Dance Like Nobody’s Watching: Laundromat, airport, mall

The New Aesthetic concerns itself with “an eruption of the digital into the physical.”, said Bruce Sterling. James Bridle explains in great detail, here.

I am not into testosterone-driven Sci-Fi aesthetic, and personally hate when things get called New, like that, capitalised. But there is something in here that I’m really, really, really interested in, and it’s not how people make paintings that re-create the pixelated effect. Quite the opposite.

If you are interested in theatre, I think you will be able to follow easily.

I am interested in how reality, as in ‘the non-virtual’, the non-televised, the non-mediated, seems to be becoming a bit of a rare, endangered thing: because it’s getting aestheticised, it’s becoming self-referential and the material of art, exactly the way in which postmodernism made mass media self-referential and material of art.

This is very clearly happening in these videos: Angela Trimbur is not so much in an airport or laundromat, as in a ‘real airport’ and a ‘real laundromat’. Calling her a ‘one-person flashmob’, as some media have, is incredibly accurate, because these works/events share the same ambivalence as to what is a report of what, as a classical flashmob does. Does a flashmob happen in a city square, or on Youtube? Compare the two in these ways: length of existence, meaningful exposure and feedback, targeted audience, number of audience members, and performative attention towards audience experience. Is the performer engaging with the passersby, or smiling at the camera?

Angela Trimbur is, very clearly, smiling at the camera, which is what really flattens these videos for me as expressions of any kind of genuine joie de vivre or public expression. The ‘public’ here is more of a prop, a sign of a public – a little bit like the public and the public space function in Candid Camera. They are a reference to reality, which plays a part in the joke. The joke exists on Vimeo, or on YouTube.

Or, more precisely, it’s not that she isn’t in public space. She is. It’s just that we have a reversal here of the normal, pre-2005 understanding of physical reality as unmediated, and a media representation as a mediated representation of reality. Before 2005 (roughly, that’s when Facebook started gaining traction, I seem to remember), WWW and chat and BBSs and blogs were places where we imitated interaction AS PER physical reality: LOL and ROFLMAO and *hugz* and smiley faces are all references to physical reality. Before 2005, when we quoted a film character in a spoken, physically co-present conversation, it was postmodern and ironic and meta.

These videos represent fully the reversal that has happened since. Angela Trimbur isn’t referencing a film scene in physical reality; not even Candid Camera. She is referencing a concept of a real-life occurrence (‘dance like nobody’s watching’), which she enacts (so that it’s really happening) in real physical space (because that’s the punchline: the people around her), but the whole thing only comes together via social media. The apparatus that is US society + planet Earth is just a semantically laden set for a product called ‘intended viral video’. The meaningful social interaction is not happening in the laundromat, mall nor airport, but in the advancing red loading bars of millions of computers. (This is why my favourite is the Laundromat video: in it, Angela Trimbur is much more involved with the real space and people, than with the video camera.) And semantically, these videos are a response not to the urban alienation of the human race (or some such thing), but to the urban idiot savant trope of sit-com and reality TV canon, of the Flight of the Conchords.

The videos would lose the punchline if they were filmed in a studio, not in real space, but the logic of the punchline is not that of engaging with reality (as opposed to studio/fiction), but that of overly literalizing a trope: exactly like the humour of Flight of the Conchords.

The same thing is happening in performance, as things that used to be non-art increasingly become re-framed as aesthetic experiences: games and playing, human interaction and kindness, confessions and sharing secrets, and fear. All of this is now a normal part of either theatre, live art, or social gaming as represented by artists such as The Society of Coney. The point is not that we’re merely aestheticising reality, but that it appears to happen because reality (of this kind, anyway) is becoming scarce.

It is also happening in basic youth culture, as ‘real’ things such as clothes, food, jobs, communication and identity become seen as expressions of taste, style and epoch (the hipsterising and vintagefying of everyday life), rather than the simple collateral of living.

