A Kiss Is Just A Kiss?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Of the many discussions and debates about Tino Sehgal, one that I’ve found most intriguing is the reaction to the sexual politics of “Kiss,” his slow-mo choreographic embrace.

Apparently, Sehgal decided that the work should be performed by male-female couples only – a choice that has understandably irked a lot of folks. I have heard—but only secondhand—that he felt same-sex couples would be "distracting." Have also heard various market-value theories (MoMA already owns the work, having paid a five-figure sum for the right to present it and loan it out, as it did to the Guggenheim for Sehgal’s recent solo show).

Whatever his reasoning, the stipulation strikes me as unfortunate and—at best—oblivious and short-sighted. So I was thrilled to hear that two artists, Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly of Moving Theater, have fashioned a response.

Without further ado, I present to you You Call This Progress? I hope you’ll watch the whole thing, read their statement below, and let me know what you think:

You Call This Progress? (2010) from Gerard and Kelly/Moving Theater on Vimeo.

Walking into the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum, we encountered a couple kissing on the floor. Noting the male-female casting of this couple, we returned to the museum over several days—and indeed the couples never varied from this heterosexual model. We discovered a casting call sent by email to members of the New York City dance community, announcing auditions for “dancers in couples (male/female) for the realization of Tino Sehgal’s Kiss.”

With very little but a hunch that we might eventually do something with the material, we started learning the choreography, first by memory and then by making an audio recording of the movements into our cell phones while visiting the exhibition. We observed the dancers and notated the score as accurately as possible and in real time: “His hands on her lower back…her arms around his shoulders…they turn ooooone huuuundred aaaaaaand eiiiiiiiighty deeeeeegrees.” After the first extended viewing we were able to decipher that the work consisted of a 16-minute choreography, composed of two identical 8-minute sequences (“he” and “she” swap roles mid-way through the duet), on a loop.

You Call this Progress? evolved into a performance as critique, addressing Sehgal’s insistence on conventional representations of heterosexuality in Kiss and the work’s attempt to disguise the labor conditions of its performance. Much of the choreography of Kiss was appropriated in our performance, but the male-female couples were replaced by same-sex couples (and a trio). Instead of a single couple for the entire duration of the performance, one partner was consistently replaced by a new performer, suggesting a more promiscuous, less fixed relation. We followed Sehgal's slow, meditative choreography—verbatim, at first—then began to intervene with movements outside of the missionary position.

We presented the work twice—once at the Volta Art Fair and again, slightly retooled, at Burning Bridges. We worked with the dancers Shane Ohmer and Erick Montes for the Volta performance, and Erick and Malcolm Low at Burning Bridges. (We regret our oversight and lack of imagination in failing to work with other kissing couples—two women, couples involving transgender individuals, even male-female couples who could manage to queer Kiss). Our audio recordings from the Guggenheim became the sound score for the performance. We created moments of direct address in which a dancer approached the microphone and stated his name, described his best kiss, and noted how much he had been paid for the performance and the amount of time he had rehearsed. In the second performance, we invited Gregg Bordowitz to read a poem he had written.

The project raised questions for us about appropriation and the inevitable inflation of Sehgal’s project through our own intervention. Were we only increasing the commodity value of the work by re-performing it, albeit with a different gender configuration? Did this reenactment with a difference manage to dislodge the work’s heterosexual assumptions, or serve only to once again make a spectacle out of queerness? And is the entire project of “queering,” like “outing,” too simple, hewing too close to the dominant representations we aim to subvert? Can a work ever be justifiably didactic while skirting the pitfalls of identity politics? A kiss is never just a kiss.


More in:

Comments [10]

Loretta from chicago

Yes, yes, you're gay, it's not the norm, there's discrimination, you made a performance, blah, blah, blah. Outside of a bunch of NYC hipsters with plenty to eat, who gives a shi*t?

Jan. 12 2011 05:20 PM
Claudia La Rocco from @ASU

Why do you think she holds such sway? It's interesting. I'm a lot more interested in the idea of mobile body archives - how performance lives through various practices, through the generations. It's pretty darn durable in that sense.

Apr. 21 2010 01:04 PM
ryan kelly

Yes, Claudia, I think you are right to call me out on this. I moved too quickly to compare these works, never a very productive way of thinking about a work's merits.

