Looking at the moon: Davide-Christelle Sanvee and the embodiment of Swiss performance history

The below text is related to a recent article I wrote for Republik, which can be read in German here.

On a recent Saturday night, I’ve taken a front-row seat in the lobby of the Museum Tinguely, awaiting the start of a performance by the artist Davide-Christelle Sanvee – though it’s not, properly speaking, a seat at all, but one of several brightly colored, horizontally-laid “trees” repurposed here as furniture from the stage set of Alte Tiere Hochgestapelt, a performance/opera/musical revue by performance veterans Les Reines Prochaines that played at the Theater Basel last year. In fact, this recycling and reworking of Swiss performance history is just one of many in evidence tonight.

Former “trees” now serve as seating in the Museum Tinguely’s lobby, where a forest of screens show performance documentation and interviews. They are turned off during live performances.

I’ve come to the Tinguely for an evening of performances that are part of an exuberant, summer-long program attached to its new exhibition “Bang Bang: Translokale Performance Geschichte:n,” which seeks to reckon with the history of performance art in Switzerland. Those who keep up a bit with the Swiss performance scene might be surprised that the Tinguely has devoted itself to the history of performance are in Switzerland so soon after the equally ambitious project “Performance Process – An Approach to Swiss Performance Art from 1960 to the Present,” which took place in 2017-2018 as a collaboration with the Kaserne and Kunsthalle Basel. Those who keep up a lot with the Swiss performance scene, however, may recognize this new project as a response to that one, since many (especially German-speaking) artists felt left out of the story it told – particularly those based here in Basel, which boasts not only a strong performance art tradition, but also, through the scrupulous efforts of Performance Chronik Basel, meticulous documentation of that tradition (a book devoted to their work, Floating Gaps, was published by Diaphanes in 2011).

The ambiguous plural of the exhibition’s subtitle – Geschichte:n – is thus a reminder that performance has a different history depending on whom you ask, and where you look. The performance communities, university programs, and lineages of influence developed differently on each side of the artistic Röstigraben. In addition to the Tinguely’s own Séverine Fromaigeat, who was born and educated in Geneva, Bang Bang’s curators are artists Lena Eriksson, Muda Mathis, Chris Regn, and Andrea Saemann of Performance Chronik Basel. Though the latter are firmly based in German-speaking Switzerland, they have made a deliberate effort to include artists, art spaces, and scenes from throughout the country. In the Tinguely’s lobby, clusters of monitors display a dizzying collection of interviews with performance artists and video documentation of their works, a mere taste of the exhibition’s richness and the research that went into it. For her series Die Ahnengalerie, artist Elaine Rutishauser offers portrait sessions with Swiss performance artists at the museum nearly every weekend (with advance registration), hoping to provide an even fuller picture of the contemporary scene.

Installation view of “BANG BANG: translocal hi:stories of performance art.”

Yet the exhibition also recognizes that photographs, videos, interviews are not enough. It seeks to grapple with the inevitable question of what it means to study and exhibit performance art, a medium said to defy such static documents, to be always in flux, always in the process of disappearing. These questions that have become increasingly pressing as works of performance art become canonized by art history and enter museum collections, and they are at the heart of my scholarship as part of the research project “Performance: Conservation, Materiality, Knowledge,” hosted by the Bern Academy of the Arts and sponsored by the Swiss National Science Foundation. They also came up during a two-day conference this week at the Tinguely, “Revolving Documents #1: Narrations of the Beginnings of Performance Art,” in which scholars, curators, and artists – including myself and my colleagues Hanna Hölling, Valerian Maly, and Emilie Magnin – gathered to debate performance’s past as well as its future.

Art conservation has traditionally focused on maintaining the material integrity of objects made of canvas, wood, stone, metal, or anything else. But how does one conserve an artwork made of moving bodies and living breath? Some pieces of performance art lend themselves to reproduction via script, score, or choreography, as in theater, music, and dance, but many do not. Their power, many feel, is in their singularity and ephemerality. Without leaving behind tangible objects, are performance works condemned to eternal purgatory in the form of photographs, video recordings, and written descriptions? Or might we conceive of a living form of preservation, one that uses performance itself as a tool of conservation?

One answer may be found in the controversial “reperformances” of Marina Abramovic, in which she presents past performance pieces by other artists (Seven Easy Pieces, 2005) and in turn allows her works to be reperformed by others, as in her 2010 retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Critics and scholars have often complained that these new versions lack the authenticity and historical specificity of the originals, but it is provocative to consider these works as a form of conservation, allowing vanished performances to live on – albeit in a new form. Like a translation, a reperformance is inevitably a new work of art. Yet it allows contemporary artists and audiences to build a living relationship with art from the past.

