A girl stands on the corner of Broadway and Wall Street, across from Trinity Church. In the never-ending construction zone that is New York City, orange cones alert drivers to roadwork, and barricades prevent pedestrians from spilling into the street. Nestled against this construction site, the Girl performs a forlorn confusion that any ballet lover would recognize—one hand outstretched into the unknown, the other curved over her heart, she silently pleads for those around her to acknowledge her presence as Peter Gabriel croons, “I want to touch the light, the heat, I see in your eyes.”1 Actively ignored (one man even runs past so as to remain unmolested), she switches tactics and sound tracks. Her body sinks with the newfound downbeat, and her hands fling upward from extended arms, “gangsta” style, a gesture that plays ironically on her white body, but this does not last long. Quickly, she shifts again—kick, cartwheel, booty shake, twirl. Lean back. Lean back.
Directed by Jacob Krupnick, the 2011–12 web video sensation Girl Walk//All Day is set to the seventy-one-minute album All Day by mash-up artist and fair-use advocate Gregg Gillis (aka Girl Talk).2 Gillis released the album, which is constructed of samples from more than 350 songs,3 in November 2010 as a free download. It provides the architecture as well as atmosphere for the entire film, which begins with the Girl clearly out of place in a ballet class. Frustration with the dance combinations and the ballet mistress results in a convulsive breakdown. The electric guitar of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” tears through the ballet class’s piano accompaniment, and the Girl sloughs off the prescribed movement vocabulary with spasms and shudders, gnashing her teeth and flailing her limbs to Ludacris’s “Move Bitch (Get Out the Way).” Once out of the dance studio, the Girl, played by Anne Marsen, pursues a single mission: to get the city dancing. Sometimes she seems oblivious to those around her, sometimes she incorporates their gestures or features into her own movement, and sometimes she actively enlists others to join in. Co-stars Daisuke Omiya as the Gentleman and John Doyle as the Creep offer a love interest and a nemesis, respectively, to propel what is otherwise a very loose narrative. Referencing a long history of Hollywood films, musicals, and music videos featuring dancing in the street4 as well as the comparatively recent phenomenon of flash mobs, they dance throughout New York City, transforming every available surface into a site for their physical expression. From the Staten Island Ferry to the High Line to Times Square to Zuccotti Park filled with Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters, the entire city becomes their stage.
Dance in public catches people by surprise. As Melanie Kloetzel and Carolyn Pavlik explain in their introduction to Site Dance: Choreographers and the Lure of Alternative Spaces, “unusual movement in a public place will capture your eye, call your attention to the present, and expand your awareness of your surroundings.”5 Passersby linger in parks or on street corners to watch as artists transform their experiences of everyday environments. But this type of public display is not always welcome. As site-based choreographer Stephen Koplowitz observes, “after 9/11, no one wanted to hire artists to do things in public.”6 Reflecting on the uses of public spaces particularly in social movements, Judith Butler notes that we must think through how acts of coming together “reconfigure the materiality of public space, and produce, or reproduce, the public character of that material environment.”7 She continues, “We miss something of the point of public demonstrations, if we fail to see that the very public character of the space is being disputed and even fought over when these crowds gather.”8 One cannot presume that public space is already given as a common or shared space that is automatically receptive to whatever acts of speech or movement members of a population might choose to perform therein. Dance in public, which asserts the public character of public spaces, exists in a historico-political moment informed by the pervasive threat of, and government responses to, global and domestic terrorism.
This chapter focuses on both solo and group dances in public from approximately 2008 to 2013 to consider how they lay claim to public spaces and rematerialize them as common spaces open to individual and collective expression. Indulging in the unexpected, dance in public provokes and measures collective tolerance for deviance from post-9/11 kinesthetic and social norms, at the same time that it helps to normalize such encounters. This same stretch of time is also marked by the increasing importance of social media in daily life. Providing an avenue of broad circulation, social media proliferate and reinvigorate spaces reimagined through dance, proving indispensible to the aesthetic and political work of dance in public. Thus the examples I consider in this chapter stage dance in public and circulate online. In addition to analyzing Krupnick’s episodic film Girl Walk//All Day throughout the chapter, I examine the spatial and affective claims of dances in public, such as Angela Trimbur’s Dance Like Nobody’s Watching series (2011–13), the Round Dance flash mobs of Idle No More’s Indigenous rights activists (2012–14), and the Spanish anticapitalist organization Flo6x8’s flamenco flash mobs (2010–16). Whereas other chapters focus more explicitly on specific dance works, this chapter grapples with dance in public as a larger phenomenon borne out across innumerable examples circulating through social media as a cumulative and shared project of performing a common in public spaces. Public space becomes especially fraught in circumstances where land, for example, is continuously removed from the public realm and expropriated into the sphere of private property, and where perceived threats or acts of violence invite a further policing of urban environments in particular such that how populations move through public space can produce anxiety and suspicion. Under such circumstances, the very presence of dancers in public sites acts as a means of collectively creating or activating the common character of those public spaces, of reclaiming the common space of the city.
Sometimes this recuperation takes place without interference, but not always. For example, in 2008, Mary Brooke Oberwetter organized a group of Libertarian friends to dance with her at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., in celebration of Thomas Jefferson’s 265th birthday. Soon after they had begun rocking out to their private tunes, the celebrants were forced by police officers to leave. Oberwetter refused and was arrested. She was charged with “interfering with an agency function” and “demonstrating without a permit.”9 A judge later determined that the Memorial was a “nonpublic” forum and thus the park police acted reasonably in arresting Oberwetter: “That the Memorial is open to the public does not alter its status as a nonpublic forum. Visitors are not invited for expressive purposes, but are free to enter only if they abide by the rules that preserve the Memorial’s solemn atmosphere.”10 Oberwetter and her friends’ dancing illustrates the political risks and resonances of moving as a collective body in public and the potential danger of claiming the publicness or commonness of private, nonpublic, or indeterminate spaces. As another example, the Oakland, California, group Turf Feinz has produced a number of RIP videos to commemorate the lives of young black men who have been killed.11 The dancers employ urban and street dance forms in their responses to a violence that never ceases, a violence like that which feminist anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli describes as “ordinary, chronic, and cruddy rather than catastrophic, crisis-laden and sublime.”12 These videos also circulate online, reminding viewers that there is a racialized politics to being in public spaces and therefore to dancing in public. Memorably, in “RIP RichD” (2009), dancers on the corner of 90th Street and MacArthur Boulevard are harassed by police officers on patrol, making visible, according to dance scholar Naomi Bragin, the “existential criminality of blackness” that “frames the demand for black performance.”13 The politics of identity are clearly at play in any use of public space, and depending on one’s racial or ethnic background, gender or sexual identity, or even political leanings, one may find oneself exposed to different degrees of risk when dancing in public. Both of these are important examples of how interventions in public spaces flirt with the boundary of the law and show how “just” dancing in public can be a deeply political act.
Dance in public coincides with social movements and political demonstrations that vocally proclaim an overt political agenda, such as OWS, which began in July 2011 (inspired by the so-called Arab Spring and fomented by a domestic economic downturn) and gathered thousands of participants as the months wore on. Unlike the durational protest/performance that was OWS, however, dance in public seems to have embraced the guerilla tactic of ephemerality, leveraging what has been described as an ontological condition of performance in general and dance in particular into a sociopolitically disruptive position. OWS was notable for how long protesters held on to their occupied territories and how many were drawn into its embrace of the 99 percent, but dance in public is notable for its here-and-gone spatiotemporal ruptures that access longevity through their mediated circulation on the internet, at a remove from the people and places implicated in performance. Still, the ephemeral spectacle of dance in public rechoreographs the affective landscape of public spaces in a way that complements the carnivalesque spatial reimagining seen in OWS encampments.
It is of distinct importance that shopping centers, train stations, airports, and public squares have proved to be locations of choice for dance in public. Reflecting the amplified anxieties of the United States post-9/11, these sites are under additional pressures of both threat and surveillance and are spaces in which dance does not “belong.” Dance in public revitalizes public spaces as sites of mobility and mobilization alongside the public acts and occupations undertaken by protesters. More to the point, as Randy Martin has argued, dance is a “kinesthetic practice that puts on display the very conditions through which the body itself is mobilized.”14 As a genre of public performance, dance in public displays these conditions, sometimes concealing the spatial occupations and reclamations it enacts behind a mask of playfulness and joy.15 “Why are you dancing?” the Hasidic man asks the Girl in Girl Walk//All Day. “Because I’m happy,” she replies.16
Dance in public also challenges notions of private property, intellectual property (in its gestural and musical quotations), and freedoms of speech and assembly. It actively disrupts distinctions between private and public, performer and audience, art and commerce. Dance’s inherent ambiguity results in an overabundance of signification, which makes it both powerful and easily usurped by the forces of capital and the state.17 But this same ambiguity allows dance to reinvigorate public space as common space through its bodily mobilizations and affective modulations. In particular, I argue, dance in public transforms what anthropologist Marc Augé calls the “non-places” of postmodernity,18 which are also spaces of surveillance in an era of crisis generation and management, into what political philosopher Hannah Arendt calls “spaces of appearance,”19 which she identifies as the precondition for politics. This transformation comes about through dance in public’s ability to, in philosopher Jacques Rancière’s terms, “redistribute the sensible.”20 The implication of this redistribution is to recuperate a spatial common via performance, a recuperation carried out through danced gestures and dancers’ physical occupation of public spaces. The affective intensity and emotion behind these public performances vary, from grief to rage to pride to joy, but the effect is the same: triggering appearance through the spectacle of dancing in public.
