CONTAGIOUS!

Pauline Boudry / Renate Lorenz

Installation with HD video, 12 min and 11 photographs, 2010

Performance: Arantxa Martinez and Vaginal Davis

The installation deals with the scene of the Café Concerts in Paris at the end of the 19th century, which celebrated two new dance styles, the “epileptic dance,” as well as the very popular “Cakewalk.” The film “Contagious!” restages fragments of these 19th century dances in the context of an underground contemporary club.

The space is painted black and is lit by a group of neon elements that vaguely locate it in the present–in fact it could be a New-Wave environment from the 1970s as much as a cool design from the near future. A strange relationship develops throughout the film between the performers in 19th century clothes and the very distanced and uninvolved spectators in viewy contemporary outfits (whose position is unclear: are they staged? are they “real”?). Not only do the two performers seem to contaminate each other with gestures and poses, but audience and performers start to interfere as well.

The performer Vaginal Davis restages movements from the Cakewalk. This dance was initially developed in the USA by enslaved Africans, who poked fun at their white masters’ European dance styles, such as the minuet. Vaginal Davis connects back with the figure of Aida Walker, a New York dancer and choreographer who started a big dance fashion in Paris by performing the Cakewalk. Her attitude and performance on stage shows similarities to the movements of Arantxa Martinez, who restages poses and dances from “epileptic dances,” in particular from Polaire, who was known for her nervous and sexually aggressive dance style. Epileptic dances appeared at the same time that Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot was researching epilepsy and hysteria in his Hospital de la Salpetrière, having his patients photographed in a studio he had set up himself and presenting them to an interested audience in meticulously staged appearances. As Rae Beth Gordon shows in Dances with Darwin (Ashgate, 2009), there is an analogy between the fin-de-siècle genre of epileptic dancers and the hysterical patients in the clinic of Charcot: the epiletic dances copied, appropriated and subverted representations of the female “sick” body. Gordon’s research, moreover, correlates the gestures and movements of the “epileptic dances” and of the Cakewalk to regression, comparing, from the perspective of French colonial history, the scientific rhetoric on the female body with the rhetoric of race in the context of popular spectacles.

The film confronts the method of reenactment with the figure of contagion. It plays with the idea, very common at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, that one could be infected through the imitation of motions and gestures. As Gordon writes, even physicians claimed to have been infected because they had watched the tics of their patients too many times.

Imitation in the context of contagion serves to multiply the “flight” from the norm, feared and at the same time desired. But the contagion seems to be interrupted, when in the end of the film we experience Vaginal Davis / Aida Walker screaming at the audience: “Stop it!” which refers to a performance of the musician Little Richard described by Tavia Nyong’o (2009) in his text Rig it up–Excess and Ecstasy in Little Richard’s Sound. The audience at this point freezes, the connection with the past and the previous imitations is broken.

Informations on the film:

Director of Photography: Bernadette Paassen
Sound: Johanna Herr, Karin Michalski
Sound design: Rashad Becker
Set Photography: Andrea Thal
Make Up: Tan Nguyen
DP Assistant: Tim Ottenstein