Since its founding in 2013, Blueproject Foundation has been a welcome addition to the Barcelona art scene. Curated by Anna Manubens, Joachim Koester’s exhibition ‘Hacer cuerpo con la máquina’ (literally ‘Making Body with the Machine’) is the Foundation’s most compelling and refreshing offering to date. Koester is best known for his meticulous film and photographic works, which extort their meaning from occult practices, altered states of consciousness and marginal histories. In his art, the human body is often that of a psychonaut already on the verge of an interpretive overdose, even before the artist’s urging of dance and literary allusions intothe fray. As suggested by the exhibition’s title, the three works that comprise ‘Hacercuerpo con la máquina’ cast the human subject as a device on the verge of involuntary, programmed production.
Department of Abandoned Futures (2015), the most recent work and the first encountered, offers the visitor an entry point to the Koester imaginary through disconcertingly incremental means, as if lapsing intohypnosis. Commissioned for the Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art last year, it comprises an audio track madein collaboration with fellow Danish artist Stefan A. Pedersen. In Barcelona, the exhibition space has been apportioned by rough partitions made from wooden planks – like cattle pens or barriers blocking the entrance to some cartoonish gold mine – and you can listen to the audio on headphones while slumbering on a simple couch near the entrance, as if beside an outbuilding with a hashish-den lamp hanging above. Over the course of 20 minutes, a soporific voice implores you to relax every part of your body and ‘gaze into the blackness behind your eyelids’, before imagining a descent into the basement of a vast concrete building to discover an archive of forgotten and unrecognized proposals: ‘Blueprints for social interactions that never took place ... drawings for cities that were never built.’ Following this introductory narration, you encounter Of Spirits and Empty Spaces (2012) – a 16mm black and white silent film loop. It is ostensibly black throughout, save for an astronomy ofspecks, dust and celluloid grain. A sequence of subtitles relates a 1861 séance in which American Spiritualist clergyman John Murray Spear attempted to summon a new form of electric sewing machine by mesmerizing each of the sessions’ participants into embodying the thrusting and weaving parts of the chimerical contraption.
The video projection The Place of Dead Roads (2013) is the exhibition’s engrossing crescendo; it conjures a scene that accounts for the Old West barricades in the gallery space. Koester’s film tackles what is perhaps the arena of filmic myth-making par excellence – the Hollywood Western. Yet, instead of analyzing the already dog-eared subject of the Western landscape, the 33-minute loop deals with a kind of frontier corporeal identity through a hardscrabble choreography of ‘outlaw’ glances and movements. The title of the film is aptly borrowed from the eponymous 1983 novel by William S. Burroughs, in which Burroughs tells of a gay gunslinger while indulging in his evident passion for firearms. In Koester’s video, four grubby characters are brilliantly embodied by dancers Pieter Ampe, Boglarka Börcsök, Liz Kinoshita and Halla Olafsdottir. They inhabit a dusty, wordless, cabin-cum-corral, each only dimly registering the presence of the other. Summoning a composition of gestures – that run from leering, hair-trigger, thumbs-in-belts stand-offs to the frenetic action of imagined gun battles –the four bandits variously gesticulate as if lassoing, writhe as if riding a bucking steed, step-dance as if having their feet shot at in the saloon, violently distort as if discharging bullets from their pistol–fingers or convulse involuntarily while being shot. Börcsök and Olafsdottir between them seem to channel the figure of Calamity Jane – or, at least, Robin Weigert’s portrayal of the legendary frontier woman and gender bruiser in the magnificent HBO series Deadwood.
It would be misleading to boil down Koester’s film, or the cyborg analogy ofthe exhibition’s title, to a redemptive tale about gun control or, indeed, heteronormativity. Yet, it is precisely the absence of the very machines that defined the American West and continue to obsess contemporary America’s body politic – guns – that is so striking about Koester’s gestural Western world. Somewhere deep in the alternative-realities archive imagined by Department of Abandoned Futures perhaps there lies a path not taken. Yet, if The Place of Dead Roads is anything to go by, what we are witnessing is a grim tragedy-and-farce loop.
First published in Issue 178