It is not, I contend, simply a matter of dance changing a social relationship to public space once and for all but of continuously deterritorializing and reorganizing the affects that inhere in public spaces. As the post-9/11 United States shifted from reactive defense toward preemptive securitization,21 it gave way to a global war on terror that, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri claim, “has to be won again every day”22 both domestically and abroad.23 Security, they contend, proactively shapes the environment24 and thus must be countered in the space of the metropolis with “joyful encounters.”25 Dance in public’s project of redistributing the sensible is not a singular event but is necessarily a repeatable process that ruptures the shape of security in the face of attempts to consolidate, secure, and exclude in the name of antiterrorism. Dancing in public disrupts security, even as the political and ideological forces that promote insecurity to justify securitization remain in place. It reclaims public spaces not only from those who are intent on inflicting harm but from the political and security forces that turn common spaces into non-places of surveillance.
Dance in public lays claim to public space as a common space by physically occupying that space. Furthermore, it performatively declares a right to have certain rights within that space: a right to appear, to peaceably assemble, to experience freedom of movement, to inhabit a body, and use it as a means of expression. In Rancière’s concise formulation, “the ‘rights of man and of the citizen’ are the rights of those who make them a reality.”26 The violence that accompanies such contemporary movements as OWS and Black Lives Matter continues to show that when demonstrators gather and refuse to move, they expose themselves to violence, making their bodies available to the state as so many surfaces upon which to display its force. Such demonstrations, Butler remarks, “[pose their] challenge in corporeal terms, which means that when the body ‘speaks’ politically, it is not only in vocal or written language. . . . Both action and gesture signify and speak, as action and claim.”27 Dance in public makes visible how such claims are also made within the cultural field. As an alternative to the chants and slogans we have come to expect of political demonstrations, dance in public offers an especially powerful indicator of what a body can do, and what bodies can do when acting in concert.
Dancing Onsite, Dancing Online
Circulating as video on the web is key for dance in public. However, online access is not what makes dance “public” for the purposes of this argument. With the term public, I am speaking more specifically of public spaces, which is to say, built environments and physical locations, even though my analysis focuses on the circulation of videos featuring these spaces through media channels. As a viewer, I have largely encountered these public performances in private or quasi-private settings, sitting alone with my computer or smartphone. Even while I use the term public to refer primarily to the location of performance, dance in public intertwines multiple aspects of public and private realms, as articulated in different analytical disciplines: viewed from the position of governance, for example, the public sphere is the place of political discourse and debate, while the private sphere presents an ever-negotiated limit of the state’s reach. From the position of economics, public goods and resources are managed by the state, while private goods are treated as individual property with market value. From a social perspective, the public refers to sites in which heterogeneous individuals gather and coexist while remaining strangers and private spaces are those in which individuals inhabit by themselves or with family and other close ties, and over which they have some measure of control. Scholars have long insisted that public and private cannot be so neatly distinguished, and network and media scholars in particular have demonstrated their overlap. For example, internet discussion boards, social media sites, and peer file-sharing offer examples of “networked publics,”28 while cell phone users notoriously bring their private telephone conversations into public spaces even as others leverage the private spaces of their mobile screens to withdraw from the public realm.29
Dance in public does not follow the distinctions between public and private based on property ownership: for my purposes, dance in public excludes the private sphere as domestic site (even though dancers routinely record their private dances for public circulation online), but it does not exclude private property, nor private or semiprivate experiences of public places. Dancing in public is as much about exposure to onsite spectators (who may not actually be the target audience) as it is about dancing in venues that are available and accessible to the general public. Dance in public includes venues such as parks and beaches, whether publicly or privately owned; malls, shops, and parking lots; and sites of transit, such as airports, railway stations, and modes of public transportation, such as planes, trains, and busses. Dance in public also includes busking—the practice of giving unsanctioned performances with the hope of collecting gratuities from onlookers. It does not include home dances,30 dance in social clubs, dance studios, theaters, competition venues, or any form of outdoor performance taking place on a temporary stage set up for the occasion, regardless of whether videos of these circulate on the web.
In brief, dance in public describes dances that take place outside of areas that have been specially designated or set aside for dancing. They may occur with or without permission. They may lend themselves to any social, commercial, or political agenda or may exist primarily as entertainment. Dance in public does not require social media, but, like planking, horsemanning, Tebowing, Hadoukening,31 and other viral photography memes, as a genre of public performance, dance in public is greatly facilitated by the channels of distribution that social media offer, and its meaning is accentuated by other similar circulations. The online life of dance in public is thus a central consideration, and it is therefore difficult if not impossible to separate dance in public from social media in an era when the latter are determining forces of contemporary social life and engagement. Dance in public avails itself of the digital commons, which both circulates and provides audiences for these videos. As a result, many of the public performances seem to target an audience of internet users more so than co-present spectators.
Take, for example, the Dance Like Nobody’s Watching videos, which began circulating on YouTube circa 2012. Actress Angela Trimbur briefly became something of an internet sensation by dancing alone at various Los Angeles venues: an Echo Park Laundromat, an LAX airport baggage claim, and a shopping mall.32 Other users followed suit, posting videos of themselves dancing in malls, grocery stores, cafés, and plazas across the United States and Europe.33 The solo genre of dance in public in which Trimbur and her followers participated does not benefit from the strength in numbers that dancing flash mobs provide, as we will later see. These solo performers expose themselves to public scrutiny and possible censure, suspending rules of decorum that govern such environments for the belated approval of an online audience. In these videos, dancers wear headphones or earbuds such that co-present spectators cannot hear the music to which the dancers are responding, though a music track is laid down for the benefit of internet viewers. Other editing is minimal: some Dance Like Nobody’s Watching videos are compilations of various dancers and venues, but Trimbur’s videos and those modeled on them are single takes; viewers see Trimbur just after she begins recording and just before she stops—her fuzzy face and upper body filling the frame as the camera tries to focus on her too-close body. Because these public performers have charged themselves with dancing like no one is watching (from the familiar poem), they interact little or not at all with the people around them—as though they are invisible. Trimbur interacts with others a little more than her freestyling followers, but even she is not performing “for” a co-present audience. All of the dancers in these videos face the camera, performing for an audience of asynchronous internet spectators. Here documentation does not serve the function of historical preservation, that is, recording a fleeting performance in a more durable medium. Rather, documentation of dance in public sits somewhere between what Roland Barthes calls the “that-has-been” (ça a été) of the photographed subject34 (“pics or it didn’t happen,” as the familiar catch-phrase goes) and what Philip Auslander describes as “performed photography,” or photographs that do not merely document a performance event but are the medium of its enactment.35
Girl Walk//All Day similarly exemplifies the importance of social media for dance in public. Filmed throughout 2011, the video was crowdfunded through Kickstarter. Calls for participation went out to give local communities an opportunity to appear in the film, which premiered online one section at a time on the New York news website The Gothamist from November 2011 to January 2012 and remain available for online viewing at no cost at http://www.girlwalkallday.com/. Audience access is at the core of Girl Walk, even in the ways the film frames and presents dancing. In a New York Times Artsbeat interview, Krupnick notes that in directing the work, he wanted Marsen’s dancing to be relatable to audiences who “just love to really shake it when they feel it.”36 Dancing to Gillis’s epic mash-up All Day, Marsen borrows freely from a vast range movement repertories without lingering long enough in any form for it to actualize as such. Marsen’s body gives corporeal form to the indifferent differences discussed in chapter 1: her movement is a melting pot, a gestural collage of the global contemporary. Structured atop a music mash-up, crowdfunded, performed in familiar sites throughout New York City, drawing from a global database of movement references, and performed with acute amateurism, Girl Walk//All Day epitomizes social media aesthetics and modes of production. Couched in a narrative of which passersby on the street are unaware, the affective impact of Marsen’s dancing is far more profound for asynchronous viewers than for those who briefly encountered her antics in person. Onsite, both Trimbur and Marsen maximize their potential for spatial disruption, but online, that disruption transforms their respective cityscapes into what Krupnick calls a “positive spectacle.”37
Circulating on the web, videos of dances in public have the effect of altering viewers’ relationships to public spaces.38 As dance scholar Mark Franko notes, “The way in which dance alters public space by occupying it is full of political innuendos, as is any unprecedented use of public space for the circulation of bodies.”39 How, then does dance occupy public space, and what does its occupation or temporary hijacking of public space bring about in the cultural field? Dance in public disturbs the peace, providing microbursts of utopianism in public space, dissipating the negative affects that have inhered in public space throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century. Even melancholic dances in public shift perceptions of what public space is and what kinds of activities may take place there. In this way, dance in public recalls what theater scholar Jan Cohen-Cruz has noted of radical street performance: it “creates visions of what society might be, and arguments against what it is.”40 It is because dance, particularly the joyful and playful types of dance employed by flash mobs and amateur dancers, is generally seen as trivial, apolitical, and even antipolitical, that it serves as a foil to various attempts to lock down and excessively police public uses of space. In addition, whether audience delight or empathy serves as a primary aim, dance in public facilitates the renewal of social bonds41—made tenuous due to xenophobic suspicion, mass shootings, police violence, electoral politics, and economic warfare—thus helping to recuperate public space as a shared or common site of sociality.
