Les machines désirantes au contraire ne cessent de se détraquer en marchant, ne marchent que détraquées. (Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, L'anti-Œdipe)
"Dancing on Ashes (Amsterdam)" and "Dancing on Ashes (Fascinus)" operate as a diptych within the series of the six Dancing on Ashes performances proposed in Stuttgart and Berlin between December 2009 and June 2011 (each performance is connected with all the other performances), and they contribute to a narrative and conceptual whole in conjunction with many other works using different media – videos, posters, installations, websites, a novel –, all gathered in the transmedia project Angel Meat).
Both performances started from a duchampian meditation on art and desire from the perspective of fetishism. They depict female characters facing objectified desire and the objects of desire – sometimes themselves – brought to the extreme, until they’ve become vital and metaphysical issues for the protagonists. These characters are not embodied on stage by actors and the depicted situations are not performed, but told through a sequenced narrative text projected in the performance space. The performances are based on two forms of historical modern ritualized erotic entertainment: cabaret and rock concert, highly stylized and reduced to their most immediate and sensitive expression. This rooting into entertainment collides with the contemplative narrative device – that is actually the active medium of this series of performances, proposing an investigation of the cathartic experience of collective reading, questioning stage performance as much as literature in its extended field.
Dancing on Ashes (Amsterdam) is actually a performance-installation in which there are no live performers at all, but music machines (self-playing piano and guitar, sampler...) generating a random and hypnotic music, the projected text and the video of an Amsterdam-style erotic stand-up comedy number (performed by Ines Birkhan). The text tells the story of Yu, a young dancer who, after learning that she enters the terminal phase of a neurodegenerative disease, decides to live as intensely as possible before her forthcoming death. Having spent her childhood in the Red Light District of Amsterdam in a relative indifference toward the local sex industry, she starts a quest of self-dispossession by abandoning herself to the endless fascination offered by sex shops and sex shows1, and eventually discovers the Dancing on Ashes cabaret – the core of the fictional universe of Angel Meat.
Dancing on Ashes (Fascinus) is a in situ performance conceived for the glass room of WKV in Stuttgart, taking mainly the form of a rock concert played behind a glass wall on which the text is projected. It tells the ambiguous encounter between two of the main characters of Angel Meat: Skullface, a Berlin jeweller with a complex background revealed by a morbid facial tattoo, and Alicja, a collector and manipulative erotomaniac with twisted designs. The band assembled for the occasion (with the special participation of drummer Marco Barotti) plays a noisy, violent and de-constructed jazz-rock. The music being stifled by the glass wall, it was possible to conciliate the contemplation needed to dive into reading and the vibrant and cathartic energy specific to amplified live music2.
The stories of Dancing on Ashes (Amsterdam) and Dancing on Ashes (Fascinus) take place in a world dominated by fetishism. A society that requires an absolute credulity and the constant acceptance of a fictional interface to keep functioning. Every day, television, advertising, news, politics and religions ask us to believe in a myriad of fictions, often improbable, if not contradictory. Human desires always have been perverted and reattached on artificial objects – it is a constant of human societies, if not a prerequisite –, but our techno-scientist society systemized the process with technological and intellectual logistics beyond anything that has ever existed. Art and eroticism are probably the only areas in which fetishism is assumed, claimed, cogitated and therefore can be mastered and applied to the benefit of humanity. Only there, the latent conflict between man and man-made productions can recede, the threats exerted on man by anything meant to increase his own power are subjugated by surrendering joy.
These performances fed without doubt on Georges Bataille’s notion of Eroticism, but more than half a century after it had been a central issue of the surrealist intellectual and artistic vortex, the relation of our society to sexuality has profoundly changed3. They also playfully rely on another central object of the investigations of the early 20th century avant-gardes which are still today's art basis: mechanical eroticism. But everything has been reversed, there is no need anymore to use the euphemisms of the Bachelor Machine, the Chocolate Grinder or the Carving Machine to evoke the ecstatic union of man and machine fantasized at the dawn of modernism, and the fascinating dildo of the ancient poetess or the faraway geisha has become the commonplace birthday gift sold at the drugstore. No more ecstasy or panic, but new questions about how and where intimacy and art meet – in desire.
