Grace Schwindt: Only a Free Individual Can Create a Free Society (Site Gallery, Sheffield) Art Monthly #384, March 2015

Which begets the freedom of the other, the individual or the society? Is the idea of ‘individual political freedom’ itself a logical conundrum? These are the questions that Grace Schwindt’s rigorous, measured and intellectually demanding film tackles. Only a Free Individual Can Create a Free Society asserts a dynamic force between fractions and units, the singular and the plural. Here, all is held in relational terms: the proximal positions of bodies to bodies, words to silences, movement to stasis, sibilants to sonorants, interior to exterior. A conversation between the artist and a taxi driver about his participation in the militant leftist organisations of 1960s and 1970s Germany is employed as the basis for not only a score-like script, but also for the structure of a strict choreography, the set and the cadence of speech itself in a Gesamtkunstwerk which, while it explicitly references modernist theatre, is less ‘about’ dance than how movement might speak, words move and, more directly, how both might reveal and help to activate a radical alternative.

Set, speech, action and props conspire to affirm their own artifice at every turn. As the taxi driver explains, the Red Army Faction’s (RAF) goal was to ‘change material existence first’ and then to liberate society, as opposed to the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition’s (APO) more cautious policy of starting with raising public consciousness. Consequently, a sense of materiality and, crucially, a tension around the duplicity of material, runs through the film. At all times it is measured against a corporeal constant: metal, cloth, card, skin against skin. Speech, too, is made concrete: voice, via the disassembly of normal meter and stress, becomes a body.

Exteriorities and interiorities shift throughout, in the openness of the stage, the dynamics of speech and the driver’s journey itself; the significance of his transition from city to countryside made manifest in the set, hovering above and outside of London, within battling without until its sham walls fall. Even inside, an oppositional schema is established between abstraction and the odd homeliness of a pot plant or sheepskin rug. All speak of an ultimate discord between private and public, and spun thus around a fragile and intelligent reflexivity wrest meaning from even the most meagre of referents.

Costumes change the way bodies move and the amount of space they occupy: they alter the dancers’ position to themselves and others and improve or impede their movement. Schwindt describes a shifting locus of power via the interactions her costumes allow. The currency is one of relative encumbrance: those weighed down falter, stumble and fall. Humbled by white jumpsuits or clacking a cracked staccato in a Bauhaus burlesque, the figures’ costumes articulate an order, often a hierarchy, as precisely as their syncopated movement and shuttered speech.

A policy of provocation was instrumental for the RAF activists, and so it is here: while one function of Schwindt’s attenuation of language is to neutralise those words invested with the loaded logic of the hegemony, another is to instigate action; to disarm only in order to reactivate. The group, here, works to undermine the semantics of ownership and control by selectively pluralising a singular narrative.

As with the work’s treatment of language, the meticulous choreography sees order asserted by a collective consciousness. Modulating from a gestural minimalism to elaborate courtly masques of engagement, solo mechanical movement breaks to form distinct groups marked by tempo, orientation and position, bodies in negotiation with one another, establishing positions. The group splits and disperses as though from solid to gas.

In the room adjoining the film, a plain, unglazed porcelain vase sits on a polished black plinth, lit from the side by a low, raking spot so that it casts a decisive shadow onto the far wall. Though otherwise carefully thrown, the very top of the vase is spoiled; clumsily squashed and bent around its perimeter. Made as a replica from a description of a Tiffany vase, it is a thing undone or not-done; a structure in collapse.

That other unstable structure, capitalism, has nevertheless tightened its grip since the RAF declared itself out in 1998. The question is, is there room for anything less than the absolute in the struggle against capital? Schwindt’s taxi driver argues for a more nuanced reading in place of the binaries of the APO and RAF’s militant policies; that degrees of freedom count. Depending on how the dissolution of the set is read, this is either a realistic policy re-engineered for our current situation, or a statement of defeat and damning indictment of the advance that situation has made in the past 50 years.