Acting out: pointing in the museum

A performative talk-interview by Brendan Fernandes

with Amanda Jane Graham

New Podium

Dancers create a frieze on the opposite side of me. They remain motionless like sculptures on the plinths. They break their positions and point at me.

In museums we have taken on prescribed ways of moving. We are choreographed within this space through a social etiquette that tells us how to represent ourselves and perform.

Ballet and the Museum are the pivots of Western culture created by the French.

They have greatly shaped our image of what counts as culture. I use these as examples as a former dancer and as an artist staging works in museums.

In Touch, by Brendan Fernandes, Disguise: Masks and Global African Art exhibition, Seattle Art Museum, USA, 2015. Photo: Nathaniel Willson.

New Podium  

Dancers create a frieze on the opposite side of me. They remain motionless like sculptures on the plinths. They break their positions and point at me.

As an example, my recent work In Touch questions the role of museumgoers and the way they are prompted to move within the museum space.

1

In Touch at Seattle Art Museum. Photo: Nathaniel Willson.

 

1 . Amanda Jane GrahamMuch of your multimedia art examines power structures — in language, dance, colonial histories, and in institutions, specifically the museum. Your piece In Touch (2015), commissioned by the Seattle Art Museum and performed at Fowler Museum at UCLA, the Agnes Etherington Art Centre and at the Brooklyn Museum, is a form of institutional intervention and critique. How does the body of the dancer performing In Touch disrupt the conventions of the museum?

Brendan Fernandes . The museum, as a choreographed space, and within the walls of this western pivot, “high culture” is embodied. As patrons, our prescribed movements within the museum, our gestures and actions, seem to come naturally and instinctively, but they have been culturally enforced and integrated into our physicality. In the museum we don’t touch art; we walk slowly around it and we speak softly. This environment requires an etiquette that, in turn, comes from a long history of learned behaviors dating back to the court of Louis XIV.

 

Dancers move out of frieze and start pointing at a plinth. Perform a “pointing triplet” series. Stop pointing. Stand still. Freeze in pointing gesture.

Pointing is a confrontational gesture. A failed etiquette. In this work, I question what it means to act badly or misbehave within the conventions of the museum. The piece is unannounced, creating a chance performative encounter for my audience.

Dancers perform and mimic my actions. They point at the audience.

The performance begins like this.

2

 

2 . Amanda Jane Graham . Can you describe the relationship between the dancer and museum objects in In Touch?

Brendan Fernandes . In my work, In Touch, the dancer enters the space unannounced and begins to look and observe African art objects. The dancer’s costume is a marker of difference, but the performer still upholds the bodily rules of the museum. Eventually the dancer confronts an object and begins to point at it, almost touching it. From there the dancer begins to cover him- or herself with the costume and dance around the mask object, trying to give it life.

There is a score of this work, but many of the gestures and movements are improvised. The improvising body in the museum acts in contrast to the civilized and conformed body of the museum patron. As the dancer moves around the space of the museum he or she evokes a sense of acting out, of institutional misbehavior.

The performer walks around the space of the museum observing and looking at objects as one is supposed to do in the museum. They then approach a mask; there is recognition, a familiarity. Do they know each other? Perhaps. They begin to confrontationally point to the mask. They are transformed into masqueraders who dance to reunite their bodies to the masks.

Do not touch the art work.

Do not touch the art, please do not touch the art.

 

New podium

Dancers point at me with force.

The dancers disrupt the space of the museum through their “unwieldy” movements. Through their movements, I want to critique and question ideas of African mythology, where notions of the non-human world and ideas of a spiritual take-over and possession of the body signify a non-Western form of culture that is viewed at times with fear and apprehension. The juxtaposition of early ballet vocabularies positioned against gestures of the African masquerades signifies a post-colonial history of Western hegemony, in which European countries like France colonized parts of Africa, removing cultural objects, such as masks, and emptying them of meaning.

Performance In Touch, by Brendan Fernandes, in the opening of Disguise: Masks and Global African Art exhibition (Oct. 18th, 2015) at Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles, USA.

Dancers perform my actions and point at me.

There is a tension between body and plinth, the apparatus that holds the art object; the replacement of the body in the museum context. Eventually they circle back to the mask. They bow to it again and revile themselves. They walk away.

3

I bow.

We all walk away. 

 

3 . Amanda Jane Graham . The plinth and the pedestal centrally figure into a number of your pieces, including The Working Move (2012) and As One (2015). In both of these video-performances you choreograph postmodern looking ballets in which professional dancers interact with — arguably dance with — these objects that are traditionally used to display art. What is the significance of plinths and pedestals in your work?

Brendan Fernandes . The plinth and the pedestal are definitely key markers in many of my works. They are the devices that elevate objects such as masks to become/be considered “art” objects. In my work, they also replace and stand in for the body. In African traditions, specifically in Western Africa, masks were not considered art objects; they were used as props and tools in masquerades, and in everyday activities. With their removal from their place of origin, they were brought to the West and placed in the context of the museum. These objects in the museum lose their utilitarian and embodied connections and become art objects and commodities. The plinth or pedestal further creates this evaluation. It physically lifts the object, placing it on a higher level. The dancer engages with the plinth to question the body’s labor and value; in the process of performing, it becomes a commodity. Furthermore, the plinth is a burden for the dancer who is moving with it, but it is also place to rest or stretch. Ultimately, the plinth is a device that questions the hierarchy of the museum, and the value and devaluing of the dancer and the African artifact.

.

Top . In Touch, by Brendan Fernandes, in the Disguise: Masks and Global African Art exhibition, 2015, Seattle Art Museum, USA. Photo: Nathaniel Willson.

Credits . Choreography and concept by Brendan Fernandes. Performed by Etienne Capko of Gansango Dance, Seattle. Original costume by Anna Telcs in collaboration with Brendan Fernandes. Documentation filmed and edited by Aaron Bourget.