Artificial Speculations on the Nature of Things – The Choreographic Work of Mette Ingvartsen and Yvonne Rainer

by Kirsten Maar

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In her Lecture Performance Speculations Mette Ingvartsen describes the last scene from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriski Point from 1970: the explosion of an elegant bungalow built in the midst of a giant rock in the Californian Desert. The explosion is shown repeatedly from different perspectives. When this sequence is over, a dance of things emerges: to the music of Pink Floyd the objects of everyday life like a cornflakes box, a refrigerator, clothes, etc. are floating in slow motion in front of the blue sky.

It doesn’t seem arbitrary that Ingvartsen evokes specifically this scene in front of our imaginary eye, since it reminds her own choreography The Artificial Nature Project, where she stages a ‹post-apocalyptic scenario›1: The beginning of the performance starts with a complete blackout on stage, this darkness seems to last for a very long time, but little by little I can distinguish small movements: small silver particles move onstage, they rise and fall, and form figures, like a swarm of fireflies they are moving through space, they transform into a landscape, into a sculpture or else, glittering – a bit they remind the early residual images on TV.2 Gradually the lighting gets more differentiated and I can figure out singular persons on stage, who – dressed in overalls, wearing protective glasses and equipped with leaf-blowers – help moving the glitter dust through space. The labor of these ‹actors› or ‹agents› on stage – because we cannot really speak of dance or any act of impersonation, there is no doing-as-if – changes the traditional frames: the virtuosic movement is performed by the glittering particles and not by the trained dancers, who function as mere arrangers. But from this point it triggers essential questions on the nature of choreography and dance: How does movement emanate? How are things set into movement, how does movement come into being? What precedes it? Which impulses are necessary?

‹Being moved by some thing rather than by myself.›3 With this sentence Yvonne Rainer described her relation to movement and the reason why, after her famous No-Manifesto from 1965, with which she positioned herself against spectacle and theatricality, expression and virtuosity, she started to use objects or props as tools in her pieces of the mid-60s to change the way of movement in direction to the specific ‹neutrality›, which became key for her work at that time. In Part of Some Sextets (1966) – subtitled A Dance for 10 Performers and 12 Mattresses – she used mattresses and combined them with specific tasks4, to obtain that everyday movement quality, which in its goal-orientedness suspended any kind of expressivity. ‹It seemed very appropriate for me at this time to use a whole other point of view about the body – that it could be handled like an object, picked up and carried and that other objects and bodies could be interchangeable.› Instructions like ‹try thinking of yourself as a barrel›5 prove that interest. Rainer´s concern to give movement an object-like quality, led her to question: ‹How to use the performer as a medium rather than a persona? Is a ballet méchanique the only solution?›6 With this reference to Fernand Leger’s film from 1924, in which the singular elements of dance as ’ornaments of mechanization’ were re-arranged again and again, the circle closes to Antonioni’s choreography of things in filmic images – even if admittedly the movement quality of the things differs substantially from the mechanical movement in Leger’s ballet méchanique to the atmospheric, levitating in Zabriski Point.

The turn-back to Rainer’s work in the sixties is not arbitrary, since Ingvartsen referred to this heritage already some years before in her Yes-Manifesto:

Yes to redefining virtuosity
Yes to ‘invention’ (however impossible)
Yes to conceptualizing experience, affects, sensation
Yes to material investment of the body or rather a body practice
Yes to expression
Yes to un-naming, decoding and recoding expression
Yes to non-recognition, non-resemblance (could this be some sort of first degree referentiality)
Yes to non-sense/illogic
Yes to organizing principles rather than fixed logic systems
Yes to moving the ‘clear concept’ behind the actual performance of
Yes to methodology and procedures
Yes to ‹selectionism›
Yes to editing and animation
Yes to style as a result of procedure and specificity of a proposal (meaning each proposal has another style/specificity, and in this sense, the work cannot be considered essentialist)
Yes to multiplicity, difference and co-existence7

The text clearly refers to Rainer’s famous NO-Manifesto from 1965:

No to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe no to the glamour and transcendence of the star image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the whiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved.8

In her examination of Rainer’s aesthetics and the influential Judson heritage, Ingvartsen instead asked for modes of expression, which would be less psychologically motivated but generated through bodily practice and specific situations. In her pieces of that time like Manual Focus, 50/50, or to come she dealt with the deformations of extreme and spectacular modes of expression, tied to specific situations as a rock-concert or sexual activity. But to better understand the renewed interest in affect and sensation, let’s first step back again to the 60s:

In her ‹Quasi Survey of Some Minimalist Tendencies in the Quantitatively Minimal Dance Activity midst the Plethora, – or an Analysis of Trio A9 Rainer compares the minimalist (art-)object and dance. She explicitly wants to minimalize or even eliminate elements like phrasing, development, climax and variation as well as character, virtuosity and substitute them by energy equality and ‹found› movement, by the equality of parts, neutrality, task-(like) activity, etc. Most perfectly these requirements were summed up in the task ‹being a neutral doer›. Rainer’s rejection of the ‘narcissism of traditional dancing’ led her to first of all question the role of artistic subjectivity, a thought which was central to several art practices and theoretical issues at that time. The terms anti-emotion, anti-human, anti-art resonate in these statements.

