In 2013, I wrote a post for the now-defunct frieze blog titled ‘Poser Punks: Derek Jarman & Jordan Wolfson’. This contrasted celebrations at King’s College, London, (on what would have been Jarman’s 72nd birthday had he not died of AIDs-related illness), with Wolfson’s solo show Raspberry Poser at Chisenhale Gallery.
It was surprising to me—as a photography student taught by AIDS visual activists, such as Emily Andersen and Sunil Gupta, and with friends who managed HIV—that in the mainstream art press’ effusive celebration of Raspberry Poser, no one attended to how he brashly ‘posed’ as gay while animating HIV viruses that danced through gentrified SoHo neighbourhoods. According to Dana Goodyear, writing in the recent New Yorker profile on Wolfson, ‘Jordan Wolfson’s Edgelord Art’, the artist lived in a rented loft there in summer 2017. Across at King’s College, AIDS activist and art historian Simon Watney, whose tireless work I admire, remembered Jarman and many of his generation who died of the disease. Gentrification is thought of as the remaking of specific places, but as Sarah Schulman notes, it acts on histories and imaginaries too.
Shortly after publishing this blog post, I was introduced to the choreographer Adam Linder. Adam was interested in the interjections and asides of my frieze article, the interruptive ticks of neuroses and self-consciousness:
At the desk I was instructed to leave my shoes at the gallery door before entering. For some reason separation from my shoes always causes me some anxiety. Besides, my socks, wet from the dew of Victoria Park, looked sweaty and smelly. Perhaps I was immune to their smell? I felt vulnerable.
This was a time when artists were carpeting galleries, perhaps as a response to a particular kind of institutional critique that Chisenhale Gallery aspired to. Besides, I was always so fucking poor. And other people around me in the gallery seemed so clean and well-turned out. Of course, what I’ve called ‘interjections’ and ‘asides’ are the stuff of new narrative art criticism, but they are marginal within the framework of mainstream art criticism, one of several ways I earned income.
Trained at The Royal Ballet School and a dancer with Barbican-resident Michael Clark, Linder’s interest is in toggling between the spaces available to performers, in order to explore the assumptions of performance’s economic and critical value. In 2013, he had begun developing the second of what, by 2018, would become five ‘Choreographic Services’, known as the Full Service. In 2012 Some Cleaning, the first in the series, used mime as the basis for a choreography that brought together a lexicon of actions that dust, calibrate and renew a space. Alongside a displayed service contract stipulating terms of employment for the choreographer and the ‘client’, including a final time and cost, Some Cleaning took place in institutions as part of exhibitions or in private domestic spaces.
Unlike Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ important feminist maintenance works of the late sixties, Adam’s cleaning was de-realised cleaning. Sure, it pointed to largely invisible maintenance work, but its object was the value of the real-time labour of a dancing body off-stage—in a white cube or living room—and its formation from the accretion of other labours.
Linder is skilled at miming the embodied material resistances of cleaning, bringing to mind Charlie Chaplin’s jolting body that is still ‘on’ even as it is ‘off’ the capitalist production line in Modern Times (1936), when no useful productive labour takes place. With each performance, the accrual of corporeal experience affects the choreographer, the viewers and location. The work’s cost reflects not just the performative payment—as in the gig economy—but previous labours and accrued experience.
In Choreographic Service No.2, Some Proximity, performed by Linder, Justin Kennedy and myself, first in a booth at frieze art fair as part of the performance commission strand, the two dancers drop into the space, like skaters on a half-pipe ramp, dancing in a style known as gliding, grasping my script. Alternating, sometimes together, they call out one of the following terms, placing body and text together:
Some Distance / Some Proximity / Some Other Proximity
/ More Proximity / Very Proximity / Pan Proximity
‘Some Proximity’ might be a call to alter grammar and syntax, physically and verbally. ‘Some Other Proximity’ might fuck verbally with linearity and repetition, bringing rhythm to the text, be more experimental physically: trickier, incorporating additional turns and holds. Only I as the writer, invited by Linder to participate in this choreography, have the authority to call ‘Pan Proximity’ drawing them both out into the space, gliding as I read the text aloud. In this way, the critic’s writing becomes the site of its redistribution through remixed re-performances.
More or less proximate to the texts, this was not improvisation but dance composition processed in real-time. Two or three texts establish it, then it develops: enunciations stick, words are mispronounced, intensity rises and diminishes with restraint and virtuosity. Text meets the linguistically ambiguous moving body. The rational/critical meets the expressive. Over-linguistic meets pre-linguistic. Meanwhile, I perform my employment, observing, scraping gossip, eavesdropping and copying from my surroundings—art fairs, museums and galleries—to produce new texts for the dance. Different spaces activate the work differently. In an art fair questions of value are pronounced. In a museum, dance as a lively object outlines the scope of an inanimate collection.
Returning to interjections and asides, around 2010 there were lively conversations about art criticism that turned on ‘good writing’ versus ‘arty bollocks’. In the context of Isabelle Graw’s essay ‘Talk Til You Drop’ on what she called the ‘communication imperative of contemporary art’, Alex Rule and David Levine used algorithmic quantitative analysis in the essay ‘International Art English’ to denounce poor, theory-heavy press releases written by interns in galleries across the globe. In response, Hito Steyerl’s ‘International Disco English’ argued for productive mistranslations and hybridisations—a wreaking of havoc on the rules of grammar, which often functioned to gatekeep access.
