories. These bodies are also marked by simultaneously precarious and exceptional movement in this circulation. They are captured by the work and the regimes of mobility and transactionality it enacts or implicates.

Capture might be conceived, as Rey Chow proposes, also in relation to captivation. Paying attention to the way apparently partitioned or disparate cultural phenomena and forms speak to conjunction or proximity, Chow deploys the term entanglements to articulate a topological looping together ‘that is at the same time an enmeshment of topics’.7 This procedure of assemblage that operates across disciplines and relations in Chow’s work makes evident how entanglements are linkages ‘that keep things apart’, but also act as ‘uncoverings that hold things together’8. Chow’s work exemplifies how the logics of disjunction are meaningful agents for understanding the complexities of global ruptures. Visibility, Chow proposes, is a barrier that functions against itself. Entanglements shape how I conceive of Public Collection’s deployment of multiple frames that situate the bodies of its performers across territories as well as within them; and in doing so, entanglements also mark political fissures at the heart of debates on performances of belonging and movement, regulation and capture.

Chow’s work also speaks to modernism’s ‘heightened sense of estrangement,’ itself a result of ‘intensification […] of partitioning’9. It is precisely this territory of modernity that Public Collection occupies with unease, perhaps even by means of an evacuation of the regimes of coloniality and whiteness that shaped the canon being pursued in the work. Yet the bodies of those engaged in the work also belong to a different political terrain, postsocialism, which imprints itself in their cross-territorial gesturing.

Public Collection implicates state-ing as a compositional strategy; it also, unwarrantedly, implicates the state as a body regulating movement and territoriality. It is shaped by choreographic processes in which bodies move to arrive and hold (a work, an image, a gesture simultaneously), in order to move again. The movement is prompted by a constantly shifting referent. A performer announces the title and year of the work: the work takes shape, is held, and released. A new work is re-enacted, and the cycle continues, as if it were iterative. The state is too an iterative process that constantly regulates the appearance of its iteration. State, by its Latin roots, means a position, condition, way of standing, arrangement; it gains its political dimension through its Germanic roots as a territorially bound political community. State, as a verb, constitutes expressive clarity and compositional delineation. In Public Collection, state refers as much to the poetics of cross-territorial bodies, as it does to the ways in which the bodies gesture to, or even delineate, a work of art.

Something is at stake in Public Collection’s iterative state-ing. In the performance, bodies undertake a form of labour that renders them impermanent; similarly, works of art are stated through the body. This relation between bodies performing and works of art being re-enacted creates a referential relation – the bodies are standing in for something else and in doing so, they become invisible. At the same time, in seeking to embody a work, a different historicity emerges, one in which the acts of witnessing and enacting trouble what archive is being constituted and what is being archived by this enactment. There is a false politics of repetition which re-enactment makes present here. Hito Steyerl speaks of this politics as stasis, pointing to the leakage of temporalities within the museum. ‘Stasis,’ argues Steyerl, ‘is the curving back of time into itself, in the context of permanent war and privatisation’10. Steyerl speaks to the ways in which museums have more to do with the future than the past; if there is no future, the museum is an institutional prolonging of stasis. This is coextensive in Public Collection, where the implicated temporalities of migrant bodies and their political entanglements create an archival dissonance.

I observe this stasis in Public Collection as a strange looping of historicity and futurity: warped in the endless transitional poetics of the UK’s exit from the European Union. Implicit here too, are the regulatory frameworks that have shaped the politics of access for Romania as a postsocialist state in the transitional measures imposed by the UK following the country’s accession to the European Union, and the politics of an immigration regime where the poetics movement are distorted and deployed. These regulatory regimes are further complicated in Public Collection’s embodiments by means of an aesthetic presence of ‘Eastern Europe’ as a stand-in for a kind of historical debris – the dusty end of Europe.