This is definitely a reflection of a scarcity of a certain kind of reality, just like the introduction of ‘conflict resolution’ as an academic matter in Australian primary and high schools is a reflection of the fact that Australian children don’t play in an unsctructured fashion in numbers high enough anymore to learn how to solve conflicts by themselves (true fact: heard from an educator on conflict resolution). It isn’t my intention to be alarmist just because I grew up before Facebook. But these kinds of changes are insidious because they’re so imperceptible, and very hard to reverse because it will take a long time to understand what their consequences have been. And then it will be too late – just like we never voted on whether to have an obesity pandemic or not.

Finally, nothing mentioned here is automatically true for Germany, Malaysia, or any place in which people live in relatively compact cities, because compact cities force direct socialisation, and direct socialisation is an engine of reality. But they are widely true for Anglophone cities, and all places in which young people are largely third-generation middle-and-outer suburbanites: citizens of places that gravitate towards no immediate city centre.


6 thoughts on “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching: Laundromat, airport, mall

  1. Richard says:

    I made a similar argument at someone recently when she asked me to give her a reason to catch public transport. I told her that from a particular position her life could be viewed as one where she only ever had to encounter people who would validate her, and that public transport has the potential for an encounter with the ‘other’. You could technically catch public transport and not ever experience this, and people minimize it with headphones, now kindle flame or whetever, but even if you take it to commute during peak hour, the possibility is there for unwanted intrusion. At the moment, I told her, she could drive to work, walk her dog etc and see only people who were in her existence by invitation.

    I want to take what you say a step further. I claim these videos entirely validate their internet consumption and act to make fun of or massacre ‘the public’, they validate the individual through rewarding their gaze (as Mulvey or other psycho’s would say).

    I watch this and my response is something very cynical like “well done you can dance, you look alright. What about people who can’t dance? What if they look shit or are afraid or whatever, does that mean they don’t have a right to peform?” What about, in other words, the public, not just a prop here, but actively mocked.

    These kind of exclusions are exactly the same as ones that advertising relies on, and in fact the work plays to me like an ad, in a kind of “realise your dreams. You can do it” sort of neo-bhuddist manipulation. All the airport one needs is a Pepsi symbol at the end of it.

  2. Jana says:

    Hello Richard.

    Tim Etchells commented by referring to Gillian Wearing’s Dancing in Peckham:

    But I think hearing the music, and it not being entirely pathetic, plays a role.

    What I hear in your reaction is an echo of a certain assumption, VERY common among the Anglo-Australians, that all our being in public space must be either dangerous or embarrassing or somehow life-affirmingly positively PLEASANT. This leaks into the theatre/live art a lot (i.e., the nature of participatory or audience-centred works). This I find personally annoying (I find lots of things annoying, though, and don’t take it personally) because there is more of a range to public space. I know this because I spend a lot of time in it, but I don’t drive. The nature of much of this art-engaging-with-public is mystificatory of public space: simplifying and incorrect.

    In other words: people who dance well have every right to dance in public space. In fact, they often do, with or without filming themselves. What I like about the films is that they really inspire one to go and dance outdoors, just like an ad, and quite unlike Gillian Wearing (who, instead, is awkward in that fascinating way in which every second British play is awkward – because embarrassment is so closely linked to existing-in-public in the English and English-derived culture). That’s genuinely better than if nobody danced, because those who can’t are embarrassed, and those who can don’t want to remind others that they can’t. It’s OK.

    And, it occurs to me that I like your work because we share a certain kind of concern, which means we both care about public space. But I wouldn’t mystify public space too much. It’s a place of conflict as much as a place of magical encounter. Gay people get bashed in it, women get harassed, and tall straight white men get to shout at everyone else. It’s a place where you encounter your society, however it is.

  3. Richard says:

    Do you really think DLNOIW encourages people to dance in public? If anything, it inspires quite the opposite reaction in me, in the same way Sportsgirl encouraging me to “make (my) own way there”, Nike telling me to “just do it” and so on, I don’t choose an oppositional stance, its just that to put it naively, if I was to do these things, they have already been done ‘for me’. What I mean is, there is no chance in me dancing in public now of my own motivation, someone else has already done it in my place. My autonomy is taken away, and this is more important to me than my ability to ‘create a scene’, as it were. At stake here is the authenticity of human action. If I dance in public now, I just look like an idiot replicating a video.

