MIKE, Dana Michel ©Françoise Robert

Loose Trade

MIKE (2023) by Dana Michel, presented across three afternoons from 1 to 3 December 2023 by the Berliner Festspiele at Martin-Gropius-Bau, creates a sensitive, tolerant and humorous space for contemplations and questions about how bodies are put to work. 

Extension cords, an office chair, ear mufflers, a desk lamp, clothes racks, butchers paper, rolls of carpet, masking tape: various objects that denote their own apparent functions are strewn across the gallery floors in clusters throughout four spacious rooms on the first level of the exhibition building of the Gropius Bau. An assortment of mechanics tools, each one tucked into a single white sock, is arranged in a row below a denim jacket, tenderly suggesting an assemblage of thoughts and actions whose pursuits are elusive. Here, utensils mediate activities differently. Participating in MIKE, they yield new agency to do something else; to divert, to dream, to stray, to be free from ascribed forms and functions.  

©Carla Schleiffer

Dana Michel appears without announcement or ado. Dressed a bit like a tradie, in slacks and a vest, yet with several pairs of large floppy socks hanging loose from her feet, no shoes, she sets to ‘work’. Another shift on the job, another day, another dollar. Across the next three hours, the extraordinary performer idiosyncratically undoes assumed recognitions of being an active body at work, playfully shifting our understandings of quotidian objects and how we use them, subtly questioning how our societies model human activity and time and who else we might be at work and at play in a different situation.

She interacts with the tools and devices, as well as the existing architecture of the museum (lighting boards and switches, walls, doors, stanchions and ropes) with engrossing and absurd misrecognition of the objects’ and her own functions and efficiencies, aimlessly exploring her role in time and space, with and through the material that accompanies her. At some point in the afternoon, I’m leaning against a door frame between two rooms, near several large rolls of carpet, watching Michel come in and out of my sight through other people, as she does things with the switchboard on the wall. She idly opens the metal flap, closes it, presses the material with her hands, peers inside as though looking at something slow cooking on a stovetop, then sinks her body through her legs to the floor. Time melts. Pressure, fear, authority have evaporated. Without warning, perhaps spurred by a shift in her attention or desire or, like a dog or a toddler, perceiving a sound, she’s across the room and right next to me, pressing her face into the carpet rolls. Up close to Michel, carried by the strange tranquillity of the situation, I feel its texture as though it’s my forehead touching the scratchy fabric. I am immersed in the details of our experiences. 

Service and purpose are mis- and re-directed in this utopian, meditative landscape of interaction and dancing attention, transforming time at work into a slack, unbound, supple material with potential for inspiration. The sound of a baby crying or my conversation with a friend I’ve unexpectedly encountered become part of the incorporating situation, a multiplicitous present. MIKE is a soft, sensitive bodily rumination on who and how we are at work, in which the artist performs a peculiar, clownish practice, produced by her own performative questioning of what is happening. In this activity, she shares the density of a process, rather than the outcome of a product, as our labour usually demands of us. 

By gently exposing us to a bizarre system of practice dressed as work, one that is ridiculous, circular and illegible, MIKE brilliantly shines a subtle light on the absurdity and insanity of the opposite: the reality of society and its violent, remorseless machination of time, work and bodily function. 

MIKE (2023) by Dana Michel premiered in Germany at Gropius Bau on 1 December 2023, presented by the Berliner Festspiele’s Performing Arts Season, with further performances on 2 and 3 December 2023, tickets at berlinerfestspiele.de