In anticipation of If Tate Modern was Musée de la danse? at the Tate Modern in London on Friday, May 15 and Saturday, May 16, we look back at Expo Zéro, a living exhibition created by renowned French choreographer Boris Charmatz for his groundbreaking Musée de la danse (Dancing Museum) in Rennes, France, and which was re-conceived for New York City as part of Performa 11.
Musée de la Danse: Expo Zéro was an exhibition without any artwork, but with artists. It includes no objects, photographs, sculptures, or installations. Rather, it is comprised of completely empty rooms filled by the gestures, projects, bodies, stories, and dances which visitors will both see and imagine. In this way, it is truly a “museum of dance,” a radical new way of looking at the history and future of that most ephemeral of art forms, through a unique live experience that each visitor will have with an extraordinary cast of people and performers inhabiting a seemingly blank gallery space.
Boris Charmatz: Musée de la Danse: Expo Zéro by Claire Bishop
Musée de la Danse: Expo Zéro, by French choreographer Boris Charmatz, reversed one of the main conventions of Performa: inviting visual artists to work on the stage. Instead, Charmatz relocated his practice away from a proscenium theater and into a formal school, the kind of abandoned space now typical of the visual art biennial. Five classrooms, together with corridors and storage cupboards, were given over to a flowing, overlapping array of performances by choreographers, dancers, an actor, an artist/curator, a writer, an architect, and a philosopher. (The full list of participants includes Alex Baczynski-Jenkins, Eleanor Bauer, Jim Fletcher, Valda Settlefield, Lenio Kaklea, Heman Chong, Jan Liesegang, Fadi Toufiq, and Marcus Steinweg. Some pieces were on a loop, some were improvised, and some involved the audience.
When I first walked into one of the classrooms, five people were engaged in an exercise that involved running and jumping and flapping their arms in the air. Gradually, I realized that theh tall guy in the beard and red T-shirt at the center of this activity was Charmatz himself, leading some kind of impromptu workshop for a group of volunteers. At the end of it, he thanked the group and came over to me. Would I be staying here for a while?, he asked. Could I spend some time in the room while he demonstrated something around me? I agreed to lie down, close my eyes, and listen to a dance, I remained there for nearly an hour while Charmatz flurried around me, swishing, leaping, stamping, and occasionally pausing to address the audience. I had no idea how much time had gone by; eventually, a friend nudged me to get up, as the performance was long over. I sat up, bleary-eyed, to find the whole room looking at me; I had become the performance.
Other works also invited us to become part of the work, but more slyly, and in a manner that was often only noticeable to a handful of other visitors: Lenio Kaklea moved gracefully behind those who meandered in the space or stood watching, making subtle movements with her hands and arms behind their backs. Another performer discreetly asked certain visitors to repeat out loud the phrases that Jim Fletcher was shouting down the corridor, and then to leave the building. With no labeling or explanations, it took time and conversation with others to decipher thte structure and rhythm of each performance.
One of the sneakiest exchanges was a one-to-one encounter with Heman Chong, which took place in a walk-in closet. Under the pretext of personally recommending a book for you to read, Chong asked you to speak about yourself for three minutes—an excruciating amount of time. After much umming and ahhing, I ground to a halt after less than a minute; he ponders my words carefully and eventually recommended I read the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic (1971), a novel I had been meaning to tackle for many years. He gave good reasons for why I would enjoy it, and I was relatively satisfied with the transaction…until I met a friend who had been recommended the same book. A conversation with yet another friend revealed that she too received the same advice. Slowly it dawned on me: Everyone was recommended Roadside Picnic, because the point was not to have a book personally chosen for you but to reveal your narcissism in thinking this was possible. Again, we became the performance—alongside Chong’s consummate display of forging a connection between the content of this novel and each visitor’s self-description.
Although Charmatz translates Musée de la danse as “dancing museum” rather than “museum of dance,” his use of an institutional framing device for movement—the least collectible of cultural forms—managed to reimagine the categories of both museum and collection afresh. It also opened to negotiation the difference between amateur and professional competences: Not all of the performers were dancers or choreographers, nor were the visitors, but at some point during a visit to the Musée de la danse, everyone seemed to swap roles, wittingly or unwittingly. Discreetly underscoring the pedagogic dimension of the work was the educational location, with blackboards still on the walls. This was an impromptu school of participatory performance, in which simple actions were conceptually reframed to provide a continuous and textured commentary upon the possibilities of choreography and the site of its reception.—Claire Bishop
Boris Charmatz in Conversation with Performa Curator Lana Wilson
Lana Wilson (LW): You’ve done several projects related to how dance is taught and preserved and remembered. Is Musée de la Danse a natural progression of your previous work?
