Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 8, 2016
Boris Charmatz: If Tate Modern was Musée de la danse? Tate Modern.
Exhibition schedule: Tate Modern, London, May 15–16, 2015
Boris Charmatz. Levée des conflits (2015). Photograph by Tamara Tomic-Vajagic.

[See the multimedia version on Scalar.]

Unauthorized Performance in the Turbine Hall

Boris Charmatz’s If Tate Modern Was Musée de la danse? transformed Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall into a space for the display of movement. (Previous inhabitations of Turbine Hall have had similar aims. An indicative list might be found in the series of installations that made up Tate’s Unilever Series [2000–8].) Dancers performed choreography at scheduled moments, and a twice-daily disco—titled Adrénaline: A Dance Floor for Everyone—invited the museum audience to dance together. During the two days of programming, ebbing and flowing groups of onlookers surrounded the dancers (both “professional” and “amateur”) in the Turbine Hall. The upper levels of the building, too, offered places from which to gaze down upon these events. Given that the vast hall functions not only as a space for art but also as one of the building’s main entrances, and houses cloakrooms, toilets, and ticket offices, this bird’s eye view of it exposed a field of constant motion.

As I watched this movement in the Turbine Hall from the perspective of Level Three above, I noticed that alongside the “authorized” or planned performances, people also danced uninvited. On the day I attended, to my observation, these uninvited dancers usually were children. Performing solos, duos, and in little ensembles, they danced in the open stretches and at the peripheries of the hall, creating spontaneous choreographies. They ran, tumbled, and generally let loose through the expanse. Sometimes interested in the authorized dances, but often not, these unofficial performers made a place for their “work” in the Turbine Hall, enacting Tate’s institutional idea that this environment exists, according to its website, as a “place for people.”

The unauthorized dancing that took place during If Tate Modern Was Musée de la danse? is surely to a greater or lesser degree already a property of the Turbine Hall, for this space lends itself to dancing. The industrial-sized stretch of floor, the volume of air reaching the vaulted ceiling, the ramp that animates bodies by displacement (how do you keep balance when on a slope?) must feel like a playground for those who love to move. However, watching these self-initiated and not-always-knowingly-observed dances from the upper levels, I did wonder if the high concentration of spontaneous dances in the room that day had something to do with the special kind of permission given by an event that brings movement to the heart of a national institution: If Tate Modern, in other words, made an environment that endorsed and catalyzed the act of dancing. That this particular kind of permission had a fixed duration—this was a temporary event and not a permanent intervention—speaks not only of Charmatz’s “living museum” but also of the idea of a dying museum (Boris Charmatz, “Manifesto,” BMW Tate Live: If Tate Modern was Musée de la danse? London: Tate Modern, 2015, 6–7, 7). Here was an animated space with a shelf life, or, at the very least, here was a dancing space that lives through reincarnation, coming to life for a time in the multiple sites to which it is carried (Boris Charmatz and Molly Elizalde, “Boris Charmatz’s Museum on the Move,” Interview Magazine [October 16, 2013]).

One occurrence catalyzed by this dancing space stayed with me especially. During a performance of À bras-le-corps (1993), a pas de deux of sorts performed by Charmatz and Dimitri Chamblas in the middle of the Turbine Hall, a young boy runs flat-out across the floor to the side of the performance, coming to rest behind a crowd of people turned away from him. The boy then falls onto his back and performs a fast-paced floor dance, kicking and wiggling his legs while spinning around through ever-new positions. Seen from my vantage point, the boy was not dancing alone. His unauthorized performance made À bras-le-corps into a trio. Charmatz and Chamblas were joined in their dance, yet did not realize that they had been joined by a third, nor did the boy realize that he had joined two others, since they were all hidden from one another by a border of bodies, the spectators surrounding the “authorized” performance.

Delightful as it was to behold, such an occurrence begs a question: if Charmatz’s If Tate Modern carries with it an implicit set of invitations not only to watch dance but also to dance, then what are the cultural and institutional policing mechanisms that must be negotiated for these invitations to be accepted? I do not think it a coincidence that I saw more children “getting down” at unsanctioned moments and places than I did adults. Adults not only tend to have grown into self-consciousness but also know the rules of an exhibition space: don’t get in the way. Indeed, most grown-ups wanting to dance, it seemed to me, confined their performances to the official, scheduled disco, Adrénaline. Did If Tate Modern then really engage the policing mechanisms of the museum? At most it found ways—like Adrénaline—to schedule and license spontaneity. In the end, I felt this space of sanctioned effervescence only underlined the institution’s authority to choreograph its public.

Perhaps there was no need, no desire for this project to expose the choreographic and regulatory practices of museum spaces. But Charmatz’s “Manifesto for a Dancing Museum” (2009) nods to such a need and, further, was inspired in part by his critique of the public accountability of French museums. In this respect, his manifesto recalls his realization that there was no museum in France dedicated to the history of slavery. Does his temporary importation of the Musée de la danse to the Southbank stay faithful to such a realization, bringing, as it would need to, the institutional apparatus (economic foundations included) of Tate into focus? The founding collection of Tate Gallery was acquired, after all, through a personal wealth derived from the British sugar market, an economy built upon the trans-Atlantic slave trade. (Nicolas Draper has underlined the need for Tate’s institutional “links with slavery . . . to be teased out.” See Catherine Hall, Nicolas Draper, Keith McClelland, Catherine Donington, and Rachel Lang, Legacies of British Slave Ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014, 55.) If Charmatz was inspired by a lack of transparency in France’s public museum spaces as regards that country’s colonial past, then surely the question of colonial accountability should also register in his choreographic intervention into a museum that was bankrolled at its foundation by a British sugar magnate?

A final question, then. What if museums were brought to life with the performance of movement not only that was uninvited but also that called into question the authorizing practices of the institution itself? Tate Modern is no stranger to unauthorized performance. One month after Charmatz vacated the building, a view from the upper levels would have revealed another unsanctioned choreography extending across the Turbine Hall floor. Liberate Tate’s Time Piece formed part of Liberate Tate’s ongoing protests surrounding Tate’s sponsorship deal with British Petroleum. This work was performed for twenty-five hours in the Turbine Hall over June 13–14, 2015, and saw performers scribbling with charcoal onto the floor messages about “art, activism, climate change and the oil industry.” Liberate Tate’s transformation of the Turbine Hall into a place for protest may offer a clearer answer to the question of museums’ public accountability than Charmatz’s enactment of his own museum manifesto. Where If Tate Modern Was Musée de la danse? encouraged a dancing takeover of an institutional space without engaging with its specific institutional histories, Time Piece took that same space to task, through movement, for its complicity with questionable economies of the present. In such protests, the Turbine Hall comes to house movement that not only authorizes itself but also, crucially, brings into relief the institutional machinery of a place made for people.

Arabella Stanger
Lecturer in Dance, Department of Dance, University of Roehampton, London