Moreover, Abramovic is hardly the only artist to consider reperformance’s possibilities for revisiting the past in the present, thereby extending a performance work’s life into the future. A glance at the Swiss art calendar is enough to confirm that reperformance plays a not significant role in the contemporary scene. At the conference a few days earlier, performance artist and professor Valerian Maly, a colleague of mine at the HKB, revisited his own work Untitled (GLAS STERN) (2000), done in collaboration with his partner Klara Schilliger, in a lecture-performance that involved demonstrating his technique of fracturing thin panes of glass in a particular pattern by balancing them on wooden pellets and walking upon them. This year’s Art Basel Parcours included a film by Manon der Boer, Persona (2022), in which dancer Latifa Laâbissi reconstructs the famous – and almost entirely lost – Witch Dance (1926) of early modernist dancer Mary Wigman. Parcours also presented a performance by the artist known as Puppies Puppies (Jade Guanaro Kuriki-Olivo), who restaged Ana Mendieta’s 1973 performance Untitled (Rape Scene) – itself a reconstruction of the scene of the rape and murder of a woman named Sarah Ann Ottens. In fact, earlier this very evening, a performance by the Bern-based artist Gisela Hochuli, In touch with some P’s, incorporated gestures, props, and quotations from other Swiss performance artists.

Gisela Hochuli performs In touch with some P’s at the Museum Tinguely.

For some contemporary artists, reperformance is about revivifying one’s own past, or communing with lost ancestors; for others, it is an homage to teachers and friends, a way of figuring one’s place within a community. The theme of tonight’s program is “Saga;” the performers – in addition to Hochuli and Sanvee, there are Paul Maheke and DARTS Collective/Claudia Grimm – have been invited to consider the role of history in their present. Other weekend programs of performances, talks, and video programs address themes of “Flüchtige Tat” (1-3. Juli), “Soziale Eleganz” (8. Juli–7. August) and “Direktübretragung” (12-14. August). It all culminates in „Freckly Night“ (19-21. August), a celebration of the exhibition. „Saga,“ the first theme, acknowledges both the past and future of performance. As the curators note, Although performance is a young medium, it already has plenty of stories to look back on.” They ask, “How might this legacy be made productive?” Perhaps reperformance offers an answer.

As I wait for Sanvee’s performance to begin, Pascale Grau, an experienced performance artist and writer, sits down next to me on the artificial tree. I know Grau’s name from reading about her work, but I only recognize her face because, having spent the previous two days in this very room for the conference, it appeared to me dozens of times on the aforementioned monitors, looping through videos of her works. Now, the monitors are dark in deference to the live performance – no mere document – about to take place.

I take the opportunity to ask Grau about the afterlives of performance – whether she thinks that it can be preserved in a living form. She believes it can, and is critical of those who insist performance’s only afterlife can be in documentation. When we focus too much on photographs and videos, she tells me, it’s like when someone points at the moon – and we stare at their finger instead of that luminous celestial body. In recognition of these difficulties, the artist-curators of “Bang Bang” have taken an experimental approach. For example, while professional photographers are here to capture the performances tonight, there are also people sketching and molding clay as they watch, trying to leave traces of the pieces in another, more interpretive medium. The curators have also recognized artists’ own contributions to the conservation of performance, for example by inviting the established performer Hochuli and the younger Davide-Christelle Sanvee, whose performance is about to begin. Grau and I hush as Sanvee takes her place at the center of the room that serves as a performance stage.

This evening, Sanvee is looking squarely at the moon. Her piece, La performance des performances, is a kind of anthology of recent performance pieces from artists in the Romandie. (The curators encouraged her to focus on the region; the artist was glad of a criterion to narrow her extensive research.) Sanvee chose 15 works by a variety of artists, which she performed – or rather, reperformed – in chronological order, from Yan Duyvendak’s My name is Neo (for fifteen minutes) from 2000 to Philippe Wicht’s Freakshow, which Wicht performed in May of this year. Over the sound system, a recording of Sanvee’s voice announces the artist, title, and year of each performance, to which Sanvee devotes herself for a few minutes until a businesslike “ding!” announces that it is time to move on to the next. All told, the performance takes about 45 minutes – a rather accelerated tour of the past 22 years.

The relatively recent span of time draws a continuous line from near history to the here and now of tonight. It also acknowledges the rapid aging of performance works: While a painting from twenty years ago might still be considered new, a performance is sometimes considered lost to history the moment it concludes. Sanvee’s choice of relatively recent works, then, is not at all precipitous, but instead reflects an understanding that these pieces are already in danger of being forgotten. They include works by artists she admires as forerunners, such as Duyvendak, Yann Marusich, and Maria La Ribot (the last of whom also performed at the Tinguely on June 25), as well as others that Sanvee views more critically, such as Nagi Gianni’s 2018 Hunters or Simon Senn 2020’s Be Arielle F.