History, as Sara Ahmed suggests in thinking about the politics of orientation, happens ‘in the very repetition of gestures, which is what gives bodies their dispositions or tendencies’.11 Yet to be oriented, Ahmed suggests, is also ‘to be oriented towards certain objects’.12 Effortlessness is a labour erasing labour, whereby history disappears as it is enacted. Public Collection’s choreographic orientations are not oblique – they are already set in motion by the relations which constitute them. If repeated bodily actions position some objects in reach, whilst placing others out of reach,13 what oblique poetics might be found in the gestural beyond the relationalities implicit in Public Collection? What forms of cross-territoriality emerge in this entanglement, suspended outside of the work – a sideways with a pull and a periphery? If the terrain of the peripheral is not what is made evident by the work, then what might be held in suspension, neither here nor there, in the ambiguities of power relations of West and East?

Despite the softness of the work, there is an oblique to the simultaneous suspension of the performers’ bodies rendered local and foreign. The voices that announce the beginning of each re-enactment amplify an obliqueness – accented and declarative. They constitute a compositional element that amplifies the cross-territoriality of the bodies, without being citational. In some ways, Public Collection deploys bodies as evidentiary – documents that state, themselves requiring documents that permit them being there – a regulated, yet nevertheless exceptional mobility.

But I need to pause here. Maybe rewind. Start again, not let time curve into itself.

2.
On body as document

 

[We took a break wandering through a disused factory in Cluj; I saw this sign and thought of your article. ‘Maestros and heads of shift! By paying attention to phases of work, you are contributing to reducing periods of immobility’]

Photo: Diana Damian Martin, 2018.

Harun Farocki’s Workers Leaving the Factory in 11 Decades is next in the Switch House. Farocki’s is a work for twelve monitors interspersing found footage of workers leaving factories arranged in chronological order. Five migrant performers dressed in casual clothes are enacting a cinematic work enacting labour politics. I am looking at a series of held postures, gestural states. There is a constant pivoting within the work. There is also a gestural dependence, one that nevertheless attempts compositional mirroring: what is visible is an embodied reproduction. This is stasis, holding institutional memory in suspense. Something else, however, is held here.

A curious instance of state-ing occurs institutionally with Public Collection, whereby ‘Romanian,’ situating Pirici and Pelmuş’s Public Collection at the Tate across its public communications, is not mirrored in the crediting of any of the performers of the work; this renders their identification by means of a paradigm of nation-state excessive, but qualifies that of the artists as pertinent to a regime of encounter of the work. An entanglement is palpable here in the context of political ambiguity of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union and its consequent transitionality, mirrored by discourses on postsocialist states in Eastern Europe and their transition into neoliberalism – liminal, yet regulatory – and in the regular interspersing of ‘European’ and ‘European Union’ that shaped public discourse around the time of the work’s premiere. Implicated in this interspersal are, as Gurminder K Bhambra notes, ‘racialised forms of inclusion and exclusion’ that point to the ways in which citizenship might be understood beyond categories of membership, in relation to narratives that frame its relations to exclusion.14 Stef Jansen also argues for the ‘affective engagements with regulation’15 of cross-border mobility for citizens of European countries outside of the European Union, such as Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, often erased in the paradigms that govern Eastern Europe’s delineation in the West. The choreographies of entrapment and permission regulate how movement and mobility are performed by cross-territorial bodies.

The cross-territorial body evades these nuances whilst also performing the border regimes which constitute and frame its presence. Speaking about the relation between processes of de-territorialisation and those of the state that attempt to constitute and govern political territories, Margaret Moore argues for the retrospective nature of the statist argument, which constantly justifies its exertion of authority in delineating the territory of its political communities. Glen Sean Coulthard also reminds us, through an examination of the problematics of the recognition paradigm, that coloniality, as a form of structured dispossession, operates by means of territoriality as its irreducible element.16 Bhambra further speaks about the ways in which the political community as a national order has been ‘central to European self-understanding,’ yet contingent on some European states as former empires. ‘[T]he political community of the state,’ Bhambra reminds us, was an expanded multicultural community beyond the nation-state ‘organised in relations of domination and subordination’.17 There is a constant exertion of the state onto the territory that reconfigures who is in, and who is out – and further renders peripheral those who already reside within or are moving through, made evident through processes of exclusion and accession.

