I am one of the first visitors to enter the BALTIC Level 4 gallery on the morning I go to see ‘Satelliser’ (2021). Around ten performers, all women and non-binary people, are spaced evenly around the space and move at a measured pace, falling in and out of synchronisation. They are speaking slowly, paced by the movements of their bodies which at times recall yoga or ballet positions. Over the top of t-shirts and leggings, jeans and jumpsuits they wear orange or lilac vests, adorned with tape and thin, pale pink tulle boas.
The setting for this, the first in the series of three durational performances redeveloped by J Neve Harrington from an earlier iteration, is Ad Minoliti’s solo show Biosfera Peluche / Biosphere Plush, a brightly coloured, expansive installation of soft-geometry forms spanning canvases, biomorphic carpets and round-edged wall paintings. Free standing walls create domestic-scaled divisions and apertures in the large, high-ceilinged space, furnished with rose-gold velvet bean bags and bright yellow molded plastic chairs. Three soft toy animal-headed mannequins stand in women gendered clothing. One of these has a cat’s head and faces a grouping of canvas paintings supported by a black wooden structure. On the wall behind this, between the pillars that flank the long edges of the gallery, is a giant logo-like painting of a purple seal.
Each performer wears a headset microphone. Their voices are amplified and played through speakers, so it’s difficult to locate the person speaking. At first, the fragments of speech are about popular representations of meditation. There are pauses. Questions are asked by other performers to move the conversation on. I can’t make out all the words and one performer affirms this when she asks, ‘Can you say it again?’. The response ‘Sorry I can’t hear you’ results in laughter. When the first performer clarifies her thoughts she speaks of whitewashing and the ‘appropriation of Eastern practices in the service of tech bros’. Elon Musk is mentioned, and something called Human Design, which I make a note of along with the phrase ‘psychology informed practices maximising mind and body’. I listen to a lot of podcasts and this experience feels similar. I feel included in a conversation. I am nodding along. I think of references I could add to the discussion.
On a previous visit to Biosfera Peluche / Biosphere Plush at BALTIC I felt hesitant to sit on the yellow chairs and bean bags. They seemed to hold a different status to the black stackable chairs in the area at the back of the gallery, used for Minoliti’s ongoing project The Feminist School of Painting. The space feels different today. My first instinct, which I see others repeat after me, is to give the performers the floor and navigate the space from behind the pillars. But in time I move past this border and take a seat on one of the velvet beanbags. I am immediately relaxed by the comfort, but also wonder if I will now need to actively participate. Whenever I meet the eyes of a performer they smile.
From here I can see two performers and the cat figure. The performers begin in sync. They each raise their arms out straight ahead with one foot placed in front of the other. One of them kneels while the standing performer draws a circle with her left arm until it is behind her head. The kneeling performer raises her hips to make a bow. The other makes a step forward to a balance and pivot. The bowing performer shifts as she moves one leg out to make a triangle and then lifts her head to standing. Both performers meet again in a simultaneous posture, legs mid-step, arms raised one hand above the other, each of their hands gently clasped.
The conversation turns to cults. A performer recalls their experience of being part of a meditation group. She left because the group was dominated too strongly by its Guru. I wonder if anyone is leading the movements taking place in front of me or influencing the shifts within the room. Inevitably, certain voices lead the conversation. I am there for an hour at the start of the day and I have no doubt these roles will shift over time, but it’s interesting to try to read the group dynamics as the performers discuss community, the meaning-making of religions and things we miss out on in secular society.
The group of artists collaborating in ‘Satelliser’ are described by Harrington as coworkers. Throughout the course of each durational performance they (according to the press release), ‘…cycle through layered labours of moving, speaking, listening, and resting, as they hold space for conversation to emerge in the gallery space’. The vests, which recall hi-vis despite their fun makeovers, signal the high-stress, hard labour of emergency responders and workers in security, manufacturing, construction, utility, maintenance and sanitation. What’s made visible here are the hidden exertions of this emotional work, the oft-termed ‘soft’ labours of communication and facilitation, as well as the durational grind of content production.
Next to the space used for The Feminist School of Painting is a clothing rail which holds more vests. Throughout the time I’ve been here performers have taken themselves on and off-duty by removing a vest or putting one on. Some performers rest on the floor or on the furniture. I worry that I’ve taken up a valuable place to take a break.
By necessity the ‘Satelliser’ coworkers developed the work through online conversations throughout 2020, rather than through the dance and performance convention of rehearsal. In a statement made before the BALTIC performance, Harrington described how their sense of community was built through sharing interests and synching up their cross-time-zone conversations with repetitive activities like drawing, weaving and sewing. As we emerge exhausted by the long 2020-21 of online labour, sociality and entertainment, it’s easy to overlook the positives, such as the new communities formed by these processes that are unbound by nationality, proximity to urban centres or other fixed groupings. In the moments I feel most in step with the coworkers’ conversations I wonder if this has something to do with the more synchronised ways we have had to consume content since the pandemic began. Whether or not I’m tuning-in to a collective conversation, I feel a kind of belonging.
The coworkers rarely face one another while they speak. They are spending time with one another while carrying out a physically repetitive task. Their job of continually moving seems to give them permission to really listen and pay close attention. I think about other situations like this, like the social, mostly women-populated knitting group, Stitch ‘n Bitch. How easy it is to tell secrets to hairdressers. How, in contrast to the stillness of meditation, permission to pay attention seems to come more easily when we busy ourselves. As I think about this, I notice a coworker embroidering as she leans against a pillar to rest.
The coworkers’ smiles read as an invitation but not a direct provocation to participate. A visitor leaning on one of the dividing walls joins in a conversation about discipline and I am relieved he has taken the edge off my own sense of obligation. His question is repeated for the room. His reflections are considered, challenged and responded to with generosity. Some coworkers reflect on their experiences of dance training and the higher-level skill of being able to adapt to situations, in contrast to a rigid adherence to rules and structures that the term ‘discipline’ might at first connote. There is a sense of a more traditional discussion forum here. Later the coworkers exchange stories of scaring visitors, how eye contact results in their rapid retreat from the discursive sphere.
I watch for so long I feel like I could move like this if I tried, the slight deviations from symmetry and synchronicity making the movements hypnotic. As I am about to leave a boy around ten years old joins in. He moves in pace with the coworkers, raising his arms, turning, pivoting and balancing. His movements aren’t the same, but they work. The coworkers face him, echoing, converging and diverging from his actions. The atmosphere tangibly lifts in the room as coworkers and visitors glance around to check everyone is seeing this. There is no talking for some time; a different kind of communication is taking place. It’s the best moment of audience interaction I think I’ve ever seen. ‘Satelliser’ means (in French) ‘to put into orbit’. The coworkers have set something in motion and this boy has understood, entered and increased its gravitational pull.
‘Satelliser: a dance for the gallery’ was first performed at Copeland Gallery, London in 2016. It was redeveloped throughout 2020 and this new version was shown at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, 16-17 October 2021. The next performance will be at Turner Contemporary, Margate, 20 – 21 November 2021, Bluecoat, Liverpool, May / June 2022.
Ad Minoliti’s ‘Biosfera Peluche / Biosphere Plush’ is curated collaboratively by BALTIC Centre for Contemporary art and Centre de Création Contemporaine Olivier Debré, Tours, France. The show runs until 8 May 2022 at BALTIC, and takes place October 2021 – March 2022 at Centre de Création Contemporaine Olivier Debré, Tours, France.
Kate Liston is an artist and writer based in Newcastle upon Tyne
This article is supported by Siobhan Davies Dance