Right away, the performance announces its intention to play with ideas and expectations of identity. In Duyvendak’s My name is Neo (for fifteen minutes), a fight scene from The Matrix plays on a screen as the performer, who wears black clothing and sunglasses, attempts with humorous inadequacy to mimic Keanu Reeves’s special-effects-assisted movements. Though Duyvenak’s timing is perfect, his medium – that of live performance – has no hope of replicating the efforts of Hollywood studio. Tonight, in Sanvee’s performance, Duyvenak’s moves are themselves subject to reinterpretation – and to failure: Sanvee cannot become Duyvenak anymore than Duyvenak can become Neo. Like the original, Sanvee’s take on this performance was funny, but it also introduced a complex layering of embodiment and appropriation: Sanvee, a Black woman, takes on the role of a white male artist copying the moves of a character who learns that his identity, his very body, are a mere illusion – and whose enemy, the ubiquitous Agent Smith, can occupy the body of anyone he chooses. As in Duyvenak’s original performance, the point is not for the performer to vanish into a role, but to lay bare the mechanisms of transmission.

Davide-Christelle Sanvee reperforms Jan Duyvendak’s My name is Neo (for fifteen minutes) (2000).

It’s worth noting here – as I introduce the first photograph of Sanvee’s performance – that the documentation is strikingly bad. This is, I believe, no fault of the photographer’s. The busy lobby, with its screens and upholstered tree-benches, distracts the viewer’s eye, as do the various props that Sanvee has used already in her performance and simply left in place as she rushes to the next. I should have expected this, but I was shocked when I saw them. Sanvee’s presence and energy were so magnetic that, while I was watching her perform, everything else slipped away. Photographs, of course, cannot convey this – hence the potential and power of reperformance. They can, however, recall visual details that I failed to notice while I was watching the performance itself. For example, while Duyvendak wore a black outfit that recalled Neo’s looks in the film, in the image above, we see that Sanvee threw a beige trenchcoat und pale-rimmed sunglasses over the tan jumpsuit that she wore throughout La performance des performances. In the film, Neo and his love interest, Trinity, have ghostly-pale skin that contrasts with their dark garments; here, Sanvee reverses this, becoming a negative image of these Hollywood hackers. Her appearance contrasts not only with Duyvendak’s, but also with his source material.

Sometimes, Sanvee’s own identity reveals disturbing elements in her source material. In Nagi Gianni’s Hunters, performed here at the Tinguely in 2018 on the occasion of the Swiss Performance Art Award, one performer, arrayed in a blue jumpsuit and red-painted face, cavorts in an animalistic fashion both silly and uncomfortable: she flaps her arms like a bird’s wings and pretends to eat lice picked from her body. Meanwhile, she is stalked by a hunter in head-to-toe camouflage who peers at her – and the audience – from behind a mirrored Jagdschirm. In Sanvee’s reinterpretation of this piece, she is both hunter and hunted. She inspects the audience through a pair of binoculars and performs bestial behaviors, raising her leg to mime urinating on a microphone stand. Though ridiculous – many in the audience are laughing ­– I find the performance disturbing: Sanvee’s movements and her wide, frozen grin recall depictions of Africans as animal-like, sub-human. We viewers are transformed into voyeurs, forced to confront our expectations of how a performance artist should look and act. Laughter, Sanvee tells me later, can help an audience approach the more challenging aspects of her work.

Davide-Christelle Sanvee reperforms Nagi Gianni’s Hunters (2018).

Except for choreographer YoungSoon Cho Jacquet’s 2013 Hit me hard, a face-off between two dancers and two drummers – here rendered by Sanvee as a solo – each performance that Sanvee includes is by a white artist; about half of them are men. These choices are deliberate, allowing Sanvee to explore new facets of these works and reimagine their references. Sanvee’s performance displays an extraordinary flexibility – what might, in the related medium of acting, be called “range” – as she jumps from challenging feats of endurance (Anne Rochat, Blumer, 2010) to satirically-sexy posing (Julie Monot, Wodwo, 2016) to aggressive shouting at the audience – to be specific, at me: While performing Martina-Sofie Wildberger’s confrontational 2017 performance I WANT TO SAY SOMETHING, Sanvee screams those words repeatedly in my face. Just as Wildberger’s piece expresses a feminist struggle to make oneself heard, I understand Sanvee’s reperformance as a focused beam of frustration at the limits and prejudices she encounters. As Sanvee begins to repeat the last two phrases – “SAY! SOMETHING!” – I wonder if I am being asked to respond, to emerge from my role as passive viewer and take responsibility for my own identity.