At the time, what interested me most, and what was the model for Some Proximity’s textual production, was Brian Droitcour’s call for an ‘unobligated’ vernacular criticism, subjective and contingent, that might be the proper mode for a compromised form such as art criticism. Over two years, Droitcour, now associate editor of Art in America, published over 100 Yelp reviews online, almost all about museums and galleries. As Droitcour notes in his essay ‘Vernacular Criticism’, published in the The New Inquiry in 2014, which reflects on this exercise, ‘Yelp users found my reviews useful (305 votes), funny (209 votes) and cool (198 votes)’.
If the value of the art critic’s observations is supposedly predicated on disinterested judgment, professionalism and exclusive language, perhaps Yelp is a more open space in which a wider set of concerns—typically marginalised in mainstream art criticism’s editorialising—can mingle with reflections on the art and its conditions (‘don’t eat in the cafe, it’s expensive’; ‘use the ground floor toilet, the others are not wheelchair accessible’). Droitcour argued that this platform might help ‘reset the terms of art criticism’ as an ‘environment where the judgment of one among others not obligated by any judgment except their own is newly fresh, and where this judgment is honestly subjective and contingent, as tested by unobligated bodies.’
It wasn’t in bad faith that Droitcour canned Yelp to become editor of Art in America, nor was it in bad faith that I continued to write mainstream art criticism from the first performance of Some Proximity in 2014 through to the last one in 2019, in Luxembourg at Mudam. The many modes of writing I was employed in as a freelancer, offered a cumulative subjective value that I put to the work, setting up, temporarily, the economic conditions for a kind of vernacular criticism in relation to conventional art criticism. If, as Andrea Fraser put it in her 1994 text ‘Notes for an Artistic Service’, we are ‘always already serving’, Some Proximity determines, to the extent that it can with the host institution, an autonomous space where the writing’s only obligation is to ‘service’ the work.
Some have criticised Linder’s Choreographic Services as asserting a commodity form for dance in the white cube of contemporary art. But this is to ignore the way that dance is already thoroughly commodified in the black cube of the theatre. As Adam explains:
When you go to the theatre you buy a ticket to experience a specific work for the duration it’s performed and you leave with the memory and experience and nothing else. The performers, directly, depending on whether they take a proportion from the box office, or indirectly from state funding or ticket revenue, are going to receive their payment through the channels of audience revenue. In the theatre you price according to nights. With Some Proximity, we agree in the contract that ‘x’ is the duration of the performance and it will cost ‘x’ amount per hour. By being upfront about it I’m trying to highlight the fact that the cultural capital that is going to be accrued from this performance is not supporting another economy i.e. that of selling objects.
The assumption of the white cube as a space of critical circumspection, the legacies of conceptual art and the legacy of radical performance art of the sixties and seventies as a wilful non-commodity, conspire in complex ways to frame dance in the contemporary art gallery as a radically present, authentic, non-commodifiable thing (in a different way, poetry had this discussion several years ago; see, for example, Danny Penny’s ‘The Irrelevant and the Contemporary’ in The New Inquiry: ‘It offers artists and curators a mode of communication that seems the opposite of artspeak SEO because it has no instrumental value.’). Supposedly free from the commodity form, performance flatters contemporary art’s aspirations to critique capital, even as it does not properly value performance art.
Linder’s Services put to work dance’s effusive subjectivity in the gallery, not by commodifying a tangible object, for instance photographic documentation, but producing a temporary experience that is consistent with the experience of visiting the theatre. In the context of artless, indifferent contemporary performance—think Eddie Peake, Woijcech Kosma or Anne Imhoff—where it would be somehow gauche to display skill, Linder favours illusion and virtuosity.
In total, I’ve performed Some Proximity with Adam and Justin on five separate hired occasions. Each time, the texts respond in a particular and dynamic way. For instance, at Step Repeat Festival at LACMA in 2015, many in the audience were angry at Kenneth Goldsmith’s remix of Michael Brown’s autopsy report. The performance in Museum Stuzki in Poland prompted a series of reflections on what a museum of dance might be. At CCA Wattis I visited art collections in foyers of tech startups in Silicon Valley. Others have invested themselves in it with dancers Josh Johnson and Robbie Malmborg, and writers Hannah Gregory (Luxembourg), Holly Childs (Melbourne) and Michele Carlson (San Francisco), among them. I’ve given exhibition tours, interviews and am serving up this article, which began as a conference paper. These adjacent roles, which really are not adjacent, might be thought of as dramaturgical in the sense that Claire MacDonald uses in ‘Conducting the flow: Dramaturgy and writing’, a piece which ‘foregrounds the process of mediation between the starting proposition of a work and its eventual realisation in performance. Such a dramaturgy does not proceed from text as a known set of procedures, but instead questions what those procedures might be.’
Jonathan P. Watts is a writer and occasional curator based between Great Yarmouth and Norwich, Norfolk.
Adam Linder (b. 1983, Sydney) is a choreographer and dancer based in Los Angeles and Berlin. He makes works for the theatre and provides Choreographic Services. ‘Adam Linder: Shelf Life’ opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in February this year. In 2016, Linder participated in the Made in LA Biennial at The Hammer Museum Los Angeles, where he was awarded the Mohn Prize for artistic excellence. Linder also participated in the 20th Biennale of Sydney and the Liverpool Biennial (both 2016). Recent solo or two person shows have included Institute of Contemporary Art, London (2015) and The Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin (2016).