If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part of Your Revolution was founded in 2005 by curators Frederique Bergholtz, Annie Fletcher and Tanja Elstgeest. Each was individually approached to curate a visual arts programme in the context of a theatre festival in the Netherlands – namely Festival a/d Werf in Utrecht (Frederique Bergholtz), Theaterfestival Boulevard in ’s-Hertogenbosch (Annie Fletcher) and de Veenfabriek in Leiden (Tanja Elstgeest). The three curators decided to work together and take up the challenge to think about visual art within a context which embraces performance-based practices such as theatre, music and dance.
For its first edition, If I Can’t Dance borrowed the model of collaborative working from the theatre by investing in an elaborated programme that developed through its very enactment, at each event and at each location. Because of the ambition and scope that this theatre structure offers to the production of contemporary art, it still functions as the main mode of working for If I Can’t Dance today. This becomes manifest in our long-term collaborations with artists, researchers and partner organizations, that take form in two-year editions of commissioned productions that develop over time and are presented at different institutions in the Netherlands and abroad.
If I Can’t Dance defines its way of working as ‘contemplation, interrupted by action’, a quote borrowed from artist Hanne Darboven, who typified her practice as such. Each edition is an ongoing process of research – of ‘contemplation’ – segmented by moments of presentations at the subsequent venues enabling public exchange – opportunities for ‘action’.
Picture: Summer Open Reading Group with Alex Martinis Roe, 25 August 2013, Amsterdam, photographs: Kyle Tryhorn
On Performance and Performativity (by IICD)
If I Can’t Dance is dedicated to exploring the evolution and typology of performance and performativity in contemporary art. Our continuous fascination with performance or the ‘live moment’ is perhaps best put into words by Professor Peggy Phelan:
“Live art performance remains an interesting art form because it contains the possibility of both the actor and the spectator becoming transformed during the event’s unfolding. (…) Of course a lot of performance does not approach this potential at all, and of course many spectators and many actors are incapable of being open to this anyway. But this potential, this seductive promise of possibility of mutual transformation is extraordinarily important because this is the point where the aesthetic joins the ethical.”
The use of the notion of performativity in critical theory is derived from the British philosopher J. L. Austin. In his book How To Do Things With Words (1962) Austin described how performative utterances differ from descriptive utterances in their accomplishment of an action that generates effects, or, when saying something is doingsomething. A simple example would be the speech act of “I do” in a wedding ceremony. Austin’s understanding of performativity has been expanded and reworked in fields of literary criticism, feminism, queer theory, psychoanalysis and ethics. For writers such as Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, performativity is more precisely related to identity politics and the constitution of subjectivity.
If I Can’t Dance is interested in the affinities and tensions between performativity and performance in the visual arts. In contemporary artistic practice, a work may be performative, but not a performance, and vice versa. However, the closely related terms meet in a mutual aspiration for potentiality, actualization and transformation, and may be manifested through explorations of theatricality, speech and the body.
Finally, we can see that performance today permeates our lives on all levels. As Sven Lütticken writes in ‘Acting in the Age of Performance’: “We live in a culture of performance, and this ‘performance’ is as ambiguous as Rosenberg’s “acting”, standing both for one’s quasi-dramatic self-performance and for one’s economic achievement — and increasingly, the former is essential to the latter. If the act of old was, in theory, its own norm, contemporary performance constantly tries to meet external targets. To act is to move beyond one’s previous identity and position, whereas to perform is to ‘get with the programme,’ to be in the event, to readjust and recalibrate. To act is to step beyond the now; to perform is to extend the now, to prolong the present. But this need not be a static opposition. What is a failed performance if not an act, whether intentional or not?”
Emily Roysdon, ‘By Any Other Name’, commissioned by If I Can’t Dance and presented at the Stedelijk Museum, 13 February 2014
On If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution and ‘Appropriation and Dedication’ By Susan Gibb
A year after Society ended—which to clarify for readers thinking that they missed some cataclysmic end to life as we know it, I am referring to an independent curatorial program that I ran in Sydney1—I found myself on residence as an associate curator at the Amsterdam-based contemporary arts organisation If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution.2 Seemingly attracted to unruly names, and supported by an Early Careers Residency grant from the Australia Council for the Arts, my trip to the Netherlands was to further my thinking around the attendant responsibilities to multiple subject positions—including the artist, artwork, audience and institution—that intersect in the practice of curating, by experiencing the dynamics of another curatorial model.
With its performance and feminist focus, its lack of a dedicated presentation space, and its subsequent and contingent unfolding across time and various places, If I Can’t Dance over its ten years and counting, is somewhat of an anomaly within an ecology of global contemporary art institutions. To assist with giving shape to its unique formation, in an essay on the organisation titled ‘In the Time of Trying’ by one of its curators, Vivian Ziherl, she describes an image that hangs on the office wall and that acts as a succinct and light-hearted metaphor for If I Can’t Dance’s ambitions, ‘The page bears a schematic diagram of a tall, narrow bench, fitted with wheels, annotated with the title: Rolling (Curatorial) Platform: patent pending.3Cleverly encapsulating If I Can’t Dance’s attempts to avoid its own foreclosure into a calcified institutional model, and its desire for a horizontal working structure, this description also indicates an investment in ‘liveness’ that extends beyond the artworks If I Can’t Dance produces into the operation of the organisation itself.
