Musée de la danse, expo zéro

When the well-known French choreographer Boris Charmatz was appointed director of the National Choreographic Center in Rennes, his first step was to rename it Musée de la danse (Museum of Dance).[1] In a manifesto arguing for the change, Charmatz pointed out that he simply eliminated the words “national,” “choreographic,” and “center” from the institution’s name. But where can we place the motivation behind this subversion of the consolidated institutional framework (the “center”), of the cultural and political determination of such a framework (the “national”), and of the discipline itself (the “choreographic”)? And further, what can we read in the iconoclastic replacement of these signifiers with another (the “museum”), which at first glance would rather belong to the same enumeration of ossified institutional terms than to a realm of subversion, in spite of the playfulness of the renaming strategy itself?

In order to answer these questions, we should look at one of the first projects developed by the Musée de la danse, expo zéro. Previous editions of the project took place in 2009 at Musée de la danse/Le Garage, Rennes; LiFE, Saint Nazaire; and at the Flying Circus Project, Singapore; the fourth edition is realized at BAK, in co production with Springdance contemporary dance festival. expo zéro _is an exhibition without objects (hence the “zero” of the title); it is set into being by a group of people, with their memories, their actions, the fruits of their collaborations, and interactions. On the occasion of this iteration of _expo zéro, a group of ten people, which includes choreographers, dancers, visual artists, philosophers, theorists, and architects, spends four days working together as a kind of think tank. Over this period, the participants reflect on the issues raised by the conceptual framework of a “museum of dance” from the perspective of their own disciplines, and try to jointly conceive a staging of the exhibition taking place in the final two days of the project. This process of debating, arguing, researching—both individually and in ad-hoc collectives—in languages that range from rigorous intellectual arguments to performative gestures, offers a sense of how this “museum” is envisaged.

Before each expo zéro _takes place, Charmatz, who conceived the project, sends individualized “briefings” to the participants, strategically provoking different perspectives on the “museum of dance” concept. These briefings are intended to inspire reactions and engagements from the participants stemming from within their own discipline and practice and, most importantly expanding the area of thinking in which the museum should be considered, opening up possibilities that are not immediately taken for granted in the institutional context of a museum. As we can gather from the briefing sent to the artist and writer Tim Etchells (who participated in the first edition of the project, in Rennes), the concerns of the museum of dance should not be confined to self-reflexive exercises on the subject of art understood as an autonomous bubble, but should rather take the urgencies in today’s society—the “real” world—as the stage for action. Charmatz wrote: “T.E. decides that after all, the main museum of dance is in fact Europe, where movements for immigrants are so restricted, controlled, kept contained. The deadly museum of the land you can’t touch, live in, move in and out freely. […] Europe as a camp for stopping the movement of foreigners?? As a terrible museum of non dance?? Fantasies and lists of thoughts.” In an e-mail Charmatz sent to architect Nikolaus Hirsch leading up to his participation inexpo zéro_, we are projected into another zone of critique, this time towards certain institutional inertias and the physical (as well as cultural and political) determinations that architecture presupposes: “A museum of dance doesn’t need fixed architecture, and architecture without architecture is the future of architecture.” In another briefing sent to writer and curator Georg Schöllhammer, we get even closer to the premises of what a “museum of dance” could be. Rather than a fixed structure of power in the organization of knowledge, a museum should be, first and foremost, an instrument of critique. But this critique must be carried out by an engaged subject, and its critical gaze must not only be aimed at the institution and its art historical traditions, but also at the dominant discourses in today’s society. Charmatz proposed: “We shall discuss this in the residency week before the actual exhibition: a museum is not only organizing memory, but questioning memory and collection-oriented practices. In my own words, I really think that the body is the only real ultimate space for a dancing museum, but not only a body that is able to remember the choreographies seen or learned, but a body that is constructed upon the gaps of memory, a body that is standing on the edge of ruins of memory, ruins being his main foundation to then act as he does.”

From these premises, the implications of the previously mentioned renaming strategy become clearer. The desire to subvert the idea of a fixed and limited perspective, the notion that the area of interest of art, as well as its implications, is confined to the borders of the institution and its narratives, justifies the elimination of the word “center.” The plea for a cosmopolitan model in our dealings with the world renders “national” an obsolete term. And the different understanding of dance, from a structure where the audience is seen as a receiver of an aesthetic (and/or intellectual) object, to becoming a participatory agent in the performance and, in many cases, fully engaged in an inter-subjective exchange with the performer, makes the elimination of the word “choreographic” an obvious choice. As Charmatz puts it, “when the visitors are part of the museum, they are not anymore an audience—then there is a shift among participants, visitors, spectators, artists.” Also, the elimination of “choreographic” is in the same vein as Charmatz’s strategic appropriation of the term “nondance.” That term, coined in the 1990s, refers to different contemporary dance practices that have provoked a major turn in the recent history of dance, to which this project is a constitutive part. But this set-up of the project also demonstrates that the choice of “museum” to describe the new institution is not a reactionary fall-back but rather another tactical move for setting up a ground for critical action as the “museum” in the “museum of dance” is understood as an unstable, ephemeral conjunction of nomadic and temporary occurrences, which involve audiences and artists in a dynamic that is not informed by consolidated hierarchical roles and positions. Thus the Musée de la danse becomes an instrument to look at contemporary dance and art and their institutions, traditions, structures of power, as well as their potentials, agencies, and political implications. It is equally an artistic project by Charmatz,[2] an institutional platform, and a political proposition.

