PLATFORM 2011: Body Madness writer-in-residence Huffa Frobes-Cross on “DEEP Aerobics”
February 15, 2011
“I’m your mirror, when I say right you move left.” Jane Fonda, Jane Fonda’s New Workout
“I’ll be your mirror, reflect what you are, in case you don’t know.” Velvet Underground, “I’ll Be Your Mirror”
Sweating into my oversized, white jumpsuit, running in circles in time with the blast of an Iggy & The Stooges mp3, chanting “Maybe! Maybe! Maybe!”, dodging past fellow particolored participants, all shouting “Maybe!” “Yes!” or “No!”, I ran into Miguel Gutierrez, my Death Electric Emo Protest (DEEP) Aerobics instructor for the evening. Seeing me wilting slightly, my “maybe”‘s becoming mumbles inaudible below the music, he smiled at me through liquid layers of dripping black mascara, and shouted “Maybe!”, miming a gesture of uncertainty, beaming back I screamed “Maybe!”, some time later, hands reaching to the ceiling, he and I were jumping and shouting “Yes! Yes! Yes!” in sync with whatever iTunes selection was playing at the moment. And then Gutierrez was off to raise the spirits of another student.
Beginning like a costume dance party before spilling out into something beyond the borders of actually existing aerobics, DEEP Aerobics is participatory, often decentralized, and, in certain ways, collaborative. Merely pointing these things out does little to mark it off from a sprawling field of related practices that fill galleries and art fairs from New York to Beijing, and extend well beyond the global art world into social networking sites and shack settlements across the world, and, of course, most recently, the streets of Cairo. In the history of the European and American avant-garde alone, a desire for the dissolution of the singular author, the active inclusion of the audience, and the emphasis on social relations rather than static objects, extends, at least, from the experiments of Dada and Futurism through Duchamp to the postwar happenings, events and performances of Allen Kaprow, John Cage or Yvonne Rainer into seventies conceptual and activist collectives like the Art Workers Coalition and Art and Language, eighties participatory projects from Jenny Holzer to Adrian Piper, the nineties relational aesthetics of Felix Gonzales-Torres and Rikrit Tiravanija, straight into the projects described in the “Collaboration Now!” feature in the February 2011 issue of Artforum. It is, in other words, a long story.
Whatever kind of participatory community DEEP Aerobics offers can only be thought through its own remaking of the aerobics class, and the relation between aerobics instructor and student. Aerobics was developed in the late sixties by two former members of the United States Air Force, Dr. Kenneth Cooper and Col. Pauline Potts who sought forms of exercise that more efficiently produced measurably fit bodies. Jacki Sorensen, who along with Jazzercise inventor, Judi Sheppard Misset, brought aerobics to a wider public, first developed her aerobics routine in 1969 as a closed-circuit television program for wives of servicemen on a USAF base in Puerto Rico. In its earliest incarnations aerobics technologized the body, specifically the female body, not only through the application of medical science, but through the use of recorded music and the televised image. In Sorensen’s program, the appearance of the physically fit body was, moreover, made synonymous with the sexually attractive body. Jane Fonda’s 1982 video Jane Fonda’s Workout, sent aerobics into millions of households around the world and, through her starring role, Fonda herself solidified the link between aerobics instructor and desired body image. Fonda not only instructs but through her celebrity presents herself as the ideal attainable through her instruction, an ideal preserved unchanging on magnetic tape against the flux of bodies in front of her image.
DEEP Aerobics begins like Sorensen or Fonda’s aerobics with an invitation to self-transformation. Before arriving at the performance participants are asked to dress up “in an original costume that you make,” or barring that create one from the materials available at an on-site “Transformation Station.” One is also encouraged to “push your imagination beyond the 80’s!” There is no model given, no look to aim for. I arrived guiltily plain-clothed, after sorting through polyester skirts, headbands, glitter, everything on offer seemed complicated and embarrassingly difficult to put on, until I chanced upon a gigantic jumpsuit. One long zip and I was in costume head-to-toe. A costume is fast, temporary change fitting over the body, masking it, accentuating it, framing its appearance. It is self-transformation in opposition to the long-term repetitious labor of exercise, and only a costume if it is something other than what one normally looks like. The obdurate material of muscle and fat carved through traditional aerobics becomes something to be draped, painted, and wrapped in so many fleeting forms.
As people got dressed around me, music was playing and others were out in the middle of the church. Gutierrez wandered about shouting words of encouragement. The warm-up ends as he calls us all to the center of the dance floor. He announces that we will all have to depend on each other to figure out what’s going on, warning us we may not always be able to see or hear him. With the music at near nightclub levels, images projected on the ceiling, and instructions to close one’s eyes or run chaotically, Gutierrez’s periodic disappearance is endemic to the program. It is an aerobics class in the middle of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. He does not give up the position of leader, artist or teacher. Instead, he continually engineers his own momentary marginalization, and in the process a kind of interdependence between participants. The straight ahead stare returning the steady gaze of an electronic Fonda, becomes a roving look around the crowd trying to discern what’s next. Whether in repeated chants, ‘death metal screams’, or minutes spent playing post-heroine-overdose-dead, everyone remained remarkably in sync, Gutierrez’s choreographic leadership was disseminated not dissolved.
DEEP Aerobics is not so much an act of critique, as an act of recovery. As Cori Olinghouse mines movement forms outside the canon of dance for their elastic notions of identity, Gutierrez recovers something participatory, transformative, even a bit utopian in aerobics. At the end of their 1988 article, “The Body Electronic: Aerobic Exercise on Video,” Elizabeth Kagan and Margaret Morse point to just such a possibility, “For aerobic dance-exercise to fulfill more of the utopian potential, it would need to be redesigned to change its structuring metaphor of mirroring and the dominance of the seen body. Within such a realm the felt body and pleasure could have primacy. In such a place one could let oneself go, be free to move expansively and powerfully to change with age over time.” At the very end of the night, as we are all laying on the floor, listening to the slow swagger of Serge Gainsbourg’s Melody, Gutierrez asks us to imagine the we are amoebas, extending out into the world, into each other, and then, ‘French amoebas’ with the highest taste in food and art. Two kinds of communal space intersect, from a well-trod metaphor of intersubjectivity reproduced in countless meditation tapes to a shared joke. Staring up at some lapping waves projected on the ceiling, it felt as if we were all laughing at having taken it all seriously while taking it very seriously, all together. It’s a moment perched on the cusp between absurdity and absurd utopia.