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Early in koosil-ja’s new show I Am Capitalism, which ran at The Kitchen last week, she spoke through recorded voice-overs of a desire to acquire dances. She didn’t use that verb specifically, “to acquire,” but in a show as baldly titled as hers, it’s impossible to think of desires as anything other than desires to possess. She mentions the Joffrey Ballet; she mentions dances she has seen in Bahia, Brazil. Around the same time, on the four video monitors that sit low at the four corners of the dance space she has created, images start to appear, along with music — images of the first dance she desires.
I couldn’t be sure while I sat watching it, but the music sounded like Stravinsky, and upon returning home I confirmed it. The monitors were playing the final dance in The Rite of Spring. In that final act, the woman who has been chosen to enact the ritual dances herself to death.
Looking with 2015 eyes, it’s hard not to cringe upon seeing both Rite and koosil-ja’s reenactment of it. The version playing on the screens is itself a painstaking reenactment by the Joffrey Ballet (in both 1987 and 2013) of the 1913 original. What’s striking today is the images the dance creates, with its exaggerated costumes and makeup that evoke indigenous cultures of both Asia and the Americas. The dance and the imagery it creates are a fantasy of an indigenous culture, a trope of supposed authenticity that returns again and again in European and US culture. And there is something repulsive about watching it — the sharp, heavy music, the early modernist stabs at “primitive” movement and aesthetics. “This is our fantasy,” koosil-ja says in the voice-over at some point in her mimicry, and it is a disturbingly vapid fantasy. Reading between the lines of the voiceover and the dance, she actually seems to be saying: I want the idea of this thing, I want to just be able to take it, and I want to wear its faux specificity so that I can be imbued with its meaning.
This show made me think of nothing so much as the Rachel Dolezal story, specifically an essay that I read in its aftermath that focused on the desire for specificity in the face of bland assimilation.
In the first two acts of her piece, koosil-ja used literal mimicry to construct her dances, attempting to move her body like the people on the screens. First The Rite of Spring and then, in the second act, Afro-Brazilian dances followed by a mash-up of African diaspora dances. What was different in the second dance was that instead of someone else’s interpretation of a culture, the videos showed members of the culture enacting real rituals, real dances, not imagined ones. Which raised questions about where the critique in the show actually fell, or if it was there at all. Was she critiquing the acquisition of others’ cultural aesthetics or her own participation in that process? That’s a very thin and troubled line these days.
Late stage capitalism has created a massive and ever-expanding monoculture. When people complain about the spread of Western culture, in fact, it seems, they are complaining about the spread of US-style capitalism and its many products — films, music, clothing, food, and, especially, brands. These products and the thin but pervasive culture that surrounds them can quickly eclipse local tastes and interests, erasing specificity.
At first it’s intoxicating — flashing images, sugar-infused everything, the false promise of status and pleasure. Then quickly there is emptiness that then drives a desire for more, for something else. What’s next? Watching koosil-ja’s show, most of what I thought about was that desire for meaning in the face of capitalism-induced emptiness, and the simultaneous capitalist desire to purchase meaning, to acquire it, and then to discard its inconvenient or weighty bits — to mimic its movements, but nothing more.
The show was too long and very much in need of an edit.The third and fourth acts were largely superfluous. The third could be described as fun with technology and, more than anything, evoked clowning with the aid of a very expensive set of projectors. The fourth act was precisely the kind of meaninglessness that a lack of specificity evokes, that capitalism offers — a pseudo-spiritual act built from a vague understanding that most religions have central symbols, clerical dress or uniforms, and rituals. Here it was a mute farce, a silent march of weak aesthetics, a joke that went on too long. Koosil-ja could have achieved the same with less. Then she might not have lost so much of the audience, which she did about halfway through the uninterrupted, over two-hour-long performance.
For me the show served as more of a warning. One of the things that capitalism sells best these days is precisely the thing that it helped take away — cultural and personal specificity. And so I left wondering about a set of questions that have been on my mind a lot lately: how do you preserve difference without assimilating it, but also without fetishizing authenticity? And how do you do both of those things while allowing for the fact that change is both natural and inevitable, that cultures are not static and never have been. As much as this show was about capitalism’s dance to the death, for me the ideas it evoked had more to do with the ways in which capitalism replaces cultures with stuff, and I left wondering where resistance to that has been successful.