    The consequential relationship formed by advertising between self-expression and consumer product, “if I buy the Nike product maybe I will be able to ‘just do it’ or whatever) has the same essential function only empowerment is contingent on purchase.

    I see this dancing as functioning in the same way, but replace the consumer product with the identity of the artist (and its capital). The implied message is “Dance in public, be like me”, but if I was to do it, it would not be of my own free will anymore.

    That is why i think it would translate well to a Pepsi ad, the argument is essentially the same, all that’s different is the capital (but easy to transfer an association between the artist and product etc). But what it amounts to is not authentic freedom of expression, rather it is the opposite.

    That is also what’s beautiful about the dancing in Peckham video. There is no willingness to be ‘like’ the artist here. The artist is repulsively isolated and anti-social. I disagree with the curator in the video saying it’s a precurser to Youtube etc, I actually find it refreshing to see this video now, because the experience is not one of being sold something.

    Yes, I agree with you, I would claim that someone actually should be embarrassed in public if they are dancing. Dancing without the implied consent of audience is embarrassing, not because of social code and etiquette etc, but because dancing (minus technique, at its essence) is the exposure of something personal, and doing this without permission contains the possibility that one might be rejected. But there is no fear of rejection in DLNOIW. Here, the public (mostly older) is already rejected. The Artist is already powerful because of the camera.

    And now to provoke you a little bit I will put an argument along gender lines – if a guy wants to ask a girl out, so he goes up to her and say “hello, how are you? etc”, be the nice guy, ok it never works. Now he approaches and I says “We are going to fuck”, ok, maybe it also doesn’t work but the other way. It’s too direct as an expression of desire.

    How this actually works in practice is, we set up a society, a set of rules, and then carefully transgress them. This is not specific to Western Anglo etc culture I don’t think. “Hi, how are you? That’s a nice dress you’re wearing” etc, and then later, you say the second, transgressive thing, and ok, it’s more obviously a transgression, but the set of rules must be there first in order for me to transgress them. (Sorry its a crude example, works regardless of gender, I take the masculine hetero position purely out of bad habit).

    A world where everyone is dancing whenever they feel like it is Utopia, in the same way as a world where everyone just approaches each other and asks for sex. Yes, ok, the result would happen but as an expression of desire it is too direct, it loses its function as transgression and as expression of free will, and therefore its authentic power. (So in that world maybe we have sex which is technically good, but inauthentic). This is where DLNOIW is an inauthentic expression, as opposed, say, to the lady right of shot who starts to boogie with her towards the end (1:46), who acheives a sponteneous breaking of social code (and subsequently realises she is being fooled by a camera). This is the saddest moment for me, the appropriation of an authentic transgression.

    The tall dark man, back to camera, not dancing, says in body language, “fuck you. I’ll dance when and if I goddamn want to” – not doing this as a rejection of individual expression, but in support of it.

    What I am really interested in with this video, and ok maybe you would not ask the same question because the premise for you is false, but all the same, you might entertain me and speculate, if these moments of “individual expression” in quotation marks because of its questionable authenticity are acting as substitutes for more authentic transformation, when expression becomes a substitue for this other rebellion, the question becomes one of what is it standing in place for, in other words, why do we need this self-expression, from what bounds is it trying to break? If it is indeed a false rebellion – rebellion against what? And Why? These are the questions that interest me. I think the answer is some sort of nihilism which is produced by a sense of futurelessness, brought about by various apocolyptic media narratives, global warming especially. But I can’t pretend to put my finger on it precisely. What I can claim is a potential that this self-expression as a substitute for, let’s say for collective action, spirals into something more extreme, I think it’s a nice but obviously terrifying tragedy to imagine us all dancing in some sort of grey limbo, you know like a nirvana or whatever, no-one watching each other but everyone capable of generating their own (aesthetically pleasing) spectacle.

  4. Wal says:

    It seems Timbur’s been inspired by this guy who I must say I enjoy more:

    She uses some of his signature moves and even the “dance like there’s nobody watching” tag is a variation of public statements about how he approaches his work.

  5. Wal says:

    The last part of my comment refers specifically to his answer to a question in this interview on the Today Show:

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