Davide-Christelle Sanvee reperforms Martina-Sofie Wildberger’s I WANT TO SAY SOMETHING (2017).

This performance is unique in Sanvee’s oeuvre, and will not be repeated, though she has used a similar format before, and expects to do so again. For her performance on the occasion of winning the Swiss Performance Art Award in 2019, Sanvee assembled an abecedarium of past participants, choosing 26 performers with last names from A-Z and presenting a quick 1-minute excerpt of each’s work. Here, each of the 15 works is given more time and space to unfold. When Sanvee speaks of the work in English, she uses the verb imitate. I ask her if she used a different word in her native French, and she speaks of incarner – embodying, rather than copying, these fifteen performances. In taking on La performance des performances, Sanvee understands her body as a “living archive,” absorbing and transmitting the gestures, actions, and words of other artists.  In the process, their performances become her own, inflected with her own physical presence, experiences, and ideas.

Sanvee was born in Togo in 1993 and moved to Switzerland at the age of 7, when her father’s job brought the family to Geneva. From an early age, she used art – near-compulsive painting and drawing – to help her process the experience of exchanging one home for a less-than-welcoming new one, and the never-ending struggle of integrating into Swiss society. When she discovered performance at art school, Sanvee felt she had found the medium that would allow her to express the complexities of identity, territory, and social relationships that animated her artistic exploration – as well as her interest in defining and responding to interior and exterior spaces, for which she later received a master’s degree at Amsterdam’s experimental architecture program, the Studio for Immediate Spaces.

Growing up, Sanvee’s mother urged her to keep quiet about her experiences of racism and ostracism, hoping to ease their family’s entry into a sometimes hostile and suspicious Swiss society. Instead, Sanvee’s art makes those experiences tangible and present for audiences to whom they are otherwise invisible. For her final exam at Geneva’s Haute École d’art et de design (HEAD) in 2016, Sanvee subjected the jury to a version of the Swiss naturalization exam in the form of an obstacle course, proctored by performers who, like herself, had once passed that exam. Not one member of the white, Swiss-born jury succeeded. For Sanvee, this begged the question: Why should she have to struggle for what others receive automatically?

On September 16, 17, and 18, Sanvee will present a new work, À notre place, at the new Pavillon de la danse of Geneva’s Association pour la danse contemporaine, which moved last year to a new dance theater built by Lausanne architecture firm ON after decades of seeking a permanent home. Sanvee’s performance, based on research into the ADC’s archives, will explore its architectural history while investigating how bodies are welcomed, or not, into different spaces.

Critics of reperformance lament that a new version can never authentically repeat the lost, singular original. But part of the strength of Sanvee’s performance is that she ignores any strict definition of authenticity, instead underlining the impossibility of achieving it. In fact, she had considered more precise reenactments, including replicas of the original scenery and props, but ultimately decided to keep her “reincarnations” of the earlier performances “in the body”: La performance des performances would emerge not primarily from the materials used in the earlier performances, but from Sanvee’s careful study, embodiment, and resurrection of the movements, gestures, and attitudes of the original performers.

Davide-Christelle Sanvee reperforms Julie Monot’s Wodwo (2016).

Still, props and prosthetics sometimes play an important role, such as in the monstrous 360° wig – at once hilarious and terrifying – of Monot’s 2016 Wodwo, which she lent to Sanvee for this performance. Virtual reality gear allows male artist Simon Senn to inhabit the virtual body of a woman in Be Arielle F (2020). In his performance, Senn puts on make-up and describes his search for a female avatar that might approximate his own body. He then describes the intoxicating feeling of inhabiting that body, and performs in it: The headless, floating body of a naked white woman appears on a screen, moving her limbs when Senn moves his. Tonight, Sanvee takes on Senn’s role, repeating his monologue and inhabiting his avatar. Whose body is it – and how is identity transformed by being reinterpreted, reinhabited, and reperformed?

Differences between Sanvee and the artists she “incarnates” do not only underline the impossibility of precise repetition in reperformance, they also point to a radical reimagining of performance history – in this case, specifically Swiss performance history – in which Sanvee, as a Black female artist, plays a central role, rather than accepting the one she is so often assigned, that of an étrangère. In making these performances her own, she productively appropriates them, relocating their movements and their meanings into her own body, as well as her own subjectivity – for Sanvee here is no passive vessel for Swiss performance history, but rather a historian of it, writing it from her own perspective and insisting on the validity of her own body, background, and vision as both repository for and agent of that history. Tonight, watching Sanvee’s performance, I’m gazing squarely at the moon.

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