Context Notes: Biba Bell for Rachid Ouramdane

Multiple currents run through the work of Company L’A./Rachid Ouramdane: current as in circulating force; current as in present-day; current as in currency, garnering value through common use. The problem of contemporary identity occurs as one navigates through the unresolved quality of these varied meanings. A collective of figures appear in his work – intimate, solitary, traumatized, violated, applauded, alienated, displaced, embodied, animated, The multiplicity of these figures, and their ability to transmit vast wells of experience, bring into focus the complexity of the individual wrestling with identity, power, and the politics of an aestheticized body.

For Ouramdane the stage is a place to propose questions about how bodies are represented, the burden of carrying these images and how dance might be a strategy of arresting their stability, and the transformation of the body scarred by power, memory or dislocation. His questions are evocative and complicated, they instigate: Where does the individual begin within the biopolitical web of forces that construct bodies, practices, nations and experience? What are the limits of the body in representation? How are identificatory practices heightened by a roving tension between the stability of belonging and the difficult encounter with nationalism? To mobilize amongst these questions is a dance of contortionism, acrobatics and endurance.

Openly autobiographical, Ouramdane’s work sources from his own experience as a child of Algerian born parents who immigrated to France. He refers to his second generational immigrant experience as a “third identity,” a vector of social, geographic and cultural instability triangulated between two countries. Often collecting personal narratives as material toward performance, an autobiographic tone infuses the work that confronts the spectator amid the larger ideological issues at hand. The portraits depicted speak of alternate geographies, where the body can open up to reveal a complex archive of faces, feeling, and capability.

L’A.’s two pieces co-presented by New York Live Arts and FIAF’s Crossing the Line Festival, Ordinary Witnesses and World Fair, continue Ouramdane’s subject matter, taking this material into distinct contexts. World Fair examines the space between the body and power, specifically drawing attention to the ideological labor of art and the body as a nexus between aesthetics and political force. Ouramdane asks us to be critical not only of everyday iconic images, but of how we react to these images, how they fragment and collage themselves upon the body and propel this body into movement.

Placing in conversation personal testimony with collective history, Ordinary Witnesses invites the voice of the individual to cut through dominant historical narratives with individual accounts of experiences of torture, atrocity and trauma. These violent, embodied experiences are so often muted if not overlooked by historical representation. In the midst of being vocalized and made visible, the content of the work inevitably exposes what cannot be stated and the impossibility of full disclosure.

This conflict is jarring, and exposes the complicated knot of desire and political force as it is chartered from image to body and body to image through the tethers of stories that are told, imagined, extricated, performed and re-examined.

One who bears witness is caught in a complex bind. As political philosopher Jacques Rancière writes, “The true witness is one who does not want to witness. That is the reason for the privilege accorded his speech. But this privilege is not his. It is the privilege of the speech that obliges him to speak despite himself.” Can this imperative extend itself to the testimony of the artist? Perhaps the ethical resides in a temporary suspension in an artistic space of allowance, where the expression of past events is both necessitated and deferred.

Biba Bell (b. 1976, Sebastopol, CA.) is a choreographer, dancer, and writer based in Detroit and NYC.  She makes work as a member of the collaborative trio MGM Grand (Modern Garage Movement) with Jmy Leary and Piage Martin. Currently a PhD candidate in the department of Performance Studies at NYU, she is writing her dissertation titled “Dancing There: (un)Specifying Site and Performing Space” while teaching a course on contemporary experimental choreography. As a performer she has worked with artists including Mel Wong, Walter Dundervill, Joshua Zimmermann, David Hurwith, Jmy Leary, Davide Balula, Gabriel Rivera, Nancy Garcia, Jandek, Hope Mohr, Xavier Cha, Mika Rottenberg, Valeska Soares, Enrico Labayen and Kathleen Hermesdorf. Bell has performed at MOMA PS1, Pace Wildenstein, Callicoon Fine Arts, Greene Naftali, MOCAD Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Esalen Institute, Pacific Northwest College of Art, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Rosas Theatre, Creative Time Pavilion at Miami Art Basel, Adobe Books, Henry Miller Library and The Kitchen amongst others.

Biba Bell, Will Rawls, and Andre Lepecki are New York Live Arts’ 2011-2012 commissioned writers, contributing ‘context notes’ for each season artist and for the New York Live Arts Blog. Knowledgeable about the practice of art making, each of them works as a writer, maker, curator, and/or educator. We’ve invited them to write, less because they know every artist’s work intimately – in some cases they don’t – but because they like to frame questions, spark discussion, and find meaning for themselves and others within the experience of seeing live work. Like our audience members, each writer is deeply curious about what contemporary artists are trying to say. Their writings–commissioned works in their own right–aim to spur a deeper dialogue with our artists, the content of their work, and each work’s relationship to a larger cultural environment. If you would like to comment on the ideas posed here or pose further questions, we hope that you’ll add your voice to the dialogue by commenting on this piece at