Throwing Gestures

  • An Introduction


Florian Bettel , Kaldrack, Irina , Konrad Strutz

Publisher, Location, Date

Verlag für Moderne Kunst, Wien, Österreich, 2021


Fine Arts, Geste, Cultural History, Cultural Studies, Protest, Political Science, Media Theory



2020 was defined by the spread of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, “lockdowns” in various shapes and forms, border control policies, the perpetuation and escalation of social and economic crises, “social distancing,” and the use of a broad variety of digital tools to connect with other people. In Global North societies, at least, social distancing regimes have required new modes of communication and community. Streaming, video conferencing, and the myriad modes of working from home have exacerbated the entanglement of both leisure, work, private, and public spheres. At the same time, new economic players have entered the field and privately-owned providers have expanded their influence, even in publicly funded sectors like education and healthcare. At the intersection of these sketched lines is the gestural: a wave as part of a video greeting, rounds of applause from balconies, attempts to replace handshakes with the elbow check, and so on. A video that enjoyed short-lived international attention at the end of March, “Dean Allyson Green’s Dance Video,” exemplifies the intersection of some of these dynamics. It features Allyson Green, choreographer and dean of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in New York, dancing to R.E.M.’s “Losing my Religion” in a webcam clip she ostensibly produced herself. The video opens with Green close to the camera fiddling with mouse and keyboard. As the song starts, she starts backing away to execute her first gesture. Still stooping, she drops her arms in front of her body, forearms raised, her palms towards the ceiling. As Michael Stipe sings “Now I’ve said too much,” Green shrugs, raising her eyebrows. The gesture can be interpreted as a deflection, an abdication of responsibility. Green dances for the next couple of minutes, sometimes looking directly into the camera, sometimes looking away. A floor lamp and sofa are in shot. There are pictures on the wall, a chest of drawers, and on a bookshelf with miscellaneous other items. What is the context, the origin, and the reception of this video? The school, part of the private New York University (NYU), had been closed and teaching reorganized for distance learning due to COVID-19 measures. As a consequence, some students demanded tuition refunds. They argued that online training and online teaching were inadequate, particularly for dance and performing arts, and that there was no access provided to spaces or technical resources. After some initial communication between the student representatives and the school administration, Green sent an email to students explaining that she had no authority to refund tuition fees and attached her “Losing my Religion” video. The video was shared on Twitter, where it went viral. Students said it was “tone deaf” and “embarrassing” and the dancing was called out as awkward and bad on social media. Green argued she had wanted to reach out to students using her “most authentic mode of expression,” which “has always been dance.” To Green, the R.E.M. song was “a piece that … speaks to frustration and disappointment, and that helped see me through the loss of 30 friends to AIDS, another difficult period for artists.” Gesture in Focus The dean’s video and the debate it ignited parallel some of the pressing questions discussed in this book. Firstly, the weight of gesture, or to be more precise, the new awareness of gesture in media. Green responded to students’ demands with the gesture of making and disseminating a video. She chose the medium of video and with it the opportunity to convey the gestural as her “most authentic expression.” The close articulation between media technology, self-promotion, and private expression directed at and intended to strengthen a specific community (the university students, administration, and faculty) is structurally similar to the use of social media apps. However, because universities are organized in a strongly hierarchical manner, Green’s gesture missed the mark. She made and shared a video to comfort her ‘friends,’ but the students saw her as the dean, the person who should address their financial distress. Green’s well-intentioned but empty gesture was not the response the students had been hoping for. Secondly, the video (and the ensuing debate) put the focus squarely on issues of inequality, economy, and privilege. According to Green, the intention behind the video gesture was to strengthen the community of students and create an (emotional) link between administration, teaching staff, and students. But this (personal) connection and community building on an affective level was an inadequate response to the students’ economic pressures. The debate is not about community building, but about the relationship between individuals and institutions—and the political economy of that relationship. Clearly it is imperative to differentiate who is making the gesture, with what motivation, and from which position (of power). Thirdly, Green’s video highlights developments that were already observable in longue durée well before the pandemic, but which had been masked by other discourses. Students commented online that Green’s gesture was awkward, out of place, repulsive. Video has long been a given in self-promotion and communication. Conventions have stabilized with regard to length, rhythm, and kinds of performance, and because of that, the way a gesture is executed and the contexts in which it is perceived and interpreted are critical. So regardless of the first two points mentioned above, Green’s video as a work of art is awkward and deserves criticism on an aesthetic level; even more so because Green, as a choreographer, is responsible for the artistic training at the university. Throwing Gestures Outlined The chapters in this book present several different perspectives on the phenomenon of gesture in its entanglement with media and politics, including the precarious plight of gig workers, new media and their specific uses in different cultures, protest movements, and the perpetuation of socio-economic crises over many decades; they highlight the quantification of work and leisure and ask which story gesture