The Choreographic by Jenn Joy
(MIT Press, 2014)
Jenn Joy does not cut a straight clear path to understanding what she terms The Choreographic, but rather guides the reader on a meandering journey through this “visual-sculptural-audial-philosophic practice.” Not unlike a travelogue, she sorts through impressions of contemporary landmarks from Georges Bataille’s philosophy of nonknowledge, to the curation of dOCUMENTA 13, and experimental dance practice, giving space not to all that she encounters, but rather that which speaks to her. And a lot speaks to her. The dozens of philosophical and literary references are dizzying and at times obscure her argument. The prose alternates between thick and knotty but saturated with an intimate tone that makes it worth the time commitment. This multi- or anti-disciplinary approach reflects a core aspect of her version of the choreographic. What interests her is a particular mode of being that integrates body, space, time, and language, rather than a methodology of dance, or even performance more broadly. In the tradition of performative writing, here is an intricate and sumptuous negotiation of the concept of choreography that is integral to her writing.
Beginning with Georges Didi-Huberman’s approach, Joy makes clear up front that art history can benefit from the concept of the choreographic, and vice versa. Didi-Huberman rejects Panofsky’s art-historical iconographic model as rigid, and overdetermined in favor of an analysis of the ways in which representations often fail, due to a “rend,” a ripping open, or gap in the image. Joy relates this thinking to the choreographic nature of the artistic endeavor as it highlights the unfixed relationship among the maker, the image, and the viewer. Yet, she does not linger long with art history, slipping quickly into the “philosophical drift” that motors the argument. In this movement, language, writing, composition, and articulation emerge as tangled manifold concerns. The binding of writing and movement in choreography’s etymological origins deeply inflects the project, and the tension of the age-old binary of mind/body dualism lies below the surface. Embodied thought seems to be what Joy is seeking.
In the first chapter Joy writes with a brisk gait, digressing among philosophical proposals, speculative fiction, sculpture in the expanded field, the exhibition After Nature, and the work of Werner Herzog and Pina Bausch among others. The refrain “Come. Walk with Me. Let’s Get Lost Together.” provides a cadence as “lessons from the landscape” unfold from a dizzying trajectory of references. The narrative chronicles how we encounter history unfurling, radiating out, into the horizon. Joy’s conjuring of “precarious rapture,” that which is to be discovered and encountered in our increasingly fragile and degraded environment, could have benefitted from a more measured pace. Her peregrinations go too far afield too, quickly leaving the reader a hapless tourist trailing a few steps behind. This chapter could have been expanded into its own book. The sites, sounds, and ideas she calls forth with vividness and vitality, however, bring their own pleasure in reading.
Joy’s silence on performance and dance in the museum is curious considering the topic’s currency and how she emphasizes visual arts in the first chapter. No doubt a great deal of recent museum performance treads the line of spectacle and not worth spilled ink. Yet, her astute understanding of the triangular relationship between artist, performer, and audience is valuable as the prevalence of performance in the museum increases. As more museums embrace the experience economy model, they claim an authenticity for visitors. Disappointingly, Joy does not address the differences encountered in the spaces of the museum, gallery, alternative space, and dance festival, which each have unique economies. Instead, Joy examines exhibition as an expanded figuration of choreography. The constellation of audio, odorous, haptic, kinetic, textual, and recollective experiences that encompass the exhibition inundate both body and mind as choreography. Like the knotty, layered text that she both cites and writes, it’s an apt platform for her paradigm.
The book is strongest when it focuses on what we typically consider performance. The majority of the chapters manage this nimbly and lovingly through the study of movement and gesture including thoughtful meditations on laughter, faciality, repetition, contortion, and spasm. Joy reads the work of La Ribot, D.D. Dorvillier, and luciana achugar in tandem, each saturated with desire, opening to an unknown other, embracing the body’s knowledge beyond understanding. Their performances of stutters, stumbles, and seizures disclose the excess of corporality and desire’s refusal of representation. Her account of the La Ribot’s use of laughter as both expressive gesture and language, impediment to and token of communication, is a prime example.
Joy brilliantly weaves together strands of thinking by Agamben, Bataille, Butler, Irigaray, Levinas, and Nancy, among others, on the choreography of communication and connection. The work of Miguel Gutierrez and Jeremy Wade serve as models for working through ways that the body speaks—within a community of an audience or the public, within the context of history and specific political climates, and within a fleshy porous corpus. Here, she elucidates that the choreographic is the mode of address and calibration of the relations among artist, viewer, and artwork (which may include a body in its material). Desire, power, fear, and other affective registers permeate these works, rupturing the membrane between interior and surface.
The tension and negotiation among these forces, laden with affect, is the ethics that Joy identifies in the choreographic. These ethics surface out of violence, precarity, and the ruins of history, as well as other cosmologies congealed in the choreographies of Ralph Lemon, Miguel Gutierrez, and Hilary Clark, among others. Their work functions as a mode of affective and psychic survival, in the face of the daily catastrophes—the state of perpetual global war, environmental degradation, and pervasive social alienation—of our current moment. The spectral quality of their work, a system of perceptible absences and latent presences, bodies and ideas in motion, is what Joy offers as the essence of the choreographic force. Like truly great writing, The Choreographic performs itself, in duet with its literary, sculptural, philosophical, and mobile subjects. Joy reminds us that this pleasure of discourse and exchange offers the idea of a potential other world.
Jess Wilcox is Programs Coordinator at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. She has worked on curatorial projects at SculptureCenter, Abrons Art Center, the International Studio and Curatorial Program, Performa, Storm King Art Center, among others. Her interests include translation, performativity, and personal and political identity.