Having defined its own language for production, If I Can’t Dance’s activities typically unfold over two-year editions grouped around a thematic and that, to quote its mission statement, depart ‘from a spirit of open-questioning and long-term enquiry with artists’.4These enquiries occur over a series of artist commissions and performance-in-residence projects by writers, curators or researchers, which are developed and presented at various intervals through partnerships with other organisations and publications. Also complementing these activities is what has often been referred to as the backbone of If I Can’t Dance, a monthly reading group that takes place in its Amsterdam offices and at three sister locations internationally—São Paulo, New York and Toronto—and which sees a group of dedicated participants in each locality read across, and discuss, an edition’s theme. To date these thematic investigations have seen If I Can’t Dance and its interlocutors think through: Theatricality (2005–2006); Feminism, its legacies and potentials (2007–2008); Masquerade (2009–2010); Affect (2011–2012); and, most recently, Appropriation and Dedication (2013–2014).
Subjects of Recognition: Part II’performance at If I Can’t Dance I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution, Amsterdamphotography by Kyle Tryhorn. Performance featured Adriano Wilferts Jensen, Simon Asencio and Taocheng Wang, 2014
If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution, EDITION VI – EVENT AND DURATION
From 24 November to 11 December, If I Can’t Dance will present an elaborated programme highlighting the projects produced by the commissioned artists and researchers of Edition VI — Event and Duration (2015–2016). The programme will unfold at punctuated moments across the three weeks, and will be hosted in various locations and venues within walking distance in the east of Amsterdam Centrum.
Within the artist commissions, Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa will present a new performance as part of a cycle of works in which he attempts to exhaust the subject of the Guatemalan Civil War in his practice, accompanied by other videos in the series; Joke Robaard will host a premiere of her new video, which sees aspects of her archive of photographs and related texts from fashion magazines and other media sources performed by a group of teenagers through text rehearsals and discussions; Leonor Antunes will present a new work related to her research into architects Aldo van Eyck and Lina Bo Bardi; and Alex Martinis Roe will screen her major new film Our Future Network as part of a day-long performative salon of invited guests, in accompaniment to her solo exhibition, To Become Two, which traces the genealogy of “feminist new materialist” and “sexual difference” philosophies and is co-presented at Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory, Utrecht.
Within the Performance in Residence research projects, Fred Moten and Wu Tsang’s sculptural-performance Gravitational Feel will provide visitors with a haptic experience to consider the question of how one can sense entanglement; Ueinzz Theatre Company and philosopher Peter Pál Pelbart will host an open rehearsal, conversation and performance that utilizes its schizoscenic constitution to cross frontiers between art, life, madness and subjectivity; and Erin Alexa Freedman and Lili Huston-Herterich will present aspects of the archive they created for the 1983 exhibitionChromaliving: New Designs for Living. Each Performance in Residence presentation will be accompanied by the launch of a publication of the accompanying research.
Together these presentations provide an opportunity to reflect upon the sum total of Edition VI—Event and Duration, with its concerns for lived relations, the experience of temporalities and modes of inhabitation within time and space, through which we hope to open up questions of political change and potential futures.
These presentations will be complemented by contributions from invited and associated guests, including a screening by Alejandra Riera of her film made in collaboration with Ueinzz and a lecture by Jon Mikel Euba to complement the launch of a publication of his writing produced as part of If I Can’t Dance’s long-term educational partnership with the Dutch Art Institute. Both If I Can’t Dance’s Reading Group and it’s monthly Dancing Group, currently led by Amsterdam-based choreographer Michele Rizzo, will also have a presence.
On Emma Goldman (by IICD)
1. The name “If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part of Your Revolution” comes from a quote by Emma Goldman, a renowned feminist and anarchist activist, who was born in Lithuania and moved to the United States in 1885. There she became one of the most outspoken and well-known of American radicals, lecturing and writing on anarchism, women’s rights and other political topics. She served prison terms for such activities as advising the unemployed to take bread if their pleas for food were not answered, for giving information in a lecture on birth control, and for opposing military conscription. In 1908 she was deprived of her U.S. citizenship. She emigrated to Russia and then to Europe, where she travelled and lectured in many countries.
Emma Goldman’s famous quote “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution” is a source of inspiration for If I Can’t Dance to explore critical and celebratory dimensions in contemporary performative art practice and in curatorial and theoretical practice. We like to embrace Emma Goldman’s statement, as it suggests that the search for agency and the potential for empowerment lies in all elements of life and cannot be regulated to a firmly cordoned-off arena named the political. It is embedded and reflected in art too.
2. It has been claimed that Emma Goldman never literally spoke those famous words. In her autobiography Living My Life (1931) she describes how she was once admonished for dancing at a party in New York and was told “that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway.” Goldman responded furiously: “I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it.” This episode was later paraphrased and transformed into the famous quote.
Goldman’s biographer and feminist writer Alix Shulman explains that the quote, as we know it today, is the embodiment of the renewed and fruitful interest in historical feminist practice since the 1970s. In 1973, a befriended printer asked Shulman for a quotation by Goldman for use on a t-shirt. Shulman sent him the passage from Goldman’s autobiography, but the printer rephrased the passage into “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution”. As Shulman recounts, the citation subsequently found its way onto millions of buttons, posters, T-shirts, bumper stickers, books and articles: “History exploded so quickly in those hungrily feminist days that the slogan on the original shirt-run was soon dispersed and copied and broadcast nationwide and abroad, underground and above, sometimes, absent a text to be checked against, changing along the way like a child’s game of Telephone, until (…) initial lighthearted liberties had taken wing as quotable lore and soared up into the realms of myth.”
In line with this ongoing exploration of the potential of feminist legacy, If I Can’t Dance would like to continue to celebrate the myth of Emma Goldman’s dance, by critically presenting and exploring performative works of art.
Guy de Cointet. Five Sisters.1982/2011
The restaging of Five Sisters is the result of research conducted by art historian Marie de Brugerolle, as part of If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part of Your Revolution
(click on the gif to watch the full video)