I think Peggy Phelan's writing on performance floats around so many contemporary practices, mine included, and I'm not exactly sure what to do with it anymore. I'm hungry to move from questions of immateriality to materiality, from the presence of the performers to what they are doing. I was struck by the power of one move in Hassabi's piece--as she crunched her side and curled her spine, looking toward her partner. Time stood still; it's that shape--its form, its tone, its timing--that burns an impression in my head. That's the material. She could probably do that on a street corner (or a museum rotunda) and I'd feel just as affected.

Apr. 20 2010 10:51 AM
Claudia La Rocco from Arizona State University

Hmmm, Ryan - why does there have to be one particular type of love that is needed? In dictating what sort of relationships we see on stage and negating the terms and ends of "Robert and Maria," aren't you in danger of falling into some of the very same traps you rightly call Sehgal out on?

That work is after very, very different things from the work of Hayes (which I adore - here's a clip for those who might not be familiar: ). Isn't there room enough for both (regardless of whether one thinks the work succeeds or not)? Isn't the goal to have a spectrum of choices and possibilities, not simply one acceptable framework?

I dunno that Phelan is a good reference point for Hassabi and Steijn, or that the two are presented as a unified whole - when I saw the work on Friday it seemed there was a lot of struggle and conflict between them. Politics comes in many different guises.

Apr. 19 2010 11:18 PM
Ryan Kelly from the Bush

Thank you to Counter Critic for adding some powerful commentary to the issues at stake. I highly suggest clicking the link and reading further about the regime of hetero-normativity (sorry, WNYC editorial staff...:) I also wanted to add a few words on a performance I encountered this weekend that I thought could be thought through in relation to these and other attendant questions of presence/purity/ephemerality. I saw Maria Hassabi and Robert Steijn perform at Danspace on Saturday night and was struck by how this contemporary dance work made itself available to many of the same critiques Brennan Gerard and I raised around Sehgal's KISS. In this work Hassabi and Steijn stare at each other for 70 minutes while moving slowly in place. The work is dressed in questions of love and held up by metaphysical discourses of presence and ephemerality. As if drunk on Peggy Phelan, the work (aptly named "Robert and Maria") seems to be just about that--its two subjects who are presented in this drawn-out embrace as whole, coherent, unified beings in a relation of pure (a-poltical and ahistorical) love. Hold this up against Sharon Hayes' current installation at the Whitney Biennial--also a work addressing and invoking love--and one is pained to see comparison. For Hayes, love is understood as political desire, a site for social transformation and, yes, revolution. This is the kind of love we urgently need. Hassabi is right to stretch toward the affective, but on what terms and to what end? Short of politics a love story becomes exactly that, a rehearsal of long-abandoned Romantic tropes. But excavated for its political power, love can become the resource for real change. The kind we're all pining for. That's the love that art can make.

Apr. 19 2010 10:55 PM
Hart from Monein, France


Apr. 19 2010 09:07 AM
Claudia La Rocco

@CC - thanks so much for that eloquent and thoughtful response. I hope people will check it out. And for including the Kiss-Out video, which I hope everyone will check out (More info here:

@whygreenberg - I completely agree. What's interesting (and dismaying) about Sehgal's Kiss in a way is that his choice of opposite-sex pairings seems to suggest a bid for universality or, even worse, "neutrality" -as if, as CC discusses, he views heterosexuality as the normal default.

Apr. 17 2010 02:28 PM
whygreenberg from

Interesting critique and response. However—while there are definitely issues around sexuality and gender-pairing in Sehgal's piece, I don't know that a work of art (or performance) should or even can be "universal" in any way.

Apr. 17 2010 01:38 PM
Counter Critic from Allergy Central

Bring it on...

Apr. 17 2010 12:26 PM
Heather from Washington, DC

Marvelous! Long live Moving Theater!

Apr. 17 2010 12:00 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.


About Performance Club

Open to everyone, the Performance Club is a freewheeling conversation about New York performance of all kinds, from experimental theater to gallery installations to contemporary dance. We go, we talk (online and at bars and cafes, with artists and amongst ourselves), we disagree and, sometimes, we change each other’s minds.


Supported by