Returning to expo zéro, a number of issues arise when considering the transposition of what has taken place during the non-public days of the project into the two-day exhibition that concludes each edition. Primarily, how is the knowledge that is produced, intuited, and disseminated in the small group of participants—as well as the common spirit established during those non-public four days—transmitted to a wider audience? And what are the forms and methods for doing that, considering the array of languages and subjectivities sparked by the configuration of the project, as well as the limitations of any translation process? Also what are the ethics of staging such an exchange, in other words, how are inherent hierarchical structures and power relations dealt with in such a context? Throughout the three editions of _expo zéro _that have taken place so far, these questions found different answers and took shape in a variety of solutions. All of these variables are determined by the outcomes of the respective closed-door sessions, the subjective choices of the participants, and the spatial/architectural constraints of whatever space is made available for this work.

During the edition that took place at LiFE in Saint Nazaire, the enormous and imposing concrete space of a former Nazi submarine base determined a more acute reaction towards the space and its ghosts. There participants enacted their inputs and contributions in a more common fashion, many times moving together around the stadium-sized space, perhaps as a form of resistance to its oppressive character. In other editions, different individual situations were conceived and enacted. At a certain point during the edition in Rennes, the Congolese dancer and choreographer Faustin Linyekula stood outside of the venue with a few large plastic tote bags (colloquially called “refugee” or “immigrant” bags in many countries), thus creating a situation that might confront the audiences with their own assumptions and prejudices. Yet this action also engaged in a questioning of the boundaries of the expo zéro project, and the idea that it can have an impact outside the realm of the event itself. In the same edition, Georg Schöllhammer carried out a continuous flow of both monologue and conversations, while standing in a narrow central corridor, thus putting under pressure a particular understanding of theory and its position in the artistic field, but also its dissemination and the overall issue of engagement with an audience. And in the Singapore edition of expo zéro, artist Heman Chong put together a contractual game. He approached individuals and asked if they would like to read a 500-word story, which they would never be able to read again, as it won’t be published. But this offer came with the requirement of learning the text by heart, as a condition of being allowed to leave. Chong sees this proposition as a kind of social contract, one that creates an awareness of the economy of exchange in the field of knowledge and the hierarchical relations it presupposes. However, these accounts of what happened in previous editions of expo zéroare necessarily fragmented and subjective. Because what really remains of each iteration of the project—including the one-to-be at BAK—is the question of what it will become.

With regard to the particular context of BAK, it is significant that the public dimension of the project takes place as an exhibition, a format claimed by the field of contemporary art rather than by the established tradition of dance. But this connection between the two fields is not just a game of language or even formats: it is based on a substantial crossreferential discourse. Thus the choice for an exhibition is to be understood as an affirmation of and in solidarity with processes in the art field, which in recent years have been consolidating the exhibition as much more than a sum of aesthetic experiences in a given (conventional) architecture. This understanding of the exhibition as a space that allows and, in fact, asks for a questioning of the very basis of its systems of production, while being fully aware of its position in and responsibilities towards society, is shared with the expo zéroundertaking. The project goes beyond a populist affirmation of “free” spaces of encounter and proposes a decidedly political re-thinking of the organization of knowledge, systems of power, and institutional frameworks in society. What it offers the audience are not the empty ticket stubs of uncritical, neoliberal participation, but rather expo zéro allows and invites for scenarios of empowerment. And it is ultimately this mission that is in solidarity with one of the long-standing institutional and conceptual concerns of BAK: defining the art field as a civic space for producing knowledge and debating the terms for common action.


[1] Or, as in the playful free translation used by Charmatz: “Dancing Museum.”

[2] Boris Charmatz relates Musée de la danse to a number of artists’ museums from throughout twentieth-century art history: Kurt Schwitters’s museum in his apartment, the Merzbau (begun in 1923), Marcel Broodthaers’s Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles _(1968), and Thomas Hirschhorn’s one-month-long _Albinet Temporary Museum with modern masters shown in the suburbs of Paris in 2004. To this we could add the modernist utopian project of the German-born Mexican architect Mathías Goeritz, who built and conceived The Eco Experimental Museum, opened in 1953 by “a ballet to end all ballets,” directed by Luis Buńuel.

A text written by Cosmin Costinas, accompanying expo zéro, a project at BAK by Musée de la danse/Centre chorégraphique national de Rennes et de Bretagne, Rennes. The project took place between 12–17 April 2010. For more information regarding expo zéro, please see here.