Territory and movement are implicated in Public Collection’s simultaneous exposure and occlusion of the Romanian bodies at the heart of its labour, despite making that labour an obvious performative of the work. Is Public Collection constituting its own territorial community, entangled with the movement poetics of the institution that implicates it within border regimes? The body acts as a document, whilst also documenting the conditions of its appearance – an act of state-ing. In order for these relations to capture the work, they must also be marked as absent by the museum, itself a space of experience seized by multiple histories and their collisions; this apparent absence of border complicity is also what renders it visible.

3.
What is it that moves you, exactly?

 

[Moving through your neighbourhood, I found the gaze reflected back and thought hey, that’s just what everyone was thinking].

Photo: Diana Damian Martin, 2020.

A body is lying on the floor, legs released, upper body slightly raised by elbows leaning on the floor. The head is titled back and the mouth is slightly open. I am unsure if this is elation or fear. I walked in too late to catch the title of the work. I sit with it for a while.

By 2016, Romania and Bulgaria – known as the A2 countries – had undergone a process of accession which, in the UK, took the form of regulatory measures that restricted access to public services and work and required additional authorisation. The measures imposed to manage the movement of labour were deployed across the European Union with dramatic differences. In the UK, they are ascribed to a national anxiety around a large influx of workers from Eastern European states, and at the same time fuelled by ongoing labour shortages. A government briefing anticipating the end of transitional measures in 2014 argues that despite the lack of accurate data on migration, the UK registers ‘concerns about potential negative impacts of a significant increase in immigration from the A2 states’.18 The restrictions particularly focused on the development of two schemes only open to A2 ‘low-skilled’ workers as delineated by the state: the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme and the Sector Based Scheme. The legal structures that condition what constitutes low skilled work and high skilled work shape much of the regime of movement, whilst the border regimes, even within the European Union’s politics of mobility, operate de facto by means of exclusion19 – a regulation of entry. Choreographies of cross-territoriality also reveal the multiplication of borders. As Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson argue, borders are ‘elastic and in constant formation’, and their deployability and multiplicity grows out of inherited notions of political spatiality of nations.20 There is a material politics to rationalities of exclusion. Public Collection makes visible the politics of morality around migration and labour – ‘high skill’ work is homogenised, ‘low skilled’ work is segregated; the recognition of work moves across border regimes.

A Migration Observatory report looking at representation of A2 countries in British press over 2012 and 2013 foregrounds that the most common language used to discuss Romanians as a single group focused on crime, with predominant words being ‘gang,’ ‘criminal,’ ‘beggar,’ ‘thief,’ and ‘squatter.’ 21 The most common number attributed to Romanians and Bulgarians in terms of expected migrant population was 29 million, which approximately amounts to the combined populations of both countries. Similarly, the language used to describe Romanians and Bulgarians concentrated on prevention of movement and held an ecological poetics, with words like flood or flock. ‘They’ became a collective identification and a contingent temporality – a choreography of influx that requires restriction, which by nature, excludes bodies that are already there – itself compositionally rendered as limited; bodies that are also entangled in bounded concepts of mobility, and racialised politics of belonging.22

