09. May 2018

How many calories are in a banana and how many do ten pushups burn? These questions are addressed by the artist Davide Balula. However, self control and loosing weight are less of his concern.

By Johanna Laub

Her heartbeat approaches 180. The performer rises from a squat, panting. Then she sits on her platform, stretching, casts a glance at the monitor above her. Calories: -24. Time to make up for the energy she has consumed: She takes a couple of bites from a banana that she has placed on a plinth next to her and refreshes the caloric value on the screen by pressing a button. Three bites, three touches of the button: +30 calories.

Such was the unusual scene visitors encountered in the Schirn foyer at the Nacht der Museen (Night of the Museums). The French artist Davide Balula, who is based in New York, was staging a performance here that vividly illustrated the dynamism of energy production and consumption in our bodies. Conceived as the interaction of caloric intake and depletion, “Calories and Dance Moves for the Internal Organ Systems” visualized the phenomenon of the permanent transformation of mass into energy.

Where sweatbands meet electrodes

The process is represented by way of monitoring the muscular activities and heart rates of the two participating performers, Assal Arian and Yves Kellermann. They are wearing sweatbands and shiny polyester suits, while red, blue and black electrodes, cables and mini computers are also directly affixed onto their bodies and shine through their outfits. Heart rate monitors are strapped around their chests, while three EMGs are fastened to their thighs, stomachs and shoulders. They measure the intensity of the electric current flowing out of the muscles.

Davide Balula, Calories and Dance Moves for the Internal Organ Systems, 2018, Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Photo: Eda Temucin

Balula jokingly refers to the technical equipment he developed for the performance together with IT and design experts from Frankfurt company MESO as “a third performer”. The data gathered are fed to monitors above the performers’ heads. Where we are used to seeing announcements of Schirn exhibitions and special services appear a graphic rendering is now being shown: Heart beat and muscle activity are here presented in numbers and graphs alongside the specification of the rising and declining calorie content. The performers offset the energy consumption calculated from this data, and with it the continuously decreasing number of available calories, by consuming snacks.

Follow the impulses of your body

Balula's primary concern in all of this is not the trend towards physical self-optimization and surveillance: “I am addressing calories, but the intention of the piece is not at all to deal with weight loss, but really the idea of energy, how we use energy and how we produce energy and how movement is just electrical energy.” The choreography does not intend to evoke athletic activity, but instead revolves around the entire cycle of energy transformation from the intake of food to digestion: “The movements they are asked to do, the choreography, is in the vocabulary of athletes – usual movements, whether it is like muscular or cardio – but on top of that I also asked them to focus on internal organs, like muscles and diaphragm and to focus on their stomach and bladder.” The piece eschewed music that would artificially animate the performers’ to move at a faster rhythm, allowing them instead to follow the impulses of their own bodies.

Davide Balula, Calories and Dance Moves for the Internal Organ Systems, 2018, Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Photo: Eda Temucin

Up on the white pedestals the bodies appear like art works on plinths. However, it is not the bodies themselves that are turned into sculptures here, but the abstract circular flow of energy, made accessible and replicable for the viewers. In this respect the performers’ bodies are akin to a surface, an interface that reflects the phenomenon of the permanent transformation of energy. For this reason Balula not only prioritizes the graphic representation of calorie consumption and intake, but also emphasizes the emission of energy through the performers’ bodies: This manifests itself for example in the performer’s perspiration as well as increased respiratory activity and their reaction to external influences such as the temperature in the foyer, which is steadily rising with the continued influx of visitors.

Invisible sculptures

Davide Balula is fascinated with these interdependencies between bodily and external processes. In many of his works he explores invisible and neuronal processes and how these can be translated into something visual that can be experienced. The construction of a reality from numerous abstract sensory stimuli, for example, formed the starting point to “Mimed Sculptures,” a performance he staged on the occasion of Art Basel 2016.

He had mimes feel out the shape of sculptures that they conjured up in their mind’s eyes above empty plinths. In this instance, Balula was primarily interested in the extent to which the viewers were able to experience the idea of the sculptures in question via a sensorial detour and allow these to become a reality for themselves. Balula sees the brain’s vivid reconstruction of abstract notions as constituting a piece of sculpture. He believes that sculpture does not need to take the shape of a material object: it can be visually perceptible, but is also formed “through different levels of perception and how your brain connects the points to make that a reality.”

Translation: from one sense to the next

Balula often addresses the phenomenon of “sensory substitution”, which scientists such as Paul Bach-y-Rita already explored in the early 1960s. The latter attempted, among other things, to compensate for the loss of sight in blind people by translating images from a video camera into tactile impulses on their bodies. Balula sees the visualization of the performer’s bodily processes and the emphasis on the technical equipment in “Calories and Dance Moves” as referencing such experiments. At the same time the references to cyborg aesthetics touch upon concepts employed in cutting edge technology that artificially extend the body’s senses. One example of this is the work currently being done by neuroscientists and psychologists who seek to establish physical (rather than just psychological) identification with avatars.

(c) Davide Balula

Like Balula’s “Mimed Sculptures”, his performance “Painting the roof of your mouth” (2015) also played with the transfer from one sense to another when perceiving one and the same thing. The artist had his own paintings translated into ice cream flavors for this art work. For instance, his series of paintings that had been buried in the ground were translated into dirt and earth flavors. 

Individual realities

“Calories and Dance Moves for the Interior Organ Systems” is somewhat more nuanced when it comes to the physical relationship between viewer and art. Yet Balula still sees a connection to his other works in the process of transference performed by the visitors: “The public is not necessarily eating or touching the performers, but it’s a projection of that. The subject is addressed in that way a bit more remotely. But in most of the works, whether it is with my paintings or performances or different interventions, I think there is always that presence of interaction with humans as individuals and how you build from your different sensory experiences your own vision and interpretation of reality.”

Davide Balula, Painting the roof of your mouth, 2015, Image via: galeriefrankelbaz.com