Boris Charmatz (BC): In retrospect, it looks like a natural follow-up after Bocal [a temporary, nomadic school based in Lyon, France, 2003¬–4]. Angèle Le Grand and I were codirecting Association Edna [a production ensemble started by Charmatz and dancer Dimitri Chamblas in 1992], and she suggested, “Why don’t we do a Musée de la Danse?” I was imagining a visual art gallery with props and costumes from contemporary dance projects. For two years, I dismissed this idea completely.
LW: When did she mention this to you?
BC: It must have been 2006. After that, I started rethinking the idea little by little. Angèle stopped working with Association Edna, and spent nearly two years researching what a Musée de la Danse could be. I applied for the directorship of the National Choreographic Center in Rennes with this project. We decided to start it, anyway; we would do it in Rennes if I was granted the position there, or, if not, we would only do it for Performa.
I started Musée de la Danse as a long-term project even though some people thought it was a joke.
LW: Did people really think it was a joke?
BC: It was clear to me it would continue for the next two hundred years. Of course, I will die, and this project may die as well, but I imagined it as a long-term project.
LW: Do you think you’ll continue to work on Musée de la Danse for the rest of your career? I know that RoseLee considers it an essential and ongoing part of the Performa biennial.
BC: I would love for the Musée de la Danse project to continue. We only have an embryo of a collection—artwork, films, scores. One could say that Expo Zéro is an exhibition format, but it’s also a format that belongs to Musée de la Danse. If I quit this, I would like another artist to take over. My work may go on in different directions, but Musée de la Danse as a place, as a public space, could develop in its own way.
We are becoming more and more permanent. In 2014 in Rennes, we are doing a project called la permanence. We want the museum to be open all year. We’re working in association with CNAP—the national center of arts plastiques, visual art. They have more than 90,000 artworks, and they’re lending some of their works to the Musée de la Danse collection, and we will present their works alongside or projects.
LW: Are you choosing works from their collection?
BC: Yes, this is a collaborative project with CNAP. For example, they have Tino Sehgal’s The Kiss (2007) in their collection. I think Musée de la Danse is the right place to display Kiss.
LW: So you applied to the Choreographic Centre with the idea of Musée de la Danse, a completely new concept. How did the National Choreographic Centre officials react to this idea?
BC: The city of Rennes chose this project. In the beginning, people thought it would be good to maintain for two or three years, and then choose a new project. But after receiving invitations from Performa in 2009, followed by the Singapore Arts Festival, the Tate Modern, the Festival d’Avignon, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it became a more serious project than they had expected. Then they started worrying that we had the name Musée de la Danse, but that it wasn’t a real museum of dance.
LW: You wrote so beautifully in your “Manifesto for A Dancing Museum” about expanding the world of dance so that it will go beyond professional dancers and choreographers to reach a broader audience. Why is expanding the parameters of dance so important to you?
BC: When I was in dance school, the history of dance was not important, while in music school, you would read music books; in visual art school, you would learn about the history of art. In dance schools, you only learn physical technique. I wanted to make dance history part of dance itself, so that texts by Tatsumi Hijikata [Japanese creator of Butoh], for example, would be considered part of the dance patrimoine, the cultural heritage, of this art form, and that it is interesting to everyone, not only dancers or Butoh disciples.
It was also about how artists like Xavier Le Roy, Jérôme Bel, and myself were working. We need to include Mike Kelley in addition to Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey in our history; we need to include Viennese Actionism, and Vito Acconci biting himself while naked. Vito Acconci is not a dancer—he’s a performer, a visual artist, an architect, he is many things—but some of the things he did could help the dancers of now, and they should know about him. I saw Aernout Mik’s super-choreographed films. Sometimes I think that he is the choreographer of our time, but he’s not; he’s a visual artist, a video artist. He’s not part of dance history, but that’s okay. Of course, we should know about Judson Church, but dance history should not be limited to that.
LW: Several years ago, RoseLee and I visited you in Rennes during Nuit Blanche, and the city really embraced what you were doing. We wondered whether this experience could translate to New York.
BC: Your visit was super-important for us because not many people were visiting us then. Later on, the people from Festival d’Avignon visited, and they wanted us to get involved in the festival. We were so fragile and insecure, but we knew that it was important for us to be recognized outside of Rennes.
LW: In your manifesto, you wrote about involving teachers, lawyers, and politicians. Do you feel that non-dancers resist participation in Musée de la Danse?
BC: Sure. We’ve done exhibitions with visual artists and performers, lighting designers, dancers. I wanted to have a laboratory, a place where everything could be connected. The symposia and lectures are connected to our exhibitions, performances, teaching. I thought Musée de la Danse would be a vehicle for broad participation, where dance is not just a class that starts at ten o’clock for twenty preregistered people, or in the evening at the theater, where you hope it will be good. It would be a place where architects, critics, and visual artists can engage each other critically, collaborate, dissent, and search. We were the first to name it, but it was something in the air.