In the background of calls for sovereignty and border protectionism, the relationships between mobility and migration, identity and belonging, inclusion and exclusion pertain not only to geopolitical jurisdictions but to changing notions of subjectivisation within and across the nation-state. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, political philosopher Hannah Arendt outlines a change in paradigm in modern Europe in which political communities enter at odds with the power of the nation over the state. Reflecting on the condition of statelessness, Arendt provides a paradigm through which to understand migration as not defined, but legislated by increasingly conflicted relationships between exclusion, state, and territory.23 More recently, Wendy Brown has argued that despite the expressivity of fortifications and other physical interventions on borders in creating a culture of protectionism, ‘migration, smuggling, crime, terror and even political purposes that walls would interdict are rarely state sponsored’.24 What constitutes the inclusion and exclusion of bodies, and the local and geopolitical jurisdiction within those debates, seems to evade territorialisation, even in its literal manifestation across the regulated publicly accessible space of the Tate and its own fortifications. The politics of accession to the European Union and of cultural mobility shaped by its transnational programmes, together with the distinct and stark differences of access for other European countries, constitute a regulatory regime shaped by permeability as well as delineation.

Public Collection’s presence within the Tate points to ways in which a choreographic poetics of movement, and processes of subjectivisation and their visibility, are stated within and onto the work and its entanglements within the institution. Borders are invoked and erased; bodies operate within the territory, and constitute their own territorialisation; states are rendered peripheral and marginal, outside of the temporality of institutional regimes. How do the performers in Public Collection labour as a collective body, vis-à-vis ‘Eastern Europeanness’ as a constituted category, and its cultural and political ambiguities?

4.
State-ing moments of suspension

[You ran past me, but just in that moment, I caught the winter glare in Berceni.]

Photo: Diana Damian Martin, 2019.

In the concrete mass of the Tate, the movements of the circle of performers in a circular embrace, trace lines through the body- out towards the street, under the floor, above, leading up the stairs, side-ways, out of sight. A series of possible permissions, a movement of experience – or its materiality.

Eastern Europe continues to be a political frame, and a sustained fiction, that shapes representational politics of bodies through regulation and narration.25 It extends across countries within and outside of the European Union, though is often deployed with deliberate homogeneity that disturbs territorial contestations, histories of occupation, and ongoing fights for territorial autonomy. The aesthetics of this constitution are shaped by waste and periphery. Woven into the representational poetics of Eastern Europeanness in the UK is a territorial politics of pollution, itself entangled with the politics of climate and its global destitutions. Pollution is also deployed as a means of securing order, or constituting a state of order in and through border protectionism. The border is constantly redrawn and iterated, in order to be protected.

Part of the Public Collection’s estrangement of the body itself can be put to its dissipation of the specific entanglements of the works’ own representational politics. Bodies engaged in acts of performative translation constitute and implicate regulatory regimes that leak out of the institution, or rather, invoke entanglements that speak precisely to the ways in which institutional spaces carry an ambiguous form of regulation of movement and subjectivation characterised by stasis and activation – a precarious border regime. In this way Public Collection holds affective entanglements and political ones, in which the work is extended by the very means of its occupation, and re-enacts the border poetics of its performers by means of its own compositional strategies. Eastern Europe feels like a compositional problem, or perhaps, it is a matter of composition.

 

5.
The ambiguity of temporary political space

 

[We walk along the edges of the single track railway line at the Anghel Saligny Bridge over the Danube. We walk in a straight line, one foot in front of the other. Someone once told me much has happened here, but I only remember the bootlegs and the mirroring of the dry green onto a drying river. You capture entanglements caught in compositional limbo as you drive past. You chose to walk, you tell us.]

Photo: Diana Damian Martin, 2018.

Diana Damian Martin is a writer, educator, and researcher. She works as a Senior Lecturer in Performance Arts at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Her work sits at the intersection between performance and political theory, philosophy and migration. It concerns alternative critical epistemologies and queer and feminist modes of exchange, interventionist and political performance and the ecological and representational poetics of migration, with a distinct focus on Eastern Europe. She is co-host of Department of Feminist Conversations, an open collective exploring feminist gathering and exchange, and Critical Interruptions, a Serbo-Romanian critical cooperative. She is a member of practice research collective Generative Constraints and action group Migrants in Culture.