Dance in public meets social movements on the same ground, with recourse to similar tactics of occupation that forcefully assert the public dimension of both publicly and privately owned spaces, folding them back into the common. This spatial operation unfolds choreographically in relation to a separate claim that dance is itself a common resource, an argument that I will explore more fully in chapter 4. Dance in public, and the amateur aesthetics that frequently accompany it, offers dance as a shared principle or practice that fosters social cohesiveness and even, as I will argue in chapter 3, creates new worlds. It is an integral part of multifaceted movements to recuperate the political public sphere via common spaces—which cannot be presupposed but must be produced and reproduced through the performance of that very commonness. The performative production of common space takes the form of mobilization, which is necessarily plural: “No one mobilizes a claim to move and assemble freely without moving and assembling together with others,” Butler argues.42 Mobilized, dancing bodies reclaim and rechoreograph terrains that ought to exclude them. They reappropriate spaces for public action and reorient expectations for public behavior. More than this, the ambiguous and sometimes silly act of dancing in public asks its audience to consider how one moves “freely” in a state of exception—in the wake of violent events that transform a population’s relationship to public spaces and policing, and in the wake of financial collapse that transforms a population’s relationship to public institutions. In an era when public space is itself fraught and contested, dance in public proves to be a crucial mechanism for critiquing, reclaiming, and transforming public space into a space of the common.
This is precisely the scenario encapsulated in the 2011 Adbusters43 image associated with the initial call for a mass occupation of Lower Manhattan, which featured a ballerina perched atop the iconic Wall Street Charging Bull. What could be more indicative of OWS’s challenge than juxtaposing the female dancer and the male bull, the aesthetic practice of dancing against the economic function of markets, the disciplined against the out of control? At the same time, the dancer and the bull share a fundamental evanescence: the immateriality of money wending its way through financial systems with abandon, and dance as immaterial labor that ostensibly leaves no trace—the dancer and the bull mutually signify production without product. Her affect is cool, calm, and relaxed (though poised) compared to the bull’s hot, aggressive tension. This anonymous dancer is undoubtedly classically trained, but even if her pose en attitude arrière formally references balletic movement vocabulary, her loose, short-cropped hair, thigh-length pants, and bare feet suggest that as a dancer, she may very well be part of the flexible dance labor force—a dancer who can adapt to the changing needs of contemporary choreographers and choreography—whether those are tied to technical vocabulary, movement style, or affective capacity. Indeed, the dancer on the bull symbolically represents both the status quo of financial capital and resistance to it—her one-legged balance is both threatened by and demonstrates mastery over the precarity of her position. Situating dance where it does not belong, here, atop an aggressive symbol of wealth, gives viewers pause. But this pause, as is true of any sustained balance, is not a static pose but a dynamic inhabitation of multiple contradictory forces, a falling upward that offers an anticipatory breath and provides momentum for what follows. As an image calling for the mobilization of the 99 percent, the dancer balancing on the bull provokes a question that dance scholars and political theorists know all too well: “What can movements achieve?”
When the Gentleman tap dances on Charging Bull in Girl Walk//All Day, the reference to the Adbusters image is immediately clear, but his dancing achieves something else entirely. Instead of sustaining himself through a masterful stillness, Omiya is constantly in motion. Arms swinging, he stomps and shuffles across the bull’s broad back, traveling from top to tail. Omiya’s economically precarious position as a tap and contemporary dancer is probably little different from that of the dancer in the image calling for the occupation of Wall Street. However, his dancing on the bull is not a Photoshop trick. His care-free dancing belies the slick bronze surface beneath him, making no distinction between the bull and the other sites and surfaces he occupies with his movement: telephone booths, stanchions, sidewalks, plazas, passageways—all are common spaces of mobility and mobilization.
Mobilizing Mobility: Dancing New Common(s)
When dance in public is considered as a means of mobilization that takes the form of gestural and rhythmic difference from the corporeal status quo, it becomes easy to see how eruptions of difference in public spaces modify perceptual configurations of such spaces, transforming them into sites that can support spectacular motion. Mobilization of an expressly political variety can hardly occur without a capacity for movement, and it is this capacitation of movement via performatively transformed spaces that is the purview of dance in public. In his 1998 analysis of dance and the political, Randy Martin concedes that “because dance is but a minority of the movement most people engage in, the claims that can be made for its formal political impact or direct social significance are limited.”44 Yet, writing before the advent of social media, Martin underestimates the circulation of dance, which, in his analysis, occurs primarily in dance studios, theaters, social clubs, or onscreen in commercially produced films and videos. However, the internet has surpassed these venues and is now arguably the single most important means of accessing dance. As a result, though it may be true that acts of dancing remain minimal as far as everyday experiences go, more people have an exponentially greater exposure to dance than when Martin was writing in the late 1990s. And one need not identify as a dancer to appreciate or benefit from dance’s circulation online. By the same token, one need not individually contribute to the opening up of public spaces through public displays such as dancing or demonstrating to benefit from that openness, or participate in acts of violence to feel them closing back down in their wake.
For months, and in some cases years, after 9/11, spaces of transportation were heavily surveilled in the United States by soldiers and national guardsmen, but because these flat, wide spaces are designed to accommodate many people, they, along with shopping malls and parks, ironically proved the most hospitable settings for dancing in public. Even airport terminals, where passengers are constantly advised to report any activity out of the ordinary, have played host to dancing flash mobs. In his introduction to Insurgent Public Space, Jeffrey Hou notes, “In the post 9/11 world of hyper-security and surveillance, new forms of control in public space have curtailed freedom of movement and expression and greatly limited the activities and meanings of contemporary public space.”45 Dancing in public poses a focused challenge to such limitations of motion and expression, in the same spaces in which such activities are heavily policed. Dancing acts as a form of nonviolent resistance to attempts to curtail freedom of movement in public spaces and takes place alongside political demonstrations, marches, and protests that share a similar goal. For example, in early 2003, protesters marched worldwide to voice opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Not all city governments allowed protesters to gather, however. In New York City, where I happened to be protesting, barricades, mounted police, and officers in riot gear prevented and disrupted the protesters’ coalescence as a group. I do not find it at all coincidental that later that same year, urban pranksters began staging spatial disruptions and acts of defiance with flash mobs and that dancers adopted the format for their own public spectacles.
Flash mobs, which are large gatherings of individuals at a specific time and place in response to a call sent out via email or text, arose with the expansion of social computing. They have sometimes been feared by law enforcement because of the size of crowds that gather and sometimes dismissed because they seem to have little purpose other than to disrupt public space. Judith Nicholson suggests that while flash mobs “shone briefly and brilliantly,” the trend was “officially declared passé” in September 2003.46 Jeffrey Schnapp and Matthew Tiews describe them as a brief fad that brought together “crowds of the underemployed and overconnected . . . [who] assemble for the simultaneous performance of quirky gestures.”47 If flash mobs seemed faddish and passé in 2003, however, that didn’t stop them from morphing into a fully developed genre of public performance by the decade’s end.
Dancing flash mobs boomed in 2009 as professional and amateur artists appropriated the flash mob formula and began staging public spectacles for enjoyment, community building, commercial advertising, and eventually consciousness raising around social issues. Whereas organized protests demonstrate strength in numbers and durational commitment to a site, flash mobs find tactical advantage in the combination of camouflage and the suddenness of their spectacles. Unlike protests, flash mobs at their outset made no overt claims except for the right of their participants to appear—a claim that itself seemed risky enough that disappearance was built into their format. At the conclusion of every flash mob, performers merge with the surrounding crowd as a protective measure against reprisal.
