Exposure and Surveillance – Degrees of Corporeal Awareness

On the performance ‘Museum of Hygiene’ by Iva Sveshtarova and Willy Prager (Bulgaria) in the programme of 5th International Festival for Contemporary Dance and Performance Anstistatic 2012 in Sofia. By Gina Șerbănescu

            Power is not exercised simply as an obligation or a prohibition on those who ‘do not have it’; it invests them,  it is transmitted by them and through them; it exerts pressure upon them, just as they themselves, in their struggle against it, resist the grip it has on them. This means that these relations go right down into the depths of society, that they are not localized in the relations between the state and its citizens or on the frontier between classes and that they do not merely reproduce, at the level of individuals, bodies, gestures, and behavior, the general form of law or government; that, although there is continuity, there is neither analogy nor homology, but a specificity of mechanism and modality . . . They are not univocal. (Michel Foucault, `Discipline and Punishment`)


            Presented within the frame of Antistatic Festival  Sofia, Museum of Hygiene, a performance created by Willy Prager and Iva Sveshtarova reiterates a problematic which is strongly related to the idea of the exposure of the body, of the surveillance generated by this exposure and also connected to the status of being aware of the presence of the body within a redesigned performative context.

            The title of the performance is inspired by the name of the institution in Dresden, founded in 1912. Significantly enough, during Third Reich the museum was held under the  influence of the Nazis and became an institutional tool for promoting  the racial ideology and eugenics. No longer a place of exposing the body in itself, the museum became a generator of a politics of the body, which might be shaped into specific theories of surveillance and punishment that we can find in the works of Michel Foucault. (The museum owns now a thorough collection documenting the public promotion of bodily awareness and daily healthy behavior, mostly from the early 20th century onwards).

            This problematic of the body is reconsidered by Willy Prager and Iva Sveshtarova, in the light of the body placed in an increasingly important context of the performing arts – the one that cites an exhibition situation. (Since the 60’s performance art has established the practice to place the body in exhibiting contexts -like galleries or museums- where its daily function is switched to a condition meant to that generate new perspectives on the corporeal awareness).

            The specificity of this kind of awareness is clearly pointed out by the structure of the performance: it is constructed on three plans of artistic discourse. It starts with a “Declaration” inspired by Jana Sterbak’s installation (1993), combined with philosophical statements chosen from  Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment.

            The second plan consists in a re-enactment of the performance AAA AAA, by Marina Abramovic and Ulay (1978), integrated in the vision of Museum of Hygiene.

            The third phase is a physical confrontation between the two performers, this being the highest degree of corporeal awareness, a logical  deduction from the previous moments of the performance.

            Unlike in the video installation signed by Jana Sterbak, the message conveyed by its reformulation and through the filmed intervention is no longer a purely political one and enters into the sphere of the politics of the body. If in the original version the message was uttered by a man and it consisted in the The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, now we can see the two performers dizzingly „declaring” fundamental concepts imposed by Michel Foucault, as far as the problematic of surveilled, punished, exposed or trained  body is concerned, within the mechanisms of the disciplinary power.

            The contrast between the  state of mind of the two presences on the screen, the empty chairs in front of the TV set and the message of the text creates a form of bodily absence that announces the transcendence towards another form of corporeal exposure.



        Indeed, in the second part, the moment inspired by Marina Abramovic’s AAA AAA sets the performers (now present onstage) in a dialectics generated by the tension between the body and  the vocalization that replaces the language: the result is a game between  their connecting struggle and the power exchange between them.

          The third moment, the concrete confrontation, the wrestling, is the final piece in this newly designed „museum of hygiene”, where there is one more element that must be taken into account: the surveillance exercised by the watchers.

         The image of  bodies passing through the stages of the performance, through increasing degrees of corporeal presence, are filtered through the subjective perception of the spectators.

         In the end, this is the Museum of Hygiene: an unseen collection of  exhibited bodies, as many as the perceptions of the watchers. The degrees of bodily presence are „curated” by the concept of performance itself: it launches within a performative space the questions aiming at what the presence of the body means in contemporary art, but also related to the condition of the audience, placed at meeting point of contemporary dance, visual art and philosophical discourse.


Gina Șerbănescu is a dance critic from Romania

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