Trisha Brown: between physiotherapy and Pilates

The American choreographer's work is performed at Tate Modern as part of Dance Umbrella 2010.

Drift, the elusive walking performance between the Southbank Centre and Tate Modern, is my first (near) encounter with the work of Trisha Brown, one of the most revered figures of postmodern choreography. I must have just missed the dancers at the weekend as they set out from a crowded South Bank promenade; the second time round, knowing exactly where to look and what to look for, I only catch the tail end of the performance at the side entrance of Tate Modern.

Luckily, I am there in time for the start of Brown's Early Works, re-enacted by members of her legendary dance company inside the Turbine Hall and amid the Tate collections. These short pieces, dating back to the 1970s and recreated in a gallery setting for which they were originally intended, form a perfect introduction to Trisha Brown's avant-garde output. "Pedestrian movements are the DNA of her later pieces," Laurel Tendino, one of the performers, tells me at the end of the show. "Pedestrian" is not quite how I would put it. The grammar of gestures and motions that these early pieces elaborate is deceptive in its simplicity. And yet the first piece, with its series of repetitive, syncopated movements performed lying down on the Tate Modern bridge, struck me as a cross between physiotherapy and Pilates sessions.

Sequences of danced actions rather than fully fledged choreographies, these mini-performances take cue from their immediate surroundings. Leaning Duets, for example, had pairs of dancers holding hands and leaning into each other for support as they walked down the slope of the Turbine Hall, one of the building's wonderful oddities. Another delicate balancing act, Sticks responded directly to the exhibits on show in the "Arte Povera" room on the fifth level, most obviously Giuseppe Penone's Tree of 12 Metres (1947) -- two polished tree trunks with stumpy offshoots that fill the height of the gallery space.

In contrast to the polished choreographed pieces included in the Trisha Brown Repertory Evening, performed on the more conventional stage of Queen Elizabeth Hall, the danced actions created with a non-theatrical venue in mind had an appealingly rough-and-ready quality. Seen from up close in museum rooms, the rigid demarcation between spectators and performers cast aside, the dancers lose some of their aura, to be sure. While eye contact with the audience is generally avoided in Brown's choreography, a playful intention comes across through body language and gesture. The witty Spanish Dance, set amid Joseph Beuys's iron and bronze sculptures including Lightning with Stag in its Glare (1958), saw female dancers rhythmically edge forward in a neat row with their arms raised above their heads, mimicking flamenco movements to the sound of Bob Dylan's "Early Morning Rain".

Despite the difficulties and costs involved in staging performances such as this one, contemporary dancers are increasingly called on to animate gallery spaces. The recent flurry of collaborations between dance companies and modern art museums, not least Tate's, culminates in the Hayward Gallery's current exhibition, Move: Choreographing You, which includes performances and installation works by Brown.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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