Easily the most famous dancing flash mob, an advertisement called The T-Mobile Dance48 that took place in a Liverpool metro station surprised passersby with its size and scale—the enormity of the group, its spectacle of energy and delight, the accessible but precise dancing. But as soon as the last notes rang over the speakers, the performance dissolved. The dancers’ everyday clothing made them indistinguishable from nondancers, and they evaporated into the crowd. Dispersing in all directions, they left no trace of their performance or their identities. Far from the quirky incomprehensibility of early flash mobs, dance mobs49 have adapted the flash mob format to become highly organized public relations events. They share with flash mobs a characteristic disruption of public space and a recognizable structure—converge, perform, disperse—but they are more likely than flash mobs to involve the spectacle of unison dancing and are more likely to become viral videos.50
One of a handful of scholars to consider the phenomenon of dancing flash mobs, anthropologist Georgiana Gore traces the typical development of flash mobs through the call for participants and uploading of tutorial videos to performance onsite and later dissemination online. Of these steps, it is what occurs onsite that interests Gore most. She describes dance mobs as “a spectacular intrusion into public spaces designated for other uses.”51 Dance mobs interrupt the visual field with spectacular choreographies, distinguishing themselves from the more simplified gestures and actions typical of flash mobs. “Designed to create a visual stir,” Gore says, “flash mobbing is like soft terrorism, using guerilla tactics.”52 Gore’s comparison of flash mobs and dance mobs to terrorism is no trite metaphor. Like acts of terror, at their inception, flash mobs and dance mobs provoked cognitive and corporeal shifts in co-present viewers. Indeed, dancing flash mobs could be likened to a form of homeopathy: combating surprise as terror with surprise as delight53 or administering temporary mass occupation as an antidote to state control and corporate expropriation of public space.
For example, during the 2013 Harlem Shake dance meme/viral video craze, the Colorado College Ultimate Frisbee team persuaded a Frontier Airlines crew and passengers to let them dance on an airplane while in flight.54 That dancing was a possibility in such a highly controlled environment where even restroom visits are strictly monitored attests to what dance theorist Susan Leigh Foster describes as “the flexibility of the social body to accommodate deviance,” which, she argues, “endures in spite of the tightened restrictions on one’s movements resulting from the post-9/11 orientation toward terror.”55 The social body, however, may be much more tolerant of such deviations than the state: the online circulation of the video prompted the Federal Aviation Authority to investigate the dancers and flight crew for possible violations. Dancing in public skirts but does not escape the law as it lays claim to certain spaces: the law continuously brings itself to bear on these public displays of organized unauthorized movement. Perhaps for this reason, the performance of confused surprise is integral to the choreographic arc of dancing flash mobs. In addition to blending in with the crowd at the conclusion of such a public performance, by performing their own confusion at the outset of an event, participants can plausibly maintain their innocence if law enforcement intervenes. In videos circulating online, one finds myriad examples of confused spectators revealing themselves to be dancers in the know. It is not unusual, in fact, to find examples where, in the end, those dancing vastly outnumber those watching. Befuddled amusement is part of the dancers’ performance and not just the audience’s experience.
Without romanticizing dance in public, I want to emphasize the socially productive potentials in examining what dance in public hopes to achieve and to argue that dance in public engages in political work, even as, and in many cases precisely because, organizers refuse political intent. It is, after all, the persistent idea that dance offers aesthetic form without intellection or substance that lends the form to advertising. From the phone company T-Mobile56 to FOX television’s Glee57 to pop star Beyoncé Knowles58 to Dell’s Streak hand-held tablet,59 and even Suave hair products,60 dancing flash mobs have been called upon to stage attention-grabbing advertisements for an amazing variety of products and services. Indeed, it is significant to note that after 9/11, brick-and-mortar businesses suffered from perceptions of public spaces as threatening, prompting Western leaders to encourage their citizens to respond to the terrorist attacks of 2001 by going about business as usual, by which they meant exercising their consumer power.61 Americans dutifully fulfilled the command to shop, but did so without venturing into public: although it is now a behemoth, the online retailer Amazon.com did not turn a profit until the fourth quarter of 2001, which is to say, in the months immediately following 9/11.62 Because public spaces were perceived as dangerous, the technology was continuously improving, and the content was continuously expanding, Americans increasingly turned to the “safe” space of the internet as an alternative to public spaces. For this reason, in the years after 9/11, even the most commercially oriented dance mob worked on transforming public space from what I call a non-place of surveillance into an Arendtian “space of appearance.” Above all a relation among people, the space of appearance is transposable, available for instantiation in any number of locations. Dance having been performed in public, and the documentation that circulates online reperforming its choreographic intervention, leaves lasting residues—not just in the specific site of performance but in other similar locations. How, then, might dancing—such a seemingly trivial enactment of bodily mobilization—assist in the project of transforming the street and other similar venues into common spaces and spaces of appearance that enable mobilization toward political action? What does it take to appear?
Marsen poses just this question throughout Girl Walk//All Day. In the scene “Dance with Me,” the Girl prepares a placard—the type you might expect a doomsayer to wear declaring the end of days—writing the phrase “dance with me” in several languages. The Girl offers a plea to those who pass by her: wherever you are headed, however late you are, take a moment to find a connection through motion. She starts out with some levity, sandwiched in her sign and sporting an old school boom box. Dressed in a purple leotard, pink tights, frilly skirt, shawl, and sneakers, she is quite a sight hanging from streetlight posts and leaping through Grand Central Station. But as her calls for participation go unmet, her intensity increases. Her gestures become sharper, her attitude confrontational. Passersby back away, actively ignore the Girl, or occasionally show hesitant smiles that reveal the ambivalence of their worried amusement. Reflecting on audience responses at screenings of the film, Krupnick notes, “A lot of people react to the film with a bouncy exuberance and insist that, if they’d been there, they would’ve joined in [the dancing], or they would’ve smiled, and they can’t believe how stone-faced all these zombie-ish New Yorkers are. I like to point out that . . . most of us would look at this crazy dancer . . . and say, Who cares?”63 The nonchalance with which New Yorkers receive the Girl is attributable in part to their high tolerance for the abnormal, since large cities facilitate encounters with the extraordinary on a daily basis. And the Girl does not appear violent so much as volatile, unstable. She is, as Krupnick describes her, a “crazy dancer.”64 She invades people’s space, grabbing at some trying to bring them into her world, following them closely with mocking gestures, or otherwise belligerently disrupting their movements. The Girl works herself into a whirling, pleading frenzy until she finally collapses, exhausted by the labor of performing at maximum effort without acknowledgment or reciprocation from those around her. With so many demands on our collective attention, and with lifetimes of practice at turning away, producing appearance is no easy feat.
From Non-places of Surveillance to Spaces of Appearance
Arendt’s space of appearance is an idealized space of political action modeled on the ancient Greek polis. The space of appearance is not a site per se but a relation among equals mediated through speech and action, or “the living deed and the spoken word.”65 Notably, equality can be maintained within the polis only due to its prior exclusion of noncitizens from its midst. Arendt notes that the polis was the only place where equality was guaranteed. Outside the polis, it was understood that “men were by nature . . . not equal, and needed an artificial institution . . . [to] make them equal. Equality existed only in this specifically political realm, where men met one another as citizens and not as private persons.”66 Political life excluded the private realm, to which both labor and work, the maintenance of life and the creation of the material world, were relegated. Although the Greek polis serves as Arendt’s model, her concept of the space of appearance was centuries removed from the polis’s strict divisions between public and private, distinctions that have become even more blurred since her writing. What exists in place of a polis is a proliferation of what anthropologist Marc Augé calls non-places.
Augé tracks the emergence of non-places in relation to an anthropological sense of place: “If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place.”67 Though non-places are an abstract ideal, never appearing “in their pure form,”68 according to Augé, they are “the real measure of our time.”69 The time spent in transit or stuck in traffic, the time spent in waiting rooms or standing in line to complete necessary transactions—such suspensions between here and there, beginning and end, are characteristic of non-places. Thus, for Augé, non-places are sites of transit, commerce, and leisure in which people primarily interact with texts—labels, directions, and other instructions for use—or sites that have only textual incarnations, imagined places that “exist only through the words that evoke them.”70 Augé emphasizes spaces that are utilized rather than experienced—motorways and railways, supermarkets and shopping malls, airplanes and airports, and other sites only temporarily occupied.71 Constant motion and loss of subjectivity mark these indeterminate spaces. In Augé’s non-places, one does not enter into a social arrangement but remains remarkably solitary, assuming the temporary identity of a silent addressee for equally silent border controllers, clerks, tollbooth operators, bank tellers, and the like: “a person entering non-place is relieved of his usual determinants. He becomes no more than what he experiences in the role of passenger, customer or driver.”72 A person in a non-place navigates the space by referring to signs—exit here, pick up luggage there, restrooms are this way. People play their parts in the contractual theater of in-between places, retrieving their identities “only at Customs, at the tollbooth, at the check-out counter.”73 Otherwise, anonymity reigns: each individual “obeys the same codes as others, receives the same messages, responds to the same entreaties.”74
Dance in public refuses to honor the terms of this contract, exploiting the personal anonymity offered by non-places as well as the limits of interdiction. Non-places may be governed by rules regarding loitering, speed, noise, or entry and exit, but few spaces specifically prohibit dancing.75 Furthermore, given that dances in public frequently rely on dispersal as a technique of evasion and anonymity, they are difficult targets for law enforcement. It is significant, therefore, that Trimbur danced in an airport, that Oberwetter danced in a national monument, that T-Mobile placed its spectacle of motion in the Liverpool Street Station, and that the Colorado College team danced on an airplane. All of these liminal sites are non-places as Augé describes them, and further, all are under near-constant surveillance.
