Jamila Johnson-Small as SERAFINE1369, BASICTENSION, 2017 - ongoing. Photograph by Ayka Lux
Too much and, therefore, not enough: a familiar feeling
Last time I put my hands in the air I cried. Last time I put my hands in the air I cried.
At these opening lines of BASICTENSION, a performance-based artwork by SERAFINE 1369 (Jamila Johnson-Small), something in me shifted. I think it was that switch that turns on in us to say, Hey, you! Pay attention! You’re going to want to remember this. I think it’s the switch we’re often hoping will be turned on when we engage with art. At least it’s the switch I’m looking for. I watched the work in early March 2020, just before the coronavirus and subsequent lockdown hit Belgium and the world as we knew it got turned inside out. In the present day, living under the touch-hungry, socially-distanced thrall of the coronavirus (and our collective societal failing to prioritise healthcare over the almighty economy), these opening lines ring prophetic. The techno bassline to which they are spoken brings to mind the dark and hazy dance floor of a club, thrumming with the heat of an unruly chorus of bodies. Dancing with eyes closed and hands upwards. Half prayer, half mosh pit.
Does it feel good? Does it feel good? Does it feel good?
Small describes BASICTENSION as follows:
I started this project wanting to make meditation tapes to calm my rampant alienation and to slow my racing thoughts. But what does calm look like when you embody countless contradictions, conflicts and traumas, and language can't stretch to hold you? When it was never your language anyway? You look out at the city and it is like your beating heart, complicated, congested and broken. Some things need to break and I don't want space or distance but to assume my hybrid form right here. I want to break this space open. I want to be broken open.
Conceptually, the work uses Trio A by Yvonne Rainer as an access point to meditate on loving and breaking up with contemporary dance. Trio A stands as one of the landmark dance works to come out of the postmodern dance movement from the US, exemplifying the tenets of Rainer’s No Manifesto.
The negation of the expressive, performative, and outwardly demonstrative aesthetics of modern dance came to typify the aesthetics and philosophies of postmodern dance, informing what Small refers to as the straight wonkiness that contemporary dance became all about. At the bedrock of the postmodern dance movement is a physicalization of the Enlightenment era and the Cartesian dualism that undergirded it: an embodied over-emphasis of the mind over the body; intellect over affect.
Initially, my appraisal of BASICTENSION was simply as a critique of the postmodern dance movement, its resonances into the contemporary dance aesthetics and ethos of today, and the foundations of both of these forms in the Enlightenment era. Because of the Enlightenment era’s intrinsic ties to Western imperialism, the hegemony of this form might be understood as an embodiment of whiteness.
But that, I think, would be an oversimplification of the work that BASICTENSION does. In the splicing together of the poetic, affective and critical text over an industrial electronic score, combined with improvised movement by Small, one other dancer, and a musician, Small reappropriates Trio A to work against its original manifesto. In BASICTENSION, there is a clear reference to the movement aesthetics of postmodern dance (the straight wonkiness), in combination with the techno-poetics of the score and the improvised movement of Small and their partner, culminating in a work that is at once highly affective while making use of the tenets of “non-glamorousness” and “non-virtuosity” in Rainer’s manifesto. Thus, creating a work that is neither thesis nor antithesis, but a negotiation and reckoning. A breaking open.
In the Middle Ages in Western Europe it was hearing, not looking, that would bring you closer to God...
Too much visuality distances us from each other…
European culture is built on shame.
The ocular chasm where you begin and I end
This is not for you.