Instead of Performing: Interpreting the Work of Tino Sehgal

By James Graham


I was alone lying on a cold concrete floor moving slowly and following my breath, not permitted to talk or stand up. My thoughts wandered to strange places: childhood, ancestors, World War II, Performativity, dreams from months earlier, the positions of my body. I was dancing Instead of Allowing Some Thing to Rise Up to Your Face Dancing Bruce and Dan and Other Things (2000), a solo by Tino Sehgal. He constructs “situations” with people and voices as his chosen medium who then interpret—not perform—his work. His work has recently been presented at the Guggenheim, Tate Modern, and Documenta XIII in Germany. And from January 30-April 28, 2013, Instead of… will be presented at the Berkeley Art Museum as a part of their Silence exhibition.

My first introduction to Tino Sehgal’s work was at the New Museum in New York City in 2010. I was perusing the galleries and heard a woman’s voice echoing in the chambers. Like a siren luring me, I left my friends and sought out the songstress. Walking through rooms and corridors, I thought I must have imagined the voice. I heard it again, and dashed back to catch a museum guard saying someone’s name followed by “2002.” I stayed close until she sang again. For no perceptible reason, the guard, who never stopped pacing around the gallery, began to sing again, “This is propaganda. You know, You kno-ow,” then she said, “Tino Sehgal, 2002.”

I found my friends and asked, “Did you see that woman singing?!”

“Yeah, what was that about?”

“I’m not sure. I think she was a piece…of art.”

Little did I know that a year later I would be doing quite a different work by the same artist. Instead of… was presented at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts at the California College of the Arts in 2011 where I danced (or interpreted) it for four months. The project was comprised of mostly students, but at the behest of Tino Sehgal’s assistants, Frank Willens and his wife Ulrike who were setting the work, also included four community members: Carolina Czechowska, Christine Bonansea, Chris Devita, and myself. When the Berkeley Art Museum wanted to present this work in 2013, the four of us were in the area and were thrilled to revisit this profoundly impactful piece.

The unique circumstance of installing Instead of… at the Berkeley Art Museum was that neither Tino Sehgal, nor any of his assistants would be physically present in California.  Because I had spent four months with this work, and an additional two years ruminating on the experience, Sehgal, and his assistant Frank Willens, deemed that I was qualified to share what I knew with the new group. I was brought in to remount the solo, cast additional dancers, and make sure everything went smoothly with teaching the piece and getting it into the exhibition. It was a curious responsibility to be entrusted with an artist’s work, especially someone I had never met face to face. It felt like a game of telephone, passing the solo and all of its information from person to person. I prayed that the distance would not diminish the work. I would say things like, “This is what I remember in that moment,” and “Frank always told me to be careful of this.” This way of transmitting material reminds me of old-school modern dance companies where a dancer would learn their role from the person who performed that role before them.

In 2011, I remember being overwhelmed in rehearsals. We were learning a specific way they wanted us to connect to our breath, and how our breath was moving our bodies through the 16 positions (appropriated images from works by Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham) we passed through during the piece. It was not until I was actually in the space, by myself, and doing the piece that I began to fully understand Instead of… It took me places. To new ways of understanding it/myself. To a trance. To deep thought. To my breath. To an intense awareness of my body and its subtle shifts and connections. To new ways of understanding art, performance, and my relationship to what I was doing in life as an artist.

Tino Sehgal is an artist known for operating outside the expected paradigms and behaviors of traditional art presenters. He does not allow official documentation of his works. No video, sketches, or photography. He travels from Europe to America by boat—not plane. When museums purchase his work, his contracts are not written down; a notary listens to him verbally list his conditions, the museum staff agrees, then the notary exchanges the work after a handshake.  What is it that they exactly own? The idea? Title? How do museums deal with the interpreters? Because they sure don’t own them. Owning the rights to Instead of… is quite different from owning a painting. A painting does not need to change clothes, put their valuables somewhere, or use the bathroom.

I had an experience at the Wattis Institute during one of my shifts of Instead of… where, at closing, the front desk person did not come to relieve me. She usually whispered to me, “the gallery is now closed.” She went home and I remained in the space for another hour, because I had no way to tell time. The sun had fully set, so I got up, saw the other rooms’ lights were low, and realized that I was completely alone. I walked out of the dark and eerily silent gallery like I was in a Twilight Zone episode, stepping unsurely, darting my eyes wall to wall.

The standard approach to dealing with art must shift. How does a traditional museum own and deal with the considerations of a live piece? It may be new or jarring to think about the needs of a live body in gallery spaces. But when museums want these pieces they work to solve these issues.

We were filling out our paperwork at the Berkeley Art Museum and Curator Dena Beard said, in all seriousness, “I have to check to see if you guys are artistic materials or vendors.” There was no precedent for allocating and classifying us, and our bodies. Evidently, if you are people you need liability insurance to be in the museum, if you are art or “material” you do not. We joked that when we came to the opening night party and were asked, “Are you on the list?” we would reply, “No, that won’t be necessary. I’m Art!”

My experience in this piece, being art, altered my ideas of performance and presenting work/dance. Staying in an experiential place, rather than a presentational and performative place was difficult at times. And the reality was that if no one came through the gallery, I was alone, doing the piece for hours. I became curious about the “tree falling in the woods,” as in, how did I feel about being in a gallery by myself, if no one was around to “hear” or see the work. Was it possible to perform for oneself? I was the witness to my own creation and to my own ability, or inability, to remain present and connected to my movement experience. These struggles were a pleasure and kept me engaged with the work.

Much of what patrons saw was a moving body on the floor, face obscured, twisting inside plain pedestrian clothing. For some, I was a person on the floor, rather than a piece of art. One man stopped in his tracks, I heard his shoes scoot back on the floor, and he blurted out, “Oh my god! You okay, Man? You want me to get somebody?” As instructed, I continued with the piece, seemingly ignoring this man’s concern for me. Once his instinctual reaction subsided, he quickly understood that this was an intentional act, I was on the floor for him. I could not see his reaction, but he stayed in the space with me for a few minutes, then silently went on his way.

A week later, I heard the voice of a woman giving a tour to two people. They were in other rooms speaking about the art. I stayed connected. When she entered the space I was in, she remained silent for a moment and then said, “This one here is a Tino Sehgal. It’s one of my favorite pieces of his, so minimal. Look how it affects our interpretation of the other pieces in this space.” The two people mumbled in agreement, “Ahh, yes,” and “Mmm-Hmm. Interesting.” I felt oddly removed from myself. I was no longer an individual, I was a piece to be spoken about as if I were hanging on a wall. My “James-ness” had dissolved, not only to these patrons, but, in a way, also to myself as if I was watching from the inside.

I felt the most successful in this solo when I married the piece to me. When I was not concerned with my identity, and instead became Instead of Allowing Some Thing to Rise Up to Your Face Dancing Bruce and Dan and Other Things, I learned about giving myself over to the work, letting it lead me, guide me, and teach me to observe, listen, and partner with my body.

This article appeared in the March 2013 issue of In Dance.

James Graham is a dancer, teacher, choreographer, and writer. He was chosen by Ohad Naharin to be a certified Gaga teacher and to take part in his pilot training program of international dancers/ teachers. He currently teaches Gaga at SF Conservatory of Dance, Shawl-Anderson and LINES Ballet and around the country. He holds degrees from The Ohio State University (M.F.A.) and UC Berkeley (B.A.).