In practice, as Augé notes, a non-place is never perfectly realized, and neither is the universal anonymous subject it presupposes. In airports, one finds oneself sorted according to a global hierarchy of passports and, furthermore, according to an itinerary of suspicion. Religious or cultural dress codes, complete or insufficient documentation, and departures and destinations create divergent pathways through these transit sites, where some individuals are siphoned off into private examination rooms, some circle back because travel documents have been refused, some are taken to police headquarters or immigration services, and so on. Similarly, in a shopping mall, people sort themselves (and are sorted) according to stylistic preferences as well as economic status. Salespeople are formally and informally trained to keep close watch over some individuals for fear of shoplifting, to dutifully attend to others who fit the profile of someone whose browsing might convert into a sales commission, and to ignore the remaining customers. Though the temporary occupants of a non-place may read the same signs, the messages they contain are likely to be substantively different for each individual, who, by virtue of being in a non-place, has also become a sign—of capital or wealth, of danger or criminality, and so on. The individual as such may not matter in Augé’s non-places, but the sociocultural categories according to which people are read and categorized matter a great deal for the regimes of surveillance constructed in and through non-place. How many surveillance cameras dot the ceilings of grocery stores, shopping malls, busses, and trains or line the perimeters of plazas, alleys, and roads, not to mention the virtual surveillance of government agencies, corporations, and hackers alike—each tracking movements, purchases, and sentiments/preferences expressed through internet activity and location-aware computing?
If one is thus visible in a non-place of surveillance, what is the need for a space of appearance? Why is visibility insufficient? First, surveillance (or the fear of surveillance) produces conformity such that only those who seem to be noncompliant or nonnormative are made visible as such, and theirs is a compulsory or even violent visibility. Although American individualism encourages people to stand out from the crowd, in fact, visibility resulting from physical comportment, deportment, style, or general deviation from the norm invites reprimand. Thus panoptic surveillance produces, as Michel Foucault argues, “a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.”76 Visibility is therefore not synonymous with appearance as Arendt conceptualizes it. Foucault continues, “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes himself in the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”77 Visibility interpellates individuals into a hierarchical social matrix wherein some actors mobilize power as a repressive force over others, with the ultimate goal that self-policing will replace policing by the state or other apparatus. “Visibility is a trap.”78 Appearance, in contrast, is predicated on the co-presence of and recognition by equals who empower themselves by working together in a public realm. Indeed, for Arendt, power exists precisely in this plurality, in “this potentiality in being together,”79 and is distinct from both strength and force. Crucially, for Arendt, power is a positive energy deployed by the people collectively, whereas for Foucault, power is a system of regulation and regularization that is neither wholly positive nor negative. These divergent conceptions of power undergird their theorizations of visibility as appearance or surveillance. We might say that appearance differentiates among equals without undermining their equality (it is a premise, not a promise, as Rancière argues),80 whereas surveillance renders equality an undifferentiated mass from which difference can be isolated, extracted, and either fostered or flat-lined.
When New York lifestyle reporter Ben Aaron discovered “Joe,” an African American man from Brooklyn dancing down Manhattan’s 5th Avenue in 2012, it was clear that Joe’s chosen mode of locomotion did not match those around him. Nor was he like the buskers that populate New York City’s streets and subways: Joe was not attached to a fixed area within which he danced, and he did not ask viewers to compensate him for his physical effort. He was dancing, but walking. Initially taken by surprise, Aaron momentarily joined him before Joe continued on his way.81 By dancing, or dance-walking, in public, Joe invited those around him to see him, and for those whose gaze offered recognition or who were contagiously set in motion alongside him, Joe appeared. Unlike other examples of dance in public discussed in this chapter, Joe’s dance-walking was captured on video by happenstance. Joe was not performing for the camera; he was dancing for his own pleasure. Disregarding both the scrutiny of tourists and the indifference of New York residents used to unpredictable encounters in the metropolis, Joe’s enjoyment was also his courage. Putting his body in motion in this way, and doing so alone, opens a door to harassment. Will dancing render him merely visible and out of place, or will he achieve the recognition upon which appearance depends? Appearance, predicated on equality, is not given; it must be activated, insisted upon, asserted, performed. It must erupt and break through the crystalizing scan of surveillance.
To make public spaces hospitable as spaces of appearance, the whole character of public spaces must be worked upon. In the wake of 9/11, state and media apparatuses latch on to bombings, mass shootings, and similar events, churning out crises to fuel and justify a state of exception as the new status quo. As a result, public spaces and the people in them have been transformed into targets for generating and policing terror. There is no possible return to some nostalgic idea of what the public used to be, but by working in and with public space constantly, dance in public activates the common in these spaces, populating them with unsanctioned activities that nevertheless cannot be labeled “terrorist.”
Dance in public modulates space, making room for other actions to occur—without dictating what those might be. The objective is not to change public spaces by managing their transition into some preplanned alternate shape but to open them back up to their potential, to reenliven or recapacitate them by positing that these spaces, as common spaces, can be sites for dance. The consequences of opening up public spaces in this manner cannot be foreseen. This is because, as critics never cease to point out, dance (supposedly) produces nothing.82 And yet, Arendt notes that the Greeks considered politics a technē, like performance: “as in the performance of the dancer or play-actor, the ‘product’ [of political action] is identical with the performing act itself.”83 Occurring on the street or in public spaces, dance parallels political action, which Arendt describes as unpredictable, irreversible, and anonymous,84 by setting things in motion.85 This is precisely what the Girl achieves in Girl Walk//All Day, dancing throughout the city and throughout the film without precisely knowing what the effects of her gestures will be. In addition to serving a narrative function in the film, Marsen’s dancing ripples beyond the film as well, through the unforeseeable effects on viewers and their future interactions with public spaces.
Marsen’s dancing, which confronts viewers with its apparently undisciplined audacity, is a more demanding form of dance in public than Joe’s dance-walking. With her wild gesticulations, she certainly ruptures public spaces, but despite drawing from a variety of dance and movement sources to cobble together her unique flavor of freestyle, Marsen’s dancing is often illegible and unassimilable for viewers onsite. The Girl’s zaniness creates an affective block,86 which compromises her ability to appear to those around her. Girl Walk’s narrative maximizes rupture but subverts appearance. As a character, the Girl is not able to fabricate her own appearance; her demand has to become sensible to others who both can and will offer recognition. One cannot appear alone. Appearance is a relation, and recognition can be withheld, as we see repeatedly throughout the film.
A scene toward the end of the film is a case in point. In “Dance with Me,” The Girl is leaping, twirling, and jiving in New York’s Grand Central Station. At one point, a man staring at his smartphone enters the frame. She pesters him, jumping up and down, flailing her arms about, and even waving her hands in the space between his face and the screen to disrupt and redirect the attention he has devoted solely to his hand-held device. Without looking up, his facial expressions and body language clearly reveal his simultaneous awareness of her presence and his refusal to engage. That which appears, we will recall from Arendt, is real, while that which does not yet appear maneuvers and exists in a state of unreality vis-à-vis the dominant culture. For the duration of this encounter, the Girl has been assigned to a space of unreality. With so much going on around them all the time, New Yorkers have a well-developed capacity for blocking out unwanted stimuli, including and especially from other people. This dynamic is set up early in the film—in “All Aboard,” when many of the Staten Island Ferry passengers refuse to look up from their books and laptops, while others glance at the Girl long enough to register their lack of interest. It is not as if they do not realize she is there; they simply withhold acknowledgment by looking away or returning her gaze with a blank stare. For many, the Girl’s existence is irrelevant, and her extreme state of agitated excitement testifies to her fight for appearance. Dancing by herself, without the support of a cohort of dancers, it takes an enormous expenditure of energy for Marsen to be noticed.
The Girl is not deprived of recognition for the whole film. Some people gawk or look on with amusement while keeping their distance, but when Marsen drops character, for example, when she collects a group to perform a modified “Single Ladies” choreography, she is granted the recognition that her character desires. Interactions with other film characters also offer moments of mutuality, for example, in her romantic duet with the Gentleman on the High Line or her temporary absorption into a breaking crew on the Williamsburg Bridge. But appearance is not distributed uniformly; it is contingent; it is not a permanent condition. Thus appearance in one context does not translate to other places and spaces. A space of appearance can only be realized when a demand to appear, a performative enactment of the right to appear, is received and granted. This process is depicted in Girl Walk’s concluding chapters: “Chain Reaction” and “For the People.” After expending so much effort trying to set the city alight with dance, the Girl defeatedly makes her way through the city, unaware that her unbounded movement and uninhibited presence have finally made an impact on the people of New York. As she walks, the city begins to simmer with choreographic energy, and dancing begins to erupt all around her. Krupnick has edited together found dances, such as those occurring in subway cars, with dancing and movement staged specifically for the film. The mixture of ballet girls and b-boys, social and street dancers, festivals and rainbow parades, has the interesting effect of subsuming the diversity of New Yorkers’ physical expressions under the Girl’s sphere of influence. In Girl Walk’s narrative, the Girl’s reappropriations of privatized spaces recuperate the city as a common space for individual and collective expression. The city gathers its churning energies and regurgitates its dancers onto Central Park, where they swarm around an exhausted Girl and buoy her up. The film ends with a resplendent nighttime festival set to John Lennon’s “Imagine.” As Lennon sings his final plea, “and the world will live as one,”87 the film’s dancing crowd bursts into cheers, attempting to enact the hoped-for global community toward which Lennon’s lyrics gesture.
