Alex Baczynski-Jenkins

Creating fragmentary choreographies that take movement from everyday life, the British-Polish artist generates a non-normative space of intimate estrangement—a space of friendship, desire and queer alliance.

Did you train as an artist or a choreographer? How did that evolve?

I took part in a pilot project at the Universitat Der Kunste in Berlin, which was an experiment in working with an expanded choreographic practice. I was later invited to Beirut to participate in the Home Works Program at Ashkal Alwan; it was focused on performative practices that year, which really influenced my work. Now my practice is in both gallery and theatre contexts.

What did you make in Beirut?

I was living on the seafront at the Corniche. It’s a favorite place for people to roller blade, so I began to do that. Alongside this, I was reading Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, which is very choreographic and speaks to the spatial arrangement of relations and the possibility of setting things, and each other, in motion. In the end, I developed a choreography for roller blades during which the performers would recite poetry to one another.

Was that the work you showed at the Swiss Institute?

Yes, although there have been several iterations. I often take mundane queer activities or social choreographies and develop a work from them. I work by finding affinities between things, materials that I place in dialogue with each other to produce a slippage. This also happens in collaboration with the performers—I’ll approach them with some materials and structures to which they in turn answer. I always observe the spaces in between, the relational and how that allows you to make a space together—a space of friendship, desire and queer alliance.

Who are the performers you work with? Are they dancers? Friends?

It’s a combination. I generally meet people through friends or chance encounters. Serendipity. In viewing the work, there is a sense of watching friends being together.

Are there particular artists or choreographers who have influenced you?

Aside from the explicit poetry references, Felix Gonzalez-Torres has influenced elements of this, such as “clocking” each other in Us Swerve, while Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993) influenced the gesture of painting nails blue.

Gonzalez-Torres dealt with potent ideas of queer activism in a very poetic and pleasurable way, breaking complex ideas down to simple, beautiful gestures. Your approach to these references feels akin to this.

Absolutely. I relate to his way of working by zooming in on and de-synchronising simple, found materials that manifest a certain affect and its politics. In my work these are gestures, movements and spoken word. This procedure can result in more minimal work, for example Federico (2015), which is an 8-minute choreography just for the hands, in which two performers touch each other’s fingers in various constellations. Or it can lead to more composite choreographies in which I stage a dialogue between various sources.
For example the work I presented in London for Block Universe was constructed around two sources. The first came from being in conversation with artist Andrew Hardwidge, who was also a performer in this work. He introduced me to an entry in Pascale’s Pensées, where the King dances to distract himself from sadness. Pascal was writing about Louis XIV, who set up dance as a discipline in the Western tradition. We put this in relation to Throbbing Gristle’s “Discipline.” Genesis P-Orridge’s raw, unruly wildness was relearned as a piece of choreography, thereby making a discipline out of it and working with that tautology and absurdity. I like things that reflect upon subjectivity and the medium of choreography itself—choreography in equal parts as discipline and as an escape from discipline.
How do you feel about the performances being translated to a gallery setting? There’s a kind of voyeurism that occurs, where one set of people is performing, another is looking, and there is no demarcation between stage and audience.

The voyeurism of witnessing intimacy is interesting to me. I’m interested in the audience “being with” an intimate situation, one that is not necessarily being performed for you, but is occurring in the same space. I am trying to bring attention to the materiality of movement, gesture and affect, which often occurs through repetition. It’s not about objectifying the performers, but trying to visualize the materiality of relations.

The emotional matter that occurs between the performers is the “object.” This “object” is the stuff that lives in-between the systems, structures and languages we use to communicate, which I guess you could describe as affects.

These affects are the materials of the work, while the choreographic montage is a catalyst for an experience. For my exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery, I wanted to work with various modes of time, so the exhibition unfolds through “episodes” and “fugues.” The episodes will occur every two weeks, while between these are fugues, where we zoom in on specific moments from the previous episode and extend, re-distribute and diffract them. There will also be periods when the gallery is closed while we rehearse, so the space becomes a production house, too. It’s quite a complex structure, and everyone will have a different experience of the work.

What are the ideas behind the work?

The work is about the overlaps of desire, distraction and nothingness, whether it be the of“doing nothing” that happens in friendship and love, or the sense of nothingness that accompanies alienation and experiences of finitude, detachment, loss. It’s important for me that it’s always fragmentary, that there is resistance to complete representation. There is a group of eight performers who will appear in different constellations in each episode, using found social choreographies and cinematic, literary or dance and art historical references to create affinities across social practices, art forms and time. For example,“cutting shapes” from House music, or handshake choreography as a form of greeting between the performers. Throughout the work, there are different gestures of holding yourself—gestures that you use without thinking—for example, the way you’re folding your arms now and then touching your face—but which I’ll isolate and turn into a structured choreography.
The meaning of human gesture is fascinating to me. The structures and systems we exist in only allow us certain modes of behaving, which can feel very repressive. As much as you are dealing with a queer identity politic, there is also much that seems to address the broader structural systems we inhabit and the codes of behavior they enforce.

Yes, absolutely. I work with gestures and structures that are symptomatic. I choreograph ways of spending time together that are at once concrete and abstracted, so that they reflect on more base structures through which desire and subjectivity are mediated. I want to give space to the excesses and lacks in meaning. I don’t think the work is as much for a queer identity politic as for queer politics of dis-identification, which is about Othering, about being in the non-normative spaces of intimate estrangement.

It’s frustrating that these spaces are non-normative, seeing as they’re so often about relating to people freely. Of course, the concept of “freedom” has long been used to politically defend institutionalized misogyny, racism and homophobia. Especially now, everything that has lurked under the surface is leaking out, and so the spaces in which we relate to one another are becoming more binary, more polarized. There’s no space between the “normative” and the “non-normative.”

I think “non-normative” is exactly about spaces that don’t operate through exclusion, but rather create a vulnerable commons which resist structures of hegemony and exclusion. One of the main means of disciplining now is the production of subjectivity and particular kinds of relations. Affect is now capital. What I’m interested in is working out the paradoxes of that complexity. The question is, how does one make hopeful work now?

Photography by Luis Alberto Rodriguez

Alex Baczynski-Jenkins (British-Polish, b. 1987) is an artist and choreographer who lives and works in Warsaw and London. His new body of work and largest commission to date, entitled “The tremble, the symptom, the swell and the hole together” is currently on view at the Chisenhale Gallery in London through 12 March.

Kathy Noble is a curator and writer based in London. She was the Curator of the 2016 “Art Night,” a new festival of site-specific works organized by the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London.