LW: Art museums are now reexamining their modes of exhibition. This happened a little before that, but as a result…
BC: It’s great to receive an invitation from a museum, but it’s also great that from dance we reflect on what could be a museum, a collection, in terms of dance, which evaporates so quickly. It’s not only about what can be done in a museum, but what it could be if it’s our museum. We started with dance and became a museum. It’s completely different from thinking, “What could we do in art galleries and museums?”
LW: It’s about respectability, too. As you say, dancers are trained physically; they leave intellectual history behind, whereas a visual artist attending art school spends half their time reading art theory and criticism.
BC: But things are evolving quickly, and now dancers have Master’s degrees, or fine art Ph.Ds, in Europe. At P.A.R.T.S. [Performing Arts Research and Training Studios in Brussels], the main focus is still daily physical practice, but they have Bojana Cvejic teaching there. They have Jan Ristema as a dramaturg.
LW: That brings us to Expo Zéro, where people can argue the idea of the Musée de la Danse. When Performa invited you to bring this to New York, what excited you? What did you think the challenges would be? How did you choose the participants?
BC: I wanted half of the participants to be American, and the other half European. Fadi Toufiq is from Lebanon, but he was based in New York at the time, so we considered him a New Yorker.
It was the fifth edition of Expo Zéro, so we were prepared. The participants were more relaxed because we’d worked together before, and the work was free to develop in a fantastic way. Valda Setterfield was in a previous edition and I worked with her on 50 Years of Dance [based on the book Merce Cunningham: 50 Years]. I did not know Jim Fletcher at all. He’s a fantastic actor who has worked with Time Etchells and Richard Maxwell, and Tim worked with Expo Zéro before, so it was this sort of networking. He’s developed such a commanding presence due to his background in performing, and he has this almost magnetic pull around him.
It’s good that we had some pillars—pillars that can be moved—and some floating presences, a mix of people, and you didn’t know where they were or what they were doing. I remember Fadi describing a map of Beirut—how streets are drawn, how one experiences Beirut differently from New York. It was completely different to speak with Valda. You needed to encounter her in the Old School because she doesn’t have a strong voice, but if you met her, it’s amazing what she shared with you. I really liked this double experience.
LW: You had four days together as a group in New York before Expo Zéro opened to the public. What were you doing during that time?
BC: We asked that everyone develop an idea for what they would do for Musée de la Danse and Expo Zéro before they arrived. It was very important for us to spend that time together—we were introduced to each other. There was this architect from Berlin, Jan Liesegang, who decided to work with Fadi. Steve Paxton came for one day. He listened the whole day, and at the end he made a little improvised lecture of how he felt about it. It was so great; it was not part of the exhibition, but part of the process. He spoke why at first he didn’t very much like the idea of Musée de la Danse. He thought he would be the king, and Yvonne Rainer the queen, of Musée de la Danse. With us though, he realized what it could be. It was super-interesting.
Jan is an architect, and Fadi was interested in urban planning and the difference between Beirut and New York. They started to work a bit together. I will always remember Tim Etchells’s performance in Rennes. He would ask visitors to give him a movement, and he would add it to the collection at Musée de la Danse. Then, after three, four hours, he stopped and improvised with some kids somewhere else. And one of the other performers took over Tim’s position, so his project continued with someone else. This is the opposite of a fixed exhibition, where you are sure that Tim Etchells is doing this or that, but in Expo Zéro, you are never sure. I really like the idea that it’s a moving exhibition. You may encounter your own expectations. You don’t know what Musée de la Danse is, but we don’t know either, so we can start a discussion there. So, you don’t see one artwork, but when you leave, it’s like a train fantôme, like an affair. You take a train and are visited by ghosts, but when you leave, you were there. If it works well, you leave and you discuss Bruce Nauman with someone and you did something with me about Robert Barry and you watched someone perform Isadora Duncan.
LW: I think people in New York absolutely had that experience. I remember warning everyone beforehand, “New Yorkers just tend to pop in and out.” I was stunned to see people staying for hours and hours. What did you feel about the audience in New York in particular?
BC: It was an amazing experience. First of all, after Expo Zéro, Claire Bishop wrote an article about visiting Musée de la Danse, which was published in the Brooklyn Rail. We met people who were not only interested in, but added things to, the project, and added to our own understanding of it. Visitors would stay with me for two hours, working on this strange moving sculpture that I call le xxxx accompli. I was amazed—in New York, everyone is busy, but many decided to stay. It was really a surprise.
More information about the Tate program is available here.