Girl Walk stages the Girl’s quest to get the city dancing as a journey from expulsion and invisibility to inclusion and appearance. The fabrication of a space of appearance at the film’s conclusion offers narrative closure but, we should note, is supplied by the filmmaker, not by New York’s residents. Although action is unpredictable, according to Arendt—it does not follow a specific trajectory or narrative arc from rupture to resolution—the film resolves the Girl’s conflict. It validates her difference, renders that difference readable over the course of the film, and finally gives it a place in the end.
Situating Girl Walk within a genealogy of performance practices that disrupt the everyday, film critic Tom McCormack suggests that “the mere disruption of the normal arrangement of public space is a meaningful and potentially radical act.”88 But with recurring terrorist threats to New York City’s public places and transit systems,89 McCormack notes that “the massive popularity of Girl Walk comes at a time when such gestures carry an extra crazy little electrical charge.”90 That extra little charge is what makes dance in public a political intervention. Indeed, Krupnick and his crew had reason to feel some hesitation about their disruptions of New York’s iconic sites when they were filming the Girl’s outburst on the Staten Island Ferry. Krupnick recalls, “It happened to be the morning after Osama Bin Laden had been killed, [and] the ferry terminal was swarmed with dogs and police.”91 As a form of dance in public, Girl Walk asks viewers to repeatedly consider where dance belongs. The answer the film gives is “everywhere.” All sites are, or ought to be, equally receptive to dancing bodies. But because there is no prior social agreement that dance belongs everywhere, and because people have become accustomed to and subdued by heavy police presence and surveillance in public spaces, Marsen’s dancing, like dance mobs and other examples of dance in public, produces ruptures in the social sensorium. Dancing in sites not specially designated for such behavior forces a perceptual realignment for viewers to make sense of what should not be there in the first place.
In The Emancipated Spectator, Jacques Rancière brings together a contemporary artwork located in a French suburb after the wide-reaching 2005 riots and a Mallarmé poem, which, like Girl Walk, is seemingly apolitical yet set against the backdrop of a “social crisis.”92 Rancière turns to Deleuze and Guattari, who articulate the function of art in their coauthored volume What Is Philosophy?, to bring these examples of “critical” and “autonomous” art into conversation. Echoing Deleuze and Guattari, Rancière argues that artists transform sensation: “What the artist does is to weave together a new sensory fabric by wresting percepts and affects from the perceptions and affections that make up the fabric of ordinary experience. Weaving this new fabric means creating a form of common expression or a form of expression of the community.”93 Artists create new experiences in the sensory domain, whether by transforming familiar sensations into unfamiliar ones or by creating new sensory relations among disparate ideas and objects. These new sensations then weave themselves into the sensory fabric that a community shares, becoming an expression of that community or a common tapestry of a shared capacity for feeling.
To be sure, Girl Walk transforms ordinary, familiar places into extraordinary sites through dance, in particular, through a mix of socially sanctioned and unsanctioned behaviors. The Girl’s ability to transform public spaces is not tied to a propagandistic message embedded in Girl Walk per se; it is related more to the ways in which the Girl as a character and Girl Walk as a film promote a vision of how we are together and the social fabric that makes our being-together possible—a theme I continue to explore in chapter 3. Aesthetic experiences, Rancière suggests, offer “a multiplication of connections and disconnections that reframe the relation between bodies, the world they live in and the way in which they are ‘equipped’ to adapt to it.”94 These multiple connections and disconnections create new communities from their alternate sensory distributions. But, like Arendt’s political action, the results of this sensuous reconfiguration and bodily capacitation cannot be foreseen. There is no causal relationship that links aesthetic experiences to specific, predictable effects in governance or social relations.
For Rancière, artistic productions that seek social and political transformation as their own proper end point misunderstand the nature of both politics and art and can only be a disappointment insofar as they will never be able to deliver on their promises. Political art may aspire to raise consciousness about this or that social ill, but there is no guarantee that viewers will be prompted to change their behavior or revolt as a result of an elevated or renewed critical consciousness. Instead, what Rancière suggests links the domains of aesthetics and politics lays in “a shift from a given sensible world to another sensible world that defines different capacities and incapacities, different forms of tolerance and intolerance. What occurs are processes of dissociation: a break in a relationship between sense and sense—between what is seen and what is thought, what is thought and what is felt. Such breaks can happen anywhere and at any time. But they cannot be calculated.”95 Whatever invites a confrontation between conflicting sensory regimes—staging dissensus, or the mismatch between sense and sense—opens up the space of aesthetics in the sphere of politics and the space of politics in the sphere of aesthetics.
Redistributing the Public
Up to this point, I have focused primarily on dances in public that do not seem to have a political agenda attached to their claims to public space to show that the absence of an overt agenda does not diminish the ability of these performances to articulate a common space in public space, a space of appearance in a non-place of surveillance. Indeed, I contend that it is precisely these types of interventions that provide a format for more politicized actions. In this final section, I would like to shift my attention to two examples of dance in public sponsored by activist organizations that directly engage with political claims in the ways they move through and take up space: the Round Dances of the Indigenous rights movement Idle No More and the flamenco flash mobs of the Spanish anticapitalist group Flo6x8. As we have seen, in the years after the first flash mobs began appearing in 2003, but especially from 2008 onward, dance in public has contributed to reimagining public spaces in ways that complement twenty-first-century political movements. Dance mobs make a collective demand to appear on behalf of an anonymous crowd, a crowd acting together to rupture the corporeal and spatial status quo. As performance theorist José Muñoz describes of a “punk rock commons,” dance mobs are engaged in a larger project that “defies social conventions and conformism and is innately heretical yet still desirous for the world, actively attempting to enact a commons that is not a pulverizing hierarchical one bequeathed through logics and practices of exploitation.”96 Dance mobs by Idle No More and Flo6x8 in particular challenge established hierarchies and histories of exploitation. They require a shift in collective perceptions of public spaces and public behavior, provoking dissensual conflict in the realms of both aesthetics and politics to transform public spaces into the common spaces they enact.
Before continuing on with the Round Dances and flamenco flash mobs as politicized examples of dance in public, let me pause to further explicate Rancière’s use of the terms politics and aesthetics, particularly how they relate to the partitioning or distribution of the sensible. For Rancière, politics is always concerned with the question of equality, occurring whenever equality is affirmed in the form of a dispute or conflict. Politics as such must give rise to a confrontation between what Rancière calls police logic, or consensus, which orders and legitimates a certain partitioning of social roles or distributions of the sensible, and egalitarian logic, or dissensus, which breaks with that configuration in the name of equality.97 Politics occurs in the dispute, where a claim to equality confronts its own absence within consensus. In making that claim nonetheless, that is, without prior authorization, the claim to equality undoes the distributions of perceptibility of the police order, which regulates appearance. “Politics breaks with the sensory self-evidence of the ‘natural’ order that destines specific individuals and groups to occupy . . . specific ways of being, seeing and saying.”98 Insofar as politics is a conflict over appearance—what is visible, audible, legible, and so on—it also has an aesthetic dimension. Insofar as the aesthetic stages a confrontation of heterogeneous elements in the name of equality, it, in turn, has a political dimension. For Rancière, aesthetics and politics each creates dissensual reconfigurations of the sensible and the common associated with it: “If there is such thing as an ‘aesthetics of politics,’ it lies in a re-configuration of the distribution of the common through political processes of subjectivation. Correspondingly, if there is a politics of aesthetics, it lies in the practices and modes of visibility of art that re-configure the fabric of sensory experience.”99
In general, when Rancière uses the term aesthetic, he is referring to one of two things: (1) a regime of Art,100 in which works of art claim autonomy from other crafts, trades, practices, or ordinary experience, even as, according to Rancière, the aesthetic regime is marked by the blurring of the very boundaries between art and life or art and nonart that had allowed Art to be demarcated as its own, independent terrain of expression, or (2) a configuration of what is available to sense perception or what is intelligible within a specific distribution of the sensible, that is, what can be seen, heard, said, or felt. Rancière attaches aesthetics to politics, as the aspect of politics that makes visible what had previously been unseen through the rupturing effects of dissensus. Aesthetics and politics both frame conflicts between sense and sense, struggling for new relationships that include that which is excluded from the realm of the sensible. Rancière continues on the theme of aesthetic experience: “It is a multiplicity of folds and gaps in the fabric of the common experience that change the cartography of the perceptible, the thinkable and the feasible. As such, it allows for new modes of political construction of common objects and new possibilities for collective enunciation.”101 Rancière establishes art’s political intervention in its elaboration of new forms of collective enunciation and new images of common experience, images that contradict what was thought to be self-evident. The measurement of art’s political efficacy thus becomes disentangled from changes in policy, an arena in which Rancière contends art can only fail to achieve its aims, and aligned instead with its ability to create or establish connections that did not previously exist. In so doing, artistic practices rearrange what is perceptible, or available to audiences for sensory assimilation, enlarging the common sensorium to include the previously excluded. This common becomes a new consensus.
