On Political Gestures and Social Choreographic Movements

the-standing-man.jpgA version of this conversation first appeared in DYAD (2014) by Alice Tatge and Therese Steele

1) As an ex civil servant turned choreographer with a particular interest in politically driven social movement, we would be interested in you comparing two distinct acts of protest that occurred in Istanbul during the spring/summer 2013. 

For dance to work as a form of street protest it must be widely known or easily learnt, which generally means a folk dance (for example Wazir Attan in Pakistan or Toyi-toyi in South Africa) or something popular on Youtube (Thriller, Gangam Style, Harlem Shake). Protest dances with new choreography are rare (I can only think of One Million Rising’s dance against violence to women) and require a certain luxury of resources.

It seems natural then that the stillness of postmodern dance was eventually used on 17 June 2013, by choreographer Erdem Gündüz, ‘the Standing Man’. After Turkish authorities banned demonstrations against plans to close Istanbul’s Gezi Park, Gündüz stood silently in Istanbul’s Taksim Square for eight hours facing a portrait of Kemal Ataturk.

Although Gündüz did inspire companions and copycats, his intention was to stand alone as an individual so as not to be considered “a terrorist organisation.” But, bigger than any organisation or movement, a lone, young, male (in his light shirt and dark trousers reminiscent of Tanztheater Wuppertal) becomes representative of the Turkish people or indeed of all people, in a way a woman would not in our male-centred culture. This universalism is compounded by the duration of the stand (Andre Lepecki observes that “what stillness [in dance] does is to initiate the subject in a different relationship with temporality”); his lack of confrontation with the authorities (quite different then to Tiananmen Square’s Tank Man); and his symbolic gaze towards Turkey’s founding father, which together present the image of a man from all times. Perfect for going viral.

Contrast this then with the anonymous large-scale banging of pots and pans that started two weeks before Gündüz’s stand. This cacerolazo (a traditional form of protest, originating in 70s Chile) started on 31 May when people were forced to go home after a day of tear gassing, continuing for a few minutes every evening at 9pm.

Goat Island’s Lin Hixson wrote that “When the body is always moving and not creating a two-dimensional pictoral image, it is harder to objectify” and the cacerolazo takes this to the extreme by fading out the physical body. Although people were glimpsed in their windows, they had become part of an invisible, temporary multitude, detectable only in the effect of their action (through sound or lights being turned on and off).

No matter how this started, this pots and pans orchestra operated in the domestic space and was surely more representative of Istanbul than Gündüz in real terms like gender, ethnicity, age and disability. This combination of diversity and invisibility meant that it avoided being fixed, both legally and symbolically. This meant that it never received the same sort of global coverage as Gündüz but there feels something powerful in this protest’s ability to elude not only the power structures of the police, but also the (related) structures of the media and traditional aesthetics. Although Gündüz is the artist, the Istanbul cacerolazo, reminiscent of Martin Creed’s All the Bells and Kateřina Šedá’s There Is Nothing There, feels like a more contemporary choreography.

2) In your view should art react at all to the political situation? What role if any should it possibly strive to acquire in terms of generating change? 

I think there may not be much left for art to do by the time we find ourselves in what would commonly be understood to be a ‘political situation’. By which I mean, to affect specific political events, structures or issues, one has to play the game, even when one is not in agreement. Gündüz shows that there is some room to test the limits of the game but I’m not sure if it stops being art at the point when it has specific political goals, and just becomes protest.

Art can do more ‘upstream’, offering places and ways to think about the world and to relate to each other before they become fixed into professional politics. Art then generates most change pre-politically, working with the values, patterns and forms which run through all human endeavours.

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