One might consider in how far such conceptions of an object-like body could be interpreted as a form of a ‹particularly revealing form of 1960s artistic anti-humanism›10. Certainly the notion of anti-humanism must be modified. Attacked was the belief that dance or art could transmit any universal or essential values, as well as the belief in artistic, respectively authorial subjectivity and the holy act of creation. The refusal to subject oneself to a determinate interpretation and to sabotage the fixed, communicational function of the art object as most famously described in Susan Sontag’s essay ‹Against Interpretation› from 1966, is also mirrored in the philosophical developments of this time, in the transition from Sartre’s existentialist philosophy to a structuralist and deconstructivist approach as in Barthes, Derrida or Foucault. The human being does no longer serve as measure, it is no longer at the center of art production, but still the object is always an object of spectatorship.11

Whereas anti-humanism in the 60s was still to be considered in a rejection of former expressionist and narrative tendencies, the actual theoretical and artistic moves against anthropocentrism and the interest in extending the notion of choreography by introducing things and their agency, which at first glance seems to be quite close, is particularly influenced by Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory and the theories of New Materialism, and is situated in a much broader ‹ecology›. Authorship and subjectivity are now tackled for instance by the ideas of collective assemblies with different actants – and notably just by the renewed interest in affect and sensation! When the potential to act is transferred to things, subjective authority is challenged anew. In situations where the actors are merely technical assistants for the material to move, any dichotomy or hierarchical subject-object-correlation is put into question. Certainly the acts of appropriating objects had always been marked by the failure of the functionalist paradigm, already within the attempt of appropriating objects the state of the subject becomes precarious. This resistance of the object already challenges the traditional models of agency, as a linear and unidirectional manipulation of the object by the subject, and introduces instead a kind of alienated determination, which contributes to situations of ambivalence and the unpredictable. The connection between subject and objects conventionally ascribes a merely passive force to objects, (inspite of some rare animistic, ghostly or surreal situations), as a form of agency, which does not merge within the regime of the visible, but withdraws from a regime of linear logic and instead challenges the imagination of the beholder. Assemblages of agencies are to be considered in a sense of potential events, they activate the beholder and contribute to rethink relationships of power and agency.

Latour goes one step beyond: In reference to Heidegger he tries to revitalize the interrelations between thing and the public, he describes an accumulation of things as an assembly, as a site of the public, where the relationships between the actants are negotiated over and over again. Before Deleuze and Guattari had tackled these interrelations of heterogeneous elements. In Thousand Plateaux we find the notion of assemblage and a clear vision of what a body or an assemblage of bodies/ corpora and actors/ agents can do. In the overlappings of bodily states, semiotic processes and different practices and in the movements of transferal these agents affect others through their specific force – a potentiality, which lies between active and passive. But is this really an option to give up any notion of subjectivity?

Especially in dance as an art from, in which the body (not only traditionally) is always involved – as an agent or a medium condition – implicit knowledge is acquired in practices and such contributes to processes of subjectivation. These practices help to obtain a specific kinesthetic awareness, they create an extended body, which is capable to radiate and to sense beyond its physical boundaries, and by this way get into relation even with the far surrounding. But in the face of the things (embedded in choreographic constellations) also the practices and techniques themselves change. Intentionality and the subjective access to the object are put into question as well as the subjection under the object.

Many younger choreographers seem no longer interested in a conceptual neutrality, but in dimensions of affect and sensation, as Ingvartsen formulates in her essay from 2005. As in art history the dichotomies between a merely conceptual and the expressionist are put into question. With Spinoza and Deleuze dancers and choreographers explore, how things and ‹corpora› are involved in the emergence of ideas and conceptions as well as social and political connections. If the capacity to act is not only situated in the human body, how do other corpora then affect us, which effects do they have on us, what kind of experiences do they allow? And how do they change the notion of the materiality or quality in dance? It is no coincidence that many choreographers go back to the practices and techniques the Judson choreographers worked with and developed further in the late 60s and 70s.12 Even Rainer, who might be considered as one of the most conceptualist of her peers: Despite her refusal to give the artwork an illusionistic center or interior she already in 1965 described body, weight, mass, physicality as her ‹enduring reality›13. Looking back, it becomes clear, that the experimentation with everyday and task-based movement requires a specific form of embodied sensitivity.

Such practices clearly challenge the traditionally linear and hierarchical relationship between concept and interpretation, or between choreography and dance, between the score and its actualization. It is undermined by implicit and improvisatorial knowledge, on which we rely in situations of the unpredictable, in constellations between things, performers and their surroundings. ‹Choreography as the art of command›, as William Forsythe and dance scholar André Lepecki critically define it, is challenged by a form of knowledge liberated from subject-object correlations as well as from attributions as active and passive.