Throughout this chapter, the claims of dance in public to the domains of both art and politics have been ambiguous. Why, then, is it useful to turn to Rancière if dance in public’s relationship to both artistic practice and political action is uncertain? As Jill Bennett argues, “the aesthetic is not art’s exclusive province but a method of engagement in which art specializes.”102 Classification as art is unnecessary to participate in the aesthetic realm. Indeed, such identification is beside the point, as dance in public is deeply embedded in the logic of the aesthetic regime as Rancière describes it. Dance in public performs exactly the boundary-blurring equivocation that he attributes to the aesthetic regime of art—blurring art, commerce, social work, protest, and everyday life into a choreographic mélange that registers on each of these levels. Dance in public focuses its energies on the dissensual confrontation between public space as a non-place of surveillance and as a common space of appearance in which to manifest a full range of freedoms of movement and expression. It performs an alternate order of space within a society of surveillance and control, discovering “new bodily capacities”103 and reinventing others, dislodging viewers from their assigned locations within social arrangements through affective disorientation and spatial deterritorialization.
Initiated in December 2012, the Indigenous rights movement Idle No More has sought to raise awareness of atrocities committed against the earth and Native ways of life. The movement arose in response to Canadian legislation that deregulated waterways in First Nations land to facilitate the building of oil pipelines. In addition to Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence’s widely publicized hunger strike and numerous protests and teach-ins around environmental sustainability, First Nation sovereignty, and treaty violations, Idle No More staged Round Dance flash mobs in locations throughout Canada and the United States.104 In December 2012 alone, Round Dances took place in every Canadian province and territory as well as in cities throughout the United States, including Minneapolis, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Spokane, Portland, Sioux City, Seattle, and New York City. As the Idle No More movement grew, Round Dances continued to be performed throughout 2013 and 2014 in plazas, city centers, and especially shopping malls.
Originating among Plains Indians, the Round Dance began as a dance of healing that transformed into a social dance, a friendship and courtship form suitable for intertribal gatherings as well as for non-Indigenous participation. Unlike most Native American and First Nation dances, which are sex segregated and performed with gender-specific movements, the Round Dance allows people of all genders to dance alongside one another. Dancers join hands and travel clockwise in a circle (or concentric circles, if the group is particularly large), around the drummers. Idle No More gatherings have used the Round Dance format to reach out and foster relationships with members of settler and non-Native populations, and the simplicity of the movement ensures an inclusive environment. In a post for the artist-activist website Beautiful Trouble, Paul Kuttner suggests that the Round Dance flash mobs “symbolized [Idle No More’s] core tenets of peace and unity, while sending the simple message: ‘We are here, our culture is strong and we will not be silent in the face of destruction.’”105 Noting the activist principles at work in the Round Dances, Kuttner further suggests that the dances held an element of ritual and “made it easy for people from many backgrounds to ‘fall into the rhythm’ of the action; they offered participants a direct experience of unity and solidarity.”106 Some of the Round Dance flash mobs also incorporate call-and-response elements, and as participants join in and respond with their own “hey ya,” they bind themselves to this temporary community of dancers sustained for the duration of their mutual recognition and adherence to a rhythm. Together, Native and non-Native participants perform a version of the political recognition that Indigenous peoples seek on a broader scale through such movements as Idle No More.
Marking the one-year anniversary of Idle No More, organizers planned a Round Dance flash mob in Mall of America, a shopping center in Bloomington, Minnesota, where a Round Dance involving nearly one thousand people had been held on December 30, 2012. Organizers were put on notice by the mall’s management, however, who noted in a letter that political protests are not allowed on mall property and threatened legal action if another Round Dance ensued. Organizer Reyna Crow responded that characterizing a Round Dance as a protest was both inaccurate and insulting: “If the Idle No More flash mob Round Dance that was held there last year is a ‘protest,’ so are the Christmas carols and other flash mob events that have been held there.”107 Crow and fellow organizer Patricia Shephard were indeed arrested when they appeared at the mall on December 31, 2013, and mall security set up checkpoints, examining bags and refusing entry to anyone with a drum or other paraphernalia. Even before entering the mall, Round Dance participants were already marked as outside the midwestern mainstream, and those carrying hand drums or wearing additional signifiers of indigeneity could not blend in with the crowd—thus deactivating the signal protective feature of the flash mob format. Although hundreds of Round Dances have taken place across Canada and the United States, this particular one was stopped before it started.108
Without an obvious connection to popular culture or commerce like flash mobs of Christmas carolers or dancers accompanied by pop tunes, the Round Dances can only read as protest to mall managers. Idle No More’s participants demand to appear in social and political environments that have disenfranchised and rendered Indigenous populations invisible and pre-scripted their visibility within non-places of surveillance. Yet, with their hand drums, chants, and large crowds, Idle No More’s Round Dances assert the participants’ appearance in a common space. Here dancing in public reenacts daily negotiations between visibility and political appearance, on one hand, and invisibility and state abandonment, on the other. Simply validating Native cultures and practices in a public forum, let alone raising issues of Native sovereignty or land and water rights, is already a political gesture. Such legitimation of a marginalized population’s cultural practices is thus only perceivable through the lens of agitation and propaganda unless appearance can break through surveillance. Affirming one’s cultural difference, claiming an equal standing for that difference, and doing so without first being given permission to do so are intensely political acts of defiance. As Muñoz suggests, “life in the commons is and should be turbulent, not only because of the various enclosures that attempt to overwhelm a commons, but because disagreement . . . is of vital importance to the augmentation of the insurrectionist promise of the commons.”109 Where legal claims based on treaties and rights discourses appeal to the juridical arrangements that enforce the status quo, interventions such as the Round Dance flash mobs employ a cultural practice as a dissensual, insurrectionist wedge that asserts appearance while simultaneously appealing to social bonds across difference. These are not the indifferent differences of chapter 1—rote repetitions that eliminate the difference within repetition—these are differences that make a difference. They make a difference to participants, to audiences, to property owners, and to lawmakers. Decades of multiculturalism have encouraged people to celebrate their difference, but Idle No More illuminates the edges of tolerance for such differences. As indicated earlier with “Harlem Shake on a Plane,” the ability of a social body to accommodate deviation does not translate easily into support from those who own or administer institutions and commercial enterprises.
Dance in public takes place in spaces where it does not belong, highlighting its unspoken exclusion. By thus appearing in such spaces without permission, that is, without acceding to the demands of those spaces through self-exclusion and instead performing equality with other accepted public behaviors, dance in public cuts a dissensual figure out of an existing community of sense, disincorporating what had seemed unified. Dance in public challenges the self-evidence of public spaces and their surveillance. Like politics and art in Rancière’s formulation, dances in public “widen gaps, open up space for deviations, modify the speeds, the trajectories, and the ways in which groups of people adhere to a condition, react to situations, recognize their images. They reconfigure the map of the sensible by interfering with the functionality of gestures and rhythms adapted to the natural cycles of production, reproduction, and submission.”110 Blurring the boundaries between dance and protest, indeed, making the distinction between dance and protest irrelevant by foregrounding a population whose aesthetico-political practices have been rendered illegible through this very distinction,111 Idle No More generates new forms of relationships and new forms of collective life by tying the heterogeneous elements of dance and protest together, both counting on and provocatively challenging the illegibility that such blurring brings about.
In The Emancipated Spectator, Rancière describes new forms of collective life as distinctly dissensual: “the intertwining of contradictory relations are intended to produce a new sense of community . . . a new political people. And it is the anticipated reality of that people.”112 Aesthetic practices can therefore prefigure a community to come, perhaps even create a new world, by imagining and staging a possible reality that is not yet but may be. Participating in this reimagining, Rancière notes that “many contemporary artists no longer set out to create works of art. [They want to] induce alterations in the space of everyday life, generating new forms of relations.”113 In his essay “Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics,” Rancière aligns this social turn, the desire to contribute to repairing the social world or a broken public sphere, with a shift in politics that disarms dissensus in the face of terror and exception114 and subsequently substitutes artistic practices for politics “in the construction of dissensual stages.”115 Art, however, has responded by substituting ethics for politics as artists seek to offer “a testimony of co-presence” or “[witness] to a common world.”116 Both political and aesthetic spheres, Rancière seems to suggest, have largely abandoned dissensus. To remain in the realm of critical art, Rancière argues that art must negotiate two tensions, “[keeping] something of the tension that pushes aesthetic experience toward the reconfiguration of collective life and something of the tension that withdraws the power of aesthetic sensoriality from the other spheres of experience. From the zones of indistinction between art and life it must borrow the connections that provoke political intelligibility.”117 These, in essence, are the tensions that both Idle No More and Flo6x8 maintain in their dance mobs. They stage continuities between art and life with their performed assertions of a collectivity that does not yet exist and from which they are excluded, while distancing themselves from everyday life in their use of music, song, and dance as a multidimensional performance through which to convey or portray a vision of a collectivity in which they, too, find a place. Neither Idle No More’s Round Dances nor Flo6x8’s flamenco dance mobs promote social healing at the expense of the communities’ own erasure; rather, it is only through mutual recognition that healing is possible, and mutual recognition requires appearance.