and art are telling about society and politics in the context of transformation driven by technology and media. Gesture is currently a hot topic across a variety of academic disciplines—politics, art, the media, technology—in spite of the fact that there is no clear-cut definition of the term “gesture.” The focus shifts according to context and interests, as does the concept of what a gesture actually is. This book evolved from an intense interdisciplinary examination of gesture’s topicality at the intersection of media and the political. Eight individuals with either art or research backgrounds formed the core of our artistic-academic research project, The Entanglement between Gesture, Media and Politics (EGMP). The formation of this heterogeneous group was precipitated by the following thesis: the significance of gesture beyond disciplinary boundaries can only be explored from a basis that has a breadth equal to that of the multiple voices of those who study and work with gesture. EGMP’s two-year-long research process was nourished by influences from the arts, culture, technology, and academia. The core group worked in close collaboration—at times with international guests—to develop an exhibition and symposium that combined artistic practice, academic study, extensive materials and, above all, new approaches in dealing with the subject of gesture. There are several basic assumptions in the papers and theories presented in this book. Firstly, gesture is a clearly defined physical movement. Secondly, it is a movement that is easily copied, and acquires the status of a sign that is accorded cultural significance through the manner of its use and the context in which that use occurs. What remains paramount is that gesture is also a form of conditioning, it shapes bodies and experiences. Gestures affect individuals, their experiences and their representations, but also the way they are perceived and interpreted. Issues of perception and forms of representation are also always linked to (technical) media. It is precisely through technical media that gestures are made perceptible. They are measured and become operative, and thus attain a certain agency. The research in this book is presented with an interdisciplinary approach which demonstrates that gestures can acquire significance when they are performed with a group of people; they can become a sign of the collective in themselves and contribute to forming and stabilizing communities. A community may be freed from being bound to a single location if a particular gesture is then registered and communicated via media. Such gestures, media-communicated signs that have significance for collectives, move in a variety of contexts, so a gesture that developed in one context may be reflected in one that looks very different. Colin Kaepernick’s “take a knee” protest during the US national anthem is a good example. It developed in a political context but was later used in a commercial context as part of a sporting equipment manufacturer’s advertising campaign. Gestures discussed in this book move from body to body and place to place through their representation in media. As elements of youth culture, signifiers for protest movements, and emulsifiers for political movements, gestures write transnational stories but are, at the same time, always distinctly individual. Gestures are always performed by individuals. The chapters in this book examine how gesture is embedded into technological media, its forms of representation, and the ways it enters economic relationships and politics (of gaze). The articles highlight the ways art, culture, and theory negotiate such relationships in three aspects. First, the chapters situate gesture and its im/perceptibility in media technology, examine decisive moments in technological development, and discuss new forms of visibility and the ensuing shifts of meaning in art, politics, and academia. Second, gesture and the political become an object of study with the focus on stakeholders, forms of the physical and media presence of gestures, and discourses on the subjects of work, economy, and protest. Third, aesthetic and aesthetic-medial practice aspects of gesture are addressed. The different operating systems in which the stakeholders are situated have just as much of a role to play as questions of media representation and political discourse. Forms of interdisciplinarity and collaboration are also highlighted. The different approaches and interdisciplinary collaborations of “Throwing Gestures” bring together conversations, artistic and essayistic contributions, and scientific articles. Image and text are juxtaposed and readers are invited to leaf through the collection, using it like a flip book. The research project’s associative, artistic, performative, and scientific examinations of the entanglement between gesture, media and politics thus find their continuation in contributions to the book as well as through the book as an artefact. It turned out to be a real stroke of luck to be able to continuously reflect on the spatial and temporal encounters between art and humanities and their respective appearances that arose in the course of the project (in exhibitions, performances, etc.). We were able to work iteratively on the research questions while contemplating where different disciplines meet and create new spaces. To include those insights and address Anna-Lena Wenzel’s advice to display “the interdisciplinarity and heterogeneity of the modes of expression it [the project] included … with increased focus on the border area of different approaches,” we created small “exhibition spaces” within the book, which offer space for a more essay-like approach. Designer Marie Artaker worked intensively with the authors to create a distinct layout for this book-within-a-book section marked by red introduction pages. The essays distill the collaborative process (or the “artistic-scientific complicities” as Stefanie Kiwi Menrath puts it) into the pages of this book and dare to create new modes of expression in relation to the book as a medium. Thus, the resonances and differences between art and the humanities open up image and thought spaces where the phenomenon of gesture becomes tangible.

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Published By: Florian Bettel | Universität für Angewandte Kunst Wien | Publication Date: 09 May 2022, 11:48 | Edit Date: 24 November 2022, 09:06