 

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Notes:

  1. ‘Immigration Act of 2016’, UK Home Office. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/immigration-bill-part-3-enforcement
  2. Allen, William. Report. ‘A decade of Immigration in the British Press’, Migration Observatory. 2016. https://migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/resources/reports/decade-immigration-british-press/
  3. Singh, Julietta. No Archive Will Restore You. (London: Punctum Books, 2018), p. 22
  4. Pirici, Alexandra and Pelmuş, Manuel. Public Collection. Tate Modern. 17 June- 3 July 2016. Performers: Laura Andrei, Benjamin Boar, Serghei Chiviriga, Larisa Crunteanu, Farid Fairuz, Paula Gherghe, Rolando Matsangos, Maria Mora, Cristian Nanculescu and Cristina Toma. https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/special-event/new-tate-modern-opening-weekend/alexandra-pirici-and-manuel
  5. See for example, the work of Bojana Kunst (Artist at Work: Proximity of Art and Capitalism. London: Zero Books, 2015) and Gregory Sholette (Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture. London: Pluto Press, 2010)
  6. Guy, Georgina.’From visible objects to reported action’ in Theatre Journal 69:3, 2017. p.355
  7. Chow, Rey. Entanglements, or Transmedial Thinking about Capture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012) p. 1
  8. Chow, Rey. p.12
  9. Chow, Rey, p.23
  10. Steyerl, Hito. ‘A tank on a Pedestal: Museums in an age of Planetary Civil War’ in E-Flux 70:2, 2016. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/70/60543/a-tank-on-a-pedestal-museums-in-an-age-of-planetary-civil-war/
  11. Ahmed, Sara. ‘Orientations: towards a queer phenomenology’ in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 12:4, 2016. p. 553
  12. Ahmed, Sara, p.543
  13. Ahmed, Sara, p.563
  14. Bhambra, Gurminder K. ‘Citizens and Others: the Constitution of Citizenship through Exclusion’ in Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 40:2, 2015. p. 103
  15. Jansen, Stef. 2009. ‘After the red passport: towards an anthropology of the everyday geopolitics of entrapment in the EU’s immediate outside’ in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 15:4, 2019. p. 815
  16. Coulthard, Glen Sean. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the colonial politics of recognition (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2014), p.7
  17. Bhambra, Gurminder K. ‘The current crisis of Europe: refugees, colonialism, and the limits of cosmopolitanism’ in European Law Journal, 23:5, 2017. p.398
  18. Gower, Melanie and Hawkins, Oliver. Report. ‘Ending of transitional restrictions for Bulgarian and Romanian workers’. Home Affairs Section -House of Commons Library. 2013. https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN06606#fullreport
  19. Green, Sarah. ‘Performing border in the Aegean’ in Journal of Cultural Economy 3:2, 2010, pp 261-278
  20. Mezzadra, Sandro and Neilson, Brett. Border as Method, or the Multiplication of Labour. (London/Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), p.8
  21. Migration Observatory. ‘Bulgarians & Romanians in the British National Press’. Report. 2014. http://migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Report-Bulgarians_Romanians_Press_0.pdf
  22. For example, see Jon Fox’s ‘The uses of racism: whitewashing new Europeans in the UK’ (Ethnic and Racial Studies 36:11, 2013, pp 1871-1889) and Sarah Spencer et all’s ‘Migrants lives beyond the workplace: the experiences of central and east Europeans in the UK’( Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2017 http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/experiences-central-and-east-european-migrants-uk)
  23. Arendt, Hannah.1951.Reprint 2017. The Origins of Totalitarianism. London: Penguin Books
  24. Brown, Wendy. Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. (New York: Zone Books, 2010), p.21
  25. For example, see Dušan I Bjelić and Obrad Savić Obrad’s Balkan as Metaphor: Between Globalization and Fragmentation. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002) and Maria Nikolaeva Todorova’s Imagining the Balkans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)

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