The game of objectified desire requires that human and in-human exchange roles again and again until the distinction becomes irrelevant. In (Amsterdam), the self-playing instruments don’t need human musicians, they are activated by strings and electric fans (like Roussel’s elemental music machines), they are puppets – like the talking dildos manipulated by the Comedian for her farcical number, but also like Yu trying to get rid of her ego and become a mere image to escape the feeling of a stone statue growing inside her. In (Fascinus), the musicians wearing the cliché costumes and make-up of two-dimensional rock idols perform behind a glass wall, like the erotic objects in a window (or the prostitutes of Amsterdam) that Skullface exhibits in an art fare, and all the characters display strong artificial interfaces – a facial tattoo for Skullface, heavy jewels and stereotype behaviour for Alicja… Objects and images actually play with the people more than the contrary, but it is not a power game, it’s a practice of selfless indifference leading to abstraction and serenity through sated desire.
An early concern while elaborating these performances was to generate emotion for the audience through clearly artificial devices – literature, music, technology – better than with theatrical empathy. The performers have no identifiable features but wear iconic make-up and costumes, they only address the audience through stereotyped behaviour – either stand-up comedy or rock concert – but they manipulate objects that have immediate emotional impact, sometimes mixed – like arousal, embarrassment or amusement with the sex toys handled by the Comedian, or excitement or rejection with the music (a combination of phasing complex rhythms, atypical time signatures, distorted sounds, screams and chaotic soundscapes, that one could describe as ‘math-noise’). But all this is supposed to happen only in the peripheral vision or as auditory stimulation – the most direct emotional levels of perception – because the central device is the narrative text, that has its own powerful way of conveying emotions, not only psycho-physiologically, but as the central cultural element of Judaeo-Christian civilisation.
In the stories told in the two performances – fragments of a bigger narrative but meant to stand on their own –, like in real life, the protagonists are confronted to an endless series of objects, statues, tools, weapons, toys, jewels, images that they can use as adjuvants in their quest of the self. Actually, one could define human by his ability to conceive, create and produce the in-human – and more than an ability it may well be a necessity, as these concepts, images or objects are permanently determining reality and interfacing with it, up to oneself and one’s fellow humans. The object able to fulfil many levels of human needs – symbolic, phantasmic, metaphysic, aesthetic, erotic – as described by Alicja in (Fascinus) is just a step further than the ordinary paraphernalia of daily life, though it can easily reveal the latent animism of a materialist civilisation. But there again, acknowledged and purposeful fetishism is probably much less alienating than its widespread suppressed alternative.
Bertram Dhellemmes, Berlin, June 2011
1. Amsterdam is unique in that more than any other city, it has the capacity to exhaust the scopic drive of its visitors, both by the richness of its public art, museums, architecture and urbanism, its music, theater and dance scene, and the ubiquitous exhibition of the sex industry – with its windows showings either erotic objects or prostitutes – the casual theatricality of its inhabitants and the exposure to alternative lifestyles – all this being mirrored in its canals, doubled and inverted. This is a great source of inspiration and constant reflection on art, exhibition, perception and desire.
2. Some members of the audience actually danced to the music, spontaneously and unexpectedly reaching the novel experience of dancing while reading!
3. There is much to tell about how many surrealist claims about unrepressed sexuality and acceptance of the 'dark side' of the human psyche have been achieved in mainstream culture better than in arts – with pornographic or gore movies, or different practices of psychedelic or musical trance – but instantly trivialized without bringing the expected liberating effect!
This text was written for the Design of the (In)-human project website proposed by Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart.