Mini story — 18 Feb 2020 — Karen Archey
My first experience of the work—while incomplete—was in rehearsal. Two men, who I later knew to be Zachariah and Joseph, were rollerblading in unison around the Stedelijk auditorium, catching one another’s gaze while gliding around the room. It was clear that they had spent a lot of time on Rollerblades, or at least felt comfortable with the piece. They were soon joined by a young man, perhaps a boy, with moppy red hair and dirty clothes, jubilantly smiling while blading backward. I’d met him earlier, Jake, and he’d already made an impression upon me by asking for career advice the moment I’d introduced myself as a curator. Back in the auditorium, Atabay joined next, solid on their feet but less so on their blades, engendering an endearing sense of vulnerability.
Alex’s work centers on desire, specifically queer desire, and in Us Swerve this manifests as a carefully orchestrated choreography of men encircling each other on Rollerblades—in orbit with longing as the gravitational force. Alex told me that the work was inspired by his time in residence at Ashkal Alwan in Beirut where he watched men on Rollerblades cruising at the waterfront. Alex’s choreography takes the normally private experience of yearning and celebrates its queering as a public act—and his performers embody the joy, apprehension, and vulnerability that comes with this transformation of private to public.
The dynamic among these performers as a group, and their relationship to and confidence with their own bodies and the physically taxing nature of the performance all made indelible marks upon how the viewer sees them. Their virtuoso, sass, and trepidation all shined through the performance, and having gotten to know the performers as people—to connect the personal to the performed—Us Swerve became even more rewarding to watch from the sidelines. This is no doubt a privileged position that is not shared with most audience members, and one of the most treasured aspects of my role as a performance curator.
From Friday through Sunday, the Stedelijk held three two-hour public performances that took place in the entry hall of the museum. Every day before rehearsal and the performances, Atabay, Zachariah, Joseph, and Jake would grab chairs and tables on their Rollerblades, helping Alex, Jim and I to clear the entrance hall to create a public square. At performance time, crowds came in and sat around the entry hall in anticipation of the performance, with the rollerbladers eventually filing in. The athleticism of their performance was conveyed through their speed, sweat, occasional falls, and at times out-of-breath recitations of poetry. Viewers stayed for any period of time, from a quick glance while passing through to the full duration of the performance, and their backgrounds ranged from tourists to young families with children to professional audiences, including my own friends and colleagues. My favorite viewers were rollerblading enthusiasts, particularly one rollerblader who sat to watch the performance in her Rollerblades for an hour before taking off to perform tricks outside on the other side of the entrée hall window on Museumplein for the remainder of the performance. This public space and its use by rollerbladers and BMX bikers was an intended—if continually surprising—context for Alex’s work.
Karen Archey is Curator of Contemporary Art, Time-based Media at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.