After the ignominious 2008 collapse of the financial services firm Lehman Brothers and the subsequent chain reaction in the form of a global economic downturn, the anticapitalist group Flo6x8 began staging flamenco flash mobs in Spanish banks and financial institutions (where threat of arrest is ever present) to protest the banking system and austerity measures as the economic situation worsened in Spain and around the globe. An “activist-artistic-situationist-performative-folkloric collective”118 named for the popular flamenco rhythm, Flo6x8 is a “group of average folks” brought together by their love of flamenco and criticism of the financial system: “Among the concerns that motivate us, what stands out is the excess not only of the earth’s pillaging by the banks, but also the general silence which meets this destruction, its naturalization and the impunity with which it is perpetrated.”119 Refusing to be silent themselves, they engage in civil disobedience and direct action in the form of flamenco dance and song, critiquing the financial system that governs so many aspects of contemporary life. Singing their laments to ATMs and dancing their outrage to bank tellers, Flo6x8 interrupts business as usual, filling bank lobbies with the droning sounds of complaint, furious heel strikes, and stinging gestures. As momentum builds and dancers take over additional space, other participants’ palmas—hand claps that mark the complex rhythm—offer support and extend the dancers’ energetic reach. Palmas are a way of bringing dancers and musicians into sync but also of bringing a community of performers and audience members into being, focusing energy and attention, amplifying presence, and bringing one’s own body to bear on a situation.
Flo6x8 maintains the strict structure that dance mobs have familiarized, with a singer calling out a few bars before being joined by a dancer, and then a few more dancers, until an organized group emerges from what had appeared to be bank patrons awaiting service. Whereas a sizable majority of dance mobs are accompanied by recorded pop songs (Idle No More’s Round Dances are a notable exception), Flo6x8 creates original lyrical and musical compositions for their events. These songs protest the bank bail-outs and policies that further burden the Spanish people with bank debt even as their own debts are not forgiven. They poignantly reflect on the experiences of austerity, joblessness, and even homelessness: “The attitude and the will / my friend, has changed. . . . You have lowered my salary / and put up the price of everything / To hold my own / I’ve even had to pawn the parrot / and I’ve even had to sell my house.”120 The “artivists” have no delusions about their ability to influence economic policy. They consider the entire banking apparatus to be a giant iceberg, of which ATMs and local branches are the mere tip, and they are like “Lilliputians scratching at its frigidly inhuman fissures with ice axes made out of cardboard rock.”121 Like a submerged iceberg hidden from sight, the enormous hidden infrastructure of financial capitalism and workings of the invisible hand of the market cannot be countered. Flo6x8 understands that facing off with the banking system cannot be the objective of their collective activism. Global capital neither resists nor acquiesces—it flows, picking up and incorporating any positive or negative forces into its current. At best, some of its flow can be redirected, siphoned off to support and possibly grow alternatives to global capital. But this is not to say that Flo6x8’s efforts are futile. As they say, “pero por algún sitio hay que empezar”—you have to start somewhere.122
Commenting on Flo6x8’s political orientation, Pepe el Moody’s, a pseudonym playing on the credit rating agency, argues that protest is deeply embedded in the history of flamenco but that artists have forgotten. “They have forgotten that flamenco is the music of exploited people, of an exploited country.”123 Flo6x8 brings back indignation and confrontation as core elements of flamenco, recalling the Romani people’s misery and full-bodied protest against suffering. It is not only the music that expresses this disgruntlement, el Moody’s clarifies: “it’s not just words—the body of a flamenco dancer is rebellion in itself.”124 Bringing material realities back to the fore to counter the immateriality of financial capitalism, Flo6x8 has literalized OWS’s ballerina on the bull. Knowing that they cannot confront the financial system itself, they dance on its surrogates. The flamenco body, a body, el Moody’s says, that is itself a rebellion, dances defiantly. It makes a space for itself in which it can appear while at the same time being out of place or where it does not belong, and thereby it risks not being seen for what it is. Flo6x8 blurs the artificial boundaries between art and protest, reclaiming flamenco as a physical and musical practice of dissent.
Dancing in public calls upon viewers (onsite, but especially online) to make sense of these aesthetic scenes. This sense making is not only a reordering or reconfiguring of the perceptual field; it is a creative act: viewers must make sense of what appears before them in order for it to appear as such. The sense that dance mobs perform is a sense of the common, but because our own time is dominated by the spatial and financial logics of free-market capitalism, the sense of the common is most certainly not the prevailing common sense. Being-in-common, which is to say, actively producing the common (as common spaces and as common world) and not simply drawing resources from it, defies the current consensus. When public spaces erupt with unexpected encounters, such as the dance mobs or solo dances discussed throughout this chapter, they break with ways of seeing or sensing that are common to a community within which social legibility takes place. However, the very assimilation of such ruptures into popular consciousness, the very act of making sense of these scenes, gradually pulls them in the direction of intelligibility. As more people stage dance mobs and post them online, they make more sense to viewers. Common sense is built through just such reperformance, which builds sense through a citational process. Even so, the fact that dance mobs make sense to viewers does not mean that they are therefore permissible from the perspective of property owners and business operators, as responses to Idle No More’s Round Dances and Flo6x8’s flamenco flash mobs demonstrate.
Dancing in public exchanges the common sense that regulates normative behavior in public spaces for a sense of the common, thereby performatively reworking non-places of surveillance into common spaces of appearance. Despite the absence of a right to do so, dance and dancers appear in public and, through their unauthorized gestural assertions, stake a claim to public spaces and refuse to be dispossessed of the common or of their ability to move in-common. Dance in public alters our collective relationship to public spaces in the United States and potentially around the globe by staging dissensus in a joyful, if sometimes zany, manner. Whether performed individually or as a coordinated group, whether choreographed or improvised, dancing in public is a practice of freedom,125 a playfully serious revolt that recuperates public spaces as common spaces. Recorded, edited, and posted online, each circulating dance in public “[changes] existing modes of sensory presentations and forms of enunciation . . . building new relationships between reality and appearance, the individual and the collective.”126 Dance in public redistributes public spaces along new axes of visibility and affect, offering a dissensual encounter through the simple pleasure of dancing in public. In its rupture of the sensorial field, it presences both common spaces and a corporeal common reflected in its radical embrace of that which cannot be owned: the gestures and movements of dancing, which I explore further in chapter 4.
But not everyone can make this claim to the common-place of dance and public space. In the United States, street performers have come under fire as policies regarding public behavior have begun to shift. New York City now requires the purchase of permits to perform in or near parks and restricts busking locations to a mere one hundred spots,127 and plainclothes police officers have begun targeting dancers on the subway,128 resulting in arrests and fines of up to $1,000 for noncompliance.129 Notably, performing on ferries, such as the Staten Island Ferry at the heart of Girl Walk//All Day, is explicitly prohibited.130 Indeed, cities across the United States, including Las Vegas, Seattle, Venice Beach, Boston, and Kansas City, have similarly sought to ban or restrict street performance, and many performance groups claiming First Amendment protection have brought their cases to the courts, with uneven success. One wonders, then, if Girl Walk is “pro-public intervention” as Krupnick describes, who assesses the desirability of such interventions, and with what authority? From the film’s beginning moments when Marsen sprawls herself along an escalator handrail, the Girl demands accommodation from those around her, and by and large, they acquiesce. The film’s viewers vicariously experience the exhilaration of taking up space in this way, feeling what it might be like to dance whenever and wherever they wanted, taking up however much space they wanted. But in proposing that all public spaces are common spaces, or spaces in which to elaborate a sense of the common, Girl Walk//All Day also demands that we consider where reclaiming or materializing the common by taking back public spaces might displace others, exacerbating rather than ameliorating unequal access to the performatively enacted common.
In the next chapter, these questions take on even greater import as the common moves from local sites and public spaces toward a global expansiveness. For such work, the crowd becomes a key creative agent and resource as artists invite contributions and mine collective archives to craft a common world through a praxis of being-with. Just as dancers must continuously assert the public character of public space, however, the common world produced through crowd contributions is never final or total but is rather a partial, contingent, and temporary affective disposition.