As a dynamic constellation of spaces, performers or dancers and beholders, between things and the different techniques of moving, watching, interacting, ‹choreography sets the stage for an ecology of movement events. […] These objects are not stable: they forecast the time of an event; [they] are in fact propositions co-constituted by the environments they make possible.›14 Comparable to Rudolf von Laban’s model of the kinesphere – a space which always surrounds the dancer in reach of her extensions – the thing could thus be conceptualized as extended, as a relation to another actor, which first enables any exchange and opens up to act within their propositional character, to their potentialities and imaginary constellations. Ingvartsen’s artificial nature as the relation between the animate and the inanimate explores these forces of matter, things, and the specific materiality of movement.


In these ecologies every single element modifies the system. Antonioni’s film, read as a critique of capitalist society and the ecological catastrophes it has provoked was inspired by the Whole Earth ideas of the 1960s. He develops a scenario, in which the daily commodities are freed from their fetish character. Between matter and idea they are floating and blurring the boundaries between animate and inanimate, thing and object, affect and effect. As such the dance of things could be seen just as another form of the sublime – as a form of experience at the threshold of mere human consciousness.


Kirsten Maar works as a dance scholar and dramaturge. From 2007-2014 she was a member of the DFG-Collaborative Research Centre Aesthetic Experience and the Dissolution of Artistic Limits and taught at the Dance Department at Free University Berlin. Her PhD dealt with architectural assemblages in the choreographic work of William Forsythe. Actually she researches on the intersections between choreography and the visual arts since the 1960s. She is co-editor of Assign and Arrange. Methodologies of Presentation in Art and Dance (Sternberg 2014).
Contact: [email protected]

  • 1. Mette Ingvartsen: ‹The Artificial Nature Project. A running commentary on the performance by Mette Ingvartsen›, in: Gabriele Brandstetter, Maren Butte, Kirsten Maaar (eds.): ‹Topographien des Flüchtigen. Choreographie als Verfahren›, Bielefeldt 2015 (i.E.).
  • 2. See also: Anna Carolin Weber: ‹Welcome to the Jungle of Gender›, in: dies, Marie-Luise Angerer and Yvonne Hardt (eds.): ‹Choreographie – Medien – Gender›, Berlin/Zürich 2013, p.185-201, 195f.
  • 3. ‹A Quasi-Survey of Some ‘Minimalist’ Tendencies in the Quantitatively Minimal Dance Activity midst the Plethora, or an Analysis of Trio A›, in: Roger Copeland und Marshall Cohen (Hg.): ‹What Is Dance?: Readings in Theory and Criticism›, Oxford 1983, p.325-332.
  • 4. To more precisely analyze Rainer´s use of objects one has to look at her choreographic work in a discussion with the minimalist work of the 60s, especially seen her close relation to Robert Morris at that time, who worked with the Judson group and himself created choreographic/ performative work at the same time. In his Notes on Dance (1965) Morris writes: »The objects, I used, held no inherent interest for but were means for dealing with specific problems.« He further notes, that he was interested in theater under the aspect of movement: rules and con/ instructions would enable an indirectly approach to movement. »By the uses of objects which could be manipulated I found a situation, which did not dominate my actions nor subvert my performance.«, in: Mariellen Sanford: ‹Happening and Other Acts›, London 1995, p.137-41, 138.
  • 5. Yvonne Rainer: ‹Miscellaneous Notes on The Mind is a Muscle› (1969/71), in: Yvonne Rainer: ‹Work 1961-73›, Halifax/New York 1974, p.122.
  • 6. Ibd.106.
  • 7. Mette Ingvartsen: ‹Towards a Practical Understanding of Theory›, in: maska open work, # 5-6 aut./win. 2005.
  • 8. Yvonne Rainer: ‹Some retrospective notes on a dance for 10 people and 12 mattresses called Parts of Some Sextets, performed at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, and Judson Memorial Church, New York, in March, 1965›, first published in: Tulane Drama Review, Vol.10, No. 2, Winter 1965.
  • 9. Yvonne Rainer, 1983.
  • 10. Carrie Lambert-Beatty: ‹Being watched. Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s›, Cambridge 2008, p.168.
  • 11. Ibd.
  • 12. Only to mention a few, very different ones: Body Mind Centering by Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen, Alexander Technique, Ideokinesis by Mabel Todd, Feldenkrais, Klein Technique, Skinner Releasing Technique, which are partly also used in a therapeutic field, or finally Contact Improvisation, developed by Steve Paxton.
  • 13. Ramsay Burt: ‹Judson Dance Theater. Performative Traces›, London 2006, chapter: „Minimalism, Theory and the Dancing Body“, p.52-87, 84ff.
  • 14. Erin Manning: ‹Propositions for the Verge›, ibid..: ‹Always More Than One. Individuation´s Dance›, Duke University Press 2013, p.74-90. She writes this essay in relation to Forsythes so called choreographic objects, but in this context the notion of the object is interchangeable with the thing.