Mini story — 19 Feb 2020 — Vivian Ziherl

In order to respond to Alex Baczynski-Jenkins’ Us Swerve, I have the sense that it would be best to start by stepping away from the computer screen. Better would be to pick up a pen, and to drag it along a page in languid, looping spirals. Large ovoid loops, round and round, that occasionally spill into finer turns and curlicues. Something like the images that a Spriograph might make—a geometric drawing toy that fits gearwheels into a frame edged with teeth like a zipper. When a ballpoint pen is pushed forward, a drawing of intricate spirals is produced, technically known as “hypotrochoids” and “epitrochoids.” 

Us Swerve, after all, is a composition of lines. Within the Stedelijk Museum entrance atrium, four performers are set in motion on Rollerblades with the first effect that they move in lines. The punctuation of the step is replaced with the pump and pulse of the line. Round and round they go, for two hours on a Saturday afternoon. 

  • Figure 1. Alex Baczynski-Jenkins, “Us Swerve” (2014). Performance view, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2019. Originally commissioned and produced by Basel Liste. Co-produced in Amsterdam by Julidans & Stedelijk Museum. Photo: Maarten Nauw.
    Figure 1. Alex Baczynski-Jenkins, “Us Swerve” (2014). Performance view, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2019. Originally commissioned and produced by Basel Liste. Co-produced in Amsterdam by Julidans & Stedelijk Museum. Photo: Maarten Nauw.
  • Figure 2. Alex Baczynski-Jenkins, “Us Swerve” (2014). Performance view, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2019. Originally commissioned and produced by Basel Liste. Co-produced in Amsterdam by Julidans & Stedelijk Museum. Photo: Maarten Nauw.
    Figure 2. Alex Baczynski-Jenkins, “Us Swerve” (2014). Performance view, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2019. Originally commissioned and produced by Basel Liste. Co-produced in Amsterdam by Julidans & Stedelijk Museum. Photo: Maarten Nauw.

Did I mention that the performers are gorgeous? They are. Each young, handsome, charming, and dressed in louche street fashions. As they skate around and around, the lines of their movement start to go together with lines of poetry. Fragments, spooled from notably queer, American poets—Langston Hughes, Eileen Myles, and Essex Hemphill. So the piece has two kinds of lines. The lines of the performers on their skates, and the lines of poetry. 

Risk is part of the picture as well. Over the course of the piece, a fall seems almost inevitable. The four performers constantly weave among each other, capturing and holding each other’s gaze as they deliver their spoken lines. About an hour and twenty minutes in, another two performers slam into each other, side to back. I have to think of Essex Hemphill’s signal poem of the AIDS era, When My Brother Fell. Dedicated to fellow author and activist Joseph Beam, the poem culminates in these unforgettable lines:

When my brother fell
I picked up his weapons.
I didn’t question
whether I could aim
or be as precise as he.
A needle and thread
were not among
his things
I found.

— Essex Hemphill

Vivian Ziherl is a critic, curator and researcher of contemporary art, raised in Australia and working in the Netherlands.