Art Basel Der Tank
curated by Chus Martinez
The history of movement is the history of evolution. Astonishingly far back in that history, multi-celled gelatinous creatures evolved nerves that coordinated cells and transformed tiny contractions, contortions and twitches into propulsive pulsing. These were the first movements. Later, neurons convened into an electro-chemical storm of repurposed signaling—bearing the first marks of what we would now identify as a nervous system.
Then, about half a billion years ago, Cambrian animals first watched, seized and fled other animals. Senses, nervous systems and behaviors escalated an arms race against the senses and behaviors of others. And amid such explosive evolution, it might be reasonable to assume that speedy, grasping creatures evolved often and developed the greatest neurological complexity. But surprisingly, of all the basic animal body plans (phyla), only arthropods (insects, crabs), vertebrates and one subgroup among mollusks—cephalopods—evolved complex active bodies. Which is to say that only vertebrates and cephalopods developed large, complex nervous systems.
These two nervous systems developed independently, so much so that each is truly alien to the other. Many hundreds of millions of years later we still encounter in both brain and body, beings that are familiarly strange, yet strangely familiar. Bone-free and shape shifting, the octopuses’ body is one of pure possibility. Dynamic, fluid and unconstrained by the skeletal armor of a nervous system housed within a skull, they can configure their bodies in ways we can barely imagine – just one example being their ability to flow through cracks the width of their eyes. Their skin senses light and can respond allowing the body itself to become a chromatic billboard of instantaneous communication. An octopus is so suffused with its nervous system that it has no clear brain-body boundary. Not only is it carry the dream of protean form but of an alien intelligence to match.
Dance may be our most advanced forms of bodily expression. Unlike sport or other related forms of physical communication dance demands that we consider the figure as pure medium devoid of functionality. In dance the segregation of movement and knowledge is the least strictly enforced. So-called physical memory plays a vital role as the brain functions that typically trigger discrete actions become, in long fast sequences, so overloaded that the body has to take over. Detaching itself from the command sequences is what allows a dancer to move in ways that appear directed by something other than the head—the same mechanism that allows a boxer to throw survival mode combinations of the kind of intricacy forfeited by the situation he or she may encounter. Accessing physical memory is in some very distant sense delving into what Peter Godfrey-Smith calls the «other minds» of cephalopods, creatures that over 600 million years ago made an independent voyage into complexity.
Adaptive physical intelligence may well be the indirect quest of most dance but, it is the basis of my practice that has been centered around the creation of new bodies of thought. The other mind that is the focus of my attention is less about what Deleuze & Guattari would term the body without organs, than a body without boundaries, a fully eroticized being born of a state of constant rehearsal. The spirit and rhythms that infuse this body move in several directions at once. Often they are found played out in transient or boundaries places such as the side of the road where passing cars choreograph another kind of risk.
Electrical rhythms pulse through this body and the landscape it inhabits. Working on steps as just one part of the endeavor to synchronize and compose the self within a state of greater liquidity. The beginning and ends of traditional dance and sex are here forgone in favor of an actualization of a polymorphous erotic identity marked by a body not in a state of realization but of rehearsal, of constant becoming, deferred gratification and spiritualized pornography.
And so while most dance fetishizes the extremities—hands and feet—to emphasize the boundaries and the physical distance between command and action, thought and expression, I discover something else in Dancehall and the other forms that fascinate me. The movements I’m drawn to are those in which the body is driven by a physical intelligence of its own. Through ritual and repetition, arms, legs and torso seem to develop independent memory. Relieved of the cumber some call a response mechanism that separates action from thought, the body begins to describe a life of its own—perhaps something like the kinetic sentience from which we vertebrates were separated from so many million years ago. That’s why the dance form that fascinates me the most may also carry within it the message that, just because evolution built minds twofold, it doesn’t mean that we should give up on trying to close the gap.
Cecilia Bengolea & Neville Wakefield
der TANK is proud to present a new, specially commissioned project by Cecilia Bengolea and curated by Chus Martínez. Oneness articulates itself as an immersive landscape that reminds of the bottom of the sea. The installation comprises new and archive video work and will be activated on the occasion of a one-time performance by the Argentinian, Paris-based artist, dancer and choreographer.
One cannot but feel fascinated by words such as «riverbed» and «seabed»—the soft ground where the water flows. Imagine all the stones now on the floor of der TANK in their previous life at the bottom of the Rhine. In fact, there is a whole choreography in the encounter between the water and the rocks. It is not the movement of the water that erodes the rocks, but the smaller pieces of rock, sediment, and silt that constantly dance within it. These tiny bits of broken stones hit the rocks at the bottom of the river, breaking off small pieces, and the river does the rest by carrying them away. The faster the water moves, the more sediment flows over the river rocks, hastening erosion. It is easy to imagine this ballet of particles.
All the stones now forming the floor of the new performance piece by Cecilia Bengolea at der TANK miss the water, although a family of deep-sea creatures is resting on top of them. They are all invertebrate species, the type of organisms that dominate deep areas. Oh, the deep sea is an amazing world! Life in the depths is extremely slow-growing, like the time it took for the great rocks to become small stones. For both these ceramic creatures and these silent stones, time has a dimension that has nothing to do with human life. I assume that this is why Cecilia Bengolea has transformed herself into a hybrid creature capable of dancing with and for these life-forms.
Too often we talk as if climate emergency were a technical problem and could be «solved» through the adoption of certain measures. But in reality, our negative impact on nature is a cultural problem, or rather is due to the lack of a culture that sees this damage as self-inflicted pain, as domestic violence, as a negation of coexistence… This new performance and installation piece by Cecilia Bengolea is entitled Oneness or «Danse au fond de la mer» because it is in dancing and performing a different relationship with elements of nature removed from our daily experience that we are able to understand the effects of human activity, such as pollution, destructive trawl-fishing, deep sea mining, and climate change, as well as the possibility of producing different conditions to positively affect our future in oneness, in togetherness with life in a broad sense.
Oneness also marks a very fruitful four-year collaboration with the French foundation [NA!] Project. Their commitment to supporting art and artists addressing this different approach to our coexistence with nature began during dOCUMENTA (13) but has evolved over the last few years, giving rise to different initiatives such as supporting new commissions at der TANK. Mathilde Rosier, Ingela Ihrmann, Teresa Solar, and now Cecilia Bengolea have benefited from a program that not only helps the Art Institute to support artists, but also to situate these questions and praxis at the core of our curricula. We cannot conceive of nature separately from the social issues we face: gender inequality, poverty, the transformation of labor … and it is through the emergence of languages that are sensitive to them and capable of creating an artistic experience of them that we can learn to see new possibilities. Possibilities and new future scenarios that are linked with «awareness,» but—first and foremost—with the joy of a world that views its responsibility and future freedom as inextricably linked with the life of each and every one of our planet’s organisms.